A/N: Well, here it is! The first multi-chapter fanfic that I've written in months. Those of you who have read my earlier stories might not realize that I'm just as much of a Hyoutei fangirl as I am a Seigaku one, but I am! And to that end, this fic is centered around Hyoutei, specifically the characters of Mukahi Gakuto and Oshitari Yuushi and their doubles partnership.

For more thoughts and details on this fic's progress, you can check my writing journal on LJ, which is linked through my bio page. This fic has been planned out to be under ten chapters in length.

Warnings: Slash. Shonen-ai. Yaoi. BL. Whatever you call it, it's all over this fanfic, so don't read it if you can't stand it. The rating is accurate, however… This fic is smut-free. Also, beware of mild language and milder innuendo. Mostly because it's Hyoutei. XD

Pairings: OshiGaku, with a little ToriShishi, Golden Pair, and some others on the side.

I love all feedback, reviews, and critiques. Needless flames will be used for a backyard barbeque. Enjoy!

Chapter One: The Usual Tricks

"Doubles is all about dependence."

Pull it tight. Make a loop. Wind it around. Tuck it under. Tie the knot.

Tying your shoes was just one of those things. It went like clockwork; if you knew how to do it, you didn't have to think about it. You just did it. It would be stupid to stop and ponder the existence of the shoelace, or the meaning behind tying one's shoe. Nobody did that. They just tied their shoes, and that was all there was to it.

In Mukahi Gakuto's opinion, tennis practice was a lot like tying your shoes.

"Gakuto, would you hurry up already? If you don't, Atobe's going to make you run penalty laps again, and I'm in no mood to wait for you."

Gakuto grimaced a little as he double-knotted his left shoelace. That drawling voice of his partner's could sound so high and mighty sometimes.

"I know that, Yuushi. I'm coming," he snapped, grabbing his tennis racquet off of the bench. Pausing just long enough to bend down and close the zipper on his tennis bag, he straightened up again and started walking toward the door. He would have jogged the small distance, just in case… But that would have proved his partner's point, and Gakuto didn't feel like validating Yuushi's sarcastic comments at the moment.

Naturally, even though he had complained about his partner's tardiness, Oshitari Yuushi wasn't about to jog anywhere. Once Gakuto had caught up with him, he just continued his usual stroll toward the tennis courts. Then again, Gakuto briefly reflected, Yuushi never looked like he was in a hurry. No matter where he was going, he didn't rush; he sauntered. It would be funny, Gakuto thought, if only it weren't so ridiculously true. Oshitari Yuushi's stride was long, but leisurely, almost graceful, like a picture… Just another example of his partner's irritating perfection.

Irritating perfection.

Yeah, that was Yuushi, alright.

Gakuto wasn't the only one who thought so, either. He knew that much. He just happened to be the one who had to deal with it the most, since they were doubles partners.

That's right. Doubles partners. In tennis.

Really, it was like tying your shoes. Gakuto just happened to be one of the shoelaces, while Yuushi was the other. Make a loop, tie together, double-knot.

That was all there was to it. It was just tennis.

Which was why Gakuto didn't understand all the drama that was going on lately.

Yes, drama. Hyoutei's tennis club was currently drowning in drama, and Gakuto found it both vaguely unsettling and hilariously funny.

To make a long story short, Hyoutei's tennis team had been thrown completely upside down in a matter of a couple of weeks, and the regular lineup was still in chaos. First there had been that upset by Fudomine in the Prefectural Tournament… Gakuto hadn't even been there, but it shouldn't have happened. He knew that much; they all knew that much. They were Hyoutei. Hyoutei didn't even use its regular players until the Kantou tournament, much less lose to some upstart team with no game record.

Still, they'd lost to Fudomine anyway, and Shishido Ryoh had been kicked off of the regulars. Of course. He'd lost, after all, and badly, too. The only problem was that Shishido, who had always been one of the most stubborn guys on the team, had refused to concede his regular spot gracefully. The details were all still a bit hazy to most of the club members, but somehow, Shishido had managed to fight his way back on the roster. Of course, this was only after he'd thrown some kind of drama queen tantrum and cut off his hair… And been defended by Ootori Choutarou, and then endorsed by Atobe, of all people. After that, though, the coach had finally relented, and Shishido was a Regular again.

All things considered, Gakuto didn't know what the hell was going on, but something was definitely off in Hyoutei's tennis club.

For one thing, Atobe wasn't the type to stick his neck out for losers. And Ootori and Shishido… Well, since when had they been buddies? As far as Gakuto could remember, they had hardly even talked to each other. It was just bizarre. And that wasn't even counting the haircutting incident.

Well, it didn't really matter to Gakuto. Not really. Even if he was curious about how in the world Shishido had managed to worm his way back into the good graces of the powers that be, it wasn't like it was important.

After all, it was tennis. Tennis was just a game, for crying out loud.

"Hey, Yuushi, are we still having the challenge matches today?" Gakuto spoke up suddenly, glancing sideways at his tall companion.

Yuushi allowed a pause to linger for a split second in the air, before he let out a murmuring, "Hmmm… I don't know."

"I bet we won't. I don't even think Coach knows who's on the Regulars anymore," said Gakuto with a shrug, alluding vaguely to the chaotic events of the past few days.

Yuushi smirked a little, the right corner of his mouth sliding upward.

"Probably not. But I'm sure Atobe has something planned."

"Ugh. Probably." Gakuto just rolled his eyes. Atobe was another one of those irritatingly perfect people, the kind that always seemed to know everything about everyone. And whatever else one could say about Atobe, everyone knew that he could be rather… well, calculating. He was practically in charge of the whole club as it was, and he did what he liked with the Regulars in particular. Half the time, though, Gakuto didn't even know what Atobe was talking about, much less what was going on in the man's self-centered head.

Well, it didn't matter. As long as all of Atobe's plans stayed the heck away from him.

"There you two are," an annoyed voice remarked, catching the attention of both Gakuto and Yuushi. Sure enough, there was Atobe himself, standing on the side of the court and overlooking the warm-up exercises in his usual superior way. He was scribbling on a clipboard, with the other Regular players gathered around him like they were waiting for instructions. "Ore-sama does not like to be kept waiting, especially not for certain individuals whocan't be bothered to come to the court in a timely fashion."

Fixing his icy stare on Gakuto in particular, Atobe then switched subjects and continued to address the Regulars as a group.

"As for the challenge matches that were scheduled for today, they will proceed as planned, but with a few minor changes."

Atobe paused a moment and glanced back down at the clipboard, leaving the Regulars to exchange wary looks with each other. What was their captain getting at?

"Atobe, what are you talking about?" Jiroh wondered aloud, in his lazy, half-asleep voice. "It's not like we know who we're playing anyway."

"That's true enough, Jiroh," Atobe replied coolly, not bothering to look up. "But I'm not only referring to the playing order."

There were a few stray "Huh?" and "What?" noises at that statement, but Atobe merely ignored the interjections.

"In any event, I want you all to finish stretching, with the exception of two tardy individuals who will both be running ten laps for their apparent lack of enthusiasm." Atobe shot another glare in Gakuto and Yuushi's direction. Gakuto couldn't help grimacing at the captain's obvious contempt. What was his damage, anyway?

Atobe continued, "After that, ore-sama will be playing against Jiroh for the top singles spot in the upcoming Kantou tournament. Kabaji and Hiyoshi will also be playing against each other for third singles, and as for the doubles…"

Here Atobe smirked, and more than one Regular felt a chill go down his spine.

"Our Oshitari-Mukahi pair will be playing against Shishido and Ootori for the top doubles spot."

The uncomfortable silence in the air would have continued, if Atobe hadn't broken it with a, "That is all. You're dismissed," and calmly walked away to the nearest bench to grab his racquet.

Even so, for a split second, nobody moved. Shishido was sparing a shocked glance in Ootori's direction, who returned it with similar surprise. Jiroh looked faintly confused, even though the prospect of playing Atobe was starting to rouse him out of his barely-awake stupor. Even Hiyoshi looked as though he had been caught off guard by this arrangement, and given that Hiyoshi couldn't possibly care less about his teammates, that was saying something.

As for Gakuto and Yuushi, their eyes met at exactly the same time, and the mutual shock in their eyes was like a mirror reflecting back on itself.

They were playing against who for the first doubles spot?

When it came to Hyoutei, there was one thing that people understood. And that was simply this… The Hyoutei regulars were divas. It was a universal truth, like a law of nature that you just didn't mess with. With a few rare exceptions, such as the mild-mannered Ootori, the regulars of Hyoutei were all self-centered and generally over-confident of their own abilities. Which was why Hyoutei didn't have very many fixed doubles teams. In fact, for the moment, they only had one fixed doubles team, and everyone else just fought tooth and nail for the three singles spots, leaving the losers to pick up the slack in second doubles or else become the alternate.

As for that one fixed doubles team, well… That had always been Gakuto and Yuushi.

Even so, this hadn't strictly been the case for the previous year. Some of the third-years at the time had played in first doubles, just as a matter of precedence. Still, Gakuto and Yuushi had made their Regular debut in the second doubles slot. What's more, neither had ever played singles for an official tournament. No, they were Hyoutei's one fixed doubles team, and this year they had been slated for the top spot exclusively. After all, there were no other competitors, so it had been a done deal since last fall, maybe even before that. They were a given. They were the one constant out of all the variables. That was just the way it was.

So what in the world was Atobe doing?

As Gakuto started to run those ten laps, like Atobe had ordered, he suddenly got the strangest feeling in the pit of his stomach. Like he'd been caught off guard and lost his balance. Like a string on his racquet had just snapped, or maybe like he'd suddenly tripped over a crack in the pavement. Almost automatically, he glanced down at his shoelaces.

They'd come untied.

As he bent down to knot them again, he glanced up at Yuushi, who had just passed him. Gakuto watched the back of his doubles partner, almost absently, as that tall figure jogged calmly around the corner.

Well, it didn't matter anyway, Gakuto thought to himself. It was just a challenge match for the top spot. And it was a challenge match against Shishido and Ootori, of all people, who had never played doubles together, not even once. And there was no way they would have any kind of chemistry on the court, not without at least practicing together first. After all, he and Yuushi had practiced together since their first year in the tennis club.

So it was already a done deal. A foregone conclusion. They would play first doubles this year, as planned. Not that it really mattered, either way, but that was just how it was going to be.

Gakuto wound the laces around his fingers, almost awkwardly.

Pull tight. Tuck under. Double-knot.

It was just tennis, after all.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

It was one of the most frustrating moments in Gakuto's life, that split second when he realized that they were not going to win against Shishido and Ootori. It was frustrating because, no matter how he looked at it, it just didn't make sense. He would have liked to say that they had simply been outplayed, that Ootori's insanely fast serve had shut them out, that Shishido was one step ahead of them the whole time…

But it just wasn't true.

In fact, as far as skills went, it still seemed like Gakuto and Yuushi should have had an edge over the makeshift pair. At the very least, the two teams were dead even in regards to abilities. And when it came to the structure of doubles, Gakuto and Yuushi were definitely a head and two shoulders above the competition. They had experience with playing doubles; they knew where to stand, how to move, what to watch for, everything. For them, it was practically second nature. Their opponents, on the other hand, were making it up as they went along. Like all the Hyoutei regulars, they knew the basics of doubles, but they had none of the knowledge that is required of a truly outstanding doubles team, at least not yet.

So then, why were Shishido and Ootori about to beat them?

It was just plain ridiculous

"Gakuto." Yuushi had come over to his partner to discuss strategy on the changeover. His low voice sounded even lower when he was trying to be quiet. "Gakuto, I think we should try forcing Shishido to the other side of the court on the return. Maybe we can open up a hole in their formation… Gakuto, are you listening to me?"

Hyoutei's acrobat was startled out of his own thoughts.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm listening," he muttered, biting his lower lip. But as that murmuring voice rambled on, Gakuto found himself completely unable to focus on Yuushi's suggestions. His eyes wandered, to where he could see Shishido nodding to Ootori, smilingly, like they'd already won

Oh, god.

"Yuushi," Gakuto said suddenly, completely ignoring the fact that he was interrupting his partner. "Yuushi, it's almost match point, you know."

Not missing a beat, Yuushi raised one eyebrow and smirked.

"Glad to see that you've noticed, Gakuto," he drawled in an ironic tone.

In fact, it was that one particular tone that never failed to completely infuriate Gakuto, that high-and-mighty tone that just screamed 'You're an idiot,' and really, of all the times Gakuto could have been spared his partner's arrogant superiority, this was the absolute worst, when he was already so frustrated with the whole thing…

Gakuto stomped soundly on his partner's right foot and yelled, "Shut up, Yuushi!"

With that, he walked back up toward the net in a huff, completely forgetting that he was supposed to be receiving serve.

There was a moment of silence, in which Gakuto stubbornly ignored the fact that all three of the other people on court were staring at him. The moment might have continued, if the too-good-to-be-true Ootori hadn't helpfully informed Gakuto that he was in the wrong place. So Gakuto marched angrily back to the baseline and got into the ready position, but not before shooting another icy glare at his wincing partner.

Serves him right. I hope he gets a bruise, the jerk.

It was too little, too late when Gakuto realized that injuring his partner during the crucial game of the match might not have been the best idea. The sudden pain in his foot was apparently enough to slow Yuushi down, at least for a few minutes, and given that he was supposed to be covering Gakuto, as well as being the only one with some idea on how to beat the pair, an idea Gakuto hadn't even bothered to listen to…

Well, it was a short final game.

"Good game, Oshitari-senpai, Mukahi-senpai," Ootori said modestly, as the four players met at the net and shook hands.

"Yeah, whatever," was Gakuto's curt response, as he quickly shook each hand and then turned on his heels to grab his water bottle.

"Drama queen," Gakuto heard Shishido snicker as he walked away.

"Shishido-san, that's not very nice…"

But Gakuto didn't even hear Ootori's charitable protests. He was too furious. Fine, so they had been beaten, fair and square. So he'd done something at the climax of the game that proved to be, in retrospect, rather stupid. So they'd lost, when they might have still been able to turn the match around, if Gakuto had kept his head and tried to listen to Yuushi.

But he wasn't a drama queen! And to have Shishido, of all people, saying that he was the drama queen, when it was Shishido who had thrown the tantrum, Shishido who had cut his hair, Shishido who had shoved his way back into the Regulars and ousted them out of their doubles spot…

God, he wanted to hit something.

"Ore-sama would say that was uncharacteristic of you, but then ore-sama would be lying."

Much to Gakuto's chagrin, he looked up, only to see Atobe standing by the court entrance. As usual, the Hyoutei captain was smirking, with an all-knowing look in his slate blue eyes. Gakuto was starting to wonder why every single person he had to spend time with couldn't seem to do anything except smirk.

"Save it, Atobe," Gakuto muttered, only to be stopped right in his tracks when he saw Atobe's expression.

Atobe didn't respond, at least not verbally, but the way he was just staring at Gakuto made the acrobat freeze in place.

He didn't say anything. Just stared.

For a split second, Gakuto wondered if something had fallen onto the ground and shattered into a million pieces.

You're going to lose it.

Resisting the urge to shudder, Gakuto snapped out of it and scowled at Hyoutei's self-loving captain.

"What's your problem anyway? It's not like it's any of your business."

"Oh, really?" Atobe's eyebrows were raised, but he wasn't as angry as Gakuto might have expected. "So what goes on with ore-sama's tennis team during practice time is none of ore-sama's business? That's an interesting assertion."

Oh, for the love of… Really, it was too much to ask of Gakuto to put up with more than one arrogant know-it-all.

"First of all, it's NOT your team, Your High-and-Mightiness, and secondly, no, it's NOT any of your business!" he snarled. "So stay the hell out of it!"

Atobe didn't look the least bit shocked at Gakuto's outburst, much to Gakuto's own surprise. That didn't stop the king of divas from delivering the usual punishment for mouthing off, however.

"That's fifty extra laps for you tomorrow. And ore-sama cannot help wondering how in the world Oshitari puts up with you." The smirk on Atobe's pale lips was almost like its own subdued chuckle.

"God knows. He must be a saint," was Gakuto's bitter reply, oozing with sarcasm, as he stalked away toward the club room.

- - - - - - - - - -

"I think you two should play doubles together."

While it was true that it had been one of the most disconcerting losses in Gakuto's entire tennis career, it hadn't been a massacre… In fact, it had been anything but that, except for the slip at the end. 6-4 wasn't a massacre; in tennis, it was practically a draw, especially if the competing players hardly ever failed to hold serve. And it was just tennis, of course.

So it was only with some lingering annoyance, almost half an hour later, that Gakuto sat untying his shoes in the clubroom.

Either way, Gakuto and Yuushi would still be playing in second doubles for the Kantou tournament, a spot they were both familiar with, and even comfortable in. If Shishido and Ootori wanted to lose in first doubles, against some experienced team who would actually know what they were doing, then fine. Their loss.

Having removed his tennis shoes, Gakuto started busying himself with slipping off his jersey and replacing it with his school uniform shirt.

"Mukahi-senpai, have you seen Shishido-san?" Ootori inquired in his polite way, apparently having already forgotten that Gakuto had just snubbed him on the court about twenty minutes earlier.

Gakuto scrunched up his nose at the mere mention of Shishido's name, as his fingers worked at his shirt buttons. Like he knew where that self-absorbed drama queen had gone… Why should Ootori be asking him about it? More to the point, why in the heck did Ootori care where he was in the first place?

In the slight pause that followed Ootori's question, Jiroh helpfully interjected, "Isn't he taking a shower right now? He said he was going to. Atobe gave him the key to lock up."

"Ah, you're right, Jiroh-senpai. Thank you," Ootori replied gratefully, as he made his way to the shower room.

Gakuto would have wondered why Ootori needed to talk to Shishido so badly that he was going to interrupt his shower, but at the moment, an entirely different mystery was on his mind. Of course, this mystery already had an obvious answer, and it just made him want to roll his eyes at the sheer stupidity of it.

The mystery, of course, was that Jiroh had been awake enough to answer anybody's questions.

But Gakuto already knew why this was. Everybody did.

"Atobe! Atobe! Are we going to play again tomorrow? I want to play against you tomorrow!"

"Jiroh, tomorrow is drill practice," the captain replied, as he calmly opened his locker and rummaged around for some unnamed article. He hardly paid any attention to the bouncy redhead behind him, who was hopping around and tugging intermittently on Atobe's shirt sleeve.

"But, but, Atobe----!" Jiroh whined, like a puppy who had just been denied a pat on the head. "It's not fair! I might be able to beat you tomorrow!"

Atobe quietly shut his locker again and glanced at Jiroh, one eyebrow cocked upward. "And why, exactly, does tomorrow bode so well for ore-sama's defeat?"

"I didn't say it did, but it might, and so I want to play against you tomorrow!" Jiroh declared, as though he had actually presented something resembling a logical argument.

Atobe shook his head, sighing a little. "'Naïveté is a remarkable thing… In any event, tomorrow is still drill practice. Ore-sama's downfall will have to wait until next week. Assuming that we play each other again, of course."

The captain smirked at that. Of course, he knew that the playing order was entirely up to him, and he could decide for himself whether or not he and Jiroh would have a rematch.

Even though most of what Atobe had said had gone in one ear and out the other, Jiroh still mumbled, "I hate drill practice. It's so boring."

And already, Hyoutei's second-best singles player looked as though he was going to fall asleep on his feet from sheer apathy. Why the star volleyer of Hyoutei could never seem to stay awake for longer than half an hour at one time was still one of the great mysteries of the Regulars' private universe.

"Yes, Jiroh, drill practice is certainly more mundane than the weekly challenge matches, but it is nevertheless a necessary part of our training regimen, and it stands to reason that…"

While Atobe proceeded to babble out a string of multi-syllabic justifications, Gakuto rolled his eyes and tuned them both out. It was always like that. Jiroh only got excited when he played against Atobe. And he would even stay wide awake after their matches, if only to ask Atobe to play against him yet again. Personally, Gakuto couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

It was just Atobe. It was just tennis.

And really, at the moment, he was just sick of the whole thing.

Glancing in frustration toward the whiteboard that stood near the exit, Gakuto found himself grimacing at the purple letters scripted in Atobe's perfect handwriting…

Kantou Regional Tournament – Regular Lineup

Singles 1- Atobe Keigo

Singles 2- Akutagawa Jiroh

Singles 3- Kabaji Munehiro

Doubles 1- Shishido/Ootori pair

Doubles 2- Oshitari/Mukahi pair

Alternate- Hiyoshi Wakashi

It wasn't like Gakuto really cared. Not really. After all, he and Yuushi could regain the first doubles spot next week. If they beat Shishido and Ootori in the next challenge match, they could regain their spot in the lineup, and it would almost be like this whole thing had never happened. So it didn't really matter…

For some reason, though, Gakuto had the strangest feeling that he and Yuushi wouldn't win in a rematch. Or in a rematch of a rematch.

… Why was that?

It was just so stupid. What did Shishido and Ootori have that they didn't?

Somehow, it was a question that Gakuto couldn't answer.

But why?

Almost instinctively, Gakuto glanced over at his doubles partner, completely forgetting that he had been pointedly ignoring him as a punishment for his wisecrack on the court. But Yuushi was currently engrossed in fixing his tie, and didn't even notice Gakuto's stare. His head was tilted downward as his fingers slid across the crimson fabric, glasses balancing carefully on the bridge of his nose, glinting as they shielded those long, dark eyelashes…

Gakuto couldn't help but glower at the inattentive form of his partner.

Why was Yuushi so annoyingly perfect?

Even with the foot incident. It was ridiculous. Gakuto had stepped hard on his partner's right foot, intending to injure him, and it was true that it had affected Yuushi's game for a few points, noticeably slowing him down… But while walking back to the clubroom after the match, his usual carefree stride had returned almost instantly, and his overall demeanor had never once shown the slightest sign of agitation.

"Ore-sama cannot help wondering how in the world Oshitari puts up with you."

Gakuto almost growled with irritation. He knew all too well that Yuushi was superior to him in practically every measurable aspect… It wasn't like his partner's "too-cool-for-you" demeanor didn't remind him of that fact every single day. But he was getting sick and tired of having this reality shoved in his face.

"Glad to see that you've noticed, Gakuto."

Just like that, all the anger that Gakuto had felt while out on the court had returned in full force, churning in his stomach like a swirling, tangled, messy knot that he couldn't possibly ignore. Just like he couldn't possibly ignore that low, murmuring voice that rose and fell in a wavelike intonation, even with his most sarcastic, superior comments, in such a distinct rhythm that Gakuto usually knew what crack he was going to make before he'd even said it…

Ugh, how he hated Yuushi sometimes.

Turning back to his own tennis bag with a distinct frown, Gakuto resolved never to apologize to Yuushi for stomping on his foot. It was his own fault, anyway. And as much as he wanted to ask his partner why Shishido and Ootori hadn't crashed and burned like the makeshift doubles pair that they were, he wasn't in the mood to hear Yuushi's condescending remarks when he finally did stop ignoring him…

"Oh, so you're speaking to me now, Gakuto?"

"Nice to see that you've recovered from your temper tantrum, Gakuto."

"Did you want to crush my other foot now, Gakuto?"

There was just no way in hell.

"Aw, crap," Gakuto mumbled to himself, as he searched through his bag. "Don't tell me I left them in my locker…"

Pausing for a moment to check the side pockets, Gakuto suddenly found himself occupied in an extended search for his other pair of shoes. He would have just given up and worn his tennis shoes home instead, but he would need his school shoes sooner or later, and something in him wasn't willing to admit defeat any more that afternoon. So despite the fact that it would have taken him much less time to simply put them back on his feet, he stubbornly ignored the white tennis shoes sitting on top of the bench and continued to look.

A few moments later, while he was still in the middle of ravaging his clubroom locker in the hunt for proper footwear, he was startled by a sudden remark from Atobe. The captain must have been standing right by the door, outside of Gakuto's line of vision.

"Shishido, Ootori, whoever else is still in here," he called out in his lofty voice. "Ore-sama is leaving you now. We would continue to grace you all with our presence, but we have more important things to attend to. Right, Kabaji?"


Gakuto just rolled his eyes as the clubroom door opened, and then shut again. But then he paused, and thought for a moment.

Was he really the last one in the clubroom?

He looked around, and sure enough, everyone else had already left. Well, except for Shishido and Ootori, who were presumably still in the shower room. But Jiroh had already sleepwalked out of the place, probably following Atobe, and Hiyoshi had been long gone over fifteen minutes ago. And Gakuto discovered, much to his inexplicable annoyance, that even Yuushi had simply disappeared from the room, without so much as a sarcastic jibe in return for Gakuto's earlier offence.

Oh, whatever. Like I care. Stupid jerk.

Gakuto went back to searching for his shoes, and much to his satisfaction, finally found them underneath a nearby bench. He sat down, slipping the loafers easily onto his socked feet, when he was suddenly startled by the most unexpected sound.

Someone was giggling.

He would have called it laughing, if it could have been called that, since the idea of any of the Hyoutei members giggling like some ditzy teenage girl was just plain disturbing. But this sound certainly wasn't a snicker, and it wasn't an all-out guffaw. And the word "laugh" was just too commonplace to describe such a bizarre sound.

No, this was definitely giggling, and it was downright scary.

Suddenly, the giggling stopped, just as suddenly as it had begun. And then out of nowhere, two voices started chattering together, overlapping each other and finishing each other's sentences in a strangely harmonic way.

And somehow, even though Gakuto now realized who must have been giggling just a moment ago, and even though it disturbed him beyond reason, somehow…

He found himself listening to those voices.

"Choutarou, that's ridiculous. Don't say things like that. Seriously, sometimes I wonder if you're for real." The first voice was still chuckling a little, and was speaking in an uncharacteristically amiable manner.

"Well, it's true, Shishido-san. I just said what I thought." The second voice was direct, but also cheerful at the same time. It was the kind of voice that sounded like it couldn't possibly lie.

"Yeah, well, I still don't know…" The first voice was apparently very amused by something, but didn't press the issue.

"Hey, Shishido-san?" The second voice suddenly sounded hesitant.

"Yeah?" The tone of the conversation changed almost instantly, like a new layer of importance had somehow been added to every syllable.

"Well, I… I had fun playing doubles with you today."

There was a slight pause after this abrupt admission.

"Yeah, it was fun, wasn't it?" was the eventual reply, said with a little more gravity than the previous banter.

By this point, Gakuto was frowning. He was so preoccupied with eavesdropping that he had almost forgotten that he wasn't supposed to be hearing this particular conversation. And at the moment, he couldn't help being irritated with the topic that had just presented itself.

Of course, they would be gloating over their victory. It just figured. Gakuto could practically hear the comments about how 'lame' the competition had been already.

And yet, the odd thing was…

The customary Hyoutei-style bragging never began.

"Shishido-san, you don't mind playing doubles with me?"

"… Do I mind? Nah. I mean, at least I get to play and all…"

"… Oh, right."

There was a quick pause, but it sounded almost heavy, like there was something thick hanging in the air.

"Shishido-san… You know…"

"Yeah? … What?"



For some bizarre reason, Gakuto suddenly found himself hanging intently on every word. His hands gripped the bench.

What was going on in there, anyway?

"Hey, Choutarou, what were you going to say? You know, you could just…"

There was a jolting pause, and then what sounded like something hitting the floor. Gakuto jumped at the sudden noise.

"Whoa! Choutarou, what in the heck---?"

There was another quick pause, followed by a cheery laugh.

"Sorry, Shishido-san! Sorry about that. I was just kidding. Did I startle you?"

And again, there was that weird sound, that half-snicker that sounded more like a giggle.

"Cut it out, Choutarou. I swear, you're going to give me a freakin' heart attack someday."

"Well, I should hope not," was the amiable reply.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm so sure, when I can't even tell when you're joking," and again, the first voice relapsed into a fit of laughter.

And suddenly, with the pleasant harmonization of those two very different laughs, Gakuto felt almost sick to his stomach.

What in the…? What had just happened in there? And what in the heck was going on between those two, anyway? It was even weirder than Gakuto would have guessed. And what's more, Shishido was giggling, of all things. Part of Gakuto was still waiting for the world to implode upon itself.

Whatever the case, he knew one thing for certain.

Those two didn't sound like doubles partners at all. Whatever they were, it was nothing like he and Yuushi were when they were together. Sure, the two of them talked frequently, sometimes even exchanging the usual team gossip and coupling it with some sarcastic commentary or even the occasional inside joke…

… But giggling? Not a chance.

For just a little longer, Gakuto sat there, listening to the strange sounds that were echoing in the shower room. There was even more laughing now, and a few stray 'thud' noises, like something was being thrown around and smacked against the walls.

"Hey! Stop dodging! That's so uncool!" Whack, bang, thud.

"Shishido-san! Stop it already!"

"No way! Now hold still!" Whap! Thunk.

"Ow! Shishido-san!"

And the laughter got louder, and giddier, and even goofier than before. It was almost like… Like one of those dumb scenes in those romance movies that Yuushi liked to watch for who knew what reason, the kind where the guy and the girl would be flirting by acting like silly little kindergartners, and…

Oh, god.

It couldn't be.

No, Gakuto quickly shook off the thought. That was crazy. It couldn't be; that would be just plain creepy. Not a chance. It would be too weird, even for them.

… But even so, there was something in all that laughter that was making Gakuto downright queasy.

Ugh. I can't believe this.

Why was it bothering him so much, anyway? Even if Shishido's bizarre laughter was the most disturbing thing to enter his ears for the whole semester… Even if Ootori was too ridiculously angelic to be believed… Even if they were acting like a couple of five-year-olds with spring fever on a sugar high, which nobody on Hyoutei ever acted like, period, not even on the last day of school before summer vacation…

Even so…

Nevertheless, it was still sickening. Like trying to drink a glass of water after someone had dumped sugar into it as a joke. It was just disgustingly sweet, and Gakuto had had quite enough.

Shuddering at the sound of a few stray giggles, Gakuto stood up from the bench and leaned over to grab his bag. He suddenly felt almost dizzy, like he'd just done a flip and landed it horribly wrong, but as for why, he had no idea… Maybe it was from the sudden movement…

"Our Oshitari-Mukahi pair will be playing against Shishido and Ootori for the top doubles spot."

Firmly gripping the strap of his tennis bag, Gakuto marched toward the door with his head down, trying to push every strange thought he'd had that afternoon out of his mind. After all, maybe it was better to just forget this whole weird mess… No matter how the match had gone, no matter what bizarre thing Shishido and Ootori were doing in the shower room… No matter what Atobe had said, or Yuushi had said, or Shishido had said to him…

He could just forget all of it, right? It didn't really matter. He could just ignore them. Why even give it a second thought?

And with that decided resolution, Gakuto barreled out of the doorway, and then found himself…

Colliding right into a white shirtfront.

"Oh, sorry, I…" Gakuto glanced up, did a quick double-take, and then just stared in shock. "Yuushi? What the hell are you doing here?"

Yuushi's serene countenance showed only the faintest hint of surprise.

"Gakuto, you do realize that I'm in the same tennis club as you are, right?"

Almost instantly, Gakuto bristled at the customary sarcasm.

"You know what I meant, you moron. Why are you still here?" he growled, clenching his teeth in an effort to contain his anger.

There was a small, almost unnoticeable pause.

After a moment, Yuushi just shrugged, carelessly.

"I thought I would wait for you," he replied, in that smooth voice of his.

A tiny shiver shot down Gakuto's spine, like an invisible spark of electricity. The faint sensation of vertigo was still swirling around his head, and he couldn't think straight…

Why should he have to think, anyway? It was just Yuushi, of all people! Who cared about what he said to Yuushi? He said whatever he felt like to Yuushi, because it wasn't like his doubles partner actually cared about what he said in the first place…

Well, he didn't.

But somehow…

"Shishido-san, you don't mind playing doubles with me?"

"… Yeah, it was fun, wasn't it?"

Gakuto couldn't feel a thing, but he was unconsciously biting his own lip, hard, and grimacing like it hurt. Of course, this hadn't escaped Yuushi's attention.

"Gakuto, is something wrong? You've got the strangest look on your face…"

"Nothing's wrong!" he snapped, trying to shake himself back into reality. He would have glared at his partner, too, but for some reason, he had the weirdest feeling. Like if he looked into Yuushi's face now, it would almost be like…

Well, he just couldn't look at him.

"Nothing's wrong," he repeated angrily. "I just have to go home. Now."

"Well, I was going to walk with you, you know, since after all it's in the same direc---"

"Save it, Yuushi!" Gakuto yelled, his face turning pink. "I don't feel like walking with you today, okay?"

Yuushi just sighed. "Is this still about what I said? Really, Gakuto…"

"It is not!" Gakuto hissed, feeling almost guilty. He knew that he should probably be apologizing to Yuushi for stepping on his foot, not to mention for ruining the match at the last minute, and even for making such a big deal out of one stupid comment in the first place…

"Just forget it!" he finally yelled. "What do you care, anyway?"

And with that, Hyoutei's star acrobat stomped off toward the school gate, looking unbelievably angry and feeling kind of ill.

He didn't look back, of course, but his doubles partner just stood there next to the clubroom door, watching him leave. There was a distinct frown on the taller boy's lips, even though the expression in his eyes remained, as always, completely unreadable.

And then the tensai of Hyoutei just shook his head, still frowning to himself.

- End of Chapter One -