When Nao first discovers the soft tennis team, it’s the end of his first year of middle school, and everything up until this point has been gray. Gray textbooks, gray desks, gray skies. His life is full of gray.
He’s lost in walls of gray text from his mom about studying and high school cramming when a ball hits him in the leg.
It doesn’t hurt, not really. But when a red-haired boy carrying a tennis racket comes to find the ball and sees the bruise forming on Nao’s leg, he’s already apologizing profusely before Nao can assure him that he’s fine.
“Rintarou, what’s taking you so long!”
Nao looks from the apologetic red-head, Rintarou, to the new voice, and finds it’s someone he recognizes.
“Oh, hey, Itsuki,” he says to the familiar first year. “I didn’t know you played sports.”
“Well, we aren’t exactly friends, are we?” Itsuki says.
Nao shrugs and turns back to Rintarou, who still looks extremely sorry but is no longer spewing apologies.
“You know Itsuki?” he asks Nao.
Nao shrugs again. “Kind of. We went to elementary school together.”
Rintarou looks between him and Itsuki before landing again on him. “Are you in any clubs?”
Nao shakes his head. Studying is more important than clubs. For some reason, Rintarou smiles.
“Would you like to join soft tennis?”
Nao blinks at that, slightly taken aback. Rintarou’s looking at him expectantly, like he’s almost… excited at the prospect of Nao joining them.
“You could partner with Itsuki,” he continues. “We’ve got an odd number of players, so he doesn’t have a doubles partner right now.”
Nao turns to Itsuki, who’s focused on kicking dirt across the ground. He looks back at his open text messages; he’s gotten three more since he hasn’t answered.
“Are you sure you want me?” Nao asks hesitantly. “I don’t know anything about tennis.”
“That’s okay, none of us really did until this year. You can learn!”
“I might have to skip sometimes…” Nao doesn’t even know why he’s considering it.
“That’s totally fine.” Rintarou’s excitement is almost palpable now. “So you’ll join?”
“I… Yeah, sure.” He doesn’t know why he agrees.
“Great!” Rintarou jumps up a bit on to the balls of his feet. “You can come to practice on Monday, if you can make it.”
Nao doesn’t tell his mom, but he goes to practice after school on Monday anyway. It’s… different than Nao expects its to be. Within the first twenty minutes of Nao attempting to hit the ball with his right hand, they can tell it’s not his dominant one.
“You really suck. You’re left-handed, aren’t you?” Itsuki says bluntly. “Why are you using your right?”
Nao looks at Itsuki and then down at the racket in his hand. His face feels a little hot, and he feels stupid for being caught. “It’s better to use your right, though, isn’t it?”
Itsuki doesn’t answer for a solid minute, and Nao pretends to find his racket very interesting.
“Not if you can’t do anything with it,” Itsuki finally says. “Besides, using your left hand is better in sports. Most people aren’t used to it.”
Nao looks up at Itsuki as he tosses the ball back into the air and smacks it into the wall.
“Oh,” he says quietly. He trades the ball and the racket between his hands and starts practicing again. It’s much easier to hit.
After that, it turns less into skipping practicing to study and more into skipping studying to practice. For the first time, it’s like Nao doesn’t have to try super hard at something to do it. He doesn’t have to be good at it. He can just... do it.
A week after he starts, his mother starts to wonder where he’s always going after school.
“Oh, I’ve been studying with some friends.”
She looks skeptical at the lie, or maybe she just thinks he shouldn’t bother studying with other people, but she doesn’t press it. Usually it tastes sour when he has to lie to her, and he doesn’t do it often, but this is something he doesn’t want to give up. The green grass around the tennis courts and the white down the middle of their jerseys. The blue of his racket. They make it hard to go back to gray.
It’s over the break between his first and second year that his mom finds out about the team.
“I don’t like it, Nao,” she says. “That’s time you could be studying for high school. Think about your future.”
“I am,” Nao assures her. “I’m still keeping up with studying, plus it’ll look good for colleges.”
She still looks unsure, but after a little more convincing, she allows it. After all, colleges do like well-rounded students (and Nao likes the color of the sky when he lays in the grass with his friends).
When Maki first joins the club, there’s a lot of red. He pisses off Tsubasa and Itsuki, and Touma starts to yell at them more. Nao goes against him and Touma and sees the red of Itsuki’s eyes when he spikes the ball at Maki and of the welt that puffs up on Maki’s thigh.
Then they’re switching partners and getting good at matches and there’s brown. Nao starts spending a lot more time around the brown of Taiyou’s hair and eyes.
Yuu and Kanako are quick to follow Maki. It’s nice to have people to cheer them on and help them improve.
When Nao starts to put effort into soft tennis and starts to get results, he also starts to get tired. His mother’s quick to notice. He doesn’t study nearly as long, and when he starts to fall asleep sprawled out over his textbooks, she shakes him awake to continue. He forgets to switch to his right hand at home anymore, and she critiques it.
When she gets practice cancelled for a week, he really yells at her for the first time in probably his entire life. He didn’t ask for her to do what she thought was best for him. This only makes her push his studying harder.
She signs him up for cram school. It gets very hard to eat when everything at home tastes gray. He starts ignoring her calls during practice. It’s the one time he won’t let her tint everything that sad, empty color.
The day he locks An in the nurse’s office, things have never felt more gray.
Maybe his mother is right. Maybe studying and exams and cram school are what he should be focusing on. But he can’t choose between his friends and his future. He makes it so he doesn’t have to. That’s the day he understands the color blue.
Blue is truth and understanding. It’s the color of Maki’s eyes when he looks at Nao and knows exactly what he did. It’s the color in their jerseys and of Nao’s racket and of things worth holding on to. He’s the most sorry out of all of them when they get back to the girls, and blue is the color of the feeling in his chest when he gets down on his knees to apologize.
When he lays on the ground later, surrounded by black, he reaches for Taiyou’s hand. He’s not sure if he deserves to hold it, but Taiyou lets him anyway. It’s warmth is orange, a color that sits very well against blue.
“You look thinner, Nao.”
Nao looks up from his lunch to find Taiyou’s worried brown eyes looking at him. It’s been like this since the incident with An.
Nao shrugs and pretends not to notice how loosely his shirt falls back over his skin. “It’s probably just from how serious we’ve gotten with the club lately.”
He doesn’t bring up the way food doesn’t sit right in his stomach when he’s already so filled up with the color gray. Taiyou still looks worried anyway.
The next week, when he forgets to bring lunch, Nao quietly resigns himself to a day of not eating until-
“Do you want to come over for dinner tonight?”
Nao blinks. “Like… to your house?”
“Yeah.” Taiyou nods. “I don’t think my parents will mind, and…” He looks at the table in front of Nao, where his lunch usually sits, then back up to Nao. “…We can, like, hang out. It’ll be fun.”
It had never occurred to Nao to have dinner somewhere other than his house.
“Yeah… Yeah, okay,” Nao says.
“Awesome! We can go after practice,” Taiyou says, pulling out his phone. “I’ll tell my parents.”
Nao doesn’t tell his mother.
When they get to Taiyou’s after practice, his parents are nicer than Nao ever expected them to be. He supposes it makes sense that they made Taiyou.
“Where were you?” Nao’s mother asks when he gets home. The air feels gray and heavy, like fog.
“Practice,” he says, making his way to his room.
She follows him. “You’ve never gotten home this late before.”
“It ran a bit later than usual,” Nao pulls out his books and sets his desk to study. She watches him.
“You’ll have to study longer tonight, then,” she says.
“Yeah,” Nao says, already starting.
She stands another minute, then closes the door and leaves. Nao falls asleep in twenty minutes. His stomach’s full.
The night after their first win, they all decide to spend the night at Rintarou’s house to celebrate. Nao tells his mom and then zips his phone back up into his bag and lets it buzz itself to zero percent.
The party is fun for about an hour until everyone crashes. Rintarou brings out pillows and blankets, and they try to pick a movie, but the conversation spirals quickly and eventually everyone is asleep. Except for Nao. The white of his phone screen keeps popping up in his peripheral.
In the quiet darkness, it feels like it’s just Nao and that white and the feeling that everything is so close to falling apart. He wonders if today was the last time he’ll ever get to play with his team. What if he just-
The figure next to him shifts.
“Taiyou?” Nao whispers to the ceiling.
Taiyou hums an acknowledgement, muffled by the fact that his face is stuffed into his pillow. Nao searches the space between them for Taiyou’s hand and holds it tight when he finds it.
“Nao?” Taiyou says, clearer as he turns his head from his pillow to look in the direction of his doubles partner.
Nao doesn’t know what to say. He’s so full up of gray that he thinks if he opens his mouth it’ll spill out into the room, and they’ll all drown. He squeezes harder.
“Nao, are you okay?” Taiyou whispers more urgently, almost entirely sitting up now.
No, he wants to say. No, because I’m going to have to leave the team and you, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to go back to that, I won’t be able to go back to that, and you’re hand is warm in mine and I don’t want to let go but I’ll have to and then I’ll-
The white lights up again in the dark.
“Do you-” Nao starts, but something in his throat chokes him. He swallows it. “Do you ever wonder what it would be like if you died?”
Nao thinks it’s gone back to just him and that white in the quiet until Taiyou sniffles.
“Why would you say- Don’t say that,” he says seriously.
“Don’t. Don’t say that,” Taiyou says again, and he’s sitting up fully now, both of his shaking hands wrapped around Nao’s. “If you died, I- Don’t say that, Nao.”
Taiyou takes away one of his hands to wipe at his face, and it strangles something in Nao.
“It won’t be like this forever.” Taiyou presses his thumbs into the back of Nao’s hand like he’s trying to push him back together. “One day we’re gonna be adults and far away from- from here, okay?”
“Together?” Nao asks fragilely.
“Yeah,” Taiyou says hoarsely. “And we can have a dog and- and whatever you want.”
“I want a dog,” Nao says shakily, latching onto the idea of a future worth seeing.
“Yeah, me too,” Taiyou says, and he’s moving his pillow and blanket closer to Nao’s.
They fall asleep with their hands held tightly between them.
When he gets home in the morning, he still hasn’t checked his phone. He’s pretty sure it’s dead. His mother’s waiting for him at the dining table.
“I’m taking you out of that club,” she says as soon as he walks into the room.
He freezes. “No, you can’t-”
“I can, and I will,” she says sternly. “I knew those boys were no good the moment I found out you were in that club. I already called the school.”
Nao can feel all the color leave his face, and Taiyou’s promise from the night before seems so far away now. This is exactly what he was afraid of happening.
“You never would have done something like that before you started in that club, Nao,” she says resolutely. “This is for your own good.”
If it was for his own good, why did it feel like the world was ending?
“You should go start studying. It’s already noon.” She waves Nao on to his room. “I’ll start lunch soon.”
Nao doesn’t answer. He trudges into his room with his backpack and his tennis bag that he won’t need anymore. He tries to remember the feeling of Taiyou’s thumbs on the back of his hand in the hopes that maybe it can push the gray pieces of the world back together.
Nao brings lunch to school the next day, but he can’t bring himself to eat it, even there. Even school’s gray, now.
The team won’t know he quit until practice, and Nao can’t bring himself to tell Taiyou when he’s in the middle of a story about something funny Shingo did on the walk to school this morning. He just tries to focus on the spotted brown of his partner’s freckles, like he’s memorizing them in case this is the last chance he gets to see them.
(It very nearly is).
“Nao, is something wrong?”
Nao moves his eyes up Taiyou’s face to his own. It takes longer than it probably should. “Nothing... just tired.”
“…Are you telling fairy tales again?” Taiyou asks hesitantly.
“Seriously, Taiyou, I’m fine.”
There’s no one there to reassure Taiyou he’s lying, so he drops it.
They all text him like crazy that night. He can’t find the energy to answer.
Taiyou’s frantic the next day in homeroom.
“Why weren’t you at practice yesterday?”
“I need to focus on studying,” Nao says. “We’re gonna be taking high school entrance exams next year, so I-”
He looks up at Taiyou. His brown eyes are sad.
The bell rings.
Summer break rolls around, and all Nao has to look forward to is hours of studying alone in his room. Getting up is starting to feel impossible. It’s been three weeks since his last school day, and he hasn’t looked at his phone in days.
His mother’s just left his room after telling him for the third time to get out of bed and start studying when something taps against his window. He almost ignores it, but then a voice floats in from outside, and he almost jumps out of his skin.
“Nao!” it whispers.
Nao thinks his recognition of that voice is still floating somewhere above him. He gets up and goes to the window. Taiyou’s waiting on the other side of it.
“Let me in,” he says through the glass.
Nao blinks at him, wide-eyed, and opens the window. Taiyou climbs through and knocks off half the contents of his desk.
“Hide,” Nao urges, panic-stricken. “You have to hide, now.”
He shoves Taiyou across the room and into his closet and closes the door just as his mother bursts into his bedroom.
“I knocked down my lamp,” Nao says too quickly. “Sorry.”
His mother looks suspiciously around the room before deciding his answer must be truthful. “At least you’re finally getting up. These last two days in bed I was starting to wonder if you cared about your future at all.”
“Of course I do.”
She scrutinizes him for a moment before grabbing the handle of the door. “Well, get back to it, then.”
She leaves, and Nao fishes Taiyou out of the closet.
“Did she say you haven’t gotten out of bed for two days?” Taiyou says as soon as he’s back in the open. Nao doesn’t answer, his eyes are too busy tracing the freckle pattern he’d almost forgotten.
“Nao…” Taiyou says worriedly, then looks at his hair. Nao knows it’s greasy. “And when was the last time you got a shower?”
He stares at Nao with a concerned sort of expectancy, but Nao can’t get over the loosening of gray in his chest.
“Taiyou…” he says, but it comes out half-choked by the lump in his throat. He throws his arms around his best friend. “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” Taiyou says in a strangled voice, and his arms tighten around his back. “The guys have been talking about you. We all wish you could-”
Taiyou cuts himself off.
“I know,” Nao mumbles into Taiyou’s shoulder. He knows exactly what he’s talking about. “I miss playing, too.”
They tighten their arms around each other, and Nao can’t help but say, “I’m sorry, I know I stink.”
Taiyou laughs. “It’s okay. You deserve hugs even if you stink.”
Nao doesn’t want to let go again, but they have to eventually. Nao wipes his face, and Taiyou does too. They put all the things Taiyou knocked down back on the desk.
“So…” Nao says, wandering back over to his bed and sitting down on the edge. “Why’d you come?”
“We were all worried about you. Me especially.” Taiyou sits down next to him. “Especially with everything you said that night at Rintarou’s, ya know? I just… I wish there was more I could do.”
Nao grabs Taiyou’ hand and squeezes it.
“You did a lot. Don’t think you didn’t,” Nao says quietly. “I won’t say I haven’t thought… things, but… I really do want that dog.”
“Yeah…” Taiyou smiles. “We’ll… We’ll get our dog, Nao. I know we will.”
Nao smiles back and leans into Taiyou’s side. “Good. I’m holding you to it.”
“You know what, Taiyou?” Nao says, falling onto the couch next to Taiyou.
“Hm?” Taiyou hums, leaning against the arm of the couch opposite the one Nao’s legs are currently hanging over.
“I don’t think naming our fish ‘Dog’ really counts as you keeping your promise.” Nao looks over at the colorful beta fish swimming in the bowl on the coffee table.
“Well, if our landlord allowed dogs, I’d be happy to get you one,” Taiyou says, looking up from his phone. “By the way, Maki wants to know if we’re still on for hosting dinner tonight.”
“Oh, shit,” Nao says, patting down his clothing for his phone. He finds it wedged between the couch cushions from where it fell out of his hoodie pocket. It’s dead. He sighs. “Yeah, you tell him. Just make sure he knows he has to bring the food, because we haven’t gone shopping in two weeks.”
“‘Kay.” Taiyou types something out quickly and sends it, then reads something else. Nao sneaks his head into Taiyou’s lap. “Oh, Itsuki and Rinta said they’d bring it. They’re bringing Namie, too.”
“Shit, do we have enough plates?” Nao asks.
“I- Yeah, we should. I just bought that set last week.”
“God, but I hate those plates.”
“What? You don’t like my plates?”
“No, Taiyou, they’re so ugly-”
“They are not ugly!”
“They look like they’re for old people, Taiyou.”
“No, they don’t!”
“Dog probably gets dried out just looking at them-”
“Do not bring our fish into this-”
“Then you should have gotten me a real dog.”
Nao can’t help but laugh at the indignant look on Taiyou’s face. Taiyou puffs out his cheeks.
“You’re being very rude right now.”
“I know,” Nao says, still smiling. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re right. I’m not,” Nao admits. “But I am happy.”
Taiyou’s expression turns soft. “Yeah... me too.”
He smiles, and Nao’s reminded of the color yellow. It’s a color Nao could spend the rest of his life with.