I'm currently trying to figure out how to incorporate Tezuka's fear of heights into this story, if at all, but all my ideas put together amount to a bit less than zero. I thought it might provide good opportunity for Shibasaki-Tezuka bonding, but maybe it's not worth the trouble for this fic. I could always write a oneshot for it later.
I think (?) this chapter is the longest yet...but I could be wrong. Anyway, quality over quantity, right? Then again, that might not be an entirely good thing for me...
Disclaimer: Toshokan Sensou/Library War = not mine.
Chapter 5 - 21st Century Understanding
She took a sip of her cappuccino, glancing demurely down to watch the brown swirl sluggishly through the transparent plastic top as it was vacuumed up into her straw. Ordinarily she would have felt it to be impolite to avoid meeting her date's eyes, but as he seemed to be exponentially more comfortable when she wasn't looking at him, she considered it a service to him.
To be perfectly honest, they hadn't even been here five minutes and Asahina was already starting to wear on her nerves. He had good manners and was capable of carrying a conversation, but as she had noticed in the classroom, he seemed nearly afraid of her, beginning to stumble over his words as soon as she looked at him and relaxing only for sporadic three-second periods, after which he would jerk back into his unease. She made a mental note not to say yes to boys who seemed too nervous in the future.
Deciding that she had stared at her drink long enough, she returned her gaze to his face, and he immediately started in his seat, his sentence ending with a stutter.
"Are you all right?" she inquired with concern that she wasn't ashamed to admit was feigned.
"Oh - yes. Yes, I'm fine - thank you," he replied haltingly, swallowing.
She smiled serenely. "That's good."
After a hesitant pause, he continued with his dialogue, and she generously lent him an ear as the rest of her senses searched diligently for something more interesting to occupy her time. She found nearly immediate satisfaction in detecting four familiar presences lurking in the corner of the café - unsurprisingly Kasahara, Doujou, a given if Kasahara was there, Komaki tagging along for the fun, and most intriguingly Tezuka. She quirked an eyebrow. Not long ago she would have been inclined to think him above something like date-shadowing, but apparently she'd misjudged him. Or maybe he was just susceptible to Kasahara's unique brand of charm. The thought almost elicited a chuckle from her, which didn't escape the attention of Asahina.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, leaning forward.
"Not at all," she replied fluidly, which was true. Then, eyeing him mischievously, she opted to add, "I'm just glad to see that my friends seem to be enjoying themselves."
For a moment he looked bewildered, having no idea what she was talking about, but when he followed the sideways direction of her gaze, he blanched. She found this unspeakably amusing. Kasahara and company were doing an excellent job of failing spectacularly at acting like they were unaware of Shibasaki's presence - Kasahara was talking in a stage whisper to an embarrassed and annoyed-looking Doujou, and Komaki wasn't even trying to look innocent, smiling in silence with his head actually turned toward Shibasaki's table. But possibly it was Tezuka who really gave away the show, sitting ramrod-straight in evident discomfort and staring deliberately out the window opposite Shibasaki, hands on his knees, looking so out-of-place and awkward that he might as well have shouted to the world that something was up. Probably the act of spying on a private engagement disagreed with his conscience.
But then his neck slowly twisted as he stole a glance at the two objects of surveillance, and as soon as Shibasaki saw him looking at her, she smiled and, unable to resist, gave him a breezy wave. He gave a jolt and gulped - she could see his Adam's apple bob in his throat even from a distance - much as Asahina had, but it was much more entertaining on Tezuka, especially when he was forced to acknowledge her with a stiff nod.
Well, Shibasaki thought with playful vindictiveness, if nothing else, it will teach him not to follow people on dates. If only it were so easy to dissuade Kasahara, who was blissfully oblivious of the fact that the game was up.
Asahina was talking again, looking extremely disconcerted. "Did you ask them to - er, accompany you?"
The lie rolled guilelessly off her tongue, the temptation too great. "As a matter of fact I did," she replied, carefully maintaining her glib, level countenance as if she thought it nothing less than natural to invite a group of her friends along to watch her date, and avoiding letting any of her inner hilarity show through.
"Oh," he said, so overwhelmed that she did feel a bit guilty about it - but not enough to quell her discreet glee. "Oh, well - I don't suppose you'd like to join them, would you?"
Her impression of him rose slightly - he was willing to make the best of the situation, even if he was obviously deeply unsettled by the prospect. She wouldn't put him through that torture. "Oh, no, really, I'm fine here," she assured him pleasantly. "I just hope they don't disturb you."
"Of course not," Asahina replied bravely, but he didn't relax for so much as a millisecond after that. As penance for her indulgent little joke, Shibasaki paid meticulous attention to him and made her contributions as genial and inoffensive as possible, but her focus wasn't really secured until he mentioned something about a "revised booklist" for the school library.
Sensing something important behind the unclear point, she zeroed in on it at once. "Revised? In what way exactly?"
He stopped. "I think they're taking certain books off the shelves, to get rid of inappropriate content. But I don't really know much about it..." He trailed off, blinking at her sudden spike in concentration.
She quickly toned it down, affecting disinterest as she murmured, "Oh, really? I haven't heard anything about that. Is there a committee of some kind behind it?"
"Er, yes. The Media Betterment Committee, I believe it's called - my father is involved with it. There are other parents in it too, and some teachers."
"And is there a set launching time for this act of 'Media Betterment' and its revised booklist?" Shibasaki asked, still casually and conversationally.
Asahina furrowed his brow, clearly puzzled at her interest in the topic when he didn't see it as any big deal. "Well, I think it's been delayed by some school librarians who have objected. But from what I know, it shouldn't be too long before it's set in motion."
If there had ever been any doubt about whether or not Asahina Hikaru was the one for her, his nonchalance on the subject would have clinched it. As it was, Shibasaki was just waiting for this date to end so that she could get down to some serious thinking. And then, inevitably, serious action.
Recognizing that she'd most likely exhausted Asahina's limited knowledge, she moved on smoothly and resumed on autopilot, the following duration of the outing passing in an agonizingly slow blur as she ruminated on what his carelessly dropped words could mean. It sounded like a textbook example of censorship - book banning. But could something like that really be done so easily? She hoped not.
It was something of a funny coincidence that just after she'd discussed censorship with Tezuka, it came knocking at her door. Although at the moment, Shibasaki wasn't seeing much "funny" about it.
At long last she bid Asahina a cordial farewell, crossing over to her friends as soon as he was gone. Komaki edged over on the bench to make room for her, but she barely noticed in her state of distraction and made no move to sit down, snapping out of her reverie only to say teasingly, "Thank you for the interruption. It livened up my afternoon."
Kasahara's jaw dropped in dismay. "Shibasaki! You mean you saw us?"
"I believe she noticed at approximately the point in the conversation when Asahina did a remarkable imitation of a goldfish," Komaki interjected amiably. Shibasaki saw Tezuka shoot a dubious sideways glance at the unflappable senior, and she repressed a smile. They seemed to be getting along, at least.
"You got pretty interested in him sometime after that, though," Kasahara commented, curiosity practically steaming from her ears. "You like him?"
Shibasaki gave her a wry look. "It wasn't so much Asahina who interested me," she said slowly, "as it was his father."
"What do you mean?" Kasahara was astounded, and then appalled. "Are you into older guys, Shibasaki?!" She scrunched up her nose in badly-disguised horror and repulsion.
Under other circumstances Shibasaki would have found a statement like this highly comical, a typically Kasahara thing to say, but today she just shook her head in mild resignation and answered soberly, "Only when they're involved in so-called 'Media Betterment Acts'."
Kasahara looked relieved, then confused. "In so-called whats?"
"Apparently Asahina's father is part of something called the Media Betterment Committee, which proposes a revised booklist for school libraries." She met Tezuka's eyes, intent as always. "Essentially, censorship."
"They're actually going to ban some books from our library?" Doujou straightened, alert and in disbelief. "On what grounds?"
"On the authority, or pressure, of a number of parents and teachers. Or so Asahina says," Shibasaki amended. "But his information is incomplete."
"Book banning?" Having caught on, Kasahara stuck up her chin in indignation, hair swinging around her forehead. "That's ridiculous! I mean, this is the 21st century, right? I thought stuff like that didn't even happen anymore!"
"Unfortunately, that's a little ahead of the times," Komaki said lightly, but he was no longer smiling.
Shibasaki was mildly surprised that Tezuka hadn't provided any input at all, but she was even more surprised to see that his face had clouded over, dark eyes narrowed, teeth gritted. "Excuse me," he said abruptly, unexpected hardness in his voice, and he stood up. With just one slightly curious glance, Komaki got up without question to make space for his exit, and Shibasaki followed his example, stepping aside to allow Tezuka to brush past and leave the café.
"Uh..." Kasahara stared after him. "What's with him?"
Shibasaki wondered the same thing, but she had the vaguest of suspicions already, and she shifted, hearing the faint, starchy crumpling of the newspaper tucked into her bag. She had only ever seen Tezuka wear an expression like that in connection with one person.
She noted absently that it was rare for her to arrive in class before Tezuka as she took a seat in her customary English class spot, but she thought little of it until it came to her attention that there were barely thirty seconds left to go before the bell rang and he was still nowhere to be seen. Tezuka was not the sort of person who ever cut it close.
She glanced subtly at the other Tezuka. He was busy at the front of the classroom and seemed unconcerned about his brother's absence, but that didn't mean much, did it? She toyed with the idea that Tezuka might be sick, but he'd been fine yesterday, if she discounted that last incident. But if her hunch was right, that had had nothing to do with anything physical.
Spurred on by the reminder that her hunches were usually right, Shibasaki stood, gathered her books together, and walked wordlessly out of the room. She didn't dare risk a look at the professor, but she was almost certain that he had been eyeing her as she left. The bell rang out shrilly just as she stepped across the threshold into the hallway, and she encountered a few stragglers who were rushing to get inside before they were punished for tardiness. Her bizarrely timed exit earned her a few strange looks, but her reputation as a first-class student preceded her and kept anyone from remarking on it.
Once at a safe distance from the classroom, she paused, tapping her fingertips on the zipper of her bag thoughtfully. If Tezuka wasn't in class, where would he be? She couldn't see him leaving the school and going to the mall or any other adolescent hangout - that idea was more than a little ludicrous, taking into consideration that this was Tezuka. So if he hadn't left the school, what options did that open up for him?
She couldn't be sure, but she knew there was only one location that she would be at if it was her in his place, and so she didn't hesitate a moment longer before turning briskly in the direction of the library.
She let herself in by the glass doors cautiously, quietly, but was unsurprised to be discovered all the same as the librarian looked up from her desk work inquiringly.
"Is it all right if I do a bit of research here this period? I have Professor Tezuka's permission, of course," Shibasaki lied with a friendly smile, banking on her good relationship with the librarian to waive the need for verification.
It worked without a hitch, and she received an amiable, "Oh, certainly, dear," in response. Really, she thought with satisfaction bordering on awe, a spotless reputation was an invaluable thing to have.
She pretended to browse through the reference shelves while in fact peering down aisles on the lookout for Tezuka, but he made her job much easier for her by being seated in one of the first rows she checked, back up against the bookcase, elbows resting on his knees with his chin supported by his folded hands. Somehow this position, especially in a library, seemed rather undignified for a person like Tezuka, but she highly doubted that anyone would ever dare tell him so. Most likely he didn't know it, but he had the ability to appear intimidating quite effortlessly, particularly when wearing his deep, serious Thinking Frown.
She made an unhurried beeline for him, and stopped at the end of the aisle. He didn't so much as stir, his dark eyes moodily piercing the horizon ahead of him and noticing nothing closer. Deciding that she didn't really mind just being able to examine him like this, Shibasaki tiptoed over and sat herself down beside him. Leaning back, she crossed her ankles, her checkered grey flats next to his plain shoes.
She left the silence undisturbed for a few minutes as she withdrew a handheld mirror from her bag along with two tubes of lipstick. She compared them for a while, then glanced at him and asked out of the blue, "Peach or pink?"
Tezuka jumped, nearly bumping her shoulder, and turned to stare, having finally detected her presence. His mouth opened in surprise and he managed in a whisper, "Pardon?"
She held up the lipstick, one tube in each hand. "Peach or pink?" she repeated in a buoyant undertone, cocking her head.
His gaze leaped from her face to the make-up and back again, utterly nonplussed. "I - really don't know," he answered at last.
"Well, I wouldn't expect you to know," she said. "I do, however, expect you to have an opinion." She gave him an expectant smile.
His brow furrowed and he looked as if he wanted to argue that point, but she dangled the lipstick in front of his forehead, not taking anything other than a concrete answer. He angled his neck away from it reflexively, eliciting an amused expression from her, and said with mingled irritation and perplexity, "...Peach, then."
She considered it for a moment, then mused, "Hmm. I think so too." She uncapped the tube with a click, puckered her lips and carefully applied a light coating, all under the discomfited scrutiny of Tezuka.
Once finished, she exhaled tranquilly and greeted him with a hushed, "Good morning."
He raised his eyebrows and then lowered them, resigning himself to her intentional quirkiness. "Good morning." She thought he threw a bit of a smile her way before looking straight ahead again.
She watched him, watched his mouth tighten, jaw harden, eyes narrow, his features shutting down one by one slowly but surely. When she'd done this for long enough, she asked simply, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not especially," he replied grimly, then looked briefly surprised at his own bluntness. But then he shrugged heavily, as if throwing that statement to the winds, and began, "It's my brother."
Shibasaki nodded calmly, having guessed this.
"He and I...we've had our differing principles, but..." Tezuka shook his head, looking down. "I knew he was involved in something, but when you mentioned the Media Betterment Committee and how it was being supported by certain members of the staff, it struck me right away."
"He's backing the movement?" Shibasaki deduced, maintaining a neutral facade.
"He might as well be." Tezuka's voice was bleak, but underneath she could plainly hear the anger, a long-harboured resentment toward his brother, and she couldn't help but wonder about its true origins. "He doesn't actually support the censorship; at least, I don't think so. But he feels that joining them for now is the best way to try to head off anything in the future - supposedly. He'd rather just take it and hope he can keep too much damage from happening than fight it." His small rant grew quieter but more forceful. "I can't stand that kind of thinking."
Shibasaki nodded. "I suppose in some ways, long-term, it does make sense," she admitted, "but to be quite frank, I can't abide it either."
He bit one corner of his lip lightly, softening his frown but giving him an even more worried look. "I just..." he whispered, but shook his head. "...I don't understand him. I can't."
"That's usually the problem, isn't it?" Shibasaki said diplomatically. "But if you keep at it, you will understand him someday. And then you'll either reject or accept him."
"I don't know if I - if I could reject him," Tezuka said despondently. "But I can't accept what he's doing. And he'll never go back to being who he used to be."
"People rarely do," Shibasaki offered calmly, "but often the change is an improvement."
"Sometimes the change is just too much." Tezuka seemed to struggle to express his turmoil. "He's completely...just completely..."
"He's not on your side anymore," she finished for him, softly, then continued, "but it's not uncommon for brothers to face each other from different lights."
When she noticed his expression begin to turn accusing, she hastened to clarify, "I'm not defending him, Tezuka. I disagree with what he's participating in, and I intend to oppose him and his committee with everything I have. But I'm condemning your hopeless attitude. Instead of giving up, instead of getting angry, why don't you just follow your own beliefs and fight him? Friends fight. Brothers fight, too."
"So do enemies."
"Do you think of him as an enemy?"
He hesitated, but declared with grim firmness, "Right now I do."
Shibasaki showed no shock or sadness at this development, but simply squared her shoulders and stated bluntly, "Either way, you still fight." She paused, then added daringly, "And I hope you won't take it the wrong way when I say that you should stand up and throw your weight into it like a man."
He gave her a raised-eyebrows I-can't-believe-you-just-said-that look, but his face relaxed, and she knew he was amused. "Even if I refused to, I wouldn't put it past you to rope me into standing with you anyway."
"See, you're beginning to understand me already," she pointed out, smiling dazzlingly. "Your brother is next on the list."
He looked straight at her for the first time during their encounter, and for once he wasn't frowning at all. He wasn't smiling either, but he wore a pensive expression that was far from unpleasant, and having his full attention on her at this proximity was more intense than she would have expected - it flustered her, just a little. But she was spared the effort of hiding it by the noise of a nearby footstep, disrupting their improvised library counselling session.
Galvanized into prompt action, she grabbed Tezuka by the collar and hauled him to his feet, shoving him out of the aisle just in time to avoid his being spotted by the librarian, who arrived to see a perfectly innocent Shibasaki studiously running her finger along the bindings of the books lined up in front of her. Pretending to have been jolted out of deep consideration, Shibasaki looked up and inquired distantly, "Oh, do you need me to leave?"
"No, it's not that," the librarian said, somewhat suspiciously. "I did think I'd heard voices here..."
Shibasaki's mask of confusion was flawless. "Well - I may have been muttering to myself, but..."
"It - it was probably nothing, dear," the librarian assured her uncertainly before meandering away.
Shibasaki kept up her award-winning routine until she was sure they were safe, and then she stepped out of the aisle to greet the slightly panicked gaze of Tezuka, who was pressed up against the side of the shelf. "Is she gone?" he mouthed.
"For the time being," she whispered back, and there was a minute of silence. Then she giggled softly at the same time as he let escape a small, relieved snicker. They enjoyed their mirth quietly until Tezuka stopped and asked suddenly, struck by the imminent dilemma,"How am I going to get out of here without being seen by the librarian?"
"Well, you could hide here until the end of the period" - she glanced at the clock on the wall - "which is only forty-five minutes away."
He looked less than enthusiastic, and she smiled humorously and reassured him, "I'll distract her."
"But..." he was clearly uncomfortable with adding more dishonesty to his ever-growing secret record, and he floundered in that gentleman's skin that he couldn't shed. "If I'm caught, you'll be in trouble as well."
She cocked her head and shrugged, unconcerned. "Don't worry, Tezuka. I trust you not to get caught."
He bit his lip again, but this time she was sure it was to keep himself from smiling.
A/N: All of the proofing tools on my Microsoft Word mysteriously disappeared this week, which was somewhat, shall we say, annoying. Hopefully I'll be able to get them back somehow.
So! Censorship looms on the horizon! The plot thickens...not. What does loom on the horizon is the pressure to actually think of how, precisely, Shibasaki and Co. will go about fighting the totally-ripped-off-of-the-series Media Betterment Committee. Sorry, folks, but I don't think they'll be donning firearms this time.
Hope you enjoyed the chappie!