"So this is where it happens," Tezuka said, looking up at the stadium. Although he lived in Tokyo, he'd never had reason to come before, the tennis club where he played not being particularly proactive in entering their juniors in the big competitions, just the local ones with other clubs in the area. Today though, today was the day of the singles final of the Elementary School Individuals and, on a whim, he'd asked his mother to drive him here after his tennis lesson instead of going home. She'd gone off to get a coffee in a nearby café, leaving him to satisfy his curiosity.
The stadium wasn't particularly busy inside - this wasn't even a school competition, so there were just a few people scattered around: parents, siblings, a few friends and most likely a few junior high scouts, though it was rather late in the year to be choosing schools.
He was mildly disappointed to discover that he'd just missed the match itself. The shorter boy - Yukimura - had beaten Sanada - the one with the cap - 6-1, 6-1, apparently without much difficultly. As he was the defending champion, it apparently wasn't much of a surprise for any concerned.
Tezuka eyed up the finalists with interest. They were all in their final year of elementary school now - next summer it would be them taking part in the prestigious schools tournament. His name was down for the Seigaku entrance exam and they were fairly confident that he'd make the grade. Seigaku's tennis team had a prestigious history and was one of those dominating Tokyo but even they couldn't measure up to the school Sanada and Yukimura were rumoured to be going to: Rikkaidai.
Rikkai was the elite tennis school in the country and had been for years. They'd won the Kantou regional tournament every year for longer than he'd been alive and had an excellent record at the Nationals, although the ultimate victory had eluded them for the past few years.
He'd actually considered Rikkai himself, until he realised that if he went there, he'd have to live in dorms in Kanagawa, away from Oishi and the others from his elementary school in Tokyo.
As he watched, Yukimura walked over to where his opponent was sprawled on his back with a towel, a water bottle and soft words, presumably of thanks for a good game. Both from Kanagawa and playing tournaments at the elite level for years together, he assumed that they knew each other quite well.
He'd seen enough. Tezuka shouldered his bag again and went to investigate the outside courts.
An few hours later, he was hitting against one of the warm up walls when he heard footsteps stop behind him. Shouldering his racket, he turned, catching the ball in his right hand without thinking.
"Sanada-kun," he said, bowing politely. "Can I help you?"
"Are you up for a match? I'm not calm enough to stop yet."
"Have you recovered from the final?" Tezuka asked. This match would be meaningless if the other boy hadn't.
"Completely. It was a short match, anyway. There's a court over here we can use."
"How many sets?"
"Does three suit?"
Tezuka, almost smiled before remembering that it was important to take a match like this seriously, as a politeness to the opponent if nothing else.
Half an hour later, he was less inclined to smile. Was this really the level of the national players in his age group? Really, playing the older kids in the club was much better. He'd slipped easily into the Pinnacle of Hard Work and from then on it had been light work: even without the side-effect that minimised exhaustion, he wouldn't have been sweating that hard.
"How the hell did you beat me, this tournament's runner up, 6-0 and 6-1?!?" Sanada yelled at him. Really, the answer was obvious. He was a better player, he'd trained hard and reached a higher level. "Dammit!!! Who the hell are you!?"
"You're Tezuka-kun, right?"
Tezuka spun, surprised. It wasn't that he was a complete nobody but there was really no reason for Yukimura to know his name - they'd never played even in the same tournament let alone against each other.
"How about you play me next?" Yukimura asked with the absolute confidence of the national champion. He was half-smiling but to Tezuka it looked more like anticipation of the match than carelessness. "If you're not too tired, that is? Genichirou-kun, would you umpire for us?"
Tezuka watched impassively as Sanada moved to stand by the net and Yukimura took the place opposite him, bouncing a couple of times in place as he gave a few swings to check he was still warm.
As the game started, Tezuka felt himself grinning helplessly. This was the feeling that he was always chasing, the point where he could lose himself completely in the game to the exclusion of anything else, where it was just a case of getting the ball over the net. On the other side of the net, he heard Yukimura laugh out loud to himself as he strained to reach a particularly nasty drive of Tezuka's.
"Yukimura-kun, Sanada-kun!" a man called from the edge of the court. The two boys playing froze the ball dropping unnoticed the ground. "So this is where you were. We have to go now or we'll miss the train back."
Yukimura sighed in resignation. Tezuka understood the feeling of frustration at the unfinished game.
"Next year," Yukimura said as they knelt next to each other, putting their rackets away, "are you coming to Rikkai?"
"Why would I be?"
"It's the school with the only decent tennis team in Kanto - have you been living under a brick for the past few years?"
Tezuka's mouth set; the smile had already faded.
"No, I chose not to apply."
Yukimura's eyes widened.
"Where are you going then?"
Tezuka shouldered his bag, glancing over one last time as he left to find his mother.
"Seigaku. And one day, I'm taking them to Nationals."
With that he spun on his heel and stalked out of the court, feeling the eyes on his back.