Mock Battle

Kirihara sets up some practice matches with Fudoumine, to the general annoyance of most concerned. Drama, I-3

Akaya trudged across the campus of Fudoumine feeling put upon. Why couldn’t Suzuoki have set this up? Why did it have to be him? Fudoumine as a whole wanted his guts for garters. He knew it was, in the final analysis, his own fault, which didn’t help in the least. It helped even less when he finally reached the tennis courts only to see that Tachibana was there along with Fudoumine’s proper team, albeit not in uniform. What was it, he thought crankily, with pushy senpai who couldn’t retire properly when they were supposed to?

A slightly more charitable corner of his mind noted the stifled conflict in every line of Kamio’s stance beside his ex-captain. It looked like Akaya wasn’t the only one dealing with standing in someone else’s shadow, this coming year. He really did sympathize.

“What are you doing here?”

Sympathy evaporated in face of that challenge, and Akaya eyed the girl now standing at the gate. Tachibana’s sister, wasn’t it? He’d heard stories about her.

“I’m not here to talk to you, that’s for sure. So, if you’ll excuse me.” He edged around her and gauged his welcome from the people he was here to talk to. Not much of one from what he could see. Measuring cold from Ibu and Kamio both, a couple growls from the others, some muscle-flexing from the tall one especially; probably a good thing one or two seemed to be missing or they might have succeeded in causing him to combust in the collective glare. Tachibana himself was the most neutral.

Which meant that Akaya was in a receptive mood when the imp of the perverse made a suggestion. He leaned in the gateway and let his mouth quirk.

“So, who’s actually in charge, here?” he needled, with a meaningful glance at Kamio.

Score. The lines around Kamio’s eyes and mouth tightened in a way that would probably look familiar if Akaya had spent more time looking in the mirror this winter. When Tachibana was the first to speak Akaya had to bite back some fairly black laughter.

“What is it you’re here for?”

“To see about arranging some practice matches,” Akaya shrugged.

Now Kamio stepped forward, and the fact that he didn’t seem to think about it first raised his credit in Akaya’s eyes. “Between Fudoumine and Rikkai?”

“Mm. Between one of my doubles pairs and one of yours, in particular,” Akaya expanded. “You and Ibu, for preference, but I’m not terribly picky.”

From behind him the girl muttered something about not being surprised, and Akaya hid a grin. She was even easier to get worked up than Sanada-san was. Come to think of it, she glared a lot the same way, too. Only from a lower angle.

Kamio had the distant look of someone paging through a calendar in his head. Akaya was pleased that he’d accepted the idea so readily; at this rate he might actually end up respecting his opposite number before he left. A little, anyway. Kamio looked at Ibu. “Thursday?”

Ibu nodded, silently; he hadn’t taken his eyes off Akaya for one second. It felt unnervingly similar to having Yagyuu-senpai’s eyes on him, and Akaya made a mental note to be a little careful about this one.

“Works for me,” he said, pushing upright. And then he paused and heaved a sigh. He was here; Tachibana was here. He might as well get it over with. “Tachibana-san.”

“Yes?” Still the neutral tone.

“I apologize for what happened during our last match,” Akaya said, managing to be only a little stiff.

He was less successful in not rolling his eyes at the looks of surprise and, in a few cases, outrage on the faces of the Fudoumine team. Behind his shoulder, Tachibana’s sister growled.

“Accepted, of course.” Tachibana’s quiet voice cut across the less cordial reactions.

“Tachibana-san … ” Ibu murmured.

Tachibana shook his head. “It would be… inconsistent to hold the past against him, Shinji.” He held Ibu’s gaze until Ibu nodded his assent, still looking displeased about it. “I’ll look forward to another match at some point, Kirihara-kun,” he concluded.

Akaya’s shoulders relaxed. “I’d like that.” He cocked his head. “If you’re not holding back next time.” He was still kind of pissed off about that.

Tachibana’s expression slipped out of its neutrality into a faint, rueful smile. “If it isn’t to be a repeat, both of us will have to hold back on at least one front.”

An odd hint of sympathy lurked in Tachibana’s eyes, and Akaya added that to the things he’d heard from Yanagi-san. Yeah, he’d thought the rumors about Tachibana having been a violent player were probably true, after the way Tachibana had performed at Nationals. Akaya’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t hand out anything I can’t take, Tachibana-san. One way or another.”

“A good thing to know,” Tachibana returned coolly. But there was a spark in his eyes, and Akaya smiled. The next match should be worth it.

“See you Thursday,” he told Kamio.

As he turned to leave, though, he came face to face with two more members of Fudoumine, carrying baskets of balls. One he was vaguely familiar with. Sakurai, the tall one’s doubles partner. The other was far more of a surprise.

“Fuji Yuuta?” Akaya resisted the urge to rub his eyes and double check the uniform. There was no question it was the Fudoumine uniform. “Well, well, isn’t this interesting?” Akaya purred, almost to himself. He hadn’t really hoped for a match with the younger Fuji; no one expected St. Rudolph to advance past Prefecturals in the upcoming season. But wouldn’t that be a nice jab at the older Fuji? To give him a heart attack after the fact, when he heard his precious brother had been playing someone with Akaya’s reputation for brutality? The idea appealed mightily to Akaya’s sense of mischief. He grinned at Yuuta. “I’ll see you Thursday, too, I hope.”

Bounce was back in his step as he left.


“… can’t believe you’re making us play an actual match like this,” Niiyama grumbled, as he’d been grumbling under his breath the entire way to Fudoumine.

“If you don’t stop complaining, I’ll find something even worse,” Akaya threatened, very evenly, casting a quick look over the courts to see if Tachibana or his fire-breathing sister were present. Fortune smiled on him; they didn’t seem to be.

Niiyama shut up, just in time for Akaya to greet Kamio with some dignity. Had he ever given Sanada-san this kind of trouble? Well, all right, his sense of justice forced him to add, had he been this much trouble before Sanada-san took him to bed? He honestly didn’t think so.

On the other hand, Niiyama’s snippiness did mean that Akaya felt far less guilty than he might have about what he was doing. A thin smile tugged at his mouth as he watched Niiyama and Tsunoda set themselves across from Kamio and Ibu. He didn’t expect his players to make any foolish mistakes; they were both experienced in doubles. But Kamio and Ibu had been through a much hotter fire, and their rapport was seamless.

Sure enough, Kamio and Ibu took three games in quick succession. Akaya grinned as he noted that Niiyama and Tsunoda’s glares were shifting from each other to their opponents.

“You look awfully cheerful,” a voice noted beside him.

Akaya glanced over to see Fuji Yuuta leaning against the fence watching the match. “Moderately,” he agreed.

Yuuta shot him a sidelong look. “Are you that confident they’ll make a comeback?” He didn’t sound like he believed it. Nor, for that matter, did the rest of Fudoumine, from the pleased sound of the remarks a little further down the fence.

“It’s possible,” Akaya said, watching one moment of clear understanding flicker between his players as their eyes met before Tsunoda fell back to support a series of Niiyama’s quick drives. Not entirely likely, but possible. Either way it would work out, and these two would get a wake up call.

Yuuta’s eyes darkened. “You’ve got a real ruthless streak, Kirihara.”

Akaya was mildly surprised that Yuuta had unraveled the purpose of this exercise. Of course, he couldn’t actually be an inattentive player, if he’d played a good game against Echizen; but his reputation was more for power than finesse or analysis. Another note for the mental files. “As if you have any room to talk,” he returned.

“Only with myself,” Yuuta countered, disapproval in his voice.

“You think a team captain has that luxury?” Akaya asked, curious. He had wondered what Yuuta was doing here, when he had been expected to take over the St. Rudolph team; maybe now he knew.

“Hm.” Yuuta declined to spar any more and turned his attention back to the game.

In the end it went the way Akaya had expected, and even a bit more so. The final score was 6-4, thanks to an edge of brilliance and viciousness in Ibu that he didn’t remember seeing before. He made a note to talk to Suzuoki about Ibu later. For now, he had a lesson to round off. He pushed away from the fence and waited for Niiyama and Tsunoda to come to him.

“Well?” he asked, coolly.

Niiyama’s spine straightened, and his eyes glinted, daring his captain to censure him. “We won’t lose again,” he pronounced.

Tsunoda was quiet, but the same determination showed in his level gaze. They were, Akaya was pleased to note, standing shoulder to shoulder instead of turned warily toward each other the way they normally did.

“I expect not,” Akaya answered, softly. Success! He left Hiiyama to give the pair notes on the match and looked over the Fudoumine team. “Anyone else up for a match?” he inquired.

Ishida stepped forward, just enough to loom a bit. “Sure.”

Akaya considered what he knew about Ishida’s style. “Sakamoto. Your turn.”

“Me?!” Sakamoto squawked. Ishida blinked a bit, too, taking in Sakamoto’s small, slight build.

“Yes, you,” Akaya confirmed, impassively. Sakamoto wasn’t training in singles right now purely so that Akaya could metaphorically handcuff his two regular doubles partners together. Akaya had every intention of developing all the skills his team had as far as they would go. Sakamoto was a perfectly capable singles player, and Akaya wasn’t about to let him slack off. Besides, Akaya had pulled out the small-and-cute card on his teachers too often not to notice when someone tried to play it on him. Sakamoto’s glare, as he fished out his racquet, hinted that he was catching on to this fact.

“Kirihara-buchou, I really hate you. Just so you know,” Sakamoto told him, in the petulant tone he only ever used with the team.

Akaya’s lips twitched. “Yes, I know. Now get going.”

“Going, going,” Sakamoto grumbled, stalking past a bemused Ishida.

“Interesting team dynamics you’ve got, Kirihara,” Kamio remarked dryly.

Akaya shrugged, carelessly. “It works for us.” Sure enough, Sakamoto was the one who was pushing the pace right from the start, aggressive enough to rock Ishida back onto the defensive. “You know, Hiiyama,” Akaya murmured to his vice-captain, “it’s too bad you don’t play doubles. You and Sakamoto would be an unstoppable pair. Just like a pair of explosive little super-balls bouncing around the court.”

Hiiyama shot him a dark look. “Your sense of humor is going to be a bigger legend than your temper at this rate,” he muttered.

Akaya had to admit that this was probably true. Which only encouraged him, really. At that thought, with what could only be fated timing, his eye fell on Yuuta, still observing from the side. Ah, yes. A bubble of amusement lightened his voice. “Fuji. You look bored. How about a match?”

He almost laughed at the ripple of unease that passed through Fudoumine. Well, all of them except Yuuta. Yuuta looked distinctly suspicious. Akaya offered his most engaging smile. “Come on, you know you want to.”

He caught an exasperated look from Hiiyama, and knew that he would be hearing, later, about the proper dignity of a captain. Akaya tossed him a wink, just to be provoking. Niiyama’s eyes were a little wide, as he watched, never having seen Akaya like this from up close before, but Tsunoda just shook his head and nudged his reluctant partner back against the fence, out of the line of fire.

Yuuta’s suspicion didn’t fade, which, thinking about it, Akaya didn’t find surprising; Yuuta was smiled at by an expert on a regular basis, he was sure. The suspicion was joined, however, by a certain hungry light. Yuuta glanced at Kamio and raised an eyebrow. After a moment Kamio nodded.

It was different from his usual games, and maybe this was what Suzuoki had meant. Akaya found himself wavering, rather uncomfortably, back and forth over the line of complete engagement. Yuuta was too strong a player to deal with lightly; his shots were precise and powerful, and his counters annoyingly effective. But never so much so that Akaya could just relax and respond automatically, or stretch out to his limit without thought. For someone who was supposed to be bullheaded, Yuuta was a very deliberate player, and it ruffled Akaya that he couldn’t automatically find the right rhythm to deal with him.

As he set himself to serve he closed his eyes for a moment, searching for stillness he had learned under pressure from Yuuta’s brother, hoping that would work where his usual fire hadn’t. Looking across the net into suddenly attentive eyes he felt the catch, like a spark against bare skin. Yuuta was moving, even as the serve arrowed in, to catch it and throw it back. The edge of wariness between them dissolved, and Akaya almost laughed. Much better.

The second half of the match was brutally fast, and they were both breathing hard when they met at the net. “Good game,” Akaya panted, grinning. He had won 6-4.

“Yeah, it was,” Yuuta agreed, and Akaya had to suppress the urge to make a face at the hint of surprise in his voice.

“So just how did you wind up here, anyway?” he asked, instead.

The openness in Yuuta’s gaze folded closed again. “The St. Rudolph team was Mizuki-san’s. Without him, it’s a different thing.”

“It’s a thing that would have been yours,” Akaya suggested.

Yuuta’s eyes never flickered, and the line of his mouth was proud. “I like this thing better,” he said, waving a hand at the courts around them.

Akaya was impressed, not that he was going to admit that.

As they rejoined their teams, Hiiyama gave him the raised brows, asking whether it had been worth it to show his game that openly. His vice-captain had very expressive eyebrows, Akaya reflected. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, under his breath.

Hiiyama snorted.

“It isn’t worth it unless it’s for real,” Akaya said, firmly.

Niiyama stirred, against the fence, expression more thoughtful than was typical for him. Akaya hid a smile; extra dividends, how nice. He kept half an eye on Niiyama through the parting courtesies, wanting to know where that expression was leading. They were half way home before he got an answer.

“Kirihara-buchou.”

“Yes?” Akaya nodded to the seat beside him.

Niiyama sat, slowly. “What did you mean, ‘for real’?” For once he sounded serious, though serious looked just as intense on him as any other emotion.

Why the hell did Akaya feel old, all of a sudden?

Akaya leaned back. “When you have a good opponent and you’re not paying attention to anything else—when nothing but the game exists for right then and it takes up everything you are—that’s when it’s real. When you’ve been there once it’s hard to stay away.” Not that he intended to tell this particular audience about the permutations of that passion, the way it could twist, especially when you were in pain. Niiyama didn’t need to know about the details of that, and Akaya didn’t like to think about it. He shot a sidelong glance at Niiyama’s thoughtful attitude. “It works better when you’re not wasting your attention showing off for your partner,” he added.

Niiyama opened his mouth with an indignant expression, but Akaya overrode him.

“If you were a dedicated doubles player it might be different,” Akaya conceded, thinking of Niou-senpai and Yagyuu-senpai. “But this little competition you and Tsunoda have going is distracting you. You can play better than that.” Watching Niiyama wondering about what a real game meant had convinced Akaya of that much. And it was, he reflected, a damn good thing Niiyama hadn’t been around to see what Akaya had been like as a first year, himself, or he’d probably have been accused of total hypocrisy by now.

After a long, fraught, moment, Niiyama lowered his eyes. “Yes, Kirihara-buchou.”

Akaya made a shooing gesture. “Go think about it, then.”

As he slouched down in his seat a little further and closed his eyes, he considered his own first year again, and wondered whether he should write a letter of apology to Yukimura-san when they got home.

End