Seiichi smiled when he saw the lineup Seigaku had settled on. He wasn’t surprised to have been right, but it was still satisfying to know for sure.

He ignored the chatter of the spectators around him and turned back to beckon his team. They gathered around, in a circle of concentration that shrugged off the excited speculation eddying past them. Seiichi’s smile changed, undiluted pleasure added to the satisfaction. It was the last round of Nationals, and they were ready.

“We were right,” he said, without preamble. “They put Oishi and Kikumaru in Doubles Two, and Fuji and Kawamura in Doubles One. Renji.”

Renji nodded, and picked up the briefing. “They’re targeting Jackal and Marui, it’s clear. They hope to set the pace with the first match; it’s a good move. Kikumaru has the best chance of returning your specialties, Marui. Be careful of that.”

“We know,” Marui answered for both. His eyes were sharp, but a little distant, the way they got when he was planning ahead, and Seiichi understood the concern behind Renji’s hesitation. Seiichi also expected Jackal’s faint smile and nod, though, reassuring them that he would be ready to ground his partner.

Niou sniffed, looking irritated.

“Oishi and Kikumaru are a responsible doubles pair,” Seiichi noted, catching Niou’s eye. “I’m not surprised that they accepted the needs of the team as a whole over their own desire to even the score from last time.”

Niou returned his look, expressionless, for a breath, before breaking into a wicked grin. “I suppose it does leave Fuji for us,” he allowed.

“Don’t ignore Kawamura,” Renji told him, a touch sternly. “He doesn’t play with a great deal of finesse, but he has the raw strength to break past Yagyuu, and Fuji has the subtlety to save that for a decisive moment. If it weren’t for the fact that we need both of them in singles, I would have recommended setting Seiichi and Genichirou against this pair.”

Yagyuu’s mouth tightened, and he nodded. He laid a hand on Niou’s shoulder, as his partner started to say something else. “You won’t really have any complaints about this match, will you Niou-kun?” he asked.

Seiichi almost laughed at that not-quite-question. To anyone who knew them, the very evenness of Yagyuu’s voice was more suggestive than any insinuating purr, and Niou’s eyes brightened at the implicit promise of mayhem.

“Singles will be Inui, Echizen and Tezuka,” Seiichi picked up the account, stifling his amusement. “I think we all know what to look out for?”

Renji and Sanada nodded.

“And their alternate is Momoshiro. Which has a certain symmetry, if, as I suspect, he is the one chosen to be captain next year,” he finished, raising a brow at Akaya.

Akaya seemed caught between blushing and snorting. “That’s the only symmetrical thing. As if they would get far enough to play me next year,” he said, settling on his customary arrogance toward outsiders.

“Watch you don’t get too relaxed about that,” Sanada said, sharply.

Akaya heaved a put-upon sigh. “Yes, Sanada-fukubuchou.”

The entire team lightened a little at this byplay, easing into the balance they would need for the matches. It never ceased to astonish Seiichi that Akaya managed so consistently to finesse just the right tone without, as far as Seiichi could tell, ever being conscious of what he did. He hoped that Akaya would be able to manage the change in approach he would need, next year, when he was not the baby of the team but its captain. Now wasn’t the time for that worry, though, and he glanced around, gathering up his team.

“Let’s go, then.”

Renji frowned a little, as he watched Jackal and Marui play. He didn’t say it out loud, because it would be bad for morale, but the match was going exactly the way he had been afraid it would. It would be a close loss, but it would be a loss. Kikumaru and Oishi were playing the game too close to the net, making Marui do all the work, and it was distracting him from finding an opening in the other pair’s play to exploit.

Renji was aware that Marui had good reason for his self-confidence, and that it was that confidence that kept him from calling Jackal to the front to help. Unfortunately, in this case, that confidence was about to draw Marui one fatal step too far. Renji would have preferred to say so, beforehand, to recommend that Jackal and Marui play more closely than usual, but Seiichi had thought otherwise. He had said their play would be more injured by lack of confidence and discomfort with a change in their style than it would by a close loss.

On reflection, Renji had agreed that overly conservative play had a ten percent higher chance of losing, in any case.

That didn’t make it any easier to watch Marui wearing down, or Jackal starting to worry. Or to watch Marui finally call his partner forward from guarding the back, just barely too late to recover. Renji watched the last games play out silently. There were times, he thought, eyeing his friend and captain as Seiichi also watched, expressionless, when he thought Seiichi had a far colder streak than he himself.

And then Seiichi turned his head, and Renji saw the tension in the angle of his jaw and the shadows in his eyes, and changed his mind.

Seiichi stood as Marui and Jackal came off the court, and held out a hand to welcome them back. Jackal’s shoulders straightened a little at that, but Marui dropped his eyes.

“Enough of that,” Seiichi said, gently. “You did well.”

“I got rattled and missed my judgment,” Marui contradicted, frowning. “We could have taken them, if I’d just closed our formation up sooner!”

Seiichi suddenly had the waiting tension in every line of him that Renji saw whenever Seiichi had spotted a chance to hammer through his opponent’s defenses and was letting it come to him.

Jackal closed a hand on Marui’s wrist. “Bunta,” he said, quietly, “are we a doubles pair or not?”

Marui looked up at him, eyes blank and wide. His mouth opened on what Renji calculated was almost certainly an Of course we are, and closed again. After a long moment, Marui smiled, a small, tilted smile more serious than he usually let anyone see.

“Yeah, we are,” he said.

“Good,” Seiichi told them, briskly. “Then you can both work to redress this weakness. Very few pairs will be good enough to put that kind of pressure on Marui, but you need to be prepared to shift the way you support each other when it does happen. Trust each other enough to break your usual style when it’s holding you back.”

Jackal and Marui both nodded.

“I’ll expect to see you take them, next time,” Seiichi said, smile sharp and uncompromising.

Renji, satisfied that Seiichi had those two well in hand, looked over at Seigaku. Kikumaru was still bouncing, despite his obvious exhaustion. He had driven himself very hard, to seal off Marui’s trickiest shots. Oishi was watching him, apparently waiting out the enthusiasm before trying to get his partner to actually rest. Wise man, Renji decided. Fuji and Kawamura were getting ready.

Renji checked Yagyuu and Niou’s preparations, and nodded, pleased. Yagyuu held his head just the little bit higher that meant he was ready to play without restraint. Niou was bouncing, just slightly, on the balls of his feet. Renji looked back at Seigaku and caught Sadaharu’s eye.

Sadaharu adjusted his glasses with the elegant deliberation that said he conceded some point of argument to Renji. Renji smiled. So, Sadaharu knew how the next match was likely to go, too. They both folded their arms and turned toward the court as the Doubles One pairs were called forward.

“Niou, Yagyuu,” Yukimura spoke as they passed. Masaharu really hoped he wasn’t about to say anything that would discourage Yagyuu from the lovely edge he had going.

“I don’t want to see any injuries today. That said, consider who you’re playing and defend yourselves as you see fit.”

The dark eyes were sharp and demanding, but they were used to that, and Masaharu’s mouth quirked as he looked over at Fuji and Kawamura. Even if he’d never watched Fuji play, he’d have had some idea what Yukimura meant. Yukimura liked Fuji, as a player. Yukimura liked things that were dangerous. As logical progressions went, this one was extremely simple.

“We will use all necessary caution, Yukimura-san,” Yagyuu assured their captain. Yukimura nodded, releasing them, and Masaharu couldn’t help a thin smile as they met their opponents at the net. Fuji still didn’t like them much, if the glint in his eye was anything to go by; that was just fine.

Sure enough, Fuji started things off in high key with that tricky underserve of his. Masaharu stood still and watched its course before turning to nod over his shoulder to Yagyuu. The range of variation on that ball was wide. Even Yagyuu would have a low chance of catching it, unless something gave him a clue where it was headed. Masaharu moved with the next serve, focused down and moved with the ball, trusting Yagyuu’s sense of his partner’s position to let him track the ball by Masaharu’s movement. Masaharu smiled again, as the ball went singing back over the net. He did so enjoy frustrating people, and this promised to be a good day.

They worked through Fuji’s favorite moves one by one. Masaharu stayed at the net to give him a couple inviting smashes while Yagyuu fell back to the baseline to catch the Drop. Fuji’s eyes narrowed. Masaharu moved even closer to the net to catch Fuji’s Swallow before it could land. Fuji’s mouth twitched at one corner. Kawamura anchored his positions well, but Masaharu left his returns to Yagyuu, and kept his focus on Fuji. He could feel Yanagi’s disapproving look, and it was with great difficulty that he restrained himself from winking at his teammate. If he also managed to take in the Great Master of all Data, it would be a nice bonus; it didn’t happen very often.

Wind touched the back of Masaharu’s neck, and he let himself bare his teeth at Fuji, daring him. A spark snapped in those burning blue eyes, and Masaharu set himself. Sure enough, this ball swept up, just out of his reach. He heard it land behind him. Held his breath, timing it. Fell away to the side, as Yagyuu cut in front of him and swatted the returning ball out of the air, spiking it over the net.

Kawamura barely caught it, as Fuji wavered, slow to shift his own focus from Masaharu, who had held it the entire match, and Yagyuu hammered a return between their opponents, securing the game.

Masaharu stretched, pleased. It had worked like a charm. He’d watched Fuji play several times, now, and had decided that Fuji’s temper was every bit as vicious as Akaya’s. It was just far better controlled. He’d mentioned to Yagyuu that, when Fuji was angry, everything else became locked out of his attention. His partner hadn’t been especially pleased that Masaharu wanted to be the one to bait Fuji, but he’d finally agreed that it was the best division of forces.

“Talk about holding a grudge,” Masaharu called to Fuji, lazily. “You ever let anyone even their own scores? Anybody ever tell you you have a Messiah complex?”

Fuji came very close to snarling at him, before Kawamura drew him back, speaking softly.

Now, Masaharu let his eyes cross Yanagi’s, as he turned. Yanagi had a sardonic smile on his face, and nodded once, agreeing that, yes, Masaharu had had him going for a little while.

One last touch to go.

The fact was, Masaharu mused as they waited for their opportunity, Fuji was a stronger player than either he or Yagyuu. But he was new enough to his real strength that he tended to fall back on his bag of tricks, instead, his established counters. His long-standing style was a mix of subtle head games and brutal, game breaking shots.

Masaharu could identify.

And that, of course, was what made this particular trick work. If he were calmer, Fuji would know that Yagyuu was the greater threat, but he had been used, for so long, to being the most dangerous thing on the court that his first instinct was to be most wary of the one who was most like him. If Fuji figured all that out, Masaharu doubted he would ever be able to take Fuji again. In the meantime, though, Masaharu thought, seeing the coup de grace coming, they had the upper hand.

Yagyuu set it up with a Laser. And Fuji fell back, letting Kawamura catch and return it with that stunning Dash Hadoukyuu of his.

Masaharu and Yagyuu both stayed exactly where they were, letting the ball sizzle past without attempting to return it. A murmur went up from the watchers, the same shock that he saw in their opponents’ faces. Masaharu caught Fuji’s eye, and shrugged, smiling. He could see Fuji’s jaw set from across the court.

Because he knew, and now Fuji knew he knew, that Fuji always acted to protect his teammates. He wouldn’t allow Kawamura to injure himself by trying a shot like that twice. The sacrifice of a point, even if it meant the sacrifice of a game, as this one did, was worth it when it went that last step to unsettle the other pair’s strategist. If Fuji had moved fast enough to turn that around on Yagyuu, Seigaku would probably have taken Doubles One, also.

But it wasn’t happening today.

Masaharu was deeply tempted to throw Kikumaru’s favorite saying at Fuji, as they shook hands at the end of the match, but Yagyuu had obviously gauged his mood, and murmured a warning, “Niou-kun.” So Masaharu restrained himself.

“Spoil-sport,” he said, very softly, to his partner as they moved back to their benches.

“What?” Yagyuu asked, with the faint smile that said he was teasing. “Am I not enough for you? You want to prod Fuji until he explodes for your edification, too?”

“No such thing,” Masaharu defended himself, pleased with his partner’s smooth presence beside him, relaxed and powerful in the wake of the match. “His edge is much too brittle.”

Yagyuu chuckled softly, as they came to Yukimura.

“Very good,” was all their captain said, but his tone was just as pleased as Masaharu felt.

Masaharu spared Yanagi an especially smug smile, as they switched places, which Yanagi, typically, declined to acknowledge.

Or perhaps he was actually preoccupied, this time. He stood next to Yukimura, tapping the edge of his racquet against his hand, looking very thoughtful. In fact, any more thoughtful and Masaharu would have to call him troubled and he thought they’d had enough of that.

“What is this, Yanagi?” he called. When Yanagi turned, Masaharu gave him his best wolfish grin, the one that made opponents start backing away. “Are you the Master, or aren’t you?” he demanded.

Yanagi regarded him evenly for a long moment, and a sharp smile curved his mouth. “Yes, Niou. I am.”

Masaharu settled back, satisfied, as Yanagi stepped onto the court. Generally, Yanagi was the least fun of any of his teammates to watch, but lack of confidence would only make someone like him more boring. The players exchanged few words at the net. Masaharu supposed they didn’t need many for this little rematch. The handclasp looked friendly.

The smiles, on the other hand, looked rather bloodthirsty. Well, whatever worked for them.

And then Yanagi set himself to serve, and Masaharu sat upright.

“Your eyes are gleaming all of a sudden, Niou,” Yagyuu observed, dryly.

“Look at him,” Masaharu murmured.

With each breath, it seemed that one kind of tension washed out of Yanagi, and another took its place. He was absolutely still, but that stillness seemed to contain all possible movement. Masaharu’s lips drew back off his teeth. He’d seen Yanagi do this before, against Sanada a couple times, against Masaharu himself a couple times.

“What… what is he doing?” Akaya asked, softly, frowning at Yanagi.

“He’s modeling the game,” Masaharu answered. “All of it. Every way he can see that it might go. And a little more.”

Akaya turned the frown on him, and Masaharu laughed.

“He’s keeping a space open, in his head, for the unforeseen. Like calculating with an infinite thrown in.” Masaharu sighed. “I’ve never been able to take a single, damn point off him when he gets like that.”

Akaya thought about that for a moment, and shivered. Masaharu could sympathize; it was pretty unnerving, especially when you were right on the other end of it. He looked at Inui’s tight smile, and decided the Seigaku player knew what was happening.

It was a brilliant match, Masaharu had to admit. Not the kind he usually enjoyed most, but the tearing speed, and cutting precision, combined with that sense of the real game happening somewhere in the players’ heads before either of them touched the ball, rushing ahead of the actual moves in starbursts of possibility, was breathtaking. It was also a close match. Yanagi managed to open it up to a two game difference only once, and Inui closed it again, quickly. Masaharu thought he might know, now, why Yukimura was so pleased that Yanagi wanted to play Inui again. Seeing a single style matched against itself, he saw how these two drove each other to find and hone the flashes of vision and analysis that had probably led them both to choose this style in the first place.

He decided, again, that Yukimura had a ruthless streak to top either Sanada’s or Yanagi’s, when it came to making his players stronger. And to think, he’d almost forgotten, while his captain was gone…

This match, Yanagi won, though both players looked satisfied, as they met at the net again, smiling and breathless. Yanagi said something that actually made Inui laugh, and they parted again, back to their teams. Yanagi returned Yukimura’s satisfied look with a serene expression, and touched Sanada’s shoulder as he stepped forward.

“Enjoy yourself, Genichirou.”

Genichirou’s mouth quirked as he heard Yanagi’s words. Yes, he told his friend with a sidelong look, he wouldn’t get distracted by assumptions this time, as he had last time. The curl of Yukimura’s lips, as he looked up at his vice-captain, said he knew what Genichirou was thinking. Genichirou stifled a sigh. Not that it was surprising; the last time he’d gotten a shock that bad, it had been at Yukimura’s hands.

“Pace yourself, Sanada,” Yukimura told him, eyes turning serious again. “You aren’t used to letting yourself go completely, the way Echizen does.”

“I haven’t played you this long for nothing,” Genichirou murmured.

“No,” Yukimura agreed. “But I’m your captain; you expect it of me.”

Genichirou snorted. “Expecting anything of that one seems to be an invitation to disaster,” he noted.

Yukimura laughed. “You’ll be fine,” he declared.

Genichirou met Echizen at the net, and the boy eyed him from under the brim of his cap with a cocky smile.

“Ready to lose again?” he asked.

Genichirou’s eyes narrowed, and the only thing that kept his teeth from grinding was the tiny voice of conscience mentioning that he had set himself up for that.

“The question,” he returned, not bothering to keep the growl out of his voice, “is whether you are ready to fight.”

Echizen’s smile faded into a hard, focused look. “Yes,” he said.

“Good,” Genichirou answered, and they both turned toward their respective positions.

Genichirou took a deep breath to calm himself, turning the periphery of his spirit inward, settling into concealment, the moving silence of the Forest. A part of him still protested that this was ridiculous, that he couldn’t possibly need this level of tactic, but he ignored that reflex. The last game against Echizen had demonstrated that matching pure speed and strength against him was the riskiest possible way to play. Genichirou thought it likely that he did have an edge, provided he used his own capabilities sensibly and didn’t squander his chances. But Echizen had an undeniable advantage in how quickly the depth of his potential could grasp the heart of an opponent’s moves, on such simple ground, and it would be a foolish gamble to meet him only there.

The wisdom of that choice was illustrated when Echizen sent the Wind slicing over the net. One of Echizen’s greatest weaknesses was still his lack of subtlety. Another two tries, and Genichirou could see in Echizen’s eyes that he understood how Wind broke against the Mountain each time, but didn’t yet know just why he was having such a hard time seeing where the ball would go when returned. Exactly because the unyielding mental state of Mountain and the deep-rooted strength of that return was something Echizen understood in his bones, he had yet to grasp the concealment that Forest laid over it.

Echizen really had no understanding of defensive techniques. Considering that they were Tezuka’s greatest strength, Genichirou couldn’t stifle a chuckle as he thought of how frustrating Echizen’s captain must find the boy’s relentless attack mentality. The alarming part was that Echizen still stayed close to him, this match. Neither of them could open a substantial lead, but Echizen was keeping up with a handicap. Genichirou had to admit, he was a worthwhile opponent.

Which was why, at three games to three, he took the brakes off. Unlike Yukimura, and, it was clear, Echizen himself, he didn’t like to do this. He could ride the edge of it, let his reflexes respond directly to his perceptions without the mind’s interference, and yet still think ahead. But the feeling of it, suspended, or perhaps free falling, scared him sometimes.

Not that he had ever admitted that to anyone but Yukimura and Yanagi.

This state was to his usual focus on a game as a typhoon was to a thunderstorm. He loosed himself, and the rest of the world went away. There was only him, and the one across the net, burning as hot as he was.

In the end, Genichirou thought later, perhaps it was that fire that made the difference.

The tension of containing himself, of enclosing his responses within the silence of the Forest without slowing them or pulling them short, sawed at his nerves. The hot edge of Echizen’s game called to the heat of his own, tugged at him to abandon concealment and strategy, to gamble speed against speed and strength against strength. And perhaps it tugged him just far enough, because as their shots clawed at each other, neither willing to yield the two consecutive points that would mean a win, he saw Echizen’s eyes blaze and sharpen.

And something reached out to him, palpable as a sudden low pressure front.

And Echizen drove himself just that touch faster than he should have been able to move and caught the ball whose direction he should not have been able to predict.

And it was over.

Genichirou wavered on his feet, pulling himself back to everyday awareness. This was the other reason he wasn’t too fond of doing that; no matter how the match ended, it always came as a shock. Rather like hitting the ground after a long fall. He wasn’t sure why some people professed to enjoy the sensation. He shook himself, and walked steadily to the net.

At least, this time, Echizen hadn’t actually collapsed, though he didn’t look far from it. Genichirou clasped his hand, briefly, and then grabbed his shoulder to keep him from falling.

“You need to turn on your brain, and learn to pace yourself, Echizen,” he observed, disapproving. “If you had had a second match today you would have been absolutely worthless. I have no interest in losing a good opponent to his own stupidity.”

Echizen sniffed, attempting not to lean on his support.

“I think your coach may have some words to say to you on that subject, too,” Genichirou noted, looking over the boy’s head at the formidable old woman now standing with her hands on her hips and a rather tight mouth.

Echizen winced, and then glared up at him. “It worked,” he said, pointedly, or as pointedly as someone whose legs were shaking could.

A faint, unwilling smile pulled at the corner of Genichirou’s mouth. “I expect your captain will agree with you on that,” he allowed. “Go see, before you fall over, and I have to carry you. Again.”

Echizen growled, and stalked back toward his team, just a bit wobbly.

Genichirou headed back to his own team, where Yukimura’s sparkling eyes said that he was suppressing laughter.

“I’m glad that one is Tezuka’s problem not ours,” Genichirou snorted.

Yukimura lost it and laughed out loud. “So, are you satisfied?” he asked, when he could speak again.

Genichirou considered. “For now,” he said, slowly, “I think so. Next time… we’ll see.” He needed to think over what this match had shown him about his own play. No one had ever broken the Forest before, let alone lured him out of it by appealing to his own desire for the straightforward. Perhaps… perhaps it was time to gamble, and see what he could make of that.

Yukimura smiled. “Good,” he said, softly. He stood and stretched.


Seiichi heard the murmur of his club, as he stepped out across from Tezuka, and knew his smile had changed. Yanagi had told him, once, that it was quite noticeable, that shift from simple pleasure to the exaltation of hunting. The world brightened, sharpened, deepened. Tezuka’s focus slashed against his, answering, though Tezuka’s own expression only changed slightly. A brightening of the eyes, a flex of the stern mouth. Seiichi wondered, in passing, how many opponents failed to notice those tiny signs until it was far too late.

Not that Tezuka hid a thing, really. Seiichi was aware of the spectators quieting, understanding the intensity that sang between the players. It didn’t particularly matter to him one way or the other, now. Nothing mattered, now, but Tezuka’s presence and movement, the ocean deep stillness waiting on the other side of the net.

They started fast, neither of them seeing any reason to hold back. Seiichi was unsurprised to be caught up immediately in the Zone. He played with it a little, angling his returns here and there, to see whether pure speed or strength could break it. In a way, he was pleased that the answer was no. He knew that Tezuka was, in fact, very fast and strong, but this technique had always looked like something more than the proper application of brute force. It was good to have that confirmed. Seiichi sank himself into observation of Tezuka’s play, seeking the key, reaching out to encompass Tezuka’s game and know it.

Seiichi’s attention was especially caught by the savagery under Tezuka’s precision. There was a wildness there, an implacable ruthlessness like the flood of a river in spring. And yet, it was still fine and subtle. Seiichi was enchanted. He didn’t wonder, anymore, that Tezuka concealed himself behind such a flat mask; because it wasn’t, really, either of those things, now, was it? It was simply the face of his wildness, as passionate and featureless as as a wind storm, something that didn’t translate into social charms.

Understanding that lack of cultivation, for all Tezuka’s fine edge, Seiichi thought he might know what the Zone was. Which was good, because he couldn’t afford to run around too much longer, looking for it. His next swing took a little longer, lingered, and Seiichi concentrated on the sweep of it, the way he would on the sweep of his brush or pencil, drawing a line… there. He matched the lines the ball drew against the sensation of it on his racquet. Yes. This would be a delicate thing; the Zone could be overpowered, certainly, but that would leave him in no position to catch the next shot. But if Tezuka spun the ball this way, then the line Seiichi needed to gentle it into was… there. Yes. He knew it now, and smiled at the hard light in Tezuka’s eyes that said Tezuka was coming to know him, as well. He wouldn’t truly wish it any other way.

He had never played a game this intense and also this intricate. The score was moving in fits and starts, a sudden twist yielding a few points until the other player caught it and they were at stalemate again. A corner of Seiichi’s mind thought that it probably looked like a punishing rhythm to maintain, this stop and start. But, from the inside, it never stopped. He and Tezuka were never deadlocked, they were constantly moving around each other, sliding against and past each other. That, however, was all in the connection that they wove between them, the net of senses they each cast over the other, and he doubted most of the distant spectators noticed it. His team, perhaps, and Tezuka’s, and likely a handful of the rivals who had come to witness the match.

Seiichi was hard pressed not to laugh when they reached six games to six. He would have to ask Yanagi when it had last happened, that all three singles matches went to tie-break. Later. Right now there was only he and Tezuka and the game.

Except that… there was more, today.

Seiichi paused as he started to serve, tipped his head. There was more than just he and his opponent in their game. Puzzled, he glanced at the stands, and his eyes crossed over his team. Their presence had never intruded into his game before, but here they were, now. Akaya, leaning against the fence, eyes wide and fascinated; Renji standing quiet, with a hand on Akaya’s shoulder; Marui, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees; Jackal standing beside him, calm and immovable; Yagyuu, smiling softly, hands light on the rail; Niou, slouched back, grin sharp as a knife, eyes laughing; Genichirou, sitting poised and still, hands open and easy, gaze burning.

They were with him; their absolute belief in him folded around him, wove into his awareness. For the first time, they gave back what it had always been his place to give to them, and Seiichi let out a tiny breath as he felt the last, thin, sharp band of fear that this year had cinched around him crumble. Looking back across the net, he met Tezuka’s faint, quiet smile, and saw the slight beckoning movement that invited him to play this match to the end without the need to prove anything but the joy of the game itself.

And now Seiichi laughed. Laughed freely, and cast the ball up, feeling his team gathered at his back, and sent it singing over the net toward whatever future he and his opponent, and their people with them, could create today.