Alternate Universe. Tezuka, instead of Ryoma, leaves Japan three days after the Nationals.
THAT PERSON WHOM I MUST DEFEAT
~ kittykittyhunter ~
"He had to go."
Echizen Ryoma did not stir at his father's words. The Nationals' euphoria was trickling from him: almost a week had passed since the war at the Forest of Arenas. Three days ago, Tezuka Kunimitsu had defeated Seigaku's pillar of support. The next morning, the captain boarded a plane and left Japan.
Medals. Trophies. They'd achieved everything.
The freshman placed his palms on the porch. Ryoma and his father were at home. The boy sat beside the old man, staring out at the garden, beating with the songs of insects and birds. A summer sun swung in the clear sky.
One day, their paths would intersect. They would play tennis in New York, Melbourne, Paris, London…
"I'm going out," said Ryoma.
Tokugawa Kazuya booked his flight and snacked on a kiwi. Then he decided to spend the morning relaxing, and rode to the local outdoor tennis courts.
Three middle school kids were having a match, two-against-one. The solitary boy was wearing a white cap: he had a swift forehand, though his backhand required attention. Kazuya stood behind the wire mesh, arms folded.
One of the doubles' pair put immense spin on the ball.
Kazuya stared. The scrawny kid replied to his opponents' shots without moving his feet, yet the plays hurtled towards him. Afterwards, there would be marks on the court: little circles where the surface had been worn away.
The technique tickled Kazuya's memory. He thought of a better time, of a greater man.
Samurai Nanjiroh had been Japan's hope. He had won a succession of thirty-seven matches. He had been poised to become the world's top player.
Then, he had quit.
Kazuya remembered being aged seven and reading the headline. First, his mouth had fallen open. After a minute, he'd cried.
Suddenly, the teen was dragged from his recollections, like a man being shaken from sleep. The boy in the cap was the victor.
Nanjiroh muttered something about picking up groceries. Ryoma waved the old man away. The boy had enjoyed his morning excursion at the outdoor courts, and now, he decided, it was his father's turn to evade responsibility.
Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Ryoma leaned on the broom handle and glowered at the temple floor. He could never defeat all the dust, and whenever he tried to hurry the job, he'd find grey patches.
Ryoma wrestled his gaze from a wooden plank. He heard a spluttering motor – it gave a violent cough and the noise choked.
Half a minute later, a tall teen entered the grounds. The newcomer had dark hair and eyes that resembled glaciers. He said, "Is there a phone here? I left mine at home. I was heading back, but my bike broke down."
"Sure," said Ryoma. He dropped the broom and beckoned the teen, glad for a reason to delay his chores.
Once he'd approached, the older boy frowned. "I saw you," he said, "playing tennis earlier."
Ryoma swivelled. "Do you play?"
The freshman smirked. "How about a rally?"
"I don't have my racquet."
"Use one of mine."
The teen said, "Fine."
He had never seen a temple with a tennis court.
Kazuya readied himself to receive serve. Opposite, the young boy was bouncing a ball on the ground. "Before we begin," called the teen, "what's your name?"
"Echizen Ryoma. Who're you?"
Good. It was fast. The serve's speed was its only strength – the teen twisted towards the shot; the return sailed past Echizen. The boy grinned and served again. This time, he met Kazuya's volley. A rally began.
They were both left-handed, and in the back of his mind Kazuya noted that the boy would be strong, someday. As the rally continued, Echizen slid on his heels to cross the court. He leapt into the air and coiled to return the ball.
Kazuya didn't exert himself. He disliked the boy's flamboyant tennis. He began contemplating what to eat for diner. He stopped allowing Echizen to claim points.
After half an hour, the boy was lying on the ground. Slipping the red racquet into Echizen's tennis bag, Kazuya announced that he was taking his leave.
Echizen sat up.
"You're powerful. Really powerful. I know it's a hassle, but," the boy's shoulders were rapidly rising and falling, "I want you to train me."
Kazuya shook his head. He said, "It'd be too hard for you."
"Please!" The word was wrenched from the boy's lungs. Desperation laced his voice. "Isn't there someone in the world you need to beat, no matter what?"
Their eyes met.
Kazuya tightened his hands into fists. The mountain. The camp.
"Very well," Kazuya said. "I'll be in touch."
"Have you ever been here before?"
Tokugawa signed the sheet with a flourish and Ryoma was handed a shining card. The boy mumbled his thanks. He now had a year's subscription to the Atobe Gyms.
"The facilities here are good," said Tokugawa. "If you want to advance, ensure that your growth is balanced. With your height, being patient with your bones is essential."
He ignored Ryoma's scowl.
They began circuit training. First, they lifted weights. Then they went on cycling machines. Then treadmills. Tokugawa moved them from one piece of equipment to another, once steering Ryoma's shoulders when the boy was reluctant to shift.
They ate pasta for lunch. Ryoma closed his eyes, savouring the sweet tomato, the fragrant basil.
"Tomorrow," said Tokugawa, "we'll get onto the real training. This was a warm up."
Kazuya tried not to smirk as he watched Echizen furiously pedal a tricycle. The high school student restrained a laugh when the freshman slipped while playing tennis on a waxed floor (in the freshman's defence, he was wearing socks). There was something amusing about the boy's rigid, determined expression. It was a cliché, but every time he fell, he got back up.
On the fourth day, when raindrops were throwing themselves on the gym windows, Kazuya announced, "Prepare yourself."
Echizen wiped the sweat from his brow. "Bring it on."
Kazuya fed the freshman a tennis ball, tapping it lightly. Echizen put the same easy force behind his swing – the sphere was flying in slow motion. Then, after he'd returned the ball, Kazuya served a second. Echizen started, but accepted the challenge.
The balls travelled back and forth for eight minutes. Echizen quickly realised that the best way to deal with two objects was to assault them together. He maintained control: jutting his elbow, scrunching his shoulder, relaxing his wrist.
Then, Kazuya introduced a third tennis ball.
When the spheres struck the racquets, they exploded on the guts, sounding like fireworks. Echizen's darting pupils tracked every shot.
They sat on the bench. Echizen gulped down mineral water (Kazuya had not been impressed to find the freshman drank gallons of soda). The boy replaced the lid and faced Kazuya.
"I had sushi with my team yesterday."
The boy nodded. He inhaled and leant backwards. He looked up at the gym lights. "Hey. You're talented, right?"
"So…" Echizen looked back at the teen. "Are the other high school guys as strong as you?"
Kazuya shook his head. "That would be misleading. In truth, I'm catching up to some of them."
Echizen blinked. "No way," he mumbled. "Even the great Yakuza-san has a rival."
"Uh." Echizen scrubbed his heels along the floor. "I guess that slipped out. But you have to admit… you are pretty terrifying."
"Idiot," said Kazuya. "The point is – while that guy is my rival, I am not his. Do you understand?"
The boy's face crumpled.
There was a pause before Kazuya said, "We only have a few days. Soon I'll be leaving Japan, but before I go, we'll have a match. Be ready, the day after tomorrow."
"'Kay. Let's play at the Haruno University courts."
Kazuya agreed. From what he recalled, the courts were close to train lines. Pleasant acoustics.
"You know," said Echizen, "I'm not tired. We could play tomorrow."
"That's not the reason. I'm going yachting with a friend."
"Yachting…" Echizen beamed. "I've never done that before. It sounds fun."
Kazuya sighed. "Alright. You can come too."
It was the most Ryoma had ever heard Tokugawa say. The teen gave a tour of the yacht.
"This is where the life buoy is kept," he said, showing Ryoma a large rubber ring. "Over there are the lifelines. We're currently standing at the stern: here you can see the stern lights, and the stern rail – also called the pushpit."
Tokugawa's friend was an aloof junior called Hibiki. Ryoma disliked the teen's slanted eyes, so he made no conversation, focusing on Tokugawa's lectures.
Once they got going, it was… fun. The two adolescents had sailed many times before, so when Ryoma wasn't watching what they were doing or trying to help, he kept his eyes trained on the clouds above or on the waters below. A cool breeze caressed his face. His heart folded. He was sorry that he could not enjoy more summers in Japan.
"Hey, Tokugawa-san." Ryoma's arms were stretched across the railings. "Where are you planning to go?"
The other looked over. "There's a training camp," he said, "in Germany."
Echizen sprinted towards the ball and jumped to return it: the shot rocketed towards Kazuya; the teen gave a punishing strike and the ball crashed past Echizen – the freshman ducked and tripped, his racquet connected with the sphere and it hit the net.
"Fifteen-love," said the boy.
Somewhere in the distance, a train rumbled by.
Echizen pursued every single one of Kazuya's plays, scraping his elbows and knees, returning even the heaviest blows with both hands. The strokes were rapidly exchanged –
The first game was claimed by Kazuya.
Neither had bothered to bring a jersey. Waves of heat soaked their soles and travelled upwards. Kazuya spent the next game breaking Echizen's serve through an onslaught of smashes; the boy knelt on the ground and spread his arms like a bird, but it was useless. His hat flew from his head. He could not overcome Kazuya's power.
The teen won five games in a row.
Echizen was shaking. Rivers of sweat were running down his face. Only forty-five minutes had elapsed, yet the boy was close to breaking point. Kazuya straightened: the thought of defeat was agonising the freshman, but he could only grow through being challenged. No one could thrive on victory alone.
The boy had to lose, the same way Kazuya had.
Echizen began a counterattack.
He pushed himself to deal with the weight; he leant and sprang and gave no thought to his muscles. He won the game.
Kazuya took the next. Their match was done.
"Keep going," said the teen quietly, shaking Echizen's hand. "Someday, you'll be unstoppable."
"I always lose on this court." Echizen smiled. "Thank you… thank you for everything."
The freshman was fringed with golden light. Kazuya ruffled his hair.
Ryoma loved the cacophony of airports. He'd grown fond of seeing cheerful tourists and stressed businesspeople, of watching strangers embracing. He left his parents and Karupin in a bookstore (his mother wanted something to read on the long plane journey) and headed towards a café, though he knew the food would be overpriced.
Someone tapped his shoulder. Ryoma turned.
"Don't yell that so loudly." A bag was slung across Tokugawa's shoulder. "I didn't know that you were heading out."
They continued towards the café. "We're going to the States," explained Ryoma.
They sat down with their drinks. Tokugawa had a cup of tea whilst Ryoma sipped a milkshake. The other diners were speaking a mix of languages – Ryoma caught the occasional word.
The boy's pocket buzzed.
"Ah… I should get going. My parents are done." He held out his fist. "Good luck out there."
Tapping the boy's knuckles, Tokugawa said, "The same to you."
Ryoma smiled. Then he ran towards his father, mother and Karupin. Had he looked back, he would have seen Tokugawa staring at Nanjiroh.