spirit house
by cimorene
the sequel to playing for keeps

Tezuka is so preoccupied by the memory of the kiss and his consuming awareness of Echizen walking beside him that he hardly notices how far they have come. Normally he enjoys walking with Echizen, the way their steps fall into rhythm, the way Echizen matches his pace, the quiet satisfaction of comfortable silence; but it's also true that Echizen has a strong presence which quietly overwhelms Tezuka if he is close enough to it. Tezuka is almost light-headed with it now. He can still feel the warm print of Echizen's hand covering his knee, the unexpected power of the moment when Echizen took off his cap and looked up at him - the moment Tezuka stopped breathing.

That wasn't at all how their first kiss was supposed to go. Tezuka still doesn't know how to make up for it. He should have had longer to prepare; he has never decided what he would do because he knew there was no danger of Echizen kissing him yet. If not for Fuji's interference he would probably have had months more at least.

They have already come past the public elementary school into the quieter, narrow tree-lined streets of a residential area when Echizen looks up at him and starts to speak. All that comes out, however, is a quiet frustrated sound, broken off immediately. Tezuka turns quickly to look at him and intercepts a disarmingly open look of uncertainty on Echizen's face.

Echizen hesitates and his steps slow. "Buchou - " but he breaks off, eyes widening sharply, when Tezuka puts a hand gently against the small of his back.

The look on his face is comically astounded, sharp and inquisitive around the eyes for a moment and then incredulous and happy when he sees Tezuka's face. Through the loose fabric of his shirt Tezuka feels the bumps of bone, the heat of his skin, the curve of his spine creating a small hollow, a void under his palm which shows Tezuka exactly where to put his hand. For some reason he has never thought about this - the perfect shape of Echizen's back. He knows he will never forget it now.

"I think the party was a success," Tezuka says, because Echizen still looks distracted. He is facing forward again and walking, but his cap is tipped back far enough that Tezuka can see his face. "Fuji will be pleased."

This works; Echizen relaxes, which is something Tezuka has always been able to sense more than see, but now he feels it through his palm. "Heeeh," Echizen smirks, "Fuji-senpai would probably like it better if we hadn't left early."

"Shall I take you back?" Tezuka asks politely.

"Che, buchou." Echizen's face is eloquently disdainful. "It was too crowded there." He slants an amused look at Tezuka from the corner of his eye that feels newer and more intimate than it should. Echizen's gaze on him has always been warm and intent.

"Momoshiro would be glad to see you again. He seemed eager to practise his technique in front of an audience."

Echizen hums with amusement and tips his head up, grinning mischievously. "Do I need to practise, buchou?"

He sounds confident, but Tezuka's fingers curl a little on his back anyway. "There's always room for improvement," he says solemnly.

Tezuka shouldn't be surprised when Echizen pitches his answer low and a little breathy and leans into Tezuka's side. "So let's go somewhere, then," he suggests, his mouth curling wickedly at the corner, "and improve." He meets Tezuka's eyes deliberately, and his smile is so inviting and his eyes so knowing that for a moment Tezuka thinks he won't be able to speak at all.

"Aa," says Tezuka. He knows now exactly where they are going.

He indulges himself by pressing his hand a little more firmly against Echizen's back to steer him gently around the next corner. Their hips occasionally bump together as they walk up the hill between tall garden walls looming close on both sides. Echizen is quiet, but the silence is contented now.

The last block and a half take them by what seems like a solid wall of trees, green leaves whispering in the sunlight and dappled shade, before they turn and slip between two of them. A line of worn paving stones overgrown with strands of creeping grass leads between trees and hedges, still thick and close-grown, up to the foot of the steps and the unmistakable shape of the gateway arch of a Shinto shrine.

Echizen sways even closer to stay next to Tezuka on the narrow path, like he's melting into his side. Tezuka half expects him to duck under Tezuka's arm with the same arrogant, casual presumption with which he always takes from Tezuka what is already his, as if he somehow knows. Tezuka almost puts his arm around Echizen himself, but he knows that he can't push, now; he can only watch.

The first set of steps is poured cement, replaced sometime in the last few decades. The second set is made of ancient stone worn almost into the ground, and it ends under the gate. It is small for a shrine gate, small but strong, made of dark unfinished wood and crowned with a single unadorned crossbar whose simple shape Tezuka finds far more elegant than the deep curves of the red-enamelled gates at great shrines like Itsukushima or Heian. The twin pillars, once great trees, have probably stood guard here for centuries. Tezuka has let them take his weight many times - when he felt weak or tired, when he wanted a place to lean while he read a book, or just for the pleasure of feeling the warmth of the sunlight they absorb.

The tiny shrine crouches at the end of a short dirt pathway, nestled in the trees growing close to its outer walls and framed in the ancient wood pillars of the gate. Echizen pauses under the gate and looks around at the stone lanterns, the trees and bamboo and wildflowers screening the shrine from the neighbourhood around it.

Tezuka lets his hand fall away; Echizen glances a question, then turns and walks through the gate when he sees the answer in Tezuka's face. Tezuka follows him and steps in the centre of each step, where the stone dips under the accumulated weight of centuries of feet. This is what he always does. When he puts his feet on these three stone steps, Tezuka sees and feels the ghosts of years of his own footsteps there.

Until now, he has never climbed them with another person. He walks through the gate at Echizen's shoulder for the first time and almost shivers. Tezuka has never come to the shrine with another person since he first discovered it when he was twelve, but he has not felt alone here in years. He always walks here, stands here, paces the perimeter of the shrine as if he paces the silent perimeter of his own heart: with the ghost of Echizen beside him.

They follow the dirt path between the stone lanterns to the doors of the shrine. Echizen is slow, not speaking, but his eyes are bright and alert as he takes it in: touching the worn wood of the pillars supporting the roof, tipping his head back and taking his time studying the patterns of the woodwork on the underside of it. The doors are heavy and deeply, elaborately carved. Today they stand partly ajar, the shadowed interior blocked off with a thick rope stretching across the doorway.

Echizen stands in the gap between the doors, gazing in at the bell, and Tezuka stands behind him, looking over his head. He lets himself move close enough to feel Echizen's nearness without touching him, and breathes deeply, smelling grass, incense and sandalwood, skin and a hint of clean sweat. "How old is this place?" says Echizen, watching the dust motes in the sunbeam falling on the unfinished planks.

"Only about three hundred years," says Tezuka. The shrine looks older than that, as if time clings in the forest with the climbing vines.

"Hnnn," Echizen hums in surprise. "Only three hundred, ne?" He glances up at Tezuka again before moving away from the doors, but Tezuka has long ago memorized them: the way the long grain of the wood flows through the carving, the way one dark oblong ring cuts the body of a dragon in half, the way the right door is split for half its height by a hairline crack.

Other than the doors and its small size, the front of the shrine is unremarkable. But they walk out from under the eaves back into the sun then and turn to walk along the right side of the shrine, and this is remarkable. "Oh," says Echizen, a small surprised sound, when he sees the long coloured mural stretching the whole length of the exterior wall. He doesn't ask Tezuka what the mural depicts or when it was painted or anything else about the shrine. This is one of the most unique and comforting things about Echizen, his ability to observe without comment and to communicate in silence.

It is because Echizen is mostly silent that Tezuka is able to tell him, as they walk towards the back of the shine where the grass and trees grow closer to the walls, "I found it walking home from school in my first year of junior high."

Although Tezuka has looked frequently at Echizen, watching his calm reactions to everything, Echizen has only glanced at him occasionally since he started to study the mural. Now he turns and looks seriously at Tezuka for a moment, his face thoughtful but otherwise unreadable and sunlight catching on the relaxed curves of his lips and in the open collar of his shirt. Tezuka returns his gaze directly, absorbing the sight of him against the wall of the shrine, and lets himself feel the ache of wanting Echizen so selfishly, wholly, possessively. He lets himself feel the effortless connection between them, the energy in it, and how deep that energy really goes, woven all through his body and capable of immobilising him with desire at just the thoughtful quirk of Echizen's mouth or the slant of his eyes when he tilts his head.

"Oh?" Echizen says. He walks close enough as they move that Tezuka automatically touches his back, because it suddenly seems like the most natural place for his hand. It seems shocking to him that fearless, independent Echizen should allow such an assertion of intimacy, but he moves subtly into the touch as they walk. Tezuka sees no reason to take his hand away. There's a long pause before Echizen says, "It isn't really on your way, is it."

"It's not far," says Tezuka, looking at the part of Echizen's face he can see at this angle under the cap, wondering what Echizen is thinking. He would go further out of his way to reach this place if he had to.

Echizen sounds satisfied. "So it isn't. I thought so."

They talk about the wildflowers which grow more thickly at the back of the temple, and walk a little way between the trees. Echizen remarks that there's no other door to the shrine, and Tezuka says, "Hai. You can't see the spirit's house at all, except for the roof." When they walk back up the left side of the shrine, following the progress of the painted pilgrimage in the mural, Tezuka feels like he is vibrating and overflowing with memories and daydreams, with all the times he has walked these steps and thought about the white cap at his shoulder, Echizen's strong slim fingers on his arm.

"It's almost sunset, buchou." He doesn't look up from the painted well, the tiny painted cat, the figure of a priest carrying pails of water at the edge of one panel on the wall.

"I know," Tezuka says, looking at the black hair lying against the back of Echizen's pale neck, the way it gleams almost blue in the sunlight. Echizen is calm and thoughtful, and he may be happy to be here with Tezuka, but Tezuka knows that he is easily bored. Does he see what Tezuka sees?

He looks over his shoulder, expectant, and their eyes meet. Tezuka watches the subtle shift of expression in his eyes: the steady burning glow he always shows to Tezuka, a fleeting shadow of thought like the shadow of a cloud flitting over the moon, then the widening of comprehension at the serious searching gaze Tezuka gives him. Tezuka wonders if he realises what Tezuka is watching for. Echizen's gaze never wavers, and Tezuka has always found it hard to look away from him. But the last flicker in Echizen's eyes is faintly questioning, so Tezuka leads him back to the gate.

The sun is halfway below the horizon, the sky still bright, but the horizon brighter, the light slanting through the trees dusky gold. Against the sky and at a little distance, the gate looks very different. From the street it is relatively small - graceful but compact and unprepossessing. But from the front of the shrine, framing the walkway, backed by sunset, the gate stands taller, black and dramatic in silhouette. Its stone steps fall away beneath it, the neighbourhood and all its walled gardens falling away beneath that, and the gleaming expanse of Tokyo spreading beyond it to the horizon. Looking through the frame of the gate and down the green walkway at this is like sighting down a telescope.

Echizen pauses for a moment when he catches sight of the view and then keeps walking, slowly, close enough so his shoulder brushes against Tezuka's arm. His eyes are wide and intent, and as they stop under the arch of the gate, Tezuka watches the slow dawn of an enigmatic smile on his face.

Tezuka has seen the sunset countless times from this very spot. It has been a long time since he first fantasised about watching it with Echizen, kissing him under this gate in front of this sunset. Every time he has left the shrine for years he has been haunted by the thought.

He looks down at Echizen's calm face under the edge of his cap and wonders again what he is thinking. Tezuka thinks about the moment Echizen kissed him, defiant and determined, and about how hesitant he was to return the kiss there, where everyone could see them. He tried to soothe Echizen's uncertainty at least, to tell him without words that it was all right; but there are so many other things he wants to tell Echizen, things he doesn't even know how to say. Even though he feels them weighing on him, looking at Echizen in the dying light seems to make the words retreat further and further away.

When Echizen turns to face him and carefully, deliberately takes off his cap, Tezuka stops breathing again. His face is not curious or questioning, but filled with understanding, and his eyes are brilliant and ready and warm, but his mouth is serious. He is waiting to be kissed; somehow, he does know what Tezuka is watching for, all that Tezuka wants to say to him, all that the shrine means - as if he sees the memories here as vividly as Tezuka does. His face is full of the realisation.

Tezuka touches his shoulder first and feels the jut of collarbone under his thumb, slides his hand down Echizen's arm and then to his waist and slips both arms around him at last - under the arms, around the back, pulling him close across those centimetres he couldn't bridge at Eiji's house. Echizen moves pliantly, responsive under his hands, fitting easily - perfectly - into Tezuka's embrace. He watches Tezuka's face the whole time, his eyes turning golden with reflected sunbeams. Tezuka is breathing now, but his chest still feels strained, his heart beating too fast. He wants to speak; Ryoma is on the tip of his tongue.

Echizen makes a smug little smirk, though, and when he starts to open his mouth, Tezuka bends and opens it with a kiss instead. Echizen's arms tighten around Tezuka's shoulders until he's clutching handfuls of fabric, and he rises on tiptoe, opening his mouth willingly to Tezuka's exploration right away.

Their second kiss is not careful, restrained, or hesitant. It is long, slow, and thorough, and his stomach is tense and turning over with painful slowness, tying itself in a knot of helpless shifting heat at the way Echizen bends into him, pressing closer.

Echizen is tasting each of his lips, one and then the other, lingering in the corner of his mouth and then the centre. He is as intent and serious about this as he is about tennis; not demanding, but infinitely patient. Tezuka lets Echizen coax him gradually into the deeper kisses he wants, lingering luxurious kisses until their mouths feel bruised and their tongues aren't clumsy.

He could drown in the warmth, the soft wetness of Echizen's mouth, like the taste of sunset, the taste of defying gravity for the leap of a serve. Echizen leans into him, and Tezuka tightens his hold until there is no space between them at all, just one long glorious shock of heat and Echizen shivering in his arms, clutching him tighter. Tezuka strokes his back and takes kiss after kiss, breaking off to take a breath and returning, until their closeness doesn't seem strange and the sun sinks below the horizon and he can no longer remember how he has imagined this in the past. This, too, is like their tennis, serve and return, adrenaline and anticipation and gratification blurring together, carrying them breathless to the end, where they stand intimately exposed together, senses whirling and confused, blind to everything but each other.

thanks to aja for beta and title. and, uh, also for writing chunks of the plot and several important pieces of dialogue.

post a comment - read comments