This oneshot doesn't necessarily follow my personal fanon, but I've been thinking about it for some weeks, so I decided to go ahead and write it. The story's inspired by Maria Sharapova. Reviews are very welcome~


CIRCUS

~ kittykittyhunter ~


He was so lonely that he conducted conversations in his head.

Echizen Ryoma tied his shoelaces. He adjusted his white baseball cap and snapped a sweatband around his left wrist. His people (he'd learned the names of the professionals who surrounded him, not their actual job titles) had secured some kind of sponsorship deal with Fila. He had always been a walking advertisement for the company – these days, he was getting paid for it.

"He must be ecstatic," noted one of the commentators. "He's got a string of junior titles. The next step was always going to be a Grand Slam."

Ryoma placed his palms on his knees. The internal discussions were ridiculous, and worse, dangerous: they could pierce his concentration. However, watching so many events on television, and listening to so many contests on the radio had made him attached to the analytical voices.

An official appeared at the doorway.

Ryoma nodded. He did not smile as he passed the cameras. Treading into the bright sunlight, he blinked twice before examining his opponent.

Atobe Keigo was twenty and would not accept losing.

"It'll be the first title for either of these Japanese talents. We'll be treated to a spectacular match."

From the opening serve, Ryoma saw that Hyoutei's former captain had adjusted to playing on grass: Atobe had been raised in England, so if anyone could be said to feel comfortable at Wimbledon, it would certainly be him. Ryoma pushed the thought aside. Favourites did not matter. They would deliver a grand performance for the crowd.

He could not reach the high lob. At this level, their styles were devoid of party tricks – there were no such thing as a Tannhäuser, no Rondos towards Destruction. Strokes were calculated in split seconds.

Atobe was leading, 3-0.

"It's phenomenal. For a nation to produce five seeded players, five all-rounders –"

"And for all of them to be acquainted! It's a fairy tale, no doubt about that."

A fairy tale? Ryoma smirked. Alright. He would answer the call.

They continued to rally, points spinning back and forth. At the end of the hour they had almost completed the second set. Atobe was ahead. Ryoma inhaled sharply, manoeuvring into a volley. He'd come this far. He refused to go home without the trophy.

It was the third set. Atobe had maintained control, 7-5 and 6-3. The spectators were growing restless, slicing strawberries with the sides of their spoons. Everyone wanted an exhibition.

Ryoma gritted his teeth. He would have to breathe fire to break through the ice; he commanded swift forehands, delivered agonising drop shots. He changed the momentum by serving with his right hand.

They were at a tiebreak.

If Atobe was successful, the fight was finished. There was no way that he wouldn't do his absolute best…

Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. An ache was spreading between Ryoma's shoulder blades. He pondered if the umpire was bored of announcing their names.

He muttered, "No. Not yet."

The familiar lecture blazed in his chest. Ryoma claimed the third set and was satisfied to see that Atobe Keigo lost some of his resolve.

Over the ensuing forty minutes, the adolescent delivered a turnaround. Twice, he detected what the linesmen hadn't: he called on the Hawk-Eye and was successful in both challenges. Atobe retorted during the fifth set – he sent shots to the baseline, forcing Ryoma to run.

He needed to hold on for this one last game.

The audience stomped their feet at 15-0. They applauded at 30-0. Then they shrieked at the flurry of calls – 30-15, 30-30, 40-30.

No. After that punishing tiebreak, Ryoma refused to hear the word, "Deuce."

A two-handed backhand earned the last point. Like so many victors before him, Ryoma sank to his knees. Then he struggled to his feet and strode over to Atobe, who shook his hand and, to the teen's embarrassment, patted the top of his head.

"Good game, little Prince."

Ryoma crashed out of the second round of the US Open, losing to a Lithuanian who always broke serve. He returned to Tokyo for a short holiday. He signed his fans' school jerseys and notebooks. He had lunch with Coach Ryuzaki, who warned her pupil about working too hard.

"He won Wimbledon when he was eighteen. Since then he's lost at two Major finals. What do you think Ryoma Echizen will produce to battle Genichirou Sanada?"

That was the thing, Ryoma thought, gulping down some water. His critics always spoke in English. It had been a while since he'd invited the imaginary accents. Challenging this particular man, on this specific stage, he knew that he should not have expected anything else.

He laughed, questioning how the formidable vice-captain of Rikkaidai juggled being a pro with being engaged to an Australian scientist. Sanada had found a second home at Melboune – at twenty-three, he was the defending champion. The silver ring on his finger caught the light, glinting.

It was hot, much hotter than it had been at SW19 three years ago. Ryoma plucked at his collar. This match could take him closer to his goal.

The heat trampled his nerves throughout the initial set: he stumbled into three double-faults and drank more water than his coach would have advised. Having sealed a game, Sanada looked – briefly – at the stands.

That wasn't fair. Ryoma, too, had reasons for winning.

"He's off to a good start. Taking the opening set always puts you in a higher place. Nevertheless, we have to remember that Sanada has one of the strongest mind-sets out there; he's not going to be deterred by what he'll consider a small hindrance."

Ryoma picked up his racquet.

The subsequent set was difficult. Sanada had total power. His lobs landed exactly on the baseline, his forehands stopped millimetres short of the doubles alley, and his serves – in the second set alone, Sanada achieved eight flawless aces.

He frowned at Ryoma. The younger player scowled back.

"It's quite the established competition. It's been almost nine years since they met."

Ryoma lurched. That long? He was growing up!

Sanada equalised.

"No," muttered Ryoma. "There's no way I'm repeating Wimbledon."

He secured another set, 6-3. Then Sanada demonstrated his true force with a whitewash, 6-0.

The observers were thrilled.

Ryoma towelled the nape of his neck. Both his knees were sore, the right in particular. He gave himself a total of half an hour before it folded beneath him. When they changed court, he caught Sanada's muttered encouragement, "Fight on, Super Rookie."

"I'm sorry," the bearded doctor shook his head and tapped his clipboard. "If you want to continue working, you'll need to take a break."

"How long?"

"If all goes well, we're saying eight months."

Ryoma winced. "The season's just begun."

The doctor glowered. "Consider what happened," said the elderly man. "You were giving a speech – and then you collapsed. Hardly a fitting way to celebrate your second Grand Slam!"

"R-right…"

The doctor sighed. "Eight months, give or take."

The estimate was optimistic. Twelve months passed before Ryoma enlisted in a tournament. His ranking slid and slipped, and when he noticed the vacant seats, the rising star realised that he was almost a nonentity.

While the others continued to collect medals and trophies, Ryoma watched his career become peppered with injuries, and then, in the middle of one exhausting July, he dropped all his obligations and went away to be alone. He refused to be seen by anyone, whether they were an old rival, teammate or friend. The make-believe reporters stopped speaking, tones replaced by one which was far more important. Words tripped into his dreams.

Eventually, he prepared the counterattack. He was tired of walking along the tightrope stretched over oblivion. Ryoma would snatch back all that he had lost.

The latest obstacle was Yukimura Seiichi.

Rikkaidai's greatest captain had lived in Paris for over half a decade. Clay was his best surface: he manipulated every bounce. Winning three consecutive French Opens had reaffirmed his status as a monster.

Ryoma recoiled at the pity scribbled on Yukimura's face.

The match was long. The spectators cheered as Yukimura seized countless points. Ryoma massaged his elbow. He could not escape playing five sets.

Clouds gathered overhead. Yukimura was two sets up when the rain delay was announced.

The locker room was claustrophobic. Ryoma leant against a metal cubicle, gaze trained on the plain ceiling. Time passed and they were ushered outside.

It wasn't a desire to win, Ryoma mused as he stole the third set, it was a need. It was still impossible to gauge how Yukimura felt about their sport – if it was something he loved or simply a road to greatness. For Ryoma, twenty-five years of age, tennis was everything.

Ryoma did not fall. He stood tall and met his adversary.

"You really are Samurai Junior."

"UNCLE RYOMA!"

He leant down and swung the boy into the air. Ryoma wasn't sure if he qualified as an uncle; even so, he considered Nanako a sister. Her son was energetic and cheerful. He grabbed Ryoma's hand and dragged him to the fridge, where a finger painting had been taped to the door.

"It's awesome," grinned Ryoma. "You really like the colour blue."

"Yep!"

Nanako dried her hands and appeared at Ryoma's side. "It's too bad that Yuu-san couldn't get a day off work," she said. "He wanted to see you, just like everyone else in the country."

"I'm sorry. I'm running a pretty tight schedule."

"I know, Ryoma-san." Nanako wiped her cheek. "If you take New York… you'll be the world number one."

"Right." He glanced down – his nephew was tugging his sleeve. "More importantly," Ryoma continued, "I'll have a Career Grand Slam."

Tezuka took the first set, Ryoma, the second.

Of the cohort of Japanese players who had arrived on the professional circuit, Tezuka Kunimitsu had enjoyed the most success. The only thing he was missing was a win at Roland Garros. Ryoma chuckled. Maybe it was childish obstinacy. He wanted to be the first in the group to…

It was widely agreed that Tezuka had the best drop shot in the men's game. Regardless of what approach Ryoma tried, he could not overcome his past captain's finesse.

Ryoma would be the ring master. He presented the bystanders with a devastating smash.

A tiebreak concluded every set. He rubbed his brow at the beginning of the fifth – he had grown up in the States and had always wondered why the US Open hadn't been his original Slam.

Tezuka's swings made it clear that he understood what Ryoma was thinking. Though he had had made no formal announcement, he intended to creep from the spotlight following the match's outcome.

The rallies grew longer and longer.

Then Ryoma gathered all of his faith into a twist serve. Tezuka reacted. The ball smacked the net.

There were hundreds of people watching, and Ryoma was crying – he was sobbing as he waved…

"For so long, you were Seigaku's Pillar of Support. Now you are your own."

Dressed in a crisp, dark suit, Echizen Ryoma sat on the ground. The October day was fine. White clouds drifted across the sky. They did not obscure the brilliant sun.

"It took seven years," said Ryoma, fastening his shirt cuff, "but I managed to do it. I put on a good show. I thought that I'd better stop, while… uh. While I have the heart, I guess."

He was so inarticulate, unable to thread some simple sentences. He peered to his left and right. Strangers were entering the graveyard. Perhaps they were also visiting their parents.

"I want to thank you," he mumbled. "I should have said that more, and ah –" His eyes rested on his mother's name, chiselled into stone. "I'm sorry. You were always so patient with me. I'm sorry.

"And you…"

Ryoma swallowed and blinked rapidly.

"It was just as you promised," he whispered. "It was all so much fun."