Fuji fought the weeds that tied him down, preventing him from reaching the dappled dots of light that flashed far above him. The more he struggled, the tighter they knotted around his limbs and his movements became weaker, making pathetic currents in the lake’s sodden depths. He threw his head back, straining against the vine twisting over his chest, and caught sight of another figure also caught in the plant life’s sinewy embrace. Fuji wrenched an arm free and reached out, trying to catch hold of the other person, to at least help him escape towards the surface. His hand knocked the baseball cap off the boy’s head, revealing purple bloated features. Shocked, Fuji drew back from the corpse just as its eyes shot open.
“It’s too late, Fuji-senpai,” the voice emanated from the grotesque creature’s swollen lips. “Too late for that now...”
Fuji’s eyes snapped open. He was lying on his bed, pinned on his back by his sheets that had become a twisted mass of sweat soaked cotton entwined about his wrists and ankles. Yuuta was standing over him looking horrified and his sister stood in the open doorway, a familiar shadow in the warm hallway light that was spilling into the room.
“Aniki?” Yuuta repeated in a quiet voice, the sort of voice used at hospitals in wards reserved for the very ill or mentally unstable. “Are you ... ?” he did not know how to finish the sentence. His brother was plainly a long way from “all right”.
“Just ... just a nightmare,” Fuji tried to reassure him but he could not stop shivering. “Probably something I ate disagreed with me.” He tried to disentangle himself, but could not seem to find the sheets’ ends, they were so closely wound about him.
Yuuta continued to stare. “Aniki, it wasn’t something you ate,” he said. “You have these dreams every night.”
Fuji looked up at him, wondering when his little brother had become so observant. “Not every night,” he said with a weak smile.
“Oh no, I forgot,” Yuuta’s laugh was hollow. “Most nights you don’t sleep at all.”
Fuji gave up trying to figure out the sheets and lay still, staring bleakly up at the ceiling. He was tired, exhausted even and he could not produce answers to Yuuta’s accusations. He could not produce answers to anyone anymore.
“Come on,” Yuuta’s voice was gruff. “Let’s ... let’s just get you out of these.” He started to pull at the sheets binding Fuji and Yumiko stepped in to help. In no time, they had liberated their brother and Yumiko gathered up the sodden sheets, taking them out to the hall and bringing in fresh ones.
“Thank you, Ane,” Fuji said as his sister shook the new sheets onto the bed.
“Shuusuke,” she said, sitting on the bed’s end and pulling Fuji down next to her. “I want you to take the tablets the doctor prescribed.”
Fuji turned to look at the small, untouched bottle on his bedside table. “They’re just dreams, Ane,” he said. “I don’t need drugs.”
Yumiko turned her brother’s head towards her and ran a finger under the dark shadows that circled both eyes. “You need rest,” she told him. “Once you’re rested I’m sure you’ll be able to deal with .... whatever it is that’s troubling you.” Her eyes were worried. “Please, Shuusuke.”
Fuji looked at his sister and then at his brother, standing a foot or two away, his brow creased into a frown. “If it pleases you,” he said, smiling.
He waited until the door was closed and the hallway light had been turned off before spitting out the tablets. He did not want to go back to sleep tonight. He did not want to ever risk sleep again.
“Katsuo Mizuno,” a voice above Oishi head stated.
Oishi looked up, smiling, at the freshman standing in front of the tennis club enrollment table he was manning. “Katsuo,” he said warmly. “You finally made it to High School!”
The boy nodded his closely cropped head. “Horio and Kachiro too,” he said. “Kachiro went to collect class schedules and Horio ...,” he looked around briefly. “Well, I don’t know where he got to.”
Oishi laughed. “It is pleasure to have you back in the club.” He passed across a registration form, motioning for Katsuo to take a seat and fill it in. “You were captain at Seigaku, I believe?”
Katsuo’s pen stopped on the sheet of paper. He stared down at the partially completed boxes in front of him. “Acting captain,” he corrected quietly. “I ... that is to say, we ... always hoped Echizen...,” his voice trailed away.
Oishi opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. The large sports hall felt suddenly hot and airless. It had been one year, almost to the day, since Echizen left Seigaku and never returned. For weeks, months even, people had discussed how this was just like Echizen, how he would certainly stride back in any moment returning from the French Open or Wimbledon that he had just forgotten to mention he was participating in.
Except there were no international tennis tournaments in early April.
The joking stopped. People gazed sadly at the missing person posters plastered around Tokyo and held their breath every time a body was discovered. Was it Echizen? It never was. Oishi tried hard to keep his mind away from his old team mate, to tell himself, when it invariably drifted towards the small white capped boy, that they did not know anything and Echizen might still be found. He knew it was a vain hope. No one really expected to see Echizen alive again.
He looked across at the younger boy opposite him and forced himself to unstick his throat. “You did a great job,” he said. “Acting captain is no easy post. I should know!”
He waved Katsuo off with a list of club practice sessions and began sorting the completed forms in front of him into alphabetical order. One year. Echizen’s disappearance was a cold case now. Oishi sighed. Whoever was responsible was undoubtedly walking around scot-free.
“Game, set and match, Arai,” call the referee. “Six games to four.”
The whoop echoed around the silent court as, sweating heavily, Arai lifted his racket triumphantly and swung it towards the stunned spectators.
“I knew I would do it!” he declared. “He was good, I’ll admit, but I knew I was ... “
On the opposite side of the court, Fuji approached the net. His face wore its usual smile but his pace was slow. He waited patiently as Arai started detailing each of the six games he had won to his soundless audience.
“... and then, with that last shot, Fuji looked like he was going left, but I just knew he was fainting. Complete instinct, that’s what I have!”
“Arai,” Inui’s voice broke through the monologue. “It is traditional to thank your opponent for the game.”
Internally, Fuji gave a heartfelt thank you for Inui’s intervention. Standing in the centre of the court with all eyes on him was almost worse than the tennis he had just played. Almost.
Arai spun around to face him. “Ah, yes, the gallant loser!” he strode up in a mock somber gait and took Fuji’s proffered hand. “Don’t feel bad,” he told him in a patronizing tone that carried around the court. “There was always going to be someone better.”
Fuji’s expression did not change, although his vision was blurring with the effort. “You played well,” he said calmly. “Good luck, Arai.”
The distance from the net to the bench on the court edge had never seemed so long. One step, then two. It had to be no more than five. Then he could leave. Fuji collected his water bottle and rackets and moved towards the gate. Ten more steps now, tops. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eiji move forward to intercept him, but he was prevented by Oishi and Inui. Fuji was relieved. He did not want questions or sympathy. He just wanted to get away. He pushed open the gate and came face to face with Tezuka, who had been standing watching the match a few feet behind it. Their eyes met.
“Ne, Tezuka,” Fuji forced his voice to be light. “Don’t you have better things to do than watch my games?”
Tezuka stared at him in silence for a long moment and then turned and walked away. Arai pushed past Fuji, knocking him against the open gate’s netting.
“Buchou!” he called. “I’ll be needing a regular jersey!”
Tezuka stopped but he did not turn around, his eyes remained fixed on the wall ahead. “Regulars’ practice is at 7.” He continued walking.
“Well, of course you didn’t make the regulars,” Horio told Katsuo contemptuously. “Tezuka-buchou is putting together a National standard team this year!”
Oishi smiled at the three freshmen as he walked a pace or two behind them, carrying a crate filled with tennis balls back to the club house. Their enthusiasm had always been infectious and after today’s games he enjoyed listening to their bright chatter.
“I didn’t expect to make the team,” Katsuo said mildly. “First years hardly ever do.” He and Kachiro were carrying the brooms they had used to sweep the courts with before practice. Horio, Oishi noted with amusement, had seemed to have avoided collecting any equipment.
“Echizen would have,” Kachiro said wistfully, gazing out across the courts as they walked around the outside.
True enough, Oishi thought. His game would have been worth watching too. Tezuka would have been pleased. The truth be told, Oishi could have left the ball crates for the freshmen to haul back to the club house. His main reason for not doing so was to avoid changing alongside Tezuka after Fuji’s game. Oishi knew Fuji’s loss to the team came as a hard blow to Tezuka. He wanted to take the team to Nationals this year. Maybe even needed to, in order to launch his own professional career. Now was a bad time for the team’s tensai to fall to pieces. Yet despite the sympathy he felt for his friend, Oishi’s primary concern was for Fuji. Steadily over the last twelve months, Fuji’s stamina and performance had trickled down hill. Not just on the tennis courts, but in the classroom too. At one stage, Oishi had wondered whether Echizen’s disappearance was affecting Fuji more than he was admitting, but when he tried to raise the issue with his brown haired team mate, he had found himself discussing his own problems. That --Oishi had to admit-- had at least been more typically Fuji.
“Echizen might not have made a regular!” Horio was now saying. “If I didn’t make the team with five years experience, then it’s impossible!”
Katsuo and Kachiro rolled their eyes at each other behind Horio’s back.
“You didn’t make the regulars at Seigaku, Horio,” Kachiro pointed out.
Horio spluttered indignantly, jerking an accusing thumb at Katsuo. “That was because he didn’t honour Echizen’s wishes,” he declared. “I was the last to see Echizen and he definitely told me...”
Katsuo put a hand to his forehead in a gesture that said this was a well trodden conversation path. Kachiro, however, gave Horio a little push.
“Even that part isn’t true,” he said. “Tomoka reckons she saw Echizen last.”
“Tomoka!” Horio’s spluttering became worse still. Then he folded his arms in a pose suggesting he was distributing unequivocal facts. “No one believes her!”
Oishi frowned. There was confusion over who saw Echizen last before he disappeared? That did not sound right. Surely the police would have clarified all these facts months ago. Oishi took a couple of brisk steps forward to draw alongside the first years. “Why does no one believe Tomoka-chan?” he asked as all three spun about in surprise.
“Oishi-senpai!” they chorused.
Oishi smiled briefly and waited. Katsuo rubbed his neck, looking awkward. “Well,” he began uncomfortably. “Tomoka reckons she saw Echizen talking to someone outside the school gates the day he disappeared,” he glanced over at Horio. “But she was on the school roof so couldn’t see all that clearly...”
“And I was with Echizen until he got to the gates,” said Horio firmly. “and there was no one there at all. Tomoka sees Echizen everywhere.”
That was probably true, thought Oishi, although it did not sit well with him that there was a disagreement over something potentially so important. He looked at the three distressed faces in front of him and decided to change the subject. This was not a good topic for your first week at school. “Are you were all coming to Kawamura Sushi tonight?” he asked. “Free sushi to celebrate our new club this year!“
Three heads nodded enthusiastically. Oishi took the opportunity to pass his crate of balls over to Horio.
Fuji was the last to leave Kawamura Sushi that night. In part, this was due to him not wanting to disappoint Eiji who had been determined that Fuji would have a good time. In part, it had been because Tezuka was sitting by the door all evening and Fuji knew he could not meet his eyes. Fuji joined Eiji and Momo in thanking Taka before following them out into the street. Stopping by the first lamp light in the pretense of fastening his coat, he let his friends draw ahead, sighing with relief when they turned the corner without realising he had gone. His hands stopped fumbling with the coat buttons and he closed his eyes, letting the cool night air breeze against his hot face. It had been such a long day.
Fuji looked up to see Taka standing by the open restaurant door, holding a small bamboo box in one hand. He walked towards him, letting the door swing shut with a gentle tinkle of bells.
“I thought you might like to take home some rolls,” he said, opening the box slightly so Fuji could see the neat stack of sushi. “You didn’t eat much tonight. Perhaps you’d enjoy them later?”
Fuji stared at the box and felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude toward Taka. He had seen past Fuji’s determinedly fixed smile, the forced laugh and the casual shrug with which Fuji claimed he’d have more time for photography now he was not on the regulars. Yet Taka had not bombarded Fuji with questions that he had no answers for or stared at him with accusation and disbelief. Instead he had prepared something he thought might cheer Fuji up, something to show he had a friend. As Fuji took the box, he felt his carefully prepared barriers slide and to his embarrassment a tear fell down his face to land on the box’s pale surface.
“Fuji!” Taka’s arms closed around him in one swift moment. Pressed against Taka’s chest with the bamboo box digging into his sternum, the last vestiges of control seeped away and sobs racked Fuji’s thin frame.
Taka rocked him gently, letting Fuji cry himself out. After what seemed to Fuji like many hours, the tears stopped and he pulled back from Taka’s embrace, hunting in his pockets for a handkerchief that was unlikely to be there. A towel, previously hanging from Taka’s apron, appeared under his nose and Fuji took and dried his face, looking up at Taka in gratitude.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happened to me.” He pressed the towel briefly to his forehead, wiping away the sweat that clung there.
“Shuusuke,” Taka’s voice was rough as his fingers gently touched Fuji’s cheek.
Fuji looked down at the hand and then up into Taka’s face. His gaze was full of warmth, intensity and .... Very slowly and deliberately, Taka leaned forward and pressed his lips against Fuji’s own.
Fuji went very still as his emotions boiled below the surface. This ... this was not a good idea, could not be a good idea. Taka did not know how close Fuji was to a nervous collapse, did not know what he had done.
Taka drew back, a blush creeping up his neck and cheeks. “Fuji, I’m ... I’m s-sorry,” he stammered. He took two steps back and then turned to go back into the restaurant.
“Taka, wait!” This time it was Fuji who closed the gap between them, who lifted up his chin to press his mouth against Taka’s lips.
Arms caught him up, pulling him close as Taka returned his kiss. He poured into it all the love, passion and desire he had felt for Fuji all these years, adding to it the promise he would protect Fuji from what was wrong; whatever and wherever it was was, forever. And Fuji forgot his doubts, he forgot he was no longer on the tennis team, forgot that he was supposed to be taking medication for lack of sleep, forgot the guilt that had been throttling him this last year. He was with Taka and nothing else mattered.
That night, curled in Taka’s arms, Fuji slept without dreaming.
The reverberating sounds of the lunch bell caused the usual clamour of activity throughout the classrooms. Chatter filled the hallways as doors burst open and students ran to jostle for position in the canteen queue. Oishi stuffed his books into his bag and threw it over his shoulder before looking around the room for Tezuka. He found him still seated at his desk, the only person not to have moved as the class piled out past him. Oishi saw he had taken out the line-up sheet for the upcoming match in two weeks time and was staring intently at the unfilled ‘singles 2’ section. He hesitated, feeling it was uncomradely to walk away; but then, this was not a decision with which he could offer more assistance. Tezuka’s options were limited to either using Arai (bad option number one) or splitting up the Kaidoh-Inui doubles pair (bad option number two). It really depended on how Tezuka wanted his team to go down. For morale reasons, Oishi was against using Arai. The second year was a loud, obnoxious thorn in the tennis team’s side. Momo had already threatened to take him down some dark alleyway, while Taka had privately volunteered Akutsu Jin’s services at Kawamura Sushi the previous night. Oishi would have found it more funny if he were not seriously contemplating how to arm them with baseball bats.
Deciding such suggestions would not assist his captain, Oishi followed the last of the students from the classroom and walked slowly down the corridor. He did not feel like sitting in the crowded canteen and instead searched for a place he could eat the lunch he had brought in peace. His path took him upwards to the school’s roof and he pushed open the heavy outer door to be momentarily blinded by the noon sun. He blinked to clear his vision and saw the roof was unoccupied apart from a girl standing in the far corner, looking out over the school grounds. Not wishing to disturb her, he moved to walk to the opposite side of the roof but stopped when he realised he recognised her. “Tomoka-chan,” he said in surprise.
The girl turned, pigtails flapping around her cheeks and gave him a wide smile. “Senpai!” she greeted him cheerfully.
“You’re alone?” Oishi asked. It seemed very unlike the vivacious freshman he had known back at Seigaku.
“Not anymore,” she beamed at him and Oishi took the invitation to join her, looking over the side of the school to see the expanse of car park and gravel leading up to the main gates.
“Besides, Sakuno has a cold,” Tomoka wrinkled her nose with distaste. “She’s actually quite disgusting. It is better for everyone that she stays in bed.”
Oishi laughed. “I can imagine. You get a good view from here,” he added with approval. Below him, he could clearly make out Momo and Eiji who were covertly making their way towards the school gates, ducking down behind parked cars every time someone came out of the building.
“You can see way more than on the ground,” Tomoka agreed. Then she scowled. “No matter what some people think.”
Oishi looked down at her sympathetically, “Trouble?” he asked.
Tomoka shook her head in vexation, her pigtails swinging wildly from side to side. “It’s Horio!” she exclaimed. “He always has to be right! No matter that it’s something more important than his poxy self at stake!
Oishi’s brow furrowed. “This is about Echizen?” he asked.
“Yes!” Tomoka turned to glare up at him. “I saw him! I watched him after Horio had gone and I saw him talking to someone!”
“Horio said he saw no one,” Oishi said slowly. “He said the grounds were empty.”
Tomoka stamped her foot. “He got it wrong! The person was standing behind the gates. There is no way the stupid little twerp could have seen them from ground level!”
Oishi turned to look out over the grounds. The High School buildings were two floors higher than those at Seigaku, yet he had no trouble identifying the two people now skulking along the school wall. He watched as Momo reached the gates first and started to slide the heavy bolt across. “Did you tell the police what you saw?” he asked his companion, his eyes still fixed on Momo.
“I did,” came the sulky reply from beside him. “but Horio just kept going on and on about how I was obsessive and how you couldn’t see anything from so high up.”
“Ah,” Oishi said thoughtfully. Behind Momo, Eiji had become fed up with waiting and with a leap, he jumped on the gate’s railings, scaling up to the top and vaulting over to land on the street. Sniggering at Momo’s curses, he ducked behind the school wall. Oishi stared at him. There was no doubt about it, Eiji was hidden from most of the school but from the roof Oishi could see him clearly. “What did the person look like who was talking to Echizen?” he asked Tomoka. When she did not answer, he turned around to look at her. She was scuffing the toe of her shoe against the floor. “Tomoka-chan?”
“Well, although I could clearly see someone was there,” she began, sounding awkward. “I could only see them from above. Normally, I see people from below. I’m short, see!” she looked up at him and jumped, trying to see over his head. “It’s not easy to recognise people from a high angle.”
Oishi’s eyes widened as he realised what she was saying. He looked back down at Eiji and Momo who had finally opened the gate and slipped through it. The two of them sprinted off down the street. Unusual vantage point or not, Oishi knew he would never mistake them. “Who did you see, Tomoka?” he asked quietly.
There was a pause then a soft but determined voice answered “I saw Fuji-senpai, Oishi-senpai.”
If Taka were honest he had been picturing this moment for a long time. Safe in the darkness of his room, he had allowed himself to imagine what it would feel like to tell Fuji how much he cared for him and hear it in return. Although he had turned red thinking about it, he had often wondered how their physical relationship would be: who would dominate. He was certainly the stronger of the two but on the courts Fuji was liquid steel, conquering the most powerful opponents with cat-like grace. That was the old Fuji though. The Fuji that lay curled next to him as the morning sun peaked under his blinds was wounded and vulnerable. Taka did not know what was hurting his friend, only that he was determined to protect him from it.
He tilted his head to see the electronic face of his alarm clock. It was 06:50, ten minutes before it rang and he and Fuji must get ready for school. He looked back at the sleeping face beside him, at the dark circles that still marked the porcelain skin. Reaching out, Taka turned off the alarm. Somethings were more important.
Oishi chewed at the pen lid clasped in his hand. It was an uncharacteristic gesture, more suited to the red headed boy sprawled on the floor by his chair. The said red head was frowning down at the maths text book open in front of him, his pen suspended over a pad of paper. With a deft flick, the pen twirled in his hand, dancing around his fingers.
“Say Oishi, what did you get for question two?” Eiji looked up hopefully, bringing the pen to an abrupt stop.
Oishi blinked, looking away from his doubles partner to the blank sheet of paper before him. “What do you have so far?” he asked, turning over his pad.
“Mou,” Eiji looked down and then held up his work for Oishi to see. “I drew the number two... and a cat.” Sure enough, a cat with pen blue paws and ears looked up at Oishi from the page. “What do you have?” Eiji made a grab and swiped Oishi’s note pad away from him. He turned it over and viewed the empty page in confusion. “Oishi ... I’m ahead of you.” He sat up on his knees and frowned at his friend. “Are you okay? Do you have a headache?”
Oishi rubbed his face with one hand. He looked back down at Eiji’s work pad. The cat looked a little like Karupin. “Eiji,” he began hesitantly. “How do you think Fuji is nowadays?”
Eiji’s shoulders slumped and he tossed Oishi’s empty note pad to one side. “I think something is terribly wrong and he won’t tell me what it is,” he said, his voice quavering.
Oishi tried to straighten the pen lid he’d chewed with his fingers, wondering how to phrase his next question. “Did he and Echizen get along?” he asked, carefully.
“Fujiko and Ochibi?” Eiji asked in surprise. “Of course they did!” He looked up at Oishi, his forehead wrinkled in a frown. “D’you think Fujiko misses Ochibi and that’s why he’s so sad?”
Oishi looked into the innocent blue eyes staring up at him and then back to the crumpled pen lid in his fingers. “Actually, I wondered if Fuji might have been jealous of Echizen,” he said delicately.
“Jealous?” Eiji straightened, sitting back on his heels as he considered this new possibility. “Why would he be jealous?”
“Well,” said Oishi slowly. “Echizen started playing singles two, sometimes even singles one. That used to be Fuji’s spot.”
Eiji grinned reminiscently. “Yeah, Fuji was even on reserve during Nationals. I never thought I’d see that!” Then he shook his head. “But Ochibi was Ochibi though! Everyone knew he was special, nya. Even Buchou.”
Even Tezuka. Oishi’s eyes glazed as the full picture of the betrayal Fuji must have felt came into focus. Seigaku’s tensai, cast aside for the boy Tezuka wanted to make his successor.
Eiji was still thinking this over. “Do you think Fujiko misses having a rival?” he asked. “And that’s making him sick?”
Oishi snapped out of his reverie to stare at Eiji in bewilderment. Same facts, different conclusion, he thought. Then his eyes softened. Eiji’s desire to see only the best in people made him the brightest point in Oishi’s life.
“I should try and improve my tennis,” Eiji said sadly. “Then I could help Fujiko.”
Oishi swallowed and found he had a lump in his throat. Dropping to his knees, he place a hand on Eiji’s shoulder. “You forget you’re not alone,” he told him. “We’ll play Fuji together. That’ll give him something to think about.”
Eiji threw his arms around Oishi’s middle. “Hoi, that’d be good!” he declared. pushing his nose against the base of Oishi’s neck.
To Oishi, the room became suddenly airless.
“Practice matches,” Tezuka told the club members lined up before him. “Does anyone wish to challenge one of the regulars?”
This drill was held once a week during the club training sessions. It kept the regulars mindful that their position was not impeachable while giving the junior members a goal to aim for. It also helped in the identification of promising players, although with the ranking tournament so recently completed, Tezuka was not expecting any surprises. Surprises. Tezuka looked down, his glasses flashing opaque in the gloomy afternoon light. He needed a miracle.
“I would like to play Momo-chan-senpai,” Katsu piped up. “If he doesn’t mind?”
Momoshiro grinned. “You’re a glutton for punishment!” he told the younger boy cheerfully.
Katsu pulled down on the front of his tee-shirt in determination. “This week I’m going to return your dunk smash!” he declared. “I’ve been practicing everyday so that I can!”
“As have I to ensure you never will!” Momoshiro retorted.
Tezuka inclined his head to indicate his approval of the pairing. This was an example of the effectiveness of the exercise. Both Momoshiro and Katsu would improve from their game. “Other matches?” he asked.
Arai strode forward, his arms folded with his new regular’s jacket swung nonchalantly around his shoulders. “I wish to challenge Fuji Shuusuke,” he declared.
There was a hiss in the direction of Kikumaru, who was glaring daggers at Arai with his shoulders uncharacteristically hunched. Beside him, Oishi placed a gently placating hand on his doubles partner’s shoulder, discouraging him from a spring loaded attack.
“Only non-regulars can challenge, Arai,” Tezuka informed him impassively.
“I don’t mind,” Fuji’s voice came from the back of the group. “Let’s have a good game, Arai.”
Kikumaru’s bright blue eyes swung first to Oishi and then to Tezuka, demanding that they stop this match. Tezuka was tempted; their last game was still ingrained across the inside of his eyelids. He never wanted to see tennis like that again. On the other hand, if Fuji was happy humiliating himself for a second time, then it was not worth his trouble to object. He turned away from Kikumaru’s accusing stare. “Next pair?” he asked the remaining club members.
After further whispered discussions in which the first years tested their courage, the players divided and spread out amongst the courts. Tezuka listened to the gentle clatter of rackets hitting the clay as first serving rights were determined, followed by the thonk of balls on taught strings. He started a slow walk around the edge of the matches, making a mental list of attributes that each of the players needed to work on. When he reached Katsu and Momoshiro’s court, he paused to watch Katsu’s service game. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. Momoshiro for once was focussed on giving Katsu advice rather than concocting a sarcastic remark to throw at Arai. Tezuka suspected such barbs were the provocation for Arai’s challenge to Fuji that day. It hardly mattered. Arai had won the match against Fuji and would probably win again because Fuji had lost all sense focus in his tennis. He was a disgrace to himself, his team and to the captain who put him on the regulars. Tezuka’s hand clenched into a fist. Fuji had made his dream of going to the Nationals laughable.
“Don,” Momoshiro’s voice brought Tezuka back to the game as Katsu’s racket swung at empty air.
Katsu sighed. “Next time!” he insisted, taking his place on the baseline for Momoshiro’s serve.
Tezuka moved on, stopping to watch a handful of passes as he walked by each of the games. At Horio and Kaidoh’s match this proved impossible as Kaidoh scored a series of service aces on the frozen Horio. Concluding there was no obvious piece of advice to impart here, Tezuka turned reluctantly to the last match on his route. Through the gaps in the people watching, he could see Fuji moving swiftly to return shots hit to opposite reaches of the court. He seemed stretched, struggling to position himself fast enough for the next pass. Tezuka turned away. There was no point in him seeing more. This debacle would be a waste of his time. As he took a step towards the club house, Inui caught up to him.
“You missed the game too, Tezuka?” he inquired.
Tezuka turned to look at him.
“Fuji and Arai,” Inui supplemented. “I also came too late.”
Tezuka’s eyes flicked back to the court. “Fuji is still playing,” he stated.
Inui adjusted his glasses. “He’s playing Eiji and Oishi,” he said.
Tezuka looked at the court for a long moment. From his position, he could see that Fuji was standing on his side of the net alone. “The game against Arai?” he asked Inui blandly, his eyes still on Fuji.
“Six games to zero,” Inui said. “Completed in nine minutes forty six seconds, judging from when I arrived.”
Tezuka continued to watch Fuji. In a sharp blur of motion, the ball soared from his racket, high into the air. It was not possible to see where it came down, but the crowd’s intake of breath told him it was inside the court lines. It was not returned.
“It’s good to have him back, isn’t it Tezuka?” Inui remarked as he walked away.
The sun’s rays finally broke through the afternoon’s clouds, bathing the courts in light.
Oishi was lost in thought. His body pounded out the familiar loop around the courts during the morning practice while his mind wrapped itself in knots. Was it really likely that Fuji, the boy he had gone through school with, been to camp with, his teammate and friend could be responsible for another’s death? Of course not! There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for Fuji meeting Echizen at Seigaku, if indeed Tomoka had really seen him at all.
“Did you see Echizen?”
“I looked but didn’t see him.”
Fuji’s words to him at Kawamura Sushi a year ago drifted back. Why would Fuji lie? Was Tomoka mistaken and Fuji really had not met Echizen that day? Was he worried that seeing Echizen so close to his disappearance would make him a suspect? Or did he have reason to hide the encounter?
“Hoi, Oishi! Hurry up!” The voice shouting across the courts jerked Oishi back to the present. He looked up to see Eiji waving at him from where he was running with the other regulars, a full half court ahead of Oishi.
He tried to focus, but Echizen’s face, visible on the freshly applied posters all around Tokyo, kept jumping before his eyes. Should not any lead, no matter how unlikely, be pursued? Fuji would understand that. He could just mention his concerns and Fuji would explain what had happened and then Oishi would apologise. Apologise for .... accusing his friend of murder.
Argh! Oishi shook his head as he ran, trying to clear the jumble of thoughts from his brain. If it was not Fuji, then he would be accusing a friend of the worst crime in humanity. If it was Fuji then his friend would have committed the worst crime in humanity.
Heads you win, tails I loose
However you looked at it, making such an accusation would destroy his and Fuji’s friendship. It might even destroy the team Tezuka had tried so hard to build.
Oishi drew to a stop as he reached the end of his circuit, lowering his head as he rested his hands on his knees. A pair of white trainers came into view as someone stepped up in front of him.
“Oishi, are you using the training schedule I drew up for you?” Inui’s voice came from above him. “You are thirty four seconds behind your usual time.”
“Ah, yes,” Oishi said as he straightened. “Sorry, Inui, I just....” His voice trailed off as he came face to face with the tankard Inui was holding. It contained a vivid green liquid that seemed to bubble slightly.
Inui smiled. “I called it ‘remem-beer’,” he said. “It will help you keep to that schedule.” He pressed the beaker into Oishi’s trembling hands.
“I...,” Oishi began. He looked up at his teammates but none of them were looking at him. Instead, six pairs of eyes were trained on the goblet of remem-beer, looks of horror etched on each face. Oishi swallowed and squeezing shut his eyes, he drained the cup in one go.
It was .. revolting... disgusting ... horrific... No, such adjectives were more suited for describing cute bunny rabbits than for this concoction. Oishi fell on his hands and knees, allowing the tankard to roll away across the clay courts as his stomach heaved.
“Inui!” came Eiji’s indignant squeak from somewhere close by. “You killed Oishi!”
Red hair flicked into view across the top of Oishi’s vision as Eiji knelt down opposite him on the ground, twisting his neck to try and see into Oishi’s down-turned eyes.
“The probability of that being true is no greater than 10%,” the tall spectacled player replied. Oishi could hear the sound of a pen moving across paper.
“10% chance of death?!” Momo’s voice cut through Eiji’s cry of horror. “Before you try that juice on someone, shouldn’t you be sure that number is zero, Inui-senpai?”
Hands reached down and grasped Oishi’s shoulders and he felt himself being hauled into a semi-upright posture, Momo and Eiji under each of his arms. Looking up groggily from his slumped position across his friends, Oishi saw Inui adjust his glasses as he reviewed the notes in his exercise book.
“It is impossible to allow for all side-effects,” he said blandly. “Therefore the chance of demise is always finite.”
Eiji peered round at Oishi’s face, bright blue eyes wide with concern. “You’re not going to die, are you?” he asked, sounding panicked.
Oishi squinted at him, battling to hold the contents of his stomach steady. This close, Eiji’s eyes merged into a single orb that filled his entire vision. He tried to smile. “I don’t think so,” he managed to croak.
“Ii data,” Inui murmured from close by, still scribbling in his book.
Half an hour later found Oishi sitting in the club house, showered and changed but still feeling like he had been involved in some kind of train wreak. He sat with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, a damp towel draped over his head. Inui’s juice was of course the main culprit, yet Oishi’s thoughts from the beginning of practice still ran in circles around his mind. Should he approach Fuji? If so, what should he say?
As he sat staring at the floor another thought occurred to him. If Fuji was responsible for Echizen’s disappearance, what might he do when Oishi confronted him? Could Oishi be in actual danger? Oishi hated the thought that one of his own friends would wish him harm and yet ...
The door swung open and the rest of the regulars tumbled in as practice finished for the day.
“Hoi, hoi, Oishi,” Eiji called, dropping his bag and jacket next to Oishi on the bench and heading for the showers.
Oishi looked up through the folds of the towel, to see Eiji disappear into the shower block, shortly followed by Momo, who dropped his bag next to Eiji’s, grinning at Oishi as he grabbed his towel.
“How are you feeling?” Oishi looked up to see Tezuka standing next to him, carrying Oishi’s racket bag as well as his own.
“Ah, better. Thank you Tezuka,” Oishi reached out and took his bag from Tezuka’s hold. He paused and then came to a decision. “I thought I would visit Fuji later,” he said, keeping his voice light.
Tezuka placed his own bag on the floor and reached into his locker to extract a sheet of paper. “Hnn. You should tell him to attend the regular’s practice sessions,” he said, passing the sheet to Oishi. “This is a spare schedule. He can train while he is not on the team. He should not get careless.”
Oishi took the schedule from Tezuka. There was no going back now. “I-I will,” he said. He watched Tezuka also head towards the showers, leaving Oishi alone in the club house. He looked down at the bench, seeing Eiji’s jacket tossed carelessly across it. With a casual gesture he knocked the garment off the seat where it fell into Momo’s bag. As Tezuka said, there was no point in getting careless.
Oishi drew to a halt as he neared his destination, eying the eves of the familiar two story house 100 yards down the road. Digging into his pocket, he took out his cell phone and pressed a quick dial number. He did not bother to raise the handset to his ear but watched the LCD screen as the phone rang once ... twice... three times. Oishi pressed his thumb down on the red ‘call cancel’ button and returned the phone back to his pocket. Then he strode swiftly down the street and pressed the door bell on the outer wall.
“Hello?” the voice crackled through the wall mounted electronic speaker.
“Fuji, it’s Oishi.” There was a buzz and the gate swung open, allowing Oishi to walk up the driveway to the house’s wide porch.
“Oishi,” Fuji opened the front door as Oishi approached, welcoming him with his usual smile.
“Hi, Fuji,” Oishi hesitated, looking at Fuji and then, once, glancing back towards the gate which was swinging shut on its electronic hinges. His grip tightened on his tennis bag. “Could I have a word?”
“Of course,” Fuji stepped back, motioning for Oishi to follow him into the house. “I’ll make tea.”
Fuji’s hallway was dimly lit and smelled pleasantly of beeswax. Oishi slowly removed his shoes and carefully set down his bag next to them. He listened to the gentle chink of crockery as Fuji walked through the kitchen’s open archway and started hunting for cups. The light from the kitchen window spilled onto the laid wooden floor and Oishi stood watching the shadows dance across its surface wondering whether he was really going to go through with this. Regardless of the response, he and Fuji’s relationship was never going to be the same again. Did he really want to cause a friend even more pain? The phone in his pocket vibrated and then let out a bright tune. Oishi flipped it open without looking at the called ID and headed into the kitchen. “Eiji?”
“Oishi!” came the cheerful reply. “I missed your call, couldn’t find my phone, nya!”
“No problem, I was just, ah, calling to see if you’d found your jacket?” Oishi invented. “Someone mentioned they’d seen one was left in the gym.” He mouthed a ‘sorry’ to Fuji who was spooning tea into a strainer. Fuji waved the apology away and gestured for Oishi to take a seat at the breakfast bar.
“Mou, Momo had it!” Eiji was telling him. “We’re going for burgers, want to join us?”
“I’m at Fuji’s, Eiji,” Oishi told him, pulling himself onto a stool.
“Fujiko? Let me talk to him! I asked him to look for my jacket,” Eiji demanded excitedly.
Oishi slid the phone across the table as Fuji placed a clean cup in front of him. “He wants to talk to you,” he said.
Fuji shook his head in amusement and picked up the handset. “Eiji?”
Oishi half listened as the adventure surrounding the lost jacket was revealed to Fuji, turning the cup round in circles between his palms. His hands felt cold and clammy on the cup’s cool ceramic sides. Breath, he told himself. Take this slow.
“It works better with tea in it,” Fuji had finished his conversation with Eiji and was holding a full tea pot above Oishi’s cup. Oishi held the cup still on the table and green tea filled it.
“Thanks,” he said, raising the cup to his mouth but then hurriedly putting it down as the heat permeated the cup’s exterior.
Fuji poured himself a cup and sat on the opposite side of the table, looking across at him. “You seem anxious, Oishi,” he said. “Is everything all right?”
Now he had put the cup down, Oishi was no longer sure where to put his hands. He linked them together, staring down at his fingers. “It, ah,” he began, then stopped and reached quickly into his pocket, bringing out the folded practice schedule. “From Tezuka,” he said, sliding it across to Fuji. “He thinks you should still join the regulars’ practices.”
Fuji glanced briefly at the schedule. “And I was enjoying my lie-ins too,” he said in mock sadness. He tilted his head slightly to one side. “That’s what’s bothering you, Oishi?” he asked teasingly. “How to fit nine players into the practice sessions? I’m sure we’ll cope. Tezuka will probably just make me run laps.”
Oishi had returned to staring at his hands. He locked and unlocked them and then picked up his tea cup again. It had not cooled though Oishi was sure an hour had just passed. “No,” he said at last. “I wanted to ask you ... about that time you visited Seigaku. Just before ... Echizen disappeared.”
Fuji blew lightly on the surface of his tea before taking a carefully measured sip. He placed the cup down gently on the counter, centering it exactly in front of him. “Oh?” he said.
“You said,” Oishi rotated the cup once by its rim. “that you didn’t see Echizen that day.”
“I didn’t,” said Fuji calmly.
Oishi rotated the cup in the opposite direction, still not looking at Fuji. “Tomoka saw you talking with him,” he said, fighting to keep his voice even. “She was on the roof.”
There was a long silence. “She must have been mistaken,” said Fuji eventually. Fuji’s voice had not changed its light tone, but his fingers pressed white against the cup’s sides. It was all Oishi could see of him since his eyes were still fixedly lowered.
“Where were you that day, Fuji?” he asked. “Why were you late to Kawamura Sushi?”
This time the silence did not break. Slowly, Oishi looked up to see Fuji staring across at him, his eyes open and his smile gone. He fought the impulse to run. It was too late now, this had to be seen through to the end.
“You think I had something to do with Echizen’s disappearance?” Fuji asked. His voice was cold.
Oishi forced himself to keep staring into those cerulean eyes. He gripped his cup, letting the heat burn into his hands. “Tell me you didn’t,” he replied, his voice cracking slightly.
Fuji continued to stare at him unblinkingly as the kitchen clock on the wall behind him marked out the seconds. Tick. Tick. Tick. Oishi wondered crazily if they were counting down the beats of his heart. Why did they have to be in the kitchen of all places? If they had been in the sitting room, the worst weapon Fuji could have reached would have been a pillow.
You can smother someone with a pillow.
Stop it! He told himself. You promised to be open minded! There has to be a reasonable explanation.
Fuji suddenly exhaled and looked away. He picked up his cup and sipped the contents. “Your tea will get cold, Oishi,” he said calmly.
Oishi automatically lifted his own cup to his lips.
“If you really believe I hurt Echizen,” Fuji continued. “Aren’t you taking a big risk coming here alone?” he smiled. “Surely therefore you don’t....”
Oishi’s eyes flicked inadvertently to his cell phone, sitting between them on the counter top. Fuji caught the gesture and followed his gaze.
“Ah,” his smile faded again. “Of course. You meant Eiji to call you just then.”
Oishi took a sip of his tea and unstuck his throat. “He never....,” he coughed. “Eiji never picks up before the forth ring. His phone is always somewhere at the bottom of his bag.”
“So you left a missed call,” Fuji put his cup down and his voice was sad. He reached over and touched the folded schedule beside him. “and Tezuka also knows you planned to visit.” He smile was weak. “You thought this through, Oishi.”
Oishi returned to rotating his cup. He watched the liquid swirl against the sides as its container spun clockwise, then anti-clockwise. “Well,” he tried to force a note of practicality into his tone. “if you were planning on disposing of Eiji as well as me, then I suppose...”
“I’d never hurt Eiji!” Fuji pushed his stool back from the counter so hard it toppled over, smacking into the sink before falling to the floor with a crash. He stood a foot back from table edge, eyes wide open and shocked.
Oishi looked up slowly, meeting Fuji’s eyes for a long moment. Stunned realisation dawned on that usually closed face as Fuji understood what his statement implied about what he had left unsaid. Oishi gently pushed his own stool back and got to his feet. He turned and walked steadily towards the door, pulling on his shoes and picking up his tennis bag.
His hand stopped on the door handle.
“What are you going to do?”
He did not turn around. “I don’t know,” he replied and turned the handle, walking out into the soft early evening sunshine.
Fuji paced his room like a caged tiger. Why had he not seen this coming? He knew that the start of this school year was likely to bring everyone’s minds back to Echizen; the prodigy who should be joining the tennis team but was not. He should have been watching for exactly this occurrence, for signs that his name and Echizen’s were being linked during that critical time one year ago. If he had not been so preoccupied he would have noticed Oishi’s growing suspicions and thought of an alibi to waylay his fears. Hell, Oishi had wanted to hear an alibi, he would have accepted almost anything Fuji would have thrown at him. Instead, he had taken Fuji by surprise and his mind had gone completely blank and now Oishi knew. Fuji balled his palms into fists. Damn Oishi!
From downstairs, he heard the clatter of keys in the lock as his sister returned from work. She hummed gently as she walked into the kitchen and turned on the faucet to fill the kettle for tea. Fuji reached for his jacket and walked briskly to the door. He could not stay here and make polite conversation as if nothing had happened. He had to get out.
He was down the stairs with a hand on the door when Yumiko poked her head out of the kitchen, smiling when she saw him.
“Shuusuke,” she said brightly. “Are you heading out?”
Fuji paused to force his usual smile back onto his face before turning to his sister. “I was going to the library,” he said, keeping his voice as light as possible. “We have an assignment due tomorrow and the cacti are failing to provide inspiration.”
Yumiko chuckled appreciatively and ducked back into the kitchen, coming out with a sheet of paper. “Could you pick up this DVD on the American Civil War for Yuuta?” she asked. “He needs it for a special project this semester.”
“Of course,” Fuji took the sheet from Yumiko and left the house, keeping an easy stride until he was out of sight of his street.
Then he started to run. Not caring about direction, he ran through the roads, following the path beside the rail tracks and then out to the river, past the children playing baseball, past the runners and old ladies out shopping, past a father flying a kite with his son, past all these damn normal people, leading horribly pleasant lives. Fuji no longer felt a part of them. He was a known criminal and surely it would not be long now before his days in this open air were over.
Eventually he stopped, exhausted, resting his hands on his knees as he tried to regain his breath. He stood under a bridge that traversed the river, the sound of traffic thundering above his head.
“Spare change, sir?” a voice came from behind him.
Spinning around, Fuji saw a figure emerge from a pile of filthy blankets pressed up against the alcove of the bridge. He dug into his pockets for his wallet and threw a 5000 yen note at the man who stared at it in disbelieve.
“Keep it,” Fuji told him, his laugh high and unnatural in the echoing concrete arc. “I’ve no need for it now.” He turned and started to run again as the homeless man stared after him.
“I’ll take the clothes off your back if you’ve really no use for them?” the man called after Fuji, shaking his head as he gazed down at the cash. The boy had truly lost it if he was throwing away money like that.
Fuji slowed as he reached his neighbourhood again. Glancing down, he realised he still grasped the paper Yumiko had given him with the DVD Yuuta needed printed on it. Turning towards the main commercial area of his district, he headed for the general library reaching it just as it started to rain.
The librarian scowled at Fuji as he entered, clearly suspecting him of only gracing the library with his presence because of the sudden change in weather. Fuji smiled blandly back at her and headed for the back of the building where the video and DVD collections were stored.
He found Yuuta’s DVD easily but the distant roll of thunder made him pause to browse the shelves rather than hurry back outside. He had never explored the American section of the video collection before, having only studied the country briefly in world history the previous year. His fingers idly traced along the spines of the movie cases as he scanned the titles: “Brother against brother; the American civil war”, “1776: The year we came home”, “The real Americans; the story of ten tribes” , “Confessions of a death row convict”... Fuji’s hand stopped on the last of these and pulled the case free of the rack. He flipped it over to read the synopsis on the reverse side. “Henry Cruger, known and feared as Hangman Harry, is one of America’s most notorious villains. In this never-before-seen footage, Cruger talks frankly about his motives that left his wife, best friend, sister and seven others dead.”
Fuji stared at the case for a long moment. He did not like the idea that he would ever be associated with someone like Henry Cruger and yet, perhaps, Cruger’s confessions would allow him to see a way through his own troubles. He took both the DVDs to the librarian and exited the building.
“So you killed your wife to prevent her affair destroying your reputation and your business,” the off-screen interviewer’s voice probed. “But why did you then kill your friend when he discovered what you’d done? Surely there was another way?”
The camera zoomed in to Cruger’s face, the bad lighting making the scene crackle eerily. Cruger looked up into the camera, his eyes dark pools of blackness. “If you are found guilty of one murder, they kill you,” he said, his voice a monotone free from expression. “If you are found guilty of one hundred, they kill you. What does it matter then, if you kill one or one hundred? Once he’d found out, my only hope was for him to die.
I did not have a choice. Once you’ve killed once, it is easy to kill again.”
Oishi started when the doorbell rang, jolting him out of his reverie as he sat in the living room arranging photos to put into an album. The prints lay scattered over the table and floor, images from Seigaku’s fight for the nationals three years before. Oishi had meant it to be a monument to the team’s efforts but now he looks at his photographs, he realised most of them were of Eiji.
Standing and picking pieces of tape and trimmings off his trousers, he walked to the door, opening it to find Fuji standing on his doorstep, his face downcast. Oishi stared at the other boy for a long moment, not greeting him. He had not expected Fuji to seek him out, actually he had thought the other would avoid him at all costs given what he now knew.
Fuji raised his head, and Oishi noticed with shock that he was startlingly pale. His eyes, normally almost closed, were open and bloodshot and there was a haunted look in their blue depths as he stared across at Oishi.
“Let me in?” he asked quietly.
Slowly, Oishi stepped back from the entrance, allowing Fuji to pass through into the house. He closed the door carefully behind him, leaving it unlocked with the vague thought that this might still provide an escape route. Daylight poured in from the wide windows and skylight to the open-plan room, yet to Oishi it seemed much darker than it had moments before.
He walked around into the centre of the room and leaned against the sofa, facing Fuji. He saw the other boy’s eyes move over the photo album he had been preparing and then back to his face.
“Why....” Fuji began and Oishi was astonished to hear his voice crack slightly over the words. “It’s been three days. Why haven’t you gone to the police?”
Oishi stared at Fuji and then looked away. He had been asking himself the same question over the last seventy two hours. Fuji had all but admitted he had a hand in Echizen’s disappearance... Echizen’s death, Oishi sadly corrected himself. Why had he not taken that information straight to the authorities?
“I... don’t know,” he said at last.
His eyes fell on the stack of photographs still to be sorted. The top one showed Eiji, beaming from ear to ear, one arm slung around Oishi another around Fuji, his two best friends. That, Oishi supposed, was part of it. How could Eiji cope with knowing that his best friend was a murderer? A hand crossed his field of view as Fuji picked up the photo and examined it.
“Please ... do not touch my photos,” said Oishi in a voice colder than he had heard it before. He felt they both know that it was not the photograph that Oishi wanted Fuji to stay away from.
Fuji placed the picture carefully back on the pile before turning to face Oishi. “I love him too,” he stated.
Oishi’s eyes snapped up to Fuji’s, feeling hot anger for the first time. “Love?” he exclaimed. “How can you talk of love after what you did? After you... you murdered... another human being!” His voice echoed with disgust as he walked further across the room, putting as much distance as possible between himself and Fuji. He spun back around, not trusting to keep his back turned, to see Fuji now leaning on the sofa with one arm, his head bowed and face obscured behind his elbow. When Fuji spoke, his voice was choked with tears.
“I am still capable of love,” he cried. “I am not a total monster!... Am I?” The last part of his sentence was almost indistinguishable as uncontrolled sobs over took him and he clutched at the sofa’s arm for support.
Oishi gazed at him in mingled horror and pity. The person who was before him was not the Fuji Shuusuke he knew. That boy had gone, perhaps died with Echizen. Yes, he could report him, but what could the police do that was worse than what Fuji was clearly doing to himself? Hesitantly, Oishi crossed back through the room and laid a hand on the quivering shoulder.
“Fuji,” he said quietly. “There is still some good you can do.”
It was the only thing Oishi could think of that could still make a difference, since Echizen was lost to them forever. He felt Fuji struggled to get himself under control, the shaking becoming a held back tremor. Slowly, Fuji looked up at him, his face still covered with water turning his eyes into an even more brilliant blue.
“Tell the police where to find Echizen’s body,” Oishi told him. “Let Nanjiro and Rinko bury their son.”
Fuji stared at him, the tears still falling down his cheeks, although now silently. “You mean turn myself in?” he asked, his voice no more than a whisper.
Oishi sighed. “That’s up to you,” he replied. He could not honestly think of a way in which Fuji could reveal that information without also confessing to his part in it, but he had to try for the sake of Echizen's family.
Fuji laughed without humour. Straightening, he walked to the door and opened it. “Thank you for listening,” he said without turning and stepped out, closing the door behind him.
Oishi watched him walk down the driveway before throwing the bolts across the door. He felt drained from a mixture of fear and compassion for Fuji. He had done a terrible wrong, but was he not also Oishi’s friend?
The bell above the door at Kawamura Sushi jangled cheerfully as Fuji entered the restaurant, carrying his school bag over one shoulder. He lifted a hand in greeting to Taka’s father who was wiping down the bar, readying it for the next wave of customers.
“Fuji-kun!” the man welcomed him cheerfully. “The useless boy who I’ve had the misfortune to call a son all these years is upstairs. See if you can talk some sense into him.”
Fuji climbed the steps to the second floor where the Kawamura family lived above their shop and tapped on Taka’s bedroom door. At the answering call, he pushed it open and stuck his head into the room to see Taka holding a collection of cds, apparently at a loss as to which one to play.
“Fuji!” Taka gave a glad cry and dropped the disks onto his bed, sweeping the other boy into a bear hug and kissing him fiercely.
Fuji wrapped his arms around Taka’s neck, closing his eyes briefly as the sense of Taka surrounded him, keeping the rest of the world at bay for those few precious moments.
Still hugging him tight, Taka swung Fuji round in a half circle before letting his feet touch the floor once more. “You're tense again, Fujiko-chan,” he scolded gently, putting Fuji down so he could massage his shoulders.
Fuji sighed in contentment and rested his forehead on Taka’s chest, wincing slightly as the strong hands forced the tight muscles to relax. “Your father says I must talk sense into you, Taka-san,” he said, not raising his head. “I hope he means that you should return to tennis, since that is what I would have you do.”
“Ah,” Taka’s hands paused in their work, his tone hesitant. “Not tennis, no.” He hugged Fuji close to him again. “He shouldn’t have mentioned it to you at all.”
Pulling gently free of the arms that enfolded him, Fuji looked up into Taka’s face. “What’s happened?” he asked. He met the pair worried brown eyes and his own blue gaze cracked open in concern. His hand came up to cup Taka’s cheek, “Nothing bad?”
“Not... not bad,” Taka hesitated and then let go of Fuji, walking over to his desk. He picked up a letter and reluctantly held it out. “Do you remember Gen-san?” he asked. “He worked for us while Father’s arm was broken about two and half years ago.”
Fuji nodded, taking the letter. Gen had been a masterful sushi chef who Taka had greatly admired. He unfolded the paper to see an invitation for Taka to visit and work for Gen in Hokkaido, enrolling for a couple of semesters in the High School close to where Gen’s restaurant was situated. “Taka, this is a great opportunity,” said Fuji seriously. “You did say that Gen-san’s sushi was the best you’d ever tasted?”
Taka rubbed the back of his neck, awkwardly. “It ... it is,” he said, softly.
Fuji looked across at him and saw the faint blush stealing over his friend’s face and neck as he gazed at him from the desk. He smiled, holding out the letter. “Saa, I would like to visit Hokkaido,” he said. “Perhaps spend the summer there?”
Taka’s face broke into a broad grin. “You would?” he asked, delighted.
Fuji smiled, “Ah, the summer in Tokyo is far too hot.”
Taka beamed and stepped forward to wrap an arm around Fuji as he read through Gen’s letter again. “They’re expanding the shop,” he said enthusiastically. “That’s why they need more help, what with Gen-san’s wife being pregnant.”
Fuji leaned against him, smiling as he listened to his friend. In reality, he knew he could not go to Hokkaido that summer. By that stage, it would be too late. But right now, he could listen and pretend before he did what he knew he had to do. The thing he had no choice over.
Oishi walked slowly away from his home and through the streets that would eventually lead him to the wooded gardens of the largest Shinto Shrine in his district. As he walked, he thought of Tezuka, and how he had mastered complete leadership by minimising his word count to less than ten per practice session. He thought of Inui’s data collecting and wondered what percentage of those notebooks was actually remotely connected to tennis. He thought of Momo and Kaidoh and debated if they would ever acknowledge they were best friends. He thought of Taka and how hanging out with Fuji all these years was probably preventing him getting the right amount of wasabi in his sushi. He thought of Eiji who said the first thing that came into his mind, regardless of any of the consequences, and every time lit up Oishi’s world. Finally his mind turned to Fuji who had asked him to meet him that evening at the Shrine and he wondered why he was going when this walk felt like a death march.
Do people know when they are going to die?
He had been locking up the club house that afternoon when he turned around to find Fuji standing a few feet from him. So silently had the other boy approached, that Oishi dropped the keys in shock and had to fumble while he juggled rackets and school books so he could retrieve them from the ground. Fuji had watched impassively before asking Oishi to meet him at dusk at a place that was further away from the school than either of their houses. Oishi had initially moved to say no, but Fuji had bowed as he added a ‘please’ that emerged as a choke. So he had agreed and now here he was, trying to think logically while wondering all the time if the choice of the Shrine had not been to offer him religious support in his final moments.
The gates to the Shrine were locked, but the gardens were open and Oishi crossed the lawn to the group of trees near the closed museum building. Shadows criss-crossed the grounds, making him jump and turn at the slightest movement. There was silence as reached the place he was supposed to meet Fuji, even the cicadas seem to have found somewhere else to be that night and the trees felt oddly dead without their continual chirping. Oishi leaned back against the bark of a pine, closed his eyes and preyed that Fuji had decided not to come.
When he looked up again, it was to see the slender figure in question standing only a few feet away. How he had managed to walk across the thick bed of broken twigs and leaves without making a sound, Oishi could only guess. He swallowed and straightened.
“Why on earth did you want to meet here, Fuji?” he asked, trying to inject a sense of safety into his surroundings with his own question.
Fuji glanced around the gardens and back towards the Shinto Shrine. “It’s a good departure point,” he said softly.
Oishi fought against the desire to run. Honestly, he would never outstrip Fuji and that being so, he might be better in an outright fight. “What do you want?” he asked, surprising himself at the steadiness of his voice.
Fuji looked back at him, cerulean eyes glinting in the departing light. “Two things,” he told Oishi. “A gift and a favour.”
A gift and a favour? Oishi spread his hands in a gesture of confusion and then took a step back and Fuji walked right up to him. He hit the tree trunk with a thunk that prevented thoughts of a quick escape, with Fuji only a few inches away.
“First, the gift,” Fuji said quietly. Leaning forward, he cupped Oishi’s cheek with his hand and kissed him. He kissed the way Taka had kissed outside Kawamura Sushi the night when he felt his life was slipping away. He put in the same passion, affection and desire that Taka had given him, the promise of eternal love no matter what the future held.
When Fuji broke away form him, Oishi could only gasp, his mind a complete blank. He gazed into those blue eyes, still lost in the torrent of emotions that the embrace had held.
“That is what you need to do to Eiji,” Fuji told him. He stepped back, allowing Oishi to catch his breath. “The favour,” he continued when the green eyes focussed again on him. “is to give me a month. One month,” he stared into Oishi’s eyes. “Then you can go to the police with what you know.”
Oishi blinked, trying to digest what Fuji was now saying. “One month,” he whispered. “Ok.”
Fuji paused to consider him one last time and then turned sharply, running through the trees to where he had left his army bag, stuffed with his possessions. Then he was gone, a shadow blending into the night. He did not have a choice. Even if there was no point for his future, he had to leave to preserve the good he had left in him, not sacrifice himself to the bad like the serial killer on death row. As he ran, he thought it was ironic that Echizen’s death had given him just one year; the same amount of time he would have had before Echizen had joined the school.
“Shuichiro,” Oishi’s mother tapped on his bedroom door and poked her head in, smiling at her son as he sat working at his desk. “You have a package.” She passed him the padded envelope and retreated, humming cheerfully as she headed back down the stairs.
Oishi looked at the envelope in surprise. Its right corner was covered with stamps as if it had been posted from location to location before being finally sent to him. The address was written in a precise hand, the Kanji free from the usual flourishes associated with a casual scrawl. Gently, he prised open the flap and looked inside. Folded just under the opening, so they would be the first things that his fingers touched, were a pair of surgical gloves. Sitting below them was a second envelope.
Oishi looked up at the calendar tacked to his wall and understood. Thirty days. One month since he had last seen Fuji Shuusuke and made him one last promise. Gingerly, he removed the gloves and placed them on his hands before sliding the second envelope free and pulling back the unsealed flap. It contained two pieces of paper that Oishi carefully unfolded and placed on his desk. The first was a picture of Echizen on a copy of the missing person poster that decked Tokyo’s streets. The second was a map, indicating a lake in an isolated park outside of town.
Oishi stared at both sheets for a long moment before placing them back in the second envelope and sealing it. Even though he had known the truth since that fateful conversation with Fuji over a month previously, it still came as a shock. While he had never denied it, Fuji had not ever admitted to harming Echizen,
He dropped the envelope back into the first wrapping with the surgical gloves as the tears began to fall. Placing his head in his hands, Oishi cried for the loss of his two friends.
The sun was properly up by the time Oishi reached his street the following morning. He had risen earlier than the rest of his family and slipped out, cycling through the city to a public library several districts away. Into its mail box he had dropped the inner envelope Fuji had sent him, pausing to look at the replica of the missing person poster contained inside it stuck to the library’s window. The discoverers of the envelope would know what to do.
On the way back, he had dropped the surgical gloves into the “burnable” section of a garbage can. If the police examined the envelope of fingerprints, they would not find his. Oishi doubted very much they would find Fuji’s either.
Had he been right to hand that envelope in anonymously? Oishi did not know, but he did not think he could cope with causing his friends even more pain. The full truth of Echizen’s disappearance would be for him to bare alone.
As he swung his bike through the gates of his house, he saw Eiji standing by the front door, tapping out a tune to what must be an empty household. Oishi guessed his sister and parents had gone out since Eiji appeared to be in the second movement to his doorbell symphony and no one had yet let him in.
“Oishi~!” the redhead exclaimed in delight when he heard the squeak of bicycle breaks on the path behind him. “They’ve put up a huge ferris wheel by the park,” Eiji held his arms out wide to try and impress upon his friend the size of this new discovery. “...and there’s takoyaki and toffee apples and fireworks tonight and...”
Oishi dropped his bike and walked over to his doubles partner and best friend. Without thinking anymore, he kissed him.