That Saturday, after running twenty laps, Ryuuzaki called the team over. "The third years are going to have to retire in another two weeks to prepare for exams," she said. "I want first and second years to start taking their training more seriously, because we're going to be holding a ranking match then."
"Yes!" The team said obediently. Oishi wondered how much more seriously they could take their training without being driven into the ground.
"Toward that end, first years are going to be holding matches, and I want second years to be doing some training with the third years. First years need to get used to moving around more freely, and feeling the whole court."
The first years began to whisper excitedly. Practice matches would be exciting, and something they'd rarely had the chance to do.
"Okay... on A Court..." Ryuuzaki looked downright dangerous as she smiled. "Tezuka and Fuji." Tezuka turned and looked at her in question, and she gave him a wolfish smile. "Time to test the newcomer. One set met," she told them.
Everyone began to whisper. They hadn't realized that Tezuka would be grouped in with the rest of the first years... and Ryuuzaki was putting someone who had only had a few weeks on the team against him?
"Ryuuzaki is being cruel..." Oishi heard one of the third years whisper before Ryuuzaki named the other first year match, Inui-Kawamura, before ordering second and third years to C and D courts.
Fuji didn't seem at all perturbed that he was about to be put up against the strongest member of the famed Seigaku team. Instead, he merely nodded, his smile remaining firmly in tact. "Shall we go, Tezuka-kun?"
Oishi remembered how Kikumaru had mentioned that Fuji had won some tournaments, and felt excitement well up inside of him. He had the feeling that this match was going to be very interesting...
Tezuka seemed a bit disconcerted by Fuji's smile. "Yes." Tezuka went to collect his racquet from where he had left it, leaving Fuji standing alone. A few first years came up and tried to offer him reassurances, but he just smiled as they told him not to feel bad when Tezuka totally slaughtered him, since it happened to the best players in Tokyo.
"Saa... and I wanted to play!" A voice came from his elbow. "Do you wanna watch Fuji and Tezuka play with me?"
"Sure, Kikumaru-kun," Oishi answered. The moved off the court and around the gate, trying to find a good spot to watch from.
"I wonder if Fuji is going to take this seriously or not," Kikumaru mused, finally settling on standing on the place directly across from the referee's chair.
"Fuji doesn't take that much seriously. He may seem really nice, but he's pretty nasty when you start listening closely to him. I think it's the smile..."
"And he's your friend?" Oishi asked.
"Of course! He's usually really nice... usually..." Kikumaru hedged. "Just don't make him mad...."
Glancing around, Oishi noticed that all the first years had decided to watch the Tezuka-Fuji match, instead of the other one. He could understand; watching Tezuka play was like watching a piece of performance art. Oishi felt the sweat beading on his forehead as Tezuka and Fuji went to the center of the court and decided the serve. Tezuka won, and everyone held their breaths as Fuji waited to receive.
Tezuka considered carefully from across the court before gripping the racquet in his left hand. Tossing the ball in the air with his right, he moved, serving the first ball of the game.
Fuji merely smiled as the ball went to the corner, not even making a move to follow it. No one seemed surprised; many opponents who faced Tezuka were unable to think once faced with Tezuka's sheer power.
Tezuka, though, wore a slight frown as he prepared to serve again...
Another ace. And another... game point...
"Game, Tezuka! One game to love! Change courts!"
"You look different across the net," Fuji remarked as they moved to switch places, apparently totally unconcerned that he had dropped a game without even being able to return a shot.
Tezuka didn't reply.
"He's provoking him," Oishi said. "Fuji is provoking Tezuka..." It was an odd thought, but it seemed to fit.
Kikumaru bounced a bit. "Why would he do that? He just lost a game!"
"Some players like provoking their opponents to make them lose their cool. That won't work on Tezuka, though..."
"Nyah... I don't think that's right," Kikumaru mused, leaning forward. "Maybe he likes losing a bit so he gets fired up? Some people like coming from behind, surprise their opponent..."
"It's a stupid tactic against Tezuka. Every point counts..."
"That's not it, boys," Ryuuzaki, who was standing next to them, said. The two jumped, surprised she had chosen to enter the conversation. "Fuji isn't interested in winning..."
"Huh?" Oishi and Kikumaru said in unison.
Fuji served, and Oishi wasn't surprised that it was nearly as accurate as Tezuka's. Tezuka managed to return it, and the volley began. The ball whizzed back and forth, both players hitting solid shots that forced the other to move around the court. Neither seemed willing to give and inch.
"He's good," Oishi said. "Not as good as Tezuka, but..."
Oishi didn't say what was going through his head. As soon as Fuji played in the ranking matches, he would take a regular's spot.
"Game, Tezuka! Two games to love!"
What caught Oishi's attention, though, was the way Tezuka was regarding Fuji.... as though he was seeing him for the first time.
He sees a rival, Oishi realized, feeling scared. No one had ever made Tezuka study them that intently before, but the smiling first year had every ounce of Tezuka's concentration.
"Are you going to play me seriously?" Tezuka asked before serving the ball for the third time.
Fuji was still smiling. "Maybe."
Tezuka seemed insulted. He served again, and the ball was closer and more accurate...
A pain clenched in Oishi's chest... Tezuka was playing seriously.
Tezuka never played anyone in the club seriously.
It was hard to contain his jealousy of Fuji. Oishi had spent the last six months trying to catch up to Tezuka, but Fuji seemed to have caught his attention right away.
Tezuka... Oishi thought, feeling like Tezuka had suddenly started running far ahead of him and there was no way he would ever reach him.
"Game, Tezuka! Three games to love!"
Beside him, Kikumaru was uncharacteristically silent, for which Oishi was grateful. He wanted to watch this, commit it to memory, because something was happening, something profound and deep and beyond his understanding.
Fuji didn't seem at all bothered that he was losing, but merely wore the same smile that Oishi had grown accustomed to. It was completely out of place, and made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
"Game, Tezuka! Four games to love! Change courts!"
Tezuka paused near Fuji, turning his head to stare at the shorter boy. The set in his jaw was tight, and his eyes were narrowed as he looked at the other with near annoyance. "Either play seriously, or don't play," he said finally, his softly spoken words managing to ring across the court.
Fuji's turned his head up slightly, and for the second time since Oishi had met him, his eyes opened and the smile fell away. "Are you sure you want that?"
Tezuka adjusted his glasses, not deigning to give a verbal response, but Fuji seemed to get the message. They went to take their places on the court, waiting for the signal...
"Come!" Tezuka ordered, his eyes bright, and he served.
Fuji was there, lobbing it.
Tezuka frowned a bit, apparently confused at such an easy play, but smashed the ball anyway...
And then it happened.
No one really was quite sure WHAT happened, but Fuji spun, the ball flew, and Tezuka was unable to return it as it sailed over his head, landing just inside the line.
What the heck was that? Oishi wondered, glancing over to see if Kikumaru knew, but the redhead's jaw was hanging loose in shock. Around them, everyone in the club had come to a stop, staring at the two players in amazement.
Only Tezuka seemed unshaken. He studied Fuji, who regarded him with a bland smile. "Higuma Otashi," Fuji pronounced, and around him, the wind seemed to pick up, caressing his clothes and playing with his slightly too-long hair. Blue eyes peered over the net at the club's strongest player as Fuji waited patiently for a reaction.
"Counter tennis," Tezuka said finally, figuring out what had happened.
"One of three counters," Fuji informed Tezuka in a nonchalant voice. "Probably the weakest, since it can only be used against smashes..."
Tezuka straightened his glasses, and a small smile tugged on his lips. "Then I won't smash," he vowed.
"You sure?" Fuji asked innocently.
"At least not this game. Not until I've had time to think on how to counter it," Tezuka said. "Next time we play, I'll break it."
Fuji spent the rest of the game lobbing the ball, but Tezuka didn't rise to the bait. He took the set 6-1, but Fuji kept his last service game, something which Oishi was definitely impressed by.
Tezuka, though, didn't seem satisfied with the outcome, going over to the net to shake Fuji's hand at the end of the game. "Play seriously from the start next time," he told the other first year.
Fuji, though, seemed to have lost whatever it was that made him dangerous on the court. His expression appeared to be genuinely confused as he took his hand back, but he just smiled after a moment, not giving a verbal reply. Then, without a word, he left the court, hurrying off toward the clubroom.
Kikumaru stared at Fuji as his friend left the court. "I always knew he was weird," he said.
A laugh caught the two unaware, and the two first years turned to see the coach, Ryuuzaki Sumire, smiling at them, amusement glittering in her eyes. "Weren't expecting that, were you?" she asked.
"You were, sensei?" Oishi asked after a moment, realizing that she must have put Fuji up against Tezuka with a very good idea of what was going to happen.
She crossed her arms over her chest, seeming to be very satisfied. "Fuji was a champion while in elementary school. They call him a tensai, and I wanted to see how he'd do against the best." She scratched her chin thoughtfully. "It looks like getting him to take it seriously might be a problem, but he's still pretty formidable - maybe a good rival for Tezuka...." she mused, speaking more to herself than to them.
Oishi stared at her, the feeling of loneliness and abandonment growing. Tezuka had seemed more alive on the court then he had in ages, and Fuji had the serious boy's complete attention.
What would happen, if Tezuka decided that he didn't need Oishi anymore?
After practice, Oishi went to the clubroom, slowing preparing to leave. His thoughts were muddled, but after seeing Tezuka and Fuji play, he was worried. He had always known Tezuka was above him - and that was okay. Tezuka was above everyone. The idea that someone might actually climb to his level, though, made Oishi wonder what he could possible offer to the one who was going to be the pillar of their club.
"Ne, Oishi?" A voice said, practically in his ear.
The cheerful tones were unmistakable, but Oishi wasn't in the mood to deal with Kikumaru. He turned his head to make some kind of excuse, but the pair of eyes that were less than a foot from his own startled him.
How the heck did Kikumaru get so close without me hearing? Oishi wondered. The boy tended to move with the subtly of an elephant in a china shop - he made a lot of noise.
"Huh?" Oishi asked.
"Call me Eiji," the redhead said, still way too close for Oishi's definition of personal space, and apparently unaware of it. There was a charm about his obliviousness, but right now Oishi just wanted to be left alone. "I'll call you... Syuuchirou? That's such a mouthful - I'll call you Oishi..." he mused, though the way he said it made it sound closer to "oishii" than its proper pronunciation. I really need to be called "delicious," Oishi thought with tired resignation. He had heard the joke way too often, but Kikumaru seemed delighted with the idea.
"Ki- Eiji, I really..."
There was a seriousness in Kikumaru that seemed at odds with the brilliant smile he was wearing as he slid onto the bench next to Oishi. Their sides pressed together, and Oishi blinked again, wondering how Kikumaru could be so comfortable.
"You know, my mother once told me that there's more than one kind of friend," he said thoughtfully. "We all give each other something that someone else can't. Just because we make a new friend doesn't mean we forget the old friends."
Kikumaru's words hit their target. Oishi blinked slowly, wondering if he was being jealous for no purpose. His hands shook, and he fisted them to try to contain the trembling
"Sometimes you just want to keep a person to yourself, because they're that special," Oishi whispered softly. Various memories of Tezuka, serious and strong, flickered through his mind, and he knew that he didn't want to lose the special closeness they had.
"If you keep someone to yourself, you're keeping yourself away from other people," Kikumaru said. "It's hard to make new friends when we're focused only on the ones we already have."
Kikumaru made everything so simple, so black and white. Despite his hyperactivity, the redhead wasn't stupid. He seemed to understand emotions, and was willing to talk about them. He was the opposite of the complicated and introverted Tezuka, but Oishi felt a smile come to his lips.
"I guess," he admitted. "You're a good friend," he said.
"Always!" Kikumaru laughed. "Friends are important!" He said, leaning against Oishi comfortably. To Oishi's surprise, the contact wasn't invasive this time, but something comforting. Then he turned his head so their faces were less than six inches apart, an Oishi was caught in the enthusiasm reflected in Kikumaru's face. "Ryuuzaki-sensei promised me I could play a match tomorrow. Will you watch?"
"Of course," Oishi replied, feeling affection for the redhead, who had somehow made his foul mood disappear. "I can't wait."
The next day, Ryuuzaki again began to pair off the first years, and the first pair she called was Kikumaru-Kawamura. Oishi winced on hearing who Kikumaru would be playing, but obediently went over to B court, knowing he had made a promise to watch.
He really hoped that Kikumaru would be okay. Kawamura Takashi was a pretty good player, but Oishi thought - very privately - that he was absolutely insane.
Kawamura was a shy boy, quite timid really... until he picked up a racquet. Then he turned into the equivalent of a snarling, rampaging lunatic, obsessed with tennis. His shots, which lacked accuracy, were powerful, and Oishi knew that trying to return one could result in unexpected injury. Even Tezuka sometimes winced slightly after a long match with Kawamura. How would Kikumaru, with his slender build and short stature, manage to stand against the powerhouse?
Oishi frowned as he watched Kikumaru stretch, wondering if he should say something. Warn him. Tell Kikumaru that it might be a good idea not to take the match so seriously...
After several moments of worry, he opened his mouth to give Kikumaru SOME kind of hint of what was waiting for him, but before he could, a hand feel on his shoulder.
"It'll be okay," Fuji said, smiling at him reassuringly. The tensai gave Oishi's shoulder a reassuring squeeze before letting his hand fall to his side. "Have some faith."
"Eiji won't be happy if you don't have any trust in him," Fuji warned, and though his smile was still pleasant, there was a hint of the "other" that Oishi had seen Fuji display while playing Tezuka. "Watch and see."
Oishi nodded slowly, still feeling uneasy. Fuji crossed his hands over his chest, apparently deciding to watch as well. Oishi wasn't sure if he liked having the sly boy so close, especially since he hadn't completely reconciled himself to what he felt. Kikumaru's words yesterday had been comforting, but it was hard to accept that Tezuka was moving beyond him.
On the court, Kikumaru jumped a couple of times, the nodded in apparent satisfaction. "Ready!" he said, looking over at Kawamura, who was taking a few fierce swings himself.
The power player gave him a wicked grin. "Come on! BURNING SERVE!"
Oishi winced as the ball landed just inside the court, whizzing by Kikumaru. The shot was half luck, to have made it inside since Kawamura's control was rather pitiful, but Kikumaru blinked a bit. "Fast!" he said.
"Serving again! I'm going to beat you!" Kawamura yelled, tossed the ball up into the air.
The ball blazed through the air, but amazingly Eiji just stood there, unconcerned as he watched it go by this time.
Almost against his will, he turned to Fuji. "He didn't even try for it."
"He saw it was going to go out," Fuji said. "He's got excellent vision - no matter how fast a ball is going, he's able to see it."
Oishi remembered Kikumaru rambling about his eyesight when they had been getting ice cream, but he hadn't realized that the boy hadn't been exaggerating. "That won't help him when he tries to return a serve," Oishi said finally. "He'll hurt his wrists."
"He's stronger than he looks," Fuji said.
The next serve landed outside as well, and Oishi imagined that he saw Kikumaru's head tilt slightly, in the fashion of a cat, before a slight smile came to his lips.
Kawamura served again, and this time the ball headed straight for Kikumaru, who took the racquet in both hands and returned it with a grunt of effort. The ball landed in Kawamura's court, forcing the larger boy to chase it. He managed to lob it, high, over Kikumaru's head...
And Kikumaru jumped.
Oishi's breath caught as Kikumaru seemed to fly – his slight built seemed to weigh nothing as he flew through the air, angling for the ball to smash it back into Kawamura's court. But he was positioned wrong as he begun to descend, his head seeming to be angled for a direct collision with the ground.
He's leaning too far forward! Oishi thought in a panic, opening his mouth to call out a warning, even though he knew it would be too late.
"Wait," Fuji said into Oishi's ear, sensing his alarm. "Watch."
As though he was dancing on the wind, Kikumaru's feet continued to rise smoothly, spinning over his head, and then he was landing, his feet settling perfectly on the ground. A bright smile lit his face as he held up his fingers in a "V" sign, winking at the shocked Kawamura. "Kikumaru-sama's acrobatics!" he said playfully.
Oishi stared, unable to believe what he had just seen. "Wh-what..."
"Acrobatic tennis. It's his specialty," Fuji filled in, crossing his arms over his chest.
Oishi stared as the red head bounced over to wait for the next serve.
"We're going to have a good team next year," said Tezuka, coming to stand between Oishi and Fuji. Oishi glanced over at his friend, whose eyes began to watch the game with interest. Kikumaru missed a point, and Kawamura crowed over his victory, but his mind kept replaying Kikumaru's unexpected play.
Suddenly Tezuka didn't seem so distant, and Fuji wasn't a threat. As Kikumaru hit a ball using the racquet behind his head, he suddenly began to see that Kantou wasn't a far off dream, and Tezuka would be able to lead them there...
With a little help from their friends.