Everything is silent in the moment before the serve. An instant of bated breath between heartbeats where the world just waits. It's Keith's favourite part. The crowd can be roaring, but the second he raises his racquet, all goes still, if only for a little while.
The ball connecting with the strings is a feeling like no other. Keith knows it's perfect from the hum that travels down the handle and into his palm. A yellow bullet fired with precision.
“Game, set, match: Kogane.”
The crowd booms to meet with his euphoria, as disbelief unites with triumph. Five sets of pure willpower, but he's made it. He can't keep the grin off his face as he meets his opponent at the net, or when he shakes the chair umpire's hand. Coach Iverson takes his racquet as the master of ceremonies rounds on him for the post-match interview.
“Let's hear it for your newest American superstar, Keith Kogane!”
Usually, Keith would hate this attention—hate the fuss and the titles and the media. But the post-win high carries him through and he laughs as the crowd responds with enthusiasm, pulling the sweatband free from his hair.
“Keith, congratulations,” the host beams, as Keith wracks his brain for his name. “What an incredible match.”
Keith hears himself panting across the stadium speakers when he takes hold of the microphone offered to him.
“Ah, yeah. Matt really brought his best tennis today. After losing the second and third sets, I was a bit worried he had it. Full credit to him. But I knew if I dug deep, I'd have a chance. Having the home crowd backing me really made all the difference.”
“When you earned the wild card entry for the US Open, did you ever dream you'd make it this far?”
In truth, he did. Every moment of his young professional career has propelled him to this moment. And he has worked his ass off, day in, day out. He knows he's put the effort in to reap the reward. But that's not what the crowd wants to hear. He can see Iverson's warning frown and he remembers his words: play the role of the small town hero.
“Not at all. If someone told me at the start of the year I'd be qualifying for a US Open semi, I wouldn't have believed it.”
“A semi against the world number one, no less! How are the nerves?”
With adrenaline buzzing in his veins, his confidence doesn't falter.
“Anything could happen, Bob. You never know.”
Takashi Shirogane. Or, simply Shiro to fans and officials alike. World number one 137 weeks and counting. Drop shot specialist and king of the ace. A living legend of the sport at just 24.
But undeniable talent aside, he's also the people's champion. One that has never had a bad interview in his life and always has the crowd on his side. The kind of guy that sponsors flock to, whose face gets slapped on every promotional image and the one who dominates the highlight reels. The guy who gets the invites to Paris fashion week, takes the cliché media photos with chubby looking koalas for the Australian tours, has the exhibition matches on the top of the tallest buildings in Dubai.
Keith is completely and utterly in love with him.
Not in love, in love. Just an objectively professional, completely detached kind of love. A healthy, heavy dose of respect and admiration. Idolisation. From far away. Very far away.
Except… well, maybe not so far now, since he'll be facing him across the net in the morning.
He's nervous, but more than that, he feels sick with excitement. Ready to face off against the best and prove himself. Prove he is worth something in a world that likes to take an inch and run a mile without him. Prove that his name belongs alongside legends like Shiro.
Sleep doesn't come easy.
The first thing Keith notices when he walks on the court are the flags. It catches him off guard. Of course he knows Shiro is popular. But right now it feels as though he's taken one step out of the home of the brave and into the land of the rising sun. Perhaps it was a little naïve, but he had come to expect the home crowd advantage, come to rely on the boost of his country's support during this tournament. He realises now that this was always going to be Shiro's city.
Keith tries not to feel put out when the crowd goes wild the moment they announce Shiro's name. The cheer when he walks out onto the court is almost deafening. He smiles and waves, and looks anything but the ruthless opponent he will be in just a few moments. It's hard to keep his eyes on his gear as Shiro arrives at the bench beside his. He frowns at his hands as they shake on his jacket zipper. No, he can't do this, he can't psyche himself out. Not now. Best to ignore the crowd, the sporting God in a tight white polo eight feet away from him. He grabs his racquet and raises his hand at the nearest ball girl. He pockets two and bounces one on the baseline, resolutely ignoring everything around him as he tosses the ball into the air and swings. It's not fast—he's only warming up—but the perfect thrum of the strings that reverberates down his arm and into his body settles him.
Shiro moves to his spot on the other side of the net, all genial smiles and relaxed posture as he bounces on his toes and warms up with a slow serve that bounces lazily on Keith's left. Somehow, he's still impressive when he's not even trying, and Keith tries to imagine himself replicating his perfect arc when he hits his next serve.
It's horrendous. A quiet laugh ripples through the stadium as Shiro sidesteps the rogue ball that crashes past into the barrier behind him. Mortified, Keith immediately holds his racquet up in apology, but Shiro just shakes his head with a good-natured laugh and waves him off. Figures he would be as easy going as his media image polishes him up to be. Keith still feels his face burn. He hits a few more wobbly serves, trying to regain his nerve, until Shiro signals to him and they trade easy rallies.
By the time he hits a few of Shiro's moonballs, he's starting to push the embarrassing serve out of his mind. His body feels warm and limber when the chair umpire calls time, and he jogs up to the net to shake hands with the stadium official and his opponent. Keith ignores the way his heart thumps when Shiro offers him a smile—he won't get nervous now—but it's all too quickly aimed down to the tiny kid in charge of the ring toss.
“What's your name?” Keith hears him ask quietly, under the din of the crowd.
Keith barely catches the tiny response of, “Sven,” as the boy peers up to him with starstruck eyes.
“Shiro, call,” the official directs.
“Heads,” he says, just as the coin goes flying inelegantly out of Sven's palm.
They all lean over as it falls to the ground.
“Heads it is.”
Keith feels his stomach sink automatically. It doesn't really matter, but he could have used an early win to get him on the right foot.
“I'll serve second.”
Keith's head snaps up in surprise. Since when does anyone… ever not take the first serve? For a moment, he thinks Shiro might be mocking him, but the fear vanishes immediately at the sincere smile he finds on his face.
“Good luck, Wild Card,” he says, and Keith almost staggers under it. There's no tease, no belittling tone or arrogance. Just a genuine word of encouragement before he jogs away. If it weren't for the fact he was preparing to serve to him, Keith might almost believe that Shiro was rooting for him. But the smile is gone when he turns back around, and Keith remembers just who he's dealing with. You don't make a name for yourself as the champion of the game for going easy on newcomers. It's why the media call him a smiling sniper — all laughs and kind eyes, but single-minded, stone cold focus the second the game begins. It shoots another wave of intimidation through him.
The journey to the baseline seems to last a lifetime, and Keith feels far too conscious of the weight of his breath his lungs, the density of the court under his shoes and the sound of the crowd as he calls for a ball for his opening serve. If he thought they had been loud during the rest of the tournament, they're simply deafening now. None of it is for him this time, though. Every daunting voice in the crowd is here to see Shiro win. He is only collateral on the way to victory.
But when he raises his racquet to serve, everything goes still and silent as always. The calm before the storm.
It's Keith's favourite part.
He watches the ball fall in slow motion, and the brief moment his feet leave the court to connect feels like taking flight. It feels right, it feels perfect when he makes contact, and he watches Shiro lunge as it slams down the centre. He doesn't return. He doesn't challenge.
It takes a second for the crowd to fade back in, and they're just as shocked as he is. But then Keith grins, filled with something giddy as Shiro shrugs and claps his hand against the strings of his racquet.
An ace. He just served an ace against world number one Takashi Shirogane.
His next serve is not quite as precise, and Shiro collects it easily to force him to cross-court for a backhand return. When it comes back to him again, Keith's heartrate spikes as he sees his opening. Quickly angling his body, he slices it down the line. Shiro's never in reach.
Shiro makes it 30-15 on the next serve, but Keith catches him at the net to get to a more comfortable 40-15. He might actually have this first game in the bag.
Keith almost jumps out of his skin at the linesman's call, but it's accurate; his shot falls well wide of the service box. It's honestly a miracle he almost made it through a whole game without faulting. His strength on his serves is his speed, not his accuracy. A couple of double faults and he could kiss the entire match goodbye.
Getting ahead of himself now will do him no good. He takes his time bouncing the ball, glancing up to where Shiro waits, stone-faced. Screw it. A safe game is a boring game.
He feels the force of his swing when he connects at its apex. Hears the thud as it hits the back wall. No call comes.
“Game. Kogane leads one to zero.”
Keith checks the speed of his serve on the screen behind him when he notices Shiro do the same. One-hundred and thirty-three miles an hour. Up there with some of his fastest. He grins and celebrates with a tiny pump of his fist, collecting his towel from the ball boy to wipe his face as Shiro prepares to serve on the other side.
Keith quickly learns that Shiro gives nothing away when he lines up to serve. He barely manages to throw out his racquet to meet the ball when it comes flying down the outer edge. It goes straight into the net, and Keith feels any bravado he might have worked up in the first game suddenly come back down. Shiro is still only warming up. He almost manages to chase him to deuce, until Shiro finishes off the game with a masterful drop shot that has Keith sprinting from the baseline far too late to meet. It levels them at one game all.
It marks the tone for the rest of the set. Neither can break the other's serve and it brings them to six games apiece just before the first hour ticks over to send them to tiebreak. Keith can feel the August sun beating down on him, and it doesn't matter how many times he goes for his towel; sweat is becoming a consistent factor in his game now. He shoves the tennis ball in his pocket as he jogs to the baseline so he can pull the base of his tank up to wipe at his face. It stirs a bit of an unexpected reaction from the crowd. Keith flushes when a spectator wolf whistles loudly and another calls out something rowdy that sends a ripple of laughter through the crowd.
“Thank you,” the chair umpire says curtly, and it dies to a chitter.
They're four a piece in the tiebreak when Keith finally manages to break Shiro's serve and end the deadlock. Suddenly he's sitting at set point, with the ball—literally—in his court.
I… might actually pull this off.
It sends a jitter through him and ultimately throws his first serve way off.
Get it together.
The second serve falls at Shiro's feet and he returns ferociously. Keith barely gets his racquet to it, but somehow he slams a passing shot across the court before Shiro can reach it.
Did I just—?
But the umpire doesn't call the set, and Keith's stomach drops when he sees Shiro's hand in the air.
“Shirogane challenging the line call. Ball called in.”
The crowd start clapping as the hawkeye runs on the stadium screens, building faster and louder as the simulation zooms in for the call. Keith's heart pauses between beats.
It's only by a sliver, but victory dissolves into ash. Shiro has broken his serve right back.
“Five all. Shirogane's serve. Shirogane has three challenges remaining.”
And he follows it up with a soul-crushing ace.
“Five-six, Shirogane. Kogane's serve.”
Okay, set point. But it's fine; he just has to hold his serve. He can do this. Just stay calm. It's far from over.
What follows after his serve is the longest rally of his professional career to date. They trade forehands for a dozen or so shots each, and Keith realises Shiro is pushing him as far back to the baseline as possible just as the champion delivers a devastatingly perfect drop shot that skims low to kiss the net and land high in his court. But Keith is quick, and he sprints with all his might to get his racquet under it before it bounces again. He remains deaf to the crowd as they react, channelling everything into finding that point of contact. He sacrifices control to simply get to the ball though, and Shiro calmly collects to send it back to the opposite back corner with unfair precision. Keith refuses to let it go. He's close. He's so damn close, he can tell.
Pure adrenaline gets him back to the baseline to take the shot between his legs, and this time he hears the thunder around him. The tweener might shoot to thrill the crowd, but it lobs the ball high, and Keith already knows the result when he watches Shiro look up and position himself under it. The smash shot still feels like a bullet to the chest anyway.
“Set. Shirogane leads one set to love.”
Keith feels a little bitter about the raucous cheer that goes up. The fact that he can't count on his own countrymen to support him in his match is a little grating. But he can't aim any of his resentment toward Shiro as he moves to rest at his player bench. He is a masterclass to watch, and exhilarating to play against, even as he goes into the second set at the disadvantage.
Keith takes one last swig of water before he jumps to his feet to find his way back to the baseline and try all over again. Despite his best efforts, he still fails to find an opening. Shiro breaks his serve twice in the set to finish 5-7 and take the score out two to nothing.
It's fine, Keith coaches himself. Best of five. You're younger, you've got the stamina. It's fine.
It's an absolute fucking disaster. Shiro opens his serve with two aces in a row and all too soon Keith finds himself on the wrong side of a match point at 2-5 and advantage: Shirogane.
His first serve flies well past the baseline to the linesman's call. The second finds a home in the net. Double fault.
“Game, set, match. Shirogane wins 6-7, 5-7, 2-6.”
And just like that, the open, earnest smile on Shiro's face returns, and Keith can't even bring himself to be upset with the result, even as the sting of ending the match on an unforced error fades. He's tired, he's sweat-drenched, but he's content. He even finds himself smiling back as he reaches the net to shake his hand.
“Good game,” Shiro dimples to him, and Keith barely manages to choke out a reply.
“Yeah. Thanks. You too. Phenomenal.”
God, he sounds like an idiot.
He practically runs to the chair umpire to shake her hand in an effort to get off the court as quickly as he can. But a hand on his shoulder stops him as he moves to the bench to shove his racquet into his bag. Keith looks up in mild alarm as Shiro leans over him to speak in his ear, over the crowd and the media host.
“How attached are you to your sweatband?”
Keith feels like the poor strip of material might be working overtime as breath brushes his ear and warmth radiates from the point of contact on his shoulder. He's a professional though, with strictly professional thoughts, having a very professional heart attack, in that he manages to betray no outward sign of the fact. He simply shrugs, as he zips up his bag.
“Got plenty of others. Can't exactly call this one lucky after today either. Why?”
Shiro laughs, and suddenly Keith can't remember the question. That is, until a finger hooks in under his headband and gently tugs it free from his damp hair. Keith watches, dumbstruck, as Shiro slingshots it into the crowd to a gaggle of girls that have come down close to the barrier. He flushes crimson when they scream and Shiro grins beside him.
“Until next time, Wild Card.”
Keith isn't sure he can feel his legs when he walks off the court with his gear while Shiro starts talking about the match with the host. It's not until he's under the spray of the shower that his mental function returns to him either. Of course he's a little disappointed in the result—losing has never been his forté—but to have made it all the way to a semi on the back of a wild card, to face Takashi Shirogane in his first Grand Slam tournament, takes the barb out of it. He can add 720 points to his ranking for his efforts. A result that catapults him out of the late hundreds to somewhere in the realm of seventy. In the entire world. It makes him lightheaded.
“Going from no name to semi final finisher in one tournament,” one of the press members joke in his interview an hour later. “Any idea how you're going to spend your winnings?”
Keith shrugs awkwardly. The media side, unsurprisingly, is not something that comes naturally to him.
“Buy my mom something nice. Pay my coach, I guess.”
The room laughs, but it's not until later when Lance screeches down the phone that he feels foolish.
“Pay your coach?!”
Keith rolls his eyes, phone cradled between his shoulder and ear as he sorts out his suitcase. In fairness, he hadn't realised at the time that he'd be walking back to his hotel with nine-hundred and twenty-five grand burning a hole in his back pocket.
‘And that little ‘ooh, look at my washboard abs as I wipe the sweat from my brow’ move? You're such a show pony.”
“Coming from the guy who once wrote his number on a tennis ball before lobbing it to Allura Alforson, I'm hardly offended,” Keith monotones. “You're just pissed I have better game with women than you do.”
“Oh shut up, Mr 69.”
Keith grins at that. In spite of the lewd Instagram post Lance tagged him in after the confirmation of his new rank, Keith is still euphoric. Cracking the sixties after his first major tournament is a dream come true.
Shiro wins the US Open final in straight sets in under ninety minutes. Lance periscopes a mourning party when Keith boosts his rank to 51 the following month with a quarterfinal appearance in Shanghai. Keith retaliates by uploading the worst zoomed-in mid-grunt picture he can find from Lance's doubles effort with Hunk and ignores his pleas to take it down when it sails past two-thousand retweets.
“Pidge says, and I quote, ‘lol’ to you taking Matt out again in the round of sixteen,” Lance says over his phone when they commiserate their respective losses with non-alcoholic beer in his hotel room. “She also says dibs whenever you need a mixed partner.”
Keith wrinkles his nose. Undoubtedly it will come up at some point, but he's not the best at sharing the court. At least with a clubmate, the idea seems less reprehensible.
“Sure, I guess,” he shrugs as he takes another bottle from Hunk.
“I'll tell her you're positively bursting with enthusiasm,” Lance deadpans.
By the time the Australian Tour starts after Christmas, Keith has nudged himself up to number 36 in the rankings, and the media is starting to buzz. A decent effort for the Open in Melbourne, and Keith could be staring down a top 20 berth at the start of the year. It has sponsors taking a sudden interest in him and—to his incredible shame—Iverson forces him to accept a cover piece for Tennis Magazine.
“Did they cover your arms in oil?” Pidge chortles from across the aisle after take off. “I didn't even realise they did these kinds of shoots for this magazine.”
Lance clears his throat dramatically.
“While Kogane may come across a little distant and disinterested, a roguish smile lights up his undeniably handsome face when our talk moves to his startling appearance at the recent US Open, and it's clear why the nineteen-year-old is a favourite among female fans.”
“Pity he's not interested in any of them,” Hunk mumbles on his other side, and Lance nods solemnly.
“Perhaps not as surprising as it seems,” he continues reading aloud, loudly, “in spite of his ultimate loss, Kogane doesn't hesitate when asked his favourite match to date. ‘Facing off against Shiro so early in my career was unbelievable,’ he says. ‘It was definitely a defining point for me.’”
The shit-eating grin on Lance's face when he looks up is the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for Keith.
“Bet the second you started talking about your big ol’ crush, getting these pics was a shoo-in. Just think of Shiro and flex, eh?”
Keith reaches over to rip the magazine out of Lance's hands, deciding he's had plenty of time now to crush his dignity into the dirt.
“It's literally the funniest fucking thing I've seen in my entire life,” Lance cackles, wiping away false tears.
“Did they ask you to take your shirt off for this too?”
Keith burns, crossing his arms.
He's pretty sure Lance and Pidge don't stop laughing the entire flight to Australia.
Brisbane is oppressively hot throughout the entire tournament, but that favours Keith's Arizona roots, and where others wilt, he thrives. He powers his way to the final and cinches his very first pro title in five brutal sets. Holding the trophy is a surreal experience, and Keith even laughs when the crowd starts calling for his headband. Since his match with Shiro, it's become somewhat of a reluctant tradition, but this time he grins when he flings it up into the stadium seats.
His heart races when he watches Shiro kiss his racquet strings after winning match point at the Hopman final two days later. But only in a professional admiration kind of way, of course.
“You are disgustingly obvious, you know?” Pidge taunts through a mouthful of unbuttered popcorn.
“No I'm not.”
“Keith, buddy,” Hunk sighs, “you know I'm on your side, but you're so close to the screen that I can't even see the presentations.”
Keith shuffles back sheepishly, cheeks pink as they watch the match highlights. He pulls out his phone during the ad break, drifting automatically to Shiro's Instagram to double tap his latest photo upload. He doesn't realise the presence over his shoulder until it's too late.
“How hard was it for you to not just jump his bones courtside at Flushing Meadow?”
“Fuck off, Lance. Why do I even hang out with you guys?”
“Because you love us,” Pidge grins.
“You haven't let success change you,” Hunk offers more sincerely.
“You can't break up the OG Iverson gang,” Lance says, scandalised. “We're like a pack of lions, man.”
“Pride, Lance,” Pidge corrects.
“Aw, I'm proud of you too!”
But Keith snorts his laughter, and the others join in until Iverson's grumpy texts instruct them to sleep ahead of their flight to Melbourne in the morning. In just a few short days, Keith thinks, maybe he’ll find Shiro across the net once more.
While the others deign to sleep in with the Open still a few more days away, Keith rises early to take breakfast before the rest of the hotel wakes. He's halfway through a mouthful of muesli, staring out the window where the tram line stops just beyond, when a voice startles him out of his revelry.
“Hey there, Wild Card.”
He chokes on his spoon, and suddenly world number one Takashi Shirogane is thumping his back, looking concerned as Keith blinks up through tears.
“Woah, sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. Please don't die.”
“It's fine,” Keith wheezes.
“I just saw you sitting on your own and wondered if you'd like some company.”
Keith is still trying to focus on not asphyxiating himself, so he can only bug his eyes in response. Shiro suddenly looks sheepish.
“But of course, if you'd rather eat in peace…”
“No, no,” Keith croaks out, wincing internally at the desperation in his ruined voice. He reaches for his glass to gulp down water in the hopes it might help dislodge the crumbs and remains of his self-respect. “Please… sit.”
Shiro beams, as if the honour is his, and Keith almost suffocates again.
“Nice going in Brisbane.”
With just a few words, they’re back in safe territory and Keith relaxes, if only a little. It's as if Shiro knows how to diffuse his tension immediately.
“Thanks,” he smiles. “Same to you in Perth.”
“Hopman is always fun. You should give it a go next year.”
Keith pulls a face.
“Team stuff is… not my strength,” he admits, as Shiro signals to an attendant for tea.
“Not good at sharing the court?” Shiro asks, amused.
“Something like that. The lack of ranking points doesn't help either.”
“You won't need them next year,” Shiro says confidently, leaning back as the waiter pours his tea.
The words stun Keith for a fraction of a second, before he feels his heart swell at the implication. Shiro might be making a bit of a premature call, but his faith ignites Keith's. He looks down to try to hide his smile until the waiter turns his attention to him.
“And you, sir?”
“Uh, just coffee, thanks.”
“Cappuccino? Flat white?”
“Just… just black straight out of the pot or whatever.”
The waiter gives him a little bemused smile as Shiro covers his mouth to try to hide his laugh as he leaves. Before Keith can ask, Shiro stops him dead in his tracks.
“I saw your article.”
And Keith is not talking about that.
“I saw your selfie with the rats.”
“Quokkas!” Shiro shoots back indignantly, just as Keith realises with horror that he’s just outed himself for Instagram stalking. But then Shiro laughs and Keith can’t help but join him. He can almost forget he’s sitting across the table from the champion of tennis. It’s easy. It’s almost… ordinary. At least for a second.
“Are you planning on staying long after the Open?” he asks after a sip of tea, and it strikes Keith again how bizarre it is that Takashi Shirogane would want to know anything about him or his plans.
“Just a couple of days. My coach makes us book flexi-flights in case we need to go home earlier, but we’re booked for the thirty-first, I think.”
There’s a brightness to his eyes that Keith doesn’t understand, but his heart reacts viscerally to it all the same. He pauses as Keith’s coffee arrives, and waits until they have their privacy before he speaks again.
“Allura and I were thinking of heading out of the city and finding a quiet beach after the final. You should join us.”
Keith focuses hard on swallowing his coffee without inhaling that too.
“Allura Alforson?” he asks, as if there is any other Allura, and he would mentally berate himself if he wasn’t still hearing dial-up sounds echoing in his skull. He tries to compose himself when Shiro hums the affirmative.
“I mean, I don’t have any plans.” A lie — Lance has already decided they’re hitting as many clubs as physically possible while they’re of legal drinking age before they head back to the US. “But I don’t want to intrude.”
The smile Shiro aims at him is kind as he gives a little shake of his head.
“You wouldn’t be,” he assures, and for some reason, Keith believes him. It spreads a shy smile across his face, and he has to look out the window to watch the waking city outside when he replies.
“Okay. Sounds fun.”
Through injuries and absences, and his efforts in Brisbane, Keith finds himself caught up in the seeding system for the Open. It’s a shock to see the number 29 next to his name, and to find himself with a relatively easy first round draw, far away from the highest ranked competitors. Keith quickly does the math. The only way he’ll match up against Shiro is to meet him in the quarter-finals. He doesn’t know whether to be anxious that it will take so long, or disappointed there’s no way they can meet in the final. Either way, he has a goal: make it past the first four rounds, and face him on the court again.
With his mind on the destination, he slams through the first three rounds with little fanfare; just rock solid determination and commitment to Iverson's training and management schedule. But his single-minded focus on Shiro leaves him blind to his fourth round match up until he watches the game that will determine his opponent. Pidge offers her condolences over dinner.
“Remember that time you punched Griffin in the face during the juniors in Texas?”
She’s never been good at condolences.
“Be gentle Pidge,” Hunk tutts. “Facing an old rival is daunting enough.”
“Hey! I’m Keith’s rival.”
“Lance, you don’t even play singles,” Pidge taunts with a loud laugh. “How are you Keith’s rival?”
But Keith isn’t listening as he watches the replay. It’s been nearly a year since he last faced James Griffin, prep asshole extraordinaire, and it wasn’t pretty then either. The bad blood between them has only festered since their days as novices. James had always been the golden child, with parents who bought him the latest gear and sent him to the best training camps. Then there had been Keith; the scrappy kid with sneakers from goodwill that still managed to challenge him regardless. Childish bitterness never managed to evolve beyond the sourness Keith had for his upbringing, nor the frustration Griffin held for the grubby public school kid that managed to keep up with him.
Any hope that their enmity might stay in the past vanishes like smoke when Keith walks onto the court the next day and takes one look at him in his pristine all-white Lacoste get up.
Judging by the way Griffin scowls back, it seems the feeling is still mutual.
They resolutely ignore each other during the warm up, and the handshake before the coin toss is less a sportsmanly gesture and more of stranglehold. Griffin looks disgustingly smug when the call goes his way, and he elects to serve first.
It’s not a pretty game. Power plays and countless slices and drop shots turn it into something aggressive and physical. After pocketing the first set, Keith accidentally lands a forceful body shot that gets the crowd murmuring. He's sure the one Griffin returns on the next point is a little less unintentional. They both call challenges at disturbing frequencies and the third set ends with a rally Keith loses count of after the thirty-third shot. Griffin calls for a medical time out in the break that Keith knows he doesn’t need, and probably just takes to receive some courtside coaching and slow the momentum back in his favour.
Keith loses all his challenges before they even enter the last game of the fourth set. He breaks his first racquet in a fit of frustration when Griffin strikes to level the score to two all.
“Thank you, Kogane,” the chair umpire says curtly as the crowd titters and he stalks back to his bench. “First warning for racquet abuse.”
He’s starting to spiral, he can feel it. Usually he’s so good at keeping his match emotions in check, but there’s just something about Griffin that brings them all to the surface. He takes a pull from his water bottle, trying to settle, but the crowd is still humming after his little spat, and it leaves him restless ahead of the deciding set.
In the middle of the second game, Keith sends a drop shot straight into the net to make it 15-30, and meets with Griffin’s smarmy grin as he pulls up.
“Nice one,” Griffin says, just loud enough for Keith to hear.
“Get fucked, Griffin.”
“Obscenity, Kogane,” the umpire says, because of course she heard him. “This is your second violation. Point penalty. Thirty all.”
It doesn’t get better from there. His frustration simmers when the linesman calls his shot out in the following game, no matter how clearly correct it is. His patience reaches its end when the ballboy on his side of the court fails to bring over his towel during the break. And he loses all his challenges before they make it to the second changeover.
When Griffin breaks his serve to level the set to four all, Keith boils over, and he throws his second racquet into the baseline. The frame shatters on impact with a satisfying crack, but the momentary relief doesn’t last long.
“Third violation for racquet abuse,” the chair umpire states firmly. “Game penalty. Griffin leads the set five to four.”
Keith spins on his heels in anger to face her.
“Are you serious?”
She covers her microphone to lean forward.
“Don’t make it a disqualification, Mr Kogane. Five-four. Griffin’s serve.”
He fumes as he returns to the bench while a ball girl delivers a third racquet to him. Pure frustration carries him to deuce, and when the linesman fails to call Griffin’s clear out, Keith raises his hand to challenge.
“You have no challenges left, Kogane.”
Keith throws his hands in the air, at his wit's end.
“But it was out by a mile!”
“No challenges. Ball called in. Advantage, Griffin.”
And then, salt in the wound.
It’s a nightmare. He’s close. So close. Just a few points away from facing Shiro again. But right now, Griffin is closer.
Griffin goes for the ace, but Keith manages to get a racquet to it out of pure spite, and another brutal rally begins. Griffin has control at the start, making Keith run up and down the baseline, but then Keith manages a beautiful drop shot with backspin that has Griffin sprinting to the net in a panic. He reaches the ball, but he delivers it straight to Keith, who lines up to follow with a powerful slam down the line and—
Keith stares at the spot where the ball bounces in disbelief.
“Game, set, match.”
The bottom drops out of his stomach. It can’t be over. He can’t have lost. He—
Griffin is already at the net, waiting for him. There’s nothing Keith wants to do less right now, but he forces himself to trudge over and give the shortest handshake he can. He avoids the umpire’s eyes and doesn’t say a word when he reaches her. Nor does he utter a sound when he gathers his gear to exit the stadium as fast as humanly possible, or when Iverson meets him to give him a spray before his media appearances. He keeps his interview answers short and sharp, and refuses to give a response when the questions turn to his penalties.
Shiro wins his fourth round match in the evening, and when questions turn to the ugliness of the morning’s match, Keith watches him frown ever so slightly on his phone as he lies in bed.
“I don’t condone the behaviour, of course,” he says, when the press ask him his view. “But I hardly think it’s fair to paint Keith with a certain brush over one match. It’s obvious it was a rather gruelling game, and there’s probably a lot more under the surface that we don’t know about. I don’t think it’s fair for me to make a comment about it.”
“Do you have any words of advice for Kogane at this time?” another journalist asks off-screen.
Shiro pauses thoughtfully.
“Just… stay patient. And don’t give up when a few calls don’t go your way. You have to believe in your game no matter what.”
Keith doesn’t fight when Iverson sends him back to Arizona the next day with a broken screen and a broken heart.
Chapter 2: Game Point
It turns out that a nineteen-hour flight can do a lot to settle one's emotions, but it only one media scrum to bring them back boiling to the surface. Far from feeling a relieving sense of home, walking through the arrivals at Phoenix is like stepping onto an alien planet. A hostile one, at that.
The first flash takes him by surprise. By the fourth or fifth, he gains enough sense to tug his aviators free from the neckline of his shirt and shove them on, pulling his cap a little lower.
“Keith, any words about your fourth round loss?”
“What exactly did James say to you during your match?”
“When can we expect to see you on the court next?”
Keith waits until his apartment door slams behind him and he throws his bags haphazardly down the hall before he turns his phone on again. A flurry of notifications illuminates the cracked screen the moment it connects to the network. There's a single missed call from his mother—she's always been a practical woman—a few texts of concern from Hunk and Pidge, and an assault of emojis from Lance. There's also a number he doesn't know though, sitting at the top of his messages. He deals with the most important thing first.
She's never been one for pet names. No “sweetie” or “honey” or “darling” has ever left Krolia Kogane's lips. But their relationship is amicable. There's a little estrangement that still lingers between them, but that's to be expected. For a large chunk of his childhood, Keith had believed his mother dead, missing in action on overseas deployment. They're years that, for a multitude of reasons, he reflects on as the worst of his life. And it's through no real fault of either party, but there are scars on both hearts that will never truly heal. All things considered, their relationship is still close, even if it would seem to lack affection to an outside observer.
“How was your flight?”
“Horrible,” Keith mutters, hopping through the living room as he pulls off a sneaker. “Long.”
“How are you?”
And isn't that the million dollar question.
“Tired,” he sighs. “I'm just… I'm so tired, mom.”
Krolia pauses. She doesn't coddle him, and for that, Keith is grateful.
“I saw the game,” she says simply as he manages to kick off his other shoe.
For once, he wishes she hadn't. Training new marine-hopefuls keeps her pretty busy, and part of him had hoped time zones might have been too big a barrier to overcome.
“You're better than that, kiddo.”
Oh no, she is being affectionate today. Keith is a little horrified when he hears himself sniff.
“I know,” he says, flopping back onto his bed. ”I just… urgh.”
There's a quiet sigh in his ear, and Keith scrubs the heel of his palm into his eye to stop the way it prickles.
“I'm off base in three days.”
“Mom, it's okay. I—”
“I was going to come down when you got back anyway. If I can't get away to see you play, it's the least I can do.”
Keith relents. He's fought enough today.
“Okay,” he whispers.
When Krolia hangs up, he contemplates ignoring his other notifications to sleep, but the thought of the mystery number keeps him awake. For a moment, he considers deleting it. He's hardly in the mood to deal with whatever requires eight texts in a row without a single response. In the end though, his curiosity gets the better him. At the very least, he'd like to know which nosy reporter got his number.
Unknown Number [23:09]
I hope there are no hard feelings
about the post match press
Keith swallows, already feeling dread seep through him.
Unknown Number [23:13]
Oh, this is Shiro btw
Katie Holt gave me your number
Unknown Number [23:14]
I tried your friend Lance, but he
wanted Allura's number in exchange :/
God, this means they all know too.
Unknown Number [23:42]
Are you there?
Unknown Number [00:09]
Oh, I just heard. You must be flying.
Guess you won't be able to make it
to the beach.
Unknown Number [04:22]
Look, I just wanted to say I'm sorry.
I should have been a little more clever
and passed on the question.
Unknown Number [06:01]
Watch out for the media when you
Bit late for that. But the thought isn't wry. It's stricken.
Unknown Number [06:16]
Anyway, if you ever want to talk
you have my number now.
Keith remembers the last question fielded to him at the airport, the only one he answered, and suddenly he feels sick.
“Keith, any response to Shiro's words of advice in Melbourne?”
He can still picture the moment he turned around, and the look of shock on the reporter's face when he spoke.
“Fuck Takashi Shirogane.”
Keith is down two sponsors and ten thousand dollars in fines from the ATP by the time he makes his way to Abierto Mexicano. He's on his own this time, with coach Iverson electing to accompany the rest of his team to Dubai for the championships there. Keith doesn't mind. He could use the time alone.
To his relief, Shiro doesn't make the trip to Acapulco either. He has enough distractions to deal with without adding a confrontation to his list of woes. The texts he sent had gone unanswered and deleted, and it seemed that Shiro had got the message. If not, the articles doing the rounds on social media about their “spiteful” rivalry the next day had probably done the trick.
He goes down in the quarter-final in Mexico and storms out of the press room when they bring up Melbourne again. He doesn't understand. He's been perfectly well behaved this entire tournament. Quiet on the court. Respectful of his opponents. The crowd though… it feels like something has shifted. His fans are more vocal than ever now, but there’s a hostility that lingers beneath, threatening and foreboding. It makes Keith feel uneasy. Unwelcome. He doesn't know why. He just knows he doesn't like it.
what did u do??
Keith stares at the screenshot below Lance's message for far too long. He doesn't cry, but it's a near thing, frustration itching at his throat and eyes. The new bad boy of tennis, it reads. Shiro's adversary. The hero's foil. The one everyone will love to hate. An upstart who came from nowhere on a mission to take the Champion's crown by force and by dirty measures.
It's unfair, he thinks, as he sits heavily beside his bags, ready for another premature departure. One bad encounter with Griffin, and suddenly he's not the media's Cinderella story any more. Christ, he's only ever faced Shiro once on the court. How does that make them enemies? Why is he the villain in his own story? All he's ever done is fought and struggled to claw his way out of a life that afforded him nothing. Keith isn't self-important enough to believe he deserves anything. But he doesn't think he deserves this.
Congrats on your win
Good luck in the QF
Three weeks later, he's on home turf for the Miami Open, this time with the team by his side. Shiro is in Europe, but he doesn't come away totally unscathed; Griffin is on the schedule, and he's managed to scrape into the seedings. If they both make it far enough to face each other, it will likely be at the pointy end of the Open. Keith prays he bombs out in the first round.
Fresh off of a fourth round win, he hears words over dinner he doesn't expect.
“I'm sorry,” Pidge says out of the blue, and it takes him a moment to realise she's speaking to him. The whole group pauses, making Keith frown.
“What are you talking about?”
Pidge puts down her cutlery, so it must be serious.
“When Shiro found us in the hotel in Melbourne and asked how to contact you, I thought I was doing you a favour. But after we all got back, I realised I shouldn't have meddled."
She doesn't quite meet his eyes.
"And I would be livid if one of you guys gave out my number to someone. It was a really thoughtless move, no matter who was asking.”
Keith glances to Lance and Hunk, realising they look awkward too, and Keith tries to brush it off with a laugh. It sounds forced, even to him.
“It's okay. I'm not angry. Is this why you guys have been acting so weird around me since the Open?”
“N-no,” Pidge reassures, unreassuringly. “It's just, after that video surfaced where you told that reporter fu—”
“It's fine,” Keith interrupts, and it's a little heavy-handed, but he doesn't want to hear his words repeated back to him. He regrets them—he has since the moment he said them—but more than that, his feelings toward Shiro right now are… complicated. He still admires him, he knows that much. But the thought of his post-match conference hurts, even now. The more he dwells, the more he finds the second-hand delivery of his advice insincere and coddling. The more he second guesses every interaction they've had to date. The more his heart fractures all over again.
He feels all too conscious of the silence that has settled over the table, and it makes his mood plummet.
“I thought… maybe you were all trying to distance yourselves from me. Iverson certainly seems to be trying to keep you guys away from the mess I've made for myself.”
He's not stupid. They might have all flown to Florida together this time, but Keith had found himself alone at the front of the plane and then on a different floor in the hotel after check-in. It might be a sign that Iverson is trying to nudge him on to another manager and coach. Perhaps it is time for him to move on. But his three companions look aghast.
“No way dude!”
“Please, my charming good looks would save me from any media shitstorm you send my way.”
Keith rolls his eyes at Lance, but it's a load off his shoulders, at least for now. They're still on his side. He isn't completely alone.
“He talked to me again in Dubai,” Pidge tells him after dinner, when the boys dash off to check out the sauna, with their run in the tournament over.
“Matt's good friends with him, so he told him where to find me. He wanted to know how you were going. I avoided answering, but I just wanted to let you know. I think he feels really guilty. He seemed really worried.”
Keith doesn't know what to make of that, so he pushes it aside with all the rest of his worries to deal with later.
He’s spared meeting Prince Pretentious in the final when Griffin goes down in a tight match to Ryan Kinkade in the semi. Keith doesn't know if he's relieved or disappointed. On the one hand, he doesn't feel ready for the heat another sour match will bring ahead of the next Grand Slam tournament. But on the other, he would have really liked a chance to balance the ledger and hand Griffin's ass to him. Decisively. All wrapped on a silver platter with a little bow on top.
Keith can sense the disappointment when he takes the trophy from Kinkade in straight sets, but by now, he's starting to become numb to it all. He's here for himself, not for anyone else. Adhering to the desired narrative is hardly his prerogative. The thousand point boost catapults him to twelfth in the rankings, and Keith decides his personal goal is to make it to the top ten before Wimbledon. He won't rely on the support of anyone else to get there. Not Iverson, not even his clubmates, not the fans and certainly not the media. If the world has never been on his side before, why would it start now?
He's not so lucky with his draw at the Internazionali d'Italia. He gets his rematch with Griffin in the semi.
“Don't get caught up in your own damn head this time,” Iverson growls as they pass security on the way into the locker rooms.
“Keep your mouth shut, keep your frustration to yourself. You can break as many racquets as you want after the game—where people can't see you.”
The words only work tension into his shoulders and fray his nerves a little more, but he grits his teeth and stays silent. A text from Pidge telling him she'll be in the stands does far more to settle him. It's a favour returned; only a little earlier that afternoon, he had watched her own semi win to send her on her way to her first title final.
It's a full house when Keith walks out, and he's not entirely surprised. The media has been pushing this face off as a grudge match ever since both he and Griffin won their matches yesterday. Tennis might be touted as a refined and cultured sport, but that only means that the fans champ at the bit at the first hint of any bad behaviour. They criticise and condemn, but only because they take glee in the drama.
Keith knows now, bitterly, it's their favourite part.
He takes some comfort in the fact that the crowd doesn't seem to favour Griffin when he joins him on the court. Perhaps they lay as much of the blame for their last match on him too. Or perhaps they're just waiting with bated breath in the hope that this game will be as much of a trainwreck as the last.
Keith does his best to disappoint them. He's polite when he shakes Griffin's hand at the net and stays silent except to indicate he'll take the first serve when the coin toss goes his way. When play commences, he keeps all emotion out of his expression and off his tongue. Instead, he channels all his ill will toward his opponent into his serve.
Griffin is the first to voice his frustration when Keith breaks his serve for the second time in the first set to bring the score to 4-0. Keith is not in the mood for clemency though, and fires another two aces on his next service game to push it out to 5-0. Griffin finally manages to take a game in the next, but it's the only one he gets before Keith ties up the first set 6-1 just ahead of the thirty-minute mark.
It's a far cry from their Australian Open match up. Griffin has no snide remarks or smug looks for him this time, and Keith puts it down to him being a terrible loser. He doesn't care. He already has eight aces to his name so far, and he has no plans on slowing down. The sooner he can leave this court with a win, the better.
He's no less brutal in the second set, and Griffin shouts into his hands when Keith runs him around the court on his own serve to break his game straight out of the gate. The crowd seem to be finding their voice now after an uneventful first set, emboldened by the cracks in Griffin's mask. This is, after all, why they are here; to see which one of them will snap first. While the odds are favourable to him, it makes Keith resentful. They're not a spectacle, they're athletes. But it seems the crowd is happy to forget that little detail. Drama trumps the result.
If Griffin hopes that might inspire some mercy, he's sure to find himself disappointed. Keith does his best to run him ragged, aiming cross-court at every opportunity, even if it does mean the occasional unforced error. It's working. After the set blows out to 5-2 in Keith's favour, Griffin calls for a medical time out. Keith scoffs loudly, drawing a glare from the other side of the court as Griffin dons a dramatic limp back to his bench. This is just typical. He pulled the exact same stunt back in Melbourne when the game was in the balance, granting himself a chance to regroup with his coach. This time, he's just abating the slaughter, with the match completely out of his control.
Keith watches skeptically as he drinks from his water bottle while the doctor straps Griffin's knee. Griffin catches the look and scowls.
“Got something to say, Kogane?” he asks, loud enough that the stands behind them start murmuring in interest.
Keith takes his time finishing his drink and screwing the cap back on.
“Just real convenient how you keep calling for medical breaks when your game gets away from you,” he says flippantly.
“Are you accusing me of cheating, asshole?!”
Keith lifts his shoulders in a casual shrug that is anything but implicit.
“Gentlemen,” the chair umpire interrupts. “Thank you.”
When they return to the court, Keith holds Griffin to love to tie up the set in just a few minutes and extend his lead to a comfortable 2-0. Keith rolls his eyes as he makes a show of hopping to the bench yet again. Griffin takes full advantage of the break, only hobbling back to his side of the court when the chair umpire calls a second warning for time. There are some cheers of encouragement—he's certainly garnered the sympathetic vote—but then a loud, obnoxious voice rises above the others in the crowd.
“Put him in the ground, Kogane! Rottura!”
Keith straightens from his readied position with a frown, catching Griffin's stunned expression for half a moment as he looks into the stands for the source of the voice. He shakes his head pointedly as the chair umpire asks for silence. No… he doesn't want any of that. Not even Griffin deserves open hostility to try to put him off his serve. If this is the kind of fans he attracts, Keith would rather be without entirely.
It's clear Griffin is rattled, because he opens the set with a double fault. It doesn't get any better, and despite his best attempts, Keith breaks his serve again to land the first game of the third. Griffin waves for the doctor once more and heads straight back to the bench. With a little guilt, it dawns on Keith that his original evaluation of his knee… well, it might have been slightly wrong. Griffin winces and leans back to cover his eyes as the doctor manipulates his leg to assess his movement. When his coach walks up to the umpire with a grim look, Keith feels his stomach twist. He knows what's coming.
“Griffin has retired due to injury. The match goes to Kogane.”
It's a muted sort of applause that follows; the kind that is more for the loser than the winner. Keith dreads the post-match press.
“Keith,” the first reporter starts, after he sits down showered and fresh off of another stern talk from Iverson about sportsmanship, “during your match, you seemed to take issue with James’ medical time outs. Can you explain what happened there?”
It's as bad as he expected. He tries to answer carefully.
“I simply pointed out that he required a medical break during our last match. That's all.”
It's not the entire truth, but it's close enough.
“Do you think players shouldn't be entitled to see a doctor on the court if they suspect they might be injured?”
Keith scowls, his already tender mood curdling instantly.
“That's a rather stupid question, don't you think?”
“Keith,” another interjects, “it seems like there's a bit of history between you two. Could you describe your relationship with James?”
Keith is officially not in the mood to be here anymore.
“Whatever feelings Griffin has for me are one-hundred percent mutual, so you're better off asking him.”
“You played a rather physical game, even after James started showing signs of stress. Do you think your style of play contributed to his injury?”
“I'm not going to roll over and let my opponent win just because they're in a bit of pain and I feel sorry for them.”
Keith thinks the scowl on his face is going to be permanent after this.
“Am I responsible? You've got to be joking.”
“But do you think—”
“No,” he says decisively as he stands. “Thanks, we're done here. I have a final to prepare for. You lot can brainstorm more shitty questions for me ready for tomorrow's interviews.”
Keith ignores Iverson's spray in the elevator on the way up to their hotel rooms. Pidge stays silent too until their coach departs on his floor, then suddenly her arms are around him, squeezing tight.
“You handled that better than I would have,” she says quietly, letting go when the elevator doors open again on their level. She ignores his scoff. “You don't have to come tomorrow if you're not up for it.”
“And miss out on watching you kick ass in your first final?” Keith replies with a smile that doesn't sit quite right. “I'd rather front a thousand post-match conferences than do that.”
Pidge grins, punching him gently in the arm. In spite of everything, she's excited, he can tell. He won't let the cloud that surrounds him bring her down.
“I am going to kick ass. You will too. Show those doofuses who's boss tomorrow.”
His smile disappears after she bids him goodnight her door closes behind him. It marks the start of another restless night for him, but for all the wrong reasons. Where once, the excitement of tomorrow would keep him awake, now only dread keeps him company in the night.
In the morning, there are already articles circling about the match and Griffin's medial tear. The media describe it as an icy and unforgiving encounter, marred with accusations of cheating by the winner. Keith can tell from the headlines and the images alone that the press aren't afraid to imply he's to blame for all of it. Resisting the urge to shatter another screen, he shuts off his phone before he can read through a single one.
He watches Pidge win her final, proud as hell, and in the evening, she watches him win his. It feels a little like she's the only one who's happy for him, but Keith is past the point of caring. He barely even feels the sting of the disappointment that surrounds him as he collects his trophy. The points bring him up to number 7 in the rankings, well ahead of his goal to make it into the ten before Wimbledon. That's all that matters. Not the money, not the fame, not the glory.
Keith has never been to Paris before. So when Lance calls it the city of love, he can only take his word for it, though he has his doubts. It seems rather stupid to believe that any single geographical location could inspire an innate sense of infatuation or romantic fulfilment. And if it does, Keith thinks that’s probably more than enough cause to begin investigations into the water supply. At a minimum.
Those doubts become rock solid when it takes Lance less than twenty-four hours to toss a copy of Vogue Paris on their table at lunch and flop directly into Keith's lap.
“My life is over!” he declares theatrically, throwing a hand over his face. “My heart is broken!”
Keith doesn't have time for the personal space lecture.
“Get off me, you idiot,” he grumbles, and Lance yelps as he shoves him off onto the floor.
“What happened?” Pidge asks mildly, though she doesn't bother to look up from her phone.
Hunk is the one to pull the magazine over to look a little more closely.
“Oh man,” he sympathises. “Sorry pal.”
He glances up to Keith while Lance climbs into the seat beside him.
“Same to you too.”
Keith leans forward, and frowns immediately when he sees. He crosses his arms as he throws himself back into his chair.
“Don't see how that affects me.”
“The princess of tennis,” Lance bemoans, far too loud to be polite, “and her faithful champion. Her champion. Does this sound to you like what it sounds like to me?”
“Sounds like they're saying Allura and Shiro are banging,” Pidge says crassly through a mouthful of salad, and Keith hates the little thud his heart gives. “This is the oldest rumour in the book. They've been playing it down for years. I don't know why you're so cut.”
“Tell me you don't think it's true,” Lance pleads, but Pidge only shrugs.
“Shiro is notoriously private,” and then, because Lance obviously looks pathetic enough when she glances up, “if it is true, he hasn't mentioned it to Matt.”
Keith quiet sigh of relief is involuntary and unwelcome, but it's mercifully hidden under Lance's exaggerated heave. He scowls down at his coffee, trying to shut down the confusing feelings that bubble in his chest at the sight of the glossy cover. Even if Shiro was single—not that he cares, mind you—there's no telling if he would be… Keith inclined.
Attracted to men, his mind supplies bluntly. Like you.
It's not as if it's secret. At least, not to the people sitting at the table with him. And it's not that he's uncomfortable in his sexuality... Well, mostly — but he's comfortable being uncomfortable with the greyer areas of his own identity. The thing is, it's not exactly anyone else's business if he doesn't want it to be. And he really, really would rather keep his own business to himself. He's glad it's one facet the media hasn't stuck their nose into yet. The last thing he wants is to be hounded over his non-existent love life when he already cops enough shit about his professional one as it is.
Objectively, yes, Shiro looks great on that cover. And yes, objectively, maybe Keith finds him terribly impressive and talented, even if he still thinks he might feel a little betrayed about what happened in Australia. Objectively, Shiro is kind of amazing. But that doesn't mean he suddenly wants to run his fingers through that stupid fringe of his, or hear how his name sounds in his soft low voice or feel the warmth of his skin as he wraps his arms around his—
Keith stands abruptly, jolting the table and drawing everyone's attention. He's had enough coffee, he decides.
“Gonna go hit the practice courts,” he mumbles.
Lance still manages to get a dig in despite being deep in the throes of mourning.
“Need to whack a ball or two, huh buddy?”
Keith doesn't even glance back as he flips him off over his shoulder.
He makes it as far as court one before he hears a familiar voice.
“Hey! Wild Card!”
And he spins on his heels, rushing back the way he came without so much as returning Shiro's wave.
“I hate clay courts,” Pidge grumbles when she's the first eliminated from the qualifying rounds of the French Open. Keith can't blame her. His game is all about firepower and speed, and while he could run for hours, his defence is… well, it needs work. The clay is a cruel surface, slowing his shots and killing his aces. He hasn't mastered the slide it provides under his feet either. He's already ruined one tank top by overshooting and careening face first into the baseline. (And, to his chagrin, Lance had somehow managed to upload a loop of his splat across all of his social media accounts before the match had even finished.)
Keith knows he's at a disadvantage. He's had far too many close calls, and not one match wrapped in straight sets yet, despite his seeding. Making it to the final will require a small miracle.
Hunk and Lance, by contrast, are excelling. Their defensive style works well for the court. Lance is their sharpshooter—self-designated, Keith rebukes the title—while Hunk plays the role of their shield, stopping the long groundstrokes from breaking through.
“Maybe you just need some time with the clay court specialists,” Lance grins, finger guns included.
Keith takes one look at Pidge's unimpressed face, sucks on his finger, then sticks it directly in Lance's ear. If her cackle wasn't enough reward, the high pitched squeal Lance gives certainly suffices.
Keith scrapes into the semi-final by the skin of his teeth, taken to five sets and a tiebreaker by veteran player Adam Wilson. Iverson gives him the following day off to recover, so Keith enters the stadium with Pidge as a spectator for the match that will determine his semi-final opponent: Matthew Holt versus Takashi Shirogane.
With his hair tucked into his cap and a pair of Lance's disgustingly oversized sunglasses, neither of them garner much attention from the people around them, and that's the way Keith wants it. Pidge is here for her brother, but she promises to keep a tight lid on her cheering so they can fly under the radar. Keith doesn't know who he's here for. He's beaten Matt before but, God, what he would give for a chance to finally claim a victory over the world number one.
Where his sister struggles on clay, Matt thrives. He's good at the long game and his footwork is perfect… but anyone would be hard pressed to find a player more patient than Shiro. Matt provides a challenge, but Shiro's drop shots are frequent and fatal. By the time they're midway through the fifth set, the outcome seems certain.
“I think Matt's out of this,” Pidge mutters to him, disappointed, but Keith doesn't hear, watching Shiro with a frown. He's seen him roll his right shoulder a couple of times before his serve during the match. This time though, when he wins his next point, he reaches up to squeeze at it for a fraction of a moment.
“Shiro's done something to his rotator cuff,” Keith says quietly.
He does it again, right after he breaks Matt serve, and Pidge hums beside him in acknowledgement.
“It's been a long match,” she muses. She's not wrong; they're well into hour four on the court. “Might just be a bit of soreness. Matt looks pretty knackered out there too.”
Instinctually though, Keith feels it's something more. When Shiro seals match point a little shy of fifteen minutes later, there's something not quite right about the smile that returns to his face.
It's confirmed a little under half an hour later when Keith and Pidge head down to watch the post-match interviews on the locker room TVs. Shiro arrives for the press first, with his shoulder strapped to hell and back and a sad smile that can only mean one thing.
“Unfortunately I'm going to have to withdraw from tomorrow's semi,” he says once he's settled in his seat, looking contrite. “I was starting to feel my shoulder a bit in that last set in particular. The doctor says it's okay, but from a management position, I need to keep it rested if it's to stay that way.”
“Can we expect to see you at Wimbledon?”
Shiro smile grows a little warmer as he nods.
“That's the plan, yes.”
Keith can feel the mood in the room lighten simply watching the broadcast. It’s no wonder the media loves Shiro; he can play them like a fiddle.
“Are you disappointed you won't be able to go for a third Grand Slam sweep this year?” another reporter asks.
“Of course,” Shiro replies in good nature. “I feel bad for Matt. If I had known what I know now, maybe I would have retired before the match ended so at least one of us could advance. And I'm disappointed I won't get to face Keith again tomorrow, but I'm sure he'll appreciate the advantage of a walkover to the final. He could easily take the Open with or without it. Hopefully I'll be able to give him his rematch on the grass court instead.”
Keith feels a frustrating little flip under his ribs at the mere mention of his name. But it doesn't last.
“Speaking of Kogane,” a voice offscreen begins, and Keith knows this won't be good, “this is the second time in as many tournaments that he's lost an opponent to injury. He actually didn't seem to take it too well in Rome. In fact, there have been some reports that he accused his opponent of using medical time to try to garner an advantage rather than for a genuine assessment.”
“That's not even a question,” Pidge growls quietly beside him. There's a small pause where Shiro seems to wait for one too, before he decides to laugh it off. The sound wraps around Keith's throat and tightens.
“I mean, Keith is more than welcome to join me for my check up to see for himself. I might need to hold someone's hand. I don't do well with needles.”
The laughter from the press comes through clearly from the speakers, and Keith feels hot tears spring to his eyes in response. He grits his teeth. It's a stupid thing to get upset over, but Shiro seems content to play along with the media. Some part of him hoped that maybe Shiro would have moved the questioning along with a firm word. That maybe—maybe—that smile would have cracked and he might have defended him. Or might say that the media was painting a narrative they wanted. All Keith wants is to be left alone.
“Gonna head back,” he mutters quietly, as Shiro wraps up on the screen and stands. “You should stick around for Matt's interview. Make sure he walks you back to the hotel and tell him I look forward to our match tomorrow.”
Pidge nods. She can tell when he needs his space.
“Yeah.” Not really. “Text me when you're in your room so I know you got back safe.”
“Yes, Mom,” she replies mockingly.
Keith rolls his eyes, but it earns a little smile out of him and Pidge grins back.
“Don't obsess. Who cares what Shiro thinks.”
“Everyone,” Keith replies flatly, but the words still leave him in better spirits as he heads for the door.
He doesn't obsess, but he does reflect as he walks through the halls under the stadium. Perhaps he is being a little sensitive. Shiro could have said far worse, and in the end, it was probably the best lighthearted dismissal he could come up with on the spot. Keith doesn't expect him to put the media off-side just for him. They barely know each other after all. He owes him nothing.
Keith nods to the security guard as he passes by out onto the open street, burying his hands in his pockets. Maybe he should just talk to Shiro. Clear the air between them. In the end, he's the only one who has been openly hostile, even if only for a snap second response to a reporter on the other side of the world. Perhaps that offer to talk still stands.
Keith hears a shout from the guard behind him, bringing his attention up from his feet. It's only then he notices the figure coming directly toward him in the dark. They start to run.
“Tu ne seras jamais aussi bon que Shiro, connard! ”
Keith doesn't understand the words, save for Shiro's name, but he does feel the switchblade that catches his jaw on the upslice as he reels back in surprise. The stranger falls to the pavement in the next instant, tackled down by two of the stadium's security personnel. Keith brings a hand up to his cheek absently, feeling wetness flood his palm and dribble between his fingers. An instant chill shoots down his spinal column, but he doesn't feel any pain. Actually, he doesn't feel much of anything. Huh…
He releases his face to stare at his hand, red and hot and sticky.
One of the guards says something into his radio as his partner subdues the attacker. Something about police and ambulance and immédiatement. The warmth runs like a river down his neck.
“What's going on here?”
Hot and seeping into his shirt and speckling the ground beneath him.
Something presses against his face a moment later, but Keith is starting to feel sick. Faint.
“Keith, what happened?”
His vision begins to tunnel. Sound warbles like he's listening to world from underwater. Distantly, he knows he should be concerned, but it's almost as if his worries bleed out with the rest of him too. He can't feel the pavement under his shoes, he realises, as gravity whispers sweet seduction. Only the slowing thud of his heart as everything else fades away.
"Keith, no, no... talk to me. Stay with me..."
It's dark here, he thinks to himself.
Chapter 3: Set Point
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He must only black out for a minute at most, because Keith opens his eyes to the same place, but he's on the ground, cradled in a firm grip with a heartbeat racing next to his ear. He can't see past the towel pressed to his cheek, but the body beside him is warm and comforting. Enough to stave the chill trying to sink into his bones. Perhaps he tries to move, because the hold tightens and a soft voice shushes him gently.
“It's okay,” they soothe, but panic sits at the edges of their voice. “The ambulance will be here soon. You're going to be okay.”
Keith isn't sure who they're trying to convince more.
“Don't speak,” the voice interrupts. “Just keep your face still until the doctor has had a look.”
Keith closes his eyes again and the arm around him shifts so whoever cradles him can take his hand. Slowly, his senses creep back in until they're almost overwhelming. His face feels like it's on fire. The artificial light behind his eyelids is glaring. And now, he can hear sirens in the distance, wailing painfully as they get closer.
“Are you comfortable? Squeeze once for yes, twice for no.”
Keith grunts. How comfortable can you be when your face has been split open? Still, he feels safe, calm here. He squeezes once.
“Does it hurt?”
Keith squeezes hard and long.
“Okay, stupid question, I get it.”
The chest under his unharmed cheek heaves ever so slightly, and the heartbeat inside starts to even out. They're trying to stay calm, for him. A gentle thumb runs back and forth over his knuckles in an attempt at comfort; a centrepoint to focus on. It's kind of nice. A tender gesture that draws his senses back from a cliff's edge and hushes his hyperfocus into something with softer borders. It lets him sink away from the chaos in favour of the dull thud of the stranger's steady pulse. Keith opens his eyes to try to look up again, but the streetlights overhead blind what little range of vision he does have. He still can't see a face, but he can see the dark stains on the shirt by his head. He makes a little distressed sound in his throat, attempting to reach for the material. Whoever it is holds his hand steady.
“Got plenty of others, don't worry.”
He feels them shift as the sirens suddenly cut out.
“Looks like your ride's here.”
Then there's a flurry of movement around him only a moment later. He's swept away from comforting arms and up onto a gurney before he can even process the movement around him. Cold hands, smaller hands, press something over his nose and mouth that makes the air taste sweet and limns the corners of his vision in soft light as the streetlamps flare and fade. He settles quietly into nothingness again, just for a little while.
Keith wakes with six stitches in his cheek and the news that there's no chance he'll play in the semi-final. Pidge arrives early in the morning, wide-eyed and pale to sit by his bedside until it's time for Matt to play in an unorthodox game of lucky losers to avoid a complete walk over in the cup final. Today, her brother will get a second chance at at Grand Slam glory—one stolen from Keith. She doesn't know what to say. Neither does he. They both fall prey to an uncomfortable silence that sits like a thickening fog between them.
Hunk and Lance arrive later in the afternoon, fresh off of defeat. Keith can't help but feel it's his fault, even when they take pains to assure him that the thought of him in his hospital bed didn't affect their play. Iverson confirms Keith's doubts when he finally appears after the boys have left.
“I think it's time for you to find another coach.”
Keith seethes. He could see it coming from a mile away, but it still hurts.
“It's nothing personal kid, but no matter how gifted you are, I have to keep the best interests of the team in mind. They have promising careers too. I can't have you distracting them like this anymore.”
“Like what?” he snarls, cheek smarting as his stitches pull tight. “You think I asked for this? Do you think I meant to nearly lose an eye to some crazy asshole just to throw everyone off their game?”
But Iverson holds firm, looking as exhausted as Keith feels.
“You know why I'm doing this, Keith.”
They dissolve their contract then and there in the ward with little fanfare. Keith doesn't even bother trying to offer Iverson more money. He knows that's not what this is about. It still makes the pill no less bitter. Iverson offers his hand and Keith imagines what it would feel like to ball his fist and take a swing at his coach— ex-coach instead. Maybe, he thinks for just a moment, there would be some relief transforming his grief into something tangible like black eyes and bruised knuckles. The handshake goes wasted when Iverson realises it won't be returned, and Keith waits until he's gone before he pulls his pillow up to his tender face and screams.
He learns a little more about what happened from the news pieces that surface in the hours before he's discharged. His attacker is simply a patron from the stadium. One that had seen Keith go down into the locker room and waited over an hour for him to emerge. Someone, as one enthusiastic journalist uncovers, with a colourful past and rather impressive rap sheet of misdemeanours. A Shiro fanatic, if the private social media screenshots dragged into the global conversation are to be believed. Shiro is “devastated” supposedly. Boo fucking hoo.
His phone trills as he signs his outpatient's forms with a stiff plaster on his face and a fistful of antibiotics and shitty painkillers that won't upset WADA and the ITF.
Unknown number [15:11]
Hey, it's Shiro. I just wanted to
check how you were. I'm so
sorry about what happened. I
feel sick about it all. I'd really
like to talk if that's okay?
Keith blocks the number.
At Charles de Gaulle, Keith finally sees the first opinion column about how he might have provoked his attacker. He drinks enough whisky at the departure gate that security feel compelled to force him onto a later flight while he sobers up.
The media catch wind, like they always do. Phoenix is a bloodbath when he lands.
Having no coach suits him, Keith thinks. He works harder than ever, and the slip at the airport is his last. He stays out of the public eye, watches his scar heal into a clean pink line up his cheek. He plans his own travel well in advance and books a motel away from central London that he's certain no one else will look at twice. From there, it's just eat, sleep, train, repeat. Self-motivation has always come easy when he has a goal in mind and right now, Keith has one that is rock solid.
He's going to crush Shiro at Wimbledon, and anyone else who stands in his way.
His arrival into Gatwick comes with no fanfare. It seems keeping his whereabouts secret is far easier when he's alone. He knows his old team will make the trip too, but he has no idea when they're travelling, or even where they're staying. It's entirely by his own doing. Since Paris, he hasn't spoken a word to any of them. Pidge had been the last to stop trying to call three days ago, sending one last text to tell him to contact her once he can “manage to extract head from ass,” verbatim.
Keith knows the new scar is shocking to see. His first pre-tournament appearance proves as much when he arrives for his allocated slot in the promotional shoot. The photographer gulps when she catches sight of it, then busies herself with the lighting in a poor attempt to cover. Keith just rushes through it as quickly as possible, until he catches sight of a familiar flash of black hair and grey eyes coming up the hall.
“We're done,” he says, scooping up his racquet and bag before Shiro can call out to him.
When the officials announce the draw, Keith maps out his path to the final of the tournament. It's only there at the very end that Shiro's draw intercepts with his. So that's all there is to it. He'll get his rematch when—not if, when—they face off for the trophy.
He takes the same approach on the court as he does off of it. He's cold, uncompromising. The sweatbands stay on at the end of his matches now, and the media are lucky if they get more than a few words out of him at a time. He refuses to answer questions about Paris, or his lack of coach... or the mounting uniform code violations to his name. First (annoyingly) the soles of his shoes, then (understandably) a red bandana and finally (bafflingly) his underwear of all things when it peeks out in grey through his shorts. Keith decides he hates the stupid white rule when he scrubs the grass stains out of his only white shirt for the fourth match in a row.
He doesn't drop a single set all the way through the early rounds though. The stories finally move away from the speculation over his bloody encounter outside Roland Garros, and back to his game and the buzz surrounding his ruthless style of play. It hits fever pitch when he sets his place in the final in stone with a decisive 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 victory. Shiro follows him in with a tight win over world number two Lotor Sincline. And so it goes exactly as planned. Well, from a game perspective anyway.
Keith spends the day's break before the final desperately trying to get a rather stubborn grass stain out of his shirt, cursing the dress code and the entire All England Lawn Tennis and Racquet Club. After a solid forty minutes of scrubbing to no avail, Keith finally throws in the towel. Armed with his bulkiest jacket, glasses and hair pulled into a ponytail, he finds the nearest athletics store, grabs the first white shirt he sees and leaves. It's not until he's back in his motel room and hanging the damn thing up that he sees the black stripe that circles the material at the waist. Whatever. The court can just deal with it.
It's a much different feeling to the first time. Revising strategy, rather than excitement and nerves, is the root of his insomnia. Adrenaline and the promise of caffeine are reliable motivators in the morning though, and the strain of lost sleep is forgotten by the time he jumps in the cab to the stadium. He shoves his headphones on to avoid talking to anyone on his way down to the locker rooms. There, he stretches, checks his gear, blasts through his pre-match press. His phone buzzes but he ignores it in favour of dressing in his tennis whites and going through his game plan to shut down Shiro's serves. It's almost a relief when the officials call him up for his match. At this point, he just wants this over and done with as soon as possible.
As the lower ranked player, he’s the first out on the court, and he drowns out the crowd, giving the bare minimum wave before he dumps his gear on his bench. He’s already practising his serve by the time they announce his opponent, and the crowd swells immediately. But of course they do.
Takashi Shirogane. World number one 184 weeks and counting. Master of the court and the media’s golden boy. Only twenty-five, and well on his way to being the greatest of all time.
Keith completely and utterly hates him.
Keith takes note of the shoulder strapping peeking out from under his collar as he puts down his bag and joins him on the court. They exchange a couple of warm-up hits before the chair umpire calls time — after all, hatred doesn’t amount to disrespect, and Keith doesn’t want to be accused of unsportsmanlike behaviour before the final even begins. The handshake he gives at the net is brief and silent. Shiro shifts on his feet. If he’s uncomfortable, Keith doesn’t care. He’s had more than his own share of discomfort thanks to him. But when the toss goes Keith’s way, he hesitates a moment, remembering their first match at the US Open last year.
“... I’ll serve second.”
It’s almost worth it just to see the shocked look on Shiro’s face.
He doesn’t stick around for any words his opponent might have, shedding his jacket and tossing it to the nearest ball boy on his way down to the baseline. At the opposite end of the court, Shiro pockets a ball and bounces the other, and the crowd goes still.
Keith remembers, when he still played out of love instead of spite, how it used to be his favourite part.
He has one goal for this first game: don’t let Shiro serve an ace. Keith knows this is as much a mental game as a physical one. Getting a racquet to the ball is paramount, no matter where it goes. If Shiro can’t break through early, it will weigh on him for the rest of the game.
It seems to work. At 15-30, Keith slices back what should be a guaranteed winner and Shiro clearly doesn’t expect it, lunging and missing to bring them to 15-40 and break point in the first game. He serves into the net for his first fault immediately after. The crowd mumbles softly, a little surprised, but Keith doesn’t even straighten out of his stance. He watches the face of Shiro’s racquet carefully and reaches for the centre when he serves true this time. Shiro holds him on the return, sending it back cross-court. But Keith is still fresh, and his best defence is his offence, so he rushes to it to slam it back down the line.
There’s a raucous cheer that follows—for what he lacks in fan numbers, they certainly make up for in noise—but Keith doesn’t celebrate. Even if it’s a break, it’s only one game. There are far more left to go. He holds his serve in the next, and Shiro takes them to their first changeover at 1-2. The chair umpire stops Keith on the way to the bench though with an announcement.
“Kogane will be required to change his shirt before time.”
Keith jogs over with a frown.
"You can’t be serious.”
She covers the microphone with her hand and leans down to speak with him.
“The black strip does not adhere to the ‘mostly white’ rule. You’re playing a final, Keith. You are expected to obey the club’s guidelines.”
He tries not to get frustrated. It will only affect his game.
“I don’t have another shirt,” he hisses. “What would you have me do?”
“Find one,” she says, unsympathetic. “Speak with the officials if you must.”
Keith huffs, turning on his heel, but a loud whistle in the crowd draws his attention.
He would recognise that voice anywhere, even if the owner wasn’t up against the rails whipping a shirt above his head. A white shirt. God, he’s never going to live this down.
“Ran back to get you this the second you stepped on the court,” Lance says when Keith waves away security as he walks up to the seating.
“You owe me.”
“Thanks,” Keith mumbles, eyes down.
The stadium erupts into wolf-whistles and cheers as Keith sheds his shirt, and he resists the urge to roll his eyes. He does sigh when he looks at Lance’s shirt though. It’s a polo. He hates polos.
It’s a little tight and the collar itches, but it will have to do. Throwing it on, he runs to make it to the baseline with barely a second to spare before he can incur a time penalty. At the other end, Shiro looks a little flushed, and Keith frowns. God, he hopes his shoulder isn’t giving him grief. Keith wants to be able to claim this win fair and square. He takes the next game with little challenge to bring them back to Shiro’s serve at 1-3.
Shiro double faults on the first point and loses the next to a fiery backhand return that has the crowd shouting desperate words of encouragement in the lulls between play. But Keith breaks him again, this time to love, and the score blows out to 1-4. The champion seems to recover after that, breaking Keith’s serve back, but they both hold to end at 4-6, and Keith continues his Wimbledon run of no dropped sets into the first of the final.
The second set is tighter, but Keith comes through to avoid a tiebreaker at 5-7 and take the lead out two to nothing. Keith tries to ignore the way his heart pounds against his ribs, tries to fight back the excitement that tries its best to bloom in his chest and ignite the passion he once had. One more set, and he will be a Grand Slam Champion. A Wimbledon Champion. That doesn't matter, he tells himself. He's just here to stop Shiro and silence the journalists and naysayers once and for all.
Shiro still wears the same stony expression, but there's something different there this time. There's steel in his eyes that sends a little chill through Keith's veins as he prepares to serve. This is a Shiro on the ropes, Keith realises. It's something he's never faced before.
The ball flies past him before he can even get his racquet up. It's not Shiro's first ace for the match, but it's probably his most important. Keith can't deny that he feels unsettled.
It's just the first point. Don't lose your nerve.
He spends the entire set chasing him though, and they both hold serve until tiebreak. They're well into hour three of their match, and Keith can feel the sweat bead on his face and neck, dripping onto the baseline as he looks down at his racquet. It's nine points apiece already, and he's starting to feel frustrated. He just needs to hold his serve and break Shiro's once, then this can be all over.
Instead, he double faults. He turns and covers his face so the cameras and the crowd won't see his lips form the curses on his tongue.
Shiro tries to end the tiebreak with another devastating ace, but Keith throws himself at it blindly, feeling the twang as the ball connects with the strings. Through no small miracle, the return stays in. Shiro is there to slice it back so Keith has to sprint across the baseline to meet it with an outstretched forehand. He lifts his head to watch Shiro and his eyes widen as he sees him step back to wait for the ball to bounce. Keith knows what's coming. The drop shot is precise and lands high in the opposite corner of his court, but Keith is already sprinting for it. When Shiro slams his return, Keith volleys it back by the net once, twice on pure reflex, and the stadium gets a little louder. Shiro attempts to go for another winner by sending it long down the line. Keith sprints again to meet it and returns with an over-the-shoulder shot on the baseline that makes a cry go up in the crowd. Keith turns just in time to see Shiro rushing to meet it and tap it down. He can feel his heart in his mouth, he thinks his lungs might explode and his legs simply give out under him. Giving up isn't an option though. Desperate, he dives… but the ball soars past him as he eats the grass. The crowd roars.
“Set. Kogane leads two sets to one.”
Keith takes a moment to pant into the ground, bitterly disappointed, before he moves his shaking arms under himself to push back up onto his knees. There's a rather impressive streak of green across Lance's shirt now. So much for all-white. His elbows and knees smart with grass burn too, but he has to ignore it. He looks to the scoreboard, as if to remind himself. It's the first set he's dropped during the entire tournament. Two sets to one, in his favour. With two more chances to seal the match, the advantage is still his. He just needs to take a breath and fight his way through one last time.
They're just shy of their fifth hour when Shiro takes the fourth set 6-4 and Keith can feel his path crumbling under his feet. He's shattered; he can't remember ever being this exhausted in his entire life. Keith knows his game style is better suited for shorter matches played at a brutal pace. He's an attacking player, not an endurance one. But at least Shiro is finally starting to fatigue too. The aces are fewer and far between, and they're both making more unforced errors. Despite being rather silent players, sounds of exertion echo from either side of the court with every hit. But the resolve never wavers. They both refuse to let surefire winners sail past without challenge and Keith runs until his legs no longer feel like a single entity with the rest of his body.
They both break each other's serve only once to take them to tiebreak again for the decider. Keith feels like the one who's broken though. Two sets ago, two hours ago, this match was his for the taking. Now every serve, every return, every error is the difference between his victory or Shiro's. He's beating himself up at every turn, and it shows. His game is desperate, reckless, and Shiro breaks him early to jump out three points to his two with the serve in his hand. Most importantly, he now holds Championship Point. Keith wants to be sick.
Shiro serves safe, despite the temptation of an ace, but even reaching that is a herculean effort. It feels like the racquet could fall out of his hand at the slightest breeze, and that his body might just crumple under him at any given moment. The rally might last a thousand shots, it might only last three — Keith doesn't know. But it ends when the ball whispers past the edge of his racquet right on the baseline. Keith throws his hand up in challenge, because he has to, and the entire stadium holds its breath as the hawkeye runs its assessment.
Just the slightest touch of the very outer edge of the baseline. But in.
Keith falls to his knees instantly, and distantly he sees Shiro do the same on the other side of the net as the crowd erupts. But where Shiro sinks in relief and elation, Keith just feels bone crushing heartbreak. He had this. It was his. And he let it slip through his fingers.
While Shiro kisses his racquet’s strings, Keith uses the handle of his to keep himself upright as he gulps down uneven breaths. He won't cry. He won't cry. Even if his shoulders shake and his throat burns, it doesn't count if he doesn't shed a tear.
He must spend too long like that, because a doctor comes to his aid, and Keith has to shake him off as he rises, trembling, to his feet. At the net, Shiro already waits for him. He's tired too, that much is clear, but the smile is back on his face and it stings.
A come-from-behind fairytale win. Pity it isn't his.
“Great game, Wild Ca—”
“Don't call me that,” Keith interrupts in a hiss as they shake hands. He keeps his voice quiet that no one else would ever hear them over the crowd. “I made it here on my own merit. This wasn't a free ride.”
Shiro's eyes go wide.
“I didn't mean—”
“Congratulations,” Keith says flatly, letting go and ending their conversation then and there.
After enduring the awards ceremony, after listening to Shiro's emphatic victory address and delivering a rather generic loser's speech of his own, Keith leaves as soon as he can for the locker room showers. He runs the taps hot enough that steam curls around him within seconds, seeping into his aching muscles, and he presses his forehead against the tiles and sobs. If no one sees him crying, he decides, it still doesn't count.
When he finally gets out of the shower and wraps his towel around his hips, he sees a new message on his phone. Above it, there's another unread from the morning saying his old team would be watching. He ignores it for Lance's latest.
hey man, ur probs
wrecked but were
goin out 4 early bday
drinks if ur up 4 it
It's a terrible idea. He feels like he's been run over by a double-decker bus, and a night of drinking after a loss would be a terrible look.
Where are we meeting?
Keith loses Hunk, Lance and Pidge somewhere around 2 am when a trip to the bathroom turns into a stroll alone down the street to another club. The numbness in his legs has been replaced by a full-body dissociation that makes him feel warm and a little ill. He's still not old enough to drink back at home, but right now he's three sheets and in no danger of slowing down. Tip enough, and anyone will slide another glass over. And he certainly isn't short on a few extra pound sterling right now.
Keith has lost track of time and lost track of his phone when he stumbles into another patron on his way off the dance floor. Co-ordination is a friend long lost, and he spills most of his glass on the guy's questionable sneaker-jeans combo.
“Hey, watch it, you wanker!”
If sneakers wants to fight, he's caught Keith in the right mood. He could go for a little bit of self-destruction right about now.
“What are going to do about it, asshole?”
“Oh, I'll show you, you little—”
Keith sees the fist rear back, but then suddenly something—or more accurately, some one—presses into his side, and the club becomes a blur of lights and motion as he's herded away. Keith tries to resist, but the combination of physical fatigue and inebriation is like a one-two punch and he's helpless to the pull of warm, firm arms. The hold feels a little familiar in a way he can't quite pin down. He leans against a chest that rumbles as its owner speaks, and he can barely make the words out over the thrum of the music.
“Okay to go out the way I came in?”
Keith doesn't hear the response, but then they're on the move again, until cold air hits his face and he feels a solid wall behind his back. His vision swims for a moment, but he looks up to try to establish if he's been brought into a back alley by friend or foe.
The concerned silvered gaze of Takashi Shirogane is the last thing he expects to see in a back alley behind Google's only promising result for “gAy bar mnear mr”. He keeps a hand by his waist to steady him, which Keith slaps away.
“Your friends are quite anxious about you,” Shiro says softly.
“You're not my friends,” Keith points out eloquently, barely keeping upright against the wall.
“Katie called her brother when she found your phone. He just happened to be with me at the time and I wanted to help.”
“Help. Sure. Don't you have your own celebrations to go to? Champagne to drink out of your new silverware?”
It's a stupid taunt, but it makes Keith feel a little better to attempt to insult him face to face.
“I would rather make sure you're safe, to be frank,” Shiro answers. Keith almost believes it. “Right now, there's a bunch of photographers waiting out front for you to emerge. Someone must have tipped them off. You seem to have a tendency toward getting yourself into trouble.”
“Oh, and that's my fault?” Keith tries to snarl, but it comes out more of a slur. “Pretty sure most of the time, you're the one getting me in trouble.”
He wants to take glee in the wounded look that crosses Shiro's face, but instead, it makes him feel sick. Shiro seems to think it's his fault too. Fuck.
“It is my fault,” he says, as if reading his thoughts. “Maybe not directly or intentionally, but I've played a part in how you've been treated… and the attack…”
No, no, no, this is not how it's meant to go. Shiro is supposed to be aloof and unsympathetic. He's supposed to make him hate him. Supposed to seal shut his feelings once and for all. Instead, he's kind and patient and worried for him. It's unfair he can be so good when Keith is trying to be a jerk. It's downright rude that he could care so honestly when he's already so immensely talented and accomplished and so fucking attractive that Keith wants to pin him down and kiss him stupid in the alleyway until he can taste his own whisky on his tongue and—
Shiro, curiously, flushes in the lamplight.
“Keith… I think you've had too much to drink.”
He clears his throat, and Keith thinks he detects the hint of a tiny smile as he avoids eye contact.
“I'm not in the habit of accepting propositions made by someone clearly not sober.”
Proposi… Oh, fuck, is he thinking aloud?
“Afraid so, Wild Card. Wait, shit, sorry. I know you hate that—”
But Keith cuts him off by pushing off the wall to grab the front of Shiro's shirt with all the confidence only four doubles of fireball could afford him.
“I want… I want…”
He doubles over to vomit on Shiro's shoes.
Keith wakes to Satan knocking on his skull, and a full body ache that extends well beyond mere athletic endeavour. It takes a moment to get his bearings before he realises—this is not his motel bed. It's far softer, far larger than the one he's been sleeping in for the past two weeks. Keith sits bolt upright and immediately regrets it. The curtains have been drawn but even just the smallest sliver of sunlight that gets through is enough to make his head feel like it's shrinking seven sizes too tight around his brain. He spies the pills and glass of water by the bedside and doesn't even question it before throwing them back. At least if it's poison, he won't have to deal with his hangover from hell.
The water provides him with a little clarity and he tries to assess just where on Earth, assumedly, he is. He's alone—in the bedroom at least—which is a relief. The room is lavish in the most ridiculous way though; a massive four-poster bed with far too many pillows and sheets that slip pleasantly against his skin. There's a vanity, a false fireplace and an inviting chair by the window, and even the roof looks ornate with embellished details and classic trim. There are definitely worse places to wake up. Final assessment: definitely not his motel.
With an audible wince, he swings his legs over the side of the bed. Even the soft carpet under his feet isn't enough to alleviate the ache that spreads through his calves and up into his thighs. Keith curses his decision to forgo a proper post-match routine and ice bath, and knows he only has himself to blame, as easy as it would be to shift it on to Lance. He's still trying to piece together exactly what happened last night. He remembers Pidge calling him out for being “emo” (as if it's still 2005, Keith thinks now) and realising he lost his phone long after he decided to spare them his presence and continue to commiserate solo. After that, it's a bit of a blur. And honestly, his head hurts too much to attempt to recall. Rubbing at his temples, he glances down at himself and blanches.
Post-script addition to final assessment: definitely not his clothes either.
Now a little more motivated for answers, he walks out cautiously into the largest hotel living room he's ever seen, without doubt. It takes a moment to process the shock, but then a familiar trophy by the television and a body stirring on the couch suddenly brings back a flood of forgotten memories.
Shiro. This is Shiro's hotel. He slept in Shiro's bed last night.
Keith is the tundra, frozen solid when the man in question blinks up to him and gives a languid little smile. Keith feels defenceless. No one should look that good immediately after waking.
“Good morning,” Shiro rasps, voice sweetened by sleep.
“Is this your training shirt?” Keith chokes out, like the barely functioning human he is.
Shiro looks sheepish as he sits up, pink around the ears.
“Sorry. It was the first thing I found that was clean. I've requested laundry for your clothes from last night.”
Not only is that news mortifying, but it also means he's stuck. He can't very well just leave Shiro's room in Shiro's clothes after sleeping in Shiro's bed.
“Why… why am I here?”
“I tried to take you back to where you were staying first,” Shiro says apologetically. “You were, um, extremely unhelpful to say the least. And no one else seemed to have a clue which hotel was yours either. But don't worry, I paid off the doorman. No one knows you're here.”
Keith can feel the heat flooding his cheeks.
“Which is where, exactly?”
“Christ… did you actually pay five thousand dollars to sleep on a couch last night?”
“Closer to ten,” Shiro teases, and Keith wonders if the floor can just swallow him up. “You needed the bed, and I didn't want to invade your privacy more than I already had. Besides, it's more of a lounge. It was pretty comfortable, really.”
The shame of it all is a little much to bear.
“God, I'm so sorry,” he blurts.
“Really, it's okay—”
“I remember you holding back my hair in a dark alleyway. That is not okay.”
“No wonder you think I'm a fucking delinquent.”
“Keith,” Shiro repeats emphatically. “I don't think that.”
He runs a hand through dark hair, which does nothing to flatten it down.
“Look, I think we just got off on the wrong foot here.”
Keith can't meet his eyes.
“... No, we didn't,” he says quietly. “Our US Open match was amazing. I'll honestly remember it forever. I was so excited to face you again in Melbourne but then… that match happened and I didn't know how to deal with the criticism. Of course the media was going to ask you to weigh in. It was stupid to get so upset about it.”
Shiro watches him carefully from where he sits.
“I would go about answering a little differently if I had the chance.”
“I know,” Keith murmurs, surprising them both.
The silence settles for just a moment, before Shiro speaks again.
“If it helps, I beat James in the quarter in straight sets in about 55 minutes.”
Keith bursts a quiet laugh at the unexpected dig.
“Yeah, actually. That helps a lot.”
Shiro stands, and Keith looks up to meet kind eyes and lips that smile so gently to him. Those eyes drop to the scar on his cheek though as he approaches. This close, Keith can clearly see the old mark that crosses the bridge of Shiro’s nose too. An odd match, he thinks without venom, before he realises the troubled look that clouds Shiro’s expression ever so slightly. Keith thinks to cover his cheek with his hand for a moment, but then the gaze lifts, the smile stabilises and Shiro speaks.
“Let's try this again,” he says, bringing Keith's heart to a standstill. “Hi, my name's Shiro. People say I'm kind of okay with a racquet sometimes.”
With a halfway amused huff, Keith glances down to the outstretched hand, grasping it after a beat. When he looks up to Shiro again, he can't help but reflect his smile back at him.
“Hi Shiro. I'm Keith. Maybe one day I'll be able to say the same.”
Hey guys! I'm really pumped to finish the last two chapters, but first I need to attend to a couple of zine pieces and a few fandom events, so small break incoming. I'm also going to start getting in the mindset to begin finishing off the last of Flesh & Electricity now that this little tennis au has lifted my spirits a bit. So - apologies for the slowdown in the interim, but rest assured there is more to come.
Also Mo Dao Zu Shi is taking over my life is 100% to blame for this update taking a full week. Feel free to yell at me about WangXian (or tennis or Sheith) at copilotsheith on twitter and, uh... maybe not so much tumblr because I don't really use it any more. Also one day I will learn to use my pillowfort... One day...
Chapter 4: Match Point
Please give them all a ❤ and a rt!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Keith rolls his eyes, flipping off the voice without so much as removing his gaze from last February's issue of People. It earns him a quiet laugh as the artificial shutter sounds.
“Now I have proof.”
“Proof that you're a wimp?’
The fingers around his squeeze tightly, and Keith looks up to meet with a ridiculous pout that somehow still manages to make his heart stutter.
“Proof that you did come and hold my hand during my needles like I asked.”
Keith rolls his eyes again and Shiro grins, but he doesn't attempt to let go.
“Yeah, well, guilt is a powerful motivator.”
It had only taken housekeeping an hour to return his laundry, vomit free and perfectly pressed, but it hadn't been until late in the afternoon that Keith finally left the Savoy. And somewhere over room service brunch, Shiro had accidentally let slip about his surgical consult at a private clinic in London for the following morning. With no small measure of horror, Keith had discovered that it was, in fact, possible to feel even more dreadful about being carried back to Shiro's room, especially now that he knew his shoulder was still injured. It also made his Wimbledon win all the more impressive, even as it landed another blow to Keith's already bruised ego.
“I already told you,” Shiro starts seriously, exasperated, “one evening on the couch isn't career ending.”
But then the corner of his lips quirk.
“Please stop trying to shoulder the blame.”
That's another thing Keith has discovered over these last two days: Shiro categorically has the worst sense of humour in the known universe.
“If you weren't injured, I'd punch you right now.”
He doesn't mean it in the slightest. Even less so when Shiro laughs again. It's a sound that Keith has become hopelessly hooked on in such a short space of time. Like flint, lighting the kindling in the hearth of Keith's chest, stoking a fire he's all too desperate to smother before Shiro sees the smoke. The sound fades though as the door opens to admit a nurse wheeling in a small trolley. Keith's instinct is to let go at the intrusion, but Shiro tenses beside him and Keith spies the syringe on the top of the tray. He adjusts his hold instead so his fingers thread between Shiro's and returns his focus back to the magazine as nonchalantly as he can manage.
“Your coach and doctor will be back soon to discuss the results of your scan,” the nurse says kindly, while Keith pretends not to listen. “For now, I'm going to help set up your sling to take a little pressure off your shoulder there, then we'll give you some cortisone to get you a bit more comfortable. How does that sound?”
Shiro's fingers twitch, but his voice remains steady and Keith can hear the smile snapped into place.
“Perfect. Thank you.”
Shiro doesn't make any indication of letting go as his right arm goes into the sling, and Keith suddenly finds himself trying to re-learn how to read. It's as if his brain has finally arrived at the hospital hours after the rest of his body, and he has an uncomfortable epiphany: this is completely insane. What is he doing here, delaying his flight home, holding Shiro's hand in a doctor's office? Two days ago, they were rivals. Strangers. They still are in a lot of ways. And yet here he is, heart pounding, overstepping boundaries all in the name of calling Shiro's bluff.
He's starting to feel like an idiot. Shiro probably wasn't expecting him to be waiting in his hotel lobby when he came down this morning. He had certainly seemed surprised when he had found him, hands in pockets, looking awkward and out of place with his cap pulled low. He can't even begin to guess what the nurse must be thinking. Or Shiro's coach. Or his fans for that matter, assuming his earlier snap has made its way into cyberspace by this point.
But then the nurse picks up the syringe and in an instant, the hand in his feels clammy. Shiro squeezes tight, but immediately releases as if suddenly aware of his unconscious reflex. It's enough to garner Keith's attention, and he looks up from the same sentence he's read about a dozen times to see Shiro staring at the wall, throat bobbing. He realises it's not an exaggeration—he really is terrified.
“Hey,” Keith says softly, waiting for Shiro to look at him. Under the power of an intense grey gaze, it's hard not to falter, but Keith swallows and ignores the thundering in his ears. “So I thought about what you said yesterday. I think I'm ready to start looking for a new coach.”
Shiro visibly brightens at that, and Keith feels all too aware that his resting heart rate right now would register something shameful for an athlete of his calibre.
“Are you going to ask Coran?”
Keith shakes his head.
“I don't think that's the best fit for me.”
Shiro looks like he wants to protest, but then he winces and Keith knows it's the needle. He squeezes his hand gently and keeps talking as if nothing is amiss.
“I've got a couple of leads to follow up once I get back to the States. Hopefully I'll have something sorted by the US Open.”
“Is it really almost a year since our first match?”
Keith can hardly believe it either.
“I wish I could give you a rematch to commemorate it.”
“You might,” Keith offers, trying to stay hopeful. But Shiro gives a rue little smile. They both know that if surgery is the recommendation, Shiro probably won't pick up a racquet until next year.
“All done, Mr Shirogane,” the nurse interrupts cheerily, replacing the needle with cotton gauze. Shiro's grip loosens, and Keith hastily takes it as his cue to let go, rubbing his hand on his jeans, trying not to blush under Shiro's eye while it remains on him. Finally, he brings his attention back to the nurse and Keith can only feel relieved. It's as if he fears that if Shiro watches him too long, he'll spy the cracks in his shell and catch a glimpse of the feelings underneath that bubble and churn like magma after lying dormant for so long. The earth has already started quaking under his feet, but Keith is confident he can stave off a full-blown eruption. If only Shiro stops looking at him like that.
“I don't imagine Doctor Gorma will be much longer,” the nurse reassures. “I know he was with radiology before I made my way over. But if you need anything, you can just sing out, or get your pretty assistant here to flag down one of the staff.”
Keith startles at that, face heating, but Shiro laughs at his expense.
“I'll keep it in mind.”
Somehow Keith feels a little more awkward keeping his hands to himself, like he's not sure why he's still here now his job is done. Shiro, however, seems to sense this and rescues the moment once the nurse departs.
“Thanks for distracting me,” he smiles.
Keith tries to shrug, but ducks his head instead.
“It's the least I could do after—”
“Hey, what did we say about the whole guilt thing?”
“Just remember this when you go to replace those loafers I ruined.”
It's hard not to smile too when Shiro laughs again. It's such an easy sound, one Keith is never so sure he's earned. One he would work for every day, if he could.
Keith clears his throat to clear his thoughts.
“How's it feeling?” he asks, nodding to Shiro's shoulder.
“Not much different yet,” Shiro admits, glancing down to the sling. “But at least the company makes it bearable.”
Keith feels warmth flood his cheeks when Shiro pins him under that look again. His eyes move to his cheek, where his Paris scar lays, then back again. There's something more serious about it this time, and his breath catches.
He doesn't even realise that he's leaned in a little closer until the door bursts open and Keith springs back on instinct.
“Shiro, my boy!” comes a distinctive voice, and Keith sees Shiro jump in fright too. “We're back here for… oh! Sorry, it looks like I interrupted something.”
Coran Hieronymus Wimbleton Smythe isn't a difficult man to recognise. Even if it wasn't for the fiery hair and distinctive moustache, his career a decade or so prior made him a hard man to forget. A Grand Slam champ in days gone by. The pride of New Zealand, both as a player and now a coach of the best in the world.
And, apparently, a man with the world's worst timing.
“No, no, it's fine,” Shiro assures, making Keith's heart sink. “Come in.”
A kind-faced doctor follows close behind Coran, and Keith rises from his chair in response.
“I'll leave you to it,” he says quietly.
For a moment, he can almost trick himself into believing he sees a flash of disappointment on Shiro's face.
“Um… you have my number, I guess. Let me know how you go.”
There's a pause that Keith doesn't fully understand, before Shiro's expression settles into a smile.
“Yeah, I will. Thanks for coming to watch me wimp out.”
Keith gives a startled laugh, which he quickly smothers by clearing his throat.
“For what it's worth, I thought you were very brave.”
“You're a terrible liar.”
Six months. That's how long the ITF agree to hold Shiro's ranking average. That's all the time he has to make it through surgery, rehab and recovery, and step back on the court once more. The tabloids expect him to be bitter about Shiro's protected ranking, but Keith only feels worried. One-hundred and eighty-two days seem hardly enough time to heal and return to champion form. But Shiro seems to be in high spirits.
“The upside is my left-hand coordination has never been better.”
Keith can't resist the urge to tease.
“I really don't need to hear about how you've managed to adapt in the shower.”
“... Oh, ha-ha gutterbrain. I was talking about my wall ball technique and you know it.”
He grins unseen as he shoves another pair of sneakers into his bag. It's strange. He usually hates talking on the phone. His mother is his only exception to exclusively text-based communication. But with Shiro, he picks up instead of letting voicemail do the work for him. He actually scrambles to answer when he sees his name flash up on his screen. Looks forward to hearing his voice on the other end of the line.
“I bought flights to New York today.”
Keith almost drops his phone.
“You're coming? What about—”
“Doctor said I'd be right to travel. The bruising and the swelling are tracking pretty well and as long as I don't skimp on the physio's schedule, then it should be fine.”
Keith blinks, stunned, his heart thundering traitorously in his chest. He didn't expect to see him so soon. It's so much easier to ignore the way he feels when it's just a voice and half a planet of distance between them. Keith isn't sure he trusts himself not to do something stupid just yet.
“I'm sure Allura will be happy to have your cheer her on.”
There's a brief pause on the other end.
“I'm not just going for Allura.”
“Oh.” And because he doesn't really know how to respond to that, he pushes past with burning ears. “Where are you staying?”
“The Plaza. You?”
Keith speaks without thinking.
Keith feels guilty about how delighted he sounds.
“How did your meeting with Kolivan go by the way?”
Ah, yes. That. Keith is starting to regret promising Shiro he would find a new coach.
“He, uh… he had reservations.”
Keith can hear Shiro frowning.
“What do you mean?”
“... You just shrugged, didn't you?”
His face flames as he ignores the question.
“He just said he'd make a decision after the US Open.”
“Kinda sounds like you're on trial.”
Shiro sounds unimpressed.
“You're ranked fourth in the world right now. You just bulldozed the Washington Open today. I don't understand.”
“Yeah, well, I'm a basket case,” Keith says, throwing his jacket into his bag with a little more force than necessary.
The line goes quiet for a moment while he moves back to the hotel wardrobe.
“Don't say that,” Shiro murmurs in his ear, stopping him still.
“I-it's kinda true,” he stumbles, at a loss for words.
“No, Keith,” comes an uncompromising reply. “You had one bad day. Everyone has them. Yours just got broadcast on international television.”
Keith swallows, trying to think of the right thing to say.
“... You know I blocked your number after Paris.”
Such a soft sound feels like an explosion.
“Why didn't you give up on me then?”
Something about his voice makes Keith hold his breath.
“I would never give up on you.”
There's stunned silence that lingers across the space between them.
His mother's voice from the front of the apartment is like a bucket of ice water.
“Shiro, I'm so sorry, but I've gotta go. I'll see you in New York though?”
“Oh. Yeah, of course. Maybe I'll catch you at the hotel?”
Keith tries not to wince.
“Definitely. See you there.”
“There you are,” Krolia sighs. “Who are you talking to?”
“Oh. No one,” Keith says hastily, hanging up.
Krolia takes her time glancing between the phone in his hand and his face.
“Uh huh,” she smiles skeptically. “No one. A no one you were so busy talking to, you couldn't hear your poor mother knocking on your hotel door for the last seven minutes.”
Keith flushes, turning to shove another shirt in his bag before he suddenly stops.
“Wait, how did you get in?”
“Not important,” she answers, moving to his side to start folding his clothes a little more efficiently. “Just make it up to me in New York.”
He blinks, and decides it's not worth asking. He'll just have to check his locks for damage before they leave.
“... Hey mom, how do you feel about staying at the Plaza?”
Krolia has never been to New York before, so they fly direct from Washington on the back of his tournament win. It means his training in the lead up to the US Open is a little compromised. But Keith doesn’t care. It’s the first time in living memory he's seen Krolia away from the military, the first time he can remember just spending time with her like this. It’s… nice. She’s relaxed, she looks happy. And Keith is too proud to say aloud, but the fact that she’s here to watch him means everything. They manage to hit the usual suspects—Empire State, Central Park, even Broadway—and Keith somehow manages to pull off a booking with the Plaza last minute. They’re halfway to Staten Island when he finds out about his first round draw.
hey bitch prepare
2 bomb out
It’s been a while since they last talked. Wimbledon, actually. Ever since the infamous night he ended up in Shiro’s bed, Keith has been too ashamed to front any of his old teammates, aside from a generic mass text apology. He can’t contain his surprise at the message, or the image attached. Round One, Court 5, 2 pm: K. Kogane vs L. McClain.
Which ITF official
did you have to sleep
with to manage that?
fuk u dude
Keith can’t help but smile.
Looking forward to
me 2 man
the pride says hi
Keith laughs, blinking back the tears that spring to his eyes before his mother returns from the rear deck of the ferry.
Tell them I miss them.
Shiro arrives the day before the first round, calling from his hotel room once he's checked in. He sounds jetlagged over the phone, but insists on morning coffee in the lobby. A better man would refuse. It's a pity Keith is the kind of man who changes his hotel reservations over stupid lies that slip out without thought on long distance phone calls.
It’s a shock when he sees him approach his table. Not the tape or the sling or the bruising that still creeps past his collar. Instead…
Keith doesn’t even realise he’s stood to reach up and touch it until Shiro ducks his head.
“It’s white,” he says stupidly as he quickly retracts.
“Ah, yeah,” Shiro laughs, running a self-conscious hand through his fringe. “I decided I should give something for everyone to talk about instead of the arm. I’m still not too sure about it yet.”
“It looks great,” Keith says, far too quickly. “I mean, it suits you. You, uh, you really pull it off.”
There’s the sound of a throat clearing, and suddenly Shiro looks sheepish. It’s only then, to his monumental embarrassment, that he realises he hasn’t come alone.
“Keith, this is Allura. Allura, this—”
“Oh, I know who he is.”
Keith tries not to audibly gulp. Allura Alforson. Women’s world number one and five foot five of pure, regal intimidation. She offers her hand, and Keith isn’t sure whether to shake it, or to kiss it with a bow. God, he hopes she hasn’t taken any notice of his media notoriety.
“I hope you don’t mind the intrusion,” she smiles, saccharine. “When Shiro said he was coming down to meet you, I insisted on joining him.”
Shit. She has definitely seen it. All of it.
“Not at all,” Keith answers hastily. “Please, sit.”
He tries not to feel disappointed when she takes the seat next to Shiro, tucking herself a little closer to him, but it's hard to ignore the way his heart sinks like a stone. The conversation doesn’t flow as easily with a third wheel, but Keith isn't entirely sure he isn't it. He swears Shiro sends him apologetic looks as Allura grills him about his personal life though, skating a fine line between polite and nosey.
“Anyone special in your life, Keith?” she asks as she stirs a third spoon of sugar into her coffee. (As bad as Lance, he can't help but think.) “Bring anyone along with you to New York?”
“Allura!” Shiro hisses under his breath.
Keith blinks, a little caught off-guard.
“Um, just my mom, you know,” he says, not sure why Shiro suddenly seems to relax. “The military pretty much demanded she took leave since they're terrified of her retirement payout at this point, so she’s come to see me play for the first time.”
Even Allura seems to soften at that.
“That’s really sweet, Keith,” she smiles, and for the first time, Keith feels like he doesn’t have to be on high alert. “Where is she now? You should have invited her along.”
“Honestly, we’ve never really spent this much time together before,” Keith answers, “She needs her space sometimes and... well, um, to be fair, I did think this was going to be a one-on-one catch up.”
Allura laughs at that, turning to Shiro.
“He certainly says what he means, doesn’t he?”
Panic stations go off immediately in Keith’s head.
“Oh god, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,” he says quickly. “I’m perfectly fine with you being here, I just—”
“Keith, it’s fine,” she smiles warmly. “I like that you don’t hide behind a mask. I think it’s refreshing.”
She brings up her cup delicately to her lips.
“So, important make or break question then.”
Keith gulps, but then he catches the mischievous look in her eye.
“Tennis balls: yellow or green?”
It’s not until they’ve finished their coffee and Allura rushes off for an interview with Women's Health that Keith finally gets a moment to Shiro alone.
“I really thought you were going to back me on the green team there,” Shiro laments, and Keith laughs.
“They're fluorescent yellow!” he maintains. “It's a regulation colour. Allura is right.”
Shiro gives one last huff, but then his expression turns serious.
“I’m so sorry for springing her on you. She’s not lying — she really did insist on meeting you when she realised I was coming down to see you.”
“Probably to make sure I wasn’t dragging your name through the mud again,” Keith mutters.
The way Shiro startles makes him pretty certain that’s exactly it.
“It’s cool. I understand. If it was my friend who was hanging out with the guy who trash talked them to the Arizona Daily Star, I’d be pretty protective too.”
Shiro sighs quietly, on the edge of annoyed. Keith isn’t really sure who it’s directed at.
“She doesn’t need to be. You’re harmless.”
“I don’t know if I should feel insulted,” Keith teases.
Shiro finally laughs genuinely, and it’s like molten gold in his marrow.
Lance holds him firm at the net the following afternoon with a lasting handshake.
“If I beat you, you have to introduce me to Allura and be my wingman.”
Keith knocks him out in straight sets.
The media rear their ugly head again when he’s matched against Griffin in the round of 16. The American sweetheart versus the American bad boy is apparently a narrative that never gets stale, despite how Keith would beg to differ. But it’s a good match, a polite one by all accounts, which sees Keith take the win in three tight sets.
Keith only realises that makes the media desperate for blood when he hits his post-match press.
“Keith,” one woman starts innocently enough. “Your professional history with James has captured the imagination of the nation.”
Keith tries not to scoff at that.
“And so we were really curious to find out a little more. Both of you have played pretty mom about everything, so we decided to do a little investigating of our own.”
“Imagine our surprise when we found out the two of you played in the same district as novices.”
This… this can’t be happening.
“We managed to track down a few of your old district peers—”
“Whatever line of questioning you have here, I’m not answering it.”
“— and we found out that your hostility with James started very young.”
“Can we have the next question?”
But the room is enraptured, and no one makes a move to interrupt.
“In fact, we’re led to believe that an under-16s trophy match ended with the two of you scrapping on the court, where you broke James—your opponent’s—nose, after winning the match.”
Keith feels helpless as he watches the narrative reignite in front of him again.
“What do you have to say about these claims, Keith?”
The articles are published before he even leaves the conference room, and when he arrives at the hotel, ushered past a few rogue photographers by security, Keith sees Shiro waiting at the other end of the lobby. The flood of shame is instantaneous, and Keith tries to brush past him for the elevator, but a firm hand stops him.
“Talk to me.”
And so Keith finds himself sitting on the edge of Shiro’s hotel bed, shedding frustrated tears about his inability to get on top of his image issues.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what happened?” he asks bitterly when the silence hangs between them for a beat longer than he can bear.
Shiro just shakes his head from his spot on the windowsill ledge.
“I figure if you want me to know, you’ll tell me.”
“Have you read the stories?”
“I don’t really care what they have to say about you.”
Keith gives a strange laugh.
“Yeah, well, at least that’s one of us.”
He flops backwards onto the bed, and it occurs distantly to him that it’s odd that he feels so comfortable in someone else’s space, but it’s hardly his focus as he feels himself falling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing again. He still cares what the media and the public think about him. How can he not? But more than that, he cares what Shiro thinks about him too. It's a struggle to find the words.
“We were fifteen,” he starts quietly, when Shiro simply sits and waits. “We’d known each other a while, but we’d never got along. We were each other’s biggest competition, but it was more than that. I suppose I was kind of jealous. He had the affluent family and I… I had no one. Mom had been M. I. A. long before I graduated elementary, so I didn’t have a lot as a kid. Just my pop, and tennis.”
He swallows, not daring to glance Shiro’s way.
“Then, one day, tennis was all I had at all.”
But he’s quick to shake his head, and Shiro falls silent.
“We were playing in a big district comp, and I took the match in two sets. I was a dumb high school kid, so I was a bit arrogant about it. I wanted Griffin to feel like I didn’t see him as a challenge, despite all the extra attention he got, and it worked. When we got to the net, he said to me…” He sighs. “He said, “bet you’re this way because mommy and daddy always told you you’re special,” and I just saw red. I dragged him over the net and just started hitting him until the umpires pulled us apart. He got a broken nose, and I got banned from the clubhouse for life.”
He can't even bear to see Shiro in his periphery, so he turns his face away from him, staring at the foot of the bed.
“... I'm not sure if he knew about my parents back then. I guess it doesn't matter. Kids say horrible shit all the time. But we never resolved it. When I saw him in Melbourne, all I could think about was how much I hated him in that moment. I wouldn't blame him if he felt the same way too.”
Silence falls between them again, until Keith's phone trills.
“That's mom,” he says, as he checks the screen. “You know, I haven't even told her about this. Pidge and Lance and Hunk all know, because I joined their club right after, but you're the only one who knows what he said to me. Heh…”
He rolls his head to look at Shiro, seeing an open expression of surprise there.
“Thank you for trusting me with this, then,” he says, heartfelt in a way that makes him ache bittersweet.
“I won't tell a soul.”
“I know,” Keith murmurs, watching his eyes go soft at the assurance. It makes it hard to look at him, so he elects to stare at the ceiling.
“I don't know what to do. Iverson would tell me to wait for it all to blow over, but that hasn't exactly been working for me so far. I'm terrified of making things worse though. I just… Urgh.”
There's a pause, then the bed dips on his right, and warm hand rests on his forearm, but somehow he feels it in his stomach. He gives a humourless chuckle.
“You're scared of needles and I'm scared of my own reflection. What a pair, huh?”
The hand on his arm squeezes gently and Keith tilts his head to look up at him. This close, Shiro's eyes look like swirling mercury, and Keith can pick the concern in the way his brow pinches and lips hold tight. Worry does little to mar his face though. He still looks perfectly beautiful beside him.
“What do you think I should do?”
Shiro stays silent a moment, but it's contemplative. He swipes his tongue thoughtlessly over his bottom lip, and Keith can't help but track it with his eyes.
“... I think,” Shiro starts softly, “you should trust your instincts on this.”
Keith raises his gaze to meet him again.
“What do you want to do?”
It's a good question.
“I don't want hide,” he says quietly, and he knows the words come from some deeper place than just Shiro's question, especially when he sees him respond with a smile.
“Then write your own narrative, Keith.”
Keith braces for the worst when he sends out his press statement to Shiro's media contacts. In it, he confirms that the story is true, but leaves out the words James spoke to him. There's no need for them to know. And while he acknowledges his youth and immaturity, he doesn't excuse it, ending the statement with a belated apology directed at his rival. It feels a little like offering up a slice of himself that he would rather hang onto, but with Shiro's encouragement, he finds the strength to let go. It surprises Keith when the flow of articles stop within the day. It floors him when he receives a notification on his phone after his quarterfinal win.
James @ US Open🎾 ☑ @grifsandspecs • 21m
Everyone has stories. Some of them,
we think we won't have to share.
Being who we are though, sometimes
we don't get to choose.
James @ US Open🎾 ☑ @grifsandspecs • 18m
replying to @grifsandspecs
I'm sorry for my part too @k_kogane
I said some shameful things when we
were kids & I should have apologized
James @ US Open🎾 ☑ @ grifsandspecs • 17m
replying to @k_kogane & @grifsandspecs
Keith swallows the last remnants of his pride.
Keith Kogane ☑ @k_kogane • 3s
replying to @grifsandspecs
The stories about his Griffin feud may fade, but by the time he reaches the pointy end of the tournament, the media has well and truly caught on to the fact that Shiro has made an appearance at all of his US Open matches to date. Reports of their “unexpected friendship” and, a little more annoyingly, “Shiro’s forgiveness” are rampant, but for the first time in a while, Keith feels a positive energy surrounding him every time he fronts the press. It’s a wild contrast from the most recent drama, and, if he's being honest, it makes him feel uneasy after dealing with their ire for so long.
When officials move Shiro to sit next to his mother for the final, it invites fresh nerves he does not need. Especially when he finds himself facing world number two, Lotor Sincline, for the very first time in his career.
Already, he has progressed far enough into the tournament to nudge his ranking up one more spot, but a win today would mean swapping places with his opponent. He has everything to gain, while Lotor has a lot to lose. And without a coach, figuring out his plan of attack has been far more stressful than he would care to admit. In that respect, Shiro has been heaven-sent, offering him advice and his own experience. And so Keith stands strong, hell-bent on putting it to good use when Lotor bounces the ball for the first serve.
It’s a tough match. Lotor’s strength lies in his ability to hide his intentions with his serve and return. Trying to outsmart him by watching the face of his racquet or the direction of his eyes never ends well, and instead Keith relies on his instinct to get him by. Another challenge comes in the way Lotor’s style becomes manic when under pressure, as Keith finds out late in the third set when the Brit claws back to take them to a fourth.
You're losing your focus, Keith. It's Shiro's voice he hears. Be patient.
It’s a struggle, but after a 90-minute set, and a tiebreaker that blows out to 12-14, Keith manages to cinch his Championship Point without the need for a final set on the back of a belting ace that registers at 134 miles per hour. It takes a moment to hit him as the crowd fades in: this is his first Grand Slam tournament win. He glances to roaring sea of spectators where Krolia stands beside Shiro, all reserved celebration and pride, and he breaks, pressing his forehead to his racquet strings, helpless to stop the flow of tears that come. A ball girl brings his towel over to where he stands, and he drops his racquet to bury his face in it immediately. It takes a few gulping breaths, but he’s smiling with red-rimmed eyes when he tosses it back to her and picks up his racquet again. Emphatically, his sweatband ends up in row sixteen, much to the delight of the patron that ends up holding it high.
He didn’t expect to feel this way, but now that it’s happened, Keith realises it means everything to come away with this win. Not to prove his worth, or get a notch on his career belt, or to silence his critics.
He just wants Krolia to see him make her proud.
Lotor looks understandably disappointed when they meet at the net, but he doesn’t seem interested in commiserations. He delivers a gracious speech when he receives his runner-up plate and congratulates Keith on taking the win. Keith hopes it isn’t the last they’ve seen of each other.
Receiving the trophy is a bit of a blur. Keith can't even remember the words he says, but they must be okay, because Krolia meets him in a bone-creaking embrace and the crowd cheers wholeheartedly.
“You did good, kiddo.”
Keith lets her hold him a little tighter.
Breakfast brings a new challenge, and Keith is still trembling in the aftermath when his guest leaves him to fidget with his cold coffee alone until his phone buzzes on the table.
I know it's still early,
but let me know how
it goes with Kolivan.
He already left. Made
his mind up before
the match with the
whole Griffin thing.
Looks like my new
coach wants me to
play Hopman after
Keith laughs at the overload of celebratory emojis that come through in response.
Kolivan is a no-nonsense coach who takes none of Keith's crap. He won't listen to his lip, won't compromise on running drills when Keith wants to keep practising his slices. He frustrates Keith to no end when he forces him to watch other player's matches on top of his training, but… it suits him. Suits him far better than running on his own. There's a new ease in his play that he's never felt before, and the media is too afraid to upset Kolivan to pick on him during conferences. For the first time in a long time, Keith feels like he can breathe.
He dominates with wins in Chengdu and Shanghai, but he resists Kolivan's attempts to register for the Paris Masters—it's still too soon for him—and to his surprise, Kolivan drops the issue quickly. Instead, he elects to spend his 21st birthday in Vienna for the Erste Bank Open.
It's a shock when he finds the welcoming committee in his hotel on arrival. Kolivan doesn't say a word when they all rush him, but Keith thinks he spies a ghost of a smile on the old hardass’ face as he checks them in.
“We were on our way to Paris anyway,” Pidge says, making a valiant effort to crack his ribs. “Iverson had no chance arguing against the three of us.”
“As if we were going to miss your birthday,” Hunk smiles, as Lance tugs on his earlobe harshly.
“I wish you could have mentioned Allura freakin’ Alforson would be here!” he hisses.
“You make it sound like I knew any of you were coming,” Keith grumbles, shoving him away, but his attention is already locked in place. Because next to Allura, smiling and giving a little wave with an arm out of its sling, is Shiro.
As soon as he frees himself from the grip of his old club mates and greets Allura too, he turns his attention entirely to Shiro.
“Surprise,” he says with a quiet smile that liquefies Keith's bones. “At least, I hope it's a surprise. Lance tweeted from the airport with his location on.”
Keith rolls his eyes.
“Sounds like him. But no, I had no idea. And I'm very concerned that both Iverson and Coran are going to have my head for this.”
“Well, the rest might not be able to stay until finals, but I'll be here to cheer you on. Coran approved and all.”
That stirs heat that rushes up Keith's neck, so he quickly turns his attention elsewhere.
“It's good to see you sling-free in person,” he says.
Unfortunately, he follows it up with the mistake of touching his arm and—Christ—how the hell is his bicep so firm after suffering through those weeks of immobility? Rehab is obviously working.
“How's it feeling?”
“Really good, actually,” Shiro answers, flexing the limb, much to Keith's horror. He quickly lets go.
“Well then, with any luck, next time you fly out to a tournament, it will be to play.”
Shiro's expression quirks, and there's a shine to his eyes that makes Keith think he's holding a secret to his chest.
“That's the hope.”
His birthday falls on the day of the quarterfinals, and Lance makes a big deal about how his win to advance to the semi the following day ruins their celebrations. Pidge delivers his first birthday gift, slinging an arm around his neck as they walk to the club.
“Looks like you're stuck with me for Hopman,” she grins, and it takes a moment for Keith to process.
“Wait, you're my team USA partner?”
“What? You wanted someone else?”
“N-no! Not at all! I meant—”
“Calm down Kogane,” Pidge laughs. “I'm teasing.”
Lance attempts to give him his second gift at the bar—a tall tequila sunrise—but Shiro is quick to swipe it up.
“I'm trying to do you a solid here man,” Lance defends to two sets of disapproving eyes.
Keith doesn't bother wasting effort on a response and Shiro sips noisily from the straw behind him.
By the time the club starts to fill out a little more and the music grows a little louder, Keith is ready to head home. He has a match in the afternoon, and hitting the Vienna nightlife sober isn't really something in his comfort zone. But just as he considers how he's going to break the news to the others—especially when Lance has just started conversing with Allura like a normal human being—he feels a hand slide into his.
“Dance with me,” a familiar voice whispers in his ear.
Keith can't help but laugh when he turns to look up at Shiro's dopey expression.
“Are you drunk?”
“I've only had one!” Shiro pouts, unfairly adorable even when his cheeks are flushed and he leans against the bar. Maybe not drunk, but definitely tipsy.
“Dance with me,” he tries again, pulling on his hand.
Keith feels helpless under those puppy dog eyes, and so the protests about hating the music and not being able to dance die in favour of a single word: “Okay.”
Shiro lights up like Christmas, and before Keith has a chance to second guess himself, he tugs him away into the centre of the throng of people on the dancefloor. Keith feels awkward as hell, but Shiro has him laughing in an instant. He's truly the worst dancer he's ever seen, and he refuses to let go of Keith's hand, swinging it between them, pulling him this way and that. The crowd forces them closer and closer, and Keith can feel his heart pounding, but he doesn't want to lose his nerve, not when Shiro seems so totally unfazed. Ridiculously, he attempts to spin Keith in a circle, but a club-goer bumps into him mid-turn, knocking him back into Shiro's chest. A hand on his hip holds him steady, and when it doesn't let go, Keith makes no move to leave, leaning back against him.
He's not sure what's come over him—maybe it's the high of winning, or being in the company of friends again, or just because it's his birthday—but Keith moves into the beat like this, back against Shiro's body. The grip on his hip tightens a little. It makes Keith feel a little bolder. Makes him a little less inhibited. He hasn't had a drop to drink, but right now he feels drunk on this moment.
He reaches up behind him, brushing fingers against the side of Shiro's neck. He's so close that Keith can hear him swallow behind him, feel the heat radiating off of him. Another hand comes tentatively to his waist, and Keith reaffirms the touch by taking it and pulling it to his centre. There's a heartbeat racing against his spine, and when Keith turns his head, there's clarity in Shiro's eyes, an intensity when he meets his gaze. Keith sees it flick down, and unconsciously he licks his lips. Shiro stops still at that. Keith turns in his arms, but his heart plummets when Shiro puts space between them with a little shake of his head.
He thinks to flee, to try to preserve what little dignity he has left, but Shiro takes his hand firmly again and pulls him away from the crowd, away from the club without so much as a goodbye for their friends.
“Shiro—” Keith starts when he pauses to look both ways down the path.
“In a minute, in a minute,” he abates, before turning to the right.
Then they're running through the streets of Vienna, autumn evening air crisp against his sweat-damp skin. He has no idea where they're going or why he should follow, but Keith doesn't let go, even when Shiro finally stops in the middle of a bridge overlooking the Danube Canal. It's a beautiful city, even more so with the lights reflected in the water. He looks out over the view, lovely as it is, confused as to why they're here.
And suddenly there's a hand on his neck, drawing him back and pulling him close. It's chased by the feeling of wind-chilled lips pressing against his, warming each other. Soft, but deliberate, and ever so desperate. Keith can barely even register what's happening before Shiro pulls back.
“I wasn't going to kiss you for the first time in that club,” he says breathlessly.
Keith realises he's panting too, but he draws Shiro back down for another kiss without a word.
It blows all his other birthday gifts out of the water.
They decide to put it on ice for a couple of days until the tournament is over, just to keep him focused on his game. The others never figure out where and why they disappeared on Keith's birthday, and they all fly out for Paris before Keith's final appearance at Erste Bank. All but Shiro. Keith doesn't come away with the win, but he feels far from defeated when Shiro whisks him away after the press is done and lays him out like something precious on his hotel bed.
Wrapped up his arms in the afterglow, Shiro simply watches Keith as he traces over his skin with reverent fingertips, then up over the healing scars on his right shoulder, an easy smile quirking at his lips. Keith splays his fingers over his chest when Shiro bows his head to kiss his hair.
“How did you know?” Keith asks quietly, stretching to look up at him.
“London,” Shiro replies easily. “When you said you hated me and wanted to kiss me right before you threw up on my very expensive shoes.”
Keith feels his face heat, and he buries it in Shiro's neck. He feels him laugh when he swears quietly into his skin.
“So was that when you started thinking about me too?” Keith asks, when he recovers enough nerve to look up again.
“Oh, no,” Shiro replies emphatically, holding him close.
“No, you had me long before then, Wild Card.”
Mutual discretion is something they agree on early. While Shiro is privately out to all his family and friends, the only people in Keith's life that know are his Garrison club mates (but even then he's a little sketchy on whether Lance actually knows too). It's a topic he's never breached with Krolia before, and while he knows he will one day, that day isn't just yet. Shiro is patient and understanding, giving him time.
“The press seem to think Allura and I are dating,” Shiro laughs to him, trying to assuage his fears that he might think he's trying to hide. “It's not going to be easy when we tell the public. I want you to be in a good headspace for that first.”
Keith doesn't know how to express his gratitude for such compassion in words. He just hopes the message is clear when he holds him still to kiss him just one more time.
A month later, Shiro surprises him with a message that has him calling immediately.
“Isn't it 2 am ther—?”
“You're playing Hopman?!” Keith interrupts.
“Does this mean… your shoulder?”
“Doctor gave me full clearance Monday. Coran submitted and got approval today so I wanted to make sure you heard from me first. ”
“That's incredible Shiro. I'm so happy to hear that. You still have an extra month before they lift your ranking suspension though. Are you sure you're not rushing?”
“I feel good,” Shiro assures. “I miss the game. And starting with a points-free tournament will be a good way to lean into the Australian Open. It will be nice to test my game before then.”
Keith smiles, even though Shiro can't see it.
“Then I'm looking forward to facing you on the court after Christmas.”
Long distance isn't easy, Keith quickly realises. It's one thing to pine for something you don't have, another entirely for someone you do. If nothing else, they make reunions that much more fervent, even if that stays hidden until they meet each other in hotel rooms.
They've already been in Perth two days before Allura and Pidge show up, and Keith suspects they know right away. His suspicions are confirmed when Pidge calls in the morning for breakfast.
“Should I bother going to your room, or should I just knock on Shiro's door? ”
Keith knows he can trust her with his secrets though… with some exceptions.
nice job on scoring ur
dreamboat n all but cld u
stop grossing out P im
sick of her complaining
Keith doesn’t know why he can’t just leave a simple “congratulations” text like Hunk.
When did you change
your name in my phone?
flushing meadows 😏
dont change it!!
Allura seems delighted by the development, and makes a borderline overbearing effort to facilitate their time together. The only problem there is that having four top-seeded tennis stars walking around together in a small city doesn't exactly beget much privacy. Keith isn't sure he's seen so much unsettling excitement over his dining choices before in his life, if the local newspaper headlines are anything to go by.
Unfortunately, Shiro and Allura end up in group B along with Team USA, so there is no hope he and Pidge will face them in the final. Keith can't help but feel it's a cheeky ploy to help nudge Australia through in Group A, but he keeps it to himself. He's guaranteed to play against Shiro this way at least, and that's all that matters.
Their match-up comes in the evening of New Year's Day—a primetime slot—and it's little wonder why. Having the men and women's world number ones face off against two and five respectively is a bit of a drawcard. The arena is packed to the brim, and despite the heat outside, Keith is grateful that the roof stays open, if only to regulate the humidity.
The format means he'll face Shiro first in a best of three singles match, break while Pidge takes on Allura, before returning to the court for the mixed doubles. As resistant as he's always been to team tennis, he's… actually having fun. The round-robin style of competition fosters a friendly kind of gameplay between the teams. It also turns out that he and Pidge have some pretty spectacular on-court chemistry. The atmosphere is relaxed, the weather is perfect and the absence of points makes it easy to simply enjoy the game for what it is.
The crowd are crazy for Shiro when he walks out. Keith can't help but smile as he waves and walks to his player bench. It doesn't bother him that he gets the louder cheer, or the sea of flags — Keith is kind of crazy for him too.
Shiro smiles across the court to him and Keith can't help but think… he touched that body this morning. Kissed him at midnight and tangled himself in his sheets. It makes his heart swell and he grins back at him helplessly.
Shiro still falls into his serious expression when they settle at either side of the court, but Keith feels joy resonate off him like waves when he throws the ball high and the crowd goes silent.
For a first tournament back since his injury, Shiro has been scarily dominant. He's been mowing through the Group B teams without mercy, and Keith finds, disturbingly, he's no different. In truth, he had almost forgotten what it was like to play against such a precise drop shot. His aces are still devastating, and it's like the ball obeys his every command.
They go to tiebreaker at every set, but Shiro comes out on top 6-8, 9-7, 7-5 to take the first match point for the evening. It puts a lot of pressure on Pidge, which Keith feels bad about, but he doesn't lament his performance. Shiro is just a force of nature.
“It's good to have you back,” he says at the net as he grasps his hand.
“It's good to be back,” Shiro answers with a gentle smile.
They have to keep up appearances, so Keith sits with Kolivan and Shiro stays with Coran while they watch the girls. Amazingly, Pidge pulls out a spectacular upset over a previously undefeated Allura to level the score to one all and turn the doubles into a decider. She goes for the throat when they head back down into the locker rooms together.
“Stop making stupid little goo-goo eyes at Shiro and get your head in the game, Romeo,” she hisses. “This is going to be the difference between us getting in the final or not and I'm not about to lose because you're even more lovesick over him than ever.”
Keith flushes, feeling far too chastised to formulate a comeback.
“Yeah, that's what I thought, Casanova.”
He's still blushing by the time they get back on the court again.
The doubles, to his surprise, have been his favourite part of the Cup. For all his resistance to the concept, Keith finds he works disturbingly well with Pidge. They're both quick on their feet without getting in each other's way. Her style is inventive, and she doesn't mind when Keith takes risks. It makes for a chaotic partnership, but Keith has never liked predictable anyway, and it scores them the second set after Shiro and Allura absolutely throttle the first.
The first game of the deciding set sees Keith serving and Shiro receiving. Pidge stays back at the baseline so that he can go for the ace without the risk of belting her in the back of the head. But, almost frustratingly, Shiro knows just where to meet his serve, looking unfairly calm as he slams it back. Pidge goes forward while Keith collects, sending it back to Shiro’s corner. It comes back to him, and after five more returns in the rally, he can see the quirk of Allura’s lips out the corner of his eye. He hits his return is a little shorter, so Shiro dashes forward to collect and return the favour. Keith barely gets a racquet to it, but it starts a volley between them that lasts half a dozen shots before he gets the best of Shiro with a wide slice.
Allura is laughing and shaking her head, and when Keith turns to Pidge, she feigns a look of annoyance with a raised eyebrow.
“Wanna let us have a turn too?” she asks, loud enough that there’s laughter amongst the cheers.
Keith ducks his head sheepishly, but wraps an arm around her shoulder with a grin as they walk back to the baseline. When he turns around he thinks, for the first time ever, he sees Shiro smiling on the other side of the court.
Allura and Shiro take the win, but Australia takes the Cup in the final, which only stacks the evidence in favour of Keith’s Group B conspiracy. It doesn’t really matter, because on the Sunday, Shiro organises a flight for all four of them out to a little island off the coast.
“You must really like these little rats if you’re dragging us all out here.”
“Quokkas!” But it isn’t Shiro that bites, it’s Pidge.
“When did you become pro-rat?” Keith laughs in surprise.
“Are you blind?!” she accuses, incredulous. “They’re adorable. They literally refer to them as the happiest creatures on Earth!”
“Plus, the tourism ambassadors here get pretty excited about getting photos,” Shiro adds over the buzz of the rotor blades. “You’ll have fun, promise!”
Twenty-five minutes, an escort from their handlers, and about eight-thousand photos later, Keith is willing to admit that, yeah, the rats—quokkas—are kind of cute. Shiro is gracious enough not to utter a single smug word when Keith pulls him over for one last photo together with one of the snacking critters after all their group shots. That one is for just him though, not for Instagram.
“Business part over,” Shiro smiles as Keith puts away his phone. “The guides say they’ll take us down to a nice beach that isn’t too busy.”
They're driven down to a protected bay closed just for them, and the illusion of seclusion is an instant relaxant. Keith wants nothing more than to jump straight in the ocean, but Pidge forces him to cover her in a layer of SPF-50 first, and Shiro takes the chance to make sure Keith is adequately protected too. Keith returns the favour once his hands are free again, paying particularly close attention to Shiro's arms and chest until Pidge starts gagging behind him. She almost sends him face first into the sand when she leaps onto his back, slippery from sunscreen, and orders him into the surf. Keith obeys, but only to dump her into the water all at once when he wades out knee deep.
She has all manner of foul language for him when she surfaces. Keith is quick to jump into the line of fire when she splashes a laughing Shiro on his approach, but Allura gets them both from behind in a show of female solidarity.
When the girls make their way back to the shore to sunbathe—or in Pidge's case, to lather herself up in more sunscreen—Shiro gives him his snorkel and takes him out a little further along the reef pools. The water is crystal clear, and the bay holds all kinds of tropical fish and colourful coral. More than that, it's calm and quiet under the surface, and the warmth of Shiro's hand in his instils a peace he hasn't felt in well over a year. When they rise above the gentle waves, neither of them hurry back to the beach. Shiro tucks his wet hair behind his ear and Keith counts the droplets in his lashes before he leans in with a sea-salt kiss.
It’s funny. After years of (strictly professional) idolisation, Keith always thought he knew everything about Shiro. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Keith learns a lot of little things about him in their days between tournaments. He learns the soft noise he makes in the middle of a particularly hard stretch when he first wakes in the morning. He learns he pours his milk before his cereal. Learns he needs glasses to read, learns he likes to be kissed on the soft underside of his jaw, by his ear. Keith learns about himself too. He learns he doesn't hate stupid little love songs when Shiro's the one humming them. He actually can see the appeal in a cheap bowl of mac for dinner. He finds out he sleeps best with arms wrapped tight around him, even on warm summer nights.
When they travel to the other side of the country, and Shiro marks his comeback in stone by defeating him in the Australian Open final, all Keith can do is shrug at the court announcer’s questions with a smile on his face.
“I guess he’s just my kryptonite.”
“You’re almost there,” Kolivan assures him gruffly after the ceremonies are done.
Keith finds somehow, with Shiro, he doesn’t mind if he never eclipses him. When he says as much out loud, Kolivan frowns.
“No Keith,” he says, taking him by surprise. “I think you’re scared of turning him into second best.”
Keith does his best to forget the words after Australia. None of his tournaments intercept with Shiro’s though, and he has to wonder if that is a very deliberate choice on Kolivan’s behalf. But their relationship is still very much under wraps, even six months in, so Keith knows his coach is only driven by a career focus rather than anything remotely sinister. Still, Keith feels like he’s going stir-crazy. Video calls and messages across mismatched timezones can only do so much. At least there’s Paris.
Keith still has terrible memories that haunt him from last year’s French Open, but he’s willing to let them go to make new ones when his phone buzzes the second he sets down at Charles De Gaulle.
Bonjour mon chéri
Dinner at 6, but only
if you're not too jet lagged
I'll ignore the cheesy
welcome and even give
you permission to drag
my unconscious body
But only because I
Keith must look as tired as he feels, because Shiro’s expression goes guilty when he picks him up in the hotel lobby.
“We can reschedule,” Shiro murmurs between sleepy—risky—elevator kisses on their way up to the 19th floor.
“I haven’t seen you in nearly a month,” Keith growls. “Next time we’re free is after the Open. I’m not going to fall asleep.”
He puts his money where his mouth is only moments later when he drops his bags and pushes Shiro down onto his plush hotel bed. And if he dozes against Shiro’s chest in the shower after, Shiro is kind enough not to mention.
Shiro covers his stark white hair with a beanie and Keith hides his with a hair tie when they hit the streets. Keith never had a chance to explore Paris last time, but Shiro seems to know the city like the back of his hand. He takes them down quiet backstreets, through cobblestone alleyways down to a tiny river pier, where a veiled gondola floats on the water.
“Your chariot for this evening, sir,” Shiro says with a mock-bow, and Keith snorts.
“God, you are such a dork.”
Shiro pouts, and Keith grins, nudged closer by the irresistible urge to kiss it away. He springs back though when a man stands at the stern of the little boat.
“It's okay,” Shiro soothes quietly, taking his hand. “Coran is… disturbingly good at NDA's.”
Keith definitely isn't going to query why on that.
“So it's going to be a private little cruise through the Paris waterways, just you and me… and a very quiet driver who will make sure we don't sink.”
Keith lets out a little startled laugh.
“You're kinda gross, you know.”
By that, he means this is by far the most romantic thing he's ever been subjected to. Keith can feel his ears burning, and it's almost a little too much. Shiro just offers a goofy grin, pulling him close with an arm around his waist.
“Only for you, baby,” he says, applying a kiss to his temple.
There are fruit and cheese on a platter that waits with a bottle of champagne for two. The seat at the centre of the boat offers plenty of space and comfort, but Keith sidles close to Shiro before the little vessel has a chance to stop rocking. And so under a shroud on the Seine at dusk, Keith gets a far softer introduction to the City of Light.
Their journey takes them first past the grand architecture of the Notre Dame, past a glimpse of the Pyramide du Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, and into the heart of the French capital. By the time the Eiffel Tower comes into view, lit up in gold against the night sky, Keith has forgotten about their skipper, or his concern about being spotted. He kisses Shiro with the fizz of champagne on his tongue and a warm simmer settled in deep his bones. Shiro smiles against his lips when he lingers, fingers brushing gently against his bare nape.
“You're missing the view,” he murmurs, to which Keith only hums, amused.
“No I'm not.”
It's difficult to simply leave it at good night when they find company in the hotel elevator, but Shiro shoots him a smile when the doors open on his level. It makes Keith's heart pound just as hard as any farewell kiss. Still, he thinks as he reaches the 19th floor, it would be a far nicer use of those soft lips. He wishes he could have had just one more. He feels his phone buzz in his pocket, and he rolls his eyes with an affectionate smile.
“So impatient,” he scolds to himself.
It's a blatant lie. Shiro has always been so patient, always matching his pace, never rushing. There’s a thrill in secret rendezvous, clandestine dates and hotel hookups, but Keith thinks he’s ready for more now. Ready to stop hiding. Ready to let others know he loves Shiro.
Keith stops short at that, a hand on his door handle.
I love him.
It’s been true for a while now, but it’s the first time he’s admitted it to himself. He loves Shiro. And not in just that bullshit “professional” way he's always told himself. It spreads something warm in his chest, and he can't hide his smile as he opens the door and fishes his phone out of his pocket. Maybe tomorrow he’ll tell Shiro. Maybe the day after that, he’ll be ready to tell his mom, his friends, Kolivan. And maybe, just maybe, after the French Open, he’ll be ready to tell everyone else.
Because, finally, for the first time in a long time, his life feels… right…
Lance sends it all into a death spiral with three little words.
holy shit dude
So on Thursday this week, the ITF announced that after 31 years, the Hopman Cup has been replaced in favour of an all-men competition with ranking points and a significant amount of prize money. It's going to bring in a lot of big male superstars, but I'm really bummed that the old round robin format - with women - has been shelved. This chapter has ended up being a tiny love letter to the Hopman Cup. Rest in peace dear friend...
Also re the tennis ball debate, I always thought it was green myself (I mean come on - the emoji is green!!) but Roger Federer says it's yellow and honestly I would trust that man with my life so I just guess it's yellow!
As for everything else: sorry for the second cliffhanger. Heh...
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It was the rivalry that captured the tennis world, but could it also be the sports greatest romance too?
World number one Takashi Shirogane has enjoyed a relatively unchallenged run as the greatest tennis has to offer. That is, until 21-year old Keith Kogane burst onto the scene. It's hard to believe the world number two has only been appearing on the professional circuit for a little under two years.
It hasn't always been an easy journey for Kogane. While there's no doubt his talent has always shined, he has been troubled throughout his career by criticism on and off the court. There was even speculation of enmity between the two… until Shirogane shocked the world with a snap of Kogane joining him at his surgical consultation after his Wimbledon win.
Since then, fans have had a front seat to a friendship both steadfast and true, spanning countries, competitions and championships. Just back in January, fans were treated to photos of the tennis superstars enjoying a rare day off on an island beach getaway with their Hopman doubles partners Allura Alforson (ranked women's no. 1) and Katherine Holt (no. 5).
For years, the public has wondered if there might have been sparks between Alforson and Shirogane, both students of New Zealand 90's star Coran Smythe. But maybe we've all had it wrong this whole time.
Druid Daily can now exclusively reveal candid images of Kogane and Shirogane after the Australian Open, and it seems that it might be game, set, perfect match for the pair. In the photos, Kogane and Shirogane are seen sharing an innocuous cup of coffee, but later leave the cafe hand in hand.
While neither player has ever publicly come forward about their sexuality, the photos acquired paint a clear picture of young love. From fond smiles, to gentle touches and even a private kiss shared on a quiet street corner.
For those who found their friendship a surprise, this is bound to be a shock. At this stage, little is known about the origins of this relationship, or how it might affect their professional rivalry, but we look forward to seeing more about the new power couple of tennis as this story develops.
Keith can't breathe. He can't breathe, he can't think. His phone rings but it feels so far away. He thinks he hears pounding, but he can't be sure if it's the door or his heart. It goes still for a minute, and somehow that's worse. Being alone with himself is a cruel kind of torture. This has to be a joke. Surely the world has better things to do than dissect the most vulnerable parts of him and stick it under a microscope for everyone to see.
But now everyone knows. Everyone knows and he didn't get to do it himself. He didn't even get to tell his own mother. He—
“Feet up, head between your knees, kid,” a rough voice tells him. “Breathe. Come on. You can do this.”
The hyperventilation has made him dizzy, but firm hands guide him and eventually the edges in his vision return. He looks up with red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks with a plea on his lips.
“Get me out of here, Kolivan.”
He doesn't know how his coach manages it, but Keith finds himself hidden away in a private rest area of the Air France lounge before his senses start to return. He has no idea how he made it through customs, but faintly he remembers Kolivan's final words.
“Don’t worry about the Open. Stay off social media. Try to sleep on the plane.”
Keith is grateful he doesn't dare try to tell him it will be okay. The initial hysteria may have faded to mere internal panic, but Keith knows he's only a hitched breath away from spiralling back to ground zero at terminal velocity. His hands are shaking though. Or at least, he thinks they are, until he realises his phone is vibrating in his hands. There's a familiar red heart at the top of the screen and, for a moment, he doesn't know what to do. It rings out before he can decide. Twelve missed calls, it informs him as the home screen returns. How has he missed twelve calls?
It starts vibrating urgently again and this time, with a gulp, he answers.
“Keith?” It makes his eyes sting instantly. “Baby, where are you?”
His voice comes out wrecked and small.
“I'm here, I'm here,” Shiro soothes, but Keith can hear the barely masked distress in his voice. “I've been looking for you. Please just tell me where you are.”
He's dangerously close to crumbling, and Shiro waits while he hiccups his breaths, pulling his feet up onto his seat to curl around himself. Finally, he manages to rasp, “I’m going home.”
There's a shaky breath in his ear.
“Okay,” his voice is artificially steady, “which terminal? I can be there in under an hour.”
It comes out far harsher than he means. The silence that hangs in its aftermath is sickening.
Keith presses his forehead to his knees.
“Just… the Open…”
“I don't care about the Open, Keith,” comes the desperate response. “I care about you .”
The words wedge themselves between his ribs, and Keith squeezes his eyes closed.
“What can I do to fix this?”
A sob spills forth before Keith can stop it.
“You didn't do anything wrong!” he says, furious, devastated, terrified. “You didn't— This hurts you too!”
“But it hurts you more,” Shiro murmurs. “I've been ready for this for years… My family—”
“Shiro, please…” Keith interrupts. “Don't…”
It's something he doesn't want to think about yet—about Krolia finding out from a stranger instead of him. About having his hand forced and the conversation stolen from him.
“Then let me be there with you,” Shiro begs. “Tell me what you need.”
“Just…” Keith’s voice is barely a whisper, “play the Open. I need some space. I need to be alone.”
There's a sharp little sound on the other end of the conversation, like a sudden breath or a suppressed sob.
“Keith,” and it comes through strained and wet, “are we okay?”
Keith's heart breaks in Shiro's hands once more. He doesn't know the answer.
“I need time,” is all he can tell him.
Keith sleeps the entire flight to Phoenix, but feels no more rested when they begin their descent. When he steps out bleary-eyed through arrivals, the awakening is harsh. A flash of light and the sickening sound of shutters. Cameras, just like before. Keith can't even fathom how they found out he was coming. Maybe they've been here for hours, vultures circling on the off-chance carrion will arrive on a silver platter. Keith certainly feels lifeless enough to meet the criteria. He hears a familiar, furious voice, and the sea of journalists part to make way for an intimidating figure. With eyes cast down, Keith feels his hand eased carefully from his bag handle. An arm goes protective around his shoulders.
“Let's go, kiddo.”
Keith sleeps in the car, he sleeps again after they arrive at his apartment and Krolia sends him ahead. He sleeps through breakfast, through lunch, and only stirs for dinner because Krolia wakes him. She watches him with concern as he pushes his food around on his plate, but she doesn't compel him to speak. Keith isn't sure whether that is a comfort or not. He showers—only because Krolia tells him to—then collapses into his unmade bed again, exhausted. There's voicemail on his phone, from a call unanswered while he slept, and Keith listens to it over and over until he slips under again.
“I will never give up on you, Keith. Please don't give up on yourself...”
It's just before noon when Keith emerges on his own volition. His eyes ache, his limbs feel slow, and it's as if his head has been stuffed with cotton. He still feels spent, but he doesn't think more sleep will fix that. This is something far more than simple fatigue. Something bone-deep, intangible and pressing against his psyche. Krolia looks up from her coffee mug when he steps out, and Keith hears the knell boom in his ears.
But between them, silence reigns as he sits on the other side of the kitchen table until it itches and crawls under his skin. Krolia waits, and Keith grows paranoid. Logically, he knows she's just being patient, letting him have control here, but logic is an alien concept now. Maybe there's something more to read into this. Maybe she's shocked. Horrified. Disgusted—
A hand reaches over the space between them to cover his knuckles, and after an uneven breath, he looks up into his mother's concerned eyes. With difficulty, he swallows and plunges face first.
“Have you seen?” he croaks, unsure if grief or lack of use is what ruins his voice.
Krolia nods grimly, and Keith drops his gaze down to the tabletop immediately. Where is he meant to go from here? What is he meant to say?
“I wanted to tell you,” he rasps out. “I did, I really did. I promise I—”
“Keith,” she interrupts, firm but not unkind. “Tell me. Word for word, as if this never happened. If you want to tell me, then I'm listening.”
It takes him a moment to gather, turning his hand over to return her grip. He's had these words for months, ready for the right moment. But he left them too long, and now they taste rotten on his tongue.
“Mom,” he starts after a long pause, “I've been seeing someone. For a couple of months now, actually. It's someone you know, but maybe not someone you would expect.”
He takes a shaky breath, and Krolia squeezes his hand gently.
“But before that, there's something I need to tell you.”
For this, he gathers all his fear, all his courage, and holds it tight like a lifeline as he forces himself to look up.
“Mom, I'm gay,” he says, unwavering.
“It's not something new and it's not something I'm uncertain about. I've known this about myself for a long time—since before you came back from active duty.”
His spark of courage burnt out with only fear left in its wake, Keith's eyes flick down to their hands where he holds a little tighter, praying she won't let go.
“But… it's been something I haven't been ready to share until now because I've been scared. Scared of the scrutiny. Scared of how it would affect my career… Scared of how it would affect our relationship. I wasn't sure when I would ever tell you, until,” he swallows hard, final words coming out whisper quiet, “until Shiro.”
Krolia doesn't interrupt, but when he takes a moment too long to continue, she fills the void.
“I know I haven't been there for you enough over the years,” she begins, and the tremor in her voice frightens him. “There is nothing I regret more than leaving you alone, especially after your father died. If I could change any moment in my life, it would be signing up for that one last mission, knowing what I know now.”
She squeezes his hand hard until he looks up to find a fierce, tearful gaze.
“But if you think for one second that loving that wonderful man would make me love you any less, then I have failed you more than I realised, Keith.”
It's delivered with so much force, so much feeling, that Keith feels it like a punch to the gut. It must show in his face, because Krolia gets to her feet immediately, letting go of his hand. Warmth envelops him only an instant later, and Keith feels his shoulders shake in her embrace. Affection isn't a complete stranger to them, but it's not their custom. Not their normal. This time, though, it feels like an eternity before they come apart, both flushed and glassy-eyed. Krolia wipes at his tears, and it doesn't solve everything, but Keith feels a little lighter when she fixes him with a watery smile.
“Well, the good news is you didn't inherit your dad's ugly crying genes.”
The crack is so unexpected, that it tears out a half-laugh, half-sob out of him that he almost chokes on.
“I wish he was here,” he whispers when he finds his voice again, stirring up an older grief. “I wish I had had the chance to tell him too.”
Krolia kisses his forehead, firm and long.
“He would have been so proud of you, kiddo,” she says when she pulls away. “Every single part of you.”
One conversation doesn't change the world, but it helps, and Keith feels a little more functionally human in its wake. Colours still seem muted, the world a little muffled, food a little bland. But it's a step up from monochrome, static silence and ash. He sleeps at a more regular hour that night and wakes with the rest of the world around him the next morning.
For all of Kolivan and Krolia's urging though, Keith can't keep away from the news entirely. It's too easy to search his name—or Shiro's—and find a flurry of new speculation and latest developments. The press aren't obtusely homophobic enough to label the entire affair a scandal, but it's a near enough thing. Some smugly claim that the public outing comes as no surprise, while others declare their shock and proclaim the tennis community will never be the same again. Then there are the more crass articles—ones that paint Keith as a seducer who had managed to take Shiro captive with his deceptive charm. Those stories make him nauseous.
There are new photos of Shiro, tired and unsmiling, on his way to the training courts, and all of Keith's guilt swells like a tsunami. Maybe Shiro claimed to be ready for this, but the fact still remains—Keith ran to the other side of the world to leave him to deal with it all alone. The press knows it too, if the latest borderline-gleeful articles are any indication. Keith doesn't know how to make that right. He doesn't pick up Shiro's calls.
Krolia doesn't comment when he turns on the French Open broadcast at precisely 2 am for the first day of play. Neither of them breathes a word for the ninety-two minutes it takes for Shiro to bow out in straight sets. The post-match press is a horror show, and Keith can't look away from the first gut-churning question posed.
“Really shocking result today, Shiro. One none of us would have expected. Do you think Keith Kogane had an influence on your game today?”
For the first time, Keith sees Shiro's perfect media mask crack and crumble.
“Would you lay off of him for just two seconds?” he snarls, broadcast live for the world. “The way you have all behaved has been utterly appalling. Do you have any shame at all?”
Coran tries subtly to brush his arm beside him, but Shiro shrugs him off.
“Our private lives are not a headline. We're human too. You've chased a champion player off the court, and—worse than that—you've exposed a part of him that he wasn't ready to share with you yet. Did you not think about the consequences of that? Or are you just chasing your next story? If you're looking for someone to blame for today, blame me—the guy with the racquet in his hand. And if you're looking for something deeper, try looking in the mirror tonight instead.”
There's a rush from Coran and the rest of Shiro's management to end the conference, and abruptly the telecast switches over to a schedule of the rest of the day's play. Keith can only stare at the screen, until Krolia rises, half-asleep, to turn it off for him.
“Okay, kiddo?” she asks, kissing his head when he nods mechanically. “Don't stay up too late.”
He hums his assent, watching her go. His phone buzzes beside him only a moment later.
I know you'll be asleep
now but please call
me when you see this
A year ago, Keith would have given anything to see Shiro snap at the media. Having Shiro defend him would have meant the world. Now, after seeing it play out in front of him, he suddenly feels cold. Maybe it was wrong to ever wish for such things.
Keith always thought he was Icarus, who fell in love with the bright and beautiful sun. But now he thinks he had it all wrong. From the very beginning, Shiro has been Icarus—bold and brave and breathtaking—and Keith is the all-consuming sun, beckoning him in close enough to melt his wings. Keith can't bear to watch him fall.
The message waits until morning.
It isn't all that awaits him in the morning. A cursory glance at social media is damning of Shiro's press conference, but he finds the finger pointed firmly at him. It would be funny if the joke wasn't so old. It sets his heart in ice.
“Keith,” Shiro breathes in his ear when he picks up. It's such a different voice to the one he heard on the broadcast last night. “God, I'm so glad you called—no Coran, not now—sorry, I wanted to talk before you saw the match.”
Keith feels an all too familiar rush of guilt.
“I stayed up,” he murmurs.
“Oh...” Shiro sounds embarrassed, and Keith hates that. He might be adamant on claiming the defeat as his own, but Keith knows if not for him, the result would have been far different. “Sorry it wasn't really worth waiting up for.”
“Don't apologise,” Keith says.
“It doesn't matter. At least now I don't have to stay.”
“I want to see you.”
“I don't think that's a good idea.”
The words come out rushed, abrupt. Too abrupt, if the sudden silence is any indication.
“... If this is about what I said in my post-match,” Shiro starts, sounding panicked.
Keith doesn't let him finish, feeling his heart rate climb.
“It's not that Shiro, it's— I appreciate you trying to defend me but— It's just—” He scrubs a hand over his face, frustrated enough that his eyes start to prickle. Shiro doesn't dare try to interrupt. “What's happening now… I would never forgive myself for derailing your career.”
“You're not—” Keith can hear someone trying to talk to get Shiro's attention, but it goes ignored. “Keith, you're not doing anything to my career.”
“We both know if it wasn't for me, you would have won that match easily.”
“It's true,” Keith says evenly, detaching his emotions from his words. This is purely logical, after all. “Remove me, and everything that's happened over the last four days goes away. The criticism goes away. The distractions go away.”
“It doesn't work like that. Keith, I lo—” Shiro cuts himself off abruptly. There's a shaky breath before he continues. “... I lost because I just had a bad game. I don't think of you like that. It's not your fault.”
“The rest of the world doesn't agree with you,” Keith counters. “I would guess even Coran would say the same.”
It hangs between them for a silent moment, and Keith knows he's right. So he stacks the last few stones around his heart and takes a deep breath.
“Wimbledon is a month away,” he starts quietly. “I think we should spend some time apart so we can both focus on our game.”
There's a soft little thump on the other end.
“Is this a break, or are you breaking up with me?”
Keith swallows when his aching heart tries to burst forth from its prison.
“Which would you prefer?”
“Neither, Keith!” It would sound furious if not for the way Shiro chokes on his name. “I just want you. You're letting this get between us when it doesn't have to. I don't care about wins and losses, God…”
Keith knows the pause is for composure, because the tremor from Shiro's voice is gone when he speaks again.
“Is this really what you want, then?”
It almost makes him crack.
“... You are everything to me,” Keith admits, and he knows that's revealing too much. “That's why I need to do this. I can't be the one who brings you down.”
Even the background noise in Keith's ear falls silent.
“Fine,” Shiro says, as determined as he's ever heard him. “If winning Wimbledon is all it takes to win you back, then that's what I'll do. I'll prove to you that you aren't my weakness.”
“I won't give up on you… Please don't give up on us.”
It strikes him still. Keith ends the call before he can say something stupid.
Keith doesn't know if they're just guessing, but the tabloids start whispering about Shiro's broken heart within the day. When neither party moves to deny, gossip solidifies into cold fact, and the latest news cycle begins turning its endless wheel. In a move that isn't surprising, but no less upsetting, Keith finds himself painted the villain again. He almost doesn't care about the horrible things the stories say—they're nothing compared to being outed on an international scale—but there is a new aspect Keith isn't prepared for.
He's had to put up with public criticism of his life on the court before, but now he's broken the heart of the people's champion, the whole world takes affront. It seems anyone with an internet connection has a personal vendetta against him. His mentions are full of vitriol, his Instagram flooded with insults and abuse. Whenever he finds new articles, they're brimming with comments from faceless strangers that condemn and hound and threaten.
To their credit, the tennis community seems quite alarmed. The ATP take down particular heinous remarks on their social media and issue public warnings that certain behaviours will not be tolerated. Other players, including Shiro, share anti-harassment sentiments online and during their press outings. It does little to stem the flow of hatred.
Krolia is utterly horrified by the developments. It takes all of Keith's best words to downplay both the scale and the effect the entire ordeal has on him. She wants to accompany him to Germany when he starts preparing to fly out, but he talks her down. He tells her he can't expect her to ditch the military for a few online bullies. In reality, he just doesn't want to pull her down with him on this slow descent into hell. Thank God she doesn't use social media.
He's become a little desensitised to the commentary, but waiting for his boarding call, he finally sees something that rends him breathless in the very worst way.
Kolivan frowns over his teacup.
“Are you searching your name again?” he asks gruffly.
It's not a lie. Not exactly. But opening up the replies on a compilation of his season's aces shared by the USTA's official Twitter yields a horrific result. Sitting at the top, stark as day, is a derogatory remark punctuated by a blatant homophobic slur. It's so blasé that it stuns him, reminds him of the more mortally terrifying part of this nightmare.
Lance has already engaged, his verified tick marking every spot where he tears into the comment. And most of the replies express similar disgust at the language. It doesn't matter. It still exists. That kind of sentiment still prevails in the world he lives in. It leaves him cold as he hits the report button with shaking fingers and returns back to his timeline.
Already there are a few tweets alluding to the situation; vague commentary about trolling, discrimination and the state of society behind a keyboard. It does nothing to make him feel better, despite the good intentions, until he stumbles across something unexpected.
James @ Halle Open 🎾 ☑ @grifsandspecs • 17m
If anyone wants to talk shit about
@k_kogane it should be bc he's a
dickhead, not bc he's gay
It prompts a burst of startled laughter from him. Amidst all the sympathy and outrage, it's a little grounding to see a message that doesn't pander to his feelings after disregarding them for so long.
Keith Kogane ☑ @k_kogane • 2s
replying to @grifsandspecs
Fuck you, Griffin.
Kolivan quirks a brow in the corner of his vision as Keith tries to smother a smile.
Keith Kogane ☑ @k_kogane • 2s
replying to @grifsandspecs & @k_kogane
It only takes a minute for a response to come through.
James @ Halle Open 🎾 ☑ @grifsandspecs • 52s
replying to @k_kogane
Yeah f**k you too or whatever
Keith Kogane ☑ @k_kogane • 27s
replying to @grifsandspecs
God you're so lame.
James @ Halle Open 🎾 ☑ @grifsandspecs • 8s
replying to @k_kogane
Fighting words? Let's see if you can
back them up at Halle.
Keith wonders if Griffin realises just how much it does to make him feel normal again, if only for a moment.
Keith takes Griffin's Halle Open crown on the same day Shiro decimates his own final at the Queen's Club Championships in London. It sets them both up for a red hot Wimbledon showdown in just a week's time, as the court announcer cheerfully points out after he receives his trophy.
Griffin surprises him again by placing a hand on his shoulder after the presentations.
“When do you fly out?”
Keith blinks down at the touch, and hastily Griffin retracts, looking a little embarrassed.
“Uh, tomorrow evening?” he answers, uncertain. “Why?”
Griffin clears his throat awkwardly.
“Couple of us are going to grab dinner if you want to join,” he mumbles. “There's no pressure or anything but if you—”
It startles both of them. But Keith is desperate to feel human again. Desperate to delay the collision course with Shiro he's hurtling toward in just a few days. A little human interaction can only be conducive to that, surely.
“Just don't tell me you plan on being in bed before nine.”
Griffin scowls. “It's the week before Wimbledon!”
“Wow, you really are boring,” Keith grins, watching Griffin go pink. He looks about two seconds from exploding, so Keith puts him out of his misery. “I'm teasing. Jesus, Grif. No wonder Lance enjoys shit-stirring.”
“Are you coming or not?”
Watching him scowl plucks at something strangely fond in Keith. Grounds him.
“First round's on me.”
Keith has met Ryan on the court before, but there are two new faces from the ladies competition sitting across from him at dinner. Nadia Rizavi, the more outgoing one, is quick to introduce herself and declare herself a big fan (much to Griffin's displeasure). Ina Leifsdottir is a little—a lot—more reserved, far more interested in calculating everyone's projected rankings if they take the trophy at Wimbledon.
“Even if Takashi Shirogane makes it to the final with you, a win would still move you up to number one,” she informs Keith plainly, ignoring Nadia's nudging and Ryan's horrified look.
“Leif…” Griffin says carefully, behind steepled hands, “we talked about this.”
Ina frowns, tapping her lip. “About how we're not supposed to bring up Takashi Shirogane? We're not talking about him. I just merely made an observation that included him.”
Griffin slaps his forehead while Ryan attempts to sink into his spot in the booth.
“... Did I make things awkward?” Ina asks, confused.
“It's fine,” Keith answers.
“Oh yeah, definitely awkward. I see now.”
“How about that round of drinks you promised?” Griffin says too loudly, jumping from his seat and slapping a hand on Keith's back.
“Uh, sure,” Keith laughs, taking the cue to get to his feet.
Griffin is still blushing when they reach the bar and place their orders.
“Sorry about Leif. She's, uh… she's just wired a little different, you know? She doesn't mean to come off abrasive.”
“It's alright, I get it,” Keith reassures. “I appreciate that you're trying to look out for me, but it's also really fucking weird, so please stop.”
“That's more like it,” Keith grins.
By the time they return with the table's drinks, it seems the other two have coached Ina's words.
“Keith, I realise I may have made you uncomfortable by mentioning your former lover's name,” she says once he sits down again. “As such, I will refrain from doing so for the rest of the evening, even during observational comments.”
“Good enough I guess,” Nadia mutters while Ryan seems to contemplate how easy it would be to drown himself in his cola.
“No, no, it's okay,” Keith interjects. “Ina, thank you for your consideration. However, that won't be necessary. You guys don't have to tiptoe around me. I'm… kinda shit at small talk as it is, without limiting what we can all talk about. So please, go ahead.”
There's a silence that settles over the table for a moment, and Keith wonders if he's made the situation worse. But then Nadia speaks up, and it's oddly soft given her enthusiastic introduction.
“I think you're really brave,” she says, nursing her lime soda close. “I come from a conservative family, so coming out to them terrifies me. I couldn't imagine being forced to do that on an international scale like you have.”
It takes Keith by surprise, and he laughs nervously.
“I ran away and I'm pretty sure I broke up with my boyfriend. Nothing about that is brave.”
“You're here now, aren't you?” Ryan counters. “Still playing, still winning tournaments in spite of the scrutiny. That's pretty inspirational.”
Keith stares at both of them, but they don't seem to be joking, expressions earnest and sincere.
“I-I don't know about that…”
“Just shut up and accept their admiration,” Griffin mutters, looking red in the face again. “No one expects you to handle that shit perfectly, but it's pretty cool you picked yourself up so quickly.”
And that stuns Keith. James Griffin is the last person he'd expect praise from. Particularly given that root of his entanglement with the press prior to this mess had been set in their rivalry. It really feels like the world has turned inside out.
“Anyone got the weather?”
Griffin looks confused. “Huh?”
“I just wanted to check if Hell has frozen over since you're trying to compliment me now too.”
“Oh, real funny Koga—”
“Actually, it's currently 15 degrees centigrade in Hell, Stjørdal,” Ina interjects, looking at her phone and sending the table into dead silence again. Keith stares at her and then Griffin, incredulous.
“Leif's… from Norway,” Griffin offers awkwardly.
Nadia bursts into laughter, and Keith can't help but follow. It's as if the entire room takes a deep breath, and Keith feels a little more at ease. The conversation flows from there, talking about hometowns, missed family and friends, and complaining about coaches and the demands of the tennis calendar. Eventually, it cycles back to Keith's online conflicts though, and Nadia gets heated.
“I can't believe there are still low lives out there who would call someone a—”
“Let's not repeat it,” Ryan interrupts gently.
Keith lowers his eyes to his empty glass, contemplating his next words.
“I had some editors in the US contact me after I touched down here to do stories about everything. ESPN contacted Kolivan too. They wanna do some video PSA about discrimination with sports stars.”
“That's really cool!” Nadia gushes.
But Keith grimaces.
“I'm… not sure how I feel about it. Kolivan's shown me the pitch. I know they want to cover racial and sexual discrimination with other athletes too. I just can't help but think…” He pauses, leaning back in his seat and picking at his coaster. “If I wasn't gay, I'd be the token for privilege. Male, American... Half the time, people don't even realise I'm Asian too until I point out my name. It feels—I don't know—wrong for me to be a voice for discrimination.”
Beside him, Ryan frowns thoughtfully. “I understand your concern, but Keith, there's no bigotry bingo card. You felt you had to hide part of who you were, right? And after that article, you've been targeted for your sexuality. On a very public scale too. As long as you're conscious about not speaking over other victims of prejudice, there's no reason why you shouldn't share your experiences.”
In the corner of his vision, Keith can see Nadia nodding along, but it's Ina who speaks next.
“If being your honest self makes you feel unsafe—it affects what you do, where you go, how you view the world—then imagine how people without the support you have feel,” she says matter-of-factly.
“What Ina means,” Griffin jumps in, “is yes, maybe you have some privilege, but perhaps you can use that in a considerate way to raise a voice for those who can't.”
Nadia reaches over to cover his hand.
“You aren't obligated to do anything,” she says seriously. “But seeing someone with your profile making a stand would mean the world to a lot of people. If you're up for it, you should go for it.”
Keith doesn't know what to say. His mouth opens and closes a few times, but every time he tries to speak, his throat tightens and his eyes threaten to sting. Nadia squeezes his hand.
“If you cry, I'll cry!” she declares, and Keith hiccups a laugh. Griffin pushes his soda water over in front of him, avoiding his eyes.
“Don't go soft on us now, Kogane,” he mutters.
Keith doesn't even bother to argue, taking a long swill of the glass until the ache in his throat eases.
“Thanks, guys,” he finally manages when he places it down again. “I'll think about it seriously after Wimbledon.”
There's a moment of contemplative silence before Ina breaks it unceremoniously.
“Did you know they served 33 metric tonnes of strawberries at Wimbledon last year?”
Keith lets out another bubble of unexpected laughter.
“The Brits really like their strawberries and cream, huh?”
Griffin huffs beside him.
“Wonder how many tea bags they went through...”
“I like your friends,” Keith tells him later, when it's just them walking back to their hotels.
“Yeah, well,” Griffin mumbles, hands in his pockets, “they like you too. They've been bugging me to introduce you to them for months now.”
“Does that make us friends then?”
Griffin flushes all the way to his hair.
“Maybe Hell really has frozen over.”
Keith can't help but laugh.
“No it hasn't,” he refutes cheerfully. “Ina already checked.”
Kolivan gives him the first day off when they arrive in Wimbledon, but Keith feels restless. He almost makes it to noon before he shoulders his racquet bag and fires off a quick message to his coach. He's one foot in the cab when he gets a response.
90min max. Come back
immediately if it rains.
Forgiveness instead of permission has always been best recourse. Keith's prepared to deal with the scolding later.
He's not prepared, however, for what waits for him when he steps onto the practice courts. It's oddly magnetic, the way he meets grey eyes across the net, and it seems as if time stops. Shiro freezes where he waits for Coran's serve too. It's not until a ball sails past his ear that he blinks and the spell breaks. With a quick readjustment of the shoulder strap of his bag, Keith attempts to make a hasty exit for the furthest court.
He stops short. Never mind the fact that every soul in earshot has eyes on him—after so long, hearing his voice makes him ache anew. He isn't sure he has the strength to break through it. He hears Coran protest, but it's distant under the sound of hurried footfalls, and Keith turns just as Shiro reaches him. There's a nauseating silence between them as they stand before each other, and Keith wants nothing more than to break it by pulling him close and whispering apologies into the hollow of his throat. But fear keeps him at arms-length, and the thought of their audience makes him hold his tongue.
“I saw what was said about you on the USTA page,” Shiro says after a long pause, voice flooded with concern. “Are you okay? Have you had anything like that since?”
“I'm fine.” An overstatement perhaps, but it isn't worth Shiro's worry. “I've talked about it more than I wanted already at Halle. I'm just focusing on backing myself up here now.”
Shiro watches him, assessing. After a moment, a determined look enters his eyes, the same Keith's used to seeing during their matches, and he swallows hard.
“I haven't forgotten my promise,” Shiro says quietly. “I'm going to give this everything.”
It gives him no comfort.
“You don't have to prove yourself to me,” Keith whispers, throat tight around his words.
The expression flickers, somewhere between fond and sad, and Keith doesn't have the power to stop him when Shiro takes his hand.
“I will though. I'm going to show you I can feel the way I do about you and still be at the top of my game. I'm going to show you and the rest of the world that the headlines can't stop me—stop us. I won't let them win, Keith.”
Coran calls out again, and Keith's eyes flick over Shiro's shoulder before they dart down to their hands.
“I have to go practice,” he mumbles, but his fingers disobey and squeeze instead of letting go. He can feel Shiro's eyes on him, but he doesn't dare look up. He won't leave if he sees his face now.
“... Okay,” Shiro says, running a gentle thumb over his knuckles. “I'll see you on the court.”
Keith feels so much more than a hand slip through his fingers when he flees.
Keith loses interest in his breakfast the instant Kolivan shows him the schedule of play. For the second year in a row, he finds Shiro on the opposite end of his draw. Once again, the final is the only chance they'll meet.
Keith wonders if the universe has a bizarre sense of poetic justice, or if someone in the All England Club just has a terrible sense of humour. Logically, he knows the line up comes from their rankings—both barely hanging onto their number 1 and 2 spots after another Parisian disaster—but paranoia is a close companion these days, and it feels a lot more like the universe working against him.
It's a different kind of focus he carries with him this year. That's to say, he hardly feels focused at all. It's a far cry from his last Wimbledon, where an aggressive mindset took him all the way to the final with straight-sets victories. Every game now is played within an inch of his life, and Keith sometimes wonders how he is still holding on. By the time he scrapes into the semi, he's played four more sets of tennis overall—another whole match—than his opponent in the last ten days. Close calls in his round of 16 and the quarter-final make a quick game a good game if he wants to be well rested for the final on Sunday.
Assuming he makes it through this.
Kolivan tells him to only focus on his bracket of the championships, but it's hard not to watch Shiro. He's been magnificent, only dropping a single set during his run to date. A career peak performance, according to the buzz that surrounds him. He's a short favourite to make it through his afternoon match after Keith's and to hold the cup at the end of it all.
But Keith can't look that far ahead. Not yet.
He battles through four frustratingly even sets, mentally preparing for a fifth during the break when the court announcer tells spectators that Shiro has made it through the final. It's a near-fatal blow; Keith has had an hour's head start with his match, and already Shiro has wrapped up his own. He closes his eyes, trying to call back to Kolivan's words before his warm up.
“Look too many steps ahead, and you'll trip on the one you're on, kid.”
Keith reaches for reserves he doesn't have when he walks back onto the court, forcing himself to come out firing. It takes his equally fatigued opponent by surprise, and the set wraps decisively at 6-1. It takes its toll though. Keith celebrates his win by doubling over and dry-heaving at the edge of the court. At least it gives him a solid reason to skip the post-match press and avoid the talk of his final match up. One mention of Shiro's name right now would make him crumble.
Kolivan has the court doctor check him out and give him the all-clear before imposing a social media blackout. Keith manages to fire one last message and fend off for a response before Kolivan plucks the phone from his hand. It's infuriating… but understandable. Keith has proven time and time again that he's incapable of staying away from the online drama.
“I was worried you didn't get my reply,” Pidge grins the next morning.
“Lobby at 10,” Keith quotes back. “I can't believe you guys actually managed to get tickets.”
“Never underestimate my power,” Lance says with apostle hands and faux-sagacity as he and Hunk join them. “If we have to sit around while you rest before your final, it might as well be while watching something interesting.”
“Would have been better if we were watching you play today though,” Hunk smiles to Pidge, wrapping an arm around her shoulder.
“Eh,” Pidge says noncommittally, but Keith can tell she's disappointed. “Romelle kinda came out of nowhere. I wasn't prepared for that kind of backhand at all. Next year, I guess.”
“You two were pretty stiff to miss out in your semi too,” Keith adds.
“Next year,” Lance echoes, while Hunk shoots a half smile.
“All up to you tomorrow, Keith. The Pride's pride depends on it.”
“Yeah, no pressure.”
"Uh, yah pressure," Lance replies, yelping when Pidge reaches up to twist his ear.
God, he's missed them.
“Player's box?” Keith hisses as he looks at his ticket. “How the hell—”
“Loverboy asked Allura if there was anything she could do,” Pidge says, rolling her eyes.
“Oh man, you have a lot to catch up on…”
Evidently. If Allura is reserving spots in her entourage for Lance, then who knows what else he's missed while being wrapped in his personal issues.
“Hang on,” he says, as they pass security, “if Allura has spare tickets for us, then don't you think that maybe she also…”
He doesn't have a chance to finish. A familiar face in the front row of the box looks up just as they arrive. Keith doesn't even realise he's stopped until Pidge runs into the back of him. It only takes her a second to see what's wrong.
“Just sit down Keith,” she says slowly, grabbing his hand. “We're right at the back here. Don't create a scene.”
Keith jumps at her voice, face heating with humiliation as he lets her tug him to their seats. When he glances back, Shiro has turned around in his seat to watch the court rigidly.
Lance is clueless when he and Hunk join them with a tray of Pimms and bowls of strawberries and cream.
“Oh shit, did you guys see Shiro?”
Keith sinks in his seat, but Pidge gives him a murderous look.
“I would pour this cup of half-diluted English hooch all over your brand new chinos if it wouldn't get us kicked out of the stadium,” she tells him evenly.
He laughs—a little high pitched—but switches seats with Hunk, just to be sure.
Keith hopes for a quick final, but Romelle proves to be as tricky for Allura as she was for Pidge, taking them to a third set. Shiro hasn't glanced back at him since the first moment he stepped into the box, and at least that makes it a little easier to wilfully ignore his presence.
That is, until the first break of the deciding set.
Keith can't explain it; he just feels like there are eyes on him. When he looks around, it seems like the people around him are hastily looking away. Then there are the whispers. He swears he hears his name over and over. The stadium roof is open, but he might as well be trapped with the sense of claustrophobia that settles over him.
“You're being paranoid again,” he coaches himself. “Stop overthinking things.”
It works for a moment.
Then Hunk, scrolling innocently on his phone, chokes on his drink beside him.
“Holy shit dude, are you okay?” Lance asks, beating his back unhelpfully. But Hunk looks at Keith wide-eyed instead, and he feels an instinctual dread wash over him.
“Let me see it,” he says, reaching for Hunk's phone.
“It's nothing,” Hunk wheezes.
He's a terrible liar even when he's not drowning on his drink. Keith snatches the device from his hands, heart thundering.
BREAKING, the Facebook post says. New pictures emerge from tennis star's Paris stabbing.
Keith feels his pulse thunder in his ears as he clicks the link. He recognises the street in an instant. It's hard to forget what a place looks like when it's been painted your own blood. He recognises his clothes, the stadium in the background, his limp body held in a tight grip.
He recognises the face of the person cradling him.
Wild eyes land on Shiro, finding him only seconds behind. He's pale when he looks up from the phone in his hands, stricken gaze locking on him immediately. His lips move in the shape of his name, but Keith doesn't hear it. He can't hear anything. It's as if the stadium has become a vacuum, and all that exists is the frantic beat of his heart.
“I… I need to go,” he thinks he says, but he can't be sure. He shoves Hunk's phone back into his hands and stumbles to his feet, rushing for the exit. Memories come rushing for him too. A glint of lamp light off of metal, the sear of pain and the frantic feeling of his heart pumping harder and harder while his blood drenches his collar. He thought he was over this. Thought he had swiftly moved past that trauma. Still, it all feels as fresh as if it were yesterday. As terrifying as if it could happen again at any second. Every face is a potential foe. Every corner is an opportunity for a knife and a more accurate strike.
He means to leave—to run from the stadium entirely—but his stomach churns and there's a burn rising in his throat that makes him divert his path to the nearest men's room instead, desperate. In one small stroke of luck, there's a stall free at the very end that Keith dashes toward. For the second day in a row, he finds himself heaving at Wimbledon.
His hearing starts to fade back in as he reaches with trembling fingers for the paper beside him, and it's only after he flushes the bowl that he realises someone is knocking at his door.
It's a voice that seems to haunt him now.
“Keith, please let me in.”
There's a beat of silence between them that makes Keith realise they're alone in here. He has no idea how Shiro managed that. Trying to steady his rapid heart, Keith watches the feet under the door shift.
“It was you,” he rasps.
“I was alone and bleeding and… you were the one who held me.”
The body on the other side slides down the cubicle door to sit against it.
Keith feels his breath catch in his throat. It's a revelation that rattles his bones. The faceless stranger, the one who cradled him so tenderly and kept him together when Keith was so sure he was falling apart… it had never been a stranger.
And Keith had been so furious with him. Had blocked his number. Had tried to convince them both for a while that Shiro was to blame. But he had been there in that moment. He had shared Keith's most mortally vulnerable minutes with him, and Keith had never even realised.
“Why didn't you say anything?” he asks, staring at the gap under the door. “This whole time…”
“I didn't know if you remembered,” Shiro says softly. “You never spoke about it, and I didn't know if that was because you didn't want to. I didn't even know how to bring it up. You… you went through hell that night, and I never wanted to make you relive that, especially if you were trying to forget.”
Keith doesn't know what to say, so Shiro fills the void with a sigh.
“I guess— I figured if you didn't know, then telling you would be self-serving. We… Our relationship back then… I didn't want you to think I was trying to leverage that against you, or make you feel guilty for how you felt about me back then.”
Keith doesn't need photographs to feel guilty. Gingerly, he shifts to rest his back against the door too.
“Why is this coming out now?”
“I don't know,” Shiro admits. “I had Coran seek out an immediate injunction when I found out about the photos. I'm not sure if someone has decided to breach that now, or if a judge has overturned it without my knowledge.”
It takes Keith by surprise.
“You tried to hide them?”
“I tried to protect you,” Shiro counters. “But… I just made it worse again, I think.” He gives a humourless laugh. “I seem to be pretty good at that when it comes to you.”
“No, I…” It would be so easy to slip his hand under the door and reach for Shiro's. Or to unlatch the lock and sit in front of him. Keith does neither. “I appreciate you were trying to do what's best.”
“You should head back to the match before it finishes. Allura needs your support out there.”
Keith knows he's playing dirty, but he needs to think. And he's not sure he can do that with Shiro only inches away. There's a quiet pause, then the body on the other side shifts.
“Okay,” Shiro says, and it feels oddly intimate for the setting they find themselves in. “I'll see you tomorrow, Keith.”
He disappears from the gap under the door, but Keith's voice betrays him as he hears his footsteps move further away.
“Shiro?” The steps pause. “Do plan on keeping your promise?”
Shiro doesn't hesitate.
“More now than ever.”
Sunday morning has never felt more foreboding. The sun is out, the wind is perfect, but Keith still feels the weight of omen lingering above him as he pulls on his tennis whites. Kolivan joins him in the car to the stadium and takes the opportunity to give him some last words of advice.
“You need to set aside everything that's happened to you over the last year. Your attack, last year's Wimbledon, the media circus. Those have all happened already and there's nothing you can do to change it.”
Keith wants to have words with whoever taught Kolivan his pep talk technique.
“But today? This final? You do have control over that,” he continues, with enough force to make Keith look at him without direction. “And you're going to need to let go of your past if you want to succeed. Don't let your emotions cloud your judgements. Trust your instincts. Back yourself.” Keith thinks he sees a hint of pride in his eyes. “You are the best player in this competition. You could be the best there's ever been. Show the world that.”
Kolivan's words after Melbourne still sit heavy with him. A win today doesn't just mean a championship—it means taking over as the world's number one. He wants it. God, how he wants it. But Keith still isn't sure how he feels about taking both from Shiro.
“Don't come away from this with regrets, Keith.”
Easier said than done.
The noise as he walks onto Centre Court is still as deafening as ever, but it kicks up a notch when Shiro arrives only a few moments later. The crowd adores him, and Keith can't help but feel relieved. At least he hasn't managed to ruin that.
The grass at the baseline has already been worn down to dirt when he moves out to warm up. He should know. He's helped run those lines into dust these last two weeks himself.
There's no exchange between the two of them. Shiro is all iron focus, and Keith works on finding his. Shiro's smile only returns when they both come to the net to greet the young kid in charge of the coin toss. It goes Shiro's way, and this time Keith isn't surprised when the first serve is handed to him. He had planned to do the same too after all.
The noise of the crowd swells as they take their places at either end, but the moment he bounces the ball on the baseline, all goes quiet. It brings a little smile to his face as he raises his racquet to serve.
But by the time they're halfway through the first set, Keith doesn't feel like smiling any more. Shiro breaks his serve in the fifth game, but Keith can't find an opening anywhere. Shiro is playing a ruthless game, not one shot, one step out of place. Keith isn't sure he can put it down to a slow start. At love-40, he's standing on the wrong side of 3 set points, but the serve is still his. If he can just focus, he can make it through and level them back to five games apiece. He takes a breath to compose and goes for his reliable ace: a centre line shot at high speed.
It connects with a satisfying twang of his racquet strings. The follow-through is perfect, and the ball flies fast and accurate.
… And Shiro manages to return it, turning his speed against him with a power slam Keith has no hope in hell of reaching.
“Game. First set, Shirogane,” the chair umpire announces. “New set.”
Keith would be lying if he said he wasn't rattled. Shiro promised to throw everything at this title and, right now, Keith feels pretty battered. But the new set is a clean slate, and he's not out of it yet. He tells himself youth is on his side… never mind the fact that Shiro is seven sets fresher than him coming into this match.
Shiro isn't afraid to make him run, so Keith tries to return the favour when they line up for the second set. He sends his shots cross-court at every opportunity in the hope Shiro's game may suffer under pressure. But Shiro doesn't miss a beat. He always seems to know the exact moment to land a drop shot high in Keith's court, or when to strike with an ace that kisses the outside edge of the service box with razor precision. Sometimes Keith wonders if he picks a spot and simply commands the ball to land there, such is his poise and accuracy. He doesn't even make his first double fault until late in the set, but Keith still struggles to break his serve.
In that respect, the set is a rather dull affair. Keith feels like he's wrestling for every point, but the scoreboard only reflects an even effort: five games apiece after Shiro's fifth serve. Keith brings it to 6-5 when he takes command of the serve, but he's starting to panic. They're already rounding out the ninety-minute mark, and if Shiro holds his serve, it will take them to tiebreak. Keith doesn't want to extend this match any further than it needs to be.
The roof is open, but Keith is starting to reach that uncomfortable stage of sweating, where his clothes are starting to cling to his skin and his hair sticks to the back of his neck. He pulls up the hem of his shirt to wipe it out of his eyes as he walks back to the baseline, and ignores the predictable ruckus and wolf whistles it stirs from the crowd.
“Thank you,” the chair umpire warns the stadium sternly.
Shiro serves safely, but it's only to give Keith a false sense of security. He hits him with another drop shot on the return, and Keith races to meet it with a half-volley that lobs the ball short but high. Shiro only has eyes for the shot, running to position himself under the ball. The smash shot is brutal… and Keith barely turns in time to protect himself when it goes straight for him. He hisses at the impact, mostly out of surprise. It's been a while since he last took a body shot.
“Shit, Keith, are you okay?”
The concern in Shiro's face isn't manufactured when Keith looks up to see him at the net. His hip stings where the ball made contact. It will probably bruise, but it's unlikely to have an impact on his game. Keith waves him off.
“It's fine, it's fine.”
That's the blow that truly hurts.
Shiro wobbles his next serve though, and Keith takes advantage, getting ahead for his first real shot at break point for the entire match. Any hope for sympathy would be naive though, and at 30-40 in his favour, Keith knows there's no chance Shiro will start going easy on him now. Keith feels desperate for the next point—to avoid deuce, to avoid a tiebreaker, to take the set cleanly and quickly. But it's not something that comes easy.
Shiro brings him to the net with a short serve, and from there he's like a puppet-master, standing at the corner of the baseline while he sends Keith cross-court back and forth with terrifying ease. A ball girl has to jump out of his path when Keith lunges to return at the net pole, and by the time he halts his slide to watch where it lands, Shiro is already calmly collecting and sending it to the opposite end of the net. But Keith can't give this point up. He just can't. He needs to stave off the deuce and break, or risk tiebreak.
He spins so hard on his toes that his ankle twinges in protest, but he ignores it to sprint to the ball before it can make ground a second time on his side. Shiro's stroke sends it exceptionally wide, and Keith only just gets a racquet to it, sending it not over the net, but between the net pole and the umpire's chair. Shiro rushes as it lands just inside his court, taken by surprise, but he's a second too late. It bounces again, just out of reach.
“Game. Second set, Kogane,” the umpire says as the crowd roars. “One set all. New set.”
Every breath comes a little too hard for Keith's liking as he walks to the bench, hopping a little as his ankle twinges. He can't fatigue this early. Not when he only has one set to his name. And he can't get injured now. He signals for the medical trainer.
"Are you calling for a timeout?" the umpire asks, away from the microphone as Shiro watches with a frown.
"Just strapping my ankle," Keith responds, pulling off his right shoe as the trainer kneels in front of him. "We'll be done before the next set, right?"
The trainer nods with a smile, already taping around his Achilles. Keith sits back to take a sip of his water, ignoring the banana on the top of his bag. He's far too anxious to eat right now. The trainer finishes up just as the umpire calls time, so Keith quickly pulls on his sock and ties a messy double knot in his laces, testing the feel of the strapping and giving the trainer a thumbs up as he reaches for his racquet. It's his serve.
And Shiro breaks him right out the gate.
The crowd love it, calling out encouragement for their champion and chanting his name. Keith knows how they want this match to go. Resisting the urge to panic, he manages to hold from there, but so does Shiro. Down four games to five, Keith runs out of challenges for the set. So when Shiro's serve for set point goes wide, but no one makes the line call, Keith throws his hand up on instinct.
"You have no challenges remaining, Mr Kogane," the umpire informs him, and Keith feels his heart sink. He's been here before, with two broken racquets and a whole lot more resentment. It's the worst kind of deja vu.
Keith must be delirious, but when he looks up, Shiro is at the net, looking directly at the chair umpire.
"You wish to challenge your own serve?"
"I'm fairly certain it was out, yes."
It's not against the rules, not completely unheard of. But usually, a challenge on own service comes for an attempt at a do-over when the opponent's return is a winner—not to reverse the server's own set win.
The umpire seems in disbelief too.
"Shirogane challenges the call. Ball called in."
Keith almost forgets to watch the hawkeye as the crowd starts slowly clapping, staring at Shiro in shock. But the analysis comes through and the result is clear as day.
"Out," the umpire amends as the crowd rumbles. "Shirogane has three challenges remaining."
Keith repositions himself back in his corner, twirling the handle of his racquet to dispel his nervous energy.
"Second service, Shirogane."
It doesn't matter. Shiro aces him on the second serve—fair and square.
"Shirogane leads two sets to one."
Now Keith starts to panic. The only way he can take the championship at this stage is if he manages to hang on and push this to a fifth, deciding set. Assuming he has it in him to win the fourth.
"Is this all I have?" he wonders as he accepts his towel from a ball boy and makes his way back to his bench. "Can I even win this?"
His ankle seems to be holding up, but he can feel the beginnings of cramp working its way into his calves and thighs. His shirt is completely soaked through and he just feels… miserable, actually. The odds are against him and the wall before him seems insurmountable. How could he possibly—
"You've got this, Keith!"
He blinks, looking up in the direction of the voice.
"It's not over yet! Keep fighting!"
His eyes land on Pidge, hands cupped around her mouth. Beside her, Hunk and Lance call out their own words of encouragement.
"One set at a time, Keith!"
Keith snorts at that and just stops himself short of flipping Lance off in front of the royal box.
"Doing better than you, McClain!" he calls back.
The ripple of laughter from the crowd around him goes a long way to settle his nerves and clear the doubts from his mind. Maybe he's at the disadvantage, but they're right—he can't give up yet.
It's a little easier to ignore his aches and fatigue when the umpire calls time. It's his serve to start the set again, and this time he doesn't let it go. But Shiro doesn't give an inch either, and an invariable tug of war begins for the fourth. Keith wants to scream in utter frustration when Shiro manages to save three break points and win the deuce to bring them to six games all. He glances over at the clock. Three hours and eighteen minutes marks the start of tiebreak and Keith's fight to stay in this match. First to 7… provided one of them gets a game clear first. He's only broken Shiro's serve once this entire match. He'll need to find a way to do it again here, otherwise it's over. Shiro gets the starting serve, and it kicks off almost laughably predictable with an ace.
Keith has the next two serves, and he holds on by the width of a hair when Shiro challenges the second point and hawkeye rules against him. Just. The ball barely brushes the outer edge of the line on the replay.
"Shirogane has two challenges remaining. Kogane leads two to one."
Keith would breathe a sigh of relief if he wasn't already panting so hard. The stalemate continues as they swap pairs of serves.
So much for first to seven. Neither of them are a game clear. Shiro bounces the ball for his second serve.
"Break," Keith chants in his head. Already they've blasted through the half-hour mark of this tiebreaker. "Just break, just break, just…"
He prepares for the ball to come to his outside edge—Shiro's safe, reliable serve—but it comes down the centre instead. Keith's breath catches, and he shifts his centre of gravity to his left. Only pure reflex gets his racquet to ball, but it's a limp return. It hits the top of the net…
And lands, dead, on Shiro's side.
"Kogane leads eleven to ten."
It feels a little cheap, just a pure stroke of luck. Keith doesn't even know how he managed to connect, but he'll take it. It’s his turn to serve.
His arm trembles as he raises it for a ball, inspecting the three thrown to him and discarding one, pocketing another, and keeping the smoothest, newest one in hand. He doesn't know how much power he has left in his serve, but on the other side of the net, Shiro looks tired now too. His fast serve, his specialty, is a risk this far into play. But it also makes it unexpected. His wild card. Keith huffs a quiet breath of a laugh to himself as he bounces the ball, waiting for the crowd to go quiet.
With a brief glance to the other side of the court, he throws the ball high, a tiny fluorescent yellow sun that seems to hover in the sky above him for the briefest moment. Then he takes flight, springing from behind the baseline to meet it. There's only a tiny fraction of time, a splinter of a second where he connects, but it's golden. In the next instant, it slams into the backboard behind Shiro with a colossal bang. There's no call. No challenge.
"Set, Kogane. Two sets all."
The crowd is already cheering, but then it swells with sounds of disbelief. His speed must be up, he gathers. He figures it's reasonable. It felt good in his hand. But the number he sees when he turns to the board is a bit unfathomable.
Keith places his hands on his hips, trying to catch his breath as he calls out to the chair umpire.
"What's that in miles?"
The umpire plays around with something on his screen before responding.
"... About 157.95 I believe."
Keith's eyes go wide.
"Shit, that's kind of fast."
The umpire laughs instead of giving him a warning.
"As long as the ATP is happy to recognise it, it should put you top of their official records."
He feels a little stunned as he stumbles back to his bench. Shiro is already sitting on his side, face in his towel. He has no idea what he’s thinking going into this fifth set.
But then it hits him: he's held on. He's made it to the decider. Somehow, this match isn't over. Keith doesn't know how he could possibly make it to the end when he's already this exhausted, but the adrenaline from his serve hushes that thought quickly. He tries to calm himself down to avoid wasting energy through restless fidgeting and bouncing knees. He's going to need every ounce he can get in this last set.
"Time," the umpire calls, and the cheers start up again. Who they're for at this stage, Keith doesn't know. It's all a warble as he turns his attention to the most important person in the stadium already pocketing a tennis ball for the first serve. They haven't even started, and already Shiro pauses to wipe the sweat from his brow with his wristband. There's no easy end in sight. The rules stipulate that they won't go to tiebreak in the final set until the score reaches 12 games all. It's an outcome Keith needs to avoid at all costs. With the clock ready to tick past four hours, Keith has to imagine Shiro's thinking the same. Surely he's utterly spent at this point, ready for this to be over. But when Shiro glances up, his eyes are steel and his jaw set tight. He's here to win. That hasn't changed. It's frankly intimidating.
Shiro must feel he has something to prove after Keith's final serve, because the shot that comes at him is a nasty little thing—full of spin that makes it bounce unpredictably and comes off Keith's racquet strings at the entirely wrong angle.
Keith wonders why the linesman's call is truly necessary when the ball lands in the front row.
But instead of being overwhelmed with a sense of dread, Keith feels a thrill shoot up his spine. Shiro shouldn't be making such precise, skilful slices four hours into gameplay. And he shouldn't be throwing down the fastest serves Wimbledon has ever seen. Perhaps he really is delirious. But Keith realises something—he loves this. Loves the ache in his body, loves the fear of skating a razor-thin edge between glory and defeat.
He loves playing against Shiro.
So when Shiro takes the first game of the last set, Keith doesn't despair. He simply smiles, rolls his shoulders and calls for his ball, ready to fight back in kind.
It seems like it's going to be another back and forth struggle, until Keith breaks Shiro's third serve to take the lead three games to two. Keith doesn't quite grasp the gravity of that until he holds his following serve to take him two games clear.
"Game. Kogane leads four games to two."
If he holds now, that's the set. That's the match. He can feel his heart in his throat, a reminder of a victory suddenly within his reach. Shiro's heart must be pounding too. He throws everything at Keith to ensure he doesn't break him again. It's more than determination. For the first time in their history, Keith feels pure, unadulterated desperation on the end of every ball he receives. When the serve returns to him again, Keith barely wins the game to bring them to 5-3. It's no cause to panic, even when Shiro wins the next game. All he has to do is serve cleanly for one last passage of play, and Wimbledon is his. He can almost taste it.
Shiro won't let him have it so easily now.
At 40-30, Keith holds Championship Point in his hand—the first for the match. He's had to fight for it. Shiro refuses to back down. But if he can hold just one last time, then this is over. The trophy is almost in his hands. Bouncing the ball on the baseline, Keith tries to drown out the crowd and clear his mind. He'll go for his reliable ace: quick and down the centre line.
From the second he throws the ball in the air, he knows it's good. It flies straight above him, comes off his strings at the right angle, rockets down the line flawlessly.
And Shiro reads him like an open book. Keith can only blink when the return sails past him like a bullet.
For a moment, Keith doesn't understand. Everything about that serve felt perfect. It should have worked. But perhaps for a moment, he looked too far forward and tripped on the step under him, just like Kolivan warned. He glances up to where Shiro is already waiting for his serve at the other side of the court. That fire still hasn't gone out of his eyes.
It's a struggle of wills. Advantage Kogane. Deuce. Rinse and repeat. Shiro just won't let go. It's as frustrating as it is utterly inspiring. When Keith sacrifices Championship Point again to bring them to their sixth deuce, he almost wishes it would end for his sanity's sake. Sweat drips from his chin quicker than he can wipe it away, and his arm aches when he throws the ball up at the baseline, reminding him of every single second he's spent on this court this afternoon, of how tired his body is. The first serve goes comically wide.
And the next goes directly into the net.
Keith knows he's played this game clean—they both have—so he can't beat himself up too much over an unforced error born of fatigue.
That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. Especially when Shiro converts his advantage into another devastating drop shot to break his serve and level them at five games all. Shiro serves, and he edges that score out to 5-6. Any semblance of security, of control that Keith convinced himself he had gathered has vanished in the space of two games. He needs to break Shiro again.
If Shiro doesn't break him first.
"Game. Six games all."
"Game. Shirogane leads seven games to six."
It turns into dire straits only a few points into Keith's serve when Shiro stuns him with a sudden second (or is it third… fifth?) wind. Slices and slams and side spins drive Keith to his knees, both figuratively and literally when Keith tries to reverse his motion to meet Shiro's return and his legs only crumple under him instead.
It hands Shiro two Championship Points and for Keith, it feels like rapture arrives for him alone in the middle of Centre Court. This could be the moment that breaks him. If he lost now, it would be so easy to say he did it with honour, that he gave it his all. Even his worst critics would have little to dismantle after over four and half hours of tennis. It's been a marathon, and both of them have thrown their best at each other. It would be understandable to slip here. A noble defeat.
That's not good enough for Keith though. He grits teeth, grabs the net, and uses his racquet to push himself back to his feet and calls for the next ball. He focuses on sending Shiro cross-court to wear him down, instead of relying on errors.
By now the sounds coming out of him are far from elegant. Every hit drives out the breath out of his lungs in punches that echo back to him off the stadium walls. Shiro goes left and Keith sends the ball right with a loud grunt that would be mortifying if he wasn't too tired to care.
Back on even ground, but far from out of the woods. Keith serves safe, not wanting to sabotage himself with an unforced error now. Shiro returns the favour by making him scramble for the return. He has a tight grip on the rally, and once again Keith feels like a hostage to his gameplay. After bringing him to the net, Shiro sends the ball deep. Keith ignores the way the muscles scream when he sprints to the baseline, meeting the ball with a desperate underarm. It sends the ball high, but it keeps him in the game—at least for now. He turns to see Shiro positioning himself under the moonball, and knows the overhead smash is coming. He watches the face of Shiro's racquet carefully, positions himself ready for the leap. It takes a gargantuan effort to make contact in the air. The fact that he manages to meet the smash and return it inside the lines clearly takes Shiro by surprise. His attempt to rally is only reflex, and he puts far too much power behind it.
A minor reprieve.
Still, no cause to celebrate. Taking a deep breath, fending off the tremor in his limbs, he lines up to serve again. He can't have too many fast serves left in him, but he tries anyway.
And sends it straight past the baseline.
Keith doesn't give himself time to get trapped in his own head, pulling the next ball from his pocket. The safe play would be to serve slow to maintain control and avoid double fault. Playing safe hasn't always worked out for him though. When he makes contact, it's a full body effort, pulling another loud, laboured sound from him. It's not nearly as fast as his fourth set finisher, but it still flies furiously.
Remaining unpredictable seems to be his key. Shiro lunges and misses, and the ball stays in.
"Game. Seven all."
He's hanging on—just. For how much longer, he's not quite sure. His body is burning up from the effort, and his ankle is coming back to haunt him with a vengeance. He knows it won't be long before he reaches critical failure. He needs to make his move. Now.
One last shot of adrenaline is his ride into the next game. It feels as though he's back from seeing his life flash before his eyes, but he's still fighting his way back from the brink. He's in survivalist mode, and he channels that into a series of brutal backhands, returns with a disarming spin and cross-court lobs. Keith doesn't even realise Shiro's serve is over until the umpire calls game.
"Kogane leads eight games to seven."
Keith has the ninety-second changeover to let the fact he's broken service again sink in, but this time he doesn't let himself run away with the thought of possible victory. Shiro has proven time and again in this set that he won't be counted out of this match. One glance over to him tells Keith he has a war on his hand in this game.
The proof is stark when they return to court and Shiro takes the first point to lead love-15. Keith relies on his cross-court strategy to bring the ledger to an even 30-30, but Shiro is as stubborn as ever, refusing to let go. The crowd has long since faded away in favour of static. All he can hear is his breath and his heartbeat. All he can see is Shiro, fearsome, beautiful, waiting to receive his serve. He told Keith he had something to prove to him at Wimbledon. Keith has felt that with every serve, every rally, every point. He thought he knew before, told Shiro he never owed him anything, but Keith understands now in a way he didn't before.
"I will never give up on you."
So he silences his body and channels everything into his response in the hopes Shiro might understand too. He knows there's no more fast serves from here, so he focuses on something clean and prepares for the rally. Defensive play has never been his speciality, but this time Keith decides to be patient, waiting for Shiro to make his move. Keith counts nine returns before the lethal drop shot comes, but this time, Keith has been waiting for it. Conserving his energy during the rally permits him a burst of speed, and he meets the shot with a featherlight touch. It skims the net and dribbles onto Shiro's side before he can even take a step toward it.
Championship point, again. The tenth for the match; his eighth. At this stage, it's still no cause for relief. Shiro is still on his tail and that fire in his eyes is in no danger of going out.
Keith serves safe again and instantly regrets it. Shiro fights like a gladiator, pushing him from one end of the baseline to the other, reaching for every return. Keith can't even ignore the strain in his body any more. Every hit is like a blow to his body and every step he takes ricochets all the way through his ankle and up into his body with burning agony. But he can't give up, he can't let go. Keith feels like he's been fighting forever, taking hit after hit from a merciless foe and he knows he's burned through all his reserves. His shot from the baseline corner goes limp, delivered straight to Shiro's feet. It's unfair how calm he looks as he lines up to collect. Keith knows it's going cross-court and short, because that's the winning shot, the impossible return. It goes in slow motion and Keith begs his body to obey as he sprints. The ball bounces once in his court, and Keith stretches impossibly for it to reach with his backhand before it can make ground again. He feels himself overbalancing as he swings recklessly in the hope it will travel further than the top of court for Shiro to fire back. Keith already knows he's going to ground. If Shiro gets to his shot, Keith will never get to his feet in time to recover. Keith doesn't even know if he'll be able to get up at all.
He knows Shiro will be expecting the cross-court return—it's the only reasonable backhand shot from here—but Keith curls his wrist in as the ball meets him to turn the face of racquet parallel with the net and make the passing shot instead.
Keith collides with the earth just as the ball sails past Shiro's racquet to kiss the line ever so fleetingly. In the dirt, Keith can only stare at the little yellow dot as it jumps into the hands of the linesman.
"Game, set, match," the umpire announces calmly. "Kogane wins 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6, 9-7."
It's… over? He whips his head around to check the board to be certain, and sure enough, beside a time stamp of four hours and 52 minutes, is the umpire's call. Keith's vision blurs immediately and he pushes himself up on his knees, lungs heaving. His white shirt is far from pristine, a mixture of sweat and dirt staining it a muddy brown all down his front.
Are these happy tears, he wonders. The high of winning is undeniable, but it comes unexpectedly with a sense of mourning. The match is over, and victory comes at the cost of Shiro's triumph. Keith thinks he might be crying for him too. He glances up to the other side of the net, where Shiro is already waiting, and it's a bittersweet expression on his face; disappointment, exhaustion, but ultimately, pride. The steel is gone, replaced with a soft smile just for him. On wobbly legs, Keith gets to his feet and limps to the net.
"You were incredible, Wild Card," he hears on the approach, squeezing tight on his pounding heart. It brings fresh tears to his eyes. "Well, world number one now, I guess. Congratulations. You deserve this."
Shiro takes his hand, so Keith takes a chance.
"I love you," he blurts, watching grey eyes go wide.
"I know this is the worst time to say it and that there's a lot we need to talk about, but I—"
A hand on his neck and a crash of lips against his in the instant that follows stops him short. There's a clatter as his racquet falls from his fingertips and he clings to the white polo across the net in kind, melting against him in a combination of relief and enervation. He can taste sweat and tears on parched lips and Keith whimpers quietly into it, overwhelmed. After everything they've been through, Shiro is still here. Wimbledon is one thing. This is a far sweeter victory.
"I was trying to show you," Shiro says, after pulling back only far enough for the words to escape. He brushes away Keith's tears, letting his thumb linger on the scar on his cheek. "I love you too. God—you have no idea how much."
Keith gives a half-sob, half-laugh, pressing his forehead to Shiro's.
"Maybe not, but I'm getting there."
And Shiro smiles, bright and wonderful, kissing him again briefly.
"How's your ankle?"
"Sore," Keith replies, huffing another laugh.
Shiro jumps over the net immediately, picking up his dropped racquet and wrapping an arm around his waist to support him.
"And your hip?" he asks, brushing over the spot where Keith had taken his body shot in the second set.
"Definitely bruising," Keith winces, but he quickly reassures Shiro with a grin as they approach the chair umpire together. "Going to need someone to kiss it better later."
"That can be arranged."
Even after they shake hands with the official, Shiro still doesn't let go, pausing at the net pole. Fingers slide into his hair to free his sweatband, but Shiro doesn't move to send it into the crowd.
"I'm keeping this one," he tells him, holding it firm.
He glances up into the stands for just a moment and suddenly Keith can hear the roar around them. With a laugh, Shiro pulls him close to his side as they walk to the benches, pressing another kiss to his temple. The crowd fills his ears with thunder.
It's Keith’s favourite part.
Well, we're finally here. And honestly, I didn't expect so many of you to read this. I realise tennis Sheith is a pretty niche AU so I was pretty shocked to get the feedback I did. Thank you so much - it's really meant the world to me.
I'm sorry it took me so long to resolve this cliffhanger and get the last chapter to you. I hope you feel like this is a satisfying conclusion to this arc. I've really enjoyed writing it, even when that last little Wimbledon match was slowing me down.
I just want to quickly thank Laura, Cami and Psy for stepping up when I asked for a sensitivity read for the MFEs dinner. They used their free time to give me some guidance and reassurance, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
I also wanted to gather up all the incredible art that came out of this fic, which has been such a surprise and so incredibly touching. There is a depth of talent in the fandom which blows my mind, and I am so humbled that you would use them for this little AU. Please follow them, retweet their art, buy them ko-fi's and sign up for their patreons because they are all amazing.
First up is of course Kei, who didn't for a second go "are you sure?" when I commissioned her to draw these boys all the way back in January when I was walking home from a Federer match back before I had even put a single word to paper. Her art was honestly a really big motivator and inspiration for this fic.
When I first saw Andy's art of Shiro's racquet kiss and Keith uniform issues, I was so overwhelmed that I showed it my parents who I was visiting at the time who have no fucking idea I write for fandom for fun. It made for a really awkward follow up conversation where I dodged the full truth about my writing (but they really loved your art too Andy!).
Thank you so much to everyone who commented and recc'ed and cheered me on and just wanted to talk to me about this fic because it really meant the world to me. Oh god, I'm running out of characters uhhhh okay twitter here, barely use tumblr anymore but here, playlist I listened to for the last 40k words here.
And if you made it this far, thank you, thank you, thank you!!! ❤️❤️❤️