High school had begun, and the hormones flowed freely. It was the way of things. Spring was unfolding, working its subtle changes in the trees that lined the neighborhoods and the very air itself, and the sakura sprang into bloom.
It was the way of things.
The spring term started, and only then did Ooishi Shuuichirou note the differences wrought on his teammates and friends.
Some, he thought -- like Inui -- had already reached their full height even before high school. Fuji seemed to be going through a growth spurt, though, and Tezuka's shoulders were broader than ever.
Eiji...Eiji was willowy and flexible, all smiles and burning-bright energy, and sat beside him in Class 1-3 with his distracting scents of cologne and hair wax, smells fascinating and subtle. Eiji had changed, but only in vague ways that Ooishi couldn't quite put his finger on.
Perhaps he hadn't changed at all.
Kawamura's voice deepened, and he sat with them during opening ceremonies. Afterward he apologized as he let them know he wouldn't be joining them on Seigaku High's tennis team.
They signed up for the high school team with the wary eyes of upperclassmen burning lines along their backs. Five former Seigaku regulars walked in, first years once again.
On the day of sign-ups, none of them played a single match.
In the weeks that followed, the only one allowed in the ranking tournaments was Tezuka, former captain, and he won all his matches until coming up against the current captain, the one called Demon on the Court. He lost 7-5, a close game.
Tezuka had played with his right hand.
Scrutinizing the game from the sidelines, Ooishi recalled that Tezuka played with his own brand of honor as he had since his days as a first year in the junior high. It was his way of showing deference to a senpai...as well as a talented player's instinctive holding out when playing against those who didn't merit the effort.
Unlike the prodigy of Echizen Ryouma, Tezuka knew he would not have been found welcome if he'd beaten his way past the captain into a position of first year regular. So he played with his right hand, and shook hands when Seigaku's Demon on the Court beat him with a smile on his face.
Put simply, the senpai of Seigaku were intimidated by their championship-winning kouhai, and pushed them into a subservient role. On the junior high team, under Tezuka's rule any member had been free to challenge a senpai during practice. It was how one learned. Here and now, under the wary eye of high school upperclassmen, they gathered balls, played matches against the same set of first years, and ran laps when they played too well.
It was the way of things.
Tezuka paired against Fuji for singles often and seemed not to notice any tension, though with his tall and commanding presence he was watched most of all. Fuji smiled and said "It's all the same to me." There was, Ooishi thought, a waiting air to him. Fuji would remember these slights and, given the opportunity, gladly thrash one of their senpai on the court when summer arrived. For Inui, it was simple enough to stand on the sidelines, notebook in hand, tapping his lip with a pencil as he muttered over equations and "good data."
Taka had given up the racquet for further study in his father's sushi restaurant. They dropped by, they chatted, and there were days Ooishi couldn't help thinking with wistfulness that if Kawamura had been there with them to grasp a racquet, he wouldn't have stood for the cold shoulder. With a shout of "Burning!" he would've leapt right into the fray.
Matched in singles against the other first years, bouncing around picking up tennis balls, to Eiji it really was all the same. He played with all his might. If they had been sealed for now, he would rebound twice as hard in summer, smashing volleys past third-years with his cry of "Kikumaru Beam!"
And so the five of them went their separate ways, finding different paths through the stream of high school. Club activities still bound them together, but after going to regionals and the national for their age division, the routine of swinging rackets and running laps held little shine.
He gathered summer-green tennis balls, and wiped sweat from his eyes on interminable days, and hit the street courts with Eiji after practice. Until the day I defeat you, I'll play by your side. They were bound together by that promise, and habit.
A year wasn't forever. Each time they played those street courts they were still the Golden Pair. Ooishi knew that when they hit their second year, they would take Seigaku's high school team by storm again. Every day, Ooishi saw that look on Tezuka's solemn face, or the glint in Fuji's eye as he surveyed a match between second or third years. And as far as Inui was concerned, of course, the more he waited the more invincible he would be.
Summer arrived with the rattle-bang of thunderstorms. The regulars shut them out of ranking tournaments in an unprecedented display of passive aggression.
Then Eiji began to avoid him, ducking out after practice. Even Inui, with his obsessive data files, didn't know where he went -- but it wasn't home, and it wasn't the street courts.
For Ooishi, this was not how things were supposed to be.
"I'm not avoiding you, nya," Eiji said with a frown, banging his locker shut. His blue eyes met Ooishi's and slid to the side, dwelling on some point far distant.
"We haven't played street tennis in a couple of weeks now," Ooishi observed, keeping censure out of his tone. Keeping up, no, improving their doubles game had been an unspoken deal.
"Oh, that..." Eiji made a face. "Has it been that long? Anyhow, we still play in practice."
It's not...it's not the same, the words formed on Ooishi's tongue, and he swallowed them down. Now he really would sound like Seigaku's mother hen.
"And you haven't been studying with me lately, either," Ooishi continued, feeling hard-pressed, infusing a note of cheerfulness into his tone.
"I...I don't want to pester you all the time!" Eiji said hurriedly. He craned his head over one shoulder with a smile. "I don't want to rely on you too much, Ooishi."
Ooishi returned the smile, helpless. He hadn't realized until the loss of his presence how much he wanted Eiji to rely on him, more than any of the others.
They were the Golden Pair, right?
"Hey, hey, do you want to borrow some CDs?" Eiji asked, changing the subject excitedly, skipping up the hall. He paused for Ooishi and an answer. "I just saw this group in concert, they were so cool..." Eiji's hands described arcs of coolness on air.
"Sure," Ooishi replied, distracted.
When had Eiji gone to a concert? And why hadn't he said a word before now?
Sometimes Ooishi wished he could find a nice girl, one who was agreeable and understanding. A girl he could get along with, of good background, quiet and willing to go along with a leisurely courtship that involved little to no physical interaction.
He regretted the thought almost at once. Girls still confused him; they were a planet mysterious and unreachable. Apart from that, he thought, no girl would want to date a steady, reliable boy of good background who couldn't keep his eyes off his doubles partner. No girl deserved that.
A little longer. He wanted to keep his ideal a little longer: a place where only tennis mattered, and tennis revolved around Eiji, and the thought of sex hadn't entered the picture at all.
Ooishi accepted the fact that girls flustered and confused him. He couldn't quite bring himself to accept the fact that only Eiji would do.
There had to be, he thought, had to be some other way.
Fuji leaned against the mesh fence that surrounded the high school courts, golden glints struck from his brown hair by the gleam of the fading sun. "Heeeh," he vocalized, a note of drawn-out thought. "You, too, Ooishi?" The cryptic comment threw the other boy for a moment.
Ooishi started. "Not..." He lifted a hand to scrub at his face with the back of one hand. He examined a memory of Fuji's eyes following Tezuka over the court. It wasn't the thought of Fuji's orientation that surprised. "Does he...?"
For a moment Ooishi thought knowing that much about Tezuka Kunimitsu would shatter him.
"That," Fuji said, turning narrow indigo eyes on him, "is a secret."
There was no foothold for insight in his tone, and warned Ooishi quite clearly to back off or risk losing an arm, bear-trapped. It didn't even register to Ooishi that Fuji had followed his half-formed thoughts quite clearly, and answered them just as decisively.
"Sorry," Ooishi apologized, now rubbing at the back of his head, tasting sheepishness.
"Knowing you," Fuji said, "you want to meet someone." When Fuji Shuusuke smiled, it had many potential connotations. This one was positively predatory. "Are you looking for some kind of love match, Ooishi? A blind date?"
Ooishi tried to tamp down the instinctive urge to back away.
Fuji's eyes left him, scourging the courts and settling on the figure of Kikumaru Eiji, stretched out full-length in the air as he took a leap for a far-reaching lob. He didn't need to say anything just then. "I'm surprised you haven't discussed this with your partner."
"I can't," Ooishi said, summoning dignity. "I don't have the right to project my feelings onto...onto that person."
Now Fuji gave him a harmless smile. "I wish I could help you," he said simply. "I'm actually the last person who would know, Ooishi. My hobbies keep me from that kind of active life."
Ooishi swore a vow to himself then and there never to ask about the extent of Fuji Shuusuke's hobbies. "Ah...I...I see."
"You're on your own," Fuji said, smile shading sympathetic, and folded his arms. He turned to watch the last of Eiji's winning match.
Defeated, Ooishi did the same.
A week passed. Eiji still disappeared right after practices, went around with exuberance radiating from every pore, and was quite cagey about his extracurricular time. He couldn't lie to Ooishi -- he was flat out terrible at it -- but he had become evasive.
He'd found someone, Ooishi had decided. After talking about girls in junior high, envying some of their rivals over the cute ones, Eiji had finally settled on pursuit.
Ooishi found himself looking in on other teams' practices, something he had never done before. The girls on the tennis club were fit and athletic. Would that kind of girl, slim and focused, appeal to Eiji? He checked out the few gymnasts, delicate but wiry. Would it be one like her, bird-boned and flexible?
"If you want to quit tennis," Ooishi wanted to rant, "just tell me." Those were the terrible words he couldn't say. His friend was flighty, he knew, and one passion could easily replace another.
But surely he wouldn't give up tennis.
Then Eiji skipped Saturday practice. Ooishi decided it was time to take steps.
He had finished with the Kinki Kids albums Eiji had loaned him. So, he decided, Saturday was a good time to take them back.
The Kikumaru home was stacked into a block of houses that looked alike. Ooishi paused on the doorstep, a sense of unfamiliarity settling over him for a moment. It had been a long time since he'd rung this doorbell. He held up the CDs like a shield, providing a readily visible reason for his unexpected appearance.
During the long moment he waited, Ooishi began to suspect he was on the wrong doorstep. Should he ring again? Back away slowly? Give up the venture and go home, because Eiji was most certainly out and about?
The thud of approaching feet wiped out that train of thought, and the door was jerked open.
"Eiji," Ooishi began, and stopped, open-mouthed.
"Nnya!" Eiji cried, a distressed expression crossing his face. "Ooishi, what are you doing here?" He looked flushed, actually. The quick gulps of air, faint scattering of sweat beading along his forehead, it was the very picture of Eiji in the midst of exertion.
"I--I'm sorry for intruding," Ooishi exclaimed, mortified, thrusting the stack of CDs at Eiji and stumbling back a step.
"Eiji-kun, I told you that you shouldn't answer the door..." a voice rumbled from beyond the genkan as Eiji took the CDs from him, looking terrified.
Shirtless; Ooishi's mind processed that first. Handsome; that assessment came second. Ooishi looked past his partner to the rangy young man leaning against the corner of the genkan, someone he vaguely recognized as an upperclassman. It was a senior from the volleyball team, a boy with long hair and a ready, assured smile, and of course Eiji would be involved with someone in sports; he lived and breathed the active life.
"I shouldn't have come," Ooishi said quickly, face shutting down in bleak lines, and he backed away. "Excuse me."
The forlorn voice trailed off behind him, cut off by the quiet click of a door closing.
Ooishi found himself feverishly nostalgic for the days of junior high, behind him forever. Back then he could get away with saying tennis was the only thing he thought about.
Now, with Eiji, he...
Eiji wasn't chasing a girl. He was with a handsome upperclassmen, and that explained his rising cheerfulness and the secretive behavior all at once.
Ooishi felt as if he were a commuter stranded at the station, last train having passed him by.
He played singles on the street courts. He skipped an afternoon practice, and came up against a slender, compactly-fit boy with sleek magenta hair. Ooishi followed his vague sense of recognition and spoke up. "Youhei-kun...?" he asked, and was rewarded with a reserved smile.
"You're Seigaku's vice captain, aren't you?" the boy asked, tossing his head and combing brilliant bangs out of his eyes.
"A-aa," Ooishi said, and smiled awkwardly. It was good to be remembered.
Youhei smiled more freely now. "You remember me."
So the feeling was mutual. "That match was hard to forget," Ooishi said, wry and shaking his head. The twins had been doing well against Inui and Momo, then Seigaku reversed the field...then Momoshiro had drained Inui's "experimental" juice to the last drop, and collapsed at the edge of the court. "Ahh, I mean, you, your form was great."
Youhei regarded him oddly, but let it pass. "You playing tennis in high school? Your match was incredible...they call you and your partner the Golden Pair, right?"
"Right," Ooishi managed. "Uh, kind of. We're first years again, you know."
"Ah," Youhei said with a nod. "Got it. That's Seigaku, all right; they must have a good team."
They lingered on the margin of the court, stowing their racquets side by side. Ooishi kept stealing glances at the boy, noting the smooth line of his jaw, the focused look of his crystal-blue eyes. Youhei was attractive. A little short...but...
Ooishi forced out the words on impulse, riding the crest of unformed suspicions. "Do you...do you want to go out some time?" It was, he decided, the way Youhei moved.
Youhei regarded him with a measuring look for so long that Ooishi began to stammer, "J-joke, I didn't mean to--"
"All right," Youhei replied with a nod. "But it had better not have anything to do with tennis."
"And we can't let Kouhei find out," the boy added.
Bewildered, Ooishi could only nod. "Why not?"
"Kouhei's very possessive," Youhei replied with a shrug and a tiny smile. "So, when are we going to do this?"
They arranged the details with a speed and precision that made Ooishi's head spin. A Sunday afternoon, a movie, a parting smile from Youhei that made Ooishi's palms sweat.
It wasn't enough to find an understanding girl and follow the proper steps of courtship. He could bring home someone nice and society would look on him and approve, how proper, how normal.
Ooishi wanted the feeling that tennis gave him, poised on the edge of excitement, pulse thudding through his vitals.
With very little consideration, almost recklessness, he had arranged his first date. He was pragmatic enough to recognize that his options would be limited once he'd decided neither tennis nor a sweet girl could substitute for a lover.
There was a book he'd read, something Fuji had loaned to him, about people whose preference lay with their own sex. One in ten, statistics said. Even so, those odds seemed impossibly high to Ooishi. He was hemmed in on all sides by starry-eyed girls looking for boyfriends, and boys with shy or confident smiles seeking cute girlfriends.
Instead of that, Ooishi wanted to find out if Youhei could make his pulse race.
It would have to be enough.
That Youhei was almost certainly still in junior high was a thought that didn't occur to Ooishi until he was halfway to their Sunday date. It brought him to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk, staring without sight at passersby who eyed him with the mild bewilderment one gives to a man standing backwards in an elevator.
"Oh, well," Ooishi said at last with a philosophical shrug, and continued on his way. If Youhei wanted to risk getting caught breaking the rules, that was something he'd taken upon himself. They could talk about it later.
It really hinged on how the first date progressed.
"You're late!" Youhei said reproachfully to him as Ooishi arrived at the wide, square plaza edged on one side with a multiplex, two sides with cafes and eateries.
Ooishi quickened his pace, checking his watch. Impossible, he...
Youhei began to chuckle, a rich, bubby sound. "Sorry, that's wrong. I was early."
"Oh," Ooishi could only say, relieved. That would be a great foot to start on for his first date. "I'm sorry I made you wait."
D-Date...he still couldn't believe this.
"It's all right." Youhei gave him that reserved smile, the one that looked as if he were sizing up Ooishi prior to a match. "I didn't know how long it would take to shake Kouhei, so I left very early."
"Well, if you really think he'd disapprove..." Ooishi began, hand going to the nape of his neck in a quick, nervous movement.
Youhei flapped a nonchalant hand. "It's fine, it's fine," he proclaimed. "Kouhei's a stickler for the rules. He'd probably tell Mom I'm dating, and then I'd really get it."
As he'd suspected. Ooishi could all but feel himself turning blue. "Uh, Y-Youhei-kun," he began, rubbing the short hairs at the base of his skull.
Crystal blue eyes raked him from toe to crown. "Don't be tiresome like my little brother," the boy informed him, and turned on his heel. "Come on, let's go buy tickets. It's not like a school administrator would take this as a date -- you're not a girl."
That much, Ooishi could admit, had the ring of reality. He followed, then drew even, and walked beside Youhei's slender form. Pleasant thoughts swirled within him, expectation coalesced; in the confines of a dark theater, he might very possibly be welcome to slip his arm around Youhei.
They joined the queue forming at the box office, side by side. Ooishi glanced sidelong at Youhei, who gave him a brief smile beneath his lashes.
If he thought of anything more bold, he would blush. Ooishi confined his gaze straight ahead and felt Youhei's arm brush against his as they moved forward in line.
Then it happened.
"Hnnnya! Masa-senpai, look at the line! We're going to miss the show, I told you! Ahh~h..."
Ooishi's eyes widened. That voice, he knew it. He could even see, in his mind's eye, the little dance of agitation that accompanied the frustrated tone. Now he kept his eyes forward more firmly than before. Maybe Eiji wouldn't notice.
"O-Ooishi....Heeeeh! It's Ooishi!"
Eiji's voice stabbed out like an accusation. "Hey, Ooishi, what are you--"
Ooishi turned around, red-faced, and knew as he did that Youhei was turning as well to look curiously at the loud redhead who'd gotten behind them in line.
"--doing here..." Eiji trailed off, then leveled a finger at Youhei. "Ahh! The chibi from Jyouseishounan!"
Eiji might forget his advanced equations, but he never forgot a face from one of Seigaku's matches.
"Eiji," Ooishi began feebly, raising a hand. He got a good look at 'Masa-senpai,' the dark-haired senior who was raising a brow in bemusement, now resting a hand on his hip. The senior met Ooishi's eyes coolly.
"What are you doing here with Ooishi?" Eiji demanded, clenching his fists and speaking directly to the petite boy.
"It's a date," Youhei replied promptly, as Ooishi tried to shush him.
Eiji's exclamation caused heads to swivel clear up to the front of the line.
"Eiji-kun," Masa began with an impatient look.
Ooishi broke in, unusually determined. "Eiji, will you come with me, please?" he said, polite, but firm as steel. "Youhei-kun, please excuse me for a minute." His date looked uncertain, then nodded.
Eiji blinked. "I-I guess..." he said uncertainly, and didn't even give Masa a backward glance as Ooishi grabbed his wrist and essentially dragged him away from the line. The two of them ended up in an alleyway on the side of the multiplex, one that Ooishi had spotted as he entered the plaza earlier.
"What do you think you're doing?" Ooishi demanded, releasing Eiji's wrist, surprised at himself, irritated with Eiji...and Youhei, too. For a boy who wanted a discreet date, he had a strange way of showing it.
"What are you doing?" Eiji shot back, cheeks flushed. "Are you really on a date with that brat?"
"He's not a brat," Ooishi countered.
Eiji laughed. It was not a friendly sound.
"At any rate, I don't see where you have room to criticize," Ooishi continued, offended. "You and...you and that upperclassman..."
"But Ooishi, don't you see?" Eiji cried, swinging an arm in a wide arc. "Substitute, he was just a substitute! I...I didn't think I could ever be happy with anyone but you!"
This person, by a staggering series of coincidences, was the one closest to his heart...and he returned that feeling. And he, mistakenly...
"Why couldn't you have told me that before," Ooishi said bitterly, turning away. The sight of Masa, shirtless in Eiji's house, filled his brain like a sheet of flame. "By the time I realized you were the only...the only one I wanted, it was too late."
That had really been the crux, hadn't it? Until then he could have kept pretending everything was still the same.
"I'm sorry," Eiji said in a very small voice. His hand reached out, skimmed the edge of Ooishi's shoulder.
Ooishi flinched, wished he could take it back, and thought he felt Eiji react to that as well, drawing away from him.
"I...I gave up waiting on you, nya," Eiji said sadly. "And then I thought...I thought, then, 'Ooishi won't ever want to be with me. Ooishi's normal.' One in ten, I read something, you know, when I got curious; it said only one in ten people are...are like this. And so, and so...well, when Masa-senpai said he was interested..." Eiji's miserable voice trailed off, leaving out his kittenish dialect completely.
Ooishi pondered briefly over whether Fuji had loaned them the same book.
"I imagined, you know, Ooishi?" Eiji picked up the thread of his thoughts again in the face of Ooishi's continued silence. "I thought of five years from now, and Ooishi in college, done with tennis, studying law or biology or something. And dating a nice girl that Ooishi's mom would be happy to meet. And me, looking at Ooishi, wondering if I could ever grow up and forget the Golden Pair."
Ooishi swiveled, fists clenched. "There will always be the Golden Pair!" he barked, a corner of his mind surprised at his harsh tone. The look on Eiji's face was equally stunned.
"Until the day you defeat me, remember?" Ooishi smiled tightly, feeling scraped thin. He'd been pushed this far. "I've decided, I'm going to get stronger. I won't ever let you beat me, Eiji." He kept his eyes steady on the other boy, bit his tongue, and hoped he understood.
Eiji's slow-blooming smile was answer enough. "Way to go, Ooishi!" he cheered, surprising them both and throwing his arms around Ooishi.
They were cheek to cheek and Eiji nuzzled him happily, warm and substantial in his arms. This was no dream.
Hair tickling his skin, Eiji turned his head, breath puffing ever so slightly against him. "You know," he said, uncharacteristically shy all at once, "it's not too late, Ooishi."
"No," Ooishi whispered in reply, and turned just that fraction of a centimeter that brought their lips into warm alignment.
Ooishi had been wrong.
It made his pulse race faster than tennis.
Their lips touched again, skimming, the lightest brush together and then Eiji was reaching up, hands stealing to the base of his neck, and Ooishi leaned in and forgot everything but the taste of his mouth.
At length, they pulled apart, resting their foreheads together. He could sense, rather than see, Eiji's smile. On a level he hadn't even allowed himself to consciously realize, this was what Golden Pair was all about. This feeling, this unity, it had its place out on the court...but it lived inside each of them, and connected them.
"Wow," Ooishi said, dazed. First...he thought...yes, that had been his first kiss.
"Hnnnya," Eiji agreed, a beatific expression on his face.
"Then..." Ooishi said, taking a step back, somehow unsurprised to find Eiji's hand fastened to his.
"Un!" Eiji replied enthusiastically to whatever the question might be.
Ooishi smiled. "All right, I--" He stopped, stricken, looking out at a line of streaming people crossing the plaza. That reminded him.
"We seem to have left our dates behind," Ooishi observed, rubbing his head, glancing down to where their hands were linked for the moment.
Eiji tugged on his hand. "It's okay, Masa-senpai is a player," he said knowledgeably. "I'm sure he'll take care of the Jyouseishounan brat just fine."
The redhead merely gave him an unrepentant, rather carefree smile, released his hand, and skipped out of the alley. "Come on, come on!"
Indeed, when they returned to the ticket box, Masa and Youhei were nowhere in sight. Ooishi couldn't bring himself to feel betrayed in the least. Even if he hadn't thought they had been gone that long.
"Good riddance," Eiji said with a sniff, dismissing the whole incident with a flip of his hand, then turning to Ooishi with bright eyes. "Hey, hey, Ooishi, I know that you probably felt you had to try and replace me...but he's not even a real redhead, nya."
Ooishi's stifled snort dissolved rapidly into helpless chuckles.
"What? What?" The longer he laughed, the more Eiji bounced around him, looking indignant. "Ooishi...don't make fun...it's true, I knew the first time I saw him..."
"Let's go home, okay?" Ooishi suggested, a broad smile still lingering.
"Ho..." Eiji lifted a finger. "Your place or mine?" His smile was impish.
Ooishi returned it with a shy grin. "Well...my parents aren't home..."
Eiji laughed. "Wai! Ooishi wants to make up for lost time!"
"You're right, I do."
senpai - upperclassman, senior kouhai - underclassman, junior nya -- a speech mannerism of Eiji's; instead of using 'na' he uses 'nya,' a meow-like sound genkan - entryway of the house where Japanese folk leave their shoes; sometimes they have cubbyholes for family and guest slippers chibi - little; little one