shiraume_fic: (Cetera: Tezuka - Cetera)
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Starting off the “Shades of Blue” arc! An Atobe-centric backstory. 5,400 words. Rated B for boring-ass politics.

Since this year doesn’t have 2/29... Happy birthday, Fuji Syuusuke! :D



Et Cetera: Shades of Blue by Shiraume

01. Atobe Keigo - impression


impression – n. An effect, a feeling, or an image retained as a consequence of experience.

[ 2006/2012/2013/2014 :: 2/28/2014 Edition ]

Cetera. Ketyre. "The rest," in High Tongue.

Created last by the Nine Gods, the Creators, who realized the World as they had shaped it was too wild, too uncontrolled and needed help. But the World was a fragile place by that time, full with creatures of different lifespan, intelligence, and abilities. A direct intervention from the Nine would have proved too hazardous to the delicate life-forms already existing in the World. But the Humans, the creation most adored, faced a difficult and hostile World. And Sprites, most of whom had varying amounts of Magic, were running wild, wreaking havoc and causing chaos throughout the World. And so the Nine created the Cetera, their own servants, to serve the World and all its inhabitants according to their will.

But the Cetera were also a people. As their number multiplied, so did their problems, the same kinds that plagued any group of social organisms. They, like the Human race and the Sprites, needed governance. So the Cetera created the first of its own governing bodies, the Assembly. Through the Assembly, all adult Cetera stood as equals and had a say in the running of their affairs. Of course, once the Cetera grew too great in number, the Assembly was no longer a tenable entity, and so the Assembly, by popular vote, established the High Council who would represent the Assembly and govern the Cetera affairs according to the wishes of the majority. Eventually, the High Council in turn came to rely on the leadership of the wisest and the most dedicated among their ranks, and offered them the seats of honor. To honor the Nine, nine of such seats were created, numbered from the First to the Ninth, honored in accordance to the length of each member’s service to the Council.

In time, two other branches were established to manage the different part of the Cetera society. The Temple, led by the college of its prelates, came to govern all the religious matters, including the interpretation of the Nine's will. The Academy, directed by its board of lectors, was placed in charge of educating and nurturing all of Cetera’s young. The High Council, under the guidance of the nine seats, continued to oversee the Cetera affairs. The three branches ever remained closely intertwined, and the High Council retained a measure of influence over the other two, particularly after the Primi, the Firsts, the foremost members of the Council’s nine seats, were granted the Rights of Sacra, the ultimate authority to interpret the will of the Nine. Thus the board of lectors in the Academy, the college of prelates in the Temple, and the seats of honor in the High Council were effectively united under the Primi.

The Atobe family had produced its share of illustrious members in the High Council as well as the Academy, but not yet a Primi.

As the sole heir of the distinguished Atobe name, Keigo knew there were certain expectations laid upon him since birth. So Keigo chose acquaintances and alliances with care, keeping track of all those who might prove useful in the future. His parents were proud of him, as they might be of a particularly fine work of art in their possession. Even as a child his insight into a person’s weaknesses was so penetrating, even his own parents learned to rely on it. The only time his parents disagreed with Keigo was about Kabaji Munehiro, his faithful companion since they could walk. On this matter alone Keigo actively challenged his parents, citing that the Kabaji family had churned out its share of powerful Mages. Eventually, it became clear Kabaji would serve adequately as Keigo's companion, and his parents stopped bringing it up in their politely circumspect conversations over occasional family dinners. As if Keigo would make a mistake when it came to people. He would never have bothered if he wasn't absolutely sure Kabaji was worth the effort.

Nevertheless, Atobe heir could afford to make no friend in the sense deeper than mutual allies. Kabaji was more than that, but only because Kabaji was special in many ways. But Kabaji would remain, little Keigo swore, the only one. The only one he trusted to stay with him for something less defined than an immediate advantage. There would never be another one like that.

Keigo, after all, had never been wrong.

**********


Keigo was little over a hundred and fifty years old – barely a teenager by the Cetera reckoning – when he met Tezuka Kunimitsu. His first impression of the little Tezuka heir was, in a word, unimpressive. Tezuka, not yet even fifty, albeit with a reputation as a precocious prodigy, was an overly serious, scrupulously studious, and plain boring child. Keigo found it easier to just ignore him.

What eventually made Keigo notice Tezuka was the way Archmage Sakaki, his mentor, treated him. Archmage Sakaki, ruthlessly competent, was one of the very few people Keigo respected. And it startled him that Sakaki would engage Tezuka in a conversation as he would with an adult, an equal, when Sakaki barely deigned to even acknowledge most adults in the group of his own peers.

Then, Keigo came to acknowledge Tezuka himself when the two of them first crossed Ralts. Keigo was proud, but never too proud to accept talent when he saw it. And nobody, with perhaps the grudging exception of Sanada, had ever challenged him to the limits as Tezuka had. Their social circles overlapped quite a bit, anyway, and the two of them inadvertently ran into each other often, studying under same swordsmasters and tutors. They nearly ended up both studying under Archmage Sakaki, too, but for some inexplicable reason, Tezuka's parents chose the eccentric and famously ambitionless Archmage Yamato instead. This became one of the truly memorable times the usually immaculate and imperturbable Archmage Sakaki expressed open displeasure. For his part, Keigo was happier with the way things turned out. Not that he minded the competition. But he never balked at telling people the truth when they were, in his excellent and usually entirely correct opinion, acting like a stick in the mud. And Tezuka was never afraid to show his disapproval to anyone. Hell, they first became tentative friends after a round in the arena over some trifling argument or other. Keigo liked the challenge Tezuka presented, but rather doubted it would be constructive to his progress on a daily basis. He'd probably end up strangling Tezuka within that first week.

(Centuries later, Keigo would wonder if they had studied under the same mentor, whether their relationship would have turned out differently. If he were in the habit of regretting, that was.)

Also, there were some things about Tezuka he could never come to terms with. Like the way Tezuka doggedly clung to old-fashioned code of honor. Not that Tezuka fought any less ruthlessly than Atobe himself did, when it came to a duel, but he also insisted on being honorable at the same time. Those two things didn't mix well in Keigo's experience, but Tezuka managed to wing it somehow.

It amused Keigo. And it exasperated him. He knew Tezuka would rather break than bend. He suspected possibly he didn't want to find out what it took to break Tezuka.

**********


Keigo had always been an ambitious child, and knew from an early age that he was destined for greatness. His natural talent, his lineage, his innate charisma, even his beauty – all hinted to a pre-eminent career even amongst the best of Cetera elites. And he was determined to leave his own mark on Cetera history. An indelible impression meant to last for generations to come. For that, he played the marriage game as adroitly as he played at political and personal alliances.

His own parents’ betrothal and marriage had been a point of intense negotiation, and the result of countless trials and errors beforehand. The paternal side of his lineage had always been involved with the High Council and the Academy, the maternal with the Temple. An idea alliance any way one looked at it, providing their only son with an incomparable advantage the vast majority of Cetera could only ever dream of. Which meant that ever since Keigo could walk, the subject of his betrothal was always on the table, ready to be examined at a moment’s notice. He was scarcely two hundred years old when he was first betrothed, which only lasted half a century before another potential bride was negotiated. Three more candidates later, Keigo had won his Mage certification and entered the Academy to continue his research on High Tongue, and was betrothed to yet another bride-hopeful. The process was cumbersome, but Keigo wined and dined the parade of would-be-brides with perfect decorum and charming grace. It was, after all, just one more thing expected of the Atobe heir.

Tezuka was incomprehensible to him on best days, but the most puzzling was his family relations. For one, Tezuka’s parents, Kuniharu and Ayana, had married after a scandalous romance – scandalous because they made no secret how they had fallen in love and canceled their respective betrothals to marry each other – and were as devoted to each other now as they had been when they first married. For Cetera, marriage meant alliance between families, nothing more. Once a couple produced a requisite heir, no more was required of them. Extramarital affairs were accepted simply as a matter of course, and as long as one made reasonable efforts to upkeep a discreet public image, even children out of wedlock were taken in strides. For a couple to be so besotted with each other was as rare as a marriage out of love. Worse still, the stern and tradition-loving patriarch, Tezuka Kunikazu, had consented to allow his grandson to find a spouse in his own time, and Tezuka Kunimitsu remained without an affianced bride.

Keigo supposed, however, Tezuka family’s scandalous behavior couldn’t possibly compare to the sensation Sanada Genichirou caused when he refused his appointment to the High Council as its Ninth seated member. It was unheard of. To serve as a seated member in the High Council was the highest honor for a Cetera, whose purpose of existence was to serve. Not to mention it foiled a highly political move on the Council’s part. All the kerfuffle Echizen Nanjirou raised in the recent Cetera history, ending with his expulsion from the Cetera’s ranks, had polarized the public opinion to a dangerous degree. The High Council needed to neutralize unsavory elements quickly after Echizen Nanjirou’s departure, but in doing so, they had alienated most of the liberal groups and even some of those who maintained the precarious middle-ground. Especially when two of the seated members in the High Council joined the swelling ranks of those purged from Heda. Sanada would have been a sound choice: young enough to appease the more liberal side of the scale, but with firm reputation as a traditionalist. Furthermore, while Sanada’s family had been associated more with the Temple than the High Council, few would have had more reason to welcome such an opportunity. Sanada’s family name had been besmirched by a scandal a few centuries earlier – one that had forced the young Sanada Genichirou to take over as head of the Sanada family quite early. Naturally, vast majority including the Council and the Primi considered it a given that Sanada would jump at the chance to restore his family’s fortunes. Instead, Sanada flatly refused the offer. It seemed Sanada bore a leftover grudge toward the Council, under whose orders the official investigation uncovered a certain mishap that had cast an indelible stain on the revered Sanada name. Only a select few within the Cetera elites, Keigo among them, were amused at the Council’s dismay.

But if not Sanada Genichirou, the High Council needed someone else from similar age group with equally prestigious standing. As expected, Council turned to the young Atobe heir as the next candidate for the Ninth seat, a position Keigo accepted with due show of hesitance and modesty.

Finally his real work had begun. The High Council had likely offered the position thinking it would please his vanity – and Keigo was famous for self-indulgence and vanity – and keep him conveniently powerless as the youngest and least influential seated member. But Atobe Keigo had plans, and he was just getting started.

First order of business was to rise through the ranks. The Primi – currently limited to the first three of the seated members – were difficult to displace, given they served for life and could only be removed by unanimous vote, but others were not. Keigo took great care to remain scrupulously clear of anything that could tarnish his career even as he continued his careful orchestrations. The shuffling in the High Council was extensive, even among the usually immutable seated members, and each change in the ranks brought him a step closer to the Primi. And, equally importantly, Keigo had managed to lobby for new Council members who, even if not quite on his side, were less susceptible to the Primi’s immediate influence.

Throughout all of this, Tezuka had been curiously silent in what was arguably the most politically charged century in Cetera’s recent history. Perhaps, in a way, that was expected. Tezuka’s interest was in Magical combat and research, but never politics. Keigo was now the Seventh, unquestionably the rising star of the High Council. Yet unlike Keigo’s other associates, Tezuka never showed the slightest inclination to use their personal ties.

Keigo was all the more surprised, therefore, when Tezuka actually approached him for a favor.

**********


“Let me get this straight,” Keigo started. “You want to be present at the certification exam for this half-Cetera that Inui Sadaharu found.” Tezuka was silent. “Why, pray tell?”

“Personal favor,” Tezuka replied succinctly, and Keigo’s lips curled in distaste.

“For Inui of Pyris? One of the black sheep the Council purged from Heda? You’re doing a personal favor for him?” Tezuka didn’t so much as shrug, and Keigo sighed in exasperation. “You do realize the damage you’d inflict on the Tezuka name by mere association with the likes of Inui?”

“And that would matter to me how?” Tezuka countered.

Keigo gave a tiny nod, acknowledging the point. “Very well. Anything else?”

“Will the Primi be present?”

Keigo snorted. “At an examination for a half-blood? Surely you jest. Any further requests?”

Tezuka considered for a moment. “No.”

“The Academy will likely appoint Irie Kanata be the examiner. Which means your half-blood’s chance depends on his mood.” It wasn’t a warning, exactly, since all of Cetera knew about Irie’s incorrigible habits. Despite his prodigious talents at Magic, Irie was lazy and erratic, and had barely scraped by for his Archmage certification. Afterward, he’d drifted in the Academy aimlessly, and occasionally moonlighted as one of the examiners. He was competent and serious when he wanted to be, but completely useless during the rest, which was about ninety-percent of the time. Had Irie been even a little bit motivated, the Primi might have tapped him for a seated member in the Council rather than Keigo. In fact, the only reason Irie was able to stay in the Academy was because he and the Academy’s current Vice-Head, Tanegashima Shuuji, were inseparable friends. How on earth Irie maintained such close friendship with Tanegashima was a mystery to all.

“He’ll pass,” Tezuka said, and Keigo raised an eyebrow. “Tomorrow, then?”

“Tomorrow,” Keigo confirmed. “I trust you don’t need to be present during written part of the exam.”

“No.”

“Then be at the arena by three.”

“I will.” If Keigo hadn’t known Tezuka as long as he had, he wouldn’t have seen the flicker of hesitation in his eyes. “I appreciate it, Atobe.”

The unexpected gratitude brought an amused snort. “Make it worth my while, then,” he countered, gears in his head turning rapidly. It might be a stretch so soon after the Council replaced two seated members, but one more couldn’t hurt. Perhaps not right away, but Keigo could be patient and persistent when he needed to be. And Tezuka had nearly all the qualities he could wish for a new seated member in the Council. Few families in Cetera could claim a nobler lineage, or cleaner reputation. The Tezuka name commanded respect from the older and the younger generations alike. Not a family particularly known for political ambition, true, but Tezuka's mother was the only child of a very wealthy, extremely well-connected family with long involvement in the Academy.

And, perhaps most important of them all, he could trust Tezuka. Without ever having attempted to enmesh Tezuka in an alliance of mutual needs and benefits, he knew Tezuka could be counted on as long as they shared the same vision for Cetera's future. Although he had a close inner clique he'd cultivated over the years, except maybe Kabaji he trusted Tezuka the most.

"Don't get too involved with pointless details," Atobe drawled. If he hoped to establish Tezuka as the Ninth-seat in the near future, the last thing he needed was Tezuka dallying with the wrong sorts. Like a half-Cetera. "The name of Tezuka doesn't belong only to you."

Tezuka didn't look away or evade. That was never his way. "We'll see."

If nothing else, Keigo mused, it would be entertaining to watch the Primi try to deal with Tezuka. He'd been a sensation himself when he first joined the Council at an unprecedented young age. If Keigo managed quickly enough, Tezuka might break his record, but the passage had been broken for him. Acceptance would come far easier. "You're going to be awarded Order of Aras soon," he said, wondering when he could start a quiet propaganda. Tezuka's research was just traditional enough to avoid full censure, but just rebellious enough to appeal to the younger generations. "There should be a celebration for the occasion."

Tezuka did not react save for the nearly imperceptible lift of an eyebrow. Keigo didn't bother answering in words. He knew better than to expect Tezuka to participate in what was – technically – Tezuka's own campaign for candidacy in the Council. That Tezuka had yet to give his consent to any of this was trivial detail, to be seen to some other time. In the meantime, he had a political campaign to plan.

**********


Keigo's first reaction to Fuji Syuusuke was irritation.

That in itself wasn't unusual. A vast majority of people Keigo met on daily basis irritated him one way or another. But Fuji was special, in the way he was annoying in spectacular proportions. And worst part was he couldn't quite pinpoint what about Fuji caused such reaction. For everyone else, Fuji was so perfectly innocuous and inoffensive, even the Primi hadn't thought twice about granting him the Mage certification. And – while Keigo wouldn't have deigned to comment – Archmage Irie was, for once, intrigued. Not enough to take the half-blood seriously, but enough to poke at him once or twice.

Then Fuji shot him a faceful of ice needles from behind a screen of steam and Irie actually grinned, looking like a cat that just spotted a canary. Only, Keigo couldn't shake the odd thought the feeling was mutual. Something about Fuji was too veiled. Fuji was struggling, but not because he feared losing.

No, Fuji was struggling to adjust to his opponent. The first time Irie startled him, not ten minutes ago, the explosion of fire was too swift and instinctive to have been a spell. Supposedly Fuji's Elemental was Water. But no Water Elemental, by itself alone, could change phases so swiftly as Fuji's did. There was a young up-and-coming by the name of Ibu something or other who also controlled ice through his power over Water Elemental, but Ibu's ice moved much slower, and couldn't be used until the water froze completely. Fuji's ice, though on far smaller and less destructive scale, formed as quickly as thought and fluidly changed from steam to water to ice and back. Suppose, unlikely as it sounded, Fuji was able to control not one, but two Elementals? Perhaps Fire? It was extremely difficult, even for the most skilled Archmages, to combine two Elementals' powers. Immeasurably more so for two Elementals of opposing natures. Difficult, but not impossible.

But – theoretically – it should have been impossible for a half-blood, whose powers often straggled behind those of the pure-blooded Cetera. Especially for one who was supposedly brought up in the Human world, his Magic untrained.

Keigo stared across the arena, at Tezuka, whose face was intent and focused on Fuji. A hint of vindication, and genuine interest. Research and dueling were two things Tezuka loved the most. Naturally, any strong opponent intrigued Tezuka.

Except Tezuka had never looked so personally interested in an opponent before. Not ever.

Keigo turned away, feeling inexplicably irritable.

Irie won, to nobody's surprise. Keigo knew Irie made an effort near the end. By which Keigo knew Irie took a liking to the half-blood. Else, Irie wouldn't have bothered with any attempt to make the exam result look credible: exceptional enough to quash objections, but not so prodigious that it raised suspicions. Even then Fuji’s scores were easily on par with those who later achieved the Archmage status. Not that Fuji would ever be accorded that honor. The Council would never allow it, and neither would the Academy. Likely Fuji's talent would be wasted, and he, like the other half-Cetera before him, would spend his life in obscurity.

Keigo's lips thinned. He was trying to raise Tezuka to the Council’s seated position. Fuji was the last person Tezuka needed to associate with. From the expression on Tezuka's face, the only dissatisfied face in the entire testing arena, Keigo knew nothing would stop Tezuka from associating with Fuji. To try and reach whatever lay underneath the layers and layers of misdirection Fuji wrapped around himself. Fuji was an enigma, someone with a lot of secrets. Tezuka had a special aptitude – and an unfortunate fondness – for puzzles.

Keigo couldn't see any way any of this would end well.

**********


"Echizen Nanjirou's son?" Keigo repeated, aghast.

Tezuka just looked at him. Tezuka always disliked repeating himself.

Keigo rubbed his forehead. "Let me get this straight. The half-blood you saddled yourself with, Fuji's new pupil, is Echizen Nanjirou's son."

"Yes," Tezuka replied with a hint of impatience.

"And did you know that before or after you accepted him as your ward?"

"After," Tezuka said shortly. "My decision wouldn't have been affected."

Keigo spared an uncharitable thought toward Fuji, that perhaps Fuji knew and maneuvered Tezuka into accepting guardianship over the brat on purpose. But knowing Fuji, it seemed unlikely; for one, nobody ever had Tezuka do anything he didn't damned well want to do. For another, Fuji would have known perfectly well that Tezuka's decision indeed wouldn't have been affected, and Fuji never wasted his time manipulating an outcome that was already decided. Tezuka had always been different, but ever since meeting Fuji, there was a streak of reckless impulsiveness that startled Keigo. Or maybe it had always been there, under the surface of calm and dutiful propriety, which only needed an excuse to break free.

Keigo sighed. "Do try to keep in mind what Echizen Nanjirou was exiled for, ahn?"

Apostasy. Heresy. Practice of forbidden and dangerous methods in Magic.

Tezuka narrowed his eyes at him. "Bookless Magic," Tezuka said defiantly.

"He also challenged the Temple on policies regarding the bloodline purity and Human Mages," Keigo snapped back. “And defied the Academy. The High Council. The Primi for crying out loud, Tezuka.” Honestly, it made a sick kind of sense that Echizen Nanjirou went and had a half-blood child while in exile. Like a final gesture of ultimate defiance. A barbaric one, in Keigo’s opinion, to use a child – his own son – to do it. But quite to the point.

"He may have been right."

Keigo stared at him, stunned speechless. No one, not even the most rebellious of the young fools, would have dared to utter those words in company of another.

"Tell me you weren't foolish enough to say that to anyone else," Keigo said, too surprised to even try for the usual Cetera-style circumspection.

Tezuka gave him a speaking look, but persisted. "Fuji is a half-Cetera and few pure-blooded Cetera could lay claim to his abilities. Human Mages were once powerful enough to rival Cetera Mages, and that was without the usage of Books."

Keigo rubbed his temples, devoutly wishing for a stiff drink in the place of the tea they were having. "The Book is supposed to be a medium to stabilize and conduct Magic. It's not safe—"

"For whom?"

"For the Council, yes, damn you," Keigo hissed. "And yes, it's the easiest way to track what a Mage is up to. As well as his location. But this is not news, and the last person who tried to bring it up was silenced. The younger generation can hold him up as a martyred hero all they want. But it doesn't change the fact Echizen Nanjirou was neutralized. Confound it, Tezuka, I can't afford to have you of all people bring this up. Not even over Echizen Nanjirou's son. If Fuji is smart, and I rather think he possesses enough intelligence for this much, Fuji will keep that brat just as off the radar and quiet as he has been for the last two centuries."

Tezuka studied him for a long moment. "I never asked you to campaign for my seat in the Council on my behalf," he began, and held up a hand when Keigo started forming a protest. "But I accepted everything that came with the position. Should I not do my part? None of your other colleagues will. But I can."

Meaning, Tezuka had been drawing the fire at least partly on purpose. If Tezuka spearheaded the more radical reforms, even if he failed, it left Keigo free to attempt a more moderate reforms in his wake. Those were usually more successful. That was how the Council managed to agree on a decree to streamline some of the most troublesome parts of the Academy that had needed changes for ages. Like standardizing the curriculum for Novice and Apprentice-Mages and refining the admission process to the Academy. Increased transparency. Not quite a planned benefit when he had Tezuka appointed to the Council as the Ninth, but indispensable nonetheless.

For someone so uninterested in politics, Tezuka's acumen in the field was startling. It also bound Keigo to the other half of the mutual effort, to cover for Tezuka and keep the worst of the fire off of him while advancing their mutual cause at a more sedate pace. A highly dangerous gamble, even then; the Primi's influence was nearly absolute. The Primi combined the religious, the educational, and the secular aspects of Cetera culture, closest the Cetera had to heads of the state. Even Keigo had to admit he'd initially underestimate the Primi. If something did go wrong, if Keigo couldn't manage his part, Tezuka would have been left in the immediate line of fire, much like Echizen Nanjirou had been. Very, very few people would ever have dared to form such partnership even with a family member, let alone a friend. Yet, before Keigo even qualified their relationship in such terms, Tezuka had been quietly doing his part.

"This goes beyond what I had in mind," Keigo said quietly, voice drained of earlier anger.

Tezuka nodded quietly. "I've always tried to do what is practical, until now. But I also plan to do what is right." The minute hesitation that touched Tezuka's expression would have been unnoticeable for anyone who didn't know him as well as Keigo did. "I know the two will not always overlap. The latter part is my own burden."

An offer of a compromise. If Tezuka strayed too far left, where his agendas no longer matched Keigo's, he would not expect Keigo to cover his back. Had it been anyone but Tezuka, Keigo could have chalked it up to the limit of their mutual trust. With Tezuka, it was simply that Tezuka would never dream of bringing down a friend even if he fell himself. And wasn't that why he'd chosen Tezuka in the first place? He'd simply gotten more than he bargained for.

"Try to keep the two together," Keigo demanded, voice low but fierce. "Before I take offense at what is possibly the worst insult a friend has paid to my honor."

Tezuka's face was expressionless with surprise, then the corners of his lips curved upward in a rare smile. "I'll take that under advisement."

An offer of a promise, accepted. Tezuka had gone beyond Keigo’s expectations to help him; it was only fair that Keigo should go beyond the line Tezuka set for them. Like Tezuka, Keigo could do no less than his honor demanded in return. That much, they had always shared.

"We were taught that the sins of the parents do not pass on to the children," Tezuka said, and Keigo blinked at the non sequitur. "We rarely fail to hold the children accountable for the sins of their progenitors. Perhaps we should do the same for our own share of responsibilities."

Keigo turned away with a wearied sigh. "Echizen Nanjirou failed. Would you see his son sacrificed to the same hopeless cause?"

"Echizen Nanjirou was alone. We are not."

When Keigo finally managed to reply, his voice was uncharacteristically soft, with none of the skeptical criticism he'd meant to convey. "You're a hopeless dreamer, Tezuka. Only, you're prepared to give up everything for it."

"It's only hopeless if there is no one to take it up."

Keigo closed his eyes, pressing the back of his hand over them – a gesture he would never have allowed himself before anyone else except maybe Kabaji. "You can't expect others to pick it up. Not after last time."

"To hope and to expect are not the same thing," Tezuka pointed out, unshaken. Not for the first time Keigo thought Tezuka really bonded to the wrong Elemental. Nothing of the fluidity of Water or weightlessness of Air in him – Tezuka should have bonded to the unyielding and stubborn Earth.

"You've changed since meeting Fuji." The words had slipped out before Keigo think better of it. They were more an accusation than observation.

"Fuji didn't change me, Atobe."

Perhaps not. Tezuka would only have changed for himself, not for another, no matter who. Maybe all Fuji provided was a window. An opportunity that Tezuka had long been searching for. And at last, the arrival of one Echizen Ryoma had set the final stage for things already in motion, like a stone thrown into a lake waiting to start the ripples.

"And Fuji? Can he change?"

Because the ambitionless, indifferent Fuji was as different from Tezuka as night was from day. Even if Fuji's arrival had heralded the first of Tezuka's changes, Fuji himself, for all his seemingly fluid and airy appearance, might be even more difficult to change than Tezuka. As he was now, Fuji was the least likely person in the whole Cetera who would support Tezuka's plans. The irony was not lost on Keigo.

"I don't know." Tezuka didn't sound exactly troubled, but there was a hesitance Keigo had never heard from him before. "He did volunteer to take Echizen as his pupil."

Fuji's examination, even with all the misdirection and falsehood from every end, was a popular legend, and despite his questionable lineage, Fuji had been asked to mentor before. More than once. Keigo doubted Fuji took Echizen out of something so inane as pity. But Fuji's reasons, like his secrets, would always remain his. Tezuka was beyond hoping where Fuji was concerned, whether or not Tezuka realized it. An expectation with no ground, a demand without any leverage.

"I suppose," Keigo said slowly, his tone philosophical, "you could always ask."

Tezuka surprised him with another of his rare smiles. "I suppose I could." Then, in a softer tone, Tezuka added, "Atobe. Thank you."

Under more usual circumstances, Keigo might have responded with a dismissive, "Don't thank me yet," or "I expect a fair return," or something along that vein. But Tezuka had surprised him enough times today that he was in the mood for something a little different.

So Keigo returned the smile with a slight upturn of his own mouth, and answered.

"You're welcome."

FINIS


I am attempting to incorporate the notes from earlier parts into the stories themselves. As I do, and unfortunately there WILL be changes, I will remove the relevant notes from earlier parts.

Atobe’s family story here is...totally not how I envision the usual Chez Atobe. Just so we’re clear. Also, Nanjirou the failed revolutionary is, albeit unlikely, an idea I liked and wanted to explore in the main story, because I thought it could be a really good expansion on one interpretation of his canon motives. Like vast majority of the ideas in the original vision, the idea was nixed for time in the main story.

This backstory is longer than a chapter. I think I might have problems.
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