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The Fire Shall Never Make Thee Shrink – Day Two Afternoon

Semi-finals. Atobe takes Sanada by surprise, Zaizen’s senpai help him start to think more flexibly and Echizen finishes the job, and Shiraishi pushes Fuji all the way. Action, Drama, I-4

Second Day: Interlude

It was the afternoon of the second day of Nationals, a bright, lovely afternoon, and all the remaining teams and onlookers were finding a corner of the Ariake park to have lunch in. Kuranosuke had been planning to do the same, but he finally thought he knew what his coach had been plotting about Kintarou. The first hint was Kenya’s exasperated yell, from ahead of them, of "Shiraishi!"

When Kuranosuke saw Kintarou, trailing his assigned minder, standing in front of the Rikkai team, he understood at once.

"Kin-chan," he sighed, coming up behind them with the rest of the team trailing after, "you’re supposed to be watching and learning, not harassing the other teams for unofficial matches."

Kintarou spun around, nearly stamping his foot. "I haven’t gotten to play at all! And you said they were the best! If they’re the best, I want to play him!" He pointed straight at Yukimura, whose mouth was twitching helplessly at the corners as he watched the show.

"I never thought I’d say it," Kirihara muttered, eying their little monster, "but I think I like Echizen better." Yanagi coughed a few times, very much like someone covering a laugh.

And now Kuranosuke had a dilemma on his hands. He understood what Watanabe-sensei had been thinking. Maybe someone of Yukimura’s caliber (or Tezuka’s, if Kintarou had chanced across Seigaku instead) really could show Kintarou how important training and experience were, show him on the court, where he might finally get it. Kuranosuke would have to ask for the match himself, though, because Kintarou alone would just get brushed off.

Which might be a salutary lesson all its own, but wouldn’t affect his tennis much.

Kuranosuke struggled briefly with his pride, but in the end his responsibility to his team won. He suspected Watanabe-sensei had figured on that, too. He sighed and rested a quieting hand on Kintarou’s shoulder. "If Yukimura agrees, I suppose I will too." He wasn’t watching Kintarou when he said it; he was watching Yukimura, and when their eyes met he flicked his ever so briefly at Kirihara—the one Yukimura was responsible for training.

Yukimura’s brows rose, and his smile turned thoughtful. "Hm." He glanced at Kirihara, too. "Well, Akaya, since I suspect it’s you who’s going to be dealing with Touyama-kun next year, what do you think? Should I play him?"

Kirihara actually sputtered, wheeling on Yukimura. "Of course no—" he began, indignant, only to break off sharply, eyes locked with Yukimura’s. Kuranosuke didn’t understand all of what passed between them, but some of it might as well have been written across Kirihara’s forehead in pen. Outrage and then startlement, likely that Yukimura seemed to be serious. Sudden calculation, wondering whether either crushing or encouraging a player from another team would be a benefit to Rikkai next year.

When Kirihara’s glance flicked over his team, though, and the way they were all watching him with gleaming eyes, the calculation halted. He straightened slowly, chin lifting, and looked back at Yukimura. "Of course you should," he said firmly.

The entire rest of the team looked approving of that pride and certainty in Kirihara’s and Rikkai’s strength, Marui grinning around a bubble, Niou ruffling Kirihara’s hair. Kuranosuke suddenly wondered just how bad Yukimura’s illness had been. If the tight, unthinking bond among this year’s Rikkai was anything to judge by, it might have been very bad indeed. He frowned, suddenly wondering if Yukimura could play Kintarou right now, and caught Yukimura’s eye again, glancing at Sanada with a raised brow. Yukimura just looked back, perfectly serene.

"One game," he told Kintarou, eyes not leaving Kuranosuke’s. "We’ll trade the serve after each point."

It was Kuranosuke who nodded slowly, appreciating Yukimura’s canniness. That much would only be a warm-up for a fully recovered player, and wouldn’t be enough to strain one who was still injured. Not enough to show whether Yukimura had a weakness for Shitenhouji to exploit in the Finals or not. Kuranosuke smiled faintly. He hoped they did meet there; he’d like to play this year’s Rikkai.

Kintarou was bouncing with glee. "All right, I get to play a game! Come on, hurry up!" He scampered for the nearest court, and Yukimura laughed out loud, and Kenya sighed.

"Seriously, Shiraishi, why do you hate me?" he asked under his breath as they followed after their youngest member. "Couldn’t you have gotten Watanabe-sensei to watch him, or something?"

"Next time, think twice about slacking off on your training so much that it costs you a game," Kuranosuke directed calmly. Konjiki and Hitouji made exaggeratedly impressed sounds, behind them, over the severity of their captain and Kenya rolled his eyes. "That was a month ago," he muttered, though not as if he thought that would change his captain’s mind. Kuranosuke smiled calmly as he held the gate open for the rest of his team, satisfied that his point was being taken. They all clustered one one side of the empty court Kin-chan had found, watching as the two players readied themselves.

"So," Yukimura mused, bouncing a ball against the hardtop of the court, "you want a game against the best, is that it, Touyama-kun?"

"Of course!" Kintarou was still bouncing himself, over on his side of the court, eager for the first serve. "’Cause then Shiraishi will have to admit I’m good enough to play this year!"

"I see." Yukimura’s fingers closed around the ball. "Very well, then." When he looked up, his face was perfectly still and the weight of his focus hammered down on the court, hard as a summer rainstorm. Even Kuranosuke rocked back on his heels, and the sound Yukimura’s own team made was something like a growl and something like a purr. Yukimura cast the ball up gracefully and served, hard and fast; it hit deep in Kintarou’s court, near the corner, a clean service ace.

Kintarou hadn’t moved.

Koishikawa’s hands were in fists. "That," he said quietly. "That’s what he did to me last year. Took me two games to completely snap out of it, and there went my first service game. I never did catch up."

"Touyama-kun," Yukimura called, sharp and demanding, and Kintarou started out of his blankness, staring around at the ball he’d missed, shocked. "It’s your serve."

Kintarou pulled himself together enough to serve, but Kuranosuke could see his hands were unsteady. The serve was a strong one, even so, but Yukimura reacted almost before the ball left the racquet, was precisely in place to catch it when it bounced. He sent it back in a long, deceptive curve that hooked down just as Kintarou was swinging for it. Kuranosuke could just about feel his whole team bracing themselves for for the howls of protest, the hopping up and down with outrage. The dares to do that again so Kin-chan could catch it next time.

Kintarou just stared at Yukimura, chewing furiously on his lip, and walked back to his baseline.

"Thirty-love," Yukimura announced coolly, and served again, even sharper than the last one.

This ball Kintarou caught, some of his usual irrepressible determination showing through again, but however he returned it, Yukimura was there behind the ball, fiercely intent and yet completely untroubled. Even just watching, his control was intimidating, and Kuranosuke understood Kintarou’s bared teeth and the edge of desperation in his shots perfectly well. He actually caught the painfully precise lob that Yukimura took the third point with, diving bodily for the baseline as it came down; he just didn’t get it back across the net.

"Why are you smiling?" Kenya asked softly, as Kintarou climbed back to his feet and stomped back to serve, growling all the way. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen the kid this frustrated."

"Because he’s never been this frustrated." Kuranosuke glanced sidelong his friend. "Do you want to bet on whether he’ll work seriously on his training after this?"

Kenya pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. "Pretty hard way to teach him the lesson."

"If it stops him being a dilettante, and a drain on the team, what’s the problem?" Zaizen asked coolly, watching as Kintarou served.

Kenya eyed their kouhai and cocked a brow at Kuranosuke, who sighed and shook his head a little. Zaizen might very well have learned something from the matches against Fudoumine, but if so it wasn’t showing in his everyday attitude, yet. Kenya gave him a look of commiseration and turned back to the court.

Kintarou was fighting hard for game-point, sweating as he pulled out all his speed and flexibility to chase the ball, all his native feel for how to spin it on the returns. Kuranosuke could see, though, that it wasn’t going to be enough. Yukimura was in control of the rally, running Kintarou back and forth across his court, spinning his own shots to bounce outward so they’d be that much harder to return with any kind of precision. And after long minutes of driving Kintarou back into the corners, Yukimura gentled the last ball just barely over the net. It kissed the cord and dropped easily, and even Kintarou’s last desperate dive wasn’t fast enough to catch it before it struck the clay with a soft thop.

"Game," Yukimura said quietly into the silence. He hadn’t, Kuranosuke realized, even taken the jacket off his shoulders.

Slowly, Kintarou levered himself back upright, out of breath and stunned. He and Yukimura looked at each other for a long moment before Yukimura came to the net and held out his hand, more a demand than an offer. Kintarou scowled, but he scuffed up to the net and shook Yukimura’s hand.

"Be better, next time," Yukimura told him, before letting him go and turning to collect his balls and tuck away his racquet.

Kintarou whirled and stomped back toward his own team with a thunderous look. "Shiraishi! Hurry up and finish these matches! I want to go home! You said training would make me stronger, so hurry up and get home so we can train some!"

Konjiki and Hitouji stifled helpless whoops of laughter in each other’s shoulders, and even Ishida was clearly biting back chuckles.

"We’ll be home tomorrow, Kin-chan," Kenya offered. "In the meantime, I bet the coach has some good ideas." Kintarou brightened a bit at that, and Kenya looked smug at having successfully inflicted Kintarou on someone else for the rest of the day, and possibly for the foreseeable future.

"Very nostalgic," Kuranosuke heard Niou remark, and glanced over to see Kirihara promptly bristle.

"I was never that bad!" he protested, indignant.

"Yes you were," Sanada, Yagyuu, and Yanagi all said, more or less as one. Kirihara hunched up grumpily, only to have his hair ruffled by Yukimura as he joined them, and un-hunch with a sheepish look up at his captain.

Kuranosuke thought he saw, now, why Yukimura had understood what he’d asked for so promptly; this was a lesson they’d had to teach one of their own, too. He stepped toward them and nodded courteously to Yukimura. "Thank you for agreeing to Kin-chan’s request." Kintarou crossed his arms and huffed at the reminder that he’d asked for this himself, and a corner of Yukimura’s mouth curled up.

"Not at all," he said smoothly, still resting a hand on Kirihara’s shoulder. "I’ll be very interested to see what comes of it."

Kuranosuke smiled back, quiet and hard. "I trust you will be, yes." If Yukimura had done this to give his successor a worthy opponent, well that was fine. Kuranosuke had every confidence that Kin-chan would be that and more.

"Shiraishi!" Watanabe-sensei hollered from a few courts down, breaking their locked gaze. "Koishikawa! Where are you guys, your lunches are getting cold!"

"Looks like we’d better be going," Kuranosuke murmured, jerking his head at his team before slanting one last glance back at Rikkai. "We’ll see you at Finals."

Yukimura smiled, sharp as a knife. "I’ll look forward to it."

They hurried down the walkways, Kintarou trotted along beside Kuranosuke. "So, that was the strongest player around?" he asked.

"One of the top five, at any rate," Kuranosuke agreed.

Kintarou nodded with great determination. "Okay. Then I’ll get strong enough to beat him!"

Kuranosuke laughed softly. "That’s a start."

"Right!" Kintarou thrust a fist into the air and took off running toward where their coach stood at the entrance to another court. "Let’s go!"

The rest of Shitenhouji followed after, grinning.

Semi-finals: Hyoutei vs. Rikkai

After lunch, Kippei directed Shinji, Ishida, and Sakurai back toward the A-B courts and beckoned Kamio, Mori, and Uchimura to follow him up the walk to the C-D courts. He was pleased that their potential new team members decided to tag along with one group or the other. Akechi still seemed a bit shy of him, and had stayed with Shinji, which hadn’t surprised him. What had was that Matsuda had just grinned at his partner, when Yamura stood to follow after Kamio, and said he wanted to watch the Golden Pair. Kippei had read them as a very tight pair, and most pairs like that spent a great deal of time with each other, but Yamura had just grinned back and promised to report on Rikkai. Kippei couldn’t help approving of that kind of strategizing, and he thought Kamio did as well from the friendly nod he’d given Yamura. Good.

He was a little amused when they met Kite on the walk, going in the opposite direction with Kai and a Higa player Kippei didn’t recognize. Probably a second-year, then. Kite looked Kippei’s party up and down, and his mouth quirked faintly, obviously as amused as Kippei by their parallel errands.

“Off to see Rikkai and Hyoutei?” he asked.

“It seemed wise,” Kippei admitted. “I’ve heard enough rumors, by now, about Kirihara having changed his game that I thought some of next year’s team had better have a look.”

Kite’s eyes turned distant for a moment. “He has changed. More than I would have thought possible.”

That wiped away Kippei’s amusement, after the rumors he’d heard about Higa. He’d always known Kite had the potential to go that road, but the kind of things he’d heard suggested something far colder than a simple loss of temper. This was Kite Eishirou; he didn’t let things happen by chance. If he was playing violently, he’d chosen that for a reason. “If anyone would know about that, you would.”

The vicious temper that Kite always kept under such steely control flashed for a moment in Kite’s eyes. “If anyone would know why, it would be you,” he shot back. Kippei’s jaw tightned. This was all because of a bad coach, then? He started to snap that Kite could have just done what he did and tossed the asshole out, but remembered who he was talking to again and stopped. Kite didn’t work like that, and never had.

“Sometimes I think your calculation just gets you into trouble,” he finally said.

Kite adjusted his glasses with delicacy and precision, and Kippei couldn’t help grinning, reminded. That was Kite’s personal version of giving someone the finger. “As much trouble as your passion gets you into, so perhaps we’re even.”

Kippei inclined his head, giving Kite that point. Kite had always been sharpest with his mental game. “Good luck with high school exams, in any case. I’ll see you at Regionals next year.”

Kite actually smiled a little at that. “Chitose is dragging you back after all, hm? I’ll look forward to it, I’m sure.” He beckoned his players after him and strode on down the walk. Kai rolled his eyes at Kippei as he passed with a ‘what can you do with him?’ shrug, and Kippei chuckled.

“You knew them?” Kamio asked, as they started walking again.

“Higa was Okinawa prefecture’s champions, both our first and second year.” Kippei smiled reminiscently. “Kite and Kai were the only two really strong players they had, at the time, though, so they didn’t make it past Regionals. It was a shame, because both of them are higher-level than that.” He looked down at Kamio, suddenly serious. “Kite is a very calculating player, and I don’t doubt he’s like that as captain too. I don’t know what kind of legacy he’ll leave, but if you meet Higa next year, be careful of them.”

Kamio nodded, quite serious and attentive, but his eyes were gleaming at the idea of a challenge. “Yes, Tachibana-san.”

Kippei was quite sure the legacy he left would be up to it, and the knowledge settled warmly in his chest. “Let’s go see if Rikkai’s second-year is playing in this round, then.” He turned down a smaller walk and led them out of the trees into the bright sun falling across two courts flanked by bleachers, and the teams bowing to each other across the net.

“So,” he continued, as they settled onto the end of the bleachers, “if you had to create a line-up out of Hyoutei’s players, to meet Rikkai, who would you put where?”

Kamio made a thoughtful sound, frowning at Hyoutei’s team. “They don’t really have anyone else at Atobe’s level, do they?”

“No. No one else is really a national-level player, though one or two are close.” Kippei smiled, watching Kamio work through his thoughts. He was getting better at judging other teams.

“Then maybe Atobe in Singles Two,” Kamio said, slowly. “I think, after Prefecturals, they sharpened up a little, so they wouldn’t leave him for One.”

“After us, you mean.” Mori leaned back, looking satisfied, and Kamio grinned, sharp.

“That too. So probably not Shishido, either.”

“Oshitari is supposed to be strong, and he used to play singles on the Elementary circuit,” Yamura offered.

“If they’re willing to sacrifice one of the doubles matches, they might.” Kamio glanced over at Kippei, questioning. “Would they front-load a match that heavily?”

“They might, for Nationals.” Kippei nodded at the many different school jerseys around them. “A lot of schools do, knowing that Nationals is a completely different level than Regionals. It would be one good choice of line-up. But remember that Atobe often plays a psychological game. If they want to set Rikkai a little off their stride, there’s another player they might use for the first match.”

From the Rikkai side, Yanagi Renji stepped out onto the court. And from the Hyoutei side, sure enough, Akutagawa Jirou positively bounced out and seized Yanagi’s hand across the net to pump it, beaming all over his face. Kippei could see Yanagi’s bemused expression from the stands.

Kamio’s rather matched. “I… guess so, yeah.”

Kippei laughed, as the match got started. “Something to remember, about Rikkai—they don’t change their line-up much. I’d say it’s a bit of a point of pride, with them, to be strong enough that they don’t need to. So once you see who they put where at Regionals, you’ll know where to find them at Nationals, also.”

“And Yanagi Renji is a pretty serious type,” Yamura murmured, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, watching Akutagawa start bouncing around the court to catch Yanagi’s balls.

Kamio paused and cocked his head at Yamura. “You… know Yanagi?” Yamura snorted.

“I wish. No, Kyou and I never got to play him. But Yanagi and Inui were kind of a legend in doubles, when we were in the Elementary circuit.”

Uchimura eyed the score, steady racking up in Yanagi’s favor, and whistled through his teeth. “I guess I can see why.”

Kamio’s bemused expression was back. “Akutagawa… doesn’t seem to mind, much, does he?”

Kippei turned his hands up in a helpless shrug as Akutagawa caught a ball just about no other player would have the flexibility to catch, nearly behind his back, only to miss the precise drive Yanagi returned and practically sparkle over it. “That’s Akutagawa. He’s the single most ungrudging player I’ve ever met.”

Kamio paused and suddenly looked more closely at the Rikkai players still on the bench. “And some of them don’t think much of that,” he stated, certain, and Kippei smiled.

“Exactly.” Sanada, in particular, looked disapproving, even as the match was called 6-2 in Yanagi’s favor. “And I imagine that’s just who Atobe is aiming for.”

Yamura made an interested sound, straightening up, as the Doubles Two pairs walked out. “Oh, now that’s interesting.”

Kamio glanced at Niou and Yagyuu, shaking hands apparently quite cordially with Oshitari and Mukahi. “Why?”

“Oshitari is an analytical player, and from what I saw at the tournaments last year Niou is also. But Mukahi relies on agility, and Yagyuu more on power.” Yamura narrowed his eyes as the two pairs fell back into their courts. “Look. Their formations put Niou at the net against Mukahi and Oshitari in the back of the court to deal with the deep drives. Are Niou and Oshitari really both counting on being able to match the specialist on the other side?”

“Or are they going to give up those points when they happen and play a game of strategy against each other?” Kamio finished. “I see it.”

Kippei smiled and kept quiet as they tossed ideas back and forth, watching the match unfold. Sure enough, neither Niou nor Oshitari were straining themselves to catch the tricky angle of Mukahi’s Moon Volley or the raw power of Yagyuu’s Laser Beam, and the points were moving fast and almost evenly. Personally, he thought both Yamura and Kamio were still missing a piece of Niou’s likely planning, but that was due to lack of familiarity more than anything. If Kamio had a chance to attend the invitational training camp this fall, and the Best Eight teams usually got to send at least a few players each, that would go a long way toward improving his analysis next year.

When the score turned over to four games all, he broke in quietly. “If Rikkai’s pair is planning something, it should be right about now. Watch carefully.” Yamura hesitated a moment longer than Kamio, but finally nodded and turned back to the court.

And then nearly choked as Niou stepped, quite casually, into precise position to return a Moon Volley. From Mukahi’s stumble on landing, Kippei thought that had probably had exactly the effect Niou was going for.

“You thought that would be hard to catch?” Niou asked, clear enough for the stands to hear, and showed his teeth when he smiled. “Yagyuu.”

His partner adjusted his glasses with a faint smile of his own and stepped just up to mid-court. “Enjoy yourself.”

“Is he actually going to—” Yamura cut himself off with a soft whistle as Yagyuu caught two drives in a row, each aimed at opposite corners.

“Yagyuu Hiroshi is a very powerful player, and not purely because of the strength of his shots,” Kippei agreed, a bit rueful with the memory of playing Yagyuu in his first year, at the fall training camp. Yagyuu hadn’t won by all that much, but his immovability in face of Kippei’s play style had been a bit of a shock.

“And in the meantime, Niou is knocking down Mukahi’s mental game,” Kamio added, as Niou caught the third Moon Volley in a row, and made it look easy. As they started into the next game, though, Niou let the first Moon Volley through, and Kamio wasn’t the only onlooker to sit back in surprise at the abrupt change of focus as both Niou and Yagyuu double-teamed Oshitari and slammed four points through his defense in the space of minutes.

Even the referee sounded a little stunned as he called, “The Niou-Yagyuu pair wins, six games to four!”

“Well.” Yamura drew the word out. “I guess Kyou and I will have to step up our game if we want to get past those two, at the high school level.”

Kamio glanced at him and snorted, mouth curling up. “And yet, you’re smiling.”

The smile in question got a bit toothier, and Kippei stifled a chuckle. Yamura and Matsuda would definitely fit in well with Fudoumine.

And then Atobe and Sanada stepped out onto the court, and all his attention focused down on his rivals.

Atobe Keigo shook hands briskly with Sanada, barely hearing his jab, “I hope this game will be better than our last one.”

Keigo made a noncommittal sound and noted but didn’t take time to savor Sanada’s startlement at the lack of a return barb. He’d spent the first two matches halfway into the World of Ice, and now he was pushing his perception deeper, wider. A corner of his mind observed that he would need to get here faster, in the future, but that thought was set aside for later. Now was only for the white lines of the court enclosing them and the tension of potential movement in Sanada’s body as he fell back to serve. Keigo’s smile stretched over his teeth as the downstroke of Sanada’s arm drew the first line of their game, nearly a tangible weight in his mind, and he dashed forward to return, hungry to see more, to grasp the shape of Sanada’s whole game.

Admittedly, there was a bit of a snarl in there, by the third serve. The balls came in fast and heavy, but Keigo knew from experience that this wasn’t Sanada’s top speed or strength. He felt potential crystallize with the last serve; this one could be his. He could slice this one to the corner too fast for Sanada to reverse himself and catch. The serve after that would be full strength, and he could catch that too, he knew it now—and knew Sanada wouldn’t believe it, wouldn’t be in position to save it. The first game, Sanada’s service game, could be his.

But that cool line of calculation drew out further. If he took the first game, the next game broke against Sanada’s fury and focus, broke into a starburst of possibilities he couldn’t track yet. If he let this one go… then the next would be his and still conceal his hand, would draw more of Sanada’s game out for him to see and grasp.

Yes, that was the way.

So Keigo pulled the strength of his return, just a little, just enough for Sanada to catch the ball and slam it into Keigo’s far corner. He bared his teeth again at the dismissive glance Sanada gave him before settling into his court to receive. He breathed through the rush of rage and let it power his arm with the force needed for a Tannhäuser serve, and smirked at the exclamations from the stands as the ball scudded along the court without rising. The way Sanada’s eyes narrowed sang to him like the note of struck crystal—exactly the response he’d expected and aimed for.

Sanada tracked the next serve closely, and straightened with a snort. “Interesting, but certainly not unbreakable,” he called across the net, and Keigo laughed, exhilarated by the solid weight of knowledge in his mind, the knowledge of what Sanada would do with this serve.

“Let’s see, shall we?”

Sure enough, Sanada dashed forward into the next serve to catch it before it bounced. That ball spun wild, nearly hitting the top row of the stands. The fourth ball went wild too, but not nearly as far, and new strokes layered themselves into Keigo’s vision of Sanada’s game. Sanada knew extreme topspin was the way to counter; the next time Keigo’s serve came around, he’d be ready.

Ready to be pulled up to the net, and sacrifice oh so much of his back-court.

Keigo laughed softly, delight singing through him. This… this was the full realization of the World of Ice, to see and to know and to use what he knew to build his whole game, not just individual shots.

This was his game.

Sanada Genichirou growled, mostly at himself to be honest, when the score turned over two games in Atobe’s favor. He’d let himself be lulled by that serve. It was exactly the kind of move he’d expected from Atobe—a high-level technique, but not a game-changer, not against a National level player. It turned out that the serve itself was only a part of the play, though, and that… that told him that he was on the edge of making a mistake.

Yukimura’s words, after that abortive match with Atobe, a few weeks ago, came back to him.

“I would not have lost.”

“Then wait until it’s an official match.” Yukimura stowed his racquet away and held out his hand, frowning critically at the shake of it. “Don’t be so impatient, Sanada.”

Genichirou snorted. “Why should I waste time on Atobe?”

Yukimura shook his head, smiling though his eyes still glinted sharp and cool. “Be careful. I know you know your own strength. And unlike nearly every other player in the middle school or high school circuit, your confidence in it is fully justified. But that,” he added, pointedly, “is exactly what slows you down in face of the unexpected.”

Genichirou took a slow breath and let it out, and made himself look at the thought straight on. Yukimura was right. Six games in was far longer than it should have taken him to realize this. He glanced over at the coach’s bench, and snorted at the serene smile Yukimura gave him back. Normally it was Akaya who got that look, and it stung a little to have it directed at him, but he probably deserved it.

All right, then, enough fooling around.

He stood at his baseline and closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the flow of his breath down to the bottom of his belly and back, feeling the absolute solidity of the ground under his feet and the bounds of the court around him. He breathed out all his thoughts and expectations, and opened his eyes.

Across the court, Atobe threw his head back, laughing out loud, arms spread wide as if in welcome. “About time, Sanada!”

Beyond casual banter, now, Genichirou only tossed the ball up and served with his full strength.

Even in locked into the clear perception of no-self, a shock ran through him when Atobe caught the ball and threw it back, one handed. A return with Wind put the ball away behind Atobe before he could catch it, but the focus of Atobe’s eyes on him, intent and gleaming over a fierce smile, tugged at him, drew the force of Fire out of him for the next rally. That one, Atobe caught two-handed, and how close the ball came to going back across the net drove his arm harder.

He would give everything this game demanded of him.

Keigo’s arms were starting to ache with the demand of the Tannhäuser serve, and the weight of Sanada’s balls, but he could hardly keep from laughing all the same. Neither of them had broken the other’s service game since Sanada plunged into no-self, but that was all right. It would be fine as long as he could outlast Sanada by even one ball, and while Sanada’s sheer power was still a shade beyond him, those brutally heavy balls were starting to soften as Sanada’s endurance began to wane under the demands of no-self.

And Keigo could see it. He’d drawn out every one of Sanada’s techniques, and he felt them like a weight in his hands, a powerful shape but still one with gaps. When they reached the tenth game, he felt opportunity open, in the shape of the game, and bared his teeth across the net at Sanada, delight dancing through him even as he had to work his hand around the grip of his racquet to hold it firmly.

This time he didn’t serve with the Tannhäuser technique, and he was in position when Sanada smashed the ball back with Fire, inevitable as water flowing downhill. In position to brace his whole body against the force of that shot and return it perfectly to Sanada’s blind spot. Sanada’s shock as the point was called, jarring even Sanada out of the calm of his no-self, pulled a shudder down Keigo’s spine, sweet with the knowledge of how this game would end.

Another point, and Sanada pulled himself together, cutting at Keigo’s control with Wind.

Another, and he could feel the edge of Sanada’s focus on him, so heavy it stole his breath, and then stole a point before he regathered his vision of the court and the game.

Another point lost to the Mountain, and Sanada was starting to know what it was Keigo was doing, but that was all right, because he’d seen the blind spot in Mountain during their last game, and that was another point to him.

He gathered himself for the last serve, and this one was a Tannhäuser serve. Like water flowing, Sanada caught it with the Forest, killed the spin, sliced the ball back to the open side of the court.

Exactly where Keigo had known he would send it.

The last ball slammed into the court just past Sanada’s racquet as he spun, almost breaking the World of Ice. Almost, but not yet.

Not in time, because that was match point, and Keigo released a breath that was half a laugh and half a sob, because he’d done it. He’d won, against Sanada Genichirou.

He scrubbed a tingling hand over his face and walked to the net, slowly because his muscles felt a bit rubbery after ten games of returning those heavy balls. Sanada didn’t look in much better shape when he came to meet Keigo, and neither of them had much grip worth the name when they shook hands. Keigo had to stifle a helpless snicker over the fact, and Sanada growled.

“Stop acting like a giggling idiot. I’ll win next time.”

Keigo smiled back, bright with the knowledge that he’d finally caught up, that they would run neck and neck, now. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Sanada glared, but there was focus in it, now, rather than contempt. Focus on Keigo and his game and the threat he offered. Keigo smiled back, bright and wild, if still breathless.

“Go shut your club up, so we can hear the referee calling the next game,” Sanada told him, turning back toward Rikkai’s bench. Keigo blinked, only then realizing that his club was, in fact, chanting. Well, he didn’t object to doing Sanada a favor, at the moment. He lifted a languid hand and waved them down, as he came in, and they broke up into more regular cheers and chattering. Sakaki-sensei gave him a steady nod, only his eyes warming to show his pleasure that Keigo had succeeded.

“Sit down before you fall down,” Shishido advised, clapping Keigo on the shoulder as he and his partner stepped out.

Since the gesture nearly made him fall down, Keigo though that would probably be wise, yes.

Sanada Genichirou found it harder than usual to keep his shoulders straight as he returned to the Rikkai benches, and not just because that had been an exhausting game. Yukimura watched him come, not moving, hands still folded and resting on his knee, eyes cool and steady. Genichirou stopped in front of him and made himself say clearly, “I was careless. I offer no excuse.”

Yukimura just nodded. “Very well, then. Marui. Jackal.” As they stepped forward, Yukimura turned to them, leaving Genichirou to sit down with only his own thoughts for company. “It’s Shishido’s sense for the ball, more than his speed, you’ll need to watch for. I leave it to your own judgment whether to try catching Ohtori’s serve or not, but remember we have Finals still to go. Don’t court injury.”

Genichirou took a seat and scrubbed a towel over his face, mouth tight. He wasn’t surprised Yukimura was leaving him to stew; he couldn’t believe he’d been taken so off guard that he’d lost. He took a quick drink and leaned with his elbows on his knees, watching Marui grinning over the net at Shishido, already up on his toes and poised. Finally, Yukimura looked over his shoulder at him, measuring.

“You’re still breathing hard; Atobe definitely has the edge in endurance, right now.” As Genichirou grimaced, a corner of Yukimura’s mouth quirked up. “He did the last time you played, also.”

Genichirou was quiet for a moment, looking down at his hands clenched tight around his towel. “You think he was already at this point, when we played before the National games started.”


At that, Genichirou looked up, annoyed. “Then why didn’t you say so?”

Yukimura’s brows rose. “Should I have needed to?” When Genichirou didn’t answer, he went on, voice sharpening. “You’ve been focused far too tightly on Tezuka the past two years. You needed to remember he’s not the only one who can challenge us.”

Genichirou bit back the He has been, because that was an unworthy response and he knew it. There could always be someone better; that was basic mental discipline, to keep in mind. Had he really fallen into such complacency?


“So you put me in Atobe’s way for an official match?” So the loss would have the most impact, presumably.

“I made the opportunity for it to happen,” Yukimura agreed. “Knowing Hyoutei would be at Nationals after all, there was enough chance of encountering them to wait for it. All the more so once they drew a place on our side of the bracket and I knew we’d meet them before we met Seigaku again.”

Before Genichirou met Tezuka again, in other words. Before his tunnel vision could be reinforced. Thinking five steps ahead of everyone else was one of the things Yukimura did best, and the biggest reason Sanada had never considered contending to be captain of the team. This had been a useful lesson. Genichirou still had to take a good breath and remind himself sternly of that fact before he could say, low, “Thank you.”

Seiichi’s true smile, rare to see during competition, blossomed at that, bright and warm. “That’s better. You promised years ago that we’d advance together. I won’t forgive you falling behind now.”

Genichirou blinked, suddenly feeling the tightness of his shoulders as it eased, feeling like his thoughts had been knocked sideways by the memory of that promise, of the bright excitement that had been in Seiichi’s eyes that day. “We promised each other that,” he pointed out.

Seiichi’s smile turned satisfied. “So we did.” He turned back to watch Marui steal the force from Shishido’s drive and send it rolling along the cord out of reach. Genichirou snorted softly at his captain’s back. Yes, fine, he took the point; after what Yukimura had done to return to the game, Genichirou had no excuse. He’d do better next time.

He straightened to watch as Jackal finally caught one of Ohtori’s serves, firmly ignoring the faint smile that tugged at his mouth.

Kirihara Akaya sat quietly on the far side of Yanagi-senpai and pretended to be watching the game instead of eavesdropping on his captain and vice-captain. Yanagi-senpai’s faint smile said he probably wasn’t fooled, but at least he wasn’t giving Akaya away.

He really should be paying attention to the game. Ohtori was certainly going to be showing up in next year’s tournament matches, and while Akaya didn’t honestly have many doubts about his ability to deal with a power player after years of chasing Sanada, he should still at least be thinking about how his future team members could deal with Ohtori. That’s what Yukimura-buchou was doing, wasn’t it? Thinking about how his team members could advance. Making sure that they would, even if it meant pushing them into the path of a loss.

Akaya didn’t know if he could do that. And he would need to know whether or not he could, eight days from now. The realization felt like ice sliding down his spine. He was about to be the one in charge of getting Rikkai to this tournament again.

Yanagi-senpai’s hand on his back made him start.

“Easy, Akaya,” Yanagi-senpai said, quietly. “Don’t think of next week, yet.”

Akaya looked up at him, startled. He was used to Yanagi-senpai knowing what he was about to do on the court, but this seemed a little closer to telepathy than normal. Yanagi-senpai’s mouth quirked up at the corner.

“You were starting to hyperventilate.”

Akaya blushed and scrunched down on the bench. Okay, that had probably been a pretty easy guess after all.

“For now, just think about the tournament,” Yanagi-senpai advised. “But for later on… remember that you don’t need to lead the way Seiichi does. You just need to lead the way you do.” Softer, he added, “I know we probably haven’t made that easy for you. But I also know that you can do it. Remember that, as well.”

The thought that his team’s very best analyst thought so got Akaya through the end of the match without getting too distracted, and through the final line-up without snickering at Atobe’s smirk or Sanada-fukubuchou’s eye rolling or how obviously Yukimura-buchou was refraining from laughing at them both.

Tomorrow was plenty to worry about, for now.

Semi-finals: Seigaku vs. Shitenhouji

The afternoon matches were not off to a good start for Shitenhouji. Kuranosuke had been afraid it would play out like this.

He couldn’t quite stifle his wince as Seigaku’s Kawamura sank into a crouch and dashed forward against Gin’s drive. Kawamura’s variant of Hadoukyuu was brutal, and he just hoped Gin wasn’t going to be stubborn about this… He blew out a relieved breath as Gin let his racquet go.

“That was match point,” Zaizen pointed out, behind him, sounding disapproving. When Kuranosuke glanced back, though, Zaizen’s frown was more thoughtful than anything.

“Courting a serious injury in a middle-school match, even if this is Nationals, is foolish,” he answered plainly, hoping to encourage that new thoughtful edge. “I told Gin I would trust him to know what he needed to do, and it was true. But it’s also true that it’s easy to get caught up in what’s right in front of you and forget the bigger picture.” He nodded out at the court where, if he wasn’t mistaken, Kawamura was preparing to catch Gin’s serve with another Hadoukyuu. “So what does that tell you about Seigaku’s Kawamura?”

Zaizen frowned deeper, chewing on his lip as he turned sharp eyes on Kawamura’s stance, the hard bunch of his muscles. “He… is probably going to be injured after this, isn’t he? Is he just bad at the big picture?” Zaizen’s head cocked as his gaze flicked toward Seigaku’s coach, at her tightly folded arms and resigned expression. “Or does he not care?” Zaizen finished, slowly.

Kuranosuke restrained his urge to get up and do a little dance of triumph right there in the bleachers. Finally, they were getting somewhere! “I would bet he plans to retire from the sport after this year,” he confirmed.

“And Ishida-senpai doesn’t.” Zaizen sat back as the match was called, a win for Kawamura. For once, he wasn’t stiff with outrage over a loss. “Okay.”

Kuranosuke watched his kouhai watch the remarkably similar fuss the two teams were making over their players, with ice packs and athletic wrap, and smiled. This tournament season had been good for Zaizen. His smile faded a little, though, as he turned back to the court, where Oshitari and Koishikawa were greeting Seigaku’s Inui and Kaidou at the net. This wasn’t going to be a good combination for Shitenhouji, either, so soon after Oshitari had to play all out, and he had to wonder if Inui had planned for it, had expected Fudoumine to blunt Shitenhouji’s edge. He leaned down between his own strategists, on the bench below his, and murmured, “Predictions?”

Konjiki and Hitouji exchanged a long look, full of little glances and gestures toward the court. Kuranosuke’s brows rose as the silent exchange went on. These two usually agreed on an answer faster than this, both of them constantly running calculations and bouncing ideas off each other, even when anyone else (and especially Zaizen) would swear they were only clowning for the crowd. Finally Hitouji shook his head firmly and Konjiki gave in with a tiny sigh. “I would have said Kaidou was at least half as worn-down as Oshitari, after his match against Hikogashima’s Hisakawa, but Yuuji’s paid more attention to everyone’s rate of change, this year. If he says Kaidou still has the endurance to outlast Oshitari, then he does.”

Out on the court, Inui held the center without moving while Kaidou sprinted across the back to catch Koishikawa’s ball as it went deep. The sinuous whiplash of his entire body sliced the ball in a tight, nasty curve to strike behind Oshitari’s feet before he could get himself turned around. And the glint in his eye as the point was called made Kuranosuke sigh. That was definitely the look of someone with a truckload of grit, and maybe a second one coming along after, too. “Likely two down, then. Tezuka, for Singles Two, do you think? Or Fuji?”

Hitouji made a face. “Imponderables in the calculation. Hate it when that happens.”

“It depends on how Fuji is responding to his last match from Regionals,” Konjiki expanded at Kuranosuke’s exasperated look. “And no one has drawn him out far enough, yet, to tell.”

Kuranosuke smiled, slowly. “Well. Either way, then, it sounds like I’ll have an interesting match.”

Konjiki smirked. “Have fun, then. We’ll be here to back you up, after.”

Kuranosuke leaned back, keeping his smile in place. None of them mentioned that the best case still left a wild card in play.

They’d put Zaizen in Singles One, for this line-up.

Fuji Shuusuke watched his teammates come off the court, Inui with a subtle hand under Kaidou’s arm to keep him upright, watched Momoshiro cheerfully call Kaidou names to distract from how quickly he had a towel and water bottle to hand for his year-mate, watched Tezuka give them a firm, approving nod, and tried to keep his breath even.

He was next.

And this was really absolutely ridiculous. He hadn’t had butterflies in his stomach over a match since he’d barely been taller than a racquet.

But even Tezuka spoke well of Shiraishi’s game, and Shuusuke had gotten a couple tastes, now, of what impressed Tezuka, and…

And he didn’t know how this match was going to end. Shuusuke took another slow breath, reminding himself that most players dealt with this, and most seemed to do just fine. He still jumped a little when Ryuuzaki-sensei clapped him on the shoulder.

“Don’t get too far down inside your own head,” she said, quietly. “All you have to do is pay attention, the way you usually do, and don’t make assumptions.” Her grip shifted and she gave him a brisk shove toward the court. “Now get out there and play!”

Shuusuke was laughing as he stumbled forward, and he took her brisk assurance, Tezuka’s steady eyes on him, Eiji’s victory sign, Echizen’s companionable smirk, with him to meet Shiraishi at the net.

“Tezuka in Singles One, then?” Shiraishi murmured as they shook hands.

“I suppose we’ll see,” Shuusuke parried automatically. “I’ll try to keep you from feeling neglected.”

Shiraishi smiled, slow and sharp. “Excellent.”

And that was the other interesting thing, Shuusuke reflected, as he fell back to serve. The best players, one and all, genuinely enjoyed a real challenge, enjoyed this uncertainty. That might honestly be the thing he most doubted his ability to reach. He gripped the ball hard and looked down the length of the court, studying Shiraishi’s poised stance, balanced to break in any direction after the ball. He didn’t know whether playing by listening to his instinct for the game would work this time; it wouldn’t have, quite, against Tachibana, and Shiraishi had just won against Tachibana. But he also didn’t quite know how to play another way. Maybe he just had to push harder?

“Let’s see how this goes, then,” he said, very softly, and threw the ball up to serve.

And maybe this would be easier than he thought, because the smoothness of Shiraishi’s return locked his attention immediately, drew his eye and thoughts to Shiraishi’s perfect balance, to the pure arc of his racquet and the precise measure of spin it gave to the ball. This was Shiraishi’s strength, laid out for him to see as clearly as he’d ever seen Tezuka’s fierce control of the ball or Echizen’s confident range of techniques. The knowing drew his body along, just as surely as ever, like a spark flashing from his thought to his hand and back again as he caught the ball, felt its weight on his racquet. This was familiar.

And yet, it wasn’t, because there was no ready knowledge of how to counter, leaping to his hands. Shiraishi’s shots drove him toward the sides, cut one ball and then another into the corners past his reach. His feet felt mired by the heat of the afternoon, not fast enough to keep up, and the lost points nagged at him, because this time he wasn’t sure of making them up, of finding the holes in Shiraishi’s game if only he waited and watched. The tension pulled on him, made him step too hard on the unforgiving court surface, made his hand too tight on the smooth grip of his racquet, and he lost a third point as the angle of his return went too high. He shook himself, mentally, and caught Shiraishi’s smash in Higuma Otoshi, as smooth as ever… only to lose the point when Shiraishi sprinted for the baseline and actually made the return, perfectly balanced to move, where Shuusuke took a fatal moment too long to shift forward and catch the drop shot Shiraishi gentled over the net.

Shuusuke stopped, flat footed in the middle of the court, and huffed, exasperated. This wasn’t getting him anywhere, and he could feel his endurance starting to fall. He hadn’t trained for the speed to catch those wide-ranging balls or the endurance to constantly dash after them. He’d never had to, and now maybe he understood why that had always made Tezuka frown.

All right, so he really was going to have to push a lot harder, and hope he lasted long enough. He had the technique to make it work. He had to believe that.

He closed his eyes and took a long breath in, letting it out slowly. Took the score and set it aside, in his mind, on a shelf for later. Took the nagging knowledge of Tezuka’s eyes on him, watching and waiting and quite probably hoping, and put that on the shelf too. He would act like that packing away was real, until it became real. He took the slick feel of Shiraishi’s tennis, in his thoughts, and held it on mental palms, let the new openness of his thoughts flow out to his body and re-settle his stance. He didn’t need to encompass Shiraishi’s game. All he had to do was meet it, play against it. What happened then—he shoved the surge of nerves relentlessly back onto its shelf—well, that was what they were playing to find out.

It would be interesting, to see.

When that thought finally came to the fore, Shuusuke smiled and opened his eyes.

Both Taka-san and Eiji were grinning, from the sidelines, and on the bench below them Echizen had his chin resting in his hands and a challenging smirk not at all hidden under his cap. Shuusuke snorted and pushed that onto a shelf, too, though not as far back as most of the rest. Echizen had always been a challenge, but never pressure. Shuusuke scuffed a foot against the hardcourt surface, feeling his balance again, and finally looked across the net to where his opponent was preparing to serve. Shiraishi was smiling, too, sharp and fierce, like he thought this was going to be interesting, too, and Shuusuke set that at the front of his thoughts, a bright, new mark to steer by. It made his breath come quicker.

When Shiraishi served, Shuusuke took the pure line of the ball and sliced it back forehand, slamming the return down past Shiraishi’s knees.

The quick cheers of his team were distant. It was the glint in Shiraishi’s eyes that drew Shuusuke forward to meet the next serve.

It still wasn’t easy, not the way tennis usually was for him. Habit tried, again and again, to close his mind’s grip on Shiraishi’s game, and every time, he slipped off the hard perfection of Shiraishi’s form that had no easy counter. Again and again, Shiraishi knew exactly where to be to catch the trickiest of backspins. But there was still another person on the other end of the game, a person making choices from moment to moment, and that Shuusuke could match, could counter. Shots ranged over the whole court, now in the corners, now at the net, now driving for the baseline, and the scuffle of shoes as they chased each other’s balls was loud in Shuusuke’s ears. The score see-sawed back and forth, balanced on Shuusuke’s rapid-fire changes of pace and technique, and on Shiraishi’s relentless precision.

Shuusuke could still feel himself wearing down, though, even wringing all the advantage he could out of his edge in technique.

As they switched sides at the end of the seventh game, Shiraishi paused beside him and eyed him up and down. “Hm.”

Shuusuke’s brows rose. That was nearly Tezuka levels of significant hmph-ing. “Yes?”

“If that’s all you’ve got, I suppose a part of me is relieved,” Shiraishi answered, lightly enough, and turned toward his mid-court, settling himself to receive.

The unspoken ending, that a part of him was also disappointed, stung, flicking Shuusuke where he was still raw and uncertain. He set his jaw and stalked back to his baseline to serve. The score pushed itself to the front of his mind again, and he had to take a moment to wrestle it back. The fact of it remained, though; he was down one game. He frowned down at the court as he bounced the ball, feeling the comforting jolt as it returned smartly to his hand. He needed to get one of Shiraishi’s service games from him, and to stop Shiraishi from running him all over the court. He needed…

The image of Echizen rose in his mind, of those expressive eyes narrowed with ferocious determination, of Echizen throwing himself against someone’s game over and over and over until he found a way over, under, around, or through. Shuusuke’s mouth curled in a helpless smile. Yes. Maybe he needed some of that.

Needed to attack.

He worked his fingers around the ball, looking across the net at his opponent, habit drawing his shoulders tense. To attack was to make openings in one’s game; his entire style was based on that simple fact. But against an equal opponent, he reminded himself firmly, to attack was also to hold the initiative. So how could he spin the ball his way, not just as it returned to him, using his opponent’s force, but before it returned to him? Shuusuke’s focus on Shiraishi narrowed, drank in his position, his stance, so perfectly balanced. Shuusuke knew he needed something more than his usual technique to break that. Something more. Something, anything, he wanted this, and the calculation that usually ran so deep he barely felt it started to rise like a river, inside him.

Something. The breeze, as it brushed his cheek from the direction of the stands. It would push the slower balls ever so slightly. The glare of the sun, sliding further and further down in the same direction. It would be in the eyes of anyone who had to turn too far in that direction, soon.

Anything. The court surface had grit on it, but in one or two places, dust had settled into a faint dip, and those would be slicker to step on, would absorb the force of any ball that landed there.


Shuusuke’s breath came quicker as he held it all balanced in his mind, in his muscles, feeling half blind with the rush of detail he was trying to encompass, to really perceive this time instead of just letting it feed his instinct for the ball. Right now, he needed to know and choose among these possibilities. He could feel the weight of Shiraishi’s focus on him, too, as he threw the ball up to serve, feel it turning heavier and hotter, almost heavy enough to be steadying.

He served with as much backspin as he could give the ball right from the outset, not waiting this time, aiming for the point just past Shiraishi’s feet—not just to break his stance but to hit one of the tiny ripples in the court surface that would bounce the ball to the side as well. Even Shiraishi wavered a moment, shifting toward that unexpected bounce, and this time he didn’t recover fast enough. Shuusuke smiled, sharp. Yes, this was the way.

He threw himself into the game as it sped up, eyes wide as he let the entirety of the court, the park, the day, come to him, feeling like he was listening with his very skin for the details that would let him turn the ball away from Shiraishi. It was electrifying and exhilarating and a little alarming and… and familiar. As ball after ball cut through the spaces his senses encompassed, as the serve changed and changed again and points piled up faster still, he remembered listening this hard, feeling this much. He remembered it from the end of Regionals. His opponent this time wasn’t enraged, though, or blank with that strange overdrive of no-self.

Shiraishi was laughing.

“That’s more like it, Fuji,” Shiraishi called as the serve returned to him again. His smile was a little wild, but his stance was as sleekly perfect as ever. Maybe even more solid, now, than at the start of the match. Shiraishi bounced the ball and bared his teeth at Shuusuke. “You’re a good match. I’ll look forward to doing this again, some time.”

It seemed a little early to say so, but Shuusuke let the thought slip away as he dashed to catch Shiraishi’s serve, a slow, tricky one that just dropped the ball over the net. He had to return a lob, but caught Shiraishi’s smash, slowing Higuma Otoshi in turn to make it fall shorter than anyone would expect.

They were even, now, he could feel it in the breathless speeding of the game. He could do this.

They rallied ferociously, techniques straining against each other for each point. Shiraishi was serving balls that had no spin, which a small part of Shuusuke was both impressed and annoyed by, but he could still work with them, still spin them with the weight of his body and the stroke of the breeze, still place them where the court itself would carry them further. The last point of the game was Shiraishi’s, but Shuusuke could feel his momentum increasing, like running downhill. This was…

Shiraishi straightened, not stepping back into his court to receive, but toward the net instead.

“Game and set! Shiraishi!”

The referee’s words didn’t make sense for a long moment. And then Shiraishi reached the net, racquet down at his side, and stood watching Shuusuke with eyes still bright, but now also calm. Shuusuke turned his head, slowly, to the score board he’d been ignoring so successfully.

It read 7-5.

Shuusuke felt like he’d tripped over something and taken a hard fall, all the breath knocked out of him.

“Fuji,” Shiraishi said, quiet enough that maybe only the two of them heard, under the cheers from Shitenhouji. He held out his hand, and Shuusuke moved forward, automatically, to take it, mind still full of static. Shiraishi caught his hand and shook it firmly. “It was a good game.”

A harsh breath of a laugh yanked itself out of Shuusuke’s chest. “I suppose it was, from your side.”

“So start sooner, next time,” Shiraishi returned, coolly. “Now that you know how.”

The memory, in every sense, of the focus that he’d just been pulled up out of shook Shuusuke for a breath, and he had to swallow before he could speak. “I… suppose so.”

Shiraishi snorted. “You hyper-focused types, honestly. Go talk to Tezuka about it, Fuji.” He stepped back, still with that bright glint in his eyes. “I meant what I said. I’ll look forward to our next match.”

Shuusuke hesitated, but finally nodded. It was polite, and he might feel the same. Once he was sure what he was feeling, again. He turned back toward his team, attention catching on the warmth in Tezuka’s eyes, for all his expression was as stern as ever, on the solemn way Echizen, probably the one among them that best understood his disorientation, watched, on the sharp determination behind Eiji’s smile. That last made him wince, a little, as he came in. “Eiji…” He’d never needed a teammate to pick up after him, before.

Eiji clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t mind it!” He pushed Shuusuke gently toward the benches. “We’ll take care of it.”

Shuusuke nodded, biting back anything else, and accepted the water bottle Taka-san had gotten out for him. He sat a bit gingerly, feeling like he needed to double check where everything was, like maybe he couldn’t trust just his eyes to tell him, and he couldn’t even tell whether that was the shock of losing or the loss of that incredible focus he’d found in the game. When Tezuka came to stand behind him, he couldn’t help leaning back just a little, enough to let his shirt brush Tezuka’s legs and confirm that solid presence.

Tezuka rested a hand on his shoulder like he thought Shuusuke’s balance might be in question, too. “That was a good game.”

Shuusuke twitched at hearing it again, anger starting to stir. “I lost.”

“Everyone loses sometimes.” When Shuusuke glanced over his shoulder, tight-lipped, Tezuka’s eyes met his, level and uncompromising, and that… that steadied him, somehow. This, at least, hadn’t changed.

“So, I train harder and do better next time?” he asked, a little challenging. He’d seen the whole team do that, at one time or another, this year. He’d just never really thought that would apply to him the same way.

“You said you wanted to be stronger than you are.”

The simple words stopped his burst of irritation short. It was true. He’d said that. He’d tested himself against Tachibana, found a true challenge, and he’d known in that moment that he wanted to get stronger. He looked back down at the water bottle in his hands. “I do,” he answered slowly, “I just…”

The taste of the next words on his tongue pulled him up short again.

I just didn’t think I’d lose.

Shuusuke pressed a hand over his eyes with a short laugh. That was arrogant, wasn’t it? To think he could have the thrill of a real challenge and never face a loss? He rubbed his fingers over his forehead, feeling the cool condensation from his water bottle, focusing on that. Better that than the hot weight of embarrassment in his chest.

“It’s never easy for natural talent, once you get this far.” When Shuusuke looked up, Ryuuzaki-sensei had half turned on the coach’s bench, one elbow propped on the back. There was sympathy in the crooked line of her smile, but no pity, and Shuusuke thought, not for the first time, that Tezuka and Ryuuzaki-sensei were really just made for each other, as captain and coach. “You haven’t really learned how to try,” she continued, calm and matter-of-fact, “let alone how to be knocked down and get up again. It’s not easy. A lot of naturals stop right where you are now.”

Shuusuke straightened, stung. “I’m not stopping.”

Ryuuzaki-sensei’s smile turned wide and sharp, and Shuusuke was ruefully aware of having walked right into that. “Good.” She turned back around to watch the Doubles One match and settled back on the bench, arms crossed.

Shuusuke laughed helplessly, scrubbing his hands over his face, and took a deeper breath. “All right, then.” Tezuka’s hand on his shoulder tightened for a moment before lifting, and Shuusuke looked up at his friend with a little more of his humor restored. “Tezuka, will you…?” He trailed off, unsure how to put it.

Help me.

Make sure I keep moving forward.

Stay with me until I know the way, know how this even works.

Shuusuke bit his lip on that tangle of uncertainty and nerves. Maybe it was too selfish to ask.

Tezuka’s voice broke the tangle, stopped the spin of his thoughts, certain as stone. “Of course.”

Shuusuke closed his eyes and turned his face up to the sun. He had to swallow before he could finally speak, softly.

“Thank you.”

Ryouma watched the match in front of him, not really seeing it, barely hearing the cheers of the two schools. Later on, he might be annoyed by that; it was a good game, fast and high level, as long as you ignored the Shitenhouji pair’s joking between points. Right now, though, the echo of memories in his head was taking up all of his attention.

Ryuuzaki-sensei, and the knowing look in her eyes when she said, Everyone loses sometimes. If they don’t, that just means they aren’t playing hard enough or long enough.

The quietness of Tezuka-san’s voice when he said it again, Everyone loses sometimes. Not uncaring, certainly not happy about it, but as if it just wasn’t that big a thing.

The tightness of Fuji-senpai’s hands on his water bottle when he’d asked, Will you…? The easy certainty of Tezuka-san’s answer. Of course.

Ryouma had felt that tightness in his own muscles for weeks on end, and he hated it. Could the answer to it really be so simple? If he asked, would Tezuka-san, Ryuuzaki-sensei, his senpai, answer him like that too? So readily, so easily?

Of course.

Ryouma swallowed hard and blinked back to the present, to the game in front of him, to the onlookers who were…

Not cheering?

He looked around, puzzled, and sure enough, the entire Shitenhouji half of the stands was silent, a breathless quiet so deep that he heard it clearly when the first few words dropped into it.

“Is that…?”

“Are they really…?”

“No wonder everyone calls them the Golden Pair.”

“Konjiki and Hitouji are getting serious!”

Looking out at the court, Ryouma could see at once that it was true, though he wasn’t sure why this was so amazing. The Shitenhouji pair had stopped wise-cracking and were watching Ooishi-senpai and Kikumaru-senpai with absolute focus. Ooishi-senpai was watching them right back, with a hard glint in his eyes, and Kikumaru-senpai’s smile was showing a lot of teeth. The intensity of that locked attention between the pairs felt like it might burn up any stray leaf or paper that blew onto the court.

Okay, maybe Ryouma did get why everyone was impressed.

When Hitouji served, the match took off, twice as fast as before, each pair hammering down on the other, shot after shot. Shitenhouji focused the game-breaking shots on Kikumaru-senpai, and after a game and a half Ryouma realized they were forcing all the strategic choices onto him. Ooishi-senpai came in for the tricky shots, scorching fast or wickedly curving, the kind of shots that required high athleticism to catch. It was impressive to see a pair who could target their shots so precisely, plan so far in advance and work like one person’s two hands to achieve it. His senpai weren’t going down easily, though, and Ryouma smirked, feeling a little seed of warm satisfaction in his chest every time Kikumaru-senpai broke out of Shitenhouji’s careful targeting to catch one of those tricky balls, every time Ooishi-senpai shattered the game’s momentum with a long, high lob or sudden drive that Kikumaru-senpai slid so easily out of the way of. For once, Ryouma didn’t really mind the way his senpai pounded on his shoulders in their excitement, appreciated why the whole stands were going crazy. This kind of tennis was worth that kind of yelling.

The score went to tie-break. Nine points, and then fifteen, and then eighteen, drop shot after sizzling drive after precise lob, and the cheers on both sides had a wild, gleeful edge now, answering the intensity of the game. Ryouma realized he was nearly holding his breath.

The twentieth point was the one that ended it, a sharp, curving slice that Kikumaru-senpai was just a moment too slow to reverse and catch. Ryouma leaned back on his bench, blowing out a slow breath. That had been almost as intense as Tezuka-buchou’s match against Atobe. His senpai clustered around Ooishi and Kikumaru as they came off the court, exclaiming and passing over towels, and even though they’d lost, Ryouma could see confidence and pride still, in the set of Ooishi-senpai’s shoulders, the lift of Kikumaru-senpai’s chin.

Ryouma hated losing. But he’d like to be able to feel that way, when he did.

“Singles One! Seigaku’s Echizen versus Shitenhouji’s Zaizen!”

The announcement jolted Ryouma with the reminder that, this round, it wasn’t Tezuka-buchou in Singles One. It was him again. And it wasn’t that he thought he was going to lose; of course he didn’t. But this round had been full of unsettling matches, and he couldn’t quite help the quick glance he threw at Tezuka-san, just to have something stable to catch his balance against.

Tezuka-san was looking back.

Ryouma froze for a moment, uncertain; was there something to be said about this match, this opponent, after all? But all Tezuka-san did was nod to him, firm, eyes perfectly steady, and Ryouma heard the echo of it again.

Will you…? Of course.

After a long moment, Ryouma nodded back.

As he stepped out onto the court he couldn’t help the wry snort that escaped as he noticed that his opponent was also having a quick talk with his captain. Apparently this really was an ‘of course’ sort of thing. Well okay, then.

He bounced on his toes a little bit, feeling the loosening of his muscles, settling into a familiar readiness to play, feeling the weight of his captain’s gaze against his back.

It felt good, today.

Zaizen Hikaru left his seniors to congratulate Honjiki-senpai and Hitouji-senpai, to tease them over having to get completely serious, and tested the gut of his racquet, taking a deep breath to settle himself. This wasn’t going to be an easy match, and it was possible he was about to lose, considering that he was playing—

“Singles One! Seigaku’s Echizen versus Shitenhouji’s Zaizen!”

Not Tezuka?

Hikaru lost his focus on a sputter of indignation. “What kind of team doesn’t even use their best player…” he started, only to break off as Shiraishi-buchou grabbed his shoulder and shook him once, firmly.

“Maybe one whose captain is still recovering. We knew that was a possibility for Seigaku, as well as Rikkai. Now stop thinking about that and think about your opponent, instead.”

“He’s a first-year,” Hikaru said, though far more neutrally than he would have as recently as yesterday. This round had shaken his confidence in his ability to gauge an opponent, that was for certain. Still…

Shiraishi-buchou shook his head, unsmiling. “Seigaku has always been ruthless about their rankings. Not quite as ferocious as Hyoutei, but close. If this kid is in their regular line-up, then he’s good. Pay attention, this match.”

Hikaru nodded, slowly. If his normally laid-back captain was this serious about it, then yes; he’d pay attention. Shiraishi-buchou’s hand tightened on his shoulder for a moment and let him go with an encouraging pat, and Hikaru stepped out onto the court to go and meet his opponent at the net. He would take the match seriously.

Even if he was instantly possessed of a deep desire to wipe the smirk off this kid’s face.

He couldn’t think about that for long, though, because as soon as Echizen went to serve, Hikaru found himself pushed back, scrambling to catch each ball and more than a little dazed by the sheer breadth of Echizen’s repertoire. Not only did the kid seem to know exactly where all of Hikaru’s balls would land, and be right there behind them, his control of his own shots was unbelievable. Again and again, a point slipped past when the ball dropped or curved unexpectedly, and when Echizen hit a version of Kaidou’s crazy around-the-net-pole topspin slice, Hikaru had to stop for a moment and just stare and not even his annoyance at that cocky grin quite stopped him.

This kid was unreal.

One thing was sticking in Hikaru’s thoughts, though. Shiraishi-buchou hadn’t needed to warn him about not making assumptions, this time. There was nothing he could assume, here, no history to tell him anything about Echizen’s trajectory as a player. And if that was the case… well, then, he’d have to expect everything. He’d have to watch what Echizen was doing right now, this very match, and judge only from that.

All right, then.

Hikaru turned back toward his baseline, pulling out a ball for his serve and bouncing it a few times before holding it cupped in his hand and letting all his breath out. He did his best to breathe out his annoyance with it. He needed calm for this. Calm observation. Calm.

Slowly he opened his eyes, and the court seemed just a little clearer. Even Echizen’s smile seemed less pointed. Hikaru tossed up the ball and served hard to the corner, and watched the speed of Echizen’s dash to catch it, the degree of control in grip and angle that sent back a drive Hikaru had to dash forward to catch because that one wasn’t going to rise on the bounce. He mentally batted down the flash of incredulity, reaching instead for the speed to match Echizen’s, the technique to kill those unpredictable spins. He held onto his calm with his fingernails, and watched, and made himself keep reaching. It was the seventh game before he couldn’t ignore the his own conclusion any more.

He wasn’t going to win this.

Echizen had five games to Hikaru’s two, and he could feel the burn in his muscles that said he’d reached nearly as far as he could and still walk at the end of the match. Hikaru bounced the ball a few times, considering one more time whether he couldn’t take advantage of his service game and push further, but… he’d never been one for flashy, specialized shots. There was no special way he could spin his serve that would save this score. He bounced the ball one more time, hard, and gripped it with all his strength. His game had always been like Echizen’s; a game that relied on breadth of knowledge and evenly balanced strengths.

Echizen was just better at it.

Hikaru shook off the surge of disbelief and anger that came with that thought, getting fairly practiced by now. Maybe he couldn’t win this match, and maybe he wasn’t as insane as Fudoumine’s brash speed-player, to drive himself to dropping while he tried. But there was such a thing as going down fighting.

Even as he thought it, he glanced over at his captain, self-conscious at losing like this after Shiraishi-buchou’s display of steely competence, one round after another. Shiraishi-buchou was watching him, leaning forward with his elbows braced on his knees, but when he saw Hikaru looking, he straightened. Smiled, sharper than usual. And gave Hikaru a slow, steady nod. Hikaru had never thought he’d be one to depend on anyone else’s approval, but that helped ease the coil of tightness out of his shoulders.

He looked over the net at Echizen, and while that smile was still there it was a bit less annoying, somehow. Bright and knowing, yes, but a friendlier knowing. Even welcoming, maybe. Hikaru narrowed his eyes and nodded back, just a little. And then he cast the ball up and served, hard and precise.

Ryouma was bouncing on his toes a little, as he came off the court. That had been a good match. Not a particularly challenging one, but still a good one, which he still wasn’t really used to. But even when Zaizen had clearly realized that he wasn’t going to win, he hadn’t lost his temper or been an asshole—and he hadn’t backed down, either. Ryouma could respect that. He’d even restrained himself from needling Zaizen when they shook hands, even though the furious straightness of his opponent’s spine had made it awfully tempting.

Of course, his good mood was promptly buried under excited team-mates, the moment he set foot over the white line.

“We made it to Finals!”

“Great work, Ochibi-chan!”


Ryouma finally squirmed free and dodged around the far side of Fuji-senpai to keep anyone from grabbing him again while he re-settled his cap and caught his breath.

“Everyone line up,” Tezuka-buchou ordered firmly, leading the way back to the net, though Ryouma couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t say anything until after Ryouma had been thoroughly mauled. Tezuka-buchou was not really very subtle about this whole thing with Ryouma knowing he was part of a team.

Zaizen looked nearly as rumpled as he felt, still trying to re-order his hair as the teams lined up. Possibly his team had been trying to encourage him, or maybe just congratulate him on playing a good game. That seemed to be how this worked. Ryouma was feeling ruffled enough to give him a silent eye-roll at their senpai, and Zaizen unbent enough to make a face in what was obviously agreement.

“Good to see you getting along so well with other players, Echizen,” Fuji-senpai remarked, as they broke apart again, each to their own sidelines. Ryouma stifled a sigh; the risk of using Fuji-senpai for protection was always that it brought you to his attention, and then you got teased instead of mauled. He usually felt it was worth the price. Sometimes, though, he wondered if the back-pounding was really that much worse than Fuji-senpai’s sense of humor.

“I wonder who we’ll be playing, tomorrow.” Momo rolled his towel into his bag and tossed Ryouma his water bottle. “Think we should go check on the other match?”

“I think it’s already decided,” Fuji-senpai murmured. When the rest of the team blinked at him, he jerked his chin toward the far end of the court.

Rikkai stood there, watching.

Tezuka-buchou hefted his bag over his shoulder and took one long step to stand at the front of the team. Even from this distance, Ryouma could see how Yukimura smiled before nodding to Tezuka and turning away. His own team fell in at his heels, and Ryouma crossed his arms, feeling sudden and unwelcome butterflies in his stomach as Sanada’s glance raked over him before Sanada turned to follow Yukimura. He could do this, he told himself firmly; he’d been training hard exactly so he wouldn’t wind up losing again.

Or, at least, would be able to still hold his head up, if he did, like Ooishi-senpai and Kikumaru-senpai. Like Zaizen, even. The thought was still uncomfortable, though, and he tried to shake it off.

Tezuka-buchou’s hand on his shoulder startled him out of his thoughts, and he looked up, blinking. “You need to think beyond any one game, any one win or loss,” his captain told him, quietly.

Ryouma frowned. “That isn’t it.” He stopped as soon as the words were out of his mouth, startled, but… it was true, wasn’t it? He knew it was true, all the way down to his gut; those words had been pure reflex.

Quieter still, Tezuka-buchou asked, “Then why are you afraid of losing?”

Ryouma looked up at him, remembering how readily Tezuka-san had promised his support, earlier. Of course. Maybe it was time to trust that, a little. “Because I don’t know how to stop losing,” he said, simply.

Tezuka-san actually looked startled, at that. Before he found words again, though, Ryuuzaki-sensei was beside them, nudging them both a little further away from the chatter of packing up. “Ryouma,” she said, very quietly and so very level that a little crinkle went up his spine, warning him there might be yelling coming soon, “how often do you play tennis against your father?”

Ryouma tried not to tense up. “Used to be every day. Now he acts all old and lazy, so maybe once or twice a week?”

“Have you ever won against him?” She sounded like she knew what the answer was already. Ryouma shrugged, quick and tight.


He heard the breath Tezuka-san took in, and dared a glance up at him. He didn’t look disappointed or surprised. He looked… he looked like he’d just understood something, and he looked kind of ticked off about it, Ryouma realized. A soft smacking sound made him look around to see Ryuuzaki-sensei had a hand over her eyes.

“That little idiot,” she muttered, and dragged her hand down to plant it on her hip. “It’s good that you’re playing him less often, now,” she said briskly. “I doubt there’s much he can show you, any more. Probably hasn’t been for a few years, frankly, and his example isn’t one I want you following. And believe me, the day will come when you do win against him, especially if he keeps messing around and not keeping his own training up. But Ryouma,” she set a hand on top of his head and shook him back and forth just a little, “you are twelve years old. Of course you can’t beat everyone in the world, yet! And of course that’s more likely with players who are older and bigger!” She flicked dismissive fingers as Ryouma re-settled his cap yet again and glared a bit. “You’re not going to stay this size forever, you know. You don’t have to figure out how to beat the entire world of tennis players from down there.”

Ryouma was torn right down the middle between indignation (he was so tired of being small and having everyone comment on it) and relief (Oyaji’s own teacher said he would get better, would be good enough). He settled for tugging his cap down over that confused mix. For some reason that made Ryuuzaki-sensei laugh.

“You got his temper, but I think you must take after your mother for everything else. Good.” She patted his shoulder. “So, now we know.” When he glanced up from under his cap, she was giving Tezuka-buchou a significant look. It must have made sense to him, because Tezuka-buchou just nodded, hand tightening for a moment on Ryouma’s shoulder.

“You already know how to stop losing, Echizen,” Tezuka-san said, quietly. “You train to become stronger. It may take longer some times than others, but as long as you don’t stop, it will work in the end.” He didn’t smile, but the steadiness of his eyes, meeting Ryouma’s, felt better than all the encouraging smiles in the world. This wasn’t just encouragement. This was something Tezuka-san really believed.

And something he really believed Ryouma could do, too.

Ryouma took what felt like the first breath in a while, and nodded. “Okay.” He would try to believe it, too.

“Better,” Ryuuzaki-sensei declared. “Trust your team to help you, Ryouma. Not just with the training, but with figuring all this out. You’re not on your own any more.” She shoved them both briskly back toward the benches. “Now pack up, and let’s get moving!”

As soon as Tezuka-san guided him back into the knot of the team, Momo draped an arm around his shoulders and Kikumaru-senpai leaned folded arms on top of his head, grinning at Tezuka-san. “So? Are you letting Ochibi have a rematch yet?”

Tezuka-buchou beckoned them all after him as he turned toward the Ariake entrance gates. “Not yet.”

Ryouma ducked out from under his senpai, at that. “But—!” He’d been training for that! Hadn’t they just agreed that was the right thing to do?

Tezuka gave him a stern look. “Not yet.”

Ryouma hesitated, scowling, but finally gave in to the echo in his head of as long as you don’t stop, grumbling. “Fine.”

Momo promptly reeled him in again, laughing. “Quit worrying, so much! You’ll get him sooner or later.” The rest of the team looked amused or exasperated, so apparently this idea of building up and waiting for later was another of those ‘of course’ things. As they made their way down the last tree-shaded path toward the parking lot, Ryouma wondered just how many of those things there were, that he’d never realized.

Maybe he’d find out, now he had a team to show him.

The thought still felt odd, a little like his Regular jersey when he’d first gotten it. A little stiff in places. But the jersey had worn in; maybe this would too. Ryouma decided he didn’t dislike the idea.

“Hurry up, Echizen!” Momo called from the door of the Seigaku bus. “No need to stay the night; they’ll be waiting for us, tomorrow!”

The thought didn’t feel like boredom, the way most of the season had, or like fear, the way the last weeks kind of had. It felt like anticipation.

Ryouma grinned and ran the last few strides.

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