Prince of Tennis, Ryoma, Atobe, Tezuka. 2200 words. G.
What if things were different?
Spoilers/Timeframe: The first Hyotei match.
Notes: Idea from a comment by storyteller.
"Buchou," Ryoma says, "make sure you win."
"Of course." Atobe picks up his racquet. "Feast your eyes on my beautiful victory."
Because you're taking my spot, Ryoma wants to say. But he doesn't like it when Atobe laughs at him.
Atobe walks out onto the court. The cheering is deafening. The winner will be Hyotei, the loser will be Seigaku. The winner will be Atobe, the loser will be Tezuka. Ryoma pulls his cap down over his eyes and leans forward to watch the game.
The whole club has been talking for weeks, about Seigaku and Tezuka and Fuji. Fuji is pretty good, Ryoma figures, but if they had only let him play they wouldn't have lost that match. Akutagawa-senpai is lazy.
The crowd grows quiet as Atobe and Tezuka face each other over the net. Ryoma wonders how many games it will take Atobe.
Atobe wins the first point. Atobe, Atobe, Atobe. It's annoying.
They rally and it's strange that Atobe doesn't just end it. But then Ryoma sees it, the way the ball curves back to Tezuka, no matter where Atobe hits. It's just what the old man does, when he wants to be annoying. Ryoma watches to see how Atobe will break it.
Tezuka takes the point. Atobe laughs, puts his hand in front of his face. It looks stupid. "You're pretty good, Tezuka," he says, "with that arm of yours."
Everybody mutters about Tezuka's arm. Ryoma stares at Atobe. He's always right, somehow.
Ryoma looks at Tezuka, trying to see what Atobe sees. But Tezuka's arm looks like an arm and there is nothing in Tezuka's face. If Ryoma were on the court, he would see it then. He would feel it.
Atobe serves and Ryoma watches. They're both good, there are no mistakes. The ball flows between them and the people around Ryoma whisper about the scouts in the stands.
Tezuka hits a drop shot that rolls back towards the net and Atobe's service game is broken. Atobe's eyes open wide with shock.
Ryoma scowls. He should be the one to make Atobe look like that.
The tennis club at Hyotei has over two hundred members and every one of them is ranked. Each locker has a number pinned up over it, tacked lightly so it's easy to remove.
On his first day, Ryoma looks for number 1. "The Regulars have their own locker room," someone tells him. Ryoma is 219. First-years have to work their way up.
On his second day, Ryoma challenges number 70. In a week, he is number 19 and Sakaki comes out to watch one of his matches. Ryoma switches his racquet to his left hand.
In two weeks, Ryoma is number 8, with a locker in the Regulars clubhouse and more fan letters than will fit inside his shoe box. He throws them out and goes into the clubhouse for the first time.
There are no numbers tacked up over the lockers. The boys are changing, talking. Ohtori shows Ryoma where to put his things. "I've watched you play," he says. "Let's do a good job together."
Ryoma walks across the room and stops in front of Atobe. "Buchou," he says, "play a match with me."
Tezuka takes another game and now he's 3-2. The Regulars exclaim to each other, Hyotei buzz like anxious bees. Ryoma just watches. Atobe isn't worried: his play is controlled, his face is satisfied. Now Ryoma knows why Atobe didn't berate the others when they lost their matches. He wanted to play.
Ryoma wants to play. The tension on the court pulls at him, the ball calls out to be hit. Tezuka begs to be defeated. It's not fair, Ryoma thinks and shifts in his seat.
Tezuka lobs, high and careless, and Ryoma leans in closer to see why. Atobe doesn't smash, stranger still, and the rally continues. "Your elbow has completely healed, hasn't it, Tezuka?" Atobe says and now Ryoma can see. The way Tezuka lifts his arm, the slight strain in his movement. The elbow is healed but the shoulder is weak.
Atobe's finish is so heavy it tears the racquet from Tezuka's hand. Tezuka stands for a moment, looking at Atobe. Then he picks up his racquet and serves.
Atobe laughs. "You're not enough for a warm-up." Ryoma doesn't answer. He just stands there and doesn't move away. Finally Atobe shrugs. "If you want to see my wonderful play, I'll show you. Then you can run home crying. Right, Kabaji?"
"Yes," Kabaji says and picks up Atobe's bag.
A crowd comes out to watch them. Ryoma stares at Atobe when they meet across the net. He only has to knock Atobe down to climb to the top. "Here," he says and holds out his handkerchief.
"You'll be the one crying." He spins his racquet.
"Smooth," Atobe says. It's rough. Ryoma grins and gives Atobe his best Twist Serve.
He doesn't win a single game.
The match goes on and on and the crowd grows larger. Ryoma is used to two sets, three sets in a match. One set is for weaklings. But this match isn't weak, Tezuka and Atobe are the strongest Ryoma has ever seen, away from home.
Ryoma watches for Tezuka's drop shot. He just needs to see it a few more times. But it's Tezuka's face that catches him. Tezuka knows, Ryoma can tell, he knows what Atobe is doing, and it's working. His body is failing. But he won't stop.
Neither will Atobe.
The next day, Ryoma asks Atobe for another match. Atobe just laughs and walks away, Kabaji three steps behind him.
The day after that, Ryoma tries again. "Play Oshitari," Atobe says, "if you just need someone to beat you."
On the third day, Atobe agrees to play. It takes him twelve minutes to win 6-0. After practice, Ryoma goes home and plays against his father for an hour, losing, losing, losing. He scowls at anyone who speaks to him and even Karupin won't stay with him for long.
He keeps after Atobe and once in a while, Atobe obliges, tossing his hair before he serves and keeping Kabaji waiting for him on the bench. The matches get longer, twenty minutes, half an hour, and Ryoma takes a game or two in each set.
There are other matches, challenges from below, and Ryoma wins them all. Every lunch hour, he hits a ball against a wall, over and over, imagining it striking Atobe between the eyes, leaving an ugly bruise. The next shot knocks the cigarette out of his father's mouth.
The city tournament comes and goes. Ryoma plays all his matches right-handed. If he tied the other hand behind his back, it wouldn't make any difference. The prefectural tournament is much the same, until the semi-final.
They play a no-name public school, but the members are strong and Ryoma has to work for his win. See that? he wants to say to Atobe, but now Shishido is losing so badly nobody can think of anything else.
They play in the consolation match a week later. Ryoma's opponent is good, another left-hander, but Ryoma has played southpaws before, back in America, and he never doubts that he will win.
In the first round of the Kantou tournament, they face Seigaku. Ryoma can't wait, it's sure to be a good match, someone he can take some pleasure in defeating.
Sakaki announces the match order. Ryoma doesn't get to play.
It's been an hour and a half. It's 6-5 for Tezuka now and the Seigaku players are cheering.
If Hyotei lose to Seigaku, they are out of the tournament and that's it for the summer. The third-years will leave the club. Number one is meaningless unless Ryoma takes it away.
Tezuka lobs again and Atobe jumps up to smash. Here it is, the crowd says. We'll see it now. Hametsu e no rondo. Ryoma hates Tezuka, even though he's never met him, for making Atobe play like this, using moves he has never used against Ryoma.
But the ball curves back to Tezuka and he makes his drop shot. Ryoma has the form now. He hits it in his head five times while the crowd is still cheering for the point.
Atobe frowns and Ryoma knows how uncertain the game is right now. Don't lose, he wants to say. Don't lose before I can defeat you.
They play and Tezuka is at match point. The crowd is quiet, everyone is holding their breath, wondering if this will be the end. Don't lose, Ryoma thinks and pulls his cap lower over his eyes.
Then Tezuka breaks. He drops his racquet, cries out, falls to his knees. His shoulder is finished. The match is over.
Ryoma leans back, looking at Atobe, as Tezuka's teammates run out to the court. Atobe's done it, seen the small weakness in a strong man, and used that to defeat him.
He doesn't look happy.
"Echizen," Sakaki says from the bench. He doesn't turn around, but his voice carries. "Go warm up."
He'll get to play after all, to break the tie. "Yes," Ryoma says and picks up his racquet and a ball. He pauses halfway up the stairs. "Help me warm up," he says. "It's a chance to use your racquet." Hiyoshi doesn't answer.
Ryoma grins and goes to hit the ball against a wall, over and over, hitting Atobe, then his father between the eyes. He sends in a shot for Tezuka too, even though he lost. It doesn't quite seem like either of them won.
Cheers surge up from the crowd, so loud Ryoma turns his head. He jogs back to the court. They are still playing, tiebreak now, 35-36.
How can Tezuka continue? There's no pain in his face now, but Ryoma can see the way his shoulder grinds. His serves are useless. He gets points only on returns. On every return.
They look the same to Ryoma now, Atobe and Tezuka, the same expression on their faces. Ryoma has never seen Atobe look like that. And neither of them will give up.
Then Tezuka moves up to mid-court and Ryoma knows the drop shot is coming. He hits it along with Tezuka, feinting the backswing, brushing the ball with the strings. If Tezuka doesn't take this point, he will lose. The ball drops but it won't roll back and Ryoma is surprised by the moment of disappointment he feels.
Atobe dives for the ball. It curves over the net, right to Tezuka, and there isn't a sound in the stands as he hits it.
His return goes into the net.
Ryoma feels himself relax. He'll still get his chance to be number one. And now he gets to play.
Atobe and Tezuka shake hands and the crowd erupts with noise. Atobe raises Tezuka's hand into the air. Atobe does this. It doesn't quite seem like either of them lost.
Ryoma comes down the stairs. Now, finally, he can play. He'll show them all it's not just Atobe and Tezuka.
Atobe is sitting in the stands now, panting, a towel over his head and Kabaji behind him. Ryoma wants him to watch, to see Ryoma's wonderful play. He wants them both to watch, Atobe and Tezuka.
A good match. Ryoma walks out onto the court. A good opponent. I'll show them all.
"Echizen from Hyotei against Arai from Seigaku. Hyotei's Echizen to serve."
A good match, Ryoma thinks, and throws the ball into the air.
Atobe doesn't come to practice on Monday. On Tuesday, he stands with Sakaki, talking in a low voice. He doesn't speak to anyone else but Kabaji.
Wednesday, Atobe pulls Ryoma out of doubles practice. "We're going to play a match," he says and walks over to the best court. "We'll face Rikkai in the finals. Hyotei has a reputation to uphold."
No one else is there, not even Kabaji. Ryoma holds his hand up over his face and looks at Atobe. "You're a hundred years too early," Atobe says and Ryoma can't see weakness in him at all.
Atobe serves. The ball is heavy and Ryoma almost botches the return. Atobe hits it to the far corner.
"You can't beat me," Atobe says, "but at least try." He serves again. "Try!"
Ryoma tries. It's hard, much harder than before. The ball is alive today, Atobe is awake, pressing Ryoma with his strength. Ryoma meets it, presses back as hard as he can. He runs faster, jumps higher. Sweat runs down his back, trickles through his hair.
"Try!" Atobe says and takes another point.
Ryoma tries. His arms burn, his feet drag. He isn't thinking, just swinging, swinging, trying. The ball comes at him, he sees Atobe move. He feints his backswing, brushes the ball with the strings. It lands in Atobe's court and rolls back towards the net.
For half a second, Atobe's eyes go wide. "Mada mada dane," Ryoma says and Atobe laughs.
"You can't beat me," he says. And Ryoma doesn't. Not this match.
But there's still time to be number one.