For Mcat and Sth, who kept poking me to rewrite and finish it.

This story is a continuation of Hatch, in the Hiyoshi/Other section.


Vitis
by Ruebert


1

Later, he might blame the fact that his mind was still whirling around the short encounter in the regulars' locker room for his inattentiveness during evening practice to the freshmen milling about the court, collecting balls as he practiced his serves.

The slight shrug of a shoulder, an uninterested answer to his query: he had known all he needed to know when his teammate answered his question about night practice with a murmured affirmation. It had meant little to him after that, and he was, perhaps, too unobservant of his fellow players. But there was nothing wrong with being just a little distracted by the memory of strong fingers gripping his hair, by the recollection of stultified gasps brought to completion, words breathed into his ear that made his cheeks flush crimson, and a body pressed against his, back against his own locker.

Serving practice was just that, practice, and it didn't hurt to indulge himself in memory just a little while he continued to work at his accuracy, hitting the ball over the net over and over, a quiet curse whistling between his teeth as he faulted into the net once more. His doubles partner was not there to encourage him with sharp words or a scowl that could turn into a smile when he finally succeeded at reaching his goal.

It could not be helped, and he did not notice that he was the only regular on the courts, did not realize that something might possibly be amiss until his ears caught a snide, quiet laugh followed by a worried hushed response. Turning his attention to the freshmen collecting balls from the courts, he felt some slight uneasiness, and wondered why, until the laugh carried itself to him again and he recognized the edge to that mirth that had caught at the corners of his subconscious. He dismissed it; it could not be his concern, it was not his place to step in. Better people than he had attempted to be revolutionaries and had failed for their efforts.

If the freshmen were engaging in the perpetual backbiting and attempts to claw for position within the hierarchy of their class, it was no matter to him; he'd managed to rise above all of that, at last, mostly unscathed. He could do nothing to change or stop things, even if the idea left an ugly taste in his mouth. He had never enjoyed his own struggles to rise; he was glad to have left it behind him when he became a regular.

The continuing soft exchange behind his back caused Ohtori to launch the next ball into the net; his dismay at missing again was overshadowed by sudden concern. No, he told himself sharply. He could not afford to become involved. It was beneath a true regular's position to interfere; it didn't matter if he hated that fact -- he could not act beneath his position and expect to retain it. It was not worth forfeiting his position and the respect owed a true regular by lowering himself to the fights of unranked freshmen, even if he did want to stop them. He reached into his pocket, and retrieved another ball, tossing it up into the air as he tried to close his ears to words that floated through the evening air.

"You worry too much. He wasn't even hurt that bad."

"I think we should tell someone, though."

"You wanna tell the coach? Your ass when they find out who ratted. Besides, he looked pretty stupid. It's just what he deserves."

"But, he was hurt, and he is still a regular --"

"It's his own fault. Should just leave him there for everyone to see."

Another serve. Another. Air whistled as a racket was swung; there was no satisfying contact of strings against ball, however, and the dull bounce of felt on concrete was just a little too loud in Ohtori's ears. He raised his racket, then stopped, lowered it again. He had heard enough. Turning, he fixed his gaze upon the two younger boys behind him who had forgotten his presence -- or forgotten that it was easier to overhear conversation when the usual large ranks of the club had dwindled to less than twenty. His voice was carefully pitched low as he walked towards the two boys; he did not need this overheard by anyone else. "Hey. What the hell?"

He did not often speak so roughly anymore, or with his brows drawn low and close together over his eyes; such expressions were reserved for the court, for a fierce opponent: he was considered to be the 'nice one' among the true regulars, and few expected to see him with any semblance of anger on his face or in his voice. These boys were no different, and the smaller of the two -- the one who had mentioned telling someone, had seemed nervous -- stepped backwards when he approached.

"I -- we didn't do anything! We didn't see who did it!" The boy's voice cracked when he spoke, and Ohtori felt a slight amount of amused gratification at that indicator that he had managed to intimidate someone; it had been a long time since he'd done that while not playing. The fact that he still had that knack would have pleased him, had he not been preoccupied with learning the answer to his question.

"That's not what I asked. What the hell are you talking about? What regular?"

"You want to see, too? He's in the locker room." It was the other freshman who replied, the one with the derisive laugh and smug set to his features; Ohtori's narrowed eyes seemed to have little effect on this one. That did not bother him so much as the way that the nervous boy was poking the snide one in the ribs. It made him uneasy, and that uneasiness was what decided him, what spurred him to put his racket into his bag, leave the court and head towards the locker room.

In the locker room, hurt, what he deserves. The words were too familiar a litany, from days before he had become a regular. Someone had gotten in trouble, someone had gotten caught up in the stupid petty struggles again, and that wasn't unusual, it wasn't rare that someone managed to attract attention in the club. The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down, so the saying went, and it held true even more so in Hyoutei's tennis club. It was all right to be ambitious, it was all right to work hard, but to really stand out and really show promise often meant becoming a target, as he'd experienced himself. It was safer not to draw attention to oneself, if one didn't have the goal and real talent to become a regular.

Childish hazing sometimes escalated into something more; it was not strange for students to sport bruises, it was not odd for a club member that might have become something or who had showed an unusual gift to abruptly resign from the tennis club. He had entertained such notions himself as a freshman, too tall, too strong, and too noticeable, before he had learned that these traits could work in his favor in a fight.

The incidents were always overlooked, as long as they did not interfere with practice or school activities; what did not kill someone made them stronger, in the opinion of the hierarchy of the club. To complain was to be weak.

Ohtori hated that. He knew that it was not a good idea to interfere in the fights of others; he knew that he could get himself in trouble. But -- it was a regular, the boy had said. That meant he could not try to ignore it and stay out of things. It was someone he knew, someone he'd trained beside. Someone who was still a regular? It could be any one of his teammates; he and Atobe-san were the only ones who had not suffered a loss in the recent tournaments. Even Shishido-san had lost, before the most recent match.

Someone he knew, someone he'd trained beside and fought beside and who had also gone through the pure humiliating hell that had been losing to Seigaku in the first round of the Kantou tournament. The loss had made them stronger as a team, despite the blow to school pride -- stronger as friends. It was a friend who was in trouble, and not knowing who made him walk faster. He hadn't seen any of the other regulars beyond Jiroh-senpai and Atobe-san since the afternoon practice. It couldn't be Shishido-san.

Could it?

When he stopped in front of the door, he hesitated before reaching out to touch the handle to open it; should he? Shouldn't he? Maybe the other regular had already left. Maybe this was unnecessary. Maybe they were still in there, hurt, and needing help.

The large room was dark, as expected: the lights had been turned off when the last boy had exited, as was the rule. Did that mean that he was gone? Or was he somewhere in here, alone in the dark? Ohtori flipped the switch beneath his fingertips, winced a bit beneath the brightness of harsh fluorescent lighting. The room that met his eyes seemed ordinary in the extreme, but the uneasiness did not leave him.

Nothing had really changed since the last time he'd been in this locker room; extra baskets of balls lined neutral-painted walls beneath posters and practice schedules, uniforms and jackets hung on long wooden racks beneath the rows of stacked cubbies. There was little reason for a regular to enter this locker room, most times: collecting balls and putting up extra equipment was traditionally a task given to freshmen and players who had little talent, or who were being punished for some infraction or another, and the true regulars each had their own locker for their belongings in their own special club room. Why would a regular stay here, if he'd been bullied? If he'd been hurt?

"Hello?" Ohtori called as he moved in further, the sound of his shoes on poured concrete harsh to his ears. The freshman hadn't lied, had he? Or perhaps he had meant the regulars' locker room? No -- no one would dare. Not in the room that Atobe-san and their coach had paid so much money to remodel; no one who wasn't a regular would enter that room; the freshman would not have seen anything, and the mere notion that a regular would harm another regular was one that did not even occur to him. It was simply not possible; there was no reason for it, those who had risen to the top did not need to push each other down. The regulars' struggles took place on the courts.

Maybe the regular had left the locker room. Whomever he was.

He might have turned around, might have left, satisfied that there was no one there after a hasty trip up and down the rows of cubbies, after a cursory look around the room, if he had not stumbled. His eyes sought the floor, the object that had caused him to trip and to nearly crash into the ball machine tucked against one wall beneath a sign-up sheet for a summer training camp. It was clothing that had tangled his shoes: a crumpled jersey marked with the familiar pattern of Hyoutei's tennis club, blue and white that had dark spatters of red staining its otherwise pristine condition.

Ohtori sucked in his breath, and did not reach down to pick up the jersey, did not look for a name that had to be marked -- instead, he let his eyes be caught by what had eluded them, prior: a trail of liquid drops that had dried to a dark maroon on grey concrete, mixing with other, older stains from years of boys playing tennis, smeared as though someone had attempted to clean them away unsuccessfully. He hadn't wanted confirmation of this truth, and he had to force himself to move down the row of cubbies. He wanted to call out again, wanted to ask the too-still air if someone was there -- anyone? -- but the words froze in his throat.

He had missed the mess at first glance, in his hurry to check the room and leave, reassured that no one could really be there. Now he saw the pile of discarded shirts and hangers, haphazardly tossed onto the floor in the row, wood and wire still loosely tangled in fabric. Warily, he made his way to the section of cubbies, though he was not sure why he was so apprehensive over a mess of clothing on the floor, and when he looked down into the space beneath the cubbies, he found what he should have expected, but somehow did not.

The first thought that flashed through Ohtori's unwilling mind was that something terrible had happened, and pale sprawled naked limbs bore mute testimony to that assumption. He did not realize at first who it was that knelt before him, wearing nothing but briefs and bruised, marred skin, who was restrained, arms stretched back and up over head to the sturdy wooden pole that normally held hangers and clothing, wrists tied with what the logical portion of his mind that was not in shock noticed was grip tape.

It was the muffled growl that forced him to tear his eyes away from scrapes and bruises across pale ribs and thighs, blood spattered where there was no injury that he could see. His eyes were drawn to a gaze that pierced his own through a fringe of sandy gold.

Hiyoshi, he realized dimly. It was Hiyoshi who was kneeling there, almost hidden in the recessed area of the low coatrack; Hiyoshi who was staring at him defiantly from the eye that was not swollen shut, whose customary reticence was now enforced by the tape that covered his mouth, whose face was streaked with dirt and blood, who had been left by his attacker -- attackers, Ohtori was certain, for who could take down Hiyoshi in a one-on-one fight? in this degrading position, bound and bent where anyone might find him, witness his humiliation.

"Shit," Ohtori whispered, and his voice was loud in the silence; he had not realized that the word was slipping free until it had done so. He hadn't expected it to be Hiyoshi, though why he was not certain -- they'd nodded to each other before evening practice, acknowledged each others' presence in quiet words that did not disrupt the silence of the regulars' club room -- and then he'd forgotten about the other junior entirely.

What was he supposed to do about this? Shishido-san, Jiroh-senpai, Kabaji, Oshitari-senpai or Mukahi-senpai -- if it had been any of the other regulars, he would have been on his knees in an instant, unwinding the tape that held wrists tight behind the back of a head, stretched arms in a fashion that had to be uncomfortable beyond belief, had to be straining that slight body. Not so slight, the disimpassioned corner of his mind dedicated to information regarding his own team murmured -- Hiyoshi was precisely the same height and weight as Shishido-san, shared the same body type, even; that fact had caused some joking when they'd been weighed and measured during a routine examination after practice. Hiyoshi had been unamused by the comparisons made; Shishido-san had laughed.

But it wasn't one of his respected senpai, or Kabaji. It wasn't one of the people he'd come to think of as his friends. It was Hiyoshi who was kneeling there -- Hiyoshi who claimed no friends among the multitude of club members, who had never been more than an acquaintance in passing, whose only acknowledgment of Ohtori was a low murmur, who had caused more than a few small incidents with his attitude and expectations. Hiyoshi, who had beat him in singles once and whose congratulations on a game well-played were only half-sincere, whose narrowed eyes and neutral face seemed to demand Why are you wasting my time? of everyone who spoke to him, save Sakaki-sensei and Atobe-san. Hiyoshi, who had lost to a freshman from Seigaku and cost Hyoutei its chance to go to Nationals -- the only chance Ohtori would have had to go to Nationals as Shishido-san's doubles partner.

Hiyoshi, whose flat glare did not turn away from his face while he stood there and stared, who was still proud, still defiant despite his position, who still somehow retained the quiet, aloof dignity he was known for, who had not been punished for his failings as he should have been. Hiyoshi, whose bruised body, strained and bent, was trembling as he knelt, who could not disguise pain that caused fingers to spasm, shoulders to jerk, and eyes to narrow further to avoid flinching. Hiyoshi, who deserved it all.

The ugly thought shook Ohtori, and he denied it. No. No matter what, Hiyoshi didn't deserve this. Even if he didn't like him, even if he'd cost the club its pride, he didn't deserve this. Ohtori would not have left a freshman to be hurt and humiliated in this manner -- how could he even possibly consider leaving a fellow regular here? Even if it was that person.

"Are you all right?" Ohtori asked, and his voice was loud in the silence as he knelt beside Hiyoshi, firmly squashing any reluctance he still felt as he berated himself for asking a stupid question. He could not receive an answer from one who was gagged. Reaching out, he found himself hesitating as his fingertips glanced over the corner of the tape that covered the other boy's mouth; something in the way Hiyoshi was looking at him disturbed him.

Hiyoshi's cheek was soft, he noted abstractly as he fumbled to grasp the tape that clung to pale skin marked with filth. He tried not to look at the narrowed bright eye that stared at him, at brows drawn together warily, at a thin body arching away from him. "This will hurt," he said when he was able to lift a corner of the tape.

He wasn't sure if he was imagining the rage in that gaze or not as he ripped the tape away; Hiyoshi did not gasp in pain or shock, did not make the least noise of pain that he might have expected -- but merely breathed, soft and sibilant hiss barely heard. Uncomfortable, Ohtori tried not to stare. "Are you all right?" he asked, now that Hiyoshi could answer, could speak with lips that were bruised and cracked and split.

Mute silence was the first answer; Hiyoshi licked his lips, and that intense stare did not waver. Ohtori leaned back, resting his weight on his heels, feeling somehow threatened by that closed expression, that flat narrow sliver of iris and pupil. "Are you hurt anywhere?" Despite the bruises and blood and shaking trembling arms and back that arched in a silent scream -- stop looking.

"What do you want?" Hiyoshi's question was marked in a voice that was rough and low; it was an unfamiliar sound. Ohtori realized, through the haze of dismay, how rarely he'd heard the other junior speak during a year and a half of shared classes and club, endless practices. It was not a grateful gaze that rested upon him. Did Hiyoshi expect Ohtori to hurt him?

He wasn't like that. He wasn't. He'd thought -- but he'd discarded that thought and denied it. He might have thought about it, but he'd never, he'd never do it. It was just a thought. Everyone had those sorts of thoughts. He averted his eyes from Hiyoshi's face, concentrating instead on reaching for the hand closest to him. Hiyoshi's fingers flexed as Ohtori worked at the tape, tried to grab for his hands. "I'm trying to get you loose," he said, and the fingers stilled. So cold, that skin as it brushed against his; the tape was wound so tight that he wondered if damage had been caused unintentionally.

He was an idiot. Of course any damage done had been intentional. His gaze shifted down to pale ribs, and he swallowed. No, thinking wasn't allowed here. He had to get Hiyoshi loose, get out of this locker room, get back to normalcy. He wished he had never heard those freshmen speaking.

If he hadn't, how long would Hiyoshi have been left here?

He kept his mouth shut as he freed Hiyoshi's wrist at last, pulled the tape free. Instantly, that hand was removed from his grasp, jerked away and then raised again, shaking fingers digging ineffectually at the tape holding his right wrist captive. They couldn't seem to get a firm hold, couldn't seem to move correctly. Ohtori moved to assist Hiyoshi, switching sides, floor hard on his knees as he shifted his weight. "Let me do it."

Hiyoshi did not grace him with reply or thanks as he fought with the other taped wrist. He didn't expect it. Hiyoshi thought he was going to -- Ohtori swallowed. Finally, the tape was pulled away, and Hiyoshi relaxed from his position, limp hand slipping from Ohtori's grasp to fall to the ground as he slid from the enforced half-kneeling crouch onto the floor, breath a hiss of pain that could not be disguised as cramped, locked muscles screamed.

"Who did this?" Ohtori asked, not really wanting to know the answer, not really wanting to know who it was that went to the same school he did, who played in the same club he did, whom he'd seen on the courts every day that would do this. This was too far, too much.

"No one did." Hiyoshi's voice was dull, dead.

Ohtori's lips thinned in a flat frown. "I'm telling Sakaki-sensei." Teachers and coaches were not involved in the hierarchy of the club, in the petty fights for ranking. Fights were not reported, hazing and bullying were beneath real notice. "This is too much." A thin line existed between what was acceptable and what was not, and it had been crossed. Sakaki-sensei would not overlook this.

"Don't tell him." Hiyoshi drew his hands in to his chest, fingers reddened and cold, refusing to respond properly. He pulled away from the scarred wood paneling, tried to stand and failed as he gathered his feet beneath him, falling back heavily.

"You're hurt. I have to tell him." This wasn't a simple fistfight or hazing, this wasn't a locker overflowing with wet garbage, or a textbook ruined with vicious graffiti covering its pages. This was blood and bruises and humiliation beyond any reasonable limit. Someone had to step in and punish those responsible. Ohtori kept his eyes on the ground, and he was surprised when fingers grasped at the sleeve of his jersey, tightened ineffectively before falling away.

"Ohtori!" The emotion in that soft, low voice startled him, and his eyes flickered to Hiyoshi's face unwillingly. The flat mask had cracked, and the look focused upon him, the intensity that he had never seen focused on himself at any time other than facing this teammate who was a virtual stranger from over a net, the sheer determination and stubborn will that was revealed in that look shocked him. "Don't tell anyone."

It was almost an order, almost a plea, but Hiyoshi never begged anyone for anything, be it a favor or forgiveness. "I have to." If someone didn't, there was nothing that might prevent this from happening again. Sakaki-sensei would not allow his to happen again.

"No." It was a snarl, a growl. "You don't."

Ohtori's frown deepened; stubborn pride, not bending at all, as bad or worse than Shishido-san! "What'll stop them from doing it again, Hiyoshi? If they think they can get away with this--"

"They won't." Unmoving, unyielding. Hiyoshi tore his eye away, stood shakily after another abortive attempt, limped the few steps necessary to reach down and find a pair of shorts that had been discarded when he'd been stripped against his will.

"What's going to stop them then? You couldn't!" Ohtori was aware that his voice was rising, that he was losing his temper, but couldn't Hiyoshi see what would happen?

"Then tie me up again and bring him here to see it," Hiyoshi snarled suddenly, turning to pin Ohtori with that flat glare. "Let him see everything, Ohtori."

The syllables of his surname were drawn out long in a venomous hiss, and he suddenly wondered why he'd bothered to help the other junior at all, if he was going to be so damned ungrateful and unpleasant. He was about to open his mouth to retort something of the like when realization struck swiftly and with all the weight of the fists that had battered and bruised his teammate.

Shishido-san had not wanted anyone to witness his long training bouts with Ohtori -- had not wanted anyone to see him try and fail, try and fail, try and fail again and again and again. Shishido-san, who was full of stubborn, reckless pride, who only bowed his head to Sakaki-sensei.

Hiyoshi, who was so much the same and yet so very different.

Hiyoshi wasn't going to say that he had been humiliated, that he had been hurt. He did not want anyone to know about it. His pride would not allow him to, and if Ohtori brought this incident to Sakaki-sensei's attention, it would shame Hiyoshi, would stab and slash at that stubborn pride like a scythe through brittle shoots.

He stared at that back, watched Hiyoshi pull on his shorts and begin to hunt for shoes that had been tossed aside without turning to face him; ignoring him, dismissing him. Not acknowledging that Ohtori was a witness to this at all.

"Don't look at me." The words were flat, notifying Ohtori of his transgression. He looked away from a back marked with dirt in the shape of a shoe's tread and took in a shallow breath. Another, as he heard Hiyoshi shuffling about, the soft sound poisoning the air between them.

"How can I help?" he asked, uncertain; nothing was worse than this feeling of not being able to do something, of not being allowed to do anything to right something that felt so very wrong, of hearing his teammate move and struggle with something that should have been so simple. If Hiyoshi would not tell him who had done it, would not allow Sakaki-sensei to know about this -- what could he do?

"Go away."

The expected reply made him flinch, caused his fists to clench where he'd rested them on his knees. Ohtori looked up, stared at the other boy, knowing that his suggestions would be rejected but unable to refrain from making them. "You need to see the nurse. Get looked at. Are you sure you're all right?" He was very sure that Hiyoshi was not all right; the way the other boy hugged his ribs, the way he limped and his breath shuddered through his lips spoke of pain refused acknowledgment.

Shishido-san, standing up for the tenth -- twentieth -- he didn't know how many times any longer -- eyes cutting Ohtori to the quick as he snarled,"Again."

"This doesn't concern you."

"Bullshit!" Ohtori didn't realize he was scowling until the soft word exploded through his lips. "You're not all right, and I'm not going away."

Hiyoshi turned then, fixed him with a glare that was pure spite and no small amount of helpless frustration. Ohtori knew that the other boy was unable to effectively argue with him in this state, and ignored the flat fury that twisted features more used to static neutrality as he moved to the other boy's side. "Your jacket's back there," he said shortly as he knelt next to Hiyoshi as the other finished clumsily tying one shoe. He took the laces of the second out of fingers that seemed to refuse their owner's orders, and tied them himself, focusing his eyes on his work.

"Why the hell would you want to help me?" The emphasis placed on the pronouns in that question startled Ohtori, and he looked up, past pale skin and a flat stomach marked with dirt and blood, past muscle and sinew and too-sharply-defined bone to eyes that seemed puzzled as well as suspicious.

Ohtori stood as Hiyoshi did, steadied him with one hand on a shoulder that was jerked away as soon as the slighter teen was able to stand. He had not expected this. Hiyoshi, he realized slowly, and with a feeling in the pit of his stomach that was faint nausea, had thought that he was going to hurt him as those who had come before him had. "You're my teammate. Why shouldn't I help you?"

Hiyoshi did not answer that question with words, simply turned his head away and walked unsteadily across the floor, shuffling steps that halted at the end of the row; Ohtori watched as he knelt slowly, carefully, reached down to pick up his jacket and dropped it twice before standing with it pressed against him, trapped between chest and arms in lieu of untrustworthy fingers.

When Hiyoshi disappeared around the end of the row, Ohtori was suddenly able to move again, breathe again; his shoes rushed across the concrete, kicked hangers and crumpled clothing out of his path as he came to the end of the row, stared at that straight back that retreated slowly towards the door, taking careful, deliberate steps. Hiyoshi slowed as Ohtori came up behind him, as he tried to figure out what to say, anything that could be said.

"Drop it, Ohtori." Hiyoshi's voice was low and tired; the hand Ohtori raised to touch that straight back dropped again, and he forced himself to compromise, merely shadowed Hiyoshi to the door of the locker room. When Hiyoshi reached it, Ohtori was there first, hand twisting the doorknob and pushing, opening it for him; Hiyoshi turned to look at Ohtori before passing through the open doorway.

A chance; he could do something, at least ensure that Hiyoshi would reach his own home safely this night, though surely no one would attempt to do anything so soon. "I'll walk you--"

"No, you won't."

Ohtori recognized an order when he heard it, and he fought down the reflex to snap back, deny Hiyoshi's words; this was not his senpai, this was not Atobe-san or Sakaki-sensei. "To the gate," he said, and his voice was firm, words steady, and left no room for argument, though the eye focused on him narrowed and lips thinned in what was nearly a frown. "I'll walk you to the gate."

Hiyoshi did not reply to that in argument or agreement; he slipped into the growing night and ignored Ohtori as the other junior walked just behind him, shadowed him to the regular's club room. Ohtori did not attempt to speak as Hiyoshi fumbled with the combination on his locker, did not offer to assist him when his fingers faltered on the zipper of his bag. When a nearly-silent curse escaped as a hiss between parted, cracked lips, Ohtori merely leaned against one of the chairs at the row of computers and paid careful, close attention to the way wood dug into his back, concentrated on the pressure-almost-pain.

Hiyoshi's eyes ghosted towards Ohtori, and he did not realize that Hiyoshi was waiting for something from him until the locker door slammed shut with a metallic clang. "Get your shit." The words hissed into clinging silence, and Ohtori filled it with his own noises, grabbing his school uniform and stuffing it into his bag, slinging it over his shoulder and trying not to stare at the face that hovered so close to his right shoulder, drew his eyes to mottled swelling.

He closed his own locker quietly, the click of the lock louder than expected, spinning the dial to reset it. Hiyoshi stepped backwards, put more space between them, and seemed to be waiting for him to move. Ohtori wondered for a moment what he was supposed to do, stood there staring at the painted metal surface for a minute, fought for words, and recoiled when a hand slammed hard against the locker next to his, flinching.

The resentment which he'd thought to bury rose again, full and angry. Why the hell had Hiyoshi done that, startled him like that? Hadn't he helped him so far, wasn't he helping him still? He opened his mouth to retort and was cut off by soft words before he could begin.

"I'm not weak like you."

Ohtori turned his head sharply to the right to stare at Hiyoshi when the grated words registered, outrage in his eyes. Weak? There were many things that he'd been called over the past few years, but weak was not one which he'd had to hear in a very long time. How the hell was he weak? He'd proved he was strong; maybe he was not as strong as some, but he was strong nevertheless. "What do you mean, weak like me?!"

Hiyoshi glared at him through a narrowed eye. "Weak like that," he said, and his fingers shifted on the strap of his bag, and he did not offer more explanation than that, moved to walk around Ohtori as he stood there and tried to formulate a proper response; Ohtori turned, automatically reaching out for an arm and grabbing on tightly.

"Tell me what that's supposed to mean!" Ohtori snapped, and he didn't realize what he was doing until a hiss of pain escaped from thin lips, the face that turned to meet his was drawn pale. Neither of them breathed; the door into the locker room opened with a harsh noise.

Ohtori's grip loosened, and Hiyoshi jerked away from his hand, left it hanging in the air as he walked forward slowly and steadily, eyes forward, brushing past Atobe with only a murmured acknowledgment. Ohtori watched the straight line of Hiyoshi's back as he disappeared through the door, and when the outer door of the club room closed, he exhaled and drew oxygen into starved lungs. Wait -- he was supposed to see that ungrateful jerk to the school gates. He'd be damned if he'd go back on his word now, he thought at he resettled his racket bag on his shoulder, moved to follow Hiyoshi.

He was halted by blue eyes and raised eyebrows, his captain's smooth voice filtering through the air. "And so?" Atobe asked, his nonchalant tone one that set alarms off in Ohtori's gut as he realized suddenly what that might have looked like.

"Atobe-san," he started, searching for a viable explanation. "I wasn't -- he was --" His words stumbled to a stop. Hiyoshi had told him not to tell anyone, and Atobe certainly counted as someone, and he had just agreed not to tell, though Hiyoshi didn't deserve his silence. He should just tell Atobe here and now.

Atobe solved his problem for him with head cocked to the side so that styled bangs fell across forehead just so, obscured one eye as he spoke, the words deliberately careless as he did so. "You need to come up with a better training regimen, Ohtori. Kantoku isn't going to be pleased if you keep bruising up our best players."

Ohtori stared as Atobe moved to his own locker, worked the dial with nimble fingers and did not look up at him again. "That wasn't -- we weren't --" He tried again to find an acceptable explanation and failed. Atobe would do something about it, he thought. But those bruises looked like anything but the marks of his serves, and he wouldn't train with anyone but Shishido like that. Atobe knew that.

"You heard what I said." Atobe replied, propping a foot on the bench so he could work at the laces of his shoes, eyes and frown focused intently on a knot. "Don't make me repeat myself, Ohtori."

Ohtori closed his mouth, swallowed once. "Yes, Atobe-san," he said, and the faint nausea that he'd thought had passed earlier was back, settling uneasily in his gut as he walked towards the outer door, long steps retreating from what didn't feel like a conversation at all.

Ohtori's pace quickened as he walked down the graveled path, sought to catch up with a figure that was not moving quickly enough away from him. As he drew nearer, he noticed the other boys coming back to the locker rooms, pausing as they passed Hiyoshi; one or two spoke, but if Hiyoshi answered, Ohtori could not hear it.

He wasn't sure why he was walking faster, why he almost broke into a run, barely restrained himself to a trot; was it because he was still angry, or was it Atobe's words? But he did speed up, racket bag bouncing against his shoulder as he caught up with Hiyoshi just before the other boy could reach the gates. "Wait!"

Hiyoshi did not stop, kept walking forward and did not look back at Ohtori, even when he called for him to stop, reached out for that same arm and hesitated, that half-second enough time to slip away, cross the invisible line drawn at the gates. Ohtori followed him, turned left -- the wrong direction, not the way home at all -- and stopped, watching as he continued to walk.

He wanted to shout after Hiyoshi, snarl his frustration and annoyance and the gnawing, tearing concern beneath it, exorcise with accusing words the nausea that lingered in his stomach at the thought that Atobe-san had thought he was responsible for this. It was Hiyoshi's fault, not his. He had no reason to feel guilty. He didn't say anything.

His name was what made Ohtori turn, answer the goodbyes of one of the freshmen passing through the gates, shrug a little and hastily don a cheery smile as he spoke; when he turned back, Hiyoshi was already gone, turned a corner or perhaps crossed the street. He didn't look for sandy hair in the circles of faded lamplight, only turned around and began his own walk, staring down at his feet.

It wasn't his fault. Atobe-san had to realize that. He must. He didn't do things like that, hit people, not unless they started it. He knew he was big, and he was strong, but he didn't like fighting. Atobe had to know that it wasn't Ohtori who had hurt Hiyoshi. But if he knew (he had to know), then why had he said that about training?

Ohtori stopped at a crosswalk, waited for the light to turn, watched dark shadows and silver slide by on the windows of the passing cars. The pedestrian light turned green, and it was another student whose word prompted him to cross the street, orienting himself along the painted lines. Atobe-san had to know that something had happened. It was a secret that would spread too quickly; those gossiping freshmen could not have been the only ones to see Hiyoshi there. But Atobe wasn't going to step in and do anything about it, either. Why?

It was beneath a regular to step into the fights of others. It was beneath the captain's position to deal with the petty infighting of the hierarchy. So was he supposed to just ignore it and let Hiyoshi deal with it on his own?

Hiyoshi deserved to deal with it on his own. He didn't want help, and Ohtori didn't want to help someone who didn't want his help, didn't want to have to be involved. It was Hiyoshi's fault. He stumbled over a crack in the pavement, cursed quietly. It didn't matter to him. It didn't matter that Hiyoshi had been hurt, had been humiliated, had stared at him with that cool, cool face and glared at him with that prideful eye.

It didn't matter that Hiyoshi's hands had been shaking when he'd finished unwrapping the grip tape restraints; it didn't matter that he'd been unable to stand successfully the first time he rose. Ohtori stood in line silently, fists clenched at his sides as he waited to buy the ticket for the subway he took home; he had to try twice to feed it into the turnstile before making his way down the stairs to the platform.

He was staring at a brightly-colored ad when his cell phone rang, eyes focused on taking in the details of bright yellow clothing on the smiling girl advertising the latest popular MD player and trying hard not to think. He fumbled for the dull oblong in a pocket of his bag, finding it on the third ring as his train's two-minute warning slid through the air, mechanical and pleasant words overlapping his as he answered the phone.

"Choutarou, you're still not home yet? How late did practice run?"

The familiar voice eased him, made tension bleed out through the base of his spine and dissipate into the air. Of course, of course Shishido-san knew how late evening practice could run. "As late as it usually runs, Shishido-san," he replied, and he could hear the relief in his own voice as he latched onto normality.

He was not the only one who could hear it. "Did something happen? You sound a bit strange."

No, nothing had happened. "Yes."

Why had he said that, he thought harshly at himself as the question came, inevitable: "What is it? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." Though Hiyoshi was not. "Shishido-san, I think -- do you think, if someone was in trouble, with the club I mean, do you think it's right to do something, even if maybe it's their own fault--"

The announcement for the train coming in obscured the rest of his words, though not Shishido's reply. "Choutarou. You know it's not a regular's problem to get into that stuff. It'll just make you look bad. That's your train coming in soon, right? You can call me later and tell me about it. Or I can come over, maybe after dinner." Deeper words, rough, inviting--

Shorter, thinner fingers than his own, twining into his as embarrassed words shuddered through closed doors, telling his sister to stay out and let them concentrate on homework as only a younger sibling could while lips traveled across his stomach, shoulders jerked. Tanned shoulders marked with bruises and scrapes that shook and fought for release.

"Never mind, Shishido-san," Ohtori said, "It's not important. It doesn't matter." He hit the end button on startled words, folded the phone closed before moving forward with the rest of the small crowd, letting them carry him into the car; he did not take a seat, but remained standing, reaching up to grab one of the hanging straps.

It didn't matter, he thought as the subway train moved forward with a jolt, bracing himself as it did so. It shouldn't matter to him. Atobe-san didn't care about it and Shishido-san didn't care about it, and Hiyoshi didn't want him to care about it. It wasn't his place to interfere.

He didn't have to care, he told himself, it didn't matter, and no one would do anything about it, and nothing would change and maybe one day after practice he'd find Hiyoshi on his knees again, bent and bloodied and unbroken; on the dark canvas of his eyelids all he saw was a single staring, defiant eye, and his thoughts left a sour taste in his mouth not unlike the memory of Shishido-san's sperm on his tongue.




To be continued...

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