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08 December 2009 @ 08:29 pm
FicAlert! PoT> The Distance Between Us (Ohtori/Shishido) PG Pt1  
Title: The Distance Between Us
Writer: Everlind
Wordcount: 12 780
Pairing: Ohtori/Shishido (Silver Pair)
Rating: PG
Warnings: Shishido's language. Lots of introspection.
Summary: When Shishido Ryou loses his regular spot on the tennis team, he turns to Ohtori Choutarou for help. This is where they started, but not where they will end.
Disclaimer: The Prince of Tennis belongs to Konomi Takeshi. This story is based on characters and the universe of The Prince of Tennis, no money is being made from it.
Author's Notes: This is the Silver Pair when they weren't the Silver Pair. This is them when they were Shishido Ryou and Ohtori Choutarou.

*Special:* Number 001 'Beginnings' for the Big Table of Doom

The Distance Between Us


As the silence lengthens, the tension grows to become an uncomfortable, shivering sensation between them. He'd formulated it as an appeal but it appeared as a challenge at the core. Both of them know it.

For a moment Shishido forgets the all-consuming fire that has driven him to this point and he almost, almost, forgets why they are having this unlikely stand-off in the first place.

What will Ohtori do?

Shishido looks up at him and waits. And damn the kid, anyway! How the hell did he get so freakin' tall? It’s bad enough Atobe is taller than him (and barely an inch at that!) but a second year is even worse. Only thirteen and already a head taller than him. Goddammit, it isn't fair.

"Well?" he presses.

Ohtori glances at him and his lips flatten. The indecision sits plain on his face.

There's a reason he asked Ohtori, of course. Shishido could've asked Gakuto or Jiroh both of who would've helped him despite Hyotei's harsh regimen. At least, so he likes to think even though their friendships strain uncomfortably under the whole situation. Heck, Shishido sure feels a sudden rend, filled with teeming awkwardness but they've been buddies since they were toddlers so that's gotta count for something, right?

But Gakuto can't help him. Shishido can beat him and they both know it.

Even Jiroh can't help him even though Shishido can't beat him. Not anymore. Jiroh is good, but he hasn't got what Shishido needs.

Ohtori does.

There might be one or two others in the club who posses a similar technique or move, though admittedly none as good as Ohtori's. But besides Gakuto and Jiroh, nobody in the club would even think of helping him. After all, his unsightly loss to Tachibana is a blight on Hyotei's record and he was dropped off the regulars for it accordingly. Everybody covets a regular's spot obviously enough that they're not going to help someone who lost his (so spectacularly at that) regain it.

Not that anybody who gets dropped ever wins his way back, of course.

No.

Don't think about that.

First things first.

Ohtori takes a deep breath and looks away. It seems he’s finally made up his mind. "Alright," he says.

It takes everything to keep the sheer relief off his face. Instead he nods as though he expected nothing less. "Perfect. We'll start tonight. I got a key to the courts. Meet at eight?" he tosses out casually instead.

For a moment it looks like Ohtori is going to protest, but his fists clench and he takes a deep breath. Then he returns rather icily, "Fine."

Shishido nods. Better look as though he's got complete control over the situation. Casual. He has to be casual. "See you at eight then. Bye."

And with that he's off, leaving Ohtori to grind his teeth at his retreating back.

Okay, so yeah. He feels kinda guilty about that. But on the other hand, if Ohtori can't muster the backbone to tell him 'no', yeah well, then whose fault is that? Not his. Shishido curls his fingers around the key in his pocket. Not his fault either that the spare key was lying unattended in plain view for the taking.

Nothing is going to stop him.

If that means breaking the rules and obtaining an illegal copy of the court key, then so be it.

It that means cornering Ohtori and taking advantage of the kid's impeccable manners towards his senpai...

So be it.

***

"If we continue you'll definitely get injured, Shishido-senpai..." Ohtori says sounding exasperated. "I can't even hold my racket anymore. Let's take a break."

Shishido hears him vaguely. His whole body throbs with pain, as though he's been flayed alive. That scud serve is really something. He's chosen well.

Across of him, on the other side of the net, Ohtori has one hand in his hair and is looking rather harassed. No doubt by his conscience. "You're not even holding a racket," he says yet again, as though that is the root of the problem. "How long do we..."

Doesn't he get it? With his rising temper, Shishido finds enough energy to growl out: "Stop talking crap. Continue."

Ohtori just looks at him for a moment, clearly not sure what to make of this situation and the crazy senpai who keeps commanding him, over and over, to serve at him. Then he sighs, resigned, and picks a ball from the basket.

One thing Shishido has to hand to him though, in retrospect, it's not that he lacks a backbone. Ohtori just operates on an entirely different level in some ways. Their overall reactions differ so greatly from one other that it isn’t that Shishido can’t figure him out. He just doesn't understand this person.

After all, Ohtori is a regular and he's earned that spot fair and square. Likely, at this point, Ohtori could wipe the court with Shishido. That's what makes this so strange. In a way Ohtori is deliberately allowing Shishido the opportunity to break the amazing serve that, up until now, only Kabaji can return. That aside, he has no obligation at all to help Shishido but that of an obligation of a kouhai to his senpai. And if he had wanted to, Ohtori would have easily been able to come up with dozens of excuses not to. Main one being that Ohtori is a regular and Shishido is not. Those who lose are dropped. Permanently.

And yet here they are.

What Shishido appreciates most, though, is that Ohtori doesn't hit any softer or slower despite visibly showing distaste each time the ball smashes into Shishido.

As it does now.

In his face no less.

Shishido sees stars. Like in the cartoons, he thinks rather randomly. But then he realizes he's on his back and looking up at the sky. The left side of his face, specifically the area around his temple and eyebrow, screams out in agony. For an instant he is paralyzed.

"Shishido-senpai," Ohtori says calm but firm, "let's stop for now..."

Get up, Shishido tells himself, and he does.

Ohtori is frowning and it's clear he's had enough. Well, that's just too bad.

"Not just yet!" he grunts as several muscles in his body shriek at the abuse when he stands and braces himself. "Next."

They stare at each other over the net and it feels as though they are worlds apart. Well, Ohtori doesn't have to understand him. He just needs to serve that damn ball. The twist of Ohtori's mouth is indication enough he's getting angry. Shishido is pushing him and it looks as though he'd like to shove back.

Just when Shishido thinks with a frantic stab of worry that Ohtori will throw his racket down and walk away, he serves.

Over and over.

And hits Shishido. Over and over.

They don't speak again that night.

***

After four such sessions, there isn't any progress. Unless he counts the numerous amounts of bruises he's collecting, then yeah, he's making great progress.

Huzzah.

Shishido winces and shifts around on his chair. There's no comfortable position anymore. He's damned sure Ohtori has only been serving at his front, but even his behind is black and blue. Probably from falling down on his ass all the time. Makes sense. And by fuck, he's tired. He's never been so tempted to copy Jiroh and put his head down to catch some sleep as he is now.

But Jiroh isn't sleeping.

Jiroh sits and frowns at him.

Shishido frowns back and makes a 'what?' gesture.

At the front of the class their teacher has stopped pretending she knows what she's talking about and is just reading straight from the book. Shishido has never had any teacher who's managed to make history as boring as this. How can history be boring? It's ages and ages of people murdering and slaughtering each other. It's centuries of intrigue and plots and political struggle. It's evolution. History should be interesting. It should be fun, even. People make movies about certain events in history. So how can it be boring?

Jiroh tosses a note at him.

Shishido snatches it out of mid-air, frowns at him, and unfolds it carefully under his desk.

You look awful. But Choutarou-kun looks worse.

Shishido scowls and scrawls back, none of your business, and folds it into an airplane.

It floats down onto Jiroh's desk and he reads it. His expression is disapproving.

The note comes back.

I'm your friend.

Shishido looks at it for a moment. Then he gets angry. His response is pure fury that makes his characters nearly illegible. Yeah? You're not helping me, are you? Ohtori is a big boy; he can walk away any time. Back off, alright?

Jiroh writes back, equally fast, but not furious. It takes a lot more than that to anger him.

Nobody gets back on the regulars after they've been dropped. You're making both him and yourself miserable for nothing :(

For the longest time Shishido stares at that response, the paper crinkling between his fingers. When the bell rings he shoves it into his pocket, grabs his bags and books and storms off.

***

"Ohtori."

The junior looks at him from where he's unzipping his racket. There's shadows under his eyes and he's even paler than usual. The bright lights from the spotlights makes him look horrible. "Senpai?" he acknowledges.

Shishido really doesn't know why he's going to say what he's about to say. It sounds lame and stupid and cheesy and it's all Jiroh's fault. Really. Oh God, why? Ugh. Okay.

"Thank you," he manages softly under his breath. "For helping me."

There.

He did it.

For the longest while Ohtori looks more as though Shishido has just punched him in the face instead of thanking him. Then he draws an audible breath and nods. "No problem," he says.

And he smiles.

Not his usual polite little quirk of lips, the one that matches the expression he displays most of the time.

No, this is a genuine, radiant smile.

For a moment Shishido almost staggers. It feels as though he's been hit hard low in his stomach and his heart flops into the back of his throat in response, choking him with its sudden urgent throbbing.

It feels worse than a scud serve.

Jesus.

"Senpai?" Ohtori calls out, concerned. "Are you okay? Maybe we shouldn't do this today."

"I'm fine, Ohtori," Shishido flaps his hand at him. "Don't worry."

Ohtori looks like he doesn't really believe him. Shishido isn't sure he believes himself, actually.

He's just tired.

That's why... yeah. He's just tired. Still dazed and confused he walks to his side of the net. He braces himself.

"Are you ready for this, senpai?" Ohtori calls at him.

Tossing his hair back, Shishido bares his teeth and growls, "Bring it."

***

It's been a week. Shishido feels like time is slipping through his fingers as though it were water.

Once more he's on his back on the court, his head ringing from the impact of the ball. This one hit true and hard, enough to makes the bile in his stomach rise as his balance collapses in on itself, and the world with it, into darkness.

In a strange way he is still aware of what is happening. He can hear Ohtori call out once, twice. Footsteps approach. Ohtori calls his name again, again, and audibly panics.

"I've killed him," he gasps to himself, "I've killed him."

Shishido peels his eyes open and winces against the bright light seemingly stabbing right into his brain. "It takes a lot more than a tennis ball to kill me, Choutarou," he manages with a slur, lacing his words together.

Choutarou.

Huh.

Kneeling next to him, hands in his hair and all the blood drained away from his face is Ohtori, who starts violently when he speaks. His eyes are wide and dark and absolutely terrified.

"Help me up," Shishido tells him. It hurts his pride to ask, but worse would be to try it on his own and pass out again.

"You scared the hell out of me!" Ohtori bursts out with a hoarse yell and abruptly claps a hand over his mouth.

Shishido is highly amused, Ohtori is such a funny kid at times. "Sorry," he says and tries to smile reassuringly.

It's more of a grimace. He's not good at this comforting-business, but Ohtori seems to understand. After a moment he moves to help Shishido up. In the end he half-carries him to the bench, not because Shishido can't walk himself, but more because he just can't walk straight.

He sinks down on the bench gratefully. Just a minute, he promises himself, and then they'll start again.

Ohtori seems to think differently. "Enough for today," he says. "Either you use a racket or we stop."

"No racket," Shishido says, lolling a bit unsteadily as he gropes for his water bottle.

"Senpai, please."

"No racket," Shishido repeats with finality. "It won't make any difference if I can do it with a racket."

Ohtori looks at him helplessly.

Raking back the tendrils of hair that stick to his face with sweat (or blood) Shishido pointedly refuses to meet those pleading eyes. Ohtori is sinfully good at that look, good enough that he occasionally tempts Shishido into almost giving in. Almost. Not good enough though.

Crickets' chirping is the only sound to fill the silence. They sit together in a wide circle of light with shadows pressing in close all around. Above are clear skies, stars twinkling brightly. It's probably way past Ohtori's bedtime, Shishido thinks, and smiles to himself.

"I can stop helping you," Ohtori suddenly says, almost gently.

Shishido can't help himself. He whirls to look at Ohtori in shock, the movement hard enough to make the world hazy again and sharp enough that the end of his own pony-tail smacks him in the face.

Ohtori looks back steadily.

Up until this instant Shishido has tried not to show how important to him this really is. Right now Ohtori must be able to see how desperate he is and how frantic that Ohtori might mean it. He can't mean it. If Ohtori means it. Then. What? Nothing. That's what. No, he can't mean it. He can't.

"Ohtori-" he starts, low and hoarse, but then he freezes right where he is when Ohtori reaches and touches his face.

It stings.

Shishido just gapes, leaning back halfway, eyes wide.

Belatedly Ohtori seems to realize he's not only touching his senpai, but also hurting him. "Sorry," he blurts quickly, snatching his hand away. "It's just... Your eyebrow is split. I think it needs stitches. I'm sorry, I-"

Shishido finds his voice. "Can you sew?" he manages to ask teasingly.

Ohtori looks horrified. "Senpai. You can't mean that! I can't-'

"I'm kidding!" Shishido says quickly. "Sheesh, calm down. Can't take a joke, can you?"

"This is not something to joke about!" Ohtori says irritably. "Your eyebrow is split. Right here." He touches his index finger to his own face, tapping the outer corner of his left eyebrow.

Shishido lifts his hand automatically to feel for himself and nearly has another heart attack when Ohtori grabs his hand before he can do so. For such a young kid Ohtori has large, strong hands but with slender, nimble fingers. They swallow Shishido's completely. Pianist's hands, his mother would say.

"Don't touch it," Ohtori says firmly, pushing his hand down. "Or it'll get even more infected."

"Yessir," Shishido jokes when he manages to get his heart rate somewhat under control.

Ohtori flushes. "Sorry, senpai, I didn't mean to sound-"

Landing a playful tap against his shoulder, Shishido tells him, "Enough. Stop with the senpai, it's annoying. Just call me Ryou."

"I can't do that!" Ohtori exclaims, completely alarmed.

Yup. Impeccable manners. His parents certainly haven't gone easy on that aspect of his upbringing.

"Shishido, then," he amends.

Ohtori looks uncomfortable. Then he offers, "Shishido-san?"

After a deep sigh, Shishido relents with an eye-roll, "Alright."

Strange kid. He shakes his head and opens his mouth to tell Ohtori they're continuing when his cell phone vibrates itself off the bench with a clatter. He put it on silent earlier as to not be disturbed. Ohtori scoops it up and hands it to him. It's a message from Gakuto:

WHERE THE HELL R U?! UR MOM IS GONNA KILL U (>__<)

He checks the time.

"Fuck," he utters with feeling.

His mother is going to kill him. Sweetly and gently, but she's gonna kill him. It's past midnight, by now she's probably called everybody she could think off and is now contemplating calling the police.

His phone vibrates a second time. It's a message from Jiroh.

Your mother just called. Better hurry home :p

And a third time.

From... Atobe? "What the hell?" he mutters.

Go home.

"Alright then," he mutters to himself. "We'd better go home," he says to Ohtori.

Ohtori checks his watch and winces.

They pack their gear in silence. Shishido is still a bit woozy, but nothing he can't handle. He fumbles with the lock for a moment. With the overhead lights out, everything is drenched in darkness. Ohtori is a silent presence by his side. Together they walk off the campus towards the distant glow of the street lights. Trees make dark sentinels at their sides, watchfully silent with no wind stirring their leaves.

"Are you going to be in trouble with your folks?" Shishido asks him after a moment.

"It'll be alright," Ohtori responds after a moment's hesitation.

It's an empty statement, devoid of any actual faith. Shishido feels a sharp stab of guilt.

Just as he is fumbling with an apology on his tongue, Ohtori turns to him at the corner of the block and points the other way Shishido was about to head in. "I need to go that way," he says.

"Ah, yes," Shishido mumbles, distracted. "Tomorrow?"

"Of course," Ohtori says and smiles faintly. "Tomorrow, sen-" he catches himself, "Shishido-san."

With a nod and a wave he's off, sprinting away.

"Bye," Shishido manages weakly. "Choutarou."

***

"Ryou!" his mother shrieks at him as he enters the kitchen, "What happened?!"

Both his parents are seated at the table with only a single light on, waiting anxiously for their wayward son to show up. The portable phone is in the middle of the table, along with the address book.

After a moment of plain gaping, his father surges up from his chair. "Did you get in a fight?" he asks as he advances on him. When he's towering over him, he favors his son with a particularly black scowl.

"No, I didn't get in a fight," Shishido mumbles. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, though."

That earns him light a rap against the back of his head. "No cheek from you, young man," his father growls. "It's past midnight. We almost called the police!"

"What happened to your eyebrow?" his mother asks again, advancing on him with a cloth drenched in disinfectant. Dressed in her nightdress she looks almost elfin, small and slight with dark hair tumbling thickly over her shoulders. He's taller than her now (finally, thanks to this year's grows spurt). She looks more like she could be his little sister, but armed with that cloth, Shishido fears the night won't end before having to submit to this one last trial.

Shishido starts to put the table between them. "I got hit with a tennis ball, okay? It was an accident. It's fine."

"You were out playing tennis?" his father asks, flabbergasted.

"No, I was doing drugs and getting drunk," Shishido says, sarcasm abundant.

Another rap, this one sharper.

They glower at each other.

"Boys!" his mother says in her Mother voice. "Enough. Ryou, sit. Sweetheart, get the medicine kit."

Shishido sits.

His father scampers away to get the medicine kit.

The cloth is pressed against his temple and a searing burn flares up as the disinfectant seeps into the cuts. Involuntarily his left eye starts to tear in response.

"Ryou," his mother says after a moment of dabbing blood and dirt away. Her hand cups the other side of his face and turns it towards her. "What are you doing?"

Shishido doesn't wrench away, but drops his eyes down to avoid her gaze.

"Is this about losing your regular's spot?" she asks quietly.

Reluctantly he nods.

"How much longer?"

"A week," Shishido tells her. "At most."

She sighs and pulls up a chair next to him. Meanwhile his father returns with some bottles and band-aids. He puts them on the table, levels a look at his son that says plainly he isn't off the hook yet and leaves. Shishido can hear him trudge up the stairs and into the bedroom.

Lifting his chin up with the finger of one hand, the other pokes and rubs at his face as they inspect the damage. It takes some effort not to make any sound, but he bites the inside of his cheek and doesn't, not even when his mother carefully pulls the cut open.

"A tennis ball?" she asks, disbelievingly.

"A tennis ball," Shishido repeats.

She tapes a band-aid over it, a vertical patch crossing the slanting line of his left eyebrow, at the corner. Then she gets up to make some tea. Shishido feels exhaustion creep up his spine and slide thick and heavy over his eyes. All the small hurts have combined to form one throbbing pulse, feeling as if his heart is everywhere, beating just under his skin.

For a moment he allows himself to hope he'll wake up in the morning, sane and sound and will find his regular's jersey draped over the back of his chair where it always has. For a moment, also, he allows himself to feel the stab of fury that they kicked him off the regulars because he lost to Tachibana. Tachibana, who is a captain, an opponent even Atobe would have a hell of a time defeating.

And then he lets it go.

Useless concerns.

Only one thing he can do now.

His hands curl into tight fists and his jaw clenches. But his breathing is calm and even and perfectly controlled. Adrenaline pushes the hurt away so the dull throbbing becomes a high-pitched humming.

"You're not going to let this go, are you?" his mother states, more than asks. She's been watching his face carefully, without Shishido really being aware of it.

"Just one more week," he says, but is a question, a plea even.

There's a deep silence during which they simply stare at one other. His mother seems lightly surprised this is the kind of man her son is starting to grow into. It does not seem the bad kind of surprise and that gives him hope. Shishido swallows and looks at her, trying to keep his expression neutral. His mother groans and pinches the bridge of her nose.

"Alright. One week," she concedes with a shuddering sigh and Shishido fights not to break out into a smile. "One week and then this stops. Deal?"

A slender hand is proffered. His own hand, almost identical, though slightly rougher and more scarred, clasps hers. They shake.

"Deal."

***

It's hard not to take his frustration out on Ohtori. Seeing as he is the only person present makes him an ideal target to vent on, but Shishido refrains, with difficulty, from doing so. Sometimes sharp words will escape him despite this, but he tries to master himself as soon as he realizes it, forcing himself to go on in a more sedate tone.

Thing is, Ohtori is basically a good person.

Talking down on him (figuratively, thanks to the kid's height) makes Shishido feel awful. Which is a first. It's not that Ohtori is completely selfless, or self-sacrificing, or sweet, or something as strange as that. No. But he's good human being. Next to him Shishido starts to feel terribly grubby and petty and not as though he's become the sort of person one would be proud of.

It makes Shishido start to feel strangely compelled to give something, even if it's only kinder words, back.

But when that fucking tennis ball smacks right against his left eyebrow, again, it's impossible to keep his mouth shut.

"Fucking hell, fuck, ah fuckfuckfuck- NO. Don't fucking touch me, just, just- ah. Dammit," Shishido hisses and curses and alternately curls over himself, instinctively protecting his weak parts, before stomping around in aggressive circles.

Eventually he wobbles and sits down where he's standing. The abuse has left his eyebrow numb, wet with blood and pus. By now it resembles a rotten piece of fruit. Squishy and dark and not right.

Ohtori leaves him be for a minute or two, but then he approaches anyway, face a picture of worry and resolve. Long legs fold before him as Ohtori crouches. A water bottle is offered.

Shishido takes it and drinks deeply. "Thanks. Sorry. It just fucking hurt."

"Imagine that," Ohtori says dryly.

It helps that Ohtori has a very dry sense of humor. Shishido can appreciate that above all. He grins wryly. Ohtori quirks his lips back and then gives a tired shake of the head.

"Shishido-san," he says, winding an arm carefully around his shoulders to lever him up. "Please, enough for today."

The fact that Shishido doesn't have the heart to protest tells both of them enough. Shishido tries to walk to the bench on his own strength and he manages, but Ohtori flanks him a step to his right. He's stopped hovering and fidgeting, having adapted a more no-nonsense approach. He doesn't flutter with worry as he walks next to him, but Shishido knows he'll grab him if his knees give out anyway. Heaven forbid that they do, though.

Back on the bench Shishido sinks down with a sigh.

Six more days. Somehow he has to do this in six days. It makes him exhausted just to think about it.

"I've brought some disinfectant and band-aids," Ohtori says, digging for the items in his bag. "I forgot to take cotton swabs, though. Sorry."

"S'okay," Shishido says, but tenses anyway when Ohtori straddles the bench too, mirroring him, and scoots closer. There's going to be touching and Shishido isn't sure he likes it. It's strange and weird and it makes him feel insecure.

Ohtori uncaps the bottle and hesitates. "I'm not sure how to..." his hands come up, falter next to Shishido's head and go back down. "Uhm. Maybe you should tip your head back. I'll try to pour it in."

All this makes Shishido want to tell Ohtori not to bother, but he is doing this out of kindness. Because he's a good person. But Shishido doesn't like baring vulnerabilities, even if it is something as absurd as being touched by Ohtori. He doesn't even know why, really. Which makes it ten shades of lame.

So he tips his head back far, eyes up at the sky, neck uncomfortable. Ohtori comes even closer, makes several awkward motions with the bottle he all instantly aborts. Then he cups his left hand over Shishido's eye. "Sorry," he says.

"It's okay."

"Don't want to get it in your eye," he adds, quite unnecessarily.

"Would sting like a bitch, I imagine," Shishido concedes.

Ohtori tries not to smile, but fails. Then he leans so close Shishido's nose is nearly in the v of his shirt and mutters, "This is going to burn." He tips the bottle.

Understatement, anyone? Shishido bites his tongue, sharp and accidental. Blood floods his mouth.

Using the hem of his spare clean shirt, Ohtori wipes the area around it clean. Long fingers pick out tendrils of hair from where they stick into the cut. Then he pours some more disinfectant in it. A little moisture seeps into the crease of his eyelid despite his efforts. Gently, it's wiped away by the pad of his thumb.

Shishido hopes it is over soon. He's becoming dizzy.

As Ohtori adds the final touch with a band-aid, Shishido feels lightheaded and has to sit with his eyes closed for a while. When he opens them Ohtori is giving him a rather disapproving frown.

"You must think I'm crazy," Shishido says with a tight little smile.

"Yes, a bit," Ohtori agrees. "But you know, I think it's working for you."

Shishido really can't tell whether this is meant as a joke or not. As relaxed as Ohtori is becoming around him (continuously hurting someone seems to leave little purpose for formality) Shishido still can't quite judge him correctly. Mostly when Ohtori's expression is a serious chance it's a joke. Now he isn't sure; it seems a bit of both.

Lips twitch at Shishido's suspicious squint, but he goes on the explain, "You moved your hand up this time. I really thought you were going to catch it."

Shishido blinks. "Huh. I can't remember reacting to the ball." Something like sweet, warm hope pools into his stomach.

"Instinct probably," Ohtori suggests.

"Whatever works," Shishido responds, a slow fierce smile stretching around his mouth. "Whatever works."

***

The next session, however, goes so abysmally it is as though there hasn't been any improvement at all, ever. As though he's starting all over again, but already burdened with layer upon layer of bruises.

What little morale they have mustered between the two of them evaporates with Shishido's rising desperation. By the end of the night they're angry at each other without actually having exchanged painful words.

Shishido fumes and snipes. Ohtori goes coldly polite, pulling a screen of ice in front of him in the form of a bland little smile.

The lake between them becomes an ocean filled with storm-capped ocean waves.

After taking a ball to the throat, nearly collapsing his windpipe, Ohtori pointedly refuses to go on. He packs his bags and leaves with Shishido screaming hoarsely at his retreating back. He rages and shouts long after he's gone, long enough for his voice to give out.

In the end he goes to stand at what he's come to think of as Ohtori's side of the net. He serves at an invisible opponent until the basket is empty.

Then he throws his racket across the net and doesn't cry.

***

Despite all odds, the friction and hostility between them, Ohtori shows up the day after. Shishido can't believe his eyes. Instead he gapes dumbly as the other unzips his bag and takes his racket out.

For a moment they stare at each other. Then Ohtori bows his head. "I'm so sorry, senpai, but I really can't... if, oh," Ohtori stops to run a hand through his hair. It stands up in funky loops. "If this doesn't work today, I'm... I can't do this anymore, I-"

"Ohtori. Please," Shishido manages. "Just a few more days."

"Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?" Ohtori asks, voice shaking. "Don't ask me to-"

"I am asking you. You said yes, don't back out now," Shishido tells him and takes a step closer. "I need to do this."

Ohtori looks at him uncomprehendingly, "Why? It's just tennis."

"That's why," Shishido responds harshly. "That's exactly why."

He loves tennis. And he's supposed to be good at it. It was the one thing he stood out with, even if it was just in his family. Shishido knows he blends in with the masses. He's not especially handsome like Atobe and Oshitari, or naturally gifted like them either. He hasn't got Jiroh's easy warmth or Gakuto's generous friendship. He hasn't got Kabaji's physical and mental strength, nor Hiyoshi's self-control. He's perfectly average. He isn't talented. He isn't good. Not like Ohtori. He has tennis and now even that is gone.

He's thinking about this in a thin, desperate sort of way when Ohtori does something very strange. His face softens around his eyes and eyebrows, but his jaw clenches and then, then he reads Shishido's mind.

"Shishido-san," Ohtori murmurs. "You stand out all by yourself without tennis."

"I-" Shishido blinks at him. "I. What?"

"Everybody admires you," Ohtori says. "Didn't you know? I just- What are you trying to prove?"

"I. What? Prove?" Shishido shakes his head. "I don't. This is for me. I'm doing this for me."

"Are you?"

"Yes," Shishido bursts out. "For who else?"

Ohtori is quiet for a long time, thoughtful. They're wasting precious time with this surreal conversation, but Shishido senses he shouldn't push Ohtori just now. If he gives Ohtori a reason to walk away a second time, he's not coming back. The floodlight flares up behind Ohtori blindingly, dying his hair even fairer than it is, but casting the rest of his face in darkness. The shadow of his tall frame slants across Shishido, with him standing approximately in the chest area of the dark silhouette.

"Shishido-san," Ohtori murmurs, "I don't understand."

Nodding, Shishido moves closer. "You don't have to," he insists. "Just help me for four more days."

It's not something he can explain. He just has to do this. They knocked him to his knees, but Shishido will be damned if he doesn't get up and knock twice as hard back. It's just something you do. There's no 'why' or 'but' about it. Nothing more important than showing the lot of them that he's more than just that, that nothing will keep him down.

And it's tennis.

He loves tennis.

It's tennis.

Is there anything more satisfactory than being good at something you enjoy doing?

"Choutarou," he says. "Please."

Ohtori squeezes his eyes shut and tips his head back for a good, deep sigh. "Alright."

Shishido lets a out a lungful of held-in breath.

"But."

He sucks it back in.

"Tonight," Ohtori says, "you have to catch that ball. If not, we continue with a racket. No-, senpai, please, I really can't. Don't tell me to."

It smarts, but Shishido agrees. It seems Ohtori has hit his limit and is putting his foot down at last. All his bruises and infected wounds agree heartily with that decision, but Shishido only feels a sinking swoop in his belly. It doesn't matter if he can do it with a racket. All the training will have been for nothing. Yet he can't bring himself to be angry with Ohtori anymore. Hurting someone deliberately over and over, no matter the intentions, must be hard.

"Alright," he manages, voice strangled with rising defeat. "It's a deal."

Ohtori nods.

Shishido nods back.

Finally they begin the motions of their session, but it makes him feel terribly empty. How can he accomplish the impossible right this instant? If he doesn't, he'll have to continue with a racket despite all the hard, gruesome work. Shishido takes up his position on the other side of the net, but feels just an endless press of exhaustion instead of the adrenaline rush he usually gets. It's just too much.

Waiting for Ohtori to serve the ball is even bland. The promise he just made has gutted him. The illusion of time gave him a reprieve, it enabled him to forget the fatigue. Now there's no time left. Now or never.

Shishido mentally kicks himself, hard. What's the point in giving up? He's gonna do this. He's got to do this. Fuck being tired. Fuck time. If it's now or never, then it's gonna be now.

Ohtori suddenly pauses as he's bouncing the ball. "Shishido-san," he says rather softly, but the stillness of the night makes his voice carry as though he was standing right besides Shishido. "If anybody can do this, it's you."

The rush of sheer pleasure that statement brings is fiercer than the sharpest jab of adrenaline has ever been. He'd already made up his mind, but Ohtori just gave him a push in the back. It makes him feel gratitude beyond any he's ever experienced. Out loud, though, he says, "Geez, that's a lame thing to say, Ohtori."

Ohtori is just throwing up the ball, but Shishido's comment causes him to blink and miss. Instead the ball hits him in the middle of the forehead. He doesn't even seem to notice, instead he just gapes, vaguely hurt.

"But thanks anyway," Shishido adds.

After a moment, Ohtori smiles. Genuinely.

That night he catches the ball.

Barehanded.

***

With last night's victory still singing through him, his spirits soaring, Shishido waits patiently (or as patient as he's capable of) for Ohtori to show. He's running a bit late this evening, it's already quarter past eight. It chafes at him to wait, he feels nearly invincible, he wants to do it again over and over. There's no sweeter pain than that of a tennis ball slamming into his palm. Nineteen times. He caught it nineteen times yesterday.

And what made it even better was that Ohtori was grinning as fiercely as he was, as elated as he was. It was strange how connected they were as they packed up their bags. Almost as though he could feel Ohtori breathing, could sense where he was and could anticipate his next movement. As they walked back over campus their footsteps had matched, -left right left right- their pace identical and their breathing synchronized.

It had been almost frightening.

Half past eight.

What is keeping him?

Cursing his lack of foresightedness at not asking Ohtori's cell phone number, Shishido balances his racket first on his right index finger and then tries it on his left. He has no way of contacting Ohtori and is reduced to pacing around on the court, waiting. He hates waiting. Not to mention bad at it.

Shishido practices against the wall and wishes he had gotten a chance to obtain a copy of the regular's clubhouse key as well. They have a gym and ball-machines; he could've used those as a substitute as he waits for Ohtori. Instead he slams balls against the concrete, teeth gritted, not wanting to admit what he's starting to suspect.

That he's not going to show.

At twenty past nine, Shishido balls his fists and packs his bags.

Ohtori didn't come.

It tastes twice as bitter after last night's spark of connection between them. Was it really only him who felt that?

Did Ohtori think that that was it? Catch the ball and finito, that was it? He needs to train even harder now. They're on the right track. He's got a chance, a real damn chance and now Ohtori chooses to abandon him?

It's not betrayal. Not really. After all it's not like Ohtori and he are friends.

As Shishido walks back in the dark, alone, it does feel like it.

Betrayal.

***

"Shishido-san!"

Shishido clenches his jaw and walks on, slipping through the press of students that flood the hallway. At the first glimpse of the second year, he'd turned and started the other way. He didn't want to deal with Ohtori just now. For once he's glad of his slightness, managing to maneuver more nimbly through all the live obstacles as opposed to Ohtori who, as a second year between third years, can hardly start shouldering his senpais aside and is thus reduced to mumbling apologies and side-stepping where he can.

"Shishido-senpai!"

Damn it. Can't he take a hint?

"Oi, Ryou," one of his classmates says, grabbing the back of his uniform shirt. "This kid wants to talk to you."

Shishido schools his face as best as he can, but the look he gives his fellow third year is still so harsh the other releases him instantly. However small the detention, it is enough for Ohtori to catch up with him. Close enough at least Shishido can hardly completely ignore him, though he is very tempted to do so.

"Shishido-san," Ohtori manages breathlessly, leaning on his knees to catch his breath.

Turning to look up at him, Shishido answers coolly, "Yes, Ohtori-kun?"

Ohtori flinches, just the littlest bit. Yet he takes a step closer and goes on, "Shishido-san, I'm so sorry. I wanted to let you know, but I didn't have your number and. I'm sorry, I-"

What Ohtori doesn't know is that he had Shishido on the first 'sorry'. Shishido doesn't think anybody has ever offered him that sentiment quite so genuinely. Plus; those eyes. Those damn eyes.

God, who is he trying to fool?

"Let's go outside to talk about this, alright?" Shishido grumbles under his breath. Why is this so awkward? It's only Ohtori. He barely knows the kid. And why didn't Ohtori use the opportunity and walk away from this whole mess? Why did he come back? It's not like he enjoyed their training sessions. It's not like there is anything in it for him. Quite the opposite.

Why is Ohtori so damn difficult to figure out? It's like he comes from a whole other planet.

By the time they're outside it still doesn't make sense. The campus is huge, there's a million places to talk, but Shishido finds himself gravitating to the same spot he always tends to eat, underneath the sakura tree behind the clubhouse. It's private. Shishido leans against the tree trunk and wonders why it feels as though they had a fight.

Nothing happened.

They aren't even friends.

"So, what is it?" Shishido says into the stagnant silence.

Ohtori leans next to him. A tree trunk is only so wide and their arms brush. Shishido tried to ignore it, fails, and resorts to crossing his arms.

"I'm failing at school," Ohtori says softly. "My parents got a phone-call from my teacher. They were-"

Shishido has forgotten all about being pissed and can only stare in surprise. Of all explanations, he certainly didn't expect this.

"- and if I can't pick up my marks, they won't allow me to stay out late any longer. I know it's only a few more days, but they're really-" he stops again, his dark eyes wide and utterly sincere.

"It's because of the training, isn't it?" Shishido grumbles, feeling like a right asshole. "You didn't have any time left to study."

"I'm sorry, Shishido-senpai, I-"

"No, just. Don't, alright? Fuck." Shishido viciously pulls the elastic out of his ponytail, ripping out some hairs snagged on it in the progress and plunks down to the ground. His hair falls warm and heavy against the back of his neck. It feels good to have it loose and now he has the elastic to keep his hands preoccupied.

After a moment Ohtori sits down next to him.

"But they'll still let you go out tonight, right?" Shishido asks.

Ohtori makes a tortured sort of expression, "Yes, I'm still allowed to go out. But senpai, I can't. I really need to try and pull up my marks, I'm sorry-"

"Just shut up for a moment and listen," Shishido tells him. "I was gonna make you a deal."

"A deal?" Ohtori echoes, slightly bewildered.

"Yeah," shaking his hair back, he scoots closer so he can keep a better track of Ohtori's reaction. "Look, I'm not Oshitari, alright? I'm no genius. But I got all those courses last year myself. I could help you, I'm pretty good at teaching people stuff. I could dig up my notes to help you out."

Ohtori just gapes.

Shishido plows on doggedly. "We could meet up at the courts right after dinner and I'll, you know, tutor you. If we have time left we can still practice tennis."

Ohtori gapes some more.

"So," Shishido leans even closer, "what do you think?"

"I-" Ohtori shakes his head and then, slowly, starts to smile. "Yes, I'd like that. Thank you, senpai."

Shishido can't believe him.

He's the reason Ohtori's been spectacularly failing his tests, he's the reason Ohtori parents are having a right hissy fit, he's the reason for bullying Ohtori into helping him, and what does the kid do? Thank him.

Un-fucking-believable.







...on to part 2!







Comment on part 2, please.