Chapter 1: Chapter One
Fuji stood at a window in an empty classroom, staring thoughtfully down at the people below. Practice would begin soon but he liked taking a bit of time to watch those around him. He learned a lot by watching. It had helped him assimilate.
The act was necessary. No one who would be able to handle his true personality. His congeniality was a mask for something darker than anyone around him would imagine. He wondered, idly, if the people around him would have a chance in hell against him if he ever got serious. Chances were they wouldn't. Not with the way his mind worked. Even now he had to keep himself from giving into his desire for destruction. Watching people break and fall apart...well, there was a pastime no one else would understand.
So to keep himself from going too far, he maneuvered things just far enough in the direction he wanted them to go. He did it so subtly that very few people, if any, noticed the manipulation. A word here, a look there, it was enough to keep him from taking things too far. Of course, he'd learned the necessity of walking that tightrope the hard way. At first, he'd been so disgusted at the very idea that he enjoyed other people's pain that he'd drowned himself in denial. Saeki, his only childhood friend, had paid the price for that denial. The regret he felt for what had happened was tinged with the determination to never let it happen again.
Watching the students below, he smiled sadly. Their world was not his world. He always felt a million miles away, completely removed from their reality. He knew he'd never fit them and that they'd never fit him. Still, sometimes it was nice to imagine.
Shaking his head, he stood and headed down to the tennis courts. All things considered, there was at least one thing to look forward to if the rumors about the new freshman were to be believed. Another good player on the team would ease their burdens considerably, especially considering the captain's worsening injury. Fuji knew neither Tezuka nor Oishi thought he knew anything about that but he saw it every time Tezuka moved. He favored it just a tiny bit, such a minuscule amount no one else noticed, but Fuji didn't miss anything. He also didn't comment. It wasn't his secret to share.
Fuji walked to the front of the school when he caught sight of the regulars grouped together. When he got closer to them it became apparent that Tezuka wasn't present. They exchanged a few comments about the new freshman. Oishi in particular seemed convinced that if he was as good as the rumors, he'd be a good asset to the team.
"We'll see," Fuji said, and the team moved from the school entrance to the locker rooms. When they got to the courts he saw that the non-regular juniors and seniors had monopolized the courts so the freshmen couldn't practice at all. None of the freshmen stood out except for the one in the green striped shirt. Judging by his body language, he was the type to boast about having skills he didn't possess. Not the new talent, then. Momo had said the kid was cocky but reserved.
There were two avid hanger-ons of the striped shirt guy, both of them eagerly leaning forward to catch every word. That alone made it obvious that they were new to the sport and easy to intimidate. There would be no fun for him in that quarter.
There were a few other freshmen scattered about but only one caught his attention. He was standing a bit to the side of the rest of his peers, idly kneading his racket. That habit told Fuji that he was attuned to how well his racquet held up and how often it needed to be re-strung. He couldn't make out the face of the freshman in question because a white cap obscured his eyes. All he could tell from the distance was that the freshman was short. Incredibly short. Under five feet. He'd probably had to endure a lot of grief about it because "short people can't play tennis." Well, Fuji would see how he handled that hurdle later.
While Fuji had been analyzing, Oishi had relaxed the freshmen by inviting them to do a little light hitting. Not wanting to stand around Fuji spoke up. "Oishi, we should do a little light hitting until Tezuka gets back."
"All right." Oishi stooped to pick up a crate of tennis balls and they found their way onto a free court. The vice-captain of the team lobbed a ball his direction and Fuji smashed it into the basket and winced when he realized his mistake.
"Fuji, you were a step late."
Fuji acknowledged the reprimand with a slight nod and after a few more swings, moved to let someone else take a turn. He noticed that it had grown quiet and he took a look around to see that nearly everyone was staring at the regulars in stunned silence, like it was difficult to hit a smash with accuracy. He snorted mentally in derision. More than half the people in the club would never see a match against another school.
"Oops. Too far," Oishi called, shielding his eyes with his hand as he watched where it would fall.
Fuji watched the ball go out of the court and head straight for the short freshman with the cap, wondering what the kid would do. He felt some mild annoyance with Oishi for the poor serve when he was known for his pinpoint accuracy. The freshman smashed the ball cleanly across the court back into the basket and his annoyance died. Fuji was impressed in spite of himself. Not many freshmen could do that.
The freshman said, almost surprised, "That was unexpectedly simple."
In the part of himself he didn't express to the world, Fuji laughed. The guy was a breath of fresh air. He bore watching.
Fuji didn't know how much time had passed, but he was suddenly aware that Eiji had stopped moving. For Eiji, that was weird, so Fuji turned to look at him.
"Ah, Arai and the freshman are at it again. Should we stop them?"
"Hmm," Fuji said and the rest of the regulars turned to look. Somewhere along the way Oishi had disappeared. Arai was brazenly up in the freshman's face, goading him about not having a racquet. Which was complete crap, of course, because the freshman had held a racquet at the beginning of practice. It wasn't likely it had walked off on its own. No, Arai was enjoying tormenting the guy. One of Arai's friends handed the freshman - Echizen (he finally heard the name) - a racquet that would never be approved for use in an official match and challenged him to play.
For a moment, it seemed that Echizen wasn't going to take the challenge his shoulders tensed at the mention of his missing racquets. So he got angry when someone messed with his stuff. It was a good thing to remember. Fuji couldn't blame him, he'd be pissed if someone hid his expensive tennis equipment too. "I want to see this," he said, directing his words to Eiji. One of them should step in and stop it but Fuji's interest had been piqued.
"I knew you were going to say that," Eiji said, not making a move to stop the match.
Fuji watched as Echizen's first attempt at returning Arai's serve caused the ball to fall short of the net and his second attempt forced the ball out of bounds and into the fence.
"You can't hit it normally," Momo said.
"Hmm. With that gut, you can't spin the ball," Fuji said in agreement. It would be interesting to see if the freshman could overcome the handicap he'd been given.
"Hmm, I see," Echizen said, tapping the racquet's gut with his hand twice.
Fuji arched an eyebrow. He saw? What did he see? He got his answer when, on Arai's next serve, Echizen scored a point.
"Oh, he put a spin on it by rotating his body," Eiji said, surprised.
"He's good," Fuji agreed. Echizen had overcome the problem of the bad racquet Fuji watched the rest of the match in silence, not surprised Arai wasn't able to keep up. Arai was the kind of player who relied on other people's weaknesses to make him strong. He'd never become a regular with that attitude.
Tezuka and Oishi appeared on the court after the match was over and berated everyone for their lack of respect for the rules and yelled at all of them to run twenty laps. Consequences. But it had been a match worth seeing so no one complained.
After being dismissed to run those laps, Fuji fell into step beside Oishi. Neither of them spoke and Fuji soon fell behind, which was fine with him. He wasn't in a rush. He spotted Takashi's racquet resting against the fence and picked it up. It seemed the guy always forgot he needed the racquet to switch to his tennis-savvy personality.
Looking around, Fuji saw Takashi, Momo, and Inui were behind him. Slowing his pace a little, he was surprised Echizen was keeping pace with Momo but didn't think too much on it. They'd just started running, after all. Fuji dropped his pace until he was beside Takashi. "Taka, your racquet."
Takashi grabbed hold of it and, with a cry of "Burning!", took off until he was even with Oishi and Eiji, who always ran together.
Fuji's face never wavered; he kept his expression kind and his eyes closed at all times to keep himself from unintentionally intimidating anyone but on the inside he felt himself truly smile. Takashi was the type of honest, dedicated player he admired most because all of it came from hard work. Tennis was easy for those who had the knack for it but overcoming the hurdle of not having talent...well, that was impressive.
Fuji finished running the laps with the others right beside Eiji. He'd given the doubles team ten laps before catching up to their pace and engaging in some light conversation. Eiji needed constant conversation and Fuji had set himself up as his best friend, next to Oishi, of course, at the beginning of their freshman year. The three of them were pretty close, by all accounts, but Fuji knew that they'd never accept him if they knew the truth. He wasn't sure anyone would.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
Fuji keeps his sadistic nature under wraps, sure no one will accept him if they find out the truth. But when Ryoma Echizen enters his life, Fuji learns that he isn't exempt from finding the one person who balances him out.
The ranking matches came upon them rather quickly. Fuji was the only regular other than the two captains who wasn't remotely surprised to see Echizen's name in the competition. The freshman had talent and Tezuka wasn't the type of person to waste talent due to a club-specific rule that stated only juniors and seniors could be regulars. Some rules were meant to be broken, after all, and Fuji knew the captain never made such decisions lightly.
He stood beside Eiji, watching Momo's match with one of the juniors in the club. Momo's injury seemed to be completely healed, though he was still favoring the leg a bit. No one would really notice unless they were truly looking for it, of course, but Fuji noticed these things almost as a matter of course. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his own teammates was vital during a match. "It looks like his injured leg is okay," he said to Eiji, knowing the red-haired teen wouldn't be able to go without conversation much longer.
"I really thought he wouldn't make it this time."
Momo turned to look at them, having overhead the conversation. "Resting for more than a week makes my body numb. It's a good rehab exercise."
"Rehab? What a guy," Eiji said, voice tempered with amusement.
Fuji didn't respond to that. Momo was one of the most active members of their team. He was always going somewhere on his bicycle or spending time at the tennis courts outside of club hours. Momo worked hard at tennis and it showed. He was also one of the most trustworthy people Fuji'd ever seen. He was nice to a fault, except to Kaidoh of course, and if he said he was going to do something, he did it. He never made excuses for himself and pushed his body to its limits and sometimes beyond. It was how he'd sprained his ankle, but no one ever heard him complain. The only evidence that he wasn't completely over the injury in a psychological since was that he was still favoring the leg a bit. Still, Fuji couldn't blame him. Injuries weren't easy to overcome on a mental level.
Momo easily won the game against the non-regular club member and the three of them went to lunch together. Fuji was looking forward to the match scheduled for after the meal, because he was interested in seeing how Echizen and Kaidoh would fare against one another. It was what everyone was talking about. There was a lot of speculation going around as to which one of the two would win. Fuji didn't really add to that, because there wasn't any way to tell for sure how the two would play. He knew how Kaidoh played-he'd watched Kaidoh play matches for the last two years-but Echizen was still an unknown. The only time Fuji had seen him play was with a broken racquet, which meant that his full skills hadn't been on display. The match was sure to be interesting.
The three of them finished eating lunch rather quickly and took their places as observers in front of the tennis court where Kaidoh and Echizen would be playing. Tezuka joined them silently and Fuji smiled inwardly, his outward expression never changing. So the captain was interested too. It was rare for him to show such interest.
The two players entered the court and the tension in the air rose a few notches. Fuji watched a few people shift uncomfortably because of the tense atmosphere and wondered idly why it bothered him. To him, the tension was the best part. The way people acted when they were on edge was exhilarating. The match started and he focused his attention on the two players. The two returned smoothly and then Echizen aimed the ball at the back of the court on the side Kaidoh wasn't occupying.
"Nice, he caught Kaidoh going the other way," Eiji said with intensity. Everything the red-haired guy did was with intensity.
Fuji rolled his eyes behind closed lids. That was of course how it appeared, but Kaidoh had entered the match seriously, so he would play seriously. That ball wasn't one he couldn't return. He wasn't surprised to see Kaidoh return the ball, but it was a bit surprising to see him use the snake shot to do so. "Kaidoh's move came sooner," he said, turning to look at the captain.
Tezuka was, as always, nearly inscrutable. "It means he's serious," he said. It was his only acknowledgment that Fuji had spoken.
Fuji turned his attention back to the match, slightly amused. He already knew Kaidoh was serious and knew that the captain was aware of that. Why the guy insisted on staying stoic and stating the obvious rather than indulging in a little bit of amusement, Fuji would never understand. It was amusing to him to see that Kaidoh was already serious about a freshman player because Kaidoh had a bad habit of underestimating his opponents. He wondered what had happened to make him take the little guy seriously. Maybe the incident with the broken racquet, but it was more likely that he didn't want to give up his spot on the regulars.
When his focus was fully on the game again, he saw Echizen stop a moment. The guy tugged his hat down a bit and said, quite clearly, "You're not good enough to beat me," and switched to his left hand. At that occurrence, Fuji felt his amusement spike. Yeah, this kid was definitely cocky. Now all that was left to see was whether or not he had the skills to back it up.
The game continued and Fuji smirked a little on the inside when he realized that Echizen had led Kaidoh into his own trap. The continuous use of the snake shot could be an effective trap that forced a player to run around and lose their stamina, but Echizen's use of deep baseline shots was causing the junior's stamina to run out much more quickly. Both of them were sweating a lot, but Kaidoh was still oblivious to the fact he was being strung along. "This is a good match," Fuji said. He was certainly enjoying it. There was a certain pleasure in watching someone fall prey to a trap they couldn't see.
"Wait, is Kaidoh the one exhausted?" Eiji asked, surprised. The disbelief in his tone was palpable.
"Hasn't Kaidoh noticed that yet?" Fuji asked when Kaidoh's attempt at a snake shot return hit the net and bounced on to his own side, causing him to lose a point. It was a bit surprising that the junior was taking so long to realize that his stamina was being drained more effectively than he was draining Echizen's stamina. Fuji took in the expression on Kaidoh's face. The junior was finally aware of the trap.
"It's hot," Momo said, breaking the tension.
"This heat is killing me. How can they stand it?" Eiji, of course. He was the person on the team who complained the most, though it was generally good-natured.
"They're both tired, but they're aware of each other's technique now. Not realizing when you've been led into a trap is very psychologically damaging," Fuji said in response, getting his peers' attention off the heat and back onto the game. Really, why watch a game if all they were going to do was complain. People were so tedious sometimes.
"Kaidoh's the one that fell for a trap," Tezuka said quietly.
Fuji agreed silently. The outcome of the game had been determined from that alone. Kaidoh's stamina was too far gone for him to be able to make a recovery. He found himself impressed and amused at the freshman's ability to see through Kaidoh's plan and improvise his own on the fly. Echizen was definitely talented.
The next shot caused Fuji's eyes to fly open in surprise. While the freshman was talented, Fuji hadn't been prepared to watch him return a ball with Kaidoh's signature snake shot. Had the guy already known it? But that didn't make sense. If he had, surely he would have used it much earlier to psych Kaidoh out. So was he able to watch someone play and pick up on their techniques? That didn't seem possible. But he'd definitely just scored a point with a snake shot. Fuji strained his ears to catch what Echizen was saying...something about having read an article on the technique. Well...that could potentially explain it, but people weren't usually able to pull off such a difficult technique after a bit of light reading.
"Hmm," Fuji said as the game concluded. Echizen definitely bore further watching. He played an excellent game of tennis.
Kaidoh, as usual, started beating his racquet against his knee after he lost, drawing blood. "He's always the same," Fuji said. He didn't mention that watching Kaidoh hurt himself sent a thrill up his spine. It somehow didn't seem appropriate.
The next match that Fuji got a chance to watch Echizen play was the one against Inui. It was sure to be enlightening, since Inui played with data tennis-the most obnoxious style of tennis Fuji thought he'd ever seen. It had its weak points, but Inui put it to good use. There weren't many regulars who could beat Inui on a good day, so matching him up with the freshman had been a good move on Tezuka's part. A little cruel, perhaps, but that was perfectly okay with Fuji. This way he'd learn if Echizen deserved any of his time. Fuji had no interest in those weaker than him. That was boring.
Echizen's freshmen supporters were standing off to Fuji's side, talking about the match going on before them. Inui was easily responding to Echizen's every return and hitting the ball back accordingly. The freshmen were arguing over whether or not Inui could really be there every time Echizen hit the ball back across the net.
"Is that possible?" Sakuno asked.
Fuji scowled inwardly. He found fan girls incredibly obnoxious because they generally knew nothing about the game. All they cared about was how the guys looked playing it. It was stupid. If people came to watch a game, they should at least know the basics behind it.
"It's impossible," Horio-the green-striped guy-all but yelled in the girl's face, which forced Fuji to stifle a guffaw. Watching the know-it-all act superior to the fan girls was rather entertaining...even if the guy didn't have a clue what he was talking about. "It's only coincidence. Co-in-ci-dence!"
"That is possible," Fuji said, interrupting the show. He wasn't about to let the impressionable freshmen learn about tennis from a know-it-all with two years of tennis experience that amounted to zero practical use. "Inui knows where Echizen will hit the ball."
"Fuji is so cool!" Tomoka gushed.
"Tomo, when did you become Fuji's fan?" Sakuna asked.
Fuji just rolled his eyes. Now Echizen's fans were focused on him. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut. But now that he'd already started talking, he might as well go with it. It'd be incredibly suspicious and not at all in keeping with his public persona if he just left them hanging like that. "As usual, Inui is playing a perfect game," he said, once again trying to focus the attention away from him and back onto what mattered-the game itself.
"How exactly does Inui know where Ryoma is going to hit the ball?" Mizuno asked.
It took all of his willpower not to reach out and throttle the kid. "See for yourself," he said instead. Maybe the freshmen would leave him alone and allow him to watch the game now. All because he'd felt an urge to correct Horio and acted upon it. Sometimes he really wished his public persona wasn't such a social one. It'd be great to have Tezuka's personality...no one would look at him twice if he didn't answer a question. Then again, no one really did that anyway. In any case, being social could be annoying. But he felt a bit obligated to help the new tennis club members understand what they were seeing. After all, he was going to graduate from Seigaku that year so it only made sense that he leave some knowledge behind.
Fuji watched Echizen lose a love game to Inui before the freshmen started talking again. Without realizing it, he himself had moved closer to the fence and was within a foot of Mizuno. It must have been his subconscious desire to strangle the kid that drove him nearer. There was no other explanation for it.
"Inui may actually be stronger than Kaidoh!" Horio said.
"Of course." How had the kid not realized that? It was pretty obvious that Inui's techniques and footwork were all better than Kaidoh's-all Kaidoh had was the snake shot and nearly unmatched stamina. Inui had his data, which meant that his entire game was based around a psychological attack. When that psychological attack failed, though, Inui was the one who paid the price.
Right. The freshmen. How had he forgotten about them? "Inui has won three games against Kaidoh." In Fuji's mind, that was more than enough of an explanation. He turned his attention back to the game again, hoping that maybe the freshmen would stay quiet and let him focus (but not really believing it would happen) and listened as Inui stopped during a court change over to tell Echizen that he had all his data figured out. That made Fuji wince. If the guy wouldn't stop to chat about how his technique worked, he'd win a lot more games. But something in Inui always made him boast about his data tennis. It had to be his pride in it. There was no other viable explanation.
On the next serve, Echizen served a fault on purpose and taunted Inui with it. The freshman's cockiness and irritation were plainly evident. "Echizen doesn't want to lose," Fuji said, laughing a little.
After a few disbelieving and stupid questions from the freshmen, the court finally fell silent again so that he could focus on the game. Of course, the silence didn't last long.
"Inui anticipated again," Horio said. "Does that mean it's game over for Echizen?"
"Ryoma's still trying to hold his service game," Mizuno said.
"You're right," Kato said.
"Yeah, it's getting better."
"No, it looks kind of bad for him," Fuji said, stepping into the conversation. He couldn't help himself. When people were being idiots, he just had to correct them. There was no sense in letting them continue to think they knew what they were talking about when he could set them straight with a few words.
"Why is that?" Sakuno asked.
Fuji groaned inwardly. Of course, it would just have to be one of the fan girls asking the question. Seriously, didn't she have something better to do besides ogle tennis team members? Sighing silently, Fuji explained, outwardly patient. "In order to get a point, he has to hit it where Inui won't be able to anticipate the return. To hit with that type of pinpoint precision is difficult even for professionals."
"Then Ryoma will-
Fuji interrupted, not caring which of the freshmen had decided to speak. He was in the middle of an explanation, so whatever the guy was about to ask was surely going to be answered anyway. "Inui uses his opponent's data to simulate the patterns of play a game will take. Even if Echizen can somewhat understand what Inui's doing, it will have no affect on the outcome of the game. In Inui's current mindset, he's playing a completely different version of Echizen than the one standing on the court." Turning his attention back to the game for a third (and he hoped final) time, he saw Echizen dive to hit a lob that Inui smashed back to score a point, breaking the freshman's service game. It wasn't surprising-changing how you played to respond to another person's play style wasn't an easy thing to do. Fuji found his interest being piqued, however, when Echizen lowered his cap and said, "You're not good enough to beat me yet," in response to Inui's confidence about winning the match.
"There's this new step I learned recently," Echizen said. "I wanted to keep it a secret until the nationals." The but I'll use it now in order to win was understood.
Fuji felt his amusement hit a high it hadn't before. The freshman was down two games and was still confident-or arrogant-enough to taunt Inui. It would be interesting to watch. His amusement spiked even higher-if that was even possible-when he watched Echizen settle into a one-footed split step and begin calling out the directions of his returns. Fuji had to take his attention off the game a couple more times to explain exactly how unusual Echizen's split step was and how much faster it made his reaction time, but that was much less of an annoyance now that he'd been able to see how Echizen handled Inui's data tennis.
For the first time, Fuji felt the first stirrings of true interest in Echizen. So far, he'd only been curious about how much of an asset the guy would be for the tennis team. But now he was starting to wonder if maybe he wouldn't be a good asset as a friend. A friend. Now there was something to laugh about. Fuji would never be able to have friends. Not true friends. Not ones that would understand his deep, dark-seated need to see people in pain and revel in it. No, it'd be best just to watch from a distance. After all, he'd learned the hard way with Saeki that no one could handle a sadistic best friend.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
Fuji keeps his sadistic nature under wraps, sure no one will accept him if they find out the truth. But when Ryoma Echizen enters his life, Fuji learns that he isn't exempt from finding the one person who balances him out.
Fuji walked out of the locker rooms, content with how the day had progressed. Echizen was exactly the type of talent Seigaku could really use right now, especially since it was the last year for the seniors to have a shot at going to Nationals. And Fuji definitely didn't want to miss his chance. Nationals was sure to be entertaining, both because of the exceptional players and tennis skills that would be displayed and because of the off-chance to watch people get hurt. Tennis being a one-on-one sport meant he got to see people in pain on a level that just wasn't as satisfying in contact sports. Those people were expecting to get hurt. Tennis players didn't expect to get injured, they just prepared for it. Some of them not very well. Still, it wasn't something Fuji went around broadcasting. His secret pleasure was no one's business but his own.
And while he enjoyed watching dangerous matches-as long as his friends and family weren't the victims-he himself would never allow himself to indulge in violent tennis. One misstep and the world he'd built for himself at Seigaku would come crumbling down. He was perfectly content with his life and his place in his school, so he had no intention of doing anything that could potentially expose his sadistic nature to his teammates aside from a joking comment here and there. Of course, at such times he was always being perfectly serious, but they didn't take him that way. That's what made it fun for him. They had no clue just how cruel he could be. And he didn't intend that they ever find out.
Because of his need for secrecy, it had taken him a bit of time to discover which style of tennis suited him the best. Some of them had been immediately out of the question. Power tennis, for example, was a definite out. On top of the fact that it was much too violent to hide behind, there was the fact that he just didn't have the build for it. His skinny arms wouldn't be able to take the strain of such heavy hitting and he had no desire to injure himself beyond recovery.
His second option had been the type of acrobatic play Eiji engaged in. The redhead always had fun when he played and was so energetic it was almost exhausting to watch. Fuji had decided pretty quickly to pass on that, though. It took enough energy just maintaining his social persona. God forbid he try to add a fake persona to his tennis playing. Not to mention he'd look ridiculous if he jumped around the way Eiji did and Fuji just didn't do ridiculous.
He'd explored data tennis for awhile after he'd discovered one of Inui's tennis notebooks and snuck a peek inside. Such a playing style was intriguing to watch in action, but it was incredibly boring to actually gather all the data and run all the simulations. He still didn't know how Inui kept himself sane. It would drive him mad just from sheer boredom.
Somewhere along the way, Fuji had stopped trying to adapt to the types of tennis that everyone else was playing and just let his own tennis come to him naturally. That was how his counter tennis style had developed and his triple counters were nearly unbeatable. The only person who'd he'd ever lost a game to was Tezuka and he intended to keep it that way for as long as he could. He didn't begrudge losing a match when it happened, but winning was just more fun. And Fuji played tennis because it was fun.
He sighed as he walked along the sidewalk towards his house, keeping his public mask on. There was no telling who he might run into and he didn't want to risk exposing himself in a public place. It sometimes felt like his face was frozen in the smile he forced, but it was a necessary burden. He'd learned a long time ago to appear to have his eyes closed but to truly have them open a couple of millimeters to see his surroundings. Ever since the incident with Saeki, he'd been very conscious of the intimidating effect his gaze could have. Other people could say that words were powerful all they wanted to. Fuji knew better. His eyes were dangerous. They glowed with the blue fire of his true personality and very few people could withstand that heat.
Such thoughts immediately turned his mind to Echizen and, in turn, to Saeki. He'd watched Echizen's match with Inui and found himself becoming interested in becoming friends with the freshman. Friends on a level he hadn't been with anyone except Saeki. And that had been back in grade school. And even then, when the closest bonds of friendship were formed between peers, Fuji hadn't been able to hold onto the only person who had mattered to him. He'd scared him off. And he'd hurt him. It was something he'd regret for the rest of his life. Remembering it was painful.
He had been about ten years old when he'd discovered his urge to make the people around him hurt. He didn't know where it had come from or why he enjoyed it, all he knew was that he did. Somehow he'd also known that it wasn't appropriate to indulge that appetite through tennis, but he couldn't explain that either. It just seemed such cruelty would taint the sport. And the people Fuji saw play that way did taint the sport, along with their own ability to assess a game properly.
One day while Fuji was in class with Saeki, a girl beside him passed a note to a girl behind him. He didn't think much of it at the time since the girls were giggling and generally being ridiculous the way girls always were. But he'd seen Saeki's name pass by on a slip of one of those papers and felt his curiosity skyrocket. Why were they writing notes about Saeki? Could they be spreading rumors about him? The idea made Fuji want to strangle someone. Saeki was the nicest guy in the school, as well as one of the brightest. But even at ten, he'd learned better than to jump to conclusions. He ran a few other ideas through his head. They could be talking about his tennis skills or the story he'd told for show and tell (Saeki always told a story. He was a natural born storyteller). Or maybe one of them-or both-wanted to date Saeki. Fuji frowned at the idea. From what he'd seen, a guy would have to be crazy to date a girl. They were insipid and stupid or they were just plain crazy. Neither seemed very appealing.
Fuji tried to put the note out of his mind, but he couldn't concentrate on the lesson. Their secretive, furtive glances in Saeki's direction just enhanced his irritation further. Class ended and he caught the two of them slipping their respective notes into their desks and smiled wickedly to himself. He would be able to find out! Taking his time, he acted as if he'd lost an important paper somewhere in his desk so that it wouldn't look suspicious if he was the last one out of the classroom. When everyone else had left, he slid the two notes easily out of the two desks without appearing to be doing anything other than walking. Sleight of hand was easy when tennis was the sport of choice.
Saeki was waiting for him at the door, like usual. Fuji smirked at him and held the notes up before him, chuckling when Saeki's eyes grew big. "Where did you get those?" he asked.
"Amaya and Hisoka were passing them in class. I just nicked them."
"What'd you do that for? Girls notes are boring." Saeki was complaining. Of course he was. He found girls just as irritating as Fuji did.
"Because I saw your name on one of them," Fuji said, blinking back surprise when Saeki ripped them out of his hand. The guy's face went red. "What?" He was concerned now. Saeki never got flustered. "What is it?"
Saeki thrust the notes back at Fuji. "Girls are dumb," he said, and stalked off down the hallway.
Fuji frowned at his friend's back and read the notes himself. What he read made him so angry he almost saw red. The two had been discussing Saeki, all right. They'd been talking about how the guy was so egotistical that it would do him good to be taken down a peg or two. Hisoka had proposed that Amaya ask him on a date and then stand Saeki up if he actually showed up. The two girls planned to break Saeki's heart. Fuji felt his anger curl in his chest as a fist, his blood pounding in his ears like a drum. The two of them would pay. He'd make sure of that.
Fuji found Saeki on the school roof, the place his friend always went when he was truly upset. "I can't believe they want to hurt you like that."
Saeki laughed; a bittersweet sound that tore at Fuji. "Maybe they're right, Syuusuke. Perhaps I am too egotistical."
Fuji snorted. "You don't have an arrogant bone in your body."
"But I'm popular. Maybe they resent me for that."
"Then they're dumb. I say we strike before they do."
Saeki tilted his head, considering. "What do you want to do?"
And Fuji told him in excruciating detail exactly what plan he wanted to set into motion. It had taken him all of three seconds to think of on the way to the roof and it would definitely keep the girls away from Saeki. To him, it seemed the best thing to do would be to act like they never knew anything about it. Fuji would put the notes back in the desks and no one would be the wiser. And when Saeki was approached, he'd accept the date but then postpone it continuously until the girl got fed up and confronted him about it. Nothing irritated a girl more than a well laid plan going wrong. And when Saeki finally did make time for the date, she would have forgotten all about the setup and genuinely want to go. So Saeki would have to continue to string her along until he got her to agree to have sex with him and after that happened, he'd have to cast her aside with some crude remark about used goods.
Fuji thought it was the most perfect idea in the world. It was vindictive, cruel, and wonderful. Because the girl would learn to never try and manipulate the people around her out of popularity envy. Saeki had other thoughts and shared them just as viciously as Fuji had shared his plan. Apparently, Saeki didn't think the same way he did. Not at all. Doing such a cruel thing to another human being would make him less than human. And after the vicious berating, Fuji didn't feel one iota of guilt about his plan. Not one. It was a good plan.
"Syuusuke, is this really how you see the world? Through a lens of carefully concealed cruelty?"
That startled Fuji. He had never considered himself a particularly cruel person and said so at once. It was only natural that someone who planned to mess with someone else's emotions get what was coming to them. How Saeki didn't see that, he would never understand.
Saeki looked at him with sorrow. To this day, Fuji hated that the most about what happened that day on the roof. Anger, annoyance, disgust...all of those, he could handle. But instead the guy handed him pity. Which he didn't need. And all of a sudden his world exploded in red because his anger became a force of his own. It consumed him, drowned him, and the next thing he knew he was dimly aware that he was beating Saeki bloody. Fuji didn't remember what had stopped him... a teacher or a student may have intervened; that part was never really clear. All he remembered was that at the end of that beating, Saeki was looking at him with revulsion and fear. And he'd reveled in it. He'd loved the feeling of it. Being in control.
Of course, when he'd calmed down later, he'd hated himself for being so weak that he couldn't even resist his own anger. He hadn't wanted to beat up his best friend. He never wanted to lay a hand on someone who didn't deserve it ever again. So he'd withdrawn from the school that had bound him and Saeki together and crafted a new image of himself. So the idea that he could be interested in having another friend scared Fuji the way nothing else could. He didn't want to hurt anyone close to him ever again. Not like that. But that day would inevitably come. He knew that the way he knew how to breathe. His sadism was just too much to ask someone else to accept.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Fuji keeps his sadistic nature under wraps, sure no one will accept him if they find out the truth. But when Ryoma Echizen enters his life, Fuji learns that he isn't exempt from finding the one person who balances him out.
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.
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 5: Chapter Five
Fuji watched his brother walk away from him and scowled silently up at the ball lodged in the fence where Yuuta had been practicing. He knew what kind of shot it had been and how damaging it was for his brother to be using it. Playing against St. Rudolph at the prefecture tournament was turning out to be a major irritation. Whoever had taught Yuuta that shot better have done so without knowing the risks beyond its usage. Anyone hurting his family was unforgivable.
Family was something Fuji knew he could count on. Even if he didn't like everyone or if they didn't like him, blood was important. It meant you stuck together, no matter what. At home, he didn't have to worry about keeping his mask up all the time. Instead, his family left him to his own devices. It was their way of showing respect. Of course, it helped that he genuinely liked the people he was related to...he'd never once had any sort of sadistic urges towards them. Sometimes they annoyed him, but that was part and parcel of family life and it was something he easily accepted.
But if anyone hurt his family besides another family member and had intended to cause that pain...well, there was nothing that could set Fuji's temper blazing quite so well as that. He felt his jaw clench and forced himself to relax. He was due back at the match. It wouldn't do to show up looking pissed off-his teammates wouldn't understand. No, worse than that...Yuuta wouldn't understand. And he wasn't going to ruin the match for his brother. He wanted him to have fun during the match with Echizen.
Putting the thought of what he was going to do to whoever had taught Yuuta that shot, he made his way back to the tennis courts and took a spot beside Tezuka. He watched what was now a familiar scene-Echizen provoking his opponent at the beginning of a match. It was almost as trademark as his "Made Made Dane"-but not quite.
The match progressed pretty evenly and Fuji found himself impressed at the difference in his brother's abilities. The last time he'd played Yuuta, he'd won easily. Now, though, it was obvious Yuuta would present more of a challenge. He held in a gasp as his brother managed to return a twist serve with ease, wondering when he'd managed to perfect the technique. That surprise paled in comparison to the sheer terror that gripped him when Yuuta got into the stance to hit a twist spin shot. Fuji felt another wave of anger at the idiot who had taught it to him in the first place. Maintaining his usual expression was all but impossible and it took a few seconds to make his smile seem normal. Luckily, no one had noticed.
When the game score had reached 4-1 with Yuuta leading, Echizen stopped to talk. That was something else Fuji had noticed...the freshman was much more social on the court than off it and had no trouble engaging in conversation. He filed that note away for later. If he did decide to pursue a friendship with the guy, that would be an important thing to remember. As for whether or not he acted on the desire to be friends...well, that hung on this match. Fuji had seen the exact moment Echizen realized that the twist spin shot was dangerous to use and hoped desperately that the guy would do something to seal the move. Practically speaking, Echizen could continue to allow the twist spin shot to go through and cause Yuuta to become injured. Fuji wanted to believe Echizen wasn't that type of person, but he hadn't seen him play enough matches to be able to tell for sure.
"That twist shot is pretty hard to return. If I don't hold the face down a bit more, the ball goes out," Echizen was saying. "Still, I think I have it down now." He paused, then added, "By the way, you shouldn't use the twist shot so much."
Fuji felt relief crash down upon him in waves. Rather than taunting Yuuta, he'd warned him. Which meant that he wasn't the type of player who felt it necessary to cause his opponent physical harm in order to win. That strengthened Fuji's resolve. When the match with St. Rudolph was over, he'd find a way to approach the freshman. It was very possible that the freshman would make an excellent friend.
He put that thought away and turned his attention back to the game, watching as Echizen managed to seal the twist spin shot with a unique drive volley that he termed "Drive B" by sliding underneath the ball and returning it so that it fell near the halfway point on the court and then bounced out. It did sort of look like a B. With that move, Echizen took the game and the match. Fuji had to strain to hear the last few words the players exchanged.
"I lost," Yuuta said. "You're strong."
"Maybe you're just weak."
"Joking, joking." Echizen waved a hand dismissively.
Fuji had to hide a genuine laugh under his fake smile. The match had been incredibly fun to watch after Echizen took away Yuuta's ability to use the twist spin shot. The rest of the tension melted off of his shoulders. There was no more reason to be concerned for his brother's safety-at least not for today. But there was still the matter of who had taught him the shot...he narrowed his eyes. The next match was him against Mizuki, the manager for the St. Rudolph team. If Mizuki had taught his brother that move, and it was most likely he had...well, he'd get what was coming to him.
Rifling in his tennis bag, he brought out his racquet, aware of Tezuka standing quietly behind him. "Tezuka, do you feel like playing?" he asked, almost rhetorically.
"I'm sorry, but it doesn't look like we'll get to you this time," Fuji said, eyes narrowed and focused on Mizuki, who was getting his own racquet from his bag. If this guy had taught his brother...he felt his shoulders start to shake with rage and forced himself to calm down. He had no proof yet. And he couldn't physically hurt the guy, even if he had been the one to hurt Yuuta. That was a line Fuji wouldn't cross-tennis and violence often mixed, but that line wasn't one he would blur for himself. No, there were better ways of dealing with people like Mizuki. If, he forcibly reminded himself, he is responsible.
Fuji found his way onto the court, standing across the net from Mizuki, who held out his hand for the traditional pre-match handshake. He extended his hand, intending to shake Mizuki's, but drew back at the last moment. It was an insult-he knew that-but if Mizuki had been responsible...he closed his eyes firmly to get a handle on his emotions. Now was not the time. With as much effort as he could muster, he detached himself from his emotions. Right now, they would only be a hindrance.
He focused all of his attention on losing the first five games. Losing on purpose was a lot more difficult than winning with ease and it helped him settle his mind. It also helped him think of the perfect strategy to use if Mizuki had indeed been the one to teach his brother such a dangerous shot. During the court change over, he stopped and asked. It was useless to keep wondering. Better to just get the truth out in the open. That way he wouldn't feel bad about what he was about to do. "Mizuki, I'm going to ask this just in case. Did you teach Yuuta the twist spin shot even though you knew the damage it would do to his shoulder?"
Mizuki smirked at him. That was a yes. "Winning's all that matters. There are always casualties when you pursue victory"
Fuji jerked his head in a stiff acknowledgment. That certainly made things easier. He made his way over to his tennis bag and picked up his gold racquet. He was going to do this in style. He took his place on the court and waited for the serve, exploding into motion when Mizuki sent a ball over. He returned it easily, scoring a point.
"Wha-but that was your weak side," Mizuki protested.
"That shot was aimed towards my stronger side," Fuji said, tone gently chiding. If Inui couldn't get proper data on him, then Mizuki sure as hell couldn't. The guy wasn't going to know what hit him and that suited Fuji just fine. He was going to have fun with this. Humiliating the person who had dared to put his brother in danger was sure to be almost as much fun as causing him psychical pain would be. The game continued that way until Fuji took the score from 5-0 with Mizuki leading to 7-5 with Fuji winning. Being beat by that sort of comeback would be humiliating for anyone.
And Mizuki fell into the category of anyone. When the game was over, he collapsed to his knees with a frustrated scream and Fuji looked down at him with narrowed eyes, hiding a shudder of revulsion at the tears streaming down Mizuki's face. What a bad loser.
"You asshole! You lost 0-5 at the start on purpose! Playing me like that..." Mizuki fell silent, choked with the effort of trying to get enough air to breathe through the heavy sobs.
"Thank you for taking care of my brother," Fuji said before turning around and walking off the court. He didn't care if Mizuki fell apart. The man had knowingly put his brother at risk and he'd taken care of the problem. Mizuki wouldn't mess with Yuuta again. Fuji had made sure of that.
After the ending ceremony, Fuji walked alongside the fence of the courts with Yuuta, trying to convince him to come home for the pie their mom had made. He noticed, when he got near the exit of the park, that Echizen was leaning against the fence, listening intently to the conversation between him and Yuuta.
Fuji didn't alter his conversation or let on that he'd seen Echizen, but inside he was smiling to himself. Here, finally, was proof that Echizen found him interesting enough to be willing to engage in a more personal conversation. But, as he was forcibly reminded when Yuuta scowled at him, that would have to wait until tomorrow.
And then maybe he'd have the whole weekend to spend getting to know the freshman. If, of course, he didn't manage to scare him off. Somehow, though, Fuji didn't think that would happen. Not after what he'd seen of the guy's personality.
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Chapter 6: Chapter Six
Normally the last person out of the locker rooms after practice, Fuji made a concentrated effort to be the first. It was Friday and he still hadn't been able to find a good way to approach Echizen. Beating the freshman out of the locker rooms, he'd learned, was incredibly difficult to do. It didn't help that Momo was always right on his heels, asking Echizen to get hamburgers. A small part of Fuji wondered if Momo was interested in Echizen but he tried not to dwell on it. From everything he'd seen, the two were best friends but that was as far as it went. Echizen certainly had never given Momo the kind of look he'd given Fuji after the match he'd played with Mizuki. Fuji shook his head. None of that should matter anyway. All he wanted to do right now was find out if Echizen would be able to handle his personality. Everything else could wait.
The door opened and Echizen stepped out. Now was his chance. "Echizen," Fuji said. "Come stand with me."
The freshman titled his head up, his hazel eyes focusing on Fuji. "Momo wants to get burgers," he said. As if that explained everything.
Fuji's eyes snapped open in irritation and he caught Echizen's gaze with his own. "You can get burgers with Momo anytime."
Echizen was silent, his eyes assessing. "Yeah," he said with a bit of hesitation, then settled beside Fuji against the wall, which caused Fuji to smirk inwardly in satisfaction. The two were silent for a long while. Fuji was waiting for the rest of the club members to leave. He wasn't going to talk openly in front of everyone. That would be ridiculous.
Momo came out of the club room and stopped in front of them. "Echizen, you coming? There's a burger with your name on it."
At the question, Fuji turned to look at the freshman while wearing his normal expression. Now that he'd initiated a conversation, what would the guy do? He knew Echizen was torn...he could see it in the way the guy kept sneaking surreptitious glances back and forth between him and Momo. And Fuji hadn't asked him to stay, though it had been implied.
Echizen pulled down the lip of his hat. "Sorry, Momo. I'll pass today."
"Ok. See you tomorrow." Momo walked away without a second look.
Fuji felt himself settle more comfortably against the wall. It was a small victory, but it helped ease his mind. He knew that, if he chose to, he could approach Echizen the same way he had Eiji and become surface friends. But that wasn't what Fuji wanted to do. He wanted more than that. He wanted someone who would be able to look him in the eye and not flinch when he was truly being himself. It might be too much to ask, but there was no reason to not at least try.
After what seemed like an eternity, Echizen and Fuji were the only two left. Another eternity passed while the two stood in silence, each assessing the other. Part of Fuji felt that he should be the one to break the silence since he had been the one to initiate everything, but the rest of him was having too much fun watching Echizen grow more and more uncomfortable with it. The freshman would speak first, Fuji was sure of that. But when he did, Fuji was caught off guard.
"I've been meaning to ask you something."
Fuji turned to face him, dropping his mask completely. Wearing it all the time was slightly tiresome. To Echizen's credit, the guy didn't flinch or back away when met with the intensity of his gaze. "What's that?"
"That match you played with Mizuki...you enjoyed breaking him."
The question came out sounding more like a statement. Fuji narrowed his eyes as he took in Echizen's posture. He was standing with his hands in his pockets, not making a single step to back away from the intense look in Fuji's eyes. It could have been an accusation, but the tone of the statement had lacked the sound of judgment. "And if I did?"
Echizen swallowed, the first hint he'd shown that he was at all nervous in Fuji's presence. Fuji felt his amusement spike. The guy had guts, he had to give him that much. "It was a good match."
"He hurt my brother."
Fuji swallowed his trepidation and decided to just go with it. Either Echizen would accept him or he wouldn't, but standing here not saying much of anything was getting a bit ridiculous. "And I like watching people suffer." He let the full weight of his gaze carry the message more thoroughly.
Echizen grinned up at him, expression completely devoid of judgment. "I know."
"It doesn't bother you?"
Echizen laughed. "Fuji, why would it bother me? I like that the most about you."
Fuji frowned. He was relieved that Echizen felt that way, but he didn't understand why and said so.
It was Echizen's turn to fall quiet...more quiet than before. He lowered his eyes to the ground, refusing to meet Fuji's gaze. Whatever he was about to say was going to be hard for him. Fuji felt a rush at that thought. Someone saying something difficult for them, not knowing if they would be berated for it...well, there was a certain amount of pleasure in that too. He conveniently put out of his mind that he'd just done the same thing and waited for the freshman to speak. When Echizen did speak, it was so quiet that Fuji had to strain to hear him, even though he was standing less than two feet away. "I like being hurt."
Fuji felt his entire world flip upside down. In all of his years, he'd never even thought there could be someone opposite of him. He'd always assumed that one either enjoyed inflicting pain or didn't. It had never even occurred to him that there might be people out there who enjoyed having it inflicted on them. But it made sense. Caught up in the revelation that there were people who could enjoy pain in the world, he almost forgot that Echizen was waiting for him to say something-probably something judgmental. And Fuji couldn't say anything mean...not to that. Not when it meant that there were people who would accept him for his sadism and perhaps even revel in it. "That's amazing," he said. Because it was.
Echizen looked at him from underneath his cap, seeking out some sort of reassurance in Fuji's eyes. Whatever it was he was looking for, he found it. "Most people think I'm suicidal when I tell them I'm masochistic."
Fuji frowned. "That's like saying I'm homicidal because I'm sadistic." He felt shivers run down his spine as he said the words out loud. It was the first time he'd said it so casually to anyone in his life.
Echizen laughed a little. "Yeah. People are idiots."
"Mmm." A thought occurred to him. "Do you want to come over to my house for the weekend?"
Echizen blinked at him before a slow smile spread across his face. "I would love to. But you need to know something else first."
"Hmm?" What else could the guy possibly have to say to him? He'd already turned his world upside down.
"I'd like to date you."
The bluntness of the statement shocked Fuji, but he didn't allow himself to show it. He looked at the freshman before him with fresh eyes. He was attractive-that had been apparent the first moment he stepped onto the court. And he was strong, both physically and mentally. Echizen had no problem embarassing himself if it meant he could get what he was after. Fuji liked that about him. But dating usually implied an equal exchange of power-one person decided something, then the other decided. At that thought, he frowned a little. "I'm attracted to you-
"But you don't want a normal relationship," Echizen finished for him, a slightly quirked smile on his lips. At Fuji's startled look, he said, "I don't want a normal relationship either."
"Then what kind of relationship are you talking about?"
"One where you're in charge."
Fuji titled his head, considering this. Being in charge sounded good. Of course, it meant more responsibility for him but Fuji had never had an issue with that. But..."Does that mean you'd obey me?"
Echizen flushed, but nodded.
"And if you didn't?"
"Then you'd have the right to punish me," Echizen said, his voice a low whisper.
"I thought you said you enjoyed pain."
"I do. It's a mental thing. If I know I'm being punished for something, I'm much less likely to enjoy it."
"Hmm. And when would I cause you pain other than for punishment?"
Echizen looked at him in exasperation. "Whenever you want, Fuji. I'm a masochist, remember? Your sadism is what interests me the most."
"So just to make sure I understand-you want me to control you and hurt you if we date." Fuji was still fighting hard to wrap his head around the concept. How had his world been flipped so thoroughly upside down? He'd expected to come away with a friend who could accept it, but it seemed he was being offered something much more than that.
"Yes, Fuji. That is what I'm saying."
"Hmm." Fuji began walking. He wasn't ready to give an answer just yet. After all, he still didn't know Echizen nearly as well as he would like. Masochism aside, it could be that he wouldn't be able to stand the other's habits. He stopped when he realized Echizen wasn't following him. He looked back. "Come on," he said. And with those two words, Echizen fell into step beside him. He didn't insist on getting an answer or ask where they were going-he just obeyed. And Fuji grinned. Perhaps by the end of the weekend he'd have an answer to give the freshman. One that would suit them both. In the meantime, he had a true masochist on his hands. He felt his mind start racing, thinking of ideas of how to put that to use. Oh yeah, this weekend was definitely going to be fun.
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven
Walking into his room, Fuji set his tennis bag down near the door. He turned to see Echizen hovering a bit outside the room. He frowned. "Never figured you to be the nervous type."
Echizen scowled. "I'm not." He walked into the room, arms folded across his chest. Looking around, he said, "You have a lot of cacti."
"I collect them."
"Oh." He paused. "Why?"
Fuji shrugged. "They look cool."
Echizen raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "They look painful."
"Only if you handle them incorrectly."
"Can I touch one?"
Fuji stared at Echizen, making an internal assessment. From the way Echizen's gaze kept darting between the cacti and Fuji's face, it was becoming more and more obvious that the reason Echizen wanted to touch one of the plants was because of the inherent risk of getting hurt. The very real possibility of that happening was such an intoxicating thought that Fuji almost said yes. But the truth was, he didn't want anyone handling his cacti but him. "No."
Fuji frowned. "I don't want your blood on my plants."
"So show me the proper way to handle them."
"No. You can watch me with them, but you're not allowed to touch them."
"Do you have any hobbies outside tennis?" Fuji asked, redirecting Echizen's attention. He didn't want the guy focusing on the cacti. Echizen had a stubborn streak a mile wide and if he was determined to handle one of the cacti, then he'd find a way to do so. Even Fuji telling him not to wouldn't stave him off for long. He was like a cat. Too curious for his own good.
"No. Just tennis."
Fuji breathed a silent sigh of relief. He had Echizen's attention again. "Then what do you do in your spare time?"
"Play tennis. Study. Play with my cat." Echizen held up a finger each time he added something to the list. He frowned in concentration. "Yeah. That's all."
"What about you?"
"Aside from the cacti? Photography."
Echizen scowled. "I hate having my picture taken."
"I've noticed." Fuji felt amused. Every time a reporter tried to take Echizen's picture, the guy always moved at the perfect moment to keep himself out of the frame. Avoiding pictures was an art he'd all but perfected.
Fuji stretched and walked towards the door. The rest of his family weren't going to be home anytime soon and he was getting hungry. A thought struck him then. "Don't you need to let your dad know where you are?"
Fuji rolled his eyes at the stubborn tone Echizen had adopted and continued out of the room. The guy was definitely a brat. "You coming?" he asked. There was no reason to answer what had obviously been a rhetorical question.
"Where to?" Echizen asked, falling into step behind Fuji.
"The kitchen. I'm hungry."
"Too bad." Fuji smiled to himself when he heard Echizen falter mid-stride, obviously surprised. It was rather difficult to shock the freshman, so he took pride in the fact that he'd managed to do it.
"What's that? You invited me over but aren't going to feed me?" Echizen asked, the usual cockiness back in his voice.
The audacity of the guy made him smile. There weren't many people who would challenge Fuji on any decision he made...mostly because they didn't understand how he was going to react. Normally it suited him just fine, but it was much more entertaining when someone attempted to walk the line between acceptable and unacceptable. "Mm," he said in confirmation.
Behind him, Echizen drew in a sharp breath. "That's cruel."
"So is worrying your family unnecessarily." Before he knew what was happening, Fuji felt his elbow being grabbed and he had to make a split second decision whether to turn with the pull or jerk away from it, possibly injuring himself. Without much hesitation, he turned to face Echizen, fire blazing from his eyes. People jerking him away was in no way appropriate. Echizen looked up at him, the words dying on his lips before he managed to speak. If he were a lesser person, Fuji knew the intensity of his look right then might have made him pass out. As it was, Echizen just looked a little shaky. Staring at the hand still gripping his elbow, he spoke in a low, tense tone. "Let go."
Echizen did so immediately, closing his eyes and backing up a step. It was the first time Fuji had ever seen him physically shaken. Then again, it was the first time Fuji had ever felt anger towards him, too. "I wasn't thinking," Echizen said.
"That much is obvious."
Echizen took a few deep, ragged breaths, trying to calm himself down. Fuji knew the fact he was still staring with muted anger at him probably wasn't helping with that, but he couldn't find it in his heart to care. He was too angry. Echizen looked up at him and held his gaze unflinchingly. Impressive. "I'm sorry," he said.
Fuji stared at the freshman for a few more seconds before deciding he was sincere. "Mm," he acknowledged. He turned back around and continued the short walk to the kitchen.
"Where's the phone?" Echizen asked, voice subdued. "I'll call my dad."
Fuji directed him to it, feeling a bit of smug satisfaction. Echizen might be stubborn, but he still wasn't a match for Fuji. Still, the stubbornness made things more fun. Someone who didn't push would be boring. While Echizen was on the phone, Fuji busied himself in the kitchen. Cooking was calming. Sometime during the middle of the process, Echizen had come into the kitchen and taken a seat at the counter.
Fuji finished making the food and scooped out his portion into a bowl. He still wasn't happy about the way Echizen had behaved earlier, so he didn't bother dishing out Echizen's share. He took a seat at the counter beside Echizen and began eating, ignoring the look on the freshman's face.
Holding up a hand, Fuji narrowed his eyes in displeasure. He swallowed what he had in his mouth and said, voice tight, "Sit there and don't speak." He watched as disappointment and hope warred on Echizen's face as the guy struggled to stay silent. It was apparent that Echizen wanted to lash out in anger, but somehow he held himself back. That made Fuji smile a little. He took his time eating, enjoying the food he'd made. He'd give Echizen his portion when his behavior improved. Once he was finished eating, he took his dishes to the sink and washed them leisurely, conscious of the eyes trying to bore a hole in his back.
Done with the dishes, he turned to the fridge and opened it. He pulled out a tray and took out two rolls before walking to the counter and sitting them down in front of Echizen. "Eat them."
Echizen's face drained of color. He knew exactly what he'd been given. "Why?" he asked, voice straining to hit a whisper.
"Punishment," Fuji said, "for your lack of forethought."
Closing his eyes in resignation, Echizen popped the two rolls in his mouth. He winced as the wasabi-filled sushi started to burn and he started to stand up. He needed water to wash them down. Before he could stand, Fuji's hands had come to rest on his shoulders, gently holding him in place.
Fuji watched in delight as Echizen forced himself to stay at the table. Although he was holding Echizen in place, Fuji would let him up if he thought the freshman was truly suffering from distress. He was sadistic, not cruel. Some people forgot that there was a world of difference between the two. He watched as Echizen finished eating the rolls. For someone else, just having watched a person eat wasabi sushi might have been enough. But Fuji wanted Echizen to remember this. He kept his hands on Echizen's shoulders, holding him in place. Eventually the guy would crack. Fuji had more than enough patience to wait for that.
One minute turned to five minutes which rapidly turned to ten. All Echizen could think about was the fire in his mouth and the need to get rid of it somehow. He wanted to move, but he didn't want to. He was caught in between two impossible choices-the fire in his mouth or the fire in Fuji's eyes if he didn't manage to stay put. The fire in his mouth was starting to get incredibly difficult to ignore. "Fuji, please," he said, barely recognizing his own voice, "I need water."
Fuji smirked. Oh yes. This was definitely fun. He'd never imagined when Echizen had told him about being masochistic that he would actually get to indulge in some of his own sadism. It had been implied, of course, but he hadn't really believed it. Now he did. And now that he'd had a taste of it, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stop. It was intoxicating. After Echizen's admission, Fuji moved away from him and took a seat beside him at the counter. To his surprise and delight, Echizen didn't get up to get water, even though by all accounts it seemed he was fine to do so.
"Please," Echizen said again, turning his head to meet Fuji's eyes.
Fuji motioned to the pot on the stove. "Go get your food." He ignored the plea for water completely. Water wouldn't dull the fire of wasabi sushi, but the food he'd made would help. The noodles from the ramen would help absorb the spice.
Echizen got off the barstool and made his way to the stove. He dished the food out into a bowl and took up residence at the counter again.
"You can eat," Fuji said, hiding his amusement when Echizen just sat there, staring at the food. It seemed the trick with the wasabi sushi had gotten through to him the way Fuji had hoped.
Echizen dug in with zest, finishing the bowl of ramen in under three minutes.
Fuji smiled. "Still need water?" he asked, his tone amused.
Echizen blinked at him before understanding flooded him. "Not anymore. Thanks."
"Mm." Fuji took the dishes from Echizen and washed them quietly. Afterwards, he grabbed two Fantas out of the fridge and offered one to the freshman, who downed it almost instantly upon opening it. "What did your dad say?"
"Che. That he was glad to get rid of me."
There was no hurt in Echizen's tone, for which Fuji was grateful. "Perhaps you should have asked him to bring you some fresh clothes."
"No way. The last place I want that man is anywhere near here."
The vehemence in Echizen's tone was surprising. Why was the guy so irritated at the idea of his dad bringing him clothes? Without that happening, Fuji would have to share some of his old stuff. Which wasn't a problem, but it still begged the question of why Echizen was so worried. "Are you ashamed of something?" he asked. He hadn't meant to actually ask the question, but now that it was out in the open, he might as well roll with it.
Fuji raised an eyebrow.
"He shows up at our matches acting like a lunatic instead of just watching like normal parents do. He won't ever play tennis seriously and he's always reading some sort of perverted magazine where anyone can see them."
Fuji chuckled, amused at the rant. He hadn't expected Echizen to be talkative-he was incredibly reserved at school. Except, of course, when he was taunting someone with his skills on the court.
"What's so funny?" he demanded, hands on his hips.
It was so absurdly petulant that Fuji couldn't be angry, even though the tone Echizen had used was much worse than just simply disrespectful. "You are," he said, reaching out to ruffle Echizen's hair.
Echizen scowled and went to fix his hair after Fuji moved his hand. "Che," he said, falling into a sullen silence. "Speaking of tennis, do you want to play a match?"
Fuji shook his head. "We're not playing tennis while you're at my house."
The petulant tone was back. He was definitely a brat. "Because," Fuji said, focusing intently on Echizen. "You said that the only hobby you had was tennis. I want you to find something other than tennis that you enjoy."
"Why? Just having tennis is good enough for me."
"That's what you think. But it's all you've ever known."
Echizen scowled, but under Fuji's intense scrutiny, eventually relented. "Okay, fine. No tennis at your house. What are we going to do instead?"
Fuji smiled. "We have an entire weekend to figure that out."
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight
Fuji yawned and stretched, sitting up in bed. He'd slept well so he was in a fairly decent mood. Looking around, he was a bit surprised to find Echizen in the center of the room, sitting with his hands under his legs. "Morning," he said.
"What are you doing?"
Echizen flushed and turned his head away. "Keeping myself away from your cacti."
Concern rushed through Fuji at those words. Did that mean that he had already been messing with the cacti? He took a quick glance around the room, frowning when he saw the cactus on his desk turned a little to the side. "Did you touch them?" he asked, keeping his voice level. He didn't think Echizen would lie to him, but it was important he find out. He watched as Echizen's shoulders hunched, making it seem like he was trying to force himself into a ball in order to become as small a target as possible. Seeing that made Fuji frown a little-even if Echizen had touched one of his cacti, he wasn't going to fly into some sort of manic rage. There was a story there, but he would have to wait to find out what it was.
"I turned the one on your dresser a bit, but I didn't touch the plant itself. Just the pot."
"Hm." Fuji stood and walked over to the cacti in question. He reached down to turn the pot back the way he'd had it facing before and snagged his palm on one of the needles. "Ah," he said, staring down at the plant with a frown. "There's blood on it." He'd all but forgotten about Echizen in the face of the irritation he felt at himself. He knew how to handle his cacti without getting hurt, but he'd acted without thought.
"I didn't touch it, Fuji, I swear," Echizen said.
That was the first time Fuji had ever heard Echizen sound scared and it tore at him. He hadn't done anything to warrant being feared. He turned to look at the freshman, who was as pale as a sheet and rocking in place. The plants could wait. Getting Echizen calmed down enough so that he didn't go into shock was much more important. He walked over to Echizen and took a seat in front of him, a bit surprised when Echizen flinched a way.
Echizen looked up at Fuji, desperate to be believed. He hadn't touched the cacti. He'd seen how much Fuji cared for the plants last night. He'd only moved the pot a little because his curiosity got the better of him-it was why he'd sat down in the middle of the room, pinning his hands to the ground. He had no real desire to go against Fuji's wishes, but a part of him wondered what would happen. Right now, that was less important than being believed. Because he hadn't touched the plant. "I swear, Fuji, I didn't touch it."
Fuji reached out and grabbed Echizen's hands, pulling them to his lap to rub soothing circles on the back of them. "I know, Echizen. Shh, it's okay. I believe you." He met Echizen's eyes with his own, doing his best to reflect everything he was feeling. And none of what he was feeling was anger. He was just concerned. Echizen never flipped out like this. The freshman was close to hyperventilating. Something had happened to the guy-something bad.
Forcing himself to breathe, Echizen's trembling finally stopped as he managed to calm himself. Fuji wasn't angry at him. And he had believed him about the cacti. So then why had he made the remark about the blood? That had been the thing that set him off-maybe he had grazed himself on the plant when he'd moved the pot. But that would mean he had touched the cacti, even if only accidentally, but he'd been incredibly careful not to do so. "What about the blood on it?" he asked. He needed to know.
Fuji smiled at him sheepishly and held up his own hand, displaying the cut on the side of his palm. "It's mine."
With that said, Echizen completely relaxed. There was no danger here, no tricks. Relief coursed through him. "I thought you knew how to handle them," he said.
Fuji grinned as the Echizen he knew made a reappearance. The scared, distraught man he'd been reassuring was so markedly different from the bratty one he knew that it had really brought home to him how much he still didn't know about him. It also made him realize that his protective nature was kicking in-he didn't want anyone to be able to harm Echizen. "I do. Most of the time."
"Just not today?"
"Hm. So even you make mistakes sometimes."
For that, Fuji flicked Echizen's leg hard enough to sting. He was such a brat. The freshman grinned at him without repentance. Fuji's mind turned over what had just happened. Something bad had happened to Echizen and he was going to have to ask what it was. He didn't want there to be another episode like this, with Echizen so scared he could barely breathe. "What happened?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why did you freak out on me?" Fuji asked, keeping his voice low and soothing. He'd heard the slight edge of panic in Echizen's voice and he didn't want to cause the guy to flip out on him again.
"Che. No reason."
Fuji frowned. Usually he didn't press when someone didn't want to talk about their past, but this was too important to ignore. "I know there's a reason. I wouldn't ask you to tell me, but I don't want something like this to happen again. I don't enjoy seeing you terrified."
"I...alright. Just...give me a moment."
"Take all the time you need."
When Echizen started talking about, his voice was low but it carried well. "I learned that it was different to be masochistic a couple years ago when I was in America. There was a guy, Rick Matthews, who introduced me to the idea of sadism." He paused for a long moment, gathering the strength he needed to tell this story. "I didn't understand then that there's a difference between sadism and cruelty."
"Most people don't," Fuji said. It was a very common misconception that sadist meant cruel and the word got used in ways it shouldn't have been used. Enjoying watching others get hurt as well as hurting someone wasn't the same thing as watching others being harmed and enjoying that. The first was entertaining and fun...but harming someone was beyond sadistic-it was just cruel. There was never any fun there.
"Rick and I dated for about a year. At first, everything was fine. But as time went on, he became more demanding and less forgiving of mistakes." Echizen drew his knees up to his chest. "He had a scarf that belonged to his mom-she'd passed away some time before-and I was forbidden to touch it. He kept it in his closet on a hanger." He took a couple moments to calm himself before he continued. Telling anyone this story was incredibly difficult, but it was even more difficult because he was telling it to Fuji...the one person he'd liked since Rick. It made it hard. But he knew it needed to be told...he'd just hoped to have a little more time before telling it.
Fuji sat in utter stillness, focused intently on Echizen. He would step in if his distress got too bad and he started hyperventilating. That was the last thing Fuji wanted to cause. But Echizen's over-reaction to his words about the cactus was concerning. He didn't want the freshman to be afraid of him, especially when he'd done nothing to warrant that fear.
"I went over to his house after school one day and the scarf had fallen off the hanger. I knew that he didn't want it to get dirty, but he'd also told me not to touch it. I decided to put it back on the hanger. It seemed better to get in trouble for moving it than to let it get dirty. When he got to the room and saw that I'd touched it, he went ballistic."
Fuji had to look away to hide how angry those words made him. Something had happened alright and he was none too pleased about it. He felt his hands begin to clench into fists before forcing them to relax. Showing his anger right now would only serve to frighten Echizen and that was the last thing he wanted to do.
Seeing that Fuji wasn't condemning him, Echizen breathed a silent sigh of relief. That had been one of his biggest concerns. "I won't go into details but he put me in the hospital. He's the biggest reason we came back to Japan."
"What did you tell your family?" Fuji asked, focusing on something besides how much he wanted to hurt the person who had hurt Echizen. That person was an entire continent away-dwelling on that wouldn't be wise.
"The truth. They know about me being masochistic and exactly what happened between me and Rick."
"And your dad is okay with you being over here?" Fuji asked, feeling more concerned than ever. If Echizen's family was aware of everything, then that meant they would be aware of the fact Fuji himself was sadistic. After Echizen had been put in the hospital, Fuji just didn't understand how it was okay with his dad for Echizen to be over here.
"Why wouldn't he be?"
"Because the last guy you were with put you in the hospital, I'd imagine."
Echizen had the decency to at least look a bit embarrassed. "You're not like Rick."
"No, I'm not. But I am sadistic and that has to worry him."
"I don't care."
Fuji scowled. Sometimes Echizen was too much of a brat for his own good. It was stupid to purposefully worry his family after something so severe had happened to him. He stood and grabbed his cell phone off the desk, dropping it into Echizen's lap. "Invite him to dinner."
"I don't want him here."
Fuji dropped into a low crouch, bringing his face within an inch of Echizen's and focused his eyes intently on the other's. "You may not care, but I am not going to allow your father to think I'm another Rick waiting to happen. You will call him and invite him to dinner or you will go home instead. Those are your only options." That said, he stepped back out of Echizen's personal space.
Echizen stared down at the phone in his hands, weighing the options he'd been given. He really didn't want his father anywhere near Fuji because he knew his dad was concerned. He glanced back up at Fuji, but his face was unreadable. The decision really was up to him. With a small sigh, he dialed the number to his house.
"Hello?" Nanako answered.
"Put dad on."
A moment later, his dad's voice came through the phone. "Ryoma?"
"Dad. Fuji asked me to invite you to dinner tonight."
Echizen looked to Fuji and relayed the question. "Around seven."
Fuji listened in amused silence as Echizen relayed directions to his house to his father. He was relieved Echizen had chosen to do ask he'd asked. Fuji was enjoying the time they were spending together and he hadn't wanted to see it end so abruptly. Somewhere between last night and this morning, he'd realized that he wanted to be more than just friends with Echizen, even if it meant putting up with habits he might find obnoxious.
After Echizen's phone call was over with, the two of them spent the time before dinner playing card and board games. Echizen wasn't very good at any of them, but it had been fun to teach him since he was such a fast learner. He'd never be a professional shogi player, that was for sure, but he had the potential to be at least a decent player. Fuji glanced at the clock after their last game and saw that it was time for him to start making food. His mother and sister had left earlier that afternoon, saying they were going to go spend the rest of the weekend with a cousin. To Fuji, it had been obvious that the two of them just wanted to let him have time alone with his friend, but he was grateful for their consideration. "I better get started on dinner," he said.
Echizen looked up from where he was sitting, pieces from at least a dozen different games scattered around him. "Che. I'll clean this up by myself," he said, annoyance clear in his tone.
Fuji laughed a little. "I'm sure you can handle it." He left the room then, the little annoyed mutterings Echizen was making as he started cleaning the room serving as a great source of entertainment. It would be easy for someone who didn't appreciate Echizen to get mad at that type of attitude, but Fuji just found it endearing. The guy would grumble under his breath, but he'd do what he'd been asked to do. And that was all that mattered.
So involved in cooking, Fuji didn't notice the doorbell ring. What clued him in was Echizen running full force down the stairs to the door. It was such an odd sight that Fuji almost forgot to stir. "Echizen," he called sharply. "Don't run in the house."
Echizen turned to him, face flushed. "Sorry. The bell's been ringing for the last five minutes."
"Well let him in. My hands are a bit occupied." With that, he turned back to his cooking, doing his best to calm his own nerves. He hadn't said anything to Echizen, but meeting the guy's father was a nerve-wracking idea. It meant one more person seeing the truth of his sadism-a truth he kept carefully concealed. And to top that off, Echizen's father had watched his son hospitalized by someone who shared his same...no, he would not think that. He couldn't think that. He was not Rick and he was not like him. He didn't harm people like that. It wasn't in his nature. Taking a deep, silent breath, he set the table and put the food out. That done, he washed and dried his hands and made his way out to the foyer.
"I'm Fuji Syuusuke. I'm glad you could come." He held out his hand, waiting for the other to shake it.
Echizen's father looked at him a long moment, cool and assessing, before he clasped his hand in a firm handshake. "Echizen Nanjiroh. I've heard a lot about you."
Fuji led the way into the kitchen and everyone took a seat at the table. They dished out their own portions of food before he decided to speak again. He had needed the time it took walking to the kitchen to calm his nerves. "I hope you've only heard good things."
"Most of them have been good."
Echizen looked from Fuji to his father, trying to think of a way to break the awkward tension that had arisen between them. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders. He'd just be himself. The two of them could fight if they wanted to. "Che," he said, disgusted. "Stop acting like I'm glass."
That startled Fuji into a laugh. He was being rather ridiculous.
Nanjiroh spoke up then, his eyes intent on his son. "It is hard to do that when the last person you were with put you in the hospital."
"Fuji's not like Rick."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Stop being a brat, Ryoma. I know that the reason you liked Rick was because he liked hurting you. I was fine with that until it went too far and you know it. So you liking Fuji has to be for some of the same reason."
Echizen scowled at his father across the table before he dropped his eyes in acknowledgment. He couldn't lie about that.
The argument between Echizen and his father helped soothe Fuji's nerves. Ironic, that the more tension there was between other people, the less nervous he himself felt. Still, he didn't want to be responsible for a rift between the two of them. So he steeled his resolve and spoke up, focusing Echizen's father's attention on himself. "He is interested in me because I'm a sadist, yes."
Echizen scowled at Fuji while his dad blanched at the frank admission. "I didn't want to tell him that."
Fuji shrugged. "It's not your prerogative to decide what your dad knows and what he doesn't." He turned to Echizen's father. "As I was saying, it's true that I'm a sadist."
Echizen started to speak, but Fuji silenced him with a look. This conversation was between him and Echizen's dad.
Nanjiroh frowned at him. "Knowing that, how can I trust you with Ryoma?"
"I am still sitting here," Echizen interjected.
Fuji stood and, with one fluid motion took the plate from Echizen and walked towards the trash with it. He'd already warned the freshman once.
Echizen watched with growing horror as Fuji made his way towards the trash. Understanding dawned on him. "Wait, Fuji, I wasn't finished with that."
"Mm. I wasn't finished with my conversation." He began to scrape part of the food into the trash bin. Just enough to make a point. Echizen was sure to cave any moment now.
"I'm sorry," Echizen said, "I'll be quiet."
Fuji turned to him with an assessing gaze, fork still poised on the plate. Satisfied with what he saw in Echizen's eyes, he returned the plate (which was now a bit less than half full) and reclaimed his own seat at the table. The very act of doing something to enforce his control got rid of the last vestiges of his concerns about dealing with Echizen's dad. Having such a relationship with someone was more than worth the hassle of dealing with their parents.
Nanjiroh looked both shaken and amused. "I thought for a minute you were going to hit him," he said, quietly addressing Fuji.
"The thought never crossed my mind."
"But you said you were a sadist."
"Excuse me if I'm still confused."
Fuji spent a few minutes eating, trying to think of a good way to explain it. He watched Echizen eat his own food in a sullen silence-he was pouting. That made Fuji grin a little. The guy's bratty behavior knew no bounds. Instead of going straight into an explanation, he turned to Echizen. "Would you like to speak?" he asked.
Echizen gave him a curt nod.
"Then explain to your dad why I don't use to pain to punish you."
"Che." Echizen paused. "Do I have to?"
The petulance in his tone made Fuji chuckle a little. "I have more wasabi sushi if you don't want to."
Echizen blanched, then turned to his father. "I like being hurt. If he hits me, it's not punishment, and thus not effective."
Nanjiroh frowned. "I still don't get it."
Fuji put his fork down and turned to stare directly at the man. "You're worried that I'll do what Rick did and your son will end up in the hospital."
"There's a huge difference between me and that person." The very idea of being compared to Rick was sickening.
"I care for him."
"Rick said the same."
"Mm." Fuji digested that in silence, trying to think of a way to convince the guy he wasn't going to harm Echizen. Turning to the freshman, he asked, "How long did you and Rick date?"
Echizen glanced up in surprise. He swallowed his food before answering. "About a year."
"How long were you dating before the sadism and masochism became part of it?"
Echizen flushed. "Six months."
"How did it come up?" Fuji asked, trying to figure out what exactly had happened to cause Rick to find it necessary to hurt Echizen to the point he ended up in the hospital. He couldn't ask Rick-he wouldn't if he saw him. Actually, if he ever saw the guy, he'd probably hospitalize him. He was pissed that someone had hurt Echizen so badly.
Echizen's gaze darted between Fuji and his father. He really didn't want to discuss this in front of his dad. The look in Fuji's eye told him he didn't have much of a choice. "We were wrestling one day and he ended up grabbing my arm hard enough to bruise it. It was the first time he realized he liked causing pain. Things just sorta progressed from there."
"When he hurt you, did he make sure you wore clothes that covered the marks he put on you?"
"Yes." Echizen flushed. That wasn't something he liked to talk about. When Rick had done that, it had made him feel dirty, like he was supposed to be ashamed of the fact he liked being hurt. He still hadn't quite recovered from that, though he hid it well.
Nanjiroh frowned. "Classic sign of someone being abusive. I already knew that."
Fuji shook his head. "That's not it. I mean, yes, Rick did become abusive, but if I understand right, he required Echizen to cover the marks before it had gotten that bad." At Echizen's nod, he continued, "He did it because he was ashamed."
Nanjiroh smiled vindictively. "Good. After what he did to Ryoma, he better be."
Shaking his head in frustration, Fuji sighed. "That's not what I mean. He wanted Echizen to wear heavy clothes to conceal the marks because he was ashamed that he enjoyed putting them there. He couldn't stand to see what he'd done because he couldn't accept being sadistic."
Dawning slowly flared in Nanjiroh's eyes. He'd never looked at the situation quite like that before.
"Do you understand now?" Fuji asked, hoping desperately that the answer was yes. It was getting harder and harder to think of a way to make Echizen's father understand.
"Che. He's too thick-headed," Echizen said. He'd finished eating, so there was no risk of his food being taken away from him. Besides, the tension between the two of them was grating on his nerves. He'd risk wasabi sushi if it meant less difficult conversation.
"Oy! You're more thick-headed than I am!" Nanjiroh said.
"Maybe. But at least I don't read smut where everyone can see it."
"What? I don't read-
"Then what are those magazines Nanako says she's always catching you with?"
"Tennis magazines don't have pictures of scantily dressed girls-
"You wanna bet?"
"Against a perverted wanna-be monk?"
"Wanna-be? That's it, get your racquet."
Echizen grew quiet. He pushed himself away from the table and washed his dishes in silence.
"Ryoma?" Nanjiroh asked, concerned. His son never stopped mid-snark.
Echizen turned to his dad with a weak smile. He wanted to play tennis but Fuji had said it wasn't allowed while he was at his house. He felt torn.
Fuji saw the conflict Echizen was feeling through the tense set of his shoulders. He knew he'd set a hard rule for the freshman. All that remained to see was what Echizen chose to do.
"I can't," Echizen said softly.
"Hmm? What's this? Running away-
"It's my rule. No tennis at my house," Fuji said, cutting in smoothly. No one was going to taunt Echizen for this, not even his father.
"Oh? And what would you do if he played anyway?"
Fuji frowned. "You don't seem to believe I won't harm your son."
"Well, you did say you were a sadist."
He pinched the bridge of his nose, praying for patience. "I am. But unlike Rick, I'm not ashamed of it. I don't express it openly because it would make it difficult for other people to work with me, but I don't feel like I'm doing something inherently wrong when I do something sadistic."
"I'm not convinced."
The last of Fuji's patience fled. He was fed up with this. He could think of only one thing to do to make Nanjiroh understand and it would probably piss the man off. Not to mention he would prefer to do it without the man around. But needs must, so he put aside his concern and strode over to the sink. He grabbed Echizen around the waist and flipped them both so that were both facing Nanjiroh, who was halfway out of his chair. Echizen let out a small yelp at being grabbed, but didn't struggle as he was turned or attempt to break free of the hold, for which Fuji found himself feeling absurdly grateful.
Fuji tightened the arm he held around Echizen's waist and leaned down to murmur in the freshman's ear. "Take your shirt off."
Echizen quirked an eyebrow at him, grinning. "That's going to be hard with you holding me."
Fuji grinned back and loosened his hold enough for Echizen to maneuver comfortably.
"Just a question," the freshman asked, "but why am I getting half naked in front of my father?"
"I'm proving a point."
Fuji tightened his grip again once Echizen had followed his directions and looked straight at Nanjiroh, who was still poised halfway out of the chair, looking like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to sit back down or leap to his son's defense. "You don't trust me," Fuji said, addressing the man.
"No, I don't."
"I'm going to show you the difference between me and Rick."
Nanjiroh paled as understanding flared in his eyes. "Does that mean-
"Yes. I am about to cause him pain." At those words, he felt Echizen stiffen and then relax in his arms. It made Fuji wish that they could do this in private, without the interfering eyes of Echizen's father. He pushed that aside. Showing the man that he really wasn't going to endanger Echizen was more important than the sanctity of privacy.
"But why?" Nanjiroh asked, voice hoarse. "He's not done anything wrong."
Fuji smiled. "I know. This isn't punishment."
"Then what is it?"
"Che. The old man's forgotten I enjoy being hurt."
Fuji flicked Echizen's ear in warning. "Behave." He turned to Nanjiroh. "He's right, though. This is a reward."
"Reward? But you're going to-
"Just watch. If he seems to be in life threatening danger, feel free to intervene."
Fuji turned his attention to the person in his arms. "Tell me if you need me to stop."
With a small grin, Fuji brought both hands to rest underneath Echizen's ribcage. In one fluid motion, he raked both sets of nails down Echizen's chest, leaving a score of dark red marks behind. He immediately settled his arms around Echizen's waist as the freshman yelped. It had been fast and sudden and Fuji eyed the marks he'd made with an inner glow of satisfaction. Echizen was breathing hard in his arms. The freshman opened his mouth to speak, but the attempt was interrupted by his father.
"That's enough, Fuji. I can't stand here and watch you torture Ryoma."
Echizen lifted his head off Fuji's chest and held his father's gaze. "He's not torturing me. I liked that."
Nanjiroh frowned. "I don't-
"You don't believe me, right? What will take for you to see that I enjoy being hurt?"
"Him doing whatever he wants to you certainly won't convince me."
"What if I ask him to hurt me? Would you believe it then?"
"If you ask him? I would have to accept that-
"Then watch." Echizen turned to Fuji and made eye contact. "Would you hurt me some more, Fuji? Scratch me again the same way as before?"
Fuji watched Nanjiroh struggle to come to terms with hearing his son asking to be hurt before he turned to the freshman in his arms. "If I scratch you along the same marks I just made, I might break the skin."
"I don't care."
Tapping Echizen's nose with a finger and said, "If I break skin, the cuts could get infected."
"Che. It's worth it."
"No, it's not."
Echizen pouted at him.
Fuji laughed. "I didn't say I wouldn't hurt you more. Step forward some."
Echizen did so, crossing his arms defiantly as he glared at his father, daring him silently to make some sort of comment.
Despite himself, Nanjiroh chuckled a little. Ryoma was such a brat.
Fuji ignored the exchange between the two of them and focused on what he himself was doing. The first set of marks had been quick and he hadn't had much of a chance to really enjoy inflicting them. This time, he was going to take it slow. Brow furrowed in concentration, he buried his nails in the flesh of Echizen's shoulders and began to dig them down his back at an excruciatingly slow pace, knowing he was leaving fire in his wake. When he started, Echizen lost whatever defiance he had and his arms fell to his sides, his hands clenching in and out of fists. When Fuji got about a third of the way down his back, Echizen spoke up.
"F-Fuji, it hurts."
Fuji grinned. Of course it did. "I know it does. Do you want me to stop?"
His grin widened and he continued his journey down Echizen's back, relishing the control the guy was giving him. Causing the pain was fun, but it wasn't nearly as intoxicating as the fact Echizen was letting him hurt him. The two of them were so caught up in each other that they almost forgot about Nanjiroh. That was remedied when the man 'ahem 'ed to get their attention.
It startled Fuji so much that he dug in a bit deeper than he should have and Echizen yelped. Fuji swore as he watched blood blossom from the last spots he'd had his fingernails. "Ahhh. I broke the skin. We need to clean these before they get infected."
Echizen turned to stare at him in silence. "Where's the alcohol?" he asked finally.
Fuji blinked at him. "I'll get it. You sit at the counter."
"But I can clean them myself."
"Not well enough to make sure they're not infected. Now sit." Fuji pushed him gently towards a stool and retrieved what he needed to clean the cuts, mentally berating himself for his clumsiness.
Nanjiroh spoke while Fuji was patching Ryoma up. "I believe you."
"Believe what, exactly?"
"That you're not like Rick."
"What clued you in?" Fuji found himself genuinely curious. He'd punished and rewarded Echizen under his father's scrutiny and he wasn't sure which of the two had made an impact. But he'd had to do something. He wouldn't have been able to live with the knowledge that Echizen's dad thought him to be like the man who'd put his son in the hospital.
"The...how you didn't do what Ryoma asked out of concern for him. And..this," he gestured towards Fuji, who was still bandaging the cuts. "I didn't expect you to be worried if you went too far."
Fuji said nothing for a long moment. "Enjoying pain doesn't make me a monster."
"Are you always going to be this concerned?"
"When I hurt him for our mutual pleasure, I intend to take all necessary precautions."
"And if he tells you to stop?"
"Then I'll stop. It's a consensual arrangement, after all."
"Hey. I hate to interrupt your bonding time here, but does that mean you're saying yes?" Echizen asked, turning his head to meet Fuji's gaze.
Fuji smiled. He never had answered Echizen when he'd asked about dating. He leaned forward at an awkward angle and claimed Echizen's lips with his own. "Yes," he said.
From behind them, Nanjiroh made retching sounds.
"Oh, grow up, Dad," Echizen said, smiling shyly at Fuji.
Nanjiroh stepped up beside them and Fuji turned to look at him. "For what's it worth, I'll give the two of you my blessing. But if you hurt him-
"Dad, go home already. You're being annoying."
"Like you're one to talk." Nanjiroh looked at Fuji. "On second thought, you can keep him. He's too bratty for me."
Fuji grinned. "He is a brat."
"Che. Sitting right here," Echizen said, waving a hand between them.
Fuji snagged it with his own hand and held it still. "But he's my brat."
Echizen shivered under the look Fuji was giving him, the promise in his eyes taking his breath away.
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine
Fuji woke to the sound of birds chirping. He winced at the harsh sunlight streaming in through the windows and sat up groggily. With an effort to stand that seemed more like an attempt to move a mac truck, he stumbled his way into the bathroom. Once he had relieved himself, he made his way back into the bedroom to grab a set of clean clothes, careful not to wake the freshman sleeping in the middle of the floor. He returned to the bathroom and turned the water on, letting it get hot while he rummaged through the linen closet for a towel and washcloth. Setting them aside, he stepped into the western style tub, closing the shower curtain before flipping the lever to redirect the water through the shower-head.
The water hit his back and shoulders and he let out a small hiss of content. There was nothing quite like the feeling of an early morning shower. Letting his muscle memory take over, he found himself focusing on the events of the previous day.
Echizen-no, Ryoma. They were dating now. It would be incredibly rude to keep to such a formality. Ryoma had allowed him to dig his nails into his back and had enjoyed it. Fuji wasn't sure what intrigued him more. That the freshman was able to endure such pain and enjoy it or that after he'd experienced Fuji's sadist, he hadn't run screaming from the room.
And to top all of it off, it had all happened in front of Ryoma's dad. There was no telling what thoughts the man had taken home with him. At that thought, panic began to claw at Fuji and he had to take a few deep, calming breaths to push it back , he had exposed his own secret sadism. But he hadn't been coerced into doing so. No one had backed him into a corner and insisted he tell the truth-in all actual fact, if he'd felt cornered, he would've lied out of instinct. Still, it was a bit scary to know that in the space of two days, he'd allowed two people to see the truth behind his facade.
More important than whether or not he'd made a mistake by revealing so much of his personality was the question of whether or not it had been worth doing. If everything ended up crashing down around him, would he regret the decision he'd made? Thinking back on the way Ryoma had reacted to the pain he'd inflicted, Fuji found himself saying yes to that question. To experience the sheer pleasure of causing someone pain without being afraid of being judged or ridiculed even for a single hour would have been worth it.
Satisfied that he'd reached an answer, he turned off the water and stepped out of the tub. After quickly patting himself dry, he threw on his clothes and combed his hair. Stepping out of the bathroom, he came face-to-face with a sleepy-eyed freshman. "Good morning, Ryoma," he said.
"Che." The freshman brushed past him into the bathroom, not bothering to return the greeting.
Fuji hid his amusement as he made his way down to the kitchen to make breakfast. It seemed Echizen wasn't much of a morning person. With that in mind, he fixed a pot of coffee to go along with the food.
When Echizen came into the kitchen, the two of them ate in companionable silence. Afterwards, the freshman seemed much more alert. "Fuji-
"Syuusuke, Ryoma. You can use my first name," he admonished quietly.
"Syuusuke. Are we playing more games today?" The distaste in his voice was palpable.
Fuji laughed. "I take it sitting still isn't to your liking?"
"I hadn't planned on playing games. Is there something you'd like to do? Aside form tennis," he said, cutting Ryoma off before he could form the words.
"Hm. Well think of something while I redress those marks." Fuji disappeared into the ground floor bathroom where they kept the medical supplies, then reappeared with peroxide and bandages.
"I don't know why you're bothering. They're just a few scrapes," Ryoma said, even as he hopped up on a barstool and removed his shirt.
Fuji grinned at the way Ryoma's actions belied his words as he set to work re-bandaging. "I don't want them to get infected."
"You don't have to mother me," Ryoma grouched.
"If your mother gives you marks like this, there's something seriously wrong with your family."
Ryoma flushed, ducking his head to hide his embarrassment.
"Besides, if I want to mother you, I will." Fuji let the full weight of that rest in his words. Ryoma had said he was in charge, so the freshman would let him do what he liked. Or else.
Fuji smiled in triumph. If Ryoma wasn't saying something snarky, then he was agreeing. Done with the bandaging, he returned the supplies to the proper place while the freshman replaced his shirt. A wicked idea bloomed in Fuji's head as he came back into the room and as soon as he was behind the freshman, he darted his hands out and, before anyone could blink, he was holding Ryoma in his arms.
During the transition from sitting to being hoisted into a princess carry, Ryoma's hands had instinctively sought out a placehold and he'd latched rather firmly on to Syuusuke's neck. "What the hell-
Fuji started down at him with a mischievous glint in his eye.
"Syuusuke, put me down!"
At that, Ryoma started to flail a little in Fuji's arms. He'd be damned if he was just going to let himself be carried-he caught the look in Fuji's eyes and felt his breath catch in his throat. Thunder stared down at him, daring him to challenge the claim it had made.
Fuji smiled as Ryoma stilled in his arms. Sometimes the intensity of his gaze came in handy.
"Put me down!"
And sometimes it didn't. While the freshman had decided not to fight him physically, it seemed he hadn't given up verbally. "Don't want to." Fuji began walked up the stairs to his room. He had a lot he wanted to do, now that he'd had some time to think about it.
About halfway up the stairs, Ryoma had enough. "Dammit, Fuji, put me down!"
Fuji looked at him, feigning wide-eyed innocence. "But if I drop you now, you might hit your head on the edge of the stairs and get a concussion."
Ryoma groaned, burying his face in his hands out of frustration. "Then put me down gently."
Fuji peered at him, making sure that there was no true emotional distress. Seeing that there wasn't, he continued up the stairs, ignoring the request. On the landing, he took two steps before he felt a sharp tug at the base of his skull. Glancing down, he found Ryoma grinning at him smugly with one hand holding a good portion of his hair. Amusement warred with anger-amusement won. Trust Echizen to fight dirty. "Ryoma, what are you doing?" he asked, taking a step forward. He hid a pained gasp as a second forceful tug was enacted on his skull.
"Isn't it obvious, Syuusuke?" He looked up, mimicking the wide-eyed innocent look Fuji had given him.
Fuji's eyes narrowed. Two could play that game. "If you wanted to touch my hair, you only had to ask," he said, moving another step forward and having his hair yanked again. After the third time, he was used to the pain of it-Ryoma wasn't pulling anywhere near hard enough to actually hurt him. It was more of a short, sharp tug meant to get attention and he walked onward, ignoring the irritation.
"I would have, but now that I'm so close to it, I can't seem to restrain myself."
"Mm. I didn't know you had a hair fetish."
Ryoma jerked and sputtered in his arms. "I don't have-
"What other reason could you possible have for clinging to my hair so desperately?"
Ryoma flushed and muttered in a small voice, "I just want you to put me down."
Fuji smirked and before Ryoma had time to react, released his hold on the freshman and stepped back out of his reach. He watched as panic and then realization flared in the guy's eyes.
"You know," Ryoma drawled, leaning on an elbow as he peered over the edge of bed. "If you wanted me in your bed, you could've just asked."
Fuji laughed in delight as Ryoma turned crimson when he realized the full impact of what he'd said. "But carrying you here was much more entertaining."
The two of them held eye contact for a long moment before Echizen looked away, no match for the intense heat in Fuji's eyes. Fuji grabbed Ryoma's chin gently and turned his head so that the freshman had no choice but to keep eye contact. Moving with deliberate slowness, he climbed onto the bed and straddled him, pinning Ryoma's legs to the bed with his weight. He took the hem of Echizen's shirt and pulled it up, grateful that Ryoma had enough sense to raise himself up enough to allow him to remove it.
After he'd done that, Fuji sat staring at the man underneath him. From time to time, Ryoma would swallow and lick his lips, like he was trying to think of something to say. Fuji didn't know how long he sat there, entranced by the slow up and down motions Ryoma's chest made as he breathed.
Without thinking about it, Fuji placed a finger on Ryoma's lips, asking for silence which he received. He had known Ryoma was attractive, but being this close really brought it home to him.
Ryoma lay utterly still, captivated by the look in Fuji's eyes as he devoured him. He felt himself start to shake with an emotion he couldn't place. No one had ever looked at him with such reverence. It tore at him. He didn't deserve that kind of look. After Rick, he was little more than a broken toy. And Syuusuke was beautiful. Such beauty didn't deserve to be tainted with his ugliness.
Fuji leaned forward and captured Ryoma's lips in a gentle kiss. He'd seen the exact moment the freshman had started to feel unworthy and acted on instinct. His tongue found Ryoma's and they danced together as both attempted to assert dominance. Fuji found himself smiling-yes, Ryoma was going to be a challenge. Fuji brought his hands to rest on Ryoma's shoulders and pressed down hard, surprising a gasp out of him. In the time it took Ryoma to adjust to the slightly painful pressure of Fuji's hands, Fuji had won the battle for dominance.
He pulled back, a bit out of breath, and grinned at Ryoma.
"Che. You play dirty."
That only served to make his grin wider. Of course he did-that was the only fun way to play. "Are you up for a challenge?" he asked, refusing to rise to Ryoma's attempt to bait him.
Echizen's eyes narrowed.
"Yes or no?"
"Che. I suppose."
Fuji leaned down and, voice low, said, "I want you to stay completely still, no matter what I do. Can you do that?"
Ryoma swallowed convulsively before meeting Fuji's eyes. The urge to say something brave and arrogant died at the sincerity he saw reflected there. Repaying that with false bravado...he couldn't do it. "I'll try," he whispered.
Seeing that Ryoma really was going to do his best to stay still, Fuji reached out with his hands and began tracing patterns along his skin. He started at the jugular, pressing down softly. He ran his hands from there to Ryoma's shoulders, taking care to note the areas that seemed most sensitive. Moving back up towards his neck, Fuji stopped a moment to trace idle designs in the crook of Ryoma's elbows, an area which seemed particularly sensitive for him. With a quick grin at Ryoma, he rolled a bit of the flesh between his fingers and pinched down, hard.
Ryoma cried out at the sudden pain, struggling to stay still. To lie there with nothing but his own will holding him immobile was incredibly difficult.
Fuji grinned as he watched Ryoma struggle. When he seemed mostly settled, Fuji rolled his fingers along another patch of skin in the crook of Ryoma's elbow and pinched down, hard, relishing in the pained sounds the freshman was making. He pinched down again and again, giving Ryoma less and less time to recover between each mark. After he'd done that to the point there wasn't a spot of flesh in Ryoma's elbows left to mark, he resumed the gentler tracing he'd been doing earlier. Somehow, Ryoma had managed to stay still during the entire process. And that effort showed in the band of sweat that had broken out on his forehead.
"Very nice," Fuji said, leaning forward to kiss him. He sat back and resumed the trace, running his fingers along Ryoma's chest. He discovered that his boyfriend was slightly ticklish and filed that away for future use. He also discovered two more sensitive areas-his underarms and his nipples. From what he could tell, Ryoma's underarms was one of his most sensitive areas. He grinned to himself, moving his fingers up towards the area and tracing designs the same way he'd done with Ryoma's elbows. Fuji caught Ryoma's gaze and held it, relishing the moment when the freshman realized exactly what he planned to do.
Ryoma swallowed hard, trying to prepare himself for what was coming. He knew it was going to hurt, but he'd be damned if he was going to lose the challenge so easily.
Fuji grinned as he watched Ryoma attempt to prepare himself for the pain. Rolling skin between his fingers as before, he pinched down as hard as he could without breaking skin. That was the first time he heard Ryoma scream in pain and it was an intoxicating sound. He leaned down and kissed him mid-scream, muffling it. When he sat back up, there were barely noticeable tears leaking from the corner of Ryoma's eyes. And still, somehow, the guy hadn't moved.
Leaning forward, Fuji pinched down again in the same area, moving to muffle Ryoma's scream with a kiss as soon as he did so.
Ryoma's voice was ragged. Fuji sat up and peered intently into his eyes, looking for any sign of distress. Finding none, he nonetheless made the question verbal. "Do you want me to stop?"
The vehemence of Ryoma's answer took Fuji slightly by surprise. "Then-
"Let me move, Syuusuke, please."
A grin broke out on Fuji's face. "You can move whenever you want, Ryoma. But when you do so, you lose the challenge."
Ryoma groaned. Why had he agreed to that again?
"If you are successful," Fuji said, breathing into his ear, "then I shall forego punishing you for the trick in the hall." He was referring to the hair-pulling, of course. While it had been fun to a point, it still wouldn't do to let Ryoma think such behavior was acceptable.
Ryoma swallowed hard. He had no wish to see what Fuji would use as punishment after the experience with the wasabi sushi. With his luck, he'd have to voluntarily test the next super juice Inui made. That made up his mind. He'd endure this if it killed him. "Okay," he said, voice barely above a whisper.
Grinning, Fuji pinched down again, swallowing Echizen's screams with a kiss. He continued doing so until Ryoma was crying silently. Part of him wondered if he should feel guilty for that, but he pushed it aside ruthlessly. Ryoma was in no distress and Fuji would stop if it even began to look like a possibility. No, if earlier was any indication, Ryoma was enjoying himself despite the tears staining his cheeks. That was an uncontrollable response-the body automatically created tears when it was in pain.
Fuji finished with that area, taking a moment to just drink in the sight of the man before him. Ryoma 's entire body was flushed and slick with sweat, trembling with the effort of staying still. Fuji was impressed. Watching his muscles strain with the effort, Fuji knew Ryoma wouldn't be able to maintain the stillness much longer. And Fuji wanted him to come out of this feeling successful. He had no interest in breaking the only person he'd found capable of handling his sadism. With a silent mournful sigh, he moved off of Ryoma and sat on the edge of the bed.
With a small questioning look, Ryoma got permission to move and sat up next to him.
Fuji wrapped an arm around the freshman's waist and drew him close, smiling in pleasure as Ryoma settled his head on his chest. He found his mind turning to the fact that Ryoma had been hurt before. He tightened his grip, swearing to whatever gods were listening that he would never let anyone else lay a hand on Echizen.
Chapter 10: Chapter Ten
Fuji walked down the hallway after his last class of the day, looking forward to seeing Ryoma at practice. Passing by the health room, he stopped as the familiar sound of the freshman's voice carried into the hall. Curious, he peeked inside, careful not to alert anyone to his presence. What he saw made his blood run cold.
Ryoma was sitting in front of Coach Ryuzaki, allowing her to bandage a myriad of scrapes on his face.
"Tell me who did this, Ryoma. Stop lying and saying you fell," the coach said.
"I fell," Ryoma insisted.
The anger thrumming in his ears made it impossible for Fuji to hear the rest of the conversation. A bit numb, he moved to lean against the wall. Ryoma wouldn't tell the coach the truth, but would he lie to him about it? Fuji hoped not.
After what seemed like an eternity, Ryoma came out of the room, but he was so caught up in his own thoughts he didn't notice Fuji's presence. Fuji caught up to him swiftly and grabbed his wrist. The freshman jumped at the unexpected contact and turned to scowl at the person who had initiated it, but it died on his lips as he noticed Fuji. "Syuusuke."
Satisfied that Ryoma wasn't going to flee from him, Fuji placed two fingers underneath the freshman's chin and carefully inspected his face. Eyes darkening with rage, he asked, doing his best to keep a level tone and not quite managing it, "Who did this?"
Ryoma shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, trying to decide what to say. He knew Fuji wouldn't take "I fell" as an answer and he didn't want to insult his boyfriend's intelligence by attempting to use it. But Fuji had that look in his eye-the same one he'd had when he'd played against Mizuki. Ryoma swallowed nervously.
Fuji watched as Ryoma danced between the urge to tell him and the urge to protect whoever his attacker had been. He kept himself from tightening his grip at that thought, but just barely. Ryoma shouldn't feel the need to protect anyone who had hurt him-they deserved what was coming to them.
"Ok. I'll explain. Just-not here," Ryoma said, glancing back over his shoulder at the health room.
Understanding flickered through Fuji's eyes and he grabbed Ryoma's hand, pulling him into the first empty classroom he found, which just happened to be the science lab. It never crossed his mind to worry about what anyone who'd seen them holding hands might have thought. That sort of worry seemed a million miles removed when he considered the problem of someone thinking it was okay to harm Ryoma. That was beyond unforgivable.
Fuji closed the door and leaned against it, closing his eyes to regain his composure. He would not fall apart over this. Right now, he needed to be strong. There was no telling what kind of thoughts were going through Ryoma's head, not after the experience with Rick. Not for the first time, Fuji found himself wishing Rick wasn't an entire continent away. He would kill to have a chance to inflect the type of damage on the guy that he'd enacted on Ryoma. Right, not the best time to think about that. Someone else a lot closer to home thought he could get away with hurting his boyfriend. That was more important than someone thousands of miles away.
Ryoma stood in the empty classroom, hands tucked deep in his pockets as he stared at Fuji, trying to figure out the best way to start. He didn't want to worry him or make him any angrier, but there was no way he could prevent those. The story automatically necessitated that type of behavior from his incredibly protective and slightly possessive boyfriend. He didn't mind those traits-in fact, they were endearing-but it did make these types of incidents harder to explain.
Finally composed, Fuji said, "Tell me what happened." He needed to know.
"A punk from Yamabuki decided to serve rocks at me."
Fuji's eyes flashed. "He served rocks at you?" Tennis racquets were not made to aid people in causing harm. It was an insult to the very nature of the sport.
"Why did he do that?"
"He didn't give a reason. I assume because he thought it was fun."
"Give me his name." Fuji had enough. He was going to settle this.
Ryoma hesitated. He'd seen the look in Fuji's eyes. "I'll tell you if you promise not to hurt him."
Fuji's eyes snapped open as anger surged through him. He balled his hands into fists and turned to face the door, burying his forehead in the cool wood as he attempted to calm down. Getting mad at Ryoma was not going to help anything. "How can I promise that after what he did to you?" Cool hands slid tentatively around his waist. Fuji turned and enveloped the freshman in a hug,squeezing him to his chest as tightly as he could without hurting him. Having him so near was comforting; it helped him relax.
"Syuusuke, I don't want you to hurt him."
"Why not?" It sounded petulant, even to him, but he couldn't find the will to care.
Ryoma drew back, meeting his eyes solemnly. "Because this is a battle I need to fight myself."
"And how are you going to do that?"
"By giving him what he wants. I'll play a match with him."
"That's just letting him win."
Ryoma smirked. "I intend to pay him back in full for this." He pointed to his face. Looking at Fuji, his expression softened. "He's not the kind of person who would back off if you went after him, Syuusuke, or I'd gladly step aside and let you handle it. If I don't face him head-on, he'll keep coming after me, no matter what you do to him."
Fuji wasn't so sure about that, but kept those thoughts to himself. Ryoma didn't need to know exactly how vicious he could be when provoked. He pulled Ryoma closer to him. "Ok, I'll let you deal with it." Those words cost him a lot. Having to trust someone besides himself was going to be incredibly difficult to get used to.
"I have two conditions."
Ryoma looked at him expectantly.
"One, you tell me his name." He waited.
After a moment of hesitation, Ryoma nodded. "Akutsu Jin."
"Two, if for some ungodly reason you don't win the match against him, I get involved."
Ryoma scowled. "I'll win."
Dropping his shoulders in defeat, Ryoma sighed. "Okay. But I'll win."
Fuji smiled and captured Ryoma's lips with his own. When he pulled back, the freshman's skin was flushed and his breathing a bit ragged. "I know," Fuji said. He gently disentangled himself from Echizen's arms and left the room, leaving the stunned freshman behind.
During practice, Fuji was careful not to mention the incident to anyone. Ryoma had asked him not to interfere, and stirring up anger amongst the other regulars wasn't the best way to go about it. Part of him longed to get involved anyway, but he always kept to his word, even when it was incredibly painful to do so. And he'd seen the look in Ryoma's eyes. He really did need to fight this battle himself.
Preoccupied with his thoughts while running laps, the sound of people gasping for air brought his focus back to the present and he looked back at where Inui was standing with his stopwatch. The other regulars stopped beside him and they all started at Inui.
"This," he said, holding up a glass of liquid that he poured onto the ground so that everyone could see the red viscosity of it, "is a new drink that I call Penal Tea. Anyone who doesn't finish a lap in under a minute has to drink it."
At that, the entire team took off running. All of them had firsthand experience with the nasty concoctions Inui came up with. Fuji ran with them, wondering idly why everyone was so determined to avoid the drink. All of drinks Inui had made in the past were incredibly tasty, so this one was sure to be the same.
They rounded the corner to begin the thirtieth and final lap when Inui held up a pitcher of the thick drink. "The last person to finish has to drink this."
"A pitcher? No way!" Eiji cried, increasing his speed.
Fuji glanced at Echizen who was running beside him. "This is a bad situation to be in," he said, smiling a little. He knew how much Ryoma hated Inui's drinks.
Ryoma smirked at him, saying nothing. He ran a bit ahead and grabbed Taka's racquet, handing it to the senior it belonged to, who took it in a bit of a daze. In a few moments, that changed and Takashi rushed ahead of everyone with a cry of "Burning!"
Fuji smiled as he upped his pace to catch up to everyone else. Trust Ryoma to find a way to renew everyone's vigor on the last lap by bringing Taka's fiery personality out to play. Because of that and Ryoma's well timed, "Mada Made Dane," everyone crossed the finish line at the same time.
A large percentage of the team collapsed when they did so. Breathing hard, Oishi spoke up. "Inui, stop with the drink attacks already."
Inui pushed up his glasses and looked down at them. "Since there was no winner or loser, we can all share this."
"Drink it yourself!" the team chorused.
Fuji was the only one who didn't chime in and he took Inui up on the offer. Tasting the tea, he drank it with relish. He didn't see what all the fuss was about. It was good! Then again, he didn't understand why people didn't like wasabi sushi either. He shrugged. Some mysteries in life just weren't for him to figure out.
Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven
"Fuji, you should've been there! You totally missed out!"
Fuji turned to Eiji, his normal smiling mask in place. Behind it, he was busy concealing exhaustion and the irritation born form it. He hadn't slept well the previous night with the attack on Ryoma weighing on his mind. He wished fervently that he'd never made that promise not to intervene, but there was nothing he could do. Not yet, at least. Pushing those thoughts out of his mind, he did his best to give Kikumaru the attention he was demanding. "Should've been where? What happened?"
"After we got hamburgers yesterday, we followed Taka. You'll never believe what happened, nyaa!"
Longing to demonstrate his growing frustration with Eiji's hyperactivity, he somehow found the patience to restrain himself. "Who is we?"
"Me, Momo, Inui, and Ochibi, of course."
"Why were you following Taka?"
At that question, Eiji looked down guiltily for half a second. "That's not important. He met Akutsu there and he was with a girl!"
At Akutsu's name, Fuji's shoulders tensed a little. A small peek at Eiji's face told him that the redhead hadn't noticed, but that wasn't surprising. Eiji was oblivious to pretty much everything. "And?"
"So Taka's got a girlfriend?"
"What makes you so certain?"
Eiji shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I don't know for sure."
"You could ask him."
"I could never do that! It'd be way too embarrassing, nyaa. Do you think...
"Yes, I'll ask him for you." Fuji sat down at the desk beside his 'best' friend and listed the first hundred things he could think of to use to maim him in order to keep his temper in check. Really, Eiji could be such a pain.
"Really? Thanks, Fuji, you're the best!"
"You owe me."
"Of course! Nyaa."
A smirk tried to assert itself, but Fuji controlled the impulse. He wondered what would happen if he ever used the favors Eiji owed him in one of his more nefarious plots. That thought was enough to keep him entertained for awhile. "You said Akutsu was there," he reminded mildly.
"He was! That guy's a complete jerk. He poured his drink on Taka just for the heck of it."
"But you should've seen it! It was so cool! Momo went to fight him because he never thinks, but Ochibi beat him to it, nyaa."
Fuji felt his heart start to race. Please don't let that mean Ryoma was hurt more, he prayed. "What did Echizen do?"
If Eiji noticed the sudden sharpness in Fuji's voice, he gave no indication. "It was so cool, nyaa! Ochibi tripped Akutsu and was all like, 'Thanks for earlier. I didn't introduce myself. I'm the Seigaku freshman, Echizen Ryoma.' It was cool how he never even flinched after that guy hurt him like that, nyaa!"
Fuji's mask reflected his true feelings for once. "That's just like him. Just as arrogant as ever."
Eiji continued to talk about the sheer awesomeness of their freshman teammate until class started. When the lesson started, Fuji breathed a silent sigh of relief. Now that Eiji had shared his news, perhaps Fuji could concentrate on other things. Like what he was going to do to Akutsu after Ryoma's match with him. Because it didn't matter if Echizen won or lost. Akutsu had hurt what belonged to Fuji and he would pay the price, no matter how long he had to wait to act on his plans. No one got away with hurting Ryoma. Absolutely no one.
Running laps at the start of practice was starting to be the norm. Fuji didn't mind-it was allowing him time to think about everything that had happened. Somehow, he'd found his world turned upside down. Not only had he made a friend in Ryoma who could handle his sadistic side unflinchingly, he'd also acquired a boyfriend who reveled in it. Life was definitely taking a turn for the better, if he discounted the attack on Echizen.
A cry from behind him brought Fuji back to awareness. It seemed Inui had once again created a drink to motivate everyone. Fuji had to smile at that. He was impervious to whatever ill effects the drink seemed to have on the rest of the team, but he had to admit it was rather fun watching everyone else fall victim.
"As you can see," Inui said, "I've upgraded today's version of Penal Tea."
"Upgraded?" Eiji shrieked, not at all pleased.
Running beside the redhead, Fuji had to stifle the urge to cover his ears. "I really want to drink that," he said, relishing the disgusted look he got.
"Really?" Eiji asked.
From in front of them, Oishi turned to look at them. "I will never drink that."
"It seems Inui enjoys making us drink that stuff," Momo said, his voice carrying clearly from his position at point.
From behind, Fuji heard more people collapse and turned to watch.
Inui held up his stopwatch. "Anyone who doesn't finish a lap in under fifty-seconds has penal tea waiting for them."
"Are you serious?" Eiji again.
"This is fun," Fuji said, ignoring the you've got to be joking look the redhead gave him. He knew the other regulars wouldn't understand, but that was okay with him. They didn't need to understand.
Everyone was keeping an even pace when Momo looked at Takashi and asked, "Taka, why are you so zoned out?"
"You're pretty calm, or maybe I should say in love?" Eiji chimed in, gently teasing.
Fuji hmmed under his breath, wondering if the acrobatic player was going to ask the question after all.
"In love? What are you talking about?" Takashi asked.
Eiji just laughed.
Takashi explained what had happened at the restaurant the previous day for the benefit of those who hadn't heard the story before.
"Akutsu Jin?" Oishi asked.
"Ah. Akutsu Jin stopped coming to the dojo after he entered Yamabuki. I heard a lot of bad rumors, but I never thought he'd take up tennis again."
"Again? What do you mean again?" Fuji asked, curious despite himself. Gathering information on the man who'd hurt his boyfriend was vital. He was suddenly very conscious of Ryoma's proximity to him. Ever since the incident with Akutsu, Ryoma seemed to automatically stay as close to him as possible. It made Fuji's heart ache to know that someone had reopened emotional wounds in his boyfriend. It didn't seem Ryoma was aware of what he was doing, but Fuji was and it tore at him like nothing else.
"He was trained by a famous tennis coach when he was younger, so he's really good," Taka said.
"Hmm. So the girl that was with you was your girlfriend?" Fuji asked, knowing he needed to drop the subject of Akutsu before he got too angry to keep his temper. Asking Eiji's question seemed a good way to do that.
"Huh? Girlfriend!" Takashi asked.
"I thought so," Eiji interjected.
"That's not it!"
"You're pretty sneaky, Taka," Momo said.
"It's ok, everyone has their time," Eiji said.
"What time?" Kaidoh asked.
"When you start to admire older women," Eiji explained.
"Older women..." Kaidoh trailed off.
"That's not it!" Taka insisted.
"Stop fooling around," Tezuka said, speaking for the first time since practice had started. "Your pace is dropping."
Fuji smiled as they rounded the corner to begin the last lap. Everyone listened to Tezuka and focused on their running-there would be time to needle Takashi later. Fuji pulled up beside Momo, hiding his amusement as Ryoma armed Takashi with his racquet. It really was a good motivation technique.
"Fuji," Momo said.
Fuji turned. "Hm? What?"
"I thought you liked that drink."
"Oh, Inui's penal tea? I liked it. It's really good."
"Then why are you trying so hard?"
"I like to see people suffer even more." Fuji grinned. He had no problem admitting that to Momo for something as insignificant as Inui's tea. And the disturbed look Momo gave him...yeah, it was totally worth it.
Everyone crossed the finish line at the same time and over half the team collapsed. Fuji grabbed a towel to dry off his excess sweat and listened as Coach Ryuzaki talked about how their poor endurance had affected their last match and the need to improve it.
"We're going to have practice matches," Tezuka said, stepping in smoothly. "If you're chosen, go to the court."
"A game? Really? Right now?" Momo asked in disbelief.
"You gotta be kidding. After all that running, now they have to play a game?" Kato asked.
"They don't have enough strength," Mizuno said.
"Fuji," Tezuka said.
Fuji turned at the sound of his name, mildly surprised he'd been chosen to play first. His endurance had never truly been in question.
Hearing Ryoma's name called shocked him more. He felt a jolt of electricity go through him and realized he was excited. Finally--finally-he was going to get to play against the only person whose tennis enthralled him.
"A game between Fuji and Echizen?" Oishi asked.
Fuji met Ryoma's eyes, dropping his mask out of respect. He wasn't going into this game with anything less than complete seriousness. The answering challenge in Ryoma's eyes nearly took his breath away. Oh yeah. He was definitely going to enjoy this.
The two of them took their places on the court, staring across the net as they attempted to size each other up.
"This time it's against the big brother," Ryoma said.
Fuji smiled. Ryoma's match with Yuuta had been the first time he'd really started taking note of the freshman's skills. "Go easy on me," he said, hoping his voice carried just how much he didn't want that. No, he definitely wanted to play the match with Echizen playing his hardest. Otherwise there would be no fun, no source of entertainment. And there was nothing Fuji liked better than having fun.
As the club member who'd been chosen to referee called the match, Fuji watched Ryoma settle into the rhythm of his unique split step. Oh yeah, the guy was definitely taking the match seriously.
"I'm allowed to beat you. Right Fuji?" Ryoma asked, a mischievous glint in his eye.
Fuji let out a small laugh. Trust Echizen to find a way to be cocky and submissive at the same time. He didn't bother giving an answer-Ryoma would be able to tell by his serve that he intended them both to play seriously. The outcome of the match was much less important than simply playing it.
Watching as Echizen approached the net, Fuji quickly deduced that he was using return tactics and that if he wanted to curb Ryoma's running, he needed to hit the ball towards the sides of the court.
Ryoma's eyes widened in surprise and he froze for an instant, but recovered quickly enough to use his step and return the ball. "You're pretty good," he said, "but I'll keep attacking."
Making a split second decision, Fuji hit the ball to the side of court Ryoma wasn't on and watched the freshman hit a clean return. He has unbelievable speed. Without retreating, he keeps hitting them back and the thing that's allowing him to do it is that one-footed split step, Fuji thought, moving to hit a return of his own.
"Che. That's my finishing shot. But you get it easily," Ryoma said.
Fuji grinned as the trademark battiness made an appearance. "This is fun," he said.
Soon enough, the match was tied at 1-1, both of them having managed to keep their service games. As the game progressed, Fuji found himself eager to try his triple counters against the freshman. It was a new feeling for him-usually he used those moves because they were practical, efficient. But now he just wanted to see what Ryoma would do with them.
The ball hit the net and Fuji moved up, noting the change in its speed. Making a quick decision, he aimed the ball at Echizen's feet, realizing almost instantly that he'd been perfectly setup for Echizen's drive B technique. Relying on his instincts and grateful that Ryoma was moving slower than usual because he was tired, Fuji managed to make a clean return by lobbing the ball.
Ryoma set up for a smash, which made Fuji grin. Now he'd be able to use one of his techniques and return the favor.
"Stop it, Echizen! Smashing is..." Momo trailed off when Echizen hit the smash anyway.
Fuji spun into the counter and heard the ball hit the ground and bounce. No one had yet broken higuma otoshi and he was fairly confident it wouldn't be broken any time soon.
"What? What happened?" Mizuno asked.
"I don't know. What happened?" Kato echoed.
"He returned the smash directly," Horio said, amazement coloring his tone.
"Even my dunk smash is no use against that move," Momo said, voice grave.
Fuji straightened and turned to face Ryoma, amusement spiking as he noticed the shock on the freshman's face. This match was turning out to be more than he'd hoped for. The two of them stared at each other across the court as the spectators talked amongst themselves.
"Returning a smash directly-how'd he do that?" Horio asked.
"Fuji has started using that move...he must be serious about this match," Inui remarked.
Fuji felt his amusement grow higher as he heard those words. He'd been serious from the moment he'd stepped on the court and Inui was only realizing it now? Well, that just went to show he really did keep his true self hidden well.
"What's higuma otoshi?" Horio asked.
"Higuma otoshi uses a person's centrifugal force to absorb the opponent's power to return the ball," Inui explained. "On top of that, the ball will end up behind the opponent, who's at the net."
"Wow, he did all that in a blink of an eye! That's not a move that normal people can do," Horio said, properly impressed.
"That's why Fuji's a prodigy."
Fuji stood watching Ryoma knead his racquet, wondering idly if the freshman was part cat. It was by no means an annoying habit and it told him that Echizen was really concentrating on the game. Speaking of the game, though, no matter how hard he thought about it, Fuji couldn't figure out a good way to counter Ryoma's drive B technique. That in itself was impressive. There weren't many people who could make Fuji feel pressured, let alone challenged.
"What're you looking at?" Ryoma asked, his tone slightly defensive.
"Nothing," Fuji answered, knowing it would infuriate him. That said, he served the ball.
"Echizen won't be able to smash anymore," Arai said from the sidelines.
"Why?" Joben asked.
"Think about it. 100% of his smashes were cleanly returned. Even Echizen knows not to smash any-
"There he goes! Smash!" Horio's cry cut Arai off mid-sentence.
"Looks like he wants to do it even more," Joben said.
"Same old Echizen," Arai said, giving in.
Fuji returned that smash just as cleanly as he'd returned the first, smirking as he realized that Ryoma really was challenging him. That was more than okay with him. Challenge was what made being around Ryoma so much fun.
"Higuma otoshi again," Mizuno said.
"I thought he had him completely. Ryoma must be shocked," Kato said.
"Hm. You can completely stop a smash," Ryoma said, turning to Fuji with a grin.
Momo laughed. "He can never be shocked."
"Nyaa. It's the opposite," Eiji said.
"He's got the 'I'm excited and I'll break it' face on," Momo said.
Fuji laughed at that. "Okay. Why don't you try," he said, telling Ryoma in those few words that he accepted the nonverbal challenge that had been issued. He served the ball and the game began again in earnest. "Here we go," Fuji said, sending a lob towards Echizen.
"Eh? A chance ball?" Horio asked.
"A challenge from Fuji," Tezuka corrected.
Fuji smiled. At least Tezuka wasn't an idiot like Horio. Like a lob was a chance ball for Ryoma when he had to contend with higuma otoshi. Seriously, just how dumb was the guy?
Ryoma glared at him a moment before accepted the challenge. He'd offered the nonverbal one, so he couldn't really complain. He hit a twist spin smash in response.
Fuji returned it with higuma otoshi, turning to see a look of intense determination cross Ryoma's face. He smirked. Good. That stubbornness was what he enjoyed most. You could bend Echizen, but never break him. And that was thrilling, because everyone else around Fuji had a tendency to fold when pushed. But not Ryoma. Never Ryoma.
"I've got to be careful," Fuji said with a slight sigh. "Yuuta, Kaidoh, and even Inui lost. I can't be careless for even a split second. You'll exploit it." But you can't beat me just yet. That thought was a bit of a rush in and of itself. It meant that there was the possibility Ryoma might surpass him in tennis someday. Who said change was a bad thing? Fuji grinned and lobbed another ball. Playing this game-dancing on this line with Ryoma-it was intoxicating.
"Ah, another chance ball!" Kato said.
"Fuji's lobbing on purpose!" Mizuno said.
Had they really just noticed that?
"There goes Echizen!" Horio called.
Fuji executed another perfect higuma otoshi. He'd play this game as long as Ryoma was interested in the challenge. That meant he'd keep lobbing until Ryoma gave up or broke the counter.
"Even Ryoma can't break it," Coach Ryuzaki said.
"It's another lob," Eiji said.
"Another smash?" Horio asked.
"It's no use," Kato said.
Ryoma hit a smash and missed the return, the ball bouncing on to his own side of the court.
Fuji blinked in confusion, then took a look at Ryoma's face. The freshman was seriously pissed off that he was having so much trouble. And like the brat he was, was petulantly refusing to give in, though he said nothing to express that anger. Fuji stifled a laugh.
"What's wrong, Echizen?" Horio asked.
"That miss wasn't like him," Kato said.
"Ryoma's being stubborn," Coach Ryuzaki said.
"This is the first time I've seen Echizen..." Taro trailed off.
"Miss a smash," Joben finished for him.
Ryoma took the tennis ball and served it, smashing the next lob that came his way.
Fuji turned into the higuma otoshi, knowing by the way his racquet had hit the ball that it was going out. Was that a fluke? he wondered. He decided to force one more smash to be sure.
"Out," the referee called.
"Out? No way. Fuji," Oishi stuttered.
"He failed to counter," Taka said.
Ryoma served and Fuji lobbed again. "You don't have to give me anymore lobs," Ryoma said.
Going to counter, Fuji noted that the ball was going to be out again. Looking at the self-satisfied smirk on Ryoma's face, Fuji couldn't help but be impressed. He's been timing everything since the beginning. Fuji walked to the net and tapped it with the racquet. "What an impossible thing to do," he said, but when he looked at Ryoma, he was smiling. "You're awesome, Echizen."
"Thanks," Ryoma said, smiling himself. Not only was he satisfied with what he'd done, he'd also managed to impress Fuji. Something that was much more impossible than breaking one of the senior's counter techniques by aiming a smash at the net to force it off course.
Ten minutes had passed since the match started and the rest of the regulars were starting to split off to play their own matches.
"Tezuka and Momo. Now there's a match I wanted to watch," Fuji said.
"Then let's end this quickly," Ryoma said.
"Are you just going to lose to me then?"
Fuji grinned. That was the answer he wanted to hear. A few minutes later, rain started pouring out of the sky. There was a passing thought that playing in the rain might be dangerous, but he let it slide. He was having too much fun to care. Spotting his chance, Fuji tilted his racquet and hit a tsubame gaeshi towards Ryoma, who surprised him by returning it and scoring a point. He grinned at the smirk the freshman gave him.
"Don't tell me you're running away," Ryoma said, goading him.
Fuji smiled, eyes opened and focused on his boyfriend. "Even in this rain, I can still play."
Ryoma started to serve when Coach Ryuzaki yelled and startled him, making him drop the ball.
"Hey! How long do you plan on staying out here, you idiots?" Thunder crashed overhead. "I think you guys misunderstood me. This is a practice game. You guys go to the same school. You can continue this anytime you want."
Silence stretched. Neither player wanted to stop.
Coach Ryuzaki sighed. "The real performance's at the tournament. Did you forget that tennis and rain don't mix? What're you guys going to do if you get injured?"
With those two questions, guilt crashed down on Fuji. He was responsible for Ryoma's safety and their zealousness could have cost them. That type of carefree behavior was fine for Ryoma, but not for him. Ryoma trusted Fuji to keep him safe and with one little tennis game, he'd come too close for comfort to violating that trust. "It's a shame," Fuji said, "but it looks like this match is at an end."
Ryoma stared at him for a second. "That's not fair," he said. "You're winning 4-3. I was about to comeback-
He was interrupted by Coach Ryuzaki pinching his cheeks. "Shut up and get out of the rain!"
Fuji found himself agreeing. Whining was an ugly habit. As he walked to club room, he felt a slow smile spread across his face. It was a habit he would break.
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve
"Ryoma." Fuji unfolded himself from where he'd been leaning against the wall, waiting for his boyfriend.
Echizen fumbled a bit, but managed to catch himself enough for a graceful recovery as he gave his attention to the tensai.
It was Friday afternoon and the heat had been so unbearable that practice had been canceled. Coach Ryuzaki hadn't wanted to risk heatstroke. "Would you care to come with me to get burgers?" Fuji asked.
Echizen stared at him. "Momo already asked."
"Ahh. And he takes precedence," Fuji said, striving to keep his tone civil. He did not like the idea of Momo having more of a claim than him.
Ryoma continued to stare at him, looking more and more like a deer caught in headlights.
"Go on, then, you mustn't keep him waiting." Fuji managed not to display his irritation when Ryoma did just that. Getting worked up over hamburgers...he took a deep breath to steady himself. He leaned down to pick up his tennis bag and straightened up, mentally preparing for the long walk home. Before he could take a step, he found his way obstructed by Ryoma. He blinked.
"That offer still stand?"
"Naturally." Joy surged through him. Ryoma had chosen him, after all. The two of them began walking and Fuji found himself reaching for Ryoma's hand without thinking. The freshman clasped his hand, obviously not worried about what anyone who saw them might say. Fuji snorted silently. Why would Ryoma care? He'd shown up at Seigaku practically screaming, Here I am! This is me! Deal with it! There wasn't likely to be much that could unnerve him.
Fuji led the way into the burger shop, motioning Ryoma ahead of him. He'd asked him along, so he'd pay.
Ryoma scowled at him. "Fuji, I can pay for myself. You don't have to pay for me."
Turning disapproving eyes on Ryoma, Fuji frowned. "If I want to pay for your meal, it is my decision."
Oh god. The whining had come out to play. Leaning down to keep the people around them from eavesdropping, Fuji repeated, "If I want to pay for your meal, it is my decision."
Ryoma folded his arms across his chest and glared.
Fuji was not amused. Ryoma could play these tricks with other people all he wanted, but he wasn't going to stand for it. Keeping his voice low, he said, "Order your food. I'm paying. If you insist on defying me at every turn, I will leave you here by yourself."
Slowly-agonizingly so-Ryoma unfolded his arms, his shoulders losing some of the defiant tenseness they'd held. He searched Fuji's eyes for some hint of compromise, but found none. Waking forward, he placed his order and moved to the side to allow Fuji to do the same.
Fuji ordered and paid for the meal, trying to figure out the reason Ryoma was acting out. Nothing readily came to mind. Oh well, if the matter arose, they'd discuss it.
Once they were seated, Ryoma dug into his food with relish. Fuji ate more slowly, preferring to savor each bite. "The match with Akutsu is on Monday," he said.
Ryoma paused, a burger halfway to his mouth, and scowled. "I'm aware of that. I do actually keep up with game dates."
Fuji's eyes narrowed at the snappish tone, but he managed to keep his own polite. Nothing was going to provoke him into exposing his true nature in public. Not even Ryoma's childish fit. "I am merely curious if you have a plan."
"Plan?" Ryoma snorted in derision. "Why would I need a plan?"
"You said you were going to win."
"But you have no plan." Fuji's voice was flat. Going into a tennis match unprepared was monumentally stupid. And Ryoma wasn't stupid.
"No, Fuji, I don't have a plan," Ryoma all but snapped.
"It seems inadvisable."
"Well sorry I'm not perfect like you."
Fuji felt his smile freeze on his face and he opened his eyes, cold fury blazing in them. For once, Ryoma wasn't able to meet his gaze.
"I didn't mean that," the freshman muttered sullenly.
"Yes, you did." Somehow he was still keeping his tone civil.
"I suppose saying I'm sorry wouldn't help."
"Not when you don't mean it."
Ryoma let out a small sigh. "I'm not feeling very hungry anymore."
Fuji glanced at the one remaining burger on Ryoma's tray. "You would insult me further?" The question, though quiet, had thunder behind it.
Ryoma blanched. He unwrapped the second burger and ate it slowly, mechanically. He was not enjoying it. But eating it was better than refusing it-Fuji had paid for it and to leave it untouched would be incredibly ill-mannered.
Fuji watched as Ryoma forced himself to finish eating, feeling a sort of grim satisfaction that the freshman didn't want to upset him any further. "We're leaving. Take care of the trash." It was to Ryoma's credit that he did what had been asked of him without compliant. Fuji wasn't sure if his temper would hold in public if put under any more duress.
They walked in silence, Fuji leading the way to his house. He hadn't planned on having Ryoma stay for a second weekend in a row, since that would cut into the time Ryoma needed to spend with his family. Fuji had always believed that it was best to immerse oneself in family a day or two before a big match since family members were generally the most supportive.
Once they were at his house, Ryoma shoulder past Fuji and practically stormed up the stairs to the tensai's room. Annoyed at the blatant disrespect, Fuji took a few minutes to calm himself. He would not go to Ryoma while he was angry. Once he was certain he could face any temper tantrum the freshman might throw, Fuji made his way to his room, grateful that the rest of his family weren't due home for another few hours.
Ryoma was sitting on the bed, his arms crossed stubbornly over his chest. He stared at Fuji as hard as he could, trying to force the senior to drop his gaze first.
Fuji met Ryoma's eyes steadily and calmly. He wasn't going to be baited further. Minutes that felt like hours passed, but eventually Ryoma broke off. Normally, winning such a staring contest would elate Fuji, but today it just made him a bit sad. He didn't want to fight with Ryoma, especially when he didn't know why the freshman was so upset. But he had to address the complete lack of respect or Ryoma would start to think he could get away with anything. And no one was going to walk all over him, especially not the person who'd put him in charge of their relationship. "Would you care to explain your behavior?"
"I'll ask once more. If you don't answer, you'll make things worse for yourself. Now, would you care to explain your behavior?"
"I already said no!" Ryoma yelled. "Are you deaf as well as stupid now?"
Fuji's mouth firmed into a hard line. It seemed Ryoma's rudeness knew no bounds. "Follow me," he said, as mildly as possible, and turned from the room. He was almost surprised when the freshman listened, considering how he'd been acting. Fuji led the way into the bathroom, opening a cabinet and grabbing what he needed. "Come in," he said.
Ryoma was standing at the door, eying Fuji suspiciously, but he moved into the room when asked. Without warning, Fuji grabbed him around the waist and carried him with a one-armed carry to the sink. He released Ryoma and spun the freshman to face the sink before taking his right arm and threading it through both of Echizen's, effectively pinning the freshman's arms behind him as he moved up so closely behind him that Ryoma wasn't able to take a step in any direction. "Fuji, what-
Fuji held a finger of his free hand up to Echizen's lips, hiding his surprise when the act bought Ryoma's silence. "You have been incredibly disrespectful today and refused to give me a reason as to why. On top of that, you argued when I made a decision and then whined about it. I am incredibly disappointed."
At those words, Ryoma began trembling a little in Fuji's arms. He hadn't meant to get so angry or act so callously towards his boyfriend. He'd just been really stressed. He tilted his head back to meet Fuji's eyes and had to look back down almost instantly. There was true disappointment there.
Fuji smiled sadly at the back of Ryoma's head. He didn't want to punish him, but he knew he had to. He wrapped his free hand around the item he'd grabbed and brought it into Ryoma's line of sight. The freshman stiffened in his arms.
"Fuji, what are you doing?"
"This is punishment, Ryoma. Surely you didn't expect me to overlook your attitude?"
"Well no, but this is-
"This is the method I've chosen. Are you going to fight me on this as well?"
A long silence fell. "No," Ryoma said finally, voice small and subdued.
"Then open your mouth." When Ryoma obeyed, Fuji slipped a bar of soap into the freshman's mouth. Ryoma shuddered in his arms and tried to draw away, but Fuji held him still. "You will hold this until I say it is enough. Nod if you understand."
Ryoma nodded once, leaning his head back to rest on Fuji's chest. The bar of soap Fuji had selected was so wide he couldn't avoid tasting it, no matter what he tried. And the taste of it was like nothing else. Where it sunk in, it permeated, sliding to the furthest reaches of his mouth. There was no part of his mouth the taste of soap didn't touch. He ached to lean over the sink and spit it out, longed to scrub the taste out, but he remembered the look in Fuji's eyes. The disappointment. He never wanted to put that look there again.
Fuji stood with Ryoma, feeling him struggle with the effort of enduring the harsh punishment. He glanced at the clock in the hallway. Only five minutes had passed but his arms were already growing tired. But he would endure this with Ryoma. He couldn't imagine leaving the freshman to endure his first serious punishment on his own. That would be cruel.
Five minutes turned to ten which turned to twenty, all passing in an agonized slowness. When they had passed, Fuji gently dislodged the soap from the freshman's mouth. Fuji stopped restraining him and took a step back.
Ryoma turned to him and buried his face in Fuji's shirt. "I'm sorry, Syuusuke," he said.
Fuji brought his hands up to draw his boyfriend into a solid hug, one hand going up to play with Ryoma's hair. "I know. It's okay now. You're forgiven."
Ryoma looked up with a shaky smile before his expression reverted back to his normal bratty one. "Now that's over with, think I can rinse my mouth? Soap is nasty."
Fuji laughed. "No. Get a dry cloth and use that. Water will just make it worse."
Ryoma made a face at him and grabbed a washcloth out of the linen closet, stuffing it into his mouth and rubbing as vigorously as he could in an attempt to rid himself of the taste.
"Now would you care to tell me what set you off?" Fuji asked softly.
Ryoma paused. Turning to Fuji, he took a deep breath. "You aren't going to like it," he warned.
Fuji said nothing. He just waited.
Ryoma sighed. "Ok, but I warned you. Rick called me last night."
He had been right. Fuji didn't like it. "How did he get your number?"
"I gave it to a friend in America before I left. Rick bullied him into sharing it."
"And what did Rick have to say?"
Swallowing, Ryoma turned away. He wasn't sure he could repeat those words to his boyfriend, but he'd try. "That he was going to come get what belonged to him," he said, voice a near whisper.
Rage flooded through him. Fuji gripped the counter of the sink as hard as he could, his knuckles turning white with the effort. How dare Rick call Ryoma and try to terrify him into submission? Breathing shallowly, he asked, "What did you say to him?"
Ryoma smirked. "I told him that I'd never belonged to him, never would, and that he needed to get help."
Fuji laughed. Of course Ryoma wouldn't be cowed by such things. "But you're still upset."
Ryoma met Fuji's eyes. "He said that if I didn't belong to him, he'd make sure I'd never belong to anyone. That he'd kill me first."
That was it. The last straw. "Give me his address. If he thinks he can threaten you, he has a lot to learn."
"It won't do any good. He's coming to Japan tomorrow on the 7'o'clock flight. He expects me to meet him at the airport."
A slow, dark smile crept over Fuji's face. "Then we will meet him."
Ryoma sighed. "You're going to get yourself killed."
Fuji looked up then, allowing Echizen to see the full extent of his anger. The freshman swallowed hard, but held his gaze. "Ryoma, no one threatens what's mine. It isn't me you should worry about."
"No," Ryoma said softly, "I suppose it isn't." His expression cleared. "But if you think I'm worried about what you might do to him, you're wrong. Rick deserves whatever he's got coming."
Fuji grinned. It was nice to know that his most dangerous side didn't scare Ryoma. Intoxicating, in fact. "Stay here tonight," he said.
Ryoma answered with a grin of his own. "I thought you'd never ask."
Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen
Six thirty the next evening found Fuji and Ryoma seated across from one another in a booth at the airport McDonald's. They had come a bit early in order to grab some food before the inevitable showdown with Rick.
Ryoma was so strung out by the time they'd taken their seats that he couldn't eat. Just the thought of food made his stomach recoil, a sensation made worse by the knowledge that Rick was going to be walking through the entrance at any moment. After Rick had put him in the hospital, Ryoma never wanted anything to do with him. He hadn't called to let him know it was over, but he thought he'd sent the message loud and clear once he'd banned Rick from his hospital room.
Fuji watched the trepidation spill over Ryoma's face, his own gut tightening in anger. To see Echizen so vulnerable in such a public setting- gritted his teeth tightly behind his smile and counted to ten, willing himself to calm down. There'd be time enough for anger later. He chewed his food methodically as he waited, not really tasting it. He'd ordered more out of a need to keep up appearances than true hunger.
"That's him," Ryoma whispered, tilting his head to indicate the newcomer.
As soon as Fuji glanced at him, he'd sized him up. Rick was a westerner, about 5'4'' with shaggy brown hair that fell in curls around his face. He had a habit of reaching up to brush one particularly vicious curl aside that occasionally fell in such a way to obscure his vision. He wasn't bulky with muscle, but he wasn't skinny for lacking it. As appearances went, he was pretty average.
It was the way he held himself that drew attention. Rick walked with a bit of a swagger that said he knew what he was doing. his arms fell by his sides in a swing that indicated confidence to a casual observer, but Fuji wasn't casual. There was a very slight,almost unnoticeable, hesitation in how widely he swung his arms, and he always moved them just a bit too far. He was insecure, but adept at covering it. Probably with his fists.
Speaking of fists, Fuji had curled his own hands into fists without thinking about it. He relaxed his hands. They were in public. Appearances mattered.
Ryoma stood as Rick approached their booth. He and Fuji had discussed the need not to draw attention to themselves in public and orchestrated a plan around that. "Hello, Rick," he said, switching to English.
Rick didn't even glance at Fuji. The only person he had eyes for was Ryoma. "Hello, Ryoma."
Fuji stood up smoothly and turned to the westerner. "Hello, Rick. I'm Syuusuke Fuji," he said, his English flawless though rather heavily accented.
Rick eyes him like he was an annoying not, not even important enough to squash. "Why is he here?" he asked Ryoma, completely ignoring Fuji.
Masked smile in place, Fuji answered. "I am Ryoma's boyfriend."
Rick snorted. "Pull the other leg. Come on Ryoma. We're leaving. This freak can stay here."
Ryoma winced inwardly. Insulting Fuji was never a healthy thing to do. "I'm not going anywhere with you."
Rick reached out a hand to grab Ryoma's wrist and force him along, only to find his way obstructed when Fuji stepped in between them, smoothly deflecting the grab.
"Saa, why don't we all sit down and discuss this like adults? People are starting to stare." Fuji still hadn't lost his composure, but Rick was glaring at him for all he was worth.
"Fine," Rick said. "But Ryoma sits with me."
Fuji raised an eyebrow. This guy was way too pushy. Then again, he hadn't expected anything less. "With your history, I don't think that's a good idea."
"History? What history?" Rick asked. Realization flashed across his face and he turned to Ryoma, anger coloring his words. "You told him about that? You had no right-
"He had every right. Now please, sit down before someone decides to interfere." Fuji nodded towards the other people in the restaurant, not a few of which were openly staring at them.
Rick scowled, but slid into the booth. "Ryoma, sit beside me."
Ryoma looked at him blankly, then turned his attention to Fuji. He felt caught. He in no way wanted to sit with Rick, but he also didn't want to give the guy an excuse to hurt him.
"Ryoma," Rick said, voice sharp with warning.
Fuji smiled a little at the attempt at dominance. He turned to his boyfriend. "I'd like it if you sat with me on the inside but feel free to sit wherever you like." Control wasn't about giving orders all the time-it was bout that fine line of illusion that caused orders to appear as choices.
"I'll sit with you, Syuusuke." Having made that decision, Echizen slid into the booth first, breathing a sigh of relief. Fuji slid in after him.
"I don't know what game you think you're playing, Syuusuke-
"It's Fuji," he said, eyes flashing with anger as the mask slipped off his face. "You have no right to use my first name."
"You introduced yourself as Syuusuke."
"You mean to tell me you dated Ryoma and didn't learn that we refer to one another by last names unless there is a degree of intimacy involved?" He kept his tone at gently tiding, but wanted to put more derision behind the words.
"Whatever. Americans use first names, not last."
Ryoma spoke up then. "Rick, please. It's just a name." He wasn't ready for this to escalate into violence over something so stupid.
"Since you ask so nicely. Fine, I'll call you Fuji. But only because Ryoma asked."
Fuji longed to bang his fists on the table to demonstrate his frustration. His patience was starting to wear thin. Rick had somehow mastered the trick of looking at his face but completely avoiding eye contact. And while Fuji didn't need to use his gaze to intimidate people, it made things much less complicated.
"As I was saying, I don't know what game you think you're playing, but Ryoma is mine. You have no claim on him."
"Game? I am not playing any games," Fuji said.
Rick glared at him before turning to Ryoma, once again dismissing Fuji. "Why is he here?"
Fuji's irritation was growing stronger, as was his anger. Rick didn't know how to be polite. His rudeness was not only insulting, but degrading. Acting like he was better than everyone around him. Fuji had to be amazed that no one had managed to put him in his place. "I believe I already answered that."
"Shut up, asshole, I'm not talking to you."
Calm came over Fuji as he reclaimed his public persona. Rick had lost control of his temper. That meant this game was his to play now. Knowing that, he tilted his head back to consider the annoyance on Rick's face. The guy had a temper and a volatile one. But Fuji had the advantage here because he would never lose his cool in public. It lacked sophistication. "Does it offend you so much when I speak?"
"When you answer questions not meant for you, yeah. I was talking to Ryoma."
"Che. His answer is my answer," Ryoma said, cutting in.
Rick jerked angrily in his seat, then hissed, "Don't fuck with me, Ryoma. You won't like me angry."
Fuji started to speak, but Ryoma beat him to it. "I may not like you angry, Rick. You did put me in the hospital. But." He stopped.
Rick glared. "But what?"
Ryoma sighed. "You may have put me in the hospital, but I'm not afraid of you. I know how far you'll go. You're mostly bark and a little bite. You're a coward."
Rick's face twisted somewhere between a snarl and a grimace. His eyes narrowed. "You belong to me," he spat.
"No, I don't. I never did."
"Don't lie. You were at my side for a year. Don't act like that doesn't mean anything." To Fuji's surprise, there was actually pain in those words. Somewhere inside, Rick really did care for Ryoma. That just made what he'd done to the freshman that much more despicable.
"And I never once said that I was yours and you know it," Ryoma said.
"Maybe not. But the things you let me do-no, the things you begged me to do. You'll never find anyone else who'll give you what you need."
Ryoma gave him a disgusted look. "You are not what I need. And just because I let you hurt me doesn't mean you own me."
"Yes, it does. You don't let just anyone take a knife to your back."
Those words stopped Echizen cold. While he had let Rick cut him, it had been under duress. Knives terrified him.
Fuji looked at Ryoma with contemplation. He'd never thought of using a knife. It seemed too risky, too much of a temptation. He caught the shadow of fear in Ryoma's eyes. "You cut him even though you knew it scared him," he said.
"Yep. And he begged me to do it." Rick was proud. It radiated from him. Fuji felt a little sick.
"I didn't beg you to cut me. In fact, I remember yelling at you to stop. Repeatedly."
"Semantics." Rick dismissed that out-of-hand. "Begging is begging." He paused. "You still haven't said the but. You're scared of me angry-
"No, I'm not. Your anger doesn't frighten me."
"Fine, whatever. But you don't want me angry."
"Because I don't enjoy hospitals."
"Then come with me. Admit you belong to me. There'll be no more hospitals."
"You're right. Because I'm not going with you."
Rick snarled. "Why the fuck not? You remember what I said on the phone-
"That you'd kill me." Ryoma was radiating calm. Fuji felt a moment of pride that he was holding up so well under pressure. "Yeah, I remember."
"Then stop being an idiot and-
"But what?" Rick was all but yelling now. It was truly a miracle that none of the other customers hadn't come up to them. Then again, maybe not. It seemed that people generally avoided involving themselves in others' conflicts. Still, Fuji wished Rick could act a little more civilized.
"There's one thing more terrifying than you killing me."
"Somehow, I don't believe you."
Ryoma grinned and prodded Fuji's side. "You asked me what he was doing here."
"Yeah, so?" Rick had to take a moment to reorient himself to the change in topic.
Ryoma stared at Rick. "Meet Syuusuke Fuji, my boyfriend. Oh. I should mention. He's a sadist and a helluva lot scarier than you."
Rick picked that moment to look at Fuji and this time Fuji managed to capture his gaze. Fuji let his mask crumble into pieces and sat staring at the westerner, eyes ablaze with anger. There was a lesser, answering anger in Rick's eyes but neither one of them wavered.
"I will kill him before I let you touch him," Rick said.
Fuji smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "Ryoma belongs to me." The way he said it was nothing like the way Rick had set it. Rick was desperate for everyone to believe that Ryoma was his property. But Fuji just simply knew that Ryoma was his. There was no arrogance in his voice, no boasting. Just knowledge.
Rick recoiled at that, laughing to hide how unsettled he felt. "No, he doesn't. He said he didn't belong to me. He never said he'd accepted your claim."
"True enough." Fuji turned to Echizen. "Ryoma. Tell him, please." He kept his voice soft.
Ryoma leaned forward, smirking. "Rick, I will never belong to you."
"You've already said th-
"Because," Ryoma interrupted. "I can't belong to two people."
"Wait? What?" Rick nearly exploded.
"Ryoma, who do you belong to?" Fuji asked, not taking his eyes off Rick. With his temper, he might try something stupid, and Fuji didn't want to risk Ryoma's safety.
Something dark flitted behind Rick's eyes. "If you think I'll accept this without proof, you have another thing coming."
Fuji tilted his head. "Is there proof we can provide that will get you out of our lives permanently?"
Ryoma was tugging insistently on his hand under the table, almost frantic. "Syuusuke, that was-
"An excellent idea," Rick said, smirking. "In fact, I can think of the perfect proof."
Ryoma clutched Fuji's hand hard under the table. So the bravery really had been a front. "What proof would you require?" Fuji asked, absently tracing circles on the back of Echizen's hand.
"Why, using a knife on him of course. If, as you say, he belongs to you, then he most certainly won't refuse such a thing."
"He is afraid of knives," Fuji said. He did not like the turn this conversation was taking.
"If he trusts you, the fear shouldn't matter. So what will it be? A knife show or giving him to me to play with?"
Fuji shrugged. "Ask Ryoma."
"I thought you said he belonged to you."
"He does. But I'll not force him into anything. I'm giving him the choice."
"Che. The options suck." Ryoma glared at Rick. He knew if his ex won this challenge, he could very well end up dead. Drawing a ragged breath, he turned to Fuji. "I'll take the knives."
Fuji smiled sadly. "I would spare you this."
"No." Ryoma shook his head. "It's fine. Syuusuke, I trust you. I'll do whatever takes to be worthy of you."
"It is me who should worry about being worthy, not you."
Rick rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Just come to my hotel at five tomorrow. I'll be expecting a good show." With that, he slide out of his booth and disappeared.
Fuji pulled Ryoma close to him, resting his head on Ryoma's, who was leaning against his shoulder. It seemed life kept getting more and more complicated. "Why did you agree to the knives?"
Ryoma sighed against him. "Because as much of an ass as Rick is, he does have his own sense of morals. If he says he'll accept proof and leave, he will. I don't want this to be messier than it has to be."
Fuji frowned. "He didn't strike me as the type to break a bargain. But I don't like that I'm going to have to hurt you at his whim."
"I like it less than you."
"And yet you agreed to it."
Ryoma rolled his eyes. "I did. Because having you take a knife to me scares me a lot less than the idea of being back in his care."
Fuji chuckled. "You told him I was scarier."
"You are." Ryoma struggled for the words. "I know Rick will only go so far in order to hurt me. He's too squeamish to do anything but a quick beating or a clean death, if he ever kills. But you, Syuusuke. When someone hurts someone close to you, you won't make it quick or clean. You'll prolong it."
"Does it bother you?" Fuji couldn't protest. It was true. Already, plans were forming in his head to make Rick pay for everything he'd done. It would be hard to get a hold of his American contacts, but he'd do it. And then he'd make sure Rick never stepped out of his house again without being terrified. He deserved nothing less.
Ryoma shook his head. Solemnly, he said, "No. Because it's only knowing that you'll torment Rick for the rest of his life that's going to allow me to get through tomorrow."
For that, Fuji kissed him. There were no words adequate enough.
Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen
Ryoma spent the night at Fuji's again. He'd called his dad to tell him, but hadn't mentioned what was going on with Rick. There was no reason to worry his dad about a situation that was firmly under control. He glanced nervously at Fuji, who was checking on the cacti. He'd told him he trusted him, but knives...he suppressed a shudder. His fear of them wasn't unfounded. A few years back, he'd watched two friends get in a fight. one had pulled a knife and the other hadn't been quick enough. He'd bled out before the ambulance got there.
Ryoma swallowed. Ever since that day, he'd been afraid of knives. And then Rick...Rick had chained him down so he couldn't get away and carved patterns all over him. He'd been absurdly, ridiculously grateful that those chains prevented him from moving. If they'd been loose, he would've thrashed like mad to get away. Rick had induced a panic attack in him and then laughed, ignoring it, as he did what he wanted.
He took a few deep breaths, trying to regain his composure. He could not walk into that hotel room acting terrified. He would not give Rick the pleasure of seeing him play victim. Never again.
Fuji focused his attention on the cacti while thinking about Ryoma and what he was going to be forced to do. Knives. While the idea held a certain appeal, he'd seen the sheer terror in Ryoma's eyes. The fear. If he'd seen that look in Rick's eyes, he wouldn't have hesitated in exploiting it. Rick had hurt someone important to him-he deserved to be afraid. But Ryoma-Ryoma hadn't hurt anyone. He was cocky and rash and a bit antisocial, but he'd never hurt anyone. That fear didn't belong in his eyes.
But Ryoma had chosen this path for them. Fuji would use a knife. But it wouldn't be the way Rick had used it. He wouldn't terrify Ryoma. He'd never do that. When the two of them had gotten home, he'd done some research. Knife play didn't have to be cruel-in fact, it wasn't meant to be. While Ryoma was asleep, Fuji had left the house to get the type of knife recommended for play. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it right.
Finished with the cacti, he turned to Ryoma, who was dressed in a white tee and blue shorts. Fuji had to fight the urge to throw him down and ravish him-they had an appointment to keep. "You ready?" he asked instead.
Ryoma's normally vibrant golden eyes had faded to a dull brown. In answer, he moved to the door.
Fuji felt a pang of regret. He did not want to do this. The two of them walked downstairs and outside, neither saying much as they made their way to the bus stop. The ride passed in silence, each of them focused on their own thoughts. Nothing about this day was going to be easy, not for either of them.
All too soon, the bus ride was over. Gravel crunched under their feet as they made their way up to the hotel. Room 473 loomed up to meet them. Fuji turned to Ryoma and clasped his hands in his own. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Ryoma's hands gripped his so tightly the freshman's knuckles were turning white. "I'm sure. I would rather do this than ever again be at Rick's mercy."
Fuji searched his eyes, looking for any doubt, any hesitation. There was fear, trust, and Echizen's special brand of stubborn determination. But there was no doubt. He'd fully committed himself. Fuji nodded once and stepped back. He would give this his full commitment as well. He could do no less.
The door to room 473 swung open. "Glad you could make it. Come in," Rick said, one arm poised on the doorframe.
Fuji walked inside behind Ryoma, making sure that Rick didn't find a way to touch him. He didn't want the westerner anywhere near his boyfriend.
Once the door was closed, Rick let out a childish squeal of glee. "I'm looking forward to the show?"
"How can I trust you won't interfere?" Fuji asked, all pretense dropped, mask gone. They weren't in public anymore.
Rick looked insulted. "Why would I do that"
"Your past history speaks for itself."
Rick scowled. "I will not interfere."
"I don't trust you."
Motioning towards Fuji, Rick said, "You're the one with the knife. You may think me dishonorable, but I am not stupid."
"Yet you allowed us to come here with weapons and didn't arm yourself." Fuji let his disdain bleed through his voice.
"Look. You're Japanese. All I know about you is that you take this honor thing way too seriously. Besides, you kill me, I have friends who know where I am and who I'm with."
Ah. So the guy wasn't a complete moron. Just most of one. Fuji considered Rick for a moment. The next time he spoke, his voice was pure ice. "I will do this because you gave your word that you'd withdraw from our lives." He took a step forward, forcing his way into Rick's personal space. Somehow, impossibly, Rick stood his ground, not seeming at all phased by their difference in height. "But I will promise this. Should you move in any way I consider threatening or attempt to physically interfere, I will kill you, consequences e damned." He watched as realization that he was serious slowly sank in. And with it, a shadow of fear. Fuji nodded once, turned on his heel, and strode across the room to where Ryoma still hovered nervously at the door. He paused, looking back at Rick. "And I promise that it will not be quick."
Rick fought to keep his fear from showing as he sat on the bed furthest from the door. Fuji noted the small tremors with satisfaction. Good. Rick was afraid of him. That, at least, was a promising start.
Ryoma tilted his head as he considered what he'd just seen. Rick had never backed down to anyone before. And while he hadn't verbally submitted to Fuji, it showed in the way he moved. Rick truly believed Fuji would kill him. That made Echizen think. He'd seen other people challenge Rick, even threaten to kill him. But this was the first time the person issuing that threat hadn't been bluffing. The first person that Rick hadn't scoffed at for grandstanding. Fuji was serious. He would kill to protect him.
Ryoma felt like he was seeing Fuji through new eyes. He'd known the tensai was sadistic and possessive-he's seen it in the way Fuji acted around his friends and family. Especially with Yuuta. That match with Mizuki had really brought that side of him to light. But there was something about Fuji that went much, much deeper. And it showed itself in the way he was willing to kill-to sacrifice everything-to protect the people he cared for.
At that moment, Ryoma knew, with a certainty that he'd never felt for anything except playing tennis, that he would travel to hell and back t keep Syuusuke at his side. Compared to that, a knife was going to be easy.
Fuji had swallowed fear after promising Rick a painful death and drew up courage to face Ryoma. He expected to see condemnation and disgust in those eyes. After all, he'd just threatened to kill. And meant it. But neither accusation or horror stared up at him. What he saw in Echizen's eyes forced him to let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding. Trust gleamed there. As did hope. And something he couldn't quite place...something that looked a bit like awe, but was softer. "Are you ready?" he asked gently.
Ryoma quirked a brow at him. "Always."
And that arrogance was just...so Echizen that Fuji laughed. And just like that, the tense atmosphere in the room was broken. They would do this as if Rick wasn't watching, as if they'd chosen this course. For just a little bit, they would suspend the knowledge that they were here for any other reason than just being with one another.
Fuji took a seat on the unoccupied bed and motioned for Ryoma to do the same. Once he was seated, Fuji grabbed the unsuspecting freshman by the hair and yanked him backwards as he leaned down to claim his lips in a bruising kiss. Ryoma's hands had fallen behind him to the sides to catch his weight as he'd been forced to follow Fuji's hand or have his hair yanked out. Fuji continued his brutal assault, moving his free hand up underneath Ryoma's shirt. He grabbed Ryoma's right nipple between his thumb and forefinger and twisted savagely to the left. Ryoma's back arched as he cried out, the sound muffled by the presence of Fuji's tongue in his mouth. His hands still bore his weight and he clutched the covers desperately. No matter which way he tried to pull, there was pain waiting for him.
Fuji reached for his other nipple and twisted, relishing in the pained sounds coming from Ryoma. He held Ryoma's hair harshly in one hand, working his nipples with the other. And through it all, he continued to kiss him with a bruising intensity, stopping only occasionally for air. He continued this assault until he felt the moment where Ryoma's stubbornness broke-the moment when he felt all the resistance flee from the body beneath him. He waited for the moment he felt Ryoma truly submit. He loved that feeling, but today it was vital. Today it could mean the difference between life and a fate worse than death. Because Ryoma returning to Rick-well, death was preferable.
Once Ryoma had stopped resisting, Fuji took his hands away. He smirked at the keening noise Ryoma made-the freshman was enjoying himself. "Lie back on the bed. Take off your shirt."
Ryoma complied so hastily that Fuji chuckled, making Ryoma blush. But he didn't speak.
Maintaining eye contact, Fuji swung his legs up on the bed, moving to a kneeling position. Carefully, he placed one knee on the opposite side of Ryoma's legs, letting the other stay where it was. Slowly, he withdrew the blade he'd purchased form his pocket. Unsheathing it, he held it where Ryoma could see its full features.
Fuji watched Ryoma's eyes. A hint of fear was there-it had to be, after the panic he'd seen earlier-but there was mostly anticipation and trust. He smiled. That meant Ryoma trusted him more than he feared the knife. And that-just that-was intoxicating.
On impulse, he brought the blade to Ryoma's lips. "Kiss it," he instructed. He watched as the normal Echizen fought to rise to the surface and he moved his left hand down behind Ryoma's knee. He'd discovered, quite by accident, that the flesh behind Ryoma's knee was his weak point-it was the one area where pain stayed pain. Seeing the hesitation in Ryoma's eyes, Fuji pinched down hard, fluidly moving the knife away from Ryoma's face as he jerked.
Ryoma yelped. By gods, but that had hurt. It took him a few seconds to recover, but when he did he found the knife poised at his lips again. Surely, Fuji wasn't ser-he yelped again as the same exact spot was pinched again. Tears formed in his eyes, but didn't fall. He glanced up at Fuji's face. Ryoma really wasn't expected to-he yelped yet again. This pain wasn't any fun. It felt like punishment. This wasn't supposed to be punishment. What was he supposed to do again? He dared another look at Fuji, hoping his confusion was clear.
Fuji saw, after the third harsh pinch, that Ryoma had fallen back into his submission. He offered the knife again. "Kiss it," he said. This time there was no hesitation. Just instant obedience. A thrill ran through him.
Carefully, he began to trace the blade lightly over Ryoma's chest, holding it so that the entire length of the blade touched the skin, rather than just the point. Making sure not to break the skin, he drew circles and lines, zigzags and spirals, changing the pressure from light to heavy-but still never breaking skin. Ryoma lay quivering beneath him, his arms held tightly to his sides. Fuji realized with a jolt that Ryoma was keeping himself still, never reaching to stop him or encourage him in his knife play. He was just...submitting. Letting Fuji have complete control. Fuji swallowed. This power...how had he never suspected that people who could appreciate his sadism existed? The two of them, like this, were a perfect symmetry.
Rick spoke then, but Fuji had the presence of mind to be continually aware of the westerner, so he wasn't surprised into carelessness. "I have to admit I'm jealous." His tone was low, envious.
Fuji said nothing. If Rick wanted to speak, he wouldn't need encouragement.
"When I used a knife, I had to chain him down. Make him completely immobile so I couldn't hurt him when he struggled." Bitterness lined his words.
"I thought you enjoyed struggle."
Rick sighed in frustration, running a hand through his hair-a motion Fuji caught out of his peripheral vision. "I did. I do. But watching you with him-this is better."
"Because you need no chains to bind him. He just obeys. I could never get him to do that." His sorrow was so thick, Fuji could almost taste it.
"You could've had him like this, if you hadn't run from the monster inside you," Fuji said.
"Didn't you run from yours?"
"Not really. When I discovered that I was capable of hurting someone and that I liked how it felt, I found a way to make it work." As they talked, Fuji continued drawing, leaving more complicated patterns as he got more comfortable with the amount of pressure he could use. An idea struck him and he moved off Ryoma, who eyed him curiously. "Roll over," he said.
Ryoma complied, resting his chin on his hands as he settled into place. Most, if not all, of the fear that had been in his eyes earlier had completely disappeared. The way Fuji used the knife...it felt good. It hurt, but not in the way he'd expected it to. After the way Rick had sliced him up, he'd expected more of the same. But Fuji had drawn no blood from him. And just that reassured him, told him that his trust wasn't unfounded.
"You've never hurt anyone?" Rick asked.
"No," Fuji said. "I've hurt someone." He knew they weren't talking about Ryoma anymore.
"I was ten. I beat up my best friend." There was no need to go into details.
Fuji shrugged, settling back over Ryoma's hips. He leaned down, intensely focused, as he began to draw a pattern on Ryoma's back with the most pressure he could exert with the knife without breaking skin. From time to time, Ryoma mewled a little in the back of his throat and Fuji felt that inner glow of satisfaction that came from knowing his sadism was working in tandem with Ryoma's masochism. "He pitied me," he said.
"So I can't abide pity. I chose to make him hate me instead."
"You drove away your best friend."
"That doesn't scare you? The fact that you'll never know how far you can go?"
Fuji rolled his eyes at the assumption. "I'm not you. I know exactly how far I'll go and what I'm capable of."
"And that doesn't scare you?"
He was annoyingly persistent, Fuji had to give him that. "No."
"Because I know what matters. My friends. My family. My lover. For them, I will go to any lengths. I act selfishly only with Ryoma and even then it's a consensual selfishness. I do not allow my sadism to use me the way you've allowed yours to use you. It is a tool, nothing more, and I am its wielder, not its victim."
Rick fell silent.
Fuji was done drawing. he sat back and admired his handiwork. On Ryoma's back, he had etched a cactus stretching from the top of his shoulder blades with the middle prong right beneath his neck at the start of his spine down to his tail bone. Sheathing the knife with a mental reminder to clean it later, he moved off Ryoma for a second time and flipped him over, grinning as Ryoma let out a pained hiss as the fresh welts hit the covers. Fuji lowered his head to claim Ryoma's lips in another searing kiss before pulling away reluctantly. "We're done," he said. He longed to do more because they both needed it, but that would have to wait until they were alone.
Ryoma sat up slowly, wincing as he moved. "You drew something," he said.
Fuji laughed, then waved him towards the bathroom. "Go see."
Ryoma walked past Rick without flinching. He came back to the room, his usual smirk in place. "A cactus, Syuusuke?"
Fuji grinned. "Reminds me of you."
For a moment, Ryoma looked like he was going to be offended, but decided against it. "So that's why you like me. I remind you of your plants."
Fuji's grin widened. "Yep. You're both prickly and you both have a softer side few people see or appreciate."
"Che." Ryoma grabbed his t-shirt and slipped it on, wincing as the cotton came into contact with the marks on his skin. He wondered how long they would last. Oh well, if all he had to show for a day spent playing with knives was a cactus emblazoned on his back, he wouldn't complain. Still, he wasn't a sketchpad.
Fuji turned to Rick. "We've given you our proof. Now leave us alone."
Rick nodded. "Fine." He walked them to the door, but stopped Fuji with a touch on his arm. At the tensai's glare, he said hurriedly, "Do you think I'll ever find anyone who can handle my sadism?"
"Not if you keep running from yourself. You'll just create more victims." And I won't let that happen, Fuji swore. When he got home, he had some phone calls to make to make sure Rick could never hurt anyone again.
Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen
Fuji found himself feeling a bit distracted during the first few matches on Monday. He managed a few comments here and there but his mind was focused on the upcoming match between Ryoma and Akutsu. Over the last few days he'd done the research he needed to go after Akutsu. It hadn't been easy but he'd done it. This was the first person he'd researched who would respond better to direct confrontation rather than the more subtle manipulation Fuji was fond of; he didn't particularly care to get his hands dirty.
Fuji watched Akutsu, trying to make his observation as inconspicuous as possible. When the other slipped away, he would seize the opportunity. The doubles one match ended and Momo took the court against Sengoku. Fuji caught a movement out of the corner of his eye; Akutsu had moved to leave. Carefully, Fuji extracted himself from his teammates and followed, stopping at the end of a building Akutsu would have to pass to return to the match. The Yamabuki thug had stopped to get a soda, as yet unaware of Fuji's presence. That suited him just fine.
Akutsu began walking towards him, still oblivious.
Fuji stepped deliberately into Akutsu's path, causing him to nearly stumble as he halted. He expected Akutsu to say something snide but no words came. Confused, his eyes snapped open and he studied the person in front of him. Akutsu stood a couple feet away radiating reluctant respect. That was curious; Fuji hadn't done anything to him yet. He had never even spoken to him before.
"What do you want?" The question came out mild, rather than demanding.
Fuji tilted his head to the side as he considered the best way to phrase what he wanted to say. "Mm. That's a difficult question, you see, because I want you to never have hurt Echizen."
Akutsu blinked. "What does that freshman have to do with anything?"
"He belongs to me."
"Belongs? What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'll spell it out for you. He's my lover."
Akutsu stared at Fuji silently for a long moment as if weighing the truth of what he'd been told. "I didn't know," he said, his tone wary.
"Would it have made a difference if you had?"
Akutsu met his eyes, and there was real fear reflected there, fear Fuji hadn't expected to see. "Yeah, it would. I'd never have touched him if I'd known."
Fuji took a step forward and Akutsu almost fell over himself to step out of his reach, despite Akutsu's larger and heavier build. "You could easily take me in a fight, but you're afraid of me. Why?"
Akutsu's hands clenched into fists and he was taking deep breaths to calm himself. Fuji kept his distance. "Because I've seen what you do to the people who cross you."
"Oh? Do tell."
Akutsu swallowed, giving a jerky nod. "Tora Nyoami. I watched her transform from a competent woman into a pathetic weakling. When I asked her what happened when she was still halfway lucid, all she would say was your name."
"Good to know she understood that." Tora had led Yuuta on for two years before his brother had found out that she'd been cheating on him with his best friend. Needless to say, Fuji hadn't taken kindly to that treatment of his brother.
Akutsu flinched. "She's not the only one I've known whose fallen victim to you," he said quietly.
Fuji smiled. It wasn't pleasant. "And now you've stumbled along that path."
"Do you know what they call you, Fuji?"
He tilted his head. He didn't know he had a nickname. "No idea."
"The Bleeder. They say you take their worst nightmares and use them to bleed out every emotion until only fear remains." Akutsu looked away.
"Pretty accurate. I like it."
Akutsu gritted his teeth. "I swear, I didn't know Echizen was yours."
Fuji stared at the man in front of him. He'd never come across someone who already knew to be afraid of him. It was odd, but pleasant. And he was telling the truth; he really hadn't known. "You still hurt him."
At that, Akutsu's shoulders slumped. "I know... I'm sorry."
"I do believe you're the first person to ever admit he was wrong," Fuji mused. The hope in Akutsu's eyes at that was slightly painful to look at. Still, what he'd planned seemed a bit unreasonable to do to someone who'd accepted fault.
"Fuji, please." Akutsu's voice was soft, and it wavered a bit. "I don't want to end up like Nyoami."
"I never thought I'd hear you beg, Akutsu. Everyone seems to think you're unbreakable."
"No one's unbreakable. Not when it's you."
Fuji smiled. "Flattery? I'm shocked."
"It's not flattery when it's true. Please, Fuji."
"You don't want me to break you but you hurt someone close to me. Do you see my dilemma?"
Akutsu looked away. "Yeah," he said, so low that Fuji had to strain to hear him.
"Well here's what we'll do. You love tennis despite how much you pretend to hate it. It would hurt you not to play it."
Akutsu gave a sharp nod of acknowledgment.
"After the match with Echizen, no matter who wins, you'll announce your resignation from the sport. And if I ever find out that you've picked up a racquet again for any reason," Fuji said, stepping in so close he was nearly standing on Akutsu's toes. "I'll forget I ever had this conversation. Do we have an understanding?"
Akutsu nodded. "Yeah. But you're really going to let me go? No more tennis and it's over?"
Fuji smiled. "Yes."
"You apologized, you begged for mercy, but mostly because I feel like it. After all, I can break you anytime I choose."
Akutsu paled. "No tennis and you'll leave me alone?"
Fuji nodded. "I give you my word. Of course, that's with the understanding that if you ever hurt anyone close to me again this compromise is null and void."
"Of course." Akutsu drew a deep breath and composed himself, careful not to brush against Fuji as he walked past him back towards the courts.
Fuji watched him go, blue eyes thoughtful. He'd let someone go; he'd never done that before. Then again, no one had ever bothered to ask. Oh well. He hoped it didn't come back to bite him. If it did, he'd just bite back harder. He shrugged, rejoining his own teammates. He'd worry about that when the time came; if it ever did.
Back at the courts, Momoshiro was finishing up his match with Sengoku. He won despite having a bad cramp in his foot. Fuji hid his amusement; only Momoshiro would play better injured than not. He turned to Ryoma. "Do your best, Echizen," he said. Ryoma inclined his head in acknowledgment so minutely that Fuji almost missed it. He watched the freshman take to the courts, Akutsu taking his own place on the other side.
The two tennis players stood across from the net from each other, staring. Akutsu swung his racquet down, stopping an inch away from Echizen's face. Fuji frowned at the provocation but Akutsu hadn't broken his word yet. "I'll play with you like I promised," Akutsu said, glowering at Echizen.
"Whatever." Ryoma was unfazed.
Fuji tried not to laugh. Why had he been worried? Ryoma was more than capable of taking care of himself. The game had barely started and Echizen was already approaching the net, apparently something Takashi had warned him not to do if the loud protest coming from the power player was any indication, and hit a drop volley, taunting Akutsu. Fuji shook his head. Echizen really didn't know which opponents not to provoke. But it was okay; he'd already made sure Akutsu wouldn't get violent again. Akutsu hit the ball back across the net and Ryoma smashed it straight into Akutsu's face. Fuji stifled a laugh; he hadn't expected that.
"Oops, sorry, but you shouldn't take tennis so lightly," Ryoma said. Akutsu started laughing. Ryoma ignored it and said, "Even though that's not much, it's for Kachiro. Why are you still on the ground? I still haven't paid you back for Kawamura's share. And just for the heck of it, Arai's share too."
Akutsu picked himself up off the ground, staring intensely at the freshman. "You can't escape anymore, brat."
"Same to you," Echizen said.
Fuji rolled his eyes behind closed lids. Trust Ryoma to allow himself to be caught in a duel to prove how much tougher he was than someone else; he seemed to thrive on aggression. That was fine with Fuji: it meant the matches he got to watch were more exciting. Still, it was good that aggression only came out to play on the courts. He preferred the softer side of Ryoma that no one else got to see.
Akutsu fell into an odd stance and, as they started playing again, he returned every ball Echizen sent his way, scoring points against the freshman by adjusting his shot to go in the opposite direction a split second after Ryoma moved. "You won't be able to get another point from me," Akutsu said.
"I don't know where the best place to return is," Inui said from beside Fuji. "But there's always someone better." He looked at Tezuka as he said that.
"It's completely different from Tezuka's tennis," Fuji said.
"I'll take that as a compliment," Tezuka replied stiffly.
"Ah." Fuji turned his attention back to the game. He had to admit to being slightly impressed by how well Akutsu returned Echizen's shots. Soon the game hit 2-0 in Akutsu's favor.
"That guy...he changes course after Echizen moves," Momo murmured.
Fuji rolled his eyes.
"Is that possible to do?" Oishi asked.
"If so, it'll be too late to move after Akutsu hits," Inui said.
"It's humiliating since Echizen runs towards the opposite direction," Fuji said. The fact that Ryoma was being humiliated was starting to irritate him. But it was probably pissing Echizen off, knowing how easily the freshman got irritated. He idly considered going against what he'd told Akutsu but shook the thought away; he'd wait and see if Akutsu kept his side of the bargain.
"Is that all you've got brat?" Akutsu taunted. "It's no use, I'm going to attack now." He hit a return, adjusting the angle at the last second to make it go to the left when Echizen had been expecting it to go right. "Other way, brat."
"He overpowers Inui's data tennis," Fuji remarked.
"I told you brat, I won't let you get one point," Akutsu said.
"Inui, the chance percentage of Echizen winning..." Fuji trailed off as he watched Echizen lob the ball shallowly, forcing Akutsu to come up to the next.
"Running away?" Echizen taunted.
"You've got guts, brat," Akutsu said, hitting the ball directly toward Ryoma's face.
Fuji started to stand, certain that Ryoma had been hit, then sat back down as he saw the ball hit Akutsu's side of the court as Ryoma hit the ground. Seriously, Ryoma was too rash.
"Hey, brat, how long are you going to pretend to sleep there?" Akutsu asked.
Echizen grinned, holding up a finger as he looked at Akutsu. "Ne, didn't you say you weren't going to let me get one point?" He stood up, facing Akutsu. "L-i-a-r. Made Made Dane."
Fuji shook his head. This match was insane. Ryoma was fighting Akutsu. He was using tennis, sure, but he was fighting.
"Isn't this great?" Akutsu asked, hitting a return.
Echizen ran up to the net.
"Right. Attacking when the ball just bounces up is the only way to counter Akutsu." Inui said. "Return is the only chance to attack."
"So Echizen has mastered it already? That's Yuuta's-" He cut off when he realized that Ryoma had indeed mastered the super rising shot.
Akutsu returned it. "Trying to get an ace from me? Don't make me laugh."
Echizen let out a yell of frustration as Akutsu once again changed the direction of the ball. His irritation skyrocketed and he forced himself into a directional change without using a step. Fuji's eyes snapped open in surprise. No step? That certainly was unexpected. He felt anticipation rise in him; what would it be to play tennis against this Echizen?
"You will be a good stepping stone," Echizen said, starting his own counterattack. Using his no-step directional change, he quickly evened the score.
When the game hit 4-3, Akutsu's tempo changed, making it hard for Echizen to keep up. Fuji watched the game, curious about how the match would end. It would be a close call. But finally, Ryoma started to pull ahead.
"Hey, if you had practiced karate like a man, you wouldn't be losing to a brat like me," Echizen taunted.
"Shut up!" Akutsu snarled.
It was match point for Ryoma.
"I didn't know you had it in you," Akutsu said.
"Must be our skill difference," Echizen said.
"I just remembered. I still owe you something. This is for Kawamura." He hit a strong return towards Akutsu. "This is for Arai." He hit another return. "I'm not finished. I got hit by rocks too." Echizen set up for Drive A, the move he'd used earlier to bash Akutsu in the face.
"I can counter it after last time," Akutsu said, moving back.
Echizen smirked at him and hit a drop shot, scoring the final point to win the game.
Akutsu strode over to the net where Echizen was standing and grabbed him by the collar. Fuji was afraid for a moment that Ryoma was going to get it this time. The other Seigaku regulars seemed to think so as well.
Echizen said, quite clearly, "I win. You did good though."
Akutsu laughed and let go of Ryoma.
Fuji breathed a sigh of relief, joining his teammates in congratulating Echizen for winning the match. He overheard a passerby muttering something about Akutsu quitting tennis and grinned to himself. This day couldn't get any better.
Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen
Practice was the same as usual though Echizen still hadn't shown up. It was normal for the freshman to be a little late so Fuji wasn't really worried. He hit the ball that had been served to him, his focus faltering a little as he noticed an observer that wasn't part of the tennis club. Mild curiosity ran through him, but it wasn't enough to distract him from practice.
The newcomer stepped onto the court, only to be stopped by Oishi. "Can I help you?"
"I'm Rikkaidai's junior number one ace, Kirihara Akaya."
"Kirihara Akaya. Part of Rikkaidai, the school that won all its matches at the prefectures in an hour. Kantou's number one team," Inui said, mumbling under his breath.
"Why are you here?" Oishi asked.
"I came to do a little spying."
Fuji, along with everyone else on the court, stopped and stared at Kirihara. For a moment, it felt like he was looking at Mizuki, the two were so similar. Upon closer inspection, he saw that Kirihara was a little taller and held himself with a confidence Mizuki just didn't have.
Kirihara didn't seem to notice the tense atmosphere and walked over to Tezuka. "So you're Tezuka, the one my seniors have been talking about. Care for a match?"
"Those who aren't part of the tennis club should leave," Tezuka said, unconcerned.
Fuji was annoyed. Kirihara said he was there to spy but from what he'd seen, it looked more like he was there for Tezuka. It seemed like more and more people were crawling out of the woodwork to challenge their captain.
Kirihara eventually stopped trying to goad Tezuka into playing. That he'd tried at all was both exasperating and amusing. No one could move Tezuka once he'd made a decision; it was the main reason Fuji had never been tempted to turn him into a target. Too much work.
Fuji blinked and the next thing he knew, everyone was lying on the ground. Kirihara's attempt to return the tennis ball Arai had thrown at him for disrespecting Tezuka had ended in disaster for the entire team The ball hit one of the freshmen in the face, causing him to stumble and drop the crate he'd been holding. Tennis balls rolled across the court, causing Eiji to lose his balance and hit a ball towards Kaidoh, who was drinking a cup of coffee. The ball hit him in the back of the head and his drink ended up in his face. Disgusted, Fuji joined the rest for the thirty laps Tezuka ordered. Kirihara had risen in his mind from minor annoyance to potential victim.
After practice Fuji went straight home. He was looking forward to some time alone. As he approached the door to his house, his cell phone rang, making him jump a little in surprise. Pulling it out of his pocket, he frowned at the number across the caller id. It wasn't one he recognized. He flipped it open. "Hello?"
"Fuji. It's Tony."
That explained everything. He switched to English. "Ah. I wondered when I'd be hearing from you." Tony was his American contact, the one he'd set on Rick's trial. He'd met Tony six years ago at one of his dad's business parties during one of the few times he'd been in America. Tony had been neck deep in a really bad situation and Fuji had been bored enough to help him out of it.
"I have two."
"That's better than I hoped."
"Water and dogs."
Fuji hummed in his throat. "Which one will be easier?"
"Easier or cheaper?"
Fuji laughed. "You know money's not an issue." He moved away from the door towards the flower garden behind the house.
"Point. Dogs would be easier, but water may take less time."
"Time isn't an issue. In fact, the longer it takes, the better."
"Dogs it is then," Tony said.
Tony paused. "What would you do?"
"Mm. I asked first."
Tony laughed. "Okay, okay. I'll use three dogs, changing them out randomly. I'll set up near his house and wait for the times he's coming and going. When he's not inside the house, I'll have the dogs chase him down."
"But not injure him."
"Not for a few months."
"Your dogs must be well-trained."
"And when he is injured?"
"I'll withdraw for a few months until he feels safe. Then I'll start the process all over again. Is that what you had in mind?"
Fuji smiled. "It's a flawless plan, Tony. Don't get caught."
Tony snorted. "Give me more credit than that."
"I don't want to bail you out of jail again."
Tony went quiet at the implied threat. "Jesus, Fuji. That was almost five years ago."
"I know." It was the reason Tony was willing to do his dirty work. The money Fuji provided was just a bonus.
"What did this guy do to you anyway?"
Fuji frowned. "It's not like you to ask."
"He seems fragile, that's all."
"He's not. He beat an ex-lover so badly he ended up in the hospital."
Tony let out a low whistle. "You'd never know from looking at him."
"Appearances can be deceiving." Fuji reached down to pick some weeds that had sprouted up between the azaleas.
"You don't have to tell me that. You're a perfect example."
"Mm. How much will you need?"
"How long do you want this project to last?"
"Until he is too terrified to come outside."
"His ex-lover is my current one." Fuji walked around the garden slowly, stopping to pull more weeds as he found them.
"No wonder you want him broken."
"Mm. Did you know I picked up a nickname?"
Tony laughed. "You've had a nickname."
"Ah. I guess people don't like saying it to my face."
"Fuji, anyone who knows you as the bleeder has more sense than to come up and say it to your face. I doubt they want to become your next target."
"I suppose. Now, how much?" Fuji stood, stretching, as he completed the circuit. His sister would be grateful that she wouldn't have to do as much weeding when she got home.
"Total? Probably about twenty grand. This should only take a couple years."
"I'll have it wired."
"Thanks." The phone clicked off.
Fuji walked into his house, humming a little. Sometimes being wealthy came in handy. He retired to his room knowing that somewhere in America Tony was setting into motion the plan to turn Rick's fear of canines into his worst nightmare. Fuji would sleep soundly tonight.
Fuji was silent as he watched the match between Inui and Momo conclude. It was the second day of the inner-school ranking matches. Seeing the play between those two... Fuji didn't have words for it.
Horio and his little gang were suddenly beside him. "Huh? It didn't start yet?" Horio asked, apparently confused by Inui and Momo standing directly across from each other at the net.
"No. It just ended," Fuji said.
"Huh?" The freshmen said in unison.
"Momo lost," Kachiro said "Maybe he hasn't recovered from that sprain," Kachiro said.
"No," Fuji said. "Momo was in good shape against Inui."
"Then how?" Horio asked.
"Maybe Momo was defeated by Inui's awesome play," Fuji said. "In the weeks leading up to Regionals, helping us gather data on our opponents wasn't the only thing he was doing."
"That means he was collecting our data too," Kaidoh said from beside Eiji.
Fuji found himself feeling slightly impressed. He knew Inui was smart but he'd never regarded him as devious before. But taking time to gather information on them while helping them train... well, that was almost something he could see himself doing. Minus the data part of it, of course. For the first time, Fuji wondered if maybe Inui was wearing his own type of mask the way Fuji wore his smile. It was worth considering.
The next ranking match he watched was Oishi and Echizen. The freshman won at 6-3. Now the only match left to watch was the most important one. Tezuka and Inui. After watching Inui and Momo the upcoming match between him and Tezuka was even more intriguing.
The match between Tezuka and Inui started and the game became tied at 1-1. All the data collection Inui had been doing seemed to be working wonders for him. Tezuka hit a drop shot and Fuji sighed inwardly as Inui started detailing the percent chance for Tezuka to make his shots. That habit really was obnoxious. It could potentially be useful against someone who lacked confidence in their skills, but to use it against someone of Tezuka's caliber was a waste of effort.
"You didn't just improve your data analysis," Tezuka said.
Inui pushed his glasses back into place. "I just wanted to come out on top once."
"He's come to the top already," Fuji said.
"It's been awhile since I saw a serious Inui," Eiji said from beside him.
"He practiced at least two times as much as the menu he made for us," Kaidoh said.
"Kaidoh," Inui called. "It's two point two five times to be exact."
The match continued and they were tied again at 3-3. Fuji listened to the speculation that Tezuka could lose. He grinned, knowing that no one would see the difference. Tezuka wasn't serious yet. Fuji was curious if Inui was going to force him to be serious though. It would be the first time someone other than himself or Echizen had seen what Tezuka was truly capable of firsthand.
The game hit 4-3 with Inui leading. Tezuka hit another drop shot which Inui returned. "He really has seen through everything," Fuji said, amused
"Yeah," Eiji agreed.
"This is like-"
"The best of data tennis, eh?" Eiji said, interrupting Fuji.
"With this it's break point," Taka said.
"Deuce," the referee called.
"Oh, this time it's Tezuka's point," Fuji said. He looked at where the ball had hit and Tezuka was serious.
"Now Inui. The game isn't over yet. Let's continue," Tezuka said.
Fuji and Ryoma exchanged glances, thinking the same thing. Tezuka was going to show everyone on the team just what it meant to be captain. Watching the game, Fuji saw the moment Tezuka decided to use that.
"Here it comes," Echizen said.
Fuji spoke to the freshmen, his eyes open as he prepared to watch the next shot. "It'll be good if you watch closely," he said. "This is Tezuka's trump card at its full strength. You won't see it so easily."
Tezuka lowered his arm and hit a drop shot that fell onto Inui's side of the net and didn't bounce, rolling under the net back towards Tezuka. All of the non-regulars stared at the court in stunned silence.
Fuji grinned. The zero shiki drop shot was always fun to watch. "This is Seigaku's captain, Tezuka Kunimitsu," he said. The freshman around him were still in awe. Echizen looked at him and he smiled back. No words were necessary.
On his way home, Fuji found himself thinking about everything he'd seen. Inui was much more than he seemed to be. He gathered data to a point it seemed like an unhealthy obsession but by doing so he always knew his opponent's weakness. Granted, it was only in tennis but if Inui started using it for more than that, he could easily be formidable. The thought didn't bother Fuji. It actually made him slightly hopeful. If there was anyone else around him also shared his passion for finding weakness and exploiting it, it would be Inui. And if Ryoma could accept his sadism as his lover, then surely someone else could accept it as his friend.
Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen
The ranking tournament had ended, but tension was running high amongst the regulars. Momo hadn't been showing up to practice and it had nearly everyone's on edge. Fuji found himself drawn to that tension, because one misplaced word could shatter the people around him. It was almost too much of a temptation, but having Ryoma near him helped him control the impulse to destroy.
Fuji made his way to the roof of the school, where he and Ryoma had been meeting for lunch the last few days. Getting away from the tension was a necessity, but having some time alone with his boyfriend was an added bonus. Opening the door that led to the roof, he found Ryoma sitting cross-legged against the concrete. He moved to him without speaking, folding gracefully onto the ground beside him.
Ryoma glanced up, holding his Fanta so tightly it looked like he was afraid someone might take it from him. "Syuusuke."
"Momo." That one word held a world of meaning.
"He'll be fine."
"Ah." Ryoma didn't sound convinced.
Fuji unwrapped his bento and began eating, weighing his words carefully. "Momo has to come to terms with himself."
Some of the harsh lines of worry faded from Ryoma's face and he leaned back against the concrete, looking thoughtful. "Hmm."
"You noticed it too, didn't you?" Fuji asked, eyes focused intently on the freshman as he waited, certain that Ryoma would grasp the underlying meaning of his words.
"Ah. He played poorly against Inui."
Fuji shook his head. "Not poorly...just not at his best."
Fuji swallowed his rice, moving his head a bit so that he could focus more directly on Ryoma's face. Though he was trying desperately not to show it, the freshman was distraught. That stress took away any romantic thoughts Fuji might have had for their private lunch. "Momo forgot Inui's skill."
Ryoma sighed. "I saw. He's lost games before." He closed his eyes, settling more firmly into the concrete, the solid weight of it a comforting reassurance.
"He's never lost his spot as a Regular before." Fuji was fairly certain Momo had taken the loss so hard because it had blind-sided him to lose his place so easily. If he'd been in the same position, Fuji knew he probably wouldn't be the most rational person around either.
"It seems more than that."
The concern laden in Ryoma's tone forced him to consider the situation more seriously. Momo's loss to Inui due to underestimating the data player had been painful to watch. There was no doubt in Fuji's mind that it was more painful to live through, let alone face up to. "It probably is," Fuji agreed. He finished eating and re-wrapped the container. "It's unlike you to be so concerned."
Ryoma shrugged. "If it was just tennis, I'd be okay."
Fuji frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He is skipping school entirely and he seems to be avoiding me."
Fuji reached out an arm, wrapping it around Ryoma's shoulders and pulling him close before he'd even really considered what he was doing. "He is hurting. I don't think he means to hurt you."
"I know." Ryoma moved in closer to Fuji, seeking the comfort he was being offered. "He's my best friend." He said that like that explained everything. Perhaps it did. Fuji felt slightly out of his depth. The last friend he'd had was Saeki, and considering how that had ended, it felt wrong to try to give advice. Just for a moment, he wondered what it would be like to have a real best friend. Considering the difficulty Ryoma was having accepting Momo's disappearance, he decided that maybe he was better off without one. He wasn't sure friendship was worth that amount of stress. "He needs to fix himself. He's the only one who can do that."
"I know, Syuusuke. It doesn't hurt any less."
Fuji placed a soft kiss on Ryoma's head and drew him into a slightly awkward sideways hug. He didn't speak. The only comfort he could offer was his presence. He hoped it would be enough.
The rest of the school day passed quickly, but the tense atmosphere from the tennis club seemed to follow him no matter where he went. In science, a couple Fuji had never seen so much as look in each other in irritation got into a yelling match so intense it almost turned physical before the teacher intervened. In English, the quietest guy in the class stood up and started berating the teacher during the middle of the lecture. In every class, some sort of disruption occurred. When the school day finally ended, Fuji found himself breathing easier.
Of course, practice probably wasn't going to be much better. But at least there he would understand the reason behind any arguments that broke out. The other ones he'd witnessed today had been ridiculous, inspired only by the tension all the tennis club members were carrying like a second skin. Everyone even just a tiny bit sensitive to that tension had seemed to almost implode in upon themselves or to explode in anger over minor irritants. Fuji shook his head. He was so tired of the tension that he was starting to feel more irritated than amused. If he had known a way to put a stop to it, he would have.
However, the impulse to manipulate and mold the people around him to his will was quickly deteriorating. The people under his protection were the ones hurting. His teammates were like a second family to him and they were putting themselves in danger by stretching the tension so close to a breaking point.
He shook his thoughts aside and strode onto the courts, racquet in hand. There was nothing he or anyone else could do to diffuse it. Like everyone else, he was waiting for Momo to get his act together. Unlike them, he knew Momo just needed a little time to process and then he'd be fine. Fuji let himself get caught up in practice, willing himself into a state of mind where nothing mattered but hitting the tennis ball back across the court to Takashi.
Too soon, he had to move off the court and let someone else take his place. He moved to the side of the court, grabbing his water bottle and drinking as he leaned against the fence, watching the other members. At some point, Inui had taken up residence beside him. If it had been any other day, Fuji might have found himself engaging the other in conversation to test the waters. But it was today, so he didn't.
Eiji came up to them, his normal cheerful self. "Mou, Momo here today either?" He glanced around, pulling at the collar of his shirt. "And I wanted to make fun of him for wearing a normal jersey!" He laughed as he said it.
Fuji smiled. Trust Eiji to know what to say to break the tension.
"Eiji!" Oishi's sharp voice rang across the court. "That's too insensitive!"
Fuji found his eyes drawn to Oishi, feeling slightly shocked. Oishi never yelled, but he especially never yelled at Eiji. The situation with Momo must have been bothering Oishi more than he'd realized.
Eiji started across the court towards Oishi, concerned. The redhead never could hide his emotions. "Oishi, what's wrong?" He broke off and started laughing, slapping a hand lightly across Oishi's shirt. "Oishi, you're wearing your shirt inside out! How embarrassing!" By this point, he was laughing so hard he could hardly breathe.
Oishi flinched, at a loss for words. He lunged at Eiji and hit him, knocking him to the ground, stepping back almost immediately. His instant regret at what he'd done showed in the way he moved to help. "Eiji, I'm sor-
Eiji didn't let him finish. He slapped away Oishi's hand when it was offered, pulling away. "Don't touch me!"
"Now I'm angry! I'm not working with a guy like him!" Eiji yelled.
"The two of you are still scheduled to play doubles two in the upcoming matches, Eiji," Takashi said, stepping forward in an effort to calm him.
"No! Combination canceled. Done deal!"
Oishi's mouth set in a hard line. "If Eiji says so, I guess that's it."
Inui inserted himself very smoothly into the flow of the conversation. So smoothly it made Fuji pay closer attention. "This doesn't have to be a disaster. In fact, it is a good opportunity to test out other pairings," he said.
Eiji seemed to light up at the idea. "Good idea! I'll take Ochibi!"
Ryoma tensed and Fuji hid a chuckle. Everyone knew Ryoma was bad at doubles, but that didn't seem to matter to Eiji. Ryoma took a deep breath, looking around the court to see if anyone could save him from his fate. Seeing no one was going to help him, he sighed. "All right."
Once Echizen was within Eiji's reach, the redhead pulled him into a hug, refusing to let go. If Fuji didn't know Eiji well enough to know that the redhead relied on the reassurance touching and being touched gave him, he might have felt jealous. Instead, he just felt amused. Ryoma was obviously uncomfortable with the amount of time Eiji spent draped over his shoulders, but he didn't pull away or act harshly towards him. In his own way, Echizen was just as sensitive to his friends' personalities as Fuji was. To pull away from Eiji-especially after how he had to be feeling after fighting with Oishi-would just be cruel.
"With Oishi, then...Kaidoh," Inui said.
Kaidoh looked up in surprise, but moved to the side of the court Oishi was standing on.
When the game started, neither Echizen or Kaidoh really contributed to it. Both allowed the other team to score points. Eiji yelled a little at Echizen, who just stood there and let him vent. Fuji had to smile. It was nice to see Ryoma trying to keep himself out of the line of fire for once instead of throwing himself into it headfirst.
Everyone turned when Tezuka came onto the court. "Arguing on the court?" he asked, a touch angrily. Fuji winced. It was hard to put any sort of inflection into Tezuka's tone, but anger was almost impossible. The situation with Momo seemed to be getting to him, too.
"It's not like that," Oishi started, the beginning of an explanation forming on his lips.
Tezuka interrupted him, arms crossed in a way that emphasized his irritation. "Twenty laps, both of you." It seemed the captain had no interest in the fight that had just transpired between the golden pair.
Eiji scowled at Oishi across the court. "I hate you, Oishi!" he said, starting on the twenty laps. Only Eiji could manage to run and look petulant at the same time.
Fuji shook his head in amusement. The fight between Oishi and Eiji was probably the most ridiculous thing he'd seen all day. He turned to where Inui was sitting with his data notebook up against the fence. He walked over. "What kind of data did you get?" he asked. There had to be a reason Inui had insisted on seeing the two halves of the golden pair playing with different partners.
Inui looked up at him. "Se-c-ret."
Fuji smiled. He didn't press, but he was curious what Inui had noticed. Oh well. He would probably see it for himself soon enough. Still, he couldn't help thinking how nice it was to see someone other than himself doing something a bit devious for once. Watching Inui play those two like puppets had strongly reinforced the belief that if anyone on the team-other than Ryoma-could handle his sadistic personality, it was Inui.
Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen
The day Momo returned to practice, an almost visible wave of relief washed over the tennis club. All the petty squabbling ceased; it was proof that Momo was the glue that held the team together. His energetic positivity was contagious and soon even Oishi and Eiji-who'd had one of the worst fights Fuji'd ever seen between them-were laughing and joking as if nothing had happened.
Fuji was glad. The tense, brittle atmosphere of the last few days had driven even his nerves to the breaking point. There was only so much temptation a person could resist. Practice ended on a positive note and he made his way to the locker room. He noted absently that Ryoma hadn't come in with everyone else, which was unusual.
Exiting the locker room, Fuji leaned against the wall of the building to wait for him. The two of them had agreed to get ice cream after practice. As he waited, the rest of the club members trickled in ones and twos out of the locker room, some of them stopping to say a quick farewell which Fuji returned with polite disinterest. Not knowing what was keeping Ryoma was starting to bother him. Soon, everyone but Fuji had left. The only sound he could hear was the faint drip-drip of the leaky water fountain.
Ryoma came into sight right when Fuji straightened to leave. His patience had begun to run out. Ryoma offered no apology as he came up beside him; just offered a quick nod to acknowledge his presence as he made his way into the locker room. He entertained the idea of following Ryoma, but there'd been a look on the freshman's face that bothered him. It wasn't quite the look he'd worn when Rick had called to torment them, but it was very similar.
Eventually, Ryoma came back out. He seemed slightly more composed, but some of his hair was parted the wrong way and the collar of his shirt was turned down only on one side.
Fuji raised an eyebrow at him, not knowing what to say to the sight before him. He'd seen Ryoma angry and scared, but he'd never seen him caught in-between the two.
Ryoma practically launched himself at Fuji, throwing his arms around his waist, his fingers digging almost painfully into Fuji's spine where he'd grabbed him.
As soon as he overcame his shock, Fuji brought his own arms down and wrapped them tightly around Ryoma. The way Ryoma was clinging to him made him think of a drowning man clinging to a life preserve. Fuji adjusted his stance a bit so that he could free one of his hands, bringing it underneath Ryoma's chin and lightly lifting so that he could see the expression in his eyes. A hint of tears glistened there and Fuji felt his heart catch. No one was allowed to make Ryoma cry. "What happened?" he asked softly.
"It's nothing," Ryoma said, moving his face away to snuggle more deeply into Fuji's chest.
Ryoma sighed. "It's nothing. I was practicing a bit too close to the girls' courts, that's all."
Fuji's arms tightened involuntarily. "And?"
"They decided my practice was more interesting than their own."
"Spectators don't bother you," Fuji said mildly. He'd seen Ryoma play tennis in front of hundreds of people and that pressure had never made him act this vulnerable.
"They don't...when they're just watching."
"What do you mean?" Fuji asked sharply.
"They crowded me even when I asked for room to practice and some of them were a little too hands-on."
"They put their hands on you?" His anger was almost a tangible thing now. No one touched Ryoma. He took a few deep breaths, knowing he needed to get himself under control. Anger was not going to let him handle this situation the way it needed to be handled.
"Yes, Syuusuke." Ryoma said softly, almost as if he were afraid to admit it out loud.
If it had been anyone else, the situation might have been amusing. But Ryoma wasn't comfortable with casual contact. The fact that he'd practically leapt into his arms told him just how upset the freshman really was. Ryoma just barely tolerated the casual way Momo and Eiji hung all over him, and those were his friends. He was fine when the two of them were alone and Fuji was marking him; hurting him in some way. But Fuji had noticed Ryoma's nearly imperceptible flinches when he was being gentle. That someone-anyone-could think it was okay to touch Ryoma...that was unacceptable.
Fuji felt like screaming. Or, barring that, marching over to the girls' practice and demanding that they leave Ryoma alone. But he couldn't do that. Not only would it make him seem a bit insane, it would backfire. Besides, Hayashi Sora was the captain of the girls' tennis team. Acting like that around Sora would result in trouble he didn't want. As soon as that name popped into his head, Fuji knew exactly what he had to do. He might not be able to force the girls away from Ryoma the way he wanted, but Sora could. Mind made up, he stepped away from Ryoma and took his hand, tugging him gently in the direction of the girls' courts.
"The girls' practice doesn't end for another half hour, right?" Fuji felt a sense of calm envelop him, the way it always did when he'd decided on a course of action.
"Yeah, but wh-" Ryoma fell silent at the intense look in Fuji's eyes, suppressing a shiver. He was glad that focused determination wasn't directed at him. Fuji only ever wore that look when he was truly, truly angry.
Fuji led Ryoma over to the girls' courts and they stopped as close to the fence as they could without physically leaning on it. Ryoma's hand clenched around his and Fuji glanced around to see that they'd drawn a bit of a crowd. He took a step back and pulled Ryoma in front of him, pressing himself tightly around the freshman and putting them as close to the fence as he dared, arms once again wrapped around Ryoma.
The girls started trickling out of the court, gathering around them outside of the fence. One reached out to touch Ryoma's arm and Fuji moved his own down to deflect her before she could make contact. At the insulted look she gave him, Fuji shrugged, offering no explanation. He owed her nothing. He kept his eyes focused intently on the court, watching Sora practice with the regulars, moving every so often to deflect wandering hands reaching out to touch Ryoma.
Eventually, Ryoma forgot about the girls who kept reaching for him and relaxed in Fuji's arms. The continuous, fluid motion Fuji had adopted to keep the girls away from him made him feel safe and secure, despite the growing crowd.
Fuji may have stopped the girls from frisking Ryoma, but he couldn't do that and also stop them from touching him. He felt hands touch his back and occasionally someone got a bit too bold and grabbed his ass. He scowled at them, but they didn't pay much attention. It was hard to look threatening in such a situation. He finally managed to catch Sora's eye and the girl strode over to them, stopping to look at them through the fence.
Like Tezuka, she had a commanding presence, and all the girls behind Fuji fell silent at her approach, moving back a respectable distance from the two male tennis players. Wavy black hair spilled to her shoulders, framing her face. Her cheekbones were prominent, helping to highlight the deep set of her dark green eyes. There was a shadow in those eyes; the same type of shadow that lurked in Fuji's. She turned the full intensity of that gaze on him and Fuji felt compelled to answer that intensity with his own.
"Fuji," she said. She packed meaning into that one word like it was the last one she'd ever say. At one time, she was asking him why he was interrupting her practice, what Ryoma was doing with him and who he was, and she was also asking if he needed help or if he was trying to invite trouble. She was the only person Fuji knew who could impart that many questions with just the tone of voice she used and make herself understood.
Fuji never dropped her gaze, because to do that would be inviting Sora to play and Fuji's taste in games was very different from hers. He preferred to contract others to carry out his schemes. Sora preferred to do everything herself. It made her ruthless. "Sora," he said, letting her know with the use of her first name that he was there for business. Most people wouldn't use their first names as code words, but she hated that name with a passion; to the point not even her family called it to her face. Fuji had learned quickly. She'd been part of the team Tony had put together when everything had fallen apart in America. Fuji had been the mastermind behind the operation and had smoothed things over where legalities came into question. Sora had taken care of the things Fuji had been unable to smooth out. He had no intention of alienating anyone more dangerous than him.
Sora didn't yell at him for using her first name, which seemed to shock the girls surrounding them. There was some excited murmuring in the crowd, but she took care of it. "Twenty laps," she said. "Go now." There were a few groans of protest, but everyone did as she'd requested. Sora moved off the court, motioning for Fuji to follow her.
Fuji and Ryoma moved to where she was standing. She was a good fifteen feet or so out of the running path of the girls and Fuji felt himself relax a bit, knowing that no one would interfere with Sora when she was busy. Ryoma stood beside him, clutching his hand almost painfully. Fuji ignored the pain. There was nothing he could do about Ryoma's current discomfort.
"Why are you here, Syuusuke?" she asked abruptly.
"Because your girls can't keep their hands to themselves."
She raised an eyebrow. "I've never known you to be bothered by that."
"I'm not." He motioned to Ryoma. "He is."
Fuji's eyes flashed and he struggled to contain his anger. Getting angry right now was a waste of time. Not to mention a bad idea. "He doesn't like being touched. Your girls cornered him and practically forced themselves on him."
Sora's eyes narrowed and she slid to stand in front of Ryoma. Careful not to touch him, she bent down until she was on eye level with the freshman. "Is this true?" she asked.
Fuji had to fight to keep himself from jerking Ryoma back out of Sora's reach. He didn't want to offend her. They were the only two people at Seigaku with the ties the other might need. They weren't friends. They were barely acquaintances. If Fuji had to pick a term, he'd say they were business peers, but that was as far as it went.
Ryoma almost recoiled from the harsh intensity of her green eyes, lowering his head almost instinctively in submission. She was dangerous. Probably more so than Syuusuke and that thought frightened him; Syuusuke was just this side of ruthless. He swallowed. "It's true," he said softly, inching slightly closer to the man at his side. If Fuji noticed his sudden fear, he was polite enough not to say anything.
Sora straightened up, turning that harsh look to Fuji. "Who is he to you?"
"He's my lover."
"Hm. I never took you for a romantic, Syuusuke."
Fuji smiled a bit at that, responding to the gentle teasing in her tone. "He's a masochist."
"Hey!" Ryoma objected out of principle. He didn't want the whole world knowing that.
"A masochist. Sounds perfect for you. Still, I never expected you to take a lover. Considering everything we do."
"Mm. Ryoma caught me by surprise."
"Does he know?" she asked.
"That I'm a sadist, yes."
She gave him a look.
He sighed. "Not everything. Not yet."
Ryoma turned thoughtful eyes on them both, his curiosity overriding the fear Sora had inspired in him. "I'm still standing here, you know."
"I'm well aware of that," Fuji said, turning cool eyes towards him.
Ryoma swallowed and fell silent. That was the look Fuji got when he was within an inch of meting out punishment. He was curious, but he wasn't that curious.
Sora made a disgusted noise. "Syuusuke, you know I don't like talking in front of people who don't know everything."
"I'll tell him tonight."
"You're not worried?" She tilted her head.
"Not at all."
Sora gave Ryoma an assessing look. "All right," she said. "What do you want?"
"I want everyone to keep their hands to themselves."
Sora sighed. "Do you understand the price of what you're asking?"
"I wouldn't ask if I didn't."
Sora frowned and turned to some of the girls who were struggling to keep going on the twenty laps she'd assigned. She stalked over to them and said a few words that Fuji couldn't make out, but by the time she'd returned the girls were running again. Not as fast as before, of course, but they were running.
"Then I'll put a hands-off out for him." She leaned in close to Ryoma, a slight edge of promised pain underlying her words. "If anyone-and I mean anyone-touches you without your consent for any reason, tell Syuusuke. Understand?"
Ryoma's eyes widened and he clutched Fuji's hand so hard Fuji nearly hissed with the pain of it.
"Answer her, Ryoma," Fuji said.
Ryoma swallowed hard. "I understand," he said.
Sora straightened with a smile. "Good. Now, Syuusuke-"
Fuji had to force his own nerves down. Dealing with Sora was always difficult. "I'll pay you back in full when you need my services. You have my word."
"You left that open-ended." The slight lift of her voice indicated surprise.
Fuji nodded. "I can't put a time limit on this, Sora. He's too important."
Sora nodded her understanding, then looked towards the girls, who were finishing up their last laps. "I've gotta get back." She walked away, not sparing them a second glance.
Fuji began walking back towards the boys' courts, since they'd have to pass them to exit the school grounds. There was no doubt in his mind that, come morning, no one would touch Ryoma. Sora's connections might have been frightening, if he didn't have a network to rival hers.
"Who was that?" Ryoma asked.
"I didn't mean her name."
"I'll explain that later."
"There are some things not meant for public discussion," Fuji said.
"Che." Ryoma kicked a pebble that found its way into his path. "She seemed...scary." It was like he had to force the last word out, like he hated the idea he was forced to admit that someone was frightening.
Ryoma gave him a sidelong look, disbelief written across his face.
"Ryoma, I'm good at what I do, but there's always someone better out there."
"I take it we're not talking about tennis," Ryoma remarked dryly.
Fuji laughed. "No. No we're not."
Ryoma grew quiet. "You didn't have to do that."
"Hm? Do what?"
"Put yourself at risk to keep me safe."
Fuji gave him a quick kiss on the lips. "I'm not in as much danger as you think."
"I don't believe you. She's not safe."
Fuji laughed again. "No, she's not. But she's smart. She knows what my talents are and she won't ask me to do something I can't. It's a fair trade."
"I still don't like it."
Fuji shrugged. "You don't have to."
Fuji started to say something in response, but fell silent when the door to the locker room opened and Inui stepped out. He frowned at the data player. "I thought you already left."
"I did. I came back to get this." Inui held up his tennis bag.
"It's a bit unusual for you to forget your stuff," Fuji said.
"I got caught up in an experiment."
Ryoma wrinkled his nose. "Another juice?"
Inui nodded. "Well then. I'll be going."
"Actually, we're going to get ice cream. Would you like to come with us?" Fuji asked. He knew Ryoma wouldn't mind. Both of them could use a little male company after dealing with Sora.
Inui looked from Ryoma to Fuji. "I wouldn't want to impose."
"You aren't imposing," Fuji said.
"Che. Do what you want," Ryoma said.
As they walked towards the ice cream shop, Inui began asking questions. It was just his personality, so Fuji couldn't really hold it against him. "How long have the two of you been a couple?"
Fuji glanced down at where he was holding Ryoma's hand; he had all but forgotten they were attached. "A few weeks," he said.
"Odd. I usually notice these things much sooner."
Fuji raised an eyebrow at that. "I wasn't aware you kept up on our personal data." They'd come to a stop, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn so they could walk across the street.
"I do. It helps me understand the mental tendencies you have during tennis." Inui focused on Fuji. "But you continue to elude me."
Ryoma spoke before Fuji could formulate a response. "He's a sadist." He smirked triumphantly at Fuji. After Fuji had announced his masochism to Sora, it was only fair to turn the tables.
Fuji had to fight back panic as he scowled at Ryoma for revealing him so suddenly. He hadn't planned to be so abrupt. He made a mental note to punish him later; he didn't like being exposed.
Inui looked thoughtful as he studied Fuji. "Is that true?" he asked, sounding mildly curious.
Fuji suddenly felt ridiculous for being so worried. They crossed the street. "It's true."
"That explains it."
"There is an unspoken agreement that you use counter tennis to be kind, since it is not built on attack. But if you look further, it reflects sadism because you take an opponent's talent and turn it against them. The more skilled they are, the more effective your counter tennis becomes."
Fuji blinked. "I never thought of it like that."
"Yes, well. Most people don't evaluate their own psyche."
"I hate to interrupt this fascinating conversation," Ryoma drawled, "but we just passed the ice cream shop."
Fuji flushed and turned back. Ryoma was right; the conversation with Inui could wait until after they'd had their ice cream. After the day they'd had, ice cream sounded just about perfect.
Chapter 19: Chapter Nineteen
Fuji did his best to ignore the intense stare Inui was giving him, not liking the feeling he got when someone was trying so hard to read him. He focused his attention on eating the strawberry ice cream he'd ordered, clenching Ryoma's hand so tightly under the table he was sure he was leaving moon-shaped indents behind.
Ryoma was eating chocolate ice cream, trying to ignore the moment Fuji started digging his nails into the back of his hand. It was only slightly painful and he wondered idly if he could somehow find a way to get Fuji to press down harder. He discarded the idea the moment he realized it would be a bit rude to do so in front of Inui.
Inui had ordered aojiru ice cream and Fuji had to suppress a shudder. Inui's juices were good because they were spicy. Aojiru, on the other hand, was one of the bitterest drinks Fuji'd ever tasted. It just wasn't right that it was an ice cream flavor.
"How can you eat that?" Ryoma asked, nose wrinkling in displeasure.
Inui glanced at him. "It's healthy."
"I don't care how healthy it is. You couldn't pay me to eat that."
Inui shrugged, digging in his bowl for another spoonful.
Fuji considered Ryoma. He had yet to pay him back for the trick outside, exposing him so thoroughly to Inui without thinking through the consequences it might have had. Still, what he was envisioning seemed slightly cruel. With a mental shrug, he picked up his spoon. "Inui, might I have a bite?"
Inui titled his head. "Sure." He pushed the bowl towards Fuji.
Fuji dipped his spoon into the wheat-colored ice cream, bringing up a good-sized chunk. He turned to Ryoma, smiling.
Ryoma's eyes widened as he took in the look on Fuji's face. He'd learned to read what was behind that smile in the last few weeks. Right now, he wanted to be as far away from Fuji as he could get. His arms tensed against the bench they were sitting on. "No," he said, his voice coming out strangled. There was nothing he wanted to do less than put that ice cream in his mouth.
Fuji scooted as close to Ryoma as he was physically able, leaning down to whisper in his ear. "It's this bite or I'll order a bowl of it for you to enjoy."
Ryoma swallowed hard. He'd learned the hard way that refusing the first option Fuji gave him when it came to punishment was always a bad idea. Even in the cases where the second seemed less severe than the first, it was only an illusion. He ducked his head in submission. Better to get this over with and only have to suffer through a spoonful than argue and have to deal with an entire bowl.
Fuji handed Ryoma his spoon, watching as the freshman put it in his mouth. Ryoma's eyes closed and he shuddered in disgust, his lips twisting into a grimace. For a moment, Fuji was almost certain he was going to spit it out, but he didn't. Ryoma swallowed it and began shoveling his chocolate ice cream into his mouth, trying to eradicate the aftertaste of the aojiru. Fuji shook his head in amusement and stole the spoon Ryoma had originally been using. In his haste to get rid of the taste, Ryoma had inadvertently kept Fuji's spoon for his own use.
Inui watched the exchange without speaking, but once it was over, his silence ended with it. "You said no one could pay you to eat this," he said to Ryoma, tapping the side of his bowl.
Ryoma didn't respond until he'd devoured eery last bite of the chocolate in front of him. "They couldn't. That stuff is disgusting."
"You ate a spoonful of your own volition," Inui said, his disbelief almost palpable.
"Che. I didn't have a choice," Ryoma said.
Inui looked from Fuji to Ryoma and back. After a few minutes of intense studying, he sighed. "I don't understand."
Fuji smiled. He always felt calmer after he'd done something to remind Ryoma that he was in charge. "Our relationship is non-traditional."
"I believe we've already established that I'm a sadist," Fuji said, coming to the end of his own bowl. He sighed wistfully down at it.
"We have," Inui said.
"Ryoma's a masochist."
Ryoma didn't protest at the announcement this time. The bitter taste of the aojiru was still fresh in his mind. There was no way he was giving Fuji ammunition right now.
Inui pushed his glasses up on his face. "I haven't seen evidence of that in his tennis."
Ryoma snorted. "Injuries aren't an enjoyable type of pain."
"He doesn't play to injure himself, but surely you've noticed his tenacity when he's injured," Fuji said.
"Ah. Like with the eye."
Fuji nodded. His phone vibrated in his pocket, which made him frown. Who could possibly be calling him? He pulled it out and almost blanched at the number on the caller id. It was absurd to think that he could be needed this soon. "Hello?" he said, flipping it open.
"Fuji. My dog ran away," Sora said.
Fuji nearly flinched at the news, but turned his panic into pain as he dug his nails harder into Ryoma's skin. The freshman gave a nearly inaudible yelp. "When?"
"Last night. I think he may have come into your neighborhood."
Fuji fought the urge to groan. Tony had gotten caught. Sora didn't have a dog. She didn't own any pets, as far as he knew. The news Tony was in jail was bad enough, but knowing that someone could potentially be following him around was worse. "I'll look around. I'll call you if I see him."
He flipped the phone shut. Telling Ryoma anything was going to have to wait until he got this situation sorted out. Tony had promised not to get caught and the man almost never failed to keep his promises. So something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. A frizzle of fear passed through him, but he stifled it quickly. "I have to go," he said, standing up abruptly.
Ryoma looked up at him. There was a tense set to Fuji's shoulders that he'd never seen before. He didn't know or understand why Fuji was upset, and it bothered him more than he could put into words. "I'll come with you," he said, standing up alongside him.
Fuji considered telling Ryoma that it wasn't safe for him, that it was better that he go home to his father, but something in him just wouldn't let him do it. He couldn't bear the thought of hurting Ryoma by declining the unconditional support he was offering. He wasn't sure he would be able to handle everything that was going on without some sort of support himself. Fuji didn't trust himself to speak, so he nodded once.
Inui was the only one still seated at the table. "I take it something's come up?"
Fuji composed himself. He couldn't fall apart in front of Inui. "My friend lost her dog. She thinks it may have wandered into my neighborhood."
Inui's face softened. "I hope you find him."
"Me too." Fuji walked briskly out of the shop, not bothering to see if Ryoma was following him. Once they'd walked a short distance, he fished his phone out and dialed his father's emergency number.
"Syuusuke, what do I owe this pleasure?"
Fuji couldn't afford to waste time on niceties. "Father, Sora seems to have misplaced her dog and thinks he may be running around in our neighborhood."
"You called me to talk to be about a dog." His father's voice was flat with disbelief.
Fuji fought to keep himself from yelling. He knew it was a necessary act, but the panic thrumming inside him didn't seem inclined to care. He took a deep breath, simultaneously gripping Ryoma's arm hard enough that there were sure to be bruises in the morning. "He got loose last night but no one seems to know how he slipped his leash. I was hoping you might have some ideas so we can prevent it from happening again."
His father sighed. "I have more important things to worry about than a runaway dog." He paused. "I'll call you if I think of anything."
Fuji frowned as the phone clicked of. His father didn't know why Tony was in jail. That didn't surprise him, considering Tony had nothing to do with his dad. The fact that the entire conversation with his father had been conducted in code was what worried him. What could possibly be going on to make his father act cautiously on a secured line? Ryoma tugged on his shirt, drawing him away from his thoughts. "Hm?"
"Not that I mind," Ryoma said, "but you're starting to draw blood."
Fuji peered down at where his nails had embedded themselves in Ryoma's skin. He was right; there were small beads of blood pooling at his fingertips. Carefully, he relaxed his fingers. Once he'd done that, he slung his tennis bag off his shoulder and started rummaging through it in the middle of the sidewalk. If his father was being careful, it meant he'd been bugged and there was a very high possibility someone had also bugged Fuji. Especially if they'd worked out any connection between him and Tony. The thought made him dig harder. He worried the seams of the bag once it was empty, checking to make sure no one had ripped them open and sewn in a bug
He sat back on his heels with a sigh of relief. No bugs. He packed everything back into the bag, ignoring the disgruntled look on Ryoma's face. No doubt the freshman thought he was having some sort of mental breakdown. Come to think of it, he probably was. He spotted a convenience store on the corner and began walking, noting that Ryoma was following him out of his peripheral vision. Once inside, he made his way to the restroom and shut himself inside, reassured by the knowledge Ryoma was waiting right outside. Ignoring his distaste for public restrooms, he stripped himself of all of his clothing and checked for bugs there as well as within his phone. Nothing.
When he'd finished, he pulled open the door and grabbed Ryoma's arm, pulling the freshman inside the bathroom with him. Ryoma raised an eyebrow at him, then glanced disdainfully around the room they were standing in. Fuji agreed with the sentiment, but he couldn't afford to be delicate right now. "Take your clothes off."
"In this dump? You've got to be-"
Fuji pressed himself against Ryoma's body, forcing the freshman against the door. He leaned in close, each of his hands on the door beside Ryoma's shoulders. "Take them off or I will rip them off you."
Ryoma fought to keep himself still as he stared at Fuji. The look in his boyfriend's eyes was wild, almost feral. With a jolt, he realized that Fuji was afraid. "Che. Fine," he said, doing his best not to add to whatever had Fuji so spooked.
Fuji moved away, allowing Ryoma to undress. Once the freshman was finished, he snatched the clothes out of Ryoma's hand and combed over them with the same intense scrutiny he'd used while going over his own. They were clean. He handed them back, too distraught to appreciate the sight of Ryoma standing naked before him. Fuji spotted Ryoma's tennis bag and up-ended it on the floor, rifling through it almost frantically. When it came up clean, he fell boneless against the wall, dizzy with relief..
"Care to tell me what all that was about?" Ryoma asked, once again fully clothed.
Fuji considered him seriously. This was probably the only chance he would get in the next little while to tell him the truth. "Yeah. I'll tell you."
"I'm listening," Ryoma said, tapping a foot impatiently.
Fuji took a deep breath. It was now or never. "My father is an executive of a Fortune 500 company in America."
"I know that."
"He's also a black market dealer."
Ryoma's face lit up the way it did when he'd seen someone use a tennis technique he'd never seen before. "Oh? What kind?"
"Stolen goods, mostly electronics," Fuji said. He hadn't expected Ryoma to be intrigued by the idea. Disgusted, maybe.
"So you're part of the black market, too."
"Mm. Not as a dealer, though."
Ryoma raised an eyebrow. "Then what do you do?"
"I'm an information specialist and a contractor." Fuji had to fight to keep the fear out of his voice. If Ryoma knew what he'd ordered done to Rick, surely he would leave. There was almost no doubt in his mind about that, despite the fact he'd told Sora he was confident in Ryoma's ability to handle the truth.
"What does a black market contractor do?"
"I plan operations and hire people to carry them out," Fuji said flatly.
"You don't want to know what kinds of operations?"
Fuji blinked up at him. "You're okay with not knowing?"
Ryoma shrugged. "Isn't it safer for me to not know?"
Fuji laughed. He stood and drew Ryoma into a tight hug, feeling a bit like Christmas had come early. He had expected questions and maybe even a tantrum, but this...this simple acceptance was so much more than he'd ever dreamed.
"So did your friend really lose a dog?" Ryoma asked.
Fuji shook his head no. "Someone I hired is in trouble."
"That certainly explains all of this," Ryoma said, motioning to the bathroom they were still standing in.
Fuji laughed a little. "I had to make sure we weren't bugged."
Ryoma scowled. "I thought that only happened in spy movies."
"Welcome to my life," Fuji said, smirking.
Ryoma rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He exited the bathroom, Fuji following close behind him. As he went to step out of the door of the store, he said, "If it's dangerous to stay at your place right now, you should just stay with me."
Fuji titled his head as he considered the offer. "I'm not sure your dad will approve."
"I really don't care."
That stopped Ryoma in his tracks. "Che. He's just a perverted monk. But if it bothers you so much, you can ask him when we get to my place."
Fuji set his hand on Ryoma's shoulder. "And if he says no?"
Ryoma shrugged. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."
Fuji smiled. Maybe there was still something salvageable in all this mess. At least Inui hadn't freaked on him. That was a good sign, right? He sighed. Getting Tony out of jail for a second time was going to be more trouble than it was worth. But he was the one who'd contracted him and Fuji couldn't just let Tony hang himself in good faith. He just couldn't be that ruthless.
Chapter 20: Chapter Twenty
Fuji woke to the sound of his cell phone ringing. Blearily, he fumbled towards the right side of the bed, reaching for the nightstand. His hand found only air, startling him into remembering that he was at Ryoma's house. He shifted his weight to the other side, squinting against the harsh red numbers on Ryoma's digital clock, swearing under his breath when he saw that it was a quarter after three in the morning. Once his eyes had adjusted enough for him to make out his phone, he reached over Ryoma and grabbed it. With a sigh, he flipped it open, doing his best to be quiet so that he wouldn't wake Ryoma. "Hello?"
"Father. It's three fifteen in the morning."
"I know. I'd apologize for waking you, but this is the only time I'll be able to talk openly with you for the next few weeks."
Fuji was instantly alert. "What happened?"
His father laughed. "Nothing too serious. My schedule's just really full. I've had to take over for a couple associates."
"Which ones?" Fuji had to know if they were part of his father's company or if they were black market.
"Browning and Taylor."
Those were black market names. Browning was a contract assassin. Taylor was a weapons dealer. Both were the best at what they did. As far as Fuji knew, his father had never been involved with either assassination or weapons dealing, so those names rang every alarm bell in his head. "How heated are things getting over there?"
"Nothing I can't handle."
Fuji wasn't so sure about that, but he didn't press. While he generally preferred having more information rather than less, this situation struck him as one it'd be better for him to have as little information about as possible. His father was treading in some pretty dangerous waters. "Did you find anything?"
"You didn't give me much to work with, Syuusuke."
His father sighed. "Tony Summers has been charged with attempted murder."
Fuji felt his heart seize in his chest. "What?" he all but screamed, remembering at the last second that Ryoma was sleeping less than a foot away from him.
"The intel I have says that he was seen ordering a canine to kill Rick Matthews and that only the presence of a police officer nearby prevented his death. Rick Matthews is currently in intensive care and his chance of survival is low."
The only thing Fuji could think as he sat there in the bed, running his father's words through his head, was that he hadn't wanted to kill Rick. His father cleared his throat, telling him the silence on the phone had stretched to an uncomfortable length. "Tony wasn't supposed to go that far."
"I know. You don't hire killers."
Fuji laughed shakily at that, because it was either laugh or scream. "Can you do anything about it?"
"It's already being dealt with."
"Syuusuke." There was a note of warning in his tone.
"Get Tony under control or next time it may be Hayashi Sayuri you have to deal with."
Fuji drew in a sharp intake of air. Hayashi Sayuri was Sora's aunt and the most deadly contract assassin in two countries. There was nothing he wouldn't do to keep himself off of her radar. It was bad enough having to deal with Sora. "I'll handle Tony."
"See that you do."
"I'm going back to sleep now."
"Mm. Goodnight, Syuusuke."
"Night." He clicked the phone off and returned it to the nightstand. Sliding under the covers, he curled an arm around Ryoma's waist, drawing the freshman tightly against him. Just having him to hold calmed Fuji's nerves considerably and he fell asleep knowing that everything would work itself out, one way or another.
Waking up next to Ryoma was even better than falling asleep beside him. In the soft morning light, Fuji put his weight on his elbow and just watched Ryoma's face as he slept. The perpetual smirk on his face had softened to something almost vulnerable and Fuji reached out to trail a hand down the side of his face, careful to keep his touch light.
Ryoma jerked awake, suddenly finding himself staring into Syuusuke's eyes. There was a tenderness there he'd never seen before and he froze, uncertain what that gentleness meant.
Fuji smiled at him. "Morning, Ryoma."
Fuji bent down over him, drawing him into a gentle kiss. Part of him wanted to press down harder, make it hurt; he suppressed that. Right now, all he wanted was to show Ryoma how much his very presence meant to him. He ran his tongue over Ryoma's lips until they parted and he took advantage of that, feeling the way Ryoma's tenseness just melted away. He drew back, smiling at the flustered expression Ryoma gave him.
Fuji stood and made his way to the bathroom to take a shower. He wanted to do a lot more than kiss, but they'd promised Nanjiroh to keep things chaste while in his house. Fuji didn't want to give Ryoma's father a legitimate reason to dislike him, even if his hormones disagreed.
Breakfast was an awkward affair. Nanjiroh seemed disinclined to say anything to Fuji with Nanako around and Fuji had no idea what to say to Ryoma's dad. All he knew about the man was that he was a retired pro tennis player. If pressed, he could admit he was slightly curious as to why Nanjiroh had retired, but asking would be disrespectful. So he ate in silence, doing his best to ignore his discomfort.
Fuji held Ryoma's hand as they walked towards Seigaku. It always amazed Fuji just a little bit at how well their hands fit together.
"Who called at three in the morning?" Ryoma asked.
Fuji glanced down. "You were awake?"
"It was my father."
"What did he want?" Ryoma pulled his cap to the side to focus better on Fuji's face.
Fuji smiled at him. "I thought you said you were okay with not knowing."
"There was a bit of a problem yesterday. He was just telling me it had been dealt with."
"Yesterday was only a bit of a problem?" Ryoma asked, raising an eyebrow in disbelief.
"I'd hate to see a real problem."
Ryoma fell silent after that and Fuji felt grateful. He didn't really want to talk about yesterday's problems. They arrived at Seigaku just in time for the beginning of practice and Fuji threw himself into it, willing himself to get lost in the repetitive swing of his racquet and forget about the situation with Tony and Rick, if only for a short while.
Before practice ended, it was announced that their next opponent would by Hyotei and Fuji felt his interest spike. If he remembered correctly, Yuuta had played someone named Jirou, losing the match in record time, something Fuji found humiliating. He would have to talk to Tezuka about playing him. Jirou hadn't injured his brother, so he didn't feel the need to go after him the way he'd gone after Mizuki, but he was curious enough to want to play a match.
At lunch, he made his way to the roof. Eating with Ryoma had become a habit. It was nice just to sit in silence with the one person in his life that didn't look at him with either fear or complete oblivion. Knowing that Ryoma knew exactly who and what he was, Fuji found everything easier to manage. They sat with their legs pressed against one another's, shoulders together. Fuji sat on Ryoma's right so that they wouldn't bump elbows as they ate, his arm pressed into the concrete where he had it wrapped around the freshman's waist.
"It's good we got Hyotei," Ryoma said.
"I want to play a match with their monkey king," Ryoma said.
Fuji raised an eyebrow. "Against Atobe?"
"I doubt you'll get to this match. Tezuka feels like he owes him for last year."
"Che." Ryoma took a bite of his sandwich. "It doesn't matter if it's official or not. I will play him."
Fuji shrugged. His cell phone rang. He frowned and set his bento down, pulling it out of his pocket. "Hello?"
"Tony," he said, voice hard.
There was a long pause before Tony spoke again. "Rick's going to live."
"For what it's worth, I never meant for things to get so out of hand."
Fuji's arm tightened around Ryoma's waist and he fought to control his temper. "I never gave you permission to kill." Ryoma tensed against his arm for a moment before relaxing. He wondered for a brief second if Ryoma had been completely honest with him, then shook it away. Now wasn't the time.
"I'll have everything arranged, but I want you in Japan tomorrow so I can keep an eye on you." All that came across the line for a solid minute or so was the sound of Tony's heavy breathing. He waited.
"Fuji. You know I don't want to be anywhere near you."
Fuji smiled dangerously, wishing Tony was there in person for him to direct it at. "Then it's too bad you screwed up, isn't it?"
"I could just not show up."
"My father has told me I can contact Hayashi Sayuri." Another long silence fell. Fuji stretched as much as he was able, the position he was in starting to become uncomfortable.
Fuji smiled. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
"You bastard. You know you will."
Fuji's voice grew hard. "I'd watch yourself, Tony. You're on a thin enough line as it is."
Tony's breathing grew ragged. "Right. Sorry. Tomorrow." The phone clicked off.
Ryoma looked up at Fuji as he put his cell phone away. "I heard that entire conversation."
Fuji shrugged. He hadn't tried to be secretive.
"What did he mean that Rick's going to live?" Ryoma asked, face blank.
"Tony's the one I hired to go after Rick. He got too aggressive."
Ryoma quirked an eyebrow at him. "I should probably care about that."
Fuji blinked. "Why don't you?"
It was Ryoma's turn to shrug. He bunched up the wrapper his sandwich had come in. "I just can't find it in me. Rick hurt me. Tony hurt him. Doesn't seem like there's much to get upset over."
That made Fuji smile. He used his free hand to close the distance between them and captured Ryoma's lips with his own. He brought his other arm up from behind Ryoma to tangle in his hair and forced his head back sharply. He twisted to put his right leg over Ryoma's, holding the freshman down as he kissed. Unlike the gentleness of the morning, he was ruthless. He bore down with a bruising intensity, biting down just enough to cause pain but not enough to draw blood, before forcing his tongue past Ryoma's lips.
Fuji drew back, hand still tangled in Ryoma's hair. "I love you," he said His eyes widened with surprise as the words left his mouth. He didn't take them back, though, because he realized in that moment that it was true. He flushed, but didn't look away from Ryoma, whose eyes had gone as wide as his own.
Ryoma wanted more than anything to duck his head, to hide his feelings from Fuji, but he was being pinned down. He had to confront them and Fuji along with them. Ever since Fuji had stood up against Rick for him, Ryoma had fallen in love. But he had never expected to be the first one to hear it. Fuji was hard and unyielding and Ryoma had assumed he'd look at love as a weakness. But the way Fuji was looking at him...Ryoma licked his lips. "I love you too, Syuusuke." The smile that spread across Fuji's face was one of pure bliss and Ryoma felt dazed, thinking I did that. I put that smile there.
Fuji unwound himself from Ryoma, pulling the freshman to his feet as he stood. Tony was coming to Japan and would be a pain in the ass to deal with, but that was okay, because he was with Ryoma and together they could get through anything.
The two of them walked off the roof together, separating at the bottom of the stairs to go to their respective classes. Fuji stopped at the doorway where Tezuka was waiting for him. The captain handed him a textbook. He raised an eyebrow.
"You forgot it at practice," Tezuka said.
"Ah. Thanks," Fuji said. Tezuka turned to leave and he remembered what he'd wanted to ask that morning when he'd heard that Hyotei was their next opponent. "Has Coach Ryuzaki determined the line up yet?"
Tezuka shook his head. "Not yet."
"I'd really like to play against the one who beat Yuuta. Jirou, wasn't it?"
Tezuka gave him cool eyes. "Your brother is really important to you, isn't he?"
Fuji smiled politely at him, not saying anything to confirm or deny it. His family business was his own and he knew Tezuka well enough to know that the captain wouldn't press him.
"I'll talk to the coach," Tezuka said.
Fuji stepped into the classroom and took his seat. All he had to do now was get through the rest of the day.
Chapter 21: Chapter Twenty-One
Fuji walked toward the park Tony had asked to meet him at, Ryoma right beside him. He'd suggested that the freshman go home or go hang out with Momo, but Ryoma had just given him a look. Since Fuji hadn't really felt the need to leave Ryoma behind, he'd shrugged and allowed him to follow.
As they walked, Fuji had time to think about everything that had happened. He'd hired Tony to scare Rick, to hurt him a little, not to almost kill him. What had pressed Tony into giving the kill command? He knew Tony had trouble controlling his blood-lust sometimes, but he was contracted as an assassin often enough that he shouldn't have been tempted by Rick. At the same time, Tony had seemed a bit more interested in the target than normal. He'd even asked Fuji what Rick had done, which was incredibly unusual for him. Fuji had assumed that Tony believed Rick to be too soft, too innocent, but maybe he'd gotten it backwards. Maybe the reason for Tony's curiosity was that Rick had intrigued him.
Fuji sighed. If he'd known that Tony was going to react so violently toward Rick, he would have put someone else in his place. Tony wouldn't fuck with him, because Fuji scared him, but Fuji had been foolish to think Tony could restrain frowned. He didn't want Tony anywhere near Ryoma because he was afraid Tony might view him as a potential target. But Fuji knew better than to hide his lover away; that would only pique Tony's curiosity. For the first time, he wondered if bringing Tony to Japan had been a mistake. He shook his head to clear it; he just had to trust that Tony's fear of him would keep him away from Ryoma.
"Why are we meeting him at the park?" Ryoma asked.
The sound of his voice startled Fuji and he nearly missed a step, but didn't. Fuji reached out a hand and grabbed Ryoma's; his hand was warm and solid. Neither one of them suffered from sweaty palms, which Fuji was grateful for. "He thinks a public area is safe."
Ryoma frowned up at him. "Safe? Safe from what?"
The smile that came over Fuji's face then was a bit feral. "From me."
Ryoma pushed his cap to the side so he could get a better look at Fuji's face. "Hmm. Why is he afraid of you?"
"I thought you didn't want to know details about my life," Fuji said, gently teasing.
Ryoma curled his lip into a pout, managing the look for all of about two seconds before sighing. When he spoke, his tone was serious. "I don't need to know the really deep stuff when it doesn't concern me. But you brought Tony here and I need to know enough about him to keep myself safe."
Fuji gave him a sidelong glance. "What makes you think you won't be safe?"
Ryoma stared at him blankly. "He nearly killed Rick. Rick isn't an easy target. I need to know how dangerous he is so it doesn't happen to me."
Fuji sighed, brushing his hair back behind his ear from where the wind had pulled it loose. "I hired Tony to deal with Rick. He's not going to target you."
Ryoma looked at him for a long moment. "I need to know why he's scared of you, Syuusuke, so that I will know without a doubt when I face him that he won't try and cross you and come after me." He glanced down at the ground, his hat sliding back into place. "I can't survive another Rick."
Fuji squeezed his hand in reassurance. "He's not another Rick, but I understand. He's scared of me because he watched me interrogate someone." There, he'd said it. The one thing he didn't want anyone to know he'd done; the one thing he still had nightmares about because part of him wondered what it would be like to do it again, to watch someone else as he tortured them. He swallowed, looking straight ahead. He wasn't sure he could handle what he might find in Ryoma's eyes.
Ryoma was silent for a long time, long enough that Fuji was starting to feel that his fears were well-founded. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. "He's not afraid of you because you interrogated someone. He's afraid of you because he saw that you enjoyed it."
Fuji closed his eyes and nodded sharply. He didn't trust himself to speak.
"The person you interrogated-what did they do?" Ryoma asked, reserved.
"He was hiding the location of a slave trader Tony was contracted to kill."
"Slave trader?" There was no doubt about it; Ryoma was disgusted by the thought.
Truthfully, so was Fuji. There were just some things you did not do to another human being, and one of them was sell them into servitude. The conditions those slaves had been in...well, he didn't want to think about it. "Yeah," he said.
Ryoma was silent again. Right when it was starting to become awkward, he asked, "Is he the only person you've interrogated?" There was something Fuji couldn't quite place in his tone, but he didn't like the way it sounded.
"Yes. Just him." As the silence stretched between them, Fuji added, "It was the reason I became an information specialist and contractor."
Ryoma gave him an unreadable look. "If you enjoyed it, then why-"
Fuji interrupted. "Then why give it up?" He turned solemnly to the freshman beside him. "Because when I allow myself to get lost like that, I'm nothing but a monster. I won't play monster, Ryoma. I won't allow myself to be consumed."
"Hmm. So it's all about control," Ryoma said, his normal mischievousness back in his voice.
Fuji smiled down at him, trying to disguise how relieved he felt. Ryoma hadn't pressed him into talking about the details. It was bad enough he had to remember it; had to remind himself every day that kind of thing was off-limits for him. He'd told Ryoma the truth; he didn't want to turn into a monster, but he knew the potential lay inside him. He'd lied to Rick when he'd said he hadn't run from his monster, because he had. And he would keep on running. "It's always about control," he said. He stopped walking and drew Ryoma close to him, leaning down to kiss him soundly on the lips. When he drew back, Fuji motioned to the park entrance. "We're here."
Ryoma blinked stupidly for a moment, then rolled his eyes and walked past him into the park. He headed straight for the picnic area, making beeline for the drink machine.
Fuji looked after him in fond exasperation. Trust Ryoma to insist on accompanying him and then immediately go off by himself to buy Fanta. He heard a slight rustle of cloth and before he could move, there was a man wrapped around him, a gun digging into the small of his back. He rolled his eyes. "Ah. Tony. I've been expecting you."
Tony let him go and stepped away, shaking his head in disgust as the gun he'd held disappeared into the folds of his clothes. "I could kill you. You know I could kill you, but it doesn't faze you. Aren't you scared of anything?"
Fuji started at Tony. The blonde American was six feet tall, forcing Fuji to have to tilt his head a bit to meet his eyes. Tony's eyes were a dull brown; a perfect color to hide his emotions. He had one of those baby faces where he'd easily be mistaken for twelve if he wasn't so tall, despite the fact that he was a solid twenty-nine. He was slender in a way that was almost effeminate, but the hard lines of his hips were purely male. He moved with an almost feline grace; something he'd picked up from the years he'd spent as an assassin. "Hello to you too, Tony," Fuji said, forcing his tone into pleasantness. Tony picking a public park to meet at had been smart.
"Fuji...why did you insist on bringing me to Japan? I can't do any good here."
Fuji's mask slipped for a moment. "Precisely," he said, voice hard.
"I screwed up. I know that. But why Japan? Why after-"
"Why did you give the kill command?" Fuji asked mildly.
Tony started at him. He sighed. "I don't have a reason that won't piss you off."
Fuji shrugged; he'd expected that much. "That's why you're in Japan."
"Because I pissed you off," Tony said, voice flat with disbelief.
Ryoma had made his way back from the drink machine and was standing a short distance away, staring at the two men, Fanta in hand. "Ne, Syuusuke, is this him?"
Fuji walked to Ryoma and slid a hand around his waist, pulling him close. He needed Tony to understand that his lover was off limits. "Yes, this is Tony." He looked at the assassin. "This is Echizen Ryoma. He's the reason I sent you after Rick."
Tony gave the freshman an assessing look. "He's the lover you told me about?"
"Seems kinda scrawny."
Fuji covered Ryoma's mouth with his hand, stifling the protest before it could get started. Ignoring Tony's presence, he leaned down to whisper in Ryoma's ear, his lips almost touching them he was so close. "Do not bait him. Do not give him a reason to feel insulted or slighted. The moment you do, he'll look at you as a target. Do not believe for one second that you will be able to get away with saying anything cocky to him." He pressed his hand a bit harder against Ryoma's face and let his voice go hard; to the point that promised pain if he wasn't obeyed. "But more than any of that, do not press me on this, Ryoma. If you can't obey me, he will kill you and nothing I can do will save you. Do you understand?"
Ryoma nodded, his body going stiff in Fuji's arms. He'd never seen Fuji this serious about anything. For the first time that day, he wished he'd done what Fuji had suggested and gone home.
Fuji released his hold on Ryoma and turned back to Tony, smile in place. "He's not as scrawny as he looks."
Tony shrugged. "Whatever. He's obviously your toy, so it doesn't really matter what I think."
"You're right. It doesn't."
"I'm in Japan. Now what?"
Fuji tilted his head as he considered the question. Truthfully, he'd already decided what Tony would be doing, but he liked giving the illusion of choice. "Would you prefer to work for me or Hayashi Sora while you're here?"
Tony blanched. "You. No one in their right mind would go near Sora if they didn't have to."
Fuji smiled as a thought struck him. "Then it'll be good for you to know she's put a hands-off out for Ryoma here." He tightened his arm possessively around Ryoma's waist; the freshman laid his head on Fuji's shoulder in response. Fuji gave a mental sigh of relief. No one would go against Sora, not even Tony.
Tony's eyes widened. "You went to her for that? What time limit did you set?"
Fuji allowed himself to drop his mask as he smiled, blue eyes sharp, at the assassin. "I didn't."
At that, Tony actually backed up a step. "I wouldn't touch anyone close to you, Fuji. I'd like to keep my sanity. But Sora...to cross her..."
"It's unthinkable," Ryoma said, shivering despite the heat.
Tony looked at Ryoma for the first time as if he were viewing him as a person and not just a piece of property. "You've met her."
Ryoma nodded. "She's terrifying." He huddled closer to Fuji, not ashamed of the fact he was seeking his protection.
Fuji squeezed the freshman, but couldn't help thinking that he didn't find Sora all that scary. She was dangerous, but so was he. Dangerous in different ways of course, but he just couldn't see her as terrifying. "I'm not afraid of her," he said. Somehow he felt it was important to make that clear.
Tony looked at him and shuddered, a flicker of fear crossing his face. "That's what makes you scary," he said. His gaze went to Ryoma, his expression one of complete distaste. "How can you let him touch you?" he asked.
Fuji's arm tightened on Ryoma's waist, afraid he was going to have to step in, but Ryoma just stared at the assassin.
"Well?" Tony demanded, tapping a foot impatiently.
Ryoma shrugged. "Because I love him."
"Even knowing what he is and what he's done?" Tony's disbelief was palpable.
"Of course," Ryoma said, looking at Tony as if he thought it was absurd to think otherwise.
Fuji smiled then. He turned to Tony. "Get an apartment near Seigaku. Your identification is Tony Sanders right now, a senior transferring into our school. You'll be guarding us under the premise of being a student."
Tony made a disgusted noise. "I'm twenty-nine."
"You can pass for eighteen," Fuji said, voice hard.
"Jesus, Fuji. Japan I get. But high school?" Tony's face wrinkled in displeasure, his tone almost petulant.
Fuji smirked. "Your worst nightmare come to life."
Tony shuddered, then glared at Fuji. "You bastard. You know exactly how much I hated high school."
It went unsaid that Tony had been terrified of school because he'd been badly bullied; it was the reason he'd trained as an assassin. Fuji let go of Ryoma, taking a couple steps forward so that he was invading Tony's personal space. He hid his surprise when the assassin held his ground-Tony disliked anyone being within touching distance. "You fucked up, Tony. I don't forgive failure."
"For anyone?" Tony's eyes flicked towards Ryoma.
Ryoma answered for him. "If you think I'm exempt from Fuji's displeasure, you don't know him very well." He stepped up beside Fuji, making sure to stand far enough away not to crowd Tony any further. He was taking his lover's advice to heart; distressing this guy seemed like a bad idea. "I pay for my mistakes in different ways, but never think for a second that I don't pay for them."
Tony frowned down at him, then looked at Fuji. "What does he mean?"
Fuji smiled, stepping back. "Did you really think I'd take a lover and be okay with him going against my wishes?"
Tony looked thoughtful, but nodded. "Yeah, I did."
Tony looked at him, trying to decide if he had been insulted or not.
"Ryoma," Fuji said in warning.
Ryoma stepped back, lowering his head in submission. "Sorry, Syuusuke." He tried not to flinch, but he had come within a hairs-breadth of doing exactly what Fuji had warned him not to. Something in him always made him want to test the people around them; to see if they really were as big and bad as they seemed. He scowled at himself; he'd almost blown it over something stupid.
Tony looked at Ryoma in confusion, having forgotten all about the potential insult. "You back down, just like that?"
Ryoma nodded, saying nothing. He wasn't sure he trusted himself to speak.
Fuji smiled, bringing Tony's attention back to him. "It's always about control, Tony. Why would my personal life be any different?"
Tony stood there, staring between the two of them. He shook his head. "I don't get you or your lover, Fuji. But I'll do what you say. I'll see you at school-" his face twisted into a grimace. "Tomorrow."
Fuji nodded, then watched Tony walk away. At least he'd gotten it through to the assassin that Ryoma was off limits. He turned to the freshman. "I told you not to bait him."
"Che. Couldn't help it."
Fuji rolled his eyes. The sad thing about it was the truth in it. Ryoma really couldn't help baiting people. "You know, sometimes I think you do things to get me to punish you on purpose."
Ryoma didn't bother hiding the flinch that thought caused. Nothing in the world would make him actively seek punishment from Fuji.
"No?" Fuji asked.
Ryoma shook his head, his gaze focused on the ground.
"Hmm. Then maybe I'm not hurting you enough to keep you satisfied. Think that's it?"
Ryoma dared a quick glance up and saw that Fuji was teasing him. He grinned. "I'm always up for pain, Syuusuke. You know that."
Fuji smiled. Suddenly he couldn't wait to get Ryoma alone.
Chapter 22: Chapter Twenty-Two
Fuji was starting to become irritable. Ever since the day Tony had come to Japan, he had found it nearly impossible to get any time alone with Ryoma. Logically, he knew that it wasn't the American's fault, but he wasn't feeling very reasonable. He strode out of his Math classroom down towards the tennis courts. Afternoon practice was going to begin soon and he wanted to confront Tony before it started.
He spotted the assassin-turned-tennis player leaning up against the outside of the locker room, arms crossed across his chest. Tony had originally protested joining the tennis club because he didn't play... in fact, he was downright awful. Fuji had a suspicion that even Horio could take him in a match. Still, he was here to guard them so Fuji had insisted. Even the assassin had eventually admitted that the workout was good. Granted, it wouldn't do for him to be seen keeping up with the regulars, so he had to fake exhaustion. Tony unfolded himself from the wall when he saw Fuji approaching.
"Fuji," he said, voice warm.
That voice forced Fuji to remember that he was dealing with someone who was just as good at hiding, in his own way, as he was. "Tony," he said, own voice pleasant. "Have you seen Ryoma?"
"He's in the locker room."
"Ah." Fuji glanced around, lowering his voice. "See any cats?" It was code to ask if anyone was listening. The phrase confused him, but it worked well enough.
Tony looked at him, but cocked his head to the side, listening intently. "Nope."
"Good," Fuji said. He dropped his mask to let Tony know he was serious. "I need time alone with Ryoma. Find a way to make it happen."
Tony blinked at him, then scowled. "Since when does guarding you entail helping you mess around with your lover?"
Fuji's lips thinned into a hard line and Tony took a step away from him, making the move look unintentional. "Guarding me entails whatever I say it entails. Now find a way to make it happen."
Tony sighed. "Fine. You can use my apartment."
"And where will you go?"
The assassin shrugged. "I can entertain myself."
Fuji shook his head. "No way. I'm not letting you run around in Japan on your own. Hayashi Sora isn't the only dangerous person in these parts." There were at least four more big-deal names in town, but he wasn't going to tell Tony who they were. The assassin might be tempted to ask them to help him get free of Fuji's clutches and then he'd have a real mess on his hands.
Tony didn't question it. "Then I'll stand outside and guard the door."
Fuji made a disgusted sound. He didn't like that idea either.
"Then what do you want me to do? I can't do anything on my own but I highly doubt you want your privacy invaded-" He paused, glancing around. "I thought I saw a bee."
It took Fuji a minute to realize Tony was saying that he thought someone was within listening range. Why asking included a cat and telling included a bee, Fuji would never know. Someone seriously needed to come up with better coding. "It'll be fine."
Ryoma chose that moment to walk out of the locker room. He looked from Tony to Fuji and shrugged. He said, "You might want to get changed. Inui seems to have another juice for us." His nose wrinkled in distaste at the thought.
Tony shuddered. He'd had to drink his own share of Inui juices. "He has way too much time on his hands."
Fuji smiled and pushed past them into the locker room. He changed into his practice clothes and went out to join the others. He didn't do anything to cause Inui to offer him juice, but after everyone was incapacitated by it, he asked for his own cup. Like usual, it was pretty good. He still didn't know why other people didn't appreciate it. When practice was over, he came out of the locker room to see Ryoma and Tony staring at each other, both with their arms crossed as they looked at the other. For a moment, his heart froze in his chest and he had to remind himself to breathe. "What's going on?" he asked.
Ryoma immediately stopped staring at Tony and came to him, sliding his arm around Fuji's waist. Fuji twisted in Ryoma's grasp, staring down at the freshman as he put his own arm around Ryoma. Tony continued staring at the two of them. The three of them stood like that as the rest of the team trickled out and away. Some of them stopped to try and see what was going on, but were discouraged from staying by the fact Fuji was now glaring openly at Tony. No one wanted to get between Fuji and Tony with that glare in play.
When everyone was gone, the staring continued, but Fuji had enough of the silence. "What the fuck is going on?" he asked, his irritation nearly getting the better of him.
"Nothing," Tony said, voice tight.
Seeing that he wasn't going to get anything from the assassin, Fuji turned his glare to Ryoma. "Well?"
Ryoma flinched. Fuji had never glared at him like that before. Suddenly, he wanted to be anywhere but there. He started to break free of the arm that held him, but as soon as he did, Fuji pulled him hard against his chest, his arms holding him hostage. Knowing that he wasn't going to be able to free himself, he stopped resisting and let his head fall onto Fuji's shoulder.
"Do not make me ask again," Fuji said.
Ryoma flinched at that, his entire body going taut. "Tony said that you asked him to find a place where we could be alone so that you could do to me what you did to Jason." His voice was small and subdued.
Fuji flinched outright at that. Jason was the man he'd interrogated. He started rubbing soothing circles on Ryoma's back, glaring for all he was worth at Tony, who just looked at him. "What did you tell him?" he demanded.
"The truth," Tony said, shrugging.
Fuji's hands were trembling with rage. He was glad that Ryoma was in front of him because if he hadn't been there, part of him was pretty sure he'd have taken a swing at Tony. And he couldn't win against Tony in a fair fight. He took a deep breath and turned to Tony. "I could never do to Ryoma what I did to Jason."
Tony didn't look convinced.
Fuji shook his head in disgust. He leaned down and whispered quietly in Ryoma's ear, still running soothing patterns down his back. "How much detail did you go into?" he asked, his voice soft as he got himself back under control.
"I didn't spare any."
Fuji swore lightly under his breath, aware that Ryoma could hear him. The things he'd done to Jason were horrific and he'd never wanted those details exposed. It was just like Tony to do everything he could to demonstrate his displeasure at being forced into high school on Japanese soil.
Ryoma looked up at him. "Everything he said...it's true?"
Fuji nodded. Tony wouldn't have needed to embellish the truth when it was as gruesome as it was. He couldn't think about it; he refused to allow himself that luxury. Ryoma tensed against him, but this time Fuji loosened his grip. If the freshman couldn't forgive him for this, he would understand.
Ryoma stared at Fuji, caught in indecision. He'd known that Fuji had interrogated Jason, but before Tony had given him details, he hadn't known the man's name or what had been done to him. He wished that Tony had never told him, had never put this choice before him. As much as he hated the fact that Fuji had tortured someone-had enjoyed doing all the gruesome things Tony had mentioned-he couldn't find it in himself to simply hate Fuji. He loved him too much.
Fuji hid his shock as Ryoma relaxed against him and closed his arms around the freshman reflexively. Relief crashed over him. Ryoma wasn't going to run from him. "You truly believe I'll hurt him."
"Yes, I do." Tony stood there, arms crossed, almost daring Fuji to prove him wrong.
Fuji glanced down at Ryoma. "When he told you that I would do to you what I did to Jason, what did you say to him?"
Ryoma blinked up at him. The question seemed absurd. "That you would never hurt me like that."
"That's what this stand-off was about?" Fuji said, shaking his head in disbelief. He looked at Tony. "You think I'll hurt him and he's certain I won't so the two of you decided to fight over it?"
"We weren't fighting, Syuusuke," Ryoma protested.
"You looked like you were about to start," Fuji said, resting his chin on Ryoma's head. He turned to Tony. "It's not like you to care what I do."
Tony's mouth twisted into a hard line. It was the look he usually wore when he was determined to meet an objective. "Normally I wouldn't. But in the past week, I've seen how Echizen handles himself and I don't want to see him ruined. Especially not by you."
Fuji gaped in open shock at the assassin. Tony never cared for people. In the six years he'd known the man, he'd heard reports that the assassin had killed his own first and second cousins. He thought there might have been a brother, too, but he wasn't sure. He pushed those thoughts aside; he needed to focus on the problem at hand. He squared his shoulders, forcing the shock down. "You're trying to protect him from me?" he drawled, eyebrow raised.
Tony nodded once.
"I told him you wouldn't hurt me," Ryoma said, cuddling up to him. After what he'd heard about Jason, he needed the comfort that the solid feel of Fuji's body beneath his hands offered.
Fuji sighed. "This is why you didn't want to help me find a time to be alone with him."
Tony nodded again.
"Fine. We'll go to your apartment and I'll show you exactly what I meant by time alone."
Tony flinched; it was almost invisible, but it had happened.
"You mean he's going to watch?" Ryoma asked, suddenly nervous. It was one thing to have Fuji go all sadistic on him-it was quite another to have an audience.
Fuji tilted Ryoma's chin up so that the other was forced to look at him. "Would you rather him think I was treating you like Jason?"
Ryoma shuddered, turning to look at the assassin. "No," he said softly. "No I would not."
Fuji hugged him tight and motioned for Tony to lead the way to his apartment. He'd have to make some calls to let his family know he'd be staying somewhere else and so would Ryoma. But right now, it was vital that Tony see that he could never torture Ryoma the way he'd tortured Jason. The look the man had in his eye when he'd gone all protective over Ryoma told him he probably wouldn't live long if Tony didn't think Ryoma was safe. It was weird and highly irregular coming from the assassin, but once he proved his intentions were honest ones, there would be nothing that Tony wouldn't do to protect them both.
Chapter 23: Chapter Twenty-Three
Fuji brushed past Tony as he entered the assassin's apartment, not bothering to hide his irritation. He was thoroughly fed up with having to prove that his relationship with Ryoma was genuine. First it had been Ryoma's dad. Then Rick. And now Tony? The assassin was the last person with the right to question him.
Ryoma followed him quietly into the living room with Tony on his heels. He sat down on the edge of the couch, doing his best not to provoke anyone. It was harder than it sounded.
Fuji sat down onto the couch, careful not to jostle Ryoma. He motioned at Tony to take a seat in the recliner opposite him, mollified slightly when the assassin did as directed. He pulled Ryoma off the edge of the couch into his lap, the suddenness of it making the freshman let out a small yelp. Fuji slid his hands up under Ryoma's shirt, rubbing gentle circles across his stomach. Ryoma tensed in his arms the way he usually did when being treated gently, but Fuji ignored it as he glared across the room at Tony.
"Syuusuke," Ryoma said, almost pleading.
"Sorry, Ryoma, but Tony here might interfere if I get any rougher," Fuji said, completely unapologetic.
Tony frowned at them. "Just act like I'm not here."
Fuji glared at him. "I can't do that. If you weren't here, I'd be hurting him." He kept his tone light, almost mocking. He was baiting the assassin, but he couldn't find the will to care.
Tony scowled, his hand moving to his gun holster involuntarily before he noticed and forced himself to relax.
Echizen noticed the exchange and dug an elbow hard enough into Fuji's ribcage to make him wince. Suddenly all the heat that had been directed at Tony was directed at him. He squirmed a bit under that gaze.
"Ryoma," Fuji said, voice hard.
"Hm?" Echizen was doing his best not to reveal how shaken his nerves were.
"What have I told you about doing that?"
The freshman shivered a little in Fuji's arms. "Not to," he said promptly.
"Care to explain yourself then?"
Ignoring the question, Echizen focused his attention on Tony. "Don't interfere."
Tony glared at him. "I won't let him hurt you."
Echizen quirked a grin at the assassin. "I like being hurt."
"Ryoma," Fuji snapped.
Echizen startled a bit and slid of Fuji's lap, settling on his knees in front of him, sinking into a full kneel. "Sorry, Syuusuke," he said sincerely. "I was afraid you were going to get yourself shot." He'd learned in the past few weeks that supplicating himself sometimes mollified Fuji and could occasionally lead to a reprieve from punishment.
Fuji considered the freshman in front of him. He had asked for an explanation. And he had been baiting Tony. It was stupid. He was stupid. With a heartfelt sigh, he let go of his anger. It wasn't doing him any good. And he could always wait until later to find an outlet for it... perhaps he could find some unpleasant tasks for Tony. He turned to the assassin. "Can you keep yourself from getting trigger happy?"
Tony frowned. "I don't like the idea of you hurting him at all."
"He is a masochist," Fuji explained calmly.
"It doesn't matter to me if you like it or not. All I need to know is that you won't interfere."
"I won't prom-"
"Tony," Echizen interrupted. "I trust Syuusuke. I get that you don't. But I like pain. And if you keep insisting you don't want to see me hurt, I'm not going to have any fun. I agreed to you watching so you can see that Fuji isn't a threat to me. I didn't say I wanted your help."
"Fine," Tony said, voice low and taut with anger.
"I told you not to do anything to upset him," Fuji said mildly, staring down at Ryoma who was fighting not to flinch. "So you won't interfere?" He directed the question at the assassin.
"No," Tony said. "I won't."
Fuji smiled and reached for the bag he'd thrown off to the side when he'd sat down. He rifled through it and pulled out a few rubber bands, a paper clip, and an eraser. "Take your clothes off, Ryoma," he said.
Echizen stood and began undressing, stopping with one hand on his boxers when they were all he had left to remove. He glanced at Tony, then back at Fuji.
"You can keep them on," Fuji said. He didn't like the idea of Tony seeing his boyfriend naked. He moved off the couch, settling onto his knees where Ryoma had been. "Lay down face down," he said, patting the cushion closest to him.
When Echizen was situated, Fuji picked up one of the rubber bands and slide it onto Echizen's left arm until it was nestled in the crook of his elbow. He grabbed a second band and placed it in the same place on Echizen's right arm. Grabbing two more, he them behind the soft flesh of the freshman's knees. The placement caused Echizen's entire body to tense as Fuji had known it would. Those wouldn't be fun. He ran a hand over the back of Echizen's left knee, lightly tugging the band. "First or last?" he asked.
Echizen swallowed. "Last please," he said. Those bands were definitely there for punishment purposes, not fun. He didn't want to associate the good pain with punishment. He hoped being asked meant that wouldn't be the case today.
"If I do that last, it won't be rubber bands," Fuji said.
Ryoma shuddered. He didn't know what Fuji would use in place of the bands and he knew from experience that the second choice was always the worst. This time he chose it deliberately; he wanted to have fun first. "I'd still like to leave it for last please, Syuusuke."
Fuji smiled. "Very well." He picked up the paperclip and unbent it so that it formed a straight line. He drew it across Echizen's back from his right shoulder blade to his left, pressing down hard enough to leave a deep red line and keep the skin intact. He had no interest in watching his boyfriend bleed.
Echizen relaxed into the pain, making small noises as Fuji dug the clip into his skin. He loved the way it felt. It was much lighter than fingernails, less harsh, but it was much more focused. He gritted his teeth against the pain of it, forcing himself to relax. The pain was only about five on a scale of one to ten, but for him five was a good warm-up.
Fuji held his lip lightly between his teeth as he drew a parallel line underneath the first, before continuing the pattern down the entire length of Echizen's back. Watching the marks appear and knowing he was the cause of them sent a thrill through him. The way his boyfriend completely gave himself up to the pain added to his enjoyment. Once he'd run the length of Echizen's back, Fuji moved the paper clip to the beginning of the first line and began drawing vertical lines across its width. After he was done with that, Echizen's back looked like a sheet of grid paper and Fuji smiled softly to himself before moving down to his thighs.
The backs of Echizen's thighs was the area Fuji had been looking forward to playing the most because it was a much more sensitive area. The pain would be greater. With that thought in mind, he set the paperclip against Echizen's skin and drew the first line, long and deep. Echizen cried out for the first time, jerking his leg back reflexively against the pain. Fuji frowned at the movement and picked himself up off the floor. He sat down on the couch, pinning Echizen's calves beneath him, and leant down to draw the second line.
He made the second mark on the opposite thigh, causing Echizen to cry out again. Fuji closed his eyes in pleasure at the sound, taking a moment to relish the sheer joy that seeing someone in pain always gave him. The next mark he made began his pattern of alternating between each of Echizen's thighs, each one causing the freshman to cry out in pain.
Before he had gone halfway down either thigh with the clip, Echizen was crying softly. While his back had only reached about a five, his thighs were at least an eight. Maybe a nine. He knew he could tell Fuji to stop any time he needed to stop, but the pain felt incredible. Part of him was tempted for it to go further, for Fuji to break skin, so that he could experience more, but he knew already that Fuji would never intentionally bleed him.
Fuji smiled at the sight of the tears streaming down Echizen's face. It was good to know that he could hurt the freshman to the point of tears and keep going; that Ryoma wouldn't ask him to stop. Having so much control put in his hands was intoxicating.
Marking only the horizontal lines on Echizen's thighs, Fuji stopped right before the soft flesh of his knees on each side. Part of him was tempted to use the paperclip there, but Echizen had asked him to administer punishment last. Today, he would wait. He stood up and pushed at Echizen's hip, telling him wordlessly to turn over. The freshman hissed with pain as his abraded skin met fabric.
Fuji leaned down for a kiss, thrusting his tongue inside Ryoma's mouth as he began the dance to get him to submit. No matter what kind of pain play they were doing, Echizen always attempted to vie for dominance when they kissed. He was such a cocky brat. Fuji sunk a couple teeth into Echizen's lower lip, causing the freshman to gasp and giving Fuji his victory. He smirked as he drew back, then frowned as he glanced between Tony and Echizen. Ryoma pouted at him but nodded slightly and Fuji had to fight off a laugh. Both of them wanted to do a lot more than kiss, but neither of them wanted an audience.
Wordlessly, Fuji kneeled down and drew a line across Echizen's chest with the clip. The pain caused Ryoma to let out a small hiss of pain and Fuji continued down, confining the marks to Echizen's chest. He made five marks in total before he decided he'd had enough fun with the paperclip and slipped it into his pocket. Fuji reached down to where Echizen was holding his arms taut against his side and drew the right one out towards him. Holding eye contact with the freshman, Fuji pulled the rubber band nestled against his elbow as far out as it would go. Seeing anticipation and dread build in Echizen's eyes, Fuji smirked and let it go.
The suddenness of the pain made Echizen jump and the harsh sting of it brought fresh tears to his eyes. Before he could properly recover from the first snap, Fuji had stretched it out again and released it. Echizen shuddered and watched with Fuji as his arm turned red, jumping every time the band connected with flesh. He tried not to tense, but his instincts won out. After fifteen snaps in the same area, the red spot was starting to become a red welt.
Fuji smiled at the dark red line that had formed in the crook of Echizen's elbow, knowing that it would be painful for a good while. Still, the darkness of it was beginning to concern him so he decided it would be better to simply move on to Echizen's left arm. Watching the welts form was mesmerizing.
He glanced at Echizen and smiled at his half-closed eyes and the way his lips were slightly parted, dried tear tracks lightly staining his face. Fuji took all of the rubber bands off, echoing Echizen's look of content with one of his own. "Ryoma," he said. "Turn over. You asked for this last." Fuji held up the eraser, feeling a twinge of regret as Echizen flinched at the sight of it.
"How long?" Echizen asked, voice soft, as he obeyed.
"Ten seconds on each," Fuji said. He stood and moved back to where he'd been sitting before, once again pinning Echizen's calves under his thighs. He placed the tip of the eraser against the back of Echizen's right knee without moving it. "Do you accept this punishment?" he asked. He didn't normally ask because there was an unspoken understanding between the two of them that it was unnecessary.
"I accept it," Echizen said after a moment. It took him a few seconds to realize that Fuji was asking for Tony's benefit; to keep the assassin from interfering.
Fuji turned to Tony. "You heard that?"
"Yes," Tony said. "I heard."
Fuji nodded once and turned his attention to Echizen. He pressed down hard with the eraser and began moving it rapidly back and forth across Ryoma's flesh. Echizen screamed. The pain was like nothing he'd ever felt. Ten seconds stretched into an eternity and he was dimly aware that he was begging, pleading with Fuji to stop, even though he knew his boyfriend wouldn't. If he had some sort of medical crisis he knew Fuji would stop, but both of them knew that while this hurt like hell, Echizen had agreed to the punishment and that consent was all that mattered.
When the ten seconds were up, he thought for a second that he might be able to relax but the second air hit the area he screamed again. The pain was worse than when Fuji had been rubbing. Before he could process that, Fuji had already started on the other knee and all Echizen could do was dig his nails into the cushions beneath his hands and scream in pain. Another eternity passed and then he was free. His legs were on fire, but he was free.
Fuji moved off Echizen who was openly sobbing and took a seat on the free end of the couch. When the freshman had recovered enough to sit up, he launched himself at Fuji, who wrapped his arms around his quivering boyfriend.
"I'm sorry," Echizen said, trying to find a way to stretch his legs out so that his thighs and calves weren't touching each other. He curled into Fuji's chest as he gave up. There was just no way to sit that didn't hurt.
Fuji ran a hand through Echizen's hair. "You're forgiven," he said. He moved Echizen's legs so that they weren't digging into his, ignoring the pained hiss Echizen let out as he did so. He turned to Tony. "Believe me now?"
Tony nodded, jaw clenched.
Fuji was pleased. Tony might not be satisfied with what he'd seen, but that didn't matter. The important thing was that the assassin would keep both of them safe now. Granted, the day would have been better if he'd managed to get Echizen completely to himself, but he couldn't complain too much. He'd had too much fun.
Chapter 24: Chapter Twenty-Four
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."
"Of Momo?" Inui was whispering, of course. Neither of them wanted anyone waking up.
"No." The idea was absurd.
"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?"
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 25: Chapter Twenty-Five
Fuji managed to make it through the party without strangling anyone. Eiji tired stealing his wasabi sushi and his distress had amused Fuji enough to keep him from doing anything drastic.
Ryoma sat next to Fuji, careful not to do or say anything to set him off--even going so far as to ignore the possessive and his boyfriend had planted on his thigh. Nothing would make him risk Fuji’s anger when there wasabi sushi nearby.
The party wound down as everyone got full and people started saying their goodbyes. Fuji was one of the first to excuse himself and he stood outside the restaurant as he waited for Echizen to do the same.
About ten minutes passed before Echizen joined him. They walked hand-in-hand, neither one interested in conversation. On his part, Fuji was nervous. He wanted this night to be perfect. Ryoma was the reason their team was going to Nationals and he wanted to make sure the freshman understood just how much he was appreciated. Not only for his tennis prowess--there was also the way he gave himself over so thoroughly to Fuji’s need to dominate him, to hurt him. For that Ryoma deserved more than he could ever possibly give. But he was going to try.
For the first time, Fuji was absurdly grateful that his hands didn’t sweat when he got nervous. Echizen wouldn't’t notice his anxiety. When they got to his house, Fuji followed Ryoma up to his room, attempting to steel his nerves on the way there. He could do this. It was no different than the times he hurt Ryoma--not really, anyway. Just there wouldn't’t be hurting.
He felt his nerves began to fail him and he detoured into the bathroom, sagging against the door after he closed it. He absolutely had to get himself together. He was Fuji Syuusuke, for god’s sake. There was no reason for him to be falling apart over this.
Fuji pulled himself together and walked into his bedroom. Ryoma was sitting at the foot of the bed, legs dangling over the edge.
Ryoma raised his eyes to Fuji’s and the words he’d been going to say died in his throat at the intense expression on his boyfriend’s face.
Fuji took a step forward, holding eye contact, gently slipping his hand underneath the hem of Ryoma’s shirt and tugging it slowly upward. Ryoma shivered as the fabric slid along his skin, raising his arms to help the process along.
Once he’d divested Ryoma of his shirt, Fuji pushed his boyfriend down on the bed. Echizen complied, scooting back so that he could lay comfortably against the sheets. With a soft smile, Fuji bent down and flicked his tongue against Ryoma’s left nipple, pulling it into his mouth as he gently suckled at it.
Ryoma was breathing rapidly, his heart beating in his ears. He didn’t know what to do with his hands so he kept them motionless, letting Fuji play as he would.
Fuji rolled Ryoma’s nipple carefully with his tongue, purposefully avoiding doing anything painful. Ryoma was tense underneath him, unused to being handled gently. But tonight, Fuji wasn't’t in the mood to cause pain. He wanted to shower Ryoma with affection, to show his lover that pleasure didn’t always have to be accompanied by pain. He let Ryoma’s nipple fall out of his mouth and moved to the other one, gently drawing it into his mouth. He slid his hands over Ryoma’s body, using one hand to work the buttons on his boyfriend’s jeans and the other to play with the nipple he’d abandoned.
Ryoma lifted his hips, helping Fuji divest him of his clothing. The assault on his nipples was intense. There was no way he could stay still. He lifted his hands to find the hem of Fuji’s shirt and tugged it, getting Fuji’s attention. Fuji removed it one fluid motion, settling back down into his pattern of play so quickly that Ryoma barely noticed the absence. He ran his hands across Fuji’s shoulders and down his stomach, caressing him almost reverently. It was the first time he’d ever been allowed to touch back and he almost trembled with the pleasure of it.
Fuji moved away from Ryoma’s nipples and claimed a kiss, gently teasing Ryoma’s lips with his tongue to gain access. Tonight wasn't’t about dominance or submission. Tonight was just about being with the man he loved.
Without thinking about what he was doing, Ryoma found his hands sliding down to Fuji’s pants. When no objection was forthcoming, he gently tugged them down so that both of them were naked. He shivered with the knowledge that this was the first time he’d seen Syuusuke unclothed. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered in awe, running a hand along the underside of Fuji’s erection.
Fuji smiled, reaching a hand down to cup Ryoma. “So are you.” Gently, he began to stroke, keeping the pressure firm and even. Ryoma reached out to do the same and it was hard to remember through the haze of pleasure what he was trying to do. Especially when Ryoma picked up the pace.
Fuji back a groan at how good it felt to have Ryoma’s hand on him. Something was telling him that this wasn't’t how he’d planned it, this wasn't how he wanted it to go, but he couldn't remember why not.
“Faster, Syuusuke, please,” Ryoma cried out. He’d increased his own speed in hopes that Syuusuke would return the favor, but to no avail.
Fuji’s mind cleared when he heard Ryoma began to beg. This was what he was after. He grabbed hold of Ryoma’s hand and moved it away, unable to handle anymore stimulation. Ryoma took the hint and let his hands curl into the sheets beside him, clutching them tightly.
“Please, Syuusuke, you’re killing me.”
Fuji grinned. Seeing Ryoma fighting so hard to get more pleasure was new, and he found he rather liked it. Ryoma’s head was thrown back, his lips parted and his eyes closed. He was thrusting to meet every stroke, keening with the need for Fuji to go faster. At one point, he began to reach down to help, but the look Syuusuke had given him for the attempt had frozen him in place.
Fuji watched the need splay over Ryoma’s face until his boyfriend was flushed with it, then he let go completely, relishing the distressed note in Ryoma’s voice when he did so. “Turn over,” he said softly. “Hands and knees.”
Ryoma obeyed instantly, wanting nothing more than release. A few seconds later, he felt Fuji’s fingers, slick with lube, pressing against him. The sensation made him tense.
Fuji spoke as soon as he noticed. “Is this alright? Or is it too soon?”
Ryoma relaxed. He wanted this as much as Fuji did. “It’s fine. I want you inside me.”
Fuji smiled, not bothering to ask a second time. Ryoma would get bratty if he acted even remotely uncertain. He worked a finger inside, twisting when he was deep enough and smirking when Ryoma cried out with the pleasure of having his prostrate stroked. He worked a second and third finger inside, careful to stretch his boyfriend properly. He picked up the condom he’d grabbed and ripped the package open with his teeth, carefully using his other hand to guide it into place.
Fuji removed his fingers, positioning himself at Ryoma’s entrance. Taking a deep breath, he slowly began pushing inside. Ryoma was so unbearably tight that Fuji almost lost control, almost slid in too fast. He stopped to regain that control. Almost agonizingly slowly, he moved forward until he finally breached the outer ring.
Ryoma, on his part, was doing his best not to thrust up and force Fuji deep inside him. He knew it would hurt--he longed for the pain--but he’d agreed from the beginning that Fuji was in charge. So if Syuusuke wanted to make this so slow it tormented both of them, he wouldn't’t complain. He ached to have things go faster, but knowing Syuusuke, that was probably the point.
Fuji slid forward until he was fully inside Ryoma, gasping with the pleasure of it. Slowly, he began to rock his lips, luxuriating in the feel of the tight warmth around him as he moved, making sure to hit Ryoma’s sweet spot every time.
Ryoma cried out every time Fuji hit the spot that made stars explode behind his eyelids. He started to reach for himself again, to ease the ache between his legs, only to have his hands slapped away.
Fuji drove himself forward, finally allowing himself to give into the need to go faster and harder. He reached down and wrapped his hand around Ryoma, stroking in time to the rhythm he’d set. “Don’t come 'til I say,” he said, voice rough with desire.
Ryoma trembled at the order he’d been given. “I don’t know if I can last,” he said.
Fuji rested his head against Ryoma’s shoulder as he continued moving inside him. “You don’t have a choice.”
Ryoma swallowed hard. There was no telling what Fuji might do if he broke this rule. But having Fuji’s hand wrapped around him and moving inside him...it was all he could do to concentrate on the idea of not getting off when every fiber of his being wanted nothing else.
The way Ryoma pursed his lips with the effort of not disobeying him even as Fuji continued to increase his pace was what finally drove him over the edge. The knowledge that Ryoma would prevent his own pleasure just because he’d said to was almost more than he could bear. “Come,” he whispered into Ryoma’s ear, milking his lover for all he was worth as he spent his seed.
Smiling, Fuji withdrew from Ryoma and discarded the condom. He sent the freshman for a cloth to clean up with as he changed the sheets. Once Ryoma was back and the bed was made, Fuji pulled his boyfriend down beside him, curling up around him. “I love you, Ryoma,” he said, yawning.
“Love you too, Syuusuke,” Ryoma said, voice slightly muffled by the blanket he’d pulled over them.
The two of them drifted off to sleep and Fuji found himself thinking for the first time that even someone as screwed up as he was could find happiness and that there was nowhere he’d rather be than spooned up against the one man who’d managed to accept him despite his flaws.