Chapter 04

 It was rare for Fuji to be placed in doubles rather than singles during a match, but tennis was tennis. He preferred singles but he could play doubles just as easily and teaming up with Takashi was more enjoyable than not getting to play at all. The combination of power and counter tennis was incredibly powerful and there weren’t a lot of opponents that could stand up to it, especially considering Fuji’s instinctive understanding of the game. Tennis came as naturally to him as breathing and it had taken him years to come to accept that others had difficulty with concepts he found ridiculously simple. That’s why he respected Takashi. The guy found the game difficult but played at a high level attained through hard work. It was hard to be mad that he’d been paired in doubles with him. And the first doubles match was always an incredibly important one.

Playing against Fudomine was going to be different. An unseeded school had just sprung into the finals without warning and it made Fuji feel a bit agitated. He wasn’t sure if he was irritated or nervous. All he knew for certain was that he intended, with every fiber in his being, to do his best to win the game. Because winning would boost everyone’s morale and make the upcoming matches more entertaining. So Fuji went into the match as seriously as he could and didn’t hesitate in using the first of his triple counters, tsubame gaeshi, scoring an easy point.

Soon enough, the decisive point was upon them. If Seigaku didn’t score, Fudomine would have the pace and the match would all but belong to them. Fuji wasn’t going to let that happen. No matter what. Fudomine seemed to be thinking the same thing, though, because as Fuji watched, Ishida took up a stance that was unfamiliar to him. Focusing, he determined that he was not letting that ball get into their court, no matter what. Not even when the impact of the ball hitting Ishida’s racquet told him that the return was going to be incredibly powerful. If he turned just the right way, he should be able to absorb the impact and use it to his advantage somehow. He got into place to return it, ignoring the calls from his teammates that his wrists were too weak to handle the shot. Before he could begin to return it, however, Takashi leapt in front of him and took the return away from him.

Fuji winced to himself as he heard a pop…Takashi’s wrists hadn’t been able to take the strain. But the guy’s return had broken Ishida’s racquet and allowed them to score the point. Fuji felt a bit disgusted with himself. If he hadn’t been so intent on getting that point, Takashi wouldn’t have leapt in front of him and gotten injured. Yet again, his carelessness was the reason for someone else’s pain. He shook the guilt away. At least this he could fix. There was no way he was going to continue playing tennis alongside Takashi when the guy may have broken his wrist.

Turning, he saw that Takashi was standing, putting on a brave front and calling back to the people on the team who were cheering him on. Fuji felt his irritation spike. He would be damned before he let Takashi continue this match. He strode over to where the guy was standing.

“What’s wrong, Fujiko-chan?” Takashi asked, smiling up at him through a front. Without answering, Fuji grabbed his wrist and moved it up a little, unsurprised when Takashi yelled out at the sudden pain.

Fuji stood there for a long moment, composing himself. He could feel the urge to continue putting a strain on Takashi’s wrist for his own personal enjoyment warring with the urge to keep Takashi from getting hurt any further. Hurt for his sake. “You took that shot for me,” he said softly, eyes still focused intently on Takashi’s face.

“Ah.”

Making a decision he was sure Takashi would protest, Fuji turned and said, “Referee, we will forfeit this match.”

“What are you saying? I can still play. You know as well as I do how much the first game means to us,” Takashi said, immediately against the idea of quitting.

Having assessed the situation, Fuji had already donned his usual expression. “It’ll be fine,” he said, directing Takashi’s attention towards their other teammates. None of them seemed upset at what had happened, which helped put an end to Takashi’s protests. “See?”

“Sorry guys,” he said quietly.

Fuji walked off the court and took his seat on the bench. Not being able to finish the game certainly sucked, but having a friend try to play through an injury like that was a stupid idea. It would just put extra strain on the injury and could potentially turn it into a long-standing one instead of just a minor occurrence. And Fuji had no interest in seeing anyone on the Seigaku team suffer from a tennis injury that would affect them for the rest of their lives. No-that type of pain wasn’t entertaining. Fleeting pain-pain that could be recovered from-that was the only enjoyable type of pain.

The next couple of games passed pretty uneventfully. Watching Oishi and Eiji play doubles was always entertaining, just because of the shock value of Eiji’s acrobatics. Kaidoh’s match was less entertaining, except for the spectacular accidental boomerang snake he’d used as a return when he slipped in the mud. Still, they were good matches. But recently Fuji had come to enjoy watching Echizen play tennis more than he enjoyed watching anyone. Tezuka played a little better than Echizen, but he was so stoic all the time that the entertainment value was way lower. Echizen’s snark made everything more fun.

Fuji felt himself startle at that. Since when did he enjoy snark? That was a new thought. He’d always thought that if he did find himself in want of a friend, he’d want someone like Tezuka on his side. The stoic immoveable type of personality seemed pretty ideal. On the other hand, it was a rather cold personality and didn’t leave a whole lot for personal interaction. Maybe Fuji had gotten the type of person he’d actually enjoy being around wrong. That thought was unusual enough in itself that it caused him to drop his mask for half a second before pulling it back on. Fuji wasn’t used to being wrong, especially about matters concerning himself. And why was he still on about Echizen being a potential friend anyway? He’d already made up his mind not to pursue that. After Saeki, it was too much of a risk

Shaking his head slightly, he turned to the match before him. He’d think more about what exactly his emotions were implying later-after the match between Echizen and Shinji. He’d overheard Fudomine’s captain saying that he’d miscalculated earlier, having expected Fuji to be the one playing in the second singles game. So it would be interesting to see if Echizen would be able to give Fudomine’s Shinji as much of a fight as Fuji would have if it was him standing out there on the court.

Watching Echizen play tennis was starting to become one of Fuji’s favorite things to do. It seemed that the freshman enjoyed provoking his opponents nearly as much as he enjoyed winning. Fuji couldn’t complain-every time Echizen said something provocative, Fuji smiled on the inside. It was fun. And now he was provoking Ibu with his twist serve, winning his service game in under a minute. Fuji was a little less surprised than everyone else when Ibu used the same technique against Echizen, but very little truly surprised him.

He watched as the game progressed, frowning when he saw the weird way that Ibu was returning balls to Echizen’s side of the court. “There’s something wrong with that attack style,” Fuji said, directing his words towards Eiji and Oishi, who were sitting beside him on the bench. “It looks like Ibu’s hitting top spins and slices to Echizen’s forearm and backhand, but…” he trailed off. The other two would see it or they wouldn’t.

“You’re right,” Oishi said, surprised.

Before Fuji could think of anything to say, everyone’s attention was pulled to the game, where Echizen had just missed hitting a return that was easily within his reach. He frowned. Fuji wasn’t a big fan of players who relied on forcing a weakness from their opponent and Ibu was doing exactly that. Every so often, Echizen’s arm would go numb and Ibu would take advantage of it. It was an obnoxious attack.

Echizen apparently thought so as well, because the next time his arm went numb, he swung his entire body into trying to return it. But he lost his grip on his racket and it went flying. It hit the pole of the tennis net and broke, the handle bouncing back to fly up into Echizen’s eye. The entire crowd fell silent they were so stunned.

Fuji cared less about that and more about how Echizen was handling the pain. A part of him felt that he should get angry for the guy, but Echizen had caused his own injury by being so reckless. He should have known better than to try to swing a racquet when his arm had gone numb. The rest of him was focusing on the way Echizen had collapsed to the ground, clutching his eye, but didn’t scream in pain. There were a lot of people who would have yelled bloody murder if they’d been hit in the eye like that. Fuji wasn’t sure how he himself would handle that situation.

Shock and disbelief coursed through him when he saw Sakuno run onto the court and try and badger Echizen into getting off the court. That type of behavior was beyond disrespectful and it made Echizen look weak. He felt an odd sort of pride when Echizen pushed her away and told her to get off the court, never making a move to accept her attempts to help him. The referee and then Coach Ryuzaki had to interfere before the girl would finally step off the court. It was only then that the team could see to Echizen’s injury. It was obvious from how bad it was that it was risky for the freshman to continue playing.

“The eyeball is fine, but the eyelid muscles are shot,” Oishi said.

“That’s what happens when you recklessly swing your racquet,” Fuji said, addressing Echizen.

Like usual, the freshman didn’t respond. Ever since the guy had joined the tennis team, he’d never said a single word to Fuji. And up until now, that hadn’t bothered Fuji. He didn’t mind not being talked to-as a general rule, it was easier to deal with people like Tezuka who never said unnecessary things. But it actually bothered him that the freshman wouldn’t talk to him and he couldn’t put his finger on why. It could have something to do with the fact that he was considering pursuing a friendship with the guy…well, it could have, if he were actually considering that. Which he wasn’t. Not at all.

Echizen spent a few minutes arguing with the referee about being allowed back into the game only to be pulled aside by Coach Ryuzaki. “You’re a stubborn fool.”

“Is that bad?” Echizen countered.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?”

“No, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Oishi, bring me the first aid kit.” She turned to the kit the co-captain had brought her and rummaged around until she found the items that she needed. “Ryoma, this is going to hurt.” Taking care to be as gentle as possible, she fashioned a sturdy eye patch for him that would temporarily stop the bleeding.

Fuji was impressed. “Sumire to the rescue,” he said, reveling in the shocked look the Coach gave him.

“Fuji, you have no right to call me Sumire.”

He shrugged, offering no apology. He’d just watched Echizen get hit in the eye with a racquet and undergo the painful procedure of getting his eye bandaged and the guy had barely made a peep. Fuji was impressed. He was also amused. If it woudn’t have been entirely inappropriate, he would have started humming. Perhaps Echizen Ryoma could be the friend he was looking for. After all, what better friend for a sadist than a guy who could withstand pain like that and not lash out in either anger or fear?

Of course, he still had his fears that he would end up hurting someone if he ever tried to befriend them beyond surface appearances. That fear would probably never completely die down. But he couldn’t continue to live his life in a way where there was no room for anyone but him. It was boring…but more than that, it was lonely. And watching Echizen’s match had given hope. Hope that maybe, somewhere, there was someone who could handle his sadism and all that it entailed without fleeing in fear. And, just perhaps, that someone could be Echizen.

Chapter 3     Chapter Index     Chapter 5

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