And now we're at the end! I apologise whole-heartedly for my long absence. Thank you to everyone who's stuck with this story. You're lovely.


Chapter IV

Smash


They were watching a spy movie when Tooyama yelped and dove behind the couch, kicking Ryoma's chin in the process.

"WHAT THE HELL?"

"KEEP IT AWAY!"

Ryoma's gaze tore around the room. What, was there a lizard in the apartment? After a few moments he spied Tooyama's fear: a large, hairy spider was scuttling along the ceiling. Tooyama whimpered, "Keep it away."

"You're arachnophobic?"

He was walloped with a cushion. "Most spiders are fine," Tooyama snapped, "but you can TELL that one's poisonous! It's moving so quickly and it's got a million pincers. Koshimae, I don't wanna die! Get rid of it!"

"I can't do anything while it's up there. Let's just get back –"

"NO!"

He whacked Tooyama.

"Fine, you big baby."

He collected a large, plastic bowl from underneath the kitchen sink and, after some hunting, found a tennis magazine. He tore off the cover, sighing at the picture of a Spanish woman whose trainer bragged about her legendary backhand. Ryoma watched as the spider went one way, then another. It was mocking him, refusing to come down.

There was an audible gulp. Tooyama was pale. Any second now, he'd start sweating. He suggested, "Maybe I should just go back upstairs?"

"I will honestly punch you."

Finally! The spider was moving quickly. Ryoma imagined it muttering, "Invade like Fire." Another few seconds and it would disappear behind the cabinet: he crusied forward and slapped down the plastic bowl and the spider was trapped.

Slowly, he slid the magazine's cover under the bowl's rim. The spider stood on the glossy tennis racquet, secure. It was tempting to throw the arachnid at Tooyama's face. Remembering the split tennis ball, Ryoma decided not to. Instead, he jerked his head towards the door, commanding, "Open it."

"You're gonna let it go? What if it flies into my apartment?"

"That's… not going to happen. Besides, I'll let it go downstairs. Nowhere near your place."

Tooyama exhaled. He flattened himself against the walls, wriggled along them, flung open the door and rushed back to his fort as though being chased by mountain lions.

It was a long walk down the multiple flights of stairs. He could hear little snippets of life as he passed: one couple were arguing about whose turn it was to buy groceries and another pair, further down, sounded like they were blending a smoothie. Eventually, Ryoma leant against the building's front entrance, shouldering open the door. He cautiously set down the magazine cover and removed the plastic bowl – the spider disappeared into cool darkness.

The spider had been fairly dangerous-looking. Still, for Tooyama to have freaked out that much… Ryoma went back to the apartment. His neighbour had drawn a blanket around himself (a blanket that Nanjiroh was missing, no doubt), shivering while staring at the screen. Ryoma flopped onto the couch.

"So. You're scared of anything poisonous."

"Yeah right," mumbled Tooyama, "in that case, I'd be scared of your cooking."

Ryoma thumped Tooyama's arm. Tooyama kicked Ryoma's shin. It turned into a brawl with the two head-butting and elbowing one another. At last, Tooyama got to his feet, and in his triumph, declared that he was staying right where he was.

From the floor, Ryoma said, "Listen. A couple of us are hanging out after the Finals tomorrow. You wanna come?"

"Ahh… I'm sorry. It'll have to wait – there's something important going on at the store tomorrow. Good luck with everything, Koshimae."

The Sunday sky above them was washed a liquid blue. The sun beat down fiercely, warning the tennis players that only those with the greatest tenacity could hope to survive. During the morning, Yamabuki's ferocious doubles combinations ripped through the first two matches: Yokoto and Morisaki hobbled off the court, massaging strained limbs; Kanda and Tomio crashed on the benches, wheezing. The stadium throbbed with excited buzzing. Were the promising Seigaku going to lose in three straight sets?

Then the pressure weighed on Haijima. He stretched his arms and strode to the net, shaking his opponent's hand. Yamabuki's mood dropped as the games progressed: Haijima was producing a series of punishing shots, and before a half hour had elapsed the Seigaku supporters roared – they were back. The coach smiled at Haijima. The junior grinned.

It was Enoki's turn. Perhaps he was enthused by his teammate's display: with his immense power, the aggressive baseliner destroyed Yamabuki's genius in a mere twenty minutes.

Early afternoon, Singles One. Chiharu had to close the tournament. Hearing an official call his name, he felt his heart expand and press against tight ribs.

Yamabuki's ace rose. The boy had windswept brown hair, freckles and deep, green irises. He was small, quite natural for a freshman.

Takeda Shou had a pleasant handshake and a winning smile. "Let's do our best today, Uesugi-san."

"Sure thing," Chiharu agreed readily.

Spectators were coming back to the stands, finished with their juice and bathroom breaks. The last time he'd sat on the coach's bench had been a decade ago. Ryoma watched as people filed into the stadium. Ah, there was Momoshiro Takeshi, somehow managing to look solemn despite the relaxed haircut. And there was Dan, jacket hanging over his shoulders so that it resembled a cape. He was an uncannily physical echo of Rikkaidai's greatest captain. Dan's eyes were gleaming… Ryoma frowned. It made sense that Dan had his own protégé. He'd had a talent for connecting with skilled players.

Behind Ryoma, over at the stands, the Seigaku regulars huddled together. Horio was beside them, fixing the knot in his plain tie so that it was closer to the collar of his striped shirt. Ryoma scraped his heels on the floor. Takeda was serving.

He opened the game with a perfect Twist Serve.

The crowd cooed – the Twist Serve remained a popular technique. It could confuse players, most of whom stepped back to avoid the shooting ball. Uesugi gritted his teeth and launched himself towards the sphere: it was not his first time meeting the Twist Serve, although he hadn't perfected his response.

If there was anyone who could lead Seigaku to the Nationals and be the team's support pillar, it was Uesugi Chiharu. He was not a flawless tennis player. There was something… some tenacious quality that made him fight, roar like a dragon and claw through any impediment.

Uesugi had the resilience of those heroes he would never meet.

Stunned by the rally's pace, the crowd applauded. Takeda had an excellent dash. After spectacular returns he'd breezily enquire, "How's that?" Ueusgi did not answer with words. The first game ended. Ueusgi had not broken serve. He was unfazed; he wiped gleaming skin and prepared to surge on.

The serve was so fast that Takeda didn't react.

Didn't – or couldn't? Once the umpire made the call, Ryoma studied the first year. The boy planted his heels on the court and adjusted the black sweatbands on his wrists. He'd been surprised. He was not about to repeat his mistake.

"Deuce!"

Chiharu and Takeda were both panting. Their shirts were soaked. The match had lasted for well over an hour. Chiharu was leading, 6-5. He needed these next two points.

It was clear that Takeda Shou either had one hell of a trainer or that he had studied tennis from old clips: his body folded into graceful angles, aided by natural flexibility. He was an undoubted prodigy. A frustrating guy. Chiharu spat excess saliva from his mouth. He'd never felt more determined to take someone down. After all, Takeda wasn't the best.

Seigaku had been hunting through archives. They'd discovered old annuals published by Monthly Pro Tennis and found a feature that was almost ten tears old, a detailed article on the beast who critiqued their tennis: Echizen Ryoma, Samurai Junior, the first person to have ever defeated Yukimura Seiichi. What was someone so strong doing at Seigaku? The coach was bound to have his reasons for being there. It did not alter the fact that the man on the bench was brilliant, and Chiharu had every intention of absorbing as much as he could from the all-rounder. He wanted to play the tennis that had been exclusive to that golden age.

First, he had to surpass this annoying kid.

The next rally wore on for longer – the ball spiralled and revolved, and Takeda employed technique after technique to return it. At one point he leapt so high that Chiharu was dazzled; then the ball smacked the court and Seigaku's representative remembered that he was hadn't come there to admire the opponent. This was the place to dig a grave.

"Advantage!"

One more point. Chiharu bounced on the balls of his feet. He glanced back at the coach who said something. Chiharu wasn't an expert on lip-reading, but felt that he'd read the words:

Don't let your guard down.

If that was the order, Chiharu was ready to obey. It was possible that Takeda still had some fire simmering in his spirit – it wouldn't be enough to overwhelm Chiharu. He creased his shoulders. He'd close this showdown.

When the ball thudded against the racquet, Chiharu heard a thousand heartbeats meld with the spring breeze.

And it was over. Seigaku screamed. The spectators shouted. At the net, Takeda shook the older boy's hand. "Nice one, breaking that old curse," he winked. "Keep watching me, because I'll get my revenge."

Chiharu said, "You can try." He raised both arms in the air, twirling the red racquet in his left. He wanted the euphoria to last forever. He wanted Echizen Ryoma to maintain that expression – that unmistakeable pride.

"To Seigaku's National victory!"

They clinked glasses. Around them, the restaurant was bright: delicate lights trailed across the ceiling and tall lamps decorated the room's many corners. Coarse wall hangings were embroidered with colourful fish. Classical music played in the background, soft enough that the diners did not have to raise their voices above piano chords and rapid violins.

Osakada raised her palms, fanning the air. "Thanks to Ryoma-sama, Seigaku's victory is no longer a dream! You've done incredibly."

"I didn't do anything special. Horio did all of the important stuff. He found the regulars. I've just been a giant bully."

With a teasing smile, Katsuo said, "I don't remember you being so modest."

Horio agreed, "Right! Echizen's ego is so huge that it could eclipse the sun and plunge the world into a thousand years of darkness –"

Osakada elbowed him. Hard. "Pipe down, would you?"

The others laughed.

It had been a while since he'd sat together with his five friends. Ryoma surveyed the group: Horio and Osakada, bickering; Katsuo and Kachiroh, chuckling and Ryuzaki, smiling indulgently. She tucked a rogue strand of hair behind her ear and asked, "How's Haijima-kun doing?"

"He's fine. You did a good job taking care of him, so thank you."

"Ryoma-kun, I was doing my duty –"

Kachiroh cut in, "It's a great coincidence! All of us gathered here, connected through tennis – when I joined the club at Seigaku I had no idea how important the sport would become to me. Though I don't play anymore, it's wonderful to see how our old friends are doing."

"Oh yes, like Captain Tezuka. You must have run into him at some point, right?"

"Nope," said Ryoma. "Our paths never crossed. I think the captain mostly focused on making progress in Europe whereas I was primarily in the States. I haven't participated in a major tournament in years."

"Ryoma-sama… you never told us what happened."

He sighed. "An injury. I've been hiding away from it. Thing is, as I am, I can still play tennis. If anything were to happen…"

"In other words," said Katsuo slowly, "you're afraid of exacerbating the injury, right?"

It was embarrassing, but the subject had come up, and so… Ryoma found his chin dipping. He looked away from the table – not before catching the sympathetic and pitying glances. They knew too well how dear tennis was to him and to themselves. It hurt, being away from the shining stage. He kept repeating that it did not matter. Like his father, he had found a new goal, an ambition to dedicate himself to.

Ryuzaki gave a quiet laugh. The group swivelled towards the young woman. She declared,

"It's going to be alright, Ryoma-kun. Things will work out."

Horio and Osakada traded a glance – and the conversation turned to other matters: what was Seigaku's next step; the lousy coffee machine at Kachiroh's office; the outdated software at Osakada's workplace and how Horio was thinking about buying another English dictionary since someone had spilled coffee all over his.

They talked late into the night. During the walk home, Ryoma enjoyed the cool gust. It purged his lungs and whispered that anything and everything could heal.

A light drizzle was falling. Ryoma listened to the raindrops as they pattered on the roof. He sat on the porch, legs crossed, feet bare. He was wearing shorts and a loose, cotton t-shirt. He held a can of Ponta in his left hand.

Behind him, the door slid open. Ryoma's nose filled with tobacco fumes. The old man sat beside his son. They were both barefoot.

"Nice day for a walk."

"I'll say."

Nanjiroh scratched his stubble. "So what now? You've managed to shake them from the Prefectural curse. Next is Regionals. And, should you make it through that, the Nationals. It's a big dream, but if you could do it when you were a stupid thing, I'm sure they can, too."

"I know they can. A few training camps, some more focused exercise – and they can do anything. I couldn't care less about Rikkaidai's strength. I refuse to be deterred from this."

The blue flowers his mother had planted swayed like sheets pegged to a line. Tooyama had replied to the laundry favour by gifting Ryoma with a detergent box – "Since you only ever buy cheap stuff. You'll get a rash."

It was strange. Tooyama had never seemed the type who was good at taking care of people, supporting others. He must have been an excellent captain.

"What's on your mind?"

Ryoma flattened his palms on the wood. In a week's time, the French Open would commence. Pundits had sworn that Roland Garros would see beautiful tennis this year. Perhaps Yukimura would be able to claim his third win. Then again, perhaps the captain would defeat his foe.

Seigaku had overcome Yamabuki. With that in his heart, surely, Tezuka Kunimitsu could strengthen his resolve and do anything.

He was unaware.

Why hadn't he ever flown back? Ryoma drummed his fingers, falling out of time with the rain. His captain was a quiet man. Not impossible to understand. Of course, Germany and Japan were two different worlds. Maybe the professional was more at home in Europe; he had lived there for several years, made friends, felt settled. And maybe –

"It's because he wanted to see how far he could go," said Ryoma quietly. "He had to find out about his true potential."

He felt a flick on the side of his head. Ryoma looked at his father. Nanjiroh drew back, skin polished with shadows.

"Boy, stop lurking in the rags he left behind. This isn't about him. It's about you. You need to go forward, Ryoma."

His left elbow twitched. His shoulder throbbed. His hand ached.

"I can't."

"You're right," Nanjiroh nodded, "not with that attitude. You need to dig deeper and find your courage. Are you telling me that you were braver at twelve than you are at twenty-two?"

Ryoma bit his lip. There was a low mewl – and a Himalayan mountain cat landed in his lap. Ryoma gathered the feline into his arms and buried his face in her fur.

Why was he trying to define what was home?

It was an impressive building, both outside and inside. Garbed in a well-fitting shirt and faded jeans, the young man stepped from a dark car. Leather shoes touched the sidewalk and cool eyes travelled upwards. The structure of concrete and glass had once been imposing. Urayama Shiita smiled. To Rikkaidai, he wasn't just a former student. He was a celebrity.

He noticed students pressing themselves against the windows, girls pulling each other's hair and shoving one another out of the way to glimpse the model. There would be occasion, later, to sign autographs. He made his way through the vaunted main gates, instinct leading him down a familiar path. He did not stop until at the wire netting that closed off Rikkaidai's five outdoor tennis courts. During Urayama's years there had been three courts. Thanks to the old captain, the school had gone further to boost its tennis image and cater to any who cared for the sport.

Certain traditions hadn't changed. Every last Sunday of the month, some of the middle school students battled their high school counterparts. He recalled the embarrassing losses and the hard-earned victories.

Urayama stepped onto his favourite court, the centre court, and waited. Soon enough, the coach came to meet him, arms spread in a welcoming gesture.

"I'm glad to see you, Urayama-san. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

Urayama cocked back his head. "You and everyone else in the circuit has already heard, but it's worth noting that Seigaku have got their monster back."

Tomio yawned loudly. The next ranking tournament was soon and he didn't like thinking about it. There was a wonderful break between the Prefectural and the Regional tournaments. Why weren't Seigaku planning to take advantage of it? "As this rate, I'm going to get sore," he grumbled. "Youth isn't about constantly sweating."

"No, it's about constantly nagging." Enoki peered at the coach. Echizen Ryoma was directing the non-regulars, instructing them on how to hit a heavy forehand. He wove around the pupils, speaking to each individually. Enoki continued, "Are we fickle? We didn't appreciate him much when we thought he was a nobody, and then when we find out about his status, suddenly, we all adore him. What does that make us?"

"Chiharu," said Kanda, "believed in him from the start."

"You spoke!"

There was Chiharu, using a wall as a hitting partner. He didn't wear the expression of the boy who had defeated Yamabuki's freshman ace. His eyebrows had almost knitted together and his mouth was tightly fastened. If anything, an invisible force pushed on his shoulders. It was… worrying.

Nobuo said, "There's somewhere that our Chi-can sneaks off to whenever he can. We should follow him."

Snorting, Morisaki asked, "Let me guess – he's stealing from old men, too?"

"You know that was a mistake."

Yokoto broke in, "Let's do it. There's something up with that kid."

Seigaku's pillar of support.

They were heavy words. They demanded a lot. It was a burden that the coach had borne with pride – he had elevated all his seniors, despite being even younger and smaller than Chiharu. There was no way that the junior could refuse the responsibility. He had to be strong.

After practice, the coach dismissed the club and slipped away, gaze fixed on the clouds. The rainstorm had washed away the last grey clouds. The sky was spring from zenith to nadir, a peerless blue. Behind Chiharu's eyelids he saw a stretch of gold. He'd beheld the colour in only one other place other than the heavens above the temple. It was the hue of the Nationals' trophy.

He had to touch it.

Maybe the coach was going to the temple. That was where Chiharu had first noticed the strange man. Echizen Ryoma, picking up a broom with tangled bristles, sweeping floors. How did people's destinies change so much? How did a child with so much potential grow into a reclusive adult?

Chiharu's chest burned. It wasn't enough to tread where those feet had landed. He had to understand the coach's actions.

He hurried. The wind rushed through the trees. How much longer until he was at the temple? This road had a fierce bend – Chiharu kept going and going. Once or twice he thought he heard voices, low exchanges; he ignored them. They had nothing to do with him.

And then he saw that tall silhouette. Echizen Ryoma's right hand was hooked around his tennis bag. His left was in the pocket of his jeans. Chiharu had never known the coach to wear a suit.

The junior found his gait slowing. Wait. He could not suddenly charge up to the man and demand that he explain all those gaps in the picture. It was not Chiharu's right to know that which had not been shared. He had been given a job to complete. That was more than enough. It would be best if he abandoned his presumptuousness and went home.

Suddenly, a bicycle ripped into Chiharu's path. He jumped back with a yelp. The cyclist hollered, "Sorry kid!" She squeezed both brakes, slammed her feet down on the ground, scraped along the floor and tilted. Chiharu swore.

The cyclist apologised again. She raised a hand breifly before shooting off, chain slinking as she pedalled. Chiharu leant back against a white wall, breathing deeply.

"Oi Chi-chan!"

Turning, he found himself facing the other Seigaku regulars. He started. "What are you guys doing here?" he asked blandly. "In fact – wait, what's going on?"

Nobuo brushed back his fair hair. "We were planning to find out where the heck you went to – then that stupid cyclist nearly killed you, so we got worried. You okay?"

"I'm fine. As for where I was going…" Chiharu shifted his weight. "To be honest, I just wanted to talk to the coach. There's this temple that he sort of works at."

"A tennis coach who works at a temple? That's… a pretty weird mix."

"Yeah, because that's the weirdest thing about him."

"What are we waiting for? Lead the way!"

Somehow, it felt easier to have the others beside him. Captain Morisaki matched his pace to Chiharu's. Nobuo flanked the junior from the left. Tomio skipped along behind, pondering loudly if they could get some snacks on their way home. Enoki and Yokoto were at the very back, watching over the team like two bodyguards.

Afterwards, the Seigaku regulars would always wonder what had happened while they were dealing with the delay involving the bike.

Horio was at the temple, standing with mouth agape. Tomio was about to ask what was going on – Kanda pinched him. The group of eight watched the court. Two people were rallying. The first was the coach. The second was a man with fiery red hair.

"I don't believe this," Horio breathed.

It had been a decent practice, nothing too extreme after their Yamabuki battle. The regulars needed to learn that slacking did not lead to success. June would be wrapping itself around them soon and that would bring another ranking tournament. Ryoma had been carefully watching the club. A few definitely had the potential to bring a fresh element to the team. Of course, the ultimate decision lay with Morisaki. All Ryoma could do was give objective input. Coach and captain needed to work together to achieve harmony.

Ryoma had missed that important step in the middle. He had never carried the weight of the whole school, even during Tezuka Kunimitsu's rehabilitation. Thankfully, the captain had never been plagued by those same vices in his professional career.

The temple was in view. Ryoma marched towards it. As he approached, he heard someone rallying alone. Hah. The old man was more bored than usual. Good. Ryoma's veins were twining; he needed to fight.

He arrived at the court and discovered Tooyama.

"You… what are you doing here?"

The ball bounced against a brick and Tooyama caught it in his right hand. When he met Ryoma's gaze, Seigaku's coach saw that there was an almost ethereal quality to those irises. Ryoma slid the tennis bag from his shoulder, setting it on the paved ground. His mind muttered something about fetching a broom and clearing up. His soles remained firm.

Tooyama's face was strange without its habitual smile. "Koshimae," he called lightly. "You usually come here, right? It felt like the right place to settle things."

He pointed his red racquet.

Ryoma recoiled. He'd been waiting for this moment, privately wondering why Tooyama had delayed sending the battle missive. Now that he was here, he would have to admit the shameful truth aloud. It made his tongue and ears burn. "I'm sorry, Tooyama. I'm not strong enough to counter you."

"That's a lie."

Tooyama stepped forward. He looked taller than usual; his back was straight and his shoulders were squared. His hair stuck out strangely. Untamed.

"You've been scared about your left arm, though you've been playing without it for so long. You're ignoring your own strength. Koshimae, why are you keeping yourself from the thing that makes you happiest? It shouldn't just be their names written on those trophies. It should be ours."

A muscle in Ryoma's jaw twitched. "If you wanted to go pro, why didn't you?"

"It wouldn't have been fun without you."

A bird cawed from its nest and there were flapping wings – Ryoma clenched one fist. Tooyama's eyes were blazing. The idiot was being earnest.

"You're too close-minded," said Ryoma coolly. "There are plenty of others besides me for you to take down. I'm not the strongest or the best. I can't beat my old man."

"You're my rival," Tooyama insisted. "That's why…"

He trailed off and kicked the ground. A pebble skittered across the court and snapped on Ryoma's toes. Tooyama went on, "Do you ever stop and think about our one point match? It almost didn't happen because we'd already lost, but you – you were the one who said that it'd be alright if it was just a point. I remember how pushy I was and how relieved I felt when you agreed to play… after all those stories about you, I decided that you were someone I absolutely had to defeat, even if it meant running a hundred miles to make it. I was crazy."

"You haven't changed."

"You have! The Koshimae from back then confronted all of his challenges fearlessly. You…" Tooyama pointed his racquet at Ryoma again. "If you lose your left arm here, you'll still have your right. And if the worst thing happen, at least you could say that it died fighting a worthy opponent. You recognise, as well as I do, that we're supposed to surpass each other."

Ryoma inhaled. He hooked the tennis bag around his foot and kicked it upwards – he caught it in one hand and withdrew a red racquet. Ryoma threw the handle into his left; at once his nerves screamed. His brain jeered that it was a mistake.

He didn't care.

"Alright," Ryoma agreed, "one game. I'm going to make sure that you lose properly, Tooyama."

"That's my line!"

Ryoma crossed the baseline. He wasn't a stranger to courts, especially not this one. The weight of his left arm… Tooyama was on the other side of the net, feet sturdy, ready to receive serve. Of course. He hadn't been doing nothing for the past decade. That guy had been getting stronger and stronger.

"Here I go!"

And there he went, using the left-handed Twist Serve – Tooyama returned the ball easily – it hurtled towards Ryoma with such haste that he was caught between shouting and cheering; he chose neither and swung into a forehand. Tooyama cartwheeled towards the shot. Ryoma replied by skating across the court. Whenever the ball smacked the gut, another piece of his heart imploded.

"Hey, Koshimae! It's boring to watch those guys from back here. I owe that scary one and you owe your captain. Once we're done, let's finish them off!"

"No can do!"

Ryoma jumped and used all his force to send a punishing smash at Tooyama. The other almost dragged his racquet against the ground – the ball careered towards Ryoma while he was still airborne. He swore and twisted awkwardly to return it. The ball cuffed the top of the net and went over. Ryoma landed. It wasn't enough to stop Tooyama continuing the rally.

"The coach can't go running off. I want to see Seigaku at the Nationals. I want to see them lifting the trophy they deserve!"

Tooyama played a drop shot. Ryoma almost reached it.

Almost.

"Love-fifteen," announced Tooyama. "Hah. That wasn't nearly forty minutes, Koshimae."

"I'm not done yet."

"Yeah you are!" The pair swivelled – Uesugi was standing close to the court. His small face was blazing. "You need to go, Coach! You need to go out there and inspire us all!"

Ryoma started. "I – what about you?"

Uesugi jabbed a thumb at his chest. "I'm the pillar," he declared. "Besides, you're forgetting something. We had an excellent coach before you came along, so put us back in his capable hands!"

Ryoma's prickling eyes travelled from Uesugi's to Horio's. The temple had teeming with onlookers. All of the regulars were there. Some were shaking.

"You're right. Your former coach… he will definitely lead you to the Nationals."

Horio gave a resolute nod and Echizen Ryoma hoped that his old friend understood the depths of his gratitude. If not today, then maybe tomorrow.

Then he brought his focus to the current problem. Tooyama was smug, having won that last point. An ache in Ryoma's elbow? He would happily increase the pain a hundred fold – it was endurable if he could smack down this idiot of a neighbour.

"You waited ten years," Ryoma called. "Before, we played for one point. This time, we're finishing a single game. When we finally play a full match – the whole world will be our audience!"

"Sounds good to me, Ryoma!"

"Take this, Kintarou!"

Ryoma served again. The rally was much shorter – the ball shot from racquet to racquet. He heard the regulars' gasps. A new road stretched before them all.

Horio announced, "Fifteen-all."

They were equals and friends.

Rivals.

end.