Disclaimer: I own very little.

A/N: I'm going to finish this thing if it kills me...


Nothing in Tennis

"Love means nothing in tennis, but in life, it is everything."

- Anonymous

Chapter 16

The Young and the Old

It was, Sengoku had learnt quite a while ago, rather futile to try to force his dear players into actually practising as they were supposed to be when they were watching a match. Especially a match like this. He hadn't been able to pry them away from Dan's match against Muromachi before; it was most certainly going to be even more impossible now.

Thus deciding that the task was futile, he simply joined the others in watching the match. Dan's matches were always fun to watch, especially one that was turning out to be... special.

"Well, damn," Kita muttered. "Sorry to say this, but Dan-kun's going to lose. Muromachi-fuku-buchou predicts all of his movements perfectly. How can he be so obvious?"

"I wouldn't be so sure about that loss." Sengoku showed no signs of distress over this apparently miserable situation of his boyfriend's. He had no reason to, after all. "Look at Taichiichi. Look carefully."

"Wait a minute," Minami breathed, leaning closer to the wire fence. "He's – is he smiling?"

"Indeed." Sengoku grinned. "And that's not just the usual polite smile, either. That's the smile of a predator." He smiled in satisfaction. "I guess he's finally got it."

"Got what?" Nitobe asked. Just then, Muromachi ran up to the net to return Dan's shot. A smirk on his lips, he hit the ball, confident that his opponent wouldn't get to it in time.

Only this time, Dan was right where the ball flew, hitting it back with ease. Although a bit stunned, Muromachi managed to make a return – again directly to Dan. After a few more shots, the ball struck the ground and bounced off, no one reaching it. The referee called out the score.

Dan grinned. "Sorry, Muromachi-fuku-buchou, but I'm going to win this match."

"This is impossible," Kita muttered. "Muromachi should be able to predict his movements better. Guess he's getting old, eh?"

Dan did win the match. Though it wasn't easy, in the end he not only caught up but actually surpassed his senpai, finishing the match at seven games to five. As they finally shook hands over the net, Muromachi sighed.

"I guess I underestimated you after all," the dark-skinned boy admitted. "Nice work, Dan-kun. I wasn't sure you could pull it off, but you did."

"Um… buchou?" Higashikata scratched his head. "What exactly happened there?"

"Easy." Sengoku grinned. "You know how Taichiichi can read where his opponent is going to hit?" As they all nodded – as though they could miss something that obvious! – he then pointed at the two players. "Here, he went one step further. Instead of just reading the opponent's instincts, he actually managed to manipulate them. It's not that he can't be predicted, it's just that Panda-kun predicted wrong. And even if his instincts were working right at some point, he couldn't tell whether it's for real or not. No matter whether he tries to hit it away from Taichiichi or right towards him, he may go wrong."

"That still won't help him with his stamina or strength problems, though," Muromachi pointed out, walking to the others with the grinning Dan. "Just getting the shots coming to him doesn't mean he can return them."

"But it makes it a lot easier," Dan pointed out cheerfully. "I'll never be strong enough to return a power player's shots or outrun someone like Kaidou-san. But, if I can tweak their instincts enough?" He winked. "It's out."

"Can you do that to anyone?" Minami asked curiously. "Or is it not as effective against everyone?"

Dan cocked his head in thought. "Not really," he replied. "I have to have enough data to imitate them, but then, that was the problem with the original emulation, too." With a grin, he added, "Too bad for Muromachi-fuku-buchou that I have so much data on him!"

"Your data is evil," Sengoku sighed. "Truly, you are a criminal and a vile thing who should be brought to justice for so terribly offending the laws of the good game of tennis." He ruffled Dan's hair affectionately. "You're lucky I'm too fond of you to kick you out on your ass."

"You're just fond of said ass," Muromachi murmured, then threw his hands in the air as Sengoku glared at him. "What? You're allowed to say perverted things and the rest of us aren't?"

"Obviously not. He's mine to say perverted things about," Sengoku said in what he thought was a perfectly logical point. "Ne, Taichiichi?"

"Mess with my hair again and the only thing you'll be allowed to do is howl in pain." Dan gave him a perfectly, cheerfully happy smile.

"...Woah. I think Akuchu's getting contagious." Thankfully, though, Dan didn't seem to make true of his threat even as he dared another ruffle. "Kids, back to practice! We old geezers aren't going to be here much longer, so you'd better heed our every word until we leave you alone with these two!"

He doubted it was the work of the threat, but everyone did slowly start returning to their own exercises. Minami just raised his eyebrows. "Old geezers?" he echoed. "Speak for yourself."

"No I won't." Sengoku grinned. "Just look at Taichiichi and tell me we aren't all terribly old and wrinkly in comparison~"

"Are you trying to convince me you're too old for me?" Dan took on an entirely fake innocent expression.

"I – what – no!" Okay, now he was close to panicking and it didn't even make sense. He knew Dan was just teasing him, he was sure about it, but... was he really that sure? "I – why'd you even say that, Taichiichi?"

He was sure the others were grinning as they walked off, leaving him to hassle with his boyfriend.

-~S~-

It was, Sengoku realized rather soon after getting up, not his lucky day. His mother was too busy with something to make him a proper breakfast, and when he tried to cook something up himself, he burned the toast. Trying again meant he was running late, which would have been bad enough even usually, but it naturally just had to be today that he had agreed to meet Muromachi before practice. His fuku-buchou was not at all happy to see him running up to him, hurried and badly late, and just as he was about to reach Muromachi he managed to fall over. Thus, it was not a very happy Sengoku Kiyosumi who made his way to the club house that day.

Dan was there already, naturally, all bright and happy and pretty, and for a moment Sengoku thought his day had taken a change for the better. Right after that, however, Dan told he had to run an errand of some kind to help his class representative and would buchou and fuku-buchou be horribly angry if he missed, oh, about half of the practice desu? By the time Sengoku had recovered from his surprise, Muromachi had already cheerfully sent Dan off.

From there on it only got worse. The day was cold and dreary, exactly the kind that was not good for practice, and everyone seemed somewhat sloppy. Nothing he did or said seemed to have an effect, and finally he was almost ready to send the whole team running laps just for the hell of it. He kept his calm, though, and instead headed to the side of the courts to get a drink from his water bottle.

Only, the bottle chose that exact moment to malfunction – okay, so maybe he had squeezed it a bit hard, but surely not that hard –, spraying water all over his face. Stupid water. Cursing aloud, Sengoku tried to wipe his face dry.

Oh, yes. This was definitely not his day.

"Sengoku?" Minami said, sounding a bit careful. "Are you okay?"

"No, Kenta, I'm not okay," snapped Sengoku in irritation. "I'm anything but fucking okay. Just – just do me a favour and leave me be, okay?" Ignoring the hurt look on his friend's face, he turned around, wondering what the gods had against him this day of all days.

That was the only thing anyone said to him that day, it seemed, anything not related to the team or practice, anyway. Dan didn't turn up again, in the end, and Sengoku had to lock up the club house. He couldn't help but wonder whether his boyfriend had been so badly hurt he didn't want even Sengoku to see it, given the buchou's recent habit of staying behind in the club room while Dan changed. This thought hardly improved his mood, and it was a very sour Sengoku who went to his classes that morning.

He didn't get any happier over the day, either. The teachers kept asking him questions about everything he didn't know, he had his least favourite lunch, and everybody just seemed determined to annoy the hell out of him. Why this was, he had no idea, but he was convinced this was indeed the case. But his horoscope hadn't even warned him about anything… had it?

There was no afternoon practice, so after classes were over, Sengoku headed for his usual spot near the gates. However, even as he waited, carefully watching all the students walking by, he didn't see Dan anywhere. Finally, as he dug out his cell phone to call the younger boy, he noticed he'd received a text message from Dan. Curious, he opened it.

"I'm awfully sorry, Sengoku-senpai, but I can't meet up with you today," the message told, making his heart sink. Why would – no, how could Dan be too busy to simply walk home with him? They'd walked home every day for months now. What would bring a change to this routine?

Could maybe… no, that couldn't possibly be it. Dan couldn't be losing interest in him... right?

After such a day, so different from his usual luckiness, he might have even believed that.

It wasn't a very happy Sengoku who walked home that day. He wasn't used to walking this way alone, without a more or less happy voice talking to him, perhaps a hand in his if there weren't too many people about. Now he was alone, and it felt wrong. Unlucky, definitely. The crows circling overhead definitely didn't cheer him up.

As a hearse drove past him, Sengoku was just about ready to run screaming the rest of the way home. Instead, he simply walked on, slower than usual. It wasn't like he was in any hurry, after all. Who knew what awaited him when he got home.

As he finally reached home and opened the door, it was silent for a while. Nobody responded to his somewhat unenthusiastic "Okaeri" as he dragged himself inside. After a moment, he finally heard his mother's voice welcoming him home. So he wasn't entirely alone, at least.

"Didn't you say you don't have practice today? You're unusually late," his mother said, frowning as she stepped into sight. "And oh, you look so awful! Are you sure you aren't coming down with something?"

"Could be," muttered Sengoku. "At least I couldn't feel any worse if I did get sick."

"Oh, you poor boy!" Clapping her hands together, she started fussing over him. Any other day this might have made him feel better, but right now, it was just annoying. "Why don't you go sit in the living room while I fix you a snack? Your favourite program should start soon, you're always complaining about how you miss it because of the afternoon practice, right?"

Though he didn't feel good, Sengoku thought he had no reason to make his mother feel any worse, too, and thus he mumbled a somewhat half-hearted agreement, heading towards the living room. All in all, he doubted anything could make him feel better, and he sighed heavily as he opened the room to the living room.

Then he just stood, frozen, staring at the huge birthday cake sitting on the table in the middle of the room.

The next moment he was shaken out of his shocked state as a small figure bounced at him, a pair of slim arms wrapped around his neck. "Sengoku-senpai!" squealed a happy voice, one he recognized as belonging to his boyfriend. "What took you so long?"

"I'm sorry, Kiyo-chan," his mother chirped behind him. "I know you said you didn't want me to fuss over your birthday this year, but then Dan-chan came and said your team was planning a party for you, and I'd been feeling a bit bad about not having one for you, too, so I really couldn't say no. And they said they were going to surprise you, so I thought it best not to let you know…"

"I'm so sorry Sengoku-senpai!" Dan said hurriedly, looking up at Sengoku, his eyes wide and bright. "I wanted to tell you but I knew I couldn't so I even stayed away from practice so I couldn't tell you desu! And then Muromachi-fuku-buchou said I should stay away from you even after school and oh I'm so sorry but I couldn't tell you and I probably would have if I'd seen you and –"

Sengoku couldn't help but smile at his boyfriend's endless chatter, his bad mood fading away like sugar in rain. "Taichiichi, adorable though you are, you really have to lay off the sugar," he said affectionately. "How much have you had?"

Dan pouted. "I have not had much sugar!" he announced fiercely. "You're just being mean, Sengoku-buchou!"

Sengoku couldn't help but chuckle, now. Dan was so absolutely adorable! And as the rest of the team came out of their hiding places, he found himself very much forgiving his team for their sneakiness.

Later on, listening to his "no I'm not on a sugar high" boyfriend happily joining his sister in singing a song Sengoku had only ever heard when passing girls' clothing shops and wondering how Dan knew the lyrics, Sengoku happened to come across the newspaper for that day. Having missed his daily horoscope in the morning due to lack of time, he now immediately browsed to the correct page.

"Be prepared for surprises."

Well, at least one thing hadn't failed him today.