Two hours after Kawamura's funeral and they were already playing tennis. That was pretty freaking annoying; when Fuji was the one who died, the Regulars were depressed for weeks.
Not to mention, it was the worst way to be written out of the story. At least it didn't happen very often. Usually he just ended up working at the sushi shop while everyone else had fun. If he was lucky, he got a cute girlfriend. Or, if he was unlucky, Akutsu. And a lot of bruises.
Maybe being dead wasn't so bad. Kawamura sighed, so far as a dead person could sigh, not breathing and all, and waited to float off to wherever so that the real story could begin.
Only he didn't float off. He just hung in mid-air, watching the afternoon tennis practice and thinking that Inui really needed a better haircut.
"Hello?" he called. "I think I'm stuck!"
"Sorry I'm late!"
The first year hovered beside Kawamura. "I'm really busy, you know."
"You're dead too?" That was a bit weird. True, Horio was annoying, but he was usually either ignored or ridiculed, not killed off.
"Of course I'm not dead." Horio bobbed a little higher and raised his chin. "I'm a Plot Twister."
"I'm really confused." Kawamura looked back at the court. Nobody seemed to notice him and Horio above them, even though Horio was supposed to be picking up balls this afternoon.
"Okay, my real title is Plot Nudger. But it's a really important job. I'll be your assistant. Well, more like your partner."
"Partner in what?"
Horio pulled a crumpled paper out of his pocket and handed it to Kawamura. Kawamura unfolded it. Greetings, Kawamura Takashi, it read.
You have been assigned to ghost matchmaking duty. Before you can pass on to your eternal rest, you must ensure that all the Regulars (including Momoshiro, since he's taking your spot on the roster) are in Seigaku Standard Pairings configuration and in love with each other by the end of prom night.
Best of luck!
"Don't worry," Horio said. "I've got 200 years Plot Nudging experience."
Kawamura looked down at Momoshiro putting on Kawamura's old Regular Jersey. "Is it too late to get beaten up by Akutsu instead?"
According the poster on the clubhouse wall, which had not been there yesterday when Kawamura had his unfortunate accident of being hit in the head by Ikeda's serve and instantly dying, Boys Tennis Prom was in three days. A romantic evening you will remember all your life, the poster said, which seemed insensitive towards ghosts.
Kawamura drifted over to the courts. He wasn't sure just how he was going to accomplish his mission, but anything was possible if you just persevered and worked hard and didn't get hit in the head.
Inui was talking to Kaidoh, which looked promising. Most of the time, the Regulars seemed all too eager to make out in the clubhouse or go on romantic dates or practice the ancient art of rope bondage, so probably there wasn't much for Kawamura to do anyhow.
As Kawamura got closer, Inui took a box out of his bag and handed it to Kaidoh. Kawamura squinted at the label: condoms. Awesome! He did a little zoom through the air. One pairing down. Plus they were having safe sex.
"Promise me you'll use these," Inui said. Kaidoh went pink in the face. They were so cute together, Kawamura thought, but it was a little odd that Kaidoh was topping. "And did you both read that pamphlet?"
"If Momoshiro can read," Kaidoh muttered. He stuffed the box into his tennis bag.
"So, I've always wondered, Kaidoh, which one of you..."
Kaidoh hissed and walked away. Kawamura forgot to stop and drifted right through Inui. Kaidoh and Momo? That was a non-standard pairing! But maybe that was okay. "Horio," he called. "Is it okay if everyone is just paired up? Does it matter who with?"
Horio floated over and hovered by Inui's left ear. "The letter said standard pairings, right?"
"But I thought I'd just have to match people up, not break them up." Across the court, Momo grabbed Kaidoh's arm and bussed his cheek. Kaidoh punched Momo in the chest. Well, maybe they'd break up on their own.
"Don't worry." Horio beamed. "We're partners. We're the Super Supernatural Combi! But I'm a little late right now." He lowered himself to the ground. There was a shimmer and a slurp and for a second, it looked like Horio was turning inside out.
"Shouldn't you be picking up balls, Horio?" Inui said. Horio scampered off.
"Inui!" Kawamura yelled. "Can you hear me?" Inui looked up for a moment, then went back to writing in his notebook. So, Kawamura couldn't talk directly to living people but maybe they could sort of hear him subliminally. "Make Kaidoh and Momo break up, Inui."
"Tezuka," Inui called and Tezuka came over. "Do you think I should encourage Kaidoh to break off his involvement with Momoshiro?"
"Why?" Tezuka said. Kawamura had sort of mixed feelings about Tezuka. On the one hand, Tezuka was the captain and a very strong player and also the student body president, not that anybody ever remembered that, and so of course Kawamura respected him a lot. But on the other hand, Tezuka got paired up with Fuji, which, frankly, Kawamura thought should have been his standard pairing. It had certainly seemed that way at the beginning when they were doubles partners.
"I don't know," Inui said. "I just wondered for some reason." He put his notebook away. "Never mind. Are we still on for tonight?"
"We're not going to karaoke again," Tezuka said.
"That couch was shoddily built," Inui said. "No, my parents are away on vacation for a month. Or was it a year? Anyhow, they're not home, so come over. I didn't give away all my condoms."
Jeez louise. What was with all these strange match-ups? "You should break up too," Kawamura said. "And, Inui, get a haircut." He headed across the courts to where Fuji was sitting on a bench. Maybe he could get Fuji to go after Tezuka. But a lot depended on Fuji's characterization. There weren't any cut marks on Fuji's arms or legs, so that was a good sign. So long as he wasn't unhealthily obsessing over his brother, he would probably be devious and forceful enough to detach Tezuka from Inui. And if he subjected Tezuka to some creepy S&M humiliation in the process, so much the better.
"Kato," Fuji called. "Please ask Echizen to come over here." He smiled sweetly. Kawamura hovered beside him on the bench. Too bad there was no option for "ghost boyfriend".
Ryoma showed up, his cap tugged down over his eyes. "What?"
"Come here." Fuji grabbed Ryoma and pulled him down onto the bench, right where Kawamura was already sitting. Fuji flipped off the cap and tousled Ryoma's hair. "Guess who missed his Ryo-chan?"
Eeeew. Kawamura floated away before he barfed, if ghosts could even barf. Maybe they barfed up ectoplasm. But Kawamura didn't want to find out.
One chance left. Oishi and Eiji were finishing up a set against Arai and Hayashi. After match point, Eiji jumped at Oishi and hugged him. The walked back to the club house and Kawamura trailed after them.
"Are you ready for our date?" Oishi said.
"Of course!" Eiji put his arm around Oishi's neck. Good old Golden Pair, Kawamura thought. Always as good as married. "But Miko and I might leave a little early. It's our three-month anniversary and I bought her a present."
"That's fine," Oishi said. "I'd like some time alone with Mei anyhow."
Kawamura started to cry.
The best part about the basement was there was no view of the tennis courts. Or the tennis players. Who were ruining Kawamura's non-life with their crazy mixed-up romances. Kawamura punched the wall and his hand went right through it.
Though it was hard to blame them for being in love. It was beautiful and natural. Kawamura didn't want to break them up, even if it meant they got together in new pairings. And it wasn't like he even could break them up. He was useless, weak, and ineffectual. And Horio wasn't much help either. He kicked a soda can and it rolled across the floor.
"You can move stuff. That's great!"
Kawamura turned around. It was a boy, about Kawamura's age. His school uniform was different, though. And his feet weren't touching the ground. "You're a ghost."
"I'm Atsushi," the ghost boy said. "It's good to talk to you, Taka-san. Can I call you Taka-san?"
"How do you know my name?" Kawamura shivered a bit. It was a bit creepy to actually meet a ghost, even if he was one himself.
"I've been here for a while, so I know everybody."
"Oh!" Kawamura thought about it. "So, when everybody says the bathroom on the second floor is haunted--"
"That's just because people have sex in there," Atsushi said. "So, did you figure out your powers yet?"
"I have powers?"
"How else will you fulfil your final assignment? Me, I can change the temperature in the room and make words and pictures appear on blackboards and things." He looked down. "Kind of lame, right?"
"No, no," Kawamura said, though secretly he thought it was really lame. "I guess I can give people vague ideas."
"And you moved that can -- you can probably affect small objects."
Kawamura experimented on some screwdrivers that were lying on a shelf. He could move all but the biggest one. So, he was really lame too.
"This is great!" Atsushi grinned. "You have excellent powers. If we team up, we could have a lot of fun here, playing pranks and such."
That didn't sound too bad. Maybe Kawamura could just forget about all the matchmaking and hang out with his new friend. No responsibilities, no homework, and he could probably even use his powers to put hot pepper sauce on Tezuka's lunch. "Okay, let's do it."
It was the best afternoon Kawamura had spent in a long time. They changed the homework assignments on all the blackboards to rude poems and tickled Oishi every time he tried to speak up in class and made the chemistry teacher run out for a cigarette every half hour. But no matter how much Atsushi raised the temperature during the student council meeting, Tezuka still wouldn't take off his jacket.
After school was over and all the kids were gone, Atsushi and Kawamura floated up to the roof to watch the sunset. Atsushi got up on the ledge. "I'll jump," he said. "I mean it, I'll jump!" He fell backwards, then bobbed back up a second later. Kawamura laughed so hard that he sank halfway through the floor. Being a ghost was awesome.
"Hey, Atsushi-kun, what school are you from?"
"Seigaku," Atsushi said. "Let's go watch TV. I get kind of bored at night, since I can't leave the school."
"How come you can't leave?" Kawamura asked as they headed down to the first floor.
Atsushi's face got kind of glowy silver and Kawamura realized he must be blushing. "I didn't complete my final assignment."
So, that was totally an option. Kawamura took the letter out of his pocked and ripped it into about twenty pieces and threw them up in the air. They fluttered away and Kawamura did a flip in mid-air.
In the A-V room, they hovered in front of the TV and Kawamura levitated the remote. "So, what shows do you like?"
"I don't know," Atsushi said. "I can't work the remote myself so I haven't seen any TV for a while."
"About thirty years."
The remote clattered onto the floor and Kawamura went to see if he could find the scraps of paper.
It turned out that ghosts didn't have to sleep, so Kawamura had the whole night to come up with a plan. Only that was really hard and by morning practice, he still didn't have one. He spent some time whispering to Kaidoh to dump Momo, since that seemed the most likely thing to happen anyhow. But then Momo brought Kaidoh this stuffed lobster that he'd won from a claw machine and Kaidoh went all red in the face, kind of like the lobster, and pulled Momo into the back of the clubroom.
Kawamura thought maybe he and Atsushi could do some more pranks or something, but he drifted over the whole school and couldn't find him anywhere. Maybe he had a special power of turning invisible.
After lunch, Kawamura ended up in the manga club room. He could manage to move the comics that the club members drew so he leafed through a few to pass the time. They were mostly pretty bad.
"I like that one," Atsushi said.
Kawamura shot up in the air like he'd been jabbed with a pin. "Have you been there the whole time?"
"No." Atsushi floated over to the window and looked out. "I come in here while they're drawing, so I get to read the comics then."
"I don't suppose you could help me break up all the romances in the tennis club and then get everyone back together in different couples?"
"I don't know," Atsushi said. "I think I'm busy all afternoon." He passed through the window, slowly, and the light bent in a weird way around him while he was in the middle of the glass.
Kawamura wondered what was up with him. Because what could Atsushi be so busy with after thirty years with no TV? Maybe Kawamura should go after him and talk with him a little. But first he should put away the manga. It wouldn't do to leave the club room all messy.
Plus, he wanted to see how this story turned out. He carefully turned the page. And there, in black and white, was the best idea ever. Well, okay, it was probably a pretty stupid idea, but it was an idea, which was one more idea than Kawamura had had previously.
It was so stupid it might even work.
Everyone looked at Tezuka. He looked at a print-out of some student council meeting agendas. For like five minutes. "So, what did you want to talk to us about?" Fuji said, finally.
"I didn't want to talk to you," Tezuka said.
"Then why did you ask us to come here?"
"I didn't." Tezuka turned a page. "Inui did."
"No," Inui said. "I didn't. Horio clearly said that Tezuka wanted to speak to all the Regulars in the clubhouse after practice."
Kawamura hovered over the cubbies. He'd had to remind Horio three times before he'd delivered all the messages.
"Didn't Horio say something about cookies?" Oishi said.
"No cookies," Tezuka said.
"Then we can go?" Momo went over to the door. "We're locked in!" That part Kawamura had managed by himself.
Momo pounded on the door. Kawamura hoped Horio had done his other job of putting up the quarantine signs around the tennis courts. Nobody would come unlock the door if they thought they'd catch the Ebola virus.
"How long are we going to be locked in?" Ryoma said. "I'm bored already."
"I do have a special presentation I was hoping to make next week," Inui said. "It's about the proper use of dental dams. It's not quite ready but I could give it now."
Kawamura gathered up his ghostly strength and concentrated. A bottle slowly rolled out from under a bench. He floated over to Fuji. "Fuji, don't you think it would be fun to--"
"Let's play Spin the Bottle," Fuji said, even before Kawamura could suggest it. Which just went to show.
"I'm not going to play Spin the Bottle with a bunch of boys," Eiji said.
"I have a dental dam right here," Inui said. "Now, it's important to inspect it first."
Eiji pulled Oishi down to sit on the floor. "Okay, let's play."
Everyone got into a circle. Inui took Tezuka's print-outs away. Momo gave the bottle a spin. Kawamura concentrated again and it stopped right in front of Ryoma. "Ha ha," Momo laughed, and leaned across the circle. Ryoma rolled his eyes but he let Momo kiss him.
Kawamura watched Kaidoh closely for a reaction but he didn't seem to care that much. Fuji looked a little pissed off. Not nearly enough though. So when Ryoma spun the bottle, Kawamura made it stop by Tezuka. They both leaned in slowly and Kawamura waited for the deep connection they no doubt shared to come to the surface in a passionate kiss.
In fact, it was pretty boring. More boring even than one of Inui's special presentations. "How sweet," Fuji said, in a voice that scared Kawamura before he remembered that he was already dead and so Fuji couldn't do anything to him. Probably.
"Go ahead, Tezuka," Oishi said. Tezuka did and the bottle stopped in front of Fuji. Who grabbed Tezuka and went to town on him for nearly half a minute.
"How was that?" Fuji said, wiping his mouth on a handkerchief. Tezuka slumped back, like he was dazed or something.
"Tezuka," Inui said, "You told me you don't like tongue kissing!"
"Um," Tezuka said.
"He seemed to like it fine," Fuji said. He smiled pleasantly at Inui.
"You know who likes tongue kissing?" Momo said. "The viper can't get enough of it." He put his arm around Kaidoh's shoulders.
Kaidoh knocked it away. "Shut up, idiot."
"Well, Tezuka," said Inui, "since you don't appreciate my oral skills, logically, I should switch to someone who will." And without even spinning the bottle first, he kissed Kaidoh, who seemed too shocked to do anything about it. Kawamura thought that Tezuka was probably right not to like Inui's kissing, though.
"I always knew there was something going on with you two," Momo said. "Even though Kaidoh denied it like a million times."
"There's nothing going on," Kaidoh said.
"Yes, there is." Inui kissed him again and groped his ass a bit as well.
"Then I'll get a new boyfriend too." Momo slung his arm around Ryoma's neck. "You don't mind, do you?"
Ryoma shrugged. "As long as you don't call me dumb pet names."
Kawamura zoomed around the room three times. Success!
"At least we don't have to play this stupid game any more," Eiji said.
Almost success. He kept forgetting that the Golden Pair weren't already dating. And he couldn't get them to kiss if they wouldn't spin the bottle.
"Maybe we can jimmy the lock," Oishi said. He stood and held down a hand to help Eiji up. The door banged open. "Mei!"
"Miko!" Eiji said. "Thanks for rescuing us!"
"I can't believe you fooled us this whole time," Mei said. "You know, in this day and age, you can just admit that you're gay."
"I'm not gay," Oishi said. "We're not gay."
"I hope you're happy together," Miko said. A tear ran down her cheek.
"We're not together," Eiji said. "Miko!" She ran out, pulling Mei with her. "We didn't even kiss," Eiji yelled after her.
Kawamura looked out the door and it was hard to tell in the direct sunlight, but he thought he saw a familiar figure floating there. "Atsushi-kun?"
Atsushi drifted inside. "I, um, left a note for them in their classroom, that they should come down here. And, you know, that their boyfriends are gay."
"You're the best!" Kawamura said. "Um, if you're not busy now, we could watch some TV."
"That would be fun." Atsushi smiled a little and Kawamura smiled back.
"Apparently we've all been exposed to Ebola and have to stay here under quarantine," Inui said. "So, first make sure there are no holes or tears in the dam..."
"It's a good thing you're the DJ." Kawamura looked around the gym, which was decorated about a thousand red paper hearts of various sizes.
"I know, right?" Horio adjusted the huge sunglasses he was wearing even though the lights were pretty low. "Of course I had to turn down like six invitations for dates." He flipped a switch and the disco ball started to turn. "Okay, at midnight, we go with the plan. I will so totally be promoted to Plot Twister after this!"
"Good luck." Kawamura drifted over to where Momo and Ryoma were getting their pictures taken. "Why did we have to wear matching outfits, Momo-senpai?"
"Okay, smile," the photographer said.
"So people know we're together."
Ryoma scowled. "Nobody wears bowling shirts to prom."
"Let's try that again. Say 'cheese'."
"Bowling shirts are hip!" Momo said.
"And mine is way too big."
"I can't help that. That's the size I had." Momo grabbed Ryoma in a headlock. "Okay, we're ready now."
They looked really cute together, Kawamura thought. And Ryoma was probably just being sulky as usual. So that was no danger to their love.
"Everybody dance!" Horio yelled into the microphone and music throbbed through the gym.
"I can't believe the girls are here with Arai and Hayashi," Oishi said. "We should have found dates too."
"Wouldn't that make them more mad?" Eiji said.
"No, because right now they think we're here together."
"Well, we are here together."
"As friends," Oishi said.
"Now they're dancing! Let's dance too, so they think we're having fun."
"Okay," Oishi said. "But just as friends. And no slow songs."
Kawamura watched them head out onto the dance floor. Oishi was a surprisingly good dancer. But he was worried about their romance. It wasn't coming together like it should. But at midnight everything should be A-OK. If Horio was right.
"Can you move that table, Kaidoh?" Inui pointed.
"Aren't we going to dance?" Kaidoh was looking completely stunning in tight low-rise black pants and a forest-green silk shirt buttoned half-way over a mesh tank-top. The shirt brought out the colour of his eyes and a single silver bracelet completed his ensemble. Inui was wearing a suit of some kind.
"But prom night is when many couples lose their virginity," Inui said. "They need to be prepared." He set out a stack of pamphlets and a fishbowl full of condoms.
"Do you care if I dance with someone else, then?"
"Like-- oh my god."
Kawamura and everyone else turned to the door where Fuji and Tezuka were making their entrance. Fuji looked fairly normal except for the eyeliner. Tezuka was wearing leather pants and not much else except for the leash around his neck.
The fishbowl crashed to the floor and Inui's mouth gaped open. Kaidoh went to the buffet.
"See, that's what you wear to prom," Ryoma said.
There wasn't much more that he could do now, so Kawamura had to trust that Horio was right about the plan. He floated around the room, watching couples dance and talk and eat. There was a shimmer behind the basketball backboard and Kawamura went over.
"Thanks for leaving the TV on for me," Atsushi said.
"You're not watching it?"
"I was but I thought I'd come check out the prom. Since you're leaving soon and all."
Kawamura beamed. "You know, I couldn't have done it without you, Atsushi-kun. You're great!"
"Do you want to, um, dance?"
They drifted out over the dance floor. Kawamura had always felt really awkward dancing but as a ghost it was way easier. Plus he didn't get all sweaty.
At two minutes to midnight, they floated over to the DJ booth. "Is this going to work?" Kawamura said.
"I guarantee it." Horio flipped on the mic. "Everyone out on the floor with your date," he roared. "It's the Most Romantic Song Ever."
People straggled into the middle of the gym. "Too bad it's not the Best Bowling Song Ever," Ryoma said.
"Shut up," Momo said. "Hey, Mamushi, what's wrong with you?"
Kaidoh shifted and adjusted his pants. "Fucking latex allergy," he muttered. He grabbed Inui's arm as he walked past. "I'm right here, senpai."
"Why are we out here?" Oishi said.
"Because we came to prom together and Horio said--"
"As friends!" Oishi said loudly. "Non-gay FRIENDS."
Fuji snapped Tezuka's leash and led him out to the very centre of the gym. "You know," he said to Inui, "Tezuka likes lots of things." He stroked Tezuka's cheek with the handle of the leash. "Don't you, Mitsu-chan?"
"Don't call me that," Tezuka said. Fuji looked over at Ryoma.
This better really be the Most Romantic Song Ever, Kawamura thought, because everyone needed a lot of help.
"Ready?" Horio said. The haunting strains of the pan-pipe filled the gym.
Every night in my dreams
I see you, I feel you,
That is how I know you go on
Couples began to dance. Dry ice smoke rolled over the floor, making everything misty.
Far across the distance
And spaces between us
You have come to show you go on
Ryoma looked up at Momo with liquid eyes and Momo ruffled his hair gently. Tezuka wrapped his arms around Fuji and Fuji snuggled into his bare chest.
Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on
Kaidoh and Inui stood nearly still, holding each other's hands and gazing at each other with about as much rapt ardour as anyone could gaze with. Which was quite a lot. Inui had to wipe off his glasses.
Once more you open the door
And you're here in my heart
And my heart will go on and on
"Oh, what the hell." Oishi pulled Eiji close and they swayed gently, heads on each other's shoulders.
The song was totally working! Kawamura turned to Atsushi. "I guess this is good-bye."
"I guess so." Atsushi looked down and kind of kicked at the air with his toe.
Love can touch us one time
And last for a lifetime
And never let go till we're one
"I'm really glad we met and all," Kawamura said.
"Yeah, me too." The disco lights sparkled inside Atsushi and he glowed with that silver blush again.
Love was when I loved you
One true time I hold to
In my life we'll always go on
All through the gym, couples lifted their heads and moved in to kiss. They were falling in love, all of them. And when they did...
"Stop the music!" Kawamura yelled but Horio had his eyes closed and his headphones on. "Stop!" Kawamura summoned all of his power and yanked the power cord from the wall. The music cut out.
"Oh, thank god," Oishi said.
"What did you do that for?" Atsushi said. "Now you'll be stuck here."
"I know," Kawamura said. And he kissed Atsushi. He wasn't even sure they would be able to at first, but since they were both ghosts, they could touch each other okay. They kissed and kissed and floated out over the middle of the dance floor.
And as they kissed, their True Ghost Love threw off True Love Rays more powerful than any Céline Dion song.
"Ryo-chan!" Fuji said and scooped Ryoma into his arms. "Miko!" "Mei!" Eiji and Oishi called. Tezuka and Inui embraced. And Kaidoh punched Momo in the arm.
"Can I take this leash off now?" Tezuka said.
Inui picked up the handle. "No."
Above them, Kawamura and Atsushi looked deeply into each other's eyes. "I couldn't leave you," Kawamura said. "Now we can watch TV and play pranks forever!"
"Oh, Taka-san!" Atsushi kissed Kawamura and there were so many more True Love Rays that Inui's whole bowl of condoms got used up and the basketball team refused to use the gym again until it had been power-washed. And everybody lived, or non-lived, happily every after.
Except Oishi, whose girlfriend wouldn't take him back.