"You say nice and mean a different thing than I do." Kikumaru's eyes met Fuji's unblinkingly.
"Use your eyes to judge for yourself what you want to believe in," Fuji's half-amused, half nonchalant answer made Kikumaru frown.
Kikumaru glanced over to Kawamura's table before snapping back, "It's you whom I don't trust!"
The youngest member of their team ignored the brewing row. "Hmm... maybe I should order something." Ryoma caught sight of someone walking past their table to join Kawamura and his friend at the table. The newcomer sat down next to the girl and leaned against the back of his seat in a casual manner, smirking openly. Fuji was the only one who noticed that Ryoma was trembling slightly while holding onto the menu. The older boy nudged Ryoma lightly with his elbow, a small frown etched between his brows.
At this, the other boys all turned their attention to Ryoma.
Momoshiro leaned over to peer at the other. "What?"
"That's the guy who hurt Echizen." Fuji's soft answer made everyone peer harder at the boy sitting near the corner of the restaurant.
"Why's he with Taka-san?" Kikumaru demanded of Fuji. The prodigy only shrugged.
"Don't tell me what to do." The silver-haired boy's low, gruff answer carried clearly to the boys who were spying on them. "I'm letting you off this time on the account of our acquaintance. It won't happen again."
"I never knew-" Kikumaru's sentence was cut off by a sudden gasp from Oishi, as the boy called Akutsu stood up and proceeded to pour his beverage over Kawamura's head.
"Jin!" The girl called after Akutsu, clearly distraught. "Takashi-kun! Are you alright?"
Momoshiro stared at the boy nearing their table with a look of awe. "What an unreasonable fellow..."
"Not so loud, Momo!" Kikumaru nearly yelped, sinking into his chair almost immediately.
Ryoma appeared to consider the other boy's passage for a brief moment before sticking his foot out just a second before Akutsu walked past, tripping the older boy. A hushed silence fell over the table as everyone froze and waited for Akutsu's reaction. Ryoma seemed completely oblivious to the shocked reactions of his teammates. "Thanks for last time," he said, a smirk on his face.
Akutsu's eyes widened in realization as he recognized the bratty kid who dared to mess with him. "Seigaku..." he growled.
"I forgot to introduce myself," Ryoma said, his casual posture showing that he was completely unconcerned about dealing with the bully. If anything, Fuji thought, Ryoma looked like a bully, glaring down smugly at the gray-haired teen. "I'm Echizen Ryoma from Seigaku. It's nice to meet you."
Fuji couldn't help it. He started to laugh very quietly, muffling it under his hand. The sheer nerve of their prized first year was beyond compare.
Akutsu, though, straightened slowly. "Echizen," he growled, leaning in a bit. "I am going to rip you apart," he promised. He took a menacing step toward the other boy, but stopped when Kawamura rushed up to him, the woman at his side.
"Jin!" the woman said, catching his arm. "Please!"
"You're upsetting Yuki-chan," Kawamura said, frowning.
Akutsu frowned momentarily before straightening his collar and glancing at the woman, and then giving Kawamura a cold look. "This isn't over," he said, finally turning to stare at Ryoma.
"Mada mada dane," Ryoma said back, apparently as comfortable as he always was, and just as ready to instigate.
Momoshiro finally grabbed his kohai by the collar and yanked him out of the way, and even though Echizen squirmed, his grip was as tight as a manacle. "Behave," he whispered. "Stop provoking him!"
Akutsu looked at the two. "You'd be wise to keep him on a leash," Akutsu said. He turned and walked out the door, leaving the woman behind him.
"Jin!" she said, and buried her face in her hands, crying again.
"It's okay, Yuki-chan," Kawamura said awkwardly. "I'm sure he didn't mean it."
None of the other Seigaku regulars were at all convinced, but it seemed to calm the woman down. "He's a good boy!" she insisted.
"I know," Kawamura said soothingly. He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly.
"Taka-san, how about you walk your friend home?" Fuji offered. "I'll pay for you," he said.
Kawamura stared at his friend before giving him a shy smile. "Thanks, Fujiko. I'll pay you back."
"You can treat me to some wasabi sushi again," Fuji said. "I hope Yuki-san feels better," he offered.
Kawamura gave him a grateful look, and Fuji signaled to the waiter to explain. The other regulars watched him, wondering what was going on.
"What was that about?" Momoshiro asked after Fuji had asked for Kawamura's bill.
"No clue," Fuji said sweetly. He glanced over at Ryoma, noticing how the boy looked like he was just about to kick Momoshiro for the insult to his person.
"Right," Kikumaru said. He tilted his head, obviously not believing Fuji.
"All I know is that Kawamura was meeting a friend here," Fuji said. Of course, he knew who the friend was, but it was more fun to let Kikumaru's wild speculations run rampant. It wouldn't hurt Taka-san – and maybe it would improve his reputation. Many people view him as one of Atobe's thugs, not seeing he had a life outside of the diva's demands.
Ryoma didn't appear to be bothered by what had just happened, and was settling back into his seat comfortably with a smirk on his lips.
Kikumaru turned intelligent eyes on the prodigy of the team, clearly unhappy. "I find it hard to believe things you say."
"Believe what you want to then." With that, Fuji stood up to foot Kawamura's bill.
Doubles was game played by two people. And that was exactly what Tezuka and Atobe were trying to achieve when they decided that they were going to play doubles. It wasn't going to be easy, but since when had anything which happened between them been easy?
"First, we have to be sensitive towards our partner's movements," Atobe murmured while holding up a piece of rope. "I've seen the Golden Pair train Echizen and Momo using this before."
Tezuka understood the reason behind the usage of the rope and said nothing. All he did was reach over to take the rope out of Atobe's hands, tying one end around his body in snug fit. Atobe did the same, frowning slightly as the length of rope between them immediately tangled up.
"Stand a distance away." Even as he spoke, Atobe started backing away from Tezuka. There was a sharp snap and both boys were tugged forwards against each other. The diva scowled. "I said stand a distance away-"
"If you did move only a little, this wouldn't have happened-"
"You shouldn't have moved, actually."
There was a pause as both boys glared at each other, clearly displeased. Atobe stood up, dusting himself off.
"Well then." He huffed, trying to get a grip on his temper. "We should try this again."
This time, they were careful to move into position without anymore mishaps. Atobe watched as Tezuka served, and he ran towards the net while Tezuka started moving for the center of the court, leaving the left side of their court open.
"No, Tezuka! There should always-" Atobe began, returning the tennis ball which had bounced off the wall they were practicing against.
He backed into Tezuka, tripped the other boy, tripped over the other boy's legs, and the both of them landed onto the floor of the tennis court in a tangled heap of limbs and rope. The stray tennis ball bounced off a spot near them, cheerfully rolling to a stop at the end of the court.
Atobe lay underneath Tezuka, their arms and legs tangled up in an unbelievable manner. The diva tried to untangle himself from his rival, removing his face from the other boy's hair with an indignant splutter. Tezuka got up from the floor carefully, but there was a sharp snap as the rope connecting them jerked him to a stop and he fell on top of Atobe again, causing the older boy to lose whatever air he had painstakingly managed to gather in his lungs.
"Oof!" Atobe let his head fall and the back of his skull connected against the hard synthetic courts painfully. "Ow!"
There was a soft grunt from Tezuka, whose face had collided against Atobe's chest.
The both of them started to untangled themselves again. It wasn't until the rope was carefully laid out between them did Atobe start to rant. "You could've killed me!"
"I think you're exaggerating," Tezuka said quietly. "There was no danger of you being killed."
"Seriously injured!" Atobe fought back. He rotated his shoulder, feeling the bruises beginning to form along his back. "Are you trying to take me out?"
"Tempting as that would be, I find that there's no benefit to the team in removing our second best player," Tezuka replied flatly.
"Second best?" Atobe echoed, and his voice began to rise. "I'll show you who's second best!"
Tezuka crossed his arms over his chest tilted his head. His hair had been thoroughly rumpled by the fall, and his glasses were slightly crooked, but his calm expression showed no sign of strain. "Are we going to rehash this argument, or are we going to do what we came here to do, and figure out where we're going wrong?"
Atobe forced himself to take in a deep breath to calm himself, and then another for good measure. Killing Tezuka, as tempting and as satisfying as it would be, would be counterproductive. Right now everyone believed that they would never be able to form a decent doubles pair, and he needed Tezuka's cooperation to pull it off. "We went wrong in that you're not following my lead," said Atobe in a much softer voice. "I'm the front player. So you should be watching me."
"There's more than one formation in doubles, Atobe. We need to watch each other," Tezuka replied quietly. His eyes were level as he studied the ball, which had finally come to a stop. "Doubles requires that we not only pay attention to the ball and our opponent, but also our partners as well. It's adding an extra dimension of concentration."
"Are you implying my concentration is lacking?" Atobe asked, feeling thoroughly offended.
"I'm making an observation. Oishi excels at doubles because he watches everything; Kikumaru is similarly skilled because of his amazing concentration."
"You and I are both good at concentrating. We should be able to get this!"
"I agree. Shall we try again?"
Atobe cast a distrustful glance at Tezuka before rising to his feet. "I'm tempted to say we should start with something simpler – such as learning to look at each other without hating the other."
"Momoshiro and Kaidou worked together well," said Tezuka flatly, obviously not liking where Atobe's mind was going.
"Momoshiro and Kaidou have fewer issues between them. They just plain don't like the other. We, however, have taken it to new heights of raging hatred and loathing." Atobe undid the rope, sliding it off his waist. "What we have here, Tezuka, is a severe case in failure to communicate."
Tezuka looked like he was about to high-tail it out of there. "I don't see what our personal issues have to do with tennis."
"You know as well as I do that we're never going to succeed if we can't talk to each other without insulting the other. We've made it clear that we don't like the other, but it's getting old. We're not Momoshiro and Kaidou - I don't work well with people who can't respect me, and I know the same is true for you as well."
Tezuka thought on it for a moment. "What are you suggesting?"
"Let's go for dinner." Atobe's casual reply made Tezuka stare. "We can talk over dinner, yes?"
"Ah," the neutral reply from the captain only made Atobe roll his eyes, barely.
"I shall take that as a yes." With that, the diva started walking towards his racket bag. "Where do you want to go and eat?"
"Anywhere will do." Tezuka had undone the rope around himself and started keeping his racket as well. "It doesn't matter."
There was a soft huff from Atobe. "I'll pick the place, then."
They ended up at a somewhat quiet and private cafe just round a corner from their school, a place Tezuka had never been to before. Atobe appeared to notice his expression, then smiled, confident.
"Fuji and I come here sometimes." He sat down in one of the corner booths, reclining into his seat casually. "What would you like?"
Tezuka was beginning to feel like a girl who was dragged unwillingly onto a date with a guy she would rather kick than eat dinner with. "It's okay. I'll look at the menu."
"The milkshakes here are pretty good. They have some recent additions of spicy food, but Fuji's the one who would prefer them. Their western food is not bad too."
The captain lifted his head to stare at Atobe. "I think I'll choose after looking through the menu."
"Ah," Atobe shrugged, nonplussed by the other boy's reply.
Atobe allowed silence to reign for a while before regarding Tezuka with a small frown. He was obviously the one who was more relaxed in the current atmosphere. He couldn't understand why, though. There was nothing wrong with having dinner together, right? It wasn't as if he was asking Tezuka to come over to his house or something...
The bespectacled boy was tensed and somewhat stiff, watching his surroundings with a critical eye. It was true when Atobe recognized that he had problems communicating with other people. And Tezuka appeared to carry that problem with him, regardless of where he went. A while back, Atobe had decided to help the other boy by educating him on the finer points of communication with other human beings. It looked as if it was about time he start enforcing his plans.
Furthermore, they need to talk to understand each other. Sitting around staring at tabletops wasn't going to get them far in terms of mutual understanding.
"So," Atobe began, and Tezuka looked up sharply, almost stern. The diva frowned. "Why do you always look so unhappy?"
"Yes, you do. You always look as if something had crawled into your pants and died there." The offended look Tezuka gave him wasn't going to help things any, Atobe decided. "Okay, we shan't talk about that now, since it's obvious that you have problems talking to fellow human beings about yourself. Let's talking about something else." Atobe tapped a finger to his chin thoughtfully. "What're your hobbies? I have a few, so I'd rather listen to yours first."
Tezuka didn't appear to be keen on replying. "I read when I'm free. Sometimes I make trips to the mountains for fishing and camping."
"Fishing!" The surprised exclamation almost shocked Tezuka. "I like fly fishing... and reading is one of my favorite hobbies. I love languages though. It's too bad that Seigaku doesn't offer third language courses. So... we're not as different as you think, Tezuka."
The other boy declined to reply.
"Hmmn..." Atobe tried to change the topic, seeing the lack of favorable response to his statements. "What about music, then? Personally, I prefer the classical."
Tezuka's eyes met with his for a brief moment before sliding away. "I don't listen to music much."
A raised eyebrow from the other boy. "That can't be possible. Come on, this is supposed to be a sharing session. I've told you what I liked, I'm sure you can do the same."
Tezuka appeared to think about what Atobe said. The older boy tried to make himself look as friendly as possible, smiling encouragingly. Finally, after a long moment, there was a mumble from Tezuka which sounded more like a low rumbling in his chest, combined with him saying something like 'ack'.
"Speak up," Atobe encouraged. He hated to admit it, but the slight blush that was tracing Tezuka's face was making him incurably curious.
"I like Gackt," Tezuka said, then looked down at the table, to the side where the waitress had disappeared... anywhere but at Atobe.
Atobe felt his jaw drop in a most undignified fashion. Rubbing his ears, he stared at his rival, unable to believe he had heard right. "Did you just say you liked Gackt?" he asked, needing confirmation.
"I don't repeat myself," Tezuka said.
"You... like Gackt," Atobe said, trying to figure out when the world had ended and why no one had deigned to tell him. Fuji was going to have a fit when he found out.
No. He wouldn't tell. This was about building trust, and right now everything Tezuka said to him would be kept to himself. Let Fuji find out on his own. Though it was almost too good to keep to himself.
"Is there a problem with my musical taste?" Tezuka asked. It seemed like he was ready to start twitching.
"No. I'm just amazed that you're not listening to classical or something like that - I would have thought you'd have rejected anything made in the last 100 years."
"I'm not totally out of sync with our generation, Atobe," Tezuka said calmly.
"I guess not. It's too bad - I would have liked to discuss music with someone."
"I like classical as well," Tezuka said. "I just like Gackt better."
"Malice Mizer, L'arcenCiel, Glay," Tezuka admitted, apparently opening up since Atobe hadn't made fun of him and was taking him seriously.
Atobe listened to Tezuka talk about music for a while, watching the usually stoic boy's face soften as he discussed lyrics and artists which inspired him. Something about Tezuka seemed a bit different, removed from the stress of school and practice, and Atobe was surprised to discover that he rather liked the thoughtful young man who sat across from him.
When the waitress returned, Tezuka surprised him by ordering one of the milkshakes he had recommended along with a crepe. Atobe ordered soba and tea, and they turned the menus over to the server to be taken away.
"You know, I keep thinking on why we don't get along, and I haven't been able to come up with a good reason," Atobe said. "Aside from the personality conflict."
"I think the personality conflict would be enough."
Tezuka sighed. "Some people just aren't meant to get along, Atobe. It would be nice if we could respect each other, though."
"Have you ever wondered... what things would be like, if we did get along?"
"A lot more peaceful."
Atobe blinked. "I think you just made a joke!"
A slight smile tugged at Tezuka's lips. "That would be impossible. According to you, I have no sense of humor."
Atobe toyed with the chopsticks on their table. "Really, Tezuka. You're full of surprises tonight."
"So are you," Tezuka said. "I never would have imagined you liked to fish. It hardly seems glamorous enough for your tastes."
"My family has a private boat. I'll take you out on it, sometime."
The slight smile surfaced once more. "Thanks for your offer. I'm more used to river fishing, though."
"If that's the case," Atobe smirked. "I know a few choice locations for river fishing too. I've brought Fujiko and Taka-san there before, but neither of them appreciated my efforts. Fujiko has no patience for fishing at all. He's the kind who'd like fishes to jump into his net without attempting. Taka-san can only think about which type of fish is good for eating."
The small smile had broadened a little, and Atobe felt a comfortable warmth starting from within.
It was the first time they had spoken so amicably to each other without snipping, and Atobe was amazed to find himself enjoying their conversation. In fact, he had noticed that if one didn't like another, whatever else the other person said would be offending, and knowing his own personality, it was more like than not that he would try and find fault with the other person's argument.
"I think we should continue practicing our doubles." Atobe began again moments later, when the both of them were half-way through their food. "And when we're good enough to face down people for doubles, we should get Sumire-chan or the Golden Pair to check."
Tezuka couldn't help agreeing. It was true, anyway.
It looked as if their target goal of playing doubles wasn't far now.
End: Chapter 15