Chasing Each Other
by Wind Chijmes
It was like watching an angel's fall from grace. The descent of the bright and beautiful to the darkest depths of despair.
All of us watched it. The fall. Again and again with every winner, every passing-shot, every perfect stroke from Tachibana-san's racket. And his final words, delivered with condemnation that even he himself was unaware of.
Too bad I ended the game in just fifteen minutes.
I had never seen such raw anguish on my senpai's face. The beautiful and proud Shishido Ryou reduced to a broken mass on his knees, his face drained colourless with the knowledge that those words had just sealed his fate in Hyotei Gakuen's pitiless system.
Everyone was expendable. There would always be someone there to replace a newly-vacated position. We had over two hundred members waiting in the wings for the inevitable fall of a regular. No one would have sympathy for a regular who couldn't secure his place.
Captain Atobe was already pulling out his mobile phone to report the results to our coach.
Everyone else talked about the next big match, eager to forget the disgraceful loss to Fudomine.
I looked down into the court and froze. Deep, blue eyes were staring back at me. No, not at me. At all of us - regulars whose places were still assured. I couldn't move from my spot, so captured by the sheer emptiness in those eyes. They just kept watching unblinkingly, taking in our indifference, our looking forward to the next game and forgetting what was already lost, our moving on and leaving him behind.
I couldn't look away.
But he did, slowly turning his head and casting a last look at the court where he had knelt upon just moments ago.
I vaguely heard the Captain's drawled tones barking at us to get a move on.
Shishido Ryou still stared at the court, vacant twilight eyes shaded by his fall of dark hair, his slight figure a frail shadow on the unforgiving court.
I couldn't look away.
Fudo-what?! An unseeded tennis team, with even more obscure members.
Fervent discussion was already erupting amongst the ranks of the tennis team members. Who would play the doubles, and more importantly, who would nab the singles spots. Buchou would snag singles 1 for sure, but the other two spots were opened for competition.
"I'd get a place for sure."
Ohtori Choutarou blinked in surprise at that arrogant claim delivered with just an arrogant a tone. Okay, so admittedly he himself was contemplating the line-up and figuring that he would surely bag at least a doubles spot, but it wasn't like he was going to go around blaring it to everyone. In fact, he couldn't think of *anyone* who would be presumptuous, other than Buchou and...
Shishido-senpai. Of *course*, how could he have forgotten. At this very moment, said senpai was already surrounded by his usual bunch of fan-boys and bragging to them how he would positively whip the ass of whoever Fudomine Jr. School could summon to face him.
Very carefully, Ohtori restrained the urge to make a face. That would be like an open invitation to Shishido-senpai to come on over and rearrange his face into a map of bruises. Everyone knew that for every degree of arrogance that Shishido possessed, he had a matching amount of temper.
Crap. He turned his head just in time to an arm looping around his neck in a parody of friendliness. Dark chocolate-brown hair draped over his shoulder as Shishido cocked his head in an expression of utter patronisation.
"Poor, poor good-boy Ohtori," Shishido clucked in mock sympathy, even shaking his head sadly. "Stuck in doubles again, I'm sure. Oh wait, maybe even the doubles is outta your league, hmm? I mean...other than your Scud serve, what *else* is there?"
Ohtori could practically feel his hackles rising at that taunting. He quickly started counting to a hundred in his mind. This time however, he very nearly couldn't rein in his anger. As he stared back unflinchingly into Shishido's laughing blue eyes, his nerves began fraying slowly, but surely, one by one.
Then, just as abruptly as the mocking had begun, Shishido sighed explosively and shrugged his shoulders. "Maaa...don't take it so seriously, Ohtori." With that, he gestured to his followers and the whole group of them began drifting out of the locker area. Without looking back, he tossed one last line over his shoulder.
"Hey, the 200 mark. When's your Scud serve ever gonna hit that? It's been a while."
Ohtori's anger had dissipated just as soon Shishido stopped his heckling, but now he felt nothing but surprise as he stared after Shishido's disappearing figure. Despite being shorter and slighter than most of the kouhai surrounding him, Shishido's charisma remained intact. His back view, with that long flowing hair caught up in a stylish ponytail and the taut, proud bearing, burned into Ohtori's mind. How had Shishido known that he was taking the taunting seriously? Most of the seniors who always teased him never knew when to draw the line. And his serve...Shishido-senpai had noticed the rising speeds of his serve?
In confusion, Ohtori glanced down at the racket he held in his hands. He'd never understand how his senpais think.
And he'd never expect that he would have a chance to find out just several nights later.
"Ikkyuu..." He released the ball into the air, watching its graceful flight. His vision pinpointed its line of ascent. "Nyuu..." It was like an instinct from there on. The wait. The anticipation. And then, he moved. "Kon!" He slammed his racket into the ball, feeling the exhilarating impact on the sweet spot, the rush of adrenaline through his arm, channelling into the ball, the whistle of the ball as it cut through the air like a machete.
He glanced at the meter. A hundred...and ninety. Mataku...not again! That was like, his hundredth serve and *still* he couldn't crack the two-o-o mark! Damn!
Still absurdly sullen about his failed serve, Ohtori began trooping to the showers. If he could have his way, he would have practised for another hundred shots, but there was a Science test looming around the corner. That made his mood sink even lower. He knew by most people's standards, his serve was already one of the best in the whole of the junior-high circuit, if not the best. Scud serve wasn't a term coined for nothing, and it had always brought him a secret rush of pride in the baby that was his serve. Until Shishido-senpai had reminded him of the two-hundred mark.
He sighed softly to himself. Maybe it was a junior's complex, but he wanted to show his senpai that he could get to that mark.
He didn't even realised he had entered the showers until he was like, standing there, blinking confusedly at the shower stalls that surrounded him. Even alone as he was, he could feel his cheeks pinking. Guess his seniors weren't lying when they said he could be as blur as an old man. Now feeling a little silly, he quickly decided on the first stall. Then, he rather carelessly tossed his bag onto the bench.
The howl startled Ohtori out of his skin literally. He backed so hard into the wall of the cubicle that his back made a loud thump against ceramic. Who the hell was that?!
"Oi! I said WHO'S THERE!"
He recognised the voice an instant later. Shishido-senpai! Feeling hugely relieved and knowing that if he didn't show his face sooner rather than later Shishido *would* go ballistic, Ohtori emerged from his cubicle.
Senpai's yelling had came from the line of sinks just around the corner from the shower stalls. Somewhat awkwardly, Ohtori ambled towards the sinks, and then halted even more awkwardly at the sight before him.
Clad in nothing more than a pair of wet, white shorts, Shishido was bent over one sink, his hair was pulled back in a wet, messy and soapy pile on his head. And looking at the way his head was now inserted under the sink, and how he was sputtering from the streams of water and soap running down his face, it became quite apparent that he had been badly startled by...
None other than Ohtori. "Shishido senpai!" He couldn't help gawking.
The other boy, still caught in the rather unfortunate situation of being half-drowned by soap and water, simply snapped open one eye, recognise Ohtori as the offender, and then growling again when water flooded into his glaring eye.
Feeling a little ill, the younger boy stood there, shifting from one foot to the other, thinking for a hopeful moment, that Shishido would simply forget about his presence and ignore -
"Quit standin' there doing nothing! Get me the towel!"
Snapped into action, Ohtori quickly picked up the towel draped over the array of various hair-care products carefully arranged next to the sink. Now clutching the towel, he waited until Shishido raised his dripping head out from under the sink. Straightening, Shishido tossed back his wet hair and turned towards Ohtori.
Ohtori was sure his gawking got very much worse at that moment.
Never had Shishido's physical presence got as overwhelming as it did then. Bared from waist up, his pale skin ran smooth over lean cords of muscles that seemed even more accentuated by the rivulets of water streaming down his form. Ohtori's widened eyes followed those rivers of water up to the pert, brown nipples that stood out like little pebbles on the pale skin, and higher up to the long cascade of wet, dark hair that fell around Shishido's shoulders.
"WHAT are you looking at!"
Ohtori jumped and quickly thrust the towel at his annoyed senpai. Oh shit, Shishido caught him staring! But it turned out that he had worried needlessly. Shishido was already looking away from him and into the mirror, carefully examining his hair for...Ohtori frowned in incomprehension. Honestly he was just completely clueless about the troubles of long hair. He hated long hair - on himself, that is. So he had always kept his own hair short and hassle-free. But long hair on Shishido looked surprisingly...good.
"Split-ends," Shishido suddenly muttered, holding up the ends of his hair and glaring at the ends.
"Hah?" Ohtori responded intelligently.
Shishido paused in his hair examination, before turning his head enough to shoot Ohtori a look. "What are you doing in school so late? Workin' on your serve?"
"Aa..." Ohtori nodded. "And...and you, Shishido-senpai?"
"Split-ends," Shishido replied automatically.
Scud serve and split-ends. God forbid there was any connection between the two.
Shishido began laughing first. It was a strange laugh by Ohtori's standards. Even laughing, Shishido sounded like he was sneering. But that was probably just the way he was. And then, still half-smirking and half-grinning, Shishido cocked his head at Ohtori.
"You think I'm just a flower boy, don't you?" he said. There was no hint of accusation in his tone, but just maybe, the slightest tinge of weary defiance.
"No," Ohtori said simply, and he wasn't lying.
Twilight-blue eyes held him in its spell for a long moment, before Shishido gave a soft snicker and turned back towards the mirror. His hand went to his hair and pulled the whole tumble over one shoulder. Still holding onto his hair, he stared unblinkingly into his reflection.
"This," he held up the handful of hair. "Is me, Ohtori."
Ohtori did try his best to understand that. He studied Shishido's reflection, trying to see what Shishido was seeing. All he could see was a boy breathtaking in his physical makeup. There was nothing soft about Shishido's features. He was all sharp cheekbones, piercing eyes and chiselled jawline. But in them, Ohtori saw beauty, although that did nothing to explain Shishido's remark. Finally, Ohtori shook his head in confusion. "Your hair is you, senpai? I don't understand."
Shishido offered him a quirked grin. Reaching out an arm, he batted a wide-eyed Ohtori across the head, before tossing back his hair again. "This is what I am," he declared with trademark pride.
This is me, Ohtori. This is what I am.
He blinked quickly so the ache behind his eyes would go away like he hoped. Too late. He was sure some of that moisture had escaped his eyes to mingle with the streams of perspiration at his cheeks. He blinked again. His racket hand was trembling. He tensed his arms for his serve. Tossed the ball. Watched its flight. Bent his back. Raised his arm. Brought the racket crashing into the ball.
The sharp, merciless drive of a one-seventy-kilometre ball into flesh jarred his ears, and he found himself squeezing his eyes shut in reflex.
"What the hell was that weak serve all about, Ohtori? And look at me, dammit!"
Dropping the racket from his hand, he shook his head stubbornly, eyes still squeezed shut, and sat down heavily on the ground. This was *it*. No amount of yelling from his senpai was going to get him to serve again.
"Ohtori! Damn *it*, Ohtori! Open your fucking eyes!"
He didn't care what his senpai thought of him now, or how angry Shishido was. He was not moving. And he was *not* going to serve another ball right into Shishido.
His eyes snapped open without his bidding. Shishido had sounded like he was begging. Proud, arrogant Shishido pleading with him. Raising his head and his eyes following that move, he finally allowed himself to get a clear, unadulterated look at Shishido. His chest tightened painfully, pitifully.
The older boy still hovered before the net. That long, smooth hair that he had prided himself so much upon was yanked back into a hasty tail, and the face framed between stray locks was hardly recognisable. What used to be a delicate-featured face was now a mess of discoloured skin and swellings where Ohtori's serve had found its mark. Ohtori's horrified eyes trailed down the rest of Shishido's slight form, picking out each nasty bruise and abrasion that marred the pale skin.
It was like seeing Shishido for the first time since they started this training just hours ago. He had been apprehensive when Shishido approached him for help with training. Then his worries and concerns had escalated when he realised that Shishido's idea of training revolved around Ohtori's Scud serve against him. *Him* with just bare hands and legs. No racket. But he had caved in because Shishido had begged him, like he was doing now.
"Choutarou," Shishido said again, resting his hands on the rim of the net. He was breathing hard from exertion, his chest rising, falling with each rasp he drew. "I need your help. Please."
The vice around Ohtori's chest constricted even more painfully, till he felt like his insides were crushed. Hand grabbing blindly for his racket, he leapt to his feet. Then he swung his racket in a wide arc and stopped it just when the tip was right before Shishido's face.
"Stop saying that!" he cried in a voice that sounded too shrill and too frenzied to be his own. "Stop asking me to help!"
There was stunned silence after his outburst. And it was hardly surprising...who had ever heard Ohtori raising his voice at *anyone*? Shishido would go down in Hyotei history to be the first to force such a reaction from Ohtori. As if realising that, the older boy stepped back from the net with a quiet nod of his head.
"I got it." He bent to pick up his discarded racket.
Shishido looked up again.
Ohtori lowered his racket head. Already, his voice was threatening to choke. It was happening more and more often, this wretched habit of not being able to articulate himself. And it got worse every time he found himself having to bear the burden of Shishido's desperation whether by intention or not.
"Senpai," Ohtori tried again.
"No prob. I can live without your help, so don't force it," Shishido was quick to interject, a flash of his old pride coming through.
That's right. That old pride was a remnant of the former Shishido. In a strange way, it warmed Ohtori to see it again.
"It's not that." Ohtori began walking back to the baseline. He turned, ball and racket already tensed in his hands. "The 200 mark, senpai. I'm going to keep aiming for it." He held up with the ball nestled in his palm as if it were a living testament to his declaration. "You'd have to catch up."
Another spell of stunned silence. Honestly, Ohtori thought, if you added them all up, these silences were enough to make up a whole movie on their own.
Then, Shishido's lips curled into a lopsided smile. "Aa."
His whole wearied frame collapsed against the wall of the shower stall, Shishido tried to keep from flinching when those long fingers began to get clumsier with their exploration. He jacked open one eye so he could see the expression on the other boy's face. Or expressions, rather.
Ohtori was never one to hold back his emotions, even reserved as he was. All one had to do was pay a little more attention, and you could read Ohtori's moods and feelings like they were displayed for the world to see.
Concern, there was a lot of concern. Genuine worry. And as much as angst as a fourteen-year-old could possibly feel.
"Seven....eight....so many...!" Ohtori's eyes widened into saucers.
If not for the aches and sores throbbing throughout his body, Shishido would have laughed. He wondered if anyone had ever told Ohtori that he looked like a puppy. Granted, he would make one huge puppy with his six-foot frame, but with that ruffled ash hair and guileless chocolate-brown eyes, Ohtori was practically an oversized little boy.
Shishido shifted awkwardly as Ohtori's fingers began wandering into uncharted territory. Namely, they were dipping below the towel wrapped around his waist.
"Uwaa!" Ohtori turned a bright red as he realised his error. "Sorry!"
Shishido shrugged. "How many?"
"I...lost count," Ohtori's blush gave way to a sheepish frown.
Another shrug, and Shishido started to get up. "Come on, Choutarou. It's getting late."
"No. I want to finish counting."
A dismissal was right on the tip of Shishido's tongue when he felt a strong hand grabbing his arm. "Whooaa!" he gasped as he was tugged roughly back into place. Muttering, he quickly crossed his legs together and hung onto his towel with a hand in case it decide to slip right off there and then. When he was done, he looked up with a glare. Sometimes, someone should hammer it into Ohtori's brain to get a grip on that strength in his arms.
Apparently, while all this irritated snerking was going on in Shishido's mind, Ohtori was already focused single-mindedly on the task at hand - finishing his counting. Slender ash brows gathered into a frown that was boyishly petulant despite its intensity, and his bottom lip was poking out stubbornly. Shishido could feel his glare melting away already. Someone should tell Ohtori to quit pouting as well...because it always worked. Sighing inwardly, Shishido sagged against the wall again and let Ohtori's fingers finish their work.
It had started off with Ohtori's concern over the bruises that were starting to crowd Shishido's skin. And it was while checking the bruises and applying ointment to them, that Shishido realised that his younger teammate had grown the little habit of counting each and every bruise that marked his skin. He had thought it was weird, but counting the bruises seemed to make Ohtori feel better about the fact that he was the one who had inflicted them. Besides...those fingers on him did feel comforting, Shishido admitted to himself. No one had touched him like that as far as he could remember.
He watched them - ten slender and very long digits that must have been beautiful on Ohtori's violin and piano - fluttering across his abdomen, where the bruises first appeared. Then slowly, they drifted up his chest, where there he had received some painful knocks as well. The soft murmuring of numbers interspersed with soft exclamations never ceased from Ohtori's lips.
Closing his eyes, Shishido leaned back his head until he felt the brace of the wall. Now he understood why Ohtori had refused to look at him the first night they had started the training. Because right now, it was his turn to be unable to watch Ohtori's compassion. For all of the two hundred odd members of the team, there was only one Ohtori who cared enough to go along with the dangerous training that Shishido had insisted, and then stayed behind to fuss over the resulting wounds.
Even beneath his closed eyelids, Shishido could feel the swell of his own tears.
He opened his eyes, the tears threatening to spill, but he held them fast. Ohtori's deep brown eyes were gazing at him so intently if was if they could see right through him. His strengths and - it surprised him that he didn't mind - his weaknesses. He felt a soft tickle at his face and realised that Ohtori's fingers had stopped at his mouth.
"I..." Ohtori said softly.
Shishido's heartbeat quickened as Ohtori's fingers brushed across his lips, the callused pads gentle as they crossed the bridge from counting to exploring. Hardly able to breath now, Shishido could only stare wide-eyed as Ohtori's face was suddenly much closer to his own than moments ago. The pounding of his heart got even harder as he drank in the soft, boyish contours of Ohtori's young features, especially his large, pleading eyes like they were asking something from Shishido. All of the nerves in Shishido's body were starting to tingle.
"I lost count again..."
Shishido hid his guilt behind a reassuring grin. Ohtori looked so distressed and ready to cry, and here, Shishido was entertaining thoughts that weren't the kind that a senpai was supposed to have towards his junior.
"Never mind..." he laid his hands on Ohtori's shoulders and pushed him back a little so they both could have space to actually get up and off the flooring. "Next time, you wouldn't even need to count. I'd get that serve of yours for sure."
Shishido chanced a glance towards the younger boy, and felt the familiar quickening of his heartbeat when he saw what looked dangerously like disappointment in Ohtori's gaze. Shit. Now, in accompaniment to his crazed heartbeat, surges of inexplicable warmth throughout his body made Shishido feel like howling. What was happening to them?! Even he himself was starting to get bewildered by his own errant inclinations, lest to say the younger and definitely *way* more innocent Ohtori.
Bravely ignoring the lost-little-boy expression on Ohtori's face, Shishido quickly extended a comradely hand towards him. "Come on. We gotta get home soon."
He felt no small amount of relief when Ohtori took his hand and allowed himself to be tugged to his feet. Plus, there was an almost impish grin on Ohtori's lips which clearly indicated the return of some measure of cheeriness to his mood.
"I'd reach the 200 mark before you catch up with my serve, senpai."
Shishido raised an eyebrow at that brash declaration from the usually reserved younger boy. Atobe-san was right. Shishido Ryou *was* a not-so-very-good influence on Ohtori.
"Don't bet on it," Shishido sniggered, returning the favour.
That night when he had lost count of Shishido-senpai's bruises hadn't been that very long ago, but he was already forgetting it. Even now, as he thought about it, it seemed that the surprising warmth of Shishido's skin and the even more surprising warmth in his eyes, were fading from his mind.
So much had happened after that night.
The events flew by in a blur, so fast and so dream-like all he could gasp of them were fleeting recollections. They ricocheted in his mind, all of them bits and pieces of images that he could remember. Some of them loomed before him in sharp focus.
Seeing himself grating out his mantra just before he served.
Ikkyuu nyuu kon!
Shishido's form - his movement so fast it became a shadow - right at the net. The sharp thud of ball into flesh.
The sound of impact was different. And there was no bounce of the ball onto the court.
Then he saw the ball - a spot of brilliant green - nestled in a firm palm.
Shishido's slow smile of weary triumph. But triumph all the same.
And there were other images, the blurry ones. Thick, suffocating memories that congested that space at the back of his mind. He couldn't forget them, but he didn't want to remember them.
Please, kantoku! Give me another chance!
For these past two weeks, Shishido-san has been practising very hard!
Na, Ohtori...would you give up your place as a regular, then?
Himself. Hands shaking, legs trembling, but managing to force himself forward that few steps into the scene. A voice unlike his own choking from his throat.
I don't mind!
He had meant every word he said, but that hadn't stopped Shishido from...
Without knowing it, his pillow was already wet from his own tears. Startled, he brought a hand to his cheeks and yes...they were damp.
He was still seeing in his mind's eye. Following every metallic clip of the scissors, the smooth, long dark-brown locks falling one by one to the ground in a merciless stream.
This is me. This is what I am.
The single image of a grinning, proud, indomitable Shishido Ryou had faded and was instead, replaced by the desperate boy with his knees crushed into the asphalt and a sea of shorn locks scattered about him like broken pieces of himself.
So many pieces...to match so many bruises. How much of himself had Shishido allowed to be broken?
Slowly, he sat up on his bed. Now he knew what it felt like to *know*. The dawning of realisation was perhaps, not a strong-enough description for this feeling. He felt more like had been rudely and suddenly doused by ice-cold water.
He yanked open the locker, then winced when his own reflection suddenly popped out at him. Muttering under his breath, he made a mental note to get rid of that stupid mirror that always lined the inside of his locker door. As he went about shuffling his belongings however, he couldn't help glancing towards the mirror. In the past, it would have been a reflex action to check out his reflection. Now, it was more...
It was just something he had to do.
He was stunned at the change in the way he looked.
His self-shorn hair had yet to be refined from a hairdresser's hand, so it stood up all over his head in an unruly buzz. He was sure he had never seen himself uglier than he was at this very moment. He made a face, twisting his features into the freakiest expression he could conjure up. His reflection promptly followed suit. He spent the next five minutes doing nothing but glaring, smiling, sneering, looking surprised, looking bewildered, looking shocked, at himself. Then he spent another five minutes practically with his face plastered to the mirror as he examined every contour of his features. It was sheer morbid fascination. He discovered little nicks and imperfections which had all been hidden by his long hair in the past; a little cut at his left jawline, another recovering bruise where his right cheek met his ear.
He only snapped out of his reverie when he heard the unmistakable measured, shuffling footfalls of Ohtori enter the changing rooms.
"Ne, Choutarou," he called out without turning towards the younger boy. "Don't you think I look funny with this new hairstyle? It looks kinda weird."
There was not even so much as a peep from Ohtori.
Only mildly surprised, he angled his head, just managing to catch a glimpse of Ohtori's ruffled ash hair before the kid disappeared again. Shrugging, he spoke again. "Ne, how was your training? You said I wouldn't catch up with you, but I did. Has your serve gotten any faster..."
Shishido stopped speaking then. Ohtori was a quiet boy, but never silent like this. Now worried, and probably unduly so but he'd think about that later, he shut his locker door and headed towards the end of the changing rooms where he had seen Ohtori enter.
"Choutarou?" he called as he peered into stall after stall. It didn't take too long, before he abruptly came upon a half-dressed Ohtori clutching his shirt in one hand. "Oh," Shishido said awkwardly as his eyes couldn't help doing a quick rake-over.
Ohtori's six-foot frame was still adolescent slender, but already the beginnings of a six-pack was starting to blossom, and given just a little more time, those shoulders would broaden and those arms would begin to bulge with the muscles probably capable of a serve even faster than two-hundred.
"Is...is something wrong, senpai?" Ohtori said suddenly and in concern as he stared down at himself, probably trying to discover what Shishido had been examining so intently.
"Hah?" Shishido looked up quickly, only to find large, chocolate-brown eyes blinking innocently back at him. Think pure thoughts, think pure thoughts, he chanted like a mantra in his mind as he tried to appear disarming. "Nothing, Choutarou."
Ohtori shrugged, a gesture which somehow looked disturbingly like what Shishido always did. "Okay," he said indifferently, before turning away.
It felt like a brush-off to Shishido no matter which way he looked at it. Well of course, if you consider the fact that Ohtori wasn't even a girl, and the other fact that Shishido wasn't supposed to feel anything untoward towards his junior, he shouldn't be feeling rejected. But he was.
"Choutarou," he tried again, this time going far enough to step into the stall. He consciously felt the younger boy flinch away from him. Something must be wrong with Ohtori. "You okay?"
Taking a gamble, Shishido reached up and laid a hand firmly on Ohtori's shoulder. He was left grasping air when Ohtori gave an audible gasp and recoiled like he was burned. Shishido felt leaden as he watched Ohtori retreat further into the stall, his back turned towards him. He should have seen this coming however. Many nights ago, he had approached Ohtori for help in one-on-one training, and it was Ohtori only because knowing him, Ohtori would help no matter the request. He had just forgotten that even Ohtori had his limits. And for Shishido to keep taking and taking from him...
"Choutarou," Shishido said quietly as he stepped back. "You don't have to help me - "
"Help you train any more, right?"
Shishido flinched at the harshness in the younger boy's tone.
"But...well, yeah, I won't. I never wanted to. And anyway..."
He glanced at Ohtori again, more than a little startled to see those strong shoulders quivering.
"I'm quitting the team."
The silence sung a soundless death knell over them.
Shishido found his voice first. Striding right back into the stall, he clamped his hand over Ohtori's arm, ignoring the feeble resistance from the boy, and tugging him around so he could look right into downcast brown eyes.
"WHAT?!" he literally shrieked at Ohtori.
"I said I'm quitting the team," Ohtori repeated stubbornly. "Without me, you'd have a higher chance of securing a place."
"And how do you think that's supposed to work?" Shishido rasped impatiently. God, he hated it when things took a sudden spin right under his nose and he didn't see it coming beforehand. "You play doubles, baka!"
"Yeah, I *am* an idiot! I don't think I can fit into the team. I can't sacrifice myself like you can!"
He didn't know which stunned him more - Ohtori's admission, or the wetness from Ohtori's eyes that he swiped ashamedly at with the back of his hand. Easing his death grip on Ohtori's arms, he instead, shifted his palms to the boy's shoulders and squeezed them. He thought he understood at last what was upsetting Ohtori now. Ever since a freshman, Ohtori was unique, so very different from the rest of the Hyotei team. It wasn't just his quiet compassion or his kindly nature. Ohtori was a whole system by himself within the system of Hyotei. He operated the way he knew how and away from the rest of the members. Improving himself, training himself, keeping a clear boundary between himself and the often unforgiving workings of the team-system.
Shishido remembered now in pinpoint clarity, that day when he had went down on his knees to beg the coach to allow him back into the team. And even more clearly, his resolution in cutting off his hair to prove his willingness to sacrifice. He also remembered the look of utter devastation in Ohtori's eyes as the boy watched on. That must be the first time Ohtori witnessed at first-hand and close-up, how ugly things could get even with junior-high tennis. And sometimes, just the first time was too much.
"Choutarou..." Shishido sighed as he gently shook the boy. "It's not your first day at Hyotei. The system sucks, but you *know* how things work. If I don't beg kantoku, he'd never let me back into the team."
Ohtori swiped his hand across his eyes again. "You didn't have to! I said I'd give up my place so you can come back."
Shishido released the boy. With quick, sure movements, he reached down, then tugged his own shirt off. His upper body bared to the harsh white of the fluorescent lights, all the recovering bruises looked magnified and each discoloration even more pronounced.
"Look at me," he ordered, shaking Ohtori again when the younger boy tried to turn away. "See all these? I worked for my place, but so did everyone else. I don't want anyone to compromise for me. I wanna come back to the team on my own terms. Got it, Choutarou?"
The younger boy raised watery eyes to the battered state of Shishido's body. "But..."
"No buts," Shishido cut him off. Then, more gently, he added, "Plus, you can't quit. Who's gonna be my doubles partner if you quit?"
Dark-brown eyes rounded in bewilderment. "Doubles? With me?"
"No, with myself," Shishido couldn't help teasing. "Baka. Of course, it's with you! Who else is silly enough? Atobe-san?"
He could see the wheels turning in Ohtori's mind as the younger boy digested his words. Then, and very abruptly, a weak but bright grin lit up Ohtori's face. "You called Buchou silly."
"Yeah well..." Shishido tried to picture the prima-donna Captain having to share the limelight with another player on the same court, and he found it hard to restrain his own chortling. But he shut up soon enough. If Atobe ever got wind of this, Shishido would be screwed over tenfold.
Shishido smiled when he saw the wistfulness on Ohtori's face. He knew Ohtori loved that long hair, even if it was on Shishido and not on Ohtori himself. Long, slender fingers reached past Shishido's face to brush at his shorn hair. The same flitting touch then alighted at Shishido's cheek, then caressed downwards to his lips. The grin slipped from Shishido's face as his skin began to tingle and tremble. Something about this was starting to feel like déjà vu. He didn't think very far, or very much, because within just a single heartbeat, he suddenly felt the warmth from Ohtori's breathing, then something soft and hesitant pressed quickly against his mouth, before drawing away just as swiftly.
It took a moment before Shishido realised that he had just been kissed. Yeah, it would go down in his book as the clumsiest, most awkward, and most unschooled kiss he had ever received from anyone...but it was also the most genuine, and the sweetest.
"S...sorry, Shishido-san!" Obviously mistaking his silence for disapproval, Ohtori was now staring back at him in horrified realisation of what he had just done.
Shishido's lips curled into a near-smirk of a smile. People would be surprised to find out that between the two of them, Ohtori could be the more impulsive, the more reckless, the one who took the real risks and dared to follow his emotions. And Shishido...he was tired of thinking and wondering about intentions. If Ohtori could relay his own feelings so easily and naturally, who was to say Shishido couldn't?
"Love-fifteen," Shishido cocked an eyebrow.
Lifting a finger to his own mouth, Shishido tapped at the corner of his lips, at the spot where Ohtori's mouth had just been moments ago. "Your Ikkyuu Nyuu Kon really sucks on accuracy. Shouldn't it be like this?" With that, he hurled all caution to the wind and pressed himself into the younger boy. His lips caught Ohtori's mouth with dead-on accuracy.
He was sure both of them could feel the stirring around them, within them. If he had been more poetic, he might have thought it as the winds of change. In just several fleeting seconds and the layers of warmth that gradually suffused them, they had crossed the boundaries from comrades, to friends and then...to more.
Ohtori's breath was young, and sweet, and his lips eager in their first real sensual awakening. Sliding an arm between them so Shishido could cup the younger boy's chin in his hand and steady Ohtori's uncertain mouth, he kept the kiss to slow caressing pecks. They tasted, taking each other's lips in wet suckles, until Shishido felt growing sureness in Ohtori's returning kisses, the soft sighs into his mouth, and Ohtori's hands sliding up his bared back to press their chests tighter. The need to breathe was completely forgotten; only the firmness of bodies, the feverish warmth from skin and the searing, velvet meshing of their mouths remained.
Then came the unmistakable wet slide of tongue into his mouth, and Shishido pulled away, breathing hard. He raised an eyebrow at Ohtori, marvelling at how perfectly innocent he looked, even with those kiss-swollen lips and the fact that he had been the owner of that errant tongue. Resisting the urge to re-claim that sweet mouth - and tongue - and continue things, Shishido shook his head a little to clear his mind. Think pure thoughts!
Shishido blinked, a little blinded by the rather uncharacteristic impishness gleaming in Ohtori's eyes. Well, he was a worse influence on Ohtori than he had estimated. But...he supposed Ohtori had every right to feel gleeful about the way things had obviously gone in his favour.
"Don't get too cocky," Shishido informed him with mock prissiness. "I'd get the next point."
"Only if you can catch up."
They grinned at each other.
Taking in a slow, deep breath, Shishido stepped onto the court. Around him, the atmosphere was a living thing, pressing around him, threatening to suffocate him, and it would, if Shishido hadn't already been waiting for it, and wanting it. That same thick thrill of feeling the court under his feet and the hundreds of eyes focused on him.
And he wasn't alone today, for this match, for every match after that he would play in Hyotei colours, and even beyond the tennis court.
Turning, he found Ohtori gazing back at him, boyish face set in grim determination. In the flimsy, fleeting moment their eyes met, understanding transpired.
The chase was on again. Shishido found his heart racing in both anticipation and no small amount of trepidation of what lay around the bend for both himself and Ohtori. But no matter, because even chasing each other, they were racing towards that one common point.
"Let's go, Ohtori."
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