"Whose idea was this?" Shishido asked, peering around the Shitenhouji gymnasium. It was cleaner than he expected, but the neon stripes on the walls were making him dizzy.
Atobe tilted his nose in the air a few extra degrees before snorting in Shishido's direction and walking away. Bitch.
"I don't see any futons," Ohtori said, walking up behind Shishido and placing his hand on his partner's shoulder. Ohtori said it was a nervous habit, but Shishido was getting a little freaked out by the frequency. People were starting to talk and get ideas – totally wrong ideas because Shishido was nobody's property and nobody needed to ask Choutarou's permission to –
"Kenya said they were being stored in the back." Oshitari Yuushi gave Shishido a snide little smirk.
Why was everyone on his team an asshole?
"Thank you for coming." Shiraishi pushed open the double doors to the gym's entrance and strode in, flanked by his team.
"I can assure you it wasn't by choice," Atobe replied. He flicked his wrist and Kabaji stood a little taller. Shishido was still pretty sure Ishida Gin could snap Kabaji in half, though. There was something sinister in the way the crappy gym lighting bounced off Ishida's bald head.
"It's lucky for us Osamu is such a good poker player." Konjiki Koharu blew Shishido a kiss – at least Shishido was pretty sure it was directed at him. It might have been directed at Choutarou, though, because Choutarou was doing that nervous shoulder grab thing again. The kids from Shitenhouji were freaks.
"I want to play Atobe!" The kid in the leopard print tank top – Oshitari mentioned his name but Shishido wasn't really listening – jumped around Atobe in a circle. "Let's go to the court!"
"I don't have a good feeling about this," Choutarou whispered into Shishido's ear.
Shishido would have replied but he was too grossed out by the kisses and lewd hand gestures Konjiki was throwing his way to say anything.
"The system is simple," Shiraishi said, pointing to some notes on a whiteboard. "The names of each member of our team will be in the red container. Each member of Hyoutei will draw one stick. After you have your partner, please choose a team from the white container." Leaving the organization of the matches to Chitose had been a mistake. Chitose was far too busy opening mythical doors and sounding philosophical to bother coming up with a functional schedule. Instead, he made Kintarou eat two boxes of popsicles and used the sticks for the lottery. Shiraishi was amazed Chitose didn't outsource writing names on the sticks as well, but the loopy kanji was clearly the other boy's handwriting.
Hiyoshi raised his hand. "Why are we playing doubles?"
"Because if we didn't play doubles some people would never finish their matches." Kenya glared at Atobe and Shiraishi. Shiraishi didn't think a match against Atobe would take that long, really. While Atobe was a strong player and his tennis evolved at a regular rate, it was too flashy and Shiraishi could easily finish him off.
"We're playing doubles to encourage cooperation and enhance our ability to adapt to various playing styles," Chitose said, flashing a grin to Shiraishi as though he'd said something worthy of praise instead of repeating what Osamu and Sakaki had written on the memo announcing the training camp.
"I'm not playing anywhere near that." Shishido pointed to Koharu.
"Yuuji, he's being mean to me!" Koharu snaked himself around his doubles partner, completely violating Shiraishi's ban on indecent behavior.
"Maybe if you'd stop throwing yourself at him he wouldn't have to." Yuuji shook off Koharu and moved to the other side of the assembled group. "No good adulterer," he grumbled.
Shiraishi took a few deep breaths. As soon as the lots were drawn he could relieve himself of captaincy for the duration of the exercise and focus on his tennis instead of the incessant drama of his team. Ecstasy.
Gakuto was bored. He expected that he'd be able to watch Yuushi and his cousin yell at eachother and completely lose their cool but, much to Gakuto's dismay, the two cousins were getting along well. Too well. They were disgustingly buddy-buddy. What was interesting about that? Nothing.
"I miss anything?" Jirou elbowed Gakuto in the side.
"Nah, just go back to sleep until your match. I picked your partner for you since you were asleep. You're with the first year."
Jirou blinked and his eyes regained a bit of their lucidity. "The one who jumps a lot?"
Gakuto shrugged. He didn't really pay attention to non-doubles players.
"Who'd you get?" Jirou was still awake, looking out over the newly formed pairings chatting in the gym.
"The pervert's wife."
"Yeah." Gakuto coughed when some floating dust got into his throat. "This place is gross. I'm going outside."
"Wake me up if anything fun happens."
Gakuto gave his friend a thumbs up before heading out. Maybe he could find something to entertain himself while his supposed partner for this sham of a training camp was yelling his lungs out.
The red team assembled as far away from the white team as possible not because they wanted to keep their lineup a secret, but because Kabaji and Gin kept having to reign back a kicking and clawing Yuuji while his disgusting partner slobbered all over Shishido's sneakers and failed at keeping his damn hands to himself.
"I want to try one of your formations," Koharu whispered in Shishido's ear, jumping back before Shishido's elbow could catch him in the ribs.
"Koharu," Chitose said, looping an arm around his teammate, "why don't you come stand over here." He leaned in and whispered something in Koharu's ear. Koharu giggled and followed him.
Shishido's demand that they redraw lots was vetoed by the coaches. Sakaki spouted some crap about fair play and that Watanabe guy just laughed. Now the jerks weren't anywhere to be seen. They were probably in the teachers' room drinking iced tea and relaxing near the air conditioner while Shishido dodged spiders, dust bunnies, and perverts.
Oshitari Yuushi slid up beside Shishido and clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry."
"We'll protect your virtue," Oshitari Kenya finished, hand on Shishido's other shoulder.
Shishido didn't give a crap about his virtue. He cared that the freak of nature was going to screw up their match and he, Shishido Ryou, was going to lose. If push came to shove, Shishido could take the geeky megane kid. What Shishido couldn't take was Atobe's snide mockery every practice for the rest of the year, nor would he be able to stand Choutarou's never-ending reassurance that it was "only one game, Shishido-san" and "you're still the best doubles partner, Shishido-san."
"Hey! Wake up!"
Shishido's internal grumblings were halted by Kintarou. The kid had Jirou in a princess hold and was jumping up and down in an effort to wake him up. Shishido was betting that the wonder duo would lose their match, too. Jirou would probably just sleep through it.
"This is a circus, not a tennis camp," Hiyoshi hissed.
"Don't frown so much, cutie. Your face'll freeze that way." Koharu blew Hiyoshi a flurry of kisses. It was pretty funny so long as it wasn't happening to him, Shishido decided.
"Let's choose a lineup already." Kenya held up a clipboard and a pencil. "Who wants to go first?"
Shiraishi was trying very hard not to laugh at Atobe. It was a monumental task, but he was managing in the name of diplomacy.
"I will decide the lineup," Atobe said then paused, clearly waiting for Shiraishi to argue. When no arguments came, Atobe clapped his hands and Kabaji handed him a feathery purple pen and a piece of paper. Koharu had the same pen only in orange. He used it to tickle Chitose's feet if the other boy fell asleep during practice.
"I don't want to go first," Zaizen said. The poor kid was saddled with Atobe as a partner. Shiraishi wondered how long it would take for one or the other to break. Oh well, not his problem.
It was really, really nice that it wasn't his problem.
"We will be going last," Atobe told Zaizen. "The strongest combination should wait in reserve." Atobe eyed the other members of the white team. "I suspect our win will be the only one, but it can't be helped. We're working with inferior materials." He gave Shiraishi a look.
"I'm going to refill my water bottle," Shiraishi said. "You can tell Ohtori anything we need to know."
Atobe lifted his nose by way of reply.
As Shiraishi made his way to the faucet he passed Chitose and Hiyoshi. Hiyoshi appeared to be yelling and Chitose appeared to be ignoring him. Shiraishi pitied the poor second year. Chitose was a great guy to be friends with, but he was a total wreck when it came to doubles. It was a shame, really. Chitose's strength and Hiyoshi's precision would make a fine combination on the court.
"Hey, Shiraishi!" Chitose ran away from his partner, waving his hands wildly.
"That guy's intense." Chitose pointed to a fuming Hiyoshi. "He's got some really neat ideas, but they all seem like a lot of work. What d'ya think?"
"Shouldn't that be a question for your teammates?"
Chitose scratched at his eternally nappy hair. "Well, yeah, but –"
"Those who draw the red stick are the red team and those who draw the white stick are the white team."
"Yeah, I know that, but-"
"I'm glad you understand." Finally at the faucet, Shiraishi filled his bottle. He felt a little bad for Chitose so he threw his friend a bit of advice. "Remember to remain hydrated or your concentration will suffer."
"What?" Shiraishi wondered if he spilled water on himself while tightening the lid of his bottle.
"Nothing." Whistling, Chitose walked away.
If Chitose's little bouts of unnecessary mysticism weren't an everyday occurrence, Shiraishi might have been concerned. As it was, he was more preoccupied with how he might sneak away from his new team to go get in some weight training before the first round of matches began.
"Does your coach actually know anything about tennis?" Gakuto asked Yuuji.
Yuuji shrugged. "Where's the dustpan?" While Yuuji looked around the staff room, Gakuto continued to sweep.
They were supposed to be playing tennis but, thanks to Atobe's big mouth, they were spending the day cleaning up the grounds instead. Well, the other guys were cleaning the grounds. Gakuto and Yuuji landed the sweet job of cleaning up the air conditioned staff room. Poor Gin and Kabaji were moving soccer goals around on the large field in the blaring sun. Sometimes it paid to look pasty and frail.
"So, what's next? Windows?" Gakuto didn't mind the cleaning too much, but he really wanted to be outside with a camera, taking pictures of Atobe as he pulled weeds from the tennis court. That would teach him to piss people off.
"Will you look at that." Yuuji kicked the side of the vice principal's desk. "That adulterer's at it again."
Not this again. "What's he doing this time?" Gakuto asked even though he didn't care. If he was stuck with this guy, he might as well start adapting. Maybe, if he was lucky, the other doubles teams would be busy arguing and he and Yuuji could score themselves a win. That would show the buddy-buddy Oshitari cousins that they weren't the only ones who could play tennis with other people and –
"Disgusting. Take a look." Yuuji steered Gakuto by the shoulders until he was facing toward the school entryway.
Gakuto didn't see Koharu at all, just Yuushi and his cousin laughing about something. "What?"
Yuuji shook his head then gave Gakuto a hug. "I'm here for you."
"Don't touch me." Gakuto used his broom to pry Yuuji off. "I'm serious. Touch me again and I'm ramming this broom up your ass. Got it?"
Yuuji laughed and winked. "Got it."
Maybe Shishido wasn't the only one saddled with a pervert.
Osamu led them into the gym and presented them with cleaning cloths. "Our place isn't as flashy as Hyoutei, but it won't be so bad after some cleaning." He gave a big, toothy grin. "You kids have fun. Sakaki'll come check on you in a bit. Remember, you'll be campin' out here tonight so make sure you do a good job."
Did the fool just tip his hat at them like some anime cowboy?
"It's okay, Shishido-san. We can think of it as dash training."
The only saving grace in this cleaning frenzy – stupid Atobe and his big mouth – was that the freak left him alone once Choutarou showed up. Instead, he was curling around Shiraishi. Shishido didn't know how the guy could remain calm with Koharu toying with his bandages, but as long as Shishido didn't have to keep swatting hands away from him it was fine.
"We'll divide the floor into four lanes," Shiraishi said. "Clean as quickly as possible. Once we finish we can break for lunch. Osamu said he ordered bento."
Shishido's stomach growled. It'd been a long time since breakfast. "Let's do it!"
"Me first!" Koharu fell to the ground and started to wiggle. "I'm dirty. Clean me!"
Shishido was about to kick the guy in the crotch when Choutarou stepped in front of him. "Please be serious," he said. "We want to get this done as soon as possible."
It was really hard to be pissed at someone when all you could see was your kouhai's back. "Hey, Choutarou?"
Ohtori turned. "Yes, Shishido-san?"
"Have you been working out extra?"
Ohtori gave a small smile. It was nice that he was in a good mood again. He looked a little scary for a minute. "My father asked me to golf with him once a week. The swing is different so…" He trailed off with a shrug.
"Cleaning." Shiraishi's call came from across the gym. It sounded like a papercut: tiny and irritating.
"You'll have to tell me about it sometime," Shishido said, bending down to position his dust rag and start his first dash across the gym.
Choutarou coughed, probably because of all the dust. "I will," he said before hurrying off to his cleaning zone. Shishido would remember to ask about the golf during lunch. Hopefully the Shitenhouji coach ordered something good with extra portions of meat in it. Shishido couldn't remember being this hungry on a day where he hadn't even gotten his racquet out of the bag.
Some creative criticism was no reason for manual labor. The tennis courts, much like the players of Shitenhouji, were slovenly. The least they could have done was clean up the place a bit before guests arrived. It was common courtesy. Less courteous was making your guests, who took time out of their own busy practice schedule to assist an inferior team, sweep the grounds and pluck plants in the hot sun. Atobe was sure he was going to get heatstroke if he didn't consume some water soon.
"Here." Zaizen offered his water bottle. "I didn't see yours around, but you can use mine."
Atobe took the offering. "Thank you," he said because, unlike some people, he had manners. Getting up extra early for his private training regime was taking its toll today. Perhaps he should have cut his run down from five kilometers to two.
Zaizen waited for Atobe to finish before taking the water bottle away. "I'm going to get more," he said. "Be back."
What a nice, functional individual.
Unlike some others on team Shitenhouji.
"Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!" Kintarou shook Jirou, nearly toppling the other boy off the bench he was napping on. "Osamu said we all have to help."
Atobe mentally counted backwards from twelve. At the end of the countdown, Jirou's foot shot out, kicking toward Kintarou's shin. The child dodged by leaping onto the nearby fence.
"Hey!" Kintarou complained, still latched to the fence. "If you're awake, you should be helping!"
Atobe freely admitted to being somewhat of a snob, but he was nothing in comparison to Jirou. Jirou wouldn't even bother staying awake if the individuals around him didn't meet with his entertainment needs. He fell asleep during the Prime Minister's talk at the school's opening ceremony and refused to apologize. Atobe, on the other hand, remained at attention for the full hour long presentation on the youth of Japan and their influence on political trends.
"I'll take care of it," Zaizen said. Atobe wasn't sure when he'd come back but was thankful for his assistance. "Kin-chan, remember what Shiraishi said about climbing the fence?"
Kintarou's face went pale and he dropped down to the ground immediately, begging Zaizen not to tell on him.
Once Kintarou was weeding and Jirou was back asleep, Atobe pulled Zaizen aside. "Have you ever considered that you were meant to serve a greater purpose?"
"Do you think we could sit over there?" Ohtori asked, pointing toward the side of the staff meeting room where Koharu was trying to feed Shishido his lunch and Shishido was, from the look of things, bravely resisting the urge to vomit.
"The air conditioner is stronger on the other side of the room," Shiraishi lied, not wanting to get caught up in any drama. He had two days to be Koharu-free and he was taking them – by force if necessary.
"Sakaki said we have to sit with our partners," Ohtori said as though Shiraishi hadn't been present for the Hyoutei coach's longwinded speech on teamwork and finding the best in any situation. Even Osamu was yawning halfway through it.
"The matches will begin after lunch. We need to conserve our energy and keep our bodies relaxed." The downside of leaving Ohtori to decide their match position was that they were going first. Shiraishi supposed it would be good to set the tone of the matches with a win for his team. "We need to discuss our strategy."
"I really think it would be better if we sat over there."
Wasn't Ohtori supposed to be the gentle, respectful one in Atobe's entourage? From the few hours Shiraishi'd spent with him, Ohtori was more demanding than Kenya on his worst days. "I'm not sitting over there."
"Why not?" Chitose asked, once more chiming in on conversations that had nothing to do with him. "Shouldn't you be extending your hospitality to your new partner?" Chitose flopped his arm onto Shiraishi's shoulder and leaned, shoving all his weight down.
"The bento are getting cold," Hiyoshi grumbled. "When are we eating?"
Ohtori made a growling noise. His eyes were slightly unfocused.
"Tell you what," Chitose whispered, leaning in closer, further crushing Shiraishi's shoulder, "let's just trade for a little. You take this guy and I'll go with Ohtori to save the honor of his doubles partner. Osamu will never know."
Chitose always said that Osamu would never know, and Chitose was always wrong. Still, if it meant Shiraishi could keep his shoulder from being crushed – Chitose was clearly doing it on purpose – then anything was fine.
Shiraishi opened his mouth to reply but Hiyoshi beat him to it. "Take these," Hiyoshi said, shoving the two bento he was carrying at Chitose. "They're cold now." He took the bento out of Ohtori's hands without another word and, crooking his head toward the far corner of the room, stomped off.
Hyoutei had a few sane members, after all.
Gakuto was glad Yuuji recommended a quiet place outside to eat. The meeting room was air conditioned but the shady spot near the tennis courts was cool enough for Gakuto's tastes and, most importantly, it was quiet.
"Our match is tomorrow," Yuuji said, poking at the umeboshi on top of his rice.
Gakuto finished chewing a piece of pork. "I don't know why we can't just get all four matches out of the way today. They won't take that long." That was, of course, unless someone said something stupid and got them another round of cleaning or laps or whatever the coaches decided was a suitable punishment for whiners.
"Osamu said he and Sakaki came up with some team versus team activities for tonight."
Couldn't they just play tennis? Did they really have to do all this extra stuff? Gakuto failed to see how it could improve their tennis.
"Gakuto. I didn't expect to find you here." Yuushi sat down, pushing Gakuto to the side a bit with his hip to make space at the picnic table they were eating at.
"Hey," Kenya said to Yuuji, giving him a similar treatment on the other side of the table. "You guys mind if we join you? It's crazy inside."
"Somebody finally hit that no good adulterer?" Yuuji grumbled.
Great, just when they were having a normal conversation about normal things, somebody had to come and ruin it, bringing up that topic again. "Just eat," Gakuto said. "Ignore it."
Yuuji nodded, a sign that they were making some real progress.
"Gakuto?" Yuushi whispered while Yuuji was focused on his rice again.
"Yuushi?" Gakuto whispered back because he wasn't in the mood for lame gossip. He was in the mood for tennis and, so far today, he hadn't been able to pick up his racquet once. It was making him just a little grumpy.
"Would you like my umeboshi?" Yuushi offered, plunking it on top of Gakuto's rice before he was even done asking the question. Gakuto reciprocated the gesture by piling his uneaten carrot bits onto Yuushi's tray. It was their usual exchange so it wasn't a big deal.
"Yes?" Yuushi said, rearranging the new carrots.
"I thought you said you never share food. You've been bitching for years about eating leftovers on New Year."
Yuushi shrugged. "This is different."
"How?" Kenya leaned forward a bit over the table.
"Because your drool isn't mixed in with the food." Yuushi grinned and ate a carrot. "Gakuto observes basic sanitation rituals."
"Just cuz I skipped a shower one day when we were in the third grade you've got to keep harpin' on about it!" Kenya's fist slammed down on the table. "Well I don't wanna hear anything about being sanitary from a guy who wet the bed until he graduated from elementary school."
Ouch, Gakuto thought. That was a low blow. Under the table, Yuushi briefly grabbed Gakuto's knee. It was their sign when Yuushi was about to lose his temper and make a scene. At those times, it was Gakuto's job to stop him from doing something to get himself tossed off the team.
It was too bad Gakuto wasn't feeling up to it today. "Hey Yuuji, do you think we should start coming up with some formations for our game?" Gakuto asked, sliding as far away from Yuushi as he could.
"They would have to be basic, but it would be a good idea," Yuuji agreed, also scooting down.
"And just wait until I tell everyone how-" Kenya was cut off when Yuushi reached over the table, grabbed his hair, and pulled his face into his bento.
"I know a better place," Yuuji said, standing.
"Good. It's too loud here." Gakuto picked up his lunch and followed Yuuji away from the feuding Oshitari cousins.
"Wish me luck, Shishido-san."
Shishido looked around, pretty sure everyone was staring at them. Heck, he'd be staring too if a player from the other team came up to have a chat before his match. Sure, they were doubles partners and stuff, but this was different. All of that was on hiatus until the camp was over.
"Uh…good luck, I guess." Still, he couldn't just let Choutarou stand there and look like an ass. And it wasn't like anyone on Choutarou's team seemed to be all that supportive. Atobe sure as hell wasn't going to say much beyond his usual "don't embarrass me," so there wasn't really any harm in just a little bit of encouragement.
"Ohtori!" Shiraishi grabbed Choutarou by the arm and dragged him away from the red team's side of the court.
"Hey Shiraishi! Remember your pivot!"
Shishido turned and scowled at Chitose. "Why are you shouting in my ear?"
"He's been working on a new pivot for his slice shot," Chitose said, smiling like a goof and completely ignoring the fact that Shishido might well go deaf in his left ear. "He hasn't perfected it yet, but he always thinks faster when he's in a real match. If he concentrates on it today, it should fall into place." Chitose tapped his ratty hair. "I've got it all worked out."
"Do you think I care?" Shishido turned, intent on ignoring his temporary teammate.
"Is it weird?"
Shishido closed his eyes and took a deep breath. How the hell did Chitose's teammates put up with his big mouth? Maybe if Shishido didn't answer Chitose would –
"I mean, you're doubles partners but he's playing with another dude. We switch things around here but you guys don't really do that at Hyoutei, right? So it must be weird."
"I don't understand anything you're saying. Maybe you should just shut up and watch the match."
"Ryou-kuuuuuuuuun!" Koharu jumped onto Shishido's back. "I've been waiting for you to come stretch with me." Koharu squeezed Shishido's biceps. "I want to be limber for our match."
"I'm watching the game," Shishido said, making no move to shove Koharu off. If he resisted then the weirdo would just bug him more. During lunch Shishido realized that dealing with Koharu was a lot like dealing with a puppy; he just had to give the dog enough attention and it would stop jumping up on him all the time. "We'll stretch in bit."
Choutarou missed his Scud Serve and it crashed into the fence. The rattle spooked Koharu and he fell to the ground.
"Relax your knees, Choutarou!" Ohtori locked his knees when he was nervous. They'd been working hard to get him out of the habit but apparently they had a ways to go still.
"That was pretty impressive," Chitose whistled.
"Yeah, Choutarou's been working on speeding up the serve. We'll have to work on accuracy next."
Chitose laughed. "Come on, Koharu. I'll help you stretch." Still snickering, Chitose led Koharu away, allowing Shishido to enjoy the match in peace.
The match wasn't worth Shiraishi's time. Not only did Kenya and his cousin bicker after every lost point, but they left holes in their formation so wide Atobe's ego could stroll through with room to spare. The entire event left a foul taste in Shiraishi's mouth as he stretched out from the match. He was barely even sweating.
"Hey." Chitose's shadow consumed one of Shiraishi's outstretched legs. "You looked kinda upset. Everything alright?"
"I'm not upset." Of course he was upset. He just took place in the most farcical excuse for a tennis match ever to be played on the Shitenhouji courts – quite a task for a court that hosted Koharu and Yuuji on a near daily basis.
"Really? You look upset to me. Here, I'll help." Chitose pushed Shiraishi forward, deepening his stretch. "Sucks that it happened during your match, but watching those two fight was pretty funny."
It was not funny, and Kenya would be sitting the bench as an alternate for life. "Shouldn't you be helping Kin-chan get ready instead of fraternizing with the other team?"
"He's busy trying to wake Akutagawa up. Besides, the match doesn't start for another half hour." Chitose began to hum.
"Do you mind?"
"Sorry, I forgot you don't listen to music a lot. Don't know the words, huh?" Chitose started to beat on Shiraishi's back like a drum. "They're pretty easy."
"I don't care about-"
"Touch me baby drive me crazy." Chitose began a drum solo.
"Stop singing." Shiraishi shrugged Chitose off and stood up.
"It's a really catchy song, though. I think you'll…" Chitose trailed off at Shiraishi's glare, the first intelligent thing he'd done all day.
"I'm going to thank Ohtori for his cooperation. Go back to your team." It was a lie, but Shiraishi had had all he could handle of Chitose and his cheer. Perhaps Akutagawa's method of sleeping through things wouldn't be such a bad plan.
Shiraishi sought out a free bench.
"I'm embarrassed to say I know you." Gakuto walked a little faster, but Yuushi's stride was long and he easily kept up.
"Kenya was lying."
"Lying or not, that's really freaky, you know? I'm not playing doubles with a freak." Gakuto paused before adding, "after tomorrow's game."
Yuushi let out a noise that was half sigh and half cough. "You're being ridiculous."
"So what you did to your cousin's teddy bear wasn't freakish?"
"I didn't do anything!"
Gakuto stopped walking and unclenched his fists. It was stupid to be upset at gossip, even if that gossip wasn't really gossip but an eyewitness report of a relative. So what if Yuushi did strange things to stuffed animals? It wasn't Gakuto's problem, and it wouldn't mean Yuushi couldn't play tennis.
Speaking of tennis…
"Yuushi, what was that serve you used?"
Yuushi grinned. "I've been working on it at home. Do you like it?"
"It's crap. You look like a constipated flamingo trying to fly. Don't do it again."
Yuushi crossed his arms over his chest and widened his stance. "The posture accelerates the ball's topspin. It's essential."
"It's stupid, and Ohtori returned it with a one-handed backhand." That hadn't been the most embarrassing part, though. What was truly embarrassing was Yuushi's expression of surprise as Ohtori returned the ball. Kenya was too busy laughing at Yuushi to get the return, and so team Oshitari lost the final game in their set looking like a zoo sideshow. Of course it was the one match that Jirou was awake for, and Jirou was never going to let Gakuto forget how idiotic his doubles partner looked perched on one leg, arms twisted around himself like a pretzel while his new genius serve was gently lobbed back over the net to bounce daintily past him.
"The delivery can be improved. The serve, itself, is still…"
"What's wrong, Gakuto? Oshitari steal your stuffed animals?"
Gakuto turned. "One more word, Shishido, and I'll use your guts to restring my racquet."
Shishido just laughed. For someone who claimed to hate the attitude of everyone on team Hyoutei, he sure fit in well. "Jirou's looking for you. You've got his extra shoelaces in your bag, and he can't find them."
"He break his again?" Jirou always snagged his shoelaces on things while sleeping in random locations. As his friend, Gakuto took it upon himself to always have a spare set on hand.
"The monkey kid broke them."
"We're charging him 300 yen for the replacements."
"Good luck getting it."
Gakuto turned to Yuushi. "Yeah, good luck getting it, Yuushi." Gakuto walked away with Shishido. "And don't show your plushie-defacing self in front of me without it."
Shishido and Kabaji never really talked, but Shishido felt sorry for the guy. Playing a match against Jirou was a pain in the ass. Playing a match against Jirou and a jumping monkey kid looked like a pain in the ass with the added bonus of a migraine.
"I'm surprised Jirou's staying awake for this," Gakuto said. After they'd left Oshitari they decided to do some light rallying against the side of the gym and had stuck together since. Neither of them cared about team loyalty so Gakuto was standing with the Red team.
"He's probably having fun pissing Ishida off," Shishido noted, pointing as Jirou did a drop shot, denying Ishida yet another Hadokyuu opportunity.
"It must suck to only have one move."
They shared a snicker.
"Ryouuuuuuu! Are you cheating on me with another man?" Koharu wormed up and slipped his arms around Shishido's back.
Shishido moved to elbow the pervert in the stomach but waited. If he wasn't free by the time he counted to ten, then he could be violent. One. Two.
"Why can he come over here but Yuuji won't come visit me?"
Koharu let go, and Shishido unclenched his fists. "Maybe you should go over there and ask him," Shishido said. "Nobody's stopping you."
Gakuto punched Shishido in the arm.
"You don't think it's too forward?" Koharu asked, lightly holding onto Shishido's wrist. Shishido had to volunteer at a kindergarten once, and the kids there did the same thing. That had been a pretty rough day, actually. The volunteering was a punishment his mom gave him for trying to make his cousin eat dirt. Shishido tried to explain that Naoki started it and he was just finishing it, but all his mother cared about was how "uncivilized" they were being in front of the relatives. Naoki only swallowed a little dirt, nothing worth all the bitching and complaining Aunt Hiroko was throwing at them. Relatives were lame.
Shishido turned and elbowed Gakuto back. "What?"
"The match is over. Kabaji and Ishida forfeited."
"Gee, that's a big surprise. So, what're we doing now?" Shishido was sure it was going to be something stupid.
The overhead speakers crackled. "Uh, when you've got your stuff just come to the gym. Ah…that's all."
Shishido looked from Gakuto to the nearest speaker and back. "The Shitenhouji coach is kind of…"
"An idiot?" Gakuto offered.
"Yeah. Let's go do some more rallies while they're cleaning up." Shishido was only a little bit bitter that he hadn't gotten to play a real match all day. If today's pattern held, he wouldn't be playing much of one tomorrow, either.
Shiraishi had become desensitized to the antics of his teammates over the course of their acquaintance. Still, he was finding Osamu's idea of recreation a little embarrassing.
"Cosmic…serving?" Shiraishi felt obligated to clarify because everyone else was just standing around with their mouths hanging open. Everyone except Chitose, who seemed to be on the same psychotic wavelength as their coach.
"Yeah, like cosmic bowling only with tennis." Chitose moved over during his explanation and leaned on Shiraishi's shoulder. Again. This after Shiraishi had specifically pulled Chitose aside and asked him not to continue his painful habit.
"Awesome!" Jirou and Kintarou exclaimed, jumping up and down. At some point during their match, the two had bonded. Akutagawa had remained awake since, chattering and squealing and disturbing the peace – such as it was.
"I'm going to serve up love for my sweet honey!" Koharu proclaimed, jumping onto Yuuji.
"He's not on your team, idiot." Kenya regarded the pair with a sneer.
Koharu blew a raspberry at Kenya. "You're just jealous."
"Yeah? Of what?"
"Of our eternal, radiant love!"
Shiraishi tuned the fight out, knowing it would end with Kenya saying something horribly insensitive and Koharu crying. Instead, he turned to his coach. "I'll keep score."
"You can't," Chitose said, breathing into Shiraishi's ear. Shiraishi had forgotten the other boy was there. Now that he had the reminder, his shoulder began to ache. "You've got to help your team. I want to see all your moves."
Osamu grinned and gave Chitose a thumbs up. "Don't worry. Sakaki and I'll be keeping score. You kids just have fun."
Fun. Highly unlikely.
Gakuto didn't care that the sides of the gym were glowing like a discotheque or that there was an actual mirrorball and strobe light set up on the ceiling. All he cared about was the racquet in his hands. Finally, he was going to get to use his beloved racquet in a game of skill.
"Shishido-san looks upset," Ohtori whispered. "Do you think we should tell coach Sakaki about it?"
"He's fine. That guy probably grabbed his ass again or something. Focus on the game." With the promise of real, semi-legitimate competition, Gakuto couldn't care less about Shishido's sexual harassment problems. If the distraction helped Gakuto's team win, then all the better.
"White team! Rally to my magnificence!"
Gakuto's shoulders drooped as Atobe snapped his fingers, thinking it a good way to get the team's attention. All it did was look ridiculous. He'd say something about it, but Atobe was the captain and could kick Gakuto's ass off the team faster than Ishida's Hadokyuu.
That Hadokyuu was gonna win them this game.
Atobe cleared his throat. "Is something funny, Mukahi? Would you like to share your musings with the group?"
"Not really." Gakuto delighted at the quick widening of Atobe's eyes. It was the only sign Atobe ever gave that he was surprised – except the time Shishido put toothpaste in Atobe's face cream and Atobe screamed. Shishido was demoted to ball fetching for a week, but his deeds earned him a reputation as the hero of Hyoutei. First years walked around in stupid baseball caps for months.
"I'm hungry," Yuuji whispered. "You got any snacks on you?" The Shitenhouji player plunked his head onto Gakuto's shoulder. "I'm going to fade away," he said in a dead-on Atobe impression.
Holding in the laughter hurt like hell, but Gakuto dared not piss Atobe off again. "You're gonna get us in trouble," he whispered, trying not to move his lips too much. "Kabaji usually has some food on him."
"He's huge. He gets hungry."
Yuuji's stomach grumbled. "I'll go ask him."
Gakuto's hand gripped his racquet tighter. When were they going to start? Hitting cones with a tennis ball didn't really require much preparation, did it?
"…and I will remind you that you are carrying the pride of our team with you at every moment and should conduct yourself with the utmost…"
Ugh. Atobe was still talking. There was no way anyone was actually listening to him. Did he expect them to, or did he just like standing on boxes and speaking loudly? Yuushi had a theory that Atobe just did it because people expected him to. Ohtori thought Atobe was just preparing for his future as a CEO. Gakuto liked Jirou's theory, though. Jirou said that Atobe had an alien inside of him, and talking was the only way to make the alien sleep, preventing the destruction of the world. Gakuto enjoyed the nobility implied in the theory as well as the justification of his long-held belief that Atobe was a freak of nature.
"...path to victory. You are dismissed." Atobe flicked his wrist. "We will begin in five minutes."
"Koharu," Chitose said before clicking his tongue. "Remember to be nice to our guests." He turned and smiled at Shishido. "Everything should be fine now."
Shishido didn't think anything was ever going to be fine ever again. "I'm going to kill him," Shishido said. It was the only thought in his head. All images of tennis, puppies, and joy had been erased. His fingers flexed in anticipation.
"Eep! Saaaaave meeeeeeeeee!" Koharu clung to Chitose.
The tall idiot laughed. Shishido would kill him, too.
"Is there a problem?" Oshitari Yuushi asked, coming up beside Shishido.
"Just a misunderstanding. It's fine now, right, Shishido?" Chitose grinned like they were all friends and Koharu hadn't just committed a crime.
"Shishido?" Yuushi held onto Shishido's arm, probably sensing that Shishido was two seconds away from lunging forward and ripping Chitose's throat out before bludgeoning Koharu to death with his racquet.
"Kill." The words left Shishido's throat in a raspy growl. He struggled against Oshitari's grip but found Oshitari to be stronger than he anticipated. You'd never know the guy was so strong after seeing his freaky flamingo serve earlier in the day.
"Someone kindly explain what's going on. The game will be beginning shortly, and it would be a disadvantage to be down a member." Oshitari paused. "Or two."
The guy really was a genius. Shishido owed Gakuto 500 yen.
"Koharu here was just joking around. He might have said a little too much, though." Chitose laughed and scratched at the birds' nest on his head. "He means well, though."
Oshitari looked at Shishido and then back to Chitose. "What do you classify as 'too much'?"
"Uh." Chitose turned red. "I can't really say that stuff aloud."
While they were talking, Shishido slowly began to wiggle his way out of Oshitari's grip. The guy was smart but wasn't the best at focusing on two things at once. Any moment would be Shishido's chance.
Chitose walked over, just out of kicking range. He whispered something into Oshitari's ear.
Yuushi cleared his throat and released his hold on Shishido's arm. "My condolences to Konjiki's parents."
"Hold him tighter, Kabaji." Atobe didn't have words to express his embarrassment. Not only had he been forced to listen while Konjiki Koharu spewed forth the most lewd, disgusting nonsense, but he also had to preside over an impromptu trial to determine if the beating Shishido gave Koharu was indeed warranted. This was not Atobe's duty as captain. Atobe's duty as captain was to see that the team won matches. Larger mediation issues were the responsibility of the adult faculty, who were suspiciously absent from the gymnasium despite their vow to oversee the Cosmic Serving event. This was all giving Atobe a very large headache.
"Here. Aspirin." Zaizen pried open Atobe's clenched hand and pushed two pills into it.
"Thank you." Atobe took the pills, hoping they were fast acting.
"Can we just forget this crap and play some tennis?" Gakuto asked. "That guy," he pointed his racquet at Konjiki, "can just go home."
"This is boring, Atobe," Jirou whined.
"Let me go!" Shishido struggled against Kabaji's hold.
"I think Shishido-san is perfectly justified," Ohtori said. He probably thought Atobe didn't notice that he was slowly inching his way toward the Shitenhouji team.
"Ohtori. Come here." Atobe snapped his fingers. "You will replace Kabaji in restraining Shishido." Ohtori was strong, and Shishido wouldn't put up as much of a kicking fit for fear of hurting his doubles partner. "Kabaji. I require-"
"Here's a protein bar." Zaizen handed Atobe a blueberry flavored bar.
Atobe took the bar. "Thank you." It was so nice to be served by a functional individual. If Zaizen didn't agree transfer to Hyoutei, Atobe would resort to force. He couldn't possibly let an individual of this caliber waste away at Shitenhouji.
"Screw this, I'm getting Sakaki." Gakuto stomped away, Jirou following behind him with heavy, slow steps.
"Let me go."
Atobe threw his protein bar to the ground. "I wash my hands of all of you. Come, Zaizen, Kabaji."
"So, uh, I've got to call your parents, I guess." Osamu scratched at his chin. "You guys understand why what Koharu did was wrong, right?"
Clearly they didn't. If they did then Shiraishi wouldn't be sitting next to a very traumatized Kintarou. He was never going to be the same after hearing those filthy things. Hearing Oshitari Yuushi say them in his slow, deep drawl just made them all the more obscene.
"I'm never speaking to you again," Yuuji told Koharu and slapped him on the cheek.
"Yuuujiiiiiii! It didn't mean anything!" Koharu tried to move toward his doubles partner but his bandages hindered his movement and he fell.
Kenya kicked him. "I'm never gonna hear the end of this, you know. Every time the family gets together, I'm gonna have to hear about how low-class our team is and how you ear-raped someone on Yuushi's team." Kenya kicked Koharu again.
Shiraishi wanted to go home. At home he could rally against the side of the house and listen to his iPod. He could play XBox and kill NPCs named after his teammates. He could take a shower in a stall that wasn't infested with bugs or overly cheerful teammates who were too friendly to be considered within the bounds of decency.
"Want me to massage your shoulders? You look tense." Chitose's hands dove onto Shiraishi's shoulders before he could say that he was fine and that he felt physical contact to be highly inappropriate given the situation at hand.
"Sakaki and I are going to make those phone calls. Shiraishi's in charge." Osamu gave a lopsided smile. "Good luck, Captain."
"Don't worry," Chitose said, his fingers still doing nothing to loosen the knots in Shiraishi's shoulders. "I'm here to help."
Shiraishi didn't even have the strength for sarcasm. Fortunately, Kenya's snort was loud enough for the both of them.
Gakuto sat in the plush comfort of the Hyoutei bus clutching his racquet to his chest. "I didn't get to play at all," he said to Yuushi.
Oshitari patted Gakuto's leg. "Perhaps it's better that way."
"You can say that because you got to play. Even a crappy game like yours is better than no game at all." He kicked the seat in front of him.
"Watch it," grumbled the seat's occupant.
Gakuto jumped up, not recognizing the voice. After looking over the top of the seat he sat back down again.
"This weekend never happened, Yuushi."
The bus' speaker crackled. "Your attention for my most important announcement," Atobe said. The bus wasn't really big enough to require the speaker, but Atobe's lame ego wasn't even in the top ten of things currently pissing Gakuto off. What a sucky, sucky weekend. "I would like to make you all aware of the newest addition to our team. Stand, Zaizen."
The seat in front of Gakuto creaked, and the Shitenhouji player stood. He was wearing Atobe's jacket.
"What the hell's going on?" Shishido stood, and Ohtori pulled him back down.
"It's okay, Shishido-san. It's okay." Ohtori pet Shishido's arm as if it were a dog. Gakuto hoped somebody was taking photos. The president of the media club needed to see this.
"As I was saying, Zaizen will be transferring to our school. My superior insight revealed that he will be an asset to the team. I arranged his transfer in exchange for our school's promise not to seek action against Shitenhouji for today's unfortunate events."
"Bitch," Shishido snarled.
"Shut up, Choutarou. I'm gonna-"
Ohtori covered Shishido's mouth with his hand. "Sorry. Please continue," he said while wrestling to keep Shishido from storming up and hitting Atobe.
"Are we there yet?" Jirou leaned over the back of Gakuto's seat. "Mom said I could have cocoa when I got home. You wanna come over?"
"Can we play a match before we have the cocoa?"
"Yeah. I have a new move to show you. It's sooooo cool."
"Gakuto, I thought you were coming to my place." Yuushi gave Gakuto's knee a squeeze.
"No way, Yuushi. You still owe me 300 yen."
Jirou moved further forward on the back of the seat so his legs were kicking in the air. "Oshitari borrowed money?" Jirou's head rested atop Gakuto's. "Weird."
Gakuto scratched at Jirou's head. He was always amazed at how soft Jirou's hair was. "I'm not hanging out with him until he repays me."
Oshitari adjusted his glasses. "The 300 yen is owed to you by Jirou, not me. I-" He was cut off by Jirou's socked foot in his face as Jirou moved from their seats to the seat next to Zaizen.
"Hey! Those earrings are sooooo cool! Don't you think so, Atobe?"
Gakuto had been so busy trying to ignore Yuushi's complaining that he didn't see Atobe approach.
"Zaizen, come sit in the reserved section. I have things to discuss with you." Atobe snapped his fingers and headed toward the back of the bus. Zaizen grabbed his duffel bag and followed.
Gakuto heard Jirou's body impact the seat with a loud thud. "Boring. Wake me up when we get home."
"Sure. Then we're playing tennis."
Jirou smacked his lips. "What else is there?"
Gakuto looked around the bus. "Nothing."