This fic contains a shout-out for the wonderful Si. She'll know when she sees it.
~ kittykittyhunter ~
And far too much rice.
These were among the ingredients selected by Inui Sadaharu to make his latest juice, the Definitively Excellent Antidote for Tennis Harmony, or for short, DEATH. The middle school senior added pinches of powder and drizzles of liquid to the concoction. He stirred the mixture regularly, allowing it to simmer in the cauldron. Usually, Inui treated making vegetable juice as a science. But he was in a whimsical mood, and so, he made no notes of his recipe. After all, Halloween was less than a week away. In some respects, he wanted to behave like a wizard.
Something glinted in the corner of Inui's eye – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it glinted in the corner of one lens. Turning towards his bookshelf, he noticed a collection of lime-coloured flower petals shining at the bottom of a glass jar. A few days ago, he'd received the container from a withered old man. How strange that the gesture had slipped from Inui's mind.
He removed the lid and tipped the petals into his cauldron. There was a puff of white smoke. The mixture turned green.
"I call it – DEATH."
Oishi blanched. "You're joking."
Inui shook his head. He rarely, if ever, joked. After expanding the acronym, he went on, "I believe it would be best if volunteers sampled the juice before practice began, rather than at the end of drills. That way, I could chart whether there is any effect upon the… drinker."
The Seigaku students rallied uncomfortable glances. Eiji shifted his weight. Momoshiro twiddled his thumbs. Even Sakuno and Tomoko held their breath. What had begun as a normal Monday morning practice had become a test of bravery. Coach Ryuzaki would have snorted at the group if it weren't for the fact that she was deeply remorseful.
(Or was she afraid? After all, the last time one of Inui's concoctions had been allowed to flourish, it had ended with a score of tennis coaches paying a handsome bill. And at her age!)
Someone muttered, "Fuji-sempai should drink it. He likes those things."
Fuji's eyes snapped open. He was not nominated again.
The vice-captain straightened. Really, as the head of the club, it was his responsibility to accept the burden. Tezuka and Echizen, as Seigaku's pillars, would surely have drunk the juice! But they were far away, one in Munich and the other in Los Angeles. As such, they could not accept the mantle of obligation. Who did that leave? Why, himself: Oishi Shuuichirou! It was his task to drink the beverage! If he truly did die, at least it would be for the sake of the team!
By the time Oishi reached the end of his internal monologue, Seigaku's newest regular had pushed forward a pair of freshmen. Arai smirked, watching as Katsuo and Kachiroh stumbled. Inui administered a third of the pitcher to each boy. Oishi's short-lived opportunity to become a pillar… disappeared.
Kawamura was on the verge of shielding his eyes. He had not remained at the club to observe his underclassmen perish! He stood on the balls of his feet –
"Alright," said Coach Ryuzaki, trying not to smile, "you two are up. Your opponents will be Momo and Kaidoh."
Momoshiro Takeshi massaged one shoulder. "Guess Inui-sempai's losing his touch. Oi, Viper! Don't be too hard on these young ones, y'hear?"
"Shut up. I'll do what I want."
Across the net, Katsuo and Kachiroh raised their racquets. The taller boy was serving first. "This one," cried Katsuo, throwing the tennis ball aloft, "is for the first years!"
He swung with all his might.
The shot blazed past Kaidoh. Seconds later, the umpire called, "Fifteen-love!"
"I don't believe this." Kikumaru Eiji rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. He glowered at his doubles partner. "What's the point of us being Seigaku's Golden Pair if we have shorties who can do that?"
"I guess… we should be renamed the Gold-Plated Pair."
"This isn't the time for jokes!" snapped Eiji. "Kaidoh and Momo haven't won a single point and it's the fifth game!"
Sakuno and Tomoko flinched. Eiji's cry was so loud that Momoshiro was momentarily distracted; he looked away, and with the precision found among pros, Kato Kachiroh landed a smash at the junior's feet. It wasn't because they weren't trying, Momo thought furiously, hurtling forward to reply to Katsuo's shallow serve – the Viper's face was varnished with sweat, and as for himself… he was going to need deodorant, that was for sure.
For the first two games, the freshmen had marvelled at every shot. Each game lasted no longer than a few minutes. Katsuo and Kachiroh weren't dashing around the court – they were practically gliding.
Among the spectators, Kawamura began, "Do you think the juice…"
The seniors pivoted towards Inui. He glanced at his hand. The pitcher was gone.
A few feet away, Arai was drinking from the spout.
Every time Arai Masashi thought back to morning practice, he wanted to roll across the floor with glee. It was true: there was something special about the juice. From the moment the junior had slurped the potion's remains, electricity had rattled his bones. He wasn't just any tennis player. He was the best! Arai celebrated his newfound success as Seigaku's strongest regular by racing ahead of the club during their warm-down laps. DEATH? More like MAGIC.
Naturally, Arai had been chided for his ambition. In an even tone, Inui had said, "That was the last of the juice. I have nothing to analyse."
"Never mind, sempai," Arai chortled. He could wrestle a bear. He could climb Everest. He went on, "Seigaku has its hero!"
Horio Satoshi yelped, "What IS this?"
Katsuo said, "We have no idea how long this power will last."
Kachiroh nodded. "Let's make the most of it."
The three freshmen advanced towards the outdoor tennis courts, Katsuo and Kachiroh in the lead, Horio somewhat lagging behind. Every so often, the boy with the green shirt muttered something under his breath. He went unnoticed. His peers were brilliant. Unstoppable.
He shivered when he saw familiar rivals lounging against the stone steps. "You're kidding," he whined. "You plan to challenge Hyoutei?"
Kachiroh faced his friend, black hair whipping in the cool breeze. "It's the ultimate test," he answered. "I have no idea what's going on. The easiest way to find out is to challenge the best."
"I hope you know that it's your funeral." Along with amplifying the boys' tennis skills, the juice appeared to have bolstered their courage. Horio grimaced. "Hyoutei's Shishido-san and Ootori-san are the strongest –"
"That's not your talent to brag about."
Seigaku's freshmen looked up. The sun hovered behind Ootori Choutarou, casting shadows across his solemn features.
"Yo," said Shishido, tilting his chin, "super rookie."
Mukahi Gakuto was watching the match through parted fingers. "Someone tell me what they put in Seigaku's water."
For the fifth time in two minutes, Oshitari adjusted his glasses. The genius clenched one fist; his eyes flickered towards Atobe, hoping to see – anything. He wanted the captain to use his Insight and come to some kind of conclusion, tell them what was happening…
The admission came from Kabaji. "We're going… to… lose."
Even with Shishido's superb net dash, even with Choutarou's Neo Scud Serve, the match was completely one-sided. The freshmen were dominating the game, hitting volleys that prompted Jirou to wave his arms, playing forehands that made Hiyoshi question why the boys hadn't featured at the Nationals. They were both wearing dark blue jerseys. Not the regulars' uniform.
Shishido and Ootori were one point from defeat. One service ace, and the match was –
Suddenly, a fat drop of rain fell on the end of Kachiroh's nose. Shishido snarled, "Let's finish this!"
Kachiroh shook his head. "Sorry, but… I have a Geography test tomorrow. I can't afford to get sick."
"Don't be lame!"
"Shishido-san," muttered Choutarou, "let's just accept that they don't want to play."
As Katsuo and Kachiroh zipped away their racquets, the shivering Horio began to slide down the steps. He felt a heavy hand on top of his head.
"Explain," hissed Hiyoshi.
Horio squeaked, "Inui-sempai made a juice that gives you super powers!"
The answer was so ridiculous, so stupid, that the junior loosened his grip. Horio scampered away.
No one noticed the figure among the trees.
It was dark, still the middle of the night. Tezuka reached into the gloom until his fingers found his phone. He put the device to his ear, accepted the call and croaked, "H-hello?"
The adolescent-in-question shuddered. Greetings like that nullified the need for Caller ID. "What is it, Oishi?"
"Tezuka, something insane is happening. It all started on Monday, when Inui brought a fresh juice to school. To make a long story short, Arai, Mizuno and Kato drank it. Somehow, it's improved their tennis to high school level. Perhaps even pro level! Tezuka, on Monday, the freshmen beat Momo and Kaidoh. Then they nearly beat Shishido and Ootori. Shishido and Ootori. Even Eiji and I – well, that's not the point. Arai had a conclusive victory against Sengoku. The rest of the team are in arms about this. Since then, Mizuki's got word of this phenomenon. We're drowning in match requests! Yesterday, Arai beat Kabaji and Fuji Yuuta – the freshmen pair defeated the Jimmies, then Amane and Kurobane. At this rate, we…"
Unfortunately for Oishi, Tezuka had willed himself to sleep at the first mention of the word 'juice'.
It was crazy that he was turning to that guy for help.
Still, everyone knew that Echizen was fairly competent at solving tennis-related problems, and what Horio was suffering from was definitely a tennis-related problem. He prodded keys on the phone, hoping that the prodigy had actually shared the right number. On court, Echizen was a genius. Off court, he was scatter-brained.
After four rings came two syllables. "Who's this?"
Horio was so relieved that a tear almost escaped from beneath his closed lids. Echizen still had the telephone manner of a door handle – at least some things hadn't changed.
"It's me, the great Horio."
"Che. I don't know any great Horios."
Normally, Horio Satoshi would have bristled. He would have cited his exceptional tennis experience. He would have reminded Echizen Ryoma that the prodigy had learned many lessons through Horio's tutelage.
The truth was… he was too deflated to feel annoyed.
Instead, he spoke.
He related the whole sorry ordeal: the DEATH juice; the set against the Seigaku juniors; the consequent matches with powerful tennis players and the sudden influx of game requests.
"The worst part," Horio continued, gnawing his knuckles, "is that Inui-sempai can't replicate the juice! He talked to Yanagi-san who talked to Yukimura-san, and apparently, the flower Inui-sempai used can only be found on the hills of Kazakhstan!"
He came to a halt. He inhaled, hard.
"Hey… if your teammates are strong, you should be happy for them."
"But Echizen, if people can suddenly play magical tennis –"
"Tennis is pretty magical with or without Inui Juice."
Horio groaned. He rested his temple against a dark cupboard. "So what should I do?"
There was a quiet meow. Then the other said, "Inui-sempai gave them the juice on Monday, right? What time is it in Japan?"
"Maybe the juice is still in their systems? Just give it a few days. In the meantime… work hard."
Horio put down the phone. His mind was whirring.
Arai sauntered towards the court. Very few of the regulars were speaking to the three gifted boys, and so, the junior had to seek challenges beyond Seigaku's gates. Hah! The team were so sore! He had little time to listen to their grumbles: now that his tennis skills deserved their own movie, Arai was certain that he would be selected as the next captain.
At the outdoor courts, people parted to let him through. There was already a match going on, but all the junior had to do was clear his throat for one of the players to depart. Then, Arai held up his arms, calling to the crowd, "Who dares to battle me?"
After a few hoarse whispers, someone stepped forward.
"I'll give it a go."
The Seigaku regular coolly observed the vice-captain of Fudomine. Kamio was stretching his limbs. Arai nodded, accepting the challenge. Both boys took their place on the court.
"This will be a one-set match!" cried a squat boy, deciding to be umpire. "Arai versus Kamio. Kamio, to serve!"
"I'm high on rhythm!"
"I'M ABOUT TO BRING YOU BACK DOWN!"
Kamio was a worthy adversary! Arai had forgotten just how tenacious the speedster was; Fudomine's representative was determined to chase after every ball, even if he had to cross the court with hurried strides. Fine: Arai had no issues with Kamio's reckless technique. It only meant that the vice-captain's energy would be eaten up in huge bites. He had pace, but that rarely came coupled with endurance.
He was capable of anything, absolutely anything. He served with such strength that the umpire hesitated before making a call. His points landed within centimetres of the baseline. His smashes sent the racquet spiralling from Kamio's hands.
Arai performed the Zero Gravity Drop Shot.
Kamio stomped one foot. "Bah!"
"Game, set and match. Arai… six games to love."
The middle school senior had a devious plan. He crawled along the undergrowth on hands and knees, glad that his green jersey merged with the foliage. He ignored the stones jabbing his palms, the twigs snagging his hair. He, Fukushi Michiru, was going to experience that miracle juice!
Fukushi reached a clearing and was amazed by his fortune. A sports bottle lay on the ground, marked with a name: INUI. He could not see any Seigaku staff or students.
He cried "GIIINKAAA!" He drained the bottle's contents.
The captain fell to the ground.
Fuji Syuusuke stepped out from behind a tree. He'd needed to relieve tension.
On Friday morning, Horio Satoshi placed three glasses before Arai, Katsuo and Kachiroh. They were all brimming with green juice. Arai sniffed. "What's this?"
"Great news!" grinned Horio. "Inui-sempai recreated the recipe, so you can all get a top-up!"
He winced when his fellow freshmen smiled and reached for the cups without any hesitation. Arai frowned, but seeing his underclassmen down the juice, he grabbed the centre cup and proceeded to drink.
Katsuo's shoulders sagged. "My power…"
"It's gone," whispered Kachiroh.
Arai thumped a shaking fist on the table. "What have you done, you little dolt?"
At that moment, Sakuno and Tomoko joined the four. Sakuno noticed the three flushed faces and cried, "What's wrong?"
"Horio Juice," announced the freshman, drawing himself up to his full height. "Without Inui-sempai's special brew, you guys are back to normal. In fact – I even added a strand of my own hair!"
Tomoko snorted. "That just says that your DNA is mediocre!"
The junior wanted to punch Horio's face, but he was struggling to stay standing. The freshmen doubles pair were swaying. Horio remained rigid, arms folded across his chest. His eyes burned.
"That was a mean thing to do," frowned Sakuno.
Horio's reply was cut off by the sound of screeching metal. The group swivelled – and balked.
"So," beamed Kirihara Akaya, "which one of you is Arai?"
Looking around the group, Tachibana nodded at Katsuo and Kachiroh. The captain began, "I presume that you two…"
"Are the next Golden Pair?" finished Chitose.