Kunimitsu remembered that it had taken less than a month from the time he started high school to the day Echizen Ryouma had come to find him. He was not, therefore, entirely surprised to see Echizen now, not quite two months into Kunimitsu’s university studies. Echizen’s expression also bore a remarkable resemblance to the one he had worn on the previous occasion—a flash of uncertainty muffled under sardonic indifference.
What was odd was that Echizen had sought him out in this place.
Kunimitsu favored this particular outcropping because it was a bit off the main walking trails. After a pleasant, if thoroughly untaxing, walk up, it was nice to appreciate the view somewhere apart from the chattering families and shouting children. Someone had to have told Echizen how to find it, and as soon as Kunimitsu found out that it had been Fuji he was going to have some words with his friend. He preferred not to be disturbed, up here.
“Echizen,” he said, neither welcoming nor rejecting.
Echizen had gotten fairly adept at reading him, over the years, and Kunimitsu was sure he understood the nuance. After a moment of hesitation, though, Echizen picked his way through the underbrush to the span of smooth, sunny rock where Kunimitsu sat and perched beside him. Kunimitsu contemplated his body language. Echizen was slightly less than arm’s length away, arms wrapped around drawn up knees, chin tucked down. He wasn’t looking at Kunimitsu at all. Kunimitsu didn’t think he’d ever seen Echizen telegraph uncertainty so strongly.
“Do you like the view of the city from up here?” he asked, quietly, fishing for the reason Echizen had come to him here.
Echizen looked out, as if he’d just noticed the panorama in front of them. Eventually he nodded. “It’s a lot quieter,” he remarked.
Which was certainly true, if not especially informative. Kunimitsu didn’t think he’d get any better results if he asked, outright, why Echizen was here, though. He decided to wait, and see if silence would draw an answer out.
As silence settled over them, though, filled with the distant hum of the city, and the low shush of wind through the trees, and the sharper rustle of squirrels chasing each other overhead, he noticed that Echizen’s tension seemed to be receding. His arms loosened, and folded on top of his knees. He leaned forward to rest his chin on them with a sigh. His eyes drifted half closed. It was actually very relaxing just to watch.
When Kunimitsu stood, at last, to go, Echizen looked up at him.
“Thanks,” he said.
Kunimitsu nodded a silent You’re welcome, though he still wasn’t at all sure what for. He wondered, as he started back down the trail, whether he would ever find out.
Echizen found him at the same place again the next week, and again the week after that. Clearly, Fuji had also mentioned Kunimitsu’s schedule, which was an unusual amount of information from someone who professed not to have the faintest idea what Echizen had wanted it for. Kunimitsu made a note to have another word with Fuji and see if he could drag whatever his friend suspected out of him. Echizen certainly showed no signs of letting on. Each week he arrived a little after Kunimitsu, and came silently to sit beside him, and didn’t say a word unless Kunimitsu asked him something. Despite the continuing itch of curiosity, his presence was restful.
Normally that only happened after they had played a particularly hard match against each other.
By the end of the first month, in spite of Fuji’s annoyingly steadfast refusal to speculate on why Echizen came to find his erstwhile captain, at the top of a modest cliff overlooking the city, every week, Kunimitsu thought he might have begun to understand. The clue came to him when he realized that he was finding it relaxing to watch Echizen’s edginess soften, each visit.
Echizen’s tension lessened when he was with Kunimitsu.
Which seemed to indicate that he was under quite a bit of it, Kunimitsu reflected, watching Echizen lean back on his hands to look up at the quarreling sparrows. He had pressed Echizen to do and be many things, over the past four years, but at ease was not one of them. Kunimitsu faced a dilemma, if he wanted any more of the particulars, though. Echizen was nobody’s fool, and, if Kunimitsu asked more pointed questions about sources of stress in his life, would understand that Kunimitsu had noticed both the tension and its easing.
And then Kunimitsu would be obligated to either accept Echizen’s presence, and his reliance on Kunimitsu, or object to it. To date, he had avoided doing either.
Kunimitsu sighed, silently. When he had been Echizen’s captain, reliance had been reasonable. Team members relied on each other, and the captain carried an extra share; that was simply part of the position. Kunimitsu had accepted the responsibility, and, in fact, passed it on to Echizen to good effect. Now, though…
Kunimitsu had chosen to go all the way through college before he entered pro tennis. He had no doubt that Echizen would chose to go professional after high school. He was sure they would meet again, professionally, but their paths had diverged. Was it good for Echizen to still follow him so closely?
Unfortunately, perhaps, Kunimitsu chose that moment in his reflections to look again at Echizen’s eyes. They were bright and peaceful, a distinct contrast to their tightness a few weeks ago. Kunimitsu knew that he wasn’t going to deny Echizen that peace without a more significant reason. He had never been particularly good at leaving Echizen to his own devices. Ryuuzaki-sensei had teased him about it. On the bright side, he supposed, that did mean that he was free to press Echizen for details. Prime suspects first, since he knew Echizen, while a good student, did not have the kind of effortless time of his classes that Kunimitsu or Fuji did.
“How has your second year been so far?” he asked.
Echizen looked at him sidelong. “School’s been fine,” he said, eventually.
Kunimitsu gave Echizen his sternest look, the one he had learned from his grandfather. If Echizen knew what Kunimitsu wanted to find out, he wasn’t about to play twenty questions with the boy. Mischievous amusement flashed across Echizen’s face before it faded away, and he looked down at the ground.
“It’s calm, here,” he muttered.
Kunimitsu raised a brow. “Just here?” he asked. Meaning, not anywhere else in Echizen’s life right now?
Echizen nodded. Kunimitsu sighed out loud, this time. Specific problems were so much easier to deal with. There was nothing to be done about something this general; nothing but wait for Echizen to work it out on his own. Kunimitsu didn’t doubt that he would; Echizen wasn’t the sort to stand still and be run over. It was one of the things Kunimitsu had always appreciated about him. And if Echizen needed that little extra bit of familiarity and stability, while he worked on it, Kunimitsu supposed it was acceptable for him to provide it.
Echizen was watching Kunimitsu from the corner of his eye.
“It’s good to have someplace like that,” Kunimitsu allowed. He was hard pressed to suppress a smile when Echizen blew out a quiet breath and relaxed again. He didn’t think he had ever known anyone as artlessly expressive as Echizen was once he let his shell drop. It had always amused him that Echizen opened up faster to his opponents than to anyone else, and that the only reason Echizen had been so free within his team was that each of his teammates could also give him a hard time in competition.
Altogether, perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised that it was he Echizen had sought out.
Kunimitsu had expected Echizen to become a bit more talkative, now that he knew his presence was accepted. But he was as silent as ever, seeming perfectly content to pass each Tuesday evening without exchanging a single word. In retrospect, Kunimitsu did recall that Echizen had always been fairly reticent, off the courts. It was just that his unbridled insolence and provocations on the court tended to overshadow the fact.
He also found that Echizen was visiting their outcropping even when Kunimitsu wasn’t there. While Tuesday was the one day of the week Kunimitsu was assured of having enough time free to take the bus, walk up and still have long enough to just sit for a while, he did try to get out for a decent walk someplace besides the city parks a few times a week. This trail was his favorite, when he thought he’d have time, and Echizen seemed to have taken to it also, to judge from the several occasions Kunimitsu found Echizen there before him on odd days, sprawled on his stomach so that he could look over the drop-off. When that happened, Echizen only looked over his shoulder and smiled before setting his chin back on his crossed arms.
That expanse of weather-smoothed stone became a shared place without Kunimitsu being able to pin down just when it happened. By the middle of summer, though, he knew this to be the case, and so it was simply courtesy that led him to speak.
“I won’t be here, next week. I’m leaving a bit early to get to some of the trails further out from the city.”
He had rather expected Echizen to make a face, or otherwise indicate his disgruntlement. He did not expect the abrupt and seamless blankness that accompanied Echizen’s nod of acknowledgement. Perhaps it was his surprise at an expression so alien to Echizen’s manner that prompted him to say what he did next.
“You can come along, if you’d like.”
Echizen’s eyes lightened, as he blinked at Kunimitsu, and Kunimitsu found himself relaxing to see the opaqueness replaced by faint surprise.
“It would be all right?” Echizen asked.
Kunimitsu reflected that he hadn’t realized just how for granted he had come to take Echizen’s openness, with him. It would bear some thought, whether he should let himself rest against it to the extent his own reaction indicated he did. For now, though, he had made the invitation, and could hardly withdraw it.
“Yes,” he answered.
Echizen nodded. “I’d like to come.”
Kunimitsu told him the time the bus would leave, and wondered whether it was deliberate, this talent Echizen had for getting people to act outside their usual parameters.