NB: I moved them around a bit, position-wise. Because that happens. And many thanks tokestrelsan for beta!
It takes Sato ten minutes to get all his equipment on. "Hold still, senpai," Harada barks, and jerks at the buckles on the throat guard.
"I'll do it," Sato gasps and pulls it loose to start again.
"Here's your crosse." Harada yanks it from a pile of equipment and it arcs up above his head, knocking down a box of gloves. "Tabarnac!" he yells, something he picked up from Marty. Sato doesn't know what it means, but the implication is obvious.
Across the room, Asakawa and Kazuhiro laugh with each other as they change. Asakawa takes off his shirt and there on his chest is a purple suck mark, fresh from last night. Sato can still feel Asakawa's legs wrapping around his waist, Asakawa's fingers pulling on his hair.
Kazuhiro pokes at the mark. Asakawa grins and cups his hands to Kazuhiro's ear, telling him who knows what.
Sato fumbles with the straps of his chest protector. "Everybody out on the field," he calls, louder than he means to, and all the boys look up.
Kazuhiro ties his jersey around his crosse, waving it like a flag. His shoulder pads are buckled on over his bare shoulders. "Come on, Kei-chan." He takes Asakawa by the wrist and they tumble out the door together. Sato follows, lumbering in all his armour. The sun glints off Asakawa's hair and Sato wishes he would stop bleaching it.
Kobayashi and Asakawa pass the ball back and forth. Asakawa cradles the ball, flicks it easily, his face solemn with concentration. Before lacrosse, Sato had no idea Asakawa had such focus in him. Finally, Asakawa misses and then he laughs, scooping the ball from the ground and tossing back it to Kobayashi.
A ball hits Sato in the chest. "He's pretty enough to be a girl," Tachiki says. "Don't you think?"
Sato's skin crawls. He can never look at Tachiki without wanting to punch him. "He's not a girl."
"Too bad." Tachiki smiles. Sato holds his crosse tightly so it won't swing out by mistake and smash Tachiki's face in. Tachiki scoops the ball. "Ready?" He backs up and runs an attack on goal. Sato grits his teeth and makes the save.
Tachiki takes twenty shots. Sato makes twenty saves. He touches the twenty-first shot with the tip of his glove, but it goes in.
"Great goal!" Asakawa shouts and jumps onto Tachiki's back. Tachiki spins and Asakawa laughs and wraps his arms around Tachiki's shoulders.
Tabarnac, Sato thinks but he doesn't say anything.
Asakawa drops his bag on the floor and climbs onto Sato's bed. "You didn't wait for me after practice."
"I have a lot of homework." Sato puts down the manga he's been staring at for half an hour. He pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them.
"Boring." Asakawa imitates Sato's pose, leaning his weight against Sato's shoulder and thigh. "Is yours the same as mine? We can split it." He rubs his nose against Sato's cheek. Asakawa smells like spearmint shower gel and his hair is still damp. Everything washed away: dust, sweat, fingerprints.
Heat flares under Sato's skin and he wants Asakawa so much it scares him. He pushes Asakawa over, digging his fingers into Asakawa's arms and pressing him down with the full weight of his body. Sato grinds against Asakawa and bites his lower lip. Asakawa makes a small sound in the back of his throat. Sato pulls back and the surprise on Asakawa's face makes him sick.
"Sorry," he says and rolls off. He sits up and runs his hand over his face. "Sorry."
But Asakawa laughs. "You're weird today." He crawls into Sato's lap and licks the tip of Sato's nose, then the corner of his mouth. Sato keeps his hands at his sides, he clenches his jaw. "Come on," Asakawa says. His hand rubs at Sato's jeans, his tongue pushes at Sato's lips, and Sato can't not open up. He can't not kiss, he can't not come.
He tries to stay awake after, but he drifts off anyhow. When he opens his eyes, his pillow is wet with drool and Asakawa is talking on his mobile. "Tomorrow at lunch," he says and looks around at Sato. "He's awake, I'll call you later." He snaps the phone shut. "I have to go home for supper." He grins. "You sleep too much."
When he's gone, Sato takes a shower.
"Practice game with Suzunayama on Sunday," Tsukada says and the room begins to buzz. "I know that's not much notice. So work hard."
Sato hangs behind as everyone files out onto the field. "I was thinking..." Tsukada looks up from his clipboard, frowning. He looks like Sato's father when he comes home from work: a hardass with an ulcer. "Tachiki -- he's a bad influence."
Tsukada slides his pen behind the clip. He doesn't say anything.
"It might be better if he doesn't--"
"We need him." Tsukada picks up his crosse. "That's final."
Sato doesn't argue. He works doggedly at practice, shouting at the defensemen and keeping his eye on the ball. The field is muddy and cold. He's filthy by the time Tsukada calls them in.
When he gets out of the shower, everyone is gone, except for Misaki. "Where's Asakawa?" Sato says.
"You mean Kei-chan? No idea." Misaki picks up his bag.
"I never see you these days," Sato says. "You want to get some food?"
"I--" Misaki frowns. "I have to meet someone."
Sato sits in the clubroom twenty minutes after Misaki leaves.
"I still think this is a better defense pattern." Kobayashi draws a diagram on graph paper. Sato pulls on his shin guards.
"Next time," he says. "It's too late for today."
"Sato!" Asakawa grabs Sato's wrist. He's holding a thick blue marker. Sato opens his hand and Asakawa writes "winner" on his palm.
"We wear gloves, you know." Sato grins.
Asakawa smiles back. "But you'll know it's there." He gives Sato half a hug, bumping up against his chest protector. Then he turns to Kobayashi. "Kobagin! Give me your hand!"
Before they go onto the field, they crowd around for Tsukada's speech. "Let's win," is all he says.
Misaki gets the face-off. He passes to Tsukada, Tsukada feeds it to Tachiki, Tachiki ducks around a defender, and they have a goal with only twenty seconds on the clock. Then it gets harder. Suzunayama have a slower game, but they are solid and their defense is tight. Sato yells at his defensemen, dives for the ball, but Suzunayama score two goals in the first quarter, one in the second. Seigaku pull out one more: Tachiki again in the second.
At the half, Natsumi and Harada pass around water and towels. Sato takes off his chest protector. Asakawa lies on the grass, bracketed by both Kichidas. They're all breathing hard. Suzunayama have a strong bench; Seigaku have Harada.
Tsukada grabs Tachiki by the shoulder, nudges Misaki in the ribs. "We're doing well!" he says, grinning. "Good job everyone." Sato hardly recognizes Tsukada. The hardass is gone and this beaming, backslapping sportsman is in his place. Maybe he's twins too.
"I really think we should try this." Kobayashi has his graph paper out again. "We can do it if you call it."
"If I can learn it."
"It's pretty logical." Kobayashi traces the curves he's drawn in pencil. "You just have to--"
"What's that?" Kazuhiro pushes between them. He's down to his boxers already.
"Kazuhiro! Do you want to get a personal foul?" Kobayashi grabs Kazuhiro's discarded uniform from the bench and Sato uses the opportunity to slide away. He's not much good at learning new defense patterns anyhow.
Sato drinks water and listens to Misaki complain about the sun. He watches Asakawa chew on blades of grass. When Tsukada rouses them, he's ready to go back on the field.
It's almost the end of the third when Marty gets one minute for cross checking. "Câlice!" he yells and Sato thinks it's just as well nobody knows what that means or he might be in the box for two.
Suzunayama press for a fast-break and Seigaku's midfielders fall back to help the defense. "Check-up!" Sato yells and the defense sound off. He tries to see the pattern, to think where to put them. He tries to watch the ball, but Suzunayama are screening him.
A shout goes up, the field shifts, and Sato sees Asakawa racing down the field alone, carrying the ball. Asakawa dodges one defender, two, three. He's facing down the goalie. He shoots.
"Gooooooal!" he yells like a soccer player, running down the field with one fist in the air. Kazuhiro tackles him and they slide along the grass, laughing. Tsukada pulls Asakawa up and shakes him. The others crowd around. Sato leans on his crosse and watches them. Sweat drips from his hair and rolls down his neck.
The referee blows his whistle and the boys pull apart, moving into place for the face-off. Tachiki puts his hand on Asakawa's helmet and speaks into his ear. Asakawa glows. Tachiki slaps Asakawa's ass and that's okay, Sato tells himself, because this is team sports. Then Tachiki turns around and looks at Sato.
Hatred pours over Sato, clinging to his skin like oil. He stinks with it, he's smeared and dirty. His stomach lurches and he's sick right there in the crease, pulling his mouth guard out just in time.
The ball is coming down the field. Sato wipes his mouth on his arm. He scans the defense but he can't see the pattern, just boys jostling each other, waving sticks in the air.
"Sato," somebody calls and Sato is supposed to tell him what to do. A boy is running at him, Suzunayama uniform, and Sato watches the ball arc through the air and behind him, into the net. He can't even raise his arm.
Sato throws his crosse onto the ground. He's wasted Asakawa's goal, let it go like water down the drain.
"Don't mind," Tachiki says and Sato's eyes cloud with anger.
The final score is 9 - 4 for Suzunayama. Twenty minutes in the shower and the ink still won't come off Sato's hand.
On Monday, Tsukada finds Sato in his classroom. Tsukada looks normal again: harassed, pissed off, like there's a burr inside his shirt, scratching him whenever he moves. Sato braces himself for a lecture.
"Sometimes," Tsukada says, "we lose." Just that and he leaves. Sato gets out a marker and scribbles on his hand until there's just a blue splotch.
It says "loser".
At club time, Sato goes up to the roof. Tachiki is there, sitting with his eyes closed and his back against the wall.
"Come on," Sato says.
Tachiki rolls to his feet. His eyes flicker into slits. "Tell Tsukada to send Asakawa next time."
"Tsukada didn't send me," Sato says and punches Tachiki in the face.
Tachiki dodges and Sato just grazes his ear. "Don't blame me for the game." It's not about the game, but Sato's throat is sour with bile and he's not here to talk. Tachiki doesn't raise his fists. "Sometimes you lose." He smiles. "Sometimes you win."
Sato launches himself at Tachiki, a rock flung from a trebuchet. Tachiki sidesteps him. Sato crashes into the wall. Blood pounds in his head, loser, loser, loser. He throws himself again, rage bubbling inside him like a vat of tar.
"All right," Tachiki says, and steps in.
Tachiki fights like a thug in a manga, casual and brutal. Sato is so angry all he has to use is inertia. He barrels into Tachiki and tastes blood inside his mouth. He staggers from a blow to the ribs. He comes back for more. He's going down soon, Sato the loser, and he rushes in again.
He bangs into Misaki. "I said stop!" Misaki grabs Sato in a bear-hug, pushes him back. Sato can see Tachiki over Misaki's shoulder and he shoves at Misaki, trying to get to him. "Just go," Misaki says. "Go."
Tachiki runs his hand through his hair and puts his hands into his pockets. "Later," he says, and the door swings shut behind him.
Sato sags. Misaki drops him. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Why did you stop us?" Sato doesn't listen to Misaki's answer. He pulls away and runs down the stairs. He goes home and takes a bath, ducking his head underwater for as long as he can hold his breath.
He lies on his bed, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Asakawa texts him, five screens worth.
I don't feel well, Sato writes back. Don't come over.
Sato skips practice on Tuesday and sits in his room. He's tired of looking at the ceiling so he looks at the walls instead. There's not much on them: a poster of a pop idol, a calendar that still shows last month.
He has a desk that he never uses; he balances his homework on his knees, or sometimes on Asakawa's back. A TV and an PSP3. He's finished all his games, but he could replay Genji. Or just keep staring at the walls.
He flops onto his back in case there's something new on the ceiling. On the top of his bookcase is something old: his tennis racquet.
Five minutes later, Sato is jogging to the street courts.
Sato serves, stretching his arm, running up to meet the return. His opponent lobs, high and careless, and Sato smashes the ball, first point to him.
The breeze is cool on Sato's neck. He is light, buoyant, no pads and guards and armour to slow him down. He wins the first game and makes his opponent fight hard for the second. He serves again, the impact of the ball rolling through his body. He dives for a return, just catches it on the frame of the racquet. The ball hits the cord and drops on the other side.
"Yes!" he yells. Serve again. Volley, swing, run, jump. No plays to memorize, no defense to organize. He wonders if it's too late to transfer back into the tennis club.
He loses the match. He queues to play again and sits on the grass, breathing hard. Goalies don't move around much. He should run in the mornings, like Misaki does. He should push weights like Marty. He should train himself properly.
He plays another match and wins. A loss and he's out again. His overgrip is smudged with ink from his hand. He lies back while he waits for his next turn, looking at the clouds moving across the sky. One of them looks a little like a crosse and Sato remembers Asakawa running down the field, slipping through the defense, sending the ball past the goalie's reaching hand. Gooooooal!
And Tsukada's split personality, Kobayashi's strategy sessions. Misaki calling Sato to say he'd finally decided to join them. And Sato, blocking twenty of Tachiki's shots in a row.
Sato picks up his racquet and goes home. Halfway there, he gets a text from Asakawa. It's just one line: Don't you like lacrosse anymore? (U_U)
I'm on my way home, Sato replies. Come over?
He puts the racquet in the storage closet, in a box with his elementary school soccer cleats and his Gundam models. He made them himself, all Perfect Grade, when he could get his mother to buy them. He picks up Zeta and takes it back to his room.
It fills up half the desk. Sato gets out his playbook and studies the defense patterns. It's hard to connect the lines on the paper to the boys on the field. He's not trying hard enough.
His phone chimes. I can't come over, Asakawa writes. (/_\) He doesn't say why.
Sato drops the playbook on the floor. There's a spider on the ceiling.
"I'm sorry," Sato says.
Tsukada buckles on his shoulder pads. "Don't let it happen again." He frowns, that odd grown-up face. "I have to be able to count on you." Sato isn't sure if he knows about the fight. Tachiki isn't in the room; it's too early for him to be down from the roof.
"It won't." Sato turns to look for Asakawa. I like lacrosse, he's going to say, and Asakawa will smile, shiny as a soap bubble, and the end, run credits.
Asakawa is across the room. Kazuhiro is tugging at Asakawa's uniform shorts, pulling them down. "You should try it, Kei-chan. It's more natural."
"Don't!" Asakawa gives Kazuhiro a shove. Kazuhiro pulls him over and they collapse into a laughing heap on the floor. Sato carries his equipment out onto the field.
He asks Kobayashi for help with the defense patterns. "Sure." Kobayashi gets out his book. "See here, send Marty around--"
"Show me," Sato says. "Call the defense."
They run patterns all afternoon and Sato is finally starting to see them properly. He takes over the direction. They block the attackmen eight times out of ten. Tomorrow it will be nine.
"Good job," he says and they bang their crosses together, Sato and Marty and Kobayashi and Kichida, whichever one they have today. His defense. "I'll buy you ramen," Sato says, "so hurry."
He bundles them out of the club room as soon as he can. He hears Asakawa calling after him, but he's far enough along that he can pretend he didn't.
"I'm too busy to see anyone," Sato tells his mother. "I have to study." She brings him juice and closes the door quietly. Sato sits down at his desk and starts taking Zeta apart, carefully unsnapping each piece.
When the doorbell rings, he freezes. He can hear the voices -- his mother's murmur, Asakawa's burble -- but not the words. They stop and Sato lets go the piece of plastic foot clenched in his palm. It's smudged blue.
He grabs a tissue. Some of the ink wipes off, but the plastic is still stained. He scrubs at it, then at the blur on his palm. He bangs his fist on the desk, so loud that there's an echo. And another echo. *plink* Something bangs against the window.
Sato stays at the desk. He takes apart one of the legs. *plink* He separates the pieces into groups. *plink* He puts his hands over his face. *plink*
He jerks the window open. A pebble hits his cheek, stinging like a slap. Asakawa's arm is back, ready to throw another. He's flushed, scowling, hair standing out around his head like a bleached blond sea urchin. Sato can tell he's ten seconds away from screaming something Sato doesn't want anyone to hear. "I'll meet you at the door," Sato calls. They go up to Sato's room.
Asakawa's anger surrounds him like a halo, sucking the colour and the air out of the rest the room. Sato can't look at him, so he looks down. A spider scuttles halfway across the floor, Sato's friend from the ceiling. It stops in front of Asakawa and Sato stares at it. They're both paralysed by Asakawa, both waiting to be stepped on.
"You're a jerk!" Asakawa shoves Sato, both hands to his chest, and Sato staggers back until he bumps into the bed. "You're mean!" Asakawa darts forward, missing the spider by a hair. He hits Sato's ribs, pounding on them like Sato is a locked door. "Why don't you like me anymore?"
Sato wants to answer, he wants to grab Asakawa and hug him, but he's still immobilized. He just stands there, sagging against the bed while Asakawa batters him -- loser, loser, loser -- and waits to go down.
"Jerk!" Asakawa says again. "Mean stupid jerk!" He pivots, steps, and the spider darts out of the way just in time. He's hunched over, face screwed up, hands clenched, cheeks wet.
Sato's mouth is dry as paper and he swallows twice before he can speak. "Asakawa..."
"Shut up!" Asakawa sweeps his arm across the desk. Zeta sails through the air, crashing against the wall. Pieces scatter. The torso slides to the ground, legless and headless, pointing its gun at Sato.
Asakawa jerks his head up and they stare at each other. "Sorry," he says. "I didn't mean--"
"I'm sorry." Sato leaps forward. "I'm sorry." He grabs Asakawa around the chest. Asakawa is still wearing his backpack. Sato pushes his forehead into Asakawa's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Asakawa clutches Sato, squeezing his sore ribs, and they hold each other, tight and warm, until Sato can't ignore the crick in his neck any longer. He lets go, slowly, and they move just far enough apart to look each other in the face.
"I'm sorry," Sato says again. "I was stupid."
"It was just one game." Asakawa wipes his nose with the back of his hand. "Losing helps us build character so we'll win next time."
"It wasn't--" But Sato can't say it, no matter how much of a loser that makes him. He hopes Asakawa won't find out about the fight. "You're right."
"And you like lacrosse again?"
"I like lacrosse."
Asakawa smiles, shiny as a soap bubble, and Sato leans forward to kiss him. Asakawa jerks away. "Your model!" He scrambles around the floor, picking up pieces. The spider climbs the leg of the desk chair. "I can put it back together." Asakawa forces a forearm plate into a knee joint and Sato winces.
"It's okay." He takes the pieces away. "I was taking it apart."
"Oh!" Asakawa pulls off his backpack. "I made you something." He takes out an envelope. "I was going to rip it up because you were being so mean." He holds it out. "Happy Special Friends Who Are Boys Day!"
"Special...what?" Sato takes the envelope.
"Special friends who are boys." Asakawa sits on the bed. "See, we were thinking that there's a day for girls to give things to boys that they like and a day for boys to give things to girls that they like, but there's no day for boys to give things to boys that they like, so we made one up."
"Me and Kazuhiro." Asakawa bounces and the bedframe shakes. "We worked really hard."
"You made things for all the guys?" He can hear Tachiki's silky voice: Oh, thank you, Asakawa. The nausea starts again.
"Just for you, silly." Asakawa bounces again. "Well, I made one for you. Kazuhiro made one for--"
"Never mind." Sato can guess, but so long as he doesn't hear the name, he can pretend he doesn't know.
Sato reaches into the envelope and slides out a sheet of bristol board. It's covered with swirls of coloured marker, a liberal dusting of silver glitter, and photos. A lot of photos. Some of Asakawa, some of Sato, but mostly of them together: sticker photos, phone cam photos, their heads cut out of the lacrosse club picture. And their names, written under an umbrella.
Sato goes all warm and soft, like butter melting in the sun. His eyes sting and he blinks furiously, the happiest loser on earth. "I--" He takes a breath. "Thank you. It's really great."
"Good thing I didn't rip it up!" Asakawa smiles and Sato smiles and the spider throws a thread across the chair back.
"I don't have anything for you."
"You can owe me." Asakawa takes the poster from Sato and tacks it up next to the calendar, where it most certainly cannot stay. Maybe Sato can put it under the calendar and then take that down when Asakawa is here.
Sato sits down next to Asakawa. He can't quite make himself say "Happy Special Friends Who Are Boys Day" so he leans in and kisses Asakawa on the cheek, tugging on his hair a little and brushing his fingers against Asakawa's temple. Asakawa grabs Sato around the neck and rolls. Sato goes down.
The web is finished before they are.
Sato is tying his shoes when Tachiki saunters into the club room. Sato's fingers clench and he knows he will never stop wanting to hit Tachiki.
Asakawa is stuck in his jersey; it's twisted and he can't seem to get his head through. Tachiki leans over and runs a finger up Asakawa's belly. Asakawa shivers and laughs.
Blood fills Sato's head and he grabs his crosse, pushes to the door. Then he turns back. "You're all tangled," he says and eases the jersey over Asakawa's head. He doesn't look at Tachiki.
Asakawa's hair is filled with static and it waves around his head. "Thank you!"
"Do you still have that marker?" Asakawa fishes it out of his bag and Sato holds out his hand while Asakawa writes on his palm.
Tachiki looks over Asakawa's shoulder. "'Winner'?"
"Yes," Sato says.
"Oh." Tachiki smiles. "The game's not over yet."
"There is no game," Sato says and goes out to the field to lead the defense.
The end. Roll credits.
Comments of any kind are always welcome.