His first day of junior high, Yuushi walks into Modern Lit to find Atobe sitting – lounging, insofar as it is possible to lounge on a flat wooden object that doesn't support one's back – on a desk at the exact centre of the classroom. The scene is a familiar one: morning audience at the court of Atobe. There's Taki, there's Nanase, there's Ishimine from class two, there's that Ujimoto girl whose father owns a construction firm. There's Ogawa leaning over the next desk trying to listen in; there's Shishido sitting on a turned-around chair with his arms crossed over the back, pretending not to.
Yuushi notes no new faces; the inner planets haven’t shifted their orbit since the fifth grade. The peasantry accepted by examination from other schools hang around the window seats or the back of the room, polishing their tools or whispering to one another. Their gazes gravitate to the central tableau with ill-disguised curiosity or awe. It is only the first class of the day. By afternoon word will have spread, and the former will have turned to the latter.
Yuushi stands at the door, relaxed, and waits for Atobe to glance his way. Eventually blue eyes catch and hold his, and he smiles into the look of recognition. Raises a hand.
"Yo," he says.
"I see you’re back in Tokyo," Atobe says impatiently. "Get over here. Ogawa, clear out that desk. Class is about to start."
Ogawa pulls his elbows away with ill grace. Yuushi smiles a little wider and saunters over, ignoring the stares. Some of that rabble may even learn, one day.
"Tennis club," Taki says that afternoon, removing the end of his pencil from between his teeth. "Tennis club for sure."
"Not soccer? Or, I don't know, track..."
"Tennis. Hyoutei's team goes to the Nationals every year."
"Eight out of what, two hundred members?"
"Atobe's going for tennis, though."
Atobe expects obeisance from his nominal peers, no more. He certainly doesn't consciously set them an example to follow: if asked he would have characterized the task as "not worth his time.” He bestows his favour like a wreath of laurels, which is to say, as an acknowledgment of what the recipient already is.
It doesn't prevent others from changing themselves to suit his preferences. In Yuushi’s experience, it rather incites them.
"I think Shishido should try out for tennis," Yuushi says. "He's good for a regular berth in any sport. Aren't you?" Shishido sniffs and bats his bangs away from his eyes. He's trying to grow his hair out, but it's still too short to stay tied back, and the bulk of it falls straight and dark around his face.
"Don't talk like you’re a bystander," he says. "How many under-12 championships have you won in Kansai again?"
"Precisely my point," Yuushi says. "I might pick up a different sport this time. For a change."
"No, really. Kendo, maybe."
Of course he joins the tennis club in the end. All of them do.
It never bothered Yuushi to be shunted from school to school and city to city with the rising arc of his father’s career; not in the way the same changes affected his sisters. Perhaps it's because he's younger. Or perhaps it's because he's not the type of boy to have trouble establishing social success anywhere he goes, nor to form truly strong attachments to his peers. In the rarefied circles he moves in, where everyone has a family name and a paternal career to match, the latter goal is rather an impediment to the former. And Yuushi’s never needed to bend the rules to win a game.
For that matter, Atobe is the same. Before he returned to Tokyo and Hyoutei, Yuushi sometimes remembered him with amused wonder: the most extravagant, unruffled, blue-eyed tyrant one could imagine, born to dazzle and crown the social hierarchy of an elite private school – of which Yuushi’s attended four, if one counts kindergarten. And he’s good at tennis besides.
It all makes him remarkably easy to get along with.
They're walking to tennis club practice a few days later when Atobe asks him point-blank, "Why do you wear those?"
Yuushi blinks. "You noticed."
"Of course." With mild disdain, as if the difference were obvious. "Don't they distract you when you play?"
"I'm used to them now."
In truth they misdiagnosed him in the fifth grade, because he would sit in the back of the class and watch the teacher through his lashes. It softened the planes of her face, and made her look prettier. Younger, happier too. The kanji she chalked on the blackboard wavered like text in a dream, the kind where if you stared the words blurred into something entirely different. Poetry or prophecy, but always of the utmost importance, even – especially – if one forgot what it said come morning.
Squinting gave him a pass into an alternate world, one Yuushi liked better than the real, sharp-edged one. It also made him look as if he was having trouble seeing, which he didn't realise at first. Once he did he played along.
The charade didn't last: wearing correctives all day gave him migraines. But his mother was indulgent of their shared whimsical streak, and gave him the costume lenses he asked for as a birthday present.
He trails off, then, because Atobe has stopped short. After a moment he turns and says, "Take them off when you play me."
As the glasses were never in Yuushi's way to begin with, their removal makes little difference to the course of his practice matches with Atobe: three wins out of five, and an engaging fight. Within weeks they're drawing second- and third-year club members to the ranks of their spectators.
In the meantime a shift occurs – one Yuushi might have predicted, had he given the matter conscious consideration. The "court" segregates into those who took up tennis in Atobe's wake, and those who did not or could not. Even among the former the criterion for gaining entrance into the inner circle soon becomes clear. Some make the benchmark; some, like Nanase or Ishimine, simply don't.
Yuushi did not follow Atobe into the sport, strictly speaking, but the fact is soon forgotten.
Two months of this and Atobe asks Yuushi out of the blue, "Do you want to play a game now?"
"As opposed to?"
He makes it sound as if he has Yuushi's compiled tournament statistics at his fingertips. Yuushi smiles, thinking it must not have taken him much effort.
"Are we just going to skip?" But Atobe need only make the request to be exempt; construction has already started on the new clubhouse funded by the Atobe conglomerate's donation. Yuushi knows he's within the circle of immunity, at least for a day.
"All right," he says. "Why not."
It is a one-set match, played on Atobe's own private court between the croquet lawn and the peony beds, with Kabaji as referee and sole gallery (they find him completing math exercise sheets in Atobe's second-best parlor). Yuushi knows it is a duel; he thinks he might have seen it coming.
It is not until the first serve that he understands the import of the word.
Yuushi has always judged them to be close in control and power, but Atobe does not present his usual baseline game. Instead he attacks immediately, forcing shots to advance, caution seemingly thrown to the wind. Yuushi tries to disrupt his pace, varying his returns with lobs. It gives him a game.
Atobe does not retreat with the next serve. Instead he defends from the forecourt, and soon recovers the advantage with a series of hard cross-court smashes. There must be a counter, Yuushi thinks, but has no leisure for further analysis. He withdraws, but Atobe only presses forward. Yuushi harries him and waits for faults to appear in his play, but there are none. Instead he finds himself forced into error.
Eventually he has to muster a fight – every point is a pitched battle, because it feels as if Atobe never relinquishes control: if Yuushi breaks his serve he simply breaks back, aiming at gaps and overreach with a laser-like unerringness. It is chilling, nothing about it cerebral. At times Yuushi feels those blue eyes fixed on a target a little beyond him, or perhaps within him, and watch an unfamiliar smile curve Atobe's lips before disappearing. Then would come the smash, the unreturnable serve.
He loses 6-4, with Atobe taking the last two games in straight points. Afterward he stands near the service line, breathing hard and more shaken than he can remember being in a long time.
Atobe watches him, the eerie intensity still in his eyes. Yuushi never pretended to really know him – to what purpose? – but suddenly it is hard not to see a stranger.
"You're too soft on your opponents," Atobe says. "You have to finish them off."
Halfway through June Yuushi takes notice of one particular clump of his fellow freshmen, who are given to shooting speculative glances his way as they talk on the court sidelines. It is a matter of time, he realises, and is not surprised when the gangleader accosts him one evening after practice.
"Coach says you're a natural prodigy," he says, meshing his fingers together and extending his arms in front of him in a lazy stretch. He is not one of the boys Yuushi remembers from the lower form, but this means little. He's smiling, and the light in his eyes is unfriendly.
"That's as may be," he says mildly. The other boy's eyes narrow. He's slight for his age, and the closer he comes the further he has to crane his neck back to meet Yuushi's gaze. The differential does not seem to improve his mood.
"So what would Coach call someone who can kick a natural prodigy's ass?"
"Ask him," Yuushi said. "I'd be interested in finding out."
That clinches his schedule for the next twenty minutes.
Afterward he expects the boy to throw his racket down or kick something and storm off, but he merely points a finger at Yuushi and snarls, "Don't expect to get off so easily next time," as if Yuushi were the one sweating and out of breath and not he. Strands of his bobbed hair are plastered to his forehead and flushed cheeks. The picture strikes Yuushi suddenly as cute.
"Certainly not," he says, adjusting the strings of his racket with calculated insouciance. He's a little impressed. The other boy may as well be made of india rubber, for the way that he bounced from one end of the court to the other and practically flew after returns. "Where's the point in getting off easy?"
It’s only repartee. The fact is, unless you're Atobe, getting off easy is hard to pull off.
Around that time Coach sets him and Atobe to play their seniors during most practices, in lieu of first-year peers or even each other. Yuushi maintains an impressive win percentage. Against Atobe, however, he backslides: two losses out of three games, then seven losses out of ten.
That year Hyoutei's tennis team goes to the Nationals, and is eliminated in the best-of-sixteen round. Two weeks later Atobe provokes one of the third-year reservists into a match, as if he's been waiting for the opportunity, and wins handily.
Unlike other schools, and despite its glut of members, Hyoutei does not have standardized intramural rankings. But the message is clear enough.
The Challenge, as Yuushi mentally labels it, morphs from a one-off to a monthly event. He accepts the situation with good humour, though he's reminded of one of those American cartoons that feature giant sledgehammers and anthropomorphic animals overendowed with optimism. No one targets Atobe in the same fashion, insofar as he’s aware; but then, Yuushi has never thought of himself as other than merely mortal.
Besides which, his self-styled rival is adorable. In a Clara Bow but skinnier and not a girl sort of way.
Besides which – he realises by November – the other boy is improving.
He's also getting quieter, though, in direct proportion to the speed of his footwork. After the game ends he doesn't even say anything, just turns on his heel and stalks off the court. Yuushi retrieves his jacket from the bench, and a towel with which to mop his face. Then he stands and thinks for a while.
He finds the other boy standing in front of the gymnasium building vending machines, head down and shoulders hunched. At the deliberately loud scrape of the locker room door he straightens and turns, hastily. Yuushi saunters over and leans against the drinks machine.
"May I borrow some change, Mukahi-kun?" he says. The other boy stares up at him incredulously.
"What is this, a joke?"
"No, I'd just really like a plum tea." Yuushi smiles the most disarming smile he can manage. "I'm terribly dehydrated."
"It annoys me, that's all," Gakuto says later, when they've both gotten drinks (Gakuto's a strawberry Calpis) and are sitting side by side on a nearby bench with their legs sticking out and their backs against the wall. "You annoy me. Stalking about on those skinny legs of yours like some oversized crane – what the hell is so funny?"
Yuushi is coughing rather than laughing, having choked on his plum tea. "I apologize for any inadvertent offense my legs may have given," he gasps when he's recovered somewhat. Gakuto sniffs, staring down the neck of his soda bottle.
"Coach doesn't pay us freshmen any attention," he says. "Atobe, you, and maybe Shishido. The rest of us are just supposed to slug it out after swing practice. Well, I'm not having it. I'm better than that. I'll be better than you, too, sooner or later. Don't you forget it."
"At this point it's unlikely I will," Yuushi says. "But have you considered?"
"The more you play me, the better you know me. The more you play me, the easier it is for you to predict my next move. The more you play me, the better you get." Yuushi lets his glasses slide a little down his nose so he can meet Gakuto's eyes – the glass has gotten smudged. "There's no reason to keep it to once a month, is there?"
Three weeks later Yuushi arrives at practice to find a crowd already gathered around court five. So many tennis club members are gawking and whispering that he can't make out who's playing for a second.
Once he does he elbows his way to the front, barely apologising along the way.
"Mukahi's really done it this time," someone says to his left. Yuushi ignores the comment, keeps his hands relaxed and in his pockets. What he wants to do is curl his fingers around the fencing and yell dammit what are you doing at both the players, but the impulse itself brings him up short in astonishment.
In any case he knows the match won't last very long.
At the cry of "Match to Atobe Keigo, six games to two!" an expectant hush descends over the spectators. Gakuto has fallen to one knee, panting. Atobe walks unhurriedly up to the net, then around it, so he can offer the other boy a hand up.
"You're quite good," he says, projecting his voice for the benefit of the cheap seats. "I'm having a little get-together at my home, over Christmas; we'll be playing tennis. You should come."
If Gakuto answers, it's too low for Yuushi to hear over the sudden din of speculation from all sides. He reaches the court door just as Atobe's exiting.
"What on earth did that prove?"
It comes out sharper than he intended. Atobe gives him a long look he can't parse.
"Make sure he shows up," he says, "I'm already sending the limo for Akutagawa from class three." He's gone before Yuushi can answer.
Hyoutei students are – generally speaking – well-bred, well-off, or both, but over the years Yuushi’s watched even parents of schoolmates wobble out the front gate of Atobe’s familial estate, intimidated by the sheer scale of the display. Gakuto merely gives the fairy-light-trimmed mock-Regency facade a keen once-over, chewing on a fingertip.
“All is explained,” he says. “It’s a for-real palace. Atobeckingham Palace.” Yuushi chokes.
“Don’t say that in his hearing,” he warns, “it’ll give him ideas.” Gakuto laughs at that, tossing his head back. There’s something complicitous about the sound, something warm, and Yuushi finds himself laughing as well.
After that the party goes off as usual, meaning that they drink tea in fancy china brought by the butler, eat pastries filled with Chantilly cream, and pile outside to play tennis when the volume of Shishido and Taki’s bickering gets to be intolerable. Yuushi and Gakuto find themselves playing doubles against Ogawa and Taki: it’s not much of a challenge.
“Who’s next?” says Shishido. Kabaji lumbers to his feet, dragging Akutagawa up by the collar in the same movement. Akutagawa yawns widely and adjusts his orange knit hat. He’s nearly as short as Gakuto, and every time Yuushi’s glanced at him over the course of the afternoon he’s appeared to be asleep, propped up against one surface or another.
“Me,” he says. “Oh, hey, will you play me, Atobe? It’s more fun when it’s you.”
“Why not,” says Atobe, slipping off his jacket. Shishido catches Yuushi’s eye and shrugs at his expression.
“You weren’t at the street courts that time, were you?” he says. “Are you ever in for a treat.”
Twenty minutes into what is – indeed – the strangest half-untrained serve-and-volley game Yuushi has ever witnessed, Akutagawa returns a drop shot with an impossible wrist snap, overbalances, and falls on his seat. “Ow,” he says, and then, “Hey... it’s snowing.”
“Five centimetres tonight,” says Gakuto. He’s bouncing, heel and toe, in an attempt to keep warm on the sidelines. “Heard it on the radio.”
“Just keep playing,” Atobe says.
By the time Shishido and Kabaji are halfway through their match, though, the court surface is too slippery to contend with.
They’re sitting around the fireplace with a round of hot cocoa, flipping through tennis magazines or playing video games, when Shishido stirs, looks around, and says, “What happened to Akutagawa?”
He is met with blank silence. Akutagawa is not in the washroom, nor is he in the second-best parlour, nor in the recreation room, nor in the library. In fact, no one remembers seeing him since his match with Atobe ended.
“He must be outside still,” Atobe concludes.
“Why? It’s nearly dark!”
“Maybe he fell asleep.”
“In this weather?” says Ogawa, alarmed. “He’ll die of hypothermia.”
“Kabaji,” says Atobe. Kabaji grunts and shuffles out.
“I’ll come with you,” Yuushi says, surprising himself. This triggers a general getting-to of feet and pulling-on of outerwear, Shishido grumbling meanwhile that he should’ve just shut up while he was ahead.
In the end it’s Kabaji who finds Akutagawa after all, in what would have been a logical spot to look if they didn’t take it for a snowbank and walk past twice: a curved stone bench backing onto the mulched peony beds, with a nice angled view of the tennis court. The third time around Kabaji spots a bit of orange amid the white, reaches down, grabs, and shakes. A heap of snow slides off onto the ground.
Akutagawa doesn’t even stir. He’s pale, but for spots of colour in his cheeks.
“Is he breathing?” says Ogawa. “Oh, man. Is he breathing?”
“Of course he’s breathing,” Atobe says impatiently, though his voice betrays a note of uncertainty. “Look at him, he’s smiling. Akutagawa! Oi, Jirou, wake up!” No response. “Kabaji, carry him inside.”
“I bet it’s hypothermia,” Ogawa says gloomily. “Did you see that? This much snow. I bet he’ll have to have toes amputated. Or fingers. He may never play tennis again.”
“I hope he wakes up,” says Taki.
“Of course he’ll wake up,” says Shishido. “It probably didn't even affect him. Sent him into hibernation, more likely.”
“I hope he wakes up before spring.”
“Is it always like this?” Gakuto says to Yuushi later, when they’ve had dinner and are lying on the carpet of the second-best parlour. Rather, Yuushi is lying on the carpet; Gakuto is hanging impossibly upside down from an overstuffed armchair, with his ankles resting over the back and his arms hooked under his knees. He’s eating miniature marshmallows out of a bag. The position looks terrible for his digestion, but Yuushi isn't inclined to point it out.
“This.” Gakuto’s gesture encompasses the house and all its current occupants. “Season's best wishes to you from His Royal Highness Prince Atobe, and all his wacky friends.”
“Saa...” Yuushi stares up at Atobe’s second-best Christmas tree: slowly spinning glass ornaments, tinsel trembling minutely in the warm air rising from the fire. He tries half-shutting his eyes. The vision loses focus, becomes a swim of silver and blue and gold smudges. Fairy lights. “...We’re not friends, you know. It’s just whomever Atobe finds interesting at the moment.”
“Are you serious?” says Gakuto. “You’ve known each other for how long, since nursery school?”
“That sort of thing doesn’t matter to Atobe.”
Gakuto considers this. He pops a marshmallow into his mouth, chews carefully.
“You know,” he says, “People change. I’m just saying.”
Yuushi wakes the next morning to a thumping on his window. He twitches back the heavy velvet curtain: the sunlight glaring off snow is blinding, and it takes his eyes a moment to adjust.
Atobe says something muffled. Yuushi swings his legs over the edge of the four-poster and cranks the windowpane open a notch. Cold air streams into the room.
“You’re playing me this morning,” says Atobe. He’s already turning, tennis shoes crunching over the sheen of ice on the shared balcony that runs the length of the guest bedroom wing. “See you downstairs in fifteen minutes.”
Yuushi takes his time, knowing what’s coming up. He’s also convinced that the tennis court is going to be iced up, but the surface is perfectly clear and dry.
“I had it cleaned,” Atobe says. He doesn’t specify how. “Do you want first serve?”
“Atobe,” Yuushi says, “We haven’t had breakfast yet.”
“Take off those glasses of yours,” Atobe says, and lobs him the ball.
Fine, Yuushi thinks. If that's what you need to prove – fine. Gakuto sorted this out and so can you. He takes off his glasses and tucks them in his pocket. Then he bounces the ball – once, twice – and serves.
Atobe goes immediately on the offense. By now Yuushi is familiar with this side of him: a gravitational well bending every trajectory to its will. Like a white star, blazing across the vast expanse of the court and net. Arguably it's a truer vision of Atobe than most are privy to, but Yuushi doesn't speculate. He doesn't think at all. Atobe can look into his heart and through his mind, and Yuushi will give him no intent to read and no action to pinpoint.
If he thought he might become angry, or intimidated. But he knows the source of his strength: Yuushi is contained within himself, is never more or less than himself, always.
He also knows to wait for the smash.
Yuushi has theorized, and practiced too – but not in public, and not against Atobe. It's a matter of pride, but also of curiosity. He wants to know if Atobe can be taken off guard. And now, suddenly, with Atobe forcing him back, working to box him in, he wants to know how far he himself can go. If he can execute.
The setup comes at deuce, in the second game, at the end of a hard volley. Yuushi hears – feels – the cross-court smash more than he sees it, and his action bypasses any conscious intent to deploy the planned counter: by reflex he is at midcourt, by reflex he turns and his racquet is there and the ball deflects. The bone-jarring force transmogrified into spin, into lob. And by reflex the graceful, infuriating line is drawn in his mind, as if traced by compass across the winter sky.
Herein lies the difference between theory and practice: in practice, he can't see the shot land on Atobe's baseline. He's in no position to look.
Yuushi feels his own lips curve. He picks himself up and gets back into stance for the next point. He doesn't say anything to Atobe; it would be a waste of oxygen.
The rest is close: feint and step and shot and counter. Yuushi fakes drop shots, aims drives at Atobe's feet, fails as often as not. He counters with the lob several more times. They get to 3-4, 5-4, 6-5. Fifteen-all, thirty-fifteen, thirty-all, forty-thirty.
Then Atobe reaches for another overhead smash, and there is, in his eyes, for the briefest of instants—
The impact is like a sledgehammer blow, a numbing shock that runs up Yuushi's arm to the shoulder. He stares, stunned, as the ball returns itself across the net. It doesn't deflect; the counterspin doesn't so much as register. It feels like he has nothing to do with its change of vector.
It is only when the second smash whistles past that he realizes he's dropped his racket.
Well, he thinks. He clenches his hand, experimentally; the muscles are still twitching with aftershock.
That's one kind of proof.
Atobe is out of breath, his head turned away. Yuushi watches the shuddering rise of his chest, the careless angle at which the racket dangles from his hand, until Atobe lifts his chin again and hauteur is restored to his stance. When their eyes meet Yuushi understands suddenly that Atobe has been somewhere else, far away, and that Yuushi was the one who sent him there.
“You’ve improved since you started playing Mukahi,” Atobe says. “But not enough.” Yuushi makes a choking sound that turns into coughing, because he doesn’t have his wind back either.
“Atobe,” he says when he can speak again.
“You’re better at tennis than I am.”
“That,” says Atobe, “is exactly what’s wrong with you.” Yuushi sighs.
“I’m stating a fact. Do you intend to make me say it twice, by any chance? Trying to pick a fight?”
“You’re a genius player. Enough to fill Hyoutei’s singles two slot.”
“You’d have to beat me for the top spot.”
“Maybe I’m not that invested in trying to beat you,” Yuushi says. “Maybe that's not why I'm here. Keigo, has it ever occurred to you just to take it easy?"
The question is largely rhetorical. He doesn't expect silence as an answer.
"We're better than they are," Atobe says. It's oddly matter of fact, despite the arrogance of the words. The unreadable look is back in his eyes. "Me, you, Akutagawa, Shishido. Even Taki or Mukahi – any of us could demolish the sorry lot Hyoutei fielded this year. Kabaji could, and he's not in junior high yet."
"Well," says Yuushi, "that's... true."
"We should be in competition. Coach knows it. We could win Nationals – too late this year, but next year for certain."
They've both walked up to the net, along the sideline. Atobe curves his fingers over the top of the netting; the gesture is delicate, entirely deliberate. Yuushi realizes suddenly that Atobe, too, has to look up to meet his eyes.
"It's there for the taking," Atobe says. "Why shouldn't we take it? Why shouldn't we—" He reaches out, and up, and his hand closes in front of Yuushi's face. The gesture is that of a knight at joust, lifting a favour from a lady's hand as she leans from the stands. A flower or a ribbon. "We'd have to make the effort, that's all. Don't tell me you're afraid of hard work?"
"You want to be the captain of Hyoutei's tennis team," Yuushi says, understanding the words as he does so. "Not just singles one. Captain."
"I am the Captain of Hyoutei's tennis team," Atobe says. There's no emphasis on the capital C, but it is, somehow, irrefutably There. "The regulars asked me. Begged, actually."
"The only question for me is whether I'm in."
"I see," Yuushi says, and he finally does. "Do you know, this is the first time I've heard you use a first person plural pronoun?"
"I have no idea what you mean," says Atobe. His voice has reverted to its usual note of unruffled disdain, and something wells up in Yuushi that – with no little alarm – he identifies as affection. There's a moment of silence as they gaze at each other, and Atobe's eyes narrow.
"So are you—" he begins, at the same time as Yuushi says, "Yes, of course."
Yuushi is the first to smile.
"I'd rather have the doubles one slot with Gakuto, though," he says. He retrieves his glasses from his breast pocket, unfolds them, and puts them on. To his consternation they begin steaming up immediately. "Now can we go in for breakfast?"