Chapter 18

The day Momo returned to practice, an almost visible wave of relief washed over the tennis club. All the petty squabbling ceased; it was proof that Momo was the glue that held the team together. His energetic positivity was contagious and soon even Oishi and Eiji-who’d had one of the worst fights Fuji’d ever seen between them-were laughing and joking as if nothing had happened.

Fuji was glad. The tense, brittle atmosphere of the last few days had driven even his nerves to the breaking point. There was only so much temptation a person could resist. Practice ended on a positive note and he made his way to the locker room. He noted absently that Ryoma hadn’t come in with everyone else, which was unusual.

Exiting the locker room, Fuji leaned against the wall of the building to wait for him. The two of them had agreed to get ice cream after practice. As he waited, the rest of the club members trickled in ones and twos out of the locker room, some of them stopping to say a quick farewell which Fuji returned with polite disinterest. Not knowing what was keeping Ryoma was starting to bother him. Soon, everyone but Fuji had left. The only sound he could hear was the faint drip-drip of the leaky water fountain.

Ryoma came into sight right when Fuji straightened to leave. His patience had begun to run out. Ryoma offered no apology as he came up beside him; just offered a quick nod to acknowledge his presence as he made his way into the locker room. He entertained the idea of following Ryoma, but there’d been a look on the freshman’s face that bothered him. It wasn’t quite the look he’d worn when Rick had called to torment them, but it was very similar.

Eventually, Ryoma came back out. He seemed slightly more composed, but some of his hair was parted the wrong way and the collar of his shirt was turned down only on one side.

Fuji raised an eyebrow at him, not knowing what to say to the sight before him. He’d seen Ryoma angry and scared, but he’d never seen him caught in-between the two.

Ryoma practically launched himself at Fuji, throwing his arms around his waist, his fingers digging almost painfully into Fuji’s spine where he’d grabbed him.

As soon as he overcame his shock, Fuji brought his own arms down and wrapped them tightly around Ryoma. The way Ryoma was clinging to him made him think of a drowning man clinging to a life preserve. Fuji adjusted his stance a bit so that he could free one of his hands, bringing it underneath Ryoma’s chin and lightly lifting so that he could see the expression in his eyes. A hint of tears glistened there and Fuji felt his heart catch. No one was allowed to make Ryoma cry. “What happened?” he asked softly.

“It’s nothing,” Ryoma said, moving his face away to snuggle more deeply into Fuji’s chest.

“Humor me.”

Ryoma sighed. “It’s nothing. I was practicing a bit too close to the girls’ courts, that’s all.”

Fuji’s arms tightened involuntarily. “And?”

“They decided my practice was more interesting than their own.”

“Spectators don’t bother you,” Fuji said mildly. He’d seen Ryoma play tennis in front of hundreds of people and that pressure had never made him act this vulnerable.

“They don’t…when they’re just watching.”

“What do you mean?” Fuji asked sharply.

“They crowded me even when I asked for room to practice and some of them were a little too hands-on.”

“They put their hands on you?” His anger was almost a tangible thing now. No one touched Ryoma. He took a few deep breaths, knowing he needed to get himself under control. Anger was not going to let him handle this situation the way it needed to be handled.

“Yes, Syuusuke.” Ryoma said softly, almost as if he were afraid to admit it out loud.

If it had been anyone else, the situation might have been amusing. But Ryoma wasn’t comfortable with casual contact. The fact that he’d practically leapt into his arms told him just how upset the freshman really was. Ryoma just barely tolerated the casual way Momo and Eiji hung all over him, and those were his friends. He was fine when the two of them were alone and Fuji was marking him; hurting him in some way. But Fuji had noticed Ryoma’s nearly imperceptible flinches when he was being gentle. That someone-anyone-could think it was okay to touch Ryoma…that was unacceptable.

Fuji felt like screaming. Or, barring that, marching over to the girls’ practice and demanding that they leave Ryoma alone. But he couldn’t do that. Not only would it make him seem a bit insane, it would backfire. Besides, Hayashi Sora was the captain of the girls’ tennis team. Acting like that around Sora would result in trouble he didn’t want. As soon as that name popped into his head, Fuji knew exactly what he had to do. He might not be able to force the girls away from Ryoma the way he wanted, but Sora could. Mind made up, he stepped away from Ryoma and took his hand, tugging him gently in the direction of the girls’ courts.

“Syuusuke, what-”

“The girls’ practice doesn’t end for another half hour, right?” Fuji felt a sense of calm envelop him, the way it always did when he’d decided on a course of action.

“Yeah, but wh-” Ryoma fell silent at the intense look in Fuji’s eyes, suppressing a shiver. He was glad that focused determination wasn’t directed at him. Fuji only ever wore that look when he was truly, truly angry.

Fuji led Ryoma over to the girls’ courts and they stopped as close to the fence as they could without physically leaning on it. Ryoma’s hand clenched around his and Fuji glanced around to see that they’d drawn a bit of a crowd. He took a step back and pulled Ryoma in front of him, pressing himself tightly around the freshman and putting them as close to the fence as he dared, arms once again wrapped around Ryoma.

The girls started trickling out of the court, gathering around them outside of the fence. One reached out to touch Ryoma’s arm and Fuji moved his own down to deflect her before she could make contact. At the insulted look she gave him, Fuji shrugged, offering no explanation. He owed her nothing. He kept his eyes focused intently on the court, watching Sora practice with the regulars, moving every so often to deflect wandering hands reaching out to touch Ryoma.

Eventually, Ryoma forgot about the girls who kept reaching for him and relaxed in Fuji’s arms. The continuous, fluid motion Fuji had adopted to keep the girls away from him made him feel safe and secure, despite the growing crowd.

Fuji may have stopped the girls from frisking Ryoma, but he couldn’t do that and also stop them from touching him. He felt hands touch his back and occasionally someone got a bit too bold and grabbed his ass. He scowled at them, but they didn’t pay much attention. It was hard to look threatening in such a situation. He finally managed to catch Sora’s eye and the girl strode over to them, stopping to look at them through the fence.

Like Tezuka, she had a commanding presence, and all the girls behind Fuji fell silent at her approach, moving back a respectable distance from the two male tennis players. Wavy black hair spilled to her shoulders, framing her face. Her cheekbones were prominent, helping to highlight the deep set of her dark green eyes. There was a shadow in those eyes; the same type of shadow that lurked in Fuji’s. She turned the full intensity of that gaze on him and Fuji felt compelled to answer that intensity with his own.

“Fuji,” she said. She packed meaning into that one word like it was the last one she’d ever say. At one time, she was asking him why he was interrupting her practice, what Ryoma was doing with him and who he was, and she was also asking if he needed help or if he was trying to invite trouble. She was the only person Fuji knew who could impart that many questions with just the tone of voice she used and make herself understood.

Fuji never dropped her gaze, because to do that would be inviting Sora to play and Fuji’s taste in games was very different from hers. He preferred to contract others to carry out his schemes. Sora preferred to do everything herself. It made her ruthless. “Sora,” he said, letting her know with the use of her first name that he was there for business. Most people wouldn’t use their first names as code words, but she hated that name with a passion; to the point not even her family called it to her face. Fuji had learned quickly. She’d been part of the team Tony had put together when everything had fallen apart in America. Fuji had been the mastermind behind the operation and had smoothed things over where legalities came into question. Sora had taken care of the things Fuji had been unable to smooth out. He had no intention of alienating anyone more dangerous than him.

Sora didn’t yell at him for using her first name, which seemed to shock the girls surrounding them. There was some excited murmuring in the crowd, but she took care of it. “Twenty laps,” she said. “Go now.” There were a few groans of protest, but everyone did as she’d requested. Sora moved off the court, motioning for Fuji to follow her.

Fuji and Ryoma moved to where she was standing. She was a good fifteen feet or so out of the running path of the girls and Fuji felt himself relax a bit, knowing that no one would interfere with Sora when she was busy. Ryoma stood beside him, clutching his hand almost painfully. Fuji ignored the pain. There was nothing he could do about Ryoma’s current discomfort.

“Why are you here, Syuusuke?” she asked abruptly.

“Because your girls can’t keep their hands to themselves.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never known you to be bothered by that.”

“I’m not.” He motioned to Ryoma. “He is.”

“Hm.”

Fuji’s eyes flashed and he struggled to contain his anger. Getting angry right now was a waste of time. Not to mention a bad idea. “He doesn’t like being touched. Your girls cornered him and practically forced themselves on him.”

Sora’s eyes narrowed and she slid to stand in front of Ryoma. Careful not to touch him, she bent down until she was on eye level with the freshman. “Is this true?” she asked.

Fuji had to fight to keep himself from jerking Ryoma back out of Sora’s reach. He didn’t want to offend her. They were the only two people at Seigaku with the ties the other might need. They weren’t friends. They were barely acquaintances. If Fuji had to pick a term, he’d say they were business peers, but that was as far as it went.

Ryoma almost recoiled from the harsh intensity of her green eyes, lowering his head almost instinctively in submission. She was dangerous. Probably more so than Syuusuke and that thought frightened him; Syuusuke was just this side of ruthless. He swallowed. “It’s true,” he said softly, inching slightly closer to the man at his side. If Fuji noticed his sudden fear, he was polite enough not to say anything.

Sora straightened up, turning that harsh look to Fuji. “Who is he to you?”

“He’s my lover.”

“Hm. I never took you for a romantic, Syuusuke.”

Fuji smiled a bit at that, responding to the gentle teasing in her tone. “He’s a masochist.”

“Hey!” Ryoma objected out of principle. He didn’t want the whole world knowing that.

Fuji laughed.

“A masochist. Sounds perfect for you. Still, I never expected you to take a lover. Considering everything we do.”

“Mm. Ryoma caught me by surprise.”

“Does he know?” she asked.

“That I’m a sadist, yes.”

She gave him a look.

He sighed. “Not everything. Not yet.”

Ryoma turned thoughtful eyes on them both, his curiosity overriding the fear Sora had inspired in him. “I’m still standing here, you know.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Fuji said, turning cool eyes towards him.

Ryoma swallowed and fell silent. That was the look Fuji got when he was within an inch of meting out punishment. He was curious, but he wasn’t that curious.

Sora made a disgusted noise. “Syuusuke, you know I don’t like talking in front of people who don’t know everything.”

“I’ll tell him tonight.”

“You’re not worried?” She tilted her head.

“Not at all.”

Sora gave Ryoma an assessing look. “All right,” she said. “What do you want?”

“I want everyone to keep their hands to themselves.”

Sora sighed. “Do you understand the price of what you’re asking?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”

Sora frowned and turned to some of the girls who were struggling to keep going on the twenty laps she’d assigned. She stalked over to them and said a few words that Fuji couldn’t make out, but by the time she’d returned the girls were running again. Not as fast as before, of course, but they were running.

“Then I’ll put a hands-off out for him.” She leaned in close to Ryoma, a slight edge of promised pain underlying her words. “If anyone-and I mean anyone-touches you without your consent for any reason, tell Syuusuke. Understand?”

Ryoma’s eyes widened and he clutched Fuji’s hand so hard Fuji nearly hissed with the pain of it.

“Answer her, Ryoma,” Fuji said.

Ryoma swallowed hard. “I understand,” he said.

Sora straightened with a smile. “Good. Now, Syuusuke-”

Fuji had to force his own nerves down. Dealing with Sora was always difficult. “I’ll pay you back in full when you need my services. You have my word.”

“You left that open-ended.” The slight lift of her voice indicated surprise.

Fuji nodded. “I can’t put a time limit on this, Sora. He’s too important.”

Sora nodded her understanding, then looked towards the girls, who were finishing up their last laps. “I’ve gotta get back.” She walked away, not sparing them a second glance.

Fuji began walking back towards the boys’ courts, since they’d have to pass them to exit the school grounds. There was no doubt in his mind that, come morning, no one would touch Ryoma. Sora’s connections might have been frightening, if he didn’t have a network to rival hers.

“Who was that?” Ryoma asked.

“Hayashi Sora.”

“I didn’t mean her name.”

“I’ll explain that later.”

“Che.”

“There are some things not meant for public discussion,” Fuji said.

“Che.” Ryoma kicked a pebble that found its way into his path. “She seemed…scary.” It was like he had to force the last word out, like he hated the idea he was forced to admit that someone was frightening.

“She is.”

Ryoma gave him a sidelong look, disbelief written across his face.

“Ryoma, I’m good at what I do, but there’s always someone better out there.”

“I take it we’re not talking about tennis,” Ryoma remarked dryly.

Fuji laughed. “No. No we’re not.”

Ryoma grew quiet. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Hm? Do what?”

“Put yourself at risk to keep me safe.”

Fuji gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “I’m not in as much danger as you think.”

“I don’t believe you. She’s not safe.”

Fuji laughed again. “No, she’s not. But she’s smart. She knows what my talents are and she won’t ask me to do something I can’t. It’s a fair trade.”

“I still don’t like it.”

Fuji shrugged. “You don’t have to.”

Ryoma scowled.

Fuji started to say something in response, but fell silent when the door to the locker room opened and Inui stepped out. He frowned at the data player. “I thought you already left.”

“I did. I came back to get this.” Inui held up his tennis bag.

“It’s a bit unusual for you to forget your stuff,” Fuji said.

“I got caught up in an experiment.”

Ryoma wrinkled his nose. “Another juice?”

Inui nodded. “Well then. I’ll be going.”

“Actually, we’re going to get ice cream. Would you like to come with us?” Fuji asked. He knew Ryoma wouldn’t mind. Both of them could use a little male company after dealing with Sora.

Inui looked from Ryoma to Fuji. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“You aren’t imposing,” Fuji said.

“Che. Do what you want,” Ryoma said.

As they walked towards the ice cream shop, Inui began asking questions. It was just his personality, so Fuji couldn’t really hold it against him. “How long have the two of you been a couple?”

Fuji glanced down at where he was holding Ryoma’s hand; he had all but forgotten they were attached. “A few weeks,” he said.

“Odd. I usually notice these things much sooner.”

Fuji raised an eyebrow at that. “I wasn’t aware you kept up on our personal data.” They’d come to a stop, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn so they could walk across the street.

“I do. It helps me understand the mental tendencies you have during tennis.” Inui focused on Fuji. “But you continue to elude me.”

Ryoma spoke before Fuji could formulate a response. “He’s a sadist.” He smirked triumphantly at Fuji. After Fuji had announced his masochism to Sora, it was only fair to turn the tables.

Fuji had to fight back panic as he scowled at Ryoma for revealing him so suddenly. He hadn’t planned to be so abrupt. He made a mental note to punish him later; he didn’t like being exposed.

Inui looked thoughtful as he studied Fuji. “Is that true?” he asked, sounding mildly curious.

Fuji suddenly felt ridiculous for being so worried. They crossed the street. “It’s true.”

“That explains it.”

“Hm?”

“There is an unspoken agreement that you use counter tennis to be kind, since it is not built on attack. But if you look further, it reflects sadism because you take an opponent’s talent and turn it against them. The more skilled they are, the more effective your counter tennis becomes.”

Fuji blinked. “I never thought of it like that.”

“Yes, well. Most people don’t evaluate their own psyche.”

“I hate to interrupt this fascinating conversation,” Ryoma drawled, “but we just passed the ice cream shop.”

Fuji flushed and turned back. Ryoma was right; the conversation with Inui could wait until after they’d had their ice cream. After the day they’d had, ice cream sounded just about perfect.

Chapter 17     Chapter Index     Chapter 19

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