A/N: First of all, I would like to congratulate the lovely EcstaticPetenshi for the success of her Aruhi no Oshitari series. So, two years and counting, huh? I'm really happy to see fics progressing like this one, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it. It certainly did lots on my interpretation of Shiraishi in particular and Shitenhouji in general. Thank you so much, and I hope this little one-shot can express my gratitude. Also, apologies to all Shiraishi fans out there, I don't believe in Shin PoT so this fic is not about his golden gauntlet.
Disclaimer: Konomi Takeshi owns Prince of Tennis. EcstaticPetenshi owns the OC.
It is April. She can still feel the chill of winter in the air as it kisses her cheek, caresses the exposed skin of her thighs. The pavement she walks on seems cold; not long ago it is still covered with the white of snow. Her spirit dampens upon the sight of the rows of bare trees, leaves absent from their branches and twigs. It is naked wood, frosty and brittle and so, so devoid of life.
She wishes that the last remaining bits of ice could freeze time.
It is April. She glances at her companion, the boy with sandy hair and dark brown eyes. She doesn't know what to get him for his upcoming birthday, and she suppresses the sigh of frustration threatening to escape from her lips.
He will notice. He will worry. She doesn't want him to worry.
He catches her staring. She looks down and her hands grip the ends of her skirt from the embarrassment. "Are you cold? Your cheeks are red," she hears him say. A moment later she feels his warm hand holding hers, and he says, "You should've worn mittens."
She looks up then, and he flashes her a smile, his other hand patting her head. She forces a tiny smile and looks ahead, trying to concentrate on their way, on the scenery, on the people passing them by, anything. She doesn't want to think. She wants to forget that day she visited every gift shop she could find in Osaka, looking for a perfect present to give him.
And she wants to forget the pain. Not the pain in her feet because of walking for hours, but the pain in realizing that she doesn't know anything about him other than what the public already knows.
Her fingers threaten to tighten in his hand, but she catches herself. It is then that she feels the bandages on his palm, and she tries to distract herself with happy thoughts. She imagines him loosening them in front of a dreaded Kin-chan, the boy so naive to believe in the poison arm.
She smiles, and the smile disappears as quickly as it came.
She doesn't know why he's wearing those bandages. It can't be because of the poison arm alone; he has been wearing it long before Kin-chan came.
And that's another thing to add to the growing list of things she doesn't know about him.
She glances at him again, and she sees the perfect man he is claimed to be. His footsteps are certain and his gait steady, and she thinks, that's just like him.
And then suddenly, she isn't so sure anymore whether or not she deserves him.
His birthday comes, and she ends up getting him a charm that's supposed to keep him safe. She knows he is careful, always careful, but she is afraid of the unknown, of what lies underneath those bandage of secrets he has wrapped himself with.
She decides to give it to him in the middle of the party thrown by the old team.
Chitose just got his pay from his part-time job, and ends up treating them all to an okonomiyaki restaurant. Kenya challenges Kin-chan to a speed eating contest, with a reluctant Koishikawa playing judge. Koharu and Yuuji feed each other using the same spoon, leaving Zaizen retreating to the corner in disgust. Gin sits quietly, calmly sipping his tea.
No one will notice, but she chooses to be stealthy. She reaches for his hand under the table and puts the charm in his palm. He looks at her gift, and then at her face, and she mouths to him, happy birthday. He smiles and thanks her in a low voice, and she sees his fingers running on the charm as he goes back to watching his team.
A moment later everyone turns to him, pleading him to stop Kin-chan from draining Chitose's salary – the boy demands takoyaki after eating sixteen plates of okonomiyaki in twenty minutes. He runs a hand through his hair and sighs, but she notices the playful smile in his lips. Time stops for her, and she thinks, maybe this is what he calls ecstasy.
The moment is over when he lifts the sleeves of his jacket, raises his bandaged arm threateningly for everyone (for Kin-chan) to see. The red-haired boy pales visibly, shakes his head, holds out his arms in front him, and screams, "I don't want the poison arm!"
And that's all it takes to keep the boy under control, to send her mind into turmoil.
There goes the infamous bandages again, the tangible reminder that there are lots of things about him she doesn't know. She knows it isn't his fault, it's not really about him, it's about her, because she hasn't bothered to know.
And so when everyone has left, she musters her courage and asks him about the first thing that comes to mind.
"Oh, the poison arm?" he repeats. "It was Zaizen's idea, actually. He's quite good at scaring Kin-chan. That's one of the reasons why I have no worries leaving the team to his hands. He'll have our super rookie under control."
She smiles and thinks it's a good start.
She notices the light in his eyes as she watches him admire the plants in the botanical garden. Every once in a while, he pauses and tells her which are poisonous and which aren't, and she smiles to herself, finding this weird interest of him highly amusing.
She wonders why he's taken a liking into memorizing the names of poisonous plants, and with a slight urgency in her voice, she asks him.
I want to know, whispers the little voice inside her head, and it takes a lot of effort not to let the smile on her face fade.
He blinks at her sudden question, but quickly composes himself. She doesn't miss the dullness in his eyes as he looks away. "I got Yukari-chan a particularly poisonous flower when we were little," he says, his voice droning. She hears his unspoken words, and she realizes she's struck a sensitive topic.
She opens her lips to apologize, to reassure him and tell him it's not his fault for not knowing and it's okay, everything's okay, his sister's okay now, but he suddenly looks at her directly in the eyes with softness she hasn't seen before. She gasps, her words lost in her throat.
"I couldn't let that happen again with the people I love."
Her eyes widen in surprise, and she gets the feeling that this is not just about poisonous plants anymore. A hand flies to her mouth, the tips of her fingers brushing the scar on her cheek. It reminds her of regrets and apologies, of the guilt and helplessness in his voice as he blamed himself for her suffering.
She swallows hard and fights the sting of tears threatening to fall. She drops her hand and clenches her fists, and berates herself for being selfish, for forcing him to remember a painful memory, for not letting things fall into place on their own, for not trusting him to open up to her.
She hates herself for not knowing a thing, for not considering his feelings, for being oblivious to how much he could have beaten himself up for her sake, for their sake, and how she's such a horrible, horrible pers–
He kisses her and she lets the tears fall. She lets herself drown in the gentleness of his lips pressing against hers, of the light pressure of his hands resting on her shoulders, of the comfort his mere presence gives her.
He pulls away, cups her cheeks in his hands, and wipes her tears with his thumb. And then he slowly puts his arms around her shoulders, pulls her closer to him. He smells like the first bloom of cherry blossoms after winter, growing in the barks of trees that used to be blanketed with snow.
She allows herself to drown in this scent reminding her that seasons change, and someday, someday, he'll let her see through him more than anyone else could.
She wraps her arms around him, the rest of her teardrops disappearing into his warmth.
The Bible, he is called.
She watches him practice after school every day, trying to understand what it means. She doesn't know much about tennis, and so she sees him the way everyone else does, the way she has come to know him – no efforts wasted, no unnecessary movements, always perfect.
She finds herself observing the way he draws his arm back for a swing, how he bends his knees while waiting for the serve, how he bounces the ball behind the baseline. She cannot tell the difference of his form from others, and how the Bible works, but the 6-0 posted in the scoreboard tells her it must be something very, very special.
She tells this to him while they are walking home one day, and he brushes it off, saying he finds it boring. She hits him in the arm playfully, teasing him about how big-headed a player he is, and they both laugh heartily.
She misses the tiny wince he makes when her hand lands on his bandaged arm.
A day later she catches him re-doing his bandages in the infirmary during lunch, and that's when she knows.
He turns sharply when she enters the door, a box of medical supplies cradled in both arms. She offers to help him – he adamantly refuses at first, but she is persistent and she insists and she grabs his arm gently, and this time she does not miss the raw pain painted on his face.
She pauses and sends him a gaze laced with questions and concern and worry, but he bows his head and says nothing.
She inhales sharply, trying to calm down, trying to set aside the suffocating feeling that just overwhelmed her entire body. She carefully undoes the rest of the bandages and examines his arm, pressing the swelling area softly and gauging his reaction to her touch. He keeps his face straight, but she notices the tightness of his jaw.
It's probably a pulled muscle, she thinks, and then she spots the used ice bag on the drawer. The cloth is worn out and already faded, and she realizes it's for his personal use. She gets the feeling that this isn't the first time this has happened, and suddenly, she feels so stupid for not realizing earlier the toll all the training to achieve perfect tennis has taken on his body.
"How... how long has it been?" she says, finding her voice for the first time.
"It's been recurring for two years."
"And the bandages?"
"I wear them for support."
She wants to laugh at the irony of it all – she has been with him in the health committee for years, she is knowledgeable in first aid and injuries, she of all people should have realized it sooner – but she can't, she just can't because it hurts too much not to know.
She feels the hotness in her eyes now, and she bites her lower lip and blinks them back. She doesn't want to cry in front of him. Not now. Not again.
She reaches for the fresh set of bandages that lay forgotten on the side of the bed, and carefully wraps them back on his arm. Funny, she thinks, because for the longest time she has wanted him to shed these bandages and let her see him, and now she's the one tying them back for him.
Except that now, she knows. She knows that he won't have second thoughts sacrificing himself for the sake of his team, for the sake of the people he cares about, for the sake of his dreams. She knows that beneath that perfect and cool facade, lays the selfless boy who is no Bible and very much human.
She sees a scar on her forearm as she finishes bandaging, and she suddenly remembers a girl with bruises all over her body, beaten up badly but still refuses to tell an angry Kenya what happened, silent and tight-lipped and hiding in her lame excuses.
And then, she realizes that they are very much alike.