Kaidou-senpai's reign of terror began on a Thursday. The third years, now retired in fact as well as name, were off at supplemental classes to help them prepare for exams, leaving the new captain alone with the team for the first time.
"Save us, Tezuka-buchou," Horio rasped, his hand clutching his sweat stained t-shirt while his gelatinous legs squirmed him forward toward the other first years. When he finally reached the circle of barely breathing teens, he fell to the ground.
"You're on my shoe," Echizen Ryoma said, kicking his classmate off. Horio's whining was the reason for today's extra laps and Kaidou-buchou's pissy mood. If the other boy would learn to shut it, they could all go home.
Kaidou and Momoshiro came to stand in front of the first years. "If you want to become regulars," Kaidou said, taking in each first year in turn, "you will train. Tomorrow we will post the new training menu. If you want to improve, you'll stick to it." He stopped and turned to Horio. "And no whining."
"It'll be a lot easier when you get used to it," Momoshiro added with a smile. He reached around and clapped Kaidou's shoulder. "This guy's put a lot of thought into it, so you don't have to worry. Just do your best!"
Echizen knew what the twitch in Momo's smile meant; Momo was lying through his teeth so the first years wouldn't make a run for it and join other clubs. Ryoma wouldn't mind if a few—Horio—left, though. If the crap players left, then Kaidou-senpai could spend more time helping Ryoma with footwork . Ryoma's footwork was better than Kaidou's during a game, but Ryoma found that Kaidou's company was…pleasant. It gave him the same smooth, warm feeling in his gut that he got from sitting quietly with Karupin on a cold day.
Horio failed to show up to practice on Friday, and Echizen thought he heard Kachiro mention that the loudmouthed boy was changing over to the tea ceremony club with the intent of sleazing extra sweets. Echizen also scored high on his social studies exam and his math exam. Now the old man would get off his back about not knowing his own country's history, and his mom would stop worrying that he would end up like his idiot father and not know how to balance a checkbook.
It was a great day.
When he arrived at practice, the non-regulars were preparing the courts. Soon the ranking matches would begin to determine the new set of regulars. Kaidou, Momoshiro, and Echizen were clearly in no danger of losing their spots and, with the three of them to cover the singles slots, Ryoma was fairly confident that the inferior players wouldn't weigh them down too much in the friendly matches planned later in the month. He laughed a little to think of Arai finally in a regular's jersey even as he cringed to think that the beloved status symbol would likely fall to players unworthy of its majesty.
"Regulars!" Kaidou bellowed despite the fact that both Momo and Echizen were standing close by.
"Hey, I'm right here. Don't shout in my ear." Momoshiro whipped Kaidou's shout from his ear with a fingernail. "What's up?"
"Hey," Ryoma said by way of greeting. He gave Kaidou a nod of his head.
"Momoshiro, you're in charge of arranging the blocks for the ranking matches. Ryuzaki will be in the clubhouse to show you how to do it. Echizen, I want you to drill the first years while I work with the second years. Second years will focus on stamina and the first years will work on service return. Stick to the exercises I posted in the clubhouse this morning." Kaidou consulted something on his clipboard. The clipboard used to be Inui's but, because it was purchased with club funds, the data player couldn't take it with him. Kaidou held the clipboard as though the fate of the tennis club were precariously balanced atop it.
"Can I make them run laps?" Echizen asked.
Kaidou looked up from his clipboard and smiled. "Yes."
Ryoma's lips were dry when they curled up into an answering smile. Nodding to his new captain, he turned and jogged toward the first years and amended his previous thoughts. It was a really, really great day.
"Kaidou-senpai likes cats," Echizen told Karupin later that night. The Himalayan was on Ryoma's lap, mewling wonderful distractions from the science homework on the desk in front of them. "Let's go visit him."
Karupin's eyes slid closed and he dug his claws into Echizen's thigh. He burbled out a meow that seemed, to Ryoma, to say, "That's a great idea, but I'm tired. Maybe tomorrow?"
Ryoma looked at the clock. "I guess you're right. We'll go over after practice tomorrow." The idea of walking to Kaidou's house, half an hour on the other side of the school, after the "Saturday Blitz Training" posted on the bulletin board was daunting, but Kaidou-senpai would like it, and Echizen would like to be Singles 1 again this year. He was not above bribery. Also it might be fun—not as much fun as tennis, but fun.
The jaunty knock on the door could have been nobody except the old man. "It's time for all good young men to be in bed," Nanjiroh sang through the door. "Sleep is the fertilizer of the heart."
After the win at nationals, the old man completely lost it. He read parenting magazines and joined a shogi club in the hopes of gleaning wisdom from the geezers who played down at the senior center. If anybody at school found out, Echizen would be laughed off the courts.
Nanjiroh knocked again. "Everything okay in there? Are you doing some healthy masculine activity that you want your dad to leave you alone to finish?"
If Karupin were bigger, Ryoma could train him to scratch the old man's throat out, then he wouldn't be able to say stupid things while Ryoma was trying to study and plan his visit to his new captain. "Go away," he told the old man.
"So that's it, huh? Well, we've talked about this before, and there's nothing you need to be ashamed of, boy. It's healthy to get it out of you every now and then. Just remember to treat the ladies with respect when it comes time for it and—"
"I'm studying science, old man!" Ryoma threw the book at the door as proof.
The door opened and Nanjiroh peeked in. "And that's good, too," he said after a look around. Grinning, he closed the door.
At the end of Saturday's practice Ryoma lay on the tennis court, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Every time he opened his mouth to tell the non-regulars exactly why they were still non-regulars, Kaidou-senpai appeared and ordered him to do laps. When his legs were too shaky to do laps, he got shuttle runs. After the shuttle runs were pull-ups, push-ups, and squats. He didn't know how many he did of each, but he knew he'd be feeling them for a while, possibly until the end of his life.
"Get up and clean the courts," Kaidou said, dropping a broom next to Echizen's prone form. "Everyone else went home."
Echizen's head lolled to the side to watch Kaidou walk away. The captain sat on a bench with his clipboard, scribbling things, frowning, and hissing. It was kinda comfortable, Ryoma thought. Since he couldn't move anyway, he just watched Kaidou and his clipboard for a while. Once the acid in his limbs receded he'd do a half-assed but swift job sweeping the courts, run home to grab Karupin, and treat his captain to a really fun afternoon of playing Chase the String. Karupin loved Chase the String, and Kaidou's snake form would really make the game fun for the cat.
"Get cleaning," Kaidou said, eyes not leaving his clipboard. "I don't want to be here all day."
"I can't move." Ryoma tried lifting his arm. "Don't make me do so much stuff, Kaidou-buchou."
Kaidou put the clipboard on the bench and stood. As he walked over, Echizen paid close attention to the movement of his calf muscles. They silked along under the skin, hypnotic. Kaidou-senpai had pretty hairy legs, though. Touching them probably wouldn't be all that great.
"What are you doing?" Kaidou stepped back from Ryoma's wiggling fingers.
Ryoma frowned at his powerless arm, unsure if he was upset that it couldn't move the last few centimeters to touch Kaidou's calf or if he was upset because he had, for some reason, found touching the calf to be a good idea. All the laps and exercise were getting to him.
"Do you want to play with my cat?" Ryoma asked. When all else fails, change the subject. "I can bring him to your house. Momo gave me the address."
For a few breaths Kaidou simply stared. "I have a cat," he said. "I don't need to play with yours. Now get up and start sweeping. If you can't, you're benched for the next tournament."
Echizen's exhausted limbs gained a sudden burst of life and the courts were cleaned quickly and thoroughly. Kaidou only made him redo it twice.
Sundays sucked. Not only was there no practice, but Ryoma had to spend all day helping the old man take care of the temple. The morning was spent sweeping the last leaves the trees would shake off for the season and directing guests to the omamori shop. After lunch Echizen did his homework while pretending to pull weeds. He took a break at 2 to play with Karupin.
"He said he has a cat," he told the feline once they were alone in the house. "Want some tuna?" He pulled a can from his pocket, opened it, and set it down for the cat to eat. While Karupin ate greedily, Ryoma reclined back and stared at the ceiling of the living room. His legs still ached from practice the day before, but his arms were fine now. Several silent moments passed until Karupin was finished with the can and jumped onto Ryoma's stomach, circling three times before curling up for a nap. "His cat can't be better than you," Ryoma said, scratching Karupin's neck.
Echizen wanted to say something rude to Momo, but Momo was vice captain and would tell Kaidou that Ryoma was disrespecting him. Kaidou gave laps for disrespect in sets of twenty. Ryoma went with his traditional, "Hey."
"Wanna head to the street courts with me? I want to try out a new return shot." Momo looked around quickly before adding, "And I want to talk to you about something."
"My legs hurt." Also Karupin was still snuggled up on Ryoma's chest, and snuggling with Karupin was much more important than watching Momo practice his second-rate returns. "Call Arai-senpai." Arai could use the workout. If Momo's tennis was second-rate, Arai's was fifth or sixth…if that. Next year was going to be embarrassing. Fortunately the other teams didn't have much better.
Momo grabbed Ryoma's arm and dragged him up. Karupin ran off. "I really need a friend right now."
Echizen had been told by Kikumaru-senpai that he and Momo were friends now. Friendship kicked in after someone bought you twenty burgers. Momo's pit of a stomach and Echizen's prowess at janken meant that they were friends until Ryoma could figure out how to cancel out the deal. If Inui-senpai weren't a freak, Echizen would've asked him about it. "I don't want to play tennis today," Ryoma said when Momo looked like he was going to start getting loud.
"You don't have to play, just watch me."
Oh, that was thousands of times better than playing tennis. Ryoma was just dying to sit out in the cold and watch Momoshiro flounder around the court while the casual players flocked around him and made a big deal out of nothing. "Fine. Buy me a burger when you're done."
Echizen didn't even bring his tennis bag.
On Monday morning Echizen walked to school because Momo wasted a good chunk of his Sunday just to let him know that some girl was going to ride with Momo to school now. That was fine. Riding on the back of Momo's bike was getting boring anyway. The walking would be good training for Echizen's still aching legs, and the thing with the girl would only last a few weeks. Girls didn't like it when Momo chose tennis over standing in front of the Lawson holding hands and sharing a meat bun.
Three blocks from school it began to rain.
"Ryoma-kun, you're all wet!" Kachiro squeaked while Echizen changed his shoes in the entryway.
Ryoma didn't even dignify the comment with a response. He brushed past his classmate and trudged toward his classroom, droplets of water sliding into his eyes. If the rain didn't let up, practice would be cancelled. If practice was cancelled, the entire point of coming to school was shot and he might as well turn around and go back home.
Once in the classroom Echizen skimmed the day's schedule: Social studies, math, science, English, Japanese, and moral studies. The day was a complete waste. Sitting at his desk, Ryoma put his head down and resolved to sleep through the day.
When Tezuka ran the team, rainy days meant counting the tennis balls, cleaning the clubhouse, and calling it an early day. Under Kaidou's reign, rainy days meant Echizen had to wear a pink poncho while he did his laps. Pink was the only color available in size small.
"Ten more!" Kaidou called out to the first years. The second years were huddled together like penguins near center court. When the first years finished, the second years would do another set of laps. Echizen was sure he saw Fuji-senpai looking down at them from his third year classroom, smiling every time a second year tripped and skidded across the wet court. Where was Ryuzaki-sensei? Wasn't she supposed to be seeing after their safety?
When the laps were finished, Kaidou dismissed the team but didn't leave the clubhouse. Momo dashed out to walk home with that girl, and the rest of the team stumbled out after him in small spurts. Echizen stayed because he didn't have an umbrella and maybe Kaidou, who also didn't appear to have an umbrella, was doing extra training. It would hurt, but it would get him Singles 1. Singles 1 was worth the pain.
"What do you want?" Kaidou hissed from behind his clipboard. Katsuo said he held it so he didn't lose his temper and throttle first years. Or Momoshiro.
"It's raining." In Ryoma's head, the progression from rain to secret training was logical and need not be explained. Explaining it would make it look like he thought Kaidou-senpai was dumb, and that would be 20 laps Ryoma's legs wouldn't make it through.
"Go home." Kaidou jotted a few more things down on his clipboard then put it in his locker. While the door was open, Echizen peeked inside. Nothing beyond the necessary items. How boring.
"What kind of cat do you have?" It wasn't what he'd meant to ask about, but it was an equally legitimate question. "Karupin's a Himalayan."
Kaidou paused, hand on his closed locker. "American shorthair," he said. "Why?"
Ryoma shrugged. "Just wondering. Bye, Kaidou-buchou." He dashed out of the clubhouse, forgetting his tennis bag in the rush. Only when he arrived home to Karupin's slightly lethargic greeting did he notice the familiar weight was absent from his shoulder.
"You forgot this," Kaidou said when Ryoma answered the doorbell. "Here."
Ryoma planned to accept his bag with grumbled thanks and go to his room. There were no doubt laps in his future for forgetting his racquet and making his captain lug it all the way to his house in the rain. If Echizen didn't get some good sleep, he wouldn't make it through half the hell tomorrow's sunny day was bound to bring.
"Who is this?" Nanjiroh asked, shoving Ryoma aside with his hip and taking the tennis bag Kaidou had been holding toward Ryoma. "A friend?"
"Nobody. Go away." Ryoma made a grab for his bag but Nanjiroh got him around the ankle and tripped him.
"Come in! Come in!" The old man curled his arm around Kaidou's shoulder and dragged him inside. "Sorry our kid's caused you so much trouble."
"It's not trouble." Kaidou scrambled out of his shoes as Nanjiroh continued to drag him from the entryway to the house proper.
"Stay and have something to eat. I didn't see a bike outside. Can't have a young man walking the streets alone on a rainy night. We'll drive you home after dinner."
"I don't want to impose."
"We insist, don't we, boy?" Nanjiroh's free arm seemed to stretch impossibly long until it grabbed Ryoma by the scruff and dragged him along with them into the living room. "So, you play tennis?"
"He's on my team, old man. You saw him at nationals."
"Yes, I do," Kaidou said, both he and Nanjiroh ignoring Ryoma's scowls. The captain accepted a zabuton and sat with Nanjiroh at a small table. Ryoma's legs were already asleep as he looked at Kaidou's perfect seiza form.
Fluff up your heart in the kirakira moonlight, baby! Oh! Oh! Oh!
Ryoma cringed as his cell phone rang out from inside his bag. Stupid Momoshiro wanted to have his own ringtone and downloaded some girl band just to piss Ryoma off. He probably knew Kaidou-buchou was at Ryoma's house and was calling so the stupid song would play and, offended by the very sound of it, Kaidou would order Ryoma to do laps around his own home as penance. Without a word to the stunned, slightly sickened individuals in the living room, Ryoma raced for his bag.
"I hate you, Momo-chan-senpai," he said when the call connected.
"Hey, Echizen! Listen to this! I had a really great day today!" Momo giggled and sighed.
He couldn't just hang up on Momo, especially with Kaidou sitting in the next room. He wanted to, though, because Momoshiro was happy and nobody deserved to be happy when Echizen was miserable and Nanjiroh was likely pissing off the sole individual currently responsible for Ryoma's future in the Seigaku Tennis Club. If the old man's big mouth lost Ryoma Singles 1…
Still holding the phone, Ryoma ran back to the living room. Tea had somehow materialized and Kaidou was sipping quietly and watching the TV. The old man was gone.
"Where'd he go?" Ryoma indicated Nanjiroh's vacated spot with a kick of his leg.
Kaidou pointed toward the kitchen.
"Where'd who go?" Momo asked. "You mean Tomoe-chan? She went home. Like I said, I walked her home after school today. I didn't have an umbrella so we bought one of those big ones at the Family Mart and shared it. Ah! My youthful dreams are coming true!"
"Is that the loudmouthed idiot?" Kaidou asked. "Make sure he reads the training menu for tomorrow. No more slacking off."
Ryoma didn't want to be Kaidou's messenger if only because Momo would then know that Kaidou was at his house. That would start a conversation that would be both awkward and annoying. "Kaidou-buchou told me to tell you to stop slacking off and read the training menu for tomorrow."
"What's with that guy?" Momo snorted. Echizen heard a thud and guessed that Momo must be flopping around his room for the notes he wasn't going to read but had to now that Ryoma'd given him Kaidou's message. "He thinks he can boss everyone around just because he's captain."
Echizen refrained from saying that, by definition, it was what captains did. He had to be nice because Momo was making the ranking match schedule. Tennis without Tezuka-buchou was way too complex. "I gotta go, Momo-senpai."
"Is he reading the notes?" Kaidou asked.
"Hey! What's that guy doing at your place!?"
"Give me the phone!"
"Put that control freak on the phone!"
Echizen handed Kaidou his phone and took his bag to his bedroom. He still had homework to do before dinner, and Karupin was likely curled up on the bed avoiding all the ruckus downstairs. Karupin always had the best ideas.
"Hey Echizen, what's going on with you and the snake?" Momo jogged up beside Ryoma during morning warm-ups. "Are you lonely without me? Trying to fill the void?"
"He's dating up," Arai snickered while running past. Ryoma hoped he pulled something.
"What's that supposed to mean," Momo wondered. "Anyway, don't hang out with that guy. His bad attitude'll rub off on ya."
Echizen had a sudden flashback to the night before. The old man made Ryoma go with him to take Kaidou home, both boys crowded in the back of the small kei car the family used for errands around town. Ryoma's thigh rubbed against Kaidou's at every turn—the old man drove too damn fast and never slowed down for the curves—and their knees knocked at every stop. Kaidou's leg felt fifty degrees hotter than human skin should, and Echizen had told Karupin about it in detail upon his return home, but the feline offered no explanations.
"Just do your laps, Momo-senpai. Your girlfriend is watching you."
While Momo puffed out his chest and lengthened his stride, Echizen focused on the sound of his shoes against the pavement and tried to drown out all the clutter in his head.
Two weeks of Ponta was not worth this. An entire year's supply was not worth this.
"I watched your nationals game on TV, Ryoma-kun. It was really exciting." Sa…Sumi…Sachi…some girl was holding onto Echizen's hand and giggling. Momo-senpai and his girlfriend were sitting on the other side of the table sharing a milkshake and laughing at nothing.
He should still be at practice now. Kaidou-buchou was going to revoke his regulars status and make him run laps until someone had to call the paramedics if he found out Ryoma skipped out of cleanup to go with Momo. It didn't matter that Arai's comment that morning had made Echizen a little cranky for no real reason. What mattered was that important tennis time was being wasted at the Mos Burger with Momo (could they vote him out as vice-captain?) and his equally loudmouthed girlfriend. Oh, and her little sister Saku…Shio…whatever.
"Mika is in the girl's tennis club," Momoshiro's girlfriend said, hugging Momo to her side and giggling. "I don't really understand tennis, but I'm sure the two of you would have a lot to talk about."
Mika? Echizen wondered how he could've been so off about the girl's name. He was usually pretty good at names. He remembered everyone on the tennis team (that mattered), and last week he'd heard Katsuo mention that Kaidou had a brother named Hazue who was making a name for himself in the elementary school soccer circuit. Maybe, he thought to himself as Mika's mouth moved and high pitched sounds came out, he could only remember the names of people who were doing something with themselves instead of kidnapping guys who should have been at tennis practice. In another ten minutes he'd excuse himself to the bathroom and go out the rear entrance. He had homework to do and Karupin's litter box needed changing.
Echizen didn't usually dream, but when he did, he dreamt of glory. He dreamt of standing above the best in the tennis world and laughing at their feeble attempts to wrest the golden chalice of tennis supremacy from him. He often awoke exhilarated and ready to face the day.
He woke up Wednesday morning from a dream unlike any he'd ever had and was not the least bit exhilarated. His heart was racing and he couldn't breathe. He felt half like throwing up and half like he needed to eat something, everything because while his stomach was churning restlessly, he felt impossibly empty inside.
There was a nauseating need inside of him that he couldn't understand and he was more than a little scared, but who could he talk to? Nobody. Nobody would understand and, more importantly, everyone Echizen knew was insane…except one, and asking Kaidou-senpai about the dream would be awkward. Very awkward.
Echizen, let's play doubles.
The memory of his dream captain's invitation sent a wave of shivers through Ryoma's body.
"It's just a stupid dream," Ryoma told himself. Singles 1. He was going to be Singles 1.
He was still sleeping. That was the only explanation for the hell that had become Ryoma's life.
"Ryoma-kun," Mika said, taking hold of Echizen's hand during the break between the morning meeting and first period. "I had a great time yesterday. Do you want to go again today?"
The entire class was staring and Echizen had no idea what to do. It was influenza season. Mika wasn't wearing a mask. If Ryoma got sick, he'd miss practice. If he missed practice, he'd get bumped from Singles and would…
"No," he said with determination, only realizing he'd said it aloud when Mika ran crying from the room. A group of girls ran after her once they'd made disgruntled noises in Echizen's general direction. Oh well. The girls' team was weak anyway. She would've just tried to get Ryoma to practice with her and improve her game. Maybe this experience would toughen her up, just like Kaidou-buchou toughened up before he played doubles with….
We'd be unstoppable. Your tennis is perfect for me.
Ryoma groaned and staggered to his desk. His stomach was burning, and the strange warmth was spreading to inappropriate places.
"Ryoma-kun?" Katsuo tapped Echizen on the shoulder. "Do you need to go to the nurse's office? You look sick."
Sick. He must be sick. "I'm fine," he grumbled.
"You should tell Kaidou-buchou."
"NO!!!" Everyone stopped and stared. Again. Ryoma winced and opened his social studies textbook, pretending he cared deeply about the Tokugawa shogunate. "I need to review."
Katsuo left after patting Ryoma's shoulder lightly as though he understood. He couldn't possibly understand. Katsuo's tennis game was crap and he would only make regular status next year if half the upperclassmen gave up the game or were injured. Doubles would be the best Katsuo could ever aspire to. Echizen was better than doubles. He was better than…
Kaidou pointed to a spot on the court. "This is your starting position for this formation."
"Here?" Ryoma asked, stepping closer.
Kaidou grabbed Ryoma's hips and moved him a little closer. "Here." He let go and smiled down at Ryoma. "Let's try a few returns against the ball machine."
Echizen groaned and bit his lip when he moved and the fabric of his uniform pants constricted in a hideous, wonderful, alien way.
"Show a little more enthusiasm," the social studies teacher laughed. "Everyone, get your notebooks out and review. We're having a small quiz. You have three minutes to prepare."
It was 8:50 in the morning, and Ryoma was ready for the day to be done.
"This year," Kaidou said, standing in front of a team of boys trembling in the misty cold, "versatility is key." He looked at his clipboard. "Today we're playing doubles."
Echizen's racquet clattered to the ground.
"There will be no exceptions." Kaidou turned and gave Echizen a glare. "Everyone get a partner and line up. Momoshiro will assign you to a court."
A small part of Ryoma had been tempted to skip practice and just go home. He really wished he'd listened to that voice. He felt ridiculous. It was a stupid dream about playing tennis. It wasn't a big deal. They never even got around to playing a game and winning—which they would have because they were awesome on the court together.
Echizen picked up his racquet and, eyes cast to the ground, milled around until all the other players were paired up and he was still alone.
"Sorry, Echizen. I've got to help Kaidou supervise the training. Can you triple up with someone?" Momo's voice surprised Ryoma out of his misery.
"I don't play doubles," Echizen grumbled back. "Can I go home?"
"We're playing doubles," Kaidou growled. Ryoma's racquet hit the floor again. "If you don’t want to practice, then you can turn in your jersey and find a new club. Everyone practices. No exceptions."
Echizen didn't think Kaidou could actually kick him out, but Kaidou could keep him off the regulars for a year. Tennis wasn't fun if you couldn't play matches that mattered. Playing tennis was a lot less fun now that his tennis shorts were strangely distended, though. Someone was going to notice soon and Ryoma's life would be over.
"Hey, let me talk to him a second," Momo said, gently shoving Kaidou toward the line the players had formed. "It's, ah, kinda tough on him. Doubles. So just give us a second to talk."
Kaidou grunted and turned his back on them. A moment later, he was hissing out orders to the waiting doubles pairs.
"Come with me." Momo grabbed Ryoma's hand and pulled him toward the clubhouse. Ryoma's racquet was still on the ground. "Maybe you should sit down." Momo was looking everywhere but at Echizen, and he was blushing. "I, ah, I guess I'm sorry. I heard about what happened today with Mika-chan, and I never would have tried to get you two together if I knew you were…that way. So, yeah, sorry."
Ryoma wasn't dumb. He watched TV, read books, and had spent his entire life in rooms with a lighter form of jock. He knew what Momo was saying. He also knew the implications of what Momo was saying and would have none of it.
"I'm not gay, Momo-senpai." He wasn't. He wanted nothing to do with sex or Kaidou-senpai. And…
Momo's eyebrow shot up and his posture straightened. "I'm not going to laugh at you or tease you, and nobody else will either. I'll make sure of that." He clapped Echizen on the shoulder. "There's a guy in our class who is, too. He confessed to me, actually. That's how I know."
This was more than Ryoma needed to hear. He wasn't…
"I don't know if the snake's into that kind of thing, but if you wanna go for it, I'll support you. I can keep him from punching you and stuff."
"Punching…" He needed his racquet. He needed Karupin. "I don't…" Echizen was cut off by the somber look that crossed Momo's features. The usual upturn of his smile was gone, and he held Ryoma with the full weight of his gaze.
"Normal guys don't get hard because of other guys," Momo said. "I've heard girls say that the snake is kinda good looking, but I can't really see it, and I've never gotten it up in front of him." Momo pointed to Echizen's shorts which, thank all powers on earth, were back to their point of origin. "You've got a thing for him." The hand was back on Ryoma's shoulder, squeezing gently. "It's okay. Is it your first time?"
"Your first crush," Momo clarified.
His first impulse was to say that he didn't have a crush and never would. The flopping in his gut forced him to nod. A silence dropped then. Momo looked to be waiting for Ryoma to say something. "I had a dream about playing doubles with Kaidou-buchou."
"I don't really wanna know this, but did you guys…do stuff in the dream?" Momo's face went green.
Echizen nodded. His cheeks burned. "We…practiced a formation and he told me my volley stance was good." He understood now why girls on TV hid their faces when they were embarrassed. If he couldn't see Momo's dumbstruck look, he could pretend he was alone in the pin drop silence.
"So," Momo said after a time, "you didn't have sex?"
Ryoma's stomach twisted. "Why would we do that?"
Momo let out a big breath and ran his palms over his face. He stared at the ceiling. After the silence got a bit too uncomfortable, Echizen looked up, too, wondering if Momo was watching something. There was nothing up there but the same dying fluorescent tube there'd been all year. Ryuzaki-sensei said she'd get it taken care of, but they had to wait until it went out completely. It was a waste otherwise, she said.
"Echizen." Ryoma's name echoed in the room, the murmurs flickering with the light. "Have you ever done it to yourself?" Momo's expression was grave but his face was cherry red.
"No," was the honest reply. There'd been times when Echizen'd thought about it, but it seemed like a lot of bother, and if Horio talked about it all the time it clearly wasn't something Ryoma should involve himself in.
Momo stared at the light again. "That's not normal," he told the light. "Just…do it tonight and we'll talk again tomorrow. We should get back to practice now."
Ryoma wasn't sure which he objected to more, someone ordering him to do weird, perverted things to himself or the thought of having to have another talk with his senpai—his friend he supposed—afterward. He didn't have it in him to say no, though, so he nodded and reached for a racquet he hadn't brought with him. Once Momo had finished his communion with the light, they left the quiet clubhouse and returned to the noise of the courts.
Everyone knew. As Echizen walked down the halls toward his classroom he kept his eyes focused on the floor. He wasn't generally one for making eye contact with his peers, but usually his head was held high, nose thrown up defiantly so he could peer down it at his inferior classmates. Last night changed everything.
"Hey, Karupin." Echizen's throat was scratchy from a prolonged argument with the old man after dinner. The old man said Ryoma's game was getting slow and sloppy. Ryoma said the old man was going senile so what would he know. "I guess I should…" He looked at a small bottle of hand lotion on his bookshelf. He looked back to Karupin. He waited a long, stomach churning moment while Karupin groomed.
He picked up the cat and set it outside his bedroom, locking the door after closing it.
"Ryoma-kun, are you okay?"
Echizen winced when Katsuo's hand tapped his shoulder. "Fine," he said, hoping he could fake a cold and sleep away the day in the quiet confines of the nurse's office. He was sick; that was the only reason he could think of for the tumult in his viscera.
"Momoshiro-senpai was looking for you earlier. He said you should go by his classroom if you've got time before school."
If he looked up, he'd probably see Katsuo staring at him. "Thanks." It was probably the first time he'd ever said thank you to a classmate of his own volition.
"You should go home. You look really green. I'll tell Kaidou-buchou…"
Ryoma's brain caught and held on his captain's name, unable to process anything else Katsuo was saying. There was no way he could go to practice. He could barely make it through talking to Katsuo, someone he considered just slightly above the tennis club groupies. How could he face his captain after…after…
There was no way around it so, taking up the lotion, Echizen went to his bed. He situated himself down against his pillows. The mechanics of what he was supposed to do were clear, and he was well aware of the result—the old man had plenty of magazines, and Ryoma'd leafed through some out of curiosity a few times—but getting from start to finish was something of a mystery.
"Whatever," he grumbled, squirting some lotion on his hand and reaching into his pajama bottoms. He grabbed hold artlessly and moved his fingers around. "This is weird." There was no real joy to the massage, no amazing new feelings to indicate that this was going to get him any closer to whatever answer Momo-senpai was trying to get him to find.
Ugh. Momo-senpai. Echizen moved his hand out of his pants. Thinking about his friend while touching himself felt awkward and wrong. He was probably supposed to be thinking about something, though, and he had no idea what.
"Kaidou-senpai," he groaned, noting with horror that his hand had moved back down while the image of his captain, sweaty and chest heaving after laps, slithered into his mind. The image was horrendously vivid. He could smell the sweat, feel Kaidou's hot breath moving across the court to wrap around him, drawing him closer to the other boy.
The Kaidou in his mind looked up, grimacing, and told the team to get back to laps. Ryoma's spine sizzled and his stomach tightened. "Senpai," he rasped, gritting his teeth to keep down the larger sounds trying to push out of him from so deep inside he felt like his soul, itself, was trying to leave him.
Another tight, swirling moment and it was done. Echizen collapsed back against his pillows. Karupin clawed at the door indignantly, but Ryoma could barely hear it above the ringing in his ears.
"Echizen!" Momo cut through the haze of remembrance by shoulder-checking Ryoma, sending him flying toward a wall. "You'll never guess what…" Momo trailed off. "Hey, look at me."
Echizen would not. If he did, his friend would absolutely know. Ryoma knew they were going to have a discussion—Momo was horribly diligent about keeping up with his promises, especially when they made Ryoma uncomfortable—but he didn't want to discuss anything in the hallway where people were staring at them. "Go away, Momo-senpai."
The bell rang, signaling the students had ten minutes to get to their classrooms. "Come to the clubhouse at lunch and we'll talk," Momo said. He gave Echizen an overly strong pat on the back. "Hang in there."
Echizen nodded, eyes still cast to the ground. With any luck he'd get a fever or throw up in the classroom and get sent home.
The talk helped. Momo was a surprising source of calm and, having unburdened himself, Echizen now felt steadier on his feet, ready to face practice and his captain without turning into a twitching mess. While Momo talked on and on about how it didn't matter who you liked and how love was universal, Echizen began to create a plan. He played tennis better than anyone on the planet (there wasn't a trophy to prove it—yet—but there would be someday), and there was no reason Kaidou-senpai shouldn't like him. Who could resist him? Nobody.
The time for action was at hand.
"Thirty laps!" Kaidou called out to the non-regulars. "No slacking off!"
Echizen stood with Kaidou and Momo. They were looking at the day's training menu, skritched out in Kaidou's surprisingly neat handwriting. Kaidou was wearing a red bandana, a spare. Echizen knew this because he'd stolen the green one out of Kaidou's locker while he was talking to Momo in the clubhouse during lunch.
"Your new bandana looks good, Kaidou-buchou."
Momo coughed out a laugh and Kaidou stared. "Thank you," he replied, inclining his head in Echizen's direction. "Now let's get to our posts and get ready." Kaidou gestured to the other side of the net they were standing near. "Echizen, you're working the ball machine and critiquing returns. Momo, you're on serve practice. I'll run the net play corner. We'll rotate after 20 minutes." Kaidou pulled his clipboard to his chest and strode away. Ryoma was free to stare while ignoring Momo's laughter.
Momo's boring, giggling girlfriend picked him up from practice. This meant that Echizen had no protection when Fuji and Inui swooped up on either side of him and began steering him toward a local ramen shop.
"Shouldn't you be studying?" Echizen grumbled. Fuji was holding his arm too tightly, and Inui was too tall so Ryoma's right foot wasn't actually touching the ground.
"We've allocated a small amount of time to extracurricular ventures each day," Inui said at the same time Fuji laughed out, "Why would we need to study?"
"I don't have any money. Leave me alone." He tried to shake off his senpai and failed. He could try kicking, but Inui was Kaidou's old doubles partner, and kicking Inui might piss off Kaidou, ruining Echizen's plans to have a date by the end of the month. He and Kaidou were going to go to the pet store and play with the kittens. Afterward, they'd go back to Echizen's place, have a game of tennis (Echizen would win), then play with Karupin to sooth Kaidou's bruised ego. After Kaidou's ego was soothed, they'd make out in Ryoma's room.
"Don't worry," Fuji said. "We'll pay for you today. Isn't that wonderful of us?" The hand gripping Echizen's arm squeezed a bit.
They entered the ramen shop. Fuji hauled Ryoma into a corner booth while Inui placed their orders. Echizen knew better than to ask how the data specialist knew his ramen preferences. Inui knew almost everything about everyone.
"So, you're interested in Kaidou?"
And Fuji-senpai knew all the small, painful details that Inui-senpai didn't know.
"It's none of your business," Ryoma grumbled. He raised a water glass to his mouth and pretended to drink so he could avoid talking.
Fuji smiled his razorblade smile and chuckled. "Don't be silly. Of course it's our business. You and Kaidou are our very important kouhai." He rested his cheek on his palm, his head tilted while his eyes bore through Echizen's forehead. "We're going to help you."
Echizen put his glass down. "I don't need your help."
"The chances of you succeeding on your own are 7%." Inui set a steaming bowl of ramen in front of Ryoma. "Our assistance raises your chances to 94%."
Echizen blinked. "Not 100?"
Inui adjusted his glasses. "94%," he repeated.
"We were going to let you try on your own for a while but," Fuji shrugged, "the figures didn't look good."
"58% maximum," Inui added.
Ryoma hated math.
"So…" Fuji paused and slurped up some of his ramen. Somehow he managed to slurp and smile at the same time. "Shall we make a plan? Inui and I have a few ideas that should help get you started."
Echizen kept his mouth full of ramen and didn't reply.
"Additionally, please refrain from stealing any more of Kaidou's possessions," Inui said.
"It's creepy," Fuji added.
"And stop asking him to come play with your cat."
When his bowl was empty, Ryoma stood and left. He didn't need anyone's help. He was perfectly capable of doing this himself.
Friday was a day full of failure. Not only did Echizen forget his lunch and have to mooch off of Momo's overcooked love bento, but he broke a string during practice and had to use one of the club's spare racquets. The balance felt off and his shots went wide all afternoon. Kaidou spent the practice with non-regular first years while Echizen and Momo trained with the second years. Ryoma barely saw his captain at all. He did, however, see Fuji-senpai, who kept looking out his classroom window and waving. Ryoma really hoped Fuji failed his entrance exams.
An envelope marked "strategy" found its way into Echizen's locker sometime during practice. He felt dejected enough to keep it even though he knew he should just tear it up and put it with the other burnable garbage.
Kaidou trains in the park near his house every Saturday from 3 to 6 in the afternoon. He does strength training after a 5km run. He prefers water to sports drinks after the run.
Below the information was a step by step guide as to how Ryoma might go about winning Kaidou's affection. Ryoma wasn't sure the plan of a creeper and a braincase would be any good, so he ignored it. He did, however, make a note to alter his Saturday after-practice plans.
Echizen spent the better portion of Friday night thinking up ways to get Kaidou to notice him. He also planned out what would happen once Kaidou took notice. Karupin slept downstairs.
"You look pretty bad," Momo said when Echizen showed up to Saturday morning practice fifteen minutes late. "The snake's not coming today, though, so I'm in charge. I'll let you off with ten laps for being late instead of twenty."
Momo continued to talk, but Echizen tuned him out. What should he do? Was Kaidou sick? Did he have a family obligation? What was going on, and how was Echizen supposed to find out without looking desperate?
"Everything seems to be running smoothly." Fuji-senpai's voice cut through the noise in Echizen's brain, leaving a chilly silence in its wake.
"Thanks!" Momo beamed at their senpai. "Did you come to join in the practice?"
Fuji produced a camera from some magical place behind his back. "I came to get some photos. I'm making a scrapbook."
He's just here so he can take pictures of me and make sure I'm embarrassed for the rest of my life, Ryoma thought. Or Fuji could give the pictures to Inui, who would make a PowerPoint presentation about all of Echizen's bad tennis habits. Again.
"Where's Kaidou?" Fuji addressed the question to Echizen. Judging from his grimace, Momo noticed.
"His grandma's in the hospital. He'll be gone for a few days." Momo's eyes caught Ryoma's. "You've got laps to run," he said. "You should get going."
Echizen did not need to be told twice.
Momo, Fuji, and Inui-senpai sat in Ryoma's room. Karupin and Fuji-senpai had made friends. Ryoma couldn't decide if that meant he should trust in Fuji-senpai or if Karupin had become a traitor. Either was equally as likely.
"Just let him handle things himself," Momo said for the fourth time.
"We can't do that," Fuji said while scratching behind Karupin's ears. The cat mewled and rolled onto his back to present his stomach for scratching. "Things won't end well."
Inui didn't seem to be listening to Momo and Fuji argue; he was looking around the room and muttering to himself.
"It doesn't matter. It's none of our business." Momo looked to Echizen, possibly for backup. Echizen turned his gaze away. He hadn't invited anyone over, Momo and Fuji followed him home from practice and, when they arrived, Inui was already inside the house talking to the old man. "This isn't some kind of game," Momo added.
"Flight of the Valkyries" burst forth from Inui's back pocket.
"It's from Kaidou," he said after looking at his phone.
"Oh?" Fuji placed Karupin beside him and went to stand behind Inui. "What does he say?"
"He wants to know if practice went okay." Inui leaned his head back so he was looking at Fuji. "What shall I tell him?"
Instead of answering, Fuji took Inui's phone and began typing a message. He sent it before handing the phone back to Inui.
"There is a high probability you sent him a message that was inappropriate," Inui mumbled, tinkering with his phone. He stared at it a moment, shook his head, and pocketed it.
"It was efficient," Fuji said.
Echizen watched the exchange and something in his stomach twisted. He'd never seen it before, but his senpai were awfully…close. It was probably just his imagination.
"Are you guys that way, too?" Momo asked, apparently having none of Echizen's apprehensions.
Fuji's smile widened until it was a giant seam splitting his face in half. "What way, Momo?"
Inui's glasses glinted. "We require more information to accurately answer your query."
Momo picked up Karupin and held him between himself and his senpai. "Nevermind."
Inui's phone rang again. Fuji snatched it from Inui's pocket. "How did he know it was me?" he pouted. "I used scientific words."
Ryoma watched as Inui laughed, took the phone, and typed a response. "Senpai?" he asked when curiosity got the better of him.
Inui looked up from his typing. "Kaidou says that you've been very helpful during his transition to captain and he is grateful to have you on the team. He looks forward to seeing your performance during the ranking matches."
A burn started to spread from low in Ryoma's stomach. Kaidou-buchou wanted to see his tennis. Kaidou was looking forward to seeing his tennis.
"Echizen?" Momo tapped Ryoma on the back.
The spinning world righted itself and Echizen was once more surrounded by his mundane senpai. "Go home," he told them.
As one, his senpai replied, "You're welcome."
Kaidou was out of school for three days, but his grandmother recovered. When he got back, he thanked the team for their well wishes and, as a sign of his sincerity, the team only had to run twenty warm-up laps instead of fifty. Echizen spent Kaidou's absence polishing up his skills and rooting through Kaidou's locker when nobody was around. He now knew that the reason Kaidou kept his clipboard so close was because, under the charts and training menus, the third year regulars had written words of encouragement to the new captain. Ryoma's heart swelled to see the show of support, and he was tempted to add his own more personal message but thought it too pathetic and sentimental.
"The ranking matches are this Friday." Kaidou addressed the team after laps were done, his breath not even labored from the exercise. Echizen wondered what it would take to get Kaidou's breath to hitch and roll, and what would those gasps feel like as they ghosted over Echizen's chest? "Momoshiro will post the block assignments tomorrow morning. Practice is cancelled so you can rest and prepare. Today will be a free practice. Don't waste it fooling around."
Fooling around. That would be awesome.
"Hey Echizen, let's do two against one. I'll take on you and the snake." Momoshiro winked.
"I don't play doubles," Echizen grumbled. He had no delusions about his doubles game and how much it sucked. The last thing he wanted when he was trying to get Kaidou to notice him was to show the captain that he couldn't share a court if his life depended on it. He knew that Kaidou knew about his weaknesses, but he liked to think the captain thought Ryoma had somehow improved during the spurt of doubles training with Momo. Ryoma, of course, had not.
"Everybody on this team plays doubles," Kaidou hissed. "No complaining."
"You're going down!" Momoshiro called over the net before walking saucily to the back of the court. "Hey snake, you can serve since you've got the handicap."
Momo-senpai was kind of an ass. Ryoma looked around and spotted Momo's girlfriend and some other girls from the cooking club. They had tupperware and were pointing. One of the girls seemed to be staring rather intently at Kaidou.
"Let me serve, Kaidou-buchou." Echizen took the ball from Kaidou's hand, holding it for a moment to soak in the transferred warmth of Kaidou's hands. "I'm starting," he called to Momo.
The ball flew wildly out of control and smacked into the fence, startling the girl who'd been looking at Kaidou. She dropped her tupperware when she jumped back but, sadly, the lid stayed on.
"Sorry!" Momo called to the girls. He was shameless enough to blow a kiss to his girlfriend.
Kaidou stalked back to the baseline and handed Echizen another ball. "Stop wasting time," he said.
Echizen ducked under his cap. "Got it." He thought he saw a ghost of a smile on Kaidou's lips before the captain turned and readied himself.
Karupin meowled and pawed at Ryoma's neck. Ryoma's head remained resolutely under his pillow, hiding him away from the world while he stewed in a broth of embarrassment.
They trounced Momoshiro—badly—but the final glow of defeat was marred by Kaidou's look of discomfort as he left their practice court to call in the non-regulars for the end of practice meeting.
"So stupid," Ryoma whimpered and pushed his pillow further into his skull.
Momoshiro served. The ball landed at the back of the service court and, in a flash, Kaidou was there, returning with a snake.
"Great shot, Kaidou-buchou!" Echizen called. It was a great shot, too. It was really great how Kaidou's muscles bunched when he crouched down low, his legs and arms tensing up before releasing in rush of strength and finesse that left Echizen biting his lip to keep a hum of appreciation from escaping out of his throat.
After every move Echizen felt an uncontrollable need to compliment his captain. His eyes watched Kaidou more than the ball which was why Momoshiro was able to take two points from them, something he was never going to shut up about once he got tired of sending Echizen texts asking if Ryoma wanted Kaidou's mail address so he could ask for private doubles training. The texts were laden with blinking hearts and sparkles. At first, Echizen though Momo had let his girlfriend in on his shame and the pair were mocking him. The spelling errors were Momo's usuals, though, so that couldn't be the case.
Karupin batted at the hairs on Ryoma's nape.
"Kill me, Karupin," Ryoma pleaded. The only saving grace was that there was no practice the next day, and Echizen would be free to hide away from the world. Maybe, if he ran away from his beloved tennis for a day, he'd be able to sort himself out and make a plan that didn't involve drooling or embarrassing accolades to Kaidou's tennis game.
Failing that, he could douse himself in tuna water and let Karupin maul him to death.
"Come with us for something to eat," Fuji had said, grabbing Echizen's arm after school and dragging him along. They met up with Inui-senpai and, to Ryoma's surprise, Kaidou-senpai at the school gates. They walked to the sound of Fuji telling Inui about the antics of his classmates.
The knowledge that Ryoma owed Fuji stung in the back of his throat and singed out every sarcastic thing he wanted to say. Instead, he sat quietly in the family restaurant, joyously soaking up warmth from the thigh next to him and trying not to think about the pair of scheming, strangely altruistic senpai across from him.
"Are the exercises I recommended working?" Inui asked Kaidou. He cut Fuji's hamburger patty drenched in demiglaze sauce into neat cubes then scooted the plate back and moved his own meal into place.
"Yes. Thank you." Kaidou had ordered curry and ate it in small spoonfuls. Nothing dripped, and none of the curry ringed his lips. It was amazing.
Under the table, a foot impacted with Echizen's shin. Fuji's smile flickered a moment.
"Uh…" Echizen stumbled for a topic. "Uh…"
The foot hit again, harder this time. Echizen would probably have a bruise later. "Wasn't there something you wanted to ask, Echizen?" Ryoma knew it was impossible for humans to sprout fangs, but he would have sworn on his racquet that Fuji's teeth dropped a little lower and grew pointed at the ends.
"No," was the quick response.
Through all of this Inui was deeply absorbed in his katsudon and administering more sauce to it. He held the bottle tenderly, squeezing in small, obscene pulses to drop the sauce slowly onto the breaded meat atop the rice.
"He's counting calories," Kaidou whispered.
Echizen dropped his chopsticks across his own demiglaze hamburger, the heat of Kaidou's breath sending shocks from his ears to his spine and making a mess of both his fine motor skills and his shirt. Kaidou handed him a napkin. "Thanks," Echizen managed through the jelly that was his tongue.
"Echizen would like private doubles practice," Fuji said once Echizen had regained proper use of his limbs and was attempting a sip of his melon soda.
Kaidou handed Echizen another napkin and addressed Fuji. "His doubles game is fine." Echizen thought he saw a blush on Kaidou's cheeks, probably because Kaidou was telling a blatant lie.
"It's a good idea," Inui said, finally putting the sauce bottle down.
Inui's words seemed to be all the convincing Kaidou needed. "Okay," the captain said. Echizen kind of hated that Inui's opinion held so much weight.
Echizen didn't realize he was scowling until a new foot kicked him. Inui's feet were too big and he kicked like a girl. "Thanks." Echizen's comment was directed at nobody in particular, but each of his senpai nodded at him in acknowledgment.
"We can start after tomorrow's ranking matches," Kaidou said. "Inui-senpai, can you make a menu?"
"Oh, we'll just do it together," Fuji said. "You can't do proper doubles practice with just two people. Besides, Inui's data is better when he can observe first hand instead of by video."
"Video?" Echizen croaked. His stomach churned and gripped tightly around the bits of hamburger he'd eaten. If any of the last two weeks was on video somewhere….
"You should study," Kaidou said to Fuji.
Fuji laughed, but the matter was dropped and they finished their meal, agreeing to meet at the street courts at six the following evening.
The ranking matches went by quickly. Sometime while Echizen was preoccupied with Kaidou's abs and his snake formation, Katsuo and Kachiro managed to become proficient enough to get to the top of their block. Ryoma hoped they didn't make a mess of the team's chances during the upcoming friendly tournament. Echizen wanted to win and show the neighboring schools that Kaidou's team was strong enough to take the nationals again next year.
"Your problem lies in your inability to surrender the back court." The scratch of Inui's chalk on the court drew Echizen out of the cloud of memory.
"You can't both be at the baseline," Fuji said, though he had no room to talk. He and Inui had yet to win a match against Kaidou and Echizen, chiefly because he and Inui kept winking at each other and making weird faces during the game.
"You have to harmonize," Inui continued. He turned to Kaidou. "The skills you learned during our own doubles training is still relevant."
Kaidou grumbled something Echizen couldn't hear and then he went off with Inui to the water fountains.
"They're like father and son. Isn't it beautiful?" Fuji looped his arm around Echizen's shoulders. It felt like the lead vest the dentist used during x-rays only backwards. "Inui's been giving him counsel regarding your…desire to collaborate on the court." The arm dragged Echizen toward their bags, freeing the court for a pair of elementary school kids. "Have you thought about your next move? You've been on two dates now—"
Ryoma dug his heels in and Fuji tripped up a bit. "We haven't—"
"We had a double date yesterday and another today." Fuji's eyes twinkled. "Was it your first?"
Ryoma didn't know much about dates, but he was fairly certain something wasn't a date unless everyone involved knew about it. It was a premeditated thing, not something one got dragged into by a senpai on the way home. And yes, were the non-dates Fuji mentioned to be considered actual dates, they would have been Ryoma's first—another reason why counting them as actual dates was unacceptable. Ryoma wasn't going to live his life with a first date that included Fuji-senpai and Inui-senpai.
Echizen had ample time over the past few days to dream up his perfect date, fine tuning it slowly as he dreamt it up. If he and Kaidou ever went on a date, it would start with tennis. They would play for an hour or so, neither of them keeping score as they enjoyed the thrill of playing against one another. After, they'd go to the pet store and buy cat toys together, maybe test them out on some of the kittens in the store. They would go to Echizen's house after and play with Karupin, watch a movie, and have some snacks. Sitting on the sofa, they'd slowly scoot together, brushing hands sometimes or tapping knees together. Echizen would smile at Kaidou while he walked him out that night, and they'd both be too shy to try for a kiss, but they'd both look at one another and know that next time would surely be the time.
"Aren't you just adorable, daydreaming about Kaidou out here in the open." Fuji let out a sound close to a giggle. "They're walking back," he said before Echizen was able to put sound to the foul words bubbling at the back of his throat.
Kaidou stormed away from Inui. Echizen watched his senpai's fists clench and unclench, his leg muscles bunch and flex while he stomped forward. When Kaidou stopped in front of him, Echizen whimpered out all the air in his lungs and couldn't remember how to inhale.
"We're leaving," Kaidou said. He jerked his neck toward their bags. "Let's go."
Echizen remembered how to inhale, doing so just as a wind came and curled Kaidou's sweaty scent to him. "Yeah," he said because Kaidou looked like he was waiting for Echizen to agree.
"I'll walk you home." Kaidou headed toward the bags.
Echizen trotted along after him. "You don't have to."
Kaidou stooped down and picked up both of their tennis bags. Shouldering his own, he handed the other to Ryoma but didn't turn his face to meet the other boy's puzzled look. "I want to see your cat," he said.
The sun seemed to shine down on them even though it was night. "Okay."
Kaidou turned and smiled. "Let's go."
Karupin was ruining Echizen's big moment. The old man wasn't helping much, either.
"Back in my day, we didn't do so much muscle training. You boys are really into bulking up, but it sacrifices your flexibility." Nanjiroh poured Kaidou more tea. He eyed the boy critically. "You seem to have a good balance now, but if you bulk up any more, you'll have trouble with that buggy whip shot of yours."
When did the old man start shelling out advice without preamble and ridiculous riddles? More importantly, when did he take note of Kaidou's play style?
Karupin jumped onto the table and hissed at Kaidou. Ryoma grabbed the cat and, for the fifth time, tossed him to the floor. "Sorry," he told Kaidou though his captain wasn't paying attention. Instead, Kaidou was busy nodding very seriously at the old man, who was still blabbering on about how tennis was played back at the dawn of time when people actually cared what the old man had to say.
"Hey, you're boring him," Ryoma grumbled, walking up to Nanjiroh and giving him a poke in the shoulder.
Nanjiroh stopped his monologue on proper nutrition and the value of daily stretching and turned to look at Ryoma. "I see." The old man broke out into a big grin then, with a sound between a grunt and a groan, he pushed himself up from the table. He ruffled Ryoma's hair before laughing out, "You boys have fun!" Karupin strolled out after him.
"Sorry about the old man," Ryoma said, refilling Kaidou's teacup. "And sorry about my cat."
Kaidou nodded and stared deep into the steam coming out of his teacup. "Your cat's cute," he said after a pause.
The surface of the table was fascinating. It held in it the power to keep Echizen from blurting out things, which he'd inevitably do if he looked directly at Kaidou, who'd removed his bandana out of respect when they'd entered the house and whose hair was begging for Echizen's fingers to run through it. "He doesn't usually act like that," Ryoma said to a drop of tea that had fallen to the table when he refilled his own cup.
"My cat doesn't like girls," Kaidou mumbled, so soft Echizen barely caught it. "She attacks my mom when she's cooking."
The mistake was in looking up. The bubble of laughter in Echizen's chest stumbled into a gasp when his eyes rose up and met Kaidou's. "I…I don't…I mean, I…" His mouth was dry, too dry to form words, which was a relief because, once his eyes lowered and his brain managed to boot itself back up, Echizen had enough sense to realize that declaring his feelings in his living room might not be the best move.
"Your dad's really interesting." Kaidou was looking away. His cheeks were red, would likely be warm, too, if Echizen had the courage to reach across and touch them, which he didn't.
Kaidou shrugged. "All dads are crazy."
"When I was a kid, my old man put me in a harness and made me run along with his bicycle while balancing a ball on my racquet."
Kaidou sipped at his tea. "Your ball control is good."
They were inside, but it seemed as though all the stars were twinkling and swirling about in joy at Kaidou's words of praise. "Really?" Ryoma winced at the softness of his voice and his pathetic choice of words. What did he mean, 'really'? His ball control was better than almost anyone on the team's (actually, now that Tezuka was technically not on the team, it was better than anyone on the team's) and Echizen knew it. What the hell did he need to be all quiet and girlish about it for?
Kaidou's snort seemed to agree. "It's late."
"I can get the old man to drive you home." What Ryoma really wanted was for Kaidou to stay the night in his room so maybe, in the comfort of the dark, he could start to make his move…or at least get out a few sentences that didn't sound stupid.
"I can walk."
Nanjiroh burst through from the kitchen. "Nonsense! We can't have you walking this late at night! Stay here! We'll put a futon up in the boy's room." He clapped Kaidou on the shoulder. "It's the least we can do for the captain of the team."
Ryoma didn't recall mentioning the fact that Kaidou'd been made captain. "Have you been stalking me again?"
"Don't be ridiculous. You can't stalk your own kid." The crazy goat chuckled and his smoker's lungs wheezed around the edges of his mirth. "It's called concern, boy. Concern."
Ryoma's mom would sure be 'concerned' when she came home from her business trip tomorrow and found the old man dead from a racquet to the head in his sleep. Maybe then Ryoma could sit quietly in the dining room with his senpai and have a normal conversation. Maybe then Kaidou wouldn't feel awkward and Echizen would get up the nerve to tell his senpai that he looked really cool during their doubles training that day. If nothing else, Echizen would know that there wasn't anyone spying on them from inside the kitchen while Kaidou shifted uncomfortably and Ryoma botched up every smooth thing he meant to say and sounded as lame as those girls who stared at the tennis club members all afternoon when their own clubs had been dismissed for the day.
"I should call home," Kaidou said just as Ryoma's hallucinatory mother was stomping on Nanjiroh's spleen. "Are you sure it's okay that I stay?"
Echizen nodded because he knew any verbalized answer would come out shrill and sappy. While Kaidou dug out his cell phone and called home, Echizen busied himself with removing the tea service and praying to all gods that would listen that he didn't talk in his sleep.
Sleeping was the furthest thing from Echizen's mind as he trudged up the stairs, his arms full of an awkward bundle of bed linens. Why Kaidou couldn't stay in the spare room Echizen didn't know, but he was both thrilled and terrified to have his captain so close for the night.
"Move, Karupin." The cat was sitting in front of the bedroom door, preening. Ryoma tried to budge the cat with a foot but his toes just dug into fur. He didn't have the heart to actually use enough force to move the feline.
Kaidou made a sound from behind Echizen and Karupin bristled. "Easy," Kaidou said softly. "Here."
Echizen twisted to see Kaidou holding his hand out to the cat and wiggling his fingers. "Here," he said again. All of Kaidou's focus was on the cat and he was smiling so beautifully Echizen almost sighed from the freshness of it.
Slowly, crouched low, Karupin approached Kaidou. He started back a bit when racquet calloused fingers raised toward him but, after a few moments of stillness on Kaidou's part, Karupin accepted the first tentative scratches. After that, the cat was lost in bliss.
"You can go in now," Kaidou said while using both hands to scratch Karupin's belly. "We'll be fine here."
His heart about to burst, Echizen ran into his room and got the guest futon ready. He sat on the end of his bed and tried to collect himself once his task was done, but the sound of his cat's ecstatic meowing and his senpai's low, rumbling laughter kept launching him into cardiovascular anarchy.
To calm himself, Echizen did the only thing possible; he passed out in exhaustion.
"I hate you," Echizen told Karupin the next day. The old man was taking Kaidou home—Echizen chickened out of joining them by saying he had to study. "I hate you so much." He'd awoken that morning to find Kaidou in the guest futon and Karupin curled up on the pillow next to Kaidou's head. One of Kaidou's hands was tangled in Karupin's fur as though he'd fallen asleep mid-scratch.
At Echizen's show of jealousy Karupin meowed and licked at his paw. Echizen swore the cat was grinning at him.
Echizen's phone rang. "What do you want, Fuji-senpai?" He wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone, especially someone who seemed to be in an admittedly odd but nevertheless stable relationship.
"I want to hear all about your magical evening. Do you mind if I record the call for Inui?"
Echizen hung up.
The weekend stretched forever. After Kaidou left Saturday morning, all Echizen could think of were the fingers that moved so briskly in and out of Karupin's fur and how they might feel sliding through human hair, across human skin, and deep into places fingers couldn't actually reach. The daydreams were interrupted by Fuji and Inui at least once per hour, and once by Momo who wanted to know why Fuji and Inui had texted him saying that Ryoma was having a crisis. Echizen told Momo about Kaidou's masterful taming of Karupin without meaning to—it just flew out of his mouth and tumbled into the phone while a corner of Echizen's brain was thinking how great it would be to roll around on a bearskin rug with Kaidou-senpai in their freshly cleaned regular's jerseys.
Momo had to go rather quickly after that.
Fuji and Inui stopped calling when Echizen threatened to tell Tezuka that the two were trying to sabotage his tennis game. By that time, it was five in the afternoon and Echizen was missing the apple vinegar scent of Kaidou's sweat and the slight wheeze in his nose that he had because of a dust allergy.
Sunday was "Family Day." Echizen went shopping with his parents. He tried on clothes because his mother thought they were cute, tried on expensive tennis shoes because his father thought they would move his sluggish ass across the court faster, and ate ice cream because he deserved a treat for putting up with it all.
All through the day, Echizen's mind wandered down roads shaded by bandana canopies and covered in slightly irate but rather harmless vipers. He knew he was losing it when his mom dragged him into the Toys R Us to get a baby gift for a coworker and, spotting a plush snake, he almost requested that his parents buy it for him. He stopped himself, though, and put the toy away before he had to explain why he wanted an anaconda and what he planned to do with a three meter long stuffed animal. (Had it been a three meter viper, he realized, his willpower might not have been so strong.) His mother bought her coworker a jumper intended to make infants look like cows. Nanjiroh's suggestion of a tennis ball, good for both games and teething, was ignored. The coworker's kid would have it a lot better than Ryoma did. Lucky rat.
Dinner was a Mos Burger affair. The old man bitched about the amount of mayonnaise on his burger, Echizen's mom told him that he was getting 'soft in the center' and didn't need more mayonnaise, and Ryoma thought, not for the first time, that his mom really kicked ass. She had the same flashfire pride that Kaidou had. It was kinda…creepy and weird. He resolved not to compare the two again. Ever.
It took Echizen until the end of practice Monday to realize that he was being avoided. Kaidou seemed to be delegating his interactions with Echizen to Momo, who kept raising his eyebrows and shaking his head. Echizen wasn't sure if the motions were spasms or Momo was trying to communicate something. During cool-down laps, Echizen gave up and asked, "What?" He infused into that single word all the rage and confusion tumbling around inside him. Why would Kaidou avoid him? They'd played with Karupin together. They'd mocked Momo together. They'd played doubles in a semi-secluded spot. What else was there?
"Something happen with you and that guy? He's being weird."
"No." Echizen paused. "Yes. Maybe." Echizen kicked a rock in his path "I don't know."
Momo made a hum that morphed into a cough. "Let's get burgers after this."
"No slacking!" Kaidou's roar shocked Echizen and he stumbled forward. If Momo hadn't been quick to catch him, Echizen's face would've met the asphalt in a very bloody way.
"Thanks, Momo-senpai." He couldn't help that his shoulders slumped a little as he finished his laps.
"So," Momo said once they'd taken their order to a corner booth and Echizen briefed him on recent events, "all you've got to do is talk to him. He's freaking out."
The idea that Kaidou-senpai would freak out over him was at once flattering and ridiculous. "What am I supposed to do about it?" Ryoma bit into his teriyaki burger and waited.
Momo shrugged. "Like I said, talk to him." Momo had three patties on his burger because there was a sign advertising "special orders" and he wanted to check it out.
Echizen didn't do well with talking. The last time he tried to talk to someone about something, Kachiro started crying and Tezuka made Echizen run twenty laps for bullying. All Ryoma was trying to do was ask for Kachiro's advice on what to buy his mom for her birthday. "Do I have to?"
"Okay look," Momo said around a mouth full of burger, "you're a guy. Guys don't waste their time thinking about this kind of stuff. Just go up to the snake, grab him, and take him to the clubhouse for a talk. Tell him you like him and that you guys should go out. Easy."
"Is that how you ask girls out?" If it was, no wonder Momo's relationships never lasted too long.
Momo laughed. "No no no. Girls are different. The snake's stupid, though, so you need a direct approach."
"He's not stupid, Momo-senpai. He helped me with my math and—"
"Right. Got it! Got it!" Momo waved his hands in front of his face. "I don't wanna hear about that stuff."
"What stuff?" Echizen snatched up some of Momo's fries.
Momo scooted his tray closer, out of Echizen's reach. "All the reasons you, ah…you know."
A silence settled over the table. Both boys ate and shuffled around in their seats. "There's a new racquet coming out that I wanna try. Let's go to the sports store," Echizen said.
"Good plan." Momo cleared their trays and they set off.
"You be Kaidou-senpai," Echizen told Karupin.
Karupin nestled down into a ball on Echizen's bed and yawned.
"Kaidou-senpai, I need to talk to you. I think—" Echizen's phone rang. He looked at the caller ID and debated answering through another cycle of his ringtone. "What do you want, Inui-senpai?"
"Kaidou will be leaving for school tomorrow at a quarter to seven. You're welcome." Inui disconnected the call.
"Thanks," Echizen said to his phone. "Okay, Karupin. One more time."
Echizen didn't sleep. He stayed awake practicing his speech at a sleeping Karupin and trying to decide which of his uniform shirts looked the cleanest and which of his pants were the least wrinkled. He left for school early to make sure he beat his captain there and found that second year students, as a whole, came to school far earlier than need be. That was how Ryoma came to be leaning against the wall across from Kaidou's classroom trying to look not only like he belonged there, but like his pulse wasn't racing and he wasn't fighting the urge to bolt with every inhalation of musty hallway air. Someone in Kaidou's class had taken to cologne and the entire floor was suffering for it. The chemical woodchip fragrance only added to the dizziness of the moment.
"You need something?" Arai asked, pausing on his way into the room.
"I'm waiting for Kaidou-buchou. I've got a question about practice." Echizen tried not to think how doomed the team was going to be with Arai as a regular. They had a while until the matches that mattered. Maybe a miracle—or a very fortunate and debilitating accident—would happen.
"He usually gets in pretty early. Maybe he's in the library." Arai gave a nod to a passing classmate. "I gotta go finish some homework. See you at practice."
"See you." Echizen raised his hand a few centimeters in parting. It was fifteen minutes to the bell; Kaidou should be along any minute. "Relax," he told himself and replayed his dialogue.
A strangled gasping alerted Echizen to Kaidou's arrival. The look of panic that flashed through the captain's face was a sock to Ryoma's confidence, but he steeled himself and approached.
"Can I talk to you?" He couldn't meet Kaidou's eyes as he spoke, focusing instead on the blazer button above Kaidou's navel.
"What?" Kaidou's reply was barely audible but it ran through Echizen's ears and left them ringing.
Echizen looked up and down the hall to make sure nobody was paying them any attention. He took a breath. This was it. "I want—"
A girl rushing out of the classroom cut him off. "Kaidou! Help!" She gestured inside the room. "Morishita and Sano are fighting again!"
Kaidou placed a hand on Echizen's shoulder. "Sorry." He turned and left at a run, but Echizen swore he felt fingers squeeze before they lifted off.
Over the course of four class periods Echizen's brain managed to transform a possible shoulder squeeze into an hour long conversation in which Kaidou professed his love, they agreed to buy matching racquet bags, and Fuji and Inui enrolled in a high school in Dubai. While Echizen's brain was busy constructing this wondrous new world, the rest of the class studied math, social studies, English, and science.
When the bell rang to end fourth period, Echizen jetted from the classroom and up the stairs to the second year rooms. He waited in jitters while the students in Kaidou's class stood for the closing greeting. It figured they'd get out late on the one day Echizen needed something. Minutes passed and students milled around, some bound for the vending machines or downstairs to get bread. When the hall cleared, Echizen peeked into the classroom.
Kaidou sat at his desk while a girl talked excitedly at him. She didn't seem to notice that Kaidou kept looking away from her and was frowning a bit deeper than usual. Echizen noticed and, screwing up his courage, entered the room calling for his senpai. There was a brief silence before the stir returned to the room. Kaidou excused himself, and he and Echizen made their way to the hall.
The lunchtime din covered over the beating of Ryoma's heart which he was sure could clearly be heard within a two meter radius. His mouth was dry when he opened it to begin the speech that he'd aborted earlier.
"I want—" he began as Kaidou said, "Do you—"
They stared at one another for a long draw of breath before Kaidou motioned for Echizen to speak first.
"I want to go out with you," Echizen said. "Like that." He'd thought about saying more, but he started blushing and stuttering if he tried to elaborate too much.
He hadn't planned for Kaidou to not get his masterfully crafted confession. "Like that." Echizen added a few waves of his hands.
"Basketball? I don't play basketball." Kaidou backed up a bit. His blush gave away his intentional obtuseness.
"Just say no if you don't want to. It's not a big deal." Echizen would simply hide in his room in bitter depression for a few weeks. Nothing big at all.
"People are watching."
"Why do you care? They suck."
Kaidou pondered for a moment, shifting from foot to foot and alternating his gaze from his classroom to the floor. "Why?"
There were a multitude of reasons starting with tennis victory, moving to toned quadriceps, and finishing with a gentle hand curled in kitty fur. "Because," is what Echizen said.
"I'll think about it. I'm eating lunch now." Kaidou walked away and back into his classroom. Echizen's legs, now gelatin, wobbled him as far as the stairs before giving out.
Two periods of homemaking and industrial arts helped to distract Echizen from what he considered to be impending failure. No matter what signs of interest Kaidou had shown—if they were interest and not just Echizen's imagination—a request to "think about it" was just a nice way of saying "get lost."
"You're making great progress," Fuji said as Echizen left the safety of the bathroom he'd been brooding in after school. "He's asking Inui for advice now. I think—"
"I think you should shut up and leave me alone." Everything was weird because Echizen's senpai kept telling him what to do. Now, instead of quietly admiring his senpai and thinking about tennis, Ryoma's head was full of lewd things that were throwing off his game and turning him into a spazz.
"Let's have a talk." Fuji said it in the scalpel way, the one that sliced through objections before they could form in the throat. He grabbed Echizen's arm and dragged him into an empty classroom. "It's going to be fine," he said after locking the door. "He's panicking."
Echizen tried to breathe and relax, but air refused to come quietly. "It's not going to be fine." He threw his hands up. Fuji opened his placid grin to speak but Echizen continued over him. "Kaidou-senpai hates me, the regulars suck, Karupin needs to get his claws trimmed, the old man won't buy any more Ponta because he thinks I'm getting fat, I couldn't concentrate in class so now I've got to take a make-up exam, Inui-senpai is probably telling Kaidou-senpai weird stuff, my indoor shoes have a hole in the toe and my mom's going to be pissed, Momo-senpai is giving me pity advice like I'm a girl, and I can't stop wanting to do perverted things. Nothing. Is. Fine."
Ryoma had never seen Fuji's shocked expression. It was a bit like a weasel being squeezed too hard. Fuji recovered while Ryoma was trying to calm himself down.
"I see," Fuji whispered. "I'll buy you a Ponta from the vending machine."
Echizen was going to ask if that was all Fuji'd gotten from his tirade but found he didn't really care too much. A Ponta sounded really good.
It was a testament to Echizen's restraint when he didn't kick Fuji in the shins the moment he spotted Kaidou at the vending machine closest to the tennis courts.
"Here's the money." Fuji placed 150 yen into Echizen's hand. "Go." He pushed and Ryoma stumbled forward.
"Hey," Kaidou said.
Echizen didn't respond until he'd gotten his Ponta. "Hey," he said back and opened the can.
"Why do you drink that stuff? It's not good for you." Kaidou leaned against the vending machine, eyes looking off toward the courts.
"It's good." Ryoma took one more sip then held it up to Kaidou. "Try it."
Before Kaidou figured out the words to reject the offer, Ryoma shoved the can into his hand. "Just try it." He should have been irritated at Kaidou's hesitance, but Ryoma knew that Kaidou took compulsive care of his body. Kaidou's discipline was one of his more attractive traits…right after his abs, thighs, and the smirk he gave when his opponent was too slow to return his Snake Shot.
"It's alright," Kaidou declared after a quick sip. "It's really sweet." He handed the can back.
Echizen paused and stared at the can. If he took a drink right after Kaidou would it be weird? He wasn't thinking about indirect kisses or anything, he just really wanted more Ponta. He could wipe the rim of the can, but that would make it seem like he thought Kaidou's spit was gross and, while Echizen thought that spit was pretty gross, he didn't want Kaidou's feet growing any colder.
Kaidou coughed. "Let's start practice." He pushed off the vending machine and paused, waiting for Ryoma to follow.
Ryoma stayed where he was. "Go out with me." He took the sip of Ponta he'd been craving. The fake grape taste soothed him.
"That doesn't make sense." The corners of Kaidou's mouth lifted.
"Who cares?" Echizen held out the Ponta.
Kaidou looked to the tennis courts and sighed. "Fine." He took the can and swallowed down the remainder before handing it back to Echizen. "It's horrible."
The empty can shook in Ryoma's trembling hand. He was going to keep that can for the rest of his life. "You're just saying that. You'll get used to it."
"Yeah, you will." Their eyes locked and they paused. Echizen looked away first and started laughing. "This is stupid. Let's go practice."
Kaidou halted his own laughter and quickly regained his composure. "Fine."
When they got to the court, Momo grinned at them both. "You're late!" he called. "Thirty laps!"
Echizen snarled then looked over to Kaidou. The other boy's features had hardened over into the authoritative mask he wore on the court. "You heard him," Kaidou said. "Thirty laps."
"Yes, buchou!" Ryoma handed Kaidou the Ponta can and his tennis bag. "Thanks!" In a burst of speed and with a free heart, he began his laps.