Ambit
by Ruebert


Shishido expresses his worry and anxiety in sharp, biting words and slammed cupboards; glasses fall to the kitchen floor and shatter more often than can be accounted for by simple clumsiness and unfamiliarity. Ohtori cooks and cleans, pretending to domesticity which he hates, snapping when clothing is left lying on the floor and not placed properly into the hamper; the vacuum cleaner belt burns out. Hiyoshi says nothing, but sits in his room, in a corner of the living room, perched on the railing of the balcony; he holds a broken-spined, dog-eared book in his hands and ignores the pain. He claims to be reading when questioned, but never passes beyond the third paragraph on the twenty-fourth page, hollow eyes tracking the same words over and over again.

1

Short-term relief is found in simple contact; forgetting life for minutes at a time lost in hot breath and trembling fingers that drag nails over unmarred skin. Ohtori picks up their clothing and folds it neatly, and when Shishido stands to help Hiyoshi to his feet, he throws the mop at them and tells them to clean up their mess; his kitchen floor is dirty again, and he won't stand for that.

Hiyoshi takes the mop from startled fingers, and when Shishido stares at him blankly, he pokes him in the stomach with the end of the handle before beginning to clean, smearing water across the floor. Shishido is not completely oblivious; when he pads his way into the room which has become his temporary home, he is met by tense shoulders and hands braced against the wall, sweat and dirt staining the plaster in the shape of Ohtori's palms. When he speaks Ohtori's given name, he is met by eyes that hold hidden terror, and is struck by a moment of deja vu as he is borne to the floor beneath another's weight, but it is carpet that meets his back and not cool linoleum, and it is smooth skin that slides around his torso instead of rough cloth. Usually they are gentle; today it is rushed snarls and hard thrusts, hips raising and none of the foreplay that has always been a part of their physical relationship. Shishido does not say anything to the tears that dot the skin of his shoulder, to shaking whispered words of love. He stares up at the ceiling, and Hiyoshi's fingers brush sweat-damp strands of hair out of his eyes.

2

Every time the phone rings, Hiyoshi jumps; the motion startles Ohtori, who squeezes his waist too tightly and murmurs ineffective words into his back, runs a gentle touch over wrapped gauze. Shishido is the one who moves from the bed, who stumbles against an unexpected nightstand and curses as he checks the number displayed on the phone, who returns in silence to slide a leg between Ohtori's thighs, curl his fingers around the waistband of Hiyoshi's jeans. They lay awake in the daylight, not speaking, not sleeping, listening to each other breathe, fighting to retain composure as a bird calls outside the window from the balcony railing; Ohtori covers Hiyoshi's mouth with his own to muffle his screaming for the bird to stop while Shishido throws a pillow through the opened screen door that sails out into empty space and then disappears.

3

Each morning is met by the question of how much longer, how much longer they will wait, how much longer can they stand this enforced closeness, how much longer can uneasy truces be maintained, frustrated arguments paused by a word and a raised hand and tired eyes, how much longer until it doesn't matter whose name is being gasped out into the stifling air. Ohtori awakens from an afternoon nap and Hiyoshi is gone, an empty depression taking up a third of the bedclothes; Shishido cannot calm the panic in those eyes, in the words that tumble from those lips. When Hiyoshi returns from the convenience store with a carton of milk, he is greeted by accusing eyes and arms that refuse to let go.

4

It is good -- if anything can be called good about this -- that it is summer, and school remains unaffected for the three; Ohtori's sister visits them in a flurry of painted nails and too-tight clothing, effervescent sympathy which is rewarded by Hiyoshi's hand pushing her out the front door and locking it after throwing her shoes after her.

Hiyoshi's brother takes over the classes he teaches at the dojo and calls Ohtori in the evening, leading him on through a lengthy discussion that ends with a sharp click and a dial tone; Shishido is in danger of losing his part-time job, but he continues to call the convenience store each day, the taste of another's sweat salty on his lips as they brush the receiver.

Shishido's brother brings over more clothing which he washes and hangs on the line next to Ohtori's; his whites and Hiyoshi's become hopelessly mixed up. One afternoon he finds his folded laundry covered in permanent marker, dark slashed 'shi' over and over again, and Hiyoshi refuses to meet his eyes; he asks his brother to buy him new socks with a red stripe across the toe.

5

This state of stasis cannot last forever, Oshitari tells them, standing in their doorway with darkened circles beneath his eyes, an unsmiling red-haired shadow lurking behind him silently. They need to move on. There is power in acceptance. Ohtori gives him a smile and nods, but the lie is obvious in his eyes, in the way that Hiyoshi leans against the wall behind him, Shishido curling an arm around his waist.

This hopeless hope will kill them if they don't let go, Oshitari says, and he would continue if not for the hand that creeps into his and pulls him away, the fingers that reach up and drag his useless glasses down his nose and the voice that tells him to shut up or he'll never see Gone With The Wind again.

Ohtori closes the door and stands there numbly, staring at the stained grain of dark wood; when he turns, two sets of hands catch him and refuse to let him collapse. He doesn't need to open his eyes to know whose lips are on his own and whose teeth sink into his shoulder.

6

Sometimes the phone rings and it is a different number, a number which makes dark eyes meet and teeth grit and hands sweat as they pick up to listen, to question, to hear the latest news. Hiyoshi speaks more on the phone in five minutes than he has in three days; when he hangs up and stares down at the handset, he does not need to shake his head yes or no. Ohtori's arms are already around his waist, shoulder a firm support as he leans his head back, breathes shallowly. When Shishido asks him how much longer, what has changed, he laughs quietly, a low sound of anger and despair.

Ohtori locks Shishido out of the bedroom and he does not protest; he wanders down the hallway to sit on the couch and stare at the blank television screen, and he listens to the murmur of words coaxed out of a throat too used to silence. The sound of the wind chime his mother gave his friends as a welcome gift for their new apartment mingles with gasped names, and he closes his eyes when he hears his own.

7

Ohtori is never anything but gentle with Hiyoshi anymore; sometimes Hiyoshi wonders if this is his way of apologizing for a regret never quite lost hold of, a memory that both would prefer forgotten. Shishido is the one who makes his bones ache, who growls his name and whose force slides him across the carpet on hands and knees. Sometimes he whispers the wrong name into the air, and no one cares. Sometimes he watches them together, and it doesn't matter that he is not one of the bodies tangled on the mattress, on the floor, pressed against each other against the wall.

8

Hiyoshi's futon has not been removed from the closet for days now; the last time he tried to sleep alone, he woke up with two bodies on the floor beside him, cradling him as he gasped and sobbed his way free of a nightmare he still cannot remember.

It's better that way, Kabaji tells him over the phone. It's better not to remember too much. He stares down at his arms, at angry red lines that will take far too long to fade to white; he thinks of Ohtori's hollow eyes and stuttering words, and he nods, and Kabaji replies to his affirmation as though he can see him, miles away.

9

Shishido was not there, and so Shishido is the one who most often leaves the apartment, who most often answers the phone. Shishido is the one who brought Hiyoshi back from the hospital, who rode double on Ohtori's borrowed motorcycle to bring food and water and clean clothing as they waited.

Shishido tries to help Ohtori, tries to fold laundry and put away dried dishes, but he is more nuisance than assistance; he spends too many hours standing on the balcony, staring down at rushing water four stories below, and plays games with the change in the jar that sits next to the computer in Hiyoshi's room. Half the jar is emptied and strewn across sidewalk and street from his attempts to reach the river before his theft is known, and the resulting argument through the closed screen causes the next-door neighbor to pound on the wall of Ohtori's room.

Ohtori avoids them both after snarling at them to behave, retreats to his kitchen and another failed experiment on the stove, and they stare at each other in wordless anger for long minutes before Shishido slaps at a mosquito on his arm; Hiyoshi snickers, the lines of tense anger ease from Shishido's face, and the screen door slides open.

Hiyoshi isn't sure how he ended up in this position; the first time he felt Shishido's lips on his own, he pulled away, and only Ohtori's hands on his hips kept him from bolting, more terrified of his own reaction than of Shishido's advances. Somehow he has become as comfortable with long dark hair brushing over his collarbone as mussed silver; when Shishido is called away in the evening for an unavoidable family affair, the bed feels empty and cold. Ohtori tries to murmur reassurances, but when he sleeps the nightmares come anyway.

10

Ohtori spends too much time sitting in front of his electric keyboard, headphones covering his ears; his lips move silently as he works out new songs, new variations; he refuses to play them for Shishido despite the wheedling. Sometimes he lets Hiyoshi put the headphones on as he plays, and Hiyoshi never mentions when his fingers fumble, when a chord is flawed.

He undercooks the evening rice and Shishido eats it anyway, two servings before Ohtori tries it himself and then yells at him for not saying anything. Akutagawa's voice greeting him over the phone triggers a spate of frantic cleaning; when Hiyoshi and Shishido pull him away from the linoleum floor he struggles, water-wrinkled fingers clamping down hard, causing Shishido to curse and Hiyoshi to stare at him wordlessly until the hold is released.

When Taki stops by to ask how they are doing, Ohtori shifts from foot to foot uncomfortably as he pours his visitor a glass of juice; Taki has not completely lost his attunement to the needs of a former partner, and he ceases his quiet questioning after only a few minutes, leaves Ohtori at the door with a gentle hand reaching up to ruffle pale hair. Ohtori wakes in the night to Hiyoshi's murmurs and clutching, bruising fingers; when he closes his eyes he is walking away, the tread of his shoes soft on the pavement, and he puts on his helmet before turning to wave.

11

Something will have to give, Oshitari says. This time, he speaks to Hiyoshi; Ohtori is sitting on the balcony, far from view, refusing to come out of his locked room. Something will have to give, or they will all break each other apart, he says, and his voice is deceptively light, eyes unreadable behind his glasses.

Hiyoshi does not reply to this; it is not necessary. They are already broken, and until the right phone call comes, they will remain so. The next school semester will start in less than a week, and Hiyoshi doesn't really care, stands there and stares at Oshitari with dull eyes that ask only the question of how much longer it will be before one of them gets tired of standing and staring and gives in, or until Shishido loses his patience with them both and slams the door shut.

Silent words dance on lips visible just around the stranger's shoulder, a wink and fingers that wrinkle the fabric of the arm of Oshitari's shirt before feet move forward; the lips that brush Hiyoshi's cheek are cool and dry, and Mukahi laughs at the unintelligible curse that escapes Shishido's throat.

12

They do not speak of obligations and assignation of guilt; who was where at what time, who was not there, who is somehow responsible, who is at fault for anything. These things do not need to be said in words; they are spoken in a thousand tiny glances, in toast burned to a blackened crisp, in a deck of cards placed with infinite care into the exact center of a round table. A game of solitaire is left unfinished until the next player wanders by to place a card; Shishido shuffles the deck and the cards spray across the floor.

Ohtori refuses to answer the phone, and he and Shishido argue over this while the ringing continues. Their voices rise, the number flashes on the display, and finally it is Hiyoshi that answers, voice curt, fingers digging into Ohtori's wrist.

That night Ohtori is not gentle, fear and fury and fifteen again; Hiyoshi bites his lip and Shishido does not awaken on the mattress beside them. When Ohtori apologizes in the soft dawn light, Shishido opens his eyes to Hiyoshi laughing, the sound rich and rare.

13

When Shishido throws the phone out the window, he does not listen for the sound of it hitting concrete or water; Hiyoshi is the one who stalks out the door of the apartment, down three flights of stairs to discover what damage has been done, while Ohtori sits with his back against the door to the bathroom, talking quietly through the stained wood. He maintains this position for hours, and when the sound of the latch unlocking finally hits his ears, he falls backwards into the bathroom, into Shishido's waiting arms. Apologies are meaningless; he weaves his fingers through long hair and Shishido smiles for the first time in longer than he can remember.

14

Sometimes Hiyoshi and Shishido cannot stand each other; they do not argue as loudly as Shishido and Ohtori do, but they also do not share that common understanding that at the end of the fight, they will make up again. Hiyoshi says nothing when Ohtori asks him to leave them be; the sound of the bedroom door locking is so familiar now that it seems to resonate in his bones. He watches an afternoon thunderstorm and turns the lights off, sucking on an ice cube, cool liquid trickling down his parched throat.

They have not really made love since Shishido came to stay in the apartment; Ohtori does not admit fault for this, and Shishido does not either as they rediscover gentleness and passion unmarked by desperation. It is not a guilty affirmation of the innocence of either, or a vicious reminder that both are still alive and unmarked. When they are finished they lay against each other, fitting together seamlessly; Ohtori strokes Shishido's back, and neither is surprised when they speak at the same time, words filling hesitating silence in unison.

15

They are washing dishes when the phone rings; Hiyoshi has his hands plunged into soapy water, safely protected in the gloves Ohtori has insisted he wear. Shishido puts down the plate he is drying as well as the towel and resolutely steps towards the phone. Hiyoshi pulls the gloves off and dries what little suds have splashed onto his arms as he listens to the conversation begin.

Only a minute passes before Shishido drops the phone, and Hiyoshi can hear Akutagawa's voice coming up from the floor, swift and tinny and bright; he knows without asking what Shishido's words will be when the other meets his eyes. The smile that stretches thin lips is answered by a grin so wide that it might split the face it belongs to, and Shishido takes off down the hall, socks slipping on the carpet as he dashes toward the bathroom, pounds his fist against the door, grabs onto Ohtori when he opens it with eyes wide and apprehensive. The dripping boy loses his towel when Hiyoshi's hands latch onto them both, and he is bewildered by the suddenness of it all until Shishido's voice gasps out the words that signal the end of their vigil, the words they have lived to hear for two weeks, for all of their lives.

"He's awake, Choutarou, he's awake, he's going to be all right."

18

"All right" is a relative term; things are not so easily repaired as one may wish they could be. Atobe will never remember the accident which claimed two weeks of his life, and the possibility of brain damage still exists and is quite real; even with physical therapy, it is unlikely that he will walk without a limp. The chances that he will ever play competitive tennis again are slim.

Those are worries that will come later; there are certain to be complications in the future, but for now all that matters is that Atobe is awake, that Atobe has spoken, that the distant fear and hope they have lived on for fifteen days has carried them through. Hiyoshi will always carry scars on his arms, and Ohtori will never be able to forget witnessing the wreck that claimed three lives and changed so many others. It doesn't matter; Atobe is awake.

The next three days are spent in breathless, hopeful, giddy optimism. Shishido returns to work, Hiyoshi teaches classes at the dojo, Ohtori is able to pick up his violin and play for his first class of the new semester. The grey spectre has lifted; Ohtori is not afraid to awaken alone any longer, though he still seeks out those he knows should be in the apartment, and he calls the dojo and the store at least once a day.

Ohtori returns from grocery shopping on the third day to discover Shishido packing his clothing away into two duffel bags; Hiyoshi is standing on the balcony, looking down at the river and when he looks up, he seems to hesitate, uncertainty filtering across his features. Ohtori swallows apprehensively. "Shishido-san, what are you doing?"

"Packing, Choutarou," Shishido replies, as though that should be obvious, looking up at his lover with eyes that can't be read. Ohtori opens his mouth, closes it again. When he doesn't come up with an answer, Shishido continues. "You don't need me here anymore."

He shouldn't be surprised, Ohtori thinks; he shouldn't be shocked or dismayed by the fact that Shishido is leaving -- that Shishido wants to leave. They agreed long before that it was better to live apart, that it was all right that he shared an apartment with Hiyoshi and not Shishido. Somehow, though, he cannot accept it, and he stares past Shishido to Hiyoshi, asking questions with his eyes and not receiving any answers that he likes.

"You two had another fight," he says, voice flat, and he feels a brief moment of anger at them both before he pushes it away, denies it release. He's used to running interference between them. It will be easy enough to smooth over. He can fix this.

"No," Hiyoshi and Shishido both say at the same time, and both seem uncomfortable, both seem reluctant; Shishido continues, and his words are tired. "He's awake, Choutarou, and things can start going back to normal now. That's all. I should have gone back after Jiroh called. I can't live here forever, you know." He rolls up another pair of socks, pauses as he finds one half of a pair that does not have a red stripe and rolls the two socks together anyways, depositing it into a bag.

"Why not?" Ohtori's words startle Shishido, and he looks up at him, stares, confused. "Why can't you stay here forever?" As if it is as simple as that; as if the three of them are not bound by tightening invisible cords, throbbing red heat with each heartbeat.

Shishido twists, looks at Hiyoshi, who licks his lips and seems as if he wants to speak, then closes his mouth again. He turns back to Ohtori. "I don't think it's a good idea." This has only been a temporary arrangement, a solution to a problem now solved; they had needed him, had needed someone who understood them both, who was able to deal with the world outside the walls of the apartment while they dealt with the world within.

"Why isn't it?" Ohtori's words are cut off, spoken by another voice in his stead. Hiyoshi's hands are closed into fists at his sides, and he moves into the room, closes the screen door halfway, halts a meter from the bed. "Why isn't it a good idea to stay?" As if they do not argue five times a day, as if his voice does not raise with heat and snarled aggression in response to a slight imagined or real. As if he will not feel relief with the source of most of his tension gone.

Shishido seems taken aback, and he looks between Ohtori and Hiyoshi. "It wouldn't work," he says, but he does not seem so certain of himself. He can only meet Ohtori's eyes for a few moments before he looks away. They don't mean what they are saying.

"You think leaving is going to make things go back the way they were before?" Hiyoshi's voice holds venom in it and he ignores Ohtori's raised hand. "It doesn't work like that."

Ohtori makes a sharp noise in his throat and then Hiyoshi stops before he can continue, before it turns into an argument. Shishido looks defensive, but also defers to Ohtori, waits for the words that always come from the self-appointed peacemaker. Ohtori does not say a thing, simply stares at them both, dark eyes disapproving before he smiles, sudden and sweet, and Shishido can come up with nothing to say in response.

Hiyoshi is the one who breaks the stalemate first, who steps forward and kneels on the bed, whose weight causes the mattress to sag. Shishido tries to turn and face him, but Ohtori has already caught him from the front, arms wrapped around his waist in a grip stronger than iron, as Hiyoshi's hold slides around his shoulders. They will not let go, and after a moment, he ceases attempting to escape.

"Don't be stupid," Hiyoshi says, a low growl that is caught up in Ohtori's laughter as his teeth sink into Shishido's neck. "Who's going to be stuck eating that fool's terrible rice again if you go?"

Ohtori is offended, but only briefly, and he laughs, lightly, softly. When Shishido looks at him, his brows drawn together, Ohtori nods gently before kissing him, chaste closed lips brushing sweet across his own chapped skin before pulling away.

Shishido stares at Ohtori, twists to look at Hiyoshi and fails; there is something wild and disbelieving and hopeful in those eyes. It will never work. They cannot be serious. He wants them to be serious. "You want me to stay?"

Hiyoshi and Ohtori reply as one, and there is both exasperation and affection mingled in two voices that overlap around him, in the implied insult that is somehow anything but. "Are you a fucking idiot?"

Cracked laughter is Shishido's only reply.

This hopeless hope will kill them if they don't let go, Oshitari says, and Mukahi's defiant laughter echoes in the entryway, wraps itself around clothes and skin and scars before escaping through the open window into the sky, but for a moment all Hiyoshi can hear is "He's awake"; for a moment all Ohtori can feel is two pairs of arms sliding around him as his towel falls to the floor forgotten; for a moment all the world is so incredibly right that Shishido's heart will break if it ever ends.




The End

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