Rikkaidai Fuzoku was the largest school Ryoma had ever seen. Everywhere he went, the place seemed full of students in their green blazers and sky-blue ties, their chatter resembling a marketplace. His classroom was so long that he had to squint to read the kanji on the blackboard, and he wasn’t even sitting in the back row.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that the Rikkai tennis club was large as well, although it was far from being the largest he’d ever seen.
“That’s because it’s useless to join the tennis club,” one of his classmates told him. “It’s impossible to get on the regulars, everyone knows that.”
“Oh, really?” Ryoma fiddled with his cap.
“Definitely!” another boy piped up. “My older brother was in the club for three years, and he never got anywhere near the regulars. He said you need to be nationally-ranked to even consider trying out. We’re better off trying for the judo team, Ryoma, that’s meant to be really good as well – Ryoma? Hey, where did he disappear off to?”
There was a vending machine at the edge of the sports centre. Ryoma approached the machine, put two hundred yen into the coin slot and pressed the button labeled ‘Ponta – Orange.’ There was a series of clunks as the coins fell into the depths of the machine. No can of drink appeared.
He frowned, pressed the Ponta button a few more times, and then the coin return knob, but nothing happened.
“You won’t get your money back,” came a voice from behind Ryoma. Ryoma turned. A boy stood there, taller than Ryoma was, and wiry. His eyes were bright and too narrow at the edges.
“You must be a first-year,” said the boy. He seemed to notice the racquet bag Ryoma was carrying. “So you’re planning to join the tennis club? You’d better hurry up, they don’t like latecomers.”
He turned, expecting Ryoma to follow him. They walked towards the tennis court, the older boy chattering most of the way, unfazed by Ryoma’s silence. He introduced himself as Kirihara Akaya.
“The Ponta’s permanently sold out,” Kirihara explained. “So’s the Pepsi and the other sweet drinks. Sanada-fukubuchou set it up so it eats your money, if you try to get one. He did it after Yanagi-sempai said that 35% of the club members were drinking carbonated drinks during practice.” As he said this, they arrived at the courts. A good sixty or seventy students had already gathered there.
Ryoma blinked. “It’s yellow.”
Kirihara snickered. “Everyone says that. It’d be good if we could change the uniforms, but not even Yukimura-buchou can get the school colours changed, I don’t think--”
“Akaya.” They both turned. Ryoma tipped his baseball cap back, and looked up. The boy in front of them looked down at them. He was wearing a black cap that cast a shadow across his forehead and brows. “You’re late again.”
“Sanada-fukubuchou! Ehhh, I was just showing the newcomers around, and time slipped away--”
“Thirty laps. Now.”
“Well, when you put like that ... I guess I’ll see you later, kouhai.” Kirihara bounded down the steps and began to jog around the courts. Sanada frowned after Kirihara, before looking down once again.
A curious feeling came over Ryoma. It was something speaking from inside him, a voice he’d never heard before, and yet it felt as sure and certain as tossing a ball in the air to serve.
This guy is strong.
He won his first match, and then the second, and then the third. Was it really meant to be so hard? he wondered, making his way back to the booth to report his last win. None of his matches had been easy wins, but the victory had never been in doubt either.
The redheaded boy at the table was doodling little tennis players across the results sheet. “Hey, you won again? Not bad, kiddo. Although,” he snapped his bubblegum, “the next match might not be so easy. Niou! Stop torturing the first-years and get your ass over to Court C. You’ve got a match.”
When Niou lost 5-7, there was a palpable silence across the courts.
Ryoma was frowning as he came up to shake hands with the silver-haired boy. “You didn’t go all out,” he accused.
Niou looked back. His eyes were calm, clear, and, Ryoma thought, rather freaky. “Not completely,” he agreed. “But I played as hard as I usually play. Congratulations.”
The red-haired boy was not doodling when Ryoma approached the table once more. He was chewing on his lip, and looked distinctly unhappy as he talked to the dark-skinned boy next to him. “Is that first-year really that good? Or was Niou just being careless?”
“Who knows? But Niou wouldn’t lose to just anyone, even if he were careless. Yagyuu must be furious.”
“It’s a total surprise. Even Akaya wasn’t a regular in his first-year. Hey, kid!” Ryoma found himself staring into wide, violet eyes. “My name’s Marui Bunta. One of these days, let’s have a practice game.”
On the third day of practice Yukimura appeared for the first time; their captain Yukimura, just out of hospital and flanked on either side by nurses.
Marui explained that Yukimura’s illness was why there was an extra spot on the regulars this year. “He can’t play, so there’s a reserve slot on the team. Although, he told us not to fill it unless there was someone good enough. But that’s not a problem, since you defeated Niou.”
Yukimura was thin and pale and very girly. Every club member seemed to stiffen and stand a little straighter as he walked past them.
He stopped in front of the regulars, and focused on Ryoma.
Ryoma felt like he was choking.
“You’re Echizen, right?” Yukimura smiled. “I’d like to see you play, so I can get a better idea of how you play. Renji, could you please go with Echizen to Court D? It'll be a one-set match."
After he’d lost 4-6 to Yanagi, Ryoma sat on the grass and breathed in and out heavily. In the absence of Ponta he drank mineral water in huge gulps.
“When was the last time you lost a game?” He turned and saw Yukimura sitting next to him, cross-legged.
Ryoma pulled his cap down, looked away. “I lose everyday,” he said.
“Oh? Is that so?” Yukimura’s eyes were like the reflection of a cloudless sky on still water. His arms were wasted and skinnier than a girl’s. He was incredibly strong. Ryoma couldn't compare it to anything else he'd ever seen.
Yukimura stood up; the moment passed. “Whether you win or lose, there’s something lacking in your tennis,” he said, and it was Yukimura’s turn to look away. “Until then, you’re not even worth defeating.”
“Buchou told you that? Ahh, don’t worry about it. Sometimes when he gets like that, nobody can understand him, not even Yanagi-sempai. All you need to do is play good tennis,” Kirihara leaned back against the bus seat and stretched like a cat.
“I guess so.” Ryoma listened to the warm, strangely soothing hum of the bus’s engine. Kirihara was staring out the window. He seemed more sober than usual; there was something edgy and faintly dangerous about him.
“I’m going to be the best player,” he said, eyes darkening. “I’m going to defeat buchou and fukubuchou and Yanagi-sempai and whoever it takes. I’ll crush you, too.” He was not looking at Ryoma, but there was no mistaking the tone in his voice. “You can try using your Split Step or whatever. I’m not going to lose to anyone ever again.”
“I won’t lose to you,” Ryoma said. “Don’t think it’s going to be so easy.”
Kirihara cuffed Ryoma on the shoulder, Ryoma shoved back, and matters degenerated in a progressively violent fashion for the next ten minutes. Eventually the fighting segued into talking.
Kirihara seemed to have embarrassing stories to tell about nearly every member in the club – and every regular, save for Yanagi and Yukimura – “well, I’ve got stories, but if they find out that I told you they’ll get revenge.”
Finally they grew tired of conversation and fell silent. As the drone of the bus continued, Ryoma found himself growing sleepier.
The next thing he noticed after he closed his eyes was someone tugging violently on his sleeve. “Hey, you boys! Wake up!”
Kirihara yawned. “Huh? Are we at Kakinoki yet?”
“We passed Kakinoki twenty minutes ago! You completely missed the stop.” The bus driver glared at Ryoma and Kirihara, who exchanged glances.
“Sanada-sempai will make us run a hundred laps tomorrow,” Ryoma said. He asked the driver: “Where are we now, then?”
The driver waved impatiently at the sign outside the bus. “It’s Seishun Gakuen, can’t you see? Kids are so troublesome these days.”
Kirihara pulled out his mobile phone and called Sanada as the bus drove off, leaving them on the sidewalk. “He’ll give us even more laps if we don’t call – Sanada-fukubuchou? We seem to have missed our stop and ended up somewhere else - hello? Looks like he hung up on me.” Kirihara put the cellphone back into his blazer. “Well, we might as well make the most of this opportunity, since we’re here—“
Ryoma wondered, sometimes, how Kirihara had managed to survive one year at Rikkai without Sanada forcing him to commit seppuku. It boded well for Ryoma’s future as a regular, since his own trespasses were minutiae by comparison.
They slipped past the school gates, and began walking through the school courtyard. “Seigaku’s captain is an incredible tennis player,” Kirihara was saying. “If it weren’t for Tezuka, Rikkai would have gone undefeated last year. I really want to play a match against him at Nationals.”
“I want to play him as well.”
“That won’t do. You’ll lose, and we’ve promised not to do that.”
“If he’s really that good, you won’t win either.”
“I won’t lose,” The tension was back again. For a moment Ryoma thought he saw a flash of red in Kirihara's eyes, but when he looked again, it was gone. “Ahh, here we are!”
The Seigaku tennis club seemed to be doing multiball drills of some kind. Ryoma watched in interest as players alternated back and forth, serving and receiving from different positions.
“They’re pretty good,” Kirihara said matter-of-factly. “Well, we have to find Tezuka!”
Ryoma noticed two older boys, one with square-rimmed glasses and another with a curiously flat haircut, staring at them. “Umm, Kirihara.”
“Excuse me,” said the boy with the flat haircut (he had bangs on his forehead as well, and it was one of the strangest hairstyles Ryoma had ever seen). “May I ask who the two of you are? You don’t seem to be Seigaku students….”
Ryoma shrugged. As far as he was concerned, Kirihara could cover up for his own mistakes – the second-year was, after all, extremely experienced at the task.
He hadn’t expected Kirihara to scratch his head, smile sheepishly, and say, “Well, we’re from Rikkai and we were just planning to do some spying….”
Murmurs arose. “Investigate? What does he mean? What’s going on?”
Amidst the commotion, Ryoma looked over at the adjoining court and saw Tezuka. He could not have explained how he knew who Tezuka was; all he knew was that he looked up, and immediately knew that he was the one Kirihara was looking for.
“Hey,” he said, walking over to where the tall, spectacled boy stood. “You’re Seigaku’s captain, aren’t you?”
Kirihara disengaged himself from his interrogators and reached Tezuka at exactly the same time as Ryoma did. “Eh, you’re Tezuka! I’m Kirihara Akaya, Rikkai’s second-year ace. I’ve been wanting to have a match wi…”
“Get lost,” Tezuka said. He was about Sanada's height, but with a thinner build. He looked like the sort of person who did well in school. His eyes were narrow and intelligent, but there was something deeper there as well. “You are not members of this club.”
There was no mistaking it: strength, cool and clear, immoveable as the ocean.
Kirihara noticed it; there was a shift in his stance, a watchfulness. Although it didn’t overtake the other parts of his personality. “Come on, Tezuka, just one game. Don’t look so serious – you’re going to wear out your facial muscles, at this rate.”
The discussion rapidly went downhill from there.
An irate Seigaku club member tried to hit Kirihara with a ball, yelling something about disrespecting the captain. Kirihara dodged, and the ball headed straight for Ryoma’s face.
Fair game was fair game, Ryoma decided. He grabbed a nearby racquet and sent the ball flying back at the player.
Somehow, this resulted in a trolley of tennis balls being upended, three Seigaku club members lying unconscious on the ground, and a further five or six running around crying mayhem.
“Uh oh, we should get out of here,” Kirihara said, and he took hold of Ryoma’s arm. “Hey, Tezuka, don’t think this is over yet. I’m gonna crush you.” His voice was low, almost casual. Yet there was this tinge of something else to it, and or a moment Ryoma could see it: that Kirihara loved tennis, that he would do nearly anything to be the best at tennis, and Ryoma couldn’t understand this.
Still, he thought, watching Tezuka’s focus snap onto Kirihara, it wasn’t as if he had any intention of losing to anyone at tennis either. Defeating strong opponents is fun.
Tezuka looked straight at Ryoma. It was not a kind look, nor was it a cruel one.
“Come on, we gotta go,” said Kirihara, pulling Ryoma out of the commotion just as Tezuka ordered everyone to start running laps. “Better not to get involved in their politics, it’s dangerous. Even if it was kind of our fault…”
“What do you mean, our fault--”
“Well, if you hadn’t hit that guy in the head--”
“I didn’t expect him to be so slow at dodging.”
They approached a corner, arguing – and collided with someone. Ryoma rubbed his eyes and glanced up. It was a woman in late middle-age, stern-looking, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t looking where I was going – Echizen?”
Ryoma had already stood up, made a mumbled apology, was walking away. Behind he could hear Kirihara apologising.
“Oi, Ryoma!” he said a few seconds later, running to catch up. “Have you met that old lady before? She seemed to know you”
Ryoma shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Ah, with that crappy memory of yours, you’ve probably seen her somewhere and forgotten.” Kirihara shrugged it off. “Well, we should probably try and catch another bus.”
Kirihara fell asleep again en route to Kakinoki; Ryoma poured cold water down his neck when they got there.
Kirihara set a new record for the shortest match ever played at district preliminaries. “Take a look at that,” he smirked, thwacking Ryoma on the back with the flat of his racquet. Ryoma shrugged, and served twelve service aces in the following game to break the record again, only to have an irate Kirihara snatch it back in the finals.
“Kids these days,” Marui said, rolling his eyes. “Well, I guess your grade-school fights provide us with entertainment, if nothing else.”
Niou stopped halfway through trying to push Ryoma into the ground, and said, “You’re talking about immaturity?”
“Mature enough to know a futile battle when I see one,” Marui said loftily. “Being grown-up means being able to master alternative fighting techniques.” And he spat out his strawberry-red gum and stuck it onto Kirihara’s hair, and Kirihara howled and lunged at Marui, bowling Yagyuu and Jackal aside in the process, and how things would have progressed if Sanada hadn’t arrived at that moment, not even Yanagi could tell.
They scraped chewing gum off their fingers and clothes (Niou had, by this point, managed to infect everyone with strawberry); when they finally got themselves clean they piled into the bus and drove straight to the hospital, where Yukimura was staring out the window waiting for them, wearing the soft smile that Ryoma was beginning to dread.
He defeated Jackal for the first time in the final week of April, Yagyuu in the third week of May. It took him three tries to defeat Marui.
“If you can’t win against me, you’ll never be able to beat Akaya or Renji, let alone Yukimura,” he said, flinging another volley across the court. The ball struck the side-pole, bounced up, and flew diagonally in the opposite direction.
“Don’t you think you should be concentrating on yourself?” Ryoma said. “You’re going to lose if you don’t pay attention.”
The pole-striking technique was considerably more complex than the Tsunawatari; there were only limited circumstances under which Marui could make the ball run along the net, and the only variations possible were those of speed and distance. When the ball struck the pole, however, it seemed to veer off in totally random directions.
But there was a consistent rhythm to Marui’s footwork when he unleashed the technique, something unusual about the angle of his wrist--
This is fun, he thought, watching Marui serve.
They went through the Kanagawa prefectural tournament with a series of clockwork wins: 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. The only times they faltered were when Yanagi proved his sense of humor by first putting Kirihara, and then Ryoma, into doubles. Ryoma stumbled, hesitated, couldn’t feel the ball at all, and Niou remained silent, effortlessly covered for his mistakes as if they’d been partners for years.
Ryoma gritted his teeth, and the next time he was put in Singles Three he knocked the racquet out of his opponent’s hands four times with the Twist Serve.
“You’re improving too fast,” Kirihara said at the beginning of June. There was something nasty about his eyes. “Too bloody fast.”
Ryoma ignored him, put away his racquet, turned to leave the locker room. Kirihara grabbed the collar of his shirt. He twisted, drove his elbow into Kirihara’s stomach.
He met Sanada at the school gates. “Let me play Kirihara-sempai,” he said, staring up at the older boy, daring him to refuse.
Sanada cocked an eyebrow. “You’re not good enough yet.”
“You don’t know that until we try.”
Sanada seemed to be thinking. “You managed to seal Yagyuu’s Laser, didn’t you.”
“Yes,” Ryoma said. Although it’d taken him a while.
“Winning isn’t just a matter of defeating your opponent’s play style,” Sanada said, sweeping past Ryoma. “If you want to understand this, I will play a match against you tomorrow.”
“Here, take this; it might help.” Kirihara held out a can of grape-flavoured Ponta.
Ryoma twisted the can open. It was cold, and felt even colder on his sweat-drenched fingers. The sweetness fizzled on his tongue. “Thank you.”
“That’s how I felt too,” Kirihara said. He sat cross-legged on the bench. “After I lost to the three of them, my hands were shaking for the rest of the day. I don’t even remember how I got home.”
“Who was stronger?” Ryoma asked. “Sanada-sempai, or buchou?”
“Honestly? Their abilities might have been the same, as far as I could tell, but – buchou feels stronger. That’s all.”
“They’re scary.” But not as strong as him. Ryoma’s fingers tightened around the can until it was dented in three places.
Kirihara stared straight ahead. “You know,” he said, “I have to defeat those three. I’ll never get anywhere if I don’t. It’s like – I’m stuck here. Until I beat them – it feels as if I can’t play good tennis.”
“I know what you mean,” Ryoma said. Kirihara made a little noise of surprise in his throat. “I’m going to beat them too.” Because if he couldn’t defeat Sanada and Yukimura and that Tezuka, he’d never be strong enough to win against the old man.
Yukimura was in the garden when Ryoma arrived at his house. The place was overwhelmingly green – leafy tendrils that clung to the fence, the dark delicate needles of miniature firs, luxuriant grass running from flowerbed to flowerbed.
He found the captain sitting next to the hydrangeas, reading a book in English. When Ryoma handed him the practice reports Yanagi had prepared, he smiled. “So what is it, Echizen? You don’t live anywhere nearby; Renji wouldn’t ask you to come unless you’d volunteered yourself.”
“I wanted to ask,” Ryoma said, and hesitated. “Do you know how to control the spin on a ball so that no matter how the opponent hits, it will always return to you?”
Marui and Kirihara had repeatedly explained to him that nothing ever surprised Yukimura. “The Zone,” he murmured. “No. I’m afraid that’s not one of my specialties. However,” his smile sharpened. “I’ve devised a method of breaking the technique. Do you know why I’ve done that?”
He stared back at the captain. “….Because somebody you know uses it.”
“Full marks.” If Yukimura were a wolf, he would be baring his teeth. “Well, Ryoma? Do you want to know who that person is? Or should I describe to you the countermeasure?”
Ryoma scowled. All those sempai at the tennis club were so annoying. “Not at all,” he said, turning to walk away. “See you around, buchou.”
As he left, he heard the captain muttering: “Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just invite Seigaku over, ask Tezuka to play each regular in turn, and have it over and done with.”
Weeks passed. The rainy season came to an end. Ryoma lost to Nanjirou everyday. Kirihara played against Sanada repeatedly and took it out on the club members by defeating them one after another after another. Marui grew skittish, Jackal looked nervous.
You must not lose, and they’d never discussed the subject, it had never been an issue. Ryoma had taken it for granted that they would win their games. And yet, as Yanagi pointed out, Rikkai had yet to make it through a Kantou tournament, completely undefeated.
“This team is strong, even without Yukimura,” Sanada said, and his voice brooked no argument. “We will win.”
Yukimura seemed like an apparition, continually in and out of hospital. Even when he was there he was detached, almost subdued. Sanada had always been the more domineering presence, but for the first time it was beginning to feel like Sanada’s club, instead of Yukimura’s.
Four days before the regionals began, Yukimura walked up to Ryoma between classes and said: “Meet me at Akaya’s tennis club, after practice on Sunday. Don’t tell anyone.”
“I want to show you,” Yukimura said, “that tennis is not forever.”
It was the first time Ryoma had ever seen him standing on the court, racquet in hand. He’d lost even more weight since the beginning of the year; the Rikkai uniform looked baggy and awkward on his thin frame.
“It’s your serve.”
Ryoma knelt to pick up the ball lying at his feet. It felt small and rough in his hand; he hesitated.
“If you don’t play, Echizen, I’m going to have to consider this my win.”
He tensed. He tossed the ball upwards.
Yukimura stepped back. It was the perfect stance for countering; it was the perfect position, the exact angle at which the Twist Serve ought to be returned.
The ball struck the racquet; the racquet flew sideways. Yukimura seemed to sway in the breeze.
“Your father is Echizen Nanjirou, right?” He could see it now – Yukimura’s back shaking, every muscle straining to move. Ryoma didn’t know how Yukimura managed to serve. It was like watching a toddler lift a bowling ball.
In the sixth game, Yukimura’s legs buckled. He crumpled to the ground like wet tissue paper.
“Finish it,” he ordered.
“I can’t believe we didn’t even get to play,” Kirihara complained. “What sort of stupid team gets food poisoning on a match day?”
“Shall we go watch the other first round matches?” Sanada asked Yanagi, who was again taking notes in his neat, black handwriting. “You’ll probably want to collect data.”
“I want to watch Tezuka-san’s match,” said Kirihara.
Me too, added Ryoma silently. There was no point in voicing it, Kirihara was noisy enough for three people.
“We are already familiar with the abilities of the Hyoutei and Seigaku players,” Yanagi said. “I’d prefer to investigate Fudoumine from Tokyo and Midoriyama from Saitama, since most of the players on those teams are new to the tournament. ”
Despite Ryoma experiencing a strange feeling of disappointment – Kirihara’s obsession with Tezuka must be contagious – watching the first-round matches proved interesting. Especially the tall player from Fudoumine with the funny mole on his forehead. He was pretty good, Ryoma thought. Even Kirihara took notice, with that dark, narrow-eyed expression that crossed his face every time he stepped onto a court.
Finally Yanagi closed his notebook and said, “Well, let’s go watch the matches between Hyoutei and Seigaku.”
“Really?” Kirihara burst out. He scratched his head. “Well, of course I knew you were planning to go all along….”
“The only player we are concerned about is Tezuka,” said Sanada. “And the only player at Hyoutei capable of drawing out his full strength is Atobe Keigo. Unless it was a Singles 1 match between captains, it wouldn’t be worth watching.”
“If we go now,” Yanagi said, “we should be just in time for the start of the match.”
They arrived to the sound of two hundred players cheering.
"Whoa, talk about an impressive atmosphere,” Kirihara said. “It’s not even Nationals yet.”
Ryoma looked down at the player who was strutting - actually strutting – his way across the court. “They’re so noisy. Is that monkey king really that good?”
“That’s Atobe for you,” Sanada said. He sounded amused. This happened so rarely that for a moment, Ryoma stared at him.
“And there’s Tezuka,” Yanagi added.
Later Ryoma would remember how every serve and every shot seemed inevitable, how when Tezuka sent the ball spinning crosscourt it appeared to be the perfect motion, and when Atobe ran to make the return it seemed like destiny that he should succeed.
There was no such thing as a game without unforced errors but as he watched he could see no faltering in their racquet strokes, no inkling of carelessness; the shape of their intention as they fought against each other, one playing fast and the other playing slow but so balanced was their movement that you could hardly tell which was which; it was like a dance of familiar friends and yet it would not have mattered if they were strangers – there was neither love nor pride nor frustration required for this conversation, all these things and others were present but subsumed by the arc of the racquet, by the flow of the ball moving in endless frozen time--
-- to be broken by a shoulder joint, a physical limit; a silent scream as Tezuka clutched his shoulder, sank to the floor.
Muscles and limbs folding in upon themselves, blue hair falling, collapsing in slow defeat--
“….what a shame,” Kirihara said. “I was going to be the one to make Tezuka-san forfeit.”
“No,” said Sanada. “We still don’t know what the outcome of the match will be.”
Tezuka returned to the court.
…and now the pain was seeping into the tennis, honour and desperation driving the racquet, now all the balls were flawed and broken and yet more compelling than any ideal move Ryoma could think of. At 11-12 it seemed as if he could go no further, at 25-25 it looked like the match would stretch into eternity, and at 32-31 nobody could tell what was going to happen next, for the players were in a place beyond data, beyond observation, perhaps beyond tennis itself--
The racquet descended. Atobe dove for the ball, eyes feverish.
Tennis is not forever.
It hit the net.
It is something that can be lost. And things that can be lost are precious.
Game, set and match, Seigaku 7-6.
Later as they were preparing to go home they saw Tezuka standing alone in the afternoon light, face and neck and uniform damp with sweat. He was staring at nothing at all.
They drew closer, and Sanada said: “Getting yourself injured in a match is unforgiveably slack.”
There was a brief silence, and Tezuka looked straight back at them. “Don’t worry; I’ll be back in time to play against you at Nationals.”
Play against me, thought Ryoma.
“I watched some of your matches,” Nanjirou said, lighting up a cigarette. “They were interesting. It’s all kid’s tennis, though.”
Ryoma glared back at him. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a free country.” Nanjirou propped his feet up on the bench where he was sitting. “I can go anywhere I like, can’t I?”
Ryoma might have poured Ponta over his father’s head if Marui hadn’t appeared right then. “Ryoma! We’ve been looking for you everywhere; Sanada’s going to strap you to an electric chair if he finds out you were wandering around during the semifinals – hey, who are you?” He looked with interest at Nanjirou, who smirked.
“I’m nobody at all. Don’t worry about me; just hurry along with the brat there.” At that point, an outburst of clapping rose from the nearest court.
“There’s Seigaku over there. Looks like they're doing well against Rokkaku.” He turned curiously as Nanjirou toppled off the bench. “Are you all right?”
“Ehh, no problem at all! I’m doing great,” Nanjirou said, with a wave of his hand. He muttered: “I just need to get away from that old hag..."
“Excuse me?” said Marui. But Nanjirou had already gathered his robe and was running barefoot in the opposite direction. “What a strange guy. Do you know him, Ryoma?”
“Come on, let’s go.” Ryoma turned and began walking.
Marui took several strides to catch up. “You’re such an unlovable brat,” he said, tweaking at Ryoma’s cap. “Well, looks like the games are wrapping u—“
They had arrived at the courts where Rikkai was playing Fudoumine, and the courts were still as death.
Ryoma halted when he saw the game in progress; like everyone else in the place, he could not look away.
Sweat dripping everywhere, and eyes red as blood, and the ball’s shadow like a bruise on the surface of the court.
“Hey,” Marui said in a hushed voice, forgetting to chew his gum. “What the hell is Akaya doing?”
Speed like the wind and brutal power, a hurtling force to the head, the neck, the knee, concentration stretched taut like an racquet strung too tightly, and was this really tennis?
“Let’s play a match,” said Ryoma. Kirihara turned on him, eyes glittering.
“Why?” he asked. “Do you want to get hurt as well?”
“Have you forgotten what I said so quickly? I won’t lose to you.”
Kirihara’s face darkened. “All right, then. But don’t blame me for what happens to you.”
The third-years had gone to visit Yukimura, who’d been admitted to the hospital for what everyone hoped would be the final time - the surgery has a 30% success rate - leaving Kirihara and Ryoma free to visit the local tennis club by themselves.
“Tell me,” Ryoma said, as they walked past the carpark, “have your eyes always gone red like that?”
“It’s none of your business,” Kirihara snapped, “take care of yourself. I’m not holding back.”
He proved true to his word, dropping the wrist weights as soon as they reached the courts. Ryoma followed suit.
“I’ll make this clear,” Kirihara said. “Don’t give me that crap about switching hands halfway through a match. Play with your left hand.”
“And let you use all those strategies you devised to beat Tezuka? My Twist Serve works better with the right hand, anyway.”
“Isn’t breaking special techniques your specialty?” Kirihara lowered his eyelids. “Don’t tell me you’re backing away from a challenge …. Echizen Ryoma.”
Ryoma’s face tightened; he drew his racquet.
He served with his right hand and played with his left – but Kirihara could break the Twist Serve and Ryoma had been accustomed to the tricks of right-handers, even back in the US. Their Split Steps were even; the rest of their techniques too well-known to each other to be of advantage. It came down to intensity and raw skill, then, and Kirihara was slower but sharpened as the match progressed; his focus tightened, tightened…
“Is this all you’ve got? Looks like it’s still mada mada for you.”
The rise in power as Kirihara’s eyes filled with blood --- the collision of the ball with his knee – Kirihara was not actually hitting to destroy but he was aiming to hurt, and hurt it did. The shock of the pain, the increase in speed; Ryoma tried to fight as he usually did but it was not the same, he could not battle unless he reached further--
I need something more.
He awoke to the warmth of Karupin’s fur on his neck and a dull ache in his knee. “Your teammates sent you home last night,” said his mother when he went downstairs for breakfast. Ryoma murmured noncommittally and grabbed his tennis bag.
When he arrived at practice, everyone was staring at him, even the regulars.
“Uhh, did something happen?” he asked, pulling down the front of his baseball cap.
Sanada stepped forward. “Echizen,” he said, his voice deeper and even more serious than usual. “I need to talk to you.”
They walked to the back of the sports centre, well out of hearing of the other club members.
“Can I ask you a question?” Sanada said. “Do you remember what happened yesterday afternoon?”
“Uhh,” Ryoma frowned. “Kirihara-sempai was winning 3-1, and I remember thinking I was going to lose, and then – I woke up at home.”
“You won the match, 6-4,” said Sanada.
“Oh,” said Ryoma. He did not know what to say.
“Come on.” Sanada turned on his heel and started walking back to the courts. “We need to have a briefing before the finals tomorrow.”
“Let Ryoma play Singles Two.” It was Kirihara, voice sullen. There was a bandage on his left cheek, and he refused to look at Ryoma. “He’ll definitely win.”
Ryoma shrugged. He wanted to play in the finals, but he still couldn’t remember winning yesterday’s match. And there was something unsatisfying about Kirihara giving the slot to him this way.
Sanada made the decision. “Ryoma’s knee is injured,” he said. “Akaya will play against Fuji.”
Between the moment when Yanagi lost, where Kirihara blocked Sanada’s descending fist with his racquet, and the beginning of that massacre of a Singles 1 match in which Sanada finished off Seigaku’s tall power-player in straight points, Ryoma’s memory gradually came back to him.
Marui and Jackal turned up on Ryoma’s doorstep the day after finals, Jackal holding Kirihara fast by the elbow while Marui held a fistful of curly hair.
“Akaya’s got something to say to you!” Marui said cheerfully, popping his gum. “We'll just wait outside your door until you’re done, okay?”
Ryoma let Kirihara into the living room, where the second-year began to pace up and down. Ryoma stood still, waiting.
“…I couldn’t win after all.” He stopped pacing and stared at his fingers. “Even after I managed to transcend those old limits, that still wasn’t good enough. You know, sometimes I hate you,’ said Kirihara, glancing at Ryoma. “It feels like you have more talent than I’ll ever have. You're just going to grow, and keep growing, and I'll always be chasing after you."
“So are you just going to give up like that?” Ryoma said. “Aren’t you planning to beat those three? Weren’t you planning to be the best, whatever it takes?”
Kirihara turned his head around to look at him, eyes wide. Ryoma smiled.
“Next time we play,” he said, “try a little harder to beat me, okay?”
Kirihara looked both hopeful and a little ashamed. “Yeah. Sorry about what happened with your knee, the last time.”
The front door flew open. “Operation Success!” Marui crowed. “Well, since we came all the way here, Ryoma, we might as well hang out for a while. Is there anything to eat?”
“By the way, that old lady from Seigaku was staring at you again, yesterday,” said Kirihara, halfway through their third game of Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament. “Are you sure you’ve never seen her before?”
“I think I might know why she knows me,” Ryoma said slowly. “But, it doesn’t matter.”
Yukimura returned to them on a bright summer afternoon, a day where the entire sky was pale blue and warm with sunlight. “Well done,” he said, and he touched Yanagi lightly on the shoulder and ruffled Kirihara’s hair, and then he turned to look at Ryoma and smiled the most brilliant smile Ryoma had ever seen.
“Buchou,” Ryoma said. “If I beat you, can I play against Tezuka at Nationals?”
“Hey!” Kirihara said indignantly. “I’ve been wanting to play him much longer than you have. And fukubuchou and buchou have too, I suppose,” he added as an afterthought.
“We can settle it with rock paper scissors,” Yukimura said good-naturedly. “As long as I win, of course.”