Title: Stumbling Forward

Pairing: Tachibana/Shinji

Rating: PG

Summary: The slow steps from the beginning, to a new beginning.

Author's Notes: For gryffin_draco (on LJ), who asked for something about how Tachibana and Shinji first got together. This pairing is my first love, and so I, of course, had too much fun doing this.

Also, for 1adychaos, the first Tachibana to my Shinji, and still my favorite :)

1. Bang

The first time Tachibana noticed Shinji, truly noticed him, it was in the middle of a fistfight, of all places. There was something about the slim, dark-haired boy that just drew his attention; the way he moved, the focus of his gaze, the way his eyes glittered with an expression that was both fearful and excited. It made Tachibana wonder what else out there would add the sparkle of emotion to the normally blank boy, and more, it made him want to be the one that was drawing the emotions out of Shinji, as many as he could. He wanted all of Shinji's feelings.

The shock of that realization distracted Tachibana enough that he ended up with a black eye from a fist he really should've been able to dodge. But he considered his newfound discovery worth it, afterwards.

2. Cry

Boys don't cry. It was a fact that Shinji had always known and acknowledged as a simple truth, especially for him. Tears were weakness, and he couldn't afford to be weak. Not when everyone around him was so strong, especially Tachibana-san. He was their rock, and, to Shinji, a personal savior. Saviors don't cry, and neither would Shinji.

Except Shinji was wrong, he saw one day. Saviors could and did cry. Shinji never asked about Tachibana's tears, knowing that he had accidentally seen a very private moment. On reflection, Shinji thought he should have been disgusted by the tears, or at the very least, disillusioned by them. But instead, it made Shinji want to…to hold Tachibana, to be the one that could be leaned on, for once, rather than the leaner. It made Tachibana human to him, a real person, not just a figurehead.

And Shinji wanted to know this person better.

3. Whisper

It didn't take Tachibana long to realize that he was almost hyper-attuned to Shinji.

He wanted to be close to Shinji, always. It helped that their team was so close-knit that it wasn't hard to be somewhere within Shinji's orbit. Tachibana knew that he wasn't the only one, though. He saw how Kamio hovered around Shinji, how Ishida was always there, so close. He saw how the other two could touch Shinji freely, could wrap an arm around his shoulders or shove him playfully, and Tachibana longed for that ease of contact. He wanted to be the one that Shinji would let close to him, would let touch him. For a week, Tachibana existed in a state of burning jealousy, wanting what they had with Shinji.

He didn't realize that he did have something with Shinji, had something the others didn't have.

Tachibana heard Shinji's voice. Not his regular conversations, not the mutterings that Tachibana sort of suspected were a kind of passive-aggressive thumbing of his nose at the world. But the voice beneath that, the soft whispers of self-doubt, of loneliness, of fear. And it was that voice that Tachibana responded to. He was always there to help Shinji, to be the counter-voice that would calm him, support him.

To Tachibana, it was just the thing to do when you cared about someone. He didn't think about anything else. He certainly didn't realize that it was the best thing he could do to bring Shinji closer to him.

4. Purr

Shinji loved soft things. For someone who was normally so standoffish, an almost icy, touch-me-not presence, he was surprisingly tactile, bordering on hedonistic. He reveled in the slick or soft feeling of fabrics against his skin, the silkiness of flower petals, even the slight chill of metal.

Very few people ever saw this side of Shinji. He kept it close to him, thinking it was something he'd be ridiculed for. It didn't seem a very…masculine thing, to enjoy touch so much, so he never let on. His hiding of it went as far as to reject even the touches of other people, touches he did enjoy, really. But it was all to keep up his mask. He let only a couple people that close, no one else. In fact, Shinji had almost forgotten how much he enjoyed being touched, until Tachibana reached out one spring day, and plucked some sakura petals from Shinji's hair.

"Not everyone likes flowers in their hair," he'd said to Shinji with a smile. "Let me get those for you."

Shinji couldn't resist leaning into that touch. "Thank you," he said, missing the purr that tinged his words.

Tachibana didn't, though, and filed that reaction away for further contemplation.

5. Whimper

The first time that Tachibana dared to take more than just the briefest, simplest contact from Shinji was after Shinji's match with Echizen.

He hadn't realized that the match, that the injury and the anger, had affected Shinji so much. In fact, during the whole thing, Shinji had remained wrapped in an almost icy shroud, untouchable and unreachable. Tachibana had reacted to that, perhaps, in retrospect, more harshly than he should have.

Tachibana found Shinji later, long after the matches were over. He was curled in on himself, arms wrapped around his knees, and he looked so fragile that Tachibana couldn't help himself. He dropped to his knees and pulled Shinji into his arms. He didn't say anything, though, knowing that Shinji would talk when he was ready.

Shinji shifted some, pressing closer to Tachibana. "I don't want to be a monster, Tachibana-san…."

Tachibana's heart went out to Shinji, his tone reminiscent of a wounded puppy. "You aren't a monster, Shinji. Don't think that."

"But…I hurt him. And…I had been glad, at the time…I was happy that he was…that maybe he couldn't…and then I felt so bad…." Shinji shuddered, turning his face into Tachibana's shoulder.

Tachibana fully expected to feel tears, but there was nothing except Shinji's breath and his fine muscle tremors. "You're not still glad, though. You didn't stay glad. That's what makes monsters, Shinji, you felt regret right away. You didn't revel in it. You didn't take pride in his pain. You're not a monster, Shinji." He pressed his lips to Shinji's hair, operating on pure instinct.

Almost instantly, Shinji relaxed. Tachibana tried not to read too much into that, though he so wanted to.

6. Shout

Shinji hated being at home. He tried to spend as much time away as he could, and that led to some awkward situations, like being caught out on the streets long after sunset, when most people his age would be safe at home.

"Shinji? Is everything alright?"

If it had been Kamio, or Ishida, or just about anyone else from the team, they would've understood. But since it was Tachibana, he simply reached out and laid a hand on Shinji's arm. "Come on. It's not safe out here. I'll walk you home."

Shinji didn't know how to tell Tachibana that the streets were safer than his house could ever be.

The shouting was clearly audible the second they stepped onto Shinji's block. Shinji winced, all too clearly able to imagine how much louder it would be actually inside the home.

Tachibana didn't make the connection between the raised voices and Shinji's home life until they stopped outside the house the noise was clearly coming from. He looked at Shinji's face, and he understood. "You know, my parents complain that I never bring friends home with me. How do you feel about spending the night?"

The look Shinji gave Tachibana was pure gratitude. "Are you sure, Tachibana-san? I wouldn't want to impose, or put your family out, and I won't do anything to embarrass you at all, I promise, even though I know I can be an embarrassing person, though I never mean to be—"

Tachibana reached out and pressed his finger over Shinji's lips, the most intimate touch he'd ever purposely dared to deliver. "Shinji. You won't. My parents will be glad to have you. An will be thrilled to see you. And I'll be more than happy to have you in my home." He couldn't say how happy.

"Alright, if you're sure…." Shinji turned away from his house without a glance back, and when Tachibana's arm found its way around his waist, Shinji silently moved closer to Tachibana, soaking up the calmness of his presence.

7. Crash

Tachibana had felt fear in his life before. He had felt worry, sorrow…but nothing in his life had ever approached the level of sheer panic that he had felt after Akutsu's mocking words and Kamio's sheepish, guilty, reluctant confession. Panic that he camouflaged with anger as he gathered up his team and ushered them straight to the hospital. Panic that he hid behind harsh words, mostly directly at Kamio, as the team's vice-captain.

Kamio had taken Tachibana's scolding quietly, not questioning or challenging. But not Shinji. With his gray eyes blazing, he stepped between Kamio and Tachibana. "Stop it! He didn't make the decision to play, he didn't force us into it, we all did it together, so you should be yelling at all of us, not just him, because Akira didn't do anything more wrong than we did."

Tachibana crossed his arms over his chest, trying to still his shaking, trying to quell his impulse to reach out, pull Shinji close to him and inspect him closely. "He's the vice-captain, Shinji. He should've had more sense than to allow you all to play after a car accident, even if you all did agree on it."

"I don't care." Shinji's expression was stubborn, even under the bruise that covered the side of his face. "We should've all had more sense, maybe, but that's not the issue. It's that you're blaming Akira for something we're all equally guilty of, and that's not fair."

"Shinji…." Tachibana sighed. "The fact is, he's still vice-captain. So he's going to have to take more of the responsibility. That's all there is to it." His eyes locked with Shinji's, engaged in a silent battle of wills that ended when Shinji turned and stalked away, heading gods know where.

At that moment, Tachibana was sure that he had lost Shinji. All because of a stupid car crash. And even though Kamio tried to take all the blame on himself, Tachibana found that he couldn't discipline Kamio without seeing Shinji's accusing stare and knowing that he did have a point. So he let them all go with a comment that their condition in the morning would be far worse punishment than he could ever give them.

And Tachibana went home and hid in his room, allowing himself to shake with the fear that he could've lost them all, could've lost Shinji….

A knock on the window brought Tachibana from his thoughts, and he looked up, at first startled, then alarmed as he opened his window and hauled the person outside, in. "Shinji! Are you insane? You could've hurt yourself more, and then what—"

This time, it was Shinji's fingers that covered Tachibana's lips. "I don't want you to be mad at me," he said softly, gaze on the floor. "I don't want to be mad at you."

Something inside Tachibana melted, looking at Shinji. "I'm not mad, Shinji." He had never been able to be anything less than honest with the boy in front of him. "I was just…scared, and upset, and Shinji, tell me why?"

"Because." Shinji finally lifted his eyes to meet Tachibana's. "We didn't want to disappoint you, Tachibana-san. I wanted you to be proud of me."

"I could never be less than proud of you." Tachibana gave in to the longing he had been suppressing all day and pulled Shinji into an embrace, smiling as he felt Shinji's arms wrap around him as well. "I'm always proud of you."

And, he realized, hopelessly in love. But he could never tell Shinji that.

8. Shriek

For someone that enjoyed sports and competitions, Shinji loathed the noise associated with them. He'd never been patient with the cheering, the shouting, the fans, but sometimes, it grated at him more than others, making him retreat as soon as his own match was done just so he could get a break. All the shrieks and shouts just reminded him of home, and he played tennis as an escape, not for a reminder of what he was trapped with.

Tachibana, he thought, was the only other one who seemed to understand the beauty of the quiet. Sometimes he would retreat with Shinji, after the team had played, and they would simply sit together. No words were needed, just each other's presence and the peaceful atmosphere.

Shinji had never felt closer to anyone than he did to Tachibana in those moments. And in those moments, when Shinji was forced to be the most honest with himself, he saw that he had never felt closer to anyone than he did to Tachibana, period. That he wanted to be around Tachibana more and more, that he wanted to touch Tachibana, hug him, hold him, kiss him….

Shinji turned bright red and turned his face away.

"You look warm…do you need a drink?" Tachibana pressed his hand to the back of Shinji's neck. "You're hot…."

Shinji closed his eyes, simply relishing in Tachibana's cool touch. "Yes, I am hot." I'm burning for you, Tachibana-san. But if I tell you, you'll hate me for it.

9. Laugh

It was the laughter that finally did it for Tachibana, laughter that finally got under his skin and made him act where nothing else had before.

He had heard many sounds coming from Shinji before. The tones of satisfaction, of frustration. Whispers of self-doubt and whimpers of despair. His voice raised in anger, and the normal everyday flatness that seemed designed to reject emotion.

But never laughter. Never the simple, unadulterated joy that came from enjoying something so purely that all other masks were forgotten and cast aside. Tachibana knew the laughs of the rest of his team, his friends, intimately, but not Shinji's. Shinji seemed, for all intents and purposes, to exist in a world where laughter was unheard of.

And when Tachibana heard Shinji laugh…well, at first, he had to do a double take. And then, seeing the happiness clear on Shinji's features, the laughter that was still spilling from his lips, Tachibana was possessed with a desire to take it inside of him, to keep that laughter for him and only for him. He had felt that urge before, at other moments, and had always resisted it, but it was the laughter that was finally his undoing.

So he pulled Shinji close, wrapped his arms around the slim figure, and pressed his lips to Shinji's.

Laughter turned to silence.

Tachibana could feel the tension in Shinji's frame, felt the lips that were pressed against his, but weren't responding. A wave of horror washed over him, that he had acted so much on impulse and possibly destroyed what he did have with Shinji.

He pushed Shinji away from him, stammering apologies, and ran. Tachibana had never run before, but that time he did, cursing himself for losing Shinji before he could have him.

10. Plead

Shinji knocked on Tachibana's window. "Tachibana-san…please, let me in…."

He could see inside the room, could see where Tachibana was laying on his bed, back to the window. Shinji knew that Tachibana could hear him, he could see the way Tachibana twitched whenever Shinji said his name, but he refused to move and let Shinji in, which he thought would make this entire process so much easier. "Tachibana-san, don't make me have to do this…."

But of course he had to. Tachibana was stubborn, but Shinji was stubborner, and besides, he knew that Tachibana kept his window unlocked in case of an emergency, so it was an easy thing for Shinji to work it open and slide in under his own power. "Tachibana-san…look at me."

"Go away, Shinji."

"I can't." Slowly, Shinji made his way over to sit on the edge of Tachibana's bed, his hand hovering over Tachibana, but not quite daring to touch. "You surprised me, before."

"I'm sorry, Shinji." Tachibana's voice was full or remorse, even Shinji could hear it.

"I am too, because I've been wanting that for so long, and then when you did it, I couldn't even do it right, so I must have chased you off, when all I wanted was for you to keep kissing me, because I'm sure I almost had it figured out, and then I was going to kiss you back, but you pushed me away, so I must've been really bad at it, and I'm sorry I was bad for you, Tachibana-san."

Tachibana rolled over as Shinji spoke, unable to keep the surprise from his face. "You…wanted to kiss me, Shinji?"

Shinji nodded, his cheeks reddening a little. "For awhile now, maybe a month or so, maybe a little more, I don't know, but I wanted to kiss you."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Shinji looked at Tachibana as if he were an idiot. "Because you're Tachibana-san. Why would you want to kiss me?"

There were a thousand answers that Tachibana could have given to that, but none of them seemed right. So instead, he grasped Shinji's wrist, pulling Shinji down over him, and kissed him again.

This time, Shinji responded right away, giving Tachibana the kiss he had wanted to give him earlier, but hadn't been able to.

When they finally parted, Shinji was sprawled over Tachibana. Both of them looked a little dazed, lips pink and a bit puffy from their enthusiastic contact. Shinji licked his lips, and Tachibana's eyes greedily followed that dart of tongue over flesh. "Tachibana-san…."

Tachibana's hand buried itself in Shinji's hair—so silky and soft, just like he'd imagined—tugging him down for another kiss. "Call me Kippei."