Disclaimer: The original manga, Tennis no Oujisama, is the work of Konomi Takeshi. Characters and settings have been adapted without authorization or approval, and I am making no profit from their use.
Sanada would never forget how it felt to lose to Yukimura. The panic when he ran for a shot, the encroaching certainty that, no matter what he tried, he would fail - every quiver of terror rooted indelibly into his consciousness. Even if he managed to hit the ball, his opponent would hammer it back at him with no semblance of mercy. One instant of concern over Atobe's worsening madness, and his focus had broken enough for Yukimura to bring him low.
The match was as good as over. When his former captain's majesty took its grip on your mind, the pound of cure that might salve that lack of preparation was rarer than a miracle. Some days, he envied Echizen his ability to channel a pure joy of play that wasn't bound to excellence or success.
To make matters worse, Yukimura's expression had changed. His game face was stern enough, renowned for its power to reduce a man's heart to cold dust, but this face was one Sanada personally found more terrifying.
Within his own head, he imagined a mighty roar forcing out the terrors of his fevered, panicking brain. The serve was still his. He could do it. Had done it before, would do it again. He would make a play that Yukimura... that Seiichi could respect.
That is, if he were given the chance.
"The ball," Yukimura called, hand outstretched. That didn't leave him much choice.
Sanada approached the net and dropped it into the other player's hand without a word. He knew better than to ask for forgiveness. He'd been distracted. When perfection incarnate stood before him, he had no intention of disgracing himself with excuses. Like so many others, he'd seen the seed of a god within this man, and not a gentle one - host to a capricious humor, with no patience for benevolence.
The former captain of Rikkai spun the ball lightly in his fingers, not bothering to ask what had stolen his attention. Yukimura hadn't asked that in weeks, and had long ceased to be amused by it. "Pick your battles wisely, or you'll lose them, Gen'ichirou. Atobe's affairs have nothing to do with you, and less than nothing to do with you playing me." With a nod, he accepted the criticism and watched his partner set up a serve at the backboard painted on the wall, each strike hitting in time with the sharp pangs of his heart on his ribs. "Sometimes I wonder if you think more of Atobe than you think of me. I'm not sure how I feel about that."
"You know that's not true." And the man did. Yukimura could never doubt his loyalty. "What I... What I think of you..." He cleared his throat and stood firm as cold eyes glanced from a solo rally to hear his assurances. "Atobe's delusions may tempt the destruction of this very world beneath our feet, but my attachment to you will never waver."
A soft laugh rolled from Yukimura's throat. He never paused, chasing down shot after shot with inexhaustible power, never turning to offer his smile. All the same, the sound of Seiichi's good humor let Sanada breathe easier as the echoes doubled back off the walls of the indoor courts. "Well, I didn't think you were confused about which of us you were fucking, you silly."
"That wasn't what I meant," Sanada murmured. Three and a half months already since the incident with the mistletoe had gotten out of hand, and that subject was still one he had trouble discussing.
"You have my full attention," he answered, louder this time. "I won't falter a second time."
Catching the ball on his racket, Yukimura turned to him with a teasing little smirk. "Oh, now you just sound like Tezuka-kun. You know, if he were back from Germany, I'm certain he'd be more entertaining to play than this backboard. Can you promise me you'll be at least that good, Gen'ichirou?"
"I'll be better."
"You had best." Yukimura strolled back to the net, stealing a kiss as the laughter haunting his voice cleared away most of the terror shaking in Sanada's arms and legs. "You need to fight to win in order to accept defeat with honor. Otherwise, it isn't any fun. Now, get some water. I'll see you in ten minutes."
He squeezed his classmate's hand over the net and stepped back with a bow. Taking his water bottle from the side of the court, he left Seiichi to run another rally against himself. The water fountain down the hall would be a better place to break the hold that a bad match against his former captain left on one's mind.
As he turned into the corridor, he saw someone else leaning over the row of faucets for a drink. Unexpected - Seiichi made certain to book courts when no one else would be using the facilities. He preferred his privacy. But the blond was there all the same, with a racket bag slung over his shoulder and a small suitcase rolled against the wall. No matter. There were plenty of faucets available. Sanada refilled his bottle, then splashed some of the water on his face and dried it with his towel.
The blond pulled a book out of a pocket on his racket bag and flipped through a few bookmarks. "Excuse me..." he started, in stilted Japanese. "Where might I... find... the hotel?"
An American, by the accent.
Then, slowly, the stranger turned his head up, and to his surprise Sanada realized it was no stranger at all. He never forgot a player's face. "Kevin Smith?" The young man jumped, panic lighting up in his eyes. "You're Kevin Smith, aren't you? Echizen's friend."
The surprise on his face turned to the sharp focus of recognition. "Ryoma?" In an instant, he settled down. "Oh, you," the American muttered in English. "You played against Billy and Michael."
"Sanada Gen'ichirou, at your service."
"Where's Ryoma now?" he asked in oddly loud and pinched Japanese. Sanada did his best not to bristle at it. Sometimes, foreigners were abrupt; that was no reason to be startled. But did Smith really think it necessary to talk to him like a recalcitrant toddler?
Clearing his throat, he answered, "I would imagine Echizen is with Atobe." It was early Sunday evening, after all, and the situation between them had become quite predictable. "I can't say if they're at the tennis courts or already at dinner, but I'm sure I can contact someone who'll know." The other regulars were hard to predict, but if Renji didn't know, he'd eat his hat. Still, why on earth Smith had to interrupt two people on a date was entirely unclear. Couldn't his business, whatever it was, wait until tomorrow?
The blond shook his head, this time answering in English. "I don't understand what you're saying."
Sanada scratched his head and frowned. He'd been perfectly precise. "Perhaps you haven't heard. Echizen has been... entangled... in a relationship steeped in madness. Doomed-" As Smith's eyes went wide and the young man shook his head from side to side, he tried to enunciate more clearly, only to find himself using the same slow, loud tone as the American. "Doomed to embroil our safe, familiar world in the tempests of disaster."
"I don't speak Japanese!" the foreigner yelled, pointing violently at the phrasebook in his hand. "Is this about Ryoma? 'Cause if it's important, say it in English!"
The strange little man flushed red with fury, and all Sanada found he could say was, "... Ah."
None of his English classes had covered apocalypse by ill-advised romance. Perhaps some of the literature he read on his own time would serve? It wouldn't do him any good in conversation, never having heard most of it aloud, but-
He'd have to do what he could. Taking a deep breath, he asked - in English, slowly, to be sure the two of them were communicating properly - "Do you have a pen?"
As he shook his head and reached into his bag, the blond muttered, "If I ever figure out what that bastard's done, I swear I'm gonna kill him for this."
That jackass had so much explaining to do. First, Kevin had only found out two days ago from Ryoma's crazy old man that Seigaku had a break coming up, so he'd barely had time to buy tickets and pack before getting on the plane, which meant he'd had no chance to tell Ryoma he was coming and arrange a meet-up for when he got here. Then, as soon as he found his way to the tennis center that he'd thought was next to his hotel (only it wasn't), he got freaking ambushed by the scary dude in the hat. And he would have liked to shrug off his crazy rantings about stars and cyclones and death and destruction, but he just couldn't. He'd met Ryoma's tennis league. The weirdest shit could happen.
Well, whatever was up, it couldn't be pretty.
There were suits on the court.
Apparently, his friend wasn't living at his old house, so Kevin had found his way to morning practice at Seigaku, and there they'd been. Four of 'em, lecturing Ryoma in words he couldn't understand, but with faces he knew. Those were 'upset' faces. 'Telling you this for your own good' faces. A little bit 'terrified' faces, too, but that was probably because of the new technique Ryoma was practicing while they talked. When the hell had that bastard learned to make a serve that bounced back to his hand?
Ryoma never told him anything! And they were supposed to be friends!
He didn't want to get in any real trouble, though, so he stayed behind the fence and well away from the official-looking types. Ryoma seemed to be handling it coolly enough, even though the four suits looked like they were really starting to cook.
Then, one word from an old guy, and Ryoma was flipping out. Going a full John McEnroe on their asses. Kevin could hardly believe he wasn't throwing his racket. The tone in his voice screamed 'You cannot be serious!' even if the words were gibberish.
Whatever he'd actually said, one of the grown-ups there to lecture him (the middle-aged lady in the bad suit) got her mouth all twisted and hollered right back - kinda like a line judge, really, telling him he was getting flagged for 'ungentlemanly behavior'.
They went back and forth, and after Ryoma calmed back down to his normal volume, the old people seemed to breathe a bit easier, too. Of course, they tensed right back up when he started laughing at them and went back to practicing his serve.
Funny how, "This isn't a joke," sounded the same pretty much anywhere in the world.
Kevin couldn't make out even the basic sounds of the answer Ryoma muttered to himself, but he caught enough of the old lady's reaction.
"Atobe...?" he heard her say, before all the sounds dissolved back into foreign mush. Foreign mush that was clearly filled with surprise, and more fear if he had to guess, but he knew that word. The scary guy in the hat had said it every two seconds while he'd been drawing his 'explanation' of what was going on with Ryoma.
Pulling out the piece of paper, Kevin studied the strangely contorted figures and the stranger lines of old-fashioned English, but he couldn't make any more sense out of them than he could of the lady in the suit gasping, "... ano Atobe zaibatsu no?"
Just as suddenly as they'd started yelling earlier, every one of the four suits slid a step back, all apologetic, and said quite a bit, very quietly and very quickly. Kevin couldn't have said what an 'atobe' was, but the adults were clearly even more scared of that than they were of Ryoma's new serve. They nodded, they bowed. Ryoma rolled his eyes. Everything seemed right with the world.
But it wasn't. Not until he'd gotten some answers, damn it.
As soon as the grown-ups were gone, he made a beeline through the crowd of kids who'd been staring at him while he waited. "Ryoma..."
The bastard didn't even flinch in the middle of his practice serve. "Hey, Kevin. You know the Japan Open isn't til October, right?"
"Ha-de-fucking-ha-ha. I fly all the way over here, and what do I get when I show up? One of the freaks in your league starts talking my ear off in a language I don't speak-"
"I said I'd teach you, y'know."
"-and makes it sound like you're in some kind of red-alert emergency, so here I come to find out what the hell, and you're getting bitched out by suits! Seriously. What did you do?"
Ryoma let another serve fly. "Nothing," he answered, then caught the ball and turned to Kevin with a shrug. "The principal was just saying the school doesn't let middle schoolers date."
So many things about that didn't make sense. What did that have to do with Ryoma? And why did the principal care if a ninth grader was dating somebody? There were some fifth and sixth graders in New York who-
"So they were going to suspend me," Ryoma went on, not noticing his confusion. "Except, apparently, the rules don't apply if your boyfriend can buy the entire planet with his pocket change. Lucky me." Stretching out his arm over his head, his friend muttered, "This is exactly why that jackass can't take no for an answer."
"Wait," he blurted out. "You're seeing somebody? Is that..." As Ryoma groaned and pushed his hat brim down with his racket, Kevin turned his back to take a closer look at the drawing the player at the indoor courts had made. "Is that what this is supposed to be?"
It just looked like tennis. Demonic battle tennis ripping across the earth on a whirlwind, but still tennis. Then again, the first line of writing had said-
"'Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps. He is come to open the purple testament of bleeding war?'" Ryoma read aloud.
Yeah. It didn't make any more sense spoken than it did on paper.
His friend didn't seem to care, and just pointed at the figure near the top with a laugh. "Well, that's definitely Atobe."
"And do you want to tell me what an atobe is? Is that some kind of new extreme dating Japan made up that you do riding on cyclone? Am I gonna see a Discovery Channel special on it next Shark Week or something?"
"No," Ryoma answered, stealing the paper out of his hand. "But I bet he'd love to hear you call him that."
And he was chuckling. The bastard! How was this funny?
"So, fine. I guess I don't care if you wanna date some guy, even if I thought you wanted to focus on tennis like me. But did I have to find this out third hand, via insane-o-matic?"
"Whoever told you I was dating anybody is wrong about that."
"You did, Ryoma! Just now!" The other player spared him a dubious glance for all of half a second before he went back to snickering at the picture. "You said they were gonna suspend you for it, except-"
"It's not like that. Everybody's confused, including Atobe, but we're just going out."
"Going out is dating."
"Hanging out. I meant 'hanging out'." Flashing Kevin a grin, Ryoma waved the paper at him. "Can I take this? He'll flip when he sees it."
His so-called rival wasn't taking this anywhere near seriously enough. Frowning, Kevin muttered, "Sure, I..." The words stopped in his throat while his brain caught up with him. "Oh. I get it. Atobe's the guy."
"And all that 'I am as constant as the northern star,' stuff in his speech bubble is completely accurate."
"So are you going to introduce me, or do I have to wait for the tabloid pictures?" With the way Ryoma kept reading over bits of the cartoon representation of his love life and laughing, Kevin was getting the idea that his friend wasn't fully paying attention to him. So, what was he supposed to do? Kevin grabbed his hat. "I said I wanna meet him!"
With a twist of a frown, Ryoma snatched the cap right back. "You've met him before. Tannhuser Serve?"
"Him? Him? Out of all the players in the world, you're dating that freaking loud-mouth peacock?"
"Not. Actually. Dating. And his name's Atobe. Start remembering it."
"Maybe I will, maybe I won't! Who said I'm gonna let you throw yourself away on that freak?"
"Who said you get a vote?" His friend scanned further down the page, laughing out loud. "Oh, did Sanada draw this?"
"I dunno his name. He was a tall guy, in a baseball cap. Shouted a lot."
"Sounds like Sanada. So does his picture. 'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'" Ryoma read off the drawing with another laugh. "'The time is out of joint - O cursd spite...'" Then he trailed off, narrowing his eyes at the text.
"What is it?"
"I know that second bit. O cursd spite, that ever I was born to set it right? That's Hamlet."
"Whoop-de-doo. And since when did you memorize Shakespeare?"
Ryoma scanned the whole thing over again with a pinched frown. "Freshman year. Interschool tennis festival. Atobe had me playing his girlfriend."
"... Seriously? You were twelve. Robbing the cradle much?"
"Whatever. I told you, it's not..." Kevin studied Ryoma's face as his friend fell silent, biting back whatever load of bullshit he was gonna say about how 'it's not like that'. The other player lived in a state of 'too cool to care', so it wasn't often he saw a pinch in his forehead like he was doing now. "Huh," he sighed under his breath, then folded up the paper and stuck it in his pocket.
"Oh, come on! 'Huh'? What's 'huh'?"
Shaking off whatever weirdness had crept over him, Ryoma pulled his hat on straight and grabbed a ball from a nearby basket. "Sanada thinks I 'doth protest too much'."
"You think I have any idea what that's supposed to mean?"
"Look it up."
Kevin scowled as the Japanese player hit another serve, this one harder and sharper than the ones before. "I just wish you'd told me you started seeing somebody. How long has this been going on, anyway?"
His friend caught the ball and dribbled it with his racket, hollow rubber hits echoing through a few moments of taut silence. Finally, Ryoma sighed and set up for another serve.
"What me and Atobe do is nobody else's business."
Mondays were the longest day of the week, Oshitari thought, signing off on yet another club budget proposal. School started too early for his tastes, tennis club went for a good couple hours after a full day of learning, and then they had the student council meetings. At least there wasn't extra work to do, despite the year ending this week. Some schools might be training their new reps right now, but not Hyoutei's high school division. Oh, no. Atobe would continue as their benevolent dictator - again. Because he couldn't be anywhere without being in charge.
No one in the school ever had reason to complain, of course. He was surprisingly fair for a man who thrived on claiming authority through combat, trouncing the competition, and then ignoring every damn word of advice anyone gave. Never once considered showing favoritism to the tennis club, and even approved the photography club for all their field trips and expenses, despite how he hated President Aida's guts. A student council could do a lot worse.
A violent knock on the door rang through the room, but none of them jumped. Oshitari just checked his watch and slid back from the desk.
Right on time.
"Oshitari, would you mind seeing who that is?" Atobe asked, pen moving without hesitation as he filled out whatever forms he was working on.
"It's Sanada," he answered, and walked over to the door. "It's always Sanada at 4:30 on Monday. I don't know why you haven't added him to the agenda."
Jotting down three last strokes with a flourish, Atobe put down his pen. "I'm sure he'll come to his senses soon. There's no need."
The instant Oshitari pulled the door open, Rikkai's captain marched in. "Atobe!" he thundered. "This has gone far enough. Are you prepared to resolve matters with Echizen, or do I need to take action?"
"That'd be entertaining," Oshitari muttered, leaning against the wall where he could get a good view from outside of the line of fire. Kabaji, meanwhile, went on filing like nothing had happened.
The way Atobe laughed whenever Rikkai's Emperor busted in to say his piece was inexplicable. Somehow, Sanada could question his decision to date the brat without pissing him off and nobody knew quite why, since he did it pretty damn belligerently. "I appreciate your concern, my friend, but the situation is under control. I've accepted that these things take time. And what kind of lover would I be if-"
"If you dare to use that word-"
"I beg your pardon?"
With a mighty and viscerally pained groan, Sanada dropped his forehead into his hand. "Echizen... is the soul of tennis within this world. The purity of his love for the sport should serve as an inspiration to us, a waylight in the dark reaches of hell itself! You cannot romance him like a common schoolgirl! How can I say this so you'll understand?"
Oshitari was prepared to let Sanada figure that one out on his own. For once, he was with Atobe, who looked just as confused by that particular bit of gibberish as he himself felt.
"I assure you, I'm doing nothing of the kind," his captain replied, moving the paperwork he'd signed into his outbox and settling back in his chair. "In no way do I find him 'common'. My pursuit of Echizen springs entirely from my feelings for him as a unique individual. Moreover..." Atobe fell silent, considering his words with pure bewilderment stitched across his browline. At last, he dropped a dissatisfied sigh and asked, "Why does everyone believe that I think he's a girl?"
"That isn't what I meant!"
For all the 'insight' Atobe claimed to have into the minds and actions of his fellow tennis players, he didn't seem to see the fiery aura of rage lighting up in Sanada's eyes. He pressed his hand to his chest and nodded, assuring the Rikkai player, "Whatever proof you need that I am handling our relationship properly, with all due-"
"Atobe." Sanada's voice, though he wasn't yelling, boomed like a treefall in the forest. "This doesn't just concern you! Once your whims find their way onto the court, they concern every member of the league. Our battlefield is no place for a half-assed dalliance. When he moves up to the high school division, when this year's season starts, I hope you're prepared to take responsibility for that." He paused, seething behind gritted teeth, for whatever nonsense rejoinder Hyoutei's captain would manage to pull out of his ass.
Not that Sanada could expect Atobe to listen to any more today, not with the new footsteps approaching their door. The raging mountain that was Sanada didn't seem to notice, but even Oshitari knew that sound by now. No way Atobe didn't recognize his surly little sweetie-pie when he heard him walking.
Without bothering to knock, Echizen pushed open the door and breezed in - past Oshitari's attempts to keep a straight face, past Sanada's countdown to implosion, and past Kabaji's total disregard until he met Atobe's besotted grin. "Hey," he said, and turned to the vending machine Hyoutei's king had insisted on installing in the room back in mid-January. It wasn't really a vending machine, since Echizen didn't have to put in any cash, but with a push of a button it certainly dispensed any (or all) of the hot and cold beverages Atobe had ever seen the brat drink.
He cracked open the can of grape soda that had ka-thunked its way to the dispenser bin, and with that the middle schooler gave a nod to the rest of the room. Sanada, for one, looked like he was about to die of terror. You'd think that anybody who went to school with Yukimura - let alone making out with him on a regular basis - would have more composure than that. But his vengeful battle aura was fading fast, and soon he looked as pale as a sheet of paper ripped fresh out of a notebook. By contrast, Atobe looked as happy as an octopus who'd discovered fingerpainting. "You're early. I wasn't expecting you until Thursday."
"Well, you can't keep me that long," Echizen answered with a shrug. "I just didn't feel like going home. Finish your work if you want - I don't care." The Seigaku student pushed himself up to his usual seat on the corner of Atobe's desk, kicking his feet at the arm of the king's desk chair as he stole a peek at the two or three forms left to sign.
With a pleasant nod and a pleasanter spark in his tone, Atobe looked up at Sanada again. "I understand if you'd prefer to continue this another time. My door will be open to you." The Rikkai player, for once at a loss for words, shook his head and fell to a seat on the tiger-print tea chaise as if his knees wouldn't have held up any longer.
Oshitari leaned against the wall beside him. "You gonna live?"
"Don't be preposterous. I'm fine."
"Could've fooled me." He sighed, watching the King and the Prince. Hell, if it weren't for the Seigaku short-pants insisting on the platonic bent to their semiweekly rendezvous, Oshitari would have given Atobe the win for the looks they'd been trading recently. And once he'd seen it, he couldn't unsee it. Rikkai's captain couldn't be so blind as to miss it, either. "But I get it, you know? Who would have thought he'd go this far?"
Now it was Sanada's turn to look at him like he was crazy. "Anyone who's ever met him. You're his second-in-command, aren't you? It's your job to save him from himself."
"If you've got ideas on how, I'm all ears."
Even Sanada had to surrender to that.
Across the room, Echizen chuckled at some story Atobe had been telling. "The pandemonium is the cafeteria was like nothing I'd ever seen! Tiramisu, everywhere. And how was your day?"
"Nothing special. Did some thinking."
"Oh?" Atobe signed his name on the last paper in his pile and set it aside, leaning back in his chair. "About what?"
Their visitor studied Atobe's expectant face in silence, then turned his eyes back to his soda. He spun the can back and forth between his fingers a few times before he shrugged. "Stuff," Echizen answered.
"Stuff." His captain's face bloomed into a bright grin. "Is he not as ever the very form of eloquence, Kabaji?"
The gentle giant grunted in the affirmative, which lucky for him Echizen didn't seem to notice. "I would so not answer that question," Oshitari muttered. Between the besotted Atobe and the unpredictable Seigaku phenom, he didn't feel inclined to risk his skin.
And he didn't have to. The brat answered back, "Bite me," before anyone else had a chance to offer an opinion.
"I mean it fondly. And did you reach any conclusions of interest?"
"Not really." He took one last swig of his drink and pitched the empty can into the bin. "Kevin had plenty, but..." With a shrug, he took one more glance at Atobe that Oshitari could only describe as lingering too long. "... Whatever."
Lingering? Seriously? If he'd been in charge of the afternoon's soundtrack, Oshitari would've fired himself for not booking the saxophone. No matter how comfortable the player had gotten in his captain's space, their league's prodigal smart-mouthed tennis machine shouldn't have had the wherewithal to look at somebody like that. Even Sanada had stopped looking stricken in favor of looking confused.
Then there was Atobe, Mr. Insight himself, who'd never thought Echizen was indifferent in the first place, looking like the only one in the room not to notice the shift in demeanor. "What on earth was Kevin doing in town?" he asked, while Oshitari was busy wondering why the brat's shell had cracked.
"Pissed I didn't tell him we're dating, I think."
Cracked. That was the word for it. There was no intel - nothing - to say he'd even thought about changing his tune. But clear as day, he had the eyes of somebody who'd thought it. Been doing serious considering, even, and just hadn't reached any conclusions. And nobody in the entire league knew what the blazes had happened? Slackers, all of 'em, to quote the gentleman sitting numb-eyed on the chaise.
Well, they'd probably hear soon enough. The hallway door was bowed from the weight of eavesdroppers leaning in and softly chirped with a chorus of text messages - since everywhere that lovers went, the league was sure to follow - while a microphone dropped a bit lower by the window, the better to hear what came next. Poor saps weren't lucky enough to get a front row seat, or a good look at the hope and joy welling up in Atobe's eyes. Or unlucky enough. Sanada probably would have collapsed if he hadn't been sitting already.
If he'd been spying on one of their Sundays, Oshitari would have expected Echizen to poke a hole in Atobe's balloon like always. Today, though, it just looked like he'd bit down on a bad orange when he heard the words come out of his mouth. No doubt his shift towards the edge of the desk meant he planned to bolt for the door.
"Which..." Atobe replied, grabbing Echizen's wrist to stop him from going, "... I understand we're not."
It was one of those moments that made a man consider giving up eavesdropping. The strained ease the captain had faked in a smile made his chest twinge; the tense mood when Echizen said, "All right, then," was like to flip his stomach worse than making pancakes on a roller coaster; and then the way their hands hovered in each other's grips before the kid pulled back into a fist on the table... He'd wanted to beat some sense into Atobe's head plenty of times, but the man had never needed it more. None of that meant he would stop eavesdropping, but for two seconds Oshitari definitely thought about it.
All-around awkward, really.
"We should leave," Sanada whispered.
Oshitari shook his head as subtly as he could. "Not 'til Atobe says, 'Can you give us a moment.' He'll go postal if he thinks we think he's being indiscreet." Sanada had narrowed his eyes like he'd never seen a royal brat and a royal prick dance around the finer points of having their heads up their asses before. Though, to be fair, this was worse than usual. "Kind of makes you feel sorry for him, doesn't it?" he murmured.
Eyes never leaving the scene at the desk, the Emperor nodded slowly. "It does."
Those few ticks of the clock felt like they might never end, and when Echizen glanced backwards to give the two of them a pensive eye Oshitari found himself praying Atobe would ask them to leave. But they weren't lucky enough to get a pass; instead, the Seigaku player broke into a grin as wide as a mile, ending any chance that the captain would need a moment alone. "Speaking of which," he laughed, pulling a paper out of his pocket, "I brought you something."
Oshitari hoped someone was taping the way Sanada twitched, because he never would have believed it if he hadn't seen it for himself.
"What's the occasion?" Atobe asked.
"You'll like it. Do I need a reason?"
Sanada took to his feet, and Oshitari didn't stop him. The air seemed mostly clear. "My business is done, Atobe. I'll take my leave."
Hyoutei's captain nodded, paused halfway through unfolding his present. "See you on the courts, my friend." And maybe, if it hadn't been for the careful way one had to open the door lest the crowd of eavesdroppers outside fall through in a heap, the Rikkai student might have escaped.
As it was...
"Like it? I'm going to frame it! Wait, Sanada..."
He turned around with the air of a condemned man stepping into the gallows.
"There's no need to be modest," Atobe scoffed, holding out the paper he'd taken from Echizen. "I'd know your hand anywhere. How can I begin to thank you?"
"That's... not necessary."
"An absolute masterpiece of juxtaposition! To be honest, I didn't know you had it in you to do something so avant garde. I could study this for days, looking for all the hidden meaning. The depth in the opposition of Much Ado About Nothing withRichard II in the first lines alone-"
The Seigaku brat scoffed, jumping off the desk to mime a few swings. "What hidden meaning? I read 'you plus me equals cyclone'."
"Well, naturally. Destruction and disaster if we trifle with such a powerful force as love, but the overall tone is positive. See, Hero's line, here at the top... He refers to a romance that succeeds but which might never have had the chance if not for a bit of third-party meddling," Atobe opined, with a nod to Oshitari. As if any of this were actually his fault! "And consider this middle stanza with 'a cloud takes all away' - as if, like in Two Gentlemen of Verona, we might be parted - then follows with 'Weep I cannot. But my heart bleeds,' from A Winter's Tale. Our near miss of the mark is what he seeks to correct. In due time, of course. I wouldn't rush you."
In a hissed whisper barely reaching his ear, Oshitari could have sworn he heard Sanada say, "... That isn't what I meant!"
Which just went to show that a man shouldn't let himself draw misinterpretable doodles and recklessly drop them into the wrong hands. Call it a moral for the day. The much put-upon Rikkai player wouldn't have much luck changing Atobe's mind now, whatever he actually had meant by... whatever the hell that paper was supposed to be. One thing Oshitari knew for sure was he had to get a look at this so-called 'masterpiece'.
As he snuck across the council chambers, Atobe nodded quite seriously at the drawing. Then folded it up, just before Oshitari could get a peek. "I can hardly believe I misunderstood you earlier, Sanada. But never fear: I shall take my example from your own diligence in suiting my courtship of this... delicate, exquisite flower to our responsibilities on the court."
The turn of his head to inspect the Seigaku brat, who'd found a ball somewhere and started tossing it against the wall, forced the memory back into Oshitari's head of what Atobe had meant by 'flower'. And honestly, he could have done with the ability to forget that one delusion, because it always gave him a headache. Maybe he had pollen allergies to fields of Echizen in bloom...
On the other hand, he might just want to deny even having thought that.
Sanada and Echizen took a second longer to work out the metaphor, and the Rikkai player especially looked like he might choke on his own disbelief. "Excuse me?"
"I mean your bond with Yukimura, of course," Atobe answered, completely missing the point. "The two of you are like one person in two bodies, just as I hope Echizen and I will someday be."
Which little image seemed to shut Sanada down completely. He must have forgotten Rule Number 2: Don't visualize. The middle schooler himself had either remembered that one, or was immune to metaphors. He rolled his eyes and shook his head lazily, no energy wasted on looking shocked. "Why do I like you?" he muttered to himself. Neither expecting nor needing an answer, he went back to bouncing his tennis ball of the panelling. "Weirdo."
For reasons unknown to Oshitari and the rest of the non-telepaths in the room (Kabaji, whose potential for telepathy was unknown, wasn't sharing any insights), Sanada winced at every strike of the ball, slowly turning green as he pivoted toward the door. "I have nothing further," he announced. The heavy plod of his feet toward the hallway and the unfocused daze in his eye smacked of a man who wouldn't be coming back to argue any time soon.
"You know, Atobe, you don't make my life easy." Oshitari snagged the paper that had started all of this commotion while he waited for the look of smug triumph to drop off his friend's face. He'd be waiting awhile, so something to read would work out just fine. "I've got to come up with a lifetime of material to mock you with, and nobody's gonna believe enough of what you do for it to be funny."
"Need I remind you? It's only a month, Oshitari. Surely you can manage that."
His heart failed a beat in panic as he heard was Atobe was saying - with Echizen in the room. Really, his slip of the tongue gave him an instant's sympathy for Sanada. He was swallowing his own chorus of, 'That isn't what I meant.' All he'd wanted to say was that Atobe left a sane man's concept of Peak Nutjob too far in the dust to make a good joke, period. Hell, even he wasn't crass enough to talk about that bet while the person under contention was standing two feet away. And being that Atobe was usually ten times more refined than him on his best day, Oshitari had to wonder if he and his captain had been standing in the same locker room as each other, making the same bet all those years ago.
But it had to be. Everything that he'd said to insist he'd won had been all about Echizen and the inexplicable state of their 'relationship'. Where would the confusion be?
"What are you on about now?" the brat asked, bounding his tennis ball once more and catching it out of the air.
With a cool shake of his head, Atobe took his seat to sign his name on the last council business of the day. "Just an old wager, which my compatriot here stubbornly refuses to admit I've won."
The Seigaku player's lack of further curiosity was some small relief, but changing the subject was still the first thing on Oshitari's agenda. And boy did Sanada's crazy doodle give him plenty to work with. He would have let Rikkai's captain slide on just dressing the figures in battle armor (as he'd done) or drawing himself, Atobe, and Echizen trampling demons under their feet (likewise), but he'd kept going from there. The roaring combatant wearing the hat marked with an R, in addition to carrying a tennis racket, had an ornate box in his right hand that - if he remembered his symbolism - could only mean one thing.
"Is it just me, or did he draw Echizen as the god Bishamonten?"
"Don't you think it suits him?"
Oshitari looked up, harboring some vague hope that his captain had been kidding, but without so much as blinking the man finished his work and cleared his desk.
"This isn't a tennis league. It's an insane asylum."
The newly deified squirt put his tennis ball in a pocket and wandered back over. "You're just figuring that out?"
"Sometimes I like to pretend."
Throwing on his jacket, Atobe walked around the desk to take back and admire the sketch. "Let's allow some artistic license, shall we? An avant garde style of expression is about a point of view - concept via extravagant hyperbole. I certainly won't complain that he shows me quoting Julius Caesar when there are so many other passages I'd favor in reality." His eyes lit up as he whipped around toward Echizen. "For example...!"
The sight of his beloved's disbelief brought him back to earth so fast you'd think he was the buttered side of toast.
"... Though under the circumstances, that might be unseemly," Atobe sighed.
But one switch to a too-close-to-yearning gaze later, Echizen answered, "Yeah, right," and started toward the door. "I think you just can't say it with a straight face."
The paper was down on the desk in an instant, and Atobe had seized the kid's arm. "Is that a challenge?" Countless time over the past few months, Oshitari had noticed Atobe staring at Echizen like he was more fascinating than a lost Vermeer painting, the collected works of Mozart, and the schematics of a Mars landing craft all rolled into one. Never once had he seen a look so indescribably transported as the one his captain put on at the thought of Echizen asking him to recite love poetry.
Echizen shook off the hand on his arm, but didn't bother fighting for distance when Atobe gripped his hand instead and pulled it in close. He grumbled, "You gonna do it or not?" but he didn't pull away.
"Oshitari, Kabaji. Can you give us a moment?"
Someday, he'd figure out where Atobe drew the line between what he'd say in public and what needed privacy. Someday, for sure. After hearing Echizen called a 'delicate flower' and Atobe announcing that he had serious plans for 'becoming one' within the last five minutes, but with Shakespeare quotes now being off the record, that day was not today. All the same, he gave them their moment, walking into the hallway with Kabaji. Anything he could hear from inside, he'd be able to hear through a crack in the door anyway.
And although he'd been skeptical at first, he had to give his captain full marks for making 'dating Echizen' look something other than impossible. If Atobe wanted to say they were made for each other, who was he to argue? Hell, if the brat was still holding out when this year was over, he'd probably help Atobe sort out the mess he'd gotten himself into. What else were friends for?
Besides winning questionable bets on tenuous technicalities.
The door closed with a nice, audible click, and he turned the knob slowly back and pushed up on it to take the weight off the hinges. Opened easy and silent for the whole two inches he needed to see clearly. He still couldn't hear, alas, but he could see Echizen's cap in Atobe's hand, and his captain's head bent close to the other player's ear - whispering something to his certainly-not-his-boyfriend that must not have been too objectionable, since the Seigaku player was smirking instead of scowling.
Atobe stopped his whispers and stared down his 'challenger' with as straight a face as anyone could ask for. "...If this be error and upon me proved," he said, pulling the baseball cap back onto Echizen's head. "I never writ, nor no man ever loved."
"Hmm." Echizen considered him for a second, eyes narrowed. "You're a dork," he declared, and turned for the exit.
He was still smirking, though. And the dork himself couldn't have looked more pleased if he'd gotten a kiss for his trouble.