"Echizen-kun."

Ryoma paused, letting the slight swivel of his head toward the other boy be his only response. The locker room door clicked shut, the last of the other Regulars now gone, leaving only Echizen Ryoma and Fuji Syuusuke.

"Have you considered finishing our match?" Fuji's voice was soft, gentle, as it always was, and though Ryoma couldn't see it, he knew that Fuji's lips were curved up, his ever-present smile perfectly in place.

"Not really," answered Ryoma, and, pulling his cap down over his eyes, took a single step toward the locker room door before the tennis genius' soft voice halted him once again.

"Is that so? Even after you've seen all of my Triple Counters?" Fuji's voice was still gentle, though if Ryoma really wanted to, he could hear the sharp warning lying just beneath the surface.

Ryoma didn't particularly want to hear it, however, and when he finally turned to face the older boy, his hat obscuring the view of his eyes, he said, "Triple Counters," like the phrase was completely foreign to him.

There was a long moment of silence before Ryoma made a small sound like a dawning of comprehension and then continued, "Ah. The Owl Return, the Bear Rise, and the Blue Whale."

It is generally well-known that one does not want to be present when Fuji Syuusuke opens his eyes, for no one yet has escaped the ominous blue glint without first suffering mass pain and humiliation. However, if Echizen Ryoma was aware of this well-known fact, he did not show it, and when Fuji's eyes snapped open and fixed themselves on the eye-covering bill of Ryoma's cap, the freshman made no notice, only quirked his lips slightly in a way that might have suggested a smile.

"Well," Ryoma said, turning on his heels. "I'll see you later then."

And after a quick adjustment of the tennis bag hung over his shoulder, he was gone, leaving the blue-eyed tennis prodigy alone in the locker room, staring intently at the closed door, his eyes cold and calculating.

"Echizen Ryoma," he said, quietly, and smiled.

--

Ryoma didn't like Fuji in the same sense that he didn't like, well, anyone really. But at least Fuji could play tennis, which automatically made him far superior to, say, Horio who with his two years of tennis experience could rarely even seem to find the ball let alone hit it.

Mostly, Ryoma was just mystified by Fuji who liked wasabi sushi and Inui Juice and who smiled more often than he didn't. He didn't understand the tennis prodigy, and as a general rule Ryoma didn't like what he couldn't understand.

So when he started glancing over his shoulder to always find a tall, smiling figure hovering a short distance away, he was understandably bothered. Only slightly at first, a prick of slight annoyance when he glimpsed those closed eyes and smiling lips, but when Fuji stopped hovering, moved closer, and started actually trying to speak to him, his annoyance quickly escalated into great distress.

Great distress being that Ryoma glared a lot and walked a little faster than normal and didn't discuss it with anyone, ever.

Other people tried to discuss it with him, though, which wasn't really all that much of a surprise. Even his seniors had their moments of sudden insight and keen observation, however rare they may be.

"Hey, ochibi," said Kikumaru, trying and failing to speak softly as Ryoma struggled to escape the arms that had thrown themselves around his neck. "What did you do to Fuji-senpai?"

"Eh? Nothing. Why would I have done something?"

Kikumaru's grip loosened as he brought one finger to his lips and stared thoughtfully toward the sky. "Well, he's certainly very focused on you these days, so you must have done something to anger hi—"

"Nah," chimed in Momoshiro, appearing from nowhere and finding it necessary to lean in close to confer with the other two. "Look at him. He doesn't look angry."

All three snuck a glance at the tennis prodigy, standing near the locker room door and talking amiably to Inui. When he noticed the six pair of eyes on him, he smiled brightly and sent a cheerful wave in their direction, causing the three younger boys to blanch at being caught staring and frantically look away.

"Well, maybe not angry, but—"

"Definitely more interested than usual, so maybe he did something, just—"

"Not something that angered him. Exactly, nya!"

"Kikumaru-senpai! Can't. Breathe."

"So, what are you three talking about so secretly over here?"

Both Kikumaru and Momoshiro jumped at the sound of Fuji's voice, Kikumaru nearly jerking Ryoma's head from his neck, and the two shuffled their feet and stuttered while the youngest finally wretched himself free and coughed heavily into his hands.

"Um, we, uh, were talking about—"

"Heh, heh, yeah, we, uh—"

"—were talking about going to get burgers after practice!" announced Momoshiro in a moment of sudden brilliance, thrusting one hand triumphantly into the air.

"Yeah, yeah, burgers, nya!" Kikumaru was quick to affirm, complementing Momoshiro's hand-thrusting with a few sample acrobatic moves.

"Is that so?" said Fuji, seeming not entirely unsuspicious, and Ryoma, who had stopped coughing and instead resumed looking mildly annoyed with the antics of his seniors, suddenly suspected that most of Fuji's attention was focused on him.

Needless to say, Ryoma really didn't like being the center of Fuji's attention.

"Mind if I come along? My treat, of course."

His response was silence, the three underclassmen looking positively shocked and maybe even a little horrified that Fuji should suddenly want to treat them to burgers.

"Ah, ah, well—"

"Of course!" said Momoshiro, forcing a smile and resting his hands behind his head in an attempt to be casual while Kikumaru hurriedly agreed.

"Well, then we'd better get going, hm?"

--

Over the months, Ryoma had almost come to, in his own way, enjoy going out for burgers with Kikumaru and Momoshiro. Except, of course, for the part where both of the older boys tended to get into a heavy discussion over something tedious and not tennis-related, and Ryoma, who didn't care much for things not related to tennis, was left to eat his food in silence and get lost in thoughts of far more important things, namely tennis and Karupin. But even that had become sort of pleasant, if only in its familiarity.

What wasn't pleasant was Fuji, who also didn't seem overly interested in Kikumaru and Momoshiro's discussion of television programs and instead preferred to watch Ryoma eat like there was nothing more fascinating and possibly never would be.

"Echizen-kun," inquired Fuji, almost sweetly, "don't you like anything on your burger?"

Ryoma glanced at the tennis prodigy and suddenly realized that there was something brightly-colored dripping from Fuji's burger and he had no desire to know what. He hastily turned back toward his own food.

"No," he answered, and took a bite while Fuji hummed thoughtfully and continued to watch.

By then, Kikumaru and Momoshiro had abandoned their conversation, seeming to finally become aware of the other two boys sitting at their table or, maybe even more likely, finally becoming aware of Ryoma's sudden facial tic.

"Hey, ochibi," said Kikumaru, pointing at the freshman's cheek, "what's wrong with your face?"

"Nothing," answered Ryoma, who was quickly growing tired of his burgers and decided to switch to his fries. He put one in his mouth and chewed for a moment under his senior's watchful eye before he could stay quiet no longer. "Fuji-senpai, what are you looking at?"

"Echizen eats his fries one at a time," Fuji said, smiling brightly, like there was something deep and meaningful in this fact, and suddenly Ryoma was feeling far too exposed and dropped the fry in his fingers.

"I just remembered something that I have to do," he declared, and stood up abruptly, his half-full tray in his hands. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Oh," said Fuji, standing up as well, "I'll walk you home."

Ryoma froze, his grip on his tray nearly loosening and sending it clattering to the floor, but he managed to control himself and tightened his grip, just in case. He half-turned to find Kikumaru and Momoshiro cheerfully waving them off while Fuji moved to stand beside him, his smile wide and encouraging. Ryoma turned back around and closed his eyes briefly, steeling himself.

"All right."

--

Ryoma really wasn't sure which was worse. He'd expected Fuji to try to hold a conversation while the older boy accompanied him home, and certainly this would have been torture, for conversation with Fuji was a little like the pricks of several small needles, but Ryoma wasn't so sure that what Fuji was currently doing wasn't worse.

Fuji wasn't talking, in fact hadn't said one word since they left the burger place. Instead, he seemed perfectly content to simply enjoy the freshman's company, walking beside him and sending long, thoughtful looks his way. And maybe Ryoma would have been content too if he enjoyed the presence of other people, but he didn't and he wasn't, and he really just sort of found Fuji's company to be creepy. He mostly wished that Fuji would turn around and go to his own house, but the other boy didn't appear to have any inclination to do so.

"Um. Fuji-senpai?" said Ryoma when his own house was in view ahead of them, and Fuji's response was a smile and a slight cock of the head. "You don't have to come with me any farther. My house is right there."

"Ah," said Fuji, still smiling brightly and yet showing no sign of leaving. "But wouldn't Echizen's father like to meet his son's best friend?"

Ryoma hadn't realized that he'd had a best friend or that his best friend was Fuji Syuusuke, who more often than not he considered little more than a mere acquaintance, and so after Fuji's sudden declaration of the contrary, he stopped, his feet frozen to the ground beneath him, and just stared.

"B-best friend?"

"Yes," said Fuji, turning to smile at Ryoma. "So certainly your father will want to meet me."

Ryoma wasn't so sure, but he had no chance to protest any further as Fuji was already ahead of him, striding up to the front door of the Echizen residence. So the bewildered freshman bit his tongue and quickly jogged to catch up, praying that his pervert of a father was passed out somewhere and thus incapable of meeting his son's so-called best friend.

Ryoma opened the door to his house slowly and quietly, debating over announcing his arrival, for the benefit of the other, far more pleasant members of the household, before deciding against it. The last thing he wanted was to inadvertently invite his father's presence, and he turned back to Fuji with the intention of explaining that his father must not be home and that there was no need for him to stay any longer, but he was cut off, before even a word had left his mouth, by a loud and distinct voice that caused his hands to clench tightly around the shoulder strap of his tennis bag.

"Ahh, there you are!"

Ryoma was sort of beginning to think that today was just not his day.

When he turned, he realized that his idiot of a father had already spotted Fuji and apparently been shocked speechless, as though no one had ever visited the house and he hadn't expected anyone to visit, ever. Ryoma hoped that maybe Fuji would mistake the old man for a monk that was in no way related to him, but Ryoma's hopes were dashed when he glanced back to find Fuji bowing politely.

"Good afternoon, Echizen-san. I am Fuji Syuusuke, your son's best friend."

"Eh?" said Nanjiroh, looking positively shocked. "The idiot dwarf has friends?"

Ryoma visibly cringed and silently prayed that his father would be struck with a rare and incurable disease that caused its sufferer to eat his own tongue. "He's one of the regulars on the tennis club."

"Ah, that explains it," answered Nanjiroh, and threw his hands behind his head as he yawned loudly before suddenly he perked up. "Hey, would your friend like—"

"No," said Ryoma, quickly and decisively. "He wouldn't like to play against you."

"Maybe some other time," said Fuji, his lips curved in a pleasant smile. "Right now I must be going." He bowed politely to Nanjiroh again before turning to Ryoma. "I'll see you at practice, Echizen."

Ryoma glared at his senior's departing back and wished that Fuji, too, would one day be struck with a rare and incurable disease, one that caused its sufferer to gouge out his own eyes. And then eat his own tongue, of course.

"Seems like a nice kid."

"Until you know him," Ryoma assured his father, and stomped to his room.

--

"Echizen."

Ryoma sighed and threw his racquet into his right hand before he turned to find Inui, notebook in hand, peering at him through the thick, opaque lenses of his glasses.

"Do you need something?"

"Information," Inui answered, and grinned just slightly, sending eerie shivers up Ryoma's spine. "What has happened in the last week between you and Fuji Syuusuke? Namely, what has occurred that would cause him to focus his attention solely on you?"

Ryoma frowned and scanned the tennis courts for the prodigy, finding him a few feet away beside Oishi, his smiling gaze on the freshman. Ryoma frowned even deeper and looked away.

Earlier, Fuji had cornered him and tried to convince him that the two should start doing their homework together on a regular basis. Ryoma had managed to dissuade him, but only just, and he had a sinking suspicion that Fuji would soon try again, this time far more forcefully.

Ryoma snapped back to the present when Inui began scribbling notes into his notebook.

"How am I supposed to know?" he barked, and threw his tennis racquet back in his left hand, intent on returning to his practice.

"You have no idea why he is suddenly paying you so much attention?"

"I don't know," Ryoma answered, quietly and slowly, for once completely honest. "I don't know."

--

It hit him on the second lap around the tennis court, when Ryoma happened to glance to his left to see Fuji running directly beside him, the prodigy's footfalls distressingly in-tune with his own. So he sped up, not enjoying the feel of Fuji running so close to him, passing several of his teammates, and everything was fine except that when he looked again Fuji was still there, running right beside him.

This time he slowed down, letting several people pass him, and he could see Fuji slowing down as well until once again their footfalls were perfectly synchronized, and Ryoma frowned and sped back up to his usual pace.

"What are you doing?" he growled when Fuji easily caught up.

"I thought you could use some company."

"Is there something you need?"

"Well, now that you mention it," Fuji answered, and Ryoma immediately regretted asking and steeled himself for the response. "I was thinking maybe we could do homework together. Say, tomorrow night, my house?"

"No," said Ryoma, and prepared to dash ahead.

"Oh, but Echizen, one could greatly benefit from doing his homework with another person. We could correct each other's mistakes and combine our knowledge of different subjects. It would be a worthwhile experience."

"No."

"Echizen," said Fuji, and suddenly Ryoma just knew without looking that the older boy's eyes were open and gleaming and staring right at him. "You should be aware that I will not give up until you agree, and I think you will find that I can be quite persuasive when I want to be."

Ryoma frowned and turned his head to the ground, watching it move under his feet as he ran, and he considered his senior's words carefully before he finally came to a decision.

"What time?"

--

Ryoma expected many things of the Fuji household, which is why when Fuji Syuusuke held open the front door and gestured him inside, Ryoma squeezed his eyes shut and tensed every muscle in his body in preparation for whatever attack might come. However, when no one jumped from behind the door and tackled him to the floor and nothing fell from the sky and knocked him unconscious, he reopened his eyes to see only Fuji, unarmed, his smile wider than usual, as though delighted by Ryoma's reaction.

"Welcome, Ryoma-kun," said Fuji rather amiably, and smiled when Ryoma flinched violently at the sudden use of his first name. "Since no one else is home, I thought that we could just work in the kitchen."

Ryoma wasn't quite sure whether he should be relieved or dismayed at the news. He certainly didn't relish the idea of being alone with Fuji, but on the other hand at least it didn't sound like they would be spending any time in his room, a place that Ryoma had always imagined to be the home of various torture devices.

"All right," answered Ryoma, and let himself be led to the kitchen table, where it appeared Fuji had flung all of his school supplies.

"Now," said Fuji, seating himself in one of the chairs. "I thought we could work on our English."

Ryoma stared. "I lived in America most of my life, and from what I understand you are nearly fluent."

"Yes."

Ryoma stared some more. "So why do we need to work on it together?"

"There is always room for improvement," said Fuji, deathly quiet, his eyes snapping open, and was that a ring of red forming around his pupils?

Ryoma hastily agreed and dove into his bag for his homework.

--

Doing homework with Fuji turned out to be less painful than Ryoma had originally imagined. This should not be taken to mean that the homework sessions were devoid of pain, however, which they certainly were not.

Two nights after the initial session, Fuji had invited himself over to Ryoma's house, and while the younger boy had been adamantly against such a thing, he had eventually given in when he had glimpsed a shadow of something like fire in Fuji's open eyes. While the first night was a night of English, tonight was turning into a night of mathematics, a subject in which Ryoma frequently found he needed the most improvement.

Not that he was really getting much help from his senior, who spent most of the time behind Ryoma, leaning over his shoulder to watch him work and commenting on such things as the perfect straightness of his ones and the shape of his eights. And whenever Ryoma asked for help in correcting his mistakes, Fuji smiled demurely and said, "You're doing well, Ryoma-kun," which infinitely irked the younger boy who was gradually learning to despise the way Fuji said his first name.

Eventually Ryoma decided to simply scrawl random numbers on his paper, and after asking Fuji to check his work and receiving a "You're doing well, Ryoma-kun," he decided that he was done with mathematics for the night and flung his book aside.

"Done," he said, turning around on the floor to glance up at Fuji, who was reclining on the bed and looking nowhere near ready to leave. Ryoma's shoulders slumped as he ran through all possible excuses for needing Fuji to leave immediately and figured all would prove ineffective.

He had taken a deep breath and prepared himself for a good, long sulk when a familiar meow caused him to glance at his doorway, and the sight of Karupin pushing his way into the room brightened Ryoma's spirits considerably. He quickly made sure that his lap was empty and perfect for Karupin to nap in, and waited patiently for the cat to amble over and climb in it. It was several seconds before he realized that Karupin wasn't coming anywhere near him.

Instead, the cat had hopped up on Ryoma's bed, where Fuji was beckoning him, his fingers scratching playfully at the mattress, a soft "tch, tch, tch" coming from his lips. Karupin knelt a few inches from the older boy's hand for a few minutes, during which Ryoma gnawed on his bottom lip and prayed that the cat would take a swipe at Fuji with his claws, before the cat finally gave in and nudged at Fuji's hand with his nose, inviting the tennis prodigy to pet him.

Ryoma suddenly knew hate like he had never felt before as he watched Fuji's fingers card gently through his cat's fur. And when Karupin climbed into Fuji's lap and curled into a furry, purring ball, the only coherent thought in Ryoma's head was, "My cat, my cat, my cat."

"Such a sweet cat," said Fuji, scratching behind Karupin's ear, a deep affection in his voice, and Ryoma saw red and leapt to his feet.

"Don't you have somewhere you need to be?"

If Fuji heard any of the burning hatred in the younger boy's voice, he gave no notice of it, only turned his warm gaze to Ryoma and said, "No, I don't think so."

Ryoma seethed, digging his heels into the floor. "Are you sure?"

"Ryoma-kun," said Fuji, his fingers abandoning their place in Karupin's fur, "could it be that you want me to leave?"

Ryoma didn't reply, instead focusing on his own breath which, now that Fuji was no longer petting his cat, was gradually slowing and returning to normal.

"I see."

Fuji carefully nudged the sleeping cat from his lap, Karupin giving a protesting yowl, and stood. He began to gather his things in his backpack, still smiling happily, as if everything had gone perfectly according to plan.

"I'll see you at practice," said Fuji, slinging his bag over his shoulder and giving Karupin's head one last scratch, and then he turned to leave, seemingly unaware of the heated glare Ryoma was giving his retreating back.

Karupin suddenly gave a loud meow and jumped down from the bed to rub at his master's ankles.

"Traitor," said Ryoma, and reached down to cradle the cat in his arms.

--

"Ryoma-kun."

Ryoma tightened his grip around his tennis racquet and turned to find Fuji standing a few feet from him, a warm smile on his face.

"Yes?" he replied, trying not to notice how every other member of the tennis club has stopped their warm-up routines to watch the exchange between the two boys. It apparently had become a source of entertainment, a sort of game even, for everyone except Ryoma: watch Fuji harass the freshman, and Ryoma was starting to feel a little bitter over it.

"I was wondering if perhaps you would like to play a game of billiards with me on Saturday."

Ryoma didn't particularly want to and told Fuji so, half-expecting the older boy's eyes to open at the rejection, but they didn't, nor did his smile falter in the slightest.

"But Ryoma-kun," he said, with the slightest emphasis on Ryoma's name, and the freshman bristled instantly, "the last time we played billiards, you defeated me, so you must give me a chance to even the score."

"No."

Ryoma turned back around and began to move forward, intent on asking Momoshiro to warm up with him.

"But Ryoma-kun," said Fuji, the smile now gone from his voice, replaced with a deadly calm, "don't you want to play billiards with me?"

Ryoma scowled down at his shoes, mentally weighing the pros and cons of agreeing to play billiards with the sadistic older boy, and he was still deep in thought when Fuji apparently decided to take his silence as acquiescence.

"Good. Then we'll meet, say, at two o'clock Saturday afternoon. You do remember how to get there, don't you?"

Ryoma's scowl grew significantly in size, but he didn't bother to dispute the older boy's assumption. "Yes," he sighed, and tried to ignore how much of the tennis club were still staring and now whispering to each other about this new development.

"Good." The smile was back in Fuji's voice. "I'll walk you home today."

Ryoma blinked, biting the inside of his cheek in annoyance, and then glanced back over his shoulder. "That isn't necessary."

Suddenly Fuji's eyes were open and narrowed, the smile leaving his lips, and Ryoma quickly said, "Yes," and that was that.

--

Ryoma had a sudden burst of genius when Oishi declared afternoon practice to be over, and the freshman ran to the locker room and changed quickly, so quickly that when Kikumaru and Momoshiro entered after him they could only stand in the doorway and stare in awe. He then gathered his things and, pushing past his seniors, rushed outside, only to be stopped in his tracks by the sight of Fuji, already changed and clearly waiting for Ryoma.

"Ah, that was quick," he said with a bright smile, and Ryoma scowled in disappointment and prepared himself for the walk home with the older boy.

Fuji was quiet, not that that was unusual, but something about this particular quiet made Ryoma uneasy, like for once there was some sort of reason that Fuji was opting to remain silent.

"Fuji-senpai," he started, pausing to gather his thoughts into some sort of order before continuing, "is there any reason that you are walking me home today?"

"Hmm," replied Fuji, and suddenly there was a subtle skip in his walk and a glint in his eye, and Ryoma knew that he hadn't been mistaken when he'd sensed something amiss. "I would like to speak to your father."

Ryoma blinked, once and then again for good measure. "Why?"

"Because," said Fuji, smiling widely, and was it just Ryoma's imagination or was there something distinctly evil about that smile? "Wouldn't Ryoma-kun's father like to meet his son's boyfriend?"

Ryoma froze, his bag falling from his shoulder and hitting the ground with a loud clunk. "Boyfriend," he repeated, with no small amount of disbelief or horror in his voice, and Fuji, several feet in front of him by now, turned around and gave him a particularly bright smile.

"Yes. Now hurry up, Ryoma-kun, or I'll leave you behind."

"Boyfriend," said Ryoma, trying and finding himself unable to move past that one word.

"Yes," said Fuji, grinning like this was the most fun he'd had in a long time, and it probably was, the sadistic bastard. He walked back to Ryoma and bent forward to pick up the dropped tennis bag.

"Don't you have to ask my permission before you can become my boyfriend?" asked Ryoma, finally able to put words to his thoughts.

"Is that so?" Fuji cocked his head to one side and looked thoughtful. "But you agreed to go on a date with me on Saturday."

Ryoma sputtered indignantly. "I didn't know that was supposed to be a date!" he declared, an edge to his voice that previously only his father had been able to inspire.

"Really?" said Fuji, still looking thoughtful but other than that completely unruffled. "Hmm. Well, now you know." He smiled undauntedly and held Ryoma's bag out to him.

"I'm not your boyfriend!"

The smile froze on Fuji's lips before disappearing completely. His eyelids parted, revealing a dark flame in his usually bright blue eyes, and inside Ryoma was shaking, but he wouldn't back down, he told himself, he wasn't going to back down.

"I see," said Fuji, his voice deathly calm, and he took a single step closer to Ryoma, sending the younger boy scuttling several steps back to compensate. "I see," he repeated, taking another step forward.

Suddenly, Ryoma had a vision of himself, several months or possibly even years in the future, still backing away frantically while Fuji advanced forward. So Ryoma gave a quiet sigh, said a silent prayer that Fuji lost interest soon, raised himself to his full height, and said, "I'm not sure how my father would react. He might forbid me from seeing you."

Then Fuji's eyes were closed once more, and he looked deep in thought. "Hmm," he said. "You might be right. Well." He paused to give Ryoma a brilliant smile. "I suppose I'd better leave you here then."

He took another step forward and stopped so close to the younger boy that Ryoma was suddenly deathly afraid that Fuji's intent was to bend down and kiss him, but the tennis prodigy only replaced his bag, which he had since forgotten about completely, on his shoulder. Fuji's smile widened at his obvious discomfort.

"I'll see you at practice then, Ryoma," he said, apparently deciding to completely drop the honorific, though this time Ryoma couldn't bring himself to flinch. "And don't forget: Saturday at two o'clock."

"Yeah," he said, inwardly cursing himself. "Yeah."

--

Saturday came faster than Ryoma would have liked. Actually, he'd much rather preferred it not come at all, but it did, and he walked out of the house like a criminal to his execution, his father standing in the doorway behind him calling, "Oi, is it a date?" to which Ryoma had no answer.

He had considered not going at all, or at the very least to drag Momoshiro along with him. But then he remembered the flame in Fuji's eyes, the dangerous calm in his voice, and he knew he'd never be able to get away with ditching the older boy or ruining Fuji's plans, and that he might even be punished for trying.

As he walked, Ryoma tried to think about pleasant things. He thought about Karupin, but the pleasantness was chased away by the image of Fuji petting his beloved cat. Then he thought about tennis, but even that was ruined by the memory of his match with Fuji that popped unbidden into his mind. Then he was at a loss, all the pleasant things in his life now sullied by Fuji's presence. He cursed his sadistic senior and spent the rest of his walk considering all the tortures he would have to endure during this "date."

Fuji was waiting outside, his personal cue case in one hand, looking like everything was right in the world, and inside Ryoma seethed.

"Ah, Ryoma. I'm so glad you could make it. I'd hate for you to miss our date for some reason." There was a vague threatening tone to Fuji's voice, as though hinting to Ryoma the consequences had he not been able to make it.

Ryoma was suddenly very glad that he came, and he obediently followed Fuji into the building, hoping that this "date" would be quick and uneventful.

Fuji was the epitome of happiness as he put his cue together and then set up the billiard table. There was a certain genuineness to his smile that Ryoma had never seen before, and he seemed almost to float more than walk.

All in all, it pissed Ryoma off more than anything had in a long time.

"You remember how to play Nine Ball, don't you, Ryoma? Or would you like to try something else this time?"

Ryoma gritted his teeth briefly before forcing himself to remain expressionless. "No, that's fine."

"Would you like to break?"

"No. You can."

Fuji leaned forward slightly in something like a gracious bow and then positioned himself at the end of the table, his cue sliding between the loop of his finger several times before he let it strike the white cue ball, propelling it forward and sending colored balls flying in all directions. Two balls rolled into two separate pockets, and Fuji straightened and gave Ryoma a pleased smile.

He then proceeded to sink three more balls easily, and Ryoma suddenly had a vision of Fuji running the table, giving Ryoma no chance to play and ending the game sooner than he'd expected. But Fuji, predictably, dashed his hopes by missing his next shot, the fourth ball coming to a stop several inches from the pocket.

"Ah well," he said pleasantly. "Your turn."

Ryoma clenched his hand around his cue and then forced himself to relax, to stroll easily around the table and nonchalantly bend forward and prepare to strike the ball with his cue.

"Oh, Ryoma, your form is all wrong."

Ryoma was fairly sure that it wasn't and wheeled around to tell the older boy so, except that when he turned, his nose hit Fuji's chest and he fell backwards against the table in his attempt to escape.

"Let me show you," said Fuji, looking beyond amused as he forcibly turned the freshman around by his shoulders and then slid in right behind him, his hands moving to cover Ryoma's.

He then proceeded to launch into a lecture on the correct billiards form that Ryoma, his back flush against Fuji's chest and his backside pressing distressingly into Fuji's groin, completely missed, his mind being too busy screaming, "Rape, rape, rape!"

Ryoma lost, pitifully, the two games that they played, his brain too preoccupied by how close Fuji was standing and how frequently Fuji found the need to touch him and the sneaking suspicion he had that the older boy was gazing at him in a way that was anything but appropriate. Consequently, he focused far too much on not bending over in front of Fuji and far too little on either of the actual games.

He'd then been terrified that Fuji would try to kiss him or worse when the game was over, but the older boy hadn't even offered to accompany him home, had only waved cheerfully before turning to walk to his own house.

"How was the date?" asked Nanjiroh, a lecherous grin on his face, as his son opened the front door and slipped into the house.

Ryoma muttered something about sadistic tennis prodigies and inappropriate touching, which Nanjiroh, thankfully, heard none of, and then trudged to his room where he intended to curl up with his cat, fall asleep, and forget the entire afternoon.

--

Ryoma crept out of the locker room prepared for the worst. He fully expected to Fuji to launch himself at the younger boy and then attempt to discuss their "date," loud enough for everyone within a ten mile radius to hear.

He walked onto the tennis courts, his cap completely covering his eyes, and moved to stand behind Momoshiro, hoping that his senior's body would block him from Fuji's eyesight. After several minutes of this, where Ryoma had seemed to go unnoticed, he began to get suspicious, for he hadn't really expected it to actually work, and he peered around Momoshiro's arm to get a look at what was going on.

He found Fuji easily, standing a few feet away and smiling politely as Kikumaru talked about something, his arms waving wildly. The tennis prodigy seemed completely unconcerned about Ryoma, never once even turning in his direction, and Ryoma was just beginning to wonder if the other boy even knew he was here when Fuji excused himself from Kikumaru's company and started walking in Ryoma's direction.

Ryoma quickly moved back behind Momoshiro and prepared himself for the gentle "Ryoma" that he was almost certain was coming.

It never came.

"Momo," said Fuji, a smile in his voice, "practice with me for a while."

Momoshiro sputtered, clearly having been caught off-guard by the demand, and then seemed to pull himself together enough to consent to his senior's request. As the two walked off together, Ryoma, now completely exposed, stared after them in shock. Even if Fuji hadn't realized he was there before, he certainly had to now.

And still, he had yet to acknowledge the freshman. Several minutes into Fuji and Momoshiro's practice match and Fuji hadn't even spared Ryoma a single glance.

Ryoma stood rooted to the spot until Oishi began to gather all the tennis club and Kikumaru latched onto his arm, pulling him away.

--

Five days. Five days since their "date." Five days since Fuji had even laid eyes on Ryoma, much less spoke to him.

It shouldn't have bothered him.

Ryoma turned down the invitation to join Kikumaru and Momoshiro for burgers, and instead he walked home alone, his head down and his feet dragging, his brain unable to move past those two words: five days.

It wasn't that he liked Fuji, far from it. The tennis prodigy's presence was a nuisance, and his constant attentions, bordering on obsessive, irked Ryoma in a way that nothing else had, not even his father.

It's just that he had become accustomed to Fuji. The way he seemed to magically appear every time Ryoma turned around, the ways he found to force himself into Ryoma's company, the irritating way he kept trying to get closer and closer to Ryoma, the infuriatingly ever-present smile, Ryoma had gotten used to it all. And now it was all gone.

He should be celebrating, Ryoma told himself firmly. Fuji seemed to have lost interest in Ryoma entirely, and only after one "date." Now he was free, finally out of Fuji's clutches, and he should consider himself fortunate, for people like Yuuta weren't so lucky.

It shouldn't have bothered him. But it did.

--

"Fuji-senpai."

If Fuji heard him or even noticed the freshman standing beside him, he gave no sign, continuing to talk to Inui about the different tastes of his various juices.

Ryoma gnawed at the inside of his cheek and tried again.

"Fuji-senpai."

Fuji still didn't notice him, though from the looks of it he was the only one who didn't. All of the other tennis club members had abandoned their activities to watch the interaction between Fuji Syuusuke and Echizen Ryoma, and Inui had whipped out his notebook, looking positively delighted at the turn of events, and was hurriedly jotting down notes.

Ryoma scowled openly now and decided to try one more time.

"FUJI-SENPAI."

"I believe Echizen is trying to get your attention," said Inui helpfully, his pen leaving his notebook to point at the freshman before returning and resuming its scribbling.

Finally Fuji glanced at him, and Ryoma wasn't quite sure if he imagined the brightening of his smile or not.

"Ah, Echizen," said Fuji, and the sudden use of his last name, after Ryoma had finally gotten used to the sound of his first name coming from Fuji's lips, struck him harder than he ever could have imagined.

He spent several seconds pulling himself together before he spoke.

"I wanted to know if you'd be interested in playing a match against me."

Fuji's eyes opened, and Ryoma tensed. Then, sensing that there was no immediate danger, he relaxed somewhat, one hand coming up to nervously adjust his hat.

"Outside of practice?"

Ryoma hadn't intended it to be outside of practice and almost informed Fuji of this fact, but something in the other boy's eyes stopped him. Instead, he found himself saying, "Yes."

"I see," murmured Fuji, raising his chin slightly and gazing down at the freshman thoughtfully. "You name the time and place."

The words spilled from Ryoma's lips, and he only barely realized that he was speaking and what exactly he was saying.

"The tennis courts, at 3 pm, two days from now."

"I'll be there," said Fuji, his eyelids sliding shut again.

His mission accomplished, Ryoma turned and walked away. As he moved, he noticed that something felt very, very wrong. It took him several minutes to realize that he was smiling.

--

"1-0," called Fuji, smirking openly as Ryoma huffed and glared across the court. "So, is my Owl Return just as you remembered it?"

"Your Swallow Retur-" started Ryoma, but then froze as if catching himself in the middle of saying something he knew he shouldn't.

"Ah," said Fuji, his smirk growing significantly. "So you do know the correct names of my Triple Counters."

Ryoma didn't answer. Instead, he reached up to pull his cap even further down on his head, hiding his eyes from the tennis prodigy.

"Come here," said Fuji, already moving up to the net himself, and Ryoma hesitated for only a second before he too strode up to the net.

Fuji was smiling, one lip quirked up higher than the other, and Ryoma had only a second to be afraid before Fuji's hand was at the back of his neck and pulling him forward, bringing their lips together.

Fuji's lips were softer than Ryoma would have imagined, not that he did imagine because he didn't, ever, and he dropped his tennis racquet and instead moved his hands to clutch at Fuji's shoulders, managing to jerk the other boy closer without even realizing it.

Fuji's hand slid from Ryoma's neck to his cheek, cupping it gently as his lips moved against the younger boy's, causing a shiver to roll down Ryoma's spine as his legs trembled, just slightly, and he began to kiss back, tasting Fuji's smile but being unable to feel embarrassed about it.

Fuji was still smiling when they pulled back, more widely and brightly than Ryoma had ever seen him smile before. "Your serve," he said, softly, and turned away.

--

Ryoma had lost, just barely, but enough that his shoulders drooped and he yanked his cap down even further over his eyes as he walked to the net. It hadn't helped that Fuji had taken his outstretched hand, declaring, "It's too early for you to defeat me, Ryoma-chan," and then pulled him into another kiss that sent his cap falling to the ground and shivers moving down through his spine and into his legs.

Of course, the incident hadn't stopped him from letting Fuji accompany him home.

"I'm home," Ryoma called, toeing his shoes off and then waiting as Fuji did the same. When he turned to lead the tennis prodigy to his room, he found his path blocked by a particularly large and perverted buffoon holding a suspiciously thick newspaper.

"Oi, ther—ah, you brought your friend," exclaimed Nanjiroh, looking gleeful and consequently somewhat evil, and Ryoma decided that he should put a stop to that right away.

"My boyfriend now, actually," replied Ryoma, as Fuji bowed deeply and Nanjiroh dropped the newspaper in his hand, exposing the dirty magazine hidden in its pages.

There was silence for several seconds, Fuji smiling pleasantly and Nanjiroh looking to be nearing a heart attack, and Ryoma felt a smirk growing on his lips.

"He eats people for breakfast," he continued, trying to find something about Fuji that might appeal to his father.

Nanjiroh made a noise that sounded faintly like a gurgle and then promptly fainted.

"Stupid old man," said Ryoma, effortlessly stepping over his father's prone body, and continued on to his room with a quietly chuckling Fuji behind him.

He shut the door to his bedroom, throwing his bag on the floor, and Karupin, who was napping on the bed, leapt up at the noise and meowed enthusiastically at the two boys.

"Hello, Karupin," said Fuji, sitting down beside the cat and running his fingers through his fur as Karupin crawled into his lap and began to purr loudly.

Ryoma narrowed his eyes as a wave of jealousy struck him so hard that it threatened to knock him over, but he pushed it down. It was irrational, he knew, to be jealous of his boyfriend because his cat liked him, possibly more than he liked his owner. Still. Ryoma sighed loudly and told himself it would fade eventually.

He moved to sit beside Fuji and was inwardly delighted when Karupin abandoned the older boy's lap for Ryoma's, nuzzling the freshman's hand until it scratched behind the purring cat's ear.

"See," whispered Fuji, smiling fiercely, "you're still his favorite."

Ryoma was hardly surprised: Fuji was always unnaturally perceptive, but still he gifted the tennis prodigy with a bewildered look that received a chuckle in response.

Then Fuji was lifting his hand and removing the freshman's cap, letting it fall to the bed, and Ryoma closed his eyes as a hand smoothed his hair.

"You've come a long way. A few weeks ago, you were running every time I came near you, and now you're telling people that you're my boyfriend."

Ryoma's eyes reopened, and he arched an eyebrow at his senior.

"That's because you were persistent and sadistic, as usual. I stood almost no chance of resisting you, at least not for very long."

"Actually, you resisted for longer than I thought you would," said Fuji, his smile morphing into something suspiciously like a smirk, and Ryoma wasn't sure if he should be offended or not. "Anyway, there was nothing sadistic about my actions. They were perfectly acceptable courtship rituals."

Ryoma's hand paused in Karupin's fur, and he glared at the older boy, his lips twisting into a faint snarl.

"Is that what you call it? Acceptable courtship rituals?" he growled. "You stalked me, harassed me, molested me, toyed with me—"

But Fuji's smile was only growing wider with each accusation. He was clearly pleased with himself for making the freshman's life miserable, and Ryoma glanced at Karupin, breathed deeply, and then looked back up.

"Acceptable courtship rituals," he repeated, now completely deadpan.

"Yes," Fuji replied, and kissed him.