In his third year of high school, they stopped calling him a genius. No one else noticed the change, but he felt it like a knife. At tournaments, as he eavesdropped on the whispers around him, they said, "That's Fuji Shuusuke--", an unconscious pause replacing what had once followed so naturally, as if it were part of his name: "the tennis genius". But his title had passed onto other shoulders. Now he was only "Seigaku's Fuji" or once, in a laughably ironic moment, "Fuji Yuuta's older brother." He had smiled until it felt as if his face had frozen.
He didn't know when the change began, only the point when he first noticed it. In the final ranking tournaments of second year, he had played carelessly against a teammate, blithely watching the balls pass by within arm's reach until to his surprise he heard the referee call out the score: 4-4. He frowned for one startled moment, a quick motion at the corner of his mouth, and changed his racket. He had never lost control of a match before. He won, 6-4, but he paused to look more closely at the student who had upset his balance so badly. The face was still unfamiliar--a student who had entered the Seigaku school system from a different middle school and had never played competitive tennis before joining the club. Fuji vaguely recalled his solid but unexciting tennis in first year and wondered when the improvement had occurred.
"Senpai? Something wrong?" Momoshiro asked nervously. Fuji blinked and plucked the strings of his racket. He smiled.
He had kept his spot among the regulars--of course--but something had shifted. The captain set him to practicing doubles, which bored him. The serves, the returns, the coordination of movement--he executed each formation flawlessly and effortlessly and watched in amusement when his partner faltered. Later, in private, Tezuka reprimanded him, "You do your part and nothing more. Doubles is about cooperation; your strengths should make up for your partner's weaknesses."
"Yes, fukubuchou," he replied demurely.
Third year began, and Fuji played Kikumaru in the first ranking tournament of the new season. Kikumaru was in fine form, as flexible at eighteen as he was at fourteen, and Fuji found himself focusing on the game, his feet moving faster, his returns growing sharper. He ended the games quickly in a combination of perfectly executed counters, and Kikumaru pouted as they shook hands at the end the game. "That was mean, Fuji," he complained and stuck out his tongue. "You didn't need to crush me."
Fuji's smile grew thin. "Just keeping you on your toes."
Inui scribbled furiously in his notebook. Oishi looked at both of them worriedly and opened his mouth to speak, but Fuji turned away quickly and began putting his rackets back into his bag. Echizen, on the other hand, left the crowd of open-mouthed freshmen watching from the sidelines, and asked him, with his usual lack of tact, "Fuji-senpai, since when did you start playing everyone so seriously?"
Fuji gave him his broadest smile. "Echizen-kun, I always play seriously. Didn't you know?"
"Not in middle school--"
He interrupted smoothly, "But we're in high school. It's been three years, Echizen-kun. People change."
Echizen's eyes narrowed at that, and he studied Fuji carefully, as if assessing a new opponent. Practice ended, but the words still echoed strangely in Fuji's mind. "People change. People change."
He played doubles in the first round of the districts tournament that year. They lost, despite Fuji's late attempt to concentrate on the game. Tezuka stared at him grimly, as they left the court, but didn't say a word. Fuji forgot to smile during the next set of doubles. Seigaku won the round after all, in spite of everything, and advanced. The next round, the coach announced the lineup--"Second singles, Fuji Shuusuke"--and before his match began, Tezuka came up to him, and in an uncharacteristic gesture, grasped his arm. "Fuji," he began, his voice oddly hesitant. The grip tightened. "Don't--"
"What is it?" He slid his arm out of Tezuka's grip.
Tezuka studied him, his eyes unreadable behind the lenses. He seemed to sigh, though there was no sound or movement, just a subtle change in the tension of his face. He stepped back and said distantly, "Do your best."
Fuji crushed his opponent. 6-0. The spectators forgot to clap or cheer at his victory. As he passed by the sidelines, on his way back to the stands, he heard someone ask, "Who was that?"
Another voice answered, "Oh, that's Seigaku's Fuji Shuusuke. Haven't you heard of him?"
"Familiar name. Seigaku's always a powerhouse. Didn't they make it to the Nationals once?"
"You're thinking of the middle school. Although I hear that the current high school team has many of the same members on that star team three years ago."
"The likes of us aren't any competition for them, I'll bet. That was a frightening game--does he always play hard like that?"
"Fuji?" A pause. "It's odd; his style's changed. He usually makes his games look so effortless. They called him--they used to call him--"
He hurried back before he could hear the end of the conversation.