Notes: Short one-shot for Tori's birthday; 1329 words.

by Ruebert

It began with small, foil-wrapped packages tumbling out of his school shoes, and a perfume-scented letter secreted in his racket bag during morning practice; Mukahi's too-perceptive, razor-edged smile let Ohtori know which of his teammates had indulged some skirted being's begging and contrived to steal the key to his locker.

He had expected it to begin soon, but not this soon; the clubroom should have been sacrosanct, inviolable to the infiltrations of the fairer sex. None of the other regulars had their belongings assaulted so early in the morning; why did his have to be?

"Better just leave it there, Choutarou," Shishido had said, and he'd agreed; he'd end up carrying around enough various things by the end of the day. He should have brought an extra bag, he thought. He should have hauled an extra trash bin to school with him.

By the time he made it to his classroom, his arms were already heavy, and he had to wait for a thin girl with bleached hair to add a small wrapped box to his pile before she slid the door open so that he could enter. By the time he had answered to his called name, he was erecting a miniature fortress upon his desk, hiding his notebook. At least they were good for something.

"Ohtori-kun," his teacher said, and he looked up guilty to her patient smile. "Please clear your desk."

She did not tell him where he was supposed to put it all, however, so in the end, it stayed exactly where it was.

Lunchtime, too, was a hazard best avoided, and so he made do with the small bento his mother had made him, rather than buy extra food as was his custom. He would hardly go hungry, he thought.

He hadn't been this popular last year; that was part of being a regular, he guessed. Another one of those unfortunate side effects of growing to be a better player.

Did they really think he was going to eat it all?

Ohtori didn't approve of the concept of Valentine's Day; he especially did not approve of the concept of obligation chocolates. Surely they did not think he was going to give all of them return gifts in a month; that was absurd. He didn't even know half of the girls who had contributed to the growing pile. Some of the boxes were too fancy.

"Well," one of his classmates said in an amused tone as he helped Ohtori pick up several boxes that had fallen to the floor, lost their balance on his growing parapets, "it's your birthday, too. If you look at it that way, then really only half of it's Valentine chocolate."

That was true, but it confused the issue even more; he smiled politely when a senior girl he didn't know ducked into the classroom and left a silver-wrapped box on his desk as he thanked her in his most gracious tone. When did he become so damn popular?

The biggest problem with the gifts and chocolate, he decided as the last bells rang and he began the demolition of his miniature Taj Mahal, was that it was impossible to know exactly what the emotion behind them was; he did not like the superficiality of obligation, the sweet smiles and hopes that he couldn't be sure were true or not.

Were they giving him these things because they liked him? Because they were supposed to? Because he was a regular? How many of them were meant more as birthday gifts -- how many of them were supposed to express some secret longing, some unspoken feelings? Some were obviously not chocolate; the contents of the small stack of letters hiding in his book bag could be guessed at easily enough.

Every gift and letter and shy or bold glance was replied to equally: a gentle smile as sincere as he could make it, an embarrassed laugh, a carefully-worded thanksgiving. He briefly envied Atobe; he could use a Kabaji to help carry all of this, he thought, but then he acknowledged the fact that even Kabaji probably couldn't carry all of the chocolate Atobe had likely received.

The good-natured heckling over who had gained the most chocolate in the clubroom after school was entertaining most for the reactions the 'losers' gave upon discovering their status. Ohtori was half-amused and half-disgusted at the pride he felt in discovering his own high placement in that contest. Only half of it counted, he reminded himself, and when he opened his locker, he was greeted by more thin envelopes.

"I thought the clubroom was supposed to be locked during class hours," he said as he leaned over, began collecting the evidence from the floor, his name scrawled in loops and curves and sharp-angled strokes beneath his fingers.

"It is," Oshitari had replied, and Shishido's laughter had chased Ohtori out of the room and to the tennis courts. He wondered briefly how many of his senpai were in on the joke, how many of them had snuck into the clubroom and slid those letters through the slots of his locker, and then he served.

"Does it bother you that much?"

Hiyoshi's question startled Ohtori, caused him to drop his jersey as he changed; they were the only two regulars in the clubroom as night crept down over the sky and lights snapped on outside the window beyond the blinds. "It doesn't bother me," he said, turning away and reaching into his locker for his shirt. He hadnít expected anyone to notice; he was better than that. No one could have seen that he was anything but grateful and pleased for his many gifts.

Hiyoshi was silent as they changed, and Ohtori thought the subject dropped as he finished changing, hefted his bag up on his shoulder; reaching down for the handles of the paper bag pressed upon him by a female classmate to carry his haul, he found himself grasping empty air. Startled, he looked up, and found Hiyoshi holding the bag aloft, raising and lowering it slightly as though assessing its weight.

"It bothers you," Hiyoshi said, and Ohtori smiled as he reached for the bag; the other boy pulled it away, out of reach and slid his own bag up onto his shoulder and started towards the door.

"Going to carry it for me, then?" Ohtori asked, laughing. "Didn't get enough of your own?" He didn't remember exactly how much chocolate Hiyoshi had received; not many, though more than Kabaji had. It was surprising how many girls were willing to brave Hiyoshi's outer facade; surely he'd had that same blank look on his face, the one that meant he would persevere through the insanity of his peers and come out being the sole sane survivor.

Hiyoshi didn't reply, kept walking, and Ohtori followed him out of the club room, through inner door and outer door, into the night air. It was getting late, but there was plenty of time to catch the train home, plenty of time before his birthday dinner. When Hiyoshi stopped at the edge of the school grounds, he did too, waited for the other boy to turn to look at him, and when he turned in the other direction, Ohtori watched with slight incomprehension.

"Where are you going?" he asked, and he took two steps after Hiyoshi before the other boy swung his arm and he realized what Hiyoshi was doing.

The bag of chocolates hit the bottom of the dumpster with a dull, loud thud that echoed in its empty confines; Ohtori found himself staring, mouth hanging open as Hiyoshi turned around again, looked at him with that same unmoving expression.

"What are you doing?" he asked, finally finding voice for his indignation as he stared at the other boy. Was anyone around? Had they heard that? Seen that? Hiyoshi had just thrown away all of his chocolate; had he left one of the other gifts in there as well?

"You shouldn't let yourself be bothered by things that aren't real," Hiyoshi said, and as Ohtori sputtered and sought to find a response, he turned and walked away.

The End

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