As soon as Ryouma came within range of the crowd noise that enveloped the high school tennis courts he started praying that his captain had a lineup for the ranking matches that would make the day, in some way, less annoying. He counted three professional grade cameras before he managed to sidle past the last shrill clump of fangirls to reach the board. He blinked a few times, as he scanned it, and pursed his lips in a silent whistle.
The good news was that he and Tezuka-buchou were in the same block. The bad news was that most of the players Ryouma knew to be weaker were also in that block. Glancing up at the person who came up behind him, Ryouma cocked his head.
“Stacking the deck, Buchou?” he asked.
“It’s the captain’s job to balance the blocks in whatever way will give us the strongest team,” Tezuka-buchou pointed out.
“I noticed. Are we really that hard up in doubles, though?” Ryouma asked. His only answer was an even look, but he caught a glint of approval there, too, that he had interpreted the lineup correctly.
It was more or less a given that Kikumaru-senpai and Oishi-senpai were separated. But this time, all the potential doubles pairs were separated. Fuji-senpai from Kikumaru-senpai. Inui-senpai from Kaidou-senpai. Kaidou-senpai from Momo-senpai. Momo from both Oishi and Kikumaru. And then, after taking this precaution, then Tezuka-buchou had thrown all the better players the club had to offer against them.
Leaving, Ryouma was still rather disgruntled to note, the worst players in A block with he and the captain, where none of them would interfere with whatever would be hashed out in the other blocks. He sighed.
“Both Hyoutei and Rikkai have all their strongest doubles pairs in play this year,” Tezuka-buchou commented.
“I know,” Ryouma shot a grin over his shoulder. “I know what the job is, Buchou; though I’m glad you’re stuck with it, this year. Guess I’ll live with being bored this time around.”
“Not,” his captain said, with a sharper glint in his eye this time, “for long.”
The grin got wider. “Whatever you say, Buchou,” Ryouma agreed, and strolled toward the far court and his first match with a bounce in his step. The promise of a serious match against his captain could make up for a lot of boredom.
He was clinging to that thought two days later, and couldn’t quite suppress a sigh of relief when he finished off his last mandatory opponent. Finally. A quick look around showed that he hadn’t been the only one looking forward to this. Just about the entire club was drifting, as if casually, toward B court. Ryouma snorted.
“So,” he said, as he and Tezuka-buchou met at the net, “is it okay to beat the captain?”
One of his captain’s brows gained an ironic arch at this echo of their very first matches. “If you can,” he answered, coolly.
Ryouma certainly tried. Perhaps, though, their audience lent even Tezuka-buchou an extra edge of determination not to lose. Despite every trick Ryouma had learned in two years of playing against him, Ryouma couldn’t pull ahead enough to win. In the end, Tezuka-buchou took the match 7-6; Ryouma heard Ryuuzaki-sensei’s voice in his head grumbling about bone-headed boys and the ridiculousness of a ranking match going to tie-break. A quick glance at the sidelines, and her expression, told him that was probably exactly what she was really doing. Ryouma ignored that, as he thumped down on a bench beside his captain and accepted a towel with a breathless nod.
He also ignored the storm of whispers and exclamations from the rest of the club, and even the Regulars, except for Momo and Fuji-senpai who both looked amused each in his own way. It couldn’t really be that much of a surprise, that he had caught up to Tezuka-buchou, could it? He sniffed, imagining what would happen the first time he actually did win. He’d only managed it twice so far, to be sure, but hitting a moving target was most of the fun.
It was harder to ignore when Kikumaru-senpai pounced on him at the end of practice, while everyone was changing.
“Looks like you’re growing up, Ochibi!” Kikumaru-senpai told him with a grin, ruffling his hair.
“Kikumaru-senpai,” Ryouma said, with a long-suffering look, “I’m the same height you are, now.”
“Can’t be!” Kikumaru declared, looking him up and down with wide eyes. “Inui, he isn’t really, right?”
“Yes, in fact, he is,” Inui-senpai answered, very calmly.
Ryouma gave him a dirty look. He knew, and he knew Inui-senpai knew, that refusing to take part in Kikumaru-senpai’s enthusiasm just inspired him to greater heights to compensate. Sure enough, Kikumaru demanded that their heights be compared right then and there, which involved a certain amount of admonition from Oishi-senpai to be fair and stand with his heels flat to the floor, while Inui watched with a wicked quirk to his mouth.
“Exactly the same height,” Oishi-senpai reported, at last.
“But that means he’s gotten taller than Fuji!” Kikumaru-senpai protested.
“Fuji-senpai’s little brother has been taller than him for years,” Ryouma pointed out, finishing changing. “I doubt he minds.”
Before the glint in Fuji’s eye could materialize into anything unfortunate, Ryouma cast an appealing glance at Momo and made his escape under cover of his senpai’s farewells. Momo was laughing as he caught up.
“I almost forgot how much you liven the team up, Echizen,” he chuckled.
Ryouma snorted and didn’t mention that he was glad to be back with his proper team. Momo-senpai’s smile said he knew already.
The first round of ranking matches looked likely to set the tone for the whole season, Ryouma quickly decided. Stretches of boredom broken here and there with matches good enough to be worth it. Fudoumine was the carrot of the district preliminaries, and Ryouma had a good match against Shinji-san, his most common opponent from Fudoumine. Shinji-san must have thought so, too; he didn’t slip into any side commentary on their games the entire time. Ryouma was hoping to find some decent action sometime before the very end of Prefecturals, too.
At least, he was until he happened to get a look at Ryuuzaki-sensei’s clipboard full of lineups.
He and Tezuka-buchou were taking Singles One or Two for every match.
He wasn’t even going to get to play until the quarterfinals at this rate!
Ryouma spent the weekend in tight lipped silence. He didn’t trust himself not to snap if he did say anything. He’d never lost his temper in public, and he wasn’t going to now. Momo looked a bit concerned, but let him have his space and nudged the rest of the team away from him. Ryouma was grateful for that.
He watched how the rest of the lineups worked out, hoping to see what reason his captain or coach could have for arranging things like this. It took a while to spot, but eventually he decided it wasn’t about any one slot. It was about one player. The only one who played in every single match was Fuji-senpai. He was most often in Singles Three. Wherever he was, though, he always played.
Finally, Ryouma took the opportunity, as they watched Fuji-senpai sounding out yet another opponent, to approach Tezuka-buchou when he was a little apart from the rest of the team. After a few more minutes of watching quietly, Ryouma spoke.
“Buchou, why are you still trying to draw Fuji-senpai out this late?”
His captain shot him an expressionless, sideways glance that gave nothing away. Which was, of course, a dead give-away to anyone who had put in the kind of time Ryouma had watching the tiny cues of Tezuka-buchou’s reactions.
“He won’t be going on in tennis, after this year, will he?” Ryouma asked.
“He won’t,” his captain agreed.
“Then why?” Ryouma persisted. This time, Tezuka-buchou looked at him more directly, and Ryouma gave the look back. If he was getting cut out of the games because of this, he thought he had a right to know the reason behind it. Tezuka-buchou didn’t do things this drastic without a good reason.
If the reason really was purely to test Ryouma’s self-control, he was probably going to fail right here and now; but he didn’t think that was it.
“While he is still a member of my team, I will do my best to call out the best game he can possibly play,” Tezuka-buchou answered, tone unyielding.
Ryouma waited, watching his face; not with challenge, now, but with a silent appeal to the trust between his captain and this member of his team. Tezuka-buchou sighed, very faintly, and looked out over the court where Fuji had decided to wrap things up briskly.
“The things you learn on the court—do they apply only to the game of tennis?” he asked.
The first thing that flashed through Ryouma’s mind was a series of encounters, some successful and some disastrous, with other sports. But then other things recalled themselves to him. Where he had gotten the discipline to keep countenance when he moved and had to deal with the shock of a whole new world. Where he had learned cooperation of any kind. Where he had learned the genuine pride in himself that let him choose his path without fear of anyone’s shadow. He lowered his head a bit, glancing aside toward the court.
“He is toying with them less and less,” he noted, as a roundabout peace offering.
Tezuka-buchou’s eyes were gentler as he looked back at Ryouma. “Yes,” he said. If Ryouma had had to guess, he would have bet that it was relief hidden behind the Captain’s Face, this time.
They stood in companionable quiet as the results of the match were called.
“I’m starving,” Momo declared as they all packed up for the day. “Anyone else want to grab some food?”
Ryouma tossed an Of course grin over his shoulder.
“That could be good,” Kikumaru-senpai decided. “Oishi?”
Oishi-senpai looked up from his bag with a regretful smile. “I have some extra studying I have to get done tonight.”
“You’re always doing extra studying, lately. You’re getting test anxiety way to early!” Kikumaru admonished. “I haven’t started studying for exams. Fuji hasn’t, right?” He waved at Fuji-senpai, who agreed, looking amused. “Tezuka hasn’t either!”
Tezuka-buchou glanced up from the papers he was making quick notes on. “Our schedules are arranged so that we have time to concentrate on Nationals now, and exams after that,” he observed. “But Oishi’s exams are more intensive than the usual.”
Ryouma’s head came up as Kikumaru sighed and leaned on his partner’s shoulder, offering to come make some food while he studied so he would eat something. The tone of “our schedules” had caught his ear.
“Buchou?” he asked, trying to stifle his alarm.
Tezuka-buchou seemed to spot it anyway, from the long, level look he gave Ryouma. “College,” he confirmed, and then added, “first.”
Ryouma started breathing again. The horrifying thought that this might be the last year he could play Tezuka-buchou receded, and he relaxed and finished packing. He also muttered, very quietly to himself, about bad senpai who thought it was fun to scare him like that.
Fuji-senpai agreed to come along for a bite, and the three of them headed off. Ryouma was still rather glum, contemplating the fact that one of his best targets was now going to be behind him rather than in front of him, where he could aim properly. Momo elbowed him.
“What are you sulking about, Echizen? You’ve already won against Tezuka-buchou, haven’t you? I thought we’d have to sweep people’s jaws up, along with the tennis balls, that day.”
Ryouma shrugged, impatiently. “He’ll just win next time, though. I’m not ahead of him, yet.”
“So, what’s to stop you from nagging the poor guy for matches while he’s in college?” Momo asked with a wry smile.
Ryouma’s mood brightened, at that. Maybe Tezuka-buchou wouldn’t mind; just every now and then…
Fuji was laughing. “It’s good to know you’ll be doing something you enjoy so much, Echizen,” he said.
Ryouma glanced sidelong at Fuji-senpai, hesitating. “Will you be, too?” he asked, finally.
“Yes. I will.” Fuji-senpai smiled at him, more reassuring than his usual smile, and Ryouma ducked his head, satisfied. He chewed on his lip for a moment before asking the next question.
“Will he?” Ryouma glanced back the way they had come.
After a thoughtful moment, Fuji nodded. “Yes, I think he will, too.” And then his mouth curled up.
“Moreso after he graduates and catches you up again, of course.”