Title: Autumn Fireworks
Summary: Metamorphosis was never an easy task.
Disclaimer: I neither own nor profit from the Prince of Tennis.
Fuji stepped onto the court and examined his adversary as his mind went back to Tezuka's words. So this was Shiraishi Kuranosuke, Shitenhouji's captain. After acknowledging his presence with a nod, Fuji threw the ball in the air, lifted his racket and served. As usual, Fuji started off going easy on him - well, as easy as Fuji was willing to go on anyone, at least. A simple shot: one that would be hard for a regular player, but if Shiraishi was half of what he was made to be, one he'd have no problem returning... and he didn't. The return was immediately followed by what Fuji thought would be the first of many rallies that day; what Fuji hadn't considered was the possibility of him standing on the less-favored side of it.
Drop shot; "Love-Fifteen."
With Shiraishi in the lead, Fuji got his first look at the Shitenhouji's Bible's Perfect Tennis. However, it was his turn to serve again, and he was not planning on letting things remain like that.
"Get ready..." Fuji was smiling confidently after putting the ball into play, "that ball will disappear."
Shiraishi returned that too. Fuji, albeit a bit surprised, took the chance to pay him back for the little surprise earlier with a drop shot of his own. Perhaps it was Shiraishi's words, or perhaps it was the fact that he was not surprised by Fuji's return at all, but as the ball bounced in the court behind him, Fuji's trademark smile was nowhere to be seen.
As his teammates gaped at the result, Fuji decided he was going to show Shiraishi what he could do. Ball after ball, rally after rally, Fuji fought to turn the tables, but he failed every time. He kept falling behind at a steady pace, yet Shiraishi was not showing any flaws in his playstyle. Fuji didn't need to hear Inui's explanations to realize that. He still turned to where his team stood, and what shocked him most was Tezuka's expression. He was merely watching the match, showing no hint of surprise, as if he had known all along that Shiraishi could achieve this, and even more.
"Three games to love."
Fuji's patience was running low. It was one thing to be three games behind when he let his opponent get ahead, but this was unheard of. He was starting to feel less than calm, a feeling he had only experienced once before during a singles match. But he was not willing to let the game end without scoring a single point. Shiraishi was truly a remarkable opponent.
"There's more you can do, right, Fuji-kun?" Shiraishi was taunting him. Or perhaps, he was expecting Fuji to show him what he really could do. "Show me all your Triple Counters!"
The time had come, to show what he was best known for and finally shake Shiraishi's confidence. If he wished so much to see his trademark moves, Fuji would gladly introduce them to him. And once again, things didn't work like he expected them to. Swallow, bear and white whale, all defeated; things were not getting any better for Fuji.
The referee's words echoed in the court and slowly dissolved into the chant that was pouring over from Shitenhouji's side. "Three more balls! Three more balls!" He didn't have to look back to see the faces on the other side of the crowd; he knew his team must have been feeling desperate... and disappointed, like he was.
"Thirty-Love." And the chant continued, announcing what was left of the match: two more balls.
"Is this it? Is this all that's left of me?" Fuji's thoughts echoed his deepest fear. He had finally met a worthy opponent, one that made his blood rush, and yet, he couldn't get one ball past him. Shiraishi was looking at him as though he had already won the match, although there was obvious disappointment, too. He watched him serve, and as the ball sped towards him, Fuji decided he would not go down so easily; he had exactly what was needed to deal with Shiraishi's shot.
"Fourth Counter: Dragonfly Illusion." As he uttered the words, the ball went back to the opposite side of the court and back. He was not expecting that, but he wouldn't let Shiraishi get this point, too. He rushed to the ball and tried to hit it, but he was too late. It connected with his wrist and went out to the side of the court. And then there was pain. In the process of reaching for the ball he had lost his balance, somehow, and he now lay flat on the ground, limbs numb and unwilling to move. The score was forty-love, but he didn't hear that. The only thing he heard, over the murmur of the crowd, was Tezuka's voice.
Perhaps it was Tezuka's voice, raising over the crowd. Perhaps it was the feeling of imminent defeat. Perhaps it was something different altogether, but his mind traveled back once again, this time a few months, to that one evening after practice when his fighting spirit was first questioned.
"Where is the real you?!"
The sound of Tezuka's words resounding in the empty clubroom, and the feeling of raindrops sliding down his hair felt so close that he could barely believe he had come such a long way since that rainy evening.
"A long way?" he questioned himself. "Heh, it seems that no matter how hard I try--"
But his thoughts were interrupted; one after another came the little moments that made his life as a tennis player change. From the match where he lost his sight until the moment, when seeking a new level, he went to Tachibana for assistance. With these memories resounding in his head he felt a presence nearby. Someone was standing close to him, looking at him.
"Play for real."
Echizen. The message was short and clear. He hadn't given it his all yet. Once again he had played it easy, falling back into his old habits. He had used his usual moves, his usual style, not accommodating himself to his opponent's strength. He remembered now: he was no longer playing for the thrill. His motivation had shown itself, dressed in a bright and clear red and blue flag. He was not playing games, he was fighting. For what reason? Victory.
"He's right," he thought as he stood up, "it'd be a bit disappointing if I lost here." Back in the crowd, Tezuka's eyes widened briefly as he saw the resolve in Fuji's eyes.
"It seems it's possible for me to get serious too, Tezuka."
Shintenhouji's supporters were still chanting, but Fuji didn't care. The real game was about to begin, and he would be the one to stand victorious. Slowly at first, he focused on the basics; he had to return every ball sent his way. No unnecessary moves, no predictable turns, he had to take the match, one game at a time. No matter what Shiraishi said, no matter what it looked like, he was not done for, and he was going to show the world - and himself - that there was still much more he could do.
His first point. He looked up and his eyes met Shiraishi's, who was looking at him differently than before. Suddenly interested in the game, but still confident that his own victory was imminent.
"This is the end!!" Shiraishi said, as he delivered what he expected to be the final shot, but Fuji didn't agree. He returned it, almost desperately. "I told you, it's the end," Shiraishi repeated himself, and Fuji could see that he was not just talking. His opponent truly felt he had already won. He was being underestimated.
"I am not letting you score!!" His voice rang loud in the court. "My dream is to take this team to the winner's circle in the Nationals!" He tightened his grip and prepared to connect ball with racket. "That's why I can't lose, no matter what!!"
Fuji could feel the blood rushing through his body. He was already two points closer to winning, and he knew he could do it. Right there, right then, that was all that mattered to him: victory. And like that he advanced steadily, point after point, as he slowly turned the tables.
"One game to five."
As he was forced to acknowledge Fuji's newfound resolution, Shiraishi decided it was time to use his Perfect Tennis to beat him back into his place. He got ready to serve and aimed for the back of the court, looking back to find Fuji in a much familiar pose.
"I told you that your Swallow Return won't work anymore."
But Fuji was not listening to him; rather, he crouched and hit the ball, with the special spin that made his First Counter possible. What Shiraishi didn't notice was that the movements had turned slightly different than usual. He ran forward, ready to intercept the ball right before it sunk and... missed. The ball sank before Shiraishi had a chance to even try. From the other end of the court he could see Fuji's standing figure, racket aimed to the sky as he announced his new weapon:
"Triple Counter: Phoenix Return."
Seigaku's side of the audience roared as Fuji's new move took Shiraishi by surprise and scored him another point. Shitenhouji's side was still in disbelief as they saw Fuji get in position for another of his trademark moves. "The Bear won't work either!" he heard the audience say, but his opponent has already noticed, and was looking at him almost horrified as he returned his lob.
"Triple Counter: Kirin Drop."
Seigaku's freshmen and seniors alike watched excitedly as they anticipated the next move. This time, when the ball didn't return, Shiraishi couldn't help but shudder.
"Triple Counter: White Dragon."
The Sleeping Genius had awakened once more.
"Game, Fuji. Two games to five."
Even if he was still in the lead, Shiraishi was growing worried and excited. Fuji's play style was evolving in front of his eyes. Remembering Chitose's words of advice, Shiraishi decided he needed to win the game soon, before it was too late, but...
"I've just finished it..." Fuji's eyes, sharp and bright, looked at him from the other side of the court, "Final Counter." Shiraishi had seen truly frightening players before in his lifetime - some were even his own teammates - but he was positive now that Fuji was the most fearsome player he had ever battled.
Staring in disbelief, Shiraishi used all his power in the following shot. It was time that Fuji tasted, once again, the power of his Perfect Tennis. The ball sped towards Fuji and got blurrier by the second, as always before, but this time, Fuji was ready. Connecting the ball with the gutter he forced it to spin, and with a swift turn of his wrist he made it change sides, adding a second spin to his newest shot. Shiraishi got ready to return it, while impressively directed, the course of the ball was obvious to him, and he wouldn't let it slide. He hit the ball with his racket as he heard Fuji's words from the other side:
"Your ball won't go over the net any more..." Shiraishi lifted his eyes to see Fuji's back facing him, as his ball hit the net. A counter with the strength of fifty beasts:
"Final Counter: Gate Keeper of the Hekatonkheires."
One after the other, Shiraishi's shots were returned with the Gate Keeper and, one after the other, they bounced against the net, as if unable to escape Fuji's influence.
"Three games to five."
From the side, Tezuka could not avert his eyes from the match, or rather, he could not avert his eyes from Fuji. Not only his play style, his moves, but his aura had changed too. He had heard that the match against Rikkai Dai had been magnificent, but he could hardly believe it could be more impressive than the current one. Tezuka had heard him. Tezuka had heard Fuji voice his resolution and his dream, and it was at that point Tezuka realized that Fuji had finally found it.
"Fuji, this is your..." But his thoughts were cut short by the referee, announcing Fuji's latest conquest.
"Game, Fuji. Four games to five."
Fuji was thrilled. Just like he hadn't given up, neither did Shiraishi. His opponent kept fighting, sending him strong shots, even if he managed to return them all with his Final Counter. Point after point, and game after game. Shiraishi had lost his advantage.
"Game, Fuji. Five games whole."
As the next ball was put into play, Fuji could hear the most inexperienced members of the crowd shouting. Seigaku's side burst with confidence, while Shitenhouji's side was almost brokenhearted. Fuji, however, knew better than believing only in those words. From where he was, he could clearly see how with each shot Shiraishi's ball climbed up the net a little more. He would soon be able to make it go through, and he needed to be ready for that moment.
"You're a scary person," was the honest compliment he uttered as Shiraishi retrieved the latest ball that hadn't made it over. Watching him, he recalled Tezuka's warning: he should look out for Shiraishi instead of Chitose. Once again, his captain had been right. But he was planning to show everyone that Fuji Shuusuke was someone to handle with care too.
"Game, Fuji. Six games to five."
The match point came too soon, and suddenly Shiraishi found himself in the same position Fuji had been before. But he, like Fuji had been, was ready to fight. Shiraishi's moment had come as he broke free from the Final Counter. Fuji knew that from there on, either could be the winner, and that idea terrorized him. He was exhausted, as he was sure his opponent was, but they both kept fighting, giving it their all.
It was Shiraishi's turn to catch up, and he was planning to use something Fuji himself had given him: cord balls.
Fuji knew immediately what he was doing. He knew that if the balls hit the net before going over their spin would be affected, making it impossible to use the Gate Keeper on them. But Fuji was not going to let this defeat him, and he proved Shiraishi wrong, one more time. Except that Shiraishi was ready for him this one time, and he casted his shadow over Fuji as he returned the final ball. Fuji knew it was over, but he couldn't let it go like that. He gathered all his energy and returned the ball once more, using the one shot that was truly impossible to return: his White Dragon.
"Out!" ruled the line judge, as the referee called out the final result. "Game set, won by Shiraishi. Seven games to six."
Maybe it was because he felt fulfilled, or maybe it was because the fact that he had lost hadn't sunk in just yet, but as he looked up and his eyes met Shiraishi's, he couldn't help but smile. After shaking hands they both left the court, Shiraishi looking disgruntled, and Fuji starting to look, more and more, like someone who'd lost. He grabbed his towel and took a seat where his team was, hunching forward as he looked down. Oishi was the first one to walk up and stand by Fuji, hand on his back, trying to silently reassure him of something he wasn't even sure of. Yet Fuji didn't even look up; he couldn't bring himself to face them, it seemed. Not even Kikumaru or Kawamura insisted; instead, they all retreated quietly, leaving him alone with his thoughts. But there was one person who did not follow their lead, and after Momoshiro and Kaidoh's match had started, and everyone had moved to watch them, Fuji felt a hand on his shoulder. As he looked up he saw a familiar face, presenting him with a less-than-familiar smile.
"Good job, Fuji."
"Thank you, Tezuka."