Disclaimer: I do not own Prince of Tennis. Woe. Title from a certain infamous e.e. cummings poem.
Summary: After four years in Germany, Tezuka Kunimitsu returns. He's no longer what he was; neither is Ryuzaki Sakuno. Strangely and slowly, fragments find a way of fitting together just right. Tezuka x Sakuno.
Author's Note: And now, for something completely different. The beginning starts off slow, but it'll build speed. Not everything is going to be revealed right away – that's the joy and reward of reading, right?
Now on with the show.
Nobody, Not Even the Rain
Days and weeks and months and years later, she would puzzle over it, turning it over very carefully in her mind: the reason why, at that instant, she called out his name.
She wasn't even sure, in that moment, if it was him; there was just something about the rigid self-discipline that held the man's body in a sort of perfect tension. His posture was perfect, his body arranged in a straight, swift line from his broad shoulders to his evenly-placed apart feet, in a way that felt utterly familiar and absolutely strange at the same time. Like the first sickening lurch of homesickness, and then the second sickening lurch from home-returning. A kind of welcome nausea, an oddly lonely warmth.
She said it softly, without thinking. Somehow, he heard it through the noise and din of the train station; he turned, and it rose up again, even stronger, the feeling that had been haunting her ever since the hospital, the feeling that had been growing stronger in the past month, that had beaten and clamoured at her the most strongly tonight: that the last four years of her life had been a fever dream or a very bad joke or just a figment of her imagination.
Four years gone, and she was thirteen years young again, standing in front of Tezuka Kunimitsu just before he boarded a plane to Germany to become a young king (or was he one already?). She had screwed up her courage enough to hug him, then – surely, it was all right? That she hug him, now, at this very last moment? Her childhood friend from the old neighbourhood, the older brother she always wished she could have had – and say, to him, "We will all be cheering for you. Please remember to think of us." She had been so small, then, barely half his height; he had placed one of his long hands on the crown of her head and said, his voice gentler than she had heard it in… years, "I promise," far more seriously than he need have. That was just Mitsu-nii; honourable and upright and serious in response to the earnestness of a very young girl.
"Excuse me?" He turned, and she hastily took a step or two back, to prevent being squished. She remembered that people always confused Kunimitsu for an adult, when he was in junior high; but anyway who could compare his skinny fifteen-year-old self with the man he was now would never make the same mistake. He had grown taller and broader, oak-solid, and every motion of his body was perfectly controlled; his hair still fell in the face the same way, his glasses still perched with a cool precision on his face. But his face… It was subtle, but it was there. It was more than tiredness: there was a bone-deep weariness in his face, as if he'd like nothing better than to lay all his burdens down. He seemed so much… older, somehow. Far older than four years could warrant. And mixed with the tiredness, there was a sort of alert, wary caution, tempered with an exacting politeness.
"I mean, Tezuka-buchou," she said, correcting herself, as she had trained herself to do once she entered junior high; the rest of the tennis team would hardly respect him if his tiny seventh grade neighbour referred to their fearsome captain as "Mitsu-nii". "It's me," she said, trying to smile. She didn't know why she vaguely felt like crying. It probably had nothing to do with him. "It's Ryuzaki Sakuno."
"Sakuno…?" She was granted the rare sight of a startled Kunimitsu, his eyes widening fractionally. "I didn't recognise you without your…"
"Braids?" One hand, the one not shouldering her heavy overnight bag, went to the shorn edges of her page cut. Sometimes, in brief daydreaming moments, she thought she could still feel the weight of her braids; even more rarely, she imagined she missed them. She kept her smile light. "I figured it was time for a change. When did you get back from Germany, Tezuka-buchou? I hadn't heard any word."
His jaw tightened almost imperceptibly, that same weariness making his shoulders sag for a split second before he caught himself and straightened them. "Please, feel free to refer to me as Kunimitsu. And I actually just left the airport right now."
She felt her own eyes widening. "Didn't you tell anyone? Auntie and Uncle would've picked you up - " Instantly, she shut up. Kunimitsu obviously had a good reason for not even telling his family and friends when he was returning, or that he had even returned; if the terse sports article that she had clipped out a few weeks ago was true, then she understood very well his desire for a discreet return to the country. Instead, she took in the sight of his single suitcase and the sports bag at his side. "Are you having the rest of your luggage shipped over?" she said, peaceably, instead.
He didn't even blink at the obvious subject change. "Yes," he said. "I wanted to travel light. And yourself, Sakuno… san?"
She blinked at the "-san". Later, she would blame it – that tacked on honorific that transformed her name, his tone slightly strained – for what she said next. It was rare for Kunimitsu to slip up either in his actions or his language, to ungracefully add or delete. His faux pas scrambled her brain so that images of her grand plan shifted in her brain, flashing in and out of sequence, becoming more and more unreal the longer she talked to him.
"I was supposed to sleep over at Tomoka-chan's," and the lie came so easily to her mouth that it tasted like truth, "but she texted me just a few minutes ago to tell me she caught a cold from one of her brothers. I'm just heading back home now. Shall we go together?"
"That would be agreeable," he said. They spent the next five minutes in inconsequential chatter, waiting for the train to arrive: brief murmurs about the time difference between Germany and Japan, of what she was taking in her last year of high school, of the things he had missed in Japan that he would be glad to return to, or the universities she would probably apply to. She let her mouth take over in the automatic, easy conversation; Kunimitsu was never very comfortable with small talk, but she had the feeling that it would be best to maintain a sort of veneer of normalcy. Somehow – she wasn't quite sure, perhaps a look, or a certain tone in his voice – told her that while he didn't mind the quiet in between sentences, he wasn't ungrateful to her for keeping up their low-level conversation, either. So she kept it up.
When the train came and they settled in, she suddenly broke off halfway through a sentence and said, "You know, you can sleep if you want. It must be what… four o'clock in the morning for you?"
Something warred in him briefly; common sense appeared to take over because he inclined his head and said, "I would be grateful." He slid his glasses off and into his jacket pocket, let his head tilt forward, and within five minutes fell asleep.
She studied his face while he slept. Yes, though he seemed older as she'd noticed before, he also seemed… younger, in a sense? That deep exhaustion that she had seen in his face made him, maybe necessarily, more open than she had remembered the fifteen-year-old Kunimitsu being. There were cracks running all through him. He truly seemed like a man on the last legs of a great and terrible journey - much further, she thought, suppressing the strange urge to brush his bangs from his face, than the plane ride from Germany to Japan.
And you? a small voice inside of her said. Where will you go from here?
I don't know, she said silently. I thought I knew. I was so sure that tonight, I would know for sure. If I hadn't run into Mitsu-nii…
But she wouldn't blame him, not for that; it was chance, nothing more, that he'd been thrown into her path. If anything, he was much worse off; he was finally "home", the prodigal son returning after a brilliant if short-lived career on the men's international pro tennis circuit.
And here, she thought, feeling her heart go out to him, is where your real troubles begin.
It should've been impossible to sleep during the bumpy train ride; but the time difference and his inability to nap on the plane got the better of him. Not this, his mind said, wearily, not this again, but of course this again, it came again:
A single rain drop slid down his face, followed by another, and another, and another. Cool rain washed down his entire body, even over his ruined arm still furiously churning blood. The sky disappeared, as the roof over Gerry Weber Stadion closed in precisely eighty-eight seconds. The meaningless garble of the announcer suddenly crystallized into the words, "Match… point," in the final game of Tezuka Kunimitsu's professional career.
His own nightmare surprised him, though, by taking a different turn than the one he was used to – he could still feel the rain on his body, but it became lighter, misting down. He was ten years old, now, surrounded by a forest of stone monuments and slender wooden boards inked with the names of those long gone.
A young girl knelt before a certain grave, not even noticing the mud gathering on the hem of her pale pink dress. She looked even smaller than she actually was, because the long mass of her mahogany hair, practically sweeping the ground where she kneeled, was unbraided and growing even unrulier in the humidity of the rain. It was impossible to tell what time of day it was.
He stood staunchly in the rain. He told himself that the moment it began to rain any harder, he would take her right home, in case she caught a cold – but until then, he would wait, as long as he had to. The rain, however as if listening to his unspoken request, stayed gentle and light, like small fingers patting at his hair, his face, and the tops of his shoulders. Small beads clung to the girl's hair, making it shimmer.
Finally, the girl stood. Her face was small and pale and pointed, almost lost beneath all that hair, and her eyes were very large in her face. One of her hands slid into his, also small and pale, and very cool. Her grip was careful and light.
"Let's go home, Mitsu-nii," she said. Her voice was a whisper, with hardly any more weight to it than a sparrow's shadow, or the sound of the rain, but he heard.
"All right, Sakuno."
They begin to walk. When they reached her house, she stood staring at it, at the cherry trees in the front yard, at the green wetness of the front yard, oddly muted. Cherry blossoms were scattered at their feet like torn confetti, their papery paleness plastered to the sidewalk by the rain rain.
She didn't enter, but stood looking at the door. Her grip tightened ever so slightly.
"Sakuno?" he said.
Her mouth moved, but this time, her words were so quiet that they escaped him. He tilted his head so that his ear was right by her mouth and said, again, as gently as he knew how, "Sakuno?"
"- Kunimitsu-san," and it wasn't that lost-looking eight-year-old girl-child anymore; it was a young woman touching his uninjured shoulder and saying, "Kunimitsu-san, wake up, we're here."
His eyes opened slowly. Here. Here was a train, passengers blurrily hurrying off. Japan, present day, present time. Sakuno waited for him as he gathered up his things and put his glasses back on, the world sliding abruptly back into focus. He felt vaguely embarrassed at having slept so deeply, when he had planned to just have a light doze to restore some of his lost energy; and, oddly, felt even more embarrassed to have an image of a much younger Sakuno still clouding his vision as he looked at the high school senior now before him.
There were some similarities, sure, between that girl and this one, and even to the one in between, the thirteen-year-old who had surprised him her last minute embrace; their eyes were much the same colour, a deep, warm shade he couldn't quite put his finger on, with the depth of certain clarets. Her eyes no longer seemed to swallow up her entire face, which had filled out. Her hair too, was something of the same mahogany colour, but now it was cut as severely as a silk flag, draping down to barely brush her shoulders.
But in all other ways, she appeared altered from that fragile, bird-boned junior high girl who always made obento for Echizen; there was a centred feeling to her now, a fluidity to her motions that told him that she had somehow trained grace into herself. She wasn't nearly as clumsy as he had often seen her become in front of Echizen; with adolescence she had acquired an acute self-consciousness that caused her voice to stutter, her cheeks to flush, her steps to falter, her body to constantly bend in half in a bow. A good measure of that self-consciousness seemed to have dropped away, now. It had been replaced with something not quite as simple as confidence, or assurance; it was as if she had weathered some storm and, upon finding herself not blown away, realised that she had a weight and a presence in this world. She no longer seemed to be apologising for taking up the little space that she did.
He tried to do the math to dredge up her age and had trouble accepting the fact that she was only seventeen. She seemed so much… older, somehow.
He listened to her talk, as they walked the ten minutes from the station to her house. Somehow, it was easier to take in and absorb the old neighbourhood in the dark, as if seeing it all blazing in the daylight would hurt his eyes, would wrench him too nauseatingly between the past and the present. Sakuno would point out things for him, in that murmuring voice of hers that he didn't find unpleasant to listen to:
Look, there's the sweets shop where you used to buy me strawberry marshmallows. Some neighbourhood boys once kidnapped the lucky cat sitting in front of it, and returned it the next day wearing a toupee and a lei. Look, there's the spot where the taiyaki stall and the dango stand were always set up for the neighbourhood festivals. Remember how Arata-san and Yamamoto-san once arm-wrestled for that spot? Their oldest children are married now. Look, there's that grocery store where Auntie banged on the doors half hour after closing until they let her into buy kombu, since your grandmother was visiting and had a late night craving for miso soup. Do you remember?
Yes, I remember, he would say, or No, I don't, tell me more. The words didn't really matter; he was only half paying attention anyway, and she seemed to be only half-attending to her words, letting them spill out and roll around like a handful of wooden beads. Her face flitted in and out of sight, as they walked under streetlights and the shadows in between. Everything was starting to dim with a sort of hazy illogic, even more like a dream than his dreams from before; perhaps he was still back in Halle, having never left Germany at all. Perhaps he had never destroyed his arm in his last match. Perhaps that thirteen-year-old Sakuno with her hopeful eyes and her clumsy, honest smile was still alive in the world, instead of this serious, beautiful stranger. And then again, perhaps not.
They slowed before her house, and Kunimitsu was reminded for one brief, uncanny moment, of his dream: her mouth silently shaping words that he couldn't understand. She hesitated at her front door, for just a moment too long.
"Sakuno-san," he said, the syllables still awkward in his mouth - how long had it been since he had said her name aloud? And how long, he thought, with an unfamiliar stab of guilt, had it been since he had even thought of it? He didn't know how to say, precisely, what he wanted to say; he felt the uncomfortable need to apologize, or to thank her, and both would sound strange and out of place.
Instead, he said, "I am glad…"
That you were the first person from my old life that I saw upon returning home. That you demand nothing for me, that you ask no uncomfortable questions. That you took me back into a further past instead of the immediate one. That you let me sleep. That you gave me some kind of peace, no matter how transient, before I have to face the real world. That you eased the transition, a little, between who I was and who I am. That you called my name.
"… That we ran into each other."
The lines of her face softened, as if she had heard everything he left unsaid. Perhaps, in her own way, she had. Sakuno had always been a strange, empathic child.
"Think nothing of it," she said. "Goodnight, Mitsu-nii."
Her unconscious slip back into her old nickname for him warmed him more than he wanted to admit. All of a sudden, he had an urge to see her in the daylight… but when he turned around, perhaps to tell her this, her door was already sliding shut.
"Goodnight, Sakuno," he echoed.
When he woke, it was embarrassingly late: eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning. It wasn't the time difference, which went the opposite way, but rather his own exhaustion that had kept him in bed. Though he had lay down in his old teenage bedroom, tensed and expecting the dream of the last match to claim him again, as it always did, the good luck charm of Sakuno's presence from the night before seemed to keep it at bay; he slept deeply and, for once, dreamlessly.
Mother and Father (mostly Father) had kept him almost until midnight last night; Father had hugged him, breaking at least two of his ribs, and then punched him in the face, and then shaken him somewhat as if he was an unruly puppy, and then finished off this round of emotional exertion by hugging him again.
While scrubbing away the tears, Father had shouted, "Ungrateful, hard-hearted son! The next time you switch continents, inform your beloved parents so that we may show up at the airport with banners declaring our affection! Also, confetti!"
"Ahhh, Masaru-san," Mother said dryly, draping an ice pack over the handsome new bruise decorating her younger son's face, "perhaps that is the precise reason why Kunimitsu chose to make such a modest entrance. After all," she said, with that sudden, beautiful, blinding smile that still had the ability to make Kunimitsu break out into a cold sweat, "I'm sure that he was only thinking of the wonderful surprise we would feel at having our youngest son return to us in the dead of night from a foreign country without sending any word beforehand, either by e-mail or phone call or text or even messenger pigeon. After all, it's not like he may have died or fallen into a coma in the time since we last heard from him, which was, by my count, at least four months ago. In fact, we should feel the immense joy of being reunited with one whom we thought was forever lost. Ne, Kunimitsu?"
"Y-yes, Mother…" was all he could mumble around his swollen cheek.
"Kimiko-san!" Father shouted, aghast. "You are too cold! You have not even embraced our returning progeny, even though it has been years since we have seen him last!" Kunimitsu was almost admiring of how Father seemed to pack that much indignation into that last sentence, as if not even five minutes ago he had sent Kunimitsu flying across the room with his overly-emotional 'Welcome Home' right hook.
Mother eyed her husband and then her son thoughtfully. "I will embrace him when he ceases to be an idiot," she said, finally. "But I do not think that will happen any time soon."
"Enough, Kimiko-san," said Grandather: the only one who could short-circuit Tezuka Kimiko when she was in Sarcastic Rage Mode. "I know you are happy to have Kunimitsu return, but that is no excuse to address him like that."
Mother tilted an eyebrow at Grandfather. "And you, Father? You haven't welcomed back Kunimitsu either."
Grandfather kneeled at the table where Kunimitsu sat cradling his cheek with ice, laying aside his wooden cane at an exact angle. Kunimitsu snapped to attention, straightening his spine and placing his palms flat on his thighs as he sat across from the man who had practically raised him in his childhood, while his parents – a high-powered attorney and a leading university professor – worked away at their very time-consuming professional careers, while his older brother and sister threw themselves into their middle school and high school lives, with their part-time jobs and extracurriculars that left not much spare room for caring for a much-younger sibling.
If the former Chief Superintendent Tezuka Kunihiro still felt any pain from the surgery to remove the three bullets from his left leg that put him out of active field duty as a policeman in his forties, his absolutely correct posture didn't allow him to betray it. Mother always remarked that Kunimitsu took after his grandfather – in looks and mannerisms – more than her or Father; indeed, he even took more after Grandfather than his older brother or sister took after either of their parents. Well, maybe Ayumi was fast on her way to becoming as beautiful as Mother, even if her brand of "terrifying" was quite different.
"And so, Kunimitsu," Grandfather rumbled, "did you succeed in your mission?"
"No, Grandfather," Kunimitsu said instantly. "Without question, I have failed. I will continue my rehabilitation though, and spend time in the near future reassessing my goals and how to best achieve them."
"Admirable," Grandfather said, inclining his head. "I am proud to see that your injury has not, at least, damaged your composure or your integrity."
Kunimitsu became, if possible, even more rigid, as if to combat the sudden spike of warmth that hit him right behind the eyes, at hearing that his grandfather was 'proud' of him.
And then Mother – fearsome, elegant Mother who was still sometimes mistaken for a model, even though she was nearing fifty, and whose razor-sharp gaze was said to paralyze interns at fifty paces – actually snorted. "Really, Father," she drawled. "Kunimitsu is your grandson, not one of your lower-level dispatch personnel. You could at least make him feel like it."
Grandfather levelled a certain unreadable look at her. "Thank you for that advice, Kimiko-san. I see I shall have to take a leaf from your book on how to treat my family members, and cut out all media clippings of Kunimitsu to paste into an album."
Mother choked on the cup of jasmine tea that she had just raised to her lips, and Father beat her on the back as he laughed joyfully, saying, "Oh, Kimiko-san! So you are a mother after all, and not just 'Nerima's Demon Goddess of Justice'!"
Mother was too busy choking to give him the death glare that comment deserved.
Sometime after Mother's wind pipe was clear, Kunimitsu pleaded tiredness and retired to bed, with Father yelling at him to, "Promise not to run away in the night, just because you are overwhelmed by our intense familial love!"
Just thinking about it now, eleven hours later, while lying in bed and starring at his slowly brightening bedroom ceiling, Kunimitsu's cheek throbbed to match the ever present throbbing pain of his arm, and he was reminded, forcibly, of why he had been so keen to leave for Germany in the first place. When he finally managed to drag himself out of bed and into the dining area, only Grandfather was still seated there, sipping green tea and reading the newspaper at the low table.
"Kimiko-san left early to manage a client at her downtown office," Grandfather said, after greeting him good morning. "And Masaru-san had to go down to the college to help organize their annual arts festival."
And yet, Kunimitsu thought, uncovering the dishes on the table, before leaving, Father had found enough time to make an entire traditional Japanese breakfast – miso soup with deep fried tofu, rolled omelette, grated daikon, pickled plum, grilled salmon, and on and on… He could've done without the hearts stamped out of sheets of dried seaweed, though, that covered his bowl of steamed rice.
"That man…" he muttered, as he found a plate with salted sardines arranged to spell out "Faito!". "Is he honestly an adult?"
If Kunimitsu didn't know better, he would've said that Grandfather, behind his poker face, was suppressing the urge to smile. "Masaru-san was very… enthusiastic while making breakfast this morning," Grandfather said. "He was determined that your first meal in Japan be a solid one."
Kunimitsu swore he could hear one of the table legs snap underneath all the weight of the food, and sighed, but when he dug in, he surprised even himself with how much he was able to put away. He had missed the cuisine of the country as he had told Sakuno, the night before (even if his feelings about the particular chef this time were rather… mixed).
… Sakuno. She had promised, on their walk home last night, to cook "traditional Japanese food" for him last night, saying, with a hint of that old modesty, "I'm not too bad at cooking now," which probably meant that she was superb.
"Grandfather," he said, placing down his chopsticks to swill a cup of freshly poured green tea. "Last night… I ran into Ryuzaki Sumire's grand daughter, on my way home."
Grandfather appeared to continue casually reading his paper, but Kunimitsu could detect his sharp and sudden interest. "An admirable and upright young lady. She sometimes drops by to help me with the garden."
"Indeed." He took a sip of his tea, to try and organize his thoughts. "Has anything… happened to her?"
"Happened?" Grandfather raised his eyebrows. "It has been quite some time since you have seen her last. I am certain things have happened in her life since then."
Kunimitsu respected his grandfather far too much to point out that Grandfather was being deliberately obscure. It was Grandfather's subtle way of saying: You'll get nothing from me.
At Kunimitsu's silence, Grandfather said, in a tone of voice perhaps a sliver more kind, "You would do well to ask Sakuno-san herself."
"Indeed," Kunimitsu said vaguely, even as he thought to himself, If she would even answer. He didn't bother to ask himself why he even cared, sure that he would greeted by nothing but the silence of his own mind.
He had a chance to ask Sakuno sooner than he thought. Despite the fact that it was his first day back, he had asked his old manager Hidaka to arrange an appointment for him at a rehab centre not too far away from his home, as soon as possible. The place was, surprisingly, still open on a Sunday, though on short hours, and not long after breakfast, he prepared himself to go out into the world.
All the magic, the strange spell that had been cast over last night, seemed to have disappeared in the sunlight; he walked through the old neighbourhood, feeling steadier on his feet than before, able to see more clearly how things had changed – both very much, and not at all. He went around the whole day feeling oddly… naked, as if there were bright signs hovering about him, re-announcing his presence to the entire country. Sakuno had known him in an instant, but he had the good luck of not running into any old neighbours he had grown up with, or random train passengers who recognised his face from television or sports magazines.
At the rehab centre, he went through a basic diagnostic that lasted around half hour, and made an appointment for later in the week, with the assurances that he'd be assigned to a regular physiotherapist and have a plan set up for his continuing rehabilitation for the next few weeks and months. He would have left at once, after that, except for the very strange guest sitting patiently in the waiting room, with a beautiful posture that even Grandfather would have – no, certainly did – approve of, with her shoulders straight, feet together, as she read a hardcover novel.
He went towards her, with a strange feeling that the coincidences in his life were going to start coming thick and fast. "…. Sakuno-san."
She didn't blush, or jump out of her chair, or even "Meep!" She did start, however, her eyes flickering up to him, and there was a brief moment of discomfort - he realised, in that instant, how awkward he felt, too, greeting someone in a rehab clinic when perhaps they would wish not to be recognised – that appeared for only a moment, before melting away.
"Kunimitsu-san," she greeted him, sliding a ribbon bookmark into place before folding the book and letting it rest on her lap. Deciding to bypass the obviously tactless "What are you doing here?" - since it was obvious - she instead said, "What a pleasant surprise. How was your first day back?"
He resisted the urge to finger his new bruise, and decided to be honest; Sakuno had spent so much time with his family growing up that she was one of the few people who could possible understand the land mine he had walked back into.
"I've already been assaulted three times, showered with nori hearts, and discovered a secret photo album filled with all my exploits in the news," he deadpanned.
At that, she laughed and he was surprised, at all over again, to realise how closed off, if serene, her ordinary face was; it was only the openness of her face when she laughed that clued him into it. He felt oddly pleased to have been the one to make it happen.
"Nothing nearly as exciting has happened to me since last night," she said, a trace of her laughter still buried in her smile. "Really, I'm surprised Auntie and Uncle managed to cram that much into your schedule already. I thought they'd let you rest after just getting back, especially on a Sunday."
"I prefer to attend to things right away," he said. "And yourself, Sakuno-san… Your Sunday plans?"
Her eyes fluttered down back to her book. "This is my only outing for the day," she said, and at once he felt like kicking himself. "I injured my left knee," she explained, quickly, before he had the chance to ask why she was in a rehab centre at all. "Playing tennis, a few months ago."
"You continued your training?" he said, remembering a young girl in white and pink with a teddy bear on her racket cover, whom Echizen had whacked in the back of the legs, while muttering dark things about the impracticality of her braids.
"For a while," she said, her smile holding in place. "I played a little, but I had to stop after this, of course. It doesn't hurt very much, now, but I still have to return here every once in a while."
"I see," he said. Her voice was a little too carefully modulated though, a little too precise in its casualness, and that – tension? More than anything else, that was what tipped him to ask, without thinking at all, "Are you free afterwards?"
Her eyes widened and her lips parted; he added, not trying to be forceful, "I feel like I should thank you for guiding me home last night. I was going to go for tea after this, and I would prefer… to not have it by myself."
She calmed down, at that. "That's not necessary, you know; I just did what anyone would. As much as I would hate to leave you to a solitary tea, I'm afraid my appointment won't be over until after, oh, about one-thirty – if I'm called in soon."
"That is fine," he said. "I do not mind waiting." And oddly, he didn't. He was still unsure of the whys and whats and wherefores, but Sakuno was still the only person beside his family who both knew him personally and knew that he was back in town; he had a strange feeling that if he sat with her, the keeper of his secret, it would almost… prolong the secret, would delay the time when he would have to officially announce himself, and deal with all the after effects of such an announcement. If he was honest with himself, he wanted to regain just a little bit of the peace that she had given him last night; the peace that seemed to hover around her, like a scent, or a colour.
Her mouth opened again, probably to protest, or to ask why he was willing to wait so long for a mere slip of a girl that he had simply known in his childhood or who, later on, had merely been his kouhai in junior high – but the secretary called her name, and her body went automatically towards the reception desk.
"One thirty," he called after her, as a promise.
"One thirty," she said, a little unsteadily, but still. It was a promise.
"There's a café around here that I've wanted to visit," Sakuno offered, once they left the centre. "But I've never found the time, until now."
"That sounds excellent," he agreed, following her. He was telling her about Mother's choking fit and Father's booming laughter as they walked in through the door.
"That sounds like so much fun," she said, wistfully, before her eyes widened at the shop.
To Tezuka, it was quite ordinary; a simple café, only half-filled, perhaps prettier than most, with small tables and booths, and a long, sleek glass counter filled with various pastries, cakes, and desserts, but Sakuno spun towards him, something distinctly starry in her eyes.
"Isn't this place wonderful?" she breathed. "You could swear that you stepped right into a French patisserie… Oh, but did you visit any, while you were in Europe? Did you?"
He blinked. "A few… though I confess some of the finer points of French pastry were lost on me…" His manager Hidaka had been much more vocal, practically weeping when they were torn away from one particular patisserie, in order to catch a bus for a training camp on time.
"How wonderful," she said, again, and there was no veiling the envy or the longing in her voice this time. Kunimitsu practically had to steer her towards their table, and she spent an inordinately long time poring over the menu, as if deaf to the world. He scanned the list restlessly, settling on a white chocolate macha sponge cake, but it took another ten minutes before Sakuno emerged from the menu, triumphant.
"Lady Jane Grey tea, please, and a slice of the strawberry shortcake!" she announced to the poor waite. He was obviously a high school boy scrubbed up and shoved into a crisp white shirt and black vest for the sake of his job, and he didn't appear used to customers giving him dazzling smiles while ordering. Kunimitsu would have almost felt sorry for him, if he didn't feel a little off balance himself. This older Sakuno had struck him as being so… so automatically controlled, and so reserved; it was odd to see this in contrast with the teenager before him now. She was almost… hyper.
Their orders arrived in due time, and the waiter seem to have regained some of his composure as he cleared his throat and said, in an obviously prepared spiel, "I hope you enjoy our café's signature strawberry shortcake, with its layered butter cake, simple syrup, fresh berries, and crème legere filling made of – "
"- custard and cream, topped with a shower of white chocolate curls," Sakuno recited along with him. This seemed to fluster the poor boy again, for she clapped her hands together, and said, beaming, "Ever since I read the review in the Star, I've wanted to visit this place."
The poor boy made some kind of strangled noise, and turned to Tezuka with an almost mechanical grinding of gears, his entire face having turned a dull crimson. "Is – is there anything else I can do for you, s-sir?"
"You've done quite enough," Tezuka said, struggling to keep his face still, seized as he was by the mad desire to laugh - laugh hysterically - at the oblivious Sakuno's conquest.
"V-very well then. Enjoy your cake…" And he went stumping away.
"You know, Sakuno-san," he said, now in a much better mood than he could remember being in, oh… months, as his fork sank into the slice of pale, green tea-flavoured cake, "I might have to take you out to tea sometime in the future, if you always have this kind of entertaining effect on – " He stopped dead. "Sakuno-san?"
Sakuno was frozen, with a spoon in her mouth, having taken the first taste of her dessert.
"Sa-Sakuno-san?" As bizarre dining companions as his parents could make, he'd never seen anyone freeze solid over cake. "Are you – does it taste all right? There isn't anything strange – "
And – to his absolute and utter horror – she began to cry.
No, not to cry, exactly. She remained just as frozen as ever, except for the tears that suddenly welled up, all on their own, in her still wide open eyes and marched steadily down her face, dripping all the way down to the table top to darken the red-checkered cloth.
After perhaps thirty seconds of dead silence, he dared to touch just the sleeve of her dress, with two fingertips. At that, she seemed to snap to life, her eyes refocusing on him.
"Mitsu-nii!" she whispered, finally removing the spoon from her mouth. Her voice was – strange. Breathless, and full of awe, confusion, a near gleam of sorrow, absolute elation: like nothing else he'd ever heard before, like nothing else he'd ever thought a human voice could hold. "I found it!"
"Found…?" For once, he felt like an absolute child, dazed and confused. Was she… possibly… emitting rays of light? No, that must've been some kind of optical illusion. No - delusion.
"This…" she said shakily, tapping her plate with her spoon, her words tripping over each other. "This is what I want to do! I mean, I knew before, or I thought I did – but now I know I know! For sure – excuse me, there's something I have to do - "
She bowed, still breathless, and Kunimitsu watched, too stunned to move, as she proceeded to march straight to the counter and talk to the white jacketed man sliding a truly momentous black forest chocolate cake into the display case. From here, he couldn't hear the words, but he could see the forceful expressiveness of her gestures, the wild hope lighting her features, and the way that the manager went from business-like and welcoming, to incredulous and disbelieving, to thoughtful. They finagled for a few more minutes, and Sakuno danced back to their table, absolutely radiant.
"Sakuno-san…?" he said, gingerly, as if about to step on a landmine. "Are you quite all right…?"
"Mitsu-nii!" Somehow or other – he was always unclear about this afterwards, especially as Sakuno was a full foot shorter than him and at least half his weight – she dragged him to his feet so that he was standing upright, and she proceeded to hug the life out of him. That hug could've been a very serious contender against both of Father's bear hugs from the day before, put together.
"Sakuno-san…." Was all he could manage to choke out, as if his entire vocabulary had condensed into her name.
"Thank you for taking me here!" she said, that brilliant smile now directed at him, and he felt sorrier than ever for their waiter, feeling like this was karma for that earlier, mental mockery; stronger men than either of them, he felt, would perish under her shining eyes. "If it weren't for you… I don't even want to think about it! But thank you!"
She let go of him, and he dropped into his seat. She happily tucked into the rest of her strawberry short cake, making numerous noises of appreciation. At some point, she noticed that he was still comatose, and said, "Mitsu-nii, aren't you going to eat your cake?"
Somehow, he managed to finish the whole thing, but he couldn't remember how it tasted afterwards; he wondered if this was what it felt like to be shell shocked. Sakuno remained in the same cheerfully exhilarated mood on the train ride home, even humming to herself; it was probably a good thing that she walked him back to his house, as he wasn't sure he would've recalled how to get back there. He did remember, though, at the very last second, just as Sakuno was waving goodbye to ask, "What did you say at the end, to the man in the café?"
"Oh, the Manager?" She rewarded him with that brilliant smile again, and he almost stumbled on his front steps. "I asked him for a job. And he gave one to me. Again," and inexplicably, she bowed to Kunimitsu, "again and again, thank you, Mitsu-nii!", completely forgetting her resolution to chuck the childish endearment, and call him by his full name instead. Then laughing, she went away.
Her good mood only improved when she found the note on the white board that told her Grandmother wouldn't be home for another four hours at least. When she thought about it later, about that afternoon, light seemed to be shining on everything – no, from everything, as if every single object in her path had decided to shed light – a light that couldn't be dimmed even as she started the mundane task of washing the vegetables and thawing the meat for that night's dinner.
"And to think," she said to herself, almost laughing again, her voice echoing in the empty kitchen, and all throughout the empty house, "that last night, I nearly ran away."
End Part One.
Culture Notes: I don't remember exactly which Tezuka/Sakuno fic it was where I first heard her refer to him as "Mitsu-nii", but it was so very perfect. If anyone can tell me where this originated, please steer me in the right direction so I can give proper credit!
Kombu is the dried seaweed that's used to make daishi stock, which is used in numerous simmered dishes, or to make soup. Yum.
"Nerima's Demon Goddess of Justice": I know PoT is set in Tokyo, and I (quite randomly) chose Nerima as the specific ward for the story to be set in. It's something like the "birth place of anime", so I'll let it stand until more conclusive evidence arises. XD
"Faito!": Umm… watch Gokusen for the best example? Japanification of the word "Fight!", a sort of encouragement usually accompanied by an epic arm pumping/punching motion.
Nori is dried seaweed that can be eaten with rice; I like the super crunchy kind as a sort of salty-sweet snack alternative to potato chips.
Author's Note: Tezuka's parents were fun to write. There's info about his grandfather floating around somewhere – that he used to be a cop and Tezuka looks up to him – but I can't quite remember the source. I plan on bringing in his older brother and sister into the picture later on, so look forward to it!
I realise there's a very sharp "turn" in the tones of the first part and the second; they were originally split up, but I felt if I did that, then some people might get the wrong idea about the tone of the fic overall, which is closer to a mix of the two styles. Hope you enjoyed the comedy and this "extra long chapter", as I needed it after trudging through all the melancholia.
About Reviews: Reviews are my life blood. But I, the poor author, beg of you only this: to please not leave a review that boils down to Update soon. In fact, if we could curse those two words into oblivion, I would be very happy. I would much rather you write whether you liked it, hated it, were indifferent, or anything in between, and which parts made you feel whatever way you feel; this kind of review will be the kind that will most definitely motivate me to "update soon".
It's also far easier to respond to a meaty review rather than a mere "thumbs up", as I'd like very much to keep up a dialogue with anyone who comments on this story: you guys will be the fuel for the flame. Looking forward to talking to you all!
Ophelietta signing out.