“Look,” Oshitari is saying. “I think it's perfectly fair-”
“That's only because you're likely to get somebody,” Atobe says, adjusting his towel when he notices Hiyoshi's slanted gaze. “I- I'd hardly call it fair when it's so heavily weighted in your direction.”
“Ah,” Oshitari says, tapping his chin. “Can it possibly be? The moment, has it finally arrived? The great Atobe Keigo is...insecure?”
“I'm not insecure!” Atobe snaps. “It's just that resting the captaincy next year on the first one of us to get laid, when one of us already has a girlfriend, is-”
“I wouldn't call it that unfair,” Shishido says, toweling his hair and sending sprinkles everywhere, like a dog. “She hasn't slept with him yet. Gotta be a reason. I'd say Oshitari's gonna lose, for sure.”
“Actually,” Oshitari says. “We're taking things slowly.”
“Frigid,” Shishido says. “Safe bet. I'm in.”
“She is not-” Oshitari starts, at the same time as Atobe sneers:
“I refuse to be in a competition for my own captaincy. Especially with him.”
“What's wrong with me?” Oshitari and Shishido splutter, both at once.
“Everything,” Atobe says. “In totally different ways. Together you make up all that's wrong with the world.”
“I have a girlfriend,” Hiyoshi says. “Maybe I'd win this bet.”
“There is no bet,” Atobe says. “Practices continue over the summer. I want my team fitter than ever when we get back. Understood?”
A discontent murmur that goes the locker room, but nobody outright complains. Shishido tugs on his school shirt, his skin wet beneath so it sticks. Atobe hastily turns around to dress himself. Oshitari turns his head and for a moment Atobe thinks he's been caught, but he's looking at his reflection in the mirror.
“Right,” Atobe says, stiffly, to Shishido's retreating back. “Well, have a good summer.”
“Urgh,” Shishido says. “Make sure you'll call me from the Seychelles. I'd love to hear from you, you know, in the steak house, where I'll be working all summer while you tan your stupid face off-”
“It's not my fault you decided to join the working classes,” Atobe says. “I'll send you a postcard.”
“I hope everybody in the Seychelles is gay,” Shishido says. “That way you'll lose the bet for sure.”
“There is no bet,” Atobe snaps, as Shishido walks out. “Ryou? Did you hear me? Come back here, you twat, there is no- Ryou!”
“There's definitely a bet,” Oshitari purrs.
“Shut up, Yuushi.”
There's a send-off, as there always is on the last day of term. The girls gather around the front gate, wishing Atobe a good summer, hoping that he'll spot them in the midst of the crowd and whisk them off to some glamorous location. Not for the first time in his life, Atobe doesn't want to go on holiday. The Seychelles may be beautiful, but they don't have tennis. They don't have Hyoutei, or his friends. He'll spend the last precious moments before he's eighteen, before he's adult, lying on a beach and wasting the days away.
It's a fight to get to the car, past presents and little gaggles of girls, some of whom are brave enough to step forward and hug him goodbye. One girl presses her arms around him and for an awful moment it turns him on, the curves of her against his thin shirt. Only it makes him think about Ryou's pale wet skin, so he turns and politely snubs her. Managing to pry the car door open, he turns for a last look at the building before he leaves it, the balcony where Yuushi's always smoking, the front entrance where Ryou tends to slope himself across the steps. The tall, proud tennis courts. He turns his attention back to reality, back to the car, and then-
One girl is shoving past, but she's not shoving past to get to Atobe, but past him. She's not tall, but she's not struggling to do it; she's all elbows and brute force. She has long hair, tied back. Her skirt is unusually long, her knee socks wrinkled. When she's through the crowds, she disentangles herself with a disgusted 'urgh' and sends Atobe a dirty look as she stalks by, as if it's his fault.
Not for the first time in his life, Atobe is bizarrely in love with her.
“Summer school?” Atobe's mother repeats, as if by making him repeat the words she can ascertain truth.
“Yes,” Atobe says, trying to keep his voice steady. He hates lying to his mother; his father does it, all the time. His mother tolerates lies from the men of the household.
“Very well,” she says. “With your exams coming up, that seems very sensible.”
“Why didn't I hear about this?” his father says. “People like me, holding the walls of the school upright – basic communication is expected. Basic courtesy.”
“I'm sorry,” Atobe says. “I don't know. I'm sure that I can contact the school and get them to send the paperwork over-”
Atobe's father hates paperwork.
“No, that won't be necessary,” he says. “It was your mother's choice, our holiday. You're hardly missing out on any particular educational experience. You're most likely better off in school.”
“Yes,” Atobe says, his mother not even flinching.
“I commend you on your academic commitment,” Atobe's father says. “That dreadful Kansai boy isn't involved in this, is he?”
Atobe crosses his fingers behind his back. “No,” he says. “No, he's not committed. At all.”
“Summer school?” Shishido says, at their first summer practice. He's stretching one arm across his body, and his shoulder is firm and round like a piece of fruit. “I can't believe they bought it.”
“I don't think they did,” Atobe says. “He just doesn't care whether I'm there or not. There aren't any diplomats in the Seychelles. Anyway, I'm using the summer to study, so it's half true.”
“Study what?” Shishido snorts. “You should use the summer to get fucking laid. That's what you should be studying.”
“This bet is non-existent,” Atobe says.
“Keep telling yourself that,” Shishido says, as Oshitari strolls onto the court.
“You're late,” Atobe says.
“You're stunning,” Oshitari says.
“What?” Atobe says.
“Pretty Woman,” Gakuto says, climbing off the bleachers. “Only one of those words applies to you.”
“I swear, Mukahi-”
“Who're we playing?” Shishido says, turning around and staring at the entrance to the courts. There's a big group of players, all in matching colours. Atobe is frowning.
“Nobody I'm expecting,” he says, strolling over as if it's a terrible inconvenience. He doesn't recognise the team, so chances are they're not worth bothering with. A few feet away, he suddenly spots the girl he saw at school. She's wearing jeans and a vest and she looks bored.
“Oh,” she says. “It's you.”
“Yes,” he says. “Atobe-”
“Yeah,” she says. “I know. We all know.”
“Nice manners you have there,” he retorts, stung.
“You too,” she says. “Parking that stupid car outside the school. Do you know how irritating it is fighting past your groupies to get home every day?”
“It's hardly my fault,” Atobe says. “That people like me.”
“I hate to interfere in this battle of wits,” one of the guys says. “But is anybody here to play tennis?”
“Who the fuck are you?” Atobe says.
“That's my brother,” the girl says. “He plays tennis. You all play tennis. Everybody plays tennis, everybody that matters plays stupid-”
“Alright,” the guy says. “You said your piece. Go and bother somebody else. You didn't have to come.”
“Rude girl,” Atobe says, as she stalks off.
“Yeah, well,” the guy says. “Like I said. Tennis?”
“Tennis,” Atobe says, disgruntled. They shake on it, uneven and discontent.
“I have a girlfriend,” Shishido announces, at their next practice.
“I can fly,” Gakuto says.
“A sheep is my mother,” Jirou says.
“Something else that's totally unbelievable,” Hiyoshi says, boredly turning his tennis racket over and over.
“I hate this team,” Shishido says. “I do have a girlfriend!”
“In your head,” Gakuto says. “Nobody's ever actually seen her.”
“She said she'd come to practice!”
“Is she here now?” Gakuto says. “Can you see her? Is she over there, waving at you?”
“Fuck off,” Shishido says, pushing Gakuto into the basket of tennis balls. “Just-”
“Hey,” Oshitari says, as Atobe comes breezing onto the court. “You're late.”
“I'm not late,” Atobe says, throwing his jacket at the benches with cross abandon. “I said quarter past. Why aren't you warming up?”
“You didn't say quarter past,” Shishido says. “You said 10. You're late.”
“Well, you have an imaginary girlfriend,” Atobe retorts. “So shut up and warm up.”
The other team, to whom Atobe has begun to refer to as Team Underwhelming in his head, don't show, which means that neither does Yui. He can't quite decide how he feels about it; on the one hand, the past ten mornings he's jerked off in the shower and thought about her. The strong line of her shoulders, the way her tits are perky but her mouth is sullen. He's thought about how her voice would sound, all deep and pleasured. The problem is that the fantasy doesn't quite meet the reality of Yui. When he sees her, he's always secretly appalled at himself, because she's not that good-looking. Atobe prides himself on his excellent taste.
Shishido's imaginary girlfriend shows up, at the end of practice. She's small, petite, graceful. At first, everybody nudges Oshitari when she starts waving at the court.
“God,” Gakuto says. “Yuushi. You didn't tell me she looked like that.”
“Who?” Yuushi says. “Holy fuck. Wow.”
Atobe glances at him, sidelong. “That's not his girlfriend,” he says. A ball of string is madly unraveling in his mind.
“That's...that's not my girlfriend,” Oshitari says. “I wish it was-”
Shishido is waving back. Gakuto's jaw hits the floor.
“That is not,” he says. “That is. How? How the fuck? Is she deaf? Is she blind?” He clutches Yuushi's sleeve. “Is she crazy?”
Shishido grins. “She likes my rough edges,” he shrugs, throwing his jacket over one shoulder and striding off towards her. “See you at the weekend.”
“It is not fair,” Atobe says, later, to Oshitari. “I didn't make the bet. The bet was not made.”
“The bet was not made,” Oshitari echoes, cheerfully. “Heard from your parents, yet?”
“Yeah,” Atobe says, sliding his towel through his hair. “They want progress reports from the school. I keep trying to block it out, pretend it's not happening. I think in my head, it's become...”
He tails off. Oshitari looks up at him, over his glasses.
“It's stupid,” Atobe shrugs.
“Go on,” Oshitari says.
“It's become as though I am going to summer school,” he finishes. “I wish I were. I almost don't want to leave here.”
“Yeah,” Oshitari says. “I know what you mean. But there's university. That'll be fun. We've got ages, yet, before...”
“Yeah,” Atobe says. “Only we don't, do we? We said that when we were fourteen. That we'd win the Nationals, and that never happened. And fuck, now it's four years on and I don't know where time went. It's only another four until we have to be adults. Until I have to be...something I can't stand.”
“We've got ages,” Oshitari says, nudging him in the shoulder. “And you need a girlfriend. Your practices are getting something fierce.”
“Good,” Atobe says, slamming his locker shut. “I've seen what you eat for breakfast. You need it.”
That night, in between dreams of desks and papers and endless rows of numbers and aristocrats and people with horrible donkey teeth, Atobe dreams of Yui. At first, he dreams of Yui, and then he dreams of something else, of shoulders that don't slope so much, of hips that don't draw it but jut out. Of the feeling of muscle pressed against him, not curve. Of somebody kissing him so hard he feels it still when he opens his eyes. He's raging hard and breathing so fast he can't think, he can't think about anything but Shishido kissing him so hard and so deep, so terribly deep, right into the parts of himself he doesn't even let Oshitari see.
He wraps a hand around himself and it takes less than nineteen seconds, a personal record.
Then his 'cell rings, and it's his father.
The thing Shishido likes about Ami is that she lets him do what other girls don't. Other girls go with Shishido because he's on the tennis team, because he's well-known and because he's Atobe's friend. Inevitably they realise that he's rude and stubborn and really, really clumsy, and because they're only with him for attention anyway he finds himself dumped most of the time. Ami not only seems interested in his opinions, she seems to like the way he runs his mouth off. She likes it even when, or especially when, she's lying on her back on his bed and he's talking to try and distract himself from her collarbone and the way her breasts move when she breathes.
“So,” he says, as he strokes the inside of her thigh and forces the image of Atobe's father naked into his brain to cool his blood down. “So I think, really, that I'll do French at university, because it's different, I don't really have an idea, you know, so what about you.”
“Well,” she says, as his hand rises to her hip, taut under the fabric of her skirt. “Politics was on the short list. You can take that off, if you want to.”
“Oh,” Shishido says. He doesn't know what else to say (“thank you” sounds moronic) so he does, obediently. He then has to think about Atobe's father and mother nakedly conceiving Atobe, to stop himself coming.
“And then there's always business,” she continues, as he strokes her stomach. “I'd like to do something useful, you see.”
“Yeah,” Shishido says, incapable of further speech. “Yeah, politics, yeah. Great.”
He's just about brave enough, now that she's talking and comfortable, to attempt to hook a finger into the hipline of her underwear.
“Oh, Ryou,” she says, in a breath that's almost disappointed. “Not yet. You know how I feel about-”
“Oh,” he says. “Yeah, sorry, it's just-”
“Soon,” she says. “Soon.”
“So,” Atobe says, trying to make his tone conversational. “How's your girlfriend.”
“Fine.” Shishido says, clipped. “Had any luck with Yui yet.”
“Working on it.”
“Won the bet, then?”
“I thought you said the bet doesn't exist,” Shishido says.
“Depends on your answer,” Atobe says.
“Oh,” Shishido says. “Women fucking suck, mate.”
“Amen,” Atobe says. “Want a game?”
Ami is beautiful. She really is. Shishido likes that she is, because beautiful hasn't ever been totally in his league before and the jealous reactions are incredible. Only, he doesn't really feel that they're connected. She looks at him but he doesn't look back, he's just lost in a sort of wonder that she's even interested. He doesn't know how to play the game she's playing and a part of him just wants to flip her over, and- but that's a level of rude and awful she won't take, that he can't accept in himself, so he doesn't say anything at all.
It's not even about the captaincy, which Shishido's never wanted but that Atobe wanted it more, and everything comes down to them battling with their two egos. It's just about not going to university an unskilled moron. Atobe and Oshitari can get away with it, they're good-looking and charming and girls would do them even if their only experience was with horses or something. Shishido needs all the help he can get, and he's never won anything against them before.
It just doesn't feel right to make Ami into a bet. They break up, a week later.
Atobe and Shishido play each other, for the remainder of the summer. With lack of insistence, the drop-off steadily increases, with varying excuses. Atobe no longer cares, because his game improves by the hour and Shishido has never been been better. They play until they're sun-drenched, go for food afterwards, talk about everything, fight. Atobe only knows how to be vulnerable with Oshitari, but it soon turns out that he can do it with Shishido, too.
“Why did you break up?” he says, when Shishido's drinking milkshake and so caught unawares.
“Huh,” Shishido says. “Unsuited, I think. I dunno why she was with me.”
“I thought she liked your rough edges.”
“Yeah,” Shishido says. “I just. I kept wondering why she was there.”
“Why? She liked you.”
“Yeah, well,” Shishido says. “It's pretty uncommon.”
“Try being too popular,” Atobe says. “You can never be sure why people want to be with you.”
“I'm never sure, anyway,” Shishido says. “Plenty of girls come through us to get to you.”
“I'm sorry,” Atobe says. “If I could change it-”
“Least we never went for the same girl,” Shishido says, with a grin. “Can you imagine?”
Shishido goes to bed at night and thinks about Ami for a while. He can't remember what her body looks like. They always say that you remember every inch of it, the first girl you see-
Only what he can see, when he closes his eyes, is the way Atobe's feet move on the court. The way his arm moves across his body to smash back a serve. The way the sun temporarily blinds him, reaching for a shot, and when he pushes through it he's slightly off, slightly badly angled, but the smash is so hard, so fast, it always goes through. Atobe's imperfect shots are as strong as his perfect ones.
Even Shishido's perfect shots aren't so hard.
When Shishido goes to the street court the following week, Atobe is Stressed. He hasn't even taken his racket out of its bag. He's sitting with his rucksack at his feet and folders strewn everywhere.
“What's going on?” Shishido says, sitting down beside him and knocking one folder onto the ground.
“My father's e-mailed me an equation,” Atobe says, frowning into his 'cell. “He wants to know. Look, that's the problem. He's testing me, because he thinks I'm at summer school, and it's been weeks since we did this and I don't. I can't remember how to do it, maths...I should be better at maths, I've never been good enough. I never have, and if I can't remember how to do this he'll know.”
Shishido takes the 'cell from him and studies the screen. It was the lesson he spent staring at Atobe's wrist, for some stupid reason he can't remember now. Something about Atobe's ridiculously tiny wrists, not strong enough to hit a ball, not strong enough for-
“Seven,” he says. “The answer is seven.”
“How do you.” Atobe says, grabbing the 'cell back. “How? I can't even remember-”
Shishido shrugs. “I like maths,” he says. “It makes sense to me. It's just numbers. Nothing distracting. I'll help you, if you want.”
“Thanks,” Atobe says. “I'd appreciate it. Just, thanks. For not laughing at me.”
“Why would I laugh at you?”
Atobe shrugs. “I screwed up, with Yui. I never came close. She thinks I'm an idiot.”
“I dumped somebody because I thought she didn't like me, and she did,” Shishido reasons. “If you're stupid, so am I.”
Atobe looks at him, the furrow in his brow, the eyes that see everything, the brain Shishido doesn't even really know he has. He sees hair that's no longer there, a defiant attitude, a person who'd push past a crowd and declare, “urgh.”
“Ryou,” he says, and Shishido turns his face to Atobe's. The sun spreads around the line of his jaw, bright between them as Atobe presses forward, into time, into the future, into the hard angles of Shishido's mouth.
Shishido's hand comes up and his fingertips brush Atobe's chin, soft at first, and then, finally, finally, assertive.
After the summer, Atobe declares the bet valid, after all. He wins it, but won't tell anybody who, or when.
“You could take it from me,” he says to Shishido, as they walk out for the first practice.
“Nah,” Shishido says, slinging his racket over one shoulder. “You can only stand being dominated in-.”
“Fuck off,” Atobe says, though it's ineffective, studded with arousal.
“You fuck off,” Shishido returns.
“Look,” Shishido says. “You wanna win the Nationals, or stand here and have a stupid argument with me? Get out there, captain.”
“This year,” Atobe says.
“This year.” Shishido says.