Life has spun back to normal when the sun rises over the tennis courts of Seigaku and the boys return, jostling, to practice bouts and stamina drinks and the mingled scents of cut grass and sweat of exertion on a mild summer day. The regulars stand apart, racquets swinging, muscles straining to bely the effortless ease that graces their practice. It has been a long day, a Monday, and the day lengthens by degrees in the sweep of racquets, love and points called from the sidelines, and the shadows that creep over pavement.
Finished for the day, Kikumaru Eiji scampered for the margin of the court, seizing his water bottle for a long pull before splashing himself with the remnants. He looked up as a slim figure approached, brushing back honey-brown bangs with an easygoing smile.
"Fuji. Done at last?" Eiji asked, rubbing his auburn hair with a towel, then settling it around his neck.
"Guess so," Fuji replied mildly, standing at ease beside his teammate, racquet still clasped loosely in one hand. They looked out over the courts, nearly deserted now but for a handful of freshmen gathering summer-green balls and Tezuka and Ooishi, looking solid and far-distant, discrete, as they clasped hands over the net.
Kaidou and Inui passed from the courts with muted farewells, amongst the last to leave, and Fuji glanced at his teammate from the corner of his eye. It was a considering look, a curiously alert look given his habitual sleepy-eyed appearance.
It began with innocent pleasantries.
"How was your weekend, Eiji, productive?"
"Eh, well." Eiji pulled his mobile face in a moue, fanning his hand in front of his face. "Kind of, I mean, Ooishi helped me to study again but I think I just hold him back."
"Are you waiting for Ooishi, then?"
"Eh, kind of. Waiting for Tezuka?"
They fell silent as captain and vice-captain skirted the edge of the courts, moving for the court's egress where Fuji and Eiji still lingered. Tezuka paused halfway, calling some last bit of advice or instruction to the freshmen engaged in gathering the last of the tennis balls.
"Fuji. Eiji." Ooishi approached them with a nod, his open, pleasant face speckled with sweat. He had been hard-pressed against Tezuka, giving their captain reason perhaps to play a little more seriously than usual. For all that he'd worked so hard, the smile he gave them was easy. "See you tomorrow."
"Aa! Tomorrow!" Eiji agreed, bestowing a flippant wave.
They passed in the twilight of a golden afternoon, nodding to one another, their smiles edged with a touch of something else, the tension of newly-wired gut. Fuji took it all in, his indigo-touched eyes deceptively sleepy.
When Ooishi had passed, Fuji turned a mild gaze on his friend. "Weren't you waiting for Ooishi?"
"Eh...well...not really, I guess." One of Eiji's hands reached up to rub self-consciously at the back of his head. "Wanna go out for a burger?"
Fuji remarked, "Was the weekend less productive than you said?"
Eiji blinked at him. "Huh? Hoi? What do you mean?" He put a finger to his mouth, pulling the cute and stupid look only a practiced younger brother could pull off.
Fuji sighed, letting his eyes drift to the self-reliant figure of Tezuka, his back turned to them, a man apart. It wasn't normally his style, but if it was Eiji... "Eiji, have you ever played truth or dare?"
"Why?" Eiji returned, suspicious.
"Never mind, let's play."
Eiji gave him a rasperry and began to flip his racquet, rolling it over his forearm, catching it one-handed. "When you say it like that, I don't want to!"
"All right," Fuji said, and his eyes glinted sharp blue. "Then let's play one last match, six serves, best of six."
"Unfair, unfair!" Eiji exclaimed, flipping his racquet over his wrist and catching the handle, flip and catch, flip and catch. He brandished it in Fuji's direction like a weapon. "That's mean of you, Fuji, I'm already pretty tired." By the way he held his racquet, though, he was already considering the parameters of the court, how he might field Fuji's volleys, playing tennis in his head.
"What's unfair?" Fuji widened his eyes at him.
"I'm good," Eiji began modestly, winking and sticking his tongue out. "Nante, ne. But you're the team tensai! Unless it's doubles, I don't want to go up against you!"
"Best of six serves," Fuji said implacably, glancing to the sidelines where Tezuka had lingered. "You'll call it, won't you?"
"Bully!" Eiji said in a complaining tone. "I don't want to fight you, Fuji."
Fuji smiled, opening his eyes just enough to prove he was serious. The wind was blowing. It ruffled over his honey-brown hair and the husks of leaves scudded over the sidewalk outside the courts. "I don't think I've shown you the third of my triple counters," he said, sounding thoughtful. "Want to see? Eiji."
Eiji widened his eyes at his friend. "Fuji, you serious?" He flipped his racquet one last time, caught it, and rested it on his shoulder. "All for a game of truth or dare... Fine, I wanna see!" He bounced over to one side of the court.
"Tezuka?" Fuji prompted.
"Aa," Tezuka responded at last, nudging his glasses in line with a finger, letting his sports bag slide to the court floor.
"Ahh~h!" Eiji sighed, assuming a ready stance. "How did I get myself into this? A game against Fuji, disaster!"
Tezuka stepped to the edge of the court, his arms folded, his eyes all over steely impartiality. "Fuji, Kikumaru, best of six serves," he called, and waited.
Eiji won the racquet-spin for the serve and did so with flourish. He was beaten back almost at once as Fuji proved he wasn't nearly so exhausted as a long day of school and practice should leave him. Then Fuji stepped back to serve.
"Fast!" Eiji complimented, darting to the net to meet the direction of Fuji's serve in a nimble acrobatic play.
The tennis ball arced upward, shooting over the head of one very surprised Kikumaru Eiji. It bounced to the court behind him, then whizzed past his ear once more.
Fuji caught the tennis ball and gave his friend a pleasant smile.
The wind blew past Eiji, stirring his uptilted auburn hair in passing, while he made wide eyes at Fuji across the court. "S-So strong," was all he could say for a long moment.
With Eiji's demoralization complete, Fuji set about defeating his opponent. In the end, Eiji had not scored a single point.
"Game, Fuji, 6-0," Tezuka declared, and shouldered his racquet bag once more. "See you tomorrow."
"Waah! See, it was unfair, I told you!" Eiji wailed, clutching at his hair and dancing about.
"Thank you, Tezuka," Fuji said briefly, his narrowed blue eyes tracking the other boy until he was gone. "All right, truth."
"What? Wait, no, I get to pick!" Eiji exclaimed, aghast.
Fuji gave him a thin smile. It was said by many that Fuji Shuusuke was a pleasant, agreeable young man. Even those people would agree that the smile Fuji gave his friend just then could justifiably be called 'evil.' "Oh, no, you forfeited your right to choose. I win the match, so I get truth."
"Fine," Eiji said, pulling a long face. "You play dirty, Fuji."
Side by side, they returned to their discarded racquet bags. Fuji kept his eye on his teammate for a moment, then chose his line of attack. "With Ooishi, how far would you go before admitting how you feel?"
Eiji staggered as if the world had tilted on its axis. "Wha--who--I--HOI!?" Sudden color spread over his sweaty face like the blossoming sunset. "I...Ooishi...but...I don't...I mean...I didn't...nya..." He trailed off on a plaintive note.
"Ah," Fuji said thoughtfully. "So it's that you didn't know. I see."
"I, Fuji, Ooishi is my friend!" Eiji began earnestly. "Don't try and pull a dirty trick like that, surprising me into--"
Fuji gave him another weighted glance, this one quite serious. "You promised me truth, Eiji."
Sneakers scuffed across the sidewalk as they moved from courts to clubhouse. Eiji was quiet the whole way, a small dismal silence as if a dark cloud hovered above him.
"How far would I go?" Eiji said, grimacing. "How am I supposed to answer that, Fuji? I...I like Ooishi, but it doesn't mean that I want to...that I...nya..." His dark blue eyes unfocused and then he shook his head vigorously. "No, it's not right!"
"Who says?" Fuji said, sharp. "Truth, Eiji. How do you feel?"
Eiji lifted a finger beside his pursed lips. "Honestly? Honestly, huh?" He made a feline noise as he shook his head again, as if attempting to dislodge the thoughts within that threatened to take root. "Nya...I really like him. He's my best friend. But...I mean...not my best friend, just...he's Ooishi. And I want to be with him forever. He's..."
"Your most important person?" Fuji supplied helpfully.
"I...I guess." Eiji looked unsettled by the thought. Then indignant. "Hey, you..."
"Come on, I'll treat you to a hamburger," Fuji offered.
"Waah, mean, Fuji," Eiji proclaimed, still bright red. He followed, though, as Fuji exited the clubhouse. "What would you have asked for, if I'd agreed to a dare?"
Fuji looked at him, then gave him a speculative, even faintly naughty smile.
Eiji blushed harder. "Never mind! I don't want to know, nya!"
The setting sun cast an orange pall over the spread of books and papers that cluttered the spare lines of Tezuka Kunimitsu's space. Side by side, he and Fuji Shuusuke worked in silence, systematically finishing math and English and history with no need confer on any particulars. At last, Tezuka sat back from a set of challenging mathematical problems with a sigh, leaning against the solid support of his bed-frame. Beside him, Fuji was staring at an unguessable point in space, pen tapping against his lower lip in a speculative gesture.
"That was frivolous, Fuji."
"So? I think it was necessary, myself."
Silence from Tezuka on that score. The blank silence was one of the most conducive substances to his disapproval.
"You have some pull with Ooishi. The two of you are best friends, after all."
Tezuka leaned back on the couch and looked offended. "Not with something like that," he said flatly.
"Ooishi would be happier if this was resolved," Fuji said, offering it up as an observation. If he was detached about the thing, he was far likelier to manipulate Tezuka just where he wanted; he had established this from experience. Nagging and wheedling, the staples of some lovers, would never work with him.
Wheedling was cute when it was Eiji, Fuji mused. When Fuji wheedled, it was unconvincing.
"It's none of my business," Tezuka said with a ring of finality, adjusted his glasses, and pinned Fuji with his formidable stre. "And none of yours, either."
"Eheh." Fuji smiled innocently. "I only want the happiness of my friends, Tezuka." His tone radiated altruism, but from the long look of disbelief that Tezuka gave him, perhaps there was a bit of the busybody in there as well. Or, seeing as that was how Tezuka was likely to view him to begin with, it didn't matter how he projected himself on this one issue.
Strong fingers encircled his wrist. Fuji was being drawn in. "Well, leave them alone," Tezuka told him, plucking his glasses free and tucking them into his shirt pocket. "Their happiness or lack of it has nothing to do with you."
"Just one favor? Call Eiji in for some sort of extracurricular practice tomorrow morning."
Their captain was quite good at ignoring anything he didn't want to hear.
The Tezuka zone, Fuji thought in the instant before their lips met. He'd never had much chance of escape.
What to do, what to do?
Kikumaru Eiji had never been more provoked in his life. Well, wait, he reconsidered; his sister had finished the last of his favorite toothpaste the Thursday before. No!
This was worse, way worse!
Pacing the confines of the tennis clubhouse back and forth, back and forth had provided no solutions. Eiji had made the circuit often enough to have reached twenty self-inflicted laps, or perhaps to have worn a path down through the concrete foundation, and still he'd drawn no answers from his brain. How could Fuji be so...so vexing?
If only he hadn't realized, Eiji thought sadly. He'd known that he loved his friend, all right, he just hadn't quite acknowledged that he loved his friend. That way. Mean, fox-eyed Fuji...
And what was the nebulous "solution" Fuji had offered to provide him with, this morning before school?
This would definitely put a dent in his doubles game with Ooishi. Knowing this, being awkward, watching Ooishi...Eiji brought himself up short at last, folding his arms, humming a considering note to himself. How could he go to practice now?* And pair off with Ooishi to...
Pair off with Ooishi...
Eiji shook his head vigorously, then smacked his cheeks a few times with both hands. His skin felt hot against his palms. "I'll play hooky," he decided, and reached for his sports bag. It didn't matter if Tezuka would make him run fifty laps or a hundred, he just couldn't face up to Ooishi after this much.
But the next day? And the day after? a voice within prompted.
"I...I'll quit." Eiji shouldered his bag and his expression fell. He couldn't, he'd already promised Ooishi...
It all came back to him, didn't it?
"You'll what?" said a soft, shocked voice.
Eiji spun around. "O-Ooishi!"
Ooishi stood in the doorway of the clubhouse, silhouetted by the sun. He was tall and strong, Eiji noted now with the part of his brain that had always purred along subconsciously before; his muscles were firm beneath the skin of his T-shirt and his exposed arms and legs were golden-brown. His dark hair, shaved at the sides of his head, brown strands falling over his forehead, drew attention to his handsome, kindly face.
Eiji could not believe it. He was contemplating how shapely Ooishi's head was, for crying out loud.
"Eiji?" Ooishi prompted, stepping inside and pulling the clubhouse door shut behind him. "You're not dressed for practice...and you don't usually come here before school."
Eiji shook his head, hands clenching into fists. He couldn't blame this on Fuji anymore. "I...I didn't think I'd see you here," he said lamely, though he should have known better. There were some people in the club who practiced before school, he knew that much, and Ooishi had the key and unlocked the clubhouse, most mornings.
"Quitting what?" Ooishi prompted, his voice terrible in softness.
"I...I...I was thinking," Eiji said, and struck an almost defiant pose. This was the best he could do, he thought sadly; he couldn't burden Ooishi with his ridiculous feelings, and yet he couldn't be partners with him, working side by side with this uncontrollable emotion swelling greater inside of him each day. "I don't think I want to play doubles anymore, nya."
"You...you want to break up?" Ooishi's eyes widened; he looked so shocked, so hurt for a split second that Eiji bit his lip and blamed that for the tears that pricked him. "But I thought...I mean, we promised..." A mask of resolve settled over his face, Eiji recognized it; the same look Ooishi fixed on when he pretended the injury wasn't so bad.
"Just kidding!" Eiji hastened to reassure him, splaying his fingers in a 'V,' muddled in every direction now and not quite sure how to break the surface. He couldn't remain like this, but he couldn't hurt Ooishi like this either; seeing Ooishi's face in that moment of hurt simply proved to him who his most important person really was.
Ooishi approached, handsome face set in serious lines. "What were you talking about, then?" He had been practicing, Kikumaru could tell now; a faint sheen clung to his face and as he watched, a drop of sweat slid down the side of his cheek, clinging to his jaw.
Concentration completely blown, he stammered. "I--I--what?" He felt naked, stripped of excuses or jokes, and while his brain frantically scampered for something to pin the "quitting" statement on, a deeper part of him had already given up.
Ooishi leaned, pinning Eiji to the wall of the clubhouse with his gentle, curiously implacable eyes and an arm set beside his head. "You were serious, weren't you? About quitting doubles. What's changed, Eiji?"
Eiji clutched at the strap of his sports bag, terrified. *Just me. My point of view.* "Y-You can hit me if you want," he offered.
"What?" Ooishi flinched, stunned.
He could run, the sudden simple inspiration came to Eiji, duck around the solid warmth of Ooishi and hit the ground running and tender his resignation before practice. He could break up Seigaku's Golden Pair and never have to deal with it, finish out junior high and never again feel this sickness, the swoop of silver fish stirring his midsection to distraction.
But then he would never know. If Ooishi would be disgusted, or...or if things could be okay again.
All he wanted was Ooishi's smile. As for the rest, it didn't matter.
"Why would I want to hit you?" Ooishi demanded, looking angry now.
Angry was better. Eiji could deal with that better than the gentleness. His lips shaped soundless words and he pushed at them, willling them out. I like you. I really like you. Oh, hell... "This," Eiji proclaimed, bouncing up on his toes. Their noses collided -- Eiji had closed his eyes -- then their mouths, then Eiji was kissing him like he never wanted to stop. Him. His partner. Ooishi.
The mouth against his was unmoving. Eiji's eyes popped open. "I'm sorry, Ooishi!" he cried, distressed, and his hand clenched hard on the strap of his sports duffel. He bolted.
A hand brushed over his sleeve, found his wrist and locked on.
"Ooishi, let me go," Eiji demanded, tugging to free himself, not quite able to meet his friend's eyes. "Let me go, nya!"
"No," Ooishi said in that rarely-heard, incontrovertible tone of voice that was more Tezuka's milieu. "You've had your say. Now it's my turn."
"It was a joke!" Eiji said brightly, holding up a finger, knowing as he said it that Ooishi wouldn't let him get away with only that. "I-It was a joke, Fuji dared me to do it, that's why I was so nervous...so you can forget everything I said before, really, I just--mmf!"
Lips were pressing against his. A green eye was at close range, daring him. Eiji blinked, felt the pliable warmth of Ooishii's mouth against his, but couldn't enjoy it. He sucked in a great gasping breath as Ooishi released him. "Ooishi!" he wailed, off balance.
"Well, you wouldn't let me talk, so..." Ooishi trailed off; gave him a self-conscious shrug.
"Kiss...kiss-u..." Eiji's brain had quite happily gone out to lunch, a few hours early no less. "You kissed me!"
"And I'll do it again, if you give me the chance," Ooishi said pleasantly, though he looked nervous. "Eiji? Was it really a dare?"
"No," Eiji admitted, and bit his lip. He might as well confess everything while still happily numb. "Ooishi? I like you a LOT."
"I like you, too," Eiji was promptly assured. Ooishi was smiling at him in a manner that made Eiji's stomach fuzzy and the world go soft-focused. They stood facing one another in the early light that filtered into the clubhouse. Eiji reflected that if Ooishi's eyes were like mirrors, he'd likely see himself grinning like an idiot.
"I never thought my first kiss would be a boy," Eiji said, rubbing sheepishly at the back of his neck, peering up at his partner. "I guess...that's why I thought you couldn't feel the same."
Ooishi looked thoughtful. "I like girls, but I like Eiji better."
"Heehh...I hadn't thought about it that way," Eiji said with a blink, putting his arms up behind his head. If he were to formulate it in words, he supposed that would be the most accurate way to put it. Most important person. "Ooishi? Can we try the kissing thing again, later?"
It was entirely fitting, Eiji thought, that the beginning took place here, in the tennis clubhouse. Everything that had anything to do with them started here.
Slow, warm, Ooishi smiled. "What are your plans after practice?"
With a satisfied nod, Fuji backed away from the window. It was good to see his minor interference carried out to fruition. He shouldered his tennis bag and turned, pleased that he could do this one thing. After all, in a way it was his fault Eiji had realized his feelings in the first place. A mellifluous voice made him freeze in his tracks.
"Ye-es?" Fuji replied cautiously, glancing to the side.
Tezuka's arms were folded and he had that obstinately immovable expression on his face, the one that had incited Fuji to action in the first place, between the two of them. "Twenty laps."
"But--" Fuji began his protest. "We're not at practice, you--"
"You can do them now, or right before practice," Tezuka said, imperturbable. Offering a choice: lose face for an unspecified error in front of his teammates, or get it out of the way now.
Fuji squared his shoulders and gave him a sunny smile. "Yes, captain." Later, payback would be sweet.
Perhaps this time it would be "dare."
Notes: I don't usually leave Japanese in the story unless it's easy or common use, but two phrases wouldn't be set aside.
Nante, ne... -- Best equivalent I could come up with was "kidding, yeah?" It's part of Eiji's (ridiculously! adorable!) speech pattern and I could hear it in my head but coming up with the English version sounded like bad dubbing. So I left it in.