Chapter 02

After practice the next day, Echizen was a flurry of activity as he got dressed. He did not want to find himself cornered by Fuji again. His throat and stomach were still sore from the day before, and the memory of the cold cruelty in Fuji’s eyes was enough to ensure Echizen didn’t stick around long enough for the man to corner him a second time.

Once he escaped the locker room, he let out a sigh of relief. Then stopped dead in his tracks as he caught sight of Fuji coming up the path towards the locker rooms from the courts. Echizen didn’t know what to do. Panic clawed at his throat. He wanted to walk silently past Fuji and off of the school grounds, but what if Fuji found that disrespectful? After yesterday, the last thing Echizen wanted to do was give Fuji another reason to be mad at him.

Fuji took the decision out of his hands. “Leaving already?” he asked, a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

Echizen pulled his cap down over his eyes, hoping the terror he felt in Fuji’s presence wasn’t as obvious as he feared. “Hai, Fuji-senpai,” he said, keeping his tone soft and respectful. He gave a small shiver at the memory of Fuji’s ruthlessness the day before. Tears threatened to rise to the surface – all he had wanted was to be the tensai’s friend. What he had found, instead, was that he had somehow managed to make the man his enemy.

Fuji lifted Echizen’s hat off his head, glaring in warning as the freshman automatically reached out to take it back. Echizen froze and let his arms fall to his sides. “If you want this back, find your way to the locker rooms after everyone else has left,” Fuji said. His tone dropped an octave. “If you don’t show up, I’ll send it through the trash compactor.”

Echizen’s eyes widened at the threat. That hat was important to him – more important than most people realized. He whimpered low in his throat, staring at the ground. “I’ll be there, Fuji-senpai,” he said. “Please don’t destroy my hat.”

Fuji smiled, basking in the distress he was causing the freshman. “We’ll see,” he said. Then, twirling the hat in his hand, he made for the locker rooms.

Echizen wished he had the courage to run after Fuji and snatch the hat out of his hand. If it had been anyone else – anyone else – he would have. But Echizen knew there was a deep cruelty lurking in Fuji, a cruelty he’d barely glanced the day before. And he did not want to risk extending an invitation to Fuji to tap into the deepest cruelty he possessed. If that meant he had to debase himself to get Fuji’s attention off of him, then that’s what Echizen would do. He did not want the man as an enemy, but it seemed he’d already managed that. Now, it was up to him to find a way to remove the target he’d unwittingly painted on his own back.

While he waited for the rest of the team to finish up in the locker room, Echizen walked around the fenced courts three times. Once he was sure that he was the only one on the field, he trudged back to the locker room, his hands thrust deep into his pockets where no one could see how tightly he had them clenched to keep himself from shaking with the fear he felt.

He opened the door to the locker room, filled with dread that Fuji had already left to carry out his threat. While Echizen didn’t want to face Fuji after what had happened the day before, he wanted even less to find him gone. If Fuji wasn’t on the other side of the door, then his hat – the hat his grandfather had given him a week before he passed away – would be gone. The threat of that happening was a strong enough motivator to get him to open the door and face whatever cruelty Fuji was waiting to inflict on him. Because there was no doubt in Echizen’s mind that what was waiting for him on the other side of that door was nothing good.

The door swung inward and Echizen let out a silent sigh of relief to be greeted by the sight of Fuji sitting on one of the benches near the back of the room, idly twirling the hat around his hand.

“Close the door,” Fuji said, his voice pure ice.

Shivering, Echizen dropped his eyes and did as told. He didn’t want to give Fuji any reason to deliver on his threat to throw the hat into the trash compactor.

A feral smile spread across Fuji’s face. “Tell me, Echizen, why is this hat so important to you? I doubt many people would willingly put themselves at risk for a mere piece of clothing.”

Echizen couldn’t help himself – he scowled. “That’s none of your business,” he said, horrified that he couldn’t stop himself from snapping.

Fuji stilled, the hat coming to a stop as well. “Aa,” he said. “Then I suppose you don’t mind if I make a trip to the trash compactor. I mean, it’s just a hat, after all.” He stood and began walking toward the door.

Echizen threw himself in front of Fuji and collapsed to his knees. “Please, Fuji-senpai, I’ll tell you. Please don’t destroy my hat,” he said, and this time, there were tears in his eyes.

Fuji stared at the freshman who had willingly fallen to his knees in order to save a hat of all things, and he felt his lip curl in satisfaction. “Tell me, and I’ll consider allowing this hat to remain in-tact.”

Echizen swallowed hard. “The hat belonged to my grandfather, Fuji-senpai. He gave it to me a week before he died. It is all I have left of him. Please don’t destroy it.” His voice had died down to a whisper, as if he knew that asking Fuji for any sort of favor was to risk inviting the man’s displeasure. But he needed that hat. He didn’t want to lose the only piece he had left of a man he had loved and respected.

“Good,” Fuji said. “When I ask a question, you always respond. Consider that the first condition of your repayment. Am I understood?”

“Hai, Fuji-senpai.” Part of Echizen wanted to start begging Fuji to give the hat back to him, but he had only just succeeded in keeping the tensai from destroying it.

Fuji reached into his back pocket and brought out a small pocket knife, and the sight of it made Echizen freeze in terror. Instead of attacking him with it – which was what Echizen had been certain was going to happen – Fuji tugged Echizen’s left hand up and unfurled the fist, then laid the knife gently in his hand.

When that was done, Fuji stepped back and put Echizen’s hat on his head. “If you want this hat back,” he said. “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to pull down your shorts and then you are going to cut a nice deep slash alongside the inside of your thigh. Be sure not to cut too deeply. I don’t want you to bleed out.”

Echizen stared at Fuji and swallowed hard. “Why would I do that when I can just attack you with the knife and get my hat back that way?” he asked.

Fuji gave him a feral smile. “Oh, do try,” he said. “Give me a reason to use my knife.” That said, he produced a second knife from his side pocket, much larger than the knife he had given Echizen. “But rest assured, Ryoma-kun, that I won’t stop at a single slash. The choice is yours.”

Echizen stared at the knife in Fuji’s hand, then at the hat on the tensai’s head and finally at the knife in his own. The threat Fuji posed was too large – Echizen couldn’t overwhelm the tensai in a straight physical fight, let alone in a fight where knives played a role. Letting out a small whimper, he came to a decision and pushed his shorts down. Closing his eyes, he flicked the knife open and took a deep breath. Was getting his grandfather’s hat back worth this?

“Oh,” Fuji said. “I forgot to mention. If you don’t do this, not only will you not get the hat back, I guarantee it will end up in the trash compactor by the end of the day.”

Echizen’s toes curled in hatred and fear. How had he ever wanted to be friends with a man this cruel? He grit his teeth and lay the knife along his flesh. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the blade into the skin hard enough to make blood bead. Before he could lose his composure, Echizen slashed downward, yelping as red blossomed along the line he’d cut into his flesh.

“Good,” Fuji said, staring at the blood on Echizen’s leg, transfixed. He shook his head, as if to clear it, and smiled – genuinely smiled – at the freshman. In this smile, there was no cruelty present. In fact, in this smile, there was nothing but approval. Then his expression returned to the crueler one Echizen had grown accustomed to fearing. “Consider this the first installment of the payment for what you stole.” He took the knife from Echizen’s hand and transferred the hat to the freshman’s head. “See you tomorrow,” he said.

Echizen watched Fuji leave with terror in his heart. But he couldn’t help but wonder where that last smile Fuji had given him had come from. He shook his head. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he find a way to avoid Fuji in the future. He didn’t know what he had stolen from Fuji, but he was sure he hadn’t stolen anything that required he pay for it in blood.

Chapter One     Index     Chapter Three

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