by Ruebert

Once, when he was twelve years old -- and that was not so long ago, he thought, with a touch of surprise, though it seemed like forever somehow, so many things had changed -- he had filled up four pages of a 200-page notebook, writing the same three words over and over and over again. No one ever saw those pages, and he didn't know what happened to that notebook, but he remembered that feeling, remembered how he dug the pencil into the paper hard enough to tear it, how he breathed hard and how the lines of each character grew sharper, sloppier as time went by, as he recalled the words and events that sparked those words that had to be released. He could have simply screamed them into empty air, but that was not his way; nor could he simply hold them inside. Instead he laid them onto the paper again and again, hoping that he could exorcise them through his fingertips even as they burned his throat and begged for release.

When he'd finished, his hand ached, and the burning need had lessened. Not enough, not nearly enough, but for now it would do. It was manageable again, he could think and move and speak again without it showing in every line of his body. It was enough that he could slip on the mask again, face reality again. He closed the notebook. A week later, the incident was forgotten, as so many of them were -- he had many methods of dealing with his emotions in a manner that he considered acceptable, in such a way that they would not be noticed by others.

He wasn't sure why he remembered this now, why he recalled that aching need to release and vent his emotions, the childish incident that had engendered those long minutes of pain and inner turmoil. Maybe it was that he felt his hands were tied; maybe it was that he could not open his mouth and say what it was that he felt, maybe it was that he didn't know how to say what he needed to say. It was better to keep his mouth shut.

Hiyoshi did not speak often; he did not speak when he felt it was unnecessary, he did not feel the comradery that so many people touted as being part of a team, not in Hyoutei's tennis club. That was why he'd chosen the school, why he'd studied and begged and worked his hardest so that he could take Hyoutei Gakuen Junior High's entrance exam, despite the high tuition, despite the fact that he would know no one when he entered the school, that he would be on his own entirely. It was worth it.

He'd wanted the fierce competition, the backbiting cliques that began and ended the junior high school careers of so many would-be tennis players in the famous club; he'd known that he would be able to rise above the squabbles of two hundred boys, knew that he could do it, because while Hiyoshi was certainly not the biggest, or strongest, or swiftest of the freshmen who entered the private school, he could possibly have been called one of the hardest-working. Years of practicing kata, years of rigid discipline that were in his blood, trained into him from the time he was two years old and had begged to be allowed to train just like his big brother; Hiyoshi understood hard work and he understood discipline, and he understood fighting for himself to be the best, and when he'd first picked up the tennis racket that been left behind by an older student at the dojo, he'd applied that knowledge and understanding to mastering this new game. It was not martial arts; it was not kobujutsu. It was not something his brother had ever done, and even if he'd not shown an ounce of talent at the youth center he went to for his first lessons, that fact alone would have been encouragement enough for him to continue learning. Tennis was something that belonged to Wakashi, and no one else.

If he made no friends in this school, had no close companions, if all he had was tennis -- that would be enough. He'd always tended towards acquaintances rather than friends anyway; certainly he struck up a short-lived friendship with someone at school once in a while, but that was all it was: short-lived. These friends generally did not last long, once it was determined that Hiyoshi simply did not care about many of the things that boys his age usually did. The mystery, the enigma of the quiet, determined boy -- a child with a mop of hair that strayed into his eyes, who did not make friends, who preferred to read or study instead of playing during recess in primary school, who joined no clubs and had little interest in socializing, yet who could not be called a geek or wimp or bullied, either, because he countered such attempts swiftly and decisively, and usually it was the instigator of said encounter who ended up in pain -- faded swiftly once it was discovered that there was nothing else hiding. That Hiyoshi was exactly as he appeared.

He was good at keeping his secrets safe from discovery.

Being a loner, always lurking on the edges, never quite part of the group -- this had followed him from primary school on into junior high, and the bullies grew more vicious, the backstabbing and biting and snarling and tussles for position more serious. He never lost his confidence in himself, however. He never lost sight of his goal. He would be the best, he would be the top, and he would gain recognition for his efforts. He fought and struggled and lived for the faint praise of his coach, lived for the competition, the glory of victory, of seeing his opponent fall at his hands. When his hard work and unusual style garnered him a place in the subregulars, he found himself subject to jealousy and pettiness from those who had wanted the position, to fawning and obsequiousness from those who sought to use him to raise themselves up, who wanted his presence near now that he had risen in the hierarchy. He ignored it all.

It did not gain him popularity, no more than the fact that he took advantage of his position when he joined the regulars, that he shamelessly abused his new status. He had earned it, had he not? Perhaps he had not been the one to defeat Taki Haginosuke, caused him to fall, but he had earned his position by his own actions. He cared not for criticism from anyone save Sakaki; let them say what they would, let them think what they liked. Unless they could defeat him on his chosen battleground, they were beneath his notice.

Those who lost were worthless, and deserved the ridicule heaped upon them. Every loss was a burning, itching wound that refused to be salved. His defeats were bitter and difficult to swallow, and caused him to brood and practice and stretch himself to his limits for days. Those who could defeat him became his new goals. He would attain the sky.

Hyoutei's tennis club was the perfect environment for him. Beneath the admiration, beneath the cheering and adulation lay the slavering visages of a pack of wolves. When the alpha fell, those beneath him would tear him to pieces, cast him out. The same boy who had been the center of attention, who had been lifted up onto the shoulders of two hundred one day could the next day become the butt of jokes and bullying, laughed at and ridiculed, less than dirt in the eyes of the throng. He would be the one who stood at the top, and he would destroy any who sought to overthrow him. If he were to fall, he would be a target as much as any other hero fallen from glory, vilified -- and that was how it should be.

So when he lost to Echizen, when his foolish pride and the oversight of the team, neglecting to research Seigaku's freshman player, caused his overconfidence to destroy him, left him unprepared to face the young monster -- when he lost the match that was so necessary for Hyoutei to advance to the Nationals, when he failed Sakaki, the regulars, the tennis club and for the first time in years kept his school from advancing beyond the Kantou tournament -- he was not surprised that the wolves came for him.

He didn't know their names; they had never been good enough to pose a threat to him, to even compete for a position in the subregulars, so there was no point in learning their names. They were seniors, he thought, but he didn't know for sure, and it didn't matter after the first punch was thrown. He was good at fighting, but five against one was hardly a fair fight, and fairness was important to Hiyoshi -- one should get what one deserved, and didn't he deserve this, for losing? Didn't he deserve to fall, and not rise again? But Sakaki had set a strange new precedent with Shishido's reinstatement, and four regulars -- five if the no-game counted as a loss -- that should have fallen were left with their positions intact. The fact that his coach had not punished him for the loss that had destroyed the dream of the elite school's tennis club was one that had puzzled even him, and he supposed that in the absence of said punishment, these boys who would never be able to rise to his own level had decided that they would have to deal it, in Sakaki's stead.

He was not surprised, and he deserved his punishment, but he refused to resign himself to his fate so easily. It wasn't their decision to make, he felt, and so he fought and struggled and attempted escape -- winning this fight was not an option, gekokujou had no place here. There was no way he could win, but he would not allow this. They were beneath him, even if he had fallen from grace. He deserved punishment, but it was for the coach to deal, his own team to deal.

It was an uncharacteristic thought that escaped the back door of his mind when pain bloomed bright against the insides of his eyelids, when darkness threatened the edges of his vision, when limbs were rendered useless and unable to struggle any longer and the world blurred: Please. Leave me able to play.

This story is continued in Vitis, in the Ohtori/Shishido section.

The End

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