As much as you love him, your son has always been a little bit of a puzzle to you.
It seems a strange thing to think, when indeed your wife chides you constantly for teasing him so unabashedly about almost anything that comes to mind--he gets so very embarrassed at some of the smallest things, and there have been moments when you wonder if perhaps your jokes, meant lightly, hurt him. It's possible--it's more than possible--but you don't really think so. He's intensely private, it's true, and you've always worried a little about how withdrawn and shy he can seem sometimes--but then, it's your place to worry. Your Choutarou has always hidden his hurts badly in your eyes, one last throwback to the days before he learned what it was like to be around people who don't care about him.
It's a lesson you've wished he'd never had to learn, but you knew he had to.
In front of you, he still hides emotion badly, if at all--small joys, smaller hurts--and it's always been one of the things that you've loved most about him. Nowadays, it's your little secret, when so many cannot see past the silver lines of poise, not anymore.
When he was little--do you remember?--you used to fight against your boss every time you were supposed to stay late for zangyou. In the old company-before-family system, leaving one's office before one's boss, unpaid overtime or not, did would have been insubordination of the worst sort--but you were too good at what you do, you still are, for them to consider letting you go for such a thing, and you knew it then, you know it now. You argued, you won--the best corporate lawyer in their company, of course you won--you left early that night, and the nights to come. You wanted to be home so that you and Mayu could tuck your little boy into the bed that he outgrew too quickly, and you could read him a story and watch those eyes the hue of new cherrywood grow with wonder.
Things changed--of course they did--when he decided that he wanted to go to Hyotei for boarding school in seventh grade. Some might have thought that thirteen years of age was too early for any child to make such a decision--and you would have blinked at Choutarou, shaken your head, and made your request that he go to Seigaku a command if he'd given as his reason something along the lines of the fact that Hyotei kept puppies as mascots, or something similar. (Of course, he didn't. Besides, if they kept anything--which you doubt--they probably kept large mastiffs, more like, of a pure line unbroken back to one of the Emperors' dogs. Probably highly inbred.) It wasn't beyond the pale--there were girls who chose their schools by uniform, after all, but then again, this was your son, too serious.
His response was, instead, a quiet, "I want to learn what it's like to be on my own, for a little while, before I come home again." And, in response to your warning that Hyotei was known for its attitude, its competitiveness, he simply raised his head--almost as tall as you, already, his silver hair a wave just aligned with your gaze, and it still made your eyes mist with pride and made you want to pat him on the back and drag him back home by the collar, such contradictions. "If I don't know what it's like when things are hard--then I'll never learn."
Too serious, indeed.
He's always been a puzzle to you, your solemn silverhair boy who looks too much like his mother would if she lost her smile, but because you love him, and you know that he's wiser than you want him to be, sometimes, even if he's still so innocent--you let him go.
He seemed to be doing well--or so you thought, at least. You hoped.
And then you saw the bruises, one weekend, when he came home. There's still no knowing how many more of them there might have been, in the weekends before that, under his clothes, because he won't talk about it--but he couldn't have hidden it, not that day.
Upon seeing the dark contusion low and deep on his jaw, just under his ear, your eyes widened, and you wanted to know what happened.
He told you, slowly, because your Choutarou is, above all else, honest, when he chooses to speak. Painfully so. He didn't cry when he said that he'd gotten into a fight. But that wasn't--quite--the truth, you could see it in the eyes that fell to look at his fisted hands, and you narrowed your eyes and wondered aloud why he was wearing a jacket, even in late August, when the sweltering winds brought no relief from the weight of either the heat or your gaze.
When he didn't answer, you told him to take it off, your voice too soft.
There were bruises lining his arms, ugly purple-and-blue deep in his forearms, fading green like spilled coolant--not a fight's bruises, not honest brutality. You were not always a lawyer, after all--you were young once, too, easily bullied until you grew too tall for them to dare. You know too well what tesselations built on skin look like when one has received the pattern from the agonising process of keeping someone from punching one's face, and your mouth pressed into a thin, white line as he could not look at you.
There were bruises, too, in eyes that had never stopped being just a little too soft--he's never been good at hiding when he's hurting. It might have been a long time since you'd been his age--but even you could tell that showing hurt to the monsters who'd done that to him couldn't have been anything other than a curse.
"You didn't get into a fight," your voice was sharp, and angry, and for a moment you wondered if he thought it was directed at him, if he would flinch under that as you were willing to wager he hadn't flinched under the fists. "You're getting picked on."
He didn't draw back. He didn't answer your accusation. He's not stupid, he had to know what you were thinking. All he replied was "I made the tennis team," very quietly, very steadily, into a sticky summer wind, as if it were the only thing that was really important.
He's always been a very private person, has your son. Even so young.
You talked to people. It was possible, they said, even so late in the year--your Choutarou's grades were good enough, especially considering that the Hyotei grade curve was, and still is, as viciously competitive as the management of its tennis team. His violin soared as he closed his eyes and sank into it, but then again, it always had, and there were schools which would have taken him for that alone--some of the best, because your Choutarou was one of the best. It would have been easy to slip him into Seigaku. Or Saint Rudolph. Anywhere else he wanted to go, really, anywhere where he wouldn't be a too-tall moment of sweetness with eyes that were too easily hurt.
Except--his choice was Hyotei Gakuen, that school full of pride and ego and undeniable, unstable brilliance--his choice had always been Hyotei, and if you didn't understand--and you didn't--there was a determination in his gaze. There was a dark, shining varnish on the softer, easily bruised cherrywood of his eyes--and if you wondered about it, you were not enough of a father that you couldn't see the resolution in his shoulders and the set of his mouth.
You wondered where that stubbornness had come from, in a boy who had once been so obedient, and you laughed yourself to madness, almost, when you realised that it might well have come from you.
Your Choutarou was only fourteen, and already your pride in him swelled, crashed against the high firmness of his resolution. You told him "all right," and didn't tell him that if it happened again, he was going to transfer. You had had decades more than he to hone your stubbornness, after all.
It wasn't your decision to make, in the end--because, after all, he'd chosen--but yet, you were still so relieved you thought your heart might break with it--you, who in the office was said to have no heart under your smiling face, but they had never given you something to care about--when a month later, when he came to visit again, there were no more bruises on his long, lanky body.
Instead, he smiled, softly again, as if smiling were something new, and special, shoulders straight in his sleeveless shirt, and garnered new bruises, play-bruises, as he played basketball with friends, neighbour's children.
Perhaps, at that point in time, smiling was new again--the boys who had picked on him had hurt far more of him than his body, even if that was something he'd never have admitted to anyone, much less you. And when Mayu asked him--ever the mother, but then again, she had the right of it--so tentatively what had happened, and when Meiko grabbed his arm and giggled about how he didn't flinch anymore when she did... he just cocked his head, and to your surprise, his lips curved--perhaps a little dreamily, though you didn't notice that, then. You couldn't have noticed. The only response he gave was "I have good senpai."
It made you blink, a little, not simply because he'd smiled--but because you'd been so certain that it had not been not his fellow freshmen that had been teasing him so viciously. But perhaps Hyotei was a better school than you had imagined, or at least had more moments like your Choutarou in it, if one of Hyotei's prima-donna tennis players had put a stop to the vicious beatings. One would have thought that they would have encouraged it--after all, such things did only encourage the competition in the tennis club, the weeding out of the weaker--but then again, there are always the instants of light, are there not?
You thought better of the person who would have stood up in the face of the teasing, the mockery he would no doubt have received for having stood up to his own classmates on the behalf of another, and a freshman, at that. "I'd like to meet your senpai," you laughed, and the words were light in your mouth.
You always laugh, but sometimes the words are lead.
"Maybe," he teased you back, cocking his head. You're one of the few people he'll tease, and it's an honour and a joy to see the quirk of mischief, unguarded, spark across his cheekbones though his lips are straight and serious. "I thought you said teenagers were unsightly, Papa."
You play-slap him gently on the back of his head--he'd evidently heard you complaining to Mayu about two youngsters attempting to reach each other's tonsils on the subway--but you laugh. "Maybe if I knew more teenagers, I wouldn't think so."
It took awhile to get a name out of him--a face--until he came home with a small picture. What you saw--it surprised you, yes, a snapshot candid of grace, not a moment of silvery light but an instant of midnight. Shishido Ryou, he told you. Third-year. Singles Three.
He didn't need to tell you that Shishido-kun was beautiful enough to startle, more than handsome--hair down to his shoulders and past in a long ponytail that cascaded over the firm, taut-drawn boy's bow of slim shoulders, clean lines of face and body and cleaner eyes, a pure deep blue that mimicked the lines of the jersey he wore so proudly. Surprising, that hair, the fact that he was shorter than your sweet boy--more surprising, that fierce, funny smile that crinkled vivid eyes and was a curve to match the arc of an elbow that he dug into your son's side, gently.
He didn't need to tell you that Shishido-kun made him smile, because the snapshot was of two, not one, and your son, who so rarely smiled, was laughing despite, or because of, the elbow prodding his side, with his bruised eyes closed and his racquet hanging by his side, defenseless.
Your son fell in love when he was fourteen, his eyes cheerful and dreamy and sad, longing with impossibilities because he was young enough to believe in things being impossible.
'It's too early for such things,' some might have said, but you're an eminently practical man, at the end of all things. Some fall in love early, or late, or never, and you'd rather your son be among the first than the last.
A third-year, your wife wrung out of Choutarou, finally, over a month, or many. Slim and beautiful. A head shorter than he. Fierce and full of laughter, a tennis player, the last detail dragged from him so unwillingly that even you, who often laughed at your son's attachment to the game, had to wonder.
It never occurred to you to make the connection--because, really, how many parents would have had to some to such a conclusion?--until you teased him about wanting an older woman, as you so often tease him, and asked, "Why don't you ask your Shishido-senpai to help you out with her?"
The look he gave you was all eyes and shock and a sudden, utterly unexpected pain that struck deeper than your gut before he summoned up a faint, patently false smile and said, "No, no, that's all right. Shishido-san's... he's busy."
You knew, then, about your son, and if it was a shock... it was less of a shock than it could have been. You tried to tell yourself that it was mere hero worship. That these things happened, sometimes, when boys spent a great deal of time together, and they changed once separated from such an environment.
And then the months passed, and Shishido-kun was dropped from the team.
You heard because Choutarou came home that weekend, and you happened to ask, laughing, about his favourite senpai. You'd adjusted, just a little, to that knowledge. And you've never been known to hurt him, but you saw the blood in his eyes when he had to explain to you that said favourite senpai wasn't his senpai any longer.
He looked away, at the end of it, when you had no smooth words and no gentle platitudes to mouth away his pain, and asked, instead, "Papa, is it all right... is it all right to hurt someone you really care about... if they ask you to?"
How could you answer that? You told him what you could, and saw the softness of his eyes turn hard and dark--but not cold, because you've never seen him as cold. You'd never seen such resolve in his quiet gaze, when he explained what Shishido had asked of him. You knew the policies of the school and the team that he'd chosen to fight with that year ago, and wondered, quietly, privately, how it was that your son could believe in the impossibility of his feelings when he couldn't believe in the impossibility of fighting an entire system of rules.
Three weeks later, your Choutarou brought home a team picture, and to your surprise--you almost didn't recognise Shishido there, what with that blue cap and short, short hair, a scar low on his cheek, but the cocky smile was--almost--the same. But it was the loss of that hair that surprised you, not the fact that he was posing with the rest of the team. Not the fact that he was sitting in a rather uncomfortable seiza next to your son in the doubles one slot.
Perhaps, you thought, Choutarou was learning that there was always a possibility.
It was January, bitter with snow, and the third-years quit the tennis club in lieu of entrance exams; even if you had once believed that the hero-worship would leave when the seniors did, the quiet sadness did not fade from your Choutarou's eyes, and you thought--perhaps it wasn't just that your son was... was gay, but something else, something sweeter. Perhaps it wasn't that your son didn't like girls; the mention of a pretty one or another still made him blush--it was simply that he liked his Shishido-san better.
So you breathed, once, twice, and asked Mayu what she would think of having Choutarou's fifteenth birthday party at the house.
You'd known he had friends, but you hadn't thought, perhaps, that you'd like them quite so much. Certainly, you'd met the other people he played on the orchestra with--girls who smiled at you and complimented your son's violin playing lavishly, much to your surprise--you'd always thought they were competitive enough that they didn't dare--but it was the first you'd seen of Hyotei's Regulars. Atobe-kun was a first-class rich brat, there wasn't an doubt about that, with his smooth smile and collared Armani shirt--but you liked him better than the magazine clippings and the easy, showy wink of team pictures, considering that his smooth smile was somewhat tempered by the fact that he had arrived with a diminutive blonde boy slumped onto his shoulder, napping on his feet, and required much frustrated jostling from said rich brat before the blonde woke up to introduce himself sleepily as Akutagawa Jirou. You'd seen him half-dozing in the tennis team pictures, to be certain, but you hadn't actually quite believed your son's stories about his sleepy senpai.
There was Oshitari-kun, who bowed at the perfect angle and smiled like he knew what you were thinking--Mukahi-kun, who bounced up behind him and promptly commented past your shoulder at how the house was so big, and weren't they going to have so much fun teasing Ootori about it? Hiyoshi-kun, who didn't smile when he introduced himself, but merely bowed, his hair falling into his eyes, with a surprisingly delicate grace.
And Shishido-kun, with his cap trickling strands of short dark hair and his scar, and the most uncomfortable look you've ever seen on anyone's face when he bowed to you and said his greeting--looking past you to where Ootori was coming down the genkan so quickly that it might have been rude if you hadn't actually been watching the fierceness soften.
You had to grin, welcoming him into the house with a hand on his shoulder--and the suspicious look that he shot your son, the muttered, "Yeah, and all of it bad," after you mentioned that you'd heard so much about him, made you laugh.
You liked him instantly, not simply because your son did.
It made you glad, really, that you'd gotten a chance to meet the boys, more than the simple team name, that your son had felt were worth being picked on for--because you certainly hoped that you hadn't raised a boy who was enough of a fool to fight for a name.
The festivities were simple--a lunch, drinks in the living room, time for the boys and girls to mingle and talk. Your Choutarou was old enough that insisting on party games and the whatnot would have been simply silly, though you did manage to draw everyone into the garden for a piņata that, to your gratification, made Shishido roll his eyes--but he was the first one to put on a blindfold. It was Atobe-kun who ended up breaking the colourful oversize rendition of a tennis ball--and your son who met your eyes, shrugging sheepishly with such a reluctantly sweet smile on his lips, when Atobe glanced to the giggling girls and smirked, murmuring something about beauty and being drunk.
Strange boys, to be certain, but if they could make your son smile...
Shishido-kun disappeared with Choutarou not long after the piņata, and you'd told yourself that you weren't going to look for them, of course, but really, if they were looking for privacy--yes, a little corner of the patio near the house that wasn't visible from the living room wasn't a bad choice, but someone really should have mentioned that they could be seen--and heard--through the open window of the kitchen...
Not that you were about to mention it.
It was not beyond you to eavesdrop--listening is, after all, a good part of your job.
"It's... you know," Shishido scratched the back of his head, looking sheepish, before he shrugged. "Not a big deal. But... well, yeah. Shit. I'm... fuck, I'm no good at these things."
Choutarou smiled, gently, puzzled with sweetness, "Shishido-san, your swearing..."
"Oh. Yeah. Shi--uh, yeah. Forgot," he muttered, ducking his head, glancing away, and you had to hide your chuckle behind a hand. Apparently your son had more power over his senpai than perhaps he knew. "Anyway. Here." He proferred an envelope, plain white, gleaming in the late afternoon against his callused hand. "Happy birthday."
Your Choutarou merely blinked, looking confused, though his hands reached out for the blank, unimpressive envelope automatically--both hands, politely, despite the fact that Shishido had only offered it with one, and you had to smile. Perhaps you and Mayu had taught him too well, sometimes. "Shishido-san, I think we're going to open the gifts later, but--"
Shishido shook his head, brusque, his eyes slanting upwards as he grinned, cocking his head. "So you'll open this one a little early."
You had the distinct feeling that whenever Shishido-kun gave your son a command, it was always going to be of that particular nature--sweetness made sweeter by contrast.
Choutarou did, with a puzzled look through thick lashes, unfolding the paper gently between those long, elegant fingers. If your eyes weren't keen enough to catch the print on the slips he withdrew from the envelope, they were sharp enough to see the sunshine of sudden wonder that blanked out your son's face, his lips falling parted as he looked down at his shorter senpai. "Shishido-san, you--but--I thought... you said, just yesterday, you said you didn't... you didn't know anything about classical music..."
Shishido just grinned, triumphant, teeth and eyes gleaming as he flipped off his cap, smoothing his hair back and wresting back on the blue denim. "Geez, Choutarou," it somehow wasn't a surprise to realise that your son's partner called him by his first name. "Don't get me wrong. I seriously don't. It's... well, you mentioned awhile ago, you wanted to go to that concert thing next week, and one of my aunts works in the theatre, so I figured..." he shrugged, and the ripple of his shoulders was surprisingly awkward, endearing, but he didn't look away. "Whatever, right? It's not a big deal."
Not a big deal. Concert thing, indeed--if you weren't mistaken, the New York Philharmonic playing selections of Vivaldi and Mozart in Tokyo's primary music hall, billed almost a year before the actual event.
Choutarou had wanted to go to that concert. Badly, in fact, so badly that he hadn't told you about it until it had been too late, burying it as he buried all that he truly wanted, and by then, not even your manipulations had been able to secure tickets for him. Shishido-kun must have bought them months ago. Or sold his soul for them. Certainly, he'd saved for them--they weren't cheap.
Neither was the silence that followed, bought in the sound of two boys breathing, because your son had never lacked in courage, but neither had he ever lacked for reserve...
"Shishido-san?" your son's hands were trembling on the tickets, sweeter than need or desire. Perhaps he didn't realise he was blushing. Perhaps he didn't know he was shaking. "There... there are two in here. And... a reservation slip? Dinner?"
Shishido blinked at him--then reached out, play-punching the clean line of your son's jaw with a gentle fist, grinning a little shakily despite what was almost a blush rising on his tanned cheeks. "I'm asking you out, stupid." And then, when Choutarou just gaped at him, the smile faded away, and you saw a quiet dream die in blue eyes. "But... well, y'know, if you wanna go with someone else... well, sure, that's fine too--"
You wanted to slap your own forehead, or perhaps your Choutarou's.
Luckily, you didn't need to.
Choutarou leaned forwards and planted his lips over his doubles partner's.
You walked away from the window grinning--and very well aware of what a hypocrite you were, to frown at youngsters kissing in the subway but grin at the sight of the shocked wonder in your son's eyes--but not before you saw Shishido's eyes flare wide in a nova of delighted star-sapphire and drift closed.
You were, admittedly, somewhat surprised at the swell of joy that you felt for him, them. And yet, you'd seen enough of what talking about this boy did to your son, coaxing a smile to his stern lips, however reluctantly. You'd seen enough of how Shishido's eyes fell towards Choutarou no matter where he was standing in the room--looking out for him, perhaps, some might have said, but more likely simply drawn to him--your instant of sweetness in a school that, perhaps, just wasn't so bad.
You gave them a few more minutes before exchanging a look with your wife and loudly declaring in the living room that it was time for cake, and where was the birthday boy...?
Though you have to admit that there was more than a fraction of you that was glad when they came in somewhat... flushed, but no more rumpled than when they'd left.
It did not pass you by that the friends that your son had invited from orchestra merely crowded around them and grinned, tugging your protesting Choutarou towards the table and the enourmous chocolate layer cake--but the boys of the tennis club exchanged knowing looks, and Atobe muttered, "It's about damned time," just under his breath before Jirou slumped onto his back, tumbling them both to the carpeted floor to the tune of much ruckus, and the beginning of the birthday song, in stretched English syllables.
It was tradition--you like traditions, and by the time your eyes slanted to Mayu's, she'd already met your gaze when Meiko chirped out, tugging happily on her big brother's arm, "Make a wish, 'Niisan, make a wish!"
He always does, and you pray that your Choutarou will never stop wishing.
You'd gotten used to seeing his lips moving just before he blew out his birthday candles--fifteen of them, already fifteen, and it would take quite a breath. There had been a time when you'd considered learning how to read lips, but then again, you'd come to the conclusion that perhaps that would be cheating--and it was equally likely that your son would be wishing for world peace rather than anything that you could give him, in any case.
But then your son looked up across the table, over the cake at his grinning teammate, his face, his silver hair, luminescent with the light of candles and someone's sapphire gaze... and his lips didn't move at all.
He just looked, for a moment, their eyes meeting as Shishido-kun ran the fingers of his hand through the dark hair that stood on its end in soft spikes and winked, so quickly that you wouldn't have even noticed it if you hadn't been watching the two of them so closely, and then Choutarou lowered his head and blew out the candles.
It took you a moment to realise, in the soft, milk-warm light, that he was blushing.
You might not always understand your son--but that moment, you understood.
He hadn't made a wish.
But then again, perhaps, that year... he hadn't needed to.
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