“I would not have lost.”
“Yes you would. Perfection is your weakness.” Yukimura stowed his racquet away and held out his hand, eyeing its steadiness critically. “That’s why you lost last time, too.”
Sanada snorted. “That was chance. A chance no sane player would have counted on. It won’t happen twice.”
Yukimura shook his head and smiled, though his eyes still glinted sharp and cool. “You know your own strength. And, unlike nearly every other player in the middle school or high school circuit, your confidence in it is fully justified. And that,” he added, pointedly, “is what slows you down in face of the unexpected.”
Sanada frowned, leaning back against the low wall around their courts. He wanted to say he didn’t need to develop new responses, because his tennis already had perfected responses to any situation. If that had been true, though, Atobe would not have taken so many points from him this afternoon. “Perhaps.”
Yukimura tossed his bag up onto the grass and leaned beside Sanada, sighing. “I hadn’t thought it would matter. Until now it’s really only been Tezuka we had to think of. You know his strength, too; I knew you wouldn’t underestimate him. But this Echizen…”
“Mm.” Sanada’s mouth tightened. “Our margin of superiority against Seigaku is going to be lower than we had planned for,” he admitted.
Yukimura looked over the emptying courts, distant and thoughtful. “Tezuka. Echizen. Perhaps even Fuji.” He was quiet for a moment. “We’re going to have to push Akaya harder. If we can bring out his true strength by the time we face Seigaku, we’ll have the advantage again.”
Sanada nodded; he’d actually quite like to see what form Akaya’s real game would take, before they had to leave their kouhai to his own devices.
Yukimura thumped him lightly on the shoulder. “And you have to take care of your own problem.” He pushed up to his feet and slung his bag over his shoulder. “I don’t care how you do it. But we can’t afford to have you paralyzed whenever someone besides Tezuka actually manages to push you.” He looked back over his shoulder, laughter bright and wicked and cutting in his eyes, the way it hadn’t been for too long. “Hurry up, too, or I’ll do it for you.”
Sanada gave his friend and captain a rather dour look. Yukimura’s notions about how to help out teammates who were stuck in their training were… strenuous.
Sanada spend the evening feeling mildly out of sorts. Restless. He fidgeted through his chores. He couldn’t focus on his science homework, and finally set it aside, resolving to get up early and do it in the morning.
At last, he pulled on his hakama and gi and made for his practice room, determined to regain his focus one way or another.
Kata calmed him, as he’d know they would. The rough weave of the tatami mats against the soles of his feet was familiar, soothing. The constant chase after perfection in each breath, each step, eased his tension into something smooth and poised. At the end, he sank down to the mats to rest, eyes closed, feeling his spine loosen and straighten. Slowly, his thoughts took up their spiral again, more controlled this time.
This fierce peace was what he always returned to. It balanced the wild thrill of matches, whether with shinai or racquet.
In the fresh silence of his mind, the thought rang false.
Sanada opened his eyes and frowned. How could this have changed? Against the surprises of competition with opponents, he held the steady striving with himself that kata involved. Today was the perfect example. He had come to this pointed serenity to balance the uncertainty of his match with Atobe.
The uncertainty… that it had taken Yukimura’s interference to point out to him.
Sanada sucked in a slow breath, taking a firmer grip on this idea. How long had it been since he’d felt the rush of uncertainty during a tennis match? Had it really been since… Tezuka?
And yet, it had been there in his matches with Echizen and Atobe as well. He’d just discounted it. Had he really let himself think that only Tezuka could bring that thrill to a match? Had he let his mental discipline slip that badly?
Sanada snorted. Pitiful!
He surged to his feet and stalked back to his room. There was one sure way to get a grip on his game again. He fished out his phone and dialed one handed while he changed his clothes.
“Yukimura,” the laconic answer came.
“Are you free for a game right now?” Sanada asked without preamble.
After a moment of silence, Yukimura answered. “Sure. Meet you on the little court down by the river?”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Yukimura rested his racquet over his shoulder, regarding Sanada’s expression as they finished warming up. “That was quick. Good.”
“I’m not done yet,” Sanada said grimly. Indeed, thinking he was done, that any part of his game was completed, was the problem.
“Of course not.” Yukimura’s smile cooled with the chill of a game. He set his racquet down with precision and spun it. “Which?”
“Rough. You can do this?”
Yukimura’s mouth quirked as the spin ended on rough. “Yes.”
Sanada nodded and walked back to serve. He spared nothing, and Yukimura sent the ball singing back, slicing through the air like a knife.
It was hard and fast because that was how Sanada needed it to be. He needed the driving, brutal precision of Yukimura’s game to take into himself and answer.
The ring of the ball against clay and the harsh panting of their breath drowned out the cicadas. This was the thrill he remembered seeking, the dripping exhaustion he remembered pursuing. The uncertainty that needed the peace of kata to balance it.
Fire vanished without a ripple into Yukimura’s return. Sanada had to reach for the steady measured strokes of Forest to break Yukimura’s rhythm and keep himself from being caught up in it, and as he did he wondered. When had his balance fallen? When had his game become so stiff, so closed?
Move like the Wind.
Stately as the Forest.
Raid like Fire.
Immoveable as the Mountain.
They were powerful because they could shift and move. Even the stillness of no-self moved!
As the last ball flashed by to strike behind him, the purity of the moment shuddered up his spine. Yukimura’s game broke his open, stretched him as far as he could go. That openness called to be filled with the all the force and brilliance both of them could wring from each other.
That was a match.
What he had been playing this year was… kata.
Sanada braced himself against the light pole to catch his breath. He frowned when he saw Yukimura had collapsed on the bench beside the court. “You said you could do this.”
Yukimura’s teeth glinted in the streetlights. “I won, didn’t I?”
There was that, Sanada had to admit.
“You weren’t the only one who needed this,” Yukimura added, more quietly.
Sanada smiled and held out a hand to pull Yukimura up again. “Let’s walk to cool down, then.”
The dark river water glimmered with occasional lights up the embankment. The soft lap of it rippling against the shore filled the cooling evening air.
“I don’t think you need to actually rework any of your techniques,” Yukimura said, finally. “Just wake up some more.”
“Mmm.” Sanada turned that thought over a few times. It was true enough, but… “There’s something. I could tell as we played. There’s more I can do.”
Yukimura smiled. “There’s always more you can do. Especially you.”
“That means something, coming from you,” Sanada said dryly.
Yukimura laughed, low and bright. “Once you remind me of my courage, yes.” He turned and climbed a few steps up the embankment, stretching out in the grass. “It would be hard to integrate anything else into FuuRinKaZan, though, wouldn’t it?”
Sanada joined him and leaned back into the cool, green-smelling hill. “The techniques do come as a complete set,” he agreed.
And then his breath stopped as a thought seized and shook him.
Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain, Shadow, Lightning. There were six in the original.
“Invisible as Shadow,” he whispered. “Strike like Lightning.”
Yukimura watched him, head cocked.
Sanada took a long breath, already testing possibilities in his head. “Yes. Yes, there is something more. It will work.” It would work, and he would move forward the way a player should, and crush his opponents the way Rikkai should.
“I never doubted it,” Yukimura said quietly, lying back in the dusk.
A/N: Sanada’s technique names echo those Takeda Shingen took from Sun Tzu’s dictates on the movement of armies. Takeda, though, only used four of the original set of six. For Nationals, Sanada seems to be calling on the remaining two.