"That was so embarrassing," murmured Shinji. "I don't think I've ever been so embarrassed, apart from the time I threw up on my cousin at her birthday party. And that wasn't my fault, the sushi had gone off in the heat. But this was definitely my fault. So embarrassing."
Kamio lay back on the bench, letting Shinji's words wash over him like a soothing wave. When he got in the right mood, Shinji could go on for hours. He didn't even require an active listener.
But this time Kamio was listening. He winced every time Shinji said the word 'embarrassed' and -- given the way Shinji never abandoned a word if it was still appropriate -- that was quite a lot. Kamio felt exactly the same way.
He was disappointed for himself, of course. He, Shinji and Ishida had all collapsed by the end of their matches with Shitenhouji. Although perhaps 'brought shame on everyone in Fudomine' would be a better term than 'collapsed.'
Mostly, though, Kamio was disappointed for Tachibana. Kamio's speed demon reputation meant nothing to him except in light of how it would help to bring glory to Tachibana's team. He was pretty sure Shinji and Ishida felt the same way.
That was why Kamio and Shinji were sitting in the changing rooms long after the matches for the day had ended. In their own ways, they were cursing the cruel fate that had caused them to so comprehensively disgrace their beloved buchou. Shinji was flagellating himself with words. He used 'embarrassed' with particular relish, as though it were a whip with extra sting.
For himself, Kamio was staying absolutely still. His mp3 player was still tucked into a side pocket of his kit bag. Every so often his fingers itched to take it out, so that he could jam the headphones into his ears and let the rhythm take over his soul. But he refused to let himself. He didn't even tap his foot in time to an imaginary beat. He longed to move, which was exactly why he didn't.
"I feel terrible," sighed Shinji, and slumped against the wall.
Kamio spied an opening in Shinji's relentless monologue to finally agree. "Me too."
"I wasn't good enough."
"I wasn't fast enough."
"My stamina went to shit."
"I might as well not have had any."
They caught each other's eyes and grinned. Saying it aloud didn't change the score of those mortifying matches, but at least it was out there and not in Kamio's head. In Kamio's head it would grow and mutate until he couldn't even pick up a racquet. He knew because it had happened once before, when he had lost badly in an elementary school play-off.
"Don't you feel bad for Tachibana-san too?" asked Kamio. "I do. If it was just me I could handle it, but we've destroyed his dream as well."
"I was trying to avoid thinking about that," replied Shinji. "He's been through so much, what with blinding Chitose-san and that whole business with our coach and I heard his parents might be getting divorced and his sister keeps flirting with boys from Seigaku. He's got a lot on his plate."
Kamio pictured Tachibana An. He'd always thought she was cute. Plus, she had excellent taste in music. "It could be worse. She could be dating someone from Shitenhouji."
"That's unlikely," objected Shinji. "Shitenhouji is in Osaka. I don't think someone her age would be up for a long-distance relationship. Not when she could just date a boy from nearby. That's probably why she likes Momoshiro-kun. He's quite popular with girls. I suppose it's because his hair is cool, because he's actually a twit."
"Like I said. It could be worse." Kamio was getting a cramp in his thigh from where his left leg was bent up against the bench, but he stopped himself from shaking it out.
Shinji shook his head so that his hair was hanging over his face. It was a move he pulled in class when he'd forgotten to do his homework, which was practically every day. Kamio suspected he'd grown his hair long for that very purpose.
"I'm not looking forward to facing him," said Kamio, feeling the gloom descending again.
"Who -- Momoshiro-kun? Why? I never thought he was that scary. I mean, apart from when he's doing his Dunk Smash, because that's pretty damn scary, but otherwise --"
"No!" Kamio immediately softened his voice. "I mean Tachibana-san."
"He probably won't be that mad." Shinji's voice held a quaver of uncertainty.
"He won't be mad. He'll be really fair, and say we did out best, and that's bloody worse." Kamio clenched his teeth as he imagined what Tachibana's face would look like. Sorrowful, and restrained. A dark face under bright hair.
Shinji was mumbling something in reply, but all at once Kamio wasn't listening any more. "I still can't believe he dyed his hair, can you?"
"You mean Tachibana-san, don't you?"
"Who else would I mean -- Momoshiro-kun? No, don't answer that." Kamio bit his tongue, hard, for some respite against the spreading cramp. "I think it looks … good. Weird, but good."
"I suppose he has the right complexion for blonde hair." Shinji's thoughtful voice seemed to come from very far away. "If I tried to dye my hair that colour it would come out green, probably. Or maybe sort of orange. He must have bleached it for ages to get it so light. I drank some bleach once at my grandfather's house. I nearly died. So it must hurt when you put it on your head."
"Yeah …" Kamio touched a hand to his own hair before he realised what he was doing. "Shit! I moved!" He let his arm flop over the bench in despair. "Do you know if he has a girlfriend?"
"Tachibana-san has better things to do than waste his time with girls," said Shinji severely. "Unless you mean Momoshiro-kun, in which case I think he has several. I've heard he keeps a rota."
"Hmm." Kamio wondered if his prolonged inaction plus the cramp that was threatening a hostile takeover of his entire lower body was affecting his brain, because he couldn't get Tachibana and Tachibana's hair out of his mind. "What would you do if he came in here right now?"
"He wouldn't. Everyone's gone home," Shinji pointed out, with that annoying literality he sported far too often.
"I think I'd kiss him," said Kamio dreamily.
"Momoshiro-kun doesn't need any more kisses, believe me." Shinji paused. "Wait. Wait. You mean you'd kiss the buchou? Why?"
Kamio shrugged and effectively gave up on trying to stay absolutely still. He let the cramp go its own merry way, however. "He caught us. Me and Ishida-kun. When we were about to fall over."
"So he has good reflexes! That's not a reason for kissing someone."
"Maybe I just want to." Kamio thought of the way the muscles bunched under Tachibana's skin when he swung for the ball. "Don't you think he deserves it?"
"Sure. I think he deserves to have at least as many girlfriends as Momoshiro-kun. Or even Echizen-kun. I'm not sure why you think he'd like to be kissed by you."
"I didn't say that!" protested Kamio. "He probably wouldn't like it. I'd just … like it."
"Well, here's your big chance." Shinji was peering out of the dusty window. "He's coming across the grounds right now."
Kamio jumped up in surprise, startling his cramp out of its hiding place. So it was that when Tachibana opened the door, Kamio was sprawled on the floor clutching his calf. It wasn't, as Kamio had a chance to reflect later, the most graceful and attractive pose ever adopted.
"I thought you two might still be here," said Tachibana. "You'd better come along now, unless you want to be locked in for the night."
Shinji managed to pull off a bow and a soft apology to his buchou. Kamio, his face screwed up from the fading throbbing in his veins, tried to smile. He gathered from Shinji's expression that this attempt wasn't a roaring success.
"Are you all right, Kamio?" asked Tachibana, sounding concerned. "Did you injure yourself in the match? You should have told someone!"
Smoothing out his grimace, Kamio scrambled to his feet. "I didn't hurt myself. I just got a cramp from sitting still too long."
Tachibana's eyebrows climbed into his hairline. "You sat still for too long? You're definitely sick."
"No, Tachibana-san," interjected Shinji. "We're just angry at ourselves for losing."
"The only reason for feeling angry when you lose is when you haven't put a hundred percent into your effort," said Tachibana in a voice of steel. "Both of you put in hundred and ten percent. No one expected more. No one wanted more. You should be proud, not angry."
Although this was just what Kamio expected Tachibana to say, he couldn't help feeling a flash of warmth uncoil in his belly. In Tachibana's presence, you could believe anything he said. Even if he said the moon was made of green wasabi.
Tachibana transferred his gaze to Kamio. Tachibana's hair was beginning to wilt, and he no longer looked as if he was burning with energy. Rather, he just looked burnt out.
"Walk," commanded Tachibana. "Losing is not shameful, but hiding an injury is."
"I swear I'm not," protested Kamio. To prove it, he quickly closed the distance between himself and his buchou. Tachibana looked satisfied by Kamio's clean bill of health, and Kamio realised he was standing right in front of him.
Something strange happened inside Kamio's chest. It felt as if everything had gone gooey, and his muscles tingled like they did after he'd run twenty laps. He put his hand on Tachibana's jacket, remembering how it felt to be crushed against it seconds before the world turned fuzzy and faded away. He could smell the same smell from it -- sweat and spicy deodorant.
His heart thumped. Once -- he curled his fingers into the jacket. Twice -- he lifted his eyes to Tachibana's wary face. Thrice -- and he bounced up on tiptoe and kissed Tachibana on the lips.
Their mouths grazed across each other for half a second, during which Kamio's heartbeat started racing too fast to count. Tachibana's mouth was dry on the outside but a little bit wet around the curve of his lip. Kamio closed his eyes and held still -- after all his practice that afternoon, he found it quite easy -- until Tachibana's fingers closed around his wrist.
"Eh," mumbled Kamio, coming back to earth with a jolt. Literally -- he'd had to go up on tiptoes to reach Tachibana's mouth. He waited for the onset of ground-shattering rage, but it never came. Instead, Tachibana's thumb swiped the inside of his wrist -- once -- and released him.
"Thank you," said Tachibana, sounding oddly solemn.
"Eh," said Kamio again. It was the only word his brain felt capable of producing at that moment.
Shinji looked from one to the other, his mouth all but disappearing as he pursed his lips together. Then, with a slight shake of his hair, he grabbed Tachibana's face between his hands and pulled it forward. Kamio watched in astonishment as Shinji planted two smacking kisses on each of Tachibana's cheeks. This time, Tachibana reeled backwards in honest-to-goodness shock.
Shinji nodded his head in satisfaction. "There," he said. "I'm not quite sure what that was supposed to achieve, but we've done it now. Though if he hits us I'm blaming you, Kamio."
"It's time to go," announced Tachibana, visibly recovering his composure. "Have you quite finished the kissing for the night?"
"I think so, unless Kamio wants to go again?" Shinji turned to Kamio with a questioning look.
Puce with humiliation, Kamio shook his head. Behind Shinji, Tachibana's mouth twitched.
"You two go on ahead." Tachibana twirled a set of keys around one finger. "I promised the caretaker I'd lock up after you."
"All right. Good night, Tachibana-san. C'mon, Kamio."
Kamio flashed Tachibana a weak grin, but he didn't feel up to challenging his brain to produce an entire sentence. He followed Shinji out of the door. The tennis courts were drenched in gold from the setting sun.
"That was interesting. I'm sure glad we aren't dead because of it," said Shinji chummily. "Next time, maybe we should try that Tezuka from Seigaku. What do you think?"
Kamio shaded his eyes with one hand. The hand that still prickled from the cloth of Tachibana's jacket. "I think … maybe losing isn't so bad, after all."