"Ow, Kenya. I don't think you're gonna fit."
"Relax. Won't know until we try, right?"
"Shit, you're too big."
"Shush, or they'll hear us."
Crack, tumble, thunk.
Shiraishi's head bumped against brittle wallboards. A short silence expanded between them, spoiled only by the sounds of their surrounding – birds chirping, leaves rustling – as they waited for the tremors rippling through the tree to subside. Then laughter filled its place. "You don’t suppose they could have overheard this."
Kenya snorted, gathering his limbs beneath him as he scrambled the rest of the way into the ramshackle tree house. "I don't care anymore. Let them find us. This game is stupid anyway."
Shiraishi rolled his eyes pointedly and pushed at Kenya's shoulders, signaling him to get the hell out of his personal bubble. "Make up your mind, goofball."
The tree house was tiny; the smell of rotting wood stuffy in the oppressive summer heat, and the small opening in the wall facing away from the trunk did little to alleviate the stale air inside. Additionally, the low ceiling compacted the space further, making it confining enough to induce claustrophobia. At the very least, it offered shelter from Amaterasu's searing glares.
And from "it," of course. Which was the whole point of being up here.
It wouldn't do to be caught right at the beginning of the game.
"I wonder what we were thinking, building this shithole. Did we intend to build a custom-fit casket for a dwarf or what?" Kenya mumbled, rubbing his nose to keep from sneezing with all the motes of dust around.
"Remember that we were dwarves back then, too. We couldn't have built a mansion up here." Shiraishi couldn't remember much of that time – except for his mother chiding him for coming home evening after evening with new scratches, cuts and splinters all over and his father laughing that maybe he would make a good architect one day.
"You have to agree that an opening wide enough for us to fit through even years later wouldn't have been the worst idea," Kenya's voice became muffled and strained as he leaned out of the small window.
"Clearly we weren't gifted with that much foresight as kids," he mused, eyeing Kenya from the corner of his eyes. He thought he could hear a dangerous creak. "Don't put too much weight on the plank or you'll break it."
"Yes, mom," came the reply to his well-meant advice. Shiraishi wouldn't want him to fall down and fracture something, although part of him thought it would serve him right for what he did next. Kenya stuck out his tongue, as he pulled his head back in, bouncing an apricot on his palm in the casual way he would a tennis ball. He took a showy bite out of it before holding the fruit out to Shiraishi, juicy flesh facing toward him, inviting. "Want some?"
Shiraishi cocked an eyebrow, watching juices flow down Kenya's fingers in slow rivulets. "Not after you drooled all over it." He emphasized his disinterest by turning his attention to his shirt, plucking at the frayed hem. This was just like the old days, tearing his clothes while playing outside. Despite himself, his tongue flicked out to moisten his lips, licking off the faint taste of mildew.
Kenya shrugged, raised the fruit to his mouth again, and then threw the half-eaten remains over his shoulder. Think of all the poor children who have nothing to eat, Shiraishi heard his mother chide. "Now that I think back, I surely don't remember you complaining about my drool when we, you know, made out."
The kernel landed on the wooden floor.
Blinking at the strangled outcry of disgust, Shiraishi looked up just in time to see Kintarou upside-down and scrubbing at his face – to clean away the sticky residue of the apricot he had obstructed.
He felt the tips of his ears burn, wondering whether Kintarou had heard Kenya's all too casual reminder of their... little experiment. He was surprised Kenya even remembered – then again, who would forget their first kiss? – although the initiator had been him, wanting to perfect the art of kissing so as not to fumble around with an actual girlfriend. Who better to practice with than Shiraishi Kuranosuke, his best friend and perfectionist extraordinaire?
Despite his reluctance, curiosity had prevailed, and they had given it a try until they managed to take each other's breath away. Ever since, it had been a well-kept secret between the two of them, never spoken of, never hinted at. What for? To be discovered by a boy not sensible enough to keep secrets? Because of a careless slip of the tongue, their almost forgotten embarrassment was about to be shared with the whole school. What Kintarou knew, everyone did.
When Kintarou noticed them looking at him, a broad grin split his face in two. "Gotcha!"
"Oh bugger," Kenya groaned around the ring finger still in his mouth, sucking off the juices. "Couldn't you have looked somewhere else?"
Kintarou cocked his head to the side, frowning. "Why? You're here!" With that, he swung inside, lithe and liquid, stirring another cloud of dust as he landed. Shiraishi moved toward him, intending to wipe off the rest of the juice glistening on Kintarou's brow, but the boy shied away from his bandaged arm.
"See that's why I said tag would have been the better of the two evils," Kenya grumbled, scratching his ear. "At least no one could've outrun me."
"No one would have wanted to," Shiraishi replied. While it was true that Kenya had been against hide-and-seek, everyone else wanted to avoid moving any more than necessary in this weather – except for Kintarou, of course. The excessive energy he radiated like a penetrating cloud of perfume managed to tickle them all out of the apathy of summer. Some people, though, soaked up the energy to the point of becoming fidgety. "Had I known you wanted to run that badly I could have assigned you laps."
Kenya opened his mouth, but before any sound had the chance to leave it, Kintarou chirped, "We can still play tag when I've found everyone!"
"Are we the first you caught?" Shiraishi asked in amused tones, unable to look anywhere but Kenya's parted lips, watch them close, unclose like an unhinged door nudged by the wind, impatient to say something.
"No, I've already got Zaizen!" Grinning at what he took as an accomplishment, Kintarou held out his spread index and middle finger in a Victory-sign. Most likely, Zaizen had been lazing around somewhere, not bothering to hide, when Kintarou sniffed him out.
"And where is he now?"
The answer lay closer than expected: sitting on a stonewall in front of Kenya's house and talking to someone, by the looks of it. Kintarou bounded toward Zaizen, proclaiming his latest find in a volume loud enough for the whole street to hear. Unable to suppress a fond smile, Shiraishi kept walking closer at a sedate pace until he came within visual range. Turned out the person Kintarou had attacked in a bear hug was no stranger.
"Oi, Yuushi! Long time, no see." Kenya slapped his cousin's shoulder in greeting.
Yuushi turned around then, brilliant smile at the ready, even more radiant than the sunlight glinting off his glasses, and was only dimmed by a shadow of playful mischievousness as his eyes met Kenya's. "It has indeed been quite a while since I last saw your original hair color," he said, a slow smile curving his lips into a half moon as he reached out to comb his fingers though Kenya's short tresses. The ones he had intended to bleach again for some time now; the way he usually did as soon as dark roots were showing.
Kenya slapped the offending hand away. "Back off, man."
Not one to pass up an opportunity, Kintarou pushed between them, bouncing on his toes. "Hey, how long is Yuushi going to stay?"
"Too long," Kenya grumbled, straightening out the damage done to his hair. He could be almost as touchy in that area as Zaizen.
"A couple of days," Yuushi corrected, patting Kintarou's head. As with everyone, the younger boy had ensnared Yuushi with his overflowing enthusiasm years ago, ever since Kenya first introduced them. Likewise, Kintarou had formed an attachment to the older Oshitari and was happy to see him whenever his part of the family came down to Osaka. In part, Yuushi made up for the lack of Senri and Gin, both of who had returned to Kyuushuu and Tokyo – their respective homes – for the Obon festival.
The fiery redhead jumped, fist outstretched above his head as if to punch the sky. "Then we can watch the fireworks together! Right, Shiraishi?"
Shiraishi jerked at the sudden mention of his name. He hadn't noticed he'd just been standing there, staring off into space. "Of course," he gave Kintarou a reassuring smile. "In the meantime, why don't you go look for Koharu and Yuuji? They must be wondering what's keeping you."
"Leave it to me! I'll find them for sure!" Were his last words addressed to them, already making way with big leaps.
"Don't forget to wash your face," Shiraishi called after him, before he vanished around a corner. He sincerely hoped Kintarou wouldn't perceive anything mind-scarring on finding those two lovebirds. One would never know what they were up to, especially when alone.
Behind him, Yuushi chuckled, low and rich. "As overprotective as ever, Shiraishi," he savored the syllables of his name as if assessing the character of mature wine.
Zaizen barked a laugh. "That was harmless. Should've seen him when monkey kid fell from a tree. He merely scraped his knees, but senpai acted like it was the end of the world."
Shiraishi managed a weak cough, studying the ground in front of him as if he didn't hear anything. Zaizen was exaggerating of course; Shiraishi had only fussed over Kintarou until he was certain the boy had fractured nothing. Besides, Kintarou's parents were counting on him to look after the little ball of energy. While Shiraishi would have done as much without their expressed concerns, disappointing them was naturally out of the question. If he was asked to do something, he either did it right or not at all.
"Is that so? I'm beginning to wonder what exactly the relationship between you two is. With that much tenderness there must be more than meets the eye," Yuushi said, his face a perfect picture of innocent curiosity.
Shiraishi wondered where Yuushi's tangent of thought was heading, because he didn't follow. Was he teasing him about mothering Kintarou too much?
"I think you're reading too much into this," Zaizen snickered.
"I swear those books he keeps devouring are messing up his head." Now it was Kenya's turn to ruffle Yuushi's hair.
"Must be a family trait, senpai. Nothing to do with the books." Acting as if he'd said nothing, Zaizen rested his chin on his palm, directing his glance elsewhere.
"What was that, kid?" Kenya tugged at Zaizen's foot, hard enough to yank his rear from his seat on top of the wall. Yelping, Zaizen managed to catch himself in time, before crashing to the ground.
"Hey, do you want me to break something, retard?" He emphasized the last word with a kick to Kenya's head, delivered by the maltreated limb.
"Oi, watch it." Kenya was about to turn around again, when Yuushi piped up.
"By the way," he intoned with a singsong voice, clipped but melodious, before carrying on in a normal tone. "Your mother sent me to look for you."
Kenya groaned. "Don't tell me she wants another shelf set up. I swear, ever since this new Ikea opened here, she's been coming home with ideas to redecorate the house and the furniture to match them."
Pushing up his glasses, Yuushi was quick to assure Kenya that his mother had not specified why she wished to see him, and that making haste would be the advisable course of action in any case. Which Kenya was aware of – mothers were always the same, after all – although he rather wasted time telling Yuushi off for not informing him sooner instead of heading home right away.
With another glance from Shiraishi to Zaizen and a "Catch ya later" Kenya marched off with purposeful strides, dragging his cousin along with him.
The two left behind exchanged blank looks, both wondering why Kenya wouldn't leave Yuushi outside without supervision. Shiraishi thought perhaps he would need mental support when facing his mother, but rejected the idea. Kenya had managed well enough without anyone guarding his back so far.
"Anyway, guess I should be leaving too," Zaizen said, hopping down from the wall and casually dusting himself off. "Which direction did monkey kid go again?"
He opened his mouth to reply, but Zaizen was already blocking out all sound from outside with the earplugs of his mp3-player. Nothing to it but point to the left, mouth a "Later" and watch his underclassman demonstratively amble down the opposite direction, hand held up in casual parting.
Shiraishi shrugged his uncomfortably tight shoulders, gaze drifting into the simmering distance, along with his thoughts. Maybe he also should go home and run himself a bath. His bandages needed changing too, sweat-soaked and dirty as they were.
Or maybe he should go check up on Kintarou, making sure he did not get lost on his way. Again.
As it turned out, his mother did not want to employ his mechanical skills again. Instead, she wanted him to run errands. Nothing quite so bad as he had feared. She did reprimand him for coming home dirty, however. He let her tirades blow by him like a gust of wind, used to all words by now. It was no big deal. He could shower, take out the splinters and wash his clothes. There was no saving his tennis shoes, but they had been beyond repair before.
No big deal at all, so why did she have to make one out of it? Did all mothers behave strangely when they had guests? Kenya didn't know. Didn't care. She could talk to his brother like this all she wanted, but Kenya himself liked to think he had grown out of the age where he needed guidance or reproof for everything. It was high time for his mother to accept that.
Once he managed to get a word in edgewise, he told his mother he would clean himself and change first before fulfilling her requests. Only to find her impatient enough to have sent Yuushi by the time he had come out of the bathroom again.
"At least he does what is asked of him," she said with a pointed look. If the implication of his own uselessness was intentional or not, Kenya could not tell.
But there was nothing new about it. It was always Yuushi this, Yuushi that. Because Yuushi is so charming, well behaved, sensible, at the top of his class, a real gentleman. He would never come home with dirt pooling out of his shoes and mud stains caking his cheeks. To Kenya, all of this didn't sound very desirable, but the rest of his family seemed to think otherwise. The way they kept ticking off all of these points time and time again made him uncomfortable, until the mere mention of Yuushi's name caused a wave of nausea to flood his system.
It wasn't that he was jealous or anything; he knew his own shortcomings very well and they mattered little. Neither was it the approval of his mother he sought – he could live without it, really. What bothered him was the willingness to fall for Yuushi's pleasant exterior that his family displayed. As if his cousin acted the ideal son when no one was looking – that would be beyond ridiculous.
Clicking his tongue in vexation, Kenya scrubbed the towel over his head to clear the rubble inside. Any harder and he would be setting fire to his hair. Too little exercise a day led to useless thoughts that buzzed from one extreme to the other and back with irregular stops between as if on shuffle and repeat.
Instead of brooding, he went to feed Ling Ling, his iguana, then grabbed a magazine and flopped down on the bed, not about to budge for the rest of the evening. He tried to ignore the futon next to it, which was going to be his sleeping place for the next few days, but he might as well have tried to ignore a fly buzzing by his ears. Damn annoying.
Shuffling footsteps announced Yuushi's approach, even before he opened the door. No one who had business with him walked like that.
"You took an awful lot of time just buying groceries," Kenya noted, not looking up from his magazine. In his boredom, he was skimming the interview with Shiraishi on the Nationals this year for the nth time. Not that he cared how long Yuushi chose to spend in a supermarket or anywhere else for that matter. Speaking up first was merely a tool to divert Yuushi's attention from commenting on the mess that was his room. Sure, he had cleaned it before their guests had arrived, but that still didn't mean it was Yuushi's definition of tidy, what with all the CDs and magazines stacked on top of one another on his desk and in boxes against the wall. Something always ruined his plans to sort them out.
"Meeting old friends on the way can also take up time, wouldn't you agree?" Yuushi drawled in that lazy way of his, like cool honey spilling from a broken glass in viscous waves.
"Who'd you meet?"
"Oshizu, Sawada, you know – those guys. I was hoping Shiraishi and Zaizen were still around by the time I got outside, but unfortunately they weren't." There was a slight hint of accusation tinging the bored tone of Yuushi's voice. Or maybe that was Kenya's mind playing tricks on him. The way Shiraishi's name rolled off his cousin's tongue annoyed him for some reason, but he wrote it off as the general irritation of having to share his room for the next few days.
"Whatever," he mumbled, eyes following Yuushi's path to the wardrobe over the edge of his magazine, following nimble fingers popping button after button of his shirt, gradually revealing first the graceful lines of his neck, the tan skin of his chest. Even beneath his clothes Yuushi's skin was darker than Kenya's despite living in slightly cooler Tokyo. What was he doing there? Playing tennis naked?
And why the hell was he staring at Yuushi anyway?
"Like what you see?" Voice dripping with faint amusement, Yuushi spread his arms to provide a better, unobstructed view of his taut abdomen, fabric sliding down his bare shoulders as he did so.
Kenya huffed. "What kind of sick question is that, you creep?" The instant he had flopped around onto his stomach he realized what a bad move it was. Lesson Number One in Kenya's Family Survival Guide: Never turn your back on the enemy. This rule was proven right by the dip of his mattress under Yuushi's weight.
"A valid one." Wisps of warm breath ghosted across his cheek. Yuushi's face just hovered next to his own, close enough to be touching, yet body heat was the only thing that bridged the gap between them. "What are you reading anyway? Is it more interesting than me?"
With two quick motions, Kenya had rolled up his sports magazine to rap it against Yuushi's forehead. "What isn't?"
"So cold, Kenya." Yuushi sniffed, tipping his head back with the back of his hand in a stylized melodramatic gesture. "See, that's why you don't get a girlfriend. You need to show a little more interest."
"I don't need to show an interest in you to get a girlfriend."
"Can't hurt to try. You know, practice makes perfect."
Kenya frowned as something went click inside his head, like switching on the lights. "Say, you're not hitting on me, are you?" It was a weird notion, true, but one could never know with Yuushi.
"No, I'm making fun of you."
Kenya's eyebrow twitched.
Low and deliberate, Yuushi's lips twisted into a smirk, gleeful eyes glowing in the same provocative light when he answered 'Which one?' to the question 'How is your girlfriend?'
Kenya huffed again. It was so like Yuushi to try and piss him off. "Would you mind getting off me? It's bad enough already I have to share a room with you, I don't need to share the bed." Never mind that Kenya would have to, since Yuushi was getting the bed to sleep in.
"Are you sure you're okay with sleeping on the floor?" There it was again, that bastardly grin, a mocking chuckle following in its wake. "We could snuggle up together just like the old days."
"No thanks. Not interested. Now, go away."
The fresh night air carried over the faint smell of senko incense to where he sat by the riverbank, drowning out the cacophony of babbling, singing and shouting voices by concentrating on the whistle-like quality of Kintarou's light snore. The rhythmic beating of taiko drums had a lulling effect on the boy, snoozing in Shiraishi's lap as he was, mop of red hair nestled against the crook of Shiraishi's neck and tickling his chin. They had been watching the paper lanterns float down the river, a dusting of orange halos glowing in the dark, purportedly guiding their ancestor's spirits back to the Realm of the Dead.
A couple of paces downriver sat Yuuji and Koharu, well away from drunken revelers shaking a leg. Anyone who had seen their obscenities on the court might be surprised to find them keeping their affection to excessive touching and chaste kisses in public otherwise. Both had quieted down in recent years, which were not much by their standards, but Shiraishi saw the difference. Dramatic fights had become less frequent, most likely because Koharu diverted more of his attention to his boyfriend and studies instead of flirting. That wasn't to say he had stopped making eyes at other people, but as far as Shiraishi knew, Koharu kept it down to the ones he tutored – one of the reasons Kenya rather asked Shiraishi for help with anything. Yuuji seemed to be content with the development in any case. Where he had often acted like a stepped-on cat, he now gave off the impression of a well-fed kitten with its whiskers full of cream.
Shiraishi rolled his head from side to side in the attempt of loosening his muscles, yet careful not to wake Kintarou. Suddenly, there were warm hands on his stiff shoulders, while an even warmer breath stirred his hair and tickled the shell of his ear. "Need help with that?"
Shiraishi's head swung around, although he recognized that voice. "Oshitari!" He would not have expected the other man down by the river so soon, as Shiraishi had seen him earlier trying to catch goldfish for Kintarou or talking to Zaizen, an air of activity around him that was not about to drain anytime soon. "If you can do it without waking Kintarou, I'd be grateful."
"Leave it to me." With that, nimble fingers began working on vicious knots, running warm trails across his shoulders. Shiraishi felt himself relax, something he only allowed himself to do during summer, outside tennis season. He kept biting the inside of his lip to keep any and all sounds to himself; relaxation or no, Shiraishi would not relinquish that much control, even if he enjoyed the pleasant tingles Yuushi's fingers sent down his back whenever he brushed the roots of his hair, as he rubbed the back of his neck and sucked the tension out of his shoulders. Now and then, Kintarou shifted with a grunt, strands of hair getting in the way of Yuushi's massaging fingers.
"That's all I can do right now," Yuushi said after a while, running his hands down Shiraishi's arms. "It's more effective when you lie down, though."
"Thanks anyway. It's a lot better now." Shiraishi stretched his neck, pleased to find it more flexible again, then craned it to look at Yuushi. "If there's anything I can do to return the favor, let me know." He couldn't just expect a friend to scratch his back without giving anything in return. Else he would feel like he owed them. Friendship was a mutual give and take after all.
His eyes flickered over Shiraishi's head and back. "Actually, there is..."
Shiraishi waited for Yuushi to state his request, though he never said a word. Instead, Yuushi leaned forward to press his lips against Shiraishi's.
For a second, he couldn't understand what was happening. Yuushi's lips sliding against his own felt almost surreal, as if he was floating between sleep and wake, dream and reality.
"You know, senpai," Zaizen spoke up, voice thick with stifled laughter. "I'm beginning to wonder if everyone I know is gay."
"What are you talking about?" Kenya frowned, his eyes following the path Zaizen pointed. At first Kenya naturally thought Koharu and Yuuji were the ones in question, but then he spotted something else in the dim light of the lanterns.
He stared. His eyes must be failing him or he was imagining things. His cousin was not snogging his best friend. That was just... gross. Here he had expected Shiraishi to have more sense in him than to fall for Yuushi's lures. Then again, he should have known that not everyone shared Kenya's way of thinking.
The first explosion of fireworks illuminated the figures he was studying. It was indeed Shiraishi who jerked away so hard at the popping sound that he nearly knocked Kintarou from his lap.
Gnawing at his lip, Kenya looked away. He couldn't take it. Why did it always feel like Yuushi was stealing away his friends? As if he ceased to exist when his cousin was around? It was irrational to tread these lines of thought, he knew. It wasn't as if Shiraishi would ignore him from now on. They were still friends after all. It didn't matter that he had kissed Yuushi. It had nothing to do with their friendship.
"Senpai?" Zaizen's voice tugged him back to reality. "Don't tell me. You're not questioning your orientation, are you?"
Kenya started. "Why would I do that?" He had meant for it to sound indignant, but it did not come out half as convincing. Now that Zaizen mentioned it, he was really beginning to think about it.
"You were staring." The little brat had the audacity to sport a devious grin. "Thought you might be jealous."
Kenya's thoughts derailed. The urge to bang his head on the nearest flat surface to clear the mental train wreck welled up inside him. He wanted to ask why the devil he would ever feel jealous about something like that, unable to vocalize what exactly that was, and why it would provoke him to question his sexuality. But no words made it past his throat.
"Don't you think this was a little mean, senpai?" Zaizen let himself fall on the unoccupied seat of the bench, jaw set.
"Trust me, he'll thank me one day. If I had left him to his own devices, he wouldn't have figured out where his interests lay in a million years," Yuushi chuckled. His cousin could be unimaginably dense when it came to les affaires de cœur and his level of irritation was rising year after year because of it. "Kenya hates losing to me with a passion."
"That still doesn't guarantee he's suddenly gonna realize he's been madly in love with buchou all this time or that he's gonna, I don't know, 'set out to conquer buchou's heart,' however they'd say it as. This isn't some stupid romance novel. More importantly, this is not senpai's way of handling things. He doesn't even know buchou likes him back."
"He doesn't, but we do." It was glaringly obvious. Yuushi wondered why Kenya hadn't caught on until now. He had seen it during Nationals, he had seen it this week: Whenever Shiraishi was not focused on the court, he was staring at Kenya. It might look like contemplation to the untrained eye, but those two had practically spent their entire childhood together. They should be able to read each other's thoughts with a mere glimpse. Then again, Yuushi mused, they weren't able to judge their relationship from a distance the way he could.
Or Zaizen. "Did it ever occur to you that buchou might develop an interest in you after you came on to him like that?"
"No," Yuushi said simply. "Shiraishi isn't stupid or gullible. He knows me, and he knows I'm not serious with him, if only because long-distance relationships don't work. Besides, you should have heard him splutter afterwards. He's not interested."
Zaizen's brows furrowed, he was still not entirely convinced. "I still can't see them together, despite the way they keep mooning over each other... Okay, make that don't want to, because all I'd see is another Idiot Couple," he gave a violent shudder.
Yuushi laughed. If that was what his friends would become, he would not have helped them open their eyes. "Don't worry. It's... not their style. Although it would make for good resource material for a novel."
"Senpai!" Zaizen croaked. "Don't give me the creeps. I'll have nightmares."
"I'm sorry," he chuckled. "Let me buy you a drink to make up for it." This might be the last time he was able to treat someone, seeing as he was not sure to survive the night with Kenya under one roof.
Maybe he should call and say he was staying somewhere else for the night. It shouldn't be too hard for him to find someone willing to accommodate him.
His eyes fell on Zaizen, gaze trailing over the younger boy's smaller frame. "Say, you don't happen to have some sort of sleeping place for me? I'm not sure if Kenya will want to see me tonight."
"Hm?" Zaizen stopped nibbling at his lower lip in thought to look up at Yuushi. "Sure do. We could roll out a futon."
It was hard suppressing the grin tugging at his lips. "Sweet."
Killing two birds with one stone. He really was a genius.