Finals: Seigaku vs. Rikkai
The Ariake Coliseum filled slowly, the last day of Nationals, magazine writers and photographers and aficionados arriving early to stake out good seats, families and friends filtering in more slowly. Scouts lingered by the doors, watching for opportunities to stroll beside selected players as they arrived, business cards poised. The teams who had played in the tournament arrived in small knots, walking close together, a few laughing among themselves, a few still tight-lipped and angry from their own losses, but all of them there to bear witness to the final match.
There to see who would take the tournament flag home this year.
Fuji Yuuta leaned forward as the Singles Three match was announced and his brother stepped onto the court. He’d listened to Mizuki-san’s lecture, on the train over, about the importance of seeing different play styles and the necessity of always keeping his own game open to growth, but this was the match he was really here to see. From Rikkai’s side of the net, Yanagi stepped out, and Mizuki-san made a thoughtful noise, beside him.
“This could be interesting.”
Yuuta glanced over at him and thought for a moment. “Because of what Yanagisawa-senpai saw in the Semi-finals match?” While he’d been hauled off with Mizuki-san to watch Rikkai mop up Hyoutei, with the sole exception of Atobe himself, and that had been a great match, but he still wished he’d been able to see Aniki’s, instead.
Mizuki-san nodded, and cast a brief, approving look at Yanagisawa, where he was leaning on the back of Yuuta’s seat. “I wasn’t sure until I saw it myself, but I think you were right. That wasn’t just an intensification of his existing style; that must have been a genuine breakthrough. Fuji Shuusuke has never been hungry to win, before, but look at him now.”
Yuuta was already looking, and the change was a little amazing. He’d never seen his brother stand like he was now, as he and Yanagi shook hands, weight already on his toes, ready to move and leaning into the coming match.
“At one point, I thought that meant he wouldn’t be a true challenge,” Mizuki-san added in a tone that might have sounded neutral to an unsuspecting listener.
Given his brother, Yuuta hadn’t been unsuspecting since he’d been about seven years old, so instead of mentioning that it seemed like Aniki hadn’t been a real challenge to the top-level National players, he said, “Will the change throw off Yanagi, do you think?”
Mizuki-san bestowed an approving nod on him, this time, and Yuuta stomped hard on the urge to blush. “At the start, almost certainly. It gives your brother an advantage at the beginning of the match. We shall see whether Fuji Shuusuke can push that advantage far enough to win.” Mizuki-san leaned forward, eyes narrowing as Yanagi fell back to serve, and Yuuta let his own attention snap back to the match.
Once play started, he couldn’t look away.
A lot of people talked about how this player or that was on fire, when they had a good game, but Yuuta had never before seen a player give truth to the words the way his brother was right now. Aniki moved over the court like a flame flickering, now here, now there, always in the right place, always with a move that shone out clear and perfect. It seemed like the whole world was cheering Aniki on, from the gust of wind that carried his ball just beyond Yanagi’s racquet to the angle of sunlight that glanced off his racquet and hid the tilt of it at just the right moment.
And Yanagi was good, obviously, he was playing a National finals match. His game tightened up with every point, closing around Aniki’s like some kind of precision steel instrument. As they started into the fourth game, Yanagi started calling out predictions, more of them and more accurate ones as the points piled up. But Aniki didn’t stop, didn’t flag, never once drew back with that infuriating smile of his that said it was already decided. He drove forward and forward again, and didn’t stop, and by the last game Yuuta was on his feet, yelling with pure glee, because maybe, just maybe, if Aniki could play like this now, maybe Yuuta could play against that fire someday, himself.
In the end, Yanagi never did make up the first games, and Aniki won 6-4. Yuuta collapsed back into his seat, when the match was called, grinning like a loon and not caring at all.
“Your brother really annoys me, sometimes.”
Yuuta blinked and looked around at Mizuki-san, and then he edged back in his seat just a little. Mizuki-san was sitting straight and still, dangerously still, eyes locked on the court. “Mizuki-san?”
Instead of an explosion of cold temper, though, Mizuki-san settled slowly, slowly back in his seat, crossed his legs, and rested folded hands on his knee. Yuuta wasn’t sure that was actually better. Mizuki-san looked like he was thinking, full speed, and someone always regretted that. “Yuuta-kun.”
Yanagisawa-senpai gave him a ‘better you than me’ look, and Yuuta scowled at him before answering, still a bit leery. “Yes?”
“If you injure yourself in an unofficial match against Fuji Shuusuke before you return to me, I shall be exceedingly displeased.”
Pure reflex prompted an immediate, “I won’t!” And then Yuuta had to pause and blink. Unofficial match?
“Of course he’ll want to play, now,” Mizuki-san said, impatient as always with anyone who didn’t keep up. “He’ll want to play anyone who’s passionate about the game. He’ll be looking for the edges of his own ability, hoping to push further.” He held up an admonitory finger. “No more than one full match every other month, is that clear? Anything more will court injury, and I won’t be having that. Entertain yourselves, but understand that I will have a plan for your development when you join the Saint Christopher high school team.”
This time, the look Yuuta exchanged with Yanagisawa was rueful and amused. The broad, sweeping plan that rolled right over any objections was Mizuki-san all over. But Yuuta also couldn’t deny the little glow of pleasure that Mizuki-san had watched this match and still thought Yuuta might someday stand a chance of winning against Aniki. “Yes, Mizuki-san.”
Mizuki-san nodded firmly and sat back, crossing his arms and finally relaxing from that sharp edge of planning and calculation. Yuuta leaned his elbows on the chair back in front of him, so he could rest his chin in his hands and hide his grin.
The next couple years were going to be fun.
When the Doubles Two pairs were announced, Akaya sat up like he’d been jabbed with a pin. “No fair!” The entire team started laughing, and he slumped back down sulkily. “Why does Momoshiro get to play in the finals?” he muttered. And he didn’t!
“He’s just like a spoiled kitten sometimes, isn’t he?” Niou-senpai asked, sparing Akaya an amused glance. Most of his attention was obviously on the coming match, though. “They’re saving the Golden Pair for Doubles One, and they wanted an analytical player to throw at me, I’m guessing.”
“And an endurance player to place against me, one presumes.” Yagyuu-senpai adjusted his glasses with a sniff of disdain.
“Don’t disregard the threat Kaidou may be by now,” Yanagi-senpai scolded mildly. “All of Seigaku have been advancing quite rapidly, this year.”
“We’ll be fine.” Niou-senpai’s voice had the kind of lilt it got when he was looking forward to destroying someone, and Akaya watched Yagyuu-senpai relax and smile faintly. Well, at least the match should be entertaining for someone. He sighed and jammed his chin in his hands as his senpai walked out to greet Momoshiro and Kaidou.
Despite Yanagi-senpai’s caution, he couldn’t help but feel this was a sacrifice match, for Seigaku. Two second-years, up against Niou-senpai and Yagyuu-senpai? No matter how fast Momoshiro was growing into his intuition, or how crazy Kaidou’s endurance levels were by now, he doubted they had a real chance of winning Doubles Two. He winced at how quickly Yagyuu-senpai blew through Momoshiro’s defense, as the match started up. Case in point. He knew well just how much of a disadvantage second-years could be at, just because of how much growth third-years usually had on them. He’d been fighting that disadvantage steadily, as he tried to catch up with Sanada-san.
What he could see this being, though, was a kind of teaching match. Like his match with Kite had been. Like Sanada-san’s match with Atobe had been. Yukimura-buchou had made full use of the Nationals matches to make sure his players progressed; Akaya wasn’t really surprised that other captains might do the same.
He thought, he thought, now he’d had a night to consider it, that he might be able to do that, too. When he considered who was likely to be a regular two weeks from now, when he thought about the sharp edges of temper that Furuya couldn’t seem to tame without his partner Chiba to do it for him, about Tsunoda’s detachment, about Ueda’s tendency to overconfidence… yes, he could see himself throwing any or all of them in the way of a match with any opponent he thought might get through to them. Come to think of it, Kaidou might actually be a good lesson for Ueda. Or Echizen, if he thought the point really needed to be hammered home.
A roar from the crowd startled him out of his thoughts, and he checked the score quickly, wincing a little when he saw that Niou-senpai and Yagyuu-senpai were already three games ahead. That had to hurt. Opposing team or not, he couldn’t help sympathizing. He hoped what Momoshiro and Kaidou got out of this match was worth it to them.
When he looked back down, Yanagi-senpai and Sanada-san were both watching him. “What?” he asked, warily. Sanada-san smiled faintly, and Yanagi-senpai laughed outright, reaching out to ruffle his hair gently.
“You just can’t help thinking ahead, hm?”
Akaya flushed hot, remembering Yanagi-senpai’s admonition to focus on the games they had in front of them at Nationals. “I’m not playing in this round,” he defended himself. “I can think about it now, can’t I?”
“You can,” Sanada-san agreed, more quietly than usual. “Make sure you take what you can from these matches, though. Both what you can use later, and what you can use now.”
Akaya ducked his head, warmed that his senpai were still looking out for him, even with everyone knowing they were just about to leave. “Yes, Sanada-fukubuchou.”
He took a breath for calm, and settled himself to watch.
He couldn’t help frowning, though, watching Kaidou double down on receiving Yagyuu-senpai’s drives, obviously working to return them. Which was an extremely Kaidou sort of play, but Akaya thought it was a short-sighted choice. This was a Finals match; if ever there was a time for strategy, wasn’t it now? He eyed Momoshiro, wondering a little about the way he was leaving Kaidou to it to focus on Niou-senpai. It wasn’t unlike the way they’d played in Regionals against Marui-senpai and Jackal-senpai, but they’d lost that match 6-1. Given the things he’d heard from the scouts and (more importantly) from Yanagi-senpai about Seigaku’s advances, shouldn’t they be showing some of it now?
What, Akaya mused, would he do about Momoshiro and Kaidou, supposing they were some of the players about to become his?
Momoshiro… he wasn’t actually sure what he’d do about Momoshiro. He seemed so straightforward, like just another easy-going power player, but Akaya had seen Momoshiro turn his hand to more than just power-heavy shots. Momoshiro was flexible, could play doubles almost as well as he played singles. According to word from the scouts, he could back up a variety of very different kinds of partners, and he was down on the court right now facing off against Niou-senpai’s scary levels of flexibility and precision without flinching. He was volleying topspin shots out of the air just as well as he caught Niou-senpai’s heavy drives—not every time, but often enough to keep Niou-senpai’s attention.
If Akaya thought about Momoshiro as a kind of proto-Niou-senpai, well the first thing he had to do was suppress a cold shudder, but after that he kind of had to wonder if the best thing to do wouldn’t be to let Momoshiro do as he pleased. He’d never seen Yukimura-buchou trying to rein Niou-senpai in, particularly, or direct him to do anything except… Akaya slowly put the end of that thought together: except to amuse himself. That was how Yukimura-buchou directed Niou-senpai. By assuring him that he’d find something entertaining in the games Yukimura-buchou sent him into. Akaya took a slow breath, eyes fixed on Momoshiro as he slipped easily out of his current partner’s way and fell back to be in the right place to catch the slice Niou-senpai returned Kaidou’s ball with, just as it started to curve up. It was smoothly done, with no hesitation. Almost the way Akaya was used to people in no-self moving, but Momoshiro obviously wasn’t using that technique.
If Akaya had to guess, not that he was Yanagi-senpai, but if he had to guess himself, then he’d guess that Momoshiro was holding the whole game in his head right now, to see what was coming next. It might only be the fact that he was facing off against Niou-senpai himself that was holding the Seigaku’s pair’s score down.
Akaya put a mental check-mark by the thought that he was going to need to keep an eye out for more analytical talent to train up in his team, for next year. If he was right about how to manage that type, then Momoshiro himself should provide some good bait.
Now, Kaidou was easier. The thing to do with him would be to take advantage of his focus, Akaya thought, since that was one of Kaidou’s strengths. Encourage him to train his strength and technique further up. Probably find him a couple good targets to chase, since Kaidou was the driven type.
A good target…
Akaya straightened abruptly, eyes wide, staring out at the court. A good target like, say, Yagyuu Hiroshi? As he thought it, he saw Kaidou step into the next return, stance sliding wider into one Akaya knew from watching Yaguu-senpai train. It was the stance for a Laser Beam. Akaya’s breath caught in anticipation, and he leaned forward; would Kaidou be able to do it? The ball Kaidou hit streaked across the net at close to full speed, only to curve just as Yagyuu-senpai stepped to catch it, and Akaya whistled softly. Kaidou might not be able to match the pure force of Yagyuu-senpai’s Laser Beam, but he’d come up with his own version. "In one match?"
"Kaidou-kun has been watching Yagyuu for a while, now," Yanagi-senpai said calmly, from beside him. "I’m impressed that he found his own variation, though."
Akaya checked the score: 5-2. "I don’t think he found it soon enough to make a difference to this match."
"Not a winning difference, no, but look at Yaguu."
Akaya looked, and had a sudden urge to hide behind Yanagi-senpai. Yagyuu-senpai was watching Kaidou with a gracious little smile, the kind that everyone in Rikkai knew meant trouble. And Niou-senpai was lit up and grinning at his partner, which really meant trouble. "Um."
Yanagi-senpai chuckled. "Just watch."
So Akaya watched as Yagyuu-senpai proceeded to pound Kaidou with one Laser Beam after another, while Niou-senpai stayed up at the net, eyes locked with Momoshiro. Ready to keep him from interfering, Akaya guessed.
Not that he was sure Momoshiro would have, because Kaidou actually seemed to be enjoying himself in a weird way. He wasn’t backing down, at any rate, even when the racquet got blown out of his hands. And he actually managed two extended rallies with Yagyuu-senpai before game-point was slammed past him, ending the match 6-2.
All right, so a target to chase was exactly the way to handle a player like Kaidou. And a challenge was apparently the way to handle one like Yagyuu-senpai. Noted.
Niou-senpai was laughing under his breath as they came off the court, and Akaya honestly wasn’t sure whether he should hope to find someone else like Niou-senpai, who could match Momoshiro on what seemed increasingly to be his own ground, or whether he should pray to be spared that kind of trouble. He did notice that Yukimura-buchou seemed wryly amused by it all, and sighed a little, wondering if he’d ever have that kind of easy confidence.
Honestly, he thought he had a better chance at following in Sanada-san’s steps, so he settled in to pay close attention to the next match.
Given Tezuka’s choices this year, Genichirou wasn’t entirely surprised when Singles Two was announced. He still wasn’t sure if it was a gamble on Yuikimura’s recovery time—and if anyone could gauge that, this year, it would be Tezuka—or simply trying to give his obstreperous little genius the best match possible to push him forward, but it seemed Echizen would be Yukimura’s to deal with while Genichirou got Tezuka.
He didn’t object.
“Sanada,” Yukimura said, as he started to step out, delicate warning in his tone.
Genichirou sighed and had to push down the momentary urge to sulk as if he were Akaya. “I’m aware.”
After his Semi-finals match, he was very aware that he needed to pay more attention to where his opponents were right now. But a tiny part of him still felt it was unfair. Tezuka was a powerful opponent, and games against him were never sure, but he’d also always been one of the people Genichirou could relax against. For all his polished technique, Tezuka was a straightforward player. He didn’t hide his capabilities or use sneak-attacks or sudden changes of pace. He simply gave his all to every game and played. And while that did generally leave a trail of crushed opponents behind, there was neither malice nor arrogance, nor much strategy in it.
But thinking he could relax a bit against anyone was exactly the approach that had resulted in a loss against Atobe Keigo, which still smarted. Genichirou was not going to relax against Tezuka.
Yukimura settled back. “Good.”
Genichirou raked a measuring look over Tezuka, when they met at the net to shake hands. Like Yukimura, Tezuka had stayed out of most of the Nationals games. “Are you up for this?” he asked, bluntly.
Tezuka’s gaze was steady and serious. “I am.”
Genichirou nodded, satisfied, and turned toward his half of the court. If Tezuka were still injured, he would have said ‘of course’.
The first game was still a testing one, both of them watchful, both of them scattering pin-point slices and bruising drives through their rallies to see the response. Tezuka certainly seemed to be at full strength, catching even Fire without a flinch.
Diving into the second game without pausing, he did start to feel the tug of Tezuka’s growing control of the ball, and that made him smile. The Zone had always been a worthy challenge, and he let himself sink into the first stages of no-self, let his distractions ravel away to focus on the now. His awareness of the ball’s spin sharpened, and he breathed deep and let his body answer. Even the Forest couldn’t completely cancel Tezuka’s control of the spin, not during Tezuka’s service game, but the more he pushed against that control, the deeper his awareness of Tezuka’s current game ran. And the deeper his awareness ran, the more something caught at his attention.
This was the level of no-self that neither Echizen nor Akaya had fully grasped, yet, the state that balanced full awareness of the now with strategic awareness of the past and future. Genichirou rode that edge, balanced the now with the past, and let both speak to him. Out of that balance, he abandoned the Forest and drove Fire against the Zone, again and again, as if to test the sound of a bell by striking it.
By the fourth game, he was sure. Tezuka could catch Fire, yes. He was playing at full strength, yes. But his returns were not as precise as Genichirou’s experience of Tezuka led him to expect. Certainty settled into Genichirou’s mind.
Tezuka was rusty, at full strength.
Matching certainty shivered down his nerves, calling him toward a new stance. Now, while Tezuka’s control of his own strength was still unsteady, was the time to attack. Now, he had a window of opportunity. Now was the time to match his power against Tezuka’s blunted control and race against how quickly Tezuka might sharpen again.
Now was the time for Wind and Fire.
Tezuka’s eyes narrowed at him, across the net, and Genichirou realized he was smiling, wide and hungry. This would be the kind of game Genichirou loved best.
With another breath, Genichirou sank himself fully into no-self, let the balance tilt toward now, and called up all the strength and focus he’d trained into himself. He cut one stroke after another at Tezuka, building on the slight uncertainty of each return to drive the ball out of his reach. Again, and again, he sliced the Wind against the Zone and drove Fire through the cracks to force the ball out of Tezuka’s control. He could feel Tezuka slowly pulling those cracks closed again, felt the pace of it increasing like a hill he was running up; this would be close. He couldn’t let that knowledge slow him, though, so he let the points fade from his awareness, focused on nothing but driving the ball beyond Tezuka’s reach; the points would only matter again at the end, when he found out which of them had won this race.
The glee of pushing himself to the limit and always finding his opponent there, pushing back, sang through him. Genichirou dashed for the ball again and again to set himself perfectly behind it, willing to spend his strength exactly this freely for the chance he’d seen. Again Wind, and again, cutting against the steadily tightening threads of Tezuka’s Zone—steady but just as ferocious as Fire burned, that control. If he’d had breath to spare, Genichirou would have laughed.
When the end came, it was a shock, and Genichirou had to take a moment to understand why Tezuka wasn’t serving. When he shook off the absolute focus he’d been locked in and looked around, he was a bit dazed to realize that they’d just finished the tenth game, that the sound he’d just heard was the referee calling the final score.
Six games to four, in Genichirou’s favor.
It felt, after the fierce focus and rush of the last few games, like the score should have been tighter. When they met at the net, both of them panting for breath, he observed, “The next match will be closer.”
“Most likely. I’ll look forward to it.” Tezuka actually smiled, faintly. “Especially after your assistance, this match.”
Genichirou snorted. He’d known that pushing so hard would help Tezuka regain his full control that much faster, but that was the nature of the game, at their level, even if it had taken Yukimura’s ruthlessness and Atobe’s advances to remind him of the fact. Every match was an opportunity to grow. “I’ll look forward to it as well,” he returned.
When he got back to his team’s bench, Yukimura had his arms folded, smile crooked with a touch of exasperation. "You never change."
"I play to my strengths." Genichirou did not add Besides, it’s Tezuka, but he was fairly sure Yukimura heard it from the way he rolled his eyes.
“So?” Yukimura asked, more seriously. “What do you think?”
Genichirou’s smile bared his teeth. “One more all-out match against someone on our level, and he’ll be back in full condition.”
“Given Fuji’s leap in performance, I don’t expect that will be hard to find,” Renji mused as he tossed a water bottle at Genichirou. “Tezuka will probably be back up to speed by the Fall.”
“Excellent,” Yukimura murmured, eyes gleaming.
“Yeah, yeah, stop talking about Tezuka.” Marui popped a bubble, swinging his racquet up to his shoulder. “It’s time to be amazed by my genius, thanks.”
Yukimura chuckled and waved a hand at the court. “Should we? Show us, then.”
Genichirou took a long swallow and shook his head. He approved of confidence, but sometimes Marui got himself into trouble that way.
“Ooo, ouch,” Hitouji-senpai murmured, apparently at nothing. Konjiki-senpai was nodding, which didn’t necessarily mean anything given how much both of them liked to mess with people, but Shiraishi-buchou also made a thoughtful little humming sound. Hikaru sighed and resigned himself to asking.
“What ouch? Nobody did anything in particular just now.”
Hitouji-senpai nodded wisely. “Exactly.”
Hikaru tapped his foot and glared. “So?”
Both Hitouji-senpai and Konjiki-senpai glanced at Shiraishi-buchou, who sighed in turn and reached over to rumple Hikaru’s hair. “Strategy, Zaizen-kun. How has the flow of the match been going, so far?”
Hikaru really hated being reminded that he was the baby of the team, the one with the least hands-on experience, but his sense of fairness pointed out that the only way to stop being the baby was to learn more. So he took a breath for calm in the face of annoying senpai and considered the match thus far. “It’s been close.” He flicked his fingers at the score-board, which showed four games all. “There have been a lot of long rallies, though.” More slowly, he added, “More than I expected, I guess. It’s Jackal Kuwahara who’s the endurance player, isn’t it? But most of the rallies have been with Marui.”
Shiraishi-buchou nodded approvingly. “Good. And what about the formations each pair is using?”
Hikaru frowned out at the court, because he’d noticed that part. “They’re really different. Marui and Kuwahara have a pretty classic formation with their endurance player to the back and their more agile player at the net. But Ooishi and Kikumaru have stayed a lot closer together, almost the whole match.” He wrestled with himself for a moment before admitting, low, “I thought it was just sloppy of them.”
“It’s a risky strategy,” Hitouji-senpai allowed. “They’re keeping both players up near the net to put pressure on the opponent with the least endurance.”
“So they’re hoping to divide and conquer,” Hikaru concluded, satisfied by the nods he got back. “They want to wear down Marui. But if he’s flagging, can’t he just—” he broke off, eyes widening as it finally clicked. All three of his senpai grinned at him.
“By my calculations, this game was the one where Marui should have called Kuwahara to come forward and support him.” Hitouji-senpai leaned forward, stacking his hands on the back of the seat in front of him to rest his chin on, watching as the next game started. “Marui is serving this game, and they’re going to lose it.”
Hikaru sat back, crossing his arms. “Isn’t that a dangerous strategy, though? Counting on your opponent to make a mistake?”
“Good boy, that’s how you’ll need to think as captain.” Shiraishi-buchou kindly didn’t tease him for how he flushed at the compliment. “It would be dangerous if it were a strategy they set in stone beforehand, and didn’t have a backup for or a signal to change. But one of the greatest strengths of the Golden Pair is their teamwork, their ability to think together.”
“So, their flexibility,” Hikaru said, slowly.
“Exactly. Of course, Marui and Kuwahara are a very tight pair also. The other piece of this is that Marui is the game-maker for his pair.”
Hikaru sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh. So they’ve been adjusting play as they go to wear down the one who makes the strategic decisions.” And tired people made more mistakes. That was… actually a really elegant strategy, right there.
He watched the last games of the match with new attention, starting to see the seamless flow of communication that started Kikumaru moving to the side to draw Marui’s attention even as Ooishi dashed for the net to volley Kuwahara’s drive out of the air. Even worn down, he could also see that the Rikkai pair was probably the technically stronger one. The last game was a fierce battle between the Golden Pair’s edge in team play and the Rikkai pair’s more powerful shots, and it went to deuce twelve times before Marui faltered for one fatal second too long in reversing his momentum to catch Kikumaru’s last drop shot.
“There was still a lot of luck involved in how that worked out,” he said, under the wave of cheers as both pairs went to the net.
“There always is, unless one player or the other is overwhelmingly better.” Shiraishi-buchou cocked his head, though, as if knowing Hikaru had more to say.
Hikaru laced his hands together, looking down at them instead of at his captain. “How… how do you know what strategy to go with, then?”
“Some of it is experience,” Shiraishi-buchou answered quietly, not making anything of the fact that this was the first time Hikaru had asked one of his senpai for advice, like this, and Hikaru’s pride was grateful for that. “The more games you see, the more games you play, the more of a sense you have for what works when. But some of it is always a gamble. You pick your best players, and you make your best guess, and you throw the dice.” He ruffled Hikaru’s hair. “Don’t worry. The Coach will help, and I wouldn’t be throwing you into this if I didn’t think you’d find your way all right.”
“That was very encouraging, except for the part about the Coach,” Hikaru observed dryly, and was careful to hide his satisfaction when Shiraishi-buchou burst out laughing.
“Singles One! Yukimura versus Echizen!”
He’d been trying not to worry so much about losing, trying to think more broadly, really he had, but the nagging of the thought was old enough and the fresh edge on it was new enough that Ryouma still twitched a little with reflex nerves when the referee called the start of the match. He took a breath and told himself (again) to stop worrying and just play. Just like always.
He looked up at Tezuka-buchou, and a fresh wave of twitchiness hit him at the reminder that his captain had just lost, himself. Lost but not really minded, not the way Ryouma was used to minding it, and could Ryouma really do that too, here and now when the result of Nationals rested on his game…? Tezuka-san’s hand on his shoulder shook him out of the spinning thoughts, and he tried to pay attention.
“One of your greatest strengths has always been that you take what you can use, of your opponent’s game, and make it your own,” Tezuka-buchou said quietly. “Don’t forget that.”
Ryouma glanced over at where Yukimura was stepping out onto the court, looking so calm that Ryouma couldn’t help a brief glower. When he looked back up, though, Tezuka-buchou was still watching him, level and serious, and he sighed. “You think I can learn something from him?”
“I expect you to learn from anyone you play.” Tezuka-buchou’s voice was stern, but there was, maybe, a tiny glint of something lighter in his eyes. “But yes, Yukimura’s game should show you some useful things.”
Ryouma took another breath to re-settle himself and get his head back approximately where it should be, and nodded. “Okay.”
Tezuka-buchou nodded back, firm and steady, and squeezed his shoulder once before letting go. “Have a good game, then.”
As he headed to meet Yukimura at the net, Ryouma heard Ryuuzaki-sensei remark, behind him, “Look at that, you’re actually saying these things out loud, now and then. And it only took me three years to get you to start!” Tezuka-san did not, of course, say anything in response, and Ryouma couldn’t help a tiny snicker. Getting a good look at Yukimura, when they shook hands, stifled any urge to laugh, though. The sharpness of his eyes brought Ryouma up onto his toes, alert and ready, every instinct for the game saying this was a serious opponent.
Yukimura smiled, cool and calm for all that barely-covered ferocity, shaking hands once, firmly. “I’ve been hoping we might meet here, ever since Akaya and Sanada spoke of their games with you.”
That was a challenge, and a raw one. Ryouma had won against Kirihara but lost against Sanada. Which way did he think this match against Sanada’s captain would go? that cool smile asked. Ryouma bridled at the silent question and lifted his chin and traded back the smirk he’d given so many opponents who thought they knew what he could do. Nerves and doubts could go screw themselves. He knew what to do with this kind of challenge. “Let’s play, then.”
They both fell back into their own courts, Yukimura stepping to his baseline to serve. Ryouma settled into his stance, bouncing on his toes, keeping all his muscles warm and ready to move in an instant.
And suddenly, everything changed.
It was like being plunged underwater, like the air itself was suddenly thicker, dragging against him, like he couldn’t breathe because to breathe might suddenly be dangerous. For a shocked moment, he froze.
And heard the sharp thop of the ball striking behind him.
Ryouma spun on his heel to stare at it. He hadn’t seen it coming. Hadn’t felt it coming. Hadn’t felt the weight of a drive like that burning over the court, the way he normally would have. That overwhelming pressure had drowned it out.
Okay. Now he got it.
When they’d settled on this match order, and he’d asked his team about Yukimura’s play style, he hadn’t felt the discussion was particularly useful.
“Yukimura’s style is very like Tezuka’s, in some ways,” Inui lectured. “He has considerable power available, but his primary focus is technique. He’s an all-around payer, defense isn’t his speciality, but he is exceptionally good at breaking through the techniques of other players and reclaiming control of the ball. You’ll need to watch for that.”
“Inui!” Kikumaru protested. “You aren’t telling him the good stuff!
Inui looked like he’d just bitten a lemon, or, well, like a normal person who had just bitten a lemon would look. “What good stuff?” Ryouma asked, warily.
Kikumaru grinned at him and waggled his fingers. “Yukimura hypnotizes people with his tennis,” he proclaimed in a spooky voice. “Opponents can’t even move, once he has them in his clutches!
“He does not hypnotize people.” Inui sounded downright exasperated. “It’s simple intimidation, the subliminal cues generated by Yukimura’s confidence.”
Ryouma backed hastily out of the developing argument, wondering how he was going to get his questions answered now. Beside him, Kawamura pulled off his jersey and smiled down at him sympathetically. “Do you know what ki is, Echizen?”
Ryouma frowned. How mystical was this explanation going to get? “Kind of. It’s like your focus, right?”
“Your focus, or your energy, or sometimes your life-force,” Kawamura agreed. “There are a lot of different ways of describing ki, depending on how a school approaches it. I like to think of it as your strength of spirit.”
“So, kind of like your fighting spirit?” Ryouma essayed, trying to bring this back to things that made sense. Even if it did make Kawamura look kind of dotingly entertained by him.
“That works, too. So think about it like this: Yukimura’s fighting spirit is so strong that it can stun people. Some players never really recover from it, at least not over the course of their match with him.”
Ryouma had been pretty skeptical, because he hadn’t seen how that could possibly work. But now he got it. The weight of Yukimura’s ki, spirit, confidence, whatever, the weight of his game actually was kind of stunning. But it wasn’t anything Ryouma couldn’t handle. He re-settled himself, as Yukimura bounced his next ball, and focused, focused tight on Yukimura’s movements, and when Yukimura threw the ball up and that surge of heaviness washed over him again, he drove his attention through it, stayed tight on the ball, and dashed to return it. One ball, another, and he felt like he was getting the hang of this. It was just a matter of tightening up his own focus to cut through that heaviness.
When the serve switched to him, he rolled his shoulders, fingers working around the ball, and smirked across the net. He’d played two of Yukimura’s team already, so he didn’t think a twist serve would really surprise him, but a lot of people who should have known better still had trouble with Ryouma’s variation. It was worth a try.
He cast the ball up and leaped, reveling in the familiar sense of lightness, of feeling the racquet and ball like they were extensions of him, and sliced the ball across the net with vicious topspin.
Sure enough, Yukimura stepped smoothly out of the way, so smoothly it didn’t even seem fast, and drove the ball back. Ryouma could feel, in the ball against his strings, that his ferocious spin had been killed, and that plucked at his nerves again, that Yukimura had done it so easily. There was something else nudging at his intuition for the game, also, but he couldn’t make that come clear yet.
No matter. He had plenty of other techniques to try, while the back of his head figured things out.
He used his service game to push, trying to find the edges of Yukimura’s technique. It felt frustratingly like his first game with Tezuka-san—not quite that bad, obviously his training had paid off some, but close enough to that sense of a bottomless pool whose edges he couldn’t reach that he had to grit his teeth against a fresh spike of fear.
He kept his service game, barely, with a Drive A when Yukimura got just close enough to the net. And the way Yukimura moved when he ducked out of its path tugged at his attention again. There was something about Yukimura’s movements. Ryouma reached for that clear, deep perception that everyone called no-self, but his thoughts were churning and he couldn’t settle far enough into it to find that perfect knowing he’d felt before.
It was the middle of the third game before he understood.
When Yukimura dashed forward to volley down a Drive B, he was just a little late. He caught it on the first bounce, but he had to reach for it. He returned the ball, but softer than Ryouma was expecting, and he landed hard. Almost hard enough to fall. Ryouma’s own return went awry when he froze, shocked all over again, because Yukimura stayed in a crouch for just one breath too long, far too still, still as though…
As though he were hurt.
When he straightened up, he looked fine, as annoyingly calm as he’d been this whole match. But Ryouma’s intuition was screaming that this was it, this was what had made Yukimura’s movements just a little bit strange. He was protecting an injury. Or maybe playing through the pain of one.
The nagging fear that Ryouma had spent a lot of this tournament repeatedly kicking into the back of his mind suddenly had company, because he’d never had someone try to play him while injured before. What did you do? What should he do? Indecision dragged at his speed, and he lost the next rally to a drop shot, of all ridiculous things. Alarm and frustration chased themselves around and around, and Ryouma scowled. He had to pull it together.
It was hard, though. His perception, inside a game, was one of his greatest advantages, and now it was showing him all the tiny hitches in Yukimura’s strokes. Ryouma hated it, hated having to know that Yukimura was hurting for those stunningly precise shots that claimed all the momentum and spin of the ball and made it Yukimura’s. The worst part was that Ryouma was pretty sure he’d be enjoying himself, if he didn’t know. This was a game of technique; it was playing to all of his strengths as well as Yukimura’s. He’d be nervous, but having some fun if he wasn’t freaking out over his opponent, for god’s sake!
They had changed court without a glance at each other, previously, but this time Yukimura caught his eye as they passed. “You had better stop holding back,” Yukimura said, quiet and hard. “Even now, you won’t stand a chance of winning this unless you play with everything you have.”
Ryouma stiffened at the cutting edge of Yukimura’s tone, all his frustration surging to the front, though fear that Yukimura was right still wound through it. “Seriously, do you get off on pain or something?” he snapped.
Yukimura actually stopped walking and turned to stare down at him, startled, and Ryouma tried not to blush. He hadn’t actually meant to put it quite like that. “Why on earth would you…” Yukimura started, only to trail off, examining him more closely. “I know you were there for Tezuka’s match with Atobe,” he finally said, mouth quirking up at one corner. “Do you think that of your captain?”
Ryouma promptly lost the battle against blushing, feeling his face heat. “Of course not,” he muttered, yanking his cap down. “And that was different!”
“How so?” Yukimura was definitely getting some amusement from this, and Ryouma glared.
“That was just…” and then he had to trail off himself, because the word on his tongue was ‘determination’. Which was true, but wasn’t it also true of Yukimura? His gut said immediately that it was.
So, why hadn’t playing against Tezuka-buchou been this uncomfortable for Atobe?
Ryouma frowned, remembering that match, suddenly wondering about that difference. Atobe had… he had… well, enjoyed it, yes, but not like he was enjoying his opponent being in pain or trouble. Ryouma did know what that looked like; that was the kind of opponent he’d always taken the most pleasure in crushing, when he met one. No, Atobe hadn’t been like that. He’d been… excited, that was close, but not just that. Fascinated? Delighted? In love? None of this was sounding any less borderline perverted, but it hadn’t been like that, he’d just looked at Tezuka-buchou like…
He glanced back up at Yukimura and lost his breath all at once. The pressure that had been so crushing at the start of the game was back and Yukimura was smiling, not broad but bright and wild, completely intent on Ryouma. A smile that invited, demanded, dared him to step up and meet it. He actually took a reflex step forward in answer, and Yukimura laughed, softly.
Atobe had looked at Tezuka-buchou like that.
“If we don’t play all out, no matter what, then what are we standing on this court for, Echizen?” Yukimura asked, voice low, just between the two of them. “How is there any fun in holding back?”
This was crazy, completely crazy, he could still see the pained shortness of Yukimura’s breathing, from this close, but something in Ryouma still leaped up in answer, bright and wild and wanting what Yukimura was showing him right now. He thought Yukimura saw it, too, because he laughed again as he stepped past, toward his court. “Now. Come and show me what you’ve got, Echizen. All of it.”
Because there wasn’t any fun in holding back. Not for sanity or for pity. Not for either of them. The thought shook Ryouma as he stepped up to his baseline to serve. It felt like something was shaking open, deep in his chest or stomach, and when the force of Yukimura’s focus landed on him, twice as heavy as before, drowning deep this time, it was so very easy to reach out and meet it, easy as breathing. His senses went crystal clear, perception and action running into one thing with the perfect transparency he hadn’t been able to find earlier, and the weight of Yukimura’s game against his felt right, now. Right and inevitable and good, and it wasn’t a struggle with himself at all to serve with all his strength and precision to exactly the point that Yukimura would have to stretch himself to return.
It would have felt like cheating to do anything else.
Yukimura slid behind the ball with the same perfect timing Ryouma could feel waiting in his own muscles, and the game took off, fast and hard. One ball after another, Yukimura caught drives and curving slices against his racquet, spinning them back into his control, and firing them back with relentless precision. Ryouma forgot frustration and fear and alarm, all of them pushed back by the absolute clarity of now. He could nearly feel the ball moving between them, feel Yukimura’s control of the pace, and the places he was pushing that control back. Feel the blaze of Yukimura’s determination and, yes, delight, because it matched his own.
He wanted it to never stop.
Seiichi pushed again and again past the hot stab of pain that came with every stretch to catch the ball, every hard clench of his core muscles to drive it back. By now it barely registered as pain, but he could feel the steady drain on his endurance, the catching-short in the power of his shots. Beyond all of that, though, there was the joy of stretching full out, of using every bit of his technical skill to steal the force from Echizen’s shots, make the ball his own again, and turn points his way. Not all of them, just possibly not even enough of them, but that was what put a bright edge on the game. He pushed away the knowledge of more pain in his near future to answer every moment of pure knowing with the equally pure response that Echizen’s movements absolutely required of him, in this state.
His own experience of no-self had never been a thing without thought, though. He held the future as well as the now in his perceptions, like feeling an incline that a ball would roll down. So it settled into his mind that Echizen had clearly not achieved a completed state of no-self, as some of Rikkai’s scouts had suggested. Rather his apparently ability to think beyond the consuming moment of instantaneous response had been fear holding him back. A well entrenched fear, if Seiichi was any judge. The moment he’d reached past that fear, today, any sign of thought or strategy had burned up like paper in the fiery, brilliant rush of his all-out game. Instead of strategy, it was the incredible range of Echizen’s technical ability that was pushing against Seiichi’s own game, ferocious drives and unpredictable spins exactly when each would be most effective. It was delicious to match his own technique against that, and feel the weight of Echizen’s potential—not a true match for him, yet, but close enough to make this almost as challenging as a game against Tezuka would have been. If the wearing jab of pain weren’t clenching his teeth so hard, Seiichi would be smiling.
And when they reached a six game tie, there was pure delight to match his own in the look Echizen gave him, and an eagerness that pulled a smile past the grinding pain anyway. Seiichi had always loved opponents with the strength to stand against him.
Seiichi’s own strategies were narrowing fast, as his endurance drained, but he could also see the weariness in the harder scuff of Echizen’s feet against the court, the lower height of his balls as he served. Seiichi worked the ball toward the corners, spinning the ball hard against Echizen’s control. A point to Echizen. Two to him. Another to Echizen, and one more when Seiichi couldn’t quite reach that steep, double-bouncing drive this time. Seiichi killed the force of Fire against his racquet and gentled the ball into a drop shot just over the net, and he could see that Echizen’s dash wouldn’t be in time to catch this one. The ball kissed the cord, and he hadn’t meant it to be quite that short—his estimation of his own declining endurance steepened in his mind. Echizen caught it after all, but had to bat it up into a lob, and the angle for a drive into the back corner drew itself so perfectly in Seiichi’s perception that he couldn’t possibly have stopped himself from going up for the ball.
A sharper stab of pain then he’d felt this whole game speared through his chest just on the downstroke, and he folded up, as he landed, gasping, hands on his knees barely bracing him mostly upright. Even past the pounding of his own blood in his ears, though, he should have heard the ball land, and he hadn’t. When he forced himself to straighten, he wasn’t entirely surprised to see the ball at the foot of the net, on his own side.
As a roar went up from the spectators, Seiichi sighed. That wasn’t how he’d have preferred to end this match. From the glare Echizen was giving the ball, it wasn’t what he’d wanted, either. Seiichi couldn’t help smiling at his opponent’s disgruntled scowl, as they met at the net, even through the ominous ache spreading out from what might no longer be a healed incision on the right side of his chest.
“I want another match,” Echizen practically ordered as they shook hands. “Later.”
“I’d like that also.” Seiichi’s voice came out more breathless than he was expecting, and Echizen’s eyes narrowed, so reminiscent of Sanada’s disapproving expression whenever Seiichi had pushed his recovery too hard that Seiichi had to bite back a laugh. Laughing hurt again. “Later,” he promised.
“Good.” Echizen tugged down the brim of his cap and stepped back, adding more quietly, “Good game.”
“Mm, eventually, yes.” Seiichi, and caught back another laugh at the indignant look Echizen gave him before turning on his heel and stalking back toward his waiting team, weaving just a little side to side. Seiichi had to move considerably more slowly, and Sanada came out to meet him halfway.
“How bad is it?” Sanada asked, setting a hand under his arm and frowning at how heavily Seiichi leaned on it.
“I think I regret just a little that I didn’t bring something stronger than aspirin,” Seiichi admitted. He couldn’t hold back a wince as he sat, grip tightening hard on Sanada’s shoulder to keep from falling.
“Fortunately, I entirely expected this,” Renji told him, briskly, and pressed a water bottle into one hand and a small, peach-colored pill into the other. Seiichi blinked at it; he hadn’t been taking those for a month, now.
“I talked with your physical therapist about what was likely to happen during this match, especially if either Tezuka or Echizen met you here. She was unsurprised.” Renji folded his arms and frowned at him until Yukimura swallowed the pill, which he was not actually reluctant to do at this point.
“Thank you,” he said, quietly.
Renji snorted and held out both hands as the referee called for the teams to line up. “I knew from the start what you were like, Seiichi. Come on, then.”
With both Renji’s and Genichirou’s help, he got upright again without another stab of pain, and managed to walk fairly steadily to the net. He smiled serenely back at Tezuka’s raised eyebrow. “As if you have any room to talk.” The faint flicker of Tezuka’s gaze was almost certainly agreement, and Seiichi rationed himself one soft huff of laughter.
They shook hands, and the roar of the crowd surged again.
Ryouma scowled down at his bag as he packed up to go. He didn’t like this. He’d won, and it had been a win for his team also, and that felt good. He liked that part, the part where it felt almost like his game and all his teammates’ games were one thing, like they linked together. That part was kind of nice, but…
“You aren’t satisfied?” Tezuka-buchou asked from behind him.
Ryouma jammed his towel into the bag and crossed his arms, glowering at the air in front of him. “No.” Tezuka-buchou was silent, but it was the preparatory sort of silence, so Ryouma huffed and waited.
“You saw enough of what you need, in Yukimura’s game; I’m not surprised. Winning alone isn’t the end we play for, at this level.” Ryouma turned at that, startled, to find Tezuka-san looking less stern than usual. “When the two of you play again, it will be a good game from the start.”
Ryouma stared up at him, hearing the words repeat in his head. Winning alone… not the end… That was it. He’d won, but that wasn’t enough, wasn’t all he’d wanted. His match with Yukimura hadn’t gotten a proper end. It had just stopped. He’d wanted to play to a real end, and they hadn’t been able to.
The thought after that crept up on him slowly, an unfamiliar shape in his head: just like his matches with his dad didn’t have a real end. And maybe it wasn’t the losing he’d always hated most, though he was still pretty sure he hated that with a passion. It was the stopping, the not going all the way. That didn’t make a good game.
The next breath Ryouma took was shaky. He could almost feel the last remainder of something heavy melting off his shoulders, letting him stand really straight without having to strain for it or defend it. “Oh.” It felt so light, like maybe he could play forever if he played like this, and he wondered if this was how Tezuka-san had felt when he played against Atobe at Regionals, if that was how he’d kept going to the game’s true end.
Tezuka-san rested a hand on his shoulder, and Ryouma had to swallow hard, reaching up to yank his cap down over his stinging eyes. “Yeah,” he said, low, hoping Tezuka-san heard the promise he was making. “It will be.” Tezuka-san’s hand tightened on his shoulder, so Ryouma thought he probably did.
He felt a lot calmer by the time they all lined up for the closing ceremonies, though he still frowned at the way Sanada was keeping a hand under Yukimura’s arm. “Hey.” He poked Momo in the back. “How long do you think, until Yukimura is really better?”
“You’re a maniac,” Momo told him, grinning over his shoulder. “Hard to know for sure, but it’s two months until the Fall invitational camp. Winner and runner-up from Nationals always get their full teams there. Maybe by then?”
Ryouma settled at that, smiling. “Good.” He wanted to play Yukimura for real, all the way through to the end, even though the thought made his stomach flutter a little with the knowledge that he might not win. This time, he was pretty sure that flutter was excitement.
He tipped his face up to the sun, smiling as the officials declared Seishun Gakuen the National champions for this year. Yeah, he was almost sure the flutter was excitement, especially when he thought about the matches that might be in his future now.
It felt so light.