Chapter 11

“Fuji, you should’ve been there! You totally missed out!”

Fuji turned to Eiji, his normal smiling mask in place. Behind it, he was busy concealing exhaustion and the irritation born form it. He hadn’t slept well the previous night with the attack on Ryoma weighing on his mind. He wished fervently that he’d never made that promise not to intervene, but there was nothing he could do. Not yet, at least. Pushing those thoughts out of his mind, he did his best to give Kikumaru the attention he was demanding. “Should’ve been where? What happened?”

“After we got hamburgers yesterday, we followed Taka. You’ll never believe what happened, nyaa!”

Longing to demonstrate his growing frustration with Eiji’s hyperactivity, he somehow found the patience to restrain himself. “Who is we?”

“Me, Momo, Inui, and Ochibi, of course.”

“Why were you following Taka?”
At that question, Eiji looked down guiltily for half a second. “That’s not important. He met Akutsu there and he was with a girl!”

At Akutsu’s name, Fuji’s shoulders tensed a little. A small peek at Eiji’s face told him that the redhead hadn’t noticed, but that wasn’t surprising. Eiji was oblivious to pretty much everything. “And?”

“So Taka’s got a girlfriend?”

“What makes you so certain?”

Eiji shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I don’t know for sure.”

“You could ask him.”

“I could never do that! It’d be way too embarrassing, nyaa. Do you think…

“Yes, I’ll ask him for you.” Fuji sat down at the desk beside his ‘best’ friend and listed the first hundred things he could think of to use to maim him in order to keep his temper in check. Really, Eiji could be such a pain.

“Really? Thanks, Fuji, you’re the best!”

“You owe me.”

“Of course! Nyaa.”

A smirk tried to assert itself, but Fuji controlled the impulse. He wondered what would happen if he ever used the favors Eiji owed him in one of his more nefarious plots. That thought was enough to keep him entertained for awhile. “You said Akutsu was there,” he reminded mildly.

“He was! That guy’s a complete jerk. He poured his drink on Taka just for the heck of it.”

“Hm?”

“But you should’ve seen it! It was so cool! Momo went to fight him because he never thinks, but Ochibi beat him to it, nyaa.”

Fuji felt his heart start to race. Please don’t let that mean Ryoma was hurt more, he prayed. “What did Echizen do?”

If Eiji noticed the sudden sharpness in Fuji’s voice, he gave no indication. “It was so cool, nyaa! Ochibi tripped Akutsu and was all like, ‘Thanks for earlier. I didn’t introduce myself. I’m the Seigaku freshman, Echizen Ryoma.’ It was cool how he never even flinched after that guy hurt him like that, nyaa!”

Fuji’s mask reflected his true feelings for once. “That’s just like him. Just as arrogant as ever.”

Eiji continued to talk about the sheer awesomeness of their freshman teammate until class started. When the lesson started, Fuji breathed a silent sigh of relief. Now that Eiji had shared his news, perhaps Fuji could concentrate on other things. Like what he was going to do to Akutsu after Ryoma’s match with him. Because it didn’t matter if Echizen won or lost. Akutsu had hurt what belonged to Fuji and he would pay the price, no matter how long he had to wait to act on his plans. No one got away with hurting Ryoma. Absolutely no one.

Running laps at the start of practice was starting to be the norm. Fuji didn’t mind-it was allowing him time to think about everything that had happened. Somehow, he’d found his world turned upside down. Not only had he made a friend in Ryoma who could handle his sadistic side unflinchingly, he’d also acquired a boyfriend who reveled in it. Life was definitely taking a turn for the better, if he discounted the attack on Echizen.

A cry from behind him brought Fuji back to awareness. It seemed Inui had once again created a drink to motivate everyone. Fuji had to smile at that. He was impervious to whatever ill effects the drink seemed to have on the rest of the team, but he had to admit it was rather fun watching everyone else fall victim.

“As you can see,” Inui said, “I’ve upgraded today’s version of Penal Tea.”

“Upgraded?” Eiji shrieked, not at all pleased.

Running beside the redhead, Fuji had to stifle the urge to cover his ears. “I really want to drink that,” he said, relishing the disgusted look he got.

“Really?” Eiji asked.

From in front of them, Oishi turned to look at them. “I will never drink that.”

“It seems Inui enjoys making us drink that stuff,” Momo said, his voice carrying clearly from his position at point.

From behind, Fuji heard more people collapse and turned to watch.

Inui held up his stopwatch. “Anyone who doesn’t finish a lap in under fifty-seconds has penal tea waiting for them.”

“Are you serious?” Eiji again.

“This is fun,” Fuji said, ignoring the you’ve got to be joking look the redhead gave him. He knew the other regulars wouldn’t understand, but that was okay with him. They didn’t need to understand.

Everyone was keeping an even pace when Momo looked at Takashi and asked, “Taka, why are you so zoned out?”

“You’re pretty calm, or maybe I should say in love?” Eiji chimed in, gently teasing.

Fuji hmmed under his breath, wondering if the acrobatic player was going to ask the question after all.

“In love? What are you talking about?” Takashi asked.

Eiji just laughed.

Takashi explained what had happened at the restaurant the previous day for the benefit of those who hadn’t heard the story before.

“Akutsu Jin?” Oishi asked.

“Ah. Akutsu Jin stopped coming to the dojo after he entered Yamabuki. I heard a lot of bad rumors, but I never thought he’d take up tennis again.”

“Again? What do you mean again?” Fuji asked, curious despite himself. Gathering information on the man who’d hurt his boyfriend was vital. He was suddenly very conscious of Ryoma’s proximity to him. Ever since the incident with Akutsu, Ryoma seemed to automatically stay as close to him as possible. It made Fuji’s heart ache to know that someone had reopened emotional wounds in his boyfriend. It didn’t seem Ryoma was aware of what he was doing, but Fuji was and it tore at him like nothing else.

“He was trained by a famous tennis coach when he was younger, so he’s really good,” Taka said.

“Hmm. So the girl that was with you was your girlfriend?” Fuji asked, knowing he needed to drop the subject of Akutsu before he got too angry to keep his temper. Asking Eiji’s question seemed a good way to do that.

“Huh? Girlfriend!” Takashi asked.

“I thought so,” Eiji interjected.

“That’s not it!”

“You’re pretty sneaky, Taka,” Momo said.

“You’re misunderstanding!”

“It’s ok, everyone has their time,” Eiji said.

“What time?” Kaidoh asked.

“When you start to admire older women,” Eiji explained.

“Older women…” Kaidoh trailed off.

“That’s not it!” Taka insisted.

“Stop fooling around,” Tezuka said, speaking for the first time since practice had started. “Your pace is dropping.”

Fuji smiled as they rounded the corner to begin the last lap. Everyone listened to Tezuka and focused on their running-there would be time to needle Takashi later. Fuji pulled up beside Momo, hiding his amusement as Ryoma armed Takashi with his racquet. It really was a good motivation technique.

“Fuji,” Momo said.

Fuji turned. “Hm? What?”

“I thought you liked that drink.”

“Oh, Inui’s penal tea? I liked it. It’s really good.”

“Then why are you trying so hard?”

“I like to see people suffer even more.” Fuji grinned. He had no problem admitting that to Momo for something as insignificant as Inui’s tea. And the disturbed look Momo gave him…yeah, it was totally worth it.

Everyone crossed the finish line at the same time and over half the team collapsed. Fuji grabbed a towel to dry off his excess sweat and listened as Coach Ryuzaki talked about how their poor endurance had affected their last match and the need to improve it.

“We’re going to have practice matches,” Tezuka said, stepping in smoothly. “If you’re chosen, go to the court.”

“A game? Really? Right now?” Momo asked in disbelief.

“You gotta be kidding. After all that running, now they have to play a game?” Kato asked.

“They don’t have enough strength,” Mizuno said.

“Fuji,” Tezuka said.

Fuji turned at the sound of his name, mildly surprised he’d been chosen to play first. His endurance had never truly been in question.

“Echizen.”

Hearing Ryoma’s name called shocked him more. He felt a jolt of electricity go through him and realized he was excited. Finally–finally-he was going to get to play against the only person whose tennis enthralled him.

“A game between Fuji and Echizen?” Oishi asked.

Fuji met Ryoma’s eyes, dropping his mask out of respect. He wasn’t going into this game with anything less than complete seriousness. The answering challenge in Ryoma’s eyes nearly took his breath away. Oh yeah. He was definitely going to enjoy this.

The two of them took their places on the court, staring across the net as they attempted to size each other up.

“This time it’s against the big brother,” Ryoma said.

Fuji smiled. Ryoma’s match with Yuuta had been the first time he’d really started taking note of the freshman’s skills. “Go easy on me,” he said, hoping his voice carried just how much he didn’t want that. No, he definitely wanted to play the match with Echizen playing his hardest. Otherwise there would be no fun, no source of entertainment. And there was nothing Fuji liked better than having fun.

As the club member who’d been chosen to referee called the match, Fuji watched Ryoma settle into the rhythm of his unique split step. Oh yeah, the guy was definitely taking the match seriously.

“I’m allowed to beat you. Right Fuji?” Ryoma asked, a mischievous glint in his eye.

Fuji let out a small laugh. Trust Echizen to find a way to be cocky and submissive at the same time. He didn’t bother giving an answer-Ryoma would be able to tell by his serve that he intended them both to play seriously. The outcome of the match was much less important than simply playing it.

Watching as Echizen approached the net, Fuji quickly deduced that he was using return tactics and that if he wanted to curb Ryoma’s running, he needed to hit the ball towards the sides of the court.

Ryoma’s eyes widened in surprise and he froze for an instant, but recovered quickly enough to use his step and return the ball. “You’re pretty good,” he said, “but I’ll keep attacking.”

Making a split second decision, Fuji hit the ball to the side of court Ryoma wasn’t on and watched the freshman hit a clean return. He has unbelievable speed. Without retreating, he keeps hitting them back and the thing that’s allowing him to do it is that one-footed split step, Fuji thought, moving to hit a return of his own.

“Che. That’s my finishing shot. But you get it easily,” Ryoma said.

Fuji grinned as the trademark battiness made an appearance. “This is fun,” he said.

Soon enough, the match was tied at 1-1, both of them having managed to keep their service games. As the game progressed, Fuji found himself eager to try his triple counters against the freshman. It was a new feeling for him-usually he used those moves because they were practical, efficient. But now he just wanted to see what Ryoma would do with them.

The ball hit the net and Fuji moved up, noting the change in its speed. Making a quick decision, he aimed the ball at Echizen’s feet, realizing almost instantly that he’d been perfectly setup for Echizen’s drive B technique. Relying on his instincts and grateful that Ryoma was moving slower than usual because he was tired, Fuji managed to make a clean return by lobbing the ball.

Ryoma set up for a smash, which made Fuji grin. Now he’d be able to use one of his techniques and return the favor.

“Stop it, Echizen! Smashing is…” Momo trailed off when Echizen hit the smash anyway.

Fuji spun into the counter and heard the ball hit the ground and bounce. No one had yet broken higuma otoshi and he was fairly confident it wouldn’t be broken any time soon.

“What? What happened?” Mizuno asked.

“I don’t know. What happened?” Kato echoed.

“He returned the smash directly,” Horio said, amazement coloring his tone.

“Even my dunk smash is no use against that move,” Momo said, voice grave.

Fuji straightened and turned to face Ryoma, amusement spiking as he noticed the shock on the freshman’s face. This match was turning out to be more than he’d hoped for. The two of them stared at each other across the court as the spectators talked amongst themselves.

“Returning a smash directly-how’d he do that?” Horio asked.

“Fuji has started using that move…he must be serious about this match,” Inui remarked.

Fuji felt his amusement grow higher as he heard those words. He’d been serious from the moment he’d stepped on the court and Inui was only realizing it now? Well, that just went to show he really did keep his true self hidden well.

“What’s higuma otoshi?” Horio asked.

“Higuma otoshi uses a person’s centrifugal force to absorb the opponent’s power to return the ball,” Inui explained. “On top of that, the ball will end up behind the opponent, who’s at the net.”

“Wow, he did all that in a blink of an eye! That’s not a move that normal people can do,” Horio said, properly impressed.

“That’s why Fuji’s a prodigy.”

Fuji stood watching Ryoma knead his racquet, wondering idly if the freshman was part cat. It was by no means an annoying habit and it told him that Echizen was really concentrating on the game. Speaking of the game, though, no matter how hard he thought about it, Fuji couldn’t figure out a good way to counter Ryoma’s drive B technique. That in itself was impressive. There weren’t many people who could make Fuji feel pressured, let alone challenged.

“What’re you looking at?” Ryoma asked, his tone slightly defensive.

“Nothing,” Fuji answered, knowing it would infuriate him. That said, he served the ball.

“Echizen won’t be able to smash anymore,” Arai said from the sidelines.

“Why?” Joben asked.

“Think about it. 100% of his smashes were cleanly returned. Even Echizen knows not to smash any-

“There he goes! Smash!” Horio’s cry cut Arai off mid-sentence.

“Looks like he wants to do it even more,” Joben said.

“Same old Echizen,” Arai said, giving in.

Fuji returned that smash just as cleanly as he’d returned the first, smirking as he realized that Ryoma really was challenging him. That was more than okay with him. Challenge was what made being around Ryoma so much fun.

“Higuma otoshi again,” Mizuno said.

“I thought he had him completely. Ryoma must be shocked,” Kato said.

“Hm. You can completely stop a smash,” Ryoma said, turning to Fuji with a grin.

Momo laughed. “He can never be shocked.”

“Nyaa. It’s the opposite,” Eiji said.

“He’s got the ‘I’m excited and I’ll break it’ face on,” Momo said.

Fuji laughed at that. “Okay. Why don’t you try,” he said, telling Ryoma in those few words that he accepted the nonverbal challenge that had been issued. He served the ball and the game began again in earnest. “Here we go,” Fuji said, sending a lob towards Echizen.

“Eh? A chance ball?” Horio asked.

“A challenge from Fuji,” Tezuka corrected.

Fuji smiled. At least Tezuka wasn’t an idiot like Horio. Like a lob was a chance ball for Ryoma when he had to contend with higuma otoshi. Seriously, just how dumb was the guy?
Ryoma glared at him a moment before accepted the challenge. He’d offered the nonverbal one, so he couldn’t really complain. He hit a twist spin smash in response.

Fuji returned it with higuma otoshi, turning to see a look of intense determination cross Ryoma’s face. He smirked. Good. That stubbornness was what he enjoyed most. You could bend Echizen, but never break him. And that was thrilling, because everyone else around Fuji had a tendency to fold when pushed. But not Ryoma. Never Ryoma.

“I’ve got to be careful,” Fuji said with a slight sigh. “Yuuta, Kaidoh, and even Inui lost. I can’t be careless for even a split second. You’ll exploit it.” But you can’t beat me just yet. That thought was a bit of a rush in and of itself. It meant that there was the possibility Ryoma might surpass him in tennis someday. Who said change was a bad thing? Fuji grinned and lobbed another ball. Playing this game-dancing on this line with Ryoma-it was intoxicating.

“Ah, another chance ball!” Kato said.

“Fuji’s lobbing on purpose!” Mizuno said.

Had they really just noticed that?
“There goes Echizen!” Horio called.

Fuji executed another perfect higuma otoshi. He’d play this game as long as Ryoma was interested in the challenge. That meant he’d keep lobbing until Ryoma gave up or broke the counter.

“Even Ryoma can’t break it,” Coach Ryuzaki said.

“It’s another lob,” Eiji said.

“Another smash?” Horio asked.

“It’s no use,” Kato said.

Ryoma hit a smash and missed the return, the ball bouncing on to his own side of the court.

Fuji blinked in confusion, then took a look at Ryoma’s face. The freshman was seriously pissed off that he was having so much trouble. And like the brat he was, was petulantly refusing to give in, though he said nothing to express that anger. Fuji stifled a laugh.

“What’s wrong, Echizen?” Horio asked.

“That miss wasn’t like him,” Kato said.

“Ryoma’s being stubborn,” Coach Ryuzaki said.

“This is the first time I’ve seen Echizen…” Taro trailed off.

“Miss a smash,” Joben finished for him.

Ryoma took the tennis ball and served it, smashing the next lob that came his way.

Fuji turned into the higuma otoshi, knowing by the way his racquet had hit the ball that it was going out. Was that a fluke? he wondered. He decided to force one more smash to be sure.

“Out,” the referee called.

“Out? No way. Fuji,” Oishi stuttered.

“He failed to counter,” Taka said.

Ryoma served and Fuji lobbed again. “You don’t have to give me anymore lobs,” Ryoma said.

Going to counter, Fuji noted that the ball was going to be out again. Looking at the self-satisfied smirk on Ryoma’s face, Fuji couldn’t help but be impressed. He’s been timing everything since the beginning. Fuji walked to the net and tapped it with the racquet. “What an impossible thing to do,” he said, but when he looked at Ryoma, he was smiling. “You’re awesome, Echizen.”

“Thanks,” Ryoma said, smiling himself. Not only was he satisfied with what he’d done, he’d also managed to impress Fuji. Something that was much more impossible than breaking one of the senior’s counter techniques by aiming a smash at the net to force it off course.

Ten minutes had passed since the match started and the rest of the regulars were starting to split off to play their own matches.

“Tezuka and Momo. Now there’s a match I wanted to watch,” Fuji said.

“Then let’s end this quickly,” Ryoma said.

“Are you just going to lose to me then?”

“No way.”

Fuji grinned. That was the answer he wanted to hear. A few minutes later, rain started pouring out of the sky. There was a passing thought that playing in the rain might be dangerous, but he let it slide. He was having too much fun to care. Spotting his chance, Fuji tilted his racquet and hit a tsubame gaeshi towards Ryoma, who surprised him by returning it and scoring a point. He grinned at the smirk the freshman gave him.

“Don’t tell me you’re running away,” Ryoma said, goading him.

Fuji smiled, eyes opened and focused on his boyfriend. “Even in this rain, I can still play.”

Ryoma started to serve when Coach Ryuzaki yelled and startled him, making him drop the ball.

“Hey! How long do you plan on staying out here, you idiots?” Thunder crashed overhead. “I think you guys misunderstood me. This is a practice game. You guys go to the same school. You can continue this anytime you want.”

Silence stretched. Neither player wanted to stop.

Coach Ryuzaki sighed. “The real performance’s at the tournament. Did you forget that tennis and rain don’t mix? What’re you guys going to do if you get injured?”

With those two questions, guilt crashed down on Fuji. He was responsible for Ryoma’s safety and their zealousness could have cost them. That type of carefree behavior was fine for Ryoma, but not for him. Ryoma trusted Fuji to keep him safe and with one little tennis game, he’d come too close for comfort to violating that trust. “It’s a shame,” Fuji said, “but it looks like this match is at an end.”

Ryoma stared at him for a second. “That’s not fair,” he said. “You’re winning 4-3. I was about to comeback-

He was interrupted by Coach Ryuzaki pinching his cheeks. “Shut up and get out of the rain!”

Fuji found himself agreeing. Whining was an ugly habit. As he walked to club room, he felt a slow smile spread across his face. It was a habit he would break.

Chapter 10     Chapter Index     Chapter 12

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