The Winner Takes It All
There was a fly on the ceiling when Akashi Seijuurou opened his eyes that morning.
It was a bluebottle fly, great and gleaming, quietly creeping its way towards the moulded cornice that decorated Seijuurou's Tokyo bedroom.
He contemplated the brilliantly coloured insect for some moments – wondering how it had survived the cold weather and the painstaking cleanliness of the Akashi mansion – then pulled himself out of bed, summoned a maid via the electronic bell push, and requested that she dispose of the offending creature.
That obstacle dealt with, he went about his usual morning routine. In the walk-in closet he found a pair of slacks and a polo shirt hanging prominently on a hook, freshly pressed. When he had changed and proceeded down to the dining hall, a Japanese-style breakfast was already laid out: rice, soup, pickles, yakizakana, and yuudofu, the cooked dishes piping hot. His father was out of town, so he ate alone. A butler stood discreetly at the periphery of his vision, awaiting possible instructions, as Seijuurou finished his meal. It was a habit he couldn't break the servants of.
He had planned out the day painstakingly and now he proceeded with his plan. Shougi until ten o'clock, in order to clear his head. At midmorning, a quick review of his chosen tactics for this evening's game. There was no purpose in excessive rehashing of strategies that had already been honed and perfected in preparation for today.
At half-past eleven Mibuchi Reo called from the hostel at which the rest of the Rakuzan team were staying.
"Will you be having lunch with us, Sei-chan?" inquired Reo.
“Eikichi has insisted on having gyuudon, has he not?”
“We'll be eating at the ramen shop opposite the closest Yoshinoya branch. I tried it yesterday; it's quite good.”
“I'll see you there.”
The rest of the team had already gathered when Seijuurou arrived at the ramenya. They'd saved him a seat in between Reo and Shirogane Eiji. Hayama Koutarou and Nebuya Eikichi (Eikichi was going to Yoshinoya for gyuudon straight after he finished his ramen) were also at their table.
“Are you ready for tonight's battle, Akashi?” asked Shirogane Eiji. Akashi looked up to meet his coach's severe gaze.
“It's the endgame,” Seijuurou replied. Midgame was over; every rook and pawn and bishop in its predicted position. “I've seen it through.”
He became aware of an internal impatience while watching the third-place playoff between Kaijou and Shuutoku. It was not that Ryouta and Shintarou no longer had the ability to surprise him; they did, all of them did, and Seijuurou had always found himself obliged to calculate for that factor, to anticipate that his expectations would be exceeded.
His impatience was simply this: he had waited a long time.
He was tired of waiting.
Shuutoku was seven points ahead at half-time. The customary ten-minute break took place; Rakuzan and Seirin proceeded onto the court to warm-up for the finals. As Akashi led his team across the free throw lane, he saw the black-and-white uniforms gathering around the opposite hoop; Kagami Taiga looked his way, although Tetsuya did not.
Purposefully, Seijuurou kept his eyes on his teammates, and did not glance across the court. Everything he wished to say to those two, he had already said.
He performed his drills with his team, and returned to the bleachers. Ryouta's team came back out, in their blue uniforms, and Shintarou's team, a medley of glaring orange shorts and tops. Kasamatsu Yukio had possession of the ball at the beginning, and passed to Moriyama Yoshitaka.
He tracked the movements across the court (not just the ball, never just the ball, Tetsuya had taught them again and again the perils of only watching the ball) with half his attention; there was a certain soothing certainty in it.
Mostly, he waited for the end to begin.
When it was over he crossed the maplewood floor to the centreline. A dizzying lightness filled his limbs, a sense of blankness where there ought to be heaviness or horror.
He had seen dozens of opponent captains in this position over the years: the tears, the bowed heads. Then the internal rally of emotions, and the gathering of the players, the shout of affirmation in the face of defeat.
He was incapable of such platitudes.
“It's your win,” he stated, as he shook Hyuuga Junpei's hand. Around him was the shocked silence of his teammates, too stunned even to look at each other, each player in his own personal haze of confusion.
“Thank you for the match,” said Hyuuga, who looked as disbelieving as Seijuurou felt. Nearby, Tetsuya's face wavered between elation and disbelief – and concern, carefully concealed.
He walked away at the first opportunity, before Seirin broke out into celebration.
Later, Reo came to find him. Seijuurou had wandered outside into the dark. He was sitting on a bench, staring out at the winter sky, when he heard the quiet footfalls of Reo's approach.
Seijuurou spoke first: “The team must be waiting,” he said. “I'm sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
Reo frowned. “That's not why I came to get you, Sei-chan.” In the crisp moonlit air Reo's face was half-cast in shadow. “We were worried about you.”
Seijuurou closed his eyes; he could feel the cold night against his eyelids. “There's nothing wrong with me. Go back and let Shirogane-sensei know I'll be back in time for the closing ceremonies.”
“How are you feeling?” Reo asked.
“I'm the first Rakuzan captain in years who has failed to secure the Winter Cup,” Seijuurou replied coldly. “How exactly do you think I feel?”
Reo did not answer.
Seijuurou pressed his lips together. “I won't do anything foolish, if that's what you're worried about. Return to the stadium.”
Finally, Reo left him alone. Seijuurou remained on the hardwood of the bench, his fingers pressed tight along its edges.
He found no answers in solitude, and that night, after the ceremonies and debriefs and motions were done, he remained sleepless well into the early hours of the morning.
He awoke to a bluebottle fly crawling on the ceiling above him, in the exact same spot its predecessor had occupied yesterday.
It was unheard of for any residential building belonging to the Akashi family to have a pest problem. He reached out and pressed the round button of the electronic bell push.
The maid arrived promptly. It was the same one as yesterday's. He recalled that her name was Uchihara. She made shocked indignant noises, identical to the ones she had made yesterday.
“It's certainly very strange that there should be flies in my bedroom two mornings in a row.” Seijuurou cast her a severe look as she turned to leave the room in search of an electronic fly swatter.
“Two mornings?” Uchihara paused in the doorway and looked at him perplexedly.
“I'm sure you recall we had the same problem yesterday.”
Her long lashes dipped downwards and then rose in confusion. “It's the first I've heard of it, Seijuurou-sama. It was my day off yesterday, so I didn't hear about any fly being in your room.”
“It was what?”
She started at the sharpness of his tone. He stifled a sigh and attempted to be polite. There was no point in frightening the junior servants. “You said it was your day off.”
“Yes, Seijuurou-sama. The 28th of December.”
He was surprised that a member of the Akashi household staff could be so remiss. “Today is the 30th of December, is it not?”
“It's the 29th of December, Seijuurou-sama. The day of your final basketball game in Tokyo.”
Something appeared to have gone greatly askance with Uchihara-san's state of mind. Akashi went to his dresser and picked up his smartphone, intending to set her correct. He ran his thumb across the screen to open the calendar app. “As you can see clearly, the date here is--.” He stopped.
Highlighted on the small screen of his mobile was the number 29 in bright black.
“It's the 29th today,” said Seijuurou, his mind spinning.
Uchihara-san smiled, looking puzzled but pleased. “If you don't mind, Seijuurou-sama, I have to get rid of this fly.”
He called Reo, who sounded surprised when he picked up.
“I didn't expect you to call so early, Sei-chan.” Rei spoke in his usual mild tones. “Are there any changes to the plans for tonight?”
“Not as of yet,” answered Seijuurou. He was still having difficulty gathering his thoughts. “What are the team's plans for lunchtime?”
“There's a ramen place—”
“Opposite a Yoshinoya branch, so that Eikichi can have his gyuudon.”
“Yes. You're as prescient as ever, Sei-chan.”
“Thank you. I'll see you there.” He hung up and shut his eyes as he stood in his bedroom, still wearing his pyjamas, his mind wandering out in circles.
It was the 29th of December.
It was the 29th of December again.
The yesterday he remembered in his head must have been... should have been...a dream.
It hadn't truly happened.
It couldn't... have truly happened.
Certain now of his conclusions, he entered the walk-in closet in order to get dressed and continue the rituals of the morning.
The events of the day unfolded as he remembered in his (perfect) memory. He made some changes to his previously planned tactics based on the experience....the dreamhe had experienced. Kagami Taiga had moved thus....Tetsuya had changed the flow of the game thus....
And yet, nothing Seirin had done had been outside of Seijuurou's imagination, his ability to observe and respond accordingly. Nothing in yesterday's – in the dream's – final game had truly surprised Seijuurou.
Except for the fact of his defeat.
He paused for a moment, his fountain pen left to lie uncapped atop his carefully sketched tactical diagrams. That final, impossibly fast buzzer beater Hyuuga Junpei had sent spinning through the hoop, not beyond Seijuurou's calculations but certainly beyond his preparations--
Pain lanced through his left palm; he looked down and found that his fist was clenched so tightly his knuckles had whitened.
This wouldn't do. He slowed his breathing, gathering himself.
He wouldn't lose.
Seirin were worthy enemies.
But Seijuurou did not know defeat.
He went into the first quarter intending to fight with full force from the beginning. There was no need to scout with Seirin. Seijuurou knew them, all of them, could estimate their abilities and possibilities down to the finest detail.
The game began as it had had in yesterday's (last night's) dream. Kagami Taiga won the tip-off. The ball went via Tetsuya – Seijuurou could always keep track of Tetsuya, but as usual it required focus on his part -- to Izuki and then over to Kagami, who was already moving to the hoop.
In his dream, at this point Seijuurou had run across the key to stop Kagami Taiga.
Today, he waited, as Eikichi moved to block, and succeeded. Hayama got the rebound. The ball flew back across the court.
Seijuurou jogged back across the centre circle and for a moment caught Tetsuya's eyes.
They were still and wide with shock.
At half-time the score was 32-27, Rakuzan in the lead. At this point yesterday the score had been 24-20.
The game had progressed differently from the way Seijuurou remembered. And the difference did not just lie in Seijuurou's decisions.
Tetsuya was not playing the same way as he'd played in the dream. He alone was the exception among the Seirin players.
His phone beeped just as he was following the others into the changing room.
It was a text from Tetsuya: Can you meet me outside? Near the steps?
It was, quite literally, the first time in their lives Tetsuya had sent Seijuurou a text message.
After obtaining permission from Shirogane-sensei, he pulled on his tracksuit and headed outside.
He found Tetsuya waiting at the bottom of the steps where they had met just before the first round of the Winter Cup. Standing straight and still, his face concealing everything, Tetsuya appeared as nondescript and unobtrusive as he'd ever been.
He wasn't unnoticeable to Seijuurou. Tetsuya had never been unnoticeable as far as Seijuurou was concerned. There was nothing ordinary about how quiet Tetsuya's presence was.
Tetsuya greeted Seijuurou with the guarded and neutral expression that Seijuurou had come to expect from Tetsuya. (In fact, during their time at Teikou, he'd come to welcome that blank expression. Acknowledging Tetsuya's unhappiness within the club had always been...a tiresome chore, on the occasions when Seijuurou had been unable to ignore it.)
“You wanted to see me,” Seijuurou said, coming to a halt on the lowermost step.
“Yes.” Tetsuya looked up. “The first half of the game made me wonder about things.”
This conversation hadn't happened in the dream. “What were you wondering about?”
“I was wondering if you remembered.”
This evasive and half-hearted manner of questioning on Tetsuya's part was irritating. It wasn't typical either; Tetsuya often chose to say nothing, but usually when he spoke, he was clear. “If you want me to give you an answer, you will have to be more specific than this. I have no idea what you are alluding to.”
The winter wind blew out around them, ruffling their jackets. In the west the sun had dipped low; the stadium grounds were shadowed and cold.
Tetsuya breathed in, deeply. “Do you remember playing against us yesterday?”
Seijuurou raised a brow. “Do you mean playing against Shintarou's team?”
“I meant playing against Seirin.” Tetsuya's voice gained confidence as he went on. “The final score yesterday was 53-50. Hyuuga-sempai made the final basket.”
Seijuurou's mind suddenly froze.
“You should have passed to Mibuchi-kun in the second quarter. You didn't, because you knew that Izuki-sempai would be in position to intercept.”
“That's incorrect,” Seijuurou answered, aware even as he spoke that his words were trailing away from the main point. “I always knew it was a possibility, I simply didn't think that it was the most likely possibility, the first time the situation arose.”
“The first time we played. Yesterday.”
“You remember the dream.”
“Do you think it was a dream?” Tetsuya looked Seijuurou in the eyes. “A dream that we both shared?”
“A shared premonitory dream seems more credible than any other explanation I can think of for what I can only describe as a most implausible situation. You appear to be suggesting that the game we both remember playing against each other did take place in reality.”
“That's exactly what I think,” said Kuroko. “That it really happened. Our match, and...” He paused.
“My loss,” Seijuurou said flatly.
They fell into silence as the seconds ticked past. Tetsuya was visibly distressed, but didn't look away from Seijuurou's gaze.
“I don't believe you,” Seijuurou said finally. Halftime was nearly over; there was no time for further discussion. “I'm going back to my team. You should do that as well.”
He turned and went back up the stairs. “By the way, Tetsuya - this time it's my win.”
And it was.
He awoke the next morning feeling perfectly ordinary. Victory had remained with Rakuzan, with Seijuurou. Victory was breathing. Victory was being alive.
There was no elation in victory, nor was there joy. Only the next battle, and the next win.
He looked upwards and saw the bluebottle fly still on the ceiling.
A sequence of events followed in which Uchihara came up, assured him that the date was indeed the 29th of December, his slacks and polo shirt awaited him in the closet, and breakfast consisted of the exact same pickles, yakizakana, and soup that he'd consumed yesterday. And the day before.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Tetsuya sent a text message. Do you believe me now?
For the first time since he'd stopped being Teikou's captain, Seijuurou phoned Tetsuya.
They agreed on a place to meet. Seijuurou cancelled lunch with his team; Tetsuya had to do likewise.
The cafe Seijuurou had chosen was a good distance from both Seirin High School and the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, but nevertheless he was cautious, and had them sit in a booth at the back of the room, well hidden from prying eyes.
Tetsuya ordered a milkshake and a ham and cheese sandwich. Seijuurou ordered coffee.
“You should eat something,” Tetsuya said.
“Later.” Seijuurou looked at the table between them. Having lunch with Tetsuya seemed like such a distant and unfamiliar ritual. In the early days of their club it had been a habitual and daily practice for all of them. By the end of their third year Seijuurou had preferred to eat alone, only tolerating Atsushi or Shintarou's presence sometimes.
While they were waiting for the drinks, Tetsuya said: “I think we may be the only ones who are affected. At least neither Kagami-kun nor anyone else from Seirin seem to have any recollection of yesterday's game -- I mean today's game.”
As always, Seijuurou felt inexplicably annoyed hearing about Kagami-kun. “I agree. There's no evidence that any of my Rakuzan teammates seem to be experiencing the same repeated events as us. What remains to be done is ascertaining the reasons this has occurred and how to stop it from continuing.”
Playing against Seirin had been entertaining the first time and even the second, but while it was unlikely that Seijuurou would tire of making Kagami fall down on the key any time soon, he took no pleasure in the thought of repeating the encounter between their schools indefinitely. Particularly since it involved watching Hayama repeat the same inane mistakes on the court, over and over again.
Not to mention, eating that particular flavour of cucumber pickles for breakfast three times in a row was getting most tedious.
“We appear to be in a time loop,” Tetsuya said. “In books and stories, time loops resolve when a fated event goes wrong, or fails to occur. Our task is to find out where....” he hesitated fractionally, “destiny has gone wrong, and to correct it.”
“Well, the most obvious aberration of fate was already fixed in yesterday's version of events.” Their drinks arrived; Tetsuya began sipping on his milkshake. “And yet the state of affairs continues.”
“You mean the fact that Seirin won the final.”
Seijuurou pointedly did not answer. After all, his loss on that first day – that first iteration of the time loop, rather, had already been erased.
“Akashi-kun, the space-time continuum of the universe did not go awry simply because you lost a game.”
“Can you think of an explanation less preposterous than mine?”
Tetsuya could not. Seijuurou invited a lull in the conversation by summoning a waitress over and ordering his meal. By all appearances they had all the time in the world to think about their predicament.
Far too much time.
They attended the third-place playoffs together that afternoon. While it was unlikely that Shintarou or Ryouta were involved in the events gone awry, all factors had to be considered.
Tetsuya was checking Oha Asa on his mobile as they sat down in the uppermost row of seats, well out of the sight of their respective teammates.
“I didn't think you cared for astrology,” said Seijuurou, surprised.
“I don't in the slightest.” Tetsuya didn't look up as he replied. “On the other hand, I didn't believe in time loops either.”
“You have a point there.” Seijuurou glanced at Tetsuya's cellphone screen. “5th for Cancers, 12th for Geminis. It appears fate – as defined by Oha Asa, at least – has little interest in overturning the outcome of this game.”
“I'm a little worried about Kise-kun.” They knew from the previous two iterations that Ryouta would remained benched for the entire playoff. Even at a distance they could see Ryouta's forced smile, as he cheered his teammates on.
“Ryouta needs to learn his limits. And he will.” Seijuurou had observed Ryouta's gait for himself yesterday (three days ago now), as the small forward was escorted off the court by his teammates; he'd seen the pain in Ryouta's face, physical as well as psychological, and the weakness in his muscles. “The strain on his legs is reversible enough. But not reversible in time for today.”
Kuroko's cellphone sounded again. A WHERE ARE YOU from Aida Riko flashed across the screen.
“Tell her something urgent has come up,” Seijuurou instructed. Thanks to he and Tetsuya spending most of the afternoon discussion their predicament, the afternoon hadn't been nearly as tedious and repetitive as the morning had been. It was a relief experiencing some variation on events they were now living through for the third time.
Tetsuya frowned. “What if she sees us?”
“Then I'll deal with it,” Seijuurou said, just as his own cellphone rang – it was Reo, trying to find him. He gave a sigh. “Our teammates are certainly admirably concerned.”
Tetsuya answered Aida-san's message and put his mobile away. “Weren't you always like that at tournaments, Akashi-kun?”
“Naturally. I was captain. It was my responsibility.” Fielding Shougo's belated excuses, shutting down Atsushi's fits of childishness, making sure every club member was in proper place, making sure Nijimura-san didn't have to worry –
Tetsuya had been one of the few projects Seijuurou had undertaken because he wanted to, not simply because he was required to.
But he didn't have to think about Tetsuya or Shintarou or Daiki anymore. Rakuzan was different. Koutarou and Eikichi might have certain deficiencies in their intellect, but by and large they looked after themselves. And Reo kept the rest of the team in line.
No one at Rakuzan had ever challenged his authority.
Because...Seijuurou was the strongest.
Tetsuya was still looking at him. Emotions flickered in Tetsuya's eyes, mixed and muted but entirely recognisable.
As always, there was far too much feeling in Tetsuya. He'd learned to keep it hidden, to dim his own presence; after he and Daiki had parted, Tetsuya had even learned to seal it away.
And yet – there was always something of Tetsuya's inner heart in his face, in his voice, in his basketball.
Seijuurou had always been able to see Tetsuya's emotions. Even when he hadn't been particularly interested in knowing what they were.
By the fourth quarter Shuutoku was in the lead 60-41. There had been no deviation from the first two iterations of the match.
“This is certainly very....boring,” Seijuurou said, as Takao Kazunari drove past Kasamatsu-kun and then passed to Shintarou, who made his eighth three-pointer of the match.
Tetsuya didn't take his eyes off the court. “Since we're both in this time-loop, the event that needs to change should be something that requires actions to be carried out by both of us.”
“We've excluded simple win-loss outcomes as the critical deciding factor. Could it be something that needs to happen within the final game itself?”
“What kind of event?” asked Seijuurou.
“Well for starters, Kagami-kun didn't enter the Zone during the final.”
Seijuurou stared at Tetsuya. “I don't find it very likely that the space-time continuum of the universe takes a personal interest in Kagami Taiga's basketball development.”
“Do you have any better ideas, Akashi-kun?”
Seijuurou did not. He conceded: “It is worth pursuing in the absence of any other solutions. However, Seirin are difficult enough to keep in check without allowing Kagami to enter the Zone. You won't find me making any contributions to making this match harder for Rakuzan.”
“Even if we have to keep playing against each other forever?”
Seijuurou shrugged. “A battle is a battle.”
“I suppose you're right,” Tetsuya said, as they watched Ootsubo make the final dunk of the Kaijou-Shuutoku match. For the third time.
There was of course no way to manipulate a player into entering the Zone. At best, one could set up favourable conditions.
Tetsuya's idea of setting up favourable conditions appeared to involve having Kagami go one-on-one against Seijuurou as many times as possible, again and again and again.
What a costly tactic. For an entire eight minutes of gameplay Seijuurou entertained himself making Kagami Taiga land bottom-first on the court surface, while Reo scored three-pointers and Eikichi managed rebound after rebound.
Then, in the third quarter, it happened. One moment Kagami was dribbling the ball, brow furrowed, Seijuurou standing ready to intercept him, watching every minute action of Kagami's body, then the next moment--
Kagami moved past Seijuurou.
Ankle Break became completely useless against Kagami after that. In fact, the Emperor Eye barely worked.
Rakuzan won anyway. Somehow.
Akashi went to bed that night unsure whether to thank Tetsuya or murder him for making things too interesting.
At least replaying the final against Seirin hadn't yet become tedious.
This time when he woke up he elected to reach for last month's issue of Basketball Monthly, lying on his bedside table. Then he rolled up the magazine, stood up on the bed, and thwacked the fly dead.
Then he summoned Uchihara and asked her to dispose of the fly-corpse stain on the ceiling.
In the dining hall he said to the butler on stand-by: “Can you take this back to the kitchen? I'd like Sano-san to prepare something different for breakfast.”
The butler was exquisitely well-trained; still, there were tell-tale signs of utter shock on his face. “As you wish, Seijuurou-sama. May I inquire if there was anything undesirable about your meal?”
“The food appears perfectly palatable. I'm just sick of cucumber pickles,” replied Seijuurou. “With due apologies to Sano-san, can you ask her for a Western breakfast instead, please? Waffles would be excellent.”
This time the butler didn't bother to hide his astonishment. “Very well, Seijuurou-sama.”
Fifteen minutes later Seijuurou was helping himself to a stack of waffles that were warm, fluffy, golden-brown, and most importantly, not rice with cucumber pickles. Even if he couldn't fix the problem of living the same events over and over again, he could at least make changes to alleviate the tedium of endless reiteration.
After breakfast he put on his jacket and – after reassuring multiple members of the household staff that no, he did not require the chauffeur, and yes, he would be back this evening, and no, he would not get lost in the middle of Tokyo, the city where he had spent his entire childhood, he managed to escape to the closest subway station.
He'd just made it through the turnstile gates when his mobile beeped indicating a text message from – as expected, Tetsuya. What are you doing now?
Seijuurou stared at the words for several seconds before thumb-typing a reply: Nothing.
He was on a subway car, hanging on to a handrail and maintaining equidistance from respectively a group of university-aged girls and a stooped elderly man wielding a cane – Seijuurou only ever took the Tokyo Metro during off-peak hour, in order to evade the sardine-in-a-can experience – when Tetsuya messaged once more: Can we talk while you're doing nothing, then?
He didn't recall Tetsuya having this sarcastic streak back at Teikou. It was a shame Tetsuya wasn't exempt from the general deterioration in personality that had affected all of his former companions. Still, there were worse people to be stuck in a time loop with. Seijuurou tried to imagine repeating the last three days (the last one day three times, rather) in the company of Daiki or Ryouta and could not repress a visible shudder.
Reluctantly, he mentally cancelled his plans to visit his usual shougi salon and agreed instead to meet Tetsuya at a public library.
He found Tetsuya hidden away amid the stacks, lost in a book.
“Edogawa Rampo again?” he asked, prompting Tetsuya to look upwards, startled, from where he was sitting on the carpet. “I thought you'd finished reading just about everything Edogawa-sensei had written.”
“I felt like rereading his short stories,” said Tetsuya, exhibiting what in anyone else would have been a flush. With Tetsuya it was almost more the sense of slight embarrassment he emanated, rather than any giveaway tic or gesture or change of expression, that revealed the truth of his emotions. “I suppose I shouldn't have been wasting time.”
“I didn't say you were wasting time,” said Seijuurou, but Tetsuya had already folded his book shut and was standing to his feet.
Tetsuya looked tired; there were faint shadows beneath his eyes. His stamina had always been one of his weaker points. Seijuurou hadn't yet ascertained what effect the time loop was having on their physical and mental health, but given the degree of psychological strain that Seijuurou himself was experiencing, no doubt Tetsuya was feeling the stress as well.
“Shall we take the day off?” he suggested.
Tetsuya blinked at him. “Akashi-kun?”
“I can think of no good possibilities as to what would break this time loop, and judging from your demeanour, neither can you. Given that, the best thing for us to do right now would be to rest our minds so that we are mentally prepared to come up with a better plan.”
“I... wouldn't mind,” said Tetsuya.
“Well then.” Seijuurou considered what they could do for leisure. “Do you ride horses?”
“Not at all.”
“Do you play shougi?”
“I played with my grandfather once. I lost miserably.”
“I don't know the rules.”
“I'm an extremely mediocre player.”
“Ah,” said Seijuurou.
“We could watch a movie,” Tetsuya suggested.
Seijuurou stared at him for several seconds, and when Tetsuya's expression didn't budge, gave a sigh. “I suppose we could.”
It was nearly dusk by the time they came out of the cinema. The street was darkened and grey, and their fellow movie-goers milled out around them like a scattering mist, dissipating into the expanse of the city.
“It was a good film,” said Tetsuya.
Seijuurou paused infinitesimally before saying, “It was.”
But Tetsuya, perceptive as ever, had already picked it up; his eyes clouded over. “You didn't enjoy it.”
This endless dance with Tetsuya, of observation and perception and reading between the lines: Seijuurou had always surprised himself with how much patience he held for the delicate choreography of their interactions. It was safe to say that if it had been anyone else, Seijuurou would have run out of forbearance long ago.
“It passed the time,” Seijuurou said.
“We could have chosen something we both enjoyed,” insisted Tetsuya.
“Well,” Seijuurou answered, “I didn't know whether I was going to enjoy it until we watched the film.”
He hadn't been to the cinema in years. The last time had been with Shintarou, shortly after their second national title.
He'd let Tetsuya select the film. Tetsuya had chosen a period drama set in the Meiji Era, about the cares and heartbreaks of an ageing merchant in the final months of his life. It had been a sensitive and moving portrayal, as far as those things went. Seijuurou merely had very little interest in works of entertainment whose prime value was emotional.
He felt a change in the air, and looked across at Tetsuya to see a small smile playing about the other boy's lips.
“Understood, Akashi-kun,” he said, as they emerged onto the pavement, into the cool air of the late afternoon. “Next time I'll make sure we watch a movie in which the protagonist is more victorious over his circumstances.”
“Your sense of humor has grown rather more warped since our time at Teikou.”
They had walked together several metres along the pavement before Tetsuya answered, “Yes.”
There it was again. The fine tension in the brow, the restrained expression in his eyes – Seijuurou had grown adept at ignoring Tetsuya's unhappiness when they were at Teikou together, but it had been over a year since he was Tetsuya's captain and Seijuurou was out of practice.
He was about to respond when Tetsuya spoke first: “It's nearly time for our match.” He looked up at Seijuurou, a question in his face.
Seijuurou smiled. “Then we should keep our mobile phones switched off.”
They took the Tokyo Metro over to Asakusa and wandered around the shops, eventually stopping for coffee and a milkshake. Tetsuya was still worrying about their teams.
“They'll be looking for us,” he fretted.
“And in ten hours, they'll have forgotten this ever happened.” Seijuurou carefully stirred a packet of sugar into his espresso. “In fact, for them it will never have happened.”
“In the event the time loop resolves itself...”
“It won't have. Trust me, Tetsuya, I'm never wrong.”
“...You're not,” Tetsuya conceded.
There remained a sense of words purposefully left unsaid. Seijuurou asked, “But?”
“Not being wrong doesn't always mean you're right.” Tetsuya fiddled with his straw. “I thought a lot about it after I left the club. About everything you said. Before you changed, and after.”
“I didn't change,” Seijuurou corrected. This again? How many times were they destined to circle around the same ideas? “I've told you this before.”
“You changed,” disagreed Tetsuya, soft but insistent. “You all changed.”
In the past he had silenced Tetsuya with speeches, shut him down with finely sharpened attacks of logic. But Tetsuya was no longer Seijuurou's player to lead, nor to guide.
“Do you want us to return to being children?” he asked. “Is that where all your questions and all of your growth have brought you? Longing for a time that can never come back to us again?”
“It's not that,” Tetsuya said. ““I'm content to be Seirin's Kuroko Tetsuya. More than that, I take pride in it.”
As he heard Tetsuya's words, Seijuurou felt the rightness of them, the sense that things had turned out as they should be. As he had predicted.
Even so, he felt displeased. He was not sure why. He tasted his drink; it was still bitter. He added another packet of sugar: four grams carbohydrate, sixteen calories, glycaemic index 68.
On the other side of the table, Tetsuya had almost finished his milkshake; he was using his soda spoon to scoop up the remainder of the white sweetened froth.
“I'm not sure how long I can keep doing this,” Tetsuya said.
Now his espresso was too sweet. “By 'this' I assume you refer to the time loop.”
“There used to be a time when I didn't believe I'd be able to hold my own against you on the court at all. Now I've done it three times.”
“You have,” Seijuurou acknowledged. Credit had to be given where it was due. Tetsuya had played, and as always, he had exceeded Seijuurou's expectations, and he had even--
“The first time we met at the finals, Rakuzan lost,” Tetsuya said.
Seijuurou breathed. Fury went through him, that killing desire, the need to obliterate everything that stood in his path, everything that threatened his existence--
Even if it was Tetsuya--
Even if it was Seijuurou's very self--
“Akashi-kun.” Tetsuya's eyes were gazing straight at him, filled with palpable worry. It was the same look Tetsuya had given him back when he'd asked two years ago: Who are you?
“I'll see you tomorrow,” he said, and went to the counter to pay for their drinks without waiting for Tetsuya's response.
The next day, Tetsuya won.
In contrast with Tetsuya he was finding every repetition of their day progressively smoother. Each event and consequence that occurred became increasingly familiar, and easier therefore to plan for. The bluebottle fly would flit in that direction, Uchihara-san would react thus, Reo would call at this time.
It was only the basketball that remained different, and challenging, every time. Like Daiki, Kagami Taiga was not the sort of player who could be defeated just with foreknowledge. And Tetsuya.
Tetsuya never gave up.
It was the second time Seijuurou had done this, and the platitudes that one spoke on such occasions came easier to his lips – words he did not believe in, that he had never before been required to say. He was not a captain such as Kasamatsu or Ootsubo, forced to salvage conviction in the face of defeat.
Shirogane-sensei would have--
Nijimura-san would have--
He had been entrusted with the task of victory and he had failed.
The trophy he accepted as he stepped forward on behalf of Rakuzan was silver. For a moment the color seemed utterly unfamiliar to his eyes, as if such a shade had never existed before.
Seirin came forward to receive their prize, the glow of their success adorning every face. Seijuurou still recalled that first evening, that evening he'd thought had been a dream, an impossible nightmare. He remembered the happiness that had covered Tetsuya's entire person.
He'd never seen Tetsuya wear that expression at Teikou.
Tetsuya was still joyful tonight, a little disbelieving, but before he turned to celebrate he turned to look at Seijuurou.
Not with pity, which was just as well, because Seijuurou would never have forgiven pity. But with concern, which was only a shade better.
When he got home that night he noticed there were three emails from Tetsuya on his phone. He was tempted to ignore them. But they had not solved the mystery of the time loop, and there was no way of telling whether it was broken, and if the loop continued then Tetsuya's words would be lost.
He unlocked his phone and examined the messages one by one.
Thank you. For the game, and for everything.
I do not know.... what the right thing to say is.
Can we meet you tomorrow? Regardless of whether it's the 29th or the 30th I would like to see you.
His thumb hovered over the Trash button in his Inbox. Hesitated.
Leaving Tetsuya's emails intact, he placed his cellphone in its charger and then went to bed.
Morning. Bluebottle fly on the ceiling; Seijuurou chose to ignore it. He ate breakfast without comment: rice, pickles and all. The moment he was finished he called Tetsuya.
“Akashi-kun.” Tetsuya's voice was surprised when he picked up.
“You wanted to see me today.” Seijuurou went up the staircase and back to his own room. The fly was still buzzing around. He drew the curtains and opened a window.
“Well then.” Seijuurou picked up his copy of Basketball Monthly, and with a few deft flicks chased the bluebottle out the window. “Do you know the way to my house?”
Seijuurou did not make a habit of inviting classmates to his home. Shintarou had come over a few times, and Atsushi once, but beyond that none of the Teikou basketball club members had ever visited the Akashi main house. Seijuurou had always disliked the wide-eye stares of his school mates as they entered the mansion, the way they gazed in awe at the high ceilings and the furnishings and mounted artworks.
Tetsuya was ushered in by a butler, and stood in the main hallway at first, looking around.
“Your home is beautiful,” he said in honest admiration.
The sentiments that Seijuurou usually found sycophantic and mawkish when spoken by other people somehow seemed acceptable when Tetsuya was the one expressing them. Seijuurou was even a little pleased at the way Tetsuya paused to look at the sculptures in the corridors, by the delight in Tetsuya's eyes as Seijuurou showed him the private library with its ceiling-high shelves, packed to the brim with hardcover volumes.
“I can leave you here to browse, if you'd like,” Seijuurou offered.
Tetsuya shook his head. “No. I wanted to talk.”
He had more than an inkling as to what Tetsuya wanted to talk about. It was nearly always the same things with Tetsuya. Seijuurou did prefer to stall on those conversations as much as possible, but given that they had been reduced to reliving the Winter Cup over and over again, there probably wasn't much point to further avoidance.
He said: “Very well, Tetsuya. We can talk.”
“I'm not sure how much longer I can go on like this,” Tetsuya admitted. They had retired to one of the smaller sitting rooms; the windows faced south-east, and a soft winter light was filtering in through the lace curtains.
“You said that two days ago,” pointed out Seijuurou. “We're both still here.”
“Don't you think there must be some purpose to this happening to us?”
Seijuurou narrowed his eyes. “You're fishing, Tetsuya. Say it directly if you must. You think that the purpose of his time loop has something to do with Teikou's philosophy of victory, and you expect it to be broken by my experiencing some epiphany about enjoying basketball that will give meaning to all those months you spent wandering in circles after you left the club.”
Tetsuya looked down at the table. “...you're as cruel as ever, Akashi-kun.”
A maid arrived carrying mugs of hot chocolate and a tray of sugar biscuits. Seijuurou handed Tetsuya his mug. Tetsuya took it in both hands, studying the steam that rose up from it.
Tetsuya said: “Do you always have to speak the truth in the harshest possible way?”
“Should I have appeased you with false reassurances and insincere compromises when no such thing was possible? Victory is the bottom line, Tetsuya.”
“I don't believe you.”
“I am well aware of that.”
“That's not what I mean. I don't believe that's what you believe.”
Seijuurou stared back at Tetsuya. “I would suggest you don't confuse faith with fantasy.” He pressed his lips together. “I am tired of you expecting me to be someone I'm not.”
“I'm not,” Tetsuya insisted, stubborn. “All I ask is for you to be who you are. The entirety of who you are.”
Tetsuya's phone rang and he answered it, pulling it out of his satchel. It was Kagami Taiga; Seijuurou could hear his gruff voice coming from Tetsuya's cellphone speakers. Tetsuya's face lit up as he spoke to Kagami-kun. He'd never looked this happy at Teikou, except maybe in the very early days. And even then, Daiki and Satsuki had played the greater part in Tetsuya's happiness.
It didn't matter to Seijuurou whether Tetsuya was happy or not.
Seijuurou finished drinking his chocolate and when the phone call was ended he stood up, nodding coolly at Tetsuya.
“You have found somewhere you can play your own style of basketball, Tetsuya,” he said. “Don't try to interfere with mine.”
That should have been a strong a hint as any for Tetsuya to go home, but Tetsuya was being unusually obdurate today. He insisted on staying for the rest of the morning. Sano-san was delighted at the prospect of cooking for a guest. The servants were equally delighted to have an extra person to wait on and attend to.
Seijuurou was not so thrilled. He'd informed Reo that he would not be joining the Rakuzan team for lunch, but exactly what were he and Tetsuya meant to do to pass the intervening time?
“We'll play cards,” Tetsuya decided.
“You'll lose,” Seijuurou warned darkly.
He beat Tetsuya at three rounds of War and then they moved on to cribbage. Tetsuya might be the inferior player but his skill at hiding his thoughts was as consummate as ever. Even Seijuurou couldn't read Tetsuya once the other boy truly closed away his emotions.
Emotions had always been Tetsuya's weakness, of course.
Seijuurou won the first game. Tetsuya agreed to another. They were halfway through when they were called to lunch.
“Should we continue afterwards?” Tetsuya asked. Uchihara-san had come to collect the scattered deck and the cribbage board.
“The result won't change, you know,” Seijuurou said. “What purpose is there in continuing?”
“I didn't come here today in order to defeat you, Akashi-kun.” They headed through the corridors towards the dining hall.
“Good, because that's impossible.”
“It's not impossible,” Tetsuya countered. “Have you forgotten that we're in the middle of a time loop?”
Seijuurou curled his lip. “Unlikely, then.”
“I came here to be with you.” They entered the dining hall and Tetsuya sat down at the table, leaving Seijuurou stunned still for a moment.
“What do you mean,” he asked, once he'd taken his seat as well. The butler served them a salad.
“I came to spend time with you. I believe it's what friends do.”
“We're not friends,” Seijuurou said.
“Yes, we are.”
Seijuurou firmly speared a slice of tomato with his fork. “If you want to discuss strategies for breaking the time loop, I have time for that. If you're just looking for a sense of camaraderie, I believe Seirin meets those needs of yours admirably.”
Far better than Seijuurou ever could.
“Do you remember the fireworks at the summer festival? In our second year?” Tetsuya asked softly.
Fleetingly there appeared in Seijuurou's mind the crackle and hiss of colored light, the smell of grass and gunpowder, the quiet delight in Tetsuya's face as he stood with Daiki and Satsuki and watched the brilliant patterns in the night sky.
“I thought you'd already acknowledged the futility of wishing we could go back to the past,” said Seijuurou.
“Can't I hope for a future?” asked Tetsuya. “Is that too much to want?”
“The future does not appear to want us. Shall I remind you that this is the sixth day running that it's been the 29th of December?”
“And because of that, here we are. Speaking to each other, for the first time in years.” Tetsuya looked across at him. “Akashi-kun, I believed that your ideals of victory were wrong. Proving my own way of basketball was part of why I kept going. But I also wanted to play against all of you again. Because I missed playing basketball with everyone at Teikou. I didn't dream at first that I could face the rest of you on the court. But thanks to Kagami-kun....thanks to Seirin...” Tetsuya trailed off.
He felt angered when Tetsuya mentioned Seirin, and did not know why. He quashed the emotion, but it still took effort to keep his voice steady. “You and your team are still my most worthy opponents, Tetsuya. I thank you for that, if nothing else. Nevertheless, if you're happy with Seirin, why are you still looking to me for some nebulous hope that I can't fulfil? I thought we were past the point where you needed me to soothe your anxieties and appease your moral qualms.”
“You never appeased me,” said Tetsuya. “If there's one thing you're absolutely no good at, Akashi-kun, it's at placating people.”
“On this point at least we are in agreement.”
“But we're still friends.”
“I shall await the invitation to eat nutritionally deficient burgers and to hold hands at the park, then.”
“You're angry,” Tetsuya said softly.
As usual Tetsuya was as perceptive as ever. But it also meant that Seijuurou was not doing as good a job as he would have liked of concealing his frustration.
“We have what we all wanted,” he said. His salad lay on its plate virtually untouched. “We've moved past Teikou. We've moved beyond the Generation of Miracles.”
“Have we truly moved on?” asked Tetsuya.
A butler brought in the main course. It was going to be a very long meal.
Following mutual agreement they decided to play in the final again. Despite the sense that they were unlikely to learn anything from further repeats, it was deeply ingrained in both of them that matches should not be skipped. Even matches that they'd already participated in. Over and over again. Choosing not to play tonight would only result in them feeling restless and uneasy.
Surprisingly, Seijuurou was looking forward to playing Tetsuya again. Despite everything.
And besides, Reo did keep messaging for updates and Tetsuya had received at least four calls already from various members of Seirin. Short of switching off their cellphones and disappearing into the city again, it was unlikely that they'd be able to escape from their respective teams.
Seijuurou's cellphone beeped again after they'd finished dessert, as they were on their way upstairs.
He pulled his phone out of the pocket of his pants with a sigh.
It was from Tetsuya. Seijuurou's eyes widened as he took in the words.
When we were in second year, I had a crush on you.
Tetsuya was still holding his mobile phone. He had paused on the landing in between flights of steps, and his eyes when he looked at Seijuurou were as guarded as they'd ever been.
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Seijuurou, studying the other boy with curiosity. He wasn't entirely sure how to feel about the revelation. When he thought back to their second year – well yes, there had been some hints, but for the large part they had been unimportant and fleeting moments in comparison with the long and drawn out tale that Tetsuya and Daiki's partnership had been: its rise and its fall.
“We're still in the dark as to how to solve this time loop,” said Tetsuya. “This is the one thing I could think of that that we haven't resolved yet. Well, besides the fact that there are two Akashi-kuns, and that you won't admit that there's any point to basketball besides winning. But I feel even the space-time continuum of the universe will concede defeat on those two scores eventually.”
Really, how had Tetsuya grown so mouthy? Shouldn't someone as romantic and idealistic as Tetsuya manage to stage a more charming love confession?
Seijuurou paused, thinking. “Okay, then. It's certainly worth the attempt.”
“Worth that what?” Tetsuya asked, as he followed Seijuurou up and into his room.
“A verifiable hypothesis where empirical testing is possible. It's an improvement over your vague blathering about teamwork and enjoying basketball. Sit down.” He laid a hand on Tetsuya's shoulder and pressed down gently; obediently, the other boy sat down at the edge of the bed.
As Seijuurou moved to sit beside him, Tetsuya said. “Akashi-kun, this is not how I pictured my first kiss.”
“Given that your dream first kiss probably involved a game of street basketball and a date at Maji Burger and a sunset overlooking a beach somewhere, I'm sure this is very far from your ideal situation. Nevertheless. Close your eyes.”
Without shutting his eyes, Tetsuya said in an irritated tone: “I'm not in love with Kagami-kun.”
Seijuurou paused. “I see.”
“You're stalling on this.”
“I told you I had a crush on you and you tried to imply that I was interested in someone else.” Tetsuya frowned at Seijuurou.
“Given that your use of past tense was marked and deliberate, I feel it's not such a far-flung conclusion to assume that you've moved on.” Seijuurou pressed his lips together. “But I can see that you need some mental preparation. Should I give you a minute?”
Tetsuya bit his lip and then he said. “You never gave me a choice except to move on. You never gave any of us the choice. You didn't want friends, you didn't want teammates. All you wanted were opponents.”
“That's right,” said Seijuurou. “That's still what I want.”
“I hoped that winning against you--”
“Would induce in me some kind of magical personality change? That's a new level of naivete even coming from you, Tetsuya.” The other boy did not reply, and Seijuurou continued speaking. “You decided you liked me because I smiled and I gave you hope for your basketball, and you've always been remarkably emotionally susceptible to people who treat you with kindness.”
“Is it so wrong,” Tetsuya was holding himself still and tense now, although there was an angry spark in his eyes, “to have admired you because you were beautiful and kind? I never asked from you more than what you offered, Akashi-kun.”
That was true; that was fair. “You did not,” Seijuurou acknowledged. “However, this was your idea. Do you want to go ahead with it?”
Tetsuya nodded mutely. Briefly, Seijuurou studied his lips. The mechanics of this seemed simple enough, but still--
He ended up placing his arms around Tetsuya's shoulders and pulling him in. It had been a long time since he'd been in that much physical proximity to another person. Nobody ever touched Seijuurou without permission, be it teacher or servant, kouhai or relative. And Seijuurou never gave permission.
He tilted his head and kissed Tetsuya's mouth. There was the faint scent of the apples they'd eaten for dessert. Within his arms Tetsuya was tense at first, then gradually calmer, leaning into Seijuurou's body.
Seijuurou was just wondering whether they should stop there when he felt Tetsuya's arms snake around him.
They ended up flat on the bed, Tetsuya lying on top, running kisses down Seijuurou's neck quietly but with a persistence that was – well, Seijuurou would have said it was extremely presumptuous except that Seijuurou was for some reason allowing all of this to go on.
“We should stop there,” he said, forcing himself to ignore the comforting pressure of Tetsuya's torso pressed to his, the feel of his skin. He reached out and touched the other boy's head. “Tetsuya.”
Tetsuya looked up and the expression in his eyes was hazy and distracted; Seijuurou was irrationally pleased that he'd made Tetsuya look like this.
“I think that's sufficient for hypothesis testing,” Seijuurou said. “Though I can see you're disappointed.”
Tetsuya blushed: bright red. “Akashi-kun--”
With a twist of arm and leg, Seijuurou flipped the two of them over, so that their positions were reversed.
He kissed Tetsuya again, tongue darting in, exploring his mouth until both of them were breathless again.
“If we ever get out of this time loop,” said Seijuurou, a little giddy, a little unsure of what he was saying, “we can continue this. If you want.”
Tetsuya played terribly that evening.
Not that Seijuurou did much better. He blamed Tetsuya entirely though. Tetsuya was the one who kept blushing, to the point where his misdirection was actually failing at times. Seijuurou kept getting distracted observing Tetsuya's inability to be invisible and then forgetting to mark Kagami.
The final score was a victory for Rakuzan with a miserable 55-53.
“Are you feeling ill, Sei-chan?” Reo said solicitously.
“Yeah, Akashi, I've never seen you actually suck before,” Hayama added. “Not that you aren't still awesome, of course, please don't kill me, you still want me to play at next year's Interhigh right?”
After an hour of endless mocking, Seijuurou was actually grateful when he woke up the next morning and found the bluebottle fly in its familiar spot on the ceiling.
At least he wouldn't have to live down last night's game.
Tetsuya called right after breakfast. Seijuurou picked up the phone, surprised by his own quickness.
“Tetsuya,” he said.
“Akashi-kun.” Tetsuya's voice was soft but steady. He'd heard this tone before, on the day of their graduation ceremony, the day Tetsuya declared that he would not run away any longer. “I have something to tell you. We don't have to meet in person, but can we talk now?”
“I'm in my room,” Seijuurou said, and waited.
On the other side of the line Tetsuya took a slow quiet breath. “I don't agree with the way you play basketball. And you don't agree with the way I play basketball. Maybe that's something that will never change.”
“Yes,” said Seijuurou. Fleetingly last night he had thought about the possibilities: if he could agree with Tetsuya about basketball, the way Tetsuya and Daiki had, once upon a time, the way Tetsuya and Kagami Taiga did.
But there was no point speculating on the impossible.
“But that doesn't have to stop us from being friends.”
“Is that what you want?” Seijuurou asked coolly. “My friendship.”
Tetsuya answered in a small voice: “You know I want a lot more than that. If you'll give it.”
“I'm not saying no,” Seijuurou said. He could feel his own heartbeat in his ears. “Tell me what you want.”
“When we get to the 30th of December,” said Tetsuya, “I want a date with you.”
“Okay.” Seijuurou was smiling, and knew that Tetsuya could hear the smile in his voice.
“And I want to kiss you again.”
“And Seirin's going to win tonight.”
“Now you're getting greedy,” Seijuurou said with amusement. “You can try, Tetsuya. I'll see you on the court tonight.”
It was the seventh day, the sixth game. Seijuurou walked onto the court and replayed everything that had been done and tried and learned, every move Tetsuya had made, every response Seijuurou had devised.
Near the opposite hoop, he knew, Tetsuya was doing the same.
Tip-off. Kagami Taiga got the ball for Seirin, and then they were moving, Rakuzan going on zone defense, Tetsuya sending the ball across the key fast and true.
Even after all these repetitions, playing against Seirin, playing against Tetsuya, still wasn't boring.
Perhaps it would never be boring.
Depending on how one looked at things, it was either his first or third time ever losing a game.
Losing did not appear to be one of those things that became any easier with practice.
Morning. No bluebottle fly on the ceiling. An inspection of the walk-in closet revealed that the servants had laid out a pair of black jeans and a blue oxford shirt. Breakfast was Bircher muesli and yoghurt.
The time loop was over. He still didn't truly know what had broken it, whether it was that final loss or whether the universe had finally taken pity on them. Or whether it was the newfound feeling for Tetsuya he'd discovered within himself.
Tetsuya. He picked up his mobile and dialled. The phone hadn't even reached the second ring when Tetsuya picked up.
“Akashi-kun,” he said wonderingly.
“Do you still want them?” asked Seijuurou. “The things you asked me for yesterday?”
“I thought-- you might have changed your mind,” said Tetsuya. “After last night. Or that you'd only said yes because we were stuck and couldn't get out--”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes,” said Tetsuya.
“Very well,” said Seijuurou, checking the time on the closest wall clock. “Do you want to meet for dinner or for lunch?”
“Could we do both?”
“We could,” Seijuurou said, feeling a little surprised at how last night's loss, though bitter, seemed more distant and less important than it should have been. “I'll pick you up from your house.”
END, THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL