"How did you...?" Kaidoh reaches for Sanada's hand.
Sanada presses the bandage down around the edges. The tape is starting to curl. He moves his hand under the table. "It's just a cut."
Kaidoh pulls his hand back. He wraps it around his coffee cup, looks out the window.
Sanada looks too, watches a building going up across the street. He clenches his hand, opens it again. It hurts. A clumsy cut from a broken glass, nothing to worry about.
He looks back across the table. Kaidoh is still looking away.
It started with yes.
With Kaidoh on the Rikkai school grounds, out of place in his Seigaku uniform, heading for the tennis courts, because where else would he go?
"Kaidoh," Kirihara called out. "You're here to challenge me!"
But Kaidoh turned to the other boys, the third years watching from outside the courts, because where else would they be?
"Sanada-san." Kaidoh stopped, half facing Sanada's direction. "Can I talk to you?"
"Your business is with me," Kirihara yelled, banging his racquet on the wire fence. But Kaidoh didn't even look his way.
In the cold shadow of the classroom building, Kaidoh didn't say a word. He pushed the paper he was holding into Sanada's hands, then turned his back.
Sanada had to read the note three times before he understood it. He looked up at Kaidoh's back, at his shoulders starting to rise, thighs tensing to run.
"Well?" Kaidoh's voice was rough, too loud. His hands were clenching into fists.
Sanada stared, feeling as deaf and blind as though he was standing on the court with Yukimura.
"Yes," he heard someone say and realized it was him.
The cafe is quiet. Kaidoh is staring into his cup now, a patch of sunlight on the side of his face. He looks up. Sanada meets his eyes for a moment. Then Sanada looks away.
There should be some conversation somewhere, or some restful silence. He thought they would sit together, not talking, but still communicating with some unspoken language.
But it's just awkward.
"Well?" Kaidoh says.
"Do you want more coffee?" Kaidoh's cup is still half full.
"No," Kaidoh drains his mug. The coffee must be cold by now. "I have to go."
On the sidewalk, he stands in front of Sanada. "My bus stop is this way," he says, but he doesn't move.
"Have a safe trip," Sanada says and heads home.
"My dates are legendary," Niou says. He sets his tray down on the table and pulls out a chair.
Yagyuu raises his eyebrow. "So we've heard."
"There's a progression to these things," Niou says. "Start small and build."
Sanada snorts. But he's listening.
"So, I'm going out with Fujima, now, right?"
"Did you pass that literature test?" Marui says to Jackal, but Niou talks over him.
"Date 1: coffee. Low stakes, pretty casual." Niou grins. "Don't let her think you care too much. Then escalate. Date 2: the arcade. Show off your skill, win a prize for her."
"The arcade? Are you sure you don't mean pachinko?" Yanagi says.
"That was just one time," Niou says. "I won, didn't I? And I didn't bring a date."
"You tried to bring me, as I recall." Yagyuu pushes his glasses up his nose.
"Always win," Jackal says. "But it doesn't count if you have to give the money back."
Sanada pulls out his phone and re-reads the text from Kaidoh. It's been there for three hours now. He turns his back and taps out the time, the address. "You need to be more serious," he says to Niou, and stalks away, pulling his cap down over his eyes.
The arcade is noisier than the cafe. Flashing lights, *zap* and *whoosh* and *pow*. No chance of awkward silence, anyhow.
He's early but Kaidoh is earlier, standing by the only old school pinball in the place.
When he sees Sanada, Kaidoh raises one hand and the corners of his mouth go up a little.
"Hi," Sanada says.
"Hi." Kaidoh tugs at his bandana, pulling it straight, but it was already straight.
Build, Sanada thinks. Escalate. "How are you?"
"I got some tokens," Kaidoh says. "Want to play Gunslinger Stratos?"
They play Gunslinger Stratos. The controller is a gun. When he holds it, Sanada's palm pulls a little around his scar. He wonders how many other people have held this gun, why there aren't sanitary wipes at every machine to clean them. They play Gunslinger Stratos and Sanada wonders why he sucks so bad.
"You're dead," Kaidoh says, and Sanada is. "Sorry." Kaidoh drops his head. Then he looks at Sanada, takes the gun from Sanada's hand. "Does your cut still hurt?"
"Do you want to play again?" Kaidoh pulls some tokens from his pocket. "What do you want to play?"
Sanada looks around the room. There's nothing he wants to play. He doesn't want to lose. He doesn't want to win.
"Are you guys still playing?" someone says behind them.
"Don't be so pushy," Kaidoh says. But he shakes the glare from his face and steps back from Gunslinger Stratos, his shoulder brushing against Sanada's arm.
Kaidoh walks away and Sanada thinks maybe he really is walking away, but it's just to the corner, to the claw machine. He puts in three tokens, and turns around. "Sanada-san," he says and shrugs at the controls.
These can't be any cleaner than the gun but they're easier to hold. As Sanada works the crane -- up, down, sideways, nudge a little -- he remembers the toy crane his brother bought him when he was little.
There was a bulldozer too, an excavator, and a dump truck. But when Sanada played with them, he was always a crane operator who built skyscrapers in Tokyo.
It was a lonely job, at the top of a long ladder, and you didn't get to come down for the whole day. The arm of the crane turning, the cable swinging. All day, alone in a box in the sky, building the city.
He nearly has it now, a grinning dolphin in lurid pink. He closes the jaws delicately over its dorsal fin. He wonders where that tiny crane is now and why he never got it out to give to Sasuke.
"I like cranes," Kaidoh says. Sanada's hand jerks and the dolphin falls back to the pile.
The controls lock. Time's up. Sanada steps aside and rubs his tacky palms on his pants.
Kaidoh feeds in his tokens. The crane circles, drops. The claw brushes a purple unicorn, swings over the pink dolphin. The jaws open.
Kaidoh's forehead crinkles under the smooth line of his bandana. His jaw shows tight through his skin. His breath hisses out between his teeth. There's a silver chain around his neck and it glints in the light as he hunches over, moving his body with the sway of the crane.
The jaws catch a tiny dragon by its green felt wing and Kaidoh drops it into the chute. He pulls it from the slot and holds it out. "Do you want it?"
"No," Sanada says.
Kaidoh jams the dragon into his jacket pocket. Its tail sticks out, pointing straight at Sanada. "Let's play Virtua Fighter."
They play Virtua Fighter. Kaidoh doesn't apologize when he knocks Sanada out of the ring.
Sanada excuses himself to the bathroom. Which seems cleaner than the game controls. He stares at himself in the mirror.
Something's not going right. And he doesn't know what.
He knows how to work hard. But it's been so long since he worked at something he wasn't already good at and he doesn't even know where to start.
When he goes back, Kaidoh is playing Virtua Fighter again, alone. People are watching him, muttering about his moves.
He finishes and turns to Sanada.
"Do you want--" Sanada begins.
"I should go," Kaidoh says.
Kaidoh turns and walks away. He knocks into someone by the door and the dragon falls out of his pocket.
Sanada picks it up but when he gets out to the sidewalk, Kaidoh is already gone.
Sanada's phone buzzes for the third time in five minutes. He still can't figure out how to turn off the group SMS feature.
How was the date? Yanagi writes.
Sweat springs up on Sanada's palms and he nearly drops the phone.
Okay, Niou replies.
Sanada breathes out. Not that he doesn't want anyone to know, exactly. But it's private.
She loves me.
∑(ﾟﾛﾟ〃) Marui writes.
Did she say so? Jackal writes.
I can tell.
What do you think, Genichirou? Yanagi writes.
Sanada sits back on his bed. Over on the desk, the tiny green dragon crouches over his finished homework. He looks at the shiny red line on his palm, he flexes his hand.
In the back of his closet, there's a wooden box. He pulls it out. Medals, trophies, school projects. At the very bottom, there's a handful of tiny toys: bulldozer, excavator, dump truck. And the crane.
She's in my class, Yukimura writes. Maybe I'll see what she has to say about it.
Third date is the most important, Niou writes. It's the karaoke date.
Karaoke. Only as noisy as they wanted it to be. Something to do that Sanada was actually good at. He picks up his phone, double checks that he's out of the group message.
Can you come out Thursday after school?
He puts the crane down on his desk, next to the dragon. Before he can swing its arm around, his phone chimes.
Sanada is early but Kaidoh is already there. "I got us a booth," he says. The corners of his mouth are turning up. Sanada turns his up too.
But when they get inside the booth and the door closes behind them, it's almost like being back in the café, except that they're sitting beside each other. There are usually seven or eight people crammed into the booth, too many voices talking, so Sanada doesn't have to think of things to say.
Music from other booths thumps through the walls, Kaidoh stares down at his drink, Sanada stares down at his. "What do you want to sing?" he says.
"Sanada-san." Kaidoh sets his drink down, too hard, and the mineral water slops over the edge. He leans in, their shoulders press together.
Sanada passes him the song menu. "Punch in 408."
Kaidoh doesn't move for a moment, his arm against Sanada's arm, his knee against Sanada's knee, like there really are eight people in the booth and there isn't room to sit. Then he punches in 408 and the music starts.
This is Sanada's favourite, his show piece, and the intro chords relax him. He picks up the mic and stands up. He looks across the room, it's too weird to look straight at Kaidoh.
"Sanada-san," Kaidoh says, more loudly than before. He stands up.
This isn't a duet, they can share, it's probably a date thing. Sanada picks up the other mic and holds it out.
Kaidoh pushes him against the wall.
One mic goes flying. Sanada's back slams into a switch or knob, a star of pain beside his shoulder blade. Kaidoh's face is a breath away from Sanada's. He's taller than he was in November, a few centimetres, and he's not looking up at Sanada anymore.
The other mic slides from Sanada's fingers and the speaker howls. "Sanada-san," Kaidoh says, rushing like a windy day and crashing like a wrecking ball. His mouth comes down on Sanada's just as Sanada's hands push him away and Sanada doesn't even know it's happening until it's done, both drinks spilt and Kaidoh's face scarlet.
He stares at Kaidoh, the corner of his mouth burning hot where Kaidoh's lips slid over it.
"Kaidoh," he says and his body tenses, knows he's going to be attacked, and his brain knows that he deserves it.
But Kaidoh slams his fist into the wall instead, and then into the door, and then he's gone.
"Maybe we should have worked harder on his people skills." Marui looks through the fence at Kirihara lambasting some first years.
"Train more quietly!" Sanada yells. Everyone turns to stare at him. "And focus!"
Kirihara glares. "Make me!" he yells back.
Sanada reaches for the latch on the gate. Yanagi takes hold of his sleeve. "Let him work it out on his own."
The shouts still boil in Sanada's gut but he doesn't let them out, just swallows them down when they push up into his throat. Just clenches his hands, just closes his eyes.
"Let's go somewhere else," Jackal says and they head off to the roof of the classroom building, where they can still see Kirihara, just barely. Sanada turns his back.
"So, Niou," Yukimura says. "I hear that you don't respect girls as people."
Niou scowls. "Nothing happened."
"Except you getting dumped?" Yanagi says.
"It's karaoke. She should know that--"
"That you don't respect girls as people?" Jackal leans back against the wall.
"That a karaoke date means you're going to...you know..."
"You're not even embarrassed," Marui says.
Sanada turns again and looks out over the grounds, pulling down the brim of his hat to block the sun. His cheeks burn. Karaoke date. Oh.
Niou shrugs. "Yagyuu is out on the fucking golf course again so I need to find someone else to hit with me tonight."
"I'll do it," Yanagi says. "It's a good idea to switch training partners."
"And dates," Marui says.
Yukimura grins. "So long as they respect you as a person."
Sanada wrenches open the door and heads down. It clangs shut behind him.
To hell with finding someone else to hit with.
Sanada looks through the fence at Kaidoh yelling at some first years. "Yes, buchou," they call, backs straightening, and Sanada almost expects them to snap a salute. Kaidoh still hasn't seen him and Sanada moves further into the shadow of a tree.
And bumps into someone. "Sanada," Inui says.
Sanada nods at Inui. He crosses his arms across his chest and looks back at the court. Like he's scouting, like it's just for tennis. "Are you here for data?"
Inui moves to stand beside him. "I'm here to ask you your intentions."
"What?" Sanada turns, but Inui doesn't, and he's left looking at Inui's profile.
"Did you really think I wouldn't know?"
"Obviously Renji knows. He hasn't told anyone else. We're comparing notes." Inui turns to Sanada. "So, Sanada, what are your intentions toward my kouhai?"
Sanada snorts. Ridiculous. But he thinks of Kirihara and maybe it's not quite ridiculous. Maybe Inui isn't quite ridiculous. "You don't have to fight me."
"Oh, I wouldn't fight you," Inui says. "Anyhow. As long as we understand each other."
Sanada watches Kaidoh pick up a racquet, a ball, send a lob to one of the first years, swift and fluid as the water in the river. "We do."
"Okay, then." Inui slings his bag over his shoulder. "One more thing. Stop taking dating advice from Niou."
Sanada laughs before he can help himself. "I know," he says. When he looks over again, Inui is gone.
Kaidoh is locking the clubhouse door when Sanada approaches him. Kaidoh stops, back to Sanada.
Silence, the worst silence of all, pushes between them, a wall, a wedge. Sanada has words he wants to say, can feel them in his gut, but he can't get them out of his mouth, can't even get his brain to form them.
"Kaidoh," he says instead. "Go for a run with me."
The silence becomes a ringing in Sanada's ears, a beating on his ribcage, and he almost hopes Kaidoh will turn and punch him, just to break the tension.
Kaidoh unlocks the door. Sanada unclenches his hands.
Kaidoh's route is long. If he's making it long on purpose, Sanada can't tell. The swing of Kaidoh's arms, the pump of his thighs -- they're constant, easy. Sanada is getting winded and it surprises him.
They turn back into the school grounds and Kaidoh slows finally, past the buildings and trees, and stopping by the tennis courts, by the row of sinks. He pulls his bandana off and puts his head right under the tap, water sluicing over his hair, drawing it down in a curtain over his face.
Sanada's hand is on a tap, the sweat on his forehead turning clammy in the chilly air, but he doesn't drink until Kaidoh covers his face with a towel.
They walk to the club room and Sanada's knees are shaky, his heart is thumping; the run was too long, he's out of training.
Inside, Kaidoh drops his towel on a bench. He stands in the middle of the room, back to Sanada again. His fingers are curling into his palms, his shoulders are rising.
"Well?" he says.
Sanada reaches into his bag. He steps up to Kaidoh, takes a breath, puts one hand on Kaidoh's shoulder. He holds the other out. "Here," he says.
Kaidoh lifts his hand and Sanada puts the toy into his palm.
"I like cranes too," Sanada says.
Kaidoh pushes the arm of the tiny crane with one finger and it swivels around, the hook and cable swing out. And Sanada can't see Kaidoh's face, but he feels the smile running under Kaidoh's skin, travelling through Sanada's fingers, beating open his own chest, lighting up his own face.
Then Kaidoh turns around and they're kissing, Kaidoh's free hand on the back of Sanada's neck and his chest pressing, backing Sanada up into the wall, his mouth pushing at Sanada's.
And the smile inside Sanada is a shout, but he can't let it out because kissing Kaidoh takes up all his breath. He's not very good at it yet, they're not very good at it.
But there's lots of time to practise.