A/N: Happy birthday, fye-chan! I really want to thank you for all your help in developing my writing, along with everyone else. Love lots, Tensai. (Special thanks to my irl friend for editing the fic!)
Disclaimer: Konomi Takeshi owns Prince of Tennis.
It started with a simple game of tag.
He didn't want to play with her, really. He knew that he'd always win anyway, and victory over a girl would be meaningless. It was definitely not in Shishido Ryou's code of conduct to fight a girl, and he wouldn't dare break his own rules if she had not started the battle.
The girl certainly didn't seem to be the type to give up easily. In fact, she looked ready to break into a run any minute in those rubber shoes. She just had to wear that jumper, which he thought was for kids only (he did not consider himself a kid, that would be so lame), and those high pigtails pretty much shouted that she was just a girl.
But they were at the age in which girls were taller than boys, and boys whined like girls, but gender equality in terms of physical strength still held true. He was a boy who took a lot of pride in being a man, however, and refused to even consider the possibility of being beaten by a girl.
And that was why he never saw it coming: she actually gave the chase and had him sprinting for his dear life.
It was all because of a silly game of tag, which he would rather skip if he were to go down the memory lane. Apparently, he failed.
His father once invited him to visit a nearby elementary school. His father was a teacher there, and Shishido only agreed to come at the prospect of beating someone in tennis. He was told that some of the students also played the sport, which practically sealed the deal.
He was disappointed to see that half of the kids could hardly hit the ball past the net. Even the better few either hit the ball before it bounced or hit lobs ninety-nine percent of the time. He would rather face the wall than have any of those kids at the other end of the court.
And so he wandered around the school grounds, searching for a deserted wall. He finally found one at the far side of the building. He was already having a good rally when he was interrupted by a squeal that sounded like of that of a fan girl's.
Forty-seven... forty-eight... forty-nine–
"You're so cool!"
That day couldn't get any worse, he decided.
He stopped playing, silently wishing to the gods to make that fan girl stop screaming her lungs out, but that high-pitched voice only grew a couple of decibels louder.
"What's the matter? You can't continue anymore, huh? Giving up too soon? Come on!"
That girl's really asking for it.
Shishido mustered all the self-control he had left and simply gripped his tennis racket tighter to channel his anger. But the girl seemed to be determined on getting on his nerves.
That did it.
He turned around and almost missed the girl crouching on the ground, her back turned to him. No one else was there, which could only mean one thing: she was the annoying brat who dared to call him a loser after fan-girling over him merely a couple of seconds ago.
Nice try in feigning innocence, but it could only be her.
He marched to her as slowly as his depleting composure allowed him, but the sight that welcomed him as he neared her had him dropping his racket out of confusion.
She took out two spiders from the matchboxes of varying sizes piled on the ground then had them crawling on a barbecue stick. She was cheering them on as they claw each other's heads out. He thought that the scene was no different from watching pro-wrestling minus the thumps and the grunts.
She heard the clatter of his racket and turned to him out of reflex while holding the defeated spider between her thumb and her index finger. She smiled at him before opening a big matchbox, revealing the biggest spider Shishido had ever seen as a grade schooler. It was a big black spider about the size of his hand, and the girl mercilessly dropped the dead insect in.
It was really quite a spectacle for a student of Hyotei elementary, a prestigious school where even boys did not play with such things, but Shishido had other things in mind.
That was a darn big spider! Who knew if it were actually of the poisonous species?
Of course, that girl wouldn't know, he hadn't expected anything less. He wasn't particularly afraid of spiders, but as much as he hated to admit it, he was just a kid who was afraid to get bitten by animals at the threat of venom.
The girl had not closed the matchbox as she asked him, giving him a full view of the big black spider. He absent-mindedly took a few steps backward as a precaution then he shook his head. But as he took in her appearance, he relaxed.
She was just a girl, getting away would be a piece of cake. He turned around and leisurely walked away, his hands behind his head.
He took a quick glance behind him, and broke into a run when he saw that she was running after him with a mischievous smile on her face.
This can't be good.
Her rapid and heavy strides grew louder and came in time with his short, quick, and shallow breaths. His sides ached and his chest burned. He could not afford to stop now that the matter became more than just an escape: it was a challenge to his manly pride. He couldn't let a girl outrun him, could he?
Brilliant excuse, Shishido Ryou. Seriously, who was he kidding?
That sounded dangerously near, and Shishido shut his eyes tightly as he felt his knees giving in. And then, he stiffened as he felt the legs of that big black spider planted in his back. His face was red out of exhaustion, but he paled visibly and broke into cold sweat in no time.
He remained rooted on the spot in fear when the girl suddenly spoke.
"Now you're it!"
What did she just say?
He was even more confused as to what was happening now, but he had no time to think about that. His left hand moved slowly to remove that freaking spider–wait, there's none? He tried to reach for his back again using both hands, but there was absolutely nothing in there.
What the hell was that all about?
"That's no fun at all, giving me a handicap."
He turned to the girl, who was panting slightly as she stood a safe distance away, and everything started to make sense to him.
A predatory smirk played on his lips as he braced his legs for a sprint.
So you wanna play, huh?
He took off and started the chase.
She actually put up quite a challenge, as she knew the nooks and crannies of the school more than he did. He got a lot of scratches and cuts from sharp edges of leaves and twigs, and more than once the thought that he looked like an idiot with all that running around aimlessly crossed his mind.
But as the cool gust of wind clashed with the heat from all the fats he burned, he felt that same adrenalin rush from playing tennis. It was exhilarating. It was… fun.
Both of them were panting heavily as they lay on the grassy meadow, chests heaving, limbs spread out, hair a mess, and skin covered in a thin layer of sweat. Neither was sure who won and who retired first, but it didn't matter.
"It's time to go home, Ryou."
He stood up to meet his father, and the girl followed him.
"Will you be okay walking home alone?"
"I'll be fine, sensei. See you tomorrow!"
The girl grabbed her bag in one of the stone benches and left, but soon stopped and looked back at them.
And with that, she was off.
He didn't know what sort of underworld spirit possessed him to go to his father's school again the next day. But as soon as he saw the girl from yesterday, a wonderful idea popped in his head.
It's payback time.
"You came again, Ryou!"
He cringed. That girl definitely had guts to call him by his first name. But he was going to fix that soon, by using no other than his beloved sport to extract his revenge.
"Ne, let's play tennis."
The girl, known as Atsue, looked thoughtful at first but agreed anyway.
The poor girl did not know what would hit her but neither did Shishido.
He tossed her a racket and made their way to the tennis court. Two boys were about to step in, but Shishido fixed them a glare that had them fleeing for their lives.
Let the games begin!
Shishido wasn't sure if he liked what was happening. It was obvious who the better player was, Atsue's level was no different from the other kids in her school. Her shots barely passed the net and she lacked the ability to anticipate which direction the ball was going, but her racket always managed to touch the ball wherever he hit it.
She had strong legs, and her speed was something to be scared of.
He was about to serve the ball when his peripheral vision caught that there was no one on the other side of the court.
If he could not complete his vengeance through tennis, then fine. He liked beating people in their territory anyway.
And with that, the endless chase began once more.
"One more lap, Ryou."
Atsue was panting heavily, her hands on her knees. The kiddie game of tag became a routine until it evolved into a competitive race.
Shishido downed a bottle of cold water before turning to the girl, ignoring the first-name basis. She blatantly refused to call him Shishido no matter how many times he told her to, apparently to distinguish him from his father.
"Are you kidding me? You can barely stand up straight."
"I won't stop until I beat you!"
Things had changed over time. Her all-play-and-no-work attitude toned down a bit: she was now working towards a goal. She was still taller than he was, but he was a growing boy, and thus gradually widened their gap in physical strength. That, and the fact the he started to develop his dash.
"Suit yourself. It's not my fault if you find yourself unable to get out of bed tomorrow morning."
"Aye, aye, sir!"
And the race was on again.
Sometime between those races and jogs, the old game of tag was brought on.
Shishido kept a constant distance between them, enjoying the sight of a frustrated Atsue. He was heading straight for a tree before deciding to climb it on a whim, seeing a chance to mess with her.
"What's the matter? Can't reach me?"
Atsue tried to jump and reach for his feet, but he only climbed higher.
"Why you! I'll show you, you cheater!"
And she climbed up the tree just to prove that she could.
One more branch… Just one more…
The branch she was stepping on suddenly snapped.
That was the first ever time Shishido said her name, and it was also the last thing she heard before she passed out.
She suffered a broken ankle.
She was wearing a cast and would need crutches to move around. Shishido visited her in the hospital, still feeling slightly guilty about what happened.
"Tch. You look lame."
Comforting someone wasn't really his forte.
"I am lame. At least for a few weeks."
He didn't know how to answer that.
"Ne, Ryou. Do you think I could still run like usual when my ankle heals?"
Her tone changed, and that was the first time he heard her speak without conviction.
"Baka! You better hurry and chase me again in no time, got it?"
He was surprised when he heard his own words. Why did he care anyway? It wasn't as if they were friends…
She blinked upon hearing his raised voice, but soon recovered from the slight shock and gave him her usual goofy smile.
They were middle schoolers now, and many things had changed. He had grown his hair long (which was probably the most obvious change), had grown taller than she was over the years, and had been a regular member of one of the best tennis clubs in Japan.
Atsue, meanwhile, was no longer the girl in a jumper who collected spiders. She ditched the pigtails and now fixed her hair in a high ponytail instead, started to grow womanly curves, and became a part of St. Rudolph Academy's track team.
"Ne, Ryou. A certain Mizuki-person approached me in school today. Guess what he told me!"
"Get to the point."
"Tch. Just spill it."
"I won't until you tag me!"
"Bring it on!"
"So, what did he say?"
She cleared her throat and began to mimic a male's voice.
"It's a pity you're a girl. You have the potential to defeat Hyotei Gakuen's Shishido Ryou in terms of speed. So what do you say to this proposal: I'll arrange everything for you to be accepted into the tennis team, and you'll play for St. Rudolph disguising as a guy? I guarantee that we'll be going to the Nationals!"
Whoever that Mizuki-person was, he had lost his mind. And how dare he underestimate him?
"It was a tempting offer. Disguising as a guy would be so much fun! But tennis isn't really my thing, so I rejected their proposal."
Sometimes, he couldn't really believe if she had grown up at all.
Yes, she was still very much the Atsue that he knew.
She still enjoyed the freedom of running around without knowing where to go, without caring where she's headed, without thinking of records to break and laps to finish. She just wanted to run and run and run and simply have fun.
She looked so light, as if her feet were not touching the ground anymore.
And up until this time, he had not realized that he had always been the one chasing after her.