Chapter 24

The Hyotei match came upon them faster than Fuji had anticipated and ended almost as quickly. Seeing Momo team up with Eiji for doubles because of Oishi’s injury had been fairly entertaining since Eiji didn’t handle change well. Takashi’s game against Kabaji had been difficult to watch and Fuji’s own game against Jirou was pretty disappointing. The only enjoyable part of that game had been flirting with Ryoma who’d wormed his way into being bench coach.

Watching Tezuka play Atobe caused mix feelings. On one hand, he was ready to inflict a world of pain once it became obvious Hyotei’s captain was drawing the game out to intentionally stress Tezuka’s injury. On the other, Fuji knew better than anyone that Tezuka could take care of himself. He wouldn’t appreciate or understand any thing Fuji might do to Atobe. And if he was found out, which would be inevitable considering how vocal Atobe was, there was a very high possibility Tezuka would never talk to him again.

So he stood with the others and watched the game drag out into hours until Tezuka’s shoulder could take no more strain and Atobe won the game by a narrow margin. Echizen’s victory after that was almost anti-climatic.

Still, they’d won. They were going to the Nationals. Fuji was glad. After the time he’d invested in Seigaku’s tennis club, it was only fitting that they were going to Nationals during his final year.

As the team walked back towards the bus, he dropped back to walk beside Ryoma, slipping his hand gently into the freshman’s. “You played well,” Fuji said. In all the excitement of Tezuka’s game, no one had stopped to say anything to Echizen.

Echizen shrugged, tugging his hat down in front of his eyes the way he did when he was feeling self-conscious.

“Looking forward to the party?”

“Not really. Too noisy.”

Fuji smiled. “If you’d like, afterwards we can go to my place. My mom and sister are out of town for a seminar until tomorrow afternoon.”

Echizen glanced up at him, then back down at the ground. “I’d like that. I better call my dad and make sure it’s okay.”

“Mm.” Fuji dropped his hand and boarded the bus behind Eiji, giving Ryoma the time he needed to contact his father. He was glad Echizen had started to appreciate his family more since they’d started dating. Family was important.

The only open seats left were beside Eiji and Momo. Without really thinking about it, Fuji dropped into the one beside Eiji, directly behind Inui and in front of Momo. Echizen completed his call and boarded the bus, taking the seat beside Momo. After Coach Ryuzaki did a quick headcount to make sure everyone was accounted for, the bus driver pulled out.

Before long, Fuji could hear Ryoma snoring and glanced back over his seat to see his boyfriend’s head resting against Momo’s shoulder. A surge of jealousy hit him and he had to count to twenty, taking deep calming breaths. He wanted to be the one Ryoma was snuggled up against, but at least out of everyone there it was Momo. The least threatening. Everyone knew Momo only had eyes for Tachibana Ann and Echizen had never even considered Momo in that way. The two of them were best friends and would never be more than that.

Fuji turned his attention back to the front, only to find Inui staring at him over his seat. Glancing around, Fuji noticed everyone else had fallen asleep. It wasn’t too surprising, considering how hard everyone had played. He might as well indulge Inui’s curiosity. He focused his attention on Inui and stopped smiling, opening his eyes to give the data player full exposure to him without his mask.

Inui pushed his glasses up on his nose. “You’re jealous.”

Fuji shrugged.

“Of Momo?” Inui was whispering, of course. Neither of them wanted anyone waking up.

“No.” The idea was absurd.

“Then what?”

“It should be me he’s sleeping on.”

“Ah.” A long silence passed, interrupted only by the light snoring around them. “Echizen said you were a sadist.”

“Mm.” Fuji was idly curious as to where this conversation might be headed, but not overly concerned. He’d wanted a chance to talk to Inui one-on-one and it had landed in his lap. Sometimes opportunity favored him.

“You didn’t seem to derive enjoyment from Kawamura’s pain,” Inui said cautiously, as if he were trying to work something out in his head.

Fuji clenched his fists involuntarily and forced himself to relax. Inui wasn’t judging him. “I don’t enjoy watching other people inflict pain on my friends.”

“I was under the impression that sadism meant deriving pleasure from seeing others in pain.” Inui shifted around in his seat so that he was kneeling, his arms resting comfortably on the back of his seat as he focused on Fuji.

“Perhaps in a general sense. But I prefer to inflict pain, not watch others inflict it. For me, watching someone else cause pain to another person is like watching a match between beginning tennis players.”

“So you get an itch to be the one on the field, so to speak,” Inui said, tilting his head as he considered this.

Fuji breathed a silent sigh of relief, glad he didn’t have to elaborate. “Yes. But I should point out that I have certain guidelines I live by and one of them is not to hurt my friends.”

Inui’s gaze flicked to Echizen, who was still snoring. “What about him?”

“He’s different. He approached me as a masochist-that’s how he identifies.”

“Then you’re still obeying your rules,” Inui said after a moment’s thought.

“Hm?” Fuji was curious. Hurting someone he was friends with by definition was in violation of his rules…but Echizen was the exception. And he could get around it semantically by saying they were lovers, not friends, but that seemed too much like evasion. Fuji wasn’t much for running away.

“A masochist, by design, needs to be hurt in order to be happy. Without it, they become moody and self-destructive. Denying Echizen access to the pain he needs would be incredibly traumatic for him.”

Hmm. Fuji had never really thought of it that way, but Inui made a good point. The longer he went without hurting Ryoma, the worse the freshman’s behavior became. “So by hurting him physically I avoid hurting him in a way that matters,” he summarized.

“Exactly. But if you don’t hurt your friends, what do you do to express your sadism? I can’t imagine suppressing it being a viable long term stratagem.”

Fuji nodded solemnly. “There’s Echizen, of course. But I also use low level manipulation on the people around me that I have no concern about or on those who have crossed me in some way.” No need to mention the black market or his reputation as the bleeder. Too many people knowing about that was dangerous.

“You seem incredibly open to discussing this with me,” Inui said, frowning at him.

Fuji shrugged. “You don’t seem to care that I do it. And if you decide to tell everyone the truth, most of them won’t believe you.”

“Yes, you do have a very convincing public persona.” Inui paused for a long moment, thinking hard. “So when you played Mizuki and had such an amazing comeback, you did that intentionally.”

Blinking, Fuji said, “Of course.”

“You don’t normally lead your opponents around like that.”

His eyes narrowed as he remembered the reason for that. “He taught Yuuta that nasty shot knowing it could lead to injury. All he cared about was winning.”

“So you’re protective.”

“Very much so.”

“You do realize that this information will help me evaluate your mental tendencies in a tennis match more thoroughly,” Inui pointed out.

Fuji smiled. “I don’t mind.”

“I was under the impression you dislike being exposed.”

He shrugged. “You understanding my tennis is an acceptable trade for being able to talk openly with you about my sadism.”

“Ah.” Another long pause followed. “So everything is a trade of some sorts with you?”

Fuji considered the question. “Yes. That’s true of everyone though they don’t vocalize it.” At Inui’s quizzical look, he continued, “For example, you take data on all the people you may play in tennis and everyone knows that. But for a chance to be more successful, you allow people to be wary of your motives.”

Inui nodded thoughtfully before changing the subject. “You said Echizen approached you as a masochist.”

“Mm.” Fuji wasn’t really sure where he was going with this, but decided it was harmless to play along.

“How did he know you were a sadist?”

“He’s known other sadists so he knew what to look for,” Fuji said, hiding his unease at the question. He wasn’t sure what behavior of his had given him away to the freshman but he didn’t want to admit that.

“Other sadists?” Inui said, curious.

“Yeah. His ex.” Fuji’s expression darkened as he thought about Rick and everything he’d put Ryoma through. His anger eased as he remembered the man was currently in the hospital, courtesy of the impulsive Tony.

“I take it that’s not a pleasant story.”

“It’s not.” Fuji didn’t elaborate.

Inui stared at him for a long moment, mouth turned down in a way that told Fuji he was considering pressing for more information. He could consider all he liked. After what seemed like an eternity, Inui spoke again. “What is your take on the match between Tezuka and Atobe?”

Fuji’s eyes widened at the abrupt change in subject. “What exactly are you asking?”

“Whose strategy was it?”

“You mean which one of them was looking for the long match?” At Inui’s nod, Fuji continued, “Atobe was.”

Inui gave him an incredulous look. “It seemed to me that Tezuka had the advantage.”

Fuji frowned. “Tezuka knew Atobe was going to draw out the match before the game started, so he formulated a strategy beforehand that would make it seem as if he’d been aiming for a long match as well.”

It was Inui’s turn to frown. “You’re saying that it was a psychological attack on Tezuka’s part?”

Fuji managed not to roll his eyes, but just barely. “Of course. No matter how look at it, a long match was only favorable for Atobe. Since Atobe’s skill is on par with Tezuka’s, our captain knew that he couldn’t force a short game from him. Instead, he went in knowing his best bet was to play into Atobe’s strategy and counter from within.”

Inui pushed his glasses back up on his nose as he stared down at Fuji, studying him unreservedly. Fuji wondered idly if he should be concerned that it didn’t phase him, but pushed that aside. “You seem to look at tennis as if it were a chessboard.”

“Naturally. You don’t?” That surprised Fuji. He’d assumed that someone like Inui who relied on data would automatically view tennis the same way.

Inui shook his head. “I’m a statistician, not a strategist. My observations are based on percentages.”

Oh. Well that made sense. “Mine are based on each individual’s psychology.”

“So you can tell me without a doubt that Tezuka knew he was playing on Atobe’s terms and doing so intentionally?” The disbelief in Inui’s tone was palpable.

Fuji shrugged. “Of course. If his shoulder had held, he would have had a significant psychological advantage over Atobe because he wasn’t prepared for Tezuka to be agreeable to a long match. Atobe relied too much on the expectation that Tezuka wouldn’t want to risk aggravating his injury.”

Inui frowned. “You knew he was injured?”

Oops. Fuji nodded slowly, hoping that the data player wouldn’t push on that. He really didn’t want to explain why he’d kept that knowledge to himself. He breathed a sigh of relief when Inui changed the subject.

“Atobe still won.”

“Yes, but he is probably very shaken at how close the game was considering Tezuka was unable to truly play against him before the tie-break even began.”

“So you’re telling me that Atobe didn’t properly understand Tezuka’s mentality during the game?”

“Precisely.” Fuji thought that was obvious.

Inui frowned. “I’m not sure the data supports that.”

Fuji shrugged. “It changed about halfway through the game.”

“Why do you say that?”

“When Tezuka’s shoulder gave out, Atobe was unhappy. He had adapted to Tezuka’s use of his own strategy so he was truly disappointed when it aggravated Tezuka’s injury.”

“I thought that was the purpose of his strategy.”

“It was. But playing Tezuka forced him to re-evaluate that strategy and play on an even footing. The injury removed that.”

“Are you saying Atobe’s original plan hinged on underestimating Tezuka’s abilities?”

“Yes.”

Inui sighed. “I’m still not sure that’s a supportable theory.”

Fuji shrugged again. He wasn’t looking for someone who always agreed with him-just someone to whom he could express his true thoughts. Someone who wasn’t his lover.

Before they could continue the conversation-if there was any left to continue, they pulled into the school parking lot. Like clockwork, all their sleeping teammates began stretching and waking up.

Fuji sighed, not looking forward to the party he was going to have to attend to keep up appearances. He slipped his mask back on and had to satisfy himself with the fact that afterwards he was going to take Ryoma home. Now there was something to look forward to.

Chapter 23     Chapter Index     Chapter 25

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