Tennis Teens for Charity, Chapter 1
Kamio raised his hand and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "So that's it then."
The doctor sitting behind the oak wood desk looked genuinely sorry. "I regret I don't have any other news for you, Kamio."
Kamio desperately wanted to cry. Hit something. Scream. Something. Anything. He swallowed back a tsunami's worth of emotion, just enough to thank the doctor, bow shortly, accept the file folder full of papers, and leave the office. In the waiting room, his ten-year-old sister Sachiko was reading an English book for school. His other sister Michiko was eight, but was still able to amuse herself with the stack of colorful blocks that filled part of the play area in the corner. A rather large and intricate tower stretched up almost four feet tall. Michi's tongue was poking out of the corner of her mouth as she carefully set the last piece on top. Kamio cleared his throat. "It looks good."
Sachiko looked up and smiled. Michiko, predictably, didn't react. Kamio's throat clogged with a sob that wanted to escape, but he didn't let it. Closing his eyes, he inhaled, exhaled; then he tried again, speaking louder and waving his arm. "Michiko?"
Michiko's peripheral vision caught the movement, and she looked up, smiling when she saw him. "Nii-chan!"
"Put your hearing aid back in," he told her, gesturing to her pocket.
She nodded and did as he asked. "Are we going home now?"
"Yeah." Kamio waited while they gathered their things up. "Ready?"
His sisters nodded, and taking hold of his hands, they left the office.
Kamio let the girls' chatter wash over him as they rode the bus home. Thankfully, neither of them questioned him about the 'secret' meeting he'd had with the doctor, which was a blessing. He knew he had to tell them eventually, but he had to find the words for it first. Then, he had to come to terms with it himself. If he tried to explain to eight-year-old Miki that she was going to go deaf (and of course, having to try and explain exactly what that entailed), he was going to burst into tears before he could make her understand. That would probably scare her more than the news, anyway. "Sachi…pull the line please."
Sachiko had to kneel on the bench seat to reach the cord, but she yanked on it with all the enthusiasm a ten-year-old could muster for such an exciting activity. A minute later, the bus slowed to a stop, and Kamio herded his sisters off the bus. He had taken the afternoon off school for all of them to make the doctor's appointment. He had them all scheduled at the same time so he didn't have to skip any more time than necessary. Thankfully, Sachiko was still as healthy as a horse. He smiled at his sister, who was leading the youngest by the hand ahead of him, and then scowled down at the prescription he had initially shoved into his pocket but kept pulling out to look at. 'Iron pills,' he growled internally. 'Anaemic. Again.' The doctor had also prescribed more rest, and had notified Tayaka-san about Kamio's need for a prescription sedative to help him sleep.
Tayaka-san was his father's oldest friend and the lawyer who had helped Kamio establish a tentative custody agreement over his sisters from his mother. He had the power to talk to the schools with the authority of a parent, and the hospitals would deal with him if there was a need to take his sisters in. Tayaka-san had been appointed as a temporary guardian who would check up on them each week and allot funds when needed from the trusts Kamio's father had secured for his children. And all they had to do to get Kamio's mother to agree to it all, was to give her an allowance that would keep her from having to work ever again. Kamio didn't care if she spent the rest of her life partying until the cows came home, as long as he could keep his sisters with him. The battle to keep them had been a long one, and he was tired of thinking about it. He would take the iron pills without a fuss, but he wasn't gonna use the sedatives unless it was a true emergency. He didn't like the idea of being unable to wake up in case there was an emergency.
Turning the corner, Sachiko and Michiko broke out into a run down the street, racing to see who could get to their gate first. Kamio had practice that night. It was Thursday, which meant Kirihara would be over shortly. How often Akaya spent the night was kind of random (he rationalized it was more fun at Kamio's place than it was at his own), but Thursday nights were a given, and they took the bus together in the morning the next day to get to practice at Rikkai high – a ride that took at least an hour each time. Over two years, almost three they'd been together, and Kamio couldn't imagine functioning without him anymore.
"I win!" Sachi crowed, and Michi whined that it wasn't fair, Sachiko had longer legs. Kamio chuckled under his breath and jogged the last part of the way with his keys in hand.
It was only nearing five o'clock, which was really early for them. What with after school practice from 4:00 to 5:30 and the hour bus ride, Kamio (and sometimes Kirihara) didn't arrive home until after 6:30. On Thursdays, they'd pick up the girls from Minagawa-san, Kamio would grab a quick bite to eat, kiss everyone goodbye, and then rush to catch the train to the Tokyo Track and Field Club. As long as he was there by 7:20 or so, his coach didn't mind waiting a bit for him and sticking around twenty minutes later than everyone else.
To have this much time idle... it was a rare gift. Kamio decided that he could splurge for just one day. "Girls, how do you feel about pizza for dinner?"
Wide eyes accosted him. Was he serious? Could they order pizza? Tokyo, like many countries around the world, had a Pizza Hut as well as numerous other foreign fast food places, and the girls had fallen in love with the cheese pizza special at Domino's, having had it several times at Minagawa-san's (who could cheerfully live on Western take-out when she wasn't cooking it for herself).
His phone rang after he called in the order. It was Akaya. "Practice isn't over yet," Kamio said, smiling.
"I'm taking a break," Kirihara said dismissively. "I just whupped Niou's ass in singles practice." A grumbled, 'smart ass kid got lucky' drifted in the background, and Kamio chuckled at the victorious tone of his boyfriend's voice.
"Congratulations. Hurry up when practice is done. I ordered a pizza. It'll be here in an hour. We'll save ya a slice."
Kamio could almost hear the frown when Akaya spoke next. "What's wrong?"
"Screw that. You only splurge when you need a pick-me-up – and a big one at that."
There was absolutely no hiding anything from Akaya. He really should know better by now. Kamio checked to make sure his sisters were out of range; they had vacated the kitchen for the living room. "I got some bad news from the docs about Miki's ears." He leaned against the wall on the far side of the kitchen where he could see the girls if they entered.
"What is it?"
Kamio pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the utter despair and bleakness start to creep over him again, even as he took a deep breath to steady his voice. "She's gonna lose her hearing, 'Kaya. Completely. It's just a matter of time."
Kirihara swore, fluently and vividly. He must have turned his head away from the phone as he did so because a second later, he sounded further away from the mouthpiece. Two years of being such an integral part of Kamio's family meant he would have felt the sharpness of the news grating on him almost as much as Kamio did. Then he was back. "I'm coming home now, 'Kira."
"Finish practice," Kamio choked out. He squeezed his eyes shut. Gay or not, he was still a guy, and he had some pride left inside himself. "It can wait until later."
"The fuck it can. I'll grab a taxi, see you in thirty, okay?"
Kamio opened his mouth to repeat the order to finish practice but surprised himself when he agreed and hung up. In the other room, Michi giggled and started singing along with the theme song for Pocket Monsters. The idea of her not being able to hear even simple joys like a TV show, or her family's voices, gnawed a hole inside his chest. Instead of joining them in the living room, he sat down at the table to wait because for some reason, his legs refused to support his weight anymore.
Just one break, that's all he wanted. He guessed it really was too much to ask for.
"Cochlear implants, huh?"
Kamio nodded, mashing his palms against his eye sockets. Akaya let him get away with it for a minute before he felt warm, calloused hands pulling his away from his eyes. "What?"
"You're gonna damage your eyes that way," Akaya said gruffly. "And I can only handle one crisis at a time, okay?"
"Yeah." Kamio sighed and sat back, letting his gaze drift to the clock. Seven thirty. He was late for practice. Well, he would have been, had Akaya not made him call his coach to tell him he was taking the night off when he'd slammed through the front door at five thirty. "The implants, the operation, the tests, the rehab after with a specialist... we're looking at almost four and a half million yen. (50,000CAD). Insurance will cover part of it but not all, because it's not life threatening. I still need to come up with almost a million yen on my own and outside of a loan – which I ain't gonna get – I don't see it happening." He sighed. "If I use the trust money from our grandparents and my dad, we might scrape up enough to cover it and still have enough to cover bills until the end of high school."
"What about University for you? The girls?"
Akira looked away, swallowing hard. He really did want to go to University. "This is more important. Besides, there's a good chance I can qualify for a scholarship if I work hard at track and tennis, and keep my grades up."
"When do you gotta do this?" Kirihara asked quietly. "The operation, I mean."
"I dunno." Kamio drummed his fingers absently on the tabletop. "I have to talk to Tayaka-san next week about everything and see what we can do. The doc had to call him and give him our updated information since we're all still minors, so he knows all about Miki."
"How long does Miki have?"
"He said the rate of deterioration varies from person to person. I have a prescription for some meds that will reduce inflammation and keep her comfortable, and I have to get her a pair of those noise-reducing headphones to use any time she's in places with lots of loud noises."
"Like a tennis match?"
"Filled with screaming fan girls?" Kamio nodded. "That'd be one case, yeah."
"So best case, worst case?"
"Hard to say. He said she should have the operation sometime this year if we want to be sure of its effectiveness. If she goes completely deaf, the chances of an implant working are reduced even further."
"So you have some time."
Kamio blinked. "Well, I guess. But short of winning the lottery within the next eight months or so, there's not much chance of a change here."
Akaya looked pensive. "You know... I could ask my mo—"
"No." Kamio shot his boyfriend a grateful look but shook his head resolutely. "I'm not going to your mother and begging her to finance a several -thousand dollar operation for a kid she's only met a few times in her life."
"Why not?" Akaya countered swiftly. "The worst she can say is 'no.' There's no harm in asking."
"Because they're my sisters," Kamio said. "This is my responsibility to find a solution for, not your mom's, not yours."
Kirihara's expression changed, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Really?"
Kamio, caught by the change in tone, blinked. "Well… yes?"
"So it wasn't my responsibility to volunteer to watch the brats every Thursday night for the last two and a half years so you could join the track club?"
"And practically moving in back when you were in that car accident and couldn't get out of bed for almost two weeks straight? Who was responsible for them then?"
Kamio sighed. "Akaya…"
"Look, 'Kira." Kirihara now had the same determined look he usually got in a tough tennis match. Having it aimed at him was a little unnerving. "If we were adults, living together, Miki and Sachi would be my responsibility too right? I mean, they're yours in the eyes of the law, which means they'd be part of my family too."
Akira was touched. He reached out and touched Akaya's hand gently. "Yeah. And that means a lot to me that you'd say that. But I don't think it applies to two guys still in high school. You are not responsible for my siblings, Akaya."
"What if I want to be?" Kirihara blurted out, flushing bright red now.
Kamio leaned forward and brushed his lips with Akaya's in a feather-light kiss that sent a tingle through both of them. After a minute, he pulled back and smiled. "Like I said, that means a lot. More than you can imagine. And in all the ways that matter, you do share the responsibility with me. I wouldn't trust them with anyone else the way I trust them with you." He shook his head. "But you are free from all fiscal responsibilities at the moment. You know that."
Kirihara glared again, but the glare had lost a lot of its heat. "Well, I hope you'll at least let me help find a different way to help. Maybe we can arrange donations or something."
Akira looked horrified. "No. NO. Any donation drives would be followed by 'concerned' authorities wanting to know why I need to do this, and whether or not I'm truly capable of caring for my sisters. Forget it." Kirihara didn't look too happy, but he nodded slowly, apparently realizing the inherent danger in that sort of action. "Look, the docs said Michi could qualify for government assistance. It just takes a lot of paperwork and a lot of waiting." He frowned. "Unfortunately, like I said, hearing loss isn't considered life-threatening, so there's probably a long line ahead of her in terms of who the hospital will assist. Especially since our insurance is going to pay the bulk of it."
Akaya snarled soundlessly and clenched a fist. "That sucks."
"Tell me about it."
They sat in silence for a while, listening to the sounds of the TV in the other room. After a minute, Akaya looked over at Kamio again, biting his lip. "You uh... when you gonna tell Michiko?"
Kamio closed his eyes and lowered his head to his folded arms. "I don't know." He was almost pathetically grateful when Akaya let the silence go for a minute. A minute to regain his composure. That was all he needed.
It was a short reprieve. "What else?"
Akaya glared at him. "All three of you had a check up today. What else did he say?"
Kamio chuckled wryly. "Well, Sachiko continues to be the healthiest member of the household. I swear, I don't know where she gets it from."
"And you?" Kirihara's gaze pressed hard into him.
Kamio sighed and scrounged through his pockets. There was no point in hiding anything from Akaya when he'd just find out later on, and they'd agreed a long time ago to try the whole complete honesty thing. It had worked out pretty well for them up to that point, so he had no real incentive to stop himself from handing the prescriptions over.
Akaya flicked through them. "Freakin' anaemia again." He shot Kamio a look. "You're gonna start eating liver for dinner every damn night."
"Ugh." Kamio rolled his eyes. "I think not. Besides, I think those damn iron pills were meant for horses. They don't need to be supplemented."
Kirihara was ignoring him in favour of the second script. He looked a bit happier. "I'm going with you to get this filled," he said, waving the prescription for the sleep aids. "It's about freaking time. Normal people need more than five hours of sleep a night."
Kamio exchanged the sighing and eye-rolling for a glare. "Normal people don't have as many things to get done in a day as I do," he said petulantly.
"Whatever." Kirihara pushed himself up from the table. "C'mon, let's get the brats up for a walk. The drugstore down the road is open twenty-four hours."
Kamio gave in and rolled his eyes once more as he let his boyfriend pull him to his feet.
Tokyo Track Club
Seven days later, Kamio still hadn't told his sister what the doctor had said. He freely admitted he was a chicken, but he rationalized that it wasn't something he needed to tell her just yet. Maybe when he met with Tayaka-san he'd have some good news, and then he could tell Miki that everything would be solved once she had her operation.
Akaya had been really good about not nagging him to get his rear in gear, but Kamio knew he felt Michiko should be told. Kamio agreed. It was just hard to do, knowing how upset it would make her. Or worse, she wouldn't understand, and he would have to try to explain just what it would be like to not hear anything, and if he could do that without breaking down into tears, well, then he'd have to be tougher than he gave himself credit for.
All of these thoughts kept circling in his head, refusing to stop even for a coffee break, and he knew without asking his coach – who was glaring at the stopwatch like it had committed some sort of personal offense against him – that his time was far below what he was capable of.
Nothing seemed to be working out for him lately. Kamio took a deep breath and prepared to apologize yet again to his coach, also known as Shishido Ryuu. Ryuu was a student at the Tokyo University who was studying to be a fitness trainer. He was also a marathon runner currently studying to get his coaching licence to work with the Tokyo Track Club. Kamio had been surprised when Andersen-san – the man who had initially recruited him – had turned him over to the young man who would be the one to increase Kamio`s stamina to insane levels in a very short amount of time. Kamio had been surprised to learn that Ryuu was the older brother of Shishido Ryo of Hyoutei – one half of the famous Silver Pair.
Ryuu pushed him hard, but he was a fair person. He expected no more from Kamio than he would from himself, and he was always encouraging. Kamio hated the idea of letting him down.
Kamio couldn't focus, and it was affecting his stride. Ryuu could see it easily. When the redhead stumbled for a third time, he jogged over and put a hand up, making him come to a stop. "Hold up there, Kamio."
"Sorry Coach," Kamio panted. He bent over holding his stomach as he tried to slow his breathing. "I know I'm messing up big time tonight."
"No worries, Kamio." Ryuu cocked an eyebrow at him. "But I've never seen you triple fault before. You've been spaced out all night." He pointed at Kamio's hands, which were tightening into fists and relaxing, and then at his twitching feet. "You're all fidgety. I told you to cut down on the sugar before practice. A little gives you a burst. Too much makes you hyper."
Kamio blinked and then steadied his hands and feet. "It's not sugar," he said. "I've just got a lot on my mind. Sorry, I'll try it again—"
"Hold your breath." Ryuu held up a finger, and taking the towel from around his shoulders, he draped it over Kamio's head. "Come sit down a minute, have a drink, and tell me what's going on."
Kamio looked suspiciously like he was going to be mulishly stubborn, but then he sighed, and all the fight seemed to seep out of him. Ryuu smirked and tugged on Kamio's shirt to get him walking.
A few minutes later, they were both perched on a small bench beside the track, sipping from their water bottles. Ryuu rubbed the cool plastic against his forehead. "Mmmm. Feels good."
Kamio nodded. "Sorry, again. You know, for wasting your time."
Ryuu looked at him. "So why don't you tell me why you're wasting my time? I don't promise miracle solutions, but I have been known to help my own baby brother out with a few of his rough spots."
That got him a small smile – he knew Kamio was well familiar with his brother Ryo via the tennis club over the years. Then, Kamio set his water bottle down, leaning forward to brace his arms on his knees. "It's my sister."
"Michi. You know how she has a hearing condition?" Ryuu nodded. "She's had it from birth." Kamio stared at the ground, drilling holes into the grass with his eyes. "It's getting worse. The docs think she'll be completely deaf in a year or two. Maybe less."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Ryuu said gently. He put a light hand on Kamio's shoulder. "How's everyone taking it?"
Kamio's face seemed to close a bit. "Michiko and Sachiko don't know yet. Neither does my mom."
Ryuu blinked. He knew there was something off about Kamio's family – he'd heard the rumors, and Andersen-san had given him a brief idea on what to expect in terms of parental support (in a word, none), but this was a little bigger than a track club. "They don't know?"
"I just found out today," Kamio admitted. He stood abruptly and began pacing back and forth in front of the bench, obviously trying to work off some of his nervous energy. "I haven't told Michiko yet because she'll start crying. And then Sachiko will start crying. And then I'll start crying, and then Akaya will run, terrified by the overflow of oestrogen in the room, out the door, never to return. Then, as the only testosterone-producing individual in the house, I'll have to escape by drowning myself in the Sea of Japan."
Ryuu let out a short bark of laughter. Kamio gave him a small grin. "Is it really that bad?"
Kamio shook his head. "No. I mean, it is bad, and it will be bad, and there will be tears, but it'll pass eventually. I'm just not looking forward to it."
"I don't blame you." Ryuu looked thoughtful. "Did the doctors say there was a chance at a cure or anything?"
"Well, kinda." Kamio scratched the back of his head. "There's a surgery to put cochlear implants into her ears. The surgery, plus the rehab and the meds and all the other stuff equals out to a hell of a lot more than we can afford though. "
"Even with insurance?"
"Isn't there some kind of government grant you could apply for?"
"None that I know of. And the docs, well, they've promised to look for ways to cut the cost but they said it likely wouldn't be by much. I'd take out a loan except I'm a sixteen year old, unemployed high school student." He rolled his eyes. "Care to guess how many banks are willing to place a bet on that?"
"That sucks man," Ryuu said frankly, and Kamio nodded, blowing his breath out with a huff.
"It does. But I do feel better now, Coach." Kamio gave him a tired grin. "C'mon, I'll give it another shot. I promise, no more faulting."
"I'm gonna hold you to that, kid." Ryuu followed his charge back to the line.
The Shishido household
Kamio's problem stuck with Ryuu that night as he worked on his university homework. He enjoyed living at the dorms, but he liked to spend Tuesday and Thursday nights at home since the Tokyo clubhouse was closer to home than his own place. It also meant he got to catch up with his moody little brother who was moping over math problems at the table next to him. "They can't be that bad, Ryo. You're good in math."
"Hyoutei teachers are fucking sadists," Ryo grumbled, scrawling an answer into his notebook. "It's not that it's hard. It's that they gave us so many pages to do in one night. It's like all the teachers get together in the morning before class and decide, 'how can we fuck up the students' lives today?' One teacher names a set amount of homework, and then they all try to top her like it's a friggin' competition. Next thing you know, we all have hernias from carrying it home."
Ryuu snickered. "Cute. Very likely accurate. And while I don't care about your language, our mom and dad do and they aren't that far away, so you might wanna watch it."
They worked in amiable silence for a few minutes. Then, Ryo paused in working out quadratic equations and tapped his pencil on his textbook. "What did you do for your charity project in high school, Ryuu?"
Ryuu looked up from his anatomy books. "Hmm?"
"You know, that project where every student has to do so much volunteer work and fundraising in their last two years before they can graduate. Something about making us thoughtful, concerned citizens." Ryo snorted and dropped his pencil. "So lame, I swear."
"Ahh…" Ryuu nodded, remembering. "I teamed up with some of my friends and we organized a series of fundraising parties for the local animal shelter. We combined that with a lot of dog-walking shifts." He shuddered at the memory. "I came away from that with the realization that I like small dogs. The smaller the better. Big dogs crap like freaking horses."
Ryo looked disgusted. "Yeah, 'cause I really needed to hear that part." He rolled his eyes. "Thanks bro."
"Hey, you asked." Ryuu glanced over again, and flicked him on the shoulder. "So why did you ask?"
"Tryin' to come up with an idea for my group." Ryo pushed his textbooks away and lay his head down on the table. "Atobe announced that we third year Regulars will work together to come up with the best idea that'll set Hyoutei apart from all other schools."
"And make him look good in the bargain?"
Ryo pointed his index finger at his brother and mimicked the sound of a shot going off. "You got it."
"And no one's arguing with him about it?"
Ryo shot him a wry look. "It's Atobe. What good does arguing ever do with him? He'll just be 'ore-sama says this' and 'ore-sama says that' and either Oshitari or Gakuto will mock him. Next thing you know, he'll have Kabaji on our asses and we'll be running laps until judgment day. And we'll still have to do the damn project his way or we'll never hear the end of it."
Ryuu did his best not to let his amusement bleed into his voice. "Sounds like you've thought it through."
"No, I've just been in the same class as him for the last ten years. Believe it or not, I did learn to choose my battles, bro." Ryo grinned. "Besides if we let him do it his way, we'd have a charity project covered in frills and purple lace and him telling poor people they should be gracious for his presence. I don't know about you, but I have a reputation to maintain." Ryo sighed and closed his eyes. "Why can't everything just be about tennis? Life would be so much easier."
"One day kiddo, you're gonna discover a whole new world out there that doesn't involve tennis."
"Yeah. About the same time that you realize life doesn't revolve around marathon running." Ryo shot him a look. "I meant to ask you. How was practice last night?"
"Not too bad." Ryuu pushed his papers aside. Ryo was obviously in a chatty mood, which meant it was better to indulge him now and make up the work later. "Coaching is harder than it looks, let me tell you."
"You wanted to do it."
"I did and I do. Doesn't mean I can't complain once in a while." Ryuu flicked him again. Ryo puffed his breath out at him in annoyance. "Boss had me working with Kamio-kun again last night."
"Kamio…" Ryo frowned. "Oh yeah, I almost forgot he's part of the club now."
"You saw him there just a few weeks ago."
"So sue me for having a life." Ryo tossed an eraser at him, ducking with a grin as Ryuu batted it back to him. "You coaching Fudomine's redheaded wonder. That's interesting."
"Yeah. Man, was he having an off night."
"Really?" Ryo sounded mildly interested. "What do you mean?"
Ryuu steepled his fingers, drumming the pads together. "His sister's got a hearing condition. She's gonna go deaf without an operation, but Kamio's family can't afford it. It's really breaking him up."
Ryo frowned. "That sucks."
"Yup, it does. Count your blessings kiddo." Ryuu shrugged. A few things Andersen-san had told him about Kamio's situation rolled through his head and he chuckled ruefully. "I wouldn't wanna be in that kids' shoes for all the money in the world."
"Why do you say that?"
"It was bad enough babysitting one of you as a kid, Ryo. Even Atobe couldn't afford what it would take to get me to play father-figure to two of you. Kamio's got the weight of the world on his shoulders, and one day it's gonna break him down." Ryuu thought about stress lines getting etched deeper and deeper into Kamio's face each week as time went by. "And Michi's such a sweet kid too. Such a shame." Suddenly Ryuu remembered who he was talking to, and he shot a quick look at his brother. "Keep it under your hat, okay? That was kinda confidential. I shouldn't have said that to you."
"Whatever. I kinda already knew some of that because of what happened last year with Atobe's lawyer. Remember? Kamio's dating her kid." Ryo was still looking interested, his eyes suddenly wide. "Maybe we could use that."
"Use what? A lawyer?"
Ryo was looking off into space now. "No. A fundraiser to help fellow tennis players in need." His fingers drummed against the table faster as ideas obviously seemed to surge through him. "It's perfect!"
Ryuu was a little confused. "What kind of fundraiser?"
Ryo shot him a wide grin as he got to his feet, gathering his books. "Why, a tennis one of course!"
End chapter 1
Tennis Teens for Charity Cha pter 2
The more he thought about it, the more Shishido Ryo liked his idea. All of his sports magazines had, at one time or another, reported on charity sports events. Generally, they tended to be done by professionals, guaranteeing huge draws because of the athletes and celebrities that would turn up for them, but tennis was a big deal in Tokyo. Despite only being in high school, there was never a shortage of people coming to check them out. Ryo knew damn well that among the usual people his school played against, there were at least seven or eight people capable of going pro, and at least three who were gonna try it. Probably more, if he included the players from outside the Kanto region.
As much as he liked them, Ryo would much rather play tennis for charity than walk a herd of dogs.
The first thing he did when he got back up to his room was call Choutaro. His best friend and partner, Choutaro, would be the one to help organize how he could present the idea to Atobe in a way that the diva wouldn't be able to resist. Choutaro was very good at finding the tiniest flaws in his ideas and offering solutions for them.
Despite the late hour, his partner still answered with a cheerful greeting and listened quietly, offering only a 'hmm' and an 'I see' here and there. Ryo finally paused. "Well?"
"I think it's a good idea, Shishido-san," Choutaro said after minute. "And it's one the whole team can be involved with – they do encourage everyone to get a head start on their volunteer hours instead of waiting until the last year to meet the requirements."
That was an unexpected bonus. Ryo grinned into the phone. "What a hardship. I get to hang out with my best friend, meet graduation requirements and I get to play tennis. Win-win, all the way around."
"Just best friends?" Choutaro asked slyly.
Ryo blushed even though he knew Choutaro couldn't see it. While not officially dating, it was pretty obvious there was something between them that was stronger than simple friendship, and yet was different from the strong partnership they'd formed during their doubles career. Surprisingly enough, it was Choutaro who had grown more comfortable with the idea before Ryo, and he had taken to gently teasing Ryo whenever he thought he could get away with it. "Shut up." He knew Choutaro heard the tone more than the words.
"Sorry Shishido-san," Choutaro apologized, laughter still bubbling in his voice.
Kamio woke up Friday morning and grudgingly admitted he felt better for having taken the sedatives Akaya had ordered him to swallow the night before. Akaya didn't sleep over every night though, so it wasn't like he was going to develop a dependence on them. He could take them when necessary. At least that was how he made himself feel better about having to have them in the first place.
Speaking of Akaya, the former demon of Rikkai was apparently already up, Kamio discovered as he patted the side of the bed in search of his partner. He blearily opened his eyes and noted the pulled-back bedcovers. A minute later, his ears registered the muffled sound of the girls laughing, and Akaya's deep rumble of a voice drifting up the stairs. For a minute, he contemplated snuggling back into his pillow and catching five more minutes, but then he caught sight of the clock. Akaya had already let him sleep in an additional fifteen minutes. Further inspection showed the alarm hand re-set to go off in two more minutes. Kamio smiled sleepily. Sometimes Akaya really did think of everything.
He turned off the clock before it could go off, and pushed himself up. His practice clothes were already set out for him – Mother Akaya strikes again, he chuckled to himself – and he snagged them with one hand as he made his way to the shower.
Fifteen minutes later, showered, dressed, and feeling surprisingly hungry, he made his way downstairs. The air was heavy with the scent of bacon and eggs. Sachiko, Michiko and Kirihara all looked up as he entered the kitchen. "Western?"
Sachiko grinned. "There's rice and miso soup."
Kamio grinned back and ruffled her hair. Michiko had a mouthful of bacon but thankfully remembered her manners and waved at Kamio instead of shouting 'Good morning' as she usually did. He walked up to the stove where Akaya was carefully turning perfect strips of bacon over in the pan, keeping them crispy on the ends, slightly chewy in the middle, and not a hint of burn marks anywhere. "Good morning."
Akaya turned his head and kissed him firmly. "'Morning," he replied. He nodded at the bowl of rice already scooped for Kamio with a partially cooked egg spread out on top. "Go eat."
"Did I tell you recently that I love you?" Kamio hugged him and then picked up the bowl.
"Last night, as a matter of fact," Akaya smirked, and then pretended to flinch when Kamio gave him a light hip-check.
"Not in front of the monsters."
Kamio sat down with his sisters and started eating. A minute later, Akaya appeared at his side with one of his iron pills and a raised eyebrow as if to say, 'you gonna fight me on this?' Kamio sighed, and shook his head minutely. Akaya smiled and set a glass of apple juice down, before returning to the stove to fill his own plate.
"'Kira-nii, are you sick?" Michiko was looking at the large pill with concerned eyes.
Kamio shook his head. "Nah, sprout. It's kinda like a vitamin tablet. You know your chewable vitamins you take every day?" The girls nodded. "Well, I'm almost an adult so I don't get the sweet-tasting chewy ones. I get the big ones like this."
Sachiko looked at Akaya. "'Kaya-nii, where's your vitamins?"
"Don't need 'em," Kirihara said smugly, digging into his rice. "I'm as healthy as a flippin' horse."
Kamio rolled his eyes. "You girls almost ready for school?" he asked, changing the subject. Michiko nodded but Sachiko shook her head. "Sachi?"
"My school bag's not packed," she admitted. "But my homework is all finished."
"Good girl. Finish eating and then go get it ready, okay?" Kamio glanced at the clock. "We gotta leave in about fifteen minutes. " He and Akaya had practice at 7:30, which meant they needed to catch the 6:40 bus. It took less than five minutes to walk to Minagawa's home to drop them off – Sachiko was best friends with Hana-chan, Minagawa-san's daughter, and the cheerful woman had long ago agreed to take the girls to school together each morning. Then he and Akaya caught the bus and sprinted from the stop to the school, usually reaching the courts just as Yukimura and Sanada emerged from the locker room with the rest of the team to begin practice.
They had practice after class every day too, from four o'clock until five-thirty. Minagawa-san picked up Sachi and Michi with her daughter and would bring them to her home until Kamio (and sometimes Kirihara) arrived around 6:20 or so. Then it was home for dinner. Being that it was a Friday night, he didn't have track club practice. That meant a night of homework, relaxing with the girls – and, he thought wryly, looking at the piles of clothing stacked next to the small laundry room – washing clothes.
Sachi and Michi put their dishes in the sink and excused themselves from the table, disappearing into the living room to get ready. Kamio finished his rice, slurped up the miso soup, and then took his dishes to the sink. "You going home tonight?"
"Have to, man." Akaya shrugged. "Mom's actually gonna be home tonight and wants to see me. She had Chizuru schedule it in and everything."
Kamio didn't say anything. He didn't need to. It was a common occurrence in Akaya's life. His mother was a wonderful woman who loved her children, but she was never home to show it personally. Her love showed in the gifts she had her two personal assistants purchase and send to her home, or the loving text messages she sometimes remembered to send. She was a highly successful lawyer who worked with one of the most prestigious law firms in Japan. She was on call to work with the Atobe family, for Kami's sake. She represented everyone from celebrities, to sports stars, to reporters and was constantly flying around the country – and the world, sometimes - to meet with her clients. When actually in the country, she put in long hours at the firm, and spent most nights at exclusive restaurants, or in late-night meetings via conference calls all over the globe, from the United States to the United Kingdom.
While this meant that Akaya had grown up with every conceivable creature comfort known to mankind, it also meant that he was alone most of the time too. His sister, seven years older than him, had escaped a long time ago at the age of eighteen, pursuing her doctorate in psychology in the United States. Akaya hadn't seen her in almost six years. Every so often he got a card or an email from her.
His father was almost as bad, spending months of the time living in other countries as he helped them establish their companies. His father was a kind man, but Akaya hadn't seen the man in nearly a year now. His mother was often able to meet with him when her business trips took her out wherever he was located at the time, but Akaya had school and tennis commitments and could never go.
It would be so easy for Akaya to hate them for never being there, and for Akira to hate them on his behalf, but events of last year had proven to both of them just how much the Kiriharas did care in their own way. It was a long story, but Akaya had asked his mother to help Kamio sort out a problem involving his father's will. His mother was one of the best – if not the best – lawyer in Tokyo, maybe even in Japan, and he knew Kamio needed all the help he could get. She had listened – and to his astonishment, she had agreed to help.
Kamio had been embroiled in a bitter war with his own mother – but all of that had changed on Kamio's sixteenth birthday. Akira's sudden access to money from investments and trust funds left behind from his father, had made being a mother sound like a good idea. Kamio Yukio had tried to barge back into their lives, claiming the money should belong to her since she was the legal guardian. It had been a long and messy battle that had given Kamio nightmares. 
That whole fiasco was over now. Kamio blinked out his reverie. The events of last year were still so fresh in his mind – it was so easy to get sucked into the memories, but it was over. He really needed to work on getting over it. He shook his head, coming back to himself completely. "You should cook her dinner."
"She's my mother," he replied. "She should cook me dinner."
Kirihara considered that a moment, and then shook his head slowly as he got up and ran water into the sink for the dishes. While his relationship with his mother was improving, it was apparent he was still hesitant to get too close. Like he didn't believe his mother's 'caring' persona was going to last. Kamio knew Akaya was used to feeling abandoned – it would take some time for things to repair themselves. But at least they were both trying. "I think take out. Maybe Chinese."
Kamio smiled, a bit wider this time. Akaya wasn't a fan of Chinese food, but he knew his mother was. That spoke volumes. "Good idea."
The sink was full. Akaya turned off the water – the dishes would soak all day, and Kamio could do them at night when he got back. "We gotta get moving."
Kamio nodded and went to get his things together, calling for the girls as he did so. "Shoes! Jackets!"
"Yes sir!" came twin smart-alec responses.
Within ten minutes, everyone was ready to leave. The girls shot out the door, Akaya slouching along behind them with his hands in his pockets. Kamio locked the door and slid the key into his pocket, checking for his bus pass at the same time. He had it. Then they were out the gate – pausing momentarily while Kamio locked it– and then they were on their way to Minagawa-sans house.
Kamio bumped shoulders with Kirihara as they walked, but he didn't call attention to it as Akaya pulled one hand free from his jacket and silently grasped Kamio's. He smiled instead, and was positive he was glowing enough to light up Tokyo at midnight. It was such a simple gesture, but it warmed Akira's heart, and actually made him feel better about the world in general. With Akaya at his side, no doubt he'd find a way to solve Michiko's problems. The two of them together simply couldn't fail.
Still grinning, he tugged at Akaya's hand, and they jogged to catch up with the twin terrors.
The Atobe compound
Shishido hated the fact that whenever they had to work on a project together– something they had done numerous times over the years – Atobe insisted on working at his house. And they had done many projects together. Partly because they`d been the same class for years, and partly because no one else could put up with Atobe`s attitude except the females of the school, and Atobe – for all his professed suaveness with the opposite sex – refused to work in an enclosed environment with any of the young socialites itching to sink their claws into the heir of the Atobe empire.
At least, that`s what Atobe told everyone. Shishido was of the belief Atobe was actually terrified of the girls but simply hid it better than most.
Atobe was perusing the charity tournament idea he`d sketched out with Ohtori a few nights before. Shishido was just waiting for the snarking to begin. It was inevitable. It was his idea, and he was surrounded by the Hyoutei Regulars. Much like the stars coming out at night, or Atobe choosing to wear purple ruffles while on a camping trip, snarking was inevitable. Having Ohtori submit the proposal was simply a way of delaying it.
"A charity tennis tournament, ahn?" Atobe's eyes were filled with two parts amusement and one part suspicion. "An interesting idea. It will allow me to show off my talents in so many ways. I approve." He looked up from the proposal to the blushing Ohtori. "And you thought of this? I'm surprised. It doesn't sound like something you'd suggest. I was half-expecting something involving puppies or children or something else equally as fluffy and irritating."
"Actually, it was Shishido-san's idea," Ohtori blurted out.
Though he had been expecting the team to find out as they discussed the finer details, Shishido still growled. His partner still had a habit of caving like a first year in front of his sempai.
"Sorry sempai!" the 2nd year apologized. "But it is a good idea, and I can't take credit for it."
"Shishido?" Atobe smirked. "This sounds even less like the result of one of your brainstorms than it did Ohtori's."
Shishido valiantly tried to suppress his temper. "Look, I just wanna get this stupid project out of the way. It's easier for me – and you guys too – if we stick with our strengths. Tennis is our strength. Just run with it."
"Hmm." Atobe set the paper down, one hand pressed to his forehead. Shishido silently groaned as he recognized his captain's famous 'insight' pose. "I think there is another reason for wanting to do this. I see that you noted some ideas about where to distribute the resulting funds. A pet charity of yours, perhaps?"
"Which one?" Gakuto raced around the table, pushing past the disgruntled Shishido to peer down at the paper, no doubt anxious to detect a soft spot in Shishido with which to torment him. "Michiko… I don't of any local charities by the name of 'Michiko'."
"That's 'cause it's not a local charity, you asshole." Shishido swiped out at the irritating redhead, who snapped his head back and danced out of the way with a cackle.
"Then do enlighten us," Atobe commanded.
Shishido groaned again, out loud this time. "Fine." He nodded at the paper. "I figure if we're gonna do a charity fundraiser, we might wanna do it for a cause we can all get behind. What better way to do that to help one of our own?"
"A Hyoutei student?" Oshitari asked disbelievingly. "Which student at this school could possibly require charitable intervention?"
"Not 'us, the school'," Shishido corrected him gruffly. "Tennis. Tennis players."
"A fundraiser for lesser players?" Gakuto twisted his nose up. "What, to buy them better brands of tennis shoes? You feel sorry for the competition?"
Ohtori could obviously tell Shishido was close to snapping again as he stepped forward, bowing his head a fraction. "Allow me, sempai." He looked around at all of them. "Shishido-san's brother is a runner with the Tokyo Track Club. He is coaching Kamio Akira, formerly of the Fudomine tennis club."
Predictably, Hiyoshi glared. "That stupid redhead cost me the semi-finals two years ago!"
"We know, we know," Gakuto said, shooting his own glare back. "We've had to live with you whining about it for the last two years."
"Get on with it, Ohtori," Atobe ordered over the squabbling.
"Shishido-san found out that Kamio's little sister has a worsening ear condition. She'll be deaf in a year or two without surgery, but Kamio's family obviously can't afford to pay it."
That was true enough. Shishido knew that everyone was more or else aware of Kamio's family situation through Atobe. Part of it anyway. There was a whole scandal last year when it came out that Atobe's best lawyer was the mother of one of the Rikkai demons – Kirihara Akaya – who was involved with Kamio himself. Atobe had been privy to most of the information through his father but had only chosen to pass on some of it. It may have been odd to think of Atobe respecting the privacy of someone inferior to him like Kamio Akira, but Atobe had a lot more to him than just the diva he portrayed to the world at large. Shishido would have killed him years ago if there hadn't been.
Anyway, Kamio was the primary caretaker for his family and through the help of Kirihara's mother and a very specific will left by Kamio's father, had gained custody of his siblings (following a long story that apparently involved Kamio's mother being bribed to sign them over in exchange for a large sum of cash). He had also apparently come into some money left to him by his father, but it certainly wouldn't be enough to pay for an expensive surgery. Not if he had to use it to pay for bills and other things kids like him weren't even supposed to have to deal with at their age.
Shishido had gnawed on that for a while when he'd formulated his idea. He didn't have a problem with the guy, and his brother thought he was awesome – always pushing for Ryo to hang out with him more. Why not help if they could? He broke into Ohtori's explanation to wrap it up himself.
"Anyway, Kamio may be a Rikkai-kid now, but he's a Fudomine brat at heart. That means he won't accept handouts from just anyone. But if a charity had a fundraiser for the local hospital…" he trailed off pointedly.
Oshitari pushed his glasses up on his nose. "…the hospital can kindly inform Kamio his sister was chosen to receive a grant to pay for the operation." He nodded approvingly. "A very good idea."
"Indeed," Atobe drawled. "I'm rather surprised you were able to devise such a scheme."
"Bite me, Keigo."
Despite the bickering, once the team agreed on Shishido's idea (read: once Atobe gave his official blessing and informed everyone else they had no say in the matter), the planning got underway quickly. They were all familiar with how tournaments ran, which made it easier for them to decide on the smaller details. Atobe kept them well fed and caffeinated. His personal maid brought in assorted beverages and snacks every hour while they plotted.
A few hours later, most of the basics had been covered, Jirou was out cold again, and Shishido swore if Atobe's maid Ami-chan tried to get him to drink anymore coffee, he was going to throw up in Atobe's direction. After he went to the bathroom – again.
Stifling a yawn, Gakuto jotted down a few more notes. "So each singles player or doubles team pays an entry fee which goes to the prize – which is divided 50/50 – half to the winner and half to the charity of choice." He smirked. "But in the case of this being the first year, the charity is preselected. Secretly, of course. They find out after the tournament."
Jirou, who had finally woken up after repeated poking (and subsequent whispered apologies) by Ohtori, added his two cents to the discussion. "Spectator fees go to the charity."
Gakuto added that to the list. "We can figure out the fees later. Obviously we have to keep them low enough so as not to frighten off viewers from the lower tax brackets, but enough that raising the cost of the operation is actually feasible." Gakuto, being the math whiz in the group, was entrusted to figure out the relevant calculations later on, once everything had been decided. "Shouldn't be too hard. High school tournaments average anywhere from one thousand to fifteen hundred spectators over the course of two days, what with all the students coming out to support their schools. The Nationals had triple that. If we advertise it as a charity, we'll draw in even more people who want to support a good cause, even if they don't particularly care about the players."
"What about the venue?" Oshitari put forth pragmatically. "While it is simple for one of us to cover court fees for a day or two in order to run it, we are supposed to avoid paying such things in an effort to prevent students from simply buying their way out of this. Though they are free, the street courts are not adequately equipped to support that many viewers."
Atobe smirked. "A simple enough problem to solve. Once we have secured a date, we can petition my uncle to allow us the use of the courts he just recently had installed at the new sports complex his company built last year. That will do, and will count as soliciting a donation."
"What about medals?" Jirou asked suddenly. "Or like, a really cool trophy." His eyes widened with enthusiasm. "We could put the money in the cup like they do in those tournaments on TV. Or spray champagne!"
Shishido rolled his eyes. "They spray champagne when people win at NASCAR or horse races, Jirou. Not tennis."
"Shishido watching NASCAR?" Gakuto snickered. "How remarkably… red-necked, of you."
"My family works with a company that supplies awards to the winners of the kendo and taekwondo tournaments we run across the country," Hiyoshi spoke up unexpectedly. He immediately looked back down to the table after he finished.
Atobe nodded once. "We shall require first, second and third place trophies for both divisions," he said crisply. "Do try not to forget that there are two people in doubles and each winner will need one of their own. There will be no sharing—" he shuddered at the thought. "—of trophies at my tournament."
Shishido glared. "Your tournament?"
"Very well, you miserable whiners. Our tournament."
Behind them all, Ohtori was gathering up their papers and sorting them into piles. Shishido craned his head to see, - rules, tournament venue details, officials – and nodded with approval. "Does this mean we're done?"
Oshitari shrugged one shoulder. "Are you determined not to let Kamio know the reason we're doing this?"
Shishido mimicked the tensai's shrug. "He'd see it as charity. And it is. He wouldn't accept it."
Jirou cracked an eye open at that, leading Shishido to once again wonder whether or not Jirou really slept as much as it seemed, and whether he was just making sure people would talk freely around him. "He has his pride, after all. Shishido would know all about that, hmmm?" A sleepy smile, and then Jirou closed his eyes again.
Shishido would not blush. He would not. "Shut up." He braced his hands on the table and looked around at everyone. "So now we just need a way to get Kamio involved without actually letting him know about it. Ideas? I mean, I know him through my bro, but not that well."
"Fear not, as I have already devised a way to let the relevant parties know. Advertising the tournament should be enough to get him there – like almost all Kanto players, none can resist the lure of competition - but just in case..." Atobe took out his cell phone and pressed a speed dial number. "Ah, Yukimura? Atobe. I do hope now is not an inconvenient time to discuss something of the utmost importance with you…."
It was beautiful Monday morning. The birds were singing, the sun was shining – and Kamio had the distinct feeling Kirihara was keeping something from him. It had been a good weekend – both of Friday's practices had gone well, and Kamio had successfully conquered Mount Dirty Clothes with the help of his siblings. Saturday had been a good day too – Michiko had demanded they play cards, and Kirihara had taken that as a sign that it was time the girls learned the fine art of fleecing people out of their money. By the end of their first Poker lesson, Sachiko had earned an entire bag of caramel candies, and Michiko was showing signs of being the world's youngest card shark. Her ethics seemed to mirror that of Akaya who subscribed to the belief that it wasn't cheating unless one got caught.
Then there was the night before. During a marathon run of old Inuyasha episodes (Kamio was thankful the girls seemed to be moving away from Pokemon and Card Captors), Kirihara had received a phone call from their Buchou. After listening a minute, Akaya had excused himself to finish the conversation in the other room – and hadn`t returned for almost forty-five minutes. When Akira had asked what Yukimura wanted, Akaya had mumbled something about wanting to discuss a way to improve Akaya`s footwork at practice.
Kamio would have bought if not for the fact that A) Yanagi was the `personal trainer` of the team and usually called to discuss such details, and B) why would it take forty-five minutes to tell Akaya he was going to work on his foot work?
Still, Kamio hadn't thought much about it until he realized morning practice was almost over and Kirihara hadn't done a single thing to practice his footwork. He had however, had a private conference with Yukimura and Yanagi, and all three of them had cast him furtive looks when they thought he wasn't looking.
Foolish people. He lived in a house with two young siblings and a boyfriend who made it part of his life's work to prank him at every given opportunity. He had learned a long time ago to be aware of surroundings at all times, lest he pay the price. Hell, he still had a habit of patting his pillow down, checking for Jello before he went to bed.
Speaking of being wary, movement out of the corner of his eyes caught his attention. Before he could move, the strings of a racquet bounced lightly off the top of his head. Unsurprised, he turned to frown at a smirking Niou. "Was that really necessary?"
"Sure was, " Niou drawled. He reached out with one long arm, draping it around Kamio's shoulders with an easy grace Kamio sometimes envied. "You slackin' off there kid? If 'Mura catches you standing around, he'll make you run."
"What about you?" Kamio countered swiftly.
Niou chuckled. "Better keep us both out of trouble then. Come on and rally with us." He pointed to where Yagyuu was practicing with Marui. "Jackal has classroom duties so he had to leave early and we need a foursome." He winked. "Oh, excuse me. I mean, a fourth."
Kamio rolled his eyes and followed the silver-haired Trickster to B court. He could always bribe Kirihara later to find out what the big deal was.
The second meeting Hyoutei had to plan their tournament went as smoothly as the first – bickering and sniping aside – and they had managed to confirm the referees for the event. Shishido had been impressed by Jirou's suggestion to ask their old middle school coaches, and had been more impressed that the 'committee' selected to go and ask them – Jirou, Kabaji, Hiyoshi – had been partly successful. Sakaki-sensei regretfully declined, having scheduled an orchestra performance the same weekend they had slotted for their tournament. Ryuuzaki-sensei from Seigaku middle-school had been happy to accept the role of referee. Banji from Yamabuki had been a risky choice, but Sakaki-sensei had recommended him in his stead, and Sakaki-sensei's word still carried a lot of weight with the Hyoutei alumni.
That had left them with two ref spots left to fill. Gakuto had been struck with the idea of asking Inoue Mamoru when he'd spotted an old article on Hyoutei written by the sports reporter on Atobe's desk. Atobe had agreed it was worth a shot, and had promptly sent Gakuto to the offices of Pro Tennis Monthly to ask Inoue-san in person. Inoue-san had been very pleased at being asked, according to Gakuto, and had accepted on the spot, with the request that he be allowed to send some of his colleagues to cover the matches and have exclusive interviews with the players.
They were still short one spot. Gakuto had requested that if Sakaki-sensei or Ryuuzaki-sensei could suggest anyone to them, to let them know. Ryuuzaki-sensei had looked thoughtful at that, and said she might have someone in mind. She was supposed to let them know in a few days.
Then there had been the matter of advertising their tournament. Despite all of them possessing great natural talent in tennis, general athletics, and their classroom work, none of them possessed any design talents. Oshitari was skilled in writing compositions that could make his Literary professors weep, but for all that he could write a book about their planning process, he couldn't write ad-copy. The only other one of them that had any skill in the arts whatsoever was Ohtori – which was great if they wanted a score or their own anthem composed for the tournament, but it wouldn't help them come up with a poster that didn't look like it was hand-drawn by kindergarten students.
Hiyoshi had then come up with a brilliantly practical solution. Why didn't they, he stated softly, simply have the first and second year non-regulars that were part of the design and audio/visual clubs design something for them? Surely they would jump to do a favour for their captain, and they could also count the time spent designing it for their own volunteer hours for their future graduation. The motion was passed (read: Atobe waved his hand imperiously and nodded, which Gakuto said was the equivalent of him stating "I have decreed thou shalt make it so") and so Hiyoshi had been sent to recruit the other club members.
Everything had seemed to progress smoothly. Too smoothly, Shishido thought dryly, staring in horrified amazement at the poster that had been submitted to Atobe just prior to their third planning meeting that evening.
It was very… purple. And sparkly. To say nothing of the large picture of Atobe in the corner, arms outstretched as though welcoming all participants to his tournament, even as he towered over the smaller photo of the Hyoutei regulars beneath him.
Hyoutei was spelled out in large, silver letters, curving in an arc from the left side to the right corner, with the 'H' being the largest, trailing off to the final 'i' at the end, with the word 'presents' in smaller, but no less silvery (and sparkly) text running horizontally across the page. Under 'presents' was the title 'Tennis teens for Charity'. The date, the address of the venue, and the basic rules - mainly regarding sign-in times, tournament format (round robin style), that it would be both Singles and Doubles, and that participants must be involved with the tennis teams at their high school within the Kanto region (special consideration would be given to exceptional players who submitted their names to Hyoutei in advance) - were underneath the sparkly text. Several large posters had been printed on photo-quality, glossy paper, and about a hundred smaller color fliers had been handed along with it for personal delivery to chosen schools or individuals.
Atobe was obviously pleased with it. "I am surprised that our junior members were able to create something so exceptional," he mused thoughtfully. "I shall have to re-evaluate my opinions on them."
Gakuto had his face pressed into Oshitari's shirt sleeve, his shoulders shaking. He was obviously trying to prevent himself from howling with laughter. Oshitari's face was calm but his eyes were filled with amusement. Jirou had rolled over moments after prying one eye open to observe the poster and make the simple comment, "It's pretty!"
Ohtori had the same shocked look Shishido was sure was on his face, and Hiyoshi had a look of betrayal on his, as though he couldn't believe his wonderful idea had born such atrociously ugly fruit and would this end result be attributed to him? Kabaji was obviously no help – his expression hadn't changed since middle-school and he was obviously used to seeing even stranger things, what with being around Atobe so much.
Having inspected – and approved of – the poster, Atobe was busily going through a list of first year club members who would play the role of delivery men to the various locations the posters would be sent to. All the schools in the Kanto region – or at least the ones Atobe managed to have a sliver of respect for – would receive a flier and a personal invitation. Shishido pried his eyes away from the shiny monstrosity and tried to focus back on the work at hand.
Seigaku, Rikkai, Yamabuki, St Rudolph, Jyousei Shounan, and Rokkaku would be given invites. Ginka wasn't worth considering. The first fifteen Singles players to apply would be allowed to play (they were limited to eight courts at Atobe's uncle's venue and one day – Gakuto had averaged how many rounds they could play and still have both the Doubles and Singles components, but without going over their maximum time frame). There would be a two hour time limit for the matches. Same went for Doubles – the first fifteen pairs to apply would be permitted to play. Anyone who applied after the limit was reached would be added to a reserve list (first come, first served) and anyone who failed to sign in on tournament day before nine-o'clock would be cut, and a reserve added.
Shishido reflected that they would probably receive some complaints that Hyoutei had given themselves priority status – only Kabaji had opted not to enter; Atobe wanted him to be added 'security' to help keep things moving smoothly, so that nothing would prevent Atobe from being able to show off at his own tournament. He glanced at Ohtori with a small smile – no way in hell he'd pass up a chance to compete with his partner. As if he'd heard him, Ohtori looked in Ryo's direction and smiled back. Shishido felt his cheeks flush red, but he didn't look away, and a minute later they both looked back to their papers, still smiling to themselves.
Shishido checked the sign-in sheets. Their names had been added, as well as Gakuto and Oshitari's. That had been a given, as was Hiyoshi insisting on playing Singles. What had been a complete surprise was Jirou sleepily mentioning he wanted to try Doubles, since Atobe never let him in their high school matches.
After Gakuto had pointed out that he was lacking a partner, Jirou had managed to convince Atobe of all people to play Doubles. Jirou hadn't come out and said exactly how he'd persuaded Atobe, but he'd hinted it was all in how you asked –apparently, Atobe could be convinced to show off his prowess in all aspects of tennis, including Doubles, since apparently in the world, there existed people who may not have believed him capable of doing such a thing, despite what he had done during the Nationals. After all, it had been a long time ago, and people tended to forget these kinds of things. Jirou had winked cheekily after that. Shishido could only marvel at the levels of sheer sneakiness Jirou was showing these days.
Atobe finished the list with a flourish. "Oshitari, you and Gakuto shall distribute the fliers and posters to the first years, with instructions on where to leave them – and who to give them to directly."
Oshitari nodded and gathered up the papers. "Very well."
Gakuto was still incapable of speech, but he managed a nod and a thumbs-up as he stumbled after Oshitari. He lasted until they got outside Atobe's study door, and then Shishido could hear him howl as they moved further away. Atobe shook his head. "I swear, one day I should make an appointment to have Gakuto evaluated by a professional. His behaviour at times can be absolutely worrisome." He paused, looking thoughtful. "I wonder if Oshitari is aware of his partner's potential mental instability?"
Shishido immediately began gathering his own things together. He was only minutes behind following Gakuto's lead and giving in to the sheer hilarity of the situation, and he had no intention of seeing a shrink to satisfy Atobe's apparent concerns. Ohtori was right behind him, and with a quick wave, they were gone before Atobe could open his mouth to return the farewell.
End Chapter 2
Tennis Teens for Charity Chapter 3
The appearance of a student wearing a Hyoutei jacket at Rikkai had sent a first year club member racing to the clubhouse where the Regulars and Reserves were having a meeting to discuss changes to their training menu for the following month. Kamio had expected a look of surprise from Yukimura-buchou, or even from Sanada-fuku-buchou, but they simply exchanged a knowing look. Kamio looked around – no, it wasn't just his overthinking. Niou had a musing, wary look on his face as he studied Yukimura and Sanada, and Yagyuu also looked surprised. Marui was clearly waiting for someone to explain, as was Jackal. Shinji was… muttering under his breath, and doodling on a notebook Yanagi had given him to try and help control his outbursts. He got in less trouble for writing than for interrupting Sanada, or the gods forbid, Yukimura. Yanagi…looked exactly the same as usual. Kamio couldn't tell if the news was a surprise or not. He half-suspected Yanagi would have the same expression on his face if someone birthed a litter of kittens on the court, as he would have if someone had remarked it was a sunny day.
Yukimura nodded at Sanada and then left, obviously to deal with the intruder. Before he left however, he sent a knowing look to… Akaya?
Kamio glanced over and saw a satisfied look on his partner's face. Whatever was going on, Akaya must have been let in on it. He leaned over. "What's up?"
"Hyoutei's having a tournament," Akaya said. "I heard about a while ago."
Ah. That explained a few things. Kamio turned his attention back to the chart Yanagi was going through, focusing on the part that dealt with him and his speed – apparently all the sprint practice he got at track wasn't enough. Yanagi wanted him to increase his reaction times, and had him scheduled for a session that included padding him up and having Sanada aim the ball machine at him. Kamio gulped but nodded. Strange practice techniques weren't unusual for Rikkai. Unfortunately, neither was being injured.
Yukimura came back in with a poster and a handful of what looked like small fliers. Kamio took one look at the poster as it was hung on the wall, and immediately clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle his hilarity. Marui, Kirihara and Niou however had no such restraint, and they collapsed in a heap on the benches, laughing like loons. Jackal, always a bit more dignified than his partner, managed to remain upright, but he was shaking his head in disbelief. Yagyuu and Yanagi didn't react much, but Yagyuu did reach up to adjust his glasses, a small smile turning the corner of his mouth up. Shinji continued to doodle.
Sanada merely raised an eyebrow when Yukimura stepped back. "I see there's absolutely no need to verify Atobe's participation in this endeavor."
That did it. Kamio joined the snickering hyenas on the bench, howling with laughter.
Yukimura let them get it out of their system, before clearing his throat. Instantly the laughter dried up, and everyone was focused on their leader once again. Yukimura nodded his head towards the garish poster. "As you can see, Hyoutei's having a charity tournament as part of their volunteer hours. The money raised will go to a local charity."
Kamio was impressed. "I'm surprised they're doing something so decent," he commented. He had never been a big fan of Hyoutei, ever since the first time he'd seen Atobe grab An's arm at the street court. It was one thing to be rude and arrogant – it was another thing entirely to touch a girl in such an aggressive manner. He'd assumed rich people obeyed rules of common decency as much as anyone else, but that incident had made him even more suspicious of them instead. It had been a few years since then, and An had obviously forgiven Atobe's actions. Kamio himself respected the Hyoutei captain's skills immensely, but as for the person behind the tennis player…. He shook his head.
Kirihara sent him an odd look. Kamio didn't quite know what it was supposed to mean. "They've changed a lot since middle school."
Kamio shrugged. That was true, but he'd reserve changing his opinion until he saw something more concrete. "You're pretty quick to defend them," he said lightly. "Do you know something I don't?"
A look of pure panic washed over Akaya's face for a split second – so quick and fleeting Kamio almost questioned whether he saw it at all. "Nope. Just sayin' we shouldn't judge them by something that happened so long ago."
Ah. Maybe Akaya was drawing parallels between Hyoutei's past and present and his own checkered past. Kamio knew Akaya hated it when people mentioned his violent behaviour in middle-school – it was and would likely continue to be a sensitive issue for him for some time. Kamio smiled reassuringly, touching Akaya's knee lightly. "You're right," he said. "I should judge them by their actions now, and not then."
Kirihara blinked – and then sent him a warm, if somewhat confused smile. Kamio was about to explain what he meant, when Niou suddenly groaned and threw his hands up in the air. "Break it up, lovebirds. I don't particularly want my breakfast making a reappearance."
Akaya rolled his eyes, turned, and pounced, driving the Trickster to the floor. Marui grinned, shouted 'DOG PILE!', and threw himself into the fray. Kamio blinked and backed up along the bench, shooting a nervous look at his captain and vice-captain. Yukimura had a small smile on his face, but Sanada was pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezed shut in an expression they all knew as 'If you don't knock it off, I will knock you out.'
Sure enough, two seconds later – "Niou! Marui! Akaya! THIRTY LAPS!"
Marui 'eeped', disentangled himself and ran for the door. Niou got to his feet more slowly, stretching and yawning like a cat that was doing what he was doing because he wanted to, not because he had to, and sauntered out the door. Kirihara lay sprawled on the floor like a starfish, panting for air. "Niou doesn't freaking play fair," he gasped. "I think he broke a rib."
"I think you'll live," Yukimura said, his voice deceptively gentle. "And I do believe your fuku-buchou has given you an order."
"Aw, man," Akaya complained, but he got to his feet anyway and jogged out the door.
Kamio snickered. So did Jackal. Yagyuu and Yanagi continued to look amused. Jackal plopped down on the bench next to Kamio, ruffling his hair while still shaking his own head. "I don't know how you deal with that twenty-four seven. Dude, I'd go nuts."
"I adjust easily," Kamio assured him.
"He does," Shinji confirmed, seating himself on Kamio's other side. His notebook was filled with notes from the meeting, math equations, caricatures of various tennis players – including an angry Kirihara and a Niou with devil horns – and random lines in interesting geometric patterns. Kamio had always believed Shinji muttered because there was just too much going on in his head to be completely contained, and glimpses at his notebook only seemed to confirm that.
Yanagi coughed. "If everyone is finished…?"
The meeting got back underway.
Akaya was jogging behind Niou and Marui when he heard Niou mention 'Hyoutei.' "What was that?" He sped up until the three of them were shoulder to shoulder (to shoulder.
Niou spared him a dry look. "I said, I don't think I want to join anything that Hyoutei puts on, especially if it involves purple and sparkles. I have a rep to maintain, you know."
Akaya scowled. "You have to enter. We're all entering."
The look Niou shot him this time was a flat stare. Niou did not take kindly to being told what to do by people who weren't Yukimura and Sanada. "We are?"
Akaya nodded, and widened his eyes, going for the cute, innocent look he didn't use often. Niou wasn't a sucker, but Akaya had been called the 'baby of Rikkai' for years for a reason. "Well, for one reason, it wouldn't be the same if most of us joined but you didn't."
"You're assuming most of us will," Niou pointed out wryly. "What's the second reason?"
Akaya hesitated, gathering his thoughts. They rounded the corner and crossed the line Yukimura had had Yanagi spray paint during his first year as captain (he'd overtaken the position in second year, an unheard of feat. Naturally, his first decision had been to appoint Sanada as vice-captain to ensure the terror Rikkai inspired continued) which delineated the starting point. Five laps done. Twenty-five more to go. "Rikkai has forty-five club members this year. According to Yanagi, we average about one hundred and fifty fans per tournament."
"So?" Marui stuck himself into the conversation, punctuating his comment with a snap of gum, a habit of his that Sanada and his years of threatening hadn't managed to break.
Akaya scowled. "When word gets out that we're participating in a charity event, there'll be even more. Yanagi predicts that there'll be an increase of at least fifteen percent. Most of them females, hoping to show off their dedication to charity to impress their chosen player."
Niou managed to shrug even as they ran. "And this should matter to me because?"
Akaya managed to put a hurt tone in his voice. "It matters to me."
Both Niou and Marui laughed at that. Marui even went so far as to reach out and tousle his hair as they ran. Akaya tried to duck away and nearly ran headfirst into the fence surrounding the courts. Cursing, he regained his stride, and caught back up to them. "So the question," Marui mused," is why this matters to you."
Niou snorted. "Exactly. Kid, I ain't doin' a damn thing until you spill your guts."
"That's fucking blackmail!"
"Not exactly." They hit the line again. Twenty-four more to go. "I'd call it mild exortion, myself. Spill."
Akaya groaned silently. If he didn't tell them, they wouldn't join. And they'd still make his life miserable and try to find out what was going on. They'd target Kamio as the one who probably knew, and with his luck, the whole thing would be blown wide open before its time. "Fine, I'll you. But you better keep your mouth shut."
"Don't threaten me, kid," Niou said warningly. "Tell us now."
"I mean it," Akaya insisted. "Don't say anything to anyone, especially Kamio. Well, Buchou, Fuku-buchou, and Yanagi already know, but no one else."
"Keeping secrets from your better half, are we now?" Marui shook his head. "Aka-chan, the road of lies does not lead to a happy relationship."
"Shut up. I'm not lying to him." Akaya scowled again. "I'm just not telling him. Yet." He took a deep breath, and blew it out with a huff. "Okay, basically the charity in question for the tournament? The proceeds are going to pay for Michiko's operation."
Niou and Marui pulled up short in surprise. "Operation?" Niou asked, shock clear in his voice. The Trickster had a soft spot for Michiko, ever since the kid had helped him turn Marui's hair green during their second year. Kamio and Akaya had been first year students, and when Kamio couldn't find a babysitter one Saturday, he had brought Michiko to practice . Niou had gotten the little girl to run up to Marui and distract him long enough for Niou to sneak into the bathroom and add green dye to Marui's shampoo. The end result had been hilarious.
Akaya stopped too and looked seriously at his friends. "Michiko's going deaf. She needs an operation but insurance will only cover part of it. The aftercare, the meds, the rehab – it's all gotta come out of his own pocket, and Kamio can't afford it."
"That's harsh," Marui said softly. Marui had two younger brothers, and Akaya knew the tensai was immediately imagining one of his siblings in the same situation.
"Yeah," Akaya said. "Apparently, Shishido Ryo had the idea after talking to his brother Ryuu – that's Kamio's coach at the track club. He brought the idea to Atobe and the other Regulars, and of course, anything that involves tennis is bound to get their approval."
"So the money raised goes to Kamio," Niou repeated. "Why not tell him?"
"He'd turn it down if he knew in advance," Marui interrupted before Akaya could answer. "That kid does not know how to accept help gracefully, Niou. I'm surprised he lets the brat here help as much as he does."
That was true enough.
"Even I have to admit, that's pretty fucking decent of Hyoutei," Niou said roughly. "Yeah, okay. I'm in."
"Me too," Marui added.
Akaya smiled, a real one this time. "Thanks." Suddenly, Niou reached over and cuffed him upside the head. Akaya squawked and flailed his arms. "What the hell?"
"Why the hell didn't you think of this kind of idea?" Niou complained with a grin. "I'd rather run a damn tournament than spend an hour every week mowing the lawns of old people."
Akaya and Marui cracked up. "I can't see you mowing the lawn," Akaya chortled. "Can I come watch?"
Niou calmly smacked him again. "Screw you, brat. I didn't have a choice. My uncle set me up with it when I told him I had no fucking idea what to do."
"Is there a reason you've stopped running?"
All three of them froze, and then slowly turned around. Sanada stood behind them, arms folded. His face was deceptively calm, but his eyes were flashing. Akaya gulped. "Eh… fuku-buchou… I uh.. was just explain—"
Sanada's expression suddenly changed, and he roared, "FIFTY LAPS!"
"Yikes!" Like rabbits hearing the shot of a gun, they tore off down the side of the school as fast as they could. The rest of their discussion would have to wait until much – MUCH – later.
Despite the full out sprint, Niou still managed to fire off one last question at Akaya. "How'd your visit with your mom go last Friday?"
Akaya glared as much as he could. "How did you know?"
"Heard you and Kamio talkin' 'bout it."
"Fine," Akaya said shortly. "It went fine."
"A little testy, aren't we?" Niou sounded calm, but Akaya could hear the concern mixed in with the snark and he thawed, ever so slightly.
"It really was fine," he repeated, smiling faintly this time. "Who knows what will happen in the future though?"
"Don't go borrowing trouble," Marui advised him, huffing with exertion.
"Yeah. You're too damn good at finding your own." Niou barked out a laugh, Marui agreed, and then they sprinted even faster because Akaya had grabbed a racquet from the court wall as they rounded it and was brandishing it like a sword at his two sempai.
It might end up earning them even more laps, but they were used to them. They were Rikkai, after all.
Yamabuki club house
Sengoku whistled at the eye-sore hanging on the clubhouse door. "Nitobe, I thought I told you to stop redecorating the club house."
Inakichi Nitobe didn't even bother looking up. "Like I'd hang that up."
"But purple brings out your eyes," Sengoku cooed.
Ichiuma Kita grinned at their captain as he went to examine the poster with him. "Your rep as a lady-killer is gonna go down the toilet if you keep talkin' like that."
Sengoku waved his hand airily. "No matter, no matter. What does matter though, is this tournament. Looks interesting." He glanced back over his shoulder at Nitobe, flicking his eyes to Kita and back. "You two gonna enter?"
"Can't," Nitobe said matter-of-factly. "My cousin's getting married that weekend." He pulled a face. "She's marrying an American so it's all being done Western style. I have to be an usher."
"Maybe there will be some cute bridesmaids."
"That aren't related to me?" Nitobe sent him a wry look. "Unlike you apparently, I don't go to family functions to pick up dates."
Sengoku staggered back, clutching his chest. "Got me, right in the heart."
Muromachi calmly reached over and high-fived Nitobe. "Nice one."
Dan Taichi came barrelling into the room. "Sempai, sempai!"
"Hey little one," Sengoku said cheerfully, ruffling Dan's hair. "Did you put this poster up?"
"I did, desu!" Dan's eyes sparkled. "It arrived this morning with a Hyoutei player. It looks interesting! I think it's a wonderful idea for a charity event!"
"You gonna try Singles then, Taichi?" Muromachi asked curiously.
"Actually, I want to try Doubles," Dan said thoughtfully. "You guys never let me play Doubles for the school events."
"Because we have two decent pairs and you're great at Singles," Sengoku said. "But this ain't a school event, so I guess it doesn't matter."
"Will you be entering?" Dan asked Nitobe, who repeated his answer. Dan's eyes brightened. "Kita, I'll play with you!"
Kita chuckled. "Sorry Tai-Tai. Nitobe and I are still getting our rhythm together. I don't wanna mess it up by playing with someone else."
Sengoku rolled his eyes and mouthed, 'good one' in his direction. Kita gave a short bow.
"What about you, Sengoku-san?"
Sengoku shook his head. "Sorry kiddo. I've never been very good at Doubles. Besides, there's bound to be a few people in the Singles arena I haven't had the chance to test myself against. This is the perfect chance to try."
Dan's lip quivered. Sengoku almost felt himself crack. Then he whirled around, and Sengoku breathed a sigh of relief. "Muromachi-sempai!" Sengoku snickered at the deer-in-the-headlights pose Muromachi suddenly froze in. Dan's eyes had widened to impossible sizes, and Muromachi was helpless in front of them. Sengoku knew the feeling well. "Muromachi-sempai, will you be my partner, please?"
"But I…" Muromachi wavered, looking at Sengoku for help, glaring when Sengoku shook his head with a grin. "I play Singles!"
"But you've played Doubles before too," Dan countered. "You're very good at it too. Please, Muromachi-sempai? I'll work hard, I promise!"
Muromachi sighed and then gave Dan a small smile. "All right, all right. I'll play Doubles with you."
Dan practically yipped with excitement, and then zipped out of the room, no doubt to go and fill out the application form before Muromachi had a chance to change his mind. Sengoku broke down laughing, and Nitobe and Kita weren't far behind. "You sucker," Sengoku sniggered.
Muromachi glared at all of them. "Oh shut up."
Tezuka raised an eye as the red-faced Hyoutei student bowed profusely to him and thrust an odd-looking poster into his hands. The student dropped the fliers on the desk and then backed out of the room, bowing all the while. Reaching the door, he turned and ran. Fuji, sitting in a comfortably padded chair the coach had allotted to Tezuka –a chair much nicer than the one Ryuuzaki-sensei had had to deal with in middle-school - apparently high schools had a budget set aside for 'comfort' -, looked amused. "That was interesting."
"Indeed." Tezuka gingerly held out the poster, turning it over for himself. For once, he was speechless.
Fuji cocked his head to the side, much like a dog listening to a whistle no one else could hear. "What's that?"
"…apparently Hyoutei is having a tournament," Tezuka replied, handing the poster to the tensai.
Fuji inspected the brightly colored poster, and a grin spread across on his face. "Hyoutei, or Atobe?"
"Exactly what would be the difference?" Tezuka asked dryly.
"Mmm. Good point." Fuji read the poster carefully, and then set it down on the desk. "It sounds like it should be interesting."
"Or tiresome," Tezuka muttered. "Anything involving Atobe usually is."
"You're getting cynical in your old age, Tezuka."
Perhaps he was. Tezuka knew it was futile to point out that he was only three months older than Fuji, and so he nodded at the poster. "Are you going to enter?"
"Possibly," Fuji said. "It depends."
"On whether Saeki does?"
Fuji smiled at the mention of his other half. The two had come out as a couple a few months before, and the furor still hadn't quite died down. It had been easy to ignore until Saeki had magically appeared at Seigaku to see his partner, and then all the gossip and chaos had flared up again. "Not necessarily."
Tezuka sighed and picked up the poster again. "I'll go hang… this in the clubhouse then. Regardless of what you or I choose, everyone else deserves the right to decide for themselves if they want to participate."
Fuji looked pointedly at the clock on the wall. "You'd better hurry then. Class will be starting in fifteen minutes."
Tezuka frowned. He had never been late to class in his life. Fuji, on the other hand…"Go to class Fuji."
"Maa, would I skip class?"
That angelic smile didn't work on Tezuka. "Fuji…" he let his voice trail off warningly.
Fuji held out his right hand for the poster. In his left, he held up a roll of tape pilfered from Tezuka's desk. "Give me the poster," he said. "I'll go hang it up."
Tezuka would have rolled his eyes, except that would only encourage Fuji. Instead, he gave the tensai a curt nod and handed it over. "Be quick," he instructed.
Fuji smiled serenely. "Of course."
There was a very ugly poster on the gym wall. Uchimura noticed it as he and Mori entered the gym. Well, actually, they noticed the bubble-gum pink and neon-blue heads of the resident super-twins, Youhei and Kouhei first – hair like theirs simply stood out. But the blindingly bright purple and silver – and sparkly? – poster on the wall was an easy third place. Youhei twitched as they approached and turned his head. That freaky hearing, I swear… Uchimura raised his hand in greeting. "Yo!"
Mori frowned at the poster. "What's that?"
Youhei shrugged. "Looks like Hyoutei's running a tournament. But if you ask me…"
"…it looks a little suspicious," Kouhei finished. "Even if volunteer work is mandatory."
Mori blinked, and then moved in to study the poster closely. "Really? Sounds like fun to me, actually. Tournaments are tournaments."
Uchimura nodded – and then grinned. He actually knew something Mori didn't. This had to be used. "Come to think of it, I heard about this yesterday – An-chan's entering with Fuji Yuuta from St Rudolph." Having dropped the bomb, he waited for the inevitable explosion.
It didn't take long. "An-chan's entering? With Yuuta!" He resembled a fish out of water, jaw agape and arms flopping in shock. Then he went very still, cocking his head to the side. "Does Kippei know?" His eyes widened. "Does Kamio know?"
"Funny, that's what Ishida and I asked," Uchimura said with a snicker, and turned to the twins. "You guys gonna enter?"
"Maybe," Youhei said slowly.
"It's possible," Kouhei shrugged. "Are you going to enter?"
Uchimura looked at Mori. "What do you think? Wanna try for the Doubles?"
Mori nodded, though he was still looking wide-eyed from Uchimura's little bombshell. "You know I'm always in for a good match. "He paused. "Hey, you think Kamio will enter?"
"Now that we know An-chan is? With a boy? He'll enter on general principle."
"And threaten Yuuta's life, no doubt." Mori rolled his eyes. They were all protective of An-chan, but Kamio seemed to treat her the same way Kippei did. Uchimura figured it had something to do with the fact that Kamio had sisters too, and all older brothers had the same sort of mind set in that regard. "Seriously though, you think he will?"
"Well, it's practically a given that Kirihara will – that guy never turns down a chance for a fight." Uchimura coughed. "And I mean that figuratively, of course."
"If Kirihara does, Kamio probably will." Mori smiled. "It'd be really good to see everyone out there."
Uchimura couldn't agree more. They did try to all get together at least once a month or so . Even though they'd gone to different schools –he, Mori and Sakurai to Jyousei Shounan, Kippei to Higa, Shinji, An and Kamio to Rikkai, and Ishida to Seigaku, - the bonds that had forged between them during their middle-school days were tough to break. Even if they couldn't meet up – sometimes two or three months would go by with only some of them seeing the rest – at least they kept in touch by text messages and emails. An was still trying to order them all to sign up for Facebook Japan.
It had been a while since they'd last had everyone together. This tournament seemed like a good chance.
"Will Kamio-" Youhei started.
"-and Kirihara play doubles?" Kouhei finished.
Mori snorted. "Doubtful. Kamio is a good Doubles player, but Kirihara is pretty much Singles-minded all the way. "
"Hey guys! What's up?"
The four of them turned to see Sakurai walking in. Uchimura high-fived him when he got there. "Hey Sakurai. Hear about the tournament?"
"Tournament?" Sakurai blinked. "What tournament?"
Youhei pointed at the poster, and Kouhei and Mori began discussing who else might participate. Uchimura stepped back a bit, and pulled out his phone. He'd ask Kamio if he were going to enter. And Ishida. Sakurai was likely going to play Singles – that was his strength now, and he hadn't played with Ishida in over two years, but maybe Ishida would come out anyway and hang with them, for old times sake.
There was a poster on the white board in the clubhouse. It was bright purple, very sparkly, and had a large picture of Atobe in the corner. Oishi had heard about it from Tezuka – apparently Hyoutei was hosting a charity tournament, and one of the first year high schoolers had dropped off the flier in the coach's office before class had started. He moved closer to read the details, aware of Kikumaru behind him, likely doing the same thing. "This is definitely not something I would have expected Atobe to choose for his community service project, and yet, it fits him."
Kikumaru hmm'd. "A charity tennis tournament."
Oishi looked up from where he was examining the luridly colored poster. He could see the definite interest in his partners' eyes, the habitual chewing of his lower lip Eiji always did when he was contemplating something, and he smiled. "Shall we enter it?" To Oishi's surprise, Kikumaru didn't immediately shout an affirmative, or bounce around excitedly. Instead, he continued to stare at the poster."Eiji?"
His partner looked up, and Oishi could now see the hesitance creeping across his face. "Umm..."
It was fairly obvious Kikumaru badly wanted to say something. Oishi smiled reassuringly and took a seat on the bench in front of the white board. "What's wrong?"
Kikumaru dropped on to the bench next to him. Then he popped back up and began pacing back and forth. Oishi merely waited, knowing Kikumaru was collecting his thoughts. Then Kikumaru spoke, still pacing, and without meeting Oishi's eyes, "Do you remember our first year of middle school? Joining the tennis club for the first time?"
Oishi blinked. "Of course."
Kikumaru sent him a small smile. "What do you remember?"
Oishi cast his thoughts back six, nearly seven years ago. "What are you asking me to recall in particular?"
Eiji stopped pacing and stood with his back to the white board, arms folded. "I remember Oishi being really good at tennis." He grinned, bigger this time. "Remember how Ryuuzaki-sensei put you in that group that got special Singles training?"
He did remember. That particular group had consisted of himself, Tezuka, Fuji and Inui. Apparently Yamato-Buchou had seen something in them and had singled them out for special training. Eiji had been with the remainder of the first years. "Yes."
"Oishi was always better than me," Eiji said slowly. "I mean, I wasn't angry about that at all, but I remember..." he trailed off and looked away.
Oishi was starting to get concerned. "What's wrong Eiji?" he repeated, a little louder.
"Why did we start playing doubles, Oishi?"
"Huh?" That was a shot out of the far court he hadn't been expecting. "What do you mean?"
Eiji chuckled, the sound of it reassuring Oishi a little. "You were tagged to be a good Singles player. You still are a good Singles player."
"I prefer Doubles," Oishi said firmly. "You're my partner, Eiji. I like working with you."
That earned him a brilliantly warm smile. "Me too."
"So what's the problem?"
Kikumaru sighed and flopped back down on the bench. "I once heard Yamato-Buchou saying I wouldn't make it as a Singles player. That's why he started me off in Doubles right away during our first summer session." He looked at Oishi and gave him a grim smile this time, much darker than the one from a moment ago. "Remember how many partners I went through in those first few months?"
Oishi did in fact remember. His best friend had the worst luck in partners back then. His first one, whose name Oishi couldn't even remember, had asked to switch partners only two weeks into their training. Eiji's next partner lasted one week. The third had lasted a bit longer, but he'd spent most of his time yelling at Eiji to stop jumping around like a damn rabbit and to play properly. Eiji's enthusiasm for tennis had begun to dim. It wasn't long afterward that Oishi had gone to the captain and had requested to be Eiji's partner. It was a decision he'd made that he had never regretted. "That's just proof that you were simply waiting for the right one."
"Too true, too true." Eiji winked at him. "But it's always bothered me."
"O-i-shi-i-i!" Kikumaru groaned. "No. Idiot." He tapped Oishi lightly on the head. "What bothered me was everyone assuming I wasn't good enough to play Singles. That I could only play tennis if I played Doubles."
Oishi frowned. "That's not true, Eiji. You're a good Singles player. Not to mention you've been chosen for the Senbatsu camp twice in a row."
"Yes. And look at where they stuck me," Eiji grumped. "Doubles. Every time."
"I don't know what you're saying, Eiji," Oishi admitted, a little bit frustrated, and a whole lot of concerned. "If it makes a difference, I've never thought of you as a weak player, Doubles or Singles. You're one of the hardest workers on the team. You managed to overcome that stamina problem of yours all by yourself and not because you were told to, but because you wanted to better yourself as a player. You've only gotten better in high school." Oishi smiled. "Didn't I tell you how proud I was?"
"Yep!" Eiji leaned over and bumped shoulders with him. "Ever since our first Nationals, and we achieved that... whaddaya call it, that thing Tezuka-Buchou keeps muttering about, I never remember that word—"
"Synchro," Oishi breathed.
"...Yeah." Eiji smiled softly. "And why we call it in English when I can never remember it, I'll never understand. But yeah, Synchro. That's the first time I felt proud of myself." He lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "I managed to Synch with Oishi. My best friend and the best partner. It felt better than anything else in the world. Singles was too lonely for me. "
Oishi leaned back against him. "I felt and still feel the same way," he said. "I couldn't imagine ever being on the same wave length with anyone else. Every time we hit that level in our matches now, it feels like the first time." There had to be an amazingly deep level of trust and respect in any tennis partnership to be successful – but it was even harder to achieve synchronization, the ability to almost read your partner's exact mind and react as naturally with each other as breathing. "I prefer playing Doubles too."
"Well, I wanted you to know that," Eiji said suddenly. "So you won't get angry when I ask you something."
Oishi frowned. "I would never get angry at you for asking me something."
Eiji looked almost guilty. "You might." He took a deep breath. "I want to enter the tournament, Oishi. But I want to-"
"—play Singles," Oishi finished with a smile. "Okay."
Eiji gaped. "H-huh?"
Oishi had pretty much guessed what had been coming. All that talk about Singles, and well, he did have a knack for reading his partner's mind. "I understand, Eiji. It's okay."
His partner looked timid for a minute. "You're not mad?" he asked quietly.
"Of course I'm not mad. But if you decided you prefer Doubles, why are you fixating on Singles again?"
Ejij frowned. "Part of me still feels weird about it. I know I'm a good Doubles player, and I love playing Doubles with Oishi – but maybe this time it would be different. " He looked back at Oishi, twitching his nose. "In school competitions, I want to play Doubles. We're stronger together, I know that. But this isn't a normal tournament. It's just for fun, so.." his voice trailed off sheepishly.
"You want to see if Singles feels different now?"
"Yeah!" Eiji nodded. "Is that weird?" He looked worried. "Are you sure you're not mad?"
Oishi chuckled and leaned forward, bracing his arms on his knees and looking back up at Eiji. "Did I answer your question?"
"You asked me why we play Doubles," he paraphrased. "Did I ever tell you?"
"No." Eiji blinked. "I figured it was because we were best friends."
"That's a part of it," Oishi agreed. "But actually, it's all Fuji's fault."
"Fujiko?" Eiji's eyes widened. "Really?"
"Really." Oishi could remember that day all too well. Kikumaru had been on his third partner, and was barely able to play for a full match, his energy and enthusiasm flagging heavily. Oishi had been almost frantic with concern when his group had finished training, and he'd seen what was going on. Eiji's partner was constantly berating the smaller redhead, and telling him what to do. Eiji would listen, but never seemed to hit back anything strong enough to win a point. He remembered his hands tightening on the wire mesh of the cage surrounding the courts, his fingers turning white from strain.
"What's wrong with him?" he murmured out loud. Eiji was a much better player than that.
"He doesn't have the right anchor," came a smooth voice.
Oishi had turned his head to see Fuji watching the match with narrowed but open eyes. Fuji was Eiji's other best friend, though Oishi was still getting to know him. "What do you mean?"
Fuji had turned his head slightly to look him in the eye, and then nodded back to the train wreck on the court before them. "Eiji's partner isn't the right one for him."
"That's fairly obvious," Oishi sighed ruefully. "But what did you mean about an anchor?"
Fuji smiled faintly. "People are like ships at sea. Some of them chart a smooth course and follow the straightest and narrowest course. They live life by their maps and charts, adhering to schedules and never allowing themselves to drift off course." He pointed at Eiji. "Other people throw out their maps and see where the winds take them. They sail freely, going to new places, letting the winds and the waves take them wherever they want."
Oishi could sort of see that. "And the anchor?"
"Every ship needs an anchor, Oishi." Fuji's eyes crinkled shut as he smiled. "Even the most free-loving ship on the sea needs a safe place to rest, something they can trust to keep them from floating away and getting lost." He pointed at the boy calling himself Eiji's partner. "He is a cargo ship. He has the weight of his dreams in his hold, and only by adhering strictly to the rules and the clock on the wall can he reach his port of choice. Anyone who tries to steer him off course or slow him down is seen as a hindrance, and he loses his patience. Instead of working with his partner, he's insisting his partner follow his lead, so they can get back on track."
Oishi watched the young man order Eiji to the net. "...I see that."
"Eiji is like a sailboat," Fuji continued. "He goes where the winds take him and plays with the waves. He's not concerned about schedules and rules, because he's having fun, and he trusts he'll get where he needs to be, when he's ready to spread his sails even further."
They watched silently for a moment. Eiji missed a shot that crossed behind him, and his partner groaned, shaking his racquet. Eiji apologized – again – and trudged back to the net. "It looks like it's hard for one boat to work with another," Oishi remarked, finding it easy to fall into Fuji's analogy.
"Mmm," Fuji agreed. "But he still needs an anchor to keep him from drifting away."
The match had ended a few minutes later, and Fuji disappeared. Oishi had watched as Eiji's partner admonished him for not taking the game seriously, noting how even Eiji's hair seemed to droop with every finger wag.
The next day Oishi had gone to Yamato-Buchou and had asked to be Eiji's partner. He hadn't looked back since.
"Fujiko said all that?" Eiji's voice was a little dazed.
"He did," Oishi confirmed.
"And you became my anchor?" Eiji's voice was teasing but his eyes were warm.
Oishi nodded. "As your partner, my job is to support you, Eiji. This is just another aspect of it." He smiled. "I think we all question ourselves from time to time, and feel the need to test our growth as players. I wouldn't be a good partner if I tried to hold you back." Which was true - supporting Eiji had come to him as naturally as breathing. From their very first match together, letting Eiji run and jump with the freedom to explore new ways of playing at the net, he had been behind him all the way, protecting the baseline and steering his partner away from the obstacles that would try and trip him up; being a solid foundation so the wind could move freely around it.
...Okay, so he didn't have Fuji's way with metaphors, but it didn't matter. Eiji understood him, and he understood Eiji. That was the most important thing. Which meant he had to back his partner up, not stand in his way. There was only one thing to do. "Can I at least be your training partner?" Oishi asked, holding his hand out.
Eiji looked at his hand, looked at him, and then yanked him to his feet, wrapping his arms around him. After a minute, he pulled back, his eyes shining with gratitude. "You're gonna be my training partner and my bench coach," he declared. "Okay, Oishi?"
"Okay, Eiji," he agreed, watching the animation return to the redheads eyes. "It's a deal."
An loved dropping in at the street courts at random. She never knew who was going to be there, and it didn't much matter. All the regulars knew who she was and welcomed her as one of them. She had played in practice matches with almost all of them over the past few years and tended to think of them as part of her extended family, though not in the same class that she did her old Fudomine team.
As she approached the half-empty courts, she scanned them automatically, searching for familiar faces. She smiled when she saw the broad form of Momoshiro waving his racquet wildly as he tried to argue a technicality of some sort with his opponent – Echizen again. It was so cute how those two just had to do everything together. She smirked, thinking of another pair that was content to snipe and yell at each other while threatening death to anyone that tried to split them up. There really was something in the water that seemed to affect only tennis players.
A flash of familiar grey caught her eye, and she turned to see a stranger wearing a Hyoutei uniform walking along the edge of the court, heading for the clubhouse. He was carrying a rolled up sheet of paper – laminated, by the looks of it, and was carrying a roll of packing tape. An narrowed her eyes, frowning. While she had forgiven the brash and snobby actions of Hyoutei's arrogant captain from three years past, it was still suspicious to see a Hyoutei jersey in their part of town. Not to mention she knew all the top Hyoutei players and this guy wasn't one of them.
About to follow him, she saw someone else watching just as suspiciously. She recognized the St Rudolph jacket – it was Fuji Yuuta. An smiled and adjusted her plan accordingly. After all, spying was more fun when done in pairs.
Fuji Yuuta – who, incidentally, hated being called that – had been waiting for his chance to step in and play a round of street tennis. He'd rallied with the lug from Seigaku until his sarcastic, Ponta-drinking shadow had arrived, and then Momo had seemed to forget Yuuta existed. Oh well. He was about to go find a wall to practice against to keep his muscles loose when he saw a student in a Hyoutei jersey marching primly along the outer rim of the courts. His eyes narrowed at the sight.
Every time those rich snobs came around, they brought trouble. Or they started it. And this one was carrying something. Yuuta was no hero, but he didn't like the idea of stuck-up brats coming to his side of town to lord over them as though they were somehow better just because they had pockets deeper than most strip mines.
About to go over and ask what the kid was up to, he was halted in his tracks by a clingy octopus wrapping itself around his arm. He froze and looked down into a familiar face. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be An-chan from Rikkai, formerly known as An-chan from Fudomine. He gave his arm a tiny shake but was unable to dislodge the An-topus. "Umm... hi."
"Hi Yuuta!" she chirped, perpetually cheerful as always. Cute girls – particularly cute girls who were smiling at him and not his brother – made him slightly confused and more than a little nervous. The only thing he could do was blush and mumble 'hi' again before cursing himself for not being able to say something else. "I see you noticed our little spy."
"Huh?" Yuuta followed her gaze back to the Hyoutei kid who had paused outside the clubhouse and was unfurling a large sheet of shiny paper. "Oh, you mean him?"
She nodded. "I noticed you were about to commence capture and interrogation," she told him sagely. "I am here to offer my assistance."
Capture and interrogation? "I was just gonna find out what he was doing here," Yuuta protested mildly. "If he's here to play, fine, but I'm a little sick of rich kids coming here to cause trouble."
"Same difference," An said gaily. "C'mon, before we lose our prey!" With that, she started for the clubhouse, tugging determinedly on Yuuta's arm, who was forced to either accompany her or trip over his own feet. An was actually quite strong. For a girl, he supposed.
The interloper was struggling to hold the large poster against the wall while trying to manipulate the roll of packing tape at the same time. Watching him struggle for a minute was amusing, but then Yuuta found himself stepping forward. "Can I help you?"
The kid – a first year, by the looks of it – squeaked and turned around, looking up at them timidly. "Don't hurt me! I'll pay you!"
Well, if there had been any doubt in their minds about which school this guy was from, they were now erased. Yuuta rolled his eyes, while An giggled. "I guess that's a 'no' then?"
An stepped forward and snagged the tape from fumbling fingers. "Give me that," she said loftily. She stripped a piece out and used her teeth to tear it off in one easy move. "Put the poster up," she ordered, and the flummoxed young man jumped to do her bidding. There was no reason not to assist, considering the clubhouse was host to numerous fliers and posters for various events. An continued to pull off tape, three more pieces in total to cover each corner, and directed the young man where to put them. Finished, he nodded, and then scampered off to a large black car that was parked at the other end of the court. A very expensive and flashy-looking black car. Yep, definitely Hyoutei.
"What was all that about?" Momoshiro suddenly stuck his head over Yuuta's shoulder, making him jump in surprise. Ryoma tagged along behind silently, looking completely bored with the world.
Yuuta ignored the yellow-eyed demon-child and focused on the idiot attempting to give him a heart attack. "Momoshiro!"
"Call me Momo, Yuuta, Momo," he chided, and tapped An-chan with his racquet. "Oi, what's up?"
An was studying the poster intently. "Looks like Atobe's running a tennis tournament. For charity. "
"Charity?" Yuuta repeated. "Atobe?"
"Well, Hyoutei," An admitted. "But his picture is on the poster, and the edge is trimmed in purple. You tell me."
Momo and Yuuta exchanged a look. "Sounds like Atobe all right," Momo chuckled.
"A charity tennis tournament? Sponsored by Hyoutei?" Yuuta wrinkled his nose. "Somehow I can't see them being altruistic."
"I think it's a great idea," An said scanning the paper eagerly. "A fun tournament, no pressure. And all the proceeds go to charity."
"I want to enter," Momoshiro declared suddenly. He tapped the poster and then whirled around, pointing at the diminutive first year. "And I want to play doubles. C'mon Echizen, enter the doubles tournament with me."
"I don't want to." Ryoma pulled the brim of his cap down. "You know I hate doubles."
"Because you suck at them," Yuuta chuckled. "I don't blame you."
Echizen glared at him, a glint lighting his eyes. "Excuse me? I can play doubles better than you."
"That's the spirit!" Momo cheered. He draped his arm over Ryoma's shouders. "C'mon, Ryoma, it'll be fun! And you can kick Fuji-junior's ass!"
"Fuji-junior?" Yuuta's face went bright red and he took a step towards the Seigaku regular. "The hell, Momo?"
Momo 'eeped' and ducked behind the dubious wall of safety that was Ryoma's 5'2" frame. "Don't get angry! Save it for the tournament."
Yuuta huffed and rolled his eyes. "You idiot. I'm a singles player. I don't have a partner!"
An suddenly popped up next to Yuuta, latching on to his arm. "I'll be your partner!"
Three pairs of eyes instantly went as wide as dinner plates. "Ehh?"
Momo chuckled. "You're joking, right?"
An's eyes narrowed in response. "What?" she asked defensively. "I'm a second year Regular on the girls' team at Rikkai now, and I spent the last two years of middle school practicing with the Fudomine team. Are you saying I can't handle it?"
Momo flailed his arms back and forth. "I didn't say that!"
"You'd better not." Pulling her pink racquet out, An aimed it in Momo's direction. "I held my own against you a few years ago, don't you remember?" She looked pointedly at Yuuta. "I did pretty well against you too. Are you going to say I can't play?"
It was true enough. An had played almost everyone at the street court at one point or another, and Yuuta had been impressed by her the first time he'd faced her in a match. He'd won, but she'd made him work for it, and harder than he'd anticipated. Yuuta nodded his head up and down furiously. "Not me. But uh, you know…" his voice trailed off, and he raised one hand to scratch the back of his neck. "You're a girl."
It was An's turn to roll her eyes. "Well, thanks for telling me. I might have forgotten for a minute."
"Is there even a part for mixed doubles?" Ryoma asked idly, eyes hidden beneath his hat, but his lip twitched in a poorly-hidden smirk.
Momo scanned the paper intently. "Nope. Just singles and doubles."
"But it also doesn't say 'no girls allowed'," An said triumphantly, pointing at the listed rules. She turned to Yuuta. "So, do y'wanna be my partner?"
Yuuta looked at Echizen – who looked bored – and Momo – who looked gobsmacked – and then finally shrugged, laughing wryly. It wasn't like it was a school tournament after all. "Why not?" He grinned at An who pumped her fist in the air, and then held her hand up for a high-five. Slapping it good-naturedly, he looked back at the others. "Looks like it's a deal." He turned to look at the other boys. "Well?"
"Ryoma?" Momo looked hopefully at his best friend with eyes that could only be described as 'puppy dog.'
"Go ask Kaidoh to be your partner."
"If he plays – and he will, damn snake can never resist a challenge - he's gonna get Inui. You know that." Momo tapped Ryoma's hat. "Pleeeease? It'll be fun!" He clasped his hands under his chin and batted his eyes. Yuuta found it rather disturbing, even more so than the puppy dog eyes.
Ryoma rolled his eyes, apparently knowing he was beaten and deciding to give in somewhat gracefully. "I guess I have no choice."
Yuuta turned his head to see two familiar people coming their way. One was wearing a Seigaku high uniform, and the other was wearing what looked like a Jyousei Shounan jacket. "...Ishida, right?" He asked, a little uncertain, but then An gave a squeal and zipped past him, launching herself into the arms of the muscular teen.
"Tetsu, Tetsu, Tetsu!" she chanted happily. Then she hopped down and threw her arms around the disgruntled looking – and much shorter – teen next to him. "Uchimura!" She squeezed him so tightly Yuuta actually saw the smaller boy gag for air and he was about to suggest she let go when she did so on her own. "It's so good to see you guys! Email and instant messaging just isn't the same!"
"I agree," said Ishida. She hugged him again, and he picked her up, twirling her around once before setting her back on her feet. "You look wonderful as always, An-chan."
"Looks like Seigaku agrees with you," An returned, still smiling fit to burst. "Uchimura, that Jyousei Shounan jacket looks pretty good on you too."
Kyousuke Uchimura blushed. "Thanks, An-chan."
An peered around them eagerly, apparently looking for someone else. "Is Mori coming? And Sakurai?"
Ishida shook his head. "Sakurai's staying for extra practice. Didn't he tell you? He finally made it as a Regular the other day during their ranking matches – he'll be playing third singles in an exhibition match next week."
"That's great!" An clapped her hands. Yuuta could tell she was genuinely happy for her friends. "And Mori?"
"His mom bribed him into babysitting his little cousin today," Uchimura said, shaking his head. "Even I wouldn't turn down the chance to make some cash AND have free reign of the fridge."
"You're Fuji Yuuta, right?" Ishida lifted a hand in belated greeting. "What's up?"
Before Yuuta could answer, Momoshiro stuck his nose in, pointing with his racquet at the sign the Hyoutei student had hung on the wall of the street court clubhouse (also known as the unisex bathroom, changing facilities, and with a shuttered window that was sometimes used during the summer as a food stand to sell chips and drinks through). "We're all gonna enter the tournament Atobe and the Hyoutei tennis team are running."
"All of you?" Uchimura blinked.
An grinned and stepped back to Yuuta's side, winding her arm through his. "Yuuta's gonna be my partner!" she declared. Outwardly, Yuuta gave a weak smile.
Internally however, Yuuta gulped. There were stories, lots of stories about the over-protectiveness of the ex-Fudomine kids towards the baby sister of their former captain. Scary stories he put on a level with his big brother's revenge plans, which were their own level of disturbing. Still, he was hard-pressed to remove her arm from his, finding her penchant for clinging easier to handle than his siblings' teasing. He only hoped the ex-Fudominites would be able to act maturely.
He took in the surprised and wary looks on their faces. Nope. He was doomed.
Then Ishida switched from wary to surprised. "Wait, Atobe's running a mixed doubles tournament?" His tone was almost identical to the level of incredulousness Yuuta had managed to infuse into his own voice earlier.
An shook her head and pointed at the poster. "Nope. But the rules don't say I can't play."
Uchimura suddenly scowled at Yuuta. Despite being over a foot taller, Yuuta couldn't help but watch him warily. He'd once seen a Chihuahua chase off a German Shepherd by trying to gnaw its ankles off. He wasn't about to let his guard down around any player that had once been a part of the team known collectively as the 'brawlers'. "What?"
"Are you dating An-chan?" Uchimura stepped forward, still scowling. "Does Kippei know?"
"Forget Kippei," Ishida chuckled. "Does Kamio know?"
An stuck out her tongue. "Yuuta is not my boyfriend. Yet." She sent a wicked smirk and a quick wink to the flabbergasted Yuuta. "But he is going to be my doubles partner."
There was a tense moment, and then Ishida shrugged. "Better you than me, bro," and shook Yuuta's hand solemnly. Uchimura nodded.
This was unexpected. Yuuta was confused. "Wait, what?" He looked at An-chan. "I thought you were a good player. I mean, you are a good player," he added as An suddenly aimed a scowl of her own at him. "I've played you, I should know."
"Oh, she is," Ishida assured him. "She's also the result of what happens when a perfectionist marries a drill sergeant. "
"Who have both descended from harpies," Uchimura added with a snicker, and then squawked as An smacked his rear with her racquet. Hard.
"Watch it mister," she warned.
"So, like I said, Fuji-kun, have fun." Ishida saluted him with his own racquet.
"Call me Yuuta," Yuuta told him. He shot An a small smile. "And that's fine. I'm kind of a hard worker myself. It takes a lot to scare me."
She softened her scowl to a smile that made Yuuta's heart skip a beat.
Then the moment was broken. "You guys wanna rally a bit?" Ishida asked. "I have an hour to kill before my study session and I haven't been on a court in two weeks. I'm getting out of shape."
Momo brightened, popping back into the discussion. "I'm in."
An grinned. "Sounds like a good idea. Yuuta and I can get in some practice against you and Uchimura."
Uchimura rolled his eyes. "How do I keep getting involved with these kinds of things?"
"Quit complaining," Momo said amiably. "Ryoma and I will play the winners, right Ryoma?"
Echizen shrugged. "Looks like it."
Kawamura Sushi House
It was getting close to 9pm when the door to the shop opened with the usual tinkling of bells and a familiar face stuck his head in. "Yo, Kawamura!"
Kawamura looked up with a grin. "Hey, Ishida. Your usual, coming up."
Ishida Tetsu saluted him, sitting in a seat at the end of the sushi bar where he could talk to his friend while he worked. "Thanks. I'm starving!"
Kawamura set a mug of tea on the counter. Ishida stopped in after his tutoring sessions three days a week, since the class took place at a cram school only a block away from the sushi house. Ishida's parents were determined their sons were going to be the first people in their family to go to University. He couldn't speak for his brother, but Tetsu wasn't arguing. His decision to go to Seishun Gakuen High after middle school had been a surprise to his parents, but a welcome one.
Like Kawamura, Ishida had been forced to retire from competitive tennis. His arm couldn't keep up with the strain of all the practice involved, and his parents couldn't afford the treatments to have him heal up properly (it was, reflected Kawamura somewhat ruefully, not every family that could afford to send their child to another country for rehabilitative surgery over a sports injury). Kawamura had dropped tennis upon his entry to high school as well, preferring to focus on his dream of becoming the proprietor of the best sushi house in Japan. The two heavy hitters had become good friends after Ishida had stopped by for a drink after cram class – and found Takashi working behind the counter. "Hard class?" Kawamura checked the time again to make sure it was right. "You're late tonight."
"Mmmm." Ishida drained the cup in seconds, smiling guiltily as a laughing Kawamura refilled it. "Long day too. Class got bumped back because the teacher had an appointment or something. Since I had an hour to kill, I stopped by the street courts and wound up rallying with Uchimura, and An-chan. Yuuta, Momo and Echizen were there too."
"Sounds like fun," Kawamura said, a tad wistfully. "I haven't gotten out to the street courts in weeks." He may not have played for the school anymore, but he still liked to have a pick-up game once in a while. The problem was finding time that meshed with everyone else's. "How's Uchimura?"
"Doing well. Apparently Jyousei Shounan agrees with him and Mori. Sakurai's apparently been taken under the wing of the coach there – he's going to be playing Singles 3 at the next exhibition match."
"Tell him I said congratulations." Kawamura set a plate of crab-filled onigiri in front of Ishida. "Dig in."
"Thanks." Ishida popped a rice ball into his mouth. After swallowing it, he cocked his head at Kawamura. "There was a sign posted at the street court. Apparently, Atobe and the Hyoutei tennis team are putting together a charity tennis tournament as part of their community service towards graduation."
"Figures Atobe would keep it to tennis," Takashi chuckled.
"Nearly anyone can sign up," Ishida continued. "It's not set for school participation."
"What do you mean nearly everyone?"
"According to the rules, you have to be on a tennis team in high school – or Atobe has to recognize you." Ishida laughed. "What a weird guy. But anyway, I was thinking, how would you like to play in the doubles match with me?"
Kawamura blinked. "Play doubles?"
Ishida rolled his eyes. "C'mon, 'Mura. You know I can't play singles. I was always a doubles player."
"I am way out of practice," Kawamura warned him.
Ishida waved his arm dismissively. "So am I. That's why I figured we'd make a good pair for it. If we lose, we can't blame each other because we're both out of it." He grinned widely. "So, you in?"
Kawamura looked doubtful. "I don't know... I stopped playing for a reason."
"One tournament – played for fun, by the way – is not going to kill you. Besides, you'll get to spend a day or two hanging out with your old friends, and isn't that something to look forward to?" His voice became more cajoling. "It'll be fun."
"Go ahead, Takashi," inserted a new voice from the kitchen. The two turned their heads to see Kawamura Senior standing there with two plates in his hand. He handed them off to a server, and focused back on his son. "When you said you were giving up tennis, I didn't think you were going to cut off most of your contact with your friends too. You almost never leave this place anymore."
"I want to be helpful," Kawamura protested. "And I still have a lot to learn."
"And the restaurant will be here for you to learn it," his dad finished. "But you're still young and I'm not gonna begrudge you taking some time off to enjoy it. Go play in the tournament, Takashi."
"There, you see?" Ishida grinned. "Are you gonna ignore parental endorsement?"
Kawamura grinned back. "Guess not. All right, I'll play doubles with you."
Ishida whooped and held out his hand for a high-five. Kawamura obliged him. The more he thought about, the more he was looking forward to it. It would be good to see everyone again, and even better to play.
Kawamura made a mental note to dig his tennis gear out of his closet that night and then got back to work.
End Chapter 3
Day of the tournament
And the day had started out so promisingly too.
He had opted to pick up An from her house – "No, Syuuske, it's not a DATE, she's my partner!" *pause* "TENNIS PARTNER!" – and they'd chatted easily all the way to the sports complex owned by Atobe's uncle that was serving as the venue for the tournament. An was wearing a cute white tennis skirt and a brown tank top with white piping that made her look like she was wearing St Rudolph's colors.
When he'd pointed it out, An smiled and told him she'd assumed he'd wear his team uniform and she'd tried to match it so they'd look like real partners. It had made him feel all warm and fuzzy again.
His good mood was fading though, and it had everything to do with the idiots in front of them, holding up the sign-in line. The Hyoutei student glared at them. "This isn't a mixed doubles tournament!" he said frostily. "And no girl would ever be up to the caliber of what is required to even think of placing here."
An's whole body quivered with highly-strung tension. Yuuta looked at her, at the Hyoutei boy, back at her, and then stepped back, grinning widely. An lifted her racquet, pointing it merely an inch from the Hyoutei boy's nose. "Listen up, bucko," she snarled. "I am a Regular on the girls' team at Rikkai. I have checked the rules for this tournament, and nowhere does it say a girl can't compete. Now back off and let us sign up!"
The boy rolled his eyes and looked towards Yuuta. "Man, are you serious? You're gonna enter with a chick?"
Yuuta, who had been wearing a small, proud smile for the past week ever since An had suggested they team up in the first place, suddenly turned a glare on the Hyoutei members that rivaled anything his brother could have thrown. The menace radiating off him was enough to make the two sign-in boys back away from their table. "No. I'm going to enter with my partner," he said slowly, carefully. He reached for the pen and finished signing himself in. Then he turned it over to An who wore a triumphant smirk as she went to sign it. The boy yanked the paper away.
An's eyes narrowed to slits. "You little—"
"What's the hold up, ahn?" Atobe's distinctive drawl suddenly cut through the crowd that had gathered in front of the sign-in desk. "There are many people who have to yet to register for my tournament, and I would hate for them to be disappointed."
"Atobe-buchou!" The Hyoutei sycophants jumped to their feet and leaned forward in a synchronized bow. The boy with the paper spoke first. "It's just that this, this girl, is trying to enter your tournament and—"
"Really?" Atobe cut off the babble with a curt movement, turned his head and met An's fuming gaze. "Tachibana An, isn't it?"
"You know who I am," she said calmly. She nodded at the large sign behind the desk. "I checked your rules, Atobe. Are you going to stop me from entering the doubles competition?"
Atobe looked from her to her obvious choice of partner – one Fuji Yuuta. "A decent player with a neat talent for handling left-handed players," he said coolly. "I remember you." He smirked. "You didn't give us much of a show back then, did you?"
Yuuta growled. "You—"
An grabbed his arm. "Yuuta!"
Atobe waved his hand. "Now, now, save it for the tournament." He nodded at the two behind the desk. "Stop wasting my valuable time and sign these two in."
"Atobe…" An blinked. "You'll let me compete?"
"I hope you'll be good enough to draw a decent player out of your partner there," Atobe said, smirking. Yuuta rolled his eyes. "I look forward to seeing something interesting."
An grinned, her eyes flashing with coiled anticipation. "You will. Come on, Yuuta!" She gave Yuuta's arm a yank and dragged him back towards the desk, snatching up the pen. Yuuta flailed helplessly behind her.
Takahisa Kajimoto still couldn't figure out how Wakato had convinced him to sign up for Atobe's tournament. As a Doubles pair, no less. Wakato was a dozen steps ahead of him, all but bouncing his way to the sign-in desk surrounded by a bevy of his female fans. That was another thing Kajimoto couldn't figure out; how on earth Wakato didn't go deaf when the girls that followed him seemed incapable of lowering their voices to an acceptable decibel level.
Was it too late to try and convince Wakato to let him play in Singles instead?
"C'mon Takahisa-chan!" Wakamoto had whirled around and stood there with his hands on his hips. The girls copied him instantly, until there was a whole group glaring at him. Kajimoto raised an eyebrow and folded his arms.
Wakato blinked, and then turned a blinding smile on his followers. "Hey girls, why don't you go on and find yourselves good seats to watch us, okay?" He made little shooing motions with his hands that Kajimoto was disgusted to see them all obey, giggling and wiggling their way on to the grounds. Then Wakato turned back. "What's wrong with you?"
It wasn't obvious? Kajimoto didn't move except to start tapping his foot. "Takahisa-chan?"
"Oh, relax, I've called you worse," Wakato pouted. "Why are you walking so far behind?"
Kajimoto blinked, and then sent a very pointed stare in the direction Wakato's flock had disappeared to. "You really can't guess?"
"It's not that bad."
"Neither is the flu, but you don't see me going out of my way to catch it," Kajimoto grumbled.
Wakato looked at him for a minute, finally looking serious for a change. "You really don't wanna play doubles, do you?"
There it was – the perfect chance to get himself situated properly back in Singles like he should have been all along. But when he opened his mouth to agree, all he could see was the veiled look of disappointment in Wakato's expressive eyes. He closed his mouth, sighed roughly, and then offered his friend a weak smile. "It's fine."
His friend wasn't fooled. "If you really don't wanna do it, we don't have to."
"But you want to," Kajimoto pointed out quietly. "Right?"
Wakato shrugged, and gave him a weak smile. "I've always wanted to try Doubles," he said.
Kajimoto blinked again. "Say what?"
Wakato laughed, and then tension seemed to lessen. "Seriously! I mean, I'm a good Singles player, but that doesn't mean I never want to try different things." He shrugged. "Not to mention, there's never been anyone else I wanted to play with." He smiled at Kajimoto, who was dumbfounded. "We'll never get the chance on the team to play Doubles because we have two strong teams and a back-up pair ready to take over in a pinch, but this isn't a school tournament. It might be the only chance we have to play together in a competitive arena."
This was huge news to Kajimoto who had never even entertained the thought of playing Doubles with Wakato – though he had no real aversion to Doubles in general – since Wakato had never given off the Doubles vibe. The Singles 2 player was dedicated to his role and had never before hinted that he wanted to do anything but play Singles. "…Seriously?"
Wakato nodded, his face determined. He held out his hand to Kajimoto. "C'mon, 'Hisa," he murmured. "Captain. Please?"
Kajimoto looked at Wakato's outstretched hand, and a small smile broke over his face. He reached out and gripped Wakato's wrist firmly, squeezing once in silent promise. "Let's do it."
Wakato beamed. "Yeah!" And with that, as though the entire interlude had never happened, he resumed his bouncing towards the registration desk, leaving Kajimoto resigned to following a dozen steps behind. The difference this time though, was apparent when Wakato paused, almost vibrating in place as Kajimoto caught up to him, and they reached the desk together.
Muromachi Touji was having an easier time with his partner even though like Kajimoto, he too was a Singles player. It helped that his partner was the adorable Dan Taichi, who was so excited about playing a match with his sempai he couldn't stay still. One minute, he was gripping Muromachi's hand tightly as he pointed someone or something out on their way to the registration desk. The next, Muromachi was gripping air as Dan darted to one side or another to exclaim something at someone. There were just too many good tennis players hanging out as they waited for the tournament to begin, and Dan had to go and profess his admiration to all of them.
"Muromachi-sempai! Did you see, desu? It was Kurobane-san and Davide-san, desu!" Dan hopped up and down like a blue-haired rabbit. "I hope we can play them! That would be a great game, desu!"
Muromachi smiled. "Yeah, I saw—" and then he was blinking in stupefaction as Dan squealed and took off again, this time apparently professing his deep and unending respect to the ex-Fudomine player Shinji who was standing at the side of the court path, looking bewilderedly at the excited little fan boy in front of him.
Tempting as it was to leave Dan there, Muromachi decided to take pity on Shinji who was mumbling under his breath at the same time Dan was listing all of Shinji's recent achievements on the high school circuit. "C'mon Taichi, we're never gonna get to sign in at this rate."
"But we have to, desu!" Dan looked horrified at the prospect of missing out on the tournament. "Sorry Shinji-san, but we have to go! Come on Muromachi-sempai!"
Muromachi was dragged off again. He could still hear Shinji's fading voice though – "…such an odd little boy and who goes up to people he doesn't know and talks like that? So very strange indeed…" and whole-heartedly agreed.
Kaido leaned against the trunk of a tree, arms folded, scowling at the ground but without any real heat to it. The scowl was a habit, meant to keep people from bothering him while he waited for Inui-sempai. He'd heard about the tournament from Momo-the-halfwit, and had initially refused to enter on the grounds that anything Momo volunteered for had to be an exercise in idiocy. Then he'd heard through the Seigaku grapevine – also known as 'tennis practice' – that most of the Regulars were planning on participating. Echizen was a given – the brat never could resist a challenge. But to hear that Tezuka-Buchou and Fuji-sempai were playing Doubles had made him rethink his decision.
He had greatly improved from his middle-school days. He wasn't the same snake that Momoshiro accused him of being. Inui had once predicted that at his level of improvement, he would one day be a top contender in the pro tennis world, a dream he had every intention of meeting one day. But that was still a long way off, and he knew better than to assume he could beat Buchou or Fuji one-on-one yet, not if they were playing seriously.
But if they were playing Doubles, then that meant he had a chance to take the Singles round. He wasn't prone to bragging, but once he'd decided to enter, he'd asked Inui to find out who else was competing. All the big names, the ones sure to take top prize? Most of them were playing Doubles. Apparently it was a chance for them to do something different, since the school wasn't counting on them for a Singles win.
Along with bragging, Kaido wasn't much of an opportunist either. He wouldn't shy away from a real challenge. But he knew that with the big names out of the picture – Atobe, Yukimura, Sanada, Tezuka – he had a real chance to win.
He had half-expected Inui to ask him to play Doubles in Hyoutei's tournament and dreaded it for a change – he didn't want to insult his sempai by telling him he preferred to play Singles this time around. But Inui, recovering from a recent bout of bronchitis, had decided not to risk aggravating his lungs and opted to coach him instead.
"Ah, Kaido. I expected that you would arrive fifteen minutes before our scheduled meeting time." Speak of the devil. "I see I was correct."
"Aren't you always?" Kaido asked dryly. He looked up and offered his sempai a faint smirk he knew Inui would see as a smile.
Inui pushed his glasses up on his nose and smiled back. "It's good of you to say so, Kaido, but I still have a long way to go to perfect all of my data - particularly my data concerning you. You have a habit of surprising me."
Kaido snorted. "If you say so, sempai." He pushed himself off the tree, and jerked a thumb at the registration desk. "I haven't signed in yet."
"Then let us proceed." Inui grandly gestured that Kaido should precede him, and with a hiss and a blush Kaido stalked past him.
"I still haven't quite figured out why I agreed to this," Tezuka muttered as an aside to Fuji.
Fuji smiled brightly. "Because you wanted to make your best friend happy," he said firmly, one hand on Tezuka's shoulder – presumably, Tezuka thought – to make sure he didn't try to escape.
"And you couldn't play with your boyfriend because?"
Another grin. "Because Saeki promised Aoi he'd play Doubles with him. Besides, I've always wondered how we'd do as a Doubles pair."
Tezuka blinked at that. If he was being honest with himself, he had to admit his own curiosity regarding their Doubles compatibility as well. Being close friends for such a long time had given them insight into each other that they had no trouble using, and such an ability would doubtless serve them well if they paired up. But as he mentioned, he had been expecting to see Fuji ask Saeki instead.
Fuji dating Saeki had come as a shock to everyone at Seigaku except Tezuka. Saeki had been blatantly pursuing Fuji for years. Their mothers, best friends since their own high school days, had known their children would pair up years ago. Saeki-san had spent her university years – and several years after – living in San Francisco and had married a man as open-minded as herself. In a situation that would spell disaster for almost anyone else, (with only a few notable exceptions), Fuji and Saeki had come out as a couple with very few problems at all. Though, Tezuka reflected wryly, it was to be expected of Fuji. Apparently his skills as a tensai transferred over to many aspects of his life.
His thoughts were drifting. He did not approve of any part of him standing idle, including his thoughts, and so he returned to the conversation at hand. Tezuka frowned. Despite believing they would mesh well together on the courts, they were still at a disadvantage in other ways. "I don't think we will be as successful as you anticipate," he said calmly. "I have very limited experience in Doubles, and we will likely be up against established pairs."
"That only makes the game more interesting," Fuji insisted. "Besides, remember what Inui told us. There are many first-time Doubles pairs in this tournament just like us. It's such a rare opportunity that we get to play competitively without the school relying on us, so we're free to try different things."
Tezuka shot him a knowing look. "I suppose this means you won't be playing seriously, since it doesn't matter?"
"I'm wounded," Fuji said tragically. He held his fist to his chest. "Such a sentiment gets me, right in the heart."
"I believe the rumors around the school center around the idea that you don't possess a heart."
"So cruel, Tezuka." Fuji actually chuckled this time as they approached the desk. "Now be a good Captain and sign yourself in."
Tezuka resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going to get out of this – not if he wanted to avoid any of Fuji's revenge tactics. He didn't particularly want to relive the fateful day he'd had to practice in pink shoes and shorts when his regular clothing had mysteriously vanished not long after he'd denied Fuji the right to skip practice to visit his boyfriend on his birthday.
He didn't want to know how despite going to separate schools fully across the city from each other, Saeki had managed to assist with the switch, bringing the infernal clothing in question to Fuji even before practice began. Some things were better off remaining a secret, particularly if he wanted to keep his sanity intact.
"I still think you should enter." Sengoku Kiyosumi shook his head and tsked with mock disappointment. "Taichi was so disappointed when you refused to play Doubles with him."
A low growl came from behind the tree where Akutsu Jin was lounging, a burning cigarette dangling loosely from his fingers. "If you don't fucking leave me alone, Sengoku, I swear—"
"And smoking too," Sengoku continued, as though Akutsu hadn't said a word. "You're going to develop lung cancer, just you wait and see."
"Fuck you," came the eloquent response.
Sengoku grinned. He hadn't feared for his life around Akutsu since middle-school. He had figured out – luckily, of course – that Akutsu had a kind of grudging respect for those who stood up to him. Not bully-style – but in a, 'I will defend myself even if you break me into tiny pieces' kind of standing up. The first time Akutsu had grabbed him by the front of his jacket and threatened to pound his face in, Sengoku had merely looked back calmly, and told him if it would make him feel better, he could go right ahead. One intense stare-down later, Akutsu had burst into gruff laughter, cuffed him sharply in the head, and told him to stay the fuck away from him.
Two weeks later, Sengoku had run into a young man who took personal offense to Sengoku giving his girlfriend a compliment (though to Sengoku's credit, the girl had been alone when he'd offered it). The angry young man had snatched up a piece of pipe from a garbage-strewn alleyway and had threatened to take Sengoku's head off. Akutsu had been in the area and apparently heard the threats the man was shouting. Sengoku had been astonished when the swung pipe stopped dead in its tracks, held fast in the iron grip of Akutsu. In fact, Sengoku wound up saving the young man from a month in traction at the local hospital by persuading Jin it was not in his best interest to smash in all the man's teeth and use their remnants to make a pair of maracas.
Since then, they had developed a kind of resigned and mostly one-sided friendship. It had grown stronger with the addition of Taichi back in middle-school – Akutsu could deny it all he wanted, but he had a definite soft spot for the puppy-eyed boy, who had managed to do the impossible and smooth out some of the rough edges in Akutsu.
It seemed though, that making Akutsu quit smoking and rejoin the tennis club was out of his range of ability however. "It would have been interesting," Sengoku mused. "Big, tough Akutsu with his tiny, adorable partner. Kind of like that Jyousei pairing from middle school."
Akutsu snorted and ground the cigarette out on his boot before dropping the butt into the grass. "You're really starting to piss me off, Sengoku. I told you, I don't play tennis anymore."
Unless there was a challenge. Sengoku didn't need to say it out loud though – they both knew it was the truth. He smirked. Or unless Taichi asked him to help him practice a new technique. Though he couldn't blame Akutsu – Sengoku couldn't deny the kid anything either. "Are you at least going to watch the match? He'll be disappointed if you don't."
"Doesn't matter," Akutsu said, shrugging indifferently. "S'not like they're gonna win."
Sengoku raised an eyebrow. "No faith?"
"It's goddamn Muromachi," Akutsu spat. "He's a lousy Singles player and he's fucking worse at Doubles. And Taichi sucks at Doubles."
It was true, Sengoku had to admit. Playing Singles had forced Taichi to rely on himself. He had improved in leaps and bounds in such a short time. But whenever he played Doubles, he fell into a pattern of following his partner's lead – particularly if his partner was one of his sempai. A true Doubles pair didn't have one player defer to the other. They had to work together as a team.
But Taichi wanted to try Doubles, and Muromachi was even worse at turning down the kid than Sengoku was. Sengoku might have agreed to play with him, had he not had his heart set on playing Singles. There were some great Singles players he wanted a shot at, and besides, he'd never been very good at Doubles either.
Ah well. It'd be a good experience for Taichi regardless. Sengoku stretched and then nodded in the direction of the registration desk. "I gotta go sign in. Gonna watch my match? Wish me luck?"
"Go to hell." But Akutsu didn't immediately stalk off in the opposite direction of the courts, which was as good as him loudly proclaiming he'd be there to watch Taichi and Sengoku screw up.
Sengoku chuckled and jogged off to enter.
Momo had a lazy arm stretched across Ryoma's shoulders as they made their way to the registration desk. Anyone watching them would have assumed it was because they were such close friends, but really, it was to keep a close eye on his partner. If Ryoma showed any signs of backing out of their agreement, Momo would simply grasp the back of his collar the same way you'd hang on to an angry kitten, and carry him directly to the sign-in sheet.
"I said I would be your partner," Ryoma sighed rather sulkily. But he didn't make an effort to dislodge his sempai's arm, and so Momo took that as permission to leave it there. "You don't need to drag me."
"Just making sure, just making sure." Momo was waving with his free hand to the familiar faces they passed. "Look, there's those freaky twins from Jyousei Shounan," he hissed. "It's just weird how they finish each other's sentences. They freak me out."
Ryoma smirked. "Scared already, Momo-sempai?"
Momo casually curled his arm up to smack Ryoma lightly in the back of the head. "'Freaked' does not equal 'scared'."
"Hey, there's Inui-sempai!" Momo grinned and waved. Then he scowled. "And the damn snake. I thought he said he wasn't playing Doubles."
Inui saw them coming, and nodded in greeting. Kaido hissed in Momo's direction and then looked away.
"Inui-sempai. Are you Kaido-sempai's Doubles partner today?" Ryoma asked.
Inui shook his head. "My doctor advised me to avoid straining my lungs for a few more days," he said. Momo belatedly remembered Inui being absent from school for bronchitis. "I have offered my coaching services to Kaido."
Momo grinned. "Scared, huh snake? Need some help?"
Kaido glared at him. "Shut up, you idiot. I wouldn't talk. You're playing Doubles so when you start losing, you can count on Echizen to bail you out."
That was hitting below the belt. Momo took a step forward, hands clenched into fists. "You wanna say that again?"
All four of them turned around to see Tezuka and Fuji standing there. Fuji had his usual cat`s eye smile on, but Tezuka had that irritated expression they knew so well. They usually saw it just before they were assigned a new record in laps. Momo hunched inward a little and Kaido lowered his eyes. Both of them mumbled, ``Sorry Buchou."
Tezuka was still frowning when Ryoma tugged Momo to the desk so they could sign in. Momo slunk over, scrawled his name, and then cleared his throat. "So, ah... we`re gonna go get ready. See you all later!" He grabbed Ryoma by the arm and began to drag him away.
"What are you doing, Momo-sempai?"
Momo shot a furtive glance over his shoulder. "I wanted to leave before Buchou made us run laps," he said.
Ryoma didn't say anything, but as he tugged the brim of his cap down, Momo knew he was laughing at him anyway.
"'Kira-nii, look! I see Shinji-nii-chan!" Michiko was bouncing up and down, waving her arms for all she was worth.
Sachiko was doing the same thing. "And I can see Sengoku-nii-chan! Can we go say hi?"
"You gotta let me and Akaya sign in first," Kamio repeated for the fourth time. The girls were familiar with most of the Kanto players, having attended many of Kamio and Kirihara's matches, and they were already running late because they felt the need to stop and talk to absolutely everyone they saw. "Once we sign in, I promise, we'll walk around and let you guys go and socialize."
Sachiko obviously wasn't listening. "Marui-nii! Marui-nii!"
Kirihara rolled his eyes. "At least say hi to the decent players," he drawled.
Marui strolled up to them and whacked Akaya on the shoulder without pausing. "They are," he stated with a smile. "They have the good taste to greet their favourite tensai."
"Yeah, that would be Shinji, right?"
Kamio groaned. "Behave."
Akaya blinked. "Who, me?"
"All of you."
"I see An-chan!" Michiko shrieked.
Kamio checked his pockets for the familiar feel of his Tylenol bottle. There it was, safe and sound. He was going to need it fairly soon, he was certain.
An had obviously heard Michiko – as had most of Tokyo, no doubt – and was heading in their direction with Fuji Yuuta in tow. Kamio waved at her as she arrived, and she pulled him into a warm hug. "Hey An-chan."
"Hey yourself," she returned. Akaya waggled his fingers at her, and she hugged him too. Michiko bounded over and attached herself to An's leg. "Why, hello Michiko!"
"An-chan!" Michiko beamed, happy as a clam with one of her favourite people. Sachiko latched on to An's hand and began to babble along with Michi, pointing out all the people they knew to An.
Kamio grinned at the sight, and then turned to look at Yuuta. "So I heard An talked you into playing Doubles with her."
Yuuta gave him a wary look. "More like she ambushed me, but yeah." He shrugged. "I figure it'll be interesting."
Kamio nodded – it certainly would. Yuuta was a decent player, and An was damn good herself. "You better treat her right," he said warningly.
Yuuta nodded – and then caught himself, blushing furiously. "It's not like that!" he protested. "We're just playing tennis together. That's it!"
"Sure thing," Kamio said easily. "We'll be watching."
Kirihara smirked at Yuuta's obvious discomfort. "Have fun there, Fuji-junior." Behind Akaya, Marui sniggered.
Yuuta snarled wordlessly, and then turned, stomping off, pausing only to tell An he was going to get a drink. An nodded, and once he'd left, she turned and smacked Akaya in the arm. "Would it kill you to be nice, just once?"
"Probably," Akaya admitted with a grin.
"Likely," Marui corrected.
"Did you sign in already?" Kamio interrupted.
An nodded. "That guy—" she pointed to one of the Hyoutei students behind the registration desk. "—tried to stop me from entering."
"Really?" Kirihara gazed at the student with a disturbing gleam in his eye. "That one on the left?"
Kamio pinched Akaya's arm. "No violence," he said warningly. To An, he asked, "So what happened?"
An laughed. "Would you believe Atobe himself told the guy to stop wasting time and just sign me in?"
Marui popped a piece of gum into his mouth. "Really?"
The familiar sound of muttering reached them all, and they turned as one to see Shinji standing behind them. "...and it's getting later and they still haven't registered. I don't think they've changed their minds about entering but if they don't sign in soon, they won't have a say in the matter."
"We're still entering," Kamio said. "Hey Shinji. I guess that means you've already signed in?"
Shinji nodded solemnly. "Are you still entering Singles?"
Kamio and Kirihara nodded. "I don't play Doubles," Kirihara said with a shrug.
"What if you guys wind up against each other?" An asked.
"I'll kick his ass," Akaya said with a grin.
"I've got five hundred yen on Kamio," Marui countered. "He'll bat his eyes, and you'll let him win."
Kamio's eyes flashed. "I'll kick his ass if he does." He looked at An to answer her question. "We play. Like we do in practice, or at the street courts. It wouldn't be the first time we've faced each other." Akaya winked and leaned in for a quick kiss that Kamio returned.
Sachiko, used to PDA's from her brother and his boyfriend and just as used to interrupting them, tuned back into the conversation, suddenly standing by her brother and looking from him to Akaya and back until they broke apart and looked at her. "I hope you don't play each other," she said.
An crouched down. "Why not, sweetie?"
Sachi gnawed on her lower lip, looking worried. "'Cause I won't know who to cheer for," she admitted.
An grinned. "Oh, that's easy kiddo. Cheer for your brother."
Kirihara glared. "Hey!"
"I'll cheer for 'Kaya-nii!" Michiko declared, inserting herself back into the conversation. "Sachi can cheer for 'Kira-nii."
"There ya go," Marui laughed, snapping his gum. "It's all settled."
Kamio rolled his eyes. "Wonderful," he said. "Can we please go sign in now? Otherwise this is all going to be a moot point."
"What's moot mean?" Sachiko asked.
"It means if we're late, it won't matter who you cheer for 'cause neither of us will be playing," Kirihara told her.
Michiko and Sachiko exchanged looks, and then charged forward. Miki grabbed a hold of Kamio, and Sachiko latched on to Akaya's hand. Both began tugging as hard as they could. "C'mon!" Michiko urged them. "Can't be late!"
"Gee, why didn't I think of that?" Kamio said, rolling his eyes but allowing his siblings to drag him to the registration table.
An laughed and followed along. Shinji did too, actually moving directly behind Kamio and Kirihara, as though he wasn't sure the girls were capable of dragging them all the way there, but that was okay because he was there to push if necessary. Kamio stuck his tongue out at his friend at the thought, and Shinji shrugged, a small smile lifting the sides of his mouth like he knew what Kamio was thinking, and he was right.
Kamio decided they'd been friends for too long.
Sachiko and Michiko did however drag them all the way to the desk. Michi even took the extra step to put the pen – an elaborate silver pen with gold inlay, typical Hyoutei – in his hand. "Here 'Kira-nii," she said anxiously, and turned to look at the boy behind the desk. "Are we late?"
The boy looked them up and down with visible distaste, pausing on Kamio's old and worn sneakers and faded track pants with a visible shudder. Kamio had opted to wear his old Fudomine jacket, faded and battered as it was, as it wasn't a school team event. His clothes were old but clean and comfortable, and it felt good wearing them again. But obviously the guy in front of him had a different opinion. If his sneer got any bigger, Kamio was afraid he was going to lose his temper. The boy shook his head, but asked in a dry voice, "Name?"
"Kamio Akira." He would be nice. He had his sisters there, and he needed to set a good example for them.
"Who?" The boy looked bored.
Inwardly Kamio growled. "Kamio. AKIRA." He bit off his first name a little bit harder than he'd meant to.
"No need to get testy. I can't possibly be expected to know everyone who's playing today, and you don't look like someone I should know," the boy said with a frown, and began rifling through the file folders. "Ah, yes. Here's your registration form." He handed it to Kamio – who was still frozen speechless from that little jab – and turned his bored gaze on to Akaya. "Name?"
"Kirihara Akaya." Akaya leaned forward. "And if I have to repeat it, or listen to a snarky little comment from you, I'm gonna show you why they call me the demon of Rikkai." He felt his eyes flash red in warning as his temper began to boil. The boy drew back in fright, knocking over the pile of folders. Kamio shook off his stupor and touched Kirihara's shoulder.
"Hey," he said softly. So softly, he was unheard by anyone except Akaya. "It's okay, calm down."
Akaya clenched his fists and then relaxed them. He turned to look at Kamio with eyes that were clear, and he finally growled. "He shouldn't talk to you like that."
"His opinion means nothing to me," Kamio said with a shrug. He leaned companionably next to him, and Miki - who hadn't moved from Akaya's feet – tilted her head back until she was looking straight up.
"Smile 'Kaya-nii!" she chirped.
Akaya rolled his eyes. Then he crossed them and stuck out his tongue. "Laak dis?"
Sachiko pushed a pen into Akaya's hand as the idiot behind the desk finally pulled out Akaya's paper. A few minutes later, they were almost finished signing in, and Kamio told the girls to go back to An and Shinji. Marui moved up to sign in once they were done.
Akaya handed Marui his pen and slid the paper back. Kamio watched the boy behind the desk take their papers and file them away, adding their names to two slips of paper that he dropped in a drum (names would be picked shortly after sign-in closed). He was about to turn around when Akaya moved suddenly, hand clamped onto the Hyoutei first year's arm. "Akaya?"
"You having money doesn't mean you're worth a damn cent more than anyone else," Akaya snarled into the kid's face.
Apparently he wasn't going to let the matter go as easily as Kamio had hoped.
Kamio knew that the right thing to do was to stop Akaya, yet the sight of Akaya going all protective on him never failed to turn him to mush. Mush was not capable of doing anything except being mushy, much less stopping the force of nature known as Kirihara.
He noticed Marui smirking, subtlety standing just behind Akaya with his arms folded, a silent hint to the other Hyoutei boy that Akaya was not there alone. The other boy hadn't said a word during the entire sign-in, and was even more speechless now, eyes wide as dinner plates.
Kirihara gave the kid one last shake. "You're already on my shit list for trying to keep An from playin' today," he growled. "Insulting Kamio was strike two. Do not make me tell you what happens when you reach strike three." The boy nodded rapidly, his face grey-white and dripping with a sudden sweat that had come over him the minute Kirihara had effortlessly immobilized him with one hand. Akaya let go, and the boy scuttled back to his seat, still watching them warily.
Kamio sighed. "Are you done intimidating the freshmen yet?"
Akaya turned and smirked. "Yup!" He took one step towards Kamio, planted a chaste, smacking kiss on Kamio's forehead, and then bounded off to join the girls. Kamio smacked his palm over his face, muttering about idiots.
Marui started laughing so hard he dropped the pen as he finished signing himself in. The two Hyoutei boys' eyes were even bigger now, jaws dropped open like gaping goldfish. Marui threw the pen at the first one which hit him in the chest, making him yelp. "You got something to say?"
"N-nothing!" they choked out.
"Wonderful. C'mon Kamio." Marui led the still-muttering Kamio back to their group. Two more people had joined them while he and Kamio had finished up at the sign-in desk. Kamio forgot all about the Hyoutei snobs when he saw who they were and broke free of Marui, racing towards them with a huge smile on his face.
Sakurai, Uchimura and Mori had decided to meet at the south gate of the courts and go in together. Sakurai was late though, and they were gone when he arrived. He figured they must have already signed in, and he decided to hit the registration desk to find out. Thanks to the signs everywhere – more friggin' purple – Sakurai found the sign-in area without any problems. There were two Hyoutei teens picking up file folders, looking shell-shocked. Sakurai was concerned.
"Hey, are you okay?" he asked. "You guys don't look so well."
"That, that thug, tried to assault me," the first one said in a tone quivering with fear and anger.
Sakurai raised an eyebrow. "Thug?" He followed the finger the boy pointed and recognized the jersey and messy hair instantly. The fact that he was surrounded by people Sakurai knew very well, also helped. "What did you do?"
The boy looked at his Jyousei Shounan jacket and gave him a brief smile. "I just don't see why certain people seem to think I should know who they are." He sniffed. "Particularly when it's obvious they aren't in the same, shall we say, circles? Socially?" He shrugged. "I think people are far too sensitive these days."
As always, next to Kirihara was Akira. Sakurai could see the familiar faded Fudomine warm up coat Kamio still wore frequently when he wasn't at school. They all wore them still. Call them sentimental, whatever – none of them would ever forget Fudomine was the school where they'd gotten their start. Who knew where they'd be today if they hadn't begun there? "Social circles?"
The boy resettled the folders on the desk and sat down, everything back in order. "Well, it's fairly obvious that that one—" He pointed to Kamio with an expensive-looking silver pen. "—hasn't had the same sort of… luxuries in life as we have."
Sakurai leveled a flat look at the boy. "So you insulted that guy 'cause he's not as rich as you?" He set one hand on the desk and leaned in. "I'll let you in on a secret. I'm not at Jyousei Shounan because I can afford it. I'm there because I'm good enough at what I do and got myself a scholarship. I'm the same as him." Sakurai pressed the other hand flat against the desk, looming over the smaller boy. "You have any other snobby shit you wanna say to me?"
"N-no!" he yelped and shoved his chair back. His foot struck the desk and the neat stack of folders fell off the side, scattering all over the floor.
"Wise move." Sakurai turned to head over.
"A-aren't you going to sign in?" the second boy spoke up timidly
Sakurai ignored them and kept moving.
Sachiko saw him first and screamed loud enough to wake the dead. "'Saya-nii!"
"Hey kiddo!" Sakurai knelt down and let the small girl cling to him. He stood up, easily carrying her slight weight, even as he pretended she was almost too heavy for him to lift. "Oof, girl! Has Kamio been feeding you rocks?"
"Only the finest rocks and sticks," Sachiko agreed. "I missed you a lot, 'Saya-nii."
"I missed you too," Sakurai said honestly. Michiko attached herself to his legs, and he looked down with a smile. "Hey Michi. Gonna let me walk?"
"Nope." She shook her head and settled firmly on top of his foot, wrapping her arms and legs around his leg tightly.
"Oh, good." Sakurai lifted her with some effort and finally joined the group – all of whom were watching him with varying looks of amusement. "Hello all."
Kamio waved happily. "Hey Sakurai!" He nudged Kirihara until the boy finally waggled his fingers. "You know Marui, right?
"Yeah. Hey man." He nodded at the redhead, and then gave a reluctant greeting to Akaya. "Hey."
Mori had his arms crossed. "You forget we were supposed to meet or what?"
Uchimura waggled a finger at him. "Dude, you are SO late."
Sakurai finally set Sachiko down. "Sorry man. I overslept, and Mom thought since I wasn't playing, it didn't matter if I signed in." He smirked. "This is true, but anyway. I'm here now." He looked at An-chan and Shinji. "Hey, you two! No greetings? I'm hurt. I knew I wasn't loved."
An-chan stepped forward and soundly thwapped the back of his head – an age-old tradition for his sarcasm – and wrapped her arms around his neck. "You dolt," she said affectionately, and kissed his cheek. "We miss you all the time."
Shinji nodded. "I do miss you, as I miss all my friends, but I don't think I need to kiss you to show it, do I? I don't really want to. It's not terribly hygienic."
"Shinji, I love you man, but I don't want you kissing me either," Sakurai reassured the blue-haired player, and instead pulled him into a quick hug, thumping him on the back. "How are you?"
"Good, now that everyone seems to be here. Kamio and Kirihara were almost late, which is not very responsible for two former captains."
"I agree," Sakurai said solemnly, giving Kamio a wicked look and a wink.
Kirihara rolled his eyes – while they would never get along, they were at least able to be civil to each other these days – and Kamio snorted outright. "Oh please," he said. "Which former vice-captain is being kept OUT of this tournament because he waited too long to send in his application and the spots filled up before he could be accepted?"
Kirihara let out a bark of laughter. "Ha!"
An-chan giggled. "Ooooh, you got burned, 'Saya."
"We told you to send yours in when we did," Uchimura said with mock-sadness.
"Now you can be one of the cheerleaders." Mori nodded at the girls who had the same backpacks with them they always had when Kamio brought them to a match. "Hey girls, can Sakurai borrow your pompoms?"
Sakurai opened his mouth to say something that would be considered completely indecent with children around, and was cut off by Kamio preemptively slapping a hand over his mouth – and the sight of Michi thrusting a familiar black, pink and white striped pompom at him. He accepted it, ignoring the snickering coming from Marui and Kirihara's direction, turning it over in his hands slowly. How many times had he seen those pompoms up in the stands? Usually with An-chan, and cheering them on with everything they had. He smiled at the memories. He looked at Kamio and saw the knowing grin on his face. "I am not being sentimental."
"Of course you're not," Kamio said, while nodding his head that yes he was. "You sucker."
"Whatever." He held the pompom up and gave it a twirl. "I'm gonna sit with the girls and we're gonna cheer for all your opponents, right girls?"
"Why?" Sachiko asked.
Sakurai gave her his best puppy dog look. ""Cause they're being mean to me, Sachi. Very, very mean."
She immediately had a sympathetic look on her face. "Aww, poor 'Saya-niii…"
Sakurai sent a victorious smirk in Akaya and Akira's direction.
"…but we already promised to cheer for 'Kaya-nii and 'Kira-nii," she finished apologetically.
Sakurai dropped his head with a groan. "I can't win, can I?"
Uchimura chuckled and nudged him. "You never could."
"What made you think anything changed?" An asked with a grin.
"Now that the comedy act is over for now, can we get inside?" Akaya drawled. "They're gonna pull the names in ten minutes, and I wanna see who I'm playing."
Sakurai sighed. "I'd hope for someone unbeatable but with my luck, you'd be given someone easy to beat."
"How can I?" Akaya asked innocently. "You were too late to enter."
Sakurai chased the snickering Kirihara all the way into the tennis club.
End chapter 4
It was 9:30, and the tournament was about to officially start.
Kamio scanned the stands eagerly. He had been utterly shocked when Akaya had tugged on his jersey and pointed to a very familiar person approaching the stands. Their next door friend and neighbour, Makamoto-san, stood there smiling at them. Sachiko and Michiko had instantly detached themselves from Kamio, and reattached themselves to her instead. Seeing her had been a surprise. Finding out Kirihara had invited her was a stunner. Not to mention helpful – Kamio had been about to have the girls stick by him or Kirihara whenever they weren't playing, but Michiko wanted to stay with the elderly woman. Kirihara had found her and the girls good seats right in the middle where they could see the B and C courts clearly. If they played on courts A or D, they'd go and get them.
He caught sight of Michiko standing on the small cement barrier that lined the front row of each section. She was wearing the noise-reducing headphones he'd picked up on the doc's orders after their doctor's appointment. They were huge and dwarfed her head. Sachiko was standing on the chair and Makamoto-san had a hand on the hem of her t-shirt in case she fell. Kamio grinned and waved back. Then he turned to the podium where Atobe was suddenly standing in front of the microphone.
Screams went off like sirens as he smiled at the crowd, and Kamio flinched. Akaya leaned over to speak directly into his ear. "Does he put something in the water or what?"
"Rikkai fan girls are just as bad," Kamio replied. "But man, I'm glad I made Miki bring her headphones." Kirihara nodded.
Spotlights suddenly aimed at the podium, and two camera men had moved in close. The Hyoutei regulars were standing in a line behind their captain, looking like smiling sentries in perfectly posed and groomed uniforms. Static from the mike crackled, and then Atobe cleared his throat. "Welcome everyone, to the first, annual, Tennis Teens for Charity Tennis Tournament." White light glinted off Atobe's toothpaste-smile and Kamio shook his head, amazed. The teen simply had amazing stage presence and charisma. Atobe made another gesture, and the crowd screamed again.
"That guy irritates the hell out of me," came Akaya's voice in his ear again, making him shiver. "But man, can he work a crowd."
Apparently Akaya was reading his mind today.
"As you know, the money raised today will be donated to a secret charity at the end of the tournament today," Atobe continued. "Donation boxes have been set up at all of our entrances if you should feel the urge to give." He paused and winked at the crowd. "I know tennis fans are very generous and wonderful human beings, ahn?"
"Could he lay it on any thicker?"
"Akaya, be quiet!" Kamio elbowed him.
"Allow me to introduce to you the special referees who have graciously volunteered their time to be here today." Atobe gestured to the people sitting behind him. "From Seigaku middle school, coach of two-time National champions, Ryuuzaki-sensei." Ryuuzaki-sensei stood up with a wave, smiling at the applauding crowd. She was dressed in her familiar purple track suit, hair severely pulled back into a tight ponytail. Kamio counted down.
"Holy crap," Akaya complained. "Do you hear that screaming? That's Kikumaru. Christ, he sounds like a girl."
Kamio buried his head in his hands and snorted.
"Our next guest referee is another coach with an illustrious career. From Yamabuki High School, Banji-sensei!" The man with the perpetual smile, Kamio recalled. He stood up, eyes creased into sunny half-moons.
"I'm just saying!"
"We were very fortunate to secure the services of our next referee. One of the top names in the media tennis world, and the number one reporter at Pro Tennis Monthly. Allow me to introduce you to Inoue Mamoru." Atobe made a gesture that made half the girls swoon. Inoue-san stood up and waved, a big smile on his face. There was another shriek - somewhere in the audience, Kamio was positive, Tomoka-chan from Seigaku was waving her pompoms and screaming at the top of her lungs.
"I remember that guy had an old lady with him," Kirihara commented. "She took my picture once. I never did figure out why. Maybe she thought I was from Seigaku?"
Kamio stared at him, confused. "Huh?"
"And last, but most certainly not least, we have a truly special guest referee," Atobe continued. The fourth person wasn't on the stage. Kamio blinked, and craned his head searching. "A legend in the tennis world, I am privileged to introduce you to the Samurai of Japan - Echizen Nanjiroh!"
Kamio blinked. "Echizen Nanjiroh?"
Kirihara scanned. "Where is he?"
Suddenly a man dressed in monks clothing, barefoot and with stubble all over his face, hopped on to the podium. "Halloooo!" he boomed.
There was silence.
The man whipped off his sunglasses and raked a hand through his hair. His eyes gleamed, and suddenly a roar went through the crowd. Kamio could hear whispers - 'Echizen Nanjiroh?' 'Wow, that's Echizen Nanjiroh!' 'Wow, he looks great!' 'What? He looks weird!' 'Oh my god, it's the Samurai!' "Interesting choice," he remarked. "I wonder what Ryoma thinks of this."
Kirihara snorted, but his eyes were bright. "I wonder if I could get him to play me," he murmured.
"Our referees are going to take turns selecting names from the drum," Atobe said, bringing the spotlight back to himself. He spun the drum once with a flourish. "Once all the names have been selected, the tournament shall begin promptly at 10:00." Turning, he bowed dramatically. "Ryuuzaki-sensei, if you please?"
Ryuuzaki-sensei stood and made her way to the drum. She spun it a few times, and laughed as Momoshiro started the Seigaku crowd in chanting their school name. "From Rikkai High, Yagyuu Hiroshi!"
Cheers went up as different names were called. There were going to be some interesting matches right off the bat, Kamio noted. Niou was going against Shinji in the second wave of first round play. Yagyuu against Mizuki, Marui against Kaneda.
"What are the odds of the first two matches both being Rikkai vs St Rudolph?" Kamio wondered.
Akaya looked blank. "Who?"
Names continued to be pulled out. Over the podium where the drawing was taking place, there was an enormous, giant screen TV with the layout for the tournament, and as the names were drawn, they were added on the screen. There were some murmurs as different matchups were called out. Kikumaru cheered over everyone else when his name was called – and his wail echoed over the crowd again when he was matched with Itsuki from Rokka. Kamio snorted. "Somewhere in the crowd, Itsuki is asking why he got Kikumaru, and why Kikumaru's making that sound."
"Followed by a dozen more 'why's'," Kamio finished. They smirked at each other.
Kirihara's name was pulled next, playing Akazawa Yoshirou. "Who?"
" Another one from St Rudolph."
"Never mind, Akaya."
Second round waves were drawn. Kamio hadn't been surprised to hear that the first round had to be split in two – it was a one day tournament, and they had the eight courts in Gym B to use. Gym A was being used for normal daily functions apparently, though it was more than likely empty with everyone coming to watch the matches.
Sengoku got a bye. Half the crowd shouted 'lucky' with him, making him blush even as he waved his hands in the air.
Shinjou was called and Kaido was matched up with him. It wasn't hard to hear a loud whoop that could only have come from the dunk-smasher Momo, and the answering hiss wasn't unexpected either.
Hiyoshi's name was called next.
"Please don't pick me," Kamio prayed.
"Now you've done it," Akaya snickered.
Sure enough, his name was pulled out next. Kamio scanned the crowd - and saw Hiyoshi glaring at him from the Hyoutei team. "I guess he's still mad at me for our last year of middle school."
Fudomine had won the Nationals, crushing Hyoutei who had the same problem most of the teams had had – all their top players had graduated. Fudomine had had the advantage that year in having mostly third year players save for one, and they had been determined not drop the ball. They hadn't. Kamio had been the icing on the cake, beating Hiyoshi in the finals.
"You can take him," Akaya waved away any concerns. "You've already beaten him."
"He's probably improved a lot," Kamio murmured. "He was tough to beat the first time."
"So what? So have you." Akaya rolled his eyes. "Now me, I gotta face that St Rudolph guy, Akazawa." He shook his head. "Man, I was hoping for some decent competition to get me started."
Doubles were next, and Inoue-san started them off this time. Saeki and Aoi were selected first. Their opponents were Tezuka and Fuji. A rumble went through the crowd at that.
"That's gonna be an interesting match," Akaya said. "Too bad I gotta play so soon. I wanna see if super Tezuka can play Doubles like he plays Singles."
"He's playing with Fuji. Fuji can play Doubles," Kamio pointed out.
The Atsushi Twins – "Who?" "Don't start that again, Akaya." – were set to play against Shishido and Ohtori of Hyoutei. Momoshiro and Ryoma were slated against Dan Taichi and Muromachi. Dan's excited squeal was easily picked out of the crowd. Kawamura and Ishida against Kurobane and Davide promised to be a hard hitting and heavy-handed match, Kamio was sure of that. Atobe (pause for the sound of a million screaming women) and Jirou were selected to play the Tanaka twins. Akaya opened his mouth to ask, and Kamio slammed his hand over it. "From Jyousei Shounan. Shhhh!"
Yukimura and Sanada got a decent ovation from the crowd – particularly from the right wing bleachers which were packed with girls wearing the yellow and red scarves and uniforms of Rikkai. Akaya cheered for Yukimura and booed for Sanada. He only stopped when Sanada's gaze seemed to fall right on him and Akira kicked his ankle. They would play Wakato and Kajimoto from Jyousei Shounan.
"The bendy, flexible guy?" Kirihara looked interested. "Imagine what it'd be like, being able to bend that way in be—"
"Akaya!" Kamio flushed bright red and kicked him again.
Uchimura and Mori were picked and then a roar went up as An and Yuuta were pitted against them. "Oooh, tough break," Kirihara said, grinning.
Kamio laughed. "What were the odds that three of my best friends would have to play each other in the first round?" He looked over to where Uchimura and Mori were gaping at the screen. An had a look of fierce determination on her face - one that matched Yuuta's. "I don't think they're going to show any mercy."
"Gonna be a good match," Kirihara nodded. "Too bad you'll only see about a minute of it before yours."
Kamio checked the times. "Ah, damn it!"
"Have no fear." Akaya pointed across the courts to Sachiko standing with Hana-chan and Minagawa-san who had apparently just arrived. Sachiko had a digital camera in her hands – Akaya's - and was filming the ceremonies. Hana-chan had her own pink camera out, and Minagawa-san had a video recorder. "There are lots of cameras, and Atobe even got the news crews out." He pointed to the side where a news van had set up a large antenna. There were three camera men checking cameras, and a fourth one was aimed at the podium. "When Hyoutei does charity work, they take it seriously."
Kamio could only blink. "Apparently."
The last of the names were called out and put onto the giant light board. The crowd of players and spectators began to shuffle off to the stands or to start warming up. The tournament was about to begin.
Mizuki vs Yagyuu
Kamio, Kirihara, An, Sakurai, Uchimura, and Mori wound up standing next to each other in the stands set aside for players to watch. Marui's match started at 10:10, so he'd left soon after Atobe's opening ceremonies to go warm up. The girls had stayed with Makamoto-san – who had assured them it was no trouble for her to watch them. Apparently, Minagawa-san was bringing Hana-chan to cheer for Kamio and Kirihara, and would meet them. Kamio had flushed bright red when Makamoto thanked Kirihara for telling them about the tournament. He'd pay back his big-mouthed boyfriend later.
In the meantime, Mori and Kirihara were squinting at the 'A' court, where Yagyuu had stepped up to begin his match. "He's playing who?" Kirihara wrinkled his nose.
"Mizuki used to be the manager at St Rudolph back in middle-school," Kamio said for the third time. "I don't know much about him, except he used to try and recruit tennis players all the time."
An leaned forward, watching the match as it got underway; Mizuki had the first serve. "Yuuta says he's calmed down a lot over the years, focusing more on his tennis than anyone else's."
"Really," Kamio commented. "Yuuta says, huh?"
An didn't have to look at him to hit him, he discovered. "Yes. What, you think you and Momoshiro are the only people I talk to at the street court? Who else got you all the info you wanted about the other teams?" She flipped her hair at him and batted her eyelashes. "Who wouldn't want to spend a few minutes talking to a cute girl like me?"
"Me," Akaya said instantly. "Last time I did that, I fell down a staircase."
"Oh, get over it." An reached over and hit him too."It was an accident, and I never touched you. I already apologized."
"I gotta go warm up." Akaya changed the subject. "Atobe's matches are staggered a bit, so all the matches start five or ten minutes after the one before it. Mine's at D court, so I have just under half an hour." He squeezed Kamio's hand, nodded at the group, and then jogged off.
"Gives people a chance to walk around and watch different games," Sakurai said, nodding his head. "Smart."
"Looks like Yagyuu's playing seriously," Mori said, frowning at the court. They all looked back to the court. Mizuki was fighting hard, but they were only a few minutes in and he had already lost his service game. Yagyuu served and play resumed.
Kamio was impressed when Mizuki fought back, stealing a few points from Yagyuu with some tricky drop shots that looked like they could have been stolen from Hyoutei's Akutagawa Jirou. They watched long enough for Yagyuu to pull ahead, 3 games to one. Inoue-san was the referee for this particular match, and he was taking his job seriously, making each call in a loud, crisp tone that brooked no interference.
Kamio was showing Rikkai support for Yagyuu. The others were there to watch with him. Across the court, he could see Sanada, Yukimura and Yanagi watching Yagyuu and talking amongst themselves. No doubt they were plotting ways to help Yagyuu avoid those drop shots. Akira winced – he foresaw a great many skinned knees in Yagyuu's future.
A few minutes later, Kamio hitched his backpack over his shoulder. "I'm gonna get a better spot," he said. "'Kaya's match is starting in a minute."
"I'm coming," said Sakurai, and Uchimura and Mori shrugged, neither of them really caring who they saw at the moment. They didn't have a match until 12:15. Kamio was scheduled for 12:25, so they wouldn't be able to see each other's match. Until then however, they could spend time together – which meant watching their former captain's boyfriend. Kamio grinned and led the way to D court.
Akazawa vs Kirihara
Akaya's match against Akazawa had just started, Akaya winning the serve. Kirihara didn't waste any time, starting right off with his knuckle serve. Akazawa tried – you had to give him credit – but he couldn't hit it. The score was forty to zero before Akazawa managed to bat one back. Kirihara hadn't expected the lucky swipe, and it just managed to clear the net. Kamio could see Akaya's nostrils flare from where he stood. Kirihara was pissed at himself. That old teacher from Seigaku, Ryuuzaki, was the ref, and Kamio didn't miss the way she watched Akaya with narrowed eyes as she made the call.
Akazawa served. It was fast, but Kamio could see it wasn't close to Yagyuu's laser that Akaya had learned to return years ago. Akaya drove forward in a lightning quick move, legs pumping like pistons as he smashed the ball in a wicked forearm back across the net almost before Akazawa had even recovered from the serve itself.
"Nice," whistled Niou.
Kamio snapped his head around. "Where'd you come from?"
"Here and there," he shrugged. "I don't play until 12:15, Marui's kicking Kaneda's ass, and Yagyuu's almost done mopping the court with what's left of Mizuki, so I figured I'd come and see how the baby brat is doing."
"Not interested in the Doubles?"
"No one worth watching," he shrugged. "Unless you count Fuji and Tezuka against Saeki and Aoi from Rokkaku."
Kamio's ears picked up at that. "Oh yeah."
"Yup. They've drawn quite a crowd, most of it females, wooing themselves all over the place about how romantic it is to fight against your lover."
Kamio wondered how that match was going. He'd played against Kirihara many times before – hell, one of the first 'dates' they'd ever had, back before they'd even started dating, had been a tennis match. They were each other's favourite opponents – it was hard to play against someone who knew you so well. Kirihara managed to keep ahead of him by just a little, mainly due to the fact that he focused only on tennis, while Kamio was split between tennis and running. His speed was up, but he didn't get the same amount of practice. Did Fuji and Saeki feel the same way?
"You should go check it out," Niou said casually. "'Kaya won't care. This Akazawa guy isn't even a match for him."
Akira refocused on the match. Akaya had already pulled ahead three games to zero. "Fifteen more minutes you think?"
"If he drags it out," Niou said. "'Aka-chan came to play today."
Kamio snickered. "I'm gonna go check out the other matches."
Niou waved him on.
Itsuki vs Kikumaru
Kikumaru whirled around and smashed a blind shot back to the court. Itsuki scrambled for it, exhaling like a steam engine, but missed it. "Why?"
"Because I was faster," Kikumaru proclaimed, pumping his fist in the air. "You have to be faster than that, Itsuki-chaaaaan!"
"Eiji!" From the bench coach, Oishi looked at him with a mix of sternness and fondness. "Don't get over-confident."
"Hoi hoi!" Kikumaru saluted him. "I'm okay!"
He was, actually. High school matches usually consisted of three sets, and Atobe had gone back to their old middle-school, one set match for the sake of time. Kikumaru's stamina had greatly increased over the past three years, to the point where he could go full speed for a one-set match even if the match reached the forty-minute mark.
Itsuki was a power hitter with good eyes and good senses, but Eiji could hit balls back without even looking; it was only a matter of time until their match was over. He was already leading four games to two, and it was still his serve. Speaking of which…
Kikumaru pulled another ball from his shorts pocket and threw the ball into the air.
A few minutes later, a loud cry – "WHYYYYYYYYY?" – echoed across the court, followed by Eiji's maniacal cackle.
Kaneda vs Marui
Marui was bored. His opponent – Canada? Camembert? Kangaroo? Whatever – was barely worth the effort. Already halfway through the match and his gum hadn't even begun to lose its flavor.
Across the net, the other player was panting for air. Didn't other schools indulge in any form of stamina training? Was Rikkai the only school that could go full blast for twenty minutes without needing to stop for a break? Marui was vaguely tempted to call for a time out so he could offer the guy a piece of his gum in the hopes it might charge him up and make him a worthy adversary. But then he figured the faster he won, the faster he could go and check out everyone else.
"Don't worry, uh… you!" he called cheerfully. "We're almost finished, okay?" His next shot bounced off the pole, dropping neatly onto the court, making it five games to zero.
Kaneda bit back a growl as he missed another shot. Why didn't his opponents ever remember his name? Another shot bounced off the pole – the opposite side this time – and he cursed fluidly inside his head as he scrambled to the other side of the court. Again.
Shishido/Ohtori vs Atsushi Twins
Shishido looked at Ohtori and nodded. The Atsushi twins were good, very good, but they weren't in step with each other. Shishido figured it was all those years of going to separate schools – twin or no, it was hard to know someone well when you only saw them a few times a year. Ohtori moved behind him in the Australian formation, and a roar went up from the crowd. Shishido smirked –Australian formation was hard enough for the pros to pull off, and to see high schoolers do it at the level they could was always a crowd-pleaser.
They'd been playing for almost an hour, and had pulled ahead four games to one.
Shishido cocked his head, turning just enough to see his partner. "Yeah?"
"Shall we end this quickly now?"
Shishido smirked and gave him a wink. "Let's do it."
The game was over eight minutes later.
Tezuka/Fuji vs Aoi/Saeki
Tezuka was not impressed. The tennis was fast and furious as always – but so was the flirting going on at the net. Fuji and Saeki kept murmuring to each other over the webbing even as they got ready to play, and Tezuka rubbed his forehead, yet again trying to think of why he'd agreed to this. "Fuji!"
"Flirt after the game," he snapped. "Aoi, serve!"
"Of course!" Aoi yelped, and did as directed. At least someone was paying attention.
Momoshiro/Ryoma vs Muromachi/Dan
Ryoma was in hell. Not only was he stuck playing Doubles – something he just wasn't that great at, even if he hated to admit it – but he hadn't even known his father was going to be a referee. That certainly explained the mysterious and gleeful grins he'd been sporting for the last few days.
But to make matters worse, he was the referee for his match. Ryoma gritted his teeth. If his father made one more comment about how poor his back hand had been, or how silly they looked getting caught in the middle, he was going break his racquet over his father's head and run screaming out of the building.
"Oi, shounen! Are you sleeping or what? It's your serve!"
Ryoma snarled and slammed forward a twist serve that scorched across the court and struck the racquet right out of Muromachi's hand. Dan 'eeped', and even Momo looked sideways at his partner. His father laughed raucously in his chair, slapping his knees. "That's a bit better! Still not up to my level – "he paused to wink at some of the girls sitting by his chair. Ryoma had noticed them earlier. They were hard to miss, what with the huge 'We *heart* Echizen Nanjiroh!' signs they were carrying. "—but much better."
Ryoma pulled another ball from his pocket and fought back the urge to aim it at the ref chair.
Kawamura/Ishida vs Kurobane/Davide
Kawamura couldn't believe how out of shape he was. He was still the power hitter he always was, but his stamina had gone right down. They were only fifteen minutes into the match and he could feel himself starting to flag a bit. Lifting ice-filled crates of fish every day kept his strength up but if this match was any indication, he needed to start jogging in the mornings again.
Ishida was a bit better – he had to walk everywhere and usually ran when he did so, including to and from cram school each night – but the lack of daily, specialized training was starting to show with him too. Kawamura could see him gasping for air just as he was.
Still, Kawamura thought as he fired a shot back to Kurobane. It felt good to be back out on the courts. Despite the fact that they were down three games against the Rokkaku team, and there was very little chance of them mounting a comeback against a team who had obviously been practicing together for several years, he still smiled and shouted, "HA! GREAT SHOT!" when he managed to hit a Hadokyuu that finally scored them a point. Davide waved his racquet at them in recognition of the shot, and Ishida rolled his eyes at Kawamura.
"I showed you that shot," he reminded Kawamura with a grin. "Why did it become so famous with you?"
"Must be my charisma," Kawamura chuckled, and waved his racquet in a circle over his head. "COME ON BABY! LET'S GO!"
"Is that what you call it?"
"SHUT UP AND PLAY!"
Kamio didn't spend too much time watching any one game. It was painfully obvious the Atsushi twins were no match for Shishido and Ohtori, even if they'd started out looking strong. They simply didn't have the bond between them that the Silver Pair did - which was kind of ironic, considering they were twins. Kamio shook his head. Akaya would think that was pretty pathetic. He had to agree.
Equally as outmatched were the twins from Jyousei Shonan. Apparently Atobe and Jirou didn't consider them worthy opponents, and fell back on the old Hyoutei stand-bye 'fifteen minute match'. They were done, Jirou asleep, and Atobe back surveying his empire nee tournament almost before the rest of the matches even got started.
The Seigaku – Yamabuki match had more for the sheer entertainment value. Dan was bouncing around the court, eyes bright with determination and eagerness – and cheering for everyone, no matter who scored, even when it was their opponents. Muromachi looked like he was caught halfway between amusement and pure exasperation.
Momoshiro was reaching new heights with his Dunk Smash technique, and his Jackknife was as deadly as ever. Ryoma was playing well, but having his father for the referee – and who was the sadist that arranged that? – was throwing him right off. He kept turning around to shout at him to shut up, to which Nanjiroh replied with jeers and telling him he shouldn't talk to ref's that way unless they wanted to be disqualified.
Kamio's eyes widened as Ryoma suddenly screamed with frustration – and burned a shot that spun the racquet out of Muromachi's hand. It landed three meters away. The crowd went silent. Then Nanjiroh's voice echoed across the court. "About time! 2 games all! Change court!"
Kamio muffled a snicker at the outraged look in Ryoma's usually expressionless eyes, and the amusement in Momoshiro's as he went over to his partner, murmuring something in the kid's ear. Ryoma nodded tightly, and stalked over to the bench coach, throwing his father a glare that could have stripped paint. If the kid didn't calm down they were going to lose on general principle.
There was bark of harsh laughter, and Kamio turned to see the white-haired psycho of Yamabuki – Akutsu, wasn't it? – leaning against the stands, watching the match with real amusement in his eyes. Kamio shivered and moved away. He'd heard too many stories about that guy. He'd feel safer with a larger distance between them.
He walked around the perimeter to E court to see how the Tezuka/Fuji pairing was doing against Rokkaku.
Yagyuu slowly straightened up after firing his Laser Beam. Mizuki was still staring at the ball where it was rolling along the ground. He'd been completely dominated in that last game. Yagyuu debated for a minute whether or not to feel sorry for the other player before deciding against it. Mizuki knew what to expect when he played against Rikkai.
To his surprise, Mizuki looked up with a wry smile, and walked easily over to the net. Yagyuu almost raised an eyebrow at this, but joined him at the net, looking at him questioningly. Mizuki held his hand out. "Good match."
Yagyuu studied him a minute, and then nodded. He was, after all, known as the Gentlemen. He gripped Mizuki's hand firmly. "Indeed."
Mizuki gave him a small smirk, a hint of his old expression, and then strode off the court to where some of the other St Rudolph players were waiting for him. Yagyuu found himself re-evaluating the manager of St Rudolph team.
It seemed Mizuki had grown up a bit. That was interesting. Yagyuu adjusted his glasses with a shrug and headed to the bench to cool down.
Muromachi didn't know whether to cry or laugh. On one hand, he and Dan were now getting their butts soundly whipped by the Seigaku team. Apparently the jeers from the ref had fired up Ryoma and Momoshiro. On the other, now every time they lost a point, Ryoma would whirl around and hurl another verbal barrage at the ref. It was starting to become a bit of a side show, and even the audience was watching the encounters with smiles and laughter.
Dan returned a shot that managed to slink past Momoshiro, and he immediately began dancing in place. "Did you see that Muromachi-sempai? I did it!"
Muromachi fought back to pat the first year on the head. "Good work Tai-tai!"
"And you think you're good enough for my son with moves like that?"
"Shut up old man!"
Muromachi and Dan turned to see the next round of 'Referee vs MomoRyo'. Momo was waving his racquet at the monk apparently known as Echizen Nanjiroh (and was he really a pro? Did pros act like that?) who was laughing raucously and threatening to deduct points.
Momo and Ryoma suddenly turned back to Muromachi and Dan with fire burning in their eyes. Muromachi gulped and prayed the match would quickly.
Kurobane grinned at Davide. They were ahead, four games to two, and going strong. He could feel it in his bones that they were gonna move on from this one and best of all, Davide hadn't made any stupid comments thus far-
"Two games for two players, while we are truly Doubles with double points," Davide said inanely, snorting out a laugh.
Kurobane whirled around and slammed a foot into his partner's back almost before he knew what he was doing. "And you were doing so well!" he lamented at his partner's prone form. Across from them, Ishida and Kawamura were blinking, wide-eyed. Kurobane flushed red and waved awkwardly. "Eh…sorry."
Davide got back to his feet, shaking his head. "That pain is a real pain," he muttered absently, rubbing the back of his head.
Kurobane controlled his reflexive urge to kick. "Just serve, Davide," he pleaded wearily. Davide winked – confirming 'Bane's belief he was deliberately trying to infuriate him now - and trotted back to the baseline.
Kamio couldn't stop himself from snickering. Saeki and Fuji were blatantly flirting at the net, Aoi was completely oblivious and was shouting everything at the top of his lungs – and Tezuka looked like he was very close to using the strings from his racquet to throttle the lot of them. His face was blank as ever, but his eyes were shooting veritable daggers.
Saeki strutted to the front of net and turned slightly so he could see his partner get ready. As he did, he cocked his hip and struck a pose. The fan girls watching all shrieked with glee, and Fuji pretended to fan himself with one hand. Kamio was pretty sure he could hear Tezuka growling even though his face remained still as stone.
"I'M SERVING NOW!" Aoi shouted helpfully and slammed his racquet down. Tezuka returned it, and Saeki went for a smash. Fuji immediately returned it with a Brown Bear. Saeki and Aoi watched the ball roll along the back wall, and then Saeki stuck his racquet under his arm to applaud his boyfriend. Fuji bowed. Tezuka pinched the bridge of his nose.
"GREAT SHOT FUJI-SAN!" Aoi cheered. "TEZUKA-KUN, I BELIEVE IT IS YOUR TURN NOW!"
"Yes," Tezuka said through gritted teeth. "Thank you Aoi."
"IT IS MY ABSOLUTE PLEASURE TO BE OF ASSISTANCE, TEZUKA-SAN!"
Kamio clapped a hand over his mouth as Tezuka froze at the baseline and even Fuji cracked his eyes open in amusement. Then Tezuka was serving, a swift and hard serve that blew past Aoi and left them all gaping.
Kamio had a feeling the remainder of this particular game was going to be very short. He decided to head back to Akaya's match to see the ending.
It was about quarter to eleven when he found Marui standing, sweaty but still full of energy, behind the low, perimeter court barrier where most of the players watched the matches. "Done already?"
Marui nodded, blowing and snapping a bubble. "Finished just after 10:30," he replied. "Canada wasn't much of a player."
Kamio blinked. "Who?"
"The St Rudolph guy."
He meant Kaneda. Kamio stifled a laugh. "Congratulations," he offered. "How's Akaya doing?"
Marui pointed at the court. "See for yourself."
Kamio looked at the court where a gasping, dripping Akazawa was staggering to his feet after a failed dive. Akaya had his racquet resting on his shoulder, watching the other with a barely concealed look of contempt. Kamio rolled his eyes – he loved Akaya dearly, but there was no denying his boyfriend was a tennis snob.
He looked at the scoreboard – Akaya was winning 5 games to love. Akazawa had managed to return a few lucky shots but not enough to win a single game. It was Akaya's serve – again – and he served a Phantom Ball that disappeared from Akazawa's sight and subsequent swing. "How many times has he used the Phantom?"
"A few," Marui said with a shrug. "He was dragging it out earlier – you know how Akaya likes to play with his prey. Guess he's getting frustrated now."
Indeed, a few minutes later it was all over, six games to zero, and Akaya was strutting off the court, looking barely winded. On the court, Akazawa was stumbling towards the gaggle of St Rudolph players coalescing by the barrier.
"Having fun?" Kamio asked with a wry smile.
Kirihara shrugged and leaned forward, nuzzling him. "Wasn't a decent competition," he complained into Kamio's neck. "Wanted a harder opponent."
Kamio patted his back sympathetically while rolling his eyes. Uchimura and Mori who had been watching with wide-eyed fascination at the intimate interaction, cleared their throats, looking away.
Marui snorted. "Oh please, this is nothing," he assured them. "Did you hear about the time me and Jackal caught them in the locker room shower—"
"And that's enough of that," Kamio snapped, flushing hotly, reaching out to punch Marui. The pink-haired boy yelped and jumped away, rubbing his arm.
Akaya pulled back, nipped Kamio's lips playfully and then looked at the board. "So what's next?"
Everyone looked up. Uchimura and Mori looked over at An and Yuuta who were talking quietly to each other. "We play them in an hour," said Mori.
Kirihara grinned, rubbing his hands together. "I can't wait to see you get your asses kicked by a girl," he snickered.
"You're not gonna watch Kamio's match?" Marui asked. "His starts about twenty minutes after theirs does"
Akaya waved his hands. "Twenty minutes should be more than enough time for An and Fuji-junior to get a decent lead on them," he said. "Then I can check out 'Kira."
"No, you really don't have to," Kamio said glumly. "Really, feel free to watch their entire match."
"What's wrong with you?" Uchimura shot him a look of concern.
"You're not still worried about Hiyoshi, are you?" Akaya rolled his eyes and bumped his shoulder against Akira's. "You've beaten him once, you can do it again."
"It was close," Kamio said. "Very close."
An and Yuuta joined them. "What are you guys doing for lunch?"
"I'm gonna go get the girls," Kamio said. "I brought our lunch."
"I've got a huge bento," Marui said. "My mom packed enough for five people. She didn't want me to be rude and not have enough to share."
An held up a large bento bag. "Same here." She turned to Yuuta. "You'll be joining us, right? We have time to eat something and then get ready."
"Us too," Mori and Uchimura chimed in.
Kamio nodded and agreed to meet them on the south lawn behind the courts once he and Akaya retrieved the girls. As they walked over to the stands, Akaya reached out and grabbed Kamio's hand, squeezing it once. Kamio looked at him. "What's up?"
"….we don't have time for a quickie, do we?"
Kamio smacked him on the head.
End Chapter 5.
By 11:30 the first wave of round one matches were completely finished and most of the players were either grabbing a quick lunch and resting before their next match, or warming up. The audience was scattered, half to the concession stands, half scouting for better seats for the matches they wanted to see. The second wave was highlighted on the giant scoreboard.
Kamio had a little under an hour until his match with Hiyoshi. Kirihara's next match wasn't until two o'clock which meant they could eat lunch together with the girls and half the players. Kamio had packed a lunch for the girls (Makamoto-san and Minagawa-san had opted to visit a nearby restaurant, with promises to return for more babysitting and cheering), and everyone else seemed to have brought huge bentos to share. Yukimura and Sanada had opted to go have a quick bite at the complex café before their match at 12:25. Niou had a match with Shinji just after twelve and the two had already left to warm up. Uchimura, Mori, An, and Yuuta were playing each other at the same time, and had eaten quickly and lightly. They were already on the court stretching. Sengoku had wandered by, unable to find his fellow Yamabuki players in the crowd, and so had decided to join their group.
In addition to sharing a huge bento, Marui had also brought a triple-decker cake in a huge cooler. He handed the cake out in equally large slices. Momoshiro had magically appeared just as the cake was being handed out, bringing Ryoma. Sengoku had cheerfully accepted a slice from Marui and plopped himself next to Sachiko, proclaiming 'redheads had to stick together.' Sachiko, who had been half in love with Sengoku anyway since her tenth birthday, had agreed whole-heartily.
Akaya was teasing Marui about his match that afternoon with Yagyuu. "Think you're gonna win?"
"Not a chance in hell," Marui said, shrugging. "He kicked my ass the last time we had a match."
"Language," Kamio said wearily. He must have said that a thousand times already that day, but no one ever seemed to remember.
"Sorry. He kicked my butt in practice."
"What about you Kamio?" Marui asked. "Still nervous?"
"I am not looking forward to this match," he said for the fourth time. "Hiyoshi's still mad at me for beating him our last year in middle school."
Akaya rolled his eyes - again. "Don't punk out now."
Akira stuck his tongue out and Kirihara shook his finger. "Don't aim that at me unless you plan on using it properly."
Sengoku made a big production of covering Sachiko's ears. Marui covered Michiko's. Akaya promptly decided to take advantage of that and leaned forward to capture Kamio's mouth before he could muster up a protest. A second later, Akaya sat back with a grin. Kamio rolled his eyes at him – and noted with amusement that Sengoku and Marui's hands had migrated from the girls ears to their eyes.
"…Right. Because after three and a half years, they've never seen us kiss before."
"Better safe than sorry, Kamio-kun," Sengoku replied, lifting his hands. Sachiko grabbed them and clapped them together in front of her. "Can I have my hands back?"
"Possession is nine tenths of the law," Sachiko told him importantly, still waving his hands. "'Kaya-nii told me that."
"Did he now," Sengoku mock-sighed, but let her have her way.
Niou vs Shinji
The second half of round one was underway. Kirihara was naturally comporting himself with dignity and composure.
"Make him eat dirt, Shinji!" Kirihara hollered from the stands. "Wipe out his arms one at a time!"
"Niou has been your teammate longer than Shinji has," Sengoku said, raising an eyebrow. "Aren't you supposed to cheer for him?"
"Hell no! That bastard cost us twenty extra laps at practice the other day." Akaya put his hands to his mouth again, chanting, "Spot! Spot! Spot!"
On the court, Niou looked over and shot Akaya the finger under the pretense of scratching his nose. Opposite him, Shinji was shaking his head and muttering. Sengoku couldn't hear, but he assumed it was something about the idiot beside him.
Suddenly Dan Taichi popped up beside him. "Sengoku-san!" he chirped. "I found you!"
"Hey, Tai-Tai!" Sengoku looked down at the first year. "Too bad about the first round wash out."
"Yes, but it was still a fun match, desu!" Dan's eyes were filled with excitement. "And even though I can't play anymore, there are so many interesting matches going on! I don't know which one to watch the most!"
"So you're trying to watch them all?"
"He's been running around like a rabbit on crack," came Muromachi's exhausted voice. "Even at lunch he was dragging me around to say hi to everyone."
"He's old enough to go by himself," Akaya pointed out. "Just turn 'im loose."
Sengoku and Muromachi exchanged looks of alarm. Dan's eyes widened. "But… but it wouldn't be as much fun by myself," he said in a small voice. He whirled around to look at Muromachi. "Muromachi-sempai, do you want to leave? I'm sorry, I should have asked—"
"It's fine," Muromachi interrupted, sending Kirihara a cold look. "If I didn't wanna hang out with you Tai-Tai, I wouldn't. Simple as that."
"Come and watch this match, Taichi," Sengoku coaxed the suddenly distraught first year over to the wall. "What's your take on this? And you—" he said, looking at Akaya. "An and Yuuta's match started the same time these guys' match did. Weren't you going to watch them?"
"Was that a hint?" Akaya snickered. "All right, I'm going." He looked back at the court where Shinji was getting ready to serve. Just as Shinji made contact with the ball in his classic Kick Serve pose, Akaya screamed as loud as he could, "Look out!"
Niou actually fumbled for a second, making his return on the serve a bit weaker than he'd planned. Shinji was able to smash it to the opposite side for a point. If looks could kill, Sengoku was positive the look Niou was giving Akaya would have reduced him to a greasey spot on the tarmac. Akaya cackled as he danced away.
Dan was in awe. "No, Taichi," Sengoku said preemptively. "He is not a good role model for you."
"But he's so cool!"
Shinjou / Kaido
Kaido hated Jyousei Shounen.
His first experience with the other school had been back in middle school. The first time he'd experienced raw anger at them had been weeks before their actual match when his opponent had bad mouthed him in a magazine article without actually having met him. Kaido had not been impressed.
The match itself had been interesting, if annoying - Wakato's habit of shouting 'change over' every time he wanted to adopt a new tennis style (which technically, Kaido thought somewhat spitefully, wasn't even new. It was stolen from a pro) had been bad enough, but it was the girls screaming along with him every time that had nearly driven Kaido around the bend.
And now he was facing the same guy who had tried to kill Ryoma as a freshman. While Jyousei's middle school teacher might have sealed off Shinjou's Deep Impulse technique, obviously the high school coach didn't share her views on it. Shinjou had unleashed it from the get-go, and Kaido had to work twice as hard to both play the match AND avoid major injury at the same time.
Kaido thanked his lucky stars that he had spent most of his training career focusing on increasing his stamina. Inui had told him his only hope was to wear the bigger player out, and so Kaido had (reluctantly) stolen a page out of Ryoma's book. He hit low shots deep into the sides, forcing Shinjou not only to run back and forth returning them, but he had to squat lower to get a decent handle on the ball. Within forty-five minutes, Shinjou was sweating much harder than Kaido, and his leg muscles were visibly trembling. Somehow he hadn't caught on to what Kaido was doing.
Kaido may have given up some points in the beginning (Deep Impulse was a shocking technique even when one was expecting it) but he was confident he was going to take this one. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see Inui calmly watching from the bench, arms casually folded. Inui hadn't so much as touched his glasses - a classic Inui sign that screamed 'I am concerned' - which spoke volumes to Kaido.
Another Deep Impulse shot but Kaido actually managed to get his racquet on it. It went back - well, into the net - but it was an improvement over being given another welt. A reluctant smirk of a smile crept on to his face. Oh yeah, this match was gonna be his. Nothing could distract him now.
"Waii! Oishi, Kaido's winning!"
Kaido flinched. He had spoken too soon.
Kaido growled and suddenly attacked the next Deep Impulse shot, driven by embarrassment and fury. The ball smoked past Shinjou, leaving a welt of its own. Kaido straightened, breathing hard, aware of the audible hush that suddenly fell over the crowd. Turning slowly, he sought out the interlopers and sent a red hot glare in Eiji's direction.
Instead of being intimidated, Eiji flashed him the V-sign. "That's our boy, ne Oishi?"
Kaido felt himself flushing with heat again and he whirled back around, stomping to the baseline, imagining Kikumaru-sempai's head under each footstep as he went.
Uchimura/Mori vs Yuuta /An
Kamio had only stayed for the first five minutes ( and had jogged in place to keep his muscles warmed) before taking off, but Kirihara had no intention of leaving anytime soon. Yuuta and An had won the right to serve first and An had blown her first one right past Uchimura. Akaya had promptly burst into howls of laughter at the dumbstruck look on Uchimura's face. Mori had shot him a look that could have curdled milk. Yuuta's smirk was fit to kill.
"You'll get the next one," Mori called to his partner.
"No you won't!" Kirihara shouted back. Marui snickered and high-fived him.
"You do realize he's gonna kill you, right?" Sengoku said, shaking his head.
"He will try," Akaya corrected him. "Ultimately, he will fail."
An served again and this time Uchimura was ready. He returned with a wicked backhand but Yuuta was there, smashing it towards Mori who lunged - and missed.
"30 - love!" called the venue ref.
An and Yuuta slapped five. Akaya cackled.
Marui nudged Sengoku. "Call it."
"An and Yuuta," the redhead said promptly. "Yuuta's stronger overall then both Mori and Uchimura, and An-chan..." He looked at the brunet in question. The expression on her face was deadly serious, her eyes focused. "She's here to fight."
"Absolutely," chimed in a third voice. Marui and Akaya whirled around to see Tachibana Kippei standing behind them. Marui's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates and Akaya inwardly cringed. Despite being forgiven for past actions (middle-school was three years ago, after all), he had never become completely comfortable around Kippei. An reminded him a lot of Kamio - they had similar senses of humor, similar ways of reacting. Tachibana Kippei, on the other hand, gave off an aura not unlike Yukimura or Tezuka from Seigaku. Since entering high-school, Akaya'd been able to much better appreciate their levels (though he was still better then all of them, 'nuff said). It was obvious that living far down south in Kansai hadn't dulled that aura any.
"Yo," he said in greeting. "Long time no see."
"Indeed," Tachibana agreed, eying him warily. "How are you?"
"You care? Or are you just being polite?"
"Down boy," Marui murmured.
"No problem," Kippei said easily. "And yes, I'm asking because I do care. You are important to Kamio, and Kamio is important to me and my sister." He smiled. "Also, An hasn't said anything negative about you in over a year."
Akaya scowled. "What was the last thing she said?"
"I believe it was the day she was having a particular stomach pain familiar to females in general and you made a comment somewhat to the effect of 'stop being such a baby, it can't be that bad.'"
Marui winced. Akaya grinned. "I remember that. She tried to force feed me my tennis racquet." He chuckled fondly at the memory. "Good times man, good times."
"So you're here to watch her?" Marui changed the subject quickly.
Kippei nodded. "I figured I had to. If I missed her Kanto debut playing in our league, I'd probably be disowned."
On the court, no one had noticed Tachibana's arrival, which Akaya figured was probably a good thing. Three of the four players were Tachibana worshippers (though An, being of the sibling variety, was likely to be less enthralled than the others) and there probably would have been a stampede off the court.
Akaya nodded at An who had just scored another point off Mori. "She's actually doing pretty good. For a girl."
"Better watch that she doesn't catch you adding that bit on," Kippei warned, looking amused. "She bites."
"So does Kamio," Akaya leered. "I'm not scared." Kippei rolled his eyes.
"Tachibana!" Another voice came from behind, and the three of them turned to see Ishida walking over. "I thought I recognized that hair!" He was referring of course, to the neon yellow hair that had once again become Tachibana's trademark in the tennis world. He came over, grinning hugely. Their handshake turned into a rough half-hug with much back-thumping and exclamations which bored Akaya.
"Now that there are enough of you to have a little ex-Fudomine love in, I'm gonna go watch Akira," he announced. "Marui, you coming?"
"Don't leave me here alone!" Marui mock-shrieked. He smacked the back of Akaya's head as he passed him. "C'mon, Romeo. Let's go check out your Juliet."
Shinji had finally succeeded in sealing off Niou's arm. Niou wasn't a nitoryuu player either, so he definitely had the advantage. The white-haired boy was angry though - Shinji could see the anger simmering in his eyes for allowing himself to get caught in Shinji's trap.
Though really, Niou shouldn't have thought too badly of himself. If Shinji were the type to brag, he would have said something about how it was inevitable. Niou was a truly excellent player, a testament to Rikkai's impressive training regimen, but Shinji? Was a tensai.
Like many of the high-levelers in Kanto, Niou had started playing at a young age, and with private tutors. Shinji had picked up a racquet for the first time in middle school, and had just known how to wield it instinctively. Proper training and his own dedication had seen his skills grow. Shinji had developed his Spot technique not from being coached or being told - he had simply seen the flow of the ball, could effortlessly control it, and had analyzed what its effect would be on your average opponent. Once he'd figured that out, it was just a matter of refining it. Not many players could do that on their own. Not even Rikkai's original so-called tensai Marui could do that.
Shinji permitted himself a small, hidden smile as he smashed another point home.
"That was awesome, Shinji-san!"
Now if they could only get that strange little boy to stop exclaiming after every single thing that happened on the court...
Hiyoshi / Kamio
"So how's he doin'?" Akaya asked.
Marui motioned to the scoreboard. "See for yourself."
"I don't care about points," Akaya sniffed haughtily. "I wanna know how he's doing."
"I knew you were a softy," Marui chuckled. "Well, he's winning by a game and he's up 40-15. If he holds on, he'll be ahead two games. He seems to be in control for now, but he hasn't smiled once so far according to these guys." He motioned to some of the other spectaters.
Which meant Kamio was playing seriously from the get-go. "He really was worried," Akaya murmured, feeling a bit guilty for all the teasing he'd put the other through. "I thought it was half bluster – he's usually so self-conscious he tends to flatter others and put himself down in the process."
Kamio made a solid return but Hiyoshi was there, lightning quick, and then it was 40-30. Marui spared Akaya a glance. "So all that 'don't punk out' shit was to help him? What have you been smoking, Aka-chan?"
"Screw you. I don't coddle him like you guys do. If everyone spent the day trying to build him up for this match, he'd crumble the first time he lost a point. I'd rather remind him he's already better than Hiyoshi and that he doesn't need to worry." Akaya smiled as Kamio got his act together and managed to slip a shot past Hiyoshi that put him ahead, four games to two. "I told you."
"No one likes a bragger, brat."
"Take your own advice, Mr I-am-a-tensai," Akaya retorted. The two mock-glared for a minute, and then they both dissolved into snickers.
Hiyoshi hit a fast return that should have been a point – and would have been, had his opponent been anyone else. Kamio practically blurred as he shot across the court, a red and black streak of movement, and returned it with a devastating backhand that went to the exact opposite side of the court. Fifteen love.
Marui whistled. "Ni-i-i-ice."
Akaya nodded, watching with pride. Kamio wasn't holding himself back at all. He could tell. And all that training with the track and field club had increased his stamina tenfold. He was breathing easily, a very faint sheen of sweat on his brow that Akaya could detect. Akaya trailed his eyes up and down the lean figure of his boyfriend – Kamio-watching was one of his favorite hobbies.
"Stop drooling, Akaya," came Marui's wry voice. "Or I'm gonna stick a drop cloth under you."
Kirihara shoved him half-heartedly, not at all embarrassed to have been caught daydreaming. "You're just jealous," he jeered.
"In your dreams," Marui jeered back. They bumped shoulders back and forth a few times, grinning the whole time. Kamio looked up and saw them at some point and gave them both a quick smile. Marui waved and gave him the thumbs up; Akaya leered and blew him a kiss. Kamio rolled his eyes and turned back to the game where he was still in the lead, forty to love.
"That's my boy!" Kirihara shouted, making some people in the stands look at him a little oddly. "Kick his ass, 'Kira!"
Kamio turned red and promptly missed a shot. He straightened up, glaring at Akaya who cackled and pointed at him. He stalked back to the baseline, threw the ball up and blew it past Hiyoshi in a rare display of temper. Hiyoshi blinked. Marui blinked. Even Kamio blinked.
Akaya was the only one not surprised. "See? So stop pussy-footin' around and beat this guy already, would'ja?"
On the court, Kamio finally smiled, shook his head and got ready to serve again. He went on to win the next game, putting him ahead five games to two.
Kirihara beamed with satisfaction.
Atobe/Jirou vs Youhei/Kouhei Tanaka
Atobe was not usually one to lament having to play a tennis match. Of course, usually, he was pitted against players of his caliber, and he had his schedule cleared so he could fully deal with his opponent. This particular situation held a lot of firsts for him.
For one, it was the first time he was playing an official Doubles match. With Jirou of all people. Two talented Singles players striving to win in Doubles. What was the world coming to?
Not to mention he was not just a competitor – he was also the tournament host, which meant his mind was still half on things he had yet to do or supervise to ensure nothing went wrong. There was only so much delegation one could do – Atobe was a firm believer in the idea that if one wanted something done right, one had to do it themselves – or directly watch as underlings did it for you.
Then there was the fact that he was playing against a pair of twins who weren't up to Hiyoshi's level individually, and as a Doubles pair? Well, Gakuto would likely throw a hissy fit at the implication they were of the same ability as he and Yuushi.
Their 'special' powers of sight and hearing were cute, but no match for his Insight, which bordered damn close to precognition, and he had debated whether or not to make Jirou play them by himself while he attended more important things. The only real satisfaction he felt from the whole thing was the fact that their referee was the Samurai, who nodded approvingly at Atobe's Tannhauser serve. Normally he wouldn't use it in such a showy manner, but it was the Samurai. Atobe had accomplished many things in his young life, but this was the first time he had a professional player observing his match - which was ultimately why he had decided not to make Jirou carry the whole thing.
It certainly had nothing to do with the fact that Jirou had sprung adorable excited puppy eyes on him, bleating how happy he was to play a Doubles match with Atobe. When had Atobe ever been able to let Jirou down?
He was a bit surprised. He had thought the mundaneness that was the twins would have proven to be a natural sedative for Jirou who was usually only entranced by the toughest of players, and yet he had been wide awake, all but dancing his way to the court when it had been their turn. If he'd been born with a tail, Atobe was certain it would be wagging like a springer spaniel.
At least Jirou wasn't so excited that he felt inclined to drag out the match. A curt word, reminding him just who was calling their match and Jirou nodded, crouching low with an anticipatory gleam in his eyes.
The match was finished in fifteen minutes. Atobe was mildly impressed that the twins had been able to hold out that long. Perhaps he'd gone easy on them after all?
Then the moment passed and he was off to to ensure nothing had gone wrong during his quarter of an hour absence.
Yukimura/Sanada vs Wakato / Kajimoto
Kajimoto had to admit he was enjoying himself more than he thought he would. Oh sure they were losing, but the practical experience points they were racking up was more than making up for it.
It had been their bad luck to draw two of the three demons of Rikkai as their very first opponent. Yukimura was regarded as something akin to a living god in the eyes of many of their peers, and whatever sickness had plagued him several years before was not in evidence at all. He was in fine form, and Sanada, always in perfect control, meshed with him freakishly well. Not in the way that some Doubles pairs fared - it certainly wasn't Synchro. But Sanada and Yukimura were obviously well aware of each others' capabilities, even if they weren't quite playing like a normal team.
Much like he and Wakato. They'd never played Doubles before but then Wakato had 'changed' into Bobby Reynolds and their game had gone astonishingly smoothly.
Kajimoto flexed his hands around the handle of his racquet. Sanada served. Lightning fast, Kajimoto moved just as quickly and managed a return. Yukimura then drove it to Wakato who hit a buggy whip shot back. Takahisa couldn't help but smile. Ever since playing Seigaku that first time years ago, Wakato had developed a fondness for the shot and had made it a regular addition to his repertoire.
Sanada fired an astonishingly heavy shot that could have been from a gun or a canon. Kajimoto lunged but it flew past him inches ahead. Kajimoto blew his breath out ruefully and looked up. Wakato grinned and shrugged. "Good try?"
Takahisa rolled his eyes and set himself up again. Across the net, Sanada was preparing to serve. Wakato gave him a thumbs up and got ready to receive.
Inui watched with satisfaction as Kaido drove another point home against the powerhouse from Jyousei Shounan. His predictions were always calculated as closely as possible, but he hadn't had time to do the same sort of prep work for this particular tournament that he used to do in middle school. He had anticipated being off the mark by at least 3.4 percent and was gratified to see Kaido performing within 2.3 percent of his estimations.
Shinjou was losing his temper out there. His famed 'Deep Impulse' wasn't working and he obviously couldn't figure out why. Inui knew though. 'Deep Impulse' was a fear-maker - made up of one part power to two parts psychology. Taking a painful burn shot on the face made most players nervous, and made them fear the shot itself. The dramatic pose Shinjou used with it made him look bigger, stronger, and knowing how the shot felt only increased the fear level. That made Deep Impulse look even more dangerous. That sort of shot had a way of even making the audience feed into the fear - seeing the marks on the victim, hearing their pained exclamations and seeing the looks on their face. They sympathized, and thus feared for the victim. It was really quite clever.
Unfortunately for Shinjou, such a move did not truly work on a player like Kaido. Kaido was no stranger to pain. The Snake of Seigaku pushed himself to insane, almost torturous levels in the name of training and simply did not feel pain the same way others did. A burn mark across the face must have felt like a tree branch snapping across him during one of his forest runs. As for fear... Inui smirked. Kaido dealt out fear - he didn't take it from other players. It had always amused Inui that one of the politest and most gentle people at Seigaku had such a terrifying reputation based simply on his appearance and his reluctance to conversation. Only the members of the tennis team (actually, only Inui, Fuji, Oishi, and Tezuka) knew that Kaido's reason for always going off on his own, or never really participating in team conversations was not due to being a stand-offish jerk, but was because he suffered from intense shyness.
But that was neither here nor there. Inui adjusted his glasses and made another note in his book as Kaido sent a boomerang snake careening around the post, crashing inside the lines for another point. He calculated it would be another eleven and a half minutes to wrap this up.
He blinked, somewhat startled as a blue-haired boy wearing a green bandanna flashed by out of the corner of his eye, shouting out a brief but loud, 'Go Kaido-san!' before disappearing. He turned to watch him leave - had that been Dan Taichi of Yamabuki?
A moment later, a red-faced and panting Muromachi, shades mysteriously askew on his face, stumbled by, obviously following in Dan's wake. Inui shook his head and made a quick note in his books under the heading, 'Yamabuki: Behaviours' and then put his attention back on Kaido's match. He was pleased that Oishi had opted to take Eiji away for the remainder of Kaido's match. While his initial outbursts had served the purpose of firing him up, further exultation's would have had a negative reaction on Kaido. It was a good thing Oishi understood that.
Kaido won another point. Inui smiled serenely. The match was almost over.
An/Yuuta vs Uchimura/Mori
Yuuta was enjoying himself hugely. Not only was he winning, he was doing so with An, whose delightfully short skirt flared very nicely around her shapely legs as she hammered home shots that were just as deadly and accurate as any of his. Was it chauvinistic of him to pay more attention to the way she flowed across the court because she looked better on it than anyone else? Perhaps. He was, after all, a teenage boy.
But aside from her form, he was also openly admiring her strength. Tachibana An was certainly nothing like the flaky girls that tended to flock around the courts during match time, squeaking and squealing like herds of over-perfumed mice. No, An was something else entirely. She was cute, nice - and she handled a racquet like nobody's business. Yuuta had a decent appreciation for Mori and Uchimura, having seen what they were capable of back in various middle-school tournaments. He had expected to have some difficulty, particularly since he was partnered with a girl he didn't really know too well. At least, on the court. Technically everyone who played at the street court knew who she was mostly on account of her brother.
An was striking back shots that were rocking her friends back to the baseline, forcing them to follow her lead. They were able to take two games, but Yuuta and An were still ahead, four games to two, and An was only getting more fired up.
"Heads up Yuuta!"
An's shout broke through his internal haze and he automatically swung, driving a straight shot right down the middle. The ref held up his hand, nodding. "30 love!"
"Nice one!" An panted, jogging over. Yuuta held up his hand for a high-five. "Shall we wrap this puppy up?" Her eyes were fire-bright and hard with determination.
Yuuta could offer no less enthusiasm. He gave her a determined look, nodding his head sharply. "Let's do it."
As one, they turned to their opponents, an almost palpable battle aura wafting off the two of them as they eyed their prey with an eager intensity.
Mori was worried. "Uh oh."
As always, Uchimura put it bluntly. "Shit. We're fucked."
Kamio fell to his knees as Inoue-san called out the final score. "The winner is Kamio, seven games to six!"
A cheer went up, and suddenly Akaya was there, helping him stand. "See? I told you you could do it."
Kamio concentrated on walking over to the bench without falling over. Marui was waiting patiently with a towel which he draped over Kamio's head, and a bottle of water. Kamio accepted both gratefully as he sat down. "That was so not fun." He wasn't exaggerating - it really hadn't been. It wasn't that it had been an overly exerting match, but the combination of stress plus knowing that Hiyoshi obviously still harbored a grudge had been emotionally draining.
"Since when don't you appreciate a good match?" Akaya snorted derisively, but his hands were deceptively gentle on Kamio's shoulders, trying to knead away the lingering stress of a well-fought match. Kamio knew Akaya was well-aware just how hard it had been on him even if they didn't say anything at all.
"Give him a break, 'Kaya," Marui chided him. "Let him recover a bit."
Akaya made an attempt to look wounded. "I am."
Kamio took another sip from the water bottle, swishing it around his mouth and then spit it out before taking a longer swallow. "I'm good now," he said, standing up. "Join me for a quick cool-down run?"
Marui nodded. "I'm in. I have to starting warming up for my next match anyway."
"Where is Yagyuu anyway?" Akaya asked.
"Probably watching Niou, if they're not finished yet." Marui sniggered. "Shinji was winning last I heard."
"Against Niou? Are you kidding me?"
"Hey!" Kamio protested. "Shinji's a good player. Why shouldn't he win?"
Akaya rolled his eyes. "'Cause he's playing Niou," he said, as though that should be the end of it. "Now come on, you got a jog to get to and then two kiddos to go and talk to before they jump the guard rail and come over themselves."
An cheered as Yuuta stole the final point with his signature south paw killer. The ball was still spinning futilely in the fence squares and Mori and Uchimura were slinking off to their bench for a breather when she leaped into his arms, hugging him tightly. "We did it!"
Yuuta whooped and hugged her back, grinning for all he was worth. "We did," he agreed, beaming happily at her. "Lady, I'd be your partner any day!"
"Oh really?" came a voice from behind them.
An and Yuuta turned around at the same time and saw Kippei standing there, Ishida close behind. Yuuta noted the former captain of Fudomine still had hair that was just as long and brightly colored as it had been those years ago in the Nationals, the dot still on his forehead. Some things, it seemed, never changed. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes were staring hard at Yuuta, peering into him like he was trying to read his mind. Yuuta gulped. An squealed - naturally, she wasn't intimidated - and lunged for her brother.
"Hey little sister!" Kippei hugged her warmly, keeping his gaze firmly on Yuuta. "You were amazing out there you know."
"I know," An said gaily, tossing her head proudly. "And it helped that I had such a great partner to work with." She smiled broadly at Yuuta. He stared back, fascinated - he'd never noticed her having dimples before.
"Indeed," Kippei said dryly. "Just how long have the two of you been... partners?" His tone, while not outright cold, wasn't exactly warm and friendly either. Yuuta eyed him warily.
"Don't start," An suddenly said warningly. She planted her hands against Kippei's jersey and pushed herself away enough to look into his face. "Yuuta is a good friend and a good partner. I don't need you scaring him away."
"I wouldn't do that," Kippei protested.
"Oh no?" An jabbed a finger at him. "What about my first middle school dance? Poor Kenichi was afraid to go near me after you talked to him!"
"If he couldn't handle a friendly reminder about what is and is not appropriate behaviour with my sister, than he obviously was not the right date for you," Kippei said seriously.
An narrowed her eyes. "Uh-huh." She stabbed her finger at him again. "Shall we talk about some of the dates I've seen you with? I suppose guys are held to different standards." She folded her arms, frowning. "I didn't know one could wear a band-aid as a skirt these days."
Oh boy. This would not end well. "But we were talking about what a great job An did out there today," Yuuta desperately tried to intervene. "I mean, I thought we'd have a bit more trouble but we didn't."
An was still frowning, only now it was directed at him. Yuuta decided very quickly he did not like having the full force of her glare turned in his direction. "And why did you think we'd have trouble? Because I'm a girl?"
Yuuta prayed he answered this one right. "Because Uchimura and Mori are such great players?" An's frowned softened. His heart leaped with relief, and he forged on. "Not to mention they're a long-term partnership and this is the first time we've ever played together. I thought we'd have trouble finding our rhythm."
"Ah, but An is an expert on rhythm," Ishida said, inserting himself into the conversation and obviously agreeing to follow his lead to change the subject. No doubt he'd seen these types of sibling arguments numerous times. "She's dealt with Kamio for years."
An finally smiled outright. "True enough," she agreed. "And I have to admit I was worried too."
Uchimura and Mori had finally spotted Kippei and were heading over, their faces showing equal amounts of frustration (for losing) and happiness (for seeing their old captain, Yuuta presumed). They joined the group with the warm and boisterous greetings Yuuta had come to know as common in Fudomine. That was one thing he had to admit he admired - if nothing else, Fudomine had to be one of the tightest-knit teams he'd ever seen. Even two years after graduating and with all its founding members being spread out to different schools, they all still stayed in close contact and had a level of friendship Yuuta didn't think he'd be able to maintain. He liked his teammates at St Rudolph but they were just friends.
Fudomine always reminded him more of a family, with them having reunions at every tennis tournament. It was especially apparent when An mentioned Kamio's sisters were somewhere at the complex. The look on Kippei's face nearly matched a similar expression Yuuta used to see on his uncle's faces whenever they'd come to visit.
The familiar sound of muttering came to them all, and Shinji joined their group, looking sweaty, tired - but ultimately triumphant. A small smile was on his face. Yuuta knew without asking that the blue-haired boy had won his match. It was fairly obvious to everyone else too, as soon as they noticed.
"Congrats Shinji!" Uchimura was the first to say. Mori nodded and An went over to hug him as well. Yuuta was hit by a small stab of jealousy - watching An hug everyone made him feel a little strange. Even though, he rationalized, they were her family. So to speak.
"I can't believe you beat Niou," Mori said, shaking his head. "One of the Rikkai Aces."
"Don't let Akaya hear you say that," An said, half-warningly, half-laughingly. "There's only one Ace allowed at Rikkai, and it's not Niou."
"Speak of the devil," Ishida commented, nodding his head.
Heading their direction was Kamio, Kirihara and the ever-present Marui. Kamio had a wide grin on his face, which could either mean he was simply happy to see his old captain (as the rest of them were) or he had won his match. Yuuta took in the indulgent grin on Kirihara's face and the easy-going expression on Marui's and concluded it was likely both.
"Akira!" Tachibana welcomed his old vice-captain so warmly Yuuta thought for a second he might have to intervene to prevent bloodshed on the part of Akaya. But Marui was right there, subtly grasping Akaya's jersey and so Akira was able to return the hug his old captain had initiated.
After a minute, Kippei released him and looked around expectantly. "Where are the girls? An told me they were here too." He smiled fondly. "I haven't seen them in months."
"That's what you get for moving so far away," Kamio replied. " We were on our way to get them when we spotted you and made a detour."
"That makes just about everyone," Mori said with a wide grin. "When's the last time we had a full reunion anyway?"
"With the girls," An answered. "We'd better go get them or else he'll be really mad we forgot him again."
Uchimura laughed. "Remember the time we forgot him at the tennis club in Osaka?"
"And here it comes, the reminiscing portion of the day," Akaya butted in, rolling his eyes. He nudged Kamio. "We're supposed to be getting the girls. That involves movement - specifically walking - on your part."
"Yes, oh impatient one." Kamio looked back at his teammates. "Coming or staying?"
"I got time before my match starts," Marui said. "And I'm all warmed up from our jog."
"Let's move people!" An clapped her hands and began pushing Uchimura and Yuuta. "I promised Sachi I'd come talk to her after our match."
Yuuta hesitated as the group got moving, unsure of whether or not to follow. Technically, as An's partner, he should be with her for the duration of their participation in the tournament. On the other hand, he was very much not an official member of the Fudomine family, and that made him a little unsure. Then An turned around, beckoning to him with one hand. "C'mon, slowpoke! Are you coming or what?"
Yuuta grinned and hurried to join them.
End chapter 6
With the first round finally and completely over, the second could finally begin. Marui left first, his match with Yagyuu starting at 2:15. Kirihara started warming up around that time - he had to face Kikumaru at 2:35. Kamio would have watched it except his match with Kaido started ten minutes after that. He decided to warm up with him instead and then take off to court D. Shinji and Sengoku were part of the last wave - they had time to watch the start of at least two matches before having to do their own warm ups.
An and Yuuta were playing the pair from Rokka - Kurobane and Davide - at 2:25. Ishida, having been knocked out during his first round as well, joined Uchimura and Mori as part of the de facto cheering squad with Sakurai, and Kamio's sisters. Michiko told Sakurai in no uncertain terms that she wanted to cheer for her brother but she would stay for the start of Akaya's match first. Sachiko wanted to watch Akaya's too - but only until Sengoku's match started. She adored him and Shinji equally and had decided she would cheer for them both. Ishida offered to be her escort and Kamio agreed.
With that decided, the group began wandering to their designated areas. Well, some wandered.
"Let's go," Michiko ordered Sakurai with an imperious look and a quick tug on his shirt. She turned around and looked back at him over her shoulder. "Up."
Sakurai blinked and automatically moved to pick her up, swinging her over his head so she could sit on his shoulders.
"Dear lord," Kippei said, awed. "And I thought she had Kamio and Kirihara trained,"
"Shut up," Sakurai muttered, ears turning red. "You set up there, kid?"
"We can go now," Michiko informed him, kicking her heels lightly against his chest like a jockey would to his horse's flanks. "Giddy-up!"
"Yippee and yahoo," he droned at her in response, and moved off to find D court.
Atobe looked over the numbers recently submitted by the Hyoutei first years regarding the amount raised thus far. Over two thousand people had shown up for the first round, and there were still entry tickets being sold to late-comers who had either only wanted to see the finals or likely had those trivial commoner concerns to worry about (like work, for example) and had only been able to get away in the afternoon.
Gakuto had been in charge of the numbers and since he and Yuushi had been given a bye (thusly their first match hadn't been until the middle of the afternoon), he'd had plenty of time to collect the stats from the gates. He had also been to each of the official donation drop boxes where the money was taken out every hour regardless of how much had been donated. It was then counted, the amount notated, and then taken to be stored in a locked vault inside the sports complex - escorted of course, by a member of Atobe's private security. If the numbers were correct - and Gakuto, twit though he was at times, was never wrong regarding mathematics - then not only would Kamio Michiko's procedure and after-care be paid in full, but they would likely have some left over for another case. Granted, it would be a smaller donation, but he'd let the hospital worry about who needed it most.
"Atobe!" Jirou's glee-filled voice called out as he skidded to a halt in front of the small tent near the podium Atobe had set up as his own personal headquarters. "Wanna go start warming up?"
"We have thirty minutes until our match, Jirou," Atobe replied briskly, sliding the papers back into their manila folder. "I trust you will be ready and awake at that time?"
"I never get sleepy when I have the chance to play with Atobe!" Jirou grinned. "And it's gonna be fun! I can't believe you and me-"
"You and I," Atobe corrected him absently.
"-are gonna play Sanada and Yukimura!"
Atobe couldn't believe it either. He smirked - he didn't know about fun, but it was certainly going to be interesting. Yukimura was a phenomenon that almost - almost - surpassed himself, and Sanada... well, Atobe was very much aware of what Sanada brought to the courts. They had been partners only once at the Junior Senbatsu Invitational Tournament, but they'd played Singles in the Senior Invitational twice now. Atobe was fully expecting them to be members again this year, if Yukimura held fast to tradition and declined the camp invitation. "I will be at the court shortly, Jirou."
"I'll wait," Jirou said, shrugging and plopping onto the bench lining one wall of the tent. "S'no fun warming up alone. Besides I can help."
"Of course you can." If Atobe were guilty of acting like his subordinates - particularly Gakuto or Shishido - he would have rolled his eyes. Instead, he looked back at the folder and silently counted down from thirty. At the five second mark, he heard the familiar soft sounds of a sleeping Jirou; he looked up, amused to see Jirou slumped sideways on the bench, head resting on the pillow-backpack he'd had custom-made for the boy after he'd woken up one too many times complaining of a stiff neck. Permitting himself a small smile, he returned to the paper work at hand. Jirou could nap for ten minutes while he finished up and then they would go to the court and start warming up. His eyes hardened slightly at the thought.
It would never do to face two of the Rikkai Demons unprepared.
Momoshiro/Ryoma vs Silver Pair
Momoshiro glanced at Ryoma but the brat had his hat tugged down over his eyes again. Momo rolled his own eyes and looked back across the court at their opponents. Just their luck they were facing the Silver Pair. Momo shook his head. Sheer dumb luck - and the fact that their opponents had been worse at doubles than they were - had gotten them through the first round, but this was the real thing. A genuine doubles pair. An experienced doubles pair. The only way they'd win this was if one or both of the Hyoutei pairing were sick or injured, but unfortunately, they both looked to be in the peak of physical conditioning.
Momo didn't really care about winning really. Oh sure, he'd like to and he'd give it his all. But he'd come to have fun today, as so many other players had, and he was just grateful that Ryoma's father wasn't their referee for this match too. As much fun was it was to see Ryoma actually wound up and showing emotion for a change, he had the distinct feeling his partner was one step short from erupting like a miniature volcano on his old man. Time had proven again and again that Ryoma played his best when he was challenged and having fun against a worthy opponent. However, his playing went right into the gutter when he was mad. Yamabuki might have been able to eke out a win had they been any better at functioning as a pair just due to Ryoma's loss of temper alone - funny as it had been.
Shishido and Ohtori had won the spin and Ohtori was serving first. Momoshiro remembered all too well just how powerful Ohtori's serve had been in middle school. Now that he was in high school, he had no doubt smashed the two-hundred-kilometer-per-hour mark a long time ago.
Momo's fingers flexed around the worn grip tape on his racquet as he crouched low, eyes narrowed. Slightly in front and to the left of him, he saw Ryoma do the same thing. This is it, he thought determinedly. Game on.
Marui vs Yagyuu
Marui waved at Yagyuu across the court. "Hey Yags!" he yelped. "Any chance of you taking it easy on me, just a bit?"
Yagyuu adjusted his glasses in his familiar way so as to catch the light of the afternoon sun, causing them to glint in an almost menacing fashion. A small smirk played about the corners of his mouth. "Come now, Marui - would you truly be happy with a victory I allowed you to have?"
Marui shrugged. "You never know until you try," he replied. Being the tensai he was, he naturally won the spin and chose to take the first serve. He pulled a tennis ball from his shorts pocket. "Let's get this party started then."
"Let's," the Gentleman agreed, and then there were no more words.
Gakuto/Yuushi vs Tezuka/Fuji
In a sharp contrast to Marui's affable outlook on his matchup, Gakuto positively shot daggers across the net at he and Yuushi's opponents. "What is with all the Singles people trying to play Doubles?" he seethed angrily. "Doubles isn't a fad, something to be tried because you think it's easy."
As Yuushi had been listening to his shorter partner rant about that very subject for the better part of the day, he was extremely unsurprised to hear him start up again. In a way, he understood. Doubles was actually harder than Singles. Instead of relying on yourself, you had to put your faith into someone else and hope they could get the job done. Even if you got assigned a pairing that just clicked, you still had to put in the practice hours to make yourselves come together like a well-oiled machine. It took work, dedication and trust to make a good Doubles team. According to Gakuto, all these wanna-be teams were taking it as a joke. As an elite Doubles player, he took that extremely offensively.
Across from them, Tezuka and Fuji appeared unfazed by the redhead's scathing remarks. Fuji seemed rather amused, actually, though Yuushi was not going to point that out to Gakuto. Fuji had also won the right to the first serve and he seemed a bit more determined than usual. He'd started out with the same underhand serve he'd used on Jirou back in middle-school. Was he really taking them that seriously? Was he that insecure in his abilities against an experienced pair? That couldn't be true - while Tezuka was an unknown Doubles factor, Fuji was accomplished at pairing up with a variety of teammates.
The ball flickered past Gakuto, who let loose a string of colorful curses. Across from them, Fuji ignored the verbal barrage - and turned to smile at someone in the crowd. Yuushi followed his gaze, wondering - and then rolled his eyes as he took in the wildly applauding form of Saeki. The white-haired idiot from Rokka. Fuji wasn't worried about his performance. He was showing off for his boyfriend. Yuushi's lip curled ever so slightly.
How incredibly... common.
Kirihara vs Kikumaru
Kirihara took his racquet out of his bag, ignoring the foolish gibbering he could hear coming from the other bench. Apparently, Kikumaru hadn't matured much in the years since middle school (though truthfully, he'd seen enough of the Seigaku team in recent tournaments to know that anyway). He sounded kinda like Michi and Sachi when they were being denied something. At least, he thought with a withering look in the redhead's direction, they have the excuse of being young. Kikumaru's seventeen, for fuck's sake.
Oishi was murmuring soothing things in his partner's ears no doubt, all but pushing the other onto the court. In a direct contrast, Kirihara strode out like he owned the damn place and stood by the net, tapping his foot impatiently. "Any time now!" he yelled.
Kikumaru finally walked over, a resolved look on his face. "No tricks, Kirihara," he said in what Akaya was sure Kikumaru felt was a firm voice.
Akaya scowled darkly at him. "If I gave a shit about your opinion, you'd have hurt my feelings," he growled. "You know damn well I haven't played like that in fucking years."
Kikumaru looked unconvinced but was apparently willing to drop the matter. "Call it," he said, spinning the racquet.
"Smooth!" Akaya barked in an imitation of Sanada, and watched with glee as Kikumaru flinched. Smooth it was, and Akaya whipped around, stalking towards the baseline. Part of the fun was riling his opponents up beforehand, and if he could get the acrobatic Kikumaru off guard, that would only make his match easier. As much as he hated to admit it - and he never ever would - Kikumaru was a solid Singles player, nothing like that idiot Akazawa, and he wanted to have the advantage right away.
Across from him, Kikumaru was looking unusually serious, probably expecting Akaya to come blazing out of the starting gate with a Phantom ball. Akaya had no intention of being predictable however, and served regularly, a clean, straight drive that Kikumaru was able to return with ease. Akaya smirked and leaped forward, bringing his racquet around hard and slamming a point home in the opposite corner. The good thing about Kikumaru, he reminded himself, was that he took a while to get really rolling with the acrobatics when he was unnerved.
He licked his lips, narrowed his eyes - and watched with poorly-concealed amusement as Kikumaru seemed to pale by two full shades, no doubt recognizing the behaviours as a precursor to his old playing style. He was definitely going to have a hard time controlling his laughter, he decided, and then got down to business.
Yukimura/Sanada vs Atobe/Jirou
Sanada wasn't one for changing his expressions at the drop of a hat, but if he were being honest with himself - and he always was - he had to admit he was looking forward to this match. He had no doubts he and Yukimura would win, of course. Atobe was an excellent opponent and were it just the two of them, Sanada might admit to being just a little concerned. But Yukimura was playing, and, unless he decided otherwise, at full strength and vitality Yukimura simply did not lose. At the very least, he would not lose to the tag team combo of Atobe and Jirou. Atobe was a worthy opponent, but Jirou was at best, at Marui's level. He was hardly a worry to either of them.
They won the right to choose, and Sanada opted to serve first. They had discussed this. Hyoutei's strength was well-known to them. Yukimura felt that Atobe and Jirou merited them playing their very best from the start - now was not the proper time or place for playing games. Sanada agreed, and so when he stepped up to serve, he paused and closed his eyes, drawing his strength and visualizing the win to come. The ball soared high into the air. He focused all his strength, all his power - and all his control - into the strike, opening his eyes at the impact.
It had begun.
Marui vs Yagyuu
"Geez, you could pretend to take it easy on me," Marui complained. Laser after laser had been fired past him, and they seemed to be getting stronger with each one. "I am so going to tell on you to Yukimura."
"Tell on me?" Yagyuu paused before serving. "Regarding what, exactly?"
Marui glared. "This! This whole 'cream Marui with lasers faster than anything you've ever shown in practice'. That's what!" He scowled for a minute, and then gave him a wry grin. "Very sneaky, Yags."
"I'm afraid I have no idea what you're referring to," Yagyuu said politely. "I'm going to serve now." And so he did.
Marui returned his shot to the far side - if Yagyuu had to run to the ball, he had no time to set up a proper laser. Unfortunately, this particular trick only worked some of the time - Yagyuu was very good at guessing which way Marui was going to hit it. Some of Niou's power of observation had obviously rubbed off on the Gentleman over time. He guessed wrong this time however, and returned the hit with a backhand. Marui took the opportunity to bounce a ball off the post for a point. "Finally!"
Yagyuu smiled and adjusted his glasses. "Well done, Marui."
Marui grinned - and then froze. "Aw man, don't even tell me you let me have that one," he protested. "You didn't, did you Yags?"
"I really don't understand why you persist in questioning me about things I know nothing about," Yagyuu replied innocently.
"You did! Damn it Yagyuu!" Marui stomped back to the baseline, yanked a fresh piece of gum out of his pocket, ripped off the wrapper, and snapped the gum in half with his teeth. "Play seriously!"
"But you were just insisting that I should be going easy on you," Yagyuu pointed out in a reasonable tone. "That seems to be a bit of a contradiction."
This was why he hated playing against Yagyuu. And Niou too, but at least you knew the silver-haired bastard was going to mess with your head from the start. Marui snarled, threw the ball in the air, and served it as hard as he could. As gracefully as a trained dancer, Yagyuu moved across the court and sent a Laser return to the baseline corner, one millimeter inside the line.
The ref made the call. "15-love."
Marui was never playing against Yagyuu ever again.
Kaido vs Kamio
Kamio had a healthy respect for the infamous Snake of Seigaku. He could still clearly recall one of his last matches in middle school before the Nationals - he'd been playing against Sengoku and had been so sure he was going to lose. But Kaido had been there, watching him with a fierce intensity that had jolted him even from a distance and without even thinking, he'd put his hand down to the court surface, the movement pushing him forward just enough, giving him just the right bit of reach he needed to return that impossible, game-winning shot from Sengoku. He didn't think he'd ever forget that moment - the first time he'd truly gone over his body's limit, shutting out the feeling he had of wanting - no, needing to collapse, and pulling out that reflexive action that helped garner him the win.
Kaido had a similar response to tense games. He had a look of determination on his face, a set grimness about his shoulders, and his eyes held a focus that reminded Akira of Kippei. He resembled a soldier going to war, determined to bring the spoils home to Seigaku.
Kamio was very aware of what Kaido was capable of bringing to a match. He grinned reluctantly - he had a feeling he wasn't going to win this one, but that didn't mean he was going to lay down and die. He was going to make sure Kaido earned his victory.
He had the lead by one game, for however long he could hold on to it. Kaido had scored the first point, but Kamio had rebounded on his next serve, almost blurring across the court to hit a shot past the snake to steal it back. The look of surprise on Kaido's face had been worth the energy expenditure so early in the game. "This ain't over," he breathed, grinning widely. "Not by a long shot."
A faint smirk appeared on Kaido's lips; he obviously agreed. Kaido threw the ball in the air and slammed his racquet forward. Kamio lunged for it – an easy enough return – but then he saw Kaido's stance shift into a familiar pose. 'Snake-shot' his mind shrieked, and he backed up and to the right, trying to calculate the angle he'd need to catch it. Then he blinked as Kaido changed in mid-swing, gentling the strike and dropping an easy lob a few inches over the net. Drop shot. Kamio blinked in disbelief at having been so completely faked out. Then he grinned, shaking his head. "Tricky," he breathed.
Kaido smirked. "This ain't over," was all he said.
Kamio rolled his eyes and got ready to receive.
Sengoku vs Shinji
Sengoku didn't bother starting off slow like Kirihara. He wasn't much for psych outs, and he knew exactly what Shinji was capable of. Nope, he was bringing his A-game to the table and starting off with his Tiger Bombs from the get-go. His special serve had gained even more power and speed over the years thanks to his boxing training and his foot work was even faster than Ryoma's original half step.
Shinji was no slouch though, and he met Sengoku's challenge readily. Within seconds, the feel of the ball passing between them had changed; Sengoku narrowed his eyes and focused on reclaiming the spin of the ball. The last thing he wanted - or needed - was to fall prey to Shinji's Spot technique.
He already knew how he was going to do this. For all of Shinji's tensai skill, Sengoku still had the advantage. He wasn't a single-skill player. He had Ishida's power, Kamio's reflexes, and footwork that was faster than any other player's in the Kanto circuit. Then of course, he added on mentally, there was the fact that he wasn't going to let himself slip up like he had so many times in the past. Not with Banji's special training behind him.
Sengoku's blue eyes blazed with a fiery determination. According to the Chinese calendar, it was the Year of the Tiger, Sengoku's signature animal in spirit. His luck was burning bright and he wasn't quite ready to stop just yet, this far in the tournament. He didn't know if he was going to win the whole thing, but he knew he was going to beat Shinji. He just knew.
Sengoku exhaled, tossed the ball high, high into the air and leaped after it, racquet extending like cats claws, a yowl tearing free from his throat at the moment of impact like the cry of his chosen predator. He didn't hit the ball so much as he struck it with all the strength he could muster, and the look of astonishment on Shinji's face as it swept past him with hurricane force was testament enough to the truth of his belief.
Pulling another ball out, he sent a quick mental apology in Shinji's direction, and served again.
Momo/Ryo vs Silver Pair
Shishido cursed as he accidentally lobbed the ball up. He'd caught Ryoma's return on the edge of his racquet, sending it up nice and high. Wincing, he called out to his partner. "Watch out!"
Sure enough, across the net Momoshiro had already left the ground, powerful muscles propelling him higher than Shishido had seen him pull off before, slanting inward. His arm swung down hard. Just as he made impact, Shishido could hear someone scream out (rather predictably, he thought nastily), 'There it is! Dunk Smash!'
To his partner's credit, he tried to catch it. Ohtori sped across the back, lunging hard and managing to get his racquet underneath it. For all the good it did. The ball tore through the strings like they were made of tissue paper, hurtling into the ground before spinning up and away over the barrier and into the crowd. Ohtori froze, and then slowly brought his racquet up. After a minute, he turned and looked at Shishido through the hole left as a result of that ridiculously powerful hit. Shishido could feel his eyebrows racing for his hairline, and he turned, gaping at Momoshiro who crouched on the tarmac, looking unbelievable smug. "You are a freak, Momo," Shishido said, shaking his head. "But that was a fucking beautiful shot."
Ryoma actually let out a laugh at that, and Momo blushed, turning red. Shishido rolled his eyes and strode over to join Ohtori as the silver-haired boy walked to the bench and pulled out his spare racquet. "Sorry about that, Choutarou."
Ohtori grinned at him. "He's getting stronger every year," he said with admiration. Then he jabbed the round end of his racquet lightly into Ryo's stomach. "So no more setting him up!"
"It was an accident!" Ryo protested.
Ohtori ignored him except to tug on his arm once, dragging him back on to the court. "Let's go, Shishido-san," he said. He waggled his finger in mock-warning. "And remember, no more set ups."
"It was an accident! Geez!"
Akaya had to hand it to the Seigaku player - he hadn't expected Kikumaru to put up such a fight. The redhead had gotten over his initial nervousness far earlier than Kirihara had anticipated. Then again, with Oishi both coaching and encouraging from the side - not to mention most of the crowd throwing their support solidly behind the redhead - Kikumaru had rebounded quickly, showing off his high-flying abilities that made Akaya think Kikumaru was taking a page out of Gakuto's book.
Oh well. Akaya was always up for a challenging match and he wasn't afraid of back flips and somersaults. At least, he thought absently, he's cut down on those freakin' cat sounds. And he had to amend his thoughts slightly - amongst the throngs of people cheering for Seigaku (despite the tournament supposedly being free from high school affiliations), he could make out the familiar sound of Sachiko cheering for him from the front row where she stood with Ishida. Before his next serve, he took a moment to look her way and flip her a quick salute.
For all of Kikumaru's improvements as a Singles player, he still wasn't quite in Akaya's league, and it didn't take much longer to finish up. Akaya gave his watch a quick glance as he drove home the final point; it was just after three. Still time to see the rest of Kamio's match - he doubted Kaido would be such a pushover that Kamio would have him beat already, nor did he think Kaido was capable of shutting Akira down inside of twenty minutes.
He ignored the sounds of Oishi consoling the sad-faced Kikumaru, gathered his things up and moved over to the stands to pick up the still-wildly cheering Sachiko. Ishida nodded at him. "Good game."
"It was okay," Akaya allowed. He snorted. "For Seigaku." He was still holding out for a more challenging match though - hopefully his next opponent would be a worthy one.
"Let's go see 'Kira-nii," Sachiko demanded. "Please." Akaya and Ishida exchanged amused looks before moving to obey.
An/Yuuta vs Kurobane/Davide
Kurobane had shaken his head in disbelief when he'd learned who he and Davide's opponents were, but he was starting to re-evaluate his initial assumptions. His perception of female high school tennis players was not a very good one but he blamed that on Rokka - most of the females there had joined simply to either A) view the guys' team or B) date members of the guys' team. While Aoi was completely in favor of their strategy and was constantly offering private one-on-one training sessions as a way of rewarding them, 'Bane found them to be an unwelcome distraction. That, and they just weren't very good. If there was a budding Venus or Serena among them, he'd be a lot more interested.
Tachibana An however, was in another class altogether. He should have known the younger sister of Nationals-level player Tachibana Kippei would be a strong opponent, but he hadn't thought it possible. That was, until An nearly took his head off with a Kick Serve - a serve she'd either learned or stolen from Shinji, no doubt. As for Fuji Yuuta, he'd played him before in Doubles at the street court when he and Davide had tagged along with Saeki on a visit to that prefecture. His partner had been Mizuki, and they'd been astonishingly good. Apparently, Yuuta had a knack of melding with a variety of different talents to play Doubles.
Next to him, Davide had an openly admiring look on his face, watching An with love-struck eyes. Kurobane frowned. If he wasn't careful, they could lose simply because his partner was incapable of focusing on anything other than the flip of An's skirt as she leapt for the ball. Shaking his head, he shot Davide a warning look. "Would you focus please?"
"She's amazing," Davide sighed. "An amazing Amazon."
Kurobane whirled around and leveled his partner with a side kick. "She's our opponent! Drool over her later!"
Davide blinked, and then blinked again. Then he stood up, shook his head, and then shook himself all over. Blinking hard one last time, he glanced at Kurobane and smiled. "I think that did it."
Kurobane was confused. "Did what?"
The wild-haired redhead smirked. "That concussion of pain over-rode the addiction of my brain."
"Do you want me to hit you again?" He clapped his hand over his mouth as he belatedly realized he'd just contributed to his partners idiotic rhyming. Davide's eyes lit up.
"Now now," he practically purred. "Not in public, 'Bane-chan." He winked, and then strolled a little further over on his side of the court.
Kurobane was left standing there with his mouth dropped open, and probably would have remained there in shock had An not reached over the net with her racquet to tap him lightly on the shoulder. "Wakey, wakey," she chirped.
"We're ready," he blurted out, whirling back around to stare at her with eyes that still felt as wide as saucers. "Who's serve?"
An gave him a pointed look. "Yours." Her eyes glinted with unhidden amusement.
Kurobane blushed and scrambled back to his spot.
Kamio vs Kaido
Kaido snarled and lunged for the ball. His opponent had sent a speed-shot to the far corner - expecting to wear him out, no doubt. He wasn't falling for that. He had done that very thing to Shinjou already - his stamina had increased so much he could probably do full out sprints and low crouches throughout the rest of the match and not feel strained. It was only a one-set match after all.
He returned the ball with his snake shot and watched with grim satisfaction as it sling-shot its way around the post, inches ahead of Kamio's reaching arm. That put him one game ahead, 5 games to 4. He knew better than to celebrate though - every time he got a lead, Kamio caught back up. The redhead was fighting just as hard as he was.
Sure enough, Kamio - apparently pulling out all the stops - did a fair imitation of Kirihara's Phantom Ball, tricking Kaido up (Hell, I didn't know Kamio could do that serve). The next three points were Kamio's until Kaido finally solved the mystery of the shot (it wasn't a true Phantom yet, lucky break) and managed to stop him, but the damage was done - the score was tied once again at 5-5.
Kaido grinned reluctantly. He always did enjoy a challenge.
Gakuto/Yuushi vs Tezuka/Fuji
Saeki was always up for watching a good match. He was especially up for watching any and all matches involving Syuusuke, and this was no exception. It was easy seeing Fuji as a Doubles player - he had a naturally flexible style that easily meshed with many different players - but it was just plain weird seeing Tezuka in the same role. It was obviously throwing the Seigaku captain off - every now and then he'd get himself into a zone and forget that he had a partner out there. The Tezuka Zone was simply not meant for Doubles. Fuji would remind him with a simple word, and Tezuka would glower at the ground (his portrayal of flustered, maybe?) and then start over.
Meanwhile on the Hyoutei side, Gakuto looked like he'd been sucking on a lemon throughout the entire match. His style, always flamboyant, had taken on a new turn - the redhead looked to simply be defying gravity, flipping himself around his part of the court and slamming home hits that were harder than usual. There was none of his usual banter and needling either - he was tightly focused. And, Saeki mentally added, righteously pissed off.
Saeki looked from Gakuto to Yuushi. The blue-haired teen had an indescribable look on his face - one part bland neutrality, one part admiration - and at least one part concern. His playing was excellent as always, but he had one definite eye on his partner, as though he were wondering if Gakuto were about to lose his mind. Saeki muffled a snicker at that - Hyoutei, being a school full of definite divas, was no stranger to temper tantrums. Watching the acrobat throw a hissy fit would likely be vastly entertaining.
Gakuto snarled out loud as he whirled around and struck the ball at an impossible angle - by all rights it should have gone straight into the net. But at the very last second his wrist twisted to a near-impossible degree - holy shit, it looks dislocated! - and he used the full force of his body to propel the ball into the side box, brushing the net as he did so and causing it to drop neatly for a point one step ahead of Fuji. That, Saeki decided, reluctantly applauding with the rest of the crowd, was impressive.
In a fluid movement, Gakuto straightened, turned, and stalked back to his spot, ignoring the accolades from the crowd. Saeki gave a low whistle - this was definitely something one didn't see everyday. Gakuto was so upset over...whatever it was that he was almost like a completely different person. And that was playing havoc with Tezuka and Fuji's already precarious strategy.
"C'mon Syuusuke!" Saeki muttered. Either Syuusuke or Tezuka had to turn this around or they were going to lose. With that miracle shot of Gakuto's, they'd managed to tie it up 5-5, and Gakuto looked like he was only getting warmed up. Yuushi had obviously opted out of battling him for the spotlight long ago, so at least the redhead's temper wasn't affecting their teamwork. But Tezuka and Fuji still hadn't found a balance, and the whole thing was nearly over. Saeki had to grin. If the Golden Boy of Seigaku and the Prodigy lost to Gakuto and Yuushi, Hyoutei was going to have a whole new set of bragging rights.
If nothing else, the potential look on Tezuka's face was almost worth cheering for the Dirty Pair.
Sengoku vs Shinji
Shinji wasn't used to being pushed quite so hard.
Okay, he was. Rikkai's training regime was more like a military boot camp designed to weed out the wimps, and he'd never buckled under that. But Sengoku was more than just hard hits (like Sanada) or flashy moves (like Marui) or high-speed shots (like Kamio). He was also managing to avoid Shinji's Spot technique, somehow countering each spin Shinji put on the ball. It was almost like playing against Seigaku's Fuji - except Fuji didn't hit that hard. Sengoku had managed to increase his ball control, something he'd never been able to do before.
Shinji had once compared Sengoku to Ishida; he'd thought the star of Yamabuki was a talented power player but not much more. His decision to incorporate his boxing techniques into his playing style only seemed to emphasize that. But Shinji noticed that Sengoku had whittled down some of his muscles and was sleeker than he had been, faster too - but he still retained every ounce of power he'd gained.
Sengoku leaped into the air for a smash - almost a Momoshiro-level smash, Shinji noted absently - and slammed it down, twisting his wrist at the last second, sending it to the opposite side that Shinji had guessed it to land. That brought Sengoku ahead two whole games, four to two. Shinji frowned. He was losing. Badly.
Across from him, Sengoku sent him a quick, apologetic smile - but his eyes were focused, his movements quick and tight with no wasted effort. Shinji narrowed his eyes - Sengoku was playing seriously. Dangerously seriously. And somehow, he had managed to miss that, thinking the redhead from Yamabuki was trying to keep him off-balance. The fact that he'd realized that so late in the game was somewhat disheartening - his odds of mounting a comeback were slim, particularly since Sengoku was only getting stronger.
The high toss. Punching Tiger Bomb. Shinji grit his teeth and swung hard; the racquet ricocheted out of his hand as it came into contact with the ball, skittering across the green-top. Flexing his fingers in irritation, he glared at the offending racquet for a minute, then turned and glared at Sengoku who was grinning somewhat abashedly, one hand behind his head. "Lucky me!" he called out, shrugging.
Shinji forced the scowl from his face and went to retrieve his racquet. It would never do to throw a tantrum on the court, especially when he knew Tachibana was somewhere in the audience.
Momo/Ryo vs Silver Pair
Momo shook his head and whistled after Ohtori's shot spun the racquet right out of his hand. "That was payback for that Dunk Smash a while back, wasn't it?"
Ohtori blinked and smiled innocently. "I don't know what you mean."
"Sure you don't," Momo chuckled. He and Ryoma were getting their asses kicked but at least it was interesting.
"Here." Ryoma held out Momo's racquet. "You keep dropping it, Momo-sempai." His eyes glinted with amusement - Momo was glad to see that Ryoma had finally calmed down from his earlier confrontations with his father, and was having fun again. "Maybe you need better quality grip tape."
"Bite me," Momo responded cheerfully. "You could help, you know. I don't see us winning here."
"But I do see that I've scored most of our points," Ryoma pointed out. "Are you getting lazy, Momo-sempai?"
"LAZY?" Momo glared. "You are so lucky I happen to like having you around kid, or I'd shove this racquet up your-"
"I'm serving now!" Ohtori interrupted. He looked like he was hiding a grin. Momo squawked and shoved Ryoma back over to his own side.
"Move, move!" The serve came in and blasted past both of them, just managing to clip the inside corner of the box. "Aw crap!"
"That was yours," Ryoma said blandly. "In case you were wondering." There was a slightest wobble in his voice. Momoshiro tried to glare again, and then broke down laughing.
"Okay, okay!" Still snickering, he faced Ohtori who was watching them with blatant amusement this time. Shishido was rolling his eyes so hard Momo wouldn't be surprised if they got stuck in the back of his head. "Sorry guys."
"Ready to lose now?" Shishido asked wryly.
Momo grinned. "Not without one hell of a fight!" he declared.
Ohtori laughed. "That's the spirit, Momoshiro-san!" he cheered, and threw the ball up. Another lightning-fast serve whistled by. Momo swung - and missed.
"Hmm. Strike three. That would be 'batter out', right Momo-sempai?"
"Shut up Ryoma!"
Gakuto/Yuushi vs Tezuka/Fuji
Fuji was mildly impressed. It had been a hard-fought battle, but the team of Gakuto and Yuushi had managed to capture a win over himself and Tezuka. It had been close and it was, of course, not without its consequences; Gakuto was doubled over, gasping for air so hard he could be heard wheezing from where they were standing. Yuushi was right there with him, however, and he had something in his hand - yes, it looked like an inhaler. Fuji couldn't recall ever seeing Gakuto using one before, nor did he ever hear of any rumors regarding his need for one, but he concluded it must be for emergencies only. A half-smile crept onto his face at the thought - he and Tezuka had given the pair quite the little workout.
Speaking of Tezuka... Fuji's eyes slid sideways, watching his partner for a minute as he toweled his face off before turning his head to face him fully. "It was a good match."
"It could have been better." Tezuka frowned and slid his glasses back onto his face. "It seems I need to work on my sense of teamwork."
Fuji choked back a laugh. Of all the things Tezuka could be accused of, a lack of teamwork was not one of them. "Tezuka, it's a simple case of an experienced and talented Doubles pair beating a couple of talented Singles players in a Doubles match. Unless you plan on entering Doubles competitions regularly, I don't think you need to make it your top priority."
"How can I call myself an all-rounder if I can't remember to share court space with my partner?" Tezuka was still frowning, his brain obviously stuck on a replay of the match. His eyes were starting to glaze over as he watched his match from a vantage point only he could see. Fuji tapped him on the shoulder to bring him back. "What?"
"It was a good match," he repeated firmly. "They are an experienced Doubles pair and we are not. Don't make it out to be more than it is."
Tezuka didn't agree outright but he didn't argue either - at least not yet. Fuji was more than willing to drop it and call that a win in his book.
Fuji looked up and smiled when he saw Saeki casually jogging down the center stands. He had to dodge quite a few people as he did so - there seemed to be a mass exodus occurring. Their match was over so everyone was leaving - and they all seemed to be heading in the same direction.
"Good match you two," Saeki said, grinning at them both and leaning in to give Fuji a quick congratulatory peck. "Gakuto looks like he's about to keel over."
"I might too," Fuji chuckled. "They put up a good fight." He gestured with his chin at the crowd. "What's going on?"
Saeki's eyes gleamed. "Atobe and Jirou are still playing Sanada and Yukimura," he informed them. "Interested?"
Tezuka paused, adjusting his glasses again. Fuji's eyes lit up. "Let's go."
Sengoku vs Shinji
Sengoku wanted to smile as he won another point against Shinji but he stopped himself. Getting cocky was what caused him his greatest losses during middle school, and his first year of high school. He liked to think he'd learned his lesson at some point. Being ahead by two games meant nothing when his opponent was a tensai from Fudo-Kai (and yes that was his own word for the ex-Fudomine kids now at Rikkai, thank you very much, credit goes here) - he'd seen Shinji and countless others like him come back from worse.
Shinji moved with a sudden speed that was unexpected, and the ball shot back to the far corner, too far for Sengoku to reach. He winced. Case in point. Shinji didn't smile either - simply nodded, and then walked calmly over to the baseline to get ready for his serve. It was a Kick Serve. Sengoku hated Shinji's Kick Serve as much as he hated Ryoma's Twist Serve. Anyone with a decent face would hate having it threatened. Still, thanks to watching Yuuta play against Ryoma years ago, he knew what to do with it; moving forward quickly, he got to the serve just after it hit the ground and hit a hard straight directly back at Shinji who barely got his racquet up in time. The return was weak as a result, and Sengoku pounced. A modified version of Momo's jackknife secured him another point and gave him back his serve.
Three more and the win was his. Sengoku could taste it already. Throwing the ball into the air, he attacked again.
Momo/Ryo vs Silver Pair
"Good match," Momo said, still breathing hard. He shook Shishido's hand and then Choutarou's and then stepped back to let Ryoma do the same. "That was fun!"
"Not bad," Shishido agreed. "But no offence guys, stick to Singles. You're both better at it."
"Che," Ryoma huffed. "I tried but this idiot wouldn't let me."
"Is that any way to talk to your sempai?" Momo glowered.
"It's the truth, Momo-sempai."
Choutarou grinned and nudged Ryo as they watched the two Seigaku players bicker their way back to the bench. "Do you see what I see?"
Shishido snorted. "Oh, you gotta be kidding me. Those two?" He shook his head. "They'd kill each other."
Choutarou didn't say anything else, but the smile he wore on the way back to their own bench refused to leave his face.
Kamio vs Kaido
Match point finally came and went.
Kamio stumbled off to the side, shaking his head. There was no shame in losing that match fourteen points to twelve in the tiebreaker, not after that battle. A quick look to the side saw Kaido collapsed onto the bench. He was gratified that he'd at least managed to wear out the stamina champ.
"Loser," came a derisive snort, and Kamio chuckled hoarsely.
"Love you too."
Kirihara tossed a towel over Kamio's head, shoved a water bottle into his hands, and then began pulling him away from the bench. "C'mon lazy, no sitting. You'll cramp up."
"Kaido gets to sit," Kamio whined half-heartedly, but Kirihara jerked his thumb in the Seigaku player's direction. Inui had joined Kaido at the bench and was pulling the younger teen to his feet, much like what Kirihara was doing. "You're both sadists."
"And you just spent an hour and a half in the hot sun flailing like a dying man," Akaya retorted. "You're a freakin' runner; you should know better. Walk, drink, cool down and then you can collapse. An is sitting on top of the girls to keep them from rushing down here to comfort you, and if they see you shaking like this, they'll start screaming."
Kamio raised his hand. Sure enough, it was trembling violently. If he'd needed any additional proof that this match had been harder than his one with Hiyoshi... He raised the water bottle and nearly choked in surprise at the mild sweetness. Not water this time. Gatorade.
"Electrolytes," came the answer to his unasked question. "Sip it."
"How'd you do with Kikumaru?"
Kamio snorted. "I know that. You wouldn't be in this good a mood if you'd lost. I meant, what was the score?"
Kirihara made him raise the Gatorade again. "Six games to three. Sip."
He sipped. "When's your next match ?"
Kirihara checked his watch. "Five-o'clock. I got thirty minutes." He grimaced. "I'm playing Yagyuu."
"Yagyuu?" Kamio whistled, finally having the breath to be able to do so. "That's gonna be an awesome match. How do you think you'll do?"
There was a pause as Akaya considered his question. "I've beaten him during practice matches," Kirihara said after a minute. "Problem is, I don't know if he's ever gone all out against me. Completely, you know? He's never cared who on the team beats him as long as it's not a non-regular, so he's kind of tricky that way."
"Let me think if this surprises me," Kamio said sarcastically. "I blame Niou. His trickiness has corrupted Yagyuu."
"Dude, that happened back in middle school. You're just figuring that out?"
"How's your hands?" Akaya glanced behind them absently.
Kamio held them up. "Better," he said, the trembling having lessened considerably.
"Good, 'cause we're about to be ambushed."
Kamio opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but then he was tackled from behind by an eight year old missile. "Whoa there!"
Michiko's eyes were shiny, as though she were two seconds away from letting loose waterworks the likes of which the world had never before seen. "'Kira-nii, you lost!" she wailed.
"Yep. It happens, kiddo, you know that." Kamio dropped a hand on her head, and saw Sachiko watching him. "What's up?"
"Are you sad?" she asked, remarkably carefully for a ten-year-old. "Or upset?"
Kamio shook his head, giving her his most reassuring smile. "Nope. It was a good match."
Kirihara nodded. "A really good one. Hell, it impressed me."
"What, I can't be proud?"
Kamio grinned, leaning against his boyfriend. Sachiko was still studying him intently but the concern had started to fade. "C'mere, Sach." She obediently moved forward and leaned into him, much like he was doing to Akaya. He ruffled her hair and she rolled her eyes, letting him get away with it. "Nobody wins all the time," he continued.
Akaya butted in with his two cents, naturally. "Except me, of course."
Kamio shot him a quick look. "Need I find a copy of the video of you facing Fuji in middle school?" he retorted. "Inoue-san must have it on file from his partner somewhere." Akaya stuck his tongue out. "And what was that you said earlier? Something about not sticking that out unless you planned on using it?"
"Curses, you've foiled my dastardly plot," Kirihara said cheerfully. "I accept my loss and my punishment like a man. Kiss me."
Sachiko giggled and pretended to cover her eyes as Kamio leaned over and did as his boyfriend requested. Michiko, already bored, broke it up by tugging on Akaya's shirt. He looked down at her with a mock glare. "What do you want?"
"You gotta play against Yagyuu-nii?" she asked curiously.
"You'll win," she predicted.
"There, you see?" Akaya picked up Michiko, settling her on his hip and turning a superior look on Akira. "Confirmation of my greatness."
Kamio shook his head in disbelief. "We really need to work on building up that flagging self-confidence of yours, 'Kaya," was all he said to that.
"Can we go see An-chan and Yuuta?" Sachiko asked suddenly. Her head was turned to the side, her eyes following the match she could see from a distance. "They're still playing."
Kamio's eyes lit up. "Let's go check it out."
Atobe/Jirou vs Sanada/Yukimura
A larger crowd than usual had started to gather around the court. Atobe only noticed it because he noticed everything. That didn't mean he was surprised. Why shouldn't there be a crowd? Was he not one of the competitors on the field?
Sparing a quick glance, he could see a few diamonds among the rough; was that Tezuka? Fuji was likely nearby as well - probably tracking down his own errant paramour from Rokkaku. And that ridiculous orange mop - that was Yamabuki's Sengoku, looking particularly sweaty and disheveled. He'd obviously just finished a match of his own and was now no doubt hoping to glean away a few tidbits to improve his own performance. Ah, the things he did for his fans.
An/Yuuta vs Kurobane/Davide
"They're losing too," Sachiko said, disappointed. She squinted at the scoreboard. "It's almost over, isn't it?"
Tachibana nodded as An returned a hard hit from Davide. Things were starting to wind down - it had been a hard-fought match but it was almost over now. Match point in the Bronze Pair's favour - not that An and Yuuta were just going to hand the win over, of course. Kurobane and Davide had just been tough opponents. A good experience for An, he decided. "Yep, kiddo. It's about to wrap up."
"Wish I could'a seen the whole thing," Kamio said, shaking his head.
"Remind me to make Atobe give us a copy," Akaya said, nudging his partner and pointing out the cameraman filming the whole thing from a far-corner vantage point.
Kurobane leaped into the air in a move that seemed to mirror Momoshiro's Dunk Smash but with only some of the power. Still, it was more than enough to get past Yuuta's defense, and that ended the game, six games to four. All four of them were breathing hard - and all of them had smiles on their faces as they walked up to the net. He watched them talk for a minute, heard muffled laughter, and then Yuuta and An were walking back towards the bench.
"An-chan doesn't look sad," Michi observed.
"That's 'cause they played a good game," Akaya said gruffly. "And all of 'em suffer from the same fatal social disorder."
"What's that?" Sachiko asked curiously.
"Good sportsmanship." Akaya pretended to shudder in disgust. He leaned down, snatched Miki's arm and swooped her up, settling her on his hip again. "Shall we move on?" He jerked a thumb in their friends' directions. "They're gonna go cool down, and I really, really wanna catch some of 'Mura-buchou and Sanada-fukobuchou's action against Hyoutei."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Kamio said, perking up. "That's gonna be good."
"What is?" An asked. Yuuta began packing his racquet away, pausing to hand a towel to An. "Thanks Yuuta."
"Yukimura and Sanada against Atobe and Jirou." Akira tapped his foot looking impatient. "Coming or staying?"
"I'm not missing that!" An grinned.
"Me neither," Yuuta agreed.
"Count me in." Kippei chimed in, having apparently made his way through the stands to join them. "I just saw Tezuka and Fuji heading in that direction too - seems to be one of the last matches still going."
"They probably did that on purpose to give everyone time to go over and watch," Kirihara declared. "And it worked. Let's move!"
Atobe/Jirou vs Sanada/Yukimura
Atobe glared across the court at Sanada. The blistering shot he'd just smashed past Jirou had made scorch marks on the greentop, caused Jirou to slip, and left the blond almost giddy with enthusiasm. If Sanada thought he was going to allow a mere Rikkai-denizen break the arms of his serve-and-volley specialist, he was greatly mistaken. As he awaited Sanada's next serve, he ignored the amusement on Yukimura's face and smiled out at the crowd to reassure his legions of fans. Naturally, there were many of them who were upset over a point being lost for them. He raised his hand, and the crowd - primarily the females overloading the upper rows of the stands - went wild.
As he acknowledged their devotion, his eyes flicked to the lower stands which had been reserved for the actual tennis players who wanted to view matches. The one for whom all this was for - and he had no idea - was settling himself in the front stands with his boyfriend. Atobe's eyes skimmed over Kamio and settled on the youngest redhead perched on Kirihara's lap. It was easy to identify her as Michiko even without using his Insight; the large black headphones secured around her ears was a dead giveaway.
Sanada cleared his throat, and Atobe turned his gaze languidly back to Sanada. His eyes narrowed. The shot came in hard and fast, as always - but Atobe moved even faster and mimicked Sanada's own kendo stance as he returned the ball with the same technique he'd used on Jirou. Yukimura was caught off-guard and watched with bemusement as matching scorch marks decorated the greentop exactly kittycorner to the ones made by Sanada.
"Wow, Atobe!" Jirou was almost speechless with excitement, dancing in place as he tried to convey his apparent like for the shot with all four limbs flailing wildly.
Atobe brushed the hair out of his eyes with a careless flick of his hand and smiled.
That was impressive. Atobe had returned a shot that Tachibana noted - with no small amount of amusement - was an exact replica of what Sanada had just scored with. He was obviously in a mood not to be outdone. Well, either that or he was pissed off that Sanada had risked injuring Jirou with that cannon shot. Regardless, it was hilarious - he didn't know Atobe had any kendo skills, and going by the wide-eyed look that existed for mere seconds on Sanada's face, neither had the Emperor of Rikkai. Kippei couldn't help himself. He nudged his sister. "Hey An? Doesn't that remind you of that musical we saw the other night? That guy and the girl with the gun?"
An blinked – and then her eyes lit up. She began to sing, loudly in English. "Anything you can do—"
Tachibana laughed and joined in. "—I can do better!"
They grinned at each other, and then froze as Oshitari's smooth – and loud - baritone finished it off two rows ahead of them. "I can do anything better than you!" It figured that Hyoutei's own tensai would both speak English at their level, and be able to reference an obscure musical. Gakuto, Shishido and Choutarou were standing beside him, laughing hard. Gakuto was doubled over with the giggles.
An grinned and cupped her hands around her mouth. "No you can't!"
Oshitari winked and called back. "Yes I can!"
"No, you can't!"
"Yes I can, yes I can, yes I !"
Howls of laughter erupted from courtside. The players with decent English marks – and the few who didn't but did watch American musicals – were in hysterics. The non-English speakers who didn't get the reference shrugged and laughed anyway.
On the court, Atobe – who naturally spoke impeccable English and had a substantial collection of musicals hidden in his private cinema - rolled his eyes. "Oh, shut up."
Jirou wiped tears of laughter from his streaming eyes and tried to focus back on the match.
Momo frowned and pushed at Ryoma's shoulder. "I don't get it," he whined. "What are they saying, Ryoma?"
Kamio was snickering into Akaya's shoulder. Akaya was not as amused. "Oh come on, 'Kaya."
"It's not natural," Kirihara scowled. "How the hell are there so many musical fans in the tennis world? It's weird!"
"I think a better question would be how you understood it was a musical they were quoting," Kamio said with a smirk. He poked a finger into Akaya's ribs, watching as he flinched and turned red at the same time. "Anything you wanna share?"
"I don't watch musicals!" Akaya hissed and then resolutely turned back to the match. Kamio kept laughing.
The match continued, fast and furious. Yukimura had gone on the offensive this time, and Jirou, eager to play such a high-level opponent, was having a ball. Well, sort of. Yukimura was obviously not playing his hardest, but he was playing at a level Jirou had only seen in players like Atobe or Tezuka from Seigaku. Even his idol Marui was light years away from Yukimura's ability. Yukimura sent the ball back with a deft, fluid sweep of his arm, the confident look on his face making it look like his every move was the easiest thing he had ever done. It was strange, playing against someone who didn't look like they needed to think about what they were doing. There were no outward hints, no grunts of effort, no squeaky shoes spinning on a dime, and no rushing to get back into position. He was nowhere and everywhere, completely at ease. It was freaky. It was totally weird.
Jirou didn't know whether to drop to his knees in worship or squeal like an overly-caffeinated fangirl. He was starting to understand just why the Rikkai players held their captain in such awe.
Atobe interrupted their rally and served towards Sanada who actually had to lunge just a little to hit it back. It went back to Atobe who then changed pace and aimed it at Yukimura. That made Jirou smile - obviously Atobe wanted to show that he could handle both of the Rikkai demons. Yukimura smiled and then flowed forward so fast it was like time had stopped and he just blinked into existence at the net, sending the ball in Jirou's direction.
Jirou leaped for the ball, but he was thrown off; his spatial sense was all messed up thanks to Yukimura's admittedly freaky tennis style, and the path curved even more than he'd anticipated. The ball struck the ground directly under the path of his incoming feet, and he had a moment where no doubt everyone in the audience could see the 'oh shit' going as clearly across his face as it did through his mind. Then his foot came down on the ball.
There was a weird squeaking sound; his foot shot out from underneath his body, crumpling to the side. He fell hard - his right arm had let go of the racquet as he tried to catch himself, his left flailing wildly. His hip struck the ground first, then the right side of his torso up along his right arm. Like an afterthought, his head tapped almost lightly against the court grounds, his momentum absorbed by the previous impacts.
He lay there on the ground, stunned, breathing hard through the pain that was currently spiking through his hip and shoulder. Dimly, he could hear a roar as though from very far away, and he realized belatedly it was the crowd exclaiming about something. He blinked - and then blinked again as something settled into his field of vision - a swirl of grey and purple and white. "A-Atobe?"
"Lie still a moment, Jirou," his captain commanded him. His tone was softer than it had ever been, and if Jirou didn't know better, he'd think that was something akin to worry in his eyes.
"What?" Jirou shook his head lightly, dismissing the tiny flare-up of pain that tingled at the base of his skull, and slowly pushed himself up. The pain was ebbing down, most of it being from the actual impact itself. He had no doubt his shoulder was going to be bruised - he did bruise rather easily for someone who was always falling - but he was used to that sort of thing. His hip had a sharp heat running across it, but it too was dying - nothing broken or fractured. All in all, it had just been a bad tumble. He could recover from this. "I'm okay, Atobe. Just ask Nanjiroh-san to give me a minute to catch my breath. We can still play."
Atobe raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow at him. "You are injured, Jirou."
Jirou stuck his chin out, staring back at his captain with as much conviction as he could muster. "I've had worse falls in practice," he insisted. He had. He was not going to be the reason Atobe lost so quickly at his own damn tournament! "Help me up. I can walk it off."
Across from them, Yukimura was standing right up at the net, eyes actually open and full of the concern that Jirou had rarely seen the other display for anyone outside his team before. "Jirou? Are you okay?"
Atobe snorted derisively, but Jirou shot him a pleading look and then turned back to Yukimura. "It's okay, Yukimura." He smiled gamely. "I have a habit of tripping over my own feet. I misjudged the ball this time." He gave a self-depreciating chuckle. "It's not like I haven't fallen before."
Yukimura's eyes narrowed slightly, as though trying to ascertain the truth from him. Then he seemed to relax visibly, a small smile creeping back onto his normally calm face. "True enough."
"Will you continue the match?" Sanada's low voice asked practically. The brow of his cap was pushed up just enough to let Jirou see his calm gaze assessing him. "Or will you forfeit?"
"We'll play," Jirou snapped. Where Yukimura looked genuinely concerned, Sanada looked almost bored, and Jirou suddenly felt the urge to show him just what he was capable of. He pushed himself up, shaking his head at Atobe who had actually lowered a hand to aid him in regaining his feet. A slight wave of dizziness washed over him as he stood completely upright, pain fritzing through his body like an outlet with crossed and broken wires - no connection anywhere, just random sparks of ow, ow, OW - but he shook it off and sent a triumphant stare in Sanada's direction. "See?"
He was surprised to see an approving look in the Rikkai player's eyes. Sanada nodded once. "If you're sure."
"Yes." He turned to look at Atobe. "Ready?"
Atobe was giving him a chillingly calm stare of his own. Then he gave a curt nod and turned around, walking to the baseline. "One chance, Jirou."
Jirou pouted, but truthfully, it was more than he had expected. He leaned over to pick up his racquet, ignoring the flare in his hip, and settled into a low, relaxed stance.
Yukimura had stepped back from the net, and Sanada returned to the baseline. Nanjiroh looked down, first one side and then the other, before rolling his eyes. "Continuing at 5 games to 4. Sanada to serve."
Sanada threw the ball up high and struck. Like a canon from a high-seas ship, the ball hurtled across the court in a streak of green light. Atobe caught it easily, returning with a wicked front hand swing. Yukimura backhanded it in Jirou's direction, and Jirou made his move.
At least, he tried to.
Lightning surged up his arm as he swung the racquet, tendrils of icy hot flickering across his shoulder like a web of pain suddenly cast. He managed to return the shot, but it was a fraction of his usual strength and he knew he'd blown it. Yukimura almost lazily struck back his shot and Jirou turned to see Atobe let it go past him without even looking at it. His eyes were locked on Jirou, and he couldn't help but cringe in the face of his captain's displeasure. "A-Atobe, I-"
"We forfeit," Atobe told Nanjiroh crisply, giving a short, courtesy bow before striding over to Jirou. "Come, Jirou."
Hot tears, a mix of both pain and embarrassment, wanted to escape Jirou's eyes as he lowered his head. He had shamed his captain, shamed Hyoutei, and Atobe would never play doubles with him again. "Atobe?"
Nanjirou gave a low whistle, capturing his attention. "Listen to your captain, kid," he advised.
"It's okay, Jirou." Atobe's voice was lower, gentler. Jirou looked up quickly and saw compassion in his captain's eyes. Just for a second, just long enough for him to see. Then it was gone, and Atobe was nodding briskly at the side of the court where the tournament EMT's were patiently waiting to check him out. "Let's see what damage you've done to yourself this time, ahn?"
Jirou blinked back the tears and managed a tremulous smile. "Okay, Atobe." He looked across the court where Yukimura and Sanada were talking softly together as they gathered their things. "Oi, Yukimura?"
The Rikkai captain looked over, giving him a questioning look. "Yes?"
"I want a rematch one day, okay?" He gave his best smile, flashing his dimples for all he was worth.
It apparently worked. The other boy's jaw worked for a second, as though trying to stifle a laugh, and then finally he nodded. "Very well, Jirou. I wish you a speedy recovery."
"Aw, I'm fine," Jirou repeated, and then winced. "Ow, OW! Atobe!"
His captain was dragging him by the arm. "The paramedics, Jirou. Now."
End Chapter 7