Kunimitsu had come to the conclusion that, if he wanted to know what was going on with Echizen, he would need bait. He no longer had the authority to demand an explanation. Or, at least, if he did, he wasn’t sure he wanted to use it, or even know about it. With no institutional roles surrounding them, any authority he still had with Echizen would be personal. This was a time when Echizen should be growing beyond that. If Kunimitsu had done his job properly, Echizen should not think of Kunimitsu as his captain for much longer. He could only hope that this time together, outside of a shared school and team, would help and not hinder the process.
Which brought him back to the question of bait, because seeking an accounting from Echizen without offering in return would definitely not help. This did not mean that Kunimitsu was above choosing a place and time to his own advantage. For example, the side of a mountain after sunset and before moonrise, when it would be dark enough that Echizen, who was very good at deciphering subtle, non-verbal cues, would not get more from Kunimitsu than he intended to give. It also helped that Echizen seemed absolutely entranced by the sky, and might answer him without thinking.
So. “It’s good to be doing something that requires an effort,” he offered, quietly. “After last year, the Seigaku University tennis club doesn’t offer much of a challenge.”
Echizen made a considering noise. His shadowy outline leaned back a little further. “I bet,” he said, in a judicious tone, “that Fuji-senpai says you should have chosen Rikkai University, instead.”
“He does,” Kunimitsu acknowledged, dryly, giving information to draw information out. He had not expected that Echizen’s sense of humor would make it easier.
“I would say I’m glad I won’t have to worry about that,” Echizen said, thoughtfully, “only the last time I said that to Dad, he laughed. He wouldn’t tell me why, because he likes being annoying, but I bet I know. He thinks he’ll be the only real challenge for me.” Echizen sniffed. “You’d think he’d never seen the rest of you play.”
Kunimitsu held back his smile out of habit, even in the dark. It was good to know that Echizen had taken so much assurance from that very first lesson. It did sound, though, like tennis was not the source of Echizen’s apparent agitation, this year.
“You never held back, with me, Tezuka-san,” Echizen continued, more softly. “Right from the first.”
“Yes,” Kunimitsu agreed.
“So why are you holding back now?”
It seemed that Echizen didn’t need to see him to gather more than Kunimitsu expected. He switched to bluntness. “If I asked you, directly, why you came looking for me, would you tell me?”
The moon was rising, and he could see Echizen’s head turn toward him. “Yes.”
“Why would you answer?” Kunimitsu asked. Before he asked anything else, he wanted the answer to that.
“Because you never held back,” Echizen replied, matter-of-factly. “You’ve always been honest with me. Doesn’t that mean I should be honest, too?”
Silence filled the space between them, until Kunimitsu spoke again. “We should be going.” Before the revelations got out of hand.
Ryouma stood and stretched. “You didn’t usually tell everything,” he said, “but what you did say was the truth.” It was bright enough, now, to guess at the spark in his eyes as he looked at Kunimitsu and smiled.
Kunimitsu visited his mother as often as he had an hour or two free. He felt guilty, every now and then, that he had moved out and could no longer shield her from his father and grandfather’s bickering, but she had laughed at his hesitation and shooed him off. She had even helped him pick out an apartment, and given him her largest, most luxuriant spider plant, the most unkillable live housewarming gift possible. When neither of the other men of the family were looking, she had also tucked Requiem et Reminiscence in among the fronds, with a wink. Realistically, he knew quite well that, while he had learned how to wear a stern and reserved face from his grandfather, it had been his mother who taught him the serenity he needed to wear it easily and well. Tezuka Ayana needed no one to shield her.
His mother examined him over the edge of her teacup. “You’re looking more cheerful again, Kunimitsu. That’s good. Is the tennis club turning out better than you thought?”
“Not particularly,” Kunimitsu answered, frankly. It was generally quite useless to even attempt to keep secrets from his mother.
“Ah. Have you met someone who drags you out of your routines and keeps you from boring yourself stiff, then?”
Case in point. Kunimitsu smiled into his own tea. That was actually a reasonable description of Echizen. It was what made him both infuriating and intriguing to deal with.
“I suppose so,” he said, and gave in, with a sigh, to his mother’s prompting look. “Not someone new. One of my team from last year.”
She smiled at him, affectionately. “They did seem to make you happy, both times you’ve led them. I think you liked helping your team win as much as you enjoyed your own victories. You enjoy being needed, Kunimitsu.”
Kunimitsu consulted the depths of his teacup. He knew his mother was right, and yet…
“Kunimitsu?” she asked, gently. “What is it?”
“I don’t know if it’s good for Echizen to need me, still,” he admitted. “I did my best to help him advance, to stand on his own without any shadow over him.”
“Do you think you failed?” his mother asked, brows raised.
Kunimitsu opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Did he truly believe he had failed? That his own shadow lay over Echizen, now? He held that thought up against the memory of Echizen grinning and prodding at him; of Echizen’s blazing eyes on the other side of a net; of Echizen leaning back on his hands, relaxed, tracing the arc of the Milky Way across the sky.
“I know you don’t want to be like your grandfather that way, and overshadow where you only wished to teach,” his mother said, softly. “You should trust that you won’t; and, perhaps, trust this young friend of yours, too.”
Kunimitsu felt tension unwind from his shoulders, and smiled, leaning forward to brush a kiss against her cheek.
“Thank you, Mother.”
What still astonished Kunimitsu, sometimes, was the fact that Echizen seemed to trust him. Enough to have fallen asleep, beside him on their sunny rock. And, while Kunimitsu was not normally much troubled by protective impulses where Echizen Ryouma was concerned, the black hair fanned untidily across Echizen’s cheek was making Kunimitsu’s fingers itch to tuck it back.
It could, of course, just have been his own ingrained neatness. But Kunimitsu somewhat doubted that was all it was.
Ryuuzaki-sensei had asked him, once, why he took such trouble for Echizen. At the time, he had answered simply that he was Echizen’s captain. It was true enough. But it wasn’t all the truth.
Part of it was, indeed, the desire he felt to see any of his team play at their best, and beyond. Part of it was almost aesthetic; Kunimitsu couldn’t think of any other way to describe it, much as he didn’t want to have anything in common with such a clearly disturbed individual as Jyousei’s Hanamura-sensei. The shape of Ryouma’s potential had been stunning, and it would have been a criminal waste not to do everything possible to bring it out.
Part of it was harder to explain.
Perhaps it was the casual courage that pursued its own goals unflinchingly and didn’t care what the rest of the world thought. Perhaps it was the exultation in the game itself, that thought nothing of losing beyond “next time, I won’t”. Perhaps it was the willingness to drive on beyond reason.
Perhaps it was those things that Kunimitsu recognized because he had felt them, too.
Perhaps it was just that Echizen was the only one who could make Kunimitsu work quite so hard to bite back a smile or a sigh when Ryouma glanced up with that troublemaking gleam in his eye.
He glanced at the angle of the sunlight, and then at his watch. Whatever the whole truth was, it was getting late and they should both be going. “Echizen,” he called, quietly, “Echizen, wake up.”
Echizen stirred, and made a faint grumbling noise. “Echizen,” Kunimitsu said, more firmly, leaning toward him.
Echizen’s eyes opened a little, still hazy. He blinked at Kunimitsu and reached up a hand to touch his face, as if to see whether he were really there.
Kunimitsu held quite still.
Echizen’s fingertips slid down his cheek and across his mouth. It was the last touch that seemed to wake Echizen up all the way, because his eyes abruptly snapped fully open and shock raced through them. He snatched his hand back and started to roll away and onto his feet.
Kunimitsu’s hand flashed out and closed on his shoulder, and Echizen froze.
Kunimitsu nearly sighed at himself. That impulsive move had presented him with a nice predicament. If he had let Echizen go, it was quite possible that they would have silently agreed to ignore this little occurrence completely. But, no, he had to give in to his urge toward confrontation and make things more complicated. He really had let his control lapse around Echizen, this year.
Echizen was still frozen, half way up on one elbow, looking back at Kunimitsu from the very corner of his eye. Kunimitsu could feel the tension in him, poised to go either way, waiting. Well, as long as he’d gone this far, he might as well keep going. It was not natural to either of them to stop halfway. What was that European phrase? In for a sheep… He’d been mildly appalled when he had looked up the historical source of that saying, though no more so than he had at some portions of his own country’s legal history…
He recognized that he was stalling, and that was not acceptable, no matter how far he’d let his self control go. So, then. He tugged on Echizen’s shoulder, and, after a moment, Echizen let himself drop back to the stone under them and look up at Kunimitsu. Still waiting. And Kunimitsu’s mouth twitched.
He lifted his hand to Ryouma’s face and tucked back the unruly strands of hair that had been distracting him earlier. Ryouma blinked at him.
“I’ve never known anyone else with such a talent for getting me to act on impulse,” Kunimitsu observed. The pleased curl to Echizen’s lips at that piece of information pulled a smile out of Kunimitsu in answer, and he let it. He needed to make sure of one more thing, though. “I’m not your captain any more, Echizen.”
He didn’t know if Ryouma heard the hope or the question under that statement, but Echizen nodded. “No, you’re not,” he said.
The surety in his voice soothed Kunimitsu’s last reservations, and he leaned down and touched his lips to Echizen’s. A light brush, another, and then Echizen reached up and wrapped his arms around Kunimitsu’s shoulders and pulled.
When Kunimitsu regained his balance, only a hastily thrown out hand was keeping his full weight off Echizen, and one of his legs was between Ryouma’s. Ryouma grinned, looking insufferably pleased with himself, and leaned up to steal a third kiss.
“You certainly recover quickly,” Kunimitsu told him, and shifted until he could wind an arm around Echizen and pull him tight up against Kunimitsu’s body. He took advantage of Ryouma’s quick breath to offer a more serious kiss, and Ryouma answered readily, opening his mouth against Kunimitsu’s. His arms tightened around Kunimitsu’s back, and when Kunimitsu pulled away Echizen made a noise both disappointed and annoyed. Kunimitsu laughed low in his chest.
“Your enthusiasm is gratifying,” he said, straight faced, and Ryouma glared at him, “but I have no intention of carrying on outside on a rock, however isolated.”
Echizen made another grumpy noise, but his expression agreed. Which was good, because Kunimitsu’s knees were becoming quite definite about the ‘on a rock’ part of the statement. The uncertainty lurking in Ryouma’s glance up at him, though, prodded Kunimitsu to an offer he really hadn’t intended to make so quickly.
“Would you like to come back to my apartment with me?”
Used as he was to seeing it under other circumstances, the brilliance of the look Echizen returned stole Kunimitsu’s breath for a moment. It was the brilliance that made Echizen such an irresistible lure and goad and challenge on the court, and Kunimitsu resigned himself to the knowledge that he had just welcomed all the interest and chaos and trouble and thrill that Echizen trailed after him like a too-long scarf into yet another part of his life.
He couldn’t quite bring himself to worry about that.