Living Between the Karma
by Niche


This is a prelude to the first movement, when you draw a circle below the gallows, end meeting end, dust back to dust. They have been having that same dust lately, along the roads, sharp in your face. Maybe that's why you can't breathe when you're with him. Maybe that's why.


1: Pre-mortem. Shishido. Contemplating a daily suicide.

2: To Function a Realisation. Shishido, second year. Preface to sucking face.

3: Bulk of the Matter. Ohtori, second year. Shishido, third year. Conjoining atoms A and B.

4: Deriving the Back-hand of History. Ohtori, third year. Shishido, post-graduation. Postscript to sucking face.

5: People Do Not Matter. Ohtori and Shishido, post-graduation. People just do not matter.

6: Post-mortem. Ohtori. A skanky sort of hell.



Pre-mortem

It's been so long after, and still Shishido cannot convince himself that Hyotei Gakuen had been just a dream. Sometimes he wakes up to visions of the team splitting like amoeba, multiplying geometrically by the second, so many of the same faces stretching the capacity of his head, and Shishido is afraid it will one day tear at the seams where his scalp had closed over at birth, and spill out where people can see it.

It is essential that Hyotei Gakuen remains hidden, for a reason Shishido can barely fathom. Even as Atobe recedes to the image of a single mole and players like Jirou to that of hair, tousled and light, Shishido pushes the remainder even deeper, to someplace where one would need more than a spade to dig up again.

And it is equally surprising that Shishido puts himself through that each morning like a ritual - digging - excavating the memories like hauling a loved one up from a grave and kneeling before a cross in forgiveness. It's the same, only that Shishido doesn't kneel before one. He wears it instead, a cross on a chain dulled from being mixed with so many years of sweat, like a noose, loose around his neck.

By the end of the day his fingers smell like metal, like he's been bleeding all over and touched himself all over so that there is blood beneath his fingernails and caked in his hair. It's an aggravating smell, like a stench Shishido is familiar with and yet not used to missing.



To Function a Realisation

Shishido remembers clearly in their second year after practice. They practice so late the sun's fingers are slowly digging their way into the ground, and there is hardly any light left to see by, what with the regular blackouts they are having and the earthquakes and the blackouts because of them, blackouts so massive in degree that the team plays tennis in the dark. If you miss a shot, you're dead, even in the dark, but that has always been the club's motto. They say, only idiots get hit by balls, and Shishido remembers this well.

The juniors play one another even after schedule under the pretense of hard work and the seniors plant themselves in a dim room on the third floor, in the shadows, behind a fence, like spies prying open an unsolved case. Shishido does not have any time for this. He revels in the play, gives Atobe a dirty look when he leaves early "because he needs rest".

"Matches are next week," he says, "and we need to work at it."

The lights are flickering in the locker room. The seniors will ask one of them to replace the bulbs next week, maybe, but now there is only time for practice, because matches are next week.

"You're too serious about tennis," Atobe tells him, and to that Shishido replies, "I'm only serious about kicking your lily ass."

That is when Atobe shoves Shishido against cold concrete and leans over, looking larger than ever despite being nearly the same height, and he bends down and puts his tongue against Shishido's ear and trails a sticky path of saliva up the lobe.

"Quit tennis," he articulates, looking down. "It's a fucking gay sport."

Aggressively, "You quit it, then."

"No, you should," Atobe says. "Because at least I'm good at it."

And it's a withering look that Atobe gives him, leaving Shishido with a wet ear and the surreal feeling that the locker rooms are sort of hollow around his voice, as though he had been trying to project it to prove a point, and had botched it up completely.



Bulk of the Matter

From that incident, Shishido predicts that Atobe will become captain, sleeping his way through the ranks notwithstanding, and he's right.

Shishido also changes; he starts to make puppets out of the juniors and string them along, he receives chocolates from them and throws them away. He becomes the epitome of sanguinity cloaked in arrogance.

There is one time where one of the gangly juniors calls him after a match to tell him that his shoelace is untied, a fact that he already knows and is ready to snap right back when it comes again,

"Shishido!"

Sharply, "Say it again?"

"Sorry, I meant Shishido-san."

And Shishido turns around and it is the junior with the small sunny sort of face wedge onto a gargantuan body, one of the juniors he's always liked in a fairly indifferent sort of way.

"No," Shishido says, and his scowl thaws out into a bit of a laugh. "I mean…I meant, what do you want to say?"

Later, he pays for it. Gakuto makes fun of his sudden good manners, continuously poking and mocking to make Shishido care a little more for something other than staying better than the rest of the world. It does not work, mainly because Shishido knows he's good enough to remain better than the rest of the world. He also knows he's good enough to remain on the team for the rest of Hyotei, and says so. The problem lies, perhaps, in the fact that he eventually doesn't.

After that match, the team is in the locker room. The air hangs heavy with the smell of Gakuto's new aromatherapeutic deodorant, "Sensuous!" screams the front of the can, and a chesty woman is splashed across a bed of flowers.

"Ylang ylang," Gakuto tells them all-knowingly, and for once, doesn't seem to notice Shishido's despair. "It's great for stimulating the senses."

"My neighbour is great for getting condoms from," Oshitari continues as way of reply.

"I knew that already," Gakuto says, and they both laugh like it is a joke.

Somewhere in Shishido's head comes Atobe's voice telling him to quit and the reason heaped on because of it. He wonders if Atobe is getting messed with in the showers by Kabaji, or by Jirou, or by a blasted finger or bloody showerhead, Shishido doesn't really believe it matters. It is only the words that ring, over and over, even as he is half-naked and mid-way through undressing and feeling like vomiting.

*

The next time the sunny-faced junior calls him, Shishido knows his name. He pronounces it slowly to himself to remember, Ohtori, with the O like a slack mouth wedged with surprise. Ohtori calls him "Shishido", dropping the honorary fixture and opting instead for a respectful voice.

Ohtori says, "I'm sorry."

"Why?" Shishido asks, eyes narrow and calculative.

"Because you're out of the team," Ohtori replies, in a bit of wonderment, and the way his voice goes a little quieter stops Shishido from becoming angry.

"There's nothing more to say," Shishido says.

"But I can do a scud shot," Ohtori tells him, matter-of-factly. "And I'm not being rude, Shishido, but you don't have the right to be more superior than the rest of us now."

It is probably that statement that cinched it; it had been the bulk of the matter. Ohtori thinks Shishido might have hit him if it hadn't been true, and that night they begin night practice. It's very secret practice, and the only one who ever finds out is Atobe, who is the only one who simply stays out that late.

It's in that period that, Ohtori is struck with the sudden urge to hole-punch Shishido's hair. After tennis it gets slick and wet; they both reek of sweat, but Shishido reeks of blood too, fresh on his skin and clotted beneath it. His hair too, becomes just as heavy with what Ohtori comes to recognize as the night practice smell. Shishido runs a towel through it and it is long and annoying and falls over his face when they next resume, this hair with the night practice smell that gets into Shishido's eyes and mouth, and Ohtori hates it because he can't see Shishido's face, pointed and determined under floodlights.

At the end of practice Shishido will swear at him, but Ohtori understands that their miscommunication is absolutely fervent, because Ohtori is saying, "It's okay", when he's actually calling Shishido a donkey of hell in his head, voodoo doll and all.

It's this frustration that makes them, later, doubles partners.

*

Interlude/Rewind (The only reason why Ohtori does not mind giving up his spot to Shishido in the team is because he chooses to. Whenever he plays doubles with Shishido he remembers that, and that is the only thing that makes him proud of the team.)

*

They play games after practice in the clubhouse, because neither really feel like going home. They talk about tennis at first, but Ohtori is interested in games on paper too, and he can't mask his surprise upon learning that Shishido has yet to play a game of Hangman.

"When you guess ten alphabets wrong, the man gets hung and it's over."

Later the game is over.

"It's my turn," Ohtori exclaims, impatient.

"Wait, I've got one more try," Shishido protests, grabbing the sheet of paper away. "I want my man to have hair, so till he has hair, he can't get hung."

Ohtori is stumped by the nonsensicality of his reasoning, but says, "Okay."

Shishido chooses the vowel O, but the word is kinematics, and he loses.

Ohtori leaves Shishido drawing hair on the hanged man (Going to get water, Ohtori claims) and later he finds it is short and coloured in with a Pentel marker, light and silver and sort of shiny under morning light. Ohtori fingers his own hair and wonders where he went wrong.

*

"It has lots of vowels," Shishido tells him, and wonders if he's spelt 'tomato' correctly. "It's red and you eat it. It's kind of squishy."

"Like a breast," Ohtori says.

"Breasts aren't red."

"A sunburnt breast," Ohtori insists.

"You've never seen a breast. I mean, not in real life at least."

"But neither have you."

They are so close to laughing that it would only make sense to start another fight, but before Shishido can land a mock-punch, they hear a high-pitched voice addressing them, "You're just a couple of fags", and it's pre-pubescent and feminine and it is Gakuto.

Ohtori stares at him with his fist grabbing a chunk of Shishido's shirt and says calmly, "Oh. Really?"

Then he loosens his grip.

*

The thirds' graduation ceremony that year is anything but motley. Shishido looks like a soldier in ugly colours, a little misplaced without his hat, but Ohtori can spot him even without it. The principal makes some grand speech, his mouth wobbling like it is chock full of marbles, and he mispronounces Shishido's name when Shishido goes up the stage to collect the certificate.

"Congratulations" is something Ohtori feels that he should say afterward, but instead divulges secretively, "Do you hate me?"

"How could I?" Shishido says.
Ohtori doesn't know how to go about approaching the subject, and ends up with an awkward, "You hung me."

It's funny that both of them know precisely what the other is saying.

"I'm sorry," Shishido says, and means it.

"There's no more tennis."

"Or Hangman."

"Or Hang-Ohtori."

"That's not funny," Shishido tells him.

*

After Shishido leaves Hyotei, Ohtori begins welcoming him to his house on Fridays, because Friday was the day the both of them met.



Deriving the Back-hand of History

It's probably because there's a brand new strain of flu being passed around that week that Ohtori is concerned at all, with germs getting on his new beanbag, on his window sill. He doesn't want Shishido' germs to infect him.

"You're warm," he says with some surprise, and to that Shishido tells him, laughing, "It's 'you're hot'" only Ohtori doesn't get it and exhales noisily, "Are you kidding? Me?" but it's too late to say anything or correct him without being embarrassed and Shishido says finally, "Yeah, you are kind of hot" and there is musing silence that envelopes the both of them before they begin another game. Ohtori has a crinkle in his forehead.

Later before Shishido leaves, Ohtori tells him, this time with the crinkle in forehead loosened, "Don't fucking kid me again. You'll give me a heart attack."

Shishido says, "Yeah, haha", does something childish like roll his eyes, maybe. It's something he can't grasp hold of, can't prevent himself from doing, because at the same moment, something tightens inside of him, as though he is suddenly understanding that he isn't joking anymore, that he really should have quit tennis back then two years ago.

Down the driveway he walks, making sure he doesn't step on the cracks in the sidewalk. It's unlucky, he thinks, and steps on one just as he thinks it. It must be that third law, his action producing a reaction, and Shishido cocks his head to his right, back between the neat slats of the gate, only to see the door still open and Ohtori staring curiously at him, and his heart hammers and they've both understood.

It is possibly worse the next Friday, Shishido thinks. He wishes Friday visits have not been made a custom, but it is too late for regrets and too early to run away. The dahlias are still flowering when Ohtori next greets him, and the dahlias are still flowering when he swings in the door, but Shishido believes they must have started wilting the moment it closed and darkness shut down around him.

Ohtori says, "Hey Shishido?"

He says, "Yeah?"

He says, "You're a moron."

And he says, "Most times."

Ohtori's hair is almost dark against the iridescence of the light outside, and Shishido can see the accentuated curve of his eye bags against his skin. Ohtori has become less muscular since his second year, he observes, and thinner, with skin like the elastic stretch of a rubber band over his bones.

When Ohtori reaches down to kiss him, Shishido runs his thumbs across the flanks of his face and remarks that he's becoming gaunt.

"Are you eating well?" he says, more for distraction than anything else.

"I will be soon," Ohtori replies.

Shishido doesn't know what to make of that. He doesn't try.



People Do Not Matter

It happens when they're both out of Hyotei that Ohtori gets engaged at eighteen. It's also when Ohtori is eighteen and working part-time in a convenience store for fun that he gets the brilliant idea to have a bachelor party that nobody eventually goes to.

"You're a huge loser," Shishido tells him on the phone. "I'm coming over now."

Later, they're eating leftover egg rolls Ohtori made that morning, dried up and sort of tasteless on the tongue.

"I don't want to get married," Ohtori says, stubbing out his third cigarette of the evening.

"I figured," Shishido says.

Ohtori is thinner and paler than ever; his lips are the sort of maroon one gets from winter cold and smoking too much in a day, and he might be some sort of artist, or a writer, or a poet, the kind that starves along the street with a tin can in hand. Ohtori's stopped playing the violin now, he only listens to Mozart during lunch hours, and it has probably been only Mozart that's stopped him from being serious at all. Listening to Mozart seems to cover that area. Ohtori jokes and scratches marks into the lacquer tray of the tea set and his hands are stark against the black of the set's wood, stark and angular.

"Drinking sake'll give you a bit more colour," Shishido suggests. He thinks he's already drank too much before coming here, and knows he'll regret it; there is still cram school tomorrow.

Ohtori stares into space as though he is not about to reply, and says, "The worst thing is that we're both dead serious about it."

"Yeah well, I'm sleepy," Shishido mumbles softly. His throat tightens. "I need a drink of water too."

"You know where the fridge is."

Shishido doesn't leave to get it. Ohtori doesn't leave to help him get it either. He simply looks at Shishido till Shishido gets uncomfortable. Above them, the fluorescent light is glaring and painful to watch for long. Ohtori turns it off. Shishido pretends to fall asleep. Ohtori smokes his last cigarette and resolves to quit smoking.

When Shishido wakes up, he finds the cross wound around his wrist, painfully tight, and he leaves without waking anyone else up.

*

It's February; it's almost Valentine's Day. Shishido doesn't receive the wedding invitation until after the wedding. It was put into the wrong mailbox



Post-mortem

Uncombed hair labels him a victim of sloth; he still hasn't quite smoking. They don't have kids yet; they're still eighteen. Ohtori's wife calls him an impotent bastard like it's a comic story, even though they make love every week, to some rotten, expensive Italian music she thinks is exotic, over and over under the smell of incense. Outside it's still bright, and it's still day, but Ohtori is sure it is not yet a Friday.


*

You and me and the sand and the way the breeze blows in the evening, a little warm on our faces.




The End

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