Echizen Ryoma nudges his cap up and looks at the clock, sighing a half-hearted curse. If Oyaji hadn't insisted on showing him the contents of his latest magazine delivery that morning, he wouldn't have been so short on time. Besides seeing more globs of fatty tissue straining out of flimsy pieces of cloth than he'd ever wanted to see, Ryoma's innocent thoughts on the honey that comes in the plastic bear had been forever tainted.
He glances around the bustling terminal, weighing his options. The closest living thing capable -- or seemingly capable -- of speech to him is some girl with long braided hair. He's this close to asking her for directions to the Kakinokizaka Tennis Garden, but Fate chooses this pivotal moment to intervene in the spectacularly flailing form of an young boy running head on into our dubious hero like a chibi freight train, knocking him back several feet onto his bottom.
"Waaaah, desu!" the boy cries out in horror, yanking Ryoma back onto the tips of his tennis shoes with surprising strength. "I am so sorry! I was just in such a rush, desu, to watch the matches, desu! Oh! You have a racket, desu! Do you play tennis? Are you in this tournament, desu?"
Ryoma blinks five or six times, and straightens his hat. "Do you know where the Kakinokizaka Tennis Garden is?" he finally manages.
The boy smacks a hand to his forehead. "Oh my gosh! Yes, desu! I was just on my way there. Come on, we should hurry or we'll be late!"
He /grabs Ryoma's hand/, and Ryoma had two choices: follow, quickly, or have his shoulder dislocated. Although he figures he could still beat anyone in this tournament with his right arm, he rationalizes that he'll at least find out where the tennis garden is.
"Holy mackerel!" the boy chatters as he runs with Ryoma at top speed. Ample warm-up, Ryoma thinks. "I didn't even introduce myself. I'm Dan, desu -- Dan Taichi! I'm here because the coach at my new school, Yamabuki Chuu, said that he heard there would be a player here who he wanted me to recruit. I'm the manager, you see! This kid is supposed to be my age and super sugoi! I'm so excited, desu! So what's your name, desu?"
"Echizen-kun, huh?" Dan repeats happily. "Why does that sound so familiar, desu?"
- - -
Dan's eyes progressively grow bigger as Ryoma wins each of his matches. Every time Ryoma flicks his eyes to the side to look at him, he thinks that they couldn't possibly get larger or shinier, but every time, he is proven wrong. Dan's mouth is a persistent, expanding circle, driven by the sharpness of Ryoma's drives, the spin of his serves, the clattering of his opponent's rackets.
He wins the tournament with relative ease -- most of the competitors are rich daddy's boys with nothing better to do than strut around in impeccably pressed designer sports outfits. Suddenly, he wishes he were back in America, back where people played tennis seriously, where they played tennis to win.
"Do you want a soda?" Ryoma asks him as he snaps his Ponta open. It's too cold and too sweet and too bubbly and /perfect/.
"Y-yes! Please!" Dan answers, nodding jerkily.
Ryoma shrugs and fishes for more change in his pockets. Dan holds the Ponta Ryoma gives to him like it's a gift from God, and presses the unopened can to his heart. "Please come to Yamabuki, desu!" he begs, bowing low, his long bangs drooping over his face.
"Why?!" Dan cries out in dismay, tears hugging to his gigantic brown eyes. "Is it me? I promise our team is great -- that's why I don't play, desu! Sengoku-senpai was a member of last year's Junior Invitational! Our doubles teams are at national level!"
"Now, now, Taichi-kun," the creepiest old man Ryoma has ever seen interrupts, laying a hand on Dan's little shoulder. "I'm sure Echizen wants to go to Seigaku, like his father."
Ryoma stiffens, crumpling the empty soda can. The old man's grin widens, leaving only memories of eyes in the cracks of his wrinkles. "You know my old man?"
"I'm not sure if he remembers me," the old man muses, rubbing his chin. "He never was very bright."
- - -
Really, it probably hadn't been a shining moment of brilliance on Ryoma's part when he accepted a ride home with Dan and that creepy old man, but the look on Nanjiroh's face had been, in his opinion, totally worth the risk of being kidnapped by a smiling pedophile.
"WHY AREN'T YOU DEAD YET?!"
Ryoma's opinion of Banji just keeps getting pushed higher and higher.
"Oh, Nanjiroh-san!" Banji says fondly to Nanjiroh's twitching and sprawled form. "I just wanted to drop little Samurai Junior back at home safely. You can never trust public transport these days, you know. Does your wife know you didn't accompany him?"
"LEAVE MY WIFE OUT OF THIS!"
While the adults make "small talk", Dan insists on giving Ryoma his phone number, cell number, emergency contact number, email, fax number and home address -- "Just in case you change your mind, desu!"
"Waaaaah, you're so cool, Echizen-kun!" he proclaims in half-awe, half-wistfulness, shaking his hand fervently. "Please, please, please consider us, desu! Yamabuki is awesome!"
After Nanjiroh shuts the door behind him, he braces it with his back as though trying to keep the Dark at bay. "Sheesh! That was /close/," he sighs. "Look, boy, it's great that you got that girl's number -- she's a little too tomboyish to be my type, but nonetheless cute -- but if she goes to that guy's school ... she's not even worth it."
"Oh?" Ryoma asks casually.
"That coach -- he's out to get me, I swear." Nanjiroh shivers like someone's walked over his grave. "He made fools of us back when I was at Seigaku. They defeated our entire team -- except me, of course. He's a conniving bastard."
"I see." Ryoma picks at some nonexistent dirt from under his nails, and imagines hitting a shot that his father can't return. "Hey, Oyaji. I think I want to go to Yamabuki."
"BAAAAANJI!" Nanjiroh curses.
- - -
Yamabuki a pretty normal looking school. Not that big, not that small. "Not as nice as good ole Seishun Gakuen," Nanjiroh laments. All Ryoma cares about are tennis courts, though, and Yamabuki's are sufficient, or at least they seemed to be on his tour of the campus.
Dan, much to Ryoma's dismay, designates himself as Ryoma's PR, and introduces him to about 500 more people than he can remember. Dan doesn't walk -- he bounces/. His eyes never dim, his cheeks never pale. Everyone, from freshmen to third years, seems to like him, and in turn, Ryoma. This is incomprehensible. "He's so cute!" the girls whisper. "Did you /hear his Engrish?"
"Just wait, desu! Just wait until you see his tennis!" Dan chimes enthusiastically, but no one seems to listen to that, or care.
Ryoma's hand itches for his racquet. The school day can't pass quickly enough. It's hard to sleep in class when one is seated next to Dan, who answers every question (even the ones he doesn't have the answer to), always drawing the sensei's attention to Ryoma's area, foiling his plan of hiding behind the fat kid in class.
It's only after Dan grabs his arm -- again; the boy likes touching Ryoma -- that he realizes that his last class is over. "Come on, desu! This is going to be super cool!"
- - -
The team looks ... weird. It's not any singular thing about them -- it's just a vibe. They're clad in green and yellow. Ryoma supposes it's better than all yellow. Or lavender. Still. A weird team with a creepy coach. Ryoma wishes he could just skip through the niceties and have one of them on the other end of the court.
"This," Banji announces, clapping a hand in a still very creepy way on Ryoma's shoulder, "is Echizen Ryoma. He's going to be a regular, ne, Taichi?"
Dan's head bobs up and down eagerly. The team, however, looks unimpressed. The sentiment is echoed in Ryoma's face.
"Come on, sensei," a third-year with blue-tinted sunglasses complains. "Don't go all Rokka-coo-coo on us." Banji's smile doesn't falter; if anything, it grows. Ryoma pulls his cap down low. "Minami-buchou --" he pleads, turning to the apparent captain, a plain-faced guy to his left.
Minami looks to a player with slick, black hair as though for affirmation, and sighs in resignation. He seems pretty indecisive for a captain -- he's probably a doubles player. "Touji, since you doubted our coach, go ahead and play a match with the chibiski. Let's just see if he has potential."
Touji's eyebrows contort. Ryoma wonders if he has eyes. "What a waste of --"
Ryoma jerks his head down in an unmistakable bow, facing Minami. "Buchou, I would rather play a match with you."
A regular with really red cheeks bursts out laughing, and flicks the mushroom head of the guy next to him. "Did you hear that, Nitobe? He's such an adorable go-getter -- I'm totally crushing on this kid!"
"You're such a homo, Kita," Nitobe mutters in embarrassment.
"Takes one to know one," Kita sings, sticking his tongue out.
Touji waves his racket threateningly at the homos. "Would you two please just shut up for one --"
"I'll play you, Echizen," Minami interrupts, and the team falls silent.
- - -
Sengoku Kiyosumi struts onto the courts like the stud he is. Of course, he's a tad bit tardy, but one's practice is secondary to the pursuit of love -- most of the time. If love had big pretty eyes and soft skin, anyway. "Yo!" he calls out, resting his racket on his shoulder in an appealing pose. "You won't guess who Aya-chan gave her cell phone number to!"
No one responds to this proclamation, and he can't help but be a bit miffed. Sure, Nitobe, Kita, Higashitaka and Minami are "doubles players", but Touji, at the very least, should have appreciated some lady talk.
"Sengoku-senpai!" Dan squeaks, bounding over.
Finally -- a willing audience. "Ah, young one, you too will one day know the love of a beautiful woman. Aya-chan is so cute! I bet you noticed how big and beautiful her --"
"Did you see, desu?! Did you /see/?!"
Dan points -- or gravitates his whole body -- towards something short holding hands with Minami. Higashitaka-kun's mouth is set in a frown. Sengoku winces. "I never would have thought buchou would choose jailbait over Masami-kun. Not that I think Higashitaka is hot or anything -- I guess I just --"
"The little bastard won," Touji says disbelievingly, adjusting his sunglasses.
"He won the match." Touji looks contemplative, and his metallic blue lenses are emitting a dangerous light. "Six games to two."
"Echizen-kun!" Dan squeals, waving the short kid over. "This is Sengoku-senpai, our tennis ace!"
Echizen pushes up his hat a little. He's not even sweating. "Wanna play a match?" he says.
- - -
Sengoku takes Ryoma and Dan out for burgers after practice like a good senpai who had just lost 7-6 to his kouhai would. "My horoscope warned me that I'd have a bit of bad luck," he sighs, morosely drowning his fries in ketchup. "I just wasn't expecting that Drive B. And your footwork was pretty good too -- your split step is fast."
"Echizen-kun is amazing!" Dan says, not touching his burger, but letting his legs oscillate in a crazy pattern as he gawks openly at Ryoma licking the grease from his third hamburger off of his fingers. "The way he totally caught up to Kohou was so cool, desu!"
"Your dunk smash is annoying," Ryoma mutters, and Sengoku takes this for a compliment. Ryoma hadn't been able to counter that move -- just seal it by avoiding lobs.
"I wish I could play like that, desu," Dan says wistfully, and takes a big sip of his coke.
Ryoma crumples up his napkin, and wonders if Sengoku would be willing to buy round two. "Why don't you practice, then?"
Dan chokes on his soda, his eyes going larger than -- well, as large as they often went. "/Me/?" he coughs.
- - -
By the next Monday, Sengoku has decided that Ryoma is worth going all out for -- Ryoma decides the same, and switches to his left hand. Nitobe is amused; Minami is most definitely not. Dan exchanges volleys with Touji, and has a fair backhand when he's not wondering if Ryoma's looking at him. Ryoma also discovered that in addition to more than half the team being flaming homosexuals ("A strong sexual bond is the key to good doubles," Banji explains cheerfully), Touji showers with his sunglasses on, and that only his mother has seen his natural eyes.
On Tuesday, Ryoma walks out of the changing room in the smallest regular's jacket in Yamabuki history onto a silent court.
"Your hat doesn't match, Echizen-kun," Sengoku finally giggles, and the rest of them erupt into similar peals of laughter. Ryoma decides that he hates all of them.
"I'm a homo," Kita reminds them, "and I can say that it's most definitely a fashion no-no."
"I should have gone to Seigaku," Ryoma mutters, pulling his cap down low; low enough to hide his smile.
Dan sees it though.
- - -
It's as Ryoma's walking home from practice that it happens: he's passing the bike rack when a smoldering cigarette butt smacks him on the side of his cheek.
"Watch where you're walking, brat."
A grey-haired senior is leaning against the brick wall, small, pale eyes bored and vicious all at once as he lights up another cigarette. "The hell are you staring at?" the boy growls.
Ryoma doesn't blink. Instead, he bends down and retrieves the crushed cigarette, and flicks it right back at the senior, who catches it, crushes it. Little burnt pieces snow darkly onto the concrete from the boy's hands.
"You shouldn't litter," Ryoma says.
The boy grabs Ryoma by the front of his shirt. "Don't tell me what to do, brat."
Ryoma shoves him off. "Whatever. I should know better than to try and talk to an animal."
The boy doesn't hesitate before punching Ryoma in the stomach. Ryoma's legs crumple beneath him, but he bites on his tongue and refuses to cry out.
"Your hat doesn't match your uniform," the boy mocks, plucking Ryoma's cap from his head and sliding it on. "Did you know?"
He disinterestedly kicks Ryoma in the stomach, twice, and this time, he can't hold back the sound tearing out of his throat.
"Don't fuck with Akutsu Jin," the boy says, and walks away with Ryoma's hat.
- - -
"I lost it," Ryoma says shortly for the eight time, knocking Higashitaka's racket out of his hand with the fury of his twist serve.
Higashitaka and Minami exchange worried glances. Ryoma wishes they'd just get on with the game. Banji thought it would be interesting to see if Ryoma could keep up against two players; he'd lost two matches against the Jimmies so far.
Ryoma had purposely walked by the bike racks every day that week, but the grey-haired guy -- Akutsu Jin -- never showed up. He can feel the humiliation burning his ears, feel it quicken his heart. He grips his racket tighter, and begins to feel holes in the Jimmies' play.
Ryoma wins the match.
He sulks his way over to the locker room, trying to ignore the noise of Kita and Nitobe in the showers. He reaches in his cubby hole (the one on the bottom -- Sengoku though it was funny) for a new shirt, but his hand grasps something else.
He pulls out a hat. It's identical to his old one in every single way, except the stitching on the letter is green, inside of a dark yellow square border.
Dan is at his own locker, cheeks burning, looking anywhere but at Ryoma.
- - -
The sky is almost hurtfully blue, unblemished by a single cloud on Friday. Ryoma has class duty after school, but about an hour into it, Dan dashes into the classroom and tells Ryoma's teacher that, "There is an emergency, desu!" with a mouth that butter wouldn't melt in, and grabs Ryoma's hand and drags him towards the courts, babbling something about, "-- you won't believe it, desu, he's /amazing/!"
He pushes Ryoma through the squeaking gate onto the court with his little fingers on Ryoma's back. Ryoma stops dead in his tracks as he sees the player on the courts: tall, muscular, tennis racket resting casually over his shoulder, and head of violently grey hair held back with a bright green headband.
Akutsu's near-golden eyes zero in on Ryoma, on his new hat, and he breaks out into harsh laughter. "This is your ace, old man?" he scoffs, tossing his green headband aside. Dan unblinkingly follows the arc of it with his eyes. "I think I might as well leave now."
He turns on his heel and walks right past Ryoma, like Ryoma is nothing and nobody to him. Ryoma grits his teeth and tastes blood in his mouth. He has his racket out of his bag and a ball out of his pocket in less than a second. He serves the ball right at the back of Akutsu's head with all the force he can manage.
Without bothering to turn around, Akutsu lightly fields it, and pauses, the ball bouncing in perfect control on his racket.
"Let's play tennis," Ryoma calls out fiercely.
Akutsu turns around, his grin wolfish. "Alright then, brat."
- - -
They stand on opposing sides of the net, the afternoon sun slanting their shadows long and dark on the clay of the courts, and tennis hasn't felt so right in quite some time. The battles of late had been boring; now every muscle is poised and his blood is alive as it courses heavily through his veins.
"Rough or smooth?" Ryoma asks, locking eyes with Akutsu.
Akutsu leans over the net, daring Ryoma to step back. Ryoma stands his ground. "I like your new hat," he says. Ryoma doesn't take the bait. "Rough."
The R lands upside down. "You can serve," Akutsu jeers like it's a mercy.
Ryoma's twist serve is quicker and more tightly angled than any of them have seen before. It smashes a perfect uppercut into Akutsu's chin. Dan bounces worriedly on the balls of his feet, but Banji is all sharp, pleased smiles. "This will be interesting, Taichi," he says. "Watch closely."
Akutsu rubs at his chin, and his grin disappears -- but only for a second. At Ryoma's second serve, he launches himself impossibly backwards to slice the ball back, but it's not fast enough to elude Ryoma's split step, and Ryoma's return is a straight drive to the center of Akutsu's forehead. "I call this Drive A," he says, and his blood is pounding like it hasn't been in weeks as Akutsu is knocked off of his feet.
Ryoma serves again. Akutsu launches himself back, and he's driving it to the left like before, and Ryoma's moving like he had before, and that's when Akutsu twists and smacks the ball to the far right. Ryoma's not fast enough, nowhere near fast enough. Each of Akutsu's strokes punish the ball to moving away from where it wants to head, away from where Ryoma's waiting.
"Game, Akutsu -- Change court!"
Ryoma's eyes narrow, but his lips twitch into an unmistakable smirk. "You move weird," he says.
"You have no idea." Akutsu taunts. "You won't score another point."
Akutsu takes the next three games, and Ryoma's sweating and breathing and /losing/. "Where did you get this guy, Banji?" Minami asks in amazement. "Looks like our freshman has finally met his match."
Banji chuckles mysteriously. "Don't speak so soon, buchou."
"C'mon, Echizen," Sengoku whispers under his breath, eyes watching the little changes in Ryoma's footwork, the cogs and wheels turning in his dark eyes. Ryoma has an idea.
Dan clutches at the chain-link fence as Ryoma dashes for the net, his eyes, the curve of his smirk daring Akutsu. Is that all? is spelled out in the easy stance of his legs. Akutsu approaches the net too, every motion liquid fast and smooth. "Eat this," Akutsu yells, his pale gaze flecked with the light of pleasure as Ryoma's eyes widen in fear at the fury of the smash.
He draws the racket in front of his face in instinctive panic, his mouth open and worried; as he draws the racket back away, his smirk is back in place, and the ball is bouncing in ten feet behind Akutsu.
"Bastard," Akutsu breathes with just a little admiration. There's something -- something with this kid.
"You," Ryoma announces, pointing his racket at Akutsu's face, "are not going to score another point."
His next serve is just as vicious as his first had been, and Akutsu wonders where such energy came from in such a little body. He returns the ball to the left just as Ryoma's moving to the right -- but then Ryoma is changing directions "- /without a step/," Sengoku realizes in amazement. "/Impossible/."
"Mada mada dane."
Ryoma wins the match, 6-4, and Ryoma waits, victoriously, smugly, at the net, arm outstretched. Akutsu punches him in the nose, /hard/, and it cracks, blood pouring out onto Ryoma's cupped hands.
"I'll join the team," he says.
- - -
The nurse looks with horror at the scary-faced giant with the huge purple bruises on his forehead and chin, and at the short kid with blood crusted down his face, staining the top of his shirt.
"Heaven smiled down on us today," Banji explains to the her delightedly.
Ryoma and Akutsu's faces subconsciously twist into twin smiles.
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