`You must be joking.´
`I never joke about these things.´
And he doesn't. An watches him pull the sleeves of his coat until the cuffs look perfectly aligned and she thinks the sheer ridiculousness of it, what other high-schooler in Japan wears suits on a regular basis?
It's not the first time she's been asked out by a boy – and on this very court too. Kamio asked her out, and once, unexpectedly, Shinji did (she didn't even rejected him, like she did Kamio, she just never replied and he seemed to have forgotten by the next day). The thing is, she is not about to go out with the first boy who asks her, first because she has been asked before, and second and more importantly, this is Keigo Atobe, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
`Can I see your serve?´ He asks, pointing at the racket in her hand.
`You're wearing a suit.´
`I still can beat you and you know it.´
`If my brother hears you talking to me he'll kill you.´
`Your brother and I get along very well. He wouldn't kill me.´
`If he catches you asking me out...´
She shudders at the very thought.
`Is that what worries you?´
`What worries...? No! It doesn't change the fact that never in a million year will I go out with you, no, no and no.´
`Do you know William Shakespeare, the English writer?´
He narrows his eyes and looks very intently at her.
`I was thinking... I will see you look pale with love, An.´
An snorts. Not that she doesn't believe in true love and yadda yadda yadda (she is a pragmatic girl but she's an idealist after all – she believes the better player should win the match) but of course that she could suffer its torments by the hand of Hyoutei's captain is just about the most ridiculous thing she's ever heard.
`Don't call me An,´ she warns, fingers into fists and all teeth and disdain.
Atobe attempts half a bow before laughing into his palm – once again, what high-schooler in Japan ever bows?
`Very well. Miss Tachibana,´ he tells her.
Somehow that sounds even worse on Atobe's lips.
Somehow Atobe convinces the whole of Fudomine to play a friendly match at his school. Apparently – An's brother retorts when she is asking for an explanation – Atobe was very courteous about it and Kippei just couldn't say "no". I like politeness he shrugs and An is meant to do with that excuse.
Before the match An looks at the regulars of Hyoutei and thinks they seem as baffled as to why they are here as the Fudomine boys.
Hyoutei wins, of course.
When his match is about to begin Atobe tries to throw his team jacket at An, but she dodges it.
He just grins at her, like he is a psycho or brain-damaged. (The Hyoutei players look on like he does this every day; An wonder, Does he do this every day? How many girls has he-? but she stops that line of thinking because why should she care, it's not like she would be jealous or expected to be special or anything)
`An,´ he calls after her when they match is over and she grits her teeth when she hears her name disposed of so casually.
An never really disliked Atobe before; except for the part where he was a rival and too flashy for An's tastes, but Kippei said he was a good guy and his word was enough for An.
Before, she never really minded Keigo Atobe.
But now, since his pompous declaration of love – no, wait, he never confessed to An, not really, just asked her, he never even implied... – he's been kind of a pest.
Atobe wipes the sweat off his forehead with the heel of his hand. An doesn't not look at it.
`Are you in awe of my tennis magnificence?´ He asks. `Have you fallen in love yet?´
`It's not your tennis qualities I object to...´ she says.
`Oh,´ he sounds pleased, because it's sort of a compliment.
`-it's your personality.´
`What's going on here?´ Her brother catches up with them, coming from nowhere apparently, cutting between in that swift way only older brothers know how to.
She contemplates the idea of telling Kippei, just to see Atobe receive a good talking to, he deserves it. But then she decides against it, because it would only worry her brother and it's not like this is anything he should be worried about, it's not like she is going to go out with him, ever, or like he is stalking her, or like she is going to go out with him, but she has already said that.
Atobe is looking at her like he is extremely curious about what she is going to tell her brother.
`Nothing,´ An says. `He was just asking me if I could lend him some towels, then I reminded that surely since this is their club, their team, Hyoutei must have plenty of them around.´
Her tone is defiant, Kippei can't be missing that. But An stands Atobe's gaze and after a moment he makes a defeated sound.
`Yes, that's exactly what was happening,´ he tells Tachibana, half-heartedly.
He waves at An happily as he walks away.
Kippei looks like he wants to ask but he is afraid to.
He says he wants to talk about her future. It sounds vaguely threatening. It turns out that what he really meant is that he wanted to talk about his future.
`It is also your future,´ he tells her as they walk into a fancy cocktail bar – she flashes him a glance and he tells her not to worry, they have non-alcoholic drinks, he likes the cool furniture and the music, the glass floor with sand and seashells underneath.
`How is it also my future?´ she asks.
Atobe pauses to take off her coat – she frowns, she will never get used to the show-off quality of his gentlemanliness.
`If I finally let you become my girlfriend it's going to be a huge impact on your life, if I go study abroad or not.´
She chuckles. If he lets me become his girlfriend. Ludicrous. Nobody asked him. In fact, she has repeatedly stated her disinterest in becoming his girlfriend.
Then the second part of his statement falls into place, Atobe going to America or Europe to study, and she gets a glimpse of what that means, what it would be like, life without Atobe, now that his interference has become something expected. She believes it would be a relief, finally getting rid of. She truly believes this, some peace at last, but truth is her stomach dropped a bit when he said abroad.
`Well, are you? Going to study abroad?´ She asks before she can stop herself.
Wrong move. Atobe is grinning now.
`Worried I would leave you so soon?´
An rolls her eyes.
She looks at the cocktail menu. The non-alcoholic drinks are called virgin cocktails. Somehow that makes her self-conscious in front of Atobe – Atobe with his ridiculously perfect attire, the sleeves of his purple shirt rolled up halfway his lower arm, the thin layer of hair, his wrist, his long fingers, everything, starting with how he is a boy but not boyish and he is older than her and she feels him to be even older than that-, and she is just short of blushing, and death would be preferable to that.
Atobe picks on her discomfort.
`The orange and pineapple one is very good. I'd recommend that one,´ he says in a gentle voice. `If you can bring yourself to trust my judgment, that is.´
She tells the waiter.
`Yes, I guess I could make it as a professional. I would have a brilliant career. But it's that what I really want. Leave your mark on the world just because of your physical prowess is a bit prosaic. I want to be remembered as something else than a guy with a racket.´
`You are serious, aren't you?´
`I'm always serious, An.´
`How many times do i-?´
`Miss Tachibana. Would you care for another cocktail?´
She hasn't noticed but she has drank almost all of her drink already. Was she that engrossed in the conversation? That's no good.
An holds the bathrobe very tightly to her body, pressing her legs together, unwilling to expose any flesh to Atobe's amused glances (and subsequent teasing, she is sure). She has to admit that the robe feels soft and thick, expensive, and tastefully perfumed with something that smells like peppermint. But his initials are sewn with golden thread and that makes her uncomfortable.
`I am a bit surprised you accepted my help. I thought I was going to force you to get in the limo myself.´
`As you said, I shouldn't catch pneumonia just because you are a creep.´
`Hey, don't get cheeky with your senior,´ he warns her.
An mutter thank you to the collar of the robe.
Atobe stretches on the seat opposite her: `Your clothes will be ready in five minutes. If you can bear my presence that long...´
The butler - Michael, Atobe had called – comes back with a glass of juice for her. An looks around her.
`Is this all supposed to impress me?´ She asks, pointing at the marble staircase and the chandelier.
`Actually, it is,´ Atobe replies lightly. `You should be impressed.´
She looks away. Even if he is across the table An feels the proximity disconcerting. It's not like they are alone in the house – there are servants, after all – or anything, but she feels self-conscious about the moment, about the way Atobe looks at her patiently, waiting for her to say something and, at the same times, like he is amused with her silence.
An runs her fingers across the surface of the glass of the coffee table, like a girl, just to leave her fingerprint behind. She notices there are architecture and interior design magazines under the glass panel and she wonders; are those Atobe's? His mother's? Does Atobe have parents? Was he born or is he just a scientific experiment to genetically design a boy that could annoy An to no end? That's not fair, she thinks. He is not annoying, he is just... unnerving. And everybody has parents, even Keigo Atobe, and anyway she shouldn't be wondering these kinds of things. She should be speaking. Making some small talk. Being polite.
She looks up to say something and catches Atobe looking at her directly and she can't tell what that means – the amusement is there still, but there's something almost tender in the way he is watching her fumble for something to say, something that might quite qualify as protective but An doesn't let it, qualify that way, because that would be by far the worst thing Atobe has done to her.
`Is your orange juice good?´ He says after a moment, the words coming out a bit strangled, his mouth seemingly gone dry.
`It's fine, thanks.´
She is thinking that she likes cider better and orange makes her think he is treating her like a little girl.
`If you want something else to drink I could-´
`No, this is fine, thanks.´
`Do you want to come up and see my bedroom?´
They stay like that for a while, without saying anything.
His eyes never leave her, though.
`Could- could you look if my clothes are dry?´ She asks.
`Of course,´ Atobe says without teasing or venom, and that surprises An. He seems embarrassed. She doesn't think anybody on Earth has seen him embarrassed.
`It's just that, I should go home, you know. My brother will be wait-´
`Yes,´ he cuts her, standing up, his whole body tense. `We shouldn't keep you.´
A couple of minutes after it's Michael the butler who comes down those impressive stairs and hands An her clothes, telling that the car is ready whenever she is ready.
She is a bit pissed off that Atobe didn't say good-bye. Where are the guy's manners?
`How did your exam go?´ Is Atobe's simple greeting from behind dark sunglasses.
An almost screams from the shock. She re-arranges the books she has been carrying and gives him a stern look. She makes sure there are no classmates around before she speaks to him – there aren't, she was the last one to leave.
`How did you know I had an exam?´ She asks him.
Atobe just crosses his arms and pouts.
`You really have no idea who you are dealing with here,´ he protests.
An ignores him and starts walking towards the bus stop. Atobe follows.
`You've worked so hard for the exams, An, I thought-´
`Don't call me An and you have no idea if I've worked-´
`-you deserved a treat. Cake perhaps. I know a most sumptuous patisserie Francoise not so far from-´
She stops abruptly in her step. Behind her she can hear Atobe removing his sunglasses.
`We can walk there,´ he offers. `There's no need for you to get into strangers' cars. Again.´
An sighs – Atobe interprets that as agreement to his plan and starts leading the way.
`And it was not a car. It was that stupid limo,´ she corrects him as they walk, not quite side by side but close enough. To an impartial observer it might even look like they are walking together. Then it occurs to her: `Where is the limo, by the way? I thought going places on foot was for mere mortals like me.´
`I didn't want to embarrass you,´ he replies simply. `Didn't want to have the limo outside when all your classmates came outside, that would have upset you, right?´
`Oh. Right. Yes.´
She is somehow troubled by the idea of Atobe taking her feelings into consideration.
But it's not like she can refuse cake. After all, she really has worked hard to pass the exams. And it's not a place she would normally go to, a French bakery, all pink and white and smelling like An imagines the afterlife would be, conceptual Heaven and all that. Atobe orders a very complicated blend of cappuccino and An hates how he makes her feel so unsophisticated sometimes.
`So, how did your exams go?´ She asks.
Ah, he positively beams at that.
`Finally, some civility. It must mean you are totally in love with me.´
She busies herself with the milkshake he has bought for her. Atobe puts a spoonful of sugar in his coffee and stirs carefully so that the spoon doesn't touch the inside of the cup, doesn't make that clink sound. An watches his hand, slender fingers, and his wrist, his arm, all fiber, tennis player muscles, an recognizes those.
`Exams went as expected,´ he says, catching her eye. `Perfect score.´
`I see,´ she mumbles, thinking that not only does he have the resources to study anywhere in the world, he also has the scores. She doesn't know why but she is afraid to ask: `So are you going...?´
His smile can only be described as "benevolent".
`Don't worry, I will not break your heart. I'll be studying in Tokyo,´ he explains. `But I am going to Europe for the summer break so this will be the last time you see me in a couple of months.´
`As if I care!´
Atobe leans in towards her across the table.
`It's very cute, how much in denial you are,´ he tells her.
Hmph, she crosses her arms – unconsciously mimics him – and feels the urge to do something childish, like stick her tongue out.
`But I would love to take you to Europe someday,´ he says, almost wishful. `Take you to Paris, Vienna, Salzburg. Take you to some good concerts, real concerts. You've never listened to Schubert until you listen to him in Europe.´
An can't help it, she bursts out laughing.
`Nothing,´ she keeps on laughing. She makes a gesture with the hand, trying to explain. `Just... you.´
It's his first match as a college student.
His face as he crosses the gardens towards the court is not of pride, the old pride, it's not a menacing look, a I'm-going-to-kick-your-ass-so-hard look. He doesn't have his usual air of superiority. He just seems... happy. Excited, even.
`I thought you were quitting tennis,´ An calls to him.
Atobe grins when she sees her by the tennis court, waiting.
`I figured I could hang on a little longer,´ he shrugs. `Besides college would be too easy without distractions such as this. I can hardly believe you've come to see me.´
And he sounds genuinely surprised. An thinks he looks taller, a proper college student, and she thinks it fits him. There's something relaxed about this Keigo Atobe that wasn't there before.
`Don't flatter yourself. I didn't come to see you.´
He leans into her, not buying. They are standing by the entrance, standing very close to each other – he smells of grass and books. He grins. An Tachibana hates her life.
`No?´ He asks.
`Are you a great fan of college tennis then?´
`Of this particular college?´
`Yes, I am,´ each syllable stubbornly chewed and spat.
Atobe runs his hands through his hair.
`My, I didn't know. You are very thorough.´
An sighs. She remembers when he asked if she knew Shakespeare, the English writer.
`Okay, I did come to see you. Are you happy now?´
`Very. Are you going to give me a good luck kiss?´
`Don't push it, Atobe.´
He takes her hand and leads her to the bench.
`Okay. You can sit here. I'll come back once I've amazed the whole faculty with my unrivalled tennis skills and wooed all the sophomore girls with my other-worldly looks.´
That makes her snort and it's almost already a ritual between them. She doesn't walk away, though.
Atobe opens his bag and takes out his racket.
`See you, Miss Tachibana.´
He starts walking into the court.
`Wait,´ An calls after him and he turns around.
They stand in front of each other and for a moment they say nothing; for a moment it seems like they are never going to say anything. But An looks down, kicks some earth into the air, and her cheeks are burning.
`An,´ she says with a tiny voice.
Atobe stands where he is but someone she feels he is closer now, pretending he doesn't completely understand.
`Call me An.´ Wishing he doesn't make her repeat it. She would send him to hell if he dared make her repeat it.
Atobe smiles and it's only vaguely the "I told you so" kind of smile and he must be as smart as he says he is because he doesn't reply, he lets the smile linger for a moment and then turns around and walks into the court, leaving An a bit wrong-footed, a bit confused, and thinking-