Momoshiro pulled a face. “The monkey king has arrived.”
“And all the rest of them.” Unlike his kouhai, Inui relished the prospect of seeing Hyotei’s players again. He tapped his pen against a notebook and opened it at the first empty page.
“No fighting,” Matsumoto warned.
Their captain had joined Seigaku High School only a year before. Tall, prim Matsumoto made even Tezuka seem cheerful to the rest of them. Something Tezuka wasn’t sure he was grateful for or not.
“Eh? Where’s their French guy?” Kikumaru let out, clutching Oishi’s arm. “He must be taller than Ohtori even, most Europeans are.”
“I’m quite sure that’s…” Oishi started
But Shitenhouji passing by distracted the redhead. “What’s Hitouji wearing?!”
Tezuka suppressed a sigh. He liked these tennis camps for the competition and general improvement everyone made, but they could be very tiring too. Part of him was glad Echizen was too young still to be in high school, so he wouldn’t have to watch out for his antics as well.
They all walked to the bulletin boards in front of the dorms, to find out who they roomed with.
“Ugh, no!” Momoshiro hit his hand against his forehead.
“Niou again?” Kikumaru asked.
Kaidoh also looked less than pleased and a quick look at the lists told Tezuka he had to stay with Konjiki, the other half of the so-called baka pair.
Inui tapped the list on the right. “Tezuka, you stay with a Hyotei student.”
“Who?” he asked.
“Don’t know him. A Fuji Syusuke.”
“Maybe he’s the boy from France,” Oishi suggested.
“It’s strange for you to not know someone, senpai,” Kaidoh said.
“Let’s go to the canteen,” Inui said. “Perhaps we can study him at dinner.”
But even though lots of familiar and a few unfamiliar faces had gathered, Tezuka could not see anyone new at Hyotei’s table. Atobe sat at the end, of course, overseeing his team mates and occasionally insulting one of them.
Just when Tezuka took his first bite, there was a general lull in conversations around the canteen. Many stared at the door and Tezuka followed their gazes. In the door opening stood, a little unsure, a delicate boy with honey-brown hair.
As on cue, Akutagawa suddenly woke up and started waving his hands. “Hey! Here!”
The brunet smiled, his eyes closing.
“Excuse me,” he said in a soft voice, as he passed Seigaku’s table. Kaidoh shoved his chair closer to the table so he could pass.
The boy sat down on the only empty chair at the Hyotei table, where Akutagawa immediately began an excited conversation with him. The unknown boy smiled throughout it and seemed not bothered by his enthusiasm.
“Tezuka. I asked you if you took a look at the training menus,” Matsumoto said.
“I did. I have no issue with them.”
“He’s really small, smaller than me!” Kikumaru said at the same time.
“See that they’re not all 2 meters over there?” Oishi commented.
“I thought he would at least be muscled. He probably has no idea what he’s up against here.”
“You are worried for him?” Tezuka asked.
Kikumaru blinked at him and shrugged his shoulders.
That was all Tezuka offered as conversation for dinner. Even though the subject changed to pop music, he glanced at the boy a few more times. It was true that Fuji Syusuke was the shortest person in the room. Yet Echizen had been that once too. It did not mean this boy knew not how to play tennis.
When they stood up to leave the dining hall, Tezuka ignored Sanada’s usual glare at his back. He heard Kikumaru whisper something about a small party in his room, but said nothing about it since he was not captain this year.
Instead he took his bags of luggage; one with tennis equipment and the other with regular clothes and made his way up to the dorms.
His was on the fourth floor, right next to the one Momoshiro shared with Niou. The room was small, yet held enough space for two beds and a cheap looking table with folding chairs. He put his bags down, but did not claim a bed yet, thinking it impolite. Instead he folded open a chair and took out a book with photos of mountains.
Half an hour later, the door opened slowly and revealed the Hyotei player.
“Good evening,” Fuji said.
“My name is Fuji Syusuke. You must be Tezuka-kun.”
“Which one is yours?” the brunet asked.
“You can choose.”
Fuji smiled and went to the bed on the left. “Thank you.”
Normally Tezuka would have continued reading at this point, but he laid down the book and asked. “Have you always lived abroad?”
“No. My first four years I spent in Chiba, but after that we moved from country to country. My father has a job in an international…oh!”
Tezuka frowned when Fuji suddenly marched forward.
“Pauline Sol!” he said, lightly touching Tezuka’s book. “She’s one of my favorites.”
“You climb mountains?” Tezuka asked, trying to hide his surprise.
“No. I like photography.” Fuji smiled again. “May I?”
Tezuka handed him the book and Fuji sat down on the other chair. Inside he felt somewhat pleased. This boy was the first one who showed any interest in what he read.
“This one is stunning. What a peak,” Fuji said after browsing for about a minute. “The Matterhorn, it reads.”
“I climbed that mountain.”
Fuji’s eyes opened, revealing a stunning blue color. “It doesn’t seem like an easy mountain to climb.”
“My father took me. I was really tired though, afterwards.”
For minutes, Fuji kept going through the pictures.
“You can take your time,” Tezuka said, since he seemed to hurry himself for his sake. He stood up from the chair and folded his clothes. Fuji relaxed and started reading the captions instead of just browsing. After a while, he stood up and went for his own bag. Out of it, he pulled a box with cookies.
“Would you like one?”
Tezuka, whose first instinct was to avoid anything a fellow tennis player gave him, recoiled a bit.
“They are not poisonous, I promise.”
Not wanting to be impolite, but thinking of Inui’s concoctions, he picked one and took the smallest bite. A pleasant, full taste filled his mouth. His next bite was bigger. Fuji nibbled on another one, pleased Tezuka enjoyed them.
“My sister helped me bake them. She says I should make friends now that we’re back in Japan.”
“They are very nice.”
“Help yourself then,” Fuji put down the box. “There are no spicy ones in that box, my sister said I should consider other people’s taste buds.”
“Does your sister like being here?” Tezuka asked.
“She thrives anywhere.” Fuji made a face, but smiled. “She’s ten years older than me and has a business that is doing well overseas. I think she’ll go back to Europe soon.”
“I have no siblings. It must be nice.”
“Sometimes,” Fuji said, a shadow passing over his face.
Tezuka took this as a cue to change the subject. “Do you speak German?”
“Only a little. We stayed in Germany for less than a year. Do you?”
“I did, when I was in middle school."
“Then perhaps we can…”
His phone beeped, so he left that sentence hanging. After a glance at it, Fuji stood up. “Another meeting. I have to go. But please, take more if you like.”
With a last smile at him, Fuji went through the door and left.
And Tezuka did eat more of his cookies, enjoying the taste and the afterglow of the nice conversation.
He slept when Fuji finally returned. When he woke up in the morning, the boy’s eyes were still closed.
Quietly, he put on a pair of casual pants and a shirt and went for breakfast.
He saw Sanada on the court already, practicing his swing. He guessed Kaidoh was running somewhere, but few other people had started their day with exercise.
Oishi and Kikumaru sat at the same table as where they had dinner the night before, deep in conversation. Tezuka therefore took his time getting his food, wanting to give them the opportunity to discuss whatever it was that seemed so important. Sometimes he envied their closeness. He had nobody he could show himself so completely to.
Momoshiro and Inui joined him at the counter, and Tezuka bought orange juice for them.
Fuji came in just as they all sat down.
To the surprise of Tezuka’s team mates, he made his way over to their table. He smiled at Tezuka and nodded his head. “Good morning.”
Tezuka quickly took a sip from his juice to avoid the curious glances of his friends.
“You get along then?” Oishi asked.
“You talked?” Kikumaru asked, as if that was the strangest thing in the world; Tezuka Kunimitsu having a conversation.
It irked him a little, so he ate without replying.
When he did look up, he saw Inui’s smirk. It was the one he always had when he thought he had stumbled onto something interesting.
“He’s a bit like Yukimura, isn’t he?” The data-player said.
“Why? Can he play that well?” Momoshiro asked in shock.
“Nobody knows about this Fuji’s tennis. No, what I meant is that he’s about as pretty and polite.”
“Pretty.” Kikumaru tasted the word and glanced at the Hyotei table.
“That’s off the courts though. We all know how Yukimura gets when he’s playing. Might be the same for him. Pretty or otherwise.”
Tezuka wondered if the people at Hyotei thought him pretty too. Oshitari did perhaps, for he was casually touching Fuji’s shoulder.
Annoyed, Tezuka finished the last of his bread and stood up, planning to find Kaidoh and run with him.
Their attention was drawn to the elderly lady with the microphone. She had twisted her hair in a sloppy bun before arriving in the room, yet her clothing was immaculate.
“Outside we have put out lists, for any and all challengers. The only rule we have here is that you can only challenge one you have never played against.”
She said more, yet most of it escaped Tezuka. A wave of excited chatter rose up all around.
He knew full well he did not need to challenge anyone, since they would come to him. His glance fell on Yukimura, who smiled benignly at nobody in particular, yet radiated a murderous aura. Tezuka did not know what his deal was, but doubted many would have the nerve to go after him like that.
At this point, he was the only one who left the hallway and ignored the lists. Since he did not see Kaidoh anywhere, he decided to go for a run by himself.
The fresh air, so much cleaner than in the city, made him feel better than he had in quite a while. Birds, grass, the occasional tree surrounding the farmlands cheered his spirits. After an hour, he returned to the camp. Most had gathered their tennis rackets and now made for the courts.
The lists had been written on by many and the paper had torn in places. Behind his own name he saw Oshitari’s. That was not what he had expected, but practicing against a counter expert would be a good experience.
Kikumaru had written his name next to Shishido’s and he found Kaidoh’s next to Shiraishi’s.
Yagyuu had challenged Fuji.
It took less than a second to dawn on him how dangerous it was for slender, delicate Fuji to play Rikkai’s powerplayer for his first match. If Yagyuu delivered him a concussion, as he had done with Kikumaru two years before, Fuji might be too fazed to ever play tennis in Japan again.
“Hey, Tezuka-fukubuchou, can you help….?”
“One moment,” he said, leaving Momoshiro gaping at the bulletin board. He hastened to the courts, where two matches had already started.
He found Fuji not so much by seeing him, but by spotting Niou’s crazy hair as he hovered over Yagyuu as he prepared. On the opposite side of the court, Fuji tested his grip tape and redid his laces.
The short boy looked a little surprised when he saw Tezuka approaching.
“He hits hard.”
“He does?” Fuji said, like that did not scare him.
“Just be careful.”
Tezuka walked away, under frowns from Rikkaidai and Hyotei players, who had not heard the exchange. Yet before he could reach his own team mates, Oshitari grinned at him. “Almost time, isn’t it?”
Saying nothing, Tezuka followed him to an empty court. There were two left behind the dorms they stayed in.
“Did Fuji forget something in his room?” Oshitari asked when they arrived.
“Then what did you say to him?”
Tezuka took his racket from his bag. “Something one of you might have said.”
“Oh?” Oshitari adjusted his glasses, scrutinizing him.
“Are you quite ready?” Tezuka asked, after several seconds of this.
Oshitari had learned lots of new moves. His speed had increased as well. Some of his counters gave Tezuka trouble, as did his refined smashes that tugged at his Tezuka zone.
Still, Hyotei’s handsome prodigy obtained only two games from him.
None of this was out of the ordinary. His nervousness was though. A nervousness which had nothing to do with his own match, but one that went on six courts away, that he could not see.
“I should be insulted,” Oshitari said, when they shook hands. “Your mind was not entirely here.”
“Ahn?” Atobe cut in, who appeared from out of nowhere. “Tezuka, are you losing you…”
Hyotei’s king stopped when he saw Inui waving frantically from the next court.
“Excuse me,” Tezuka said and jogged to where his team mate stood.
“That Fuji…” Inui said with a grin.
“He’s hurt?” Tezuka asked and peeked to where his court was hidden behind trees. He could just imagine the delicate boy lying on the floor, after a ball was smashed to his eyes.
“6-3,” Inui said. “No injuries, he managed to avoid all his lasers.”
Tezuka sighed. “So he’s not all together unskilled.”
“Not all together…?” Inui grinned. “Fuji won.”
His eyes widened behind his glasses.
“You should have seen him. He’s a counter-puncher, but he’s a few levels above Oshitari. And his speed, it varied so much that I had difficulty collecting data.”
Tezuka would have thought that would have been hard to admit for Inui, but he seemed positively gleeful with the challenge.
With his bag slung over his shoulder, Fuji walked towards them. Inui kept mentioning stats, yet they were drowned out when Fuji smiled at him.
“Thank you,” his soft voice said.
“The warning.” Fuji bowed and walked on.
Inui raised his eyebrows at him. “Why did you warn him?”
“Remember Kikumaru?” Tezuka said.
A sigh from the data man. “You’re right. I did not like that either.”
Though Inui continued talking and adding things to his notebook, Tezuka still looked in the direction Fuji had gone and felt something stir inside him.
Tezuka wanted…. to play him.