A/N: Hey guys… Sorry for the really, really long wait… This story has been giving me a really hard time, unfortunately. I hope you enjoy this chapter, though it is a bit shorter than the others. Thanks for reading, and thank you for your patience. (though some of you haven't been patient at all - I take it as a compliment that you enjoy my story enough to badger me about updating it.)
Moving Forward - Chapter Eleven
After wishing Ryoma luck, and giving the reporters hanging around Block D a wide berth, Akira quickly walked toward where her own Ranking Matches would be held.
Akira's calm face surveyed Court B as she walked around the chain link fence toward the entrance. Momoshiro was already inside, chatting amiably with a couple of girls on the other side of the fence. With an exhale of air from her lungs, she quietly walked inside, setting down her tennis bag on a nearby bench. She walked a few feet away, and began to warm herself up, all the while examining her first opponent.
She was correct in thinking that the hurt ankle was still affecting the second-year. It was subtle, but he was leaning slightly more on the ankle that had never been injured. Of course, that merely evened things up because of Akira's own shoulder injury, but perhaps he wouldn't notice it. And when your opponent doesn't know of your weakness even when it's there, it's almost as good as not having a handicap in the first place. As such, she had the advantage for now, because she had the knowledge of Momshiro's own weakness.
She also examined his physique, noting that she was also probably correct in thinking that Momshiro focused more on strength. His build suggested the exercises that he most used were for strength-training, and the well-defined muscles of his limbs suggested that he had done the exercises diligently. She couldn't get much more than that without playing him first. Again, the thought crossed her mind that she wished she would have stayed to watch him play against Ryoma; but then again, that would have resulted in her never meeting Yuuta, so she supposed she got the better end of the deal anyway. She'd just have to wing it - god knows she had done that enough during the war, what with the ambush tactics of the Death Eaters.
Done with her small warm-up and analyzing session, Akira plopped herself down next to the bench with her tennis bag, and withdrew the novel that Fuji had recommended to her the day before. No use in boring herself to death while waiting for the match to begin.
After reading a few chapters, she heard footsteps near the fence's gate, and looked up from the words on the pages to see a boy who hadn't made it into the tournament walking toward the referee's chair. She promptly placed a bookmark in the crevice of the open pages, and stuffed the book back into her bag. Grabbing her favorite tennis racket, she walked toward the net.
She stood in a relaxed pose, waiting for Momoshiro to come over and start the game. As soon as he turned around, he flinched back in shock at the sight of her, an odd expression on his face. Obviously, he hadn't bothered to see who his first opponent would be.
"Hey… you're that guy who was with Echizen, right?" he asked rhetorically, curiosity glinting in his eyes. "What a coincidence that we're going to be opponents…" he said. "But didn't you say you were a freshman?"
"Apparently, someone thought I was good enough to be included in the Ranking Tournament." Akira stated passively. "Shall we begin?"
Momoshiro looked like he wanted to ask something else, but he nodded anyway, and a hint of eagerness crossed his face. He placed the tip of his racket on the ground, preparing to spin it. "Rough or Smooth?" he asked.
And with a spin of the racket, the game began.
Inui watched with a calculative eye as a shell-shocked Momoshiro walked toward him to register the results of his match. He couldn't help but be interested in the other tennis player's reaction - especially considering his opponent had been Inui's new, somewhat intriguing, Chemistry partner. Momo was usually a boisterous, jovial person, so what could have happened to make him this subdued?
"0-6." Momo mumbled to the data-fanatic, staring in a preoccupied manner at his tennis shoes.
Inui's eyes widened in shock behind his opaque glasses' lenses. Momo had lost that badly? While Momo wasn't good enough to beat Inui himself, he was a regular - and that meant that he was definitely an above-average player. For Kitamori Akira to have beaten him so badly, not even allowing for a point against 'him'… the first year must be some kind of tennis-monster.
Though Inui wanted to needle his fellow regular for details on the match, even he - with his thirst for data sometimes clouding his judgment of social standards - could see that his questions would not be appreciated at the moment. So instead, he quietly scribbled down the score, and immediately reached for his data book to log this new information on his newest classmate.
As Momo walked away, Inui noticed that Akira was in the vicinity, watching 'his' defeated opponent and making sure he had left before approaching Inui's table.
"The score for my match was 6-0, Inui-senpai." the shorter 'boy' stated softly.
Inui, who had already written said score down in the correct box, decided to needle the less upset person for information instead. "That's a quite impressive score, Kitamori-san." he stated. "Momoshiro is one of the Seigaku regulars, so it's surprising that your win was so overwhelming ."
Much to his surprise, his underclassman seemed to shy away from the compliments to 'his' skills. "Momoshiro-senpai was playing with an injured ankle." Akira muttered, trying to deflect his attention from the sheer skill that was actually needed to deliver such a crushing defeat to Momoshiro - regardless of a small handicap.
Inui's glasses glinted, sensing a weakness in 'his' argument. "Yes, Kitamori-san, but that injury was old, and nearly healed. From what I recall, you have an injured hand - and judging from your movements the other day, I can make an educated guess that your other arm is not at 100% either." he finished, slightly curious as to why 'he' seemed to dislike the attention directed at 'him'. Wasn't the usual reaction of a teenaged boy to be pleased with ego-stroking comments?
Much to his surprise, the younger 'boy' flushed slightly, mumbling a vague excuse, and walked quickly away. Inui scribbled down his observations on the brief encounter. This was highly out of the ordinary behavior, and thus, interesting to him.
Akira's thoughts were in a whirl as she escaped from her upperclassman's probing statements. 'Nice job, idiot.' she scolded herself. 'He was only that interested because you just couldn't hold back a little. Now other people - besides Inui-sempai - are going to start paying more attention to you, too.'
Still, even though she was upset, she knew that it was ultimately pointless to admonish herself for not holding back. During the war, it was necessary to have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever in your movements and decisions - even a hint of something like that could get one killed. The habit of utterly crushing any opposing force was so deeply engrained in her psyche that it was nearly impossible for her to hold back in any genuinely competitive event. The only reason she hadn't utterly crushed Yuuta when they had played before was because there was no pressure on her to win - it was more like a spar than a battle. The Ranking Matches were much more serious, making her subconsciously switch into her battle mindset at the perceived importance of winning.
'Maybe I should just forfeit the other matches, and quit the tennis club.' she mused to herself as she sat down on a bench that was in the shade. 'While I do enjoy playing - really enjoy it - I don't exactly want the attention that comes with winning against a regular - or with the way things are going, being a Seigaku regular. Especially since with Ryoma a shoe-in for the Regulars, they'll probably end up in some highly publicized tournaments.'
A deep sigh echoed in her chest as she stared blankly into the air in front of her. She twisted on the bench, pulling her up her legs to rest on the bench as well. With nothing else to do, and not wanting to end up brooding over the match, Akira pulled her book back out of her book bag, and set to reading it. The thriller novel would be a sufficient distraction from her inner turmoil.
Ryoma walked up to the table where the creepy, glasses-wearing sempai was sitting, waiting to record the match results. He had just absolutely creamed his second opponent, and was itching to find a vending machine so he could get a Ponta.
"6-0." he stated in a bored voice.
Inui looked distractedly up at him. "Ah, good work Echizen-san." he said in a preoccupied manner, before scribbling down the score and going back to his thoughts.
Ryoma gave him a strange look, but turned to walk away. It was none of his business if the creepy-sempai was having issues. He wanted some Ponta. He was halted in his tracks by a sound of realization, followed by a calling of his name. He reluctantly turned back around, only to find Inui staring at him expectantly.
"Echizen-san, you are classmates with Kitamori Akira, yes?" Inui asked directly.
Ryoma blinked in surprise at the mention of his friend. "Yeah." he answered plainly, slightly curious as to why the creepy-sempai was asking about her.
"Could you please find him and tell him that he needs to attend his next match, or be disqualified from the Ranking Tournament?" Inui asked his underclassman.
Ryoma was even more surprised. "Don't you have to lose two matches to be disqualified?" he asked, disbelieving that a tennis player on par with himself could have already lost two matches. He completely ignored the reference to Akira being of the male persuasion - instead scanning the large scoreboard behind Inui for the scores of her previous matches. The first was a devastating win, while the second just had a large F written in the block.
"Well, yes." Inui confirmed, folding his hands in front of him on the desk. "But Kitamori-san was absent for his last match, and thus forfeited the match. If he misses another one, that counts as both of his losses."
Ryoma raised an eyebrow. During the time he had known his neighbor, Akira had come across as a very steady person. What could have caused her to miss a match?
"I'll look." he told Inui, before walking away.
Akira would probably be somewhere shady, so he'd go to the place nearest the tennis courts with some trees and work his way outward. It might take awhile - enough time so that he would have to go directly to his third match after finding her. She'd better have a good reason for making him miss out on a grape Ponta.
Akira was startled to be interrupted during the climax of her thriller. She sat up on the bench, and looked up to see Ryoma staring at her with a slightly irritated glint in his catlike eyes.
"You're going to get disqualified if you miss another match." he stated bluntly, narrowing his eyes at her as he watched her reaction to his words.
Akira was surprised. 'Another' match? That implied she had already missed one. She rummaged in her bag for her watch, and nearly groaned at the time. She had definitely forfeited her second match by absence, and she only had about ten minutes to get to her third if she wanted to stay in the Ranking Tournament.
Akira paused, placing her arm over her eyes as she thought hard. Did she really want to stay in the Ranking Tournament? After all, it would be much less troublesome if she stayed far away from competitive, publicized sports, considering she had come to Japan in search of a peaceful life. However, she did love tennis, and if she did get into the Regulars, she definitely have the chance to test her skill against some of the best players in Japan.
"What's wrong with you?" Ryoma interrupted her thoughts almost rudely - it might have offended her (what with good manners having been literally beaten into her at the Dursleys), if not for the slight concern she could detect beneath the brusqueness.
Her lips almost twitched into a smile at his reluctant worry over her. "It's nothing Ryoma-kun. I'm just not sure if I want to do this." she told her young friend.
Ryoma looked at her as if she had just said the dumbest thing he had ever heard - which would be hard to achieve, considering what his father was like sometimes. "Why, you love tennis, don't you?" he asked her frankly.
"Yes." she answered simply. "But I'm not entirely fond of the attention that come with being good at it."
Ryoma, who had been playing against her for months, knew that she was understating her talent for the sport. And that was probably her problem. He knew that she hated reporters for some reason, and that she was somewhat reluctant to be in any kind of spotlight - whether it be good or bad. So if she became a Seigaku Regular, and they got into one of the really big tournaments…
Ryoma sighed in exasperation. And maybe slight fondness at his friend's odd quirk of shyness.
"Idiot." he told her plainly. At her mildly insulted look, he continued. "If you love something, shouldn't you be willing to go out of your comfort zone in order to do it?"
Akira stared at him in utter surprise for a moment. Her surprise eventually melted into a smirk, though her eyes were softened with playful affection. "Who knew Ryoma-kun could be so wise?" she teased him.
Ryoma scoffed at her, told her she owed him a Ponta, and turned to walk to his own match, confident that his friend would get on with what she thought was right. Akira stuffed her book away in her bag and caught up with him. She slung a playful arm around his shoulder, which surprised him a little, considering she wasn't a very physical person - other than ruffling his hair all the time.
"I bet it's only because the subject had something to do with tennis." she told him impishly. You're absolutely hopeless about everything else, you know."
Ryoma scowled, though Akira saw it as a pout. "Go cream your next opponent." he ordered her. "And leave me alone."
Akira chuckled softly at him. "You know what?" she asked rhetorically. "I think I will."
When she arrived at the tennis court this time, there were more people there than their had been when she played her first match. No doubt her ruthless defeat of a regular, followed by her mysterious disappearance for her second match had caught their attention. She hesitated slightly, before steeling herself, and entering the caged-off area.
Whispers erupted from the spectators, and to anyone else, they would have sounded like a bunch of snakes - but she knew better. She set down her tennis bag on the same bench as she had before, and turned to examine her next opponent.
From what she remembered of the schedule, her third opponent was a second-year named Kawamura. She had remembered because he had the same name as that great sushi shop she had visited. As she examined him head-to-toe, she found that he had almost the same exact build as Momo - focused on power over speed and agility. His personality seemed to be an odd match with that philosophy - he appeared to be almost shy - and definitely quiet; not the usual traits exhibited by power players.
She gave a few deep breaths and began to loosen herself up with her usual stretches. She wanted to go into this with the right mindset - she was doing this because she loved tennis. She was not going to focus on the spectators. Or the potential reporters. With cameras. And inherent nosiness. And the urge to rip apart any reputation they could get their filthy mits on. And ugly crocodile handbags, rhinestone spectacles, and obviously fake blonde hair.
She caught herself before she could panic any further. 'Wait a second, Akira. Deep breaths. You're not in the Wizarding World anymore. You aren't famous. You are voluntarily playing tennis, the sport you love most - not competing in a deadly tournament that you were signed up for in hopes that you would die. And most of all, Rita Skeeter is currently serving time in Azkaban for being an unregistered Animagus - as well as the other various crimes they discovered at her trial.'
She focused firmly on her Occlumency shields, and pushed any anxiety to the back of her mind. There was a moment of pure blankness of emotion, before the void was filled by the usual rush of anticipation, excitement, and joy that came just before a tennis match.
A small smile spread across Akira's face. 'Okay. I can do this.' she thought with a quiet confidence.
Her eyes snapped open, and she picked up her racket once more. She walked calmly toward the net to where her opponent was waiting on the other side.
"ORRA!" he shouted enthusiastically as he gripped his racket, a grin stretching his lips. "Are you ready to start this BURNING match!"
"Yeah." she agreed, slightly startled at his change in personality from what she had observed before. She didn't let it bother her though. She was going into battle, and this was going to be her temporary enemy.
"Rough or Smooth?" he asked with excitement.
"Smooth." she stated unwaveringly.
The racket spun, and the match began.