The next morning rolled around, and by the time tennis came around, Ryoma was still feeling irritated and disgruntled. It appeared that someone (most likely Oishi-sempai) had said something to everyone, because no one harassed verbally him today, but Ryoma still feel their eyes on his back when they thought he wasn't looking, and it still irritated him to no end. He continued to be uncooperative in drills and practices (because what did it matter when he was the best already, anyway?) and was just as irritated as he had been yesterday when practice finished. So much for tennis being able to cheer him up... Atobe had to go and ruin everything, didn't he? "Arrogant jerk," Ryoma muttered to himself as he slung his bag over his shoulder and headed for the gate, tipping his hat down to hide his face and he continued to sputter obscenities under his breath. Hopefully, the novelty of this would wear off soon and people would start leaving him alone... hopefully, or else Ryoma was going to go insane.
Atobe was waiting as he promised when Echizen came walking across the courtyard, tennis bag over his shoulder and hat pulled down as if he was trying to shut the world out. Given his mood the previous day, Atobe wouldn't be surprised if he was.
That was most likely why he walked by Atobe without acknowledging him. Atobe, however, was not going to put up with such things again, so before Echizen could go far, he reached out and grabbed him by the arm, stopping him. "Ore-sama has come to offer you a ride to your home."
He received a glare in response, so he felt it was natural to continue talking, while slowly moving towards his limo with Ryoma in tow. "Given that, based on your behavior yesterday night, you are in the wrong and somehow ore-sama is the one attempting to make amends, you could humor me for a mere fifteen minutes."
Ryoma looked up at Atobe for a moment in surprise. He was annoying beyond belief, no doubt, and Ryoma was still completely vague on his purpose for stalking him around, but there was that note of sincerity in his voice and something a little less conceited in his smile, and suddenly, all of Ryoma's anger left him. He wasn't sure how Atobe managed to do it, but when he actually sounded truthful like that, and not just arrogant and full of himself and sure of victory, when he seemed so honest that he was doing something just for Ryoma... it made Ryoma feel all fuzzy and stupid inside. Sighing, giving in, he pulled his arm back from Atobe, but followed him back to the limo that awaited them, glancing up at him again. "Well, are you going to get the door for me?"
Atobe was actually a bit shocked, that Echizen agreed to go with him. He had expected an argument and practically having to force the other boy into the car, but instead Echizen had actually agreed.
So, in response, Atobe flashed his most brilliant smile and opened the door with a flourish that had Echizen grimacing. Atobe, however, had been expecting it because that was typical Echizen reacting to Atobe's typical self, so all was actually well in the world as they both got into the limo.
"What's your address?" Atobe asked after they were seated and Echizen's tennis and school bags were firmly situated on the other side of the car. Echizen rattled off an address, which Atobe repeated to the driver, instructing him to stop there before returning home. As the car set off, Atobe did his best to make sure Echizen would at least enjoy his company for the short amount of time he had the younger boy for.
Ryoma had ridden in many vehicles in his life - he had, in fact, even ridden in a limousine before, but not one this nice. He didn't believe so many amenities could possibly be made available in a car, and he realized after a few minutes that he must have been staring like a small child. With a slight blush, he sat back in his seat and looked pointedly out the window, away from Atobe, away from the source of all of these problems and confusion. If only he could figure out Atobe's motives... but it was all so unclear to him, and so he tried not to think about it at all, and sat stiffly, hoping they would be home soon.
The ride was shorter than Atobe had expected it to be, and to his disappointment, Echizen did not respond to his few attempts at making conversation. In the end, he settled for watching Echizen Ryoma quite pointedly not look at him. It would have been amusing, had Atobe not wanted to do something with the few minutes he had won despite Echizen's stubbornness.
However, they did indeed pull up in front of Echizen's house (a quaint semi-traditional house which, much to Atobe's amusement, was the stark opposite of his own western style mansion) and Atobe even opened the door as Echizen was probably expecting him to do. The boy stepped out after him, shouldering his tennis bag and then standing there like he had no idea what to do next.
Ryoma gathered his things and got out of the car, and was entirely planning on just walking away when he happened to look up and catch Atobe's eye, and all of a sudden, he couldn't help it, he blushed again and felt like he ought to say something, but he didn't know what, exactly, so he just look away and fumbled silently for words for a moment. When he could come up with nothing that wasn't stupid or giving in or something like that, he cursed he sudden lack of eloquence and ended up deciding on, "Uh... yeah."
Echizen's reaction was wholly adorable and not something that Atobe ever expected to see. And, of course, Atobe was going to file the fact away for later use, because knowing what left Echizen Ryoma speechless was a powerful weapon indeed.
"Ore-sama was quite happy to have given you a ride, Echizen," Atobe replied, staying where he was. "Also, ore-sama wishes for you to know that I have the texting capability, so should you feel the need, you apparently can reach me. I am available most times during the day that you would be. Have a good afternoon, Echizen."
Atobe stood where he was, as Echizen muttered something in reply and then turned and retreated into his house, watching until the door to the house shut to return to his car and give the instructions to drive home.
Ryoma continued to feel fluffy and stupid for the rest of the day and most of the evening. It was terrible and stupid, and no matter how much he tried to push Atobe out of his thoughts, the bastard kept worming his way back in, somehow. Ryoma had never felt so ridiculously stupid in his entire life, but he still blushed when he thought of the occasion... it was terrible. In fact, it was 1:30 am before he came back to himself enough to think of a legitimate snarky comment, and so, since Atobe had so kindly offered, he rolled over in bed and grabbed his cell phone and to send Atobe his message. "At least your great self is useful for something." And with that, he was able to fall asleep feeling a little bit better.
Atobe woke up the next morning with a text message from Echizen Ryoma, sent at some late hour of the morning during which Atobe had been quite happily sleeping. However, he was forced to ignore it and first proceed with his normal morning preparations, and did not get the chance to read it until he was en route to school.
"At least your great self is useful for something." Atobe smiled as he read it, and hit the reply button. "It's good to see that you're back to your usual self, I suppose. And ore-sama can be quite useful when ore-sama feels it is appropriate." Atobe pressed send and settled back into the limo's seat. Today was going to be quite the day, he could tell already.
Ryoma felt his phone buzz in his pocket just as he was making his way to his desk, and withdrew it, noting that Atobe had responded to his taunt. Grinning to himself, he shook his head. Making banter like this... it was fun. Especially, he informed himself, since he didn't have to actually be face to face with Atobe. It was just arguing that he liked - not Atobe himself. Setting his things down, he prepared a reply: "I've never seen you be useful before," before putting his phone to silent and getting his things together for class.
When Atobe checked his phone at lunch, he found that he had one new message. He made sure that nobody was looking when he opened it, because he knew that if he smiled in the general vicinity of his phone these days, it would be assumed that a certain Seigaku freshman was involved. And given what had happened last time and how Echizen had reacted, he knew that it had better be kept between them.
He was glad that he had chosen to be discreet about it, because he couldn't help but smile at how very Echizen-like the message was. And, given that he had yet to learn how useful Atobe could be, Atobe would obviously have to show him the truth of the matter.
Ryoma was disgusted when he realized, around lunch time, that he was waiting for Atobe to text him back. This was ridiculous... he was acting as if they really were dating! Of course, it was only because he liked arguing, especially with someone who could argue on par with him... but that didn't matter. He simply had to stop checking his phone, so, after lunch, he put it in his tennis bag before returning to class, hoping to forget about it.
In the end, Atobe ended up sending back a short message saying that he would be coming by to pick him up again. He found that, by the end of the school day, he was more excited to see Echizen than he had been before his previous visits.
However, upon arrival, Echizen was not the one who reached him first, but the tall obnoxious power player who Atobe thought might have been the freshman's self-proclaimed best friend. He ran up, and glared, and yelled much louder than necessary, "What the hell are you trying to do to Echizen!"
Ryoma was still getting ready when he heard Momo-sempai shouting, and, feeling slightly exasperated when he thought he heard something distinctly like his name, hurried to finish dressing before walking slowly towards the commotion. When he realized what was going on, he felt the strong desire to hit his head against something, but restrained himself. It seemed Atobe had come to get him again, but had run into Momo-sempai first. Lovely.
Walking past Momo-sempai, he eyed Atobe warily before glancing past him out onto the street, where there appeared to be the same limousine waiting. Turning back to his apparent courtier, he raised an eyebrow. "When I said to make yourself useful, I didn't expect you to come again." Not that he minded... because it was quicker than walking home, he reminded himself! Still, it wasn't as if he was going to send Atobe away when he was actually trying to be nice, or at least more considerate than normal. "... you ought to tell me before you come for me," he commented flatly before moving to Atobe's side. "Well, are we leaving?"
"Ought to..? Ore-sama sent you a message..." He looked over at the other boy (Momoshiro, Atobe recalled) who was looking slightly guilty, and suddenly the whole situation made sense. "There might have been a problem with the cell phones, who can say? Technology is not nearly as reliable as it should be." He motioned to the waiting car. "Ore-sama just needs a few more seconds to resolve matters with your teammate, if you would like to wait."
Echizen gave him a curious look but walked to the limo all the same, and as soon as he was out of earshot, Atobe walked to Momoshiro. "Ore-sama finds that Seigaku students are apparently quite lacking in manners. If this happens again, I will not hesitate to inform Echizen that his friends enjoy snooping through his belongings. Have a good day, I suppose." And with that he turned on his heel and returned to the limo as well.
Ryoma wondered what Atobe was doing, but, really, he didn't care; Atobe wasn't his responsibility, and if he did something stupid, he'd have the rest of Seigaku to deal with. He dumped his tennis bag in the row of seats behind and settled into the limousine, again deciding to fix his attention outside the window... he didn't want to actually have to talk to Atobe, after all. He was only going along with this because it was convenient and Atobe kept insisting...
But, a voice in the back of his mind argued, he did enjoy arguing with Atobe. And that was interacting, that was talking with Atobe. So really, he didn't not want to deal with Atobe... which, grammatically speaking, meant he did want to deal with Atobe... But he didn't! He knew he didn't, but yet, that one part of his mind was still arguing---
When Ryoma became aware of Atobe getting into the car, he flushed and forced his mind to quit being stupid. Stiffly, he did his best to ignore him and stared pointedly out the window, hoping Atobe wouldn't see his blush.
This ride was very much the same as the last one, although the silence this time was due to Echizen pointedly looking out the window, instead of pointedly ignoring Atobe. There was a fine line between the two, and Atobe knew that it wasn't the latter due to subtle little clues in the freshman's behavior. Such as glancing over at Atobe every now and again when he thought Atobe wasn't looking. It was cute, or at least Atobe thought so.
When the pulled up in front of Echizen's house, Echizen got out of the car wordlessly, and Atobe stepped out after him, but made no move to follow him (after all, it was rather premature to meet his parents). "Ore-sama will be back tomorrow as well, to avoid any of these silly phone problems."
Ryoma was again left not really knowing how to reply, and so he simply nodded, pulling his cap lower over his face to hide the blush he was sure was lingering there. He shouldn't let Atobe drive him home every day, he told himself, but it was far better than a bicycle ride, and sitting there in silence wasn't so bad... and so, without another word, he turned and left with a bit of a habitual half-wave as he walked away, not realizing that he didn't usually wave people who he didn't feel close to...
Time passed, and, somehow, they worked themselves into a routine of sorts. If anyone had told Ryoma a week prior to his return that when he came back to Japan he'd be spending more time one on one with Atobe Keigo than with some of the Seigaku Regulars, he would have never believed. But now, now it was true; somehow, it ended up such that Atobe was driving him home from school every day, in addition to the once-in-a-while text message conversations (or rather, arguments about nothing) that the two had. Atobe had somehow wormed his way into Ryoma's life, and the worst part was, Ryoma couldn't quite convince himself that he was unhappy about it.
By the time Christmas rolled around, Ryoma was less than surprised when he received a purple envelope that smelled suspiciously like lilacs in the mail and opened it to reveal a matching, purple, lavishly decorated card. It informed Ryoma that he was cordially invited to Atobe Keigo's annual Christmas Ball, that he was to dress formally, and that the party was from six pm until one am on December twenty-fourth. Ryoma had consciously told himself not to be pleased and that it would be a pain to go to something like that, and he definitely was not disappointed when he found out at school the next day that all the Seigaku Regulars had been invited.
Ryoma certainly wasn't looking forward to it, but time seemed to drag on up until Christmas Eve when, finally, he donned his only nice suit and his best shirt and a tie that he stole from his father's drawers and actually spent time in front of the mirror trying to look his best and met up with the Regulars to take the subway to the Atobe residence. It was huge, as Ryoma had expected, and they were met at the door by uniformed servants who took their coats and directed them to the Grande Ballroom in which the party was being held. The room, even, itself was breathtaking, with high vaulted ceilings and long two-story glass windows, and everything had been decorated for Christmas. There was tinsel and holly lining the room and on the long banquet tables along the edges of the dance floor, and mistletoe was conspicuously hung about. Almost immediately, the Seigaku Regulars dispersed, some going to chat with members of the Hyoutei, St. Rudolph, Yamabuki, or Rikkai Regulars who were present, others checking out the food, others simply disappearing into the crowd. Ryoma very suddenly found himself alone in the large, crowded room, and before he could stop himself, he found himself wishing Atobe would come and find him. But Atobe was nowhere to be seen, and, as stupid as it was, Ryoma felt bitter. Wandering over to a table, he began to pick at the food to keep himself busy, secretly hoping that, sooner or later (and hopefully sooner), Atobe would make an appearance.
Atobe was quite busy hosting his party. It was hard to arrange such a large party,and make it appear effortless. Still, this is what Atobe did and so it wasn't such a stretch to make rounds and greet everyone and ask after their health and make sure they had everything they needed.
Atobe was enjoying himself, except for the part where he had yet to find Echizen Ryoma. He knew he was here, he had seen him, dressed quite nicely in a suit and tie (that complemented his hair, although Echizen probably wasn't aware of that). He was, however, eluding all all of Atobe's attempts to actually talk to him, because it seemed like every time Atobe was free he had wandered away from where he had last been, and Atobe only saw him when he was conversing with other people.
Atobe told himself, that next time he saw Echizen, he was going to extract himself from the conversation no matter who it was with or how interesting it was and he was going to leave it and he was going to talk to him.
Ryoma was really getting fed up with this whole trying to find Atobe thing; he had seen just about everyone else who seemed to be in attendance as well as a few things he preferred that he hadn't seen (such as Oshitari and Mukahi making out in the corner... a visual he really didn't need...) and he was really beginning to feel ignored. A few of his teammates, or even other teams had tried to involve him in their conversations, but Ryoma remained as silent as usual; it was a nice thought, but he didn't want attention from them. He wanted attention from Atobe.
It was stupid and he knew, but he had stopped trying to deny it to himself two hours ago when, already an hour and a half into the party, he had given up even trying to pretend he wasn't annoyed. Ryoma had never been big on lying to himself, and, after all, he was here on Atobe's invitation... the least Atobe could do was come see him. Even if he had a ton of other guests... well... it was the least he could do! He claimed to be Ryoma's suitor, after all! He certainly wasn't doing a good job of winning him over right now, and Ryoma had long ago decided that he would be his absolute most acerbic and cruel to Atobe if he did ever appear. He didn't really know what else to do; Ryoma had never felt quite this abandoned before, and it was all Atobe's fault.
Atobe saw Echizen walk by while he was in a conversation with Yukimura from Rikkai. He followed the freshman's path with his eyes, and only half-listened to Yukimura finish his sentence before asking to be excused and rushing after him.
He caught him right in front of one of the giant glass doors that led to one of the many balconies. It was more deserted because as expensive as that much glass was, it allowed the cold to seep through and people tended to avoid them unless they wanted to be on the balcony for some reason. Still, Echizen looked like he wanted to be alone, and Atobe was glad for the semi-privacy. "Echizen, ore-sama is happy to see you. Have you been enjoying the party so far? Is the food and music to your liking?"
Finally, Ryoma thought to himself with distaste as Atobe finally found him, and left his back turned to Atobe, crossing his arms and staring out the window. "It's ostentatious. I don't care for it," he replied back with just an edge to his voice, glowering sulkily at Atobe's reflection in the glass. Happy to see him, yeah right. Atobe loved attention more than anything else, and when he had the attention of so many, why should he need Ryoma? The truth of the matter made Ryoma feel positively sour, and though he made a mental note to kick himself later for getting attached, right now, he could only feel angry at Atobe.
Echizen was upset, that much had become apparent within the first few words he said to Atobe. And, the glaring at him via window (the indirectness only magnified the emotion) added to the fact, and Atobe honestly couldn't say what he had done do deserve it.
"Is there something ore-sama could have brought that is more to your taste? Ore-sama is hosting this party, so there are certain liberties ore-sama is allowed to take." Ryoma was still glaring, so Atobe decided there must be something else he could try. "I don't want you to be miserable, Echizen, so you could at least tell me if there is something else."
Ryoma was about to shoot back a response, but hesitated a moment when he noticed Atobe's pronouns change. It wasn't often that Ryoma heard Atobe speak of himself without honorific, and the switch startled him slightly. Still, however, he was angry and he couldn't keep it bottled up inside him, so he turned to face Atobe, feeling, for an instant, naked without the brim of his hat under which to hide. There was something in Atobe's eyes that didn't used to be there, but Ryoma did his best to ignore it, speaking his mind. "If you're really so happy to see me, you could have found me sometime before in the past four hours," he snapped, his voice low. "It's really obvious to tell when you're just putting on a show." And with that, he turned to walk away; he had made his point and Atobe could do what he wished.
Atobe was shocked, and not in any small part because Echizen was acting like a complete brat. There had been times during the night, when Atobe hadn't been talking to anyone, when he was just walking and socializing with his guests, during which Echizen could just as easily have come to see him. But, at the same time, Atobe knew that he wasn't going to make it easy, the courting and dating, just because that's who Echizen was. So, with a wry smile and a shrug almost to himself, Atobe went after him.
Ryoma's heart leapt against his will when he realized Atobe was following him, but he knew better than to show it. He was probably just being the attention speaking idiot he always was, and Ryoma wasn't going to give in that easily. Even the fact that he wanted to spend time with Atobe was ridiculous, and if Atobe really wanted to spend time with him, too, he would have to work for it, because he was the one who dragged Ryoma into this whole stupid thing in the first place. Without ceasing to walk or even looking back at Atobe, Ryoma shot, "What do you want?"
"Well, I believe less than five minutes ago, you told me that you wanted me to spend more time with you. So, I am attempting to spend more time with you." It really wouldn't be too hard to catch up to Echizen, Atobe's legs being longer, but he felt that Echizen really wouldn't appreciate that all that much. So, they were playing a very strange game of follow the leader, with Echizen basically walking the outline of the ballroom while Atobe followed and talked at him. Rikkai's Sanada had given Atobe a strange look when he walked by and a few of the more childish guests almost looked as if they wanted to join in. Atobe glared at them for good measure. "Although there really isn't much time left until the party is over, so the prospects of me spending the remainder of it with you is slowly dwindling."
By now, they had made it back to the tall glass pane windows, and Ryoma turned abruptly, with some remark at the ready when something about Atobe caught him off guard. It was that look in his eyes, that same one that kept making Ryoma freeze up, but it seemed to have gotten stronger, somehow, in the past few minutes, and Ryoma found himself speechless, breathless, almost, sharp remark completely forgotten. Now that he was looking at Atobe... Ryoma had never been much of one to care about looks at all, but he had to admit, with his impeccable hair and white suit and blue tie, Atobe really looked... rather dashing. He felt his face heat up; this was a stupid thing to get all flustered about, and so he managed to choke you a half-hearted, "Like you'd really do that, anyway."
Atobe caught the pause. And the blush. And the fact that Echizen stared at him a little longer than he necessarily would in any other situation. He always noticed such things, he'd trained himself to do so. However, he was beyond happy that Echizen was making such subtle gestures, that he himself probably did not even understand. It was progress, and it was absolutely thrilling. "I would do it if you asked me to."
Ryoma felt his blush deepen, and he hated that there was nothing that he could do to stop it. He hated when he couldn't control himself, in general, but this was just the worst. He felt his heart racing, and suddenly, he felt the urge to look away, anywhere but Atobe, because something about the way Atobe was looking at him was making ridiculous things happen in his breathing... glancing upward, he stared at the decorations for a moment before he heard a word tumbling out of his mouth, despite his attempts to stop it. "...Mistletoe."
Atobe glanced up, and saw that there was indeed a small sprig of mistletoe hanging above the window. He had made sure that it was included in the list of decorations to be included (in the spirit of the season, of course) but he hadn't been the one to personally place it. And, there had been a few people making use of it at various intervals during the night, the least of which were two of Atobe's own teammates, who were now quite conspicuously absent. Atobe made a mental note to check the nearby rooms the next day, as one of them would invariably need to be cleaned.
But bringing his mind back to the matter at hand, Atobe arched an eyebrow and allowed himself to smile, just the tiniest bit. "Is there a specific reason you've decided to point that out? I'm certain you know what it means, having lived in America for so long."
By now, Ryoma was sure Atobe could hear his heart beating out of his chest, and he knew he was entirely and obviously red in the face, but he still couldn't figure out what to do about it. Swallowing, he tried to look away but suddenly couldn't tear his eyes from Atobe's, and so he stuttered a moment before managing a, "Yeah... no reason..."
"No reason. Of course, you were just making an observation," Atobe responded with a smile. The situation was perfect, really. He couldn't have done it better if he had planned it. "So then, you wouldn't mind so much if I made an observation of my own. You're looking very handsome tonight." Then, while Echizen was still staring at him like he was crazy, he leaned forward and pressed a quick kiss to the other boy's mouth.
It would have been perfect, had a flash not gone off right before Atobe pulled away.
Ryoma was stunned-- it seemed that everything was happening so fast, and then all of a sudden, Atobe was complementing him and then he was kissing him and Ryoma's heart was beating so fast and he couldn't think besides that it just felt so good, it felt so right--
And then there was a flash, and Ryoma jerked away from Atobe to see Fuji smiling terrifyingly at them, camera in hand, and Ryoma didn't know what to do. What had he just done?! He had kissed Atobe-- Atobe the egotistical, insufferable, irritating, rival of Seigaku, Atobe whom Ryoma couldn't stand... what was he thinking? Ryoma felt his stomach clench up, and, not knowing what to do, he simply pulled away from Atobe and ran, not knowing where he was going but knowing he had to get away so that he could think.
Atobe was shocked. Possibly beyond shocked, because it was finally right, and then Fuji had to come and ruin the situation, and Atobe would have liked to call him out about it, confront him in front of every tennis player in the area about his abhorrent behavior, but he had disappeared sometime during the time Echizen had.
He knew that Echizen had left the ballroom, but he had no idea where he had gone, so the best he could do was ask the waiter stationed at the door (who could give him no more help than 'he went left') and instruct another servant to make sure everyone left by the time the party was meant to end, before rushing away down the hall to try and find where Echizen had gone.
Ryoma, at that moment, didn't care about anything besides getting away. He took the subway on his own and walked home on his own, because he had to think, he needed to think. Nothing was normal, and he needed to figure out what to do about it.
Once safely closed in his bedroom, Ryoma dropped down onto his bed, still fully clothed. Snatching his cap from his nightstand, he pulled it forcefully onto his head, tugging it down to cover his eyes. Thus settled, he could finally allow himself to think... because he needed to do a lot of thinking. After all, this thing with Atobe had obviously gotten far out of hand, somehow being fine with never seeing him again had become not minding seeing him everyday had become hoping to see him everyday had become wanting his attention had become kissing him... and Ryoma couldn't figure out what was going on inside his head. After all, before all of this had happened, Ryoma had really rather abhorred Atobe, with his ego and everything, even if he did think of him as a worthy rival...
But that was something, wasn't it? Ryoma was always most interested in people who he considered to be his equals, and, when it came to tennis, Atobe was definitely almost his equal. In words, too, Atobe was at his level, which, he vaguely remembered, was why this whole thing with Atobe had sparked his interest in the first place. He liked verbally sparring with Atobe. That was nothing to be ashamed of... right?
But then again, why was kissing Atobe something to be ashamed of? Ryoma had obviously liked it... so why was it bad? After all, Ryoma, too, wasn't the easiest person to talk to, and he knew he was arrogant, as well. So... why was Atobe bad? Because his teammates disapproved? But when had Ryoma really cared about anyone's opinion?
By the time he finished arguing with himself, it was very clear to Ryoma that the side for Atobe was much stronger than the side against him... but even with that knowledge, what was he to do? He certainly wasn't going to seek Atobe out. But... Atobe had been the one following him from the start, so why not just let him continue trying to win him over? Ryoma found himself grinning slightly at the thought of the future attention; in a way, it was winning already, because the attention was on him and not Atobe. He'd let Atobe continue to try to "court" him for the time being, and eventually something would be resolved.
That being decided, with a slight grin on his face, Ryoma fell into a pleasant sleep, still fully dressed with his cap on his head, feeling more contented than he had in a while.
By the time Atobe finished searching every room in house, the party had been over for almost an hour. He did check with the servants to be sure everyone had left by that time, which they assured him that everybody had. A few of his guests, apparently, had even asked after his absence, which meant Atobe would have to send out a letter of apology for not being present.
He trudged back to his room, tired both from the party and from searching his entire house, and he wanted nothing more to lie down and analyze the situation and figure out what had happened and how it needed to be fixed. However, before he could even consider doing anything of the sort, he needed to get undressed, prepare for bed, because it was practically a sin to sleep in a suit.
Finally, when everything was dealt with, and he could finally get into his bed, it must have been close to two in the morning, but Atobe knew that he wouldn't be able to sleep. He slowly began to replay the events leading up to Echizen's abrupt departure in his head, going over what had happened down to the tiniest details. After going through everything three times, he found he could only come to one conclusion: it hadn't been his own fault Echizen had fled. All the cues had been correct, Echizen had fairly heavily implied that he didn't mind what Atobe did, until Fuji the conniving bastard had taken a picture! People could only be pushed so far in such situations.
Secure in the knowledge that, everything willing, there would be a next time when Echizen wouldn't run off, Atobe switched off his light and finally allowed himself to fall asleep.
That Monday at practice after school, Ryoma was once against startled from the changing rooms by a loud yell, this time of "OH, GOD, IT IS TRUE!" quickly followed by, "THAT ATOBE--!" Exasperated and somehow knowing this involved him, Ryoma pulled his cap onto his head and walked briskly out to the courts. There, the entire team was gathered around Fuji, and suddenly, Ryoma realized what was going on. Walking over to the cluster, he climbed onto the bench to peer over Fuji's shoulder. "Oi, what's so exciting?"
Though Fuji simply smiled up at him, looking up from the rather large print he appeared to have made of the photo of Atobe kissing Ryoma (which really turned out rather attractively, despite the situation), most of the rest of the team jumped back in shock. "E-Echizen--!?" Momo stuttered in disbelief, the first, apparently, to regain his voice. "What has that bastard been doing to you?!" Ryoma gave him a skeptical look, which seemed to have no affect in his scandalized manner, and he continued, "When I get my hands on him, I'll--"
"Why don't we hear what Echizen has to say about the matter?" Fuji cut him off with an unnerving smile, and Oishi beside him, who was looking somewhat red in the face and frazzled, nodded quickly. "I think it would be best if we all settled--"
"But Oishi!" Kikumaru cut in a dramatically desperate look on his face. "Ochibi is going to get taken advantage of!! We have to protect him!" This seemed to encourage Momo, who jumped in with a "I'll kick that jerk's ass!"
Ryoma couldn't decide whether to be amused or aggravated that he really had absolutely no say in this matter, but somehow, during the interval in which everyone was speaking at the same time that followed, Kikumaru and Momo decided that they were going to Hyoutei right then and there, and then were gone on Momo's bicycle in an instant. Oishi, who looked ready to pull his bangs out, opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by Inui, who suddenly stepped forward. "I believe, in situations like these, it's best to cover our bases. For a higher percentage chance of Echizen staying safe." And with that, he grabbed Ryoma and Kaidoh both by the wrist and led them back towards the school, Fuji following with an amused laugh.
An hour and a half later, Ryoma exited the classroom Inui had commandeered second only to Kaidoh, who had run, full speed, blushing madly from the room earlier, when Inui had finally released him from being a "demonstration." With a sigh, he began back towards the tennis courts, hoping never to see a photo of herpes again but wondering to what, exactly, Inui had been referring when he mentioned "unorthodox methods" in relation to Hyoutei's doubles. Vaguely, he considered what Kikumaru and Momo had been off doing at Hyoutei, but he didn't let it bother him, and, arriving back at the courts, realized that Oishi must have given up on practice and gone home. With a sigh, he put his things away and got changed and sat by the gate, waiting for Atobe to come pick him up. With things going the way they had been, he thought with a half grin, perhaps something exciting would happen. But either way, Ryoma was looking forward to it... even if he'd never say as much.
Atobe was busy coaching the freshmen in the Hyoutei chant when Ootori ran up to him, looking slightly panicked. "Atobe-buchou, Kikumaru-san and Momoshiro-san are here and they want to see you."
Atobe snapped and the freshmen fell silent. "Tell them to leave. Hyoutei's practices are private, and if they need to see me that badly, they can wait."
Ootori's face fell, and Atobe knew bad news was coming. "I tried, Atobe-buchou, but they wouldn't leave and now they're disrupting practice, and Hiyoshi-kun is probably going to do something drastic if they don't leave soon..."
Atobe sighed. Of course Ootori would only come in a worse case scenario, and Hiyoshi must have been on the borderline of physically attacking the guests if Ootori actually felt the need to get him. "Ore-sama will come. And, please Ootori, ore-sama has retired as captain, there is no need for the buchou. First years, continue practicing!"
Atobe jogged next to Ootori to the other court where the up and coming regulars practiced, and saw that in the short amount of time it had taken to fetch him, Hiyoshi and the Seigaku interlopers had entered into a shouting match. It didn't take much effort on his part to separate them, inform the Kikumaru and Momoshiro that Hyoutei was private property and they would be forcibly removed if they did not leave, also inform them that his and Echizen's dubious relationship was none of their business, and then make sure they actually left.
It would most likely make and interesting story for Echizen when he went to go pick him up.
It was a while, considering practice had ended rather early, but finally, Ryoma saw Atobe's limousine pull up to the school and rose, suddenly feeling his heart speed up. Hopefully, things wouldn't be strange... after all, they had parted on rather unusual terms. But, Ryoma told himself, he would just have to act naturally and not be too mean to Atobe... after all, he wanted Atobe to continue to pursue him, even if he wasn't going to give in just yet. Walking up, he waited for Atobe to open the door for him, doing his best to look apathetic and disinterested.
Echizen wasn't acting any different, especially given the terms that they had parted on, and Atobe counted himself lucky for that. They both got into the car, just like every other time, and as they drove back he recounted the story of the visit from Echizen's teammates. Echizen seemed mildly amused, which was exactly what Atobe had been aiming for.
When they arrived, Atobe let Echizen out, and when the other boy turned back, most likely to say goodbye or something snarky as a challenge (Echizen liked to alternate between the two), Atobe ducked and kissed Echizen Ryoma for the second time. It was much better this time, as there were no meddling tennis players to interrupt, so there was no sudden escapes being made afterward. Echizen, at least, didn't look the least bit shocked or mortified by what had happened, so Atobe smiled back and nodded. "Until next time, Echizen."
As Atobe kissed him a second time, Ryoma felt his cheeks flush slightly and his heart speed up again, but he wasn't necessarily surprised and he did his best not to react. Looking at Atobe for a moment, he was taken in slightly by his smile, which was a change of pace from the usual smirk and appeared truly genuine. After a moment, he nodded, then turned to go, waving backhandedly with a, "Cheers." Things were really rather looking up, and for the first time in a long time, Ryoma felt entirely confident that things were right on track.