"This is your fault," Ryoma hisses, tramping his feet along the dark path, "Completely. Irrevocably. Your fault."

"I see we're using big words today." Atobe doesn't seem nearly as agitated; he maintains a casual stroll as though they are walking along a pleasant lakeside view instead of the poorly lit forest path. The lamp in Atobe's hand swings precariously and Ryoma hates that he is thinking how the light is growing dimmer with every tree they pass.

"Don't swing that damn thing," he snaps. "It's flickering out."

Atobe glances at the light cursorily. "It's not. It's electric."

Ryoma lets out a small hiss under his breath. He wishes that they would speed up and head over to their cabins. Cabin in the woods. Even that description sounds foreboding, but anywhere, he figures, was better than the trail that they were walking along right now.

"You seem reticent." Atobe was enjoying himself, Ryoma could hear it in his voice. He fervently wishes that a stranger would leap out from nowhere, just for the sake of spiting Atobe and his philosophy of safety and delusion that they were perfectly safe. Then he erases the thought firmly from his mind; of course they were safe. Completely safe. He was being stupid.

"Echizen." He feels a hand come up to his shoulder and slaps it away before it even touches him. "Shit!" He snaps, and glares at the now very blatantly amused Atobe. "Don't do that."

"Touché," Atobe drawls. He doesn't even bother to hide his smirk, which in the dim light, makes him look like a murderer. "I didn't know that you were afraid of the dark."

"I'm not," Ryoma says, which was true. Atobe doesn't drop his smirk, and his hand comes to rest on his shoulder again. Ryoma doesn't flinch away from it.

"Your face," Atobe observes, almost gleefully, is such a word can be attributed to Atobe, "looks scared. Terrified, really."

Ryoma scowls and tries to modify that. He slaps away the hand again. "Yeah, well. I'm not. You're being annoying for dragging your feet along."

"Do you have a problem with taking our time getting there?"

"Yes," Ryoma says testily, "I'm tired."

"You don't sound tired. Your voice," and here Atobe lowers his voice, his words traveling in a whisper against the silent wind, "seems very, very tense."

"Oh, shut up." This time Ryoma tries to take the lantern away from the older boy, but Atobe dodges his advances easily, transferring the light to his other hand. "Either you speed up or I'll leave you behind."

"I have the light," Atobe says smugly. Ryoma glares at him and contemplates on…well, no, not in these circumstances. He drops his glare and sighs. "This is completely pointless. And dumb," he mutters.

"I found it quite fruitful." The light is still dangling and its shadows reflected on the trees unnerve him. They expand and narrow like human figures.


The start was simple and stupid, like all of their excursions of tennis training were bound to start.

"I don't know why," Momoshiro said loudly, "we have to train with Hyotei."

Mukahi sneered. He had a really bad sneer, Ryoma noted, and it wasn't a very flattering look. "As if we'd want to train with a bunch of amateurs," he said, although Seigaku and Hyotei would meet in the semi-finals. Ryoma rolled his eyes and discreetly hid himself away from the Hyotei madness. He took his time getting off the bus and hoped that whatever feud they had would die down immediately.

Such hopes were thwarted. "Besides," Mukahi said, now spotting Ryoma and developing a nasty grin, "I bet some people are looking forward to this lousy excursion." With this parting word he also shot a blatant, leery look at his own captain, who returned the gaze with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes, I'm sure you're looking for a tryst with Oshitari away from civilization." Atobe, Ryoma noted, had a way with presenting his words that conveyed: I am bored, and you are not helping by spewing out utter bullshit. He should ask Atobe later when they were alone.

Or not. Momoshiro, having seen the look that Mukahi gave to both Ryoma and Atobe, caught on immediately and shook his head, wide-eyed. "Oh, no," he said, and he whirled around to give Ryoma a looks of his own. "You said it wasn't true!"

"It's not," Ryoma said irritably, knowing precisely what Momoshiro alluded to, because that was all he would have talked about for the past month.

"It is," Muhaki crowed, and now he was acting like a teenage girl from one of those American movies. His look was thrown over at Kikumaru, who was also developing the horrified face that Ryoma had seen for the past month. "You can't even elicit a confession from your freshman! That's completely lame."

Ryoma contemplating giving Mukahi a through thwack with his racket, but Atobe intervened, his voice flat, "It's not, Mukahi. Don't be dumb."

Muhaki suppressed his snicker, and Ryoma wondered how the hell he would even last the week with enemies from both sides.


This particular start wasn't so stupid as Ryoma would causally dismiss. It started with a book.

"I'm going out," Ryoma announced, after two weeks of seeing his dad moping, starting into space, and being unproductive in general. It was depressing to look at, and frankly, Ryoma figured it would do them both good for space and solitude.

"To play tennis?" Nanjiroh was sprawled out in the living room mat. His eyes were red and his face was drawn. Ryoma snorted.

"No, to run away," he muttered, and said, louder, "To go out. Fresh air." He left the house before he can hear another wave of groaning.

One of Tokyo's perks, or in any big city perhaps, was the fact that he could go out with some cash and be guaranteed solitude for a good hour amidst strangers and blend in. He chose a café in a particularly bustling street, and after staring absentmindedly at the pedestrians for a couple of minutes, he began reading the book he brought along. It was a tattered book, frayed around the edges and streaked with dirt, but his mom had pressed it in his hand before his flight came. "For the journey home," she had said, and Ryoma was hoping there was another message hidden in the book.

However, it wasn't long before someone interrupted his paradoxical quietness. "I didn't know you were a literary boy."

His head jerked instinctively at the familiar voice, and Atobe Keigo of all people stood towering above him, his eyes sparkling with amusement even as his mouth was curved into a slight sneer. He scowled.

"Yeah, well." He thought of ignoring him and returning to his book, but Atobe, being the playground bully he was, deftly snatched his book from his hands.

"Catcher in the Rye?" he read; and Ryoma's scowl grew bigger. "I didn't know you were at that rebellious stage to be contemplating Holden."

Ryoma refused to answer, as Atobe surveyed his table and the emptiness save for a paper cup. "And with hot chocolate," he commented, "Quite a child's drink isn't it?"

"This café is famous for their hot chocolate," Ryoma sniped, not even bothering to reach his hand out for the book. He crossed his arms and quelled his glare. "What do you want?"

"I was happening to pass by when I saw someone who normally doesn't frequent anywhere save for tennis courts." Atobe flipped the pages of the book while he talked; Ryoma wished he wouldn't do that. "Imagine my surprise when he's also reading something that has no pictures. Shocking." He ended his little pomp and gave him back his book. "Tattered and second-handed, too."

"It's my mom's," Ryoma said testily.

Atobe titled his head. The sunlight reflected back on his back, and Ryoma couldn't make out the face in the shadow of the sun. "And I thought you were back in the States for good? Really, you should stop popping by everywhere like a nomad; people might get the wrong idea that you're getting rich."

"Like you?" Before Atobe had a chance to respond, Ryoma plundered on, "And I'm here to stay. In Tokyo. So annoy me another time, monkey king." He lifted up the book to his face, hoping Atobe got the message.

Atobe's hand tried to snatch away the book a second time, but this time, Ryoma was ready; his fingers dug into the pages and he shot Atobe a glare. "Would you stop that? What are you, five?"

"Fascinating, coming from you," Atobe said dryly. His fingers wouldn't give. "It's already battered anyhow. What is this, a tribute to a relic?"

Something like that, Ryoma wanted to say. Or yes, that was what he should have said. What came out of his mouth was: "My parents got divorced and she gave me this. So fuck off."

There was a still moment of Atobe's fingers pausing, and his fingers relaxed, and he had his book back. It was an instinct, he realized, that his brain had mulled the words around, but he had never actually said them, because he felt there was no need. Saying this first breach of word to Atobe of all people, he felt, was surreal. But at least Atobe would leave him be.

Instead, he felt the chair next to him scraping down on the ground and the older boy sat next to him. He gritted his teeth and thinned his lips, reading the first sentence on the page over and over again. This silence was stupid. He didn't need pity nor was he asking for it. But if it came down to it, yes, he was hoping Atobe would feel sorry and leave him in peace; he had hoped that the word would send Atobe stammering and leaving him in peace. Alone.

Atobe, for his part, was silent, but Ryoma felt those eyes observing him and they were annoying, like the presence of the person was annoying. He shoved the book closer to his face and was determined to ignore him.

After awhile, Atobe finally said, "Have you ever read David Copperfield?"

Ryoma snorted beneath his coverage. "No, but Mr. Holden has," he said, and flipped back to the first page. "And he doesn't want to imitate a Victorian sissy."

After a beat, he added, "And that's about orphans. If you're going to mention Oliver Twist, I'm going to kick you."

"Surprising you know the gist of Dicken's mastery," Atobe said without rancor. He was still sitting down, but at least the sneer and bite was gone. "If you have nothing to do on a sunny day without your racket, I do have a library."

I'm not a devoted reader, he was about to say, and he was about to say just that when he finally tore his face away from the book, but Atobe's face made him stop. It wasn't that the face contained anything; it was a perfect blank, no remorse or pity for him, and he was glad. Completely blank. Atobe met his eyes.

"All English, of course," he said wryly, "We all know how dire your kanji can be."


"Have you been reading crime novels?" Atobe inquires, and Ryoma is rudely jostled out of his silent seething, "You don't normally twitch so."

"I'm not twitching," he snaps. He tries to curb the small shaking his hand decided to rebel and holds out his palm. "Give me the light."

"You'll drop it," Atobe says, staring pointedly at the shaking. "And then where would we be?"

"Where are we still?" Ryoma sighs and lets his hand drop, stuffing it into the pocket of his jeans. "Where is everyone? Why the hell are we the only ones here?"

"They all took different paths, I assume," Atobe says.

"And that doesn't bother you?"

"Should it?" Atobe swings the light, a deliberate move this time, and gives Ryoma another one of his smirks. "I say it's quite amusing. You should see your face."

"You should see yours," Ryoma says, without thinking. His mouth is loose due to his nervousness. "You look like you could kill."

Atobe pauses at that and he drops his smirk. Ryoma doesn't think Atobe would be offended by it, but he hurries on and tries to mollify the statement. "It's the light. It's casting shadows everywhere."

"Hmm," Atobe says, but the thoughtful look in his eyes doesn't drop.

"Urgh. Stop thinking." Ryoma turns away from the face and marches on, determined. "Shouldn't it come up about now? How long have we been walking?"

"Twenty minutes," Atobe replies. His answer is absentminded as he surveys Ryoma; a moment later his footsteps cease.

Ryoma turns around when he realizes that Atobe is not following. "What now?" he says tersely, when the lights wouldn't move and they're standing within a small circle of yellowish glow. "I don't know about you, monkey king, but I do not want to camp out here. Or stop and enjoy whatever the hell nature has to offer at night."

Atobe is still staring at him, bemused; the confusion morphs into another form of amusement as he figures something out in his head. Something stupid and meaningless, Ryoma decides grimly.

When Atobe extends his hand out, Ryoma frowns at it. "What?"

"It's not going to bite," Atobe says, and his voice is laughing at him, "I feel that I should offer it to you."

"What." Ryoma snaps his glare at the other boy, and he does his best not to sputter. "I don't need your damn hand. I need a bed."

"And a teddy bear, and a cuddle, and a—"

"Were you always this annoying?"

"Were you always such a coward?" Atobe mocks, clearly enjoying the agitation passing around Ryoma's face. "Admit it, Echizen, have you been reading some spooky stories centered on deep forests late at night?"

"I have not."

"Then why this sudden allusion to killers and murder? Or," and here the amusement rockets sky high, "have you always been afraid of big bad wolves?"

Ryoma scowls and walks over to Atobe and his stupid hand; he slaps the hand hard down. "When we reach the cabin," he says slowly, "You'll be regretting this." He snatches the light away and Atobe relinquishes it gracefully.

"Why not here?" Atobe asks, and Ryoma pointedly ignores him.


"I don't do Austen," Ryoma said, the first time her entered the Atobe estate and the library. The library's size was the equivalent of a small public library: wooden shelves towered over him, stacked neatly by floor to floor, and a spiraling staircase was nestled comfortably in the corner, weaving its way to the successive floor. In the middle of the room, armchairs and sofas circled around an orient rug. Ryoma was surprised there wasn't a fire roaring to complete the picture.

He winkled his nose at the weird inference that his earlier claim might have brought but went on, "Or Dickens. Or any of those Bronte sisters."

"What do you then, Dan Brown?" Atobe's voice was slick with amusement that never faded. His eyes glanced at Ryoma as he walked ahead, his hand gesturing through the air and pointing to random bookcases. "I'm afraid we don't have something so banal."

Ryoma rolled his eyes.

It was the second time they've been alone, but it was a familiar fallback, and he was surprised at how familiar it was. Atobe had opened the door when he arrived and led him to the hallways and to the library without delay, not stopping to boast about the grandeur of the hallways and rooms or the numerous servants that passed them. Pity, Ryoma decided, when he couldn't think of a suitable response for the cordial encounter. Atobe Keigo pitied him and was distracting him with something he presumed was worth his time. Ryoma wasn't about to call him out on this; if it meant avoiding his house and his dad, it was a small price to pay.

"Or something rebellious?" Atobe went over to a shelf and picked out a book, which he threw over to Ryoma. He caught it out of reflex and scowled immediately.

"Something disgusting," he said, flipping over the caught book without bothering to read the title.

"That would be Gothic," He heard another rummaging of the books and another books was thrown at him. He let is pass.
"Marquis de Sade," Atobe noted, "And that was an old edition."

"Oh, good," Ryoma muttered, still skimming the book; he flipped the page to the ending, "He deserves to rot on the floor." He looked up, frowned. "This is familiar. Isn't it Lord of the Flies?"

"Brillant," Atobe said dryly, guiding him to the cover of the book, "Although most people would look at the title before they start."

"Shut up." Ryoma's eyes headed to the floor. "And that guy isn't Gothic. He's a sexual pervert."

"Surprising you know anything about him," Atobe said, although he didn't look very astonished, just amused. Ryoma wondered if Atobe had so little humor around him in his life to find everything he did entertaining. "Or, yes, in a more gothic tradition. The Monk?"

"Again, sexual perversity," Ryoma said, and feeling the need to explain by the raise of Atobe's eyebrow, added, "I gave that to my old man for his birthday. Thought it suited him."


Ryoma shrugged. "He got put off by the devil in the cover so I read it."

"Ah." Atobe's lips twitched now, and Ryoma frowned at that. But before he could make a stabbing remark, Atobe turned around and walked on. Ryoma grudgingly followed him.

"Give me an example of revolting, then," Atobe said, as he stopped by another bookcase and wandered on, not looking back to see where he would be, "I can only think of the very classics. Frankenstein, mayhap. Rebecca?"

"No girls," Ryoma said, and cringed inwardly at how childish that sounded. "I meant, that. Girls with excessive whining."

"Rebecca is a timeless classic," Atobe said dryly, but his face didn't betray any disapproval.

"The girl whines from beginning to end," Ryoma pointed out.

"You mean Rebecca."

"Yeah, her." Ryoma shrugged and looked over at the titles of the books he was passing by. "My mom liked it though. She made me read it."

"Your mother has good taste."

"Scholarly taste." Ryoma thumbed the air around the books he was looking at. "Have anything like American Psycho?"

"Ah." When Ryoma straightened up and looked over, Atobe was frowning as he looked over his nearest shelf. "That kind of disgusting. I don't think father brought any contemporary American authors of date."

"That book's not contemporary," Ryoma said. Atobe shot a wry look at him.

"I should clarify: my father is an avid reader of the Victorians."

"What, no Woolf or Joyce for him?" When Atobe gave him a bemused and surprised look this time, he felt the need to explain. "My mom went into literature before she went into law. So." He shifted on his foot and turned his attention back to the shelves.

"So you are a dabbler of modern literature. Will your wonders never cease," Atobe said flatly, and for that, Ryoma deemed it justified shoving him.


They walk in silence for another ten minutes, and Ryoma tries to cub the anxiety in his voice as he asks, "How long is this trail?"

Atobe, who had been following silently behind him, pauses before answering slowly. "It should have come up earlier. I haven't been to these parts since I was a child."

"Who builds a cabin up in the woods anyway?"

"People who enjoy nature, and I assure you, plenty of people do."

Ryoma gives Atobe a dirty look over his shoulder. "This is Japan, not England," he snipes, "This country is crowded as it is without one of your hunting lodgings."

"Meditation is more suitable, I daresay," Atobe says back, "And you look as if you could do with more relaxing. Your face is white."

"Is not."

"Yellowish. Pale. Ghastly."

"It's because of the light." Ryoma stops and waits for Atobe to cross the few steps towards him. Atobe stops as well, his pose languid. Ryoma narrows his eyes at him, thinking. Atobe face, considering the time and surroundings, is unnatural and alien within the forest. His eyes are bright and his mouth is devoid of worry. His posture is too relaxed. A sudden, strong suspicion strikes at him.

"Aren't you going to go up the trail?" Atobe gestures with his hand, but Ryoma continues to stare at him. When he speaks, his voice is low.

"You," he says, "are an utter asshole."

Atobe tilts his head. "Am I to find that insult original?" he asks pleasantly.

"No," he says, and thrusts the light at Atobe. Atobe doesn't hold it, just waits for Ryoma to continue. "You're supposed to regret whatever bullshit you're hiding up your sleeve. We passed the fucking cabin, didn't we?"

"You did insist on leading the way," Atobe says dryly after another dramatic pause, finally relieving the light out of Ryoma's hand, "And on hoarding the light. We should have turned left on the last juncture."
"That was fifteen minutes ago!"

"Shush, the spirits of the forest can hear you."

Ryoma kicks dirt towards Atobe. Atobe sidesteps out of the way and gives Ryoma a fake smile.

"Isn't Mukahi's plan going along marvelously?" he drawls.


One thing good about Atobe's library was that he could pretend that no one was there (and no one was, most of the time) and immerse himself in the quiet solitude he thought was not capable in Tokyo. Sometimes Atobe came by and chose a book himself, but he only chanced a look at him before retreating to his own corner. He went whenever he pleased, and entered Atobe's house on most weekdays, after a hasty lunch from Nanako, who took over the role of his caretaker and his dad's confessor.

"You're not in much these days," Nanako observed one day, "Is uncle troubling you very much?"

"Naw," Ryoma muttered, picking at his food. Atobe had said that they would have lunch, if Ryoma had nothing better to do (with a amused and assured air that of course he wouldn't, so he better be on time and not be a brat about it), "I'm just hanging out."

"Playing tennis?"

"Too hot." He ate a few grudging mouthfuls before sliding his plate away. "Just. Wandering around."

Nanako peered into his eyes, worry etched on her face. "You do know that you can talk to me, though? When you feel a bit…" Nanako bit her lip and hesitated. She meant well, and Ryoma suddenly felt sorry for his cousin who had the awful task of taking care of two irresponsible boys.

"Yeah, thanks." He gave her a smile, and she relaxed immediately, a friendly smile given in return. "But I'm fine."

"I hope that uncle would share your sense of optimism," Nanako said dryly, and bit her lip again, "But that's not very nice of me, is it?"

Ryoma smirked at her. "He deserves it," he said, and stood up. "Thanks for the meal. And." He gestured at the kitchen door, where his dad would be up to god knew what.

Nanako smiled at him and he headed off.

The conversation didn't leave he mind though, and a trail of random thoughts gave voice to a question in the middle of his invited lunch: "What am I doing here?"

Atobe gave him a mildly confused look, which he quickly masked with false politeness. "Eating," he pointed out, "and enjoying my company. Really, must I spell out everything for you? How's the fish?"

"Terrible." Ryoma rolled his eyes and sliced another bite.

"Careful, my staff might take that personally." Atobe passed him the wasabi dish. Ryoma stared at it thoughtfully before taking it.

"They won't," he said, and added, "And seriously. What am I doing here?"

"Lunch," Atobe repeated dryly, "And you are terrible company. My dog could entertain better than you."

Ryoma ignored him and continued, "You invite me over to your house to read. You invite me over for lunch. You offer fish when you clearly don't eat fish. You don't even like fish."

Atobe narrowed his eyes at him. Ryoma returned his gaze.

"I tolerate it," Atobe objected, but Ryoma cut him off.

"You said that you didn't any Japanese authors because some of them involved domesticity, and domesticity lead to food, and that food was fish and rice, and you preferred—"here he perfected the disdain Atobe had put into those very words, "—roast beef and pudding if it were to appear in literature and mealtimes, because what was the point in reading about food that created nausea?" Ryoma pointed to Atobe's nearly empty plate save for some rice, driving his point home.

There was a terse silence that made Ryoma almost regret what he said, but he was curious, and his determination to solve his curiosity outweighed any discomfort he felt at that moment.

"Well," Atobe said at last, "I didn't know you took all our conversations to heart."

Ryoma scowled at him. "I don't. But you insulted sushi."

"How wicked of me," Atobe said dryly. But he wouldn't say anything after that, and Ryoma phrased his question bluntly.

"Is this you pitying me?" he asked.

"What an eloquent way to phrase it."

Ryoma frowned at him. "I'm serious."

"So am I. Because, you would obviously say, I don't need pity, I am fine, you should leave me be." Atobe mimicked the sullen tone that Ryoma recognized too well, and his frown grew deeper.

"I don't talk like that."

"If you mean talking like a childish brat, then no, I beg to differ."

"You," Ryoma snapped, then stopped. His frown ceased. "Whatever. I'm just saying, you don't have to."

Atobe gave a long-suffering sigh, and reached for his water. "Of course I don't have to," he said irritably, "What do you think I do, go around the streets and pick up any random brat who's going through a trivial life crisis? Don't be daft."

Ryoma smirked and resumed cutting his fish again. "Good. I thought you were being nice there for a minute."

"Repulsive, really," Atobe said flatly, and Ryoma laughed. He didn't get his question answered in the end, not that it mattered.


The only sound he hears is the dead leaves cracking at his feet, and he involuntarily shivers. It's a small shiver, and he suppresses it as soon as his brain follows the cognitive nerve system, but Atobe observes all the same. The light illuminates his frown and slightly narrowed eyes.

"Don't make that face," Ryoma says, and straightens his shoulders.
"You should have brought a jacket," Atobe replies mildly, "Or, god knows, stop reading Agatha Christie."

"I have not been reading murder stories." It was a pain to grit out the same words that he had for the past—well, he wouldn't know the time now, would he? All he knows is that the woods covered the night sky and the stars, and he felt trapped and cocooned in a sinister bubble of life.

"Then you're naturally hylophobic?"

When Ryoma scowls at him, Atobe amends, "Fear of forests."

"Great. Glad to know we could talk in human language," Ryoma mutters, "No. I'm fine. Completely. Just shut up and lead the way."

"You're shivering." Atobe holds up the light, closer to Ryoma's tight face. "And it's not just the light, your face is yellow."

When Ryoma shoots another glare at him, Atobe tsks. "Oh, please. I'm just stating the facts."

"Your facts are crap," Ryoma tells him, crossing his arms.

"My facts are brilliant," Atobe drawls, and holds out his hand once more. "Are you sure you don't need my assistance?"

"Your stupid teammates will never hear the end of it."

"So this is about preserving your honor and dignity." Atobe raises an eyebrow. "I must say, I didn't know you had it in you."

"It's not about my honor and dignity," Ryoma mocks, and rolls his eyes, "It about you trying to hold my hand. If you don't stop that, I'll start to think everyone was right about us. Or you."

"Horrifying, really." Atobe drops his hand but not his amusement. "Don't regret it when something moves and you start screaming."

"I do not—"

Just then, a gust of wind blew past them. The wind swished between the branches and made a howling sound as it twisted and weaved along the contours of the leaves and dead bark, and it wavered and hissed through the ground. The leaves scattered in its wake.

"Shit!" Ryoma curses again, and his instinct tells him to grab the nearest solid warmth that happens to be an irritating presence.

The wind passes, and he finds himself grasping tightly to an arm that was annoying as his owner the way it held deliberately still. Ryoma quickly disentangles his hand as the silence (and amusement) descends upon them once more.

"Well," Atobe says after a moment, "I didn't think that I could prove my point so quickly."

"I hate you," Ryoma says with much conviction.

"Very profound." Atobe sighs. His sigh mingles with the wind that lets out a small echo into the dark air. "As much as I would love to stay and observe our prodigy's descend into fear and chaos, I daresay we all need sleep. So." Without another bout of flowery explanation, he takes one of Ryoma hand and holds it firmly. Ryoma yelps and tries to wiggle out but the hand squeezes. "We will walk, we will not talk, and when we reach the cabin, I will let go." Atobe gives Ryoma a look that suggests a contradicting reply would be futile. Ryoma looks at him sullenly. "Answer?" Atobe prompts when Ryoma stays silent, his eyes bright, reflecting the yellow haze.

"And you will give your weird acrobatic player fifty laps," he challenges.

Atobe sighs again, a sign conveying all the woes and hardships he must get through to appease a stubborn child. "And I will give Mukahi fifty laps," he repeats dutifully.

"Good." With that they walk on.


"Since when do we mingle with our enemies?"

The shriek was awful and annoying, and the way Atobe's lips were pressed together, Ryoma knew that Atobe was thinking along the same lines. The redhead resembled nothing of his own cheerful, bouncy upperclassman, but he was equally hyper. Hysterical. Maniac.

Ryoma tried to lean back and stare at the ceiling. If he did that, maybe everyone would ignore him and go away.

"Hey! I'm also talking to you! What are you doing hanging around our captain?"

"Mukahi." Atobe's tone was mild and flat; he was annoyed or angry, or both. It was the tone he had used when Ryoma had thrown War and Peace at him. "He's here as a guest. Unlike what I can say for you."

"I'm your teammate," the redhead sneered, "And he. He's just…" Ryoma waited for the sentence to end while his eyes were fixed to the ceiling. "Isn't he supposed to be in America?"

"Are you?" Atobe asked him, his voice now transforming into amusement.

"Why did you paint your ceiling?" Ryoma threw in response.

"I want answers!" Mukahi snapped, and amended, "Well, we want answers."

"I don't," Shishido interjected, "We just wanted to drop off some stuff and we'll be on our way."

"Ryou." A hiss. "Aren't you even wondering what that brat is here?"

"No." The voice was firm and resolute. "I really don't give a shit about Atobe's private life."

"Mostly because I know all the ups and downs of yours, Ryou." Atobe again, voice amused and irritation gone. That wasn't so good; Ryoma had counted on his irritation to drive out the madness and chaos of this day.

"As fascinating as it is to hear all this," another drawl came out, and Ryoma inwardly suppressed a groan, "I'm noticing that our dear guest hasn't spoken. Why are you here, Echizen-kun?"

Ryoma sat up reluctantly. Oshitari Yuushi was smiling at him, with his fake glasses glinting. Ryoma scowled.

"Or, more precisely, what are you doing here?" Oshitari was smart enough to know what he was doing, seeing as they were in the library and with no rackets. Besides, he was wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans—hardly fit for a tennis match.

"Reading," he said curtly.

"Reading," Mukahi mocked, rolling his eyes, "What is this, a reading club you two made?"

"Reading is a very intimate form of contact," Oshitari added in pleasantly.

Now it was Atobe's turn to frown. "Don't even think of going there," he said, the irritation coming back into place. "You've been reading too many of your trashy novels."

Oshitari put a hand on his chest. "You can't call Rebecca trashy, dear Keigo."

Ryoma did his best not to meet Atobe's eye.

"Look." Shishido had stood up, and he rubbed his eyes. "We. Er. Really do not need to get to the bottom of this."

"We do," Mukahi insisted.

"We must," Oshitari chimed in.

"There's nothing to get in the bottom of," Atobe said, exasperated.

"The brat hasn't spoken." Mukahi turned an evil grin on him and raised an eyebrow. "Do you want to contradict? Declare your feelings? Oh, look, Atobe, he's sulking. Your denial hurt him."

Ryoma rolled his eyes and stood up. "I'm going," he said, "Text me when this inquisition is over."

"Aren't you going to help smooth things along?" Atobe didn't do anything to stop him though; his hands were loose by his sides. Ryoma felt it safe enough to retort, "Your teammates, your madness. See you."

"Exchanging vows of separation!" Mukahi called behind his back.


"He's glaring at me," Ryoma says smugly, when Atobe later joins him.

"I did just give him laps for a idiotic reason," Atobe returns dryly, "He's not completely oblivious."

"He's still an idiot."

"And you should improve on your insults." Atobe looks at him and raises an eyebrow. "We're perky today. Could it be because the sun is shining and we are no longer in the deep dark woods?"

Ryoma scowls and turns to him. "That," he starts, "was one time. One stupid time, so shut up about it."

"It was yesterday," Atobe points out, "Surely I have rights to know of your well-being. You were badly shaken, you know."

"I'm fine now, thanks."

"What about when we get back? Our buses would arrive in the evening. Are you sure you wouldn't need additional assistance yet again?"

Ryoma reaches out a hand to hit him; Atobe dodges.

"If you ever show a weakness and I find it," Ryoma mutters, "You'll never live it down."

Atobe smirks. "I don't have any weaknesses. You should work on your temper, dear child."

"You should—" Ryoma stops and tilts his head. His eyes narrow. "You're right," he says suddenly. Atobe looks mildly surprised; he quickly recovers.

"Of course I'm right," he says, and pauses. "Perhaps you should elaborate."

"I would need additional assistance. In fact, you could lend me a hand again. Since you so nicely offered." Ryoma smiles at him: a sweet, deceiving smile that they both know Ryoma is not capable of. "Or, you know. Since you so eagerly offered."

Atobe frowns slightly; a moment later his eyes narrow. "I did not offer anythi—"

"Or do you lend anyone your hand without a moment's thought?" Ryoma taunts, his voice full of laughter. "You're cheaper than I thought."

Atobe rolls his eyes. "You're making a child's joke out of my considerations."

"It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"Now you're behaving like Mukahi."

"That was when I thought he was talking crap. Now I know I'm not."

"You," Atobe starts, and stops. He wrinkles his nose. A silence falls on them, and Ryoma breaks it by successfully poking Atobe in the ribs.

"I'm joking, monkey king," he deadpans, "You need to work on your sense of humor."

"If you'll work on sophisticating your insults," Atobe throws back, but his tone is absent-minded than before.

"Wild dreams," Ryoma drawls out; he turns back to watch the redhead run infinite laps. Atobe, after another moment at looking at Ryoma, turns to do the same.