Summary: (post-series) Even the wheel of fortune can spin a bankruptcy.
Disclaimer: Standard fare: not mine, don't sue.
A/N: Firstly: with love and thanks to my beta, reddwarfer, and my main source of inspiration, C. Secondly: Happy White Day, nozomi_chan! I hope you like :)
Fuji is twenty, studying microbiology, and, in a stage of his life when most have long declared financial independence from their families, unemployed. He picks up his money in odd intervals: by giving piano lessons to his professors' children on weekends, moonlighting as a research assistant on off days, doing freelance photography for the local newspaper between classes, and occasionally playing the part of a starving musician on the rowdy streets of New York City, with his violin case resting open at his feet. In a way, Fuji isn't really unemployed, but it's the sort of employed that eludes taxes and frustrates economics students who want statistics to make sense.
There are better ways to live, as Fuji has been told thousands of times. His father writes him monthly, expressing concern over everything from his mediocre checking account balance to his lack of medical insurance, letters that are never returned. Fuji chooses instead to leave messages on his father's answering machine in ungodly hours of the night, knowing full well that he will not be awake to pick up.
He never hankered for freedom as a teenager, nor does he have interest in doing so now, but it is impossible to deny what the distance has offered him. He can't really help the belligerence. It's just that in the process of absolving himself of his childish dependencies, he has to do things like give his parents the metaphorical finger every time they communicate. He loves and respects them, of course. But he doesn't miss them, or anyone in Japan. This is his way of letting go, of rerouting homesickness before it can cripple him.
He misses the culture, though, and he misses the landscapes and the architecture and the roads, because even compared to Tokyo, New York City is unwieldy and polluted, too gaudy for Fuji's suburban sensibilities and at the same time, not gaudy enough to be a novelty.
It doesn't even stop there, though. Fuji has more problems with New York City than meet the eye. Living in New York as a freelance photographer is artless; photography is stripped of its storytelling power by the city's loud, ostentatious, almost deliberately belligerent culture. It is a far cry from Japan, where every image imaginable is quiet, reserved: created with the intention to function, not to impress. Japan is stifling only in that it calls for perfection: of angles, of lighting, of perspective, and of foresight. In New York, pretty much anything could pass as a decent picture from any given angle at any time of the day. To most, this is one of New York's most attractive qualities: its malleability, its strength. But if New York is metal, with its limitless conductivity (Fuji thinks that comparing people to electrons is funny. Fuji has been spending far too much time in biochemistry seminars), then Japan is porcelain. And porcelain is at least interesting. Metal pretty much looks the same from every angle.
It is like this: to Fuji, taking a picture in New York entails only three things. One, pressing the shutter. Two, remembering to stop himself before pressing the shutter to consider how much film he is potentially wasting by recapturing a moment already documented in a thousand photo essays by a thousand different journalists (in varying degrees of competence). Three, taking a quick turn on the subway in hopes that the next station has more to offer than a hobo sleeping on a bench.
It is much simpler in Japan, where all Fuji has to consider is whether the moment he is capturing is the truth or a lie.
He mails his photographs, good and bad, to his brother and sister, both of whom are living abroad. Yuuta is on the other side of the American mainland: in Oregon, of all places, and Yumiko is in Belgium. He always tells them that he's tired of New York, that he'll be home within a few years. None of this is a lie, because Fuji thinks he may die if he stays in New York permanently.
The city is foreign to him. Effortlessness, which is all he needs to breeze through his undergraduate studies, comes easy enough. But even for Fuji, who has pretty much always failed at being Japanese, the culture clash is too cataclysmic for him to handle. In Japan, with its immaculate culture of structure and perfection, Fuji is the odd one out—and comfortably. Here, in the melting pot of one of America's most diverse cultural centers, Fuji is just another laidback, self-proclaimed artistic genius. It is weird, being so strange and out of place that he actually fits in. In fact, in this crowd, he isn't even the crazy one. For the first time, Fuji feels normal, reasonable, and entirely sane.
For the first time, Fuji feels like he may be going crazy.
Three years away from home have not treated him well. He has not lost any noticeable weight, but he hasn't gained any, either, which his sister tells him is unusual for someone visiting America. Socially, he is only marginally successful: at the same time that he is warmly welcomed in several photojournalism circles, his natural tendency to aloofness earns him less friends than one would expect. He still talks to Eiji to pass the time, but lately, with both of them so busy with their new lives, Fuji turns to strangers for respite.
At times, he crashes run-of-the-mill, rowdy, noisy, and most definitely lousy bars, where drunk women fall all over him in droves and tipsy men proposition him with beer and sloppy attempts at flirting before they pass out cold on the counter, leaving the barmen to wipe up their messes and Fuji to excuse himself with an apologetic smile. He doesn't enjoy barhopping, of course; unlike many of his friends, he's never had much interest in alcohol. Quite frankly, it's boring, because Fuji is an accomplished drinker for his lack of experience: he can hold it as well as the most staunchly redneck of the stubbly American men he so often finds himself tricking into paying his bills. To be honest, this is probably the only reason why Fuji doesn't get drunk: he can't.
His flamboyantly bisexual, indecently promiscuous roommate likes to attribute Fuji's near-nonexistent dating experience to the fact that Fuji doesn't know how to pick bars that aren't filled with stupid people. Fuji thinks New York is filled with stupid people, period, and then he thinks about how he's starting to get as prematurely jaded as his little brother.
When he's out of broken streetlights to photograph and children to wheedle into playing harmonic minor scales, Fuji goes to gay bars to take pictures and laugh at his roommate. It is on one such visit that Fuji finds a most peculiarly familiar expression staring back at him when he asks a solitary patron at the bar to "look natural, please; I'm a photographer for the New York Times and I'd like to take your picture for a feature I'm doing on city nightlife."
The expression triggers a wave of nostalgia that boils in his stomach, brewing discomfort. If he could get embarrassed, this would probably be a good time for it. "I apologize," the man says curtly, "but I'm afraid that I would be an inaccurate representation of the average New York City gay man."
Then the expression becomes bored and highly unamused, because Fuji starts laughing at him to cover up his surprise and discomfort. "Tezuka," he demands, "why are you here?"
"I could ask the same of you," Tezuka returns. "I am accompanying an acquaintance of mine."
Fuji surveys him closely. Appearance-wise, Tezuka has not changed. He's sitting, which means Fuji can only guess at how tall he's grown, but everything about him—his demeanor, posture—is as it has always been. He vaguely recalls reading about Tezuka in some distant university newspaper, but even at the time had never pondered actually chancing across the former tennis star in a city as vast and cluttered as New York.
He refocuses on the conversation, smiling. "Just an acquaintance," he teases, "or perhaps—" Tezuka scowls, and Fuji remembers their first year of junior high school, when people teased Tezuka about his silence, his singularity, and he wishes he could take the statement back.
Thankfully, Tezuka is as incorrigible and mostly humorless as ever. "Rest assured, Fuji, that I am here for entirely platonic reasons." He nods towards a large crowd a few feet away. "He didn't want to be alone." He shifts, and Fuji notices an untouched martini resting by his left arm.
"Tezuka the bodyguard," Fuji says, nodding. "It all makes sense now."
"He just came out of the closet," Tezuka replies, ignoring the comment.
"Tezuka" Fuji says seriously, "do you even know what that means?"
But Fuji remembers the article now, and the name of the publication. Tezuka is no longer fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Tezuka is twenty, studying criminal law at Columbia University, holding a situation as a clerk at a prestigious law firm in the heart of the city—the sort of employed that makes his co-eds swoon and classmates jealous. "Yes," Tezuka says, "I've lived here as long as you have."
"Hey, Shusuke!" Fuji turns towards the direction of the voice, and his roommate jogs up to him, grinning. "You're released from duty. Sorry to bother you again." Tezuka raises an eyebrow at the two of them. They make a strange couple: Fuji is short and well-dressed, but not flashy; his roommate is tall, flagrantly metrosexual, and has thirteen piercings on his upper body, none of which are on his ears. He wears a big smile and a loud Versace jacket. Fuji wears clothes.
"So early?" Fuji returns. "It usually takes you much longer to make a conquest."
"Ah, well," he says. "showing a newbie the ropes. You know how it is." Fuji smiles almost pityingly and looks around for the 'newbie,' who is hiding behind Fuji's much taller friend and twiddling his thumbs. His knees are practically knocking together, and the smile on his face is so plastered-on and entirely fake that Fuji thinks he may actually go into anaphylactic shock. Wouldn't that be nice, Fuji thinks, to have Cause of death: allergy to excessive amounts of gay men on your autopsy.
Then the young man gives Tezuka a half-hearted wave, his right hand flopping about rather like a dead or very rubber fish, and Fuji wonders why fate likes to bite him in the ass so much. "My roommate," he says, by way of apology and introduction.
After a quick nod to his classmate, Tezuka looks directly at Fuji. "Am I to trust," he says drily, "that your choice of companions has improved since junior high school?"
Fuji thinks about the sleazy strip bars, the loose women. "Of course," he says. "If not, I know where the big lug lives. I even have the key."
"How reassuring," Tezuka says.
"Go ahead," the classmate is saying, though he doesn't sound too convinced, himself. "I'll be fine. Thanks for coming along, Tezuka." Tezuka stares straight at him, clearly not impressed.
Fuji's obnoxious roommate does not know Tezuka, or Fuji, for that matter, and thinking the whole matter settled, crows: "See, Shusuke? Everything is cool! Shoo, leave us alone. You probably don't belong here anyway, right?" He winks at Fuji, who smiles back with his teeth.
Tezuka, who is not stupid, scoots a little closer to the bar, a little further away from Fuji. Oblivious, Fuji's roommate drags Tezuka's classmate away in the direction of a large group of people gathered near the opposite wall. After they disappear into the crowd, Fuji turns to Tezuka. "Why don't we catch up on old times," he suggests. To his surprise, Tezuka stands almost immediately in response.
"Ah, wait, before we go," he says quickly.
Tezuka stops. "Yes?"
"Could you sit back down and look natural, please? I'm a photographer for the New York Times, and I'd like to take a picture for a feature I'm doing on city nightlife." At Tezuka's look, Fuji adds, "I don't report the truth much."
"It is lost on them," Tezuka agrees, and it is only after Fuji recovers from his surprise that he realizes Tezuka's sipping his martini for the camera.
It turns out that Tezuka has a girlfriend who lives in Canada and comes down every few weeks to New York to come down in other ways, which Fuji finds nauseating, because Tezuka says it with the same clinical detachment he once used to describe the centrifugal force on a spinning tennis ball. "She must like you so much," Fuji says, offering him some apple juice. "I don't keep drinks at home," he explains.
Tezuka accepts the glass, setting it down on Fuji's tiny coffee table before nodding in his direction. "What about you?"
"I'm married to my studies," Fuji says. "Besides, you should know how hard it is here. You had to import your girlfriend from Canada."
Tezuka raises an eyebrow. "I'm not going to dignify that with a response."
In the silence that follows, Tezuka sips his apple juice and Fuji plays with the chain around his neck. It is small, modest, and quietly unobtrusive; most of his acquaintances think that it is a strange religious relic from the Far East, and Fuji is too amused by the assessment to contest them. In truth, though, he doesn't know what it is anymore than they do: he has, after all, never asked.
The question sits on the tip of his tongue, but whenever he finds himself wanting to ask, his hand moves to his glass, the jar of peanuts his roommate keeps by the computer—anywhere so that his mouth does something other than speak.
After a while, he settles for a friendly smile. "Would you like some tea?"
They exchange phone numbers afterwards; at first, more out of courtesy than any real desire to meet again. It is only after a series of coincidental meetings at coffee and doughnut shops around Ground Zero that they finally get around to scheduling coffee shop dates: small breaks for cappuccinos and ice cream in between exams and classes. More often than not, the meetings are either late or very early: Tezuka stays at the law firm until the last possible minute, and Fuji's art shows don't often end before midnight.
Tezuka's girlfriend never comes up in conversation, and Fuji is far too polite to bring her up. Sometimes, he wonders if she even exists, but he knows Tezuka: Tezuka doesn't lie, or live in a self-created fantasy world. Tezuka's autonomy is legitimate; his projected world is as plausible and real as Fuji's relationship problems.
Tezuka pauses over coffee one evening, his fingers curled around the mug handle and lips a bare centimeter from the rim. He is dressed in loose-fitting slacks and a modest gray sweater, and looks like a professor entertaining a particularly overachieving student.
"There is someone I want you to meet," he says. He shows Fuji a black-and-white photograph of a girl, and Fuji knows instantly who it is. He stares in silence, feeling himself caught up in the subtle shades of the photograph, obviously taken by a professional. The focus is clear, sharp, perfect: it serves to accentuate qualities of her face that are not strictly flattering: her features are delicate, but a little too angled. Her eyes are too small, and she is not smiling. She is attractive, though, and it bothers him. What bothers him more is that there is something about her that reminds him of Tezuka. It's laughable, in a way; Tezuka would need another Tezuka to keep him happy. Of course.
"My cousin, Hatsuka," Tezuka says, breaking his reverie. "She's dropping by to visit in a month. I don't like to ask favors, but I'll be at a conference during the first few days of her stay."
Fuji blinks once, twice, three times, then smiles. "Too bad she's not visiting Canada, huh?" A wink, then: "I can handle it."
Tezuka frowns. "Canada? Oh." He shakes his head. "She's only there studying abroad. It isn't permanent. In fact, she should be arriving in New York soon." He thanks Fuji for the favor, then excuses himself. "I have an exam tomorrow in the afternoon," he explains.
They part ways easily, with friendly waves and noncommittal smiles.
The next week, Tezuka doesn't show up. He calls a couple of hours later, apologizing. He got caught up in an important meeting, he says, his voice unrushed and measured. Then someone called with bad news, and he barely remembered to go to class, much less a meeting with a distanced friend.
A week later, they meet to discuss travel plans: Hatsuka's, the girlfriend's, Fuji's own plans to briefly visit D.C. for a photography project. The conversation is tense, polite. Tezuka pays for refreshments and scones, to properly amend for standing Fuji up the week before.
On the way back to the dorm that night, Fuji thinks about how awkward it feels to sit in a coffee shop with Tezuka and talk—drink, sometimes, but mostly talk. It feels out of place, like they're starring in a movie about their junior high school selves, only the screenplay writers took artistic license and stuck them in metropolitan New York instead of suburban Tokyo. It is hard to distance Tezuka from Seigaku and tennis and sunshine, and he imagines that it must be just as strange for Tezuka to see Fuji in everyday clothing. Then again, Tezuka has always been more efficient at everything, adaptation included.
Tezuka doesn't change; Tezuka makes his environment change to fit him. Fuji has never quite figured out how that works.
As far as Fuji is concerned, things like to change without his permission rather frequently, as they do a month later, when he calls a cab and picks up Tezuka's cousin at the airport. She offers him a shy, confused smile when they meet. She is barely eighteen, a student at Tokyo University who dreams of studying abroad in New York, or maybe California. "My English is only passable," she admits in polite, quiet Japanese. Fuji smiles at her, not unkindly, but he can't hide the vaguely irritated pity that shines through.
"I'm sure with a little practice you'll be fine. Hatsuka-san, am I right?"
She nods then, the smile disappearing from her face. Now, she looks exactly like the quiet, reserved young woman in the photograph Tezuka had shown him a month back, and Fuji wishes fleetingly, strangely, that the smile would come back. She fidgets and clasps her purse tightly. "I apologize if I am being too forward, but do you know when Kunimitsu-san will be back? I have a very urgent message to pass on." She gives him a tight-lipped little grin. "It is important."
"Tezuka's at a law conference or another," Fuji says. He tries to make his tone apologetic. "Did he neglect to mention that?"
She nods again. "Yes, but he never told me how long he would be gone. I assumed that he would be back as soon as he could."
"Sometimes," Fuji says, "soon isn't soon enough."
Hatsuka looks at the floor. "Ah, then... I am sorry for imposing on your hospitality. Kunimitsu-san does not like to trouble people usually, so I was surprised when he told me a friend would be meeting me at the airport."
Fuji shrugs. "It's not a problem. I don't have anything better to do with my time, anyway." He laughs at her confused expression. "I'm not very much like Tezuka's other friends, am I?"
He calls for a taxi, and the second they step in, Fuji adopts the personality of a seasoned, trained, and highly bored tour guide, pointing out Central Park, the Rockefeller Center, Julliard's, Columbia ("Oh," she says, "is that not where Kunimitsu-san goes?" ; "Yes," Fuji says flatly, "and so did Alexander Hamilton." ; "Who?" she asks), a hobo ("You'll meet a lot of them here," he explains. "I felt it was worth pointing one out."), and several dilapidated taxicabs ("Those are the ones you should avoid," he advises). By the end of the day, Fuji wonders if she hates him yet, but it turns out that she thinks he's funny. She tells him as much at the close of the "tour," and begs off exploring New York University by apologizing for her jet lag.
"It's not a problem," he says immediately. "Tezuka has an extra bed in his apartment and asked me to give you the key." He hands it to her, his smile lost in the darkness of the cab. "I'll drop you off." So he does, with one parting question: "Have you ever been to Canada?"
She gives him a flustered, uncharacteristically frightened little expression and apologizes, then hurries into the apartment complex.
The taxicab driver snorts and turns to face Fuji, who's in the back seat, speaking up for the first time that evening. "You like Canada?" he says, grinning. He is missing a front tooth.
Fuji smiles, ignores the question. "Say, do you mind if you stay like that for a short while? I'm a photographer for the New York Times, and I'd like to take your picture for a feature I'm doing on transportation in the Big Apple..."
"Canada?" is the first thing out of Tezuka's mouth when Fuji walks into Starbuck's the next week. "What is this fixation?" Fuji smiles at him before surveying the table, which is in the front of the café by the counter. It is a table for two, but Tezuka's dragged in an extra chair. He has brought his cousin along; sitting, both their backs rigid and perfect, she comes up to Tezuka's shoulders. Fuji takes a seat and rests comfortably in the hollow of the chair, knowing how out of place he must look.
"Oh, nothing," Fuji says. "Hey," he adds, "you know, if you add a tilde to the n, it becomes Spanish for—I forget. A nature term, probably."
"You take Spanish?" Hatsuka asks, in awe. "I thought you took French and Chinese."
"My roommate takes Spanish," Fuji says cheerily. "He's very loud when he studies."
Tezuka clears his throat. "She will be leaving in a few days," he says. "But she wanted to say something to you first."
"I just wanted to thank you for showing me around," she says. She grins at Tezuka. "I did not know Kunimitsu-san would have friends that had senses of humor. I was very surprised." Tezuka ignores her, taking a sip of his drink.
"It was my pleasure," Fuji says.
"I am in your debt," Tezuka says. "She seems to have enjoyed herself." Hatsuka smiles up at him, and for a moment the cousins look softer, more human. With a sickening jolt, Fuji realizes the scope of Tezuka's trust in him, putting Fuji in charge of this—little girl. The revelation is disturbing, and he feels so guilty that he has to stand to relieve the tension in his legs. Tezuka looks up at him with a questioning glance.
"Excuse me," he says, and his voice sounds funny in his head, "I'm going to buy a drink."
"I already did!" Hatsuka chirps, bringing out a chai latte from behind her back. She hands it to him, beaming. "I asked my cousin what you usually took. It is a shabby present, but I had not realized I would need to buy gifts for anyone other than Kunimitsu-san when I came."
Fuji takes the latte, smiling warmly. "Thank you very much, Hatsuka-san. It means a great deal."
She looks proud of herself, shy, and embarrassed at the same time, nothing like the somber girl in the photograph; years younger, in fact, and Tezuka's slightly bemused expression when he looks at her jolts him again, with the same intensity as it had earlier. It makes him wonder—how many of his photographs have belied their subjects? The person who had taken Hatsuka's photo—had he, or she, even known her? Had Fuji himself known what he was photographing when he had made his rounds of suburbia, lakes, rivers, people? He suddenly finds himself aching for Japan, then, the distance of a continent and an ocean magnified, multiplied by the terrible foreignness of New York City. The tiny space of the coffee shop stifles him, and he feels all at once impatient and rushed, like there are a thousand things for him to do and no time to do any of it.
Like old times, Tezuka realizes his discomfort. "Fuji," he begins.
"I'm all right," he says.
The rest of the hour passes by slowly, too slowly, and when Tezuka brings up needing to go to class, Fuji excuses himself none too politely, hurling himself into the cramped city air. He walks, slightly dazed, past musicians, artists, aspiring entrepreneurs, and wonders why all it ever takes to break his composure is a person who is impossible to understand at surface glance. He thinks of Tezuka, whose entire existence has been the modern retelling of a fairytale—excellent grades, perfect home life, Ivy League education, on the straight path to glory and success, a girlfriend; he thinks of himself, whose entire existence has been a prettily crafted lie—mediocre grades, family problems, average schooling, constant state of frictional unemployment, bar-hopping until four in the morning with the least flattering of Big Apple inhabitants; and he thinks of them, these two unlikely companions fending off the trials and tribulations of big city life by meeting weekly in a dinky name-brand coffee shop. He thinks of how silly he must be to think that Tezuka thinks anything at all of their friendship; he thinks of how ridiculous they must be to Hatsuka, whose cousin would entrust her to a young man he only sees on Saturdays.
He thinks about how he should probably call Tezuka to apologize for the abrupt end to the meeting, but nobody picks up, and Fuji remembers with a slight wave of nausea that Tezuka's girlfriend had planned to come back from Canada that week.
On Friday, Tezuka calls to cancel their scheduled coffee shop appointment. "Something's come up," he says. "Would you prefer if we rescheduled, or would you rather forego this week altogether?"
"Whatever works for you," Fuji hears himself say, and he hears Tezuka sighing over the phone.
"I'll let you know when I get more information. I'm sorry, Fuji. Things are hectic at the firm right now, and Maeda-san just returned from her studies abroad."
Fuji lets the pause sink in.
"I'm here," Fuji says. "Sorry, my roommate just got back." He stares out into his room, which is empty. "I'll call you back."
He hangs up, feeling strange, and walks over to the refrigerator to rummage for a drink. His roommate keeps a beer stash in the back of the fridge behind the milk, which Fuji quickly plunders. Making a mental note to repay him when he next went shopping, he plods over to his bed and stretches out on his pillows, taking a sip.
The liquid is icy cold, bitter to the taste, and it makes Fuji feel a little sick. Over a month of weekends with Tezuka at the coffee shop, drinking cappuccinos and lattes and God knows what else have spoiled him terribly for his usual fare, and the worst part is he doesn't regret any of it. He doesn't regret not eviscerating his roommate at first sight, he doesn't regret letting the pompous freak drag him around to every gay bar in that side of the city (and some on the other side, even), and most of all, he doesn't regret suggesting that he and Tezuka 'catch up,' because he hasn't felt so himself in years. It's ironic, in the way that writers like to be ironic, but he's fairly sure there are no hidden meanings in the train wreck of coincidences that have characterized his life for the past few months.
He takes one sip of the beer, cringing at its very taste. Then he remembers: he once made a pastime of drinking the most noxious things on the planet to scare his friends. Not that any of those things were addictive—though really, he wouldn't put it past Inui at all—but the comparison is enough to drive him to pick up the can again. He takes another sip, and another. Later, he will dimly recall slowly walking to the refrigerator for another, and then stumbling, and then falling—
He wakes to the sound of knocking on the door and groans, shifting on his bed. The room is blurry, and he suddenly, absurdly contemplates adjusting the dials on his head to bring the viewfinder back into focus. Blinking rapidly to shake the thought, he props himself up on his elbows and swings his legs off the bed, tries to visualize himself standing. He tentatively brings his feet to the linoleum, but his legs feel like an interesting combination of Jell-O and—Froot Loops, very multi-colored and disgusting and useless. He flops back into bed.
The knocks continue, only this time they're accompanied by a voice. "Fuji-san?" It sounds like a girl. It also sounds uncertain. "Are you in?"
"Yeah," Fuji says, but he's not sure his mouth is actually making any sound, so he tries to stand again and succeeds only in kicking his calculus textbook across the floor. He winces, mentally cursing himself, but the pain in his toe is sobering, an all-too-welcome feeling. "I'm coming."
Limping to the door, Fuji stubs his feet a few times on various objects strewn across the room until he finally reaches the knob. When he opens it, Hatsuka is standing right in front, with Tezuka leaning against the wall of the hallway behind her. "Hello," Fuji says. "Can I help you?" He wonders if he looks stoned, because he most certainly feels it.
"You left your cell phone at the coffee shop," she explains. "Kunimitsu-san said we could drop it off after he wrapped some paperwork up at the university." She hands it to him. It is warm to the touch, like she's been cupping it in her palms all this time, and he has to grin a little.
"Thanks," he says. "That's the second time you've saved me this week."
She laughs, touching her palm to her lips in a bad imitation of some B-grade 60's movie. "Oh, not at all. I could not have done it without Kunimitsu-san either time," she says, demure. "I am so glad you two are such close friends." She claps her hands together, smiling happily, and bows. "Thank you for all of your kindness."
Fuji bends almost automatically, and the reflex surprises him. Once a Japanese, he thinks, always a Japanese. Then he straightens and extends his hand. "This is the American way," he explains. She takes it, shakes it hard like they must do on TV. Behind her, Tezuka stiffens.
Fuji hates himself for noticing.
Peeling himself off the wall, Tezuka makes it to Fuji's doorstep in one long stride. "Are you free tomorrow morning? I'll have some time after I drop her off."
"Sure," Fuji says. "What time?"
"I'll call," Tezuka replies, and after a quick glance at his watch, he ushers his cousin out. She manages a quick wave before the two of them disappear into the stairwell.
Fuji exhales sharply, pushes his hair back. He's not a bad drunk—he's a dumb one.
His darkroom smells musky and unclean, the lingering odor of fixer wafting from its tray like a large pile of refuse. Strangely enough, the effect is calming to Fuji, who is situated on the stool by the enlarger, drinking cold water and breathing in the fumes.
The roll of film that Fuji has soaking in developer is the roll he snapped while introducing Hatsuka to the finer points of New York City. He isn't actually interested in the pictures, but he'd wound it onto the reel out of habit and now, with the film sitting in the developer with thirty seconds on the clock, it's too late to stop the process. The timer beeps. He stands, carefully dumps the developer into the sink, rinses the inside of the container. Then he adds fixer and starts the timer again.
He closes his eyes. That morning, he had met with Tezuka after Hatsuka had boarded her plane, as planned. Tezuka had been straight and to-the-point: Fuji, he had asked, do you have any designs on my cousin?
To which Fuji had replied: Of course not. Do you mean that the favor you asked me for was really a veiled attempt at playing matchmaker? Because it didn't work.
Tezuka had gotten up and left, presumably out of irritation over Fuji's cheekiness, leaving Fuji to make nice with the people around him. Fuji can't quite figure if Tezuka had been being serious, or if he had been jealous. He decides that he doesn't actually want to know.
Fuji puts the bottles of fixer and developer back on the shelf, and takes a peek at the timer. Thirty seconds left. He paces, counting silently under his breath, and thinks—about Hatsuka, whose plane has long taken off, en route to Narita Airport. About Tezuka. And about Tezuka's girlfriend, well—Fuji doesn't want to think about her. It's not that he's jealous, exactly, except he totally and completely is, and it's stupid, because it's not like Fuji likes Tezuka or anything, except he pretty much does.
He sighs and wonders if he should take up smoking, but the timer beeps and he instead moves to rinse out the fixer, putting cigarettes in the back of his mind. He carefully takes the film off the reel, then walks outside to hang it up to dry. While he's clipping the film up on the board, however, he notices one of the pictures—a tiny, inversely-shaded rectangle of a girl, smiling against the backdrop of the Columbia University School of Law. Something about the negative makes him think, really think, and he scrambles to finish pinning the film. When he's done, he rushes back to the darkroom for his cell phone.
Speed dial number five, Tezuka Kunimitsu's apartment—an answering machine, a default recording by some overly perky American woman. The number you have called— six four six, three eight three, nine— Fuji hangs up, walks out of the darkroom into the light of the studio.
Speed dial number six, Tezuka's work phone, extension number three two nine—a harassed-sounding intern, apologizing for Tezuka's absence and for temporarily pilfering Tezuka's desk.
Speed dial number seven, Tezuka Kunimitsu's cell phone—four rings, and Tezuka finally picks up. Fuji can hear separate, unfamiliar voices in the background, and Tezuka himself sounds rushed and impatient. Fuji checks his watch: lunchtime. "Tezuka?" he says. "Am I bothering you?"
The voice on the other line sounds surprised. Evidently, Tezuka still hadn't mastered caller ID. "Fuji?"
"Hi," Fuji says. "I called to apologize for earlier, but it seems as though you're busy." The hodgepodge of voices fades a little. Fuji relaxes.
"It was a tactless question," Tezuka concedes. "It was my fault as much as yours." Fuji imagines him holding his phone against his ear, back to his colleagues. Then a female voice cuts in, fuzzily.
"Tezuka-kun, this may not be the best time—" Tezuka cuts her off. "Please," Fuji can hear him saying to her away from the phone, "I'm busy." Then he starts talking into the mouthpiece again, because Fuji can hear "Hello?" quite clearly.
"I'm still here," he says.
"You just called to apologize?" Tezuka asks.
"Not really," Fuji says. "Are you free sometime soon?"
"It depends," Tezuka says. "For what?" Fuji can hear voices in the background again, along with some frantic beeping. What's going on, he wonders.
Fuji opens the darkroom door and wanders in to clean the canisters. "There's a gym close to my place," he says. "Their tennis facilities aren't bad."
There's a pause, and the air hangs dead in the darkroom. Even on Tezuka's end of the line, it is completely silent. Fuji turns on the sink, rinsing the plastic film reel; silence, he thinks, works much better face-to-face.
When he speaks again, Tezuka's voice is slightly quieter than before. "When?" he asks.
"Tomorrow night," Fuji says. "Six o'clock. We can meet at your apartment if it's more convenient for y—"
"That'll be fine," Tezuka says abruptly, cutting him off. "Something's come up. See you tomorrow."
The line goes dead, and Fuji stares at the phone in surprise. Then he shrugs, sets it down by the sink, and finishes emptying and stacking the trays.
The next night, Fuji finds himself mulling over what to wear. Even counting his temporary job at a sporting goods store in the east side of Manhattan, he hasn't picked up a tennis racket in over a year. He isn't the type to exercise regularly, either, which would account for the dearth of exercise clothing in his closet. He sighs, kicking his drawers closed, and makes his way over to his roommate's closet. "I'm going to borrow something," he says.
"Big date?" his roommate jokes. He's sprawled on his bed, reading a lewd magazine and smelling of alcohol. Fuji's somewhat surprised he doesn't have his hand down his pants, but he supposes there's a first time for everything—and says as much.
"How nice of you," he scoffs. "I'm just healthy, all right? And you! You haven't worn those shorts in ages. Spill, Shusuke. You're going someplace unusual with someone, aren't you?"
"I'm going to the gym," Fuji informs him.
"Get out of here," he laughs. "You're not the type!"
"I played tennis in high school," Fuji says mildly. "That's all I'll be doing. Relax; I'll still be alive to do my share of sweeping duty by the end of it." He winks.
"Whatever, Shusuke," he says. "I have exercise stuff in the bottom drawer if you want to take a look, but don't blame me if they're huge." Fuji kneels on the floor and opens the drawer, picking a pair of exercise pants from the top of the pile. He examines the pants: they're navy blue and black and silver and white, not to mention half a foot too long.
"I think I'll just go with my own clothes," Fuji says dubiously, picking up a pair of cargo shorts he'd tossed aside on his first foray through his wardrobe.
"Do what you want," his roommate replies, nose in the magazine. "I'll be here all night if you need an emergency delivery of something designer and nice."
"Thanks," Fuji says, "but I doubt it'll be necessary." His phone rings. "I think that might be him."
His roommate raises an eyebrow at the 'him.'
Fuji picks up the phone. "Hello? Did something come up?"
"No," Tezuka says. "I'm outside your dorm. I hadn't realized I would be in the neighborhood today, which is why I didn't mention it yesterday over the phone. Is that a problem?"
"Not at all," Fuji says. "I'll be right down." He pulls on a jacket, stuffs his wallet in the pockets, then grabs the tennis bag he had brought over when he first flew to New York, thinking he would join the university tennis team. He never got the chance.
The bag is old, the same that he'd used at Seigaku so many years back. The Mizuno logos printed on each side are scratched and fading, weathered by time and lack of use. He unzips the bag, breathes a sigh of relief when he sees that all three rackets are still there. It's funny how he still remembers his favorite—the white—and the one he'd always used for extensive training when he was developing his counters—the gold. There is also a small tube of spare tennis balls in the other pocket, which takes note of with a little relief. He zips up the bag.
Lifting the bag to his shoulders, he realizes that it's a tad heavier than he remembers it, but the weight is comfortable and calming, in complete contrast to the adrenaline pumping through his veins. He'd forgotten how much he'd missed this—this feeling of playing someone whose skill surpassed his own, this feeling of moving, doing something. He stares at his fingers, which are shaking, and turns to say goodbye to his roommate.
"Bye," his roommate says. "The offer from earlier still stands."
"Thanks." Fuji shuts the door, then jogs down the stairs. Tezuka is waiting at the foot, a black Fila bag slung across his shoulders. He is in exercise shorts and a white sports jacket, and Fuji shouldn't be thinking that he looks hilariously attractive, but he does. "Hey," he says. "I'm glad you could show up."
Tezuka nods. "Where are we going?"
"Have you eaten yet?" Fuji checks his watch. "It's only five; the courts may still be crowded."
"No," Tezuka says, after a brief pause. "Today has been… an experience."
"Let's get something to eat, then," Fuji says. "I've been studying for my biochem exam all day."
Tezuka shrugs. "Lead the way."
Fuji leads them to a small Taiwanese bistro a block away from the gym. From the outside, it looks clean, well-lit—Fuji can tell from Tezuka's expression that he's surprised. "I'm not a heathen, you know. I have standards. Sometimes, I even take showers."
Tezuka glares at him.
They walk in, settle down at a small table for two in the corner of the restaurant, and pick up their menus.
"I take it you still play tennis," Fuji murmurs. He runs his eyes down the selection, not really reading.
"When I can find an opponent worth my time," Tezuka says.
"How often does that happen?" Fuji asks.
"Not often enough," Tezuka replies.
"I haven't played since high school," Fuji says cheerfully, and Tezuka stops mid-menu perusal.
"No," Fuji affirms. "New York caught up with me, I'm afraid. Is that a problem? We could always play lacrosse instead." At Tezuka's pained expression, Fuji adds, "I'm probably as bad at it as you are."
"I'll pass," Tezuka says. "Tennis will be fine."
"You sure?" Fuji asks, his tone teasing and affectionate. "I'm not sure if I'm good enough."
Tezuka sighs, rolling his shoulders back. "You clearly haven't witnessed any of the Columbia tennis club's intramural competitions. They're a disgrace." He looks at the menu. "Do you have any suggestions?"
"I can order," Fuji says. "I've been here a thousand times." It is a lie, but a small one—the real figure is probably five hundred. He likes the bistro for its coziness: like the darkroom he shares with a few other classmates, the shop is relatively small, but cool in the summer and warm in the winter, with a light, calming atmosphere. There is a miniature waterfall fountain by the main counter, and the music selections are jazzy, but traditional and soothing. In fact, the only remotely jarring thing about the restaurant is—
"Meestah Fuji!" a waitress squeals, and Tezuka winces visibly. "Oh, Meestah Fuji," the waitress gushes, "is very good to see you again. But I not know this man! Is a new friend of you?"
"Yes," Fuji says, smiling. "Angela, this is Tezuka Kunimitsu." He leans in conspiratorially, stage whispering into her ear. "He doesn't like to talk much. Be nice to him, okay?" He can see Tezuka rolling his eyes before pulling his glasses off and rubbing his palm against his forehead. Fuji notices with surprise that Tezuka looks exhausted, more worn-out than he's ever seen him, despite being the king of time management and eight hours of sleep a night.
Angela grins widely. "Of course," she says, winking. "I be very nice."
Fuji orders, to Tezuka's visible relief, and the waitress putters off. Fuji turns to Tezuka then, smiling amiably. "You seem busy lately," he says.
Tezuka puts his glasses back on. "I'm always busy," he replies. Then he hesitates. "This is a nice restaurant," he says blandly. "More high-class than I would have expected in an area like this."
"Are you insulting my choice of school?" Fuji accuses, but he laughs. "It's fine. I thought the same thing when I first came." He nods over at Angela, who is humming, filling tea by the kitchen. "She's a recent immigrant, and one of the few friends I have here that I actually like. I guess I just don't fit in with the general American mindset so well," he admits. "If I have to resort to immigrants for decent conversation."
Tezuka nods. "It's different."
"Definitely," Fuji affirms, and then he smiles. "So how's everything?"
"My studies are fine," Tezuka says. "As always." Fuji raises an eyebrow.
"I didn't ask about your studies, Tezuka. Let me guess. Is it your elbow?" Fuji asks abruptly, and Tezuka actually laughs, though it's more of a vague coughing sound.
"That injury healed long ago, Fuji," he says. "I'm sure it's something I could open up again, but I don't play tennis nearly enough for that to be the case."
"Did something happen to someone you know, then?"
Angela arrives with tea and a big smile. "For you," she hums, setting a porcelain tea cup by Fuji's plate, "and you." She places an attractive china teapot by the jar of toothpicks at the end of the table. "Be careful," she warns. "Is hot."
Fuji gives her a smile. "Thank you, Angela."
"Maeda-san, actually," Tezuka says, after Angela leaves.
Alarm bells go off in Fuji's head. The beeping, then— he pauses. "It's not—too bad, is it?"
"Her mother," Tezuka clarifies, "passed away yesterday. She had a stroke." He looks tired again, and sips his tea. A pause. "We broke up a week ago at her behest," he says. "She's moving to France for two years and says she doesn't want to—tie me down, was it? After her mother died, though, she's debating whether or not Paris is where she really wants to be."
"And I suppose she wants your input?"
"Of course," Tezuka says. He sets the cup down. "I have more important things to worry about. I'm still working out the provisions of my early graduation with the school deans, which takes precedence to most everything else at the moment." He sighs. "If everything works out, there is a bar exam waiting for me in the very near future. Maeda-san going to Paris would be the least of my worries."
"Oh yes," Fuji says, "girlfriends are entirely expendable. We could drop them off roofs to pass the time. It's not like there won't be a new one waiting next to the old one's corpse." He glares at Tezuka. "This must be why she dumped you in the first place."
After a pregnant pause, which Tezuka spends seething quietly, he says: "I'm not going to dignify that with a response."
"Fine by me," Fuji returns. "I didn't come here to argue."
Tezuka rolls his eyes, refocusing on his drink. Before Fuji can say another word, though, Angela appears with soup. "Be careful," she warns. "This very hot too."
"Thanks," Fuji says. "You're a lifesaver."
"Other dishes coming soon," she says, heading back to the kitchen. Fuji smiles to himself and picks up the soup bowl.
Tezuka stares at his spoon. "I apologize," he says suddenly.
Fuji looks up from over the rim of the bowl. "What for?"
"For anything I may have said or done—that has misled you in some way." He picks up his spoon, turns over a carrot in his soup. Something about the way Tezuka's handling himself tells Fuji that he's not done, so Fuji waits. And waits. "We should meet more," Tezuka finally says. "It's relaxing."
"Pardon?" Fuji sets the bowl down, stares straight at him. Watches as Tezuka clears his throat, obviously uncomfortable, and doesn't say a word to relieve his embarrassment.
"I am not a good person," Tezuka says. His voice is very serious.
Fuji could die laughing. "Answer me one question," he says.
Fuji pulls off the pendant, grinning widely, and there's not a shred of hesitation in his throat. "So, what is this thing, anyway?"
The tennis courts at the gym are lit fairly well. They are indoors, of course, and randomly situated a few hundred feet away from the swimming pool facilities. They select the only available court, which is in the corner. The painted lines are a little faded, but overall, the court is passable, the type one would expect to find at a high school with a mediocre tennis club. Tezuka sets his bag down by the bench separating the court from its only neighbor, and Fuji does the same.
Tezuka hands Fuji a racket. "Yours are probably useless by now," he says.
Fuji laughs when Tezuka selects his own racket. "No handicap?"
"I just ate," Tezuka says seriously, and Fuji wants to die laughing again, but this time, for a better reason.
Fuji turns away to look at the players in the next court, two high school students in tennis club uniforms. "Maybe we should stretch first," Fuji says absently, but when he turns around Tezuka is already on the floor, reaching for his toes.
"You're late," Tezuka says, when Fuji plops down next to him and imitates him, surprised at how easily the flexibility returns to his limbs, though his hamstrings ache a tad too much to be entirely safe.
"I can do laps later," Fuji says cheerfully.
"No need," Tezuka says. "I'm not the captain anymore."
"Nobody ever stopped calling you that, you know," Fuji says. "Even when you quit the team in senior year."
"Need I remind you," Tezuka says drily, "that you never even started."
"That's why I said that nobody ever stopped," Fuji says, not at all cheeky. "Besides, I'm exempt from sweeping generalizations about our old tennis team by default."
Tezuka stands and stretches his arms. "From income taxes, too, from what I hear." He's turned so Fuji can't see his face, which Fuji finds incredibly unfair.
"Tezuka!" he looks at Tezuka's formidably in-shape back, mock-scandalized. "Have you been stalking me?"
"Just serve," Tezuka says, walking to his half of the court.
Fuji shrugs, gets up off the ground. He brushes the seat of his shorts, picks up Tezuka's racket. The gym's fluorescent lighting is bright against his face, against the sliver of metal around his neck, against the rim of Tezuka's glasses.
"Yes, captain," he chirps, and tosses the ball into the air.