A/N: Here's the seventh chapter! Things will be picking up starting from here. Who's excited about the tournaments? I am!
Disclaimer: Konomi Takeshi owns Prince of Tennis.
Chapter Seven: Viper, sealed
As a child, Yuuta had always admired his brother's blue eyes. He would not miss an opportunity to see them, rare as they were, because such unguarded moments allow him to at least try to understand the enigma that was his brother. At an early age, Fuji had already learned to hide his emotions and thoughts beneath his carefully crafted smiling mask.
He knew the nuances of those eyes. It would take a particularly strong impetus to have the genius reveal them freely, and even then the intensity of the gaze varies into many layers. Still, the sight of blue meant that Fuji was as good as an open book with his feelings, and quite possibly, with his potential.
Generally, it would indicate seriousness – either Fuji himself had finally loosened his reigns and became serious, or he had witnessed something of serious gravity. And in the case of today's practice match, it was obviously the latter. In all probability, he had caught on to something that definitely could not be missed.
Yuuta turned his attention back to the court. Despite being familiar with the team for years, he did not know the extent of what each of them could do. He used to have eyes only for his brother, but as Echizen taught him the hard way, there were many interesting players in the world. He was no data man, but he wouldn't let this opportunity to observe his teammates go to waste.
Oishi paused to look at the other half of the Golden Pair from the other side of the court. The usually energetic acrobat was uncharacteristically aloof, taking deep measured breaths as he transferred his weight to either foot, preparing to receive the coming serve. Whenever he was in this condition, his next move was beyond anyone's guess, including his partner of five years.
Even Inui, their resident data man, would agree. Kikumaru was one of the most difficult players in the team to gather data on, second only to Fuji. There was no telling how he would hit the ball, especially with his acrobatics creating endless possibilities for him. But more importantly, the red-haired boy was a formidable thinking player with an excellent motion-sight, and this serious side to his quirky nature only increased his abilities tenfold.
Up against this Kikumaru, Oishi decided to stay cautious. He served the ball, aiming to the corner of the service box in an attempt to temporarily stop the other pair's assault. It was a difficult angle, allowing the ball to easily escape from the court, but the acrobat did not hesitate to go after it, catching up with his seal step.
"The formation's broken! Now's their chance!" Yuuta said from the sidelines. His three companions, however, remained silent.
The ball went straight to the Kaidou at the net. He took a volleying stance to send it to the emptied court, but all of a sudden, someone's presence loomed over him.
Momoshiro? Where did he come from..?
It was too late. The ball already left his racket, which the other boy readily sent back with a passing shot.
For a few moments, the court went still and nothing but the sound of the ball bouncing off the fence could be heard.
"That's... that's three points in a row," Yuuta said to break the silence. "Are they aiming for a short-lived match?" He glanced at his brother, hoping he would get an answer.
"Not necessarily," the genius said cryptically. "Rather, it is an inevitable outcome of their strategy."
"What do you mean, Fuji?" Kawamura asked. He too had been surprised that the match was getting one-sided. He honestly thought that it would be anyone's game, given how long the four of them knew each other. Or did Kikumaru and Momoshiro grow that much in his absence?
Inui answered for the genius. "It's like chess. Right, Fuji?"
"Aa," the boy replied, but his eyes did not leave the courts. One person is making this happen...
"Please explain, Inui-senpai."
The data man paused his writing and pushed his glasses. "What Momoshiro and Eiji have been doing is similar to the four moves strategy in chess. Their every move is calculated to lead to checkmate, catching the unsuspecting opponent off guard."
"Wouldn't that make them aiming for a quick match?" Yuuta asked. He couldn't quite follow where this was going.
"As Fuji said, not necessarily. Their real aim is to prevent the opponent from setting up their own attack, and it's working better than they expected."
From behind his thick glasses, Inui sent a worried glance to Kaidou, who took his position at the net.
Kikumaru held the ball to his chest and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Such rare ritual did not escape the watch of his teammates, but they were more concerned about his second year partner.
"What's with this formation..." Yuuta remarked as he glanced at Momoshiro, who stood in position behind the baseline. "Why isn't he going to the net?"
"A defensive formation..." Kawamura offered his opinion. "But why this, when they've been successful in their offense so far?" Are they luring Oishi and Kaidou to attack?
"Both Oishi and Kaidou are counterpunchers. If they're not forcing them to make their move, then there can only be one explanation to this formation," Inui said, the glint in his glasses hiding the direction of his glance, which was focused on a certain person.
Yuuta sighed. Inui was just as vague as aniki when it comes to explaining. He opened his mouth to ask for specifics, but his brother cut him off. "Watch."
After one last bounce of the ball, Kikumaru served and dashed for the net.
"Serve and volley..." I see. Momoshiro-kun positioned himself at the baseline so Eiji-senpai can freely make his approach.
Oishi however read into this move well. He drew his racket back and prepared for the service return. He couldn't afford to mess up the timing. How about this, Eiji?
"As expected of Oishi. He aimed a ball to the feet to throw Eiji off balance."
Beside Inui, Yuuta held his chin in thought. If I remember right, aniki made the same move against Akutagawa-san three years ago. But at this speed, can Eiji-senpai evade the ball?
As if hearing his thoughts, Momoshiro smirked from the baseline. Of course he can.
Before the ball could reach him, Kikumaru's feet disappeared from the ground. Using the momentum from his sprint, he pulled himself into a back flip, the ball perfectly hitting the sweet spot of his racket half way through his landing. His lips curved upward when he heard the bounce, and a split second later he was back on his feet.
"Four-zero," Kazue declared from the umpire's seat. It did not show in her face, but the gears in her mind were already turning. Such confidence... so this is what you're made of, huh, Kikumaru Eiji?
Behind the fence, somebody was even more amazed at the red-haired boy. Yuuta had always known that Kikumaru's acrobatics was incredible, but the play just now exceeded his expectations. "I guess cats really do have nine lives. Eiji-senpai doesn't seem scared to do his stunts at all."
Fuji chuckled at his younger brother's analogy. "Eiji always plays with a complete trust of his partner." At the court, Kikumaru and Momoshiro exchanged a high-five. The genius' gaze, however, was focused on the rowdy second year.
A moment later, he turned to Oishi's and Kaidou's dejected form on the other side of the court, and then to their manager sitting quietly on the umpire's seat. What is she planning to do?
"I don't get it," Yuuta began, "if this is really like the four-move strategy, a single move from Oishi-senpai and Kaidou-kun could easily foil it. I mean, that's how it works in chess right?"
Without taking his eyes from his notebook, Inui answered him. "Perhaps, the better analogy would be checkmate."
"Like a trapped king, they can't move at all," Fuji said.
Yuuta scowled. That doesn't really say anything.
Seeing his dissatisfied expression, Inui cleared his throat and began to explain.
"Notice that all of the attacks are directed towards Kaidou. I'm sure you already know, but Kaidou is a baseliner. At the net, up against Eiji's agility and Momoshiro's quick thinking, there isn't much that he can do. Kaidou isn't very well-known for his reflexes."
As if to prove his point, another ball zoomed past the viper.
"Can't Oishi do anything?" Kawamura asked.
"He's trying, but Eiji and Momoshiro have been doing great placing their shots. In such fast-paced rallies too," Inui said. "But I doubt he will take this sitting down."
Yuuta's eyes widened when the ball was returned for the seventh time. For the first time in the match, a longer rally ensued. And what's more, Oishi had been taking all the shots, intercepting them at the net.
"This is..." Kawamura began, a wave of nostalgia suddenly enveloping his being.
"Oishi territory," Inui finished for him and automatically lapsed into an explanation. "I guess he will stop the bleeding first with his impenetrable defense, and then make plays while defending the front court."
"This is probably the best formation for this pair. Not only they can eliminate Kaidou's weakness at net play, but they can also make better use of his snake shots when he's at the back," Inui continued.
A certain genius, however, only narrowed his eyes.
Momoshiro hit a cross-court to the left, where Kaidou had been waiting for his chance. He took the all-too-familiar stance – racket raised and arm bent – and put a tremendous spin on the ball. The viper finally revealed his fangs, and like a giant serpent, its flexible body curved as its jaws prepared to lock on its prey.
The sound of hurried footsteps took everyone by surprise. Kikumaru, with his ninja-like speed, ran from the other end of the court, and then dived in time to reach the ball for a variation of his Kikumaru beam.
"Ii data... who would've thought that Eiji would be Kaidou's greatest bane?"
Oishi immediately approached Kaidou and patted him on the shoulder. "Sorry, that was a miscalculation on my part. Let's get them on the next point."
Kazue gave the third year a penetrating glance. This is your weakness, Oishi. For a renowned strategist, you made your move a little too late.
Kaidou could sense defeat, but they weren't about to go down without a fight. He served again, and the game broke into another rally. Oishi had been holding up well at the net, until afterimages of Kikumaru's form appeared on Momoshiro's both sides.
Oishi fired the ball to one side after a moment of hesitation. The afterimages then merged into one, and Kikumaru hit the ball past the other boy.
"We're not done yet!"
With a grunt, Kaidou chased the ball. It landed to his right, but when he checked the other side's formation, the acrobat's afterimages also greeted him.
Where should I hit it? Left? Right?
He couldn't afford even a split second of indecision. He made up his mind and hit the ball. A snake.
Kikumaru's eyes focused on the ball as it made its magnificent curve, measuring its trajectory. But instead of running to the opposite direction, the acrobat threw his body forward.
Kaidou's eyes widened. He read the spin!
The ball suddenly curved sharply for a shorter version of the snake shot. Kikumaru, who had been waiting for it, returned it with a cross-court, but Kaidou's long reach allowed him to clip it for a lob.
Oishi could only watch as Momoshiro's body covered the afternoon sun, and then smashed the ball to the empty court with all of his might.
"Winner of the first match: Kikumaru-Momoshiro pair."
"You guys surely pulled all the stops," Oishi said as the four of them went to the net to shake hands. "It's our complete loss."
Now that the match was over, Kikumaru was back to his usual cheery self and grinned at his partner. "It's only natural, nya. I'll do anything to save myself from Inui juice!"
All the blood suddenly escaped Oishi's and Kaidou's faces. Shit! We totally forgot!
As if on cue, Inui appeared before them with two cups of a dark green liquid in hand. And then, his glasses shone a dangerous glint. "Bon apetit."
With shaking hands, Oishi and Kaidou took the drink. They both swallowed hard and prayed for some sort of divine intervention to save their throats and stomachs, but when nothing came, they slowly lifted the glass to their mouths and saw their lives flash before their teary eyes.
Yuuta could only watch in horror as they finished everything in one gulp, dropping the cups as they did so. They stood frozen for a few seconds, and then suddenly ran like mad men to the fountains, the nerves in their eyes turning bright red while they muttered incoherent curses with their paralyzed tongues.
An hour later he and Inui joined them to the fountains, their bodies sprawled in the ground like slaughtered pigs. They lost 3-7 to Kawamura and Fuji, who didn't seem like they stopped playing together for years at all with their combination.
Inui looked like he would lose consciousness any minute, but he ran a few calculations despite his hazy mind.
Irukawa-san put those two together so Kawamura would get into grips with playing in the team again. Really, she puts a lot of thought into this... But more importantly, I didn't think I put too much wasabi in the Inui juice...
And then he passed out.
The sky was already bright orange when Kousuke and Kazue began their way home. The man was whistling a merry tune as they passed a busy street in a shopping district, but despite all the items on sale at the center of the females' attention, he was getting a lot of awestruck stares as usual.
That was when Kazue suddenly remembered something.
"Earlier during practice, where did your fan girls go?" The girl threw her father an inquisitive glance.
"Well, I knew you'll eventually snap if they keep disrupting practice, so I took care of them," Kousuke made a smiling expression that greatly reminded her of Fuji's.
Kazue quickly removed the image from her mind and shot him a more probing look.
"Fine, fine. I told them I'm going to take a picture with the team who wins our class tournament, so they were at the gym practicing real hard."
Kazue allowed herself a small smile despite herself. Smooth, father.
"So, how's that person? Did you find a replacement?"
In an instant, Kazue turned business-like. "I need to observe him for another while, but I think he has to sit out the initial tournaments. I did find someone who can take his place. I believe he'll do quite well."
"I'll leave him to you, then."
Behind a certain bush, a disappointed Inui scribbled what he just heard in his green notebook.
Not a hint at all of who they're talking about... as expected from Irukawa-san. Gathering data would be harder than I thought.
A/N: Inui started his usual stalking. Just who is Kazue and Kousuke referring to? Stay tuned for the next chapter! Don't forget to leave a review. I appreciate feedback!