“It’ll be a handicap match. You and Echizen against me, okay?” Momoshiro asked.
“No.” Momoshiro raised his brow at Yamato’s reply. “I don’t play Doubles.”
“Fine then, I’ll play against each of you, one on one,” Momoshiro shrugged. He turned to Ryoma as Yamato exited the court. “Which?”
“Which? Smooth?” Katsuo and Kachiro asked, confused at the two vocabularies.
“That’s why I don’t like beginners,” Horio said arrogantly. Holding up his racquet for demonstration, he explained, “Those are terms used to determine who serves first. If the grip faces right side up, it’s called smooth. If it faces down side up, it’s called rough.”
“Too bad, it’s rough,” Momoshiro said. “Well, I’ll let you serve, but I’ll take this court.”
“Momoshiro-senpai, don’t you want to serve first?” Horio asked loudly. “You won the toss.”
“I want to see the Twist Serve right away,” the elder said with his usual grin.
“Momoshiro-senpai, you’re so cool!”
“Call me Momo-chan,” Momoshiro said in a warm voice.
“I can’t call you that!….Can I be the umpire?”
“Go ahead,” Momoshiro shrugged.
Horio eagerly climbed up the ladder and sat on the chair. He cleared his throat and began. “Er…and now, the game between Momoshiro-senpai and Echizen will begin. The referee will be me, Horio, who has two years of tennis experience–”
“Forget about all that and begin the game!” yelled the annoying girl from outside the courts.
“So now, Best-of-One-Set Match. Echizen to serve,” Horio announced.
“Out,” Momoshiro called as Ryoma’s first serve landed just outside the service box. The senpai held out his racquet and pointed it at Ryoma. “I don’t’ want any slice serves. Don’t hold out on me.”
“No,” came Ryoma’s blunt reply.
“Arrogant brat,” Momoshiro mused.
Obliging to his senpai’s request, Ryoma crossed his right foot over his left, leaned to his right, jumped and served. The ball flew over the net, stopping right before Momoshiro, flying up and knocking Momoshiro’s racquet from his hand.
“Scary, scary.” Momoshiro leaned over to pick up his racquet, grinning. He walked to the net and crouched down in a ready position. “Caught me off guard.”
“Are you okay?” Ryoma checked, smirking slightly and causing his senpai to frown. “You’re sweating.”
“Fifteen-Love,” Horio called from the umpire chair.
Ryoma bounced the ball a few times and performed the Twist Serve again.
“Thirty-Love, Echizen leading.”
Ryoma served again. As soon as the ball touched Ryoma’s racquet, Momoshiro rushed to the net and hit the serve right after it bounced. It bounced once over the net before falling over on Ryoma’s side. Ryoma ran and got it before it bounced again.
“Out,” Momoshiro called.
“Thirty-Fifteen, Echizen leading.”
“He returned the serve,” said an amazed Katsuo.
Ryoma went to the other side and served. A rally started, the ball constantly being hit back and forth. Ryoma ended it by suddenly hitting a drop volley right before the net.
“Drop volley,” Momoshiro muttered as he fell down. “You can do that too?”
“Forty-Fifteen, Echizen leading.”
“Mada mada dane,” Ryoma smirked and transferred his racquet to his left hand.
“Time out,” Momoshiro said just before Ryoma threw the ball up. Waving his hand, he said, “I quit. It’s over. I’ll let you go, for now.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” Ryoma said as he walked out of the court, putting his gakuran over his tennis outfit.
“That was great!” Horio exclaimed as he stood in front of Ryoma, trying to see inside his bag.
“I was very surprised,” came Kachiro, who was standing next to him.
“Echizen, what clubs do you train at?” Horio asked.
Ryoma looked up at them, and replied in a monotonous voice, “Temple.”
“Temple?” the three boys blinked in incomprehension.
“Wait, Tomo-chan,” Sakuno requested in vain as the annoying girl continued to pull her into the court.
“Good to make your acquaintance,” Tomoko greeted, bowing very lowly to Ryoma. “I’m friends with Ryuzaki Sakuno. My name is Osakada Tomoka. Nice to meet you.”
“He…Hello Ryoma-kun,” Sakuno stuttered, blushing. “I’m sorry about last time.”
“Ryuzaki Sakuno?” Ryoma blinked. “Who’s that?”
“You don’t remember?” Sakuno’s face turned red from embarrassment.
Momoshiro was looking expectantly at Yamato. “Next?”
Yamato let his gaze rest on him for a while. “Sorry. I generally don’t play with injured people.”
With that, he made his exit, nine pairs of eyes trailing on him.
“Are you okay with this, Momoshiro?” the old woman asked.
“Ah, Ryuzaki-sensei.” He was shocked that she could appear in so many places.
“At this rate, the freshmen will have run all over you,” Sakuno’s grandmother scolded. “What more if you played them both?”
“You could be right,” Momoshiro mumbled, scratching the back of his head.
“Be serious.” His coach crossed her arms over her chest. “If your right foot wasn’t sprained, you could’ve—”
“Nope. They both knew from the start,” Momoshiro cut in. “That’s why the other one refused to play with me.”
“Really?” Ryuzaki mused.
“One used his other hand to play a senpai,” he sighed. “How scary. What’s his name again?”
“Echizen Ryoma,” Ryuzaki repeated for the hundredth time.
“And the other one?”
“He’s…I think his files said his name is Yamato Rai.”
“Scary, scary,” Momoshiro mumbled. He placed his racquet over his shoulder and walked away.
He was grinning.
Rai walked along a deserted street. He was nearing a narrow alley when something caught his attention.
He stopped but did not turn. A group of high school students had been following him since he got off the bullet train. Also, Rai noticed that all four of them had been his opponents in another tennis competition, held days after the one with Sasabe.
“You there.” One of them stepped forward, his voice gruff. “You short little kid. You took what was ours!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rai said as he saw another group of boys walking around the corner. “Neither do I know who you are.”
The other group farther away was a group of six junior high students. From Seigaku. In tennis jerseys. Rai’s face showed sheer indifference and nonchalance as he looked straight ahead, in the direction of the junior highs.
“Should we do something?” a red-head with a cat-like face asked.
“Not until we know what this is about,” another, one with thick black-rimmed glasses, said.
“Don’t give me that shit!” Finally, Rai turned his head to see the high school kids seething with rage. “You must’ve cheated to win my trophy!”
The exasperation was not seen on his face, but Rai said, as uncaring as possible, “There are really those who think they’re the best in everything in the world, and think they possess everything. If the trophy was yours, then there’d be no need for a contest.”
“I got it last year!” he raged “You must have bribed the umpires!”
Rai faced front again. “How would bribing an umpire affect the direction that the ball goes?”
He started walking until he felt a hand gripping his shoulder.
“Let go.” Rai’s voice was positively lower and silkier, in short, dangerous.
“Give it to me.”
“I said. Let go.” When he did not respond, Rai repeated. “I said let go so let go.”
“Give it.” The guy’s slack grip tightened ever so slightly.
“Last warning. Let go.”
“Give me. The damn. Trophy!”
The high school guy drew back his fist and aimed a punch at Rai. His fist hit nothing but air. All Rai did was tilt his body thirty degrees to the left.
The guy gave another punch…And another, and another, and another. Not once did his skin even touch Rai’s. Not once did he get hit. Not once did he step away from his spot.
“His reflexes and flexibility are remarkable,” the one with thick glasses murmured.
One of his comrades sneaked up on the freshman. He looked at the oncoming attacker from the corner of his eye, having felt, seen, and heard him. The attacker aimed a punch at him at the same time their ‘leader’ did.
Rai smirked. The two punches were from opposite directions. He could hit two birds without a stone. He ducked at the last moment, allowing the two older students to punch each other.
All four charged and attacked Rai. Well, tried to, anyway. All they kept hitting were air and themselves. Upon seeing that they did not plan on stopping, Rai seceded to switch from the defensive to the offensive.
The next unfortunate man that punched had his wrist grabbed and was thrown across the large rectangular garbage bin. A few others followed, leaving the leader.
“Wow,” the redhead muttered. “This guy’s good!”
A feminine-looking boy with an ever-present smile nodded. “Have any of you noticed that he hasn’t moved from his spot since a while ago?”
“Eh? You’re right!” one with a weird bowl-shaped hairdo exclaimed. One of the guys hauled himself out of the garbage bin, a broken beer bottle in hand. “Look out!”
They really did not need to say it. Rai was ready even before the assailant charged at him. When he was a few feet from him, the freshman gave him a single forty-five degree kick. The assailant’s body arched and his feet rose an inch or so from the ground, as the bottle flew from his hands.
He let the kick reverberate for a while, letting him feel the pain, before giving him another. That one made the guy fly back into the garbage bin. The bottle flew in a small arc, landed behind Rai’s left foot and smashed into pieces. More than seven shards of glass pierced through his skin and leg warmers.
Their leader looked at his injury, grinning like a maniac. But when he saw the latter’s unemotional face, void of all emotion, pain included, he freaked out. But since there were witnesses, he tried to finish his business with one last punch. When the guy was about three meters from him, Rai let the strap of his tennis bag slip down his arm and threw it upward. The battle cry the guy let out was cut short when Rai’s foot connected with his gut. The high school student crumpled to the ground, held up only by the limb digging into his torso.
“You’re out of luck.” Rai leaned forward, close enough to whisper, “My patience is very short today.”
With that, he flicked the bod off his foot and hit it with an outstretched palm, thumb tucked in. The high school guy was sent flying into the bin’s interior, with the lid banging close after his entry.
Rai walked toward the Seigaku regulars, inevitable since that was his route, stopped, looked at every one of them, bowed and left.
Like a while ago, six pairs of eyes trailed on Rai until he turned the bend.
The redhead was first to snap out of it. “His leg.”
“Huh?” the others asked. Just then, it started raining.
“Wha…! Let’s split!” he said suddenly, already getting drenched. “I don’t want to get wet!”
They did and ran in different directions.
The brown-haired effeminate boy was going home when he saw a familiar raven-haired boy sitting in a corner of the road, plucking out glass shards from his leg. The water surrounding him was mixed with his blood.
Rai was surprised when he held out a beige handkerchief and tied it around the worst wound.
“Can you go home on your own?” he asked. Rai nodded. “My name’s Fuji. Fuji Syuusuke. What’s yours?”
“M—” Rai cut himself off. He pulled down his cap and said in a monotonous voice, “Yamato Rai.”