Satsuki knows exactly what she looks like. She knows what people think when they see her: that there’s no way she can have a brain when her boobs are so big and her hair is so long and her face is so pretty. She’s too small for the position that she claims, she’s too cute for the sport that she loves, she’s too much and too little all at once. She’s lucky, people say, she’s just getting lucky when she weaves through the strongest defensive games in the country and scores point after point after point—that’s the thing they say that she hates the most.
When Satsuki had first met Aida Riko, she’d expected more of the same. Seirin High’s ball club was only a year old—the starting team was almost all of the same players as last year. They were all of a relatively high skill level; just not high enough. Their captain was a plain, lithe girl with mousy brown hair she kept short and clipped back. Satsuki knows there’s nothing special about her—even if she hadn’t done her due diligence and researched the Seirin club, she would have known with a look: Aida was one of Seirin’s stronger players, but there was nothing exceptional about her. Even with above average skills on an above average team, Aida and her little club wouldn’t make it in a world that included Satsuki and her old teammates.
It was a little depressing. Even split apart from her team from middle school, Satsuki still felt undefeatable. What was the point of playing if barely anyone could keep up? What was the point of winning if it was a foregone conclusion? She sat out the first half of the Seirin game just because she could—she watched Aida Riko yell fierce encouragement to her team and sink shot after shot after shot. They were keeping up, barely, but they couldn’t erase the point-gap— which is not surprise. Touou had wanted Satsuki because she was a power player from a team with an aggressive winning record, but that didn’t make her their trump card. The club was powerful with or without her, which inexplicably makes her general bad mood even worse.
Satsuki’s almost decided to sit out the entire game when things take a turn for the interesting. Seirin’s center snags a rebound—sloppy work, Satsuki notes, feeling a surprising flash of frustration at her own team. Touou was good, but the other players weren’t on Satsuki’s level; they couldn’t afford to not take a quick, aggressive team like Seirin seriously when she wasn’t on the court with them. The center tears down the court, fast, too fast to stop and set up for anything other than a layup. Instead, the girl takes a shot, a surprising three-pointer with terrible, rushed form. Satsuki sees the ball’s trajectory in her mind’s eye a split second before the ball slams into the backboard and rebounds almost violently—right into the waiting hands of Aida Riko, who falls into her beautiful form with no opposition and shoots. She sinks the shot from her preferred place, just half a step back from the three-point line just off-center, right before the buzzer sounds for end of quarter. To the crowd, it seems to happen in the blink of an eye—one fluke error, and suddenly Seirin has successfully ripped the lead out of Touou’s hands by two points.
Unfortunately, Satsuki is too busy being annoyed at her team to think about what she actually saw. She finally subs in to the game in the second half thinking the same thing—that Seirin’s lead was only possible because of her team’s mistake and negligence. She doesn’t take them seriously, either, and eventually fierce, proud Aida Riko goes from something interesting to an intense annoyance. What does she have to be proud of? Satsuki thinks when she miscalculates and Seirin’s other point guard manages to snag one of her passes. A team like Seirin might have made it work outside of Tokyo prefecture, but here they were just another good team among dozens of good teams. What did one basket, two baskets mean in the long run, she thinks as Aida manages another three-point shot. It doesn’t change anything.
Satsuki’s about one play away from having their coach trade her out again—she’s getting bored and she needs to make sure she has a cool down before their next game of the afternoon—when she goes up for a dunk and Aida charges right into her, checks her into the stiff padding of the post. The whistles blows, but Satsuki hears it only distantly—Aida towers over her, red-faced and furious. She fills Satsuki’s vision when she leans down to grab Satsuki by the jersey and shake her—not hard, it doesn’t hurt, but it’s jarring.
“What is the matter with you!” Aida yells in her face, “Do you hate this game that much that you have to ruin it for every other person on the court? Why did you even come out here to play if you weren’t going to take it seriously?!”
Satsuki gapes up at her. The whistle blasts again; it takes the referee bodily getting in between the two of them before Aida finally lets her go. She’s crying, Satsuki notes clinically. After a heated discussion between the referee and Seirin’s coach, they don’t eject Aida, but Satsuki thinks it has more to do with the general shock than anything. Typically, things like this happen rarely, and even then it’s between players on the same team, off the court. Satsuki pulls herself to her feet without the help that her teammates tentatively offer and watches Aida stalk to Seirin’s bench, where her coach grabs her with an iron grip around her bicep and starts talking, low and fierce while the rest of Seirin’s miniscule team just stares. A flustered relief player trots onto the court when the buzzer blares for a substitution.
Satsuki sees all of this happening through a strange haze. Her mind makes a note of the things that occur, but her consciousness is consumed by Aida Riko’s furious face as she’d screamed, do you hate this game that much.
I’m angry, Satsuki realizes distantly. She looks down at her hands. They tremble around the ball in her hand. She has to make a penalty shot. Touou is up by four points—Satsuki makes the shot—five points. I’m angry. How dare she say that to me. Someone calls for Satsuki to pass; Satsuki doesn’t comply. She weaves through the scrambling defense, posts up, and sinks another shot into the net. The more she thinks about it, the more that the noise of the game—the squeak of the shoes, the smack of the ball, the sound of the buzzer and the whistle—they fade out, until there’s only Aida’s voice pinging through Satsuki’s skull.
Satsuki was wrong. She’s not angry. She’s furious. Satsuki’s never loved anything like she loves the game. What does Aida know about it? What does a barely above average player on an average team know about how Satsuki feels? They’re not even on the same level. They’ll never be on the same level. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe Satsuki has to show her, definitively, just how wrong she is. She was trying to be fair. She was trying to make the game interesting, to help Seirin feel a little better about the loss, but that was over now. Now she was pissed.
There are five minutes left in the quarter, and Satsuki commits to ripping Seirin apart. Satsuki doesn’t give up the ball once; she doesn’t pass when her team gets the ball to her; she taps into everything she knows about Seirin’s starting team—their center’s hesitations, their point guard’s default passing strategies, the plays they prefer, their individual quirks. The rest of her own team just keeps up. It’s all they can do, and they know it.
Satsuki is usually a careful person; not much can rattle her inner calm. She knows that she’s not the only one capable of watching and analyzing, so she never plays at full strength unless she needs to. But that’s not the case today. Aida wants her to play for real? She wants Satsuki to take this pathetic team seriously? Fine.
Aida storms back onto the court again with two and a half minutes left in the third, and suddenly Seirin comes alive again. Wherever Satsuki goes on the court, there’s Aida, and Seirin gets its feet under itself and starts to push back. It’s not enough, of course, but for a furious two minutes, every shot she takes is like a battle and every play takes hours instead of seconds. Satsuki makes a perfect basket, nothing but the sound of the net on the ball, and she drifts back down to the court in slow motion, like gravity has abandoned her.
Daiki talks about going in to the zone like sinking into a bottomless pool, but he’s always been more grounded than she gives him credit for. For Satsuki, being in the zone always feels like flying—all limits lifted away from her for minutes that stretch like hours in front of her. Satsuki slips into the zone almost without realizing it’s happened. There’s nothing but the slap of the ball into her hand and the smooth motion of her legs working to move her forward. Someone tries to stop her but the path of least resistance opens up to her almost as soon as she pauses to look for it, individual pieces of data slotting together and showing her the way.
Daiki goes into the zone and lets his body move without thinking, but thinking is all that Satsuki does. In the zone, everything else just becomes secondary, her body moving as soon as her brain processes where it needs to go; all hesitation fades.
She floats to the bench when the third quarter buzzer sounds; Seirin had been making up points, but the gap still sits at a steady fifteen points. There’s no way for them to recover, not while Satsuki’s like this. Her coach talks to the other players, twirling strands of hair between her fingers. Satsuki just focuses on the way the floor feels under her shoes, the way the net still swings lightly from her last shot passing cleanly through it.
Aida meets her eyes fearlessly when the two teams take the court again, but Satsuki just looks at her impassively; she’s only getting deeper and deeper into it—there's nothing that can touch her once she decides that she’s untouchable.
Two minutes on the clock, two minutes left in the game, and a perfect six point point-gap. The ball comes to Riko on the outside, right as she steps into that perfect place, that beautiful feeling. Riko hasn’t missed a shot all game; coming out of her form she knows—she’s not going to miss now.
The buzzer sounds for the points; she’s already moving before the ball even hits the court. One-fifteen on the clock, three points before they can tie the game, finally, finally. Just two more shots and they’ll be in the lead. Just two more. Riko’s riding that sweet, hard edge—she’s been at the boundary of that perfect playing state since the start of the quarter, but she just can’t get in. She can’t feel it opening up inside her like she usually does; she’s too stressed about this game, too anxious about the outcome.
(That’s not true. Seirin has played hard opponents before and in games with higher stakes than this; it’s easier to get in the zone when your opponents are strong and are pushing you hard, and Touou is strong, one of the strongest. It’s not the team that’s psyching Riko out; it’s soft hair and pale skin clashing horribly with Touou’s away colors, it’s the way Momoi Satsuki looks when she’s flying down the court, shredding Seirin’s defense like cat’s claws through cotton candy. It’s watching Momoi make passes like she’s never trusted anyone more in her life than whoever’s receiving, impossible moves that happen so fast they look like the ball’s disappearing. Riko knows she’s not being obvious about it; Coach would be the first to pull Riko aside to talk about it if she or the rest of the team had noticed. But the fact is that she can’t keep her eyes off Momoi when they’re on the court together. From the sidelines, it probably looks like Seirin’s shooting guard is being careful about Touou’s powerful small forward, but in reality Riko couldn’t look away from her if she tried.)
She had known the moment that Momoi had gone into the zone. The other girl landed back on the court after a dunk like a bird coming down on a branch. She’s smaller than the rest of her team, like Riko, but until just that moment there had been a presence to everything she did, like she had carefully considered the option and settled on that specific course of action. It had been terrifying to think how fast she must be thinking at that time, but at least there was the slightest hesitation to all her decisions that Seirin could and did take advantage of. Once she’s in the zone, that hesitation vanishes. Momoi bursts around the court like a wind caught in a breeze, switching directions so wildly that their defense, already weaker without Kiyo-chan, crumples in her wake.
It had been terrifying to watch and a nightmare to play against, but Riko’s blood is up. This Momoi is so different from the player who had stepped on to the court after half-time that Riko wants to shout her joy out loud. She’d done that. She had been the one to taunt this force of nature out on to the court to play. Seirin wasn’t pulling ahead yet, but they were keeping up, and the game wasn’t over until that last buzzer sounded.
Aida makes the last shot of the game and sinks it, but all Seirin’s hopes and dreams can’t make up the three points they’re still lacking. The buzzer sounds and Satsuki slowly comes back to herself, comes back in to her panting body and her exhausted arms and the trembling muscles in her legs. She draws herself up to hide the way her body screams at her and calmly catches the towel someone throws her way. Out of the moment, out of the zone, all the euphoria and triumph are distant feelings again, completely out of her reach. She shouldn’t have gotten so into it with a club like Seirin when there were probably other clubs and teams scoping out the competition. Satsuki’s usually better at looking at the big picture than this.
They line up to officially hear the score and the outcome; Seirin’s center has a subtle hand at Aida’s back, comforting her or holding her up, Satsuki can’t tell for sure. Satsuki sticks her hand out to Aida and digs up a smile for the other girl. The game had been a predictable waste of Satsuki’s skills, but it wasn’t every person who could look at her and know that she wasn’t performing her best. Most people underestimated her; it seemed like Aida hadn’t fallen into that trap.
Aida shakes her hand firmly, but when Satsuki tries to pull back Aida holds fast. They stand together, awkwardly stuck, as Aida stares into Satsuki’s face.
“You don’t think it was worth it,” she says to Satsuki finally with a flat voice and miserable eyes. “You played the way you did out there, and you don’t think we were worth it.”
Satsuki freezes; for the second time in twenty minutes she finds herself gaping at Aida Riko like some kind of idiot fish.
Aida’s eyes grow bright, but the tears stay unshed. She looks steadily on Satsuki’s face. “Just because you think it was luck that we got here, that doesn’t mean we weren’t still your opponents. We’re here because- because we deserved to be here, because we worked hard to be here, don’t you--! Don’t you dare--!”
Aida loses the battle with her tears—her faces crumples and she drops Satsuki’s hand finally, turning in a rush to walk quickly but unsteadily back to her team’s bench. The starting point guard hugs her when she gets there; she glares at Satsuki over Aida’s shoulder as Satsuki stands dumbly in the center of the court, her hand still out in front of her. Eventually, she hears her team calling for her to clear the court. They have another game in a few hours, but she struggles to focus on it. For some reason, she can’t keep it centered in her mind like she usually does, can’t look forward and start planning. Instead, she keeps thinking back. She keeps hearing Aida Riko’s voice in her head; harsh and accusing Satsuki of all the worst things she had ever hated other people doing to her. Underestimating her; disregarding her; calling her lucky, lucky, lucky instead of acknowledging that she was just better than they were.
Satsuki thinks back to the game; her mind settles on that error that had gotten her into the game in the first place, the beautiful three-point shot that had started with a rebound on a shot that Sakurin had attempted. Sakurai excelled at distance shots from awkward angles; for her to have missed the shot and lost the rebound, the pressure must have been high.
She frowns. No, that wasn’t giving Sakurai or Seirin enough credit. To force her to miss, the Seirin defense would have had to force Sakurai to take the shot early, which would have meant an insane amount of defensive pressure. And hadn’t Satsuki been feeling that pressure, too? Hadn’t she been making impossible shots for ten minutes, in the zone, just to keep the point-gap? A fifteen point point-gap that Seirin had fought tooth and nail to get down to ten, and then to seven? Satsuki feels a shiver go down her spine. If she hadn’t been goaded into the zone, if she hadn’t been playing to prove a point to Aida Riko, what would have happened to that point-gap—to the game? Satsuki stares down at her shaking hands; she focuses on the fine trembling in the muscles in her legs, the ache in the long, lean muscles in her forearms as she goes through her cool-down stretches. Even when she had still been going all out while playing on her middle school team, when she had been playing just to feel the rush of it and the crowning triumph of the win, she had only managed the physical stress of playing in the zone for seven minutes, tops.
Playing against Seirin and Aida Riko, she had stayed in the zone for more than ten minutes. They had still only beaten the other team by three points.
She finishes stretching, makes some sloppy excuses, and races out of the locker room, already plotting out what exit the Seirin ball club will use to exit the building. She’s lucky—she catches sight of them just as the turn the corner towards the second exit she picks. She rushes forward, careening around the corner at full speed, her wram-up jacket billowing behind her.
“It was worth it!” Satsuki shouts at the club’s backs, panting. The hallway goes deathly silent around her, but she doesn’t care about other people right now. The entire Seirin club in front of her turns to face her— the entire team except for Aida Riko, bundled under her coaches arm near the center of the small cluster of her team.
“Momoi-san, that’s enou—“
“It was worth it!” Satsuki yells again over the complainer, the same point guard as before. She watches, triumphant, as Aida finally turns to look at her. “You were right, and I’m sorry. You pushed me to play hard, today, so I’ll say it. Playing against Seirin was worth it, and it felt good to beat you.” Outraged noises start up from the other Seirin players, but she doesn’t care. She strides forward, right into the middle of them, forcing all of them to scatter except their sharp-eyed coach, who curls her arm protectively around Aida’s shoulder. Satsuki ignores her glares and grabs Aida’s hand again; she holds tight when the girl tries to jerk back with a shout of surprise.
“You were worth it,” Satsuki says for the last time, and she’s surprised by how soft her own voice is. “I should have known better.”
Aida has dark, serious eyes and a stern mouth, and Satsuki likes how soft they look when Aida’s surprised. But not as much as she had liked that look on the court, Satsuki realizes. Aida looks cute now, but she had looked like a spirit of revenge when she played, a monster just like Satsuki. Aida clears her throat and clears the surprise off her face. She lifts her chin and says gruffly, “You should have.”
Satsuki reaches for her other hand and gathers them both together between her own. Riko isn’t very tan, but her skin looks golden against Satsuki’s pale fingers. “I promise I won’t forget again. I promise, next time I face you I’ll be even stronger, and I’ll be ready. So you better be ready, too.”
Riko’s lower lip trembles, but no tears fall. “Are you kidding?” She asks, in a haughty voice that gets stronger with every word. “Seirin—the Seirin ball club is only just beginning, idiot. Momoi-chan will see us again, I promise.”
Satsuki grins at the honorific. She leans in, only to have the watchful coach pull Riko away again “Please. Riko-chan should call me Satsuki. We’re rivals now, aren’t we?”
Riko blinks at her—Satsuki’s managed to catch her off guard twice now, and Satsuki tries not to preen.
“Riko-chan—Idiot! I’m a year ahead of you!” she snaps, scowling. “Show some respect, Satsuki-chan.” The annoyance on her face fades as she looks at Satsuki, replaced by a slow, determined smile. “And watch your back,” she says lowly, turning her hands in Satsuki’s hold so that she’s gripping Satsuki’s hands instead. “Because we’ll be ready for your best, next time.”
Something hot curls in Satsuki’s gut and awareness of how close she’s standing to Riko floods her. Oh, she thinks distantly, watching Riko smirk at her oh, that’s what this is.
Satsuki nods sharply, to break the moment and to have an excuse to break eye contact. She smiles like she usually never does—big and toothy. “You had better, Riko-san. I’ll be waiting!”