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May. 9th, 2006 @ 08:39 pm Champions, part 2/2 [Ryoma,Rikkai]
*blames prillalar, intensely*

Champions, part 2/2
Length: 3700 words
Disclaimer: Ryoma and the Rikkai boys belong to Konomi Takeshi.
Warning: Heavy allusions to the manga canon, and the Rikkai arc in particular; if you're not familiar with it, some scenes may be difficult to follow.


Part 1 here.


Part 2
Kirihara set a new record for the shortest match ever played at district preliminaries. “Take a look at that,” he smirked, thwacking Ryoma on the back with the flat of his racquet. Ryoma shrugged, and served twelve service aces in the following game to break the record again, only to have an irate Kirihara snatch it back in the finals.

“Kids these days,” Marui said, rolling his eyes. “Well, I guess your grade-school fights provide us with entertainment, if nothing else.”

Niou stopped halfway through trying to push Ryoma into the ground, and said, “You’re talking about immaturity?”

“Mature enough to know a futile battle when I see one,” Marui said loftily. “Being grown-up means being able to master alternative fighting techniques.” And he spat out his strawberry-red gum and stuck it onto Kirihara’s hair, and Kirihara howled and lunged at Marui, bowling Yagyuu and Jackal aside in the process, and how things would have progressed if Sanada hadn’t arrived at that moment, not even Yanagi could tell.

They scraped chewing gum off their fingers and clothes (Niou had, by this point, managed to infect everyone with strawberry); when they finally got themselves clean they piled into the bus and drove straight to the hospital, where Yukimura was staring out the window waiting for them, wearing the soft smile that Ryoma was beginning to dread.


#


He defeated Jackal for the first time in the final week of April, Yagyuu in the third week of May. It took him three tries to defeat Marui.

“If you can’t win against me, you’ll never be able to beat Akaya or Renji, let alone Yukimura,” he said, flinging another volley across the court. The ball struck the side-pole, bounced up, and flew diagonally in the opposite direction.

“Don’t you think you should be concentrating on yourself?” Ryoma said. “You’re going to lose if you don’t pay attention.”

The pole-striking technique was considerably more complex than the Tsunawatari; there were only limited circumstances under which Marui could make the ball run along the net, and the only variations possible were those of speed and distance. When the ball struck the pole, however, it seemed to veer off in totally random directions.

But there was a consistent rhythm to Marui’s footwork when he unleashed the technique, something unusual about the angle of his wrist--

This is fun, he thought, watching Marui serve.

#


They went through the Kanagawa prefectural tournament with a series of clockwork wins: 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. The only times they faltered were when Yanagi proved his sense of humor by first putting Kirihara, and then Ryoma, into doubles. Ryoma stumbled, hesitated, couldn’t feel the ball at all, and Niou remained silent, effortlessly covered for his mistakes as if they’d been partners for years.

Ryoma gritted his teeth, and the next time he was put in Singles Three he knocked the racquet out of his opponent’s hands four times with the Twist Serve.

“You’re improving too fast,” Kirihara said at the beginning of June. There was something nasty about his eyes. “Too bloody fast.”

Ryoma ignored him, put away his racquet, turned to leave the locker room. Kirihara grabbed the collar of his shirt. He twisted, drove his elbow into Kirihara’s stomach.

He met Sanada at the school gates. “Let me play Kirihara-sempai,” he said, staring up at the older boy, daring him to refuse.

Sanada cocked an eyebrow. “You’re not good enough yet.”

“You don’t know that until we try.”

Sanada seemed to be thinking. “You managed to seal Yagyuu’s Laser, didn’t you.”

“Yes,” Ryoma said. Although it’d taken him a while.

“Winning isn’t just a matter of defeating your opponent’s play style,” Sanada said, sweeping past Ryoma. “If you want to understand this, I will play a match against you tomorrow.”

#


“Here, take this; it might help.” Kirihara held out a can of grape-flavoured Ponta.

Ryoma twisted the can open. It was cold, and felt even colder on his sweat-drenched fingers. The sweetness fizzled on his tongue. “Thank you.”

“That’s how I felt too,” Kirihara said. He sat cross-legged on the bench. “After I lost to the three of them, my hands were shaking for the rest of the day. I don’t even remember how I got home.”

“Who was stronger?” Ryoma asked. “Sanada-sempai, or buchou?”

“Honestly? Their abilities might have been the same, as far as I could tell, but – buchou feels stronger. That’s all.”

“They’re scary.” But not as strong as him. Ryoma’s fingers tightened around the can until it was dented in three places.

Kirihara stared straight ahead. “You know,” he said, “I have to defeat those three. I’ll never get anywhere if I don’t. It’s like – I’m stuck here. Until I beat them – it feels as if I can’t play good tennis.”

“I know what you mean,” Ryoma said. Kirihara made a little noise of surprise in his throat. “I’m going to beat them too.” Because if he couldn’t defeat Sanada and Yukimura and that Tezuka, he’d never be strong enough to win against the old man.


#


Yukimura was in the garden when Ryoma arrived at his house. The place was overwhelmingly green – leafy tendrils that clung to the fence, the dark delicate needles of miniature firs, luxuriant grass running from flowerbed to flowerbed.

He found the captain sitting next to the hydrangeas, reading a book in English. When Ryoma handed him the practice reports Yanagi had prepared, he smiled. “So what is it, Echizen? You don’t live anywhere nearby; Renji wouldn’t ask you to come unless you’d volunteered yourself.”

“I wanted to ask,” Ryoma said, and hesitated. “Do you know how to control the spin on a ball so that no matter how the opponent hits, it will always return to you?”

Marui and Kirihara had repeatedly explained to him that nothing ever surprised Yukimura. “The Zone,” he murmured. “No. I’m afraid that’s not one of my specialties. However,” his smile sharpened. “I’ve devised a method of breaking the technique. Do you know why I’ve done that?”

He stared back at the captain. “….Because somebody you know uses it.”

“Full marks.” If Yukimura were a wolf, he would be baring his teeth. “Well, Ryoma? Do you want to know who that person is? Or should I describe to you the countermeasure?”

Ryoma scowled. All those sempai at the tennis club were so annoying. “Not at all,” he said, turning to walk away. “See you around, buchou.”

As he left, he heard the captain muttering: “Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just invite Seigaku over, ask Tezuka to play each regular in turn, and have it over and done with.”

#


Weeks passed. The rainy season came to an end. Ryoma lost to Nanjirou everyday. Kirihara played against Sanada repeatedly and took it out on the club members by defeating them one after another after another. Marui grew skittish, Jackal looked nervous.

You must not lose, and they’d never discussed the subject, it had never been an issue. Ryoma had taken it for granted that they would win their games. And yet, as Yanagi pointed out, Rikkai had yet to make it through a Kantou tournament, completely undefeated.

“This team is strong, even without Yukimura,” Sanada said, and his voice brooked no argument. “We will win.”

Yukimura seemed like an apparition, continually in and out of hospital. Even when he was there he was detached, almost subdued. Sanada had always been the more domineering presence, but for the first time it was beginning to feel like Sanada’s club, instead of Yukimura’s.

Four days before the regionals began, Yukimura walked up to Ryoma between classes and said: “Meet me at Akaya’s tennis club, after practice on Sunday. Don’t tell anyone.”

#


“I want to show you,” Yukimura said, “that tennis is not forever.”

It was the first time Ryoma had ever seen him standing on the court, racquet in hand. He’d lost even more weight since the beginning of the year; the Rikkai uniform looked baggy and awkward on his thin frame.

“It’s your serve.”

Ryoma knelt to pick up the ball lying at his feet. It felt small and rough in his hand; he hesitated.

“If you don’t play, Echizen, I’m going to have to consider this my win.”

He tensed. He tossed the ball upwards.

Yukimura stepped back. It was the perfect stance for countering; it was the perfect position, the exact angle at which the Twist Serve ought to be returned.

The ball struck the racquet; the racquet flew sideways. Yukimura seemed to sway in the breeze.

“Your father is Echizen Nanjirou, right?” He could see it now – Yukimura’s back shaking, every muscle straining to move. Ryoma didn’t know how Yukimura managed to serve. It was like watching a toddler lift a bowling ball.

In the sixth game, Yukimura’s legs buckled. He crumpled to the ground like wet tissue paper.

“Finish it,” he ordered.


#


“I can’t believe we didn’t even get to play,” Kirihara complained. “What sort of stupid team gets food poisoning on a match day?”

“Shall we go watch the other first round matches?” Sanada asked Yanagi, who was again taking notes in his neat, black handwriting. “You’ll probably want to collect data.”

“I want to watch Tezuka-san’s match,” said Kirihara.

Me too, added Ryoma silently. There was no point in voicing it, Kirihara was noisy enough for three people.

“We are already familiar with the abilities of the Hyoutei and Seigaku players,” Yanagi said. “I’d prefer to investigate Fudoumine from Tokyo and Midoriyama from Saitama, since most of the players on those teams are new to the tournament. ”

Despite Ryoma experiencing a strange feeling of disappointment – Kirihara’s obsession with Tezuka must be contagious – watching the first-round matches proved interesting. Especially the tall player from Fudoumine with the funny mole on his forehead. He was pretty good, Ryoma thought. Even Kirihara took notice, with that dark, narrow-eyed expression that crossed his face every time he stepped onto a court.

Finally Yanagi closed his notebook and said, “Well, let’s go watch the matches between Hyoutei and Seigaku.”

Really?” Kirihara burst out. He scratched his head. “Well, of course I knew you were planning to go all along….”

“The only player we are concerned about is Tezuka,” said Sanada. “And the only player at Hyoutei capable of drawing out his full strength is Atobe Keigo. Unless it was a Singles 1 match between captains, it wouldn’t be worth watching.”

“If we go now,” Yanagi said, “we should be just in time for the start of the match.”

They arrived to the sound of two hundred players cheering.

"Whoa, talk about an impressive atmosphere,” Kirihara said. “It’s not even Nationals yet.”

Ryoma looked down at the player who was strutting - actually strutting – his way across the court. “They’re so noisy. Is that monkey king really that good?”

“That’s Atobe for you,” Sanada said. He sounded amused. This happened so rarely that for a moment, Ryoma stared at him.

“And there’s Tezuka,” Yanagi added.

Later Ryoma would remember how every serve and every shot seemed inevitable, how when Tezuka sent the ball spinning crosscourt it appeared to be the perfect motion, and when Atobe ran to make the return it seemed like destiny that he should succeed.

There was no such thing as a game without unforced errors but as he watched he could see no faltering in their racquet strokes, no inkling of carelessness; the shape of their intention as they fought against each other, one playing fast and the other playing slow but so balanced was their movement that you could hardly tell which was which; it was like a dance of familiar friends and yet it would not have mattered if they were strangers – there was neither love nor pride nor frustration required for this conversation, all these things and others were present but subsumed by the arc of the racquet, by the flow of the ball moving in endless frozen time--


-- to be broken by a shoulder joint, a physical limit; a silent scream as Tezuka clutched his shoulder, sank to the floor.

Muscles and limbs folding in upon themselves, blue hair falling, collapsing in slow defeat--

“….what a shame,” Kirihara said. “I was going to be the one to make Tezuka-san forfeit.”

“No,” said Sanada. “We still don’t know what the outcome of the match will be.”

Tezuka returned to the court.

…and now the pain was seeping into the tennis, honour and desperation driving the racquet, now all the balls were flawed and broken and yet more compelling than any ideal move Ryoma could think of. At 11-12 it seemed as if he could go no further, at 25-25 it looked like the match would stretch into eternity, and at 32-31 nobody could tell what was going to happen next, for the players were in a place beyond data, beyond observation, perhaps beyond tennis itself--

The racquet descended. Atobe dove for the ball, eyes feverish.

Tennis is not forever.

It hit the net.

It is something that can be lost. And things that can be lost are precious.

Game, set and match, Seigaku 7-6.

#


Later as they were preparing to go home they saw Tezuka standing alone in the afternoon light, face and neck and uniform damp with sweat. He was staring at nothing at all.

They drew closer, and Sanada said: “Getting yourself injured in a match is unforgiveably slack.”

There was a brief silence, and Tezuka looked straight back at them. “Don’t worry; I’ll be back in time to play against you at Nationals.”

Play against me, thought Ryoma.


#


“I watched some of your matches,” Nanjirou said, lighting up a cigarette. “They were interesting. It’s all kid’s tennis, though.”

Ryoma glared back at him. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s a free country.” Nanjirou propped his feet up on the bench where he was sitting. “I can go anywhere I like, can’t I?”

Ryoma might have poured Ponta over his father’s head if Marui hadn’t appeared right then. “Ryoma! We’ve been looking for you everywhere; Sanada’s going to strap you to an electric chair if he finds out you were wandering around during the semifinals – hey, who are you?” He looked with interest at Nanjirou, who smirked.

“I’m nobody at all. Don’t worry about me; just hurry along with the brat there.” At that point, an outburst of clapping rose from the nearest court.

“There’s Seigaku over there. Looks like they're doing well against Rokkaku.” He turned curiously as Nanjirou toppled off the bench. “Are you all right?”

“Ehh, no problem at all! I’m doing great,” Nanjirou said, with a wave of his hand. He muttered: “I just need to get away from that old hag..."

“Excuse me?” said Marui. But Nanjirou had already gathered his robe and was running barefoot in the opposite direction. “What a strange guy. Do you know him, Ryoma?”

“Come on, let’s go.” Ryoma turned and began walking.

Marui took several strides to catch up. “You’re such an unlovable brat,” he said, tweaking at Ryoma’s cap. “Well, looks like the games are wrapping u—“

They had arrived at the courts where Rikkai was playing Fudoumine, and the courts were still as death.

Ryoma halted when he saw the game in progress; like everyone else in the place, he could not look away.

Sweat dripping everywhere, and eyes red as blood, and the ball’s shadow like a bruise on the surface of the court.

“Hey,” Marui said in a hushed voice, forgetting to chew his gum. “What the hell is Akaya doing?”

Speed like the wind and brutal power, a hurtling force to the head, the neck, the knee, concentration stretched taut like an racquet strung too tightly, and was this really tennis?

#


“Let’s play a match,” said Ryoma. Kirihara turned on him, eyes glittering.

“Why?” he asked. “Do you want to get hurt as well?”

“Have you forgotten what I said so quickly? I won’t lose to you.”

Kirihara’s face darkened. “All right, then. But don’t blame me for what happens to you.”

The third-years had gone to visit Yukimura, who’d been admitted to the hospital for what everyone hoped would be the final time - the surgery has a 30% success rate - leaving Kirihara and Ryoma free to visit the local tennis club by themselves.

“Tell me,” Ryoma said, as they walked past the carpark, “have your eyes always gone red like that?”

“It’s none of your business,” Kirihara snapped, “take care of yourself. I’m not holding back.”

He proved true to his word, dropping the wrist weights as soon as they reached the courts. Ryoma followed suit.

“I’ll make this clear,” Kirihara said. “Don’t give me that crap about switching hands halfway through a match. Play with your left hand.”

“And let you use all those strategies you devised to beat Tezuka? My Twist Serve works better with the right hand, anyway.”

“Isn’t breaking special techniques your specialty?” Kirihara lowered his eyelids. “Don’t tell me you’re backing away from a challenge …. Echizen Ryoma.”

Ryoma’s face tightened; he drew his racquet.

He served with his right hand and played with his left – but Kirihara could break the Twist Serve and Ryoma had been accustomed to the tricks of right-handers, even back in the US. Their Split Steps were even; the rest of their techniques too well-known to each other to be of advantage. It came down to intensity and raw skill, then, and Kirihara was slower but sharpened as the match progressed; his focus tightened, tightened…

“Is this all you’ve got? Looks like it’s still mada mada for you.”

The rise in power as Kirihara’s eyes filled with blood --- the collision of the ball with his knee – Kirihara was not actually hitting to destroy but he was aiming to hurt, and hurt it did. The shock of the pain, the increase in speed; Ryoma tried to fight as he usually did but it was not the same, he could not battle unless he reached further--

I need something more.

#


He awoke to the warmth of Karupin’s fur on his neck and a dull ache in his knee. “Your teammates sent you home last night,” said his mother when he went downstairs for breakfast. Ryoma murmured noncommittally and grabbed his tennis bag.

When he arrived at practice, everyone was staring at him, even the regulars.

“Uhh, did something happen?” he asked, pulling down the front of his baseball cap.

Sanada stepped forward. “Echizen,” he said, his voice deeper and even more serious than usual. “I need to talk to you.”

They walked to the back of the sports centre, well out of hearing of the other club members.

“Can I ask you a question?” Sanada said. “Do you remember what happened yesterday afternoon?”

“Uhh,” Ryoma frowned. “Kirihara-sempai was winning 3-1, and I remember thinking I was going to lose, and then – I woke up at home.”

“You won the match, 6-4,” said Sanada.

“Oh,” said Ryoma. He did not know what to say.

“Come on.” Sanada turned on his heel and started walking back to the courts. “We need to have a briefing before the finals tomorrow.”

#



“Let Ryoma play Singles Two.” It was Kirihara, voice sullen. There was a bandage on his left cheek, and he refused to look at Ryoma. “He’ll definitely win.”

Ryoma shrugged. He wanted to play in the finals, but he still couldn’t remember winning yesterday’s match. And there was something unsatisfying about Kirihara giving the slot to him this way.

Sanada made the decision. “Ryoma’s knee is injured,” he said. “Akaya will play against Fuji.”

#


Between the moment when Yanagi lost, where Kirihara blocked Sanada’s descending fist with his racquet, and the beginning of that massacre of a Singles 1 match in which Sanada finished off Seigaku’s tall power-player in straight points, Ryoma’s memory gradually came back to him.

#


Marui and Jackal turned up on Ryoma’s doorstep the day after finals, Jackal holding Kirihara fast by the elbow while Marui held a fistful of curly hair.

“Akaya’s got something to say to you!” Marui said cheerfully, popping his gum. “We'll just wait outside your door until you’re done, okay?”

Ryoma let Kirihara into the living room, where the second-year began to pace up and down. Ryoma stood still, waiting.

“…I couldn’t win after all.” He stopped pacing and stared at his fingers. “Even after I managed to transcend those old limits, that still wasn’t good enough. You know, sometimes I hate you,’ said Kirihara, glancing at Ryoma. “It feels like you have more talent than I’ll ever have. You're just going to grow, and keep growing, and I'll always be chasing after you."

“So are you just going to give up like that?” Ryoma said. “Aren’t you planning to beat those three? Weren’t you planning to be the best, whatever it takes?”

Kirihara turned his head around to look at him, eyes wide. Ryoma smiled.

“Next time we play,” he said, “try a little harder to beat me, okay?”

Kirihara looked both hopeful and a little ashamed. “Yeah. Sorry about what happened with your knee, the last time.”

The front door flew open. “Operation Success!” Marui crowed. “Well, since we came all the way here, Ryoma, we might as well hang out for a while. Is there anything to eat?”

“By the way, that old lady from Seigaku was staring at you again, yesterday,” said Kirihara, halfway through their third game of Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament. “Are you sure you’ve never seen her before?”

“I think I might know why she knows me,” Ryoma said slowly. “But, it doesn’t matter.”

#


Yukimura returned to them on a bright summer afternoon, a day where the entire sky was pale blue and warm with sunlight. “Well done,” he said, and he touched Yanagi lightly on the shoulder and ruffled Kirihara’s hair, and then he turned to look at Ryoma and smiled the most brilliant smile Ryoma had ever seen.

“Buchou,” Ryoma said. “If I beat you, can I play against Tezuka at Nationals?”

“Hey!” Kirihara said indignantly. “I’ve been wanting to play him much longer than you have. And fukubuchou and buchou have too, I suppose,” he added as an afterthought.

“We can settle it with rock paper scissors,” Yukimura said good-naturedly. “As long as I win, of course.”

END CHAMPIONS


About this Entry
assyrian:
From:pendari_chan
Date:September 9th, 2006 04:33 pm (UTC)

ohmyGOD.

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OHMYGOD.
THAT WAS SO... SO...
AJSDJASKFJKLAJS:KFJAJSLD.
LOOK! INCOHERENCE! YOUR FAULT!
*dribbles into a pile of MUSH*
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 23rd, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC)
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Um, hi. You don't know me, but I am now your groupie. That is to say, I am really really loving this story - it just seems to fit so well with the characters and just makes sense, you know? I adore your Yukimura especially, but I mean, all the characterisations are great, and . . . yeah. So much love. (I wanted to be more coherent than this, I really did.) I will now proceed to devour everything of yours. Thank you for this!

Anonymoose (who does not have a livejournal, but would be friending you right now if she did.)
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From:rosadina
Date:October 24th, 2006 02:45 am (UTC)
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Oh my god. You have no idea for how long I've wanted to see a Ryoma in Rikkaidai fic. This was wonderful and just hit all the right buttons. I don't suppose we could see a sequel in the nationals? If you do decide to write more stories in this vein do you think you could email me. Also do you think you could recommend any good PoT stories?
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From:kawaiitensai
Date:December 22nd, 2006 01:43 pm (UTC)
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This is LOVE. *grins* ^__^ (too incoherent to say anything more)
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From:nlblake
Date:December 31st, 2006 12:08 am (UTC)
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As usual I loved every little word of it to bits, but there was one scene that was just priceless:

As he left, he heard the captain muttering: “Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just invite Seigaku over, ask Tezuka to play each regular in turn, and have it over and done with.”

-->*lmao*

Will there be a sequel? Pretty please with chocolate on top?
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From:cwazy_weiven
Date:March 31st, 2007 02:16 pm (UTC)
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I don't normally go for AU or stories with too much Ryoma, but this was just too awesome! ♥ I absolutely loved how you wrote the characters, especially Yukimura and Kirihara. The ending line was also just the most perfect! x3;

Awesome!
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From:daisy_chan
Date:August 13th, 2007 04:54 pm (UTC)
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hee! Oh, I loved this. Switching schools fic is such love <3
I really liked Ryoma and Kirihara's friendship/rivalry. And Marui just putting gum in his hair XD
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From:umarekawareru
Date:December 25th, 2007 06:41 pm (UTC)
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That was a wonderful read! The tweaks of canon to acommodate Rikkai!Ryoma were perfectly done, and I love the way you wrote the interactions between the 'real' Rikkai members. A lovely fic <3

Also, before you ask - I came here from a friend's memories, in case you're interested ;)
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From:blindmouse
Date:May 18th, 2008 06:35 am (UTC)
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Love the last line :-)

Here via random del.ici.us surfing.
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From:scarlet_skepsis
Date:June 21st, 2010 03:10 am (UTC)
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Undoubtedly fantastic! I love the way Ryoma seems to evolve and grow as both a tennis player and a person with every new experience.^^
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