Shishido tilts his head a little and feels the slight shift in the weight of his long silky hair. Fudomine? Whoever heard of Fudomine anyway.
"You're the captain, right? Aren't you playing a little too early?" Shishido says, his voice dismissive and condescending. "Oh well, whoever it is, I'll finish this game in 20 minutes."
His opponent eyes him carefully for a moment; he smiles, knowing and diplomatic, and he doesn't say a thing.
The game is to be served by this whats-his-name captain from Fudomine. Shishido smirks as he awaits the ball impatiently but by the time he actually senses its presence, it's already far too late.
"Hey, you having fun yet?" His opponent asks, matter-of-factly. He doesn't withhold anything at all.
"Game! Fudomine. One game to love!" The umpire declares and Shishido stares at the umpire and then at his opponent in utter incredulity.
Shishido hears the soft derisive murmurings around the courts -- ringing too loud in his ears to ignore. His nerves feel frazzled and anxiety pounds erratically at his heart.
And in just an unbelievably short span of fifteen minutes--
"Game set! Fudomine, Tachibana. Six games to love."
Shishido doubles over and falls to his knees, exhausted but furious. The ground is rough and it lightly abrades his delicate skin but he doesn't notice these things. Instead, he thinks about his unsightly defeat, Atobe's disapproving eyes and the possibility of Kantoku throwing him out of the team without so much a second thought.
What, is this really going to happen to Shishido Ryou?
The sky is a bright orange hue and the sun casts long shadows as the Hyotei team walk back to their school bus.
"Doubles, Ogawa-Chigabayashi pair lost at 4-6. Doubles, Kaida-Kashiwa pair lost at 1-6. Singles, Shishido--"
Shishido's head is bent down and he resists the urge to look up at the sound of his own name.
"--Even though he's a regular, he lost totally at 0-6," Atobe pauses briefly before speaking into his cell phone again. "Yes, I can't believe we lost at quarter finals."
"Yes, Shishido will be removed from the regular team."
And that's it, he thinks resentfully, his face shadowed by his dark velvet of hair.
Sometimes, he hates this world he lives in, where the strong devour the weak and the weak either allow themselves to be taken, or they could try their best to run away and delay their capture anyway. It's a natural law of the world, and it's the same recurring theme he keeps reading about in English literature -- the survival of the fittest. It's like this in Hyotei; it's like this everywhere else. What value is there in friendship? He doesn't even dare to face Atobe now -- why, he's not sure why. He just feels like a thorough loser.
And the worst thing is, he knows he is also one of those who inadvertently propagate such values. He remembers all those times he invariably took advantage of and laughed at his weaker opponents and then, one by one, he savoured sweet victory as he won them all.
Except that now, he is the one that is being marginalised.
It's inevitable, after all.
Shishido doesn't really know how to face the rest of the tennis team during tennis practice the next day. Jirou sleeps as usual, Gakuto stops by to make a few snide remarks and Oshitari smiles apologetically at him but he feels indignant instead. Then, he catches Hiyoshi and Taki looking askance at him once or twice.
He tries to extricate himself from the team as much as possible and when dusk finally falls, he heaves a sigh of relief as he sinks into a bench in their locker room. Phew. Nobody left anymore. Having to deal with defeat is already bad enough -- the aftermath makes it ever more exhausting.
He looks at his duffel bag, laid carelessly on the bench and a wave of melancholy washes over him. So. Simply put, he's out now; he's just another face in the crowd of two hundred. He no longer owns a seat in the exclusive and much-coveted regulars team. He is no longer Shishido Ryou, the Regular.
He is just The Failure.
Nobody gives second chances; the world is simply unforgiving like that.
He clenches his fists and thinks he needs to do something about this.
Just then, the door creaks open and Shishido suddenly comes face to face with his shocked-looking junior.
Ootori Choutarou? Is that his name?
"Ahh Shishido-senpai? Sorry, am I disturbing you?" Ootori begins, hesitant and awkward, and he halts his steps at the doorway.
Feeling intruded upon, Shishido glares at his junior for a moment, then he closes his eyes, resigned.
"Look. If you're here to mock me, just get out now, okay?"
"Ahh, no! You're mistaken! Sorry! I forgot to take something so..."
"Oh, ...the fuck?" Shishido mutters under his breath, but it's probably loud enough for Ootori to hear.
Ootori traverses across the room and advances to his locker in very quick cautious steps. The room is silent except for the sound of Ootori shuffling around and fiddling with his belongings. Suddenly, he stops whatever he is doing, and he begins in a very small voice.
Shishido grunts carelessly.
"I'm sorry to hear about what happened yesterday. Just... you know, don't feel too bad about it."
"And you said you're not here to laugh at me," Shishido feels his temper rising as he regards his junior with deeply reproachful eyes. Ootori on the other hand, looks totally horrified at how he seems to keep saying the wrong things. He opens his mouth, ready to defend himself but he stops and casts his sorry eyes on the ground instead.
"I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to."
Shishido thinks he hears sincerity in that voice -- though, he really doesn't want to get his hopes up too high -- and now, he feels somewhat mollified. He makes a non-committal noise and picks up a racket from his bag.
Noting that it's almost dark outside, Ootori asks, "Where are you going, Shishido-senpai?"
"...I'm going to practise, of course. Can't let myself fall again, can I?" Shishido replies gruffly as he heads for the door.
Ootori falls silent. Then he appears to steel himself for a moment before he asks in a very loud voice, "Wait, Shishido-senpai!"
Shishido stops but doesn't turn to face Ootori.
"Shishido-senpai," Ootori begins once more, stammering a little, and Shishido sees a faint dash of pink across his cheeks.
"If you don't mind, why don't you practise with me? I guess I'd be a more effective training partner than the wall," Ootori smiles sheepishly and Shishido thinks he can't bear to turn down this boy and his zeal. Shishido feels something melt as a modicum of warmth creeps up somewhere within him.
He doesn't answer.
Instead, he takes a few more steps, feeling the weight of Ootori's disappointed eyes on his back as he had expected. And he stops just right before the door.
"Use your Scud Serve."
He can feel -- even though he can't see; confusion turned to comprehension -- Ootori's face light up in an instant.
Ootori catches up with Shishido at the doorway and they walk out into the setting sun together. Shishido is fondly reminded of the puppy he had when he was six; he loved that puppy very much.
Their first practice is draining, and Shishido agrees that practising with Ootori is far better than practising with a wall. Ootori serves whilst Shishido focuses on controlling the speed and angle of his returns.
Even though the night is mostly spent on tennis and little talk is exchanged -- Shishido doesn't understand why -- he has gained an overall good impression of Ootori. Ootori just seems different from the "typical Hyotei bunch". Ootori is warm and polite and he doesn't pass derisive remarks when Shishido makes a mistake. At a time like this when he's feeling particularly beleaguered and all weary inside, he secretly appreciates this very much.
It is almost eleven and they decide it's time to call it a day. Ootori catches the sound of Shishido's stomach protesting and he laughs with a tinkle at the supremely mortified Shishido-senpai.
"Shishido-senpai, you haven't had dinner? I just remembered that I haven't too! We must have forgotten about it in all our enthusiasm!"
Shishido frowns as he regards the boy with a slightly affronted expression. "It's not funny, you know."
Ootori laughs again. He suggests going to the 24-hour convenience store nearby to grab some food.
And they do.
"You know, I've always thought Choutarou is such an unusual name," Shishido remarks.
They are two hungry boys eagerly eating their sandwiches outside the store.
Ootori sighs lightly. "I know. Atobe-san once called me Nagatarou by mistake. Some people tend to do that when there's no furigana, I guess."
Shishido uncontrollably chortles with laughter and amid his favourite cheese sandwich, the calming night breeze and the pleasant company, he feels exceptionally light-hearted since yesterday.
"Nagatarou! Trust Atobe to do that!" He exclaims, then he chuckles. "Then what does your family call you?"
"My family?" Ootori appears to think for a moment and Shishido thinks this boy is too amusing. "Hmm, they just call me Choutarou, I guess."
"I see," Shishido still looks vaguely amused and he can't stop laughing. "Can I call you Choutarou? If I don't, I'm just going to forget you're even called Choutarou at all and I'd just call you Nagatarou or something one day."
Ootori smiles at his delighted senior. "Of course, Shishido-senpai."
(In retrospect, Shishido reflects and he's thinks that's the lamest excuse he's ever used. Every time he thinks about it, he just wants to strangle something alive.)
"See you tomorrow, Choutarou," Shishido says just before they part. Then lowering his voice significantly, he adds, "And thanks a lot for today."
Ootori's smile is disarming as he waves Shishido goodbye.
How many nights has it been already? Practising late into the night after everyone has left for the comfort of their homes. They are tired too, night after night like this -- every single night -- bathed in the blinding white of the lamps overhead, and the sound of rebounding balls recur in an almost rhythmic fashion.
"Don't you go easy on me, Choutarou!" Shishido shouts at Ootori on the opposite court. "Now's the time to show me all you've got!"
Shishido's flawless skin is now afflicted with lacerations all over. He is sure some of these are going to be left behind permanently but he really has no time to worry about frivolities like these.
In his mind, he sees nothing but his goal.
I have neither Choutarou's height nor Kabaji's mass. The only thing I can practise on is my speed; and I'm not going to just run around the court recklessly. I need to develop my own style of tennis or I'm just nothing.
That is why he doesn't even use his racket anymore because he believes trying to catch balls with his bare hands can improve his reflex. Especially with the help of Ootori's Scud Serve, if he manages to catch all his balls (which he must eventually), his speed is going to increase vastly.
Finally, Ootori calls out to him from the other end, "Even if we continue on, it's not going to do us any good, Shishido-senpai... Let's take a break already!"
A chilly silence lingers briefly as no more balls are served. Shishido seriously considers this suggestion for a while but all he remembers is the bitterness of failure he doesn't even want to think about.
"You're not even holding a racket," Ootori continues gently. "Just how long are we..."
Fatigue eats into Shishido and he's sure it's eating at Ootori just as much. He fingers his right elbow gingerly and winces -- it's starting to ache a lot, but he can't let go. He really can't let go now. Not now. Just a little more. Persevere. Sorry, Choutarou--
"Shut up! Just carry on!"
Shishido looks worn and torn but his eyes are bright and burning. Ootori breaks into a helpless smile knowing that any more reasoning is futile with a Shishido like this.
How many more nights is it going to be? Practising late into the night after everyone has left for the comfort of their homes. They are tired too, night after night like this -- every single night -- bathed in the blinding white of the lamps overhead, and the sound of rebounding balls recur like a gentle pulsation.
"Shishido-senpai, the cut next to your brow looks pretty deep."
What? A cut?
Shishido walks across their locker room to the nearest mirror, looks into it and nearly recoils. That cut looks especially ugly.
Fishing a plaster from his bag -- it's always good to have some spare ones -- Ootori walks over to Shishido.
"Don't move," Ootori says firmly and his brows come together as he examines the offending wound.
Shishido feels a little uncomfortable as he is suddenly aware of how close Ootori's body is to his; he can almost smell Ootori's freshly shampooed hair; he can feel Ootori's warm breath sweeping vaguely across his cheeks.
A little more examination before Ootori aligns the plaster carefully and pastes it gently on Shishido's temple.
"There," Ootori says proudly and he beams like a little child.
Shishido mutters a word of thanks and quickly moves away, pretending to resume packing. This is really too much for him to take.
It is customary for Hyotei to hold interclub ranking matches just one week before any tournament because they have so many members.
This is the moment Shishido has been waiting for. Second chance -- even if the world doesn't give it to him, he'll give himself one. Before Shishido steps into the court, he remembers all the endless nights he has spent with Ootori, drilling away tirelessly until he finally feels like breaking.
Half a month, two weeks, fourteen days.
That might not be a very long period of time but Shishido is sure it's going to make a difference.
He takes small steps at a time and suddenly he feels nervous like never before.
The past haunts because it can never be erased. No matter.
He's going to make history.
He dances gracefully across the courts, seething anger and crushing peace all upon him at the same time. He's calm and he's steady, but his strokes are furious and unforgiving because he was never forgiven. He wins them one by one once more, relishing the speed of the games and the bittersweet victory that is both familiar and distant like forgotten deja vu.
His final opponent is Taki, a Hyotei regular, and nobody expects him to win at all.
But he does and he proves them all wrong.
Six games to one.
"This is a joke, right? Taki, a regular, ..."
"What, lost by a score of 1-6?!"
"That's so awesome, Shishido-senpai! But why is he all injured?"
The court is filled with shocked murmurings and Taki's heavy panting. Balancing his racket vertically on his index finger, Shishido watches the defeated Taki, doubled over on all fours, and he thinks he's seeing a piece of his past. He empathises completely, knowing exactly how it feels when humiliation curdles inside you.
Complacency is a useless sentiment because it destroys you ruthlessly in the end.
If people could win without practising, nobody would need to practise anymore.
Truthfully, he doesn't have anything personal against Taki, no, not at all, but unfortunately, the world operates this way -- who is he to go against the flow?
He falls silent, knowing there is no need to say anything more, and eagerly anticipates when Kantoku descends the steps and asks what the ruckus is about. Everyone gasps at his sudden appearance but nobody dares to speak a word.
Shishido feels Kantoku's piercing eyes boring a hole right through him and he looks away, feeling suitably uncomfortable at the sudden weight upon him.
"Taki is dropped from the regulars," Kantoku announces calmly. Even though Shishido doesn't mean to gloat, he suddenly feels hopeful.
"Instead, the semi-regular Hiyoshi is to replace him."
...what the fuck?
"That's all. Resume your practice now."
Shishido feels prickly indignation coursing rapidly through his veins. Anger fills his head and he starts to swim; he feels giddy and thinks he needs to do something, such as save himself.
"Kantoku!" Shishido calls out in desperation as Kantoku leaves.
"Kantoku, why is it Hiyoshi...!" He continues, still desperate, and he absently drops his racket. "Why is it not me! The one who beat him is me!"
"You're making a fool of yourself," Atobe says squarely.
"Atobe!" Shishido shouts reflexively. He doesn't want to hear what Atobe has to say now.
"Even though your opponent was Fudomine's Tachibana, your loss was unsightly."
Shishido winces at these words, the hurt obviously still raw and open.
"Kantoku will never use losers."
So harsh, but so true.
"What now, Ootori?"
"For two consecutive weeks since then, Shishido-san has been going through unimaginably tough training!" Ootori answers with a fiery conviction.
A pregnant pause.
"And so?" Atobe replies simply.
Shishido really doesn't know what to say in his own defence. Instead, he picks himself up and runs after Kantoku. He vaguely hears someone calling after him and the sound of running footsteps that ensue, but he really has no time to care.
"Is there anything else?"
Shishido doesn't hesitate anymore. Instead, he falls to his knees, he kneels, he bows, and...
He has come so far; there is absolutely no room for him to be reserved anymore. He can't care about humiliation at this point. Pride must be lost unconditionally if he is serious about getting what he wants.
"Kantoku," He begins, his voice is soft and pleading.
"Please! Please let me play!"
Shishido doesn't see because he's head is bowed extremely near the ground but he hears a soft gasp from behind him, and a supporting statement he likes to believe to be a declaration of loyalty, or more (hopefully).
"Kantoku, I have been Shishido-san's training partner for the past two weeks," Ootori speaks resolutely. "I've seen him train to the point of bleeding! Please, I would also like to ask you for this favour!"
"Well then, Ootori," Kantoku answers coldly. "Do you want to drop out of the regular team?"
Shishido hears another gasp behind him. His heart skips a beat and his eyes widen in shock at the blatancy. But what shocks him the most is just about to happen.
Shishido feels the clenching of Ootori's fist and the tightening of Ootori's jaws. He feels it all -- how Ootori steels himself for a second, how he closes his eyes in preparation for the final...
"I don't mind."
That's really too much.
Shishido fishes a pair of scissors from his pocket and he starts snipping away at his velvet locks. The hair he had loved so much -- they fall to the ground lifelessly; their existence is so very meaningless and empty.
"Shishido-senpai!" Ootori sounds horrified.
"Isn't that the hair you're really proud of?!"
Snip, snip, snip.
Until there's nothing much left to snip anymore.
He pushes himself off the ground and he looks at Kantoku directly. Nothing sways his determination now. No. And he can't just take Ootori off the team like that. No, he can't.
"This guy here hasn't lost yet," Atobe sounds gentler now than he was a while ago.
"Atobe!" Shishido exclaims in incredulity.
"Please, I would like to ask you for this favour too," Atobe closes his eyes, bows his head a little and Shishido thinks this is the closest he'll ever get to seeing Atobe Keigo begging anyone at all. A sharp poignancy wells up inside him and he's afraid he might not be able to control himself later on.
A heavy silence weighs down upon them and time feels like it's been stretched beyond eternity.
Finally, Shishido feels exasperated resignation emanating from Kantoku.
"Do whatever you like."
For the second time these two weeks, Shishido feels uplifted again.
Ootori suggests that they take a break tonight to celebrate Shishido's return to the regular team but Shishido frowns and says that they shouldn't just let down their guard and take unnecessary breaks. Ootori looks chastised and thoroughly guilty for even harbouring such frivolous suggestions; he apologises softly and goes on to retrieve a racket from his duffel bag.
"Choutarou, forget it," Shishido sighs after a while. "Let's go for dinner together."
He feels tremendously pleased with himself for letting go and saying what's on his mind because then, he remembers that he likes Ootori's smile.
The pair walk to the train station in the dark together after their practice, much too exhausted to talk. It is a pleasant silence though, duffel bags strapped over their shoulders as they walk together side-by-side, at pace with each other. The night is chilly but Shishido feels suitably warmed.
They insert their tickets and pass by the barricade when suddenly, Ootori grabs Shishido's hand and starts to run.
"Hurry, Shishido-senpai! The train is here!" Ootori exclaims on hearing a soft rumble, and Shishido feels himself carelessly thrown into an abrupt flight with his junior.
They run up the steps hurriedly but the train doesn't wait for them. It is already accelerating away from them by the time they reach the platform.
The station is emptied, and Shishido feels decidedly empty himself until he is struck by the realisation that Ootori is still holding on to his hand. He resists the urge to flinch, then feels a little uncomfortable all of a sudden, He gets extremely conscious of his junior's presence but something inside makes him somewhat ambivalent about whether to rudely yank his arm away. Instead, he looks away and tries to focus his attention on something else. And that's when he noticed...
"Choutarou, what happened to your cross necklace?"
As if on cue, Ootori drops Shishido's hand and reaches up to feel for the chain around his neck.
Ootori looks distressed and flustered and panicky.
Shishido doesn't really know what to do. He clutches Ootori's left forearm and tells him gently, "Don't worry, let's go and find it now."
"Forget it Shishido-senpai. If not, we're going to miss--"
But Shishido is already rapidly descending the stairs, trying to retrace their steps.
No, not here--
He leaves the train station without even a trace of hesitation at all and he runs all the way back to the little lanes and streets they've passed by just a while ago. Ootori follows him but yells on the way, telling Shishido to just forget it and leave it anyway. But Shishido doesn't give up. It's not in his nature to give up anything he's already embarked on.
After a trying search, Shishido finally finds the offending chain and he runs up to Ootori, all excited and exhilarated.
"HEY CHOUTAROU! I'VE FOUND IT!"
The look on Ootori's face is priceless and Shishido thinks all the effort he's spent makes it all worthwhile after all.
"We're not going to miss the train! Come, let's go!" And this time, Shishido reaches out for Ootori's hand and they run towards the train station in big hurried strides.
The platform is empty when they finally arrive again and for a moment, they are both horrified and tensed up, until Ootori points at the overhead sign and they realise that the next train is coming in three minutes time.
Oh, the relief.
Suddenly, Shishido's exhaustion kicks in again and he remembers how sore his muscles are supposed to feel. He feels his legs giving way already but Ootori manages to hold on him before he crumbles to the ground.
Ootori starts to laugh. It is a light laughter at first but it gradually develops into an uncontrollable and hysterical one. Shishido frowns at his junior, not quite understanding what could be so very funny. So he asks, but Ootori can't answer at all (and Shishido thinks perhaps Ootori has laughed so much he's even forgotten what made him laugh in the first place).
Shishido is getting annoyed that Ootori is laughing so hard at something he fails to see. Without actually realising what he's doing, he clasps his hands onto Ootori's wide shoulders and he reaches up, and...
He brushes his lips against Ootori's, hovering and hesitating for the briefest moment before he kisses him.
Just when the distant rumble of the approaching train fills his ears, he lets go gently -- a little reluctantly -- and walks towards the train door.
"That should teach you to shut up," Shishido says matter-of-factly.
He is almost entering the train when he realises that Ootori is still rooted on the platform. Somewhere behind him, Ootori's face is still dazed and red.
"For goodness sake, Choutarou, HURRY UP!"
Ootori catches up with Shishido and as the train door closes, the two of them simply cannot stop laughing.
What now? Shishido can't believe he actually kissed a boy. Sure, there are plenty of girls out there who like him and he's kissed a few of them before.
But a boy?
He snuggles up in bed, glad that the darkness can hide his burning cheeks even though he's alone. Then he is suddenly reminded of Choutarou's embarrassed look and he can't help smiling to himself (even if that makes him feel stupid).
Somehow, he thinks there is no better way of doing things.
On the morning of the Kantou Taikai match with Seigaku, Shishido wakes up very early because truth be told, he feels a little nervous. He doesn't eat a lot of breakfast because too much food makes him feel queasy.
He makes his way to the Kantou Taikai courts and on seeing Ootori, suddenly he feels deluged by relief. At least, he's not left alone to fend for himself. Is this dependence or over-reliance? He doesn't care; he's just glad to have Ootori with him.
When they reach the changing room, Ootori asks Shishido why he looks so tensed up. Shishido shakes his head lightly but before he knows it, Ootori is grasping on to Shishido's wrist.
"You'll be fine, Shishido-senpai."
"Thanks, Choutarou. We're going to win today."
Shishido gazes over at Oshitari and Gakuto who didn't manage to win the Doubles-2 match. They are seated at the stand, towels draped over their heads, silent and a little solemn, and Shishido can't get over the fact that they have lost.
Immediately, he is reminded of his own crushing defeat in the match against Tachibana, the bitterness of it all still fresh -- in fact, too fresh -- in his mind. He frowns and vows to himself that because history is history, it must never be repeated; he reaches for his beloved racket somewhere in his duffel bag, and he stares at it, long and hard, as if he's pouring all his steely determination and will into it.
No more time to waste.
"Ootori, let's go," his calm voice belying the disquiet within as he spins his racket on his index finger.
Behind him, he hears those derisive and speculative murmurs again and he feels indignant.
His own team doesn't trust him. Not anymore. In a flash, he remembers that he is no longer the star.
...but the underdog now.
He hears them all; he always does. And he can't stand to hear them go on anymore. If his own team doesn't trust, doesn't support, doesn't rely on him, who is going to?
"You guys are seriously doubting us?" Shishido asks quietly before he starts to yell at the entire spectator stand.
"Don't be fussy now! The one to win is Hyotei! Get your spirits up and start cheering, you fools!" And he points his racket at them all because this is a command, this is a command from Shishido Ryou the Underdog.
Some of those who're on friendlier levels to Shishido start cheering softly and before long, the heated enthusiasm is starting to spread like wildfire. Soon, the entire spectator stand launches into a rhythmic cheer for Hyotei.
"Hyotei! Hyotei! Hyotei! ..."
Shishido smirks, satisfied now, as he turns for the court.
Yes, with Ootori here now.
They are going to win this match.
furigana: hiragana written at the top or side of a kanji to aid reading
Nagatarou: idea copied from a ZukaRyo doujinshi called "Fairy Tale" XD;; (Note: The kanji for "chou" can also be read as "naga")
-senpai: suffix added for someone senior
Kantou Taikai: Kantou prefectural match
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