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The Fire Shall Never Make Thee Shrink – Day Two Morning

Quarter-finals. Fudoumine is making progress and gives Shitenhouji a run for their money, Higa is shocked by Rikkai, and Kirihara has an epiphany that he doesn’t particularly enjoy. Atobe, on the other hand, enjoys his quite a lot.Action, Drama, I-3

Quarter-finals: Fudoumine vs. Shitenhouji

Tachibana Kippei glanced around at his team, standing in a close group and talking quietly about homework due on Monday and which teachers had complained about letting the tennis club out of school yesterday, swaying a little as the train started and stopped. They were easy and confident, nudging each other and grinning, not worried about taking on the Kansai champions, but discussing a stroke or bit of footwork that might help, now and then. Vast pride in how far they’d come in a single season made Kippei’s throat a little tight as Kokusai-tenjijou station was announced.

Kippei and his team filed off the train, and he couldn’t help smiling a little as a handful of half-familiar faces slipped out after them. It had taken a whole year, but what he’d hoped for had finally happened. “Going to watch Nationals?” he asked casually, and the knot of Fudoumine students shuffled, a little uncertainly. It looked like he was the only third-year on the platform.

“Yeah,” one of the second-years finally ventured and Kippei gave him an encouraging nod.

“It’s just across the road; this way.” He led the whole group up the stairs, though the modest bustle of the tall, airy station, and along the tree-lined walk that skirted the station’s little parking lot and led to the high pedestrian bridge. The other students stayed a few steps away, but they kept sneaking sidelong looks at the team. Finally, as they started up the long stairs to the bridge, it was one of the first-years who sidled up to Ishida, Kippei was a little amused to note, and asked, “So, um. How many teams are playing today?”

Ishida grinned down at the kid. “Only eight. We made it into the Quarter-finals, and if we get past Shitenhouji we’ll play in the Semi-finals this afternoon!”

“Is this really the first year you’ve played?” the first-year asked, sounding a little awed. “I heard, but…”

“Yep.” Ishida straightened his shoulders, proud, and a little old anger glinted in his eyes as he looked up the steps. “First year we’ve been able to, thanks to the old coach.”

The other students, who had been making impressed sounds, abruptly fell quiet at that, and the first-year looked like he suddenly felt a little trapped. But he cleared his throat and took hold of his nerve and asked, quavering just a tiny bit, “Is… is it true there was a fight with the coach?”

Kippei nudged Kamio discreetly and tipped his head toward the conversation. Kamio colored a little at the encouragement, but stepped in to answer steadily. “The old club had a lot of problems with bullying. The second- and third-years wouldn’t let the first-years use the courts at all, even after club hours. Not until Tachibana-san transferred in.”

“A problem like that is hard to undo, once it starts.” Kippei waved a hand as if to dismiss his intervention. “An outside view sees that more easily.” He turned his head to give his team a secret grin as they stirred, clearly wanting to protest that, and nudged Kamio to go on.

Kamio gave him a faintly exasperated look, but he’d gotten the message. This was his show, with his prospective new club members. “We actually started a new club then, and got permission to draw out a new dirt court on one of the back lots. That was when the coach got involved and, um.” He gave the other students a wry, tilted smile as they all started across the bridge. “I guess things got a little out of hand, yeah. But we just wanted to play.”

“That’s when the coach left,” Ishida put in, and grinned at Kippei. “Well, what else was he going to do, after being scolded in public by a second-year for being such a bad coach?”

Kippei nearly laughed. ‘Scolded’ was certainly one way to put it.

“We were suspended for three months,” Kamio finished, “but we got permission to form as the official club.” He chuckled. “The ‘staff’ chart still looks a little strange, though.”

“I’m the Physical Trainer.” Ishida laughed. “And Shinji’s the Grounds Manager.”

Shinji sniffed. “It’s really just being Treasurer and filling in order forms.”

“After this tournament, I think we’ll have better luck finding a faculty advisor.” Kippei smiled at his team, more gently now.

One of the second-years half raised his hand, hesitantly. “I heard that Enoki-sensei, the science teacher, used to play tennis.”

Kippei barely restrained himself from punching the air in triumph, at this contribution. There would be a team next year. “I’ll definitely speak to her, then,” he said, just as if she hadn’t been on his short-list already. The other boy brightened up, and walked a little closer to the team.

By the time they got all the way down the stairs on the other side of the bridge, the second-year, Matsuda, had admitted to playing a little street-tennis now and then, and Akechi, the first-year who’d first approached Ishida, was asking eager questions about how to do good strength training. They crossed the Ariake parking lot in a group that looked more like the other clubs than they ever had before, and Kippei could feel his team warming to their school-mates, relaxing some of the stiff pride that had covered discomfort all this summer.

The tournament was using different courts, for the second day, with only four Quarter-final matches to accommodate. The two courts just before the park field had wide, grassy margins inside the fence on either end, and the organizers had set out some temporary bleachers there for the increasing number of players and spectators who gathered to watch those still in the running. His team took the lowest two rows on A court’s north end, behind the coach’s bench, and Kippei beckoned to the other students. “Here. Sit behind us, and the team can tell you what’s going on if you have any questions.”

“And we can cheer for you,” Akechi offered, shyly, and Tachibana clapped him gently on the shoulder.

“That too.”

Shitenhouji was starting to filter into the court, one of their doubles pairs shoving each other playfully as they pretended to get stuck in the gate. Seigaku was setting up on the other side, across from Hikogashima, and Inui appeared to be threatening his teammates with… a thermos? All of them looked focused and intent, for all the laughing and horse-play going on between team members.

No one who made it to Quarter-finals assumed they’d be having an easy match.

Players from other teams were climbing into the bleachers, too. Kippei grinned as Senri strolled past, trailed by his vice-captain and his little sister, and pummeled Kippei hard on the shoulder in passing. Three players in Kushimakitou’s red and white jerseys were up in the top row, too, and Yamabuki’s first-year scout was perched in the middle, pencil and pad at the ready. Most of St. Icarus, as well as Echigo Hira Daini was across the way to watch Hikogashima against Seigaku, smaller regions lending each other support against a Tokyo team, maybe. Kippei wasn’t a child of the city, like most of his current team, and couldn’t help approving.

Finally, Kippei’s phone chimed ten o’clock, from his bag.

“It’s time,” Kippei said quietly, and a thread of tense anticipation wound through his team and drew them together as he turned to them. “We’re attacking with everything, right from the start, but Shiraishi will almost certainly be doing the same; Shitenhouji lost, last year, by holding their full strength until later matches. Be ready for a hard fight.” His team nodded, eyes bright, and he chuckled at their eagerness as the referee called for the teams on the court. “Let’s go, then.”

They met Shitenhouji at the net, and Kippei felt a little glow of satisfaction at the calculating look Shiraishi was giving them. He ran a measuring eye of his own over their line-up and nodded to himself. All of Shiraishi’s team were new players, only Shiraishi himself familiar from last year’s Shitenhouji, though Kippei was sure he remembered at least one other second-year.1 Interesting. Shiraishi had built an entirely new team, then, after being defeated so crushingly by Rikkai last year. “Let’s have a good game,” he stated, shaking Shiraishi’s hand firmly.

“We’ll certainly try,” Shiraishi murmured with a small, sharp smile.

Yes. He rather thought they both would.

Kippei retired to the coach’s bench as the Singles Three match was announced. A quick gust of amusement rustled through the bleachers as the names were called, Ishida versus Ishida. “Any relation?” he asked his own Ishida, joking. It was a common enough name that this had already happened once at the Prefectural tournament.

“Nope.” Ishida grinned and patted the bandana around his head. “Nice hair-style, though.”

Kippei chuckled, eyeing the tall, broad, and quite bald Ishida from Shitenhouji with a twinge of concern he didn’t show. “Maybe you can trade hair-care tips after you win.”

Ishida straightened up, hand flexing around his racquet. “Yes, Tachibana-san.”

Kippei watched them as the two players met at the net. Tetsu was grinning, sharp and challenging. Shitenhouji’s Gin was perfectly serene, in a way that Kippei wasn’t sure he liked.

He’d gambled, for these matches, putting Ishida’s strength first, hoping to overwhelm whoever Shiraishi sent in for Singles Three. It was looking like Shiraishi might have turned that strategy back on him, though. He folded his arms and leaned back, offering his player as much confidence as he could from the side of the court as Gin served, solid and hard, a little into the right side.

Before they’d exchanged three balls, he was sure of it. Gin was a power player, exactly like Tetsu. Neither of them were aiming for the lines or the corners, and neither of them were lobbing the ball. They were challenging each other directly, all powerful drives and deep overhead shots. This match would all come down to who was stronger.

“Wasn’t Ishida playing doubles yesterday?” Matsuda asked, behind him. “Do you guys mix singles and doubles, then?”

“Some of us,” Kamio answered with confidence that gave Kippei a lot of personal satisfaction, considering Kamio’s prickliness at the start of the season. “Ishida is usually in doubles. Shinji and I are usually in singles. But sometimes, when we know we’re playing a really strong team, Tachibana-san says… well…” the confidence trailed off into diffidence, and Kippei glanced over his shoulder with a little smile.

“Go on,” he urged, and had to stifle a chuckle as Kamio colored a little at the encouragement and squared up his shoulders.

“Tachibana-san says that arrogance can lose a match as fast as being timid, and that when we know the opponent is strong there’s no point in leaving the strongest players in Doubles One or Singles One. We beat a lot of schools that tried to do that.”

“I’ve heard that happens a lot in the pro and semi-pro tournaments, too,” one of the other second-years, Hirata if Kippei recalled correctly, put in. “Everyone wanting to be on first or second court and pitching fits if they don’t get it.”

“Divas, they’re everywhere,” Mori snorted, and Kippei’s mouth quirked as he watched Tetsu dashing to catch a deep drive. Mori and Uchimura had both been thoroughly unimpressed by Hyoutei, at Prefecturals, and seeing the quality Hyoutei could have played Fudoumine with, in the first round of Regionals, hadn’t made them any less annoyed.

“And we have no intention of losing that way. So when we know someone’s strong,” Kamio brought the discussion back to the point deftly, “we use the strongest line-up we possibly can. Ishida if it’s singles or Uchimura and Mori if it’s doubles, me and Shinji, and Tachibana-san.”

“Does that really work?” Matsuda asked, doubtful. “It’s really important to have a stable partner, for doubles. It’s why I never joined the club; so many school tennis clubs mix up doubles partners.”

“Not the teams who are playing to win,” Shinji said quietly from where he was leaning his elbows on his knees, watching the match. “We’ve seen a lot of that, this summer. Once a pair is settled, you don’t try to shake them up. We only see that from the winning teams when a team doesn’t have two settled pairs to use, or someone is injured.”

“But then what about this line-up of yours?” Matsuda argued.

Kamio laughed. “We don’t mix pairs up. Shinji and I aren’t partners with anyone but each other. Ishida can play singles, when we need a power player, but he doesn’t play doubles with anyone but Sakurai. And Sakurai is taking Singles One, for this match.”

“Oh.” Matsuda sounded struck by that. “So, um. If I maybe had someone I partner with a lot, and we both were thinking about the club…” Tachibana glanced over his shoulder again, curious. Matsuda sounded like he was asking a different question than he’d put words to, and he wasn’t looking at Kamio, or anyone else.

“It’s okay, Kyou.” One of the second-years who’d been hanging back and not talking much finally spoke, sliding down a row to sit beside Matsuda, smiling a little. “They’re serious. I think we can go for it.”

Everyone, including Kippei stared at them for a moment, and then Mori and Uchimura were laughing. Kippei smiled slowly. “Very smooth technique,” he complimented them. Even he hadn’t identified those two as a pair. Matsuda’s partner smiled back, thin and sharp, and Matsuda himself just grinned, leaning against his partner’s shoulder a little.

“We’re good,” his partner said. “I wasn’t about to let us screw around in something like the Fudoumine club used to be, or join this one if you were just going to break us up. Maybe it’s supposed to be educational or good training or something, but we’re already settled.”

“Yeah, we can see that,” Kamio said dryly, but there was a definite glint of approval as he looked Matsuda’s partner up and down. “Didn’t catch your name, at the station.”

“Yamura Masao.” He took the hand Kamio offered and shook it briskly.

“Looks like you and me are playing singles next year,” Kamio told Shinji, and they showed their teeth, grinning at each other. And then they looked over at Kippei, hopeful and eager and a little proud of themselves.

“Fudoumine will have an excellent team,” he agreed, and gave Yamura and Matsuda a firm nod. “Welcome to the club.” Both of them straightened, at that, sharp edges settled a little by the acknowledgement. But only a little. They’d fit in just fine.

And if Kippei felt a twinge that he wouldn’t be around to see next year’s team, to encourage them and watch their edge get sharper, he also caught Senri’s eyes on him as he turned back to the match. Senri gave him a crooked smile, tolerant and amused, obviously knowing exactly what Kippei wanted. Which was why he was going back, of course. That was his partner, up there.

But now wasn’t the time to be thinking about that. The match was heating up. Tetsu had been working for every point, but he’d been making his opponent work, too, and they’d been pushing each other harder, step by step. Gin had taken the last game, putting them at three games all, and Tetsu had thrown himself into the seventh game, playing harder than ever. This time, though, he was having trouble matching Gin’s increase in force. Another heavy ball forced Tetsu’s racquet off angle and the return drive shot into the net, giving Gin the second point. Tetsu stood, hand clenched around his next ball, for a long moment, and finally looked over at Kippei and raised his arm, flexing it tight in their signal for his most powerful shot. Kippei’s mouth tightened, and Tetsu turned back to serve, waiting for his decision.

It might turn the match. But Kippei doubted that one Hadoukyuu would suffice against a player as composed as Gin, and he was not, by damn, going to let one of his players injure himself, especially for the sake of a junior high match! On the other hand…

Tetsu powered a shot back over the net with a ferocious yell and Gin’s focus tightened just as fiercely for a moment. The return tore the racquet out of Tetsu’s hands, and that was the seventh game—four games to three, in Shitenhouji’s favor. The referee called for them to change courts, and Kippei beckoned. Tetsu was still swearing under his breath and flexing his wrists carefully as he came to the bench.

“I have to use it, Tachibana-san,” he said, low and intense. “I can’t let him keep control of the pace!”

“I know,” Kippei said, raising a quieting hand. “Listen. You can use it three times, today. There’s still semi-finals to go, but it’s true we won’t get there at all if we lose here. I’ll do my best to help you decide if and when to use it, but in the end, you’re the one playing this game.” He clasped Ishida’s shoulder, meeting his eyes steadily. “I trust your judgement.”

Ishida straightened up, shoulders settling as he calmed under that assurance. “Yes, Tachibana-san.”

Kippei clapped his shoulder. “Go on, then.” He watched Tetsu take the other side of the court, narrow-eyed and determined, and watched Shitenhouji’s Gin closely too. It was even more obvious, from here, that Gin was powerful and had conditioned his strength carefully.

Kippei hoped three would be enough.

Shiraishi Kuranosuke smiled a little as he watched the eighth game get underway. Fudoumine’s player was very strong, but Gin was stronger. Kuranosuke had called this one right, when he’d made the line-up.

Zaizen stirred restlessly, beside Kuranosuke on the lowest bleacher. “Ishida-senpai is taking his own time about this match,” he criticized, and Kuranosuke sighed as he contemplated the continued weakness of his prospective successor when it came to re-evaluating opponents he had preconceptions about.

“You could learn a few things from Gin,” their coach drawled from his bench, not looking around.

“Like what?” Zaizen wanted to know, and Watanabe-sensei snorted.

“If I told you, you wouldn’t be learning, now, would you?”

Kuranosuke rolled his eyes a little as Zaizen bristled. It might be true, but he didn’t think the team could actually afford to wait while Zaizen worked it out himself. “Gin has more patience than the rest of the team put together. He never rushes a match, and that,” he eyed Zaizen sternly, “is why he almost never loses one.”

Watanabe-sensei waved his hands in the air. “Gin builds his games like a temple, every level solid on the one before it. He might or might not reach enlightenment, that way, but he sure reaches victory.”

Zaizen, who had been looking a little thoughtful, gave their coach an exasperated glance for this bit of fancy.

“Fudoumine’s Ishida is stronger than even I really expected,” Kuranosuke explained, stifling a laugh. “Gin is right to take his measure and build up a good picture of his opponent. He has the match well in hand, now, though. This game will put him two ahead, and then it’s just one more to a clean win.”

He wondered, later, whether all the superstitions about not saying such things aloud had some validity after all, because no sooner were the words out of his mouth than Fudoumine’s Ishida crouched into a deep stance, one arm back, and a cheer went up from the Fudoumine team. Ishida caught the heavy ball that had been roaring right down the middle of his court, and every muscle in his body seemed to flex at once, winding tighter, harder, until, all in a moment, he let it go and the ball whipped back so fast it should have torn the air. Gin was in place to catch it, though, this wasn’t a trick ball or anything…

Gin’s racquet bent back in his grip and the ball slammed against his court like a shot from a gun.

“Hadoukyuu! Yeah!” someone yelled from Fudoumine’s side, and Ishida smiled like a tiger, all teeth, and jerked his chin at Gin, inviting the next ball.

Kuranosuke hissed softly as Gin served; it was just a little stiff, and Ishida got a return ace off it, right past Gin’s feet. Konjiki whistled through his teeth.

“Was that ball actually strong enough to hurt Ishida-senpai,” Zaizen demanded, “or is he just shook up?”

“There’s no ‘just’ to facing a shot like that,” Koishikawa said firmly from the next row up. “Getting beaten in your own specialty sets anyone off their game; that’s why we put Gin in first, to catch just this player with that tactic.”

Zaizen glanced over his shoulder to give Koishikawa a cool look. “Didn’t work out all the way.”

Kuranosuke decided his kouhai’s allotment of back-talk had been used up and cuffed Zaizen across the back of the head. “Quit being so obnoxious. Plans never work all the way, that’s why we still have to work for the victories worth having.” He frowned out at the court. “And, yeah, I think that ball was hard enough to numb even Gin’s grip for a while. Look.”

Gin’s stance was flawless, as he caught Ishida’s drive, but the angle of his racquet was off. It was a net ball.

“It’s wearing off, though,” Hitouji observed, chin resting in his cupped hands. “Watch. He’ll have the next one.”

Sure enough, Gin’s angle was true in the next volley, and he took game point. Five games to three, in their favor. Kuranosuke’s eyes narrowed and he nodded, satisfied. He’d built this team of players who weren’t easily shaken; challenging games were what they’d all come here for.

“Next game is their Ishida’s service again, though.” Koishikawa leaned forward, eyeing the other team. “How many times does he have the endurance to hit that shot?”

Tension and a breath of excitement threaded through the team as everyone looked over at the fierce smile Fudoumine’s captain-coach was wearing.

Kippei kept his arms folded, outwardly calm, though he clenched the hand hidden under his arm. Shitenhouji only needed one more game, but Tetsu might just make it, after all. Tetsu had kept his service game with another Hadoukyuu to blunt Gin’s honed strength; Kippei hadn’t even had to signal the right timing. Tetsu had pulled it off beautifully. If he could take Gin’s own service game, they’d be five all, and Kippei could see that Gin was feeling the effects of that numbing blow longer this time. If they timed it right, then maybe, just maybe, Tetsu could take the last two games he needed. Both of them were wearing down at about the same rate, Kippei thought, both of them breathing hard by now and dripping with sweat from sending back the bruising drives and smashes they’d hammered each other with.

Gin took another point with a two-handed drive. Tetsu took the next, muscles standing out down his arms and neck as he hurled the ball deep into Gin’s court. They were three points all. Kippei could see Gin’s jaw tighten as he drove his next serve right between Tetsu’s feet. Advantage to Shitenhouji. Tetsu glanced at Kippei and he nodded back; it was still a gamble, but now was the time for the last Hadoukyuu, to take two points from Gin and blunt his control of the next game. The last game would be the hardest, but if they could pressure this player, shake his calm enough to impair his judgement, Tetsu might take the match.

If only Tetsu could keep Gin from taking this match and ending it all right here.

Their team cheered, at Kippei’s back, as Tetsu wound up for the shot and smashed Gin’s racquet right out of his hands. Deuce again. Gin eyes were narrow as he picked the racquet up, focused on Tetsu like there was nothing else but the two of them and the court they were on. Tetsu drove his stiff serve back with a flat smash that Gin returned into the net, control shaken again.

Advantage to Fudoumine. The team was on their feet, calling encouragement against the shouts of “Two more points!” from Shitenhouji. At the next ball, though, Gin charged the net to catch it early and slammed it past Tetsu with a shout. Deuce again. Tetsu dashed to meet Gin at the net, for the next ball, and even he couldn’t hold Gin’s smash at close range. Advantage to Shitenhouji.

Tetsu looked over at him, eyes burning, and Kippei knew without needing the signal what Tetsu wanted to do. He actually wavered for a moment, because it would end this game in their favor all right, but… Gin was finding ways around the Hadoukyuu’s effects. He shook his head firmly, holding Tetsu’s gaze until he finally nodded.

The next rally was brutal, neither player backing down, and the sound of those heavy balls against the court and racquets had more than one onlooker wincing. Kippei hoped, until the last moment, that Tetsu’s strength and determination would carry the game, but in the end it was Tetsu’s racquet that was driven off its angle and his ball that went into the net.

“Game, set, and match!” the referee declared. “Six games to four, won by Shitenhouji!”

Kippei was on his feet when Tetsu came off the court, tense with frustration, and caught Tetsu’s shoulders as he burst out, “I could have done it!”

“And then what?” Kippei demanded, holding him still. “Used that shot even more in the next game? And tomorrow? And more after that, because it worked, until you’ve permanently injured your arm?” He shook Tetsu a little, voice dropping low and fierce. “I’m not Tezuka, and I’m not going to let you do something so reckless!”

Tetsu blinked at him. “Tezuka…?”

Kippei snorted, secretly pleased that he’d broken Tetsu out of his too-narrow focus, and led his player over to the rest of the team. “You’ve never heard Sanada talk about how Tezuka used to play; what you’ve seen this season isn’t his real strength.” With a meaningful lift of his brow, he finished, “Tezuka was injured, played too hard on it, had to restrict his game for a year, played too hard again against Atobe, and nearly missed Nationals because he was in physical therapy.”

Everyone was starting. “Tezuka-san?” Kamio asked, disbelieving. “But… I mean, he’s…”

“Don’t fall for the calm expression,” Kippei told them dryly. “He’s worse than I used to be for playing recklessly.” He eyed Ishida sternly. “And I won’t have my team injuring themselves that way.”

Ishida bit his lip, looking down at his hands, still flexing around the grip of his racquet, and Kippei knew he wasn’t the only one to catch the faint wince as his right hand tightened and flexed his forearm muscles. Sakurai made a disapproving sound and grabbed for the team’s medical bag, snapping the cold-pack from it.

“Listen.” Kippei shook Ishida’s shoulder again, gentler, as his partner pressed the cold-pack to his arm with a frown. “This is Nationals, yes. It’s important, yes. But this is also only your second year of junior high school. A loss isn’t the end of anything, or the last word on anything.” He gathered his team in with a glance, willing them to hear him. “It’s just an invitation to even the score next time. So don’t waste time resenting this; train for your rematch, when you catch up to Ishida Gin again.”

Ishida straightened at the word ‘rematch’, chin lifting. “Yes, Tachibana-san.”

“Better.” Kippei patted Ishida’s shoulder and beckoned Kamio and Shinji close as Sakurai started quietly scolding his partner and Akechi leaned over his shoulder, bright-eyed, to ask about Hadoukyuu. “All right, obviously Shitenhouji earned their reputation. Keep in mind that they’re strong, but don’t let it slow you down. Just play with all you’ve got.”

“Yes, Tachibana-san,” they murmured, and glanced at each other in a moment of silent communication. Kippei smiled as he watched them take the court, shaking the other team’s hands and falling back into perfect formation without a word or sign. These two were his best, the most brilliant of Fudoumine’s team, as strong in doubles as they were in singles. One reason he’d prayed for more players, to keep the club going, was to give these two a chance to keep growing.

Win or lose, he thought they would. They all would.

“You don’t have to look so suspicious,” Shitenhouji’s cheery blond told them, as Akira and Shinji met the other pair at the net. “Neither of us are as strong as Gin.”

“Speak for yourself, senpai,” the dark-haired player muttered, testing his gut.

“And Zaizen-kun doesn’t really have the experience to judge yet,” the blond finished without missing a beat. If that was Zaizen, this must be Oshitari.

Akira snorted a little. “We’ll keep that in mind.” Not saying that they’d believe it, of course, but they would certainly keep it in mind, along with the note that Zaizen didn’t seem to like his partner all that much. That could be useful. Though it did make him wonder why a team like Shitenhouji would field a pair with such a flaw against them. Unless, of course, it was all an act. He ran a hand through his hair, frowning.

Shinji elbowed him lightly in passing as he walked back to the baseline to serve. “Don’t overthink it,” he murmured. “Tachibana-san said it. We just have to play.”

Akira’s lips quirked wryly; there was a reason he and Shinji played as partners. “You’re right. Let’s do it.”

Shinji gave them a Kick Serve right from the start, and Zaizen ducked aside, swing missing the ball. His eyes narrowed, though, and his feet shifted; he was ready for the next one. Akira sprinted for the net to meet the return and found Oshitari there already. An unpleasant surprise, but Akira just bared his teeth in a grin and faded aside to let Shinji slip out of his shadow and poach the ball.

The glare Zaizen shot them gave Akira a nice, warm glow of accomplishment.

“Never mind!” Oshitari told his partner, waving a cheerful hand. “My miss, I was too slow!”

“Too slow to catch a cross shot to his partner?” Shinji murmured, at Akira’s shoulder. “Not what most people would call slow.”

“Yeah, I think he’s the one we need to look out for,” Akira answered, soft, watching Oshitari bounce on his toes.

Oshitari caught the next return, all right, fast and sure and light on his feet. Akira marked him tightly, trusting the mid-court to Shinji. This was his job, right here, to stop the player dashing along the net with dark, intent eyes behind that light smile, and Akira let himself fall into the breathless flow of speed. They rallied at the net, fast and furious, until Akira finally got the angle to send the ball past Oshitari’s off side. They stood for a moment, at the net, and Oshitari smiled slowly.

“I see why Shiraishi put us in Doubles Two, for this match. I haven’t had a chance to test my speed in a while.” He flexed on his toes just a little. “Let’s see who’s faster, then.”

Akira felt a growl rising in his chest. Shitenhouji had done it twice, challenged them in their own specialties. He flung around and met Shinji’s eyes with a hot glare. Shinji’s lips quirked and he nodded. They slipped into an I formation, Akira crouched at the net, under the line of Shinji’s serve, focused on Oshitari like a laser. The serve whipped over his head and he…

…stayed right where he was.

Oshitari wobbled, his dash for the return checked, attention split between the ball and Akira’s stillness. Shinji caught the return right at Akira’s shoulder and put the last point away with a nasty slice that curved past Zaizen’s racquet.

The weakness of a speed player, as Akira knew very well, was just how fast the reflexes followed the thought. Make a speed player think twice, and he’d move twice, too, and maybe not finish either one. “Let’s see who’s better,” he finally answered, standing back up, shoulder to shoulder with his partner.

Oshitari and Zaizen both bared their teeth this time.

Zaizen’s serve was hard and sharp, and Akira’s breath came faster as he stayed at the net to mark Oshitari, and Zaizen aimed for the back of the court, relentlessly attacking Shinji. Again, it was their own tactic turned back on them, and Akira’s brain spun, turning over how they might make use of this.

Maybe that was what distracted him when Oshitari started pushing the pace faster.

Back and forth through the court they chased each other, through the second game and the third, sprinting after each ball that fell between them, volleying back and forth across the net, and it wasn’t until Shinji caught his arm and murmured, “You’re breathing hard for this early in the match,” that Akira realized just how fast they’d been going.

“Oshitari’s pushing the pace,” he answered, and had to take a breath in the middle of even that short sentence. “Damn it.”

“He trusts his endurance that much?” Shinji frowned.

Akira glanced at his opponent and had to laugh, breathless. “Maybe. Maybe he doesn’t care.” Oshitari had the kind of light in his eyes that Akira recognized from the mirror. Shinji gave him a long look and snorted.

“Two of a kind.”

“Maybe.” Akira took a deeper breath, deliberately slower. “Maybe he’s doing it to keep us from tripping him up again. The faster we go, the smoother his reflexes seem to get. I think that’s how they got that last two points to take the third game.”

Shinji made a thoughtful sound, fingers working around the ball he fished out. “Zaizen is good, but he can’t read me very well, yet. A fast match could keep him from learning my game too well.” He met Akira’s gaze, face calm, but there was fire at the back of his eyes—the fury that made him dangerous and brilliant on the court. “You want to do it?”

Akira grinned, feeling the crazy edge of the challenge catch him. “Yeah.”

Shinji nodded and they set themselves to receive as the fourth game started. Now they were both going fast, and even Zaizen was swept up in the relentless momentum of the match. No point took more than five shots to decide it. Akira focused on his breath, on the rising burn in his leg muscles, on… not pushing himself, no, that wasn’t now this worked. On releasing himself into the flow of speed, feet flying over the hard surface of the court to match Oshitari, racquet singing through the heavy heat of the air to reach the ball. Shot after shot cut through the courts, spinning wickedly with Shinji’s touch, reaching for the lines and corners with Zaizen’s pinpoint precision, burning with Akira’s and Oshitari’s force and speed. One game to them. One to Shitenhouji. And again.

“We need to take a service game from them,” Shinji said quietly on his way back to serve again. “They’re one ahead of us.”

“Target Oshitari. His serve is weaker.” Rather like his own, Akira acknowledged wryly.

“That will be the twelfth game.” It was a statement, not an objection, but Akira heard the warning in it.

“I can make it.” He snorted softly. “Might not be good for much after, but I’m in the rhythm right now. I’ll make it.”

One of the reasons Akira liked Shinji was that Shinji didn’t waste time trying to convince him he was crazy. Shinji knew perfectly well Akira was crazy. It was why they played together.

They matched.

Akira slid back into the flow of the game, preparing himself. It was like walking to the crest of a steep hill and looking over it. Leaning over it. Not leaping yet but hovering, feeling the pull of gravity, and letting it build. Through one game. Another. Another.

And then it was time to let the pull take him, and fly.

Akira dashed to meet Oshitari’s first serve and drive it right back at him, calling for him to come get it. Sure enough, Oshitari came, volleying the ball sharply down the width of the court, and Akira threw himself after it, caught it, spiked it just over the net. Zaizen growled, and Oshitari, still a few steps away, laughed.

“About time! I thought you guys were never going to make a counter-attack.” He fell back to serve again, bouncing on his toes. “Don’t worry, Zaizen-kun. I’ve got it.”

They’d see about that.

The next rally was a vicious zig-zag back and forth along the net, and Akira gritted his teeth at the growing protest from his ankles. Back and forth, back and forth, he couldn’t break away from Oshitari long enough to get the ball past him, and when he slipped aside to let Shinji lob it behind the other pair, Oshitari sprinted for the base line and caught it. The return was clumsy, but Oshitari was at the net again before Akira could put the ball past Zaizen’s reach, and caught Akira turning the wrong way.

Thirty all.

Akira drove his breathing deeper and pushed harder. The next ball, he caught and slammed past Oshitari’s feet as he sprinted to meet the return.

The next one, Oshitari caught up with him again.

Akira could feel the tremble in his muscles that told him he was in trouble. He’d gotten to recognize it painfully well during the last month of training, pushing that edge further and further out. But here he was at the edge again. Shinji’s fingers brushed his wrist as they set themselves again, and he nodded just a little, fading back to let Shinji take the next ball and drive it toward Zaizen. They rallied for a long minute before Shinji caught Zaizen with Spot. Even Oshitari was caught by surprise, and they were forty to thirty. Shinji smiled faintly and aimed the next return at Zaizen, too.

“That won’t work twice on me,” Zaizen gritted out, and his other hand flashed up to take a two-handed grip when his muscles froze up. It was awkward, but it got the ball back over the net. Shinji was waiting for it, and went up for a vicious smash that Zaizen would never be able to recover fast enough to return. Akira wasn’t surprised when Oshitari cut in to take it instead. It was the weakness of using Spot in a doubles game.

But by then, of course, Akira had steadied himself, and was ready. When Oshitari dashed to catch the scorching return, Akira was there to meet him again, to drive down the net with him, volleying wildly back and forth. Akira saw the turn coming, when they would both have to change direction, saw the chance. If he turned early, he could catch Oshitari the way he’d been caught earlier. If he could just find the strength to make it work…

A breath before the natural turning point, at the first side line, Akira spun on his toes, pulled every ounce of speed he had out of his muscles, his very bones it felt like. He drove his feet against the court and slammed the ball straight through the gap Oshitari hadn’t quite turned enough to cover and Zaizen hadn’t closed enough to protect. The little weakness in their pair that Akira had seen from the first was finally decisive.

“Five games all!” the referee announced, and Akira clenched his free hand triumphantly.

When he took a step, his leg muscles shook.

“Akira,” Shinji said at his shoulder, soft and sharp.

“Don’t stop,” Akira said through his teeth. If he stopped, he wasn’t going to be able to start again.

When Shinji fell back, quickly, to serve, and Akira looked over the net at the other pair, Oshitari was focused on him, eyes dark and calm. The ball sang by Akira’s shoulder and Zaizen slammed it back, straight at Shinji. Akira waited for it, as if to let Shinji poach this one, only to pop up at the last second and drive the ball toward the far corner.

Oshitari was behind it in less than a breath, and drove the ball back, right on the side line, faster than Akira could catch.

Furious frustration surged up, tightening Akira’s chest. They were so close. They’d just leveled the score again!

He pushed harder, as the game ground on, drove himself faster, feeling the rhythm of his breathing break and his legs burn with the slow pain of over-extension. Shinji’s game leaped to meet his, and they hammered at the other pair with slices that spun the ball beyond reach and sprints that screamed from one side of the court to the other in a breath. Every time Akira thought thought they had a decisive advantage, though, Oshitari was there, supporting his partner, catching Akira’s balls. Akira focused tighter and tighter, pulled more speed out of his body than he’d thought he had, and still one game slid through their fingers.

And then another.

“Game, set, and match! Seven games to five, won by Shitenhouji!”

Akira stumbled to a stop at last, wavering on his feet. It was… over. They’d lost. Shitenhouji had defeated him in his own specialty after all. A rush of blinding frustration shook him, and he stumbled again, starting to go down as the trembling in his legs finally overcame his stubbornness.

“Akira!” Shinji’s hand closed on his arm, and then there was a solid shoulder under him, catching him.

“Easy, Kamio,” Tachibana-san said, quietly, in his ear.

“Tachibana-san…” Akira bit his lip hard, hearing the unsteadiness in his own voice.

“Enough,” his captain said firmly. “Seven to five against someone who’s been training far longer than you have is nothing to be ashamed of. Now, can you stand?”

Akira, steadied between Tachibana-san and Shinji, managed to wobble his way upright again, though he had to lean on them if he wanted to step anywhere. The other pair was watching them from across the net.

“What was the point of letting him do that, when he couldn’t beat Oshitari-senpai?” Zaizen asked, arms folded. “You should have stopped him, the way you did your Ishida.”

“Without letting Kamio go as far as he could, none of us would have known whether or not he could beat Oshitari, yet.” Tachibana-san fixed Zaizen with a steady look that the other player shifted under, uncomfortably. “Kamio has already trained enough not to break himself by doing it. I trusted him, just as I trusted Ishida to restrain himself.”

Zaizen drew back at that, silent, eyes dark. Akira scraped up the energy to smirk, feeling Shinji’s equal satisfaction at his side. Nobody got away with criticizing their captain.

Oshitari herded his partner to the net and held out his hand, and Akira leaned on Shinji’s shoulder to go shake it. Oshitari was still breathing hard, himself, which was some comfort. “So, hey,” he gasped. “Tell me something. How long have you been training for?”

Akira thought about it, how long it had been since Tachibana-san joined the club and they’d been able to do more than mess around on street courts trying to figure things out for themselves. “Nine months, I guess.” He winced a little at the wheeze in his voice. Oshitari’s suddenly wide-eyed stare was gratifying, though.

“Well.” Oshitari smiled, slow and sharp. “I’ll be looking forward to our rematch, when you catch up, Kamio-kun.”

Akira lifted his chin. “Good.” And then he had to hang on to both Shinji and Tachibana-san while he hobbled back to his team.

Zaizen Hikaru was not in a good mood. First he’d effectively lost to Fudoumine’s Ibu, unable to fully counter those alternating shots that froze his muscles up. He’d had to depend on Oshitari-senpai for way too many saves from the sharp, tricky curves of Ibu’s shots, shots he should have been able to catch. It wasn’t like he hadn’t known Ibu’s profile, after all. And then Fudoumine’s captain had talked as if he didn’t already know what his own player could do, which was just ridiculous.

“Hey, what are you sulking about now?” Oshitari-senpai demanded, elbowing him lightly as they came back to the bleachers. “We won.”

“You won,” Hikaru corrected, bluntly. He didn’t mince words about these things, not for other people and not for himself either. “I couldn’t catch Ibu.” And he should have been able to!

Oshitari-senpai collapsed onto the lowest bench with a theatrical huff. “Sometimes, I swear, you don’t know what the word ‘doubles’ actually means.” Zaizen growled at him, but pulled Oshitari-senpai’s bag over and fished out his water bottle. Oshitari-senpai nodded wordless thanks and started taking tiny sips, holding the bottle with both hands.

That raised Shiraishi-buchou’s eyebrows. “They pushed you that hard?”

Oshitari-senpai laughed and lifted one leg. It wavered as he held it in the air. “Yep. Said he’d only been training for nine months, too!” He took another sip, looking wistful. “I’d love to be able to play him more often; you know how hard it is to find someone who can really push my speed.”

Shiraishi-buchou was sitting up straight. “Nine months? I knew they were a new team, but…” He frowned over at Fudoumine, thoughtfully. “They’re all second-years except for Tachibana, aren’t they? Zaizen. Watch out for Fudoumine, next year. They might be even more dangerous than next year’s Rikkai.”

“I will,” Hikaru answered, clipped. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that, not after what Ibu had pulled on him.

“Will you be recovered by the afternoon match?” Gin-senpai leaned down to ask Oshitari-senpai quietly as Shiraishi-buchou stretched and rummaged in his bag for racquet and balls.

Oshitari-senpai flexed his ankles thoughtfully. “Mm. Yeah, I think so. Why, are you seeing some good doubles over there?” He perked up and craned his neck to peer across the court at Seigaku and Hikogashima.

Gin-senpai nodded at the score board. “Seigaku has two wins, and that first year your cousin was mentioning hasn’t played yet. Nor has Tezuka. I think they’re going to be our opponents for Semi-finals.”

“Five to three, and Seigaku’s Fuji is playing now? Yeah, they’ve got Doubles Two in the bag. Whoa!” Oshitari-senpai rocked back in his seat, and Hikaru couldn’t entirely blame him. The burly one on Seigaku’s side had just hit what looked a lot like the Hadoukyuu Fudoumine’s Ishida had used.

Gin-senpai’s constant faint smile was tilted a little ruefully as he rubbed a wrist. “If they put that man into Singles Three, I’m going to have trouble.”

Shiraishi-buchou straightened up. “Gin! You didn’t say you’d actually gotten injured!”

“I’m not,” Gin-senpai said calmly. “Yet.”

Shiraishi-buchou eyed him for a long moment before he smiled slow and sharp. “All right, then. You know your own game best. Judge for yourself what your opponent calls for.” Which was exactly the kind of comment that drove Zaizen nuts; what was research for, after all, if not to let them judge that beforehand?

Watanabe-sensei pegged a ball at Shiraishi-buchou. “Get out there and deal with your own opponent if you want a good match; don’t hanker after other people’s.”

Shiraishi-buchou’s smile turned wryly as he rubbed the back of his head. “I’m going, I’m going.”

Hikaru settled back on the bleachers as both captains went to meet at the net, hoping for a match that might distract him from brooding over the one he’d just played.

Shiraishi Kuranosuke met Tachibana at the net for a firm handshake. “That’s an impressive team you’ve put together, this year.”

Tachibana’s rather cool expression eased into a smile. “They’ve worked hard, to get here.”

“I understand you’ve been a good example to them, too,” Kuranosuke probed; he’d been wondering all season how the wild, laughing player he’d last seen a year and some ago had turned into this stern, contained team captain, and what kind of game Tachibana might give him now.

These opening pleasantries were abruptly interrupted, though, by Kintarou’s voice. “Shiraishi! Kick his butt! You can do it!”

Kuranosuke rolled his eyes. Speaking of wild players.

“Hey!” A young girl’s voice rang out from the other end of the bleachers in answer. “He will not! Kippei-nii! You’d better win this!”

Tachibana closed his eyes for one second and sighed.

“Yes he will! With his Super Duper Bible Tennis!”

“Kin-chan,” Kuranosuke started to call, desperately stifling a laugh. He’d never get Kin-chan down from there if he laughed now.

“Will not! Kippei-nii’s Wild Tennis beats everything! Except Onii-chan!”

Tachibana was rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Senri!” he called, without looking up.

“What?” Kuranosuke glanced up to find Shishigaku’s Chitose lounging at his ease near the top of the bleachers on Fudoumine’s side, smirking. “Miyuki-chan wanted to come cheer for you. She hasn’t gotten to see you play in a while, after all.”

Tachibana shot his ex-teammate a look that promised dire retribution, and Chitose laughed. By now the two cheering duelists had both climbed up to the top row and were standing side by side, hanging on to the upper rail, yelling, half at the court and half at each other.

“Super Delicious Extra Amazing Tennis wins!”

“Kippei-nii wins times a thousand!”

“Does not!”

“Does so!”

Half of Kuranosuke’s own team was crying with laughter, his coach was snickering, and Zaizen was clearly trying to pretend he’d never met any of them before in his life. Fudoumine’s team seemed a little stunned by their new supporter, staring up at her, but he could see a few lips starting to twitch. Including Tachibana’s, though he was obviously trying to keep a straight face.

Finally, Chitose tipped his head back to regard the mini cheering section. “Okay, Miyuki-chan, I figure Kippei’s pumped up enough. Let’s let them get started, okay?” After a moment of glaring at each other, Miyuki and Kin-chan both gave in and clambered back down the bleachers.

Tachibana shook his head with a soft snort of amusement. “Shall we play, before they get started again?”

Kuranosuke finally let himself laugh. “I think we’d better.” He fished out a ball as he walked back to serve, settling himself into the intent calm that his best game came out of. When he turned to set his feet, though, a crinkle ran down his spine; Tachibana had changed. In the space of a few breaths, that composed, responsible team captain had dissolved into the player Kuranosuke remembered from a year and a half ago. Tachibana was forward on his toes, leaning in, eyes bright and hungry over the bared teeth of his smile. It tugged at Kuranosuke, that hunger, and he breathed in deeply, feeling like the air between them was hot with their shared focus and not just the sun beating down on the court. He’d prepared for a stern player, someone a bit like Sanada most likely, based on reports from Kantou Regionals. It looked like he’d be facing something else today, though.

That was more than all right with him.

He threw up the ball and served tight into the corner. Tachibana got behind it and returned fast and hard, hard enough to make him grunt a little with the weight of the ball. Kuranosuke rode the edge of his sense of the ball and took one light step back to steal that weight, brushing the ball delicately over the net in a drop shot.

Excitement tingled down his nerves as Tachibana very nearly caught it.

He tested Tachibana all through his service game, aiming for the lines and corners, using the service advantage to see just how great Tachibana’s range of motion on the court was. The answer was ‘a little unreal’. It was like playing Oshitari when he was at the top of his game, only Oshitari’s balls never had this bruising weight.

Of course, Oshitari’s balls weren’t this wild either, he reflected, sliding to the side to open the necessary distance to catch another ferocious drive. Tachibana was hitting so hard he couldn’t control the ball entirely. Kuranosuke smiled just a little, the tiny smile that never showed all the hot, hungry eagerness at the core of him. If this was going to be a game of control against pure force, he’d ride the cutting edge of control and slice it straight through that weakness in Tachibana’s precision.

One game to him, and it was Tachibana’s serve. The first one jinked and scorched past his shoulder so close its passing tugged at his shirt sleeve. Tachibana’s toothy smile challenged him, across the net, and Kuranosuke smiled coolly back, widening his stance, lowering it until he could feel the perfect triangle of balance, ready to move anywhere. The next ball he caught, though it took his racquet out of his hands. He flexed them, feeling the muscles in his wrists and forearms with new immediacy, and rolled his shoulders as he re-set himself again. He felt it when he slid into the upper triangle that would brace his swing against anything, no margin of error left anywhere in his stance now. The clean, pure edges of his true game were rising out of the inner stillness and silence that was all lesser players could call out of him, and his breath came quick and light as he felt it happening, savoured it.

This was what he’d brought his team to Nationals for.

Two games all, and Tachibana’s raw power still wasn’t falling. Kuranosuke sank into his form and drove forward relentlessly from that unshakeable foundation, but Tachibana raged back and forth over his side of the net, snapping up half the balls that should have been out of reach and driving them wildly back. This match was moving as fast as Doubles Two had, even without two speed demons to drive it, and something deep inside Kuranosuke was laughing to hear the cheers of their teams and the spectators, the excitement surrounding them. This was where his own game truly lived, with an opponent who demanded everything from him, and the pace of the ball flashing between them burned away every memory of Tachibana’s steady reserve. Kuranosuke let it, let himself fall into the wildness and live in each moment, each ball as it came to him.

Zaizen Hikaru felt like he couldn’t breathe.

And, all right, part of that was his idiot senpai pounding on his back and shoulders as they shouted and laughed, but most of it was his captain’s game. He’d never seen Shiraishi-buchou play like this.

“What,” he finally choked out, “how… Shiraishi-buchou?”

Watanabe-sensei leaned back to give him an upside-down grin. “Ah, that’s right. This is your first time seeing him play a high-level game, isn’t it?”

Hikaru gestured wordlessly at the furious pace of the game on the court, the mad risks Shiraishi-buchou was so obviously running. “What is he doing?” he demanded. The captain he knew was meticulous. Precise. Calculating, for pity’s sake!

Watanabe-sensei smirked out at the court, arms spread casually along the back of the coach’s bench. “Ah, that’s just our Kura-kun playing his game.” One sharp eye speared back at Hikaru. “You really don’t recognize it at all?”

“He’s completely out of control!” Hikaru burst out, and then had to stop and glare at all of his senpai when every last one of them laughed so hard they nearly fell off the bleachers.

“Zaizen-kun, Shiraishi’s never out of control,” Oshitari-senpai finally managed, clapping him on the shoulder.

“But…!” Hikaru knew this wasn’t the kind of game Shiraishi-buchou had planned to play against Fudoumine’s Tachibana. He’d been there when the captain talked with the coach about it! Shiraishi-buchou had practiced for an endurance game.

Oshitari-senpai shook him gently, sobering a little. “Listen to me. Shiraishi never loses control. Look at those shots. Quit thinking you know how Shiraishi plays, or for that matter how Tachibana plays, and just look.”

Hikaru frowned, but slowly turned back to the game and tried to do as his sometime partner said. It was ridiculous to think he didn’t know how Shiraishi-buchou played, he’d been watching all this year, but he’d try and see…

Shiraishi’s foot came down at an angle that sent a physical shock through him, it was so perfect. The line of the swing from that stance made his breath catch. The ball that sang over the net came down against the sideline without so much as a centimeter to spare and spun outward just ahead of Tachibana’s racquet.

Meticulous. Precise. Calculated in the thinnest sliver of a second.

Hikaru rocked back against Oshitari-senpai’s hand, staring as the two players dove into another game without even a pause to breathe, hammering at each other mercilessly. And every time, Shiraishi-buchou’s step, his swing, his stance and angle… every time, it was exactly where it needed to be. “How can he do that?” he whispered. At this speed, how could anyone calculate so fast and so perfectly?

Oshitari-senpai smiled, the bright, sharp smile he got when he was (rarely) serious. “That’s why Shiraishi’s our captain,” he said, simply. “When people call him the Bible of Shitenhouji, this is what they mean.”

“Remember this, Zaizen,” Watanabe-sensei added without looking around, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees as the score was called six games all. “Just because you’ve seen someone play a lot, that never means you know everything they can do. Even I don’t know everything Shiraishi can do.” Their coach’s toothpick shifted to a jauntier angle. “What I do know is that he’s been spinning his wheels for a year, and this match should shake out the kinks and let him relax. About time, too.”

“He has been pretty bored this tournament, so far,” Hitouji-senpai paused in his cheering long enough to put in. “Getting too serious for his own good. He should lighten up a little, now.”

Hikaru watched the hot glitter in his captain’s eyes as he and Tachibana pushed still harder, working to seize two points in a row, and had to swallow. He wasn’t sure lightening up was the right phrase for it, but whatever it was put a shaky feeling in his stomach, like he’d missed a step and wasn’t sure where he’d come down. The cutting perfection and incredible control of Shiraishi-buchou’s game lit something in his blood. Something that wondered if, maybe, someday, he could play like that, too.

Their tiebreak game was running so tight, Kuranosuke was starting to wonder if this would be an endurance game after all, if a different sort than he’d first expected. His breath was still light in his chest, but he knew his own body well enough to know that was thanks to the adrenaline. The instant he lost his hold, he’d spin down in complete wreckage.

That was what made keeping a hold fun, though.

He couldn’t really hear the cheering any more; nothing really existed but the court and the ball and the brutal pressure of Tachibana’s game grappling with his. They drove each other relentlessly, neither backing down, and Kuranosuke placed one ball after another exactly where he meant to, as if he were reaching out and placing each ball down by hand. Nothing could break his focus, now.

Which did not mean nothing could break his game.

His serve again, a corner shot and then a drop shot, the combination that Tachibana still couldn’t catch just a little over half the time. The drop was perfect, timing, angle, force all exactly in place with a precision that only pushed him higher each time he hit it. He had to squint into an abrupt gust of wind just as the ball started to tip over, though. When he tossed his hair back out of his eyes, it took a couple seconds to understand what he was seeing.

The ball was still on his side of the net.

He and Tachibana both stared at it, blankly.

“Ah… twenty-five to twenty-three, Tachibana!” the referee finally called. “Game, set, and match to Fudoumine!”

He and Tachibana blinked at each other a few times, before Tachibana finally laughed, short and genuinely amused, and came to hold out his hand over the net. Kuranosuke shook himself, slowly surfacing from the tension of playing at such a high pitch, scrubbing his hand over his face and heaving a fresh breath. He came to shake Tachibana’s hand, smile rueful. “I suppose no one ever controls quite everything, in a game.”

“Something is always a surprise,” Tachibana agreed, eyes still bright, though the wildness was folding itself away again even as Kuranosuke watched, and that made him laugh too.

“Good game, Tachibana. I’ll look forward to seeing you again next year.”

Ferocity licked out again with the flash of Tachibana’s teeth. “So will I.”

Kuranosuke turned back to his team, waving off Watanabe-sensei’s lifted brow; he was fine, if still buzzing a little. He clapped Konjiki on the shoulder as he and Hitouji sprang down off the bleachers with their racquets. “Looks like it’s up to you guys to wrap up.”

“No worries.” Konjiki’s shoulder nudged his partner’s. “We’ll take care of it.” Hitouji seconded that with a quiet nod and Kuranosuke relaxed. No one was shaken at all; good. He let himself flop down to a seat as his Doubles One pair took the court, stretching hard.

“Ah! That was good.”

Oshitari grinned at him. “Zaizen-kun liked it too.”

Zaizen gave Oshitari a dirty look, and then turned his glare on Kuranosuke. "What was that, at the end?" he demanded.

Kuranosuke stifled the urge to roll his eyes and answered as paitently as he could, "It’s called ‘chance’, Zaizen-kun. It happens."

Zaizen’s glare only intensified. "Why were you playing with so little margin for error, then?" He gestured sharply as if to strike aside an objection Kuranosuke hadn’t even made. "Don’t tell me you don’t have the control to do it; not after that!"

"Stop thinking everything in tennis can be controlled." When Zaizen gave him a flat look of disbelief, Kuranosuke sighed. "Look. Yes, my control is second to none, and matched by only two or three in our age bracket. And I’m the one telling you this." He took Zaizen’s shoulder and shook him a little. "When you play, there’s always someone else involved; that means you can’t control everything, ever. It’s always a fight for control of that ball, and playing against someone of Tachibana’s strength, I didn’t have any margin left. That’s what this game is. You will never know everything; you will never control everything." He looked down at his most stubborn player, eyes dark and steady. "And if you can’t find excitement, and even joy, in that, then you have no business playing at this level."

Their kouhai huffed and looked the other way. That wasn’t a surprise. It was one when Zaizen said, low, “I… suppose not. And I guess I’d be bored, if no one changed.” He glanced at Kuranosuke out of the corner of his eye and then away again. "Your match wasn’t boring."

Kuranosuke smiled slowly, and exchanged a pleased nod with Oshitari over Zaizen’s head. Seemed that match had finally started to knock some of the rigidity out of Zaizen’s view of tennis. Kuranosuke believed just as fervently as the next captain in research and being prepared, but Zaizen had always taken it a little too much to heart. He’d be a far better player, and certainly a better leader, if he could learn a little more flexibility.

Of course, no sooner did he think that than a burst of laughter from the stands blew over them and Zaizen stiffened up in obvious disapproval of Konjiki’s clowning, out on the court. Kuranosuke sighed to himself. One step at a time, he supposed.

“Hey, looks like Seigaku’s done,” Oshitari pointed out, distracting his partner smoothly with the blue and white jerseys approaching from the other court.

Kuranosuke really couldn’t help the way his smile showed his teeth this time. “They chose the perfect game to watch.”

Even Gin smirked at that. Let Seigaku gather whatever conclusions they could, from the most brilliantly duplicitous players in Shitenhouji.

“What the hell?” Ryouma muttered, lapsing into English just because what he was seeing was so bizarre he didn’t think he knew any Japanese strong enough. The Shitenhouji Doubles One pair was… well it was… but seriously, wigs?

"I suppose that’s certainly one approach to unsettling an opponent." Fuji-senpai sounded a bit uncertain, though.

"Are we sure they aren’t holding the Manzai Nationals around here, and maybe these two took a wrong turn?" Momo asked, half laughing. Kaidou-senpai gave him a brief glower before returning the full force of it on the court in front of them. Disapproval nearly dripped off him.

Inui-senpai nudged his glasses up. "They are known for being… unconventional, though several sources also insist they have remarkable strategic sense." He trailed off, as uncertainly as Fuji-senpai, as the Shitenhouji pair actually tripped over each other. Or… pretend tripped, Ryouma supposed it must be, because they still returned the ball and Uchimura and Mori still missed it. Mori rounded on their opponents with a snarl before Uchimura pulled him back; he seemed as incensed by the clowning around as Kaidou-senpai.

"They have a really strong sense for each other, that’s for sure," Kikumaru-senpai put in, unexpectedly clinical, eyes never leaving the match, "if they can move around each other like that and not get injured."

"Or even slow themselves down," Ooishi-senpai agreed, arms crossed as he watched, just as closely as Kikumaru. "Look at the score."

Ryouma started a little, realizing that the score really did read 3-0 in Shitenhouji’s favor. He’d been so distracted by the sheer weirdness of the game that the changing score hadn’t quite registered. He tugged his cap down, eyes narrowing; Fuji-senpai was right, this really was a psychological tactic. From the intrigued sound Inui-senpai made, Ryouma thought he agreed.

"This will certainly be interesting to deal with." Ryouma wasn’t the only one who edged back from Inui-senpai just a little at the small smile he wore, which all too often accompanied new and improved recipes to inflict on his teammates in the name of health science. "If they’re in Doubles One again, Ooishi, do you think you’ll be able to handle them?"

"I think so. They both seem to focus on flexibility, in their actual play, so I don’t think they’ll be able to cover the court the way we can." Kikumaru-senpai nodded silent agreement with this, still tightly focused on the game, and Ryouma cocked his head curiously. Almost as if answering him, Kikumaru-senpai said, "We have to ignore everything they say, all their attempts at misdirection, and watch what they do. Really closely." He finally flashed a bright smile over his shoulder at Ooishi-senpai. "We can do it."

Inui-senpai made another thoughtful, distracted sound, and Tezuka-buchou lifted a brow at him. "And if they’re in Doubles Two, Inui?" he prompted.

"Hmmm. It’s possible," Inui-senpai murmured, "that I’ll need you to be a distraction of our own, Kaidou."

Kaidou-senpai gave him a look of open disbelief. "Senpai?"

Momo broke down laughing, leaning back on the bleachers to steady himself. "What do you think, Mamushi, ready to break into the world of stand-up comedy?"

"Not that kind of distraction," Inui-senpai put in, interrupting Kaidou’s furious snatch for the front of Momo’s jersey. "No, I think…" he paused as Mori started yelling at his opponents, out on the court, nearly spitting with anger, "mm, yes, I think that will do nicely. If I need a distraction, Kaidou, can you pretend to be out of control? Act alone, as if you don’t believe in our combination at all. They’re obviously used to riling up the opposing pair; let’s use that expectation, then." His smile was thin and sharp.

Kaidou-senpai’s was, too. "Yes, Inui-san."

They made an unexpectedly good pair, Ryouma reflected, grinning under the brim of his cap. He thought the rest of the team agreed; he could feel everyone settling a little bit, even the ones who wouldn’t be playing doubles. He could even, maybe, feel a little of that in himself—an easing, instead of tightening, at the thought that Inui-senpai was sneakier than he’d figured. It was still a new feeling, but… he kind of liked it.

And maybe that was why he stood, quieter than usual, and watched the last of the game play out, willing this time to wait inside the little warmth of that feeling while the match was called for Shitenhouji and both teams gathered at the net. Maybe that little warmth was why he was glad to see Fudoumine straight and unbowed as they shook hands with their opponents. He couldn’t quite put words around the reason, but he thought he could get a little of the shape of it, and that shape matched with the quiet pride in Tachibana’s smile as he gathered his team up, and the steadiness of their eyes on him in return.

He was thinking about that shape hard enough that he neglected to duck out from under Momo-senpai’s arm, as they all turned away to find lunch.

Quarter-finals: Rikkai vs. Higa

Kite Eishirou could feel the unsettled edge of his club around him, as they walked down Ariake’s shady, crowded paths to their assigned quarter-finals court, and didn’t really think it was helped any by the fact that their coach was still grumbling.

“Insolent punks… you’d all better win bigger next time, and teach them some respect…”

Hirakoba clasped his hands behind his head, and told the sky above him, “Somehow, I don’t think winning by a bigger margin would have helped with that Saeki guy.” Saotome turned on Hirakoba, fist clenched, and Eishirou sighed as he stepped neatly between them.

“I believe this is our court.”

This one was part of a set of two at the back of a low building, and actually had what looked like permanent bleachers, though extras had been set out for today’s matches. Rikkai was already there, waiting for them, perfectly calm in face of what Eishirou was very sure Saeki had told them about Higa’s violence yesterday. His mouth quirked faintly.

He appreciated a good psychological tactic, even when it was turned against him.

“All right,” he cut across the beginning of what was, no doubt, Saotome’s harangue of the team. “Saotome-sensei, why don’t you take your seat and relax? We’ll handle this.” He met their coach’s eyes steadily until Saotome looked away and stumped off to the coach’s bench as if it had been his plan all along. “All right,” Eishirou repeated more quietly, gathering his team in with a glance. “These are last year’s champions. Year before that, too, because Rikkai was never stupid enough to leave their Three Demons on the sidelines. Don’t take them lightly, but don’t panic either. We’ve won every round we’ve played this year. Higa is strong, and we’re going to make them remember Higa and Okinawa. Keep your heads, don’t hold back, and watch for my signals. Got it?”

“Yes, Buchou!” they answered together, all of them, even Hirakoba. Eishirou took a slow breath to steady his own nerves and nodded.

“Let’s go.”

Niou Masaharu balanced his racquet casually in his grip, watching as both clubs spread out to either side of the court. To his eye, Higa was a little uneasy under their excitement. He wondered whether that was just from playing Rikkai, or whether Saeki’s gesture had shaken them. “So?” he asked Yukimura lightly, not taking his gaze off his opponent, a tall blond with a nicely bloodthirsty smile. “No last minute instructions? Admonitions? Reminders?”

Yukimura’s lips curled just a little, and he waved his fingers, settling back onto the coach’s bench. “No, none. Go entertain yourself.”

Masaharu bared his teeth. That was an instruction right there, or at least permission. “You didn’t like what they did to Rokkaku, hm?”

“That either.” Yukimura glanced over at their opponents, at Higa’s coach, sweating on the other bench, and Kite, standing behind him with folded arms. “Kite seems to favor mind games. Go show him how it’s done.”

Masaharu tucked a wicked smirk away, though he knew some of it was showing from the way Hirakoba smirked back when they met at the net. It was true that the best mind games required a certain ability, to back them up; they could only cover for a lack of strength for a little while. If Yukimura wanted him to emphasize that to Higa, he was happy to do it, even if it was more an aesthetic than moral imperative, for him.

The first serve was Hirakoba’s, and Masaharu tested the strength of the ball against his racquet. It wasn’t bad. He returned lightly, letting the ball wobble on its way to the corner, and watched Hirakoba’s movement. His lip curled a little. The only reason anyone would ever be taken by surprise by this Shukuchihou was if they let the net get in the way of watching their opponent’s feet. Pathetic. He pushed harder, driving the ball back toward Hirakoba faster. One point to his opponent. Two to him, and he backed off a little to let Hirakoba take another point and decide what to do, before pushing again. Hirakoba had good form for someone recruited from another field. He wasn’t weak. But that was about all Masaharu could say for him, and he had to roll his eyes a little over the fact that these guys had made it all the way to the quarter-finals, apparently on nothing but slight-of-hand and some intimidation. He took the last two points, keeping his drives just a little stronger than Hirakoba’s, hoping to draw him out. Surely there was something more.

Sure enough, when the first game was called for Masaharu, Hirakoba stuck his hands on his hips and snorted. “Is that really all you’ve got?” he demanded. “You guys are supposed to be the champions! Can’t you make it any more interesting than this?”

Masaharu kept a slow smile to himself as he bounced a ball on his service line. Hirakoba liked high-pressure games, then. Yes, there had to be something else waiting to show itself. “Let’s see,” he called back, and served low and fast. This rally was a bit more lively, and Masaharu didn’t let it end until Hirakoba uncoiled and hit the ball back with real force, though he did let Hirakoba see him stretching to return the ball. One point to him. Another, and he was starting to get impatient.

Finally, Hirakoba slid the ball along his racquet and flicked it oddly at the end. The ball curved wildly on the bounce, spinning under Masaharu’s racquet, and Higa burst into cheers. This was Hirakoba’s hidden ace, then. Masaharu swung at the next one without particular effort, missed again, and let himself growl with some genuine annoyance. The spin of the ball was too odd; he couldn’t see it clearly while swinging for it. He served fairly hard on the next ball, and watched this Habu of Hirakoba’s come, as if frozen, tracking the ball tightly.

This time, he saw it: the two directions of spin given to the ball that sent it off in such unpredictable directions. This ball would take a good deal of control to return, a light touch on making contact, to cancel some of the spin, and then power from a cold start to return it. Either that or catching it at the net before it bounced, and turning that unpredictability back around on Hirakoba. Ideally, a mix of the two, to keep him off balance. Yes, Masaharu could neutralize this shot.

But it wouldn’t serve his purpose to show all that right now.

He caught the last ball of the game, to test his hypothesis, and nodded to himself when it careened wildly out of bounds without crossing the net. He let himself glare a bit at Hirakoba and stalked back into his court amid the cheers and jeers from Higa to receive for the next game. He was actually a little impressed when Hirakoba served with Habu; that took a good deal of strength and control right there. Masaharu was careful to catch some, but only some, of them, returning them lightly, as if he didn’t have sufficient control to actually cancel all the spin. Hirakoba was laughing, pleased with the challenge and confident in his ability to win. Masaharu let him take the third game and concentrated his service game on low balls, shots that sang by Hirakoba’s ankles, a hard angle to execute Habu from. Higa’s club was loudly pleased, assured that Hirakoba could keep his own service games and stay ahead, even as the score was called two games all.

Rikkai was quiet.

Masaharu ‘fought’ through the next four games, letting Hirakoba see him ‘struggling’ to return Habu. It was actually rather wearing, having to gauge his returns so finely; Hirakoba wasn’t completely unobservant, after all, and to make this work, he had to believe this was the extent of Masaharu’s strength. When the score reached four games all, though, he let himself stop and stretch, shaking the tension out of his muscles.

It was about time, he thought.

He glanced at his team, where Marui was smirking into his bubblegum and Jackal was shaking his head; Yanagi was amused in that perfectly deadpan way of his that only showed in his hands clasped behind his back, and Sanada was nearly rolling his eyes, equally deadpan; Kirihara was grinning outright, and Yukimura had his chin propped in one hand, fingers hiding his mouth but not the glint in his eyes. Masaharu finally looked at his partner and nodded just a little bit at Hirakoba. Yagyuu adjusted his glasses, not quite hiding the fast flicker of a smile, and Masaharu laughed. Yes, the real show was about to begin.

A rustle ran through the club members who had come with them, today, everyone leaning forward expectantly.

Masaharu bounced on his toes a little, watching Hirakoba stretch into his serve, and this time he dashed to meet it before it landed, smashing it back over the net. Hirakoba was so surprised he didn’t even try to catch the return. First point to Masaharu.

He dashed for the next ball, too, and this one Hirakoba tried to reach, lips curled in a growl, but the wild bounce eluded him. Delicious irony, Masaharu thought, and showed his teeth in a grin. “You like a challenge, don’t you?” he drawled, turning to stroll back into his court. “Hurry up and serve, then.”

The next serve wasn’t Habu, and Masaharu sniffed. As if that was going to unsettle him. He smashed it back over the net with the Laser Beam, and enjoyed Higa’s shocked hush. Hirakoba’s eyes were narrow and furious, and Masaharu chuckled. “Did you think you were the only ones who could play these games?” he asked. “Here’s your challenge, then. Try to stop me.”

Hirakoba didn’t serve with Habu this time, either, and Masaharu let him have a rally just to see what he was planning to do with it. Hirakoba stepped into the last return, spinning the ball violently along his racquet, and Masaharu’s brows rose as it swerved and cut through the air strangely even before the bounce. Hirakoba had saved this, and Masaharu could respect that bit of strategy.

Though that wouldn’t stop him from breaking it.

He dashed for the ball, balanced on his toes, focused tight on the path of the ball, and caught it lightly on his racquet. He listened to the feel of the ball on his gut as carefully as he’d ever watched an opponent to analyze what trick might best unsettle them, and stroked his racquet under the ball to quiet its spin. And then he closed both hands on his racquet and drove the ball right between Hirakoba’s feet for game point, savoring his opponent’s stunned stiffness and the shocked exclamations of Higa’s club.

The last game went quickly. Hirakoba didn’t collapse, Masaharu would credit him with that, but he also didn’t have anything else left to pull out at the last minute. Masaharu met him at the net, as the match was called six to four, racquet slung over his shoulder. “More diversity,” he advised coolly. “If you like challenges, you have to be up for them yourself.”

“Next time we play will go differently,” Hirakoba snapped, and there was still a glint of eagerness in his eyes, if a little less reckless than it had been. Masaharu’s mouth tugged up at one corner.

“Come find me, then.”

He strolled back to his team, collecting a satisfied nod from his captain, and a towel from his partner. “So, first mind games and next they get hammered with pure strength and technique?” he asked, glancing at Marui and Jackal as they stood and stretched. “You really don’t like these guys, Yukimura.”

“I have little opinion of them, personally, but their tactics are naive. They’ve challenged us arrogantly, and unprepared,” Yukimura answered evenly, not looking away from the court. “If they survive the consequences, they might be worth playing next time.”

“How severe,” Yagyuu murmured, perfectly pleased, and Masaharu lounged against the sun-heated bleachers beside his partner, smirking.

Higa really had no idea what they were messing with.

Eishirou held back a frown as Shiranui and Aragaki took the court to meet Rikkai’s Marui and Jackal. His tightest doubles pair was looking a little grim, and Hirakoba still hadn’t emerged from under his towel, sitting with his elbows on his knees on the lowest bleacher. The club was nervous, he could feel it around him. Part of him wanted to pound Niou Masaharu black and blue for doing this to them. Another part of him was frankly admiring the deft mental game Niou had played.

Most of him was grimly aware of the strength and control that had made that trick work, that had persuaded them all, even him, that Niou was struggling to stay even with Hirakoba… right up until Niou had unveiled his real strength and blown casually past everything Hirakoba could do. He’d known Rikkai would be their most difficult opponent. He hadn’t, even with all the stories about them, quite expected to be so easily overwhelmed.

Well, the reputation of Rikkai’s doubles was slightly less legendary than its singles. His team knew to be wary, now. It would have to be enough. He watched Marui serve sharp and fast, sprinting forward to poach the return also with a lightning drive over the net, and his mouth tightened.

This was going to be difficult.

He hadn’t chosen Shiranui and Aragaki for this match at random, though. They drew together for a moment before the next serve, whispering, and they weren’t fooled when Marui made as if to poach the next return, too, only to let it through to Jackal. Shiranui was in place to catch the ball, and the rally was on. It went hard and fast, and Kite himself barely caught Shiranui’s signal to Aragaki before Aragaki faked a smash and dropped the ball over the net instead. He breathed out as Higa cheered.

Beside him, Kai blew out a breath of his own, leaning forward against the short fence. “It’s a good start.”

“Solid,” Eishirou agreed. He didn’t like the amused look Marui gave Higa, though.

The next rally was short, and Marui caught Aragaki’s deceptively curving drive on the rise, lobbing it tight and high to come down in the backcourt before Shiranui could get to it. Eishirou could see his pair settling down, though, bracing themselves to force their way through Marui’s flashy shots and Jackal’s powerful drives.

Shiranui sent the next serve flashing toward Marui’s ankles, and while Marui caught it, Aragaki immediately called “It’ll be out!” Eishirou could see it, too, that ball wasn’t even going to cross the net.

“What do you know, even Rikkai misses,” Kai laughed, and the club members close enough to hear chuckled along.

It hit the net pole. And rebounded to drop just on Higa’s side.

Aragaki snarled, and Shiranui caught his partner’s shoulder. “It was a bad chance, calm down,” he ordered firmly, and their second year took a breath and nodded tightly to his partner. Eishirou smiled a little. Aragaki had a short temper, and he’d have to watch that next year, when his partner had graduated; for now, though, Shiranui watched it for him.

“Chance, hm?” Marui called, tapping his racquet on his shoulder. “Let’s see about that.”

Eishirou stiffened, and he saw Shiranui tensing too. Had that actually been on purpose? “It’s a bluff,” Kai murmured. “It’s got to be.”

Shiranui was forward when the next ball headed for the pole, and he dove to catch it as it bounced. Eishirou swore silently to himself, wondering whether Rikkai really was populated by monsters after all. But Aragaki was in place to catch the return, and even Marui’s kind of precision couldn’t overcome tight teamwork in a doubles match.

Marui was smirking.

“Try this one, then!” He hit the ball lightly, and Aragaki dashed forward as it hit the cord and popped just barely over. It would be all right, Eishirou thought, he’d catch it and Shiranui had regained his position to cover against returns. It would be all right.

The ball, impossibly, rolled along the cord, past the reach of Aragaki’s racquet and dropped into Higa’s court.

Calls of “Tightrope Walking!” and “Genius!” rose from the Rikkai club who were watching, and Marui twirled his racquet, laughing.

The whole Higa club stared at that impossible ball as the first game was called, and Shiranui lifted his head to exchange a glance with Eishirou. He flicked his eyes at Jackal, and Eishirou nodded agreement. They would do better to keep the ball away from Marui entirely, it seemed, and target his partner instead.

Two alarmingly talented players in a row. “It’s no wonder Rikkai has won the championship two years running,” Eishirou observed. It must, he thought dourly, be nice to be such a well-established school that you attracted all the best without having to scrounge and recruit and suffer useless coaches. Next year would be different, though, at least for Higa. The further he could take his team, the more different it would be. Kai glanced up at him from under his cap and bumped Eishirou’s shoulder lightly, despite the raised eyebrow such demonstrativeness in public earned him. Eishirou focused again, though, and settled back to watch the next game.

It started well. Aragaki served straight toward Jackal, and Shiranui caught the return and aimed the ball back that way again. Jackal’s shots had none of the alarming quirkiness of his partner’s, and Eishirou relaxed a little as Jackal and Shiranui rallied. Shiranui had some nice, flexible strength to call on, and his endurance was second to none. No matter how solid Jackal was, with Aragaki to back him up against surprises, Shiranui had the edge now.

Three minutes later, the first point hadn’t been called yet, Kai was cursing incredulously under his breath, and Eishirou was wondering, distantly, whether he should try thinking as pessimistically as possible, in hopes that perverse fate would prove that as comprehensively wrong as his cautious optimism had been so far. Jackal wasn’t stopping, wasn’t flagging, didn’t seem to be feeling the heat like a Kantou player should. When the point was finally called, it wasn’t in Higa’s favor.

Shiranui wasn’t giving up, and he dove into another rally with Jackal, fast and furious, keeping a pace that Eishirou had never seen anyone else match. Not until today. Another point fell to Rikkai. And another. And another. Jackal’s edge in strength got the ball past Shiranui every time, because their endurance seemed to be equal. Shiranui and Aragaki were both scowling as the serve returned to Rikkai, and, after a few words, they set themselves with Aragaki forward to deal with Marui and Shiranui back to support against Jackal’s returns.

Their coach, Eishirou noted, was starting to fidget, crossing and uncrossing his arms, glaring at both pairs impartially. After Marui put the second point past Aragaki, Saotome growled and waved at Higa’s players with a familiar signal.

Shiranui looked over his head at Eishirou, questioning.

Calculations spilled through Eishirou’s mind, forming and reforming. His club was shifting uneasily around him; they all knew what that signal meant, and he suspected they were remembering Saeki’s words from yesterday. Cowards. No respect. Eishirou hadn’t needed Saeki to tell him. He’d always known the cost of going along with Saotome, attacking other coaches. It was a cost he was willing to pay, to establish Higa, and if he took an unsavory reputation to high school with him, well he’d be taking it with him instead of leaving it, wouldn’t he? Most of the team was bitter enough not to mind much, either.

If it could give them a chance to get past Rikkai, it would be worth it.

He nodded to Shiranui, and felt the breath of anticipation and maybe alarm that ran through his club. That would be nothing to what was about to run through Rikkai, though.

Shiranui signaled his partner to fall back, sheltering Aragaki from this, as he had so persistently that Eishirou had to wonder whether Shiranui actually understood the whole plan. At any rate, it was Shiranui who faked a stumble and turned his racquet, driving the ball with all the force of his arm straight at Rikkai’s captain, on the coach’s bench.

A shout went up from Rikkai’s club, joined by a roar from Higa, and there was the flat smack of a tennis ball against flesh.

And Yukimura was sitting right there on the bench, still, legs crossed easily. He wasn’t even looking up. One arm was still folded, and the other was stretched out, hand upraised. The tennis ball rested in his palm.

In the sudden, breathless quiet, Yukimura’s husky voice carried clearly.

“If you can’t win without this, it only proves your weakness. If you can win without it, there’s no need to even consider it. If you might win without it, but don’t dare to try…” he turned his head to look at the Higa bench, and Eishirou watched Saotome sway back from the razor sharp edge of Yukimura’s gaze, “…then you’ve merely weakened yourself and have no right to be standing on a court at Nationals, yet.” Yukimura turned his hand over and let the ball roll off his fingers to bounce away, and glanced up at the referee. “I believe this ball is out.”

“Ah… Y… yes, thirty-love!” the man stammered.

Yukimura smiled graciously and sat back on his bench, folding his arms again.

“What the hell are they?” Kai hissed, as the game resumed, looking as shaken as the referee. “He caught it! Not even a flinch!”

“They’re Rikkai,” Eishirou answered, low and tight, tense with the effort of not showing his club how those words had smarted. “Apparently that means almost as much as rumor says it does.”

He had not betrayed his team! What did Yukimura know about it, leading a team and club that had everything? Eishirou would do what it took to establish his team so they finally had an even chance, and the opportunity to decide for themselves how they would play.

He would do anything it took.

Quarter-finals: Hyoutei vs. Nagoya Seitoku

Atobe Keigo reflected, a little distantly, that he was very glad Higa had encountered Rikkai before there was any possibility of Hyoutei playing them. It wasn’t that he had any doubts about his team’s ability to win, but he honestly wasn’t sure what he might have done, or let his club do, if Higa had tried to injure Sakaki-sensei the way they’d just tried with Yukimura. He doubted it would have been particularly restrained.

He could feel the matching tension in the players around him ease, as Yukimura finished whatever he was saying to Higa and let the tennis ball he held drop from his fingers at last.

“I could almost feel sorry for what Rikkai will do to them, now,” Shishido muttered. “But not very.”

“Really, not at all,” Ohtori added, eyes glinting a bit. Come to think of it, there were times when Ohtori’s quiet ferocity reminded Keigo a bit of the kind of players Rikkai favored.

And of course, if Higa really had targeted their coach, then the actual outcome would be that they would deeply regret having done so, very soon after, in a back alley somewhere. It wasn’t as though Sakaki-sensei didn’t have the resources to take care of matters, himself.

Finally, contemplating this fact, Keigo smiled, and leaned back against the bleachers. “That’s Rikkai’s business to take care of; don’t let it distract you.” His smile thinned, as Oshitari slammed match point past Nagoya Seitoku’s Doubles Two pair. The player at the net had had his eyes glued to the next court. “Case in point.”

A gust of chuckles ran through his club, and he felt calmer as he rose to greet Oshitari and Mukahi as they came off the court. “Good job.”

“They don’t really seem up to National-class matches,” Oshitari noted as he caught the towel his partner tossed him. “Certainly not against us. They barely took Singles Three against Hiyoshi, and Nanahara is supposed to be one of their strongest players. They really must be relying on their transfer students, this year.”

“My turn, then,” Keigo answered lightly, more lightly than he really felt as he watched the tall, muscled blond stride out onto the other side of the court, and listened to the referee call Singles Two, Atobe versus Liliadent. This was sooner than he’d thought to test his progress against international players. He’d been aiming for Sanada, in this tournament, for Tezuka, and they were strong players, but he couldn’t quite help flexing his hands with the memory of drives that were always too bruisingly hard, always so infuriatingly impossible to catch…

“Keigo,” Sakaki-sensei said, not looking around. “Go.”

Keigo huffed a faint laugh, bending his head to the implicit order to stop panicking. “Yes, Kantoku.” He shrugged the jacket off his shoulders, tossing it over the rail with a flick of his wrist, and stepped onto the court.

“Another shrimp?” Liliadent muttered, in English, as they shook hands. “Nationals is going to be one long disappointment, at this rate.”

Keigo suppressed a snarl, because there was no point in letting them know they’d gotten to you, and replied, in the pure English he still spoke with his mother, sometimes, “It’s good that you’re prepared for a disappointment.”

Liliadent blinked, and then smiled, broad and white. “You speak English! Ha! I’m going to have to watch my mouth during this game, I suppose.”

Keigo was, at this point, recalling the many things he disliked about English sportsmen, and they were all encapsulated in the word ‘jolly’. His smile showed teeth. “Don’t forget to watch your game, while you’re at it.”

Liliadent laughed, giving his hand one last pump, and turned away into his court without even bothering with a return shot. Keigo carefully unclenched his jaw and strode back into his own side, setting himself to receive. This could, he reminded himself firmly, be a good trial for several things. He’d only dipped lightly into the World of Ice, so far in the tournament; this was an opportunity to test how it would work against an opponent who brought raw strength to the game, and to prepare himself for the coming match against (he was still sure of it) Sanada.

So he set aside his thoughts of that coming match, of Sanada possibly watching from the next court this very moment, of the scouting reports on how easily Nagoya Seitoku’s three foreign students had overwhelmed opposition this summer.2 He set aside his own tension and anger, his calculations, everything that was not enclosed in the white lines around them and this moment in time.

Liliadent tossed the ball up to serve, leaping high to meet it, and the sweep of his racquet drew a line in Keigo’s mind. He slid two steps to the side, swinging hard to meet the rising ball.

Stroke by stroke, rally by rally, the shape of Liliadent’s game built in Keigo’s mind. It was annoyingly slow going, though; he kept having to hold back his own conclusions and recalculate. That drive couldn’t be Liliadent’s real strength. That slice wasn’t sharp enough to be his limit; Keigo caught it easily. And his observations kept getting tugged sideways, in his head, as they went, snagging on the bunching of muscles in Liliadent’s arm as he swung, on the length of his stride as he bounded forward trying to catch Keigo’s serve, on his irritatingly hearty laugh when he missed.

And under it all, hot as the sun beating down on the court, was a thread of rage, because Liliadent was still toying with him, not using his full strength, even when he was down a game. It couldn’t be his full strength; Keigo’s hands weren’t even… numb yet… 

His own conclusion locked into place so hard that Keigo actually stumbled, losing the return he’d been chasing, stopping flat-footed on the court to stare at his opponent.

Liliadent paused, himself, brows rising. “Heat getting to you?” he called.

A growing chain of memories spilled through Keigo’s mind, one linking inescapably to the next. The feel in his hands, when he was younger, of balls too heavy to return. The same feel, when he turned up the speed of ball machines higher and still higher, to train. The softness of even the Hyoutei third-years’ balls, when he’d first joined the club, and the glee he’d felt then. The same numbness again, the first time he faced Sanada’s Fire, and the cold, sinking fury in his chest when he’d pulled his game in tight again, returned to the ball machines again and turned them up to brutal speeds.

The softness in Liliadent’s balls, now.

Keigo laid a hand over his eyes, laughing, first softly and then full out. When he swiped his hand back over his hair, both clubs were staring at him. 

“The heat is really getting to you?” Liliadent hazarded, looking nonplused by Keigo’s amusement.

“Not at all. I just realized I’d… forgotten something.” Keigo smiled, fiercely, lifted his hand, and snapped his fingers, small and clear in the silence. He could hear the intake of breath, from his club, and his smile turned sharper still.

Victory to Hyoutei! The winner will be Atobe!

Hyoutei’s chant swept over the court in a wall of sound, and Keigo chuckled at the way Liliadent swayed back a step. There was an edge of excitement in Hyoutei’s voices, and he wanted that, right now; it matched the feeling rising in his chest as he finally settled properly into the World of Ice, believed his own perceptions, and felt Liliadent’s game come clear with a snap he could feel in his bones.

Foreigner or not, bulky muscles or not, this player was weaker than Keigo.

Wild glee unfolded in his chest, and this time he let it, rode the rush, didn’t hold it back. For the first time, since he’d lost to Sanada two years ago, he let go of the delicate calculations of leverage and psychology and technique, and played with force.

It felt like flying, like he’d kicked away the weight of gravity as well as memory. The shape of Liliadent’s game was simple, at the core; it relied on his strength. And Keigo had finally, finally hauled himself up far enough to match that strength. It was the final key-turn that opened a door he’d had slammed on him twice, and he felt the new openness in every leap to serve, every skid of his shoes against the court as he set himself for a drive.

The end of the match almost caught him by surprise.

Liliadent was out of breath, when they met at the net. “Good game,” he said, with absent, automatic manners, before busting out, “So what the devil was that about, at the begining?”

“Ah, that?” Keigo shook Liliadent’s outstretched hand briskly, taking another silent moment’s pleasure in still having his full grip, hands only warm, not even tingling. “The memory of an old injury, I suppose you could say.”

Liliadent eyed him, possibly suspicious of his light tone, but finally shrugged and said, dryly, “Well, you seem to be past it. Perhaps I’ll be back for another match, sometime, then.” 

“Any time,” Keigo purred, thinking of the coming years, of a world full of tennis players to defeat, once he’d settled things here. He was smiling, bright and full of teeth, as he strolled back to his team.

Sakaki-sensei gave him a quelling look. “That took longer than it should have.”

Keigo ducked his head. “Yes, Kantoku.” He would have to work on that weakness in the World of Ice, he knew, the way his own fears could cripple his use of it.

“Mm. Are you ready for your next match, then?”

The one that would be against Sanada, almost certainly; Rikkai hadn’t changed their line-up the entire tournament, except to let Kirihara play now and then. Keigo thought about the power of Sanada’s tennis, about the flash of perception, of knowing, he’d had just before their unofficial match had been interrupted, and let out his breath, slowly. When he spoke, his voice was low and certain. “Yes.”

Sakaki-sensei nodded once, firmly, and waved Keigo back onto the bleachers. “Doubles One! Go and finish this.”

Ohtori and Shishido stepped past Keigo, and Shishido muttered as he did, “You are completely crazy, you know that, right?”

Keigo snorted. “As if you can talk, Mr. Barehanded Tennis.”

“Yeah, so I know it when I see it.”

Keigo laughed out loud as Shishido strolled out onto the court. He couldn’t really argue with that. 

When he emerged from toweling off his hair, though, and glanced across to see how Rikkai’s match was going, he started. Yukimura was looking back at him. After a long moment, Keigo offered him a cool nod. Yukimura smiled and turned back to his own team, speaking, not to Sanada, but to Kirihara, who was about to take the court against Kite.

So Yukimura wasn’t going to warn Sanada. Keigo snorted softly, and reflected, not for the first time, that Yukimura might just be the most merciless team captain of their generation. And that was something he knew, when he saw it.

Quarter-finals: Rikkai vs. Higa Again

Akaya hadn’t been the only one who’d had to pretty much hold himself to the bleachers to keep from lunging toward Yukimura-buchou when that ball had scorched in. He was, however, the only one of Rikkai who flinched at his captain’s words. They were a lot more pointed than anything Yukimura-buchou had said to him, but he knew perfectly well they applied.

“Calm down, Akaya,” Yanagi-senpai told him quietly, resting a hand on his shoulder as they watched Marui-senpai take another point with a steep-curving drive. “You’ve already found your own game. Now you just need to play it, yes?”

Akaya ducked his head. “Yes, Yanagi-senpai.”

“We wouldn’t be letting you play if you couldn’t do it,” Sanada-fukubuchou said, more bluntly, not turning around from where he stood at Yukumura’s shoulder. He’d planted himself there as soon as Yukimura-buchou dropped Higa’s ball, and hadn’t budged since. Akaya thought that Yukimura-buchou was a little amused by it; at least, he hadn’t said anything about it yet.

Akaya snuck a look along the bleachers at the Higa club, and the team members clustered at the foot, behind their captain. A whole team who played like this, who attacked in ways even he had never considered doing. He wondered whether they were all that afraid of losing. Why?

Out on the court, the Higa endurance player, Shiranui, pushed a fist into the air, yelling with triumph. He’d finally gotten a ball past Jackal-senpai, and that was three points for Higa.

That didn’t look like someone who was afraid of fighting head on because he might lose!

Akaya glanced at Higa’s captain again, frowning a little. He looked… approving. Even though his pair was three games down. He didn’t seem like someone upset over losing, either. So why had he told Shiranui to aim for Yukimura-buchou? Something really didn’t make sense, here.

Aragaki snuck a drop shot past Marui-senpai, and it was three games to one. Marui-senpai glanced over at Yukimura-buchou, brows lifted. Yukimura-buchou nodded, and Akaya sat back as Marui-senpai and Jackal-senpai fell back onto their court to receive, both of them up on their toes, taut and focused.

The last three games burned by in a rush of perfectly controlled shots up at the net and unbending defense on the backcourt. Marui-senpai was laughing as they came off the court, exhilarated the way he got after a good game. The other pair looked wrung out like rags, because they hadn’t given up until the last point was called, and the one thing Akaya felt he could say for sure about them was that Higa wasn’t playing violently to cover the same fear of losing he’d felt. But… what had Yukimura-buchou meant, then?

“Singles Two,” the referee announced. “Rikkai’s Kirihara versus Higa’s Kite!”

Akaya chewed his lip as he fished out his racquet, and he was slow to duck when Niou-senpai ruffled his hair thoroughly.

“Get out there and finish it,” Niou-senpai told him with a lazy smile as Akaya finally escaped and glared at him.

Akaya sniffed and pushed his hair back out of his eyes. “Of course I will.” His team’s smiles followed him over the low fence.

“Akaya,” Yukimura-buchou said quietly, and Akaya stopped beside him, attentive. “Kite has a very strong mental game, and I expect him to try to shake you. Remember the player you are, now. That’s all you need.” He looked up, eyes bright and intent. “That’s all you’ve ever needed.”

Akaya took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, Yukimura-buchou.” This was a vote of confidence, he reminded himself. His captain smiled at him.

“Get going, then.”

Akaya stepped firmly onto the court and went to meet Kite at the net.

“So this is where he put you.” Kite looked down at him, and Akaya swallowed at little at how cold his eyes were. “I expected you in Singles Three, not sent out to face Higa’s ‘Assassin’.” He glanced at Yukimura-buchou and snorted. “He’s a ruthless man, your captain.”

Akaya lifted his chin. “That’s why Rikkai is strong.”

“Is it?” Kite smiled, thin and cool. “So is Higa.” He turned and walked back into his court.

Was he saying Higa was strong because he was ruthless, too? Akaya frowned. Rikkai was more than that, though. It was just… Yukimura-buchou’s strictness brought their strength out. What was Kite bringing out of Higa?

Akaya shook his head briskly. He could wonder about that later. For now, there was a game to play. He set his feet and balanced himself, ready to move for the ball wherever it went.

“I apologize in advance, for this, Kirihara-kun,” Kite called, bouncing the ball on his baseline. “What you’re doing to reform your game is admirable. Unfortunately, that kind of attention to fair play and the full development of a player’s personal strength is also,” he threw the ball high, “the luxury of an established team!”

Akaya’s eyes widened as the ball tore through the air, straight for his head. He spun aside on pure reflex and heard it strike the court behind him. Turning his head slowly, breathing fast and light, he saw a mark on the blue surface behind him. Kite would have knocked him out, if that ball had connected.

Red hazed Akaya’s vision for a moment as he turned back to glare at his opponent.


Yukimura-buchou’s voice cut through the haze, cool and even. Akaya drew a long, shaky breath and nodded sharply, not taking his eyes off Kite. Yukimura-buchou had said Kite would push him. And that pissed him off enough to resist giving in, even if he didn’t already know he had stronger cards in his hand now.

Kite was bouncing another ball already. “Imagine if you weren’t in Rikkai, Kirihara-kun,” he said, as conversational as if he hadn’t just tried to give Akaya a concussion. “Imagine you didn’t have all that support from your illustrious senpai to draw on. How would you be playing now, without that?” He served with that bone-cracking force again, and Akaya bared his teeth, lunging to the side and back, swinging to catch the ball. He hissed when it jarred the racquet hard in his hands, ball going wild. It was like Sanada-fukubuchou’s Fire turned into a serve, and even harder to catch because it angled down so sharply.

And Kite’s words were jangling in the back of his head, ringing against his old despair, the fear he would never be able to catch the Three Demons. The fear he’d burned into rage and lashed out across the court with, to win however he could manage.

“A sympathy play from the Assassin?” Niou-senpai drawled from the bleachers, and Akaya looked over to see him leaning back on his elbows, lips curled in a sardonic smirk. “Come on, Akaya-chan, would you believe that if I was doing it?”

Akaya couldn’t help himself and burst out laughing at the very idea. Snickers wound through the Rikkai club, stifled because no one was entirely sure when Niou would take offense at such things.

“Yes, Kirihara-kun, that very support,” Kite said from across the net. “Only a team who already has a name and a place can afford it. And if I become a bogey-man,” he bowed a little to Niou, perfectly composed, “that’s fine, as long as Higa gets the notice they need to establish themselves. Imagine your tennis without that!”

Akaya nearly didn’t get himself set in time to return the next serve, and the ball was a high lob that Kite caught with disdainful ease and hammered back over the net. For an instant, there, Kite’s cool had slipped. Akaya feinted a leap to smash and batted the ball along the net instead. He almost didn’t hear his first point being called, though, staring at Kite while his mind whirled.

Kite wasn’t afraid of losing on his own behalf; there was no such fear in his shots. But there had been rage Kirihara recognized in his eyes, for that one moment. Rage over his team. Fear for his team? For what it would mean to them to remain an unknown? Kite kept mentioning support. Abruptly, Akaya realized that all of the equipment he’d seen Higa use was good quality… but worn. The ten or so club members with them had kept him from seeing it before, but Higa looked an awful lot like Fudoumine, that way, and who knew if Fudoumine would even exist next year? Higa’s coach hadn’t done a single useful thing all match, either; every time Akaya had seen meaningful directions being given, it was by Kite.

Directions that sacrificed his own pride, as a player and captain, with iron determination and no hesitation.

Now that, Akaya could respect a bit.

He straightened up and nodded to his opponent. “Yeah, it’s my senpai’s support that got me here. So let’s play, and I’ll show you what it’s done for me. And then your team will know the worth of what you’re doing for them.” He set himself in the middle of his court, feeling his focus narrow, his blood tingle. He had a serious game on his hands, here, and he would answer in kind.

Kite was very still for a long moment before he smiled thinly. “You’re going to be fairly good at the mental game yourself, Kirihara-kun.” That serve of his came screaming in again, just as dangerous as ever, and this time Akaya got the angle right, spun his body to absorb the force, and sent the ball singing back over the net.

Eishirou had known he was playing with fire, taunting Kirihara. He just hadn’t expected it to be Kirihara who saw through to the core of the words he was using as his weapon. Niou or Yanagi, he’d have expected it from, but Rikkai’s junior ace had a reputation as a hot-head, a player who let his temper drive him and not his intellect. Eishirou had expected to trigger that temper, not such an abrupt insight. Just what kind of training had Kirihara been doing, to spur him to that kind of perception?

During the third game, he got his answer.

He’d taken both his service game and Kirihara’s, though the second had been a close thing. Kirihara was fast, and seemed to think nothing of balls that would blow the racquet out of most players’ hands. Eishirou could tell that the Big Bang serve was taking a toll, though. Kirihara’s hands had to have gotten a little numb; Eishirou had taken the last point of the second game when Kirihara’s very tight cross-shot had wobbled just a little and let him catch in it time to lob it directly behind his opponent. So when the serve came to him again, he threw the ball up and sent it tearing over the net, prepared to batter Kirihara’s technique down with brute force, if that was what it took.

The first serve was returned, but the rally was brief, and Eishirou could tell he was on the right track. He breathed deeply, preparing his body for the wear of maintaining the Big Bang for multiple games, and served again.

And Kirihara changed.

It was almost tangible, and it shocked Eishirou still, as he landed. He knew this feeling, the electric shiver over his skin as Kirihara’s eyes widened, turned inward, and he moved. Half the Higa club was shouting; most of them were from the martial arts, and they recognized it too. That blank wall of intention that gave away nothing of Kirihara; the perfect, precise movement, a step to exactly where he needed to be, a weight shift and angle that absorbed the Big Bang’s force; the calm as the return ace sang past Eishirou’s foot and Kirihara just waited for the next serve, balanced on his toes. It was no-self. And Eishirou highly doubted Kirihara had ever seen or had demonstrated to him that counter to the Big Bang, so it had to be close to a complete state of no-self, in which Kirihara could still plan somewhat. Kirihara wasn’t just mirroring. He was perceiving and processing and responding from first principles. This was why Yukimura had given the pivotal match to his youngest player; this was how the hot-tempered Kirihara had started to see so clearly.

Two more Big Bang serves were returned cleanly, and Kirihara caught his drop shot perfectly, driving it past Eishirou’s shoulder to the far corner before even Eishirou’s Shukuchihou could reach it.

Two games to one.

Eishirou’s jaw clenched hard. He’d heard rumors, last year, that Chitose had learned how to apply no-self to his tennis, but Eishirou hadn’t seen it in this year’s Regional tournament. He’d never tried to do it himself; he had to think and calculate matches in ways that had nothing to do with that purity of response and everything to do with the grubby politics of getting noticed. Those were the tactics he’d polished, fanning his team’s bitter resentment into violence and preparing to call all the blame down on himself and Saotome.

Fine, then. They’d see which was stronger: Kirihara’s no-self or Eishirou’s will to do whatever it took.

As Kirihara’s serve came whipping in, Eishirou narrowed his eyes and aimed the return directly for Kirihara’s ankle.

This time, Akaya hadn’t had to reach for no-self. The knowledge had just been there, of what he needed to do to return that bruising serve, and he’d let himself take it. He’d slipped without even thinking into the clarity he’d been training to find, for a month, and everything fell together—Kite’s movement, the angle of his racquet, the path of the ball. One point was his, and then another. And another. It was easy.

Weirdly easy.

He could see the swing so clearly, could see the arc of the ball, targeted for his feet, his knees, his head, over and over. When they closed at the net and Kite dragged his racquet to fling grit into Akaya’s eyes, he might as well have drawn the line of his swing in the air, beforehand. Akaya faded aside and slammed the ball past Kite’s shoulder to take the fifth game. Another point. Another.

This, he thought distantly, as Kite deliberately angled another ball at Yukimura, driving Akaya to that side of the court but leaving his own backcourt completely open for Akaya’s return, this must be what he’d looked like to Yukimura and Sanada.

The thought slammed him out of no-self, and he stumbled even as the referee called four games to two in his favor, one knee hitting the surface of the court hard.

“What’s this, Kirihara-kun?” Kite demanded, standing tall and straight still, for all he was breathing hard. “Used up too much of your endurance so soon? What a shame.” There was a predatory light in his eyes, all the brighter for the desperation behind it. Akaya just stared at him, mind blank with shock.

That was what he’d looked like. All the time he’d been falling back on violence to win, he’d just been making it easier for them to defeat him. He had to swallow hard, and then again, almost sick with the realization.

“Akaya!” Sanada-fukubuchou’s bark jerked his head around to see Yukimura-buchou watching him with cool sympathy and no mercy. Sanada-fukubuchou was still standing at their captain’s shoulder, arms folded. “Stop daydreaming and play your game,” he directed firmly.

Akaya’s game. His new game, the one that could win. That didn’t give itself to defeat ahead of time. Akaya took a slow, shaky breath and locked his mental hands tight on that thought. He stood and flexed his fingers around his racquet, eyes closed. The cheers and shouts of the club didn’t matter. His senpai’s eyes on him didn’t matter. Kite’s desperation, so hideously familiar, didn’t, couldn’t matter. All that mattered was the game and the court, the net and the ball, and the two of them moving. Another slow breath and he found his balance again, the weightless poise that action flowed out of.

When he opened his eyes again, Kite was watching him with a grim set to his mouth, and he spun on his heel and stalked back to serve without a word. Akaya’s calm wavered again, but he held on to it, and he was ready for the ball that scorched in straight toward his head.

It was so obvious.

Ball after ball, he knew where Kite was going, what he would aim for next, saw the openings Kite left as that icy focus of Kite’s locked down tighter and tighter. Ignored more and more possibilities.

The last two games went fast.

When Akaya finally let himself slide out of the waiting stillness of no-self, though, he realized he was shaking. Kite lifted a brow at him when they shook hands over the net, and Akaya couldn’t find any words at all to answer. He barely made it back to the bleachers before his legs gave out and he had to bend down to rest his head on his knees.

He’d looked like that. He’d given his games away as obviously as that. He’d wrapped up his own defeat in a bow and handed it to the opponents he most wanted to beat. What right did he have to be standing on the National courts?

Yukimura-buchou sat down beside him, one hand resting gently on the back of Akaya’s neck. “You understand, now?”

Akaya nodded, a tiny movement, because he felt like anything more might make him fall into little pieces.

“Would you have understood, if you hadn’t seen it yourself?”

Akaya swallowed. “Maybe not.” After another breath, spent remembering his senpai trying to describe the holes in his old technique to him, and him not getting what they were talking about. “Probably not.”

Yukimura-buchou’s hand tightened a little. “I don’t want you to slide back there, Akaya. You’re stronger than that.”

“Pull yourself together, Akaya,” Sanada-fukubuchou added, briskly, dropping a towel over his head. “You’re not running away any longer.”

Akaya looked up from under the towel at that, glancing back and forth between them, stomach fluttering because it was what he wanted to believe. Yukimura-buchou smiled, not gently but the way he smiled at interesting opponents, sharp and delighted. It made the flutter sharper, but that was the way Akaya had always wanted his captain to look at him, and he straightened up with a deep breath to answer it. “It would be pretty pointless to play like that again, considering what I just saw.”

Sanada-fukubuchou hmph-ed, short and satisfied, and Yukimura-buchou laughed. “Yes. That isn’t a style that makes for very interesting opponents.” He glanced over at the Higa team, and his smile turned cool. “Kite is stronger than that, too. We’ll have to see if he understands, now, also.”

Akaya glanced over at them, also, nibbling his lip. He didn’t want to play another game like this with Kite, that was for sure. But maybe… maybe Kite would understand sooner than he had. Since Akaya was pretty sure he’d had completely different reasons for playing that way.

Kai was waiting at the fence as Eishirou came off the court, knuckles white from his grip on the top rail.

The grip turned out to be just as bruising as it looked, transferred to Eishirou’s shoulders.

“Was all that really true?” Kai demanded, low. “You had us do this just so we’d be noticed?”

“Higa won’t get a good coach, or even a less stupidly brutal one, unless we get more than local attention,” Eishirou pointed out reasonably, and brought up his forearms to break Kai’s hold; he really wanted a drink.

“Damn it, Kite, you’re the captain right now! If you didn’t think this was the way we should be playing—”

“It satisfied you,” Eishirou cut him off, leaning back against the fence and taking another swallow.

Kai ran his hands through his hair in utter exasperation, actually knocking his cap off. “That’s not the point! The only way to change things after this would be to disavow you along with Saotome!”

Eishirou lifted his brows at his vice-captain. “Of course.”

Kai’s hands fell and he stared at Eishirou, wordless.

“Kite-buchou,” Tanishi started, and stopped, looking just as much at a loss. Eishirou sighed.

“This is why I didn’t tell you sooner.” He pulled the towel out of his bag, straightening up with a twinge of strained muscles; Kirihara had been nearly as much of a demon to play as the third-year singles players were rumored to be. “No, I don’t think Saotome’s advice was good. Saeki was perfectly right that few teams will respect anyone who injures bystanders. But it’s been a shattering tactic a few times, it satisfied your resentment, and it certainly made us stand out. Once you have attention in the first place, it isn’t hard for people to recognize your genuine strengths.” He took another long swallow and swept his gaze over his stunned team. “I’ll have to hope that Best Eight is enough leverage to attract someone actually useful to advise the team next year, once I’m gone.”

“And what,” Kai asked after a long moment, dangerously soft, “do you intend to do next year, if you take this reputation with you?”

Kite adjusted his glasses and looked down his nose at his vice-captain. “Break the mental game of all my opponents by not doing what they expect.”

Kai tried to keep glaring, but his lips twitched helplessly, and finally he scrubbed a hand over his face, laughing. “You are such an asshole, Eishirou. I’m coming to Shuri with you, and if you keep something like this from me again, you’ll be the one eating gouya, got it?”

“Quite,” Eishirou murmured, and noted the easing of his team’s shoulders with some satisfaction. He’d always trusted Kai with the morale and care of the team.

The moment of relaxation was, of course, broken by their coach stomping by and snarling, “I’m going back to the hotel. You losers can hang around to watch the teams who actually stuck it out, if you want to.”

Eishirou had a ball in his hand before the thought actually reached the front of his mind, that the tournament and the season were over for him and he had no reason to put up with Saotome’s abuse of his team any more. “Kite!” Hirakoba exclaimed, but the ball was already in the air. It sizzled past Saotome’s head, perfectly aimed, just clipping his ear enough to leave it red as Saotome stumbled and fell flat on his ass on the court, suddenly pale. Shocked silence reigned as Eishirou stood over him.

“Saotome-sensei, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to speak more moderately,” he chided. “My team has come first in the Prefectural and Regional tournaments, and has demonstrated their worth and ability to stand among the eight strongest junior high teams in Japan. I think ‘losers’ is really a bit uncalled for, don’t you?” He waited until Saotome nodded, jerkily, and inclined his head in return. “Thank you so much, for all your hard work.” He turned on his heel and beckoned his team to follow him up to the net to exchange bows with Rikkai.

Niou was smirking, and Yagyuu wore a faint smile of the kind Eishirou recognized from the mirror. Men after his own heart, and he’d have to remember that danger next year. Yukimura smiled as they shook hands, polite and impenetrable.

“I’ll look forward to meeting you next year, when you aren’t weighed down by this year’s agenda.”

Eishirou paused and studied Yukimura more closely; did he mean to say that Eishirou had been distracted by his purpose, this tournament? That he had somehow been held back by it? “Hmm.”

The thought niggled at him a little as Higa decamped to the park area to eat lunch. The evidence—Yukimura’s response to the attempt to injure him, that counter mental game he’d played so well—said that Yukimura was a good strategist and analyst, himself. Had he seen something in Eishirou’s game that was off? Eishirou turned over the match with Kirihara, in his mind, as they picked over the bento Akimizu had brought for the club and he listened to Chinen and Aragaki bargain over how many croquettes one fried shrimp was worth. Eishirou had lost, yes, but surely that was simply proof that Kirihara had been stronger, in this match. What had Yukimura seen to make him think otherwise?

He had the rather annoying feeling that the question was going to stay with him for a while.


1. “Another Story” is also as dead to me; dead, dead, dead. I’m going with manga-only backgrounds, and not even that when it seems too ridiculous. Therefore, Oshitari is the only cousin in here, nothing particular will be made of it, and Ishida is definitely not related to Ishida because that was one of the deeply artificial attempts to add narrative tension, and is not required here. back

2. I liked the thought of pulling in a foreign player, against Atobe, given his background, but a whole team worth seemed like overkill. So, in this verse, Nagoya Seitoku just has one singles player and a doubles pair, which allows for a little more parity, strategy, and interest. back

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