Wakashi thought, later, that it started innocently enough, with Mukahi complaining. That was nothing unusual. Nor did it surprise anyone that Mukahi was annoyed that he hadn’t gotten a chance to play against Kikumaru and his partner at Prefecturals this year, and, in the Doubles Two slot, was unlikely to have the chance at Regionals either, even supposing Seigaku and Hyoutei came up across from each other again. Wakashi ignored him, as he usually did. It was nobody else’s problem that Mukahi and Oshitari hadn’t been able to secure a position as the first doubles team.
So it escaped his notice, until long after the fact, that Atobe’s smile had taken on an extra edge, or that their captain had dispatched one of the lesser club members on an unspecified errand. The first anyone really knew of something going on was at the end of practice a few days later when Atobe answered his cell phone and suddenly had the gleam in his eye that meant someone was going to regret his existence very soon.
“Mukahi, you were saying you wanted a chance to play Seigaku’s Golden Pair?” Atobe asked, with a shark’s smile.
“Yes,” Mukahi answered, a bit warily.
“Well, here’s your chance. You remember the courts down by the park?” Everyone nodded. “It seems some of the Seigaku team have gathered there today. Interested?”
Mukahi’s eyes lit almost as brightly as Atobe’s, and he looked over at his partner. Oshitari nodded agreement.
“Definitely interested,” Oshitari replied for them.
“Who all is there?” Ohtori asked, looking a bit thoughtful. Atobe’s smile widened enough to make Wakashi wonder just what he had in mind.
“Kikumaru and Oishi. Echizen. Momoshiro. And Inui.” His glance flicked toward Wakashi on the last name, and Wakashi suppressed a snarl. Atobe’s sense of humor had not been a welcome addition to his ongoing study of Inui Sadaharu’s techniques and play style.
“Echizen, hm?” Ohtori mused. Wakashi had no idea what value Ohtori could see in being steamrollered by Seigaku’s most annoying member, but he must see some. His steel was showing as he glanced at Shishido. His partner grinned back at him.
“I get the bouncy spiky-haired one, then,” Shishido said.
From the expressions Wakashi saw, the entire team was thinking the same thing about pots and kettles.
In the end everyone agreed to go except Akutagawa, who wanted a nap, and Taki, who tended to distance himself as much as possible from Atobe’s little projects. Wakashi wasn’t sure why he went, since he had no intention of challenging any of Seigaku tonight. Certainly not Inui, and definitely not Echizen. Echizen was on his list of people to defeat later. After he caught up to Atobe. And he would.
Maybe it was just his curiosity about what Atobe was doing, he reflected as they made their way to the park. Because he had to be doing something. Atobe didn’t go to trouble without a reason.
Of course, he could just be getting a kick out of putting Seigaku off balance. His expression was pleased enough when the other team stared in surprise at Hyoutei’s arrival. Predictably enough, Echizen recovered his tongue first.
“Slumming?” he asked, eying Atobe.
“Gakuto missed Kikumaru so much we had to come visit,” Oshitari purred. Kikumaru’s eyes narrowed just a bit. He never had liked Mukahi. There were days when Wakashi sympathized a great deal.
“Oishi.” It was just short of an order, and Oishi shot his partner a look both resigned and affectionate.
“One set,” he specified, moving onto the court.
Every time he watched doubles pairs interact Wakashi became more grateful that he was a dedicated singles player.
As he watched the game get going, Wakashi wondered again just why Atobe had arranged this. It should be clear to anyone that, unless Oshitari had something phenomenal up his sleeve, he and Mukahi were going to lose. And then Mukahi would be absolutely unlivable for weeks. He would sulk. He would snap if anyone mentioned the game. And he would drive his teammates insane by focusing obsessively on whatever Oshitari came up with to address… the weakness…
Wakashi chewed on his lip and thought. At last he went and stood behind Atobe’s shoulder. “You brought them here to lose,” he stated. “To lose badly. They won against Inui and Kaidoh, even it it was just barely. You want them to lose badly enough to spur them on.”
“You’re learning,” his captain murmured, without turning his head. There was that about Atobe, Wakashi reflected. He was not what anyone could call nurturing. He didn’t lift a finger or say a word to teach Wakashi how to lead a Hyoutei team. But when Wakashi figured something out, Atobe did let him know whether or not he was right.
It was both annoying and useful. Because, while Wakashi didn’t know whether he could exceed Atobe as a team captain, he was damn well going to keep trying. Anything less was unthinkable.
Sure enough, Oshitari and Mukahi lost. At least Oshitari managed to soothe his partner down from throwing an outright fit. Wakashi had to admit, Kikumaru’s feline grin of triumph probably didn’t help any. Ohtori’s match with Echizen was about as uneven as Wakashi had expected, but Ohtori seemed satisfied. Inui also looked pleased, presumably for different reasons. By Wakashi’s count he’d filled six pages with notes, during the match. Perhaps, he thought, as Shishido and Momoshiro swaggered onto the court, grinning and boasting at each other, Ohtori was using Echizen the same way Wakashi used Inui. As a gauge of his own progress.
With the example and tacit permission of Atobe’s frequent matches with Tezuka, Wakashi had sought out a match with Inui every now and then. If Wakashi had progressed significantly since the last time Inui had a chance to take his measure, then they had a close game. Wakashi had even managed to win one or two. If he hadn’t made enough progress to be a bit unpredictable, then he lost quickly and humiliatingly. It was effective. He couldn’t imagine that it would do much good to play Echizen for such a purpose, but, then, Ohtori had some of the same spark that Echizen did. None of the bravura flare, but the same fine edge and knack for reaching beyond what was reasonable.
Shishido’s game with Momoshiro was closer than Wakashi had thought it would be. Momoshiro’s strength and sharp eye won in the end, but Shishido’s speed and finesse drove through his guard often enough to make it tight. Echizen tossed his friend a water bottle as they returned, and told him he was slowing down in his old age. Ohtori gave his partner the smile he reserved for Shishido, brighter and gentler than the one he kept for everyday politeness.
And that seemed to conclude the evening. Wakashi was quietly relieved that Seigaku’s captain hadn’t shown up. No telling what kind of fireworks might follow if Atobe and Tezuka got into a match with most of their teams… looking… on…
Oh, hell. So much for leaving in time for dinner.
Echizen had noticed, too, and nudged Momoshiro, nodding toward where Tezuka stood just beyond the court, leaning on a lamp-post.
“Buchou!” Momoshiro exclaimed, and then everyone turned as Tezuka approached. Atobe gave no evidence of surprise, and Wakashi was positive he’d known the second Tezuka arrived.
“Tezuka,” Atobe greeted him. “You’re late.” Tezuka didn’t dignify that with a reply, merely nodded to Inui.
“Fuji passed on your message,” he said. Why that should make all the third-year Seigaku smile, Wakashi couldn’t imagine. Inside joke, he supposed.
And then Tezuka and Atobe came face to face. Wakashi had a sudden image of a piece of paper, drifting between them, ignited by the force of those locked stares.
“So?” Atobe asked, softly. Tezuka merely nodded, and dropped his bags, pulling out his racquet. Wakashi’s gaze crossed Oishi’s, the same touch of resignation in both. If their captains planned to go all out…
Sure enough, as Atobe and Tezuka set themselves on the court, a familiar feeling swept out from them like an ocean wave.
Wakashi was never quite sure why Atobe had chosen to ask him along as combination back-up and gofer at his unofficial matches with Tezuka. Most probably because he was the one most likely to keep his mouth shut, and not mention Atobe’s obsession to their coach, who thought Atobe had better things to be concentrating on. Wakashi had as little to do with Sakaki-kantoku as he could reasonably manage, and wouldn’t say anything in any case. They both knew he owed Atobe. They both knew that it was Atobe’s influence that kept Wakashi a regular despite defeat, in the past. Not so much this year, perhaps; even Kantoku didn’t really expect him to win against Seigaku’s Singles Two player. He had kept three games, and, despite his own infuriating surety that Fuji Shuusuke had been taking it easy, that seemed to be enough for everyone who remembered what Seigaku’s wild card was capable of.
But that didn’t erase the first time. Not in Wakashi’s mind, and certainly not in their coach’s. Atobe’s backing had saved him that year, much as it had Shishido. But Shishido and Atobe had been friends for a long time; it was easier for him to accept the help. Wakashi despised being indebted to Atobe. The only thing that made it tolerable was that Atobe clearly didn’t expect it to stop Wakashi from trying to overthrow him.
And he was going to do it. Even watching these games hadn’t dissuaded him, though he realized now that it was unlikely to happen unless he followed Atobe into the professional circuit. Chased him, the way he had realized, years ago, Inui chased Tezuka.
One of the reasons he wasn’t dissuaded was that he wanted to find this intensity, this absolute focus and commitment that resonated between Atobe and Tezuka and covered the court like deep water. He leaned into it as they slashed across the court, returns singing through the air. In fact, everyone was leaning forward, entranced by the passion and precision of the players. The momentum never relented; this game was shaping up fast and hard, with few twists.
Or so Wakashi thought until Tezuka feinted a smash and delivered a drop shot instead. Regarding the ball that rested demurely just his side of the net, Atobe’s mouth curled up and he directed a smoking look at his opponent.
“It isn’t polite to leave your partner hanging, Tezuka,” he admonished. Tezuka raised a brow at him.
“Do you doubt my endurance, Atobe?” he asked, with perfect composure. Atobe threw his head back and laughed, returning Tezuka’s serve with a vicious slice.
The jaw of every single watcher dropped.
“Impossible… they’re flirting!” Mukahi sputtered.
“They are,” Kikumaru seconded, apparently too stunned to notice who he was agreeing with.
“At the very least,” Oshitari murmured, sounding as floored as his partner.
Wakashi exchanged a long, wide-eyed look with Oishi, his fellow witness to matches between these two. This was certainly a new development.
That look caught Shishido’s attention, and he leaned over Wakashi’s shoulder.
“So, Hiyoshi,” he said, conversationally, “how long has this been going on?” Every eye focused on Wakashi, and his spine stiffened in response.
“Ask Atobe-buchou yourself, if you want to know,” he snapped. Shishido took on the look of a man calculating his chances of surviving a jump from a fifth floor window.
“Maybe,” he muttered, dubiously.
“I don’t think I really want to know,” Momoshiro put in, sounding just a bit ill.
Wakashi ignored them all in favor of the game. He was not, actually, all that shocked, though that kind of banter seemed more in Atobe’s line than in Tezuka’s. He’d have thought Seigaku’s captain would have had more decorum, even in the heat of a match. But it really fit well enough with the way these two played each other. The purity of the effort they exerted against each other, the complete, wordless rapport between them, the unspoken agreement that they could and would drive each other to the limit and beyond, it was the kind of thing that easily bled over into other kinds of passion. They were both breathing hard, now, dripping with sweat in the setting sun, and concentrated on each other like the twin mirrors of a laser.
Wakashi had occasionally been disturbed, watching them play, by a random thought wondering what it would be like to go to bed with one or the other of them. Since he would never, under normal circumstances, even consider the possibility, he had stamped out the thought quite violently the first few times it occurred. After a while, though, he realized that it was only the spill-over of the games. Even separated by the length of a court, Atobe and Tezuka were in constant contact while they played, just as much as if they had been running their hands over each other.
They reached a six game tie not long after the street lights came on.
“We’ll be here until midnight if we don’t stop them now,” Oishi said quietly. Wakashi nodded agreement, and Oishi crossed the court to Tezuka, quickly, before he could serve again. Wakashi hopped over the low wall and leaned against it, waiting to see whether he would have to add his voice to Oishi’s. Tezuka tilted his head, considering whatever Oishi was saying to him. He nodded, thoughtfully, and looked over to quirk a brow at Atobe. Atobe looked displeased, and waved a dismissive racquet. Abruptly, Tezuka’s eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. Atobe’s mouth tightened, but after a moment he nodded and turned toward the seats. Wakashi was relieved. Talking to Atobe right after a match with Tezuka always made him feel like he was transparent. Atobe’s focus was slow to widen again, enough to include anyone but Tezuka.
The teams broke up, chattering in the released tension, most of them dissecting the game. Shishido had a one sided smile that suggested he planned to tease Atobe about flirting as soon as some private opportunity presented itself. The gleam in Echizen’s eye indicated he had similar plans, despite his current silence. They drifted off in ones and twos.
Atobe and Tezuka were looking at each other again.
Wakashi sighed. Why him? A quiet word to Ohtori let him hustle both his yearmate and Shishido off, leaving Atobe and Tezuka in peace.
Or as close to peace as the two of them probably ever got.
At this rate, his captain was going to start owing him.
Keigo slung his bag over his shoulder and turned an inquiring look on Tezuka. Tezuka didn’t answer aloud, instead taking Keigo’s right hand in his own. He turned it palm up and pressed gently along the lines of the tendons. Keigo knew he would feel the tremors in the muscles. When Tezuka looked up, eyes demanding an explanation, Keigo shrugged his unburdened shoulder.
“I was working with Ohtori on his singles technique today. He’s starting to be able to volley at strength, if someone can return his shots for long enough.”
“And you baited me for a match today, anyway?” Tezuka asked, anger in the lowering of his voice. His fingers moved down Keigo’s wrist and forearm, testing. “And you would have kept going if I hadn’t noticed it.”
“It was a match of opportunity, and don’t try to tell me you wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing,” Keigo said, firmly. Tezuka ran a thumb down the long tendon of his arm, and he sighed faintly. It felt very pleasant. That seminar in sports medicine Tezuka said he had taken last winter definitely had some dividends.
“Perhaps.” The corners of Tezuka’s mouth twitched up. “But considering this I don’t want to hear any more comments on my endurance.”
Keigo’s smile showed his teeth, and he looked Tezuka up and down, slowly.
“We’ll have to see, won’t we?” he purred. Tezuka chuckled softly, and let his hand go.
“See you Thursday?”
A/N: I am indebted, for a good deal of my conception of Hiyoshi, to Ruebert. Particularly the idea that he would be drawn to Inui’s attitude and methods. *tips hat* Doumo.