You've always thought that he looks funny when he runs--all effort, and legs, and arms, capped with just that radiant touch of silver hair blowing in the wind of his motion. It's not easy for someone as tall as he is, and especially not for someone so unsure. He's not at all like anyone's image of any kind of champion. You know that some people, their tongues ugly, call him gangly, and clumsy, and ungraceful. Nowadays, you just glare at them, and they've paled and looked away from your eyes when they would never have looked away from Ootori Choutarou's hurt gaze. You're good at that, at least.
But when your Choutarou serves--and you're not sure when exactly he became yours, exactly, maybe sometime between the hours when practice ended and midnight bells rang, both of you out long past curfew--there's nothing to him but grace. You'd have hit anyone who said anything else, at least in your earshot.
It's the line of him, you've decided. The way he arcs his head back to bare his throat, and arches his back to meet the bent bow of his arm. It's the way it all snaps forward, just like that, breathtaking, and if you'd ever cared to watch you know you'd have seen muscle tense in his forearm, even all the way across the courts flooded by spotlights.
Then again, it might be none of those things. Maybe, maybe, it's the way his eyes don't flinch even when the ball slams and spins into the edge of the net with a heavy thwap, and he pulls another ball out of his pocket. You snarl, maybe, something unimportant, and you know he doesn't hear you when the ball goes into the air again, and into the net once more. Maybe your body jerks, just a little, with the sound--it's not so different from the sound a ball makes in your head whenever it impacts against you.
It's not so different from the little sound he makes, across the courts--loud in your ears, it's always kind of a surprise that you can hear him even through the ringing of impact against the courts that tear your knees.
It hurts him. At least as much as you.
It's not easy to be Ootori Choutarou.
It's not easy to be someone's salvation, you think, and wonder when it is, exactly, that he became yours. And you wonder, cynically, how you could know how easy it is, when you've never bothered to save anyone at all.
All Ootori does these nights is serve. Over. And over. Like beauty on playback, or something. And all you do is make him, and know when you do that there would be no way you could make him if he didn't want to be there. If he didn't want to help, somehow.
Some kind of unwilling hero, maybe, but he's a hero all the same. Just one shining silverhair moment in a club of ego and shattered talent and--yes--pride, as much as yours.
You thought, once, that there wasn't any pride to kindness. That there couldn't be any kindness to strength. But there's pride in Ootori Choutarou, you've seen it when before you couldn't even be bothered to look--it shines, sometimes, in the stubborn set of a mouth that you once thought was just soft and weak. Pride was your weakness, but it doesn't seem like that, in him--it's a shining, beautiful thing that will push him far past where everyone thinks that a too-tall junior with a too-fast serve can go.
And, sometimes, it stuns you how purely difficult it must be to be kind when everyone about you is snipping, or sniping, or whispering, or competing. The boy across the courts from you, his hair burnt to gold in the spotlight of the courts, must have heard the rumours whispered about school, about how Ootori Choutarou had pleased Atobe in ways that had nothing to do with tennis in order to make it onto the Regular team as a junior.
They weren't true. Did it matter?
Hyotei is not a school of heroes, and you said that, to him, once, only a few days ago. You wondered if he'd understand that you were talking about him.
He didn't, of course. He just smiled absently at you, and said, "Why would we need heroes here, Shishido-san?"
He hasn't got a clue, and it makes you smile.
You know what will have to be done. You know that you are going to have to debase yourself before someone you once thought could control the only thing that made you happy--get down on your knees before him, and strip away the broken web of what used to be your pride and became your humiliation. You've bought the clippers that you need for the job already.
Being on your knees will be nothing new, though. You've been on your knees, you've been humbled, ever since you knocked on the door of a silver-haired junior expecting him to laugh in your face.
No--that's not quite right. You've been on your knees ever since he blinked at you, and said, "Shishido-san, I don't want to hurt you," when you've made fun of him since his freshman year for that no-control serve and his prodigious height. Anyone else would have taken the opportunity to humiliate you, and you would have used them instead, because that's what you know. They'd have pelted you with tennis balls, you would have improved your tennis, and you would have taken their spot on the team. There would have been some kind of strange, vicious fairness in that.
It was what the Hyotei tennis club had taught you, after all. If people hurt you, you could use them, and by getting better--get them back. You would show them all, you thought, your back straight when you knocked at that door. It was what being Shishido Ryou, with your affectation of long hair because you could afford to have it long, had taught you.
Then your Choutarou taught you something else.
The ball impacts against your elbow when you reach for it--soclosesoclose--and the impact knocks you back, one step, two, to one knee with a growl of pain. Ootori, across the courts, makes that same little sound again, the one that sounds like 'stop,' and when you look up with something that might have been a smile if it didn't hurt so much, his brows are drawn together into a tight little arc, eyes wide and luminous.
It's the same face he made when you told him what you wanted.
It's the same face he made when you practically had to crawl to your dorm door from your bed the next morning, aching in every muscle and feeling every time you'd hit the ground.
It's the same face as when he wrapped an arm around your waist and half-carried you to bed even when you snapped at him, and then went back to the doorway to pick up the first-aid kit he must have put down because you were taking so long to answer the door.
And when you stared down at him, at those long fingers dabbing little rubs of antiseptic onto each of your cuts and apologising with every time you hissed or moved away from his touch or swore, you realised, to your shock, that he actually cared.
It was a few days later when you realised how soft his eyes could be outside of a tennis court, when he came over to your room with a pot of tea. The next day, you realised that his hands are too long and too graceful to be on a tennis racquet, because he thought you might have trouble sleeping after a particularly brutal practice, and he brought over his violin to play the softest thing you've ever heard. Maybe heroism doesn't have to be something flashy. Maybe... well, maybe it's in the small things, too.
He might be gangly when he runs, but your Choutarou is beautiful in everything else.
The next ball takes you too close to the solar plexus for comfort, because you don't quite move your arm in time to reach for it, and this time, it knocks you down, and your breath is stuck somewhere for a moment--his voice is almost a cry, but the only sound you make is a sharp hiss, "Again," as you clamber clumsily back to your feet, swaying. Your head is spinning, and maybe you should stop, but you're not going to disappoint him, damn it.
The ranking matches are tomorrow, and it's not just for you that you're doing this anymore, even though it's definitely for you that he is.
You won't disappoint him, even though you must have been nothing but a disappointment to him. You can't catch his serve. You can't keep from swearing, even though you know it makes him wince. You can't even get the rest of the team to stop badmouthing Ootori Choutarou, but...
"I believe in you," he said. "I believe that if anyone can do it, it's you, Shishido-san."
It's from Ootori Choutarou that you've learned how much courage it takes to try for the impossible. And in that, at least--no, in that, you refuse to disappoint him.
"Please, let's stop," Ootori says, and you shake your head. He's eminently responsible, but you know that. It's long past curfew. It's past midnight, even. But it's not because of curfew, or because he's afraid to be in trouble, it's because he's worried about you, the fool bruised on the ground with the long hair of your own pride tangling around your throat. He wants to save you, and he doesn't know that he already has.
Sometimes, it's braver to ask to stop than it is to continue. You know that. You know how hard it is for Ootori to say 'stop,' because for whatever reason, Ootori wants you back on the team. And he's not an idiot--he can see what you're doing, and he knows, too, that if you ever manage to succeed, you'll be a better tennis player by far than you used to be.
It takes courage to keep on trying to save someone from the ball that you're so sure will hit them--even if they won't let you save them.
And sometimes, maybe, you think, it takes more courage yet to let the ball fly and, impossibly, end up in someone's outstretched hand.
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