It began, as most things did, in the pro shop. Kikumaru was buying grip tape and Jirou was buying a new pair of shoes as the heels in his last pair were all but worn off. Kikumaru saw Jirou from the corner of his eye and, because Seigaku just won against Hyoutei, he kept quiet so as not to attract the other boy’s attention. He thought it was working but, when he went to the counter to pay, Jirou tapped him on the shoulder.
“How’s Tezuka doing?” he asked. He didn’t ask it cheerfully, though, which was good. Kikumaru would’ve hit Jirou between the eyes with the roll of grip tape if he sounded the slightest bit pleased about Tezuka’s injury.
“He’s going to a hospital in Germany to rehabilitate. He’ll be gone for a while.” Kikumaru frowned, looking down to his grip tape; made in China, not for use on machinery.
“I hope he gets better soon.” Jirou paused to pay for his shoes. He paid by debit card. Kikumaru was unaware that middle schoolers could have debit cards. “I’ll get his grip tape, too,” Jirou told the clerk. “It’s a goodwill gesture,” he explained before Kikumaru could protest. “Atobe’s still beating himself up about winning that match. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him upset about winning.”
Kikumaru didn’t have anything to say but, “Thanks for the grip tape.” It felt awkward, talking to a rival like this.
“My car’s waiting outside. Do you need a ride somewhere?” Jirou nodded his head toward a large white vehicle parked outside. Kikumaru wasn’t too up on cars, but he knew that something that big and flashy must’ve cost a lot. The driver probably didn’t come cheap, either.
“I was going to go get something to eat,” Kikumaru confessed after a bit of internal debate. He really shouldn’t be talking to Hyoutei right now, not after what happened to buchou.
“Cool, let’s go. I know this really great steakhouse. I’ll treat.” In a rush of energy, Jirou grabbed Kikumaru and raced to the car. The door opened for them and they dove inside. “You’re fun Kikumaru-kun. We should shop together more often.”
Kikumaru wasn’t sure why he said it. Later, he would say it was the sparkle in Jirou’s eyes. “Sure. I’d like that.”
Their next meeting was, again, in the pro shop. This time, Kikumaru was hunting for a get well present for Tezuka. Jirou was just browsing. “Hey!” Jirou called, quite loudly and quite to the displeasure of the shopkeeper. Jirou spent a lot of money in the shop, though, so he wasn’t going to get kicked out. He could probably set a display on fire, wave his debit card, and be forgiven.
“Hi,” Kikumaru said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Buying anything fun?” Jirou’s idea of fun was probably not Kikumaru’s idea of fun. Maybe, after enough lunches, Jirou could change that. The day they went out for steak Jirou decided that he needed more friends; more non-Hyoutei friends. Hyoutei was a nice place to nap and feel superior and to always watch your back. Jirou was finding that he’d like some of the simple sort of friends, the kind that got big eyes when they saw his car or who talked about nice, normal things during meals. Kikumaru liked to talk about a girl-band called Chocolate.
“I’m getting something for Tezuka.” Kikumaru was examining a bottle of scuff remover for shoes. You didn’t get your ailing buchou scuff remover.
“Let’s go get him a snow globe!” Jirou suggested, tugging at Kikumaru’s sleeve. Snow globes were pretty.
“Do they make tennis snow globes?” Kikumaru looked around the shop and frowned. “I don’t see any.”
“Not a tennis snow globe! He plays tennis, he probably has everything he needs. You should get him something not-tennis. Something fun.” Jirou was bouncing just slightly, causing a nearby display to wobble.
“Like those little sushi erasers? They’re pretty fun.” Kikumaru’s eyes were starting to light up.
“Yeah, like those! Come on!” Once more, Jirou found himself pulling Kikumaru out of the pro shop and into his car. They were going to make Tezuka a basket of useless, fun things and he was going to like it. Well, he didn’t really seem like the type to like cute things, but it didn’t matter. He was probably too polite to get rid of them.
Kikumaru received a thank you text message from Tezuka. It was very polite, which meant that Tezuka was putting the basket in the corner and trying to forget about it. That was okay. He knew Kikumaru cared, which was the important part. The erasers would come in handy when Tezuka returned to school. The bobble heads…well, they were circus animals, and there was always a use for circus animals.
Two weeks passed before Kikumaru’s cell phone jingled out Chocolate’s latest single, “Cherry Mousse Love.” The caller ID listed “friend” as the caller. Both Kikumaru and Jirou thought it best to keep their evolving friendship a secret from their teammates and thus had cleverly disguised their cell phone entries for one another. Secret meetings were far more fun than ones everyone knew about. Jirou also thought Atobe would get mad and, according to Jirou, if Atobe was mad, Jirou would have to spend weeks soothing Atobe’s anger before he would be allowed to nap at practice again. Kikumaru thought Oishi would understand, but would also be upset. An upset Oishi was like a can of Ponta that had been on Momo’s bike for a week before being opened. Oishi would fizzle on the inside until something made him pop and…well, maybe he wasn’t that much like Ponta. He was really high strung, though. Sometimes Kikumaru wondered if it might be good for Oishi to go on sedatives every now and then. He was going to be an old man with high blood pressure by the time nationals were over.
“Eiji, you there?”
“Sorry, I was just thinking about something. What’s up?” Kikumaru looked down at his desk, remembering that he had an exam to study for. He shouldn’t go out if Jirou asked him to.
“You doing anything?”
“I’ve got to study for a test. Biology.” Kikumaru hated biology. It was full of long, foreign words that his tongue just couldn’t wrap around. Also, the tests were long. Also, sensei was very strict when grading.
Either Jirou grumbled a little or there was some static on the line. Kikumaru wasn’t sure which. Finally, Jirou said, “I was going to see if you wanted to go to an arcade. Atobe says they’re for low-life street trash with nothing better to do with their time, so they must be really fun.”
Kikumaru’s elbow accidentally hit the biology book into the trash can. “You’ve never been to an arcade?” There were some used tissues in the bin, too, so picking up the book would be unsanitary. He’d need to use gloves. “I know a really neat one down by the street tennis courts by Fudomine.”
“You have to study, though.” Jirou was reprimanding Kikumaru the way a five year old tells his mother that the chocolate on his mouth wasn’t from the cookies currently missing from the jar, but from the cocoa tree that sprouted in the cactus pot and mystically disappeared before she got home.
In order to get the gloves to get the book out of the trash can, Kikumaru would have to go into the kitchen and search around in his mother’s special drawer. Kikumaru was conditioned to never, under any circumstances, go into his mother’s drawer. Problem solved, then. “I’ll get a C no matter what I do. I don’t think sensei even reads my tests. Meet me there in half an hour?”
Jirou was dazzled by the lights and high-bass music of the arcade. He was also dazzled by the DDR junkies who were spinning and doing hand-stands to the music. “Cool,” Jirou decided aloud. “Atobe doesn’t know what he’s missing.” He pointed to the DDR players. “That has to be good training.”
“Is that Kamio-kun?” Kikumaru pointed to a machine a little farther down. He made a shushing gesture and began to covertly move toward the Kamio or Kamio look-alike. Covert movement involved running from console to console, ducking back any time the Kamio or Kamio look-alike turned his head.
Jirou was one for a more direct approach. “Kamio-kun!” Jirou waved and ran forward, summoning up a reserve of energy that could power a small island nation for a week.
The frightened boy clutching the DDR guardrail was, in fact, Kamio Akira. “H-hey.”
“Akutagawa-kun, you ruined it!” Kikumaru complained, stomping up. A Tekken player glared at Eiji for bumping his elbow on the way over.
“You were taking too long,” Jirou explained, sticking his tongue out. “Do you play, Kamio-kun?” Jirou pointed to the DDR machine.
“I use it to test my rhythm.”
Jirou figured Kamio would say something like that. “Told you it would be a good training device,” he told Kikumaru, who was still pouting. Kikumaru liked to pout a lot. Jirou would pout, too, if people stopped, stared, and went ‘oh, how cute’ every time he did so. Pouting was Kikumaru’s not-so-secret weapon, and he used it well.
In the first two weeks of their acquaintance, Jirou learned a lot about Kikumaru. First, Kikumaru was smart. He wasn’t smart like Oshitari; he was smart like Jirou was smart. Kikumaru knew how to get his way by making you think you were getting your way. Eiji was a master manipulator and a man after Jirou’s own heart. Second, Kikumaru liked to trick people, particularly people who were rude to his friends. Jirou was sure he and Kikumaru-kun were going to be good friends - and even better accomplices.
Kamio was trying to blend back into the throng of arcade junkies. Kikumaru quickly ran up and draped himself over Kamio’s back, cutting off his exit. “I’m showing Akutagawa-kun the arcade. He’s never been to one.”
Kamio’s knees were slowly buckling under Eiji’s weight. “Please get off of me,” Kamio asked, wincing. He probably wasn’t used to being around social people. Fudomine needed to get out more. Kamio’s eyes scrunched up and his head turned. “What was that noise?”
“What noise?” Jirou asked. They were in an arcade; it was hard to hear one noise above the other twelve hundred noises; pinging, bleeping, and thrumming together in perfect discord.
“My stomach,” Kikumaru admitted, sliding off of Kamio’s back. “I skipped lunch so I could get here on time. We should go get some burgers. I’ll treat this time.”
Another thing Jirou learned about Kikumaru was that he didn’t like to feel like a burden. After Jirou bought something, Kikumaru would reciprocate, usually in the form of burgers, shakes, or a quick ramen lunch. Atobe never let Jirou buy when they went out together, except when Jirou stole Atobe’s wallet. It was fair, though, because Jirou never let Atobe decide where they ate, or where they took holiday, or what linens Atobe would purchase. Left to his own devices, Atobe bought scratchy sheets because they looked good. Jirou threw them out and made his boyfriend buy nice satin sheets that were cool and shiny and slippery fun. Atobe barely slept anyway, so what did he care?
“Come on Kamio-kun!” Jirou hooked Kamio’s arm in his own before Kamio could make a break for it. Kamio needed to loosen up, and Jirou and Eiji were experts in fun.
“Is that Momoshiro-kun?” Kamio asked as they walked up to the Happy Burger. If there was one person Kamio knew from a distance…well, it was Tachibana, but if there was a second, it would be Momoshiro Takeshi.
Kikumaru stopped reciting things he was going to order long enough to look. “Yep. He’s eating with ochibi.” Kamio could tell there were thoughts bubbling in Kikumaru’s mind. Kikumaru’s eyes darted around a lot when he was thinking. “Hey, you think they’re on a date?”
“I think they’re eating hamburgers,” Kamio said, noting how Akutagawa-kun’s interest was immediately caught by the prospect of Momo and Echizen being on a date.
“We should investigate,” Jirou whispered, pulling Kamio and Kikumaru around into an alley. “Kamio, you go in and distract them. Eiji and I will plant ourselves inside. Give us five minutes, then go to the bathroom, where Eiji will slip a note detailing our location. Make it there as quietly and quickly as possible.” Jirou was smiling, his teeth gleaming white in the murky alley.
This was a stupid idea. All the same, it was a chance to mess with Momo, which was a high priority on Kamio’s list of things to do. “Alright.” Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to play spy for a few minutes. Kikumaru was buying the burgers, after all.
“Project Momo-chibi Date-o, commence!” Kikumaru whispered before shoving Kamio out of the alley and into a combustibles bin. Smiling at the old lady who looked concerned, Kamio removed a candy bar wrapper from his sleeve and walked into the Happy Burger.
“He’s good,” Kikumaru whispered to Jirou. They had to whisper; they were on a secret mission. “Momo and ochibi haven’t looked this way once.” Kikumaru watched Kamio talk, his hands moving quickly, his voice just loud enough for Kikumaru’s expert senses to hear.
“He would definitely be an asset to any covert operation,” Jirou agreed, munching on a fry. “You’d never suspect him. He’s too…too…”
“Nervous?” Kikumaru supplied. “But look at him,” Kikumaru gestured to Kamio with his straw, “he’s 100 percent confident right now.” It was true. Kamio was retelling the story of how Tachibana fixed his tennis bag, and was doing so without a stutter or a change of pitch. Momo and Echizen were completely taken in by Kamio’s enthusiasm.
“Kamio-kun should hang out with us more often,” Jirou decided. “It’s good for his self-esteem.”
“Agreed.” Kikumaru raised his cola and they toasted to their newest friend.
“Turns out they were just coming back from the street courts,” Kamio told Kikumaru and Jirou. “Echizen got the final point in a match, so Momo had to buy hamburgers.”
“You sound disappointed,” Jirou laughed, sipping at his ninth refill. After Echizen and Momoshiro left, the trio of friends remained behind, getting the most out of the Ultimate Fry Bucket (free refills) and the Mega Thirst Cola (also free refills).
“I thought he would make a move by now,” Kamio admitted, though nervously. “You can tell he likes the kid.”
“Momo? I thought he liked Kaidoh,” Kikumaru scooted his chair closer and lowered his voice.
“Nah, he’s into that data guy of yours.” Jirou passed his cola to Kamio, who looked like his blood sugar was low. “But I don’t think I’d say Momo likes Echizen that way.”
Kamio laughed, reaching for some fries. “Echizen is the only one that idiot will let get a word in. You should come watch them at the street courts, they’re there almost every weekend, playing doubles. They really suck.”
Jirou watched Kamio assault the fry bucket. “Do you want me to go get a refill?” he asked as Kamio shoveled handful after handful of fries into his mouth.
“Nah, I just need the salt.” Kamio slowed down his consumption of the fries, taking a long drink of cola. “So, what are we gonna do about it?”
“Do about what?” Jirou asked, passing Kamio a napkin. “You’ve got salt all over your face.”
“Thanks.” Kamio cleaned himself up. “Do about those two. You’re not going to let them just go on like that, are you?”
It was then that Jirou realized he’d been had. Judging from the look on Eiji’s face, the acrobat realized it, too. Kamio was the one who suggested going to Happy Burger. He said that the refills would be worth the extra walk. He was the one who pointed out the two Seigaku members in the restaurant. “You planned this,” Jirou accused, trying not to laugh.
“You didn’t think I could do it on my own, did you?” Kamio mumbled around a mouthful of fries.
Jirou and Kikumaru laughed, loud enough to draw stares from the other patrons. “We need to find a better place to talk about this,” Kikumaru whispered. “We don’t want anyone else hearing.”
“I know a really good ice cream place. It’s over by Rikkaidai, so we don’t have to worry about our teammates finding out. A banana split sounds really good about now.” Jirou could picture it now, a huge pile of ice cream and whipped cream. Atobe didn’t like ice cream, so Jirou rarely got to go. Having new friends was awesome.
“I’m game,” Kamio said, using a napkin to clean up the table a bit.
“Me too. Let’s go.” Kikumaru slid all of their garbage into the now empty fry bucket.