Fuji stood at a window in an empty classroom, staring thoughtfully down at the people below. Practice would begin soon but he liked taking a bit of time to watch those around him. He learned a lot by watching. It had helped him assimilate.

The act was necessary. No one who would be able to handle his true personality. His congeniality was a mask for something darker than anyone around him would imagine. He wondered, idly, if the people around him would have a chance in hell against him if he ever got serious. Chances were they wouldn't. Not with the way his mind worked. Even now he had to keep himself from giving into his desire for destruction. Watching people break and fall apart...well, there was a pastime no one else would understand.

So to keep himself from going too far, he maneuvered things just far enough in the direction he wanted them to go. He did it so subtly that very few people, if any, noticed the manipulation. A word here, a look there, it was enough to keep him from taking things too far. Of course, he'd learned the necessity of walking that tightrope the hard way. At first, he'd been so disgusted at the very idea that he enjoyed other people's pain that he'd drowned himself in denial. Saeki, his only childhood friend, had paid the price for that denial. The regret he felt for what had happened was tinged with the determination to never let it happen again.

Watching the students below, he smiled sadly. Their world was not his world. He always felt a million miles away, completely removed from their reality. He knew he'd never fit them and that they'd never fit him. Still, sometimes it was nice to imagine.

Shaking his head, he stood and headed down to the tennis courts. All things considered, there was at least one thing to look forward to if the rumors about the new freshman were to be believed. Another good player on the team would ease their burdens considerably, especially considering the captain's worsening injury. Fuji knew neither Tezuka nor Oishi thought he knew anything about that but he saw it every time Tezuka moved. He favored it just a tiny bit, such a minuscule amount no one else noticed, but Fuji didn't miss anything. He also didn't comment. It wasn't his secret to share.

Fuji walked to the front of the school when he caught sight of the regulars grouped together. When he got closer to them it became apparent that Tezuka wasn't present. They exchanged a few comments about the new freshman. Oishi in particular seemed convinced that if he was as good as the rumors, he'd be a good asset to the team.

"We'll see," Fuji said, and the team moved from the school entrance to the locker rooms. When they got to the courts he saw that the non-regular juniors and seniors had monopolized the courts so the freshmen couldn't practice at all. None of the freshmen stood out except for the one in the green striped shirt. Judging by his body language, he was the type to boast about having skills he didn't possess. Not the new talent, then. Momo had said the kid was cocky but reserved.

There were two avid hanger-ons of the striped shirt guy, both of them eagerly leaning forward to catch every word. That alone made it obvious that they were new to the sport and easy to intimidate. There would be no fun for him in that quarter.

There were a few other freshmen scattered about but only one caught his attention. He was standing a bit to the side of the rest of his peers, idly kneading his racket. That habit told Fuji that he was attuned to how well his racquet held up and how often it needed to be re-strung. He couldn't make out the face of the freshman in question because a white cap obscured his eyes. All he could tell from the distance was that the freshman was short. Incredibly short. Under five feet. He'd probably had to endure a lot of grief about it because "short people can't play tennis." Well, Fuji would see how he handled that hurdle later.

While Fuji had been analyzing, Oishi had relaxed the freshmen by inviting them to do a little light hitting. Not wanting to stand around Fuji spoke up. "Oishi, we should do a little light hitting until Tezuka gets back."

"All right." Oishi stooped to pick up a crate of tennis balls and they found their way onto a free court. The vice-captain of the team lobbed a ball his direction and Fuji smashed it into the basket and winced when he realized his mistake.

"Fuji, you were a step late."

Fuji acknowledged the reprimand with a slight nod and after a few more swings, moved to let someone else take a turn. He noticed that it had grown quiet and he took a look around to see that nearly everyone was staring at the regulars in stunned silence, like it was difficult to hit a smash with accuracy. He snorted mentally in derision. More than half the people in the club would never see a match against another school.

"Oops. Too far," Oishi called, shielding his eyes with his hand as he watched where it would fall.

Fuji watched the ball go out of the court and head straight for the short freshman with the cap, wondering what the kid would do. He felt some mild annoyance with Oishi for the poor serve when he was known for his pinpoint accuracy. The freshman smashed the ball cleanly across the court back into the basket and his annoyance died. Fuji was impressed in spite of himself. Not many freshmen could do that.

The freshman said, almost surprised, "That was unexpectedly simple."

In the part of himself he didn't express to the world, Fuji laughed. The guy was a breath of fresh air. He bore watching.

Fuji didn't know how much time had passed, but he was suddenly aware that Eiji had stopped moving. For Eiji, that was weird, so Fuji turned to look at him.

"Ah, Arai and the freshman are at it again. Should we stop them?"

"Hmm," Fuji said and the rest of the regulars turned to look. Somewhere along the way Oishi had disappeared. Arai was brazenly up in the freshman's face, goading him about not having a racquet. Which was complete crap, of course, because the freshman had held a racquet at the beginning of practice. It wasn't likely it had walked off on its own. No, Arai was enjoying tormenting the guy. One of Arai's friends handed the freshman - Echizen (he finally heard the name) - a racquet that would never be approved for use in an official match and challenged him to play.

For a moment, it seemed that Echizen wasn't going to take the challenge his shoulders tensed at the mention of his missing racquets. So he got angry when someone messed with his stuff. It was a good thing to remember. Fuji couldn't blame him, he'd be pissed if someone hid his expensive tennis equipment too. "I want to see this," he said, directing his words to Eiji. One of them should step in and stop it but Fuji's interest had been piqued.

"I knew you were going to say that," Eiji said, not making a move to stop the match.

Fuji watched as Echizen's first attempt at returning Arai's serve caused the ball to fall short of the net and his second attempt forced the ball out of bounds and into the fence.

"You can't hit it normally," Momo said.

"Hmm. With that gut, you can't spin the ball," Fuji said in agreement. It would be interesting to see if the freshman could overcome the handicap he'd been given.

"Hmm, I see," Echizen said, tapping the racquet's gut with his hand twice.

Fuji arched an eyebrow. He saw? What did he see? He got his answer when, on Arai's next serve, Echizen scored a point.

"Oh, he put a spin on it by rotating his body," Eiji said, surprised.

"He's good," Fuji agreed. Echizen had overcome the problem of the bad racquet Fuji watched the rest of the match in silence, not surprised Arai wasn't able to keep up. Arai was the kind of player who relied on other people's weaknesses to make him strong. He'd never become a regular with that attitude.

Tezuka and Oishi appeared on the court after the match was over and berated everyone for their lack of respect for the rules and yelled at all of them to run twenty laps. Consequences. But it had been a match worth seeing so no one complained.

After being dismissed to run those laps, Fuji fell into step beside Oishi. Neither of them spoke and Fuji soon fell behind, which was fine with him. He wasn't in a rush. He spotted Takashi's racquet resting against the fence and picked it up. It seemed the guy always forgot he needed the racquet to switch to his tennis-savvy personality.

Looking around, Fuji saw Takashi, Momo, and Inui were behind him. Slowing his pace a little, he was surprised Echizen was keeping pace with Momo but didn't think too much on it. They'd just started running, after all. Fuji dropped his pace until he was beside Takashi. "Taka, your racquet."

Takashi grabbed hold of it and, with a cry of "Burning!", took off until he was even with Oishi and Eiji, who always ran together.

Fuji's face never wavered; he kept his expression kind and his eyes closed at all times to keep himself from unintentionally intimidating anyone but on the inside he felt himself truly smile. Takashi was the type of honest, dedicated player he admired most because all of it came from hard work. Tennis was easy for those who had the knack for it but overcoming the hurdle of not having talent...well, that was impressive.

Fuji finished running the laps with the others right beside Eiji. He'd given the doubles team ten laps before catching up to their pace and engaging in some light conversation. Eiji needed constant conversation and Fuji had set himself up as his best friend, next to Oishi, of course, at the beginning of their freshman year. The three of them were pretty close, by all accounts, but Fuji knew that they'd never accept him if they knew the truth. He wasn't sure anyone would.