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The Rules Saga

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     Oshitari Yuushi was having an interesting day. And not entirely because of the goodwill games against these chosen Americans. There were reasons that people stuck with their own teams on their own schools, and one of those reasons was so that you wouldn't have to hear your competitors' commentary on your actual teammates. He had to grant Echizen's estimation of his captain; 'that freaking diva' was an accurate way to refer to Atobe under most circumstances, especially when he was standing on a tennis court. However, he most certainly did not need to hear Fuji Syuusuke leaning over to tease the brat by saying, "But he is attractive..."
     "And he knows it," had been Echizen's reply. It was true, of course. But that didn't mean he wanted to hear about it from Seigaku.
     He was still wrapping his brain around the idea when Atobe stepped off the court, toweling his hair dry with that same stupid smirk as always on his face. It was just too tempting to resist mentioning. "Apparently," Oshitari said as he tracked the Seigaku freshman walking away, "Echizen Ryoma thinks you're attractive."
     He had expected perhaps a laugh, some friendly commentary about how ridiculous it was. Certainly he had not expected Atobe to stop, blink, and ask, "Really?" Oshitari raised a disbelieving eyebrow as his captain did his best impression of subtlety, sidestepping about two feet and turning his head practically ninety degrees to get a better look at Echizen patronizing a soda machine. Atobe was skilled in many things, but subtlety was not among them.
     "Oi, Atobe. Are you seriously checking out a twelve-year-old's ass?" Keeping the incredulous tone out of his voice was a bit too much effort for too little worth.
     "...No."
     He rolled his eyes and started walking away with a wave. "Okay. I'm going over here -- where the not-pedophiles live -- if you want to visit."
     Atobe pointed a finger at him without looking away from the Ponta-swilling brat. "Heliophile," he said decisively.
     "Pervert," Oshitari replied. "And no, that's not actually heliophilia."
     At last his captain turned around. With that broad smile, however, there was no way this was going to end well. "You're right. Because I'm only fourteen myself. A mere two years his senior."
     "Atobe..." He paused, practically cringing. "Atobe, I want you to divide your age in half."
     With a confused expression, he gave the answer. "...Seven."
     Oshitari crossed his arms, giving his teammate an almost stern look. It was rare that he of all people had to play the voice of reason or decency, but he knew perfectly well that Atobe was prone to taking his whims to ridiculous extremes if he was allowed to think for himself. "Now add seven to that."
     "...Fourteen." Atobe shrugged, confusion mounting. "I'm not sure I see where you're going with this."
     "Fourteen..." he said, slowly so that Atobe would understand, "is the age of the youngest person you could date without being a pervert. So drop it, he's too young for you."
     He left his friend to ponder that while he grabbed he racket and waited for the announcers to call the next round. Theoretically, none of them knew who would be playing until the names were called... Unlike most of the team (apparently) he'd taken a look at the lineup and done the math... he was going to be up next, probably with Kikumaru from Seigaku. The rest of them were singles players. Wouldn't that piss off Gakuto...

~//~

     "So what you're saying," Atobe said, ambushing him on his way out of the showers after the match, "is that I have to wait three years."
     Oshitari blinked. Was there some reason this couldn't wait until he'd found clothes more substantial than a towel? "Excuse me?"
     "Echizen. He's twelve now, but when I'm seventeen, he'll be fifteen... and seventeen divided by two plus seven is fifteen and a half, and the half doesn't count..." Atobe paused, looking with some disdain at the shock on Oshitari's face. "I did my math properly. When he's fifteen, there's no problem."
     "Fifteen and a half."
     "That's not a real age!"
     He scowled at his captain, heading for his locker with no more thought for the subject. "I'm not having this conversation, Atobe. I know you, and you're not going to stick to some half-assed scheme to date Echizen Ryoma three years from now."
     "Care to wager on that?" He turned slowly to look at the ever more infuriating Atobe, standing in the corner full of baseless confidence.
     This wasn't something to wager on. Even if Oshitari was the type to make bets, and he never did (though he occasionally booked them for a reasonable fee), he certainly wasn't going to make a bet about Echizen Ryoma or his willingness to date Atobe Keigo. The image was... all right, less ridiculous than he would have expected... but still ridiculous. "No."
     True to form, Atobe wasn't actually listening to his answer. "If Echizen Ryoma agrees to be my special someone in three years time, you'll shave off all that hair. And I will perform one humiliating act of your choice if he won't be mine by the time of his sixteenth birthday."
     "How about if he dates you, I only make fun of you for a month instead of your whole damn life?" he shot back.
     When Atobe smiled like that, Oshitari knew there was trouble. More trouble than usual. "Done," he said, and started for the door.
     He straightened up and put on his glasses... they didn't actually help him see better, but the action always had such an impact on... well, on Gakuto. Most others didn't particularly care. "Are you serious?" Atobe didn't seem to have heard, but he was in the middle of a dramatic exit and even if he had heard Oshitari doubted his captain would have let that affect the situation. "Someone is very confused..." he muttered to himself, hoping that the person who would come to his senses first was Atobe. But that wasn't very likely. It was possible he should warn Echizen... but there was no way in hell the brat would listen. Those two had that much in common.

Chapter Text

     He'd known something was up when he'd heard Atobe exclaiming at some staff person that they should cancel his flights and hotel reservations... It seemed he'd been planning to spend his winter break in New York this year, but those plans had been suddenly canceled. Then came the trickle of rumor from here and there... mostly from Kikumaru calling everyone in his contact list... that Echizen Ryoma had decided to take a break from the professional circuit to finish school. At Seigaku. He'd be re-entering the middle school division during the semester break and moving up to high school with the rest of his class in spring, and the captain of the Hyoutei Tennis Club hadn't stopped grinning like a damn fool in weeks. It pricked at his memory, but Oshitari had needed at least three days to put all the facts together and recall the passing conversation years ago that he'd been at such pains to forget. Once he did remember, everything almost made sense... probably for the first and last time, where Atobe was concerned. And Oshitari had barely stopped laughing since he'd put two and two together and gotten five, the way Atobe always seemed to do.
     He was really going to try it, and he'd really waited this whole time. When Echizen turned fifteen, he was going to find himself the object of Atobe's attentions whether he liked it or not.
     And, Oshitari reflected as he gathered with the rest of the team in the bleachers facing the stage erected in the gymnasium... Atobe was apparently not wasting any time. He never would have figured the man to have even kept in mind all these years one stupid bet they'd made when they were fourteen, let alone have been keeping track of the brat and making elaborate plans that would need changing at the last minute to account for Echizen's whims. But that was Atobe for you.
     The entire club, from the regulars to the scores of reserve players to the new recruits who could barely pick up balls without dropping them, had been assembled to hear directions from their fearless, and mostly senseless, leader. While the cold winds of winter were in force outside, they were all comfortably warmed by the captain's unending supply of hot air, accompanied by the usual fanfare provided by the school marching band. "The welcome party will, by happy coincidence, be timed perfectly to coincide with Echizen's fifteenth birthday," Atobe concluded. "You should assemble at my villa on December 24th at no later than 5 o'clock in the afternoon."
     Each of them had an engraved invitation bearing the title Echizen Ryoma's Welcome Home and Birthday Celebration Extravaganza, with such details as the place, time, and events listed. Considering that Echizen had been born in the States and raised there most of his life, Oshitari supposed he could quibble with the 'Home' in the title, but there wasn't much point. There was, naturally, no request to Reply, If You Please to inform Atobe whether or not you could -- or would -- attend. It was a given that you didn't ditch Atobe's parties, and not just because he said so.
     Which didn't mean his scheduling was universally convenient. Shishido had raised his hand and took Atobe's glance in his direction as permission to speak.
     "Atobe. That's Christmas Eve." He glanced in Ootori's direction, where the new high school freshman was biting his lip. Well, that was the unmistakable look of two people planning on a private evening. "Come on."
     "See that Seigaku gets these," Atobe replied, descending from the stage and handing Shishido a stack of invitations in hand-addressed envelopes. "The guest of honor has said that he wishes no presents for himself, but I am certain he will not feel slighted if you wish to exchange presents with a significant other." Shishido pulled his hat from his head, raking his hands through his hair as Ootori turned bright red. God, I'm glad Gakuto's not the romantic type... Oshitari thought, shaking his head. It made life so much simpler, really. His Christmas Eve plans were basically unaffected.
     The captain, meanwhile, had moved on to where Jirou was taking a powernap on the bleachers using his invitation as a pillow. "Jirou!" he yelled, and the snores broke off as his classmate squinted open his eyes. The hand he raised to block the lights overhead from getting in his eyes soon contained a stack of envelopes, and Jirou began studying them quizzically as if he were unaware that Atobe had just handed them to him.
     "Marui?" the sleeping beauty read off the envelope, suddenly sounding awake.
     "Take those to Rikkai Dai and distrubute them," Atobe instructed before walking to the next regular.
     Jirou scratched his head. "What are they?" he asked, but since the captain had already moved on to give a packet of invitations and a destination to the next regular, he had to get the answer from Gakuto. Oshitari made a mental note to remind his partner to take to Yamabuki the stack of invitations he'd set aside and probably forgotten, since this party was going to be one hell of a good time. No one should be left out.
     All the way down the line, Oshitari could hear the growing murmurs speculating on the mystery of Atobe's motives, or dismissing the notion as another of their captain's overblown whims. Ootori thought it was a wonderfully sweet gesture that they should support with all their hearts (of course) and they could just have Christmas the next day, Shishido was proclaiming that they should leave the kid be since he probably didn't want the whole damn country at his birthday party, Kabaji was keeping his two cents to himself (possibly trying to figure out how he'd track down all the students whose middle schools had had no elevator system to high school), Taki was simply wondering why he had to go to St. Rudolph, and Hiyoshi was rather vocally planning to stay home and read a book. Higa Chuu, in his opinion, could go rot. And so could Echizen, and so could Atobe.
     As of yet, the man himself had made no direct replies. When Oshitari's turn came at last, he could see immediately that all the names were students at Shitenhouji and cut Atobe off before he could say where to take them.
     "Oi, Atobe." The captain raised an eyebrow and paused with his hands on his hips. Oshitari pushed his glasses up on his nose to stall for perfect timing before he continued.
     Soon, the club noticed that Atobe had paused and given his direct attention to someone, finally. He had silence then, not just from Atobe but from the entire assembly.
     Little did they know that two people in this room had any clue what this was really about. "Atobe. What if he's straight?"
     The concept had clearly never occurred to him. There was a look of pure confusion on his friend's face whose equal he had rarely seen. Well, up until today. Equivalent levels of confusion were slowly mounting in the entire crowd as they looked up from the cardstock in their hands to watch the staring match. Jirou was the only one who hadn't heard, still studying the invitation as he wandered away from the meeting. Their perplexity only made sense, as Oshitari could well understand how his question could seem off-topic to those who weren't yet privy. Atobe, however, had less excuse; the kid had never shown an interest in anyone, male or female, and there was no reason to assume you knew his preferences. And yet, there was Atobe, examining Oshitari as if he'd suddenly started spouting French or something instead of talking reason.
     Then Atobe threw his head back and started laughing like a maniac. Even Jirou stopped and turned around at the clamor. It would seem the concept of a straight tennis player had been heard, had been considered, and had been found quite funny. The response was less than reassuring. It wasn't that funny, after all. Sengoku was straight. That Momoshiro kid had a girlfriend. Shit, after Saeki moved to Seigaku for high school, he started dating every girl in the Tennis Team Fanclub on his gay-or-taken teammates' behalf. Every freaking one. But, clapping his hand on Oshitari's shoulder, Atobe turned and walked back to the front of the assembly, laughter still echoing from the gym rafters. The expressions of the club members around him were slowly changing from confusion to fear.
     "You're shitting me," he heard Shishido mutter, studying the invitation in his hands anew. "Since when does he have a thing for Echizen?"
     "Well, they're both brats," Gakuto replied at full volume, rolling his eyes and turning around to take a seat on the stage. He fixed an accusing glare on Oshitari, as if to say, 'You been holding out on me, Yuushi?'
     He'd handle that accusation later. It wasn't so much a secret as as something that hadn't ever come up again, not in a single conversation they'd had in two and a half years. Hell, if he'd thought Atobe was going to follow through, he'd have told everyone. Repeatedly. At least Atobe could depend on every single regular coming to see the show, if nothing else. With a dramatic turn as he reached the microphone again, their captain lifted the invitation he'd kept for himself into the air. "Prepare to be awed by the sincerity of my welcome. Dismissed!"
     The flow of the crowd was pushing away, leaving Atobe in a pose of deep consideration on the raised platform. Oshitari was headed the opposite direction from the waves of people, towards the lunatic, because intentionally or not this was still partially his fault. Mostly these proceedings were the result of Atobe being Atobe, but it was partially his fault. "Atobe," he called out, trying to get the captain's attention. Asking if he was actually planning to do this would be pointless, of course. Clearly, he was. It would be even more pointless to question Atobe's motives, since he'd never give an intelligible answer if he gave one at all. "Atobe!" The crowd had mostly dispersed, leaving just the two of them on the stage and Kabaji waiting on the floor below. He got no response to his addresses, as the captain was still trapped in his reverie. A solid tap to the shoulder got his attention, of course.
     "Yes?" Atobe replied.
     Oshitari sighed and shook his head. Never once had he seen this man give due credit to practical concerns. "Seriously, Atobe. Do you even know if the kid is gay? He could like girls. It's been known to happen." He continued talking before Atobe could continue to find the concept hilarious. "Being amused isn't actually an answer. If you're going to try to date him, you should at least know if you're the right sex."
     "Oshitari, my friend..." Twin spotlights suddenly turned on with a loud snap, illuminating the spot where they were standing as Atobe stepped back and gestured to the ceiling. "That which interests Echizen Ryoma is no mere matter of the boundary between two sexes. To draw his focused eye from the heat of a match and make him acknowledge that here... here is a true companion, a kindred soul... This, which no ordinary man can do... this, which no ordinary woman can do... this is something only I, Atobe Keigo, can hope to accomplish."
     A reply was difficult to find. Well, he had known who he was dealing with, so in retrospect the answer was not unusual, but some days Oshitari found that he'd woken up without remembering exactly how abnormal his teammate was. "And you know this how?" With a frustrated sigh, he pulled out his cellphone. "I'm calling Kikumaru."
     To his relief, the stark and uncomfortably hot light of the spots vanished when Atobe dropped his arms, replaced by the normal gym lights. He had the light crew as well trained as the band. Setting his phone on speaker, he dialed the Seigaku doubles player and leveled a stern gaze at his unconcerned but oh-so-indulgent captain. "Ya-hoh. Kikumaru here."
     "Kikumaru-san. This is Oshitari, from Hyoutei. Tell me," he went on without pausing, "is Echizen gay or straight?"
     There was a moment of silence ringing through the Hyoutei gymnasium as he held the phone between himself and Atobe. "...Excuse me?"
     "Is Echizen gay or straight? It's very important."
     "Why?" the Seigaku student asked with slightly more suspicion in his tone than Oshitari felt was justified, even by him asking this.
     "Atobe's throwing him a birthday party, and I wanted to order a stripper," he replied, "in case things get boring. But I don't know what kind to ask for."
     "Ah..." Atobe's expression was priceless, a mixture of aghast and amused. He could only imagine what Kikumaru must look like. This only had a slim chance of dissuading Atobe, even if the answer was 'straight', but he hadn't yet thought of another tactic. At least he had a year to do it. "You realize he's just turning fifteen, right?" Kikumaru asked.
     "Humor me." Oshitari watched as Atobe crossed his arms in front of his chest, all confidence intact. "Would he prefer a man or a woman?"
     "Umm, O-chibi likes... tennis." A broad smile spread across his friend's face at the words. There was a sinking feeling in Oshitari's gut that Kikumaru could not have possibly picked a worse answer. "I've... gotta go. See you 'round." The line cut off, and Oshitari was left without an ally, facing an Atobe who looked as if he'd already won.
     Atobe's pointed finger came within a centimeter of the tip of Oshitari's nose. "This is destiny," his captain declared, turning and calling for Kabaji with a snap as he walked away.
     He kept his eyes on the captain's back until the door closed behind him, then looked down at the pitiful, traitorous cell phone in his hand. Either I spend the next year trying to convince Atobe not to do something he's decided to do, Oshitari thought to himself, Or I can sit back and watch him make an ass of himself. I mean, would it bother Echizen to have Atobe after him? Would he even notice?
     Do I care?
     "Screw it," Oshitari said aloud, to no one in particular. He had better ways to spend his year than worrying over nothing.

Chapter Text

     He was just pulling his racket bag out into the main room when he heard the knock on the door, almost at the exact second the clock hit 2 PM. Pretty damn punctual for a tennis diva. But then, the guy hadn't wasted any time in asking for a match, either. Echizen had gotten a couple of requests since he'd gotten back to the country, but Atobe was the first - by almost two hours. Had a weird way of putting it though, Ryoma recalled as he walked towards his front door. If you've no other engagement this Sunday, he'd said right after they'd finished cutting the cake at that "birthday party", may I ask the favor of your company for the afternoon?
     Whatever happened to, "Want to play sometime?" It was just tennis. Nobody else had trouble with that.
     It was Atobe when he opened the door, as expected. He was grinning like an idiot, but that was nothing new. The only weird thing was the big green package with the bigger green bow. "Hey," Echizen said, stepping back from the door. He just needed to put out food for Karupin and he'd be ready to go. "Come on in." Leaving Atobe to walk through the door on his own (and he could shut it, too, from the sound), Echizen headed into the kitchen.
     It was unusual, but the Hyoutei player had left his entourage behind and come on his own. Usually Kabaji was around, even if he didn't have everybody in his fan club at his heels. He almost asked how Atobe had ditched them - people couldn't leave him alone. He had some weird charisma, like Echizen had told Momo-sempai back in his first year, after sempai wondered out loud why a stuck-up prick like Atobe had a fan club like that.
     Well, he'd tried to say "charisma" anyway.
     Apparently, the word he'd picked had actually meant "sex appeal".
     Fuji-sempai and Eiji-sempai had been on his back for that little slip-up til he went back to America. Wasn't his fault that he got raised speaking mostly English instead of Japanese, and that his old man was a freak. Echizen'd had to knock him over the head when he got home for being a dirty pervert and teaching him strange words.
     The floor creaked as Atobe walked around to have a look at the place. It was just two rooms, both six tatami mats in size --though the kitchen area had a linoleum floor-- but it was more than enough for him and Karupin. "What a charming living space!" he heard his guest exclaim. Didn't even sound sarcastic, even though he'd seen what passed for 'small' and 'modest' in the Hyoutei student's view. Seriously... who thought sofas with leopard-print throws were necessary for a locker room? He spooned cat food from the can into the dish, trying not to get any sauce on the cat's nose. After scratching behind Karupin's ears for a sec - not quite managing to distract him from his lunch - Echizen walked out of the kitchen, pushing his hair out of his eyes and watching Atobe stand around like a dork taking in his surroundings. "I must compliment you on the efficiency of your unpacking. You've only been in Japan a few weeks, correct? To think you're almost finished..."
     Echizen shrugged. "Didn't have much to unpack." He'd been traveling from tournament to tournament with whatever he could fit in a suitcase and his carry-on so long, he'd gotten used to having less stuff around. Had to buy a futon and dishes, though. He knelt down next to his tennis bag to double check that he had all his stuff, and was just zipping up the outer pocket when he noticed the big green thing - which Atobe was now holding out to him - out of the corner of his eye.
     It looked like a log wrapped in tissue paper. With a giant bow.
     "I have brought you a gift," Atobe declared.
     Echizen stood up and looked his guest in the eye. Why Atobe would have brought him a log was unclear, but he sure looked proud of it. "What for?" he asked, taking the package. When he turned it over in his hands, there was no question. Definitely looked like a log wrapped in tissue paper. But it probably wasn't a birthday log, or Atobe would have given it to him two days ago whether Echizen wanted birthday presents or not.
     "It is customary to congratulate a friend on taking a new residence, is it not?" Atobe pulled his hands back to his hips and raised an eyebrow at him, shifting from mild confusion back to his normal posturing. "More importantly, I have patiently waited nearly three years for this day. It's only proper to commemorate the dawning of our too-long delayed union. " Echizen raised his eyes from the package to look at the giver, trying to decide if he really meant that the way it sounded. "Accept this small token of my regard in anticipation of our brilliant future together."
     "Ah... thanks," Echizen replied, shaking his head and looking back down at the... log-thing. Atobe said weird shit sometimes. It was usually better not to ask questions.
     The bow slid right off, and he pulled at a section of the tissue paper. As it ripped, Echizen examined the material underneath, and scratched his neck in confusion.
     Bark. And a vague oak-y smell.
     It really was a log. What else was shaped like a log, smelled like a log, and had bark like a log?
     Atobe had apparently actually seen fit to give him a foot-long piece of tree as a "token of his regard," whatever that meant. His old man probably would have made a joke about 'wood' if he were here, but Atobe wasn't really that... crass. Crazy, sure, but not crass. And as weird as the guy was, he usually had a reason for doing the things he did. There just wasn't an obvious reason for giving a log as a housewarming present... or any kind of present. Maybe, if he had a fireplace, it could be literal, but who had a fireplace in a tiny apartment?
     It was also pretty light for a piece of wood that size. Lifting it up with one hand was like nothing, which meant it had to be hollow. Not really any good for a fire. He tore off the rest of the tissue paper, tossing it into the burnable trash bin, and sure enough there was no more than a centimeter of actual wood inside the layer of bark.
     So, an empty log.
     He spun it around in his hands, stopping to look at the thing sticking out of the side. There was a hole in the wood, just about in the middle of the log, not much bigger than a tennis ball, and sitting halfway out the hole was a lifesize model of a mouse. Echizen blinked once, pulling on it. Some kind of elastic was keeping it anchored in place, and it wouldn't move more than a couple centimeters. As soon as he let go it snapped back into place. Chuckling once, he lifted up the log to look through the hole in the end.
     Sure enough, just about the right size for Karupin to crawl through without getting stuck.
     It was a cat toy log.
     Echizen smiled quickly up at his guest, saying "Thanks," with a laugh. He had to admit, that was pretty cool as logs went. "How'd you know I've got a cat?" he asked. It wasn't like he took pictures around and made everyone look at them all the time.
     Leaving the triumphant pose he'd struck to come a step closer, Atobe said, "Simple," and reached out his hand for Echizen's shoulder. He pinched something off the collar, bringing it up where Echizen could see it: a few stray hairs that had stuck to his shirt. "Cat," his guest said in a completely matter-of-fact tone.
     "Oh yeah..." Echizen replied, taking a swipe at his shoulder. He didn't see any more fur, but you could never really get it all gone. Dead giveaway, he supposed. Turning away to face the kitchen where Karupin was still eating, Echizen kneeled down and started scratching at the tatami mat. The cat's ears pricked up at the sound, but he didn't leave his foodbowl. "Oi, Karupin..." Echizen called, scratching again and rolling the log on the floor. That got his attention. He cocked his head at the log, then trotted over to take a look. After crouching down to examine it more closely, he nudged Echizen's hand forcefully, trying to get him to drop it. When he pulled the toy away instead, the cat reached up after it, standing on his hind legs and trying to lay paws on the bark somewhat ineffectually. He only taunted Karupin for a second, though, and dropped it down again for the cat to catch.
     Karupin pounced on the toy, rolling onto his back with it in his paws, and gnawed on one end while scratching his hind claws on the surface like a maniac. Sitting by him with a laugh, Echizen scratched his underbelly. The cat slowed his scratching just for a second to give him a questioning look before returning to subduing the log.
     "Heh," he laughed, then turned to Atobe with an amused grin. "I think he likes it."
     "Well, the Spotted Himalayan is well known for a love of active play," his guest replied in a matter-of-fact tone, likewise taking a seat.
     Echizen squinted at the Hyoutei player. "You knew what kind of cat I have?" That was a bit much from hair on his collar.
     Atobe just scoffed and held out a few fingers to Karupin to get the cat's attention. "Please," he said, dismissing the question entirely and directing his focus toward the cat who was now inspecting him as well. "Ah. Your name was Karupin, correct? A pleasure to meet you - I'm Atobe Keigo."
     "Mrrow!" the cat replied, propping his paws up on Atobe's knee.
     "Well, then, I look forward to making your aquaintaince," Atobe said, scratching Karupin behind the ears. "I hope you don't mind that I'll be borrowing your master for the afternoon."
     After climbing completely into Atobe's lap, Karupin started pushing forcefully on his shoulder until the tennis player made a space under his arm where the cat could sit and make playful jabs at Atobe's nose. Way more friendly than he'd remembered Karupin being with anybody but him and maybe Kaidou-sempai.
     "What'd you do? Roll in catnip?" Echizen asked, standing up and stretching his legs.
     Atobe laughed and shifted his arm to help Karupin stay upright while he batted at a flip in the Hyoutei player's hair. "Certainly not. He must be reacting to my innate charm."
     Echizen stood up, shaking his head in vague amusement. It was freaking weird to see Atobe of all people sitting on his floor, playing with his cat. Picking up his tennis bag, he meandered over to the door with one eye on Hyoutei's captain. Innate charm. Tsch. It was that same weird-ass charisma, that was all. Probably wasn't so surprising animals liked him.
     "Well," his visitor continued, still looking at the cat, who had decided he'd had enough of staying in one spot and dragged the log off to a corner. "I believe your companion and I have established a rapport." Atobe turned and stood with a grin. "It reassures me to no end that he and I will be great friends, as we will be seeing quite a bit of each other. Now..." He strode over to the door and picked up the bag he'd left there, stepping into his shoes. "Are you prepared for our date?"
     Taking a moment to study his guest's expectant expression, which didn't look nearly as sarcastic as he thought it should under the circumstances, Echizen tugged his shoelaces taut on his sneakers and began to tie them. "Match," he replied firmly, not batting an eyelash.
     Atobe scoffed and countered his reply. "Date."
     He adjusted his shoulder strap as he stood and opened the door, examining the Hyoutei player for a sign that he was joking. Because that had to be some kind of a joke. Unfortunately, he looked the same way he always did. Echizen shrugged and walked out, muttering, "It's not, though."
     To which Atobe replied with a boisterous laugh. He locked the door after they both walked out and started down the steps after the other player. "There is no need to play coy, Echizen," his visitor called out, probably just a little too loud. "Though your affections have been well concealed, it is not so easy to keep secrets from me. I have seen through to your soul, and merely return in kind."
     He passed Atobe and his meaningful looks as he cornered the bottom of the staircase. Intuition told him the black stretched limo parked at the curb was how Atobe had gotten here, and how the diva was probably planning to get to the court. "Whatever," Echizen tossed off, reaching for the handle on the car door.
     Atobe beat him to it. "Your modesty is charming and speaks highly of your sense of decorum, but I assure you there is no need." He looked over the opened door at Hyoutei's captain. It was possible his visitor had fallen and hit his head earlier, but it didn't look like he had a concussion. He was just crazy. But Echizen already knew that. "When two fates are intertwined as ours shall be," the man continued, "there is no impropriety in a clear acknowledgment."
     What was clear was that the guy thought he had a reason to expect Echizen to acknowledge something. Maybe Atobe had spiked his own punch with the wrong thing at that party, because as far as he could recall, he didn't have any particular concealed feelings, affectionate or otherwise. He just wanted a match.
     "Oh?" He noted Atobe's half-triumphant grin, and smirked. "We are playing tennis, right?" Echizen could see a subtle trace of confusion in the other player's face before he sat down and the door closed behind him. Hopefully, they wouldn't be talking about fate all day... but at least Atobe had showed up with a log instead of flowers.

~//~

     Echizen was sprawled on the cool floor of the indoor tennis courts where Atobe had brought them, eyes closed and lips curled in a barely perceptible smile. A match like that, fought down to the last tie-break, was at once draining and elating, leaving you with no feeling inside but a semi-conscious ecstasy, no memory of whether you'd won or lost, and less care to check. Atobe was definitely a good game, whatever else he claimed to be.
     "I hope you haven't had enough," he heard Atobe's voice saying. He cracked one eyelid, just enough to see the tennis diva himself bringing his hands to his hips, standing above Echizen and looking down.
     The slight curve of Echizen's lips broke into a laughing grin. "Nowhere close," he replied. The young man opened his eyes and sat up slowly, stretching his arms over his head. "Why? You wanna go again?"
     Atobe laughed. The way he laughed after a match was different from the way he laughed any other time - more natural, less sane. There might be hope for him yet. "No one else on this Earth could hope to be my match, Echizen... point for point, parry and riposte, in quite the same manner as you." That was probably supposed to be a compliment. He still hadn't laid off the whole dating thing, and wasn't acting like he planned to. Arching an eyebrow in momentary silence at Echizen's visible disbelief, Atobe reached down to take his outstretched hand and pull him to his feet. "Next week, same time?"
     "You're on." A match was a match, and a good match was worth Atobe's delusions. After bending over to pick up his racket and taking his bag from the sideline, he looked quickly over the room for a vending machine. There had to be one. " 'M thirsty..." he muttered to himself, starting to walk toward the one he saw next to the locker rooms.
     "Well," Atobe began, strolling by his side. "I can certainly arrange for drinks on our way to supper. Would you care for juice? Coffee perhaps?"
     Echizen just ignored him, reaching for 120 yen from his pocket to feed into the machine for his soda.
     "What do you think you're doing?" Atobe cut off his rambling to ask, his face a mixture of confusion and offense.
     The Seigaku player pointed at the purple bottle that was always first in line in any vending machine. "Ponta," Echizen said simply, reaching out his hand toward the coin slot.
     Atobe batted his hand away from the machine and fed it a few coins from his own pocket. "Honestly..." he muttered, reaching down for the bottle and handing it over.
     "I've got the money..." Echizen informed him.
     "And you shall keep it," Atobe replied, crossing his arms with an eyebrow raised. "You are my date."
     "I'm not, though." Shrugging, Echizen twisted the top off the soda bottle and took a long swallow, peeking half-sideways at the way Atobe kept making eyes at him. Even when he brought the bottle down and looked back, Hyoutei's captain just kept smirking. "You know I'm not a girl, right?"
     Eyebrow cocked, Atobe replied, "Naturally," dismissing the question by walking off toward the locker room.
     "Just checking."
     "So, dinner..." the stream of dialogue continued, Atobe stopping to hold open the locker room door. Echizen nodded his acknowledgment and walked through, drinking his Ponta and listening to the man talk. "What would you say to Thai, hm? I know a spectacular little bistro in Khon Kaen... I expect we could get a table there, and perhaps explore the..." Atobe noticed Echizen had stopped walking, narrowing his eyes in thought. "... what? What is it?"
     "Khon Kaen. That's in Thailand, isn't it?"
     The normally-assured expression on his opponent's face turned thoroughly confused. "Well... where else would you go for Thai?"
     He didn't crack up, but he couldn't help a little snicker, especially when Tachibana poked his head out from the next row of lockers looking like he couldn't believe his ears... next in line for the courts, probably, and getting a free dose of ridiculous. Atobe's back was to him... probably didn't even know Tachibana was there, but Echizen laughing was just making them both more confused.
     "Right," he replied, and walked over to the locker where he'd stashed his clothes on the way in. "Can't do Thai, then. Didn't bring my passport."
     "Not to worry. Arrangements are in place with all the local governments. Anyone in my personal jet is pre-cleared with customs."
     "Pass," Echizen said. He pulled his towel out of the locker and turned around to see Atobe looking like he'd just said something in Swahili. "I think I'll just go home - I'm beat. Thanks, though."
     His opponent blinked. "Ah. Well, naturally I can return you to your home." Atobe appeared to be deep in thought as they stripped and headed over to the row of showers.
     Echizen was the one to speak first when they got there, just before he got in, looking down at his towel, then up at the guy who had been inexplicably hitting on him all day. "Hey, uh..."
     Atobe raised an eyebrow, inviting Echizen to continue.
     "Could you turn that way?" he asked, pointing to the wall in the opposite direction of Atobe looking at him naked while delusional. "I don't think I'm that kind of guy."
     This time both Atobe's eyebrows went up. And as requested, he faced the wall. "Never let it be said I am not a gentleman," he said, and dropped back into considering silence before continuing at last. "Shall I make reservations for next week, then?"
     Echizen laughed to himself at the sight of Tachibana walking to the court, hand up by his eyes to block any chance of seeing him and Atobe. Probably wished he'd booked a different place. "Sure, I could eat," he replied, watching Tachibana stiffen in shock. "What the hell."
     "Wonderful! It's a date." And hearing Atobe's insistence, the former second-best player in Kyuushuu high-tailed out of the locker room like he'd never run before.
     Somehow, Echizen managed not to laugh, and answered his opponent's determined tone with just an amused sniff. "It's not, though."
     No way he was going to let Atobe win that one.

Chapter Text

     Tennis practice at Seigaku High School had been proceeding as it normally did on an off-season afternoon - running and accuracy drills in the warmth of the school gym while the January winds bit through the air outside. Nothing out of the ordinary at all, in fact, until "The Imperial March" from the Star Wars movies started echoing from the rafters. It was loud enough to make Ooishi jump, and nearly to stop his heart as well.
     Partially because it was coming from his bag.
     Ooishi turned back to face the assembled club, the word "Dismissed" frozen on his tongue. A few of the members were confused or surprised by the sound, but the regulars were mostly amused at his predicament.
     And it was a predicament... he left his phone on during practice precisely because, if there was an emergency, he needed to be available. Everyone he knew was either in a tennis club as well or was aware that practice shouldn't be interrupted lightly.
     Therefore, the fact that his phone was ringing ominous music right now meant two things:
     1) There actually was some kind of emergency, and
     2) Eiji had gone through his phone and changed his ring tones again.
     He turned to his doubles partner with a sigh, and watched Eiji bite his lip in concern. "That's Sanada," was the reply to his unasked question. "You should probably talk to him."
     Nodding in agreement, Ooishi dismissed the club for the afternoon and turned to his bag to take out his phone. Sure enough, Sanada's name was on the caller ID, and sure enough none of the club actually left.
     "Hello?" he said into the phone.
     "Ooishi-san, hey!" called a voice that was distinctly not Sanada. "Oh my god, is it seriously true? I just heard from, y'know, everybody."
     "Ah, Kirihara-san. Is Sanada there?"
     "Yeah, actually, I'm using his phone, but come on! Is it true about Echizen and Atobe? What gives? I heard they were eloping to Thailand or Argentina or Kazbekestan or something."
     More than slightly surprised at the question, Ooishi stammered and tried to think of a reasonable reply. Kirihara had to be joking. And what on earth had happened to Sanada that Kirihara was using his phone for this? "I-I'm sorry, you heard what exactly?"
     Unfortunately, he did not receive any kind of assurance that the previous statement had been made in jest. "Oh, well see, the other day, Sanada-buchou and Niou-sempai and Yagyuu-sempai were walking back to the bus stop from that spider exhibit at the natural history museum, right?" Kirihara said, spitting out words at a breakneck speed that Ooishi could barely follow, let alone make complete sense of. "Anyways, so they ran into that pun jerk, Amane - you know the one who used to go to Rokkaku? Well, you know, he says he heard from that freak Ibu while they were doing their lab homework who heard straight from Tachibana who saw Echizen and Atobe with his own eyes, talking about running off together, right? Like Bonnie and Clyde or whatever."
     "Kirihara-san, do you know who Bonnie and Clyde are?" Ooishi asked. He somehow doubted that Atobe and Echizen were planning to set off on a spree of petty robbery and armed violence across the countryside, even if they...
     Wait, Ooishi thought. Did he actually imply that they're involved? Atobe and Echizen? That can't be right.
     But either Kirihara hadn't heard the question, or he didn't care. "But so then," the narration continued, "they show up at club, and Niou-sempai and Yagyuu-sempai are like, 'What the fuck, yo? Atobe and Echizen? Could that happen?' and so Jackal-sempai says he heard it too, you know?"
     Surely this couldn't be true. Echizen had only been back in Japan for a month and a half, and Atobe was far too flashy for any attachment involving him to have gone unnoticed. Besides that - honestly, would Echizen date anyone?
     Well, that might be a bit unfair - Echizen had been twelve the last time they'd seen him. By now he'd passed the age when they'd all taken an interest in that sort of thing. But it was ridiculous to think that those two had suddenly developed the kind of romance that led to running off. The idea that half the Rikkai team had not only heard but believed it left Ooishi dumbstruck.
     "So Jackal-sempai starts telling everybody about how he ran into Oshitari from Hyoutei acting all crazy on the street one day, hiding around, and he was all like, 'What's up with that?' and Oshitari tells him he's trying to find a good spot to spy on Atobe and Echizen 'cause they're on a date! You get me? So then Marui-sempai is all like, 'Oh, yeah, an' I overheard Akazawa from Rudolph in a drug store the other day, asking that Mindy kid from Jyousei--'"
     "I beg your pardon. Who?" Ooishi interjected.
     "Mindy. From Jyousei." Repetition didn't make the statement any more comprehensible.
     "Who's Mindy? If I may ask." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Inui look up from scribbling in his notebook.
     Kirihara cackled. "Oh, come on. You can't not know Cindy and Mindy. Those mini-twin freak brothers that play doubles? The Unit? Blue-hair's Mindy, Pink-hair's Cindy."
     Ooishi wondered briefly: if Tezuka were here instead of in Germany, and he was the one receiving this call, surely he'd have had some way to keep Kirihara in line - but what would it have been? Sadly, almost as soon as the answer occurred to him, he realized precisely how unhelpful it was.
     Tezuka would have hung up the phone as soon as he'd heard Kirihara's voice instead of Sanada's, and he, Ooishi, would still have been the one getting an earful when the Rikkai student redialed.
     "So by 'Mindy', you mean Tanaka Kouhei-kun?" he asked, a tinge of resigned sadness entering his voice.
     "Yeah, him. Mindy." Patience, Ooishi reminded himself. Have patience. He'll get to the point eventually.
     As much respect as he was rapidly gaining for Tezuka's hang-up policy, he couldn't just avoid this discussion. Something clearly had happened. Perhaps Oshitari had been fooling around, but had Kirihara said that Tachibana was an eyewitness? The man was practically a saint, and Ooishi wasn't entirely sure that certain members of the younger generation (at Fudomine, at least) didn't address prayers to him.
     Besides, Kirihara never would have gotten Sanada's cell phone without a good reason.
     "So anyways, Akazawa ran into Mindy in the drug store when he was getting stuff for his chemistry class and he was asking if he'd heard about it 'cause the news was going around Rudolph, right? And Marui-sempai says Mindy totally blew the roof. Just spazzed out - like, flipped his lid, and was all like, 'Do you think I'm my brother?', 'cause it wasn't Mindy who heard it, see? It was Cindy, and Mindy'd already had that Banda creep from Yamabuki trying to bribe him with a PB&J or something to spill, but anyways it was Yanagi-sempai who heard all about that, so whatever."
     Ooishi eyed his teammates hanging around in the gym to hear the phone call (not that they could have possibly found his end of the conversation very informative so far). If every other school in the league was in a fever over the news, it seemed unlikely that Seigaku was the exception. He'd have to find out what silly stories his own teammates had decided to believe - after he'd managed to get through Kirihara to speak with Sanada.
     "So," Kirihara kept rattling away, "Marui-sempai says when he overheard all that he was like, 'Oh yeah, and didn't that narco from Hyoutei say something or other when he was delivering those invitations to Atobe's party?' 'Cause you know he woke right up when he saw Marui-sempai, right?"
     Ooishi was doing his best to keep up, but had to think for a moment before deciding that the person in question had to be Akutagawa Jirou, which would probably mean that 'narco' was for 'narcoleptic', even though he was sure the Rikkai player's analysis was needlessly harsh.
     "An' he was going on and on, and what he says is that Atobe said when he handed the invites out that he was gonna make Echizen feel real welcome, if you know what I mean. C'mon, can you top that?"
     It didn't really sound like much to top, actually, just nonsense - not that there would be any benefit in explaining that to Kirihara. But if that was all that was behind these rumors, Ooishi decided, then the entire universe had lost the ability to make sound judgments based on evidence. Atobe's speeches might be rife with bravura but never contained any kind of lewd implication. Besides, who took their content seriously?
     "Ah, Kirihara-san..." he began objecting, only to be steamrolled by the Rikkai freshman's persistent stream of noise.
     "But so, I mean, you know Yanagi-sempai could do better, 'cause he got the real shit. Oh, man, this is F'd up."
     At this point, Ooishi was honestly considering hanging up. He could call another member of the Rikkai team, perhaps, and see if he could get a reasonable word - perhaps the chance to ask Sanada what was going on (assuming nothing horrible had happened to Sanada, which he couldn't actually rule out). But if he remembered correctly, he didn't have anyone else's number. Well, except for Yukimura's. Without a doubt, the retired former captain could end this parade of gibberish, but did he really want to bother Yukimura on this?
     Maybe I'll give Kirihara another minute or two to get to the point, Ooishi persuaded himself. This couldn't actually go on indefinitely. Could it?
     "So the other day, that Mizuki what's-his-nuts was on campus acting all tough like he knew so much, and Yanagi-sempai says he said that he heard how the little prince and his sugar daddy were already on their honeymoon in Tibet, learning how to belly dance from the monks or whatever. Well, I think he said Belgium, actually, but monks in Belgium don't belly dance, you know?"
     Ooishi scratched his head, wondering how exactly that brought Tibet into the picture.
     "But anyways, so Yanagi-sempai was like, 'No way, man, that's just not possible', right? But then he runs into Minami from Yamabuki at the sushi counter down by Hachiouji station, and Minami's all like, 'Can you believe it, dude?' and Yanagi-sempai's like, 'No, actually,' but whatever, 'cause Minami said the other Jimmy--"
     "You mean, Higashikata-san?"
     "Yeah, him," Kirihara confirmed. At least he did know all their names. "Well, the courts at the school were frosted over, so they were having practice inside, right? And Jimmy Two said he heard the reporters from Monthly Pro Tennis talking about it outside the Yamabuki gym before they came in for an interview, and that bitch reporter was just wailing, you know? And the belly dancing or whatever was bullshit 'cause he hadn't heard anything like that, but Yanagi-sempai had already figured that 'cause Atobe and Echizen were both still in the country and all, but from what he said the two of 'em gotta be downtown hardstyle, if you know what I mean, 'cause let's face it - Monthly Pro Tennis is a respectable rag, right? So now Yanagi-sempai's like, 'Well shit. Now I gotta know,' so he did some digging. Oh man."
     Kirihara took a momentary pause to laugh, and the reeling sensation in Ooishi's head began to fade. He never would have imagined before now that a stream of discussion could be rapid enough to make one physically dizzy, but apparently it was possible. Maybe the sound waves were disturbing the fluid in his inner ear? But that didn't seem right. Maybe Inui would know, he thought. Then, as Kirihara's laughter faded away, he realized that this could be his best chance yet to take control. He had to focus if he ever wanted to stop hearing the Rikkai player yammering in his ear about the inanities of tennis league gossip.
     But he was too late; Kirihara had already begun again. "So when he asks around Yamabuki, it sounds like Rudolph only heard about it in the first place because of when Sengoku was out at the grocery store and he ran into Kaneda in the toilet paper aisle and let his big yap run, so Yanagi-sempai ditches that end and starts working on how Monthly Pro Tennis got it, and it's just way too jacked. The dude reporter, Inoue, got it at Jyousei, and you just know anything from there's gotta be fucked up."
     "Now, Kirihara-san," Ooishi broke in, "Jyousei Shounan is a v--"
     "A total freakshow, am I right?" Kirihara stole back. "But that's where the reporter dude heard it, 'cause he was there doing a feature when the little demented freaky dude --"
     "You said..." Ooishi stopped and tried to recall the which of the twins was 'Cindy' (he was fairly certain that was the right twin), trying not to take so long that Kirihara started off again. If he could stay ahead of Kirihara's train of thought, maybe he could skip all the intermediate commentary and hurry this along.
     He hoped so, anyway.
     "You said Youhei-kun was the one who heard it?"
     "Well, yeah, but no," Ooishi heard Kirihara say, and he hung his head with a pained sigh. When he looked up, he could see sympathy in Eiji's eyes and a mixture of curiosity and amusement in almost everyone else's. "I mean the other little freak. The demented one, with the big-ass doubles partner."
     Ooishi closed his eyes, rubbing his temple with his free hand. Keeping up with Kirihara's terminology was quickly growing more exhausting than Inui's practice menus. "Are you talking about Oota-kun, Kirihara-san?"
     "Who's that?" Kirihara asked.
     "Nevermind," Ooishi replied, shaking his head, and the monologue resumed.
     "So anyways, the freak runs in to practice and starts freakin' out to Kajimoto about how he was in the music store buying some sheet music when some giant reaches over him and takes the last one of the song he wanted from the pile, right from under his hands! Only it turns out it wasn't a giant, it was Ootori from Hyoutei and he says he's really sorry to take the last one, but can he please have it because he thinks it's perfect for Atobe and Echizen and he wants to learn it to celebrate how happy they're gonna be together."
     Ooishi stared blankly at the wall in front of him. Was there any kind of sound basis for this rumor at all? Well, not counting third-hand tales about Tachibana catching Atobe and Echizen in the act, which could well be as much a fabrication as Kirihara's assertions about Tibet. And if this was nothing but overblown hearsay, how had Kirihara gotten Sanada's phone? Could Sanada be injured? Or even dead in a ditch somewhere? No, surely Kirihara would have mentioned that by now. Wouldn't he? Besides, Kirihara must have his own phone. He wouldn't need to take Sanada's to call for help.
     And why would he call me, of all people?
     Suddenly, the Rikkai player's words cut into his thoughts, and Ooishi realized he'd phased out and skipped a chunk of monologue. "So over at Jyousei, he's talkin' them getting married, and Ootori playin' the march, and all kinds of shit, and it's just out of control, you know?"
     At least he hadn't missed much.
     "And Yanagi-sempai's all like, 'Well, that's a whole fuckton of nothing,' right? 'Cause not only didn't Ootori say jack about them getting married, Yanagi-sempai says the whole thing couldn't have happened in the first place and the little Jyousei freak must be on a trip."
     "What?" Ooishi asked.
     He couldn't help reacting - the conclusion was such a non sequitir - and knew he'd regret it before the explanation even began. "Well, see, 'cause Yanagi-sempai says there's no way he was after that piece of sheet music in the first place. See, it was Chopin. Yanagi-sempai says the little freak's hands are too small to play Chopin, and Yanagi-sempai would know."
     Quietly, out of the background noise on the phone, he could hear Sanada calling Kirihara's name sharply. Ooishi felt oddly relieved by the sound - it meant both that Sanada was not dead in a ditch and that there was some chance that some form of restraint would soon be exercised. However, it also meant that Sanada was standing nearby, allowing Kirihara to use his phone, which was at least twice as unsettling as thinking that Kirihara had gotten it by fouler means.
     "Hold your horses," Kirihara whispered, with his voice muffled as if he'd put his hand over the receiver. "I'm getting there!"
     Getting to what? Ooishi wondered, mouth agape. And if he was saying that to Sanada... Sanada couldn't possibly be involved in this mess? Could he?
     "Fine," Ooishi replied, trying to prevent the flow of words resuming and get out of the 'conversation'. "So this was all a little misunderstanding that got out of control somehow. Look, may I speak with Sanada for a moment?"
     "Just a sec, that's not all. So, the only backup the little freak had at Jyousei was Cindy, right?"
     His patience was starting to feel quite a bit of strain. "And 'Cindy' is Youhei-kun," he replied. Well, at least if they'd made it to 'Cindy's' part of the story, they had to be nearly done.
     "Right, him. But it turns out he only kinda heard it from Ibu over at Fudomine. See, Cindy was in the tennis shop and there was Ibu, just mumbling like always about random shit, and he was talking about how he couldn't believe Echizen had hooked up with Atobe and he didn't know Echizen swung that way, but whatever, it was cool, it just wasn't for him 'cause he liked girls better, right? Only Cindy thought Ibu was talking about him and calling him a girl and blew up in his face 'cause he's one of those guys who gets all touchy when people start talking like he's a girl, you know? Him an' his brother both."
     "Gosh," Ooishi muttered, "How odd." He knew that the situation could be much worse, so he tried to calm himself down by repeating like a mantra in his head, 'Sanada isn't dead in a ditch, Sanada isn't dead in a ditch...' but it was only slightly helpful.
     "I know, right? Like, if they were going to get mad about it, why'd they do up like girls in the first place, right? Anyways, it wasn't til he was walking away and he hears Ibu griping about random people saying random shit to people who weren't talking to 'em that Cindy realizes Ibu wasn't talking about him or to him, he was just talking, but he still keeps walking away, and I don't blame him. But anyways that was how he heard, so who the hell knows if any of it was true or not, right?"
     Ooishi dropped the phone away from his ear and took a deep breath. The chance to take a break was well worth the increasingly small possibility that he'd miss something relevant. Eiji raised an eyebrow at him. "What's he saying?" his partner asked.
     Sighing, Ooishi shook his head and tried to think of an answer. "A lot. Kirihara's caught some crazy rumor going around that Atobe and Echizen are planning to elope." The row of blankly non-plussed faces on the regulars and other club members slowly turned nervous as they looked around at one another. Oh, they've definitely heard something, he concluded, but decided to put off quizzing them until after he'd finished with Kirihara. He steeled himself to go in and end the stream of nonsense, took a deep breath and raised the phone back to his ear.
     "-- you know? So when ol' Banda heard it from that Dan kid, he went sneaking around trying to find out what was up and he mistook Mindy for Cindy and went after him with this peanut butter sandwich, like I said --"
     "Kirihara-san, I really don't think the peanut butter sandwich is relevant to the matters at hand," he interrupted with all the force of impatience he could muster, which by now was at least slightly formidable. "Could you please put Sa--"
     "Aw, but the sandwich is the best part!"
     "Kirihara-san..."
     "Tsch. Fine. I'll skip the sandwich," he said as a loud crash in the background nearly made Ooishi jump. It sounded like nothing so much as his co-conversant landing on a bleacher seat at high velocity, followed by smaller metallic clangs going at a fast clip. "So then, Yanagi-sempai thought he'd basically figured how it was all bullshit when he went back to Rudolph and found out it wasn't just Kaneda who'd heard it." Ooishi sighed (again) as he heard Sanada's voice (again) bellowing in the background under the stream of absurdity, growing ever more impatient. The metallic clangs changed to a barely audible slap of sneakers on pavement.
     Was Kirihara running?
     "'Cause see, those Kisarazu twins were sneaking out of Mizuki's father's enka concert that Mizuki made them all go to, right? And on the way out, they ran into Ishida from Fudomine who was on the phone with somebody tellin' them that Atobe and Echizen were running off to Thailand, and they were all like 'What's up with that, yo?' and got the whole story out of him."
     Ooishi could hear the unmistakable rattle of a chain-link fence in the background noise, and a slight pause in the speech punctuated by a slam that he certainly hoped wasn't Kirihara jumping from a fence onto pavement. That was dangerous, especially one-handed. Alas, the call of 'Jackal, I'll go up - you go around!' from what sounded like Marui made him fear that it was a vain hope.
     "The next day," Kirihara resumed with the terrible sound of glee in his tone, "when Mizuki was giving 'em shit 'cause he knew they ditched, they thought they could distract him by saying what they heard, but he'd already heard it from Kaneda, and then Duck Boy walks in, and he's all like, 'You're not gonna believe what I just heard from Tachibana's little sister playing street tennis!' and they're all like 'Echizen's fucking Atobe? Tell us something we don't know!' and he's like 'Yeah, how'd you guys hear?' But seriously--"
     "Now, I've met An-chan," Ooishi interrupted. "That can't possibly be what she said--"
     "Well, no, not technically, but she did say her brother saw them at the courts, playing tennis, and Atobe said it was a date." The voice on the other end of the line gave an evil chuckle. "Like Yanagi-sempai said, Q-E-Fuckin'-D! You wanna tell me how a tennis date ends? Huh, Ooishi-san? Do ya? And this is Tachibana we're talking about here. If Tachibana said it, it's gotta be true. Man, I wish I had Echizen's new number. So come on, spill it! He's in your guys' club. Is he there? Can you ask him?"
     "Well, no, Kirihara-san," he replied, glad for a (potential) chance to end this at last. Part of him hoped that if he ignored the question it would somehow go away. Not that there would a problem with Echizen dating Atobe, of course (assuming anything outside of tennis could interest Echizen). It wasn't as if Hyoutei's captain was someone he particularly disapproved of. This just sounded for all the world like one of those rumors that got started from nothing and blew up out of all proportion. The sooner it was left to vanish, the better. "You know, he's not actually in the high school division yet. He moves up in April."
     "Oh," Kirihara replied, and the Rikkai student decided to stop running (if Ooishi could properly judge from the lack of the sound of footfall and the growing volume of his teammates yelling 'Get him!' and 'Akaya, if you take one more step, I'll kill you.'). "So I guess you don't see him during the day then," the freshman continued, unfazed. "But do you ever see him on the weekends? Does he say anything? Maybe you should just give me his number. Do you have it?"
     "I can get you his number if you want, but Kirihara-san, I really don't think he's eloping anywhere. He only just came back to Japan to concentrate on his education." Ooishi paused for a moment in the blissful silence to think. There couldn't be anything more to say, could there? "Look. Could you put Sanada on, please?" he asked.
     Kirihara, however, didn't reply to his question.
     "Give me the phone and let me talk to Ooishi, Akaya," came a very annoyed Sanada's voice over the line. Ooishi sighed deeply in relief. Soon, this would all be over.
     "Chill out. Geez... I thought you wanted me to ask him about Echizen 'cause you didn't wanna do it."
     "I've changed my mind. I'll talk to Ooishi myself."
     "All right, fine, he wants to talk to you, too... Just a sec... So, Ooishi-san, before I let you go, you have to hear about the peanut butter--"
     "Just give me the goddamn phone!!" Sanada thundered. All the regulars jumped in surprise - apparently, it was loud enough for them to hear, too. It was certainly loud enough to make Ooishi pull the phone a few inches from his ear and terrifying enough that he almost didn't want to risk bringing it close again. Almost.
     "Wow, fine," Kirihara said into the receiver. "PMS much?"
     "I can hear you, Akaya," a very disgruntled Sanada replied. "Everyone! I want you lined up on the other end of the courts where I can see you in five... four... three... two... That's better! No one moves from that spot til I say you can move!" As the Rikkai player let out a long-suffering groan, Ooishi assumed it was safe to start breathing again. "Ooishi. I apologize for that waste of your time."
     "Oh no, I--"
     "I'd hoped to settle this mess without putting any more fuel on the fire, but I suppose I've got no choice. I didn't have Akaya call because of some idiotic rumor."
     Ooishi listened to Sanada's pained sigh, and quite honestly wasn't sure what Sanada meant. He couldn't possibly be calling because anything in that haze of insanity was true. He just couldn't.
     "I got a call from Atobe a few nights ago. Atobe is convinced that..." Sanada paused, as if he couldn't quite put words to what it was Atobe thought. "Honestly, I'm worried about his mental stability. He's sure that he and Echizen are involved."
     "Oh," Ooishi replied.
     "I haven't told this to anyone but Yukimura, and I expect you to keep it in confidence as well. I don't want to encourage any of this nonsense."
     Had the person talking been anyone but Sanada, he might have been tempted to interpret the preceding statements as a joke; but it was Sanada, and he didn't sound amused. "Of course," Ooishi said. "I understand completely. And I agree, it sounds ridiculous, but, if he called you and said so... Are you certain they're not involved?" He couldn't believe he was asking this - because after all, Echizen was still Echizen - and he certainly didn't want to have the Seigaku team jumping to conclusions any more than Sanada wanted to encourage the conclusions Rikkai had reached. But there was one other factor to consider that could not be cast aside lightly: Atobe was Atobe. He hadn't earned his name in society by making entirely unfounded assertions. "You Know Who can be fairly extreme, it's true. Still, he's rarely ever... ah... completely out of the ballpark, as it were."
     Ooishi heard a heavy, bitter exhalation across the line. "Of this, I am painfully aware. But his perspective can be extremely flawed. If Atobe finds out that he's mistaken - and I don't want to think about him being right - it won't go well for anyone. I was hoping you'd spoken with Echizen."
     "Unfortunately, no," he replied. "The last time I saw Echizen was at the party."
     "I see." It was hard to say over the phone if Sanada sounded more frustrated or disappointed. Of course, it probably wouldn't have been easier to tell in person. "Well, thank you for your time."
     "Of course. And I'll be sure to let you know if I hear anything. Well, if I hear anything definite, anyway."
     "Only call me if I won't be happier in ignorance," Sanada replied, and the line went abruptly dead.
     Ooishi flipped his phone closed and looked to the expectant faces of his teammates. They'd waited quite some time to find out what he'd been hearing, and they'd probably walk away disappointed. Even if he could have remembered everything Kirihara had said, and even if Sanada hadn't requested his confidence on the matter of Atobe, it wasn't his place to explain everything he'd heard opined about Echizen in the past... Ooishi checked his watch.
     Six minutes? That's it?
     Well, Kirihara had been talking awfully fast.
     At any rate, the important thing was to keep the Seigaku team from going completely crazy over the rumors. Or the news. Or whatever it turned out to be.
     "Okay," he began. His first step had to be to get some kind of real, direct information on the table. There was nothing better for clearing up confusion. "Has anyone spoken with Echizen in the last few weeks? Anyone at all?"
     Only a very nervous Momoshiro raised his hand.
     "Momo. Good. I don't suppose he mentioned Atobe? Did he?"
     The visible fall in Momoshiro's expression and the jump in the level of excitement all the rest of his teammates were displaying did not help Ooishi's day. "He... ah... mentioned that they'd played tennis together. Just when I'd asked him what he'd been up to."
     Tennis, Ooishi reminded himself, was just tennis. Tennis was something all of them did with all kinds of people, all the time and under all kinds of circumstances. There was nothing inherently meaningful in that, even if he didn't need Kirihara to remind him that a tennis date could lead to significantly more intimate situations in short order.
     Not that it's any kind of problem if Echizen and Atobe decided that they had a connection, he reminded himself again. It was important to keep that fact clear in his head. He was sure that everyone on the team would be very happy for Echizen if he'd fallen in love with anybody. Still, the ideas of 'Echizen' and 'in love' were two things that he had trouble picturing together.
     "Okay. And that was all he said?" Ooishi asked. A troubled look crossed Momoshiro's face again. "Momo. Was that all he said?"
     "Well, sorta. It's just, I guess I asked him about a couple of the things I heard around Fudomine when I was picking up An-chan, and... ah..." Momo ran his hand through his hair. "I mean, I didn't ask him anything specific. Just kinda mentioned that I heard... stuff, see?"
     Ooishi sighed. The entire club had turned their rapt attention to the next words that would come out of Momoshiro's mouth. If Ooishi had to guess, he'd say he was the only person in all of Japan who hadn't gotten wind of the rumors.
     Momo, meanwhile, had gone ketchup-red in the face. "A-all he said was... 'Tsch. Figures.'"
     "Aah, that's it!?" Eiji cried out, practically vaulting over Fuji.
     "Well, I wasn't gonna ask him for details!" the freshman called back.
     "Geez," Saeki added, pushing his hair off his forehead. "When all the guys called to ask, I was sure it couldn't be true. He's seriously dating Atobe?"
     Fuji nodded in agreement. "Just like I told Yuuta. I didn't think Echizen had such bad taste." Ooishi considered reminding his friend that Atobe wasn't really as bad as all that, and this wouldn't reflect poorly on Echizen's taste in men, but he held his tongue. Fuji had some fairly strong opinions on the topic of Atobe.
     And unfortunately, it was clearly too late to remind his teammates not to jump to conclusions. Stories started to pour out from every side about who had heard what and where they'd heard it, all in one, big cacophonous mess. Conclusions were most definitely had.
     "I thought that was all a bad dream," Arai said, standing off to the side of the group rubbing his temples. "I mean, that whole party was insane. Why should Atobe saying weird shit be any different?"
     "You mean you heard Atobe say it?" Taniyama, one of the third years, turned to him to ask.
     "Don't remind me!"
     "And the guys at Fudomine were sayin' that Tachibana ran into Taki coming out of the jeweler's store the other day and tried to find out what was going on," Momo was telling a few of his classmates, "and Taki said he'd heard Oshitari raggin' on Atobe--"
     "--he walked in the door and said to me, 'You wouldn't believe what that freak from Hyoutei did...' Apparently, that Akutagawa boy had just jumped out of the bushes near the bus stop and started telling Yuuta that Echizen was Atobe's soulmate--"
     "Hmm... Actually, the probability that anything illicit occurred in Thailand is below 1%. Evidence up to today indicated--"
     "--and so when I ran into Taka-san in the grocery store, he started telling me what Kongawa told him, and we both thought it was just too weird to be true--"
     "--I mean, since before he left!? For freak's sake, he was twelve. You don't do that... You just don't!"
     "No, no. Kongawa Junpei, from Midoriyama. See, he'd run into Mukahi from Hyoutei down at the theatre--"
     "--a statistical likelihood of 97.3% that Atobe's assertions stem from a one-sided attraction, with a 16% chance that Echizen hasn't noticed his advances. But based on that account, I think I'll have to track down Oshitari at Hyoutei for an interview."
     "Sempai. Please don't."
     "So, they told you Tachibana said he saw everything? Well, damn. If he said it, it must be true."
     "Should we call Tachibana?"
     "Everyone!" Ooishi called out as loudly as he could, holding up his cellphone. Silence fell over most of the team.
     "--An' he said," a particularly familiar voice continued, "all that stuff Mukahi was sayin' gave him more nightmares than the movie, and c'mon! He was there seeing Desperate Measures II: The Revenge. That's scary."
     "Eiji..." he whispered, and his partner jumped, covering his mouth with a squeak.
     After a moment and a glance at their teammates, the hands came down "Aah! Ooishi, I'm sorry! I just figured you wouldn't want to know about some stupid rumor."
     He shook his head to let Eiji know it wasn't a problem and lifted a finger to his mouth to ask him to just be quiet for a moment, then turned back to the room at large. "Everyone, listen up!" Ooishi called out.
     Finally, he had a hush and the attention of every member of the club.
     "I am calling Echizen," he said, and opened his contact list while his teammates looked at each other in silence.
     The line rang twice before the middle schooler answered. "Ooishi-sempai. Hey."
     "Look, Echizen, I'm really sorry to bother you about this," he began, "but I was sort of hoping you could settle some silly rumors that some of the guys have--"
     "No, I'm not dating Atobe," Echizen interrupted, sounding like he'd probably heard that question more times than he could count. The tone of utter boredom in his voice gave Ooishi an odd sort of relief.
     "Oh. Well. I mean, of course you aren't," said Ooishi. Then, it occurred to him: what if Echizen were involved with Atobe, as Atobe had certainly claimed, but was just embarrassed to tell his friends? It was clear from the bewildered furor that was sweeping through the league that he had every right to think that his peers might not take the news with the kind of mature, unbiased outlook such an important and personal decision deserved. He couldn't just say 'of course' like that and imply that Echizen shouldn't date Atobe, if that was what he really wanted. "Well, that's not to say that it would be a bad thing, though," he amended. "I mean, you know that if you decided it was for the best, we'd all support you in your decision. You know that, right? So, if you were going out with Atobe, you could tell us."
     Echizen paused. "I'm not, though," he said at last.
     Ooishi laughed a bit to try and break the awkward tension. "I see. Well, of course, that's just fine, too." Though, as Sanada had implied, it didn't actually make everything fine. There was still the matter of an apparent misjudgment on Atobe's part, which he (like Sanada) did not relish the thought of trying to correct. He didn't even know where to begin trying to convince Atobe that something he believed was false - and surely, if Echizen wasn't interested, Atobe's opinion would have to be set right as soon as possible. His only hope was that Atobe didn't actually believe it, and that all this was simply a misunderstanding between Atobe and Sanada. And between Atobe and Arai. And Atobe and Oshitari. And... well, actually, perhaps they did have a problem here. Still, it was a relief that Echizen could provide some clear perspective on the situation. Clarity was a good thing. "Then you must not be eloping to Thailand or any of that nonsense either. Right?" he asked in jest.
     "Nah, Thailand was just dinner."
     "Ah, I see. Just..." Ooishi paused and considered for a moment the meaning of what Echizen had just said. "Dinner? You went to Thailand for dinner?"
     "He wanted Thai."
     Ooishi considered briefly asking if Atobe was aware of the plethora of Thai restaurants in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but thought better of further inquiry.
     "Ah. Yes. But... Echizen." After some thought, Ooishi decided there was no way to phrase his question gently without it becoming unclear. "Why did you go to Thailand with him?"
     "I was hungry," the middle school student answered, as if there were nothing more normal than taking a quick jaunt to Thailand for a meal.
     "So," he replied, trying to restate and get confirmation of the situation he'd just heard described - in the name of perfect and necessary clarity, of course. "When you say you're not dating Atobe, you mean you two just went on a date. Do I have that right?" Eiji was starting to look like he might explode at any second, and Kaidou was throwing troubled looks at Inui's murmured commentary and low chuckles.
     "Umm, Ooishi-sempai?" Echizen's tone sounded like he might want to ask if Ooishi had taken a hard knock to the head. "You know I used to go with Momo-sempai and Kikumaru-sempai for food all the time, right? Sometimes we grab dinner after we play. That's not a date."
     Clearly, his once and future teammate didn't see the fine line Ooishi put between 'grabbing a burger with the guys' and 'international travel with someone of professed romantic attachment'. What was more surprising, however, was that this sounded like a regular event. Perhaps not Thailand specifically, but the tennis at least.
     "Sometimes?" Ooishi asked. "How often do you play?"
     "On Sundays," Echizen replied.
     "Wait... you mean every Sunday?"
     "Well, so far."
     Ooishi blinked in utter confusion at the matter-of-fact manner of his speech. If they were meeting that regularly and Atobe had even the slightest personal interest, it was quite frankly unsurprising that the Hyoutei player had become confused. "Echizen, are you aware that Atobe thinks you're dating?" He had to ask. There was always the chance, however unlikely, that the middle school student hadn't noticed.
     "Oh, yeah. I tell him he's wrong, but he never listens."
     It wasn't exactly clear what he was supposed to make of that. While Ooishi would admit that the line between 'hanging out' and 'a date' could, in such situations, be mostly a boundary of volition, there did come a certain point where more active steps needed to be taken. "Well, have you considered, maybe, turning him down?" he suggested. "Atobe might get the idea if you, ah... don't go out with him."
     "Meh," said Echizen, thoroughly unconcerned. Ooishi's jaw nearly hit the floor. "I still want to play him, so it's not like it bothers me-- Ah, Ooishi-sempai, I'm sorry. There's a call on the other line. I'll see you 'round."
     "Right," he said, and heard the line go silent. Slowly, Ooishi flipped his phone closed.
     "H~mm." Eiji rested his hands on his head and twisted his mouth into a thoughtful grin. "Sounds to me like o-chibi's in denial."
     He stared at his phone, which had been the source of so much oddity today. "I don't know that I'd call it denial, exactly. Echizen seems pretty clear on the fact that Atobe is trying to date him. He's just, ah... ignoring it."
     "How does that work?" another of the third years, Samejima, asked.
     Inui turned to reply, pushing up his glasses. "Applied apathy is a particular skill of Echizen's. His power of indifference is two levels of magnitude above the ordinary man's - at least, it was before he went abroad. On the other hand, Atobe has a demonstrated charisma effect of approximately the same strength that causes those around him to acquiesce to his concept of reality." The older student took a slow step backwards. "It seems likely to me that each is simply acting according to his own will, as would be their wont. In Atobe's case, apparently, the will to pursue Echizen, and in Echizen's case, I assume, the will to play tennis without submitting to Atobe's pursuit. Those two forces would appear to be in balance, but the ongoing stability of that balance is subject to too many unknowns to currently be certain. I'll need to gather more information on the subject."
     "And that's not denial?" Eiji followed up, raising his eyebrow.
     "Which of them would be denying what, precisely?" Inui asked.
     Fuji broke in before Eiji could answer, laughing to himself. "So you're saying that Atobe is dating Echizen, but failing to get Echizen to date him? That's priceless."
     "That's ridiculous." Saeki countered. "Come on. Seriously - you can't be dating someone who's not dating you. It takes two to tango."
     "And yet," Ooishi said, shaking his head.
     Raising his hand into the heavy silence, Momo glanced around at his fellow teammates and asked, "Am I the only one who thinks Atobe might just be off his nut?"
     Whatever he or anyone else might have said was cut off by a sudden pop music beat filling the gym. Ooishi jumped, holding his phone away from him at arm's length as it lit up and rang out some English vocal asking "Annie, are you OK?" Not that holding it at a distance helped with the sound. The acoustics in the gymnasium were terrifyingly good.
     He turned to give Eiji a disapproving look, but his partner just shrugged and mouthed, 'Shiraishi'.
     Ooishi took a calming breath and flipped open the phone. "Hello?" he said. "Ooishi here."
     "Oh, good. Listen, Ooishi..." Shiraishi replied, his words a bit broken up by what sounded like a struggle. He could hear a voice - doubtless, it was Tooyama-kun - yelling in the background for Shiraishi to let him go. "I need to know when Echizen and Atobe are leaving for their honeymoon. Kin-chan just found out and now he's throwing a fit."
     "Koshimae!! Don't leave, Koshima~e! You hafta play a match with me first! Shiraishi, lemme go!" The wailing continued in the background as they spoke. Ooishi could already feel a headache coming on. How this had spread so far and become so overblown was beyond his understanding.
     "Their... honeymoon."
     "Yeah. If it's not for a bit, maybe I can stop this monster from running up to Tokyo today."
     "Well, Shiraishi-san, you see... they're not actually getting married."
     "Oh. Well, I know gay marriage per se isn't legal in Thailand, but if they're committed to each--"
     "Pardon me, Shiraishi-san," Ooishi said, cutting in. Shiraishi certainly didn't deserve any outright rudeness, and he wouldn't go that far, but at the same time he'd heard enough of all this nonsense. "They're not actually... I mean, the whole Thailand thing was just a misunderstanding. They had dinner. That's it. And they're back already."
     "Oh. So, Echizen's not leaving the country?"
     "Not permanently anyway, no."
     "Kin-chan, stop that. Ooishi says Koshimae isn't going anywhere. Now--"
     "Koshimae!!" he heard Tooyama-kun yelling, the sound growing distant.
     Shiraishi said away from the phone, "Would somebody catch him, please?" then sighed and returned to the conversation. That was one problem Ooishi was quite glad he didn't have to deal with on his team. "So, they're not gonna elope, huh? I wonder if we should call off the wedding presents," he said with a laugh.
     Ooishi replied with a laugh of his own at Shiraishi's little joke.
     At least, he hoped it was a joke.
     "That was a little quick to be running off together, I guess, but you never can tell with those two. So, if Echizen gets any weird packages, just let him know that everyone out here is happy for them. Okay?"
     So, perhaps not a joke, then.
     "But, you see, the whole thing was just a mix-up. They're not-- Well." Ooishi stopped and corrected his statement. "Echizen's not dating Atobe."
     "Say what, now?" Shiraishi laughed. "Even Tachibana could make a mistake, sure, but Kenya definitely heard straight from his cousin at Hyoutei that Atobe was gone on Echizen."
     "Well, that may be true," Ooishi admitted.
     "And that they've got a steady date every Sunday."
     "Yes, well, they do apparently meet every Sunday. To play tennis."
     He couldn't exactly deny that.
     "Sounds like a date to me," said Shiraishi.
     And Ooishi had to admit - it did, rather. "Yes, well... He's still--"
     "Kin-chan! How many times do I have to tell you!?" he heard the other player yell suddenly. With an exasperated sigh, Shiraishi took his leave before Ooishi could even think about trying to explain. "Thanks for the update, Ooishi. Give my regards to the happy couple."
     Ooishi spend a moment listening to the silence of the disconnected call before bringing the phone down in front of his eyes and watching the lights on the display go dark.
     "But he's still not dating Atobe," he said to the now-quiet phone, and turned to face his club. Ooishi ran his hand back through his hair slowly, scratching the back of his neck. "...I think."
     This was probably going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

     He could hear Atobe knocking; unfortunately, the door was proving more complicated than usual. Echizen tried to hold his cat with one arm while he turned the bolt, but that was hard enough with both hands when Karupin was wriggling to get away. A flash of fur vaulted over his shoulder, pushing hard enough that he missed the lock at the same time that he lost his hold on the cat. Echizen dashed after him, the feel of tiny pricks in the skin on his shoulder saying it was time for another claw trimming.

     "Karupin ," he chided. He caught the cat just in time to keep him from trying those claws out on a banana and scooped him up to his chest. "None of that." Echizen plucked a few ribbons out of Karupin's paws, laughing at the way he batted for them in the air. "You're lucky you're cute, you know," he reminded the cat. "I don't have to put up with this."

     He'd mostly forgotten about the locked door until Atobe asked, "Is everything all right?" from the landing outside.

     He sighed, turning to the door with his pet held close. There was no way he could get it open, not with a cat in full 'play' mode in an apartment as tiny as his; and he couldn't pen up his cat in the bedroom, away from his food and the litter, for however long it took to deal with the gift that'd arrived this morning. That could take a while. "Look, there's a spare key on top of the door frame," Echizen called back after a second, scratching Karupin behind the ears. "Just let yourself in."

     One problem down, anyway.

     "What!? On top of the... Are you aware of how reckless that is?"

     Or maybe not...

     Echizen adjusted his grip as Karupin made another dive for the ribbons he'd dropped, getting a plaintive whine from the cat in response. "Shh. I hear you," he whispered to Karupin, who was looking up with the saddest blue eyes a cat could manage when you weren't letting him play with his toys. Meanwhile, Atobe still hadn't opened the door. "Fine. Don't come in, then," he yelled to the Hyoutei student. He wasn't going to be able to keep hold of his cat and open the door, and that was pretty much that.

     "Your door might as well be unlocked!" his visitor scolded, turning the bolt with an extra hard clunk at the end of his sentence. "Anyone could walk by and- -"

     It was no big mystery why Atobe stopped mid-lecture. Echizen would have been surprised if he hadn't.

     "That's... quite a fruit basket," the Hyoutei player said.

     It was something. The bathtub at his old man's place wasn't much bigger. Pears, pineapples, mangoes, and at least seven other things he could name (along with several that he couldn't) surrounding one gigantic watermelon, all packed in a bed of blue raffia curls and silver ribbons. The whole room smelled like bananas and cantaloupe, and he hadn't even had a chance to open the envelope on top and find out what it was for. Karupin had been keeping him too busy, trying to 'investigate' since it showed up half an hour ago. Ribbons and bows getting torn up, he could deal with. Shredded melon all over the place was a different story.

     He turned to Atobe, who was standing there looking dumbfounded at the thing, and asked, "Help me move it, would you?" Getting the basket to a safe location was his priority, but there was no way he could lift it on his own -- with or without his cat trying to tear it apart.

     "Of course," Atobe replied, grabbing the handle on one side of the wicker boat of produce as Echizen dropped the cat and immediately took the other. They hoisted the thing and staggered their way toward the back room. Karupin trotted after, contenting himself with pulling at a ribbon that was dangling over the side. "But as for the matter of your key..." his visitor went on, loading his voice with pointed urgency.

     What? Still?

     Of all the things to send Atobe into one of his hissy fits. "It's for getting in if I'm locked out, isn't it? Where else am I supposed to keep it?" Echizen asked. "And why do you care, anyway?"

     Atobe prefaced his response with a petulant look that might have been funny if he couldn't have guessed why it was there. Hyoutei's captain was still calling their weekly match a 'date'. He was a fun guy, even when he did weird things -- like busting out operas in Italian or spouting off some Frenchman's theory on hydraulics because he felt like explaining how a water dispenser worked, not that anyone had asked -- but the joke was getting old. Echizen liked hanging out. He didn't like dates.

     "You're very important to me. I want you safe."

     And there it was. He tried to shake off the weird prickly feeling he got on the back of his neck whenever Atobe started going all boyfriend on him. The fact that guys had never tried to date him was a plus that he'd sort of taken for granted up to now. A match was a match. A date was when his dad tricked him into taking some girl to some boring place while she nattered on about boring stuff, trying to find things he 'liked' -- which always ended up coming back to haunt him on Valentine's Day in the form of weird, themed chocolates. He got that if you kept dating a girl, she was your girlfriend, like Tachibana's little sister was Momo-sempai's. That seemed to be the point. But you couldn't hang out with a girl because they insisted that if you were spending time together, it was a date whether you wanted a girlfriend or not.

     He'd never met a guy who made that kind of fuss. Ooishi-sempai and Kikumaru-sempai got caught making out in the clubhouse sometimes, but he'd never heard of them, or any of his other friends with boyfriends, going on a date.

     Even if he did want to think they were dating, Atobe still had no right to complain about where he kept his own spare key. "I'm not exactly living in Tremont," Echizen muttered.

     "Trouble happens in more places than the Bronx," Atobe shot back.

     Leave it to Atobe to know geography but miss the point -- which was that this neighborhood was perfectly safe. Besides, keeping the key to the lock inside a locked house made it's own problems. During grade school, he'd come home most days to find his old man stuck in a tree because he'd shut himself out and had been trying to climb onto the roof to open a window. When Mom started hiding the key on top of the door frame when he was in fourth grade, suddenly his life was that much less embarrassing.

     Well , whatever. It's not worth fighting about. Might as well drop it.

     "Watch yourself on the right," he warned. "Door's coming up."

     "Thank you." Atobe paused for a moment to glance over his shoulder and make sure he didn't hit the wall. "But if you're going to keep a key somewhere, at least give it to a friend you can call, or a neighbor. Something other than leaving it out in the open."

     So much for dropping it.

     "That wouldn't have helped much today," he answered. Apparently, you could never be sure when an enormous fruit basket would arrive and attract all your cat's attention. Who knew?

     "A minor inconvenience. I could easily have asked the manager on duty to let me in."

     "You think he'd just--" Echizen cut himself off mid-sentence. He didn't want to guess what people would and wouldn't do where Atobe was concerned. "You know what? Nevermind. You keep it." Between never having lost or forgotten his keys even once and Atobe coming over all the time, there was more of a chance that his self-appointed boyfriend would need it than him. Plus, it'd probably shut him up about security.

     Then the basket full of fruit stopped moving without warning.

     "What?" he asked, looking up at Atobe, who was standing still with a stunned expression when he should have been moving the wicker monstrosity that was getting heavier by the second. On top of that, he looked like he didn't know what to say, which was definitely not something Echizen associated with Hyoutei's diva captain.

     "You're... giving me your key?" his visitor managed at last.

     There really was no predicting what Atobe would consider a big deal. It was just a key. "Obviously you need it. Can we move this thing out of the doorway?"

     "Of course."

     They got the basket over to the wall and set it down. Karupin wasn't hard to spot; he was making straight for a bundle of grapes peeking out over the side. "I said no," Echizen reminded him, scooping his cat up and pulling him away from his target. "You wouldn't even like fruit." He gave Karupin a squeeze and a quick kiss on the head before he turned to put him back into the front room. "Out you go," he said, and slid the door shut before the cat could rush back in.

     Meanwhile, Atobe was staring down at the fruit behemoth with as much confusion as Echizen had felt when it arrived. "Did I manage to miss some occasion?" he asked.

     "I dunno," Echizen replied. He plucked the giant, white envelope off the top of the watermelon to read the fancy print. "To Echizen Ryoma, from the Shitenhouji High School Tennis Club." The words 'And me, too!!' were scrawled in messy hiragana using a pink crayon underneath. He picked up a shiny red apple the size of a softball and turned to Atobe with a shrug. "Maybe they have a fruit festival. Want one?"

     "Thank you," his guest replied, catching the fruit Echizen lobbed. While Atobe took a bite, he ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card.

     The picture of a big white cake on the front couldn't mean anything good.

     "Is this a purebred Kokkou varietal?"

     Echizen looked up at Atobe, who was studying the apple he'd just started eating. "How would I know?" he asked.

     As usual, Atobe wasn't paying attention to things people said. "The taste and texture both are absolutely exquisite. Perhaps Shitenhouji is more civilized than I thought."

     "It's an apple," Echizen said.

     Atobe held the apple in question out to offer him a taste, and Echizen glanced from the fruit to the card he'd only just managed to get out of its envelope. If his boyfriend needed as much attention as his cat, he might never get a chance to read the thing. With a sigh, he grabbed the apple to steady Atobe's grip and took a bite.

     A piece came off with a solid snap, the juice tasting more like honey than apple, but that was nothing to write home about. Apples in Japan were always ridiculously sweet, which meant he couldn't get a decent apple pie anywhere.

     "It's a good apple," he amended with a shrug.

     "I'm certain no student festival produced this. Just look! All this fruit is perfect," Atobe said, gesturing at the basket before taking another bite. "Not a single irregularity in form or in color. How am I to believe that this is anything but a gift celebrating some truly momentous event?"

     He had to crack a smile, watching Atobe overreact like Atobe always did. The guy was a lot of fun when he wasn't being a jackass. Sometimes even when he was.

     Echizen turned back to the card, letting his guest sort out any particulars of fruit quality for himself. Though, as much as he hated to admit it, Atobe was probably right, especially given the card. There was only one reason he knew for cards printed with a big cake like that.

     A big white layer cake topped with big white bells.

     But there wasn't a reason to send him a card with a wedding cake on it.

     Unless...

     Echizen's confusion screeched to a halt.

     He aimed a wary glance at Atobe, who was still talking to himself. "Well, you'd find something like this at breakfast at my estate, naturally, but that's beside the point." His visitor turned from the basket to look him in the eye. "Oh, and if I haven't mentioned, you are always welcome at my estate, for breakfast or for any other reason."

     Oh, shit.

     It had been whole days since anyone had called to ask what was going on with him and Atobe. He'd figured that was over. The guys in Osaka must not have gotten the message that it was all Atobe's joke. Or delusion. Or whatever this was. From the looks of the basket, they hadn't gotten the message in a really big way.

     Atobe stared back expectantly. After a moment of Echizen not saying anything, he went on talking. "I'm afraid my parents aren't quite ready to meet you in an official capacity, but security knows that you are always to be admitted to me directly."

     What? Security?! For a second, it felt like he'd been dropped in the middle of someone else's conversation, but Atobe's house would have security, so if he were visiting... Why was he going to be visiting again?

     Right. The invitation to breakfast. That part wasn't a joke.

     Or maybe it was, and Atobe still expected him to think it was funny.

     Except it sounded like he'd told his parents they were 'dating', and they didn't sound amused. Putting himself in the line of fire between Atobe and two disapproving parents was more trouble than free breakfast was worth -- no matter how good it was. Unless, of course, the way Atobe had said 'official' meant that they wanted to meet him in some kind of unofficial way. But even then, the idea of Atobe's parents being in on the joke (or completely deluded) along with Atobe was no better than the idea of visiting the house of a bunch of dynastic big-wigs who thought he was their son's boyfriend and weren't happy about it.

     Atobe was clearly going to stand there waiting until he got an answer, and would probably make a pest of himself if Echizen tried not to give one. He thought about just saying, 'No'. On the other hand, he'd said 'No' to stuff, and it clearly hadn't made an impression. 'Ignore it and hope he stops' was probably his best option. If it was a joke and he left it alone, Atobe might drop the subject. Jokes stopped being funny eventually. That had to be true for Atobe like it was for normal human beings.

     "I'll think about it," he replied at last, and flipped open the card.

     Sure enough, it wished him the best on his marriage to Hyoutei's Craziest, in big red letters. He stared at the text, biting his lip as he considered the problem: so, what was the best way to call someone and say, 'I didn't get married, but thanks for the fruit,' anyway?

     "What does it say?" Atobe asked. "They must have had a reason. Not that I could have missed something that happened to you. That's unthinkable."

     Echizen rubbed his eyes and tried to wipe Atobe's last sentence out of his memory. Getting 'dated' by a friend who happened to be a lunatic with infinite resources was pretty special, but he could take it as long as Atobe didn't expect to get dated back. If he was getting stalked, he was going to need to find a new planet to live on -- and even that might not help. He could barely get away from his old man stalking him as it was. So the universe wouldn't let Atobe mean that how it sounded, end of story.

     "You missed our wedding," he replied, handing over the card.

     Atobe's laugh filled the small apartment. "Really? My apologies for neglecting to attend. I'm not usually so rude."

     "Don't worry," Echizen said. "I missed it, too."

     Atobe glanced up, giving Echizen a look that he hoped was the kind of serious that meant this was so ridiculous that it was funnier if you looked like you were being serious. If it was the serious kind of serious, they had a problem. "We'll need to write them a thank you note, of course," Hyoutei's captain said, then looked back at the card with a smile. "Best wishes for a happy couple. How considerate!"

     He frowned at his guest, not sure if he could actually tell the difference between when Atobe was serious and when he was joking. He couldn't even remember a time when Atobe had said anything other than exactly what he meant. Of course, that'd mean he was serious about sending Shitenhouji a thank you note for assuming they'd gotten married, and since that was ridiculous –- truly ridiculous, not the normal kind -– Atobe had to be joking.

     Obviously.

     So he needed to explain that this wasn't as funny as Atobe thought it was. There had to be a way to get him to shut up about something -- not that he'd ever seen someone manage it. Tezuka-buchou and Sanada ignored everything he said, and while the captain might do that to everybody, Sanada didn't. If Sanada had decided that getting Atobe to drop something was more trouble than it was worth, maybe it was.

     But had Sanada ever gotten a fruit basket?

     Well, whatever, Echizen thought. Until he could think of something, he'd ignore it. Dealing with the fruit was more important. No way could he eat all this before it went bad, even if he could keep Karupin from shredding it. He picked up a bunch of bananas, trying to decide if he had one day or two before they turned brown, and whether there was a way to get them to school without making a mushy banana mess of his backpack.

     Probably not.

     “Hah!” Atobe laughed to himself between bites of his nearly finished apple, still reading through the notes on the card.

     “What's so funny?” Echizen asked, picking up a pear in his other hand. These were going to be even more of a problem than the bananas. Not as smelly, but a lot more runny.

     Atobe swallowed a bite, shaking his head and waving the hand holding the apple dismissively. “Oh, it's just those comedians. Someone named Koharu is demanding pictures of the ceremony. He wants to know which one of us wore the dress.”

     “Oh, Koharu? Why am I not surprised?” He looked down at a section full of fruit that he couldn't even name, let alone tell if he would like or how fast it would go bad or how much of a mess it would be. “Those guys are ridiculous,” he sighed.

     "Hmm." Atobe nodded his agreement as he took another bite of apple. After he swallowed, he said, “Indeed. I may have a certain delicate slenderness to my physique, but hardly one suited to a gown. Moreover, white has a tendency to wash out my complexion.”

     His guest went back to reading, not seeing Echizen scowl. That better not have meant what it sounded like. He didn't wear dresses. Or skirts. He thought he'd been clear when they'd discussed costumes for the play at his 'birthday party'. Atobe claimed to know that he wasn't a girl, but if he tried to put him in a dress again, Echizen was going to stop believing him. He wasn't a girl, they weren't 'dating', and if Atobe ever expected him to put together a freaking lunch box, or make Valentine's chocolates--

     He shook his head, turning his back on the Hyoutei student. It wasn't worth thinking about. Instead, Echizen eyed all the fruit for things he could keep. Apples, oranges, mangoes. Maybe the watermelon. It would keep in the refrigerator. Grapes were fine, too, though pineapples were too much trouble.

     Right , he thought, big stuff first, and knelt to the floor to take what he was keeping.

     “On the other hand, white flatters your coloring. I'm surprised he couldn't see that.”

     Ryoma looked up from the basket in the middle of pulling out the watermelon, eyes narrowed. “Oi,” he snapped. “I told you, I am never wearing a dress again.”

     “I had no intention of putting you in another dress,” Atobe responded, looking confused.

     “Good.”

     "Do you need help with that?"

     Echizen looked at the watermelon, which wasn't giving him any trouble, and shrugged. "I've got it. If you're done with that apple, the trash and the sink are in the kitchen."

     "All right," was all Atobe said, but he still had a strange look on his face.

     He went back to the basket after Atobe snuck out of the room. His guest even managed to get past Karupin without letting him in. Of course, Karupin could have been following Atobe around again.

     Sorting the fruit went more quickly than he'd figured, and was even kind of relaxing when he could stop thinking about what Atobe meant by all his crazy talk. Echizen picked up the basket full of extremely perishable and unidentifiable things (he could handle it by himself with the watermelon out), and carried it into the front. Atobe was between him and the burnable trash, where all of this would have to go. It's a horrible waste, though, he thought with a frown. Not to mention how Mr. Send Them a Thank-You Card would react. If the key thing had upset him, throwing out a gift would probably be worse, but he couldn't keep it. Maybe he could send Atobe out first, then chuck it? Probably more hassle than it was worth.

     He looked down at the fruit, perplexed, then at Hyoutei's captain -- who was sitting on the kitchen floor and taunting Karupin with a ball. The cat raised a paw, looking for a chance to steal it, and Atobe dropped it and let the ball bounce away. Karupin chased after it only to have it shoot out from between his paws when he pounced, leaving Atobe staring after the running cat with a smile. His visitor looked up then, eye contact and the weight of the basket reminding Echizen that he'd spaced out.

     "You do look marvelous in white," he said.

     Echizen sighed, "Whatever," and went back to thinking.

     The basket had been sent to his house, but the card had been for both of them, hadn't it? That made half of it Atobe's problem. More than half Atobe's problem, if you counted how it was his fault. He probably even knew what all the weird fruits were.

     “Hey,” he called out. “I'm putting your half on the porch.”

     “Thank you. I'll let my driver know to come get it,” Atobe said, standing up. Karupin trotted back over, brushing up against their guest's legs as if he were trying to trip him. He opened the door for Echizen and waved at the man in the suit standing next to his limousine, who started toward the stairs.

     Echizen closed the door before Karupin could get curious about the basket again, backing away and rubbing his eyes. They hadn't even gotten to the courts and he was already exhausted. And hungry. Man, was he hungry. When he opened his eyes, he saw his visitor looking at the door with a smirk.

     “What?” he asked.

     “Nothing, really. I was just considering -- the reactions of my friends in the area haven't been nearly so supportive. We should most certainly send them some token of thanks for their regard.”

     He sighed, glaring at Atobe. “Just so we're clear, we didn't get married. The guys at Shitenhouji made a mistake.”

     “I know,” Atobe replied. He turned to Echizen like he had a question and wasn't quite sure how to ask.

     Echizen turned away, walking towards the back to get the watermelon. That was the most reasonable thing he'd heard come out of the tennis diva's mouth in over a month. Maybe ever. Quitting the conversation before it got weird seemed like a good idea.

     Then Atobe's hands grabbed his waist suddenly and he felt... What the hell!? Was that Atobe's nose in his hair? The whispering in his ear meant that was definitely Atobe's nose, which was definitely weird.

     "Oi! Quit it," Echizen snapped, recovering from his shock enough to jam an elbow against Atobe's side and wrench away, and he heard the skitter of Karupin dashing across the floor into the furthest corner of the room. The hold his guest had put on him had vanished, he noticed with surprise. Well, that was easy. When Eiji-sempai or Momo- sempai or his old man jumped him, he had to struggle to get away, and Atobe wasn't exactly weak.

     The only thing he could figure was that Atobe hadn't expected him to put up a fight. What went on inside Atobe's head he couldn't usually say, but right now it seemed clear that he'd thought...

     "As if a love as extraordinary as the one we share could be defined by mortal bonds."

     What Atobe had whispered sunk in at last. Echizen got that prickly feeling at the bottom of his neck again, and this time it wasn't going away.

     "I seem to have offended you," Atobe said from behind him. "I'm sorry."

     Damn it, Echizen thought. Maybe he couldn't tell a joke from confused when a friend called a match a 'date', but he knew them both from serious. And this was Atobe, who really did always say exactly what he meant, and then backed it up. Even if it was the craziest bullshit you'd ever heard in your life.

     Maybe I should have known.

     He turned around, wincing when he saw the confused expression on his friend's face and the way he was holding his side like it hurt. He felt a little bad. Just a little. And a little weird. Atobe was a freak, but he was a friend.

     "May I ask what's wrong?"

     Echizen looked away, rubbing the side of his head and looking at his cat, who was now peeking out from where he'd hidden behind the folding table against the wall. His fur still looked puffed out from the scare. Sighing again, he turned his attention back to Atobe.

     Love, huh?

     It didn't seem possible that Mr. Insight hadn't noticed Echizen correcting him fifty times a day every time they met for a few weeks now, but if that wasn't a joke either, it was about time they got a few things straight.

     

~//~

     

     Pausing by the door to their homeroom, Oshitari saw Atobe sitting by the window and staring through the glass into the distance. His feet were propped on the chair across the aisle, and his thumb was marking his place in a little hardcover book. The captain was as still as a statue, with his eyes wide and staring off into nothing.

     Pensive mode.

     Good thing he'd shown up early to look over his music for the Spring Concours. This particular mood of his captain's didn't do well when other students started walking in and being rowdy. Usually Atobe saved his quiet, moody fits for the middle of the week, or maybe right before a match. He definitely hadn't done this on a Monday morning in a while. Ever since the whole mess with the Seigaku brat had started, his captain came off of Sundays downright irrepressible. You'd think he was getting laid, he was so happy. Oshitari knew he wasn't actually getting laid, of course. He'd managed to stake out every Sunday's match so far, and though he couldn't follow them to dinner most nights and he hadn't found a good vantage to see into Echizen's apartment, you didn't have to be a genius to see that Atobe wasn't getting any. The brat was a stone wall.

     He walked over to the window and swung a leg over the chair in front of Atobe's, facing the back so they were sharing a desk, and snuck a glance at the book his friend wasn't reading. "HOMERI", it read across the top in large roman letters -- one of the little blue-jacketed volumes that filled a whole bookshelf in his friend's dorm room, which Atobe usually studied with a great deal of interest. Oshitari couldn't have said which one, though, not even with his perfect memory. The covers were all labeled in Latin and the texts were all in Greek. Gibberish he could remember was still gibberish.

     "A little light reading?" he asked his captain, pulling out the Haydn quartet he'd technically come here to study.

     Atobe made a short, affirmative grunt.

     He paused for a moment, surprised by the quiet sound. The surprises kept coming, too, as Atobe turned the cover to face Oshitari with a tiny, listless motion. Usually asking a question about one of Atobe's little Greek books snapped him right into Dynamic Mode. Oshitari usually tried to do that as soon as he spotted his friend in Pensive Mode, because while an ebullient Atobe was loud and outrageous, a quiet Atobe was just as outrageous and couldn't take a joke. That was just asking for trouble.

     "It's a love story," Atobe said at last, with only a shadow of his usual zeal, then turned the blue cover to face himself and studied it with the kind of zoned out expression that always made Oshitari wonder if his captain was trying to develop x-ray vision and read the book without opening it. With a sigh, he lifted up the book into a shaft of sunlight coming through the window and turned it until the cover was fully lit. "An ode to the romance of the battlefield," Atobe continued before dropping his arm, "where men fight with resolute and... obstinate pride."

     Oshitari opened to the first page of his music and uncapped his highlighter, never taking his eyes off of Atobe's strange expression. If he hadn't known better, he would have said Atobe was downright depressed. Atobe was never depressed. The closest Oshitari had ever seen was 'determined'. Something must have happened. He didn't know what, because it sure as hell hadn't happened while he'd been watching, but sometime, somewhere, some serious shit had to have gone down.

     "In the end, one man goes to battle to cover for his beloved's pride," Atobe explained, pushing some hair out of his face, then meeting Oshitari's eyes, "but the lover falls because of his own. His beloved goes mad with rage and claims vengeance, and so seals his doom to never see his homeland again."

     'Love story'?

     Atobe's summaries were usually special, but some days they were more special than others. He got the suspicion that he wouldn't find that book anywhere in the romance section of the library.

     Sighing, his captain resumed his glazed stare out the window, and Oshitari kept his mouth shut. Pushing never helped when dealing with a case of excessive introspection. Atobe ignored you when he didn't want to talk, and prying only annoyed him. It'd be better to wait til he had something to say. He always did, eventually, so Oshitari turned to his Haydn and waited. Before he could start marking the first violin line, though, the key ring on the desk caught his eye. Atobe's key ring, with the keys to the student council room, to the club room, to Atobe's house, to the motorcycle he drove and the lock he used to secure it... Keys of all shapes and sizes. He knew each one of them, and today there was a new one.

     Under the circumstances, Oshitari stifled the urge to ask what it was for, as much as he wanted to know. It was shaped like a house key, so at least that narrowed it down. It was probably just a new place in Hawaii or something. Usually Atobe would have told them weeks ago that he was planning to get a new vacation home and invited the team to come out when it was ready, but there was no reason why his family couldn't buy property on a whim. Setting the question aside, Oshitari went back to highlighting and got a whole three and a half pages in before his captain decided he was ready to talk.

     "You know," Atobe said, breaking his silent contemplation of the classroom windows. He took his feet off the chair where he'd propped them and turned toward Oshitari, resting his chin on his hands with his elbows braced on the desk. "I think Echizen might not be aware of the depth of his affection for me."

     He looked up at the perplexed expression on Atobe's face. "You're kidding," Oshitari replied.

     With that, it looked like he'd finally broken through the depressed cloud that'd been hovering over his friend's head. Atobe threw his hands out to the sides, his languor of a moment before giving way to a more usual vigor and a more usual volume. "Indeed!" he proclaimed, voice echoing through the empty classroom. "How could it escape him?" Atobe rose and paced down the aisle, gesturing all around his head. "This... truth that cries out to me, as the first cry of a sparrow outside one's window heralds the spring, writ so vividly to my eyes that the very clouds seem to spell out the words and the rocks echo it beneath my feet. There is no doubt in my mind that he does care, and yet persistently, he is unmoved."

     Atobe paused to lean on one of the desks, shaking his head in disbelief. Oshitari had some disbelief of his own, but he wasn't going to move a muscle or even breathe wrong for fear of laughing. He didn't want to laugh in Atobe's face when he was clearly having issues, but this was Echizen.

     "I can only assume," his friend continued, clearly unable, as always, to hear what was coming out of his mouth, "that his own emotions are so basic a fact of his being that, like breath or sight pass into action unconsciously, he hasn't fully synthesized their presence and import."

     Oshitari closed his music and put the cap back on his highlighter, giving Atobe his full attention. Depending on how long he'd been thinking by himself before Oshitari had shown up, it could take awhile for him to work through the metaphors and find a sentence that meant something. Luckily, they had at least half an hour before the rest of the class showed up.

     "It's as if the entire world of his perception so slowly sees the dawn that he cannot as yet fathom that the lonely night of our separate existences has ended." Atobe's eyes had unfocused, transported into whatever special world he lived in that the rest of them couldn't see. "The commencement so natural and delicate in its tone that he still dreams in innocent slumber, though the melody that does not wake him sounds like a fanfare within my soul."

     It sounded like his captain might have reached a stopping point with metaphors intact, and the last thing Oshitari wanted was for him to start thinking again and build up another head of steam. At least he could parse the visions of orchestral alarm clocks well enough to say one thing: the brat had somehow managed to get his friend to notice that he wasn't interested. "I take it your date this Sunday didn't go so hot?" Oshitari asked, even though nothing unusual had jumped out at him during his surveillance. It had to be something Echizen had done; Atobe had pretty firmly demonstrated that he had no intention on noticing on his own.

     "Don't be absurd," was all Atobe said before clamming up again.

     Oshitari paused, running through the match in his mind. There hadn't been an argument, or even a discussion, about their 'relationship' while the two players had been at the court, and they hadn't gone to dinner, so that was out. They'd played, and he hadn't noticed anything amiss at the time, but if he recalled correctly (and he always did), the lack of 'relationship' talk went beyond not having a discussion. There hadn't been a single comment. Atobe hadn't said a single thing at the courts about a 'date', and he'd let Echizen go after the game without demanding his company for dinner.

     He must've gotten schooled before they even left the brat's apartment.

     Maybe Inui has video, Oshitari thought. Inquiring minds really had to know, especially when he and Atobe had a wager riding on the progress of this 'relationship' and certain captains didn't volunteer details.

     Atobe caught his eye, leaning forward with a heavy sigh to pick up his book and the key ring, opening up the one to his page marker and dropping the other in his pocket.

     The key ring with a new house key, to a house his friend hadn't mentioned.

     It couldn't be. Not with him acting like this.

     But he had to ask.

     "Atobe?" Oshitari asked. It was like his friend hadn't even heard. He just went on reading -- though at least he was reading now, and not moping. "Atobe," he tried again. "Did that brat actually give you his key?" The stern look in Atobe's face when he looked up was more than enough to be sure.

     "Whether or not I have his key is none of your concern."

     Oshitari's eyes almost fell out of his head, they went so wide. "Holy shit. He gave you the key to his apartment and still managed to get it through your skull that he's not interested? Seriously -- what did he do?"

     "Let me be clear," Atobe said with the frown that Oshitari knew meant you'd really ticked him off. "A gentleman keeps his beloved's confidences to himself. Don't waste your breath asking."

     "Fine. Don't kiss and tell," he replied, relaxing back in his seat. Giving on the point seemed to improve Atobe's mood slightly, though he wasn't sure what the big deal was. Since when did gentlemen make wagers on dating anyway? He wasn't going to let Atobe back out of that by claiming some kind of moral high ground. "You're going to have to go public eventually, or I'll win the bet by default," Oshitari reminded him. The burden of proof was on his captain, no question.

     "The bet?" Atobe laughed, snapping his book shut. "Are you blind? I've long since won."

     "Not from where I'm sitting," Oshitari replied. "A little bird keeps telling me Echizen's not into you."

     Atobe shook his head and sat down, dismissing the comment completely. "You should get better birds," he said, which at least meant that his friend's mood had improved even if his perception of reality hadn't.

     'Better birds,' my ass, Oshitari thought. No matter how he looked at it, even in light of the key situation, Echizen's endless refrain over the past weeks of 'We're not dating' was an absolute contradiction of the assertion that Atobe had somehow won the bet. Hell, if that weren't enough, Atobe's own soliloquy not five minutes before was the best damn bird anyone could ask for. Atobe was going to have to be more convincing than that if he wanted to escape a lifetime of mockery when the brat turned sixteen.

     He tried to go back to highlighting and let Atobe read his book, but there was just something off about the whole conversation. Something weird, and the puzzle of it all was keeping him from concentrating on his Haydn.

     Something really weird. Because if Atobe was that sure he'd 'long since won' the bet, why the hell was he moping around an empty classroom on a Monday morning like a lovesick cuckoo?

     "Hold on." He turned back to his friend, unable to accept the thought that had just passed through his head. "You're actually trying to date Echizen Ryoma?"

     Atobe looked up from his book, blinking at Oshitari and knitting up his brows. "Has that not been obvious?" he asked.

     Slumping back in his seat, Oshitari took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes. "I must have missed something somewhere," he said, replaying everything about this whole damn mess in his head, looking for some hint that could have tipped him off to that little piece of lunacy. "You're talking like you think you're in love, Atobe. With Echizen Ryoma."

     "What about it?" his friend asked. Oshitari opened his eyes and stared at Atobe's confused expression, his brain completely blank of comprehension. He'd had plenty of conversations with this guy over the years that didn't make sense, but never something quite that perpendicular to sense. Meanwhile, Atobe marked his page in the book again, closed it, and set it on the table. "What on earth would make you think I wasn't serious?" he asked.

     Should I start with making a bet about whether or not you can 'make him yours'?

     Probably a bad idea, actually. Atobe hadn't forgotten that they had a bet, which meant he didn't see any contradiction between what he was doing and what he was saying. Arguing that he wouldn't have made a bet like that if the kid meant something to him would get brushed off at best and at worst might insult whatever part of Atobe was claiming to be a 'gentleman' right now.

     But still, this was Echizen Ryoma they were talking about. The kid who ate, slept, and breathed tennis like some kind of machine, with the occasional break to talk smack on the guy across the net. Of course, explaining that all the poetry Atobe could dream up about symphonies or sparkly lights didn't apply to a rude brat like Echizen wouldn't go over any better than telling Atobe that he wasn't behaving like a gentleman should. Apparently everyone else's impertinent brat was Atobe's ball of sunshine, and Oshitari knew exactly how well contradicting Atobe's version of reality worked. He'd have more luck getting a laugh out of a room full of empty chairs.

     "I guess I never thought about it," Oshitari answered at last. It wasn't exactly a lie. He hadn't. "When the hell did you fall in love with that kid?"

     "Is this some kind of avant garde humor?" Atobe asked, with what sounded like sincere curiosity. "Certainly your memory couldn't have failed you."

     "Excuse me?"

     Oshitari sure as hell didn't remember any reason to think his captain had grown feelings for Echizen, and that was more likely to be Atobe's fault than his.

     "Three years ago," his friend prompted. "You were present. You even, if I recall, brought the matter to my attention."

     Wait, what? That?

     The goodwill match against the American team, when this had all gotten started?

     He was supposed to have known that Atobe was serious because of that?!

     "I was joking," he said after he finally managed to swallow enough incredulity to make a coherent noise. No way was he taking any responsibility for Atobe's mania.

     "I wasn't." Atobe settled back in his chair, eyes gazing far off again while he gestured toward some illusion. "A vision passed within my mind," he said, "the future manifest before me as I watched him with new eyes- -"

     "Oh? And here I thought you were checking him out." Atobe could pontificate on his own time. Right now, Oshitari wanted real answers.

     His friend jerked out of his reverie with a stunned blink. "He was twelve!"

     "I call 'em like I see 'em."

     Atobe looked like he might still have been choking on whatever he'd been planning to say before Oshitari had cut him off. "I assure you, if there was any physical assessment at that time, it was not of Echizen qua his prepubescent image. It's possible that I took future prospects into account," he granted, collecting himself. "The whole realization was instantaneous and complete. I can hardly imagine that the flower of manhood even now starting to bloom within him would not have been clear to me."

     Oshitari found he had to suppress an involuntary shudder, and couldn't be sure if it was because Atobe was saying that with a straight face or because he was saying it about the pint -sized tennis machine. Well, maybe Echizen was less 'pint-sized' now than three years ago, since he'd hit puberty while he was overseas, but it was still a major pain in the paradigm to think of Echizen being called any kind of flower. He shook his head to break himself out of reflexively trying to form an image of what he'd been hearing, since his brain kept getting hung up on rejecting it, and locked the words away somewhere he could pretend he'd never heard them.

     Unfortunately, Atobe was still talking. "--and let me assure you, when that flower is grown, his desirability will be quite worthy of consideration."

     "Just ... stop. I get it."

     That'd teach him to accuse Atobe of checking out a pipsqueak.

     "Quite so," his friend went on, oblivious. "Who he was, all he would become, all we would be to each other -- burned into my core, essential to my being as soon as I had seen its truth. I knew in that instant that we would share a love born to transcend the ages. He and I..." Barely pausing to take a breath, Atobe flipped open his little book and leafed back a few pages from his marker, a tiny grin visible through his overly dramatic enthusiasm. "ἠμὲν ἐμαρνάσθην ἔριδος πέρι θυμοβόροιο, ἠδαὖτἐν φιλότητι διέτμαγεν ἀρθμήσαντε!" He dropped his face into his hands with a sigh at the sound of Greek. At least, after dealing Atobe for almost five years, he knew a translation was coming up without him having to ask. "Fighting together as rivals," his captain went on, pausing for a moment at the end of each phrase to put together something in a language Oshitari could understand. "...In strife that wrenches the soul... and ere we part, the bonds of affection forged."

     "Now I mean this in the best way, but you need to give the Plato a rest," Oshitari said, taking the book out of Atobe's hands.

     His friend looked confused, though he didn't resist. "That's The Iliad," he said, as if that would negate the fact that he'd overdosed on epic battlefield 'love stories'.

     Oshitari shook his head to ask, 'What of it?', closing the volume and guarding it safely on his own side of the desk.

     Atobe pointed to some of the Latin text on the cover. "It's by Homer."

     "Fine, " Oshitari replied, content to give on that, and hoped that at least he'd distracted his captain from his previous train of thought.

     No such luck, unfortunately, as Atobe snapped out of bafflement on Oshitari's word and right back into ecstatic. "This moment is our springtime," he declared, leaning over the desk like he might leap up any second.

     Oshitari leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath and focused all this attention on parsing Atobe's forthcoming stream of imagery. With the way his friend kept slipping back to his dream world, there was a very real chance it was all he was going to get to work with. So, Echizen was some kind of flower -- a concept not visualized, for the sake of his sanity. Springtime was pretty standard for schlocky crap. So far so good.

     With a sigh, Atobe turned to look out the window. "I revel in each moment that passes, watching the the season turn bright and warm and full of new life, friendship turning to an intimacy peerless and eternal in its beauty," he said, all of which Oshitari thought was pretty well covered by 'springtime', but he wasn't much for poetry. Though if Atobe had been in love with the brat for three whole years, now was a weird time to 'watch springtime turn bright'.

     Of course, Echizen had been overseas for awhile.

     "What I saw in my flash of insight that day grows with each moment into the real, the tangible, the undeniable." His captain squeezed his hand into a fist over the windowsill, as if he were trying to grab hold of the sunbeam coming in through the trees, and looked back towards Oshitari. "In which you behold my conundrum -- for what is undeniable," Atobe said, gesturing to one side of the desk, "he denies; to what I feel keenly, he seems numb." He settled a fist on the other side of the desk before pulling both hands up and rubbing his eyes. "...And what I know as fact, he spurns as fancy," he finished with a sigh, turning his eyes up to the ceiling and shaking his head.

     "I can see why you're confused," Oshitari replied. He felt for Echizen, honestly, though it was damn impressive that he'd managed to crack the shell on Atobe's personal delusions to this degree.

     What confused Oshitari was the claim that Atobe's little vision was growing real.

     If it wasn't already real, then what the hell did Atobe think he was talking about?

     "How can I teach someone to see that which to me is like the light of day -- clear around me on all sides, illuminating the world to my sight?"

     Oshitari bit his lip to contain his automatic response: that Kabaji would be a better person to ask for tips on getting someone to see life through Atobe's magic kaleidescope. Jokes like that wouldn't help.

     "All I do is open my eyes, and there it is," his captain mused. "A connection in every game we play, every word we share, every touch of my hand on his. But to him, the same game, same word, same touch, even if in action he treats it as I do, in discourse he applies only the friendship that -- as dear as it is -- is but the morning star when I see the world at noon."

     Also relegated to his list of 'Not Helpful' comments: reminding Atobe that sometimes a game of tennis was just a game of tennis. He'd given up arguing that point aeons ago. So, he didn't point out that he'd watched Echizen play a lot of people, and there was no damn difference between that and how he played with Atobe.

     Not that he would have wanted to interrupt when the guy was on a roll. "It's as if he tells me that he sees the trees, he sees the grass, he sees the vast oceans and the humble valleys, but insists that he cannot see the sunshine," Atobe went on, leaving his examination of the ceiling to address Oshitari properly with a hint of exasperation creeping into his tone. "I am at a loss."

     "Atobe," he answered. "No one sees the way you see. You're insane."

     "I am quite grounded in reality, thank you."

     Oshitari dropped his head into one hand, running over all he'd heard again to grasp at the picture that was forming in his head of what Atobe's problem really was. "Correct me if I've got this wrong," he said, "but it sounds like you're saying your little vision is still a work in progress."

     One laugh from his captain turned the headache from his mental knotwork into a numb sensation that was the exact opposite of relief. "And as certainly as Degas knew his image as he began laying paint to canvas, it will be all I dream and more." Like hearing a horrible pun coming from a mile away, he'd really hoped he'd been wrong about where that was headed.

     "So, three years ago, you figured out -- and by the way, that isn't possible -- that you're going to fall in love with Echizen at some point that still hasn't happened yet, so -- right now -- you've decided to start dating him." Oshitari watched Atobe for any kind of sign that seeing his flower-covered delusions stripped bare would convey the sheer stupidity of the notion. Sometimes, that worked.

     Not today, it would seem.

     "What, are you actually out of your mind?"

     "Your logic assumes that being in love begins when you, as a lover, make the realization that you are completely enamored of your beloved," Atobe replied, pointing across the desk. "When that action is complete, and you have fallen in love, one might say."

     "Yes, one might."

     "Well, there's your fallacy. This assumes that affection is as simple as a lightswitch. Off, on. Dark, light. Friends, lovers. No." Atobe adjusted his seat, pulling back from the desk to widen the area he could use to gesture. "It may be common to see it that way, for so often he who is himself in the process of falling does not realize before that moment. It seems to him like a bolt of lightning that cracks the skies above him with a thunderous roar, sudden and swift, when that lightning is in fact nothing but the fierce result of a slow buildup of charge over time."

     Oshitari seriously could not understand where Atobe's brain came up with this shit.

     "Imagine the man who wakes, not late but neither uncommonly early, who looks at his window and sees the glow of the sun through the curtain. 'It is day,' he says, and no one would say he was wrong. But the man who is alert before the sun rises can look to the East and see the first blush of light on the clouds herald that daybreak. He can stay and witness a moment of uncommon beauty because he knows day is coming. Likewise, to fall in love is a process that by the majority of men goes unnoticed simply because they are not aware. But awareness is happily mine, and I will not let this moment pass by. This is a sunrise that only happens once, for this sun will never set, and I mean to see it in all its singular majesty."

     First setting aside the question of whether Echizen was supposed to be a flower, a bolt of lightning, or a ball of sunshine -- since the answer was unlikely to make him happy in any case -- Oshitari considered the chance that he could persuade Atobe that Echizen was just the normal sort of person who didn't know he was in love before it happened.

     Unlike Atobe himself and his miraculous, super-special Insightfulness.

     In the end, he decided his odds were better if he played it straight. No way would Atobe believe that Echizen was normal. "I'm no expert on romance," he said, "but I'm pretty damn sure love doesn't work that way."

     "There's no mistake, I assure you. Echizen and I share a bond, an understanding that nothing can sunder. It was forged on the courts, but it will tie us together through every moment of our lives to come."

     "Atobe, this is just another tennis crush," Oshitari said, thinking of all the times he'd heard some variation of that come out of his captain's mouth. Once, notably, to him -- and if Atobe was going to start confusing a good game of tennis with a binding promise of sexual devotion, then they weren't playing another match until this got cleared up. Not to mention the fights there were going to be when Echizen entered the high school division in April and started playing regular games with Kikumaru and Fuji again. That boy got around.

     "Think about this," he said, trying to lay out the facts clearly enough that his friend couldn't deny them. "You found some tennis phenom, someone who can be a challenge, someone who can even beat you. He shows the teeniest sign of knowing you exist, then inexplicably puts up with having you around... and suddenly, you think you've got some eternal brotherhood thing and you're spouting quotations from dusty old books. Does that ring any bells?"

     The way Atobe scrunched up his face looked like he was thinking as hard as he ever had in his life to figure out what Oshitari was getting at. "Well, since you mention it, I'd say he always did vaguely remind me of someone."

     No shit, he reminds you of someone.

     "I wonder who it could be?" Atobe mused.

     "Lefty out of Seigaku, good enough to be a regular as a freshman, kicks everyone's ass and makes it look like a walk in the park?"

     Atobe broke his concentration to throw Oshitari a dubious shake of the head.

     "I'm just sayin'."

     Waving away the suggestion without another thought, his friend answered, "He's nothing like Tezuka. No, it's someone else. Someone who lives his life with more verve, more fire."

     "Fine. Sanada."

     "Sanada's far too obedient for there to be a resemblance," Atobe scoffed.

     Well, as far as Oshitari was concerned, what Sanada had was more like 'a healthy fear of Yukimura' than 'obedience', and that just meant that Rikkai Dai's whipped Emperor had some shred of sanity in him. But in all fairness to Atobe's point, Echizen wasn't afraid of Yukimura. "I know it's not me," he murmured, wracking his memory for someone Echizen bore more of a resemblance to than Tezuka or Sanada.

     "I'm quite sure it was something about the way he blew open the tennis league, turning it upside down," Atobe offered. He leaned back in his chair, bringing his finger to his lip as he considered. "I watched it reshape itself in his image, and the world has never been the same since."

     Oshitari didn't need to wonder twice why that sounded so familiar.

     "Oh, for the love of... Atobe, please tell me he doesn't remind you of yourself."

     "You know, I think you have it." His captain snapped up in his chair, expression clearing. "He did remind me of myself at that age."

     I knew it, Oshitari thought with a groan. I give up. "You know, Atobe, if you're looking to... ah... stroke your own ego, there are easier ways to do it than trying to nail Echizen Ryoma. More effective, too."

     "A vague resemblance, I said. I think I can tell the difference between love for another and a desire for self- satisfaction, thank you very much."

     Oshitari stopped trying to rein in his exasperation. "You're not even really in love with him! You just think you're going to be someday." The crazy shit he was hearing was worse than a kindergartner who thought he had fallen in love with the girl who'd passed him the yellow crayon, whose name he couldn't quite remember. At least the kindergartner was saying it because actually liked the girl, even if he'd forget about her the next year, instead of deciding he could tell the future.

     "As I explained, it's a process we've begun- -"

     "Yeah, and until you're there, you don't know what's going to happen. Love isn't sunshine, Atobe. And it's not meadows full of dancing flowers or lightning in the clouds or birds singing Beethoven. Love doesn't happen just because you dream it up. It's a real thing that makes someone else's life part of yours, and once you've seen it, you know it doesn't look like anything else."

     Yeesh, what am I saying? Before he'd realized it, Oshitari was leaning over the desk to harangue Atobe when all he'd wanted was to ask how his captain could be so smart and such an idiot simultaneously.

     "That 's splendid," his friend mused, "I like the way you put that. I'll have to remember it."

     Unbelievable.

     Oshitari fell back into his chair. He should have gotten used to the way Atobe was by now, but maybe he never would. "Claim all the insight you want. Listening to all that, anyone who's ever been in love will tell you you're insane." Not that it mattered. Atobe being crazy was the rule, not the exception. "All I want to know is, what makes this any different from every other time you got the hots for some player or another but he wasn't having any of it? Because with Tezuka and Sanada- -"

     "I beg to differ," Atobe interrupted, reaching over the desk to take back the book Oshitari had stolen and opening it to his marker. "At no time did I have 'the hots' for Tezuka or Sanada."

     "Coulda fooled me. I'll grant you never tried to date them, but that's the point. What's making you go all out for Echizen when he doesn't want you, either?"

     "Doesn't want me? What on Earth are you talking about?"

     After the conversation they'd just been having, the surprise on Atobe's face was completely unwarranted. Had he not started the day by bitching about Echizen playing hard to get? It would have been very satisfying to pick his captain up and throw him out the door, but unfortunately impossible. "He's said so, Atobe. Repeatedly," Oshitari pointed out instead.

     "He freely accepts my invitations every week."

     Oshitari nodded. That was inexplicably true. Atobe, however, seemed to have overlooked one fact. "Those were invitations to play tennis," he reminded his friend.

     "My intentions have been very clear."

     "You're still playing tennis."

     "What's wrong with playing tennis?"

     He bent down low to the desk, raising an eyebrow at Atobe's incredulous expression. His captain bent over slightly to meet him, and Oshitari whispered, "Has it never once occurred to you that he might just want to play tennis?"

     Atobe leaned back in his chair, obviously pondering it for the first time. "No," he said after a moment. "No, that doesn't sound right. But I suppose it's possible that he hasn't yet made the separation in his perception between the heat of playing a match and the interest he has in me particularly. I should vary our activities, clearly. Thank you for the suggestion."

     "Let me know how that works out for you," he said, turning around to his own desk and reaching for his Haydn again. Behind him, he heard the shuffle of Atobe getting up from his chair and the beep of cell phone buttons.

     He was calling the brat now? Homeroom was in fifteen minutes! Echizen might not even have his cell phone switched on, what with Seigaku having morning practice on Mondays -- which Oshitari would have been perfectly happy not knowing, but you couldn't stop Atobe from talking.

     Still, there was his captain, walking toward the door with a little red cell phone at his ear.

     But if he'd learned anything this morning, it was that -- even if Atobe was crazy -- he was serious about dating Echizen. Or, at least thought he was serious. "Hey," Oshitari called out, grabbing Atobe's elbow before he got too far away. His friend turned around, the faint sound of ringing coming from the phone that dropped away from his ear. "Look, if you want out of this bet, just tell me. I didn't care in the first place; it's not like I'm gonna hold you to it."

     "I believe I already mentioned that our wager is long since won," Atobe replied, sounding confused. Then Echizen answered, words indistinguishable but tone unmistakable. His captain brushed off his offer with a quick, "Take your month whenever you like" and walked away towards the door, phone back at his ear. "Ah, Echizen! Good... No, that was nothing. I was calling to ask if you've had a chance to see the lions at the Tama-- ...Of course I know it's morning."

     Atobe disappeared past the door and down the hallway, busily making his plans. Doomed plans, Oshitari was sure. "How exactly do you think you've won?" he asked the empty classroom with a sigh.

     Gakuto stepped into view by the doorway, staring after Atobe. Oshitari knew he was in for trouble before his partner even turned into the classroom. He couldn't avoid it by reminding him that his own class was three doors down, either; there was still time before the bell rang. So he waited for what he could tell was coming, as Gakuto picked the music folder off of his desk and sat down in its place, leaning in close.

     "What's this bet?" he asked.

     "It's nothing," Oshitari said, letting his hand fall on Gakuto's knee. If only the universe would have mercy and let him get away with that...

     "Ah, no. Not nothing." Gakuto pointed at the open door, which Oshitari just knew Atobe might walk through any second. Him and his opinions about 'gentlemanly behavior' and not asking for details about other people's love lives. His boyfriend (though cute) wouldn't be able to handle the captain flipping his shit. "You two just said there was a bet. You were talking about Operation: Screw the Short Pants, weren't you?" Grabbing below the knot on Oshitari's tie, Gakuto pulled Oshitari forward and leaned in again until their faces were just a few centimeters apart. "So what's the bet?"

Chapter Text

     It had been worth spending most of the previous day camped in a tree with high-powered binoculars, even with the few nasty bruises on his hip from the knots in the branches, to see the look on Atobe's face when the attendant at Tama Zoo had called Echizen his 'little brother'. His captain had only gotten as far as stammering, 'Brother...?' before the Seigaku brat had taken the tickets and pushed him toward the tour bus saying, 'It's fine, just move it'. It was harder to find a watch point for non-tennis dates since there wasn't a convenient array of seating, but Week One of Atobe 'varying his activities' promised that Oshitari and the rest of the tennis league would have quite a show on their hands.

     Of course, even the indoor tennis matches were now more complicated to watch than they had been six weeks ago. The gallery for Atobe's weekly attempt to win Echizen over had been growing steadily, so it wasn't easy to find a good spot to hide in the bleachers where you could see without being seen. Inui had managed some kind of tap on the surveillance cameras, he'd heard. Now there was a guy who came prepared. But nobody'd need tricks like that when the weather was nice again. The bushes around most outdoor courts were enough space for five full teams to hide, including all of Hyoutei's two hundred plus members.

     Not that any of his spectator sessions had told him the thing he wanted to know most right now. Not even Inui had been able to pick up any details on that.

     Nothin' to do but ask after all. Even Atobe wouldn't get pissed if he asked about that, right? Being a week off, everyone knew it was coming, and it was only natural to have plans.

     "Oi, Atobe!" Oshitari called out. His captain turned around and threw him a questioning look while he changed out his regular jersey for the uniform jacket in his locker.

     "What is it?"

     "Just got to wondering. I never heard what you're doing for Valentine's Day." He slapped Atobe's shoulder and took a seat on the couch facing the lockers. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you hadn't thought about it. But you've got some secret scheme you've been working on for months, right? You can tell me. How're you gonna sweep your little lovebug off his feet?"

     "Valentine's Day?" The confusion on his captain's face was the one answer he never would have expected. "Why on earth would I plan something for Valentine's Day?"

     What could he say to that? At the very least, he'd have figured Atobe would put some thought to being jealous over how many girls were going to spend the day hunting down Seigaku's number one hot-shot, armed with chocolate and ribbons and romantic intentions. But he'd thought wrong.

     "How can you even ask 'why'?" Oshitari managed. "It's the day for confessing your love." From their various spots around the locker room, the rest of the team either stopped to listen in (like Gakuto and Ootori), or started vehemently ignoring the whole conversation (like Shishido).

     "But I've already done that," Atobe replied. The captain shut his locker and turned toward Oshitari. He leaned his back against a pillar with his arms folded while he dismissed the question with a look more dumbfounded than a freshman getting his first taste of the Rondo to Destruction. "Besides, Valentine's may have begun as a holiday celebrating a Roman who brought together lovers even when it was forbidden, but in this time and place it's a compulsion for girls to give chocolates. You get a sizeable pile every year, as I recall."

     "Not like yours," Oshitari murmured. If he remembered last year accurately, Atobe had scored at least two and a half times more presents than any other individual in the entire league (let alone the school), and about nineteen times what Oshitari had gotten himself -- and like Atobe had said, that wasn't exactly a trifle. He had to assume that, somewhere, his captain had a warehouse filled with chocolate and an army of butlers who sorted them (probably ate them, too) and compiled a list of girls who needed presents for White Day, since he'd never heard of Atobe missing a return gift. No way one man could do that on his own. Not even Atobe. Right?

     But if Atobe really meant what he said, and he wasn't going to do anything crazy for Valentine's Day...

     Well, where was the fun in that? He had to see if he could get Atobe to do something. If he could get his friend to drag the Seigaku brat off to the zoo with an offhand comment, surely he could get Atobe to make a fool out of himself for the fourteenth of February if he tried.

     "Fine, but that's in Japan, Atobe. The kid's from America. Do you have any idea what an American expects from Valentine's Day?"

     That ought to do the trick. Oshitari didn't even know if there was a real difference, but Atobe was sure to come up with something.

     His captain paused in the middle of picking up his racket bag, and a thoughtful look came over his face. "You know, that never occurred to me to consider."

     Jackpot.

     "You should look into it," he replied, and with that, Oshitari started back toward the school. He couldn't wait to see what Atobe came up with.

 

     Luckily, he didn't have to wait long. The next morning, he found Atobe with a book entitled Holiday Traditions Around the World and a stack of paper covered in sketches of hearts and flowers.

     "This is fascinating," he mused when Oshitari sat down. "And thank you for bringing it to my attention. I can't believe it never occurred to me that there might be cultural differences standing in the way of our love. Apparently, Americans feel horribly slighted if their lover doesn't remember Valentine's Day. I'll need to continue researching the minutiae of social mores in his homeland later, of course, but for the moment I only have a week to prepare. I'll need to work quickly." He waved a single piece of sketch paper, and Oshitari just let him talk. He'd seriously hit gold this time, if Atobe was going to keep digging when the chocolate blitz was over.

     "Obviously, I'll have to do something that stands out," Atobe went on. The paper in his hand showed two rough-sketched figures in the center who were painfully identifiable, with Atobe's signature hair flip on the one who was kneeling with a harp and the other figure holding a baseball cap over his heart -- thank goodness Atobe hadn't drawn in any sappy expressions. "The girls of his acquaintance won't neglect him, I'm sure. I need to go beyond that level, provide him something that shows my true devotion and affection." He set the paper back down on the desk and made a few more notes, then looked up at Oshitari with a slight trace of concern in his expression. "Having some craftsmen from Amedei build a statue of us to place in a chocolate fountain should be a good start, don't you think? Or would Michel Cluizel be a better choice?"

     Oshitari declined to comment, like he usually did when Atobe went off on designer names he'd never heard of. What, was Godiva too common?

     Actually, they probably are, he thought with a sigh. Sometimes his friend could be too ridiculous to make a good joke.

     Atobe bit his lip and narrowed his eyes at the paper again. "Of course, limiting myself to manufacturers of reknown might not suffice. That Icelandic chocolatier I met on holiday in France did have an excellent recipe, possibly more suitable to this kind of construction. Now, what was that name again?"

     "Atobe," Oshitari broke in. He put his hand over the little sketchy picture, and the captain looked up with a blink of surprise.

     If he was going to convince Atobe to do something entertaining, he might as well go all the way.

     "You're going to buy him chocolate? Seriously? You're not going to make it yourself?"

     Atobe paused with his eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted in a pouting frown. "Well, I want him to have the very best, obviously. I'm entirely untrained in the making of chocolate. He deserves the skill that masters have honed over their lifetimes, not what I can teach myself to do in the span of a week."

     "Oh, come on," he moaned, as he somehow managed to keep from laughing out loud at the look on his friend's face. "Handmade is better than the best store-bought stuff any day. Any five-year-old pulling pigtails can tell you that. That's basics. Now, are you going to change how he sees you with one more thing that's the best of the best? Or in ten to twenty years, is he going to remember the Valentine's Day when Atobe Keigo made him chocolates by hand?"

     "I'm torn. There's a great deal of merit in what you're saying, but--"

     "You can pack all that love of yours into one thing the likes of which world has never seen, and it won't be something you do because you're good at it and you want to show off. It'll be something you did, no matter how much it might embarrass you, because you wanted to show Echizen how much you really care about him." He patted Atobe on the shoulder before he turned around in his seat to face the front of the room. "Something thoughtful. You're good at thoughtful, right?"

     "Hmm," Atobe mused from the desk behind him. Oshitari could hear the shuffling of papers and the scratching of a pen. Whether his captain imported a giant chocolate sculpture after all or spent the week boiling cocoa messes in his kitchen, next Monday was probably going to be worth sneaking in a video camera of his own.

 

~//~

 

     "I'll send the car around for you when the school day is over," Atobe said over the phone. "I have a surprise for you."

     Echizen frowned. "You know what day that is, right?"

     "Of course I know."

     "All right," he answered. He just hoped Atobe's car came with a trailer or something, because next Monday was the fourteenth of February, and Echizen expected to be hauling home about ten times his weight in chocolate. The pile he'd gotten when he was a freshman had been bad enough. Some girls had even managed to send him Valentine's chocolates from overseas last year. When he'd gotten back, he'd found out that his fan club was now officially in the school's roster of after-school activities, with a proper president and everything, and that they somehow had matches with Echizen Ryoma fan clubs from other schools. He didn't even want to know how. It was terrifying. But if being his fan had somehow become a sport while he'd been away, and if the blushes and giggles from every girl in the school over the past week were any indication, the amount of chocolate that was about to be inflicted on him would probably last the rest of the year (assuming it fit into his apartment and he could keep Karupin from destroying it). Maybe even longer.

     Well, Atobe had fan club issues, too, so he probably understood.

     Echizen wondered briefly what would happen if they had an intramural match between his fan club and Atobe's fan club, but he had to let the thought go. He really couldn't imagine what the hell kind of an event a 'fan club match' would be.

     If he could, it'd probably be so scary that he'd wish he couldn't.

     "So, you'll wait outside the gates?" Atobe asked. "When is practice over?"

     "Oh, I'm excused from practice for Valentine's."

     Ryoma pulled the tennis ball out of his pocket and started volleying against the wall with the racket in his right hand, holding the phone in his left.

     "You're what?"

     Atobe sounded confused.

     "Ryuuzaki-sensei said I'd better stay away, just for that day. Too much shit to carry, too many girls trying to interrupt practice. I was planning to try and find somewhere quiet to practice on my own, but I can go over there, too, I guess. Can I use your courts?"

     "Well, you're more than welcome to practice with us, of course," Atobe answered. "And after practice, I'll give you your surprise."

     "Sounds good," Echizen replied, wondering how Hyoutei managed to keep girls away from their tennis practice well enough that they could still have regulars attend. The entirety of the Seigaku regular team had been told to stay as far away from the courts as possible. Maybe it was just that they had a bigger gallery for the girls to sit in, and their fan clubs were all well-trained enough to wait til practice was over.

     Well, whatever.

 

~//~

 

     Shishido did a double take at the locker room door, and tracked the invader with his eyes all the way over to the couch where he sat down. When Echizen looked up, all he said was, "Hey," then went back to untying his shoelaces.

     What?! Weren't you supposed to say more than 'Hey' when you crashed someone else's practice?

     Impertinent little brat.

     "Hey, yourself. Don't you have your own school to go to?" he asked.

     "Coach said no regulars on the courts."

     "What, so you asked your boyfriend to let you in over here? Don't think you can just run all over us! You know we won't go easy on you."

     "I'm just here to play tennis. And I didn't ask. He did."

     "Damn Atobe," Shishido griped as he threw his towel at the floor of his locker. He tried to ignore the fact that his captain had apparently decided it was okay to go around tricking brat middle schoolers into thinking you were 'in love' just to win a bet, but usually those tricks weren't staring him in the face an' changing their clothes in his locker room. The discordant thunk of the towel on metal, like an out-of-tune steel drum, did less than nothing for the degree to which he had had it with that pompous, twisted bastard.

     "Shishido-san," Choutarou said. One hand grabbed the back of his jersey, and Shishido bit his lip. He shouldn't have taken any of that shit out on Echizen, not while Choutarou could hear. Sure, their 'guest' from Seigaku wasn't even paying attention to him, but all the same he didn't deserve to get harassed for showing up at Hyoutei's practice. It wasn't like Atobe deciding to mess with him was Echizen's fault, an' even if it were somehow, Choutarou'd still get upset if he heard any badmouthing. So he took a deep breath and closed his locker door, even remembering not to slam it. "It should be fine, shouldn't it?" his partner asked. "Getting to practice against a world-class tennis player like Echizen-kun is a great chance for us. Besides, Atobe would only have everyone's best interests at heart."

     Well, he didn't know so much about that.

     "Atobe's got his own damn agenda," he shot back before he remembered that he might not want to have this conversation in front of Echizen. With a shake of his head, he finished in a whisper. "I don't even know what the hell he's thinking anymore. You heard what Gakuto said."

     "Shishido-san!" Choutarou replied in an even more hushed voice, red in the face as he grabbed Shishido's shirt and looked at him with those pleading puppy-dog eyes of his. "You can't really believe that, can you?"

     He clamped his mouth shut, leaning against his locker door. What was he supposed to believe? He'd known Gakuto since forever, and he'd never heard the guy spread a rumor he hadn't 'improved' at least a little, but he wasn't a liar either. If Gakuto said he'd heard Oshitari say something, then yeah, he could believe Oshitari'd at least said something like it. He hadn't quite had the stomach yet to ask the Kansai student if it was true or not, and he definitely wasn't going to ask Atobe without more than hearsay to back it up. He didn't even know if he could then. The idea that Atobe'd go messing around with someone -– hell, with Echizen Ryoma -– on some kind of a stupid bet just about made him sick. Even thinking about how he'd ask made him want to scream, 'What the hell is your damage, you jackass?!' at the top of his lungs, and he couldn't get his brain around any words that would really make his point. It just pissed him off. That was beyond lame. That was one hell of a shitty-ass thing to do.

     Choutarou didn't believe it. There had to be another explanation, he'd say, or Gakuto must have heard wrong. His partner's 'all rainbows, no rain' picture of life was pretty sweet, an' it was too bad, but he couldn't see it happening. Oshitari could be a slick bastard sometimes; still, Shishido was near on certain he wouldn't have let Gakuto walk away with that kind of story if it wasn't true. Atobe was a friend. There were things you just didn't say a friend had done unless he'd done them. Sooner or later, he'd have to ask Oshitari what was up. He couldn't just keep a lid on it, as much as he wanted to keep his nose out. How was he supposed to sit around and let Atobe get away with--

     Fuckin' hell, he thought to himself, as he sighed and shook his head. Even I don't really believe Atobe could do something that shitty. I've never seen him be that kind of guy. But what the hell could Oshitari have told Gakuto to make him think that if it wasn't true?

     He threw a glance over at the Seigaku brat, who'd changed into his own school's tennis uniform and was now sitting on the bench, juggling a tennis ball on his racket. When Echizen noticed Shishido looking at him, he lifted his hat brim and said, "I'm sorry he pulled this on you guys without asking, but it's not like I'm gonna slow you down or anything."

     Shishido scowled and pulled on his own hat. "I was just jaggin' with you. Don't sweat it."

     "So is it all right if I follow you to the courts? I don't actually know the way."

     Shishido rubbed his nose, looking at the middle schooler with a frown. He still didn't like this, but there had to be a way to know if he should tell Echizen something while the brat was right here in front of him. He took a deep breath and rapped his fist on the locker with a slam that wasn't too loud. "Sure. Whatever," he answered. "Just answer me one thing."

     Echizen put the ball and the racket back in his bag, all the while watchin' Shishido watch him and waitin' for the question. So Shishido shouldered his own bag and ran over in his mind all the many ways in which this was fucked up. On the one hand, Atobe was his friend, at least for now. Maybe he was being more of a jackass than Shishido had thought he was capable of, but maybe it was just the once, or maybe he'd already changed his mind. Or would tomorrow. Or whatever. And you didn't rat on your friends or your teammates. It just wasn't right.

     But neither was messing around with someone like that, or letting someone do it. Even a friend. Didn't Echizen deserve to know? Even if it'd be a hell of a shit storm if Echizen called the captain on it, whether the story turned out true or not. And if it wasn't true, Shishido was sure he'd spend the rest of high school banned from the courts, but...

     He let out a heavy sigh and asked, "Are you and Atobe really... you know..."

     "Dating?" Echizen replied, voice dripping with lack of amusement.

     "Yeah, I guess." He couldn't keep his mouth shut if Atobe had got Echizen caring. An' if the brat didn't care, he might as well wait til he could get a straight line from Oshitari and face Atobe head on for any kind of fit he felt like throwing.

     "Not a chance." Shishido couldn't see his face while the Seigaku player looked down and scuffed his shoes on the floor, but his voice sounded more tired than anything else. "At least, yesterday he was still giving that line a rest. I think he's got the message." The kid looked up. "I won't jump him on the court or anything, if that's what you're worried about."

     Shishido let out a nervous laugh. "That wasn't what I was worried about." He looked over at Choutarou, whose eyes were looking like they'd fill up with tears any second if he said another word. And if Atobe had given up...

     Well, maybe there wasn't anything to worry about.

     "Let's go," he said, and nodded his head at the door.

     "So what's the big deal, anyway?"

     "What?" Shishido asked. He hadn't meant to snap, but if he had to think about this for one more second, he couldn't be held responsible.

     "Why does everyone care if I date Atobe or not? It's not anyone's business."

     "Because-- Because it matters, all right?!" he sputtered. "I mean, if you were dating him, and... and..."

     "And what?"

     "And you're not, right?"

     "I told you I'm not."

     "Well, good! 'Cause you have to be careful about stuff like dating. If you're doing it for the wrong reasons, it's... it's a crime, and it's an insult to all the people who are doing it for the right reasons!"

     "Umm..."

     Echizen got a puzzled expression on his face, and Choutarou grabbed the sleeve of his jersey. "Shishido-san," he whispered again.

     "What reasons? Like, you think I'd be dating him to spy on your tennis practices?"

     "No!" He dropped a sigh, and pushed open the door to the locker room. "You're not the problem."

     "There's a problem?"

     When he looked up, Atobe was standing outside the door, already changed into his team uniform.

     "No, sir. No problem, sir," Shishido answered while he stalked off toward the courts. A few steps from the clubhouse, he looked over his shoulder to call out to Echizen. "You coming or what, kid?"

     "Yeah," he answered, but he didn't run over to Shishido's side.

     The Seigaku student walked at an easy pace, keeping step with Atobe a few feet back. Shishido couldn't quite hear what they were saying, but he didn't really want to. Whatever was going on, Atobe had better understand that the kind of nonsense Gakuto'd been talking about wasn't okay. And if Shishido ever found out that it was true, so help him, he'd have some real words about it -- teammate, captain, friend, or not.

 

~//~

 

     After practice had ended and they'd changed back into regular clothes, Atobe asked him to follow along somewhere. Time to find out what the mysterious 'surprise' was. Given what day today was, he didn't think he could be blamed for feeling a little uneasy. Like he'd told Shishido, Atobe had backed off on the 'dating' thing for the past week, and he might have gotten over it, but things weren't looking too good when Hyoutei's captain was leading him down to what looked suspiciously like a garden of some kind on Valentine's Day while Kabaji trailed behind them, trying to hide a little gift-wrapped box. Even their normal, friendly conversation about who'd done well at practice and what next season might be like couldn't make the prickles on the back of his neck go away when Atobe looked at him.

     Why the hell did I even agree to go with him? He wondered. I knew this was going to happen.

     "Ah, here we are."

     Echizen looked around suspiciously, eyeing the clearing in a grove of trees that looked more like it belonged on the set of a chick flick than a school campus. Well, maybe it was a little more like the set of a play than a movie. The trees were real, the grass was real, and the light breeze carrying over the scent of plum blossoms was real, but so was the rustle of the audience as they settled in behind the green curtain of shrubbery. Most of the regulars had followed them from the clubhouse, along with a few others he couldn't recognize. In fact, Echizen wouldn't have been surprised if the Seigaku team were hiding in there, too. He'd told them this was where he'd be.

     "Kabaji..." Atobe prompted, and the other player handed him the box he'd been carrying. The thin, white rectangular box trimmed with silver satin ribbon in an ominous-looking bow.

     Echizen knew what it looked like, of course. After years of experience, he could even tell that the packaging was too thin to be truffles, too long and wide to be an ordinary candy bar, and didn't have any marks to say which store it came from. But Atobe being Atobe, he wouldn't have picked something up at the mall.

     "... You got me chocolate?" he asked, and took the package. Atobe was the last person he would have expected to think a tennis player on their circuit needed more chocolate for Valentine's Day. Still, this was shockingly normal for something Hyoutei's captain had dragged him out to give him as a 'surprise'.

     "Open it," Atobe replied with a smile so broad it looked like it should have been too big for his face. "I made it for you myself."

     He had to stifle a laugh while he pulled off the ribbons and opened the lid, but he couldn't keep himself from grinning. "You made me chocolate?" An image popped into his head of Atobe decked out in chef's whites with a big, puffy hat, stirring a pot of bubbling brown goo. Hopefully, he hadn't mixed up the sugar with the salt. Handmade chocolate could go wrong in a lot of ways, he'd learned over the past two years, and that was one of the worst (that was physically possible to eat). Nothing else tasted nasty in quite the same way, and if Atobe had made him candy by hand, he was going to have to try it no matter what.

     Inside, he saw a single, thin layer of dark chocolate fudge cut into squares, all laid out on red tissue paper and decorated with some kind of silver glaze. "Happy Valentine's Day", it said (in English), but when he looked closer he saw the text was done in tiny little paw prints as if a miniature cat had tracked silver paint over a mahogany floor. Some of the prints were a little bigger than others, and some weren't exactly paw-shaped, but that had to be the most unbelievable thing he'd seen Atobe do yet.

     "Wow," he muttered, and he broke off a corner that didn't have any icing. He was going to have to take a picture of this later, so he didn't want to wreck any of the writing, but first things first: was it edible?

     While he ate the little piece he'd taken, he had to swallow another laugh. Shishido had popped his head out of the bushes, and he was looking back and forth between the box of fudge and Atobe like he thought maybe his captain had been replaced with a pod person. You'd think if they were on a team together, he'd have gotten over being surprised by anything the self-proclaimed king of the world ever did. And at least the fudge was edible.

     Echizen thought he might even go so far as 'good'. A little gooey, but that wasn't a problem.

     "My feelings for you are unchanged," Atobe announced. Echizen looked up, less than shocked. He'd seen that coming way before he'd seen the fudge. "I love you, and I always will," he finished. While he stared at Echizen with complete, intense seriousness, another plum-scented breeze picked up to rustle through their clothes right on cue. Echizen couldn't hear anybody working a wind machine out past the trees, so either Atobe had found some way to control the weather or he was better at reading it to time his cliched lines than Momo-sempai was. Over Atobe's shoulder, Shishido's face was turning red and his eyebrows were turning apoplectic, but before he could jump out of the bushes, Ootori popped up on one side of him and Oshitari on the other to clamp their hands over his mouth and drag him back down into the bushes.

     Why Shishido was so pissed off, he had no idea. The Hyoutei student had said it wasn't about him, but as near as Echizen could tell that meant Shishido thought Atobe was doing this whole dating thing for 'the wrong reasons' (whatever that meant).

     But Atobe was Atobe. What you saw was what you got.

     Not that it mattered anyway. They weren't dating, even if Atobe made him Valentine's chocolates. He stared after Shishido for a moment, but was about to shake it off when his 'boyfriend' heard the rustling and turned around. "Did you hear something?" he asked.

     "It was nothing." Unlike Atobe, he never expected to get a moment alone. Leaving the bushes to their audience, he went back to studying the tiny details on the lettering. "So, does this make you the girl?"

     Atobe whipped back around, surprised. "I beg your pardon?" He cracked a smile as his friend looked increasingly panicked and confused.

     Better him than me.

     "Thanks," he said, and wrapped the ribbons back around the box.

     "Then you accept my love for you?"

     "I didn't say that."

     The turned down the path toward the parking lot out front, walking side by side. "As I explained, my affection is yours, whether you have accepted it yet or not."

     Man, Atobe was weird. But like he'd told Ooishi-sempai, it wasn't like he minded -- as long as he didn't have to wear a dress. And this... this was way too funny to mind.

     "Suit yourself."

     "And the day will come when you love me, too," Atobe assured him.

     Echizen smiled and shook his head again. "Don't count on it."

     His friend cleared his throat and looked away with faked indifference. "So... if you're free this evening--"

     "Sure," he said with a shrug. "I've got some time."

Chapter Text

     The last thing Echizen expected when he came home from his morning trip to the grocery store was to see his dad parked outside his door. But there he was, sitting cross-legged behind the walkway railings and looking like a lost puppy. If he'd had a tail, it would have started wagging when Echizen walked up. His father's eyes lit up, and as soon as he made it to the top of the staircase, he was trapped in a suffocating bear hug.

     "Ryoma! Heya, there -- long time, no see!"

     That was on purpose, Ryoma thought.

     "How ya been, my young man?"

     "Let me go!" he snapped, and the lady who lived next to him opened up her door to find out what the ruckus was.

     His old man smiled at her and said, "It's all right. I'm his father."

     "Ryoma-san..."

     Why did his old man always think he could do crap like this without people thinking he was an escaped mental patient? Echizen had thought about adding him to the 'crazy stalker' list his publicity handlers kept to get some kind of protection, but it wasn't likely to work. For one thing, his old man was pretty darn good at evading security. For another, he'd told his management that he wanted to lay low while he was off tour and planned to live his life without their help for as long as he was in school. He only talked to them when he had to do something for one of his sponsorship deals. And the final reason was that his publicist would never put the guy on any kind of list except 'family'. One of the downsides of the crazy stalker actually being his father.

     With a grunt, he managed to get enough of his head free to look at his concerned neighbor. "Unfortunately, he's not wrong about that."

     "Unfortunately?! How can you say such a thing to your father, who's come all the way from New York just to see you?"

     He removed himself from his old man's attack hug and stuck the groceries that had fallen on the ground back into his bag. "Let's just get you inside before someone calls the cops, okay?"

     "Well, I would have waited inside, but the spare key wasn't on top of the door."

     Echizen hid a smile between himself and the door. He hadn't anticipated that particular benefit of handing his key over to Atobe, but it sure was nice that he could see his dad coming this once. "Yeah, I gave it to someone," he said, and walked inside.

     "Oh, I'll bet you did!" his dad yelled back. His disgrace of an old man leapt in through the door and started doing a strange dance in the middle of the floor. "You sly dog! Little lover-boy, you! Ha! I knew you'd have to take after me eventually. Give it to your girlfriend, did ya? Does her father know she's got the key to a man's house? Have you had to fight him for her honor yet?"

     "What?!"

     He put the cereal away in the cupboard and had just grabbed the miso paste to put in the fridge when his dad started to get really spastic, this time mimicking an airplane. "Why do you think I flew all the way in, my young man?" He landed by the side of the counter and nodded from a mock-serious 'wise man' pose. "Spring has come at last, I hear. Ol' Granny called me the other day and said you'd been seeing someone. I had to zip right over to find out who caught your eye, and to make sure you know everything a man should know."

     "Whatever that means, I don't want any."

     "Speaking of which." His old man snuck up behind him, and when Echizen turned around to get his pack of chicken out of the bag, he nearly jumped through the roof at seeing his dad two centimeters from his face. "It can't be the little pigtail girl, can it?"

     "No, Dad, I'm not dating Ryuuzaki."

     "No, no, of course not. Granny would have said if it were her." He backed up against the counter and scratched his head, balanced on one leg. "The old bag wouldn't tell me a thing. So who is it? Who's the lucky girl?"

     Echizen sighed. He knew better than to think an actual explanation of the facts would calm his old man down. He pushed his shopping bags into the collection of bags under his sink while he groaned, "It's not what you think, Dad." Still, he had to find a way to get rid of the crazy fool. Atobe would be showing up any second, and this was the last thing he wanted anyone seeing -– let alone that particular someone. Talk about a probable feedback loop. "If I tell you what's going on, will you go away?"

     "What? Without meeting her? In your dreams, kiddo. One thing Granny did tell me was that you always had a date on Sunday, and I'm going to be here!"

     Perfect.

     Echizen shook his head and walked around his dad. "Suit yourself. But I'm telling you, it's not what you think."

     His father cleared his throat. When Ryoma looked up to see what he was up to now, it was clear from the slick grin on his face that the answer was 'nothing good'. "Ahem. In honor of your first girlfriend, son, I've brought you a present."

     "You shouldn't have." Echizen ignored his father and checked on his tennis bag instead. Then his dad shoved a box in between him and the bag.

     "Ta da!"

     Trojan?

     "What the fuck?!" he yelled. "Dad, I don't need condoms!"

     "Oh, don't bother pretending, my boy," his dad said. An arm around his shoulder pulled him into another crushing hug. "I'm not too old to remember what it's like to be a captive to the fever of young love! The pulse-racing excitement, the nights of spontaneous passion--"

     "Please stop talking to me."

     "--and don't think that, 'We weren't planning to have sex!' means anything the next morning." Echizen didn't stop zipping up his bag just because his dad put him in a choke hold. He knew the old man would never put him in a hold tight enough to hurt him, even if it wasn't exactly comfortable to be in a wrestling lock, getting a noogie. "You owe it to your girl to be prepared!"

     Why was this still happening after he'd gone through all the trouble to move out?

     Echizen managed to pull his dad's arm loose enough that he could slip away and picked up his hat from where it had fallen on the floor. "First of all, there's no girl. And I don't just think I'm not having sex, Dad. I'm not having sex. Second, if I were having sex, they sell condoms in drugstores! I could get my own."

     "But who would teach you how to use them?" his dad pleaded with a disgraceful pout.

     "I can read!" he answered, and grabbed the box out of his old man's hand. His intruding father couldn't be trusted with them, and there really was no good that could come of Atobe walking in on his dad giving him a sex ed lesson. Echizen didn't even want to think about where that was going to end up. He shoved the box of condoms in the back of a kitchen drawer and slammed it shut. Problem solved. "Look. Thanks for coming, Dad, but there's seriously no girlfriend. You can go home, if that's all you came for."

     "Ryoma..." his dad groaned as he slumped over himself in the middle of the floor. "Don't tell me you're shy? Oh... or wait!" He snapped up straight, pointing one finger at Echizen and the other at his nose in a hideously dramatic fashion, and cried out, "You're worried I'll steal your little sweety-honey from you! Huh? Huh?! She'll take one look at your crazy hot old man and fall head over heels in love, then run after me to New York!"

     Echizen rolled his eyes. "You cannot be serious."

     "Well, you've got nothing to worry about, my young man. The instant she starts saying, 'Oh, Nanjirou-sama!!'" he said in a creepy falsetto, tucking his hands up under his chin and fluttering his eyelashes, "I'll be there to tell 'er, 'Sorry, baby.'" His dad switched into a 'cool guy' pose, leaning against the wall and cocking his finger like a gun at the completely imaginary girlfriend he'd just made up. "'My heart belongs to another. But we'll always have Tokyo.'"

     "No, you won't, Dad."

     "You think I'd steal your girlfriend? What kind of a horrible father do you think I am?"

     Rather than start reciting his list, Echizen sighed. "There's really no girlfriend. You've got it all wrong."

     "Well, we'll just see about that," his dad responded. He sat down crosslegged in the exact center of Echizen's front room and stared at him with a goofy grin.

     "Even if you sit there all day, you're not meeting any girlfriend."

     "Can't fool me, kiddo. If I sit here 'til your date starts... Or until you go get her..." A confused expression twisted up his dad's face. "Speaking of which, why would she come here, anyway? Aren't you supposed to pick her up at her place? I'm sure I must have taught you that much. This isn't one of those things where her parents forbade you ever to see her again, so you have to sneak around, is it? Because that's a little complicated, but I can give you some tips."

     He'd never realized that the sound of Atobe opening the door could be so welcome. Like a breath of fresh air, it made the whole afternoon seem better. It also made his dad's face light up, but that wasn't going to last long.

     "I hope I'm not intruding," the Hyoutei player said.

     "No, no, no, no, no!" Echizen's dad called out as he jumped to his feet. "I don't get to meet many of Ryoma's friends."

     Yeah, ya think? Echizen thought.

     He picked up Karupin from the kitchen floor and tried to retreat to the other side of the room. Before he could get anywhere, though, his old man grabbed his shirt and whispered loudly over his shoulder. "Hey, son! Aren't you going to introduce us?"

     He dropped the cat and looked back and forth between the two men a few times. His dad was still beaming and giddy, and for the first time in his life, he saw Atobe look confused.

     Better to get this over with.

     "Dad, this is Atobe. Atobe, this is my old man."

     "Well, believe me when I say, your presence here does me a great honor," Atobe said. He set his tennis bag by the wall with an emphatic thump and extended a hand, which his old man grabbed to shake.

     "I'd imagine so." His dad stuck his nose high up in the air and puffed out his chest. "Normally, I'm a busy man, but it's not every day you find out your son has found himself a special someone. Right, Ryoma?" The big grin his old man flashed him was nothing compared to the touched look on Atobe's face. This was just perfect. Echizen slumped back against the wall and tried his hardest to disappear under his hat.

     Atobe knelt by his racket bag and unzipped it quickly. "Had I realized you were coming all the way from New York, I would have scheduled an evening's entertainment for all three of us." He pulled a small, silver case from his bag, and took a business card out of it, presenting it to the crazy old fool who thought he knew what was going on. "Atobe Keigo, if my name has not preceded me."

     "You can call me Nanjirou," his dad replied, all smiles while he took the card and looked it over. "I like this kid," he told Ryoma over his shoulder. Still not catching on, he turned back to Atobe and stored the card in his sleeve. "Sorry, a simple replacement temple hand like me doesn't have a card to give," he said rubbing the back of his head.

     "In New York, you're just a layabout, aren't you?" Ryoma muttered. "You don't have a temple."

     Atobe and his dad went on talking without hearing him. "Oh, no need to worry. I'm familiar with your career."

     Ryoma let out a sigh and walked over to his own tennis bag. Time to end this before it got awkward. "Thanks for coming, Dad," he said, and threw the bag over his shoulder. "Time's getting close, though."

     "I bet it is!" His dad laughed and ran over to knock his hat off his head and mess up his hair. "You got your date to get to, don'tcha? That's my boy."

     "Whatever."

     They all headed out the door, Atobe looking like he'd never stop grinning, his dad puffed up and strutting like a peacock, and Echizen trying not to see either of them. "Let me get that for you," Atobe said, and took Ryoma's bag.

     "Thanks." He fished his key out of his pocket to lock the door while Atobe headed down the stairs to the parking lot. Any minute now, the circumstances were going to hit his dad, and he'd probably have thirty seconds to run before that got entertaining.

     And there it was. A puzzled kink appeared in his dad's forehead, and he turned to watch Ryoma stick his keys back in his pocket. "You two are going? What about your girl?" He backed up to the top of the stairs and pointed frantically between the Atobe down in the parking lot and Echizen. "No, no. I get it now! You've got a double date, and he's taking you to where you're meeting her an' her friend, right?"

     "I told you, it's not what you think, Dad." Echizen paused next to his father and peeked over the railing. Atobe had driven his motorcycle over again today, leaving the limo and the limo driver at home. He'd set the two racket bags down in the sidecar and put on the blue and silver helmet that matched the bike's paint job, holding the red helmet in his hand. Then he turned up to the porch and waved, prompting Echizen's dad to wave back.

     Which gave Echizen a great idea.

     If shit was going to go around hitting fans anyway, he might as well have some fun, and there was a good chance he could get away while his old man was freaking out. Atobe was pretty much out of earshot. Wouldn't be any problem there.

     So he turned to his dad and grinned. "He's my boyfriend," he said, and vaulted around the corner to run down the stairs as fast as he could.

     His dad didn't move. He heard one quiet, "Eh?" by the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, and grabbed his helmet from Atobe.

     "Ready to go?" the Hyoutei student asked as he started the motor.

     Echizen got on the seat behind him and latched his helmet -- waving to his dad, of course, who looked like he was going into shock -- and grabbed hold of Atobe's back. "Absolutely."

     Served the old fart right.

     Then they peeled out of the parking lot onto the road, with the sound of his dad screaming, "Eee~eh!?" echoing through the whole neighborhood.

 

~//~

 

     "I must have dropped it back at your apartment."

     Atobe had brought Echizen to Akihabara, and no one watching from the rooftop was quite sure why, least of all Oshitari. He knew how Atobe went shopping. Atobe made a passing comment out loud about something that he wanted, and one of his servants made sure it was on the spot five minutes before he'd even asked for it.

     But the ways of Atobe were very strange, and here they were, parked on the roof of an eight-story building to spy on his captain walking the brat through streets of electronics vendors, game centers, and costumed greeters for maid cafes. At the moment, Oshitari was watching Atobe poking through his tennis bag for a missing wristband -- in style, too. The comfortably large display attached Inui's arsenal of telescoping video cameras gave the idea of 'using your teammates as TV' a whole new level of truth, and the long-distance microphones picked up all the conversations with perfect clarity. No strain, no pain. Kikumaru had even brought popcorn.

     "We can go back if you need it," Echizen said as Atobe declared the search a bust.

     Hyoutei's captain shook his head. "It's just a wristband. I can pick it up later."

     Echizen finished off his can of grape Ponta and threw it into the recycling bin by the vending machine. "How many phones do you need, anyway?" he asked. "What've you got, six?"

     "For company business," Atobe replied, holding out his silver Blackberry for Ryoma to see before slotting it back into his bag. Then he held up a slimmer, purple flip phone. "For family business. For school business, and for team business," he said next, and put away two smart phones, one black and one gold. The one he picked up after those was blue, the kind with a slide-out keyboard for texting. "And this is for friends."

     Echizen held up the small red phone still sitting on the ledge where they'd parked their gear. "What's this one for?"

     Atobe took it from him with a laugh. "Well, it's for you, obviously. I turn each one on or off depending on the situation. This one is never off."

     "Tsch." Echizen looked over his shoulder at the bustle on the street while Atobe packed the rest of his things away. Then, all of a sudden, the brat's face turned panicked and he grabbed Atobe's jacket sleeve. "Shit. Hurry up, we've got to run before he spots us."

     Atobe looked up and scanned the streets full of peaceful shoppers, turning to Echizen when he saw nothing worthy of concern. He hesitated for a moment before asking, "Excuse me?"

     Inui attacked some of the dials on his control board, and the picture changed on the monitor. Some man standing on a roof, dressed all in black with a white mask and sunglasses, appeared in place of Echizen and Atobe. Their two main targets moved to a smaller picture-in-picture view.

     "What the fuck?" Oshitari asked.

     "I thought this might happen," was Inui's less than clarifying response.

     "You thought what might happen?" When he didn't get an answer, he took a long review of Inui's control board. "How many cameras do you have, anyway?"

     "Enough," Inui said.

     Atobe's voice came through the speakers again, sounding worried as hell. "What are you concerned about?"

     "It's too late," Echizen replied. "He saw us. You'll find out in a second."

     "Ho there!" the strange man on the roof yelled out, pointing with the tennis racket in his right hand. Oshitari peeked over the side of the building to get a good look at where he was actually standing. He seemed to have found a street vendor's overhang that would support his weight on the second story of one of the high-rises across the street from Atobe and Echizen. Every passerby on the street, every shopper, and every merchant turned to watch him and then froze. "You there, with the boy in the hat!"

     "Oh, god..." The Seigaku middle schooler pulled his hat down over his eyes and tried to hide behind a nearby lamppost.

     "I am the Mysterious Wandering Tennis Warrior! That boy is under my protection!"

     "No, seriously," Oshitari asked Inui and Kikumaru, who were sharing their popcorn and watching the proceedings like nothing out of the ordinary was going on. "What the fuck is this? How did you know this was going to happen?"

     "It's quite simple, really," Inui said, but before he could finish, Atobe leaned over to whisper in Echizen's ear.

     "Does your father think I don't recognize him?"

     "Ah, yeah. He does think that."

     Oshitari turned to Inui and hissed, "That's Echizen's father?"

     "Echizen Nanjirou," the Seigaku student replied. He pushed up his glasses, droning on without the least bit of surprise. "He tended to show up quite often at team events. As soon as I determined his identity, I had an alert set to inform me whenever he passed through customs."

     How he did that, Oshitari didn't ask. He probably didn't want to know.

     "The Samurai Nanjirou is standing on a roof -- in a mask -- threatening Atobe with a tennis racket?"

     "That's life," Kikumaru said from his lounging spot. He tossed a handful of popcorn in the air, catching all six pieces as they fell. "You get used to it."

     He shook his head with a sigh. "You know, when I counted up how long I thought Echizen would put up with Atobe, I didn't figure on that." If the brat was used to dealing with a freak like his old man seemed to be (and his teammates were acting like this was normal), then he might be able to string Atobe along for the rest of their natural lives without breaking a sweat.

     Nanjirou jumped down from the awning and stumbled a few steps on the road before steadying himself. All around him, the crowd retreated five to ten steps and murmurs of 'Are they filming a movie?' filled the microphones. The crazy old man whirled his racket out to one side, holding out three tennis balls in his other hand, and yelled, "You'll have to face me before you can have the boy! He is the chosen one, and--"

     "Just cut it out, would you?" Echizen groaned from his spot behind the pole, knocking his head with a metal clank. "Why does he never stop?"

     "I'm... not quite sure I understand what he's doing," Atobe whispered again.

     The Seigaku student shook his head and peeked out into the street, where the old man was now speaking in tongues and doing a strange dance on one leg with his racket balanced on the tip of his finger. "He just wants attention. Don't encourage him."

     "Yes, you!" Nanjirou yelled, tossing his racket up in the air and catching it on the way down, pointed straight at Atobe. "You! I challenge you to a duel for the boy. Defeat me in a tennis match, and I'll stand aside. But if you lose..."

     "I won't lose!"

     "Oh, god..." Echizen groaned again as Atobe stepped forward onto the street.

     The man in black stood still. "You think you can defeat me?"

     "Love will strengthen my arm and straighten my shots! I, with an invincible will, can defeat any impossible foe. Even you, if I must."

     Oshitari kind of felt for Echizen. Atobe was bad enough on his own.

     "Very well," Nanjirou said. "I accept your challenge. Choose your weapon, my young man."

     Atobe shrugged his bag onto the ground by the lamppost and pulled out one of his rackets. It was his favorite one, of course. "I'm ready."

     It bothered Oshitari somewhat that he found it unsurprising for Atobe to be joining a pickup tennis game in the middle of a street in Akihabara against Echizen's crazy father for the right to date the brat. Then Echizen walked out into the middle of it, stole the balls from his father's hand, and stuffed them into his own pockets. "You've both got a long way to go."

     "But... but..." the old loon objected, leaping excitedly from foot to foot and pointing at Atobe.

     "There's no need for concern, Echizen," Atobe said calmly. "I'm not afraid to face your father in single combat if that is what I must do."

     The brat sighed and shook his head. "That's not what I mean. Look," he said, turning his father around and pushing him off the road. "Just move along. We're done here."

     "But he needs to defeat me! He needs to earn the right to date you!"

     "No, he doesn't," Echizen said as he rubbed his temple like he had a headache. Oshitari couldn't blame him, really.

     "He doesn't?"

     Atobe blinked and asked, "I don't?" in an overly cheerful tone.

     "Let's just go play." The Seigaku student grabbed Atobe's cuff and dragged him over to the waiting racket bag. "Come on."

     Out in the middle of the street, Echizen's father declared, "You haven't seen the last of me! The day will come when you must prove yourself in battle."

     "If your father requires to understand that I am in all ways your match, I will show him my prowess -- and I will do so with pride," Atobe protested as Echizen stole his racket and stuck it back in the tennis bag. "I will go to any length--"

     "I noticed." Echizen looked at Atobe, concerned, then shifted his gaze to his father, who was still waiting in the road. "Let's go." The brat pushed Atobe from behind for his first few steps, then they started both walking.

     The crazy old man said, not loud enough to be heard by the departing tennis players but perfectly audible on Inui's microphones, "You may think you've won, but someday, when you least expect it..." He struck an exaggerated service pose and yelled, "Ka-cha!" as loud as he could, then sprinted off into the distance singing an old sailing song. The crowds parted to let him through -- or possibly just to keep a safe distance in case the crazy was catching.

     Inui flipped through a few more camera settings to bring up a picture of Echizen and Atobe walking together on the full screen. The Seigaku brat looked to be staying three paces ahead, ignoring Atobe as hard as he could. Atobe shook his head and smiled sadly, staring hard at Echizen's back. "I understand," he said.

     "What is it now?" Echizen asked.

     "I got carried away. I'm sorry." Echizen didn't turn around to listen to him, but he'd have to stop soon. They were getting close to Atobe's bike. "When your father challenged me, I forgot that you haven't accepted my feelings yet. It won't happen again."

     Echizen dropped his racketbag into the sidecar and took his time untwisting the shoulder strap. "Yet?" he asked, and looked up at Atobe when the captain put down his own racket bag. "There's no 'yet', okay? I just..." The brat groaned and pulled off his hat, glaring at Atobe. "I hate you both. Can we go play tennis now?"

     Atobe took the hat out of Echizen's hands and settled a red helmet with a silver R on the front on his head, buckling it under his chin. "Of course," he said and hopped astride his motorcycle. Echizen got on behind him, wrapping his arms tight around Atobe's waist.

     "Ah! O-chibi, that's mean!" Kikumaru yelled out. The red-head tossed a popcorn kernel at the screen with a whine. Oshitari and Inui turned to the acrobatic half of the Golden Pair, who was practically tearing out his hair. "If you're gonna say stuff like, 'I hate you' and 'We're not dating,' don't go around hugging him! Even Atobe probably has feelings, you know!"

     And he did, apparently. Oshitari could vouch for that one. That didn't mean that Atobe was being particularly put-upon.

     Inui pushed up his glasses and looked back at the screen. "I'm not quite sure what's the problem."

     Leaning forward, Kikumaru explained, "Inui, see... you know how Kaidou always keeps at least six inches between you an' him when you're training? If you start getting too close, he steps back?"

     "Yes?"

     "Yeah, well, O-chibi's definitely not doing that."

     The explanation left Inui even more confused. "When riding a motorcycle, it would be dangerous not to hold on."

     "Which is why, if you tried to take Kaidou anywhere on a motorcycle, he'd probably just run alongside!"

     "I don't own a motorcycle," Inui responded, pen hovering above his notebook as he stared at his friend, waiting for clarification.

     "Ugh," Kikumaru groaned and fell back into seat. "You're hopeless, you know that? What are you even taking data on? You clearly don't get people, Inui."

     "General activities and behavior patterns, as well as reaction points and possible weaknesses. But I don't own a motorcycle. Any speculation about Kaidou's behavior when presented with one is impossible without proper experimental data."

     "What he's saying, Inui-san," Oshitari said, and clapped Inui on the shoulder to get his attention, "is that Kaidou-kun knows you like him and he's giving you distance so you don't get the wrong idea. You see?"

     "Which wrong idea is that?"

     He pointed at the picture on the screen of Atobe and the brat driving away. "Atobe thinks Echizen is in love with him. That's the wrong idea."

     "But... what else is Echizen supposed to do? They're riding a motorcycle. He needs to hold on, or he runs a 98% chance of falling off at safe city driving speeds."

     "Yeah, well, I never said Atobe didn't bring this on himself." He shook his head at the screen, then saw both of his fellow eavesdroppers looking at him with some confusion. Not that he was going to tell them the reason. What kind of reaction was that going to get from Echizen's friends? If he mentioned how Atobe decided to pick up Echizen on a motorcycle instead of a limo because he'd been aiming to make Echizen get close, Kikumaru would probably freak out and declare Atobe to be a 'bad, bad man!' But that was one part of his friend's proverbial lightning rod in this equally proverbial storm, trying to get Echizen to notice those 'unrecognized feelings' Atobe claimed to have spotted three years ago. And Seigaku definitely didn't need to know about all that, even if he could explain.

     Oshitari decided to change the subject instead.

     "What I don't get is why Echizen didn't just tell his dad that he and Atobe weren't dating. He's never been shy about that part."

     "For real," Kikumaru replied. "But I've never seen him care about correcting his dad on anything. O-chibi usually just tries to make him go away. But... Hey. Wait a second, now."

     "Kaidou and I have an entirely professional relationship..."

     "Yeah, right." Kikumaru waved away Inui's confused mutterings and pointed to the video monitor. "But how much of that is because Kaidou doesn't do that?"

     Oshitari and Inui leaned in toward the screen, where Echizen had wrapped his arms quite tightly around Atobe's waist now, and was even resting his head on Atobe's shoulder. His eyes were closed, and he was pressed up tight against Hyoutei's captain.

     That's not just holding on, Oshitari thought. Fucking hell.

     There wasn't any way Atobe could have been right, was there?

     He had to tell himself, 'No'. Atobe's little delusions were probably getting to his head. Over-exposure to crazy was making him see things. That didn't explain Kikumaru, but there could be other reasons for that. The red-headed Seigaku player was a die-hard romantic, and he was probably just seeing what he wanted to see. Which was, inexplicably, Echizen Ryoma looking like he liked getting personal with the crazy loon whom he should have told to take a hike weeks ago.

     "I'll admit," Inui said, "it would be a breach in professionalism to introduce that kind of closeness to Kaidou's training schedule; however, as I indicated earlier, I do not own a motorcycle."

Chapter Text

     Sanada would never forget how it felt to lose to Yukimura. The panic when he ran for a shot, the encroaching certainty that, no matter what he tried, he would fail -- every quiver of terror rooted indelibly into his consciousness. Even if he managed to hit the ball, his opponent would hammer it back at him with no semblance of mercy. One instant of concern over Atobe's worsening madness, and his focus had broken enough for Yukimura to bring him low.

     The match was as good as over. When his former captain's majesty took its grip on your mind, the pound of cure that might salve that lack of preparation was rarer than a miracle. Some days, he envied Echizen his ability to channel a pure joy of play that wasn't bound to excellence or success.

     To make matters worse, Yukimura's expression had changed. His game face was stern enough, renowned for its power to reduce a man's heart to cold dust, but this face was one Sanada personally found more terrifying.

     Disappointment.

     Within his own head, he imagined a mighty roar forcing out the terrors of his fevered, panicking brain. The serve was still his. He could do it. Had done it before, would do it again. He would make a play that Yukimura... that Seiichi could respect.

     That is, if he were given the chance.

     "The ball," Yukimura called, hand outstretched. That didn't leave him much choice.

     Sanada approached the net and dropped it into the other player's hand without a word. He knew better than to ask for forgiveness. He'd been distracted. When perfection incarnate stood before him, he had no intention of disgracing himself with excuses. Like so many others, he'd seen the seed of a god within this man, and not a gentle one -- host to a capricious humor, with no patience for benevolence.

     The former captain of Rikkai spun the ball lightly in his fingers, not bothering to ask what had stolen his attention. Yukimura hadn't asked that in weeks, and had long ceased to be amused by it. "Pick your battles wisely, or you'll lose them, Gen'ichirou. Atobe's affairs have nothing to do with you, and less than nothing to do with you playing me." With a nod, he accepted the criticism and watched his partner set up a serve at the backboard painted on the wall, each strike hitting in time with the sharp pangs of his heart on his ribs. "Sometimes I wonder if you think more of Atobe than you think of me. I'm not sure how I feel about that."

     "You know that's not true." And the man did. Yukimura could never doubt his loyalty. "What I... What I think of you..." He cleared his throat and stood firm as cold eyes glanced from a solo rally to hear his assurances. "Atobe's delusions may tempt the destruction of this very world beneath our feet, but my attachment to you will never waver."

     A soft laugh rolled from Yukimura's throat. He never paused, chasing down shot after shot with inexhaustible power, never turning to offer his smile. All the same, the sound of Seiichi's good humor let Sanada breathe easier as the echoes doubled back off the walls of the indoor courts. "Well, I didn't think you were confused about which of us you were fucking, you silly."

     "That wasn't what I meant," Sanada murmured. Three and a half months already since the incident with the mistletoe had gotten out of hand, and that subject was still one he had trouble discussing.

     "Pardon?"

     "You have my full attention," he answered, louder this time. "I won't falter a second time."

     Catching the ball on his racket, Yukimura turned to him with a teasing little smirk. "Oh, now you just sound like Tezuka-kun. You know, if he were back from Germany, I'm certain he'd be more entertaining to play than this backboard. Can you promise me you'll be at least that good, Gen'ichirou?"

     "I'll be better."

     "You had best." Yukimura strolled back to the net, stealing a kiss as the laughter haunting his voice cleared away most of the terror shaking in Sanada's arms and legs. "You need to fight to win in order to accept defeat with honor. Otherwise, it isn't any fun. Now, get some water. I'll see you in ten minutes."

     He squeezed his classmate's hand over the net and stepped back with a bow. Taking his water bottle from the side of the court, he left Seiichi to run another rally against himself. The water fountain down the hall would be a better place to break the hold that a bad match against his former captain left on one's mind.

     As he turned into the corridor, he saw someone else leaning over the row of faucets for a drink. Unexpected -- Seiichi made certain to book courts when no one else would be using the facilities. He preferred his privacy. But the blond was there all the same, with a racket bag slung over his shoulder and a small suitcase rolled against the wall. No matter. There were plenty of faucets available. Sanada refilled his bottle, then splashed some of the water on his face and dried it with his towel.

     The blond pulled a book out of a pocket on his racket bag and flipped through a few bookmarks. "Excuse me..." he started, in stilted Japanese. "Where might I... find... the hotel?"

     An American, by the accent.

     Then, slowly, the stranger turned his head up, and to his surprise Sanada realized it was no stranger at all. He never forgot a player's face. "Kevin Smith?" The young man jumped, panic lighting up in his eyes. "You're Kevin Smith, aren't you? Echizen's friend."

     The surprise on his face turned to the sharp focus of recognition. "Ryoma?" In an instant, he settled down. "Oh, you," the American muttered in English. "You played against Billy and Michael."

     "Sanada Gen'ichirou, at your service."

     "Where's Ryoma now?" he asked in oddly loud and pinched Japanese. Sanada did his best not to bristle at it. Sometimes, foreigners were abrupt; that was no reason to be startled. But did Smith really think it necessary to talk to him like a recalcitrant toddler?

     Clearing his throat, he answered, "I would imagine Echizen is with Atobe." It was early Sunday evening, after all, and the situation between them had become quite predictable. "I can't say if they're at the tennis courts or already at dinner, but I'm sure I can contact someone who'll know." The other regulars were hard to predict, but if Renji didn't know, he'd eat his hat. Still, why on earth Smith had to interrupt two people on a date was entirely unclear. Couldn't his business, whatever it was, wait until tomorrow?

     The blond shook his head, this time answering in English. "I don't understand what you're saying."

     Sanada scratched his head and frowned. He'd been perfectly precise. "Perhaps you haven't heard. Echizen has been... entangled... in a relationship steeped in madness. Doomed--" As Smith's eyes went wide and the young man shook his head from side to side, he tried to enunciate more clearly, only to find himself using the same slow, loud tone as the American. "Doomed to embroil our safe, familiar world in the tempests of disaster."

     "I don't speak Japanese!" the foreigner yelled, pointing violently at the phrasebook in his hand. "Is this about Ryoma? 'Cause if it's important, say it in English!"

     The strange little man flushed red with fury, and all Sanada found he could say was, "... Ah."

     None of his English classes had covered apocalypse by ill-advised romance. Perhaps some of the literature he read on his own time would serve? It wouldn't do him any good in conversation, never having heard most of it aloud, but--

     He'd have to do what he could. Taking a deep breath, he asked -- in English, slowly, to be sure the two of them were communicating properly -- "Do you have a pen?"

     As he shook his head and reached into his bag, the blond muttered, "If I ever figure out what that bastard's done, I swear I'm gonna kill him for this."

~//~

     That jackass had so much explaining to do. First, Kevin had only found out two days ago from Ryoma's crazy old man that Seigaku had a break coming up, so he'd barely had time to buy tickets and pack before getting on the plane, which meant he'd had no chance to tell Ryoma he was coming and arrange a meet-up for when he got here. Then, as soon as he found his way to the tennis center that he'd thought was next to his hotel (only it wasn't), he got freaking ambushed by the scary dude in the hat. And he would have liked to shrug off his crazy rantings about stars and cyclones and death and destruction, but he just couldn't. He'd met Ryoma's tennis league. The weirdest shit could happen.

     Well, whatever was up, it couldn't be pretty.

     There were suits on the court.

     Apparently, his friend wasn't living at his old house, so Kevin had found his way to morning practice at Seigaku, and there they'd been. Four of 'em, lecturing Ryoma in words he couldn't understand, but with faces he knew. Those were 'upset' faces. 'Telling you this for your own good' faces. A little bit 'terrified' faces, too, but that was probably because of the new technique Ryoma was practicing while they talked. When the hell had that bastard learned to make a serve that bounced back to his hand?

     Ryoma never told him anything! And they were supposed to be friends!

     He didn't want to get in any real trouble, though, so he stayed behind the fence and well away from the official-looking types. Ryoma seemed to be handling it coolly enough, even though the four suits looked like they were really starting to cook.

     Then, one word from an old guy, and Ryoma was flipping out. Going a full John McEnroe on their asses. Kevin could hardly believe he wasn't throwing his racket. The tone in his voice screamed 'You cannot be serious!' even if the words were gibberish.

     Whatever he'd actually said, one of the grown-ups there to lecture him (the middle-aged lady in the bad suit) got her mouth all twisted and hollered right back -- kinda like a line judge, really, telling him he was getting flagged for 'ungentlemanly behavior'.

     They went back and forth, and after Ryoma calmed back down to his normal volume, the old people seemed to breathe a bit easier, too. Of course, they tensed right back up when he started laughing at them and went back to practicing his serve.

     Funny how, "This isn't a joke," sounded the same pretty much anywhere in the world.

     Kevin couldn't make out even the basic sounds of the answer Ryoma muttered to himself, but he caught enough of the old lady's reaction.

     "Atobe...?" he heard her say, before all the sounds dissolved back into foreign mush. Foreign mush that was clearly filled with surprise, and more fear if he had to guess, but he knew that word. The scary guy in the hat had said it every two seconds while he'd been drawing his 'explanation' of what was going on with Ryoma.

     Pulling out the piece of paper, Kevin studied the strangely contorted figures and the stranger lines of old-fashioned English, but he couldn't make any more sense out of them than he could of the lady in the suit gasping, "... ano Atobe zaibatsu no?"

     Just as suddenly as they'd started yelling earlier, every one of the four suits slid a step back, all apologetic, and said quite a bit, very quietly and very quickly. Kevin couldn't have said what an 'atobe' was, but the adults were clearly even more scared of that than they were of Ryoma's new serve. They nodded, they bowed. Ryoma rolled his eyes. Everything seemed right with the world.

     But it wasn't. Not until he'd gotten some answers, damn it.

     As soon as the grown-ups were gone, he made a beeline through the crowd of kids who'd been staring at him while he waited. "Ryoma..."

     The bastard didn't even flinch in the middle of his practice serve. "Hey, Kevin. You know the Japan Open isn't til October, right?"

     "Ha-de-fucking-ha-ha. I fly all the way over here, and what do I get when I show up?! One of the freaks in your league starts talking my ear off in a language I don't speak--"

     "I said I'd teach you, y'know."

     "--and makes it sound like you're in some kind of red-alert emergency, so here I come to find out what the hell, and you're getting bitched out by suits! Seriously. What did you do?"

     Ryoma let another serve fly. "Nothing," he answered, then caught the ball and turned to Kevin with a shrug. "The principal was just saying the school doesn't let middle schoolers date."

     So many things about that didn't make sense. What did that have to do with Ryoma? And why did the principal care if a ninth grader was dating somebody? There were some fifth and sixth graders in New York who--

     "So they were going to suspend me," Ryoma went on, not noticing his confusion. "Except, apparently, the rules don't apply if your boyfriend can buy the entire planet with his pocket change. Lucky me." Stretching out his arm over his head, his friend muttered, "This is exactly why that jackass can't take no for an answer."

     "Wait," he blurted out. "You're seeing somebody? Is that..." As Ryoma groaned and pushed his hat brim down with his racket, Kevin turned his back to take a closer look at the drawing the player at the indoor courts had made. "Is that what this is supposed to be?"

     It just looked like tennis. Demonic battle tennis ripping across the earth on a whirlwind, but still tennis. Then again, the first line of writing had said--

     "'Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps. He is come to open the purple testament of bleeding war?'" Ryoma read aloud.

     Yeah. It didn't make any more sense spoken than it did on paper.

     His friend didn't seem to care, and just pointed at the figure near the top with a laugh. "Well, that's definitely Atobe."

     "And do you want to tell me what an atobe is?! Is that some kind of new extreme dating Japan made up that you do riding on cyclone? Am I gonna see a Discovery Channel special on it next Shark Week or something?"

     "No," Ryoma answered, stealing the paper out of his hand. "But I bet he'd love to hear you call him that."

     And he was chuckling. The bastard! How was this funny?!

     "So, fine. I guess I don't care if you wanna date some guy, even if I thought you wanted to focus on tennis like me. But did I have to find this out third hand, via insane-o-matic?"

     "Whoever told you I was dating anybody is wrong about that."

     "You did, Ryoma! Just now!" The other player spared him a dubious glance for all of half a second before he went back to snickering at the picture. "You said they were gonna suspend you for it, except--"

     "It's not like that. Everybody's confused, including Atobe, but we're just going out."

     "Going out is dating."

     "Hanging out. I meant 'hanging out'." Flashing Kevin a grin, Ryoma waved the paper at him. "Can I take this? He'll flip when he sees it."

     His so-called rival wasn't taking this anywhere near seriously enough. Frowning, Kevin muttered, "Sure, I..." The words stopped in his throat while his brain caught up with him. "Oh. I get it. Atobe's the guy."

     "And all that 'I am as constant as the northern star,' stuff in his speech bubble is completely accurate."

     "So are you going to introduce me, or do I have to wait for the tabloid pictures?" With the way Ryoma kept reading over bits of the cartoon representation of his love life and laughing, Kevin was getting the idea that his friend wasn't fully paying attention to him. So, what was he supposed to do? Kevin grabbed his hat. "I said I wanna meet him!"

     With a twist of a frown, Ryoma snatched the cap right back. "You've met him before. Tannhäuser Serve?"

     "Him? Him?! Out of all the players in the world, you're dating that freaking loud-mouth peacock?"

     "Not. Actually. Dating. And his name's Atobe. Start remembering it."

     "Maybe I will, maybe I won't! Who said I'm gonna let you throw yourself away on that freak?"

     "Who said you get a vote?" His friend scanned further down the page, laughing out loud. "Oh, did Sanada draw this?"

     "I dunno his name. He was a tall guy, in a baseball cap. Shouted a lot."

     "Sounds like Sanada. So does his picture. 'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'" Ryoma read off the drawing with another laugh. "'The time is out of joint -- O cursèd spite...'" Then he trailed off, narrowing his eyes at the text.

     "What is it?"

     "I know that second bit. O cursèd spite, that ever I was born to set it right? That's Hamlet."

     "Whoop-de-doo. And since when did you memorize Shakespeare?"

     Ryoma scanned the whole thing over again with a pinched frown. "Freshman year. Interschool tennis festival. Atobe had me playing his girlfriend."

     "... Seriously? You were twelve. Robbing the cradle much?"

     "Whatever. I told you, it's not..." Kevin studied Ryoma's face as his friend fell silent, biting back whatever load of bullshit he was gonna say about how 'it's not like that'. The other player lived in a state of 'too cool to care', so it wasn't often he saw a pinch in his forehead like he was doing now. "Huh," he sighed under his breath, then folded up the paper and stuck it in his pocket.

     "Oh, come on! 'Huh'?! What's 'huh'?"

     Shaking off whatever weirdness had crept over him, Ryoma pulled his hat on straight and grabbed a ball from a nearby basket. "Sanada thinks I 'doth protest too much'."

     "You think I have any idea what that's supposed to mean?"

     "Look it up."

     Kevin scowled as the Japanese player hit another serve, this one harder and sharper than the ones before. "I just wish you'd told me you started seeing somebody. How long has this been going on, anyway?"

     His friend caught the ball and dribbled it with his racket, hollow rubber hits echoing through a few moments of taut silence. Finally, Ryoma sighed and set up for another serve.

     "What me and Atobe do is nobody else's business."

~//~

     Mondays were the longest day of the week, Oshitari thought, signing off on yet another club budget proposal. School started too early for his tastes, tennis club went for a good couple hours after a full day of learning, and then they had the student council meetings. At least there wasn't extra work to do, despite the year ending this week. Some schools might be training their new reps right now, but not Hyoutei's high school division. Oh, no. Atobe would continue as their benevolent dictator -- again. Because he couldn't be anywhere without being in charge.

     No one in the school ever had reason to complain, of course. He was surprisingly fair for a man who thrived on claiming authority through combat, trouncing the competition, and then ignoring every damn word of advice anyone gave. Never once considered showing favoritism to the tennis club, and even approved the photography club for all their field trips and expenses, despite how he hated President Aida's guts. A student council could do a lot worse.

     A violent knock on the door rang through the room, but none of them jumped. Oshitari just checked his watch and slid back from the desk.

     Right on time.

     "Oshitari, would you mind seeing who that is?" Atobe asked, pen moving without hesitation as he filled out whatever forms he was working on.

     "It's Sanada," he answered, and walked over to the door. "It's always Sanada at 4:30 on Monday. I don't know why you haven't added him to the agenda."

     Jotting down three last strokes with a flourish, Atobe put down his pen. "I'm sure he'll come to his senses soon. There's no need."

     The instant Oshitari pulled the door open, Rikkai's captain marched in. "Atobe!" he thundered. "This has gone far enough. Are you prepared to resolve matters with Echizen, or do I need to take action?"

     "That'd be entertaining," Oshitari muttered, leaning against the wall where he could get a good view from outside of the line of fire. Kabaji, meanwhile, went on filing like nothing had happened.

     The way Atobe laughed whenever Rikkai's Emperor busted in to say his piece was inexplicable. Somehow, Sanada could question his decision to date the brat without pissing him off and nobody knew quite why, since he did it pretty damn belligerently. "I appreciate your concern, my friend, but the situation is under control. I've accepted that these things take time. And what kind of lover would I be if--"

     "If you dare to use that word--"

     "I beg your pardon?"

     With a mighty and viscerally pained groan, Sanada dropped his forehead into his hand. "Echizen... is the soul of tennis within this world. The purity of his love for the sport should serve as an inspiration to us, a waylight in the dark reaches of hell itself! You cannot romance him like a common schoolgirl! How can I say this so you'll understand?"

     Oshitari was prepared to let Sanada figure that one out on his own. For once, he was with Atobe, who looked just as confused by that particular bit of gibberish as he himself felt.

     "I assure you, I'm doing nothing of the kind," his captain replied, moving the paperwork he'd signed into his outbox and settling back in his chair. "In no way do I find him 'common'. My pursuit of Echizen springs entirely from my feelings for him as a unique individual. Moreover..." Atobe fell silent, considering his words with pure bewilderment stitched across his browline. At last, he dropped a dissatisfied sigh and asked, "Why does everyone believe that I think he's a girl?"

     "That isn't what I meant!"

     For all the 'insight' Atobe claimed to have into the minds and actions of his fellow tennis players, he didn't seem to see the fiery aura of rage lighting up in Sanada's eyes. He pressed his hand to his chest and nodded, assuring the Rikkai player, "Whatever proof you need that I am handling our relationship properly, with all due--"

     "Atobe." Sanada's voice, though he wasn't yelling, boomed like a treefall in the forest. "This doesn't just concern you! Once your whims find their way onto the court, they concern every member of the league. Our battlefield is no place for a half-assed dalliance. When he moves up to the high school division, when this year's season starts, I hope you're prepared to take responsibility for that." He paused, seething behind gritted teeth, for whatever nonsense rejoinder Hyoutei's captain would manage to pull out of his ass.

     Not that Sanada could expect Atobe to listen to any more today, not with the new footsteps approaching their door. The raging mountain that was Sanada didn't seem to notice, but even Oshitari knew that sound by now. No way Atobe didn't recognize his surly little sweetie-pie when he heard him walking.

     Without bothering to knock, Echizen pushed open the door and breezed in -- past Oshitari's attempts to keep a straight face, past Sanada's countdown to implosion, and past Kabaji's total disregard until he met Atobe's besotted grin. "Hey," he said, and turned to the vending machine Hyoutei's king had insisted on installing in the room back in mid-January. It wasn't really a vending machine, since Echizen didn't have to put in any cash, but with a push of a button it certainly dispensed any (or all) of the hot and cold beverages Atobe had ever seen the brat drink.

     He cracked open the can of grape soda that had ka-thunked its way to the dispenser bin, and with that the middle schooler gave a nod to the rest of the room. Sanada, for one, looked like he was about to die of terror. You'd think that anybody who went to school with Yukimura -- let alone making out with him on a regular basis -- would have more composure than that. But his vengeful battle aura was fading fast, and soon he looked as pale as a sheet of paper ripped fresh out of a notebook. By contrast, Atobe looked as happy as an octopus who'd discovered fingerpainting. "You're early. I wasn't expecting you until Thursday."

     "Well, you can't keep me that long," Echizen answered with a shrug. "I just didn't feel like going home. Finish your work if you want -- I don't care." The Seigaku student pushed himself up to his usual seat on the corner of Atobe's desk, kicking his feet at the arm of the king's desk chair as he stole a peek at the two or three forms left to sign.

     With a pleasant nod and a pleasanter spark in his tone, Atobe looked up at Sanada again. "I understand if you'd prefer to continue this another time. My door will be open to you." The Rikkai player, for once at a loss for words, shook his head and fell to a seat on the tiger-print tea chaise as if his knees wouldn't have held up any longer.

     Oshitari leaned against the wall beside him. "You gonna live?"

     "Don't be preposterous. I'm fine."

     "Could've fooled me." He sighed, watching the King and the Prince. Hell, if it weren't for the Seigaku short-pants insisting on the platonic bent to their semiweekly rendezvous, Oshitari would have given Atobe the win for the looks they'd been trading recently. And once he'd seen it, he couldn't unsee it. Rikkai's captain couldn't be so blind as to miss it, either. "But I get it, you know? Who would have thought he'd go this far?"

     Now it was Sanada's turn to look at him like he was crazy. "Anyone who's ever met him. You're his second-in-command, aren't you? It's your job to save him from himself."

     "If you've got ideas on how, I'm all ears."

     Even Sanada had to surrender to that.

     Across the room, Echizen chuckled at some story Atobe had been telling. "The pandemonium is the cafeteria was like nothing I'd ever seen! Tiramisu, everywhere. And how was your day?"

     "Nothing special. Did some thinking."

     "Oh?" Atobe signed his name on the last paper in his pile and set it aside, leaning back in his chair. "About what?"

     Their visitor studied Atobe's expectant face in silence, then turned his eyes back to his soda. He spun the can back and forth between his fingers a few times before he shrugged. "Stuff," Echizen answered.

     "Stuff." His captain's face bloomed into a bright grin. "Is he not as ever the very form of eloquence, Kabaji?"

     The gentle giant grunted in the affirmative, which lucky for him Echizen didn't seem to notice. "I would so not answer that question," Oshitari muttered. Between the besotted Atobe and the unpredictable Seigaku phenom, he didn't feel inclined to risk his skin.

     And he didn't have to. The brat answered back, "Bite me," before anyone else had a chance to offer an opinion.

     "I mean it fondly. And did you reach any conclusions of interest?"

     "Not really." He took one last swig of his drink and pitched the empty can into the bin. "Kevin had plenty, but..." With a shrug, he took one more glance at Atobe that Oshitari could only describe as lingering too long. "... Whatever."

     Lingering? Seriously? If he'd been in charge of the afternoon's soundtrack, Oshitari would've fired himself for not booking the saxophone. No matter how comfortable the player had gotten in his captain's space, their league's prodigal smart-mouthed tennis machine shouldn't have had the wherewithal to look at somebody like that. Even Sanada had stopped looking stricken in favor of looking confused.

     Then there was Atobe, Mr. Insight himself, who'd never thought Echizen was indifferent in the first place, looking like the only one in the room not to notice the shift in demeanor. "What on earth was Kevin doing in town?" he asked, while Oshitari was busy wondering why the brat's shell had cracked.

     "Pissed I didn't tell him we're dating, I think."

     Cracked. That was the word for it. There was no intel -- nothing -- to say he'd even thought about changing his tune. But clear as day, he had the eyes of somebody who'd thought it. Been doing serious considering, even, and just hadn't reached any conclusions. And nobody in the entire league knew what the blazes had happened? Slackers, all of 'em, to quote the gentleman sitting numb-eyed on the chaise.

     Well, they'd probably hear soon enough. The hallway door was bowed from the weight of eavesdroppers leaning in and softly chirped with a chorus of text messages -- since everywhere that lovers went, the league was sure to follow -- while a microphone dropped a bit lower by the window, the better to hear what came next. Poor saps weren't lucky enough to get a front row seat, or a good look at the hope and joy welling up in Atobe's eyes. Or unlucky enough. Sanada probably would have collapsed if he hadn't been sitting already.

     If he'd been spying on one of their Sundays, Oshitari would have expected Echizen to poke a hole in Atobe's balloon like always. Today, though, it just looked like he'd bit down on a bad orange when he heard the words come out of his mouth. No doubt his shift towards the edge of the desk meant he planned to bolt for the door.

     "Which..." Atobe replied, grabbing Echizen's wrist to stop him from going, "... I understand we're not."

     It was one of those moments that made a man consider giving up eavesdropping. The strained ease the captain had faked in a smile made his chest twinge; the tense mood when Echizen said, "All right, then," was like to flip his stomach worse than making pancakes on a roller coaster; and then the way their hands hovered in each other's grips before the kid pulled back into a fist on the table... He'd wanted to beat some sense into Atobe's head plenty of times, but the man had never needed it more. None of that meant he would stop eavesdropping, but for two seconds Oshitari definitely thought about it.

     All-around awkward, really.

     "We should leave," Sanada whispered.

     Oshitari shook his head as subtly as he could. "Not 'til Atobe says, 'Can you give us a moment.' He'll go postal if he thinks we think he's being indiscreet." Sanada had narrowed his eyes like he'd never seen a royal brat and a royal prick dance around the finer points of having their heads up their asses before. Though, to be fair, this was worse than usual. "Kind of makes you feel sorry for him, doesn't it?" he murmured.

     Eyes never leaving the scene at the desk, the Emperor nodded slowly. "It does."

     Those few ticks of the clock felt like they might never end, and when Echizen glanced backwards to give the two of them a pensive eye Oshitari found himself praying Atobe would ask them to leave. But they weren't lucky enough to get a pass; instead, the Seigaku player broke into a grin as wide as a mile, ending any chance that the captain would need a moment alone. "Speaking of which," he laughed, pulling a paper out of his pocket, "I brought you something."

     Oshitari hoped someone was taping the way Sanada twitched, because he never would have believed it if he hadn't seen it for himself.

     "What's the occasion?" Atobe asked.

     "You'll like it. Do I need a reason?"

     Sanada took to his feet, and Oshitari didn't stop him. The air seemed mostly clear. "My business is done, Atobe. I'll take my leave."

     Hyoutei's captain nodded, paused halfway through unfolding his present. "See you on the courts, my friend." And maybe, if it hadn't been for the careful way one had to open the door lest the crowd of eavesdroppers outside fall through in a heap, the Rikkai student might have escaped.

     As it was...

     "Like it? I'm going to frame it! Wait, Sanada..."

     He turned around with the air of a condemned man stepping into the gallows.

     "There's no need to be modest," Atobe scoffed, holding out the paper he'd taken from Echizen. "I'd know your hand anywhere. How can I begin to thank you?"

     "That's... not necessary."

     "An absolute masterpiece of juxtaposition! To be honest, I didn't know you had it in you to do something so avant garde. I could study this for days, looking for all the hidden meaning. The depth in the opposition of Much Ado About Nothing with Richard II in the first lines alone--"

     The Seigaku brat scoffed, jumping off the desk to mime a few swings. "What hidden meaning? I read 'you plus me equals cyclone'."

     "Well, naturally. Destruction and disaster if we trifle with such a powerful force as love, but the overall tone is positive. See, Hero's line, here at the top... He refers to a romance that succeeds but which might never have had the chance if not for a bit of third-party meddling," Atobe opined, with a nod to Oshitari. As if any of this were actually his fault! "And consider this middle stanza with 'a cloud takes all away' -- as if, like in Two Gentlemen of Verona, we might be parted -- then follows with 'Weep I cannot. But my heart bleeds,' from A Winter's Tale. Our near miss of the mark is what he seeks to correct. In due time, of course. I wouldn't rush you."

     In a hissed whisper barely reaching his ear, Oshitari could have sworn he heard Sanada say, "... That isn't what I meant!"

     Which just went to show that a man shouldn't let himself draw misinterpretable doodles and recklessly drop them into the wrong hands. Call it a moral for the day. The much put-upon Rikkai player wouldn't have much luck changing Atobe's mind now, whatever he actually had meant by... whatever the hell that paper was supposed to be. One thing Oshitari knew for sure was he had to get a look at this so-called 'masterpiece'.

     As he snuck across the council chambers, Atobe nodded quite seriously at the drawing. Then folded it up, just before Oshitari could get a peek. "I can hardly believe I misunderstood you earlier, Sanada. But never fear: I shall take my example from your own diligence in suiting my courtship of this... delicate, exquisite flower to our responsibilities on the court."

     The turn of his head to inspect the Seigaku brat, who'd found a ball somewhere and started tossing it against the wall, forced the memory back into Oshitari's head of what Atobe had meant by 'flower'. And honestly, he could have done with the ability to forget that one delusion, because it always gave him a headache. Maybe he had pollen allergies to fields of Echizen in bloom...

     On the other hand, he might just want to deny even having thought that.

     Sanada and Echizen took a second longer to work out the metaphor, and the Rikkai player especially looked like he might choke on his own disbelief. "Excuse me?"

     "I mean your bond with Yukimura, of course," Atobe answered, completely missing the point. "The two of you are like one person in two bodies, just as I hope Echizen and I will someday be."

     Which little image seemed to shut Sanada down completely. He must have forgotten Rule Number 2: Don't visualize. The middle schooler himself had either remembered that one, or was immune to metaphors. He rolled his eyes and shook his head lazily, no energy wasted on looking shocked. "Why do I like you?" he muttered to himself. Neither expecting nor needing an answer, he went back to bouncing his tennis ball of the panelling. "Weirdo."

     For reasons unknown to Oshitari and the rest of the non-telepaths in the room (Kabaji, whose potential for telepathy was unknown, wasn't sharing any insights), Sanada winced at every strike of the ball, slowly turning green as he pivoted toward the door. "I have nothing further," he announced. The heavy plod of his feet toward the hallway and the unfocused daze in his eye smacked of a man who wouldn't be coming back to argue any time soon.

     If ever.

     "You know, Atobe, you don't make my life easy." Oshitari snagged the paper that had started all of this commotion while he waited for the look of smug triumph to drop off his friend's face. He'd be waiting awhile, so something to read would work out just fine. "I've got to come up with a lifetime of material to mock you with, and nobody's gonna believe enough of what you do for it to be funny."

     "Need I remind you? It's only a month, Oshitari. Surely you can manage that."

     His heart failed a beat in panic as he heard was Atobe was saying -- with Echizen in the room. Really, his slip of the tongue gave him an instant's sympathy for Sanada. He was swallowing his own chorus of, 'That isn't what I meant.' All he'd wanted to say was that Atobe left a sane man's concept of Peak Nutjob too far in the dust to make a good joke, period. Hell, even he wasn't crass enough to talk about that bet while the person under contention was standing two feet away. And being that Atobe was usually ten times more refined than him on his best day, Oshitari had to wonder if he and his captain had been standing in the same locker room as each other, making the same bet all those years ago.

     But it had to be. Everything that he'd said to insist he'd won had been all about Echizen and the inexplicable state of their 'relationship'. Where would the confusion be?

     "What are you on about now?" the brat asked, bounding his tennis ball once more and catching it out of the air.

     With a cool shake of his head, Atobe took his seat to sign his name on the last council business of the day. "Just an old wager, which my compatriot here stubbornly refuses to admit I've won."

     The Seigaku player's lack of further curiosity was some small relief, but changing the subject was still the first thing on Oshitari's agenda. And boy did Sanada's crazy doodle give him plenty to work with. He would have let Rikkai's captain slide on just dressing the figures in battle armor (as he'd done) or drawing himself, Atobe, and Echizen trampling demons under their feet (likewise), but he'd kept going from there. The roaring combatant wearing the hat marked with an R, in addition to carrying a tennis racket, had an ornate box in his right hand that -- if he remembered his symbolism -- could only mean one thing.

     "Is it just me, or did he draw Echizen as the god Bishamonten?"

     "Don't you think it suits him?"

     Oshitari looked up, harboring some vague hope that his captain had been kidding, but without so much as blinking the man finished his work and cleared his desk.

     "This isn't a tennis league. It's an insane asylum."

     The newly deified squirt put his tennis ball in a pocket and wandered back over. "You're just figuring that out?"

     "Sometimes I like to pretend."

     Throwing on his jacket, Atobe walked around the desk to take back and admire the sketch. "Let's allow some artistic license, shall we? An avant garde style of expression is about a point of view -- concept via extravagant hyperbole. I certainly won't complain that he shows me quoting Julius Caesar when there are so many other passages I'd favor in reality." His eyes lit up as he whipped around toward Echizen. "For example...!"

     The sight of his beloved's disbelief brought him back to earth so fast you'd think he was the buttered side of toast.

     "... Though under the circumstances, that might be unseemly," Atobe sighed.

     But one switch to a too-close-to-yearning gaze later, Echizen answered, "Yeah, right," and started toward the door. "I think you just can't say it with a straight face."

     The paper was down on the desk in an instant, and Atobe had seized the kid's arm. "Is that a challenge?" Countless time over the past few months, Oshitari had noticed Atobe staring at Echizen like he was more fascinating than a lost Vermeer painting, the collected works of Mozart, and the schematics of a Mars landing craft all rolled into one. Never once had he seen a look so indescribably transported as the one his captain put on at the thought of Echizen asking him to recite love poetry.

     Echizen shook off the hand on his arm, but didn't bother fighting for distance when Atobe gripped his hand instead and pulled it in close. He grumbled, "You gonna do it or not?" but he didn't pull away.

     "Oshitari, Kabaji. Can you give us a moment?"

     Someday, he'd figure out where Atobe drew the line between what he'd say in public and what needed privacy. Someday, for sure. After hearing Echizen called a 'delicate flower' and Atobe announcing that he had serious plans for 'becoming one' within the last five minutes, but with Shakespeare quotes now being off the record, that day was not today. All the same, he gave them their moment, walking into the hallway with Kabaji. Anything he could hear from inside, he'd be able to hear through a crack in the door anyway.

     And although he'd been skeptical at first, he had to give his captain full marks for making 'dating Echizen' look something other than impossible. If Atobe wanted to say they were made for each other, who was he to argue? Hell, if the brat was still holding out when this year was over, he'd probably help Atobe sort out the mess he'd gotten himself into. What else were friends for?

     Besides winning questionable bets on tenuous technicalities.

     The door closed with a nice, audible click, and he turned the knob slowly back and pushed up on it to take the weight off the hinges. Opened easy and silent for the whole two inches he needed to see clearly. He still couldn't hear, alas, but he could see Echizen's cap in Atobe's hand, and his captain's head bent close to the other player's ear -- whispering something to his certainly-not-his-boyfriend that must not have been too objectionable, since the Seigaku player was smirking instead of scowling.

     Atobe stopped his whispers and stared down his 'challenger' with as straight a face as anyone could ask for. "...If this be error and upon me proved," he said, pulling the baseball cap back onto Echizen's head. "I never writ, nor no man ever loved."

     "Hmm." Echizen considered him for a second, eyes narrowed. "You're a dork," he declared, and turned for the exit.

     He was still smirking, though. And the dork himself couldn't have looked more pleased if he'd gotten a kiss for his trouble.