"Just a minute, Kaidoh." Inui looked up from the park bench, then back down at his phone.
Kaidoh did a few more squats, some jumping jacks to bump his pulse, get the oxygen flowing, side steps out to the trees and back.
Inui was still bent over, thumbs tapping the screen, the corners of his mouth turning up almost in a smile.
"Senpai?" Kaidoh said.
Inui looked up, his forehead creasing, then sat up straight. "Sorry," he said. "New phone." He stood. "Let me try the camera before we run." He put his arm around Kaidoh's shoulders.
The ground tilted under Kaidoh's feet, wind roared up inside of him, his heart gave one huge squeezed beat. The sky spun around and when it stopped, he was thrown out, dazed and shaky, into a completely new world.
Inui held up the phone and tapped the screen. "I'll send it to you," he said. "Do you have LINE?"
Kaidoh rolled onto his side and pulled the photo up onto the screen again. Inui smiling, light glinting off his glasses. His arm around Kaidoh, his long fingers holding Kaidoh's shoulder. And Kaidoh staring, not at the camera, but past it, into the distance, into the sun. His mouth open a little. Stupid, he looked so stupid, so shocked and dull and slack. He hoped Inui had deleted it, that he wasn't looking at Kaidoh the idiot while he was lying in bed at 11:28 pm.
He should delete it too. But his finger wouldn't tap the icon. Like it had a mind of its own in this strange new world where Inui was the centre that everything else revolved around. Like the model of the solar system in the science classroom and Inui was the sun.
And Kaidoh was Pluto, swinging around, so cold and far away. Not even a real planet any more.
He opened up his mail, put in Inui's address. But he didn't know how to tell Inui he would rather be Mercury.
"It's this new health app," Inui said. "It adds the data from my fitness tracker."
"Did you get any good games?" Kikumaru bumped against Inui's arm and looked down at Inui's phone.
Kaidoh's hand clenched around his racquet. He wanted to push Kikumaru away, butt himself against Inui's side, up under Inui's arm.
Ikeda brushed past and Kaidoh shoved him.
"What the hell?" Ikeda turned and shoved Kaidoh back.
Blood pounded in Kaidoh's temples. He threw his racquet onto the court. He grabbed Ikeda's collar. "You want to go?"
"Yeah, I want to go," Ikeda said but his eyes were glazed and nervous.
Kaidoh glanced over at Inui. He was still talking to Kikumaru, angling his phone, swiping the screen.
Kaidoh shook Ikeda, threw him back against the fence. And he wasn't going to follow through and hit Ikeda, he wasn't, but his feet were moving and his arm was lifting and someone grabbed him around the chest and dragged him back.
"Kaidoh!" Kawamura held on to him while Ikeda scrambled upright and skittered away. "What's the matter with you?"
Breath heaved through Kaidoh's chest, his vision cleared. "Nothing," he said. "Nothing."
Inui looked up. "You'll like this app, Kaidoh. I'll send you a link."
"Don't let Oishi catch you fighting," Kawamura said.
Kaidoh held his head under the tap for nearly half a minute. He got out his phone and looked at the photo again, at Inui's arm around him, at his own gaping face. Cold water ran down his back and he shivered.
Then he checked his mail. The link from Inui was there. But Kaidoh's phone was too old to run the app.
"Can I get a new phone?" Kaidoh said.
"Sit down, Kaoru, watch this episode with me." Kaidoh's father didn't take his eyes from the screen. "Jeong-sun is just about to give Yeong-sik the branches of plum flowers."
Kaidoh sat down. He pulled his phone from his pocket, clicked it on. He reached to tap the mail app, stopped with his hand above the screen, like he could pull the photo up into the air. "The battery doesn't last very long any more," he said.
"Then Yeong-sik gives her a book and she doesn't open it, but inside--"
"There's a dried plum flower."
"There's a dried plum flower." Kaidoh's father clapped Kaidoh on the shoulder.
Kaidoh twisted away. Then tried to pretend he hadn't. If he tried hard, if he closed his eyes and stared into nothing, he could still just feel the weight of Inui's arm around his shoulders, the pressure of Inui's fingers on his arm. His head was still swimming with it, his skin was still tingling.
He jumped up. "I can't load the new apps I need." He shoved his phone into his pocket, fingers wrapped tight around it. "For training."
"Ask your mother," Kaidoh's father said. "This scene always makes me cry."
Inui dropped down on the bench beside Kaidoh. "You got the same phone as me." He twisted towards Kaidoh and their knees bumped together.
A patch of warmth sprung up where they touched, like Inui had rubbed Tiger Balm on Kaidoh's skin. Kaidoh nodded and clicked off his phone. He looked down at his feet, then out into the park. He didn't move his leg away.
"Heavy duty case, though." Inui held out his hand. "Can I see?"
My mother made me buy it, Kaidoh almost said but stopped himself in time. She'd brought up the time his new Vita got broken. She always did, whenever he got new things. He'd never told her it was Hazue who dropped it out the window.
Kaidoh handed Inui the phone. Inui hefted it, poked at the covers over the ports. "Did you get that fitness app? I can set it up to send me all your stats."
"Okay." Kaidoh watched Inui bend over the phone, tapping the screen with his pale fingers. The fingers that Kaidoh wanted wrapped around his wrist, the arm that Kaidoh wanted tight around his shoulders.
He leaned closer to Inui, swinging in, like Mercury. His shoulder pressed into Inui's arm, a shiver travelled through him.
Inui turned his head.
Kaidoh jumped up. "Let's go hit."
When he got home, he downloaded a picture of Pluto for his lock screen.
"I thought you didn't believe in luck, Inui," Fuji said.
Kaidoh set down his racquet, knelt and fumbled with his shoelace. He stared at his fingers, but his eyes kept flicking up to Inui.
"Only bad luck." Inui swiped at his screen. "And only since this morning. Why didn't Tezuka say anything about the match?"
"Skip your appointment."
"It's the ophthalmologist, not a haircut. Even to see Tezuka play." Inui dropped his phone into his bag. "And even if it goes long, my eyes will be too dilated to see. Maybe you could record it for me?"
Kaidoh jumped to his feet. "I'll do it." Both Inui and Fuji looked up. Cold settled in Kaidoh's stomach, he turned his back to them. "I'll do it, senpai," he said again, his voice so loud inside his head, his ears rang.
"Did your shoelace break?" Inui said. "I have a spare pair in my bag."
"What is that, some sort of squid?" Momoshiro said.
"Squids have eight legs, dumbass." Kaidoh twisted the fourth cable around the wire fence and settled it to make sure it was secure.
Momoshiro pulled at a cable. "Then it's a mystic symbol to bring good luck? It's like you don't even believe Tezuka-buchou can win."
Kaidoh slapped Momoshiro's hand away. "Obviously it's a tripod."
"Tripods have three legs, dumbass."
"Just shut up." Kaidoh fitted his phone into the centre of the cables.
"You always want the impossible." Momoshiro grinned and went to stand by Echizen.
Kaidoh watched through the fence, Tezuka and an OB Kaidoh had never met before, spinning for serve, heading back to their ends of the court. He brought up the camera app, started the recording.
Tezuka tossed the ball into the air and Kaidoh felt the arc and the resistance of the serve in his own arm, felt the spring of his own legs across the court, the world contracting until it was only the court and his opponent.
Until their fight was his fight, the ring of the crowd was just for him. Until Kaidoh Kaoru was the one who made people stop and watch and write things down.
Until nothing was impossible.
Kaidoh's phone vibrated, the special 2-1 pulse, and across the face of Pluto he read:
Did you get the video?
i'm uploading now...28%. Kaidoh switched back to the file app and stared at the progress bar. The match still buzzed inside him, the flow and precision of Tezuka's game. He bounced on his toes, he swung his arm.
do you want to play... he started before he remembered.
can you even see? he wrote instead.
If I close one eye and bring the screen up to my face.
You're starting to sound like me. (^_-)〜☆
do you want to... Kaidoh wrote but just in his head. Do you want to come over. Do you want to sit beside me. Do you want to watch with me.
I didn't quite see Tezuka's backhand there, Inui would say and Kaidoh would explain it, give Inui all the details, leaning in against Inui's shoulder, ice and snow melting in the sun.
100% uploaded. Kaidoh brought the video up, tapped play.
There he was, his own face. Shock smacked him like an ocean wave, so cold it burnt his skin. His hands shook as he scrubbed through the video. No Tezuka, no OB.
Just Kaidoh Kaoru who was so stupid he left his camera in selfie mode.
And across his stupid face appeared:
I'm going to watch the video after supper. Do you want to come over?
Kaidoh threw his phone against the wall.
Kaidoh looked over his shoulder and pushed the Squid into Inui's shoebox. One leg stuck out but he left it like that, curling out around the door so it couldn't close. He reached into his pocket for the note.
Voices buzzed around him, like a cloud of insects filling the air, crawling on his skin. He crushed the note inside his fist, turned against the tide of students, not quite dodging as he ran. Out, back through the gate, away before the teacher on duty could do any more than yell.
In the park, Kaidoh ran suicides in his school uniform, guessing the distances and sliding on the grass. Again and again, sprinting away from the black cold darkness inside of him.
He dropped down under a tree and threw up, shaky on his hands and knees, gagging on his empty stomach. In his bag, his phone vibrated, 2-1, 2-1. He wiped his mouth on a tissue.
He pulled out the phone and stared at the messages collecting under the shattered glass, swinging around with shattered Pluto into black cold space.
If he waited long enough, the battery would die.
"You have to be at least sixteen to use that cage." Kaidoh stared at the attendant until he shrugged and handed Kaidoh a helmet. "Do you want gloves too?"
Kaidoh set the machine for 120 kilometres, as fast as it would go. Took his stance, his legs still trembling from the park. The ball ripped past him before he could even swing.
Eye on the ball. Swing and miss. Swing and miss. Connect, the crack of the impact travelling through the bat into his palms, his arms. Foul.
Foul. Miss. Foul. Miss. Miss. "Shit," he yelled. Miss. Miss. Foul. Foul. Foul.
He choked up on the bat. The hit rolled through his body, shaking his guts, the ball sailing away into black cold space.
Sweat stung his eyes. Blink and swing. Blink and swing. Blink and time blinked too, just his aching chest and churning stomach. Just the bat, just the ball.
Kaidoh's arm jerked. He tipped the ball behind him and it crashed against the fence. His heart thudded in his ears, in his throat.
"I thought you'd bat left," Inui said.
Kaidoh hit the off switch. He heard the gate open and close. His gut froze up, an icy rock inside of him. "Leave me alone."
"You didn't answer any of my messages."
Kaidoh pulled his phone out of his bag, threw it at Inui, threw the crumpled note at his feet. Turned away again, bat still clenched in his hand, blood still pounding in his head.
"Kaidoh. It's okay." Inui stepped closer, then stopped. "It's okay."
Kaidoh slammed the bat against the fence. "Why aren't you angry?" He slammed it again. Burning, falling, a meteor flaming out.
"I don't know. Kaidoh." Inui paused. "I know a place that can repair the screen. Okay?"
"I have to get back to school. You should try batting left." Inui went out, closed the gate behind him. "I paid for another hour."
Kaidoh waited until Inui was out of sight to start up the pitching machine. He tried batting left.
"Inui-kun called while you were out training." Kaidoh's mother said.
Kaidoh's stomach turned over and he stopped, water glass halfway to his mouth. His arms and shoulders still ached from hitting, his legs were sore from sprinting.
"He wants you to go over to his place." Her eyes narrowed. "Why didn't he call your mobile? Did you break it?"
"I have to check my homework." In his room, Kaidoh scrabbled for his old phone. He plugged it into the charger, watched the battery tick up percent by percent.
He pictured himself standing outside Inui's door and the sweat on his body turned cold, his hands clenched up into fists. He had to mail Inui, tell him he couldn't come over, he'd see him at school.
The screen came up. Kaidoh tapped the mail app but it was the photo gallery that opened. That picture. Kaidoh closed his eyes and he could still feel it, just barely, Inui close beside him and the sky spinning around. That pull, that gravity, that ache that wouldn't go away.
He rocketed down the hall, stumbling on his stiff legs, bumping into his father by the door.
"Hey, Kaoru." His father held out a DVD box. "I have the new season of Tearful Goodbye. Let's watch!"
"I have to go," Kaidoh said and ran out the door.
"I wasn't sure you'd come." Inui opened the door to his room and Kaidoh stepped inside.
Inui didn't sit down, so Kaidoh didn't either. The room was close and heavy, like the air before a storm. Kaidoh's skin was pricking, bumps on his arm, hair standing on the back of his neck.
"That video. You looked like you were really into the match," Inui said. "I learned a few things." He smiled.
Heat rushed into Kaidoh's face and he looked away, at the jumble of cables on Inui's desk, at the scribbles on the wall beside his bed.
"Here." Inui held out Kaidoh's phone. The screen was whole and shiny again.
"Thank you." Kaidoh clicked the phone on and there was Pluto, sailing through space.
"I like your lock screen."
Kaidoh took a deep breath, his shoulders relaxed. "I'll pay you back."
"I'll pay you back."
"Kaidoh." Inui paused and Kaidoh felt that charge in the air again. "Okay, no rush. You should probably check your messages."
There weren't many to flick through: a few reminders from home, a notice from Oishi about next week's practice schedule, a message group with some kids from his class. And a long thread from Inui.
He made himself read it, his skin burning, his body heavy and slow.
I'm going to watch the video after supper. Do you want to come over?
Come over at 7.
We can go for a run afterwards.
Looks like some technical difficulties.
Kaidoh, don't worry about it, okay?
Don't work out too much. When you're upset, you're prone to pushing yourself too hard.
Can we talk soon? There's something I'd like to say.
And Inui had added a sticker. Of Pluto, saying goodnight.
Kaidoh looked up.
Inui glanced away, then back. "So, I wanted to say." He pulled a card out of his pocket, looked down at it. A faint red came up on his face. "I made some notes."
The room was spinning, Kaidoh's head was spinning. He set down his phone. Gravity was pulling, his chest was aching. He took a step forward, took Inui's sleeve between his fingers.
"Kaidoh." Inui's mouth twisted a little. "This isn't about tennis. So, please listen until--"
"Plum flower," Kaidoh said. He wrapped his sore arms around Inui's chest, bumped his head up under Inui's jaw. The note card fluttered to the floor. Kaidoh closed his eyes, his heart crashing against his ribcage and Inui's crashing back.
Inui took one deep breath, the heat of his body pressing into Kaidoh. Then he hugged Kaidoh, arm around Kaidoh's shoulders, hand on the back of Kaidoh's neck. "You're standing on my notes."
"Sorry." Kaidoh stepped back.
"No." Inui pulled him back in, tightened his arms. "I think you already have the gist of what I was going to say."
Kaidoh pressed his forehead into Inui's shoulder, holding on as the whole world turned around them.
"Did you know," Inui said into Kaidoh's hair, "they just discovered a new dwarf planet called RR245? It's twice as far from the sun as Pluto."
"Too bad for it," Kaidoh said.