Title: El Alma del Tango

Author: Kiarene
Pairings: Sanada / Atobe

Rating: G
Summary: No other dance connects two people more closely than the tango.

Published: 23rd November 2005
Disclaimer: I would love to own Atobe-sama and gang but I dont.

 

A/N: My interpretation of the famous Tezuka zone *grins* And, my apologies for the long delay in updating. I already had the story sketched out long ago, but it would figure I have to polish it up is the week before my exam before I have to hand in my final assignment I have no time. But Im bored. Does that make sense?

 

 

El Alma del Tango

 

4th Dance

 

It was my second year in high school.

 

Atobe and I, surprisingly enough, stayed in contact even though we no longer needed to meet up for practice.

 

We might arrange to meet once in a blue moon, but mostly we kept running across each other. I guess we were more similar than we thought. Atobe would say great minds have the same great taste. And once in a rare while, if I meet up with him on the street courts, we might issue a doubles challenge, for old times sake. We always won. It was an amusing hobby for us; everyone knew we would never play doubles, except with each other. So whenever we picked up our rackets and strode onto the courts together, even if they had no chance of winning, everyone rushed to pick up our challenge. Atobe and I were always amused.

 

Atobe was promoted to Hyoteis team captain and he called to me brag that same night. I rolled my eyes but I have to admit it was quite an unprecedented event for Hyotei to choose a second-year captain. Seiichi made vice-captain this year so I suppose I would be vice-captain next year.

 

However, Atobe had always been in a class of his own. He set new standards and upset old traditions. I heard his successors on the Hyotei Junior High tennis team all have a hard time living up to Atobes legacy. It wasnt so much the track record of his team, but more his sheer physical presence he exuded charisma and authority. Akaya called it a bucho aura. While Atobe had been a vice-captain in his second year in junior high, he didnt have or didnt need a vice-captain when he rose to captain the following year. Odd, that. I never did get around to asking him the reason.

 

The usual schools got into the Kantou Finals; Seigaku won the district finals while Hyotei came in second. As a result, the two schools would not have to face each other until the finals, provided they win all of their matches before that. That same afternoon after the ballot, where Atobe went down to represent Hyotei, he messaged me:

 

[Will finally get to beat Tezuka.]

 

I felt a surge of irritation at the message is he *still* obsessed with Tezuka? He did talk about playing against Tezuka whenever an opportunity for Hyotei to play against Seigaku arose but somehow, he never got the chance. I havent heard him mention Tezuka in some time so I thought he would have forgotten this silly fixation.

 

I called Atobe, reminding him that Tezuka wouldnt be the only challenging player he *might* be facing. Atobe hummed, agreeing with me, but I got the distinct feeling he wasnt *listening*.

 

It got worse from there.

 

Atobe trained obsessively. If he had trained hard for the district finals, he increased his training workload for the Kantou Finals by at least 50%.

 

He watched all of Tezukas matches, over and over again. It was all he talked about. It got to a point where I dread his calls, knowing the topic would inevitably drift to Tezuka. He studied the left-handed players and he worried over the so-called Tezuka zone.

 

Exceptional players *have* gotten past it before, like Seigoku, but they relied on excessive power, Atobe said one day. The two of us were seated on the stone benches at the street courts, where some of our team members were fooling around. Atobe and I came down once in a while to observe the other players but we would rather not play, especially not this close to the tournament.

 

But is that the only way? His expression was thoughtful. Mine probably looked bored. One disadvantage of using excessive power is a reduction on control over the ball. Also, one would tire faster.

 

I had nothing to say because I never really thought much about Tezuka, except as just another rival to beat in my climb to the top. Tezuka, in my opinion, is good. But not that good. I frowned, leaned back and looked up at the sky. The weather looked like it might rain.

 

I lolled my head to the side, looking at Atobe.

 

Unconsciously, Atobe brought his right hand up to his face, splaying his finger in his usual Insight posture. There must be a weakness to that technique There must *be*!

 

I turned back to stare at the sky.

 

~

 

The seats were packed, and there were people seated on the steps and standing outside the fences. It was one of *those* matches, the kind between two powerhouses that comes once in a blue moon.

 

Hyoteis Atobe against Seigakus Tezuka.

 

Tezuka, the vice-captain for Seigaku, was playing in the Singles 2 slot. Somehow, Atobe knew that and for this tournament, put himself in Singles 2 instead of Singles 1. So far, the score was 21, Hyotei having won both doubles games. Seigakus weakness was always in their doubles, though they had excellent singles players.

 

A pity, I thought. Having the best singles players is sometimes no use if your doubles teams drag you down. Hyotei learned that the hard way when they lost 30 to Fudomine two years back in the district tournaments. By seeding their best player, Tachibana, in Singles 3 instead of Singles 1, Fudomine never gave Hyotei a chance to rally. I realized that as well, when Atobe and I were assigned Doubles 2 in the Junior Invitational Match that year.

 

We my team that is argued about the choice of seating initially; Akaya was rooting for Atobe, while Renji was close friends with Inui from Seigaku. Finally, I made the decision for them and that was why the Rikkadai team was seated next to the white and brown of Hyoteis students.

 

Akaya made a cheeky face at Renji and then turned towards the court. Atobe, he yelled. Atobe, who was seated on the bench waiting, turned.

 

Akaya gave him a cocky grin and made a v sign. Atobe smirked at him, and then, looking at me, gave me a nod before turning his attention back to the court.

 

Interesting, Renji said in that quiet creepy way that reminded me of Inui. If he had glasses, he probably would have adjusted them.

 

I see what you mean, Akaya. Masaharu grinned.

 

Having no idea what they were talking about, I ignored them. Akayas bright green eyes were twinkling cheekily. Since Genichirou would never stir himself to cheer for Atobe, we should work harder on his behalf, eh?

 

Atobe hardly need the lot of you to cheer for him, I said dryly. Around us, the Hyotei fans were already working themselves into a feverish pitch.

 

But Atobe needs *you* to cheer for him. Ne? Akaya nodded, grinning to the others. Everyone nodded back. Idiots, all of them.

 

The two players started off easy, because even though you *think* you know somebody, you know all his moves and you know what level he plays at; assumption does not equal reality. And too much was at stake here for them to make a mistake simply because they were too hasty. Id admit I made that mistake with Echizen.

 

Tezuka served in the first game, a hard fast serve that arced high and dropped suddenly. It was hard to return but Atobe had a fast eye and fast reflexes. There were no fancy moves, no special techniques. Just powerful, fast strokes that rallied back and forth. Basic stuff really, but at the speeds they were going, it was all too easy to miss. Yet their shots remained unerringly accurate.

 

Atobes gotten a lot better in the past couple of weeks, Seiichi noted.

 

And very fit too. Bunta popped his gum. Lookit those cut muscles. Has he been asking Sengoku for hints?

 

Segoku is built but Atobe doesnt have the bulk. Hes sleek, Masaharu drawled in an appreciative voice. Like a cat, especially when he stretches for the ball. The others nodded. The image of a cat-Atobe flashed in my mind, and I had to admit it was an apt description. Particularly personality-wise.

 

Tezuka won the first game, though it wasnt a straight win. As Atobe bounced the ball, getting ready for his turn, we all wondered if he would use his Tannhuser.

 

He wont, I said confidently. Not this early in the game, not when it was only the second game. It tired him out too quickly.

 

Halfway through the match is best. Not too early than it burns him out, not too late that he doesnt have enough energy for it. Renji nodded.

 

The ball that Atobe did serve was quite a surprise, and left everyone staring. It wasnt as fast as his Tannhuser but the ball had a high toque and it still skimmed the ground, almost lazily.

 

Like a half-Tannhuser, Akaya noted. But he cant use it too often. Its not fast enough; Tezuka will be able to return it if he can catch it before it bounces.

 

Indeed. Though Tezuka missed the second shot, the element of surprise was lost and his racket was *almost* there.

 

Hell catch it the next time, Masaharu predicted.

 

And so Tezuka did, but it wasnt a good return and it threw off his timing. Atobe took this point as well.

 

It was still a good idea though. I guess its not as taxing as the Tannhuser, Seiichi said with a small smile.

 

As expected, Atobe held his service game. Though Tezuka returned his serve after that, it was nonetheless a tricky serve and Atobe always maintained the advantage of timing.

 

The score tied at 11.

 

After that, it was as if a switch was thrown and both players went all out. The ball practically ricocheted around the court and we were treated to Tezukas famous drop shots and Atobes smashes. The score climbed agonizingly slowly, each point hard-earned, their skills so equal it seemed the match could swing either way.

 

Suddenly, Akaya leaned forward, frowning. Doesnt it seem as if Tezuka hadnt been moving?

 

Tezuka-zone! Somebody blurted out. I narrowed my eyes, studying the tall Seigaku players techniques carefully. It was an insidious thing; Tezuka controlled the ball so exactly that the opponent had no choice but to return it in a manner that he wanted, and that was back to him. All Tezuka would have to do then was to wait for the opponent to trip up. Most, on realizing their trap, self-destructed and made silly mistakes.

 

But Atobe doesnt seem too worried. In fact, he seems to be slowing down, Seiichi noted. And

 

Tezuka moved, just a step to one side. Everyones brows shot up.

 

How...? Renji asked wonderingly.

 

It was very subtle; Tezukas zone and Atobes breaking of the zone. Most of the spectators havent noticed, but many of the more seasoned tennis players were all leaning forward with puzzled looks and excited murmuring.

 

We continued watching.

 

Interestingly, the pace of the game seemed to have slowed down. Once in a while, Tezuka would be able to wrest control of the ball and it would seem as if he was drawing further and further inwards until he need not move at all, for the ball would come to him. But Atobe never gave him that final step and Tezukas control would be broken.

 

Game, Atobe. Four games to three!

 

Bunta gasped. Atobe took Tezukas service game!

 

Till now, they have been held their service games, and its Atobes turn to serve next, Hiroshi said quietly.

 

Akaya grinned broadly. Somethings changed in the wind. Cant you feel?

 

I smiled slightly. Yes. Till now, the score has been see-sawing between the two, but now that Atobe took the lead, Im quite sure the winner was obvious.

 

Hell use it this time, I said abruptly.

 

What?

 

The Tannhuser, Seiichi replied. He looked at me. The timing is right, isnt it?

 

Akaya cackled maliciously. Oh yeah. After just losing his service game, the Tannhuser will *break* Tezuka!

 

Akaya Seiichi scolded reproachfully.

 

The next game was fairly predictable. Atobes Tannhuser blazed over the nets and the Hyotei fans started chanting. And Atobe, panting hard and all, still managed to strut his usual stuff. Amazing. Even though Tezuka managed to return the last serve, a truly admirable feat for someone who has only faced the Tannhuser four times, he couldnt catch the momentum after. Atobe held his service.

 

53, Jackal murmured. One more game to go. Will Tezuka make a comeback?

 

Indeed, that was what the Seigaku crowd was hoping for. One of the cheerleaders, a willowy redhead shrieked and waved her pom-poms madly. Tezuka-sama! Tezuka-sama!

 

Will somebody tell that harpy to shut up? Kami, some people have no sense of decorum, particular people from Seigaku it seems, Akaya sneered loudly, his eyes leaving no doubt who he was referring to.

 

What?! The redhead whirled and pointed at Akaya. Just you wait! Tezuka-sama will make a grand come-back! He has never been defeated before!

 

Oh yes he has, girl. By Atobe over there. Akaya leaned forward, chin propped on his fists, and smirked maliciously.

That was because he was injured! The girl was getting as red as her hair. Her friends beside her were trying to calm her down.

 

Akaya, Jackal growled, slapping a hand over Akayas mouth. Over the years, Jackal has gotten to be pretty effective at containing Akaya. Just cajoling or reasoning with him wont work.

 

Oooo.. The girl fumed, and turned her frustration towards more enthusiastic, and shrill, cheering. TEZUKASA~MA!

 

Everyone winced.

 

Maaa dont get so worked up, Akaya. Shes only a silly cheerleader who doesnt know the game. Bunta grinned, now snacking on a slice of cake. Look at the Seigaku regulars; they look rather worried.

 

Akaya snickered evilly. Seiichi shook his head. I rolled my eyes. Inwardly though, I was also chanting with the Hyotei crowd. I never did like Tezuka.

 

Here, have some cake. Bunta offered good-naturedly.

 

Dont mind if I do. Akaya smiled brightly as he took a bite. Ooo... delicious!

 

The taste of impending victory? Masaharu injected slyly.

 

Ya, ya! Akaya nodded, licking his lips.

 

Renji sighed in disappointment, a rueful smile tugging at his lips. We all knew who the winner would be.

 

When the players strode back onto the courts, a thrill ran through the crowds. This was going to be the most important game. Atobe held his head high, his smirk confident. He never simply walked, especially not in front of an audience; he strutted and sashayed, proud and elegant. Like a cat, I thought fondly. His head looked up and his eyes caught mine.

 

I became vaguely aware of Akayas and Buntas giggling beside me probably a sugar overdose.

 

When Tezuka started drawing the ball in again, we caught our breath, wondering if what Atobe did earlier was just a fluke But no. Atobe slowed down again, eyes sharp and bright, a faint smile curving his lips.

 

Aa, Seiichi breathed softly. He nodded.

 

What?

 

You know that Tezuka could seemingly draw the ball to himself because of his excellent control of the ball, right? Seiichi explained. In other words; the opponent loses control of the ball.

 

My eyes widened. But if the opponent is good enough that he never loses control I smiled, grudgingly awed at Atobes brilliance. That guy

 

How? Bunta asked.

 

Remember how Sengoku broke Tezukas zone before? I continued crisply. He did it with sheer power, but the downside is that he loses control of the ball, and in the end, it was still useless. Since the key here is control, all Atobe has to do is to make sure Tezuka never regains full control of the ball.

 

Not many players are good enough to do that, to have the ball drop *exactly* where you want it, to have the ball spin *just* so, each and every single time. Moreover, every time the ball leaves your court, you are handing over control to your opponent; you have no idea what the next shot that comes back at you would be. Sometimes, you only end up scrambling for a shot, lucky if you managed to even return the ball over the net again.

 

And even for the really good players, players like Seigakus Oishi and Fuji, who could get the ball to land exactly on the baseline, they cant maintain control of the ball at all times, nor could they keep up the concentration. They could only wait for an opportunity to arise for their finishing shots.

 

But players like Tezuka and Atobe *create* those opportunities. With Tezuka, all it takes is one slip by the opponent and the ball control is all his. Can one ensure that every stroke returned is perfect? Difficult.

 

Atobe, I have realized, is a top player also because of that control. Thats how he could win against players stronger, faster or fitter than him. He has a few flashy techniques, but his real skill lay in his basic form. Thats why players like Tezuka and Atobe are considered top, all-round players.

 

Thats why Atobe slows the game down, Seiichi finished for me. It gives him better control of the game.

 

Masaharu frowned. But if he slowed down, wouldnt Tezuka also regain control?

 

Seiichi shook his head. If you observe Tezukas zone in action, you would notice that the opponent loses a point not because the game becomes too fast for him but because he has lost control of the ball. Hes simply scrambling to return the ball now and its only a matter of time before he self-destructs.

 

I nodded. Tezuka is already in control; the key for Atobe is not to lose *his* control. The famed Tezuka zone is nothing flashy.

 

Just exquisite basic control. Renji, and everyone else, were staring at the two players on the court in admiration.

 

A mental game, Akaya whistled. Damn. Thats cruel.

 

Atobe must either have incredible mental strength or tenacity, Renji noted in his quiet manner. Tezuka has been perfecting his game since junior high.

 

I laughed and the others stared at me. He really, really wants to win, I explained, shaking my head. You wont believe how *obsessed* Atobe is over beating Tezuka. Hes been waiting, preparing for this match for two years.

 

Tezuka may be as good as Atobe; he may even be better, but Atobe would win because Atobe really, really wanted to.

 

And when the referee announced, Game and match, Atobe, I wasnt surprised at all.

 

~*~

 

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