Sanada woke up to the smell of tea and the sounds of his father preparing for the day's lesson down in the dojo. He turned off his alarm clock, rubbed his eyes, and sat up. He swiftly changed into his school uniform before heading towards the kitchen at the end of the hall.
His mother smiled and handed him a box. "Here, breakfast on the go. And, this"—she turned towards the counter and grabbed a Styrofoam cup—"is your tea."
"Thank you, Mother. Do you need help with the dishes?"
"No. Go on, Genchirou, you don't want to be late for practice."
Sanada tipped his head and headed down the stairs. Picking up his tennis bag and keys, he left the family dojo, donning his blue cap.
It was warm outside but he did not like that. He preferred the cold—crisp and harsh and unforgiving. He walked numbly along the streets, sipping at his tea every few steps.
It was a short walk to the street corner where he met Yanagi and Yukimura. When he arrived, Yukimura held out his hand expectantly, ready to trade Sanada's coffee for his tea like they did every morning.
"I have tea already," Sanada said.
Yukimura frowned and looked at his cup. "Tea will do, I suppose..."
They headed towards the school, Yanagi talking about the dorm he would be living in in Italy, Yukimura making the occasional comment, and Sanada drinking his tea in silence.
"Did you hear me, Genchirou?" Yukimura asked.
"I was contacted by Inoue-san from Pro Tennis Monthly for a private interview."
"Did you turn him down?"
"Yes, but I told him if he saw me at the tournament grounds we could speak," Yukimura said. "But he mentioned that this tournament will have quite a bit of coverage. Can you imagine Atobe's court personality merging with his camera personality?"
The thought made Sanada pause in thought. "Perhaps this tournament will be interesting after all."
"I think it would be interesting regardless of Atobe's diva ways," Yukimura said with the smallest of smiles. "This is our last tournament with the usual people. It will be something to remember."
"It will also be our third consecutive National title," Yanagi said.
"Yes, that too," Yukimura agreed with a much larger smile. "But that was a given."
The three approached the gates of the school. They were one day closer to their last tournament, their last chance to make things right. This time they would succeed no matter the cost.
Kirihara dozed off in lecture and when he woke up, he found wads of colored paper stuck in his hair courtesy of Tanaka and Miyagi. He ruffled his hair to shake the bits out in a shower like rainbow confetti and faked a laugh.
"You guys are so funny," Kirihara said sarcastically.
"Don't become sarcastic," Tanaka pleaded. "Sarcastic people are never as funny as they think they are."
"Tachibana was sarcastic," Miyagi said. He paused in thought. "She never was that funny, now that I think of it. She hated dinosaurs."
Tanaka agreed as the three turned their desks to face each other for lunch. Kirihara unwrapped his leftovers as Miyagi tried to put his straw into his juice box. They did not talk anymore about An.
"I could never stab anyone," Miyagi muttered. The straw jammed inside and juice squirted out onto his face. "I hate juice."
"Then don't drink it," Tanaka said. "You guys want to study for that English test later tonight?"
"Sure," Miyagi said.
"I don't know if I can," Kirihara said. "I promised to ref a match for Marui-senpai, Jackal-senpai, Urayama, and Oyama. Wow that was a mouthful."
"Afterwards then?" Tanaka asked. "I'm not doing anything else."
"Don't you have a boyfriend you're obligated to spend time with?"
She shrugged. "He's got family in town and I am not meeting his grandmother. He says that she makes people uncomfortable in the worst ways possible. Do you want to study later or not?"
"I'll text you," Kirihara said.
"I already said yes and I think doing so again would be redundant."
Miyagi sipped from his juice box until it was empty, making that horrible scratching, sucking sound. Tanaka and Miyagi began to bicker about the juice box, but Kirihara didn't listen.
Kirihara looked out the windows and could see the courts. He wanted to play so badly it hurt. Saying good-bye to An hadn't been as painful as the ache to win. He couldn't shake it, but he felt like this year was going to be different, yet he didn't know how. It might be hard, it might be easy, he did not know.
Regardless, he would not go down without a fight.
Always win. Losing is not permitted.
Rikkaidai would not go down without a fight.
Yagyuu was at his cubby in the lobby when Chishu Usagi, the first year class president, approached him. She handed out a small baggie tied with a ribbon.
"Just in case I don't see you again before your tournament," she said.
Yagyuu undid the ribbon and saw four sugar cookies stacked inside. They were covered in sprinkles that made them look like tennis balls. Yagyuu put on his perfect Gentleman smile and looked at the first year.
"Thank you, Chishu-chan," he said.
"Just win, okay? I want to brag to my little brother that I know a national champion."
"We'll win, we always do."
She smiled, a little more crooked and real than Yagyuu's, and headed off disappearing in the mass of people. Seconds after her disappearance, Niou was at his side saying, "Come on, 'roshi, we have practice. Stop flirting with Cupcake and get a move on it."
Yagyuu sighed, "Niou-kun," and grabbed his bag to follow Niou to the locker rooms.
The rest of the regulars were already in the back, hanging out and waiting to go out and do their laps. Other members came and went, but the regulars were always there, lingering just a little too long.
When Yagyuu opened his locker he heard Marui ask, "You guys want to stay after practice and play some matches? Jackal and I are staying with Ice-cream-head and Oyama."
"My sister doesn't study when I'm not around and she needs to do better on her tests," Yagyuu said.
"Whatever. Niou?" Marui asked.
"Can't," Niou said. "My family is going to one of the high schools Kenji's trying to get into."
"Isn't it a little late to be looking?" Marui asked. "My brothers already know they're coming here."
"He was already accepted. My mom just wants him to see the campus in person before they sign the papers."
"What school is it, Senpai?" Urayama asked.
"Some art school in Kansai, the one Yukimura wouldn't stop talking about in junior high."
"Maiden Rose," Marui said. Niou nodded.
"Maiden Rose?" Kirihara echoed. That sounded familiar. Why did it sound familiar? If it was art, Tanaka had probably mentioned it for drama.
"Yeah," Marui said in response to Kirihara. "Yukimura applied there. He obviously wasn't going to go there, but he still wanted to see if he was good enough to get in."
"Did he?" Urayama asked.
Marui looked at Niou, who shrugged. Marui said, "I don't know."
Once practice had ended, Kirihara, Marui, Jackal, Urayama, and Oyama lingered on the courts. Yukimura left them the key to lock up, then left with Sanada and Yanagi, leaving the five on the courts. Kirihara pulled himself up into the referee's chair.
"These things are too damn tall," he complained as he wiggled to face the court. Marui and Jackal were on one side, Urayama and Oyama on the other. No need to warm up after practice, the tension high. "Uh, ready?"
Marui popped a bubble. "They're serving first."
"Okaaay." Kirihara looked nervously between the two pairs. If they beat the crap out of each other right before Nationals, Yukimura was going to have Kirihara's head for allowing it to happen.
"Urayama-Oyama pair versus Marui-Jackal pair. One set match. Urayama or Oyama—I don't freaking know—to serve."
For the record, Kirihara admitted to being the worst ref out of all of the regulars.
Urayama tossed a ball into the air and it flew across the court.
Kirihara made the calls—in, out, point, game—until the score stood two-one, Marui-Jackal in the lead. If Urayama and Oyama wanted to make a comeback, they needed to step it up. Kirihara knew their problem, saw it in the way they moved, in the way Oyama moved.
Oyama Kenta, the Ringmaster and one of the most feared first years in the high school circuit, was afraid of his own tennis, afraid of going demon, afraid of hurting someone, afraid of Urayama being hurt, afraid of himself.
Four games in, when it was Marui's turn to serve, Kirihara watched and waited for Marui to rush the net and switch spots with Jackal, but it never came. Marui remained firm on the baseline while Jackal took over the front.
When did they finish their formation?
The handful of times Kirihara had seen Marui on defense were because he was forced to, but this time it was optional. He swayed comfortable behind Jackal, moving only when he needed to. They had practiced this for hours. That kind of reading (especially from the baseline) did not come without practice.
"Don't hit it," Oyama said. The ball was in, but Urayama could not have reached it. His hair was beginning to fall out of his ponytail; he was panicking.
Marui popped a bubble and Jackal smiled back at him.
It was flawless.
"Volley play," Oyama told Urayama at the beginning of the next game.
An unsuccessful Tightrope Walking, a successful Tightrope Walking, a drop-shot that Jackal did not reach.
No, not flawless. The longer they played in their switched positions, the more flawed it became. The holes began to form and that was what Oyama was waiting for.
Oyama hit a shallow shot from the back, then Jackal did something Kirihara did not expect.
The ball shot across the court then—
What in the world?
Kirihara leaned forward and nearly fell out of the chair. What was that? That move was the strangest thing he had ever seen Jackal hit. He didn't catch it. He waited and waited point after point for Jackal to repeat the move, but he did not.
Marui hit a sharp shot to the corner, at the exact spot Oyama could never hit, and the match was over.
"Marui-Jackal win, uh, I forget the score," Kirihara said. "Six games to one?"
Urayama sat down on the court, leaning back on his hands and struggling to take in all the air he could. "That was—" He looked at his senpai. "While wearing weighs?"
"Niou-senpai and Yagyuu-senpai always wore weights too," Oyama said. He held out a hand, pulled Urayama to his feet, looked at their senpai on the other side of the court. He did not say anything, just gazed over with that curious, distant look in his eyes.
Urayama looked slightly panicked, but he was smiling, like he was thinking about how much fun Nationals were going to be. These people were monsters and that made it fun.
Marui smiled and held up his hand. Jackal gave him a high five and returned the smile.
"With my genius and you, there's no way we can lose," Marui said.
"We're going to win," Jackal confirmed. "Number one doubles pair in all of Japan and three straight wins. We got this."
They looked like they could take on hell and high water, like nothing in the world could prove them wrong.
Niou headed straight home after practice. He wanted to practice the formation with Yagyuu, work in one more trick, but his mother was insistent that he came along. He wondered if Kenji wanted him there and was too embarrassed to say so, so he asked their mother to persuade Niou.
Kenji fiddled with his bowtie (Niou's idea) and looked up at his older brother as they lingered in the foyer.
"You look weird with your hair like that," Kenji said.
"He looks handsome," Riko said, walking down the stairs in a black dress and looking in her clutch. She ruffled Kenji's hair then disappeared into another room saying, "Mom, do you have a mirror?"
Kenji fiddled and tapped his feet. "My duet partner is going there. Maiden Rose, I mean. Singing."
Niou does not respond.
Kenji adjusts his bowtie for the tenth time. "Um, Masa, how do you talk to girls?"
Their father walked in and frowned at Kenji, then adjusted his bowtie. "It was crooked."
Kenji turned a violent shade of red and began to walk towards the door, stammering, "I—I'll be in the car."
When he's gone, Niou chuckled and his father looked at him. "Did I interrupt something?"
"Kenji likes girls."
"Well, that's a relief, I suppose? Not that him liking boys would be bad, but, well, whatever makes him happy." He paused. "Wait. You mean he's starting to like girls?"
"God help us all. I cannot deal with another teenager."
Niou pursed his lips and slid a hand over his waxed back hair (Riko's idea). He felt uncomfortable in dress clothes, always had. It didn't feel right, like he was putting on airs. Riko and Kenji liked dressing up; Niou didn't get it.
"You're smart, Masaharu, and you have a way of nosing into other peoples' business," his father said. Was that supposed to be a compliment? "Have you looked into this school?"
"It's an art school," Niou said.
"That's all I know."
Riko walked over, checking the contents of her clutch one last time, with her mother on her tail.
"It's not just an art school, it's the art school," Riko said. "I looked into it when I was searching for a high school—for piano, I mean—but Hyotei had the better pre-business program so I never bothered to apply."
"Kenji does love music," their father said. "I don't know where you kids get it from."
"Me, of course, Dear," their mother said. "Come on, Riko, Kenji is already in the car. Hurry up you two!"
The two women waltzed out of the foyer and to the black car waiting out front.
"Oh, by the way, I looked into the dates of your tournaments," his father said. "I have a meeting with Atobe Corp. and a few other companies the day of your Semifinal match, but I think I should be able to come by. If anything changes, I'll be sure to come."
"You don't have to," Niou said. "Work comes first."
His father sighed. "You are just like my father. Work does come first, but sometimes family cheats and gets first place."
Niou blinked, confused. "What?"
"I have no idea what I just said." His father rubbed the back of his head then shrugged. "Oh, such as life. We should hurry before your mother gets short with me. I missed dinner last week because of traffic and I still haven't heard the end of it."
His father put a hand on Niou's shoulder and then they walked out.
Maiden Rose was a small school with less than a thousand students. It was the elite of the elite for art students. Any student who attended the school could go into any art-related business they desired without lifting a finger. Of course Kenji would want to go there.
The campus had several buildings that looked like they'd come out of a history book. The dorms were recently renovated as well, something which made his mother happy. Every bit of the campus was gorgeous, from the architecture to the gardens to the sounds drifting from the theater.
Niou sat in the front row with his family as the orchestra and choir performed together. If the choir director had reserved a spot for Kenji in the front seat, Niou was willing to bet that this school wanted his little brother. Kenji was a member of the Junior National Choir after all and he was smart. Of course he would be, he was Niou's little brother.
"Is this thing over yet?" Niou grumbled as he clapped. He looked down at the program and saw there was one more performance by some hot shot cello player—first chair in the National High School Orchestra, second chair in the Junior Japanese Symphony, and was a co-composer of some piece. That was only what was listed next to his name, the rest was on the back.
Geez. And he thought Riko and Kenji liked music.
A boy shorter than Marui walked up onto the stage carrying his cello. His hair was gelled back, but once he was under the light, Niou could see electric blue streaks in his black hair. He sat in the chair in the center of the stage and—
The muscle mass on his two arms differed. It was hard to tell underneath his tuxedo, but that kid definitely had a stronger right arm. Playing the cello alone wouldn't do that. This kid was a prodigy and probably practiced his ass off, but moving a stick on strings did not give you that kind of bulk.
But tennis did.
A/N: Nationals begins next chapter! (I know this chapter isn't... great. I'm trying to get out of my funk with this fic and am having some difficulties. Please be patient.)
Since I last updated, I've posted/updated:
The Pokémon Chronicles: Akaya meets Pokémon. There are cannon characters and OCs. Even if you know nothing about Pokémon, I would appreciate you checking it out and at least giving it a shot :)
Incentive to read: Akaya being comically bullied by Pokémon, Niou walking into women's restrooms, Miyuki is a total badass, Gary-motherfucking-Oak is in there, and really bad attempts at humor.
Sparrow: Niou/Marui angst. 19 short chapters that should be read in short succession for best effect.
Bite Me: Updated. Actually has a plot know!
The Robot Girl: Marui and a kick ass female OC. Not technically a romance, but it can be taken that way if so desired. (It's a romance.)
I would be very thankful for any feedback on those as well as on this chapter!