Starting Over
~ A Prince of Tennis Alternate Universe ~
by Jennifier D. and Aishuu




Prologue


The scratching of Inui's pencil was hardly noticeable among the louder cheers and comments of his teammates as the two top players of Seigaku prepared to face off at the training camp. The two were meeting at the net to decide the serve, but the icy atmosphere between them was practically palpable.

His shorthand wasn't decipherable by anyone except him, which was probably a good thing, since the rather blunt comments about what was happening would have earned him more than a few enemies. Considering there was already enough tension among the team, the last thing he wanted was to be a target himself.

April weather still held a hint of winter, and he was glad for the warmth of his regular's warm-ups. The two players on the court, dressed in just shorts and short-sleeved shirts, were probably a bit cold, but neither was the type to show any flaw. He watched them carefully, waiting for a sign of weakness, but knowing there probably were none. Perfection was rare, but they were both teetering on that pinnacle.

Beside him, a soft voice spoke. "See anything, Inui?"

He turned to see the number three player regarding the court with wide open eyes, a rarity. Fuji Syuusuke almost always wore a pleasant, closed-eyed expression, seeming to sleepily watch what was happening around him with bemusement. Only a sharp ear caught how pointed his comments could be, and a truly dry sense of humor understood the slightly sadistic nature of what he implied, time after time. Today he slouched low, his hands shoved into his pockets casually, but the way his attention was fastened on the game in front of him told Inui that this game was going to be one of the usual free-for-alls that occurred whenever these two played.

"It's going to be bad," Inui said.

Fuji nodded his agreement, his usually placid face serious. "The incident with Momoshiro earlier has made Keigo-chan a bit irritable."

It was always something or another, Inui wanted to say. It seemed to him that Tezuka Kunimitsu and Atobe Keigo were incapable of getting along for thirty seconds. Incident after incident was required in his book, as the stoic buchou and confident diva had countless run-ins, time after time, irritating the hell out of the other.

"It was an accident," Inui said finally. Momoshiro wasn't one of Atobe's biggest fans, but he didn't support Tezuka - and that was enough for Atobe. The second year had been injured while playing Tezuka and hadn't been able to come to the training camp, which put Atobe in an exceedingly foul mood. If there was one thing that could be said for the diva, it was that he was loyal to those who were loyal to him.

All said, it was a situation that was getting worse by the moment. It made Inui wonder how the hell Seigaku was supposed to survive, when their top two players couldn't even breathe the same air without starting a cold war.

"Saa."

The odd silence they fell into while waiting for an outcome was immediately broken by cheers and comments when the first service game was given to Atobe. Inui tilted his head to one side and noted the various expressions on his fellow club members' faces before taking down the appropriate notes. Fuji seemed oddly amused; it was most probably something which only he could understand or take amusement from in such a tense situation.

"...Atobe Keigo to serve."

The noise around him had been steadily building up into a headache-inducing hum. There was a sudden lapse into silence and it felt as if all had held their breaths while the diva narrowed his eyes and served.

Inui noted how it appeared to be almost always inevitable that they ended up watching the two best players of their team face off on the courts time and again, the intense rivalry rather telling of their intolerance for each other. It was interesting how the two of them were obviously opposites- not exact opposites, of course -and yet he could draw the parallels in their personalities as easily as he could pencil a line.

Tezuka was the quieter of the two, and from what information the data tennis player had gathered on him from the past couple of years, he was usually the less offensive of the two as well. He didn't provoke as much as Atobe did, but one couldn't help suspecting that there were instances where the lack of provocation was intentionally meant to annoy through his sheer indifference. It was also difficult to tell when he pulled a joke, but Inui thought he was beginning to see a pattern somewhere.

Atobe, on the other hand, could be described as 'flashy'. He was arrogant and acutely aware of his own talents, which often placed him in a position that favored badly with a number of the club members. Seigaku wasn't known for showy and talented individuals who climbed a hierarchy to the top-- it was built up from team effort, and Atobe's attitude alone could sometimes tear the whole club into pieces.

Inui liked a neutral standpoint when it came to the two boys, because this meant he could take down observations and opinions in the most unbiased manner possible. As a data collector, one must always aspire to be as objective as possible and that was his aim. He sided with neither and he made no inclination to join the club in its rivalry issues. He had other purposes for joining the club; although it was amusing to watch the ongoing competition from a detached point of view, it could get tiring, and they were heading nowhere near the club's original purpose.

"This looks like it's going to last for quite a while." Fuji's observation was closer to stating facts.

"Ah."

Sunset painted bright fingers of gold and red across the sky, reminding them of the lateness of the hour. Inui checked the two players still rallying on the courts before closing his notebook with a soft snap. He had watched enough of their matches to know that he couldn't afford to miss a single moment of their match scribbling in his notebook.

Tezuka and Atobe evolved in tennis constantly, and watching them was almost like watching a slow and dangerous dance on thin ice. Both were relentless and each pushed the other to heights nobody else could possibly understand. They were as compatible as they were not; one of them would have give way eventually, but as far as he could tell, it certainly wasn't going to happen within the recent future.

"...Tezuka Kunimitsu to serve."

There was a beautiful symmetry in their movements as Tezuka moved to take his turn. Sunlight seemed to halo his dark brown hair, turning him into a young tennis god as he tossed the ball up into the air with his right hand, preparing one of his amazing pinpoint serves - which Atobe would get. Service aces between the two were exceptionally rare. Atobe-Tezuka matches were about endurance, skill and pride.

The game count was in Atobe's favor, one game to love, but Inui knew that Tezuka would keep his service game in return. The chance of either of them breaking the other was less than five percent, and his calculations showed that the game would most likely end in a tie - like usual. And Ryuuzaki-sensei wouldn't let them play tiebreakers, not after the first one went 40-38, and was finally won by Tezuka after he unveiled a new move - the zeroshiki drop shot, which quickly became one of his trademarks.

That was the benefit of their rivalry, Inui knew. The two were constantly pushing each other to a new plateau of ability, and dragging everyone else along for the ride.

Fuji was a silent presence at his side, but as Tezuka took the second game after a fifteen minute skirmish, Inui spared him a glance as the two players changed courts.

"Who'll win?" he asked idly.

"Who had the better breakfast this morning?" Fuji answered smartly, shifting a bit as he stretched his legs.

His point was a subtle one, but made well. The difference in skill varied from day to day, and while Inui usually leaned slightly towards Tezuka, Atobe was constantly managing to find ways to keep even with him in his attempt to prove that he was indeed the best player Seigaku had.

As Atobe took the third game, the data player looked over at where the club members had gathered, frowning a bit as he noticed the two distinct groups. Tezuka's supporters were on one side of the court, while Atobe's were on the other... the side he happened to be on, since the view was slightly better. But he really shouldn't stay over with Fuji for too long if he expected to maintain his precarious position as the only regular who hadn't outright declared an alliance.

"I´m going to go take a look from a different angle," Inui said to Fuji. "I want to see if the angle of Atobe's drop shot has changed as much as I think it has."

Fuji wasn't fooled by the polite excuse. "Say hi to Oishi and Kikumaru for me," he said.

Inui gave him an uneasy smile before quickly tracking around the court to stand next to the vice captain and his doubles partner. Oishi Syuuichirou and Kikumaru Eiji were the team's Golden Pair, and never seemed to be far from the other's side. Oishi was watching the game with a bit of concern, obviously worried that the players would over exert themselves, but his eyes couldn't hide how much he was enjoying the play.

"The team is going to be strong this year," Oishi murmured as he looked to Atobe and Tezuka. "We should be able to secure all the singles matches with Tezuka, Atobe and Fuji."

"Hmmm," Inui said in reply. It was true; both Atobe and Tezuka were Junior Selection Athletes, but that didn't mean they couldn't be defeated - anyone could be defeated, after all - and everyone knew that the last thing Seigaku needed was a repeat of last year's Kantou finals...

No. Best not to think of that.

Still, even though Seigaku was fielding an outstanding singles line up, and a nationally ranked doubles pair in its doubles one position, it did beg the question of what to do with doubles two.

Frankly put, all of the remaining players sucked at doubles. It was a dilemma.

Momoshiro was cut out for power tennis the same way Kawamura was, and his style was distinctively that of a singles player. He had a bigger reaching area like most of the better singles players, and that could cause serious problems if they tried and put him in a situation where he had to share a court with another person.

Kaidou, Kawamura and himself had the same problems, since they were all better at singles than doubles. Kawamura might be able to cooperate with the right partner, but it was clear that clashes would happen when they put two far-reaching singles players on the same side of the court and expect them to coordinate.

He suspected that it could be aptly passed off as disaster, Seigaku style.

Of course, they could try and get them to coordinate, but it would simply take too much effort. Interestingly enough, he found their inadequacy in doubles to be the driving force behind making the team stronger by each successive set of ranking matches. Everyone was trying to fit into the remaining doubles position while maintaining their fervor for the three singles positions.

Furthermore, competition between the four remaining singles players was high, as someone was always pushed out of the school team each time they had their ranking matches.

"We will get stronger."

Oishi turned and smiled, glad for his confidence. "I'm sure we will."

Inui turned back to the courts, knowing that the conversation had come to an end for the moment, at least.

A series of cheers went up from the crowd surrounding him when Tezuka scored two successive points, and he could see Atobe's supporters narrowing their eyes in annoyance. The diva himself appeared to be nonplussed by the consecutive scoring, and proceeded without haste to score point for point in return.

The sky was beginning to take on a dark purple hue, and the orange-red streaks of sunset were slowly being engulfed by the rapidly surfacing darkness. The lights illuminating the tennis courts were turned on, but the two figures moving on the brightly lit courts appeared to be unaffected by the fast approaching nightfall.

"Change court!"

Everyone watched as the two star players of their school team changed courts, and it was almost impossible to not notice the way they stopped briefly at the net to have a short conversation. Minutes later, Tezuka continued walking forward with an expressionless look, and Atobe did the same. It was difficult to tell if they were flushed from the game or from anger, but Inui knew that Atobe had a tendency to go deathly pale when angered.

The shuffling motions of some of the two players' supporters would have been amusing had everyone not been distracted by the game that just began.

"15-love! Atobe Keigo to serve."

Inui watched as the game progressed, and he knew instinctively that both players had upped the speed of their game despite their similar states of exhaustion. They would be reaching a tiebreak soon, and Ryuuzaki-sensei had wandered off a couple of games back for some personal matters, leaving no-one around to control the current match.

"Deuce!"

He wondered if anyone was going to be able to stop the inevitable. Oishi wouldn't dare get between the two, and no one else had any sort of authority to try to stop the captain from taking his rival to a point that was irrational.

This was PRACTICE, and they were TEAMMATES, Inui thought. The benefits of their rivalry were outweighed by the divisiveness it fostered.

"Game, Atobe! 6 games to 5!"

Atobe smirked, his lips curling in a satisfied fashion. His hair was turned silver-white from the florescent lighting, and he took his position, waiting to receive Tezuka's serve.

Once upon a time, he would have taunted the other player, but the games between the two had become silent things, as the two communicated with raised eyebrows.

Right now Atobe was confident, apparently convinced that he would be able to break Tezuka's final service game. Inui wasn't sure about that - it was true that Tezuka was rarely able to pull off his zerokshiki, his trump card, against Atobe, but Atobe's own specialty, the Hametsu e no Rondo, was something Tezuka was able to predict even more accurately than Inui himself.

They knew each other better than anyone else. Keep your friends close and enemies closer, Inui thought cynically.

"This is ridiculous," someone said, and Inui turned his head to see who had echoed his own thoughts.

Kikumaru? The redhead was watching the game with an expression of frustration on his face...

"Why hasn't buchou broken his serve yet?"

Ah. It had been too much to hope for sanity from someone else. It was frustrating to be the only member of the Seigaku team to see what was happening. No -- that wasn't true.

Fuji knew. Fuji just didn't care, as long as they won. He found the whole situation funny.

Inui tilted his head, trying to figure out a viable solution. He knew that Ryuuzaki-sensei wasn't happy, so she could be considered a potential ally... but neither of the two stubborn aces would listen to her.

Tezuka and Atobe were alike in all the wrong ways.

"Game, Tezuka! 6 games to 6!"

Silence.

Inui felt everyone around the courts tense, waiting to see what they would do. Without Ryuuzaki-sensei there, would they...?

It was Tezuka who moved first, coming to the net. He held out his hand to Atobe.

Ah. Of course. Ryuuzaki-sensei had made a rule, and Tezuka, as captain, couldn't break it.

"Good game," he said quietly.

Atobe only hesitated for a moment, giving his own hand over for the briefest of clasps before retracting it. "You wouldn't have latest through the tie break."

"Hmm." Inui only saw Tezuka's eyebrow twitch briefly because he knew where to look. It was gone in a flash, and he doubted that most people had seen it.

Oishi. Fuji. Atobe. Himself. Those who knew the captain the best.

Atobe was satisfied, apparently, having once again irritated Tezuka, because he gave another brilliant smile. "Still, I suppose the game was adequate." Turning away, he walked over to where his supporters were gathered, accepting a towel from Kawamura, who said something to him with a concerned expression.

Inui watched the whole scene play out, as it had 100 times before. His fingers were tense against his notebook, and he tried to think of a solution, but no ideas were forthcoming.

Something had to give.


End: Prologue