"It's my partner," Momo said and turned around to look at Kaidoh.
"You're the one who didn't move back, moron," Kaidoh said, narrowing his eyes.
"You were supposed to move up," Momo said.
"Hurrah! We've got them confused now, Oishi," Eiji said.
Oishi sighed. "We're trying to teach them, Eiji, not beat them. Come on, guys, let's try it again."
They practiced for another half hour. Momo hated it. He had to think, think, think the whole time he was playing. About his position, about the ball, about his opponents, about his partner.
Momo didn't want to think about Kaidoh. Kaidoh was the one who was holding Momo back.
"Why can't we play doubles like we usually do?" Momo asked after another botched attempt. "This doesn't feel natural."
"Nothing does, at first," Oishi said. "But if you practice enough, you can take your doubles game to the next level. Then you'll be able to move into position without having to think about it first."
"You two look so funny," Eiji said. "Like walruses lumbering around the court."
"Momoshiro," Kaidoh said. "You're making fools of us. Work harder."
"Me?" Momo said. "It's not me, Mamushi, it's you."
"You're the one who doesn't know when to move back and when to move forward."
"You're the one who has no sense of co-operation."
Kaidoh grabbed the front of Momo's shirt. "You're dragging us down with your stupid power tennis."
Stupid Kaidoh picking a fight again. Momo couldn't let him get away with that. He fisted Kaidoh's collar. "You're dragging us down because your net play sucks."
Kaidoh hissed in Momo's face. "What did you say?"
"Momo! Kaidoh!" Oishi said. "Stop that!"
"I said you suck, Mamushi." Momo was so close to Kaidoh that it was hard to focus his eyes. He could feel Kaidoh's breath on his face and it made him want to start scrapping right there on the court.
"I told you to stop," Oishi said. "Let go of each other."
Momo held on a few seconds longer, then pushed Kaidoh away just as Kaidoh pushed Momo. Momo still glared at Kaidoh and Kaidoh glared back.
"I saw this nature program where walruses duelled each other on the beach," Eiji said. "They bellowed and smashed their tusks together."
"Let's try this again tomorrow, okay?" Oishi took Eiji's arm and pulled him away. "Be ready to work harder."
"Now we have to do this again," Momo said. "All because you won't look where you're going."
"If you had the least bit of consideration for other people," Kaidoh said.
"I'm considerate of people," Momo said. "Just not snakes with sucky net games."
"Shut up, you monkey moron," Kaidoh said. "I'll beat you every time."
"It's easy to say so." Momo gripped his racquet tighter.
Kaidoh vaulted over the net and moved into receiving position. "Come on," he said. "Serve."
"Okay," Momo said, and served.
It took him five minutes to win the first point. Kaidoh took the next one in four. Momo controlled his shots more tightly. He knew where Kaidoh needed to stand to hit the Boomerang Snake and Momo had to seal that shot if he wanted to win.
The next point went to Momo. Good, good. He was going to hold his service game and then he was going to break Kaidoh's service in the next one.
Momo heard Kaidoh swear. He saw the ball rising up and up. Momo ran and jumped to meet it. He was soaring now, racquet high, ready to smash the ball down like a bolt of lightning. Momo laughed out loud. This was tennis.
Momo stopped in mid-swing, before he even realised Tezuka had spoken. The ball bounced away. Momo dropped to the court and fell to one knee. Across the net, Kaidoh was looking at the ground, standing still with his shoulders hunched up.
"You two are not to play any more matches against each other," Tezuka said. Momo didn't know how long he had been watching. "Work on your doubles game."
"Yes, buchou," they both said. Tezuka called out that practice was over and people started leaving the courts.
"Getting us into trouble like that," Kaidoh muttered.
"This match was your idea." Momo swung his racquet a few times. He could feel the incomplete smash nagging at him like a song without a final chord. And to leave the game like that. It almost made him itch. "Hey, Mamushi." Momo caught up to Kaidoh. "Are you satisfied with this?"
"Are you saying you'd go against Tezuka-buchou?" Kaidoh stopped and stared at Momo.
"No, no," Momo said. "But he just said we couldn't play tennis against each other, right?"
"So there are other ways to settle this. Get your stuff and come on."
Momo could see the struggle on Kaidoh's face, but he knew Kaidoh would give in. Kaidoh's shoulders finally dropped and he hissed at Momo. "All right, but this better not be some stupid trick."
"Jeez, don't you trust me?"
Kaidoh didn't answer. They changed from their practice uniforms into workout clothes. "Where are we going?" Kaidoh asked.
"You'll see when we get there," Momo said.
"You're annoying," Kaidoh said, but he followed Momo.
"Wait, guys." Kawamura caught Momo by the shoulder. "You're not going to go play after Tezuka told you not to?"
"Of course not," Momo said. "Don't worry."
Kawamura bit his lip. "Be careful, okay?"
"Momoshiro," Kaidoh said, once Kawamura had gone.
"If you want to back out, that's fine," Momo said.
"Like I would."
"All right, then." Momo led the way across the school grounds to a cement courtyard. Some of his classmates were still there. "Hey, Koga," he called. "Lend me a ball."
"Put it away when you're done." Koga tossed a basketball over to Momo.
Momo passed it to Kaidoh. "One on one," he said.
"This is stupid." Kaidoh bounced the ball a few times. It made a hollow sound against the concrete.
"If you leave now, you forfeit." Momo dropped his bag on a bench. "One point per basket, play to twenty-one, but you have to win by two."
Kaidoh set down his bag. Then he stood at the free-throw line and took a shot. It just brushed the rim on the way in. "Fine," he said.
Momo grinned. "Your ball to start," he said. "Since you let me serve."
"Ready?" Kaidoh dribbled the ball and looked over at Momo.
Momo moved closer and bent his knees. "Ready."
There was no more warning. Kaidoh dodged around Momo, stopped just inside the key, and took a shot. The ball hit the back of the rim and Momo moved to pick it out of the air on the bounce, but it hit the front, rattled, and went in. "One - zero," Kaidoh said.
"You're supposed to say 'go' or something first." Momo took the ball and dribbled it, zig-zagging over the court while Kaidoh tried to slap the ball out of his hands. Momo broke free and went for a jump shot that circled the rim a few times before dropping in. "One all."
The next basket was Momo's as well, a sweet shot that sailed past Kaidoh's reaching hands and banked off the backboard.
Then they started getting serious. When Momo had the ball, he could usually make the shot. But it was hard to take the ball from Kaidoh. Kaidoh wasn't that fast, but he had great footwork and when he couldn't move around Momo, he would crouch and duck under Momo's arms.
Sweat ran down Momo's face and into his eyes. He swiped it away with his arm as he chased Kaidoh down. He managed to knock the ball away just as Kaidoh took a shot. Momo moved under the basket, ready for a lay-up. Kaidoh crashed into him and they both went sprawling.
"Hey, that's a foul," Momo said.
"Take a free throw, if you're such a baby," Kaidoh said.
"I don't need it," Momo said. "Not against you." He was three up on Kaidoh now, seventeen to fourteen, and it wouldn't be long now before he crushed the viper and made him cry.
They played rougher now, slapping, bumping. Momo elbowed Kaidoh in the gut, harder than he'd meant, but Kaidoh didn't say a word. The score see-sawed and they passed twenty-one without either of them gaining a big enough lead to win.
Momo panted as he ran. The ball, had to get the ball from Kaidoh, had to win. The only sounds Momo could hear were the slap of shoes on the concrete, the ring of the ball against the backboard, the grunts and the swearing. All he could see was the court, the ball, and Kaidoh.
Kaidoh backed away from Momo, keeping the ball out of Momo's grasping hands. Then he spun and sunk a hook shot that left Momo gaping. "Twenty-nine - twenty-eight," Kaidoh said and tossed Momo the ball.
All right, this was it. Momo had to do it now, score and score and score again, and shut Kaidoh up. He moved back, feinted left, feinted left once more, then broke around Kaidoh and drove for the basket.
"Momoshiro," Kaidoh said.
Free now, open. All the unused energy from the smash flowing through Momo's legs, his arms, powering him. Running, crouching, ready to spring, to fly up up up and slam dunk score. Momo opened his mouth and yelled. He bent his knees and jumped.
Then he tripped over his own shoelace and fell flat on his face.
Momo could hear Kaidoh take the ball and score. Then Kaidoh came over. "Your shoelace is untied."
"Bastard," Momo said. "Scoring was more important than seeing if I was all right?"
Kaidoh shrugged. "Are you all right?"
Momo didn't answer. His knee was scraped but that was all. He got to his feet. "Another game."
"No," Kaidoh said and passed Momo the ball. He went over to the bench and pulled a towel out of his bag.
"This isn't over," Momo said. "You can't just leave it like this."
Kaidoh wiped his face and slung the towel around his neck. "I have to go." He put his bag over his shoulder.
"Tomorrow, then," Momo said. "I won't let you beat me twice."
Kaidoh looked at Momo but didn't say anything. He clicked on a stopwatch and put it in his pocket. Then he jogged away.
"Dammit," Momo said. He sat down on the bench and looked at his knee. The scrape wasn't bad. It stung but his pride stung more. And what was up with Kaidoh doing all that extra running? He was throwing it in Momo's face, trying to look like he was better than Momo.
More importantly, though, Momo was starving. He changed and called Echizen to meet him at the hamburger shop.
Kaidoh had just better watch out, he thought as he walked. Tomorrow, Momo would win for sure.