a   t e a m   o f   e x p e r t s

Some nights he dreams about snakes, and always has, ever since his first year of junior high. He used to think that was just a manifestation of his hatred towards stupid fucking Mamushi, but then Fuji-senpai told him that snakes in dreams are supposed to symbolise sex. In his dreams, the snake twines itself around his wrists and he wakes up hard. Momo thinks about girls, but he thinks abut Kaidoh more.

--

In their math class, Momo scrawls doodles of basketballs and unicorns in the margins of his notebook and pretends not to watch the neat rows of numbers appearing on Kaidoh’s paper two rows ahead and a column to the left of him. Kaidoh isn’t particularly good at math, but he’s conscientious. His concentration makes the lines on his face stand out more clearly. It should make him uglier, but it doesn’t.

Momo spends a lot of time pretending not to watch Kaidoh concentrate.

--

A lot of the time it seems like Momo is trying to pick a fight, but he’s not. Whenever he’s around Kaidoh it’s like he opens his mouth and ugly words come out, stupid words. Momo says things to Kaidoh that he’d never dare say to other people, because he doesn’t want to hurt them. Except maybe Echizen. You can say a lot of things to Echizen without receiving any reaction at all, but that’s no fun. Kaidoh reacts to every word Momo says. That might be why he does it.

When Kaidoh is really angry and they’re shoving one another, his skin turns hot and red beneath Momo’s hands. He didn’t notice that when they were twelve. Maybe when they were thirteen. He notices most things now, the way Kaidoh’s muscles bulge and tick when he’s pissed off. The way his breathing is laboured.

Sometimes Momo dreams that they’re characters in Street Fighter. They start out fighting, right punch, left punch, uppercut, but they always end up fucking on the floor.

He wishes he knew how to be nice to Mamushi.

--

He figures he has some options. He can corner Kaidoh in the showers and rape him or something. He can repress all this and go back to dating the nice girls he knows with their white teeth and pink purses. Or he can ask someone for help. He knows about girls, but he doesn’t know anything about guys. He needs the advice of experts.

Momo never really thought about it before, but practically everyone he knows is gay.

--

In retrospect, there were better people to ask. Echizen looks vaguely disgusted with him, his burger forgotten in one hand. “What are you talking about, senpai?”

Dating,” he says desperately.

Echizen is blank, voice sliding low against the hum of other customers. The whole discussion seems to annoy him. “Why are you asking us?”

“He needs our expertise!” Eiji-senpai says and loops his arm around Momo’s neck. He flashes Echizen the V sign with two long fingers. He’s always careful not to touch Momo’s hair, stiff and gross with wax.

“I don’t know anything about girls,” Echizen replies. He’s already back to his food, poking at his burger and slipping his straw into his mouth. Momo isn’t stupid. Echizen is the last person he’d go to for advice about girls. There’s a group of girls that follow Echizen around at school still, larger in numbers than when they were young. Momo doesn’t think Echizen even knows their names.

“I do!” Eiji says, then his face falls. “Well, sort of.” He puts one finger to his chin in contemplation. “Oishi’s kind of like a girl…”

“I don’t want advice about girls…” Momo says, scratching the back of his head. “I’m great with girls.”

“You’re terrible with girls.” Echizen. “You always make me come with you on the first date, it’s so boring.”

“What do you want then?” Eiji-senpai asks, his lips pursed in confusion.

“Advice about dating…people who aren’t girls…” He’s half hoping they’ll have some magic solution for him. Like if he lifts enough weights or runs enough laps he’ll be strong enough to make Kaidoh want him. With Kaidoh, that could be true. If Momo’s Dunk Smash were amazing enough he could probably get Kaidoh on his knees. If their doubles game improved enough Kaidoh might even love him.

Momo isn’t sure if he wants him to. Thinking about it distracts him from realising that he might have just come out to his friends. He might have come out prematurely. He wonders if now that he’s asked, it means he has to sleep with men for the rest of his life. The thought of hairy bodies and big hands kind of freaks him out.

Eiji-senpai squawks in surprise but Echizen just says, “Hn…” and eats his fries. Momo buries his face in his hands.

“Ochibi!” Eiji breathes. “He’s one of us!”

Echizen winces the way he always does when anyone suggests he should feel some kind of affinity with other people because of his sexuality. Momo struggles to think of it that way, ‘Echizen’s sexuality’. To him, Echizen should still be twelve and going to bed at night with his cat. The first time he’d caught Echizen kissing Tezuka-buchou in Echizen’s backyard, he’d been traumatised. He could barely speak to Tezuka for a week. He’d stumbled through practice, blushing every time Echizen and Buchou spoke to one another, wondering things about them; how it started, when it started. What they did together. Why. Why, in general.

Momo never thinks about other guys. He doesn’t get what Eiji-senpai sees in Oishi-senpai at all. Echizen and Tezuka make a little more sense to him, but only because Echizen only thinks about tennis. If Tezuka were a girl but could still return Echizen’s cyclone smash, he’d probably still feel the same way. Momo tries to imagine Tezuka as a girl, but can’t. He imagines Kaidoh as a girl, all ugly with his sneers. He imagines Kaidoh as a guy, but in a dress. He wishes the image weren’t so pleasant.

“So is it a person-that-isn’t-a-girl in particular?” Eiji asks, flattening his hands against the table and leaning his body into Momo’s personal space. They look at one another nose to nose. “Like… Kamio-kun?”

“What?” Momo squawks, disgusted. “No!”

“Hmm…” Eiji cups his chin with one hand, stroking an invisible beard. “Ochibi-chan?”

Momo’s cry of “Senpai!” mingles with Echizen’s low-voiced “Gross.”

“No mind, no mind, I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Eiji says, waving his hands. “Tezuka?”

“Che,” Echizen grunts, glowering. Momo wants to die.

“It’s Kaidoh,” he hisses in time to stop Eiji-senpai’s next guess.

“OH!” Eiji says. “I knew it!”

Echizen sips his drink and says, “That’s disturbing, Momo-senpai.”

Momo buries his face in his hands.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Eiji-senpai says, and leaves his seat to thread his arms over Momo’s back. “I think we can help you.”

--

Eiji’s first idea is that Momo has to start being nice to Kaidoh, which is hard. The first time he holds the door open for Mamushi he looks at him like he’s fucking insane, and enters the clubhouse warily like he expects a bucket of white paint to fall on his head the second he cross the threshold. Later, during a practice match, Momo purposely hits balls to the back corner where Kaidoh can return them with his Boomerang Snake, but Kaidoh just scowls at him angrily and says, “Asshole, what the fuck are you doing? Play seriously!”

By the end of the day Kaidoh seems to hate him even more than he did before.

--

Momo asks Echizen how he and Tezuka got together in the first place, except he says “fell in love” and it makes Echizen’s face screw up in disgust.

“I don’t know,” Echizen says. “We just played a lot of tennis.”

Echizen is the least helpful person Momo knows.

--

Momo starts sitting next to Kaidoh in English class so that they’ll be forced to be conversation partners. He asks Kaidoh out for dinner in the awkward English he’d had Echizen teach him that morning on the way to school, but Kaidoh just looks through the text book and says, “What? That wasn’t in the readings!”

Momo switches back to Japanese and calls him an idiot.

--

The whole thing might be easier, Eiji decides, if they knew a little more about Kaidoh. Whenever they talk about this senpai looks serious in a way that he usually only does in the middle of a match, and that’s how Momo knows he has invested himself in the project.

“Okay,” Momo says. “How do I find out about Kaidoh?”

“Leave it to me, Momo-chan,” Eiji replies with a salute and an alarming smile. “Kikumaru sneak attack!”

The next time Momo sees him, Inui-senpai’s data book is firmly in his hands and Fuji-senpai is at his back with a knowing smile. Eiji-senpai hands him the exercise book and Momo stares at in horror.

It’s not just Inui’s data book. It is volume three of Inui’s special Kaidoh Kaoru data log, with Mamushi’s name scrawled on the front in big blue letters.

“Where did you get this?” Momo hisses. They’re at McDonalds but he feels like he needs to hide it anyway, shove it under his blazer until he can take it some place private and destroy it. Inui-senpai has eyes everywhere.

“I stole it,” Eiji says. “Fujiko helped! I asked Ochibi to but he wouldn’t.”

“I’m not suicidal,” Echizen says. He’s leaning his elbows on the table and waiting for someone to buy him food. Momo doesn’t think Echizen has paid for a burger even once since he came to Seigaku. “I’m hungry.”

“You told Fuji-senpai?” Momo blushes. “God, this is so embarrassing.”

“It was fun,” Fuji smiles. “Like being in a spy movie.”

“Nya, read it!” Eiji opens the book over Momo’s shoulder. “This could be the key to his heart.”

It turns out to be the key to Inui’s heart, and Momo feels guilty. On the first page there at two tiny black hearts scratched out next to Kaidoh’s name. Looking at them makes Momo’s heart throb in sympathy. They turn the pages and read the data, Kaidoh’s favourite colours and favourite movies and how close Inui can stand before Kaidoh starts to blush. That part makes Momo flush with jealousy and he thinks, irrationally, that Kaidoh has been unfaithful. That fucking bastard.

“This is so romantic,” Eiji-senpai says, turning the pages with open-mouthed awe. Echizen snickers.

“Senpai!” Momo exclaims. “Whose side are you on?”

Eiji hugs him from behind, long graceful arms around his neck, and says, “Sorry, Momo-chan, Sorry. I’m just kidding. Sort of.”

Momo reads pages and pages of data, Kaidoh’s favourite food and favourite jogging route, and feels like he’ll never catch up. Inui has been training for this for years. Momo feels slow and sluggish like they’re sprinting along a road with Kaidoh at the end and Inui is fifty metres in front of him. In the off season Inui’s been lifting weights and climbing mountains and Momo has been sitting on his ass in front of the tv, eating burgers and growing fat. Kaidoh is waiting for them, only Inui will get there first.

Still, Momo is better looking than Inui-senpai. Maybe Kaidoh will wait for him anyway.

--

Lying in bed awake that night, Momo thinks about the page in Inui’s book that said MOMOSHIRO TAKESHI in large red characters, underlined three times, with possible rival written below, smaller and in black. This page said that Kaidoh’s game improved by 45% when Momo was in the general vicinity. This page said that Kaidoh mentioned Momo on average 34.6 times a day, more if it was a particularly productive day. After tournaments in which they entered as a doubles pair, it said, Kaidoh’s happiness increased by 87 percent.

--

“You could buy him a cat,” Echizen says when they’re walking to school one day. “He likes cats.”

--

Kaidoh catches him staring in the clubhouse and says, with a strange, awkward edge of concern beneath the growling in his voice, “What is wrong with you lately?”

--

Momo dreams that Kaidoh comes to his place and they watch movies on the couch. There’s nobody around and it’s a movie all about giant kittens that trample a city, using buildings at scratching posts and sleeping in the debris. It’s a comedy though and they keep laughing, and halfway through Kaidoh moves closer to Momo. He presses his face into his neck and meows, and Momo wakes up.

--

“Maybe you just need to spend more time with him,” Fuji-senpai says one day when they’re alone. The advice he gives when they’re around the others is always terrifying, like that Momo should kidnap Kaidoh or send him three dozen roses or two dozen snakes. One on one it’s different though, his quiet voice in the clubhouse. “You could join him for training.”

“Oh,” Momo says stupidly. He hadn’t even thought of that. “Of course.”

--

He waits by the park for Kaidoh. They go jogging together and Kaidoh doesn’t ask why, just laughs a little when Momo looks like he’s going to die halfway through Kaidoh’s regular route.

“I need to get in shape,” Momo says through heaving breaths when they finish. He’s exhausted, but looking at the sweat beading on Kaidoh’s brow and collarbone makes him feel like he could last a little longer yet.

Kaidoh’s phone rings. It’s Inui-senpai, and Momo thinks, I have to get in shape.

--

Whenever Momo sees Eiji-senpai talking to Kaidoh, he feels a needle of tension sewing the muscles of his back together, pulling the thread tight like a corset until he can’t breathe.

The third time he interrupts their conversation in one day, Kaidoh shoves him and yells, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? You’re acting so WEIRD!”

Tezuka makes them run twenty laps for quarrelling, and Kaidoh acts like it’s Momo’s fault.

--

Momo thinks seriously about buying Kaidoh a kitten.

--

One afternoon they’re jogging and Kaidoh trips over and skins his knee. They’re not far from Momo’s house so Momo says his mother will fix Kaidoh up. Kaidoh is limping, blood dripping and soaking into his trainers.

He protests when Momo slips his arm around Kaidoh’s back for support, but Momo does it anyway.

--

He asks Kaidoh if he wants to see this new Disney movie about a talking dog that gets lost on a cruise ship. They’re collapsed in the park, blades of grass sticking to sweaty skin. He tells Kaidoh that no-one else will see it with him, which is a lie. Eiji-senpai has been talking about seeing it for weeks.

Kaidoh blinks at him, and then says, “Okay.”

They sit in the dark together and Momo thinks about just leaning over and kissing him, but he thinks Kaidoh might react violently. He concentrates instead on the poor missing dog and his t-shirt rubbing against Kaidoh’s bare arm. At the climax of the film one of the dog’s little friends dies violently at the hands of an angry ghost and Kaidoh hides his face in Momo’s shoulder like a girl.

When they leave they have to hide their matching eyes red with tears and Momo has to hide his hard on.

--

“Maybe you could ask Tezuka to put them in Doubles Two at the next match,” Eiji says to Echizen when they’re walking home from school.

“What?” Echizen says. “No.”

“You’re not very helpful, Ochibi.” Eiji whines.

“Che,” he huffs. “He doesn’t need my help.”

--

Momo thinks about that in the bath, later. He thinks about what Ryoma said about Tezuka. We played a lot of tennis.

The next day is Sunday. He decides he’ll challenge Kaidoh to a match.

--

He shows up at Kaidoh’s house at 11am and they walk to the street courts together. Kaidoh is wearing a black muscle shirt and Momo thinks he looks like a rent boy, but he’s still hot.

“Just so we’re clear,” Momo says, “because you’re a fucking idiot. This is a date.”

Kaidoh stammers and growls and hisses at him, but doesn’t go home.

--

It takes Momo four tennis ‘dates’ to get Kaidoh to let him kiss him, and just twenty minutes to get him into bed. He doesn't tell Eiji-senpai about it. Mamushi might kill him.



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