I think we can all guess who the key players are from the summery alone.

The fic started out of a desire to spread more Silver Pair love, but it turned into something serious instead. It became a character study of sorts, a speculative spree where I have a go at Choutarou's past as he develops from a music student into a Hyoutei tennis player.

Choutarou has a family of parents, an older sister, and a grandmother, which is all canon. The timeframe is before the start of the series, and the tone is muted and sad. It's not a happy fic.


His parents aren't the wealthiest, but they've sent him to a private school anyway. It is stifling. He's never understood their urgency to enroll him and doesn't understand why he feels an indescribable anger whenever he passes by the playground of a public school. Children playing, children laughing, with him looking in from the outside beyond tall metallic fencing. Alone.

He hates the restrictive uniform he wears. He hates how he has to wear it even on the hottest of days. He even hates how his mother scrambles to get it all nice and clean and neat when he just wants her to lay down and rest.

His mother is a housewife, but she's prone to being sickly and he's grown up massaging her in hopes that it would relieve her of her pain. His father is frugal and struggles often with the expenses that came with caring for his mother. Eventually, his father has to stop giving her medicine because the doctor tells them so, even though it is something she so needs. His mother needs constant maintenance, but her insistence to support the family has always made her even more tired than she already is and he has to pick up the slack.

She's learned to suffer and be sore for years, always aching bones grating and frail, fragile shoulders slumping. Ootori struggles to keep his complaints to himself and be ready at his mother's faintest call. Sometimes, even at her most stubborn, she can barely move. She lies on the futon, gritting her teeth from an agony that doesn't stop, and waits in vain when it would eventually slide into a dull ache.

He can tell what kind of a state his mother is in because it shows in her expression the kind of aches her body are going through. The pain of a beaten body still trying to do more.

It isn't like his father is a hard man either. He expects certain things of his wife, as all men do, but he treats her very carefully and does not appreciate her busybody attitude when she should be in bed. It angers him, but only out of worry. He is never indulgent with her because she isn't a demanding woman, but for once he wants to give her the world.

Lines of frustration and hard work runs deeply in the contours of his face, and he looks a hard man. A stern, unyielding one. His children see this. His wife sees this. But they see past it while strangers do not. They see a workaholic who is too cheap to help his wife in her greatest need, but the truth of the matter is that what the gossip mongers say mean very little to them.

They know the truth. They all know the truth. It is enough.

He is compassionate. He is kind. But he is tired and aging and doesn't have the stamina to keep up with his kids. He is a salaryman and being his family's sole support is a great burden and a constant, niggling source of stress. He is struggling to please his boss, coping with the superb work ethics of his coworkers, trying to meet end's meet, all the while trying to be a supportive father but never really being there.

Maybe it is pointless. He could have been happy once. He could have been young, virile, and happy. Taking each day as a grand adventure, he is weary now, wiser. Jaded. He loves his family, stays faithful to his ailing wife, and supports his eldest, that sensible daughter of his, but to Ootori...he is never there.

He's never there.

His father is a simple man, with simple desires. Traditional to a degree, he tries to instill a pride in his children typical of salarymen, but it has failed. He doesn't know how to handle children and can really only care for them at a distance. He is detached, perhaps. Maybe that is why he never notices how quiet the house is nowadays. Maybe it's something he considers normal—obedient, quiet, little children. Maybe he never really knows how to be a father.

Awkward. Simple minded. Eager to please while not realizing that he is running himself ragged because of it. Nothing spectacular stands out about him.

Dull. His smiles are freely given but are rarely felt. There is no passion in that face, only quiet contentment. He feels this life is enough. He feels that this is their due and they must make the most of it. They should be happy. They should be.

Surely he is full of regret for his hurting wife, but he cares for her. He is a busy man, though. She understands. She's always understood him, and so he is always filled with great relief whenever he rises early for work and leaves with nary a sound. He buries whatever guilt he has in his work. Workaholic no longer can be applied to him.

The daughter is perceptive, though. Whereas her father is almost naïve in a way, she is not. She is a sharp minded women intent on a higher education, and pursuing it, but there is something tired about her, too. They are all tired, perhaps.

It doesn't help that he seems to have inherited his mother's sickly frame. His sister, he recalls, was strong in her youth and almost never got sick, not even as a young adult. She is bright and strong and happy, but her little brother is not. Consequently, as a child, his sister stays with him often indoors, to experience what he experiences and to share the burden of his pains.

She should have been playing outside in that glorious sunlight.

Washed out and pale, platinum hair both an unseemly combination of lank and curly, he looks nothing at all like his sister, his closet companion. His only friend.

His sister is not ashamed. She often sneaks him outdoors with a sad smile on her face, and he'd smile back, bewildered and confused as to why she clenches him so tightly in her arms.

"Why do you read?"

She asks him this once, a long time ago, when she realizes he never plays with the other children. It is the first time she sits beside him, within enveloping, yawning walls that threatens to suffocate and consume him daily, when she could have been outside. Out there, beyond closed doors.

The library is his sanctuary, and his classmates think him strange for not wanting to play. They avoid the pale boy who skulks in the school library. They have never understood, and he continues to peek shyly from behind dusty shelves and gives in to wistful sighs when he looks out the window. The playgrounds are so very faraway.

But his sister is with him that day.

And he is glad. So very glad.

He thinks it is enough. He is wrong.

Mother dies. His most honorable mother's suffering has finally ended. His grandmother wails at the news, he remembers, but she is too overcome with grief to move; it is her daughter lying in that hospital on that bed.

She weeps bitterly. She rails at the nurses trying to restrain her. She snatches her deceased daughter's cold, cold hand and cries and cries and cries until his father yells at her.

Screams. His father, that passive and ever smiling, gentle and tired father has, for the first time in this young child's living memory, screamed.

It is not condoned. It is taboo—one does not scream at his elders. But he does. He screams over and over again until he is suddenly short of breath. The hospital room is silent.

The room is shell shocked. So still. Why is it so hard to move? Where has everybody's faces gone? But he knows.

Everyone's countenance has gone blank and utterly pale. Grandmother is overcome. She has to sit down. His father collapses at the base of the cold, sterile bed and begs, weeps, and cries for a redemption that does not come. But Mother is the most silent out of all of them, and she does not respond.

There is no salaryman here. There is only a husband who has not been there when his wife has collapsed on the stairs. There is only a father who has not been there to comfort his grieving, screaming children.

There is only a man who realizes that he's had a choice that night—to stay at the office to please his superior or to return on home—while the wife has been struggling whether or not to call her husband because...

Because today is a special day and it is their day and...and who would not have wanted to celebrate that?

It is the day they've first met after all. Who would not have wanted to celebrate that?

They've found each other. A forgotten, insignificant date to her husband, perhaps, but the wife remembers. They've been young things once. They've been in love once. Surely they love each other now, but it is only a passive love. Nothing at all like the deep friendship they've once shared, that sweet, sweet bond and curling, warm nights where words are whispered in each other's ears.

They have been young once.

Her daughter, that wonderful first child, is a testament to their love. She loves her daughter, but she loves her husband more. And the daughter is shrewd. She doesn't begrudge her mother of this in the least, but she talks to the older woman one day. She learns things that she has never thought possible of her father before.

She keeps her little brother in the dark, but sometimes she thinks that it is better this way. At least then he would never know what she knows. Of the heartbreaking truth of Mother's aching words.

Because she know Mother would die for Father, even if Father would not die for her.

Well, their mother has died. Not intentionally, but when that frail, weak, and aging woman musters whatever strength she has to leave her room on legs that were weak from disuse, she takes her first step downstairs and falls. She had been with child, and the knowledge horrifies her family.

Two dies that day.

When the funeral finally comes, the eldest Ootori child realizes something chilling—that her mother has never looked so beautiful in memory as she does that day in her funeral kimono. The sister has never seen her at such peace. With herself and her surroundings...?

It is white, but the body is even whiter. Or perhaps a sickly gray. The sister isn't paying much attention; she's too busy hiding her brother's eyes.

Her brother has a striking similarity with their mother in looks. The same soft tufts of hair. The same pale, frail skin. Something disturbs her when she looks upon her mother's body that day.

Their father only has grieving eyes for their mother, and they hold fast upon his wife, but the sister is trying to come in terms with the sudden sense of mortality around them. Their mother is finally no longer in pain and they should be happy. They should be, right?

But the sister only sees the faint image of a young, pale boy lying prone in a casket instead of their dead honorable mother, and she cries.

--

His sister never tells him any of her thoughts about that day. He hardly remembers what it all looks like anyway, but it bothers him that he cannot remember the last glimpse of his mother's face. He doesn't remember anything about the funeral, only the vague imprint of summer incense and the soft, black clothes of his sister's funeral garb as they press up against his face.

She finally has started the education she's wanted. Some years later and she is just almost done studying for her career. There must have been some small part of his father that is approving because he easily and willingly uses funds to support her university enrollment. She is brilliant, and they both know their father is proud of her singularly gifted intelligence. Even if he has never said as much.

Since his mother's death his father has committed datsusara, the act of a salaryman quitting for bigger, better things. It makes sense, he supposes, since that particular workforce holds nothing but disgust for the older man and turns him cutthroat for it.

It makes him sad to think about it; maybe, it is then that everything changes. There is no going back.

His father no longer smiles. The hard lines in the panes of his face has become more pronounced and deeper. His eyes are sharper, critical. He still is polite, but his words hides his thoughts well, smoothly veiling what he truly feels. His voice is used only in silky murmurs and cold quiet tones. He does not flatter his betters anymore; he surpasses them.

He's done well in pursuing his childhood dream. He's been told he would grow up to be a salaryman, and he has done as he's been told. But now he quits for lawyer work. It is hard. He does not have the experience or the obscene amount of money to support himself, but he is tenacious and stubborn. Persistent. Sturdy and masochistic, but it is what he learned from working under his old corporation.

And suddenly his father is no longer overlooked, ordinary, or boring. His plain, aged features hides weary jadedness well, but that does not make him weak; he is stronger for it. He makes a name for himself, but his son frets about the abrupt expectations and pressures placed upon him.

He is just a boy. He is only ten years old. He does not have some grand plan set before him in which he has his whole life mapped out. He does not want to be involved in such uncertainty. He doesn't like how his father suddenly has his eyes entirely on him while his sister can only be contacted by email. He doesn't like the feeling of walls closing in around him, the cage placed before him—that isn't what he wants. He sees what his father wants for him, but that isn't what he wants. He doesn't want to continue the Ootori lawyer legacy. He doesn't want to become stressed and cold and unfeeling. He doesn't want any of that.

This isn't what he wants. Stop sniveling. Stop crying! Stop slouching. Stop sleeping! Do this, do that—be faster, stronger, better. Don't stop, don't stop, keeping trying. Don't you dare stop.

You are a disappointment. You are not enough.

You must be an Ootori.

It is only a name. It is...only a name. Just a name.

He doesn't want to be in this primary school. He hates Hyoutei Academy. It is worse than that distant private school from his childhood, a botched attempt to have a traditional household coincide with a vaguely indulged religion. He doesn't want this.

The place he is now enrolled in is worse. It is filthy rich and sterile and old and...and...

He is going to be there until he graduates from its university.

This is what is expected from his father's only son. This is what is expected of him. This is where his path is engraved.

This is the will of his most honorable father. And he has to obey.

He loves his father. He feels grateful, even. His father wants the best for him. His father loves him, surely, to be willing to expend so much effort into molding his only son. This is his duty because this is his father.

That man would accept no heirs except that of his own son. He is indulgent with his daughter, but his true legacy is dependent on the day that his son would step up.

His father expects so much of him. His father...he—he has to please him. He's never understood what it is like to have his father's full attention, but he does now. He's always wanted this, always wanted his father to consider him worthy enough to actually look at him. Doesn't he? Why does he falter now?

Look at me...look at me.

And please don't look away. Don't—don't abandon me like you did with your life.

So why is he still crying?

--

"Happy birthday," she murmurs into his ear, pulling him forward into a hug. But he surprises her; once she has enveloped those familiar, warm arms around him, he clutches at her. He doesn't want to let go.

She is so pretty. All dressed up, even with that hated makeup...she is grownup.

She should have been their father's favorite. She should have been the heir.

He doesn't want this. He doesn't want this, he doesn't—

His arms don't quite reach completely around her waist; he is still a child after all. She smiles and runs a gentle hand through his hair, the other at the small of his back. Her chuckles are quiet, but they are sincere. She loves him, he can tell. He has never felt so relieved. The house is stifling without her.

"I miss you," he says honestly.

"I know." He still isn't used to how demure she's acted ever since she's started to train for the firm their father belongs to. "You have no idea how..."

She coughs, shaking her head slowly, and he wonders what she does not say. She seems cheery, except her eyes no longer sparkle like they used to. They are dimmer, reserved. At least her smile isn't strained; perfect, slight, and charming. But there is still something wrong. He knows she is happy to see him, but she still looks sad. She is good at hiding it, her feelings. She does not give herself away easily as she's done in the past.

The difference frightens him, however small.

He's never been good at hiding his feelings; he cries too easily. He's felt relief before that his sister is unable to control herself, like him, but now he's not so sure. His sister has changed. He doesn't want her to.

He turns eleven today. Happy birthday, Choutarou. It doesn't feel like a birthday, though, even with his sister nearby.

His father is waiting for them in the dining room. It does not do well to keep him waiting. He is a patient man, but patience runs only so far. Choutarou has learned this quickly out of necessity; his father does not like his sulking games. His door no longer holds a lock. He cannot lock himself in anymore. It isn't fair.

His sister is staring with shrewd, knowing eyes. They are almost frightening in their intensity. But he relaxes; this is more like his sister. Much, much more. This is what he wants, this is what he knows to be true. He doesn't want to face a mask—anybody else, on anybody else but her. This is her honesty showing through. She's no longer enigmatic or strange or blank-faced. This is her true face.

She sees and hears things and is able to process them instantaneously. Yes, this is why she's bound to be successful. This is why she should have been the heir. It's inevitable, really, because his sister is brilliant and he...he...

He is not.

Happy birthday, Choutarou.

His father has not given him a gift. The man has prepared a dinner party, but his son is only mildly factored into the night's celebration. There is going to be a merging at his father's firm, and many a guest and business associates are arriving to celebrate.

Of course they aren't there for him, not for the sickly and shut away son. Hidden.

He doesn't expect anything less, not when he is worth less than nothing to the workplace. Not at his age. He's learned to not think anything his father does is for him. Even if there is cake. But that is inconsequential—his sister has brought it for her little brother. It is his cake—his.

But his sister is only here because she is a kōhai, a junior at his father's work. Of course she's expected to be here. This is his father's party, his right to fame—he's risen high in the firm. It's only right that he's the host. It is only right. He's the one who's making the merging possible. His father is a sharp man. He knows that if the merging of these two firms are to be finalized, he would become irreplaceable. He would have power.

This is his father. And a child learns his habits from example. A child looks closely at his parents and learns by watching.

But his mother is dead and his sister, he rarely sees. Meanwhile, his father is trying to instill in him a cutthroat mentality that he doesn't want to have.

It isn't fair. He isn't a good fit. It isn't working. He can't possibly think as his father does, to see the world in such a restricted, brutal way and know that it's only right? The strong survive and the weak die. It is Darwin at his best in the business field. His father loves it, but he is not his father.

He is going to be awful at Hyoutei U.. He will fail at his stifling courses. He is going to make a terrible mistake somewhere in his future job. His debut into the world will be horrible. He would shame his mother. He would disgrace his father. His sister won't be able to handle the truth of how horrible her brother is at something she has so skillfully eased through, whereas his father—oh, god, his father...

It isn't stopping. It can't be stopped, this speeding train of his future that plows through all of his simple dreams and desires—it won't stop. He is being overrun. He would never be able to catch up, and now he's going to be dragged along like a dead weight and bring his family down with him. He doesn't want that. He doesn't what that at all. This isn't what he wants. He doesn't want to be his family's crutch, their downfall...their weakness.

He is that stain on that plush, expensive carpet, unwanted and looked away from—a liability. And no matter how furiously it is scrubbed at, that stain won't ever go away. The whole carpet would have to be thrown away, a new one replacing it immediately.

He is replaceable. Nobody needs Choutarou in the world. He isn't needed.

Don't stop, don't stop, keeping trying. Don't you dare stop.

But he's so tired. Why can't he stop? Why can't he stop trying? Who needs him to go on?

His sister is perfect. She is...she is wonderful and strong, and she is the only one who cares, but she is always the better one, the more beautiful one. The smarter one. The more successful one. She takes after their father. She has his looks. She has his genes, his intelligence, his...his everything.

But what does Choutarou have? Sickly pale skin. Mousy, tufts of hair, always an inevitable mess. He is a disaster. He can't play a sport. He isn't incredibly smart. He doesn't have any goals in life or have any idea what he wants to do with himself...his tutors despairs of him and he is sick, sick, sick of it all.

He doesn't even have his own clothes; they aren't his to choose.

He has no control. And he can even see how his life is going to go, forever spiraling downwards until he finally crashes, always looking up at his betters. Always failing, always stupid and awkward and shy. He won't ever stand out. He would never become something spectacular. Even if his classmates hates him, he still likes them. He loves their vigor—why does everyone look so happy? What do they have that he does not?

But they aren't happy. No one at Hyoutei is. Nobody is happy because there are no friends at Hyoutei. Those smiling faces are only a front. Like his sister's mask. There are no friends at Hyoutei, only acquaintances and contacts and rivalries. Alliances are well hidden, whereas enemies are friends for all the world to see.

All the parents of the enrolled at Hyoutei, he knows, are either completely detached from their children's lives or are in irrevocable control of them. He has the latter, but he wonders if even he prefers the former. He almost fears it, the idea that he can have a choice in the matter.

But the fact of the matter is, he doesn't. Control? What control? Only his father is in control.

It has only been a year at the lowest level of education Hyoutei offers, and he is sick of it.

Why won't it stop? It won't stop. That train, that disaster wreck—that's him, he's sure. He is completely sure of it. It won't stop. It flings past his bewildered eyes and if he cranes his neck to see into the distance, all he can see is a dark tunnel. Completely black; uncertainty. What does the future have in store for him? What is this unease in him?

And how does he get rid of it?

His future is secured. He's guaranteed to live well for the rest of his life, comfortably and coldly provided for. His father has given him his future. He know what he is supposed to do, how he is supposed to show he is grateful. He will advance and surpass through each level of Hyoutei and attend its university until graduation. And then he will say goodbye to this school, his nonexistent friends, and he won't look back.

He would then become...become something. Not a lawyer—never that. Something nicer...but nothing is nice. Cutthroat, Choutarou, think cutthroat...

But he doesn't want to be cutthroat. That isn't what he wants.

What does he want, then?

He has no clue. He is only eleven. He doesn't want to think about this.

What is going to happen to him?

He doesn't want this...

--

Chaos. He's never played so wildly before; hazardous plucking of strings and rapidly strung notes of a rare fervor, the violin screams. This is the only way to describe the music. This is his tool, his instrument, and he is venting. Music isn't to be enjoyed because music suffers him.

He is angry—someone has hurt him—and he is trying...trying so hard to calm down, but he can't. He feels so angry and he doesn't like how hateful he is beginning to sound in his own head. It frightens him, this surge of unfamiliar emotions welling up inside of him. They claw at his mind and threaten to send him down paths he doesn't want to go down...

So he flees. He's sought sanctuary in the one place he feels comfortable with in this entire school; the library is out of the question because primary students aren't welcome. But here...

Here, his unrestrained playing is heard effortlessly in the large, echoing room. He's never before used his violin like this...usually he's so careful, so precise. But it isn't bad. It doesn't scream in the traditional sense that a horrible novice is mutilating the sounds of an instrument. It doesn't sound that way at all even with his completely amateur playing. But it is raw. Every stroke is a murmur against the strings, and the musician runs through the music with the vibrancy and turbulence of a child.

He is a child. Stumbling out of childhood and into adolescence. But not yet. Not yet.

It is why he is flustered when a slow clapping is heard in the room. Ootori jerks to a halt, stopping immediately, and the bow in his hands nearly clatters to the floor when he sees who has arrived. "S-Sensei."

He feels ashamed, a hot and prickling, uncomfortable feeling.

"...That was good." The man steps forward from the doorway, back stiff and steps perfectly measured. Ootori shrinks away; he is intimidated by the sudden presence in the room. It overwhelms him.

"Thank...you."

One sharp, severe nod and Sakaki stops before him. Even though he is tall for his age, the boy can only blink up at his teacher's face. The teacher says nothing, but his eyes are narrowed and glaring. Severe. His father sometimes wears such a face.

He wonders what he's done wrong, but it does explain the sudden shame that clenches at his gut.

Meanwhile, the silence stretches.

"You did nothing wrong," the man says abruptly. Ootori is so startled he nearly drops his things. "The music room...you often come in here, then?"

He blinks, flustered. Sakaki stares. After a terse pause on his part, the man draws forth a manila folder from out of somewhere, but that isn't the important part.

Ootori flips open the manila cover tentatively, but then stops. "A scholarship? Um...Sakaki-sen—?"

"You will accept."

"What?"

"You are already accepted into this school," the teacher says, "but that is not enough. Our program is an accumulation of the different sections of our department. You are young, but in preparation for next year it would be prudent to consider this offer."

Silence. Again. He stares, but Sakaki only blinks. They have mimicked each other's previous actions, and it unnerves him.

"That is all." Another curt pause. "Congratulations."

"But I don't need one."

"...No?"

"I mean," the boy says, feeling horribly confused, "I don't think I need it."

"This would open opportunities to study abroad. Does this not interest you?"

Ootori tenses, trying to keep himself from fidgeting. "My father..."

"I see."

Silence. "I'm sorry, Sensei," he begins.

"Save it."

Another silence, which ends in a definite and delicate pause.

"...Very well. I see there is no convincing you," Sakaki says; apparently, those wordless moments are significant in some way, but they've only succeeded in heightening Ootori's tension. And his nervousness. "But understand this offer will not come a second time."

The voice is stern, has been from the very start, as if the words themselves have been a burdensome obligation to give voice to, but there is a weary quality to them. It is tiring to hear like a heavy and obstinate blanket that threatens to topple him to the ground.

Ootori doesn't quite quiver underneath his teacher's gaze this time. "I know that," he says, surprising himself at the firmness of his words. He wonders if his conviction is the same. "I know that already, Sakaki-sensei."

Sakaki pivots and Ootori can only stare helplessly at his teacher's back.

His teacher seems disappointed somehow, but Ootori cannot even begin to explain why accepting would be such a terrible idea. He wants to respond in the positive, badly, but...

"There is only so much influence we should allow ourselves to be suppressed under," Sakaki says rather cryptically.

But in this matter, no matter how subtle his teacher thought he was being, he would not yield. "But he's my father, Sensei."

"At Hyoutei," his teacher replies, "we do not allow ourselves to be led. Rather, we lead others and ourselves. Think on that."

"Yes..."

But Sakaki has paused once more, this time at the door. "Come and see me when you've changed your mind."

He is compelled to ask, "How do you know I'll accept?"

"Your playing. If you want to keep that raw talent alive, you will come see me. You're lacking in something...discipline, which this institution can give you easily if only you'll embrace its teachings. That is all I will say to you on this subject."

Ootori steps forward. "But what's improved? I thought my form was sloppy! Please," he says, long and lanky limps tripping forward, "what...what improved? When before you said that it was pointless for me to continue...what's changed?"

When Sakaki makes no move to answer, Ootori cries, "Sensei, please! You have to...I have to know this!"

The neck of the violin trembles in his hand and he claws at his teacher with his eyes, searching for an answer in that impassive face—he wants it desperately. He doesn't understand. He doesn't understand his teacher at all. Sakaki, so critical of him in class, seems to find him a disappointment somehow. He hates that feeling, the feeling of walls closing in, ready to crush him at a moment's notice. But the calm his teacher exudes when he assesses him now...how can he not have noticed? Is this a test of some sort? Why—

"You will come see me because that is what you wish." Sakaki glances over his shoulder, letting Ootori only see his profile. It is enough; Ootori is trembling. "It's what you want, isn't it? That's why you'll accept. This is what you want."

Sakaki's eyes...

The door shuts behind the man, but Ootori still stands there, struggling to understand what has just occurred.

But even if it was only for a moment, it was all he needed to know that Sakaki sees him. His eyes were kind. Stoic and unmoving, but kind.

It is more than he deserves. But he wants to take this chance, to grasp it with his own two hands and...!

Yes. This is what he wants.

His hold on his violin loosens until he sets it down with a sigh. What's changed? Sakaki is infamous for catching skewed notes and poorly played measures, and Ootori has not been playing in any sort of strict structure at all. What's changed? He thinks his playing as terrible; Sakaki has caught him at a bad moment when all he's caused on his violin is chaos.

But right then Sakaki didn't even glare. Instead, he's offered to accept him into a prestigious program. What's changed...

"He's happy with my playing," he says in a bare whisper. Carefully stowing the instrument away, he thinks again: What's changed? "He's happy..."

Happy...with me?

--

"...This is the class you want to pursue?"

"Yes, Father." He holds himself still, struggling not to flinch under that level gaze. "Once I pass the primary level, Hyoutei gives us the freedom to choose our own course. This is to encourage moving at our own pace—"

"But are classes relaxed?" his father says. "You forget that that system also breeds independence. Or did you forget?"

His mouth is dry. "No, Father."

A thinning slant of lips. "Why music? You excel at your Stradivari violin. I understand why you would choose your fifth class, but what of this last one?"

"It will be covered by the scholarship." Desperation creeps into his tone at his father's closed expression. "Father, please, you needn't buy me anything. Please...I—I want to do this. It's not a..."

He eyes him evenly, hands folded up near his face. "It's not a what?"

"...It's not a waste of time."

Silence. Ootori feels like there is an ultimatum to come, not unlike Sakaki's. But Sakaki's silences have never made him feel this kind of dread. He holds his breath.

"Fine, Choutarou, if that is what you wish." His father taps his desk with a slow, deliberating finger. "But you must promise me this: Do not do things half way. This is what you want, so I won't stop you. However..."

"Yes?"

The tapping pauses. "You'll get no exercise this way. I have canceled your usual appointment in favor for the school's doctor. You will listen to what he says, even at the expense of your scheduling. Your health comes first, understand?"

"But I'm not interested in their sports," Ootori says, voice very small.

"Your courses, as it stands now, allow you no physical activity. You've opted out of the physical education class for..." a shuffle of papers, "...music. With that sensei of yours, I believe."

"Do you know Sakaki-sensei, Father?"

"If you mean that man who is offering to accept you into their program then, yes, Sakaki-san."

Choutarou doesn't reply immediately. His words are slow, respectful, but very neutral. "I want to take this opportunity."

"I know."

"May I enhance my skills through this way?"

"It's what I expect."

"Yes." But something is bothering him. "...Father? Have you've met Sakaki-sensei before?"

"No, I haven't." Another shuffle of paper, and his father never looks up—a clear dismissive gesture.

Nodding slowly, his son leaves the room. Only until the door is completely closed does the man look up. His gaze is weary as his fingers strum the desktop absently. Still, his voice is firm as he makes the phone call.

"Sakaki-san?" he says. "It is done. Please take care of him well."

His voice may have been firm, but his head is bowed.

--

"The others don't like me." A choking laugh. "No wonder! All I do is creep, after all..." Ootori presses down a soft key and the piano gives a long, hallow sound. He releases it and holds shaking hands up to his face. The streaks of salty tears makes him flinch, and he buries himself in his hands. "Sorry," he mumbles, fingering a bruise, "but I can't play today..."

Lifting his head, he smiles, and the discolored and damaged skin is prominent on his cheek. "Shall I try anyway? Okay..." Fingers that are bandaged rest lightly upon ivory and obsidian keys.

He gives a push.

The sound he makes is beautiful, sweet, but tragic; something is missing. His play is too careful, tentative—nothing at all like the usually confident boy who flings himself into his playing with a rare passion and fervor. This boy is subdued and his hands hover, unsure, above the keys. As if he doesn't quite know himself. Or perhaps he doesn't trust himself.

This is a boy jarred from his world. Eyes wide and unseeing, with pupils near pinpricks, his mouth straightens into a grimace when he clumsily misses a note. His fingertip has slipped off a black key and into an obvious blunder, forcing him through a precarious rendition of the seventeenth measure. He stops immediately.

His eyes squeezes shut.

"What is wrong with me?"

Calm yourself instead of asking unnecessary questions.

It seems something Sakaki would say. Try again. Let your fingers sink into the music, let your heart and breath slow...

Follow the instructions. They're there for a reason.

Ootori releases a quiet, frustrated breath. He raises his two hands again. Watery drops fall down towards the instrument, peppering its keys.

Piano Sonata No.18, the paper in front of him blazes.

There are dynamics printed in the sheets. Do it.

He doesn't want to let him down. Eyes cutting through the music and a couple of lines ahead, his hands act of its own accord with a life of its own. Long and lanky digits stretch and move across the board like an organic thing, never stopping and never heeding to the difficulty of the notes. He let himself be swept away, just as his hands sweep across the keys.

The tempo is moderate, but it is slow compared to his usual violin norm. This is no fast piece where abandon and adrenalin would overtake him and force him to rush. He cannot mess this up; it is far too easy. He's only sight-read it once before during lessons, but it is enough. It has to be. And he's played it before, too. Surely he can repeat it now?

But when he played this for Sakaki, he'd been interrupted a page into the song.

What do you think you're doing? It is not supposed to sound like this. You are making Mozart sound sad.

Why such a sad Mozart, Choutarou? Do you hate Mozart?

I don't want this, he wants to say—I do not want your tutorship for the piano.

Sensei—Sensei had lied. Not really. It wasn't even the man's fault. Only, Ootori had been stupid enough to not ask for clarification beforehand. But how can he have known otherwise?

He'd been using his violin when Sakaki approached him with this wondrous and glorious offer...how can one have assumed anything else?

This isn't what he wants. He is taking lessons for the wrong instrument.

Why do you have such an aversion to the piano when your potential for it far exceeds that of strings?

Potential, potential, potential. If only he's had potential for anything else as a child! Perhaps then his father would've...no. Nothing would have made a difference.

For as long as Ootori can remember, he's been playing the piano. He loved it, he remembers, and his father had no clue of his affinity to the instrument...

It is around the time when he has first come to Hyoutei that he's literally stumbled into the music room for the first time. Mesmerized, and not a little awed, he watches his senpai-tachi for weeks and absorbs the hearing of the works of the classical genii as they came alive in that room.

It is tranquil, and it is that calm that draws him in and offers him a solace that is nowhere else to be found. Especially not at home, not so soon after his mother's death. Not when his father has started acting strange and has become obsessed with cutting ties from his corporate workplace.

A kind, older boy has noticed him and perhaps takes pity on him when he teaches Ootori the basic theory, the notes, a few songs...which Ootori takes to like a desperate, deprived man admist an oasis...A man that wants to willingly drown in that wondrous water.

Soon enough, he brandishes that raw talent to his father, but the man misunderstands his son's intentions. Subsequently, the damage is irreversible and immediate.

His father does not, as Ootori hopes, sit there throughout his performance out of genuine joy. Rather, he is very interested in cultivating that newfound talent. Not for his son's sake, but for the man's own. His father wants to shove him into countless hours of private tutoring to harness his natural ability.

But that isn't what he wants.

And yet...it has been the only thing noteworthy about him, the only trait that merited any sort of praise from the man he's cherished. Would this, he'd thought, finally raise him in the eyes of his father? He still doesn't know the answer to that question; he doesn't want to know.

For him, the piano draws forth memories of long enthralled hours in front of his kind, older senpai—first friend, first teacher—but it also forces him to remember familiar, old despair. When his father sees him immersing himself in the music, he does not see Choutarou but only the boy's capability and worth. Measuring his ability. Probably.

It hurts. Those first few months when he naively indulges in those lessons are blissfully ignorant ones. And then he learned the truth.

He hasn't touched a piano for the longest time afterwards. That self-imposed exile from that which he so loves is even more painful, more hurtful, than his father's callous intent. Music is something to be adored and cherished and loved—how can he stay away from it when it sings his name and awards him praise? The satisfaction of breaking down a new piece and relishing the grit and determination that has carried him throughout the whole process...can he ever deny himself of that? How can he forget it?

He doesn't. Not really, but sometimes the temptation is so great, he sneaks into the music room to play. His constant practicing has given him enough justification to be in there while his fledgling skill keeps him below the notice of his senpai-tachi. His selfish senpai-tachi.

The only senpai he's ever cared for had already elevated through the school's system and was quietly enrolled into Hyoutei U..

His father is not pleased with his seemingly flippant attitude towards music—all those wasted expenses! But Ootori has never given up music; it is there in his frequent, yearning visits to his most precious haven.

It is in that room where he sees Oshitari Yuushi play for the first time.

"Please, what...what's improved? When before you said that it was pointless for me to continue... what's changed?"

Nothing has improved. After his ill-formed adulation of Oshitari's playing, he is still unable to reach that boy's height.

There is an unseen, unknown wall that blocks his progress. It is always in his way, stopping him—but he wants to overcome it. Knock it down so that he may see! He wants to better himself to reach his idol!

Oshitari is unlike any twelve-year-old Ootori has ever seen before. There is an air about him that differs from the rest who frequent the music room. His senpai-tachi are usually the cocky, arrogant types who boast an array of classical music for all the wrong reasons—pride, prestige, obligation—but not Oshitari.

He can...calmly assess a new piece and coax it into the life intended for it by the composer. He seamlessly follows every meticulous note, every tricky transcription, and brings to mind a cool technician who's long perfected his play. But his music is never stale or stoic! It is a living, breathing, moving thing that brings sounds to greater heights and does the classical genre justice in every sense of the word.

Oshitari is quite simply...a genius. And his music is so astoundingly precise that it never ceases to make Ootori breathless with awe time and time again.

Cool, untouchable Oshitari; whenever the boy enters Ootori's carefully constructed bubble, his senpai would obliterate it completely. Every move he makes, every entrance and every sentence—he knows it all. He's watched his senpai and wants to desperately be like him, a senpai who he can look up to. Because he is everything Ootori is not—smart, levelheaded, and someone with absolutely no cause for disappointments.

He feels just like that. He wants to be what he cannot.

Ootori's violin now exists for one purpose only. That is why he is involved with music, the only reason.

Right?

But Ootori is not Oshitari. He cannot play like Oshitari. He cannot reach that height of perfection. It is too high up to him...

He can't see it anymore, his feelings for music. That old enthrallment with a simple rhythm, immersing in the notes for the sake of playing them and playing, alone...

He doesn't know what he want from his violin. It has been born to copy, but it cannot copy after all.

What do you think you're doing? You misunderstand me, Choutarou. You did not improve...

And he doesn't know his piano, either.

Why do you have such an aversion to the piano when your potential for it far exceeds that of strings?

Has he not begun out of an earnest desire to learn more? Doesn't he even remember what his first foray into the music room was like? Does he remember his senpai's face? That kind and older boy who's probably forgotten him by now...

Follow the instructions. They're there for a reason.

What's happened to his enjoyment? It should have been inside of him, right there. Isn't it supposed to be there for a reason?

Where has his joy gone?

I'm not like you. I can't be a detached person when I play.

He is too emotional, after all.

"Am I...crying?"

I can't be as perfect as you.

--

It is a few short months before Ootori can take the junior high level exam when Sakaki finally betrays his exasperation.

"What is it you're trying to achieve here, Choutarou?"

"What do you mean?"

Sakaki looks at him with shrewd eyes. "You must always face the music head-on. You cannot be cowed by the pieces I place before you, but that is the impression I'm getting. I'll ask again: What is it you're trying to accomplish?"

"I don't..."

He reaches over and taps a page. "See here? Staccatos, quick and light, which eventually tumble into a grand crescendo. Forte! Where is the depth, the tones? With your rendition, it is hard to tell even who wrote this composition."

The boy says nothing.

"These are the basics and you're far past this. What is inhibiting you from mastering this piece? Is it confidence?" He stills. "No. In actuality that isn't the problem at all. This isn't your piano, and yet you're still trying to assimilate it as your own."

Ootori shakes his head wildly and flips through the sheet music. "No, I will learn it, Sakaki-sensei!" he says. "I...this is my piano. This is my music!"

The man frowns. "I have erred. Your piano is not as stifling as this."

"How do you know?"

"I've heard you play before. This isn't it. This isn't your style."

"Then what is my style?"

Pure uncalculating individuality. "...Emotional, Choutarou. Emotional."

Ootori ducks his head. "Oh. I see."

"You'll become a first year soon. Have you studied?"

And when the boy's face falls, Sakaki knows he hasn't. His features turn stern, although he knows full well that his student has had no time to study for the exams, not with this crisis in music.

It is the last class of the day, a private after school lesson that Sakaki is willing to teach. But does he have the initiative to draw the potential out of a student who is not willing to learn? Does he have the ability to help his troubled pupil?

Can he afford to invest more time and effort into Ootori Choutarou when the Hyoutei tennis club is in the Kantou finals? When they must focus on their victorious opponents of fourteen years, Rikkai Daigaku Fuzoku? A tournament that would be the gateway into the Nationals...

What is more important, his obligations as a teacher or his duties as a coach?

And then he knows the answer.

"Choutarou," he says, stepping over to the window. His voice is heavy with contemplation.

"Yes?"

"I want you to practice in here on your own." The pane of glass reflects his impassive face. "From now on, our lessons are on hold.

--

Sakaki has an office out on the grounds, given to him once he'd become a coach. Attached to it is the locker room and stretching across from that are the courts.

But Sakaki has another office. Up on the second floor of the school, it is small, but it does its job by affording him a small measure of privacy unseen anywhere else. A twisting staircase connecting all floors is across the hall from his office. The music room with its many independent enclaves, for student use, lays below on the first floor.

Sakaki's private playing room, however, is adjacent from his office. He's seen to it that it is nowhere on the first floor. It dwarfs its single instrument—a piano.

It is in that room where Ootori stares out the windows.

It's been three days since Sakaki has left him alone. Three days of no lessons and Ootori still doesn't know what to do. Instead, he finds himself sitting at the window day by day, only to stare down at those courts and at Coach Sakaki and at the players and wonder what it is that he did wrong.

He holds up a shaking hand and closes it into a slow-formed fist. It is tight, and it hurts—this tension.

He smiles. His bow clatters to the floor and the violin wobbles in his other hand, a grip that is too loose and too fragile.

He is not supposed to be playing the violin.

Sometimes, Ootori wonders what is his inhibition, this innate blockage that stops him so utterly from performing properly. He's loved music for what seems an age, loving the all consuming feel of letting it envelop and wrap around him in its arms. Bars printed on the page, the lilting sonata replaying in his head...

But now? He doesn't know what is wrong with him. He can't follow directions, and so his teacher gives up on him. He can't keep away from this world, and so his father gives up on him. He can't adapt to Hyoutei's curriculum, and so he's tried to find salvation in music.

There is something in him that is flopping clumsily all over, scared and confused. It wants to fly, to soar up into that sky, to release its potential and reach the height of its capacity—but it is terrified. Suffocating. By its own indecision? Or maybe it is hesitancy's fault. Tightly, some unseen hand is squeezing that fledging bird until it can breathe no longer, choking and choking it to death.

How can he have known such a thing is beyond him, but Ootori knows this as truth. He no longer feels that desire to play. His earnest ambition is dry, but somewhere, somehow, a hope still clings to him. His hope for times past. An odd remembrance here, an old memory there—he wants to return to those bright and shining days. This is what he wants. Badly.

Seeping lethargy renders him lazy in his practice. All he can do is sit by the sill and look out of its paned glass and upwards? But his eyes avert from that brilliant stretch of canvas sky and instead swerve in an entirely different direction.

He stares.

"Senpai...?"

Look.

Ootori feels himself lean forward. The barest touch of his palms and he lets them rest flat against the glass. His gaze is riveted below.

Philosophically sound, without the gentle or emotional quality that Ootori flavor his own music with. Instead of treating the wood and wire construct as a precious friend, the boy on that tennis court treats his violin as a tool. To make perfect sounds.

Ootori thinks it akin to silver sheathe. Look, but don't touch. Coldly precise. Notes in motion, never stopping, never ending, but just as the composer intends it to be? No...was that how his senpai played? Before now, Ootori has thought so. But with no regards to the artisan's craft, efforts, regrets, or triumphs? Can that be called understanding? Does Oshitari only see the sheet music in front of him and detach himself from its creator...?

Silver. Plain silver, glistening in the sunlight but cold to the original intent. No losing oneself in heady feelings, no irrevocable adoration or pleasure in a piece—Oshitari's violin is only silver.

Suddenly, it is all too clear, too achingly clear. It is stark against blunt court green. Beneath his eyes, everything is revealed. Every movement is calculated and precise. Nothing is wasted, not even a breath of air or a drop of sweat.

The weapon, suspended in careful hands, is controlled with every swing—there is no wild abandon here. There isn't even a hint of enjoyment on that face, not a speck of rediscovering the game or joy, not as Ootori does with every new score or challenge. In the days when he's faced an instrument head-on with no selfish demands, his expectations were nothing but for his efforts to be rewarded. Simplistic desire mixes with earnest belief in the music and himself. Confidence. It is indeed a heady mix, but he suspects Oshitari has never known the pleasure.

Silver. Just silver. But that isn't Ootori's style.

His senpai plays a marvelous game of tennis. It is obvious even to an amateur's eyes. It is obvious to him.

There is no ignorance on that court. Denial has no place there. In its presence one can do nothing but give one's complete all. Everything and anything matters little when confronted in that game. There is only one thing a player can do in that situation.

Fight.

This is the potential that his teacher had coaxed out of his team. Sakaki is busy watching practice, overseeing mock matches. Two hundred people are littered throughout the grounds, but that tight group of regulars stands at his side and never breaks apart. Working, fighting—fighting. There is no confusion or aimless wandering. Each of them are focused. Their limits are endless, and it seems as though nothing can shatter their concentration.

His senpai is no longer his senpai. Not in music. It is there on that court where he truly belongs. Apathy has no place on the face of a winner. Disinterest or half-hearted play isn't allowed.

But that's no problem for his artful senpai. Oshitari is doing just fine. More than fine...

Ootori stands up, but his feet nudges against a fallen bow. His bow.

For the longest time he stares down at it in silent wonder. Its delicate wood and taunt horsehair strings—such a tiny thing, really. It can snap at any time or be easily broken into two. It's as fragile and breakable as his resolve, he thinks—what point is there to play such an instrument?

He picks it up and gives the violin a long stroke. The note is strong. Ootori has expected it.

But it isn't enough— it's just a noise—not nearly enough.

It is a cage. Is this all he could play? All he is good for?

This isn't good enough. This isn't it.

Inexplicably, his gaze flickers to the window.

He can do more.

--

Sakaki still has not returned to teach. He is never there in that room anymore, but Ootori doesn't mind. He can still see his teacher out the window. As a coach, that man is igniting a competitive fervor into his players; he needs all the concentration he can get.

Private lessons with a music pupil are an interference as Hyoutei fights towards the Nationals. Strangely, this takes the sting out of Ootori's previous bitterness. The remembrance of his hurt is still there, but now a new purpose occupies his thoughts.

The last piano piece Sakaki has assigned him, which Ootori suspects is to be the final one, is difficult beyond comprehension. It is not something normally given to eleven-year-olds.

The notes are simple, the sheet music easy enough to follow, but it is the unpredictability of the piece that throws him. It is not at all something he expects from a classical artist. There is not even a required tempo!

It's not normal, especially when it's unnamed. Yes, there is a title and a composer listed at the page's yellowed top, but the piece is unheard. Never selected for competitions, never recorded on a CD, it's simply a highly unusual and rare piece in that it isn't even thought of at all. It is not considered a masterpiece or even clichéd.

When Ootori studies the score for the first time, he is shocked by the nature of his assignment. A mild thought is whether he should be insulted because Sakaki has given him such a thing. Or is this a new approach that his teacher is trying? Sakaki has said that his student lacks a certain drive that's required of all musicians.

Is that why Sakaki chose such an underachieving piece?

But there is genius to the man's teaching. It would be something realized not until much, much later.

For now Ootori practices. He practices until he can show his teacher, unashamedly, the progress he's made, the honest attempt to overcome his own barriers.

He practices with no inhibitions. That is what he tells himself.

But the piano is a painful thing. When Sakaki has left him to his own devices, he picks up the bow out of desperation. Perhaps rebellion, although Ootori is not so bold. But his teacher wants him to play the piano, not the violin. It's something he has a hard time adhering to.

The stringed instrument has been a product of wistful fantasy. Surely, once that fantasy is over so is the reason to play? He clings to his violin, though, perhaps for good reason.

Because he's always been alone, he clings to those things that brings him comfort. First his sister, and then his music. But it is not the same, not as before. Something has changed. The noises have remained the same, but something is different. The violin no longer brings him the same fulfillment. There is no satisfaction to be had when its model rises above music and finds something worth more.

Oshitari does not need music to survive. That is why his senpai can afford to be so detached, but it isn't the same for Ootori. And he's frightened.

The piano piece he plays suits him too well. A perfect fit. At first a rocky start, but once he's adjusted to the novelty of the score it brings him a contentment that he finds himself relishing in. And it scares him. How long until this, too, went away? He doesn't want to consume himself in the piano only for it to disappear again. His mother, his father, his sister, and his violin. What was Ootori's violin?

Copycat, but he fails to even imitate that. He is...his style is too weird. Just like this piece. Just like the teacher.

Sakaki has known full well that Ootori would notice him out the window. What is that man trying to accomplish? Ootori doesn't understand, so all he can do was watch.

Sometimes he is wistful because of Sakaki's absence. On his worst days, Ootori gives into despair. Confusion. Sakaki's deliberate move is forcing him to reexamine his own flaws.

Ootori has no interest in sports, an aversion he's gained as a weak-bodied child, but Sakaki forces Ootori to see. And learn.

He sees determination, a burning will and fire to win. The mental capacity that tests and stretches to the limits. All for training for this final battle.

Everybody down there takes tennis seriously. They face the game head-on without regards to their own possible loss. Each and every one of them fight to win.

Such passion...

Ootori feels stale in comparison. Stagnant, even. When he looks at himself after he's watched yet another severe training session, he feels ashamed.

Faced with his own insecurities and the mere possibility of long deprived joy finally given to him, Ootori feels himself hesitate. He cannot take that risk, cannot reach out with his own two hands and grasp his future. He cannot take that first step—it isn't possible. He's been hurt before. He doesn't want to taste defeat ever again. It is a fear that stops him from moving forward.

It isn't the same for Hyoutei tennis players, though. Members try again and again to reach that seemingly unattainable regulars spot. They never give up, not once since Ootori has started to watch.

His piano is beginning to scare him. He is starting to love it again. How can he risk it? The answer...?

But that doesn't stop that senpai, a plain-faced boy he's noticed from three days ago. That boy struggles to prove his peer's mockery false as he defends his play. That boy demands recognition and seeks to better himself to snatch a regulars spot by his own ability.

There is nothing spectacular about his tennis, Ootori sees, not like the other players, but in him there is the unmistakable drive to succeed. Even at the cost of jeers, doubt, or mockery—anything, everything, to prove his average style as a winning style to the cocky regulars. To become one of them, to gain that hallowed position...

The plain-faced boy is almost completely unremarkable has it not been for his attitude. If he is mocked for his fastidious care of his hair, he doesn't hesitate to mock back. He shows nothing but a confident face to the world while never letting it falter. And yet his tennis is overwhelmingly shadowed compared to the other eager, confident members of the club. It is reason enough to shrink away, but not for this boy.

He is loud, brash, but he is going to prove himself. Ootori sees this very clearly. If he were on those courts below, he would never sneer at that plain-faced boy. Because that boy has the strength to pick himself off the ground and continue on towards his goal, utterly focused. Utterly determined.

Nothing hinders him. He doesn't have any friends or allies among those cutthroat players. Ootori wonders how he never gives into despair, not when the club Sakaki has organized is frighteningly cold. Ootori has his music, but what does that plain-faced boy have? Nothing but the vague hope that he would triumph and finally succeed.

He would never stop trying, and Ootori eventually stops pretending that he isn't following the boy with his eyes.

He wonders what that boy's name is.

He wonders about a lot of things nowadays. Things he shouldn't be thinking, things that would've been better left forgotten. Like the absent-minded thought that he wants to be friends. With that boy. Friends.

Even Ootori has a limit to fanciful wishing. He stands from his seat and leaves. It is late, and yet he's stayed at school to watch the tennis club again.

The chair that remains by the window is cast in shadows as the lights wink off. The room looks as sterile and cold as any room in Hyoutei, but the seat has yet to cool.

The plain-faced boy practices outside, vigorously swinging a racket. He doesn't seem to notice that his lone supporter has just gone; his swings never falter. And then he stops.

He suddenly looks skywards, but his gaze is on the school. His eyes are narrowed, contemplative.

Look, but don't touch.

Silver.

Just silver.

But not him.

--

The day after Hyoutei looses to Rikkai Dai in the Kantou finals is the day Ootori masters the piece.

His triumph is short-lived; the tennis club returns in shame, but the heads of the regulars are held high. They glare at all who dare to slander their names, but they can only affect detachment in response to their tremendous failure.

Their pains are his pains—he's started to think just like that.

He never questions why he's so deeply involved in their successes and failures. Perhaps, as an unseen spectator, he alone is privy to their unseen moments. Moments of anguish and defeat. Moments of weakness. Moments they never let the rest of the school to see.

But Ootori sees everything. He feels their pain and knows their failure to be a suffocating one.

And yet he can do nothing. He can do nothing.

Ootori knows it's foolish to feel guilt over such a matter beyond his control, but he feels that it is because he emphasizes with them that he cannot ignore this gut-wrenching feeling. Never before has he felt so shaken; that day after school, he sits by the window sill and is privy to the sight of the regulars' anger-driven training.

The rest of the club is in despair. To his surprising amount of disgust, Ootori realizes that a sort of lethargy has blanketed itself over the tennis club members. The regulars are choosing to vent yet another loss to Rikkai Dai by ferociously throwing themselves into oblivion and practice. Except for the fallen regulars, everyone else wanders as if in an aimless daze.

Sakaki is nowhere to be found. Prior to their defeat, he's been ruthlessly grinding his team through intense training. He's been present every day to coach them, and yet Ootori cannot see him anywhere on the grounds.

Just as he cannot find the plain-faced one. If anyone can endure this new hardship, it would be that boy. But Ootori cannot find him either, and the knowledge bothers him for some reason.

The school hangs in suspended shock, as if it is the Hyoutei tennis club that decrees its flow of pace. Perhaps it does.

The whole world feels still. Unmoving. Stagnant.

And Ootori hates it. He hates it more than he's ever hated something before, but he cannot do anything about it. He is alone because he is not one of them. He cannot approach them because he is not one of them.

He is not one of them. He is nothing but a spectator. He has no place to share in their triumphs and glories, shame and failures. He is nothing to these people, and the revelation startles him.

Because he is nothing to them, he is useless to them. Ootori has absolutely no right to feel this desperately alone. He's believed himself to be a part of the club, even as an unseen supporter. That is what he's believed. Now he isn't so sure anymore.

What can an unseen supporter do after all, but silently watch? And stare.

And the Hyoutei tennis club have had enough of staring.

Ootori doesn't know what he can do to help, but he does know that he can't bear to look out that window. A slow sickness, a feeling of unease, spreads in his belly whenever he comes near it. He doesn't want to see the sky, and then look down only to find despair.

In his helplessness he plays. But just as he cannot bear the sight outside of the window, he cannot bear to play on the piano of his teacher's choice.

The room is adjacent to Sakaki's office, with the staircase mere steps away. Ootori travels down a single flight of stairs and immediately turns into the first available room he finds.

Only to run into a plain-faced boy.


It's been more than 10000 words: I would love your input. I've wholly thrown myself into Choutarou's development. I'm quite fond and proud of what I've done to him.

Although a very progressive story, there are distinct phases Choutarou goes through in his life. I'm slowly teasing him into Sakaki's world, trying to take a somewhat realistic approach to how Choutarou could eventually be drawn into tennis.

It's revealed in the Nationals OVA that Oshitari Yuushi plays the violin. I'm totally taking advantage of it.