Title: Flying, Falling, Landing
Pairing: Tezuka and Fuji
"So he's inspired you?" Yumiko asked.
Fuji shook his head. "No," he said. "Not yet."
Warnings: Anime and manga series spoilers leading to Nationals.
Disclaimer: Prince of Tennis is created by Takeshi Konomi, licensed in North America by VIZ Media, and I am in no way associated with them.
A/N: Manga storyline. 3,880 words. Huge thanks to the marvelous people who looked this over and gave me advice, you know who you are.
On his first day at Seigaku, Fuji met Eiji: his spirited classmate, seatmate, possible club mate, and, inevitably it seemed, friend.
On his first day at the Seigaku tennis club, Fuji met a boy named Tezuka, who he thought looked too serious to be a twelve-year-old and wondered if he'd been raised in a convent. He thought it would be very interesting if he had.
Then he saw Tezuka play against one of the older club members on D-court and thought Tezuka would be interesting even if he hadn't been raised in a convent.
"He's really good," Eiji said. "He's a freshman and people are already saying he'll make the regulars. It'll be some kind of record or something. What about you, Fuji? Are you any good?"
Fuji shrugged, watching Tezuka from where he stood. "I'm okay," he said.
Fuji mentioned Tezuka to his sister during Saturday brunch. Yumiko was duly curious and asked, "What's so special about this Tezuka?" Fuji immediately replied: "He doesn't hold back."
He looked up to see Yumiko smiling at him in an indulgent manner, prompting him to say more. "It's kind of stupid," he said. "Not holding back. He'll get in trouble with the seniors one day." He then quickly added, just as Yumiko's smile changed into something close to playful: "I'm not concerned."
The following Monday, Eiji spilled two baskets of tennis balls in a failed attempt to do a proper back flip. He looked wretched and desperate as he cleared the court in just about record time, bemoaning his clumsiness and his favorite soap opera's early timeslot. Fuji offered to help him return the baskets to the clubhouse but Eiji had been so raring to go, he'd misinterpreted "help" for "do" and took off with a very quick "Thank you! Thank you so much!"
Fuji thought about asking the usually gracious Kawamura who was on clean-up duty for assistance, when he spied Tezuka returning from sweeping the adjacent court.
"Tezuka," Fuji greeted as he approached. "Would you mind helping me with these? Eiji had to go."
"Aa," said Tezuka.
They moved at a quick and easy pace; five minutes later found them changing back into their school clothes and bidding Kawamura goodbye. They hadn't talked or agreed to walk to the bus stop together; Fuji just found himself falling into step beside Tezuka and Tezuka gave no indication that he minded the company. After a while, Fuji said: "You're very good."
"Aa," Tezuka replied. "So you agree?" Fuji said, turning to Tezuka with a teasing smile. "You agree that you're very good?"
"Yes," Tezuka answered. There was a definite hint of pride in Tezuka's voice, but it was difficult for Fuji to label it as arrogance. It was the same kind of pride he saw in gait and step, every time Tezuka walked into court; a self-assurance of the extremely skilled and gifted.
Tezuka cast him a sideways glance, "I haven't seen you play," he said.
Fuji shrugged. "I'm not all that good," he said. "You're not missing much." It was only a half-lie. Fuji knew he was exceptional, but when he saw Tezuka play that first time, and that second time, and all the other times after, Fuji doubted, for the very first time in his life, if he could match up.
Tezuka didn't say anything and simply looked away. Fuji wondered if Tezuka lost interest. "Later in the year," Fuji found himself suddenly saying, drawing Tezuka's attention back to him. "When the seniors are gone, we could have a match. Would that be okay?" he asked.
Tezuka was looking at him with a strange expression on his face. It was gone all too quickly the moment he nodded and looked away. "Okay," he said.
Fuji, meanwhile, continued to stare and after a while, he asked: "Am I bothering you?"
"You're staring at me," Tezuka replied. Fuji realized he didn't know what Tezuka meant. It was difficult to read Tezuka's tone, which always sounded so serious, and very low for his age, like it had cracked many years ago when he was still maybe eight or nine, except that seemed pretty ridiculous, even to Fuji.
"And that bothers you?" Fuji decided to ask just as they came upon the bus stop. There were four other people waiting, all students, all older than them, one Fuji recognized as the student council secretary.
"No," Tezuka replied, and Fuji asked: "So what did you mean?"
"You're not bothering me," Tezuka answered instead. There was a slight furrow between Tezuka's eyebrows, like he was confused about something. Fuji was about to press when the bus arrived. It was his. "That's not mine," he said quickly and without thinking, just as Tezuka said: "That's mine."
There were many things Fuji could have said. Things like "Oh, wait, this is my bus after all," and, "Wait, I'll come with you." But Tezuka had already nodded goodbye to him and boarded. The door had closed and the bus was moving, and during the time in between, Fuji found himself unable to say anything at all.
"Wait, wait, wait," Eiji said between spoonfuls of bubblegum-flavored ice cream. "Did you just say you challenged Tezuka to a match?"
Fuji didn't exactly put it that way but Eiji was more or less correct. "Yep."
"Wow," Eiji said, all big-eyed and impressed. "That's going to be so awesome." He dropped his spoon and pressed his palms together to plead, "you've got to let me watch Fuji! I wanna see!"
"Tezuka will win, of course," Fuji pointed out. "Yeah," said Eiji, though he sounded uncertain. He picked up his spoon and said, "You'll put up a fight, won't you Fuji?"
Fuji raised an eyebrow. "What's this? You think I have a shot?"
"I don't know," Eiji said again, playing with his spoon. "I haven't really played you at your best." This he said a bit indignantly, looking at his ice cream as if he was berating himself. Then he looked up and gave Fuji a somewhat impish smile. "You think I can maybe…"
"No," Fuji answered quickly, knowing Eiji wouldn't take it to heart.
Eiji made a face, but good-naturedly said: "I'll get much better. And then I'll challenge Tezuka." He started on his ice cream again, but stopped with the spoon midway to his mouth to ask Fuji: "Well what about Oishi? I can take him right?"
Fuji hasn't seen Oishi play yet, but he has seen him watch Tezuka's matches and recognized the awestruck expression on his face; seen that expression mirrored in Eiji's own face and the faces of countless others who watched. Fuji was sure he could beat Oishi, and it was easy enough to tell Eiji, "Of course."
Fuji wasn't surprised when a senior took to hitting Tezuka's arm with a racket, though granted, he was as much appalled by the act as the next decent person. It wasn't until later, when Tezuka had returned to the club and began playing with the senior regulars again, when Fuji realized, watching Tezuka hesitate, watching his face twitch ever so slightly when he swung big, that Tezuka's full strength had been effectively sealed. A bitter feeling of disappointment welled up at the pit of his stomach, unfamiliar and very unwelcome, and Fuji wondered why.
"I wanted to play him," Fuji says suddenly to Eiji as they walked home.
Eiji was sucking on an ice drop. He stopped when Fuji spoke, and looked confused for a moment before comprehension dawned. "We're talking about Tezuka, aren't we?"
"I think I could've beaten him," Fuji said. "I wanted to."
"Of course you wanted to!" Eiji exclaimed. "I mean, who doesn't want to win?" He popped the ice drop back into his mouth and directed a raised eyebrow at Fuji.
"Usually," Fuji began, "I just want to see how far people can go," he said, and then he waited for Eiji to understand.
"You really are weird," Eiji said, finishing up his ice drop and proceeding to munch on the wooden stick. He put a hand on Fuji's shoulder and made him turn so that they were face to face, and then Eiji asked him: "Seriously, how strong are you?"
Fuji thought about his life in Chiba, about his mother's proud collection of tennis trophies at home, and then he thought about Tezuka, who in fact, knew how to hold back, but for the right reasons, like sparing a teammate from a humiliating defeat; not the sensible ones, like lying low to avoid attention from spiteful seniors. "I don’t know," Fuji finally answered. "I was hoping Tezuka could help me find out."
Eiji stared at Fuji, this time, without comprehension, and Fuji gave him a winning smile. He reached up and pressed a finger to his own lips. "Don't tell anyone," he said.
The day the seniors were scheduled to leave the club, Fuji approached one of the regulars and asked very nicely, with the sweet smile Yumiko had long told him would get him anything he wanted, if he could be honored with a match.
It was the first time Fuji would play on the Seigaku courts. Eiji was already making a ruckus, drawing much attention to the court with his loud cheering.
Fuji felt eyes on him. Having grown up entering tennis competitions year round with Yuuta, attention was something Fuji was used to, except he was distinctly aware that a pair of those eyes were Tezuka's, and for a moment he felt his heart beating faster.
He served. He always lacked the build and power to serve hard and strong, but he served fast enough. This one had a decent speed, landing precisely on the line. His opponent rushed to return it, managing a lousy lob which Fuji quickly smashed back into the court to get the first point. People cheered, Eiji cheered the loudest, but Fuji thought, Not good enough. He served again, but his opponent was ready. The ball came strong and fast, Fuji returned it easily enough and ended the point with a backhand down the line.
By the third game, the regular hasn't gotten a single point and still Fuji thought, Not good enough. He took the fourth and fifth games. On the sixth, at triple match point, Fuji spared a glance courtside and found Tezuka watching. He smiled at him, opened his eyes wide and full so he could properly stare. When the serve came, Fuji sliced. The ball flew over the net, hit the ground and skidded away. The court fell silent and Fuji, even after hearing himself named the victor, felt empty; like he hadn't played at all.
It took a while, but Eiji finally noticed the air of dissatisfaction surrounding Fuji. "You don't look like you had fun," he remarked on their way home, and Fuji noted the distinct lack of bounce in Eiji's step. "You made the regular work hard, you know. That's why you play you said. You wanted to see how far your opponent could go." He said the last one with a slightly lowered voice, like he disapproved, but wasn't really sure.
Fuji thought about Tezuka, standing by the courtside, watching, and wondered why he felt excited at all. The senior hardly gave him much of a fight; Fuji expected as much, except just before the match, he started wanting more.
Tezuka met Fuji at the bus stop the day Eiji decided to train extra hard and run all the way home after losing a match to Oishi. Fuji was surprised at himself for not expecting it. They hadn't talked since the seniors left.
"You're very good," Tezuka told him, and Fuji shrugged, suddenly aware that the smile on his face was very fake. "I think you could've beaten me," Fuji said.
"Let's play after the weekend," Tezuka suggested, except his tone wasn't suggesting in the slightest. Fuji felt his smile falter, and he ducked down, fixing it in place. Not looking up, he said: "We did agree we'd play once the seniors were gone." His eyes drifted to Tezuka's left arm and he felt his stomach coil in a very unpleasant way. "Monday then."
"What's bothering you?" Yumiko asked him that weekend, and Fuji flashed her his biggest smile. "What do you mean?"
Yumiko then reached to ruffle his hair and said with a knowing grin, "You're barely thirteen, Shuusuke." She tapped his dimpled cheek with a perfectly manicured finger and winked. "This," she said, leaning forward, "can't fool me yet."
Late Monday afternoon, when club was dismissed, Fuji allowed Tezuka to lead him into one of the side courts. There was hardly any wind and Fuji's clothes clung to him in very uncomfortable ways. If Tezuka was bothered by the heat, he didn't show it. They were doing practice rallies when Eiji showed up; he brought no one else, just settled himself at one side of the court and kept quiet.
Tezuka served hard and fast, returned big and strong, always accurate: precise. Fuji felt slow, lethargic, like he was playing tennis underwater and his entire body was struggling to function.
Two games later, Tezuka asked from across the court: "Are you all right?"
Fuji flashed him his usual smile in reply and threw out his first two counters. He won the next game. By the sixth game, Tezuka stopped smashing and returned his Swallow Return at the net. He won the match on the ninth game.
When they shook hands, there was a furrow between Tezuka's eyebrows again. He asked Fuji: "That's it?"
It was a cruel thing to say, except Fuji didn't think Tezuka meant to be cruel. Like Tezuka had actually meant to say: "That can't be it." Either way, Fuji was only ready for one answer. He pulled his hand away and smiled. "That's it," he said.
Fuji's second year in junior high could more or less be classified thus: before Yuuta left and after Yuuta left.
Before Yuuta left, Fuji made the regulars, played in the district preliminaries and won tournaments with enough class to make a name for himself. It was easy to slip into the role of Seigaku's number two: if he won, people cheered, if he lost, there was always Tezuka.
Before Yuuta left, Fuji walked to tennis practice with a bounce in his step. It was like old times again: him and Yuuta on the tennis court, having fun. Even if Yuuta rarely got to play, Fuji thought there was always the next day.
Right before Yuuta left, Yuuta told him he would be leaving. It was a complete surprise, but it wasn't like Fuji was entirely unaware of what Yuuta had been going through.
Before junior high, Yuuta had been perfectly all right with having him for a brother so it was easy enough to want things to remain that way. When Yuuta decided he wanted to be on his own, Fuji should have expected it, and since he hadn't wanted to, it became difficult to accept when it happened.
"I can't be content like this," said Yuuta, and Fuji couldn't understand. Then Yuuta turned to him and said: "I mean, you can't be content with being second to Tezuka, right? Or maybe you are. Or maybe you think that you are. That's even more irritating. It's like you don't even try! I don't want to be like that."
After Yuuta left, Fuji felt like he'd failed again. He wasn't entirely sure when he had failed before, but he remembered the feeling of his stomach coiling, his chest squeezing tight. He remembered not liking it very much.
After Yuuta left, Fuji thought about quitting tennis. He skipped a day of practice, wanting to test things out, and went straight home. He spent the rest of the afternoon reading books out loud to his cacti.
He came back to practice the next day, ran thirty punishment laps and played a few games. That afternoon, Tezuka met him at the bus stop and told him, in a tone that brooked no argument: "Let's play a match."
Fuji was used to losing to Tezuka. He went through the motions: serve, return, slice, volley. Tezuka's hits came faster, harder than usual; almost as if he was angry. Fuji glanced up to look closely at Tezuka's face and found he could read nothing. When they approached the net to shake hands, Tezuka gripped Fuji's hand tight, almost bruising, and said: "That can't be it."
Fuji would have smiled and given his old answer, but Tezuka's hand was warm and strong in his, and he said instead: "I don't mind being second to you." It wasn't really an answer, and deep down, Fuji knew it wasn't really true.
After Yuuta left, Eiji proclaimed he'd had enough of Fuji's restrained moping and gave him a tube of his favorite toothpaste. "It's really good," Eiji assured him. That same night, Fuji brushed his teeth and thought, amused: "I have Eiji's taste in my mouth." He suddenly felt a lot better and went to sleep, forgetting about the emptied room right next to his.
By the end of second year, Yumiko was used to bringing up Tezuka during Saturday brunch. "It's been two years," she remarked. "Really, what's so special about this Tezuka?"
Fuji already knew what to say, but he waited, as if he was thinking about it; he plastered a thoughtful smile on his face and watched his sister's expression betray a hint of impatience. Finally he said: "He inspires people."
Yumiko made a soft, almost inaudible sound of derision, as if she wasn't satisfied with her brother's answer. "So he's inspired you?" she asked.
Fuji shook his head. "No," he said. "Not yet."
On Fuji's third year, Ryoma Echizen happened to everyone.
In Ryoma Echizen, Momoshiro found a best friend, Kaidoh found a cat owner, Inui found an interesting test subject, Eiji found his very own "ochibi", Oishi and Kawamura found a player that could take them to Nationals, Tezuka found himself, and Fuji found a rival.
He watched Echizen demolish Kaidoh and Inui, and saw him through the district preliminaries. Fuji would check for Tezuka's reaction every time.
Echizen reminded him of Tezuka. If Tezuka was a little more obnoxious and a lot less tight. And if Tezuka had a perfect arm. It was inevitable that they would fight, and while standing on court, Fuji felt like he was twelve again, about to face a nameless senior with Tezuka watching.
When Ryoma found a way to break his Bear Drop, Fuji felt his heart speed up, and he knew it was okay to be wanting more this time.
Fuji was never really conscious of the rain, only the match, and only the pumping of his blood, warm under his skin. He thought, I can do more, as he chased the ball, angling it towards a difficult position. Echizen was there, returning, smiling, eyes fierce with competitive fire, and Fuji again thought, I can do more, and wanted to win.
"That was a great match," Eiji told him the next day, plopping into his seat. "It sucks that Coach Ryuzaki had to cut things short."
Fuji was busy wiping his nose with a tissue paper to answer, but he gave Eiji a nod of acknowledgement.
"It also sucks that you got sick," Eiji said, slipping into a slouch and resting an elbow on his desk. "I wanted some ice cream today."
"You can still have ice cream," Fuji offered.
Eiji shook his head. "You can't have ice cream, I can't have ice cream," he said, determined. Then he ducked his head and cast Fuji a sideways glance. "Although if you insist…" Fuji waved his hand in the air and said: "I insist."
Eiji made an appreciative noise, thanked him, then went on to babble about his latest crush.
Fuji grew contemplative, and interrupted Eiji mid-chatter by saying: "Tezuka challenged Echizen to a match, you know."
Eiji looked surprised, then he settled down and shrugged. "Well, Oishi said something—nothing outright, but I figured," he said.
"I'm beginning to understand him now," Fuji said, smiling. When Eiji looked confused and started inspecting Fuji's face as if trying to decipher whether his smile was real or fake, Fuji said: "Tezuka. I think I'm beginning to understand him."
When Tezuka broke down in pain mid-match against Atobe, Fuji wasn't quite sure what he felt, just that it was familiar.
Later still, after club, the day Tezuka defeated Echizen and announced he was leaving for treatment, Fuji asked him: "You had to go this far to prove a point?"
"I wasn't proving anything," Tezuka answered, shirt hanging loosely off his shoulders, unbuttoned; Fuji could see the white bandaging around his left shoulder.
Of course Tezuka wasn't trying to prove anything.
Fuji found himself saying: "I thought you were stupid. When I first met you, I thought you were being stupid, drawing so much attention to yourself." He nodded towards Tezuka's arm. "It took me a while to realize you're just not the kind of guy to do things halfway." He laughed, feeling a little silly, and once he turned away, Tezuka said: "I wanted to make sure Echizen doesn't stop trying."
Fuji realized Tezuka had his own failures too. He was just much better at handling them.
"You're a fascinating guy," Fuji told Tezuka on his way out of the clubroom. "Let's play a match when you come back."
Tezuka came to see him before the National tournament. Fuji was on his way to practice when Tezuka met him at his doorstep and asked for a moment.
"You can walk me to the tennis court," Fuji offered, slinging his gym bag over his shoulder and slipping into his tennis shoes. As they walked, Fuji asked: " How's your shoulder?"
"It's fine," Tezuka answered. "You went to see Tachibana," he said.
"Word travels fast," Fuji remarked, amused. "He helped me with my game a bit. Made me realize I needed something more. You can relax, Tezuka, I'll carry my own weight in the Nationals."
"You always carry your own weight," said Tezuka, stopping and catching Fuji's arm. "I wanted to help you," he said. It was the kind of conversation Fuji felt they should have had a long time ago, as early as first year even. Now, after everything, it seemed meaningless.
Tezuka appeared to think the same and resumed walking. "Oishi told me about your match with Kirihara," he said, and Fuji wondered if it was also Oishi who told Tezuka about his meeting with Tachibana. He suddenly had a vision of Oishi spying on him. Or Tezuka telling Oishi to spy on him. It seemed so ridiculous to Fuji that he burst out laughing.
Fuji waved Tezuka off before he asked. "It's nothing," he said, then skipped a few steps ahead. "I can get there by myself. I wouldn't want you to see my new counter, after all."
Tezuka nodded in acknowledgement, but Fuji wasn't done. "You inspired me," said Fuji. "It took a while, but you did." He inspected Tezuka then, up and down, and decided he looked very good. He told Tezuka this.
"I feel good," Tezuka replied.
"Great," said Fuji, nodding. "That's great." He flashed Tezuka a warm smile and went on his way.