I tried for fluff. It refused to happen. >< Makes me sad. Oh well. Set around the Shishido-returing-to-the-Regulars drama.

Disclaimer: Someone over at FET forums said PoT was good because it wasn't angsty like a lot of anime nowadays. They so would NOT have said that if tenipuri belonged to me. (read: tenipuri not mine)



Real Friendship
by Hikari


Ootori Choutarou had just finished his homework for the night when his father knocked on his door, and told him he had a phone call.

And that was how he now found himself standing in the Hyoutei Gakuen tennis courts at ten in the evening, basket of the fuzzy greenish yellow balls at his feet and racket in hand. "Shishido-san, are you sure about this?" He only asked, because he himself sure as all heck wasn't.

Shishido's reply, however, came across loud and clear. "Yes Ootori! You've been asking me that since we met up. Now shut up and serve!"

Ootori frowned, but he tossed the ball up and served anyway. Though he wanted to respect his senpai's wishes, he also knew that throwing things at people was wrong. Serving tennis balls at them was even worse. Hence, he was mildly relieved when he faulted. However, that relief choked up into remorse as soon as Shishido's words made their way across the court to him.

"Come on Ootori! You can do better than that! Think of this as practice! Go again!"

The chiding tone he heard in Shishido's rough voice hardened his resolve to follow Shishido's instructions, and he sent the next ball whisking through the air, over the net, bounce - and full power into Shishido's arm. He winced.

"Again!"

"But Shishido-san…"

"Ootori, please. You said you'd help me. I need your help now. I can't do this alone. Please."

The almost-gentle sound, tinged with a hue of desperation, met Ootori's ear like a train wreck. Shishido, pleading with him, acknowledging a weakness? Most definitely not a common occurrence. The only memories in his two years with Shishido Ryou at Hyoutei were of the arrogant brunette either bragging about his tennis skills or about his personal beauty. Never asking for helping, never showing a need for help. Then again, very few people at Hyoutei did. And so, it was a huge sign of respect and trust if one did show such vulnerability. If Shishido respected him, Ootori Choutarou, really a nobody in the Regulars and not very close to the others either, enough to let him to see his vulnerable point, then he could only return that respect. "All right. Here I come, Shishido-san."

Two hours later, he found his will drained and himself begging Shishido to stop. There was only so much hurt a person could inflict on another living thing, and Ootori Choutarou's limit was much lower than others. Very much lower than others.

"I'm sorry, Shishido-san. I can't do this anymore. And I'm tired - we've been doing this for two hours! Plus practice today…"

"It's OK, Ootori. You've done a lot already. I think… I think I should be the one apologizing, for making you stay out so late. I'll walk you home." Shishido smiled, and reached for a basket to start picking up the balls now scattered all around him with.

Ootori nearly blushed at the thought of being walked home like a girl. "It's OK, Shishido-san. I don't need to be walked home. You should get those bruises tended to instead." He was too busy trying to hide his fiery face to notice Shishido pause in his motions to give him an oddly analytical glance, head tilted to one side.

"You sure? You're too nice for your own good sometimes, you know. I'm afraid if you met a robber, you'd just hand him all your money and everything."

"Shishido-san, you're exaggerating!" Ootori replied, both surprised at the… what exactly was it anyway? Praise? Insult? Well, whatever it was, he was surprised at the words, but more than that, he was surprised that Shishido was the one saying such words.

Shishido laughed - a jarring, but strangely familiar and comforting sound. It'd been awhile since he'd heard the third year laugh, Ootori realized - since the last time Shishido practiced as a Regular, a few days before he lost to that Fudomine guy, in fact. "Not by much," he replied, a lighthearted lilt to his words, instead of the anger and disbelief that had been coloring his usually rough voice lately. By this point, they'd finished picking up all the balls they'd used, and had just turned off the floodlights.

"Good luck, Shishido-san," Ootori waved a little, too tired to really be very cheery.

"Ah, Ootori, wait…" Shishido seemed unusually hesitant, Ootori thought. Usually the team drama queen used pauses for "suspense" purposes or something equally theatrical - of course Shishido had never said that; Ootori had just heard the term once during a particularly captivating orchestral arpeggio. This time, though, the pause really did seem like Shishido was grasping for words.

"Yes, Shishido-san?" Ootori prodded.

"I was wondering…" Another uncharacteristic pause. When Ootori was about to ask again, Shishido finally said, "Never mind. Go home and get some rest," and turned to walk off in the direction of his own house. Now Ootori may be naïve, or maybe he was just far too nice for his own good, but he knew that that had not been all Shishido had wanted.

Before had made it to the end of the block, Ootori had made up his mind. "Shishido-san, wait a second!" Shishido stopped and turned to see Ootori running up to him, longer legs catching up to him in an instant. "If… if you want, we could do this regularly," the definitely too-nice-for-his-own-good boy offered, smile ready on his face. "Until you get back on the Regulars."

Shishido was aghast. No, stunned stupid seemed to fit better. He'd just been kidding; he never thought his kouhai - really, any Hyoutei tennis club member - would be just that nice. "Ootori, you just offered the robber your money."

Ootori laughed - just a small, embarrassed exhalation - and blushed. "Well, if all robbers were senpai who don't take care of themselves, then maybe I would." Shishido continued his gaping. "Shishido-san, stop staring at me like that. You're embarrassing me."

"As if you aren't already," Shishido muttered to himself.

"What?"

"Nothing," he recovered quickly. "But what about your studies? And your health. I mean, it can't be good for you to go through practice and schoolwork, and come out to use your scud serve two hours every night…"

"And it's good for you to be hit by them?" What was up with him that night? Usually Ootori would never make such impolite comments, especially to his senpai. Must be something about the midnight air.

Shishido chuckled again. "You're funny, Ootori." Or maybe, it was serving his ace at an open person for two hours straight, and then hearing that person still be able laugh afterwards - more like be able to laugh only afterwards - like he was truly enjoying himself. That must be what was making him say such strange things. "All right. If you think you can handle it, will you meet me here everyday at eight then? Or is that not a good time?"

"Eight's fine! I usually take a study break then and watch anime or something anyway then." Ootori smiled cheerily, back to his old self. "See you at practice tomorrow!" He had just turned to jog home when Shishido spoke again.

"Ootori?" He turned, questioningly. "Thanks."

He smiled. "You know, if we're going to be training partners, you could just call me Choutarou."

Shishido paused again. "Choutarou," he said slowly, like a baby experimenting with his first word. "Choutarou. I like it. You can call me Ryou too, if you'd like."

"Oh no, senpai, I couldn't do that!" Ootori was startled. He'd never really had any really close friends. He was awkward back in elementary school, with his lanky build and white hair, and was often excluded by others. And Hyoutei students didn't really have friends - they had rivals and rivalry-based acquaintances. But not friends. And certainly no one asking him to call them by name. It was nice.

"Fine, fine," Shishido waved it off. "If you wish. Now just go home, Choutarou."

"Good night Shishido-san!" Finally heading home, Ootori smiled. Choutarou, eh? It was the first time someone outside his family called him that. It was the first time he'd been asked to call someone by their first name. He would grow to like Shishido Ryou, he knew it.

They met everyday for two weeks, as planned. Eight in the evening, Hyoutei tennis courts. It was always the same though - Ootori served, Shishido was hit. Shishido refused to pick up a racket, just letting the projectile traveling a mere thirty meters per second slower than your average bullet, though many times more massive, ricochet off his body. Sometimes the force was enough to knock him flat on his back, but he was prepared for that. He was prepared for anything when he had made the first phone call to the Ootori residence. For Ootori, though, this was harder than practices itself, because it involved hurting a person, and Ootori most definitely wasn't one immune to harming living things.

Then, that one time...

"Shishido-san, can we please stop now?" Ootori asked. He had this really, really unsettling feeling that they were being watched, and Shishido seemed really pissed that day, too. They'd been at it longer than usually now, and he was getting worried with how many hits Shishido was getting. Normally, he capped it after they paused the fifth time to collect all the balls they'd used, but today, they were on their eighth set of refills, and Shishido didn't look like he was ready to stop yet.

"No, Choutarou! Go again." There was that determined look in Shishido's eyes, the look that Ootori knew he couldn't do anything against. Shishido had a practice match scheduled the next day, and Ootori had a nagging suspicion that Shishido was planning something for the match.

"But Shishido-san, you're not even holding a racket!"

"Shut up! Again!" Sighing, Ootori tossed the ball, and served. There it was, that familiar, comforting sound of the ball hitting the sweet spot. He cringed involuntarily as almost instantaneously, the not-so-sweet sound of a ball smacking into human flesh followed by Shishido's pained exhalation met his ears. "Again!" Ootori steeled himself again, like he did every time he served at Shishido. Except this time, the sound he cringed for didn't come. Shishido had finally moved to protect himself – the first time in two weeks of play that he'd done so – and caught the ball.

Ootori was entranced. Shishido seemed to be glowing, radiating an aura of power from the lightning fast movement he had made to catch that ball. He couldn't help but stare at his senpai. Was this why Shishido had been calling him out to physically abuse him every night? (and mentally torment himself in the process, some part of Ootori's mind added wryly) So that he could get used to the speed, and catch them?

"Don't stop, Choutarou. I can see your serves. Let's go. Again!"

"OK!" For the first time in two weeks, Ootori was excited about their extra practice, quite possibly because for the first time, he wouldn't be hurting someone. And that nagging feeling of someone watching was totally forgotten in his excitement and enrapture with Shishido's aura. Simply put, Shishido looked like a new person. The smile on his face was the most beautiful and perfect expression to match his inner glow. Perfect. That must be the right word. Shishido looked perfect.

Years from now, Ootori would pinpoint this moment as the second when he fell inextricably in love with Shishido Ryou. But at the moment, he had no idea that he would. All he knew was that Shishido did not look like himself, and that he liked this Shishido, in a way, strangely enough.

Soon after that, Shishido agreed to stop. "Thanks, Choutarou. For everything."

Ootori could only nod, and swallow. His mouth and mind suddenly were dry of words. Suddenly, he didn't want this to end. Even though every serve he had hit at Shishido had made him cringe, and made him wish he didn't have a serve that Shishido wanted to train with, he had grown to respect Shishido - the Shishido who wouldn't be needing to train with him, anymore.

"I think I've improved my vision as much as I can from receiving your scud serves."

After all, they were only doing this for Shishido to get back on the Regulars. All he needed to do was defeat whomever he was to play in the practice match tomorrow, and if he were to return to the Regulars, that'd be that. If he didn't, well, nothing Ootori could do would be able to help him then.

"I don't think I'll be needing this nightly practice anymore."

Yep. There it was. He knew Shishido must think he was relieved to not have to hurt another person anymore, so he faked happiness, for Shishido's sake. Because it was wrong to wish this would never end, wasn't it? Shishido was already covered in bandages and bruises. He didn't quite need Ootori wanting more of the practices that had inflicted the wounds. "That's good, Shishido-san," Ootori smiled gently. "I'm glad. I hope you get what you want." Oh well. It was just admiration, that was all. Admiration for Shishido's courage and will, respect for his strength to not whine and persevere with the training regime he had dictated for himself, and wonder at the aura Shishido had emitted just shortly before. That didn't have to go away just because they no longer practicing together, alone. They could still play together at the Regulars practices, when Shishido got his spot back, of course. There was no doubt in Ootori's mind that Shishido would beat whomever Atobe-san put him up against tomorrow, unless it was Atobe-buchou or Jirou-senpai, because they were just too good.

Besides, Shishido would still call him Choutarou. That would always remind him that Shishido was indeed a close friend of his. Nothing had to change. So why did he feel empty, knowing that he wouldn't have to come to the courts tomorrow evening?

"Good night, Shishido-san. And good luck tomorrow."

Ootori didn't sleep well that night. In fact, Ootori didn't sleep at all that night. He flipped over yet again and checked the clock, only to find a mere seven minutes had passed since he last looked. The image of the glowing Shishido that night simply refused to be banned from his mind. What was wrong with him? He was acting like some lovesick girl - of which he'd only seen too many, hovering around the courts all the time, mostly watching Atobe-san, though many were there for Jirou-senpai also, as well as Oshitari-san, Shishido-san, Hiyoshi-kun, and even Mukahi-senpai. But he wasn't in love with Shishido Ryou. He just admired him! So why couldn't he sleep? By all rights, he should be exhausted. But he wasn't.

He got up and turned on the light. He went to wash his face, hoping it might help him sleep. Returning to his room, he saw a picture they'd taken as a team after some match early that spring, after the third years had retired to study for entrance exams, and he'd taken his place as a Regular. Shishido was in the picture as well, along with Atobe, already looking the part of the captain he would be following spring break, Kabaji carrying a sleeping Jirou, Oshitari, Gakuto, and Taki. Back then, it'd just been as any other team picture. They weren't really friends yet, except maybe the doubles pair Oshitari and Gakuto. Now, he and Shishido were friends.

And once you've experienced friendship, it's hard to go back to being without. It was hard to think that perhaps your "friend" didn't need you anymore, that maybe, he'd never thought of you as a friend in the first place. After all, he'd been the one to suggest Shishido call him Choutarou, right? If it'd been the other way around, maybe he could believe in the reality of their relationship more. As things were, however, that would be impossible. Sighing, Ootori was surprised to find hot liquid welling up in his eyes. Dashing them away and suppressing his thoughts, he threw himself back onto his queen-sized bed - he'd long outgrown a twin - and fell into a deep sleep.

The next day, when Atobe announced that Shishido would be playing Taki, Ootori was shocked. Did he just help his own partner off the Regulars team? There was a part of him that wanted Shishido to lose, so that he wouldn’t have helped his partner lose, and so that he could keep Shishido to himself. There had been no doubt that Shishido would win the second Taki made the first serve of the match, and Shishido was there, ready to use his rising shot, before the ball even bounced. Shishido's speed had just increased that much, as had his vision. Ootori was happy for Shishido, and glad that he had been able to help him bring to light such potential stored away in that small body.

There was another reason he wasn’t too happy about the match though – somewhere inside, Ootori wished he were the only one privileged enough to see Shishido in such a state. Sure, Shishido wasn't glowing anymore, not like last night. Ootori doubted anything could ever match Shishido in the state he had been in when he first raised his hand to catch the scud serve. Nonetheless, the grace with which Hyoutei's new speed demon moved was captivating. Ootori wasn't jealous by nature, nor was he selfish. Which was why these feelings completely and totally confused him, considering he hadn't expected to want Shishido all to himself.

Regardless of what he had expected, though, he did want Shishido for himself, which meant that the match, with a good quarter of Hyoutei's two hundred man tennis club watching, wasn't making him happy.

When Shishido was declared winner of the match, having lost only one game, Ootori was happy for his friend, although worried and upset for his partner at the same time. Then Sakaki had come, and Shishido had looked so hopeful it made Ootori's heart ache, far more than it should have for Shishido. He should have been sorry for his partner, but he wasn’t, not in the least – his attention was all focused on Shishido, who once again looked nearly vulnerable. That also hurt Ootori, knowing that even the weakness Shishido had granted him that first day wasn't reserved for him alone. The one who caused that powerlessness also held control over it, and was able to see it anytime he wished, unlike Ootori himself. When Sakaki had cold-heartedly declared that Hiyoshi would become the next Regular, Ootori gaped at Sakaki's cruelty for a mere second before hearing Shishido's voice ring out across the courts again.

Ootori was completely drawn in by that voice. The desperation, to which he'd only been privy a part of, was now full-blown in Shishido's questioning demands. Orange desperation edged with fiery red anger... the voice tore at Ootori's heart. Shishido had trained so hard, and had defeated Taki so thoroughly, and was so good... Sakaki wasn't being fair! While Ootori was usually one to respect his elders, was one who never broke tradition and was an all around good boy, it seemed all of that went straight down the gutters where Shishido was involved. Anger boiled up inside Ootori himself. Sure, maybe Shishido had lost to that Fudomine guy, but that guy was good! Atobe had admitted as much, and Ootori had done his own research -Tachibana Kippei had been one of the National Tournament's Sweet Sixteen singles player last year, when he was but a second year! The only other second years to ever be ranked in the Nationals Sweet Sixteen had been Echizen Nanjirou over a decade ago and the Rikkai trio, Yukimura Seiichi, Sanada Genichirou, and Yanagi Renji. It would have been hard for any of the Hyoutei Regulars to defeat him, even Atobe himself!

Shishido blew past all of them as he chased after the retreating Hyoutei coach. Ootori followed, because tradition and common sense and courtesy could just go to hell where Shishido was considered. He followed because when it came to one you care about, you'd do anything to protect them, and Ootori cared about Shishido. A lot. More than he himself imagined at the time. The first person he'd called a friend. The first friend to call him Choutarou. The first one to make him so stupidly happy when he simply laughed. The first one to be able to see and catch his serve. Shishido Ryou.

He'd expected Shishido to get angry. He'd expected to have to mediate between the forsaken player and the rigid coach. He was prepared for angry words, physical action even. He had not been prepared to see Shishido on his knees, bowed behind the unmoved Sakaki, and was thus stunned to silence, words that had been running through his head frozen in shock at Shishido's begging. For a brief moment, his senses resurfaced, and he tried negotiating with Sakaki.

"Ootori, would you like to be dropped from the Regulars also?"

His senses had only surfaced for a very brief moment. By the time Sakaki had finished his question, his sense had already left him again.

"I don't mind." Shishido had been his only friend on the team. Before, when he had never experienced friendship - real friendship, not the fake I'll eat lunch with you because we're both in tennis club and in the same class kind of friendship he shared with Hiyoshi or the I’m your partner so I have to hang out with you deal with Taki - he hadn't minded as much. But when you do have the blessing and curse of having experienced friendship, you can't go back to living without it. It's just like that, as natural as saying once you've learned to ride a bike, you'll never forget. And so, if Shishido wasn't going to be a Regular, well then, Ootori really didn't care one way or another.

Then, Atobe had stepped in. Realistically, Atobe was the only person on the team with any influence on Sakaki at all, and they all knew it. Relief flooded through Ootori when he heard Atobe's smooth, emotionless voice. Then his eyes and Sakaki's met, and for a brief moment, Ootori felt chills go down his back. Sakaki was the Hyoutei music teacher, Ootori knew. He'd seen him in the music room often enough. No true musician follows the notes as transcribed exactly on paper. Every musician to ever play a piece takes it and modifies it according to how they feel the music, and makes it their own. An understanding flowed between the two musicians.

"Do what you will," Sakaki said, waving his hand and turning away. To Shishido and Atobe, it looked like Atobe had made the final difference. But Ootori knew better - he knew that Sakaki wasn't as cold-blooded as he'd first thought. The musician's soul hid in that immovable exterior somewhere, and the plain need to be with Shishido had been so firmly rooted in Ootori's mind and soul, so clearly etched onto his silver-gray eyes, Sakaki had looked at them and seen that flat out, Ootori would refuse to play without the person he most needed. Sakaki had pitied them, and he'd known that he really couldn't afford to be down Taki, Shishido and Ootori, especially since Ootori was still a second year. He had taken Hyoutei's traditional score, and made the musical reproduction his own.

Atobe che'ed, as though he thought he was wasting his time. Which, knowing Atobe, probably wasn't far from the truth. Ootori and Shishido stayed shocked silent in their delight, even after Atobe had informed them that they would be playing doubles and returned to the courts. So Shishido would be a Regular again. They’d be able to train together still, as well as play together and go to matches together. They’d still be close enough to stay friends, and they’d be able to spend time together. And maybe one of these days, he’d be able to clear up his own mind as to how he felt about his senpai. Ootori was one very happy boy indeed.



Er…It's an old one. o.0 I sorta rewrote and edited parts of it, and decided to post it. =P s'Not everyday I write a 4000 word fic y'know. Not even 3000. Bah. I originally titled it "Realization", but totally forgot why, so I retitled it. I still don't like the title, but then again, I'm not fond of the story as a whole. Yes, I'm weird. Bite me.



The End

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