Chapter 03

Fuji waited after practice for Tezuka. He’d sent Ryoma home ahead of him, surprised but pleased when the freshman didn’t argue. Exerting his dominance earlier had made an impression. He made a mental note to exert it more often.

Tezuka came out of the locker room and, after a brief, assessing look, fell into step beside him. “What’s up, Syuusuke?”

Fuji left his smile plastered on. “When are you leaving for Germany?”

Tezuka’s breath hitched. It was close to imperceptible, but Fuji was an expert when it came to reading non-verbal cues. To his credit, Tezuka didn’t ask how Fuji knew about the trip. “Sunday night,” he said.

It was Thursday. Fuji frowned mentally. He had to get Tezuka on the same page before the weekend. “So soon?” he asked. “Didn’t you want to watch the match against Jyousei Shounan?”

Tezuka gave a sharp nod. “I did,” he said. “But it’s a first class rehabilitation center. If I don’t go now, there won’t be another opening for four months.”

“And you plan to be back in time for nationals.”

The captain said nothing, but his silence spoke volumes. He was a stubborn man who would go to any length to keep his career on track. He’d been set on becoming a pro since he was old enough to hold a racquet.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll win,” Fuji said. He had to plant doubt in order to get the result he wanted.

Tezuka frowned. “I’m confident the team will function fine without me,” he said. But Fuji heard an element of doubt in his voice.

“I’m glad you’re so certain,” he said.

“You and Echizen are more than capable of playing in my stead.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps,” Fuji said. “But I wouldn’t bet on Echizen. He’s been lacking motivation lately.”

Tezuka tilted his head, considering. “I don’t see it,” he said.

“Have you ever seen him truly excited during a match?” Fuji asked. He knew that with the way Ryoma practiced, anyone would be hard-pressed to think him lacking in motivation. But he knew the side of Ryoma no one else got to see. Just like Ryoma knew him.

“No,” Tezuka said.

Fuji smiled. “That is why,” he said. He turned onto his street, leaving Tezuka to work out the problem on his own. After three years, Fuji knew the best way to get the captain to do what he wanted was to point out the problem and let him discover the solution.

Fuji was confident that during tomorrow’s practice, Tezuka would challenge Ryoma to a match. And the captain would never suspect him of planting the idea. Considering how difficult Tezuka was to manipulate, Fuji was in a good mood when he walked through his front door.

He knew the match between Tezuka and Ryoma wouldn’t address the real problem. Tezuka was too much like Ryoma’s father in that he expected Ryoma to play perfect tennis. The pressure wouldn’t allow Ryoma to truly enjoy the match. But a game between the two of them would buy Fuji enough time to find the perfect candidate to wake the sleeping tiger that lay dormant in his lover.

Fuji wasn’t surprised at afternoon practice the next day when Tezuka looked at him and asked to do some light hitting. He smiled, pleased that he’d gotten through to the captain in time, and picked up his racquet.

Tezuka had told everyone during the morning practice that he was leaving for Germany in a few days. People were still talking about it; the Regulars knew it was a necessary trip but some of the freshmen were concerned that with the captain gone, their chance to win Nationals was dying.

Fuji couldn’t be bothered to correct their assumptions. Sometimes feeling defeated and desperate made a person play better; it all depended on mindset. Some people played great under pressure–you just had to look at Ryoma to see that. And others crumbled under it. He spared a glance at Momo at that thought. Just remembering the way he’d handled losing his Regular spot irritated him. The important thing was he’d come back.

Tezuka lobbed a ball and Fuji returned it cleanly. It had been awhile since he’d seen the captain play with his right hand, but he knew that he’d been practicing in private. Tezuka was the kind of man who wouldn’t let having one arm out of commission handicap him if he could help it. Being ambidextrous on the courts was a serious advantage that no one in their right mind would pass up if they had the talent for it.

Practice ended and Fuji swallowed as he lined up with the others, hoping he wasn’t wrong about Tezuka. He didn’t think he was, but there was never any guarantee with Kunimitsu. Sometimes he went in a direction Fuji never would have foreseen.

“Echizen,” Tezuka said. “Get on the courts.”

“Hmm?” Ryoma tugged his hat out of his eyes and raised an eyebrow at the captain.

“We’re going to play a one set match.”

“Tezuka, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Oishi asked.

Ryoma ignored Oishi in favor of staring at the captain. It took him all of three seconds to decide. “Okay,” he said, before turning and walking onto the courts. It took all of his willpower not to look at Fuji as he did so. Is that what Fuji had meant yesterday?

Fuji smiled at the thoughts flickering across his lover’s face. As much as Ryoma tried to hide his feelings, Fuji could read him like a book. It made their relationship surprisingly stable.

Tezuka ignored Oishi’s comment as well, switching his racquet to his right hand as he walked onto the court behind Ryoma. Fuji knew this match was going to be intense; he’d stumbled across one of Tezuka’s private practices earlier in the week. He smirked. Ryoma was certainly in for a surprise.

“Do you have any experience with your right hand?” Ryoma asked.

“Yes,” Tezuka said. He looked back. “Oishi, referee this match.”

Oishi frowned but came forward, taking a seat in the referee’s tower. He raised a hand and called, “One set match. Echizen to serve.”

Ryoma stared across the court at Tezuka, torn. He wanted to play with his all, but the captain was injured and he didn’t know if Tezuka could handle playing right-handed. He titled his head to the side, surreptiously catching Syuusuke’s eye. His lover would let him know. At the slight nod Syuusuke gave him, Ryoma relaxed. Being able to count on Syuusuke’s uncanny ability to read his thoughts made life much easier. “I’m not going to go easy on you,” he said.

Tezuka said nothing, settling into a stance that meant he was ready to return whatever Echizen threw his way.

Ryoma threw off his concern and focused on the court in front of him. This was the last time he was going to be able to play Tezuka before the captain left for Germany. There was no telling how long the man would be in rehabilitation and Ryoma couldn’t find it in him to deny himself or Tezuka a real match before that happened. Taking one last deep breath, he threw the ball into the air and hit his trademark twist serve into his opponent’s net.

“15-love,” Oishi called.

Ryoma hit another twist, surprised when Tezuka managed to hit the ball even though it bounced harmlessly off his racquet. The man hadn’t lied when he’d said he had experience playing right-handed.

“30-love.”

In a flash, Ryoma kept his service game. He caught a few whispers behind him, but tried to block them out. The other Seigaku club members could think of him as a villain all they wanted, but he wasn’t fooled by how Tezuka was playing. The man was up to something; his entire body screamed it.

“I don’t think this game is that simple,” he heard Fuji say in response to one of the comments. Hearing his lover’s voice helped him relax. He knew Syuusuke would see through the match, the way he saw through everything else. If there was one thing he could always count on, it was his lover’s uncanny ability to find the truth beneath the surface.

Fuji watched, his concentration intensely focused on the game as Tezuka and Ryoma traded volley after volley. He saw what was coming before anyone else and managed not to show his surprise when Tezuka settled into using his signature zone technique right-handed. While he’d been expecting an amazing match, seeing that the captain had improved his tennis so much that he could play right-handed just as well as he did left-handed was still startling.

The match lasted for hours. Fuji was nearly as caught up in the match as Ryoma and Tezuka were. His lover had managed to find a weakness in the zone; an impressive feat. Still, having to use his right hand, which he had next to no control over, was clever but risky. So risky it was going to cost him the game, but he had a feeling Ryoma already knew that.

The freshman would rather break someone else’s perfect technique than win a game. That was both endearing and exasperating. But Fuji couldn’t blame him. If he was out there playing the captain, he’d want to break that perfect zone too, just to prove it could be done. He had a feeling Tezuka knew the weaknesses in his technique; he wasn’t the type of person to believe he was unbeatable. But he was the type of person to do his utmost to guard against it.

The game ended with a score of 6-4, Tezuka winning as Fuji’d known he would from the moment he began using the zone technique. Still, the match had been amazing. At the very least, it had shown Ryoma that he wasn’t as far behind Tezuka as he’d thought. Fuji smiled. That knowledge should be enough to tide him over until after the Jyousei Shounan match. He’d bought himself some time.

Chapter 2     Chapter Index     Chapter 4

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