title: Country of Happiness
fandom: Prince of Tennis
characters/pairings: Tezuka/Fuji, Tezuka/ofc, Taka
rating: G
warnings: somber
summary: Twenty-five years later, so much has changed, but he only remembers a bit of it.
notes: for subrosa, round whatever. dedicated to my darling peta-chan, who inadvertantly inspired this. also, for nana. ♥

\/\/\/ \/ \// \\//\ //\/ /\/\/ /\

Everything got unbearably bright for a moment, and he knew it was coming. He put his arm out, or he tried to, at any rate. His heart was pounding. The world all around him was crashing and breaking. Fractured. He wasn't able to think. His ears were ringing. Such a sharp and painful sound. Blaring screaming all around him, in flashes of white and red. He looked next to him, to his passenger. It dripped and blurred, it melted.

He felt cold.

With clumsy, slow fingers, he tried to undo his buckle. There was blood, and that was scary. It sounded like rain, pounding rain. It was raining, he remembered that. He had seen the semi in the rear view mirror, that was right. He remembered that, too. He was just about to make a comment about it, too. Except, he decided to keep it to himself. She'd been looking out her window, her face painted in cold. It had been raining. It still was.

He reached over to her, to the blood. He was about to call out her name, but there was screeching and blaring again. He looked up, and saw the white stained red, there was blood in his eyes, he realized. But that was the last thing he thought that night.

And he wouldn't remember any of it.

/\ / \/\ /\/ \/\ /\/

He tapped a pen idly on the desk as the principal talked. They'd already been through the opening ceremony, where, frankly, the man had gone on and on for ages. This, on top of that, was definitely excessive. Bored, he looked out the window, watching the cherry blossom petals shaking in the breeze. The window next to him was open, and the fresh spring air smelled damned good, much better than this dingy teacher's room.

His phone lit up, and he surreptitiously turned it over. Email from his sister. He carefully navigated through the screens to read it without garnering attention, but the new math teacher saw him and winked. She was cute enough, but she looked as young as their students, and anyway.

Well.

Yumiko was just teasing him about his first day, so he typed back a saucy retort, and turned his phone back over again. When the principal was done talking, he applauded calmly, and then got up, gathering his grade book. It was finally time for the first homeroom of the year. As was his habit last year, he fell in step with Amano-san, the science teacher, ignoring the math teacher's attempts to make conversation.

"You'll be as popular as ever," Amano teased him, her perfectly painted lips quirking flirtatiously.

He just raised an eyebrow at her, smirking. "By the cut of your blouse, I'd say you're still going to be way more popular."

"Have you looked over your register yet?" she asked him cryptically.

It was an odd question, he felt, but he just shrugged. "I don't like to be spoiled."

She laughed, and then made a sharp turn to go down the science hall. "Good luck!" she called out, offering him no hint as to her purpose in her strange questions.

Frowning, he opened his register, scanning down the list of names in his homeroom. Clearly, she knew something he didn't, so...

He stopped dead in the hall when his eyes fell on those four characters, so familiar and yet... For a moment, he thought maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe... if he stared hard enough at them, he could make them change. Each neatly ordered stroke, however, was obstinate. After a moment, the bell rang, shaking him out of his reverie. Oh, dear, he'd be late to the first class of a new year.

Chuckling to himself, he closed his book with a snap and strolled to his classroom. He slid the door open all the way with one fast motion so it clattered as it got to the end of the track. Naturally, the natives had gotten restless, but at his entrance, they got quiet. He grinned as they looked him over. He was casually dressed, stretching the boundaries of the teachers' dress code by wearing designer distressed grey jeans, and a white oversized oxford that was only partially tucked. He could see immediately which ones were thinking he'd be a pushover, and which ones were going to foster a crush on him. He scanned across the classroom, though, until he got to...

"Good morning. I hope you're not too tired out from the opening ceremony." They weren't sure if they were allowed to laugh or not, but he still got some titters of amusement. "My name is Fuji-sensei, and I'll be your homeroom teacher this year, as well as your English teacher. I hope we can all work together well, then. Let's go through the roll. When I call your name, please stand up and say here." He seated himself at his desk, and started to go through the roll.

One by one, his students followed instructions and stood up. Each student in turn, and he gave each a cursory look over, knowing that he wouldn't know one from the other for at least a month.

Except for one.

He cleared his throat before calling out the name. One character away from being a name he knew far... far too well. He looked up banally, pretending he didn't know exactly where this student was sitting.

"Tezuka Kuniyuki."

His gaze snapped over as soon as the boy stood up. He was shorter and a bit stockier than his father had been at that age, just starting middle school. He has the same messy, incredibly thick hair, but the color of it was a bit lighter than his father's, as his skin was as well. A bit whiter. His eyes were masked by a pair of glasses, but they were small and round, and the eyes behind them were a light blue-grey. His chin was not as pointed and his nose was smaller, rounder. In the ten seconds it took the boy to reply, Fuji cataloged a thousand similarities and a thousand differences, capped by how the boy's voice was a shade lighter and a thousand times quieter than his father's.

Fuji nodded to him as absently as he nodded to all the rest, and then he read the next name, as if there was nothing special about that boy.

He found, though, that by the end of roll call, his palms were sweaty. Once roll was done, there wasn't much else, really, but he read the sheet of notes about school regulations and expectations, yawning twice as he did. The bell rang, and he got up, smiling pleasantly at them.

He went to straight to the science lab for lunch, expecting, rightfully, that Amano-san would have enough in her bento box for the both of them. He sat on the lab desk and watched her fussily pick out portions for each of them.

"You're not going to ask me how I knew?" she asked, smirking.

"Bitch," he replied conversationally.

She laughed in return, and handed him a box with his lunch. "I'm right, aren't I, you went to school with his father? Well, of course you did. The trophies are still in the case in the front entrance." Her eyes were dancing with delight. Nothing was more exciting than the prospect of juicy gossip with lots of history, that was for sure.

Calmly, he started to eat, leaning back and stretching out so he could get a view of the cherry blossoms. It was really the best time of year to be in school.

She sighed heavily. "Well. You clearly didn't know he was going to be here. What are you first impressions? Is he like his father?"

Fuji shrugged, noncommittally. "A son that isn't like his father probably has some questions for his mother."

"That's unkind, Fuji-san," she whistled. "What do you know about the accident, anyway?"

"I know what was on the news, same as you," he said, trying to sound as bored as he possibly could, which he was very good at, after all.

"She died instantly, they said," she went on, as if he hadn't replied. "Tezuka had to retire, they said he was crippled. I never read anything more specific, though. But you were friends with him, right? Don't you know anything more?"

He closed his eyes, his stomach quaking sickly. He felt drained of color and life, and he didn't want to see a black and white world anymore than he wanted her to see him looking distressed. "Mm. That was a long time ago, Amano-san," he complained. "Anyway, he's not in my classroom. It's Kuniyuki, not Kunimitsu."

"Hm," she pressed her lips together, dissatisfied. "Do you think he'll be playing tennis, then?" she pressed.

"Ah... I wonder." He set down his lunch, and stretched all the way out, putting his hands behind his head as a pillow, and his feet up right in front of her.

Kuniyuki... didn't strike him as the type, though.

After lunch, he had the first year, first section English class. It was just an introduction, after all, but when he called on Tezuka Kuniyuki to read a line off the board, he did so without hesitation, with a perfect American accent. Of course. He'd lived there most of his life, after all. Fuji just smiled at him and bade him to sit, though.

Once school was over for the day, he got his phone and called his sister. He'd be late for the first practice, of course, but he needed to talk to her.

/\//\ /\//\/ /\/ /\///\//\/

He tugged at his collar absently, fanning his neck. The sun was bright and heavy, and the air was sticky, especially in the classroom. He sat at his desk, sipping cold tea occasionally while writing in his notebook. If someone asked, as they rarely did, he could make vague comments about a half-dozen things that would make perfectly good sense, like adjusting training menus, or reminders to himself about lesson plans, or even his grocery list. What he was really writing about, though, didn't even make sense to him, because he never intended to do anything with these notes. The way the light, though, glared through the windows, and the class divvied up into clusters of savage friends, well, he never thought he'd enjoy this, or find it inspiring.

It was hot, though, and he hated that.

"It's too hot to be in school!" Yamada-chan complained, loudly. Loudly enough to disrupt everyone's lunch for a moment. "It's way too hot, isn't it, sensei?"

He shrugged, and took another sip of cold tea. "Think cool thoughts," he suggested viciously. There was nothing like giving young minds bad advice to make him love his job.

She made a face at him, and then rolled her eyes.

He went back to his tea and his notebook, hoping irrationally that she was done being a nuisance. No such luck, though.

"I wish I lived in America!" Fuji was sure she wasn't the only one wishing that now. "They get to be la~zy, and take all of the summer off... Wouldn't that be nice?"

Fuji could have pointed out that their summer break was about to begin, but he didn't really care that much. He cast a quick glance out to the class in general. The jocks in the back weren't paying attention. The smart kids in the front corner were whispering together while giving her looks. There was a small group of ordinary kids who were sort of watching her, amused.

Tezuka-kun was sitting by the window, by himself, in his seat, just like always, diligently eating his lunch, which he bought. He wasn't paying attention at all, of course, as he never paid attention to anyone in class, no matter what. As far as Fuji knew, he was doing well enough in his classes, but his best subject was still English. That hardly seemed fair, since he'd lived there until recently, but he never caused a stir about anything. Never. He only answered when he was called upon, and he didn't participate in conversations about grades.

It was almost disappointing to Fuji.

Yamada-chan plopped herself in the desk in front of Tezuka-kun. She leaned down to catch his eye, and then laughed as he stiffened.

Fuji's back straightened.

"Tezuka-kun... you lived in America, right?"

The room quieted down considerably. There was a lot of curiosity about Tezuka-kun, but he was a quiet kid, and he didn't get in anyone's way, so he mostly got left alone. Therefore, when he wasn't being left alone...

Tezuka-kun glared at her a bit, and then shrugged. Everyone knew he lived in America. It was obvious from his accent, even. Yamada-chan grinned, though.

Fuji closed his notebook.

"It's your mother, right? She was American? Is that where you get your eyes?" She leaned in closer to him, peering.

He pulled back, and looked around, embarrassed. Maybe he was looking for an escape, or to see if someone would help him.

Middle school was rough. Not for Fuji, he had loved it. Back then, they'd been like kings of the castle. But for the other kids. He'd been mature enough back then at least to recognize that.

Tezuka-kun gave up on help, though, and just shrugged at her, glaring some more. Yamada-kun was considered pretty, probably because she was relatively tall, rolled up the waistband of her skirt, and stuffed her bra. Tezuka-kun didn't look like he was embarrassed because a pretty girl was talking to him. He just looked annoyed because someone was talking to him. Still. That wasn't too extraordinary, was it?

"I've seen pictures of your dad. He was pretty hot. You must look like your mother, then." Fuji pushed aside his teacup, and leaned forward.

Tezuka-kun stuck out his chin, his eyes hardening. Fuji frowned. He didn't like that expression on Tezuka-kun's face.

Yamada-chan, though, must have gotten bored by Tezuka-kun's lack of reaction, because she suddenly got up and flounced over to Fuji's desk, and sat down. Right next to his papers.

Fuji gave her a slightly disapproving look, but she was unaware. "Fuji-sensei, you lived in America, too, right?"

He noticed, because he was watching him as he avoided meeting Yamada-chan's eye, that Tezuka-kun was interested in learning that. It was odd, because he could tell the same way that he could tell when Tezuka-kun's father became interested in something. Not that he could really pretend to know Tezuka now. "I did," he replied neutrally.

"Ah!" she grinned, triumphant, and leaned down, nearly putting her hand down on his teacup. "You worked in Hollywood, too, right? With famous people?"

He propped his cheek on his hand, and smiled, bemused. Since he'd started to teach, this conversation had come up three times before. It was because of the internet, of course. He couldn't pretend his past was some other life. "I worked in films, yes. I did some camera work and some editing on some major films. And no, I never really got to know anyone famous, and I don't have any scandalous stories of my celebrity encounters. I was just a grunt worker."

Their conversation had the rapt attention of the entire class by this point, he couldn't help noticing. Because he still retained some of youth, despite his age, and because he wasn't quite like all the other teachers, he had a certain mystique amongst the students. Most of them just assumed he had a thrilling secret life without ever bothering to try to find anything out, so revelations like these, though entirely commonplace, would make their way around school like the afternoon sun.

And of course, that was exactly what Yamada-chan wanted. This was the part of teaching that Fuji definitely didn't like.

"You made a movie yourself, though, right?" she asked sharply, with a shark-like grin. "You directed it and everything, right?"

He raised an eyebrow. That... was not as easy to find out. "That's true. How did you hear about it?"

She sat up straight, acting victorious. "Oh, I heard about it. It was mentioned. I couldn't find the name of it, though, when I looked online! What was it called? Can we watch it online?" she pressed.

He chuckled. Mentioned, huh? He'd have to talk to Amano-san. "I made a movie. I used an Americanized name. It's... out there. And now, it's nearly time for the bell, so let's clear up, mm?" He stood up and carried his teacup out of the room. He had the disconcerting feeling... yes, when he came back, it was true, too. Tezuka-kun was watching him with rapt attention, his brow furrowed. Fuji felt like he was being visually dissected.

Maybe this was how ordinary people felt when facing Tezuka on the tennis court? Or... used to, anyway. Fuji was grateful when the English lesson was over, and he could leave.

Gracious... so much going on in such heat! He didn't even have a break to look forward to, since he had to the take the tennis team to camp!

\/ \/ \/\/\/ \/ /\/\/ \/ /\\ // \/

The first day of winter uniforms was unseasonably warm, which led to class after class of complaints. Rules were rules, of course, but unlike the other teachers, Fuji didn't have time to stop every boy with his jacket off or his collar undone, or every girl with her sweater around her waist, or her tie missing.

He was just glad that his own shirt had a loose collar and his sleeves were rolled up.

During lunch, he slipped into one of the more obscure corners of the library. The new math teacher who was hardly new anymore had asked him out on a date in a rather disastrously bad fashion right in the middle of the teacher's room, when everyone could gape and listen. He found himself disinclined to give into the temptations of being the center of attention; in fact, knowing that people were talking about him in veiled whispers made him feel sick to his stomach. Hearing the students talk about how Sakamoto-sensei was sniffling through class just made him feel worse.

He had never encouraged her!

She couldn't have picked a worse moment to ask him, either. He had just come out of a meeting with the principal about Tezuka-kun. Was he doing all he could to encourage the boy, make him feel at home? The child had been through so much in the past year, losing his mother, his father's nebulously undefined condition, and moving to a completely alien culture. Was Fuji keeping an eye on him, making sure the dear boy wasn't exhibiting telltale signs of Difficulty, a word obviously capitalized just by the way the principal said it. Fuji could plainly tell that the man neither had a clue how to deal with a grieving middle school kid nor any faith in said kid's teacher.

When he'd been in school here, he'd never ventured in this part of the library, not for any reason. Even when he had library duty, or he'd been sent to the library to retrieve something, he always had other people around him, assigned to the same task or just following him. Tezuka used to reprimand Fuji in a way that only Tezuka was capable of for Fuji's deplorable study habits. Now, Tezuka's own son was holed away in a stairwell, sneaking time on his portable game console, something he shouldn't even have in school.

That was surely a telltale sign of something. Fuji was such an unreliable teacher, though, so he'd ignored it.

The library, though, was a lot nicer than he remembered, and in this part, where the floor to ceiling window had a nice view of the grove outside, the sunlight through the varied colored leaves was soothing. He sat at a small table in a corner, and just absorbed the light. It was crazy, almost, how much he'd come to love different kinds of light. It wasn't like he was behind a camera anymore.

Someone shuffled past him, behind the shelf to his left. Someone with thick calves and a shuffling gait... he knew... ah.

Goto-chan from class 3 had a crush on Tezuka-kun. She was always lurking around the classroom, watching him. Fuji wasn't sure Tezuka-kun noticed, though some of the jocks were making jokes about it. She was exactly the sort of girl Fuji imagined that Tezuka would disapprove of heartily; unkempt and unconcerned with her appearance, she was in the manga club and skipped school to go to comics events. Actually, Fuji wasn't sure if she had a crush, or if she was just a stalker. That, too, was likely a telltale sign of something. If Fuji were a good teacher, he'd do Something, in a way that would surely be capitalized.

Days like today, he was tempted to think sour thoughts about his father, and the odd assortment of events that led him to teaching. It was his father's fault he came home after too many years abroad. He'd been frustrated with his career in Hollywood, and Los Angeles got to be less and less to his taste the longer he lived there, but he'd been thinking about moving to New York when his father died. It wasn't his fault he was the first-born son, but he had responsibilities, anyway, so he'd fulfilled them.

Gloomy, he pulled out his phone, something he wasn't supposed to have on while in the school building, and started to leave messages for his siblings.

It had been his choice to stay in Japan, his choice to revisit his old stomping grounds. His own choice to help Ryuuzaki-sensei out the year she decided she would retire. One step after another, and that was life. Nothing more than the emergent result of a million stupid choices no one thought through. At least, until some drunk in an SUV plowed right into you on a wet, dark night.

His sister replied to him. You know it's got nothing to do with being a teacher. I kept telling you that you hadn't really forgotten about Tezuka. Why don't you just go see him, and be done with it?

He reared back, like his phone would bite him.

He hated it when she did that. That insightfulness was not endearing at all. And.

He'd been happier when he wasn't thinking about Tezuka every five minutes!

The bell rang, disturbing his reverie. He'd forgotten to eat... He was late to all of his classes for the rest of the day. Tezuka-kun gave him odd looks, which Fuji cruelly interpreted as meaning that Tezuka's son couldn't understand why his father was ever friends with this disorganized person with a bad English accent.

He left the school before checking that his classroom was properly cleaned up and closed up. He left the papers he was supposed to grade and his lesson book on his desk in the teacher's room, and ignored the calls from Amano-sensei, which were probably about them.

The sky was grainy, streaked with stretched out clouds. He kept his hands stuffed in his pockets and walked, just walked for hours. It wasn't cold yet, but if he stood still for a while in the shadows of the buildings, he felt like it was. He stood still in places where he could watch people. And then, he walked to places where there were no people.

There was a court, a street court, badly in disrepair now, but he knew that Tezuka used to come to play. This was where he played Echizen for the first time, Fuji thought. The court surface was cracked, and weeds were growing. The chain link fence around the court was browned with rust. Of course, there was no net. Fuji got out his camera, just a stupid little digital he got on sale at a discount store. He took a few pictures, just. Weeds, the court blurred behind the rusty fence, a shot down the faded lines... He wasn't sure why he was taking pictures. He wasn't... involved in film anymore, wasn't an artist. He never really was. He wasn't interested in creation, or in connecting with audiences, he wasn't interested in anything related to the process of art.

He was just interested in things he was good at, and so. It just happened to work out. Just like teaching happened to work out. Meeting Ryuuzaki-sensei as she was talking about retiring. Feeling nostalgic for tennis. It just worked out.

A person who let life live itself couldn't always figure out how things worked out. They just did. How did it happen that he fell out of Tezuka's life entirely was no more decipherable than how he had fallen into it in the first place.

When his fingers were too cold to work the camera right, he put it away and looked up at the sky, which was now nearly black, no stars; there was no way to see the stars so deep inside the city.

Hungry, he headed to a place to eat. The restaurant was busy, but there was space at the bar. He ordered hot sake from the eager waiter before he caught Taka's eye. Taka was busy, though, his knife moving faster than the eye could see. He remembered that first order of sushi that Taka had made entirely on his own. Tezuka had eaten it, right? Taka didn't always use as much wasabi anymore, of course. Well, he did for Fuji, but...

Fuji was older now. He wasn't as able to enjoy wasabi like he used to back then, anyway.

Taka came to deliver a plate of sushi while Fuji was refilling his cup the second time. They didn't have a chance to talk then, but Fuji smiled brightly for Taka. He ate slowly, needing another flask of sake before he needed more sushi. He drank slowly, too, savoring it, but he didn't want to let it get cold. He wrapped his fingers around the cup and let the heat burn in before putting it to his lips, and he held the sake in his mouth for a moment and let the heat and alcohol burn before swallowing.

After a while, the families were gone, and the restaurant got colder. Taka came over to his side of the bar, noting in a casual way the amount Fuji had drunk.

"It's been a while. I haven't seen you since the city championship party," Taka started. He put a small bowl of wasabi ice cream with chocolate sauce in front of Fuji.

Fuji grinned, and nodded to Taka. "You were most generous at that time. I wish we could have had a few more celebrations here."

"I'm just glad to still be a Seigaku tradition. Though, it's funny, still, to think of you as a coach. I would have always guessed that to be Oishi, or..." Taka broke off, and looked sheepish.

"Inui?" Fuji supplied. "He's working at the college level, though. I don't know how involved he still is with athletics. Last time I talked to him, he was working on nutrition research." The idea was amusing. Nutrition was never the area that Inui needed to study more...

"Something happened," Taka sighed. "I know you won't tell me about it, though."

"Nothing happened," Fuji shook his head, grinning. "I just missed you. And I felt like drinking."

"You felt like drinking because you're lonely. He's in your class, right?" Taka asked, sounding a little exasperated.

Fuji froze, and smiled harder. "I'm sorry?"

Taka just regarded him for a moment. "He's a first year, right? Is he like his father?"

"Oh, you're talking about Tezuka-kun?" Fuji replied, sounding bored. He put his spoon down. "If he wasn't, it would be difficult, wouldn't it?"

Taka's brow furrowed. He opened his mouth to say something, but someone called out from down the bar. He held up one finger at Fuji, unable to articulate anything more distinct than that, and then he went to his other customer. Fuji pushed the ice cream away, and considered just getting up to go.

The waiter brought him another flask of sake, and took away his dishes. Fuji sighed, and poured himself another cup.

It wouldn't hurt to wait a bit longer.

He turned a bit to watch the whole restaurant. The table in the back had three men, all in matching dark suits, all somber. Perhaps they had left a funeral to get a bite. The table next to them was empty, but at one end of the next table, there was a twenty-something girl across from a forty-something man. Her manner was coquettish and cute, his manner was embarrassed and overly eager. The other end of the table had three working-class men, arguing about sports. Soccer, probably. The table closest to the door was full, a group of friends, most likely, out of college but not too old, late twenties or early thirties. There were men and women, and some must have been paired off, but they all appeared to know each other. There was lots of laughter, but they weren't too loud.

"Have you talked to Kikumaru lately?"

Fuji shook his head, not surprised by the question or Taka's appearance, despite being unaware. "I used to exchange emails with him regularly, but he's gotten busy lately, with the baby and all..."

"We're old men, aren't we?" Taka laughed.

"Speak for yourself," Fuji laughed. "You're the one with the high-school kid. I'm still as young as I was the day we graduated." He faced Taka, and stuck his tongue out at him.

Taka laughed, but he was watching Fuji too closely. "His mother has been here. Picking up orders, always. I tell her I can deliver, but... I don't think she wants me to come to the house. She seems tired, Tezuka-san. It was bad, wasn't it?"

Fuji's fingers slowly released the cup he wasn't holding, and then his arm fell to his side. "Mm. Well. I read about it online. I guess it was, yeah."

"You should go see him," Taka blurted out.

Fuji laughed. "You just said his mother didn't want anyone around, didn't you?"

"You're her grandson's teacher!" Taka objected.

But Fuji shook his head. "His English is perfect. He doesn't cause trouble."

"That's not good enough, is it?" Taka pressed.

Fuji picked up his cup in a hurry, and downed it. "Taka... I should..."

Taka's hand came down on Fuji's wrist. Fuji regarded it oddly. "Hang tight, ok? I'll give you a ride home as soon as I close up."

"No, I don't... I don't need... I don't want to bother you," Fuji protested weakly, but Taka squeezed his wrist.

It had... been a long time since anyone other than his sister touched him.

"It's not a bother. That damned kid of mine is always happy to do the cleanup. It's fine." Taka grinned and winked at him, and then went back to his other guests. They were slowly dropping off. The funeral goers had left quietly while they were talking, and the old man with his secretary or whatever was nervously paying. He was going to put those sweaty palms all over her, wasn't he?

Fuji resigned himself to waiting and watching.

It was less than an hour later that he was walking through the kitchen to the alley behind, and Taka's small electric car. He wasn't sure what he was saying, but he must have drank more than he expected, because he was apparently apologizing to Taka for the nuisance.

Annoyingly, Taka replied by laughing, and mussing up Fuji's hair. "Don't worry about it. I'm glad you stopped by. I'd been thinking of you. It's all right, you know? You're all right.

"It's ok to be lonely, after all, Fujiko."

\/ \/\/\ /\/ /\/ \/ \/\ /\ /\/ \/ \/

He was just as anxious as his students to finally leave, but even he was only allowed to stretch the rules so far. Keeping students in class right to the last minute right before winter break was asinine to Fuji, but he couldn't very well let his class go, just because he thought so.

He wasn't about to go through any materials or lectures, though. So. They all sat, perfectly still in their desks, and he sat at his desk, and they all quietly stared at each other and the clock.

After a painfully slow period, the bell finally rang, and every student jumped to his or her feet. Fuji called out over the din, "Have a great break. Be careful. See you next year!"

He sat back and watched them race out of the room. A few, especially amongst the girls, stopped by his desk to wish him a happy New Year, but as he had strictly explained his no-gifts policy, he didn't have to worry about any embarrassing droppings.

He basically would have nothing to do over break, thanks to some unexpected dedication to his job over the past few weeks, so he was just as anxious as the students. As soon as everyone was gone, he just had to go... and thanks to the basketball's team ill-conceived prank and subsequent punishment, he didn't even have to worry about cleaning up the room!

Nearly everyone was gone, but Tezuka-kun was still standing by his desk, slowly putting his notebooks in his bag. Everyone else had already done that an hour ago. In fact, Tezuka-kun did that an hour ago, so he must have just been rearranging his bag, a task far easier accomplished had his attention been on his hands and not on his teacher.

Fuji waited patiently for the room to empty out and then he smiled blankly. "Is everything all right, Tezuka-kun?"

The boy threw back his shoulders in a hauntingly familiar manner, raised his chin, put his bag over his shoulder, and approached Fuji's desk. "Sensei. I'm sorry... but may I ask a favor of you?"

Fuji blinked, utterly shocked for a moment. He'd never had more than a few moments' conversation with Tezuka-kun all year, so a request at this point was both terrifying and shocking. He swallowed, regaining his composure, and tilted his head to the side. "What is it, Tezuka-kun?"

He narrowed his eyes, and watched Fuji carefully for a moment, and then he took a deep breath. "It's tradition in our family... it has been... we celebrate Christmas. Well. I was raised in America."

Fuji nodded. Of course, that made sense. He lived there, after all, so he could easily guess what Tezuka-kun was used to with the holiday.

"My grandmother... she. Well. We have a tree and everything, and she says that nothing will change. So. We'll be... exchanging gifts, just like... when my mother was alive." He looked down briefly, taking a moment, and then he raised his chin again, his eyes even more defiant than before.

Fuji gradually smiled, impressed by his tenacity.

"I don't know what to get my father, though. You and he were friends, right? Back when... when you were my age?"

The request honestly floored Fuji. In a million years, he never would have expected... but perhaps he shouldn't be so taken aback. Just like his father... everything struck Fuji as being so like how his father would handle it.

It was ridiculously unfair of him, though, to constantly compare them, so he had to force himself to stop.

"When we were your age, I'd like to say that I was your father's closest friend," Fuji acknowledged. "But we graduated from this school twenty-five years ago. I don't think I've seen your father for at least twenty years. I'd like to help you, Tezuka-kun, really, I would, but I'm not sure I'd really be able to, after so long."

Tezuka-kun's posture and expression took on a flinty quality that chilled Fuji. Tezuka-kun was clearly measuring him, and maybe... preparing himself? He waited patiently for what Tezuka-kun had to say, not trying to rush him.

There was a feeling of importance in the air between them.

"After the accident, my father didn't regain consciousness for nearly four days. He was in a coma. When he saw me for the first time after waking up, he didn't recognize me at all. He didn't know who I was. He didn't remember my mother at all."

Fuji's eyes widened, and his body went into a kind of shock. He was sure his heart stopped beating, but there was a terrible pounding racket in his ears.

"There was brain damage, the doctors said. They said... his memory might slowly come back. They said it might not. My father... knows who I am now. He knows it because he's been told. And I think... he cares about me. Maybe it's a physical thing, like... muscle memory of some kind. It's not like I resent him." Tezuka-kun was trying to sound matter-of-fact, but he had to take a moment before he could continue. "He still doesn't remember my mother. He doesn't remember playing in Wimbledon, or the injury that ended his career, or the gym he ran in New York. He remembers living in Japan.

"So. I don't really... know who my father is anymore. But if you were friends with him a long time ago, then you do."

Tezuka-kun now took his turn at waiting for a response. That was right, he needed a response. Fuji shifted in his chair, and he looked down at his desk. The room was... getting awfully small. He felt sick.

Finally, he stood up, his legs and arms leaden, his head aching. He smiled, though. He was always able to smile, no matter what.

It was his special gift.

"All right. Then. All right... I'll help you. I don't know how successful I'll be, but..." he laughed, his voice sounding empty. He bent over and got his bag. He had brought it to the classroom to expedite his departure. Even his jacket... right, because it was cold.

He felt sick.

He motioned for Tezuka-kun to go ahead, and then he closed up the classroom... A thousand memories were crashing back to him, of when the accident happened, and people calling him, and crying with his sister over the phone... for so long, no one knew anything, and then the information that was released was so sparse...

Tezuka nearly died that night. His wife did. The wife that Fuji resented and hated and maybe had even wished dead... and when she did die, Fuji felt guilty enough to go to a temple and offer a prayer. It was meaningless, but everything was.

Tezuka nearly died that night.

Once they were outside the school, the air was crisply cold and his senses sharpened. He put his hand on Tezuka-kun's shoulder for a moment, reassuring him. Of what, Fuji wasn't sure.

He took Tezuka-kun to a shopping area not far from the school. Even as he was leading him there, though, he really had no idea where he was going or what he was going to get. "Do you mind if I ask you, Tezuka-kun... how is your father now?"

He wasn't able to look at the boy while asking the question, but he looked at him while he waited for the answer. Tezuka-kun was thoughtful and precise. "Well. There's still some scars. On his face... They could do reconstructive surgery, but my father said that wasn't necessary because it was cosmetic. I think grandmother wishes he had done it, though.

"He sort of... just wanders around the house, though, lost. I think it still confuses him a lot that his grandfather or father isn't around. He's still... figuring stuff out."

Tezuka-kun's shoulders drooped sadly as he spoke. At least Fuji was finally able to control his own reaction, if only because he felt guilty for causing Tezuka-kun pain. He squeezed the boy's shoulder, and smiled kindly. "I'm sorry. That must be... well, there's no way for me to know how hard that's been for you. To lose... both of your parents..." Tezuka-kun looked up at him, his eyes flashing momentarily with some surprising emotion, perhaps gratitude. "How are you doing, Tezuka-kun?" And that was definitely a question he should have asked the boy months ago, but perhaps he wouldn't have gotten an honest answer until today, regardless.

Tezuka-kun half smiled and shrugged. "I don't know. I don't know how I'm supposed to be. My... my grandmother... is very nice. I didn't really know her that well before the accident, so. Sometimes, it's really hard to believe that this is all real. I... I miss my mother."

Fuji choked down a lump in his throat. Inappropriately, he wanted to pull Tezuka-kun into his arms and just hold the kid. He shook off the feeling, attributing it to too much time around his sister. Abruptly, he pulled Tezuka-kun into a small curio shop. "Well. I'm sure anyone would, Tezuka-kun. For whatever it's worth, you're doing far better than I would have, under the same circumstances." He looked around, just. Desperate. He laughed nervously. "How long have you known that I was a friend of your father's?" He picked up an antique teacup, checking for the 'made in China' seal.

"I always knew," Tezuka-kun replied diffidently. "Even before the accident, I'd seen pictures of dad's tennis team and all."

Fuji put the cup down a bit more soundly than he expected to, surprised both by the revelation and by Tezuka-kun's slip into a more affectionate term for Tezuka. Of course, though... Fuji had no concept in the world how Tezuka would relate to his child.

And... now, neither did Tezuka.

Crippled momentarily by profound sadness, Fuji smiled. Always smiled. "Ah, I suppose you've heard all sorts of stories of triumph. Does all that tennis get boring to you?" he laughed, wrinkling his nose.

Tezuka-kun straightened his glasses and sniffed. "I like tennis. I play it. I'm not as good as my dad... I didn't bring a racquet to Japan, though. It... well."

Fuji nodded. "Well. Yeah. ...Oh." He went to the far corner of the store. On the wall, there was a traditional woodblock print, looking old enough to be interesting, but in very good condition. The drawing was of a mountain, and there was calligraphy down the side, with the kanji for life printed large, and a haiku related to fish printed smaller next to it. He smiled. "I think your father will like this."

Tezuka-kun's eyes widened with pleasure, but he shrewdly narrowed his gaze to the small tag in the corner with the price. "That's... more than I have with me..." he said sadly.

Fuji just brushed off his concern, though. "Let's go in together. I feel guilty for letting so much time go by without seeing your father. Ok?"

He waited for Tezuka-kun's tight nod, and then he took the print off the wall. The shopkeeper was a kindly older woman who very carefully wrapped the print up, and when Tezuka-kun solemnly told her it was for his father, she put a silver ribbon around the box.

Tezuka-kun had three thousand yen on him, so Fuji only had to pay forty-five hundred. Tezuka-kun looked embarrassed, but Fuji would have paid the full amount. He felt jittery, so he was glad that Tezuka-kun took the package and placed it carefully in his bag.

Outside, Tezuka-kun bowed to him in thanks, which was... a bit embarrassing. He was definitely off his game, because he never got embarrassed about anything, usually. He was about to ask Tezuka-kun if he knew how to get home, but before he could, Tezuka-kun grabbed his sleeve.

"Sensei. Will you come home with me? Since it's nearly Christmas... and you were so kind to help." Tezuka-kun's cheeks flushed. "My grandmother is making cookies. So. Um. Come home with me, and..." he bit his lip.

It was cute to see such a serious boy flustered, so Fuji grinned. "It was really my pleasure to help out, Tezuka-kun. You don't need to feel obligated."

"I don't!" he quickly returned. His fingers tightened their grip on Fuji's sleeve. "Please?"

He had deeply mixed feelings about going to the Tezuka residence, but he was completely unable to resist that plea. Damn it. He nodded once, and then ruffled Tezuka-kun's hair, nervous. "All right, I will. I like cookies..."

Tezuka-kun broke out into a brilliant smile, one that almost made him look like his mother. He turned to walk toward the nearest train station. He still had Fuji's sleeve in his grip. "This way, then, sensei! Thank you."

He let his student drag him around, a bit amused that was so earnest about it. Focusing on Tezuka-kun's small fingers on his sleeve, on the boy's messy hair, on the chill air, even thinking about the possibility of snow for the New Year... all of it was better than thinking about seeing Tezuka for the first time in... so long.

It had been so long.

If he could, he'd message Yumiko to let her know what he was doing. She would be shocked, to say the least. Back then, she'd always nagged him about contacting Tezuka. She warned him that he'd regret letting Tezuka go, but he'd been stubborn. Tezuka was supposed to chase him, not the other way around. And now, he was waiting for a train. Tezuka-kun's hand fell away from his sleeve as he checked the timetable. Fuji could have told Tezuka-kun that he knew the way to his family's house perfectly, and they only had to wait five minutes. Fuji could have run away. He stuck his hand in his pocket, thinking about what Yumiko might say to him to encourage him.

"Sensei, are you sleeping with anyone?" Fuji blinked, snapping out of his semi-reverie, and looked down at Tezuka-kun, who just looked back at him with innocently blank eyes.

"I've recently worked on weaning myself from cuddling my stuffed python at night. Though, I have been having some weird dreams, so maybe I should let him back in," he replied thoughtfully.

Tezuka-kun just stared blankly at him for a moment, and then rolled his eyes. "Sensei!"

Fuji laughed, feeling himself relax a tiny bit. He must certainly be getting old if he was getting tense over something like this. "You don't think that question was a bit impertinent, young man?" he cheerfully shot back.

Tezuka-kun sighed to himself, setting his shoulders a bit. "Sorry, sensei." He didn't sound even a little bit sorry, though.

The train came in, and for a few moments the station rattled, and they had to get on, and find a seat. The train smoothly pulled away, and Fuji looked over their fellow passengers in idle curiosity that was now as deeply entrenched as habit as any other part of the public transportation ritual.

"You lied to the girls in class," Tezuka-kun quietly stated.

"Oh?" Fuji calmly encouraged him to continue.

"You said that you made your movie under an Americanized name. You used your brother's given name, and your sister's married family name," Tezuka-kun said flatly.

Taken aback, Fuji turned his face to the window. "How in the world would you know something like that? You're much too young for that sort of movie!" Fuji laughed. Had he... found it online or...?

"My father watches that movie every day," Tezuka-kun shifted on the seat, hunching his shoulders to look down at his shoes. "I've... only seen bits of it. It's about boys my age, or just a bit older."

Fuji bit his knuckle. That was... it wasn't bad, he supposed. There were probably nuances Tezuka-kun didn't pick up on, and anyway... no matter how he tried to focus on Tezuka's son, the idea of Tezuka sitting in front of a television or a computer monitor, however he watched it, and watched Fuji's movie... every day...

Had he seen it before the accident, Fuji wondered? He must have, though, right? Because it came out a while ago. Maybe he saw it simply because a friend of his, or someone who used to be a friend of his, made it. Maybe. He'd changed it from being about boys playing tennis to boys who were into archery. It wasn't the same story as theirs, but they were what Fuji had been thinking of when he made it.

He took a deep breath. "Tezuka-kun. What... what do you think will happen when I see your father again today?"

Direct questions usually elicited the most interesting, albeit not necessarily most honest, responses. Tezuka-kun shrugged, almost petulantly. "I don't know. That's... whatever. Are you mad at him? Do you not want to see him?"

"No, I... that's not it at all, just..."

"Then it doesn't matter," Tezuka-kun stubbornly insisted.

Fuji went back to examining the world rushing by the window. When the train approached Tezuka-kun's station, Fuji didn't need to be told to get up and wait by the door.

On the walk to Tezuka's house, the air seemed a bit colder, the sky a bit grayer. He pulled his jacket tightly in front of him and kept his hands in his pockets. Tezuka-kun walked just a half a step ahead of him, seemingly as calm as if he walked home with his teacher everyday. It was a neighborhood he knew well, surprisingly well, actually. It seemed as if his memories of times gone by was undisturbed by the present, though there was a new fence there, some different landscaping here. Nothing of great consequence. When they arrived at the gate to Tezuka's house, it was neither larger nor smaller than it was inside of his mind, and each stone of the gently curving walkway to the front door was aligned perfectly with the stones he remembered walking. Tezuka-kun pulled out a key just like the one his father used when they were his age, right down to the simple chain it was hanging from, and unlocked the door.

Fuji watched the entryway of the house open as if it were moving in slow motion. He felt his heart pounding in his chest, and he wanted to just laugh out loud at himself. Tezuka-kun stepped inside, and Fuji followed him, just like he used to follow Tezuka, except he only really came over to Tezuka's house a few times. Just a few times... but he still remembered everything perfectly.

He should laugh at himself.

"I'm home," Tezuka-kun called out. Neatly, he slipped his shoes off, and stepped inside. Fuji followed suit, accepting the guest slippers Tezuka-kun handed him silently. He heard the footsteps coming, and they sounded masculine, if there was such a thing.

He took a deep breath, but he still wasn't prepared. Tezuka stepped into the entryway, and smiled kindly at his son, reaching out immediately to ruffle his hair. "Afternoon, son. How was school?"

Tezuka looked taller than Fuji remembered, but perhaps Fuji was just remembering a different Tezuka than the one he last saw. He'd also forgotten that Tezuka had had his eyesight fixed years ago. Without his glasses, his face looked more open and his eyes looked sharper. Tezuka's hair was longer, too, and parted differently, so it swept over to the left side of his face, partially covering the network of scars that webbed out from his temple. Just under his eye, it looked almost as if his face had melted and reformed.

Fuji stomach lurched. He stepped forward, smiling a bit too brightly. Tezuka-kun turned a bit, grinning, and he grabbed his father's arm. "I brought Fuji-sensei home with me."

Tezuka looked past his son and saw Fuji for the first time. It would have been nice if time had stood still, because Fuji couldn't have enough time to measure and gauge his expression. "Fuji..." Tezuka's voice was also different from what Fuji remembered, and yet, he couldn't quite put his finger on how. He looked down at his son, concerned. "Everything is all right, isn't it?"

"Fuji-sensei just wanted to see you again," Tezuka-kun lied, although it wasn't a lie. Fuji still opened his mouth to protest, but Tezuka looked over at him, his eyes widening. Tezuka-kun grinned, and winked at Fuji.

Brat.

"I'm going to see how grandmother is doing with the cookies," he said, nodding gratefully at Fuji. He watched the boy trot off happily, waiting until he was out of sight to face Tezuka...

Who was watching him raptly. "Tezuka. Been a long time."

"Has it?" Tezuka replied, his voice a tiny bit bitter and a lot regretful. "You look almost the same. Your hair is longer..." He reached out and ran his fingers through Fuji's hair, like Tezuka always was able to take things one step beyond what Fuji expected.

He let Tezuka touch him, though, because it brought Tezuka closer. He put his hand on Tezuka's scarred cheek, and gently rubbed. The skin didn't feel like it had been pasted back together, it just felt like skin. "Your hair is longer, too," he smiled, wondering if Tezuka could still tell the difference between his smiles. "Well, we're both older. I guess that's what happens, then."

Tezuka's eyes narrowed slightly. He took a half-step back, and then looked around, confused. Fuji's heart twisted. He didn't know how far back Tezuka remembered. In some ways, it might be like being given a second chance, but he still wasn't even sure what he was being given a second chance for, unless he did know, which was even scarier.

"Are you staying?" Tezuka asked.

"Excuse me?" Fuji replied far too quickly.

Tezuka furrowed his brow. "For dinner. Or. Well. You're here, so... You didn't really come here just to see me, did you? Nothing is wrong with Kuniyuki, right?"

Fuji shook his head. The tone of longing in Tezuka's voice was probably a product of his imagination. "He's... he's a good student. A good kid. It's, well. Understandably... it's been hard, but. I'm just his teacher," Fuji admitted. "I think he's doing all right."

Tezuka nodded, and looked over his shoulder. "He is... I'm proud of him." He didn't quite sound like a parent. Maybe a friend, or a sibling. There was definitely a glint in his eye...

Fuji was overthinking this. "You should be. You really should be. Tezuka... I've missed you."

He recognized the look in Tezuka's eyes there, and it had the same effect on him as it did way back then. "Come on in... we're putting up a Christmas tree tonight." He looked vaguely disturbed by that, but happy to have something to do, something to offer Fuji.

The tree was something they had done every year as a family, back in America. Tezuka and Kuniyuki and Tezuka's wife... his family. But Tezuka didn't remember that, Kuniyuki had invited him, and he liked Christmas trees. He reached out and put his hand on Tezuka's arm briefly, and said quietly, "Thank you."

/\/ \/\ /\/\/ \/ \/\/ \/\ /\/






BACK