Kikumaru Eiji liked it when his team was relaxed. Which meant he didn’t like it much when scouts came sniffing around the school courts. They ogled the Regulars and distracted everyone else, and Tezuka was more stringent than usual about proper behavior when they were around. Today, in addition to the usual sleek looking scout, smiling over his business cards like a poker shark with a winning hand, was someone who looked like a team manager; and that meant Ryuuzaki-sensei was with them, ready to pounce on any lapse Tezuka might miss.
Personally, Eiji thought they could all do without the distraction, with a bare week to go before Nationals, but nobody had asked him, so he just sidled around the other side of Oishi and tried not to twitch whenever the scout looked his way.
“Fuji-senpai.” Echizen’s voice was low, but rather sharp, and Eiji looked to see what was annoying Ochibi this time.
“Yes, Echizen?” Fuji asked, cheerful smile firmly in place. Echizen narrowed his eyes before spinning on his heel and stalking back to serve. A very hard serve, Eiji noted, that Fuji returned rather lightly. Ah, that was it. Fuji was in a mood to tease, and wasn’t playing for real.
It wasn’t that Eiji didn’t understand the urge, because ruffling Ochibi’s feathers was amusing, but Tezuka was probably going to be annoyed as soon as he noticed. Eiji craned around to check on their captain’s whereabouts, and winced. Not only was he already watching Fuji and Echizen’s match, the scout and manager were right next to him along with Ryuuzaki-sensei. Tezuka never approved of his players messing around, and the fact that Fuji was toying with Ochibi in front of outsiders wouldn’t make him any happier. To Eiji’s surprise, though, Tezuka merely folded his arms and watched silently. Ryuuzaki-sensei, after a long glance at him, tucked her hands in her pockets and didn’t interfere.
“Ah, is that Seigaku’s incredible first-year that we’ve heard so much about?” the scout asked, brightly. “He’s very good, to play a game like that against a third year.”
Eiji winced some more.
The manager only grunted, watching the match almost as narrowly as Tezuka. Fuji let Echizen have the second game, too, and Eiji expected Ochibi to be steaming and, possibly, to pull out a Drive A or two just to make it clear how pissed off he was. It was obviously the day for surprises, though, and maybe Ochibi was growing up a little, because as the serve came back to him he looked up with a smile, bright eyed.
“That’s enough, Fuji-senpai,” he stated, and served straight for Fuji’s racquet. With no excuse to let that one escape, Fuji turned his racquet out and returned very lightly, as if he’d been surprised. Quite calmly, Echizen aimed straight on again. Just as if, Eiji realized, he were practicing against a wall. He covered a grin as Fuji’s eyes glinted and he returned full strength to the corner. Echizen practically materialized behind the ball, smile brighter than ever.
Eiji could almost hear Fuji’s sigh as he finally gave in to Ochibi’s enthusiasm, and the game suddenly vaulted onto another level. When he looked around to check reactions Ryuuzaki-sensei was smirking, Tezuka had a very faint smile, and the scout’s jaw was hanging open.
The manager laid a hand on the fence, chuckling.
“Seigaku’s pillar, eh?” he said, softly. And then he turned a sharp eye on Tezuka. “The next one.”
Eiji wasn’t the only one blinking in surprise.
“How…?” Oishi started, and paused. The manager seemed to understand what he wanted to ask.
“I went to school here,” he told them. “Katsuki Toshiki, pleased to meet you.” Everyone murmured greetings back, sounding just a little dazed that this outsider in their midst… wasn’t.
“Every school has its imprint,” Katsuki-san continued, easily. “That’s part of ours. Has been for years. “
“How long?” Oishi murmured, a bit wondering, glancing at Ryuuzaki-sensei Everyone in hearing distance followed his example.
“What are you looking at me for?” she asked, amused. “That’s always been the business of the team itself. Besides, I only came here a year or two before Katsuki did.”
“Oh, yeah, we all thought it was such great luck, having a beautiful woman as a coach,” Katsuki-san said, suddenly grinning wickedly. “Then we found out what she was really like.”
Eiji nearly choked, trying not to laugh, as Katsuki-san ducked the swat Ryuuzaki-sensei aimed at him.
“Nothing but insolent brats in this job,” she mock-grumbled.
“Ah, no wonder she deals so well with Ochibi; she had practice,” Eiji observed, glancing away innocently as Ryuuzaki-sensei skewered a glare in his direction. His partner gave him a more effectively quelling look.
“He does have a good deal in common with some that I remember,” their coach allowed, relenting.
“Not that much, Sensei ” Katsuki-san said, watching the ongoing match again. “I know you had hopes for him, and Echizen Nanjirou was an incredible player. Singles One both his second and third years. Never lost. But he could never have led the team, much less been our core. This one, he has what it takes.” He glanced at Tezuka. “And you’ve been letting him learn that he has it, haven’t you Tezuka-kun?”
“You were captain while you were here.” Tezuka stated it as a fact, not looking away from the match. Katsuki-san nodded.
“I’ve seen Fuji Shuusuke play a few times, and I wondered why you didn’t say anything. You knew Ryouma could get him to play seriously.”
It was Tezuka’s turn to nod. Eiji, once again, had to increase his estimation of their captain’s potential sneakiness. Really, it was no wonder he and Fuji got along. Katsuki-san sighed.
“That’s exactly what Nanjirou never had. It wasn’t just that he didn’t care about the team. It was almost as though he didn’t really understand the game. There was no real rapport between him and his opponents. I’m sorry, Ryuuzaki-sensei,” he looked at his old teacher, “but I never believed he could go all the way. He didn’t have the spirit.”
Ryuuzaki-sensei shrugged a little. “You win some and you lose some. It’s true for teachers as well as players.”
Kachirou, who Eiji had always considered the sharpest of Ochibi’s cheering section, approached a bit tentatively.
“Do you mean Ryouma-kun really will be able to beat his dad in tennis?” he asked. Katsuki-san bent a narrow eye on Echizen’s game.
“I think so.” And then he smiled down at Kachirou. “You’ve probably seen it. When he plays a challenging opponent, I bet he lights up. And if he needs to, he finds some way over or under or around whatever’s in his way.”
Everyone smiled or laughed, and Eiji had to agree, that was exactly what Ochibi did. Kachirou nodded, shyly.
“And when that happens, he draws people along with him, doesn’t he?” Katsuki-san asked. “His opponents, his own team, everybody.”
On the court, Echizen delivered a smash that should, by rights, have been unreturnable. Fuji caught it, threw it back, waited for the return, eyes sparkling.
“That’s what it means to be Seigaku’s pillar, the center of the team. Not always the team’s leader, though it’s easiest when it happens that way,” Katsuki-san shot a glance at Tezuka, “but the core that lifts the whole up. That’s what my own captain taught me, and it’s what I tried to pass on.”
Eiji suddenly remembered that this man was a team manager, here on a scouting trip, and wondered just how susceptible Tezuka was to flattery. True flattery, certainly, but somehow Eiji didn’t think it was an accident that this explanation was taking place right where Tezuka would hear every word. He also didn’t think he imagined the silent offer of a team that would understand what drove Tezuka, and value it.
“Echizen will do well,” Tezuka said, evenly, “provided he doesn’t get careless.”
Katsuki-san looked at their captain for a long moment before turning to Ryuuzaki-sensei.
“Some you lose. And then, some you win, don’t you? I think we’re done here, today, Sensei Thank you for letting us intrude.” Katsuk-san gripped his scout’s wrist before the man could produce the usual handful of business cards.
“Not at all,” their coach murmured with a small smile, and led her guests off, the scout protesting under his breath. A subtle edge of stiffness left Tezuka’s shoulders, and Eiji felt Oishi’s silent sigh beside him.
Eiji grinned, watching Fuji and Echizen come off the court, Fuji laughing quietly as Echizen smirked up at him and told him he’d never keep Singles Two playing like that. Eiji bounced a little on his toes and trotted to meet them.
“Fujiko-chan,” he called, “play a match with me next, now that Ochibi-chan’s worn you out for me!”
He liked it when his team was relaxed.