by Ruebert

Inui doesn't remember when his afternoon training with Kaidoh became a practice for three.

It troubles him, sometimes, that he cannot recall the first time that he noticed. When he realizes this, he spends an evening at his home working on his computer, pulling together every known fact, every scribbled note and conjecture, compiling them into a profile far more complete than that which had been available to him a month ago, six weeks ago. It is not there, in his notebooks, the first time he noticed the newcomer. Perhaps he even said 'hello', thinking the days merest coincidence, a boy he's seen briefly before training in the same public park, at the same time.

He knows better, after more than a month of this. Coincidence exists in the world, but it does not manifest in the form of a boy who shows up without fail every afternoon after school and club at the same place as Inui and his chosen doubles partner, every Saturday or Sunday when the time is free, who watches the regulars practice at Seishun Gakuen Junior High with fingers that twist around the wire mesh of a chain-link fence.

The watcher never interferes, never interrupts, completing his own training routine. Yet he is always there. When Inui and Kaidoh run, he runs. When Inui and Kaidoh play a warm-up match against each other, he hits a tennis ball against a wall with violence that sometimes leaves Inui wondering if those arms will last long enough to finish out a high school career. He does his own stretches and exercises alone, without the benefit of a partner, and does not seem to suffer for this. When a stranger approaches him for a match, he accepts and plays, though at the end of the set, he returns to his familiar routine.

Kaidoh is not so quick as Inui to notice their companion, but when he does, he makes no mention of it, though Inui can see the questions in his eyes. An enigmatic smile, a shrug that is the merest drop of a shoulder, and the younger boy is reassured, returns to his training without further thought. The next afternoon, the routine is repeated, with the same results. When a week passes, Kaidoh is at ease with their silent training partner as Inui is.

Kaidoh understands obsession, after all. He is no stranger to inner burning need kept silent, acted out only in motion and deed. Passion unrevealed in word or face is expressed in the lines of a body pushed to the limit, in tenacity matched by few, invisible to those who do not realize that this is merely the latest day in a line that may stretch out to a thousand more, if that twisting thirst is unable to be quenched. He understands the desperation that hits when he reaches his limits, and strives only to push those limits further.

They have become used to having eyes on them, watching each move. They have become used to seeing a certain figure out of the corners of their eyes, to seeing a training routine acted out in tandem with theirs; the movements are similar, the player wholly different, and yet not so different from themselves.

Inui's opinions have changed. This is something outside of his calculations, outside of his theories. This was not foreseen or predicted. None of the odds aligned to hint that this might be the result of his actions.

Echizen is not so observant as Inui, nor his memory so sharp. He does not know who the boy is that Inui points out, one Sunday morning, watching Seigaku's regulars practice on the courts, though he makes mention that he thought he recalled the boy hanging around for a while, a few weeks past, watching him like so many who come to practice do. He thinks nothing of the visitor, and turns back to his smashing practice.

Inui is not so foolish, though he wonders why the focus has changed so much. He wonders, sometimes, why the boy is not at his own practice, why he has the time to indulge in what most might consider stalking, but what Inui considers to be a private form of self-flagellation. Seeking out the answer to this question only gains him further questions, for his information sources at the former rival school are as helpless as he to explain the baffling behavior pattern.

Kaidoh is the one who makes it all clear to him, one day, when he replies to mutterings Inui had not meant to be heard, a soft hiss of breath announcing his wish to speak before he tells Inui in a gruff voice that he is Tezuka.

Inui is taken aback by his partner's nonsensical statement, and it is several days before he makes the connection which should have been obvious from the start. He still does not understand why he is the target, rather than Echizen. Echizen would have been the logical choice.

When the Seigaku team leaves for a week-long training camp, Inui and Kaidoh find themselves separating from the main group, training by themselves. Somehow, the routine feels incomplete without that third figure near, without eyes watching every motion and movement. Neither speaks to the other of this; there is no need to, not when every five minutes, one of them catches the other glancing over a shoulder, looking for someone who will not, cannot be there.

The training is hard; both of them are weary, bone-tired, wanting nothing more than to return home to soft beds and sleep when they disembark from the bus, but both Inui and Kaidoh, by unspoken agreement, heft their bags and instead make the trek to the park, silent companions who only look at each other once in a while. When they arrive, the park is deserted.

There is no third, silent partner in their routine for days; neither Inui nor Kaidoh voices concern about this, but it is obvious in small hesitations, in the way dark eyes flicker to the side. Somehow, they both feel that their training is lacking; both keenly feel the loss of a person neither has spoken to, in all the days spent in mutual silence.

The afternoon that they arrive at the park and see a familiar person running, they look to each other, and are surprised by the relief evident in their expressions. Kaidoh smiles; Inui chuckles softly. For some reason, this is not strange; it is just life.

One afternoon, Kaidoh is called away from their after-club practice. There is regret in his apology, but Inui simply smiles and shakes his head. He can train alone -- it is nothing new, though he will miss his gruff company more than expected. That makes him wonder what it will be like when he graduates, when he continues on to high school. Perhaps he and Kaidoh will still meet in the park, like this. He does not know, and he pulls a notebook from his bag as he walks toward the park, scribbling a reminder to ask Kaidoh about the matter before Inui is caught up in the mad flurry of studying for entrance exams. He will have no problem advancing to the high school affiliated with Seishun University, but he will not be satisfied with a score on his exam that is less than what he considers satisfactory.

He arrives alone at the park, and then he is no longer alone.

Inui does not continue in his normal routine, today. He has made all of his calculations, has figured out the probabilities, has tried to incorporate every bit of information, has done everything he can to ensure that this endeavor will be a success -- but he knows that there are no absolutes. It has taken him a long time to accept that there are things his data cannot predict.

He approaches the other while he is warming up, observing a routine that previously had been glimpsed only in small snatches. It surprises him, the changes in that body that he has not noticed. Of course, the other is still a growing teenager, as Kaidoh is, as he himself likely is though he is quite certain he has hit his last major growth spurt. He has known that the other is no stranger to practicing hard and working to attain a goal, but this improvement is marked even given that propensity.

This warm-up routine has moves Inui has never used; they are as natural as breathing to the one who stands before him with back turned, as yet unaware of his presence. Inui knows who he is looking for, when he stares at the small area where the two Seigaku regulars should be starting their own warm-ups. Flowing into a seamless kata in a move that halts Inui's breath in his throat briefly, the boy continues. When he finishes, and moves to pick up the ever-present bottle of water, sucking mouthfuls through the flexible plastic tube, Inui approaches.

"I've heard that Ohtori Choutarou had been chosen to be Hyoutei's next captain."

Inui's words are loud in the silence, and the boy jumps, almost choking on a gulp of water before he manages to swallow and recover, turning to look at Inui with eyes the color of dull blue steel that peer through sandy bangs.

"Yes," he replies, the affirmation showing his surprise at the interruption. For some reason, Inui does not find the fact that he is obviously off-balance as amusing as he expected to.

"Echizen would have made more sense." Inui feels no need to clarify his words, make evident the question inherent in them. He feels that the not-quite-stranger who stands before him, water bottle in one hand, towel dangling loosely from the other, will understand his intention.

The words are hesitant, in a voice that is not used to speaking about thoughts. Explanations, if they must be made, are made in actions, not words, and this is outside of his zone of experience. "Echizen is not the same."

"You never played against Kaidoh." Another question masked as a statement, and as the first, it is understood for what it is.

"Kaidoh is like you."

With those words, something becomes clear to Inui that he could not grasp earlier. To understand is to feel kinship which had only hovered on the edges previously. In the world they share, there are geniuses. Tezuka Kunimitsu is one. Echizen Ryoma is another. Atobe Keigo, Fuji Syusuke, Tachibana Kippei, Kirihara Akaya -- the list continues on and on.

Inui is a genius, but not in the same manner as those that the junior high tennis world claims as its rising stars, as its tensai. All of his skill comes from training. There is no innate talent locked away to be revealed in a moment of passion; everything he has accomplished has come of hard work alone. As with Kaidoh. As with the boy who stands before him silently, who trains with a tenacity that astonishes Inui, who simply will not give up, despite not seeming to entertain a clear goal.

"Echizen evolves with each game. You do not. Yet your tennis is not stagnant." The words which follow the first statement surprise Inui, and his brows draw together, considering them. It is not quite a logical conclusion, he decides at last. But he does not expect logic from the boy standing before him.

He takes off his Seigaku jersey, and beneath he is wearing only his usual uniform; before he stands, he removes the weights upon his ankles, as well as his wrists.

"Would you like a match?"

He has never seen Hiyoshi Wakashi smile before.

The End

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