Title: Crossing the Desert

Author: EllipsesBandit…

Disclaimer: As always, none of the boys belong to me. If I owned them, I would have done the more recent arcs much differently.

Rating: K+

Pairings: TezuFuji with special guests

Summary: Fuji invites Tezuka to attend a cacti convention with him. Buchou has no idea what he's in for.

A/N: This was originally written for Asael over at TheirWhiteDay. The original prompt was "A storm in the desert" with requested jealous!Tezuka. This is what happened when I decided Tezuka I couldn't make Tezuka jealous of people.

All cacti and facts are courtesy of the Gardenweb forums and the National Cacti & Succulents Society, and I have next to no botanical knowledge myself. Do now, though. Could raise my own cacti now. As always, much thanks to microgirl for beta-ing. She gets a million of Nana Olaf's chocolate white chocolate chip cookies.


The cacti were becoming a problem.

Tezuka knew Fuji had his eccentricities, most of which were either somewhat endearing (his stolen photo collections) or at least easily ignored (his unique taste in ice cream). Fuji's cacti patch used to fall in the latter category. It wouldn't be a problem if the plants remained on the windowsill as decorative objects. Tezuka might even learn to appreciate their beauty if they stayed in one place. But they never did. Fuji's penchant for discussing his day with inanimate objects frequently manifested in the tensai picking up various pieces of his garden, carrying them around the room, and depositing them wherever he was, often forgetting about them till much later.

Which is why Fuji was currently bent over Tezuka's wrist wearing a half-undone shirt and a smirk while wielding a pair of tweezers. And Tezuka was not flinching.

"Hold still," Fuji warned.

"I am."

Fuji's smile increased, "Well, that will teach you to be more cautious."

Tezuka raised an eyebrow at the person who decided hazardous flora was best kept hidden behind a pillow on a nightstand. Come to think of it, Fuji was the one who pushed him on the bed when they were supposed to be studying for exams anyway. Caution indeed.

Not for the first time, Tezuka wondered at Fuji's choice of gardening favorites. Of all the plants in the world, he chose one that was neither practical nor particularly nice to look at. It made no sense. But then again, Fuji prided himself on not making sense.

"I can take them out myself," he protested half-heartedly, though trying to take the tweezers from Fuji was too dangerous a proposition at the moment.

Fuji shrugged, "I'm practiced at this. Sofia bites."


"My spiniflorum."

Tezuka processed this. "The cactus's name is Sofia?"

"Mn," Fuji nodded. "There. I think I got them all." He ran his fingers up Tezuka's stinging forearm, checking for any more of the fine barbs. Satisfied, he set the tweezers down. "Now, where were we?"

Tezuka shoved a history textbook in Fuji's hands before the other boy could take advantage of the situation again. An arm full of centimeter long barbs had a funny way of sobering him up. "Exams, Fuji. Exams."

Fuji glared at the cover. "Those are months away. Anyway, I know this already, and so do you. Besides, I'm good at taking tests. I hardly ever study."

Tezuka raised an eyebrow. He suspected Fuji hardly studied the same way he hardly practiced tennis. He'd once caught the tensai on the school courts after dark, methodically working on his newest counter. Fuji spent hours there, for how many nights Tezuka couldn't be sure. And he never mentioned a word of it to anyone. He hated anyone seeing him sweat. Out of respect for that, Tezuka never told him that he'd seen. Whatever genius Fuji supposedly possessed, he worked for it. And even if he didn't, Tezuka wasn't excused from studying.

Fuji sighed and flopped backwards on to the bed when the buchou didn't answer. He then tried another tact, "And it's so nice outside for fall. Why don't we play some tennis instead? It's been ages since we've had a match."

"It's getting dark. We can play tennis on Saturday."

"No, we can't. I'm going to be in Kanagawa on Saturday."

Tezuka's head abruptly turned to look at Fuji. "Why are you going to Rikkai?"

Fuji laughed then, probably glad to have Tezuka's attention. Rolling on one elbow, he said, "I'm not going to Rikkai. Not everything is about tennis, you know."

Tezuka remained unconvinced. He'd thought matters between Fuji and Kirihara had been settled, but he'd been wrong about these things before.

"Nee-san's taking me to a convention on Saturday. It just happens to be in Kanagawa."

Fuji was being deliberately vague again. "Convention" could mean anything from an amateur photography conference to a gathering of shoujo manga addicts. Tezuka was fairly certain it had nothing to do with tennis or he would have heard about it.

"If you like," Fuji said thoughtfully, plucking at a button his shirt, "You could come with."


As far as Tezuka could remember, he'd never actually agreed to attend the convention, but Fuji had shown up at his door with an extra pass on Saturday morning, anyway. Most people wouldn't have noticed the difference in his smile or the way he eagerly twirled the pass around his neck, but Tezuka was taken aback by the amount of genuine emotion Fuji displayed. The rarity had been enough to get Tezuka into the car and eventually in front of the convention center:

The green banner on the front of the building proclaimed: The International Cacti & Succulents Society Welcomes You! Next to the words posed a cartoon cactus wearing sunglasses and saluting.

Tezuka didn't know what a succulent was and didn't think he cared to. He followed Fuji blindly, unsure what to make of the crowded hotel that had been transformed into a piece of the Sahara, complete with sand-filled dioramas in some places. Fuji remained unfazed by the atmosphere. If anything, he was delighted, snapping photos and tugging Tezuka toward the registration line. The two of them fought for a space on the lobby floor where Fuji could "plan the day." He assigned Tezuka to watch over a large box, while he highlighted a schedule in green and pink. The box, from its size and weight, probably contained one of Fuji's pets. The schedule, now looking something like a fluorescent zebra, contained God only knows what.

"I have to attend Hidaka-sensei's lecture on windowsill gardening, but there's also the 'Highlights of South America' panel at ten. And I'd like to stop in the dealer's room before lunch, but I can't buy anything until we're ready to leave. One plant is difficult enough to transport."

Tezuka had noticed that, especially since some of the con-goers hadn't bothered to encase their plants in boxes. Walking through an actual desert would have contained less danger. Not to mention the desert would have been without the strange group of people milling around. Some of them seemed normal enough, but at least half were androgynous, hunched-over figures with stringy hair and a pervasive odor of soil about them. They muttered quietly to their charges as they passed the square of floor the two tennis players had staked out.

Looking at Fuji, Tezuka made a quick assessment: androgynous perhaps and definitely prone to muttering, but Fuji hadn't lost his sense of personal hygiene and did maintain better social skills than Tezuka. He made a silent prayer that those facts didn't change and Fuji never devolved to one of these fanatics.

"And they have a live Pilosocereus robinii in the gallery!" Fuji exclaimed. "I didn't know you could raise those in captivity."

Tezuka doubled the force of his prayer. At least at a cacti convention, he'd be saved the embarrassment of running into anyone he actually knew. Fuji was the only tennis player in the Kantou area likely to attend…

"Oy, Fuji!"

Tezuka shut his eyes. Of course, he could be wrong.

"Saeki! I was wondering if I'd see you here," Fuji smiled, waving the Rokkaku vice-captain over. "Where's your mother?"

"Sick, which is why I'm here. I'm to take extensive notes and purchase everything on this list," Saeki laughed, presenting a long strip of paper. "I'm the trustworthy child in the family, though I bet if she knew you were here, she'd have just given it to you."

"You never could tell an agave from an aloe."

"That's harsh, Fuji," Saeki gripped his heart in mock pain.

Tezuka realized it would be rude to interrupt the two old friends. He merely had something in his throat. The fact that it caused Saeki to notice his presence was purely coincidental. "Tezuka-san? I didn't know you were a Cactite too."

Cactites? More and more, Tezuka felt as if he'd unwittingly signed up for some sort of cult. Fuji smiled, mostly at Tezuka's expression. "He's learning. And helping me carry Nicholas around."

"You're competing with Nicholas? Globular category, right?"

Tezuka was lucky he could remember Fuji's brother's name, let alone the names of his cacti.

"Not competing this year. Haven't had time to get anyone ready. Nicholas has actually been looking a little yellowed around the areole, and I can't figure out why. So I thought I'd see if Hidaka-san would take a look at him for me. If I can get a question in, that is."

"Well, then you should go to his panel. I've got to go to the South America one, but they're repeating it at 3. I'll let you know if it's worth going to or if it's just a slideshow," Saeki offered.

"Then I owe you a favor, ne?" The slightest hint of suspicion crossed Fuji's voice.

"I'm sure you could find some way to repay me," Saeki breezed, idly fanning himself with his list.

Fuji looked over the list. "This is a pretty long scavenger hunt for one panel of notes."

"I'll throw in a ticket to Hidaka-sensei's autograph line."

Fuji snatched the ticket out of his hand. "Done."

"Great." Saeki handed Fuji the list. "I'll catch up with you guys at the 'Living Plant Art' panel at one, okay?"

Fuji nodded, staring at the ticket in his hand. "I'm not going to ask how he got this. This ticket's like gold here." He tucked it into the back of his badge holder, careful to not let anyone else see it.
Tezuka hadn't considered the possibility of being mugged at a cacti convention, but most of these people did look pretty unstable.

Another assessment of Fuji: Tezuka wouldn't call him unstable…

The tensai took hold of his right arm. "Let's go, Tezuka. If we hurry, we can see the Pilosocereus before we have to get in line."


Tezuka learned three things during the course of their first panel.

1. A succulent is any member of the plant family that stores water for survival, so he
didn't need to feel suspicious or embarrassed every time Fuji said the word.

2. Cacti shrivel in winter to protect their stored water from freezing.

3. The toothbrush that disappeared at Fuji's house a few months ago had most likely
become a tool for dusting plants.

The rest of the lecture was over his head discussion of soil acidity and ratios of gravel to sand. He probably could have made more sense of it if he'd been paying attention, but he was preoccupied watching Fuji.

Tezuka had never been in the same class as Fuji, but he tended to believe the tensai spent most lectures doodling in notebooks or staring out the window, plotting new ways to torment the rest of the regulars -- his study habits seemed to indicate such. At the moment, though, Fuji was held rapt by the five foot tall, sixty-something, shrunken-looking man at the podium, completely immersed in talks of the most beneficial sunlight exposure for mammillana theresae. Hidaka-sensei had the public speaking skills of a stuttering emu, but Fuji didn't seem to care. He chewed on the end of a pen-- not actually taking any notes but clearly committing every word to memory.

He looked very genuine here, Tezuka decided. No fake smiles or hidden agendas. Despite the alien nature of the day, Tezuka thought he might be beginning to understand why Fuji brought him here.

At least, he thought so until the panel ended, and Fuji ditched him in the autograph line to pick up supplies for Saeki.

"Just for fifteen minutes? I'll come right back," Fuji pleaded.

"The autograph session isn't for two hours. There's no reason for us to get in line that early," Tezuka protested, moving to follow Fuji into the dealer's room. Fuji blocked him, putting up his hands to redirect Tezuka back into the short line.

"Panelists only sign autographs for a limited amount of time. If we don't get a good spot, he could leave before we get one."

"Then wait."

"If I wait the whole time, I won't be able to get all these supplies for Saeki in time for the Living Art panel, and I'll owe him another favor. He's not a good person to owe a favor to."

Tezuka raised an eyebrow. He didn't know Saeki Kojiroh particularly well, but if he was one of Fuji's friends, he had to be somewhat untrustworthy.

"Fifteen minutes," Fuji rushed. "Just watch Nicholas and wait here for fifteen minutes." He gave Tezuka's hand a quick squeeze, not waiting for an answer before darting back towards the dealer's room. Tezuka could either follow him and most likely get lost among the throngs of Cactites, or he could wait and develop a suitable reprimand for when Fuji returned. A minimum of twenty laps for abandoning a captain in strange and somewhat dangerous territory, he thought.

He sat down, leaning against the wall. About ten people had gotten to the line before Fuji, most of them bearing a weighty gardening book entitled Desert Jewels: Bringing Nature's Wonders to your Windowsill. Fuji owned a copy of it too, most likely stored in the satchel he'd brought with him. He'd probably strain his shoulder carrying such an awkward thing off one arm all day. Tezuka glanced at the weight he'd been forced to carry. All this for a rather ugly plant.

It was then Tezuka realized that he still had no idea which of Fuji's collection he'd been chauffeuring all day. Deciding he probably had a while to wait (Fuji was habitually late when he wasn't shopping in cactus heaven), he opened the top of the box.

Nicholas was a short, somewhat yellowed specimen packed expertly in a Styrofoam holder. Tezuka realized why Saeki had referred to it as "globular" now, each branch forming a round blotch that met together in the middle. It had no flowers, but an array of fine, hair-like spines gave it the illusion of fur-- an underhanded tactic in Tezuka's opinion.

Some of the cacti Tezuka saw in the gallery and at the panel could be considered impressive. There were species taller than him or branching out in spidery webs or dotted with brilliantly colored flowers. Nicholas had none of this; just a short, squat series of bulbs.

Tezuka found himself mumbling. "All this trouble for you?"

He then realized he had just referred to the cactus in the second person, meaning he had officially been at this convention too long. He started to close the box before this uncharacteristic talkative streak returned, when the woman sitting next to him squealed, "Ah! A Lobivia jajoiana!"

The woman pounced on the box, eyes blinking behind too-large spectacles. She brushed back a patch of frizzy, gray-blonde hair. "Poor thing, it looks like overexposure's gotten to her."

"Him," Tezuka corrected without thinking. He then resisted the urge to smack himself in the forehead.

"You're asking Hidaka-sensei for advice for him?" the woman asked. "Did they say he'd have time to take more questions? Usually these autograph things run more like an assembly line. Have you been to a convention before?"

She paused there, and Tezuka pondered which question, if any, to answer. He settled for the most recent, "No."

"How exciting for you," the woman smiled. Behind her glasses, her eyes took on a decidedly insectile look. "First conventions are always exciting. If you have any questions, you just ask me. You can call me Tsukushi-nee-chan, ne?"

The woman was at least twenty years beyond the label "nee-chan," but Tezuka's mother would undoubtedly find out if he was rude to an elder, so he nodded politely.

"You know, I met my first husband at one of these," the woman sighed. "He was working a booth in the dealer's room, selling biodegradable pots. Are you here with your girlfriend? A handsome young man like yourself must have one."

"Er…" Tezuka managed, masking his awkwardness by looking accusingly at Nicholas. It was all the plant's fault.

Luckily, the woman forgot she asked quickly enough. "Of course, my first husband ran off with a florist from Osaka. The woman couldn't tell an agave from an aloe. Can you believe it?"

Tezuka blinked. He'd heard Fuji say that same phrase not three hours ago. A paranoia that had been sequestered in the pit of his stomach most of the morning rose a little closer to the surface. This place wasn't healthy. At the next opportunity, he'd take Fuji aside and make a case for their leaving. Surely this woman alone would convince him…

"Gomen, Tezuka. I didn't expect the lines to be so long," Fuji breezed, awkwardly managing to sit cross-legged across from Tezuka, while using his shopping bags to force a small gap between the buchou and the crazed cacti woman. He then smiled at her the way he occasionally smiled at Echizen when the freshman insisted on waiting for Tezuka to lock up. "Did you make a friend?" he asked.

Tezuka glanced at the woman, who grinned as she processed the sudden intrusion of an attractive and somewhat protective youth. "This is Tsukushi-nee-chan," he managed.

Fuji blinked, looking at the woman's badge. "Tsukushi? Not Tsuki-chan66?"

"Oh you're on the forums?" the woman laughed. "I've been a moderator there for six years. You're…"

"SaboTensai!" Fuji cried happily.

"Ah, SaboTensai!" The woman suddenly embraced Fuji like he was her long lost son. Tezuka knew it was unsightly to let his jaw drop, but the muscles in his face were refusing to cooperate. "I didn't think I'd run into you in a place this big! So this is…" she gestured at the baffled Tezuka.

"My boyfriend," Fuji calmly answered.

Before he could begin to process this breach of their discretion agreement, the woman replied. "Oh, so he's that one."

Tezuka prayed the heat in his face was just from the crowded conditions. This time, he managed two syllables, "Fuji--"

"It's fine, Tezuka," Fuji reassured him with a pat to the shoulder, "Tsuki-chan is my mentor. Ne, Tsuki-chan. Did you look at Nicholas? Any thoughts on what the problem could be?"

Tsukushi squinted at the plant again. "At first, I thought it might be an amateur overexposure mistake, but you know better than that."

"Mn. It's not a problem with the soil either. I've tried everything I could think of."

"Perhaps it's an emotional problem, then."

"Emotional?" Tezuka wondered if this word had a different meaning in the world of botany.

"Tsuki-chan is a believer in Cleve Baxter's theory of Primary Perception, the belief that all living things are connected and able to communicate," Fuji explained.

"If the environment is too negative, the plant may be expressing its distress the only way he knows how."

Fuji pondered this silently.

"You consider that while I run to the little girls' room," she beamed, standing up. To Tezuka's great annoyance, she ruffled his hair on her way out. He started to speak, but Fuji cut him off.

"Don't be angry with me. I brought you a present."

"Fuji, I thought we agreed--"

"I only told her I had a boyfriend because if I didn't she was going to find a way to get me to go out with her daughter."

Tezuka sighed. He wouldn't win this argument.

"Don't you want your present?"

He wasn't sure. Knowing Fuji, it was probably a ridiculous novelty hat or something equally embarrassing. That seemed to be half the point of this adventure. However, Fuji instead presented him with a round packet, wrapped in green tissue paper. "It's candy. Made out of the nectar of Agave plants."

Tezuka took them experimentally. The candies were a translucent shade of gold, similar to the cough drops his mother forced on him as a child. "We haven't even eaten lunch yet."

"They're organic."

It took Tezuka a full five seconds to realize that Fuji's statement was in no way, shape, or form a counter-argument. "That doesn't make them lunch."

"Just try one."

Tezuka grudgingly put one of the candies in his mouth. The flavor was unexpectedly sweet, almost like honey though not as overpowering. He wondered who had discovered that something like this was inside something as off-putting as a cactus. Exactly how many times had that person been stabbed trying to get it out? He offered Fuji one, but the tensai shook his head. "Too sweet for me."

"Thank you," Tezuka managed awkwardly. He still wasn't quite over Fuji's earlier actions, but at least sitting here with him now felt normal enough -- if he blocked out all their surroundings.

"Ne, I just wanted to thank you. I know you must feel a little out of place, but--"

"There you guys are!" Saeki raced up to the pair, looking panicked. He grabbed Fuji's wrist. "I've been looking all over for you. Hurry up!"

"We'll lose our place in line if--" Fuji protested.

"Forget the line. Forget the autograph. I've got better." He pulled Fuji up. Tezuka rose automatically to stop him, but Fuji just shrugged and followed the frantic vice-captain.

Tezuka grabbed Nicholas and the bags, moving at as dignified a pace as he could manage after them.


After Saeki let go of Fuji's arm, Tezuka was able to feel grateful for being dragged out of the convention. He also appreciated that their destination was an upscale outdoor deli. Fuji, however, hadn't eaten a bite of the sandwich Tezuka had taken the liberty of ordering when both of the other tennis players appeared incapable of speech. Never one for starting conversations, Tezuka ate his sandwich and occasionally checked that Fuji was still breathing.

"Do you think he noticed us?" Fuji whispered eventually.

"He hasn't looked over here," Saeki attempted a subtle gawk at the table behind Fuji's head. Said table was occupied by the famed Hidaka-sensei, a four inch botany book, and what appeared to be a turkey club.

"Good." Fuji risked another look over his shoulder.

This had gone on long enough.

"Go ask him for his autograph," Tezuka ordered. He used his buchou voice, but it rarely had an effect on Fuji in the best of situations.

They both looked at him like his hair had suddenly turned cotton candy pink.

"We can't just disturb his lunch," Fuji said gently, as if explaining a difficult multiplication problem to a fourth grader. "We'd come off like one of those fans. It would be rude and…"

"I dare you," Saeki interrupted.

Fuji shot him a glare. "If you're so anxious, you ask him."

"Oh? So you are chicken."

"It's called 'courtesy,' Saeki."

Tezuka decided now would be the opportune time to refill his beverage. The soda fountain had the benefit of being around a corner from the bickering duo, giving Tezuka a moment to collect himself. He took a few meditative breaths, not noticing the purple-haired boy in front of him in line until he turned around.

"Tezuka Kunimitsu," Yukimura smiled. "What brings you all the way out here."

If any more of the Kantou region tennis players felt like showing up today, they were welcome to do so now, Tezuka decided.

"I'm here with Fuji," he answered, as if that explained everything.

Yukimura raised an eyebrow, glancing at the hotel across the street and the neon banner. "You're not telling me he brought you on a date to a cactus convention?"

Tezuka wouldn't call it a "date." He especially didn't like the knowing tone Yukimura used when he called it a "date." Not having any actual response for this, he settled for a medium-intensity glare and a mumbled "Excuse me."

Yukimura caught his arm. "I'm only teasing you. Come keep me company for a minute. Sanada's buying me lunch, but I'm a little early."

He'd been informed by both Fuji and Inui that Rikkaidai was not to be trusted under any circumstances. However, he considered this mainly a matter of dramatics, and sitting through another argument about stem grafting (whatever that was) held very little appeal. With a shrug, he followed Yukimura towards his table.



"It's a plant that stores its own water supply." Tezuka didn't know how Yukimura had gotten him to recount the day's adventure. It was rather fuzzy in his mind. Inui suspected Rikkai of practicing the black arts, but Tezuka had never seen any proof of it till now.

"Ah." Yukimura stirred his iced tea with a straw. "And now he's…"

"Watching an elderly man eat a sandwich with Rokkaku's vice-captain."

Yukimura chuckled; Tezuka frowned. "How cute. You're jealous."

Tezuka resisted the urge to snort. "Of Saeki?"

"Not exactly." The Rikkai captain shook his head.

He couldn't mean Tezuka was jealous of the ancient botanist. Or that Tsukushi woman. "Then of what?"

"It appears of cacti in general, which I believe is exactly the opposite of Fuji-kun's intentions.

Fuji's intentions? Tezuka knew he shouldn't be surprised. Fuji always had intentions. He'd just assumed today that those intentions involved making Tezuka as uncomfortable as possible, probably recording the events with security cameras for later enjoyment.

Yukimura noticed his befuddlement, staring critically at Tezuka. "You are aware of why he brought you here, aren't you?"

Tezuka kept his chin high, hoping to suggest that he always knew what his team was up to. At all times. As a captain should.

"You don't understand it." He rested his chin on one palm, chuckling again. "So Seigaku is immature in this area as well. Interesting…"

If Yukimura was implying Seigaku's tennis was immature, Tezuka had a first place trophy he could show him. And the Rikkai captain had no right to be smug about things he knew nothing about. "You don't understand it either."

"Tezuka-kun, Sanada could have figured this out by now."

Tezuka glared, moving to stand up.

"Sit," Yukimura commanded gently. "I'll help you."


"Because I'm bored, and this is fun." Yukimura's smile bore a striking similarity to Fuji's: not malicious exactly, but certainly enjoying prying open a sore spot. Fuji generally reserved that smile for that manager from his brother's team. Still, Tezuka sat. He'd hear Yukimura out before informing him that he was wrong.

"Has Fuji-kun been acting… strange today?" he began.

"Today is strange." Tezuka felt like he'd stepped into an alternate universe from the moment he left the car.

"I mean, is he behaving differently than he normally does around you or people at school."

Tezuka ran through his mental images of Fuji for the day -- everything from his uncharacteristic fidgeting to his coded conversations to his carefree admission of their relationship. "That is something of an understatement."

"But he invited you to see him like this," Yukimura stated, as if that was some sort of solution. He waited for Tezuka to understand, sighing when the Seigaku captain only raised an eyebrow. "He trusts you to see a side of himself he normally reserves for a specific group."

Tezuka frowned, considering the words. If anything, Fuji'd ignored him most of the day. He'd exchanged more words with Saeki and that strange woman. Of course, Tezuka normally considered Fuji's quiet nature one of his better attributes. But today, all his attention remained firmly riveted to the various speakers and specialists they'd seen -- though it embarrassed Tezuka to admit that he missed the feel of those sharp eyes on him. And then there was the business of him abandoning him in line – though he had brought back that oddly sweet candy …

Truthfully, Tezuka noticed Fuji's lack of his usual defenses since he opened the door this morning, though he'd thought Fuji was just too distracted to put them up. That didn't make much sense though. Distracting Fuji took a lot more than a simple plant. At least, Tezuka thought, it should.

He was not jealous of a plant.

"Yukimura," a stern voice brought Tezuka out of his thoughts. Sanada Genichiroh was staring at him with a look of part suspicion but mostly confusion

"Sanada," Yukimura breezed, a somewhat less predatory smile breaking across his face. "It seems Tezuka and Fuji are visiting today. We should invite them to play doubles with us later."

Sanada raised an eyebrow. "If they're feeling suicidal."

Tezuka stood, "I play singles. Excuse me, I should find Fuji."

"Take care, Tezuka," Yukimura called. "And good luck!"

Rikkai was officially the second most irritating school in the Kantou division, Tezuka decided. And if anyone from Hyotei showed up, he was going home. He stalked back to the table, in time to see Hidaka-sensei pay his bill and hear Saeki start another argument with Fuji concerning a favor that needed to be repaid, while Fuji heatedly denied said favor's existence.

Yukimura thought Fuji wanted Tezuka to see this side of him, which implied Fuji wanted him to accept this side. Either that or he was trying to make him jealous of a plant. There was only one way to find out.

Tezuka stopped in front of the table, his shadow pausing the argument. "Fuji, give me your book."

"Book?" Fuji blinked.

"The one you want signed. Let me see it."

Fuji looked confused, but reached into his satchel to produce the thick hardcover. The pages were dog-eared and worn, the binding broken several times over. Tezuka sighed at Fuji's usual carelessness, and decided he'd buy him some bookmarks soon. He ignored the stares of the two boys and approached the botanist instead. Bowing low, he began, "Excuse me, my friend is a fan of your work. Could you sign this book for him?"

The old man blinked at Tezuka, then at the two boys sitting with their jaws dropped to the table. "Ah… of course. You're from the convention?"

Tezuka nodded.

"What's your friend's name?"

Saeki gave Fuji a kick under the table that made him jump up, and -- as he'd now been seen-- approach his hero. "My name is Fuji Syusuke," he began nervously. "I've been a fan of your work since I saw your article on creating insect resistance by means of grafting."

"That old thing?" the man laughed. "You're too young to have seen that."

Fuji shook his head. "I've read just about everything."

Hidaka-sensei took the book, signing it while he and Fuji exchanged vocabulary words that made little to no sense to Tezuka. The captain watched the rarity of a nervous, stumbling Fuji. Even if he did try to tell someone, no one at school would believe him. Eventually, Saeki worked up the courage to come over with his copy of the book, asking for it to be autographed to his mother.

Hidaka-sensei accepted it. "And her name is?"

Saeki's face reddened slightly, before he mumbled, "Kojiroh…"

Eventually, Fuji let the botanist go, after realizing he'd be late to his own autograph section. Saeki left to see a panel on aloe plants, and the two of them were alone, wandering through a hotel ballroom that had been transformed into a makeshift greenhouse.

"Tezuka?" Fuji said, examining some smaller specimens.

"Mn?" Tezuka found himself looking at cacti just to keep from being too out of place. He found one with some red flowers that didn't look too dangerous.

"Thank you."

Tezuka nodded.

"Not just for the book," Fuji continued, not meeting his eyes. "I know I've been a little strange today, but thank you for coming with me."

It didn't seem to be the kind of comment that required an reply, so Tezuka didn't give one. Instead, he handed some money to the girl working the booth. She provided him with a carrying container and helped him ease the cactus into it without getting stabbed. Getting it out would be much trickier. Fuji watched the proceedings with an expression somewhere between amusement and delight.

A smile like that was worth risking a couple more cactus injuries.


Tezuka didn't realize the exact degree of risk involved in removing a odd-shaped, barb-covered plant from a small, enclosed space.

"I think he looks like a Gregory," Fuji said conversationally, once again wielding the tweezers with a flair that suggested he enjoyed the activity. Tezuka didn't have an appropriate answer for this, so he concentrated on not flinching. The damage wasn't as severe this time, just a few stray spines before they were done.

"You're sure you don't want to keep him?" Fuji asked, about to set Gregory on the windowsill.

Tezuka glared at the angry red color of his arm, the exact same color as the new cactus's flowers. "Only one of us would survive," he said. "Besides, it was for you."

"I suppose Nicholas could use a new friend," Fuji said thoughtfully. "Tsuki-chan did mention that loneliness or feelings of abandonment could be contributing to his state."

Tsuki-chan had given them both another lecture on Primary Perception before they'd left the convention. She'd also given Tezuka a business card for her greenhouse and encouraged him to call her if he needed to "talk" about anything. Tezuka would sooner talk to the cactus… again. "You believe her?"

The tensai took a moment to contemplate this. "I have a bit more faith in the phosphate rich soil supplements Hidaka-sensei recommended, but I do think plants can feel, at least primitively. Especially cacti."

Tezuka raised an eyebrow in question.

"Just a feeling I get," Fuji shrugged. "They have more trouble showing it than plants that flower more often. And they don't need as much attention as other plants, so people don't notice them. But I think that makes them all the more likely to have strong feelings hidden behind all those defenses. I think it's why I've always been drawn to them."

Fuji looked at Tezuka thoughtfully throughout his explanation. Eventually prompting the buchou to say, "I am not a cactus."

"Maybe I should mix a phosphate supplement in your bento." His smile curved into a smirk. "It might help you from getting so jealous."

Tezuka sighed. He'd hoped Fuji knew him better than that. "Of Saeki?"

Fuji smiled.

Not this again. "I do not get jealous of inanimate objects."

Fuji nodded patronizingly, completely ignoring the statement. "I'm sorry if I ignored you a bit. Those places have a way of distracting me."

"It's fine. It was…" Tezuka wouldn't say fun, but he had learned a good deal about Fuji today, information freely given, no less. "Educational."

"So, do you have a position on grafting for artistic purposes yet?"


"Well, it is important to listen to all sides of the debate before making an informed decision." Fuji moved away from the windowsill to sit next to Tezuka on the bed. "They look nice together I think," he said, staring at the two cacti. "Hopefully, Gregory will be a better match for him than Sofia. Those two just fought all the time."

Tezuka turned to stare in disbelief.

"That would be a joke. Some people might laugh."

"People like Tsukushi nee-chan?"

"Tsuki-chan would plan their wedding."

"I see."

Fuji leaned against Tezuka's arm, and for a few minutes, they sat in a comfortable silence. Fuji appeared back to as normal as he ever was, in no immediate danger of turning into one of the more zealous Cactites. The tennis probably helped. Exercise and healthy competition would prevent whatever strange syndrome ran rampant at the convention. He'd just make sure Fuji didn't quit the team; tennis could solve any problem.

"So I assume that means you won't go with me again next year," Fuji laughed.

Tezuka, however, heard the hint of anxiety in the laugh, and against his better judgment, thought of what Yukimura had said. Fuji took a risk today. He supposed he could do the same. "I will."

Fuji turned, sitting cross-legged on the bed to analyze Tezuka. "You hated it."


"But you'd go with me again."

"If you wanted me to, yes."

The kiss caught Tezuka off guard, but only for a second. It was the least he'd earned after today's trials, not to mention cactus injuries. And they'd had precious little time alone together all day. Given those facts, Fuji pulled away from the kiss too quickly in Tezuka's opinion.

"Then no offense, but we'll have to work on your speed a little."

"My speed?"

"We were sixth in line for autographs, Tezuka. Sixth. And they'd sold out of biodegradable pots by the time I made it to the booth. I can't have you slowing me down. You'll need practice."

Tezuka glared at Fuji.

"Unless you'd rather I went with Saeki."

The buchou stood up, walked to the closet, and pulled out Fuji's tennis duffel, tossing it towards the bed. Fuji caught it, smiling innocently. "I can practice with tennis while you work on your smash."

"Can Nicholas and Gregory come watch?"

"I am not explaining why two cacti are observing a tennis match."

Fuji's eyes lit up instantly, and he started to speak, but Tezuka cut him off.

"--and neither are you."

A/N: Hope you all enjoyed! Drop a review if you have a minute. They give me self-esteem. Oh and for anyone following Serve&Volley. We're not dead, just lazy. I worked on chapter 4 all week. Swear it'll be up soon.