Part 4: Unrealized jealousy and other interests
Kamio was singing again. For someone with a naturally loud and wild speaking tone, his singing voice was quite smooth and controlled. And it was cheerful.
Even with the overly melodramatic lyrics, Tachibana could hear the grin their vice captain was wearing. It was pleasant and cheerful and Tachibana was glad
Mori had convinced Ann and Kamio to do another song. He really was glad they were having such a good time. He just wished they'd waited till he and Shinji
finished their game. Every time one of them got on the karaoke machine, Shinji stopped in his tracks and watched till the song was done. What should have
been a simple game of pool, considering Shinji seemed determined to clear the table on his first turn, had already dragged out for over an hour. At this rate
Tachibana knew he'd spend the entire night losing, without ever having gotten a turn at the table.
Coming to the bowling alley had been his sister's idea. Ann had heard so much about the new team that she'd been looking for a chance to get to know
them. And with the prospect of starting in official matches, finally, a celebration seemed in order. She'd convinced him there were enough activities at the
bowling alley to interest everyone, and as the captain, it was his responsibility to do something with his team besides practicing tennis. Since she was
younger, and far more outgoing, Tachibana had taken her word for it.
It wasn't like he hadn't done things, though, besides playing matches and organizing practice routines. He'd gone to Sakurai's house a few times when some
of the guys got together to play cards on the weekend. He didn't particularly like playing cards, but he'd been invited and he'd gone and it had been fun.
Those little meets had taught him a lot about the doubles players, particularly Uchimura and his amazingly good 'poker' face. And since Kamio rarely went to
those, and Shinji never did, he'd treated the two to lunch quite often after practice. He admitted that he didn't have a history of being friendly, having been
more of a loner than a team player at his former schools. But he thought he was doing a good job at being a leader. The team was already close-nit, so it
wasn't as if they needed him to pull them together. If anything, they'd drawn him in. Still, it was nice to see them all together somewhere other than a tennis
Ishida and Sakurai were bowling, and it seemed they did that quite often because they both had gloves of their own. Uchimura kept switching from the arcade
area to the bowling lanes, snagging turns off the two just for a change in pace. As far as Tachibana could tell, Mori was content just to egg his friends on,
whether it was taunting Kamio back to the karaoke machine, or messing up Sakurai when it was his turn to bowl. He'd even gotten Shinji to sing earlier, though
he'd refused a second go when Ann tried to con him into joining her and Kamio for a song. Tachibana had an idea Shinji hadn't refused because of Ann, so
much as Ishida's loud remarks about needing an extra microphone so they could actually hear him. Shinji had a surprisingly good voice, but he sang as
quietly as he mumbled, and he'd frowned the entire time. He looked much happier playing pool, at least when he wasn't distracted by the others singing just a
few yards from the tables.
Still, even the distractions were sort of nice. Tachibana really didn't like losing at anything, and every time Shinji turned his attention back to the game, he
sank whichever ball he was aiming for. The pauses gave him a chance to get rid of his irritated twitch. And it was interesting to see Shinji be so distracted
without any of the telltale mumbling. He'd grumbled a little when they first came in, going on about his dislike of bowling and how he'd much rather celebrate
by playing tennis, since that was what they were celebrating to begin with. But then he'd been taunted into singing and he hadn't said more than two words
since. Despite that, the silence didn't feel unnatural or awkward. He didn't seem to be closing himself off so much as observing silently. And if his gleaming
eyes said anything, he was enjoying it.
Tachibana had worried about that. He'd gotten to know the various hobbies and quirks the guys had, but the only thing Shinji seemed to enjoy was tennis.
Everything else left him bored and distant, or distracted and grumbling about how much the distraction irritated him. They were playing a lot more tennis now,
practicing with every free hour they could to prepare for the coming season. The mumbling was less frequent as a result, and the observing silence more
common. It was nice, though, because now even when he was quiet he showed more emotion than he did when he was rambling. He'd changed a lot in the
last few months and he seemed to be getting a handle on his habit. Part of that was getting out from under the old tennis team, but most of it seemed to be
The two were closer now than they'd been when Tachibana first transferred to their school. He'd noticed the change soon after his little talk with Kamio. The
two didn't argue at all in front of him, and he hadn't heard so much as a grumble from Shinji about whatever minor tiffs they had outside of practice. He'd
walked with them a few times when he didn't go in early, so he knew they walked to school together. And they could actually function as a doubles pair on the
court. That had surprised him. He'd thought about the possibility, but he hadn't really expected it to work. Kamio was all over the place, dominating the entire
court, and Shinji was something of a control freak, glaring and grouching if he didn't put just the right spin on a return, even if he scored a point.
Tachibana had never quite gotten over the way Shinji had walked out on him the one time he'd played doubles with the boy. He knew it was his own fault for
going after every ball regardless of where they fell. But Kamio and Shinji were the same way when they played. He'd seen it when he paired them against
Uchimura and Mori. They couldn't seem to follow any of the formations he'd recommended to them, and yet somehow they managed not to bump into each
other. At first he'd thought they were doing some pattern they'd made up on their own, but there was no consistency to it. That had put him off the idea of
pairing them in actual matches, where the lack of a plan could be disastrous against a strong pair. But they were different when they played Sakurai and
Ishida. There he could see the strategy, and it was excellent. They were still playing singles more than doubles, but with Shinji sealing Ishida and Kamio doing
his own thing with the rest it just...worked. Clearly they'd planned an attack and stuck to the plan. If they could do that, they could do it with announced pairs
in actual matches.
He still didn't expect to use them as a doubles pair unless they were planning to overwhelm a team by stacking the lineup. Kamio hadn't officially been placed
in the role of vice captain, though the vote was unanimous, but he'd been more than happy to talk strategy. He was the one who'd suggested Shinji for their
singles two slot. Tachibana had worried about competition between the two, considering they were rather evenly matched in a six game set. The only thing
that determined who would win appeared to be their moods. If Kamio egged Shinji on enough, Shinji would beat him like he was standing still. The next day it
would be the other way around. Tachibana really didn't know if they'd ever had a straight match. The practice sessions he'd watched seemed more like
teasing and provoking for fun, than an actual competition between the two. He had to take Kamio's word that Shinji was the better player. He thought so, too,
but he didn't really have many facts to base it on. It wasn't as if he'd ever played him seriously.
Since Shinji let slip that the freshmen knew who he was, Tachibana had watched for signs of it. If any of them were cowed by his proven skill, they didn't show
it. Ishida was so confident he'd given him a run the first practice match they had. Shinji had commented to him that the others were showing off to gain his
acknowledgment, which did explain why they played him without worrying about losing. That was good because it let him play stronger gradually, matching
them, rather than overwhelming them when they were just getting started. He did miss having opponents at his own level, but there would be plenty of that
once the official tournaments started. In the meantime, he kept his own skills in check and watched their growth. It still amazed him how much untapped
potential they had.
Ishida worried him with his private practices, getting stronger without taking enough precautions. Tachibana still didn't know exactly how dangerous the move
he was creating would be once he reached his maximum strength, but he had an idea it would be bad. It was already to the point where none of the freshmen
could handle it, and even he had lost his racket more than once trying to return it. So far, Shinji was the only one who could seal him without endangering
himself by trying to return the shot. That was all good and well when the doubles pair faced off with him and Kamio, but Sakurai was already working on a way
around it. They were just so adaptive. Some of them, like Kamio and Uchimura, were focusing on the basics, speed and net play. Tachibana was certain the
moment Kamio got strong enough to hold his speed without losing stamina, he'd start experimenting as well. They needed real matches for that, a variety of
opponents instead of friends they knew everything about.
They'd definitely find that in the upcoming season. Tachibana was familiar with the top schools they'd be facing. He'd already begun thinking about possible
line-ups and the sort of preparation they'd need. They had the element of surprise on their side, with Fudomine's relative anonymity. There were ways to
take advantage of that...
He looked around to find Shinji standing to the side of him. He was sure he'd been staring off into space for a while. The pool table was cleared and ready for
the next players. He wondered how long Shinji had been trying to get his attention. It was amusing to be on the other side of things. Usually Shinji was the
one spacing out until someone got around to snapping him out of it.
"Sorry," said Tachibana. "I was distracted."
Shinji took his pool stick from him so he could return it to the rack with the others. He shrugged at the karaoke setup, where Mori had conned Sakurai into
doing a stint with him and Ann.
"They're very distracting," Shinji nodded. "Ann-chan has a pretty voice, though. I thought she just wanted to sing with Kamio, but she's letting everyone have
a turn. As long as it's with her. I get that. I'd probably hog the mike, too, if it were me. Still, she should let Kamio go by himself once. He hums a lot, like when
he's doing homework with his headphones on. He does it when he's practicing, sometimes, too. Then it's annoying, hearing bits when I'm trying to play,
especially if we're doing doubles. I don't see how he does that. He had me try once, but he turned the volume up so high I couldn't hear anything else. It was
distracting and it hurt my ears. He'll definitely be deaf by the time he graduates. I figured he'd be good at this, though. He said he'd be too embarrassed to
sing, but I knew he wouldn't be once he started, especially since Ann-chan's singing with him. Kamio likes redheads, you know."
The last bit was given with a slow, sidelong, look at him. Tachibana blinked in surprise. Kamio was standing off to the side, grinning at Ann more than at his
teammates. Tachibana wasn't sure if he liked the implications of that. It was great that his sister was getting along with his teammates. But she was way too
young to be dating. That was something he wouldn't have to start worrying about for years. Right?
"Should I be worried?" he asked Shinji.
He'd intended it to come out like a joke, but he didn't quite succeed. Shinji frowned and seemed to seriously consider the question. Tachibana waved him off
before he could reach a decision.
"I'm kidding. Anyway, do you want to bowl? If Ann catches us just standing here, she'll try to get us to sing. I don't know about you, but I'm not touching that
microphone. Besides, I don't seem to be having much luck with pool tonight."
"That's my fault," said Shinji. "If I go first, I won't miss unless someone bumps me. I warned you that you wouldn't want to play with me. No one ever does.
There's no point."
"Ah, I wasn't complaining," Tachibana said quickly. He had been, but he hadn't meant to. It was his own fault he'd thought Shinji was bluffing when he'd
claimed he never lost, and that he'd quit playing because there was no point. "So. Bowling?"
"I don't want to," Shinji sulked, with a resentful look down the lanes where Ishida and Uchimura were playing.
Shinji shrugged and scowled a little darker. Kamio had come over in time to hear the question. He smirked at Tachibana.
"He's afraid he'll hurt his wrist or hit someone with the ball," said Kamio. "So he won't play right. He says he uses his left hand and walks to the end of the lane
instead of running up. To hear him tell it, it's really funny to watch."
"I don't think it's funny," Shinji scowled. "Other people do, but I don't. If I can line up a strike from a standstill, it shouldn't matter. I don't see why the computer
reads the speed, anyway. You don't have to run and throw really hard to knock the pins down. It's really dangerous the way most people play. I've seen
people have all sorts of accidents. The shoes have no traction at all, so they slip when they run up. The balls never fit right, so they can get stuck and
wrench your wrist when you try to throw, or be so loose they fly off when you swing your arm back. My club leader got hit like that once. We actually heard his
leg crack. It was horrible. Bowling is much more dangerous than tennis. Even your teammates who aren't playing can get hurt. And you can't play so it's not
dangerous, or people laugh and make fun, especially when you beat them playing that way. It doesn't even make sense. Everyone knows the less power you
use, the more control you have. And you can line the throw up perfectly if you do it at the edge of the lane instead of doing it and then running up for the
Kamio shook his head at Tachibana. "Now you see why Sakurai didn't bother asking Shinji to play. Even Ishida promised not to laugh if it looks as funny as it
sounds, and he still won't do it. There's just no convincing him. One traumatic bowling accident and he swears off the game for life."
"If our leader had sat down a minute later than he did, I would have gotten hit instead of him," said Shinji. "It's not a joke. I didn't run away, either. I just found
a way to play that won't hurt anyone. It's easy to play that way, though. That's why I don't want to. There are only two positions where I have trouble getting a
spare, and most of the time I can get a strike on the first try. If there's no challenge, there's no point. I'm not scared, and I don't care if you guys laugh at me.
If you want to laugh, you'll find something to laugh at no matter what I do. It's not about that. I just don't want to bowl."
Mori winced and sent a look at Kamio. "Why'd you get him started on that again?"
"It wasn't me," said Kamio. "Tachibana-san asked him why he didn't want to play. Live and learn, Buchou," he grinned at Tachibana. "If Shinji says he doesn't
want to do something, you can bet he has a very...uh...detailed...reason."
"I see," said Tachibana.
Kamio smirked and poked a glowering Shinji on the arm. "Race you?"
"What?" Shinji blinked. "Race me where? You know you're faster than me..."
"Wrong racing," said Mori. "He's talking about the cars in the arcade."
Shinji frowned when Kamio gave a quick nod. "Oh. I don't know how. I don't play games like that..."
"That just means you don't have a ready excuse not to," Kamio waved. "Come on, Shinji. I'll give you a five lap head start."
Shinji scowled and stalked after him. "Don't be so conceited," he grumbled. "There's no point competing if you give me a handicap. Just because you have
experience and I've never played doesn't mean I won't pick it up within a few tries. I'm not a slow learner. Don't look down on me until you beat me."
"Sure, sure," laughed Kamio. "Like I'm really going to lose to someone who's never even stepped foot in an arcade. You're seriously sheltered for a
teenager, Shinji. Neglected, even. We've got to get you a game station. I bet you've never even heard of Dance Revolution."
"I knew it," sighed Kamio.
Mori shook his head after the two of them. Then he turned back to Tachibana. "So, you still want to bowl? The guys are about done with their game. We can
grab the lane next to them when they start the next round."
Tachibana nodded and went over to get Ann. She jumped at the chance to see him bowl. It was one of the few sports where she was actually a better player
than him. He was fairly sure that was one of the reasons she'd wanted him to take the team here - so she could knock him off his pedestal and make him look
bad in front of the guys.
"I thought you were going to stick to the pool tables all night," she smirked. "Since you were having so much fun with the tensai, and all."
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Tachibana.
"Oh, nothing. Just that Shinji's your favorite. You talk about him so much I was sure you'd make him vice captain. Plus, you've been hogging him since the
moment we got here. I was starting to think you'd never let him out of your sight." She paused in her teasing long enough to notice that Shinji was, as a
matter of fact, out of sight. If anything, her smirk got wider. "Kamio stole him away, didn't he. I thought he would. He was annoyed earlier, when we couldn't
get Shinji to sing with us. Something about Ishida being a stubborn jerk and Shinji being shy. Is he shy around you? Kamio says he mumbles a lot, but he
barely said two words around me."
Ann was clearly trying to start trouble. Tachibana shrugged and changed the subject. "You didn't say anything to Kamio about the vice captain position, did
Ann pouted and managed to look affronted. A little. "Of course not! We just talked about music, you, and his teammates. They're really just as close as you
said, like a family. Kamio didn't say where he fit in, but Mori's like the peacekeeper - unless he's playing a prank with Uchimura and Sakurai. They're the
troublemakers. Ishida's the straight-man they like to pick on the most, but Kamio says he's really protective, too. Shinji's the cute little brother, and you're
their idol. I think Kamio's probably the spokesman. The most outgoing, you know?"
"The first time I saw them, Kamio was speaking for the group," said Tachibana. "They may have chosen me as their captain, but they go to him with their
problems. He's the obvious choice for vice captain."
"He does have a really nice personality," Ann said agreeably. "And he's cute."
"Shinji's cute, too. It's a shame Kamio says he's so nervous around girls."
"What?" she asked, with a bright smile.
"Don't even think about it," said Tachibana.
"Too late," Ann chirped. "Oh, look, Sakurai's in our lane. He's cute, too."
Tachibana sighed as his sister danced off ahead of him. She was definitely too young to be dating. The way she teased, no boy would ever know when to
take her seriously. That would make his job as over-protective older brother nearly impossible. He didn't even want to think about it...