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Wild Card

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Everything is silent in the moment before the serve. An instant of bated breath between heartbeats where the world just waits. It's Keith's favourite part. The crowd can be roaring, but the second he raises his racquet, all goes still, if only for a little while.

The ball connecting with the strings is a feeling like no other. Keith knows it's perfect from the hum that travels down the handle and into his palm. A yellow bullet fired with precision.

Ace.

“Game, set, match: Kogane.”

The crowd booms to meet with his euphoria, as disbelief unites with triumph. Five sets of pure willpower, but he's made it. He can't keep the grin off his face as he meets his opponent at the net, or when he shakes the chair umpire's hand. Coach Iverson takes his racquet as the master of ceremonies rounds on him for the post-match interview.

“Let's hear it for your newest American superstar, Keith Kogane!”

Usually, Keith would hate this attention—hate the fuss and the titles and the media. But the post-win high carries him through and he laughs as the crowd responds with enthusiasm, pulling the sweatband free from his hair.

“Keith, congratulations,” the host beams, as Keith wracks his brain for his name. “What an incredible match.”

Keith hears himself panting across the stadium speakers when he takes hold of the microphone offered to him.
“Ah, yeah. Matt really brought his best tennis today. After losing the second and third sets, I was a bit worried he had it. Full credit to him. But I knew if I dug deep, I'd have a chance. Having the home crowd backing me really made all the difference.”

“When you earned the wild card entry for the US Open, did you ever dream you'd make it this far?”

In truth, he did. Every moment of his young professional career has propelled him to this moment. And he has worked his ass off, day in, day out. He knows he's put the effort in to reap the reward. But that's not what the crowd wants to hear. He can see Iverson's warning frown and he remembers his words: play the role of the small town hero.
“Not at all. If someone told me at the start of the year I'd be qualifying for a US Open semi, I wouldn't have believed it.”

“A semi against the world number one, no less! How are the nerves?”

With adrenaline buzzing in his veins, his confidence doesn't falter.
“Anything could happen, Bob. You never know.”


Takashi Shirogane. Or, simply Shiro to fans and officials alike. World number one 137 weeks and counting. Drop shot specialist and king of the ace. A living legend of the sport at just 24.

But undeniable talent aside, he's also the people's champion. One that has never had a bad interview in his life and always has the crowd on his side. The kind of guy that sponsors flock to, whose face gets slapped on every promotional image and the one who dominates the highlight reels. The guy who gets the invites to Paris fashion week, takes the cliché media photos with chubby looking koalas for the Australian tours, has the exhibition matches on the top of the tallest buildings in Dubai.

Keith is completely and utterly in love with him.

Not in love, in love. Just an objectively professional, completely detached kind of love. A healthy, heavy dose of respect and admiration. Idolisation. From far away. Very far away.

Except… well, maybe not so far now, since he'll be facing him across the net in the morning.

He's nervous, but more than that, he feels sick with excitement. Ready to face off against the best and prove himself. Prove he is worth something in a world that likes to take an inch and run a mile without him. Prove that his name belongs alongside legends like Shiro.

Sleep doesn't come easy.


The first thing Keith notices when he walks on the court are the flags. It catches him off guard. Of course he knows Shiro is popular. But right now it feels as though he's taken one step out of the home of the brave and into the land of the rising sun. Perhaps it was a little naïve, but he had come to expect the home crowd advantage, come to rely on the boost of his country's support during this tournament. He realises now that this was always going to be Shiro's city.

Keith tries not to feel put out when the crowd goes wild the moment they announce Shiro's name. The cheer when he walks out onto the court is almost deafening. He smiles and waves, and looks anything but the ruthless opponent he will be in just a few moments. It's hard to keep his eyes on his gear as Shiro arrives at the bench beside his. He frowns at his hands as they shake on his jacket zipper. No, he can't do this, he can't psyche himself out. Not now. Best to ignore the crowd, the sporting God in a tight white polo eight feet away from him. He grabs his racquet and raises his hand at the nearest ball girl. He pockets two and bounces one on the baseline, resolutely ignoring everything around him as he tosses the ball into the air and swings. It's not fast—he's only warming up—but the perfect thrum of the strings that reverberates down his arm and into his body settles him.

“Three minutes.”

Shiro moves to his spot on the other side of the net, all genial smiles and relaxed posture as he bounces on his toes and warms up with a slow serve that bounces lazily on Keith's left. Somehow, he's still impressive when he's not even trying, and Keith tries to imagine himself replicating his perfect arc when he hits his next serve.

It's horrendous. A quiet laugh ripples through the stadium as Shiro sidesteps the rogue ball that crashes past into the barrier behind him. Mortified, Keith immediately holds his racquet up in apology, but Shiro just shakes his head with a good-natured laugh and waves him off. Figures he would be as easy going as his media image polishes him up to be. Keith still feels his face burn. He hits a few more wobbly serves, trying to regain his nerve, until Shiro signals to him and they trade easy rallies.

“One minute.”

By the time he hits a few of Shiro's moonballs, he's starting to push the embarrassing serve out of his mind. His body feels warm and limber when the chair umpire calls time, and he jogs up to the net to shake hands with the stadium official and his opponent. Keith ignores the way his heart thumps when Shiro offers him a smile—he won't get nervous now—but it's all too quickly aimed down to the tiny kid in charge of the ring toss.

“What's your name?” Keith hears him ask quietly, under the din of the crowd.

Keith barely catches the tiny response of, “Sven,” as the boy peers up to him with starstruck eyes.

Same, kid.

“Shiro, call,” the official directs.

“Heads,” he says, just as the coin goes flying inelegantly out of Sven's palm.

They all lean over as it falls to the ground.

“Heads it is.”

Keith feels his stomach sink automatically. It doesn't really matter, but he could have used an early win to get him on the right foot.

“I'll serve second.”

Keith's head snaps up in surprise. Since when does anyone… ever not take the first serve? For a moment, he thinks Shiro might be mocking him, but the fear vanishes immediately at the sincere smile he finds on his face.

“Good luck, Wild Card,” he says, and Keith almost staggers under it. There's no tease, no belittling tone or arrogance. Just a genuine word of encouragement before he jogs away. If it weren't for the fact he was preparing to serve to him, Keith might almost believe that Shiro was rooting for him. But the smile is gone when he turns back around, and Keith remembers just who he's dealing with. You don't make a name for yourself as the champion of the game for going easy on newcomers. It's why the media call him a smiling sniper — all laughs and kind eyes, but single-minded, stone cold focus the second the game begins. It shoots another wave of intimidation through him.

The journey to the baseline seems to last a lifetime, and Keith feels far too conscious of the weight of his breath his lungs, the density of the court under his shoes and the sound of the crowd as he calls for a ball for his opening serve. If he thought they had been loud during the rest of the tournament, they're simply deafening now. None of it is for him this time, though. Every daunting voice in the crowd is here to see Shiro win. He is only collateral on the way to victory.

But when he raises his racquet to serve, everything goes still and silent as always. The calm before the storm.

It's Keith's favourite part.

He watches the ball fall in slow motion, and the brief moment his feet leave the court to connect feels like taking flight. It feels right, it feels perfect when he makes contact, and he watches Shiro lunge as it slams down the centre. He doesn't return. He doesn't challenge.

“Fifteen-love.”

It takes a second for the crowd to fade back in, and they're just as shocked as he is. But then Keith grins, filled with something giddy as Shiro shrugs and claps his hand against the strings of his racquet.

An ace. He just served an ace against world number one Takashi Shirogane.

His next serve is not quite as precise, and Shiro collects it easily to force him to cross-court for a backhand return. When it comes back to him again, Keith's heartrate spikes as he sees his opening. Quickly angling his body, he slices it down the line. Shiro's never in reach.

“Thirty-love.”

Shiro makes it 30-15 on the next serve, but Keith catches him at the net to get to a more comfortable 40-15. He might actually have this first game in the bag.

“Fault!”

Keith almost jumps out of his skin at the linesman's call, but it's accurate; his shot falls well wide of the service box. It's honestly a miracle he almost made it through a whole game without faulting. His strength on his serves is his speed, not his accuracy. A couple of double faults and he could kiss the entire match goodbye.

Settle, Keith…

Getting ahead of himself now will do him no good. He takes his time bouncing the ball, glancing up to where Shiro waits, stone-faced. Screw it. A safe game is a boring game.

He feels the force of his swing when he connects at its apex. Hears the thud as it hits the back wall. No call comes.

“Game. Kogane leads one to zero.”

Keith checks the speed of his serve on the screen behind him when he notices Shiro do the same. One-hundred and thirty-three miles an hour. Up there with some of his fastest. He grins and celebrates with a tiny pump of his fist, collecting his towel from the ball boy to wipe his face as Shiro prepares to serve on the other side.

Keith quickly learns that Shiro gives nothing away when he lines up to serve. He barely manages to throw out his racquet to meet the ball when it comes flying down the outer edge. It goes straight into the net, and Keith feels any bravado he might have worked up in the first game suddenly come back down. Shiro is still only warming up. He almost manages to chase him to deuce, until Shiro finishes off the game with a masterful drop shot that has Keith sprinting from the baseline far too late to meet. It levels them at one game all.

It marks the tone for the rest of the set. Neither can break the other's serve and it brings them to six games apiece just before the first hour ticks over to send them to tiebreak. Keith can feel the August sun beating down on him, and it doesn't matter how many times he goes for his towel; sweat is becoming a consistent factor in his game now. He shoves the tennis ball in his pocket as he jogs to the baseline so he can pull the base of his tank up to wipe at his face. It stirs a bit of an unexpected reaction from the crowd. Keith flushes when a spectator wolf whistles loudly and another calls out something rowdy that sends a ripple of laughter through the crowd.

“Thank you,” the chair umpire says curtly, and it dies to a chitter.

They're four a piece in the tiebreak when Keith finally manages to break Shiro's serve and end the deadlock. Suddenly he's sitting at set point, with the ball—literally—in his court.

I… might actually pull this off.

It sends a jitter through him and ultimately throws his first serve way off.

“Fault!”

Get it together.

The second serve falls at Shiro's feet and he returns ferociously. Keith barely gets his racquet to it, but somehow he slams a passing shot across the court before Shiro can reach it.

Did I just—?

But the umpire doesn't call the set, and Keith's stomach drops when he sees Shiro's hand in the air.

“Shirogane challenging the line call. Ball called in.”

The crowd start clapping as the hawkeye runs on the stadium screens, building faster and louder as the simulation zooms in for the call. Keith's heart pauses between beats.

“Ball out.”

It's only by a sliver, but victory dissolves into ash. Shiro has broken his serve right back.

“Five all. Shirogane's serve. Shirogane has three challenges remaining.”

And he follows it up with a soul-crushing ace.

“Five-six, Shirogane. Kogane's serve.”

Okay, set point. But it's fine; he just has to hold his serve. He can do this. Just stay calm. It's far from over.

What follows after his serve is the longest rally of his professional career to date. They trade forehands for a dozen or so shots each, and Keith realises Shiro is pushing him as far back to the baseline as possible just as the champion delivers a devastatingly perfect drop shot that skims low to kiss the net and land high in his court. But Keith is quick, and he sprints with all his might to get his racquet under it before it bounces again. He remains deaf to the crowd as they react, channelling everything into finding that point of contact. He sacrifices control to simply get to the ball though, and Shiro calmly collects to send it back to the opposite back corner with unfair precision. Keith refuses to let it go. He's close. He's so damn close, he can tell.

Pure adrenaline gets him back to the baseline to take the shot between his legs, and this time he hears the thunder around him. The tweener might shoot to thrill the crowd, but it lobs the ball high, and Keith already knows the result when he watches Shiro look up and position himself under it. The smash shot still feels like a bullet to the chest anyway.

“Set. Shirogane leads one set to love.”

Keith feels a little bitter about the raucous cheer that goes up. The fact that he can't count on his own countrymen to support him in his match is a little grating. But he can't aim any of his resentment toward Shiro as he moves to rest at his player bench. He is a masterclass to watch, and exhilarating to play against, even as he goes into the second set at the disadvantage.

“One minute.”

Keith takes one last swig of water before he jumps to his feet to find his way back to the baseline and try all over again. Despite his best efforts, he still fails to find an opening. Shiro breaks his serve twice in the set to finish 5-7 and take the score out two to nothing.

It's fine, Keith coaches himself. Best of five. You're younger, you've got the stamina. It's fine.

It's an absolute fucking disaster. Shiro opens his serve with two aces in a row and all too soon Keith finds himself on the wrong side of a match point at 2-5 and advantage: Shirogane.

His first serve flies well past the baseline to the linesman's call. The second finds a home in the net. Double fault.

“Game, set, match. Shirogane wins 6-7, 5-7, 2-6.”

And just like that, the open, earnest smile on Shiro's face returns, and Keith can't even bring himself to be upset with the result, even as the sting of ending the match on an unforced error fades. He's tired, he's sweat-drenched, but he's content. He even finds himself smiling back as he reaches the net to shake his hand.

“Good game,” Shiro dimples to him, and Keith barely manages to choke out a reply.

“Yeah. Thanks. You too. Phenomenal.”

God, he sounds like an idiot.

He practically runs to the chair umpire to shake her hand in an effort to get off the court as quickly as he can. But a hand on his shoulder stops him as he moves to the bench to shove his racquet into his bag. Keith looks up in mild alarm as Shiro leans over him to speak in his ear, over the crowd and the media host.

“How attached are you to your sweatband?”

Keith feels like the poor strip of material might be working overtime as breath brushes his ear and warmth radiates from the point of contact on his shoulder. He's a professional though, with strictly professional thoughts, having a very professional heart attack, in that he manages to betray no outward sign of the fact. He simply shrugs, as he zips up his bag.

“Got plenty of others. Can't exactly call this one lucky after today either. Why?”

Shiro laughs, and suddenly Keith can't remember the question. That is, until a finger hooks in under his headband and gently tugs it free from his damp hair. Keith watches, dumbstruck, as Shiro slingshots it into the crowd to a gaggle of girls that have come down close to the barrier. He flushes crimson when they scream and Shiro grins beside him.

“Until next time, Wild Card.”

Keith isn't sure he can feel his legs when he walks off the court with his gear while Shiro starts talking about the match with the host. It's not until he's under the spray of the shower that his mental function returns to him either. Of course he's a little disappointed in the result—losing has never been his forté—but to have made it all the way to a semi on the back of a wild card, to face Takashi Shirogane in his first Grand Slam tournament, takes the barb out of it. He can add 720 points to his ranking for his efforts. A result that catapults him out of the late hundreds to somewhere in the realm of seventy. In the entire world. It makes him lightheaded.

“Going from no name to semi final finisher in one tournament,” one of the press members joke in his interview an hour later. “Any idea how you're going to spend your winnings?”

Keith shrugs awkwardly. The media side, unsurprisingly, is not something that comes naturally to him.
“Buy my mom something nice. Pay my coach, I guess.”

The room laughs, but it's not until later when Lance screeches down the phone that he feels foolish.

“Pay your coach?!”

Keith rolls his eyes, phone cradled between his shoulder and ear as he sorts out his suitcase. In fairness, he hadn't realised at the time that he'd be walking back to his hotel with nine-hundred and twenty-five grand burning a hole in his back pocket.

‘And that little ‘ooh, look at my washboard abs as I wipe the sweat from my brow’ move? You're such a show pony.”

“Coming from the guy who once wrote his number on a tennis ball before lobbing it to Allura Alforson, I'm hardly offended,” Keith monotones. “You're just pissed I have better game with women than you do.”

“Oh shut up, Mr 69.”

Keith grins at that. In spite of the lewd Instagram post Lance tagged him in after the confirmation of his new rank, Keith is still euphoric. Cracking the sixties after his first major tournament is a dream come true.

Shiro wins the US Open final in straight sets in under ninety minutes. Lance periscopes a mourning party when Keith boosts his rank to 51 the following month with a quarterfinal appearance in Shanghai. Keith retaliates by uploading the worst zoomed-in mid-grunt picture he can find from Lance's doubles effort with Hunk and ignores his pleas to take it down when it sails past two-thousand retweets.

“Pidge says, and I quote, ‘lol’ to you taking Matt out again in the round of sixteen,” Lance says over his phone when they commiserate their respective losses with non-alcoholic beer in his hotel room. “She also says dibs whenever you need a mixed partner.”

Keith wrinkles his nose. Undoubtedly it will come up at some point, but he's not the best at sharing the court. At least with a clubmate, the idea seems less reprehensible.

“Sure, I guess,” he shrugs as he takes another bottle from Hunk.

“I'll tell her you're positively bursting with enthusiasm,” Lance deadpans.


By the time the Australian Tour starts after Christmas, Keith has nudged himself up to number 36 in the rankings, and the media is starting to buzz. A decent effort for the Open in Melbourne, and Keith could be staring down a top 20 berth at the start of the year. It has sponsors taking a sudden interest in him and—to his incredible shame—Iverson forces him to accept a cover piece for Tennis Magazine.

“Did they cover your arms in oil?” Pidge chortles from across the aisle after take off. “I didn't even realise they did these kinds of shoots for this magazine.”

Lance clears his throat dramatically.
“While Kogane may come across a little distant and disinterested, a roguish smile lights up his undeniably handsome face when our talk moves to his startling appearance at the recent US Open, and it's clear why the nineteen-year-old is a favourite among female fans.”

“Pity he's not interested in any of them,” Hunk mumbles on his other side, and Lance nods solemnly.

“Perhaps not as surprising as it seems,” he continues reading aloud, loudly, “in spite of his ultimate loss, Kogane doesn't hesitate when asked his favourite match to date. ‘Facing off against Shiro so early in my career was unbelievable,’ he says. ‘It was definitely a defining point for me.’”
The shit-eating grin on Lance's face when he looks up is the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for Keith.
“Bet the second you started talking about your big ol’ crush, getting these pics was a shoo-in. Just think of Shiro and flex, eh?”

Keith reaches over to rip the magazine out of Lance's hands, deciding he's had plenty of time now to crush his dignity into the dirt.

“It's literally the funniest fucking thing I've seen in my entire life,” Lance cackles, wiping away false tears.
“Did they ask you to take your shirt off for this too?”

Keith burns, crossing his arms.
“... Yes.”

He's pretty sure Lance and Pidge don't stop laughing the entire flight to Australia.


Brisbane is oppressively hot throughout the entire tournament, but that favours Keith's Arizona roots, and where others wilt, he thrives. He powers his way to the final and cinches his very first pro title in five brutal sets. Holding the trophy is a surreal experience, and Keith even laughs when the crowd starts calling for his headband. Since his match with Shiro, it's become somewhat of a reluctant tradition, but this time he grins when he flings it up into the stadium seats.

His heart races when he watches Shiro kiss his racquet strings after winning match point at the Hopman final two days later. But only in a professional admiration kind of way, of course.

“You are disgustingly obvious, you know?” Pidge taunts through a mouthful of unbuttered popcorn.

“No I'm not.”

“Keith, buddy,” Hunk sighs, “you know I'm on your side, but you're so close to the screen that I can't even see the presentations.”

Keith shuffles back sheepishly, cheeks pink as they watch the match highlights. He pulls out his phone during the ad break, drifting automatically to Shiro's Instagram to double tap his latest photo upload. He doesn't realise the presence over his shoulder until it's too late.

“How hard was it for you to not just jump his bones courtside at Flushing Meadow?”

“Fuck off, Lance. Why do I even hang out with you guys?”

“Because you love us,” Pidge grins.

“You haven't let success change you,” Hunk offers more sincerely.

“You can't break up the OG Iverson gang,” Lance says, scandalised. “We're like a pack of lions, man.”

“Pride, Lance,” Pidge corrects.

“Aw, I'm proud of you too!”

“No, I—”

But Keith snorts his laughter, and the others join in until Iverson's grumpy texts instruct them to sleep ahead of their flight to Melbourne in the morning. In just a few short days, Keith thinks, maybe he’ll find Shiro across the net once more.


While the others deign to sleep in with the Open still a few more days away, Keith rises early to take breakfast before the rest of the hotel wakes. He's halfway through a mouthful of muesli, staring out the window where the tram line stops just beyond, when a voice startles him out of his revelry.

“Hey there, Wild Card.”

He chokes on his spoon, and suddenly world number one Takashi Shirogane is thumping his back, looking concerned as Keith blinks up through tears.
“Woah, sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. Please don't die.”

“It's fine,” Keith wheezes.

“I just saw you sitting on your own and wondered if you'd like some company.”
Keith is still trying to focus on not asphyxiating himself, so he can only bug his eyes in response. Shiro suddenly looks sheepish.
“But of course, if you'd rather eat in peace…”

“No, no,” Keith croaks out, wincing internally at the desperation in his ruined voice. He reaches for his glass to gulp down water in the hopes it might help dislodge the crumbs and remains of his self-respect. “Please… sit.”

Shiro beams, as if the honour is his, and Keith almost suffocates again.
“Nice going in Brisbane.”
With just a few words, they’re back in safe territory and Keith relaxes, if only a little. It's as if Shiro knows how to diffuse his tension immediately.

“Thanks,” he smiles. “Same to you in Perth.”

“Hopman is always fun. You should give it a go next year.”

Keith pulls a face.
“Team stuff is… not my strength,” he admits, as Shiro signals to an attendant for tea.

“Not good at sharing the court?” Shiro asks, amused.

“Something like that. The lack of ranking points doesn't help either.”

“You won't need them next year,” Shiro says confidently, leaning back as the waiter pours his tea.

The words stun Keith for a fraction of a second, before he feels his heart swell at the implication. Shiro might be making a bit of a premature call, but his faith ignites Keith's. He looks down to try to hide his smile until the waiter turns his attention to him.

“And you, sir?”

“Uh, just coffee, thanks.”

“Cappuccino? Flat white?”

Keith blinks.
“Just… just black straight out of the pot or whatever.”

The waiter gives him a little bemused smile as Shiro covers his mouth to try to hide his laugh as he leaves. Before Keith can ask, Shiro stops him dead in his tracks.

“I saw your article.”

And Keith is not talking about that.
“I saw your selfie with the rats.”

“Quokkas!” Shiro shoots back indignantly, just as Keith realises with horror that he’s just outed himself for Instagram stalking. But then Shiro laughs and Keith can’t help but join him. He can almost forget he’s sitting across the table from the champion of tennis. It’s easy. It’s almost… ordinary. At least for a second.
“Are you planning on staying long after the Open?” he asks after a sip of tea, and it strikes Keith again how bizarre it is that Takashi Shirogane would want to know anything about him or his plans.

“Just a couple of days. My coach makes us book flexi-flights in case we need to go home earlier, but we’re booked for the thirty-first, I think.”

There’s a brightness to his eyes that Keith doesn’t understand, but his heart reacts viscerally to it all the same. He pauses as Keith’s coffee arrives, and waits until they have their privacy before he speaks again.
“Allura and I were thinking of heading out of the city and finding a quiet beach after the final. You should join us.”

Keith focuses hard on swallowing his coffee without inhaling that too.
“Allura Alforson?” he asks, as if there is any other Allura, and he would mentally berate himself if he wasn’t still hearing dial-up sounds echoing in his skull. He tries to compose himself when Shiro hums the affirmative.
“I mean, I don’t have any plans.” A lie — Lance has already decided they’re hitting as many clubs as physically possible while they’re of legal drinking age before they head back to the US. “But I don’t want to intrude.”

The smile Shiro aims at him is kind as he gives a little shake of his head.
“You wouldn’t be,” he assures, and for some reason, Keith believes him. It spreads a shy smile across his face, and he has to look out the window to watch the waking city outside when he replies.

“Okay. Sounds fun.”


Through injuries and absences, and his efforts in Brisbane, Keith finds himself caught up in the seeding system for the Open. It’s a shock to see the number 29 next to his name, and to find himself with a relatively easy first round draw, far away from the highest ranked competitors. Keith quickly does the math. The only way he’ll match up against Shiro is to meet him in the quarter-finals. He doesn’t know whether to be anxious that it will take so long, or disappointed there’s no way they can meet in the final. Either way, he has a goal: make it past the first four rounds, and face him on the court again.

With his mind on the destination, he slams through the first three rounds with little fanfare; just rock solid determination and commitment to Iverson's training and management schedule. But his single-minded focus on Shiro leaves him blind to his fourth round match up until he watches the game that will determine his opponent. Pidge offers her condolences over dinner.

“Remember that time you punched Griffin in the face during the juniors in Texas?”

She’s never been good at condolences.

“Be gentle Pidge,” Hunk tutts. “Facing an old rival is daunting enough.”

“Hey! I’m Keith’s rival.”

“Lance, you don’t even play singles,” Pidge taunts with a loud laugh. “How are you Keith’s rival?”

But Keith isn’t listening as he watches the replay. It’s been nearly a year since he last faced James Griffin, prep asshole extraordinaire, and it wasn’t pretty then either. The bad blood between them has only festered since their days as novices. James had always been the golden child, with parents who bought him the latest gear and sent him to the best training camps. Then there had been Keith; the scrappy kid with sneakers from goodwill that still managed to challenge him regardless. Childish bitterness never managed to evolve beyond the sourness Keith had for his upbringing, nor the frustration Griffin held for the grubby public school kid that managed to keep up with him.

Any hope that their enmity might stay in the past vanishes like smoke when Keith walks onto the court the next day and takes one look at him in his pristine all-white Lacoste get up.

Asshole.

Judging by the way Griffin scowls back, it seems the feeling is still mutual.

They resolutely ignore each other during the warm up, and the handshake before the coin toss is less a sportsmanly gesture and more of stranglehold. Griffin looks disgustingly smug when the call goes his way, and he elects to serve first.

It’s not a pretty game. Power plays and countless slices and drop shots turn it into something aggressive and physical. After pocketing the first set, Keith accidentally lands a forceful body shot that gets the crowd murmuring. He's sure the one Griffin returns on the next point is a little less unintentional. They both call challenges at disturbing frequencies and the third set ends with a rally Keith loses count of after the thirty-third shot. Griffin calls for a medical time out in the break that Keith knows he doesn’t need, and probably just takes to receive some courtside coaching and slow the momentum back in his favour.

Keith loses all his challenges before they even enter the last game of the fourth set. He breaks his first racquet in a fit of frustration when Griffin strikes to level the score to two all.

“Thank you, Kogane,” the chair umpire says curtly as the crowd titters and he stalks back to his bench. “First warning for racquet abuse.”

He’s starting to spiral, he can feel it. Usually he’s so good at keeping his match emotions in check, but there’s just something about Griffin that brings them all to the surface. He takes a pull from his water bottle, trying to settle, but the crowd is still humming after his little spat, and it leaves him restless ahead of the deciding set.

In the middle of the second game, Keith sends a drop shot straight into the net to make it 15-30, and meets with Griffin’s smarmy grin as he pulls up.

“Nice one,” Griffin says, just loud enough for Keith to hear.

“Get fucked, Griffin.”

“Obscenity, Kogane,” the umpire says, because of course she heard him. “This is your second violation. Point penalty. Thirty all.”

It doesn’t get better from there. His frustration simmers when the linesman calls his shot out in the following game, no matter how clearly correct it is. His patience reaches its end when the ballboy on his side of the court fails to bring over his towel during the break. And he loses all his challenges before they make it to the second changeover.

When Griffin breaks his serve to level the set to four all, Keith boils over, and he throws his second racquet into the baseline. The frame shatters on impact with a satisfying crack, but the momentary relief doesn’t last long.

“Third violation for racquet abuse,” the chair umpire states firmly. “Game penalty. Griffin leads the set five to four.”

Keith spins on his heels in anger to face her.
“Are you serious?”

She covers her microphone to lean forward.
“Don’t make it a disqualification, Mr Kogane. Five-four. Griffin’s serve.”

He fumes as he returns to the bench while a ball girl delivers a third racquet to him. Pure frustration carries him to deuce, and when the linesman fails to call Griffin’s clear out, Keith raises his hand to challenge.

“You have no challenges left, Kogane.”

Keith throws his hands in the air, at his wit's end.
“But it was out by a mile!”

“No challenges. Ball called in. Advantage, Griffin.”
And then, salt in the wound.
“Match point.”

It’s a nightmare. He’s close. So close. Just a few points away from facing Shiro again. But right now, Griffin is closer.

Griffin goes for the ace, but Keith manages to get a racquet to it out of pure spite, and another brutal rally begins. Griffin has control at the start, making Keith run up and down the baseline, but then Keith manages a beautiful drop shot with backspin that has Griffin sprinting to the net in a panic. He reaches the ball, but he delivers it straight to Keith, who lines up to follow with a powerful slam down the line and—

“Out!”

Keith stares at the spot where the ball bounces in disbelief.

“Game, set, match.”

The bottom drops out of his stomach. It can’t be over. He can’t have lost. He—

“Hey. Keith.”

Griffin is already at the net, waiting for him. There’s nothing Keith wants to do less right now, but he forces himself to trudge over and give the shortest handshake he can. He avoids the umpire’s eyes and doesn’t say a word when he reaches her. Nor does he utter a sound when he gathers his gear to exit the stadium as fast as humanly possible, or when Iverson meets him to give him a spray before his media appearances. He keeps his interview answers short and sharp, and refuses to give a response when the questions turn to his penalties.

Shiro wins his fourth round match in the evening, and when questions turn to the ugliness of the morning’s match, Keith watches him frown ever so slightly on his phone as he lies in bed.

“I don’t condone the behaviour, of course,” he says, when the press ask him his view. “But I hardly think it’s fair to paint Keith with a certain brush over one match. It’s obvious it was a rather gruelling game, and there’s probably a lot more under the surface that we don’t know about. I don’t think it’s fair for me to make a comment about it.”

“Do you have any words of advice for Kogane at this time?” another journalist asks off-screen.

Shiro pauses thoughtfully.
“Just… stay patient. And don’t give up when a few calls don’t go your way. You have to believe in your game no matter what.”

Keith doesn’t fight when Iverson sends him back to Arizona the next day with a broken screen and a broken heart.