Chapter 02

The ranking matches came upon them rather quickly. Fuji was the only regular other than the two captains who wasn’t remotely surprised to see Echizen’s name in the competition. The freshman had talent and Tezuka wasn’t the type of person to waste talent due to a club-specific rule that stated only juniors and seniors could be regulars. Some rules were meant to be broken, after all, and Fuji knew the captain never made such decisions lightly.

He stood beside Eiji, watching Momo’s match with one of the juniors in the club. Momo’s injury seemed to be completely healed, though he was still favoring the leg a bit. No one would really notice unless they were truly looking for it, of course, but Fuji noticed these things almost as a matter of course. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his own teammates was vital during a match. “It looks like his injured leg is okay,” he said to Eiji, knowing the red-haired teen wouldn’t be able to go without conversation much longer.

“I really thought he wouldn’t make it this time.”

Momo turned to look at them, having overhead the conversation. “Resting for more than a week makes my body numb. It’s a good rehab exercise.”

“Rehab? What a guy,” Eiji said, voice tempered with amusement.

Fuji didn’t respond to that. Momo was one of the most active members of their team. He was always going somewhere on his bicycle or spending time at the tennis courts outside of club hours. Momo worked hard at tennis and it showed. He was also one of the most trustworthy people Fuji’d ever seen. He was nice to a fault, except to Kaidoh of course, and if he said he was going to do something, he did it. He never made excuses for himself and pushed his body to its limits and sometimes beyond. It was how he’d sprained his ankle, but no one ever heard him complain. The only evidence that he wasn’t completely over the injury in a psychological since was that he was still favoring the leg a bit. Still, Fuji couldn’t blame him. Injuries weren’t easy to overcome on a mental level.

Momo easily won the game against the non-regular club member and the three of them went to lunch together. Fuji was looking forward to the match scheduled for after the meal, because he was interested in seeing how Echizen and Kaidoh would fare against one another. It was what everyone was talking about. There was a lot of speculation going around as to which one of the two would win. Fuji didn’t really add to that, because there wasn’t any way to tell for sure how the two would play. He knew how Kaidoh played-he’d watched Kaidoh play matches for the last two years-but Echizen was still an unknown. The only time Fuji had seen him play was with a broken racquet, which meant that his full skills hadn’t been on display. The match was sure to be interesting.

The three of them finished eating lunch rather quickly and took their places as observers in front of the tennis court where Kaidoh and Echizen would be playing. Tezuka joined them silently and Fuji smiled inwardly, his outward expression never changing. So the captain was interested too. It was rare for him to show such interest.

The two players entered the court and the tension in the air rose a few notches. Fuji watched a few people shift uncomfortably because of the tense atmosphere and wondered idly why it bothered him. To him, the tension was the best part. The way people acted when they were on edge was exhilarating. The match started and he focused his attention on the two players. The two returned smoothly and then Echizen aimed the ball at the back of the court on the side Kaidoh wasn’t occupying.

“Nice, he caught Kaidoh going the other way,” Eiji said with intensity. Everything the red-haired guy did was with intensity.

Fuji rolled his eyes behind closed lids. That was of course how it appeared, but Kaidoh had entered the match seriously, so he would play seriously. That ball wasn’t one he couldn’t return. He wasn’t surprised to see Kaidoh return the ball, but it was a bit surprising to see him use the snake shot to do so. “Kaidoh’s move came sooner,” he said, turning to look at the captain.

Tezuka was, as always, nearly inscrutable. “It means he’s serious,” he said. It was his only acknowledgment that Fuji had spoken.

Fuji turned his attention back to the match, slightly amused. He already knew Kaidoh was serious and knew that the captain was aware of that. Why the guy insisted on staying stoic and stating the obvious rather than indulging in a little bit of amusement, Fuji would never understand. It was amusing to him to see that Kaidoh was already serious about a freshman player because Kaidoh had a bad habit of underestimating his opponents. He wondered what had happened to make him take the little guy seriously. Maybe the incident with the broken racquet, but it was more likely that he didn’t want to give up his spot on the regulars.

When his focus was fully on the game again, he saw Echizen stop a moment. The guy tugged his hat down a bit and said, quite clearly, “You’re not good enough to beat me,” and switched to his left hand. At that occurrence, Fuji felt his amusement spike. Yeah, this kid was definitely cocky. Now all that was left to see was whether or not he had the skills to back it up.

The game continued and Fuji smirked a little on the inside when he realized that Echizen had led Kaidoh into his own trap. The continuous use of the snake shot could be an effective trap that forced a player to run around and lose their stamina, but Echizen’s use of deep baseline shots was causing the junior’s stamina to run out much more quickly. Both of them were sweating a lot, but Kaidoh was still oblivious to the fact he was being strung along. “This is a good match,” Fuji said. He was certainly enjoying it. There was a certain pleasure in watching someone fall prey to a trap they couldn’t see.

“Wait, is Kaidoh the one exhausted?” Eiji asked, surprised. The disbelief in his tone was palpable.

“Hasn’t Kaidoh noticed that yet?” Fuji asked when Kaidoh’s attempt at a snake shot return hit the net and bounced on to his own side, causing him to lose a point. It was a bit surprising that the junior was taking so long to realize that his stamina was being drained more effectively than he was draining Echizen’s stamina. Fuji took in the expression on Kaidoh’s face. The junior was finally aware of the trap.

“It’s hot,” Momo said, breaking the tension.

“This heat is killing me. How can they stand it?” Eiji, of course. He was the person on the team who complained the most, though it was generally good-natured.

“They’re both tired, but they’re aware of each other’s technique now. Not realizing when you’ve been led into a trap is very psychologically damaging,” Fuji said in response, getting his peers’ attention off the heat and back onto the game. Really, why watch a game if all they were going to do was complain. People were so tedious sometimes.

“Kaidoh’s the one that fell for a trap,” Tezuka said quietly.

Fuji agreed silently. The outcome of the game had been determined from that alone. Kaidoh’s stamina was too far gone for him to be able to make a recovery. He found himself impressed and amused at the freshman’s ability to see through Kaidoh’s plan and improvise his own on the fly. Echizen was definitely talented.

The next shot caused Fuji’s eyes to fly open in surprise. While the freshman was talented, Fuji hadn’t been prepared to watch him return a ball with Kaidoh’s signature snake shot. Had the guy already known it? But that didn’t make sense. If he had, surely he would have used it much earlier to psych Kaidoh out. So was he able to watch someone play and pick up on their techniques? That didn’t seem possible. But he’d definitely just scored a point with a snake shot. Fuji strained his ears to catch what Echizen was saying…something about having read an article on the technique. Well…that could potentially explain it, but people weren’t usually able to pull off such a difficult technique after a bit of light reading.

“Hmm,” Fuji said as the game concluded. Echizen definitely bore further watching. He played an excellent game of tennis.

Kaidoh, as usual, started beating his racquet against his knee after he lost, drawing blood. “He’s always the same,” Fuji said. He didn’t mention that watching Kaidoh hurt himself sent a thrill up his spine. It somehow didn’t seem appropriate.

The next match that Fuji got a chance to watch Echizen play was the one against Inui. It was sure to be enlightening, since Inui played with data tennis-the most obnoxious style of tennis Fuji thought he’d ever seen. It had its weak points, but Inui put it to good use. There weren’t many regulars who could beat Inui on a good day, so matching him up with the freshman had been a good move on Tezuka’s part. A little cruel, perhaps, but that was perfectly okay with Fuji. This way he’d learn if Echizen deserved any of his time. Fuji had no interest in those weaker than him. That was boring.

Echizen’s freshmen supporters were standing off to Fuji’s side, talking about the match going on before them. Inui was easily responding to Echizen’s every return and hitting the ball back accordingly. The freshmen were arguing over whether or not Inui could really be there every time Echizen hit the ball back across the net.

“Is that possible?” Sakuno asked.

Fuji scowled inwardly. He found fan girls incredibly obnoxious because they generally knew nothing about the game. All they cared about was how the guys looked playing it. It was stupid. If people came to watch a game, they should at least know the basics behind it.

“It’s impossible,” Horio-the green-striped guy-all but yelled in the girl’s face, which forced Fuji to stifle a guffaw. Watching the know-it-all act superior to the fan girls was rather entertaining…even if the guy didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “It’s only coincidence. Co-in-ci-dence!”

“That is possible,” Fuji said, interrupting the show. He wasn’t about to let the impressionable freshmen learn about tennis from a know-it-all with two years of tennis experience that amounted to zero practical use. “Inui knows where Echizen will hit the ball.”

“Fuji is so cool!” Tomoka gushed.

“Tomo, when did you become Fuji’s fan?” Sakuna asked.

Fuji just rolled his eyes. Now Echizen’s fans were focused on him. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut. But now that he’d already started talking, he might as well go with it. It’d be incredibly suspicious and not at all in keeping with his public persona if he just left them hanging like that. “As usual, Inui is playing a perfect game,” he said, once again trying to focus the attention away from him and back onto what mattered-the game itself.

“How exactly does Inui know where Ryoma is going to hit the ball?” Mizuno asked.

It took all of his willpower not to reach out and throttle the kid. “See for yourself,” he said instead. Maybe the freshmen would leave him alone and allow him to watch the game now. All because he’d felt an urge to correct Horio and acted upon it. Sometimes he really wished his public persona wasn’t such a social one. It’d be great to have Tezuka’s personality…no one would look at him twice if he didn’t answer a question. Then again, no one really did that anyway. In any case, being social could be annoying. But he felt a bit obligated to help the new tennis club members understand what they were seeing. After all, he was going to graduate from Seigaku that year so it only made sense that he leave some knowledge behind.

Fuji watched Echizen lose a love game to Inui before the freshmen started talking again. Without realizing it, he himself had moved closer to the fence and was within a foot of Mizuno. It must have been his subconscious desire to strangle the kid that drove him nearer. There was no other explanation for it.

“Inui may actually be stronger than Kaidoh!” Horio said.

“Of course.” How had the kid not realized that? It was pretty obvious that Inui’s techniques and footwork were all better than Kaidoh’s-all Kaidoh had was the snake shot and nearly unmatched stamina. Inui had his data, which meant that his entire game was based around a psychological attack. When that psychological attack failed, though, Inui was the one who paid the price.

“Really?”

Right. The freshmen. How had he forgotten about them? “Inui has won three games against Kaidoh.” In Fuji’s mind, that was more than enough of an explanation. He turned his attention back to the game again, hoping that maybe the freshmen would stay quiet and let him focus (but not really believing it would happen) and listened as Inui stopped during a court change over to tell Echizen that he had all his data figured out. That made Fuji wince. If the guy wouldn’t stop to chat about how his technique worked, he’d win a lot more games. But something in Inui always made him boast about his data tennis. It had to be his pride in it. There was no other viable explanation.

On the next serve, Echizen served a fault on purpose and taunted Inui with it. The freshman’s cockiness and irritation were plainly evident. “Echizen doesn’t want to lose,” Fuji said, laughing a little.

After a few disbelieving and stupid questions from the freshmen, the court finally fell silent again so that he could focus on the game. Of course, the silence didn’t last long.

“Inui anticipated again,” Horio said. “Does that mean it’s game over for Echizen?”

“Ryoma’s still trying to hold his service game,” Mizuno said.

“You’re right,” Kato said.

“Yeah, it’s getting better.”

“No, it looks kind of bad for him,” Fuji said, stepping into the conversation. He couldn’t help himself. When people were being idiots, he just had to correct them. There was no sense in letting them continue to think they knew what they were talking about when he could set them straight with a few words.

“Why is that?” Sakuno asked.

Fuji groaned inwardly. Of course, it would just have to be one of the fan girls asking the question. Seriously, didn’t she have something better to do besides ogle tennis team members? Sighing silently, Fuji explained, outwardly patient. “In order to get a point, he has to hit it where Inui won’t be able to anticipate the return. To hit with that type of pinpoint precision is difficult even for professionals.”

“Then Ryoma will-

Fuji interrupted, not caring which of the freshmen had decided to speak. He was in the middle of an explanation, so whatever the guy was about to ask was surely going to be answered anyway. “Inui uses his opponent’s data to simulate the patterns of play a game will take. Even if Echizen can somewhat understand what Inui’s doing, it will have no affect on the outcome of the game. In Inui’s current mindset, he’s playing a completely different version of Echizen than the one standing on the court.” Turning his attention back to the game for a third (and he hoped final) time, he saw Echizen dive to hit a lob that Inui smashed back to score a point, breaking the freshman’s service game. It wasn’t surprising-changing how you played to respond to another person’s play style wasn’t an easy thing to do. Fuji found his interest being piqued, however, when Echizen lowered his cap and said, “You’re not good enough to beat me yet,” in response to Inui’s confidence about winning the match.

“There’s this new step I learned recently,” Echizen said. “I wanted to keep it a secret until the nationals.” The but I’ll use it now in order to win was understood.

Fuji felt his amusement hit a high it hadn’t before. The freshman was down two games and was still confident-or arrogant-enough to taunt Inui. It would be interesting to watch. His amusement spiked even higher-if that was even possible-when he watched Echizen settle into a one-footed split step and begin calling out the directions of his returns. Fuji had to take his attention off the game a couple more times to explain exactly how unusual Echizen’s split step was and how much faster it made his reaction time, but that was much less of an annoyance now that he’d been able to see how Echizen handled Inui’s data tennis.

For the first time, Fuji felt the first stirrings of true interest in Echizen. So far, he’d only been curious about how much of an asset the guy would be for the tennis team. But now he was starting to wonder if maybe he wouldn’t be a good asset as a friend. A friend. Now there was something to laugh about. Fuji would never be able to have friends. Not true friends. Not ones that would understand his deep, dark-seated need to see people in pain and revel in it. No, it’d be best just to watch from a distance. After all, he’d learned the hard way with Saeki that no one could handle a sadistic best friend.

Chapter 1     Chapter Index     Chapter 3

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