Renji does not like surprises. He studies the specks of the white tile floor as his parents try to win him over with the prospect of an outstanding junior high school with indoor tennis courts and a famed training program. Renji couldn’t care less about some great school with some great program in his sometime future; he just wants to play doubles with Sadaharu. But, even if Renji hates thinking of it, Sadaharu is a better singles player. Sadaharu would say that it was cruel fate. He has never believed him, until now.
That night, Renji stays up cataloguing their photographs and mementoes. Even so, Renji cannot remember their first meeting.
The day they first met, the sky was an ambivalent grey.
“This is Inui Sadaharu-kun,” said the coach. “He’s your new doubles partner.”
Inui Sadaharu bowed. “Please take care of me.” A simple face looked up, decorated with bold spikes of hair and framed with large, awkward glasses.
The coach turned to Inui. “This is Yanagi Renji-kun. He’s one of our most promising players.” The coach continued to describe Renji’s achievements, and Renji, who had heard this speech many times before, maintained a blank smile on his face. As always, the coach concluded by saying, “It’s an honour to work with him.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Renji greeted. He rose from his barely polite bow, and faked a smile.
Inui was grinning at him. Renji blinked in confusion, thinking that the other boy must be new to the club.
The first day of school, the sun is a glaring nuisance in the middle of a pink and blue sky. The air is beginning to fester, foreshadowing the heat of summer. Renji can’t remember his first meeting with Sadaharu, four years and three days ago, but it must have been on a day like this.
The heat would not even enter Renji’s mind if he were playing. However, as Seiichi’s faithful third, he must observe the first (and always the worst) practice of the year. Once again Renji thanks Rikkai, its school board, and its tennis program for the blessing that is indoor tennis courts. Sanada would call it a contemplation of the weak, but given the new batch of tennis club hopefuls, Renji thinks he can be forgiven for the unsporting thought.
Suddenly a voice shouts, “Where are your best players?” Renji turns to see a cocky brat with a racket slung carelessly over slouched shoulders. Perhaps he has potential, Renji thinks; most likely, he has none. The boy yells, “I will defeat you all!” He aims his racket at Rikkai’s tennis triumvirate, his hand just barely shaking in deadly anticipation. Too eager. “I will become the best player in Japan!”
Renji scoffs, thinking, the boy was a fool.
Renji knew he was different from other children, and they knew it too. Yet, Inui fit into Renji’s universe of endless and tangential practices. It was a nice surprise. Even so, Inui had difficulty playing with Renji’s style. Renji, concerned, began to think. He didn’t want another doubles partner.
A week later, armed with hope and plans, Renji invited Inui to his house. Inui cheerfully agreed. That weekend was the first time Renji and Inui didn’t linger after practice, instead taking all of five minutes to pack. They walked to Renji’s house in the cold January air with the sun playing peek-a-boo above their heads. Inui was on the tips of his toes, rocking with excitement. When they arrived, Inui introduced himself to Renji’s family with startling bright cheer. Renji’s family cooed. Renji, trying to save himself further embarrassment, quickly diverted Inui upstairs.
Once Renji’s door clicked closed, Inui said, “Your sister seems to like me a lot.” Inui paused, as if thinking over his next words. “I hope that’s fine.”
Renji blinked in surprise. He’d thought Inui was as blockheaded as his glasses. “She’s always wanted a normal younger brother,” he said.
Inui responded with a simple, “She’s stupid.”
Renji broke into laughter. After he’d calmed down, he noticed Inui was still standing, and said, “You can sit on the chair.” Renji himself sat down on his bed, beside the stack of books on his desk, and asked, “Do you like math?”
Once Kirihara is thoroughly humbled and his tantrum ceases, he is taken under Seiichi’s guiding wing. No one likes the decision. Sanada and Renji both privately voice their reservations to Seiichi; outwardly Sanada avoids Kirihara while Renji treats him as a distant acquaintance. The few third-year regulars hold too much respect to challenge the triumvirate. Others are less intelligent. Sanada and Renji swiftly and forcefully silence any whispers that ‘Perfect Seiichi’ is finally showing a crack, before Seiichi decides to do it himself.
Renji considers himself fortunate that he isn’t responsible for Kirihara’s tennis training. Seiichi is, and if anyone can do it, Seiichi can. Results, however, are slow to come. By the third week of school, much of the club has been exposed to Kirihara’s vicious wrath. Several promising players have quit altogether. Nishiki intervenes, the first time anyone has opposed the triumvirate, and bans Kirihara from practice. Kirihara is reinstated a short week later.
But it’s soon evident that Kirihara’s explosive temper isn’t the triumvirate’s only problem—his abysmal marks are as well. Renji, ever-prepared, finishes outlining Kirihara’s weekly tutoring schedule before Seiichi has even asked him to help.
When Kirihara learns of the tutoring sessions he grumbles, “Can’t I just play tennis?”
Inui did not only like math; he excelled at math. It fit his gawky looks and meticulous personality. Renji liked Inui’s straightforward attitude, his belief that everything had one answer. And although tennis didn’t have one answer, it did have possible answers and likely answers, and Renji could teach Inui to appreciate them, use them to their advantage. In this world, there was nothing without an answer.
As usual, Niou invites himself to a seat on Renji’s desk. Renji can sense the gazes of his new classmates, likely wondering what the infamous Niou Masaharu would be doing with a bookworm. Renji refuses to react to Niou’s antics and ignores his urge to admonish Niou for sitting on his desk. He’ll have to scrub the wood later.
“So,” Niou begins. “Whatja think of the new kid?” Renji stares pointedly at the one centimetre of Niou’s shoe resting on Renji’s chair. (The other shoe is dangling just above the floor, almost touching its linoleum doppelgänger.) Niou sticks his tongue out, but removes the offending appendage.
Renji deigns to reply. “We’ll see,” he says. Niou is a hell-raiser to the core; Renji would not be surprised if Niou promotes Kirihara from ‘cocky brat’ to ‘good friend’ within another month.
“It’s been a month, and your all-holy data is still giving no answers?” The corner of Niou’s mouth turns up, mocking. “Do I need to hire an exorcist?”
“Please don’t,” Renji says, because Niou might actually do so. “If you must know, my data only applies to tennis, not psychological disorders.” With a put-upon sigh, he adds, “I would have long been free of you otherwise.” (They are both aware that in truth, Renji tolerates Niou because they are both good friends of Yagyuu, Niou because he likes plots and Renji because he likes math.)
Niou raises an eyebrow. He glances around the noisy room before leaning in, supporting himself with a hand on Renji’s desk, and whispering, “Doncha mean long free of Sanada?”
Renji’s eyebrows rise; although he does not try very hard to hide his opinion of Sanada, no one discusses it, even the often tactless Niou. He wonders what prompted the comment now, of all times. “He listens to Seiichi,” states Renji.
Niou rolls his eyes. “Only ’cause Seiichi’s better ’an him at tennis. And ’cause Seiichi cares about our tennis, not our sanities.”
“There is no need to speak ill of Seiichi,” Renji says blandly.
“Like I always tell ya, there’s no such thing as a god, Yanagi-kun,” Niou says, wagging his finger. Renji glares half-heartedly at him. The finger pauses, landing on Niou’s sharp chin in a rich person’s version of a low-class thinking pose. “Though Seiichi might be the child of a god. A god and a demon.” Renji begins contemplating pushing Niou away, but Niou has moved out of Renji’s face and turned his attention elsewhere. “I see High Priest Yanagi has another sacrificial bentou. Ya eating it?”
Renji gestures for Niou to take it. Niou snaps opens the bentou box in a strikingly efficient (evidently practised) motion, removes the tiny chopsticks from the lid, and proceeds to prod at the rice.
“Seriously, bad enough that he’s vice-captain,” Niou continues. He is attempting to pick up a cartoon octopus sausage covered in sauce, but the physics of the miniature chopsticks elude him. The sausage rolls across the landscape of rice, painting a brown trail. “And now we’ve got another anger management problem.”
“I trust Seiichi,” Renji says. He has to.
“Who doesn’t?” Niou stabs a chopstick into the sausage, and eats it.
Inui learned quickly.
“You’re a counter-puncher,” Inui said. “You make few mistakes and use your data to take advantage of your opponent’s errors. You tend to feint by moving one way then rushing to the other side.” Inui lowered his notebook and turned awkwardly on the bench to look at Renji in question. “How did I do?”
“Perfectly fine,” Renji said. He attempted a reassuring smile.
At that, Inui’s face lit up. Renji thought Inui fit right in with the deep blue sky and the green, sun-lit trees. He was glad Inui dragged him to the park today.
“So what do you have on me?” asked Inui.
“You’re a serve-and-volley player,” Renji replied. “If you can, you’ll approach the net to pressure your opponent into making difficult shots. Most of your volleys are good, but your drop shots are too obvious.”
A small grin tugged on Renji’s mouth while Inui found a page in one of his notebooks and began writing. When Inui finished, Renji added, “We both like to force our opponents to make errors.”
Inui’s pencil tapped against the page. “The only thing we know about each other is our tennis. We don’t know anything else,” Inui said. There was a tiny furrow between the two lenses of his glasses. “For example, I don’t know your birthday.”
Renji tried not to laugh or roll his eyes. “It’s June 4th,” he said dryly.
“That’s only a day after mine!” Inui exclaimed. “We’re definitely fated doubles partners!” Renji couldn’t stop his chuckle this time. Inui’s mouth seemed to turn down at that. “You don’t believe in fate?”
“I believe that we”—Renji made sure to stress that word, just in case—“make our own success.” Inui seemed to accept that, so Renji continued. “Fate is a silly old superstition. This is the 20th century. The curriculum should stop covering long-winded stories of death and teach more practical things.”
At the mention of literature, Inui made a face of disgust. “I know! But still—us meeting has to be either a very lucky coincidence, or an event orchestrated by fate.” He said all this with such conviction.
“Inui,” Renji said, trying to sound as stern as possible, “all great players will eventually meet each other.”
“Whatever,” Inui said, smiling. “Now that we’re doubles partners forever, you have to call me ‘Sadaharu’, o.k.?”
How could he disagree? “O.k., Sadaharu.”
It is the middle of a dreary afternoon when Kirihara tosses his pencil down, exasperated after only an hour of study. “Why do you like history so much?” he asks.
“It’s interesting,” Renji replies.
Kirihara leans back in his chair, causing the cold florescent light to highlight his features. “Sometimes it’s interesting,” Kirihara says, “but most of the time it’s stupid things like alliances and marriages and building stuff.” He yawns for effect.
“They’re not ‘stupid’ if they’re necessary for victory,” Renji chides, trying his best to not sound too condescending. Renji vaguely recalls that he himself didn’t like history at some point, but that was before Sadaharu.
Kirihara’s chuckle is cold and unforgiving. It often is. “What kind of victory is that?”
Renji frowns, his disapproval growing. No matter how good Kirihara is, Renji is still better. “That attitude is why you are not the best.”
Kirihara glares at Renji and snarls, “Piss off.” Kirihara lost a match to Marui yesterday, and even Renji can tell that Marui’s cheery boasts only worsened Kirihara’s mood.
Renji inhales sharply, his hand tightening into a fist, and prays to Seiichi for patience. “We, Rikkai, are where we are today because we train each other, help each other, and push each other.”
Kirihara’s hand falls on the desk with a thud, crinkling the open notebook. “Don’t feed me that crap. Everyone knows you can’t stand Vice-Captain Sanada.”
Firmly, Renji replies, “I respect him.” It is true that Renji respects Sanada’s tennis, and tennis is all that can matter in their world.
Kirihara grins the way he does when he is about to annihilate someone on the court. “Oh? The great Yanagi Renji, cowering in fear?” Renji tries to remain calm by reminding himself he can massacre Kirihara on the courts, quite literally. He is the better person for not having done so in the (Renji quickly calculates) one and a half months of their acquaintance.
“Your definition of ‘respect’,” Renji says coldly, “differs from the correct definition.” He tries to ignore the creased, imperfect paper on his desk.
“Tch. Definitions are just things some snobs make up to go with words to make themselves feel important,” Kirihara says.
“You’re using them right now,” Renji points out, more petty than usual. His glare hasn’t completely faded, either.
“I can work with them.” Kirihara smiles, and leans back into his chair. “For now.”
Sadaharu and Renji’s first match as a doubles pair—unofficial—went flawlessly. Under the bright pale grey sky, they easily defeated an older and more experienced doubles team. Even the coach was surprised by how well Sadaharu and Renji played for a pair that had only been together for such a short time, and declared they were meant for each other. At that, Sadaharu and Renji turned to each other and smiled.
Sadaharu promptly decided a celebration was in order and talked their parents into taking them to a sushi restaurant. Renji was unable to hide a smile at Sadaharu’s strange tastes.
When the tea arrived, Sadaharu clutched a cup, stood up, and proposed a toast. He looked silly standing on the tatami like that, but when he said, “We’re on our way to conquering the world,” Renji outright laughed.
It was all right being silly sometimes, Renji thought, and rose too. “To conquering the world,” he said with a grin.
“The bookstores in Tokyo are better,” Yagyuu says, which is how Renji finds himself in Tokyo on a Saturday afternoon. “Since we’re in Tokyo, we should take a look at the competition before their practice lets out,” Yagyuu proposes. This is how Renji ends up outside Seigaku. Since Seigaku only made it to the top four in last year’s Kantou Regionals, Renji suspects the whole trip is a ruse for him to see Sadaharu. Sadaharu, however, is away. Renji find himself both relieved and disappointed.
As they walk to the bus station, Renji mutters, “He seems to have a new idol.”
Yagyuu does not respond. It’s a habit of Yagyuu’s, using silence to force a reaction, and it is generally more efficient to say something than to wait for Yagyuu.
Renji stays silent, looking to the trees that are laden with young green leaves and stark against the colourless sky. He sighs. “It was our last tie.”
Yagyuu adjusts his glasses uneasily, and says, “You have us now.”
Renji turns slightly to Yagyuu. “You don’t need to,” he says, knowing that Yagyuu is nearly as unpracticed at consolation as he himself is. He appreciates the effort, however.
“Didn’t you start playing tennis again for Yukimura-kun?” Yagyuu asks.
It’s not the same, Renji wants to say. Even Seiichi is not enough (although it seems heresy to think so). It takes time to find a tactful response. “It’s hard to replace a best friend,” Renji says.
“You don’t want to replace him,” Yagyuu adds. His face as usual is impossible to read.
Renji frowns. “I’m sorry if I offended you,” Renji says, because Yagyuu is one of his few friends.
“No, not at all,” Yagyuu says, and his mouth curls up in a small mysterious smile. “Let’s go to Jinbouchou.”
Sadaharu, sitting on the bed beside Renji, announced that his favourite number was π.
“Why?”, asked Renji. Sadaharu always had the strangest, most interesting reasons.
Sadaharu replied, “It’s cool! Even though it’s an irrational number and crazy difficult to calculate, you need it to calculate so many things!” He flipped opened a notebook—probably one of his general science ones—and began pointing to equations.
Renji laughed, and said, “I keep saying that you can tell me the equations. You don’t need to show me them.” He leaned over to look at the notebook anyway.
Sadaharu turned to Renji, saying, “My memory isn’t as good as yours, Professor.”
Renji nudged Sadaharu lightly with his shoulder. “If I’m a professor, what does that make you?”
“Your lowly PhD student?” Sadaharu said, deadpan.
Renji laughed, rising to stand on Sadaharu’s bed. “‘But one day you, my student, shall surpass me, and then what would I do?’” He copied the pose of the tragic villain from Special Forces Tokyo, Sadaharu’s favourite show that Sadaharu had convinced Renji to watch. (Renji had yet to admit to Sadaharu that he liked it.)
Sadaharu kneeled at Renji’s feet, grabbing Renji’s imaginary cape. “‘No, my mentor, I would never leave you!’” Sadaharu quoted, giggling all the while. “‘I swear…that we will conquer…the world…together!’” Sadaharu collapsed on to Renji, causing them to fall to the bed laughing.
A few minutes later, as they slowly regained their breath, Renji remembered that Sadaharu had said something about being an ‘lowly student’. He hoped Sadaharu didn’t think he thought of him that way. He bit his lip. “You’re not a just a mere student,” he said. “Doctor Inui.”
“Really?” Sadaharu asked, too much doubt in his voice.
‘I don’t want to play doubles without you’ seemed so childish. So Renji tried for his best formal professor voice. “I have reviewed your notebooks and deemed you worthy.”
That was enough to make Sadaharu smile again. “Thank you, Professor Yanagi.”
In the heat of summer, the Rikkai trio conquers Nationals again. Yet as the days gently cool, the edge of Seiichi’s tennis slowly dulls. Renji spends his days making probabilistic causation diagrams in the margins of his school notes, his nights making spreadsheets on the family computer. After a week of constant worry, he finds it within himself to confront Rikkai’s pillar.
“Seiichi,” he says.
Seiichi calls off the ball machines and turns to Renji. “Let’s go to the park.”
It is a windy day; the green and ample trees bend to its will. The first desolate leaves of autumn are already littering the walkways, taking a brief flight occasionally before falling to its fate. They walk in silence, not a single word passing between them. It does not make Renji feel any better. When they reach the overlook, Seiichi stops and turns to Renji.
“I had to visit the hospital last week,” he admits quietly. “I fear it will become a regular occurrence.”
The earnest eyes are directed at Renji only make him more queasy. This is Seiichi, who befriended Renji on their first day of practice, who gave Renji a reason to play tennis again, who has been leading Rikkai’s tennis team from day one.
Renji does not want to know. “How bad is it?”
Seiichi pauses, leaning on the railing, and turns his gaze to the far-off city horizon. Renji turns too, but he can only see a sea of grey and specks of dying colour. “Tennis is my life,” Seiichi says to the distance. “I know it is yours as well.”
Renji, whose life has grown like a vine around tennis, inclines his head in a silent ‘yes’.
“I want Akaya to understand tennis, to truly love tennis, but I might not have the chance,” Seiichi continues in his soft, firm voice. He turns to look at Renji. “I’ve already spoken to Sanada, but I’m worried. Please make sure he’ll be fine.”
Renji would, for Seiichi.
Renji and Sadaharu easily win the first battle of their global conquest. On the bus ride home, Sadaharu asked, “What’s the Professor’s favourite number?” After Sadaharu’s discussion about π, Renji’s not surprised at all.
“e,” Renji replied.
Sadaharu raised both eyebrows behind his thick glasses in question.
“Like π, e is a transcendental number that’s not easy to calculate,” Renji said. “But it’s the rate at which all things grow.” Renji found it fascinating that such a complicated number dictated the simple, elegant curve of a nautilus shell, but that seemed like an odd reason to like a number.
Sadaharu’s face scrunched in thought. “e is the base of the natural logarithm, right?”
“That is correct, Doctor.”
“And its spirals are found in shells and sunflowers,” Sadaharu added. Renji gave another yes, this time with a smile. “The so-called ‘miraculous spiral’.”
Now Sadaharu was speaking like a TV science program narrator. Renji tried to stifle a laugh.
“Jakob Bernoulli called it that,” Sadaharu said defensively.
Renji, who had never cared for history, did not recognize the name. Who cared why it was if it worked? But out of polite curiosity he asked, “Who?”
“The person who created the law of large numbers! He had a nasty ongoing rivalry with his brother Johann, who taught Euler and L’Hôpital,” Sadaharu said, almost falling off his seat. Renji must have looked utterly baffled, as Sadaharu exclaimed, “This stuff is interesting! Really!”
“I do think logarithmic spirals look nice,” Renji said, mostly because it was true and partly to placate Sadaharu. “I have a book about nautilus shells. Want to see?”
Sadaharu beamed, and Renji smiled back.
“Come on, you can’t be this much of a stiff all the time!” It has only been ten minutes into their first tutoring session since tournament season, and already Kirihara is back to old habits.
“Your regular status cannot keep you from being suspended,” Renji says. “Rikkai isn’t some second-rate school desperate for recognition.”
Kirihara looks up from arranging a toy army. “The curriculum isn’t my fault,” he says.
“Sometimes I wonder how you managed to get into the school,” Renji mutters. Frustrated, he says, “What would interest you? Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordering his nephew to die?”
Kirihara cocks his head. “Did he?” A smile. “Nice man.” Renji is not surprised Kirihara would fixate on deaths and destruction. He’s now used to Kirihara provoking people this way, and because of several parts pride and one part apathy, he shows no outward reaction.
Resigned to the duty of teaching Kirihara, Renji spends the next few nights revising his lesson plans to be grandiose stories of wars and tragedies—only to be rewarded by an attentive Kirihara interrupting at every turn. Renji can’t help but reach the conclusion that tennis is Kirihara’s version of a modern-day epic.
“Happy birthday, Sadaharu!” Renji greeted, holding a small cake box in one hand.
“You brought cake,” Sadaharu said numbly. Renji thought the shock might be from Renji going to Sadaharu-like lengths to please someone.
“It’s carrot cake. I thought you’d like it.”
Sadaharu seemed to come out of his daze. “Of course!”
“The coach said we could use the fridge,” Renji added. “We can share it after practice.”
Sadaharu smiled. “Always thinking ahead, Professor.”
“But of course, Doctor,” Renji replied.
“I can’t wait for practice to be over!” Sadaharu exclaimed. A giggle came out of Renji, and he quickly smothered it by pursing his lips. Sadaharu studied him for a few moments, before saying, slowly, “I never say that, do I?”
Renji kept his mouth firmly shut and shook his head.
An hour and six minutes later, Renji and Sadaharu had found a seat and unpacked the cake.
“Thanks again, Professor.”
“There’s no need to thank me,” Renji replied.
“I’ll just have to get something better for you tomorrow,” Sadaharu said.
It is winter of their second year when Seiichi suddenly collapses. Renji drops to his side and tracks Seiichi’s breathing and circulation while someone runs for the school nurse. An ambulance arrives, swallowing Seiichi into its depths as Renji is answering the paramedics, and telling Sanada to go with Seiichi, and watching helplessly as white doors swing closed. The ambulance (was it wailing?) disappears behind the artificial trees and for the first time Renji notices his shell-shocked team-mates. And, as the last member of the triumvirate, he dismisses the practice.
The day after the school festival, Renji woke up too ill to go to school. His frantic parents rushed him to the hospital, where doctors confirmed he had food poisoning. Once he was left to the quiet of his hospital bed, Renji had nothing better to do than wonder about his missed classes and practices, and how worried Sadaharu was.
Sadaharu arrived exactly thirty minutes after school ended.
“You’re supposed to be in practice,” Renji weakly admonished.
“You wouldn’t have been there,” Sadaharu said. “I’ll bring you food next time,” he added, eyeing Renji’s partially finished meal.
“It’s safely bland,” Renji replied, still feeling ill. He looked at Sadaharu, then at the hospital food, and decided to avert a possible catastrophe. “If you really want too bring something, please ask your parents to buy it.”
For once, Sadaharu gave in easily. Every day after school, he would bring food from a café or the local market and homework from school. They would work on an assignment together, usually the interesting one about the possible effects of global warming on Antarctica, and the food would slowly disappear. Renji was released a few days later, and Sadaharu, overjoyed, immediately took them to the closest court. Renji borrowed Sadaharu’s spare racket, and they played each other for hours. It was just like always.
When they left, the floodlights were shining in the dark.
Practice must resume. The next day Sanada stands in front of the club with a single directive: “Losing is not allowed.”
Yagyuu finds Renji at lunch the day after. He pulls up a chair and sits before asking, “Do you want me to take over Kirihara-kun’s history and literature lessons?”
Yagyuu is currently responsible for math, Renji recalls, so he replies, “No, it’s fine.” Yagyuu says nothing and begins to meticulously unwrap his sandwich, waiting for Renji to speak. “It is fine,” Renji says. “He’s almost tolerable.”
“You’re planning to take over his tennis training, and you’ve also been playing dampener between Sanada-kun and the rest of the club—yes, I noticed that.” Yagyuu pauses, taking several bites of his sandwich. Renji waits for him this time, taking in the overcast school grounds on the other side of the window. “Kirihara-kun can take care of himself, you know,” Yagyuu says. “He’s not a newcomer any more.”
Renji can almost make out the tennis courts past the trees. “Seiichi saw something in him,” Renji says. Something more than mere talent and aggression. “I’m letting Seiichi down.” If Kirihara becomes his old self. If Sanada ruins the team. If…
“You’re thinking too much, as usual,” Yagyuu says. “The rest of us can look out for Kirihara-kun. You handle Sanada-kun.”
That night, the news announces the impending collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antartica. Global warming had seemed so far away five years ago.
“Look! The first images came back from the Mars Pathfinder!” In Sadaharu’s hand was a glossy image that Renji recognized from that morning’s newspaper.
“It looks very nice,” Renji said. “How long did it take you?”
“A minute and nine seconds to load, another minute or so to print,” rambled Sadaharu. “It wouldn’t fit on a floppy disk so I had to find an Internet café with a high-quality printer.”
Renji tilted his head in question. “You did that all last night?”
“Yup! It’s a new era of science!” Sadaharu exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could one day go to Mars?”
With Sadaharu’s enthusiasm, it seemed like anything was possible. “We could go together!” added Renji.
Sadaharu replied with complete certainty. “Of course we would.”
The cheerful interior of the cake shop is a stark contrast to the winter downpour outside. “What do you think he’d like?” Kirihara asks keenly, eyeing the cake plethora. Kirihara almost seems like any other teenager, but the slight edge of desperation is reminiscent of his unfortunate blood-baths.
“We could get him one of each,” Jackal says. He’s crouched also on the floor beside Marui. Cake shops, this one in particular, are like Marui’s third home. Renji has been here several times before, always with Marui and Seiichi present. Seiichi was always in the midst of the swarm, inquiring after the newest creations.
“I think Yukimura-kun might consider that too much,” Yagyuu says, interrupting Renji’s thoughts.
“He likes blue right?” Kirihara says. “Let’s get him some blueberry gelatine. And fruit cake! That’s got to be healthy.” It isn’t, Renji refrains from saying. This is as happy as Kirihara’s been in a while.
“I think he’d like the matcha mousse—that wasn’t here last time,” Marui replies. “Too many chocolate cakes—can we add a white peach gelatine, a fruit tart, and a citrus chiffon? All right, anyone else?”
As the other regulars add their orders, Renji glances at Sanada, standing still and stolid at the door. Seiichi has asked Renji to support Sanada, but that necessary task seems impossible.
Hawaii was a heady experience. Sadaharu and Renji entered as favourites, and finished as undisputed victors. The tournament over, Sadaharu and Renji’s parents strongly urged the pair to head outdoors and ‘have some fun’. Renji thought that their parents were being idiots, but Sadaharu wanted to see the beach, and so there they went.
Sadaharu, having done his research before leaving, took them to a vast stretch of sand and water with only a few people. They arrived at the shore and Sadaharu ran out into the turquoise water, before turning back towards Renji. The sun was shining through snowy white clouds on to a grinning Sadaharu and a glittering sea. Renji could almost think it beautiful.
After Sadaharu had his fill of the ocean—that is, after he’d convinced Renji to join him in there—Sadaharu spotted a street stand and ran towards it, dragging Renji along by the hand. Sadaharu bought an eerily blue snow cone, and Renji, perturbed, asked, “What is that blue?”
“I believe it’s called Blue Hawaii syrup,” Sadaharu replied, taking a bright blue bite. “Tastes like coconut. Want to try?”
Renji made to refuse, as he usually did Sadaharu’s concoctions, but Sadaharu was looking at him brightly and surely one bite wouldn’t kill him. They walked slowly along the beach, exchanging the snow cone every now and then, until Sadaharu found a speckled conch shell. Sadaharu made Renji take the snow cone—Renji took another bite—while Sadaharu began plotting the spiral of the shell in his newest general science notebook. When Sadaharu was finished, Renji gave the melting snow cone back. Renji picked up the rough shell and gently placed it against Sadaharu’s ear, accidentally knocking thick glasses awry. “Listen.”
Sadaharu’s thick eyebrows furrowed in concentration. His face slowly lit up in an expression of epiphany. “It sounds like the ocean!” Sadaharu used his free hand to push the shell towards Renji, who leaned in to the sound of waves lapping at an imagined shore.
“I wonder how the sound is produced,” Sadaharu said after some contemplation. He was studying it now, turning it around, tracing every crevice like they could hold a great secret. Leaning closer, he breathed, “It’s like magic.”
Renji knew how, but didn’t want to ruin Sadaharu’s wondrous smile. So he whispered back, “Maybe it is.”
Sadaharu couldn’t leave such an item behind of course, so Renji waited as Sadaharu put the seashell reverently into his always present bag before continuing on their exploration of the endless beach.
Later, in their dim starlit hotel room, Sadaharu, lying beside Renji, asked, “But how will we share the shell?” He became quiet, and Renji knew he was drifting into thought. “Maybe we can split it in half?”
“We wouldn’t be able to hear the ocean then,” Renji replied.
When they returned to Japan, Renji insisted Sadaharu keep the shell. Sadaharu, in return, made him keep the trophy. “It’d be another reason for us to visit each other,” he said, smiling.
Sanada and Renji board the bus in silence. Sanada is the first to speak. “The three of us have known each other for nearly two years now,” he says, staring stoically at the blur of the passing scenery.
Renji cannot think of anything to say. He wants to blame Sanada for making Seiichi’s job harder, but knows that Seiichi never had any problems with Sanada. He wants to blame Kirihara for disrupting Seiichi’s life, but has seen Kirihara the past few weeks, looking utterly lost and subdued. So instead, he says, “Has it really been two years?”
Sanada turns away. “It’s not him,” Sanada says, and Renji notices Sanada’s hand tightening around the cold steel bar. “He should be strong.”
Renji doesn’t know how to comfort anyone. Their silence is filled with the rattles of the bus as it passes by grey and white houses.
“He is still strong,” Renji says, but the words feel hollow.
“I—damn it!” Renji tenses; Sanada never swears. “I could have been nice,” Sanada growled, bitter and brittle. “I could have let him call me Gen’ichirou. I could have praised his tennis just once.” Sanada never talks about himself, and now he is a dam bursting all at once.
“Your respect for him is evident,” Renji says. It is a futile attempt at comforting this person whom Renji knows only through tennis, and has rarely seen eye-to-eye with.
“Is it?” Sanada turns to look at Renji. “You probably don’t know that I respect you.” Renji blinks, the only outward show of this perception-skewering shock. “Yukimura probably doesn’t know…” Renji can’t stand to see the stoic, unyielding Vice-Captain falling apart. Seiichi was already too much.
“Tell him,” Renji says abruptly.
“What?” Defensive anger seeps out of that one word. Renji is reminded of Kirihara, though he would never tell Sanada that.
“Tell him,” Renji repeats firmly. “You’ve told me, after all, and Seiichi is more your friend than I am.”
“I doubt that, sometimes,” Sanada says, and they stand in painful silence. Renji glances at Sanada, contemplating sharing his own soul. Sanada needs something, and it is only fair. As the bus rattles along, he considers different words, but nothing seems to be adequate. But the bus is nearing Renji’s stop, and he has to speak.
“I can’t lose Seiichi,” Renji says, quiet and full of the unsurety he wishes he could hide. “I’ve already lost my tennis once, and I can’t lose it again.”
“It wouldn’t be the same without him,” echoes Sanada. Silence envelops them again.
Renji is about to disembark, when Sanada calls out. “Wait.” Renji turns to look at him, halfway down the stairwell. “Call me Gen’ichirou. It’s what Yukimura would have wanted.”
Almost curtly, Renji says, “Gen’ichirou,” before stepping off the bus.
As they discussed quadratic equations, Sadaharu and Renji inevitably reached i, the so-called imaginary square root of negative 1. Sadaharu complained, “I don’t see the point of numbers that don’t exist. They don’t seem usable.”
“That’s what a two-dimensional person would say about a three-dimensional world,” Renji said.
Sadaharu made that confused sad face, where his eyebrows scrunched and his mouth drooped. Renji quickly drew a graph. “Think of the imaginary number axis as the y-axis, and the real number axis as the x-axis. So real numbers would have no imaginary component, and imaginary numbers have no real component, and complex numbers can be expressed as a combination of both.”
“So you could use it for things that have two components,” Sadaharu exclaimed. “Like electromagnetic fields!”
“I didn’t think of that,” said Renji. The only thing he knew about electromagnetism was the right-hand rule. “I was thinking of geometric vectors.”
The thought of vectors sparked Renji’s memory. He quickly jotted down an equation and pushed the paper towards Sadaharu.
“e to the power of i π plus 1 equals 0,” Sadaharu read measuredly. “What does that mean?”
Renji reached over to draw a graph of a unit circle, then marked a random point on its edge. He added a line from the origin to the point, which evolved into the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle. “This point is at cos θ plus i sin θ, where θ is the angle between the x-axis and this line. This works for any point on the circle.” He decorated the graph with a few more points and triangles. “In polar coordinates, this circle’s formula is e to the power of i times θ. When θ grows to π, cos θ plus i sin θ is equal to –1.” Renji paused to trace the equation across the circle, stopping at π.
“Adding 1,” Renji said, drawing an arrow towards the origin, “gives 0.”
Sadaharu studied at the diagram wondrously. Some time later, his attention returned to Renji, who added, “Many mathematicians consider this one of the greatest equations of all time.”
Rumours of Seigaku’s first-year ace reach Rikkai rapidly. Renji gathers that Sadaharu lost his regular spot to the new member. Sadaharu has had four years and three days to know better, yet he was inadequately prepared and was defeated. Renji won’t be, so he begins collecting and refining data on this year’s teams.
“Tomorrow’s match is just another step,” says Gen’ichirou the day before District Preliminaries. “Our goal is victory at the Nationals.” Backlit by the sun, he looks almost like a conquering general of old. “Losing is not allowed.”
“Anything to win?” Kirihara questions, cocky as ever. Niou jabs him in the ribs, and catches Renji’s eyes before rolling his own. Renji stifles a sigh.
“It is fine,” Gen’ichirou responds tersely, and Renji refrains from objecting. Gen’ichirou needs the support, and Rikkai does not need, or have, in-fighting.
“You’re supposed to stop Sanada,” Niou says later, having decided to head home with Renji, though his house was in a different cardinal direction. (It is Yagyuu’s day to teach Kirihara English; it used to be Seiichi’s.)
“Benefit of the doubt,” Renji responds.
“Next thing I’ll have you saying ‘Akaya’.” Niou enunciates the last word and supplements it with a mocking cute hand gesture. He glances sideways at Renji. “When that Seaweed Head rips the competition apart, I’m gonna tell ya ‘I toldja so.’ And then take him out to yakiniku.”
“I’m not helping you pay for it,” Renji says blandly, already looking forward to Niou’s suffering.
As expected, Rikkai sweeps the District Preliminaries in a war of attrition.
Renji arrived at Sadaharu’s apartment one day to find him at a loud churning blender with unidentifiable goop inside. Dismayed, he shouted, “What are you making, Sadaharu?”
Sadaharu turned around. Renji could tell Sadaharu had been grinning even before Renji arrived, and Renji tried to suppress his silly jealousy of the blender. “Renji!” Sadaharu’s face brightened even more. “This is a nutritional juice that’ll prevent illness and improve physical fitness,” he rushed out. “Isn’t that great?” As soon as Renji smiled in sort of approval, Sadaharu turned back to the kitchen table and continued chopping bananas. While Renji waited for Sadaharu to finish tinkering, he looked around the metamorphosed kitchen. Sadaharu’s experiment was everywhere.
Sadaharu tapped Renji’s shoulder. “Here,” he said, holding a see-through cup with brown-green sludge inside. “This is from the previous batch.”
Renji knew Sadaharu, and knew not to drink it. “I’d rather have yoghurt,” he said. “It’s nutritional.”
Sadaharu ignored the slight with good humour, saying, “I’ll make the perfect juice one day. You’ll be first to drink it.” He lifted the cup in his hand to his lips, drank its contents all at once, and fainted on the spot.
When Sadaharu’s mom woke Sadaharu up, a panicked Renji made Sadaharu swear on their doubles tennis to never make something that dangerous again.
As the Kantou Regionals draws closer, a horror story surfaces. “Seigaku’s got a deadly drink,” drawls Yagyuu-as-Niou during a practice break, most likely in an attempt to scare the novices. If it were Niou and if it were any other topic, Renji would assume Niou is only exaggerating. However, Yagyuu enjoys the horrors of reality, and with Sadaharu involved (and Renji knows it could only be Sadaharu), the situation might truly be dire.
Akaya scoffs. “I’m not afraid of some drink,” he says.
“You should be,” Renji says. Renji’s loyalty to Rikkai and his fear for Sadaharu’s long-term safety prompts him to ensure Akaya would understand. “Drinking one of those concoctions is like committing seppuku, without any of the dignity.”
“Can anything even be that bad?” Akaya asks.
Renji is already imagining Sadaharu, always 10 years old in Renji’s mind, in a dark kitchen strewn with viscous fluid. Yagyuu-as-Niou must have noticed Renji’s ill face for he yowls, “Have you drank it?”
Renji raises a disturbed and disbelieving eyebrow, and makes a note to tell Yagyuu later he needs to work on butchering his Niou grammar. Yagyuu once told him it was more fun if people figured it out on their own, so Renji never mentions it in public.
“All right, you’re not that stupid,” Yagyuu-as-Niou says. The discussion turns to other topics (like how Marui and Niou could use this information to extract food safety taxes), but Renji can’t stop thinking of Sadaharu’s drinks, and how he’d always refused them.
When Renji arrives home after practice, he has concluded that the best way to get over it all is to make a drink himself. His memory of Sadaharu’s nutritional juices is as clear as ever after four years, seven months and twenty-one days. He unearths a rarely used food processor, assembling it with a bit of difficulty. (His parents ought to stop throwing away instruction manuals.) Slowly and carefully, he chops and measures the ingredients, before gathering the pieces on to the flat of his knife and guiding them into the food processor. By the time he is adding water, honey, and lemon juice, he is wondering if Sadaharu ever chose ingredients for symbolism rather than usefulness. It would have been like Sadaharu to add a small bit of sentimentality, Renji thinks with a wistful smile. He would have called it useless (never out loud of course), but Renji is more sentimental these days than Sadaharu was back then. He wonders if Sadaharu’s changed.
While his mind wandered elsewhere, the ingredients have become olive-coloured slush. Renji pours the mixture into a cup and drinks it slowly. He does not pass out. Instead, he ends up in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at his queasy self.
They were packing their equipment under the orange glow of the setting sun when Sadaharu suddenly sat down and sighed.
“Sadaharu?” Renji questioned.
“Everything’s going so well, and…” Sadaharu trailed off, nudging a fallen leaf on the ground. “I don’t know. It’s like a dream.”
“We haven’t taken over the world yet,” Renji joked, trying to cheer Sadaharu up. Sadaharu looked up and offered a pale, fleeting grin, nothing like his usual cheer.
Renji sat on the bench beside Sadaharu, and studied his down-turned face and hunched body. “Is this about Special Forces Tokyo?”
“I can’t believe Moushi died,” Sadaharu said glumly. “I can’t believe Moushi and Shuki lost.”
Renji glanced at Sadaharu, not sure if he should say it. “They were the villains,” he pointed out.
“They’re heroes,” Sadaharu insisted, as he had since before Renji even knew the show existed. “They helped save the world.” Sadaharu looked like he was about to cry. “If they can lose, what about us? What if someone eluded our data?”
“That’s a very small probability,” Renji replied with confidence.
“It’s not zero,” Sadaharu said, eyes still teary and shoulders still slumped.
“It’s tennis,” Renji said. He placed a reassuring hand on Sadaharu. “You just need to hit the ball to where the opponent can’t reach it, right?”
The day of the Kantou finals, the sky is an ominous grey. Renji is with Gen’ichirou and Akaya when they see members of Seigaku under shelter from the heavy, insistent rain. Gen’ichirou and Renji turn and walk away, but Akaya does not. Gen’ichirou tells Renji to go ahead while he goes back for Akaya. Renji, though worried, nods in understanding and heads towards the rest of the team.
Akaya and Gen’ichrou arrive three minutes after Renji, and half a minute past the agreed time. Renji curtly reminds Akaya that he is late.
“I was just checking out our prey,” Akaya replies casually, licking his always chapped lips. There is a hint of blood on them.
Renji makes an effort to ignore the slight at his oldest friend, focusing instead on Akaya’s actual meaning. “Fuji Shuusuke?” It is an effort to converse with Akaya when he is in one of these moods, and Gen’ichirou soon excuses himself, citing practice. The rest of the team remain under cover from the rain, and while Marui and Akaya exchange jibs, Renji sits quietly and imagines the match with Sadaharu.
In the end, their match was postponed for a week.
The rain started suddenly and furiously. Unable to practice, Renji and Sadaharu sat whispering in the clubhouse waiting for their parents. “Oh!” exclaimed Sadaharu, and dug through his bag for a notebook. “I looked it up,” he announced excitedly. “The phenomenon of hearing the ocean when you place a conch shell to your ear’s called cavity resonance! You’re not hearing the ocean; you’re actually hearing the surrounding background noise as reflected by the conch shell.”
Renji tried to smile, and succeeded. “Good work, Doctor.”
“You knew,” Sadaharu said, making a face.
“Did you think I wouldn’t know?” Renji said in a teasing tone, though he felt like he had lost something. He was still telling himself he was being ridiculous when Sadaharu had started talking about their next match.
When the regulars cannot find Seiichi in his room, they head for the rooftop. It is Seiichi’s sanctuary in the hospital, now that he cannot go elsewhere. It is a nice enough place, with a good view of the city and only the slight buzz of machinery and traffic.
“We brought something!” shouts Marui. He is as upbeat as always, as taunting as the bright summer sun.
“I apologize for the crowd,” Yagyuu says, with an unapologetic smile. Renji wonders how they can do it. Then Seiichi is speaking, like a prince holding court. Seiichi talks not of himself, but of his team. They, the regulars minus Seiichi, have grown into a routine of saving stories for their twice-weekly visits. Even Gen’ichirou has. It is not the type of routine Renji has ever wanted.
When it is Renji’s turn, he tells of their newest training menu, adding that they have nothing to worry about. He imbues his voice with all of his confidence in data and statistics. By unspoken agreement, no one mentions Akaya’s back-sliding or Gen’ichirou’s ever-shorter temper.
“I’m glad to see everyone’s fine,” says Seiichi with a gentle smile. His surgery is tomorrow. Renji looks past the metal fence cage, to the city. There is a patch of green where Rikkai should be, but Renji cannot see anything else.
Sadaharu caught the flu and couldn’t go to practice. For Renji, it was an unbearably long week. He now understood how Sadaharu had felt when Renji had been away. With little to do, he visited Sadaharu’s apartment daily, but Sadaharu didn’t let Renji in his room as he didn’t want Renji to get sick as well. Instead, they would talk through the door about tennis, sciences, and Meganeranger, Sadaharu’s replacement for the recently ended Special Forces Tokyo. When Sadaharu started to fall asleep, Renji would go to the dining room and discuss Sadaharu’s recovery. The routine was disturbingly easy to adapt to.
When Sadaharu finally returned to tennis practice, Renji was elated. They were on the same court again.
“Here I go, Renji,” Sadaharu shouted, grinning.
Renji smiled back. “Come, Sadaharu!”
Sadaharu has grown.
“We came here to win,” Seigaku’s temporary captain Ooishi Shuuichirou announces with bravado.
Gen’ichirou is too dignified to mock, but his contempt is obvious. Renji knows Gen’ichirou is disappointed at Tezuka’s absence, nearly as much as he is at Seiichi’s. They will win this tournament for Seiichi.
As Seigaku’s temporary captain walks back towards his team, Renji notices how upbeat Seigaku seems for a team about to lose. Rikkai, by contrast, is calm and certain (though more than slightly anxious for Seiichi). Kuwahara and Marui win easily; 6–1. When Yagyuu and Niou reveal themselves, Renji is slightly shocked, but his worries never surface as they win 6–4.
It’s finally time, Renji thinks.
He strides on to the court, and turns to face his first friend. “‘The time is ripe’…is what you were about to say.” It was one of Sadaharu’s favourite quote from Special Forces Tokyo. Sadaharu takes time to make a speech to his kouhai about their history (and to make a deduction about Renji’s behaviour). Renji almost wants to smile.
“It’s been a long time, Sadaharu.” Four years, two months…
“…and fifteen days,” Sadaharu says in greeting.
Renji smiles for Sadaharu. “Even though we’re old friends, I won’t go easy on you,” he says. He still misses Sadaharu sometimes.
“Of course,” Sadaharu says, smiling in return. “That’s what I want.”
Renji has heard much of Sadaharu over the years; he’s made sure of it. He is still pleased to see Sadaharu’s improved skills in person. He expected no less from their time apart. As a test, Renji hits a drop shot, and Sadaharu responds faster than he would have even a month ago. But Sadaharu cannot yet defeat Renji.
Yesterday, Renji’s parents had told him about Rikkai. Renji wanted to forget about it, so he didn’t mention it to Sadaharu. He wanted to play tennis with all the time he had left.
“Let’s stay together forever,” Sadaharu said, during a break between games. “Together, we can conquer the world.”
Sadaharu was so happy, so naïve. Renji looked away uneasily.
Sadaharu, shifted closer. “Renji?” he asked with a tone of worry.
Renji tried to think of something to distract Sadaharu. “I was just thinking that we’ve never played each other seriously.”
“What made you bring that up?” asked Sadaharu. Curious as ever.
“I want to know which of us is stronger,” Renji made up, though as he said it, he knew it was true. He might not see Sadaharu ever again. He wanted to give Sadaharu, the Doctor, a chance to beat him, the Professor. So they served and returned, volleyed and countered. 3–3, 3–4, 4–4, 5–4. The sun cast an orange shadow over their game.
Suddenly, the coach forced them to leave. Despondent, Renji quietly listened as Sadaharu talked about their unfinished match.
“Let’s end this after the next tournament,” said Sadaharu.
“Definitely,” Renji responded, as normally as he could. He did not have the heart to tell Sadaharu that it had already ended.
“What’s wrong Renji?” Sadaharu looked so worried, so concerned. Renji could not lie to Sadaharu when he entreated Renji like that. Not knowing what to do, Renji ran away. He started crying after only a block.
They hadn’t even said goodbye.
When Sadaharu is leading 2–0, it is time for Renji to disprove Sadaharu’s data. Sadaharu is invariably shocked.
Over the net Renji comments, “You wanted to say, ‘With such a low stance during the take-back, he shouldn’t be able to hit a slice ball,’ right?” Sadaharu’s data tennis is transparent. It is conveyed to Renji in every lob, every cross-shot. Renji will make sure that Sadaharu’s reliance on his data will fail him today.
3–3. “It’s disappointing,” Renji says, and it is. For Sadaharu, data is still tennis itself. “I’m going to end it now,” Renji says.
In a fit of passion (Sadaharu has always been prone to them), Sadaharu declares, “If my data tennis is being read completely, I will throw away my data tennis.” It is a desperate move, and for Sadaharu, whose tennis revolves around data, it will not work. “I’ve thrown away the past,” Sadaharu adds. Renji knows Sadaharu is not the type to play mind games, so the comment hits even harder. 3–4. For Renji, who remembers Sadaharu before data tennis, it is bittersweet. 4–4. Sadaharu is now a different person, one that Renji has never played before.
5–4. Gen’ichirou orders Renji to end it. Renji strides into position and readies himself to serve. The words come naturally. “Let’s go, Sadaharu. Prepare yourself.”
He can almost hear the echo of a childish voice. With a jolt, Renji realizes that these are the exact words he spoke four years, two months, and fifteen days ago, that this match, since the sixth game, has been an exact copy of the past.
Renji’s turmoil must have been visible, for Sadaharu adjusts his thick glasses, and murmurs, “I think this is where we continue.”
Or perhaps, Renji’s stunned mind thinks, Sadaharu simply knows him that well, even now. Renji is so shocked, so angered, that he blurts out, “I was manipulated? Me?”
“There is no data beyond here,” Sadaharu proclaims across the tennis court. “Come, Renji.”
It dawns on Renji that Sadaharu never really threw his data away, and Renji understands. Sadaharu has gone beyond being Renji’s Doctor, but he is still Renji’s Doctor all the same. Renji smiles, shouting to Sadaharu, “That’s what I wished for.”
Renji had expected it, but hadn’t known it was going to be this terrible. He missed Sadaharu’s enthusiasm, he missed Sadaharu’s candor, he even missed Sadaharu’s strange experiments. Most of all, he missed their tennis. Without Sadaharu, there isn’t a reason to play tennis.
Renji stares at the grey ocean outside the window, battering against the metal and concrete shore. He pretends it is the sound of an ocean inside a seashell.