When the doorbell rang, Kunimitsu knew exactly who it was. He couldn’t have said how he knew, because he categorically refused to believe that an inanimate object such as a doorbell was capable of ringing in a cocky tone just because of who was pressing it. But the information got through somehow.
He wasn’t particularly surprised.
He had been a bit surprised the first time Echizen Ryouma had appeared on his doorstep, at the start of Kunimitsu’s first year of high school. By this, the middle of his second year, it was nearly routine. It had made perfect sense as soon as he stopped to think about it, of course. Fuji had been chuckling a few weeks after Echizen’s first visit to Kunimitsu, about Echizen’s tenacity and ability to hold a grudge, but Kunimitsu knew that wasn’t the main reason. He had come to the two of them in particular because there was no one left in Seigaku’s junior high that Echizen could keep advancing against. He was not, Kunimitsu thought, particularly fixated on himself or Fuji. If Kunimitsu had permitted it, he would probably have gone up to Kanagawa every weekend to provoke Sanada or Yukimura and spent vacations in Kansai badgering Chitose.
Each time the thought occurred to him, Kunimitsu spared a moment to be grateful Echizen had allowed himself to be restrained from doing so. Most of the time. And if the cost was working with Echizen himself, it was one Kunimitsu was pleased to pay.
Most of the time.
“Echizen,” he said, opening the front door, “it’s eight in the morning on a Sunday.”
Echizen withstood his glare calmly. “I know. But I needed to know whether you were busy today, so I can be in time for the bus to Kanagawa if you are. And you always get up early.”
Kunimitsu refrained from pointing out that Echizen knew this only because of his bad habit of showing up so early. It was hard to keep the glare from turning into a glower, but he managed. Kunimitsu had long ago realized that Echizen derived some sort of satisfaction from provoking unguarded expressions, both verbal and non-verbal, out of him. If nothing else, a match between them had the benefit of redirecting Echizen’s attention to less trivial matters. Sometimes Kunimitsu thought that was the entire point of the provocation. Other times he just thought Echizen had spent too much time in Fuji’s company.
“Have you eaten breakfast yet?” he asked, suppressing a sigh.
Echizen shrugged. “Not really.”
Kunimitsu eyed his visitor, taken with the ignoble impulse to make Echizen sit through breakfast with the Tezuka family in revenge for being visited so early. Judging by Echizen’s expression of trepidation, though, the possibility had already occurred to him. The threat was as good as the reality, as far as making Echizen call at a more reasonable hour for the next couple months, so Kunimitsu didn’t pause too very long after gesturing Echizen inside.
“I’ll just get my bag, then. There’s a fairly good pastry shop down the road.” He restrained a chuckle as Echizen’s shoulders slumped just a bit with relief, and he followed Kunimitsu up the stairs with commendable discretion.
And he had to admit, as they walked down the street, Echizen had chosen a very pleasant morning to drag him out into. Kunimitsu enjoyed early mornings, when he had a reason to be out in them, and at this hour on a Sunday they had the shop more or less to themselves. Because it was Echizen, he did indulge himself in the minor revenge of eyeing the boy’s choice of beverages until he sighed and got extra milk.
“Are we even, now?” Echizen asked, with a rather amused look.
Kunimitsu didn’t dignify that with a reply. If he ever admitted out loud that he lowered himself to sparring with Echizen over these tiny barbs, he’d never get the moral high ground back again, and he would need it next year. “How have you been doing against Sanada, these days?” he asked, instead.
Echizen shrugged one shoulder. “It goes back and forth. He won last time.”
Hence Echizen’s willingness to let Kunimitsu be busy if he wished, and head up to Kanagawa instead.
“It’s Yukimura-san I have a harder time with,” Echizen continued. “Of course, he won’t play me as often.”
“He has his own to take care of,” Kunimitsu pointed out.
Echizen looked at him for a long moment before directing a tiny smile down at his remaining buns. “Yeah. I know,” he said, quietly.
“I hope so,” Kunimitsu returned, just as softly, reminding Echizen of his own responsibilities as captain, this year.
“Yes, Buchou, that too,” Echizen agreed, smile a bit crooked now. Kunimitsu knew that Echizen had not been best pleased to be stuck as captain. Too bad. He needed the experience, and Seigaku’s junior high team needed the best available. That was Echizen, and they both knew it. Kunimitsu didn’t believe for one moment that Echizen called him captain, still, out of any failure of self-confidence.
The private little smirk as Echizen polished off the last bun and they rose to go was proof enough of that.
“Do you have something new for me, today?” Kunimitsu hazarded, as they walked. For a moment he thought Echizen was going to be coy about it, but then he grinned.
“Something. I was hoping to work on it with Sanada-san a little more, but since I have you today…”
Kunimitsu smoothed the smile that wanted to answer Echizen’s sparkling glance into mild approbation. He wondered, as he often did of late, if this would be the day. Echizen was closing on him. Their games were getting closer. But Echizen wasn’t the only one striving to progress as fast as possible, and he had yet to win against Kunimitsu. Their competition would gain a definite edge once he did; Kunimitsu was looking forward to it.
Even as they stood, now, a match with Echizen demanded all of his strength to win. As Echizen served, Kunimitsu abandoned his usual responsible and dignified reserve for the raw ferocity of focus that blanked out any expression but that of the ball against the racquet. Echizen answered with the glee that was so much his signature on the court. Kunimitsu had long since given up on instilling any kind of decorum in him.
It was just possible, though, that his emphasis on greater subtlety had finally begun to pay off. In the third game, Echizen broke free from the Zone. Not by powering through it, which he had tried some time ago and given up as useless in the long run, but with an extremely finely judged return that cancelled all spin. Tezuka missed the ball by centimeters. Echizen’s teeth were bared in a smile of satisfaction. The look Kunimitsu gave him back had not trace of a smile in it, but Echizen looked perfectly pleased with the simple acknowledgement that Kunimitsu gave him.
Echizen did not win their match, but it was close. It would be soon.
Echizen still looked rather disgruntled, as they fished out water and sat, recovering their breaths.
“I trust this won’t discourage you from the subtle approach altogether,” Kunimitsu remarked.
For a moment, Echizen looked like he was about to say it had. Then he grinned and shrugged, apparently calmed enough to leave off baiting for the time being. “I’m going to pass you. I’ll find whatever it takes,” he said.
That won a faint smile. Echizen’s determination was one of the things that made Kunimitsu enjoy these matches enough to tolerate his protege’s apparent hobby of getting under Kunimitsu’s reserve.
“Come,” he directed, rising. “We have time for another match, before lunch.”
Echizen brightened, his eyes turning fierce enough to spark a tingle through Kunimitsu’s blood.
It would be soon.