Disclaimer: I own very little.
A/N: A recent Prince of Tennis larp/cosplay photoshoot left me quite happily obsessed with what I've taken to calling the Beauty Spot Pair.
Just Called to Say (I Love You)
It was no surprise to anyone that if no one tried to stop him, Atobe could talk forever simply for the joy of hearing his own voice. Five minutes into the captains' meeting, it was also apparent that nobody found interrupting him quite worth the trouble.
Tachibana, for his part, was quite used to endless chatter. When Shinji got started not much could stop him, and more often than not any attempts would only cause him to launch into a new, slightly more miffed tirade. Being able to tune him out occasionally was not a special skill; in Fudoumine, it was the very basis for staying sane longer than three days.
He soon noticed, though, that there were two main differences between Shinji and Atobe. For one thing, while the subject of Shinji's ramblings varied, Atobe seemed quite content to concentrate entirely on the magnificence of ore-sama and, occasionally, Hyoutei in general. And for another, Tachibana apparently couldn't simply ignore Atobe like he could do for Shinji.
The other captains didn't seem to have much of a problem, happily tuning Atobe out and talking among themselves. They probably all had someone more or less talkative in their own teams, after all, so they would be used to it. For some reason, though. Tachibana couldn't not listen to Atobe. Whenever he tried to concentrate on something else, the self-satisfied voice pierced his consciousness, instantly drawing his attention back to Atobe. It was really getting quite frustrating.
"…And ore-sama was thinking of hosting a tennis tournament to celebrate ore-sama's engagement to Kabaji."
Tachibana's mouth flew open. "Your what?" he blurted out, instantly drawing curious glances from everyone else. Obviously he was the only one who had actually listened to Atobe's words.
"Ore-sama was merely seeing how many of you were paying attention." Atobe gave Tachibana an infuriating smirk, raising his eyebrows. "Fear not, ore-sama's still quite happily single; you have not entirely lost your chances yet, Tachibana."
"That was hardly my first thought," Tachibana ground out, convincing himself the slight flush on his face was a sign of anger rather than embarrassment. "I have better things to think about than your suspicious relationship with your kouhai." He firmly refused to give any explanations, though the questioning gazes at least doubled during this little conversation. Atobe would doubtlessly be more than happy to explain to them, anyway – assuming anyone could stand to listen to him long enough to get the whole story.
Unfortunately, it seemed Tachibana still had no choice, even the best of his Shinji-instincts simply failing before Atobe's never-ending flood of words. He really envied the other captains who appeared again to be oblivious to Atobe. They didn't know how lucky they were.
He was so concentrated on his constant failed attempts at tuning Atobe out that he didn't even notice the blue eyes inspecting him a bit too closely for the rest of the meeting.
The package arrived a week later.
Tachibana was vaguely surprised as his little sister told him he had mail, as he hadn't been expecting to receive anything. He was even more surprised to find out that instead of a letter or a postcard it was a package, with nothing written on it aside from his name and address. There was nothing that could identify the sender at all. Ignoring An's teasing about a secret admirer, Tachibana took the package into his own room to open it.
Inside, he found a cell phone. It wasn't just any cell phone, either; unlike his current one, this was the very latest model, its camera probably better than the digital camera his father had. It was a deep black color with some white, very strongly reminding him of the Fudoumine tennis uniforms. That had probably been the idea, he assumed, trying to see if there was any identification in the package. All he could find was a short note with the phone's number and various codes and PINs. Now very puzzled, he tried turning the phone on. It worked.
Staring at the phone in his hand, Tachibana thought. The phone was an expensive one, that much was clear. It came with the complete box, instruction manuals, charging cable, headphones, even a cable for connecting it to a computer. And, judging by the fact it seemed to work, it obviously had a phone deal of some kind, too. If it was a prank, it sure was an elaborate one.
A thought occurred to him, and he started browsing through the phone's various menus. Finding the phone book, he opened it, hoping to find some kind of a clue as to where the strange phone had come from.
There was one name in the phone book. Seeing it almost made him drop the phone.
For a fleeting moment Tachibana actually considered turning the phone off and throwing it away. Of course, he didn't do it, in the end. For one thing it would hardly have been polite, and for another… To be honest, he was quite curious as to why exactly Atobe would do something like this. He was not about to call the other captain, no, but he was sure he wouldn't have to wait long for Atobe to call him instead.
The call came not two full hours after he received the phone. Never let it be said that Atobe wasted time, at least.
"Atobe," Tachibana answered the phone without any further preambles. "What exactly is the meaning of this?"
"It is generally called a cell phone," Atobe replied with his usual self-satisfied tone. "Ore-sama is somewhat disappointed to hear you wouldn't know as much."
"I do know what a cell phone is," Tachibana said dryly. "However, that still doesn't answer the question of why."
"Ore-sama should think it's obvious." Of course, he would. "Ore-sama wants you to listen to ore-sama."
"What?" This was just a bad joke, right? "You sent me a cell phone so you could call me?"
"Exactly. Of course, ore-sama can hardly force you, but you might want to consider it nevertheless. In return you would gain a brand new cell phone, after all, and all your phone bills paid, naturally. Ore-sama hardly thinks his offer is without any advantages to you."
Tachibana thought of this. His pride said he didn't want to owe Atobe anything, but then, not having to worry about cell phone bills would be good for his allowance. But there was one question he had to ask first… "Why me?"
"It became apparent the other day you were the only one actually listening," Atobe replied. "Besides, ore-sama wants to talk with someone who can understand the responsibilities of leading a team."
Tachibana highly doubted his experiences in leading a seven-man team were very similar to Atobe's club of two hundred boys, but he figured pointing that particular fact out would be rather useless. Finally, he just sighed. "Not like I can stop you from talking," he said. "So, go ahead."
He could just hear the smirk in Atobe's voice as the flood began, ore-sama did this and Hyoutei is great that, and though the temptation was great he didn't just let the phone lying somewhere and let Atobe talk all by himself. For some reason he still couldn't bring himself to simply ignore Atobe, and thus he listened even as he finished homework, and watched television, and planned the following day's practice.
As Atobe finally ended the call, it had been almost four hours altogether, and Tachibana still wasn't sure just what exactly was going on.
"Hiyoshi challenged ore-sama once again today. Of course, ore-sama won the match. Determination is good, but Hiyoshi is letting it become an obsession."
"Mm-mm," agreed Tachibana, idly sketching the next week's practice schedule on the side. He considered it best not to comment on Atobe's own obsession on Tezuka.
"Seriously, Hiyoshi needs to learn to control himself better." Atobe tsked. "Ore-sama still has a lot of work to do before he's ready to lead the team by himself, that's for sure. Obviously, ore-sama needs to be more firm with him."
Kamio would do just fine as a captain, Tachibana was sure. He had quite some faith in his kouhai. And Shinji might make a fine vice-captain for his dear Kamio…
"Ah, well. Ore-sama will just have to whip him up to shape so he'll be ready to take care of the club and Kabaji next year. Kabaji won't have just anyone as a captain, especially after ore-sama. Really, Hiyoshi should know better, but then ore-sama can't help but notice –"
Hardly even noticing it, Tachibana marked Kamio and Shinji for doubles practice.
Headphones, Tachibana had come to notice, were quite useful. Especially those that were actually hands-free devices.
Atobe, as he had quickly come to notice, had the tendency to call at the most random of moments, leading to interesting situations. With headphones he could listen to Atobe no matter what he was doing – walking home from school, getting beaten by An in a video game, even tennis practice though his focus suffered a bit at that. He never bothered to explain to anyone, but then no one ever asked, probably assuming he was listening to music, which of course wasn't all that unusual. Atobe rarely if ever required him to answer, which was just fine by him – he had agreed to listen, but conversation had never been agreed on. Luckily Atobe seemed quite content to be talking all by himself.
Not all of the calls were long, of course. While sometimes he could indeed talk for hours, some days he only talked for half an hour, or ten minutes, or five. Once, he even called just to say, "I'm tired," before ending the call. It wasn't until several minutes later that Tachibana noted the lack of the usual "ore-sama".
There was no particular form or pattern to the calls that Tachibana could detect, not time or duration or even the subject. It seemed Atobe indeed called him whenever he just happened to have something to say and wanted someone to listen.
Tachibana still found himself listening to every last word, though he couldn't think of a reasonable cause for his continuous attention.
"Jirou fell asleep only three times today. It's less than yesterday's practice. Ore-sama isn't sure whether to be glad or worried, really. He even woke up playing with Kabaji, but maybe it means there's something wrong with him, not that Kabaji was playing remarkably well. Of course, Kabaji is a great player, but Jirou's seen him play before so it really doesn't make sense –"
Perhaps Shinji's mumbles weren't the worst possible habit after all, Tachibana mused, turning a corner. If he'd had to deal with an apparently narcoleptic player…
"—Which reminds ore-sama, he has to get the helicopter checked. It's making this strange noise lately, not that it bothers ore-sama but Jirou says he can't sleep in it anymore. How he ever could sleep in that noise in the first place is quite beyond ore-sama, but then this is Jirou in question so perhaps –"
Helicopter. His players worried over broken bikes. But then, his players weren't at Hyoutei, and he did doubt even all of Hyoutei players had their own helicopters even if Atobe did have one, the ultimate rich kid.
"Hitting the gym might not be such a bad idea, actually. Ore-sama's really been slacking lately, hardly any practice beyond club time. Ore-sama'll soon be out of shape at this rate and that would be most unacceptable. Hiyoshi isn't giving up; of course he could never beat ore-sama but it's best not to encourage him any further. Ambition's a fine thing but if it's not directed right –"
No doubt about it. Being Fudoumine's captain was infinitely better than Hyoutei's.
Though there was no clear pattern to the calls themselves, Tachibana was starting to pick up some habits in Atobe's speech. After seeing past the ore-sama and never-ending self-satisfaction, Atobe's way of talking didn't differ much from your average middle school boy – not usually, anyway. On his unguarded moments, though, even the great Atobe Keigo appeared to have a few interesting quirks.
The most glaring one, naturally, was the occasional lack of ore-sama. After the shock of the first few times Tachibana noted that there were three occasions where Atobe would leave it out: when he was tired, when he was upset – or when he was talking in English.
Interestingly, the last condition seemed to overlap with the first two quite frequently. The first time it happened Tachibana almost broke his habit of silent listening and asked just what was going on. He hardly even managed to figure out what Atobe was saying, his few years of English studies hardly any match for sleepily mumbled, rapidly paced English. In his next call the following day Atobe mentioned this, though not talking directly to Tachibana to explain but as though privately musing how even his fluency in Japanese could apparently not chase away "the child in him". This only served to confuse poor Tachibana further, until a new series of private musings shed further light on the mystery.
It really didn't surprise him to learn that Atobe had gone to primary school in England – mere Japanese schools couldn't have been special enough for the great Atobe Keigo, after all. It certainly explained the English if he'd spoken it all his childhood – in fact, Tachibana now found himself quite impressed at Atobe's flawless Japanese. Not that he would have ever said so – Atobe's ego hardly needed any more praise.
After the first time, there were more. Little by little understanding Atobe's English ramblings got easier, and the temptation to ask started to fade, and finally he could just listen just as impassively as ever. English or Japanese, Atobe would talk, and he would listen, because that was the deal, right? And he was only doing this because of the deal.
"Kabaji is hurt."
Tachibana blinked. He was quite sure he had never before heard Atobe sound this… distressed. It really didn't surprise him under the circumstances to hear Atobe once again only speaking in English.
"It wasn't even in practice. If it were, it would have been my fault, but then I would have never allowed –" Atobe's English got too fast for Tachibana to fully understand, and he was left simply musing Atobe's strange words. Not so strange to him, really, but he suspected to outsiders it might have been; tennis hardly had the reputation of a dangerous sport. But then again, most people's tennis was hardly on the same level as theirs…
"It might take him weeks to recover completely. Weeks! It's just an arm, he's young, surely it should heal a bit faster? Ore-sama really doesn't know what to do –"
If nothing else, Tachibana mused, one thing was clear from Atobe's distressed ramblings. Though he wouldn't say it out loud – or at least Tachibana was yet to hear it – Atobe very much cared about Kabaji. Possibly more so than about anyone else around him. …Possibly him being the only one Atobe cared about.
If only Tachibana had figured out why the thought felt somewhat… unsettling.
"Onii-chan?" As he turned to look at An questioningly, she continued, "Who's that mysterious person who keeps calling you nowadays?"
Tachibana was somewhat surprised. Sure, it was only natural that she would ask if she noticed, but... until just then, she had never seemed to notice. Due to his surprise, the most intelligent response he could come up with was, "What do you mean?"
"Don't play dumb with me, now." An raised her eyebrows. "Someone keeps calling you every day, but you never say a word to them; you just listen. It's weird at best, you know."
"Ah, um, that." Tachibana quickly tried to think of an explanation that would not lead to any secret admirer theories from her. "It's... someone I know vaguely. They keep talking to me, and I listen because I owe them a favor."
"Oh?" Oh, no, An's expression was clearly one of theorizing now. "And what do they talk about so often?"
"Everything." Tachibana couldn't help but chuckle a bit as he thought of some of Atobe's most random calls. "People I know, people I don't know, their day at school, tennis, even the weather. Sometimes it sounds mostly like stream of consciousness, like they're just thinking aloud, whatever comes to mind." It was quite interesting, sometimes, his private window into the mind of Atobe Keigo. He might have even claimed he was slowly coming to understand just how Atobe's mind worked – beyond the enormous ego, too.
"...Ah." An nodded. "You know, that person... They sound awfully, well, lonely."
"Lonely?" Tachibana blinked. That was quite a strange conclusion, really, considering how often Atobe talked of his team. "What do you mean by that?"
"Isn't it obvious?" An looked at him seriously. "They're telling you, practically a stranger, their thoughts and feelings and everything. Do you really think anyone would do that if they had any close friends to confine in?"
...Come to think of it, An was right... Except she wasn't. After all, Atobe had Kabaji, who was quite obviously very close to him. And Kabaji, in all his silence, was surely a great listener.
But then why would Atobe call him at all?
"Ore-sama saw you at the street courts today. Of course, you likely saw ore-sama as well. Ore-sama really doesn't think your little sister likes ore-sama very much, but then ore-sama is hardly craving for her attention. Ore-sama can get all the attention he needs elsewhere."
Which, Tachibana couldn't help but think, was quite a lot. It sometimes seemed Atobe was constantly putting on a show just in case someone was watching.
"Of course, with all his private courts, ore-sama hardly needs to come to the street courts, not that he ever plays there anyway. Ore-sama really isn't a doubles player. Even though ore-sama could certainly learn it with enough practice, it's wiser to simply concentrate on singles. You surely know what ore-sama means."
Tachibana suddenly realized Atobe was addressing him directly. Upon further thought he noted this had been happening fairly often lately. In the first calls, though, Atobe had hardly ever done so, mostly giving the impression of simply talking to himself with a phone on his ear. Now, though, the calls were more like... well, phone calls.
"Though she would hardly listen to ore-sama, you might like to tell your sister the pigtails suit her. Don't worry, ore-sama is not quite interested in her in any way you might find questionable, ore-sama is merely –"
Somewhat startlingly, Tachibana realized he knew this. He knew Atobe was not interested in An-chan in a romantic manner.
Even more startling was the realization that even if the case had been different he might not have entirely minded, protective big brother though he was. Not if it was Atobe Keigo. Despite the appearances, Atobe was hardly the worst choice available.
Perhaps he was truly coming to know Atobe.
Time passed, as it often did, and all of a sudden Tachibana found himself in the middle of December. Atobe still kept calling him, and he had already ceased to wonder why, simply accepting it as a fact. An was not equally convinced, but then he could hardly help the matter. Like Atobe himself had observed, An wasn't entirely fond of him, and Tachibana saw no reason to complicate the matters further.
New year was approaching, and so were entrance exams. Soon enough he would have to pass the team entirely to Kamio and concentrate on his studies. Thankfully, he knew he could safely trust his little team to Kamio – quite unlike Atobe, who still kept complaining about Hiyoshi.
Somewhat interestingly, Atobe did not see Hyoutei as the only possible choice for a high school. In fact, he had listed quite a lot of options, some of which actually matched with Tachibana's own. Much though he would have liked to stay close to his team, Fudoumine High did not exist. Tachibana would simply have to get used to the thought that he would never again play in the same team with most if any of his kouhai. It was sad but at the same time unavoidable.
Atobe seemed to have little concern for his own team. They were friends, Tachibana concluded, but aside from Kabaji none of them were particularly close to Atobe. And Kabaji, he was told, would follow Atobe no matter where he went. As long as this was clear, Atobe didn't care much about anyone else.
Sometimes, sad though it was, Tachibana found himself wondering whether Atobe truly had friends beyond Kabaji.
"Ore-sama's team is full of idiots." Atobe's tone was clearly frustrated. "Even Ohtori with his stupid cross seems to have no idea what Christmas is about!"
Of course, Tachibana mused, it was hardly important information to an average Japanese middle schooler. But because Atobe knew, everyone who didn't was automatically an idiot. Atobe-logic was really not that hard when you got the basic idea.
"They are planning a part for Christmas Day. A party! And then they wonder why ore-sama and Kabaji seem reluctant to attend. Ore-sama may not be the most devout believer, but at least he has better things to do on Christmas Day than some stupid party. It's like they don't even realize ore-sama is Christian!"
Most likely, Tachibana thought dryly, they had absolutely no idea. To him it was no news – he'd heard quite enough of Atobe's childhood in a Christian boarding school to know he hadn't exactly been raised into Shintoism – but unless Atobe had shared his personal history with the rest of the Hyoutei regulars, there was a fairly good chance they didn't know.
"Ore-sama really misses the old English Christmas, sometimes." Atobe sighed. "The tree, the mass, Kabaji dragging ore-sama up early to see the presents... Even though ore-sama can still have all of that, it's just not the same, somehow. Not when the rest of Japan has twisted it into something else entirely without even trying to understand any of it. Don't you lot have enough of your pagan holidays without stealing ours as well?"
Tachibana listened calmly, knowing that Atobe didn't mean to insult him. Atobe had never assured him of the fact, but somehow, he felt he knew Atobe well enough to draw such a conclusion. Atobe was simply ranting because he missed the happy moments of his childhood, not because he found the rest of Japan to consist entirely of filthy pagans.
...Besides, if Atobe had truly wanted to insult someone, he certainly could have come up with something more biting.
Tachibana couldn't say he had ever been much of a mediator. Though he could be calm when required, solving disputes was really not his strong suit. Thankfully there was rarely any need for it, as a mere word or gaze from him would make his team solve their arguments without any further interference on his part.
This time, though, the situation was slightly more serious. Shinji had apparently decided Kamio's developing friendship with Momoshiro merited his jealousy. That was the situation as far as he understood, anyway; Kamio claimed he had no idea what he had done wrong, and Shinji... was silent. And a silent Shinji was never, ever a good thing. In fact, it wasn't even anything approaching normalcy.
Tachibana had, quite simply, no idea how to approach the problem. He was quite tempted to knock their heads together and tell them to kiss and make up, but something told him that might not be the best solution to the argument. He was fairly sure he had to get Kamio to pay more attention to Shinji – but before that he had to get Shinji to stop his silent treatment. To be entirely honest, the continued silence was starting to freak him out, and the rest of the team doubtlessly agreed wholeheartedly.
Sighing, Tachibana was just about to start yet another round of uselessly trying to get some information from Shinji as suddenly his phone rang. Frustrated as he was, Tachibana really didn't want to deal with it, even if the ring tone was the one he had associated with Atobe. Pressing "reject", he concentrated on his little troublemakers again. Atobe would call again.
In the end, the trouble with Shinji and Kamio wasn't solved by Tachibana's own efforts. Interestingly enough, the one who brought it to an end was Momoshiro, who happened to spot them while passing and asked quite loudly whether Kamio had asked Shinji for a date yet. This question obviously shook Shinji enough that he actually listened as Momoshiro told, loud and cheerful as always, how he had talked with Kamio and tried to encourage him to ask Shinji out because he obviously wanted to, it was really clear he wanted to do that.
In the end Shinji actually agreed to talk again, and Kamio hastened to defend himself and his stupidity and you wouldn't even let me talk anyway. By the time Tachibana left the two lovebirds to themselves they had already managed to agree on an actual date. Convinced this one crisis had now been averted until further notice, Tachibana then remembered the rejected call. It wasn't a problem, surely. Atobe'd call him soon enough, likely irritated at having been rejected but quickly calm again.
Except Atobe didn't call. Not that night, nor the following day, nor the day after that. Atobe didn't call at all.
It was... unsettling, to say the least. Ever since he had received the phone from Atobe the longest time he'd gone without a call was a single day. Now it had already been three days, and not a word from Atobe.
Had Atobe been that insulted at the rejection? Hardly, he shouldn't think; it wasn't like Atobe to be upset over such a minor thing. His ego could withstand blows much more vicious than one rejected call, of that Tachibana was absolutely certain. But then why wasn't he calling?
He didn't care, Tachibana told himself. He had no reason to care at all. After all, it was only easier for him, wasn't he? He didn't have to spend his time listening to Atobe's endless complaints about his team or Japan or this or that, or the praise Atobe apparently found necessary to pour upon himself continuously. If Atobe never called him again, all the better for him.
Then why did he keep checking his cell phone all the time?
Upon the fifth day Tachibana found himself dialing Atobe's number again and again. At best he got halfway through before closing the phone again, never quite finding the courage – or determination – to call. As he sat in his room that night, though, staring at the phone and waiting for a call that would not come, he finally managed to dial the entire number and press "Call". Somewhat nervously and not sure why, he brought the phone to his ear.
Atobe answered almost immediately – as though he had been waiting for a call as desperately as Tachibana himself. "Tachibana," he simply said. "To what does ore-sama owe this honor?"
"Atobe," Tachibana replied, somewhat surprised that he could sound as calm as he did. "You haven't called."
"Indeed ore-sama hasn't." Atobe sounded all too satisfied. "Ore-sama concluded his calls were not desired anymore."
"And since when have you cared about other people's opinions?"
"Ore-sama thought this was as good a time to start as any." Atobe paused. "So... why did you call, anyway?"
Tachibana found himself somewhat at a loss of words. Finally, he managed to get out a feeble repeat of, "You haven't called."
"Ore-sama... sees." There was a definite smirk in Atobe's voice, or perhaps a smile, though Tachibana wasn't sure there was much of a difference in this situation. "Is ore-sama to assume this means you would like to hear ore-sama talk, again?"
"...If thinking that makes you happy." For some reason, all the tension that had built up in him over the last few days was fading, every word from Atobe breaking another knot in the back of his mind. It was strange, wasn't it, yet he couldn't help but also find it... natural, somehow. Of course hearing Atobe's voice would make him feel better. Who cared if it didn't make much sense.
"Excellent." Okay, definitely a smirk. "Well, ore-sama might suggest that some time soon, we talk face to face rather than over the phone. Tomorrow afternoon, perhaps? Ore-sama can meet you at the street courts at five o'clock. Unless, of course, you have some kind of a complaint?"
"...No, I don't." Because, well, talking with Atobe could only be a good thing. And who knew, maybe he could get in a word or two, as well.
"It's a date." And, without anything else, Atobe ended the call.
Tachibana stared at the phone for a long while. Somehow, he didn't think Atobe used the word "date" quite as casually as his sister, only meaning a random meeting. Atobe's tone rather suggested... a date. Like the one Kamio had asked Shinji on.
No wonder Atobe didn't like An-chan, Tachibana realized. Perhaps... perhaps it was himself Atobe was interested in.
And, somehow, he couldn't bring himself to mind.
A/N: There is a sequel to this fic, called Third Time Troubles.