DISCLAIMER: Konomi Takeshi owns Prince of Tennis and its characters. I don't.

NOTES: Speculates on what happened after the time Ooishi hit Eiji in front of everybody. Yeah, I could have said "the time when Momoshiro became a no-show at the tennis club" but it didn't impress me as much as the point where Ooishi hit Eiji in front of everybody :P

Should this be labeled a spoiler? Nah. The two of them made up, Tezuka made them both run laps, and all was well with the world. We should have known the Golden Pair won't stay angry with each other for more than one episode, na?

Was listening to "If You're Gone" by Matchbox 20 while writing. I like this song for this pair.

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In Time
by MorphailEffect


"Let's go over to that ramen shop, Ooishi. All those laps we ran today made me hungry."

Ooishi was going to agree, of course. There was no harm in being a little late coming home, just because of an impromptu snack.

There was, however, the small matter of circumstance. Kikumaru only ever asked to sidetrack to the little ramen shop behind 7-11 if he wanted to talk about something -- usually something personal, something he couldn't talk about at school.

"Sure," Ooishi answered. "Er...something bothering you?"

Ooishi was a direct person, even if he was perfectly polite. He could be even more direct with Kikumaru, who valued truthfulness above anything else.

"...I'll tell you about it when we get there, 'kay?"

Ooishi quietly nodded. Kikumaru bounced over to the ramen shop and Ooishi had to sprint after him.

******************************

Kikumaru freely attached sentiment to places. There was a particular trash bin in a secluded area of town he came back to whenever he felt down (which was very seldom). And there was this ramen shop, which he only ever went to with Ooishi -- at least, as far as Ooishi knew.

He believed it was their special place. It was kind of corny in that respect, Ooishi thought...

He had dragged Ooishi there when he admitted once in their second year that he was afraid he wouldn't make the ranking matches. And he had dragged Ooishi there when Ooishi had needed to talk about his family's financial problems. The place was just like any other ramen place, wasn't even the most secluded ramen place in the world, but that Kikumaru chose it made it stand out from all the others.

"So what did you want to talk about?" Ooishi asked as they sat down.

"Mind if we eat first? Mou, I'm really starving here."

Ooishi let a small chuckle escape him. "Aa, wakatta..."

They each got a small steaming bowl of ramen. Had to make room for dinner, after all. Ooishi realized he was starving, too.

He noted with amusement as they ate that his chopsticks and Kikumaru's rose and fell at the exact same time. What weird synchronization. They didn't chew at the same time, but their chopsticks seemed to have their own pace.

Like their tennis rackets, whenever they were practicing.

"This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with what happened at the club earlier, would it?" Ooishi ventured around his third mouthful.

Kikumaru reached for a glass of water. "You know me, Ooishi. I talk about the things I'm afraid of. Sometimes that makes the fear go away..." He gulped down the water loudly. "Sometimes it doesn't. But it's always worth a shot."

Fear? What was Kikumaru talking about? For some reason, Ooishi sensed gravity in his friend's voice. And it worried him. "Naa. Eiji, we just survived the experience," he said placatingly. "We don't have to talk about it."

Kikumaru accidentally brought down his glass on top of the counter hard. At least, Ooishi couldn't come up with a reason why he'd want to put his glass down that hard.

"Yes we DO have to talk about it. Because I don't ever want it to happen again!"

It took Ooishi by surprise. Kikumaru had assumed the behavior of a man woefully wronged. He hastened to muster an apology.

"Eiji...when I hit you earlier, I was acting out of emotion...I didn't think..."

"Yeah, well. Don't worry about it."

"Demo." Ooishi averted his gaze. "I shouldn't have hit you. I'm sorry."

"I said don't worry about it. That's not what I meant."

Ooishi frowned. "So what did you mean?"

It was Kikumaru's turn to look away. "It shouldn't have happened at all. If I'd only kept my mouth shut." He picked up his chopsticks again. "I think Ooishi being angry with me is the worst feeling in the world."

Was that an apology? If so, why did it feel more like a confession than an apology?

Ooishi felt uncomfortable. It no longer felt like a conversation between two friends. And if it wasn't that, what was it?

If Kikumaru were a girl, it would be so easy to say something like "I'm never going to lose my temper with you again. I'm sorry, okay?" and perhaps the atmosphere would at least lighten.

But that seldom worked with Kikumaru. One of the things he really hated was condescending behavior. Unless Ooishi was speaking as his vice-captain -- and not his friend, not his doubles partner -- stuff like comforting pats on the head were out of the question.

Ooishi didn't know that he had fallen silent for a long time. He became keenly aware that Kikumaru had tensed up, waiting for him to say something.

And then he became even less capable of saying anything. The tension was eating away at his vocabulary.

Their chopsticks were no longer in sync. Kikumaru's were moving faster than his. Soon Kikumaru was leaning back with his hands planted on either side of the bench, his strained legs stretched straight out in front of him. He waited patiently for Ooishi to finish eating, his gaze far away.

Then he said, his voice neutral, "I want to go somewhere else."

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Now this was bad. Ooishi knew in his gut that their next destination was the trash bin. Maybe he sensed it in the way neither of them said a word as they were walking away from the ramen shop.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. Ooishi had said a word. He'd said "Careful" as he pulled Kikumaru up after him so they could both sit on top of the bin's cover. It was the first time in two years he'd been up there again, he'd grown much heavier and taller since then...and he was surprised the cover could still support both his weight and his partner's.

Kikumaru wasn't looking at him.

They sat silently side by side, watching the sun set. Ooishi had always thought that the saddest place in the world for Kikumaru was actually a damn good place for a romantic couple to watch a beautiful cityscape sunset.

He never brought this up, though, for fear of Kikumaru teasing him as "weird."

"I'm sorry I made fun of Momochan," Kikumaru said quietly.

Ooishi nodded.

"I know how you feel whenever one of the old regulars doesn't make the ranking matches. But you know me, Ooishi. I poke fun at things I feel sad about. I'm just that kind of guy."

"Yeah, Eiji. I know. And I wish I hadn't hit you. It was just that..."

Ooishi shifted position, putting one hand down on the bin to steady himself. By sheer accident, his hand fell on Kikumaru's, and Kikumaru flinched. Ooishi quickly moved his hand away, laid it beside Kikumaru's instead.

When that was done, the side of Kikumaru's hand could have been touching the side of Ooishi's hand by accident. But neither of them did anything about it.

"...It was just that you were the last person in the world...I expected to trigger my nerves like that."

Kikumaru chuckled shyly. "Well, you were the last person in the world I expected to slap me across the face, so..."

"Hey, I said I was sorry! What, you want me to kiss it and make it better?"

This time Kikumaru downright laughed. Ooishi smiled at the comfortably familiar sound. Kikumaru laid himself down on his back, linked his hands behind his head, stared up at the few stars that were approaching the horizon.

Ooishi stretched out beside Kikumaru. Who still wasn't looking at him.

"We're the Golden Pair, aren't we?" Kikumaru almost whispered. "And not just in the tennis club..."

The softness in his voice touched something inside Ooishi. Perhaps it made him uncomfortable...or perhaps he didn't mind.

It was just -- this was the sort of thing guys don't talk about. Not even guys who sometimes think they've known each other forever. Ooishi wished he could find the will to lighten the mood. At the same time he felt this conversation had waited too long already to surface.

"Someday Ooishi is going to be a doctor. And I was thinking, maybe I'll go to college too. And then to medical school."

He wanted to study medicine, too? That was strange to hear. Kikumaru had never liked talking about the future. The flighty redhead took pride in not thinking beyond the moment.

"If I can't be a doctor, maybe I'll be a nurse." Kikumaru snorted. "Can you imagine it? 'Nurse Eiji.' I should probably start cosplaying now to get used to the skimpy skirts, na?"

He turned on his side so he was facing Ooishi. They might have been on a bed in a more secluded place. Or lying on a mat spread out somewhere warm and shaded. "But I can't be a doctor. I'm not that fond of studying. And I'm no good at taking care of people. I'm not...like you."

"You don't have to be like me, you know. You have some qualities that would make you a great doctor. Or nurse. If you really want to be one."

He knew that wasn't what Kikumaru meant.

"But if it's just to be with me...Eiji..."

He turned to look at Kikumaru, and Kikumaru averted his eyes again.

However, he did not turn away. And he put up a hand to rest on Ooishi's closer shoulder.

The gesture stunned Ooishi for a second. Kikumaru might as well have embraced him.

"I don't want the Golden Pair to break up," Kikumaru was saying. "I can't imagine us not being together."

Ooishi enfolded Kikumaru's hand in his fingers, intending at first to draw it away from his shoulder.

But Kikumaru's hand felt surprisingly warm.

Kikumaru gave a small relieved sigh. To his surprise, Ooishi found himself wishing he had taken his school jacket off, so he could feel that sigh brush across the bare skin of his arm.

"Eiji," he said, "nothing lasts forever. We'll probably be going to different high schools, and then to different colleges. In time, we probably won't even recognize each other when we meet again." He let go of Kikumaru's hand to stroke his hair. Kikumaru closed his eyes.

Funny, almost, how each weird thing Ooishi did or said to his friend at that moment felt so forgivable. So okay.

"And the most important thing...someday, you're going to beat me at a singles match. Remember what you said when we were first years?"

Kikumaru frowned. His hand gripped Ooishi's shoulder. "I don't want to beat you anymore."

Ooishi sighed. He wished Kikumaru hadn't said that. There was something else he wished Kikumaru had said, and he found himself saying it instead: "It doesn't matter even if you do beat me. We'll still be the Golden Pair. For as long as we can be."

That was the first time that afternoon that Kikumaru looked at him. Ooishi met those eyes, saw them searching for assurance, sincerity, steadiness...and knew that if he couldn't give them then, they wouldn't be the same after that moment. They would no longer be the old Golden Pair, who was there for each other like no other doubles team.

"So you better beat me," Ooishi said with a smirk.

Kikumaru chuckled and smirked right back. "Bet your ass I will."

Ooishi closed his eyes as he softly chuckled. He wasn't able to see his hand leaving Kikumaru's hair and trailing down to his chin. Before he could stop himself, he had tilted Kikumaru's face up slightly with the side of his index finger, had brushed his thumb lightly across the area just below Kikumaru's lower lip.

When he opened his eyes again, his lips were so close to Eiji's, he could feel that his friend had stopped breathing. Was staring at him wide-eyed and slightly panicked, in a "what the hell are you doing?!" fashion.

Ooishi reacted to that look quickly and pinched Kikumaru's nose.

Instant remedy.

"OW!!" Kikumaru cried.

Ooishi sat up. He had no way to explain that almost-kiss, and was willing to forget it had happened altogether.

(His body had moved of its own accord, unthinking. Just like it would whenever he was supporting Kikumaru on the courts. That was all...right?)

"That's for acting all sappy on me," Ooishi snapped.

"You're an idiot," Kikumaru singsang, as he sat up too. Then he stood, and announced to the rest of the sunset world: "One half of the indestructible Golden Pair is an idiot!"

"The half with the red hair!" Ooishi cried in turn, laughing.

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They were both guffawing like the carefree teenage kids they were when they decided it was high time to go home. Ooishi climbed down carefully while Kikumaru did a flashy backflip and landed on his nimble feet.

Ooishi threw an arm across Kikumaru's shoulders as they were walking. It might have been his imagination, but Kikumaru actually sidled up to him. Pressed up as close as he could get to Ooishi with both his hands in his pockets.

"...Now I can't get the image of Nurse Eiji out of my head," Ooishi complained.

"Hah!" Kikumaru crowed. "As if I was serious. What kind of nurse can't even stand the sight of needles?"

"Well, you could do cartwheels in the recovery rooms and make the patients laugh..."

"Or I could spread some really nasty rumors about that baka Dr. Ooishi so they'd hurry up and get better."

"You do that and I won't play tennis with you on weekends anymore."

"Waaaah, no fair!! We aren't even out of middle school yet and you're already blackmailing me!"

Things would happen in their own time.



(THE END)