First attempt at an entry for Ohtori's b-day contest at tori_shishi . I'm not sure I'm entirely happy with it, but I wanted to try doing something from before Ohtori and Shishido became attached at the hip.

Not So Bad After All
by Miko no da

With more than two hundred members in the club, the Hyoutei non-Regulars clubhouse could be described as 'overcrowded' at best. On Valentine's Day, Ohtori was discovering, 'sheer chaos' didn't even begin to cover it.

Making good use of his unusual height he pushed through the crowd and headed for the back, where he'd long since staked out a cubbyhole for himself. As a freshman he got last pick of everything, of course, but at least his size and quiet confidence had won him one of the few cubbies left over after the third and second years had taken their pick. Many of the other first years were forced to simply leave their things on the benches during practice. At least once the third years had retired back in September there had been more room for the freshmen.

Just a few more months before I can take part in the ranking matches, Ohtori reminded himself. He had no doubts of his own ability to win a spot on the Regulars; his serve was still unpredictable, but there were few people who could face it when it did stay true. And the new Regulars clubhouse that had been built this year was supposed to be amazingly roomy and comfortable.

First he had to get through today, though. Ohtori had always disliked his birthday, largely due to the unbelievable amount of teasing he came in for thanks to being born on Valentine's Day. This year he'd reached a whole new level of distaste for the holiday, however. Girls in junior high were apparently far more ridiculous about the drama involved in handing out chocolates to the boys they liked. He'd seen more than one tear-filled scene in the halls being enacted by girls who had been rejected, and Regulars from almost every sports club needed large bags just to carry around all the chocolates that had been presented to them.

Even he had gotten several of the little handmade sweets, much to his surprise. Apparently he was popular with the girls in his class, who thought he was a 'nice guy'. He'd accepted them politely, careful not to encourage the girl at all, and planned to throw them away just as soon as he was off the school grounds. He hated chocolate.

He'd been looking forward to retreating from the worst of it in the no-girls zone of the tennis clubhouse, but if possible it seemed things were even more out of hand in here. Boys were loudly comparing the number of chocolates they'd received, boasting about the ridiculous lengths their admirers had gone to in order to make the most delicious chocolate, and even getting into fights over who had gotten chocolate from whom.

Finally reaching the far wall, Ohtori paused and blinked at the sight that met his eyes. 'His' shelf was piled high with bright little pink and red boxes, ten times the number he'd received so far today. Surely those couldn't all be for him. How had the girls gotten in here to leave them?

Moving forward and peering at the tags, he realized that in fact none of them were for him. The names on them indicated they belonged to three or four of the second year sub-Regulars. "What...?"

"Tradition, firstie," someone declared behind him, clapping him on the shoulder in a parody of sympathy. "First years' cubbies belong to us on Valentine's Day. We've gotta have somewhere to keep our haul."

Turning, he saw two of the sub-Regulars in question standing behind him. They were fully dressed and ready to head for the courts, racquets in hand; after a moment Ohtori realized they'd been waiting around specifically to see his reaction. Immediately he smoothed his face into a polite expression, not intending to give them the satisfaction of seeing how irritated he was.

"Is that right, senpai?" he asked, for all the world as if they'd simply informed him it was going to be sunny that day. Shrugging, he added, "I guess I'm out of luck for the day. Thank you for staying behind to explain to me."

Disappointed not to have gotten more of a rise out of him, the two glanced at each other and shrugged. "Don't be late on the courts, firstie," the one who'd spoken before said as they turned away. "Wouldn't want you to get in trouble. There'll be plenty of balls to pick up today."

Inwardly Ohtori was seething, but none of his feelings showed on his face as he moved to try to find a bit of space on one of the benches to leave his things. He'd already been running late because a girl from his class had cornered him to confess to him as well as present him with a chocolate, and he'd had to find a way to let her down gently. He still wasn't used to having girls suddenly declare their love for him, and it had taken him several minutes to escape the situation.

Now most of the club was almost finished changing or already out on the courts, and there wasn't a spare inch of room to be found. What little was normally available was occupied by dozens of the festive little chocolate boxes, and he didn't dare move even one of them to make space without risking getting in trouble for it later.

In the end he just dumped his things on the floor in a corner, unable to find anywhere else. Even so he was late out onto the courts, and ended up having to run laps with the other stragglers.

Thus began one of the worst practices he'd yet had at Hyoutei. He hardly got to touch his own racquet, too busy running and fetching and ball gathering for the juniors. When Sakaki did finally set the freshmen to their drills, his frustration and irritation with the day put him firmly off his game, causing sloppy returns and even sloppier serves.

And, of course, eventually one of the other first years who'd known him in their previous school let slip the fact that it was his birthday. The girls clustered around the courts squealed and giggled, and it seemed like every one of the two hundred plus members of the club took the time to tease him about it at least once.

Normally Ohtori loved the tennis practices, despite his lowly position as a freshman. Being a part of something as big and prestigious as the Hyoutei tennis club meant a lot to him, and he learned something every day he spent on the courts. Today however, all he could seem to focus on was wishing for time to pass more quickly so the day could be over. Tomorrow Valentine's Day would be over, and things could go back to normal.

Finally they reached the end of the practice, when Sakaki would choose several of the better players to have a match while the rest of them watched and, supposedly, learned from the example. "Sub-Regulars," Sakaki declared. "Mukahi. Ogata. Shishido. Akutagawa. You'll be playing the first years. Hiyoshi. Ashiwara. Ohtori. Omote."

Having expected that everyone chosen would be from the sub-Regulars, Ohtori had already started moving towards the bleachers. He jerked to a startled halt as the sound of his own name registered. Staring at Sakaki, Ohtori wondered if he'd misheard somehow. But no, the other three first years who'd been named were moving onto the courts, and Sakaki was looking back at him expectantly.

"Geez, did you fail a year or something?" someone asked from behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder to see a second year he vaguely recognized as being one of the sub-Regulars. "Nobody in first year is that tall."

"Shishido-san?" Ohtori asked, making a guess. The older boy shrugged and tossed his long ponytail back over his shoulder, a gesture that radiated arrogance and confidence. Ignoring the jab at his height, more than used to it, Ohtori inclined his head towards one of the courts. "Shall we then, senpai?"

"Right, I heard about you," the junior said, eying Ohtori thoughtfully. "You're the one who's always polite, right? The 'nice guy'. Hope you've got something going for you besides being nice, or you're not gonna last long here."

"You've obviously been talking to people who don't know me very well, Shishido-san," Ohtori replied pleasantly, still perfectly polite but with an edge of steel behind the words. "There's a difference between 'polite' and 'nice'. Did you want to serve first, or receive?"

"Receive," Shishido replied, giving him a mocking grin. "I hear that's the only part of your game I have to worry about. Might as well get it out of the way now, then I can take it easy."

A slight narrowing of his eyes was the only change in expression Ohtori allowed himself, but Shishido's widening grin let him know his anger had been noticed. "C'mon then, polite boy," Shishido invited him, striding towards the court. "Let's see what else you're made of."

Trailing behind him, Ohtori did his best to steady himself. The last thing he wanted to do now was play badly because he was upset and frustrated, but that was exactly what was going to happen if he didn't get himself under control. He realized what Sakaki was doing; he'd named the sub-Regulars considered most likely to make it to the Regulars for the next season, and the freshmen most likely to get into the sub-Regulars. If Ohtori wanted to win himself a place on the team as a second year, he was going to have to start here.

Once they were both in position, Ohtori took a couple of deep breaths and bounced the ball a few times. If he faulted on this first shot, Shishido wouldn't take him seriously for the rest of the game. He had to get this one over the net.

When he felt a little more centred, he rocked forward with racquet and ball out in front of him. "Ikkyuu..." He rocked back and released the ball, tossing it high in the air and putting as little spin on it as he could. "Nyu..." His racquet came up in a smooth motion until he could just feel it brush his shoulder, and the ball began to drop again. "Kon!"

It wasn't strength as much as speed that made his Scud Serve as powerful as it was, the coiled tension in his muscles snapping out in a release that was only semi-controlled as his racquet slammed into the ball. He dropped his head just in time to see Shishido's eyes widen as the junior took one scrambling step towards the serve, and then the ball had bounced just inside the service box and sped past him for the service ace.

"Fifteen-love!" their ref called, and Ohtori allowed himself a small smile in response to the shocked look on Shishido's face.

"Not bad," the junior called, returning to the baseline to receive the next serve. The respect in his voice was grudging, but it was there, and it made Ohtori's smile widen just a bit.

"Not bad yourself, senpai," he said, inclining his head as he bounced the next ball. In truth he was just a little impressed. Most people, on receiving his Scud Serve for the first time, didn't even see it coming. They just stood there for a stunned moment, unable to even realize the ball had already gone past them. Shishido had not only seen it, he'd reacted. Not fast enough to catch it, but still.

The renewed bit of confidence that first serve gave him was enough for him to put the second one over the net as well. Once again Shishido moved towards it, managing two steps this time, but he was still nowhere near fast enough to return it. On the third point Ohtori lost control, faulting twice to give the point to Shishido, and his earlier frustration returned in full.

"What the hell was that?" Shishido demanded, scowling at him and tossing his hair back. "You think you're gonna make it to the sub-Regulars with a serve you can't even control? Give me a break."

"I'm not going to make sub-Regulars," Ohtori declared. He saw the confusion blossom on the older boy's face, and added fiercely, "I'm going to make Regulars!" He served again, even faster this time, and thanked the gods when it went over the net instead of into it.

"You're dreaming!" Shishido called back, but Ohtori was gratified to hear just a bit of worry in his voice. He took the next point as well, keeping his service game without Shishido ever once having managed to touch the ball.

After that the battle truly began. Ohtori proved that there was more to his game than just his serve, and he pushed Shishido hard. In turn, however, he realized just why the junior was referred to as a 'dash specialist', and why Shishido had been able to react as quickly to the Scud Serve as he had. No matter where Ohtori landed his shots Shishido seemed to be able to get there in time to return them, even if he'd been on the other side of the court.

It became a fight for their service games. Shishido couldn't take any points on Ohtori's service games except for the ones Ohtori gave him by double faulting, and Ohtori managed to pick up at least a few points in each of Shishido's service games, but never came close to wining any of them.

By the time the score was five-all, Ohtori was vaguely aware they were the last ones playing. The other sub-Regulars had all won their games, and now everyone was clustered around watching them. Shishido had stopped taunting him somewhere around game three; they both needed the breath for playing rather than talking. Neither of them was paying any attention to the crowd, having eyes only for each other. They were both fiercely determined, focused on the game to the exclusion of everything else.

Ohtori was getting tired, though, and the frustrations of the day were starting to catch up to him. He double faulted on the first serve, and then when he managed to get it over the net on the next, Shishido actually moved fast enough to catch the ball on the frame of his racquet. The return was wild, far out of bounds, but the fact that he'd returned it at all rattled Ohtori. He double faulted again on the third serve, and on the fourth, bringing it to match point for Shishido.

"Is that it?" Shishido asked him across the net, blue eyes locked on Ohtori's brown. This time there was no mocking in his tone, only something oddly close to disappointment. "Is that all you're worth? You can't go the final mile?"

Growling, Ohtori tossed the ball high and slammed his racquet up into it. For a horrible moment he was sure it had gone too low, but it passed over the net with hardly a hair's breadth to spare.

And then Shishido was there, impossibly fast. He missed the sweet spot, just barely managing to extend himself far enough to get it at all. Once again it was a wild return, but with a certain amount of horror Ohtori realized it might actually fall inside the court. He ran for it, but it was going to be up at the net on the opposite side, as far from him as it could possibly be.

As a serve and volley specialist he was used to running quickly to the net, but he was nowhere near as fast as Shishido. The ball struck the court just on the singles line, barely within bounds, and Ohtori's dive fell short of it by bare inches.

"Game and match, Shishido!" their ref declared, to mad cheering from the crowd around them. Panting and silently cursing himself, Ohtori shoved himself painfully back to his feet and looked across the net.

Shishido was looking back at him, his gaze measuring. Ohtori looked back, refusing to turn away or lower his eyes or otherwise show defeat. Finally Shishido nodded once. "You might make it yet," the cocky junior declared. "I'll see you in the ranking matches."

"I'll see you in the Regular's clubhouse," Ohtori returned as they moved forward to shake hands briefly. "If you make it there."

Snorting, Shishido smirked at him. "I'll be there before you will, firstie. Don't get too full of yourself."

That was a bit of a case of the pot calling the kettle, Ohtori thought, but he kept the thought to himself. Shishido was his senpai, after all.

"Ohtori!" The sound of his name as he was moving away to the bench drew Ohtori's attention, and he looked back at the older boy once more. "Happy birthday," Shishido added, and Ohtori narrowed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable teasing that would follow.

It never came, though. Shishido only turned back to his own bench, and Ohtori was left watching him consideringly. Later he would wonder if he should have felt some significance in that moment, or in the game itself, but at the time the only thought in his mind was that maybe it hadn't been such a bad birthday after all.

The End

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