Disclaimer: I know almost nothing about the Witness Protection Program in the States, and I don't even know if they have an equivalent in Japan, let alone anything about it. I'm sure I got a million details wrong, but I did my best.
Title: By Any Other Name
Series: Prince of Tennis
Warnings: lemon, yaoi
Total length: 16,205
What do you do when the thing you want most in all the world is dumped right into your lap... and you're not allowed to have it?
The space in the economy class of an airplane could only be described as 'cramped' at the best of times, but to Shouichi it felt like the walls were literally closing in on him. Gripping the arm rests of his seat so hard his knuckles were white, he closed his eyes and concentrated on forcing himself to breath normally. The plane wasn't even in the air... hell, it wasn't even on the runway yet, they were still loading passengers. He needed to calm down.
He'd never been a good flyer, and avoided planes whenever possible. The trip from Tokyo to Los Angeles when his family had moved to the States had been one long panic attack, and he'd sworn he would never fly again. Unfortunately, his decision to go to Harvard meant that if he wanted to visit his family in Los Angeles, he pretty much had to take a plane. Some part of him had hoped that frequent exposure to flying would calm what he knew was an irrational fear, but to his dismay it seemed to be getting worse.
"Hey. Are you okay?" someone asked from his left, settling into the aisle seat beside him. The voice had a heavy Japanese accent, and sounded vaguely familiar.
Swallowing hard, Shouichi forced himself to open his eyes and try to give his seatmate a reassuring smile. "Yes, I'm..."
'Fine', he'd meant to say, but the word died before he could utter it as he gaped at the other man in total shock. Sitting next to him was none other than Shishido Ryou, a pro tennis player who had been gaining notice recently as he started winning tournaments. Only a truly avid tennis fan would recognize him at this point, but if he kept on the way he had been it wouldn't be long before casual fans started to know who he was as well.
Of course, Shouichi avoided tennis much the same way he avoided planes, though his reason for doing so couldn't have been any more opposite. No, he recognized Shishido for a completely different reason... because his name hadn't always been Shouichi Okada.
Not so very many years ago, he had been Ohtori Choutarou, and the man now sitting beside him had been the centre of his life.
"I... I..." Floundering desperately, Shouichi's panic now had an entirely new source. Had Shishido recognized him? Granted, he looked very different now. He'd dyed his hair black to make himself less recognizable, and his face had matured a lot. But if anyone would be able to recognize him despite the changes, it was his former partner.
How could this have happened? What were the odds of the two of them randomly meeting on a plane, more than six years after they'd last seen each other?
Shishido's expression didn't show the shock or anger Shouichi would expect if he'd been recognized, just honest concern. Of course, it was a long flight from Boston to L.A., he'd have plenty of time to figure out who he was sitting beside. "You okay?" he asked again, raising an eyebrow. "Not good flyer?" His English was strained, but much better than it had been when Shouichi had known him.
"I'm f-fine, I just don't like planes," Shouichi finally managed to force the words past the constriction in his throat. Then he cursed himself, because he'd unthinkingly spoken in Japanese. If he'd stuck to English, it would have been one more barrier to Shishido recognizing him.
Shishido's face had lit up at this indication that he didn't have to continue to try to speak in English. "You're Japanese? I wasn't sure," he said in his native tongue. "It's hard to tell in America whether someone would actually understand me or just look like they should. You speak like a native."
"My family moved to America when I was little," Shouichi told him, the lie coming easy now after so many years of practice. And it was a good thing he had a talent for languages, because it had taken a lot of work to get his accent to the point where he could be accepted as a nearly-native English speaker. "But we still speak Japanese at home, my parents didn't want me to forget it."
"Well, that's lucky, because otherwise I probably wouldn't have understood much of what you'd said as an answer," Shishido chuckled. "I can get by dealing with English in tennis tournaments these days, but my conversation isn't so great. I'm Shishido Ryou, by the way. Nice to meet you."
"Shouichi Okada," Shouichi replied. "Uh, Okada Shouichi to you, I guess. I'm out of the habit of saying it the Eastern way. You're a tennis player?" Maybe if he could keep Shishido talking about himself, the older man wouldn't have a chance to realize just who Shouichi really was.
"Yeah, I'm on my way home from a tournament," Shishido agreed. "I've been pro for about four years now, but only the really big names can afford anything but economy class tickets."
"Must be a pain, if you have to play soon after a long trip," Shouichi sympathised. "Did you..."
At that moment the plane lurched, and the stewardess began the standard safety lecture. Shouichi gulped and remembered why he'd been panicked in the first place. Talking to Shishido had made him forget momentarily that he was on a plane, but now they were moving.
"Oh, gods," he said faintly, clutching at the seat again. "Oh, gods, I hate flying. And don't quote me the statistics about how it's more likely to die by being hit by a bus," he added as Shishido opened his mouth. "I know it's irrational. That doesn't help."
"I wasn't going to," Shishido laughed, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Honest. I was going to ask why you're flying if you hate it so much."
"My parents live in California," Shouichi explained through gritted teeth as the plane picked up speed. "They'd never forgive me if I didn't come home for summer holidays. But I swear, next year I'm taking a bus. I don't care how long it takes!"
For a long time Shouichi had been angry at his parents, especially his father, for the circumstances that had forced them to move so far away and change their identities, even though he'd known it was for their own protection. Having the yakuza gunning for you was no joke, and there was nowhere in Japan they could have gone to hide.
Having to leave everything of his life behind and start over had been unbelievably painful. Not only because he'd literally vanished overnight without a chance to say goodbye or explain to any of his friends, though abandoning Shishido like that had nearly killed him. But in order to better hide themselves, they'd had to give up everything that might identify them... and for Shouichi that meant tennis and music, the two things most important in his life, were barred to him forever.
Still, it wasn't his father's fault, not really. It was his sister's abduction that had triggered their flight from Japan, and losing her had brought them closer together as a family despite how angry Shouichi had been with them. He was the only child his parents had left, and no matter how well he'd adjusted to his new home country he wasn't American enough not to honour his parents. So he went home for every holiday, and endured the flights despite how much he hated them.
"I hope your parents appreciate how devoted their son is!" Shishido said. "I'm not sure I'd be going home every year if I was in your position and as scared of planes as you seem to be."
The plane bumped once, twice, and then was in the air, rising sharply. The sudden change in pressure made Shouichi's ears pop, and he closed his eyes again. It didn't help, only made him nauseatingly aware of every little jolt and shudder of the plane, and he quickly opened them. Great. It looked like this might be one of the trips he got airsick on, as well as being panicked. Could this day get any worse?
"So you're a student? What are you going to school for?" Shishido asked him, apparently trying to distract him. He did seem genuinely curious, though. Shouichi wondered when his partner had developed a tendency to random acts of kindness and curiosity about strangers. Not to say that Shishido had been a jerk - well, not after his humiliating defeat and rise back to the Regulars - but he had always been very focused. Not self-centred, exactly, just uncaring of anything that didn't affect him or the things and people important to him.
It took Shouichi three tries before he could answer, and his voice was shaky when he did manage it. "Law. At Harvard. My dad was ecstatic when I was accepted." It was a risk for him to go into his father's former profession, but only a small one. He had never shown much interest in law previously, and he'd be practising here in the States instead of in Japan.
"I bet!" Shishido whistled. "I'm impressed. Me, I left university after a year and went pro instead. I like history, but a history degree doesn't get you much of anything. And anyway, I like tennis more."
"Tell me about being a pro player? How was the tournament?" Shouichi asked, hoping to get the topic of conversation off of him and also to distract himself. He'd been unable to avoid the temptation to follow his former teammates' careers; Shishido and Atobe had both gone pro, though Atobe was doing better so far. But it was still a subject that interested him, despite being a painful reminder of what he'd lost and could never have again.
"Ah... it'd probably be boring to anyone who doesn't follow tennis," Shishido shrugged. "Do you play?"
Oh, crap. Shouichi winced, grateful the gesture and his hesitation would probably be taken as part of his reaction to flying. Maybe this hadn't been such a great conversation choice after all. What should he say? The last thing he wanted was Shishido connecting him with tennis, but he didn't think he could be believably ignorant about a sport that he knew so much about.
"I, uh..." Inspiration struck. "I played a bit when I was younger, but I was injured and had to drop it," he lied. "For a long time it was too painful to think about, so I don't really follow the tennis world much. But I'll understand what you're talking about."
"You asked for it, then. Don't say I didn't warn you," Shishido laughed. "I'm probably gonna talk your ear off, tennis is the one thing I get excited about."
Somehow, Shouichi managed a faint smile in response to that as Shishido launched into a description of life as a pro and the last tournament in particular. The older man quickly became animated, gesturing to describe tennis plays, his eyes alight with passion. It was almost painful to watch, because it reminded Shouichi of so many days they'd spent together, discussing their game and their opponents and how to improve their play.
He'd always loved to watch Shishido when the older boy got carried away. The fire and drive in his partner's expression had been inspiring, and Shouichi - then Choutarou - had been motivated by it every time.
It had also been the basis for his rather large crush on the older boy. That part hadn't changed either; Shishido was still beautiful when he was excited, his blue eyes flashing and his gestures making his dark hair flare around his face. He'd grown it out again and was wearing it up in the high ponytail Shouichi remembered from junior high. He'd matured from an attractive boy into a very attractive man, and Shouichi realized that despite having had several boyfriends over the years, he apparently wasn't as over Shishido as he'd thought he was.
Flushing, he bit his lip and hoped his feelings weren't showing in his expression. If this had been six years ago he'd have had no hope of hiding what he was thinking; Shishido always could read him like a book. It was part of what had made them such a good doubles team, but it had also had the potential to be embarrassing. With any luck, though, either he'd have gotten better at hiding his feelings or Shishido wouldn't know how to read him any more.
He did his best to listen to Shishido and ask intelligent questions whenever the older man paused, but despite his best efforts his mind wandered to the last time they'd been together. It had been his junior year of high school, just before the Regionals. They'd been training hard, every day, and spending almost every moment outside of sleeping and class in each other's company. It was the first time they'd been able to officially play together since Shishido had graduated from junior high, and they'd been determined to earn and keep the D1 position on the team.
On that last day, not wanting to have anything between them that might damage their synchronicity, Shishido had confronted him about his crush. They'd been dancing around the subject for months, each of them fairly convinced that his feelings were returned but unwilling to risk the partnership by asking and being wrong. Finally being able to admit to his obsession with his partner had been a huge weight off his chest, and having the confirmation that it wasn't unrequited had made him happier than any tournament victory could have. What came after that had been even better.
Gods, he really needed to stop thinking about this, Shouichi realized as he felt himself getting overheated. Those first fumbling - and then not so fumbling - attempts at kissing hadn't gone very far, but it had been far enough that he'd headed home that night with his blood singing in his veins and feeling like he was walking on air.
And then it had all come crashing down around him, as he'd come home to find his mother sobbing and his father arguing with the police. His sister had been kidnapped by the yakuza, and that had triggered their flight to America... and he'd never even gotten a chance to say goodbye to Shishido.
"...next tournament is going to be close to home, but I'm going to have a tougher time winning that one," Shishido was saying, apparently not noticing Shouichi's distraction. Or, more likely, chalking it up to the fear of flying. "Atobe's going to be playing, a friend of mine from school and my former team captain. I've never beaten him yet." The older man shrugged. "He may have a surprise or two coming this time, though. I've been training hard. And since it's so close to Tokyo Jirou will probably come watch, and it'll be good to see him again."
"Jirou?" Lost in his own thoughts about the past, the sudden mention of his old teammate nearly startled Shouichi into giving himself away. He bit his tongue, clamping down on the automatic questions about how the sleepy player was doing and what he was up to these days. He hadn't gone pro, but that was all Shouichi knew.
Thankfully Shishido took it as a question about who the other man was. "Another former teammate, though he only plays recreationally now. He's a damn good player, he can still beat me one out of three even though he's not training professionally, but... well, he was too sleepy to go pro, if you can believe that." He chuckled, and despite himself Shouichi's mouth twitched in a smile. "He's a narcoleptic, and he was only half-awake for most of his matches. When he did wake up, though, it was like he was a totally different person. Like he saved up all the energy a normal person would have used through the whole day, and crammed it into a couple of hours."
Despite himself Shouichi laughed briefly. Gods, Jirou had been such a human bouncy ball when awake, and yet he could fall asleep with hardly three seconds of warning. How many times had he found himself 'volunteered' for pillow duty when he was sitting on a bench and Jirou abruptly plopped down beside him? If the older boy hadn't been so genuinely sweet at heart, Shouichi probably would have disliked him for the constant invasions of his personal space. But it was almost impossible not to like Jirou.
"He sounds like quite a character," he commented sincerely. He was glad to hear that his former teammate was doing well. He wished he dared ask about the others. He might not have been truly close to anyone but Shishido, but they'd been his teammates both in high school and junior high.
Maybe he could be sneaky about it? "Sounds like you must have had a pretty close bond with your old teammates," Shouichi said, as casually as he could considering the fear he was still trying to ignore. "You seem to still be in contact with a lot of them."
To his surprise Shishido's eyes darkened, and his expression shut down. Shouichi blinked, wondering what on earth could have prompted that reaction - and then could have slapped himself at Shishido's next words. "Yeah. Some of 'em," the older man said with an awkward shrug and a pained attempt at a smile. "It was kind of a cut-throat system, not designed for making friends. But... well. Y'know how it is. You lose touch with people." He said the last in a dry tone that was heavy in irony.
Shouichi winced. Wonderful. He couldn't have said anything more calculated to make Shishido think of him if he'd tried. "Uh... yeah, that does happen," he agreed belatedly, trying to think of something to change the subject with. Not tennis, they needed to get off that topic now. Ask about Shishido's family? He could...
All his racing thoughts flew straight out of his head as the plane banked and began to descend. The captain came on over the intercom, talking about the weather and conditions in L.A., but Shouichi didn't hear a word of it. He gripped the seat arms tight again and tried not to hyperventilate.
"Whoa, hey, take it easy," Shishido said sympathetically. "It's almost over, we'll be down any minute."
"I know," Shouichi replied, his voice more than a little shaky. "Believe me, I know. Repeating that to myself is the only way I get through it." Landing and taking off were by far the worst parts... especially for this flight, because he'd actually been doing a pretty good job distracting himself listening to Shishido. He couldn't believe five hours had gone by already.
"Man, you really hate planes, don't you?" Shishido shook his head. "You're braver than I am, to fly like this. Ah, brace yourself, here comes the tarmac," he added, glancing out the window over Shouichi's shoulder.
Instinctively Shouichi obeyed, his muscles tensing up as he braced for impact. The plane touched down with a bump; not the best landing he'd ever been through, but certainly not the worst. When it remained firmly on the ground instead of bouncing again and started to slow, Shouichi finally convinced himself to begin to relax.
"I'm surprised you didn't leave dents in the plastic," Shishido teased him when he managed to pry his hands off the armrests. Shouichi gave him a shaken but sheepish smile.
"Yeah, I'm always a little surprised by that, too," he admitted hoarsely. "I guess they make it strong because otherwise nervous flyers like me would be breaking them constantly. Thanks, by the way. You really helped, I hardly noticed most of the flight."
"I dunno, you seemed pretty out of it for most of it," Shishido laughed and rubbed at the back of his head in embarrassment at the thanks. "I didn't do much but babble."
"No, you helped," Shouichi insisted, ducking his head. "I'm usually a quivering ball of panic by the end of a flight. The stewardesses have had to pry me out of my seat on occasion."
"Right, now I know you're exaggerating," Shishido snickered. He stood and reached up to the overhead compartment, fishing out a battered travel case. "Is this blue bag behind mine yours?" he asked, and fetched it down when Shouichi nodded. "Well, it's been an interesting flight, that's for sure," he commented as they waited for other people to file past them down the aisle to the exit. "You kept me entertained, too. I was expecting to get stuck beside someone who, at the very least, wouldn't speak my language."
There was absolutely no suspicion in Shishido's eyes, and Shouichi breathed a sigh of relief for more than just the fact that he was about to get off the plane. Somehow he'd gotten through the whole flight without Shishido realizing the truth. And now he had a whole new memory of his former best friend to cherish - even if it did make the old ache feel stronger because he had fresh salt to rub into it. He only wished he could have somehow found a way to say 'goodbye' properly while he had the chance. He would probably never see Shishido again.
"Are you flying out right away?" he asked as they were finally able to move out into the aisle. "Or do you have a long layover?"
"Actually, they cut it pretty close," Shishido replied with a grimace. "I've only got about an hour to get to the gate for my next flight. At least I don't have to change terminals, so I won't have to go through security again."
"Well, good luck," Shouichi told him sincerely, hoping his regret didn't show too clearly. "With the flight back to Tokyo, and your tournaments. I'll keep an eye out for you in the papers."
"You do that," Shishido agreed, grinning at him. "And next time I'm playing near you, drop by to see the game and we'll go for a drink after or something. I'll be interested to see what you're like when you're not half paralysed with fear."
"I will," Shouichi promised, though he knew he would do no such thing. He'd already risked far too much with this one accidental contact. There was no way he could deliberately go looking for his old friend.
Besides, he thought it might just about kill him to go watch Shishido play. Never mind salt. That would be tearing the wound open anew, watching his partner play and wishing desperately he could be out there with him.
They collected their baggage and went their separate ways, parting with a wave from Shishido and a smile that was only slightly strained from Shouichi. Once he was certain the older man was out of sight, Shouichi sighed and rubbed his eyes, dropping all pretence of being anything but miserable.
What god had he angered - or pleased? - to cause this incredible coincidence? As wonderful as it had been to see and talk to Shishido again, even in the guise of a stranger, it had hurt still more.
LAX was a huge airport, and somehow despite having been here several times over the years Shouichi always managed to get himself lost. It didn't help that this time he got stuck because of an argument by two people who had crashed their baggage trolleys together and were blocking the hallway. Shouichi was too polite to shove rudely by the way most people were doing, and he even ended up helping to sort out the luggage.
He was finally walking towards the outside doors, debating whether he should risk public transportation or splurge on a cab, when he was startled to catch sight of Shishido again. Once they'd said goodbye he'd expected that would be the last of it, if Shishido's connection was that fast. Yet there the man undeniably was, sprawled into one of the linked chairs that passed for 'benches', with his luggage piled beside him and his tennis bag propped into the chair next to him.
"Shishido?" At the last moment he kept himself from adding '-san'. His voice had changed, but not that much... there was probably no faster way to get Shishido to recognize him. The tennis pro looked up at the sound of his name, and his expression was distinctly unhappy. "Shouldn't you be on your plane?" Shouichi asked, wide-eyed. "Was it delayed? Don't tell me you missed it?"
"Sort of, on both counts," Shishido grumbled. "They overbooked the flight, and because I was late to check in I didn't get a seat. I have to wait for the next one, tomorrow morning at ten."
"What!" Shouichi exclaimed, dismayed. Overbooking was a practice of many airlines; any flight would have a certain number of people not show up for it, for one reason or another. So the airlines sold more tickets than they actually had seats for, counting on that average number of no-shows. Sometimes, though, too many people did show up, and that left the latecomers with no choice but to wait for the next flight.
"Not the first time it's happened," Shishido sighed, and slumped further into his seat. "Probably not the last, either. I'm just glad this place has open restaurants and the like; last place I got stuck in was small enough that nothing was open twenty-four hours, and I nearly starved."
"But... you're not going to stay here, are you?" Shouichi blinked. "It's only mid-afternoon in this time-zone. If your flight doesn't leave until that late in the morning, you could get a hotel..."
Shishido interrupted him with a laugh. "Yeah, right! Okada, I'll let you in on a little secret - being a pro in most sports doesn't pay much until you're a big enough name to start signing endorsement contracts. Oh, I've got some money saved up - in Tokyo, where I can't get at it. I used most of my American cash on the trip. I can get dinner and breakfast, but that's about it."
"Oh." Shouichi felt like an idiot. Of course he knew that. How many hours had the two of them spent excitedly plotting and planning how they would support themselves until they started gaining international recognition as a doubles team? "That sucks."
"Don't feel too sorry for me," Shishido waved off his concern. "Like I said, it's not the first time. I'll hang out in the restaurants for the night, and sleep on the plane tomorrow. I'm getting good at that."
"Sleeping is one thing I've never been able to do on planes," Shouichi replied wryly, and Shishido laughed again.
He shouldn't do it. He knew it was a mistake, and he was going to regret it later. But Shouichi found himself opening his mouth and making the offer whether his head agreed with his heart or not. "You could come stay with me for the night," he said, kicking himself even before the words left his mouth. "You can check in for tomorrow's flight online tonight and guarantee yourself a spot, and then you wouldn't have to get up too early to take a cab to the airport. That won't cost any more than breakfast and dinner."
"What?" Shishido looked surprised, and flustered. "Ah, hell, man, I can't put your family out like that. I mean, I appreciate the offer, but you barely know me!"
"Oh, I don't live with my family," Shouichi hastily assured him. "I have my own apartment, I sublet it to UCLA students during the school year. I love my parents, but four months in enforced close proximity would probably not do anything positive for our relationship, if you know what I mean."
"Heh, yeah, I hear you," Shishido agreed with an amused snort. "I moved out as soon as I could afford it. Before I could afford it, really. But still..."
"It's not an imposition," Shouichi insisted. "After you helped me through that flight, the least I can do is offer you crashing space for the night. Of course, I can't guarantee the state the apartment will be in; the last tenant left it a complete mess."
"Well..." Shishido looked reluctant, but clearly tempted. Shouichi couldn't blame him, as there really wasn't anywhere comfortable to sit for long periods of time in the airport. "All right, I won't make you twist my arm. If you're sure."
"I'm sure," Shouichi said, though the only thing he was sure of was that this was a bad idea. "Come on, let's find a cab."
It wasn't difficult to get one from the airport, though it was a good thing that Shishido travelled light or they wouldn't have been able to fit his bags in with Shouichi's. They ended up with the tennis bag over their laps as it was, and it left Shouichi with a bittersweet taste in his mouth. He wondered what had ever happened to his gear and Hyoutei bag; he'd been forced to leave it behind entirely.
Thankfully Shishido wasn't paying attention to his expression, being too busy staring out the window with interest. "Never been to L.A. before?" Shouichi asked, surprised.
"Not out of the airport, no," Shishido shook his head. "I've played some tournaments up closer to San Francisco, but not out of L.A. One of these days I really should get around to seeing the city."
"It's got its rough spots, but it's a good city for all that," Shouichi agreed with a smile. It had taken him a long time to get used to living in America, but L.A. was his home now as much as Tokyo had once been. He missed it when he was away - especially during the winters in Boston.
He passed the trip by pointing out the sights to Shishido, telling the older man as much as he could about each tourist spot they could see. It was nearly a half hour trip to his tiny apartment, but it seemed to fly by much as the plane trip had.
They unloaded their gear and Shouichi paid the cabbie before Shishido could try to; it would probably take everything the tennis pro had left to pay for the trip back to the airport in the morning, and Shouichi would have paid nearly the same amount whether he'd had Shishido with him or not.
"It's a little small," he apologized as they hauled their stuff up to the third floor. There was no elevator, something Shouichi only regretted when he was trying to get to and from the airport. Juggling his bags, he fished for his keys and unlocked the door, peering inside warily as he opened it.
"Oh, good," he sighed with relief. "Looks like my tenant this year actually cleaned up after herself. I picked a Chinese exchange student this time, hoping she'd be a little more polite than the last one. We'll have to order out, there won't be any food, but that's not a problem."
"This is small?" Shishido exclaimed, coming in behind him and looking around. "Geez, you have been gone from Tokyo a long time, haven't you? I think you could fit my whole apartment into your living room, and have space left over."
Glancing around the open space, Shouichi laughed softly. It was a big place by Tokyo standards, even though it was just the one main room, a tiny kitchen, equally tiny bathroom, and the bedroom. He'd been spoiled, living first in his family's big house in Tokyo and then here in America.
"There should be a futon in the linen closet," he said, dumping his bags into the bedroom and taking a quick look around there. "I'll check later. Uh, do you want something to drink? There should be a water filter in the fridge, at least."
"Sure, water would be good," Shishido agreed, toeing his shoes off at the door and setting his bags more neatly against one wall. "I hate getting jet lag, it's bad enough dealing with all the time zone changes. I feel like it should be a lot later than just after three... or maybe a lot earlier, I'm not sure I ever got off Tokyo time properly."
Chuckling, Shouichi went to the fridge to get the water filter, and blinked in surprise at the contents. "What on... earth?" The shelves were full of food, mostly raw ingredients of one kind or another. Looking up, he noticed there was a note taped to the freezer.
"Huh. Apparently I picked my tenant better than I thought," he said as he closed the door and went to pour water for both of them. "She left everything here for me that wouldn't spoil by the time I got here, because she couldn't take it with her."
"Well, that was nice of her," Shishido said, taking the offered glass as he leaned against the doorframe. "Guess we don't need to order out after all."
"Yeah, except there's just one problem... all of this is raw ingredients, and I don't know how to cook anything but student food," Shouichi sighed as he poked through the cupboards experimentally. "What kind of student was she, anyway? There's not a single cup ramen or box of Kraft Dinner in here!"
Shishido nearly snorted his water, and ended up coughing as well as laughing. "Are you serious? That's all you can cook? How do you survive on your own?"
"By making a lot of instant food and eating out often, obviously," Shouichi replied dryly. "At school I get a meal plan. I feel bad wasting all of this, though. Maybe my mom can use some of it."
"Here, let me see," Shishido demanded, pushing away from the wall and shoving past him. Shouichi got hastily out of his way, because the sudden close proximity made him a little too aware of Shishido's body. He was neither airsick nor panicked anymore, and his body was reminding him that it had been a long time since his last boyfriend. Flushing, he hoped Shishido wouldn't notice, or would at least not be offended if he did notice. At least he probably didn't have to worry about the older man being disgusted, considering the relationship they hadn't quite managed to have in high school.
"Mmm... I can make sukiyaki with this," Shishido declared after a moment. "Or ramen. A lot of this stuff is Chinese, I'm not sure what to do with some of it. But there's some beef in the freezer, looks like."
"Really? I didn't see any noodles," Shouichi blinked and moved to peer over the shorter man's shoulder.
"No, but there's flour and eggs, and everything else I need," Shishido laughed. "Back off, gimme some space to work. Go unpack or something."
"Where did you learn to cook?" Shouichi blurted out, astonished. When he'd known Shishido, the older boy had been just as dependent on his mother and fast food restaurants for his meals as any other teenaged boy. And he'd never shown any interest in cooking.
Then he winced, and was glad he'd used 'where' and not 'when'. The former could be taken as an incredulous question from a fellow bachelor, but the latter would have been suspicious.
Shishido was laughing, apparently not thinking anything of the question. "Survival. Well, that and a former... uh, girlfriend... of mine was a really good cook. Made me learn the basics so I could help."
For a moment Shouichi wondered if Shishido had decided he liked girls after all, then realized what the hesitation had meant. Right, because Shishido was Japanese, and you didn't admit to stuff like that in Japan, no matter what. He really had been spoiled by living in America.
"You're lucky," he said enviously. "None of my boyfriends ever knew how to cook. I mean, some were a little better than I was, but not by much." When Shishido gave him a startled look, he shrugged and smiled gently. "This is America," he reminded the older man. "More specifically, this is California. Nobody here cares."
Flushing, Shishido rubbed the back of his head and looked back at the ingredients he was pulling out. "Am I that obvious?" he asked.
"Uh... call it 'gaydar'," Shouichi said, using the English word. "You're a tennis player, you can cook, and you hesitated over 'girlfriend'. I still took a chance."
"Yeah, well... you're right, it was a boyfriend," Shishido admitted uncomfortably. "Anyway. Clear out. Jog my elbows and the food won't be edible. Making dinner is the least I can do to pay you back for putting me up, so shoo."
Laughing at being chased out of his own kitchen, and aware that Shishido wanted a chance to recover his poise, Shouichi obeyed. He unpacked his bags, putting his clothes away quickly. Some of his stuff was already here; he'd leased the apartment furnished, and this year he'd decided his tenant was trustworthy enough that he didn't need to haul everything all the way to Harvard. So he'd left most of his summer clothes, and a lot of his framed pictures and the like. It meant he could travel with less baggage, which was always a good thing.
By the time he was finished Shishido was putting the final touches on dinner; sukiyaki didn't take long to make. They ate sitting on the floor at the low coffee table; there was a couch against the wall, but Shouichi had deliberately chosen a table he could sit at this way to eat at. The floor was carpet, and that was cushioning enough.
Slowly, over the course of the dinner, Shouichi started to relax. Somewhere over the years Shishido had learned how to make conversation; when Shouichi had known him he'd scorned 'small talk' as a waste of time, and only bothered to talk with people he knew about things that mattered to him. Shouichi had always been good at setting people at their ease and drawing them out, on the other hand. At least, he was when he wasn't tied into knots of sheer nervousness.
So talk between them flowed smoothly, and Shouichi finally did succeed in learning how Shishido's family and most of the former Hyoutei team were doing. He didn't make the mistake of asking again, letting Shishido ramble wherever the conversation took him, instead.
It felt... gods, it was stupid even to think it, he would certainly never say it... but it felt like coming home. Despite the years that lay between them now, the better part of a decade, talking to Shishido didn't seem like talking to a stranger. It was like catching up with his best friend. He had to be extra careful to guard his tongue because of the temptation to be lulled into carelessness, but otherwise it was the best afternoon and evening he'd spent in a long time.
When they were done Shouichi insisted on washing the dishes, leaving Shishido in the small living room. They could talk easily through the kitchen door, and there really wasn't room in there for more than one person.
"Is this your family?" Shishido called in to him. Shouichi took a moment to glance over his shoulder, and saw the older man was looking at the framed photos of his family that stood on a low shelf over the television.
"Yes, my parents and I," he said. The few pictures he had from before his sister had been kidnapped were safely tucked away with certain other things he hadn't been able to bring himself to destroy completely. He'd wanted some tiny piece of his old life to keep close to him, and surely a couple of photos hidden in his dresser couldn't hurt anything?
It belatedly occurred to him that Shishido might recognize his parents, but he thought it unlikely. The older man had only met his mother and father a few times, and that had been a long time ago. They'd aged a great deal all but overnight as well, the strain of his sister's abduction weighing heavily on them.
"So, you're an only child?" Shishido commented. "Must've been lonely. I fought with my big brother constantly, but I wouldn't trade him for the world."
Shouichi had to bite his lip, but when he answered his voice was steady. "Not really. Didn't know what I was missing, really." His sister had been quite a bit older than he was, so it wasn't as if they'd ever been really close. Still, he missed her whenever he was reminded of her.
When he emerged from the kitchen, he found that Shishido had picked up one photo to look at it more closely, and was frowning thoughtfully. Shouichi moved around to look over his shoulder, and his breath caught in his throat. It was a casual picture of him that had been taken just after his high school graduation here in the States... only a little more than a year after the last time Shishido had seen him. His hair was dark, of course, but his face hadn't finished maturing yet. If Shishido was going to recognize him, it would be from that photo.
"Huh." The older man still seemed thoughtful, not angry or confused. "Do you have any family left in Tokyo?"
"Uh..." His standard answer to that question was 'no', because of course 'Shouichi Okada' had no relatives in Japan. Nobody there would ever have heard of him, save a few select officials in the government and police. But this felt very much like navigating through a minefield, and he wanted to leave himself an out. "Some cousins, I think. Why?"
"You remind me of someone I used to know," Shishido said, and thankfully Shouichi was standing behind him so the older man couldn't see his wince. "I've been trying to figure out why it seems like I should recognize you, and I think that's why. Your cousins, their name wouldn't be Ohtori would it?"
Yeah, that was what Shouichi had been afraid of - and also what he'd hoped for, that Shishido would conclude he was related to Ohtori Choutarou, not that he was Ohtori Choutarou.
"I honestly don't know," he replied, grateful that his voice came out steady even though his hands were shaking. "My mother and her sister were estranged before I was born. I've never met them, I don't even know my aunt's married name."
"Damn." Sighing, Shishido set the photo down again and turned to face him. "I was hoping... I sort of lost touch with him, and... ah, never mind." Looking frustrated, he rubbed a hand over his face. "I dunno why I even asked. Even if you knew how to contact him, I doubt he'd want to talk to me."
There was pain behind Shishido's words, an old and never quite mended pain that struck the answering chord in Shouichi's heart. "I doubt that," he said softly, unable to just leave it at that and desperately wishing he could admit the truth. "I can't imagine why he wouldn't. You... seem like the sort of person who would be a good friend."
"Hah!" Shishido laughed at that, and the pain that had been in his voice melted away. "You've only seen me on my best behaviour, Okada. Don't jump to too many conclusions." Despite his words he was grinning, and punched Shouichi in the shoulder in a friendly gesture. "Anyway. I don't know about you, but... well, I know it's stupidly early, but I've been up since an indecent hour this morning and my body is telling me it's almost midnight."
"Mine, too, and you have to get up early tomorrow," Shouichi agreed immediately, feeling bad for not realizing it had gotten so late. "Would you like to take a shower? I don't have a bath, but there's lots of hot water."
"Mmm..." Shishido looked torn. "I would, but these are my only clean clothes and they're not all that clean. The thought of getting back into them when I'm clean isn't appealing. I, uh... don't really wear sleep clothes, so I figured I'd just crash in what I'm wearing. I'd planned to wear it all the way back to Tokyo, anyway."
That seemed a shame. Shouichi might have become Americanized in many ways, but one of the things he hadn't lost from his Japanese heritage was a desire to be clean at all times. He knew how good a hot shower felt after a long flight, and by the time Shishido got back to Tokyo he'd probably be dying for a bath.
"You know, I've probably got some old sweats you could wear to sleep in," he offered. "I was going to do my laundry tomorrow morning, but there's nothing stopping me from doing it now. I could throw your clothes in with mine, and they'd be clean and dry by morning."
"You serious?" Shishido's expression lightened considerably. "You are my new best friend, you know that? First you put me up, now this..."
Shouichi had to swallow around the lump that suddenly formed in his throat, but once again he managed to make his voice steady. "Hey, you cooked dinner," he pointed out. "It's not like you're freeloading."
"If we keep this up, it's gonna feel like we're married or something," Shishido chuckled, making Shouichi smile wistfully.
"Just let me brush my teeth and get ready for bed while you dig out your bath stuff, then I'll run the laundry down the hall while you're in the shower," he told the older man. Now it was his turn to want a minute or two to recover his poise. If things had gone differently, he and Shishido might very well have been living together now, as comfortable in that sort of partnership as they had been in all other kinds.
Fleeing the thought as much as the conversation, he turned and headed into the bathroom. He hurried through getting ready, not wanting to keep Shishido awake longer than he had to. If he started the laundry, he could come back and get the futon laid out probably before Shishido got out of the shower. Then he could go put the clothes in the dryer, and pull them out in the morning before Shishido left.
"I'll set my alarm and wake you up, that way you can be sure you won't miss your plane," he called through the closed door.
"Thanks!" Shishido replied. "Where are those sweats? Might as well grab them and take them in with me, if you don't mind."
"Not at all. In my dresser, top drawer," he answered. "On the left!" he added, raising his voice slightly in case Shishido had already moved away.
Two minutes later he was done. He made sure there were fresh towels on the rack in the bathroom, then headed for his bedroom. Shishido wasn't in the living room, so he must have changed in the bedroom. "I put towels out," he said, tapping briefly on the half-closed door and poking his head in. He didn't even think about it; locker room conventions were strongly ingrained in him, and anyway he and Shishido had never been shy about changing in front of each other.
He froze when he saw his former partner holding a picture. This one wasn't framed; without even looking at it, Shouichi knew instantly which one it was. Shishido had found his stash of the few mementos he had of his past life, and there was only one picture that would have put that particular combination of shock, anger, and pain onto the older man's face. The shot that had been taken of the two of them when they'd won the final round of the district tournament, beating out every other doubles pair they'd played and helping to send Hyoutei on to the Regionals.