The first real indication Shishido had that anything was up was less of a clue, and more of a whack to the back of the head by a clue-by-four. When Hiyoshi cornered him just after class one afternoon to demand to know why he'd lost his best doubles player, Shishido just stared at him for a long moment in incomprehension.
"The fuck are you on about?" he finally asked the scowling junior. "The seniors retired a month ago. And what the hell do you expect me to do about it anyway? If Atobe couldn't convince the school board to let us all keep playing, nobody can."
The scowl turned into a look of genuine surprise. "You mean you don't know?" Hiyoshi said, now seeming more curious than anything. "I thought you of all people..."
"If you don't start making sense in the next thirty seconds, I'm going to try smacking you to see if that resets your brain," Shishido threatened the younger boy, rolling his eyes.
"You really don't know." Hiyoshi gave him a measuring look. Before Shishido could move to carry out his threat he was totally derailed by the junior's next words. "Ohtori resigned this morning. Just showed up, handed over his jacket and resignation letter, and left before I got a chance to talk to him."
Gaping in utter shock, Shishido just stared at him, unable to form coherent words. Finally he managed to prod his brain into working again. "Choutarou... quit the team?" The very words sounded funny in his mouth, like he was speaking a foreign language. It certainly wasn't making any sense to him. "But... did he lose his spot on the regulars?" Surely Ohtori would have mentioned being defeated in the rankings...
Hiyoshi shook his head. "We've got ranking matches coming up next week, and he's been having trouble deciding who to play with as his new partner, but he wasn't in any danger of losing his place. The only explanation he gave in the letter was 'time conflicts', and I haven't been able to corner him. So I thought I'd ask you." His surprise that Shishido didn't know what was going on was no less than the senior's own.
"I'll talk to him," Shishido promised, feeling like he was in shock. His mind whirled as he tried to think. It was Friday, so there was no afternoon tennis practice; where would Ohtori be? Oh, right. "He's got orchestra rehearsal today, I'll catch him as he comes out of it. There's... there's gotta be some kind of reasonable explanation for this."
Hiyoshi nodded shortly. "I want him back," the new Hyoutei captain said bluntly. "Our doubles pairs aren't nearly as strong this year as they were last year. I need him. Tell him I haven't passed his resignation on to Kantoku yet, so he's got until Monday to change his mind."
With that the junior turned and stalked off, leaving Shishido utterly confused behind him.
What the hell is going on? Shishido shifted the weight of his bag to his other hand, and turned to head for the music wing. Granted, he hadn't seen much of his former partner over the last month since the seniors had retired; the stress of studying for the ascension exams had begun to set in for everyone in their third year. Without the regular practices pulling them together, and being in different years, he and Ohtori simply didn't run across each other very often. Shishido had been intending to call the younger boy, really he had. He'd just been so busy, and it always seemed like there'd be plenty of time to get around to it eventually.
The music department wasn't exactly familiar territory, but he'd been there a few times before, either waiting for Ohtori or accompanying him while he dropped by to get something. He knew the orchestra practices were held in the auditorium, so they'd be accustomed to the acoustics when they played in concert.
Or so Ohtori had told him; it was mostly gibberish to him.
He did know that the Hyoutei music department was one of the best equipped in Tokyo, if not Japan. This was not terribly surprising; Atobe might not be involved in music, but he'd only paid for half of the renovations to Hyoutei's tennis club. The rest had been paid for by their coach - who also happened to be the head of the music department.
That had made it much easier for Ohtori to be involved in both tennis and music. Since Sakaki had to be present for both practices, there were no conflicts between the two clubs. Unless Ohtori had somehow done the impossible and picked up a third club, he shouldn't have been having any time conflicts as he'd claimed in his letter.
Knowing he was going to have at least an hour to wait before the orchestra practice let out, but not wanting to go elsewhere and risk missing his friend, Shishido slipped into the back of the auditorium as quietly as he could. He settled into a shadowed corner in the back, prepared to wait. He'd done it a few times before, when he and Ohtori had made plans for after the practice and it hadn't seemed worth it for Shishido to go home only to have to turn around and come back.
It wasn't like it was a hardship to sit there. Shishido didn't know much about music, but the Hyoutei orchestra was good, even when they were just running through the same passage over and over again in an attempt to perfect it. They were doing something that seemed to focus on the interplay between the violin and piano, with the rest of the orchestra providing background accentuation. To his delight, but not really his surprise, he saw that the person playing the main violin line was Ohtori.
Looks like he finally got that first chair spot he's been lusting after, he thought, shifting in his seat with a proud grin. Sakaki, in the conductor's spot, was stopping and starting them, having them play the same thing with different interpretations of the passage. Even with the stop-and-go playing, Ohtori looked like he was totally absorbed in the music, putting his heart and soul into it. Shishido watched, and more importantly, he listened. Despite his lack of knowledge in this area, it was clear to him that Ohtori more than deserved the solo.
Well, duet. He had to admit the pianist was fairly impressive as well. A slender boy with dark green hair as long as Shishido's had once been, the other musician was just as into his music as Ohtori. It was, Shishido reflected as he listened to the melodies intertwine, kind of like playing doubles. There was the same dependence on the other player, the same need to trust that your partner would be where he was supposed to be.
When Sakaki finally relented on the minute dissection of the duet passage, he had the orchestra go back and play through the piece from start to finish. It wasn't perfect yet; even the Hyoutei orchestra needed practice to master a piece of this complexity. But it was good enough to sweep Shishido away on the swell of music, totally absorbing him in it.
He was almost startled when it ended, the violin and piano being the last to fade out of the song. He was startled when Sakaki clapped his hands sharply, and everyone started putting away their instruments and music. It couldn't have been a whole hour already, could it?
Sakaki had called Ohtori over the piano, and as Shishido stood to make his way to the front he could see his former partner frowning in concentration as Sakaki plainly gave the two boys further instructions. The expression brought back memories; Ohtori got the same intent look on his face when they were learning a new combination play or formation, or when he was about to smash his scud serve over the net and totally blow their opponents away.
"...practice on your own," Sakaki was saying as Shishido came within hearing range. He stayed outside of the orchestra pit to avoid interrupting, and none of the three saw him as he approached, too focused on each other. "As I've said before, Ohtori, Amano, you are the lynchpins for this performance. You will have to stretch yourselves a great deal to rise to the challenge, but I expect great things from both of you." At a chorus of soft agreement from both boys, Sakaki nodded in satisfaction. "Dismissed. I'll see you both tomorrow for the solo practice."
Ohtori turned and said something more to the pianist, too low for Shishido to hear him from this distance. The green-haired boy grinned and said something back that made Ohtori laugh brightly. Shishido's lips quirked at the sound. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed the sound of that laughter. Yeah, he was definitely going to have to make an effort to call his former partner more often.
Then Ohtori lifted the hand not holding his violin and bow, and ran it briefly through the pianist's hair. It was a casual touch, nothing particularly intimate even for two boys, but Shishido felt oddly stunned at the sight of it. Hell, it wasn't like Ohtori didn't touch him like that at every bloody opportunity. It had put Shishido off at first, but he'd kind of gotten used to it. There was just something... he couldn't have said for the life of him what it was exactly, but something about seeing him do it with someone else troubled him.
It took him a few moments to recover, and by then Ohtori had turned back towards his own seat, clearly intending to put his instrument away and pack up to go. Shishido moved forward to put himself more plainly into sight, and called out to get the younger boy's attention. "Yo, Choutarou!"
For the briefest of moments it seemed like Ohtori... froze. The tension in his back and shoulders might have been missed by someone who didn't know him well, but not by Shishido. Not after everything they'd been through together, everything they'd been to each other.
Then the tension was gone, sliding away into simple surprise as Ohtori turned to face him, and Shishido almost wondered if he'd imagined it. "Shishido-san!" Ohtori exclaimed, smiling at him. "What are you doing here? Did you sneak into the practice again?"
"Yeah, well, not like Kantoku can give me laps if he catches me at it now, can he?" Shishido retorted, making Ohtori's smile widen. "I was waiting for you."
"Waiting for me?" Ohtori looked puzzled now. "Why... oh. Hiyoshi talked to you, didn't he?" The smile slipped a bit as a wary look entered Ohtori's eyes, and the taller boy sighed. "I guess I should have expected that. I'm sorry, that must have been a little confusing for you."
Shishido jumped down into the pit as the younger boy moved to finish putting his violin away, standing over him as Ohtori fussed with the instrument in an obvious attempt to avoid meeting the senior's eyes. "Confusing? Totally shocking is more like it," Shishido said dryly. "Is it true, Choutarou? Did you really quit the team?"
Sighing, Ohtori gave up the attempt to avoid his eyes and looked up at him, sitting on his chair. "Yes, it's true. I had to make a choice. Sakaki-sensei said he couldn't give me the first chair if I remained in both clubs, because of all the extra practice it was going to require."
Damn. Shishido winced slightly. He'd sometimes wondered, in the depths of his mind, what would happen if Ohtori were ever forced to make a choice between the two great passions in his life. Apparently he had the answer now.
Interpreting his expression correctly, Ohtori hastened to reassure him. "It's not like I'm giving up tennis, Shishido-san! I'm just not playing in the club. When it comes down to it... I'm not synching very well with any of the others willing to play doubles. And I don't like playing singles, you know that. My strengths lie in doubles. Even if I didn't end up eventually losing my spot on the regulars, I wouldn't be playing nearly as well next season as you and I did together this season." The junior shrugged. "I got to go to Nationals this season, with you. Now I want to do something just as important, in music."
Well, when he put it that way, the decision didn't seem so bad. Shishido could even sympathize; he wasn't quite sure what he was going to do when he got to high school and started playing again, before Ohtori joined him. He'd figured he'd probably go back to singles for the duration, because he just couldn't imagine himself playing doubles with anyone but Ohtori.
"Hiyoshi's really irritated to be losing his best doubles player, you know," he said, and Ohtori laughed.
"He'll survive," the junior shook his head. "Honestly, the team will probably be better off this way. They'll be able to have two strongly bonded pairs again, instead of me and whoever I ended up pairing with."
"But you're still practicing, right?" That came out a little more anxious than Shishido had intended it to, and he bit his lip. "I mean, it'd suck if you let yourself get out of condition. We should practice together. It'll be good for both of us, and keep our combination strong." Pausing, he added in a rush, "Hell, there's all kinds of non-school related tournaments we could enter, come spring. It'd be good practice."
He was rewarded for the offer by another of Ohtori's bright smiles. "I'd like that, Shishido-san. I've missed playing with you. Tennis just didn't feel the same without you." His smile turned wry. "I kept expecting my new partners to be able to anticipate me like you could, and it wasn't working out very well."
Once again Shishido felt vaguely guilty for not making more of an attempt to keep in touch with the boy who was arguably his best friend. How had they managed to fall so far out of synch in just one month? Not that they'd ever spent a lot of time together outside of tennis, but they'd spent a great deal of time together regardless.
He's got my phone number too, he reminded himself, trying to break the feeling of guilt. We've both been busy. But it's not too late to fix that.
"You want to go play street tennis?" he offered impulsively. "It's Friday, I can put off studying for one night. We can go to the court near my place so I can grab my racquet. Or we could just practice here, since the courts are free, if you want to lend me one of yours and a spare jersey and shorts."
Ohtori looked stricken. "I can't, Shishido-san. I..."
"Hey, Choutarou, you almost ready to go?" The slightly impatient voice came from behind them, and Shishido turned in surprise. The dark-haired pianist was waiting at the edge of the orchestra pit, holding his music folder in one hand while he absently fiddled with a lock of his hair in the other. "If we don't get moving, by the time we're done dinner it'll be too late to practice without disturbing my parents."
"Almost, Kazuya," Ohtori placated him, and gave an apologetic smile to Shishido as he stood and scooped up his things. "I'm really sorry, Shishido-san. We've got a lot of work to do on this piece, and his mother's expecting us both for dinner. But call me some time, we'll go out and play."
Once again stunned, this time at being so easily brushed off, Shishido just stood and watched as Ohtori hurried up the steps out of the pit to join the other musician without so much as a last wave over his shoulder at his former partner. The green haired boy reached out and touched his arm briefly as he drew near, and murmured something that made Ohtori laugh again.
And then they were gone, leaving Shishido standing there in the empty auditorium, feeling like he'd been smacked in the face with a dead fish. What the hell just happened?
He couldn't remember Ohtori ever, ever turning down an invitation to go out and play, or even just to go hang out and talk about tennis. Shishido had found out, somewhat to his chagrin, that Ohtori's grades had slipped a bit during the summer term because he always chose time with Shishido over studying. That was another reason he hadn't wanted to be so demanding on the junior's time now that they weren't playing.
Being brushed off like that didn't sit well with Shishido at all. There was something else there too, something that was bothering him. He didn't know what it was, couldn't put his finger on any of it, but the entire encounter left a bad taste in his mouth. He scowled in the direction the two boys had gone. Obviously, he was going to have to sit Ohtori down and have a long talk with him.