"Gather up for review," Oishi called.
Kaidoh put his racquet into his bag and gathered up, between Kawamura and Momoshiro. As usual, Tezuka was standing beside Oishi, not speaking. Kaidoh had once overheard Ikeda and Hayashi speculating that Tezuka was just a robot used by Oishi to control the club. He'd told them to shut up and not be so stupid, but ever since, he'd secretly wondered if it could be true.
"Eiji," Oishi said.
Kikumaru made a face. "I know, I know." He slung his arm around Fuji's shoulder. "Fuji will help me, right?"
"Of course." Fuji smiled.
Kawamura blushed. "I'm working harder now. It won't be a problem."
Inui looked up from his book. "I have some ideas on increasing your rate of improvement, if you'd like to take part in some experimental trials."
"Um..." Kawamura said. "I might be busy that day."
Oishi turned. "Momo, you're doing much better."
"Of course!" Momoshiro elbowed Kaidoh in the side. "Better than you, I'm sure."
"Idiot," Kaidoh muttered, elbowing Momoshiro back. "Did you hear him call my name?"
"He will, any second," Momoshiro whispered. "Want to bet 500 yen?"
"You want me to take your money, you stupid monkey?" Kaidoh gave Momoshiro a shove.
"Kaidoh," Oishi said.
Kaidoh blinked and looked up.
"Pay up!" Momo poked Kaidoh in the back.
"Please pay attention," Oishi said.
Kaidoh hung his head and took a step backwards.
"500 yen," Momo whispered.
"Shut up," Kaidoh hissed. "Anyway, that doesn't count."
"Echizen," Oishi said. "There's a problem with your performance."
Echizen scowled. "If you think so, just play me and find out."
Kikumaru laughed and grabbed Echizen around the neck. "You're so cute."
"What?" Echizen tried to shake Kikumaru off, but Kaidoh could have told him how impossible that was. Kikumaru was like a leech or a remora fish. Anyhow, when it was your senpai, you just had to put up with it.
"It's not your tennis, Echizen," Fuji said. "It's your marks."
"If you fail any subjects, you can't play in tournaments," Kawamura said.
"It's not just about passing," Oishi said. "A proper balance between sports and academics is important."
"Not to mention that a properly trained mind is invaluable for sports performance," Inui said.
"We'll be dummies together, ochibi!" Kikumaru said.
"My marks are fine," Echizen said.
"They're all excellent," Oishi said, "except for Japanese."
Echizen scowled again.
"No problem," Momoshiro said. "Professor Momo-chan will teach you."
"Momo, don't you need that time to study your own Japanese?" Fuji said. "I can help you, Echizen."
"This would be a good chance for me to apply the new Freestanding Automated Instruction and Learning System." Inui pulled a notepad out of his pocket and scribbled something. "I can have it ready for deployment in three days."
"That's not like those sub-lemonade CDs you tried on me, Inui?" Kikumaru dropped Echizen and gave Inui a shove. "I had bad dreams for a week!"
"But you passed the math test," Inui said.
"Didn't you forget about your own history test that week, Inui?" Fuji said.
Inui and Kikumaru both started talking at once. Kawamura put his hand on Echizen's shoulder. "It's nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I'm not that good myself, but if you need someone to help you study..."
"Kaidoh will do it," Tezuka said.
"This is boring." Echizen dropped his pen.
Kaidoh looked out the window. Some leaves had drifted onto the tennis court behind the house. The sunlight filtered through the net. A ball lay on the baseline. He turned back to Echizen. "It doesn't matter if it's boring. Keep writing."
Echizen shot Kaidoh a dirty look and bent over his paper. He scrawled out a character. Kaidoh bopped him on the head with a ruler.
"Ow!" Echizen rubbed his head. "Stop doing that!"
"Stop making mistakes."
"What's wrong with this? It looks fine."
"The stroke order is wrong."
"It looks fine," Echizen muttered.
"It's messy. Write it again."
Echizen wrote it again. "Ow!"
"Like this--" Kaidoh grabbed the pen. "See?"
"Whatever." Echizen wrote it again.
Kaidoh rubbed his own head. Why did Tezuka even pick him for this? Or Oishi, if the robot theory was true. "You're doing it backwards."
Echizen grinned. "This is the left-handed way."
"There's only one way," Kaidoh said.
"The getting hit with a ruler way? Anyhow, it's the same result."
"It's just...important. Like following through on your serve. So you know you did it right."
Echizen looked at him for a minute, then wrote the character again, still a little messy, but at least the order was right. "So, if I get hit on the head for doing it wrong, what do I get for doing it right?"
"You get to keep playing tennis," Kaidoh said.
"Okay." Echizen wrote five perfect copies, then put down his pen. "How about a match?"
Kaidoh looked out the window again. The sun was still shining. The ball was still on the baseline. There were eight more characters to review.
"Do you promise to study more afterwards?"
Echizen picked up his racquet. "Can I hit you with a ruler when I win?"
"Get me some more balls," Kaidoh yelled at the first years lounging by the fence. He slammed out another serve, just missing the target he'd chalked onto the court. "Shit!" Another serve, another miss. Just like last night.
"Remember to follow through." Echizen sauntered up, his racquet tucked under his arm.
Kaidoh served again. He didn't even smudge the chalk.
"Can I borrow your ruler?" Echizen said. "I forgot mine in the classroom."
"Idiot." Kaidoh tossed, swung, connected. The ball smashed down into the circle. Finally.
"I haven't learned that one yet. But..." Echizen picked up Kaidoh's piece of chalk and wrote the hiragana out on the court. "Or maybe you'd like to learn some English?" He scrawled some letters down, then added an arrow. Pointing at Kaidoh.
"You can't talk to me that way!" Kaidoh grabbed at Echizen but he dodged out of the way.
"I was writing, not talking." Echizen grinned. "I'm going to get some juice. Do you want any?"
"Kaidoh." It was Tezuka. And Oishi too. Kaidoh straightened up. Echizen walked away.
Oishi had a frown on his face, unlike Tezuka's face which showed nothing at all. But his arms were crossed over his chest which said quite a lot.
Kaidoh took a deep breath and told himself that Tezuka was probably just a robot. Although, that just meant that Oishi was the scary one...
"Echizen failed another quiz today," Oishi said.
Kaidoh stared at the court, at his feet, at IDIOT x 2. "I'm sorry," he said.
"You have to work harder," Oishi said.
"I know." Everyone was looking at Kaidoh now, all the first years, all the second years, Momoshiro and Kikumaru and Inui.
"Kaidoh," Tezuka said. "I'm disappointed."
"I'm sorry," Kaidoh said again.
"I know you'll do better," Oishi said. Tezuka just turned and walked away.
A buzz of talk went up all around the courts. Kaidoh let out his breath in a long hiss.
"I got you grape," Echizen said and pushed a drink can into Kaidoh's hand. He took a swallow and licked a stray drop off the corner of his mouth. "Are you coming over tonight?"
"You have to do better," Kaidoh said. "My little brother knows twice as many kanji as you."
"Does he have a dent on the top of his head?" Echizen said.
"I left the ruler at home." Kaidoh pointed to the table. "Sit down and write the first character 50 times."
Echizen stared at Kaidoh. Kaidoh stared back. Then Echizen sat down and started to write.
Maybe it would be okay. Kaidoh just had to keep him at it. Then Tezuka wouldn't look at Kaidoh like that again. Then Kaidoh and Echizen could play more tennis and Kaidoh would win.
There was a knock and the door opened. "Your mom let me in, Echizen," Oishi said. "I just came over to check in on you two. Is everything okay?"
"Of course," Kaidoh said. Echizen just frowned. Kaidoh poked Echizen's shoulder. "Keep writing."
"It's important to have a good atmosphere for studying," Oishi said. "And take proper breaks. I'll time you for fifteen minutes, then take a rest, okay?"
Kaidoh looked out the window. There were no leaves on the tennis court today, just sun and shadows. Echizen's cat rubbed up against Kaidoh's ankles and he knelt down to stroke him.
The door opened again. "I hope we're not disturbing you," Fuji said. "We just came to drop off a study snack for you."
"It's my special brain-food sushi," Kawamura said. "Guaranteed to keep you thinking hard."
"I don't think it's a good idea to eat while studying," Oishi said. "What if you get food stains on your homework?"
"How's the tutoring going?" Fuji said to Kaidoh.
Terrible, Kaidoh was about to say, when there was a bang outside the room. Echizen jumped up and opened the door. "You stupid old man, can't you be quiet?"
But it was Inui. With a robot.
"It's the Freestanding Automated Instruction and Learning System," he said. "Since more, um, traditional methods were ineffective..."
"Rulers are traditional?" Echizen said.
The robot clanked into the room. "Greetings, Master," it said in a screechy computer voice. It was about a metre tall, with a screen on its stomach. "What Is Your Bidding?"
"See, the material to review appears here. He'll ask you questions and grade your answers."
"I don't think robots are a good idea," Oishi said. Which was probably just a bluff.
"Commencing Quantum Physics Review." The robot swung its arms around. Kawamura snatched the sushi platter away just in time.
The door burst open and Momoshiro and Kikumaru bounced in. "We heard there was a party!" Kikumaru said.
"Hey, is that a karaoke machine?" Momoshiro grabbed at the robot.
"The Principal Quantum Number Is Represented By What Variable?"
Kawamura passed around the sushi. Inui lectured Oishi on the usefulness of robots. Fuji asked Echizen about some English books on his shelf. Kikumaru stood on his head. Momoshiro kicked Kaidoh's bag out of the way. Karupin hid under the bed. The noise level climbed, all the gabble and scramble of the clubhouse crammed into a space a fifth the size.
Kaidoh turned and stared out the window.
"So, Tezuka," Inui said and Kaidoh jerked around. But Inui was just on the phone: "Everyone else is here for the study session so do you want to come over and tell Oishi that robots are perfectly fine? Oh, put you on speaker?" Inui tapped his phone.
"Everyone go home," Tezuka said.
Everybody went. When the room was clear, Kaidoh fished his bag out from under the bed.
"Do you want to stay for supper?" Echizen asked.
"No," Kaidoh said.
When Kaidoh got to the hamburger shop, Echizen was already in line. So was Momoshiro.
"What's he doing here?" Momoshiro gave Echizen a bump on the shoulder.
"That's my line," Kaidoh said.
"It's in case I need help reading the menu," Echizen said.
"It's all pictures anyhow," Momoshiro said. "But Mamushi still owes me 500 yen so he can pay for my order."
"I don't owe you anything!" Kaidoh tried to loom over Momoshiro, but since he was only about two centimetres taller, it was ineffective. Not to mention Momoshiro's stupid sticky-up hair made it look like he was taller even though he wasn't.
"How do you say hamburger in Japanese?" Echizen said. "I'll have two."
Kaidoh ended up out-manoeuvred by both Echizen and Momoshiro and his wallet took quite a hit, even though he only ordered a small set for himself.
They parked themselves at a table. "You called me out to study?" Kaidoh said. "Or just to pay for your food?"
Echizen shrugged. Momoshiro laughed.
"You should study math, Momoshiro," Kaidoh said. "You owe me 1895 minus 500."
"You owe me more than that for all the meals I've had to buy for this one." Momoshiro waved his elbow at Echizen and took a bite of his first hamburger. "You've been shirking your responsibilities."
Kaidoh huffed. He unwrapped his hamburger. Echizen reached over and took one of Kaidoh's fries. Kaidoh looked at him.
"Yours are crispier." Echizen grinned and filched another.
"So," Momoshiro said, "Eiji-senpai told me that Taka-san told him that Fuji-senpai told him that Tezuka-buchou and--"
"Momo-senpai," Echizen said. "Isn't that that girl you keep talking about?"
"What girl?" Momoshiro said. His ears turned pink.
"All the stuff from her bag fell on the floor."
"Oh, well, I--" Momoshiro grabbed his tray and jumped to his feet. "Someone should-- it's only polite--" And he was gone.
Echizen looked at Kaidoh. "He talks too much."
Kaidoh snorted. They finished eating. Kaidoh got about half of his fries before they were gone. "You have a quiz tomorrow, right?" he said. "We should study now."
Echizen sucked the last drops from his straw. "Let's go to the arcade."
"You forgot this." Echizen held out a stuffed turtle. Everyone around B court turned to stare.
"Uh, you can keep that." Kaidoh sent a quick glare around and most of the starers looked away.
"You're good at the claw machine," Echizen said. "But I'll beat you next time."
"Not likely," Kaidoh said. "I've been winning prizes for my little brother since I was five."
Echizen shrugged. "Do you want a granola bar?"
Another frown-and-crossed-arms visit from Tezuka and Oishi. Kaidoh braced himself.
"Echizen failed another quiz," Oishi said.
Heat flooded Kaidoh's neck and face. He looked down. "I'm sorry." The chalk was washed away, but he could still see the IDIOT there on the court, the arrow pointing right at him.
"I thought you were more responsible than that." Oishi crossed his arms too.
"It was just a quiz," Echizen said.
Oishi ignored him. "You know how to work hard. Now you have to make Echizen work hard too."
"100 laps," Tezuka said.
"Jeez," Echizen said. "I'll do better next time."
"Okay, go," Oishi said.
Kaidoh put his racquet into his bag and started running.
"You're making me tired, Kaidoh!" Kikumaru called out.
Inui clicked his stopwatch and got out his pen. "Be sure to pace yourself, Kaidoh. I'll have a drink for you after the first 30."
"I hope you studied your math," Momoshiro yelled, "so you know how to subtract by one." Kaidoh clenched his fists so he wouldn't make a rude gesture. 100 laps was already going to make him late for dinner; he didn't need even more on top of that.
As he rounded the third corner, Echizen jogged up beside him. "Race you," he said.
"Echizen," Tezuka said. Kaidoh didn't look over, but he could hear the crossed arms in Tezuka's voice. "Stop running."
"It was my quiz," Echizen said.
"I said stop."
Echizen stopped. On the second lap, he was in the same place, watching Kaidoh run. On the third lap, Kaidoh shoved him. "If you have time to stare," he called, "go and fucking study."
On the fourth lap, Echizen was gone.
"What should I work on?" Echizen asked. He didn't quite look at Kaidoh.
"Write each character 30 times." Kaidoh looked around the room. Echizen had his books stacked next to him. The cat was sitting in the windowsill, taking up what was left of the sunset. Next to him was the stuffed turtle.
"I didn't bring the ruler," Kaidoh said. Echizen just kept writing, one slow stroke after another. "Let me know when you start the next one." Kaidoh got out his own books and sat at the other side of the table. After twenty minutes, Echizen slid a sheet of paper over Kaidoh's math homework. The characters were cramped and angular but they were correct.
"Okay," Kaidoh said. "Next one."
Echizen bent over the table, his pen tight in his fingers. It looked awkward, writing left-handed, and Kaidoh watched him for a while. One of the books in the stack was bright pink and the spine read Ten Tricks for Learning Kanji.
"There are no tricks," Kaidoh said. "You just have to write them until you know them." Echizen didn't look up. Kaidoh got out his own kanji homework and wrote characters over and over again.
The cat thumped to the floor. He sniffed at Kaidoh's knee. Kaidoh stroked his head.
"Your handwriting is too neat," Echizen said. Kaidoh looked up and Echizen grinned. "It looks like a girl's."
"Shut up!" Kaidoh said. "Yours is like a bug walked over the paper."
"Don't you like bugs?" Echizen passed another sheet over.
"Keep working." Kaidoh rummaged in his bag. He got out the book he was supposed to be reading and forced his way through three chapters.
Echizen's cousin brought them supper. Echizen dropped his pen onto the table. "Do you want to watch a movie?"
Echizen put on an American thriller with Japanese subtitles. They sat on the floor, leaning back against the side of the bed. Whenever Kaidoh looked at his food, he lost the dialogue. Karupin curled up behind their heads.
Echizen picked up the empty bowls and put them on the tray. The cat stretched his way down to the floor and settled into Kaidoh's lap. Echizen leaned against Kaidoh's arm and rubbed the cat's head.
Karupin purred, sending vibrations through Kaidoh. Something exploded onscreen and Kaidoh jumped. Karupin jumped too, then stalked off to the door. Echizen let him out. He sat down next to Kaidoh and leaned in again, like he couldn't sit up on his own.
"This movie is so boring," Echizen said.
"Then why did you pick it?" Kaidoh looked down at Echizen and missed another conversation. "What did they say?"
"They're going back to pick up the truck. They don't know the bomb is in the back."
"I didn't know the bomb is in the back."
"Sorry." Echizen grinned.
Kaidoh turned to the screen and tried to pick up the plot again. Echizen got heavier and heavier against him. When Kaidoh looked back down, Echizen was sleeping.
His cheeks were flushed and his mouth was open a little, breathing loudly. His hair was falling over his forehead. His fingers were wrapped around Kaidoh's arm.
Kaidoh carefully twitched a throw off the bed with his other arm. He tucked it around Echizen as best he could with only one hand. Echizen took a deep breath but he didn't wake up. Kaidoh let his own breath out slowly.
The bomb went off.
Kaidoh jerked. Echizen sat up and blinked. The blanket fell down around his legs.
"Sorry," Kaidoh said.
"Kaidoh-senpai," Echizen said. He looked up. His eyes were wide open. He shifted onto his knees, turned towards Kaidoh.
"You're blocking the screen," Kaidoh said.
Echizen leaned in. His mouth pressed up to Kaidoh's mouth, his fingers tightened around Kaidoh's arm.
Kaidoh stared, heat stinging his face. While he was staring, Echizen kissed him again. Then he settled back down beside Kaidoh, pulling the throw over both their laps. "Now they shoot the crime boss but he's not really dead."
"I have to go home as soon as it's over," Kaidoh said.
Kaidoh scanned the courts. Momoshiro and Kikumaru were playing on the far court. Inui and Kawamura were doing a smash drill with Arai and Ikeda and Ikeda's balls kept rolling over into Kaidoh's court.
"Are you ready, Kaidoh?" Fuji called. He tossed the ball and served. Kaidoh returned it and watched for Fuji's swing. But Fuji just caught the ball on his racquet.
"Kaidoh," Tezuka said.
Kaidoh threw his racquet onto the court. He didn't have to turn around to see the angry expression and the crossed arms. "How many?" He clenched his fists. He closed his eyes. "How many?"
"Echizen didn't come to practice," Oishi said.
Kaidoh didn't wait to hear any more.
He found Echizen on the roof, head on his bag, stretched out on the ground. He was asleep.
Kaidoh watched him for a minute. His cheeks were flushed. His mouth was open. "Wake up," Kaidoh said and kicked the bag.
Echizen sat up. He stretched his arms and yawned. He grinned at Kaidoh.
"What are you doing?" Kaidoh grabbed Echizen's collar and hauled him to his feet. "What's wrong with you?"
The smile dropped off Echizen's face. He didn't pull away, just looked up at Kaidoh.
Kaidoh let go. "Come on." He yanked Echizen's bag and the contents tumbled out, books, pens, papers. Sheet after sheet, covered with kanji. And Echizen's quiz.
Kaidoh picked it up. Twenty out of twenty. "Echizen."
He held out the quiz. Echizen took it but Kaidoh didn't let go. "Well done," Kaidoh said.
Echizen shrugged and pulled it out of Kaidoh's hand.
They gathered up the rest of the things and Echizen packed them back into his bag. Then they stood on the roof, looking at each other.
"You shouldn't cut practice," Kaidoh said. "Come on." He turned to the door.
"Kaidoh-senpai," Echizen said.
Kaidoh looked back.
"Are you coming over tonight?" Echizen's cheeks were flushed.
Kaidoh took a deep breath. Slowly, he reached out and put his hand on the top of Echizen's head, just for a second.
"Okay," he said.