Ryouma liked his cousin Nanako, and one reason he did was that she understood how important tennis was. She’d been the one with the most sympathy for him, the times he’d overslept and was late for practice, or even a tournament. She’d even promised to personally make sure he got up on time for Nationals. So at eight-thirty, a wonderful hour later than he usually had to wake up on a Friday, he came blearily out of sleep to a gentle and extremely persistent hand shaking his shoulder.
“Ryouma-kun? Ryouma-kun, it’s time to wake up.”
“Mgh,” Ryouma answered, prying one eye open.
Nanako smiled down at him and mercilessly hauled him upright with a hand under his elbow. “There we go!”
“Ngh.” Ryouma scrubbed his palms over his eyes and finally managed to mumble, “Thanks.”
“Oba-san is making breakfast this morning,” she informed him, far too cheerfully for this early in the day. “Get dressed!”
Eventually, Ryouma got himself washed and brushed and his regular uniform on the right way around, and stumped down the stairs. “Morning,” he informed his family as he slid into his chair at the table.
“Good morning, Ryouma!” His mother ruffled his hair as she passed behind him to the stove. “So today is a big day, hm?”
“Only the first day,” his dad put in from behind the paper. “Not that big.”
Kaa-san smacked her husband lightly over the head. “Now, you stop that! I can’t believe a man your age is sulking just because it isn’t you.”
Oyaji emerged from behind the paper to glower at his wife. “As if I’d care about some junior high tournament full of bumbling kids!”
“I’ve said for years that if you want to play again, you should compete,” Kaa-san told him briskly, setting down a plate of toast on the table. She shook her head affectionately as Oyaji retreated behind his paper again, grumbling under his breath. “Here you go, Ryouma.” She took a pan off the stove and served up scrambled eggs and sausage.
Ryouma nudged the sausage aside; he didn’t think he could face that at this hour. Toast and eggs, though, he could probably manage. Halfway through a mouthful of eggs, however, it dawned on him that they tasted different than usual. Kind of… sweet. He prodded the eggs on his plate, cautiously, with his fork. “Kaa-san? What did you do to the eggs?”
She smiled sunnily at him. “Well, since I know you like Japanese food better for breakfast, I mixed them like tamagoyaki! Only scrambled.” She took an enthusiastic bite of her own. “Mmm! They turned out well, don’t you think?”
Okay, that wasn’t too alarming. It could have been a lot worse. Ryouma forked up another bite and chewed stoically.
He was glad that his mother liked to cook. He figured she probably needed a hobby that was artistic or domestic or something, to give her a break from legal papers. But she also liked to experiment, and some of them were more successful than others. On a scale of one to ten, though, where one was ‘pretty good’ and ten was ‘Inui Juice’, this was probably a solid two.
By the time he was done, and had slugged down his mandatory glass of milk, Momo was ringing the front bell and it was time to go. Ryouma exchanged grins with his senpai, starting to wake up for real with the prospect of the games ahead. His dad just waggled his fingers as Ryouma stepped out to the entry, to put on his shoes, but his mother walked him to the door and hugged him goodbye.
“Good luck, sweetheart,” she murmured in English. She was the only one who still spoke it with him, here. She pulled away and smiled down at him wryly. “I know you’ll only roll your eyes if I try to say anything more about the tennis itself, so I’ll just leave it at that.”
Ryouma grinned up at her; she was definitely his smartest parent. “Thanks, Kaa-san. I’m going!”
“Take care!” She waved them off, from the door as Momo pedaled his bike away with Ryouma perched on the rear axle.
“Ready for Nationals?” Momo called over the whir of the wheels.
“Of course!” Ryouma leaned forward and took a firmer hold of Momo’s shoulders. “Ready for the hill?”
They were coming to the top of a steep hill, the one Momo insisted on pedaling them both up at the end of the day, saying it was good training for his legs. At the start of the day, it was their treat before school, and today they were coming in late enough that there wouldn’t be lots of other students in the way. Momo’s grin showed his teeth. “I’m always ready.” He pushed them over the peak and they went whizzing down the slope at what was probably a crazy speed, but neither of them cared. They both leaned into the turn at the bottom, skidding around it and shooting down the road toward school, both of them laughing.
When they got to the school parking lot, there was a bus waiting, and Ryouma had to blink a little. Ryuuzaki-sensei had made a few remarks, recently, about people who were late to tournaments, with some hard looks at Ryouma, and a few more at Momo and Kaidou-senpai, and a downright glower at Ooishi-senpai. So when she’d announced that the team would have a bus to get to Nationals, Echizen had expected she’d rent something.
This, though, was clearly official school property, painted blue and white with Seigaku’s school crest on the sides.
Ryuuzaki-sensei was leaning against it and grinning like a fox, as the club started to assemble.
“Oh wow, our own bus!” Kachirou enthused, eyes bright.
“We get a bus again!” Kikumaru-senpai cheered, trotting around the thing to admire it from all angles. “Finally!”
“It’s somewhat thanks to you boys, actually,” Ryuuzaki-sensei told them, patting the blue and white side with proprietary pride. “When the old bus died last year, the principal insisted we didn’t need to get a new one because so few of our teams had to travel much to get to matches. With the boy’s tennis team going to Nationals, though, I finally argued him down, even if it is in Tokyo. Said it would embarrass the school if we didn’t at least have our own bus. It only took a few descriptions of the Hyoutei and Rikkai buses to convince him.” She smirked.
“Ryuuzaki-sensei is dangerous,” Fuji-senpai murmured, just loud enough to be heard. Ryuuzaki-sensei just sniffed.
“And don’t you forget it.” She straightened up, hands on her hips. “Well, what are you waiting for? Get on!”
Everyone filed on board, sniffing at the heavy scent of new upholstery. Momo and Ryouma raced each other, jostling down the narrow aisle, to lay claim to the last seat in back, and the bus rumbled off.
“So.” Ryouma settled down to quizzing his senpai about the important things. “Have you ever been to this Ariake place before? And why is it called a tennis forest?” He’d had to shake off a few ridiculous mental images of tennis racquets growing out of the ground in groves or balls growing on trees, when he’d first heard the name.1
“It’s landscaped with a lot of trees down the paths and around the courts,” Kawamura-senpai explained. “It’s really pretty, actually, and it makes the courts a little private, too, if there isn’t a huge crowd.”
“I went to see the Japan Open there, last fall,” Momo reminisced, slouching down in the seat. “There was a huge crowd, then, but it still wasn’t crowded, you know? It’s a nice place.”
“I remember the year before that one, too!” Kikumaru-senpai bounced up onto his knees, backwards on his seat. “Federer won men’s singles, that year, and Bartoli took first in women’s. The center court is amazing.”
“If we do well enough, we’ll get to play there ourselves,” Ooishi-senpai said, pulling his partner back down as the bus braked for a light. “Even the courts out in the park are nice to play on, though. There’s forty-eight of them; it’s the biggest tennis park in Japan. I remember, our first year, Yamato-buchou took the club on a trip out there to play on Ariake’s clay courts, so we’d see how it felt.”
Ryouma listened quietly to the descriptions, as they turned away from the park itself and toward what matches everyone had seen played there. When they arrived, he had to agree: it was a nice-looking place. The first two rounds were being held on nine of the blue hard-courts, all in a line. Opening ceremonies took place on the wide stretch of pavement in front of the Coliseum, and Ryouma took the opportunity to look around instead of listening to the officials droning, up front. Fenced sets of two or three courts stretched away, off to the left, surrounded by low bushes and walkways, and bordered by a whole lot of trees. There also seemed to be an open grassy field, past the Coliseum, or at least past its roof. The roof was kind of huge, and overwhelmed the Coliseum itself. It looked like it slid apart on runners, too, maybe far enough to cover where they were standing now. That was actually kind of cool, for something so massive.
That stadium, wrapped in three storeys of decorative arches and the vast roof over them all, was where the last two teams would play the final match.
Ryouma smirked up at the Coliseum, proprietary, and tuned back in just in time for someone in Rikkai’s uniform to hand a heavy, fringed flag over to the officials. The tournament flag, he guessed. Ryouma was more interested in the player, and watched closely as he walked back to the head of his team. This must be Yukimura. He wasn’t hugely tall or muscled or anything, but something about the way he moved tugged at Ryouma’s attention. It was smooth. Graceful even.
Ryouma felt a flutter of excitement, edged with uncertainty. He was sure Yukimura would be fun to play. What he wasn’t sure of any more was that he’d win. But Tezuka-buchou and Ryuuzaki-sensei both said that was okay, not being sure. That it shouldn’t make him scared. Ryouma took a breath and tried to concentrate on the excitement part.
When the opening was finally over, and all the photos had been snapped, and everyone was allowed to stretch and go find their places, Tezuka-buchou marched them promptly down the broad, shady walk that stretched along the short ends of the courts, and turned in between the first three courts and the next two. Short fences framed the space between the two sets, with benches set against them. The two teams who would play on C court were dropping bags by those benches and warming up, and Seigaku’s team settled under the long, open shelter between the courts and stretched out on the benches or leaned against the shelter posts to wait.
“Who are they?” Kachirou asked, slipping up next to Ooishi-senpai, who smiled down at him encouragingly.
“Maikozaka, who came in fourth at the Kansai Regionals, and Joushuuin, who were third in Chuubu. They won against Murigaoka in the play-off to determine third and fourth place, and I heard it really stirred Murigaoka up.”
For some reason, that made Kaidou-senpai twitch,2 but before Ryouma could brightly inquire why, black uniforms caught his eye, settling at the other end of the shelter.
“Tachibana!” Ooishi-senpai crossed over to offer his hand. “That’s right, Fudoumine is the seed for B court, aren’t you?”
“We are.” Tachibana shook Ooishi-senpai’s hand, firmly. He merely looked satisfied, but Ryouma thought most of the rest of Fudoumine looked smug. He wondered if he’d get a chance to change that, and grinned a bit himself.
“So you’ll be facing Shitenhouji before us, in the bracket.” Ooishi-senpai sobered. “Be careful; I hear they’re very strong this year.”
“That’s appropriate enough.” Tachibana’s smile bared his teeth. “So are we. And I was glad to see you back, at the drawing, Tezuka,” he added, nodding to Tezuka-buchou, who nodded back quietly. Ryouma thought he started to say something else, but the teams out on the courts were gathering at the net. Tezuka-buchou straightened, attention firmly locked on C court, and Tachibana’s own focus swung back to B court, on the other side of the walk. Ryouma settled down on his bench, elbows on his knees and chin in his palms, to watch their prospective opponents.
He didn’t really stay interested for long.
Maikozaka and Joushuuin both had solid players. Joushuuin’s Single Three, Atsumi, had the kind of staying power that always made for a long, hard game. In the end, Ryouma almost thought it was Kinugawa of Maikozaka’s sheer frustration with not being able to take points quicker that made him careless and lost him the match. As Doubles Two got started, Ryouma had to admit that Maikozaka’s Okunishi and Koishihara were a tight pair, and responded fast and well. They never seemed to get tangled up in who was going to cover what.
But it was so slow.
None of the players were so far beneath the others that they could be taken advantage of, and none of them were high-level enough to make the points flow fast by pitting technique against technique. Ryouma slouched and sighed deeply. A glance over his shoulder at the A and B courts showed that it wasn’t too different there, and he sulked a little in Shishigaku’s direction. That was where that guy Chitose was supposed to be, the one who used no-self like Sanada and Yukimura. No such thing was anywhere in evidence, though. Ryouma flexed his feet a little, wondering if he could use the excuse of warming up to go do something more interesting.
Tezuka-buchou’s voice broke his brooding. “Ooishi, it would be wise to see how the other side of the bracket is doing. Take the first years with you and check, will you? It will be good for them to hear what you see happening.”
Ryouma straightened up, hopeful, and he could almost hear Tezuka-buchou rolling his eyes behind that straight face. “Echizen, go along with them. You’ll be useless if you wear yourself out before we even play.”
Ryouma knew that was a reprimand, but he didn’t care, as long as he got to move around a little, and maybe see some more interesting tennis. “Yes, buchou.”
At least Ooishi-senpai was looking amused. “Come on, then, all of you.” He herded their little group back out onto the main walkway and down between the third and fourth set of courts. These were both two courts each, and they had to wind their way around the teams playing and the teams waiting.
Yamabuki was playing on E court and Hyoutei on F, over to the left, and Rokkaku across the way on G. Ryouma didn’t know either team on H, and didn’t think much of what he saw of them. He had to squeeze his way between the crush of extra Hyoutei club members to see anything, though, and spotted more of them among the trees on the hill above the far end of the courts. “Doesn’t the monkey king know how to pack light?” he grumbled. Kachirou and Katsuo clapped hands over their mouths to stifle nervous laughter. Horio just looked plain nervous as he dodged taller players.
“It’s the Jimmies, playing for Yamabuki,” Katsuo exclaimed, standing on his toes to see. Ooishi-senpai smiled.
“Different teams have different strategies, for the first round. Some try to conceal their best strengths. Others will put their strongest players in early, hoping to win three games quickly and let the seed team watching think that they deliberately slacked off on the last two games. I think Sengoku probably chose the second option. Yamabuki is up against Maki no Fuji, from Kansai, who won’t already know them from Regionals.”
“Is that why they’re playing so hard?” Kachirou asked, and Ryouma nodded silently along with Ooishi-senpai’s approving agreement. Minami and Higashikata were flicking signs back and forth, rapid-fire, and taking points fast. The Maki no Fuji pair were hanging on grimly, but this was more the kind of speed Ryouma was used to, in serious tournaments. Even as they watched, Minami slammed one last point past the other pair and Yamabuki’s club roared from where they stood against the fence on the far side of E court.
Ooishi made a satisfied sound as the referee called Doubles Two in favor of Yamabuki. “Look, they’re sending Muromachi in for Singles Two. It’s a bit of a gamble, since he isn’t as strong as Sengoku, but Sengoku is the one everyone’s heard of from the invitational camp last year. If Muromachi can take this match, Sengoku can play lazily for Singles One and be the threat that still isn’t entirely known.”
“Nationals takes a lot of strategy, doesn’t it?” Kachirou asked the question solemnly, but Ryouma grinned at the sparkle in his eyes. Kachirou obviously liked this kind of thing. Ooishi-senpai smiled down at his kindred spirit.
“It does. And this is where all the work we’ve done and things we’ve learned, all summer, come out. Look there.” He nodded at the match right in front of them, Hyoutei’s Oshitari and Mukahi. “They’re playing much more tightly than they were at Regionals, aren’t they?”
While the other first years peered and nodded, Ryouma snorted. “Mukahi isn’t wasting as much time showing off, anyway.”
“As I said.” Ooishi-senpai gave him a mildly admonishing look, and Ryouma tugged his hat down. He still really didn’t like Mukahi’s type of player.
Doubles Two was finishing up there, also, and Ryouma cocked his head, interested, as Atobe strode onto the court for Singles Two, and the cheering from Hyoutei suddenly got louder. “That’s new.”
“I guess Atobe-san is kind of nervous, after he lost to us.” Katsuo sounded a little proud and a little sympathetic. Horio crossed his arms and stuck his nose in the air.
“He should be nervous! Tezuka-buchou would totally kick his butt, if they played again.”
As if he’d heard, Atobe looked right at them, and Horio quailed and sidled behind Ooishi-senpai. Ryouma’s mouth quirked. Given the chanting all around, he was pretty sure Atobe had just seen the Seigaku jerseys, and was looking for Tezuka-buchou. He dismissed them fast enough, when he saw it was just Ooishi-senpai and Ryouma.
“This could be a pretty subtle strategy in itself,” Ooishi-senpai murmured, watching. “People are used to Atobe being very self-assured. If they think he’s shaken up, they’ll expect an advantage.”
“You don’t think they’ll have it?” Ryouma asked, cocking his head. Ooishi-senpai had a little glint in his eyes as he glanced down.
“No. Not over Atobe.”
Ryouma was quiet while he thought about that. It sounded like Ooishi-senpai actually respected Atobe, despite all the monkey-posturing. He hadn’t really expected that. In Ryouma’s experience, people who swanned around that arrogantly were usually over-inflating their ability. After all, why boast like that, if all you really had to do was just show people how good you were? Though he had to admit, watching Atobe demolish his opponent, Atobe did seem to be able to show it.
“That’s Tsubakikawa’s Noto he’s playing,” Ooishi-senpai said quietly, resting a hand on Ryouma’s shoulder. “Tsubakikawa are the champions from Hokkaido two years running, now, and Noto played last year, too. He’s known as a strong, aggressive player.”
Ryouma looked up at him and back down at the match. “Atobe is playing aggressively, too. He didn’t do that before.”
“Tezuka says he used to play like this more often, before he had his run-in with Sanada last year.”
“So you’re saying he’s growing.”
Ooishi-senpai smiled down at him. “Yes. And what effect do you think defeating Noto in his own area of strength will have on Tsubakikawa?”
Ryouma tugged his cap down more firmly. Okay, fine, so the monkey-king could back up his bragging. And maybe use decent strategy, too. And Ryouma should probably keep that in mind if he didn’t want to lose through stupidity, the way so many of his own opponents did. He sighed. “Okay, Ooishi-senpai. He knows what he’s doing.” Maybe Atobe was like his dad, then. Ugh, bad thought.
“It’s usually best to assume that Nationals level opponents do,” Ooishi-senpai said mildly, glancing around at the other first years to draw them back in. “If you’re wrong, you’ve lost nothing, and if you’re right, it’s a good thing you were careful.”
“Yes, Ooishi-senpai,” the other three chorused.
“So what do you see happening in Rokkaku’s match?” he asked, turning them around to face G court.
Ryouma spared a last look at Atobe blazing through his opponent’s game with one fast, singing ball after another, and had to agree that there wasn’t anything all that new to be seen there. Rokkaku was just starting Singles Two themselves, now, and Ryouma rolled his eyes as he watched Aoi nearly bouncing on the bench as he admonished one of the guys who hadn’t played against Seigaku.
“We didn’t see him, during Regionals,” Horio objected.
“Aoi-kun has already played, though,” Kachirou said, nodding at the towel around Aoi’s neck. “He likes Singles Three, doesn’t he?”
“Midoriyama is playing a little stronger than they did during Regionals. I think,” Katsuo put in hesitantly.
Ryouma glanced at the score-board. “Doubles Two lost. Must be hard to do strategy with Aoi in charge.”
Ooishi-senpai looked a little rueful. “Rokkaku’s strategy this year has been very… straightforward, it’s true.” He pulled himself back together, into teaching mode, and pointed out players. “It looks like Doubles Two was probably Minamoto and Habu from Midoriyama, and Kisarazu and Itsuki from Rokkaku. You remember them?”
Kachirou nodded, enthusiastically “Kisarazu-san had really amazing feints!”
“Itsuki-san was, um, really flexible, wasn’t he?” Katsuo put in.
Ooishi-senpai smiled at them. “Yes. If they have any kind of teamwork, they’d be a pretty powerful pair, able to cover the whole court and strong on technique. So what does that suggest?”
Ryouma sighed when the other first years just frowned, puzzled. “They under-played and sacrificed Doubles Two.” Then he frowned himself. “But I don’t see a seed team watching on this side.”
“Mm.” Ooishi-senpai’s mouth tightened a little, disapproving. “Sometimes, a seeded team won’t watch the first round, in an effort to intimidate their opponents with their confidence. It’s a tactic that backfires easily, though. At any rate, Higa may have chosen not to watch the first round, but Rikkai is the seed in H block, and will almost certainly be who the G block winner meets for Quarter-finals.” Ooishi-senpai nodded soberly across the two courts to where Rikkai’s jerseys were lined up against the fence, quiet and still. And, Ryouma couldn’t help noticing, really well placed to see what was going on in more than one match at a time. They certainly weren’t paying much attention to the H block match going on, not that he could blame them.
“So Rokkaku is looking ahead?” Kachirou hesitated. “Um. Aoi-kun is?”
“Most likely Saeki, actually,” Ooishi-senpai admitted. Everyone nodded firm agreement with this.
“Wow.” Kachirou was nearly sparkling. “Nationals is amazing!”
Ryouma made a mental note that Kachirou was going to be captain or vice-captain in two years, no question. He’d actually like making up match rosters and researching other teams.
They stayed long enough to see Rokkaku’s Shudou win Singles Two, and Bane and Davide start mowing down the opposing pair for Doubles One. Hyoutei’s Shishido and Ohtori were playing like they didn’t know they were supposed to ease up or keep something concealed, now that Hyoutei had three matches won. Kita and Nitobe, from Yamabuki, on the other hand, were practically lounging around the court, to the obvious annoyance of the Maki no Fuji Doubles One pair. Ooishi-senpai took one last look around the courts, and smiled a little.
“This will be a good tournament, I think. Come on, everyone. Back to our own court, and let’s see who we’re playing after lunch!”
Ryouma trailed along after the rest, watching the seeded teams, and the way they were starting to talk quietly among themselves. Planning, now that the first round winners were starting to come clear, he thought. He also thought Tezuka-buchou hadn’t just sent him over here to wear the jitters off. There’d been a real point. Ryouma didn’t usually think about team strategies; he thought about his own game. At the local, or even national, tournaments for different age brackets, that was all you needed to think about. Now, though… now he was part of a team, in a team tournament, one of these bigger and more complex things. A team Tezuka-buchou wanted him to support, and somehow take support from.
He didn’t know whether he really could. But for the first time, walking after his teammates under the rustling arch of leaves, he realized that he wasn’t the only person trying to make his part in this work. His whole team was thinking about these things, and including him in the planning. Relying on his strength, yes, of course. But also thinking about who he could best be matched with and where his game would best fit, to help him win.
That… that felt kind of nice.
“Ryouma-kun!” Kachirou stuck his head around the corner of the fence, waving to him. “Hurry up! It’s going to be Joushuuin! Ryuuzaki-sensei wants to talk to you!”
Ryouma smiled just a little bit, and walked faster.
Ryuuzaki-sensei cheated. Yes, she wanted to talk to Ryouma about his likely opponent—probably not Atsumi, but Manaka, the light-footed second year who’d played Singles One in the first round—but she’d also wanted to draft him, along with the rest of the first years, to help fetch bentos from the cooler in the bus.
“Why aren’t the girls around to do this?” Horio grumbled as they got back under the shade of the trees and everyone sighed with relief.
“Because they don’t let regular students out of class just to cheer for us, Horio-kun,” Kachirou told him dryly.
“And Sakuno-san said her captain was really strict about watching the all women’s matches,” Katsuo added, hefting his bag of lunches as they turned down the walk that ran along the grassy park area, passing knots of team jerseys here and there.
Ryuuzaki-sensei was eyeing them with amusement. “And a good thing, too. Onohara is a good captain, and looks after her team’s development. Sakuno finally said she wanted to try for a Regular spot next year, and Onohara told her to start watching the people she’d actually be playing, instead of the boys.”
“She’ll need more than a year, unless the level of the women’s matches is really low,” Ryouma said critically, thinking about the slow swings he’d seen her practicing.
All three of the other boys gave him long looks. “Ryouma-kun, you’ll never have a girlfriend,” Kachirou finally said, and the other two nodded sad agreement.
“Ah, here’s the rest of the club.” Ryuuzaki-sensei was obviously trying not to laugh. Ryouma just shrugged; he had no idea what they were talking about. What did tennis have to do with girlfriends?
The rest of the team had settled in the shade of the trees scattered through one corner of the park area, as had Fudoumine and two other teams Ryouma didn’t know. They all pounced on the lunch boxes like they’d been the ones playing in the first round, and Ryouma had to elbow his way out of the frenzy, guarding his own box, before he could slide down to sit on a root beside Momo with a huff. Momo laughed at him.
Ryouma looked around the park area as he ate. The group of teams who had taken over the grove of trees in the middle caught his eye, and he studied them.
“Those are most of the teams that lost in the first round,” Momo said quietly, apparently concentrating on his little skewer of fried pork.
“They’ll stay to watch?”
“Most of them.” Momo glanced over the open grass, at the clusters of quiet players. “I think it would be hard to do at Nationals, though. At least at the other tournaments, you have a week to come to terms with having lost, before the next set of matches.”
“Not like we’re going to lose,” Ryouma told him, and cracked open the Ponta he’d detoured to the vending machines to get. He nearly spilled it when Momo laughed and scrubbed knuckles over his hair.
“Yeah, that’s the spirit.” He dunked his croquette in the sauce cup with all his regular enthusiasm for lunch, and Ryouma rolled his eyes and smiled faintly behind his drink.
“So, Joushuuin for us,” Kawamura-senpai said, pushing aside the shrimp in his box with the delicate disdain of a sushi-chef’s son. Ryouma snuck one for himself with a quick grab of chopsticks, before Kikumaru-senpai got the other two. “And Kushimakitou for Shitenhouji.” His brows drew in with worry. “Good luck to them.”
“And Shishigaku for Fudoumine,” Fuji-senpai added, softly, glancing over at the knot of black jerseys a few trees away. “That will be a tense match, I think.”
“I thought Chitose was a really laid back guy?” Kikumaru-senpai said around the shrimp.
Fuji-senpai cocked his head a bit. “Well, so are you Eiji. But if Ooishi left Seigaku and started a team somewhere else, and you had to play him at Nationals…”
Kikumaru-senpai paused, chopsticks halfway to his mouth, eyes suddenly dark. “Okay. Yeah, I see what you mean.” He finished his bite of rice and, clearly wanting to talk about something else, asked, “Hikogashima won too, right? They’ll play Echigo Hira Daini? The champions from the smaller regions are really coming out on top of the lower ranking teams from the bigger tournaments. What about the other side?” He cocked a brow at Ooishi-senpai.
“Yamabuki and Hyoutei both won,” he answered, pausing obligingly half way through his diced vegetable salad. “I haven’t heard much about Nagoya Seitoku, for all they were the Chuubu champions, but Okakura is supposed to be a strong team. The papers say they gave Shitenhouji a good fight at the Kansai finals.”
“Hm.” Inui-senpai unscrewed the cap of a bottle full of something alarmingly dark green and took a long swallow that made half the team shudder. “Who won in G block?”
“Rokkaku.” Fuji-senpai smiled. “I went to congratulate Saeki before we broke up for lunch.”
“They’ll be against Higa, then.” Inui-senpai nudged his glasses up, and Ryouma thought he looked more serious than usual, behind them. “They should be careful. I’ve heard some alarming things about that team.”
Fuji-senpai’s eyes glinted. “Like what?”
“That they’re like a whole new team, this year. That they can reach the net in a single step, and play with moves no one has ever seen before. And that they’re a violent team.”
“I’ll warn Saeki,” Fuji-senpai said quietly, and set his box down on the stack of empties with a sharp click.
“And Murigaoka is playing Rikkai.” Ooishi-senpai’s tone was rueful and amused, and Ryouma thought he was trying to defuse the tension. “I’m almost sorry for them.”
Kaidou-senpai sniffed. “They deserve it,” he muttered under his breath, and turned promptly away when the entire team looked at him.
“Didn’t think you liked Rikkai that much, Mamushi,” Momo needled him, and Ryouma leaned back against his tree as the two of them devolved into a scuffle that Kawamura-senpai had to break up.
His teammates knew things he didn’t. Knew things about the teams here and who they were and what they’d done years before. It was like… like a road that they’d been walking down and he’d… he’d been in a train tunnel. He knew everyone on the train, all the best international players, their moves and their statistics. But he didn’t know this road, and it felt strange. He had to rely on other people’s knowledge, here.
If this was also what Tezuka-buchou meant about his team supporting him, he wasn’t sure he liked it. But his dad’s train-tunnel way obviously wasn’t good enough to win with, so he supposed he’d have to try this one anyway.
Momo finished brushing himself off and sat down again, nudging Ryouma with an elbow. “Hey. Everything okay?”
Ryouma finished his Ponta in a long swallow and leaned back, looking up at the leaves, gold and green, here, just like they’d been back home. “Sure.”
He could hear Momo’s smile. “Good.” His friend’s shoulder settled against his as Momo leaned back too. “We’re going to kick all their asses, right?”
Ryouma grinned. Okay, parts of this team-stuff he did kind of like.
Round Two: Fudoumine vs. Shishigaku
Akira glanced around at his team and couldn’t help the smirk that tugged at his mouth. Fudoumine had a definite swagger in their step, as they strolled back toward B court from the park where they’d eaten lunch. He figured they were entitled. Not only had they made it to Nationals, but they were one of the seeded teams. For a team in their very first year, he figured they had something to smirk about.
The only one of them that wasn’t grinning was Tachibana-san, and Akira spoke up out of a desire to at least change his captain’s distant thoughtfulness to here-and-now presence. “Don’t worry, Tachibana-san. We know how to handle Shishigaku.”
Tachibana-san, as he’d more than half expected, gave him an admonishing look. “You know what they showed against Saint Icarus. Don’t let yourself be trapped by expectations. Every unseeded team is going to do what they can to conceal their true strength; they know very well their second round opponents are watching.”
Akira lowered his eyes, satisfied. “Yes, Tachibana-san.” At his shoulder, Shinji snorted softly, obviously knowing perfectly well what Akira was doing. He wouldn’t say anything, though; Shinji was just as pissed off as he was about the attitude that Chitose guy had taken with their captain. The knowing attitude. The proprietary attitude.
Well, Tachibana Kippei belonged to Fudoumine this year, and Chitose and his whole team could just suck on it.
With that thought in mind, he was the one who stepped forward to open the gate to the court where Shishigaku was waiting for them, for the second round match. They were mostly third years, he thought, as the waiting team turned to give Fudoumine measuring and curious looks. Except for Chitose, whose eyes were locked on Tachibana-san like no one else existed. Akira glanced over his shoulder at his captain, a little worried about how this would go, to be perfectly honest.
Tachibana-san met his eyes, smiling faintly, and Akira ducked his head, caught. Tachibana-san’s hand fell on his shoulder and shook him, very gently. “Let’s go win this one,” their captain told them, as sure and confident as ever, and Akira straightened up, relieved.
An edge of worry crept back, though, when they lined up across the net from Shishigaku, because Tachibana-san and Chitose were still looking at each other like there was a conversation going on that no one else could hear. Akira eyed Shishigaku’s vice-captain across the net, noting the rueful and completely unsurprised way he was watching Chitose and Tachibana-san, and exchanged a dark look with Shinji. Tachibana-san was their captain, and no one who hadn’t been around for the past year had any right to look so knowing, to think they could understand.
“Just don’t let it distract you,” Shinji murmured softly as the referee announced Singles Three and he brushed past Akira on the way to the long benches set out at the low fence behind each coach’s bench.
“I won’t,” Akira murmured back. When it was that vice-captain that stayed out on the court across from him, though, he decided he would let his anger drive him. Loyalty and anger, those were what had brought Fudoumine this far, this year.
Akira would show Shishigaku what that meant.
The first serve fell to his opponent, and Akira flexed lightly on his toes, watching Tanaka’s stance. There was still nothing special there that he could see, as he dashed forward to meet the ball. It was solid against his racquet. Solid, but nothing more than that, and Akira snorted to himself as he whipped it back into the opposite corner. His lips curled up as the first point was called, and Tanaka’s eyes narrowed.
The second serve was sharper.
Akira slipped into the rhythm of the match, and started pushing. Faster and faster the balls sang over the net, pace increasing bit by bit, until Tanaka was breathing hard as he ran to catch them. He kept his service game, but he was frowning as he pushed back sweat-dark hair. Akira rolled his shoulders as he fell back to serve. His breath was easy, and his muscles were just warm; he could take this one.
None of his serves got past Tanaka, but Akira hadn’t really expected them to. He wasn’t Shinji. His strength went the other way, and the whole court was his playground. It didn’t matter how cleverly Tanaka spun his returns, because Akira caught every single one, dash after dash, falling into the hot glow of speed, feet light against the court as he spun to set himself behind a deep drive and hit a straight smash back over the net that the solid, earthbound Tanaka had no chance of catching.
This was where Akira lived, in the weightless freedom of his whole body working to lift him up and throw him forward.
He took two games before Tanaka seemed to figure out how much trouble he was in, and Akira bared his teeth when the next shot spun off the face of his racquet at an angle he’d never intended. So did the next one, and the fourth game was Tanaka’s.
Tachibana-san beckoned him over to the bench, eyes sharp. “You can’t cancel that spin if you hit the ball back as fast as you usually do. Tanaka’s using your own speed against you. Be as fast as you need, to catch the balls, but keep them on your racquet as long as you can, so the spin dies.”
Akira frowned, swiping the back of his arm over his forehead; the heat was getting heavier as the day wore on and the sun climbed over the surrounding trees. “Those balls are too sharp to keep for long.”
His captain smiled. “Not if you’re moving forward when you catch them.” Akira forgot the heat for a moment and straightened up, as understanding dawned. Tachibana-san gave him a nod, eyes glinting. “Go on, Kamio. Show them.”
Akira knew he was smirking as he took the court again, but he didn’t really care to stop. This was Fudoumine’s edge. Match after match, all this summer, Tachibana-san had showed them how to win. How to find their strengths, and how to play them, and how to find the holes in an opponent’s game. Having Tachibana-san there on the coach’s bench, watching, was like having a downhill under his feet, when he ran. It carried him forward.
It carried him forward again, now, as Kamio pushed himself faster, not just to catch each return, but to set himself behind it and dash forward against it, holding those balls against his gut each time until the wicked spin fell and he could cut them back over the net to one side and the other, wearing Tanaka down. Sweat was running down Akira’s spine under his shirt, now, but his breath was still light in his lungs, quick and easy as his feet against the court.
Tanaka kept one more service game, but the last three flashed by into Akira’s hands, perfectly balanced on the edge of his speed. When the set was called, Akira tossed back his sweat-soaked hair and laughed. This was theirs, this triumph, this unstoppable momentum. He turned toward the sidelines, and his team waiting there, and lifted a fist. They threw back a cheer, and Tachibana-san smiled at them.
Fudoumine would win this one.
Tanaka came back to where Shishigaku had gathered on the bench at their side of the court, and thumped down beside Senri, panting for breath. “Okay,” he said, catching up his water bottle for a long swallow. “Now I see why you wanted me to take Singles Three against them.” He pulled out his towel and rubbed vigorously at his damp hair.
Senri snorted as he watched his Doubles Two pair sort themselves out on the court, ready to start. “Yeah. And they still managed to out-flank us. They’ve improved since Regionals.” The tall Fudoumine player threw the ball up and served, fast and deep to the corner, his slender partner watching Senri’s own pair like a hawk. Both the Fudoumine players were smiling a little, anticipatory, confident. Shigaki and Kushiyama, on the other hand, were both wary, shaken by their vice-captain losing 3-6 in the very first match. Senri sighed. “Damn Kippei, and the way he messes with people’s heads.”
Tanaka emerged from under his towel, dark hair sticking up, and gave him a long look. “You can’t tell me that his players are this good just because Tachibana is good at morale-building.” He took a look at how the game was shaping up and winced as the short Fudoumine player slid out of his big partner’s shadow and slammed the ball right down the center line with perfect timing. Senri’s mouth twisted in silent agreement. One game gone in barely five minutes.
“It isn’t just morale,” he answered quietly as Goumoto-sensei made vigorous ‘shape up’ gestures at Shigaki and Kushiyama. “And Kippei doesn’t just front-load his matches to play it safe. I’m betting that red-head is one of the strongest of Fudoumine, maybe only second to Kippei himself. Kippei wanted to rock our nerve and encourage his own team, and it worked.”
Tanaka’s hands tightened around his towel as the Fudoumine pair hammered another ball past their opponents. “So it’ll be down to you, in Singles Two, won’t it? To turn this around.” He shot Senri a sidelong look and added, very quietly, “If you can.”
Senri gave his vice-captain a wry smile. “We’ll see, won’t we? But it might not be quite that bad.” He nodded toward the court, where their pair were finally shaking off their shock and pulling together. Kushiyama flicked a signal at Shigaki, who closed on the net with a fierce expression to engage the littler player in a duel of short drives—right up until the moment that he melted aside to let Kushiyama dart forward, and smash the ball past both Fudoumine players like a bullet.
…or at least that was how the move usually went.
On the sidelines, Kippei raised his hand and Fudoumine’s taller player met the smash, which none of their opponents except Higa’s Kai had been able to return, with bared teeth, and drove it back one handed. It blasted straight through Shigaki’s attempt to defend.
“Chitose,” Tanaka said, very levelly, “did I just see that?”
Senri ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “If you just saw that guy return Kushiyama’s strongest shot and blow the racquet right out of Shigaki’s hand, then yes.” Which brought them to three games to one, in Fudoumine’s favor, and left Chitose’s Doubles Two pair shaken up all over again. Senri really was going to strangle Kippei for taking all his alarming charisma and strategic sense off to lead another team.
“Who the hell are these guys?” Tanaka demanded, sounding torn right down the middle between being indignant and being appalled. “I’d never even heard of Fudoumine before this year! Where did they come from?”
Senri hooked his toes under the edge of the fence in front of them and leaned back on his hands, staring up at the brutally clear blue of the sky. “If what I hear about them getting into fights last year is right,” he mused, “I’d bet there was some kind of mismanagement going on in the club, that these kids were victim of, and Kippei wouldn’t stand for. So these guys probably think he hung the sun in the sky, and they worked their asses off for him. You add to that the obvious fact that Kippei’s the one making strategy for every game, and that they trust him to follow it, and you’ve got a really tight, dedicated team.” One that wasn’t Shishigaku. He glanced back down, and a sharp twinge of betrayal tore lose from his control as Shigaki faltered and Kushiyama was a little too slow to come forward and catch the ball he missed.
Tanaka was quiet for a moment, looking steadily at him. Eventually, he took a long swallow from his water bottle and rested his elbows on his knees. “That really casual tone isn’t fooling anyone, you know,” he said quietly. “Are you going to keep your temper enough to play Tachibana with a clear head?”
Senri closed his eyes as dismayed exclamations went up all around them, from his club. Four games to one, now. “As long as Kippei isn’t too much of an idiot,” he said lightly.
“Great,” Tanaka grumbled. “In other words, no.” He kicked Senri’s foot lightly. “Sit up straight and watch your damn team, Chitose. Appearances to the contrary, this round is about more than your grudge-match.”
Senri obediently pushed himself back upright. “I don’t know why Goumoto-sensei didn’t just make you captain, this year.”
“Because you’d never take directions from anyone but Tachibana.”
Senri’s head whipped around and he stared at Tanaka. Tanaka looked back, unblinking. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to try to get you to do what I said,” he added, “so there was nothing to do but make you captain yourself.”
Senri sat very still under the weight of sudden memory, of old plans to be Kippei’s vice-captain, in their third year, and rag on him thoroughly, and lighten up Kippei’s seriousness—for the good of the team of course. Finally he shrugged out from under the weight and managed, “And you got nailed down to be the responsible one, huh?”
“Yeah.” Tanaka stowed away his towel and water, eyes on the match again. “So you’re not the only one who’s kind of pissed off at Tachibana for jumping ship on us.”
“Well,” Senri said after a long moment. “I’ll try not to make too much more work for you.”
He watched with a calm expression as Kushiyama and Shigaki wrested one more game from Fudoumine’s Doubles Two pair, and fought to the last, grim point for the final game. He came forward to meet them as they left the court, sympathetic and encouraging. He nodded reassurance to Goumoto-sensei’s faintly worried frown, and fished out his racquet, and sauntered onto the court with every appearance of ease. And he suppressed a shiver of anticipation as Kippei finally stood up from the coach’s bench. He’d tried to take care of the team, this year, and he was glad for all of them that they’d made it to Nationals again, but this match had been his real goal from the start.
Kippei was the only one he thought could help him find his real game again.
Kippei knew Senri was still angry at him (of course he was!), because Senri was smiling but not smiling at anyone. Nevertheless, when they met at the net, their hands wrapped around each other’s forearms, easy and familiar, and Kippei had to swallow a little hard. “Senri,” he said quietly. “It’s good to see you on the court again.”
Senri’s lazy grin sent a tingle of anticipation through him. “Likewise. And I’ll tell you something right now, Kippei.” Those dark eyes turned hard, and his hand tightened on Kippei’s arm. “The one thing I won’t forgive is you holding back. Understand?”
Kippei sucked in a quick breath, stifling his immediate protest. That was something more than one opponent had said to him, and some part of him knew he should have expected it from Senri, too. He couldn’t help remembering that moment of sinking cold, though, when he’d heard Senri had been permanently injured, had dropped the tennis club because of it. It took a few seconds of fighting that memory before he could bring himself to say, low, “All right.” Senri nodded back firmly.
“Good. Then let’s play this game.”
Kippei set himself on his side of the court, to receive. Senri tossed the ball up and his body arched into a long, easy curve, and suddenly it was like they’d never been apart. Kippei knew where the serve was coming in, was moving without thought to meet the tricky curve of its bounce and slam it back over the net. Like breathing out after breathing in, Senri was across the court to catch the ball, teeth flashing as his grin turned fierce. Kippei stretched into the return and a helpless laugh caught in his throat.
He’d missed this so much.
“Getting old and creaky, there, Kippei?” Senri taunted when he sliced the ball past Kippei for the first point. Kippei snorted, shifting his grip lightly on his racquet.
“See if you can do it twice!”
The next point was his, with a return ace that tore past before Senri could spin to catch it.
“Who’s slow and creaky, again?”
“Either that or fast and clumsy,” Senri shot back, and served again, fast and sure. “You need to get some style, Kippei!”
The banter was comfortable and familiar, but the second time Kippei took a point he’d expected Senri to catch, the oddness caught Kippei’s attention. Both times, Senri should have been able to return with a backhand; the second time, Kippei had actually been hoping for a cross shot to the corner of his court, so he could get a good angle for his return.
Both shots had been to Senri’s right side.
The first game went to Fudoumine, and Kippei eyed his old partner as he fished out a ball to serve. If he was right about this…
He served with all his strength, hard and fast toward Senri’s right side. And Senri hesitated just a moment too long, wobbling almost imperceptibly as he turned much further than he should have needed to. If he’d been able to see clearly on his right side, that is.
Kippei’s throat closed for a moment, and his hand clenched around the next ball. He couldn’t do anything to fix this. And he wouldn’t insult his friend by playing at less than full strength. But he could confine his shots to Senri’s left side, and put them back on even footing. It wouldn’t change what he’d done, nothing could fix that, but he could at least play evenly!
It was hard. His tennis wasn’t built on restraint or calculation. It was built on strength and strategy, hand in hand, and strategy said to aim for the right. The knowledge of his own guilt was sufficient to turn him back, but it made some of his shots awkward, and when he nearly tripped, spinning to catch a ball with his backhand instead of his fore, Senri called, “Did you forget how to tie your shoelaces, too, without me to remind you?”
Down one game already and two points behind Senri in the current one, Kippei had to admit Senri had cause to rag on him, and his mouth quirked. “Maybe.”
Senri’s eyes narrowed abruptly, and Kippei scolded himself for showing his own disturbance.
And all of a sudden, balls were coming relentlessly at his forehand side. The side that made it easiest to return to Senri’s right. Kippei scowled across the net at his friend, and stubbornly drove himself to get far enough behind each ball to return left instead. It cost him the last point of the third game, when Senri spun the ball hard and Kippei’s return went into the net. Senri straightened up, face dark.
“Goddamn it, Kippei!”
“Shut up, Senri!” Kippei snapped back pointing a warning finger at his friend. “I’m not aiming at the side you’re half blind on!”
Senri sliced his hand through the air. “And how the fuck am I supposed to figure out how to compensate for that if you won’t, you asshole?” he demanded furiously.
Kippei stopped short, staring. “You…” Senri wanted… Kippei’s help?
Senri was glaring. “I told you at the start, damn it! The one thing I won’t forgive is you holding back, so get your head out of your ass and play like you mean it!” He let out a harsh breath and finished, lower, “Or don’t you mean it, any more?”
“No, that’s not…!” Kippei ran a hand through his hair, thoughts jumbled into a confused pile-up. He hadn’t expected this. “You… do you think you can?” he finally asked, a little hesitant. He was sure, by now, that Senri’s peripheral vision on the right was significantly reduced.3
His friend lifted his chin, mouth hard and proud. “Who do you think you’re talking to, Kippei? Just play full out, so I can, too.”
It hit Kippei abruptly that, just as he’d been holding himself back, so had Senri. Senri wasn’t playing with the weight or speed of no-self. “Senri…”
“Just play, Kippei,” Senri said, and his voice was flat, but his eyes on Kippei were intent, waiting, demanding.
Kippei took a deep breath. If this was what Senri wanted, then he’d do it. “All right.”
Senri nodded shortly and stalked back in his side of the court to receive. When he turned around, poised and still, Kippei felt his spine straightening and his shoulders settling. He knew that stance, knew the weight of Senri’s focus when he reached down into himself for the blazing reflexes of no-self, and played like nothing could stop him. Not his opponent, not his injury, not gravity itself. Kippei threw the ball up and answered that focus with all the wild force and eagerness Senri’s game had always called out of him. The ball tore the air toward Senri’s right side.
And Senri… was there. Even though he hadn’t turned, probably couldn’t see the ball, his racquet was there, right where it needed to be, and the ball was singing back over the net on a perfect line.
This rally was twice as fierce as their first, and Kippei threw himself into it without restraint. It felt like he was being pulled forward, unable to resist the speed and brilliance. It was brutal. It was incredible. He never wanted to stop. He could hear the cheering from the side of the court, knew both teams were on their feet and shouting for their captains, but it was distant. Right now there was only Senri, and the fight between them as they clawed for control of the ball. The sixth game reached deuce seven times before Kippei slammed two consecutive points past Senri’s razor-sharp defense.
And though Senri faltered now and then to start with, as the match went on he answered the shots on his right side steadier, faster, until his returns were as sure as they’d ever been, settling solidly into place once more. Now Kippei understood. Senri had needed him, needed someone whose game he knew as well as his own, who could still push him to the edge. He’d needed the familiarity and force of Kippei’s tennis to help him find the edge again. Kippei had been wrong; he was exactly the one, the only one, who could help fix what he’d done. It was the absolution he’d never thought was possible, and it washed away every hesitation until he was driving shot after wild, glorious shot toward Senri, without fear. This was his partner, his rival, the one he would never give up to.
It wasn’t until the referee called the set, 7-5 in Senri’s favor, that Kippei remembered he’d started the real match one game down. Damn it. He met Senri at the net, panting for breath, and seized his hand. “Your set this time. Don’t get cocky; I’ll take it back next time we play.”
Senri laughed, just as breathless. “A win is a win, and don’t you forget it. And next time I’d better not have to kick your ass to get you to play for real.” He hauled Kippei in and they pounded each other on the back, grinning like madmen.
“You won’t,” Kippei promised, holding Senri off at arm’s length. “I’m sorry I left like that,” he added, quieter. “And I’m sorry I held back. You had every right to kick my ass for that. I didn’t understand.”
“Ah, that’s okay. You’ve always been a little slow.” Senri waved a magnanimous hand, and laughed when Kippei slugged him in the shoulder.
It was hard to pull away, to turn back toward their separate teams, and Kippei flushed a little when he saw the lingering shock on his players’ faces as they stood up against the short, wire fence at the edge of the court. That had been a lot less dignified than they were used to expecting of him, he supposed.
He still couldn’t quite stop grinning.
Kamio Akira watched the Doubles One match getting started and shared a rueful look with Shinji. Mori and Uchimura were off balance, and the Shishigaku pair were pressing their advantage ruthlessly. From the coach’s bench, in front of them, Tachibana-san sighed softly.
“If I’d had any idea I might be playing that kind of match again, I’d have tried to explain my old style in a little more detail,” he murmured.
“It wasn’t the style, Tachibana-san,” Shinji said flatly.
Their captain turned his head a little, brow arched at them.
“It wasn’t, really,” Ishida put in, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I mean, it was an intense game. It was amazing! But… it’s you. We weren’t too surprised by that part.”
“What was the surprise then?” Tachibana-san sounded amused, even as they all watched Shishigaku take the first game and sweep into the second, pressing Mori and Uchimura hard.
“Well, I mean… we’ve um…”
“It was kind of a shock to hear you calling another player names like that,” Sakurai came to his partner’s rescue as Ishida started turning red.
Tachibana-san cleared his throat. “Ah. That.”
Akira swore Tachibana-san was turning a little red, too, which was a little alarming, coming from their normally collected captain.
“Senri and I only ever really did that with each other. I… didn’t honestly think we’d ever play like that again, though.” Tachibana-san glanced over at the corner of the fence, under the trees, where the Shishigaku club was spread out, Chitose sprawled on the walk beside the rest of his team, and Akira sighed.
“So, does this mean it’s okay for me to call Kaidou ‘viper’ from now on?” he asked, joking, and relaxed when Tachibana-san laughed out loud, distracted again from his painful history with the player who was so obviously still his best friend and best rival.
“Only if both of you can keep your tempers while doing it!”
“So, no,” Shinji translated. He leaned his shoulder briefly against Akira’s though, silent approval for helping their captain settle after that incredible game they’d just watched.
Mori and Uchimura were settling down, too, finding their feet again and pushing back against the Shishigaku pair. Akira nodded with satisfaction as Uchimura broke off his vicious short-range volley with his Shishigaku opponent and fell aside to let Mori slam the point home, catching the other pair off guard. Shinji, though, frowned at the scoreboard and caught Akira’s eye, shaking his head faintly. Akira hesitated, but when the Shishigaku pair dashed into a solid two-up formation and took another point, he growled grudging agreement.
Tachibana-san glanced back at them again. “Do you see it?”
“Both pairs are really closely matched,” Akira said for both of them. “And Mori and Uchimura are down two games.”
“Exactly.” Those straight shoulders didn’t slump, but Tachibana-san’s voice got quieter as he said, “Because of my miscalculation, Mori and Uchimura had a handicap at the beginning, and they’ve lost ground it will be very hard to regain.”
“The last match will be ours,” Shinji said levelly, eyes fixed on the court. It was encouragement, an offer of confidence, and the smile Tachibana-san shot them over his shoulder gave it back doubled.
“Of course it will.”
Akira felt the team steady around him, upheld by that confidence. Not for the first time this summer, he wondered what the hell they were going to do next year, when Tachibana-san would have graduated.
Again, Shinji’s shoulder brushed his, and Akira glanced over to see the faint smile on Shinji’s lips, though he hadn’t looked away from the court. Akira grinned back for a moment. Yeah, maybe together they’d manage. It wouldn’t be the same, but… maybe they could still do it. Especially since Akira was pretty sure a few of the onlookers clustered on the little hill south of the court were from Fudoumine. They were gawking instead of cheering, but Akira figured it was a start.
Fudoumine would keep going.
“That was not a brand new pair,” Nakamura declared flatly, throwing Oonita’s water to him as his partner collapsed on the bench panting. “Why haven’t we heard about them before?”
“I heard,” Oonita said between swallows, “they played Seigaku’s Ooishi and Kikumaru early on this season. Took four games off them.”
“Kippei found some good talent, and he’s had them training hard, I bet,” Chitose murmured, with a lazy smile at the opponent’s coach’s bench.
Tanaka Keiichi rolled his eyes. No one had ever been entirely sure, watching Chitose and Tachibana play, whether to call for a fire-truck or tell them to get a room, and that clearly hadn’t changed just because of a year apart.
He was glad to see it.
“Ihara,” he called to their second year singles player, “looks like it’s up to you.”
“Sure thing, senpai,” Ihara said coolly, testing the gut of his racquet.
Keiichi pursed his lips, wanting to remind Ihara to be careful, but if Ihara hadn’t taken enough note of one after another of his teammates coming back off the court wrung out and half-shocked, whether they’d won or not, then he’d just have to learn the hard way. He knew Ihara didn’t think too highly of the casual tone they’d all fallen into this year, what with Chitose as captain. He was probably going to be an absolute demon as captain, next year. But he really needed stop taking other players quite so much at face value.
“Is he going to be okay?” Nakamura muttered, as Ihara strode out onto the court and shook hands briskly with his dark-haired opponent “I know we thought Tachibana would completely front-load their line-up, so Doubles One and Singles One would be weaker, but I’m telling you Tanaka, if that pair hadn’t been off their stride, at first, I don’t know if we would have won.”
Nakamura and Oonita hadn’t lost a match yet, this season. Not even to those bastards from Higa. Only one other pair had even pushed them to a 7-5 score, like the one that had finished this match. “I guess we’ll see,” Keiichi said quietly, watching the first serve.
The whole match was a quiet one. Neither opponent had a word to say to the other, and Fudoumine was sitting back with apparently perfect confidence, while Keiichi’s own team were all just about holding their breaths. It looked like Ihara was holding his own, though; at least Ibu didn’t seem to be driving the pace. Fudoumine’s confidence made Keiichi watch closely, though, and he cursed softly when he realized that Ibu wasn’t drawing the rallies out because he couldn’t finish them.
“What?” Nakamura demanded, glancing at him.
Chitose chuckled, leaning back with his hands clasped around his knee as he watched. “That kid’s a vicious one. It’ll be right about… now.”
Ihara completely missed what should have been an easy return.
It happened again, as they watched. And again. “Repetitive motion,” Nakamura finally said, frowning. “He’s forcing exactly the same motion to return his shots, over and over.”
“Alternating over and under, too, until the muscles just freeze up,” Chitose agreed, eyes sharp on the Fudoumine player, for all his lazy pose. “Goumoto-sensei sees it.”
Indeed, their coach had called Ihara over for a few words, after which Ihara stalked back out onto the court, glaring fit to fry his opponent to a cinder. Ibu, Keiichi couldn’t help noticing, was smiling faintly. “Tachibana isn’t the only one over there who knows a little about psychological games,” he said dryly.
“Mmm.” Chitose eyed Tachibana thoughtfully, across the court. “Kippei found a team full of fighters, that’s for sure.”
Found them and sharpened their edge, Keiichi thought, and did it at full tilt for a year, with no Chitose around to take up his energy. Suddenly, this year’s Fudoumine made much more sense to him.
With that thought in mind, he was less surprised than the rest of the team when Ibu started pushing the pace ruthlessly, taking three points in a row with a sharp twist serve, catching Ihara’s subtle low slice without a blink, brushing a delicate drop shot over the net just when Ihara was wound up from returning a series of fast, hard drives. It was like watching a musician playing his instrument.
By the time Ibu won, six games to four, no one was really surprised.
They all lined up properly to end the round, and Keiichi tried to decide whether he was more irritated that they’d been beaten by the team their own ace had run off and formed, or more satisfied that at least it was their ace’s team they’d lost to. The vivid triumph on the faces of the team across the net actually helped; clearly they thought defeating Shishigaku meant something. His amusement at the way Chitose and Tachibana eyed each other, hands still clasped over the net, looking like they’d be perfectly happy to go another round, also helped. When Tachibana’s vice-captain eyed those clasped hands and stirred restlessly, like he wanted to pull his captain away from Chitose, Keiichi’s sense of the ridiculous revived all the way, and he chuckled.
It was a good thing he’d recovered his equanimity, because as they were packing up, he had to go collect his nominal captain from among Fudoumine.
“You realize, if you lose after this, I’m going to kick your ass,” Chitose was saying as Keiichi reached them.
Tachibana laughed. “You can try.”
“When are you coming home, Kippei?” Chitose asked, suddenly serious. Keiichi winced a little at the flash of pain and conflict over Tachibana’s face. It wasn’t only on the court that those two were a little brutal with each other.
As Tachibana was drawing breath for whatever reply he might have made, though, it was his red-haired vice-captain who stepped forward. “Next year,” he said firmly.
Tachibana turned his head, brows lifting, but the red-head stood firm, looking up at him steadily. “We’d lose you next year anyway, once you graduated,” he said, and glanced at Chitose. “And this is… it’s something you need, Tachibana-san. We could all see that.” Then he lifted his chin and glowered at Chitose. “But until then, Tachibana-san is captain of Fudoumine!”
After a long moment, Chitose smiled. “Yeah. Okay. I can wait that long.”
“Do I get any say in this?” Tachibana asked mildly, but he smiled and rumpled his vice-captain’s hair when the kid turned red. “I’m Fudoumine’s coach, as well as captain. I’ll stay until I graduate.” He looked up at Chitose, eyes suddenly burning the way they did on the court. “And Fudoumine will carry Shishigaku’s honor along with our own, in this tournament.”
Chitose nodded, though his smile was tilted, and Tachibana gathered up his team with a single gesture. They fell in behind him as he strode down the tree-lined walkway, heads high despite having to face Shitenhouji next. Keiichi sighed a bit wistfully; he’d have really liked to have had a captain like that, this year.
“He’s so damn old-fashioned, sometimes,” Chitose muttered, shaking his head, and clapped Keiichi on the shoulder. “Well, come on, then. Kaa-san said she’d drop Miyuki off at the hotel tonight, so she can watch the second day matches; I should be there when she comes, so she doesn’t destroy the place or anything. Ihara!” he called. “Quit sulking and come eat dinner!”
Keiichi sighed a little and went to direct packing up the team’s bus, turning in their paperwork, and all the other little details Chitose was so bad at. He was really looking forward to next year.
Watching Fudoumine made him remember what it was like to play on a team with both Chitose and Tachibana, and he wanted to feel that again.
Round Two: Rokkaku vs. Higa
Kite Eishirou watched with quiet satisfaction as his club cut through the chattering crowd of Nationals like divers through the water, quick and confident. The first round had gone just as he’d predicted, even without watching, and his accuracy had calmed his team’s nerves. They walked straight and proud, now, among the clutter of Kantou teams.
“Rokkaku first, then,” Kai remarked, strolling at Eishirou’s shoulder with his hands jammed into his pockets. “You sure about putting Tanishi in for Singles Three? I mean, we’ve got you and Rin for Two and One; I haven’t heard Rokkaku was that strong in singles.” He cocked an eye up at Eishirou under the brim of his cap, obviously wanting to know if his captain was holding out on him.
Eishirou smiled faintly. “Tanishi-kun will simply hedge our bets.” He would be cautious, even though he hadn’t heard anything singular about Rokkaku’s young Aoi. There must have been some reason to make a first-year their captain, after all.
Their court for this round was at the far end of the line of courts, and the sun was falling full across it as the afternoon drew on. The hard surface sent up little shimmers of heat. Eishirou nodded with silent satisfaction, as they filed in through the gate and lined up across from Rokkaku, Saotome trailing in their wake to thump down on the coach’s bench. None of these teams who lived and trained on central Honshu would cope with the day’s heat as well as a team from Okinawa. Despite that, he measured the members of Rokkaku carefully, as they bowed to each other. He noted the powerful leg muscles of one, the long arms and sharp eyes of another, the eagerness of Aoi, youngest of them all but bizarrely well-grown for a first-year. Most of all, he noted that Saeki, the vice-captain and the one who’d calmed Aoi all during the place drawing for Nationals, was watching his opponents just as intently as Eishirou.
That would be the player to watch for, all right, and no guarantee where Saeki might show up.
The referee called the names for Singles Three and Eishirou snorted to himself as the club retired to their side of the court, outside the low fence that topped the retaining wall on that end. He had counted on Saeki not being Singles Three, but that was only because of the downright monotonous persistence with which Aoi seemed to take that slot. “Set the pace for us, Tanishi-kun,” he murmured, as he passed, and Tanishi nodded, eyes glittering as they fixed on his bouncing opponent.
Aoi set himself and served, quick and respectably precise, but nothing Tanishi couldn’t catch. Eishirou nodded with satisfaction as a brief rally ended in Tanishi’s ball blasting past Aoi’s foot, hard enough to scuff the court. The next point went almost as quickly.
“That’s their captain?” Kai drawled, draped over the fence beside him. “Seriously?”
“He’s not unskilled,” Eishirou pointed out. “And he doesn’t seem concerned, yet.” More importantly, neither Rokkaku’s ancient coach nor Saeki seemed especially worried as the first game went to Tanishi.
“Is that all you’ve got?” Tanishi demanded, lip curled as he pulled out one of his own balls to serve.
Aoi was grinning cheerfully. “Oh, I always lose the first few games! I play best when I’m under pressure.”
“Cocky little bastard,” Chinen muttered through his teeth, hands closing tight around the top of the fence. “His team, too.”
“Mm.” Eishirou tilted a brow up as he watched Rokkaku. Most of them were rolling their eyes and laughing, obviously expecting this little quirk. But Saeki’s laugh seemed a bit forced, as he watched Tanishi’s face darken. Eishirou smiled. They’d just have to prove his concerns right and rattle the rest of these too-casual types. That would be a good pace-setter indeed.
“You want pressure?” Tanishi growled. “I’ll show you some pressure, runt!” He leaped for the serve, meeting the ball and holding it on his gut as he whipped the racquet down, whole body contracting, and Eishirou made a soft sound of approval. A few Big Bang serves should give Tanishi a comfortable lead.
Tanishi took the game in four service aces that left Aoi shaking out his stinging hand, racquet knocked nearly off the court.
“That’s a pretty good serve, all right,” he agreed, so matter-of-fact that half of Higa glowered at him suspiciously, suspecting mockery. “Okay, then!” Aoi took a deep breath, and declared. “If I don’t win the next game, I’m not allowed to ask any girls out for a month!” He trotted back to his service line and bounced his ball a few times, suddenly much more focused.
Kai was choking on a swallow of water. “That’s their captain?” he wheezed, pounding his chest. “You’re fucking kidding me!”
Hirakoba, lounging in a sprawl of long limbs and pale hair under one of the trees behind them, was sniggering. “I guess that one really did get an early start on his growth spurt.”
Kai’s eyes were turning hard under the edge of his cap, though, and his smile had a cutting edge as he leaned over the fence and yelled, “Show him what kind of game this is, Tanishi!”
Tanishi was already snarling, driving the ball back at Aoi. Aoi just smiled, cocky and happy, and his next ball hit the top of the net, leaped up and just barely tipped over. “Don’t underestimate me,” he warned.
And then he started.
“Back at you,” Tanishi said, already at the net, and batted the ball back over to take the point.
Eishirou folded his arms, listening with satisfaction to the sudden buzz from the other side of the court, as Rokkaku asked each other what had just happened. He didn’t expect them to figure it out any time soon. Tanishi’s Shukuchihou was smooth and fast, for all his bulk, hard for even his teammates to follow when he was moving forward on the court.
Higa was cheering as Tanishi took another point, and another before Aoi finally gave up on his cord ball and settled down to fight it out with deeper drives. At least the kid finally looked focused, and Kai and Chinen were both relaxing from their edge of fury at not being taken seriously. Aoi wrestled two points away from Tanishi, but the third game went to Higa, and Tanishi was still playing hot and angry. The fourth game went fast, in a bruising string of Big Bang serves. Eishirou made a thoughtful sound, and Kai cocked an eye up at him.
“What? It’s almost in the bag, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps it’s just as well if Tanishi finishes this quickly, yes,” Eishirou allowed, watching closely as Aoi fell back to serve. “Aoi-kun is starting to get used to his strength and range.”
“Already?” Kai straightened up, startled, and Eishirou shook his head just a little at his vice-captain’s lack of observation whenever he wasn’t the one actually playing.
“Rokkaku is always a strong contender in their own region, and often at Nationals. Don’t underestimate them just because one of them acts like he’s thinking with the wrong head.”
“Well, seriously, what am I supposed to think when he’s prancing around the court all grinning and running on about his dates?” Kai grumbled, hanging over the sun-heated fence again with an eloquent slouch.
“Maybe the kid actually enjoys playing tennis,” Hirakoba needled from under his tree, and Kai gave him a hard look over his shoulder.
“Don’t enjoy yourself so much you forget what we’re here for,” he ordered, and Hirakoba waved a lazy hand, leaning back in the shade.
Eishirou listened with half an ear, most of his attention on the court. Aoi clearly still didn’t know how to read Tanishi’s forward movement, but, perhaps on instinct, he was starting to aim for the corners, trying to get the ball past Tanishi’s range. It was working. The fifth game was close, but Aoi took the last two points with deep drives and pumped a fist in the air triumphantly as his first win was called.
Tanishi’s teeth were bared, and he didn’t even glance at their coach, or at Eishirou. He took his service game with a string of Big Bangs that blew Aoi’s racquet out of his hand with every shot. Eishirou sighed to himself, as Tanishi and Aoi dove straight into the seventh game without pausing. He would never wish to reduce the drive and motivation of his team members, but he did wish, every now and then, that more of them would remember to pace themselves.
Okinawa had decades of resentment built up, though, and he didn’t pretend he hadn’t known exactly what he was doing when he’d laid his hand on that bitter anger to drive his team to Nationals.
“Still can’t figure out why this kid is captain,” Kai muttered, folding his arms on the fence and resting his chin on them. “He’s nothing special. No strategy at all.”
Eishirou pushed his glasses up his nose and looked sidelong at his vice-captain. “And you have what familiarity with strategy, to judge this?”
“Hey!” Kai was grinning, though. “But, I mean, look at him. He’s figured out to hit to the corners, you’d think he’d know to alternate the corners with that cord ball of his, to make Tanishi run around and wear him out.”
“He does seem very… straightforward,” Eishirou allowed, a bit dryly. And a good thing, too. Tanishi had spent enough of his endurance, serving with such demanding shots every time, that if Aoi had had the sense to wear him down until those serves lost their full force, the game might have been in doubt. Fortunately that didn’t seem to occur to Aoi.
Eishirou had to admit, he couldn’t see what might have possessed anyone to make this boy captain, either, or what would make a reasonably strong team follow him. Perhaps the jokes he’d heard here and there, about Rokkaku’s coach getting senile, were actually true.
Aoi did take the seventh game, but the eighth was another of Tanishi’s service games, and he wasn’t fatally worn down yet. Eishirou smiled as the match was called in Higa’s favor and his club erupted into cheers around him. Chinen slapped hands with Tanishi as he came off the court, passing him a water bottle. “Good work,” Eishirou told him, and Tanishi bobbed his head, breathless but nearly glowing with the victory. Eishirou smiled just a little. This was how it should be. “Aragaki, Shiranui,” he called. “You’re up. Wear them down.”
His Doubles Two pair grinned like sharks, twirling their racquets. There hadn’t been a single pair who could outlast them in any tournament this year. “Sure thing, Buchou,” Aragaki said.
“Shudou-Kisarazu pair versus the Shiranui-Aragaki pair,” the referee called, and the Rokkaku pair came to the net to shake hands. It was the lean player with long hair and the compact, muscled one who looked like he should have been a model, all sun-gilded hair and easy smile.
“Easy meat,” Chinen drawled.
“We’ll see,” Eishirou murmured, watching as the match started.
The Rokkaku pair were good. The long-haired player—Ryou his partner called him, must be Kisarazu—he played up front, light on his feet. He took the first point with a subtle, curving shot over the net. His partner held the back with a solid defense that even Aragaki’s drives were having trouble getting through.
“Bets on how long the Rokkaku pair is going to last?” Kai asked lightly, and Tanishi laughed. Eishirou made a noncommittal sound, which his team only expected of him. This time, though, it was genuine. This match was a risk. Of course, the game itself was always a risk, but as another of Kisarazu’s long-floating slices drifted over Shiranui’s racquet, Eishirou knew this one would be closer than he liked. His pair was more flexible, changing formation quicker and smoother, but they just didn’t have the edge of technique that Kisarazu brought his own pair.
On the other hand, he smiled to himself as Shiranui reached the net in time to return a tricky drop shot, Higa still had advantages. Shiranui’s Shukuchihou might not be as polished as Tanishi’s or Chinen’s, and Aragaki might not have mastered it at all, but in doubles it was still enough and his team knew how to use even small advantages ruthlessly.
“What is that movement?” Kisarazu demanded of thin air, shoving back his hair with clear exasperation. A wave of chuckles swept Higa’s club, smug and pleased, and Eishirou allowed himself a small smile.
Eishirou stiffened, and heads whipped around as the creaky voice of Rokkaku’s coach drifted over the court, and the old man took a sip of his tea, completely unconcerned. “It’s a way of moving, found in Okinawan martial arts,” he added, “to approach an opponent swiftly or unnoticed. Far more efficient than the natural movement of running, it wastes no motion in kicking against the ground. One falls forward with the force of gravity, as it were.”
Kai hissed, beside him. “That dried up, old…”
“They can’t counter it, in doubles,” Eishirou cut over him, clear enough to be heard by his team. As they settled, though, he stayed tense; for this to be revealed during a doubles match only meant the singles players would have longer to think about the implications. Saeki, at least, knew it, too; he was up against the fence, watching sharply as the pairs rallied for another point. And there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it right now. Eishirou cast a cold eye over the Rokkaku team, searching for the weak point, considering how best to exploit whatever he found.
And then he saw Saotome’s gesture to Shiranui, fingers flicking at Rokkaku’s coach, instructing Shiranui to aim for the old man, and his hands closed on the fence, white-knuckled.
“What?” Kai asked softly, drawing close against his shoulder, eyes sharp. “We knew we’d probably need it against Rokkaku.”
“It’s too early,” Eishirou said between his teeth, hanging on to his impassive expression by his fingernails. “It will unsettle this pair, yes, but there’s the other pair and Saeki still to play, and they’re too likely to be focused by their anger instead of distracted. It’s too high a risk just for some idiot notion of revenge; we should save this for the critical match, damn it Shiranui look at me.” If he could catch Shiranui’s eye, he could countermand the order.
But Shiranui, like the rest of the team, was used to this tactic, knew they’d planned for it, and followed their coach’s directions as Doubles Two started into the second game.
The old man was thrown straight off his bench by the ball that caught him in the face.
At almost any other point in the game, Eishirou would have felt some satisfaction in the sudden disorder of Rokkaku’s club as they rushed onto the court, match forgotten, gathering around their coach. When he saw the way Saeki’s head came up to focus like a sighting laser on Higa, though, Eishirou just sighed under his breath. “Well, that’s torn it,” he muttered to Kai. “At least two matches that are going to be far harder than they should have been just because our fool of a coach can’t keep it in his pants.”
Kai choked, eyes wide under the warm brown frizz of his hair. “Damn. You are pissed off.”
Eishirou looked down on the court coolly. “Yes. And some day very soon, Saotome will know it.”
Saeki Koujirou didn’t remember how he got down onto the court, but he was on his knees beside Ojii, hands hovering over their coach’s shoulders, afraid even to touch him.
“Sae!” Someone had his shoulder, shaking him. “Saeki snap out of it! The first aid crew is coming.” Kurobane, that was it. And now Koujirou could hear the referee on his radio to the first aid station, telling them to call an ambulance and bring a stretcher and braces.
“He’s breathing. He’s okay,” Itsuki whispered, across from him. “He’s going to be okay, right?”
Koujirou sucked in a hard breath and made himself lay a hand on Ojii’s arm. “Of course he will,” he managed, only a little husky. “He’ll be fine. They’ll take him to the hospital and he’ll be fine.” He looked around at his team, at Aoi, nearly in tears, at Ryou and Shudou, both shocked and white, racquets abandoned on the court, at Davide, stiff and dangerously still beside his partner, at Kurobane’s furiously clenched jaw.
And then he looked up at the Higa team. The one who’d hit Ojii had his racquet propped casually on his shoulder, and his partner was smirking a little. Koujirou remembered the signal Higa’s coach had made, and glanced over to find him leaning back on his bench with folded arms and a vicious smile.
It had been on purpose.
Rage closed over Koujirou like deep water, like a tsunami wave rushing in, ready to break, dark and vicious. He might have lunged for Higa’s Doubles Two right then and there, if the first aid team hadn’t arrived, gently pushing Rokkaku away from their coach, murmuring quick, incomprehensible reports to each other as they inflated a brace under Ojii’s neck and carefully slid a stretcher under him.
“We’ll get him right to the hospital,” the shorter of them said to the team, kindly. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. There should be room in the ambulance for one or two of you, if you want to come and see for yourself.”
“My match is over, let me go!” Aoi held out his hands, entreating. “I’ll call and let you know as soon as they say anything!”
A very cold part of Koujirou wondered if part of Higa’s plan had been to draw away some of the regulars who hadn’t played yet. Well, they’d find out otherwise. “Yeah, go,” he said. “And let us know where, when you get there; we’ll join you after this round is done. Take Takeuchi with you, and don’t forget your phone,” he called after Aoi as their young captain darted after the stretcher, and scrubbed his hands over his face. “Fuck.”
“Do you want to continue the match,” the referee asked them, hesitant and sympathetic, “or do you want to…”
“We’re not forfeiting.” Koujirou’s voice came out cold and hard, and even his own team rocked back a step from him as he looked up.
“Right.” The referee eyed him like a firework with the fuse sizzling. “Well, if that’s the case, Doubles Two needs to resume play.”
Koujirou snorted as the man retreated rather hastily to his chair, and looked over at Ryou and Shudou. “Can you keep going?”
“We have to,” Ryou said, low, hands wringing around each other. “I mean… Ojii wouldn’t want us to just stop. Would he?”
“Course he wouldn’t.” Kurobane clapped Ryou and Shudou briskly on the shoulders. “Show those Higa bastards that they can’t win this easy.”
Shudou pulled in a long, shaky breath and nodded, stepping back onto the court to pick up his racquet. “Okay.”
“I don’t know if they’re going to get this match back,” Kurobane murmured to Koujirou as the club filed off the court and the remaining team moved back against the fence, lined up behind the empty coach’s bench.
Koujirou watched as Shudou turned the wrong way and missed a drive he would normally have returned easily, and his lips thinned. “You’re right.” He glanced over at Amane, standing on Bane’s far side, absolutely silent, with his arms folded tight. “Are you guys going to be all right?” he asked quietly.
Bane slung his arm around Amane without looking, hand tight on his partner’s shoulder. After a long, still moment, Amane took his first visible breath since Ojii had been hit, and leaned back against the fence and Bane’s arm. Kurobane nodded to Koujirou, perfectly steady though his eyes were still hot.
Kurobane’s support settled Koujirou a little, but when he looked at Itsuki, on his other side, standing with his fingers wound into the links of the fence, tense and miserable, rage flared again. Higa had done this to break his team. And it was possible they’d succeeded, at least in the short term.
He watched the Doubles Two match, jaw tight with silent fury, and when it ended in Rokkaku’s loss, he could only clasp Ryou and Shudou’s shoulders silently as he stalked past them onto the court.
It was Higa’s captain he met at the net, and Kite gave him a cool nod. “I see we were thinking the same thing.”
About the importance of Singles Two, he meant, of course, but Koujirou couldn’t stop his lip curling, and didn’t try. “No, I really don’t believe we think alike at all.” He jerked his head at the Higa coach, sprawled genially on his bench with his arms crossed over his beer gut, at the Doubles Two pair laughing with their teammates now. “Is that really the way your team plays?”
Kite looked back at him levelly. “Higa plays to win.”
“Then Higa just made a big mistake,” Koujirou snarled, and stalked back to his service line. He served lightly, just across the net, and then drove the return deep into the far corner. Kite didn’t turn a hair at either shot, and he was behind each one with that slick movement so many of Higa seemed to use. Koujirou did it again, a drop shot and then a corner drive in the other direction, pushing himself to place each ball precisely, watching, measuring the play and shift of his opponent’s muscles, gauging what that movement demanded.
There were jibes from Higa, now, and Tanishi’s voice called, “You won’t catch our captain that way! He can use Shukuchihou to move in any direction!”
Which meant not all of them could, and Koujirou tucked that thought away before he let himself toss back his head and laugh. The Higa club fell silent, and Koujirou bared his teeth at Kite. “Not a natural movement, hm?” he asked softly, voice carrying in the hush.
Kite’s eyes narrowed.
Koujirou threw himself into the game, working the court from every angle possible to drive Kite side to side, front to back, forcing him to use the technique Koujirou could see was straining his muscles. His wrists ached from turning his racquet to such wildly differing angles, and the first game reached deuce five times before Koujirou took the last point. He knew he was playing recklessly, spending his strength into the game without reservation, to drive Kite to the edge along with him, to use up his endurance on that so very effective but so very demanding movement of Shukuchihou. There was no banter or taunts as the serve changed, just Kite’s cold-eyed acknowledgment as he threw the ball up and leaped for it with a form Koujirou recognized. Big Bang. It hit his racquet like a wall falling, and Koujirou winced at the spike of pain in his wrists as his racquet tore out of his hands.
When he looked across the net this time, Kite was smiling faintly. Koujirou’s lip curled and he set himself to meet the next serve, trying to turn a little with it, take some of the force from the ball. It was still too much, pushed him too far around, but at least he kept his racquet this time. Higa’s club was snickering, obviously not believing anyone could return this serve, but Koujirou had watched the Kantou finals. He couldn’t replicate precisely what Echizen did, but he remembered a little first-year catching Sanada’s Fire. More was possible than anyone had thought, before watching that match, and his focus on the ball narrowed further.
On the third serve, he turned the other way, putting his right shoulder to the ball, bracing his racquet there. The impact was bruising, and he could feel right away he didn’t have enough flex in his gut to return the ball, and it bounced short of the net. A gust of laughter ran through Higa’s club.
Kite wasn’t smiling any more, though.
Koujirou bared his teeth and set his feet again, ready for the last ball. He thought he might just have it, now.
Kite stared over the net at him for a long moment before he cast the ball up to serve. It was the Big Bang again, and Koujirou laughed as it came. He turned to brace his racquet against his shoulder again, but when the ball struck this time, he stepped forward on the left, turning and lunging, holding the ball on his racquet for a long moment before uncoiling to hurl it back. He could feel the flex of the gut through the grip and knew this one would have the force it needed.
The ball hit the net, hard enough to jar the weighted bottom.
The referee called the score, one game all, in dead silence. Fury and satisfaction curled hot through Koujirou, along with the growing strain of such intense play. He would teach Higa just what kind of mistake they’d made, rousing Rokkaku. He whirled and stalked back to his baseline, fishing out a ball, and he felt Kite’s eyes on his back all the way.
The games were brutal, for a match of technique against technique, of Koujirou’s carefully controlled near and far shots against Kite’s Shukuchihou, of that braced and coiling return against the Big Bang. They hammered at each other mercilessly, across the net, pushing and pushing to find the breaking point of bone and muscle. Koujirou thought, distantly, that he might have fallen already if the cold weight of his rage weren’t holding him together. He could feel the burn in his arms and wrists as he twisted his racquet, the trembling in his calves that told him he’d have cramps the moment he stood still, the numbness of his right shoulder that paid for every serve he returned. He could hear the shocked silence of both clubs, watching.
Neither of them had dropped a service game, yet.
By the time the referee called six games all, Koujirou could hear the rough, hoarse edge to his own breathing, and every breath felt like it scraped the insides of his lungs. But his fixed glare didn’t waver from Kite, and the eyes that met his were grim.
The Rokkaku club was calling out to him again, and shouts of “Seven points!” rose from both sides. Koujirou couldn’t look away from Kite, so he just nodded and cast his ball up to serve.
His serve was weaker, now, but still as precise as ever, calling Kite up to the net to catch it. Kite never stepped wrong, but his return was shaky, hands less sure than his feet now. Koujirou’s focus narrowed and narrowed again, down to nothing but the ball, nothing but the need to reach it, return it, drive Kite back and take the point. And the point after that. Kite took the third one, and Koujirou’s teeth clenched, as if he could hold on to his last shreds of endurance that way. As if he could feel Kite’s throat between them.
He couldn’t let go now.
Five points to four, in his favor, and he could hardly feel the court’s surface under his feet any more. There was only the pressure of the sun, holding him down to the ground, and the movement of the ball over the net, and the hesitation he could see in Kite’s strokes.
Six to four, in his favor, with a flat, two-handed smash that made his bruised shoulder howl. He couldn’t see anything outside the court, and it didn’t matter.
Six to five, when Kite made a drop shot that Koujirou just couldn’t get to, not any more. He knew, somewhere in the darkness outside his rigid focus, that he didn’t have the strength to play for much longer. He had to take the next point. He would not let Higa get away with another win after what they’d done.
The thought made the icy rage in his chest flare again, and he drove himself against the court, against the ball coming back toward him. He drove the ball with all the vicious strength of that ice, into the far corner, back and back, to strike just inside the lines. Kite spun with the lightness that never seemed to leave his steps, dashing back to catch the ball before it came down.
And finally, finally, stumbled.
The second thop as the ball landed again and gave the seventh point and Singles Two to Koujirou was swept under a storm of cheering from Rokkaku. Koujirou wanted to join in, wanted to scream his triumph, but he didn’t have the breath. It came out as a thin, raw sound between his teeth as he swayed on his feet.
And then there was a shoulder under his arm, and Bane was half carrying him off the court, easing him down onto the coach’s bench.
“You’re a crazy man,” Bane informed him, catching the water bottle Davide threw him. “Here, drink this.”
Koujirou sipped at the straw in between heaving breaths, and made a disgusted face at the taste of electrolyte solution. Bane thwapped him lightly over the head.
“Don’t give me that. You’ll thank me when you don’t pass out, ten minutes from now.”
Koujirou took another sip and made an even worse face. “Had to,” he rasped hoarsely. “Had to break their momentum.”
Bane snorted. “That and you were pissed off, and you’re a scary bastard when you finally get mad, Sae” he said matter-of-fact, and stood. “So sit there and drink your damn minerals and just watch. Keep an eye on him,” he added to Itsuki, and jerked his head at Davide.
Davide finished scraping his hair back and took the hairband out of his teeth to wrap it tight. “Let’s go,” he said quietly. The two of them caught up their racquets and strode onto the court.
“Are you sure you’re going to be all right, Saeki?” Itsuki asked, standing behind his shoulder. Koujirou tipped his head back to smile up at him wearily, and maybe Bane had a point; the world was kind of weirdly bright at the moment. Itt-chan looked a little glowy.
“I’m fine,” he said, and almost winced at the roughness of his own voice and breathing. “Well, I will be, anyway,” he amended, and took another sip of the disgusting mineral crap, to keep everyone from worrying.
After all, he thought as he watched Bane and Davide meet the other pair at the net, with his own match over, worrying was his job, now.
Saotome snarled at Eishirou as he came off the court. “What the hell was that? You’re supposed to be the best on this team, and you threw that game away! Don’t tell me you couldn’t have pushed harder against one of these pansy-ass beach bums.”
Eishirou looked down his nose at the coach. “Pushed harder and been weakened against Rikkai, tomorrow, yes I suppose I could have.” When Saotome flushed and drew breath, Eishirou made a tight, violent slash with one hand and narrowed his eyes in satisfaction when Saotome started back against the bench. “You were the one who pushed Rokkaku to this, for no strategic gain, just to salve your own pride. Don’t speak to me about the risks I have to run because of that.” He spun on his heel and stalked off the court, meeting Kai and Chinen at the gate. They both looked shaken, to have seen him lose, and he silently cursed their coach yet again, the way he’d been doing ever since he met Saeki Koujirou at the net, and saw the cold, focused fury in his eyes. “Be careful, but don’t worry too much,” he ordered briskly. “We only need one more match. And watch this pair, before you try to provoke them. If it makes them stop thinking, that’s well and good, but if it just makes them focus harder on beating you, then leave them be.”
Both of them nodded, and Kai at least seemed to pull himself together. “Got it, boss.” He sauntered onto the court with his racquet caught between his back and his elbows, apparently as casual as ever. Eishirou walked through his subdued club with a nod here and a faint smile there until he reached the rest of his team, up against the fence.
“Buchou.” Tanishi’s voice was low, and his face troubled, and Eishirou laid a hand on his shoulder for a moment in reassurance.
“That looked like a damn hard match.” Hirakoba sounded wistful about the fact, and Eishirou’s mouth quirked, humor a bit restored.
“You’ll have someone nice to play with when we face Rikkai,” he soothed, and marked the way the club settled around them, hearing that confidence. He laid his hands on the fence calmly, and watched the Doubles One pairs meet at the net. Both the Rokkaku players were tall, though neither as tall as Chinen, and the one with the rather dramatic auburn hair had a strangely made racquet. It was long, right at the legal limit if Eishirou wasn’t mistaken, but the length was all in the grip, not the face. Eishirou considered the kind of leverage that racquet would give a player, if he could really handle it, and concealed a frown. This might be another tight match.
“Wow, that’s a long racquet.” Kai bent closer to peer at it, and up at the player with a cocky grin. “You compensating for something?”
Chokes and snickers and outraged sputters rose all around the court. The dark player caught his partner’s arm to keep him back, face hard. Eishirou pinched the bridge of his nose, lifting his glasses a little as he rubbed at an incipient headache. He valued Kai, he truly did. Kai was a fine vice-captain, a strong player, and he took his responsibilities to the team seriously. Someday he might even learn the value of moderation. Someday was clearly not today, though.
Bane caught Davide’s shoulder, pulling him back from the net firmly, and hissed in his ear, “Cool down! They’re trying to provoke us, that’s obviously how they play. Kick their asses with your tennis, not your foot!” As Davide relaxed, so did he. His partner might be the quiet type, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a temper, and Davi-kun couldn’t play hot like that.
The loudmouth was watching them, eyes sharp under his frizz of brown hair. “One hot, one cold, huh?” he murmured. “Okay, then.” He spun, reaching up to clap his hugely tall partner on the shoulder. “Let’s go!”
“Testing us,” Davide gritted through his teeth. Bane nodded agreement.
“That’ll be their game-maker, then. Watch him for cues.” He frowned at the long strides of the other one, Chinen, walking away from the net. “Chinen will have a lot of your advantages, just from his natural reach. Think you can hold him?”
Davide straightened up at that bit of challenge, snorting. “Of course I can.” Bane grinned.
It was Chinen who served first, hard and fast and straight at Davide. Trying to get inside the reach of his racquet, maybe. Bane snorted and stayed where he was. Davide’s lip curled as he slid to the side and whipped the ball back over the net with all the fluid leverage of his racquet. The ball blew right past the Higa pair, and Bane nodded a little to himself. He didn’t quite have Sae’s eye for an opponent or strategy, but he thought they were stronger than these jokers.
Davide powered the next return past Higa, too, but the third ball was out and Kai let it go. “Easy, Davi-kun!” Bane called. “No need to waste anything on them.”
The whole Higa crowd growled at that, and Bane wondered, not for the first time this round, what was up with that club. Who could use such disgusting tactics, and then expected to be taken for anything but trash?
The next serve turned into a rally; Bane’d been right about the speed advantage Chinen’s height gave him. It was Kai who directed the ball at Bane, though, and he knew he was being measured. Well, fine; maybe he could measure back. They drove the ball back and forth, slowly harder and faster as they went, until Bane was pretty sure the next shot would be the last. Kai just wasn’t as strong as he was.
Kai turned his racquet out and bounced the ball lightly away.
Bane bared his teeth. “Davide!” His partner was already there, though, sinking the ball into the far corner. Kai’s eyes narrowed, and Bane snorted. Didn’t take much observing to tell he and Davide were a tight pair, after all.
They lost the next point to a fast poach at the net, though Bane was gratified to see that Kai nearly lost control of the ball as he did it. The last point was Bane’s, though, straight down the center line, and the first game went to Rokkaku. He and Davide nodded at each other, satisfied, and Bane fell back to serve.
Despite their opponents, he could feel the glow of the game spreading through him—the satisfaction of stretching his body to catch and control the ball, the reassurance of Davi-kun’s strength beside him. This was Bane’s game. Not even bastards like Higa were going to take that away from him! He drove the ball over the net, fast and tight, and every serve put a little shiver down his spine. Not just because he got two of them past the Higa pair for service aces, but because the ball went true and that felt fantastic in its own right. Chinen dashed too far forward to meet Davide’s drive, and Bane sent the ball singing past his elbow on the return, and the second game was theirs.
“That Kai is watching us,” Davide said softly, as they grabbed a drink of water before the next game. Bane glanced over and had to stomp on a shudder. Kai was watching all right, cold and calculating under that jaunty cap. What the hell were these people doing playing tennis, anyway? They belonged in some back alley, with knives in their fists!
Rokkaku had the momentum, though, heading into the third game, and Bane didn’t feel too pressured. They took one point with a two-forward dash that startled Chinen into a lob. Another when Bane slid aside at the end of a rally to let Davide smash the ball instead. It looked like Kai was going to return the favor on the next ball, and Bane eyed the set of Chinen’s racquet and called “Davide, it’s coming to you!” His partner didn’t bother replying, just slid smoothly into place.
And then Kai’s racquet flipped around, in his hold, and he drove the ball right into the open side of the court with a bizarre curling swing that left both Bane and Davide staring. Kai had practically hit the ball with his elbow.
“The hell… ?” Davide sputtered.
Cheers went up from Higa, and Kai laughed. “That’s the Viking’s Horn,” he told them, grinning. “Didn’t you listen to the old geezer? We all come from martial arts, not tennis.”
That made a whole lot of sense, actually, Bane thought distantly.
“He can delay a long time, with that shot,” Davide said quietly. “And it’ll be hard to tell where it’s going.”
Bane took a long breath. “It matters less with doubles than it would with singles. We’ll just have to be careful to cover the court.” Another thought nudged at him, and he smiled slowly. “And he’s not the only one who can make a shot unpredictable.”
Davi-kun’s eyes flashed up to meet his, and brightened.
They found their places on the court again, feeling how near or far they were to each other, whether their ranges overlapped. Even with Davide’s reach, they couldn’t cover the whole doubles court perfectly, and Kai had infuriatingly good timing. Now Bane was feeling pressure, but at least it was the kind of pressure that belonged on a tennis court. His opponents had some moves it would be hard to meet. He flexed his hand around the grip of his racquet, and grinned tightly. Bring it on!
They were heading into the fourth game, two games to one, and Bane let Davide go forward. He fell back, watching where Higa’s pair was, on the court, waiting for the ball to come to him. When it did, it was like fate, a perfect flat smash, and he leaped and spun, hitting the ball backhand and holding it on his racquet for a long moment as his head snapped around and he saw the other side of the net like a snapshot. There. On the right. He uncoiled with a snap and the ball slammed down feet away from Kai’s racquet before Bane’s foot touched the ground again. The club yelled gleefully, and he saw Sae give him a thumb’s up from where he still sat on the coach’s bench.
Davide was smiling.
The match was hot and fast, now, rallies burning across the net, broken by Kai’s and Bane’s unpredictable shots. They took their fourth game when Chinen caught one of Bane’s backhands only to lose his racquet to the force of it. Higa took the next game with a relentless series of Viking’s Horns that left Kai panting for breath and dripping with sweat. Both pairs were signaling broadly for poaches, whenever they had the serve, and only following through on half of them.
At five games to four, Bane caught the back of Davide’s neck and leaned their foreheads together. “We’ve got to take the next game. I think they’ve got more endurance than we do, in the end, but we’ve got more strength. We’ve got to blow through them. Can we do it?”
Davi-kun huffed a soft laugh, eyes bright and wild though his face was as still as ever. “Yeah. Let’s do it.” The light in his eyes turned into a glint, and he added, “Maybe we can pull a Momo on them.” Bane threw back his head and laughed, breathless.
It was a crazy kind of risk to take. If they didn’t take this match, they’d have burned through the last of their endurance, and then they’d lose. But it felt right, to try.
Grunts of effort turned into shouts, as they met each ball, and Bane could feel the burn in his muscles as he pushed toward his limit, the electric burn that told a detached corner of his mind that he was going to hurt like blazes tomorrow. But they were breaking through. One ball. Another. Kai lost his racquet again to one, but hung on grimly and sent the ball after that back with the Viking’s Horn. Bane thought he saw a red mark along Kai’s arm, though, where the racquet rested. Kai was calling directions to Chinen, teeth bared and set, shouting to avoid Davide. Chinen returned the next ball to Bane’s court, turning the drive into a rally. Just one more point, but Chinen drove the ball right past Bane’s ankle and Higa had two points. The next ball sang straight toward Bane and he set his feet to leap, watched the Higa pair drop back to the middle of the court, ready to catch the ball wherever he sent it. Bane grinned, crazy and fierce, and yelled, “Davide!”
Davide stretched, reaching with his racquet to intercept the ball, body coiling up, shouting with the effort. The Higa pair fell back further, braced for the wild power of one of Davide’s drives.
And Davi-kun batted the ball over the net in a drop shot.
“Match to Kurobane and Amane!” the referee declared into the silence. “Six games to four!”
Koujirou was laughing as he met Bane and Davide coming off the court, in the bedlam that followed their last point. “And you say I’m a crazy man!” He clasped hands with Bane, and tossed Davide a water bottle.
“It worked,” Bane defended himself, and buried his face in a towel. “Any word about Ojii yet?” he added, a little muffled.
“Nothing yet,” Ryou said, low, hand closing a little tighter around his phone, which he hadn’t let go of since he’d come off the court.
“Do you…” Itsuki wouldn’t look at any of them. “Do you think there’s something wrong?”
“No news is good news,” Koujirou said firmly, reaching out to catch Itsuki’s shoulder. “The hospital is surely running tests; if they’d found anything wrong, someone would have said at once, and Aoi would have let us know.”
Itsuki took a deep breath and blew it out. “Yeah. Okay, Sae.”
“We’re two and two,” Koujirou said softly. “It’s up to you, now. You can do it, Itt-chan.”
Itsuki settled his shoulders, fingers finding their places on the grip of his racquet, and nodded with determination. Koujirou relaxed a little and clapped his shoulder. “Off you go, then!” He watched Itsuki take the court and folded his arms to keep his hands from clenching on each other.
Itsuki had been as shaken by what happened to Ojii as Aoi had been, and then had two matches with nothing to do but worry. As soon as everything stopped having over-bright edges, and Koujirou had admitted to himself that Bane had been right to make him drink the mineral crap, he’d realized Itt-chan was the one most likely to have trouble. But Itt-chan was also a powerful player, strong and flexible. He was the one whose natural movement came closest to Higa’s Shukuchihou. His opponent, Higa’s tall, laughing blond, was fierce and eager, and didn’t seem to have as much of that vicious edge as the rest of them did. At first, watching Itsuki’s regular, huffing breaths as he returned each sharp drive, Koujirou thought it would be all right.
And then Higa’s Hirakoba hit a strange, lingering shot that looked like a normal ball until it landed. The bounce spun off in a jinking curve, and Itsuki grunted as his racquet swished through the air above it.
“What was that?” Ryou muttered behind him, uneasy. Koujirou frowned, and watched Hirakoba closer. Another two balls, and he hit that shot again, and Koujirou cursed softly as Itsuki missed the odd curve of the bounce again.
“He spins it in one direction on his racquet and then flicks it along another axis as the ball leaves the face,” he said, standing from the bench to wave to Itsuki. “That’s why it bounces so unpredictably.”
And now the score was two to one in Higa’s favor, and the only good thing about that was the players changing courts, so he had a chance to talk to Itt-chan.
“Do you know what that shot is?” Itsuki asked, swiping back his hair and frowning with clear frustration.
“It’s a trick with spin,” Koujirou explained, quick and low. “So hit as many sinkers back to him as you can. The less spin you put on the ball, the less violent that bounce will be.”
Itsuki glanced over at the other player, lounging against the retaining wall and ignoring his coach and his vice-captain alike when they tried to talk to him. “I don’t like that ball. It’s too unpredictable.” He stomped a little, on his way to the other court, and Sae winced.
“Itt-chan getting frustrated?” Bane asked, leaning over the back of the bench.
“I’m afraid so.” Koujirou watched Itsuki smashing the ball back at Hirakoba, watched the set to his jaw. “That won’t necessarily be a bad thing…”
Itsuki took the game, and Koujirou was just starting to relax again when Hirakoba served with that wild-bouncing shot.
“Damn,” he said softly.
Eishirou didn’t really breathe freely until he saw the Rokkaku player guess wrong twice in a row about which way Hirakoba’s Habu would bounce. The game still wasn’t a sure thing; an opponent who could hit a ball without spin would make Hirakoba work for his win. But that was just making Hirakoba brighten up, as he bounded across the court.
Beside him, Kai braced his elbows on the fence, less fluidly careless than usual. “That could have been a bad chance, this player matched with Rin,” he murmured.
“Mm.” Eishirou settled his shoulders and crossed his arms, standing straight and calm for the benefit of his club. “This is the match I would have saved the emotional blow for, given my way.”
“I’ll pass the word to watch you, and not the coach, for that.” Kai snorted as he straightened and stretched. “Not that Rin is real good at listening to either of you.” He slipped away to bend over Shiranui and Aragaki where they were sitting under the tree line, speaking softly.
Itsuki missed Habu again, and Eishirou could see the tightness in his body from here, muffling that springy strength of motion all of Rokkaku seemed to share, to one degree or another. He wondered a little what their training regimen was like, to produce that. And then he saw a jersey pattern he recognized, had memorized, on the far side of the court. Not Rokkaku’s red and hexagons. The soft gold and black stripe of Rikkai. Eishirou watched them watching the last match and smiled, small and sharp. He could see Higa’s course, past Rokkaku to this, their real challenge. And if they could pass Rikkai, the champions… well, then he’d have the only psychological weapon he’d need against any other team in this tournament.
“Rin’s hands are going to get numb if he keeps using Habu so much,” Kai noted, sliding back into place beside him. “Think he’ll be okay to go against Rikkai?”
“Overnight should be long enough to recover.” Eishirou glanced down at Kai. “What about your arm?”
Kai’s mouth twisted. “You noticed, huh?” His right hand slid down his left forearm. “It’s going to hurt if I have to play another power-monster like those two, but I’ll be fine.” He hesitated and looked down. “I’m sorry, Kite.”
Eishirou snorted before he could stop himself. “Don’t be an idiot, Kai. If I made you eat gouya for that loss, I’d have to split it with you.”
Kai watched Itsuki return a ferocious low shot with another non-spinning ball and a scowl. “You held back a little so you could meet Rikkai at full strength, because you trusted me to win the next match.”
Eishirou was quiet for a moment, because he couldn’t dispute that. Finally, though, he rested a hand on Kai’s shoulder, briefly, and murmured, “We win or lose as a team. And Higa will win this round. That’s what all my strategy is for.”
Kai smiled again, at that, and looked up at him, sidelong, under the brim of his cap. “Yeah. That’s our captain.”
Eishirou nodded, accepting the responsibility, and stood under the eyes of his club with all the quiet confidence he could muster as the score was called five to three in Higa’s favor.
Whatever it took for his team, his club, his home to win, he’d do it.
Koujirou chewed on his lip to keep from swearing as the last game drew to a close. Itsuki was putting up a good fight, but he was just too rattled to catch that Habu shot by anything but chance. And chance wasn’t going to be enough. “Itt-chan…”
He whipped around on the bench to see Bane, Davide, and Shudou all hovering over Ryou’s phone. Bane looked up, nearly laughing. “Sae, it’s from Aoi, Ojii’s okay!”
“Game and match, won by Higa, six games to three!” the referee called. “The winners of this round are Higa!”
Koujirou barely heard, and he couldn’t manage to care. “All right!” He sprang off the bench and grabbed Itsuki’s arm as he trudged off the court. “Itt-chan, Ojii’s all right! It’s okay!”
After a blank moment, relief brightened in Itsuki’s face. “He’s okay? They’re sure?”
Ryou waved his phone like a flag of triumph. “Aoi says they did scans for broken bones and everything, and he’s fine!”
By now the club members on the other side of the fence had heard and were passing the word, pounding shoulders and laughing with relief. “Come on,” Koujirou ordered, grabbing his bag up from the foot of the fence and slinging it over his shoulder. “We’ll go meet them at the hospital and take Ojii home.”
“Hey! Rokkaku!” the referee called after them as they jostled toward the gate. “It’s time to line up!”
Koujirou stopped dead, reminded all over again, in a tingling rush of rage, exactly why they had all been so tense and afraid. He looked over his shoulder, past his teammates, and said coldly. “No. We’re not shaking hands with the likes of them.”
The referee opened and closed his mouth a few times, clearly not knowing what to do with this. Catcalls picked up among the Higa club, calls of “Sore losers!” and “Kantou jerks!” Koujirou’s vision darkened for a flash, and he threw down his bag, stalked past his team, and yelled so loudly it tore at his throat and echoed off the retaining wall.
“Rokkaku doesn’t shake hands with cowards!“
The Higa team stiffened, standing at the net, and the big one, Tanishi, stepped forward with a snarl. Koujirou slashed his hand through the air as if to knock him aside. “What the hell are you thinking?” he raged, unable to stop, now he’d started. “Deliberately injuring the other coach? Striking an old man? I don’t give a damn what you’ve won, anyone who does that is nothing but a coward! If you thought anyone would respect you after you won because of that, you’d better figure out differently, now!” He glared at them, at Higa’s impassive captain, panting for breath for a long, silent moment, before he spun on his heel and caught up his bag again. “Let’s go,” he ordered flatly, and his team followed him out the gate without another word. The rest of the club closed in around them, and Koujirou saw a few sharp nods, heard a few mutters of support.
He was just glad the kids hadn’t come to the first day of Nationals, and seen all this.
The sight of Rikkai jerseys by the walkway pulled him up short, though. “Bane,” he said, low, “take everyone on. I’ll catch up in just a few.”
Bane glanced over and nodded. “Sure thing. Okay, people,” he raised his voice, “Ojii’s probably dying for some tea by now, so let’s go rescue him, right?” A gust of laughter ran through the club, and he chivvied everyone down the broad walk beside the courts.
Koujirou stopped by Yukimura, Sanada, and Yanagi, where they’d been watching the last match.
“They attacked your coach?” Sanada asked, even his iron calm sounding a little shaken.
“Hit a ball straight at him, got him right in the face, and knocked him unconscious,” Koujirou confirmed, clipped. “It was obviously a psychological tactic to rattle us. And it worked.” He ground out the last words, and had to take a moment to get a grip on himself before he could speak calmly again. “Yukimura. The whole tournament knows, by now, what you mean to your team. And you’re usually bench coach. Be careful.”
Yukimura looked at him for a long, quiet moment before he smiled, and held out his hand. “You’re a good man, Saeki. Don’t worry about us; we’ll be fine.” His grip was as strong as it had ever been, and Koujirou found himself glad to feel it. Yukimura had always been both completely honorable and completely ruthless. If he was fully recovered…
Koujirou was smiling, not very nicely, as he trotted to catch up with his club. Higa would be taken care of.