It was one week before Nationals began that Fuji Shuusuke visited Rikkai. It took Seiichi a while to notice that one of the people gathered around the courts was wearing a different school’s uniform; Fuji could be very unobtrusive when he chose. Fortunately, Seiichi spotted him before anyone else caught on. He had no particular desire to have any of his club embroiled in Fuji’s idea of entertainment. He drifted to the side of the court and beckoned Fuji to join him.
His team noted his preoccupation and drifted after him. Seiichi was, in a general way, pleased with their sharp perceptions, and, in a specific way, exasperated with their nosiness, but he didn’t stop them yet.
“Fuji,” he greeted. “This is an unexpected visit.”
“Mm. There was something I wanted to see, and something I hoped to discuss,” Fuji said, elliptically. He smiled at Akaya, who bristled back. “Kirihara-kun; you seem to be doing well.”
Seiichi could feel Akaya hovering on the edge of a challenge, and touched his arm to hold him back. They didn’t need that in the middle of club practice. Fuji met Akaya’s eyes for a long moment, and then shook his head turned back to Seiichi. Seiichi sympathized a bit more with Akaya’s response, then. The impact of that silent look briefly pushed Seiichi himself over the edge, into the flickering fire of competitive awareness. He took a breath and settled back, examining Fuji with a captain’s eyes again, aware of Sanada, tense, beside him. He wondered why Fuji, who normally only provoked those who were threats, was pushing like this.
Fuji, however, was smiling again, a smaller smile, a bit rueful. “Yes,” he said, softly. “That’s it. That’s how he looks at me. Why, Yukimura?”
Seiichi blinked, as he tried to parse the question. ‘He’ who? Who would look at Fuji like… Then it clicked. Tezuka, of course. Who else would look at someone as strong and unpredictable as Fuji Shuusuke with that kind of measurement and anticipation and desire? But… Fuji wanted to know why?
“You don’t know…?” Seiichi trailed off. It was clear in the steady gaze that Fuji, indeed, did not know. “Fuji,” Seiichi sighed, running a hand through his hair. Still, he had been trying to wake Fuji up for years, now. Something he suspected Fuji had recalled, too. “I’ll try. Come.” He waved for Fuji to follow him, nodding for Sanada to take over in his place.
Sanada gave him a look that promised later discussion, and Seiichi stifled a smile. It always made Sanada just a touch edgy when people provoked Seiichi. He led Fuji under the clump of trees south of the courts, where they could watch without being obvious to those playing.
“So,” he summarized, briskly, “you know how to provoke it, but you don’t know what it is. Or how to answer it.”
“I know what it is,” Fuji corrected. “But, no, I don’t know how to answer it; not from him.”
“At this rate, you might just have well have accepted my offer for a transfer, last year. ” Seiichi was finding himself a little annoyed at Fuji’s assumption that he both could and would explain this thing after Fuji had spent years denying it.
Fuji’s eyes slid to his, sharp, and his mouth was tight. Seiichi sighed, leaning back against a tree. That wasn’t going to be productive, he knew.
“You’ll have to excuse my temper, Fuji,” he said, more gently. “It’s just that you’ve suddenly come to me for help after having frustrated me for so long.”
Fuji’s head lowered just a touch.
“Yes,” Seiichi answered the unspoken thought, frankly, “you probably frustrated him just as much, if not more.” He thought about that for a moment, and continued, slowly. “And when he finally had evidence that you do understand what it means to play for real, after all, I imagine he asked you for a serious game.”
“Yes,” Fuji confirmed, softly.
“And he played against you in all seriousness,” Seiichi speculated. A nod. “And it scared you, that he wanted you to do the same,” he suggested, very quietly. Another nod, this one barely perceptible. Seiichi bit back another sigh. He would not, normally, compare Fuji to Akaya. Fuji was far more deliberate and analytical, and while he had some of the same propensity for violence, he had a far greater awareness of it and had channeled it far more tightly. This stubborn innocence, though, reminded him very much of Akaya.
“I don’t understand what it is he wants of me.” The words pulled out of Fuji, unwillingly. “I thought it was just for the team. For the Nationals. But it’s more than that.”
Seiichi waited. If Fuji really wanted his advice, he was going to have to have to come further out of that damn shell.
“He wants us to play full out, not against rivals but against each other,” Fuji continued at last, reflective tone belied by his clenched fists. “I understand that he likes to play strong opponents. Even when he played Atobe or Sanada, though, I’d never seen him quite like that before.”
“He hopes that you are stronger than he is,” Seiichi said, as matter of fact as he could.
Fuji frowned, narrow, blue gaze fixed on his hands as he flexed them. “Ryuuzaki-sensei thinks I am,” he murmured. “Or can be. But why…?”
Seiichi rubbed his fingers over his forehead. Perhaps he was grateful that Tezuka had been the one to win Fuji for his team, after all. He’d have gone mad, faced with such hesitance to understand for three solid years.
“We are the best,” he stated. “What that means in practice is that it’s very hard to find any opponent who can push us hard enough to make us advance, within our own age group. And,” he added, flatly, “even in the next there aren’t many.” He leaned forward to meet Fuji’s eyes. “Tezuka hopes that you will be a true challenge. One he has to reach beyond himself to meet.”
The lingering confusion in Fuji’s face made him want to bang his head against the tree. Try another tack, then.
“What do you want out of life, Fuji?”
“What are your goals?” Seiichi rephrased. Fuji tipped his head to one side, caramel hair brushing across his cheek.
“To find interesting things,” he said, at last.
Seiichi didn’t doubt that for a second. Fuji and Niou would probably have gotten along very well, in a dangerous sort of way.
“Is there anything interesting enough to get you out of bed with an extra bounce, in the morning? Enough to make it worth driving yourself through pain and trouble for it? Enough that sometimes you think you would sell your soul and mortgage your breath for it, because it’s so wonderful?” he prodded.
Fuji’s eyes widened, as he watched Seiichi.
“That’s what it’s like, for us, Fuji,” Seiichi murmured. “That’s why we’re the best. Because the shape of the game is the shape of our spirits, and there aren’t words for the glory of a game that demands everything from us. And the only way to be true to the game is to always strive to be more within it.” He leaned forward on his knees, taking Fuji by the shoulders, caught up by his need to finally make Fuji understand. “That’s what Tezuka wants for you, too. That’s why he’s been trying to coax you or force you or, for all I know, bribe you to be serious these last years.”
The normally bright eyes were blank and shocked, and turned inward.
“Did you feel it,” Seiichi asked, more gently, “when you played Akaya?”
“If that’s what it was,” Fuji murmured. He shivered.
“If you take that path it will probably be even harder for you than it is for most,” Seiichi told him, honestly. “You’ll run into it, too, the craving for someone who can challenge you, who can share that vitality with you. And those will be few and far between.”
Fuji nodded, closing his eyes. “I can see that.” He touched Seiichi’s wrist, lightly, and Seiichi let him go. “Thank you for explaining.”
Seiichi’s mouth quirked. “I can’t say it was entirely altruistic.”
A glint entered Fuji’s eyes, and a razor smile curved his mouth in turn. “Good.” He stood up. “I said it would not be a temporary advance. I meant that. What I found,” he paused, “I’m not sure it’s worth my soul, but it’s certainly worth getting out of bed. And a fair amount of pain and trouble, too, I think.”
“It’s a start,” Seiichi said, rising as well.
“Yukimura,” Fuji was silent for a long moment, “will you play a game against me?”
Seiichi’s focus sharpened with a snap he could nearly hear. “I would be delighted to,” he said, with absolute truth. The club was leaving for the day; that would make things easier. He escorted Fuji back to the courts.
Sanada took a long look at each of them, and dismissed the team brusquely before moving to the side to call the game.
“He knows you very well,” Fuji observed, sounding like he was stifling a laugh.
“This is something we share,” was all Seiichi said, already immersing himself in the cool exhilaration of the moment. He felt Fuji’s eyes on his back.
Seiichi pitched the game high from the very first serve, pushing Fuji, driving him to show his strength or be defeated immediately. He could feel, in the occasional unsteadiness of Fuji’s returns, the other player’s startlement, and his mouth tightened every time it happened. Fuji was too used to toying with his opponents, too used to slack competition who didn’t raise the level until they thought they had to, too used to playing for the enjoyment of seeing his opponents’ realization that it was far too late already. It was precisely the approach to the game that had infuriated Seiichi for years. He had wondered, for a long time, why a player as true as Tezuka allowed it to continue. But if Fuji had really never risen to Tezuka’s challenge, before now, Seiichi reflected, what could his counterpart have done?
Well, Seiichi had an opportunity to do something, now, and he brought everything he had to bear on Fuji. And, finally, Fuji broke, broke open and flashed out at him, and it was Seiichi who was on the defensive. He recognized the still lack of expression on Fuji’s face, the absolute concentration that had no time for such peripherals, and a fierce smile curved his own mouth.
When they hit a six game tie, Fuji faltered.
“Keep going,” Seiichi called.
Still, Fuji hesitated, unnerved, Seiichi thought, by the intensity in both of them and unsure what it would mean to pursue the game to the end. Seiichi let his voice turn harsh; this was not Akaya, who would heed his gentleness.
“Do you want to do this, for yourself? For him? Do you want to be more in this game than a scavenger? A bully? Then keep going.”
Fuji’s head came up, and his serve whipped past Seiichi like a bullet.
“Better,” Seiichi snapped, and sank himself, once more, into the immediacy of play and response.
Fuji won. Seiichi was slightly amused by his opponent’s surprise. Fuji was still unused to playing full out, unused to playing on the edge where chance could decide a game. It would likely take some time for him to accept and own both his abilities and that space no one could control. Altogether, though, Seiichi was pleased, and said so as they shook hands.
“Thank you,” Fuji told him. “I appreciate this, Yukimura. I should be getting back, now, though.”
“And let me regather my team, who are probably peering out one of the second floor classrooms this very moment,” Seiichi agreed, with a wry smile.
Sanada growled, and stalked past them toward the building. Seiichi chuckled as heads abruptly vanished from a window. He kept his grip on Fuji’s hand another moment, though.
“It’s the chance, do you understand?” he asked. “The opportunity to be more. It’s something all of us treasure.”
“I do understand,” Fuji said, quietly.
Seiichi tilted his head. “Do you think this is something you can give Tezuka, even though you’re on the same team?”
Fuji’s smile returned, slight and thoughtful. “I think,” he said, slowly, “it would be wrong if I didn’t.”
Seiichi nodded, satisfied that Fuji did, indeed, understand. “Welcome home, Fuji Shuusuke,” he said, very, very softly.