The pace of what Akaya couldn’t help but think of as the real tournament season had two very different parts. There was the daily practice with his team, which, while demanding and sometimes intense, had a smooth swoop to it. And then there were the actual tournament matches, that sprinted along like a heartbeat after an adrenaline spike. Aside from the pressure of the matches themselves, he finally decided it was the people that made the difference. His own team was familiar; he knew them. Other teams were always a bit of a question mark.
Akaya could feel the difference, pacing down the sidewalks of the grounds hosting Regionals. Rikkai Dai didn’t have quite the same edge of cool confidence they’d had last year. The ready fire that had replaced it pleased him, though, even if it did mean keeping an eye out for trouble.
The first bit of trouble turned up, right on schedule, when they came face to face with Fudoumine in front of the match chart.
“Ah, the almost-Champions are here,” quipped one of their doubles players, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Ready to defend your second place title?”
Akaya stifled a sigh. Being responsible and captainly and not breaking people like that into little pieces was such a pain. He kept his gaze on Kamio, who, to his credit, looked a lot less cocky and more serious than the one who’d spoken.
Sakamoto was bristling. “Like you have room to talk, Spectator-san,” he snapped.
The other player (Mori, wasn’t it?) straightened up. “Not this year.”
Akaya held up a hand to cut off any escalations from his team. “We’ll expect to see you at the final round, then,” he told Kamio, and waved Rikkai on. He did take a bit of satisfaction from the disgruntlement on Mori’s face at being deprived of any openings. Akaya knew from his own experience just how annoying that could be, when you were geared up to provoke someone. It made his day a little brighter.
Tsunoda, who had taken the opportunity to examine the chart, came up beside him. “Do you think we will see them there? They’ll have Rokkaku, Yamabuki and Hyoutei to get through.”
“We’ll see.” Akaya glanced up at Suzuoki. “There shouldn’t be anything very urgent on our plate today. Can you take a look at the competition for me?”
“Certainly. Anyone particular you have in mind?”
Akaya huffed with exasperation at the slight curl to their coach’s mouth. Everything had to be a test, with Suzuoki. “We know something about Fudoumine already,” he sorted teams out loud. “And Hyoutei is across the chart. Seigaku first. Then Hyoutei. I’d like to know something about Rokkaku, this year, too, but there isn’t time.”
“Send Hisakawa,” Suzuoki suggested.
Akaya gave him a sharp look, and nodded slowly. Hisakawa was a good observer. With some experience he might be the analyst of next year’s team. Which, of course, was exactly what Suzuoki was suggesting. “Can you tell him some of what to look for?”
“Of course.” It was annoying, sometimes, how Suzuoki could sound so disinterested.
“Then I want him to look in on Midoriyama, too.” Akaya smiled; that had gotten Suzuoki to look at him straight on. “They still have most of their people from last year. And Seigaku lit a fire under them, then. I want to know how they’ve turned out.”
“Of course.” Suzuoki was grinning his thin, sharp grin when he said it this time.
Akaya watched Tsunoda starting to flag. He’d expected that. Kaidou really did have phenomenal staying power. Momoshiro had been wise to put him in Singles Three, the turning point of their matches. Again.
Suzuoki, leaning on the rail behind him, blew smoke past his ear. “Worried about a repeat of last year?” he asked, low voiced.
Akaya snorted. “No.”
When he returned to the bench, drenched and panting from his own match with Echizen, Suzuoki smirked at him. “Still not?”
Akaya glared. “No.” He thumped down on the bench, and beckoned to Hiiyama. “I’m not worried about you winning this,” he said, quietly. “But don’t underestimate Momoshiro. He’s an analytical player, and a tricky one. Think like you were playing Niou-senpai.”
His vice-captain nodded, silently.
Akaya sat back to watch.
“Kirihara-buchou?” This time it was Niiyama leaning on the rail behind him.
“Did you take Singles Two so you could play Echizen?”
Akaya cocked his head at Niiyama. “Hm. Caught your attention, did he?”
Niiyama looked aside and shrugged. Akaya smiled. He could come back to that later; now looked like a good time for another little push. “Well I didn’t object to the idea, that’s for sure. But it was kind of a gamble. If Momoshiro had placed Echizen in Singles One, the match would have ended with that last set, because Momoshiro isn’t strong enough to beat me.” He fell silent, waiting to see how Niiyama would take that.
The look on Niiyama’s face was a little sour. “That’s kind of… well…”
“The kind of tactic the weaker team uses?” Akaya finished, softly. “It could have looked that way, yes. But strategy is also part of the game; and a good strategy lets you win either way.” Words of wisdom from Niou-senpai and Yanagi-san both.
“Mm.” Niiyama frowned, and Akaya left the lesson at that. “Buchou, do you think…” Niiyama paused, and Akaya raised a brow. “Do you think I might get a chance to play Echizen?”
“Almost certainly. Next year,” the spirit of bedevilment prompted Akaya to reply. He relented, though, at Niiyama’s unamused glower. “It’s possible.” There was, after all, a certain precedent for practice matches. It could be good for Niiyama.
After he’d polished his game a little more with Fudoumine, perhaps Akaya would set it up.
Akaya leaned against the fence beside Momoshiro, wearing a rueful smile. Echizen was hammering Niiyama into the clay.
And they were both grinning.
“Your player looks like he’s having fun,” Momoshiro observed, sounding amused.
Akaya shrugged. “He asked to play Echizen, after our Regionals match. I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t think he’d get something out of it.”
Momoshiro cocked his head. “Is that why you threw him in against Fuji Yuuta, when you played Fudoumine?”
Akaya reminded himself to take his own advice and not underestimate Momoshiro. “It’s good to play a variety of opponents,” was all he said.
“Yeah,” Momoshiro snorted, “how else could you and Echizen pick up so many weird moves to throw at each other.”
That, Akaya didn’t answer at all. Anything he said would give too much away to an analyst as sharp as the one standing beside him. He didn’t really want the people they might still face at Nationals to know that he’d finally learned what Suzuoki-sensei meant, and had figured out exactly why he’d lost to Seigaku’s Fuji last year.
It was fun, all right, to toss techniques back and forth with Echizen, playing in a hall of mirrors where anything either of them used might be reflected back again. But it was ultimately useless unless he kept enough awareness to gauge his own strength and movement, and plan accordingly.
Niiyama, now… Akaya watched as he dashed to catch a Drive B. Niiyama would have to come at it from a different angle, he thought. Niiyama tended even more to the straightforward than Akaya had; his best path might simply be to find the strength to support that. If Niiyama found the point where he just acted, Akaya suspected his game might become pure enough to approach even Echizen’s. Not that he’d likely be around to see it. “It’s really annoying that the High School and Junior High divisions have tournaments at the same time,” he remarked with a sigh.
Momoshiro made agreeing noises, apparently following Akaya’s train of thought. “There’s always video, but it just won’t be the same,” he mourned.
Considering the possibilities running in the other direction, though, Akaya decided he wouldn’t complain too much. He wanted to have a little edge of surprise on his senpai, after all. He smiled as Niiyama drove back a smash. Let Niiyama try to catch him by surprise, too. Fair was fair.
Akaya bounced the ball, eyeing Ibu across the net. He wasn’t really surprised that the last round of Nationals had gone to Singles One, though he hadn’t expected it to be because Chiba and Furuya slipped up. Clearly, winning against Fudoumine at Regionals had made them cocky. He was going to have a talk with them about overconfidence, as the pair’s rather hangdog expressions showed they knew.
He could feel Ibu’s focus on him, like the edge of a knife laid against his skin. Not unexpected—he’d known Ibu would be all the more dangerous for having lost once. Now it was time to see who could keep better control of his temper. That was still the crux when he and Ibu played.
As his first serve came back at him, low and fast, it crossed Akaya’s mind to be grateful that the final round was against Fudoumine, not Seigaku. Playing Echizen was a rush, albeit with a frustrating aftermath when he came down and realized he’d lost again. But Echizen was too bright, and he dragged people along with him. Ibu played fiercely, but colder, and against him Akaya could find the place he needed, sink down and ride the edge of not-thinking without losing himself in it.
Unlike their last game, this one was silent. Silent and deliberate, for all their speed. Ibu’s play was quicksilver, slipping aside from direct attacks only to slash straight in through the slightest gap in attention. Quite like their last one, though, Akaya reflected, as he caught a vicious ankle shot and dropped it back over the net, they were still taunting each other. Body shots and shots that were just barely misses, silent threats and provocations, flew between them—a contest of precision and anger and temptation.
It was, he decided, a damn good thing he wasn’t trying to injure Ibu, or he would have been caught in the spiral and pulled off his focus just the way Ibu wanted him to be.
In the end, Akaya wondered whether it wasn’t Ibu’s own disbelief that Akaya could resist that lure that gave him the edge he needed. He tucked the lesson away in his mind and returned Suzuoki’s smirk with an even look, as the referee declared game, set and match.
This year’s award and closing ceremonies seemed strange to Akaya. What supported him, as they waited through speeches and stood for pictures, was not a sense of triumph, as when he was a spectator in his first year. He felt triumph, certainly. But what he felt most was quiet satisfaction.
“Dazed?” Suzuoki asked in a low voice as they wound their way through the dispersing crowd.
Akaya snorted out a half-laugh. “Maybe just relaxed; not sure I could tell the difference.”
“Hm.” They walked in silence the rest of the way, and it wasn’t until they were watching the team file onto the bus that Suzuoki spoke again. “You’ve done well.”
Akaya blinked at this rare bit of praise, and smiled. “Yeah,” he agreed, softly. “We did.”