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Okay, last verse, you can do it! Konomi sang his very best (although the monitors could really have been a bit louder) and turned his body to match with the Atobe hologram. The conclusion of a successful Live always exhilarated him but it was tiring as well. After meeting with some fans, he was going to take a well earned snooze break.

Two, three, sparkle sparkle, "clasp" hands, and bow. Konomi reached out to the hologram, stepping a little backwards to get lined up properly.

Atobe grabbed his hand. Like holograms actually couldn't.

Before the shock of the contact could subside, Konomi felt the greater shock of being pulled into what looked like (and probably felt like, although he didn't have any first-hand experience) a whirlpool. It certainly whirled him around and around, although he could breathe just fine and it wasn't actually wet. Either way, it was not the concert finale he had been expecting. And Atobe was still holding his hand.

The whirlpool (or possibly vortex) dumped them out onto a concrete floor, which hurt Konomi's knees and got his special concert outfit all dusty. He was still blinking and trying to get his bearings when he heard Atobe speaking.

He's here," Atobe called. "Don't forget our agreement. My lawyers will definitely enforce it."

"I know, I know," an unfamiliar voice said. "I have to be your sarcastic butler for six months."

"Wacky butler," Atobe said. "Did you even read the contract?" A clattering sound outside got louder and louder. "It's going to take me a long time to get back to Australia, even with the Atobe helicopter and Atobe jet, so you had better be extremely wacky."

Atobe left the room before Konomi could even grab his hand. Not that Konomi knew if that would do any good, but at least Atobe was familiar. Or familiar on paper.

As the clattering noise – the Atobe helicopter, probably – faded away, Konomi got up and looked around. The room seemed familiar to him. It was clearly a club room at some school, and definitely a tennis club room, judging by the racquets and balls lying around.

Maybe he was dreaming about his own old school days, back in the tennis club. He hoped it wasn't going to be the dream where he was picking up balls with the other first years and then realised he was completely naked. It felt extremely real for a dream (for example his knees really fucking hurt) but there was no other explanation.

Then it hit him: he was actually standing in the Seigaku tennis club room. The placement of the window, the cubbies with equipment spilling out of them, it was exact. Well, this was a new dream, but hardly worth worrying about. Sooner or later, he would wake up, in bed at home, probably just before he had to do the whole exhausting concert.

"Come back here," the unfamiliar voice called.

Konomi thought he might as well, it was just a dream, so he headed back into the section of the clubroom he has never actually drawn. What would be back there? A shower area? More cubbies? The giant chicken from the dream he'd had last week?

It turned out to be more cubbies. More cubbies and a big office chair which he would never have drawn back there because it was ridiculous.

And there were people. Boys. In fact, his three first-year characters (comic relief and Greek chorus) Kachirou, Katsuo, and Horio Satoshi. He didn't usually dream about them either, although the giant chicken had had some mild resemblance to Horio. And what had he been thinking when he designed Kachirou's hair?

There was a flash and an odd creaking noise and something fell past the window.(There was another window here in the back.) Konomi stared but none of the boys paid any attention. They were all looking at him.

"Now?" Horio said. "Is it time now?"

"Thanks for killing the dramatic tension," the voice said. It was coming, unsurprisingly, from the big office chair. "You might as well do it now."

Horio scampered forward and turned the office chair around. Sitting in it, fingers steepled, was the second year club member, Arai.

Why were they all just minor side characters? It really sucked that Konomi was having this extremely realistic dream but he wasn't getting to meet any of his favourites.

"This isn't a dream," Arai said. "When you began to perform with your own characters, you weakened the boundary between our world and your world, pulling them through. So all we had to do was to get one of those characters to pull you back."

There was another crash outside and Konomi jumped. Once again, nobody else paid any attention. He turned back to Arai. "That can't be true. It doesn't make any sense."

Arai shrugged. "That's what the guy from Kakinoki told us. All the good data players in the region are in Australia at the Junior World Cup, so we had to talk to their data player. He doesn't even have a name!"

"How do I know it's not a dream?" Konomi was starting to get that sinking feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.

"I'm in charge of this area." Horio marched over to Konomi and pinched his arm really hard.

"Ow! Why did you do that?" That was going to leave a bruise. Now both his arms and his knees hurt. But it was pretty convincing. "Okay, you brought me here. Why?" Something crashed against the window, hard enough to crack the glass. "And what the hell is that?"

"The world is sort of crumbling apart?" Arai said. "The Kakinoki data guy said it was because someone kept opening small rips in time and space. I don't really understand it." Arai spun his chair around and called through a doorway. "Bring it in, boys!"

Through the doorway came two more players, Arai's usual pals, and they were carrying something that was covered by a sheet.

"You remember these two, don't you?" Arai said.

"That's Ikeda," Konomi pointed to the one with the freckles. "And I want to say...Furihata?"

"Hayashi," the other one grumbled. But he didn't actually look so sure either.

Another flash lit up the window and something that Konomi could have sworn was a tentacle smacked up against the glass, then slid away.

He shuddered. "So, you brought me here to fix the world?"

Arai shrugged. "When we go out, we wear helmets." He leaned forward, adjusted his headband, and re-steepled his fingers. "No. We want a spin-off."

"I thought Fujimaki was writing that."

"That's not about tennis!" Arai said.

"It's not?" Konomi said. "I haven't really read it yet."

"We want a proper spin-off. I will be the main character, of course," Arai said.

Horio squawked indignantly. He really was a lot like a chicken, Konomi thought. Probably best not to go too deeply into why.

"A proper sports series," Arai continued. "A rag-tag scrappy bunch of spunky underdog characters fighting for their chance at the Interhigh. I mean Nationals. No, the Interhigh. We also want to be in high school."

Konomi began to regret making Arai so self-aggrandizing. "And what if I refuse?"

Arai grinned. "Bring him out, boys."

Ikeda and probably Hayashi went back through the door and brought out another player, but this one was wearing a Hyoutei jersey.

"I'm sure you don't remember—"

"Taki Haginosuke," Konomi said. "He's in a lot of of merch."

"Anyhow," Arai said. He gestured to the second years and they pulled the sheet away to reveal a giant eraser. "If you don't cooperate, this will happen to you."

Ikeda picked up the eraser and headed for Taki, who was examining his nails. But Ikeda stopped and looked back at Arai. "I don't really want to..."


Hayashi shook his head. The first-years all looked off into various corners of the room, not meeting Arai's eyes.

"Okay, just let him go," Arai waved. Taki ambled off. "There's a beetle crawling up Horio's back we can use."

Horio squawked again and Konomi wondered for a moment whether chickens ate beetles. Hayashi picked up the beetle and put it in the middle of the floor.

Ikeda erased it. Just rubbed the eraser over it and it was gone, just like the girl manager Konomi had originally designed to help run the club.

"And that," Arai said, "is what will happen to you if you don't write our spin-off."

"But if you erase me," Konomi said, "what will happen to your world?"

Another tentacle slapped up against the window. Arai just stared at Konomi.

Konomi really wasn't that worried since they couldn't even bring themselves to erase Taki. But... "And if I agree you'll send me back?" He could probably pawn the spin-off onto Fujimaki anyway.

Before Arai could answer, there was a crash from the front room and Konomi scrambled back behind Arai's chair so that he wouldn't be the first to be crushed by the tentacle.

But, to Konomi's astonishment, a bunch of pirates ran into the room, waving their cutlasses menacingly and saying "Arr!" a lot.

"Arr!" one said a little louder than the others. "Hand over your valuables forthwith!"

Nobody else looked very panicked. "This happens a lot now," Arai said. "There are all these pirates in the sea all around Japan now, all the islands. And they're working their way further inland, collecting booty for their Pirate King. It started happening around the same times as the space-time problems." He turned to Hayashi. "It's your turn so pay up."

Hayashi pulled out his wallet and frowned. "I forgot and I spent all my money on melon bread at lunch."

The atmosphere in the room turned ugly. The main pirate grabbed Kachirou by the hair (which was probably at least partly Konomi's fault for giving Kachirou so much of it) and put his cutlass to Kachirou's throat. The others advanced with evil intent.

"Erase them!" Konomi said.

"There's too many of them," Arai said. "Most of us would be dead before we could use the eraser."

"Then use your special tennis moves!" Konomi yelled. "That always works!"

"Oh, we would, definitely," Arai said. "We'd use our special tennis moves right away. Only you never gave us any."

There was an awkward silence.

"Arr! It's serious I be!" the pirate threatening Kachirou said.

It was dire. Well, it probably wasn't too dire if Kachirou got killed. He wasn't in the main story any more and Konomi could probably just draw him back to life. But what about himself? If the pirates got to everyone else and then cut Konomi's throat, would he wake up at home or just be dead?

He had already used up pretty much all the special tennis moves he could think of on other players so it would take a long time to design any new moves for Arai and the others. He couldn't give up, though. What about his fans? He had to find a way out of the situation. He tried to think: what would Ryoma do?

"Horio!" he yelled. "Get me a pencil and paper!"

Horio dodged to one of the cubbies. "I have two years of drawing experience!" he said as he pulled out a pencil and a notebook, which Konomi recognized as one of Inui's, so the chances were slim there would be at any blank pages left. Horio ran them over and Konomi regretted ever thinking of him as a chicken.

Konomi flipped through the pages. The notebook was full of impenetrable diagrams, columns of figures, and repeated doodles of hearts and the initials "KK". (Konomi was sure he hadn't written that last part into the manga.) But in the back were a few blessedly clean pages. He balanced the notebook on the back of Arai's chair and rapidly began to draw.

He didn't have time for more than a quick sketch, but just as the Pirate was saying, "Arr! This be your actual last final warning for sure, I mean it this time," Konomi ripped out the page and dropped it on the floor.

And out of the drawing rose Echizen Ryoma, tennis racquet in hand.

Ryoma-kun!" Katsuo yelled.

Konomi tossed Ryoma a ball from a basket on the floor and Ryoma slammed a twist serve right into the pirate's face, knocking him out. Horio ran to help feed Ryoma balls and in short order all the pirates were down.

"Thanks for your help, Ryoma-kun," Konomi said. This was quite a special feeling for him, like meeting his own son. He held out his hand.

"Mada mada dane," Ryoma said and slouched his way out the door.

"Don't forget your helmet!" Kachirou called after him.

"Well, now you know how that feels," Arai said. "Are you going to draw the spin-off or are we going to erase you?"

"If I promise to draw the spin-off," Konomi said, "how will you send me back?"

"We'll send you back at the next Live. You'll go up with one of the characters."

"But if I'm here," Konomi said, "will there even be another Live?"

The look on Arai's face made Konomi think that he should have given Kakinoki a much better data player.

So he was stuck here. He could spend his time trying to make this decaying world liveable. Or... He opened the notebook again, to a fresh page.

"Horio," he called. "Two tennis racquets!" For this, he would need a sidekick.

Then Konomi licked his pencil and started to draw The Amazing Adventure of Space Tennis Ranger Konomi.