hermiones: (pot // hyoutei)
Cat ([personal profile] hermiones) wrote2008-12-16 06:59 pm

PoT Fic: "Wild Roses" (Atobe/Sakaki) Part One.

Title: Wild Roses
Pairing: Sakaki/Atobe
Rating: R
Summary: Atobe has a lot to learn about becoming an adult.
Warnings: Some sexual content and rude language. Inter-generational relationship.

Up until the age of twelve or so, Atobe's world makes sense. It may not be a world that other people share or relate to, but it has a pattern that's acceptable to him. A certain degree of predictability that he enjoys. He gets up around 5.30, showers and has breakfast with his parents. Around 6.15, a moral anecdote is issued to him by his father. At 7, he is taken to tennis practice by the family chauffeur. Usually, he wins his match and after that, school. School, homework, dinner, bed. Rinse and repeat.

At the age of twelve and a week, the world changes. For the first time, Atobe is allowed to attend the evening parties at home. He is at long last trusted to behave himself until midnight, rather than being forced to go to bed early. Atobe takes this with pride and not a little bit of bragging amongst his friends, fellow students his father approves of. He promises them invites, little tantalizing glimpses into the homelife of the great Atobe Keikichi.

Two days before his first party, he's so excited he can't sleep. Privileges are so rarely unlocked that he feels he must have done something especially good. He tries extra-hard to be helpful to his father, to attend to every word, in the hope of showing him that his favour was justly placed. His father brushes him off with a wave of his hand, every time, but it doesn't deter Atobe. Nothing deters Atobe. Not the new arrival of some strange Osakan boy at tennis practice, nor the way his friends follow him around asking questions about his father. He can't afford to take his eye off the ball.

When the day arrives, he can't eat. His mother approves his dress and his father gives a last-minute pep talk, rolling his eyes as if calming down at animal at the vet. Atobe puts on his nicest, manliest voice and stands up very straight when the guests arrive. They all seem extremely tall and they walk with a flourish that Atobe hasn't mastered yet. The woman are suitably coy, the men suitably graceful. Atobe's father greets them all in a strange voice Atobe doesn't recognise. Occasionally, he even laughs.

It strikes Atobe as insanely disappointing that the evening party he's looked forward to is so dull. Unlike the lunches, it seems to go on forever. He's encouraged to mingle but finds he has little to say to anybody in the room. Struggling to think of what his father would want him to say, he's nearly asleep by the time it comes to dinner, which arrives in a thousand small portions. Out of the corner of his eye, he can sense his father's disapproval like a coiling snake. All he can feel inside is a heavy feeling of unhappiness, deep and sinking like wet cloth.

Halfway through the first course, their butler very quietly has a word in Atobe's father's ear. Atobe's father dusts off his chin with his napkin, a gesture he completes with ease, and nods. Nobody else notices, except Atobe, who notices everything. He's at that age. Moments later, the man he will later know as Sakaki-sensei, even later as Taro, enters the room. Atobe remembers being late for breakfast a couple of times, having slept in. Being barred from the room and the sense of aching hunger through maths. Sakaki drops into a deep bow that isn't stiff, only natural. Natural and proud.

Atobe's father nods and rises to his feet. The two men walk towards each other and there is a stiff masculine hug between them. Atobe hasn't seen anything like it in his life and he knocks over his wine. Nobody notices the swell of cranberry in the ivory tablecloth.

When Sakaki takes Atobe's mother's hand, he holds it the way you'd hold a bird. He holds it aloft, as though he's uncovered a piece of treasure and is holding it up to the light. Above his eyes, above his own head. Above his own person.

“Who is that man,” Atobe asks his mother, who has agreed to take him to bed at 10pm. It's rare that he gets the chance to spend time alone with her – they have staff to do this sort of thing. He cherishes every moment he gets to snatch a little of her insight into the world.

“Hmm?” she says. She's busying herself folding his school clothes.

“The man who came in late,” Atobe says.

“Oh,” she says. “Sakaki-san. An old friend of your father's. Goodness knows why – they never seem to agree on anything. He's very fond of music, of sport. Recreational pursuits...you know how your father feels about those. He's intelligent, though, extremely well-spoken. I think that's why the two of them get along.”

“Oh,” Atobe says. “I think father will be disappointed in me. I didn't do very well tonight.”

She kisses the top of his head. “Don't worry,” she says. “It was a big task and you did fine. There are more important things in the world.”

Atobe knows that he isn't supposed to tell his father that she says things like that. Like a little secret. His face is flushed.

“I want to be just like him when I grow up,” he says.

“Your father?” his mother says. Her face takes on an expression Atobe doesn't understand.

“Sakaki-san,” he says.

“Oh,” she says, smiling. “I don't think your father would cope. One is quite enough.”

He smiles, back. “Will I see him again?”

“I'm sure,” she says. “He's just returned from travel in Europe. I think he's here to stay. Your father finds him an amusing distraction – I'm sure he'll be back here very soon.”

As he drifts off to sleep, the image of Sakaki raising his mother's hand into the air plays on his mind.

Age twelve also brings with it the advent of interest in girls. He and his friends sit at lunch quietly discussing the advantages of the opposite sex. It seems unfortunate to Atobe that so many of his friends seem to simply share his own opinion, but as this is how his father amasses his company he tries to ignore it.

“I think,” he says, with everybody looking right at him. “That girls should come to us and not the other way around. We chase them everywhere without knowing whether they're...suitable. Wasted effort. Girls should have to prove themselves.”

“Yeah,” Kenji says. “Yeah, yeah, I agree.”

“Prove themselves,” Adaru says. “Yeah.”

“Men always have to prove themselves,” Kiyoshi adds. “Why not change things about a bit?”

The strange Osakan, Oshitari Yuushi, passes by the table. Atobe looks at him as he imagines his father would look at him. His hair is unkempt, his shirt doesn't fit. There are circles under his eyes and he doesn't look at all like he belongs in a place like Hyoutei. Atobe curls his lip and ignores him.

“Absolutely,” he says. “It seems clear that girls are a waste of time. Pursuing them when we could be reaching for our own goals is ridiculous. Let them come to us. They will – women always do.”

Oshitari looks over, blinks once or twice as if processing their conversation. This irritates Atobe, who has not invited Oshitari's involvement. When the postman comes to deliver the family letters, he is not invited inside to share their breakfast.

“Yes?” Atobe says. “Can I help you?”

“Oh,” Oshitari says, a little startled. His voice is thick with other-worldliness, the countryside. Distasteful. “I just wondered whether any of you have actually had any experience with girls.”

Atobe sneers. “Of course,” he says. “You can't speak about something without knowing it.”

“Oh,” Oshitari says, again. “Care to give me some advice?”

“He's new here,” Kenji says, helpfully.

“I know he's new here,” Atobe hisses. “We're on the tennis team together.”

“Sorry,” Kenji says, crestfallen.

“Advice on girls?” Atobe says. “You?”

“Yes,” Oshitari says. He sits down, much to Atobe's disbelief. Nobody sits at their table without invitation. This is the way it's always been. And this boy is not somebody Atobe would ever invite into his domain. His shirt buttons are done up incorrectly, which is why it doesn't fit. A boy who cannot do up his own shirt is not welcome at Atobe's table.

“I think you need more than advice,” Atobe says, loftily. “A miracle, perhaps.”

Oshitari just laughs. Adaru winces beside him, which is more the reaction Atobe had been expecting. He can feel the hair on the back of his neck standing up in annoyance.

“I'm not joking,” he says.

“I know,” Oshitari says. “But you're pretty funny, all the same.”

Atobe doesn't know how to respond to that, so he says nothing.

“So, uh,” Adaru says. “You're the new guy. How are you finding...everything?”

“You're not supposed to be speaking to him,” Atobe says, feeling desperately unlike his father.

Oshitari quirks an eyebrow as Adaru falls silent. “They do what you tell them to do?”

“Well,” Atobe says. Nobody questions his father like this. “I just remind them of being appropriate. It's important to be appropriate. People who go here have good breeding. I'm doing them a favour.”

“Right,” Oshitari says. “Well, it seems I've made a mistake sitting here, then.”

“It seems so,” Atobe says.

“Just, people with good breeding don't usually behave like pigs,” Oshitari shrugs, standing and taking his tray elsewhere before Atobe can respond. Silence descends over the table.

“My point exactly,” Atobe says. “You clearly don't have good breeding.”

“Yeah,” Kiyoshi says. “What an idiot.”

“Yeah,” Adaru says. “No wonder nobody likes him.”

“Pig, yeah,” Kenji says. “Total pig.”

“So,” Kenji says later, en route to tennis practice. Adaru, Kiyoshi and Kenji are all regulars, barely, because Atobe is. “How do you make girls come to you?”

A couple of girls nudge each other as Atobe walks past. Some of the braver ones even come up to him and say 'hello', which mostly he ignores because this is what seems to work.

“You can't teach it,” Atobe says, loftily. “You either have it or you don't.”

“Oh,” Kenji says. “Do you think I have it?”

“No,” Atobe says, bluntly.

“Oh.” Kenji says.

When they arrive at the changing rooms, Shishido Ryou is blocking the entrance. Atobe doesn't really know Shishido, he knows of Shishido, which is quite enough.

“Excuse me,” he says.

“No,” Shishido says. “Shower's exploded. Somebody put something in it. Whole room's flooded.”

“Oh,” Atobe says. “Practical jokes are very juvenile. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“It wasn't me, you idiot,” Shishido says. “I'm just guarding the door.”

“First on the scene,” Atobe says.

“Shut up,” Shishido says. “Should've just let you go in there and drown.”

Beside them, the girls' netball team walk past.

“We could go change with them,” Shishido says, smirking. He leans against the building in a way that he seems to think is seductive. Atobe snorts in a dignified sort of way.

“Keep dreaming,” he says.

“Atobe could date any one of those girls,” Kenji says. “You couldn't.”

Shishido looks over Atobe's shoulder. “Wow,” he says. “Is that your cheerleading squad or your boyfriend?”

“Shut up,” Atobe says. “They're my friends.”

“Oh, really,” Shishido says. “I think Adaru fancies you.”

“I do not,” Adaru says.

“Everybody fancies me,” Atobe says. “It's to be expected.”

“I don't,” Shishido says, tossing his thick hair.

“You're a Martian,” Atobe says.

“Right,” Shishido says. As Oshitari trots up, he exchanges an awkward fist bump with Shishido. Ignoring Atobe, he pokes his head around the door of the changing room.

“Wow,” he says. Pulling back, he cheerfully rocks on his heels and surveys the girls walking past.

“Wow,” he adds.

“Atobe was just saying that he could date any one of them,” Shishido says.

“I didn't say that,” Atobe says. “Though it is true.”

“I think you should try it,” Oshitari says. “Go and chat one of them up.”

“You're so crass,” Atobe says.

“Yeah, so?” Shishido says. “You bragged, so go do it.”

Despite Atobe's confidence, he's not sure how to go about this. He's never so much as attempted to chat up a girl in his life. He understands that ignoring girls seems to work for him but he's been ignoring the girls' netball team for weeks and none of them seem very interested. Swallowing dry heat, he walks over to the nearest of the girls and clears his throat.

“Hello,” he says, awkwardly. “My name is Atobe Keigo.”

“I know,” she says. “Why are you standing outside?”

“Somebody broke our showers,” Atobe says. “It's very irresponsible and juvenile.”

She nods, apparently unsure of what to say.

“I should report it to the student council,” he says. “Which I am vice-president of.”

“Right,” she says.

“So,” he says. “Netball.”

“Netball,” she says. “Do you play?”

“Of course not,” he says. “It's a girls' game.”

“Right,” she says.

“Even basketball is rather silly, when you think about it.”

“Well, I enjoy it, obviously,” she says.

“Yes,” Atobe says. “Perhaps you'd like to accompany me to my car later.”

“Are you offering me a lift home in your car?”

Atobe thinks about this. “Well, no, that wouldn't be allowed – I don't even know you. But you can walk me to it if you'd like.”

“I think I'll pass,” she says, giving him a strange look. “Better get to practice. Good luck with your shower...thing.”

“Thank you,” Atobe says. “I'm sure my authority will-”

And she is gone. Behind him, Shishido is sniggering. His face goes a strange colour and he takes a few deep breaths before turning around. When he finally does, Oshitari's face is impassive.

“I thought you did okay,” Kiyoshi says. “She's obviously just a bit tired from lessons-”

“Oh, shut up,” Atobe says. “Like any of you could do any better.”

They all fall silent.

To Atobe's unexpected joy, it isn't long before Sakaki turns up again. This time he arrives at a lunch put on for some of Atobe's father's closest friends and their wives. Atobe has long understood that one topic of discussion will be his eventual marriage but he's learnt to bear being involved in the conversation.

This time, Sakaki arrives earliest. He allows Atobe's mother through the doors to their outside patio before himself, holding out his arm with a grace that seems effortless. Atobe tries to imprint the movement on his brain, so that he might replicate it at some point at school. She nods to him and Sakaki smiles in a way his father never does.

“So,” Sakaki says. “Is this to be another roll-call of suitable ladies for young Keigo?”

Atobe's father gives him a look. “You didn't happen to come across any nice Austrian princesses in Europe, did you?” he says, eventually. Sakaki just laughs.

“I'll never understand this haste,” Sakaki says. “He's just a kid.”

Atobe smarts, at that. He sits quietly in his chair and doesn't speak but his face, he's sure, is red. Sakaki passes his eyes over him but doesn't comment.

“He's twelve,” Atobe's father says. “If he were to marry at eighteen, that'd only give him a handful of years to prepare himself. A lot goes into this – you'd know it if you had children.”

“Too much work,” Sakaki says, waving a hand. “You've aged terribly, Keikichi.”

Atobe's father makes a gruff, disapproving sound. “And you, as ever, haven't aged at all.”

“Neither has the lovely Suiko,” Sakaki says. “Still as beautiful as the day we met.”

Atobe's mother laughs, soft and light. Atobe's father looks from Sakaki to his wife and she keeps her lips tightly shut.

“When are you going to settle down?” Atobe's father says. “And put the ladies out of their misery?”

“Not imminently,” Sakaki says. “Not when there's so much fun to be had.”

“You're a disgrace,” Atobe's father says, but there's no force in it. Sakaki just laughs, crosses one leg over the other.

“Marriage is overrated,” he says. Atobe thinks he's talking to him but he can't be sure, he's not looking at him. “Trust me, I've been there. Don't marry him at eighteen, Keigo. He's too young. Give him a bit more of life.”

“Just because your marriage failed-” Atobe's father begins. Sakaki waves a hand and when Atobe's father quietens, Atobe feels his eyes bulging from his head. The only person ever to have silenced his father.

“It's not just about that,” Sakaki says. “Though clearly, it's a valid point. I was too young to get married. You yourself waited until nearly twenty-five and look at your better half! Clearly waiting has its advantages. You can hardly say that you had to settle.”

“True,” Atobe's father says. “But times are changing, Taro.”

“True,” Sakaki says. “At this rate, you'll want a Swiss banker, not an Austrian princess.”

Atobe's father snorts. “If you can recommend me one, I'll consider it,” he says. “More tea?”

When the other women arrive, Atobe watches Sakaki, suddenly recognising that the answer to his dilemmas with the girls at school is right in front of him. No longer listening to the conversation, he watches the way Sakaki takes on an almost subservient role. He pours the tea for the women and tilts his head as he listens to their conversation. Asks them how they are and gives gentle advice where appropriate. His eyes never leave the individual woman he's talking to and he never makes a sudden movement. Slowly, the women begin to smile and then, to laugh, as he slips in a soft joke.

It's like magic and Atobe hasn't the slightest idea how to perform those tricks.

It reminds him of Oshitari, which is faintly infuriating.

“Taro,” Atobe's father says. “Do you intend to spend all day chattering with the ladies or are you intending to join the conversation of the men?”

Sakaki finishes his reply to the woman he's speaking to before lifting his eyes. “That depends,” he says, confidently. “On what topic you men are discussing.”

“Marriage,” Atobe's father says. “And suitable brides.”

“Oh, in that case,” Sakaki says. “Chattering with the ladies suits me just fine.”

As the guests leave and Atobe leans against the door, prying off his uncomfortably tight shoes, Sakaki passes him.

“It was nice to meet you again,” Atobe says.

“Chip off the old block,” Sakaki says. “Spoken just like your father.”

Atobe feels strangely proud.

“I don't mean that as a compliment,” Sakaki adds. “You should be careful.”

“Oh,” Atobe says, not really understanding. “Why?”

“Developing one's own identity is important,” Sakaki says. “Don't you think?”

“I suppose so,” Atobe says. He isn't really sure where this is going. “I'd like to be like my father.”

“I hear that you play tennis,” Sakaki says.

“Yes,” Atobe says. “Father doesn't like it.”

“No,” Sakaki says. “He wouldn't. I assume you're very good.”


“Because he hates talking about it,” Sakaki says. “If you weren't very good, it'd be easier for him to do.”

“He's proud of me,” Atobe says, stubbornly.

“How good are you?” Sakaki says.

“Very good,” Atobe says, squaring his chin. His feelings crushed, he feels obliged to somehow hold his own. It's lucky that tennis is the topic of conversation – it lends him a natural confidence.

“I see,” Sakaki says. “I'm coaching the Hyoutei team this year. I'll look out for you in the ranking matches.”

“I didn't know you played,” Atobe says.

“Here and there,” Sakaki says.

“How does somebody who only plays...here and there...get to coach a team?” Atobe says, without thinking about it. “Hyoutei's team is really good. We want to reach the Nationals. We need the best.”

“You don't need to be a tennis champion to teach tennis,” Sakaki says.

“Yes, you do,” Atobe says.

“No,” Sakaki says. “You just need to be able to spot and nurture brilliance. Same as anything.”

“And you can see brilliance?”

“Yes,” Sakaki says. “All around me.”

“And you think I'll be good for your team?”

“I didn't say that,” Sakaki says. “I said I'd watch out for you. Do you think you're good enough?”

“Yes,” Atobe says.

“Well, then,” Sakaki says. “It should be an interesting year, don't you think?”

Two years later

Atobe goes to Sakaki's office a week before they face Seigaku in the tournament. They haven't spoken since Atobe's plea to reinstate Shishido on the team and he feels a kind of embarrassment about it. When he knocks on the door, there's no answer, so he knocks again.

“Yes,” Sakaki says, distracted and dismissive. Not a good start.

“Are you busy?” Atobe asks.

“Yes,” Sakaki says. Then, he looks up. “Ah,” he adds. “Not that busy. Sit down.”

Atobe does. He folds his hands in his lap, not knowing what to say.

“We haven't spoken in some time,” Sakaki says, cutting right to the point. “You haven't been coming to my office. That's not good.”

“I understand,” Atobe says.

Sakaki just looks at him. His style of confrontation is much more equal, adult than his father's. Sakaki tends to put his opinion out there and then encourage Atobe's response, rather than laboring his own point and not letting Atobe get a word in edgeways.

“I'm the captain,” Atobe says, slowly. “You rely on me to direct the ship. And if you lose the ability to instruct me, the ship goes off course.”

“You're the sails,” Sakaki says. “However, this ship metaphor isn't to my liking – you're the conductor. Hyoutei is an orchestra and without you, people get lost, they...lose their moment. They come in at the wrong time and they mess things up. The team needs a conductor. And I need to be able to write the music and hand it to you. That's the way the team works.”

“Yes,” Atobe says. “I'm sorry. Ryou's...that threw me off a bit. You changed the music without telling me.”

“I did as you asked,” Sakaki says. “I reinstated him.”

“Yes,” Atobe says. “But I didn't think you were going to do it. It was a surprise.”

“You don't like surprises.”

“I like to know the music,” Atobe says. “If I'm the conductor, I like to know what's coming next. If you want me to be able to support the team, please don't surprise me like that. I appreciate you reinstating him, I do. I just think if you were going to do it, you didn't need to put us all through that. You could've spoken to him, one on one-”

“I hadn't planned to do it,” Sakaki says. “Being honest. It hadn't been my intention. Your argument was solid and I changed my mind. I'm human, Atobe. I'm sorry if you felt puzzled by it.”

“Okay,” Atobe says. “I'm glad he's back. We need him.”

“It was good for him,” Sakaki says. “It taught him a lesson. Everybody has toughened up because of it. Even Gakuto.”

“Even Gakuto,” Atobe says. “We need to be tough. I've been reading up on Seigaku.”

“You too,” Sakaki says. “Good. Well, in the spirit of no further surprises, I have a plan for our matches with Seigaku.”

“You do?” Atobe says. “We've seen Tezuka before – he beat our captain last year, remember? He can do a shot that always comes back to him, one that means he doesn't have to-”

“Tezuka, too, is human,” Sakaki says.

“Well, yes,” Atobe says. “But it'll take something to beat the skills he has. I can do it, I know I can. I've known that I could do it since the defeat last year, to get some of our pride back. But it's not going to be easy. He's one of the best players I've ever seen.”

“What's the greatest lesson you've learnt so far in your life?” Sakaki says. He leans back in his chair, steepling his fingers.

“I'm fourteen,” Atobe says, stubbornly. “Is there a right answer to this?”

“No,” Sakaki says.

Atobe thinks about all of his father's mottos and moral instructions. It makes him think of French toast, which reminds him that he hasn't eaten that morning. Oshitari would say that the greatest lesson he'd learnt in life was always to feed the stomach, in order to feed the mind. Shishido would probably say that everything is transitory except passion, or that there's nobody you can't defeat through repeated pummeling. Gakuto would say-

“Atobe,” Sakaki prompts. Never Keigo anymore.

“I'm sorry,” he says. “The greatest lesson I've learnt is that everybody has a weakness.”

Sakaki's grin is shark-like. “Exactly,” he says.

“So there was a right answer,” Atobe says.

“No,” Sakaki says. “Just a rightest answer.”

“What's Tezuka's weakness, then?” Atobe says. “He's too upstanding? Too good a player?”

“Don't idolise Tezuka,” Sakaki snaps. “Are you Seigaku player? Save that talk for them.”

“I'm not,” Atobe says. “It's called respect – sometimes I respect other players.”

“Well, stop,” Sakaki says. “It's bad for the competition. Everybody outside these walls is the enemy. That sounds ridiculous to you boys, I'm sure, but you can't fight somebody with all your strength and soul whilst you're having soft feelings about them. If you want this trophy so badly you can't breathe, then you need to stop giving Tezuka room to defeat you. And respect is another word for submission.”

“I disagree,” Atobe says.

“Too bad,” Sakaki says. “You're wrong.”

Atobe has the strangest urge to stick his tongue out at him. “So,” he says. “What's your plan?”

“I have been doing my research,” Sakaki says. “Into the background of the Seigaku players. I no longer leave these things to chance. Tezuka has an injury.”

Atobe narrows his eyes. In all the times he's seen Tezuka play, he's never detected anything. He wonders whether the injury is recent.

“His left shoulder is weak,” he continues. “From an old injury to his left elbow. He has been receiving treatment for it. I believe that he has been discharged for-”

“Well, then, that's not an injury,” Atobe says.

“Stop being impudent,” Sakaki says. “For the time being, he has been discharged. However, you know as well as I do that a weakened joint under strain does not work as well as a healthy joint. Regardless of being discharged, that shoulder does not function as well as yours. I want you to exploit that.”

“Go for a long game,” Atobe realises.

“Exactly,” Sakaki says. “Not that it'll be a stretch – we were expecting your match with Tezuka to be a long one. Whilst I'd rather you all weren't salivating over him, failing to acknowledge his talent would be foolish. I'm not asking you to do anything we weren't preparing for.”

“I'm not salivating,” Atobe says, stung. “This is the problem with you and tennis, you don't see it as I see it.”

“I see it far better than you see it,” Sakaki says. “If you were the coach, all your team would do is drown themselves in your passion for every player and every game.”

“What's wrong with that?”

“What's wrong with that? Imagine a piece of music that only contained passion. Great rises and descents of fury and frustration, joy and despair? A piece of music must also pause to consider rhythm, timing, place. It must conjure up something more than just heart, it must also have soul. Your team needs guidance, not just inspiration. Tennis is as much a business as a sport.”

“You sound like my father,” Atobe says.

“Atobe,” Sakaki says. “The importance of passion is indescribable. I am not denying that your greatest strength is your passion for this game. But you must also learn when to be calm and cold. Any athlete must do that. Any musician, any businessman. You can be nothing with your heart alone – it's an engine that will run out of gas. You need your head to know when to rest and refuel. You would drive this team into the ground without me.”

“And exploiting Tezuka, exploiting another player is being calm and cold? That's something I should aspire to?”

“You think your great tennis heroes don't consider these things? You think Nadal's coach didn't know that Federer's glandular fever would make him a sitting duck this year?”

“He didn't – he didn't give that to him, he didn't exacerbate the illness-”

Tennis exacerbated the illness,” Sakaki says. “This is the game, Atobe. Are you on side, or not?”

“I need to think about it,” Atobe says. “I don't know that-”

“How much do you want this?” Sakaki says. “That trophy. The scouts. The change in your life.”

“More than anything,” Atobe breathes.

“Then trust me,” Sakaki says.

“Trust you,” Atobe says.

“Yes,” Sakaki says. “I know what I'm doing.”

“What's his plan,” Shishido says, later. They're waiting at practice for Sakaki to turn up, which is strange in and of itself. “For beating Tezuka?”

Atobe turns his racket over and over on his shoulder. “He...” his voice trails off, unsure of how to put it. “He wants me to go for a long game.”

“Right,” Shishido says. “Does he think you have more stamina?”

“Not exactly,” Atobe says. He looks around, at Oshitari carrying Gakuto on his shoulders, at Hiyoshi standing close, too close. Kabaji and Jirou warming up.

“Tezuka has an old injury,” he continues. “To his shoulder. He thinks that if I play a long game, it's likely to weaken and give me an advantage.”

Shishido whistles, under his breath. “Wow,” he says.

“Yeah,” Atobe says. He watches Shishido curl his fingers into the nape of his neck, into the fluffy strands of hair. He's not used to seeing Shishido without the mane of hair but oddly, it's an improvement.

“What do you think?” Atobe asks. “Honestly.” He's given up on Kenji, Adaru and Kiyoshi. He doesn't know who they follow around now.

“That's pretty hardcore, even for us,” Shishido says, eventually.

“Mm,” Atobe says. “I don't know. Maybe it's just what pros do – I'm not injuring him. I'm not setting out to hurt him, just...bluffing. It'll be like a poker game.”

“Seems risky to me,” Shishido says. “Doesn't Sakaki think you're good enough to beat him on your own merit?”

“It will be on my own merit,” Atobe says. “Strategy is an important part of any game.”

“Good luck with that,” Shishido says.

“You think it's a mistake,” Atobe says.

“Damn straight,” Shishido says. “But if you go for it, we'll be behind you. That's the team, right?”

“Right,” Atobe says.

Sakaki arrives after four minutes of silence with Atobe's mother on his arm. Oshitari's head bobs upwards like a jack-in-the-box. Atobe gives him a look.

“Don't even say it,” he says.

“More and more beautiful every day,” Oshitari sighs.

“Seriously, you're sick,” Shishido says. “That woman had Atobe in her. You don't want a woman who's housed Atobe.”

“My mother has not housed anything,” Atobe says. “And don't put it like that, it sounds...Oedipal.”

“It sounds what?” Shishido says.

“Oh, it's culture, never mind,” Atobe says. “Just stop talking.”

“Heh,” Gakuto says, trotting up. “Atobe brought his mother to practice.”

No I did not,” Atobe hisses. “Go and warm up, all of you.”

“We've already warmed up,” Oshitari says, his voice pained.

“Yes, and now you're all cooled down because of the delay. Ten more laps, go.”

They set off, grumbling, and Atobe walks over to Sakaki and his mother.

“What are you doing here?” he asks.

“I thought I'd spend the afternoon watching,” Suiko says. “Is that alright? I haven't seen you play in months.”

“Yeah,” Atobe says. “It's fine.”

He gives Sakaki a strange look – why are they together? Where have they both come from? It doesn't seem to make sense that at a time like this, Sakaki would increase the pressure on Atobe's shoulders. Sakaki just looks at him.

“Your team warming up without you?” he asks, pointedly, until Atobe relents and jogs off.

He finishes the laps alongside Shishido, because Oshitari is too busy mumbling about Sakaki being the Japanese Casanova and, well, it's not the sort of thing he wants to hear about his mother.

“Remember when we used to think he was this...what was it, this...player?” Shishido says. “We used to imitate what he did. No wonder the girls thought we were psychos.”

“Mm,” Atobe says. “He still is. It just works on older women, not girls. Kids. We were just kids.”

“We still are,” Shishido says, grouchily. “I feel like I'm in a wheel. Like I'm a rat scurrying away on this tiny wheel and I don't know why or what for or when it's going to stop. Do you ever feel like that?”

Atobe looks at him, a solid moment of truth in his eyes. “Fuck, yes,” he says.

“Good,” Shishido says. “Not just me, then.”

Atobe looks over at Sakaki. He's pointing at something high above the court, high above the world, and his mother is laughing. His arm is around her waist. Her face is rich with feeling and her eyes are like stars. He can't remember the last time he saw her do that and it turns his stomach over. When he looks at the team, Oshitari is similarly transfixed.

It occurs to him that Sakaki and his mother may have left together from the family home. Which begs the question, what were they doing there in the first place?

Out of spite, Atobe doesn't speak to Sakaki before the tournament. His mind is in torment and he doesn't feel that he can discuss it with anybody. It seems logical to him that what he sees is correct but at the same time, validation from somebody else would make it real. He tries as hard as he can to push it out of his mind but the anger somehow feeds his tennis. Turns it into a different thing altogether.

He can't believe that he ever saw Sakaki as somebody to look up to. That he watched his way with women and found it inspiring, found it beautiful. It makes him feel sick that he treasured the image of Sakaki holding his mother's hand aloft, when all the time they were hiding a little dirty secret. When all the time that gesture was dark and sullied and wrong. It feels like a betrayal and a manipulation.

Shishido comes over the night before and they sit in silence for a while.

“So,” Shishido says, eventually. “You prepared for the match? For the evil doings?”

“Yes,” Atobe says. “No. Wait.”

“That's not good,” Shishido comments.

“I think Kantoku is having an affair with my mother,” Atobe says.

Shishido's eyes nearly pop out of his skull. “What?” he says.

“He's always...he touches her hands and she laughs at his jokes and it's always been there,” Atobe says. Once started, he can't seem to stop. “It's always been there and I just didn't realise. She's lonely and he's a gentleman and he likes music and so does she and of course she'd be attracted to him, but it's my father they're messing with. It's like some sick joke.”

Shishido sits, looking at his hands. Like he wishes he hadn't come. “Uh,” he says. “I mean. Do you have proof?”

“Nothing concrete,” Atobe says. “Maybe I don't want proof. This is bad enough.”

“Yeah,” Shishido says. “I'm sorry. If it is...y'know. If it's true. But I think you need to know, one way or the other. You'll go mad and kill one of them. Or both.”

“What?” Atobe says.

“S'like Hamlet,” Shishido says. “Only your dad's not dead and Sakaki isn't your uncle.”

“God,” Atobe says. “You've been paying attention in literature?”

“New teacher's hot,” Shishido shrugs.

“What the fuck do I do, Ryou,” Atobe says.

“Play tennis,” Shishido says. “Win the matches. All we can do, right? Put it out your mind and let's do this.”

Atobe realises that beyond all reason, Shishido is right. Tennis is something he can always do. When he goes to sleep that night he clears his head of everything except the image of victory. Of holding a trophy aloft. Of a future made up of a racket in his hand and an opponent behind the net. Of the world at his feet.

The match is diabolical. Having been so confident that Tezuka would fold under pressure – who would willingly injure themselves for a tennis match? - Atobe is horrified with his own victory. It's not a lesson he's happy to be taught, that victories aren't always victorious. Not now. Not that day. So after holding Tezuka's hand aloft, above his own person, the way that somebody once did to show honour and dignity and respect – Atobe storms off the court and to the showers. He doesn't watch Hiyoshi's match and he doesn't catch Sakaki's eye as he leaves.

When he comes out of the shower, Sakaki is standing in the changing room. Atobe realises then how long he's been under the water, trying not to think. He sees in Sakaki's eyes that Hiyoshi lost. The match and the tournament are over, Tezuka's prodigy too strong. Atobe's victory and Tezuka's injury were all for nothing. Atobe wishes he'd gone for the shorter game, an honourable loss – being thrown off the team would be better than this. He wonders what will happen to Hiyoshi now.

“What was the score,” he says, dully, wrapping a towel around himself.

Sakaki is silent.

“You're angry,” he says, eventually.

“Of course I am,” Atobe says. He sits down, hair dripping water down his back. “That's us out. Another year. We tried so hard and-”

“That's not what I meant,” Sakaki says. “I meant that you're angry with me.”

Atobe looks at him, solidly. Sakaki doesn't blink. Atobe sighs.

“Yes,” he says.

“It was the right strategy,” Sakaki says.

“No, it wasn't,” Atobe says. “Look what we did. Look what we did.”

“He reacted differently,” Sakaki says. “He did something we hadn't expected. The strategy was solid, but we failed to predict that-”

“Stop it,” Atobe says. “You sound like my father, stop it. You can't predict this. This is a sport, it's...it's heart and soul. What he did out there was heart and soul and you tried to make it formulaic. If I'd just gone out there and played-”

“You'd have lost,” Sakaki says.

“I'd feel better than I do right now,” Atobe says.

“Doubtful,” Sakaki says. “You're emotional. It'll feel better tomorrow.”

“Will it?” Atobe says.

“Yes,” Sakaki says. “These things always do.”

He turns as if to leave and Atobe feels like his insides have been beaten with an egg-whisk. Sakaki doesn't try to be cruel or obtuse or even patronising, not like Atobe's father. But when he looks at Atobe, he sees a child, and that's infuriating.

“You're sleeping with my mother,” Atobe says, to his turned back.

Sakaki slowly turns around. “Excuse me?” he says.

“You heard,” Atobe says. “It's obvious from the way she looks at you. You're always touching her. Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Sakaki's face is impassive but his eyes swirl with emotion. Atobe can't read his expression but he doesn't like it. He's starting to get the feeling he's made his second huge mistake of the day.

“You are a very silly boy,” Sakaki says, slowly. “Who knows neither your place nor the world around you. Grow up, Atobe. Grow up and never, never speak to me that way again.”

Atobe doesn't.

In the two years that follow, Sakaki is rarely seen with Atobe's mother and only occasionally comes to the house. He doesn't continue coaching and instead spends a lot of time in Europe. Atobe feels strangely disjointed but he doesn't do anything about it. In his heart, he feels that his accusation had merit but that he can't discuss it with his mother.

He throws his weight into tennis and milks his new coach for all he can get. Before long and at nearly seventeen, Atobe is captain of the senior team. Accomplished in backhand and backhanded conversation over the dinner table, Atobe's father at long last seems proud of him. He's wanted that ever since he was a child but once earned, it loses its shine.

His father talks a lot about marriage and Atobe thinks about Sakaki, then, dashing all over Europe with princesses on his arm. He wonders why Sakaki's first marriage broke up – nobody talks about it. Whether it even matters. Sometimes, he walks around the grounds and finds that he's imitating Sakaki's easy stride. He doesn't know what to make of that.

His mother sometimes joins him. She relishes any opportunity, given how much of his time is occupied by tennis.

“Promise me you won't get married at eighteen,” she says. “It's so soon.”

“I'm not ready yet, either,” Atobe says. “It's not up to me, though, is it.”

“I suppose not,” she says.

“Marriage seems overrated,” Atobe says.

A strange look takes over her face. Understandable – no parent likes to hear that from their offspring. Makes them wonder what damage their own marriage inflicted.

“I think when you marry the right person, it can be a joyful thing,” his mother says, tentatively.

“Did you marry the right person?” Atobe says.

She gnaws on her lip for a few moments and then turns her eyes to him. “No,” she says. “I think we both know that. But I haven't been unhappy. I need you to understand that.”

“Okay,” he says. The first honest statement makes the second seem trustworthy.

“Your father is a difficult man but he is a strong one,” she continues. “An admirable one. In these times he has taken care to protect his family. He finds it difficult to know what to say to you but he loves you. He has always loved you.”

Atobe nods. “I know,” he says. “I just wish he listened more. He doesn't always have to speak.”

“You should tell him,” she says. “What you feel. He might be angry and he might shout but at least you'll have told him.”

“Do you always tell him what you feel?”

“I try to,” she says. “If it's important to me.”

“Why did Sakaki's marriage break down?” Atobe asks, suddenly. He can't outright ask her what he wants to know but the pieces of this puzzle are torment itself.

“What?” she asks.

“His marriage,” Atobe says. “He always said that he'd never marry again, it was so horrible. What happened? Why did it end?”

“He was very young,” she says, slowly. “Your age. Not much more. And he married the wrong person.”

“Did you know him, then?” Atobe asks.

“No,” she says. “This is just what he's told me since.”

“Oh,” Atobe says.

“He told me,” his mother says, tentatively. “That you thought-”

“Oh, God,” Atobe says. “Don't. I know, I know what you're about to say. I...it was an awful thing to say. I was stupid, and angry.”

“I was disappointed in you,” she says. “But at the same time, you were a child and you were confused.”

“It really seemed that-”

“I understand,” she says. “But it wasn't anything like that. Sakaki should never have married. He'll never marry again.”

“Must've been some woman,” Atobe says.

“Exactly,” she says, with a smile.

He looks at her with narrowed eyes as realisation dawns. “He's g-”

“Yes,” she says. “That's why his marriage broke down. Maybe why he's so good with women – he's non-threatening. Women like that.” She shrugs. “You shouldn't tell him that I told you.”

“I won't,” Atobe says, reeling. “I can't believe I didn't realise.”

“Why would you?” she says. “Teenage boys only have girls and sex on the brain.”

Atobe cringes. “Please stop,” he says.

“That Oshitari Yuushi – he's a dirty slip of a thing. No wonder you made assumptions with all those testosterone-fueled monkeys around you.”

“Mother,” he says. “Please stop talking.”

She smiles. “You grew up so fast,” she says. “Soon it'll be inappropriate for me to talk about this with you. Let me have my fun.”

“Oshitari Yuushi wants to marry you,” Atobe says, pained.

“Oh, he's just a child,” she says. “Many boys want to be with older women. They're inexperienced and unsure and the authority is attractive. I used to be wild about older men. Still am, I suppose – your father is older than me.”

“I don't want to talk about this,” Atobe says. “It's wrong and disturbing.”

“Oh, shush,” she says. “You boys, I don't know. You're either jumping to conclusions or so obtuse you can't see a foot in front of you.”

“Women are just as confusing,” Atobe says. “I used to think Sakaki was a kind of genius. I wanted to be like him. And now I've discovered that-”

“He just makes an effort to understand,” she says. “That's all. There's no magic to it.”

“There's magic to it,” Atobe says. “Believe me. I couldn't work it out. I still can't.”

“Do you miss him?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Atobe says. “I don't know why. He wasn't a tennis player and we disagreed over everything. He didn't understand my heart and I didn't understand his head. He was just-”

“An amusing distraction,” she says.

“Something like that,” Atobe says.

“You're more like your father than you realise,” she says.

“Is that good, or bad?”

“Both,” she says. “You have my heart and his head. You won't go far wrong with that.”

“Is is ever coming back?”

“I'm sure he will,” she says. “He always does, eventually.”

“Mm,” Atobe says. “Were you in love with him?”

“No,” she says, truthfully. “But I miss him a lot, too.”

“Can you give me his address?” Atobe says.

She looks at him, quietly contemplative. “Yes,” she says, eventually. “If you like.”

Continue to Part Two.

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