Chapter 1: Prologue
It was just another boring day in April. The sun was out and the sky was a brilliant azure colour. Yukimura Seiichi lied in his hospital bed, staring out the window. Being on the third floor of the hospital was nothing eventful. It was too high up for him to see the ground, but too low for him to see anything flying by. He tried to reach for the glass of water on the table beside him, but found it much too difficult to grasp the glass firmly with his failing nerves and deteriorating muscles. The only other people in the room with him were his hospital roommate sleeping heavily after his third chemotherapy treatment and his own doctor.
“Yukimura-kun, do you want to drink your water?” Doctor Hayashi Kagerou asked him after she looked away from the other patient’s saline drip.
Yukimura nodded as he felt himself lose more control of his extremities. He managed to surround the glass with his fingers, though the grip was rather weak. Doctor Hayashi walked over and supported the bottom of the glass as he brought it closer to his mouth. He tries his best to drink it on his own with Doctor Hayashi watching carefully. Yukimura downs the whole glass in a matter of seconds, savouring the taste of the chilly water as it chilled his throat as it went down to sit in his stomach. He dropped the glass into his lap after he finished, as he could not support the weight of the glass anymore.
“It’s getting so much harder to do this, Doctor Hayashi.”
“Yes. Unfortunately, that’s a side effect of Guillain-Barré.”
“It’s a side effect of dying, you mean.”
“You are not going to die, Yukimura-kun. The chemicals just need more time to work.”
“Stop lying to me, Doctor Hayashi. You said that a few days ago, but that hasn’t happened. I can feel Him looming over me, waiting. I can feel it.”
“Please, just get some rest. The best way to fight off your sickness is sleep.”
“Nothing will save me from this demon, Doctor Hayashi. I’m sorry, but the medicine is failing. I won’t be around for much longer.”
“Please stop thinking so negatively, Yukimura-kun. It will work. Please, just believe in me. In the science.”
Yukimura tries to grab onto the hem of Doctor Hayashi’s lab coat with all the strength he could muster into his grip. He looked at her dead in her eyes. “I know when my time is up and it’s coming soon.”
Doctor Hayashi looked at his eyes, which were full of anger and fear. She sighs and reaches for his hands. She slowly pried his weak hands off of her and places them onto his bed. The fire and passion in his eyes disappeared and he became a hollow shell; empty and void of purpose. It pained her to know that he was right. The experimental medicine didn’t work. He was dying and there’s nothing that could be done. Despite the 95% survival rate of the treatment, Yukimura would be a part of the 5% that didn’t make it. He would become another statistic in the ongoing study. She knew his Guillain-Barré was more fast and complicated compared to anything else she has ever seen, but she tried out the experimental drug on him regardless. Yukimura knew she was lying to herself and refusing to accept the truth that he would be the first failure in her research.
“I wrote some letters for people about a week ago.” Yukimura reached behind his pillow and pulled out the stack of envelopes, all bound together roughly with a dainty lilac ribbon. He tried to hand the stack to Doctor Hayashi, but the letters dropped onto the floor, scattering everywhere as the ribbon came undone. Doctor Hayashi kneeled and collected all the letters together and stood up. Yukimura’s eyes began to water as he fought off his frustrations. “Please give these to Yanagi-san when he comes to visit the next time. That’s all I want.”
“Yukimura-kun, why can’t you give these to Yanagi-san yourself?”
“Because I’ll be dead by the time he comes to visit me.”
“You are not going to be dead. Yanagi-san will be here tomorrow. You’ll see him.” She tried to hand the letters back, but Yukimura shook his head.
“It will be emotionally easier if you gave them to him. He’ll know what to do with them.”
Doctor Hayashi sighed as she put all the letters into her lab coat pocket. “If you say so, I’ll give these to Yanagi-san when I see him tomorrow.”
“You won’t be seeing him tomorrow because I know you will be seeing him later today.”
As the sun was setting, the orderly on the third floor was walking from room to room, delivering meals to patients. He arrived at Yukimura’s semi-private room, where the cancer patient had gone out to the courtyard to get some fresh air and Yukimura lied still as a rock in his bed. His breathing rate slowed to the point where he became a very dull and pale purple-grey. The orderly tried to stir him awake, but there was no response. His hand lightly touched his fingers, which were a very dark purple-blue and colder than the air around him.
With a swift motion, the orderly pressed the panic button and began to do chest compressions as Doctor Hayashi and an army of nurses rushed into the room with the crash cart. One tried to give him a shot of adrenaline to jump start the heart and muscles as the rest of them charged up the paddles. After many unsuccessful attempts of trying to resuscitate him, one of the nurses found that the cannula in Yukimura’s nose was purposely cut at the connection to the respirator he was using to live. A pair of scissors were found under his bed.
He was long gone before anyone had the chance to see him go.
Yanagi Renji walked through the visitors’ entrance of the hospital and found his way to Yukimura’s room. He just had some unexplained discomfort in his gut that he could not rationalize unless he visited Yukimura. His eyes opened wide as he saw Yukimura’s family in the hallway outside of Yukimura’s room. Doctor Hayashi walked out of the room and sighed; a bitter and sallow face plastered over her usual determined demeanor.
Yukimura was right. Doctor Hayashi was going to see Yanagi today after all.
Chapter 2: Yanagi Renji
Yanagi quickly ran up to Doctor Hayashi. She turned around and had such a defeated look in her eyes.
“Yanagi-san, I’m sorry.”
Utter shock was the only way to describe Yanagi’s current state of being. Yukimura’s mother cried harder when Doctor Hayashi said those words as his father held onto her tightly, trying desperately to keep his composure. Yukimura’s little sister ran up to Yanagi and held him.
Yanagi’s only response was to hold her in a tight embrace. “It’s okay, Hinoka.”
“No, Yanagi-senpai! It’s not okay! It’s not fair! Why did God take him away from us…”
“Yanagi-san,” Doctor Hayashi began, “I need to speak with you in private.”
“Yes. Please, just give me a moment, Doctor Hayashi.”
He looked down at Hinoka’s face, which was robbed of all spirit. Her eyes and nose were as red as the colour of her crimson dyed hair. Defeated, her arms fell down to her sides as Yanagi supported her. He led her to the bench that her parents were sitting on, trying his best to hold back his emotions. Snot and tears stained his white spring uniform shirt an ugly green-grey colour. He followed Doctor Hayashi down the hall and into her office. Doctor Hayashi closed the door behind them and sighed.
“I didn’t want to tell you this, but Yukimura-kun wanted me to give something to you in his stead.” Doctor Hayashi pulled out the letters that Yukimura had given her a few hours prior. “I would assume these are for you, but there are names here that I’m not familiar with.”
Yanagi reached out and took the pile of letters. He carefully analyzed the handwriting, which was clearly Yukimura’s feminine and shaky handwriting; a sign of nerve deterioration. “These…”
“Yes. He requested that I give these to you, since he claimed that you would know what to do with them.”
“I’m not sure what to say. What are these?”
“I didn’t look at anything, other than the names of a few of them. Whatever’s inside these envelopes is a mystery to me.”
Yanagi clutched onto the stack as tightly as he could. “This is all so sudden. How is he gone? This makes no sense. With the way his condition was progressing, he still had a few months left.”
Doctor Hayashi tried to hold back her sadness as he said that. “Yanagi-san, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I don’t think I can tell his family how he truly died.”
“Why can you not tell his family, Doctor?”
Doctor Hayashi pulled out the cut cannula tube from her lab coat pocket. “He cut the cord. I didn’t find out until it was too late.”
“A side effect of the medicine was delusions, but not like this. This was never supposed to have happened.”
Yanagi couldn’t stop himself from holding back any further. He slumped to his knees and grabbed onto his arms as the air in his lungs escaped in hiccups. The letters he was holding onto scattered across the floor in front of him. His body became physically ill as he tried to process what just happened. The sheer amount of denial and sorrow was overwhelming.
“I’m so sorry, Yanagi-san. I’m sorry,” Doctor Hayashi whispered hoarsely as she held him and cried alongside him.
After speaking with Yukimura’s parents, Yanagi came home rather late. Devoid of all energy, he dragged himself to his room. As he opened the door to his room, his parents stopped him from entering.
“Renji, you look awful. What happened?” His mother gave him a light hug and a kiss on his forehead.
“I’m sorry, mother, father. I’m just not in the mood to talk to anyone right now. Yukimura-kun... “
His father quickly noticed what happened and motioned for his wife to let go and leave their grieving son alone. “We understand. Take your time, Renji, but please do not forget to take care of yourself.”
“Of course, father. I won’t forget to take care of myself.”
Yanagi walked into his room and closed the door. He threw his bag onto his bed and unpacked his books. He set them onto his desk and went back to lie in bed. He pulled out the stack of letters Doctor Hayashi had given him and looked through the entire stack of envelopes. They all had different motifs from popular themed stationery that companies liked to sell.
“There’s so many of them. Sanada, Akaya…” He sifted through all of them, noting that there were letters addressed to his teammates, family and Yukimura’s rivals. “Yukimura must’ve wanted me to deliver them to these people,” Yanagi muttered to himself.
Yanagi sighed as he found the letter with his name. He flipped it over to open it carefully. A small, blue star-shaped sticker was keeping the envelope sealed. He ran his thumb under the flap and lifted it. Pulling out the folded stack of paper, he opened it slowly, as if fearing the contents inside.
‘Yanagi Renji, how are you? ’ the letter began. ‘ Please forgive me for my awful handwriting. I’m still sick. ’
He smiled fondly. “It’s quite unlike you to apologize for something like that, Seiichi.”
‘How should I begin this letter? You know everything about me, Mister Data Master. Well, almost everything. I’m assuming that you have figured out I cut the tube to my cannula and suffocated, due to my inability to use my autonomic nervous system? ’
“Yes, I have,” Yanagi said out loud, as if he was having a conversation with the words on the pieces of paper. “But, why would you do that?”
‘I’m sorry. I just can’t live like this. I was lied to the moment I was diagnosed in middle school. Guillain-Barré is incurable with the medicine we have right now. The best I could do is learn to live with it, but that’s just a burden I did not wish to bear on my own nor did I wish to give the burden to others. I’m selfish and I’m okay with that. ’
“We wouldn’t have minded if we had to bear the burden if that meant you staying with us, Seiichi.”
‘You probably said something stupid like how everyone wouldn’t have minded if you all had to bear my sickness as a burden. You guys don’t have the pride that I have. Being unable to do things on my own. Having people constantly care about me living. Just everything about having this sickness is draining. I’ll never be able to return to my old form again. My nerves would continue to deteriorate. They would never repair and recover from the damage my own body did to them. That’s just the nature of autoimmunes. ’
A frown begins to form with his lips. Yanagi felt like he was being read like a book.
‘I got sick of being unable to breathe on my own, since the nerves that helped me breathe were the first ones to go. I knew my time was up, so I wrote these about a week before I decided to end my life in a discrete manner. I’m assuming that you’re the only one who knows of this. My parents would be devastated if they found out it was suicide and not because of my sickness. Please keep it a secret from everyone else. Not everyone can rationalize and keep a calm demeanor like you can, Renji. ’
“That’s too selfish of you, Seiichi, but a promise is a promise. Even to a dead man, I will take this to my grave.”
‘Now that you’re all caught up with my reasonings, I guess I should go on and talk about everything else. ’
Yanagi flipped the page over and continued to read.
‘I don’t really remember how exactly we met and when that really happened, but you fascinated me the moment you spoke to me. The way you were able to read anyone and everyone like a book was just so amazing. Mitsuya-senpai must’ve been even more of a master compared to you if you learned Data Tennis from him. ’
“Akuto-niisan was a very good teacher. He did teach me everything I knew.”
Yanagi pondered about the day he first met Yukimura and how his feminine appearance threw him off guard.It was the first day of middle school. The light drizzle of rain hit the window of Class 1-E, decorating the glass with millions of little droplets. Yanagi sat quietly in his seat, writing notes and tactics in a small book. He didn’t notice Yukimura sit down in the seat beside him as he scribbled down confusing and complex equations. Yukimura peered over Yanagi’s shoulder and watched as he used more and more confusing numbers and symbols to try and calculate the acceleration of a ball being hit at some obscure angle with an even more obscure body position. Yanagi stared at the next line of the problem, unable to figure out why the math wasn’t working out.
“I think you forgot to carry the Epsilon in this line here,” Yukimura said as he pointed at some point in the middle of the disorganized solution.
“You’re right.” Yanagi quickly scratched out everything and wrote over his previous solution with a red pen. Finally reaching the solution, he set his pen down and sighed. “Thank you for that.”
Yukimura smiled. “Glad I could help. I’m-”
“Yukimura-san, isn’t it? I have heard something about you on my way here. Yanagi Renji.”
“Yukimura Seiichi. It’s nice to meet you, Yanagi-san.”
“You’re into tennis, Yanagi-san?”
“Yes. I’m actually looking forward to trying out for the team later this week.”
“Good luck then, Yanagi-san.”
“Thank you, Yukimura-san.”
When Saturday came, Yanagi gathered at the courts on Rikkai’s campus along with about 50 other freshmen trying out for the club. The seniors were relentless against the newcomers, but only a few managed to survive the onslaught; Yanagi and Yukimura were among the five that kept up with the pace. The others that survived turned out to be the main core of the team a year later, but Yanagi would never know this until a few months later.
Yanagi turned to look at the others, who were all just as tired as he was, but with a fire inside that could not be put out. Just as their determination has reached its highest, the vice-captain of the team called it quits for the day, as he’s seen enough to make his choice. All the freshmen sighed heavily as they collapsed. Yanagi fell to his knees as he tried to catch his breath. Yukimura walked over and sat down beside him, rubbing his hand on Yanagi’s back.
“You did good today, Yanagi-san.”
“Likewise, Yukimura-san.” Yanagi managed to steady his breathing before a realization hit him. He turned to look at Yukimura, confused and shocked. “Wait. Yukimura-san, you’re-”
“Not a girl? Yes, I’m aware of my appearance, but I really am a boy.”
Yanagi felt his throat closing in and his face heat up. “I’m sorry. I-”
Yukimura laughed. “It’s fine, Yanagi-san. Everyone makes this mistake.”
“I feel so stupid. Yukimura-san-”
“Call me Seiichi. And I’ll call you Renji. You can make it up to me by being the analyst for the team because I plan on taking over as the captain very soon.”
Yanagi snapped out of his trance. He looked at the clock on his nightstand and realized it was 9 AM the next day. He was about to panic, thinking that he slept through half of the first period until he remembered it was the second day of Golden Week. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up and stretched his arms. The pages from Yukimura’s letter fell to the floor sometime that night. They were crumpled, mostly from the tossing and turning as he slept. He picked them off the ground and began to reorder the pages again. As soon as he found his spot, he continued to read.
‘You were always a great friend and a wonderful person to vent to. I could never tell Sanada half the things I tell you. I like to think that you wanted to listen because you were a good friend and not because you just wanted more data. I bitch like every girl on campus and gossip nonstop about everything tennis related. That must’ve helped us win the high school regionals and get to the finals of the high school Nationals. At least, I hope it did. ’
“Hate to admit it, but your big mouth really did help me compile a strategy against all the teams. I was never really interested in a lot of the stuff you were saying.”
Yanagi put the letter on his nightstand and walked to his closet. He picked up his towel and went into the bathroom to take a quick shower, since he didn’t get a chance the night before. He spent longer than usual in the shower, as he thought more and more about Yukimura. How he was just gone from his life and how he was never going to see him again.
“You were always suffering, weren’t you, Seiichi?”
Yanagi reminisced about one fateful visit to the hospital. It had been a few weeks since Yukimura got admitted again for the same disease that put him out of commission for the entire Kanto regionals in junior high. This time was different and they both knew that.
“Renji, I feel so helpless. I can’t do anything about this feeling. It’s eating me alive, like the demon inside me.”
Yanagi gave Yukimura a confused look. “Seiichi, what do you mean?”
“God gave me the power to steal senses. I abused the power. Now, He’s taking my senses away from me.”
He stared at the sickly boy with confusion. “Seiichi, are you sure you're okay?”
“Absolutely not.” Yukimura’s eyes wandered around, as if they were following something. “It must be nice to be sane, Renji.”
Yukimura reached out with his hands and tried to grasp the air. He kept frantically grabbing at nothing, which confused Yanagi more and more. “Why can't I grab these leaves?” The last sparkle of hope disappeared from his eyes as he realized that there was nothing there but a hallucination.
Yanagi had a look of worry permanently plastered on his face from that day forward.
Yanagi’s attention came back to reality when he heard a pounding on the door.
“Renji, get out of there! I have to use the bathroom too, you know,” his older sister said in a rather annoyed tone.
He turned off the shower. “Sorry. Just give me a minute.” He hopped out and quickly wrapped his towel around his waist. He opened the door and quickly went into his room. His sister just gave him a worried look as she watched his distractions take over his mind.
Yanagi quickly dried himself before casting the towel into a laundry basket in the corner of his room. He walked over to his closet and pulled out some comfortable clothes to wear. Returning to the letter, he sighed as he flipped it to the next page.
‘You were just being nice to me and for that, I am thankful that we got to meet in my short life. Thank you for being such a good friend, Renji. I really am going to miss having someone to vent all my frustrations to. I’m not too sure about this afterlife thing, but I don’t think I’ll find anyone else in the spirit world who has the same amount of patience as you. ’
By now, the amount of tears he shed had dried out his tear ducts, but the pain from crying began to form again.
‘It’s okay to show more emotion, Renji. I know you’re very aloof, but you don’t have to be like Sanada. Everybody cries. It can be tears of joy or sadness or anxiety or just anything. Don’t bottle it in or you’ll make everyone around you worry, but don’t show weakness to your opponents, obviously. ’
Yanagi’s vision clouded up as he flipped over the page, relieved that it was the end of the letter.
‘Lastly, I have one request. You seem to know where everyone is at any given moment, which is a problem for some people, but a benefit for me. Doctor Hayashi must’ve given you a stack of letters? I don’t really remember how many I plan on writing, since this is the first one. I am entrusting you with all of them. Please deliver them in whatever way you can. I’m counting on you.
Farewell, Yanagi Renji. Hopefully, we’ll meet again someday and hopefully, my body doesn’t fail me the next time that happens. -Yukimura Seiichi ’
Yanagi folded up the letter and placed it back inside the envelope it came in. He got up and set it on his desk. Turning to the pile of letters that was already sitting there, Yanagi decided to take the stack and spend the rest of Golden Week trying getting these letters to everyone. He wiped his face with a tissue and took the letters and put them into his messenger bag. He headed out of the house leisurely. His feet took him to the station, where he got onto a train and rode it to the station closest to where everyone else lived. The first letter he was going to deliver was to someone he felt he couldn’t leave alone during this time of grief. Finding the house, he walked around to the back, where he found her sitting by the pool with her legs dipped into the cool, blue water.
“Hinoka-san? Do you have a moment?”
Chapter 3: Yukimura Hinoka
Yukimura Hinoka decided when she woke up that morning, she would sit by the poolside and leave her feet in the water. She never really thought about why she wanted to do that. She only acted and never thought. That was just something that she was known for. Yanagi walked from the front of the house to the back, where he found her just staring blankly at plants with no evidence of focus.
“Hinoka-san? Do you have a moment?” Yanagi called out.
Hinoka was lost in thought and she didn’t hear Yanagi call out to her. She stared at her feet, which were shriveled up from being stuck in a pool for what seemed like hours. Her face was devoid of all joy and she wasn’t her normal, chuuni self. Yanagi walked over and sat down beside her. He took off his sneakers and rolled up his pant legs and plunged them into the pool, startling her back to reality.
“Ah! Yanagi-senpai, you startled me. Why are you so mean?”
“I’m not being mean, Hinoka-san. I just came here to talk to you. I had a feeling you would be here.”
“That’s because you’re evil and you have mystical psychic powers.”
Yanagi laughed a little. “I wouldn’t say I’m psychic, Hinoka-san. Why is your wrist not wrapped up today? Did you banish Belphegor from possessing you?”
“Yanagi-senpai, Belphegor isn’t real. Seiichi-niichan wouldn’t like it if I kept acting like that. Seiichi-niichan wouldn’t-”
Yanagi wrapped his arm around her and held her head close to his chest as Hinoka buried her face in her hands and began to sob. She was making a mess of herself, but she lost all ability to care. Yanagi rubbed her arm to try and comfort her.
“Seiichi-niichan… Why did you have to leave? Come back, please…”
“I know how you feel, Hinoka-san. I miss him too. Everyone does.”
“It’s not fair. The illness was supposed to go away with the surgery. Why did he die? Why?”
It pained Yanagi to withhold the information, but Hinoka would be devastated if she knew what really happened. Being in her unstable state of mind, Yanagi knew nothing good would come out of it. Plus, the promise he made to post mortem Yukimura would be broken if he told anyone else.
“I just wish I was there the moment he died. I never got to say goodbye properly.”
“We all do, Hinoka-san. No one was there until it was too late. They didn’t see it coming.”
They sat in silence as the sun came out from hiding behind the clouds. Its intense rays shone down onto the cerulean blue water, reflecting its blinding light onto the two of them. Hinoka broke free of Yanagi’s weak hold on her and walked into the shade. Yanagi stood up and followed suit. As she sat down, Yanagi pulled out Yukimura’s letter and handed it to her.
“What’s this, Yanagi-senpai?”
“It’s a letter for you. I was told to give it to you. I’m not sure what the contents are, but this is definitely for you.”
Hinoka accepted the letter from Yanagi, curious as to what exactly the contents are. “Thank you for going through the trouble, Yanagi-senpai.”
“Cheer up, Hinoka-san. Seiichi may have found your chuuni self annoying, but he really liked it deep down.” Yanagi got up, walked to the pool and grabbed his shoes, put them on and rolled down his pant legs. “I’ll be taking my leave now, but please don’t hesitate to call me if you need a shoulder to cry on.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Yanagi-senpai. Thank you.”
Yanagi bowed slightly before leaving in silence. Hinoka returned her attention to the mysterious envelope, which had a very familiar theme to it.
“Isn’t this my stationery? It looks so familiar.”
Hinoka took the letter and went inside the house. She ran up to her room and grabbed her big box of stationery and letter sets. Some of the things inside disappeared and she finally knew why and where they went.
“Seiichi-niichan stole them, didn’t he?”
Hinoka put the lid back on the box and shoved the box under her bed. She picked up the letter and plopped onto her bed. Sighing, she carefully opens the envelope, as she wanted to save it for later.
‘Hello Hinoka, Warrior Princess of Neo-Yggdrasil. Have you conquered the demon Belphegor and rid him from possession? ’
“Seiichi-niichan! This handwriting…”
‘I assume you are shocked that you received this letter from Yanagi, yes? Just reading what I just wrote is making me cringe. ’
Hinoka held the letter close to her chest as her eyes started to water. She steadied her breathing by inhaling and exhaling slowly before she continued.
‘By now, I must be dead. That’s why you’re reading this letter right now. Please don’t cry right now. I thought you were the strong, brash warrior princess you promised me you were. Of course, that is if you still believe in that chuuni persona of your’s. ’
Hinoka just stared at the page. She wasn’t really reading what Yukimura wrote, but she was just staring at the word chuuni . All she could think about was that word and the past it held.
Yukimura was just 3 years old when Hinoka was born. He always knew he had to be a role model and watch over his little sister. It was just an accepted role in his life that he had to take. As he watched Hinoka grow, he watched a flame of passion and brashness be lit inside. With the brashness, he noted a distinctive personality attached with it.
On Hinoka’s fourth birthday, she came up to Yukimura with a passionate aura around her that seemed to fill his bedroom with a strange feeling of warmth.
“Seiichi-niichan! I’m a princess!”
“Oh? Is that so, Hinoka?”
“Yes! But I’m not just any princess. I’m a warrior princess from Neo-Yggdrasil! I have been sent here by Odin himself to protect you, the Child of the Gods!”
Yukimura just ruffled her hair and laughed. “Thank you, Hinoka, but I don’t need any protection right now. I’m fine.”
Hinoka pouted. “Just you wait, Seiichi-niichan! I’ll show you!”
Cringing at the thought, Hinoka returned to the letter, partially fearful of what was to come.
‘I missed that side of you, even though I found it so annoying. I really hated when you acted like a chuuni, but I was able to bear it because of the smile you had on your face. I really enjoyed looking at your smile. You stopped acting like that after I got hospitalized again. Why? ’
“I stopped because I’m too old for that stuff now. I thought you found it annoying too. That’s why I stopped.”
When Yukimura was hospitalized the first time around, Hinoka’s attitude started to change. No one seemed to notice at first, but Yukimura seemed to have caught on rather quickly. One day after school, Hinoka was alone with him in his room. Yukimura decided to bring it up.
“You seem gloomy today, Warrior Princess,” he mocked.
Hinoka stared blankly into space. Yukimura clapped his hands together in front of her face, startling her. “Ah!”
“There you are. Will you stop zoning out and looking like a ghost? That’s my job.”
“Seiichi-niichan, please stop being so mean.”
“Nonsense. I’m not being mean. What’s wrong, Hinoka? It’s not like you to be like this.”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just have… A vision.” She tried to reassure herself. ‘Yeah. A vision.”
“A vision of what? Are you sure you’re not sick like me?”
“Yes! The spirits are just… Talking to me! Yeah!”
Yukimura could easily see through her terrible attempt at lying, but he didn't bother to point it out. “Is that so? What are the spirits saying then?”
“Nothing much. They hope you get better, but they can’t help you fight the illness.”
“I see.” Yukimura quickly glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s getting late. You should head home before it gets dark. Should I call Sanada or Yanagi and have one of them walk you home?”
“No, no. I’ll be fine, Seiichi-niichan.” Hinoka stood up and grabbed her stuff. “See you tomorrow, Seiichi-niichan.”
“See you later, Hinoka.”
After Hinoka left the room, Yukimura stopped and thought about their interaction. She suddenly lost the chuuni persona and went back to being a normal human being. He felt slightly disheartened, but he shook his head. He knew it was for the better because she can’t keep acting like this forever. After Yukimura got released from his first stay, Hinoka reverted back to her usual chuuni self, though it was less pronounced than it was before he got sick.
“The Child of the Gods had returned once again!”
“Hello to you too, Hinoka.”
Shuya huffed as he placed down the large suitcase in the foyer of the house. “You should have seen her when you were gone, Seiichi. She was so quiet that we thought she was getting sick too!” He laughed a little before picking up the suitcase again and headed up the stairs to Yukimura’s room.
Hinoka pouted. “Why are you so mean, dad?”
Yukimura ruffled her hair. “I missed you too, squirt. Even if you did come to visit me, it didn't feel the same.”
Hinoka grinned from ear to ear. “What are you talking about, Seiichi-niichan? I’m still the same person!”
“Oh, I know. It’s refreshing, yet annoying.”
When Yukimura got hospitalized for the second time, Hinoka did a complete 180 with her persona. She didn’t even try to actively hide it this time, which worried Yukimura immensely. Her eyes were just hollow and empty every time she would come to see him, but her smile would make anyone second guess how she truly felt. Both himself and Kirihara noticed this sudden change in behaviour.
“Yukimura-buchou, I'm really worried about your sister.”
“I am too, Akaya. She always gets so depressed when she comes here. I'm wondering if she's starting to think that I'm going to kick the can.”
“That's not possible, Yukimura-buchou! The doctors said that this treatment will cure you!”
“They also said that the last time, Akaya. Look where I am now.”
Kirihara’s phone went off. A few texts from Hinoka popped up on the small screen, asking if Kirihara wanted to go visit Yukimura with her. He quickly texted back something along the lines of ‘already here’ before putting the phone down on the table beside Yukimura’s bed.
“I just don't know what to do about her, Yukimura-buchou. Your sister’s a wonderful person and I can’t stand to see her like this.”
“Me neither.” Yukimura turned to look at Kirihara dead in the eyes. “Hey, haven’t you been getting a little too friendly with her?”
Kirihara’s face burned up. “We’re just friends, Yukimura-buchou!”
Yukimura laughed. “I know. I’m just teasing.” A sigh slipped through his pale, cracked lips. “I just wish she would stop looking so gloomy. It’s hard to see her like that.”
“I know what you mean, Yukimura-buchou. Maybe she’ll get over it soon. It’s only been a week since you ended up here. Maybe she just needs some time.”
“I hope so, Akaya.”
Hinoka’s attitude never changed from that state. She kept up the act until the day he died.
‘Whatever the reason may be, I really did miss how cheery you were. It made me feel better, despite all the pain I was going through while I was alive. It hurt me. Even if you did give up that life, I still wish you would’ve smiled when you came to visit. You always had such a somber look on your face, like I was already dead. Obviously, I’m dead now, but back when I was still kicking. ’
“I’m sorry, Seiichi-niichan. I didn’t know.”
‘I’m going to assume you’re apologizing for something you didn’t know and it’s okay. I forgive you because there’s no way to hold a grudge post mortem against your own flesh and blood. ’
Hinoka crawled under her blankets with the letter and curled into the fetal position. She continued to digest the contents of the letter, trying to block off any more emotional responses.
‘I can’t stay mad at you, Hinoka. I can’t. Even if I’m mad at you for not being cheerful despite the fact that I was dying, it’s unjustified for me to be angry. In the end, you’re losing more from me than I’m losing from you. ’
Confused, she flipped the page over.
‘I’m never going to be able to watch you graduate junior high school and high school. I’m never going to see you fall in love with a boy and have to threaten him if he ever dares to hurt you. I’m never going to see your excitement as you get accepted into university. I’m never going to watch you marry and have children. I already failed at being your older brother because I was never able to protect you, especially when I was hospitalized. I’m never going to be able to do any of these things. I’m only losing one thing from you, but you’re losing everything from me. And for that, I’m sorry, Hinoka. I’m sorry I’m taking everything away from you. I’m sorry I’m taking your older brother away from you. ’
By now, Hinoka was hysterical. Yukimura’s words stung so much and they were just too much to handle. Her heavy and sporadic breathing made it hard to stay conscious. She felt so helpless and in pain. With the last ounce of sanity she had left, she quickly grabbed her phone and dialed the last number to call her before her hyperventilated breathing and endless amount of tears made her vision darker and cloudier until there was nothing but darkness.
Hinoka woke up a few hours later with Yanagi sitting at the edge of her bed, reading a book in English.
Yanagi looked up from his page. “Hinoka-san. Are you okay?”
“What happened? Why are you here?” She sat up and rubbed her eyes, which felt red and puffy and painful.
“Judging by the fact that you called me, didn’t say anything, the puffiness of your eyes and how blue your fingers seem to be, I would say you had a panic attack. I never actually left your property because I had a feeling you wouldn’t be okay if you were left alone.”
“A panic attack? What’s that?”
Yanagi closed his book and put it back in his bag. “It’s complicated to explain, but it’s what you experienced a few hours ago. The fear and the hysteria seemed to have triggered it. Was it something inside Seiichi’s letter to you?”
Suddenly, Hinoka remembered what Yukimura wrote in the letter. She felt the emotions come back to her, but Yanagi quickly pulled her into a tight embrace.
“Seiichi-niichan said he was sorry… He was sorry he couldn’t be my older brother anymore…”
Yanagi was stroking her crimson hair, which seemed to have dulled from the night before. She steadied her breathing until she let out an audible sigh.
“Do you feel better now, Hinoka-san?”
“Yes. Thank you for being here, Yanagi-senpai. I’m sorry I’m troubling you.”
“Nonsense. No one should have to go through this alone.”
Hinoka smiled sadly. She picked up the pages she dropped. “I guess I should finish reading this. It’s the least I can do.”
“I’ll give you some privacy, then. I apologize in advance, but I have to go find someone before it gets too late. Your parents will be home in a few minutes, so you won’t be alone for too long. I expect they will bring home news about the funeral and visitation. Please, do let me know if that is the case.”
“I will, Yanagi-senpai. Thank you again.”
Yanagi bowed slightly and exited her room. The front door opened and she heard her parents walk through with the sound of exhaustion in their every step. Hinoka heard a small conversation go on between Yanagi and her parents, though she could not make out any words. She gets up and shuts her door and returns to her bed. Pulling the blankets over her body, she flipped to the final page to finish the letter.
‘I really am glad I got to meet you in the short time I was alive, Hinoka. Even if I couldn’t be the older brother I was supposed to be, I’m really glad you were the little sister I always wanted you to be. Well, minus the whole chuuni thing, but let’s forget about that. If there’s one thing I want you to do for me as my final request, it’s to smile more. You’re still my little sister. You don’t need to bear the heavy burden of growing up quickly. Please smile more and enjoy the little time you have left as a junior high school student. That’s all I wish from you. ’
“You want me to smile more, Seiichi-niichan? Is that all you want from me?”
‘Oh, and do keep this letter a secret from mother and father. This is just between you and me, okay? From older brother to younger sister. It’ll be our little secret, okay? ’
Hinoka nodded at the words he wrote. She smiled weakly.
‘I love you, Hinoka. Please never forget that. I may not be with you physically, but I’ll always be watching over you. Goodbye. Sincerely Yours, Yukimura Seiichi-niichan ’
Hinoka smiled as the last of her tears trickled down her cheeks. She held the letter close to her chest as she sighed, trying to keep herself together.
“Thank you, Seiichi-niichan. Thank you.”
Hinoka’s mother knocked on her bedroom door. “Hinoka? Are you in there?”
“Yes, mom. I’m in here.”
“Are you okay? Look, I know Seiichi’s death was so sudden and-”
“Yes, mom. Believe it or not, I’m fine. I found peace with Seiichi-niichan’s spirit today and he’s telling me to keep my head high,” she lied.
Hinoka’s mother sighed softly, showing no signs of suspicion. “Alright then. Your father and I finished the funeral arrangements for your brother and we want to discuss them with you. Please come downstairs when you’re ready, okay?”
“Alright. I’ll be down soon.”
Hinoka got up and looked at herself in the standing mirror. She slapped her cheeks twice before opening the door and walking downstairs.
It’s only a few minutes past sunset but Yanagi managed to find a borderline sketchy esports café where he knew a certain someone was going to be. He walked into the musty store, where his nose was immediately assaulted by the stench of sweat and other bodily fluids. He scanned the whole store before finding the only kid with the messiest hair.
Kirihara Akaya did not hear Yanagi through the headset and earbuds he was wearing. All he did was madly click his mouse and shoot some characters down in the game he was playing.
Chapter 4: Kirihara Akaya
“HEADSHOT!” Kirihara shouted as he continued to move in the game, shooting more character models. “ I bomb planting A site. Cover! ” he said in broken English as he held down a key and watched his in-game model punch in a code into a rather terribly designed explosive.
A warning screen came up, saying that the bomb has been planted and that there is 40 seconds until detonation. He moved his character behind a box, waiting for the enemy team to come and defuse the bomb. As he heard the sound of the defuse, he would pop out and shoot them down. Sometimes, they would find him before he even had a chance.
That was the new life and sport for Kirihara Akaya. He wasn’t playing tennis anymore as all of his free time has been dedicated to this game. He lived and breathed CounterStrike.
Kirihara never made the cut for the Rikkai high school tennis team, so he fell into recluse. It was during this slump that he accidentally stumbled across a livestream of European boys playing a video game for a prize pool of $1 million. The amount of fire and passion that the players could put into a game and their playstyle grabbed his attention. The huge crowd that gathered to watch excited him even more. The fact that there was virtually no Asian talent within the scene motivated him the most.
It was from that moment on that he would give up tennis and all his aspirations to pursue a career in becoming a professional CounterStrike player.
Much to his teammates’ dismay, he decided he was going to get good at the game and challenge the top of the scene one day. Not even Sanada threatening him would stir him away from his new dream. Besides, the best part about becoming pro in a video game is the lack of borderline supernatural abilities needed to win. The only challenge is getting the Japanese scene bigger, since the only popular esport in Japan is League of Legends. Even so, that scene is small too.
Kirihara is oblivious to the fact that his former captain is gone. He’s been playing and practicing non-stop that he hasn’t even bothered to check the time. His phone was going off like crazy, displaying notifications for several messaging apps, but his focus was 100% on the game. Yanagi let out a sigh of defeat, reached for the headset he was wearing and yanked it off his head while simultaneously shutting off the monitor in front of him.
“Kirihara, please quit your game. We need to talk.”
Kirihara turned around. “Yanagi-senpai?! What the hell, man? I was so close to ranking up to SMFC!”
Yanagi looked at him in a way that sent chills down Kirihara’s spine. “Kirihara, we need to talk. And not just me, but everyone else who sent you a message.” Yanagi picked up Kirihara’s phone and showed him his screen.
“Why is everyone messaging me? I told you guys that I wasn’t coming back.”
“We know you aren’t. That’s not why everyone is messaging you. Now, come. It’s time to go home and I have to tell you something.”
“Fuck off, Yanagi-senpai. It’s not late. I can stay here all I want. This esports café is 24/7. As long as I’m paying, I’m staying.”
“Kirihara, this is important. It’s about Yukimura-”
“I don’t care, Yanagi-senpai. Yukimura-buchou can beg all he wants, but I am not returning to tennis. My passion is this game now. Him being sick won’t sway me into returning. Sanada-fukubuchou even said I wasn’t fit for the team when I tried out a month ago.”
“Sanada said you wouldn’t be placed on a regular position until you impro-”
“Yeah, which is why I left. If I can’t be the star, then it’s not fun for me anymore. In this game, I can be a star player. This game is fun. You’re not changing my mind, Yanagi-senpai. Now, let me get back to my game.”
Yanagi rubbed his temples with his fingers. He pulled out the letter Yukimura had written for him and shoved it into Kirihara’s hand. “My intentions were to not talk you into playing tennis again. My intentions were to tell you about this letter. It’s from Yukimura. Seeing as you won’t listen to me, I’ll let you figure it out on your own. Goodbye, Kirihara.” Yanagi stiffened his back and quickly left the café.
Kirihara took one look at the letter and tossed it beside his monitor. He put his headset back on and turned the screen back on. “ Sorry. Fucking ganked by classmate. Rush A? ”
Kirihara managed to play for another four hours. It was almost 1 AM by the time his tenth game was played. Sighing, he logged out of the computer and picked up his stuff. He forgot about the letter until the shopkeeper stopped him before he left.
“Hey, kid. You forgot something back at your counter.”
“What? No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did. Your senpai came in and gave you an envelope before leaving. I have never seen a man be so calm while so angry. You know the rules. Nothing can be left by a computer before you leave.”
Fuming, Kirihara went back and picked up the envelope and shoved it into his pocket before leaving the café. The shopkeeper just shook his head as he watched him leave.
Kirihara walked to the station before realizing the last train back to his place had already left. Cursing to himself, he took out his phone to try and call someone to bail him out. Greeting him was a plethora of notifications and text messages; almost all of them from his former teammates and his family. Irritated, he opened up his conversation with Marui, who had been spamming him nonstop since the day Yukimura passed.
OI SQUIRT. DID YOU HEAR THE NEWS YET?
“What news?” was Kirihara’s initial reaction. He opened up his chat with Niou.
I can’t believe what just happened. Are you okay?
“What happened? Why are these messages so vague?” He quickly opened up his chat with Yanagi.
Kirihara, I need to talk to you about Yukimura. He wrote a letter for you and I need to give it to you.
Kirihara suddenly remembered the letter that was in his pocket. He quickly dug it out, dropping bits of candy wrappers and used train tickets onto the concrete station grounds in the process. He unraveled it, looking at the way his name was written.
“Yukimura-buchou’s handwriting? Why the hell did he write me a letter? Can’t he just call, like a normal person?”
Kirihara ripped the envelope and pulled out the pages of the letter. He sat down on the stairs leading up to the platform and began to read.
‘Kirihara Akaya, I’m disappointed in you. ’
He scoffed. “What would you know, Yukimura-buchou?”
‘I’m going to assume you said something along the lines of ‘what the hell do I know’, or something of that nature. I’ll just get straight to the point, Akaya. ’
‘I’m dead, Akaya. I died probably two or three days ago, but I’m assuming you didn’t know until now. ’
Kirihara felt his gut twist. “You’re kidding, right?”
‘I’m not kidding, Akaya. I truly am dead. The death wasn’t planned, but seeing as you stopped caring about your former teammates, I’m assuming you just ignored all the text messages from everyone saying that I’m dead. I’m telling you now that I’m dead. If you need further proof, the funeral is probably going to happen next week and Yanagi had already texted you the date, time and place. My dead body will be there, so there’s even more concrete proof. ’
“This is some sort of sick joke, isn’t it? Yukimura-buchou can’t be dead. He was fine the last time I saw him!”
Kirihara took out his phone and scrolled down the chat with Yanagi, ignoring all the texts from him saying that Yukimura passed. Surely enough, Yanagi had given him the date, time and location of the funeral. This only made Kirihara feel more uneasy. He looked at the next line in the letter.
‘If you need even more proof, I have a feeling Hinoka sent you some frantic messages the night I died. ’
Kirihara’s voicemail was filled with messages from Hinoka. He was hesitant to check them as he felt the knot grow tighter and tighter in his abdomen.
‘I will assume I have made my point. Now I shall continue with the actual intention of this letter. ’
His hands felt clammy as he flipped the page over.
‘I remember fondly the first day we met. You were so determined to beat the entire tennis team, who won the Nationals. Obviously, the third years were terrible players and it was easy to beat them. The real threat was Yanagi, Sanada and myself. You learned that the hard way, didn’t you? ’
The day Kirihara decided he would take down the entire Rikkai tennis team was also the first day he watched them play. The day at the nationals was the day he was determined to get into the school. His grades were abysmal, but he somehow managed to ace the entrance exam with flying colours and enrolled in Rikkai. Whether it was by pure, stupid luck or not, he managed to get in and that’s all that mattered to him. One more step taken towards his goal of dominating the best junior high school tennis team.
That was something typical with Kirihara. He would always get an ambition to be the best in something, but he would always lose the ambition if something doesn’t go right along the way. This was always true no matter what. He’s oblivious to this fact, just like he is with everything else in his life. He would always give up in the end and this time was no different from the rest.
After school, he stormed onto the courts with his racket in hand and a spark inside. He was determined to cut down anyone that stood in his path. Game after game, he tired out all the regulars without even breaking a sweat. He smirked triumphantly.
“Is that seriously the best you guys can do? Is this really the legendary Rikkai tennis team?” he taunted.
“What’s all the commotion about?” a voice called out from behind.
Kirihara turned around to be greeted by Yukimura Seiichi as he walked up to him. Yukimura’s feminine demeanor made him look more disgusted.
“Who are you ?”
“I should be asking you that, since you’re disrupting practice.”
“I thought this was the legendary Rikkai tennis team, but you guys aren’t even the real deal. You’re weak.”
“Oh? Is that so?” A chilling smile formed on Yukimura’s face. “How about you play against Sanada, then?”
“Against HIM?” Kirihara pointed his finger at Sanada. “Fine, but it’ll just be a waste of time.”
It did not take Sanada Genichirou much time until he crushed Kirihara’s spirit. Soon after, that weakened spirit was crushed even more by Yukimura and Yanagi.
’You had so much potential, Akaya. I was excited when I played you for the first time. You were surprisingly good, even though I totally beat and embarrassed you. I knew I wanted you on the team. I just had to have you on the team. You were the only person I would want to lead the team when I graduated. That’s why I decided to accept you into a regular position. Sanada wanted you for your raw skill, but I wanted you for your passion on top of your skill. ’
Embarrassed from losing to the three demons, Kirihara doubled his efforts into training. He would not lose again to them. Anger fueled his fiery passion and there was no one around to put out the flames. As Yukimura watched him train from the rooftop garden that week, he chuckled a little.
“That boy sure is something.”
Sanada gave him a confused look. “What do you mean by that, Yukimura?”
“Look at that passion. Sanada, I want him on the team. He’ll be a good captain when I graduate.”
“I hate to kill your dreams, Seiichi, but Kirihara Akaya isn’t exactly the responsible type,” Yanagi chimed in.
“I’m aware of that, which is why I’ll find a responsible vice captain. You two worry too much. I know what I’m doing.”
Sanada snorted. “Captain or not, we cannot deny how good his raw skill is. He will be an asset with how aggressive his playstyle is.”
“I was thinking the same thing too, Sanada. Renji, what about you?”
“I’ll have to look into it more, but I will agree that we need new blood on the team. Perhaps he will change a lot if we pick him up.” Yanagi leaned over the railing and stared at the boy, who was frantically beating the ball at this point.
The next day, Kirihara marched right into Sanada’s classroom and shoved a letter onto his desk before storming out. Yukimura and Yanagi both looked at Kirihara as he left. Sanada picked up the letter and opened it. A look of disgust plastered his face.
“How the hell are you in first year and have handwriting this abysmal?!”
Yanagi put a hand on his shoulder. “Patience, Sanada. What does the letter even say?”
Yukimura leaned over. “I think it’s a request for a rematch.” He laughed softly, but deviously. “I’m quite excited. Aren’t you, Renji?”
“Quite interested. I hope to gain some valuable insight and data.”
Sanada folded the request up. “You both have too much faith in this kid. I’m going to crush him for this horrendous handwriting.”
Later that day, Kirihara showed up at the courts, awaiting the entrance of the three demons. His almost non-existent patience was wearing thin.
“Can they be any more late?! I just want to play!”
Kirihara waited for another five minutes before Sanada made his entrance into the courts. The demonic black aura that seemed to constantly encompass Sanada grew in size, which sent a slight chill down everyone’s spines.
“Now you show up,” Kirihara said sarcastically.
“Learn to respect your elders.” Sanada threw his jacket onto the bench and pulled out his racket. “Show me what you are, Kirihara Akaya!”
After activating bloodshot mode for the first time, Sanada swiftly cut Kirihara down again in spite of it. Defeated, Kirihara sulked until Sanada approached him.
“Not bad. Maybe if you train for another ten years, perhaps you could stand a chance against me.”
“What the hell is it to you? I lost. I’ll leave you alone.”
“We talked about it as a team and decided we want you on a starting position.”
“What? You’re bullshitting me.”
“Yukimura himself said he wanted you on the team. You have potential and we are not stupid enough to let go of this opportunity. We hope you consider this offer, Kirihara Akaya.”
“Wow… Yukimura-buchou really had faith in me…” He felt his eyes well up as he continued.
‘I was right to trust you when I did graduate. You lead the team to victory in the Kanto regionals and to the finals of the Nationals. ’
“But I lost at the nationals to Zaizen’s team. That means nothing.”
‘Even though you lost to Shitenhouji, I couldn’t be more proud. You took down Seigaku in the semis of the Nationals and that’s all that mattered to me: revenge. A vendetta against the team that won against us the year before. ’
His nose felt like it was clogging up from the snot, so he sucked whatever was in his nostrils and let it fall into his stomach.
‘Akaya, I can’t tell you how proud I am of you. That’s why it hurt me when you didn’t make the cut for the high school team. You just gave up and left, fell in love with a video game and cut all communication with us. ’
“I didn’t give up on tennis… I just got bored of it…”
‘I don’t buy that you lost interest. You’re such a quitter and you know it. You faced an impasse and you just quit. Don’t even try to deny that, Akaya. ’
“You’re wrong. What the hell would you know about me anyways? You’re not even alive anymore.”
‘I will assume that you said something insulting and I’ll ignore it, since I don’t need to think about a comeback. I can’t change your mind now, especially since I’m dead and can’t lead the team anymore. If you’re going to pursue this career as a professional video game player, then I hope to God that you don’t give up when someone throws you a curveball. I know the scene is European dominated. I’ve seen those tournaments. It’ll be really hard for you to lead a team, especially a fully Japanese team. You’ll need to work on your English if you want any chance at breaking into the scene. Please, Akaya. Don’t give up on this. You’ll only be crushing yourself more and more if you do. You’re a prideful person and this will only kill you more. ’
“I’m quitting the team.”
Sanada felt something snap in his mind. “What?”
Kirihara slammed his jersey onto the table in the clubroom. “I. Quit.”
Niou smirked. “Nice trick, squirt.”
“It's not a trick, Niou-senpai.”
Yanagi pressed his hand on Kirihara’s forehead to check for a fever. “He's serious.”
Kirihara batted Yanagi’s hand away from him. “Of course I’m serious, Yanagi-senpai! You think I would joke about this?”
Marui flicked his finger against Kirihara’s forehead. “You’re not quitting this team, Akaya.”
“I can and I did!”
“Just, what exactly are you going to do with your free time?” Marui blew a small, green bubble between his thin lips. “Don’t tell me you’re serious about the whole esports thing.”
Kirihara stuck his finger in the bubble, popping it and covering Marui’s mouth. “And what if I am? I’m good at the game and it’s attracting people. People with money and offers to play.”
Niou laughed in his face. “You have got to be kidding me! Esports is not a real thing! Not here in Japan, at least.”
“It is a real thing, Niou-senpai. People like you are the reason why the Japanese scene doesn’t grow.”
“Kirihara, I hate to ruin your dreams even more, but English is the main language used in most competitive games. You barely passed English the year you graduated,” Yagyuu added.
“English isn’t hard, Yagyuu-senpai. I can learn!” Yagyuu rolled his eyes, but Kirihara failed to notice.
Sanada loomed over Kirihara with a murderous gaze. Kirihara just stared back with emotionless eyes. Seeing the fearlessness in his eyes, Sanada eased back, knowing he couldn’t intimidate Kirihara into staying.
“What did Yukimura say then?”
“I already told him, Sanada-fukubuchou. He didn’t say anything.”
Yagyuu coughed. “Are you sure you did not stay long enough to hear what he had to say, Kirihara?”
“Yes! I’m done. I quit. I hate tennis now.” Kirihara stormed out the door of the clubroom, leaving the other second years stunned at what just happened.
“Why in God’s name would he just quit? We just gave him a position as a sub because of the third-”
“The problem is more than that, Marui,” Yagyuu interjected. “We must’ve hurt his pride. Why else would he just leave?”
“Maybe we should ask Yukimura. He did say he already talked to him, piyo.”
Jackal looked around the room. “Wait, where is he?”
“That is odd. Seiichi is never late for a meeting.” Yanagi took out his phone to call Yukimura when Akaya burst through the door, breathless.
“Yukimura-buchou… Hinoka-san said he’s in the hospital,” he said, clearly exhausted from the distance he just ran.
The day Kirihara quit was also the day Yukimura’s condition came back.
Kirihara just stared at the last sentence he read. Yukimura was right about him, even though he refused to admit it. He felt a heavy sense of guilt, remembering the day he left.
‘Lastly, I have a request. You’ll honour your dead former captain’s final request, right? ’
“Only if it’s reasonable, Yukimura-buchou.”
‘I know you have feelings for Hinoka. Why else would you have her number and constantly be around her all the time, listening to her problems? Even though I didn’t want to do that, I was her older brother. I’m not asking for anything unreasonable, but for you to watch over her for me. If she feels the same way towards you, you better reciprocate. If I find out you hurt her in any way, I’ll rob you of your senses in some way. Or I’ll just get Sanada to hurt you. Whatever seems feasible. Hinoka means a lot to me and I entrust that you’ll take care of her for me. ’
The first day of Kirihara being a third year was also the day he felt the world come to a screeching halt. His day was normal and boring, as every other day in March. He woke up late, got ready late, hopped onto the train at the very last minute before it took off and arrived at school just before the bell that signals the first period rang. Since it was the first day, he forgot that the annual opening ceremony would be happening, meaning he rushed for nothing. Fuming, he made his way up to the rooftop, where he met a familiar face and a not so familiar face. His anger dissipated the moment his gaze locked onto the unfamiliar person. His heart sank and his cheeks flushed slightly.
Kirihara regained his composure. “Hokama Sayumi, I didn’t know you’d be up here so late. I thought you were a good noodle.”
The familiar girl turned around and looked at Kirihara. “Oh, hey Kirihara.” She turned back to the other person and continued her conversation from before. “That’s Kirihara Akaya, the new captain of the tennis team.”
“Oh, I know. It’s hard to not know who Kirihara Akaya is,” the unfamiliar person replied. “My brother talked about him a lot.” Kirihara recognized the voice, but could not remember whose voice that was.
He walked up to them. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“How rude of you, Kirihara. You didn’t even introduce yourself yet and you’re already asking questions.”
“Oi, you’re not my mom, Hokama.”
The unfamiliar girl giggled. “Did you really forget who I was, Akaya-senpai?”
Kirihara’s confusion grew more and more. “Yes! Who are you?”
The girl opened her mouth to say something, but Sayumi quickly interrupted. “She’s not going to tell you because you should remember if you knew her from before, Kirihara.”
“What the hell gives you the right to do that, Hokama?”
“You’ll find out sooner or later, Kirihara.” Sayumi bent down to grab the watering can by her feet. “Well, Hinoka-chan, let’s get back to the mini lesson, shall we?” She turned to look at Kirihara. “You can leave now. You’re interrupting the meeting of the new Beautification Committee.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll see you later at the opening ceremony or something,” Kirihara muttered as he left.
After organizing a scouting group for the tennis team, Kirihara escaped the rest of his duties to come back to the rooftop. Yukimura was happily conversing with Sayumi and the mysterious girl from before.
“Ah! There you are, Akaya. I had a feeling you would show up here. Being irresponsible and neglecting your duties already?”
Sayumi snorted. “I told you that he was a terrible choice, Seiichi. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”
“I should be asking myself that when I made you the new head of the committee, Sayumi-san. Rather, I should be asking myself why did I make you the head of the committee? You’re killing the succulent bed. Again .”
“Har har har, Seiichi. I’m responsible and you’re literally in the next building if you need to check on your poor desert plants.”
“Botany is a serious science, Sayumi-san. I expect you to teach my little sister everything she needs to know.”
Kirihara looked at Yukimura confused. “Little sister?”
Yukimura turned his attention to Kirihara. “You forgot about Hinoka already? I mean, she dyed her hair red and cut it really short and started wearing red contacts, but anyone could tell it’s her.”
“Wait, what?” Kirihara quickly gazed at the girl, then back to Yukimura, then back to the girl. Suddenly, the memories just clicked in his mind as his jaw dropped open wide. “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa?”
“Seiichi-niichan, Akaya-senpai completely forgot about me…” Hinoka formed some fake tears in her eyes and sniffled. “Belphegor must’ve turned me into a demon…”
Yukimura rolled his eyes. “You’re all hopeless. Whatever will I do with you guys?”
Kirihara knew from that moment onwards that he was walking on thin ice. Every time he would see her in the halls, his chest would start to hurt and his stomach would flip over on itself multiple times. He had been getting more and more distracted as the days flew by. The next time Yukimura checked in on him, Kirihara was stuck in a trance he could not snap out of until Yukimura had to shake him violently to the point where he accidentally triggered Kirihara’s bloodshot mode.
Kirihara grabbed Yukimura’s neck in a rage before realizing what he did. He quickly let go and snapped out of his trance.
“Yukimura-buchou! I didn't mean to-”
Yukimura raised his hand as he rubbed the area with the other one. “It's okay, Akaya.” Yukimura took out his water bottle and took a swig before coughing a little. “What has gotten into you? You're so distracted that the rest of the team is complaining to me about you. “
“I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me.”
Yukimura leaned in and stared down Kirihara before laughing. “I see it now. You're in love, Akaya.”
Kirihara’s face became flushed. “What?! No way! Nuh! Kirihara Akaya does not fall in love!”
“I won't make you admit who it is, but you really should clear up these feelings, Akaya. You’re making everyone around you worry.”
Kirihara sighed. “I wish I could admit who, Yukimura-buchou. I don't think it would be a good idea, so I’ll learn to let go.”
Yukimura concentrated on Kirihara’s words before reverting back to his usual demeanor. “Then I do expect you to lead the team to the top again, Akaya.”
Kirihara couldn't admit that he fell hopelessly in love with Yukimura Hinoka all because of his relationship with her older brother. He suppressed his feelings for her despite the many advances she would make.
Kirihara’s face was a literal mess of tears and snot, but he failed to notice this happen as he reached the final page of the letter.
‘You need to believe in yourself, Akaya. Perseverance is the only way you’ll ever find success. It was an honour to be your captain for the two short years you played with me. Please, go comfort Hinoka. She really needs you the most right now. May we meet again, in a better life. Farewell, Kirihara Akaya. -Yukimura Seiichi ’
Kirihara crumpled the letter up in his hands and howled as his snot and tears trickled down his face. The utter shock from finishing the letter got to him. Yukimura Seiichi was gone and he never had the chance to see him before he left. He continued to wail loudly until a hooded figure walked up and sat beside him. They lifted their hood and much to Kirihara’s surprise, it was Yukimura Hinoka. Hinoka pulled out a packet of tissues, took one out and wiped up his face.
“Akaya-senpai, please don’t howl like a wolf. It’s really late at night and someone’s going to call the police on you.”
Kirihara took the tissue from Hinoka and blew his nose strongly. He sniffled afterwards and took another tissue to clean up. “Hinoka-san, why are you out here so late? It’s dangerous to be by yourself.”
“I was going to say the same thing to you, Akaya-senpai. To be honest, I couldn’t really sleep, so I snuck out.” Hinoka looked out into the distance, not focused on any specific point with her empty eyes. “I’m assuming you missed the last train back?”
Kirihara still sniffled a little. “Yeah.”
“Why are you crying, Akaya-senpai?”
Kirihara sighed. “It’s complicated, Hinoka-san.”
“I’m not busy right now. I can listen.”
Kirihara smiled sadly. “You’re too kind, Hinoka-san, but it’s not something I should be troubling you with.”
Hinoka turned her attention to Kirihara. “Well, if you don’t want to say anything, may I?”
“Go ahead. I’m all ears.”
Hinoka sighed, but Kirihara noted the slight tremble in her breathing. “Seiichi-niichan wrote me a letter before he died.”
Kirihara’s eyes widened, but he didn’t say anything about his letter. “He did? What did it say?”
Hinoka hugged her knees. “A lot of things. It was really hard to read. I can’t bring myself to read it again because it hurts so much.” Her breathing started to get faster as her navy blue eyes welled up. “I miss him, Akaya-senpai. I miss Seiichi-niichan. I wish I got to say goodbye but- but-”
Unconsciously, Kirihara wrapped his arm around her and pulled her in. Hinoka buried her face into his jacket and sobbed uncontrollably. His own frustrations and sadness flowed out with her. “I know, Hinoka-san. I know.”
Kirihara stared up at the sky. Though the flaming passion for tennis was gone, he was more determined than ever to complete his goal now. The stray star in the night sky twinkled softly and all he could do was nod. Turning his attention back to Hinoka, he closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing.
“I swear I’ll protect Hinoka for you, Yukimura-buchou, ” he thought to himself. He opened his eyes again to see Hinoka calming down. “It's late. I'll walk you back home.”
Hinoka finished wiping her face with the last tissue in the packet. They got up and started heading towards the spacious estate. Kirihara’s heart felt like it was sinking more and more with each step he took. As they approached Hinoka’s home, she held Kirihara’s hand and lead them inside. Confused, Kirihara looked at her. She motioned towards the couch and they sat down together. Hinoka clinged onto his arm and they sat in silence. Kirihara decided to break the silence.
“I like you, Akaya-senpai,” she whispered, making sure not to wake up her parents.
Lost for words, Kirihara could only muster a sound that signalled his confusion.
“I like you, Akaya-senpai. Why is that hard to understand?”
Kirihara sighed. “Look, Hinoka-san, I know I’m crazy for saying this, but you’re not thinking straight. You don’t like me. You’re just stricken with grief to think rationally.”
“I’m not. Don’t you like me too, Akaya-senpai?”
Kirihara looked at her. “I do, Hinoka-san. I do. I’ve always liked you, but I can’t. Not like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t do this. My former captain just died and the love of my life, who also happened to be his little sister, is confessing her feelings to me. How can I be selfish like this? This isn’t my story we’re telling here right now; it’s your brother’s.” Kirihara took a big breath. “I’m sorry, Hinoka-san. I can’t return your feelings right now.” He held her face and planted a light peck on her lips. “If you still feel the same after the funeral and you had more time to think about it, then I’ll return your feelings. Right now, I made a promise to your brother and I can’t break it.”
Hinoka stared at Kirihara with her watery eyes. “Are you saying that I don’t deserve to be happy? That you don’t deserve to be happy?”
Kirihara sighed. He stood up and turned to look at her before picking her up and taking her up to her room. The utter shock from the entire situation, coupled with the hours of sleep deprivation made Hinoka completely silent the entire time. Kirihara opened the door to her bedroom and placed her onto the bed. He loomed over her as he pinned her arms down.
“If this was any other day of the week, I’d be jumping at this chance. You need to understand that you’re tired and not thinking straight. Please, just get some sleep and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Hinoka trembled under the strength of his grip. “You’re hurting me.” Kirihara let go of her wrists and sat down on the side of the springy mattress with his back facing her. She slung her arms around his shoulders. “Please, don’t leave. I’m so alone right now…”
Kirihara held onto her hands. “I know. I promised your brother I wouldn’t leave you alone.” He turned around and held her in his arms as they both laid down on her bed. She curled up close to his chest and cried for the umpteenth time before the deprivation caught up to her. Kirihara only watched as he felt his eyelids give in shortly after Hinoka had already drifted to sleep.
Chapter 5: Atobe Keigo
After Yanagi left Kirihara to his own devices, he promptly went home. Exhausted from what happened the past 48 hours, he secluded himself in his room. Looking through the pile of letters he still had, one envelope stood out from the rest; the one addressed to Atobe Keigo. The whole aesthetic feel to the letter was tailored to Atobe’s tastes. The thin, gold foil border around the edge of the front of the sleek, navy blue paper with a golden wax seal on the back was just something that only Atobe would know how to appreciate. Yanagi stared at the way the seal shimmered in his dimly lit room. He pulled out his cell phone and quickly punched in a number.
“Renji,” the person on the other side answered, as if he was expecting the call.
“I have heard of Yukimura-san passing not too long ago. My condolences.”
“Thank you, Sadaharu.”
“Was there something else you wanted to speak to me about?”
“Indeed. Sadaharu, do you know how I can get a letter to Hyoutei’s Atobe Keigo in as little time as possible?”
Yanagi could hear the smile forming on Inui’s face. “Of course. Atobe Keigo always has someone in every part of this country.”
Yanagi listened carefully to Inui as he explained in meticulous detail about the location of one of Atobe’s servants. Quietly taking mental notes, he felt slightly exhausted from the amount of details he needed to remember.
‘This feels like some strange story filled with plot holes written by someone who is not good at writing at all,’ Yanagi thought to himself.
The next day, Atobe Keigo woke up devoid of all energy and willpower. He tried to force himself out of bed, only to fall onto the ground. His butler, Michael, was waiting by his bedside as he fell.
“It’s way too early to get up…” Atobe muttered.
“Good morning, Young Master Keigo.”
Atobe groaned as he continued to lay on the cold carpet. “Good morning, Michael.”
“Do you require assistance, Young Master Keigo?”
Atobe sighed as he pulled himself up. “I am fine, Michael. Please tell me I have nothing planned for today.”
“I am afraid you have already made prior obligations to pick out your attire for the funeral.”
Atobe felt slightly annoyed that he had forgotten. Ever since Yukimura passed, he hasn’t been feeling like his normal self. Atobe knew the death was sudden and suspicious. He knew more about Yukimura’s condition than even Yanagi and the amount of money his family made would have been more than enough to afford good medication and treatment. Yet, despite all of this, Yukimura was dead. A part of Atobe couldn’t accept that. A part of Atobe refused to believe that the doctors simply let him die.
“When is the appointment?”
“In three hours, thirteen minutes and eleven seconds.”
Atobe got up and dragged himself to his enormous closet to try and dress himself. If there’s one thing he hated more than his prior obligations, it was not looking his best for said obligations. Despite his hatred for these things, he was also the son of a wealthy and influential Japanese businessman. Not honouring his prior commitments was something he couldn’t do.
“I don’t even know what to wear.”
“It is quite a warm and sunny day today, Young Master Keigo. Might I suggest a sky blue dress shirt and khaki capris and black slip-ons?”
“Oh screw it. I’ll take your suggestion Michael.”
Michael smiled slightly. “Glad I could be of assistance, Young Master Keigo. Might I suggest using the bathroom first before you get dressed?”
Atobe sighed as he rubbed his eyes. “Today is just not my day, Michael.”
“I had a feeling, Young Master. Is the death in the Yukimura residence bothering you?”
“Yes! It’s just not like Yukimura Seiichi to give up like that! Something must’ve happened to him and I won’t rest well until I figure it out.”
Michael gave Atobe a concerning look. “Perhaps the young master-”
“No, Michael. Yukimura Seiichi would never be the type to take his own life. That’s just unthinkable.”
“That is not what I was implying, Young Master Keigo. We do not know for certain.” Seeing this as an opportunity, Michael changed the subject. He glanced at his silver-plated wristwatch, noting that a considerable amount of time has passed. “My! It’s almost 10. I shall leave you alone whilst you prepare yourself for the day, Young Master Keigo.” Michael bowed before quickly exiting through the large doors to Atobe’s bedroom.
Atobe dragged himself into the bathroom. He promptly stripped and stepped into the shower, turning the cold water on. It didn’t bother him that the water was freezing. It was his weird way of thinking about important things in life. The cold water can bring him back to reality when he becomes lost in his thoughts.
“There’s no way he could. That’s not like him at all.”
His thoughts started to drift off to the moment he first met the azure-haired boy.It was another one of those “special dinners” that Atobe’s father was planning. This time, it was between the company and a new and emerging advertising company. Though Atobe only knew that the advertising company was being run by an old friend of his father’s, he knew he had to be on his best behaviour. He decided it was a good day to try and dress himself for the dinner, even though he wouldn’t be eating with them. His only job for the night was to keep the child of the friend company while their parents talked about an important deal.
“Remember, Keigo, these people are very old and good friends of mine. Try not to have too much fun so that you leave a bad impression with them,” Atobe’s father, Keisuke, said as he finished adjusting his tie in the mirror.
“Of course, father.”
Atobe's mother, Shizuka, fussed around with his hair, trying to make the loose strands stay in place. “You may have dressed yourself properly, but you really should learn how to manage your own hair, Keigo.” She sighed as her attempts to tame the beast on his head failed miserably.
“Oh, stop bothering with his hair, Shizuka. He looks fine.”
“You know I can't do that, Keisuke. Just look at it.”
One of the butlers poked their head into the room. “The Yukimuras have arrived, Master Keisuke.”
“Already? That was quick.” Keisuke turned to face the butler. “We will be down there soon.”
The butler nodded their head and went back to the foyer. The three of them followed suit quickly afterwards. In the foyer, a man with striking blue hair stood talking with another woman and a child. Keisuke grinned and headed towards the man with open arms.
“Shuya! It's been so long,” Keisuke exclaimed as he went in for a hug. “How have you been?”
“Jeez, Keisuke. You've been letting yourself go,” the man replied. “Shizuka-san, I am deeply sorry that you have to put up with him,” he said sarcastically.
Shizuka smiled. “Don't worry about it, Shuya-san. I wouldn't have it any other way.”
“Hey now. You're the one to talk. You look like a zombie with those ugly circles under your eyes!”
The woman chuckled slightly. “Oh, you are such a brute, Keisuke-san. Shuya looks fine the way he is.”
A young, mildly androgynous child stood beside Yukimura Shuya, looking very confused. Atobe approached the child and bowed. “I’m Atobe Keigo.”
The other child bowed as well. “I’m Yukimura Seiichi.”
That night was the first and last night Atobe saw the young Yukimura child. Soon after, he left for England and did not return to Japan until the start of middle school.
Thankfully, he was snapped out of his trance by a knock on the bathroom door. An hour had passed, though Atobe felt like it had only been a few minutes since he stepped in. Sighing, he turned off the water and shivered as the cool breeze coming from the gap underneath the door sent a chill down his spine. He went back to his closet and put on Michael’s outfit suggestion for the appointment later on and walked downstairs.
One of the maids turned her head and noticed him walking down the stairs. “Will you be eating breakfast today, Young Master Keigo?”
“I don’t think I will. I’m not feeling too well.”
The maid nodded and returned back to the kitchen to inform the chefs. Atobe’s dog, Beat, approached him from behind and started to lick his hand. Atobe bent down and began to scratch behind Beat’s ears. “If only my life could be as easy as your’s.”
As Atobe continued to dote on his dog, the doorbell suddenly chimed. Michael walked past the two to answer the door. One of Atobe’s servants who was usually in Yokohama greeted Michael. The two at the door exchanged a few words before the servant handed over a blue envelope to Michael and left briskly. Michael closed the door and walked towards Atobe.
“A special letter for you, Young Master Keigo.” Michael gingerly handed the letter over.
Atobe gracefully accepted it. He started to analyze the small details on the letter, noticing that the golden wax seal holding it shut was poorly done. “Who could this be from?”
“The letter is from Yanagi Renji-san, according to the sources. I am afraid I have no other information other than this letter must be in your hands as swiftly as possible, Young Master Keigo.”
“Yanagi-san? Why would someone like him waste my resources to get a letter to me?” Atobe studied the handwriting of his name on the front of the letter, noting that the strokes were fairly shaky. “This does not look like Yanagi-san’s handwriting.”
An alarm on Michael’s phone went off. “Dear me, it looks like it is time to head to the appointment, Young Master Keigo. if you will excuse me, I shall go bring the car up front for you.” He bowed before disappearing.
Atobe took one more glance at the letter before stuffing it into his pocket hastily and walking out the door and getting into the car. “Let’s get this done as soon as possible.” The driver nodded as he began to head towards the front entrance of the estate.
Atobe’s suit fitting took longer than expected mostly because his body has gotten slightly less healthy than the last time he was there. Exhausted, he retired to his room as soon as he got home. Despite his growing abdominal pains from hunger, he couldn’t bring himself to bother eating. Sighing, Atobe collapsed into his soft, pillowy comforters. He felt something scratching his right thigh and reached into his pocket to pull out the blue envelope from earlier.
“Why would Yanagi-san send this? Should I even bother opening it?”
Curiosity influenced him enough to turn the envelope over and break the poorly applied gold seal. He carefully removed the papers inside and set the envelope on the table beside his bed. He propped himself up and opened the thick stack of papers.
‘Atobe Keigo, you have really let yourself go. ’
“A letter written to insult me? That is very atypical of Yanagi-san.”
‘I do hope Yanagi found a way to get this letter to you as quickly as possible. I can’t keep someone like you in the dark because your ego is so fragile. ’
Atobe concentrated on the handwriting to figure out who wrote the letter. The handwriting was very shaky and unclean, yet had some sort of elegance to it. It felt too familiar to him, but yet he was unable to figure out who it could be.
‘I also should apologize. My handwriting is terrible, but please forgive me for being so sick that I can’t write. ’
Suddenly it clicked. “Yukimura Seiichi. How dare you insult me post mortem?” Atobe smirked as he continued to read.
‘I hope this letter set is to your liking. It was very expensive and annoying to obtain while I was losing my ability to walk and do anything in general. I tried my best to make it look as nice as I possibly could, but I probably failed to in the end. ’
“I suppose there is no harm in forgiving you, but I won’t let you forget it either.”
‘Now then, where do I begin? I don't have much to talk about, but I should start with something good. You were not always such an asshat, but middle school changed you a lot. I remember when Hyoutei and Rikkai met during the Kanto Regionals. I’m sure you do as well. ’
A sad smile crept onto Atobe’s face. “How could I forget?”
It was just another day at the Kanto regionals. Nothing was out of the ordinary, but due to bad seeding, a third round match between Hyoutei and Rikkai was set to take place within a few hours. Everyone was dreading the match, including a very young Atobe Keigo. It was his first Kanto regionals and he was determined to emerge victorious. Even so, his heart was heavy as he was to go up against the monsters from Rikkai so early in the tournament. It was decided that the final singles match was going to be between Atobe and Rikkai’s new captain, the young Yukimura Seiichi. It had been years since Atobe last saw Yukimura and he was quite content and disheartened to be meeting him again in a place like this. Sighing, Atobe watched the other third round matches while he waited for his to start.
“How much longer until our match starts? I have no time or patience to wait for these low-skilled commoners to finish their match,” he muttered to himself.
“There’s still another hour until our schools face each other, Atobe Keigo,” a voice called out behind him.
Atobe turned around on the heels of his feet. “Who said that?” A familiar, feminine blue-haired figure caught his attention. “Yukimura Seiichi. It has been a long time.”
“I would like to congratulate you for becoming the new captain of the Rikkai tennis team.”
“And I you. I hear you caused quite the stir during the opening ceremony as the freshmen representative.”
“Naturally. A king must make his grand entrance during his coronation after all.”
Yukimura laughed softly. “You have changed a lot, Atobe-san. Let’s see how well your team will hold up to mine.”
Atobe scoffed slightly. “The winner will be Hyoutei under my leadership.”
“I wouldn’t count on that, but regardless, I wish you the best of luck.” Yukimura held out his hand.
Atobe grabbed his dainty and elegant hand and shook it firmly. “Whoever wins this match will win the regionals.”
Later that day, Hyoutei suffered a crushing defeat without winning a single game to the monsters of Rikkai. Atobe and Yukimura did not get to meet on the court after all.
’Naturally, Rikkai won. Anything less than victory is a complete failure that I would not tolerate. You did not handle defeat as easily as I thought you would. Perhaps it was the nature of how you lost that made it difficult to stomach. ’
“Not a single game was won. I didn’t even get to play.”
‘That day, I learned just how much you have changed. I’m not sure what happened in England to make you like this, but damn, it’s annoying as fuck. I shouldn’t be the one complaining though since I also was arrogant back then. Maybe not as flamboyant as you were with your arrogance, but still. ’
Atobe scoffed. “What do you know at all, Yukimura Seiichi?”
‘You got worse after that loss. Remember the year after at the same regionals? It was like our meeting at the finals was destined. I never knew someone like you could get worse in such a short period of time. You were so hungry for the victory back then. ’
The Kanto regionals the year after saw a final between Hyoutei and Rikkai. Both teams breezed through all the rounds leading up to the fateful encounter. Arrogance and pride were brimming from both teams as they were both expected to face off in the finals. Being the favourites would bring lots of pressure to children this age, but the pressure seemed to make the both of them come out on top. Both student bodies from the respective schools were out in full force, shouting cheers and bringing up the energy and morale of each team. Yukimura’s calm demeanor as he discussed tactics differed completely from the pride plastered on Atobe’s.
“You are way too self-absorbed, Atobe,” Oshitari Yuushi sighed.
“Nonsense, Oshitari. The winner will be Hyoutei.”
“The winner will not be Hyoutei if you do not get over here and talk strategy with the team.”
Atobe scoffed. “There’s no such thing as strategy in tennis. It’s all about skill and technique. We are not planning for a war, Oshitari. We are merely battling.”
“And battles happen in wars . We need to discuss a game plan, Atobe.”
“Why would we have to? We already submitted our lineup. We know what the matchups will be. There’s nothing left to do other than to be excellent during the match.”
Oshitari sighed and rubbed his temples. “You really are something, Atobe…”
Deep inside, there was a seed of doubt within Atobe as well as a burning flame for revenge against Yukimura. He felt the obligation to win this match, which is creating an immense amount of pressure for himself. He was unaware of what he was doing to himself the more he fumed over this situation. Soon enough, he was lost in his own madness while the rest of his team struggled to take even one game off of their demonic opponents. He finally snapped out of his trance when he heard his name being called up to play.
“Atobe! Snap out of it and get your ass out on the court!”
Atobe scoffed. “I’m going. No need to remind me.”
“ Now announcing the Singles 2 matchup: Rikkai’s Yukimura Seiichi versus Hyoutei’s Atobe Keigo. ”
Yukimura slowly walked onto the court with his usual smiling demeanour. “It’s been a while, Atobe.”
“You seem pressured. How unusual for you.”
“Me? Pressured? Hardly.”
Yukimura chuckled. “If you say so. Let’s put on a show for the crowd. They’ve been bored by the last two 6-0 sets.”
“The winner will be Hyoutei, Yukimura. Let’s not hold back.”
Within the blink of an eye, the first game goes swiftly to Yukimura. Atobe quickly retaliated by taking the next game off of the fearless, azure-haired boy. The set quickly continues with each respective captain trading points and games until they both reach an impasse at 5-5. Both were quickly tiring out, but Yukimura had yet to reveal his trump cards.
“I’m quite impressed, Atobe. You really have improved,” Yukimura commented.
Atobe shot an annoyed look at him. “You’re going easy on me. Is this a joke to you, Yukimura?”
“Hardly. I just have no need to show you my true strength.”
“Treating me like a mere commoner? How pathetic.” Atobe picked up the ball, preparing to serve. “If you won’t reveal yourself, I’ll just have to force it out of you!” He hit the ball directly down towards Yukimura’s feet, but it was gracefully returned to the other side. Atobe ran quickly for the ball and hit it, only to feel absolutely nothing in his hand. His weak return allowed Yukimura to approach the net and smash the ball, retrieving the first point of the game.
‘ What was that just now? I couldn’t even feel the ball hit my racket. What’s going on? ’
Annoyed, Atobe hit another serve towards the other side, but he had yet to regain feeling in his hand. As Yukimura returned the serve, the familiar sound of the ball hitting the racket faded into white noise.
‘ What’s happening to my hearing? What is going on? ’
The crowd stared in confusion. Looks of worry were plastered on the faces of the Hyoutei team. This was very out of character for Atobe. He looked as if he had never played a single game in his life. Yanagi and Sanada exchanged glances as they have both accepted what is about to happen.
“I never thought it would be Atobe Keigo, of all people,” Yanagi whispered to Sanada.
Sanada just nodded as he continued to watch. The two of them knew what was coming, but couldn’t take their eyes off for a single second.
“What’s wrong, Atobe? Is this truly the strength of Hyoutei’s beloved captain?” Yukimura taunted as Atobe served again. He was losing his sense of reality as the game progressed.
“I can’t believe this,” Oshitari interjected. “He has the yips.”
“Atobe? Yips? Impossible!” Shishido retorted.
“Just look at him. This must be the true strength of the so-called ‘Child of the Gods’.”
Soon enough, Atobe collapsed to his knees, unable to see a thing. He was out of options and lost for what to do. Yukimura smiled and got into the serving position for the next game. As the pressure kept mounting, Atobe suddenly felt chills run down his spine as he stood up. Unable to accept defeat, he let out a manic cry, which caught everyone by surprise. The scream followed by a sinister laugh.
“How pathetic. This is your true strength, Yukimura?! Stealing my senses until I can’t do a damn thing? You really are something.”
Yukimura didn’t say anything and just served the ball to start the next game. As the ball rushed past Atobe’s head, he could suddenly see again, albeit the view was quite strange.
The world Atobe saw was quite dark and grey. He could make out the faintest outline of Yukimura on the other side, but that outline was surrounded by massive ice crystals sticking out from the court. All he could do was stare in awe at the sight of this ‘world’ as the next serve flew past him.
With a smirk, Atobe braced himself for the next serve towards him. Yukimura aimed for his left side, which Atobe returned back, aiming at one of the ice crystals. As the ball hit the crystal, it shattered. Yukimura couldn’t even see the ball as it came back at him.
“Oh? It seems like you got your vision back, Atobe.”
Atobe smirked. “What are you saying? My vision didn’t just come back. It got better.”
‘I never planned on revealing my true nature until much later, but you were just so arrogant. I knew you’d never let me live it down if I didn’t use my full strength when you were putting everything into the match. Turns out you had a skill too and it backfired on me. Well, almost backfired on me, I should say. I don’t even think you realized you had this skill either. What did you even call it again? I can never remember these ridiculous names. Something with ‘ice’? Not that it matters anymore.’
Atobe chuckled softly. “Even though you’re dead, you still manage to run that damn mouth of yours.”
‘I was rather shocked that it took my cursed abilities to activate your true potential. It helped you in the end. Brought us to a tiebreaker, only for me to win. Regardless, it was a very close match. Almost fun in a sense. I just wish it wasn’t my last match before my Guillain-Barre decided to rear its ugly head.’
A frown began to form on his face.
‘I’m almost certain now that you’re questioning the circumstances around my death. After all, this letter is quite suspicious, don’t you think? How would I know that my time is near?’
Atobe quickly flipped to the next page.
‘I knew the medicine was failing. If it was working, I would be feeling pain and quite a lot of it. The fact that I can barely feel the pen i’m using to write this means it’s not working. My time was coming to an end and I just knew it.’
A shiver went down his spine and he continued to read.
‘It just seems unnatural to suffer painlessly. Normally, when you can’t breathe, you feel pain. When you’re dying, you can feel pain. I can’t feel anything. I knew my lungs were giving up, but I don’t feel the same kind of feeling one would get when they’re suffocating. Every cough and gasp for air felt like nothing. Doesn’t that just seem unnatural?’
Confused, Atobe strained his eyes to make out the shaky strokes in Yukimura’s writing.
‘Humans are fickle creatures. We don’t want to feel pain, but the ability to feel pain is a sign that we’re alive and that we can sense danger around us. What does that make me? I can’t feel anything. Is it unnatural to want to feel pain? Is it unnatural for me to want to feel pain as I die?’
He flipped to the last page of the letter, but by then, the writing was barely legible.
‘I guess I’ll never find out that answer. I probably just suffocated to death and I didn’t even feel a thing. Everyone wants a painless death, but I couldn’t disagree more. To be able to feel your own death just seems like a “human” thing to experience, yeah? Then again, was I ever really a human? I wonder.’
Confused, Atobe kept reading.
‘Oh well. Enough of my rambling. This is my farewell to you. I mostly wrote this so you wouldn’t be offended for not getting one. You have always been a good acquaintance to me, Atobe Keigo. A very formidable opponent when you weren’t caught up in your massive ego. You’d be a much better player if you toned that down by a lot. Not that I’ll be able to test that theory out anymore. Last I heard, you’ve given up tennis competitively and I’m dead, so there goes that. What a shame.’
He folded up the letter and tossed it onto his desk. “I’ll make sure you pay for this, Yukimura Seiichi. Mark my words, I’ll make sure to kick your ass in Heaven someday,” he smiled fondly as his eyes began to water. He rubbed his eyes and walked out of his room, only to be greeted by Michael yet again.
“You seem to be in better spirits, Young Master Keigo.”
“Yes, I am. I’m going to make Yukimura Seiichi pay for what he’s done.”
Michael looked at him surprised. “I am not quite sure I follow.”
Atobe let out his characteristic laugh. “You don’t need to, Michael. I know exactly what I’m going to do, but it’ll have to wait for a very long time.” He walked over to one of his storage rooms and pulled out his dusty and old tennis bag. He pulled out his old racket and began to check the tension on the string and the overall condition of it.
“In the meanwhile, I’m going to go practice. I’ll be in the usual spot if you need me.” He put the racket back in his bag and swung it over his shoulder. He headed for the stairs and walked out of the estate.
“Welcome back, Young Master Keigo,” Michael sighed with relief.
Later in the night, Yanagi was preparing his funeral attire for tomorrow. He hung his newly, dry cleaned blazer and trousers on the back of his bedroom door. Sighing, he slipped the stack of letters into the inner lining pocket.
“Here’s to hoping I can get all of these off of my hands tomorrow.”
He did some light stretches before shutting off his desk lamp and going to sleep. He mentally prepared himself to say goodbye one final time before the exhaustion took over.
Chapter 6: Niou Masaharu, Yagyuu Hiroshi, Marui Bunta, Jackal Kuwahara
After a week of sleepless nights, Yanagi Renji finally slept soundly and woke up refreshed and ready for a heavy day of crying and celebration. He jumped out of bed and got ready quickly. He glanced at the black suit that hung on his door and pale blue tie; Yukimura’s favourite colour. Yanagi put the suit on and checked himself in the mirror for any imperfections. Sighing, he double checked the pocket on his blazer to make sure the letters were in there. Looking at himself one more time in the mirror, Yanagi headed towards the dining room to eat something light before heading out.
“Good morning, Renji,” his mother greeted him.
“Good morning, mother.”
“Big day, yeah?” His mother set down a bowl of rice with grilled salmon and some miso soup in front of him. “This might seem like a lot, but I don’t want you to be starving on such an important day. Please try to eat as much as you can.”
Yanagi smiled weakly. “I will try my best, mother. Thank you.”
Sanada’s family picked up Yanagi and they drove off towards the temple. It was a very cloudy day outside, though no rain was falling. When they reached the temple, Sanada quickly excused himself and disappeared into the crowd of people. A lot of the tennis circuit was there for the service. Yanagi noted that many had come from all different parts of Japan, including Higa’s Kite and Shitenhouji’s Kenya and Shiraishi. Hyoutei’s Atobe was also present, though he was seated already near the front of the room alongside his parents.
Yukimura lay still in the white cotton lining of the mahogany casket. His pale face and dull, purple-grey hands stood out from the dark navy colour of his kimono. A wooden tennis racket, fashioned into a similar model of the one Yukimura used the most, was placed within his hands. A single tennis ball was placed on the side of the body. His old Rikkai tennis jacket was placed over the kimono in a similar manner to how he donned it on the courts. In a way, he looked like he was sleeping peacefully. Unfortunately, he would never stir from this slumber.
The atmosphere around Yanagi resonated with shock and confusion more than sadness and anger. Yanagi surveyed the people around him and noted that many were crying, but none were devastated, save Yukimura’s family. Kirihara Akaya took the seat beside Yanagi and sighed heavily. Yanagi noted the dark circles under his eyes.
“Hello, Kirihara,” Yanagi began.
Kirihara avoided eye contact with Yanagi and started uncomfortably at others around him. Yukimura Hinoka noticed the messy-haired teen and started to look uncomfortable as well. It didn’t take Yanagi long to piece together what exactly happened. He turned to look at Kirihara, who was actively avoiding looking at Hinoka.
“Did something happen between you and Hinoka-san last night?”
Kirihara froze, unable to respond. His face turned a bright red as he sunk deeper into the chair.
“I did not take advantage of her, Yanagi-senpai. I swear on my life,” Kirihara responded quietly.
Knowing he was speaking the truth, Yanagi decided to not press the issue further.
Marui and Jackal quietly shuffled through the crowd and sat down beside Kirihara without uttering a word to anyone else. Yanagi noticed their puffy, red eyes as well and knew that they had both spent the night crying over the loss of their captain and friend. The three of them exchanged glances and a small head nod of acknowledgement of each other's presence before turning back to face the front of the altar. Yagyuu and Niou were exchanging a few words of condolences with Yukimura's father, as well as presenting a small, decorated white envelope containing condolence money on behalf of the tennis club. Sanada had reemerged and took his seat at the front of the room alongside his parents and Yukimura's family.
The funeral itself was a solemn affair. The priests chanted the sutras as Yukimura’s family offered incense to the spirits. As the priest finished his sermon, Sanada was summoned to present the eulogy in front of the mass. The stoic boy stood up from his seat and moved towards the altar. He pulled out a folded stack of papers from his suit jacket and unfolded them. He cleared his throat.
“Yukimura Seiichi was a friend to all of us. No one can deny that he had a passion for tennis and did everything he could to play the game he loved. When he wasn’t playing, he was pulling a lot of strings behind the scene as the captain of the Rikkai Tennis Team and as a head of the Beautification Committee. He did everything he could to support everyone in his life so that we would all strive to be our best. He never stopped fighting for what he believed in and what he dreamed of doing. Even now, I cannot help but admire his resolve and mental fortitude. We have all lost a great person today, but we will never forget the path that he had forged for us.”
As Sanada finished his eulogy and stepped down from the altar, he picked up a pale yellow lily and walked towards the casket. He gently laid the single flow down beside Yukimura’s right ear, bowed and went back to his seat. As he returned, the rest of the mass stood up and began to form a single file line to pick up and lay down the various flowers beside Yukimura’s head and shoulders. Many of the guests whispered small wishes or final words to the deceased boy’s ears. As Yanagi approached the casket, he tucked the whiite dahlia he was holding behind Yukimura’s left ear. He stopped to admire how graceful his friend looked.
“I swear I will keep your promise, Seiichi,” he whispered before stepping away.
When the ceremony ended, Yukimura’s family along with Sanada had left the temple to head to the off-site crematorium along with the sealed casket. The rest of the Rikkai Tennis Team were waiting outside the temple grounds for Yanagi.
“There he is,” Marui called out as he waved at Yanagi. “We’re waiting for you, Yanagi.”
“Hello,” Yanagi greeted. “Thank you for waiting.”
“Of course, Yanagi-kun,” Yagyuu responded as he adjusted his glasses. “When you said you needed us to stay after the service, we couldn’t just say no.”
“I do appreciate all of you for agreeing to meet with me. I know Seiichi’s death was so sudden and it must be hard for all of you.”
Jackal nodded. “It’s so strange how he’s just… gone .”
Niou turned his face away, as he tried to hide the single tear that was falling from his eye. “He wasn’t supposed to die. The treatment this time was supposed to cure him. This is too cruel.”
The five boys stood in silence as the tension in the air grew. Yanagi broke the silence with a cough.
“I asked you all to meet with me because I was told to give all of you these.” Yanagi reached into his suit pocket and pulled out four identical envelopes, each addressed to Niou, Yagyuu, Marui and Jackal. “They are from Seiichi.”
“Hey now,” Marui began as his eyes teared up, “that’s not fair, Yukimura.”
The boys each took the envelope addressed to them. All four of them wanted to open the letter right then and there, but were afraid of the Pandora’s Box that lurked within.
“Thanks, Yanagi,” Niou said as he examined the handwriting on the front. “Will we still need to show up for practice tomorrow?”
Yanagi shook his head. “Let’s all take some time off. I don’t feel right returning to the courts so early.”
Jackal nodded. “Good call.”
“That’s all I wanted from the four of you. Thank you again for meeting with me.” Yanagi bowed at his teammates. “I have more things to do for Yukimura, so I shall be taking my leave.”
The five of them nodded at each other before dispersing, each heading their own separate ways home.
“Oi, Yagyuu,” Niou called out to his bespectacled friend, “what do you think is in the letter?”
“Who can say for sure? We won’t know unless we open it, Niou-kun.”
“But you’re afraid of opening it, aren’t you, Yagyuu?”
“The same could be said about you, Niou-kun.”
The two stopped as they both realized they were feeling the exact same way. Niou decided to break the silence.
“Yagyuu, don’t you think the circumstances of Yukimura’s death were strange? I mean, he was supposed to be cured of his disease, but then it came back and now he’s gone.”
“Are you sure you want to press this further, Niou-kun?”
“It doesn’t sit right with me. He was just fine last week. It doesn’t add up.”
“Suggesting that Yukimura Seiichi gave up on life simply because of his condition is unthinkable.” Yagyuu turned to face him. “We may never know what truly happened, but we have to accept that.”
Niou laughed. “Even in death, Yukimura’s will is absolute.” He put his arm around his upset friend. “Let’s go get some ramen. I’ll pay.”
Yagyuu nodded. “Alright then. Let’s go.”
“All this mourning is making me hungry. Let’s go get some food, Jackal.”
“You’re really going to eat at a time like this? Honestly, Marui…”
“Just because we’re sad doesn’t mean we have to stop looking after ourselves.” Marui looked to the ground and kicked a stray pebble towards the road. “Besides, Yukimura would never let us live it down if we slacked off.”
The two continued to walk in silence until they reached a small café. Jackal sat down at a table by the shop’s large windows as Marui walked up to the counter and began ordering various baked goods in large volumes.
“Are you seriously going to eat all of those carbs?” Jackal groaned as Marui struggled with the two trays of food he had. “Let me help-”
Marui slammed the trays down. “Eat up, Jackal! You haven’t eaten since last night, have you?” He pushed one of the trays towards Jackal before sitting down.
“Now, now. Don’t be shy! There’s no catch this time.” Marui quietly said thanks for the food before stabbing his fork into the large strawberry on top of one of the cake slices. “Let’s talk, Jackal. You must have a lot on your mind after what happened.”
Jackal gave him a weary smile. “So this was your plan all along, Marui.” He relented his hesitations as he picked up a blueberry scone with jam and bit into it.
“I can still hear Yukimura threatening me about my intake of sweets,” Marui reminisced. “It’s so strange how he’s no longer here.”
“What do you think happened? He was just fine last week. There’s no way he could’ve gotten sick enough to just pass away.”
Marui sighed as he set his fork down and leaned forward towards Jackal. “I think he took his own life.”
“Marui! You can’t just say that!”
“But you can’t deny that it is a possibility.” He leaned back and picked up his fork to continue eating the cakes. “Nothing else makes sense. There’s no way he would just die without putting up a fight.”
“I… I see what you mean.” Jackal set down the scone. “But why would he do such a thing? He was going to get better.”
“Maybe that’s the thing. He knew he wasn’t going to get better. He couldn’t live with the thought that he could never play tennis again.” He turned to look out the window. “Maybe he realized that this was the last thing he had autonomy over.”
“Autonomy over what?”
“How he died. He was always a dignified man, don’t you think? The thought that he would rot away, being absolutely helpless and without the ability to do anything without someone else there scared him. No, it terrified him.” He turned back to look at Jackal. “Don’t you remember back when he first fell sick back in middle school?”
“How could I forget those eyes? They still haunt me even now.”
It was another cloudy day back in their third year of middle school. After practice, the Rikkai Boys’ Tennis Team made their weekly visit to the hospital in which Yukimura was currently residing in. The boys took Yukimura to their usual private meeting spot on the rooftop.
“How have practices been going, everyone?”
“Great, Yukimura-buchou! Please don’t worry about us and focus on getting better!” Kirihara boasted.
“Confident as ever, Akaya,” Yukimura chuckled.
“Kirihara-kun is right, Yukimura-kun. Please do not worry. We have not been slacking off,” Yagyuu reassured.
“We’re keeping the bench warm for you, so hurry up and get better,” Niou added. “Winning the Nationals for a third year in a row won’t be fun without you, buchou.”
“Is that so?” Yukimura got up from the bench he was resting on and walked towards the railing that separated him from falling down towards the ground. “I guess I’ll also have to try my hardest too.” He leaned over the railings to look down below. Just as he began to do that, his arms couldn’t support his weight and he started to fall.
“Yukimura!” Sanada leaped from his spot and pulled the frail boy before he ended up on the other side of the railings. “Are you okay?!”
Yukimura collapsed onto the ground, trembling. The absolute look of terror and helplessness in his eyes etched itself into the minds of everyone there. Never had any of them had seen their leader in such a state of despair. Yukimura wanted to scream and push Sanada away but couldn’t. It was as if he was trapped within his own body, unable to do anything.
His pain and fears howled in the souls of his teammates as if they were trapped in Yukimura’s nightmare with him.
“So that’s what you were trying to get at, Niou-kun.”
“Not a bad theory, don’t you think?”
Yagyuu set his chopsticks down across the empty ramen bowl and used the napkin to wipe his mouth. “He had a similar look in his eyes last week. But something was different.”
“So you also noticed that too, huh? He no longer looked helpless, though he was still full of despair.” Niou stabbed his chopsticks into the takoyaki he had ordered.
“Please get better tableside manners, Niou-kun.”
“If you think about it hard enough, a chopstick is just a jumbo toothpick,” he smirked. “Anyways, that’s why I believe he opted to take his life into his own hands. For his dignity.”
“His dignity? No, I think he did it for a completely different reason, Niou-kun.”
“Oh? And what would that reason be?”
“Eh? Is that not the same thing, Yagyuu?”
“Dignity would mean he did it to save his pride. As prideful as Yukimura-kun was, I don’t believe he would be the type to die for that reason.” Yagyuu glanced out the window to observe the quiet surroundings. “Yukimura died to preserve the memory that he was human.”
“Yagyuu, are you sure you’re alright? You’re not making sense.”
“Think about it, Niou-kun. What’s the first think you think of when I say the name Yukimura Seiichi? Surely, you remember him as a human. Someone who was strong and could do anything. The fearless demon of the tennis courts.”
Niou’s eyes widened. “Are you suggesting he wanted us to remember him in that image versus remembering him as a shell of who he once was?”
Yagyuu smirked. “That’s how we all remember him, correct? A human like the rest of us. That’s what he wanted to protect.”
Later that night, Marui, Jackal, Niou and Yagyuu each returned to their respective abodes and headed straight to their rooms. Each took out the letter they were given earlier by Yanagi to examine. Marui was scared of touching the envelope any further. He sat in his chair and stared down at it, pondering what could be inside, but too fearful to find out.
“Who knows what lurks beneath the flap? They might be the final words from my friend and captain, but I can’t find it in me to open it,” he muttered to himself. “No, I can’t open it because I refuse to accept this.”
He shoved the letter into his tennis bag and headed out of his house. The night sky was clear with the faint twinkle of a few stars. Marui looked up as he fought back the tears that were forming in his eyes. “Just you watch, Yukimura Seiichi. I’ll make you regret not staying around to lift up the trophy again.”
Over at Niou’s, the silver haired boy shoved the letter into his tennis jacket’s pocket in frustration. “Why am I so angry?” He clenched his hands together tightly before slowly opening them again to get rid of the tension.
“Masaharu, are you alright?” his mother called through his bedroom door.
“I’m fine, mother,” he replied.
“I know it must be hard for you right now, but-”
“I said I’m fine, mother!” he snapped.
His mother stood there in shock before quietly shuffling away from his bedroom door.
Niou slammed his fist into the door before leaning on it and sliding down towards the ground. He clutched his head as he couldn’t stop himself from crying.
“Yukimura Seiichi, you bastard…”
Meanwhile, Jackal struggled between his indecision on whether to open the envelope or leave it sealed forever.
“If I don’t open it, then he can’t be dead, right?”
He fell back onto his futon. “But if I do open it, that means I accept that he’s gone, right? What should I do?” He sat up and stared at the letter again before putting it in his bag.
“Maybe I’ll just leave it unopened. As long as it stays unopened, Yukimura Seiichi is still alive.” A smile formed on his face as he shed a few tears.
Yagyuu ran his fingers across the edges of the envelope and sighed. He couldn’t find the energy in him to open it up.
“To think Yukimura Seiichi would choose to preserve his humanity over all else. Was there really no other way to save him?”
He folded up the letter and placed it in his track pant pockets before crawling underneath his blankets.
“Was there nothing we could’ve done?” He choked back his emotions.
The next day, Niou, Yagyuu, Marui and Jackal all showed up at the club room with their gear. All four of them seemed restless.
“Oh? You’re all here today?” Marui asked. “Couldn’t sit still, huh?”
“Absolutely not,” Niou smirked. “I want to get back to playing as soon as possible.”
“I haven’t seen you this fired up since middle school, Niou-kun,” Yagyuu commented as he let out an uncharacteristic yawn.
“You look like you haven’t slept a wink, Yagyuu,” Jackal pointed out. “But we’re all here for the same reason, right?”
“Of course! We’re going to make Yukimura Seiichi eat his words!” Marui said with a fiery passion.
“Hell yeah, we are!” Niou chanted alongside him.
As the boys unlocked the clubroom door, an ominous note fell down. Jackal bent down to pick it up. “Hey, it’s addressed to the four of us.”
A chill went down Marui’s spine. “That’s creepy!”
Yagyuu took the letter from Jackal and inspected it. “This looks like Yukimura-kun’s handwriting.”
Jackal looked unnerved. “H-how did that get up there then?”
“Oh? Another mystery. How interesting, puri.”
“Are you tricking us again, Niou? Now’s really not the time…” Marui’s voice trailed off as he began visibly shaking.
“Should we open it?” Jackal wondered. “What could lurk inside?”
The four of them looked at each other and nodded in silent agreement. Yagyuu slowly opened the envelope and pulled out the card that was placed inside. He gulped as he opened the card to reveal what was inside.
"Hello Niou Masaharu, Yagyuu Hiroshi, Marui Bunta and Jackal Kuwahara. If you manage to find this letter, I’m assuming that none of you read the individual ones I instructed Yanagi to deliver on my behalf. I do hope that is the case, otherwise my calculations are off. "
“Haaa?” Marui exclaimed in confusion. “How did he know I didn’t read the letter?”
“This is indeed Yukimura-kun’s handwriting and style,” Yagyuu commented. “You didn’t read your letter either, Marui-kun?”
Marui shook his head. “You didn’t either, Yagyuu?”
Jackal sighed in disbelief. “Did none of us read Yukimura’s letter?”
“Heh, so it wasn’t just me that thought something was amiss,” Niou remarked. “Yagyuu, keep reading.”
Yagyuu adjusted his glasses before continuing. “ To be honest, I didn’t know what to write to all of you, so I left all of your individual letters blank! ”
The four of them reached into their pockets and bags and pulled out the letter from the day before and ripped them open at the same time.
“He really wasn’t lying!” they all shouted in unison.
Marui looked terrified. “This is getting so creepy! Yukimura is still scary, even in death…”
"The days I’ve spent with you guys were so much fun. I wouldn’t trade away those memories for a cure. It’s been an honour to play on the same tennis team with you all for so long. Sorry that I failed to lead us to winning the High School Nationals this year and for failing as your captain. When the Sports Drink Fairy shows up and asks to be on the team, please allow them to take my spot. Let’s play again someday. -Yukimura Seiichi ”
The four of them couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
“That’s our captain for you! Challenging us to win this year without him, huh?” Niou said in excitement.
“I can already see the headlines now; ‘Rikkai overcome tragedy to win High School Nationals!’ What a way to sell newspapers,” Marui remarked.
“Let’s not keep our captain waiting then,” Jackal added.
As the boys entered the clubroom and changed into their tennis kits, Yagyuu’s look of concern caught the attention of the infamous trickster.
“Oi, Yagyuu, what’s bothering you?”
“Niou-kun, are you sure you’re not the Sports Drink Fairy?”
“Haa? Why are you bringing that up now?”
“Yukimura-kun’s last words. ‘When the Sports Drink Fairy shows up and asks to be on the team’-”
“‘-please allow them to take my spot’ is what you wanted to say, piyo,” Niou finished Yagyuu’s sentence as he channeled Yanagi Renji in his illusion.
“Are you really not? Please be serious, Niou-kun.”
“How many times must I deny this until you’re satisfied, Yagyuu?”
Yagyuu closed his locker. “If it’s not you, then who could it possibly be?”
“They’ll reveal themselves soon enough. Let’s focus on ourselves first, Yagyuu.”
“I think I’m being visited by the Sports Drink Fairy,” Yukimura chuckled. “Which one of you is it?”
His teammates gave him a strange look. Yagyuu shot a nasty glare at Niou.
“I’m sorry, Seiichi. Could you repeat that?” Yanagi asked, extremely confused.
“A fairy that leaves sports drinks?” Marui added, equally as confused.
“Every time I return to my room after rehab, There’s a cold sports drink waiting for me.”
“It wasn’t me!” Kirihara shouted, which caused everyone to glare at him with suspicion.
“Me neither!” Jackal also blurted out.
“I don’t know who’s doing it, but it feels like they’re pushing me forward, telling me to keep trying,” Yukimura continued.
“Sounds like we’ve got ourselves a mystery,” Niou pointed out.
“I thought it was one of your tricks, Niou-kun,” Yagyuu added.
Yukimura looked up at the sunny, blue sky and smiled. “I hope I can meet that fairy someday.”
Meanwhile on campus, Yanagi began the slow climb up towards the rooftop of the science complex. According to his calculations, the person he was looking for was highly likely to be at the top. He slowly opened the door as he reached the top. He poked his head out to survey the area before stepping forward.
“Sayumi-san? Are you around here?”
Chapter 7: Hokama Sayumi
Hokama Sayumi sadly tended to the plants on the rooftop garden of the science building complex on Rikkai’s campus. The wind that day was stronger than usual, whisking away all the petals of the cherry blossom trees onto the perennial flower bed and her long, unbrushed hair. The petals decide to entwine with the various tangles and knots, creating a rather unsightly mess. Sayumi didn’t seem to mind, as she put down her watering can and leaned over the railings, staring down at the empty tennis courts, covered in a sea of pink petals and green leaves. The nets were scattered around the courts along with a few stray balls and various other gear left behind by a few members. The courts have been abandoned ever since Yukimura’s passing. No one dared to step foot near that area since the news hit the school. Her loud sigh covered the noise of the door to the rooftop opening.
“Sayumi-san? Are you around here?”
Sayumi turned around to the direction of the voice. “Who’s there?”
Yanagi poked his head out the door. "Sayumi-san, it’s been a while.”
“Oh! Renji-senpai, how have you been? It sure has been a while.” She gave Yanagi a sad smile.
“Yes, it has. I apologize for not being able to speak with you during the visitation. Are you alright?”
Sayumi sighed again. “I’m not okay, to be quite honest with you. Even so, I can’t keep sulking like this. Seiichi wouldn’t like it if I continue to sulk.”
Yanagi looked around the rooftop. “The plants have been looking quite sad lately.”
“Yeah. It’s due to the lack of sun. Ever since Seiichi died, there hasn’t been a sunny enough day in Kanagawa. The plants are suffering from not being able to photosynthesize enough.”
“It would appear so.” Yanagi glanced around the scene some more before turning his complete attention towards her. “The weather report tomorrow forecasts for some sun, so hopefully it will brighten things up around here.”
“I hope so. It’s almost time for everything to fully bloom.” Sayumi noticed that Yanagi was holding onto a light pink envelope in his hand. “What’s that you got there?”
Yanagi handed the envelope to her. Upon closer inspection, there was a faint plaid design on the front of the envelope along with her name written in dark blue ink. Sayumi stared at it, confused. “For you. It’s from Seiichi.”
“Seiichi? What is this?” Sayumi ran her finger underneath the seal on the envelope and pulled out the paper within. She carefully unfolded the sheets. “A letter?”
Yanagi nodded. “Yes, he wanted me to give this to you. I do hope you can find some comfort in his final words to you, Sayumi-san.” He bowed slightly and headed towards the exit. “I’ll take my leave.”
“See you later, Renji-senpai,” she waved back before Yanagi disappeared. “How old-fashioned of you, Seiichi.” She unfolded the stack to read the characters written with the rich, blue ink.
‘Hokama Sayumi-san, I hope my plants are well. ’
A smile crept onto her face. She continued to read on.
‘By the time you get this letter, you must have already given a eulogy at my funeral. Forgive me for putting you through that emotional strain, though I know you told me before that you would eulogize me whenever I decided to swim with the fishes. ’
She felt her eyes well up.
‘This might be one of the most painful letters I will write, but it’s the most important one. Sayumi, you deserve to know the truth about our relationship. The reason why it fell apart. The answers to the many questions you had but I never gave. I can’t run away from the truth anymore and I hope you don’t either. ’
Sayumi crumpled the papers in anger. “What truth was there to it? You never liked me, Seiichi, but I loved you.” All she could do was cry. “I still love you.”
Hokama Sayumi was just an average transfer student to Rikkai's junior high school division. Coming from Kyushu, the cold and uneventful Kanagawa climate seemed to have phased her out quite a bit. Transferring just after the start of her second year also threw her off, as she needed to figure out a whole new school again. Wanting to get involved with a club, she wandered around the campus after school for ideas.
"I could do kendo, but that's just too cliché," she muttered under her breath as she walked past the dojo area.
The distant sound of tennis balls hitting the chain-linked fence echoed softly throughout the common grounds. She shook her head as she turned to head towards the arts building. "Not tennis. This school has such a scary tennis team."
She soon found herself climbing up several flights of stairs before she found a slightly ajar rooftop doorway. Curious, she peered through the opening to see a lush rooftop garden. The whole area felt like a different world than the rest of the campus.
"What is this place?" she blurted out as she took a step forward. "It's like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon lives on up here."
A soft, yet audible chuckle came from behind Sayumi as she turned around. Behind her stood a frail figure with flowy blue hair holding a huge bag of cow manure. "Excuse me, I would like to put this down."
"Sorry!" Sayumi quickly sidestepped to allow for the person to drop the smelly bag on an empty flower bed.
"Whew, that was heavy," the person said as they wiped away the sweat on their forehead. They turned around to face Sayumi. "I don't recall seeing your face before. Are you new?"
Sayumi bowed. "I'm Hokama Sayumi from 2-D. I just transferred here."
"Yukimura Seiichi from 3-C. Nice to meet you, Hokama-san."
"Yukimura, you say?" She paused to think about that name and why it was familiar. "Have we met before? That name is awfully familiar."
Yukimura smiled. "A lot of people know me around these parts. Maybe you just heard it in a conversation while you were headed to class."
"Interesting," she said to herself, oblivious to the fact that Yukimura could hear her too. "What is this place anyways, Yukimura-senpai?"
"This is one of the many green roofs that Rikkai has. Maintaining them is something I do."
"So, do you get paid to take care of it?"
"The school pays for most of the supplies, but the committee is responsible for keeping it alive and thriving."
"What kind of committee is it?"
"The Beautification Committee."
"Who's on that committee?"
Yukimura smiled before laughing softly. "You sure are asking a lot of questions, Hokama-san; not that I mind." He picked up a shovel and, with a lot of brute force, pierced the bag of manure open. "You seem so invested in learning more. Why don't you just join the committee?"
Her eyes lit up. "Can I? That would be so cool!" She paused for a second and glared at Yukimura. "Don't I need permission from the President of the committee before I get to officially join?"
"Well, seeing as I am the only other member of the committee, I guess that makes me the President." Yukimura pointed to the shovels that were leaning on the side of another bed. "Now grab one of those and help me spread this cow poop everywhere."
Being in a foul mood, Sayumi decided to wrap up fertilizing the new chili pepper plants and headed home. As she headed towards the station to catch the next train, she felt the crumpled pieces of paper as she stuck her hands into her pockets. Pulling it out, she unravelled the sheets and tried to flatten out most of the wrinkles. A tinge of guilt grew within her as she continued to stare at the papers themselves. She sighed, realizing that this was the last chance she had at finding out the truth and putting an end to this chapter in her life.
The train arrived and she quickly got on and sat down before the rest of the car filled up. She folded up the letter and tucked it away in the front pocket of her shoulder bag. She would have to save the reading for later, as there was barely any space left for her to breathe.
“If he took the time to explain himself, then I should take the time to understand it, ” she thought to herself.
It had only been a few weeks since their initial meeting, but Sayumi felt so nervous around Yukimura. She wasn’t quite sure what was causing this uneasiness, but everyone around her could easily see she was smitten by the feminine boy. She displayed all the classic and typical characteristics of a teenage girl falling in love with a boy. Yukimura was pretty oblivious to her growing feelings of affection. He had always been bad with noticing these things, which is evident by his inability to notice the hundred of fangirls that constantly swoon over him on a daily basis. It just looked like a stereotypical shoujo manga romance plot line to any observer of the situation.
Each passing day grew longer and warmer. Sayumi had adjusted well to being the only other member of the Beautification Committee and had discovered her affinity to taking care of plants. The tennis season was just starting to pick up after the spring graduation season was over, which meant Yukimura would be spending more and more time getting the team into shape for competition and less time tending the rooftop gardens and farms. The more she focused on managing the rooftops, the less aware she was of her growing affection for Yukimura. On the rare occasions he would stop by to check on the plants, her heart would start racing and her face became very flush whenever he was near her. Yukimura would never miss an opportunity to tease her appearances while giving her more responsibilities and teaching her more about the various plants. It eventually became so unbearable that Sayumi had to confront Yukimura the next time he came by. She had to at least say something to him, even if it means getting rejected.
During his prolonged absence, the hotter-than-average temperatures and very sunny days caused many of the rooftop plants to grow out of control very quickly. There were days where it felt like Sayumi was fighting the plants from growing onto her and trapping her forever in the flora. Her growing list of responsibilities coupled with the lack of committee membership and hot weather was a disaster waiting to happen. She would often become faint from the heat exhaustion and have to stop working until the sun died down. Her parents became increasingly worried about her whereabouts and activities for the day, especially when they got calls from the school nurse regarding her health.
Sayumi became increasingly frustrated with her situation. As much as she loved to care for the plants, the amount of work was insane for just one person. Using this newfound energy, she decided to double down and begin a mass recruitment effort in order to increase the membership of the Beautification Committee. She ran around the school and plastered ads for the committee while trying to tell everyone who visits the rooftops to consider joining. Despite it being the summer break, there were a surprising number of students still on campus. The school’s Horticulture Club took a great interest in Sayumi’s advertising efforts and decided to help with the vegetable plants and turn it into a sustainable rooftop farming experiment. Despite the extra help, Sayumi still had a significant number of other plants to care for. Most of the students on campus were already part of a summer sports club and didn’t have time to spare to take care of plants.
Feeling defeated, she finally decided to call Yukimura to ask for help.
“How are the plants faring?” Yukimura asked without even addressing her as he answered the phone.
“Yukimura-senpai! A ‘hello’ or some acknowledgement would be nice before asking about the state of affairs,” she responded in an annoyed tone.
“Ah, forgive me.” He coughed. “Oh, Sayumi-san! What a lovely surprise. How are the plants faring?” he responded in a sarcastic tone.
She sighed. “It’s so hard to do all of this by myself, Yukimura-senpai. How did you even do all of this by yourself? I got the Horticulture Club to help out with the vegetables, but there’s still so many other plants to take care of.”
He let out a laugh. “A little bit of magic, but I mostly had some of the tennis team members help out when they were slacking with practice.”
“Well that doesn’t really help me much. The entire team is either with you in Kyoto or somewhere else because I haven’t seen anyone from the tennis club on campus since you left for the Nationals.”
There was silence on the other end and an eerie chill went down Sayumi’s spine.
“Let me make some phone calls, Sayumi-san. I promise things will turn around tomorrow.”
Yukimura hung up on her and left her with more questions than answers. Sighing, she turned her attention towards the dahlias that were beginning to show signs of blooming. “It’s almost midsummer, huh.” Her thoughts kept racing towards Yukimura Seiichi, her feelings for him, the phone call and what she wanted to say to him but couldn’t.
“I wonder if I’ll ever have the courage to say something.”
The next day, Sayumi arrived at the sight of a small group of extremely terrified boys weeding the various flower beds. She recognized all of them as members of the tennis team from the lower strings. She wanted to ask them why they were helping her and why they were so terrified, but she quickly realized that this was likely Yukimura’s doing.
‘He must really be a strict captain,’ she thought. A small smile crept onto her face as she headed towards the boys to give them further instructions for the day.
Unfortunately for her, Yukimura did not end up visiting until the end of the summer break in August. The tennis team continued their winning streak and won the Kanto Regionals and Nationals for a second year in a row. With all of the travelling the team had to do on top of the practices, Yukimura had to let go of his committee duties until the tournament season was over. When the tennis team arrived back with the trophy, the entire school erupted in celebration for the two time victors, which further delayed Yukimura’s return to the committee. When everything died down, he snuck away from his captain duties to check the state of affairs. Much to his surprise, everything was still alive except for his prized desert plant bed. All of the succulents and cacti looked waterlogged and decaying due to the root rot.
“My my. Who decided to kill my priceless cacti?” Yukimura knelt down to mourn the loss of his plants.
“Yukimura-senpai!” he heard a voice calling from behind him.
He turned around to see who it was. “Sayumi-san, what happened to my beloved desert plants?”
She dropped the watering can she was carrying in shock. “I-I-I-I- uh- um-” she stammered, unsure of how to respond.
A threatening aura began to radiate from Yukimura, which caused Sayumi to freeze up in fear. “Sayumi-san, please don’t lie to me. I know you’re quite awful with desert plant care. I won’t be mad.”
“Y-yukimura-senpai…” her voice trailed off.
He let out a small chuckle. “I’m only teasing, Sayumi-san. I knew it was you.” He dramatically wiped away a fake tear. “I’ll replant everything when next spring rolls around. It would be a bit too late to winter-proof the desert plants if I started now.”
“I’m sorry, Yukimura-senpai. I just kept forgetting to water them and then I might’ve watered them too much.” She let out a heavy sigh. “This summer was exhausting. I’m glad you’re back from the Nationals. Congratulations on winning it for a second year, Yukimura-senpai.”
“Thank you, Sayumi-san. That means a lot.” He turned to face her and his expression softened. “Say, you’re not as flushed anymore when you talk to me.”
Her cheeks began to flare up. “Well, I’m not as nervous around you anymore, senpai.”
Yukimura turned around and began walking around the rooftop. “Sayumi-san, I have a proposal I’d like to clear with you.”
Sayumi looked at him, confused. “What proposal do you have in mind, Yukimura-senpai?”
He grabbed a pair of pruners sitting beside the rose bed and snipped off one of the ruby red flowers. He grabbed the thorny stem without flinching and held the flower out towards her, unaware of the blood trickling down his hand. “Sayumi-san, would you like to be my girlfriend?”
‘I’ll admit that my initial reason for asking you to be my girlfriend was purely selfish. I had extremely discomforting thoughts and feelings that I needed to suppress and I thought it would be best if I distracted myself by being in a relationship with you. It was wrong of me to use you like this and I’m sorry that I hurt you. You deserve to be treated better and loved by someone who genuinely loves you.’
Sayumi reread the paragraph over and over again as she waited for her transfer. She was confused by the confession. Her perspective of the relationship was extremely different from what Yukimura outlined in his letter.
“Seiichi used me? It never felt like that at all,” she muttered to herself.
October had just arrived along with the colder temperatures and colourful leaves falling onto the school grounds. The Beautification Committee was busy trying to prepare all of the rooftops for winter in anticipation for a colder than average season. The return from the summer break a month prior brought more members into the committee so both Sayumi and Yukimura were no longer the two man team working on all of the roofs. Most of the work had been done the month prior, so it was only the seasonal plants that were left. Nonetheless, more inexperienced hands meant that Sayumi would have to double down with teaching them how to properly care for each and every plant. Yukimura had also gotten the tennis team back into shape again after their brief break after the Nationals and practice was back in full swing.
It had also been a little over a month since Yukimura asked Sayumi to be his girlfriend. Though they initially kept it to themselves, some of Yukimura’s jealous fangirls managed to find out and word spread to the entire school. Sayumi still wasn’t sure what to make of the entire situation herself, but it was evident that her uneasy feelings towards the boy did not go away. Every time the two met up to hang out or go on dates, the conversation was always controlled by Yukimura. There was never a good time for her to bring up her worries with him. Between school, studying, tending to the plants and tennis practice, it always seemed like life was catching up faster and faster. There was never a moment to breathe for either of them.
Everything changed the day Yukimura collapsed on the train platform after tennis practice.
The diagnosis was Guillain-Barre Syndrome; an incurable autoimmune disease that would slowly eat away at his nervous system until he died. She was holding his hand tightly when the doctors broke the news to him and his family.
“I don’t believe you,” was Yukimura’s cold response.
His mother was crying quietly into her husband’s shoulders. His father wrapped an arm around her to comfort her. “This is a very serious diagnosis, Doctor. Are you saying there’s nothing we can do about it? Seiichi is a very skilled tennis player. He just won the Nationals for a second year in a row! How could he be in peak shape only a week ago and be diagnosed with an incurable disease?”
“With all due respect, Yukimura-san, we are unsure of what could have triggered this sudden condition. We are not entirely sure if this is actually the case. Your son exhibits some textbook symptoms for Guillain-Barre, but also lacks some of the critical symptoms for us to fully confirm it.” The doctor turned to address the bedridden boy. “You are still young. I’m fairly confident that with treatment, you’ll be able to recover completely from this in time for the start of the Nationals season next summer.”
Sayumi turned to look at him. “This is great news, Seiichi! You can still play tennis after recovering.”
“Sayumi-san, I think you’re being too optimistic.” Seiichi stared directly into the doctor’s eyes. “I noticed you didn’t say anything about being cured of the condition, Doctor.”
“W-well you must understand, Seiichi-kun, Guillain-Barre Syndrome cannot be cured,” the doctor stammered. “There are many medicines and treatments currently out there that can help you manage your condition, but it will always be with you.”
“I see. There’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again.” Seiichi turned towards Sayumi and his family. “I want to be alone for a while, mother, father.”
His father nodded and gestured for everyone to leave the room. Sayumi tried to follow suit, but Seiichi was weakly grasping onto her hand. She took it as a signal to remain behind as everyone else filed out of the room.
“How frustrating. Just how much longer will this body betray me…”
Yukimura snapped out of his trance. “Oh, Sayumi-san. Help me escape this hospital. I hate the smell of the cleaning fluids.”
“You know I can’t do something like that! Seiichi, please be reasonable. The doctor said you can recover in time for the Nationals! Don’t do something stupid. Please.”
"I can't be a good boyfriend to you if I'm bedridden and unable to move."
"You'll overcome this! You can take me out on as many dates as you want once you get out."
He sighed as a small, defeated smile grew on his face. “I trust you’ll take care of my committee duties in my absence?”
“Of course I will.”
He motioned to her to sit down beside him on the small hospital bed. “Seeing as I’ll be trapped here for the foreseeable future, I guess I can’t run away from this conversation any longer.”
Sayumi took a seat on the edge. “What conversation, Seiichi?”
“I thought you were in love with me, Sayumi-san. I asked you to be my girlfriend and you accepted, but you still have a confused, uneasy look every time we’re together.” He looked at her in the eyes. “Do you not like me? Did I misinterpret your feelings for me?”
She was taken aback by the sudden interrogation. “N-no, Seiichi. I-it’s just-”
“Did I rush into this? Is everything my fault? Oh, Sayumi-san, please don’t leave me now that I’m in this state. I don’t think my heart can take it if-”
“Seiichi!” she yelled, which caused him to stop his anxious tangent. “Seiichi, please. I would never leave you.” She moved in to hug him. “Stop with this nonsense.”
He sat there in silence as she held him tightly. His eyes began to well up and blur his vision.
“I’m not going to leave you alone, Seiichi. I promise you that.”
“Sayumi-san… What if I end up hurting you?”
“Then hurt me. I’m tougher than you think, Yukimura Seiichi.” She flashed him a soft smile. “After all, I managed to keep like nine of the rooftops alive while you were gone to who-knows-where.”
He returned the smile. “I’m happy to hear that, Sayumi-san.”
“I really was uneasy about this whole relationship at the start, but now that we’ve been together for a while, I think I finally understand these feelings I have towards you, Seiichi.” Her cheeks began to turn a rosy pink colour as her eyes shied away from his. "These feelings that I hid from you until now."
He cocked his head to the side. “And what are those feelings, Sayumi-san?”
She looked at him with a radiant smile. “I like you, Yukimura Seiichi.”
Sayumi had arrived home and went straight into the bath. After showering and filling up the tub with hot water and some bath salts, she grabbed the letter off of the vanity and settled down into the water to continue reading.
‘You must be confused by what I mean so I’ll put it in plain terms. I only ever thought of you as a very good friend, Sayumi-san. Despite all of my efforts, I could not find it in me to like you the same way you liked me. Rather, it was almost like this body said I wasn’t allowed to like you. I thought if I tried really hard, I would eventually fall in love with you and spend the rest of my life with you.
“You really forced yourself to like me, Seiichi? Was I really that unbearable to you?”
‘You were the perfect girl for someone like me; headstrong, wholesome, clever and beautiful. If there was anyone that I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life with, it was you. I cherished all of the time we spent together. All of the rooftop gardening sessions, dates, hospital visits, everything. I wouldn’t trade away any of it. If God asked me to give up these memories in exchange to get rid of this stupid disease, I would turn Him down.’
“If I was so perfect, why did you break my heart, Seiichi?” She could feel the tears forming in her eyes. “Was I not enough?”
It was the week before the Kanto Regionals Finals. Rikkai had made it through the bracket with no difficulties, having disposed of the other schools with minimal effort. Sayumi was visiting Yukimura again in the hospital, only this time, the rest of the regulars were also present.
“Oh! Sanada-senpai, hello,” Sayumi said as she bowed slightly towards Sanada.
“Hokama-san, I see you’re doing well,” he responded with a slight nod. “Visiting Yukimura, I presume?”
“Yes, I wanted to give him an update on the gardens now that spring is upon us.” She glanced behind him, only to see the rest of the regulars bickering as they walked closer towards the two. “The whole team is here today?”
He nodded again. “It’s the week before the Finals. We’re all visiting one last time before we double down on the practice.”
“Smart idea, Sanada-senpai. Shall we all go in together then?”
Sanada turned around to yell at the rest of the team to hurry up before gesturing for Sayumi to head inside the hospital.
When everyone got outside of Yukimura’s room, there was some indistinct yelling, followed by a team of doctors exiting hastily. Confused, only Sanada and Sayumi entered the room while the rest of the team stood outside.
“Yukimura,” Sanada greeted. “Forgive us for the intrusion.”
Yukimura turned to look at the two people entering the room. “Sanada, Sayumi-san. Is it already time for our weekly meeting?”
“Seiichi, are you okay?” she asked him, concerned.
“Just fine, Sayumi-san.” Yukimura turned his attention towards Sanada. “Would it be alright if I spoke with my vice captain alone?”
She nodded her head and swiftly exited the room. The rest of the team looked at her as she closed the door behind her.
“Ne, Sayumi, what did Buchou say?” Kirihara whispered.
“He wants to talk to Sanada-senpai alone. I don’t know why.”
Everyone stood outside his room in silence. It was difficult to eavesdrop on the conversation, seeing as both Yukimura and Sanada spoke in a hushed tone.
“‘Upcoming’ you say? I don’t want to hear such words!” Yukimura shouted.
There was a very odd silence, followed by quick footsteps towards the door. Sanada opened and closed the door behind him quickly as Yukimura’s frustrated scream filled his room and echoed down the corridors. No one was sure what to do at that point in time, other than to listen helplessly as the weakening Yukimura broke down behind the closed door.
Sayumi waited about an hour before trying to enter his room again. The others had already left by that point, unwilling to try and talk with him again. She quietly opened the door and poked her head in. The room was lit by the sunset, as Yukimura did not like the fluorescent tube lighting in his room. He was staring out the window with a soulless gaze and did not notice her enter the room.
“Seiichi,” she called out. “May I come in?”
He turned towards the doorway, stared at her and returned his gaze back out the window. She decided to enter his room regardless, closing the door quietly behind her. She slowly approached him as if he was an injured animal that was ready to fight back.
“They said I wouldn’t be able to play again. Lying bastards,” he quietly uttered under his breath.
“Who said that?”
“Who do you think, genius?” he snapped.
“I-I’m sorry,” was her meek response.
Yukimura let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m sorry, Sayumi-san. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s not your fault.” He gestured for her to approach him before wrapping his frail arms around her in a sad excuse for a hug. “Look at how weak I’ve become. I can’t even hold my own girlfriend properly.
She wrapped her arms around him. “Take things slowly, Seiichi. I know you can overcome this.” She planted a soft kiss on his forehead.
He melted into her arms as the tension in his body slowly faded away. “I’m blessed to have you in my life, Sayumi-san. I hope you know that.”
“I love you, Seiichi. It’ll take a lot more to get rid of me.”
The two of them sat there in silence as Sayumi held Yukimura. After what seemed like an eternity, the sun had disappeared past the horizon and the room was swallowed in darkness. The scene was interrupted with a knock on the door, followed by a doctor opening it slowly. The room quickly filled with the corridor lights flooding in.
“Yukimura-kun?” The doctor approached the two embracing figures.
Sayumi loosened her grip on him. “I should get going. I think I’m overstaying my welcome.”
“Nonsense, Sayumi-san.” He turned towards the doctor. “That surgery you were talking about earlier, Dr. Hayashi. It’s the only chance I got at getting rid of this, right?”
The doctor nodded. “It is extremely risky, Yukimura-kun. It’s a coin flip that decides whether you live or die. Please do think about this more before deciding.”
“Seiichi? Surgery?” Sayumi was more confused than ever. “What is she talking about?”
“Ne, Sayumi-san. If I were to undergo an experimental surgery with a 50% survival rate but it would cure my condition, would you support me no matter what decision I make?”
She blinked, unable to process what she was just asked. “Are you asking me if I support you doing something insanely dangerous?”
Her mouth dropped in disbelief. Yukimura Seiichi was really asking her if it was alright to gamble his life. He stared back at her with determination and fear in his eyes.
“You’ll get better afterwards, right? You can play tennis again, right? You won’t have to be here anymore.” She felt her voice shaking as her tears started flowing down her face. “You’ll be stronger after all of it.”
He nodded his head and flashed a weak smile. “That’s the plan. I’ll even be able to take you out on real dates again.”
“I’m confident in my decision, Dr. Hayashi. Please tell my family that I’ve decided and please prepare for the procedure.”
‘I suppose this is His curse. Despite blessing me with the chance to meet you, I wasn’t able to change how I felt. I still wonder if I wasn’t sick, would spending more time with you change my mind? Would going out on more dates reveal some deep, inner feelings that I never knew existed? Would things have ended differently if we met under different circumstances? I still hate myself for everything. The amount of pain I caused you. How I wasted your time when you could have been with someone else.’
“Seiichi is so hard on himself. Even in death…” her voice trailed off. She stared at her bathroom ceiling, pondering her ex-boyfriend’s final thoughts. “Only a friend, huh? Am I a fool for not noticing?”
She pulled the drain plug up and continued to sit in the tub as the water slowly drained out. As she watched the water drain, she began to focus more on what Yukimura outlined in his letter in detail. Something was bothering her about the way he confessed his true feelings. She suspected that he was hiding something from her but couldn’t determine what it was.
‘Sayumi-san, do you remember our first kiss?’
A month had passed since Yukimura underwent the experimental surgery and survived. Rikkai had surprisingly lost the Kanto Regionals to Seigaku that year and the mood was quite foul all around campus. The tennis club doubled down on training for the Nationals, more determined than ever to prove that their loss was a fluke. Yukimura was working hard on his rehabilitation to get back into shape before their first round matchup against a school in Nagoya. His recovery had been remarkable and a medical miracle on many accounts. Unfortunately, the weather had not been kind and the grounds were still largely frozen. The Beautification Committee had come to a standstill since club activities could not continue until the temperatures got warmer. This gave Sayumi a generous amount of time to support Yukimura’s rehabilitation efforts. By the time he was able to hold his racket again and maintain a simple serve and volley game, February had arrived.
Yukimura was resting at a bench underneath the fabled “confession tree” as he waited for Sayumi to show up. He watched as she exited the library building and jogged up towards him.
“Sorry for making you wait, Seiichi,” she said, slightly winded. “Just had to make sure everything was in place for tomorrow’s festivities.”
“It’s not a problem at all, Sayumi-san.” He slid over on the bench and invited her to sit down. “I hope we can bring joy to everyone who ordered flowers tomorrow and replenish the committee’s draining budget.”
“I’m confident we can make a big enough surplus to last the next 5 years.” She turned to face him. “So, why did you ask me to meet you here?”
He put his arm around her and pulled her closer. “I can’t ask my lovely girlfriend to meet me under the fabled ‘confession tree’? You wound me, Sayumi-san.”
“T-that’s not what I mean, Seiichi.” She kissed his cheek. “Did you want to go somewhere?”
He shook his head. “I just wanted to admire the change in seasons. That’s all.”
“Seiichi, it’s the middle of February. It’s still cold outside. This isn’t going to be good for either of our immune systems.”
“So I have been told.” He let go of her and reached into his bag to grab a wrapped gift and hand it to her. “For you.”
She gently accepted the small box from him. “Thank you, Seiichi, but it’s not White Day. I’m supposed to be the one giving you a present.”
“You misunderstood me, Sayumi-san. This is just a ‘thank you’ present. For everything you’ve done for me and the committee so far.”
She felt her face turn red, but not from the cold. “This is too much. You know I do those things because I like doing them, right?”
“Yes, but I wanted to show you my gratitude. Open it up; I picked it myself so I hope you like it.”
Sayumi undid the red ribbon that held the box together. She lifted the top off to reveal a sleek pair of pruning shears. She touched the black brushed aluminium handles before carefully picking them up and studying them closely. The shears felt custom made and fit her hand size perfectly. The satisfying ‘snip’ sound they made was calming and pleasing to the ears. The tiny blades themselves looked handmade by a skilled blacksmith, as they had a very unique hamon pattern by the sharp edge. On one of the inner handles was a very tiny engraving that read ‘To Sayumi From Seiichi’.
“This must have cost you a fortune! Seiichi, I can’t possibly-”
“Any good plant lover must have a good pair of pruning shears. If you’re going to take over the committee for me when I graduate, you must have the best pair.” He kissed her forehead. “Plus, I can’t return them since I engraved your name onto them.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m actually speechless.” She continued to meticulously study the tool. “This is the best gift I’ve ever received from anyone. Thank you.” Sayumi put the shears back into their box and put it inside of her bag. She pulled out a large wrapped gift and handed it to Yukimura. “I was saving this for tomorrow, but I think we’ll both be busy tomorrow so I might not have a chance to give it to you.”
“This is a very heavy box of chocolates you’re trying to give me, Sayumi-san.”
“It’s not chocolate, Seiichi! I’m not going to give you more sweets when we both know you’re going to get a lot of chocolates anyways from your insane fangirls.”
He chuckled. “You do have a point.” Yukimura studied the Monet-themed wrapping paper before tearing into it like a savage beast. “Sayumi-san!” He unravelled the rest of the paper to reveal a large book of Pierre Auguste Renoir’s works.
“I know the wrapping paper isn’t exactly Renoir-themed, but Monet was also an Impressionist too. I know you love Renoir the most and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get this for you when I saw it.”
Yukimura began to cry in disbelief. “Sayumi-san, I love it. Thank you.”
“There you go again with the emotions.” She reached over to wipe away the tears on his face with her thumb. “Really, Seiichi, you’re kinda hopeless.”
Yukimura gazed deeply into Sayumi’s eyes with a sense of longing and wonder. He reached over and placed his right hand on her cheek and brought his face closer. As if by instinct, Sayumi pressed her lips gently onto his. A flurry of emotions and thoughts swirled around in her head, but they did not stick around long enough for her to focus on them. The two stayed frozen in place for what seemed like an eternity until a distant voice called out to the both of them.
“Oi! Yukimura-buchou! Hokama!”
“Akaya! Get back here!”
The two of them turned in the direction of the voice. Kirihara was running towards them with Sanada chasing after him in anger.
“What awful timing,” Sayumi sighed. She turned to look at Yukimura, who hadn't taken his eyes off of the other two.
Yukimura looked shocked and terrified. His eyes looked as if he just came to a life-changing realization. He quickly stood up and ran away from Sayumi just as Kirihara was approaching the bench.
“What did you do to Yukimura-buchou, Hokama?!” Kirihara yelled.
“I did absolutely nothing, Kirihara!” she retorted back. “What the hell was so important that you had to ruin our moment?”
“‘Ruin’? What the-”
“Akaya!” boomed Sanada’s low and angry voice as he grabbed Kirihara by the shoulders. “Learn to observe the situation before inserting yourself into it!”
“What did I even do wrong, Sanada-fukubuchou? You were looking for Yukimura-buchou and I found him! Stop getting mad at me!”
“Where did Seiichi go?” Sayumi stood up and looked around for the boy, but he had disappeared from view. Even his bag was gone as well.
“Hokama-san, please accept my apologies for Akaya’s behaviour,” Sanada said as he bowed towards her.
“It’s not your fault, Sanada-senpai.” She turned her attention towards her hotheaded classmate. “I’d rather hear the apology from a certain someone , not his vice captain.”
“Apologize for what? What did I do?”
Sanada smacked Kirihara in the back of his head. “Akaya!”
“Fine! Fine! Sorry I caused you trouble, Hokama,” he muttered under his breath.
Sanada was gearing up to hit him again, but Sayumi stopped him.
“I accept your apology, Kirihara.” She sighed before sitting back down on the bench. “I wonder where he went.”
“Hokama-san, what happened between you and Yukimura?” Sanada asked.
“We were just talking and exchanging Valentine’s Day gifts and then,” her voice trailed off as her cheeks began to flush. “Well what happened afterwards doesn’t matter much, but I didn’t say anything that would cause him to run off like that!”
“Say, Sanada-fukubuchou, hasn’t Yukimura-buchou been avoiding us as of late? What if he’s planning something and doesn’t want us to know?”
“Impossible. Yukimura would never do something stupid like that.” Sanada crossed his arms. “He did look afraid when he saw us running towards him. I wonder what it could be?”
Later that night, Sayumi received a phone call from Yukimura as she was winding down to sleep.
“Sayumi-san, are you busy right now?”
“Seiichi!” She sat down at her desk. “I’m about to go to sleep but I can spare some time for you. What happened earlier today? You didn’t come back and didn’t respond to my messages.”
“I’m sorry, Sayumi-san. I- uh… Got afraid of Sanada and Akaya coming to ruin our moment and the potential questions that were going to be asked! Yeah…” his voice trailed off.
“Seiichi? You got afraid of Sanada-senpai and Kirihara? Really?”
“Really. I’m sorry if it felt like I abandoned you after I-”
She felt her face get warmer. “No, I understand. It’s okay.”
“Are you sure? I thought you would be more mad at me, Sayumi-san.”
“Well, I am a little mad, but I know how you can make it up to me.”
“You can kill Kirihara for me during your next practice.”
Yukimura laughed. “Well, committing homicide on my ace might be problematic, but I’ll see what I can do.”
‘I still feel terrible that I abandoned you soon afterwards. I’m truly sorry if I offended you in any way.’
“Just how many times is he going to apologize for things that I’ve already forgiven him for?” By this point, Sayumi was quite annoyed with the tone of the letter, as it still provided little closure up to this point.
‘I gave you such a half-assed reason as to why I ran away from you. I’m not sure if you bought the reasoning either. The truth is I couldn’t tell you the real reason. I didn’t want you to feel betrayed. To look at me in disgust.’
‘I thought when I kissed you for the first time, the butterflies in my stomach would disappear. That my anxiety would go away. That my uncertain feelings would become certain. I was sure you were the one for me, Sayumi-san. You felt the same way when we first kissed, right? Your anxiety and your uncertain feelings all faded that day. I wish I could’ve said the same, but it turns out that kiss only made everything worse. One thing was certain after our first kiss and it was my feelings for you.’
Suddenly, a thought clicked in her head. She felt her anger, sadness and confusion well up inside of her but the only thing that came out were her tears. “It couldn’t be!”
Rikkai did not end up becoming the three time National champions that year. The team lost a very close 2-3 series with Seigaku’s Echizen Ryoma securing a 6-4 win in Singles 1 against Yukimura Seiichi. The super rookie of Seigaku managed to overcome Yukimura’s ‘yips’ style of tennis by unlocking the Pinnacle of Perfection and handing Yukimura his first ever recorded loss in an official match. Despite the loss, the team wasn’t as bitter about the loss than they initially thought.
The school year had also shifted over to the next. Yukimura, along with the rest of the Rikkai Tennis Team (minus Kirihara) have graduated and moved into the high school division. Sayumi had been promoted to the President position of the Beautification Committee with little adjusting due to her prior experiences being in charge when Yukimura was absent. Life had continued on with little fanfare. Yukimura had been seeing Sayumi less and less as each day passed before he stopped seeing her altogether. At first, she brushed off his avoidance as him just being busy, but it soon got to a point where she could no longer avoid the annoyance building up.
She decided to confront Yukimura during the high school team’s practice on the courts. On her way to the courts, she ran into Sanada, who stopped her before she could step foot in the area.
“Hokama-san, what business do you have with the team?” Sanada inquired.
“I need to see Seiichi, Sanada-senpai. Please.”
“Can it wait until after practice?”
“No, it can’t.”
“Is he avoiding you, Hokama-san?” Sanada deduced from her facial expression that this was the case. He sighed. “I will personally escort him to see you after practice.” He grasped both of her hands with his. “I promise and swear on my honour.”
“Bring him to the rooftop of the library building,” she demanded coldly.
Soon after practice, Sanada stopped Yukimura from leaving the club room alongside everyone else.
“Sanada, just what are you doing?”
“Yukimura, it’s not my place to meddle in your relationship with Hokama-san, but this situation is getting ridiculous. You haven’t seen her in almost three months. She’s worried about you.”
“Thank you for your concern, Sanada, but trust me, I have this under con-”
“Don’t give me that excuse, Yukimura!” Sanada yelled as he slammed his fist into the door frame.
Yukimura sighed. “You’re right, Sanada. It’s time I finally face this issue head-on instead of avoiding it.”
“She’s waiting for you-”
“-at the library rooftop. Yes. I know,” he interrupted and completed Sanada’s sentence. Yukimura gave Sanada a tight hug. “Thank you, Sanada.”
Yukimura quickly let go and headed towards the library building. As he reached the rooftop, Sayumi was waiting for him, eyes already red and puffy from crying her heart out earlier.
“You look like a mess,” he teased.
“Seiichi, be honest with me,” she demanded. “Why have you been ignoring me? What happened between Valentine’s Day until now?”
“Sayumi-san,” he began. He felt a lump in his throat and swallowed hard. “This isn’t going to be easy to say.”
She slumped onto the guardrails in disbelief. She already knew what he was going to say. “Don’t say it then.” She stared into his eyes with anger and sadness. “If you had any decency, you would’ve said it to me the moment you started feeling this way.”
“Leave. Get out of my sight.”
Yukimura thought to stay and explain himself, but decided against it and turned around to leave. As he shut the door behind him, he could hear her wail loudly behind it.
It took another month before the two of them were back on speaking terms. Sayumi still hadn’t gotten over his abrupt break up with her and Yukimura had no intentions of discussing the matter further. Unfortunately, due to the scatterbrained nature of Rikkai’s new middle school tennis team captain, both of them ended up trapped in the club room with no means of getting help.
“I can’t believe that Kirihara,” she cursed under her breath. “How in the world did that idiot get shoehorned into the most important club position?”
“Akaya makes a good captain, but a terrible team manager. That’s why the vice captain and club manager are not him,” Yukimura replied.
“It was a rhetorical question, Yukimura -senpai .”
“Is that what we’re doing now? Going back to formalities as if we never dated?”
Sayumi curled up into a ball and sat on the floor in the corner of the room, trying to keep as much distance between her and Yukimura as possible. He decided to sit on one of the benches with his back facing her. He began humming a soft melody to drown out the awkward silence.
“...Sorry,” came a meek response from Sayumi as she buried her face into her knees.
Yukimura turned around to face her. “Sayumi-san?”
“I don’t want this to continue like this. I still care about you, Seiichi. I know you have your reasonings for ending things, but why can’t you give me a reason? You avoided me for a whole month. All my calls and texts fall on deaf ears.” She looked up with a soul-piercing gaze. “I need closure. I need to move on from this.”
Yukimura stared at her stunned and unable to utter a word. His face had a pained expression and his eyes screamed that he wanted to tell her everything, but couldn’t find the words to express it. Rather, he was afraid of trying to express what he was feeling.
She scoffed. “Just like the last time, you have no words. Really, Seiichi. I’ve known you for more than a year by now. Stop hiding this from me.”
“Sayumi,” he began with a hint of nervousness in his tone, “there’s so much I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. Not right now.” His body began to tremble in fear. “I know it’s selfish of me, but can I tell you at a later date?”
Sayumi noticed the terror in his eyes as his entire body shook. She sighed. “You really can’t tell me now?”
“I’m sorry. you do have a right to know, but I’m not comfortable sharing it with you right now. Please understand that this is a really difficult topic to talk about.”
“Okay. If you really can’t tell me now, then can we at least go back to being friends? I can’t stand all of the strange looks people keep giving me and I especially cannot stand the harassment I’m getting from your idiot fan club.” She slowly got up from her spot on the floor and walked over to sit down beside him on the bench. “It would make me happy again if we can talk without this awkward tension every time.”
Yukimura quickly hugged Sayumi tightly. “Thank you for understanding, Sayumi.”
Their make up moment was suddenly interrupted with a rattling at the doorknob. There were sounds of a key unlocking the door, followed by Yanagi, Sanada and Kirihara swinging the door open violently.
“Yukimura!” Sanada exclaimed.
“It took you long enough to get here, Sanada,” Yukimura scolded. “Akaya, where the hell is the club room key that I gave you?”
“I swear I didn’t lose it, Yukimura-buchou! Honest!”
The rest of the conversation involved a lot of scolding, yelling and mild violence before everyone tired themselves out. The five of them left the area soon afterwards and headed towards the station to commute back home.
Sayumi would never learn of his reasons for ending the relationship until she received the letter almost two years after the fact.
Sayumi decided to visit the Yukimura family grave the next day. After lighting up the incense and praying for the departed souls, she sat down in front of the gravestone and pulled out the letter again to finish reading it.
‘I’m truly sorry for everything I’ve done. I really did care about you as a friend and I should have broken it off when I realized I no longer had feelings for you. I’m a coward who was afraid of being left alone so I clung onto this false sense of security. I couldn’t stand being alone and rejected by the only people I truly loved and cared for. I shouldn’t have forced myself to try and love you either.’
“Now I understand why it never worked out. All this time, I blamed myself for what happened when it really was no one’s fault.” She looked up to the sky, which was now clearing up after several days of cloudy conditions. “You never liked girls to begin with, huh, Seiichi?”
‘I feel terrible for saying this, but thank you for being my one and only girlfriend, Hokama Sayumi. I know we didn’t end it on good terms, but I’m glad I was given the chance to know you. I’m glad you were the one to show me who I am as a person and where my heart lied. I truly hope you find it in you to move on from liking me to liking someone who truly loves you back unconditionally.’
She folded up the papers neatly before pulling out the lighter she brought for the incense and lit the letter on fire. She watched it burn in her hands until the flame singed her fingertips and erased the last remnants of the letter.
“Goodbye, Yukimura Seiichi. You’ll always be my first love and you’ll always have a small place in my heart. I hope God is kinder to you in your next life and you can be with the person you love without fear.”
She stood up and bowed one more time at the grave before turning around and leaving. On her way to the main path, she bumped into a familiar silver-brown haired boy carrying a small bouquet of red and pink carnations.
“Ah! Sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going,” the boy said as a sheepish grin began to form on his face.
“Oh, Shiraishi-san. Are you going to visit Seiichi’s grave?” Sayumi asked.
He nodded. “I regret not being able to stay at the service for long and I wanted to pay my respects properly.”
She smiled at him. “I’m sure Seiichi will be happy that you’ve come all this way. Please take care, Shiraishi-san.” She bowed at him before leaving.
Shiraishi headed towards the grave where he then laid the flowers down before praying. As soon as he was done, he turned to leave, but was stopped by Yanagi before he could advance further.
“Shitenhouji’s Shiraishi-san. I’m glad I was able to find you.”
Chapter 8: Shiraishi Kuranosuke
“Shitenhouji’s Shiraishi-san. I’m glad I was able to find you.”
“Yanagi-san,” Shiraishi greeted with a slight bow. “Are you here to visit Yukimura-san’s grave?”
Yanagi shook his head. “No, I am here to see you, Shiraishi-san.” Yanagi pulled out a pastel green envelope and held it out for Shiraishi to accept. “I was instructed to give you this.”
Shiraishi carefully accepted the envelope. “Is that all? Yanagi-san, you really didn’t have to go through the trouble just for this.”
“Unfortunately, I did have to. According to the data I have, this was the only window of opportunity that I could find to give this to you. Mailing it would be an issue, since the postal service is currently experiencing a backlog they have never seen before. There would have been an 87% chance that this would have gotten lost within the postal system if I were to send it out. I knew there was a 96% chance you would be here at this time-”
“Alright, alright. I get it,” he interrupted Yanagi’s tangent. “Thank you for going through all this trouble, Yanagi-san.” He studied the envelope briefly. “What is this anyways?”
“A letter for you. From Seiichi.”
His eyes widened. “Really? You’re not lying to me, are you?”
“No. That would be cruel.” Yanagi peered over Shiraishi’s shoulder. “Red and pink carnations? What an interesting flower choice, Shiraishi-san.”
Shiraishi felt sweaty and uncomfortable with Yanagi’s remark. “What makes you say that, Yanagi-san?”
“Do you not know the language of flowers, Shiraishi-san? For a botanist, I was sure you, of all people, would know the symbolism behind them.”
“W-well, I know a little, but only the poisonous plants. I’m not well versed in non-poisonous plants.”
Yanagi had a scrutinizing look on his face but didn’t press the matter further. He turned around to head back in the direction he came from without as much as a goodbye to Shiraishi.
“That Yanagi…” Shiraishi turned around to look at the carnations he had placed on the grave. He thought about taking them back but decided against it. “Of course I know what the red and pink carnations mean.” He stuck his hands into his pockets and began heading back to the entrance. “My heart aches for you. I’ll never forget you. I love you, Yukimura Seiichi.”
The history of the relationship between Shiraishi and Yukimura was not as long or detailed as Yukimura’s other relationships. In fact, they never even knew of each other until their second year of middle school. Their chance meeting during the Nationals that year was the first time they became acquainted. Shiraishi had first seen Yukimura return the championship flag during the opening ceremony of the Nationals and could not take his eyes off of the calm and graceful figure. Their eyes had only met for a brief second but Yukimura’s glistening azure gaze had enamoured Shiraishi from that point onwards. When the ceremony had concluded, Shiraishi had set out to try and look for Yukimura, but was unable to find him.
The seeding for that year’s tournament caused Shitenhouji and Rikkai to clash in the semifinals. The fated matchup between Yukimura and Shiraishi was slotted for Singles 1, but due to Rikkai winning 3 games in a row, the match was never played. Defeated and demoralized, the entire team hastily packed their things to return to Osaka. Only Shiraishi stayed behind to watch the finals. He just had to figure out who Yukimura Seiichi was and his curiosity would not be satisfied until he had a chance to watch him play. The finals were also a wash for Rikkai’s opponents, as it only took 3 straight games for Rikkai to secure the championship for a second year in a row. Frustrated, Shiraishi decided to leave the venue and walk towards the practice courts that were set up for the tournament. He ended up practicing basic swings in order to further hone his Bible Tennis skills and to vent out his frustrations.
“Really…” he sighed as he got bored. “My only chance to meet that mysterious person and we just had to blow it during the semis.”
As he continued to curse under his breath, the gates to the practice courts swung open and closed rather quickly.
“I wasn’t expecting someone to be here,” came the feminine voice. “Hey,” the voice called out to Shiraishi, “do you want to play a quick game?”
Shiraishi turned around and froze in place. Standing before him was the androgynous figure he couldn’t forget. His eyes widened as the azure gaze he couldn’t forget pierced his soul.
“Is that a no?”
“N-no! I can play a game,” he stuttered. “You’re-”
“Yukimura Seiichi.” The boy held out his slender hand.
Shiraishi returns the handshake. “Shiraishi Kuranosuke.”
“Ah yes. We played in the semis. It was a good game.” Yukimura set his bag down and grabbed out his racket. “Such a shame. I was really looking forward to playing against you, Shiraishi-san. I guess my team is just better than yours.”
“Oh, is that so? I’m sure if you and I played during Singles 2, I could beat you.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Yukimura responded nonchalantly. “Do you want to serve first or me?”
“I’ll let you serve first. Show me what you’re made of, Yukimura Seiichi.”
The set didn’t last very long, but Shiraishi could tell something was off about this character. Every serve, swing and return made him feel more anxious and uncertain about his next play. Was it his piercing stare or the gentle, feminine demeanour that was throwing him off? He wasn’t sure, but he was incredibly fascinated and terrified at the same time. The match ended without Yukimura dropping a single game. Shiraishi collapsed onto the court ground, unable to move or process what was happening.
“Say, you are a lot better than I thought, Shiraishi-san.” Yukimura turned his back towards him and headed back towards his bag. “Too bad I was better than you.”
Shiraishi struggled to get back up as he used his tennis racket as a crutch to support his heavy body. “Amazing. This is the true strength of Rikkai then...” He couldn’t help but smile at the absurd situation.
“Thank you for playing against me. I was feeling restless not being able to play a single game this entire tournament, but you were a formidable opponent, Shiraishi-san.” Yukimura slung his bag over his shoulder before promptly exiting the courts, leaving Shiraishi to recover from the yips he had inflicted on him.
Later that night, Shiraishi was rambling in a phone call with Oshitari Kenya about the game he played against Yukimura.
“The feeling was so surreal, Kenya. Yukimura Seiichi is a force to be reckoned with. Those piercing azure eyes. His glistening, flowy hair. His gentle, feminine grace-”
“Wait, wait, wait. Slow down there, Shiraishi,” Kenya interjected. “You speak of Yukimura Seiichi as if he was a girl.”
“Is there something wrong about that, Kenya?”
“Uh, yes? Yukimura Seiichi is a boy; NOT a girl.”
“I don’t see why I can’t comment on someone’s beauty, regardless of gender.”
“Gah, you’re making this weirder than whatever’s happening between Koharu and Yuuji!” Kenya sighed. “What happened with the game itself, Shiraishi? Would we have stood a chance if we somehow managed to drag the series on to Singles 1?”
“No. I don’t think I would’ve been able to play at all.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I wouldn’t be able to overcome my yips.”
Shiraishi walked silently from the graveyard towards the bus stop back to the station as he casually basked in the quaint Kanagawa scenery. After riding the bus back to the station, many of the trains to Osaka had been delayed for several hours due to a minor earthquake that was happening in Shizuoka. He would be trapped in Kanagawa until the situation resolves itself. Cursing his terrible luck, he decided to grab some sandwiches and fried chicken from the convenience store located in the station before sitting down at a bench on the platform of his train back. As he ate his small meal in silence, he remembered the letter Yanagi had given him and decided to take it out to see what it was.
‘Kurarin, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I hope you give me a chance to express these deep-seeded feelings of gratitude I have for you.’
‘So this really is from Sei-chan,’ he thought.
‘I understand if you want to stop reading now. I know things didn’t really end on good terms for either of us.’
He smiled sadly. “It could’ve been better.”
‘You were always enamoured by me the moment we first met. You always looked like a deer in the headlights whenever you saw me. I always thought something was off about you. You had a very strange interest in me. Honestly, I was surprised you even thought of me in that way.’
He titled his head and looked up at the large glass ceiling. “I was surprised too, Sei-chan.”
Shortly after the Nationals (where Seigaku emerged victorious), Rikkai was hosting a summer cultural festival. Yukimura took this opportunity to invite all of the rival schools to come visit their oceanside campus and enjoy the festivities after several exhaustive months of drama and action-filled tennis. Hearing about a takoyaki eating contest, Tooyama Kintarou managed to convince the rest of Shitenhouji to pack up their bags and take the bullet train from Osaka to Kanagawa. Once the team managed to arrive, they all dispersed rather quickly into the large crowd of people, leaving Shiraishi alone to fend for himself. Unsure of where to go, he started wandering around, hoping to bump into a familiar face. Meanwhile, Yukimura and Sayumi were sitting in Class 3-A’s butler and maid café, casually observing the festival happen. In Yukimura’s case, he was also reeling in the opportunity to tease both Sanada and Yagyuu for their ridiculous outfits.
“You seem extremely happy for no reason, Seiichi.”
“It’s not every day I get to see my lovely Sanada in a butler suit, waiting on my every whim.”
“Sanada-senpai already does that for you without the suit…”
“Which is why this is not an everyday occurrence, Sayumi-san.” He turned around to address the other two. “Though it would be nice if they were wearing the suit every day,” he said rather loudly.
“Sanada-kun,” Yagyuu cut him off before he could say anything else. “We are still on shift and have to treat our customers with respect,” he hissed under his breath.
A visible vein appeared on Sanada’s temple. “My apologies, Master.”
Sayumi placed her hand on his arm. “Seiichi, don’t you think you’re taking it too far?”
Yukimura grinned. “Maybe just a little.”
“So this is a maid café. Fascinating,” came a very familiar, heavily Osaka-accented voice from the doorway.
Yukimura turned around to greet the person. “Shiraishi-san, welcome.”
“Thank you for the invitation, Yukimura-san,” Shiraishi responded. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your date.”
Sayumi shook her head. “No, it’s alright, Shiraishi-san. Seiichi has been looking forward to showing you around our rooftop gardens.” She stood up and headed towards the door. “I’ll see you backstage later for the production, Seiichi. I have to go run the booth soon.”
“Take care, Sayumi-san. I’ll see you then,” Yukimura said as he waved goodbye.
Yukimura stood up and walked to the doorway. “Shall I show you my prized gardens, Shiraishi-san?”
“Of course. Lead the way, Yukimura-san.”
Yukimura took Shiraishi on a small tour of the campus as well as showed off the rapidly expanding rooftop gardens. The two bonded surprisingly fast over their love of plants and Shiraishi didn’t shy away from sharing his extensive knowledge on poisonous species along the way. The tour ended on top of the science complex where one of their experimental rooftop farming units were.
“I sure wish we had this amount of space for plants in Osaka,” Shiraishi commented as he marveled over the sight of the healthy vegetation growing. “How do you manage all of this, Yukimura-san?”
“Threats against my club members mostly. Sayumi-san had roped in the Horticulture Club to help manage these farming experiments and also secured some additional help for the rest of the gardens.”
“Sayumi-san?” It took a second before it clicked. “Oh! The girl you were with earlier.”
Yukimura laughed. “Yes, she has been a great help. I’m confident that she’ll be able to manage it as the committee president when I graduate.”
“Is she your girlfriend, Yukimura-san?”
“Yes? I did ask her to be my girlfriend so that would make your statement true.”
Shiraishi scratched his head. “I'm confused as to why you're so formal with her if she's your girlfriend."
"That's just how things are. She doesn't seem to mind."
"You’re the last person I would expect to have a girlfriend, Yukimura-san.”
Yukimura looked at him, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Ah! I mean no offense, Yukimura-san, but are you sure she’s your type?”
“Type? Like her personality?”
“No, not that kind of type.”
Yukimura’s confusion intensified. “I’m not sure what you mean, Shiraishi-san. Her looks?”
“I-it’s nothing then. Forget I said anything.” He sighed. “It’s not my place to comment.”
Yukimura continued to ponder at the possible meanings behind Shiraishi’s words for the rest of the time they were together. When it came time for the Tennis Club’s production of ‘Cinderella’ to start, Shiraishi decided to leave Yukimura to his devices as he ran around to find the rest of his club. It didn’t take long before he bumped into Oshitari Kenya and his cousin, Yuushi, outside of the takoyaki booth.
“Kenya, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, Shiraishi.” Kenya pointed at a certain super rookie, who had passed out in front of the takoyaki eating competition stage with an enlarged gut. “I think our kouhai won.”
“Oh Kin-chan. What am I going to do with you?” Shiraishi huffed as he felt a small headache beginning to form.
“Well, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to stir anytime soon. You might have to help me drag him back to our hotel.” Kenya remembered his cousin was also with him. “Oh Yuushi, you’ve met Shiraishi before, right?”
“Informally, yes.” Yuushi bowed slightly at Shiraishi. “Oshitari Yuushi. Unfortunately related by blood to this dweeb,” he said as he pointed his finger at Kenya.
“Who are you calling a ‘dweeb’?”
Yuushi scoffed. “What can I say? At least our super rookie doesn’t make an utter fool out of himself like yours does.”
“Echizen Ryoma isn’t even your super rookie. That shrimp doesn’t even go to your school!” Kenya hissed.
“Now, now,” Shiraishi said as he inserted himself between the two. “Let’s not get into a fight right now.”
Both Oshitaris fumed and turned their heads away from each other. Kenya turned around to face Shiraishi.
“Say, Shiraishi, did you end up finding Yukimura-san?”
Shiraishi nodded. “Yes, we had a pleasant conversation.”
“Did you find what you were looking for, then?”
He nodded his head. “Yes, I did find out a lot,” he began, “but I wonder if what I’m doing is going to reveal who he really is.”
Shiraishi snapped out of his trance when the intercom announced the next bullet train to Yamagata was boarding. He checked the clock on the train display board and sighed. It had only been an hour and his bullet train to Osaka had just been cancelled. The next one wouldn't be available until tomorrow. He got up from his seat and decided to walk to a nearby capsule hotel to stay for the night. After paying for a capsule and dropping off his belongings, he went to the bathhouse to soak his tired and worn out body. It was already quite late, so the bath was empty by the time he got there.
He meticulously washed his body before stepping into the bath. Once he found an ideal spot to sit down, he exhaled as he let his body sink down into the warm water. As he closed his eyes, he focused on steadying his breathing and listened to his heartbeat. No matter how hard he tried to control his breathing, his heart continued to beat irregularly.
"Curse you, Sei-chan. It's been more than a year and yet I still can't get over you."
The graduation season had just finished and that left everyone with a two week break until the start of the new school year. Shiraishi had invited Yukimura out to Osaka for some sightseeing before the both of them moved on to high school. This was the first time Yukimura had been to Osaka and Shiraishi took advantage of this fact by taking him to all of the tourist trap attractions that he never got to experience. The two captains had a lot of fun exploring all the sights and food that the city had to offer. It was a much needed break for Yukimura, as he had just barely recovered from his stint in the hospital and the Nationals.
"Osaka sure is fun, Shiraishi-san," Yukimura remarked. "What's next on the itinerary?"
"Doyama-cho. It's my favourite place to be here; especially at night. It's not a big tourist trap but it's very popular with high school and university students."
"Sounds exciting. Please lead the way."
Shiraishi grabbed Yukimura's wrist and dragged him along the busy Osaka streets until they reached the East entrance into the area. Yukimura was taken aback by the bright neon signs and the various signage on shop windows and doors telling foreigners to stay away.
"'No foreigners'? What a strange place."
"Doyama-cho has a very complicated history to say the least. The 'no foreigners' policy only exists for some of the shops here." He grinned sheepishly at the blue haired boy. "Would you like to visit my favourite bar?"
"'Bar'? We're underaged, Shiraishi-san."
He shook his head. "No, this bar is different. They don't serve alcohol."
Shiraishi continued to hold onto Yukimura and guided him through the sea of people here to enjoy the Osaka nightlife. Yukimura didn't seem to protest but rather, he seemed to enjoy being led around. After what seemed like some aimless walking around the district, Shiraishi had brought the both of them to a very tiny bar-like establishment in a tiny alleyway just slightly off of the main roads. He slid the door open and lifted the curtains to the side, gesturing for Yukimura to enter first. The bar itself was very small. There were no more than 10 seats in the entire establishment and no one else was there. The place was dimly lit with soft, red lighting and some classical music was playing in the background, though it was barely audible.
“Welcome to- Oi, Kurarin!” the barmaster pointed at the both of them entering. “You know the rules of this place-”
“He’s not a girl, Kazu-san. Don’t worry,” Shiraishi cut them off before the barmaster scolded him further.
Yukimura looked confused as he sat down in one of the empty barstools. “Is there something wrong with being a girl?” he asked the barmaster.
“This is a male-only establishment.” The barmaster leaned closer and began to closely examine and scrutinize Yukimura’s appearances. “Are you sure he’s not a girl, Kurarin?”
“Kazu-san!” Shiraishi protested. “This is Yukimura Seiichi, the nationally ranked middle school tennis player from Kanagawa. He’s the captain of Rikkai’s tennis team.”
“ Was the captain, Shiraishi-san,” Yukimura corrected. “I just graduated so I’m no longer the captain.”
“Oho! So this is the pretty boy you’ve been gawking about, Kurarin!” The barmaster jumped and spun around in glee. “This calls for an extra special drink!”
Yukimura looked at the both of them in utter confusion. “What is this place, Shiraishi-san?”
The barmaster gasped. “Kurarin hasn’t told you what this place is? I’m very disappointed in you, Kurarin. How dare you mislead this sweet child!”
Shiraishi smacked his head as he sulked down into the stool beside Yukimura. “This is Café Dazzle, though it’s anything but a café. Kazu-san here is the barmaster and owner.”
“Where is your excitement, Kurarin? You wound me,” the barmaster responded as they shed some fake tears. “The name’s Nakajima Kazuto, but you can call me Kazu! Would it be alright if I called you Sei-chan instead? I give all of my customers nicknames and Sei-chan is an adorable nickname for you.”
“Um, alright,” Yukimura responded, still unsure of what exactly was happening. “Kazu-san, what exactly is this place?”
“Kurarin really didn’t tell you what this place is? Do you even know where you are, Sei-chan?”
“Doyama-cho?” Yukimura’s answer was filled with uncertainty.
“And what is Doyama-cho famously known for?” Kazu had begun mixing a drink in front of the two boys while dancing around behind the counter. “Usually, people say the party scene, but there’s another thing this place is known for as well.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t honestly know,” Yukimura replied sheepishly.
“It’s a gay district, Yukimura-san,” Shiraishi admitted. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I didn’t want you to be disgusted.”
“Gay district? Really?” It took a while for Yukimura to process this information, but he had more questions than answers at this point. “I didn’t know we even had gay districts in Japan.”
Kazu had set down two tall glasses filled with a fizzy, strawberry-smelling drink in front of them. “This one is on the house. Drink up! I think it’s time for me to give a history lesson!”
Shiraishi didn’t hesitate to accept the drink and began to drink it. Yukimura was more hesitant to take a sip. As the bubbly pink liquid touched his lips, the sugary sweet taste enveloped his taste receptors and felt overpowering. He set the drink down on the coaster before turning to face Kazu.
“Now, Sei-chan, what do you know about the LGBTQ+ people in general?”
Kazu shook their head in disbelief. “Kurarin, how much does this boy even know?”
“Nothing! Do you really think I would be open about this stuff, Kazu-san?”
“I really have to teach you everything from the ground up.” Kazu clapped their hands in glee. “This is so exciting! Normally, I have to teach more bigoted people, but having a blank slate and open mind is the best!”
Kazu spent the next few hours detailing everything about the LGBTQ+ community in Japan, how Doyama-cho became Osaka’s gay district, why there are gendered bars in the area and the lack of foreigners in general. Shiraishi sat in silence as he continued to drink the various colourful cocktails Kazu was mixing up during their history lesson. Yukimura listened in awe and interjected with minor questions to better understand everything Kazu was talking about.
“How interesting. I never really knew about all of this until now,” Yukimura admitted. “Thank you for the very informative lesson, Kazu-san.”
“You are most welcome, Sei-chan,” Kazu responded as they leaned on the counter. “Now, I wonder why Kurarin brought you here in the first place. He normally never brings someone with him unless-”
Shiraishi began coughing, which caused the two to turn their attention towards the silver-blonde haired boy. “Kazu-san.”
“You worry too much, Kurarin! It’s not my place to out people if they haven’t done it already.”
Yukimura looked confused as Shiraishi’s soul began to escape his body. Kazu let out a hearty chuckle.
“Now,” Kazu then turned his attention towards Shiraishi again, “Kurarin, was there something you wanted to say?”
“Not in particular,” he responded.
Kazu pouted in disbelief. “All this work for nothing.” They turned and walked into the back room of the building, leaving Shiraishi and Yukimura alone at the bar.
“What an interesting character Kazu-san is,” Yukimura laughed. “I’ve never met someone so energetic.”
“That’s the nature of Osaka business owners. Many of them are flamboyant and create a fun atmosphere to be in.” Shiraishi placed his elbows on the counter and supported his head with his hands. “Are you having fun, Yukimura-san?”
“Yes, very. Osaka sure is different from Yokohama. I never knew places like Doyama-cho existed outside of Tokyo. It’s fascinating.” Yukimura turned to face Shiraishi. “I’m curious as to why you brought me here of all places to end the night.”
“This is my favourite place to be. It’s the only place I can really come without being judged for who I am.”
“What do you mean by that, Shiraishi-san?”
“Well,” Shiraishi began. His cheeks had turned a rosy pink as he struggled to find words to express himself. “This might be hard for me to say, but-”
“-you’re gay?” Yukimura asked as he finished Shiraishi’s thought.
“Well, yeah. Sort of.”
“I’m bisexual. I like men and women.”
“Is that so?” Yukimura smiled as he tried to drink the same sugary sweet strawberry drink from earlier. “I understand it’s hard for you to tell me this, but please don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”
“Thank you, Yukimura-san.”
“Liking men and women... Shiraishi-san, what does it mean to ‘like’ someone?”
Kazu popped up from under the counter with a mischievous glint in their eyes. “Did someone say ‘love’?”
Shiraishi was startled enough to fall out of his seat and banged his head on the wall. Yukimura got out and knelt down to check on the boy. The impact had caused him to lose consciousness and no matter how much Yukimura tried to stir him awake, he wouldn’t budge.
“Perhaps I should stop doing that,” Kazu noted as they ran around the counter to see better. “Help me put him on the bench over there,” they said as they pointed at the small wall bench by the entrance.
The two of them lifted Shiraishi off of the ground and gently placed him down on the bench. Kazu ran back to the counter and grabbed a folded tea towel to create a makeshift pillow for Shiraishi’s head.
“I guess that ends the festivities for tonight,” Yukimura sighed.
“Oh, Kurarin will wake up soon. Let’s just leave him there for a bit.” Kazu turned to face Yukimura. “Kurarin was quite bold to bring you here, Sei-chan.”
“What makes you say that, Kazu-san?”
“Kurarin only brings people here if he intends to ask them out on a date. Since it’s a male-only establishment, it’s only when he knows for sure they are gay.”
“Oh, I’m not gay, Kazu-san. I have a girlfriend.”
“Do you now?” Kazu sighed. “Honestly, what is this boy thinking?” They returned behind the counter and began to wipe down the bar. “So what’s this about ‘love’ you two were talking about before I knocked him out?”
Yukimura sat back down at the counter. “I was asking him what it meant to ‘like’ someone. I’ve been in this relationship with my girlfriend for about six or seven months by now, but I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding the feeling.”
“I see. What do you feel when you’re with her?”
“I don’t know what you mean by that, Kazu-san.”
“Does she make your heart skip beats? Do you feel butterflies in your stomach? Do you feel protected and supported?”
“Not really. She had always been a close friend and another friend of mine pointed out that she was falling head over heels for me. I decided to date her to see if I felt the same, but I’m not sure what I feel towards her. She does care deeply for me; that I know is true.”
“Do you speak casually or formally towards her?”
“Formally. She addresses me informally.”
“Have you kissed?”
Yukimura hesitated before answering. “Yes.”
Curious, Kazu decided to press this point further. “What did it feel like?”
“I… don’t know?”
“Why do you look so guilty?”
“I don’t want to admit that I felt nothing but guilt after that kiss. I didn’t fall madly in love with her after the kiss. All I could think about was someone else and the disgust I had for who I am.”
“It just-” Yukimura paused to try and collect his thoughts, “I don’t know? Something about that kiss just felt-”
“Yes! Something felt wrong about it!”
Kazu stopped to think about Yukimura’s description of his kiss with his girlfriend. “Tell me about the ‘someone else’ you were thinking about.”
“I was thinking about another boy. My mind couldn’t stop thinking about him the entire time.”
“Are you sure you’re not gay, Sei-chan?”
Yukimura sat in silence as he thought more about it. “I… I don’t know.”
Kazu sighed. “It’s not an easy conclusion to come to, Sei-chan. You just might not be into this particular girl. Don’t rush into these things. You’re still young and you still have time to figure things out.” They turned to glance at Shiraishi, who was beginning to stir awake. “If there’s one piece of advice I could give you, don’t go out with Kurarin.”
“Why is that?”
“Kurarin has a fragile heart and you’ll end up breaking it. I guarantee it.”
After meditating in the bath, Shiraishi got out and dried himself off with the provided towels. He dressed himself in a robe, grabbed his clothes and headed back to his capsule hotel. After crawling into his pod and nestling himself under the blankets, he promptly passed out from exhaustion, unable to continue reading Yukimura’s letter like he originally planned.
The next morning, he woke up abruptly and hit his head on the ceiling of the small capsule. Quietly cursing his stupidity, Shiraishi shook off the injury and got himself ready to catch the train back to Osaka. He dressed himself and hastily washed his face in the bathroom before promptly leaving the capsule hotel and walked back to the station. By the time he picked up his ticket and headed to the platform, the train had pulled into the station. He quickly went to the convenience store to pick up some breakfast before rushing onto the train to grab a seat before it filled up. Once he had settled down in a window seat and unpacked his food, he pulled out Yukimura’s letter to continue reading it.
‘I must say, I was taken aback by your bold and brash attempts to court me. I didn’t really know how to respond to your attempts. I was still feeling uneasy about the thought that I might not be the same as everyone else, but I also felt a sense of security whenever I was with you. I always felt like no matter what happens, you would be there for me. Thank you for that.’
He smiled softly at the thought as he turned the page over.
‘You showed me a world that I never really knew existed. I don’t think I would’ve realized my true self if you hadn’t shown me this world. I always thought I was some kind of monster my entire life. Something felt off about me because I didn’t seem to be the same as everyone else. I was born as a boy, but everything physical about me felt too feminine. My hair, my voice, my facial features, my fingers… I’ve always been mistaken for a girl for a majority of my life as well, which has always led to many awkward situations.’
‘I can imagine,’ Shiraishi thought to himself. He himself had confused Yukimura for a girl at first glance until he played a game of tennis against him and realized he was anything but.
‘I honestly thought I would never be accepted for who I am. The thought of being shunned by everyone terrified me. But then I met you. Someone who was unapologetic and true to themselves. It felt reassuring that there was someone else I could lean on for support.’
It had only been a week since Yukimura had broken up with Sayumi. Though he did not explicitly state his intentions, their last interactions with each other did not end on good terms. He had been skipping tennis practice since the breakup, secluding himself in his room at home as soon as classes were done for the day. He became a shell of his former self, unsure of what to do next. To him, Sayumi was his only sense of normalcy. When he was with her, he felt like a normal human being. Their relationship was the ideal relationship that had always been portrayed in the media and yet he felt disgusted with himself. To him, she wasn’t the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. She wasn’t the person he wanted to grow old and die with. She was a good friend of his and that’s all he ever thought of her. He was a fool for thinking she would be anything more than that, even if he tried his hardest to make it happen.
Feeling frustrated with his situation, he decided to text Shiraishi to ask for advice. After sending a quick message asking him if he was free, his cell phone began to ring.
“Hello?” Yukimura answered.
“Yukimura-san, hello,” came the familiar Osaka accent on the other side. “Did something happen?”
“Yeah. Something did happen. It’s a long story. I don’t really feel comfortable talking with anyone else about it, except you.”
“Ah, I see.” There was a lot of noise coming from Shiraishi’s side. “I have to get back to practice, but do you want to talk about it in person? I’m free tomorrow if you want to meet.”
Yukimura thought about it for a second before responding. “Yes, I think I would like to meet in person, but wouldn’t that be too much trouble for you, Shiraishi-san? You’re all the way in Osaka.”
“Nonsense, Yukimura-san. These bullet trains we have in this country are amazingly convenient. I can meet you at the station and we can figure out where to go from there?”
A smile crept onto Yukimura’s face. “Thank you, Shiraishi-san. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
True to his words, Shiraishi had shown up the next day at the main bullet train station. By the time Yukimura had arrived at the station, Shiraishi had several bags full of ice cream and chocolates in his hands as he waited for the blue haired boy to show up.
“Shiraishi-san, I don’t think eating this much junk food is part of a well-balanced diet.”
“Of course not. These are textbook ‘heartbreak recovery’ foods. We’ll just triple our training regime to work it off afterwards.” Shiraishi wrapped his arms around Yukimura in a hug. “Let’s go talk, shall we?”
“Y-yeah…” Yukimura responded hesitantly and he was taken aback by the sudden physical contact.
Shiraishi let go of the boy before bending down to pick up his bags. “Lead the way. I will follow.”
The two of them started walking out of the station to a nearby park. The park was surprisingly empty despite the cherry blossoms being in full bloom that day. The two found a secluded area by the riverbank off the main path and decided to sit down underneath a large tree that overlooked the flowing water. Shiraishi spared no time to tear into one of the many boxes of ice cream he had bought for the occasion and handed one to Yukimura.
“Let’s talk, Yukimura-san,” Shiraishi began as he unwrapped the ice pop he was holding. “We should also try and finish all of this ice cream before it melts as well.”
“You’ve bought way too much, Shiraishi-san. I don’t think I’m going to be able to eat much of this at all. I don’t like cold foods or sweets in general.”
“I don’t either, but hey, we’re both nursing broken hearts, aren’t we?” He took a big bite out of the ice pop, which sent a shiver down Yukimura’s spine.
“I didn’t know you were getting over someone either. My condolences.”
“Girls are complicated. I might be a veteran at breakups, but this is your first one, isn’t it?”
“I’m not sure that’s something to be proud of, Shiraishi-san.” Yukimura took a small bite of the ice pop he was holding. “These are a lot less sweet than the last time I had one.”
Shiraishi shook his head. “The sugar content is the same. Your taste buds are just dull after a breakup, so you don’t really taste it.”
“Is that so?” Yukimura sighed as he continued to eat it in silence.
“Ne, Yukimura-san, how do you feel right now?”
“What do you mean by that?”
Shiraishi poked Yukimura’s chest, right above his heart. “Does it hurt?”
“My heart? I think it’s beating normally.”
“Really, Yukimura-san,” Shiraishi sighed. “Your chest doesn’t hurt? Do you not feel any anger?”
Yukimura leaned back. “Can’t say that I feel anything except guilt.”
“Why is that?”
“I feel like I misled her. I didn’t return her feelings no matter how hard I tried.” Yukimura pulled his knees towards his chest and glanced over at Shiraishi, who had moved on to the drinkable ice cream pouches.
Shiraishi offered the strange packaged ice cream to him. “Hey, you couldn’t have known how you truly felt until you’ve experienced it. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Yukimura-san.”
Yukimura took the package and twisted off the cap. “I guess? I still don’t feel so great about the whole thing. She deserved better.”
The two sat in silence as they continued to finish the rapidly melting ice cream.
“So, who broke your heart, Shiraishi-san?”
“A girl from my class. Dated for about 3 weeks. It was my fault for being too trusting of her. She had such a contagious, bubbly personality but it was just a ruse. She just wanted to be with me for the social status of being with Shitenhouji’s tennis team captain.”
“Ah…” Yukimura’s voice trailed off. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“It’s not my first time, but I appreciate the sentiment.” Shiraishi rummaged through the plastic bags and pulled out the various chocolate bars he had bought.
“Are you sure you want to eat all of that? You just ate four whole boxes of random ice creams already.”
“I don’t really notice how much I eat. I just eat until I feel better.” He began stuffing his mouth with a dark chocolate bar. “And the triple training regime the next day makes me feel so much better. Burning off all the calories feels so great afterwards.”
Yukimura smiled in disbelief. “I’m envious of you, Shiraishi-san.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what you like and you act on it. Even if it doesn’t end favourably for you, you still try it. I wish I was as fearless as you.”
“I don’t think I’m fearless, Yukimura-san. Rather, I’m probably the most terrified person in the world.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because,” he turned to look at Yukimura’s azure eyes, “there’s something I want to do, but I’m absolutely terrified of what will happen if it turns out I’m wrong.”
Yukimura’s heart jumped a few beats. “What is it that you want to do?”
Shiraishi sighed as a smile crept onto his face. The two sat in silence with Yukimura waiting patiently for his response. The tension in the air became intense and suffocating for the both of them.
“Yukimura Seiichi, would you like to go out with me? Not as a friend, but as a lover.”
Yukimura choked. “What?”
“I’m serious. I’m enamoured by you.”
“Shiraishi-san, that is very flattering, but-”
“‘-you’re not gay’ is what you wanted to say.”
Yukimura turned away as his cheeks began to turn an intense red. He was shocked at the sudden revelation that Shiraishi Kuranosuke was interested in him as more than a friend. The shock was short-lived as a new feeling began to fill his head. His heart was beating quicker than usual and his hands felt clammy. He felt a knot forming in his gut and was too nervous to turn around to face the Osaka native beside him.
“Sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Yukimura-san.” He stood up and collected all of the garbage that was created. “I’ll take my leave-”
Shiraishi froze in place as he stared at Yukimura, who was now trembling in fear.
“Please don’t go.” A few tears fell from his eyes. “Please.”
Shiraishi got down on the ground and pulled Yukimura into his arms. He held onto the frail boy tightly as Yukimura cried into his chest.
‘I’m sorry I could never give you an explicit answer. I still wasn’t entirely sure if this was the right move for me; especially since it was right after I had gotten out of my last relationship. I was so upset with myself and I didn’t want to make a rash decision based on emotions.’
“It was my fault for asking so soon...”
‘To be honest, I don’t think dating you would have changed how I felt on the inside. I’m a monster. I’ve stolen away a lot of people's passion for tennis with my playstyle. I played God when it was never my place to. I fell in love with someone I couldn’t ever be with.’
A realization suddenly dawned on Shiraishi. “That’s why you kept rejecting my advances, huh?”
‘I don’t think I would have realized this if it wasn’t for you. You introduced me to a world that I never knew existed and you gave me hope. Unfortunately, just as you got my hopes up, they were crushed equally as quick. I wonder if that was God’s punishment all along?’
Autumn had arrived once again. The busy summer tennis season had passed and it was time for schools to prepare for the autumn cultural festival season. Since Rikkai normally held their festival in the summer, the students had a short break from school instead. Shiraishi had sent an invitation to the Rikkai High School Boys’ Tennis Team to come to the Shitenhouji High Cultural Festival and Yukimura decided to take advantage of the opportunity to head back to Osaka. Though there were protests from Sanada and the others who wanted to utilize the time for more practice, it was the school who had shut down the tennis courts to undergo repairs that sealed the decision.
Yukimura had arrived in the bustling, eccentric city early in the day. By the time he had gotten to the Shitenhouji campus, many of the booths were still being set up by the students. The cultural festival was very different from what schools normally did in Kanagawa and Tokyo. Many of the booths had amusing banzai comedy themes, bold and unconventional streetwear and food dedicated to highlighting the best of what can be found on the Osaka streets. Walking around the campus, he noticed a very peculiar booth that stood out from the rest; a kissing booth.
Sitting by the booth with an unamused expression was none other than Shiraishi Kuranosuke himself.
Yukimura strolled up to the booth leisurely. Shiraishi had not noticed he had already arrived.
“Interesting choice for a booth,” he commented, trying to suppress his giggle.
“Oh, Yukimura-san! You came!” Shiraishi exclaimed as he stood up.
“Whose bright idea was this?”
“Don’t look at me. Kenya and Koharu were scheming and came up with this and I got forced to be here against my will.”
Shiraishi ran around the booth and grabbed a hold of Yukimura’s wrist. “Let’s get out of here before Kenya and Koharu get back with the crowd of girls they’ve been taunting me with.”
Shiraishi started running with Yukimura in tow across the campus towards the tennis courts. The two of them ran into the club room to hide from Shiraishi’s festival commitments. As soon as they entered the room, only Ishida Gin was there, sitting in a meditative state, seemingly unfazed by the sudden entrance of his disheveled captain and rival tennis team captain.
“Gin-san, what are you still doing here?”
“I would imagine the same reason you are here.”
“Hiding from Kenya and Koharu,” the both of them said in unison.
“Why did we agree to let them do what they wanted for our club’s booth...” Gin silently cursed under his breath. He turned to greet Yukimura with a small nod.
“Hello to you too, Ishida-san,” Yukimura replied.
Shiraishi gestured for Yukimura to sit down. “I don’t know how long we’ll be able to stay here for,” he said as he began to push some furniture in front of the door to create a blockade.
“You both seem to be in a predicament. Is there any way I could possibly help out?”
“Not unless you can kill Kenya and Koharu for us.” Shiraishi slumped to the ground in exhaustion. “I’m sorry you’re spending the cultural festival trapped in a club room with two guys running away from their fate.”
Yukimura giggled. “I’m sure the three of us can come up with a scheme to get back at them.”
Both Shiraishi and Gin had an epiphany at the same time that would potentially save them from a cultural festival of embarrassment and potential blackmail.
“I see the both of you are not opposed to my idea. Shall we get started?”
The three minds began brainstorming ideas on how to get back at the two teammates that have left them hiding in fear in their club room. It was decided that they would lure Kenya and Koharu to the Chemistry Club’s molecular gastronomy booth where they would both be tricked into drinking a prototype ‘Yanagi Juice’ Yukimura had helped work on. Once they ironed out the plan, the three of them set out to get everything set up. Shiraishi had run off to find the ingredients needed while Gin and Yukimura went to the Chemistry Club to ask them for their cooperation. They were surprised to find that the club president had some vendetta against Kenya and was more than willing to go along with this plan.
The festival had reached peak traffic by the time Shiraishi had come back with the ingredients Yukimura requested. Yukimura got to work creating the foul concoction that had an abnormally sweet smell while Gin and Shiraishi pulled Kenya and Koharu to the booth. As they arrived, Yukimura hid underneath the counter with a camera as the Chemistry Club president served the deceptive concoction to the unsuspecting boys.
“On the house. Consider it a gift from the Chemistry Club, Oshitari-san,” the club president said while trying to suppress their snickering.
“Thank you for the drink!” came the unison response from Kenya and Koharu.
Just as the two of them began to drink the concoction, Yukimura popped up from underneath the booth, camera ready to snap the picture perfect reaction.
“Say ‘cheese’!” Yukimura chimed as he snapped the photo of Kenya and Koharu agonizing in pain over the foul liquid that had just graced their lips.
The crowd around them erupted in laughter at the sight of the two overreacting to the foul drink. Shiraishi was on the ground, crying and wheezing in laughter at the sight.
"I owe you for that one, Yukimura-san," Shiraishi struggled to say in between laughs.
Once the crowd dispersed and the unconscious bodies of Kenya and Koharu were dragged to the school infirmary, Yukimura and Shiraishi decided to explore the rest of the festival until the sun went down. The pair had been wandering aimlessly until they were ambushed by the Cosplay Club, who had pulled Yukimura aside to use him as a model for one of their elaborate costumes.
Within the blink of an eye, Yukimura was transformed in front of Shiraishi’s eyes from the deceptively powerful Rikkai Tennis Team captain into a dangerously seductive, yet graceful feminine figure. The Cosplay Club spared no expense, as they dressed Yukimura to the nines in an elaborate, blood red, floral-designed silk kimono and matching red lipstick. His hair was put up into an intricate updo and decorated with ornate flower combs and butterfly hairpin accessories. Shiraishi stared in awe at the transformation and felt his heart pounding furiously in his chest every time their eyes met. He saw himself becoming more infatuated with the boy.
“I don’t look half bad as a femme fatale,” Yukimura mused to himself. “What do you think, Shiraishi-san?”
Shiraishi was speechless. His mouth was agape in shock and awe.
“I’ll take your silence as an agreement, then,” he chuckled.
The girls who had transformed Yukimura were jumping around and squealing in glee at their masterpiece as they began taking hundreds of polaroid pictures. Yukimura decided to play along and posed in various elegant and seductive poses, which only caused the girls to scream louder and Shiraishi to turn redder.
As night fell onto the city, the two decided to head back to the train station so Yukimura could catch the train back home.
"Thank you for today, Shiraishi-san. I had a lot of fun."
"It was my pleasure, Yukimura-san. I should be thanking you for coming up with such a wonderful scheme."
"Revenge is one of my specialties. Just call me anytime."
The two stood in silence as they waited for the train to pull into the station. Shiraishi struggled to try and form a coherent sentence in order to break the silence but couldn’t come up with anything. Yukimura turned to look at him in confusion.
“Shiraishi-san, is there something you wanted to say?”
His cheeks began to flush. “Ah!” He scratched the back of his head as he averted his eyes elsewhere. “I just wanted to say that you looked beautiful today. In the kimono and all.”
Yukimura felt his face heat up. “T-thank you, Shiraishi-san.”
The two continued to stand in silence as Yukimura’s train had pulled in onto the platform.
Before either of the boys realized, Shiraishi had locked his lips onto Yukimura’s. Though brief, Shiraishi’s feelings for the azure haired boy were conveyed in the short seconds of contact. The moment the train halted and the doors opened, Yukimura pushed the Osaka native away in shock as his face turned bright red. Their eyes met for a brief second before Yukimura ran onto the train and disappeared from Shiraishi’s sight.
Shiraishi couldn’t help but get frustrated with himself. “Why did I just do that…”
‘I should thank you for being so bold. I was taken aback by your sudden kiss, but it made me understand who I am. Kissing you was very different from kissing a girl. I didn’t feel disgusted by the thought of it and it was quite pleasant in retrospect. But I wasn’t in love with you and that kiss made me realize that along with everything else I pushed aside.’
Shiraishi couldn’t help but laugh at his situation. “All I’m good for is making people realize they love someone else, huh?”
‘I set aside the painful realization that I would never be accepted by the person I love in this lifetime. I didn’t want to face that reality and just ran away from it. I can’t run anymore. I’m tired of running. Even if I’m going to be rejected, it’s better late than never, right?’
A small smile grew on his face as he reached the final paragraph of the letter.
‘Farewell, Shiraishi Kuranosuke. You have been a great friend for the short time I knew you and I am eternally grateful for all that you’ve done for me. Do say hello to Kazu-san for me when you get the chance to. I’m sorry I broke your heart; Kazu-san did warn me about that. Nonetheless, I know you’ll find someone who will return your feelings for them some day. May we meet again in a better life. - Yukimura Sei-chan’
Shiraishi folded the letter back up and stuffed it back inside the envelope it came in. He gazed out the windows to admire the change in scenery as he wiped away a single tear from his eyes. After getting off of the train, he decided to head straight to Café Dazzle without a second thought. As per usual, Kazu was behind the bar, mixing drinks and talking with some of the customers that were there.
“Oho! Kurarin is back,” Kazu sang as they danced around behind the bar. “Did you have fun in Kanagawa?”
“A funeral is hardly fun, Kazu-san,” Shiraishi replied. “I have the worst luck with women and men. Maybe I should just stop entirely.”
“Now, now.” Kazu placed another colourful, fruity drink in front of Shiraishi. “I don’t think Sei-chan would like it if you were still all mopey and sad over him.”
“It’s hard to get over someone like him. He was exactly my type but alas,” he knocked back the entire drink in one gulp, “he just wasn’t into me.”
“Ah, young love,” Kazu said with a hint of nostalgia in their voice. “Fleeting like the spring blossoms. Beautiful, yet short-lived. We have made it a national custom to stop and admire them every spring, but we don’t do the same for the rest of the seasons.”
“Where are you taking this lecture, exactly?”
“There’s still 50 other weeks in the year that are equally as beautiful as cherry blossom season. Sure, it sucks that you missed the blossoms, but now you can look forward to the cherries that will come and the leaves changing colour in the autumn. And when the seasons repeat themselves again, you’ll be able to appreciate next year’s blooming season more.”
Shiraishi smiled sadly. “I guess you do have a point.”
“Of course I have a point! I’ve been consoling you for the past four years now, Kurarin. I’ve seen it all.” Kazu sighed as they turned off the tap. “I am going to miss that sweet spring child. God was a bit too cruel to take him this early.”
“Yeah…” Shiraishi’s voice trailed off as his eyes began to cloud. “God really was cruel to Sei-chan.”
“Oh Kurarin,” Kazu sighed as they walked from behind the counter to where Shiraishi was and pulled him into an embrace. “Let it all out. Don’t be shy.”
Chapter 9: Tezuka Kunimitsu
“Ladies and Gentleman, please fasten your seatbelts as we will be making our descent into Tokyo Haneda Airport very shortly. The local time is 2:37 PM. ”
Tezuka Kunimitsu looked out the window of the plane and watched as the plane slowly descended upon the runway of the airport of his native Tokyo. Upon landing and disembarking, many of the passengers could not help but stare and gawk over his presence. He could tell they were interested in talking with him but also equally scared to do anything more than just stare awkwardly at him. Sighing, he lined up for customs and immigration and awaited his turn in the seemingly endless line.
Tezuka approached the teller window and slid his passport over towards the attendant. The attendant flipped the passport open and did a double take, checking out his face and matching it with the passport.
“Wow! Tezuka Kunimitsu, the tennis player! I’m a huge fan of you, Tezuka-san.”
“Thank you,” Tezuka responded. “Just coming back to renew a visa.”
“O-of course!” The attendant stamped his passport and handed it back. “Welcome back to Japan.”
He took the passport and promptly exited the area. He took out his smartphone and turned it on. A cryptic text telling him that someone was waiting to pick him up outside of his terminal was the first notification he read. Curious, he walked out of the airport, where a fancy black limousine was waiting for him along with the last person he probably wanted to see.
“Tezuka! Welcome back. Have you learned how to handle fame already? You’re as cold as ever.”
“Atobe, you did not have to go through the trouble of seeing me at the airport,” Tezuka sighed. “Where are my parents?”
“At home, of course! I offered to come get you.” Atobe Keigo opened the door and gestured for Tezuka to get in. “There’s been quite a lot of things that have happened since last week as well. Let’s catch up.”
Knowing he had little choice and was extremely tired from his flight, Tezuka got into the back of Atobe’s limousine. Once they were on the road back to Tezuka’s residence, Atobe began to strike up a conversation with his quiet and reserved rival.
“How is the progress going with your career?”
“Fine. I’ll be competing in Wimbledon later in June. It’ll be the first real test to see how far I’ve come.”
“Ahn? How exciting.”
Tezuka noted that Atobe looked weary and a bit sad from the empty look in his eyes. “Has something happened, Atobe?”
Atobe smirked. “Observant as ever. I suppose there’s no use in hiding it anymore.” He opened a secret compartment in the back of the car and pulled out a slate grey envelope with Tezuka’s name on it. “This is for you. From Yukimura Seiichi.”
Tezuka reached out and accepted it. “If it’s from Yukimura-san, why do you have it?”
“I’m merely doing a friend a favour. Rikkai’s Yanagi told me to give this to you.”
Tezuka gave him a confused look. “Alright…” he said as his voice trailed off. He examined the envelope before turning back towards Atobe. “Is Yukimura-san doing alright? I’ve only heard that he had fallen ill back in autumn of last year.”
Atobe couldn’t help but get teary eyed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small handkerchief to gently dab at his eyes. “You’ll have to excuse me. It seems as if I still can’t speak of what happened without getting emotional.”
“Atobe, what happened?” Tezuka demanded. “Please don’t tell me he-”
“Yes, Tezuka,” Atobe interrupted. “It happened just at the start of the holiday. The funeral happened last week as well.”
Tezuka felt the world freeze around him as he tried to take in the news. Some part within him refused to believe that the elusive Yukimura Seiichi was dead. He tried to open his mouth to say something, but found that his tongue was tied and nothing he was thinking would come out as coherent sentences.
“I’m sorry that I had to be the one to break it to you.” Atobe placed his hand on Tezuka’s knee in an attempt to console him.
“I… I see…” Tezuka held onto the letter tightly, wrinkling it in the process. “Thank you for telling me, Atobe.”
The rest of the ride to Tezuka’s residence was quiet. As they arrived, Tezuka left the limousine without as much as a ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ to Atobe. As he entered the property, his mother was ready to greet him.
“Welcome home, Mitsu,” she said as she hugged him. “I’m sorry we couldn’t be there to pick you up from the airport, but your friend, Atobe-kun, offered to do it for us.”
“That’s alright, mother. I’m happy to be back.”
“You must be tired after that long flight. Go wash up and get some sleep. I’ve already drawn you a bath. I’ll prepare a meal for you to eat later when you’ve woken up.”
“Thank you.” Tezuka picked up his bags and headed straight to his bedroom. As he set down his stuff and began to unpack, the crinkled envelope Atobe had given him earlier fell down onto the ground. He picked it up and put it at his desk to read later. He headed towards the bathroom to take the bath his mother drew for him.
Upon finishing, he slipped into more comfortable clothes and headed back to his room. He turned on his desk lamp and sat down. He picked up the envelope and studied the shaky handwriting that spelled out his name. He turned it over, lifted the flap and removed the contents inside the envelope. Another envelope with a different name from his along with sheets of paper were inside. He picked up the other envelope and put it aside as he unfolded the papers.
‘Tezuka Kunimitsu, how has Germany been treating you? Is learning German difficult? How is the food there? The German diet is vastly different from the humble Japanese one. Are you being bullied by the Germans? Why am I asking you all of these questions? I won’t even be alive to hear the answers to them.’
“What a strange letter, ” he thought to himself.
‘From the moment I’ve met you at that tournament six years ago, you have always intrigued me. You were someone who could defeat Sanada, which is something no one else, except me, could do.’
At the Junior Individual Invitationals, the Finals saw an explosive matchup between Yukimura Seiichi and Sanada Genichirou. The match itself was fierce between the two competitors, but Yukimura was the one to emerge the victor that day. After the awards ceremony, Yukimura and Sanada both returned to the courts and were practicing rallying the ball to each other. Their practice was interrupted by another kid who had entered the court. He was the same age as both Yukimura and Sanada, but had an imposing presence around him.
“Oh?” Yukimura turned to address the mysterious kid as the ball flew past him. “Do you want to play?”
The kid nodded without saying anything.
“Yukimura! Allow me to play him first before you,” Sanada suggested as he approached the net. “I have a bone to pick with you,” he said as he pointed his racket at him.
The boy nodded silently and moved towards Yukimura’s side of the court. Yukimura stepped off the court to observe the interesting matchup.
Sanada took out a ball from his pocket and began bouncing it on the ground, getting ready to serve. “Best of one set?”
He nodded as he dropped his stance.
“Show me what you’re made of, Tezuka Kunimitsu!”
Sanada hit a fiery knuckle serve, aiming right at Tezuka’s feet. Tezuka hopped to the side and effortlessly returned it.
An excited smile began to form on Yukimura’s face. “Tezuka Kunimitsu, huh?”
Yukimura continued to watch the game unfold in front of his eyes between the two imposing boys. The two were evenly matched at some points of the match, but Tezuka was clearly more skilled. Sanada had yet to develop his tennis to a state that could rival the current state of Tezuka’s abilities. Yukimura crossed his arms and smiled in amusement.
When Sanada was crushed at the end of the game, Yukimura casually strolled onto the court with his racket. He stood in front of his friend on the ground and pointed his racket at the bespectacled opponent who took him down.
“Tezuka Kunimitsu, was it? I’m interested in seeing what you’ll do when I rob you of your senses.”
“I want to play him, Sanada. Step off the court.”
Sanada struggled to stand up and walk off the court, but managed to get out of the way enough for Yukimura to serve the first ball of the game. Tezuka easily returned the shot with ease, which further excited him. Sanada could feel the atmosphere change around him and knew that darkness would soon befall Yukimura’s opponent. He knew the feeling all too well when Yukimura’s demeanor changed on the court.
There was something amiss about Yukimura Seiichi. His constant smiling expression and ability to stay calm in any situation creeped out many people. When he was off the courts, there was a regal aura that surrounded him wherever he went. He was respected by everyone, but not feared in any way. When he stepped onto the courts, the exact same demeanor scared everyone around him. Many viewed him as a monster on the courts. People elevated him onto a higher plane of existence in the world of tennis and called him a Child of God. The reputation annoyed Yukimura, as he just wanted to be seen as another human; not a being that transcended humanity itself.
Tezuka Kunimitsu did not notice this about him. His love for the sport itself made him blind to the fact that he was playing one of the best elementary school-aged tennis players in all of Japan. Tezuka was fearless and determined to win, no matter the cost. He had little regard for formalities. This intrigued Yukimura greatly, as he finally felt like he found an opponent he could face head on without labels or titles getting in the way. He tried to strike fear into Tezuka with every shot, but found that he was able to withstand the curse of having his senses taken away. Yukimura couldn’t help but get more serious when he noticed that his Yips-style of tennis was ineffective.
The game between them dragged out until the sun had set and the darkness of the night sky began to consume the court. The game itself never completed, as their parents came to take the three young boys home for the day. The two agreed to set aside the match for a later date, which never actually came around. It turned out that Tezuka would end up going to Seigaku in Tokyo while Yukimura and Sanada both enrolled at Rikkai in Yokohama. The two would never meet again to settle the score until three years later, when both of them were in their final years of middle school and leading their own respective school tennis teams to the Nationals.
Hunger and the smell of lightly grilled, miso glazed salmon wafting into his room distracted Tezuka from continuing to read the letter. Sighing, he put it down and walked towards the kitchen, where his mother had been preparing an absurd amount of food to celebrate his return.
“Mother, you did not have to go through all of this trouble,” Tezuka commented.
“Nonsense, Mitsu. I know you miss Japanese food. It’s hard to get seafood this fresh out in Continental Europe.” She continued to stir a pot of simmering soup on the stove. “Go sit down. I’m almost done.”
Tezuka maneuvered around his mother and sat down at the table on the other end of the kitchen. He silently watched her add the finishing touches to the meal. Watching his mother cook brought a sense of nostalgia back to him. He became entranced by the way she was thinly slicing the green onions and grating the katsuobushi for garnishing. As he was zoning out, he failed to notice his grandfather sit down beside him.
“Are you daydreaming or jet lagged, Mitsu?”
Tezuka snapped out of his dream-like state and turned to face his grandfather, who was grinning at him. “Grandfather, hello. I apologize for not greeting you sooner.”
“That’s alright, Mitsu.” His grandfather turned his attention towards the kitchen. “Ayana, you really are putting in way too much effort just for my grandson.”
Tezuka’s mother made a shushing sound at her father-in-law’s remark. She began transferring the food into various serving bowls and slowly brought them to the table. Tezuka stood up to go over and help, but she shot a murderous glare at him before he even had a chance to go over.
“Oi, Haru! Come out and eat some food before your son devours all of it!”
“I’ll be there in a second!” came the distant voice of Tezuka’s father, followed by increasingly louder footsteps. “Honey, you sure know how to spoil our child.”
“Nonsense! We haven’t seen Mitsu in almost a year by now. I intend for him to eat as much as he can before he has to return.”
“Mitsu is probably on a strict training regime and diet, Ayana. Eating all of this food is likely not part of that plan,” his grandfather added.
“It’s alright,” Tezuka interrupted before an argument could begin. “Thank you for going through all this trouble, mother. I appreciate it.”
His mother gave both his father and grandfather a smug, victorious look before everyone settled down to eat.
The conversation during the meal was a bit dull in nature. Most of the conversation surrounded Tezuka answering the various random questions about his life in Germany by his parents. Tezuka found himself eating an abnormally large amount of food with little regard to his strict caloric intake, which delighted his mother greatly. After finishing, Tezuka excused himself and returned to his room. The full stomach and jet lag setting in was taking its toll as he began to yawn. He picked the letter off of his desk and nestled himself underneath his futon covers to continue reading.
‘You’ve always been someone I envied, Tezuka. You and I are polar opposites; both in terms of looks and personalities. Despite being the same age, you look like a well-rounded adult man whereas I'm eternally trapped in a body that makes me look like a young woman. Our upbringings were quite different and, even now, our futures will be different. You’ll still be able to write your own future but my future stops here. ’
Tezuka stared at the last paragraph, unable to process what Yukimura was implying. He couldn’t fathom the fact that Yukimura envied him for something as trivial as outer appearances.
‘Even now, I’m still desperately trying to cling on to the last strand of sanity and hope that I will get better. That this relapse is just a bad nightmare and I would awake from it soon but, it wasn’t a nightmare. It was my reality. ’
It had been over two years since Rikkai lost to Seigaku in Yukimura’s last year as a junior high school tennis player. Tezuka had gone to Germany shortly after that win at the Nationals and life in Japan continued for everyone else who stayed behind. Few people saw Tezuka in person after he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to becoming a professional tennis player. On the rare occasions that he did come back to Japan, they were spent hiding in his home, away from the press.
One restless day, Tezuka decided to take a day trip somewhere on a whim, which was uncharacteristic for someone like him. He needed to get out of the house and also escape the reporters that were hovering around the area. Travelling anywhere in Tokyo was not ideal, as he had lived in the city for a very long time and has seen everything it had to offer. He donned an inconspicuous disguise and put on a face mask to hide his face. He slipped on his favourite pair of running shoes and left his house quietly.
When he made his way to the station, he wondered where he should go. He looked up at the screen with all of the departing trains and their estimated departure times, noticing that the next train would be heading towards Yokohama. He double checked his surroundings before hopping onto the train and taking a seat in the corner of one of the cars. Some passengers looked at him strangely, as he looked out of place and anxious to anyone passing by. No one seemed to notice that he was Japan’s up and coming tennis star, which put him slightly at ease.
By the time the train had arrived at the station in Yokohama, Tezuka was stumped as to where he would go next. He let his feet carry him to wherever they wanted to go. He walked around aimlessly until a looming tennis stadium caught his attention. Some of the advertisements on the side of the building had a very familiar logo on them, though he couldn’t remember where he had seen it before. As he approached the giant building, the front entrance was wide open, though there were no signs indicating what was going on. Curiosity got the better of him and he walked inside. The narrow hallways eventually lead into the empty stadium seating that overlooked an extravagant, state-of-the-art tennis court. Down on the court below were two familiar figures duking it out in an intense rally.
Atobe Keigo noticed Tezuka standing in the seating and observing them. When the ball came flying towards him, he hit the ball straight towards the bespectacled and masked boy. Tezuka held out his hand and caught the ball before it could hit him in the face.
“Ahn? Tezuka Kunimitsu, how dare you spy on this private match between the Child of God and the King!”
“Tezuka-san?” The other player on the court turned around to look in the direction Atobe was looking at. “Is that really him?”
Tezuka removed his face mask as he walked down from the seating onto the court grounds. “This is an impressive stadium, Atobe.”
Atobe smirked. “Has it impressed you enough to return to Japan and train here instead? You know, I can get the Atobe Corporation to sponsor your career.”
“If you put it that way, I think Tezuka-san would reject your proposal with even less hesitation than the last time,” Yukimura Seiichi laughed. “Welcome back, Tezuka-san.”
Tezuka nodded at Yukimura to acknowledge him. “What are you two doing here?”
“Atobe and I are settling a score,” Yukimura answered. He turned to face Tezuka directly. “Shall we settle a score from over four years ago, Tezuka-san?”
Tezuka gave him a confused look. He wasn’t sure what he was referring to.
“You forgot, haven’t you?” Yukimura smiled. “Let us start from the beginning then.”
“I regret to inform you that I did not bring any of my gear, Yukimura-san.”
Atobe scoffed. “Nonsense! Your choice of racket is Mizuno, correct? I have a wide selection available for you to pick from.”
“Is that so, Atobe?” Yukimura pointed his racket at the both of them. “What’s your excuse now, Tezuka-san? A game can’t hurt you. I can see that you’re itching to play, even though you were likely told not to by your coach.”
Sighing, Tezuka knew he wouldn’t be able to escape either of them without humouring them both with a small game. “One set only.”
Yukimura was brimming with excitement, knowing that he could finally face the elusive former captain of Seigaku, Tezuka Kunimitsu, on even grounds. He can finally get closure on which one of them was the stronger player. He had been spending the last year preparing himself for the day where he would finally be able to face him. During that time, he was aided by many of Tezuka’s old rivals, who all had something they wanted Yukimura to convey to him.
When learning about Tezuka’s skills as a player, Yukimura first spoke with Seigaku’s resident data master, Inui Sadaharu. The mildly unsettling bespectacled boy was more than happy to lend Yukimura several notebooks full of data he had collected on his friend over the course of their time together.
“Wait, Inui-san…” Yukimura struggled to hold the bags. “What are all these?”
“This is three years’ worth of data that I’ve collected on Tezuka. I hope it will be at least a little bit of use for you.”
“Are you sure, Sadaharu?” Yanagi asked Inui, concerned.
“Data is only valuable when it’s being used. Besides, Tezuka hides strength that cannot be measured by data. I want to collect the data beyond that,” he gleaned mischievously.
“Data beyond that, huh?” Yukimura set the bags down on the ground and pulled out the book sitting on the very top and flipped it open. “Inui-san, thank you.”
“You are most welcome, Yukimura-san.” Inui looked at the books with a hint of nostalgia. “I hope you’ll be able to convey the will of Seigaku to our friend and former captain in your match against him.”
Inui turned to look at his friend. “It’s alright, Renji. I have the utmost faith that Yukimura-san can do exactly that. Rather, he is the only person who can reach Tezuka Kunimitsu, both in terms of strength and skill. There is a 100% chance of failure if it was anyone else telling him.”
Once he had studied Inui’s data extensively (along with a lot of help from Yanagi), Yukimura sought to understand Tezuka’s raw strength. The one person he knew that understood this characteristic the best was none other than Sanada Genichirou.
“Tezuka’s strength? Yukimura, don’t tell me you plan on playing against him,” Sanada questioned.
“I need to settle the score with him from over four years ago. You’ve played against him during the Finals last year. What was it like, Sanada?”
Sanada pondered for a moment before answering. He tried to gather all of his thoughts on the boy in order to give an accurate response. “Tezuka’s physical strength lies in the strength of his unwavering spirit. He never gets agitated or faint of heart. Don’t you forget that he won’t be stolen of his senses.”
“He’s immune to yips, it seems.” Yukimura only got more excited. “Thank you, Sanada. I can’t wait to face him.”
“When you face him, you better make sure Tezuka knows that he’s carrying all of Japanese tennis on his shoulders now. Slacking off is out of the question!”
Yukimura giggled. “That’s very in-character of you to say, Sanada.”
Just before Tezuka interrupted their match, Yukimura was discussing with Atobe the one thing that no one had been able to do; countering the Tezuka Zone. Even with the extensive amount of data Inui had provided him, the one thing he was never able to figure out was a way to nullify the technique. It was the last hurdle Yukimura had to face if he were to truly defeat Tezuka. Luckily for him, Atobe seemed to have figured it out while he was doing his own research.
“If you want to seal Tezuka Zone, you need to put the opposite spin on the ball without him sensing it,” Atobe stated.
“Easy for you to say. Can you do that, Atobe?” Yukimura hit a lob shot towards him on the other side of the court.
Atobe laughed as he jumped up to smash the ball back. “It’s a simple solution, but just how will you do it, Yukimura Seiichi?”
“Simple, you say?” Yukimura let the ball fly past him, giving Atobe the point. A sudden epiphany struck him and his eyes lit up. “That’s it!”
Atobe smiled smugly. “You’re welcome.”
When Tezuka returned with his borrowed racket and tennis kit, Atobe climbed up into the umpire chair to observe and keep track of the score. The two teens took their respective sides on the court as Atobe tossed the first ball towards Yukimura.
“Best of one set. Yukimura, you have the first serve,” Atobe declared.
Yukimura gripped the ball in his hand, as if he was filling the object with the thoughts and feelings he was entrusted with. He glared down the court at his opponent before hitting a service ace. Tezuka decided not to return it.
Yukimura continued to serve supersonic aces, which Tezuka did not bother to hit back. This brought the game count to 1-0 in Yukimura’s favour.
“Tezuka! Quit hiding your skills and reveal yourself!” Atobe shouted at him.
Tezuka took a deep breath before taking a ball out of his pocket. He threw the ball into the air with a spin before hitting it across the net. Yukimura ran towards the net, but was too late, as the Zero Shiki Serve he hit had already touched the ground and rolled towards the net.
“Now that’s the Tezuka I know! 15-0!”
Yukimura couldn’t help but laugh. “Is that how we’re going to play this, Tezuka-san?” His eyes narrowed as his expression changed from amusement to determination.
Tezuka served again, but did not hit the same serve. Yukimura returned it with ease to the other side, but the ball was being pulled towards his opponent. Tezuka took a side step and returned the ball. Yukimura focused on the speed and direction of the spin placed on the ball, letting it land on his side without returning it.
“Interesting. Hit that exact same shot again, Tezuka-san.”
Confused, Tezuka served again and Yukimura returned it. An intense rally between the both of them began, with Tezuka drawing in every return lob with his Tezuka Zone and Yukimura running around on his side of the court to return it. The rally seemed to go on forever until Yukimura tossed his racket into his left hand and returned the ball. The ball did not gravitate back towards Tezuka, but landed at the baseline and bounced out.
Both Atobe and Tezuka stared in shock at what just happened. Yukimura could only grin in excitement, as he finally figured out what Atobe meant earlier.
“Oh, Mr. Umpire! I do believe it’s now 30-15.”
Atobe looked back at Yukimura, who was getting ready for the next serve. He couldn’t help but laugh. “Yukimura Seiichi, you bastard! Hiding your Mirage Mirror from us all this time?!”
Tezuka served another two Zero Shiki Serves to tie up the match with one game each. As Yukimura geared up to begin serving, the air within the stadium suddenly changed. Both Atobe and Tezuka knew what would come next and Tezuka braced himself for the serve. Yukimura served a laser beam-esque serve down the middle of the court, which Tezuka returned gracefully back. Yukimura grinned as he returned it back, aiming the volley towards Tezuka’s feet. Tezuka reached down to return it, but noticed that he was no longer able to feel the ball touch his racket. The strange lack of feeling threw him off guard and he launched the ball out of the court. When his eyes met the piercing azure gaze on the other side of the court, he watched as his vision began to fade slowly into nothing. Yukimura served again and Tezuka unsuccessfully tried to track the ball using only his hearing. The third game went to Yukimura without much effort, as Tezuka struggled to overcome the yips that had stolen his senses. Feeling backed into a corner with no other options, Tezuka tried to serve, but faulted every single serve, giving Yukimura a two game lead. Being unable to regain any of his senses back, Yukimura continued his service game to bring his lead in the set up to three. Tezuka was about to give up until he heard a small voice inside his head.
“Hey, is tennis fun? ”
Tezuka froze in place. He wasn’t sure if he was hearing voices or if his sense of hearing was returning.
“Why are you playing so seriously, Tezuka Kunimitsu? This game is for fun, isn’t it? ”
Suddenly, a strange green light filled the entire stadium. Atobe turned away due to the sheer brightness, but Yukimura could only stare in excitement. Tezuka Kunimitsu had achieved the state that every tennis player dreamed of reaching one day: the Pinnacle of Perfection. For the second time in his life, Yukimura Seiichi was terrified of his opponent.
“To face the Pinnacle of Perfection, under no condition can I let myself get swallowed up by my opponent’s radiance. The moment I get swallowed by that light and aura, I’ll wither to the point where I won’t even be able to play my own style. I have to keep my mind sharp, focus only on the balls coming back to me and get each one returned to his side of the court! ” Yukimura realized.
The match continued with intensity, as Tezuka easily recovered and tied Yukimura with the next three games. Yukimura’s Yips had been countered, but Tezuka was unable to use his Zone or Phantom technique thanks to Yukimura’s Mirage Mirror. The rest of the match played out with both boys tiring themselves out from constantly trying to counter each other’s techniques. As the game dragged on, Yukimura could see that something within Tezuka had changed. He was no longer harbouring the responsibility of carrying a team to victory. He was no longer scared of further injuring his elbow or shoulder. Even though he no longer had a team to lead on, Yukimura knew Tezuka had new, more taxing burdens that he had to carry with grace, but Tezuka showed no signs of fear or regret for any of it. Tezuka Kunimitsu was no longer playing tennis for the sake of others; he was playing for himself only.
“So, this is your true form, isn’t it?” Yukimura asked. “How exciting.”
Tezuka only glared at Yukimura without answering him.
Yukimura bounced the ball on the ground as he prepared to serve. “Let’s see who is the strongest tennis player in all of Japan,” he threw the ball into the air, “you or me!” He hit another fastball, which Tezuka immediately returned in the blink of an eye.
The game ended with Tezuka hitting a Zero Shiki Drop Shot onto Yukimura’s side. Yukimura dove towards the net to reach it, but collapsed from exhaustion before he was able to return it.
“Game, set and match to Tezuka!” Atobe called out.
Tezuka approached the net and extended a hand out to Yukimura, which he accepted. Tezuka pulled Yukimura up off the ground and the both of them locked eyes with each other. Yukimura could only smile as he tried to catch his breath.
“Good game, Yukimura-san.”
“Likewise, Tezuka-san.” Yukimura shook his hand. “Everyone told me to kick your ass though… What a shame...”
Tezuka gave him another confused look.
“The road to becoming a pro is unimaginably tough, but we’re all cheering you on.” Yukimura slowly walked towards the bench on the side of the court. “I’m glad I was able to settle the score with you, Tezuka-san. Thank you.”
Atobe walked over towards the both of them, but quickly moved towards Yukimura, who collapsed into his arms due to exhaustion. “Oi, Yukimura! Don’t tell me you still haven’t fully recovered your stamina.” He dragged Yukimura’s tired body to the bench and gently set him down before turning towards Tezuka. “I see you haven’t been slacking off since you’ve left us, Tezuka.”
Tezuka reached for a cold bottle of water by the benches and unscrewed the cap. He hastily gulped down the entire bottle before setting it aside and opening a second one. “I would not dream of it, Atobe.”
Atobe chuckled to himself. “You haven’t changed at all.” He turned his attention to the sleeping boy on the bench. “Yukimura was entrusted by all of us to convey our feelings to you in this final match Tezuka. Your former teammates in Tokyo, all of your rivals from across the country and my own wishes for you were given to him to convey.” He turned to face the stoic boy. “You are now carrying the pride of this country on your shoulders, Tezuka Kunimitsu. Yukimura Seiichi has given you the torch to carry for all of us.”
Atobe held out his fist. “Do not break that promise or I will personally see to your demise.”
“Not unless I beat you to it, Atobe.”
The two boys turned their attention towards Yukimura, who struggled to sit upright. He shakily held out his fist as well and smiled.
“I underestimated you, Child of God,” Atobe scoffed. “Inui was right; you were the only person who could do it.”
Yukimura returned to his usual demeanor. “Of course Inui-san was right. After all, I am the superior player.” He turned his head towards Tezuka. “The torch is your’s now, Tezuka-san. Don’t you dare extinguish the flame until you can no longer stand on your own two feet.”
Tezuka fist bumped both of them, accepting that he was now able to leave Japan with little lingering regrets. “Thank you, Yukimura-san, Atobe. I will not let all of you down.”
Tezuka hadn’t realized he fell asleep during his recollection of the last memory he shared with Yukimura Seiichi. He woke up abruptly, covered in a cold sweat. He clutched his head, wondering why he was dreaming about the last match he played against the former Rikkai tennis captain. He couldn’t wrap his head around the little-known facts surrounding Yukimura Seiichi’s untimely demise. He closed his eyes and tried to steady his breathing.
“You don’t know all of the facts, Mitsu, ” he thought to himself. “ Do not allow your irrational thoughts to run wild. ”
His glasses had fallen off of his face sometime during the night while he was tossing and turning. He felt around for his frames, finding them underneath his pillow. As he put them on, he found the papers from Yukimura’s letters scattered around his futon. He gathered them back into a neat stack of papers before finding where he left off from last night to continue.
‘Imagine being told you could never play again for the second time in your life. You recovered miraculously from a seemingly incurable disease the first time around and relapsed again. You’ve already beaten it once. You’re sure you can beat it again. You try to beat it again, but nothing would work. The same treatments that cured you the first time begin to fail. You grow weaker and weaker, but your mental resolve is strong. You’re in denial that you’re getting worse and believe that all of it is temporary. You get angry that nothing is working. You try to strike a deal with God to get better, but He doesn’t respond to your pleas. You get depressed, unsure of what will happen. What you do know is that your inevitable doom is approaching. Your life is forfeit and at the mercy of God Himself. What would you do if you were in my shoes, Tezuka Kunimitsu? Would you accept your fate or do everything in your hands to maintain the microscopic amount of hope you have left? ’
Tezuka felt a sense of unease as he flipped to the next page.
‘I’m sure you can figure out what option I chose. I couldn’t be saved from myself in the end, but I pray that you will never have to choose between those two options. ’
“Does this mean…” Tezuka’s thoughts trailed off as the shocking realization started to set in. He felt his blood run cold and a stomach-churning feeling that made him nauseous, but he felt compelled to continue reading.
‘Lastly, I have one request that I hope you can fulfill. Enclosed in your envelope is another letter for your former ‘super rookie’. I didn’t want to ask Yanagi to deliver it for me, since I know Echizen-kun’s not in the country. What I do know is you’ll be running into him shortly after you receive this letter. If it’s not too much trouble for you, could you please deliver my last words to Echizen-kun for me? ’
Tezuka got up and walked towards his desk. The other envelope with Echizen Ryoma’s name written on the front sat neatly on the corner of his desk. He nervously looked at it, as if it were a concealed bomb waiting to detonate. His phone was flashing with several notifications. As he opened up his messaging app, a mysterious text with the words “ Street court, tomorrow at 10 AM, bring your gear. ” was at the top of his most recent conversations.
Tezuka fired back another message. “ Who is this? ” He set his phone down before glancing back at the letter.
‘You still have a score to settle with that kid, don’t you, Tezuka? You can’t fully move on without seeing which one of you is the stronger one. Personally, my bet is on Echizen-kun winning, but I wish I could be there to see the match in person. C’est la vie.’
His phone pinged with a response to his previous text. “ The only person who can defeat you, buchou. ”
‘We’re all rooting for you to succeed, Tezuka. I do hope you don’t disappoint me now. -Yukimura Seiichi’
Tezuka felt an eerie chill run down his spine that he couldn’t shake. He was amazed at how a letter was able to accurately predict events despite being written in the past. He wondered if this was the true power of the famed Child of God. At the same time, a tinge of sadness ached in his heart. A well respected rival of his was gone from this world and he would never get the chance to play him again. Despite that, he couldn’t help but smile a little, knowing that they were able to settle the score between the both of them in the end.
“The flame still burns, Yukimura-san. I swear I will never let it flicker out,” he reassured himself.
Meanwhile at the cemetery, a rather tall and lanky individual stood before the Yukimura family grave. Their crimson red hair waved gently in the wind as they stared down at the stone.
“Well, well, well. How the mighty have fallen.”
Chapter 10: Mouri Jusaburou
“Well, well, well. How the mighty have fallen.”
Mouri Jusaburou stood before the grave of his now deceased kouhai, glaring down at the freshly engraved name within the stone. A sense of smugness brimmed from within him knowing that the boy he had hated the most had now been rendered into nothing but dust and bones.
When the sudden passing of Yukimura was made public knowledge at school, Mouri couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He refused to believe that the arrogant kouhai was dead and was especially angry that he no longer had the chance to humble him. When he had received an invitation to attend the funeral service, he didn’t go. Mouri used Yukimura’s death as an excuse to skip classes and his committee duties, pretending that he was grieving over the sudden passing. This had angered many people, including the tennis club, who had caught wind of his behaviour.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” He knelt down to study the grave more closely. “It’s funny how I’m standing here right now, staring at your grave when it really should’ve been the other way around.” His fingers grazed Yukimura’s engraved name, tracing the strokes of the characters. “Not like much can be done now. The dead don’t speak, Yukimura Seiichi.”
Mouri and Yukimura never had a good relationship with each other. They were always at odds about their views on tennis, which further drove them apart. Prior to Yukimura entering Rikkai, Mouri was set to become the captain of the tennis team in his second year. He was the one of the only regulars on the tennis team that was not graduating and was given the captaincy due to nepotism. Despite being given such an important role, Mouri never attended practice at all. He would leave a majority of his club responsibilities to his vice captain and student manager and disappear elsewhere. Though many people harboured resentment towards him for his behaviour, none dared to call him out on his behaviour, since he could still defeat everyone in the club single-handedly. The team needed Mouri in order to stand any chance at winning the regional qualifiers, so many of the regulars swallowed their pride and bore the brunt of the stress.
Mouri’s plans and captaincy were thrown off course with the appearance of the elusive, yet feared Child of God.
It had only been a few days after the freshmen tryouts for the team. Mouri was hastily trying to leave his classroom after the last bell had rung, but was stopped by his vice captain at the doorway.
“Mouri, we need to discuss the regulars for this season. Right now. I’m not taking no for an answer.”
“Whoa whoa whoa, Mr. Vice Captain, slow down there,” Mouri replied nonchalantly. “What’s the rush with picking the regulars? We have time. We haven’t even had tryouts yet!”
“No, we , as in the rest of the team, held tryouts over the weekend. You ,” he poked Mouri’s chest harshly, “were slacking. Again. ”
“Alright, so I missed tryouts. Big deal. It was only the first years trying out anyway. What’s the harm in missing that? None of them are good, I would imagine.”
“No, you’re wrong. The first years were good this year. Extremely good. These three specifically,” his vice captain handed him a small stack of papers with data on Yukimura, Sanada and Yanagi, “are going to help us win the Nationals this year. I can feel it.”
Mouri only glanced at the sheets briefly before tossing them up into the air. “Alright, then make them regulars.” He stuck his hands into his pockets and walked past his vice captain with a cheeky smile on his face.
“Oi! That’s only three of the eight we need to decide on!”
“I’ll leave the rest to you, Mr. Vice Captain.” He waved as he continued to walk out of the school.
As he reached the train station, Mouri leaned on one of the support pillars. His eyes moved around as he surveyed the platform before they focused on a group of freshmen, each carrying a large tennis bag on their shoulders. He couldn’t help but let the smile grow on his face.
“Yukimura Seiichi, huh? This year might actually be interesting.”
“You’re the last person I would have expected to be here, Mouri-senpai.”
Mouri turned in the direction of the voice, only to be confronted by Yanagi Renji.
“Nice of you to show up to the funeral last week, senpai,” Yanagi remarked with a hint of sarcasm in his tone. “I hear you’ve been skipping school due to your ‘excessive grief’.”
“Being in your last year of high school keeps you busy, y’know. The stress can catch up with you, especially when your lovely kouhai passes away suddenly,” Mouri retorted with an equal amount of malice.
“Have you come here to pay respects to the dead or are you just here because you’re running away from your other duties?”
“Hey,” Mouri got close to Yanagi’s face, “watch your mouth and language when you address your senpai.”
“As if I would ever address you with any more respect than I already give you.”
Mouri took a step back. “I expect nothing less from my kouhai.”
Yanagi had fished out a small, purple envelope with Mouri’s name written on it and held it out for him to accept. “It’s for you.”
He took the letter, examined it and then tossed it to the ground. “If the contents of the letter were so important for me to know, Yukimura would have told them to me when he was alive.” He crushed it between his hand before throwing it on the ground and stepping on it. Mouri leaned in towards Yanagi’s ear. “Those who live should not speak on behalf of the dead. He should just remain as a figment of the past and nothing more.” Mouri straightened his back before heading towards the exit.
Yanagi balled up his fists in anger, as if ready to punch Mouri for his transgressions. He stopped himself, knowing that the place he stood was a holy site and deserved respect. He continued on towards Yukimura’s grave, leaving the letter on the ground behind him.
Bothered by the events that happened that afternoon, Mouri returned to the graveyard to pick up the letter he had thrown on the ground earlier. The sun was starting to set, which made navigating the graveyard difficult. He was surprised to find that the letter was unravelled and resting on the grave, as if it were waiting for Mouri to come back for it. He gingerly picked it up and held onto it as he walked towards the exit to head back home.
After he had arrived home, Mouri took a quick shower before flinging his body onto his bed. The dirtied letter laid on his pillow, which he grabbed and hastily opened.
‘It’s been a while since we last spoke, Mouri Jusaburou. I would have told you everything I wanted to say in this letter to your face, but you never visited me once in the hospital.’
He scoffed to himself. “As if I would ever stoop that low.”
‘Despite everything that’s happened between us, I can’t find it in me to hate you. It’s quite the opposite, really. I have nothing but admiration for you. You were a genius in your own right. Despite never coming to practice, you were still able to keep up and produce results when it mattered. I guess that’s why you never really changed. As long as you kept on winning, what’s the point in practicing? But your arrogance led to your own downfall as the captain of Rikkai and eventually served as a means to your own end.’
It had only been a few months since the regulars were decided and practice was in full swing. Mouri had continued to skip on his duties to the club as its captain, which caused the seeds of resentment to grow within the team. Yukimura and Yanagi took notice of this sudden shift in mood and decided that they had to take matters into their own hands.
“Mouri-buchou skipped practice yet again,” Yukimura remarked. “Renji, do you know where he could be?”
Yanagi shook his head. “He skips so often that I have no data on him.”
“So we effectively have no captain, our vice captain is on the brink of a mental breakdown and the rest of the second and third years are also demoralized and ready to quit? And this is all happening the week before the Qualifiers?”
“Precisely, though I don’t see how we can do anything to change the situation, Seiichi.”
“Is that so?” A sly smile formed on Yukimura’s face, which caused Yanagi to shiver.
Within a week, the vice captain had quit the team abruptly after falling into a hysteria from the amount of stress he was under. Not wanting to play on a team with no functioning captain, the rest of the regulars, save Yukimura, Sanada and Yanagi, also quit the team. These resignations effectively halved the Rikkai tennis team. With no captain present to control the restlessness of the other members, what was left of the club began to fight with each other. The very small group of third years left started to boss around all of the first and second years, which caused the infighting to get worse. Just as the tension reached a crescendo, Yukimura calmly stepped onto the courts. A certain aura of power and influence surrounded the frail boy as the rest of the club grew quiet and stared.
“As the new captain of this club, let it be known that there is no place in this club for violence,” Yukimura began. “I expect everyone here to work diligently, as we are aiming to win the qualifiers and get into the Kanto Regionals.”
One of the disgruntled third years ran up and grabbed Yukimura by the neck. “Who the fuck do you think you are, pipsqueak? You think you can boss ME around?!”
“I would suggest you let me down gently unless you want to face the consequences, senpai.” There was an iciness to Yukimura’s voice as his eyes stared deep into his senpai’s soul.
The aggression within him had disappeared and been replaced by terror. The boy set down Yukimura before falling to his knees and trembled. His senses had disappeared and he felt like he was trapped in a void with no end in sight. Yukimura looked down at his senpai as an arrogant smirk formed on his face. He turned his attention towards the rest of the club, who all had a similar look of terror in their eyes.
“Now, I’ll ask this again. Who here does not believe I should be the captain of this team?”
Yukimura was met with silence, as everyone’s gazes shifted towards the ground.
“Now, clean up this mess you all created and then it’s 30 laps around the courts for causing a disturbance. Sanada, Yanagi, I want to speak with the both of you.”
The rest of the club just silently obeyed Yukimura and began to pick up all of the balls and rackets that were thrown around. Yanagi and Sanada both approached Yukimura, but were unfazed by the actions that transpired.
Yukimura smiled sheepishly. “Shall we get this club back into shape for the Qualifiers now? I could really use the both of you to help me achieve that goal.”
“Yukimura, how are we supposed to participate in the Qualifiers if we don’t have an eight man roster to submit?” Sanada asked. “There’s only three of us left.”
Yukimura shook his head. “There’s four of us left, actually.”
“Yukimura! Don’t tell me you still plan on keeping that useless senpai on the roster,” Sanada protested.
“Relax, Sanada. Mouri Jusaburou is still a good player. Even if he doesn’t attend team practices, he can still keep up with a majority of the schools we’ll be competing against. I intend to keep him on reserve until we need him.” Yukimura turned around to see that the rest of the club had moved on from cleaning to running the assigned laps around the court. “But, now that I am the captain, I will need some help to run this club.”
“What do you have in mind, Seiichi?”
“Renji, I shall leave you to pick out the other four players we need to have a full roster. Sanada, as the new vice captain, I expect you to train everyone until we become unbeatable.”
Following the sudden shift in power, Yanagi began to analyze the remaining club members until he identified four exceptional first years that were a cut above the rest. Those first years ended up being Marui Bunta, Niou Masaharu and Jackal Kuwahara. Sanada spared no time making sure everyone was performing at their peak. Though they only had a week to polish themselves for the Qualifiers, the new regulars were surprisingly adept and managed to win with a few losses from time to time during the bracket. Once they had qualified for the Kanto Regionals, training got more strict. Each of the regulars wore heavy wrist and ankle weights that they swore to never take off until they graduate and quit the team.
When it came time for the Regionals, Mouri decided to show up to the first round match-up between Rikkai and another school located in Yokohama. He was shocked to see that he was not going to be playing that round and was put on the reserves. He became enraged when he saw that the seven players on the roster were all unfamiliar names. Fuming, he stormed into the courts to look for his teammates. Yukimura was sitting at the coach's bench with a stern look on his face.
He plopped himself beside Yukimura on the bench. “I don’t remember making you the vice captain. Where is he?”
“He resigned. Sanada is now the vice-captain,” Yukimura replied calmly.
“Really? Mr. Resting Bitch Face is now my vice captain?” Mouri looked around at the rest of the team, who had now been completely replaced by first years. “And what happened with the others?”
“Also resigned. They didn’t want to play without the former vice captain and a missing captain.”
“Well,” Mouri stood up, “tell them to come back and play. Their captain has returned.”
“I don’t think you understand, Mouri Jusaburou,” Yukimura began. “The moment you abandoned the club was the moment you gave up your captaincy.”
“‘Abandoned’? I did no such thing. Hey, you!” he called out to one of the second years as he walked up towards him. “Let’s teach these arrogant first years a lesson. What do you say?”
The boy ignored Mouri as he stood there silently and stoically.
“Not much of a talker, are you?” Mouri violently grabbed the collar of his shirt. “Or are you just deaf?”
“Please refrain from causing a disturbance during a match, Mouri Jusaburou,” Yukimura interjected. “It’s no use trying to convince anyone else to join your side.”
“Oh, is that so? Everyone here is willing to turn against their captain? How bold.”
“You are mistaken. You are no longer the captain of this team.” Yukimura stood up from his seat and walked towards the exit of the court. Everyone else followed suit.
“Oi! Where do you all think you’re going?!” Mouri shouted as he ran towards them. Niou stuck out his foot and tripped him, causing him to fall face down into the ground.
Yukimura stood over him and looked down with a pitiful look in his eyes. "If you refuse to obey me, then you have no place in this club, Mouri Jusaburou. My will is absolute."
‘Do you know why you lost captaincy to me in the first place? It’s because you were never there. I know deep underneath your carefree exterior, it really bothered you that a mere first year managed to usurp you in both talent and position. That’s why you always treated myself, Sanada and Yanagi with such malice. You were embarrassed that you could no longer be the top player at Rikkai. You were no longer absolute now that I was the captain.’
“Even in death, your arrogance knows no bounds. Why did I even pick this up?”
‘Despite all of that, I still can’t find it in me to hate you after what you’ve done for me. You were my Sports Drink Fairy when I was first going through rehabilitation, weren’t you? You never hated me as much as you thought you did. You were genuinely worried about me. That’s why you started leaving me cold bottles of various sports drinks by my hospital bedside in secret.’
Two years had passed and Mouri had entered the high school division of Rikkai. He easily landed a spot on the high school tennis team, again due to nepotism more than anything. His behaviour did not change, as he continued to skip practice and do things on his own. He was still able to beat his opponents and Rikkai breezed through the qualifiers yet again.
As the Kanto Regional matchup between Rikkai and Hyoutei was approaching, Mouri was hanging out in the shopping district of Yokohama alongside his two friends, Nojima and Nishiki, instead of attending practice.
“Mouri, are you sure you don’t have to go to practice? You’ve got the Kanto Regional coming up, don’t you?” Nojima, asked with a concerned look in his eyes.
“Practice isn’t something you do because you’re told to,” Mouri responded. “You do it when you feel like it.”
“Man, I wish I had such a carefree attitude like you! My captain would kill me if I didn’t show up to team practice,” Nishiki exclaimed.
“That’s where you and I differ, my friend. Basketball is inherently a team sport. Tennis is a sport where individuals shine bright on their own.”
“Speaking of tennis, I heard the middle school team’s third consecutive championship is in danger,” Nojima mentioned.
“Those three monsters are among the juniors, so they should be fine, right? There’s no need to worry,” Nishiki responded nonchalantly.
“No, actually,” Mouri interjected, “One of them has an incurable disease and has been hospitalized. It seems like he won’t be able to play tennis anymore.”
“That so? Poor guy…” Nishiki’s voice trailed off.
Later during the tournament, Mouri was overwhelmingly defeated at the hands of Hyoutei’s Ochi Tsukimitsu. He did not escape the match unharmed, as his knee was injured during the match. Rikkai ended up losing the match in close sets, which had not soured the team chemistry and made the club resentful towards Mouri’s conduct. After the match, Mouri overheard a conversation between two players from another school in the practice courts.
“Did you hear?! That Mouri guy lost his first match! Not that it’s a surprise. He’s supposedly some genius, so they gave him special treatment and let him skip practice. Of course this would end up happening!” the first voice mocked.
The second voice was howling in laughter. “Serves him right!”
Angered, Mouri promptly left the venue and headed towards the hospital to get his injury assessed. The specialist at the hospital carefully examined the joint, noting that it was swelling, but nothing was broken.
“Did you get this injury during your match today, Mouri-kun?”
“Yes. Tough game. I think I landed on it wrong.”
“I see.” The doctor scribbled some notes onto her clipboard. “Don’t worry. Rest for three weeks and you can play tennis again.”
“It’s not broken? That’s a relief,” Mouri sighed. He stood up and bowed at the doctor before leaving the examination room. “Hm, maybe I should just quit tennis,” he said to himself.
As he walked past the rehabilitation room, he glanced inside and saw his kouhai, Yukimura Seiichi, struggle to stand up and walk along the supported walkway. The determination and desperation in the frail boy’s eyes captivated him. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the sight and the sound of his scream haunted him greatly.
“Even after being told he would never be able to play again, he’s still clinging on to that small amount of hope...”
Mouri’s feet carried him to the vending machine down the hall, where he bought a bottle of a popular sports drink. As he picked it up, he couldn’t help but notice how cold the drink was. Something within him had awoken. He continued to walk towards the reception area and headed towards the nurses station.
“Excuse me, but do you know which room Yukimura Seiichi is currently staying in?”
Mouri made it a habit to leave a cold bottle of the same sports drink on Yukimura’s bedside table whenever Yukimura had left for his rehab. Yukimura was perplexed by the sudden appearance of the drink the first time, but brushed it off as one of his teammates leaving it behind for him. He started to get suspicious of the drink appearing every time he returned from rehab and found it strange how no one knew who was responsible for leaving it there. One day, when the rest of the Rikkai regulars were visiting, Yukimura decided to bring up the strange occurrences with them.
“I think I’m being visited by the Sports Drink Fairy,” Yukimura chuckled. “Which one of you is it?”
His teammates gave him a strange look. Yagyuu shot a nasty glare at Niou.
“I’m sorry, Seiichi. Could you repeat that?” Yanagi asked, extremely confused.
“A fairy that leaves sports drinks?” Marui added, equally as confused.
“Every time I return to my room after rehab, There’s a cold sports drink waiting for me.”
“It wasn’t me!” Kirihara shouted, which caused everyone to glare at him with suspicion.
“Me neither!” Jackal also blurted out.
“I don’t know who’s doing it, but it feels like they’re pushing me forward, telling me to keep trying,” Yukimura continued.
“Sounds like we’ve got ourselves a mystery,” Niou pointed out.
“I thought it was one of your tricks, Niou-kun,” Yagyuu added.
Yukimura looked up at the sunny, blue sky and smiled. “I hope I can meet that fairy someday.”
Later that day, as Yukimura returned to his room from another rehab session, there were some security staff and a nurse standing around in his room. All of them had stern looks on their faces.
“Is something wrong?” Yukimura asked.
“Oh, Yukimura-kun!” The nurse approached him to help him into his room. Yukimura refused the gesture and walked towards his bed. “Do you know of a person with crimson red hair and about 200 cm in height? They were in your room earlier when you weren’t here and ran out rather quickly.”
“Crimson red hair? Can’t say I know anyone who looks like that.”
The security staff murmured to each other and one of them began scribbling down some notes onto the notepad before tipping their hats and leaving the room. Yukimura turned to look at his bedside table, where a ring of water from a cold drink was there, but the drink itself was missing. That was the last time the elusive Sports Drink Fairy had paid him a visit. It wasn’t much longer until Yukimura was discharged from the hospital and returned to training for the Nationals.
‘I should have known you were my Sports Drink Fairy based off of the description the nurse gave me and your aversiveness to run into me by doing it behind my back. Your small gesture gave me hope. It gave me the morale boost I needed to get myself through rehab quickly so I could get back to being on the courts. I cannot find words to express my gratitude for your kind gesture, though I suppose the gesture was in vain now that I’m dead.’
Mouri smiled sadly as he recalled that distant memory. Though he would vehemently deny it, he deeply worried and cared about the kouhais that he never got along with.
‘If there’s one thing I want from you, it’s for you to lend your strength to the team one last time. If you do grant me this wish, please mention the letter to them. They will understand. My will is absolute.’
Mouri was intrigued. “Is that a threat or a challenge, my lovely kouhai?”
‘I have no more words left. Whether or not you even get to this part will be a miracle all on its own. I’m thankful that I got to meet you in my short life, Fairy-senpai. Perhaps in our next life, we can actually get along with each other. - Yukimura Seiichi’
Mouri tossed the letter onto his desk. He laid on his back and stared at the ceiling of his room. He stretched out his arms and put his hand behind his head. He tried to think about the contents of the letter and how he felt after reading it, but couldn’t decipher the nagging, complicated feelings that were plaguing him. Part of him felt hollow, as if something was missing. All of the anger, resentment and frustrations that built up within him over the past five years had suddenly become meaningless and he now had no motivation to move forward with his life. Within that emptiness, his guilt grew. Guilt that he couldn't shake off and forget about.
“Lend you my strength, huh…”
The next morning, Mouri showed up at the tennis courts, dressed and ready to practice. Yanagi, Marui, Niou, Jackal and Yagyuu were shocked to see their estranged senpai standing before them.
“Nice of you to all show up this morning,” Mouri greeted them nonchalantly.
“What are you doing here, Mouri-senpai? These courts are for club members only,” Yagyuu inquired.
“Yeah, about that,” he set his tennis bag down on the ground, “how about you let me back on the team? Just like the good old days. I’ll even attend practices this time.”
“Why should we let you back on the team, Mouri-senpai?!” Marui shouted angrily. “Is this some kind of sick joke? Our captain just died and you think you can just waltz in and take his spot?”
Mouri reached into his bag and grabbed the worn, purple envelope between his two fingers. He showed the five boys the letter and they fell silent. “I was told that you would all know what this is.” He put the letter back into his bag. “'Lend me your strength.' This was his wish from me. Who am I to deny him now?”
A sudden thought came into Niou’s head. “Didn’t Yukimura’s letter say if the Sports Drink Fairy asked to join the team, we should let them?”
“Hah? Wasn’t the fairy you, Niou?” Marui exclaimed.
“No! How many times do I have to deny it?”
“Niou-kun speaks the truth,” Yagyuu confirmed.
Jackal’s eyes widened. “Then-”
“-could you really be-” Marui continued.
“-the Sports Drink Fairy?!” all of them shouted in surprise.
Mouri smiled. “So it seems my lovely kouhai has already told all of you.” He got onto his knees and bowed deeply. “I know I cannot live up to Yukimura Seiichi’s legacy, but please allow me to help you all win the Nationals this year!”
The five boys stared down at their senpai, who was begging them to give him a chance. They all exchanged glances with each other, unsure of what to do.
Yanagi sighed. “Please get off the ground, Mouri-senpai.”
Mouri stood up and faced Yanagi eye to eye.
“I cannot deny Seiichi’s request. If he’s entrusting the position to you, then we have no choice but to comply.”
“Yanagi!” Marui yelled.
“Shut it, Marui,” Niou cursed. “Yukimura’s will is absolute, remember?”
The rest of them stood in silence as those words echoed deep within them.
Mouri felt a smirk grow on his face. “His will is absolute, huh?” He turned around to look at the courts before him. “I have no intentions of ordering any of you around. My lovely kouhai made it clear that you would all follow Sanada’s lead and I intend to do the same.” He turned around to face his kouhais once again, not realizing that he was crying. “I am lending my strength to help you all grant his final wish.”
Yanagi, Marui, Niou, Jackal and Yagyuu silently stared at Mouri in shock as the tears trickled down his face. All of them were under the impression that Mouri had hated Yukimura for stealing the team from him and for disrespecting him. It was surprising to see their resentful senpai mourn the loss of their beloved captain and teammate. The five of them felt a small sense of guilt, as the resentment they harboured for Mouri Jusaburou meant nothing, now that he was showing them how he truly felt about them.
From that point onwards, the six of them had resolved to win the Nationals. It would end up being the last time they all played tennis together, as university entrance exams would prevent them from continuing on as a team.
After morning practice finished and the rest of the club was cleaning up the courts, Kirihara had come to the courts to look for Sanada. Niou approached him and smacked him in the back of the head.
“Ow! Niou-senpai, what the hell was that for?!” Kirihara shouted.
“What business do you have here, Kirihara?”
“I’m looking for Sanada-fukubuchou.”
“Niou-kun, please refrain from hitting people,” Yagyuu sighed. “I’m afraid Sanada-kun isn’t here right now, Kirihara-kun.”
“Sanada-fukubuchou didn’t show up for practice? Really?” Kirihara could not believe what he was hearing. He was certain Yagyuu and Niou were playing tricks on him.
“Look who’s come crawling back,” Marui said as he butted into the conversation. “What brings you back to the courts, Kirihara?”
“Marui-senpai, is it true that Sanada-fukubuchou didn’t show up for practice today?”
Marui thought about it for a second before responding. “Now that you mention it, I don’t remember seeing or hearing him at all.”
“Oi, Yanagi,” Niou called out, “any word about Sanada’s whereabouts?”
Yanagi shook his head. “I haven’t seen him since the funeral last week.” He walked over to greet Kirihara. “Do you want to rejoin the team, Akaya? Is that why you came to see Genichirou?”
“Have you finally come to your senses, Kirihara?” Marui taunted.
“No! I still believe in esports, but,” Kirihara looked to the ground and began to mumble, “I can’t quit right now, knowing Yukimura-buchou wanted us to win the Nationals this year.”
“I don’t plan on staying in the club after we win. Don’t be mistaken. I just want to win for Yukimura-buchou’s sake.” Kirihara looked up towards the morning sky. “Then I can quit tennis with no regrets.”
Niou put his hand on Kirihara’s head and ruffled his hair. “That’s the spirit, Seaweed Head.”
“Cut that out, Niou-senpai!” Akaya said as he batted away Niou’s hand. “If Sanada-fukubuchou isn’t here, then where is he?”
“At home,” came the response from Mouri, who had just gotten out of the club room from changing into his regular school uniform. “He shows up to classes and still does his committee duties, but he heads home right afterwards.”
“Sanada‘s avoiding practice? Now that is unusual,” Jackal pointed out.
Yanagi began to boil with rage. He quietly slipped away from the others as he went to go find Sanada.
Meanwhile, in a random street court in the middle of downtown Tokyo, a familiar match was playing out between Tezuka Kunimitsu and an old demon of his from the past.
“You’ve improved, Echizen.”
“Have I? I’m just getting started, buchou.” Echizen Ryoma pointed his racket at the bespectacled teen. “Show me what you’re hiding. This can’t be everything Germany has taught you.”
Chapter 11: Echizen Ryoma
The sound of cars zooming down the busy downtown streets filled the air around the courts. The wind was still. The sun was nestled behind the clouds in the cerulean blue sky. The match between Tezuka Kunimitsu and Echizen Ryoma was reaching an interesting climax. Both boys were tied at six games each during the last set and neither were backing down from the battle.
Ryoma wiped away the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “You’re still holding back on me, buchou?”
Tezuka tried to catch his breath before the next serve. “I could say the same for you, Echizen.”
“You still have lots more to work on,” the younger boy replied as he began to serve a fastball down the middle of the court.
Tezuka focused his field of view onto the ball as he dropped his stance to receive it. Just as he was ready to return it, the ball touched the ground near the baseline and began rolling towards the net. Tezuka was shocked. Ryoma had used his Zero Shiki Serve against him, but improved it far beyond what he was currently able to do.
“That’s one point for me.”
“How did you do that?”
Ryoma feigned ignorance. “I did it exactly the same way you do it, buchou.”
Tezuka picked up the ball and attempted to hit the same serve back. Ryoma knew he was going to mimic the same serve and hit the ball with the frame of his racket just as it hit the ground, lobbing it over to the other side of the net. Tezuka ran to smash it, but the incoming breeze caused the ball to lose its momentum and drop down, like a dead fly. Tezuka couldn’t adapt to the sudden change, costing him another point in the tiebreaker.
“My point, again.”
“You’ve improved a lot since we last spoke,” Tezuka acknowledged, “but it will be my win today.”
“Oh? I’m not so sure about that, buchou.”
Tezuka hit a service ace which Ryoma tried to return, but failed as the force of the ball caused his racket to fly out of his hand. Ryoma could only stare in amusement.
The tiebreaker continued to play out in Ryoma’s favour, as he quickly learned to counter all of Tezuka’s new techniques with relative ease. On the opposite side of the court, Tezuka struggled to keep up, barely maintaining the one point gap to keep the game going. The game ended with Ryoma’s next service, ending the marathon between the two former Pillars of Seigaku. Both boys collapsed on the court as they tried to catch their breath.
Tezuka wiped the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand. “Good game, Echizen.”
Ryoma got up and dragged his feet towards the benches on the side of the court. “Again, you still have lots more to work on, buchou.”
Tezuka could only nod in acknowledgement of that statement. He pulled himself off the ground and walked towards his tennis bag, pulling out his bottle of water to drink. As he pulled it out, an envelope also tumbled out with it.
Ryoma noticed it and picked it up off the ground and held it out to Tezuka. “You dropped this.”
“It’s for you.”
“Me?” Ryoma turned it around and inspected it, realizing that his name was written on the front. “This is very old-fashioned of you, buchou.”
Tezuka shook his head. “It’s not from me. I was just asked to give it to you.”
This piqued Ryoma’s interest. “Really? Who would send me a letter in this day and age? Don’t they know that we have text messages and emails these days?”
“Please take it seriously, Echizen,” Tezuka warned.
“I know, I know,” he reassured as he began to pack his bag. “Thanks for reaffirming that I’m still the best Japanese tennis player under the age of 20.”
Tezuka scoffed. “Is that why you wanted to play against me?”
“Partly, yes. Mostly because this would be the last time I would ever get to play you casually, buchou.”
Tezuka looked confused. “What do you mean by that?”
Ryoma looked at his former captain with a serious, yet determined face. “Tonight, I’ll be going back to America. I’m going to train to win the next Grand Slam.”
“But in order to do that, I have to beat you first, buchou. We fought as teammates in the past, but soon, we’ll be fighting as enemies.”
Tezuka’s expression warped into a mixture of concern and curiosity.
Ryoma zipped up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “The next time we meet each other, it’ll be at Arthur Ashe Stadium.” He began to walk towards the exit. “See you then, buchou.”
“Wait!” Tezuka called out to him, forcing him to stop in his tracks. “Why are you doing this now? What are your real intentions with becoming a professional, Echizen?”
“To play better opponents, obviously. Now that you’ve gone to Germany for good and Rikkai’s Yukimura-san is no longer here, there’s no point in staying.”
Tezuka couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Did Echizen Ryoma not care about the fact that he was dead? How could he possibly say something so offensive? He felt anger and frustration well up within him, but all he could do was just stand there and watch as the younger boy walked off into the distance.
The first time Echizen Ryoma had heard of the name ‘Yukimura Seiichi’ was during his first Kanto Regionals back in middle school. At the finals between Seigaku and Rikkai, Ryoma noticed that their opponents were very antsy and restless. They were all playing as if they were in a hurry to get somewhere. He didn’t realize until the match between Fuji Shuusuke and Kirihara Akaya that the reason for their behaviour was because their captain was undergoing a major surgery while they were playing.
Kirihara held up his tennis racket to protect Yanagi from Sanada’s incoming slap. This shocked both of the older boys.
“It’s no big deal right?” Kirihara began. “The result will be the same. We will win our third straight National title. I’ll finish this in thirteen minutes. We’ll make it to Yukimura-buchou’s surgery on time!”
Fuji overheard the conversation and decided to humour them. “Kirihara-kun, is it? If you are in a hurry, I’ll be happy to oblige.”
Kirihara smirked. “Then quit talking! Let’s hurry up and finish this!”
Ryoma passively watched the Singles 2 match play out, but noticed his attention drifting towards observing the rest of the Rikkai team on the sidelines. His gaze met the death glare coming from Sanada, which instantly froze him in his tracks. The more he focused on the hunched over demon on the bench, the more interested he became in his upcoming match, should Fuji win his current one.
“Hey, Inui-senpai, do you know anything about this Yukimura person?”
Inui pulled one of his notebooks out of thin air and flipped to a page in the middle. “Yukimura Seiichi, third year junior high school student and captain of the Rikkai Tennis Team for the past three years. Birthday is March 4th, blood type A-”
“I meant as a player, Inui-senpai,” Ryoma interrupted before he could continue.
“Yukimura is one of the so-called “Three Monsters of Rikkai” alongside Sanada Genichirou and Yanagi Renji. He was the strongest junior high school tennis player prior to falling ill earlier in autumn of last year.”
“Strongest junior high school tennis player? I hope he gets better then…” he said as his voice trailed off.
He could barely contain his excitement and interest in the elusive captain of the Rikkai Tennis Team. He wanted to play against him badly the moment he was back in top form. Unfortunately, he would have to settle for the second best player for the time being, seeing as he would have to play him in the upcoming Singles 1 matchup.
Later at his home, Ryoma was struggling to zip up his overstuffed suitcase. He sat on top of it and tried to force the thing shut. Just as he finished closing it, his cat, Karupin, ran into the room with one of his sweaters in his mouth.
“Karupin!” Ryoma cursed as he reached for the sweater. “Now I have to open this thing again thanks to you…”
Karupin ran out of the room as soon as Ryoma began to unzip the suitcase. After just opening it up a little, the entire zipper came undone and the contents within flew out in an explosion of clothing and training equipment. His father overheard the noise and rushed over to see what was going on. Upon seeing the sight of his defeated son lying in the middle of now-wrinkled shirts and grip tape scattered around, he leaned on the doorframe and began laughing.
“Son, you’re going to miss your flight by the time you finish putting it all back in!”
Ryoma sat up and threw one of the tape rolls near him at his father. “If you’ve just come to laugh, then leave.”
Ryoma’s mother came up behind his father and smacked him on the back of his head. “Honey, you really should be nicer to your son.” She pushed him aside and walked into Ryoma’s room. “I’ll help you out, Ryoma. I don’t want you to miss your flight.”
He mustered a weak smile. “Thanks, mom.”
His father bent down and picked up some of the stuff off of the floor. “You’re only leaving for a few months, squirt. Do you really need all of this stuff?”
His mother shot him a deadly stare as she began to refold Ryoma’s clothes.
“Fine, fine! Just call me when you’re done, Ryoma. I’ll get you to the airport in time,” he replied nonchalantly as he walked away.
When everything was (re)packed and put into the car, Ryoma put on his windbreaker and picked up his passport from the living room table before slipping on his shoes.
“Remember to call when you get to New York,” his mother said as she hugged him.
“I will, mom.”
His father was standing outside of the entrance. “Ready to go, then?”
Ryoma nodded. “I’m off!”
Just as Ryoma began closing the door, Karupin shot out of the opening with a piece of paper in his mouth.
“Karupin!” Ryoma bent down and picked up his cat, removing the paper from his mouth. “Behave, alright?”
Karupin snuggled up to him, as if trying to indicate that he will miss his owner. Ryoma’s mother lifted the cat out of his arms. Ryoma looked at the piece of paper he removed from his cat’s mouth and noticed it was the strange letter that Tezuka had given him earlier. Shrugging, he put the letter into his jacket pocket without a second thought.
“Oi, squirt! We don’t have all day, you know.” his father called out.
After arriving at the airport and checking into his flight, Ryoma decided to lounge around in one of the fast food restaurants near his terminal. He was munching away at some fries while scrolling through his social media feed on his phone. Seeing as there was nothing of interest, he put his phone away in his pocket, but felt something else in the process. Remember that he had put the letter in his pocket from earlier, he decided to pull it out to look at it.
“Who could this be from?” He turned the envelope around in all directions and tried to think of whose handwriting it was. Sighing, he opened the flap on the back and pulled out the papers within.
‘Echizen Ryoma, no… Boy, how much trouble have you gotten yourself into since the last time we met? ’
Ryoma was now more confused. He wasn’t sure who the handwriting belonged to but was intrigued altogether.
‘I’m sure you’ve heard of my passing by now. I do hope you’re not disappointed by the thought of never being able to play me again. ’
“Eh, no wonder you couldn’t send an email,” he realized.
‘This isn’t going to be some elaborate letter. Rather, it’s just a simple ‘thank you’. I owe you a great deal of gratitude, Boy. Though we’ve only played against each other once, you’ve shown me something I forgot along the way to become the best. You made me remember what makes tennis fun for me.’
The infamous matchup between Yukimura Seiichi and Echizen Ryoma happened roughly two years ago at the Junior High School National Tennis Tournament Finals. Both schools were tied with two games respectively. The winner of the Singles 1 match would secure the victory for their respective school. For Yukimura and Rikkai, this game would solidify them as the champions for a third year in a row. For Ryoma and Seigaku, this win would cement them as the Champion Killers, having been the only school capable of defeating the powerful Rikkai Tennis Team.
Despite Ryoma’s explosive first service game, Yukimura was easily able to see through his shots and easily returned every ball he tried to hit. Even though Ryoma had opened the gates and used the Pinnacle of Hard Work, all of it was in vain due to the sheer skill gap between the two players. The second and third game of the set also went easily to Yukimura due to Ryoma’s stubbornness and refusal to adapt his playstyle.
“No matter what technique or whose technique, none of it matters,” Yukimura stated.
“Oh?” Ryoma pointed his racket at Yukimura. “I’m gonna make you cry for your mommy!”
Yukimura scoffed. “It would be in your best interest to lose quickly, boy,” he threatened.
Ryoma threw the ball up into the air. “I’m gonna make you cry!”
Yukimura began to think to himself as he continued to humour the Seigaku freshman in their game. “ I will admit that this boy has a lot of latent potential and he has quite the adversity and will to not give up. However, Just what in this world is this boy? ”
Ryoma finished off the point with a Drive B, landing him his first point in the set. “The next point will be won in five shots!” he boldly declared.
“ This is an absolute prediction, isn’t it? ” Yukimura wondered. “ This boy has learned how to channel the aura exactly when and where he needs to. ”
On the fifth volley, Ryoma accidentally sent the ball flying into the stands of the arena. He fell to the ground with a solid ‘thud’.
“O-ochibi, you okay?!” came the concerned shout from Kikumaru Eiji. “Your nose is bleeding!”
Ryoma pulled himself off the ground and felt his nose with his fingers. He stared at his blood-soaked fingers and was shocked. He couldn’t feel it at all.
“Finally… Yukimura will show you his real tennis,” Sanada calmly stated.
Yukimura served the ball towards Ryoma, but the moment he hit the ball to return it, he finally realized that he could no longer feel the sensation of the ball hitting his racket anymore.
“I can’t feel anything! ” Ryoma kept repeating to himself.
“Now that you’ve seen it,” Yukimura returned the half-hearted return back, claiming the point, “it seems like you’re losing your sense of touch, aren’t you?”
The next few points of the game played out in Yukimura’s favour. Every time Ryoma tried to return the shots, he would see flashes of them being returned no matter where he would hit it. He slowly felt his body freeze up; almost as if he was losing his will to play the game.
“What’s wrong, boy?” Yukimura taunted.
It wasn’t long before Ryoma plunged into darkness. Rather, his vision had disappeared completely. He could no longer feel nor see the ball coming. This heightened his sense of hearing enough for him to at least hear the ball coming. Ryoma managed to return the ball, which shocked everyone spectating the match.
“Even if I can’t feel or see, because tennis is ingrained into my very body… As long as I can hear the ball, I won’t lose! ” he realized.
“It’s your loss, Boy,” Yukimura returned the shot, scoring another point and bringing him up four games to none, “but I doubt you can even hear me anymore.”
Even though he couldn’t hear the umpire call the point, deep down within his heart, he knew he just lost the point along with his sense of hearing. Ryoma dropped his racket onto the ground, unable to process what was happening to his body. He dropped down to his knees and felt around for the racket. Somehow, after managing to find it again, he attempted to serve the next game, but faulted on the first serve.
The rest of the Seigaku team could only watch in horror as Ryoma’s spirit was ripped apart in front of their eyes. Though they cried for him, their feelings couldn’t reach him in his yips-like state.
“I’m gonna lose… I don’t want to lose! Why does this feel so painful? It’s only tennis, but why does it hurt so much like this? ”
Suddenly, Ryoma recalled a faint early memory he shared with his father when he first started playing.
“Don’t be so stubborn, Ryoma,” his father chided his younger self.
“No! Not yet!” his younger self shouted back.
“No… Wait, it’s because tennis is… ” He walked to the left side of the court to serve the next point, but fell to his knees.
Kintarou was amazed by Ryoma’s determination. “Why… Why is he even over there? He already lost his sight, hearing and his sense of touch, right? Yet, he’s still continuing on…”
Ryuuzaki-sensei could only cry in silence as she helplessly watched her player cling desperately to the game.
Yukimura could only stare and watch his opponent try and fail to reclaim the game. “Why...? Even though his senses have all been snatched away… Any other player would have already quit in this state, but this boy…”
Just as the darkness was about to swallow him, Ryoma suddenly realized how he could change the tide of this game. “ I understand now! ”
Yukimura smiled. “As I expected, you’re too reckless.”
“You know,” Ryoma struggled to stand up, “I never really hated tennis…”
All of Seigaku watched him in shock as he tried to get himself back into the game.
“This tennis thing is actually really fun.”
Within a blink of an eye, a radiant green light filled the entire arena around them. All of the spectators watched in amazement at what was happening.
Echizen Ryoma had finally unlocked the gate that sealed the Pinnacle of Perfection; the skill that is said to only bless those with a pure heart and genuine love for the sport.
Yukimura’s demeanor changed into a more serious one. “ Pinnacle of Perfection, is it? I’ll see for myself .”
Ryoma served the ball and scored a point without Yukimura even realizing that he had already done it. “Hey, referee guy, you gonna make the call?”
After studying the high speed camera footage and seeing that the ball was in, the game continued. Ryoma hit another two service aces without his opponent even realizing.
“Game Echizen, 1-4!”
“Impossible! How can Yukimura-buchou be getting aced?!” one of the Rikkai members exclaimed.
Yukimura couldn’t believe what just happened. Not only had his opponent opened the final forbidden gate, but he dropped a game to a bunch of service aces.
The next two games were won by the newly reborn Echizen Ryoma, closing the gap between both players slowly.
“Just raise your concentration and keep calm, Seiichi, ” he told himself. “ There’s no way there’s a ball you can’t somehow return! ”
While he was lost in his own thoughts, Ryoma hit a drop shot that clipped the net and landed on Yukimura’s side.
“Game Echizen, 4-4!”
“You having fun yet?” the small boy taunted.
Yukimura struggled to adapt to his opponent. He could no longer steal away his senses. He was being played like a fiddle in the hands of this cocky and arrogant kid and he couldn’t believe it.
The game ended with Ryoma using his Samurai Drive to split the ball into two and hitting both halves onto opposite sides of Yukimura, winning the set 6-4. The Kings of the Court were finally defeated. Ryoma’s teammates rushed onto the court and grabbed the freshman, tossing him up into the air in celebration. Yukimura could only watch in shock at what happened. He had lost to a cocky freshman who was having fun in a high stakes match.
Ryoma approached the net and held out his hand to shake his. Yukimura couldn’t help but smile at the absurd situation and accepted the handshake.
“Is tennis fun?” Ryoma asked.
Yukimura couldn’t respond to that question. He wasn’t sure if it was. He was awe-struck at how bold the small boy was.
“United Airlines Flight 247A to New York is now beginning priority boarding at Gate 7,” came a message on the intercom.
Ryoma folded the letter back up, shoved it in his pocket and got up from his seat. He threw out the paper food cartons in the trash before leaving the restaurant and heading over to the gate. As he got to his gate, he stood by one of the pillars and watched as the attendants helped some people on board. He took out the letter and continued to read it.
‘Sure, I don’t have the same noble thoughts on what makes tennis fun for you. Tennis isn’t fun for the sake of being fun. I still believe that tennis will never be fun unless I am the best. I’ll never be the best; just extremely good. There are so many players, like you, that I have yet to play against to see if I really am the best. ’
Ryoma wondered how Yukimura was going to do that if he was dead.
‘Maybe that’s why I’ll never reach the Pinnacle of Perfection like you. Not like that will matter anymore. You can’t be the best once you’re dead. ’
He felt his chest tighten at the last sentence. The sentiment resonated deeply within him. Death was permanent and there was no turning back. Though he was younger than him, he realized how unfair it was that Yukimura Seiichi was gone so soon.
‘Farewell and thank you, Echizen Ryoma. I hope we get to play each other in our next lives and I’ll win for sure next time. -Yukimura Seiichi ’
Ryoma could only stare at the signature as he realized that Yukimura Seiichi had died with regrets and that he would never be able to play tennis again. He was sad that he could no longer play against a formidable opponent, but he was more angry that he had gone so soon. Something within him wanted to train harder than ever before. He had to show Yukimura Seiichi that he was wrong to leave the world so soon.
“United Airlines Flight 247A to New York is now boarding at Gate 7,” the intercom message echoed through the somewhat desolate airport.
He crumpled the letter and threw it into the recycling bin beside him. He grabbed his carry on and walked towards the gate with his boarding pass. Once he got to his seat and sat down, he opened the shutter on his window and gazed outside into the night sky. A lone star twinkled in the sky.
“You still have lots more to work on, Rikkai’s Yukimura-san. I’ll show you.”
Chapter 12: Sanada Genichirou
Sanada Genichirou woke up in a cold sweat. It was the fourth time this week he was awoken in this state. He hadn’t been able to sleep properly since Yukimura Seiichi’s passing, though he couldn’t explain why that was the case. Asides from the sudden disappearance of someone he had held dear to him for a majority of his life, his life hadn’t changed in the slightest. He would fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day. He would eat the same meals, take a bath at the same time and study on the same schedule. Everything about his routine was methodical and mundane. He continued to live his life as if nothing had happened. The only things that did change were him skipping tennis practice to practice on his own and the strange fever dreams that plagued his mind all night long. The dreams bewildered the stoic and aloof boy. They were haunting, yet pleasant. His mind could not wrap around the absurdity of his dreams and nightmares.
There was one thing that was constant about all of them: they were all about the boy once known as Yukimura Seiichi.
Was it guilt? Was it grief? Was it madness? Sanada couldn’t explain it, but he knew these dreams were fueled by his actions. He wholeheartedly believed that they were a divine punishment from the Gods.
After all, Sanada Genichirou killed Yukimura Seiichi.
While Yukimura’s death was officially ruled as asphyxiation due to complications resulting from his condition, only Yanagi and a handful of others knew the truth. Though Sanada had yet to know the circumstances surrounding his death, it did not change the fact that he believed that he indirectly killed his best friend. He couldn’t forgive himself.
After an awkward morning practice with the team’s estranged and narcissistic senpai, Yanagi was angry. He was angry that Mouri Jusaburou suddenly waltzed back into the Tennis Team’s life. He was angry that Kirihara decided to rejoin the team after being so rude to everyone else. He was angry that Sanada was avoiding him ever since that day. He was angry that everyone around him had seemingly moved on from the death of their friend and teammate but he was somehow the only person left suffering. He was angry that Yukimura Seiichi took his own life and he still couldn’t fathom why. After rereading his letter from Yukimura multiple times, he realized he was not satisfied with Yukimura’s reasoning.
“Give me a break… Suffering is one thing, but there was definitely another reason, Seiichi... Why couldn’t you tell me…” he cursed under his breath.
As Yanagi turned the hallway corner on his way to homeroom, he bumped into Sanada, who was staring aimlessly at the floor instead of paying attention to his surroundings.
“What’s gotten into you, Genichirou?”
Sanada didn’t answer him and just continued to look at his feet.
Yanagi felt his pent up anger reach its limits. “What you’re doing is cowardice, Genichirou. Stop running away.”
“I’m not running away from-”
Yanagi grabbed the collar of Sanada’s shirt and slammed him into the wall. “Don’t give me that shit! You and I both know why you’re doing this!” His hands began to tremble with rage. “If you just said yes, maybe Seiichi would still be here! I could have saved him!”
Sanada turned his head away, unable to look at his friend, who was ready to break his nose and then some.
Yanagi let go of him. “I’ll never forgive you.” He looked at Sanada with a pitiful stare before promptly leaving him there. A red envelope fell out of his jacket pocket and fell down to the ground below, like a leaf falling from a tree.
Some of the other students were staring at the scene unfolding, unsure of what to do. Sanada noticed the envelope by his feet and bent down to pick it up. He examined the envelope and was shocked to find out it was addressed to him. The handwriting on the front was familiar, though he couldn’t pinpoint whose writing it was. Just as he turned it over to open it, the bell rang, signalling the start of the first period. Sighing, he put the envelope into his bag and went to class.
It was difficult for Sanada to focus on the lessons that morning, as his thoughts kept wandering back to the red envelope in his bag and the empty desk with a vase of flowers on top. He felt a strong desire to read it and kept thinking about what could potentially be inside or who wrote it. He also couldn’t get his mind off of what Yanagi said to him earlier that day.
‘If you just said yes ’ echoed through his mind over and over again.
His thoughts could never get far, as his teachers would call on him and pull him back into reality. The morning seemed to drag on for what seemed like an eternity. Sanada let out a sigh of relief when lunch came around. He promptly got up and left the classroom to find a secluded area where he could be by himself. His feet carried him to the rooftop of the main high school building, where it was eerily silent and empty. This particular rooftop was normally bustling with students during the lunch hour but, ever since Yukimura’s passing, everyone had been avoiding it after a rumour circulated that his ghost was seen haunting the gardens up there. Wanting to avoid being interrupted, he took out the master key to the school (a special key only entrusted to the Disciplinary Committee President) and locked the door. He shuffled over to one of the benches by the blooming tulips and sat down. He gingerly took out the envelope and inspected it, noting that the way his name was written on the front was very reminiscent of Yukimura’s penmanship.
‘Sanada Genichirou, where do I begin? ’
A wave of nostalgia rushed through his body as he continued to read.
‘Shall I start from the beginning of our relationship? Ah, recalling those days when we were young and naive brought me so much joy. When life was simpler and we didn’t have to worry about things like grades, falling in love and what we’ll be doing with the rest of our lives. I miss those blissfully ignorant days, don’t you? ’
Sanada Genichirou first met the elusive Child of God, Yukimura Seiichi, almost twelve years ago on a fateful Tuesday afternoon at a local Kanagawa tennis club. They were both four years old when they first met and found their love for tennis. The two were always inseparable during their time at the club. If they were not pairing up to play doubles, they were playing against each other. If they weren’t playing, it was always Sanada following Yukimura around. Early on, it was evident that the smaller and frailer of the two was more skilled at the sport, but technique alone was not enough to win. Sanada initially won more head-to-head matches against Yukimura, but the older they got, the better Yukimura played. Sooner than later, the tables have turned completely and Sanada always found himself on the losing end more than ever. The dynamic between the two had changed completely from what point onward. Sanada had developed an immense level of respect for his friend and would obey Yukimura’s every command, much to the bewilderment of everyone else around them.
At first, their friendship formed due to a misunderstanding on Sanada’s part. Their club was co-ed, even though they barely had any other girls. Most of the girls kept to themselves only and never really interacted with the boys. It was surprising to Sanada when Yukimura first approached him. The androgynous child wasn’t afraid of him like the other kids in the club. Sanada was impressed that someone could hold up to his strength and passion for the sport.
One sunny afternoon, the two children were sitting underneath a tree, hiding in the shade as the other kids played.
“Say, Yukimura,” Sanada began, “how come you don’t play with the other girls?”
Yukimura looked at him, confused. “How come they don’t play with you, Sanada?”
“W-well, it’s because I’m a boy! That’s why,” he affirmed.
Yukimura chuckled. “Then I guess that’s the same reason I have for not playing with them either.”
“Haa???” Sanada jumped up from where he was sitting. “You’re a boy?”
“You didn’t know? Would it be better if I was a girl, Sanada?”
“N-no! That’s not what I meant, Yukimura!” He felt his face flush as he became flustered. “I-I’m sorry for the misunderstanding!” He bowed his head deeply.
Yukimura couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s alright. It happens often. I don’t mind at all, Sanada. Please raise your head. You’re making a scene.”
During their final year of elementary school, both of them had decided to aim for the same schools prior to their first ever entrance exam. After one of their tennis club meetings, the two sat at a nearby picnic table outside of the courts with their practice exam books and materials scattered about. It would be a while before their parents would come to pick them up, so they both decided it would be a good idea to capitalize on some studying.
Yukimura got tired of staring at the passage he was reading. “I need a break, Sanada. My eyes can’t keep staring down at this book.”
“Do you not want to do well on the exam, Yukimura?”
“Having breaks in between intense studying is a good thing. It helps you remember things better.”
“I suppose.” Sanada closed his math book. “Yukimura, have you thought about which school you would want to go to if you were to get into all of them?”
Yukimura scratched his chin as he thought about it. “Rikkai seems interesting. I hear it’s near an ocean!”
“Yeah! And I also hear the school has a Nationals-level tennis team. Wouldn’t it be cool if you and I were on that team, Sanada?”
Sanada smiled fondly. “Yes, it would be great to be on such a high-ranking team.”
Yukimura held out his pinky, as if to make a promise. “Then let’s aim for Rikkai and get on that team in our first year! We’ll even aim for the Nationals too! It’s the hardest school to get into out of the ones we have chosen, but I know we can do it.”
Sanada intertwined his finger with Yukimura’s. “Of course. I will follow you no matter what.”
‘You’ve always been with me the longest. From that fateful day at our junior tennis club until high school. Honestly, it was as if I was going to be spending the rest of my life with you. It makes me happy to think about that. Living and growing old with the Sanada I’ve known since I was four years old, but unfortunately, this fairy tale was nothing but a dream. My reality was a nightmare and there was no escape. ’
Sanada felt his chest ache, knowing that the future Yukimura had dreamed of would never come true anymore. The realization that death was permanent had finally started to set in. He wanted to cry, but he was physically incapable of shedding a tear.
‘Sanada, do you remember when I first became ill? ’
He felt his stomach knot itself as he recalled that fateful day.
It was a chilly October day. Yukimura Seiichi woke up with a strange, numbing feeling in his fingers, but didn’t know what to think of it. He dragged himself out of bed that morning, but something about his body felt strange. Every step he took felt different than usual. He felt feverish and wrote off most of his symptoms as just a strange cold he had caught. He took a few ibuprofen pills to try and suppress his rising temperature and went off to morning tennis practice.
As he changed into his tennis uniform and tried to practice with Jackal, he was only able to rally for a few minutes before his head started spinning and he stumbled about. Yagyuu instantly ran towards him and caught him before he fell.
“Yukimura-kun, are you alright?” the bespectacled boy asked, worriedly.
He shook his head. “I’m alright, Yagyuu. I think I’m just a little tired.”
Yagyuu helped him towards the bench, where he sat down. The rest of the club was staring at them, but Sanada yelled at all of them to get back to practice.
Yanagi approached the boy and held his hand to his forehead. “Seiichi, you’re running a fever. Are you sure you should be at school today?”
“I’m fine, Renji, really,” he reaffirmed. “I’m just a little under the weather.”
“Yukimura-kun, perhaps it would be better if you did not practice today,” Yagyuu commented. “You should give your body a rest.”
“Perhaps you are right, Yagyuu. I’ll sit out and just watch, then.”
As the day continued, Yukimura felt himself getting worse and worse. He couldn’t focus in any of his classes with how disoriented he was feeling. The intense vertigo he was experiencing was making his stomach churn. He was slowly losing more and more feeling in his legs and arms. His fever did not seem to die down. He tried to be inconspicuous about it, but some of his classmates began to notice that he was not his usual self. Some of the students beside him slipped him small candies or fever medication while the teacher wasn’t looking, which he gratefully accepted.
By the time lunch rolled around, he struggled to walk to the school infirmary. Niou and Marui noticed their captain in the hallway and quickly walked over to support him.
Niou caught Yukimura as he tripped on his own feet. “Caught the princess, piyo.”
“Niou! Now’s not the time to be joking,” Marui hissed. “Yukimura, are you alright?”
Yukimura shook his head. “Would either of you mind helping me to the infirmary? I’m sorry that I’m catching you both at such a bad time. I know the lunch line gets very busy very quickly.”
“Save your breath, princess,” Niou responded as he wrapped one of Yukimura’s arms around his neck. “Let’s get going, Marui.”
Marui went ahead towards the infirmary and opened the door. Niou supported Yukimura as they both walked into the room. Niou helped him sit down on one of the empty beds while Marui went off to the faculty room to see if the nurse was available.
“Thank you, Niou.”
“Anything for you, buchou,” he smirked.
When Marui returned with the nurse, both of his teammates waved goodbye as they left Yukimura alone to be examined. The nurse didn’t notice anything different about him, other than the fever. They couldn’t explain why Yukimura was experiencing the numbing sensation in his limbs and gave him a referral to a nearby clinic so they could investigate further. After giving him some stronger fever medication, he sent Yukimura back to class.
Once the medication kicked in, Yukimura began to feel fine again. He powered through the rest of the day. When classes had ended for the day, Yukimura decided to attend practice, but was forced to spectate by the rest of the regulars. As frustrated as he was, he relented, knowing he wouldn’t be able to fight any of them in the state that he was in. Practice itself was rather boring and uneventful. Thankfully, it was a shorter practice that day, so the regulars all decided to go home together on the train.
When the regulars all got to the platform to wait for the train, Yukimura felt the medication beginning to wear off. His world began to spin around him yet again. The rest of the team was conversing with themselves and they did not seem to realize that their captain was swaying around and struggling to stand up. He watched his face get closer and closer to the train platform but it wasn’t until his face had hit the ground that he realized what was going on.
He was falling down. His body was failing him.
The last moment he remembered before losing consciousness was all seven of his teammates shouting his name as they ran towards him.
By the time he woke up in the hospital, he was surrounded by his family, his girlfriend, Sayumi, and Sanada. When he opened his eyes, his mother began crying as she rushed to hug her son. Sayumi squeezed his hand tightly, but he wasn’t able to feel it. He tried to squeeze back, but found he was only able to do so weakly.
“Seiichi! You’re alright,” his mother sobbed.
“H-hello, mother,” he greeted.
His father pulled her off of him. “Seiichi, how do you feel? Does anything hurt?”
Yukimura shook his head. “I can’t feel anything.”
All of them looked at him with a confused look. “What do you mean, Seiichi?” Sayumi asked.
“I can’t feel your hand, Sayumi-san,” he calmly stated. “What’s wrong with me?”
“The doctors are unsure,” his father answered. “They want to keep you here overnight to do some testing.”
Yukimura was shocked at his father’s words. “I-is that so…”
“Do not worry, Yukimura,” Sanada affirmed. “I’ll make sure practice goes smoothly tomorrow so you can focus on getting better.”
Yukimura turned and gave Sanada a weak smile. “Thank you, Sanada.”
It would be another two weeks before the doctors finally diagnosed him with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. This diagnosis shattered his morale. All he wanted to do was scream and cry his heart out, but the most he could do was just get angry at the whole thing. Why now and why did it happen before the Kanto Regionals? He couldn’t understand the situation he was in at all. He wished Sanada was with him when the doctors broke the news, but he clung onto Sayumi instead.
A few days later, Sanada visited Yukimura at the hospital. He was unaware of the diagnosis prior to this visit.
He knocked on the door. “Yukimura, may I come in?”
“Of course,” was the response.
Sanada slid the door open, walked in and shut it all with one fluid motion. He pulled up a chair in the room beside Yukimura’s bed and sat down. “How are you feeling?”
“Wonderful, now that you’re here, Sanada.”
“What did the doctors say? Will you be alright?”
Yukimura stared at his hands in his lap. “Who knows for sure?” He turned to look at Sanada in the eyes. “Sanada, I hate to ask this of you, but I don’t think I’ll be able to return to the club any time soon.”
Sanada held up his hand. “Say no more. I will shoulder your club responsibilities until you can return. Until then, please focus on getting better. We’re all waiting for you on the courts, Yukimura.”
Yukimura couldn’t help but tear up. “Thank you, Sanada.”
‘I’ve put an unnecessary burden on you by making you take my club responsibilities by yourself. I should have given some of that responsibility to Renji as well instead of making you shoulder all of that. I’m sorry you had to carry all of that burden on your own. ’
Sanada scoffed. To him, he was more than happy to shoulder the burden if it meant that his friend could rest easy and get better faster. Though he was a busy man, the additional work was not much of a hindrance, seeing as his duties as the vice captain weren’t too different from the captain’s responsibilities. He thought Yukimura’s apology was ridiculous, especially when it was Sanada himself who took on the additional responsibilities on his own volition.
‘To be honest, I’m not sure what I want to write to you right now. Everything I wanted to tell you, I already did. You’ve been my closest confidant for all these years. I’m thankful for our friendship and that I got to meet you in this life. ’
Sanada felt a warm, fuzzy feeling well up inside him. All of the mundane memories he shared with Yukimura Seiichi were replaying in his head. He was grateful that he got to share so many different moments in time with his now-deceased friend. Memories that he would cherish for many years to come.
‘Alas, it seems like God was not kind to me in this life. While he blessed me with the opportunity to meet you and become friends, he had also cursed me at the same time. ’
Back during Valentine’s Day, when Yukimura was still with Sayumi, the two of them shared their first kiss with each other. For Sayumi, it was a confirmation that Yukimura Seiichi did, in fact, love her and she loved him. For Yukimura, it was a completely different feeling entirely.
That first (and only kiss) he ever shared with Sayumi was a confirmation of his own feelings. He didn’t like her. He didn’t feel better after kissing her. The anxieties he harboured within only got worse. He wasn’t in love with her. He was in love with someone else.
“Oi! Yukimura-buchou! Hokama!”
“Akaya! Get back here!”
The shrill voice of Kirihara alongside the yelling from Sanada broke their kiss. The two of them turned in the direction of the voice. Kirihara was running towards them with Sanada chasing after him in anger.
“What awful timing,” she sighed.
At that moment came a realization. When Yukimura locked eyes with Sanada, who was running towards them at mach speed, the realization that his relationship had been a lie hit him with great momentum. The butterflies in his stomach came back. He felt disoriented as his cheeks began to flush. His heart was beating at the same speed Sanada was running towards him. His frozen fingers were clammy. He couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and ran away as fast as his feet could take him.
“Seiichi!” Sayumi called out as she watched him run away.
“What did you do to Yukimura-buchou, Hokama?!” Kirihara yelled.
By the time Yukimura tired himself from running, he was standing in front of the club room. Rather than opening the door, he collapsed in front of it and began sobbing. His heart ached at the thought that he had lied to an innocent girl about his feelings towards her. He was disgusted at the unnatural feeling the kiss had left within him.
The door to the clubroom opened from the inside. Yukimura looked up as if he was a deer in the headlights. Staring right back at him was none other than Yanagi Renji.
“Seiichi!” Yanagi bent down and hoisted him off of the ground. “Is something wrong? Should I get a nurse?”
He shook his head as he used his sleeve to wipe away his tears and running nose. “Not unless the nurse can cure a heartbreak.”
Yukimura buried his face into Yanagi’s chest and wrapped his arms around him. “Shut your mouth, Renji. Just this once.”
Unsure of what to do, Yanagi gingerly placed his hands onto Yukimura’s shoulders as the frail boy hung onto him and cried his heart out. As curious as he was about what happened, he also knew inevitable doom would befall him if he disobeyed.
Later that night, Sanada called up Yukimura just to see if he was alright.
“Yukimura! Are you alright?”
Yukimura blinked twice before realizing he didn’t know what to say. “Is that all you’re calling me about, Sanada?”
“Yes! You ran away from Hokama-san earlier today and she was extremely hurt. We thought she did something to upset you, but that did not seem like the case.”
Yukimura fell silent. He closed his eyes and focused on the erratic breathing coming from the other end of the phone. Something about Sanada’s breathing calmed him down immensely, but he wasn’t sure why.
Sanada was confused when he couldn’t hear anything from his side. “Yukimura? Are you still there?”
Yukimura snapped out of his trance. “Ah, sorry. I was just thinking, that’s all.”
“Yukimura, if anything is bothering you, please do not hesitate to come talk to me about it.”
Yukimura had to force a response. “Thank you, Sanada, but I can assure you that I am fine.”
“That good then,” Sanada said, relieved. “I’ll leave you to prepare for tomorrow’s practice then.”
Yukimura listened as Sanada hung up the phone. He wanted to shout at him that he liked him more than as a friend. He wanted to say that he cared about Sanada more than he thought he did. At the same time, he was tongue-tied. He didn’t know if his feelings were more than what he believed. He was positive that he couldn’t like another man. That was irrational and unnatural, he thought. He didn’t want to scare him to the point where Sanada would leave his life. He didn’t want to lose Sanada so he kept silent about everything, but those same conflicting feelings ate at him slowly.
‘I couldn’t gather the courage to tell you how I felt about you. I was so scared that you would leave me after that moment. I was scared to lose my closest friend with the dark secret I harboured deep within me. I kept it hidden, but I guess there’s no point in hiding it now. The truth is, I’ve always felt this way about you. No matter how many times I denied myself, it was my heart that spoke in the end. ’
“Dark secret?” Sanada flipped to the next page to try and decipher what he meant.
‘Sanada Genichirou, I love you. ’
Sanada almost dropped the papers in his hands as he saw those simple words. He couldn’t believe that his best male friend was in love with him. Rather, he was unsure if Yukimura Seiichi meant he loved him as a friend and comrade or as something more.
‘I think I’ve loved you all my life. You’re my knight in shining armour. My Prince Charming. My Hikoboshi-sama. You were the light that saved me from my own darkness. You gave me a reason to get better. To hold on to the precious life I was given by God. I love you from the bottom of my heart and nothing can change that. ’
‘I didn’t come to this conclusion so easily. Everyone around me guided me to this conclusion on my own. Renji, Niou, Yagyuu, Marui, Jackal and Akaya allowed me to forge all of these happy and fun memories with you. Dating Sayumi-san made me realize I would never love another girl and Shiraishi-san kissing me confirmed my suspicion that I was indeed gay. ’
Sanada’s eyes widened as he reread the last sentence. “Gay?”
'I was so happy when I realized that I was gay. I was also in love with my best friend. It’s a story you always hear where the girl and the boy go through their entire childhood and young adulthood without realizing their feelings. You just know they’ll end up together at the end, but you still read all of the stuff that happens in the middle. You want to follow their journey and watch them fall in love. Sometimes you dream that the same will happen to you. ’
“Did he really think…” He tried to shake off the thought of the both of them being in a relationship like what they portrayed in popular fiction. To him, the thought was full of nonsense.
‘I was one of those dreamers. I dreamed of falling in love in a similar way. When I realized I had fallen in love with you, I fantasized that everything would work out. That I could have my happily ever after to the fairy tale dream. I’m a hopeless romantic, right? ’
Sanada was unsure of how to react to the sudden revelation. He cared about Yukimura deeply and liked him as a friend. To find out that the reason why Yukimura was so close to him was because he loved him was beyond strange. He felt disgusted by the fact that he was looked at as a potential love interest by another man but equally as guilty, knowing that the same person looking at him that way was his best friend.
‘Too bad it was only just a dream. ’
After Shiraishi had kissed Yukimura on the lips, Yukimura felt everything in his world fall into place. Everything made sense during that small moment they shared with each other. The kiss felt natural. He wasn’t disgusted by the feeling of being kissed by a boy. He understood the feelings being conveyed by the simple gesture. He felt loved.
These feelings would only last as long as he was ignorant. The moment he realized he was kissing Shitenhouji High’s tennis team captain, he immediately pushed the Osaka native away and bolted onto the train back to Kanagawa. He was shaking in his seat and couldn’t believe what had just happened. His phone started going off with texts from Shiraishi, apologizing profusely for kissing him without consent. He didn’t want to look at them. He didn’t want to respond, knowing he would say something he would regret. All he wanted to do was cry, but he didn’t want to make a scene on the train. All he could do was sit in silence as the long ride back to Kanagawa continued.
The moment he arrived back in Kanagawa, Yukimura went over to Sanada’s house unannounced, rather than head home. He didn’t want to be alone and knew Sanada was the only one who could comfort him.
Sanada opted to stay behind instead of go to Osaka with the rest of the team. He was shocked to see Yukimura at his door when the sun was almost gone and night had fallen.
“Hey…” Yukimura greeted shyly. “Can I come in?”
“Of course,” Sanada replied as he gestured for Yukimura to come in. “I’ll make some tea.”
Yukimura sat in awkward silence at the kitchen table as Sanada poured him a warm cup of chrysanthemum tea and placed a small wagashi in front of him. Yukimura realized he hadn’t eaten much despite being at a cultural festival all day and ate the sweet rather quickly. Sanada noticed this behaviour and went to get a leftover cinnamon bun from the counter to give to him to eat.
“Sorry for showing up unexpectedly, Sanada.”
“It’s alright, Yukimura. My family will always welcome you.” He placed the cold cinnamon bun and a fork in front of the disheveled boy. “How was the cultural festival?”
Yukimura poked at the cinnamon bun with the fork. “Interesting. Osaka sure is a fun place to be. They were all so friendly over there.”
“You don’t look like you had fun.”
Yukimura shook his head. He cut off a piece of the bun with the fork and ate it. “Something happened, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was fun.”
Sanada gave him a confused look. “What happened?”
“Nothing in particular. Just a strange interaction that I can’t shake off.”
“Is that so?”
The both of them sat in silence as Yukimura continued to stab at and nibble away at the cold bun.
“Say, Sanada, how would you feel if a close friend of yours kissed you?”
Sanada choked on and spat out some of the tea he was drinking. “I beg your pardon?”
“How would you feel if a friend kissed you?”
“What kind of friend would do that? That’s just strange! If it was any of my friends, I would slap them before they even had a chance to.”
Yukimura couldn’t help but laugh at Sanada getting flustered over what he said. “What would you do if I kissed you, then?”
“Stop saying such ridiculous things, Yukimura!” Sanada’s face was rapidly flushing into a bright red colour.
“So you wouldn’t slap me if I were to do that?”
Sanada’s grandfather grumbled as he walked into the kitchen. “Ichirou, do you have to be so loud?”
“A-ah! My deepest apologies, grandfather,” Sanada stammered as he stood up to bow.
“Yukimura-kun, it’s been a while,” Sanada’s grandfather greeted.
“Hello, sir,” Yukimura stood up to bow. “My apologies for getting your grandson worked up.”
“Raise your head, Yukimura-kun, Ichirou. I was only speaking in jest.”
Yukimura chuckled. “It’s getting late. I should get going.”
“I’ll see you out, then,” Sanada responded.
The two boys walked towards the door. Yukimura slipped on his shoes as Sanada opened the door for him.
“Thank you, Sanada. I feel better now.”
Sanada nodded. “Good night, Yukimura. I’ll see you next week.”
Once Yukimura had walked far enough from the entrance to the Sanada residence, he couldn’t help but let his feelings out. He fell to his knees and buried his face into his hands. He felt like he was just rejected after confessing his feelings, though that’s not what really happened. He joked around with Sanada enough that he knew the stoic and aloof boy would be none the wiser about his true intentions with the questions he was asking. Even still, it hurt all the same and he hated himself for feeling this way. He hated that he was in love with his best friend, who was a male and who almost certainly did not reciprocate his feelings.
“Please, God…” he begged. “Please make him fall in love with me...”
The bell had rung, indicating that classes were resuming. Sanada ignored it, as he was now engrossed in the letter.
‘The moment I woke up, reality hit me. My dream could never come true. I was a boy in love with another boy. That’s not how any of the stories went. A boy couldn’t fall in love with another boy and have a happy ending unless they were both gay. But you’re not gay, Genichirou, and I knew that. Deep down, I knew that, yet I still held on to my feelings. I couldn’t change the way my heart felt. ’
White Day was approaching soon. Being a regular on the Tennis Team, Sanada’s popularity yielded him a very large amount of chocolates the month prior. Many were from his fans and some were from his classmates. Yukimura had also given him some, which he thought was just a friendly gesture. Unfortunately for him, that meant he had to return the gift to all of the girls (and Yukimura) who had given him chocolates. Unsure of what to do, Sanada decided to ask Yukimura’s ex-girlfriend, Hokama Sayumi, for advice.
“Eh? You’re asking me for advice on what to give back to the girls for White Day, Sanada-senpai?”
He nodded. “I’m unsure of what to give back. Normally, Yukimura would do it for me, but I’d hate to be a burden on him right now.”
“So you’re asking his ex-girlfriend for advice on what to give back?” Sayumi crossed her arms. “Are you sure that’s a wise decision, Sanada-senpai?”
Sanada bowed his head. “I trust your expertise, Hokama-san.”
“Is that so?” She stretched out her arms. “How much were the chocolates you received worth? A rough estimate would suffice.”
“Huh? Is that something I need to consider?”
“Yes. Proper White Day etiquette dictates that the man should return a gift with three times the value of the gift the woman gave him the month before.” She sighed. “Seeing as you don’t know, I guess I should ask this.” She pulled out her gardening shears and began snipping away at some of the dead and rotting leaves on the carnations. “What kind of feeling do you want to convey to the receiver?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Do you want the gift to say ‘I like you’ or ‘you’re a good friend’ or something else?”
“Gifts can say that?”
“Really, senpai…” She stood up from the bed and turned to look at him. “Why bother with White Day, then? If you don’t understand the subtle nuances of gift giving, there’s no point in trying to put in the effort.”
“It would be rude if I didn’t return the gesture.”
“Hm…” She bent down and snipped off a yellow carnation and held it out for him. “How about these?”
He hesitantly took the delicate flower. “Flowers?”
“Yellow Carnations are quite cheap. They’re elegant as well. As for symbolism, I think it’ll be a nice way of conveying your feelings for the girls,” she said with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Though, I am surprised at how full the blooms are for this time of year. They’re very out of season.”
Sanada gave her a puzzled look. “What do they mean, Hokama-san?”
“It’s a rejection flower. You give it to someone when you don’t return their feelings for you. Most of the girls at this school won’t realize what they mean. They’ll just think of it as a nice gesture or that you’re brimming with pride for this school because they’re yellow.” She smiled at him. “It’s the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Seiichi would always give them out to the girls who gave you chocolates the years before, so I don’t think it’ll be an issue. Don’t worry too much about the connotations. I’ll prepare enough for you on the morning of and you can just deliver them whenever you can.”
Sanada nodded. “Thank you for the advice, Hokama-san.”
When that fateful day came, Sanada came to campus early to meet with Sayumi at one of the rooftop gardens. As he got there, she was just wrapping up preparing the flowers for him.
“Hokama-san, good morning.”
“Ah! Good morning, Sanada-senpai.” She stood up and held out the large bouquet with glee. “Here you are!”
Sanada graciously accepted them. “Thank you, Hokama-san. I shall repay your kindness in time.”
“Good luck with the girls, senpai. You’ll need it.”
The day was very eventful for Sanada, as he struggled to hand out the flowers to the girls who had given him chocolates while also fighting off Niou’s stupid pranks and attempts to steal the bouquet from him. Many couldn’t help but stop and stare at the always serious vice captain of the tennis team look silly with his comically oversized bunch of flowers. As the day wrapped up, Sanada decided to head to the hospital to pay Yukimura a visit. He brought the flowers with him, as he was unsure of what to do with the rest.
“Ah, Sanada,” Yukimura greeted. “You look worn out. How was your first White Day?”
Sanada nodded. “I took your meddling in my Valentine’s/White Day affairs for granted, Yukimura. I don’t know how you do it for me every day.”
Yukimura laughed. “It’s easy if you like doing it for the person you’re meddling with.” He looked at Sanada’s hand. “What’s that you got there?”
“Some flowers. Hokama-san helped me prepare them.” Sanada handed the rest of the bouquet of yellow carnations to Yukimura.
Yukimura’s expression darkened upon seeing them. “Why? Sanada, why would you give these to me?”
“What’s wrong, Yukimura?”
Yukimura tore at the flowers, ripping them apart into millions of petal fragments as the pollen lightly dusted his lap below. “How dare you give these to me!” He looked directly at Sanada with his tear-stained face. “Get out!” he screamed.
One of the nurses heard the commotions and ran into the room. “Yukimura-kun!”
“Get out! Get out, get out, get out!”
“Dr. Hayashi, we need your help in here!”
Sanada could only watch in shock as a team of nurses held his best friend down and sedated him to prevent a further outburst. When the situation was under control, Dr. Hayashi pulled Sanada aside to ask him what happened.
“Sanada-kun, what were you doing before Yukimura-kun got all upset?”
“We were just discussing our day. I gave him a bouquet of flowers because he wanted to see what was in my hand and then became enraged. I’m not sure what I did wrong.”
Dr. Hayashi gave him a sympathetic look. “It’s not your fault, Sanada-kun. The medication Yukimura-kun is currently on can potentially cause bouts of aggression. Please do not be hard on yourself over it.”
“I… I see…” his voice trailed off as his thoughts began to wander. “I think I’ll take my leave then.” He bowed curtly before quickly leaving.
Yukimura was watching the exchange happen before his eyes, but he couldn’t do anything in the drugged up state he was on. He weakly reached out his arm and tried to call for Sanada, begging him not to leave. A single tear flowed from his eyes as he watched him walk out of his sight.
“Sa… na… da…”
‘Would you have fallen in love with me if I wasn’t a boy? Would we still have been able to be friends if I was a girl? Would God have let us meet if I was a girl? What’s the use in asking any of these questions? I know the answer to all of them. You don’t love me the same way I loved you, Genichirou. You never will. To you, I’m just your friend, right? ’
Sanada felt guilty for saying no, but he knew it was true. He was not gay. He could not love Yukimura Seiichi back despite Yukimura’s own feelings for him. Even if Yukimura was born as a girl, he couldn’t find it in him to like a female version of his best friend. He wasn’t even sure if he was capable of liking anyone romantically. The thoughts never crossed his mind because he knew they were a waste of time.
‘I couldn’t stand seeing your pitiful face anymore. Every time you visited me in the hospital, you always had that look in your eyes. That look of pity for me. I hated it so much. Just once, I wanted you to look at me with longing and affection. I wanted you to desperately turn gay overnight and kiss me and coddle me until I fell asleep in your arms. I wanted you to love me. God was cruel to put me in this body. Not only did he make me a boy, but he also gave me an incurable autoimmune disease that slowly took away my autonomy. My dignity. My humanity. He cursed me with having the only person I loved look at me with pity and worry. It was as if he had already damned me to Hell to suffer for eternity. I’m so sick of it. I had to escape. I had no other choice.’
Sanada felt his blood run cold as he flipped to the next page.
‘I took my own life, Genichirou. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t continue to live a life where my body was failing me and the empty promises that these experimental treatments could cure me. I couldn’t live a life where my heart would always be constantly broken watching you fall in love with other women and eventually marrying one. I couldn’t live in this world, knowing you can never be mine, Sanada Genichirou. The jealous lover and hopeless romantic within me decided that if I couldn’t have you to myself, then living the rest of my life was pointless. The humanity within me refused to watch my body wither away until I became a shell. The pride within me refused to live a life where I would end up being everyone’s burden. I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to be free of the prison I was creating. ’
Sanada could feel something was amiss about the day Yukimura died. He had woken up late and slept through the first half of morning practice. In English class that morning, he had gotten a low score on the last vocabulary test. He fumbled over his words when he was asked to read a Soseki passage out loud in Classical Literature. He couldn’t hit the low notes in his music class. He missed the targets during archery class. He forgot his history textbook at home that day as well. At his Disciplinary Committee meeting, his second-in-command cussed him out for not finishing the weekly report for the headmaster. For someone as punctual and sharp as him, the day was unfolding into more of a disaster by the minute.
Sighing, he dragged his feet to the tennis courts to begin afternoon practice. As soon as he got onto the courts, Yanagi approached him with a worried expression on his face.
“Genichirou,” he began, “have you been having a bad day?”
Sanada nodded. “Very.”
“I suspected as much. I’m worried.”
“About me? While I appreciate the thought, Renji, I can assure you-”
“No, Sanada,” he interrupted. “Though I worry about you to a certain extent, I was referring to Seiichi.”
“Yukimura? Did something happen?”
There was a terrified look in Yanagi’s eyes. “My data hasn’t been able to predict Yukimura as of late. Every prediction I’ve made so far has been wrong.” He clenched his hands into a fist in frustration. “Something is going to happen today; I just know it.”
“Genichirou, please allow me to skip practice today. I cannot sit still unless I see with my own eyes that he’s alright.” He bowed his head deeply. “Please.”
Sanada’s gut feelings were telling him that he should let Yanagi go. He knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t pinpoint the feeling. He knew he would regret it if he didn’t say yes.
“No. We still have to train for the Regionals. We cannot be slacking.”
“Tarundoru! We swore we would win this for Yukimura! If you slack now, we’ll never be able to defeat all the other schools.” He turned around to watch the rest of the set up. “Leave when practice is over. Yukimura will be fine until then.”
Anger and frustration overcame Yanagi. He said nothing as he glared at Sanada with disappointment in his eyes.
Yanagi swore he would never forgive Sanada for what happened. When Sanada learned about what happened, he couldn’t forgive himself either.
‘In the end, it was my demons that drove me to make this decision. I’m sorry. I realize it’s incredibly selfish of me to take away myself from you, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. I just want to sleep forever in my dreams, where life was simpler. I guess I’m getting my wish with this eternal slumber. Everyone will remember me as someone who had humanity. I won’t be suffering anymore. You’ll remember me as a friend and nothing more. That’s the best outcome I could hope for. ’
Sanada was trembling at this point. Tears were staining the pages of the letter and his face.
On the day of Yukimura’s death, Sanada’s family was abruptly visited by Yukimura’s father late in the night. His father opened the door and ushered Yukimura’s father in. Sanada had already prepared some chamomile tea in advance and set them down at the dinner table. The two older men sat down at the table and gestured for Sanada to sit as well.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me so late, Nosuke.”
Sanada’s father, Gennosuke, gestured for Yukimura’s father to drink the tea in front of him. “You know, I can’t turn away my friend in a time of need, Shuya.”
“And you know how much I hate asking you for favours, but,” he took a small sip of the piping hot liquid, “what I’m going to ask is something I can’t ever repay you for.”
“Shuya, what’s on your mind? You look like you’ve seen better days.”
Shuya bowed his head deeply before continuing. “I… I need your help, Nosuke…” He began to sniffle as he tried to maintain his composure. “I need you to help me bury my son.”
Both of the Sanada men’s eyes widened and mouths opened in shock. Genichirou stood up in protest, but his father tugged on his sleeve, as if telling him to sit down.
“Shuya, I’m so sorry…” He reached over to grab the tissue box on the other side of the table and put it in front of them. “Seiichi was a very bright boy. I can’t believe it.”
Genichirou was visibly shaking in his seat. He couldn’t process what was happening in that moment. His best friend, Yukimura Seiichi, was dead and his friend’s father was asking him if he could help him put his best friend to rest for all of eternity. The moment was surreal and dream-like, only Sanada was wide awake and watching it morph into his worst fears.
He was snapped out of his trance by his father. “I swear, on my family’s honour, that we will put him to rest.”
This caused Yukimura Shuya to cry even more. “I can’t thank you enough, Nosuke.” He bowed his head deeply in gratitude.
“Let us talk more in the morning, Shuya. I will help you with the organizing.”
Sanada stood up from his chair and excused himself, not wanting to hear the rest of the conversation. He promptly went to his room and got underneath his covers. A large part of him felt responsible for his death, even though he knew the official cause of death had yet to be announced. He felt sick to his stomach knowing that his intuition about something being off was right and felt like a fool for not allowing Yanagi to go check on their friend. He couldn’t shake any of his thoughts as the fatigue from the day consumed his consciousness.
On the day of the funeral, Sanada was informed by his father that he was to help with the cremation and subsequent kotsuage , as the process would be too difficult for most of Yukimura’s family to do. No one had checked on him since the news broke. No one had asked if he was fine or if he even wanted to sift through the ashes of his dead friend to pick out the bones and place them into an urn. The truth was he didn’t want to do it, but the guilt and the obligation to his family outweighed any emotional objections he had. He justified his duties as a form of atonement for letting his best friend die.
When Sanada’s family picked up Yanagi from his home, the two boys did not utter a word to each other. There was a heavy tension in the air between the both of them that went unnoticed by everyone else due to the amount of grief everyone was going through at the time. Yanagi only glared at Sanada briefly throughout the day, but neither of them spoke to each other. Sanada tried to get away from him as much as possible, as he felt shame every time someone looked at him. He became paranoid that everyone looking at him was judging him because they knew what he did. Even though no one else knew what happened between him and Yanagi, the irrational side of him was coaxing him into believing that everyone knew.
When it came to the eulogy, Sanada was given the responsibility of delivering it on behalf of Yukimura’s family and the greater high school tennis circuit. He could feel everyone’s gazes pierce him as he made his way to the altar. His own eyes could not look away from the sight of Yukimura Seiichi, who had now been rendered into a cold, pale, lifeless corpse.
‘It’s your fault he’s lying there, Genichirou, ’ a voice in his head kept quietly repeating.
He cleared his throat. “Yukimura Seiichi was a friend to all of us. No one can deny that he had a passion for tennis and did everything he could to play the game he loved. When he wasn’t playing, he was pulling a lot of strings behind the scene as the captain of the Rikkai Tennis Team and as a head of the Beautification Committee. He did everything he could to support everyone in his life so that we would all strive to be our best. He never stopped fighting for what he believed in and what he dreamed of doing. Even now, I cannot help but admire his resolve and mental fortitude. We have all lost a great person today, but we will never forget the path that he had forged for us.”
As he finished the eulogy and stepped down from the altar, he picked up a pale yellow lily and walked towards the casket. He gently laid the single flow down beside Yukimura’s right ear. He was in awe at how serene and graceful Yukimura looked. The flower made him look like he was alive and just sleeping. Sanada took a step back and bowed before going back to his seat. As he made his way back, the rest of the attendees began to make their way towards the casket to pay their final respects. Sanada watched as the crowd of people slowly “swallowed” Yukimura in front of his eyes. It would be the last time he ever saw his physical form.
At the crematorium, Sanada was instructed to help pick out the bones from the ashes and place them gently into the urn. The priest stressed that the bones from the feet and legs were to go in first and that he was to work his way up the body in order to prevent the spirit from being put into the urn upside down. Sanada did as he was told, but felt numb as he carefully sifted through the ashes of his dead friend. There was something cathartic, yet haunting about the entire process. Yukimura’s family stood and cried in agony as they watched their son and brother be collected and placed inside an ornate jar with care.
Sanada did his best to suppress his emotions as he continued to place the bone fragments in the urn one by one. As he picked up every fragment, his mind could not stop shouting the same thing at him:
“Why are you not crying? He’s your best friend! How could you be so cold? ”
They were the same words that haunted him in his sleep. They were the same words that swirled in his head when he was awake. People looked at him as if he were a monster. How could anyone bury their best friend without crying at all? How could he do all of that without losing any of his composure? He couldn’t escape it. The thoughts made him crazy.
Sanada Genichirou did not shed a single tear that day. All of the tears and heartache refused to come out. They would remain sealed deep within his heart until the day he opened the Pandora’s Box hidden within the letter from Yukimura Seiichi.
‘Thank you for everything, Genichirou. May we meet again in another life where God is less cruel. Maybe in that life, I can live out my fairy tale of living happily ever after with you. -Yukimura Seiichi ’
Sanada had been reduced to nothing short of an emotional mess. He hugged the papers close to his chest as he choked on his tears. His distressed state made him unaware of the rooftop door swinging open.
Hokama Sayumi heard a strange howl the moment she approached the door. She felt that the door was locked and pulled out her rooftop key to unlock the door. As she swung it open, she was greeted by the sight of the usually stoic and serious Tennis Team Vice Captain trembling as he tried to understand his emotions. She quietly closed and locked the door behind her and walked slowly towards him.
Sanada shot a murderous glare at her, which made her jump back. When he turned his face away from her, she continued to approach him carefully. She sat down beside him and placed her hand on his back and rubbed it in an attempt to comfort him.
“It seems like the truth has finally been revealed to you, Sanada-senpai.” She pulled out a packet of tissues from her pocket and handed one to him.
Sanada took the tissue as he continued to stare at the ground in silence, unsure of what to respond with. He wiped away the tears and snot away from his face using it.
“Deep down, I always knew Seiichi liked you as more than a friend. He would always have this look in his eyes every time he was with you. The same way I would look at him. A look of longing and anticipation. That someday, you’d turn around and see him the same way he saw you.” She couldn’t help but shed a few tears.
“Hokama-san…” Sanada’s voice trailed off.
“It’s hard, isn’t it? To reject his feelings. You cared about him deeply as a friend. Maybe even regarded him as a brother, but could never see him as a lover.” She looked up at the sky, as if looking for a sign from the heavens. “God was cruel to trap him in the body of a man with the soul of a woman.”
Sanada attempted to hide his face with his cap.
Sayumi lowered her head to look at her disheveled senpai. “But his suffering is over, isn’t it?”
He looked at the younger girl beside him, whose eyes had been tired out by the constant crying and mourning. A small grin was forming on her tear-stained face. The small rays of sunlight coming through the clouds lit her long, messy, auburn hair.
“It’s over, Sanada-senpai. Yukimura Seiichi is gone. We can’t make amends now that he’s no longer here. We can only pray that we’ll see him again someday.” She got up and began to head back towards the door. “And hopefully, God won’t be as cruel to him in that life like he was in this life.”
Without much of a thought, Sanada jumped up and embraced her from behind, unwilling to let her go. He was trembling but still unable to get his thoughts and feelings out. Sayumi sighed, as she placed her hands on top of his.
“Stop trying to fight it, Sanada-senpai. We have to let go or we’ll always be living in the past with no reason to move forward. It’s what he wanted us to do.”
The two stood in silence as tears began to soak the back of Sayumi’s uniform shirt. The two remained in that state until he could no longer cry.
The next day, Sanada showed up in front of Yanagi’s house before Yanagi left for morning practice. Yanagi was surprised to see him standing outside his home when he opened the door, but decided to confront him rather than ignore him.
“G-good morning, Renji,” Sanada stuttered
“Good morning, Genichirou,” he responded with apathy.
“C-can we talk?”
“I don’t see why not.”
The two of them began walking to school in silence.
Sanada took a deep breath before beginning the conversation. “I… I read the letter yesterday.”
“I figured,” Yanagi responded quickly. “I thought I had lost the letter, but Niou said you weren’t in class yesterday afternoon. I figured you found it.”
Sanada didn’t respond. Yanagi decided to continue the conversation.
“To be honest, I was debating whether or not to give it to you, Genichirou. I couldn’t forgive you. I was angry at you. You let our best friend kill himself and I felt that you didn’t deserve to hear his final words.”
“I’m so pathetic,” Yanagi kept rambling. “I let my feelings get the better of me. Seiichi entrusted me to deliver these letters for him and I didn’t do that. I’m so selfish…”
“Renji, I know what I did was unforgivable. I’ll never be able to atone for what I did-”
“Save it, Sanada. Your apology doesn’t matter.” Yanagi turned to look at Sanada with tears trickling down his face. “It wouldn’t have mattered whether or not you said ‘yes’ that day. His mind was already made up, wasn’t it?”
The two of them stopped walking and just stood in silence as Yanagi’s revelation sank in. He was right. Nothing anyone could have done would have saved Yukimura Seiichi from his biggest demon: himself.
“Genichirou, I’m sorry about what happened yesterday and for antagonizing you when Seiichi died. I was angry and I didn’t know what to do about it.”
“Renji, I’m sorry as well. For running away instead of facing the truth.”
The both of them resumed walking towards the school. As they reached the courts, the rest of the regulars were already busy practicing and training.
“Oh? Look who decided to come back,” Mouri chided. “Done running away?”
“Welcome back, Sanada-kun,” Yagyuu greeted, ignoring the remark from Mouri.
The rest of the regulars crowded around him and Yanagi. Sanada bowed deeply at all of them.
“I apologize for my selfish behaviour. There is no excuse for what I did.”
“Eh? Sanada apologizing? Now that’s something you don’t see everyday,” Niou joked as Yagyuu smacked him in the back of his head.
“No need to apologize, Sanada,” Marui responded nonchalantly. “We all needed some time to accept what happened.”
“Man, stop with all this sad talk!” Kirihara shouted. “Yukimura-buchou didn’t want us to be all mopey and shit. He wanted us to win the Nationals!”
“Kirihara-kun is right,” Yagyuu commented. “We’re all here because we want to win it for him.”
“Yeah! So quit moping around! Let’s get to work,” Kirihara exclaimed as he skipped back onto the courts.
Mouri followed suit. “I only got a year left, boys. Can’t help you win or fulfill my lovely kouhai’s last wish once I graduate.”
The rest of them rushed back onto the courts to continue practicing, leaving Sanada and Yanagi behind.
“Well, Genichirou,” Yanagi began, “should we join them?”
Sanada nodded. “Of course.”
The Rikkai Boys’ Tennis Team was united together once again with a common goal and newfound determination. Though there will always be a hole they could never fill within their hearts and team, they had all found the strength to overcome the tragedy that had befallen them.
It was time for all of them to move on.
“Kurarin, it’s almost Golden Week! Where should we go?”
“Is it? I barely noticed how fast time has passed.” Shiraishi Kuranosuke stopped to look up towards the cherry trees blooming in the warm, Osaka air. “The blossoms sure are late this year.”
“I guess so.” Shiraishi turned to address his companion. “Well, Sayumi-chan, should we go back to Yokohama this year? It’s been almost seven years since I was last there.”
Hokama Sayumi gave him a sad smile. “Yokohama? Did you want to go visit him?”
“W-well, I just want to go somewhere and watch the cherry blossoms bloom because we missed it happening here,” he lied.
“Kurarin,” Sayumi poked his chest, “you don’t need to hide your intentions from your own girlfriend, you know?”
Shiraishi sighed. “I suppose there is no use in hiding it from you.”
“It would be nice to go back up. I haven’t seen my parents in a while and they’re dying to meet you.” Sayumi continued to walk ahead of him. “And it would be nice to see him again. Even if he did break my heart all those years ago.”
“I suppose it is strange to visit the man who broke both of our hearts,” he chuckled. “Ne, Sayumi-chan, are you sure you want to go? You don’t have to if you don’t want to-”
She shook her head. “It’s time to stop running away from what happened, Kurarin. Don’t you think ten years is enough time for a broken heart to heal?”
Shiraishi couldn’t help but smile. He held out his hand for Sayumi to accept. “Let’s go together then, shall we?”
She laced her fingers between his. “Yes, lets.”
“Aw, man! I’m getting more washed with every game!”
Kirihara Akaya glared angrily at his computer screen as he watched his teammates finish the game. Luckily, his teammates were able to clutch the last round and win. He glanced at the clock on his computer and realized it was getting late.
“Shit! I gotta go, guys. We’ll review the demos later,” he said into his microphone and promptly left the voice channel he was in.
A knock on his door echoed softly through the room. “Akaya? Are you done yet?”
“Just a second!” He shut off his computer and went to open the door. “Ready to go, Hinoka?”
Yukimura Hinoka nodded. “Of course. Let’s go tell my parents the news!”
Kirihara and Hinoka strolled down the quiet streets on the outskirts of town, admiring the cherry trees, which have yet to bloom. A cool breeze blew towards them, which caused Hinoka to shiver. As if by instinct, Kirihara removed his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
“Thanks,” she smiled.
“Don’t mention it,” he replied. “Man, Golden Week is already here and we still have so much to do! Couldn’t this holiday come later?”
“I can’t help it if I want to get married in October. Weddings take a while to plan out, you know.”
Kirihara bent down and kissed Hinoka’s cheek, which made her blush. “As long as I get to see that pretty face of yours for the rest of my life, I don’t mind it at all.”
“W-well, first you need to get the approval of my father. Then we can really plan this out.”
“Only your father? I was thinking of asking someone else too, just in case.” Kirihara stopped to look at the orange sky as the sun began to set. “It’s almost that time again.”
Hinoka clung onto his arm. “Yes, we should ask him as well.”
He turned to admire his bride-to-be in the fading sunlight. “Let’s get going. It’ll be dark and cold soon and your mother will kill me if you get sick.”
She laughed. “Yeah, let’s go.”
“With this new budget and advertising campaign, I am positive that the Atobe Corporation can turn a record-breaking net profit this quarter!”
“Ahn? Is that so?” Atobe Keigo stared at the data that was presented in front of him. “I shall humour this idea, but,” he stood up from his chair, “this will have to wait until after we return from the Golden Week holiday.”
“Atobe-sama! With all due respect-”
“Save it. Let’s not make more work for everyone the day before the holiday starts.” He sat back down. “You are dismissed. I’ll see all of you after the break.”
Atobe’s executive team got up from their seats, bowed at him and promptly left the room until he was left alone with his right hand man.
“You take Golden Week a bit too seriously, Atobe.”
“Nonsense. It’s a national holiday, Niou.”
“It’s also the ten year anniversary since that day, piyo.”
A smirk formed on the young CEO’s face. “Is it now? Seems like I can’t hide anything from my consigliere .”
Niou Masaharu snorted. “It’s why you asked me to be your business partner, Atobe.”
The both of them stared out the large windows that lined their high-rise corporate office in Shinjuku. The faint pink of the cherry trees in Shinjuku Gyo-en could be seen in the distance.
“The blossoms are taking an awful long time to bloom this year, don’t you think?” Atobe remarked. “Just like all those years ago.”
“Yeah. They’ll be in peak viewing condition very soon as well.” Niou turned to face him. “Did you want to tag along with me?”
“You read my mind, Niou Masaharu.”
“Game, set and match goes to Tezuka!”
The crowd inside the stadium erupted in cheer as Tezuka Kunimitsu took down his opponent in the Madrid Open Finals in a five set marathon of a match. This win not only solidified his standings as the top male tennis player at the moment, but it was also the first time he had officially beaten his rival during a match.
Tezuka walked to the opposite side of the court and offered his hand out to his opponent to help him stand up. His opponent accepted it as he got back onto his feet.
“Good game, buchou,” his opponent smirked as he shook his hand.
“Likewise, Echizen,” was the response from Tezuka.
The camera flashes filled the stadium, as the photographers tried to get the best shot of Tezuka Kunimitsu and Echizen Ryoma shaking hands with each other. After the presentation of the trophy, Tezuka was whisked away to a press conference with all of the major sports news outlets of the world.
A chorus of “congratulations” filled the small, dull room along with more blinding camera flashes. The reporters began berating him with a barrage of questions.
“Mr. Tezuka! What is the next step for you after your win today?!”
“Mr. Tezuka! How does it feel to finally best your rival and old classmate, Ryoma Echizen?!”
“Any comments on your training for the upcoming Wimbledon tournament? Ryoma Echizen has won both the Australian and French Open this year, so will you be the one to end his Grand Slam attempt?!”
The questions kept hurling towards him until the moderator raised his hand to get them to quiet down enough for Tezuka to say something.
Tezuka cleared his throat and leaned into the microphone. “I would like to thank everyone for the support today. As for my next steps, I will be returning home to Japan for a week before returning to Germany to continue training. That is all.”
He pushed his chair back and began to walk out of the room. The security guards blocked the reporters from approaching him as he disappeared from the room. He quickly walked back to his change room, where someone was sitting inside as he opened the door.
“What are you doing in here, Echizen?”
Ryoma casually sipped on his soda pop without answering his question. “You still aren’t very good with the paparazzi, buchou.”
Tezuka silently walked towards his tennis gear and began to pack his bag.
“Going back to Japan, hm? Going to see him?”
Tezuka stopped in his tracks as Ryoma smirked, knowing he saw right through his old captain’s plan.
The younger boy got up from the bench and walked towards the door. “Better hurry up, buchou. The flight’s leaving in six hours.”
“Marui, just how much more do you plan on eating?”
“It’s my last bowl, Jackal, I promise.”
Jackal Kuwahara sighed as he continued to watch his friend consume another large bowl of ramen in front of his eyes. He pondered just how much of his profit margins Marui was consuming.
“Marui-kun, you really should watch your intake if you don’t want to gain weight,” Yagyuu Hiroshi commented.
“You underestimate my metabolism, Yagyuu. I can totally handle this.” Marui Bunta continued to scarf down the hot noodles. “After this, let’s go get dessert!”
“You cannot be serious,” Jackal sighed in disbelief. “I still have to work, you know.”
“Oh, your wife can run the ship for a bit, Jackal. We know she’s very capable of doing it. It is going to be Golden Week soon. Lots of themed sweets! And we haven’t seen Yagyuu since he became a big wig golfer, so let’s use this time to catch up!”
“Golden Week, huh? I almost forgot,” Yagyuu remarked. “It’s almost that time again.”
“Ne, Yagyuu,” Marui began, “don’t tell me you’re still hung up on that.”
“Quite the contrary, Marui-kun.” Yagyuu leaned back into his chair. “It’s been an awful long time since we’ve last visited him.”
Jackal nodded. “Let’s go next week, then.”
“Hey, let’s not get gloomy right now. It’s the start of a holiday! Let’s enjoy it as well.”
Jackal and Yagyuu both nodded in agreement as Marui continued to slurp up his soup.
“Mouri-kun! Any plans for Golden Week?”
Mouri Jusaburou turned to face his coworker, who had posed the question. “Not in particular. Probably just going to go home.”
“Your family lives in Kanagawa, right? I’m jealous! The cherry blossoms are going to be in full bloom by the time you get back.”
“Really now? That’s a bit late for that part of the country.”
“That’s what I said! This climate change thing is really messing with the seasons.” His coworker stood up and patted him on the back “Don’t stay behind for too long! You gotta beat the holiday rush or you’ll be trapped at Tokyo Station forever.”
Mouri waved his coworker goodbye before turning back towards his desk to stare at the last of his paperwork. “A late bloom, huh? Maybe it is time to go back.”
Sanada Genichirou sighed as he wrapped up the last of his paperwork for the day. Though crime in his precinct had been down, there was still a significant amount of diplomatic work that had to be done. He stapled the papers together and organized the case files before leaving his office. He placed the stacks of paper in one of the office boxes before promptly exiting the station. As he walked towards the entrance of the nearby subway station, he stopped and took a detour through the city park to admire the cherry trees.
“It’s almost that time again,” he remarked to himself.
As he continued to walk, his eyes caught a glimpse of someone who looked very familiar. As if by instinct, he whipped around and ran after the person.
“Wait!” he called out.
The person turned around to face Sanada. He stopped in his tracks before he got any closer. The person had shoulder length, flowy blue hair, a graceful figure with defined curves and a soft, sapphire blue eyes and a very feminine face. They smiled at him while also giving him a confused look. “Hello.”
“I’m sorry,” he began. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”
The person laughed. “That’s alright. Can I help you?”
“It’s just…” His voice trailed off. “I’m sorry, but you just look like a friend I once knew.”
“Is that so? This friend must mean a lot to you, then.”
Sanada nodded. “Yes, he meant a lot to me.”
“Well, you should hurry back home so you can see your friend again.” The person turned around to continue walking. “Perhaps we’ll see each other again, Sanada Genichirou.”
“Wait! How do you know my name?”
“The name’s Amemura Seiko. I work in the archives department of your precinct.” They walked up towards Sanada and adjusted his tie while flashing him a seductive look. “We’ll see each other again, Mr. Police Chief.” They stepped back and continued to walk in the opposite direction Sanada was heading.
Sanada stood in awe as he watched them disappear into the sea of people. “See each other again, huh?”
“Golden Week has arrived again. Has it really been ten years since that fateful day, Seiichi?”
Yanagi Renji stood before the weathered down Yukimura family grave. He brushed away some of the stray leaves that had collected on and around the grave. After washing the stone and praying, he set his bag down and sat on the ground in front of it.
“I feel like I’m the last person who has yet to fully move on from your death,” he began, talking to himself. “Shall I catch you up on everyone else’s life or would you rather hear about what I’ve been getting myself into?”
He sighed, as if waiting for a response, but was met with silence.
“I’m almost done with my doctoral research. I improved Dr. Hayashi’s treatment for Guillain-Barré to the point where it would effectively stop the condition altogether. It was very promising in the rat trials that were conducted. I’m almost certain it could have cured you as well, Seiichi.”
The wind blew gently, but gave no indication of an answer.
“I wasn’t able to save you in the end, Seiichi. Everyone has moved on and yet here I am; talking to the grave of my friend who died ten years ago. Even my career revolves around the ghosts of my past. No matter how much I believed I had moved past this part of my life, it seems like I keep dragging myself back to those days.”
The sun disappeared behind the clouds. A single tear fell down Yanagi’s face.
“We all miss you, Seiichi. We can’t wait to see you again. Please hold on until then.”
“I am getting quite bored of waiting for everyone, Renji,” came a familiar voice. “Do take your time, though. Life is too short and must be cherished.”
Yanagi looked up and saw an apparition of the friendly, blue-haired boy. He blinked twice just to make sure he wasn’t seeing anything.
“No, just a hallucination,” he answered playfully. “You haven’t slept well since you started your degree, have you, Renji?”
“You haven’t aged a day, Seiichi.”
“Well, I am dead. The years haven’t been kind to you either, Renji.”
“Is that so?” Yanagi laughed.
“It’s okay to let go, Renji. We all cling to unrealistic ideals that will harm us. It’s best to remember me for who I was, not who I could be if I were still here.” The apparition began to turn more transparent. “My time is up. It’s time to move on.”
“We’ll see you someday, Seiichi.”
“Remember to sleep, Renji. Thank you for everything. I'll be waiting.”
The sun peeked through the clouds once again, erasing the ghostly figure from Yanagi’s teary eyes. He stood up from his spot and looked into the horizon before rubbing his eyes. The Yukimura-like apparition had faded away along with the last of the cherry blossom petals.
“Oh? Yanagi, what a surprise to see you here,” came the confident voice from behind.
Yanagi turned around to see that everyone had gathered around the Yukimura family grave. Sanada, Kirihara, Niou, Yagyuu, Marui, Jackal, Mouri, Echizen, Tezuka, Atobe, Shiraishi, Sayumi and Hinoka were all standing around and waiting for him.
“Why is everyone here?” Yanagi asked.
“The same reason you’re here, Renji-senpai,” Sayumi answered. “You also felt compelled to come here, didn’t you?”
“This holiday keeps getting stranger and stranger,” Ryoma remarked. “Are we all done being sentimental now?”
Sanada extended his hand to Yanagi. “Echizen is right. It’s time to move on.”
Yanagi couldn’t help but smile as Sanada helped him off the ground. “Yes, it’s time to move on.”
Spring had come and gone yet again. Another year was ahead of everyone and they could only look forward from there. Yukimura Seiichi was gone from this world, but his memory lives on in the people he was able to reach with his words.
Thanks for reading if you got this far. I'm going to be making another story set in the same universe as this one, so look forward to that eventually.