When Tezuka came out of the National stadium long after sending the rest of his team off to their victory party, he was immediately aware of the boy perched on the fence by the door, racket bag at his feat.
"Kirihara-kun," he said mildly, wondering who the boy was waiting for. To the best of his knowledge, the rest of Rikkai had already left, the doubles pairs to go home and commiserate over their loss, the Troika to get Yukimura checked out at the hospital to ensure he hadn't done any permenant damage by playing a harder match than he'd technically been allowed to.
"I've never seen Sanada-fukubuchou play like that before," he said, sounding almost wistful. "Against Mura-buchou, the match is over too fast and against anyone else…"
Tezuka reminded himself that this was the boy who'd sent Inui to the hospital mere hours ago. This side of Kirihara gave him an idea of why Yukimura liked him so much.
"Once you get to a certain standard, it's hard to find opponents to match you," he said eventually: that should be neutral enough. There was no need to point out that given another month, when he himself was on his best form, he'd be able to defeat Sanada as quickly as Yukimura.
"I've seen him play Atobe and Yagyuu-senpai and Niou-senpai and Yanagi-senapi and they can all take games off him. Why was this different?"
"In some games, the only thing you can do is to set aside your self-control and put everything you have into every shot," Tezuka said, echoing things he'd said before to Momoshiro, Kaidoh and Echizen.
"Fukubuchou always tells me to get a grip when I do that in practice matches."
Ah, so that was the problem. Tezuka smiled inwardly: maybe it would be hard to comprehend for someone like Kirihara, who had always retreated into wildness when threatened rathen than the rigid control that he preferred.
"Kirihara-kun, is there a difference between falling into a swimming pool and diving in?" he asked, seeing the comprehension dawning. "When Sanada and I played, we made a conscious decision to give everything in the match, probably going beyond what was sensible. At the same time, like a swimmer who dives in, we know what we're doing. When you lose control, are at the mercy of your self-doubt, which is why you try so hard to finish the matches quickly. Sanada knows that you are capable of better."
"A win is a win," he said sulkily, though he did at least seem to comprehend the difference.
Tezuka raised an eyebrow.
"To attempt to injure an opponent in order to win is the same as admitting that you couldn't beat them with your tennis alone. It is more satisfying to 'crush' them by demonstrating that your skill is beyond their reach," he said dryly. Not perhaps how he thought about it but what he had heard Kirihara say in the past.
Kirihara slipped off the fence and cocked his head to one side.
"But I always play better when I lose it."
"You are physically capable of that level of skill regardless of your mindset. You currently require the loss of control to access the mental capability. It's like it can take a while to be able to consciously use Muga no Kyouchi. Yukimura is more than conscious of this."
"That's why I didn't get a singles slot for finals. Because Yanagi-senapi can trick me into doing what he wants."
Tezuka couldn't help but want to smile: he sounded just like Echizen when he was told he couldn't play in the Hyotei match back in the Kantou tournament.
"I suspect there were more tactical reasons for that, just as there were for playing you in singles 2 in the semi-finals. In many ways, you remind me of Echizen."
"Did you hear what Sanada said about him?"
"The only reason he's got those skills is because all you third years do."
"To a certain extent, I agree with him. Echizen has been exposed to new skills which, because of his innate talent, he is soaking up. However, he's picking them up too fast to learn to control them. You stretched your abilities again when you played that match against Krauser. By placing you in doubles rather than in singles, Yukimura is giving you the time to adapt to your new limits. If Echizen was capable of playing doubles, I might have done the same."
There was a laugh from behind them.
"I doubt it somehow, Tezuka. You knew that without him you don't have enough top level singles players to beat us."
Tezuka sighed. It was one thing to give advice to a younger player from another team. It was quite another to do so and find out that said player's captain had been listening to you.
"Mura-buchou, I thought you were at the hospital?"
"We finished there. Yagyuu texted to let me know that you were planning on loitering here for a while. I was curious enough to come and check on you."
"Then there aren't any problems?"
Yukimura smiled him. Tezuka could see the concerned kohai now and understood that whatever Kirihara thought of his opponents, among his team he was a friend and a younger brother.
"None whatsoever, though I was told that even I couldn't justify interpreting it as 'a light match'."
Kirihara laughed along with him and Tezuka couldn't help but smile. Techically, he'd done something rather similar when he played Atobe: the lure of a good match was too great to resist, particularly when it was so critical for the team as well.
"Do you understand what Tezuka was saying, Akaya?" Yukimura asked, the stern captain again.
Kirihara nodded, though his face was still dubious. Tezuka couldn't tell whether that was because he doubted the truth of the words or whether he could achieve what Yukimura clearly wanted of him. His captain reached out to ruffle his hair.
"I know that one day you will catch us, Akaya. It might take you a while but you have the potential, else I wouldn't have chosen you for my team."
"I explained it satisfactorily, then?" Tezuka asked sardonically and was rewarded by laughter.
"Seigaku produces philosphers, Rikkai technicians: you know that as well as I do. Besides, the only person who understands control as well as you do is Yagyuu and Akaya stopped listening to him after he realised that he was never sure whether it was Niou or Yagyuu he was speaking to."
"Buchou, Tezuka-san, you're both still dressed for tennis…"
Tezuka and Yukimura looked at each other, a matching glint in their eyes. They couldn't play each other yet, they were in no condition for a match like that so soon after their official matches, but Akaya was fair game.
"It was an interesting trick you pulled in Singles 2. I wasn't aware that Niou could imitate anyone other than Yagyuu," Tezuka commented mildly as they made their way towards the practice courts at the far end of the grounds. To see himself playing Fuji had been unsettling, to say the least. To see himself lose had been even more so.
"He can't, generally."
"Niou-senpai and Yagyuu-senapi have spent two hours a day every day since Kantou locked in the clubroom watching tapes of you," Kirihara said, smirking.
"I... see," Tezuka said, wondering exactly how Kirihara had managed to make that seem risque when really he knew that it was most likely just tapes of his old matches.
"And you spent about the same amount of time running laps after Genichirou caught you trying to snog Renji in the clubroom. Fuji is something of an unpredictable element so something special was required. Once we guessed where he was going to be placed, we decided playing you would be most unsettling for him. Not even all the regulars knew. Originally, it was just those two and me. We caught Akaya watching through the window about a week ago. Your Kaidoh surprised me. I had been told that his game was a simple one of endurance with a few Buggy Whip shots thrown in."
"He's come a long way this season; all of us have."
"Except you, perhaps," Yukimura suggested lightly. "If anything you've come backwards. How long is it now?"
"In time for the All Japan Juniors then. I'll hope to meet you there."
Tezuka smiled. This tournament was over, true, but there were others coming up, other bittersweet victories and defeats and he had a feeling that Yukimura would be at his side - or rather across the net - through all of them, just as he had been for the last three years. His team would manage if he didn't reach Kawamura Sushi for a while - he had tennis to play.