Chapter 17

The ranking tournament had ended, but tension was running high amongst the regulars. Momo hadn’t been showing up to practice and it had nearly everyone on edge. Fuji found himself drawn to that tension, because one misplaced word could shatter the people around him. It was almost too much of a temptation, but having Ryoma near him helped him control the impulse to destroy.

Fuji made his way to the roof of the school, where he and Ryoma had been meeting for lunch the last few days. Getting away from the tension was a necessity, but having some time alone with his boyfriend was an added bonus. Opening the door that led to the roof, he found Ryoma sitting cross-legged against the concrete. He moved to him without speaking, folding gracefully onto the ground beside him.

Ryoma glanced up, holding his Fanta so tightly it looked like he was afraid someone might take it from him. “Syuusuke.”

“Hm?”

“Momo.” That one word held a world of meaning.

“He’ll be fine.”

“Ah.” Ryoma didn’t sound convinced.

Fuji unwrapped his bento and began eating, weighing his words carefully. “Momo has to come to terms with himself.”

Some of the harsh lines of worry faded from Ryoma’s face and he leaned back against the concrete, looking thoughtful. “Hmm.”

“You noticed it too, didn’t you?” Fuji asked, eyes focused intently on the freshman as he waited, certain that Ryoma would grasp the underlying meaning of his words.

“Ah. He played poorly against Inui.”

Fuji shook his head. “Not poorly…just not at his best.”

“Mm.”

Fuji swallowed his rice, moving his head a bit so that he could focus more directly on Ryoma’s face. Though he was trying desperately not to show it, the freshman was distraught. That stress took away any romantic thoughts Fuji might have had for their private lunch. “Momo forgot Inui’s skill.”

Ryoma sighed. “I saw. He’s lost games before.” He closed his eyes, settling more firmly into the concrete, the solid weight of it a comforting reassurance.

“He’s never lost his spot as a Regular before.” Fuji was fairly certain Momo had taken the loss so hard because it had blind-sided him to lose his place so easily. If he’d been in the same position, Fuji knew he probably wouldn’t be the most rational person around either.

“It seems more than that.”

The concern laden in Ryoma’s tone forced him to consider the situation more seriously. Momo’s loss to Inui due to underestimating the data player had been painful to watch. There was no doubt in Fuji’s mind that it was more painful to live through, let alone face up to. “It probably is,” Fuji agreed. He finished eating and re-wrapped the container. “It’s unlike you to be so concerned.”

Ryoma shrugged. “If it was just tennis, I’d be okay.”

Fuji frowned. “What do you mean?”

“He is skipping school entirely and he seems to be avoiding me.”

Fuji reached out an arm, wrapping it around Ryoma’s shoulders and pulling him close before he’d even really considered what he was doing. “He is hurting. I don’t think he means to hurt you.”

“I know.” Ryoma moved in closer to Fuji, seeking the comfort he was being offered. “He’s my best friend.” He said that like that explained everything. Perhaps it did. Fuji felt slightly out of his depth. The last friend he’d had was Saeki, and considering how that had ended, it felt wrong to try to give advice. Just for a moment, he wondered what it would be like to have a real best friend. Considering the difficulty Ryoma was having accepting Momo’s disappearance, he decided that maybe he was better off without one. He wasn’t sure friendship was worth that amount of stress. “He needs to fix himself. He’s the only one who can do that.”

“I know, Syuusuke. It doesn’t hurt any less.”

Fuji placed a soft kiss on Ryoma’s head and drew him into a slightly awkward sideways hug. He didn’t speak. The only comfort he could offer was his presence. He hoped it would be enough.

The rest of the school day passed quickly, but the tense atmosphere from the tennis club seemed to follow him no matter where he went. In science, a couple Fuji had never seen so much as look in each other in irritation got into a yelling match so intense it almost turned physical before the teacher intervened. In English, the quietest guy in the class stood up and started berating the teacher during the middle of the lecture. In every class, some sort of disruption occurred. When the school day finally ended, Fuji found himself breathing easier.

Of course, practice probably wasn’t going to be much better. But at least there he would understand the reason behind any arguments that broke out. The other ones he’d witnessed today had been ridiculous, inspired only by the tension all the tennis club members were carrying like a second skin. Everyone even just a tiny bit sensitive to that tension had seemed to almost implode in upon themselves or to explode in anger over minor irritants. Fuji shook his head. He was so tired of the tension that he was starting to feel more irritated than amused. If he had known a way to put a stop to it, he would have.

However, the impulse to manipulate and mold the people around him to his will was quickly deteriorating. The people under his protection were the ones hurting. His teammates were like a second family to him and they were putting themselves in danger by stretching the tension so close to a breaking point.

He shook his thoughts aside and strode onto the courts, racquet in hand. There was nothing he or anyone else could do to diffuse it. Like everyone else, he was waiting for Momo to get his act together. Unlike them, he knew Momo just needed a little time to process and then he’d be fine. Fuji let himself get caught up in practice, willing himself into a state of mind where nothing mattered but hitting the tennis ball back across the court to Takashi.

Too soon, he had to move off the court and let someone else take his place. He moved to the side of the court, grabbing his water bottle and drinking as he leaned against the fence, watching the other members. At some point, Inui had taken up residence beside him. If it had been any other day, Fuji might have found himself engaging the other in conversation to test the waters. But it was today, so he didn’t.

Eiji came up to them, his normal cheerful self. “Mou, Momo here today either?” He glanced around, pulling at the collar of his shirt. “And I wanted to make fun of him for wearing a normal jersey!” He laughed as he said it.

Fuji smiled. Trust Eiji to know what to say to break the tension.

“Eiji!” Oishi’s sharp voice rang across the court. “That’s too insensitive!”

Fuji found his eyes drawn to Oishi, feeling slightly shocked. Oishi never yelled, but he especially never yelled at Eiji. The situation with Momo must have been bothering Oishi more than he’d realized.

Eiji started across the court towards Oishi, concerned. The redhead never could hide his emotions. “Oishi, what’s wrong?” He broke off and started laughing, slapping a hand lightly across Oishi’s shirt. “Oishi, you’re wearing your shirt inside out! How embarrassing!” By this point, he was laughing so hard he could hardly breathe.

Oishi flinched, at a loss for words. He lunged at Eiji and hit him, knocking him to the ground, stepping back almost immediately. His instant regret at what he’d done showed in the way he moved to help. “Eiji, I’m sor-

Eiji didn’t let him finish. He slapped away Oishi’s hand when it was offered, pulling away. “Don’t touch me!”

“Eiji.”

“Now I’m angry! I’m not working with a guy like him!” Eiji yelled.

“The two of you are still scheduled to play doubles two in the upcoming matches, Eiji,” Takashi said, stepping forward in an effort to calm him.

“No! Combination canceled. Done deal!”

Oishi’s mouth set in a hard line. “If Eiji says so, I guess that’s it.”

Inui inserted himself very smoothly into the flow of the conversation. So smoothly it made Fuji pay closer attention. “This doesn’t have to be a disaster. In fact, it is a good opportunity to test out other pairings,” he said.

Eiji seemed to light up at the idea. “Good idea! I’ll take Ochibi!”

Ryoma tensed and Fuji hid a chuckle. Everyone knew Ryoma was bad at doubles, but that didn’t seem to matter to Eiji. Ryoma took a deep breath, looking around the court to see if anyone could save him from his fate. Seeing no one was going to help him, he sighed. “All right.”

Once Echizen was within Eiji’s reach, the redhead pulled him into a hug, refusing to let go. If Fuji didn’t know Eiji well enough to know that the redhead relied on the reassurance touching and being touched gave him, he might have felt jealous. Instead, he just felt amused. Ryoma was obviously uncomfortable with the amount of time Eiji spent draped over his shoulders, but he didn’t pull away or act harshly towards him. In his own way, Echizen was just as sensitive to his friends’ personalities as Fuji was. To pull away from Eiji-especially after how he had to be feeling after fighting with Oishi-would just be cruel.

“With Oishi, then…Kaidoh,” Inui said.

Kaidoh looked up in surprise, but moved to the side of the court Oishi was standing on.

When the game started, neither Echizen or Kaidoh really contributed to it. Both allowed the other team to score points. Eiji yelled a little at Echizen, who just stood there and let him vent. Fuji had to smile. It was nice to see Ryoma trying to keep himself out of the line of fire for once instead of throwing himself into it headfirst.

Everyone turned when Tezuka came onto the court. “Arguing on the court?” he asked, a touch angrily. Fuji winced. It was hard to put any sort of inflection into Tezuka’s tone, but anger was almost impossible. The situation with Momo seemed to be getting to him, too.

“It’s not like that,” Oishi started, the beginning of an explanation forming on his lips.

Tezuka interrupted him, arms crossed in a way that emphasized his irritation. “Twenty laps, both of you.” It seemed the captain had no interest in the fight that had just transpired between the golden pair.

Eiji scowled at Oishi across the court. “I hate you, Oishi!” he said, starting on the twenty laps. Only Eiji could manage to run and look petulant at the same time.

Fuji shook his head in amusement. The fight between Oishi and Eiji was probably the most ridiculous thing he’d seen all day. He turned to where Inui was sitting with his data notebook up against the fence. He walked over. “What kind of data did you get?” he asked. There had to be a reason Inui had insisted on seeing the two halves of the golden pair playing with different partners.

Inui looked up at him. “Se-c-ret.”

Fuji smiled. He didn’t press, but he was curious what Inui had noticed. Oh well. He would probably see it for himself soon enough. Still, he couldn’t help thinking how nice it was to see someone other than himself doing something a bit devious for once. Watching Inui play those two like puppets had strongly reinforced the belief that if anyone on the team-other than Ryoma-could handle his sadistic personality, it was Inui.

Chapter 16     Chapter Index     Chapter 18

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