Zero Hour
by Simply Kim


1:00 a.m.

The urge was there, and he was trying hard to resist. There was something all too familiar with the feel of warm wetness sliding down the skin, warming him at present and freezing him in time. And the feel of being in a lucid dream... ethereal in beauty, worlds colliding against each other, chaotic and awesome both. Yes, the urge was there, and he was still trying hard to resist. Since when did he resist such earthly call anyway? How come he was thinking twice now when his mind was screaming for him to just let go of his reticence and go for it?

Shishido Ryo had always been known for his impulsive behaviour. There was something wild about him, something that catches every person's eye, with his impetuousness and fine, fine hair... and of course, his tennis prowess as well. He was sitting almost atop the team ladder, fighting side by side with his team captain and school prodigy. 'Was' being the keyword. He had just been demoted yesterday after the game with Fudomine's Tachibana Kippei.

Tachibana Kippei.

He would never forget that name. It was he who had ultimately destroyed his life, social, academic and otherwise. Now, even his mother was complaining that he was being too distant. After a day. How stupid could she get?

He should be going with the call flowering deep inside him.

He should not be resisting at all.


2:00 a.m.

Ohtori Choutarou did not know why he was still sitting in the middle of his darkened room and staring out the window. He had been doing so for the past four hours and he couldn't seem to get to sleep. The sandman seemed to be avoiding him completely. If that happened, he would be very tired later, a total disadvantage when the wolves of the tennis club were to pounce upon any weakness and silently attack. Tennis club.

He had been watching the game yesterday, and he was altogether disappointed. Somehow, the feeling of pity washed over him like a tidal wave, seeing his teammates being slaughtered by the tournament's black horse was painful. He did not want to watch such game again. He did not know exactly how it happened, but it did... and he did not have any tool to stop it. Time was not in his hands and fate too. Yes, they were utterly defeated.

He had heard his captain talking over the phone... regarding the last game. The last game with the untouchable one, the infamous Shishido Ryo... the most painful game of all. He turned away as the sound of shot after shot reverberated around him. He couldn't bear to see anymore... but then realised that it was worse hearing the ball not being whipped back. The lack of impact against tensioned strings were altogether cutting. It lacerated him, so he decided to watch the game again... just as the last parting shot was inflicted.

A no-hitter.

His senpai lost.

And somehow, the nagging feeling deep in his gut surfaced... just as it surfaced now in memory.


3:00 a.m.

The weight of the tennis racket in his left hand was staggering. He did not know why but it was. There was something inane about it though... after all, a single racket shouldn't weigh as much as a pail of water. He credited it to the lack of practice using his left hand. He was not like the legendary Samurai. He was nothing. He did not have any special move like Atobe Keigo's Hametsu no Rondo, nor Oshitari Yuushi's Higuma Otoshi. He had nothing but his particularly average tennis skills.

And even now, it was wrenched away from him.

All because of that troublesome captain...

Which one, his or the one he exchanged shots with?

Both.

Maybe if he quit the team, he would get back to normal. The same impetuous person prancing along the hallways... But then... what would people think of him? They would still be talking about the humiliation he received and resent him for all his arrogance whilst he couldn't even do such simple thing as defeat his opponent in the game he boasted he excelled at.

Yes, it was the humiliation that would hurt most whatever decision he made.

Maybe if he complained of a certain injury and credit such defeat to it, things wouldn't be so bad...

Shishido raised his racket...

And he proceeded to annihilate the tingling feeling in his playing hand.


4:00 a.m.

Ohtori flinched as a petrifying howl echoed outside.

The dogs were restless again as they had been the night before. Maybe they were cold? But it was summer! How could they be cold? He shook his head, eyes still focused outside. There seemed to be a particular spot in the horizon in which he focused on, he realised. As to why, he did not have the faintest idea.

He was quite right though... the sandman did not wave his hands over him not even fleetingly. Maybe it was being invidious, what with his senpai's look of utter helplessness that seemed to embed itself in his mind.

He wasn't one to be affected by something so natural; he had seen defeat before, so why now? Maybe it was because his brain still could not process such display. Maybe his brain couldn't process the fact that the one he had been admiring for his limitless confidence suddenly crumbled... and was left with nothing at all. It was like everything was sucked out of him.

He just didn't know why he felt defeated as well.


5:00 a.m.

It didn't hurt.

Shishido did not know why but it didn't hurt. No matter how much he pounded on his hand, the blows didn't hurt.

Just his luck.


6:00 a.m.

Ohtori finally gave up. He could never go to bed now. It was already six in the morning and he had been wide-awake for a whole day. Practice later wouldn't be too pretty now that he was too tired to hit tennis balls for morning practice.

Sighing, he got up, gave a sidelong glance at his still-made bed and turned away, snatching one of the warmed towels hanging on his rack. Trudging resignedly through the bathroom door, thoughts of his senpai echoed in his mind.

There was no resting now, was there?

He didn't close the door, arms too leaden, his energy zapped out of him that he only had enough strength to turn the shower knob on and let the sprinkle of cold morning water cascade down his body.

"What are you going to do now, Shishido-san...?"


7:00 a.m.

His feet decided that he should go to school. It was indeed true that he suffered the most humiliating display of hostility and ridicule from his schoolmates as soon as he went through the gates. His tennis bag hung dead across his back, a heavy burden for someone who just had the taste of defeat fresh on his tongue. His brain was trying to ward him off the direction of the tennis courts, and yet his feet seemed to be working against it. They still sauntered off, like always, to where the sound of countless impacts collected, where grunts and cries of both victory and defeat reverberated, to where he had grown up under the limelight.

Where he was in the limelight no more.

And on the entrance his steps halted and his eyes roved, searching for familiar faces. He found many of them. He found his bouncy teammate Mukahi having a match with the temperamental Taki, he found Atobe barking orders to both Kabaji and the obviously sleeping Jirou, he found Hiyoshi-kun arguing with Oshitari... and then an unfamiliar face popped out form out of nowhere.

Someone who looked both familiar and strange...

Someone with soulful chocolate eyes...

Someone who had seen him, the only one out of a hundred and ninety-nine...

Someone whose eyes lit up at his mere presence...

He saw him, and yet he stiffened, turning abruptly and shuffling away.

His eyes saw too much...

It was all Shishido knew.


8:00 a.m.

His eyes lit up... and just as it did, the light faded away to give way to sorrow. Ohtori almost thought his senpai was turning in for morning practice.

And then he turned away.

He noticed the acute redness of his senpai's right hand and wondered silently as to what had happened. Just as an idea formed in his mind, he heard the steely tones of his coach, beckoning for the team to gather. It seemed there would be another playoff in a few days.

Maybe, if he could convince his senpai to practice once more, everything would turn out for the best.

Maybe he would be the one to break the Hyoutei tennis Club rule.

Maybe he would start off as a regular again.

Ohtori was one who always dared to hope.


12:00 p.m.

For the first time in his life, he was eating alone. The heavens must be laughing down upon him now after all those years of glorifying himself to all those who could see. Maybe he was finally being punished for his selfishness and egotistical manoeuvres.

Maybe he was just thinking too much.

But he couldn't help it. Loneliness was eating deep into his gut. There were no more fans, no more friends who kowtowed to him as one would a god. Maybe he never really had them. Hypocritical fiends.

"Shishido-san, may I join you?"

He looked up in surprise... and kind soulful eyes smiled softly down at him.

He scooted sideways to allow the newcomer more room.

He didn't know him, but it sure beats eating his lunch alone.


3:00 p.m.

He never even conversed with him.

Lunchtime passed by uneventfully, with his senpai too quiet and him to abashed to say anything intelligent except introduce himself. He was never a conversational person to begin with, and he had always been aloof to those he did not know well.

Oh yes, he did manage to tell him about the playoffs for the next batch of regulars.

Now, it was practice time once again, and here he was, eyes straying every five minutes to the entrance of the courts.


4:00 p.m.

Shishido made up his mind.

He could get a hint when he heard one.


5:00 p.m.

Ohtori's eyes fell shut.

He failed to reach his senpai.


6:00 p.m.

Saa. Let's see what I have to improve on.

And a ball smashed against the cold, concrete wall.


7:00 p.m.

The sound of balls smashing against something hard echoed in the vast expanse of dimmed public tennis courts. Ohtori, frankly, was surprised. It was rare that someone played at this time of night. It was well onto dinnertime. The hunger he felt was insistent now, it seemed as if lightning was being unleashed inside his stomach but his curiosity urged him to take a peek at the lone soul that seemed to brave the night. And as soon as he laid eyes on the court, he smiled.

Shishido-san.


8:00 p.m.

"Shishido-san."

That voice. He stopped mid-swing and turned in surprise. It's him again.

Briefly, Shishido wondered about the reason why his former kouhai kept on intruding upon his life. Why now when he was in dire need of someone to depend on? Why now when he was too weak to hold up on his own? His brows furrowed. "What do you want from me?" He asked suspiciously. He was taken aback when Ohtori gave him a determined gaze and announced firmly what his intentions were.

"Shishido-san, I want to..."


9:00 p.m.

"Hit me."

Ohtori's eyes widened as the gruff order tumbled out of his senpai's lips. He winced as painful bruises greeted his searching eyes, widening as even more were exposed when Shishido grasped the hem of his shirt and wiped his face with it, the purplish marks harsh even in the almost infinitesimal amount of light.

"But, Shishido-san..."

"Choutarou." Shishido growled through gritted teeth. "This will help both of us. This will improve your aim and create a faster me, so do it."

He did not want to comply, but he found himself getting ready to make the serve. He felt pain as he saw the bruises covering Shishido's lightly tanned skin, as if the bruises were his own. It was quite disturbing... disturbing, but he had to make the shot.

So he did.


10:00 p.m.

It was past his usual time for bed, and yet, he was still up, perfecting his moves... and silently admiring the adamant way his practice partner protested when he tried to herd him away. It was more of his problem, and yet there was Ohtori, a new acquaintance, someone he had not given any thought to before, fighting against the urge to sleep. He had seen him yawn several times, apart from the definite sound of hunger emanating from both their empty stomachs.

They hadn't eaten yet, and they were both, he had to admit, too tired to do anything else. And yet they went on playing. Not minding stress, not minding hunger, not minding the yearnings of the body for full rest. They still had classes the next day. And yet, here they were.

"Choutarou." He called out quietly as the younger boy poised once more to serve. Questions plagued his mind, and he couldn't fully concentrate now as they seeped into his brain. He was thinking too much again, and he couldn't help it. He couldn't stop, because the wondrous miracle the gods gave him was there, standing, reaching out for him with deft hands that knew unworldly selfishness.

His eyes followed Ohtori's movements. He was graceful for someone so tall. He was gentle and forceful at the same time, and such characters were reflected in each of his painfully expeditious shots. He felt each one, and he knew suffering. He was not a masochist, and yet he was receiving each shot. What was he trying to prove? Or rather, what was he trying to prove to the boy?

He did not know. Just as he did not know why Ohtori stayed with someone as completely darkened as him. Just as he did not know why Ohtori was trading his homework and warm home with this... this freak of nature that was their 'practice session'. What was Ohtori trying to prove to him?

Was this just a show of pity?

Then why the encouragement? Shishido knew that one who was kicked out of the Hyoutei Regulars never rise again to Sakaki-kantoku's graces. It was simply not done. And yet, here Ohtori was, dancing into his life with subtle actions hinting a probably unreachable hope.

What was all these?

And since when had he grown so familiar with him that he had begun calling him by his given name? "Choutarou." He repeated solemnly. "Why?"

Just that simple question. 'Why.'

He just didn't know why the answer elated him the way it did when it was only the simple remark: "Because I want to, Shishido-san."


11:00 p.m.

Ohtori walked home tired but in high spirits.

Soon it will be a start of a new day... and a whole new start for both Shishido-san and I.


12:00 m.n.

Shishido lay in his bed, unable to sleep.

The urge was still there, no doubt about it, but as he tried to reach for his racket to drive himself to an endless bliss of pain, he felt a wave of nausea assault him.

And a startling imagery burned in his senses.

"Choutarou..."




The End

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