Another year, another birthday, and really, not too much was different, he supposed, though there were notable exceptions to this rule: this year, there were a few new faces among the regulars who gathered in the clubroom, though perhaps that was not really an exception. Every year would have new faces among the regulars, right?
Choutarou was unusually good at keeping secrets at times, which was unexpected for anyone who didn't know him well, but Shishido knew better. This was not one of those times, however, and anyway, he'd have been an idiot not to know that the regulars were planning something; the stupid smirks and glances in his direction all day were all he needed to know that. The fact that it was a Wednesday and they were free from tennis club for the afternoon meant little; he'd be expected to show up at the clubroom, and they'd try to 'surprise' him, and, well, he'd pretend to be surprised because it wouldn't be fair to let Choutarou's effort to keep a secret go to waste.
So this year really would be different after all, because last year he'd simply given Gakuto a slap upside the head and told him they were being idiots for trying to surprise him, and this year he held his tongue when the other senior made what he thought was a sly comment.
Shishido didn't think he'd fooled anyone when he'd walked into the regular's lockers after class had ended for the afternoon and was bombarded with confetti and streamers, but Choutarou had the biggest smile he'd seen in weeks, and if Atobe gave him a sly smile and wink, well, he could ignore it and yell at him later. He didn't restrain himself when Gakuto stole his cap and filled his hair with confetti, mussing it so badly it'd take forever to get it out again, but he kept his disgruntlement to grumbled complaints, and if it tickled just a little when bits of shiny colored paper fell down the back of his shirt, he'd put up with it.
"You didn't have to do this," he said, sounding both embarrassed and pleased, but any excuse for a party, right? Plus it wasn't often that he got to be older than Atobe, he thought with a smirk aimed at his buchou. It was better to have a quiet birthday when Atobe's was right around the corner, too. That was going to be an ordeal he couldn't even try to escape from. Finding a present for someone who had everything was going to suck, but he'd deal with it later. Hopefully Choutarou had some sort of idea.
He'd suffered through the gag gifts and even managed to smile at some of them; Choutarou had pressed a small wrapped package into his hand and asked him to open it later, please, and then had been made subject to teasing which had ended with a cup of soda upended over Jirou's head -- by accident, Shishido really hadn't been aiming at him, but Gakuto had dodged too damn fast for him.
All in all, it hadn't been a bad 'surprise' party; even Hiyoshi had brought him a present, though he hadn't expected one from the taciturn junior at all, and his thanks upon unwrapping the book were genuine. Hiyoshi had nodded sharply and then retreated to his corner again, a somewhat reluctant participant in the affair from what Shishido could tell, eating his piece of cake in silence after scraping the too-sugary icing away and watching the rest of the team in silence.
Choutarou's present fit perfectly into his hand in his jacket pocket, and he ran his thumb over a seam sealed with tape as he walked home after leaving his doubles partner at the subway station where he caught his train home. He'd somehow enjoyed the party more than been irritated by it, this year.
He didn't notice the footsteps following him; the sidewalk wasn't crowded, but there were enough other pedestrians that one more set of shoes scraping on the pavement meant little, until he reached a stoplight and stood waiting for the signal to turn for him, and a familiar voice spoke up from just behind and to his left.
"Mind if I walk with you?"
Shishido half-turned in surprise; he hadn't heard that voice all day, and he was pretty sure that this wasn't the other senior's usual route home, but he nodded. "Sure. I don't mind," he said, though his brows drew together, and he was sure that his confusion was obvious. Why would Taki Haginosuke want to walk with him? Didn't he live near the school?
A smirk played across Taki's face, and he reached forward to poke Shishido's shoulder. "Hey. The light's green, stupid."
Shishido blinked once, then turned quickly, and Taki fell into step beside him easily as they crossed the street, avoiding the cracks in the asphalt with ease. He looked at Taki out of the corner of his eye and tried to figure out what was up; they didn't share any classes this year, so tennis practice was the only time they really saw each other anymore. It didn't make much sense, so he didn't say anything as they kept on walking.
Several blocks passed before Taki spoke, his voice low and soft, so that Shishido could barely hear him over the noises of traffic and the chatter of other students released from classes and heading home.
"I really hated you for a while, you know," Taki said, and Shishido's steps faltered briefly before he caught his pace again, not sure what he was supposed to say to that. Of course he knew exactly what Taki was talking about, but he'd thought that the other senior was over it; it'd been over two months ago, and they'd interacted comfortably in practice after that.
"I really, really hated you. Ohtori too. You aimed at me because I was the weakest, and he helped you, but he was my partner first. He never helped me like that." Taki didn't look at Shishido, just kept walking forward, looking straight ahead as he spoke, and Shishido decided that it would probably be better to let him get it off his chest.
He hadn't felt guilty for what he and Choutarou had done, anyway. If Taki had been better--
"If I'd been better, would you still have gone after me?" The question made him blink, and he fumbled for an answer before Taki continued, obviously not expecting an answer. "Or was it just because I was Ohtori's partner? You two are better together than I ever was with him, but it still pissed me off. Him going behind my back to help you so you could bump me off the regulars."
Taki hadn't been at the party; the party was for regulars only, and, well, Shishido had to admit that he hadn't really thought about what it was like on Taki's end, being beaten and replaced by someone else. It didn't really matter, did it? If Taki wanted his position back, he could work for it the way Shishido had.
"It was worse when it got out that you two were training together. I mean, bumped off by my own partner for someone else? Yeah. I was really pissed off at you. You weren't supposed to be able to do that, just get back on the regulars like that."
How the hell was he supposed to reply to that? If Taki's words had held any anger in them, he could have fought back, but the light tone he was using confounded Shishido. He didn't sound angry, though he said that he was, and his words should have sounded angry.
"Hey," Taki said, and his fingers caught on Shishido's sleeve, halted him before he could step down off the curb. "The light's red."
Shishido blinked, looked at Taki in surprise, and felt just a bit stupid as he looked back ahead and to the light, which was indeed red. "Thanks," he said, his voice betraying his awkwardness. Why was Taki telling him all this? He didn't --
He hadn't felt guilty about what he'd done. It was normal. That was just how Hyoutei worked. For him to get back on the team, someone had to be dropped. So he hadn't felt badly for beating Taki, or for asking Choutarou to go behind his partner's back to train with him, and he hadn't felt the least bit of guilt when he'd finally told Choutarou who it was, exactly, that he was aiming to beat and take down among the regulars.
So why did he feel guilty now?
"S'nothing," Taki said, shrugging with a slight smile, and Shishido thought suddenly that it was rather strange, actually, how quickly Taki had seemed to get over his loss, how he'd never seemed to be mad with him for beating him in front of the other club members, for humiliating him like that in front of their lowerclassmen and Ohtori. He hadn't thought anything of it at the time, simply been grateful that things had progressed pretty much as normal, but it seemed that he'd been wrong.
"Taki," he said, trying to figure out what to say -- he had to say something, now that the other senior -- not exactly a friend, not really a teammate any longer, but still someone he'd spent countless hours with over the past two years, and even before that, having spent several years in primary school together, though they hadn't been involved in the same clubs then.
"I was pretty pissed off at you," Taki said, interrupting him, looking back ahead, hair swishing softly against his cheeks as he turned his eyes away and stepped down off the curb.
"You didn't say anything," Shishido replied at last as he followed behind, staring at thin shoulders, trying to puzzle this out.
"I figured it wouldn't make any difference if I did. It'd just be whining, right, and what would anyone think of that? Atobe'd never ask Kantoku to let me back on the team even if I was ever able to manage what you did, so what was the point of saying anything that would embarrass me more?" Taki shrugged as they continued walking, but Shishido didn't move to walk beside him again, just kept his eyes on bobbing hair and the racket bag thumping lightly against Taki's shoulder.
"I didn't want to look stupid in front of the club again, so I didn't say anything, and things pretty much went back to normal. I was still pissed at you and Ohtori for a long time though.
"I kept watching you two play together -- I really wanted to see you two screw up, you know, but you just kept getting better. When you took Doubles One away from Gakuto and Oshitari, I thought that maybe you were better with Ohtori than I was -- they always beat us as a pair -- but I really wanted you to lose against Seigaku."
The winner will be Hyoutei.
"And then you didn't lose."
The loser will be Seigaku.
Taki stopped walking, and Shishido almost ran into him, caught himself just in time before the other senior turned, looked at him with a smile that just didn't fit with his words. "You're better with Ohtori than I ever will be. You two -- you're really partners, really friends. You're better together than Gakuto and Oshitari. You're better at doubles with Ohtori than you ever were at singles, and he plays better with you than with anyone else."
Taki laughed as Shishido's mouth dropped open, and he shut it quickly, narrowing his eyes. Compliments now? What was Taki trying to get at?
Some of that confusion must have communicated itself to Taki, because he stepped closer then, and Shishido noticed again that the other teenager was shorter than him, and he wondered what it was like for Choutarou, playing with a partner even shorter than him.
"Anyway. I wanted to tell you that I'm not mad at you or Ohtori anymore." Taki looked away then, shrugged his shoulders and slid his racket bag down to rest at his feet, reached down to tug at one of the zippers.
"Taki," he started, but his voice held little force behind it, and he tried again. It wouldn't make the guilt go away, but at least he could acknowledge it, even if it wasn't really what most Hyoutei students would say -- but Choutarou would have said it, so he should. "Taki, I'm -- sorry."
Dark eyes blinked up at him quizzically as Taki straightened up, and the light smile turned into a wide grin. Taki reached up with both hands, patted Shishido's shoulders at the same time. "You didn't have to say that, you know."
"I know," Shishido said, and if possible, he felt more awkward than he had before, his tongue tied in knots, his fingers crushing the corners of the little package in his pocket.
"But --" Taki said, and his grin dropped back to that small, sincere expression again, "-- I forgive you." He stepped away and dropped his hands and for a moment he seemed hesitant, eyes flickering to the side before he looked straight at Shishido again, hands moving forward in a quick motion to push something against Shishido's chest.
Shishido reached up with his free hand, caught the object before it could fall, and stared down at it in surprise as Taki grabbed his racket bag, shouldered it again and turned away, back in the direction they'd been coming from.
"Happy Birthday, Shishido."
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