Ryouma didn’t exactly mind that Nationals were over. After all, they had won. He did, however, mind that the third years were retiring from the tennis club. How was he supposed to beat all his senpai if they weren’t around to play against?
On the other hand, in the midst of the day’s goodbyes, and team bonding, and dodging Kikumaru-senpai, he had wandered across Tezuka-buchou explaining Momo’s new duties to him, and that was good for a laugh.
A silent laugh, so Tezuka-buchou wouldn’t send him away.
“…and, of course, the assignments for the ranking matches,” Tezuka-buchou finished. “It’s a good idea to keep a running list of which players might balance out the blocks.”
Momo looked a little dazed, and Ryouma couldn’t resist needling just a little. “Sounds like the job is mostly paperwork,” he noted. “Maybe it should have been Kaidou-senpai after all; he’s a lot better at finishing homework on time.”
His friend shot a glare over his shoulder while Ryuuzaki-sensei grinned.
“Kaidou is very conscientious,” Tezuka-buchou agreed, evenly. “But Momoshiro has developed a better eye for broad strategy.”
Momo blinked at this unusually direct compliment, and looked down, almost fidgeting. His embarrassment would have been another good opportunity for teasing, which would only be fair turnabout, really, but Ryouma only tugged down his cap a bit, acknowledging his captain’s unspoken command to stop poking holes in the new captain’s confidence.
Ryuuzaki-sensei got in the last word, though, which Ryouma supposed he should have expected.
“I wouldn’t laugh too hard, Ryouma,” she said, dryly. “After all, it’s almost certain to be you in another year.”
Ryouma choked, and stared at her, wide-eyed, as Momo snickered.
“So, Echizen,” Momo called over the whir of bike wheels, “how many times a week do you think you’re going to have to smack Arai’s ego down?”
Ryouma made a face. Despite riding backwards and not being able to see his friend, he was sure Momo was grinning. “Inui-senpai does averages, not me.”
The fact was, though, after finally making it into a regular slot in the wake of the departing third years, Arai had gotten even more annoying. And Ryouma had, in fact, stooped to deliberately showing him up a few times just to make him quiet down.
“And here I thought you had a schedule,” Momo said, lightly. “It’s seemed like you were taking some trouble to keep him in line the past couple weeks.”
Ryouma made a noncommittal noise.
“Especially when he starts in on Kachirou,” Momo added, perfectly casual.
Ryouma appreciated the sideways tact Momo used to ask him questions like this. Because, of course, the question behind Momo’s comments was What are you trying to maneuver your teammates into? Momo had gotten very good at guessing what kind of things Ryouma wouldn’t like to admit to out loud. He leaned against Momo’s back and shrugged, knowing his friend would feel it. “We need more people who can play doubles, don’t we?”
Momo was quiet for a moment. “You think Kachirou will be good enough to make it into the Regulars by spring?”
Ryouma, since he was out of sight, let himself smile at Momo’s tone. It was serious and focused, the tone of a team captain asking for the opinion of one of his players before he made a decision. It was the tone that, when used in front of Kaidou-senpai, made him stop hissing and growling over what an idiot Momo was. Not, of course, that he ever did that where anyone but Momo or Ryouma was likely to hear.
“He has the ability, as long as he has the chance to work on it,” Ryouma answered. “And he’ll work for it.” He left it unspoken that Kachirou had more of Seigaku’s spirit, that way, than Arai did. He thought Momo had probably already noticed that.
“All right, we’ll work on it,” Momo said, decisively. “Anyone else you’ve got your eye on?”
“You’re the captain,” Ryouma pointed out. “Momo-buchou.”
“Oh, knock it off,” Momo growled.
Ryouma was perfectly straight-faced, as he waited for Momo to lock up.
“Long day, wasn’t it?” he prodded.
“Oh, yeah, go ahead and laugh,” Momo complained.
“All those new first years watching you.”
“Looking up to you as a role model.”
“Lot of responsibility, isn’t it?”
Momo turned around and glowered at him, sorting through his keys for the one to his bike chain.
“Do you wish Tezuka-buchou had picked Kaidou-senpai yet?” Ryouma finished, raising his brows inquiringly.
“If I agree to pay for food, will you shut up about this?” Momo asked, just a little plaintively.
Ryouma grinned. “Sure.”
“Brat.” Momo slung an arm across Ryouma’s shoulders as they headed for the bike racks. Ryouma hunched them just a little, thankful that he was getting big enough not to be pulled off his feet by that maneuver anymore. Which probably made it less effective retribution, from Momo’s point of view, but that was just too bad. Ryouma had always done his part of their roughhousing more subtlely, twitting Momo with jabs of words or expression. If it bugged Momo that physical retaliation couldn’t keep up his end of the game anymore, he was perfectly capable of switching tactics.
Maybe that new responsibility was affecting Momo’s brain, though, because he hesitated, and cocked his head at Ryouma. “Do you really mind it?” he asked, tightening his arm for a second.
Ryouma blinked and shrugged, not hard enough to dislodge the arm. “No big deal,” he muttered. Certainly, it had gotten a little wearing to be pounced on by Kikumaru-senpai. But Momo was just like that, and he’d gotten used to it. Momo didn’t mind that Ryouma was quiet and obnoxious, and Ryouma didn’t mind that Momo was loud and obnoxious. They met in the middle, and it all worked out. He hadn’t really thought it needed to be said.
“Good,” Momo declared. “Didn’t think so, but…” He ruffled a hand through Ryouma’s hair.
Ryouma swatted the hand away, glaring. Momo grinned.
“C’mon, Echizen, food’s on me,” he said, airily. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and there’ll be something interesting on the street courts tonight.”
The team was coming together, no one had broken anyone’s neck, the club’s fans were actually a little quieter than usual, they were into training for the tournament season, and Ryouma could feel his edge slipping.
What was even more annoying was that his dad noticed it.
It would have been less annoying that Ryuuzaki-sensei noticed, too, if she’d had anything useful to say on the subject.
“You need more competition, Ryouma, this year’s team isn’t strong enough to keep you moving along.”
Ryouma eyed her from under his cap. “I know.”
“And he’s not the only one,” Momo put in from where he was fishing out his water bottle. “But that’s easier said than done.”
Their coach gave them a half-lidded stare. “Maybe.” And then she strolled away.
Momo and Ryouma looked at each other.
“What was that about?” Momo wanted to know.
Kaidou sniffed, on his way past. “Idiot,” he stated, quietly.
“What?!” Momo growled, just as quietly.
Ryouma hid a smile. Positions of responsibility hadn’t stopped them bickering. They just did it more softly now. Wouldn’t do for the captain and vice-captain to have a screaming fight in the middle of practice. He had overheard Ryuuzaki-sensei explaining this to them very clearly after the first time they did have one, and both of them had been rubbing their ears as they emerged from that little talk.
“I’ll lock up today,” Kaidou-senpai said.
Momo blinked at this non sequitur, but Ryouma suddenly remembered Kaidou-senpai, last week, consulting something that looked a lot like a recently updated exercise menu in Inui-senpai’s writing. He remembered thinking, just a bit enviously, that maybe Kaidou was still practicing with Inui-senpai. Ryouma almost heard his brain click as it all fell together. He eyed Momo. “Not a very long walk to the high school campus,” Ryouma observed. “We should make it if we leave right after practice.”
“Just a walk up the hill,” Momo agreed, smiling now, apparently pleased enough to ignore Kaidou’s mutter of Took you long enough.
Ryouma tipped his head and gave Kaidou’s back a one-sided grin. “Thanks, Kaidou-senpai.”
Kaidou-senpai waved it off, brusquely. For one instant, Ryouma dearly wished for one of Fuji-senpai’s cameras, because he could have blackmailed Momo for years with a shot of the nearly affectionate look he gave his yearmate.
So Momo and Ryouma snuck off the instant practice was over, and made their way uphill. Momo’s cheerful smile got them directions to the tennis courts, and Ryouma was somehow unsurprised to see Fuji-senpai, Inui-senpai and Tezuka-buchou leaning against the fence while the last of the high school tennis club left. Inui-senpai smiled an unnervingly pleased smile, and held out a hand to Fuji-senpai. Fuji-senpai silently dug in his pocket and dropped coins into Inui-senpai’s palm. Then he smiled at them, too.
“That was quicker than I expected,” he told them, genially.
Ryouma stifled the urge to step quickly behind Momo. He was too big for that to be really effective anymore.
“Ryuuzaki-sensei obtained permission for us to use the courts after hours,” Tezuka-buchou told them without preamble.
Ryouma felt the tingle of anticipation for a good game sweep through him, and nearly sighed with relief. He hadn’t felt that nearly often enough, since winter started. There was a nice glow, a relaxation into the effort, that came when he played Momo, but it didn’t put sharp edges on the world and make his blood sing.
“What are we waiting for, then?” he asked.
Doubles pairs were peculiar things, Ryouma decided. He understood a little better the players who could do doubles or singles with equal facility, like Kachirou, or Ibu and Kamio. But the dedicated pairs were just weird. He could swear that he’d just finished playing two people, despite the fact that only Ohtori had stood on the court and that Shishido had barely said a word the entire game. Watching Momo gradually box in Hiyoshi, Ryouma reflected that maybe he was glad he still really didn’t work very well in doubles. He didn’t mind being part of a team; and there were people he didn’t mind being close to, if they understood each other. But that was… understanding. Two people who were just on the same wavelength. It wasn’t so… intrusive.
As they gathered up to leave, Ryouma took a look at the lemon-sucking expression on the face of Hyoutei’s captain and the light of absolute determination in his eye, and his mouth quirked.
“Maybe, if we play Hyoutei again, this year, you should put Kaidou-senpai up against Hiyoshi,” he suggested to Momo. “I bet they’d get along.”
Momo laughed. “I’d put a little more weight on whether Kaidou can beat him than whether they get along.”
“It goes together,” Ryouma pointed out. “Tachibana, Atobe, Sanada, Yukimura, Tezuka-buchou—it’s why they play good games against each other.”
Momo looked at him rather oddly, and Ryouma raised his brows. He couldn’t believe that Momo hadn’t seen it; in fact, he knew Momo had seen it, because he’d commented on it before, if not quite in the same terms.
“You have a strange definition of getting along, Echizen,” Momo said, at last.
Ryouma blinked and shrugged. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. And you’re right about Kaidou and Hiyoshi.” Momo looked thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe that would work.”
Ryouma nodded. He’d known Momo would understand.
Theoretically, Ryouma was doing homework over at Momo’s house.
Actually, he had long since finished his own English homework, checked Momo’s, and moved along to snooping in Momo’s paperwork, which was a lot more interesting.
“You put us in the same block again?” he asked. “Kaidou-senpai is going to accuse you of keeping the good competition for yourself, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” Momo agreed, draping himself off his bed and over Ryouma’s shoulder.
Ryouma eyed him sidelong and sighed.
“What?” Momo grinned. “You did say you didn’t mind.”
Ryouma opened his mouth to point out that he hadn’t said he didn’t mind Momo taking the place of his jacket, but then closed it again. To say that would immediately invite the question of whether he really did mind, and he would then have to admit that he didn’t. It was just Momo and Momo wasn’t annoying like that, though he doubted he could explain why not, if pressed. Better not to say anything.
“Besides,” Momo went on, more seriously, “if I put myself and Kaidou in the same block we might get careless because we’re in too much of a hurry to get at each other. And this lets me put Arai and Kachirou in separate blocks, too.
Which could only be considered a good idea, Ryouma admitted. Arai had never quite gotten past his whole seniority thing.
“You know, everyone thinks it’s some kind of miracle that you and Kaidou-senpai can play doubles together when you don’t do anything but fight anywhere else,” he mused.
Momo shrugged. “We fight enough that we know each other. I trust his strength, and he trusts my belief in it. That’s all we really need.”
Ryouma smiled, and glanced at his friend. “Not bad, Momo-buchou.”
“Just you wait, Echizen,” Momo told him, with a dark look. “Your turn’s coming up, and I’m going to get my laugh in, too, before I go.”
Another day, another round of paperwork. Ryouma was starting to wonder whether he could convince Ryuuzaki-sensei to make Kachirou captain next year.
Today, though, there was something of more personal interest than usual.
“Hm?” Momo asked, from the depths of his Science textbook.
“You’re putting me in Singles One against Josuikan.”
“You think we’re going to get to Singles One, against them?”
“Momo,” Ryouma growled, completely out of patience.
Momo looked up with a wry smile. “I know you want to play absolutely every match you possibly can, Echizen. But it isn’t good for the team to always rely on you to pull their nuts out of the fire, and it isn’t good for you to get into the habit of carrying too much. You should get a little bit of rest, at this point in the season.”
“Rest?” Ryouma repeated, with careful disbelief.
“Yeah, rest.” Momo sounded both amused and a little exasperated. “That thing you think you never need. You have to learn to pace yourself someday, you know. Not,” Momo added, turning a page, “that I have any reason to think I’ll be able to convince you to do it, when Tezuka-san couldn’t.”
Ryouma sat back, grimacing. He hated it when Momo got all reasonable on him. He supposed it was a good thing it didn’t happen too often. “As if you have room to talk,” he grumbled, quietly.
“Yeah, it’s always hard to judge for yourself,” Momo agreed, easily. “That’s what we have other people for.”
Ryouma gave it up. Not that he wasn’t going to glower at appropriate moments, to remind Momo that he was annoyed about this. But he’d known from the start that Momo had a protective streak. The fact that it always irritated Ryouma when it was applied to him just made it the more ironic that it was a major reason he had trusted Momo immediately.
Besides, Momo had a point about the team. If Momo wanted his players to take Ryouma’s example, rather than let Ryouma do all the work… well, that was how a captain should think.
Ryouma really wondered whether he could pawn the position off on someone else.
“We should…” a yawn interrupted Momo, “get going, if you want to catch Atobe at the park courts tonight.”
Ryouma stayed right where he was, sprawled in the warm grass under the trees. “Up late last night?” he asked.
Momo waved a hand dismissively, and then had to use it to cover another yawn. “My sister has an earache,” he admitted. “I stayed up with her, reading, when she couldn’t get to sleep. Anyway,” he prodded Ryouma in the ankle with a toe, “you wanted the practice against Atobe to be sure you’re in good shape to take Kirihara next week. We should head out.”
“No hurry,” Ryouma said, folding his arms behind his head.
“You’re just like that cat of yours,” Momo accused, slumping back down himself. “Impossible to move once you get comfortable.”
Less than ten minutes later a faint snore sounded beside Ryouma, and he smiled. He did have to suppress a start when Momo rolled over to use him as a pillow, though. He’d woken up like that, often enough, but usually he was asleep himself before they managed to sprawl into each other. Personally, Ryouma blamed buses. First they made you fall asleep, and then they made you fall over.
He pulled his bag over to make a pillow for himself. He could track down Atobe later.
“All things considered, I expect you already know how this job works,” Ryuuzaki-sensei told Ryouma.
He gave her a resigned look, waiting for her to finish whatever official lecture would seal his doom.
Momo was snickering.
“Congratulations, you’re captain. It’s more than I ever managed to wring out of your father. Enjoy it. Or not. Now get out of here and go say your goodbyes.” She waved them off.
“So,” Momo said, getting his laughter under control as they moved back towards the courts, “what do I have to bribe you with to get you to keep helping me with English while I study for exams?”
After a judicious moment of consideration, Ryouma rejected the bill for food as too easy. “You have to listen to me complain about the paperwork,” he decided.
“Deal,” Momo agreed, instantly. “I’ll stick around campus until practice is over, then; it’ll make it easier if you keep riding home with me.”
Ryouma eyed his friend. “Thinking of ‘sticking around’ the courts?” he asked, pointedly.
Momo looked a bit sheepish. “Eh, you guessed.”
“Study inside, Momo-senpai,” Ryouma told him. “We can practice for real up the hill.”
Momo grinned at him, wryly. “Whatever you say, buchou.”
Ryouma glared, and had his hair ruffled for his trouble. Still, he supposed he had earned that one. Captain. He suppressed a shudder. Should be an interesting year. He let Momo wind an arm around his shoulders and steer him back to his club.