4: Ever After

There was once a man who took to wife a very lazy woman. She was so lazy that she could not be bothered to feed herself, and he, being a dutiful husband, assisted her with each meal.

It passed that this man contracted business in another town, three day's journey away on horseback. Knowing his wife lacked the vigor to accompany him, he devised, after a sleepless night, an ingenious method to keep her fed: before leaving, he bought a large cake which he hung on a string around her neck, ensuring that she would not starve during his time away.

A week later, business affairs concluded, he returned home, only to find his wife dead in the house. The cake was still in place, but only the top portion had been nibbled.

She'd been too lazy even to lift it to her mouth.

It's a scene out of a romance movie. He reaches up, she stretches out her hand at the same time, their fingers brush on the spine of the book.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she says after a brief pause, pushing back a lock of hair that is perfectly straight and perfectly black. Her lashes drop like a fisherman's net cast into ocean, then rise again, and he finds himself following the dip and climb with undue intensity. Around them, the thrum of the library goes on, shadows infesting every corner, dust motes filling the air, the students each sitting tight, wrapped in their own private bubbles.

They wind up talking for two hours on the book, the author, his character, the significance of his actions in the war, before continuing on to broader subjects. Her name is Kitazawa Kiyoko, and she just transferred in from Shizuoka, the prefecture of tea and mountains. It turns out that they share the same birthday, political party, favorite musical groups. She knows quite a bit about tennis, though she's never been to any of their games; Tezuka guesses, from the curve of her lips as she smiles, that she doesn't consider high school tennis worth watching.

It's refreshing to be able to tell that much. Fuji's smiles are like a series of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Tezuka's only found a fraction of the Rosetta Stone -- just enough to make educated guesses, that and no more. But Fuji is something else entirely, after all; Fuji decoded wouldn't be Fuji at all.

In the end, it's settled that she'll take the book home with her tonight and return it to him during practice after she's done. "I would like to watch you play," she says with a different kind of smile, and it's a question, a promise, a new sun to illuminate the new world.

She appears at the courts three days later, a quiescent presence by the fence, holding completely still while allowing hair and dress to sway with the wind. He sees her face through a lattice of wires, and doesn't falter or miss a serve; does walk up to her after the game, aware that the entire team is watching, and ignores them as so many invisible voyeurs.

"You're very good," she says. "Would you mind very much if I came by more often?"

It's a question that doesn't require consideration. She hands over the book, he stretches to take it, and again there's that moment of contact, skin touching for one languorous instant before a mutual drawing away. Sweat paints streaks across his brow, drips down his cheeks, evaporates in puffs of oven heat, but she doesn't pull back from his moist palm, doesn't wrinkle her nose at the smell: a lady to her fingertips, the class gracious to one and all. His grandfather would approve.

"Buchou's got a girl-friend," Momoshiro trills after she leaves, and doesn't even look put out when given laps to run. Oishi gazes after her approvingly, Inui hunches over his notebook scribbling like mad, and even Echizen marks the occasion with a snort and an almost-dirty joke. Eiji expresses nothing more than gleeful amusement, and Tezuka tries not to feel relieved.

As it turns out, he shouldn't have relaxed so easily, and needn't have worried in the first place.

"Would you like to come out and play?" Fuji, appearing at the clubhouse some days later, framed in the doorway, wreathed in sunlight. He holds a popsicle in one hand and the vapor rises up like mist, one bead of condensation melting a trail towards his fingers that he catches with his tongue.

Tezuka looks away for revelation in the lockers, the worn benches. A wristband someone's left forgotten on the floor. It would be easy to refuse, he thinks, close the door and turn his back; easy as counting one two three.

Tezuka knows himself for a gifted captain, a good one: gifted because he's aware of what each player needs, what each of them lack, good because he's capable of providing these things, doesn't allow matters to rest until he does.

Fuji was the only one of his teammates during his tenure as captain who profited from neither trait, lacking ambition but never needing it, and all Tezuka's accomplishments were so much fodder for amusement to him, fundamentally worthless. A rose in a glass cage, given to study. Fuji is the thorn in his side, the fly in his ointment, the sore tooth it's impossible to keep from prodding at until pulled, the one person in the world with the least claim upon him.

He empties the dustbin, returns the broom to its place in the corner, and says "Very well."

Easy as one two three, but he takes four.

They proceed up the stairs with an arm's breadth of space between them, as decorously as any chaperoned couple. Fuji is surprisingly compliant with Tezuka's objection to private behavior in public spaces (anywhere over ten percent likely to accrue an audience); charades, he says, are exciting.

It's at times like these that Tezuka feels old.

Fuji's bedroom is never the same between two visits -- furniture arranged differently, new trinkets taking the place of the old, posters revolving from Cezanne to Matisse to the snowlands of some nameless northern country, a puzzle box posing riddles to unwary visitors: Who am I, then? What patterns guide me, which passions rule? Do you really think you'll ever know? Everything about him is a mindtrap to capture the intelligence, which is why he only truly gets along with the exceedingly self-involved.

"I heard," says Fuji, slipping open Tezuka's buttons in a way that makes Tezuka think of smoky clubs, jazz music played slow, nebulous and deliciously smooth, "that you're on good terms with our new prom queen-elect."

"You've been keeping up on gossip." He remains in the center of the room and allows Fuji to undress him, makes no move to return the favor. Watches as Fuji's fingers travel like dream-touches, that fade swiftly from memory upon awakening and leave behind only the awareness of their loss. "Chatting up old flames?"

"Mmm," says Fuji, lips shut tight despite their amiable curve. For all his sins, kissing and telling isn't one of them, and Tezuka is left to wonder how he got along with his long succession of girlfriends, if he gave them the same riddling enigmatic smiles that he parades in front of Tezuka, drove them quietly mad with curiousity; he can't quite see any girl putting up with the mess of capriciousness that's Fuji enjoying himself.

He knows that Fuji's stayed longer with him than with any previous fling. At times, he even wonders why.

"Attention wandering already? You do," with a nip on his collarbone, sharp and insistent, "terrible things to my self-esteem."

There are nights when Fuji does nothing but taunt, fall back with a provocative smile that drives Tezuka to "More, harder, is that the best you can do? Teach me my place," glimmering upwards like Delilah; nights when he can't control himself, either, and they come together with unacknowledged desperation, bodies pushing against each other, a frenzied mating like animals.

Fuji claws and bites during sex, rakes his nails down Tezuka's body, leaves bloody trails always where they can be concealed, but for the duration of this night he's unfailingly gentle, whispering soft incomprehensible words against Tezuka's collarbone, his chest, the inside of his thighs, skin sliding across skin with heat but no friction, and as he finally pushes Tezuka away, sighing, it feels like a blessing and a strategic retreat, it feels like he's already letting go.

She's elected vice president of the student council by an adoring populace, and they spend hours arguing after school on student complaints, policy changes, allocation of funds. "You're the head of the tennis club, you decide how much money goes into the tennis club -- no one's ever seen a problem with this?"

"No," he says, not bothering to explain that the problem doesn't exist because it's him, and everyone knows him.

She knows him, too, shows it by cocking her head to one side and tapping a finger to her lips. It draws attention to them, pale pink and unpainted, flawless and unchipped. "As long as everyone's happy."

He pauses to gather some papers together before asking, "Are you free for dinner tonight?"

This time her smile is wholly appreciative.

"Tell me," she says over sushi and salad, looking straight into his eyes while her black lacquered chopsticks locate and transport every item of food with exquisite precision, "what made you decide to stay in Japan instead of going overseas, to a school that must have possessed both better facilities and a larger pool of talent?"

He'd had chance enough to deal with that question in the week after announcing his decision; the response slips out automatically by now. "My family asked me to stay," he says, and glances down to dip a piece of tuna in soy sauce. When he looks up again, she's gazing at him, head tilted again, this time signifying questioning rather than acceptance.

"And that's all there was to it?"

The easy answer is the truthful answer, but it isn't complete. The complete answer involves a conversation with his grandfather, a trip to the mountains, one afternoon spent in silence, and no one else had cared enough about it to push; Fuji, he remembers, hadn't cared enough even to ask.

"Japan needed me more," he says, and with those four words go the unspoken adjunct that this is explanation enough, that it had been no choice at all.

The transition goes more smoothly than he'd expected -- visits from Fuji giving way to study sessions with Kiyoko, out with the old love, in with the new. It's like getting used to new glasses: a bit of dizziness at first, a headache or two, and then suddenly the world is cleaner, brighter, in sharper focus. Tezuka knows where this relationship is going; he can see it stretching all the way through to the end.

There's no formal break-up. Fuji doesn't come over to him after practice any longer, and without the link of the tennis club their connection snaps, just like that, easy as he'd thought, the best possible way it could have gone. During their occasional run-ins in the hallways he inclines his head, Fuji smiles in code, they part ways like the distant acquaintances they once were or the strangers they'll be again, and every time it's a little easier; every time, it's closer to the truth.

During breakfast one day he realizes, quite at random and with no particular impact, that they'd never had a formal getting together either -- just a series of firsts, first touch, first kiss, first time, first interruption, first hickey discovered by teammates, first bitten-off exclamation in bed, and what he really misses, he discovers, is the sex. He's a healthy teenage boy, and there's no question of transferring that part of their relationship over to Kiyoko as well; this time he's going to do things right.

But still he dreams.

In his dreams Fuji's arms wrap around him tightly, suffocatingly, like a white snake with diamond scales, and the poison that sinks in with those fangs turns his blood into a river of lust, drugs him until all he can see are the glittering leaves of jungle plants and all he can want is this.

When he wakes, he showers and changes, washes his sheets by hand, and puts it all behind.

Another scene from the movie: the awkward junction between current and ex.

As it turns out, he isn't the link; "Kiyoko-sempai!" is the opening salvo to this particular assault, and they both look away from each other to see a girl, skirt cut high and corkscrew curls dyed light, waving energetically at Kiyoko with one hand, the other clasped firmly in the fingers of Fuji Shuusuke.

He shivers a bit. Shakes his head when Kiyoko turns towards him.

Fuji's girlfriend-of-the-week is chattering animatedly to Kiyoko, a rapidfire barrage from which Tezuka extracts that she's an Admirer, the kind Kiyoko picks up in her wake like puppies, that she wants Kiyoko to join the Drama Club, and that Kiyoko has consistently refused up to now. Kiyoko responds with soft words and a tolerant smile, the ever-courteous lady.

"Tezuka," says Fuji once the girl finishes, slanting an overly innocuous glance his way as if he knows every thought that just passed through Tezuka's head and finds them food for mirth, "Kitazawa-san; I've heard so much about you. The rumors don't do you justice."

Kiyoko glances at him -- curious, Tezuka thinks, not displeased -- and there's no way to warn her here, now, of the dangers in trusting that pleasant facade.

They end up around a table in the cafeteria, Kiyoko and the girl holding up the brunt of the conversation, Tezuka relegating himself to affirmatives and negatives when his opinion is called upon, Fuji resting his cheek on one hand with eyes half-shuttered, the right side of his tray empty and the left untouched, as if his appetite had reached the halfway mark and decided it had someplace better to be.

There's a little droop to his lips, the kind other people get when they're thinking. Fuji doesn't frown when he's thinking: he smiles, and if you're very well-versed in Fuji-speak you can tell from the tilt of his smile whether he's deciding what to go with, ramen or Thai, or planning bloody murder. When Fuji frowns -- Tezuka doesn't know what Fuji's frowns mean.

"Fuji-kun was a regular in the tennis team as well, wasn't he?" The girl is gazing over at Fuji with a kind of fond propriety. Tezuka realizes he hasn't absorbed her name yet, and reminds himself to do so, later; she won't be Fuji's girlfriend much longer, but there's still her connection to Kiyoko to consider.

"Yes," he says, when it becomes clear that Fuji is disinclined to answer for himself. "He was a good player. A very valuable asset to the team." Fuji lifts his eyes at that, quirks his mouth, and Tezuka realizes all at once what's been nagging at him during the entire meal, during these past months, what chains him to the dreams and marrs his enjoyment of his time with Kiyoko.

It's too much of a revelation to process at once; he's grateful when Fuji says, lightly, "Not good enough," a phrase that might sound bitter coming from others, but from Fuji only conveys the sense of a task ruled unworthy of exertion.

Kiyoko must have picked up on that. "Fuji-kun is too modest," she responds, a bit of censure in her tone, barely noticeable. She's a good judge of character.

Fuji smiles at her, just sharply enough to provoke, then slides his gaze over to Tezuka. "She's a treasure, Buchou. Never let her go." Fuji's girlfriend giggles at this, chiming agreement, unmindful of the darker undercurrents flowing through the conversation, and Tezuka has to suppress a surge of irritation: why does Fuji choose to surround himself with such insensitivity?

They part soon after; the girls eat little, and Tezuka's appetite has also found greener pastures.

"You never told me you had such an interesting friend," says Kiyoko as they move through the hallways, footsteps matching almost perfectly. "He'd make a compelling subject for character study."

I wish I could say the same of yours, he has the wisdom to keep to himself. "We were just teammates," and then, because that sounds too meager, "he made an excellent one."

"You know, Tezuka," she flashes a sly grin at him, quicksilver outbreak of the sense of humor she usually keeps well-hidden, "he reminds me of that old story about the woman who was too lazy to eat."

Sometimes, she almost makes him laugh.

That night Fuji appears in their dreamland rendezvous wearing traditional robes, a cake around his neck, tied with red ribbon that curls at the tips. His hands are down at his sides; the cake is untouched. When he sees Tezuka, he quirks his mouth in just the same way he'd done at lunchtime, proud and mocking, a hint of cruelty.

There are characters carved on the surface of the cake: shiawase, happiness. That was what he used to glimpse from Fuji at scattered, uncertain moments: teasing his brother, biting into a chili pepper, in the pause just before dipping his head low, "This will please me more than it'll please you." It's what he hasn't seen since that day in the library -- the beginning of his own fairy tale romance.

For the first time, he views it as a trade-off.

Learning the story in childhood, before the division between fable and reality became clear, he'd wondered what the man's motivation to marry had been; why not a nice thrifty village girl, with a fat pocketbook and child-bearing hips? Why not the girl next door?

"Why did you stay in Japan?" says Fuji, tossing out the question he'd never asked in real life. He reaches up, gives the ribbon a tug, and the cake goes tumbling to the ground, picking up dirt and gravel as it flops a few times before settling. "Does it even matter anymore?"

"Causes always matter." It's habit by now to hold his ground while Fuji advances, even when instinct calls for a retreat.

"You're such an innocent, Tezuka." Fuji sounds half admiring, half pitying. "Results are what matter, and you've already made your choice."

The choice hadn't seemed worth making at the time. "He couldn't stand by and watch her starve," he says slowly while Fuji reaches a hand to his cheek, carelessly gentle. "Is that it?"

"How would I know?", with a look of what appears to be genuine puzzlement. "I don't understand any of you insistent martyrs."

For a moment he can picture it: Fuji passing unscathed through the accumulation of years, smiling and vague, no substance at all for anyone to latch onto, as free as the air. And then the flipside: no substance at all, no sustenance, nothing real left of him except for those wry, twisted smiles that are empty of anything but the joy in outsmarting oneself.

They'd gone together on a fishing trip, once -- only the once and completely unexpected, the result of an early morning phone call: "Ne, Tezuka, you mentioned fishing plans today. Can I come along?" It had been a bad day for the activity, clouds breaking up and vanishing by noon, high temperatures, and he had nothing to show for his efforts by the time the sky was turning into pinks and purples. Fuji, who spent the afternoon sketching a sickly shrub, came over and asked for a quick lesson on the basics; the pole was barely in his hands before it started quivering, then thrashing, and they'd pulled in together what turned out to be one of the biggest living aquatic specimens Tezuka had ever laid eyes on outside of aquariums.

There had been one moment, right after they hauled the energetically twisting monster on land, when Fuji threw back his head and laughed, water sparkling on his face, in his hair, pure delight written all over him, so incandescent that Tezuka had almost dropped the pole. (They'd lain together afterwards on the tablecloth Fuji brought as a picnic blanket, fishy smell and all; Fuji couldn't stop laughing throughout.)

Tezuka thinks, He'll never laugh like that again, and the dream ends.

Morning. Another day. He formulates his plans before leaving the room, goes through them with a fine-tooth comb, searching for flaws, then heads down for breakfast.

He lays the matter out to Kiyoko while the other council members are out and they have the office to themselves. Between them, everything can and should be articulated. She doesn't say a word until he's finished; afterwards, she looks down, bites her lip, then leans over and deals him a ringing slap across the face.

It is not a playful blow.

"I've always wanted to do that," she explains while he struggles not to wince, sounding much more cheerful. "Would you like some ice?"

Fuji looks surprised when Tezuka arrives at his classroom with a swollen cheek, just a step down from his classmates, who stare with wide eyes and loud whispers. Still, he doesn't protest when Tezuka asks to speak with him privately, follows Tezuka outside with a minimum of fuss.

"So what's the big secret?" He leans back against the wall, sounding only mildly curious.

"I was wondering," says Tezuka -- awkwardly, because some things are much easier in concept than in execution -- "if you had any plans for tonight."

Fuji's eyes narrow, and Tezuka can read the refusal before it comes. "Bad timing, I'm sorry, but -- "

"There's no need to apologize," he cuts off. As Fuji prepares to speak again, he adds "Not to me, at least. You'll have to cancel."

"Oh?" Just one syllable, pregnant with meaning: challenge, disparagement, sympathy, amusement, the whole kaleidoscope of Fuji emotions wrapped up together, with a tiny seed of hope slipping in as a stowaway.

"Yes," he says, accepting the entire package as it comes. No need for another solitary day on a mountaintop. "I'm taking you out to dinner."