Summary: Set seven years after current timeline in manga and anime. The boys are now older but some of them are not getting brighter in those matters called love. This is un-beta-ed so beware of many mistakes.

Notes: All Sanada/Atobe's bits here are dedicated to Sharl because she keeps telling me that she wants them. But after all that tango thing in anime, who won't dub them as an official pairing? I still vote for Sanada/Renji though.

Practicing Altruism
by Atthla

Part 1

"Angle your head a bit to the right, Shishido-kun. Yes, get a little closer to Atobe-kun."

Lying on the navy-carpeted stairs with one elbow propped to his side, Shishido answers with an annoyed small grunt but still obeys his bald photographer nonetheless. The heat many bright photoflood lamps hovering above him emits is almost unbearable and still, to lean closer to Atobe, who has his legs sprawled few steps below him, and his infuriating scent is even more so. As he adjusts his head to lean closer to the ashen-haired guy, he mutters under his breath, "Do you have to always use that much perfume? The smell is nauseating."

Atobe shares him a disdainful look from the corner of his eyes. "It's Armani, thank you very much. And you yourself perfectly know that my taste is always the best."

With his gaze forcedly fixed on the tripod in front of him, the longhaired guy has to satisfy himself by glaring at the camera. Unfortunately –but not unexpectedly– it earns him a scold from their photographer.

"I said a smirk, Shishido-kun! Not a frown! Angle your head– yes! That's it! But that face of yours..."

Shishido watches warily at the man stomping loudly to his spot. He can almost feel Atobe's amused smirk boring to his side as said photographer holds his face in place, vehemently pulling its muscles to craft a smirk he desired. When it has been artfully done, he gives a final touch by letting the now smirking young man's long bangs to fall covering the edge of his right eyes.

"Voila!" he claps his hands together in sheer satisfaction, eyes glinting vigorously. As he hurries back to his waiting camera, he throws a warning look to his less unmanageable model, "Don't move, Shishido-kun! Or I will have you smiling like tomorrow never comes!"

The threat is working for Shishido, or at least it has been until his captain launches another unnecessary mock, inconspicuously so with gaze still set forward and lips hardly moving. "Get a grip on yourself, pretty boy."

"What the fu-"

"Shishido-kun!" There is another exasperated scream from his photographer who is waving his hands madly in the air right now.

It may prove really difficult to deal with Shishido Ryou, but many will choose to endure him due to his good –beautiful to be precise– look and the smooth flowing long hair. Along with the haughty Atobe-sama from the same Hyoutei University, the two are gaining quite a name in the world of modeling in their age of twenty-one. But it is far from seldom that Shishido acts uncooperatively as a result of his short temper and his actual lack of interest in the chosen profession. He said it was because he had nothing better to do and it would be nice to have his own earning regardless his family, which was nowhere near financially deprived. To him, few are important with tennis put aside. Atobe can still remember perfectly when Shishido's stylist shrieked in horror of seeing a hideous bruise on her charge's face thanks to a shot Kabaji sent him. It sure raised a commotion back then and after that, his friend has been careful not to receive any kind of ball with his face.

Some might think it is really unfair that even in a short hair like two years ago, Shishido still managed to look attractive. Yet now, when he has decided to let his hair grow long once again, he looks dangerously stunning to both eyes of men and women. It doesn't escape Atobe though, the real reason why his friend chooses his old pretty façade over the capped shorthaired one he used to like much better.

Meanwhile in the present time, the photographer has yet to cease his wails.

"No, Shishido-kun! Not that kind of cheery ugly grin! I wasn't asking you to exclaim 'I love ponta!' or– fine! Imagine that you are surrounded by your fangirls and you want to look cool to them!"

It will never work, especially for Shishido –he already has too many dreadful memories involving fangirls. Atobe sighs dejectedly; judging from his friend's deepening scowl, the session isn't about to end anywhere near soon if he lets the incompetent bald man to continue his fruitless ranting. Pulling the other guy's head closer to his neck, careful enough not to tousle the thoroughly arranged hair, he murmurs irritably to Shishido's ear, "I don't want to waste any more minute here, so just cooperate."

As he says that, his fingers are deftly working on the long-haired guy's facial expression. It is a good thing that the photographer was quick enough to see his opportunity and a few shots are captured right after Atobe places Shishido back to lean to his arm.

"At last!" A wave of relief washes everybody involved in the session at the exclamation, including their two models. Shishido abruptly stands up and heads to the changing room, trying to make as far distance as possible with the source of a sickening odor that was Atobe. That, of course, doesn't escape the taller guy, who merely raises his fine eyebrows in response.

That doesn't last for long either. A full-length mirror immediately catches his attention as he runs his gaze up and down, appraising his body and its admirable fitness with the all-black attire he is wearing. He sighs in admiration and his reflection follows a moment later; very few indeed –if not none– who is able to match his beauty. Finally coming into a conclusion, he declares to the woman standing patiently in wait behind him, "I will purchase this one. Send the bill to my address."

"Yes, Atobe-san," the woman bows in gratitude, familiar to the rich and their antics.

After putting on his trench coat by the ever-faithful Kabaji's aid, he paces in a leisure speed to the exit. Half his way there, Shishido emerges from the changing room, already wearing his usual street clothes with hair tied into an elegant tail behind his head. An idea strikes the Hyoutei's captain when he meets his friend's sullen glare.

"Pick me up later at my apartment, Shishido. At six. We'll go to dinner."

What the hell...? Shishido stares hard at his captain. If it, by any chance, is a request, Atobe sure chose the wrong accent –not that he would accept if he had been asked politely since it would be too suspicious, too un-Atobe-like. That sort of invitation is pretty frequent now that they has the same part-time job but sometimes the way Atobe conveys his request is infuriating, rather unappealing. Using an accusing tone, Shishido replies as he glares at the taller guy, "You'll choose French. Again."

There is a swish of ashen-coloured hair, which almost makes Shishido wince. It is a good thing Atobe doesn't seem to relish the idea to grow his hair long for everybody's good sakes. "What do you expect from someone with a great taste like ore-sama?"

The other is about to retort –sourly– when ear-splitting screams deluge them once they step out of the studio. Jamming their exit is a load of girls, screaming and shrieking in their piercing high-pitched voice at the two models.


"Atobe-saaaaaaan! Look this way pleeaaseee!""

"Is it true that the two of you..."

" an item!??"

"Oh! The magnificence of love!"


Shishido's expression turns into a horrified one while Atobe merely handles the worship using his typical graceful ease, too accustomed to be held in the highest regard since he was but a little child. The screaming rapidly intensifies at Atobe's blinding smirk as well as Shishido's scowl, followed by many flashes of light from cameras, presumably reporters' in addition to fans'. Inwardly the longhaired guy curses; perhaps the world has suddenly gone quiet and sufferes a serious lack of events that those reporters suddenly feel the need to expose about the two models. Or their relationship has become that ambiguous that they have no choice but to make a fuss over it. At the latter, Shishido groans.

Hands, pale and skinny, are everywhere in his line of sight, putting forth thick, framed paper for him to accept and sign. Shishido reaches for some of them, eyes keep glancing at his friend who seems terribly at ease, even enjoying his trapped situation. It has never ceased to amaze him, Atobe's ostentatious way with girls, since he himself regards girls and their entity as a nuisance even less worthy existing than smallpox virus.

Someone –he doesn't remember who– once made an unwarranted comment over his prejudiced opinion about girls that he was suffering the first stadium of gay syndromes. His temper went instantly detonated that moment, which resulted in a long chase around the school to pursue the speaker and give him a fair lesson not to be forgotten. Perhaps it was Gakuto.

"Thank you so much, Shishido-san! May I get a kiss on the cheek?"

Shishido blinks and stares at the blue-haired girl in front of him, at the bright hazel eyes sparkling with tints of hope. Spoiling fans has never been his kind but for some vague reasons, hazel seems to be a colour he can never say no to, particularly if it has something to do with eyes.

A small peck on the cheek won't do any harm anyway. At least he has thought so until he hears a shriek coming from his side, too alarming to be a girl's, as noisy as her species tends to be, but too nonsensical to dub it as a wild beast's. At his right, with a smug, self-satisfied smile stretched on his lips, Atobe is cradling a pink-haired girl (pink??) who seems to lose her consciousness right away as soon as she receives a kiss from the guy of her dreams, most likely unexpected. And then the screaming escalates for an octave as well as fifty decibels.

For Shishido, the advantages following Atobe's flamboyant attitude are few, but at that moment he is content with it since it allows him to silently make an escape. All the girls have their eyes fixed on the Hyoutei captain, probably expecting an equal treatment to all fans. The temptation to steal a glance at his friend's face is almost too much but Shishido wisely chooses to regard his getaway a priority.

With a dash he is always so proud of, Shishido rushes to his car, tosses his bag to the front seat, and slams the door shut. It takes him less than five seconds to start the ignition and sends it flying on the smooth asphalted road with white specks of snow here and there, offhandedly noting that it is winter and something wrong may happen since the engine is not heated properly. Well, at least his escape is a downright success.

A mass of snow sprawled across the ashen black road forces him to slow down and Shishido curses loudly at the traffic light as it turns into a vivid mocking red. He has never been a particularly cautious driver, but time is the damn essence, he has countered every time Oshitari points out the obvious fact.

Idly watching a number of colorful heads passing in his unfocused sight, he turns on his radio and automatically grimaces when a glorious classical symphony echoes in his car. Damn, he has never noticed that this station broadcasts classics too. Not that he has something against them –if anything, Hyoutei's music lesson centered a lot in classics, much to his dismay; it is just that his sense of classical music almost whitewashes his eloquence of polite speaking in term of Shishido Ryou's worst of skills. Clicking his tongue in impatience, he glances at the still red light and reaches out to search for another sound of his nature.

But then the solo violin starts and his hand stops in mid-air.

If there is any instrument in classic Shishido isn't entirely a stranger with, it is a violin. Not that he has played it himself, but he has seen it in a number of sporadic occasions, under calloused yet soft fingers of an artist as well as a tennis player with the fastest serve he has ever encountered, heard high melodious tunes crafting a song he did not quite comprehend from the deft shifting of fingers, the grazing of a long narrow bow with fastened strings. The grey-haired boy stood in his towering height with head slanted to his side, while Shishido himself lounged leisurely in the boy's bed, not quite listening to the play yet intently watching feathers of grey tresses caressing the pristine surface of polished spruce.

Shishido has not met said boy for nearly two years now. He almost forgets the soothing sound of violin even though the enraptured expression of Choutarou whenever he stands in concert for his senpai is engraved securely onto his memory. It was that look which lent Shishido the strength to still smile encouragingly when his only partner told him that he would enroll Juilliard School of Music exactly on his high school graduation day.

Until that day, he had always thought of going to the same university with Choutarou, continuing to play tennis as a too good double pair, but definitely not separating for who-knew-how-many-damn-miles-between-New-York-and-Japan. Shishido has never really been an expert at keeping his emotions at bay and that is exactly why he prefers to interact as little as possible with his former partner since the departure. While he admits that he is extremely pissed off, disappointed by the decision, dreams –especially Choutarou's dreams– are something he always respects to the highest degree. They are the strong will which put people in motion to begin their long, often arduous chase and Choutarou –the sweet kind Choutarou– deserves every bit of support he can attain.

Unfortunately the only supportive deed Shishido could bring himself to do was to avoid meeting him in person, to avoid telling him by the eyes that he should not leave, that Shishido did not want him to leave. Well, he was that big bad of bastard, but to make Choutarou hesitate even just a little was beyond bastard.

Leaning forward to rest his chin on the steering wheel, Shishido looks up to the afternoon sky of winter. Grim clouds promise more snow to coat those remained exposed, brown soils sprouted with grass and dull pavement patterned by footprints. The sun and her glare are obscured by layers of clouds, so thick in their grey, and the colour reminds him of Chotarou's artfully messy hair. And when cold flakes of snow fall, the glimmering white is a memoir of pureness, the simplicity and honesty of his partner of the very best.

Winter is a world of white and grey, Shishido notes when he pushes down the gas pedal. And he hates it, like a token of a too brilliant past which will be only too wistful to be remembered.

Because it is indeed only the past.

Self-esteem is fundamentally important in every aspect of life; that is what Shishido has learned in tennis, because without self-esteem, every facet and fraction of a game will appear as poor as trying to play without a damn racket, coming close to rotten. Everybody needs self-esteem, but in Atobe's case, ego –a syndrome not rare enough afflicting many Hyotei's alumni although his is utterly unparalleled, not to mention incurable– is a severe illness, no longer lingering simply as an aid to reach higher.

Another thing, it is Shishido who has to suffer through the worst of Atobe's gigantic narcissism, losing only to Kabaji who –by no means of offense– seems to possess less awareness than the dumbest, thickest of all mortals, that he is being confined in slavery. He respects Kabaji, really, especially in the term of tolerance, but one of Shishido's still unfulfilled Christmas wishes is to see the huge underclassman beating the world out of Atobe for his God-like attitude. He deserves it.

Grumbling incoherently to himself, Shishido slams his car door and locks it in one motion. His deep blue eyes, angry and searching, find a luxurious apartment building standing elegantly in its quiet splendor, circled by well-kept gardens of green and white which are nothing more than dark shadows now under the veil of night sky. It is just like Atobe to pay for the whole top floor when he decides that his grand house can no longer satisfy his need of privacy, no second thought of earthquake or sort. Not that it is unexpected from a guy like him, but it is beside the point. Shishido can care less about his friend's obsession of high pedestals or thrones, a topic which will never come up at any of his internal battles if he hasn't made that phone call a minute ago.

"Hey, Atobe, I'm here already. You better get down quickly."

"Go up."

"Wha-" And damnit, he hung up.

Atobe must have done something in his past life, an irrefutably wondrous deed, phenomenal even, which allows him to nurture the biggest ego in this present life –to the grief and despair of all people in his vicinity, it is still growing now– and in spite of Shishido's scream of misery and everything else, he stays safe, intact, untouched, unpunished... unbeaten. When the day has finally come for justice to be endorsed, Shishido sincerely wishes that he will earn the fortune to land at least one punch squarely on that ever-so-smug face.

Sometimes he wonders why their friendship can last for fifteen years.

His trained feet are fast pacing to the building's entrance, obviously no stranger to the territory. From the corner of his eyes, he catches a shadow moving in the darkness of his surroundings, followed by a flash of blinding light. Other than a scowl, Shishido hardly shows any reaction at the fading sound of hurried footsteps. The paparazzi better thanks his good luck that the longhaired model is currently harboring deeper resentment for someone else.

Nevertheless, he hastens his strides, considering that the rumors of his relationship with Atobe has grown sacrilegious enough. The guard on duty that night spots him and inclines his head slightly, recognizing the young man as a 'close acquaintance' of the rich master living at the highest floor. Shishido grinds his teeth together; well, at least he doesn't say anything offensive, which is for the best considering the state of his temper. Not a minute later, he has stood in front of Atobe's dark oak door, glaring menacingly at the fairly guiltless door.

Instead of a full-uniformed butler like usual, the captain of Hyoutei himself answers to his bell. Shishido is about to throw a snide remark –or anything else which has the capacity to hurt Atobe, even his shoes if it can reduce his increasing annoyance– when he notices that his friend is wearing a silk maroon bathrobe.

It is the first thing he put into comment. "Shit. If you're going with that bathrobe to your French dinner, I'm outta here."

A flicker of irritation flashes across the taller guy's eyes. "What do you think my taste is? I have just arrived thanks to someone who chose to run for his own dear life and abandon friendship."

If Atobe's expression were anything else but conceited bliss back then, Shishido might have reconsidered his solitary escape, so there is no plausible reason for him to trust his captain now. The harsh biting retort is on the edge of his tongue, swirling in the disturbing atmosphere of sizzling magma that is his fury, ready to be spat out in every ruthless way he can think of, when Atobe continues his complaint.

"There were almost two hundreds girls and each requested for a signature and a kiss from ore-sama. My stamina may be matchless, but honestly, Shishido, any human will be exhausted after..."

And it goes on and on. Shishido steps into the spacious penthouse, visibly ignoring most of the rambling as Atobe closes the door behind him. Somewhere during his second year in high school, Choutarou mentioned about their captain's tendency to condemn Shishido for every little thing –he doesn't do that to Oshitari or Gakuto, how blessed they were– after a long period of intent observation.

"I think it is because Atobe-buchou puts a great trust on you, Shishido-san, more than anyone else. You two have been friends for long, right?"

His reaction back then was a snort, disbelief for most with a hint of denial, which Choutarou had probably noticed if his little smile afterward were anything to go by. But to believe the theory now, when the irreplaceable company of a gentle silver-haired boy that anyone will wish as a best friend and partner is no longer at his side, is far easier than then.

At the end of his reminiscence, Shishido smacks himself mentally. He is remembering Choutarou too much; it is the second time for the day, although it is by no standard comparable to those first days after his partner's departure, when even inhaling airs was a matter of thought, too heavy to be ignored and too enticing to his lonesome mind. The devastating impacts of his overwhelming emotion subsided eventually, but obviously not disappeared. Fragments of past often disturbs him still in shape of dreams and wandering thoughts, but to that, he has no cure.

Upon stepping into the vast chamber coated by soft burgundy carpet Atobe called parlor, the sound of violin plaited in orchestra greets his hearing and makes him freeze to his spot.

Not again...

"Like what you hear?" Atobe's voice rises from behind him, coloured with self-satisfaction, shaking him out of his temporary trance.

"Not exactly my choice, but it's fine," he answers with a shrug and sits down on one of many couches there, glancing absentmindedly to the CD case lying on the table in front of him. Under the shield of crystal clear plastic, its front cover is scenery of grey and white, of winter and a city sheltered by snow with a clear smooth writing of Winter: Fall of Grace inscribed amidst pale square lights that are images of windows. His frown is deepening but Shishido is still capable of continuing his mordant remark with a great deal of revulsion.

"Compared to those craps you usually listen to."

A contemptuous snort is Atobe's prelude for the trailing answer. "I certainly cannot expect you, whose daily consumption of music is lamentably limited to anime's soundtrack and such, to appreciate the beauty of classics."

The counterattack is almost a Hametsu he no Rondo, but his sharpened Rising Counter, aided with arduous years through practice and torture of being the Hyoutei captain's friend, teaches him well enough how to set a decent return volley. "You're a bastard full with prejudice, Atobe, so just cut the crap and change that bloody bathrobe into those things you call suits. Or tuxedos. Anything. Just get it off."

Atobe exhibits an unbearably patronizing smirk, which as a matter of fact, is his most common expression. "You really want to see me off this bathrobe that much?"

Shishido slaps his own forehead, leaning back to the couch in utter despair. "I always know you are an idiot."

The reply, however, doesn't come in shape of words in their snidest, but in a light pressing of lips to his own mouth, as plain and hollow as a cloudy morning in thin vague mist. Still maintaining his eyes shut, Shishido stays silent, motionless, waiting for the movement of his friend's lips to slowly cease in count of seconds, either due to his show of indifference or a sudden realization hitting the Hyoutei captain hard that the kiss is not meant for those lips.

After inwardly counting to three, Shishido frees his sight from the barrier of eyelids, meeting myriads sparkles of white in seas of azure that are Atobe's eyes, detached and impenetrable. Slowly his hand balls into a tight fist and a strike, harder than playful ones but still considerably gentler than minions of wrath, lands under the captain's angular jaw, reprimanding in a way that solely was Shishido Ryou's.

"You play the wrong court."

Yet Atobe understands. He may always obtain what he wants –because wish is never a word applied to the almighty captain– but Shishido... is different in many ways, in aspects so outlandish for him that he can barely control them. With his parents put aside, it is not entirely wrong to announce that those resolving around Atobe are basically divided into 'my slaves' –or for the luckier ones, merely 'my compliant subordinates'– and 'my enemies who-are-so-doomed-for-breathing-and-existing-in-the-opposite-side-of-ore-sama'. There is, of course, an exceptionally rare case regarding the elite title 'my lover', but there is only one person so far that has been granted such honor to bear it.

Obviously Shishido is not the one labeled 'my lover', since there isn't enough wealth in the world to bribe him into taking Atobe –along with his horrible personality– as his lover. But somehow, subordinate is also not his term and the longhaired guy has made it more obvious with his rebellious attitude in their daily life. Shishido simply exists, free and tempestuous, and since Atobe knows no friend in his world of supremacy, the other's existence is perplexing, close to awkward but not exactly unlikable.

Once again letting a smirk soaking his moist lips, Atobe stands up, followed by Shishido's gaze that has descended into pensive. Long russet locks fall sheltering dark eyes and the unease within, an emotion which has been reduced into blurred traces veiled behind irises through many similar occurrences since but two years ago. Sometimes the urge to award his friend a square hit for doing the stupidest of all things is so overwhelming, but as for now, Shishido chooses to sidestep it as he reaches for a foreign magazine from the stack under the coffee table.

He is flipping through the pages, recognizing several words in English while the rest fades into a train of blurry black figures in white shell that is the smooth page, because the taste of Atobe's lips lingers, pungently, preventing him to be immersed into any kind of petty distraction. The Hyoutei captain has kissed him so many times after Choutarou left –not that he has ever kissed his former partner– and it always leaves that kind of trace, alarmingly inerasable. Another thing to Shishido's dismay, surrounding was the egoist's moot point when it comes to kissing and Kabaji's presence is in fact forgettable so...

That reminds him of something.

"Hey, where is Kabaji?" he looks up from his reading, eyes roaming about the room, searching for any monstrous height looming unnoticed at some dark corner before it halts at Atobe's upright back. The trickling sound raises his eyebrows into twin fine arcs; it is rare, if not indeed miraculous, that he witnesses his friend to serve drink even for himself.

The voice which answers to him is slightly peeved, yet suppresses a morsel of amusement and it doesn't escape the other guy. "Going for a date."

Shishido stares, hard, motionlessly unresponsive until Atobe turns on his heels with two tall glasses in his hands. When he opens his mouth, utter disbelief is his opted tone of voice. "Did you say 'a date'??"

Atobe smirks, offering one of the wineglasses to his guest. "Hard to believe, eh? What if I say the girl is a real cutie?"

"You're nuts," Shishido decides, sipping the red almost black liquid and nearly at once, bittersweet tang burns the back of his throat. "Shit. What the hell is this??"

The smirk stretches a notch wider as the Hyoutei captain answers smugly, tall glass pirouetted between long taper fingers, "A Beaujolais wine, Cöte de Brouilly. My father brought it back from France. Find it satisfactory?"

"How the hell I suppose to know?" Shishido snorts, observing the wine with a revolted expression. "I'm not into alcohol."

"Excellent taste never does any harm," the other points out.

Of course it does –Shishido of all people will know it better than anyone else. Atobe's so-called excellent taste had been a part of his world long ago, if not entirely the realm he had tunneled in, before a boy named Ohtori Choutarou seeped so smoothly, undetectably yet influentially, in to his stuck-up life and crashed it down along with his hollow vanity, overhauling it into an epitome it was now, which Shishido liked so much better. His loss to Tachibana is not a bane, but a strong reminder for him not to fall into the same pit over and over again and after some times, he knows he is glad it did happen.

As for Atobe, he can barely picture the Hyoutei captain inhabiting any other kind of dominion but that of luxury-draped, but since he is able to live up that scale of ego, anybody can hardly voice a complaint. For some implausible reasons, it suits Atobe so well that it is literally frightening to see him behaving with the slightest bit of diffidence.

Which precisely what he is putting into play right now.

Shishido may have befriended the Hyoutei captain longer than he bothers to care, yet to see such expression, contemplative without a trace of hauteur, plainly displayed in his face is indeed a special treat. Navy eyes are glued to dark red liquid, as if entranced by the swirling motion it makes under the imprisonment that was translucent glass, fine brows knitting together into a thin arc, somewhat masked by many vague lines of frown. But the stare is into distance. A far-away country, separated by more than vast blue ocean is the lucid illustration in his eyes, not dreamy reflection of burgundy.

A little smile, rueful enough to make Shishido wince upon its emergence, creases Atobe's lips into a small curve. His voice is equally forlorn when it hums in the room, filling it with an air nobody will expect to rise in the Hyoutei captain's presence, quiet and heavy.

"I've just noticed that things will be clearer if they have a significant distance to your eyes."

If Atobe's little experiment –by drawing the glass close to his eyes only to put it at some gap from his face a moment later– has anything to do with what he has said, Shishido is going to gnaw his shoes. That tone of voice is not about the glass –or the span in between; it is about longing and the agony it so intimately carries through distances. Times such as now allows him to notice that there were cracks too in Atobe, in his flawless perfection, where sometimes emotions, a confirmation that he is also an ordinary human like anyone else, can leak through.

He recognizes the throbbing pulse of distress, but can hardly decline the offered chance to lighten the mood when it is right there, simply waiting to be taken. While the captain's arrogance is a real pain in the ass, melancholy blends in solemnity isn't that much better as a changeover. It makes him uncomfortable, all in all because he knows Atobe too well.

"Are you talking about Kabaji?"

The look which directly surfaces at his words is torn between dry amusement and irritation, and so does the voice which answers starkly, "Sometimes your stupidity surprises me."

"Give him a call," he points out the piece of fact, which is so obvious that it is literally scratching his skin, unimpressed by his captain's attempt to boil his usually short temper. "What's the point with you having five cells?"

The other remains pokerfaced. "Ore-sama doesn't understand your irrelevant idea."

Shishido is trying his best not to grin, and fails miserably. Sometimes, his grueling years with the Hyoutei captain which results in countless Atobe-centered facts and knowledge more than he will ever wish to know, can be really of use. "You kissed me, asshole, you obviously miss him. England is a hair's breadth away through that phone. Or you want me to dial his number for you?"

At the end of his statement, Atobe looks so indignantly offended that it takes even more for the longhaired guy not to uproariously laugh. If his company is anyone but Shishido –not that there is anybody else who dares to confront the powerful captain to this level, in exception perhaps for Oshitari– they will probably end up worse than having amputated limbs –no exaggerating. Even in his case, Shishido can see his friend seriously considering scores of painful ways to make his life miserable already, plentiful enough to be unremittingly done until the last of his breath.

But taper fingers playing absentmindedly on the surface of a silver cell phone says otherwise. They speak of the underneath, the unvoiced ones, and even in Atobe's case, there are times that they will reign over many impenetrable masks of pride. Shishido knows they have when the aforesaid fingers move, hesitantly caressing pale protuberant buttons. Shishido knows then that they have, for a good deal of long time, when one 'redial' button is all to press before Atobe lifts the phone to his ear.

It is five seconds to wait before Atobe's expression turne tense, lips tightening into a stiff firm line, and his voice echoes into the wire. "Hey, it's me."

The self-aggrandizing quality is still there, but Shishido isn't too sure that it can cover even just a little the anxiety so palpably displayed in the Hyoutei captain's face, despite the measureless expanse that indisputably forestalls the person at the other side of the line to have an eyeful look. The theory us confirmed once Atobe says, "No, everything is fine. I just don't have anything better to do."

Shishido mouths a 'liar', which immediately earns him a look full of bites and threats from the other guy. His broad grin goes even significantly wider at the rising of Atobe's voice and then at the mention of his name –his friend is obviously making a lame excuse and the jumbled words don't help. Sanada is probably the only living man who can bring the Hyoutei captain's eternal eloquence to an end and it amuses him a great deal that he is there to witness the miracle unfold itself. Atobe, after all, is only human.

Then, as if an evil spell has been cast, the face grows steadily darker. "Oh, right. See you later."

There is a hint of bitterness along with something akin to displeasure marring the usually smooth voice, which alerts the longhaired guy at once that the outcome does not favor them. His suspicion is confirmed when the silver mobile is tossed aside and landed on his lap with a soft thud.

"He has a morning practice to attend."

The words contain mostly boredom and they are so close in convincing Shishido if only the earlier picture has not seriously injured his trust already. Slowly he nods, acknowledging the given reason yet declining the tacit request to generously drop the subject. "Make sense. It's morning there."

It is not the least bit a smirk which freezes Atobe's lips into a quirk; the bitterness is too clear even to completely blind eyes. "Yes, it completely makes sense, doesn't it?"

"But?" Shishido prods on, noting the tone smothered beneath the imperfection of a masquerade, yet still maintaining vigilance to thread the thin line that is his way, like a delicate strand stretched above vast subterranean abyss. It can lead to many horrible ends even if he has managed to keep himself from slipping on the way. But so far he had been careful –in his opinion.

Atobe shoots him a look full of irritation, obviously offended by the persistent nudge. "What? There is no 'but'."

Overall, Shishido's reply is simply summed in a subtle hum, yet so eloquent that the undertone is nowhere near inaudible. At that moment as if some strong but invisible power has compelled him, Atobe blurts out –undoubtedly accidentally. "But it was that roommate of his who told him about the morning practice."


Another monosyllable of eloquence. The Hyoutei captain gritted his white well-spaced teeth, resisting the urge to sink said teeth into pale flawless column that is Shishido's neck and witness in a sheer sense of proud fulfillment for his disobedient not-accurately-a-subordinate subordinate to bleed himself to death. Really, the mental image is quite tempting to be factually materialized, especially when Shishido has that smirk representing gargantuan hilarity pasted on every inch of his face.

"What is exactly the point of talking to you?"

"Your jealousy is unfounded, Atobe," the longhaired guy points out. "He had known Yanagi Renji for years before he met you and decided to devastate the perfection of his life by dating you."

For once, the Hyoutei captain chooses to ignore the snide comment –or probably Shishido's uncalled-for remarks are all too familiar to him now that he barely deems them abusive to his seamless life– and goes straight to his suspecting hypothesis. "They are roommates. Who knows what they do in their bedroom? And I'm not jealous."

Shishido clicks his tongue in apparent incredulity, finding the whole theory a complete incongruity that is implausibly amusing at some parts. "So little faith you have there. What about you kissing me?"

"That's beside the point."

"Damn right, that's beside the point," Shishido echoes with extreme sarcasm burning his voice, fingers briskly shuffling through pages of the magazine he previously 'read'. He stops at a page which particularly flaunts an advertisement of the newest Boss perfume with the two models as the focus and shoves it brashly under his friend's nose. "The point is when he sees this picture of us."

Navy eyes sweep the picture with the grace of a proud peacock. "Profession demands us to."

"See where your fucking hand is, Atobe," the other snaps edgily, tossing the magazine to his captain's knees.

"You don't like it?" There is amusement dripping from Atobe's voice as his eyes lighten up a bit, poorly feigning a sudden realization. "Of course you don't. What if Choutarou sees this picture, right?"

Shishido raises twin fine eyebrows. "And what does anything have to do with him?"

"It depends on how you see things," the other utters calmly, eyes intent in their nonchalance as long fingers gently straighten the slightly crumpled page, caressing the same pale hand printed on the smooth paper which is perceptibly holding the other guy's waist in a sort of possessive embrace, nearly sauntering over well-toned thighs. Noticing the beginning of a twitch on Shishido's brow, the captain decides that he is quite amused and confidently continues. "From my point of view, since your relationship is yet to have any base, faith is crucial, especially when he is that far away in New York. By the way, those stalkers of yours are still waiting to put his hands upon you."

Shishido's eyes are a pair of dangerous craters, a chaotic blend of scorching flames and something akin to panic bubbling close to the surface. His wineglass makes a rough contact with the dark pristine surface of the table, deep-red expensive grape juice swaying treacherously close to spilling as the impact. His voice is rough when he snarls in response. "My relationship with Choutarou is purely partnership, damn it. And what the hell are those stalkers things??"

That almost feels like a déjà vu to the other guy. Atobe recalls hearing a similar remark from the same mouth a couple of years ago, when they were still the proud tall shades in clothes of white and grey, when a blue worn-out cap still hid ungainly points of spiky short hair that now are long chestnut locks he is currently looking at. Shishido haa always been haughty in his own way, in qualities which others may find disturbingly uncommon or rather amusing, like he does, and the conceit doesn't diminish with time. But along with that, always comes a solid impenetrable layer of obliviousness, so thick that in Atobe's opinion, one should wore a series of bright flashing neon spelling 'I love you, Shishido-san' as a coronet to make sure that the subject truly understand the obvious meaning of a love confession. Despite his good looks and all, Shishido is that dense when it comes to matters called love.

A smirk, almost wry in the depth of preposterous satire, crawls to Atobe's lips as he patiently describes in a bored tone, "If this little fact somehow manages to escape your brain, Shishido, you have dozens of stalkers –even though mine obviously surpass yours in term of number. That Moriya guy from Boss, Sugihara from advertising department, and our cute sweet classmate were few of them; take your pick."

"Just shut up," the longhaired guy retorts sharply, hand brusquely seizing the offensive magazine from under his captain's fingers. Sometimes Atobe is just painfully impossible –there is no way that that egotistical friend of his actually fails to notice that he is disinclined to discuss few topics– and he somehow enjoys being impossible, reasons remaining unknown.

Shishido hates to remember anything about Choutarou.

Not that he hates his former kouhai –if anything, Choutarou is the kind of person anybody would find hardest to detest and Shishido, of course, is not immune to the spell. But to remember a warm genial smile which always lifted his mood from the darkest pits when he can no longer see it, to dream of the soft soothing voice, the rich tenor which always calmed his turbulent heart at need, when he can no longer hear it, or to simply miss a welcoming presence beside him doesn't quite appeal him.

One will never treasure something precious he has until the time came when he lose it. Having the younger boy's company was like breathing for him and he had never really realized how much it does matter to the existence of Shishido Ryou, to the stability of his life. Not until Choutarou left. He sure was stupid, an idiot who took everything his former partner gave for granted.

Stupid, stupid, stupid...

Oh, shit...

Shishido stares, eyes wide in surprise, a sort of surprise –or rather a shock– which makes his heart stop beating totally for a moment, only to hammer his chest in a thunderous erratic rhythm at the next second.


On his lap, printed with a quality rivaling that of a photo taken with the finest resolution is the figure of a strikingly handsome young man, he that he knows so well, and misses. With chiseled jaw set upon pristine surface of a violin, eyes shut in austere concentration, thick lines of eyebrows settled for a little resolute frown, he seems as much the same kouhai as Shishido remembers, save for the new streaks which now outline his face, adjusting it for a firmer visage of a man at his age. And the cross pendant. It is still there, tones of silver glistening under the softened light of the camera, dangling from a chain Shishido recognizes too well, since it marked his cheek once when accidentally he fell asleep on top of his partner, both totally spent from the practice Atobe set for them.

The title reads: A Young Violinist of The New Age

Words flood his mind like streams of blurred comprehension, a bit vague, clouded by emotions he can't exactly name. The boy has gotten taller if the facts written in blue there were to be relied on –it says 193 cm and makes Shishido wince ever so slightly; he will never catch up with Choutarou, never. And there are trivial information scattered here and there amidst sea of compliments, ranging from 'whose talent is utterly limitless' to 'remains single despite his eye-catching looks' until 'has just finished his record with Juilliard Orchestra, a contemporary instrumental album titled Winter: Fall of Grace' and...

What was that??

Shishido rereads the last sentence rapidly and looks up, finding the CD with the exactly same title still there on the coffee table, and detains it. Behind the cover are song titles written in italic, with a listing of the musicians at the near end. On the top of the list, in considerably bigger font than the rest on the page, is the name of their lead violinist: Ohtori Choutarou.

Yeah, Ohtori Choutarou.

The name repeats itself in his head, like a chant in an endless loop, as Shishido stares blankly to many strings of letters, looking but not reading them as words that will form comprehensible sentences. He has been listening to Choutarou's play –that is why the violin sounds so familiar.

As if on cue, he hears Atobe's voice informing, a bit vague as if it has to stray through thick mist which has taken reign of his mind. "This song is my favorite. It's called 'Rising'."

He mumbles an unintelligible response, eyes still pinned on the earlier magazine, descending to mass of grey strands, still thick and yet combed down sleekly, almost straightly, that one will lie on top of another, molding into a more manageable pile than that Shishido occasionally rustled when he was feeling like teasing the younger boy. There is something imperturbable, almost wistful, in the way Choutarou touches the row of glossy strings and it makes Shishido wonder. From the look of it, his former partner is officially married to his violin now and... isn't it what Choutarou always wants, always dreams of? To live for music?

Maybe he should call, instead of instilling himself in a lonely confinement labeled self-sacrificing. But the smile on Choutarous's face at the end of the next page is different, more mature, and he doesn't recognize it. The hazel eyes are a shade of dull brown, nothing like the timid but courageous, kind but firm colour he has always looked forward to, to brighten his days, to fill them with melodies and shafts of light.

He misses them so much, but a part of him is afraid, that it will be a stranger who answeres to his call. Because the one staring at him from the article is barely Choutarou. It is a young violinist of the new age, not his former double partner Choutarou.

Unbeknownst to Shishido, another pair of eyes, a flawless mirror image of blue serene lake, is looking amusedly at him beyond the translucent shell of ornate glass. There are ripples in them as Atobe smirks to his distorted reflection on the glass. It sure takes some times for Shishido to hit the jackpot, but the expression on his face worth every second of its wait.

Fifteen all. He obviously can't let the other to control the whole game, can he? Atobe's smirk goes wider inconspicuously when long dark brown tresses fall covering Shishido's face from his sight. The other guy is strikingly beautiful, an excellent plus point to his unyielding courage, to his unequaled strength of mind, and Ohtori is nice –he doesn't usually call people nice because it is so cliché that it makes him flinch, but when he does, that person truly deserves the praise– and no lesser valiant in his own way, not to mention possessing that excellent plus point too.

Perhaps it is his obligation after all to put an end to Shishido's immeasurable obliviousness and... well, he doesn't mind. It will probably be fun if it can earn him a chance to see that priceless expression on Shishido's face again. No, Atobe-sama doesn't think he will mind at all...

And surprises himself when there is a small, almost inaudible sigh escaping his lips.

He doesn't mind... right?

He supposes not, not when he looks at that delicate yet masculine feature –blending with beauty which will never cross the frontier into femininity– noting how it lightens up every once in a while at several niceties those sapphire eyes spot as they travel relentlessly from lines to lines of the piece of writing –enraptured by memories of the past, tales of the present, and dreams of the future– how soft exquisite lips curve slightly into the ghost of a smile, dancing quietly on the thin layer of suppressed longing, and how slender fingers move impatiently in quick graceful motion, pushing strands of dark mahogany to slip behind a fine shell of ear.

Shifting his wineglass into his line of sight to prevent his impudent eyes from staring any longer, the Hyoutei captain leans back to his couch, uneasiness slowly slipping away. The red wine, so black under subtle light, vanishes from his sight as he lowers his eyelids, letting his ears instead to appreciate another beauty only they can value. Ohtori is incontrovertibly brilliant as a musician, and he better is trying as hard to be someone Atobe can regard worthy taking up that much space on his friend's heart.

Another sigh, considerably lighter than its predecessor as he takes into his sight once again the enchanted look on the other's visage, tells him that now he is ready to let go.

"They better have delivery service..."

"Moshi moshi?"

"You said you were coming back."

"Ah, yes. This Saturday."

"On Sunday there will be a fashion show. We're in it."


"You must come."

"But Ato-"

"Believe me, you want to come."

"We have to work for the Winter tournament."

Atobe hears the sour voice from somewhere inside the house as he struggles with his glossily polished black shoes –he should get a new pair like real soon before they do anything irreversible to his well-shaped feet. At the moment he eventually manages to free them from those excruciatingly tight confinement, the voice returns with an upsurge of several notches, reaching the sector of annoyance. "Are you deaf or something??"

"It was my shoes," he retorts petulantly, gracing the cool tiled floor by his socked feet, feeling the smooth pristine surface under them. The house is quiet, but not in the way his grandiose mansion typically retains, which is haughty and formal, aloof like a gallery of paintings –or a museum of cold lifeless statues. Beautiful, glorious, a place to admire but not to inhabit. There is something honest, or convivial, in Shishido's house that renders its silence rather enjoyable than despicable, and Atobe, as much as he loves being the top rich of the society, has to admit that just upon breathing in it, he can find things he secretly misses.

Shishido's voice, louder and more impatient, rises again, clearly coming from the second floor. "I said we could have practiced instead of wasting our time with these fucking shows!"

"I notice that."

"Damn, Atobe!" The curse is sharp and obnoxiously loud, even if there is like the whole width of a tennis court from the staircase to Shishido's room; it is a good thing that his parents are currently away –in case they are not used to their son's foul choice of language. "We barely won the Summer last year! And we only have three goddamn weeks left!"

"We did win the Summer," the Hyoutei captain points out as he steps into the other's room. Unlike him, Shishido chooses to keep staying with his parents despite his excessive personal earning –venturing a reckless guess is against Atobe's nature, but the decision may have anything to do with the promise the longhaired guy made once with his former partner to live together after the younger of the two graduated, which as current situation states, is unfulfilled.

There are a lot to be said about the bedroom, about the streaks of afternoon ray pouring in from square translucent window which is framed by thick navy curtain of satin, leaving patterns of lozenges on the flooring, about the full-length mirror and a new complete hair care set stacked next to it, or about a blue jeans cap at the corner of the head of the single bed where many pictures in platinum frames sit. And also about the owner of the room, who is currently glaring forebodingly at him with hands on his hips, engulfed in blazing aura of flames which for some reasons, looks abnormally blue to him.

"The Singles did! We gotta do something with our crappy doubles!" Sometimes Atobe wonders how someone with such stunning beauty –which only appears more apparent when there is that blanket of light encircling him from behind– can allow his vocal chords to resonate a voice so contradictorily vulgar –god knows where he keeps the volume control.

"Gakuto will kill you for that insult."

"He can't, so who the hell care?" Shishido shoots back irritably. "I'm talking about the fact that he lost. Hideously."

"No one can support him as well as Oshitari," says the Hyoutei captain, looking pensive for a moment before settling for a reproving gaze to the other guy. "And you refused to play double with anyone but with your Choutarou."

"I won the second single so don't whine, you ungrateful son of a bitch," Shishido retorts, poking a finger to his taller friend's chest. "Wait there. I'll get you something to drink."

Shishido is so cute sometimes, Atobe muses as he listens to the sound of waning footsteps. His gaze falls to the blue cap which seems too reluctant to leave its secure spot, rooted at the corner with a layer of dust coating its rough surface. Risking a wrinkle on the neat coverlet, he leans forward, placing his knee on the bed and reaches for the rigidly stock-still object.

What he doesn't expect is to find another photo frame, with its face down, under said cap.

The picture, however, barely surprises him, for he knew if there is a memory Shishido wishes to bury under the blue-jeans piece of his past, Ohtori is the obvious answer. There is a twinge of pain, or even longing, as Atobe stares into the frozen time engraved so vividly on the portrait of probably the best double pair Hyoutei Gakuen has ever given birth to. For some peculiar reasons, it touches a smile to his lips –or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that his teammates are smiling so gaily there, because it was great to be young and to breath next to the person who mattered the most to you (he is getting old, really). It is just so Shishido for always keeping a shard of his past, no matter how painful or negligible it is, because that is just the way he is. While the habit does serve well as a reminder not to commit the same mistake twice, it can be a real pain when restrained emotion is all that mattered.

And the smile. He has never seen that kind of smile anymore on Shishido's face, as if the long brown locks that now cascade so smoothly and elegantly cost that much of a frank joyous smile. As if the cap in his hand, almost silky under his touch, its peak tattered with time –worn off by countless tugging its wearer played up every time he was embarrassed, to prevent a blush from spreading on his face like fire would on dry wood– is all Shishido needed to set the smile off.

"I've declined any kind of job until the tournament is over and-" the train of words stop all of a sudden, cut by stronger, sharper silence as Shishido stands frozen on the threshold, eyes locked at the hand of his captain which is violating his right to have a personal space where no other should intrude. Two mugs of steaming hot chocolate in his hands are still, but even from his distance Atobe can see Shishido's knuckles starting to turn into disquieting shades of white. The look on the other's face is more than enough to alarm the Hyoutei captain that he will probably end up seared by aforementioned chocolate.

The pair of cerulean orbs shifts to his face –fast, angry, and demanding. "What the hell are you doing?"

While pomposity hardly suits the reply Atobe preferred, it is still there, embellishing the answer like a mismatched flamboyant red amidst quiet soothing blue. But Shishido can as well just ignore the cacophonous tone when the answer sinks in.

"Saving you."

There is incredulity and a chaotic blend of rage and discomfiture battling for domination in his eyes as Shishido continues to stare at his somewhat impolite guest. It is... well, unexpected to say the least, since Atobe doing anything selfless is a rumor unheard-of, let alone a verified fact. But there are guarded alcoves in his life too, those confidentially darkest ones of his past that Shishido wishes to be left alone, which makes whatever altruistic the other is trying to do less welcomed.

The severe intensity in their thick silence is disrupted by a loud chime coming from the front bell. Shishido frowns, finding the idea to let his fury to the distortedly self-centered captain dissipate fruitlessly objectionable.

But, well...

Slamming the mugs into the surface of his desk, he throws a threatening glare to the other before trotting irately out of his room. His family isn't coming back in three hours so whoever the guest is would suffer –badly– if his or her purpose of coming isn't important enough.

The wind is a biting chill when he opens the front door, ready to strike down anybody so boldly standing behind it, especially if it is Gakuto. How dare he to-


The named one blinks. Certainly he isn't expecting for a pair of mahogany eyes to look at him the way he always remembers them to, or for the gentle voice to caress his very soul again, as if two years of loneliness has never existed, vanishing into plain oblivion in the simple yet real presence of the other.

But it is Choutarou, and the smile –a bit sheepish and always seems too radiant to his eyes– is really Choutarou's, not some genius violinist's he has never met before. Shishido finds that his throat is atrociously jammed by something rivaling the Rock of Gibraltar in the weight department, which barely allows him to generate any comprehensible sound.

After a moment of awkward silence, the timid smile fades into a palpable anxiety. "...Shishido-san...?"

The massive lump still refuses to budge. He is trying to figure out where all of his eloquences has run off to when his former partner's voice ascends, toned with flagrant panic.

"I know it's Sunday, so if I'm bothering your-"

It is on impulse that Shishido reaches out, not quite comprehending why actually his hand moves, and grabs his newly-arrived guest by the wrist, dragging him in before closing the door with a loud slam. The hand under his grasp is cold, he notes quietly as he rushes down the hallway of his house, which means the taller guy has been standing in front of his house for a while, perhaps since he and Atobe arrived. He would have yelled if things were still the same like two years ago –how Choutarou is a total idiot to let himself freeze outside instead of knocking at once– because it is what Shishido Ryou will naturally do under normal circumstances.

But he can feel Choutarou smiling, even when if he doesn't spare any glance backward. Perhaps there is still something left between them than just unabridged distance, perhaps his former partner still understands despite time that nearly erases everything in memory, that words and speeches have never been his strong point except when he is dealing with his captain. And if he is to coerce himself to put them into words, he may end up saying something really stupid instead.

According to Shishido's brain, he has left his bedroom no more than a minute ago, yet he freezes when he arrives behind the closed door of his room, recognizing the slow dulcet melody he heard to only too often during the past week. Feeling the hand he holds tensing, Shishido lets it go and pushes his door open.

There is no one in sight and the sound of violin is still gloating in the air, furnishing the bedroom with an air of winter at sunrise –it is that song if he recalls it right, Rising. The second detail he notices, there is only one mug on the desk, so if the explanation of Atobe's fishy absence is simply somewhere along the line of 'going to the bathroom', where is the need to bring hot chocolate there?? What is even more wrong, the picture of him and Choutarou is now standing so proudly facing the door, as if begging to be noticed.

And Atobe? Shishido is so going to kill him at first sight.

"You buy this album, Shishido-san."

The voice which says them is sheepish and held a bit of pride, something so alien to Shishido's ear coming from the other's mouth; Choutarou has confidence and pride, obviously, but they are more often concealed than revealed. For some reasons, the picture of 'a genius violinist of the new age' becomes clearer in his mind. All he quietly dares to hazard is a flickered gaze, secretly to where his guest still stands awkwardly, wondering if he has invited in the right person, yet still refuses to give a verbal answer. He can't really reply to that and there is no way in earth he will actually admit that the arduous search he had to endeavor in order to lay his hand on the album was done solely to hear the main violinist of the orchestra. Because it is incredibly stupid. And uncool.

It is pathetic.

His obstinacy to stay mute seems to start bothering the taller guy and the erratic tapping his fingers make with the surface of his desk doesn't help. Shishido begins to feel like a moron by staying adamantly silent, but the fear is still gnawing him, because all that keep rotating his mind are answers which will probably hurt the other.

There is an uncomfortable sound as Choutarou clears his throat and tries once more to be conversational. "I... really hope you like the song, Shishido-san, because-"

"I don't understand it."

The words leave his mouth with speed he isn't prepared to stop and Shishido, who is too proud to admit that he has let impulse get the best of him, doesn't try to retract them or give further explanation. He is merely staring back at his former partner, watching wordlessly as the chocolate eyes darken, losing their warmth to bleak shades of bitterness.

Shishido remains rooted at his place when Choutarou turns around and leaves with a low mumble of 'sorry'.

It is the desk which holds him in place, his hands gripping its edge tightly, else he will have sunk unceremoniously to the floor. A part of him is washed with relief while the rest is clouded with emptiness, and it is so lonely, lonelier than he had ever felt before Choutarou came back. And he wonders why, because basically it is the same. But then, perhaps it is for the better, since he would still know nothing else but offensiveness to utter if the other were to stay. It will probably hurt them more.

A small creak the door gave out lifts his head as he stares blankly at his captain who is looking sternly back at him, the hand which is not confiscating his blue cap set condescendingly on lean hips. The silence between them is so sharp that Shishido can literally feel it stabbing him. When he finally manages to croak out something, his voice is hoarse and implausibly weak.

"I've never asked you to save me."

It is more of a plea than accusation, but Atobe narrows his eyes, displaying no trace of sympathy. His answer is a piece of blunt thick steel when it finally is delivered. "I'm saving myself."

That supposes to not make any sense to him, but Shishido feels like he understood, either because it suits Atobe better than anything else which implies devious altruism or rather because of something else really sincere, he doesn't know –and doesn't care enough to; he understands and that is what matters. And it convinces him better than anything.

It is one of those rare times that he feels like kissing his best friend.

Saying nothing more, he dashes to the door, passing the Hyoutei captain with a light punch landed on the lavishly coated arm; either it is a promise or a thank-you, no one will know but two of them. The familiar feeling of his blue cap crowning his hair arrives as the reply and Shishido's lips arches into a smile. Choutarou mayt not forgive him, but a try won't hurt more than doing nothing, he reckons.

He doesn't see Atobe smile in return and whisper to the empty room, "I'm waiting for good news."

The smile curves somewhat wistfully. Even if Shishido doesn't catch it, why should it matter?

End of Part 1

On to Part 2

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