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Fire and Fleet and Candle Light

A rewrite of the end of Regionals and the month until Nationals. Echizen gets obsessed, Rikkai is still on edge, Tachibana is brooding, Momo is insightful, Kirihara retrains, Atobe is annoyed, Fuji gets down to business, An is delighted, Yukimura is not particularly happy, Tezuka is plotting, and everyone is coming to town. Action, Drama, I-3

So here’s the thing. About three quarters of Tenipuri Nationals was a dreadful letdown for me, what with the floating Synchro glow-fairies, and the Hadoukyuu that launched a thousand Kawamuras, and Discoball no Kiwami, and Do-over Devil-mode, and Svengali Tennis. But that wasn’t where the trouble started. It started in the last match of Regionals, which was where the underdog heroes won, not just a place at Nationals but first place in the tournament against the incumbent National champions, thus defusing all the dramatic tension in one fell swoop. Not coincidentally, I think, that was also the match where Echizen stopped winning because of his superior experience or evolution of technique, but because… well, because Konomi magically hand-waved it. We get no detail about Echizen’s comeback against Sanada and why Sanada suddenly can’t match his game any more, no explanation of how he recovers from burning himself out with muga no kyouchi so early, not even some kind of excuse like one of his senpai cautioning him that Sanada fatally underestimated him and won’t do it again so Echizen has to keep working. No, he just, somehow, wins decisively, 7-5 against a player who’s established as a peer of Tezuka and Yukimura.

But there’s still Nationals to go. A Nationals that is largely lacking in interest, because what is there to overcome now that the champions have already been defeated? And thus we were launched straight over the shark into who-cares-land with more and more absurdly overpowered new opponents in a bid to add some artificial tension, to say nothing of the abrupt descent into the "my moral is pastede on, yay" notion that Fun Is Everything.

There are still a few saving graces. Some of the matches are still decent. Those are, of course, the ones that still have some real stake and develop the players in some way. There’s Sanada’s rivalry with Tezuka and his struggle between prudent strategy and his own need to face Tezuka head-on. There’s Fuji’s experience of a significant loss, which finally solidifies a genuine motivation for him. There’s Tachibana’s need to lay his demons to rest by facing Chitose again, which was a pretty good match despite the Discoball Door. I liked those matches; I wanted more like them.

The goal of this project, then, is to restore that significance and tension to all of the players, including Echizen. Accordingly, we pick up toward the end of his Regionals match with Sanada.

Note: In case it isn’t obvious, canon after Regionals is as dead to me, and only the most useful bits after that have been retained. Let’s see what else can be done that’s more interesting. Also, this is largely manga-based up through Regionals. After nine years, the bunnies finally came back and let me finish this, so let’s do this thing.


Kantou Regional Finals

When the match with Sanada reached five games all, Ryouma knew he was in trouble. It was a new feeling. When he played his dad, he was always in trouble, so the knowledge was meaningless and he’d learned to ignore it. When he’d played Tezuka he’d barely had time to understand that he really was in trouble, and notice what it felt like, before the game was over. After all, it wasn’t like a lower score meant he was losing! He’d come from behind plenty of times and won anyway.

But he could feel his pace falling, now.

Ryouma flexed his hand around the grip of his racquet and pulled in a deep breath. He would do this. He would find a way. He threw the ball up to serve, watching its shadow come back down out of the scorching sun, and sent it singing over the net with a vicious spin.

Just because Sanada could return the Twist Spin serve was no reason to back down now.

The ball came back to him, and back again, and back again, and Ryouma sprinted across the court, light on his toes no matter how his calves were burning. That didn’t matter; it never mattered. He’d always kept going, always gotten up again (and watching Tezuka-buchou get up again during his match with Atobe had been the moment he’d known he belonged here after all, really belonged). One point to him, with a Snake that Sanada just barely missed. One point to Sanada when he he returned a Drive A deep to the corner, without even shifting his stance, and curled his lip. Ryouma narrowed his eyes and put everything he had into a Drive B, sending it curving high and tight over Sanada’s racquet. He aimed the next serve beside Sanada’s left foot and made an annoyed noise, too out of breath to swear, when Sanada scooped it up easily and dropped it just over the net. He could feel Sanada’s eyes on him like he could feel the sun beating down on his neck, feel Sanada watching his feet, gauging his speed as he dashed forward to catch the drop shot, and he knew Sanada would see he was just a little slower than he had been. The calculating part of his head knew that was a bad thing. But he couldn’t think about that; it couldn’t matter. He’d just keep going and make it not matter!

He made it just in time and batted the ball back over the net. He lunged for the return Sanada sliced deep into the back of his court, and missed it by almost a foot. Thirty all. He could feel his legs shaking.

This had never happened before. He could match Sanada’s game, he knew he could; he was still matching it! But he wasn’t pushing the pace any more, and he knew in his bones that was a mistake.

Two more points. Two more points, and then he’d have the game, and the advantage. He could hear someone in the stands yelling the same thing, but only distantly. Right now, nothing mattered but what was here on the court, and that meant him and Sanada and this win. Ryouma worked his fingers around the ball, testing his grip; his hand tingled a little, but he was used to that. Most of the people he played hit heavier balls than he did. He still had the grip and control to do this.

Fuji-senpai’s Disappearing Serve cut over the net, and Ryouma rocked up on his toes; even if Sanada could return, the spin on it would send it into Ryouma’s left court and a forehand drive should…

“How naive are you?” Sanada demanded, stance sliding smoothly back to cut the ball again in the opposite direction. Ryouma missed the return by more than a foot, this time. “Don’t think inferior techniques will work with me! If you’re reduced to that, you have no business on this court!”

Ryouma tugged down his cap, eyes narrow, and stalked back to serve again. Inferior techniques, huh? Fine, then. He’d damn well beat Sanada at his own game, and make him eat those words. He got enough of that crap from his dad, he wasn’t taking it from anyone he could beat. He feinted toward the net, inviting another of those bruising deep drives and whipped it back across with Wind, aimed as low as he could and still give it full speed. He grinned when the point was called; he could almost hear Sanada sniff. Deuce.

He half expected it when Sanada gave him back a Snake for the next return, ball curving tight and vicious out around the reach of his racquet, exactly the move Ryouma had taken the first point with. Even though it meant the advantage to Sanada, Ryouma still smirked at his opponent, pleased with having goaded Sanada into answering him like that. Sanada seemed to realize it, too, and drew himself up with a dark look. Ryouma spared one ragged breath to laugh.

The next rally was a long one, both of them fighting for the point, and Ryouma could feel how fragile his edge was now. He didn’t dare stop, didn’t dare pause, because the instant he did, all the fatigue he’d built up would crash down. He had to stay hot and in the moment, one drive after another, turning three Fires in a row back across the net when Sanada tried to drive him back with sheer force. Was he going for a drop shot? Ryouma set his feet and gritted his teeth, getting ready to smash his way forward.

Another of those high lobs flashed far over his head and came down hard on the baseline.

Ryouma wavered on his feet for a breath, and then he muttered a low curse in English as the referee called the game. Five to six, and Sanada had the advantage now.

Ryouma was really getting to hate those lobs.

All right, then, he’d just have to take this game and force a tiebreak. Ryouma set himself back in his court to receive, watching Sanada with narrow eyes.

Sanada was watching him back. “I’ll credit you with amazing potential,” he finally said, “but you’ve picked up this sword too early. I know of only three players in the junior high school circuit who have achieved a completed state of no-self. Rikkai’s captain, Yukimura, is one. Kyuushuu’s Chitose is another. Both of them have the endurance and strength of body to support it.” He turned on his heel and strode back to his baseline, and Ryouma’s eyes widened at the sudden, breathless pressure reaching over the net. “The third, of course, is me,” Sanada finished, perfectly even, turning to face the net, and Ryouma nearly rocked back on his heels from the force of Sanada’s gaze falling on him.

He didn’t, though. He breathed deep and settled down into himself, reaching for the edge of that clarity again. It wouldn’t come, not completely; he couldn’t feel that perfect transparency reaching from his his fingertips to his spine and back, not this time. But it was enough to see Sanada’s serve coming and meet it with both hands on his racquet, to see the set of Sanada’s racquet that meant another high lob and be back at his baseline to catch it.

He could feel the heat of the moment starting to burn higher, fiercer, letting him move faster. He caught one ball, another, lost the third into the net, spinning wildly. He was back to receive the next serve before the net ball had stopped bouncing after being swatted out, and the new ball came scorching in, aimed low. Sanada missed the return when Ryouma spun it into a Drive B, but the next serve hit his racquet as hard as Fire and he was too far back on the court to return it cleanly. Next serve.

He could feel his strength burning away, feel the end of it coming like the edge of a cliff, and he didn’t know how far the fall would be. He’d never crossed that edge before. But he wasn’t going to stop.

He wasn’t sure he knew how to stop.

He didn’t think he would, even if he did know.

He was a member of Seigaku, and their captain was the one who’d stood up and played for almost another hour after his shoulder gave out. Ryouma had found a team where he belonged.

Deuce. A Fire he was just a little too slow to catch in his center of gravity, and advantage to Sanada. A feint toward Drive A ending with a drop shot, and deuce again. Another lob, and Ryouma stumbled as he dashed to catch it and missed. Advantage to Sanada again.

Ryouma felt like every next step might take him over the edge of the cliff. He kept moving anyway. He had to take this game and send them to tie-break so he could find the end of this match. He needed two points somehow. Somehow. He ran forward and jumped to smash Sanada’s return deep into the corner, watched Sanada’s grip shift as he spun and dashed to catch it, every movement sharp as a knife, sure as the tide coming in. Ryouma felt the muscles of his legs shaking and knew he wouldn’t be able to make it back to the baseline to catch the next lob that was coming.

There was still a way to return it, though.

Before the thought even completed itself, he was running, leaping, scaling the referee’s chair to give him the boost up he needed and reaching for the sky, for the ball flying above him, tightening his half numbed grip so he could send the ball back down in a Cool Drive. He could make the shot work this time and Sanada wouldn’t be able to return it, he could feel the sureness in the pit of his stomach as every muscle tensed, ready. This was the shot he needed, to take this point and the next. He reached up…

The ball sailed past just above his racquet.

Ryouma landed hard, pitching onto his knees as his legs gave way. He stared at the ball, the last ball, bouncing away from the baseline.

“Game and set!” he heard, over his head. “Game won by Sanada. Game count seven to five.” The stands exploded in cheers and groans. Ryouma didn’t move.

He’d lost. Again.

He didn’t move until a shadow fell across him and he looked up to see Sanada looking down at him. For a long moment, they were both silent.

Finally, Sanada hmphed under his breath and bent to grip Ryouma’s elbow and haul him back to his feet. And kept hold of him when he almost fell again. “If you use no-self before you have the strength to sustain it,” Sanada said, quiet and flat, “this will always be the ending you face. Remember it.” He held out his free hand and after a moment Ryouma gritted his teeth and shook it to end the match, glaring up from under the brim of his cap.

“Next time, I’ll win,” he said fiercely. Whatever it took, he’d find a way.

Sanada examined him, head to foot. “We’ll see.” Momo was beside them, then, hand under Ryouma’s arm to take his weight away from Sanada, and Sanada turned back toward his own team. Over his shoulder he added, “Tell Tezuka I said he made a good choice.”

Ryouma frowned after him, leaning on Momo. A good choice about what? About Ryouma? Well, yeah, he guessed it looked good from Rikkai’s point of view, but… but Sanada hadn’t been smirking enough to mean it that way. So what was good about it?

“Hey, are you all right?” Momo asked, low, turning him back toward Seigaku’s bench as the rest of his senpai spilled onto the court and hurried toward them.

“I’ll live,” Ryouma muttered, hanging on to Momo as his steps wobbled left and right unpredictably. His legs felt like boiled noodles and he could feel, now, how raw his lungs were from panting for breath. And there was no victory to counter-balance the exhaustion. He’d never felt like this, before, and he was a little glad Momo was hanging on to him so he knew something was still solid.

“Echizen, are you all right?” Ooishi nearly pounced on them. “Is anything strained? Can you tell yet?”

“That was amazing,” Kikumaru broke in, wide-eyed. “Hey, Ochibi, what was that you did at the beginning and end, there?”

“Here, drink this,” Inui added before Ryouma could answer either of them, not that he’d really intended to, and wrapped Ryouma’s fingers around a suspiciously opaque water bottle. “Keep moving a little, if you can.” He nodded to Momo, whose arm tightened around Ryouma.

Ryouma rolled his eyes, comforted by how normal all the fuss was in this deeply abnormal situation. He managed to drop the probable Inui Juice over the wall as Momo helped him hobble up and down a little, and grinned faintly when Kachirou oh-so-casually dropped a towel over it and looked around innocently. Everything as usual, even if Ryouma was feeling like someone had turned his world with the “this end up” arrow pointing sideways.

“All right, all of you pipe down,” Ryuuzaki-sensei finally called over the chatter. “We lost the match. Well, we’re still second place at Regionals and that means we’re going to Nationals. So everybody is going to train even harder from now on, understand?” Everyone straightened up a little at that, even Ryouma. Rikkai had won Nationals last year, he remembered, so they’d almost certainly be playing Rikkai again in the end. He would have another chance.

Training, yes, he needed to train harder obviously. To train for strength, the way he’d never really had to before. Ryouma’s eyes narrowed and he nodded sharply to himself. He’d do it.

He looked up as Momo-senpai chuckled. “What?”

Momo was smiling down at him. “Nothing. Glad to see you’re back, that’s all.”

Ryouma huffed. “I’m fine Momo-senpai.”

Or, at least, he would be. He’d make sure of it, the way he always did. Ryouma set his jaw and wobbled off the court with determination, dragging Momo along.

Genichirou got through the closing ceremonies only by reminding himself firmly that none of them would be allowed up to see Yukimura until he was out of recovery and awake. There was no point in rushing now.

The thought made him flick a look over at the second place row, where Echizen was standing upright by dint of pure stubbornness, at least if the way his friend Momoshiro hovered discreetly behind him was anything to judge by. Genichirou admitted to being a little impressed that the boy hadn’t passed out again at the end of their match. Tezuka had most definitely left something interesting behind, for him to meet, and more of a challenge than Genichirou had been able to believe at first.

Not that that would help Seigaku when Yukimura returned, and Rikkai was at full strength again.

He stepped forward when first place was called to accept the plaque, latest in a long line of first place awards Rikkai had taken from the Regional tournament over the years. The weight of polished wood and metal in his hands settled some of the fear that kept trying to climb out of the back of his mind and make his shoulders tighten. They had won. He would not claim that they had kept their part of the promise perfectly; today’s two losses in singles nipped at him like flies under the hot sun. But they had won the tournament and Rikkai remained undefeated as a team. Surely that would be enough to satisfy fate, to coax the world back onto its right path. Surely.

He shook his head impatiently, banishing his wandering thoughts, and stood straight to acknowledge the cheers from the stands, for the eight teams1 going on to Nationals. He waited with an iron grip on his patience while everyone else filed out of the courts. And finally it was time to go.

They weren’t running, but all seven of them moved fast, down the broad walks of the Arena courts, passing by one group after another. A few of the other clubs gave them startled looks, probably wondering what all the urgency was, now the matches were over. People in Rikkai’s uniform quietly cleared their way, though, knowing where they must be going.

“We should arrive just about the time he comes out of Recovery, if there are no complications,” Renji said quietly at his shoulder, and Genichirou thrust down the abrupt spike of tension at the very word ‘complications’.

Akaya, of course, wasn’t so reserved. “There won’t be, right?” he asked, looking back and forth between them anxiously. “You said it was a common treatment, right?”

Genichirou’s mouth tightened, and it was Renji who laid a hand on Akaya’s shoulder. “The treatment is common and proven, yes. But this particular surgical approach is relatively new, and… well, it requires more expertise.”

Akaya was chewing on his lip, as they spilled out the entry arch and down the steps toward the bus stop. Marui was walking close enough to Jackal that their shoulders bumped. Genichirou could feel their tension in his own back and shoulders. “It will be fine,” he told them, glaring straight ahead of him as if he could command the universe, the way he had the tennis club this year.

Ten minutes until the bus came. Thirty to Shimbashi station. Only fifteen to Yokohama station, but another bus to the hospital after that, and Genichirou had to force himself not to fidget with the strap of his bag as he watched blindly out the window with only half an ear on the sound of Akaya wheedling some of Marui’s stash of sweets out of him. Akaya didn’t particularly like sweets, so it was probably a bid to divert his senpai. Sometimes it occurred to Genichirou that Akaya would probably make quite a good captain, next year, and he turned the thought over a bit to distract himself.

Finally they were at Kanai Hospital and Genichirou went to the desk to ask about Yukimura.2

“Yukimura-kun, yes.” The receptionist smiled at him, cheerful. “He should be back in his room in about half an hour. You have very good timing!”

“Thank you,” Genichirou muttered, and stalked across the waiting room to his team. “Thirty minutes,” he said, curt, and sat himself down in one of the flimsy plastic chairs. They settled around him, shifting now and then on the uncomfortable seats, staring at faded schedules and posters on the walls, fiddling with cel phones, and breathing shallowly in the harsh, chill air.

After the past year, Genichirou was convinced that hospital waiting rooms were actually a refined instrument of torture, designed as the master-work of a career sadist. The single time he’d said so, however, Renji had laughed out loud, and he’d kept his grumbling to himself after that.

Glancing over at his friend, he thought both of them could use some distraction from today’s torture and asked quietly, “Echizen. What did you think of him?”

Renji leaned back in his chair, the stiffness of his spine relaxing a little. “Interesting. He obviously has a great deal of experience; probably more than either of us had, at that age.”

Which suggested something rather unusual, considering how long they’d both been playing. Genichirou frowned. “You think he’s the son of a pro, maybe?”

“Not a current one, or I’d have known already.” Renji tapped his fingers thoughtfully on his knee. “I’ll check. At any rate, he’s stubborn and reckless, as I’m sure we could all recognize,” the whole team glanced at Akaya, who sat up and looked indignant, “but I judge it’s very likely that, up until today, he’s always had the ability to back that up.”

“That last move,” Niou murmured, arms crossed as he slouched down in his chair until it creaked. “He knew exactly what he was doing. If he’d been strong enough to pull it off he’d have gotten his two points, and you’d have been six games all.”

Genichirou eyed him. “A deep drive, even if he’d made it, wouldn’t have escaped me, and certainly not twice in a row.”

Niou smiled, sharp and fey. “That wasn’t what he was going for. The way he was coiling up to launch the shot… he was trying to deform the ball enough to affect its path on the bounce.”

“Could he really have hit it that hard?” Jackal asked, dubiously. “He’s good, yes, I could see that too, but he’s still a first year. A small first year, at that.”

“Hmm.” Renji’s eyes gleamed, focused on a problem rather than their mutual fears. “He would have, effectively, had his whole weight behind the drive. It would be a considerable gamble, but possible if he caught the right angle.”

Genichirou sat back with a thoughtful sound; perhaps the match had been closer than he’d thought. “If he hadn’t run out of strength… if he’d made that leap a little higher…” A smile tugged at his lips. “Very interesting.” He doubted Echizen would be able to quite match the first tier players until he grew into a little more raw strength, but the boy was astonishingly close already. He glanced over at Akaya. “Watch out for this one next year.”

Akaya’s eyes were bright and hard as he lifted his chin. “I’ll look forward to a rematch.”

Genichirou nodded, satisfied.

“Sanada-kun?” the receptionist called. “You can go up now.”

Finally! Genichirou discarded the analysis of the game instantly and strode for the stairs with his team crowding behind him. Four floors up and down the hall, and they were once again facing the scuffed wood door with Yukimura’s name in the slot beside it. Genichirou took one last breath for courage, and opened it to see the results of what he himself had urged Yukimura to do.

Yukimura was sitting up with the bed raised behind his shoulders and he smiled a little to see all of them. “Come in,” he said quietly, voice huskier than usual.

They crowded into the small, sparse, pale room and surrounded the bed, a little hesitant. Genichirou caught Marui also eyeing the small bulk of bandages he could see under Yukimura’s loose shirt. The hesitance evaporated when Yukimura lifted his brows at them, though. “Well? Tell me how it went.”

“We won,” Genichirou told him, getting the important parts out of the way first, “though not without two losses in singles.” He wanted to ask Yukimura if the surgery had been successful, but… maybe Seiichi didn’t know yet. Maybe something had gone wrong and he didn’t want to say so to the whole team. Genichirou’s fingers tightened on the rough, cotton spread under them. “Rikkai won, though.”

“Ah, good.” Yukimura leaned back against the pillows behind him and murmured, “So did I.”

Ease ran through them like the slackening of a rope suddenly unknotted, audible breaths and half exclamations and brightening, relieved smiles. Yukimura half laughed, catching it short and said, “Don’t make me laugh right now, that still hurts.” The murmurs of agreement didn’t do a thing to dampen the grins surrounding the bed. Genichirou carefully uncurled his fist from around Yukimura’s blankets and let his bag slip to the floor as his shoulders settled. “Do you want the whole account now?” he asked.

“Mm.” Yukimura’s mouth twisted a little. “I’m still on some fairly strong pain-killers right now. Though the dreams waking up again were very interesting, I must say; I’ll have to remember some of those images for when I have my sketch pad again. The red sakura was especially striking. Just give me the overview, for now.”

Genichirou blinked a bit; the drugs must be strong for Yukimura to ramble like that. He nodded to Renji and gave the wide-eyed Akaya a quelling look before he could speak. Yagyuu rested a quieting hand on Akaya’s shoulder, and their youngest member settled under it obediently, only nibbling his lip as he watched Yukimura.

“Seigaku is strong this year,” Renji reported dispassionately. “Tezuka has gathered players who seem just as driven as he is himself. They’re weak in doubles, and not quite as strong as we are in singles, but the gap isn’t as wide as would be comfortable.”

“Especially for a very driven team,” Yukimura mused. “They won’t be idle for the next month, not after losing. You’ll need me for Nationals, then.”

“Will you be able to play by then?” Jackal asked, dark eyes level on Yukimura. “Something as intensive as our training… Yukimura, that usually isn’t started for six weeks after even minor surgery.”

Genichirou straightened sharply. He hadn’t heard that before now! Glancing around, he saw Yagyuu and Niou also frowning, Akaya and Marui looking shocked. Renji and Yukimura didn’t seem startled at all, and Genichirou thought of a few things he was going to say to them about that, later.

“In two weeks I should be off all the post-operative drugs.” Yukimura didn’t look away from Jackal, but Genichirou thought he was speaking to all of them. “That gives me two weeks to recondition. I will be there.” The haziness was chased from his eyes as he spoke, and his voice was the voice of Rikkai’s captain. A breath of Yukimura’s old presence, the crushing domination he cast over a tennis court, curled through the room.

“All of Rikkai will be there,” Genichirou agreed firmly, satisfied by the way their team straightened up and nodded.

He tried to ignore the bit of tension that re-wove itself up his neck and whispered in his ear.

Four weeks.

Three Weeks Before Nationals

Momo tried not to wince at the heavy thud of Echizen’s wrist and ankle weights hitting the changing room bench. He couldn’t help asking, though, “Are you sure it’s a good idea to increase your weights this fast?”

Echizen narrowed his eyes at thin air, yanking his uniform shirt off. “I haven’t strained anything.”

The unspoken yet hung in the air, and Momo sighed. Echizen had been adding another weight every other day, and after a week of build-up, his training schedule was as heavy as Kaidou’s. Even Inui-senpai was starting to hesitate before he gave Echizen each new training menu.

He hadn’t said no yet, though.

“Make sure you don’t, okay?” Momo finished buttoning his shirt and slung his bag over his shoulder. “We don’t have time for two of you to be gone.”

That made Echizen pause as he shoved his feet back into his shoes, and Momo nodded to himself. It was probably playing dirty to use Tezuka-buchou’s injury as a lever to get Echizen to be careful, but it also worked. “Want to come get something to eat?” he offered in compensation. “Burgers. You need protein to build muscle.”

“Excellent rationalization, Momoshiro,” Inui said dryly from across the room, and Momo grinned.

“Not yet,” Echizen said, low, rolling both his school uniform and his tennis uniform into his bag but leaving those weights out. “I still have running to do.” He looked up at Momo, and Momo’s mouth twitched up at the corner. There wasn’t the slightest hint of apology in Echizen’s expression. Just a fierce demand that Momo could understand perfectly well.

“Later, then,” he agreed, and watched Echizen bounce on his toes a few times before taking off running straight from the club house door.

“Is Ochibi really going to be okay?” Kikumaru-senpai asked, worried, looking after Echizen too.

“He’ll be okay,” Momo said quietly and smiled a little at Ooishi-senpai’s frown and Fuji-senpai’s dubiously arched brow. “Inui-senpai understands too, right?”

“Mmm.” Inui-senpai straightened up, tugging his uniform cuffs into place, not looking at anyone.

Ooishi-senpai just frowned deeper as he crossed a foot over his knee to tie his shoe. “Of course a loss motivates him to work harder. But do you really think Echizen knows how to stop before he hurts himself?”

Fuji-senpai made an amused sound at that. “This is Seigaku, Ooishi. Do any of us know how to stop?”

Ooishi-senpai opened his mouth, only to close it again with a rueful look when Fuji’s fingers flicked the wrist he’d injured. “I suppose we’ll just have to watch out for him, then.”

Momo slipped out the door while Ooishi-senpai was grilling Inui about what kind of training Echizen was up to, thinking about his own month of ferocious training after Inui-senpai had edged him out of the Regulars. He recognized Echizen’s drive, and the outrage and self-directed anger that fueled it. He knew nothing was going to help that except to train harder and get stronger, and eventually defeat Sanada. He believed Echizen could do it, and therefore he believed that Echizen would be just fine in the end.

He just hoped this wouldn’t put Echizen back where he’d been when they’d first met.

Momo unlocked his bike and swung it out the school gates. He didn’t turn for home quite yet, though. He rode slowly up hill, deeper into the residential parts of the neighborhood, thinking.

His very first thought, on meeting Echizen, had been that someone had obviously treated the kid pretty badly. A first year shouldn’t look at everyone he met like he was expecting them to be a bully, and was already planning how to make sure they didn’t mess with him. Watching the glee in those sharp eyes a few hours later, as Echizen demolished Arai and his cronies, hadn’t done a thing to change Momo’s mind. He’d wondered how Echizen would do, in the club; obviously he’d enjoyed his tennis, but always with that edge on his smile, always with that feeling like it was the winning, the proving they couldn’t mess with him, that he enjoyed the very most.

Momo was pretty sure it had been Tezuka-buchou who’d changed that. He guessed there’d been a match or two outside of club hours that none of the rest of them had seen. He’d figured that was the best possible thing for Echizen, to play someone who was even stronger than he was but who you just couldn’t imagine acting like a bully, or even a plain old jerk. He’d seen Echizen start to relax a little, have fun with the game itself a little, and he’d been proud of his club and his captain for giving Echizen that. Not every school would have been able to.


Momo stood up and leaned into his bike pedals as he started up another hill, enjoying the stretch and burn in his legs. He thought Echizen had been enjoying stretching out his game, the same way. But Echizen had just lost to Sanada Genichirou, and Sanada was pretty harsh when he stood on a tennis court. Momo understood Echizen’s need to meet Sanada again and overcome his loss. He just hoped Echizen wouldn’t recoil back into that hair-triggered wariness of all opponents.

Momo crested the hill and paused for breath, leaning on his handlebars. Maybe he’d pry Echizen away from his training tomorrow to play a little actual tennis. Remind him it was fun.

The sound of a ball against hardtop caught his ear and he looked around blinking. When he realized where he’d ended up, he laughed. Speaking of fun, it was the street court where he’d met Atobe.

Well, maybe he’d go see if there was anyone interesting hanging around this month.

There was a game on when Momo got to the top of the steps, but no one who looked very strong was playing and he sighed a little. He could kind of go for a game right about now to shake his worries out, but playing a teaching match wouldn’t do much good for that. Oh well.


Momo looked around, startled. He knew that voice and it wasn’t one he’d expected to hear here. “Tachibana-san?” Sure enough, that was Tachibana, sitting on one of the benches back by the trees that surrounded the courts, watching the games with his elbows braced on his knees.

Tachibana smiled a little. “Did you come looking for Kamio? I’m afraid he probably won’t be back to the street courts until after Nationals.”

Momo nodded soberly. After what had happened when Fudoumine played Rikkai, he was ready to bet the whole team was training just as fanatically as Echizen. “No, I was just passing. Thought I’d come see if anyone interesting was around, on the off chance.”

Tachibana’s quiet smile turned a little rueful. “I’d offer you a game, but I don’t think it would be my best right now.”

Momo stiffened. “Were you injured in that match, Tachibana-san?” It hadn’t looked like it, or not badly, but you couldn’t always tell on video. Fortunately for his peace of mind, Tachibana waved a dismissive hand.

“A little bruised is all.” He snorted softly. “Karmic justice, I suppose.”

Momo couldn’t help the protesting sound he made, at that. Tachibana had been the very model of an honorable opponent to them, this year! Tachibana’s mouth tilted wryly as he leaned back and looked up at Momo. “It’s true enough. I used to play a lot like that, myself.”

Momo sagged against the low retaining wall, bag slipping to his feet as his grip loosened in shock. “You… you did?”

“Mm. Right up until it caused problems.” Tachibana propped his elbows over the back of the bench, looking up at the leaves with distant eyes. “I suppose Chitose was right when he said my game has gotten weaker. But I couldn’t use that again.”

“If you were playing like that, really aiming to injure, then of course you couldn’t,” Momo said slowly. “But I can’t believe you were actually doing that. Not you, Tachibana-san.”

Tachibana hesitated. “Perhaps… not quite that maliciously, no. But just as brutally and just as dangerously.”

Momo frowned, propping himself against the wall and folding his arms. He was starting to wonder just how much trouble Tachibana was borrowing, here, because he sounded an awful lot like Ooishi-senpai when he was caught up in worrying. “It’s not like tennis is a safe game,” he said at last. “You could just as well call the game Atobe and Tezuka-buchou played brutal, but Tezuka-buchou didn’t let that stop him. Just like Echizen didn’t let it stop him when he had that accident playing Ibu.” He stilled, startled, when he saw Tachibana actually flinch, fist clenching tight. This really had Tachibana wound up!

“That was an accident, though,” Tachibana said, low and fierce. “It wasn’t the same.”

Momo considered that; Tachibana was definitely acting like Ooishi-senpai in the worst of his worry-moods. And the thing to do, then, was generally to use logic. Yeah, he thought he saw an opening, here. “It happened because they were both doing all they could to win. It wasn’t on purpose, but they were both doing dangerous things. Whatever happened in your game, that wasn’t on purpose either, was it?”

“Of course not!” Tachibana flapped an irritated hand. “But it still happened because I—”

“Tachibana-san,” Momo interrupted, quiet and firm. “If you don’t want to take those risks, then don’t. But that’s part of what tennis is. Do you want to keep playing tennis or not?”

The glare Tachibana turned on him was hot and fierce, but when Momo only ducked his head a little and looked back stubbornly, it started to soften into amusement. Finally, Tachibana relaxed and laughed. “Do you talk back to your senpai like this, or just to other teams?”

Momo rubbed a hand through his hair, sheepish. “Sorry. It’s just… well, I’d like to play you some time, you know. And find out if what your sister said about your real strength is true.”

Tachibana’s brows rose. “Just what did An say?” he asked rather warily. Momo grinned.

“That I’d be in trouble.”

“I’m not too sure about that,” Tachibana noted dryly, pushing himself up off the bench. “You play a pretty ruthless game, even when we don’t have racquets in hand.” While Momo fidgeted with his bag, face hot, Tachibana looked out at the court where two beginners were rallying slowly amid shouts of contradictory advice from the bystanders. “I do want to keep playing tennis.”

“So do the rest of us, Tachibana-san.” Momo hesitated, but Tachibana seemed more amused than annoyed with him, still, and he finally added, “Trust that the rest of us know what we’re facing when we step onto the court, and that we choose to do it anyway.”

“Just like I need to choose, hm?” Tachibana smiled a little and caught up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. “Good advice, Momoshiro.” There was a glint in his eye as he glanced over at Momo. “Come see me after Nationals, and I’ll give you that game you want. No holding back. My word on it.” And then he laughed, and Momo figured he’d probably lit up like a lightbulb; he certainly felt that way.

“I will!” He straightened up, reminded of what they were all aiming for right now. “And we’ll see you there.”

Tachibana gave him a firm nod and turned away, down the steps to the street. Momo watched him go, excitement tingling through him at the thought of getting to play someone like that for real. He’d have to tell Echizen. Nothing like a bit of healthy envy to remind someone of what was really important. Knowing Echizen, he’d instantly plot to come along and scam a game of his own out of Tachibana.

Momo grinned and fished his racquet out of his bag. He felt like playing for a while, after all, and if there was no one here up to his level maybe that was okay.

Sometimes it was good to just play.

Two Weeks Before Nationals

Genichirou watched Akaya lean against the low wall around the Rikkai tennis courts, braced on both hands and panting for breath. They had been trying, for days, to push Akaya back to a state of no-self, and had yet to succeed, but Akaya was certainly improving his endurance as a side effect.

“I think,” Akaya finally gasped, “the other way was easier than this!”

“I imagine it was, yes,” Genichirou agreed, crossing his arms. “No-self is, after all, what you reached for when your old way of playing a strong opponent failed.” Akaya made a pitiful sound and gave him a tragic look. Genichirou firmly stifled the smile that wanted to twitch at his mouth, at these theatrics, but relented far enough to add, “It’s a good thing in the long run, Akaya. You would never have defeated Yukimura or Yanagi or I playing the way you have been.”

Akaya’s dramatic pitifulness turned into something between a glower and a genuine pout. “You could have mentioned that sooner, Sanada-fukubuchou!” He grabbed his water bottle and took a quick swallow, muttering, “Why did you let me play like that for so long, if it wasn’t going to work?”

Genichirou wrestled with his pride for a long moment, but he finally admitted, “I probably shouldn’t have.”

Akaya froze in the middle of another swallow, staring at him wide-eyed.

Genichirou looked away, over the courts, mouth tight. But he owed Akaya this much explanation, as a member of his team and the person who would lead Rikkai next year. “For a while, I thought all you needed to do was learn to control that overdrive mode of yours. Managed properly, it could be a powerful technique.”

He still remembered Renji’s voice, quiet and just the faintest bit admonishing, the day he’d said, It isn’t a technique, Genichirou. That’s just how hard Akaya runs away from his fears. The fear of losing, in particular, Genichirou had understood then.

Akaya was, perhaps, not the only one. The thought pricked at him uncomfortably, but self-deception was no part of his discipline. Akaya wasn’t the only one who’d turned his fears into anger. Genichirou had let himself be distracted and had fallen for a little while into driving his team instead of leading them. Akaya was the one who’d stopped Genichirou before he went too far, out of that suppressed fear. Yes, Genichirou owed him this understanding.

“When it became clear how unlikely you were to be able to control it,” he went on, levelly, “we were already in the middle of tournament season and I held back from suggesting any alterations while you were still winning by using it. That only encouraged your lack of control, and you’re right that I should not have done so.”

“Oh.” Akaya laced his fingers around his water bottle, looking down, maybe a little shaken.

“I’m pleased that you found a stronger approach on your own,” Genichirou allowed, a bit softer, knowing from experience that Akaya needed encouragement from his senpai. Really, he should have seen how fragile Akaya’s game was long ago. “Very few have that ability.”

Akaya looked up at that, old ambition flickering back to life in his eyes. “You and Yukimura-buchou, you said.”

“And Chitose and apparently Seigaku’s Echizen,” Genichirou finished, still having trouble believing that last. He hesitated and added slowly, “I can’t say exactly what Tezuka may have done in the time he’s been away from the tournaments, but he certainly has enough raw ability for it.”

Akaya nodded seriously, and Genichirou smiled just a little, watching the way his focus tightened. That was what he liked to see in his players, and more strategic awareness would serve Akaya well, next year. He picked up his racquet again and beckoned sharply. “Come along, then. Try it again.”

Akaya stepped back out onto the court quickly, for all his complaining, and was ready to meet Genichirou’s first serve as it whipped over the net. They had been working for almost two hours, and Akaya still hadn’t managed to move himself into no-self, though Genichirou thought he’d come close a few times. What was far easier to see was the way Akaya kept catching himself back from that furious overdrive of his, and the frustration in his scowl and the set of his hands on his racquet as Fire blew past him yet again.

“Akaya,” Genichirou called out calmly as the scowl flickered darker for a dangerous moment. Akaya stopped and stood for two slow breaths before he looked up again and nodded, mouth in a hard line. Genichirou considered, as he pulled out another ball, and finally decided to see whether an example would do the trick, the way his example had helped Akaya understand what he’d done in the Regional finals matches. “You won’t win like that,” he said flatly. “You won’t win unless you stop running away from the game.” He settled stillness over his own mind and released his awareness of the other courts, the rest of the club, what he planned to do for the rest of the day. There was nothing but here and now, and his opponent across the net, and his heart settled into the clarity of no-self.

Akaya’s heaving breath stilled, and his eyes widened, blank and dark.

“Come,” Genichirou ordered, and threw the ball up to serve.

Pressure and presence to almost match his own blazed up like fire across the net, and Akaya was there to catch the ball, angle as perfect as Genichirou had ever seen. Their rally took off with blazing speed and the cutting precision that Genichirou reveled in. He loved playing at this level. Akaya turned back ball after ball, dashing forward and leaping back with perfect timing to catch even Fire. He was gasping for breath and dripping with sweat, letting no-self sweep him up without moderation, but he was smiling through it, brilliant and wild.

It was one too many attempts to return Fire with Fire that finished the point, just as it had when Akaya played Seigaku’s Fuji, and Genichirou noted with the merciless clarity of this state that Akaya hadn’t completely shed his need to beat Genichirou at his own game. Genichirou had no particular objection to that, of course, but it showed that Akaya’s no-self was still incomplete.

He lowered his racquet and let that unthinking perception fall away, subsiding back to all the little, daily concerns of what might be instead of the purity of what was. Akaya’s eyes were still fixed on him, and Genichirou shook his head. “Akaya. We’re done for now.”

It took a few moments before Akaya blinked and shook his head, settling back onto his heels. “That…” he said hesitantly. “That was…?”

Genichirou smiled faintly. “That was it. It isn’t complete yet, for you, but you found it again. Do you think you can do it one more time?”

Akaya looked down at his hands, flexing them, and stooped to pick up his racquet from where the last ball had knocked it. “Yeah, that was… I… it was like…” Akaya took a breath and closed his eyes, lips moving silently. Genichirou thought he caught the shape of limits and win, and when Akaya’s eyes snapped open again they were clear and sharp. His whole body shifted, poised around his center.

“Good,” Genichirou murmured, fishing out another ball. “Let’s see what you can make of this, then.”

They only stayed out for another hour, not even going past the time allotted for club practice. Akaya’s endurance was improving, but he’d spent a lot of strength against Genichirou, even before he started burning it with the breathless speed of those perfect, instant perceptions and actions that made no-self such a powerful tool. “Strength training in the mornings,” Genichirou directed as he shepherded Akaya toward the changing rooms with the rest of the team. “And work on your grip exercises during the day in class, too, since you can’t seem to resist using Fire when you’re in that state.”

“Well, it’s what works,” Akaya protested, stumbling and righting himself with a grab at Niou, who looked amused and permitted it. “I mean, I can see that it’ll work, it’s right there, it’s like I can’t not use it.”

“Then we will also be taking you around to view more games, where you can study more techniques than just ours,” Genichirou told him, inflexibly. “Use this to play your own game, Akaya, not mine.”

Akaya sighed and thumped down onto the bench in front of his locker and started untying his shoes. “Yes, Sanada-fukubuchou.”

“Quit complaining, it’ll be good for you.” Niou ruffled Akaya’s hair as he passed behind. “You’re still the worst on the team for leaping to conclusions about an opponent. Not,” he added with a glance at Genichirou, “that you don’t come by the habit honestly.”

Genichirou ignored him, which got a smirk, but rising to Niou’s bait would only amuse him more. “Do you have the list of Nationals teams for Yukimura?” he asked Renji instead.

“Right here.” Renji nudged his bag with a toe as he pulled on his uniform pants.

“Is he well enough to plan strategy?” Yagyuu asked, knotting his tie precisely.

“He came off the opiates yesterday,” Renji said, answering the real question, as he tended to do. “He should be entirely coherent by now.”

“He’ll still be in pain, though,” Jackal said quietly, closing his locker. “Don’t tax him too much.”

Marui gave his partner a curious look, sucking a bubble of fresh gum back in. “How do you know all this about injuries, anyway?”

“I had appendicitis when I was eleven. The surgery was pretty similar, just in a different location.” Jackal hesitated for a long moment, and finally added, more to his bag than to his teammates, “It was two months before I was ready to play at strength again, and that was against other Elementary players.”

Shocked silence fell on the changing room.

“That,” Renji said, hanging his bag over his shoulder, “is what we will be discussing today.”

Everyone but Niou relaxed at that assurance, used to trusting Renji’s strategy. Niou just watched the two of them silently, eyes sharp. Genichirou felt them on his back, as they left.

“This is going to be a gamble, isn’t it?” he asked, once they were off school grounds and into the maze of residential streets.

Renji actually smiled. “It’s always a gamble, Genichirou. Even for us, winning and losing often comes down to chance.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know.” Renji looked up at the sun-dappled leaves of a tree reaching over a low brick wall as they passed. “Seigaku will be trouble, if Tezuka is back. Shitenhouji will be, as well, most likely. But we know them both, and we will not meet them unprepared.”

Genichirou sighed and made himself relax his grip on the strap of his bag. “Yes. You’re right, of course.”

“The bigger problem,” Renji said, lightly, “will be keeping Seiichi from hurting himself by pushing too hard, too fast in his reconditioning.”

Genichirou considered their friend, and his merciless drive to advance his game, and grunted. He had no doubt whatsoever that Renji was right. Considering that, he was actually relieved when they found Yukimura in his back yard, merely stretching out.

“Sanada. Renji.” Yukimura straightened up from touching his head to his knees and pushed his hair back off his face. “Now that I can pay attention properly, tell me again who’s going to be at Nationals.” His eyes on them were as intense as his body was relaxed, with none of the alarming haziness of the past weeks, and something in Genichirou settled with relief as he dropped his bag and sat. Everything was as it should be, again.

Renji settled cross-legged on the grass and pulled the list of teams out of his bag, and handed it over. “Only a few of these have enough strength to give us trouble. But those few who do will take careful planning.”

“Hm.” Yukimura ran an eye down the list. “Who’s a challenge this year?” His mouth quirked up. “Besides Seigaku.”

“Shitenhouji has two powerful singles players and a very strong doubles pair,” Renji recited, spine straight. “Their other doubles pair is… erratic but not certainly not negligible. Shishigaku has only Chitose left, who could match us, but they have one good doubles pair and another strong singles player; I doubt they would be trouble, but it wouldn’t do to be careless against them. Fudoumine has Tachibana, and he could well choose to place his two best players in singles instead of doubles, against us. Again, I doubt they’ve progressed fast enough to be real trouble, but they have a personal cause after the way Akaya played against Tachibana.”

Genichirou sniffed. “Hypocrisy.”

“His new team doesn’t seem to know about that, though.” Renji cocked his head thoughtfully. “Speaking of which, there are conflicting reports about the Kyuushuu champions, this year. Higa. Kite Eishirou leads them, and several reports say they play very violently.”

Yukimura’s eyes narrowed. “All of them?” At Renji’s nod, he glanced at Genichirou. “That might be useful, if we encounter them.”

Genichirou nodded slowly, following the logic. “I’ll keep working with Akaya, then. The more complete his state of no-self is, the better a lesson that will be.”

“Ruthless,” Renji noted, not at all disapproving. “The rest seem to present little threat. Makinofuji has fallen off sadly, this year, and Yamabuki has played solidly but has no truly first tier players. Hyoutei could have been some trouble, but they’ve been eliminated.”

“So only Shitenhouji and Seigaku might be strong enough to force the matches to Singles One.” Yukimura looked back and forth between them, eyes bright and hard. “Should I take Singles Three, if we meet them?”

Genichirou bit back a protest. He hated the thought; it wasn’t fitting! “That would be… bad for morale, I think,” he said, instead.

“The power of your reputation is a strong weapon in itself,” Renji agreed. “And if we meet them both, then the second will know you can’t be fully recovered, if you play in that slot.”

Yukimura leaned back on his hands in the sun-warm grass, looking thoughtful. “So. You would have me stay in Singles One, and hope that I don’t find Tezuka or Shiraishi there, if the match goes that far?”

“That has always been our pride,” Genichirou said quietly. “That we do not alter our line-up for Nationals. Many of the other teams will, putting their best players in sooner to end the match early or turn its momentum. Not,” he added, annoyed by the irregularity as he was every year, “that the game order at Nationals makes that easy.”

Yukimura laughed. “That’s the point, Genichirou. They want to see everyone play, if possible.”

A taste the organizers shared with Yukimura, and which Genichirou had never entirely approved of. “You are the best of Rikkai,” he said firmly. “You should play Singles One, as usual.”

Yukimura’s smile turned a little mischievous. “Hoping to get Tezuka to yourself?”

Genichirou firmly ignored the heat in his face, and Renji’s quiet chuckles. “I will play and defeat whoever I meet in Singles Two.” The pivotal slot, for Nationals, the third match that could turn the entire thing one way or the other.

Yukimura touched his knee in unspoken apology for teasing. “Of course you will.” And then he stretched up onto his feet. “So! Who will play a few games with me?”

Genichirou recalled his thought that Yukimura was being sensible about his recovery, and chided himself for foolishness. This was the captain of Rikkai, after all.

His captain.

He stood as well, slinging his bag back over his shoulder as Renji sighed and shook his head at both of them. “Let’s go.”

Seven Days Before Nationals

Keigo waited at the top of the stands surrounding Hyoutei’s tennis courts, avoiding the sun-hot plastic of the seats and leaning against the rails instead, arms crossed. He watched the first and second years running energetically around in the uniform he’d had to pack away, and refrained from glowering, because that was beneath him. He waited until Hiyoshi dismissed the club for the day before he drew his racquet from the bag at his feet and came down. He actually preferred to stay away entirely until after the club was gone, but today he had business with Hiyoshi; business he’d thought to have more time to take care of before he had to retire.

That wasn’t what he needed to be thinking about right now, though.

“Hiyoshi.” He caught his successor at the edge of the stands, last out of practice, and jerked his head back at the courts. “Come play a match with me. I think it’s about time.”

Hiyoshi stopped looking ever so faintly harassed and brightened up in a bloodthirsty way, instead. Keigo bit back a grin. He liked Hiyoshi’s attitude; it was why he’d chosen Hiyoshi to follow him as captain. Hiyoshi’s drive shone fierce and bright enough to hold even Hyoutei’s club, and he’d always had an appropriately disdainful approach to the copious and pointless advice of less-capable senpai. Keigo appreciated such things, and approved of the alertness with which Hiyoshi set himself on the far side of the net. They would see, today, just how far that alertness could take him.

Keigo didn’t bother with taunts or prodding words, today. Hiyoshi didn’t need them, and had stopped responding much to them months ago. Keigo approved. His first serve was hard and fast, challenging Hiyoshi to catch it and be ready in time for the deep return. Hiyoshi was in place to catch that, too, easy and sure, and he sliced the ball home behind Keigo for the first point.

Keigo smiled.

Point after point tore by, drive and drop shot, smash and lob, testing and prying and hammering at each other. He took the first three games before slowing just a little bit to let Hiyoshi try to catch up. Hiyoshi focused tighter when he was chasing someone. Keigo drew him out and out, pressing him to show the true strength of his form. When Hiyoshi sank down in his stance, sinuous and flexible, and caught the first shot of the Rondo on the face of his racquet, Keigo laughed out loud and drove the ball deep into the far corner instead. Hiyoshi’s eyes glinted back at him with silent challenge.

The ferocity and determination of Hiyoshi’s game did a heart good to see, and Keigo thought that, even if he didn’t have a lesson to teach today, he might have drawn the game out just to see more of this. When he let Hiyoshi take his sixth game, he had to turn his back so Hiyoshi wouldn’t see his expression, or the pleasure he was taking in that blazing hunger Hiyoshi showed so openly.

Playing for a tiebreak turned the game hotter. When two points either way would win the match, there was no room to relax, no room for mistakes. Even Keigo was pushed hard, though his goal was not to win—not yet. He returned the fierce speed of Hiyoshi’s drive with a cord ball, forcing an abrupt change in direction, and watched closely as Hiyoshi sprinted after it. He only barely missed, and there was no rasp in his breathing, no tremble in his calves. Good. They’d played to 33-32 and Hiyoshi could still keep going. The word Keigo had had with their coach a few weeks ago, about Hiyoshi’s endurance training, was clearly bearing fruit.

The serve returned to Keigo and he bounced the ball a few times. “Looks like you’re finally able to deal with a long game,” he called, casually. “About time. We can’t have you being walked all over by a first year again.”

Hiyoshi straightened abruptly, staring at him. “You…”

Keigo’s smile this time showed teeth. “Let’s see how far you can go.” He tossed the ball up and served with his full strength.

Hiyoshi bared his teeth in answer, dashing to meet the ball and drive it back.

Another point, and another, and Hiyoshi was clawing his way level with Keigo every time. A sinking drop shot gave another point to Keigo. A flat drive hit from a leap, higher than any drive had a right to be, gave another to Hiyoshi. In the end it was the Rondo that finished the match, Hiyoshi tiring and just a little too slow to sink down in his stance and catch the first shot before it struck his racquet from his grip. They reached 47-45 before it ended, though. Keigo was satisfied.

“You were drawing the game out on purpose,” Hiyoshi half-accused, flexing his no doubt stinging hand.

Keigo crossed his arms and leaned against the net pole. “Did you believe you were really keeping up?” When Hiyoshi nodded, short and unwilling, Keigo held up a finger. “Remember what that looked like, then. There are always a handful of players who use that tactic to unsettle an opponent.”

“Yes, Atobe-buchou,” Hiyoshi answered slowly, scowl easing into a more thoughtful frown, and a corner of Keigo’s mouth tilted up.

“You’re the one I chose to lead Hyoutei, Wakashi. Start thinking like a captain.”

Hiyoshi looked at him for a long, silent moment, eyes steady and serious. Finally, he drew himself up, chin lifted. “Yes, Buchou.”

Keigo nodded, satisfied, and flicked his fingers in the direction of the club changing rooms. “Get going, then.”

Hiyoshi dipped his head, halfway between the mocking respect he gave loud-mouthed senpai and genuine acknowledgment. As he passed Keigo, he murmured, “I’ll catch you by my own effort. Don’t wait up.”

Keigo laughed out loud, and swatted Hiyoshi’s rear with his racquet. “As if I would! We’re Hyoutei, after all.” He chuckled, watching Hiyoshi make his way off the courts, straight-backed and just a little pink. It faded, though, as he thought about Hiyoshi’s admonition not to wait. There was something else he’d been meaning to do, for a few days now. Perhaps, now that his duty to his club and his kouhai was taken care of for a while, he should think about that again.

Not that it took much thinking. He knew who he had to go to, to finish working out his new technique. He just wasn’t really looking forward to it.

Keigo took himself off to the private showers and stood under the hot water for a while, turning things over in his head again. In the end, there was just no other option. Tezuka was still gone. Yukimura was still gone, and for all his sharp edge, he’d always been a lot harder to provoke than Sanada. Who knew whether Yukimura would even have agreed to play him, right now.

Sanada was going to be a complete ass about this, was the thing, Keigo reflected, as he toweled off. That was part of Sanada’s mental game, after all. Keigo was honest enough to know that he was very much the same, but that didn’t mean he was looking forward to being taunted by a player who was going on to Nationals when he couldn’t, this year.

His eye fell on a magazine someone had left behind, open to an article covering the “exciting” final match of the Kantou Regional games. He curled his lip and dropped the damp towel on top of it, pulling on fresh shorts and a hooded shirt briskly. He’d already planned to take Hiyoshi and Ohtori to the National games, so they could watch the competition and get some practice judging the players and strategies of other teams. He didn’t expect to entirely enjoy that. The match he needed to play with Sanada was more of the same. It was his duty, this time to his own game, and he would do it. He hauled his bag over his shoulder and jogged down the steps of the athletic building to head for the station and catch a southbound train.

Fortunately, Rikkai’s courts were almost as obvious as his own, and he didn’t have to ask directions from or deal with any of the native students until he got his feet down onto hardtop and issued his challenge.

Sanada planted his hands on his hips as his club goggled at their visitor, and looked Keigo up and down. “You want what?”

“A match, Sanada, you do remember what those are?” Keigo snapped. “You should be grateful; you obviously need to play more of them against real opponents, if you almost lost to a first year.”

As he’d confidently expected, that fired Sanada right up. “And you think you’re a real opponent, do you?” He caught up his racquet and gestured sharply at two of his players to clear one of the courts. “I’ll show you differently, then.”

Keigo grabbed one of his own racquets and walked out opposite him, breathing slow and deep. He needed an opponent of Sanada’s caliber to test his developing technique against; he didn’t expect it to be easy, but he knew this could work. He fixed his eyes on Sanada and started to widen his focus, bit by slow bit, still as acute as ever but taking in more and more of the court that surrounded Sanada, of the pattern his movement made over time.

And then Sanada served.

Keigo’s focus wavered, tightened, wavered again as he chased ball after ball, fighting to keep equal attention on the weight and spin of the ball against his racquet and the building shape of Sanada’s movement across the net. He’d never tried this with a player of his own level yet, and after being provoked, Sanada was showing even less mercy than usual. Keigo was wringing wet and panting for breath, but he could see it. Moment by moment, he could see the shape of Sanada, of his game, of his attention and fields of vision, coming clear.

“You couldn’t even make it to Nationals this year,” Sanada called, pushing at Keigo’s game with the words, “and you thought you could challenge Rikkai? Challenge me?” He drove home another point and straightened up, eyeing the way Keigo leaned with his hands braced against his knees. “Is this some kind of joke, Atobe?”

Keigo didn’t spare the breath to answer, just dashed for the next ball, gritting his teeth with the ache starting behind his eyes as he focused tighter and wider, fighting to bring what he saw into a coherent pattern, to make a weapon of his perceptions. Watching so closely, he saw the words that Sanada said too quietly to be heard.

Is that all you’ve got?

The ball came back to Keigo and he saw Sanada settle into the stance for Mountain. Before anyone said it, his intention was obvious; he wanted to make this an endurance game, grind Keigo down in his own area of strength. The Mountain was exactly the technique Keigo hadn’t been able to get past, the last time they played.

But this time, he saw it.

He saw, for one flash, the whole pattern that Sanada’s movement over time had built. As if they had weight in his hand, he could feel, trace where Sanada’s lines of sight were. Exultation spiked through him like lightning, blazing and brilliant, and he set himself to make the shot straight into Sanada’s blind spot. For one instant, the world crystallized into cool perfection around him: the World of Ice he’d been struggling to reach since he first caught a glimpse of the possibility.

And then he started, shocked, as the net abruptly sagged between them. The start shook him out of position, and the ball flashed past, and he blinked, half in and half out of that web of perception, watching the net slip down to rest against the surface of the court. Finally, he managed to turn his head to see Yukimura by the net pole.

“That’s enough,” Yukimura said firmly, coming out to stand between them and set one foot pointedly on the net.

Keigo glared, furious. He’d just had it, and that point would have been his and turned the game! “What,” he growled, “are you my opponent instead?”

Yukimura just cocked his head, ignoring the burst of outrage from the rest of the club. “I’ll be glad to play you,” he finally said, and a tiny, infuriating smile curved his lips, “if it’s an official match.”

Keigo jerked back. He was used to the way Sanada taunted opponents, and he gave as good as he got, thank you very much. But he’d never thought Yukimura had a taste for that! “What?”

The tiny smile got wider. “Hm. You’ll know soon, I think.” When he tipped his head meaningfully at the stairs up out of the courts, Keigo could only throw his racquet back into his bag and go. After all, he couldn’t very well strangle Yukimura with his bare hands in front of the whole Rikkai club. Pity, that.

He fumed all the way home, and when he got back to the school grounds he stalked into his own courts and took his frustration out on a box of tennis balls. He hurled one serve after another across the net, the new serve he’d been working on ever since he started wondering exactly what Seigaku’s Echizen had thought he was doing when he leaped for that last ball. He thought he’d figured it out, and the bruising, muscle-clenching force that the technique required suited his mood right now. Ball after ball struck the court with ferocious spin, deformed, scuttled along the ground without bouncing.

His concentration (and brooding) were interrupted by his team clattering down the stands behind him, yelling. He sighed and cast a rather dour look over his shoulder. Even after it was all over, he apparently couldn’t escape…

“We got the host-city spot in the National tournament!” Mukahi called down, nearly bouncing with excitement. “They picked us, this year! We can go!”

Keigo stood very still. This was what Yukimura must have meant.

On reflection, he might just be even more insulted, now. Him, Atobe Keigo, to take his team to Nationals despite losing? To let everyone say they’d only made it there out of someone’s pity?

Shishido, who knew him better than Keigo really would have liked sometimes, yelled down, flatly, “We’re going, Atobe! We’re going no matter what!”

“We want to show our real strength!” Ohtori chipped in, and that argument, at least, Keigo could understand. Still…

Hiyoshi’s voice cut through the others, sharp and fiery. “Please, Buchou!”

Keigo sighed and grumbled silently to himself about kouhai who had learned strategy a little too well. Of course, Hiyoshi would know, now, to appeal to his responsibility as his team’s captain. He glowered at the balls scattered across the court, wavering between hunger and outrage.

And that was when he heard the chant.

Hyoutei’s chant echoed out from the building that overlooked the courts, and he turned to see what must be the entire rest of the club, and most of their supporters to boot, leaning out windows and crowding the roof. From the roof rail a long banner unfurled. Congratulations, Hyoutei Gakuen men’s tennis club, for making it to Nationals!

Keigo rolled his eyes. “Idiots,” he muttered. He turned and glared at his apprehensive looking team, sparing an especially sharp look for Hiyoshi, who returned it without the slightest hint of shame over this blatant manipulation. Yes, Keigo was pretty sure it was his successor who’d told the rest of the club about this, made it impossible for Atobe to gracefully refuse, and grudging approval for the canniness of that move blunted his annoyance. “Fine, then.”

He lifted his hand and snapped his fingers, cutting off the chant into breathless, waiting silence. It tugged at him, that silence, the weight of his club’s eyes on him, sparkling down his nerves with the same tingle of exhilaration, chance, danger as always. He lifted his head and tossed a dangerous smile back at them. “Follow me to Nationals, then!”

Cheers rolled down over the team, like a wave breaking.

Keigo dropped his racquet into his bag; no time for more practice with this right now. He’d have to talk to Sakaki-sensei at once about their strategy against the other teams they might meet. There wasn’t much time left to prepare. He gave one more glance to the scuff marks on the far side of the court, though, and smiled a little. Tannhäuser, he’d name this serve. After the legend of redemption and second chances that came if you only waited a little while. He’d polish this, and his other techniques, for Nationals as soon as he had time.

Other techniques.

Keigo stopped short at the foot of the stairs up into the stands where his team was waiting. They were going to Nationals. And it was not at all unlikely that he’d be meeting either Sanada or Yukimura there. Two very dangerous players who, by chance and fate and a single second’s delay, had not seen the completion of World of Ice, today.

Keigo started laughing and couldn’t stop, even when Oshitari made sardonic remarks about the effects of stress and Shishido demanded, more bluntly, whether he’d finally stripped a gear.

An official match, indeed.

Keigo caught his breath and swept a glance over his team, fiercely delighted, watching them straighten and step toward him in answer. He slung his bag over his shoulder with all his usual flair, head high.

“Let’s go.”

Six Days Before Nationals

Tachibana An was a well-raised girl, and she would normally never dream of eavesdropping on her brother’s personal conversations (unless, of course, there was no chance of getting caught). But considering the recent upsets in her brother’s life, and especially in his tennis, and considering Fuji Shuusuke’s reputation for unpredictability, she felt justified this one time in lurking just inside the doorway to hear what Fuji wanted from her brother. Especially what he wanted that had him visiting this late at night with his tennis bag over his shoulder. She listened through the barely open door while they exchanged pleasantries about everyone’s healing injuries, or possibly those were threats, or maybe both at once. Boys. Her ears perked up when Fuji asked Onii-chan to come with him.

“Where?” her brother asked, obviously curious about all this himself.

“Mm. I was thinking the street court just near here, actually.”

She knew it! Fuji wanted a match!

…this close to the tournament, though? An puzzled over that as she slipped back into the kitchen and finished feeding the dog, keeping a sharp ear on the sounds of her brother moving around upstairs. Fuji must want something that only her brother could give him. What was unique about Onii-chan?

Well, when she put it that way, it was actually kind of obvious. When he came back down with his own tennis bag and called that he’d be back in an hour or so, she ran for her room. More specifically, for her cel phone.

This was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“Hurry up, hurry up,” she chanted under her breath as she ran back down the stairs and jammed her feet into her sneakers, phone ringing in her ear.


“Kamio-kun, it’s An.” She slipped out the door, patting her pocket absently to make sure she had her keys.

“An-chan! I was just about to call you!” His voice turned shyer. “I have these tickets to a live concert…”

An flapped an impatient hand, even though he couldn’t see it. “Kamio-kun, this is way more important! Fuji Shuusuke was just here, and he asked Onii-chan for a match! You have to come!”

“Why?” he asked, sharp and focused again, thank goodness. “Is something wrong?”

“Of course not, but I think Onii-chan might be ready to play seriously again!” An broke into a trot down the street. “You need to see this, you’ll understand everything if you just see. Just meet me at the street court near our house, okay?”

“Okay, I’m coming.”

An nodded with satisfaction as she slid her phone into her back pocket and broke into a lope. She’d never found the words to explain to Kamio or to Ibu what had been so incredible about her brother’s tennis, or why the match against Kirihara had troubled him so very much. But if Kamio could see for himself, she knew he’d understand, and understand what it meant that her brother had bleached his hair again.

And why she had cried when she’d seen it, helpless to gulp back those tears of hot relief.

She bounced impatiently on her toes when she got to the stairs up to the court, looking up and down the street for Kamio. Fortunately, he was only a minute or two behind her.

“They came here?” he asked as he slid to a stop beside her, not even out of breath.

An nodded and took his arm. “Come on, we’ll stay quiet and watch from the top of the stairs.”

They snuck up to the court and crowded into the shadow of the low wall that ran around it. They were just in time to hear Fuji’s voice, silky and provoking, say, “Could it be that you’ve been overrated?”

An promptly clapped a hand over Kamio’s mouth, just in time to stifle a sharp exclamation of outrage. Her brother was laughing.

“You don’t have to try so hard to provoke me, Fuji. If you want a game against my real strength, I’ll give it to you.” An watched Onii-chan shift his shoulders and straighten under the floodlights spilling over the court. Kamio made a startled sound around the hand she’d forgotten to take away as the very air turned heavier.

“Try not to get hurt,” her brother said, low and clear, and An’s breath caught. She’d seen her brother play, back before he’d moved to Tokyo; she remembered that perfect confidence, tinged with amusement, and she pressed her clasped hands against her mouth, hoping.

The next ball was almost too fast to see, and it tore by just a breath away from Fuji’s face. An’s heart leaped with excitement.

“What…?” Kamio whispered beside her, and his eyes were wide when she glanced over.

“I thought I warned you,” her brother told Fuji, arms crossed. “If you don’t pay attention, you’re going to get hurt.”

Fuji’s still shock melted into a slow, fey smile, blue eyes gleaming under the lights. “So I see.”

An was having a hard time not squeaking with glee, and she leaned forward, eager for the next ball. This one, Fuji caught, and the rally was on, flashing back and forth across the net at a speed that set her pulse pounding.

“This…” Kamio sounded just as breathless as she felt. “This is Tachibana-san’s real strength?”

“Yes,” she whispered back. “Oh yes! Finally, he’s finally playing for real again!” And then she bit her lip, because Fuji had given her brother a lob, and she knew what Fuji’s specialties were, now. Beside her, Kamio gasped, “If he smashes it, Fuji will just—” he broke off with a wordless sound of frustration as Fuji, sure enough, spun into the stance for Higuma Otoshi. An, though, held her breath, still hoping.

And then she punched the air, triumphantly, as Fuji’s racquet spun out of his hands, gut burst. “Yes!” she hissed.

“He broke Higuma Otoshi!” Kamio exclaimed, starting up out of their concealing shadow.

Onii-chan didn’t look at them, but he answered calmly, “Not quite.” An looked up at a flicker of movement and stared as the ball came down in her brother’s court and bounced past his feet. “Not bad, Fuji.”

Fuji smiled over his shoulder, sharp and challenging, before it faded into a rueful look at his racquet. “I suppose this means we’re done for now,” he sighed, picking it up. “I’d wanted to play you for longer.” He came to the net and held out his hand. “Thank you, Tachibana. I think I know what I need to, now.”

“Good.” Onii-chan smiled, fierce and pleased. “We’ll look forward to meeting you at Nationals.”

Fuji strolled past An and Kamio with a friendly nod, and An thought she was the only one who watched him long enough to see the casual smile melt off his face, replaced with the most edged look she thought she’d ever seen in another player’s eyes. She shivered a little, hoping she’d get a chance to see this one play for real, himself. She’d never seen anyone return one of her brother’s smashes cleanly, broken gut or not.

“An, Kamio.” Her brother sounded just a tiny bit exasperated. “What are you two doing here?”

An turned, recalled to the present as Kamio stammered a little. “I called Kamio-kun to come watch, once I figured out Fuji was probably going to ask you for an all-out game,” she said, matter-of-fact. “He’s never seen you play like that, and he needed to.”

Her brother gave her a bit of a glare, but it faded when Kamio said, husky, “That was incredible, Tachibana-san.”

Of course, it came back a bit when Kamio added, “Why haven’t you played like that before?”

An nibbled her lip, just a little guilty for putting Onii-chan on the spot, as her brother’s mouth tightened for a moment. “My closest friend on my old team was injured while we were playing,” he finally said, quietly. “If I hadn’t been using that style, it wouldn’t have happened.”

An’s brows went up when Kamio relaxed, startled that that put him at ease. At least until he said, “It… it wasn’t because of us, then?”

“Of course not!” Onii-chan gave Kamio a very startled look. “Why would you think such a thing?”

“Well, I mean!” Kamio ran a hand through his bright hair and said to his shoes, “None of us is strong enough to be a decent opponent for you, and you have to spend so much time doing the things that a coach should be doing, and when that guy said you’d gotten weaker and you didn’t, you know, grind him into the pavement or anything… it seemed like the most likely answer.”

An watched her brother open and close his mouth a few times, and shook her head. “Oh, Kamio-kun.” She came to wrap an arm around him and whapped him firmly over the head. “You’re such an idiot, sometimes.”

“Ow,” he muttered, pushing his disordered hair back into place. But he leaned his shoulder against hers.

“You know, An, I’ve always been grateful that I’m never going to be one of your players. Your leadership techniques are a little too vigorous.” Onii-chan was smiling, though, and he came to rest his hands on Kamio’s shoulders. “It wasn’t your fault, in any way. All of you were what brought me back to tennis. I don’t know if I’ve ever said how grateful I am.”

Kamio looked up at her brother with shining eyes. “Tachibana-san…”

And that, An thought, smiling a bit ruefully to herself, was why she always dodged Kamio’s shy almost-date offers. Way too much of Kamio’s heart already belonged to her brother, and An didn’t intend to take second place to anyone. “So when are you going to give in and play me like that?” she prodded.

Kamio looked horrified. “An-chan!” She glared at him, and he backpedaled quickly, hands lifted. “I mean, you’re really good, you really are, it’s just…”

“Not until you show me you can do at least four sets of flyes with half my weights, regularly,” her brother said firmly. An pouted a little, but that was, at least, a reasonable bar to set, considering the weight and velocity of her brother’s shots when he played seriously.

She’d have to work on her weight regimen more intensively.

Onii-chan obviously knew her well enough to follow the thought, because he asked, “How has your own training been coming, Kamio?” He tucked his racquet back into his bag and lifted it over his shoulder, leading them both back down the steps of the court.

Kamio brightened. “It’s been going really well! My time is up to fifty minutes of intermittent sprints before my speed falls.” He smiled up at her brother. “Everyone is working really hard, and it’s paying off.”

“Of course it is,” Onii-chan said with the perfect confidence that made all of his team kind of glow to hear. An strolled along beside them, smiling quietly. She’d always known her brother wouldn’t be able to give up tennis. He was born to do this, and after Nationals, everyone would know it.

It was probably just as well Kamio was distracted, because the glint in her eyes as she thought that made her look very much like her brother.3

Four Days Before Nationals

Genichirou stood beside Yukimura, watching as the tennis club filtered off the courts, chattering and excited and confident. Of course they were confident. Their captain had returned, the miracle had happened, there was no way they could lose.

Genichirou envied them that innocent conviction, a little.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked quietly, not looking at his friend.

“Of course I’m sure. We know, now, how recovered I am against another first rank player…”

Because yesterday Yukimura had played Genichirou until he dropped where he stood, losing 3-6.

“…now I need to know where I am against the second rank.” Yukimura unfolded his arms and stretched. Glancing over, Genichirou caught a gleam in his eye and snorted.

“And you told me to be careful.”

“I didn’t say a thing about being careful,” Yukimura defended himself, smiling. “I just said you and Atobe should finish it in an official match, not off record like that one was.”

“That wasn’t the only reason you stopped us,” Genichirou stated flatly.

After a moment of silence, Yukimura shook his head. “Atobe is arrogant, but he’s not foolish. He had something specific in mind, when he came to find you. I’m not inclined to help opponents with their training when we’ve yet to meet them in the tournaments.”

“Hmph.” Genichirou settled back, though. At least Yukimura hadn’t thought he’d lose or something foolish like that. “Well go on, then. I think the courts are clear enough, now.”

Sure enough, Akaya had waved Marui on toward the changing rooms and was trotting across the cleaned courts to them. “You said you wanted me for something after practice, Yukimura-buchou?”

“Yes.” Yukimura stepped down off the grass and onto the courts. “I wanted a match with you today.”

Akaya lit up like a sparkler someone had just set a match to, and Genichirou felt a smile twitch at his mouth. At least it looked like they’d enjoy themselves.

Akaya set his feet against the surface of the court, breathing deeply. He hadn’t been able to play Yukimura-buchou for months and months, but he remembered very clearly what it was like. And it was a lot like drowning in something. He braced himself for the weight of it as Yukimura stepped back to his baseline, and it was still a shock when his captain looked up, eyes suddenly sharp enough to cut, clear across the length of the court. The rush of danger and excitement and fear down Akaya’s nerves plunged him straight down into the response he’d been practicing for three weeks now, the clarity of no-self. The world sharpened, clear and light and waiting.

It was an effort to pull himself back out.

Yukimura was smiling, still holding his first ball. “It’s a better response than your old one, Akaya.”

Akaya gave his captain an extremely patient look. “Of course it is, but I’m not going to use it until I need it.” As if he didn’t know he couldn’t last a whole match against Yukimura, like that. Not yet, anyway.

Yukimura laughed. “Good.” He threw the ball up and the sheer force of his focus hammered into Akaya.

He’d never understood exactly how Yukimura-buchou did it, but he’d seen it in game after game, felt it every time they played. Some players, especially the ones who were afraid or just weren’t ready for it, even froze up completely. Sanada-fukubuchou got all old-fashioned about it and talked about sword-spirit and gathering your ki. Yanagi-senpai talked about Yukimura’s confidence and focus and subliminal cues that reached the other player.

Niou-senpai just said that even an idiot could tell when there was a knife coming at him.

Akaya drove himself through that pressure, past it to reach the ball, settling back into the familiar balance of desperation and exhilaration. This. This was his goal, and there was nothing in the world quite like the strain in every muscle and tendon to catch Yukimura’s shots, the spike of triumph whenever he did.

He was catching more of them, today. Yukimura-buchou was playing closer to his level than usual, and a corner of his mind wondered if that was the point. Was this a training exercise? Practice in conserving his strength?

Even with his captain holding back, Akaya was losing ground, though. One shot and then another struck past him, beyond his reach as Yukimura turned his racquet, steady as rock and fluid as water, to spin the ball. One more wickedly curving slice and Akaya was down two games, including his service game.

All right, fine; now he’d let his instincts have their way.

His captain smiled coolly as Akaya let himself feel the threat of Yukimura’s strength, and stilled himself into the transparency of no-self, the poise so perfect it wasn’t even waiting. The intensity of it felt like an exact match for the weight of Yukimura’s game, and Akaya saw the next serve coming, was behind it in four strides, felt the spin of the ball against his gut and moved, countering the spin and throwing the ball back to the far corner all in one breath.

This game was longer, rally after rally as the ball sang back and forth between them, and Akaya only lost after he’d taken three points. Observations came together without any words to frame them, in the back of his head, and sent him diving into the fourth game. When Yukimura jumped to serve or to smash the ball, he pulled up just a little short. His drives had all the finesse Akaya remembered in muscle and bone, but less strength. His breath had a faint catch in it at the top. All those things braided together and called fast, hard shots out of Akaya’s hands.

This game, Akaya took. The next, as well, snatching the last two points with the driving force of Fire twice in a row.

Startlement was enough to shake Akaya out of no-self, and he straightened up, puzzled. He’d seen Yukimura-buchou return Fire, with no more apparent trouble than any other shot, stealing the force from it with seeming ease. “Buchou…?”

Yukimura’s eyes gleamed like steel across the court. “No time for that right now, Akaya. Come.” The weight of his presence abruptly turned overwhelming, towering up like a tsunami wave. Adrenaline spiked through Akaya, and plunged him back into no-self, into the space of pure perception and action that might stand a chance of answering that same state in his captain.

There was no time for thought, no time for evaluation or planning, only time to move, to see, to move again. Another game to Yukimura. Another, by one point, to Akaya. He could feel his strength starting to drain, though, the fine edge of his responses blunting. The last two games went fast, and they didn’t go to him.

Akaya stumbled to his knees as match point cut past his racquet, and stayed there for a few moments, gasping for breath as he slid back out of no-self into the everyday tangle of “won” and “lost” and “oh yeah, it’s hot out.” It had been closer than he’d ever come before, this match, and he was satisfied and frustrated at the same time. Especially since, looking back on it, there had definitely been something odd about Yukimura-buchou’s game.

“That was definitely more painful than I’d hoped it would be.” There was a breathless edge in his captain’s voice, and Akaya looked up to find him leaning hard against one of the net posts with Sanada-fukubuchou hovering beside him. Yukimura’s face was pale in a way it hadn’t been since the bad months.

“Yukimura-buchou?” Akaya scrambled back to his feet and hurried to them. “Buchou, what…?”

His captain smiled at him and waved a hand. “Don’t worry, Akaya. I knew what I was doing.”

“What were you doing?” Akaya demanded, eyes raking up and down Yukimura, not that he didn’t know by now that the scariest injuries were the ones that didn’t bleed. “I thought, at the start, you were working on conserving your strength, maybe…”

“Possibly a wise tactic, if not quite today’s goal,” Sanada-fukubuchou noted, one hand on Yukimura-buchou’s shoulder as if to steady him.

Yukimura-buchou laughed, only to catch it short the way he’d been doing right after his surgery, and that twisted something in Akaya’s chest. “I’m measuring just how much I’ve recovered, Akaya. And how long I can play against someone who’s just below our level.”

Akaya chewed on his lip. “Echizen,” he said, softly, and Yukimura’s smile brightened.

“Very good. You’re getting better at strategy.”

“You did win,” Akaya offered, finding himself glad of that, now.

His captain’s eyes darkened. “Barely.” He slowly straightened up, though, and reached up to ruffle Akaya’s hair. “You’ve come a long way in just a few weeks.” Quiet and serious, he finished, “I’m proud of you, Akaya.”

Akaya swallowed and bent his head under the weight of that approval, cheeks hotter than even a hard game could account for. “Thank you, Yukimura-buchou.” His captain’s hand slipped down to his shoulder and held him firmly for a moment, steady and encouraging.

“Well, I think we’re done for the day,” Yukimura-buchou said more lightly. “I should stretch a little more, though. Go on ahead, Akaya.”

Akaya looked up at that, worried all over again. “Are you really sure… I mean…” He eyed Yukimura-buchou’s lingering paleness and glanced up at Sanada-fukubuchou. He would be staying, wouldn’t he? To make sure their captain was all right?

A corner of Sanada-fukubuchou’s mouth curled up, dryly amused, and he jerked his head toward the changing rooms. Akaya relaxed a little at that, and collected his bag, and went.

And he tried not to think too very hard about how much Yukimura-buchou still had to recover, if his captain’s crushing strength was only enough, now, to defeat him six games to four. Thinking about that made his chest twist tighter. Instead, he thought about the training he’d do in the days they had left, and how none of them would let any other team drive them to Singles One.

They should not let any match go that far.

“He can be very protective, sometimes,” Genichirou observed, keeping one hand under Seiichi’s elbow as they walked slowly along the half-wall around the empty courts.

Yukimura sighed, leaning on his hand for a moment’s balance as they turned the corner. “I scared him. I had hoped he wouldn’t notice—that he’d think it was just an exercise in control.”

“So how bad is it?” Genichirou asked bluntly, now there were no other ears to hear.

They were at the next corner before Yukimura answered. “The pain wears on my endurance worse than I’d expected. If Akaya had been able to hold on a while longer, I’d have lost.”

A finger of chill ran down Genichirou’s spine. “Your range of motion is still impaired also. How much of that is the pain?”

“Pain by itself, I can get through,” Yukimura said sharply. “I can’t pull too hard on the incisions, yet, though. Anything that requires a long reach, or for the core abdominal muscles to clench… I’m barely at seventy percent of what I could normally do.”

And that seventy percent gained by forcing his way against the pain until he’d almost passed out. Genichirou’s hand tightened on Seiichi’s arm, though he let go again at his friend’s annoyed sound. Seiichi’s steps were steadier now, and his breathing easier. “I think you’d better plan to take some painkillers before the match, if we have to meet Seigaku or Shitenhouji,” he said quietly.

Yukimura laughed full out, this time, but it was bitter. “They won’t do more than take the edge off, not unless I take so many they affect my game.” After a long, quiet moment, he sighed. “Still, that’s something.”

“We will not lose,” Genichirou said firmly. “You’re with us again, and we won’t lose to anyone.”

Seiichi looked up at him, mouth tilted wryly, and there was, perhaps, a shade of exasperation in his eyes. But he sounded as sure as ever when he said, “I know you won’t.”

Genichirou nodded and stayed close as they made another lap around the courts in the low, golden sunlight.

Two Days Before Nationals

Tezuka Kunimitsu knew the value of self control; he’d been taught that from a young age by his grandfather. That was why his step was measured as he walked down the hallway to the classroom on Rikkai’s campus where the place-drawing for Nationals was being held, and his hands didn’t shake in the least as he quietly opened the door. He was just a little late; he’d missed one of his connections in Osaka and had to wait for the next train. He’d hoped to be here from the start, for the first real moment of the National tournament. Stepping softly into the room, he could feel the weight of anticipation already built up, the silent challenges passed back and forth between the other captains and vice-captains in the room.

Looking down the sloping rows of seats to the platform at the front of the room, he saw the drawing had already started. Indeed, he seemed to have arrived just in time for Seigaku’s name to be called. Ooishi was getting up, untangling one foot from his chair, looking a bit flustered. The edge of silent challenge blunted in a rustle of amusement among the others. Perhaps even contempt.

Kunimitsu wasn’t prepared to put up with that, not after the way Ryuuzaki-sensei said Ooishi had been holding their team together. He let the door close with a small thump behind him and called down, “I’ll get this, Ooishi.”

Heads snapped around, across the room, and the weight of the atmosphere locked around him like jaws. Kunimitsu nodded to himself a little, satisfied. No one would be permitted to treat Seigaku with disrespect.

“Tezuka!” Ooishi was smiling now, bright and relieved. And then he huffed out a small, exasperated breath that said Kunimitsu should have let him know he would be getting home today. Kunimitsu offered a small tilt of his head in apology, and Ooishi shook his head and sat back down, relaxed and rueful. Kunimitsu was forgiven.

He strode down the shallow stairs, marking their upcoming opponents as he went. Kite’s expression was calculating and chill in a way that said the rumors about Higa might be true. Shiraishi said something quiet to his vice-captain, never looking away from Kunimitsu. Atobe’s eyes were glittering and his smile was fierce and pleased. Rokkaku’s young ‘captain’ was nearly bouncing, but Saeki just watched Kunimitsu, sharp and measuring. Kunimitsu stepped lightly over the long leg Kuroshio’s Tamaki casually stuck out into the aisle and raised an eyebrow; Tamaki only laughed, apparently satisfied.

Sanada, not to Kunimitsu’s surprise, didn’t look around at all. Yukimura might have been stifling laughter over that.

Kunimitsu climbed the steps to the platform and murmured his apology for his lateness. Paper rustled against his fingers as he fished out a single slip from the blue box that held the lots for seeded teams. He drew C block. A quick glance at the chart showed he’d drawn a spot on the same side of the bracket as Shitenhouji. He’d speak with Ryuuzaki-sensei about how to prepare for that match.

As he turned away, his eyes finally crossed Sanada’s, and the fire in them sent a curl of anticipation through him. Perhaps, this year, they would finally meet on an official court again. Or perhaps…

Yukimura’s gaze was lighter but sharper, fit to cut an opponent to pieces. For now, though, he only nodded to Kunimitsu, quiet acknowledgment that they had both returned to their proper places. Kunimitsu nodded gravely back. If the two of them met, this year, it would be a good match.

He climbed back up to sit beside Ooishi and watch the rest of the drawing. “How is the team?” he asked quietly as Takashiro was called up.

“They’re well,” Ooishi answered softly, watching the chart starting to fill in. “Everyone’s training hard. Losing the Regional finals by such a thin margin seems to have inspired them.”

That was as it should be. “Echizen too?”

Ooishi hesitated. “I… want you to see for yourself, before I say anything.”

Kunimitsu held back a frown; that sounded less promising. To be sure, Echizen was the one he worried most about, the one of his team most lacking a clear path to follow, in the game. But he’d hoped that the anchor of a team to fight for would steady the boy. Apparently not.

Perhaps, remembering Echizen’s blank bewilderment that day on the street court underneath the tracks, he wasn’t actually all that surprised.

Team after team went up to draw from the black or blue boxes of lots, and be placed by the organizers in the block they drew. Fudoumine fell on Seigaku’s side of the bracket, the seeded team for B block. Hyoutei fell on the other, one of the two unseeded teams in F block, and an urge to smile tugged at Kunimitsu’s lips when he saw Atobe’s disgruntled look.

“Will you be ready for the ranking matches Ryuuzaki-sensei wants to hold?” Ooishi asked, very quietly.

The same topic he’d just been thinking on, in a way. Kunimitsu was silent for a long minute before he spoke. “I don’t think ranking matches would serve the team well right now.” He watched Murigaoka’s captain mount the stairs, not really seeing him, seeing instead the team he had built and come to know, this year. The one he had brought Echizen Ryouma into, and given to him as a charge and a cause.

“But…” Ooishi frowned. “We have nine players, now, and only eight spaces.”

“Every one of those nine has proven his right to be a part of the Nationals team. The only one whose fitness should be in any doubt is me, and if it’s necessary to demonstrate my recovery, I can do that without ranking matches. If we have a nine-person team, we will call one person alternate and choose whoever seems most suited to any given match.” His team had earned that, all of them.

It was Ooishi’s turn to be silent, searching look fixed on Kunimitsu. Finally, he nodded slowly. “I understand. We’ll talk to Ryuuzaki-sensei about it when we get back.”

Kunimitsu settled back in his seat, satisfied, and started paying attention to the chart again.

Finally, Rikkai was called, and the background murmurs of conversation fell silent as Yukimura stood. The eyes on him were, if possible, even more devouring than they had been on Kunimitsu. Yukimura climbed the stairs with familiar, careless grace, every step sure and easy, and smiled at the officials as if he didn’t feel the pressure of his opponents’ regard at all. Rikkai fell across the bracket from Seigaku, in the H block, and Atobe brightened up at once, even as a few other captains on the same side looked grim.4

Perhaps only Kunimitsu was still watching closely enough to see the way Yukimura’s hand tightened on the back of his chair as he sat back down. Perhaps only Kunimitsu had recent enough memories of pain to recognize it from only that sign.

Yukimura would be in Singles One, then, no question, to keep him from having to play too often. Kunimitsu thought about that, about the still-incomplete recovery that flash of pain indicated. Perhaps… perhaps Kunimitsu would take Two after all, and try to make sure of Sanada instead. He wasn’t sure, though, whether Yukimura, and Yukimura’s intimidating presence on the court, would be a good match, a good lesson, for Echizen right now.

He would decide once he’d seen Echizen play, for himself.

One Day Before Nationals

Kunimitsu prowled the edges of club practice the next day, nodding approval as the second years ran by in their laps, pausing here and there to correct a first year’s swing. But it was his team he kept most of his attention on.

“Kikumaru has improved his endurance considerably,” he murmured as he stopped beside Ooishi, watching Kikumaru playing Kaidou. Pride in his partner lit Ooishi’s smile.

“He has. By almost half an hour, playing at full strength.” He nodded at the next court over, where Momoshiro and Fuji were taking turns serving to each other with multiple balls. “Fuji still won’t say exactly what he’s working on, but Momo has been making good progress on his situational awareness and his speed.”

“And Echizen,” Kunimitsu finished, with a faint edge, “appears to be testing the limits of his wrists.” On the third court, Kawamura hit yet another heavy drive and Echizen bared his teeth as he met it and threw it back, two-handed.

Ooishi sighed, sounding resigned. “He’s been… very focused on his training.” He waved Inui over. “What is Echizen up to, by now?”

“He’s up to seven kilogram weights for his flyes and wrist curls,” Inui reported. “Thirty kilometers a day, running with ankle weights. And, as you can see…” he nodded toward the court where Echizen was returning one after another of Kawamura’s balls.

“I think Sanada said something to him, after their match,” Ooishi said quietly, watching their youngest member with worry dark in his eyes.

Kunimitsu folded his arms, watching thoughtfully. “If Echizen played from a state of no-self for long, I imagine Sanada told him he needed more physical strength to support it.”

Ooishi made an aggravated sound. “There’s only so far Echizen can push himself until he grows some more!”

“Perhaps he needs to be reminded of the strength of technique, over raw power.” Perhaps he really would put Echizen in Singles One against Rikkai. If the match chanced to go that far, Yukimura was certainly the strongest possible lesson in the advantage of superior technique.

And then he realized Ooishi and Inui were both watching him expectantly. He thought again about what he’d just said, and suppressed a rueful snort. He supposed he was another such lesson, yes.

Well, a match with Echizen would certainly serve more than one purpose, today. Kunimitsu nodded silent agreement and went to gently pluck Kawamura’s racquet from his hand.

“Come on, come on! Burni… eh?” Kawamura blinked at him, wiggling his empty fingers in a puzzled way. “Tezuka?”

“Try some precision drills with Inui, for a while,” Kunimitsu directed.

Kawamura glanced at Echizen, who was suddenly looking eager instead of grimly determined, and smiled. “Sure thing.” He and Inui made for the next set of courts, though they didn’t do it as fast as they might have.

Kunimitsu took his place on the court, nodding to Echizen and ignoring the sudden rustle of the club as they all tried to draw closer. “Let’s see how far you’ve come.”

Echizen just nodded back, and the lack of words, cheeky or otherwise, rang a note of warning for Kunimitsu. He watched the development of their first game carefully, awareness of the club dropping back in his mind. Echizen had certainly made progress. He’d always been alarmingly quick, and that quickness was matched with a more solid step, now. His returns were harder, cleaner. The drives he’d developed himself came sure and easy to his hands. When he took his third point with a new drive, ball scuttling wildly along the ground without bouncing, he swung his racquet up to his shoulder and gave Kunimitsu a triumphant grin.

“Drive C,” he announced to the excited whispers and exclamations of the club around them.

“A useful addition,” Kunimitsu agreed, “particularly if you complete it.”

Echizen made a face. “I did. It just freaks out the referee if I use the complete version too often.”

Kunimitsu wondered for a moment what the referee had to do with anything, and then considered the height Echizen would need, to give that ball the force and spin it required, and eyed the no doubt very handy ladder steps up the side of the referee’s chair. He caught back an amused smile and merely nodded, gravely. Echizen’s eyes sparkled under his cap as if he’d seen the smile anyway.

That was better.

Kunimitsu took the first game, and the second, and Echizen’s scowl was only normally annoyed, and only for a moment before he set his feet and gave Kunimitsu a challenging look. His eyes turned distant and focused, and very familiar pressure swept across the courts—a feeling like a storm was coming. Kunimitsu was impressed, if not exactly surprised, when Echizen spoke.

“Do you do this, too?”

“Always,” he answered quietly, watching Echizen’s eyes widen and then narrow in fierce speculation. The boy pulled his focus back together, though, and Kunimitsu watched him, pleased. Echizen was already past the first senseless rush of no-self.

And if Echizen seemed far more inclined to follow Yukimura’s use of it, to stun the spirit of his opponent, than Kunimitsu’s own subtle integration of awareness into his game, well each player had to find his own style.

They played faster, after that, fast and hard and precise, and part of Kunimitsu’s awareness was taken up with watching how Echizen tracked the path and spin of every ball, reaching and reaching again for answers to Kunimitsu’s tennis. When Echizen took his first game, chatter broke out around them, among the watching club. Echizen wrinkled his nose briefly, and then grinned at the flash of Kunimitsu’s amusement he clearly caught, straight face or no. Yes, Kunimitsu told him silently, ball after ball, I am not surprised. I always believed this of you. And ball after ball, Echizen’s focus sharpened, brightened, and his spine relaxed. Force flowed properly into his shots again, and when he took a second game Kunimitsu lifted a brow, asking if he understood. Echizen just looked back, waiting, silently demanding, and Kunimitsu finally nodded agreement.

It had been a very long time since he’d let himself play full out, a year and a half since he’d realized there was lasting damage to his arm that the demands of his real game would tear into something irreparable, if he didn’t take care. It felt good, to stretch out again at last, and Echizen’s breathless laugh, ringing through the shocked whispers of the club, said he might understand. Tennis, this thing they did, was for joy, not for pain or fear or ambition, though all of those might be in it before the end. Kunimitsu stroked the ball across his racquet, spun it sharp as glass, controlling the path with a pure precision he’d missed with a year and more of heartsick ache. Echizen threw himself after each ball with fierce determination, thought and strategy burning up in the immediacy of his response.

This, Kunimitsu understood as he watched, was why Echizen had lost to Sanada. Echizen didn’t have the raw strength to meet Sanada here, without thought, without strategy, without the aid of Echizen’s cunning. But Echizen would throw himself into the game anyway, body and heart, trying to win. Kunimitsu couldn’t say he disapproved, but Echizen would need to learn better balance.

Echizen took one more game, taking the last point with what must be his completed Drive C, ball spinning so fiercely it broke even Kunimitsu’s control. In the end, though, Echizen’s control of the ball wasn’t equal to Kunimitsu’s yet, and the last game was Kunimitsu’s sixth instead of Echizen’s fourth. Echizen’s eyes were hidden under the brim of his hat as they met at the net, and Kunimitsu shook his head a little.

“As long as you have a cause to move forward for, there’s nothing to fear in a loss,” he said quietly, under the swell of excited talk from the club.

Echizen looked up at that, eyes still dark but also puzzled. “A cause?”

“Your reason to win,” Kunimitsu clarified, and a chill stole through him at the absolute incomprehension on Echizen’s face.


Kunimitsu took a slow breath, holding on hard to his outward calm. The realization settled into his mind, icy and edged: Echizen hadn’t understood. Kunimitsu had left his club with the thought that Echizen had understood and accepted his charge to be come the team’s support, and thereby to let the team support him. Clearly, he hadn’t. And he’d fought Sanada without any cause driving him forward but victory itself. When he failed to grasp victory…

No wonder there was fear in Echizen’s tennis, now.

“All right,” Ryuuzaki-sensei called, “enough gawking, everyone get back to work!”

“Water,” Kunimitsu suggested to Echizen, to give himself time to think. When they were both sitting down to drink, and stretch their legs carefully, back out from under the eyes of the whole club, he finally ventured, “Why did you think I fought so hard to win, against Atobe?”

Echizen frowned up at him like he’d asked why the sky was blue and opened his mouth, but after a long moment he closed it again and took a sip of water, frowning down at his toes instead. “You didn’t seem to… mind,” he muttered, eventually. “Even though you fought that hard, it was like you didn’t mind losing.”

“It was a good match. And there was still you to play, yet, so I was confident Seigaku would win.” Kunimitsu watched Echizen carefully, sidelong, as he drank, hoping this time it would make sense. Echizen was still frowning, turning his water bottle in his hands.

They both started when Ryuuzaki-sensei spoke from the other side of the fence, behind them. “You have to be a lot blunter than that, Tezuka-kun, trust me. And even then, well, his father never did quite get it.” She was standing with her arms crossed and a tilted smile making small lines around her eyes. “Listen, brat, no one has blamed you at all for losing, have they?”

Echizen shook his head silently, a little wide-eyed. “How do you know my dad?” he asked, low.

Ryuuzaki-sensei stared. “He didn’t even tell you that? Why that little…!” A slow breath through her nose seemed to restore her grip on her temper, though her hands were still tight on her folded arms. “He went to school here. I was the little ingrate’s coach. I think that’s why he brought you back here for junior high, and it’s obviously a good thing he did.” She waved a hand at the busy courts, the training exercises of the team and the club. “No one blamed you for losing, because Seigaku wins or loses as a team, Ryouma. The team is always here to support you. And for you to support. Even,” she added, with a mock-glower at Kunimitsu, “if that sometimes makes you do crazy, reckless things.”

Echizen looked back and forth between them. “The team,” he said, slowly. “You mean you were trying that hard… for the team. And that’s why it was okay to lose?” There was a thread of incredulity in his voice.

“That’s why I wasn’t afraid to lose,” Kunimitsu corrected. Echizen finally stilled, at that, staring up at him for a long, long moment. The sounds of the club seemed far away as Kunimitsu waited.

“You wanted me to not be afraid to lose. That day by the tracks.”

Kunimitsu nodded silently.

Echizen looked down at his water bottle, fingers tightening around it. “I hate losing,” he said, very soft but also very harsh.

“Hate it all you like,” Ryuuzaki-sensei exclaimed, throwing her hands up. “No one likes to lose! But Tezuka’s right; it’s nothing to be afraid of. Everyone loses sometimes.” She smiled, wry and crooked. “If they don’t, that just means they aren’t playing hard enough or long enough.”

Something passed between her and Echizen, some understanding, and when Echizen stood he lifted his chin with every bit of determination he’d ever shown. “I’m not stopping,” he declared.

Ryuuzaki-sensei had a gleam of something like triumph in her eyes. “I didn’t think you would. So what are you doing lazing around by the bench, hm?”

Echizen sniffed and tugged on his cap. “Waiting for my old lady coach to get done lecturing.” He shot them both a cheerfully insolent smirk and trotted back out to the courts, intercepting Momo as he and Fuji finished.

“Brat,” Ryuuzaki-sensei muttered, though Kunimitsu could hear the affection clear in her voice.

“Sensei. Thank you,” he said quietly. He doubted he could have gotten all of that through to Echizen on his own, at least not without a solid few months of regular matches to demonstrate the point in.

She just snorted. “It’s my job.” She flicked her fingers at him. “Go do yours, now.”

Kunimitsu nodded respectfully, because Ryuuzaki-sensei’s advice was always worth attending to even when she gave it teasingly, and rose to make another round of his club. They were excited, energized. He paused by Fuji, who was leaning against the fence, dripping with sweat and testing the strings of his racquet with a faint frown, like he was considering going straight back out. “You’ve been training more seriously than usual, today,” Kunimitsu observed.

Fuji smiled, faint and crooked. “Mm. I thought I’d try it, and see if I could. Be serious, I mean.” He leaned his head back against the fence, looking up at the hot, cloudless blue of the sky. “My match against Kirihara was something new. I liked the difference.”

“I’m glad,” Kunimitsu said, honestly. He had been disturbed by their conversation, earlier in the year, about Fuji’s lack of motivation when it came to playing a real game. If his friend had found a motivation, Kunimitsu was very glad for him.

Quiet fell between them for a while, but Fuji didn’t move back toward the courts so Kunimitsu waited.

“I went to Tachibana,” Fuji said at last. “He was the only one strong enough, who I thought I could ask a favor from. He played a quick game with me, at his full strength.” He laughed, soft and breathless, as though he’d just finished the game in question. “I want to be stronger than I am, Tezuka.”

Kunimitsu couldn’t completely suppress his smile at that, words he’d once doubted he would ever hear from Fuji. “How is that going?”

“Well, I think,” Fuji murmured, and straightened up from the fence. “Come play a little, and I’ll show you.”

Kunimitsu sorted matches in the back of his head as he set himself on the court opposite Fuji. Echizen to play Yukimura, if it went to Singles One. Fuji… perhaps he would put Fuji in Singles Two or Three against Shitenhouji. He was fairly sure of finding Shiraishi there, after Shiraishi’s frustration last year at not getting to play before Rikkai mopped up his team. That could be a good match for Fuji, now, even if it risked a loss. As Ryuuzaki-sensei had pointed out, Seigaku won or lost as a team.

If both his friend and his protégé were finally ready to play as part of that team, Kunimitsu would trust that Seigaku could win.

Chitose Senri leaned back, balancing his tall wooden chair on two legs, rubbing his forehead with one hand. “Let me get this straight,” he said to the dining room’s hanging lamp. “Daimaru was saying bad things about Seigaku and you got pissed off and challenged him to a game.”

His sister, nearly vibrating with nine-year-old outrage, nodded vigorously.

“And you froze up for a second and he nearly hit you with the ball, except Tezuka intervened.”

“He even returned the point for me!” Miyuki burst out, bouncing earnestly on her toes. “It was really cool!”

“I’m sure it was,” Senri agreed, ignoring the stifled sounds of hilarity from his vice-captain. “So then Daimaru started picking on Tezuka instead. Tezuka Kunimitsu, one of the top players in our age bracket, who is down here for rehabilitation after busting up his shoulder so bad some people thought he’d never play again.” Obviously, it had been a good choice to keep Daimaru off the team this year. That was not the kind of reputation his team needed to get.5

Miyuki paused. “Well, I didn’t know all of that until you told me. But yeah!” She scowled. “He said if Tezuka-niisan wouldn’t play him, that would mean Seigaku must be really weak again this year and he’d tell everyone. Daimaru is really a jerk.”

“Just don’t say so in front of Kaa-san,” Senri sighed. “So Daimaru won the first match, but in the second Tezuka kicked his ass?”

“Don’t let Kaa-san hear you say so,” Miyuki sniped back at him, and Senri took his hand away from his eyes to glare at Tanaka. His vice-captain was folded over the Chitose’s dining room table with his head buried in his arms, laughing.

“Well,” he said, letting his chair fall back down to all four legs. “The way I see it, we can do one of two things. We can kick him out of the club for interfering with another player like that. Or we can throw him to the wolves, line up some practice matches with Higa or something, and hope some of the idiocy gets beaten out of him.”

Tanaka finally wiped his eyes and caught his breath. “It sounds like Unoki was involved, too.” He glanced at Miyuki for confirmation, and she nodded. “With the two of them encouraging each other, letting them run around outside of the club might just make them worse.”

Senri made a long arm to ruffle Miyuki’s hair until she batted at his hand, scowling. “What do you think?” he asked her. “Is getting thrown to the wolves enough, or should I talk to the coach about booting them out?”

She thought about it, pursing her lips in a move that was obviously copied from their mother. “You should throw him to Tezuka-niisan,” she finally said. “At Nationals! So he can show he’s better than Daimaru with everyone watching.”

Tanaka grinned. “Cut-throat little thing, isn’t she?”

Senri made a dubious face. “I don’t think that would be the best possible line-up, if we get far enough to face Seigaku, but I bet I can find someone just as embarrassing before then. And maybe,” he added, when she started to pout, “we can have some practice games with Seigaku while we’re in the same city.”

Miyuki grinned and held out her hand. “Deal.”

Senri shook on it solemnly, and sent her off to show her mother the tournament medal that had been the occasion of her telling him, on their way home, all about the nice guy she’d been practicing tennis with this month. The one who’d helped her get over her anxiety on the court. Tezuka Kunimitsu, who’d have thought?

“She has you totally wrapped around her finger, you know,” Tanaka chuckled.

“Hey, it’s part of being a big brother,” Senri said easily, and flicked a finger at the potential line-ups they’d been writing out. “All right, back to work. Maybe we should put you in Singles Three against Fudoumine.”

“They do seem to like to front-load their matches,” Tanaka agreed, judicious. “You think we really need me for that, though? I mean, they’re all in their first tournament season. I know they’re seeded, but you said they weren’t really National level, when you saw them at Kantou Regionals.”

Senri’s mouth quirked. “Yeah, but you could have burned through steel with the glare Kippei’s vice-captain gave me, when I remarked on the fact. They’ll have been training hard, and these are the ones Kippei gathered, after all.” He sighed, leaning his chin in his hands as he brooded over the paperwork spread out on the polished surface of the table. “He was just about born to be a team captain. I think I’m going to strangle him for running off and making me do it, instead.”

Tanaka rolled his eyes. “Yeah because the poor guy was only traumatized by permanently injuring his best friend, I mean it’s not like he has an excuse or anything. Though shaving his head and giving up tennis and moving in with his mom in Tokyo was going a little overboard. Maybe I’ll just phone up his vice-captain and we’ll lock the two of you into a tennis court and not let you out until you’ve settled this between you.”

Senri smiled and tapped Singles Two on the sheet for Fudoumine. “Yeah, you will. Right there,” he said quietly, absolutely sure. “That’s our match.”

Tanaka gave him a long look. “It will never not be creepy when the two of you do that,” he said, filling in the slot with Senri’s name. “Just try not to tear each other up any worse, okay? I kind of want our other wing back, when we get to high school.”

Senri had to admit, he did too. “I’ll do my best.” As Miyuki’s voice rose in the next room, eloquently protesting the cosmic injustice of having to do homework after she’d won her very first tournament, he grinned. “If all else fails, I’ll sic Miyuki on him.”

“Ruthlessness clearly runs in the family,” Tanaka murmured, and pulled out another sheet. “Okay, so what about Shitenhouji?”

“We’ll need Nakamura and Oonita in doubles, no question,” Senri said, leaning back again with his arms folded behind his head. “Shitenhouji has some pretty fierce doubles this year, and I’d probably better take Singles Two again with them; everyone knows how antsy Shiraishi is after last year, so he’ll come in early…”

“Singles Two against Seigaku, I expect?” Shitenhouji’s coach asked, pencil poised.

“Definitely.” Kuranosuke reached up to catch another of Kintarou’s wild shots before it could hit the window above them and shook out his stinging hand. “If Tezuka isn’t there himself, it should be Fuji. Tezuka hasn’t seen me play in a while, any more than I have him, but I’m sure he remembers enough not to take us lightly.” Kintarou came bounding over to retrieve his tennis ball in time to hear that, and made big eyes at Kuranosuke.

“Why can’t I play in this year’s tournament, huh? Seigaku has a first year! I bet I’m just as good as him! I won all over at Regionals!” He jumped up on the bench they’d taken over and leaned against Watanabe-sensei’s back, pushing their coach’s hat down over his eyes as he peered down at the match sheets.

“Because you aren’t focused enough yet, Kin-chan,” Kuranosuke said briskly, tossing the tennis ball to Koishikawa as his vice-captain came after his drill partner to drag Kintarou back to practice. “You’re even worse than Zaizen at judging your opponents. You’re not playing in Nationals until you can do that.”

“I’m gonna play at Nationals next year!” Kintarou called back as Koishikawa herded him back toward the courts. “Hikaru will let me!”

Zaizen paused in the act of serving against Konjiki to give Kintarou a look eloquent with silent denial, and Watanabe-sensei chuckled, pushing his hat back where it belonged. “You’re sure about not letting him play in Nationals?” he said, quietly enough not to catch Kintarou’s attention again.

“Absolutely not,” Kuranosuke said, just as quietly but fierce. “Kin-chan is a genius, I’m not arguing with that, but he still hasn’t figured out that that’s not enough. Shitenhouji is as strong as it is this year because we have very talented people who know their own strengths, inside and out. Kin-chan only thinks he knows his own strength, right now, and he has no feel for how to gauge anyone else’s. Genius alone will only get you so far.”

Watanabe-sensei hooked a foot over his knee, looking relaxed but watching Kuranosuke with sharp eyes. “Letting him lose to one of the stronger players might teach him that.”

Kuranosuke shook his head, adamant. "Yeah, it probably would, but I’m not interested in giving up a tournament match for that. We can set up some practice matches before the fall Invitationals."

His coach smiled and waved a casual hand. “Okay, you’re the boss. You are planning on letting the kid watch, at least, aren’t you? Not that I think that’ll be quite enough, but it might prepare the ground.”

Kuranosuke snorted softly. “Since I’d need to chain him to the school gates to stop him from coming, yes. Kenya can look after him once we’re there.”

“You still haven’t forgiven Kenya for losing that third game against Makinofuji’s Shinokura, have you?” Watanabe-sensei asked with a tiny grin.

“Not really, no.” Kuranosuke eyed his best speed player, who was currently rallying with Ishida and laughing every time he lost his grip on his racquet. He’d hoped partnering Kenya with Zaizen would calm him down, but no such luck so far, any more than Kenya had lightened Zaizen up.

“Well, you’re the captain, whatever you say.” Watanabe-sensei evened up his stack of match sheets and stood. “I’m sure it will be a learning experience for everyone.”

Watching his coach saunter away, Kuranosuke wondered exactly what Watanabe-sensei was up to. He was definitely up to something. He always was, when he sounded like that. Kuranosuke supposed he was lucky that they could count on it always being something for the good of the team.

Not always very nice, but always good. And after all, it wasn’t like he was a terribly nice person himself, so he supposed it all worked out. He smiled, sharp and pleased, as he scooped up his racquet and turned toward his players.

Keigo stood at the window of Sakaki-san’s office, one hand spread against the cool glass, watching the busyness of the tennis courts below. “We’re rushing everyone’s reconditioning. You might have told me sooner that there was a possibility we’d be playing in Nationals after all.”

“If the thought hadn’t occurred to you, I certainly wasn’t going to suggest it,” his teacher murmured, pen moving over a student assignment from the stack on his desk.

Keigo’s mouth curled. He liked the ambiguity of that. On the one hand, perhaps Sakaki-san hadn’t wanted to disturb Keigo’s little struggle to hand the club over to Hiyoshi. It hadn’t been the easiest thing Keigo had ever done, and doing it while distracted by the ‘maybe’ of Nationals hanging over his head would not have been pleasant. On the other, Sakaki-san had always been very strict about his students advancing on their own merits and efforts, and Keigo had never been an exception to that. He had never wanted to be. So perhaps he’d merely been left to figure it out on his own. Perhaps it was both at once.

That would be very like his teacher.

“Speaking of thinking. What do you think about Mukahi’s request?” Sakaki-san asked, glancing up, eyes sharp.

“Mm.” Keigo turned and leaned back against the windowsill, arms crossed. “I think he’s ready to play. He’s been very determined to not drag his partner down again, and that motivation has driven him hard these past two months. I say let them play as a Doubles pair again.” He met his teacher’s eyes steadily, prepared to stand by his judgment. Sakaki-san had been the one who’d taught Keigo to do that, after all.

Their coach nodded slowly. “Very well. I’ll leave the decision to you, then.”

Keigo smiled, sharp and amused. “Of course.” The decisions were always in their own hands, in the end. Not always the consequences, but the decisions. That was Hyoutei’s way.

That was how they would win.

“We will win,” Kite Eishirou told his team quietly, “by whatever means are necessary.”

A chorus of enthusiastic affirmatives answered him and he nodded, satisfied. “All right, then, go get some rest. We catch an early plane tomorrow.”

“You know,” Kai said, leaning against the wall with a foot braced on it and his arms folded while the others made their way off the courts, “that won’t hold any water with Rin, if he gets really wound up in a match.”

Eishirou snorted, catching up his towel from the bench and scrubbing it over his face. “That’s why we’re putting him in Singles Three against Rikkai. As long as it’s only Kirihara, he shouldn’t be too tempted.”

“Hm. You really think Kirihara has totally changed his form?”

“You have only to watch the video from the Kantou Finals,” Eishirou pointed out. “He hasn’t just changed it, he’s broken his old form. This is the perfect moment to strike, while he’s still uncertain of his new one.”

“And you’re that sure Rikkai won’t change their line-up at all?” Kai tossed over his water bottle. “And drink something already; you haven’t had enough water, as hot as it is out today.”

Eishirou’s lips quirked up. “Perhaps what I should really start threatening you with isn’t gouya, but letting everyone in on what a secret mother hen you are.” He took a couple long swallows, though, knowing Kai was right. He usually was, however obnoxious he might like to be. “Rikkai won’t change anything. That’s their version of intimidation. They’ll send Kirihara against Hirakoba, because they won’t think they need Yanagi or Niou, for us. Their loss.”

Kai’s eyes glinted behind the fall of his hair, frizzy and damp after the practice they’d just had. “It sure will be.”

Eishirou nodded, short and sharp. They would win. They would prove themselves. And then he would have both the leverage to get rid of Saotome, and the profile to attract a coach worth the name. He thought he might like to see what Higa’s tennis could become with something better than that pathetic excuse for a coach.

Honestly, some weeks he thought they’d be better off if he had a little accident and drowned Saotome, and did the coaching himself.

Kippei shook his head over his team and called out, “All right, everyone come here.” Fudoumine stopped their exercises (after a few last balls) and came to gather around him, dripping with sweat and breathing hard but still determinedly on their feet. “It’s the day before the tournament starts,” he admonished them. “It won’t do any good if you wear yourselves out completely today. I want everyone to cool down and go home for a solid dinner. And no sneaking out to the street courts, after!”

Kamio looked faintly guilty at that, and Kippei had to laugh, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Stop worrying! We made it to Nationals. We’ll play, and play well.”

“Yes, Tachibana-san,” they all answered, and laughed a little themselves at the rough chorus. That was better.

“Of you go, then. I’ll see everyone at the gates tomorrow.”

Ishida and Mori, Uchimura and Sakurai, all clattered off to gather up the balls and sweep the courts. Kippei held Kamio back, and Shinji, after one look, waited quietly by him as well.

“What is it, Tachibana-san?” Kamio asked.

Kippei leaned back against the wall of the club storage building with a sigh. “I spent most of this summer wondering how much I should tell you about Shishigaku, if we wound up against them. I suppose I should be grateful that An forced my hand by telling you about me and Senri.” Not that he was particularly grateful, but he supposed he should be. Telling them was the right thing to do. He just wished it weren’t.

Kamio and Shinji shared a meaningful look, and it was Shinji who said, “You have something to settle with Chitose. We understand.”

“That too, yes,” Kippei admitted, recalling his own absolute certainty that Senri would be there to meet him in Singles Two, the familiarity of that knowing. “But more than that, I wanted to be sure I told you something.” He looked down at them, serious. “I’m the captain of Fudoumine, not Shishigaku’s ex-ace. You’re my team, now. And I’m proud to lead a team like this.”

Kamio’s eyes got wide, and he might just have turned a little pink. His voice was definitely shaky when he said, “Tachibana-san…” Shinji only went still, but it was the stillness of draining tension, far rarer than his dangerously poised stillness on the court. He was the one who said, softly, “Thank you, Tachibana-san.”

Kippei nodded, satisfied. He would always be grateful to these six players for making a place he could belong, where he could find his tennis again, and he would take them just as far as they could all go.

Seiichi walked home between Renji and Sanada, savoring the feeling of finally being back where he belonged after so long away. Most of the way back, at least. Far enough to be a promissory note for the rest, one that Seiichi believed, had to believe, would be honored. If he wasn’t quite fit, yet, to be Rikkai’s captain again, they believed that he would be, enough to want him to stand in that place and be with them at Nationals, if only as an adviser and icon. The thought warmed him and frustrated him at the same time.

Not that they were talking about that at all.

“Do you think Akaya will be invited to the fall training camp, this year?” Renji asked, as they walked through the falling dusk.

“Surely he will be.” Sanada glanced over at Renji, brows raised. “I expect all of our team will be.”

“Good.” Renji smiled. “You know he won’t be satisfied without a few final matches against us.”

Against their real strength, Seiichi filled in silently. Against Seiichi’s fully recovered strength, especially. But none of them said it.

“I expect it to be a full camp this year,” he said, instead. “Most, if not all, of Seigaku should be there. Probably a few from Hyoutei and Rokkaku. Possibly most of Fudoumine. And, of course, a handful each from whoever winds up in the Nationals’ best eight.”

“Do you ever wonder,” Renji asked, rather whimsically, “if the real point of the fall camp is to let us all settle any left-over scores and un-played games from the tournament?”

Seiichi laughed and swerved to nudge Genichirou with his shoulder. “No wonder you were so frustrated last year, when Tezuka didn’t show up.”

“Hmph.” Genichirou hitched his bag more firmly up on his shoulder, but didn’t pull away. “The point is to work with some of our high school senpai, so they know our potential and we’re familiarized with our new clubs. Why else would they bring the new high school captains or vice-captains in, during the last week?”

“To be sure,” Renji murmured, so perfectly sober that Seiichi knew he was teasing.

“The last week was rather amusing, our first two years there,” Seiichi admitted, peaceably. “I don’t think most of our respected senpai knew whether to be covetous or alarmed, over us.”

Sanada smiled slowly, at that. “It will be interesting to see how they react to Akaya, then.”

They finally came to the corner where the three of them turned down different streets, and paused a moment, silent among the long shadows.

“I’ll see you both tomorrow,” Seiichi said, at last.

“For the start of our third victory,” Sanada agreed, standing straight.

“For the most interesting matches of the year,” Renji smiled.

Seiichi breathed in their confidence and nodded, reaching out to grip their shoulders for a moment. “Until then.”

The three of them turned away as one, and Seiichi paused at the start of his road home. He tipped his head back to watch the brightness slowly fade from the sky, moving on toward the night that would bring the morning of Nationals.

Ryouma braced his feet against the shingles of the roof and folded his hands behind his head, looking up at the stars starting to come out. This was one of the few places he could be fairly sure his dad wouldn’t find him and bug him, and he needed that. He needed to think, before he played tomorrow.

When he’d first lost to Tezuka-buchou, he’d been startled, but he’d also kind of thought it was a fluke—that Tezuka-buchou must the the exception to the rule, the one person in his age bracket that could beat Ryouma. He’d thought that right up until he’d lost to Sanada.

Then he’d thought, little and small in the back of his head, that maybe all the bullshit his dad said when they played was really true. Maybe he really wasn’t all that good. He’d thrown himself so hard into his training this month, not just to get stronger, but also to shut up that little thought. It had worked sometimes, when he could see the numbers written down on his exercise sheets, and watch them rising steadily. It helped, at least.

And then Tezuka-buchou had come back.

Ryouma had hoped playing Tezuka-buchou again would tell him something, and he’d gritted his teeth and braced himself for maybe losing again. But something had happened while they played. The longer the match went on, the less he’d wanted to grit his teeth and the more he’d been able to relax, in spite of his uncertainty. In a weird way, it felt steady, even while he’d been tearing across the court, going all out after the ball.

And now he was thinking about it, the last games against Sanada had felt a little like that. Under the desperation to not lose, there’d been a little of that same feeling, every time he looked across the net and saw Sanada watching him with absolute concentration and attention. Like he was a serious opponent who really mattered. He’d made Sanada acknowledge that, even though he hadn’t won, which he hadn’t thought was something that could happen. It never had before, anyway.

Maybe… maybe that was how things could work, somtimes. Maybe at Nationals he’d have a chance to find out.

Ryouma stared up at the darkening sky and thought the little lightness in his chest might be hope.



1. There are eight teams from Kantou going to Regionals, in this AU, in order to make the teams match up better with the population density of the regions. See note 4, below, for more detail. back

2. Okay, so Rikkai is from Kanagawa. However, the only canon we have for where Yukimura is hospitalized is a sign out front that says Kanai General. There is no such hospital, of course, and Kanai city is in Gunma prefecture, significantly inland and north of Kanagawa. The fact that Echizen is in Kanagawa when he meets Kirihara for their unofficial match, and that the rest of the team, on being notified, arrives by the end of a one-set match, suggests that “Kanai General” cannot possibly actually be in Kanai, and must be in Kanagawa, most likely in Rikkai’s home district itself. The same issue also suggests that Konomi was, despite the clear equivalence with the feeder schools for Tokai University of Hiratsuka, thinking of Rikkai being in Yokohama, seeing as Echizen is only supposed to go “23.8 kilometers” to get to the store he’s visiting when he encounters Kirihara. I hereby declare that, for the purposes of this project, Rikkai, and Kanai hospital, are in Yokohama, possibly in the Kanagawa ward which has a likely looking river inland, and Seigaku is, therefore, most likely in Meguro.

As for the surgery itself, I’m loosely basing it on laproscopic, video assisted thymectomy, which involves several small incisions in the torso. This is actually a treatment for myasthenia gravis, not Guillain-Barre, and the therapeutic effects take one to two years to become clear. It’s also usually done by trans-sternal surgery, which would be absolutely impossible to play tennis four weeks after. Konomi, you lose so hard on details. It is, however, a surgical procedure used to treat a neural disorder involving an immune malfunction, and is, therefore, about as close to a real-life equivalent as can be had. Which isn’t very, but there you go. back

3. I refuse to believe that the sharp, scrappy girl we meet at the District tournament, the girl who’s uncompromisingly proud of her brother’s strength, and who approves of Fudoumine—the Fudoumine we’d just been shown has a reputation for violence which is actually pretty well-earned—would be distraught and weeping over Tachibana’s real play style. I flatly refuse. This is the girl who went to smack Atobe a good one just for denigrating her local street-players. An is not some kind of limp noodle, for pity’s sake! She’s a tennis player herself, and in this universe, good tennis players understand the risks of the game and do not protest them. That’s left to the small fry like Arai. I refuse to consign An to that fate after the raring start we saw from her. back

4. The National Tournament bracket is considerably altered in this universe. You do not need to know any detail beyond what’s in the story to get the basics, but in case anyone is interested, here are some extra details. First of all, it’s divided up into eight blocks, A-H, to appropriately distribute the seeded and unseeded teams. Places are drawn using a box of seeded lots, which contains only one copy of each block letter, and a box of unseeded lots, which contains two copies of each block letter. The unseeded teams in each block will play each other in Round One, and the seeded team for that block will play the winner in Round Two. Shitenhouji, Fudoumine, Shishigaku, and Seigaku are all in the same half of the bracket. Yamabuki, Hyoutei, Rokkaku, Higa, and Rikkai are all in the other half. Two Kantou teams were swapped for Kansai terms, one Kantou team was assigned to a different prefecture, and one Kansai team likewise. Kantou now has four seeds, Kansai two, and Chuubu two. For the visual version of the bracket and a full explanation of the alterations, see the arc Appendix. back

5. This Chitose never left Shishigaku. Sending him off to Shitenhouji only reduced the centrality of his story with Tachibana and screwed with the Shitenhouji match weirdly. Konomi could have given Discoball no Kiwami to some other player, if he was that hot to have Tezuka confront it. In this version, Chitose’s still at Shishigaku, with all the weight of that history, and, while I’m willing to preserve a few idiot bullies for the sake of Tezuka’s recovery, I’m not willing to suppose that Chitose would have that kind on his team. So the guys who got into it with Tezuka are non-regulars. back

Last Modified: Dec 29, 21
Posted: Dec 27, 21
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