"See you tomorrow!"
"Yeah, good practice! Later!"
A soft chorus of "good work" and "see you!" filtered through the crisp November air, reaching the ears of one Kikumaru Eiji as he trudged for the exit of the school grounds, lifting one long arm in a post-script to the farewells he'd already delivered. It had been a long day and a tough practice -- Tezuka had delivered a verdict of thirty laps for everyone, due to minor misconduct involving spirit gum plugging the spout of his water bottle and lack of an obvious perpetrator.
Eiji had been so totally sure that it was Momo-chan's water bottle, but never mind.
"Thanks for all your hard work!" That last was Ooishi, vice captain of the Seigaku tennis team, and he would no doubt be overseeing the freshman clean-up. Eiji sighed and his shoulders slumped. It wasn't as if he and Ooishi had a study session today, but after all...
"It doesn't matter, nya!" Eiji declared resolutely, squaring himself, settling his sports bag higher on his shoulder. Never mind that his family seemed to have forgotten, too. Ooishi, at least, he would have thought...but he couldn't rely on his friend for everything.
The evening sky was darkening around the edges in shades of plum and twilight, the golden light of sunset dwindling over the bristling relief of buildings against the horizon. By the time Eiji reached his house, it would be dark. And, he was quite sure, no one would be home.
"Eiji! Wait up!"
He turned to level a look of surprise over his shoulder -- Ooishi, catching up. "Ooishi, what about the freshmen?"
Ooishi Shuuichirou drew even with him, panting lightly. It had been a hard workout, after all, and even though they had cooled down there was evidence of exertion for this last sprint. His doubles partner was solid, both taller and broader in the shoulders than he, steady hands and corded forearms and a fusion of power and grace in the same package. The sides of his head were still shaved, as his entire head had been when they'd first met, but he was letting the crown of his head grow out: sleek glossy strands lying close against his head, two strands fallen forward that made Eiji's fingers itch, ofttimes, to comb it back. "Inui's taking care of them today."
"Aah, lucky freshmen," Eiji said with an easy smile. "Why are you going this way, though? You'll miss your bus."
Ooishi gave him a pleasantly blank look. "Do you mind? If I walk with you?"
"Well, no, of course not, nya." Eiji tugged self-consciously at the hem of his Seigaku regular jacket. He felt warmer.
Ooishi gave him that smile he didn't bestow on anyone else, what Eiji had begun to think of self-consciously as their Golden Pair smile. "Happy birthday, Eiji."
"Nya! You remembered!" Eiji grinned, delighted. It had been mildly disconcerting...all right, disappointing, to wake to an empty house and cold stove and no cheerful good morning wishes. Eiji was willing to acknowledge he was frequently spoiled as the youngest in his family, but it wasn't too much to expect a passing nod for his birthday. He was in junior high now, though, and he supposed he should act like a man and not a child.
Had they forgotten?
"Of course!" Ooishi returned, green eyes kindling with good humor. He leaned over, scrutinizing Eiji's face.
"Ehh? Something wrong with me?" Eiji pointed to himself.
Ooishi shook his head. "Did your family forget? You look a little sad today." He tilted his head, becoming the reproachful vice captain now. "Still, that trick with Tezuka's water bottle was mean."
"I didn't! I..." Caught, Eiji hunched in a guilty posture. Playing pranks on his teammates was one thing, but Tezuka was unapproachable...and if he had a sense of humor, it never showed. In a small voice he continued, "I thought it was Momo's bottle."
Ooishi began to snicker, caught himself, and smoothed it away with a stern expression. "Even so. I'm not sure if I should give you your present now, or make you wait until next year."
"Ahh! Ooishi! I didn't mean it, nya!" Through his penitence Eiji was grinning again, warmed clear through. "I'll be good." He'd remembered. That was pure Ooishi. He didn't have to rely on his friend...but he always could.
They left the grounds of Seigaku side by side, shoulders all but brushing, creating a long line of warmth in the space between as they walked together. Sunset was fading rapidly, replacing the day with an increasingly heavy sense of twilight.
Ooishi evidently felt he'd chided him enough. "Just don't do it again," he admonished, and gave him a sidelong look. "Or at least...make sure you get the right water bottle, okay?"
"Acknowledged!" Eiji said brightly. "Heeeh...you got me a present, huh? That's why you wouldn't let me get the spare racket from your sports bag!" He blinked in remembered reproach at being denied with an unusually curt word from his friend.
"Come on," Ooishi told him, letting that pass with a smile. "You have plans for dinner? It is your birthday, after all."
Eiji remembered the note again, with a mingled spurt of sadness and shame at his own sense of entitlement. He wasn't a child anymore, he told himself fiercely, baby of the family or not. "No plans! Nya! My family, the ones at home anyhow, they're gone for tonight. Be back Saturday, the note said...anyhow, there's oden in the fridge."
"Oh." Ooishi frowned, then bumped him, shoulder to shoulder. That gentle smile creased his face again. "There's a noodle restaurant on the way home, isn't there? Your favorite one. Let's have dinner there, you shouldn't be stuck with leftovers on your birthday."
Eiji stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. The glow of warmth that filled him was peaceable. "I'd like that." It wasn't as if this birthday were a milestone of achievement, after all. It was just another day. With his friend by his side, he could live with that.
They reached the restaurant in next to no time and Ooishi reached the door first, pushing it open with a shush of runners over the shoji screen track. "Don't kill me," he began.
The cone of a party favor went off, exploding confetti very close to the face of one shocked Kikumaru Eiji. "Surprise!"
"Neesan!" Eiji exclaimed, confounded. "Everyone..."
"Happy birthday, Eiji!" cried his family in chorus. Beyond them, behind the counter, the staff of the small family-owned noodle restaurant was lined up and grinning.
"You! Conspirator!" Eiji declared, leveling a finger at his doubles partner. Ooishi stood beside him, rubbing the back of his neck and smiling in an embarrassed, shy sort of way.
"Blame your sister," Ooishi responded, unrepentant. "She arranged the whole thing."
"I don't know if I like surprises, but I can definitely live with this one." Eiji settled down at the table he was ushered to and his family, and friend, crowded round.
The celebratory dinner lasted well into the evening until their bellies were full and Eiji's eyes began to droop. The next day was a school day but studying was, as ever, the furthest thing from his mind. "Time to go," Eiji's sister said at length, shaking his shoulder, rousing him from the light and pleasant doze he'd fallen into, unwrapping his scattered presents again and again, surrounded by the smiling faces of his parents and sister and his best friend.
His most important people. He should have known they wouldn't forget him.
"Dad already settled the bill and he went to get the car," she continued, and gathered up the sack of gifts, mussing his hair in passing.
"Neesan! Cut it out!" Eiji exclaimed, mortally embarrassed, but he could forgive her for treating him like a child when she'd gone behind his back for something like this. He glanced at his friend, who was unsuccessfully trying to stifle a smile.
"Good birthday, Eiji?" Ooishi prompted.
"Yes, nyaa! The best!" Eiji exclaimed enthusiastically, pumping his fist. He was so full he felt he would fall over. His parents had bought him the new sneakers he'd been eyeing for half the tennis season. All in all, it had been a wonderful gift of an evening.
"Here," Ooishi said, a shadow crossing his face as he deposited a lumpy parcel in Eiji's hands, looking as if he would bolt without saying goodbye.
"Hold it right there," Eiji commanded. He unwrapped his gift and tucked the crumpled wrapping in one pocket. He could see immediately why Ooishi had been too embarrassed to give him the gift in front of his parents.
Beside him, Ooishi's face creased with an anxious look as Eiji held up the present to face level, inspecting it. "I wasn't sure what to get," he began, sounding worried. "I mean, at first I was going to get something from the tennis shop, and then I thought, well, I saw this in the window...anyhow I'm sorry if you don't like it," Ooishi finished humbly.
"Nyaa! It's perfect!" Eiji hastened to reassure his friend, tucking the teddy bear into the crook of his arm. Its short fur was incredibly soft and plush. He grinned. "Anything from Ooishi is the best present of all."
"Eiji," Ooishi murmured, then ducked his head and looked embarrassed.
They lingered at the door for a moment, loathe to put the remnants of the evening behind. "So you'll come over tomorrow?" Eiji prompted, lifting the teddy bear to his cheek, rubbing its plush fur against his skin and provoking a smile from Ooishi.
"Of course," Ooishi said at once. "There's a history exam to prepare for, after all. And I know you can't pass it without my help..."
They laughed together.
"Anyway," Eiji said, glancing toward the curb, "I want to thank you. For today." He wondered what he should name his bear. Ooishi, he thought, was too obvious.
"Your sister--" Ooishi began, obviously intending to shift the credit, or at least the blame.
"I'm thanking you," Eiji interrupted, voice firm. He cocked his head. "You're always there for me, you know?" Even if his family truly had forgotten, he knew that Ooishi would have still been there for him.
"Eiji." Ooishi accepted that with a slight smile. "I feel the same way, you know."
Lights glittered at the curb as Eiji's father brought the family car to a purring stop.
"So I'll see you tomorrow?" Eiji said, cocking his head to the side, as if he needed confirmation.
"Aa. Tomorrow." They clasped hands briefly, sharing a grin between them once more, and then Eiji was climbing into the car and Ooishi stood at the curb a moment longer, watching him with his bag over his shoulder as the car slipped away into the stream of traffic.
Eiji contented himself with one last small wave, bringing his bear up and waggling its paw in comical farewell. The last he saw of his friend was Ooishi's smile, before the car turned and Ooishi and the restaurant receded from view.
"Well, Eiji, did you have a good birthday after all?" his sister was asking beside him.
Eiji settled into his seat, buckling the seat belt around him in belated remembrance, giving her a distracted smile. "Oh, yes." He tucked the teddy bear into his lap and let his eyes drift over the twinkling lights of the shops and homes they sped past and yawned hugely, giving her a sleepy sort of blink. "I have everything I could have asked for." It wasn't the presents he cared about, so much; what meant the most to him was the feelings of the people around him, those closest to him.
Ooishi's present was, indeed, the best of all.