If anyone had asked a week ago whether there was anything that would ever make him leave the tennis club, Shishido would have laughed in their faces. Leave? He was at the top, one of the best in a club of more than two hundred people, representing the school in tournaments and getting all kinds of recognition and appreciation for it. Sure, to his frustration he was still second string, but he was getting to play. Hell, he played more often than the first string, who were being reserved for the Regionals on the theory that there wouldn't be anyone worth playing for them in the District tournament.
That was a week ago, though. As he'd discovered last weekend, being at the top of such a big club meant there was a long, long way to fall.
Slamming his locker shut, Shishido scowled fiercely at it. There weren't any locks in the non-Regular's clubhouse, just cubbies with doors. There was hardly enough room for his uniform and books in one of them, they were so small, yet many of the freshmen ended up having to stack their things on the benches because there wasn't room for enough lockers.
In fact, the only reason Shishido had gotten a spot today was because there was a wide ring of space around him, even in the crowded clubhouse. It was as if everyone was afraid to get near him, fearful that his failure would rub off on them while at the same time sneering at him from their loftier positions.
As if the humiliation of losing 6-0 to someone from an unknown school that nobody had expected to make it past the first round wasn't bad enough. As if he didn't already have to suffer from the shame and indignity of being thrown off the Regulars in public, right in front of everyone. As if it wasn't enough that he'd lost his chance to ever again be anyone important in Hyoutei, and would have to live with being 'that loser' until they graduated and he got a fresh chance in high school.
No, he also had to deal with the superior and smug looks from every damn rookie who couldn't return a serve if their life depended on it, and all the taunts from the bastards who would never be able to beat someone as good as he was, but who still had more of a chance of being a Regular than he did now.
Snarling, Shishido kicked at the bank of lockers just for good measure, then slumped into a corner with his arms crossed and a forbidding expression. He'd wait for everyone else to clear out before leaving; he didn't particularly want to be cornered by the most vicious of his new tormentors. He'd learned that lesson the hard way after yesterday's practice.
Who knew there were so many people in the club that hated him? Oh, in a cut throat system like Hyoutei's, it was only to be expected that everyone below you would be actively gunning for you, and that anyone fallen from grace would be viewed with contempt. But some of these people seemed to be especially pleased that he, in particular, had lost his place.
All right, maybe he'd been a little arrogant. Some pride was pardonable when you were as good as he was, wasn't it?
Except, apparently, he hadn't been nearly as good as he'd thought he was. It would have been bad enough just to lose to Tachibana, but he could have recovered from a close loss. He wouldn't have lost his spot for that, and it would have just driven him to train harder. But a 6-0 win? Worse, none of the individual games had even been a close win. Shishido hadn't scored higher than 30 in a single game.
It was disgraceful, that was what it was. Shishido had never understood just what a 'crushing defeat' was before, but he did now. When the match point had been scored he'd dropped his racquet and collapsed to his knees, unable to bear the sheer weight of his humiliation. Even Sakaki's disappointed look and the fateful words that had lost him his spot on the team hadn't been able to destroy him any further. He'd already sunk as low as it was possible to go.
Realizing his hands were shaking just at the memory, Shishido growled at himself and closed them into fists, tucking them tighter under his arms. Yes, if someone had asked him today if there was anything that could make him leave the club, he'd have a different answer for them. Having more than two hundred mocking, sneering pairs of eyes on you was a humbling experience, and one he could definitely do without.
But the school rules said he had to be in a club until the time came for the seniors to retire. Once Hyoutei was finished with tournaments for the summer he would be free, but since they were almost certain to go all the way to Nationals despite the loss to Fudoumine that wouldn't be for months yet. He wasn't sure he could stand it that long.
Finally deciding the locker room was clear enough that it was probably safe for him to leave, Shishido slung his bag over his shoulder and made his way outside. It was, he reflected, a damn good thing that he wasn't in any way the depressive or self-destructive type, because suicide might have looked real tempting about now. That was the coward's way out, though, as far as he was concerned. He might be a loser, but by the gods he was not a coward.
To his surprise, the sound of someone practicing reached him the moment he set foot outside the clubhouse. Hyoutei practices were hard and long; even the Regulars didn't tend to stick around afterwards, too exhausted to do anything more. Non-Regulars were usually even worse off, and less inclined to push themselves right to their limits in the first place. It was late enough that the lights were on, though the sun was still just above the horizon. Who the hell would be on the courts now?
Curious despite himself, Shishido walked towards the fence. It wasn't hard to spot the lone player practicing his serves, or to recognize him. Ohtori Choutarou tended to stand out even in a crowd, being at least half a head taller than most members of the club, and since he was a first string Regular even though he was a second year there wasn't anyone who didn't know his name.
Shishido had heard about the younger boy's Scud Serve and how it had won him an unexpected place on the team, but he'd never seen it for himself. Watching now, he understood why it was talked about in awed whispers, and the people who played the boy tended to come away from the matches shaken.
Whistling low under his breath as another serve slammed over the net, Shishido was impressed. That had to be nearly a two hundred kilometre an hour serve. Only a dash specialist like him would have a hope of catching it in time to return it; most people wouldn't even see it coming. He wondered how hard it was to hang onto your racquet if you did connect with it; probably pretty damn difficult.
No wonder Sakaki had made the boy first string. If the rest of his play was even half as good as his serve he must be downright vicious on the courts.
The next serve smacked into the net so hard that Shishido half thought it would go right through. Ohtori growled loud enough for Shishido to hear it, and served again. That one went into the net as well, as did the one after it. Finally he managed to get one across into the service box, but the look of profound frustration on the junior's face told Shishido this probably wasn't a one-time problem.
"You're bending your wrist too much," he said automatically, forgetting for a moment that advice from the lowest of the low probably wouldn't be appreciated. Never mind that he was still just as good a player as he had been before the loss, and everyone had been happy enough to take his advice then.
"I know," the younger boy replied shortly. He looked surprised when he saw who was watching him, but to Shishido's relief the expected taunts and teasing didn't come. Instead the tall boy just shrugged, and bounced the ball a couple of times. "Why do you think I'm practicing? I'll get it right if it kills me." He served again, and it just squeaked over without touching the net.
Once again, Shishido was impressed. The junior was already one of the best players in Hyoutei. It would have been easy enough for him to relax a bit and rest on his laurels. Oh, not completely, of course; anyone who stopped improving soon found themselves cut out from beneath by one of the two hundred plus people ready and eager to advance. All the Regulars Shishido knew practiced on their off days as well, going either to the street courts or somewhere with a practice wall. But to keep going after an already brutal practice? That was dedication.
You had to admire that level of determination. There weren't many people Shishido truly respected, but he tentatively added Ohtori to the short list. Hell, if he'd been half that dedicated to improving himself, he probably wouldn't have lost to Tachibana. Or at least, he wouldn't have lost so badly.
"Why are you still here?" Ohtori asked him, now sounding merely curious.
"There're a couple people who seem to be taking great enjoyment in tormenting me, and they cornered me yesterday," Shishido admitted. At this point, he couldn't feel much more shamed than he already did, so what did he care if the junior thought him weak for avoiding the confrontation? "I get enough of it during practice, I don't need it on my way home too."
A faint smile crossed the younger boy's face, and he moved towards the fence where Shishido stood. "Actually, I meant, 'why are you still in the club'?" he elaborated. "Most people bet you'd resign the first day. Hardly anybody was willing to put money on you lasting more than a week. I'm curious why you've stuck it out even this long."
Stung that people thought he'd just turn and creep off with his tail between his legs, even though he had been wishing there was some way he could leave and find another club, Shishido scowled at him. "What'd you bet on?" he demanded.
"First day," Ohtori admitted, not seeming ashamed in the least. In the fading light of the sunset, his eyes looked black instead of the warm chocolate colour Shishido knew they were, and it was hard to read his expression. "I'm sorry to say it, Shishido-san, but as arrogant and prideful as you were I didn't expect you'd be able to handle the humiliation."
Arrogant and prideful! Shishido flushed, and glared. There was a difference between justifiable pride and... and... the kid made him sound like he'd been as bad as Atobe! "Well, I hope you lost a lot, then," he snapped back. "I'm not leaving. I'm going to prove every last damn one of you wrong. And I'm not going to stay on the bottom, either - I'm damn well going to make it back on the team!"
Until he'd said the words Shishido hadn't been aware that he was intending any such thing. It was ridiculous to even contemplate it, after all. Nobody came back after they were dropped, not after a defeat that total. Sakaki wouldn't even consider it.
Yet, he was surprised to find that he'd meant it. Maybe it was just that what Ohtori had told him had hurt his pride enough to shock him out of the humiliated apathy he'd been caught in, but whatever the reason Shishido was grateful for it. Suddenly he had a purpose again, and hope. He had no idea how he was going to accomplish his goal, but by the gods he would do it somehow.
Ohtori looked understandably shocked. "You're going to what? How?"
"I'm gonna improve so damn much, Sakaki would have to be insane not to let me back," Shishido swore fiercely, his eyes glittering. "I'll beat everyone, even Atobe. So if you want to make your money back, bet on me staying for the long haul. And if you want to make a fortune, bet on me playing in the Regionals."
"Assuming I could find anybody willing to take the bet," Ohtori said dryly, and the sheer disbelief on his face made Shishido bristle further. "I'd have thought you'd have learned your lesson about having too much pride, Shishido-san. You're only going to make an idiot of yourself, and nobody is going to take you seriously."
"They'll take me seriously when Sakaki takes me back," Shishido replied. "You just wait and see. Keep practicing your serve, because you're going to need it when I start working my way back up."
Turning on his heel he flipped his ponytail over his shoulder and strode off, his head high for the first time in days. He might be crazy, but he was deadly serious. One way or another, he was going to get his spot back - and his pride with it.
By the time a week had gone by, Ohtori had all but dismissed the odd conversation with his senpai. He'd never seen much of Shishido even when the older boy had been second string, since he specialized in doubles and Shishido preferred singles. Now that Shishido had been dropped, Ohtori might catch a glimpse of him once in a practice. Those few quick glances had shown him that Shishido at least seemed to believe he had a chance, since he was ignoring all the taunting with the air of one who is already planning his revenge.
Frankly, when he considered it at all, Ohtori thought the senior was being even more stupidly prideful than he had been before the loss. When Shishido had stuck it out past the first practice Ohtori had thought that just maybe the senior had learned a lesson and was willing to humble himself, but apparently not.
Nobody made it back onto the team after being dropped. Nobody. It was that simple. It was why they all fought so hard to keep their places; if you could come back after losing it, then where was the drive not to lose it in the first place? That was what made Hyoutei's team as good as it was. Everyone knew they couldn't afford to lose, so they had to keep pushing themselves to get better.
Ohtori had never had that much respect for Shishido in the first place. Atobe's arrogance he put up with and even accepted because their captain really was almost as good as he thought he was. But he'd never understood how someone who wasn't even on the first string could have as much pride as Shishido did. It was no surprise the senior was being treated so badly now by his teammates; he'd alienated almost everyone with his superior attitude. Like most of the club, Ohtori thought Shishido was a shallow peacock with more hair than sense, and he'd been happy to see him taken down a few notches by his loss.
Not that he didn't feel sympathetic, because he couldn't imagine how low the older boy must have felt when he'd been dropped like that. Especially after such a humiliating loss. Still, this dogged insistence that he would make it back on the team seemed like little more than a pathetic attempt for Shishido to recover his pride.
So he forgot about it for the most part, until the night Shishido walked out onto the court in front of him just as he was about to slam another serve over the net.
It was too late to abort the serve entirely, but Ohtori could and did send it spinning into the net instead. "Are you crazy?" he blurted out, staring at the senior. Shishido was dressed in his court clothes, but he wasn't holding a racquet. He was standing inside the service box, right where Ohtori had been aiming the serve. "I might have hit you!"
"Good," Shishido replied. "That's exactly what I want. I've figured out how I'm going to get back on the team, and you're going to help me do it."
Gaping at him, Ohtori tried to find something to say in reply to such a ridiculous statement, and failed. Shishido had lost his mind entirely, he decided. The pressure and shame had been too much for him.
"How exactly is walking into the path of one of the strongest serves in the junior high circuit supposed to accomplish anything but getting you sent to the hospital?" he finally demanded.
Shishido was grinning at him, obviously amused by Ohtori's fish out of water impression. "You've seen my signature move, the Rising Counter. It only works if I can get myself set up with enough time before the ball gets to me, to get into position." He demonstrated, lifting his hands as if he held a racquet in one, turning his body so the racquet would be poised behind him and his free hand was cupped in front to balance him. "That's why I'm a dash specialist, I have to be fast or it doesn't work."
"Yeah, so?" Ohtori asked, now curious despite himself. "What's that got to do with me and my serve?"
"Like you just said, your serve is the fastest thing I'll ever have to face," Shishido replied, dropping the stance and looking at him with fierce eyes. "If I can catch it, I can catch anything. Nothing will ever get by me again."
There was some merit to that theory, Ohtori had to admit. Thoughtful now, he approached the net so they could talk without having to shout across half the court. "All right," he said. "I can see how that would improve your game significantly. I still don't think you've got a snowball's chance of getting back on the team."
"Oh, it will," Shishido assured him. "If it kills me, I'm going to do this. But whether you believe me or not, does it matter? High school's still coming up fast. Obviously, I'm not good enough to play at the level I want, so I need to improve one way or another."
"That's true," Ohtori acknowledged. Reluctantly, he realized that some of his dislike of the senior was turning into something resembling respect. He still thought the older boy was a prideful idiot, but what he was proposing would involve a hell of a lot of effort on his part. If he really could learn to return Ohtori's serve from so close to the net, he'd be almost guaranteed a spot on the team in high school. Ohtori couldn't help but respect that kind of determination when it was backed up by a willingness to put in the effort required. "And it'll do me some good to have a focus for my serve. All right, you've got a deal. Grab your racquet."
The slow smile that spread over Shishido's face made him oddly nervous. "You're not listening. I don't want to be able to return the serve; I want to be able to catch it."
"Catch it?" Ohtori repeated, staring at him blankly. "I don't understand." That was just a term for hitting the ball with your racquet. The only other possible interpretation was...
The blank stare turned to shock and a sick sort of awe when Shishido moved into the Rising Counter position again, his off hand cupped as if holding a tennis ball. "If I can be in position fast enough to catch the ball, then I'll be fast enough to execute the counter properly," Shishido elaborated, just in case Ohtori was still missing the point.
"You're insane." It wasn't a question this time, just a flat statement of fact. "I'll break your hand! No, actually," Ohtori corrected himself, shaking his head, "I'll break your ribs, because you'll never get turned fast enough. Absolutely not. Hard training is one thing, but I'm not helping you put yourself in the hospital!"
"No, you're not, because I won't need a hospital," Shishido agreed implacably. "I'm going to get hurt at first, yeah, but you're not actually strong enough to break bones, Choutarou. It's not that big a deal."
"My name is Ohtori," the junior said, frowning. He didn't mind being called '-kun' by a senpai, but he didn't like it when people got familiar with him like that. It implied a superiority that, frankly, Shishido didn't have right now.
"If you're going to be slamming serves at me, I think I'll earn the right to call you whatever I want," Shishido countered, grinning at him again.
"Except I'm not going to be slamming serves at you!" Ohtori retorted. "I told you, no. Go find some other way to torture yourself for being dropped. I'm not doing it." He turned to walk back to the baseline, intending to finish his practice and put Shishido and his insanity out of his mind entirely.
"Yes you are," Shishido insisted. "Because I'm not going anywhere. You can either give in and help me, or never get a chance to practice your serve outside of club again. Whether it's here, or at a street court, I'm going to follow you and walk onto whatever court you're on. You're the only one who can help me. Nobody else is nearly as fast as you are."
Halfway back to the baseline, Ohtori turned. Even from here, he could see the sincerity in the senior's eyes. Shishido meant every word - he really would trail Ohtori around from court to court, hounding him. He'd never get a chance to perfect his serve that way, and he couldn't afford to fault nearly as often as it went in. He had to fix it.
Frustrated, Ohtori glared back at him. "I don't like hurting people!" he protested. "Not even people I dislike. I'm not going to do it!"
"Choutarou." Shishido just looked at him levelly, and said nothing for a long moment. Then he bowed his head, and added, "Please."
Just that, the one simple word, but it stunned Ohtori. As far as he knew, Shishido had never pleaded for anything. He was more likely to demand things than ask for them nicely. "Shishido-san, I..." He floundered, uncertain what to say. He still didn't want to do it, but it was hard to say 'no' in the face of Shishido humbling himself even this much.
"Please," Shishido said again, and then he lifted his head and locked eyes with Ohtori, letting the silence stretch between them.
Swallowing hard, Ohtori struggled with himself. "All right," he finally conceded, wincing as his voice cracked. "All right, you win. I'll do it."
The way Shishido's eyes lit up you'd think Ohtori had just offered him a chance to play at Wimbledon, not agreed to maul him with a tennis ball. "Great! You won't regret it, Choutarou, I swear. You'll see!"
"Don't call me Choutarou," Ohtori repeated, brow furrowed as he walked the rest of the way to the baseline and set himself up for another serve.
Looking across the net to see Shishido standing there, obviously completely focused and fiercely determined, Ohtori felt a lead weight settle into his stomach. How could he deliberately aim his serve at another person? He'd never been the kind of boy to get into fights, he'd never hurt anyone in his life, let alone done it on purpose.
He'd agreed to do it, though. He was tempted to just not use his full strength, but Shishido would know if it was only a normal serve and anything more than that was going to hurt anyway. Besides, Ohtori never did anything by halves, or he'd never have gotten to be first-string in his second year.
Taking a deep breath, he positioned himself and focused on the ball instead of looking over the net. "Ikkyuu," he murmured, using the familiar chant to help steady himself. "Nyuu... kon!"
He didn't drop his head until after the ball had left the strings of his racquet, but that was still plenty of time for him to see it streak over the net and into Shishido. Ironically, it was probably the best Scud Serve he'd done all night. Shishido didn't even have a chance, barely managing to start moving before the ball slammed into him.
It struck him squarely in the chest, and Ohtori's breath caught in his throat in sympathy. Shishido went down on one knee, clutching at the injury and wheezing with pain. "Shishido-san!" Ohtori ran for the net, worried he'd done serious damage.
"I'm fine!" To his shock and dismay, the senior waved him off and hauled himself to his feet. The determined look hadn't faded from his eyes; if anything, it was fiercer than ever. "Get back there, Choutarou, we're not even close to being finished. Again!"
Forgetting to even protest the familiar address, Ohtori shook his head. "No! This is insane! I'm not just going to hurt you, I'm going to kill you! Shishido-san, please..."
"Serve, damn it." Shishido's tone was implacable, and there was no arguing with the look in his eyes. Tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, Ohtori found he could do nothing but nod and turn to go back to the baseline.
The second serve took the older boy in the chest again, but higher on his shoulder. "Again!" Shishido demanded. The third time, Shishido turned far enough that it hit him on the other side of his body, but low enough to knock the wind out of him. Even before he had his breath back, he was croaking "Again!"
Ohtori's hands were shaking, and he could taste blood in his mouth where he'd bitten his lip hard enough to break the skin. Still he served again as ordered, not knowing what else to do.
This serve smacked into the net, but he still saw Shishido flinch. Not that Ohtori could blame him, really. The fifth serve hit the net as well, as did the sixth. Panting, Ohtori stood with another ball, knowing he was getting too rattled to be able to serve properly.
"C'mon, Choutarou, you can do better than this!" Shishido called, frowning at him. He'd gotten his breath back, apparently. "If you get rattled this easily, you'll lose your first official match and then you'll be in the same mess I am!"
"I won't have insane people ordering me to try to kill them in an official match!" Ohtori protested, wiping the sweat from his brow and bouncing the ball a few times. Damn it, if Shishido could stand there and take it, then Ohtori could bloody well dish it out.
"Ikkyuu nyuu kon!" This time he kept his wrist stiff, and the ball stayed well above the net.
Too well - Shishido's eyes went wide and he tried to duck at the last moment, and that was probably the only thing that saved him from a broken nose or worse. The ball hit him squarely on the temple, just barely missing his eye, and he dropped like a sack of rocks.
"Shishido-san!" Horrified, Ohtori dropped his racquet and once again sprinted for the net, but this time there was no growling order to keep serving. Shishido lay sprawled across the court, frighteningly unmoving - and there was a suspicious dark stain across his brow, almost black in the artificial lighting of the court.
Leaping over the net like a track runner would take a hurdle, Ohtori skidded to a stop beside the senior and dropped to his knees, hands hovering over the older boy. He was afraid to actually touch Shishido for fear of doing more damage. Weren't you supposed to not move an accident victim until you were sure there was no damage to the spine? Frantic, he tried to think of what he should do, wondering whether he should call an ambulance or something.
To his incredible relief, before he could decide to run for his cell phone Shishido groaned and stirred. "Shishido-san?" Ohtori gasped, finally settling on bracing his hands against Shishido's shoulders to make sure the senior didn't shift and do more damage to himself. "Oh gods, don't move. Are you hurt? Can you feel anything?"
"Nng," Shishido replied, and squinted his eyes open. He blinked a couple of times, then managed to focus on Ohtori, which at least meant he probably didn't have a concussion. "Stop hovering, I'm fine. I'm just..." He tried to sit up, and Ohtori didn't even need to push him back down; he reeled and went still almost immediately. "Ow."
Lifting one hand, Shishido touched it to his injured temple, and his fingers came away sticky with blood. "Oops," was his chagrined comment. "How bad is it?"
"I can't tell, it's bleeding pretty hard," Ohtori replied, trying to gently brush away enough of the blood to get a good look at the wound. It seemed to be across the senior's eyebrow, which made it harder still to see. "Head wounds do that, though, so it might not be that bad. How's your eye? Can you see? Do you think you might be concussed?"
"I don't have a concussion," Shishido said, once again shoving himself upright but going slower this time. He ended up sitting so that he was leaning back on one hand, the other pressed against the bleeding wound. Ohtori supported him by the other shoulder, feeling helpless but wanting to do something. "Will you stop that?" the senior snapped at him. "I'm fine, I said. Just give me a second, and we can start again."
"Start again?" Ohtori stared at him, disbelieving. "Shishido-san, you were out cold! For at least thirty seconds, maybe even a full minute! We're stopping this right now."
"No we're not." Shishido wrapped his hand around Ohtori's wrist with a grip of steel, staring into the younger boy's eyes from inches away. "We're not stopping, damn it. I will do this. Just don't aim so high, that would have gone out anyway."
"I'm not worried about the serve, I'm worried about you getting your skull cracked open!" Ohtori retorted. "I don't want to go to jail for assault and battery, and certainly not for manslaughter! We're not..."
"Choutarou." Just the one word, his name... but the tone and the look in Shishido's eyes stopped him cold.
By the gods, he really might do it, Ohtori thought, awed. Something about the sheer strength of will that shone in Shishido's expression told him that the senior's talk about making it back onto the team hadn't been prideful boasting after all. Shishido had learned his lesson; had taken it to heart, and was using it to propel himself forward out of the ashes of defeat. This wasn't pride, it was determination.
And he'd asked for Ohtori to help him. Ohtori would be the one to help him make history by being the first person ever to make it back onto the team. He'd thought Shishido was shallow - well, now the senior was proving him wrong. In the face of that dedication and willingness to sacrifice, what choice did Ohtori really have?
He sighed. "Let's clean that cut and put a plaster on it, so you don't have blood dripping into your eye," he said softly, standing and offering Shishido his hand. "You won't get very far without any depth perception. And next time it's coming for your head just get out of the way, don't try to catch it!"
Privately he vowed to work that much harder on controlling his serve. He would not hit Shishido in the face again.
The senior looked at his offered hand for a long moment, and Ohtori half expected him to scorn it and scramble to his feet by himself. That was what the old Shishido would have done, too proud to accept help from anyone for fear of looking weak.
Instead he took Ohtori's hand and let the junior pull him to his feet. "Hurry it up, then," he said, with a cocky grin at Ohtori. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Unsteady on his feet, with half his face smeared with blood and his hair on that side matted with it as well, Shishido should have looked like a victim from a horror movie. Instead, Ohtori thought it was just about the most impressive thing he'd ever seen. How many people would be planning to continue after getting struck in the head like that?
He's going to do this. We are going to do this. The pride associated with that thought was enough to make Ohtori smile at him, and Shishido blinked.
"You're happy all of a sudden," he said warily. "What's going on in your head, Choutarou?"
"Just thinking that it will be interesting to go down in the history books as the one who helped you do the impossible," Ohtori told him, and this time the use of his given name didn't even bother him. The sudden fierce grin he got from the older boy as Shishido realized that Ohtori believed in him was all the reward he ever could have asked for.
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