Chapter 01

Fuji stood at a window in an empty classroom, staring thoughtfully down at the people below. Practice would begin soon but he liked taking a bit of time to watch those around him. He learned a lot by watching. It had helped him assimilate.

His congeniality was a mask. He wondered idly if the people around him would have a chance against him if he ever got serious. Even now he struggled to keep himself from going too far. He maneuvered things so subtly that few people noticed the manipulation.

A word here, a look there–it was enough. He’d learned the necessity of walking that tightrope the hard way. At first, he’d drowned himself in denial. Saeki, his only childhood friend, had paid the price. The regret he felt for what had happened was tinged with determination to never do it again.

Shaking his head, he headed down to the tennis courts. There was one thing to look forward to if the rumors were to be believed. Another good player on the team would ease their burdens considerably, considering the captain’s worsening injury.

Fuji walked to the front of the school where he caught sight of the regulars. When he got closer, he noticed Tezuka was absent. They exchanged some comments about the new freshman. Oishi was convinced that if he was as good as the rumors, he’d be a good asset to the team.

We’ll see,” Fuji said, and the team moved from the school entrance to the locker rooms. When they got to the courts he saw that the non-regular juniors and seniors had monopolized the courts so the freshmen couldn’t practice.

None of the freshmen stood out except for the one in the green striped shirt. Judging by his body language, he was the type to boast about having skills he didn’t possess. Not the new talent, then. Momo had said the kid was cocky but reserved.

There were two avid hanger-ons of the striped shirt guy, both of them eagerly leaning forward to catch every word. That alone made it obvious they were new to the sport and easy to intimidate. There would be no fun for him in that quarter.

There were a few other freshmen scattered about but only one caught his attention. He was standing a bit to the side of his peers, kneading his racket. That habit told Fuji he was attuned to how well his racquet held up and how often it needed to be re-strung. He couldn’t make out the face of the freshman in question because a white cap obscured his eyes.

All he could tell from the distance was that the freshman was short. Incredibly short. Under five feet. He’d probably had to endure a lot of grief about it because “short people can’t play tennis.” Fuji would see how he handled that later.

Fuji pulled his attention off the freshman. “Oishi, we should do a little light hitting until Tezuka gets back,” he said.

All right.” Oishi said, stopping to pick up a crate of tennis balls. They made their way onto a free court. The vice-captain of the team lobbed a ball his direction and Fuji smashed it into the basket and winced.

Fuji, you were a step late.”

Fuji acknowledged the reprimand with a slight nod, and, after a few more swings, moved to let someone else take a turn. He noticed it had grown quiet and took a look around to see everyone staring at the regulars in stunned silence. He snorted mentally in derision. More than half the people in the club would never see a match against another school.

Oops. Too far,” Oishi called, shielding his eyes with his hand.

Fuji watched the ball go out of the court and head straight for the short freshman with the cap, wondering what the kid would do. He was mildly annoyed with Oishi for the poor serve when the guy was known for pinpoint accuracy. The freshman smashed the ball cleanly across the court back into the basket and his annoyance died. Fuji was impressed. Not many freshmen could do that.

The freshman said, almost surprised, “That was unexpectedly simple.”

Fuji laughed silently. The guy bore watching.

Fuji was suddenly aware that Eiji had stopped moving. For Eiji, that was weird, so Fuji turned to look at him.

Ah, Arai and the freshman are at it again. Should we stop them?”

“Hmm,” Fuji said, and the rest of the regulars turned to watch. Oishi had disappeared. Arai was brazenly up in the freshman’s face, goading him about not having a racquet. Which was complete crap, of course, because the freshman had held a racquet at the beginning of practice. Arai was tormenting the guy. One of Arai’s friends handed the freshman – Echizen (he finally heard the name) – a racquet that would never be approved for use in an official match and challenged him to play.

For a moment, it seemed that Echizen wasn’t going to take the challenge but his shoulders tensed at the mention of his missing racquets. So he got angry when someone messed with his stuff. Fuji couldn’t blame him, he’d be pissed if someone hid his expensive tennis equipment, too. “I want to see this,” he said. One of them should step in and stop it but Fuji’s interest was piqued.

I knew you were going to say that,” Eiji said, staying put.

Fuji watched as Echizen’s first attempt at returning Arai’s serve caused the ball to fall short of the net and his second attempt forced the ball out of bounds and into the fence.

You can’t hit it normally,” Momo said.

“Aa. With that gut, you can’t spin the ball,” Fuji said in agreement. It would be interesting to see if the freshman could overcome the handicap.

Hmm, I see,” Echizen said, tapping the racquet’s gut with his hand twice.

Fuji arched an eyebrow. He saw? What did he see? He got his answer when, on Arai’s next serve, Echizen scored a point.

Oh, he put a spin on it by rotating his body,” Eiji said, surprised.

He’s good,” Fuji agreed. Echizen had overcome the problem of the bad racquet. Fuji watched the rest of the match in silence, not surprised Arai wasn’t able to keep up. Arai was the kind of player who relied on other people’s weaknesses to make him strong. He’d never become a regular with that attitude.

Tezuka and Oishi appeared on the court after the match was over and berated everyone for their lack of respect and mad them all run twenty laps. Consequences. But it had been a match worth seeing.

Fuji fell into step beside Oishi. Neither of them spoke and Fuji soon fell behind, which was fine with him. He wasn’t in a rush. He spotted Takashi’s racquet resting against the fence and picked it up.

Looking around, he saw that Takashi, Momo, and Inui were behind him. Slowing his pace a little, he was surprised to see Echizen keeping pace with Momo but didn’t think too much on it. They’d just started running, after all. Fuji dropped his pace until he was beside Takashi. “Taka, your racquet.”

Takashi grabbed hold of it and, with a cry of “Burning!”, took off until he was even with Oishi and Eiji, who always ran together.

Fuji’s face never wavered; he kept his expression kind and his eyes closed at all times to keep himself from unintentionally intimidating anyone but on the inside he smile. Takashi was the type of honest, dedicated player he admired most because all of it came from hard work. Tennis was easy for those who had the knack for it but overcoming the hurdle of not having talent…well, that was impressive.

Fuji finished running the laps with the others right beside Eiji. He’d given the doubles team ten laps before catching up to their pace and engaging in some light conversation. Eiji needed constant conversation and Fuji had set himself up as his best friend, next to Oishi, of course, at the beginning of their freshman year. The three of them were pretty close, by all accounts, but Fuji knew that they’d never accept him if they knew the truth. He wasn’t sure anyone would.

Chapter Index    Chapter 2

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