English is somewhat of an intellectual catastrophe for Kirihara — bland at best, mind-numbing at worst. He spends all his lessons (Mondays and Thursdays, 9.35 am, each one lasting an excruciating sixty minutes and maybe a little more, depending on his teacher’s mood) staring into empty space; sometimes if he's lucky and imaginative enough he is rewarded by a most fulfilling daydream, mostly involving food, video games and kicking his seniors' asses at tennis. He likes to think that he's fully mastered — as fellow (self-proclaimed) expert at Not Paying Attention and Getting Away With It Marui-senpai likes to call it — the art of appearing fully engaged while actually really spacing out. “The trick,” Marui once explained to him, “is staying as low-key as possible, and not to have a stupid, vacant look on your face.”
So Kirihara puts his skills to practice twice a week while pretending to learn about auxiliary verbs and past perfect tense. One hazy morning, however, he falls asleep in class to Ookawa-sensei’s bullfrog baritone. That morning he drifts into a world where Rikkai had won the Nationals and all was well and there was nothing to regret.
“— up, Kirihara-kun.” And he does, to Ookawa’s mesmerising brown eyes. “See me after class, Kirihara-kun.”
He agrees amidst sniggers in the background. What else can he do? He must have been awfully tired, he thinks. Fancy falling asleep in class that way.
Later that afternoon in the changing room Kirihara recounts the incident in a voice that could wake the dead. “I don’t even know how I fell asleep,” he announces, buttoning his shirt. “It just happened, and that fatty Ookawa wouldn’t take that for an answer.” He doesn’t tell the rest of the team about the dream he had.
“Stop making excuses,” Marui shouts from his corner. “Someone obviously stayed up all night last night doing something fishy.”
He walks home with Marui later anyway, since he is forgiving and benevolent. On the way they stop by a convenience store so Marui can refill his stock of bubblegum and other cavity-inducing sweets. Kirihara watches his excited, bobbing head disappear behind the shelves and loiters around the counter, examining the items right in front of the cash register. (Cigarettes — he can’t buy them and doesn’t want to anyway, though it’d probably be cool to try one someday. Condoms — can’t get his hands on them yet, but he knows exactly where his parents keep them at home.) The shopkeeper follows his every movement; he’s got a dull, rigid face that’s exactly like Sanada’s, one of those real surly ones. Kirihara thinks it would be wise to drop whatever he’s got in his hands.
Marui promptly comes to his rescue with a truckload of candy in his arms and just as quickly announces that he’s five hundred yen short of the total sum in an irritatingly nonchalant manner, so Kirihara, being the good and responsible kouhai that he is, gets to pay that five hundred yen for him. Later he treats Kirihara to a stick of Pocky as way of apology. (“I’m real generous, I know,” he says.) They exit the store and cross the road towards the adjacent street.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Marui asks, after a few minutes of silence. Kirihara pauses, realising he’s only nibbled the top centimetre or so off his own stick of Pocky.
“I’m going to sound really stupid – don’t laugh,” he says warningly after a while. “I fell asleep during English, right? Everyone knows that. What I didn’t say – don’t laugh – what I didn’t say was that I had this dream. It was ridiculous, really, I don’t know – it’s not the first time I’ve dreamt about this. I dreamt that we won the Nationals, we were there, everyone was there, and I was holding the trophy and shaking somebody’s hand. It was crazy, everyone from school was cheering in the stands, even the principal. It always makes me wonder if I did something wrong, you know? Or, like, if something went wrong somewhere.”
Marui gives him a blank stare, and then blinks.
“You were crying,” Kirihara adds, lying.
They continue walking towards Marui’s house, and when they finally do reach Marui crams the last bit of Pocky into his mouth and mumbles, “It kind of made you feel sad, didn’t it?” Before Kirihara can ask him what he was talking about, he pushes the front door open and yells, in Kirihara’s vague direction, “Don’t stay up too late tonight, kiddo.”
“What –” Kirihara begins, but Marui has already disappeared behind the door.
“So then he tells me that he keeps having these dreams,” Marui explains between mouthfuls of lunch. “To be precise, he dreamt that we won the tournament.”
Earlier that very morning Marui had accosted Niou at the lockers, trying (Niou assumes) to look his mysterious and secretive best, and said that there was something very important which he wanted to discuss. Turns out what he really wanted to talk about was –
“I don’t know – I mean, we’ve never actually talked about us losing, right? Except for during the match debrief,” Marui continues while Niou pokes lazily at his omelette. “I’ve thought about it, sure, but I’ve never really thought about it, you get what I mean? No one really wants to talk about it anymore. Do you ever wonder what would have happened if we won? Things would have been just as we expected, wouldn’t they? And now we’ve lost. I don’t know who’s angry about this and who’s not, and you know, I just get the feeling that everyone’s avoiding the topic. Why were we even sure we’d win?” He pauses. “I think I’m in denial.”
“Give it a rest,” Niou tells him. “You’re reading too much into it.”
Marui gives him a glare that, again, Niou assumes, he thinks will scare him into oblivion. He shrugs, and Marui, now probably disgruntled and marginally insulted, turns his attention to the students sauntering up and down the corridor. “Jackal – hey, Jackal,” he yells down the corridor, sticking his head out of the classroom window and waving vigorously. “Wait up – you need to get me some candy.” With some difficulty he vaults out the window and runs after Jackal, whom Niou can only imagine has a look of harassed weariness on his face.
“I’m not going to clean up your lunchbox for you,” Niou hollers out the window. There is no response.
Niou appreciates irony when he sees it, which is why he finds it funny when he finds himself repeating what happened at lunch to Yukimura in the clubroom. Not funny-funny, just vaguely amusing.
“And then he said that Kirihara told him that he keeps having these – dreams about us winning the Nationals,” he says, lacing his shoes. “He said he found it strange that none of us are talking about it, which I don’t understand, because I don’t really see the need to talk about it. No use crying over spilt milk, right?” Right over left, left over right. Done. “What do you think?”
“Well, you’re talking about it now,” Yukimura replies, and although he sounds genial and good-natured like he always does, Niou can’t help but feel that Yukimura’s making a dig at him. He leans back on the wooden bench and stays silent, waiting for Yukimura to continue, who, for a while, sorts the equipment very thoroughly and shows no sign of elaborating. Finally he stops, and although Niou can’t see his face it looks as though he’s sighing inwardly. “I don’t regret anything. I don’t think anyone should – we played our best and we lost, fair and square, and that’s that. For the record, I don’t blame anyone – and nobody should be blaming themselves. Is that what they wanted to talk about, sharing the blame? I have a feeling it is.”
“Oh. I don’t know,” Niou responds, and thinks, You’re blaming yourself instead, aren’t you? You totally are.
Yanagi knocks on the clubroom door and tells Yukimura he needs to talk to him about something, and Niou interprets that as his cue to leave. “Thanks for telling me,” Yukimura calls after him.
“My pleasure,” he says, shutting the door behind him.
On the evening of the very last day of practice the entire team goes for dinner together. The restaurant is very traditional, nothing too fancy (“Sanada’s going to pay; aren’t you, Sanada,” Yukimura says jovially); Kirihara finds its flimsy wooden interior simultaneously both old-fashioned and charming. (“I wanted Ben & Jerry’s,” Marui whines when they arrive.) They crowd around the entrance and brave the autumn drafts as Sanada accidentally scares a waitress into finding them a table; Yukimura is engaged in a very serious-looking conversation with Yanagi off to the side.
“You’ve got a real stupid look on your face right there, you know that,” Niou says, clapping him on the shoulder abruptly and interrupting his reverie. He gives Niou the ugliest scowl he can muster.
Dinner is a relatively quiet and serious affair. Halfway through his bowl of ramen Kirihara wonders if it would have been different had they won the Nationals, just like he had dreamt that morning. Sanada, for one, would probably be looking a lot less surly than he is right now. Most of the seniors seated at the far end of the table away from him are talking about high school entrance exams; Yagyuu is particularly animated as he explains the internal sorting system that the Rikkai high school branch applies according to the test results that the pool of middle school applicants achieve. Kirihara is fairly sure they’d be talking a lot more about how much each teammate meant to them if they’d won, except it’s their last day together as a team, and he feels as if everyone is taking particular care not to mention the subject. He turns to Marui and gives him his best ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking’ look, but Marui only whispers, “Why aren’t you ordering more? Sanada’s paying.”
“Not much of an appetite,” he says drily.
“Actually,” Marui frowns, staring down at his own bowl, “me neither.”
As they wait for someone to settle the bill Kirihara escapes the restaurant, slippers and all. Kanagawa in October is cold, boring, unexciting. It’s a city bordering on transition, and Kirihara feels like its citizens are getting ready for hibernation. He sits gingerly on the curb of the street (the signpost bearing its name is covered in heavy, obscene graffiti) and waits, entertaining himself with the back-and-forth of the traffic lights in the distance.
Quite suddenly someone sits down next to him – it’s Yukimura. “Sanada’s really footing the bill,” he says. “He insisted. I don’t think he quite understood that I was just joking.” Kirihara laughs, but he realises that he sounds wooden and awkward. Then he stops, and says, mostly to himself, “So this is our last day together as a team, huh. Officially, I mean.” Yukimura nods, his hair catching the light. They sit in the cold and watch the traffic lights and the cars, and neither of them utters a word for some time.
“Akaya,” Yukimura begins again, “Is there anything you want to say to me?” Kirihara considers his question — there aren’t really many things he wants to say to Yukimura, except maybe to apologise again for his abysmal performance as a team regular, but he’s already done that. Or to declare how much he’d miss the team – but that would be embarrassing. Rather, he has about a million questions for Yukimura, none of which have been asked and — he suspects — all of which no one should be asking. In the end he settles for, “It’s cold out here,” and Yukimura, who is probably surprised by the statement, shows none of that surprise; instead he extends a hand to Kirihara, who (shivering in the autumn wind without his sweater) takes it. He holds Yukimura’s hand, and absolutely nothing happens.
“Okay, ‘fess up — what the hell were you doing standing outside our classroom for that last half an hour.”
(On a particularly breezy Thursday afternoon Kirihara Akaya camps out outside a third-floor classroom – class 3-B, to be precise, walking up and down the corridor and taking periodic, impatient glances through the window. For the most part, Niou pretends not to notice him, and Marui sends paper planes sailing through the window when the teacher isn’t looking. Most of them are adorned with messages like “GO AWAY” and “COME BACK LATER”. When the teacher finally gets irritated enough to pause her explanation about acid-base reactions and asks if anyone knows “the brat who is parading outside our classroom”, someone shouts, “He’s on the tennis team.” “I don’t know him,” Niou says, and Marui nods furiously in agreement.)
Kirihara has the grace to look embarrassed. “I only wanted to ask you guys to play a game with me,” he pouts, brandishing his racket.
Niou gives Kirihara a look he hopes conveys the message that he thinks Kirihara was dropped on the head as a baby. “It’s too cold for tennis out here, idiot,” he tells him, but Kirihara persists, leech-like: “But it’s not even November yet! Come on, you guys are my last hope – Jackal’s not in school, he’s down with a fever.” Niou exchanges a glance with Marui.
“I’ve got to study for the math test tomorrow,” Marui says flatly. “I can’t risk failing another one, my parents will bury me alive. Niou here will go with you.”
“What, because I’ve totally studied for the test?”
“You don’t need to.”
Kirihara looks at them hopefully. “So? Does that settle it? You’ll play tennis with me?”
An hour and a half later Niou finds himself playing tennis with Kirihara at a tennis court near the local park – wearing, of all things, their school uniforms. (“I didn’t bring my jersey either,” Kirihara says. “It doesn’t matter!”) We look like prats, Niou thinks. “Hurry up,” he shouts across the court to Kirihara. “It’s cold; I want to go home.” Kirihara nods rigorously and serves. They start a nice, slow rally, and Niou gets the feeling that Kirihara isn’t actually there to play tennis but is actually bursting to say something to someone, anyone. So he starts talking.
“So, why us,” he asks, hitting a lob. “I mean, why not Yukimura or Yanagi? Actually, why play tennis now at all, for that matter. We’re pretty busy, you know.”
They exchange a few more balls before Kirihara gives him a reply. “You know that night we had dinner?” he says. Back, forth, back, forth. “That night Yukimura-buchou came to talk to me, and he asked me if I had anything to say to him. But I didn’t tell him anything.” He pauses to catch his breath, and then hits the ball back so hard that Niou is a little taken aback – he’d thought they were just playing for sport. “Which is stupid, because I have so many things to tell him. I don’t know if Marui-senpai told you – I have these dreams – we won the Nationals. And now that I think about it, I tried so hard to forget that we lost. But the fact is that we did.”
“You won your game,” Niou says, not even sure that Kirihara can hear him from such a distance. “I lost mine.”
Kirihara continues – maybe he really hadn’t heard what Niou had said. “I wanted to ask if he was disappointed with us. Actually, I pretty much –” dash – “know he’s disappointed, just like all of us are. What difference does it make if I’d asked him, anyway? It won’t change a thing. We won’t be able to try again for the cup together next year. I can’t help thinking –” to the net – “we’ve all let one another down.”
At that point Niou ignores the tennis ball that’s coming his way, and puts down his hand. “Don’t be stupid,” he says, and across the court Kirihara stops running and instead starts flushing heavily. “You know what I think? I think we did brilliantly. In fact, I also think Yukimura is ridiculously proud of you. So get that through that thick skull of yours, and stop worrying. I bet your parents wish you were more worried about your studies.”
He can’t quite see what Kirihara’s face looks like at that moment, but then the boy starts wiping his face with the cuff of his sleeves and – Oh my god, he’s crying, Niou realises. “Let’s go for dinner,” he says hastily. “It’s getting late.”
At seven in the evening they exit McDonald’s, burgers in hand (Kirihara’s on his second). They reach a junction of traffic lights. Niou says to Kirihara, “Well, that’s it for today. See you in school,” and crosses the road just as the green man starts blinking. As he reaches the other side, Kirihara yells across the street – “Thanks, Niou-senpai,” Niou hears him say. When he turns around all he sees is Kirihara walking down the pavement amidst a crowd of pedestrians (the setting sun setting their heads aglow), and Niou watches him disappear round the corner into another street.
“My pleasure,” he says, and walks home.
Marui interrogates him the next day at school about their escapade. “So, did you two idiots really play tennis out there in the cold in your school uniforms,” he asks.
“Not really,” Niou tells him. “We reached the courts and decided not to play, so we picked up some girls at McDonald’s instead.” Marui gives him a skeptical stare – “I don’t believe you,” he says at last.
Niou smiles and stretches and thinks about what a simple kid Kirihara really is. “You don’t have to.”