When Inui was nine, his parents had taken him to an optometrist in Tokyo to get his eyes checked, and subsequently, buy him his first pair of glasses. They led him into the main room afterwards, and, crouching next to him, his mother told him to choose a pair of frames.
"You should choose the ones you feel the most comfortable with, Sadaharu. You'll need to wear them everyday, so make sure the ones you pick will look the best on you!"
Inui, outwardly composed and seemingly indifferent to the fuss of getting his first pair of glasses, secretly hated the idea. He'd seen what other children did to those who wore them, like when they teased Ritsuko-chan and snatched her glasses from her face and mocked her by putting them on and making funny faces. People who wore glasses when so young were rare, and even though it was due to this astigmatism thingy the doctor had told him he'd had (and thus wasn't his fault), Inui still felt somewhat a freak.
Even he thought Ritsuko-chan looked ugly with those glasses, though they were small and clear and she looked little different when not wearing them.
"I want those."
The calm voice and finger indicated the pair of frames on the far-left wall, in the upper corner. The first thing he'd noticed since walking into the office were those. They glared at him from the corner accusingly as he made his way into the examination room in the back, and the sight of them stayed with him all the way through the visit.
"Erm, really?" A slight cough from his mother came from beside him. "I mean, of course, if those are the ones you want, Sadaharu."
The clear green eyes that looked up at his father held a firm certainty and satisfaction at his response, despite the slight chiding cough. "Yes."
Two weeks later, back at the same office, Inui put them on. The face in the mirror was weird, and looked nothing like him. He could have chosen dozens of other frames- ones that had thinner wires, that were smaller, ones where he could see his features more clearly in without being overwhelmed- but he didn't. They were the ugliest, most square, thickest frames he ever saw, and he took a perverse pleasure in how they seemed to swallow his face whole.
His father looked at him weirdly from behind, also noting his son's reflection in the mirror. Nothing was left of his features but an anonymous nose and mouth, and slightly spiked hair for definition. "Well, I guess we're done here."
Inui smiled brightly at him from behind the lenses, "These are the best glasses ever!" while his father looked incredulous.
While walking down the street his mother caught his pleased gaze and the soft shine of a curved eye behind thick rims. She smiled and said to him, nonplussed, "They look wonderful on you."
Somehow, Inui felt cheated.
When Inui was ten, he was already used to the other students behaving strangely towards him. The glasses he wore warranted a great deal of teasing (they were a monstrosity, after all), but also an uneasy amount of respect. Komae hadn't come to school after trying to steal his frames off his face during lunch-time because he was sick. The other children had informed him of this solemnly, to which Inui simply replied "Is he?" shifting said glasses, and soon all the students had cautiously decided too leave him alone, believing he had his nefarious revenge. What they didn't know, and neither did Inui, was that Komae had simply contracted chickenpox from his older sister. He never really felt much of a difference in their attitudes, but found it amusing that whenever he adjusted the sliding frames on his nose, most of those in his class looked at him in disproportionate horror.
That was why, during every tennis practice after school, he was always seen picking up balls or sweeping the court by himself, separate from his year mates who liked to do those things in groups, and gossip. Whenever one would try to approach him (whether wanting to involve him in their activity, or most likely talk to him on a dare), they were immediately startled away by how all encompassing his frames were, how oddly taller he was when seen up close, and inscrutable. They found their voices wilting away and leaving before Inui could respond or call them back.
Sure, it made for rather boring practices, but he figured it was better this way. Now he could concentrate fully on tennis without being distracted by conversation and friends. It was what the tennis club was for, after all. People didn't come to talk to their classmates and giggle over their uniforms, trade stuff from their lunches and make appointments to play with each other afterwards-
It was while thinking these thoughts that he was caught straight in the face by a ball that had flown off court and over the fence, the force of the tumbling object startling him so much he fell backwards, hands scraping the green pith beneath painfully in contact.
He blinked, noticing that his vision had considerably decreased, and could only make out the blurred figures in front of him vaguely.
"Wah! I've never seen Inui-kun without his glasses-"
Inui blinked. It wasn't like they'd never seen his face before.
"He looks so plain! I thought there'd be something special with him hiding behind those things everyday but he's actually just-"
They'd seen him a year before he got his frames, but he'd been boring then-
"Hahaha, he never saw that coming, looking so uncool, did you see-"
They didn't even remember him from last year-
"Whoa, you can tell what he's thinking! Inui-kun looks so surprised, it's weird."
Inui felt oddly naked without his glasses on. He'd hated them for so long for many reasons, but now it was the first time he felt like he'd appreciated them, no matter how ugly they looked. Bowing his head, he blocked out the hazed vision of the other club members whispering not-so-secretively, half hiding his face in the process. Inui scrambled about on his knees trying to locate the frames, it was difficult when only one of his eyes was properly focused. None of the other club members were trying to help him either-
Another small hand pressed familiar cool, black metal glasses into his. Inui quickly shoved them on, faintly embarrassed and oddly hurt, and wanting those feelings to dissipate as fast as they could. His eyes glanced up and met another face that seemed to be dominated by odd features. This boy, even with his eyes faintly closed, seemed to be painted full of expression when he smiled. Though he had concealing features, it seemed somehow different from his own. He bet the other club members never speculated about him.
"I like you better with your glasses on."
Blinking, said frames slid down his nose again, leaving the barest peek of shining, dark irises over thick lenses, communicating an openness hardly seen in Inui's face before. "Really?"
Renji didn't even have too look down to see the startled smile on the other's face, his focus never leaving the opaque lenses and the top of black rims dipping under the glitter of crescented, dark green eyes. "Yes. You look more like yourself."
Inui had four years to contemplate this moment of childish honesty.
When Inui was eleven, he'd grown distinctly comfortable with the glasses on his face. He could hardly remember what he looked like without them on anymore, and was sometimes just as surprised as anyone when he saw his own face unadorned. Most of the time his vision was too fuzzy for him to see himself unless plastered to a mirror.
No one was able to actually catch a glimpse of his eyes with lenses so thick and opaque. Since last year, his mother had insisted that he get anti-glare coating on his glasses because he spent so much time on his computer, the stinging white light of the monitor damaging to his sight. The new coating served to make his expressions even more indefinable. There was an atmosphere of the inscrutable to his features, thus still generating a vague feeling of distrust in the other students towards him in his new school.
Of course, Inui was no longer affected by these sorts of things. He got over them long ago, and even though it burned raw, he still had that memory from years ago-
“I like you better with your glasses on. You look more like yourself.”
He knew what it'd been like to have this feeling of the unconditional, it made what everyone else thought seem less important somehow, compared to that moment of clarity, and thus their opinions and company not worth while. Not when compared to Renji.
It did occur to him that if kept comparing everyone in school to Renji, he would end up having little to no friends at all who would measure up to such an exacting standard. However, it seemed to him intrinsically unfair that he would have to settle for someone of less worth, after having had someone like Renji for a friend.
Then he played Tezuka.
Of course he'd been in awe of his natural skill during the match, but that was not what he had been concentrating on. With the bright focus of the afternoon sun behind him, Tezuka's glasses somehow caught the brilliant rays shining on the court as he moved to serve, lighting them with a sheer, gold reflection that obscured his eyes in the blinding glow. Inui was entranced. Although he knew without a doubt that there was nothing supernatural about the apex of the sun or the 60 degree angle at which his were glasses tilted, it seemed as if in that minute, Tezuka was granted a perfect moment by gods or nature to visually show how truly masterful his tennis was.
And while momentarily stunned as he watched the yellow ball fly up into the air, perfectly arced into the bright rays, Inui knew that he couldn't compare. Inui was nothing like Tezuka. His tennis was calculated- it was based on probabilities, observation and reaction, exploiting loopholes and timed poaches. He needed to cover for his weaknesses in tennis with data, he needed anti-glare coating on his glasses to cover his thoughts, he needed these props to confound those who would try and collect his own data in the game.
Tezuka's tennis was incomparable. It was what he was born with, something inherent and natural that flowed from his wrist, the twist of his leg, the sharp, instinctive gaze that felt an opponent across the net and the fickle rhythm of the ball. His glasses were a mere reflection of that natural ability. He did not need data. He did not need artificial coating on his lenses- not when he had the power of the sun.
Needless to say, Inui was defeated 6-0 the first time he played against Tezuka Kunimitsu.
It was strange feeling so disheartened after playing in a match with an opponent that was so stunning. Inui couldn't help but feel that he was being petty being so dismayed, and quickly tried to cover it up as he approached the net, shaking hands cordially with the other boy.
"Yes. Your ability to observe so much from one set match was unexpected. You covered all the cross shots I thought would have been too far for you to reach." Inui was momentarily surprised at the compliment. He hadn't thought he had done that well. "It's a different kind of tennis then I was used to, I haven't played against anyone yet who plays like you. It will be interesting to have you in the club."
And in that moment, Inui realized what Tezuka had actually said. It didn't matter that Tezuka's skill was incomparable. It didn't matter that Inui used tools like data in tennis, because while Tezuka's skill was incomparable, so was his. There was no use measuring one against the other when their styles were so inherently who they were. To say one way was better than another was like saying a jellyfish is better than a crab. For their tennis to be scaled against one another in value was ridiculous.
Inui couldn't help but smile then, briefly. "It will be interesting to be in this club."
Tezuka's gaze, as their hands parted from the shake, was understanding. Inui felt like he knew what he'd meant behind the words. Perhaps...perhaps he would be able to make some new friends after all.
When Inui was twelve his mother took him to the optometrist again for his yearly check-up, and found out that his astigmatism had further his deteriorated sight. The strain on his right eye had somehow increased, and if gone unchecked would lead to near blindness in his later life. The eye doctor had explained this all to him patiently, while holding a little scrap of black cloth in his hand, as if saying it somehow would make Inui feel as if this absurdity was justified.
"You'll only have to wear this eye-patch for a month. It isn't that your astigmatism has worsened; it's just the strain of your right eye making up for your left is making your prescription increase disproportionately. It isn't serious now, but if you wait, it will get worse in the future. It's easy to correct this early, though. If you cover up your right eye, it will give it some time to rest and further strengthen your left."
Inui nodded seriously, the thick reflective coating on his lenses giving away nothing of the sullen dislike in his eyes as he eyed the patch dangling from the doctor's wrist. The unassuming piece of cloth seemed to grow a black hole inside its hidden depth, sucking away all his attention till it was glued on the detestable thing. His mother simply nodded and thanked to doctor for the diagnosis, and as they left she carefully put the eye patch into her purse. The stretch of odd silence as they walked was broken by her voice.
"I know that something is bothering you, Sadaharu. If it's about what the doctor said, it won't be so bad, if it's only for a little while."
Inui blurted out the first thing that came to mind, brow inadvertently furrowing in a rare moment of worry, the problem plaguing him since hearing about the treatment flooding out of his mouth. "But what about tennis?"
His mother blinked in surprise. With the way Sadaharu had felt about just getting glasses in the first place all those years ago, she thought an eye-patch would be even more displeasing, but apparently the assumed reasons had changed. It seemed her son's focus had transformed over the past three years. Inside she smiled a little at the thought that tennis is what he thought of first. "This will affect your tennis?"
Inui's expression was unchanging, but the brief silence after the question told her all she needed to know. "With a patch over my right eye, I will have a huge blind spot, increased 60% from the normal 5% from the loss of peripheral vision just glasses give me. Playing in the club with this handicap would be almost impossible...I wanted to make it as a regular this year."
Needless to say, Tezuka was destined to make it as a regular, if not a captain, and Fuji was also regular material. Plus with Oishi and Eiji and the rest of the competition, it would be an extremely difficult goal to accomplish. But Inui...he already had to fight hard to be as good as he was, with every moment of practice he could. A month with this handicap would- well, he didn't know what it would do, but it definitely would stop any improvement he could make. He could already see his personal data charts dropping despite the increased regimen he would make to try and compensate for this.
His mother was silent for a while, when Inui was immersed deep in thought. "Sadaharu, do you remember what you said to me, after you found out Renji had moved away?"
Doing nothing but tilt his head questioningly, Inui kept silent. What...where was this going? "Yes."
His mother recalled the surety and desperation of those words, and the fury and passion exposed at his attachment. "You said that you weren't going to make another friend again, and that tennis would never be fun without him."
Yes, Inui remembered those words unfailingly. He'd been hurt, furious at the world, and impossible. If he couldn't be with Renji, then he didn't want to be friends with anyone. No one would ever be good enough to replace him. Doubles was never going to be the same without his Kyouju by his side, and Inui thought that he would never feel the same passion and joy he felt when playing with his best friend again, now that he was gone.
"And what about now? Do you still feel that way?"
The words startled him, as he looked up at the face of his mom, mind fast paced and already going ahead and riffling through his memories and thoughts as soon as she spoke. Tezuka, Oishi, Eiji and Fuji, before he knew it they had already become so much a part of his day, his life, that he couldn't imagine a Seigaku where he didn't know they existed. Even outside of tennis and school, he still kept close to them. He'd been wrong, and after playing matches against them, he still felt that sudden thrill rushing through his veins, just as much as those times with Renji. Yanagi may have been the one to show him this feeling, but it was the current Seigaku members that kept it going, instead of leaving tennis to die out for him.
"No, I don't feel that way anymore." It was strange, how saying that made him feel a little better. It still didn't explain what this conversation was leading to, but at least he knew that if he had to postpone his participation in the tennis club, they would still be there supporting him as friends, even if he wasn't a part of the club. Though the thought that he might have to sit aside during practice depressed him again...
Turning around, his mother stopped until she faced him, looking directly into his eyes. "Are you going to give up, now? I remember how earnestly you said those words, and how you thought it was impossible, but you fought through those feelings. You kept tennis, this time for yourself, and same with your new friends. Those things being impossible before didn't stop you, did they? Somehow, it ended up that you got to have both of them."
Through the glasses, Inui's eyes warmed from her speech, his hand slipping through his mother's arm and into her purse, pressing thoughtfully at the smooth, small piece of black cloth inside. A small smile spread, giving his face a defining expression behind the lenses as he took out the eye patch to look at it. The kindness and strength of her words bolstered him, giving him new energy as he looked at the black circle of the patch.
"Thank you, 'kaa-san."
As he rounded the fence around the courts, Inui kept his head low instinctively, vision bisected by the metal links until he reached the gate. Once he opened it and walked out onto the green of the courts, Fuji and Oishi both turned to greet him. Eiji simply stilled and gaped where he stood. Inui vaguely hoped that none of them would laugh outright at the fact that he still showed up in his gear for practice, as if he would be able to evenly play a match.
"He-hello, Inui." Oishi recovered from his momentary startle, able to finish off his greeting properly.
The amusement in Fuji's voice could not be suppressed, generated partially from Eiji's reaction, and also at the (very) obvious way Oishi was trying to suppress his curiosity for politeness' sake. "Inui-kun, you look different today."
"...it's a recent treatment for my astigmatism."
From the far back end of the court, Inui caught Tezuka's eye, it seemed as if he was the only one who was unfazed by his new appearance.
“You know that with this patch you will have to work ten times harder to get on the regulars.”
The plainspoken words that come out of Tezuka’s mouth make him smile- the sentence wasn’t even made into a question.
“Yes. I know.”
Fuji smiles again at those words coming calm and unshaken from Inui’s mouth.
“O-oi, does this mean Inui’s going to practice with it on? Like pirate tennis?”
“We can play matches against you and gauge where your blind spots are.”
Inui had never been so glad for something in his life.
When Inui is thirteen, he’s gotten to one of the top spots in Seigaku’s tennis team. He’s had years of playing experience behind him and they’re going to make it to Nationals, he can feel it. Oddly enough, he’s pretty popular in school now, heading the physics club and gaining respect from the younger tennis players by helping with their training regimens and going toe to toe with Tezuka.
This year, he feels like he’s really made it. He’s no longer that awkward boy who self-consciously checked his face in the mirror when he was nine, nor the unpopular boy at ten who so desperately wanted friends but convinced himself he didn’t. He wasn’t the boy who flung himself into the tennis club with no expectations of ever having a social life at eleven and being proven so, so wrong, or the unsure rookie looking for reassurance from his teammates and friends.
Each year has built himself up until he finally has a firm place at Seigaku, and even more than that, confidence in himself beyond what he looks like or his skills in tennis. It doesn’t matter that he’ll be defeated soon by a newbie freshman with genius skills and taken off his regular spot, that his data will fail him, that Renji will be there to cut down what he’s made of his tennis since their separation, that being in a new doubles team brings him an ache he hadn’t remembered in a long time.
He doesn’t need shields, boosters to hide his weaknesses, or other people telling him what he should be doing and how he should play. There are things beyond protecting himself from harm, and that is what will make him claw his way back onto his regulars spot, refine his data points, defeat Renji without his glasses and exceed his calculations, and go on to hone one of his best friend’s training and skills in doubles until they are true partners out on the court.
So when Inui gets up that morning for the first day of the new school year, he turns off his alarm, stumbles to the bathroom to brush his teeth, and wash his face. He puts his glasses on, looks in the mirror and smiles a little, because he knows it’s going to be a good year. There’s tennis to be played and new friends to make, data that needs to be gathered and juice recipes to be refined, and he’s going to face them as he is now, Inui Sadaharu, Data Master of Seigaku, 184 cm high, 62 kg, Gemini and a lover of chess and mixers. Even if he knew all the difficulties and challenges to come, he wouldn’t change a thing about himself.