They didn't have morning practice that Monday, but Sanada showed up at school half an hour early, not entirely able to control the reflex to show up before everyone else. He stopped by the clubhouse to drop off his bag, and was surprised to hear the repeated thwack of a tennis racket hitting a ball coming from the courts. Curious, he went to investigate, and was even more surprised to see Yukimura there. The captain was back at school now, but he wasn't due to start tennis practice again for at least a week, and yet here he was.
He had a basket half full of balls next to him and was serving them one after another in a steady rhythm. The other side of the court was littered with balls, revealing that he'd been at this for a while. His movements were calm and smooth the way Sanada remembered them, and every serve went in, but there was something wrong with the picture. The balls were moving far too slowly and landing all over the place. It wouldn't have been bad for most people, but Yukimura at his best was capable of so much more.
Finally, the other boy noticed Sanada watching from outside the fence. "What are you doing here?" he demanded, an almost accusatory tone creeping into his voice.
"I just came to drop off my things," Sanada replied, feeling uncomfortable. It wasn't like his friend to sound like that.
"You can leave. There's no practice this morning." Yukimura turned his back deliberately and dropped the ball he held back into the basket, as if to say that he wasn't going to continue until he was alone again.
"I know." Sanada didn't move; somehow he felt that, as awkward as this was, he should be there.
"Please leave, Sanada," Yukimura said without turning around, his voice perfectly polite but uncharacteristically cold.
It was, Sanada reflected, the place of the vice captain to question the captain when he was being unreasonable, for the benefit of the rest of the team. If something was the matter with their captain, he needed to deal with it before it affected his teammates, and it didn't seem that Yukimura was going to do so without help. With that justification in mind, Sanada stood his ground. "Yukimura," he said quietly. The other boy ignored him. "Seiichi," he said in a stronger voice.
The use of his given name got Yukimura's attention, finally, and he turned to face his friend. Their eyes met for a moment, and it looked like he might say something, but then he gave an almost imperceptible shrug and went back to his practicing.
He continued for a few minutes while Sanada watched in silence. If anything, his aim was more erratic now, and there was a frown of frustration on his face. Then, abruptly, he broke his rhythm and hit an underhand serve into the net with all his strength, shoved his racket into the basket of balls and stalked over to stand by Sanada. "You want to see this?" he yelled. "There's nothing worth watching here?" All the heat drained from his voice in an instant as he whispered, "I'm terrible."
"No, you're not," Sanada protested gravely.
"No, I'm not," Yukimura agreed, and now he just sounded tired. "But I need to be better." He picked up the racket again, turning it in his hands. "Do you know how long it's been since I played tennis?" he asked.
Sanada did know, as a matter of fact, because he remembered very clearly the day when Yukimura had called the whole team together at the end of practice and announced that he would be checking into the hospital the following morning. No one could believe it; hadn't they just seen him beat Yanagi in a practice match? But then, Yukimura wasn't the captain of one of Japan's best junior high tennis teams for nothing. Even in less than perfect condition, he was more than a match for Renji. And he'd gone into the hospital the next day and stayed there while the team struggled on without him.
Now he was finally back, but it seemed that the months without training or even leaving his room in the hospital had taken their toll. His arms and legs were thin and pale next to the dark material of his uniform, and the shadows under his eyes hadn't yet completely faded. He looked like an invalid, not an athlete.
"You just need to practice," he said reassuringly. "You have time before our next match."
"I can't come to practice like this," Yukimura spat bitterly. "I'm the captain, and I doubt I could make it through a single set."
"Everyone knows you've been sick," Sanada reminded him. "They don't expect you to be where you were before." He was surprised at this sudden anger. Yukimura hadn't complained during all his time in the hospital, and he'd been so cheerful since getting out, and yet this seemed to be the final straw that broke his optimism.
"Yes, they do." Yukimura's voice was soft now; he couldn't seem to decide what emotion to feel. "They know, but it'll be different when they actually see me lose."
"They'll understand," Sanada said, remembering the match against Seigaku. "Everyone loses."
"Not like this." Yukimura shook his head, looking at the ground. "It isn't supposed to be like this," he added in almost a whisper.
Only when Sanada reached out to put a hand on his friend's shoulder did he remember that there was a fence between them. His hand smacked loudly against the metal and Yukimura jumped. Then his surprised expression dissolved into a smile and he burst out laughing. "I'm sorry," he said, and tried to say more, but the laughter wouldn't stop. Sanada had to smile; it had been too long since he'd seen the other boy looking so happy.
"Way to ruin the atmosphere," Yukimura said after a moment, still chuckling. Then he smiled and added more quietly, "Thanks."
Sanada didn't know what he was being thanked for, but it didn't matter. Yukimura was smiling the way he used to, and that meant that sooner or later everything would be okay.