Shishido's hair crackled a little with static when he ran his fingertips through it--the sweat in it had dried through the Jirou-Kaidou and Atobe-Echizen matches, and Mukahi would probably have been making fun of him for the way it was standing on end, if Mukahi hadn't been snoring with his head in Oshitari's lap. Lucky little twit--well, little being kind of the point: Atobe might have gotten them a damned comfortable coaster (and then gone ahead in his shining black stretch limo, the bastard) but the seats weren't long enough to stretch out in unless you could sleep flopped half off them, like Jirou was, or roll yourself into a weird little ball like Mukahi did. Plus Mukahi had a pillow. Who looked like he was braiding the hair that normally hung in Mukahi's face when he played--okay, since when did Oshitari braid anything...?
The static wasn't anything bad, really--nothing compared to the way his hair had used to crackle when it was dry out, yeah, and it'd fallen long past his shoulders, then. Whenever it'd been winter, and he'd run a brush through it before bed--his mom never stopped complaining about how if he was going to grow his hair he had to use a comb, because it was just going to all fall out if he yanked like that at the knots, but he'd never listened to her--he'd looked into the mirror to see half his hair floating back upwards towards the tines. And more brushing, of course, had only made it worse.
It'd always made Choutarou laugh, a little, when he'd seen that happening. Of course, Choutarou had always been way too polite to poke fun at anyone, even Shishido--even now, which was weird, really, if you thought 'bout it, considering that they'd been roommates since the beginning of the year--but he'd always made just a little chuckle sound low in his throat, and after awhile, rather than being annoyed at the pain-in-the-neck that all his hair was sometimes, Shishido had realised just how funny it was, too.
Shishido pushed his fingers against his scalp again, and winced, a little--he thought he'd gotten used to it being short and spiky, sort of, but... even after all this time, it was still kind of a shock to reach up and automatically want to run his fingers down that falling curtain, and feel, well, nothing but empty space where for the longest time, there'd been silk. He'd had long hair since elementary school--and, well, anyone who had thought that he was easy to pick on just because his hair fell to his shoulders had found out pretty damned quickly that Shishido Ryou was no-one's target.
He'd taken good care of his hair pretty much from the day he'd decided he wanted to grow it out--well, he'd been proud of it, once--and it'd always felt sort of good to run his hands through it, even though he'd never really left it down, much. It was still so weird to look on top of his dresser and see a brush (that he shouldn't've been using) when, well, now when he got out of the shower, all he needed to do was run his fingers through it a couple of times, and it'd be dry in what seemed like seconds. And then a cap, and off he went.
It definitely wasn't anything like walking around with a damp ponytail leaving drippy marks on the back of his school uniform--hey, the gods knew he wasn't using a hairdryer, that was just too damned much trouble--and he never had to think about things like conditioner, or tangles anymore. His hair didn't freeze into weird positions when he went out on a cold winter night with it wet, and he didn't have to yank at tangles like he'd used to if he ever played a game of pick-up basketball and his hair tie broke or something. So yeah, it was pretty convenient. But the wind felt so different through it--no more tug, like fingers--and sometimes, in the mornings before he was all the way awake, he still reached for a hair tie.
Weird, how he was thinking about his hair.
Then again, not so weird--playing with Seigaku's Ooishi had been the first time he'd played singles since he'd been on his knees in front of Kantoku, cutting away the hair that'd been part of his pride. Yeah, he knew. He knew he'd needed to do it, too. It'd been a gesture that he was ready to throw all of that old, bad stuff away, and maybe some of the good with the bad, too. He'd understood that--and he thought, maybe, Choutarou had gotten it, even if no-one else had. If Atobe had gotten that, he'd be scared--the thought of Atobe Keigo being that sensitive to what anyone was feeling was just freaky.
Kind of weird--he and Ooishi were both doubles players, yeah. But it was funny to think how their coordination was so different. It wasn't like Ooishi was bad at the game--sure, Shishido had been more than a bit disappointed in the beginning of their match, 'cause, Hell, you expected a nationally ranked player to be damned good no matter whether he played singles or doubles--but... he wasn't really tall, or really fast, or, Hell, if Shishido was gonna be brutally honest, his reflexes really weren't much of anything. Nowhere near Shishido's, that was for sure. And it was too bad that famous Moon Volley hadn't come out, since he'd definitely have wanted to see if he was fast enough to catch up to it.
But by the fourth catch-up point, with Ooishi panting fit to cough up a lung and in pretty bad shape, but with that look in his eyes--that same 'you might take this game, but the next one's mine' look--Shishido had realised, well, maybe they weren't so different, after all.
He'd've given a lot to see Ooishi and Kikumaru--that was the red-headed guy's name, right, the one'd been referee for them?--playing together, though. Sure, from the game he'd seen during the Kantou tournament, Kikumaru was a flashbang acrobatic player, a lot like Mukahi--but the Golden Pair combination was probably sort of different, maybe, from the way the Oshitari-Mukahi pair worked. He'd asked Oshitari once, how he could put up with Gakuto being such a little show-off--and Oshitari's eyebrows had just come up, he'd fixed his glasses, and said, "I'm a show-off, too." Which he was. As much as Shishido hated to admit it, Oshitari really did play doubles because he wanted to--not because he needed to.
What Seigaku's Ooishi played, though, wasn't the kind of game that could hold him in a singles spot, not at the national level, probably not even in his school--sure, he had determination, and Shishido respected that, but his tennis was just so... so steady. If he hadn't been as good as he was, maybe Shishido would've said it was boring, except, well--obviously, it hadn't been, and he was sure he'd have won the match... but there would've been no point to it. He'd seen what drove Ooishi's tennis, and sure, the guy was steady--but he wasn't dull.
Which, maybe, was just what Kikumaru needed so he could fly--someone to catch him. An amae kind of pairing--Shishido didn't think much of that kind of dependence, but hey, it worked for some people. Or maybe it was more than just dependence, 'cause... well, he didn't know all that much about the two of them, but from what he'd seen after the game, the way Kikumaru had fussed over the scratches on his partner and Ooishi had laughed, wrapping an arm over his shoulders, and said something about it being his job to worry over everyone, so maybe he'd better go watch the Momo-Mukahi match... every pairing had its coordination, and it wasn't ever quite the same.
Mukahi showed off and Oshitari tricked people into mind games and thinking that Mukahi didn't have any backup, which was what they each liked to do; Kikumaru flew, and Ooishi was there to catch him if he needed it... but hey, maybe it worked both ways with them, too. At the end of the day, it looked like Kikumaru flew right back to Ooishi.
Maybe it was just something about the kind of doubles pairing that had a loose cannon--he had the feeling that from the way Kikumaru'd watched his partner, his lips going into a tight little line every time Ooishi hit the ground ...those two were probably well on their way to being a whole heck of a lot like Mukahi and Oshitari. Okay, less pervy, maybe. It'd been sort of cute, really, the way Kikumaru'd made a little whimpering sound every time Ooishi got back up, like he really, really wanted to jump right off that chair and pat his partner down to make sure he was okay--and after the match, that was exactly what he'd done--but he'd stuck there and made the calls, because, well, that was what referees were supposed to do.
Shishido was pretty sure he and Choutarou could still kick their asses, when it came down to it, though--Golden Pair or not. He didn't care what anyone said--pure gold was pretty, and probably the two of them were pretty to watch, with Kikumaru jumping all over the place, and Ooishi baselining for him--but squashy.
He and Choutarou were solid steel.
They didn't need each other to play a kick-ass game--it just so happened that they kicked ass together just as much as they did apart. Yeah, it was something he was pretty damned proud of--really together doubles pairs, like they were, were pretty rare. He hadn't really thought about it before, but since he'd come back to the team, he'd realised: you couldn't just stick two hotshot singles players together and think that they could play doubles. It'd turn into a mess. It'd been a mess, for them, at the beginning.
It was pretty funny, though--sure, they all had to play singles sometimes, but they did it a lot less now than they had when they'd still been working out Regulars and pairings at the very beginning of the school year. It'd been especially a real long while for him. He and Choutarou had gone into doubles training pretty much after he'd beaten Taki into the courts. Shishido could be sure that the rest of Hyotei'd thought he'd screw up again, and that he couldn't work with someone else in the middle of the game. Heh.
Still, though, he'd never really thought, not a lot, about the fact that Choutarou really would've been pretty damned strong at singles, too. He was tall, sure, which gave him a lot of reach--fast enough to get where he needed to be--and because of his serve, he could hit back killer serves, too. He might not have taken a Regular spot on Hyotei's team, but Shishido was pretty sure that if he'd gotten into most any other school's tennis club, he could've even been playing Singles Two, if he'd wanted to.
Not Singles One--not yet, 'cause while Choutarou determined was a helluva thing to see, he just didn't have the killer want to win, that, more than anything, Shishido thought made Singles One players so weird and socially dysfunctional--but if he'd really worked at his game, he could've been leading Hyotei when Atobe and the rest of them graduated.
Then again, maybe not. Choutarou was way too nice to really smack down someone when they needed it, and the politics of being buchou would've probably killed him. Dead.
Ootori would've probably have made a good fukubuchou, if Hyotei had had that kind of thing. He would make a good second-man for the Hyotei team, anyway, by next year--whenever anyone had a gripe with that bastard Hiyoshi, they'd go running to Choutarou, and Choutarou would make little blinkey puzzled faces and then just say something kind of nice offhand and pat and squeeze someone's shoulder, and make everyone feel better. Even if Ootori felt the same about that something Hiyoshi had said, there was just no way he'd say anything bad about anyone--or tattle even if someone did tell him something. He'd just plain go to Hiyoshi himself and be oh-so-polite 'bout explaining it in the most roundabout way possible--because Ootori wouldn't let anyone hurt his people.
Though, considering how Ootori was the kind of idiot who thought that it was downright okay if someone hurt him as long as no-one else got hurt, if Hiyoshi said anything bastardly to him, he wouldn't do a thing.
Of course--Shishido grinned at the memory, at the way he'd blinked and his eyebrow had hitched up when Choutarou had ripped across the courts yelling "KUSO!" at the top of his lungs--he hadn't thought that Ootori Choutarou swore, either. So, well, he didn't quite have his partner figured out all the way yet. Hey, who knew, maybe there was hope for their gentle not-so-little Ootori, yet.
"Shishido-san?" he blinked as that quiet tenor voice sounded in his ears--a little quieter, now, and everyone else in the coaster was dead to the world--even Oshitari, who'd just sort of leaned his head back on the chair without even taking off his glasses. Had to hand it to the guy--Shishido sure wouldn't have wanted to fall asleep with that crazy Mukahi's head anywhere near his balls... "Ah... you're awake?"
He didn't really like sleeping without anything to lean on--he always woke up with a helluva crick in his neck--and the way the window rattled his teeth when he put his head on it would've given him a migraine in ten seconds flat. Well, that was probably a good reason to miss his hair: no matter how much people'd made fun of it, he'd always been able to stick his ponytail between his head and a hard thing when he wanted a nap.
Shishido glanced behind him at where Ootori was getting to his feet--well, hey, maybe he wanted company, and it sure didn't look that Shishido was going to get any rest anytime soon. He chuckled and patted the seat beside him--it was annoying to have to crane his neck around to talk to someone behind him, anyway. "Yeah. Wanna sit?"
Poor Ootori--if Shishido was having problems with the coaster being a little too small for comfort, he couldn't be too happy. Sure, it was more than tall enough that almost any of them could stand straight in it, and it was way, way better than having to take the bus all the way back to Hyotei, but the seats could kinda be a problem--Ootori probably wasn't too comfy. It was pretty neat to see, though, how he wasn't really awkward the way a lot of tall kids were--he sank down beside Shishido without even bumping his knees on the seat in front of them, and smiled, a little. And then his hand came up and flicked, lightly, at a bit of Shishido's hair. "You're not wearing your cap, Shishido-san."
He ducked away from his partner's fingers, a little bark of a laugh in his mouth. "Yeah, well..." he ran a hand through it again, and this time, there wasn't any surprise when strands became air. Maybe it was something to do with Ootori. "It's pretty awful, huh?"
"No, it's not bad at all," Ootori protested, but he was pretty predictable, sometimes.
"You wouldn't be you if you didn't say something like that," Shishido observed, wryly. "You don't have to lie, Choutarou. I've got a mirror at home."
This time, though, when Ootori's fingers slid lightly into Shishido's hair, Shishido let him, half-closing his eyes. "It's different, Shishido-san. Not bad."
It felt pretty good when Ootori moved just the tips of his fingers against his scalp like that--like a pinpoint massage--so he didn't actually mind so much. It wasn't any different, he thought, from the way buddies of his had used to tug on his ponytail--well, when they did it gently. No-one except for Ootori ever really ran their fingers through his short hair, obviously, but Ootori didn't much touch people, so he figured it was kind of an honour that his partner did things like this sometimes.
Then Ootori's hand stilled against him, and he hesitated--funny, how Shishido could feel him tense, even from right beside him. "Ah... do you miss it?"
Shishid blinked, once, slowly, and let his eyes come open again. "My hair?" he shrugged, maybe just a little awkwardly. Funny how Ootori would ask him about that. "I guess I got used to it. It was kind of a pain, though."
Ootori blinked back at him, and then laughed, just a little. "Oh... I suppose I wasn't clear. I meant, well... you looked like you were enjoying yourself so much, today. When you were playing singles with Ooishi-san."
"What d'you mean?" there was something--something--in that face that made Shishido blink a little, not that normal nice-guy soft smile that Ootori normally wore. Yeah, he was a little dense sometimes. Sure, the game with Ooishi had been something else, but... well, the Seigaku fukubuchou hadn't been a bad player, after all. Shishido appreciated fighters a helluva lot more than he liked divas, no matter how good they thought they were..
Ootori blinked down at him, once, and then looked right over his head, out the window. "Oh. Nothing, Shishido-san."
Ri-ight. Okay, not even he was that dense. "Wha-at? C'mon," he flashed Ootori his best smile. "Out with it."
Ootori picked at the cuff of his jacket.
Shishido just kept looking at him. It wasn't like he thought that Ootori would break and spill, eventually--Ootori just didn't break like that, but when he really wanted to say something, well, it might take awhile, but... he'd say it. And anyone who wasn't willing to wait for that to happen, well, that was kind of their problem, wasn't it?
Ootori's voice was too, too damned soft when he murmured, leaning his head back just a little--funny, how the line of his throat stretched like that and lit pale gold in the late sun, funny how he was looking at the ceiling of the coaster. "Do you miss playing singles, Shishido-san? Doubles must be boring for you after that..."
"What kind of dumb question is that?" he heard himself snap, and winced. 'Kay, that wasn't quite what he'd meant to say. That definitely wasn't the tone he'd meant to say it in.
So Choutarou had seen it, too--well, that sort of wasn't too much of a surprise. Choutarou wasn't anywhere near as dense as some people thought he was; stupid of them, to think that he was dumb just 'cause he was a sweet kid. And the very nicest thing for Shishido to do would be, well, to just plain and outright lie, and say 'Nah,' and grin and nudge him until this weird mood of his went away. It was just plain mean to say that you missed playing singles when the doubles partner who'd offered to give up his spot on the team for you... was sitting there and asking you about it.
But there was the thing--Ootori just wasn't dumb.
Plus Ootori was his friend--and seriously, lying to one of your best friends over something like this--even if did make him feel better--just seemed like a really, really good way to build up a lot of really bad karma really, really fast.
Reluctantly, Shishido shrugged, and spread his hands, examining the scrapes on them silently. Sometimes when he got new cuts Ootori started fussing over them--"Who the Hell worries about Shishido Ryou," he snapped, whenever Ootori did... but then Ootori always just smiled at him and simply said 'I do.' Maybe that'd get his partner's mind off the whole doubles-singles things, but--
Ootori's voice was very, very quiet when he looked away and murmured, "Never mind. It was a silly question. I apologise."
Well, shit. So much for that.
"Don't start with that," he nudged Ootori, sharply. The kid could be such an idiot sometimes. Seriously. "Look, it's not that simple."
There were a lot of things that had stopped being 'just that simple' when he'd stopped playing Singles.
There was a time when tennis had been easy--it'd been easy to sink into the game and focus on his opponent, and forget about the referee, the racquet in his hand, the way his hair whipped his face when he ran. The only things on the court were going to be him, and the idiot on the other side who thought that he could keep him from what he wanted. He'd been a Hyotei Regular, he could've taken on the world, no-one could take him down, and nowadays, it really made him wonder--he'd never given Hyotei's policy much of a thought before being dropped... Hell, if you'd never lost, then obviously you were the best around, right?
But Ootori was still looking at him, and his voice was quiet and polite and cool. Ootori was pretty much always quiet, and polite, and... well, just a little withdrawn. It made Shishido wonder, sometimes, how many people thought that he was standoffish. "I don't understand, Shishido-san. I don't play singles a great deal, but..."
"It's not the same game," Shishido insisted. It was the only explanation he knew.
"It's the same game, Shishido-san," Ootori looked puzzled, but then, why wouldn't he be? "It's... it's just tennis. How could it be any different?"
And maybe the difference was in him, not in the game, yeah--because six months ago, two months ago, there wasn't any way Shishido would've have stopped after four points with Ooishi-kun. He'd have played him until Ooishi was on his knees. He wouldn't have thought twice about it, because that'd been what winning was about, right...?
"Yeah. No. Choutarou," Shishido sighed, and leaned his head back against the back of the chair, closing his eyes. "You've never lost at singles. Trust me. It's different."
He wasn't going to say anything more about that. If Ootori wasn't satisfied with the explanation, then... no. Not even for his partner was he going to go into that. Hell, he wasn't even going to mention how he'd been dropped because... because, Hell, losing had been bad, yeah, but it'd broken something inside him to be walking behind Atobe, hearing Atobe tell Sakaki that even though Shishido was a Regular, Shishido had lost--in the same disgusted way someone else might have said 'even though he's my friend, he's stabbed me in the back.' Sure, it had been Atobe, and Atobe had always been a bastard--but Atobe was his buchou.
Ootori's finger brushed away a too-long strand from his face--he hadn't cut it all evenly, and it'd been so busy he hadn't really had the time to get it fixed up. "I'm sorry, Shishido-san," his voice was very soft, shaking. "I didn't mean--to bring up bad memories."
But at the same time... it didn't make the breaking hurt any less, but maybe that something had needed to be broken.
"Not bad," he shrugged, a little ripple across his shoulders. "It happened. You get over it. I'm back on the team now, so what does it matter?"
Except it did. If he hadn't had to go through the training that still made him sit up in bed sometimes, sweating, aching in places that had already healed, and sometimes not quite remembering how to breathe, he'd never have known what it was like to be conscious of the person outside the game--not just Ootori, but... well, tasting the blood in his mouth, seeing it stain the courts like it was someone else's, and knowing, suddenly, that he could do this, or he'd die trying... and he couldn't do it alone. It mattered, because he'd never played doubles, really played, before he'd lost--no-one had ever given him any kind of reason to think that he'd have to lean on somebody.
Maybe everyone needed to be knocked down, just a little, because you couldn't want to get up if you'd never been hit down. You couldn't work to fix what had never been broken. You couldn't really want something until it'd been taken away.
Sure, if Tachibana hadn't smacked him into the ground, he'd still have been strutting around the courts thinking that no-one could take him on, and if no-one could take him on--no-one could match him. Sure, it'd been fun, in its own way. Being king of your court always was. But... at the end, there was always going to be someone who could take you when you played, and it was always going to break you to pieces because, well, you just never saw it coming... unless there were more important people for you to beat.
Maybe that was the problem with the Hyotei team--the Hyotei policy.
You had to have a reason to want to beat yourself, and he had.
What the Hell--fine. Okay. He owed Ootori more of an answer than that. This was what being doubles partners was about. He'd left most of his pride sitting in clippings, anyway.
"Singles..." he cocked his head, looked up into the little aircon-puff thing that he'd pointed away from him. "It's just you, your opponent. You just play the game, and the only one that matters on the courts is you, and how you see the guy across from you." It's just the wind through your hair and it whipping into your face, stinging. "Doubles... it's a pain in the ass to play doubles, Choutarou. Wait, lemme finish," he snapped, as Ootori went all stiff beside him. He was kind of surprised he hadn't heard the 'snap' of his kouhai's spine cracking, he'd straightened so fast. "You've gotta be so conscious of someone else on your side of the court. You've gotta say things like 'I'm counting on you' and let a ball go 'cause it's someone else's turn to get it. Doubles isn't simple. You know."
Or maybe he didn't know. Ootori really did look like he was about to turn into an ice sculpture... or cry. It wasn't like Ootori cried--sure as Hell Shishido didn't think boys crying was right in any way, shape or form--but Hell, he wasn't saying this right at all. "It's not that I don't like playing doubles, Choutarou," he added, hastily. Geez, he hadn't meant that at all. "Just... well, it's just not easy. That's all."
No, doubles wasn't simple. It felt so damned wrong to let the ball past when your body just wanted to go for it, like it'd done for so many years, and damn, he'd really wanted to flinch the first couple of dozen times he'd heard the noise of a serve coming from behind him, where he couldn't see it. The dependence had been the hardest part, even harder than, well, learning the stance for his rising counter: sure, he'd had to figure out how to move just the right way to not get hit by a ball moving at over two hundred kilos an hour at him, and he'd learned just too damned well how that ball felt hitting him. But that was just him--how the Hell was he supposed to know if Ootori was going to be where he was supposed to be, to cover that side of the court? It wasn't like Ootori Choutarou came with puppet strings, or anything.
Dependence didn't come easy, and Shishido had fought it the whole way, 'cause he fought for everything--until the day he'd missed a ball, sworn loud enough to raise Atobe's eyebrows on the court next to them and made to storm back to the baseline--and found Ootori smiling at him as his partner filled the space he couldn't have been in, and returned the ball, a perfect pinpoint smash right smack into the corner of the doubles court. Clean, beautiful.
It hadn't been about dependence, that day, or even trust, or anything like that, it was just that... Ootori had been there, and, well... after awhile, Shishido didn't even need to look over his shoulder to watch his partner go for a shot that he'd missed... and then after awhile, he didn't go for them anymore, not when he knew that Ootori was going to hold down that part of the court.
Sometimes he liked to look, anyway, 'cause, well, sure, there were still moments now and again when the court felt too damned crowded with two people on it... but then there were the moments when Choutarou looked back at him over his shoulder, and Shishido knew that his partner was counting on him, and... well, it felt even better to hit that one ball.
Singles was a rush, sure. Doubles was a pleasure: there was always going to be someone else watching you do your best--Hell, probably the one person on the Hyotei team who wasn't hoping, at least in a little part of them, that you'd lose and get dropped from the Regular spot. He'd never been, well, liked before. He hadn't realised it wasn't the same thing as being friends with someone. You could be friends with someone and still hate their guts, and it was so weird that Ootori didn't hate his.
Okay, maybe not so weird, because--as much as he didn't want to, as much as, well, he knew he shouldn't get too... attached, or something, to having him as a doubles partner, considering the Hyotei policy... somewhere along the line, he'd figured out that Ootori was worth liking, too. Probably the one bastard on the whole team that was, come to think.
So he'd repay the favor. He'd watch. He'd yell when he saw those shoulders starting to dip a little, and let Ootori patch up his hands. And sure, they needed work, but... maybe, as long as they kept watching each other--as long as they kept asking--pushing--doubles would always be about learning from someone else, and there just wasn't room on a court with two people on it for something like stupid pride. Believing in your partner, in yourself--sure, there wasn't anything wrong with that, but doubles was about cutting away all the little bits that you didn't need.
He half-opened his eyes and grinned, just a little, nudging Ootori with his shoulder. "There you go. Singles, doubles... it's kind of like the difference between having long hair or short. You get it? 'It's different. Not bad.'"
Ootori's eyes widened from where they'd been so distant, warm gold before that pouty mouth curved, just a little, maybe to hear his own words on someone else's lips. "But... Shishido-san," his hand ventured upwards before it stalled, like he was scared, for a second, "You were so proud of your hair," he pointed out, quietly.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Shishido shrugged again--before leaning up to butt his head, just a little, up against Ootori's palm. Yeah, it felt good when Choutarou ran his fingertips through his hair like that. Oh, mmm. "But it was hard to keep up, you know?" he cocked his head, and nudged his partner again. "It feels better this way."
Maybe that was what trust was about.
Yeah--yeah, it did feel better this way, with the coaster quiet, and Ootori's hand falling from his hair as he blinked, once, twice... and then smiled, quietly, like there wasn't anything else he needed to say. Ootori didn't talk when he really didn't need to. Hey, it was one of the best things about the kid.
Next to the fact, maybe, that his partner's shoulder was just the right height to lean on as Shishido let himself drift off to sleep.
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