Categories > Anime/Manga > Prince of Tennis

Heartless

by sesame_seed 0 Reviews

Loveless/Prince of Tennis fusion. Tezuka/Fuji, kind of. Catboy!Tezuka acquires a Sacrifice. Written for the first round of their_white_day.

Category: Prince of Tennis - Rating: PG - Genres: Drama - Characters: Fuji Shuusuke, Kikumaru Eiji, Niou Masaharu, Oishi Syuichirou, Sanada Genichirou, Tezuka Kunimitsu, Yagyuu Hiroshi, Yukimura Seiichi - Warnings: [?] - Published: 2007/06/29 - Updated: 2007/06/29 - 11626 words - Complete

For those unacquainted with Loveless-verse:

1. This is a world where everyone is born with kitty ears and a tail, which they keep right up until they lose their virginity: virginity goes, the neko traits go (so sad).

2. There's a battle system in this universe that has not, to date, been thoroughly explained. Ergo, if you know nothing of the system whatsoever, you don't know much less than I do!

What we do know is that battles occur between two teams at a time. Each team is composed of two people: a Fighter, and a Sacrifice. The Fighter's job is to attack with, uh, mean words. The Sacrifice's job is to order the Fighter around and to receive damage (in the form of stylish leather restraints, though apparently they cause considerable pain and sometimes draw blood - no, I don't know either.)

Each team has a name that's decided in some mystical manner and appears as a tattoo on their bodies, so there's only one Fighter for every Sacrifice, and vice versa. The names often end in -less (Loveless, Sleepless, Fearless), but not always.

The general public seems unaware of this battle system and the existence of Fighters and Sacrifices.

3. Shichisei Academy is a (the?) school where Fighters and Sacrifices are trained.


Many of the other rules and circumstances of battle mentioned in this fic I pulled out of thin air, because Loveless is still in progress, and Yun Kouga likes to keep her secrets.


Heartless

Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart./ ~ William Butler Yeats


On the day Tezuka Kunimitsu was born, he was passed immediately from the doctor to the nurse to the ninety-three-year-old augur waiting outside, whose time was charged at ¥30,000 an hour before taxes, and who had driven up in a sleek black limo to receive the red carpet treatment.

The old man coughed, relinquished the infant, and discreetly wiped his hands off with a handkerchief.

"Fighter," he proclaimed to the delight of several invested onlookers. Most prominent among them was the grandfather of the infant in question, who had been a Fighter himself in his youth, and felt qualified to guide a grandson through the traps and pitfalls of an obstacle-studded professional path.

"And his strength?"

(The existence of augurs had saved a considerable amount of time over the centuries, as it allowed doting parents to pit the qualities of one child against the other from birth instead of waiting for the passage of those pesky toddling years before individual traits appeared.)

Inquiries would have revealed the gentleman in blue raising the question to be the infant's uncle, who felt himself intimately concerned with the subject, being one of those banking on his own progeny becoming the family sensation and thus receiving the lion's share of their patriarch's substantial fortune.

"Strong," said the old man, giving his beard a luxurious stroke before remembering himself and snatching his fingers away. "Very strong. Quite incredibly strong, if I may say so."

Some faces brightened; some faces fell.

As custom dictated, the task of asking the last of the three traditional questions fell to the proud father. He licked his lips. "And - his fortune? Are there any great calamities we must prepare against?"

The augur paused. The pause turned into a short hush, then a long one, and the faces that had previously brightened fell, while those that had previously fallen lit up with renewed hope.

"I am very sorry," said the augur, and, sighing, shook his head. He would say no more, although he did accept tips from various relatives in generous and dignified solemnity before returning to his limo and allowing himself to be driven away.

*

Nobody questioned Tezuka's ability to make it into Shichisei Academy until the day of the entrance exams, which he spent undergoing the wrong kind of examination due to a sudden onset of appendicitis.

"What will we do? What can we do?" moaned Tezuka Sr., pacing figure eights around the waiting room floor while white-clad nurses stood around looking bored and superior.

"Hush," said his wife. Her fingers were laced calmly in her lap. "They say the operation is quite risk-free."

"But he's missing the exam, and you know Haruka's boy is going to be completely perverse and ace it, just the kind of thing you can expect from - " he started, then blanched beneath the look she sent him. "I mean, oh my darling son, I hope they're cutting him open with tenderness."

"I'm sure they hope so, too," she said with a smile that caused a passing nurse to drop her clipboard.

Tezuka emerged eventually from the hospital short one appendix and one ticket to the best specialty school in Japan, looking as unruffled as usual. On being subjected to Tezuka Sr.'s tentative inquiries as to his plans for the future, he turned to his father with a frown that managed to be perfectly respectful.

"I am very good at what I do, sir," he said.

One week later he was summoned to the Headmaster's office of Shichisei Academy and subjected to a private examination. Officially, nobody knew who had pulled the strings to make it happen, but it was recorded that on the day Tezuka Kunimitsu received his admission letter, his mother received a bouquet of tiger-lilies from her father-in-law.

*

Tezuka turned out to be very good at what he did.

*

The roster for the special class was announced in September.

"Nerves," said Oishi, "are the body's cruelest weapons," pressing a hand to his belly as they neared the cluster of students gathered before the notice board. "I'll bet there are people who died of them."

"You should have eaten something to settle your stomach," Tezuka said.

Students milled around in twos and threes, a tattered crowd converging towards the bulletin board in the main hall.

"Buck up, little camper," an older student offered while passing by with a grin, a wave, and the amusement that could only come from having once passed through that same jittery baptism of dread. "It'll only determine your status here for the next three years."

Oishi closed his eyes; his tail lashed around like a frantic yo-yo. "This world is a horrible place."

"I hear ya," someone murmured. "Indecent, really," a kid with improbably red hair agreed, before popping his matching-colored gum and disappearing into the crowd.

They'd drawn up to the hindmost row of gawkers by this time, most of which looked glum but unsurprised, some emoting relief. Genichirou was there, unexpectedly. There had never been any question of him not making the cut, as Haruka-obasan took great delight in informing any members of the family who would listen. He met Tezuka's eyes and nodded.

The crowd between them and the board was packed, but with his height and the excellent prescription of his glasses, the hindrance proved minor.

"Hmm," he said.

"Tell me," Oishi said, eyes still shut. "Anything's better than the waiting."

Tezuka shrugged. "I don't think we'll be seeing each other much for a while."

*

In the Specials classroom that Shichisei students dubbed the Killing Field, Ryuzaki-sensei stood to the side, barking out commands, while four sets of students paired off against one another, armed with varying degrees of hostility.

Tezuka's partner today was Atobe, clad in designer jeans and cashmere vest, accompanying each salvo with a gesture like a circus ringmaster. Not one of Tezuka's favorite opponents, since absurdity on a battleground usually had a way of floating over the line and embracing both contenders in its warm and embarrassing glow.

"Burn with the flame of a thousand fiery suns!" he finished, flinging up one hand and snapping his fingers.

"Douse with the endless chill of space." The barrage of words Atobe was flinging at him crashed and shattered, tumbling back in shards. Atobe's lips turned down in a moue.

"Tezuka-san /kakkoiiiii/!" a girl yelled cheerfully from the sidelines, where the first-years were huddled in a cluster of skinny limbs and wide eyes, allowed to observe provided they had the wits to stay by the walls. A number of them had, apparently, formed a fanclub. He ignored it and them with determination.

He was aware of the opening and shutting of the classroom door, but only gave it his full attention when Atobe's head swiveled over.

"Fuji?" Atobe said, dropping the pose.

"/Aniki/," hissed one of the first-years, sounding outraged. Fuji Yuuta, Tezuka pulled from memory. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Ryuzaki-sensei was making her way over in a cloud of displeasure and an incipient ass-kicking, target to be determined after interrogation. The school had rules against uninvited guests.

"I don't believe we've finished yet," Tezuka said to Atobe, who had turned his attention towards the commotion without bothering with a pretense of cover-up.

"Oh, hush," said Atobe, flapping one dismissive hand at him. "I want to see what happens."

Tezuka really didn't like fighting Atobe.

Fuji the elder's expression had achieved the kind of innocence found only on newborn kittens and seasoned con men. "So rude, Yuuta, after your loving brother just crossed half the country for the pleasure of your company." He turned to Ryuzaki-sensei, just pulling up, and made a slight bow. "I'm sorry for intruding on your lesson, but Yuuta is a very sensitive child, I'm sure you understand, he's all stoic on the outside but cried at night for one month straight when we sent him to summer camp."

Ryuzaki-sensei looked nonplussed, and also suitably moved by this heartwarming display of brotherly love. Fuji the younger looked ready to burst a vein.

After a few minutes, Atobe interrupted what seemed like a serious rabu-rabu session between their instructor and the underaged brother of a student (who was, Tezuka noted, missing his neko ears) by yelling "Oi, Fuji! Get your ass over here and catch me up on the news."

Fuji the elder looked towards them and blinked, slowly, liked two very relaxed sunrises. "Keigo?"

Atobe waved him over with princely grandeur. "Come here. Spill."

"Should I pretend that you haven't set Kabaji to spy on everyone else in your absence?" said Fuji, but he ambled over obediently. "You're looking well. Country life seems to suit you."

"I'm in /seclusion/, thank you very much," Atobe said, looking more scandalized than if someone had just stuck a hand down his pants. "It's a fine and aristocratic tradition!"

Fuji's eyes crinkled into arches when he grinned. "So sorry for misunderstanding. - Aren't you in the middle of something, though?"

"Yes," said Tezuka, "aren't you?"

"Oh, that's just Tezuka," said Atobe, in the tone of voice one might use when declaring, That's just Bob the valet, you can leave your luggage with him. "We fight ten times a week. I only get to hear about the desolate wasteland your little lives have become in my absence /now/, so talk."

"Well, Saeki was so desolate he rushed to find comfort in feminine arms - he's been going steady with a girl at Rokkaku for three months now. I think he said something about finally being able to chat up girls without you around to embarrass the pair of you, but I could have misheard."

Atobe turned an indescribable color that seemed to please Fuji to no end. He stepped closer, cutting between Tezuka and Atobe, and maybe it was fate, maybe it was just the bad luck that had followed Tezuka around like a conscientious nanny since childhood, but as Fuji approached he tripped, and the hem of his left sleeve brushed Tezuka's before he righted himself.

Tezuka started to move away. He paused at a sudden tingling sensation on the skin above his ribcage, centered left - more painful than a cigarette burn, which he'd experienced before in one of Oishi's coolness experiments gone wrong, but not on par with a broken wrist, which he had likewise had the misfortune to suffer.

Fuji had paused as well, one hand to his chest pocket, eyes gone wide. "What," he said and stopped, then looked vexed with himself. Tezuka had the impression that he wasn't one who usually left his sentences half-spoken. Atobe looked between the two of them with a frown, as if he'd just realized he'd been relegated to background static and was about to file a complaint.

Tezuka thought: No, but without much hope that anyone was listening.

It was characteristic of his life that fate's magic eight ball turned up a smug /Yes/.

*

He ended up dragging Fuji out of the classroom and towards the washroom down the hallway, ignoring Atobe's outrage, Genichirou's interest and Fuji Yuuta's wide-open mouth.

Fuji had his shirt open before the washroom mirror, surveying himself quizzically. Even the dimness of the lighting couldn't conceal the characters branded into the skin: dark red and ugly-looking, as name marks shouldn't be, unless one forewent the dictates of destiny and saw to the branding through more traditional means. As the story went.

Tezuka's fingers twitched from not reaching up to splay over his own set. It no longer hurt, but he was aware of it in a sense that went beyond the physical. His ears twitched for reasons that were more complicated, and less easily resolved.

"This will be a problem." It sounded too abrupt even to himself, but Fuji didn't look like the type to care overly for the maintenance of niceties. As predicted, he only turned and tilted his lips in a lopsided smile.

"I suppose so," he said - a little rueful, but not nearly enough to have fully grasped the situation. "My parents haven't exactly approved tattoos yet. Tell me, does this kind of thing happen often in your school?"

"You'd be surprised," Tezuka said grimly. "But not usually to random visitors." He paused. "Didn't the school try to recruit you when it took in your brother?"

"I was away at the time. I had just enough time when I came back to say half a good-bye before he left." Something in the way he said this expressed that the school had not thus endeared itself to him. "Yuuta doesn't have a mark like this."

It was phrased more as a question than a statement, so Tezuka nodded, while thinking that this really wasn't in his job description. "Not yet. He will in the future, if he's lucky."

"Hmm," said Fuji.

Since it was none of Tezuka's business whether Fuji Yuuta's brother saw fit to interfere in his life, he let the matter drop.

"We'll have to talk to the Headmaster."

"This isn't a big deal, is it?" Fuji looked suspiciously like he was ready to vault a fence if the answer didn't suit him, but Tezuka wasn't stupid.

"It depends on how you look at it," he said, and, after prompting Fuji to button up his shirt again, shepherded him out of the room.

"It's kind of insulting, though, don't you think?" Fuji said as they exited the washroom door in file. "The mark, I mean. I'm not sure if I want to go through the rest of my life with a tattoo that labels me heartless - and the font could stand to be more aesthetic, too."

"It depends on how you look at it," Tezuka said again.

Heartless, he thought, feeling the newly etched skin tingle. Somebody up there was being very heartless indeed.

*

"Mmm," Fuji said at various points throughout the explanation in Headmaster Sakaki's room, and then he said "Hmm," when it was over.

"Let me get this straight," he said finally. "This is a school established to train warriors for some mysterious purpose that you've - masterfully, really well done - avoided stating in your welcome speech, and it grants its students the mystical power of binding enemies with their words, except it only does that for half the students, while the other half are merely skilled in standing around, enduring pain with stoic expressions? And because of this astoundingly unartistic tattoo, I now belong to that other half?"

"It sounds so plebian when you put it like that," said the Headmaster, as if the adjective pained him. "It's a noble and magnificent venture, turning deserving young men into heroes."

"Hmm," Fuji said again, and his eyes narrowed. "Are you by any chance related to Atobe Keigo?"

"Ah, you're acquainted with my nephew? How splendid! See, you'll fit right in."

Fuji smiled at him. "Right," he said. "I understand. Why don't you just assign me a class right now, and I'll see if I can catch up?"

After a few minutes to explain that the current batch of Sacrifice trainees hadn't been inducted yet, that Fuji would have to settle in with the older class and try to follow along, but everyone was very friendly and he was free to ask questions of the other students, and, oh yes, a guest room would be arranged for him and wasn't that nice, they were waved out of the office by the buxom secretary.

"Headed far, far away?" said Tezuka, once they were out of earshot.

"No," Fuji looked at him as if he'd just suggested appropriating a baby. Then he said, "I'm grabbing Yuuta first, of course. I suppose there's no hope for Keigo anymore, but he's a big boy, and really he's more equipped than most to live in insanity." He paused to slant a glance up at Tezuka. "If you plan to turn me in, now's the time to say."

"No," said Tezuka. The stories of Fighters deprived of their Sacrifices never ended nicely, but in the half an hour since they'd met, the idea of spending the rest of his life hitched to this Sacrifice managed somehow to be even less appealing.

"I knew I liked you for a reason." Fuji paused in the middle of the hallway. Tezuka stopped beside him, and refrained from flinching when a fleeting brush of skin slid up his left ear; instead, he grabbed onto Fuji's wrist and pushed it down firmly. Fuji only peered at him thoughtfully. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in joining in the Great Escape?"

"No," he said again, and then, because he knew something of human nature, and because he wasn't in the finest temper after having his life shaken from its usual orderly path, he added, "Your brother may not want to leave, either."

*

'May not want' turned out to be an understatement. Tezuka heard later from Oishi that most uninvolved passers-by seemed to have pegged it as a surpassingly vicious status duel, from the shouting and crashes involved.

The shouting was somewhat one-sided, but Fuji Yuuta had a healthy set of lungs on him (all to the good, as his face had been slowly turning purple), and he was using them to good effect. "I don't fucking believe this. I finally find something in my life that can belong to /me/, and you just waltz in and - "

"Yuuta," Fuji was saying, low and soothing, though for a boy who seemed to have all the mysteries of social maneuvering figured out, he seemed astonishingly incapable of dealing with his own brother. "Calm down. I'm not staying, and I don't think you should, either - "

"This is so typical. You're not staying because it doesn't mean anything to you, right? You get yourself bonded to the best Fighter in the school and it doesn't mean anything to you, you throw it away like it's garbage. But it's not garbage to me, and you - "

"Just think for a bit; do you even know why you're learning these skills?"

"Because they take me away from you!"

"Ouch," Tezuka heard Niou say to the side as the Fuji brothers stared at each other.

Fuji Yuuta made a sound that was the summation of teen rebellion and turned on his heels, storming out of the classroom. Fuji the elder stayed where he was, expressionless until Atobe coughed and said,

"I always said it was better to stay an only child, didn't I?"

The smile Fuji turned on him made Atobe back up a step.

"No," he said, "no, this will be a challenge. I'm looking forward to it. And - guess what, Keigo? We're going to be schoolmates now. Just imagine all the amusing stories from our childhood I can share."

*

It was a while before Tezuka saw Fuji again.

In the meantime, he sent a letter to his parents (/I've had the good fortune to meet my Sacrifice early. He seems like a very interesting person. The weather continues well, etc./) and one to his grandfather (/Sir, are there any stories of Fighters who achieved greatness without the presence of a Sacrifice?/), and was given special lessons along with a couple of seniors who'd drawn the unlucky straw to boost him to a level where he'd be capable of following the more advanced classes.

"Though a Sacrifice amplifies the Fighter's strength, he also serves as a distraction - you've got to learn to maintain your focus whatever happens to him, regardless of the pain he's going through."

"Wouldn't it be easier to ignore him entirely?"

Ryuzaki-sensei shook her head with her "oh, these young 'uns" expression. "The strength of a team derives from teamwork, not just the individual strength of each partner." She made an arcane gesture that seemed to be an attempt to indicate the balanced harmony of partnership. "We've been training the latter because nobody can predict the exact dynamics between each pair, but eventually you'll grow used to relying on him and utilizing the extra power he can provide."

"I don't," Tezuka said carefully, "believe he intends to provide any extra power."

"That won't be his decision to make," she said, and looked so confident he refrained from arguing it any further. "You say that now because he's a stranger to you. Once your identity clicks, once you accept him as your Sacrifice and he accepts you as his Fighter, you'll get along like a house on fire, you'll see." Here, she clapped her hands together. "I can't wait to get you two started on your first lessons."

She was forced to wait, though, because Fuji's trip back home to pick up his luggage stretched from two days to a week to two weeks. Whispers of a retrieval team put together to detain him had just arisen when Tezuka ran into him again in the hallway outside the cafeteria, gazing curiously at a duel between two senior teams.

" - materialize from?" he was saying to Tachibana, as the crowd in the hallway cheered on their chosen contenders: money often rode on these battles.

"Anybody who knows isn't telling," Tachibana said with a shrug, before he caught sight of Tezuka and inclined his head politely. Tezuka nodded back.

Fuji turned. He was carrying a small suitcase, and his bangs swept halfway over his eyes. "Hello," he said, "Tezuka, isn't it? It's nice to see you again."

"Likewise," he said, and thought it might even be true. "There was speculation that you'd gone for good."

"And leave my little brother to your evil clutches? Don't be silly." He paused before smiling sweetly. "That's a generic you, of course."

"Of course." Within the ring of students, one of the senior Sacrifices had dropped to her knees, hands going to the leather collar around her neck; her Fighter wavered, turning to her, and she glared at him hard enough to fell a tree.

Fuji murmured, "Such an admirable fighting spirit," in a way that made Tachibana's ears twitch and Tezuka wonder again whether it was worth having a Sacrifice who so obviously didn't intend to sacrifice anything at all.

"You'll see the point of it eventually," Tachibana was saying, to which Fuji responded, "I'm sure I will," with as much sincerity as an enclyclopedia salesman, and there was Tezuka's answer, right there.

*

A year prior, Tezuka had been assigned an east wing dorm along with all the other new students, four to a room. There was a fair bit of friction and knocking elbows at first - stories of Atobe's reign of terror made the rounds speedily - but everyone settled into it eventually, since the alternative was to pack up your bags and go home, tuition non-refundable.

Tezuka's dorm mates were Oishi (who believed irregularity was a tool of the devil), Kawamura (meekest person alive before battle systems were expanded), and Sleeping Beauty Jirou. They were soon known as the dorm most likely to pass every surprise midnight inspection for the next three years. He had few complaints about the arrangement.

Once a Fighter found his or her Sacrifice, though, the lucky couple was allowed to move to a two-person dorm - reputedly one of the more attractive bonuses of forming a team. It wasn't surprising when Tezuka's classmates seemed to view his premature bonding as nothing more than a quick claim to a private bathroom and congratulated him accordingly.

They also saw fit to regale him with tales of his new roommate's exploits. Fuji Shuusuke was, it seemed, something of a celebrity in his home district.

"His tennis team went to the Nationals. He played in them and won!"

"I heard he lost his ears when he was /twelve/."

"He's an evil and habitual liar and there's no point in believing anything he says because it's not true, especially that story about the fleas, which I have /never had/, and I shaved my tail as a fashion statement," said Atobe, crossly.

Fuji Yuuta's contribution to the gossip mill was, "If you guys don't shut up now I can guarantee you'll regret it," with a glint in his eye that actually succeeded in slowing the flow of information and misinformation down to a trickle.

At least Tezuka found the rumors easy to ignore, given what he knew of what was being passed the other way. ("He was hatched from a geode of stone, really?" Fuji had said, sounding more intrigued than he'd been during the entire session in the Headmaster's office, and "It would explain a lot, I guess. And you say his battle domain creates its own gravitational field?")

He learned little from the source itself, since Fuji's first act as a roommate after they'd settled their things in and negotiated a showering schedule was to make himself scarce.

"There's no point in having a Sacrifice if you never occupy the same room except to sleep," Ryuzaki-sensei said during the third lesson at which Fuji had failed to show.

"There's no point in occupying the same room if the first thing he does is look for an exit," Tezuka said. "Confound. Flatten." The freshman across from him flinched and looked piteous.

"You haven't had to face it yet, but there's a limit to the distance you can travel on your own talent."

Tezuka was all for shouldering responsibility, but...

"I'm not the problem here."

Ryuzaki-sensei raised an eyebrow, and he was reminded abruptly of why, despite occasional flights of kookiness, she had been chosen to head the special class, and why even known troublemakers like Niou submitted grudgingly to her instruction. "Welcome to partnership, kid. If the problem's with him, and he's your partner, then the problem's with you, too."

A school with video cameras surveying every corner that was nevertheless incapable of keeping one student in class had problems of its own, he thought, but he'd learned early to keep that kind of thing to himself.

"Perish," he said, and brought the fight to an end.

*

"It's bad value for money if you're just here for the food and board," he told Fuji that night, as they were preparing for bed.

"But I'm here for so much more than food and board," Fuji replied, looking unnaturally solemn above his baby-blue pajamas and comforter.

"Really."

"Really," and there was that sly, slippery grin that an eel would have envied, "there are other attractions to be found."

Tezuka made one of those non-committal noises that served to indicate disbelief to anyone with the self-awareness to catch on, and agreement to the rest (majority) of the population. "Lights?"

"Go for it."

*

Fuji followed him into class the next morning, blithe and cheerful, giving no outward sign that this was more than just any other day. There was some curiosity from the rest of the students when they appeared, though no great amount; the older students didn't often take an interest in lower-years.

Ryuzaki-sensei treated Fuji's presence as though it had been expected and inevitable. Now that he was a student under her purview, her attitude towards him was all business.

"You, sit," she said, pointing him towards a chair in the corner. "You, you and you, up front."

You Number One (Tezuka) stepped forward to join Numbers Two and Three, Arai and Takei of team Clueless, who'd been placed in this class to work on over-confidence problems. Tezuka hadn't faced them again after their first inglorious defeat.

"Well, gentlemen? Let's get to it," Ryuzaki-sensei clapped her hands.

Tezuka bowed. The seniors scowled. "Go, Tezuka!" Fuji called out sunnily.

It was habit to go easier on incompetent opponents, but Tezuka felt off-balance today, twitchy and on edge. A Sacrifice was said to double your strength, to change the way you fought fundamentally. Another person to consider. Another person to watch out for.

"System expand," he said, clearing his mind: wide planes, clean spaces. The unease receded, and he settled into the familiar groove of battle-focus, maneuvering easily through the awkward counter-attacks of the opponent.

It was over so quickly that even Ryuzaki-sensei looked nonplussed.

"Arai, Takei, do you see why I've been telling you to work on your defense? Tezuka, that was...very impressive. I'm proud of you. And - Fuji. Thoughts?"

Tezuka turned his head to meet Fuji's gaze burning into him. For one fleeting second he felt something fall into place, that spark that tradition promised him, though it wasn't so much a 'Let's fight together, we'll be a great team' spark as one that said 'Let's fight each other; we'll see how great you are.'

Then the moment passed, and there was just Fuji, eyes slitting as he smiled.

"I think I'm very lucky to have such an accomplished partner. I can't imagine there's anything I'd be able to help him with, actually."

Ryuzaki-sensei snorted. "You're more optimistic than I thought if you expect that to get you out of anything, kiddo. We'll just have to whip you into shape until you feel otherwise."

"I'm ready to blossom to my full potential under your tutelage, sensei," Fuji said: oddly archaic, completely insincere.

"Glad to hear it." Ryuzaki-sensei's smile was grim; she waved to another pair who'd been watching at the back of the classroom. "Yamato, Watanabe, show these boys how it's really done."

Tezuka drew in a breath - the Careless team led the seniors, and had been school champions as sophomores the preceding year. He'd never been given the opportunity to face them before: they refused to go against solitary Fighters. This promised to be interesting.

But Ryuzaki-sensei was continuing, "Fuji, join them. It's your first time and I don't expect you to take the reins - Tezuka can manage well enough on his own - so your job will just be not to distract him."

He watched Fuji's gaze swivel towards him, wary and amused. "I doubt that'll be a problem."

"Aww, sensei, you know I don't like breaking in little kids," Yamato strolled over to stand in the center of the room, followed by Watanabe, who only looked faintly annoyed. "You didn't tell us this was why you wanted us in today."

"And have you run away like our latest initiate? Don't be silly." Ryuzaki-sensei backed up, joining the loose circle around the two teams. Fuji had moved in to stand beside Tezuka. His face was blank, but Tezuka could catch the tension in his shoulders, like someone waiting for bad news to break.

He bowed. "Area system expand."

"Let's get this over with quickly," Watanabe said, still looking as if the entire display was in bad taste, and Yamato shrugged, hands in pockets.

"Accept, fight starts. Forget the time, forget the place."

Tezuka fought back the wave of disorientation; next to him, Fuji let out a soft "oh". "Evade. Turn back. Counter."

"Counter loses its way; enemy's strength is misplaced."

Watanabe shifted impatiently. The attack hadn't touched him. "Just focus on the Sacrifice, Yuudai. The lesson's for his benefit."

"Yes, sir," Yamato drawled, saluting, even as Tezuka launched his next move.

"Cover the ears from misinformation, blind the eyes from misdirection. Embrace enemy with pain."

"Power calculation error, attack fail. Stubbed toe, banged head, bruised knee, paper-cut." Yamato paused, and then added, "Times ten."

No effect on Tezuka, though he registered Fuji's hissing gasp, vaguely, as if through a layer of cotton - the battle was too intense now to attend to it. "Dodge the spell." It seemed difficult to maintain the necessary force behind that when he couldn't actually sense the spell. "Invade the enemy's territory. Pierce, penetrate, strike at the heart."

Collars formed around Watanabe's wrists and neck; his ears flattened, but he didn't make a sound. Regardless, some of the relaxation fell away from Yamato's posture - veteran Fighters were attuned to their Sacrifices on some level beyond the physical, and he'd know that Watanabe was under strain. That was the effect Tezuka wanted to achieve; 'Careless' would be going against its name if it wound up too tightly.

"Defense up. Defense up! Cloud the mind. Trip and fall."

"Double spell: dodge/reflect. Power increase."

"Deflect, turn back. Cut throat with own razor."

"Shield my body," he said out of habit. "Confound. Cru-" and before he could finish the word, he felt the battlefield dissipate; the restraints on Watanabe had disappeared, and he was looking disheveled but grimly satisfied.

"Battle over!" said Ryuzaki-sensei sharply, and Tezuka stopped, panting, dazed for a few seconds. He'd been defeated before, but never like this; he still felt fine, he could still -

- and then he remembered, and looked to his side.

Fuji was crouched on the ground, hands and ankles bound, a collar digging into the skin at his neck, and he looked shaken. His palms were splayed out against the floor like he intended to push them in, and his lips were white.

Then he turned, painstakingly, to Tezuka, and managed a smile that seemed to say that this was something a few sleek insinuations and dents to Atobe's pride wouldn't begin to cover.

*

"So this is your life," Fuji murmured into the darkness that night, as the leaves outside rustled and made patterned shadows on the walls.

They were both in bed; Tezuka's glasses were already on the dresser bureau. It had been an exhausting day, and he was feeling very sorry for Atobe. "You understand, then." He paused, listening for the whisper of Fuji's breathing, just barely audible. "I don't want a partner who's not committed."

"I'm sure any partner you find will be more than qualified for commitment," which indicated that the afternoon's lesson hadn't knocked the teasing out of Fuji, in any case. "What kind of partner do you want, Tezuka?"

He hadn't expected the question. Hadn't expected anything, really, including Fuji's luggage still there in their room when he'd returned in the evening, and if he wasn't mistaken, he thought Fuji was still a bit baffled by it as well.

"Somebody who'll be there."

Most Fighters fantasized about their Sacrifices from childhood; Tezuka had never managed to conjure anything other than a vague, amorphous presence. He wanted someone who would give every battle 100%; he wanted someone who wouldn't be a bother. He wanted someone who knew everything he was thinking, and someone who couldn't read him at all.

He wanted perfection, or utter incompetence, or maybe he didn't want either. What he wanted was for Fighters not to need Sacrifices, to be able to shoulder the burden alone, because when he was fighting he didn't have the ability to consider anyone else.

Heartless.

Fuji shifted. For a second, Tezuka imagined he could feel the feathery pressure of fingers brushing over his tattoo, and closed his eyes.

"Is there really no way of substituting the members of a team?"

"There shouldn't be any need." Everything planned out by fate, each person hitched with their best possible partner, and the only variable was how long it took for a team to discover that, or so the spiel went. "But even if there were, no."

"I'm very sorry, then," said Fuji, followed by the creaking of springs that was him turning over, probably, bringing the conversation to an end.

*

That was the last time Fuji attended classes voluntarily, though he was occasionally dragged in by Instructor Hanamura or the third year Disciplinary Committee, who seemed to have a running bet on who could accomplish the most arrests each week. To make it sporting, they refrained from lying in wait outside Tezuka's room in the mornings; Tezuka half-suspected that Fuji had been the one to instigate the wager in the first place.

Fuji didn't seem to mind the chase. He took successful captures with good grace, and deigned to remain obediently caught until the ring of the bell. His fight to snare his brother back into normality was continuing apace as well, though Tezuka didn't think he was going to come out on top in that one.

Tezuka did his best to soak up all damage when they were partnered up ("I'm not going to entrust my back to someone who won't do his part,") and Ryuzaki-sensei didn't push it; she told him only that if his partner had an attitude problem, it was his responsibility to help adjust it.

Can I turn back time to see him born again and born differently?

Otherwise, though, the classes were as stimulating as promised. He was instructed to think hard on the name of his team and tailor his spells to it for maximum effect, which led to a great deal of experimentation with Oishi on missing organs, cold-bloodedness and damage through dispassion.

Fuji came back early one afternoon and caught him coming up with new phrases to use. He ignored the presence peering curiously over his shoulder, but couldn't suppress a reaction when Fuji began to speak:

"Arrows pierce the heart. Winter chill freezes the world."

His voice was cadenced oddly; it felt like there should be power behind the words. Tezuka was almost prepared to counter an attack, but of course there was nothing - Fuji was only a Sacrifice, and an inept Sacrifice, at that.

"You would have made a good Fighter," he said after a brief silence, surprisingly comfortable.

Fuji rested a palm on the surface of his desk, quirking an eyebrow at him almost ruefully. "Not really," he said, "but it would have been a lot less hassle, wouldn't it?"

He reached out and ran a hand through Tezuka's hair, brushing the ears in a way that was strangely proprietary.

"Don't do that," Tezuka said, pulling away.

"But they're so fun to play with - I miss mine sometimes, you know. Though losing them was fun. There's nothing like getting your ears tended to by someone who knows what they're doing," and Fuji seemed determined to prove his point through demonstration. His fingers were slim, cool, and very knowledgeable. He smiled a little as he scratched at the base of the ears, as if it were something he'd been waiting to do.

Tezuka shivered. Nobody had done this for him since a very long ago childhood. The tattoo over his heart prickled like ice melting on the tongue.

"Don't do that," he said again, and, turning, caught Fuji's hand in his. Fuji didn't struggle; he remained still, thoughtfulness written into the tilt of his head.

"I don't understand you," Fuji said, finally. "I thought, at first, that you were like me - but you aren't, are you?"

"Does that surprise you?" It seemed the obvious conclusion, unworthy of debate.

"It does," and now Fuji retrieved his hand with a twist, pulling away. "It /does/," he said, sounding almost irate, and then he was advancing towards the door and slipping out again, shutting it with finality, leaving Tezuka with a sheet full of nonsense phrases in front of him.

After a while, he took up his pen again and wrote down, /Numbness, spreading like a glacier/.

*

The rest of the Sacrifices arrived in mid-January, just after classes let out. Tezuka was there with Oishi and half the school to watch the procession enter, blowing in with the snow.

For most of the sophomores, the significance of this was threefold: they got their permanent partners, they got their private bathrooms, and they got their chance at becoming a dominant power in the school hierarchy.

For Tezuka, it meant the beginning of a quick and dirty downward spiral.

"You'll see the error of your ways once your buddies find their buddies," Ryuzaki-sensei had said. He was beginning to grasp the truth of it, and understand why she'd given him and Fuji free rein for so long. She wasn't going to waste energy in forcing him to change their situation when circumstances would eventually force him to do so himself.

Tezuka refused to lose.

Sadly, he was losing: not every battle, but enough of them, sufficient to topple him off the seat at the top of the pyramid that he'd always occupied if not enjoyed. He could overcome most of the regular teams on his own if called for, and sometimes he joined with one of the pool of Sacrifices who hadn't yet been claimed to good effect. But the Specials were on a different level, and their Sacrifices didn't seem inclined to send messages such as "Sorry, washing hair, carry on without me," when summoned to fight.

Niou had teamed up with a neatly-groomed honor student who seemed only slightly put out by their name of 'Shameless'; Atobe snagged a Kansai boy dressed as expensively as himself into his train, and Genichirou's Sacrifice made all the rest of them seem like amateurs. Their team had fallen under the label 'Unstoppable', and it seemed only fitting that their prowess was crowned with one of the rare few names that fell outside the -less convention in Shichisei history.

It wasn't long before Heartless dropped to the bottom of the Specials ranking list.

"You really do have the worst luck, Tezuka. It's not fair that he's making you take on all the battles alone," Oishi said during one of their increasingly rare Fighters-only congregations in the common room. Fuji had begun taking up with his Sacrifice, which he vowed was a recipe for bad things to happen. "I don't see why he even stays in school, with that attitude."

"Probably just to be annoying," Atobe said without looking up from his hourly text messaging session. "He's genius at that."

"You don't have to stand for it." Genichirou's voice was quiet, but fourteen years of blood-relationship had taught Tezuka how to read him easier than most. He was, at the moment, deadly serious. "There are ways to bring him to heel."

Tezuka shrugged. He'd had all these arguments out with himself. "He'd be more of a nuisance if I dragged him in unwilling."

"Maybe that means you should be finding ways to make him willing," said Tachibana, who seemed to have struck up something of a friendship with Fuji over the past few weeks, and looked awkward when Tezuka glanced over evenly and said,

"Have you had any luck?"

Niou, sprawled out on one of the benches, snickered. Then he twitched and, after a few seconds, pulled himself up with a yawn. "Duty calls," he said, sauntering off in the direction of the classrooms, his tail waving after him.

He and his Sacrifice seemed to be getting along well: they'd actually come up with a way to shuffle Fighter and Sacrifice duties between each other, which the Instructors and most of the school hadn't caught onto yet. There was a storm ready to break when that revelation came.

("Can we do that?" Fuji had said hopefully when he'd mentioned the trick, eyes aglow, and he'd let Fuji hurl spells at him for a few hours with no result.)

There were a few delicate moments of silence and shuffling, and then Genichirou rose as well. "You realize that we're not going to go easy on you." He strode out without waiting for a reply, leaving Tezuka to wonder at who he meant by /we/.

The cause of their dissent seemed blissfully indifferent to the situation from beginning to end, being more involved in handling another result of the Sacrifice inrush.

"He's a rat," he announced to Tezuka after lights out, dripping irritation. "Why is he allowed to leech onto Yuuta? He's in our year."

"Unexpected bondings do occur."

"That's not the issue - you know that's not the issue. He stands to the side and orders Yuuta around like a dog, then lets Yuuta take all the damage from him. I don't remember that being part of the job description."

Tezuka let the pause stretch out before he said, "It does sound familiar."

"I only do it because I have so much faith in you," Fuji replied without missing a beat.

"Maybe he feels the same way.

Fuji's response was an undignified snort. He fell back into silence afterwards, presumably plotting a path to Mizuki's swift demise; Tezuka could almost hear the gears in his head going 'click-click'.

After a while, Tezuka said, "I won't be here, Thursday night."

There was a rustle from Fuji's bed, and then a soft laugh, because even a Mizuki-induced snit couldn't prevent Fuji from teasing. "Hot date?"

"Something like that," Tezuka said.

*

"So, how's school?" said Tezuka Sr., a little awkwardly, as he'd always been around his prodigy son.

Some of the furniture had been moved, and the marigolds on the lawn had given way to begonias; otherwise, the Tezuka family compound seemed as unchanged and timeless as ever.

(His mother had pursed her lips when she opened the door for him. "You've grown skinny," she said disapprovingly, and hustled him inside, where the smell of frying fish made the halls shimmer for a mouth-watering second. "Fortunately, you're just in time for dinner.")

"There are some problems," he said, adding some vegetables into his bowl. "I'm working through them."

"Good to hear, good to hear." A cough, and a brief respite as his father attacked his own meal. Then: "We've been getting news that you're...well, you're not doing as well in your classes as you used to."

"My Sacrifice and I have been having some adjustment issues," which was true, if you assumed 'big fat immovable roadblock' for the value of 'issue'. "Don't worry about it."

"Oh, of course we trust you to handle your own affairs." Tezuka hadn't seen anyone look so guilty since Ryuzaki-sensei caught Sengoku of Luckless one step away from losing his ears to the cleaning girl. "It's just that, well, you know, your grandfather's been making inquiries, and Haruka's kid seems to be doing extraordinarily well - though I'm sure it's just your aunt exaggerating again - "

"Genichirou is doing very well," he said, just to get it over with. "His team leads the school, and not just our year."

"Don't you have any /pride/, Kunimitsu?" his father burst out finally, which seemed to surprise himself as much as everyone else. He grew red and floundered for a bit, but managed to continue, "We've always trusted you to handle your own affairs because you've always handled them, but frankly your performance this year has been less than outstanding - " he paused, and then said, with great deliberation, "tell us honestly, son: is there a girl?"

His mother made a soft noise into her soup.

Tezuka wondered if any of the great Fighters of the past had had to contend with this.

"No, sir," he said, "As I said, I'm working hard to improve the situation. There's no girl."

"That's enough about schoolwork," his mother cut in, softly and with authority, as she lowered her bowl. "Tell us about what you've been reading."

Later, after his father had wandered off to the living room in pursuit of the evening news and to avoid the awkward atmosphere at the table, she said to him, "Kunimitsu, you won't worry your father any further, will you?"

"I won't," he said, "I promise," and she smiled up at him and pulled him over to give him a peck on the forehead.

"That's my son," she said.

*

March came with the inter-school competition, which chose a champion through process of elimination and, generally, decided which team would be the school's equivalent of a ruling party for the next year.

No longer first-seeded, Tezuka was given a number of preliminary battles in which to demonstrate his prowess. Fuji showed up in the Battle Room occasionally to cheer him on, probably for lack of anything better to do, and said things like "Looking good, Tezuka-sama!" and "Oh, my /hero/," after each fight. Tezuka had learned to tune him out.

They usually left the room together and went off in separate directions afterwards, but Fuji was staying on today because the next fight up was Atobe's Peerless against Faithless - Fuji Yuuta's team. Tezuka was staying on because putting Fuji, his brother and his brother's Sacrifice together within four walls meant it was only a matter of time before somebody lost an eye.

"You shouldn't keep watching these," Kikumaru advised with the wisdom of observational experience, draped over Fuji's shoulder. "You know you just get worked up afterwards, and then you take it out on the rest of us, and then it's just a lose lose situation for everyone."

"Don't worry, Eiji," Fuji said. "I'll give you a running start."

Though Faithless had caused a bit of a stir with its premature bonding of a freshman Fighter, the situation wasn't without precedent, and it had done well enough so far to justify its inclusion in the active team roster.

Despite its success, Tezuka wasn't a fan of their battle plan, which involved Mizuki standing to the side and feeding commands to Yuuta, who tended to carry them out - oh irony - faithfully. Not, as he'd said, too far different from his own arrangement, but the discrepancies were significant. He told himself that.

He watched as Mizuki whispered into Yuuta's ear, and Yuuta hurled his attacks and soaked up the damage meant for his Sacrifice with a strain that somehow never managed to bow his shoulders.

Sometimes, Tezuka was convinced that Fuji Yuuta would have made a much better Sacrifice than his brother.

At the moment, though, he was barely holding his own as Atobe flung out spell after spell, hardly a gap between each assault, as intent on the kill as a hunting cat. Say what you would about Atobe (as most people did), he took his battles seriously, and he was very good.

His Sacrifice was picking at his restraints with a grimace, but the eyes behind those round glasses remained cool and shrewd; they made an appealing team. They would, Tezuka thought, win this battle.

The fight was close to reaching its inevitable conclusion when Mizuki said "/Now/, Yuuta," and Fuji Yuuta -

Is he serious?

dropped all his defenses, focusing in on one single strike. Fuji's breath hissed out. Even Atobe looked nonplussed, offense faltering for a crucial second, and the kamikaze run might have succeeded if Oshitari hadn't reacted in time, gritting out "Rondo of Destruction, Atobe, for the love of God," Atobe's attack smashing into Yuuta just a split second before Oshitari doubled over.

There was blood.

There was Ryuzaki-sensei announcing the battle concluded and Peerless as victor since Faithless' fighter was out of action, and someone dispatched to find the school nurse.

There was, Tezuka realized, one Fuji Shuusuke moving towards the Faithless team with quick, purposeful steps.

"Tactics like that aren't good for your health," Fuji was saying as he caught up - to Mizuki, not Yuuta, in a tone that could have iced cupcakes. "I know you won't be idiotic - sorry, misguided - enough to arrange a repeat, will you?"

"Like you'd know anything about that." That came from Yuuta, not Mizuki. (Behind him, Tezuka heard Eiji mutter, "Oh, boy.") "Because you're such a fucking perfect example of a Sacrifice, aren't you?"

"That's not the issue here," Fuji said, just as Yuuta continued,

"This isn't any of your business, big brother."

Fuji's eye teeth were very sharp when they showed. "I don't plan to explain to 'Kaasan how I allowed your partner to get you killed."

At this auspicious moment, Mizuki chose to cut in, and one had to give him points for courage. "Yuuta will be fine," he said, dark eyes gleaming. "Your concern does you credit, but there's really no need for it."

Eiji murmured a brief prayer. Fuji looked as though manslaughter wasn't far in his future.

When he spoke again, it was with a softness that went further than rage. "Yuuta," he said, turning towards his brother in a way that suggested he'd just classified Mizuki with the furniture and dustballs, "what do you think of my team's chances of winning this competition?"

Yuuta stared.

"If you want an honest opinion -" Mizuki said, but Fuji seemed to have done the mental equivalent of blocking him on his buddy list.

"Not high," Yuuta managed finally, flicking a glance towards Tezuka. "Sorry, Tezuka-sempai. I really - I admire you a lot. But with my brother on the team, there's no - I mean, I don't think you'll be able to beat Unstoppable."

That was when Fuji smiled, slow and sweet like maple candy just before it went into the mold, if maple candy had the quality of making people run for the hills. "How much would you bet on that?"

Tezuka understood immediately. He could see it dawn on Yuuta - the first instinctive denial, then thoughtfulness, then calculation. Determination. For a second, the family resemblance was uncanny.

"I'll go home with you if you win," he said in the end, "as long as you go home without me if you lose."

"Done," said Fuji, and without waiting for a response, turned and headed straight out the door.

*

It was raining outside. Tezuka followed him through the courtyard and the main driveway, down a shaded alley lined with hedges, until they were both dripping from their sleeves as Fuji came to a stop by a derelict basketball court.

"I don't suppose we have much of a chance," he said, facing away, almost inaudible in the downpour. His hair had been plastered down to his head, and rivulets of water ran down his neck.

Tezuka flicked his own clammy tail uncomfortably. "Your brother's assessment of the situation was accurate."

"Not that it should matter - it's so /stupid/. Why are you even in this school, Tezuka?" Fuji turned, bracing one hand against the wire fence separating them from the court, eyes intent on Tezuka's face. "You know there's no purpose to these battles. They're keeping you around like an army of toy soldiers they can parade out on Christmas Eve to play with."

"It matters to others," he said, "even if it doesn't to you," and felt like Fuji Yuuta's echo, knowing it was exactly what he was being used as.

"Does it matter to you? Really?"

Fuji was watching him as if waiting to pounce on the first sign of weakness. It might have been difficult to lie under that interrogative gaze, but Tezuka had never bothered with deceit in the first place.

"Not because of the others." He pictured them: his father's anxious face, his grandfather's pride, his mother's serenity; Sanada-obasan's resentment, Sanada-ojisan's open rancor, Genichirou's restrained rivalry. Every single one of them was invested in the outcome of the competition for each other's sake, and he was invested in it most of all, but not for them. "I like being a Fighter," he said. "I like being the best at what I do."

Fuji blinked, though possibly just to flick the raindrops from his lashes. For the first time since Tezuka had known him, he looked lost. For the first time, Tezuka responded to him as a Fighter would.

"Come with me," he said, holding out a hand. The rain splattered against his open palm, and he felt a little silly, but he didn't take it back.

Fuji looked at him doubtfully. "I don't - " he began.

"It's okay," Tezuka said, thinking of partnership, and ahead to unfought battles, unclaimed victories. "I'll bring you to the top."

A breath before Fuji took a few steps forward and lay his own hand over Tezuka's.

Then he cast his eyes down, demure maiden style. "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes," he said, "though points off for not going down on your knees," and Tezuka sighed.

*

"What does it mean to be Heartless?"

He set it to Fuji as an exercise question that didn't require a response, just an answer, which caused Fuji to laugh and say that in that case, he certainly wouldn't respond.

But he was sure that Fuji understood after the first, third, seventh fight they engaged in; the first, third, seventh fight that they won.

"Fine work," the Headmaster said, and "Finally," Instructor Ryuzaki-sensei said, and "Wow, Tezuka!" Oishi said.

"Good," Genichirou said. "I was worried that we wouldn't even get the chance to meet."

They shot through the rankings, eleven to six to four. Fuji Yuuta was beginning to look alarmed, and Mizuki more so. Niou, after his team fell to Genichirou's, had begun to take bets, and their odds changed from 2:15 to 1:3. After they beat Peerless, the odds turned in their favor, they advanced to the semi-finals, and Atobe refused to speak to either of them for a week.

He didn't look at Fuji after the battles began, not until the final blow was struck; when he did, he saw Fuji's pale, taut face, feeling no tug within him, no protective tendencies stirring.

"It's not enough," Ryuuzuki-sensei told them privately. "You're doing well now that you've both come out to play, but you're not a team, boys. Learn to work together, not just shine apart."

"How?" Fuji said, not kindly. He was always in a temper after battles, as if it irritated him to be reminded of the lengths life had forced him to, and those fortunate enough not to room with him had learned to keep well away for a few hours' buffer. "There's nothing I can help him with aside from playing a human pin cushion, and we don't need each other's input for that."

Ryuzaki-sensei coughed. "Well, traditionally the Sacrifice has provided the Fighter with a grounding presence and tactical advice," but even she couldn't continue without a grimace. "I mean. You can, well. I'm sure there's - oh, have it your way," she said finally and stomped off, Fuji's cases of bad humor generally being infectious.

"It's not enough," he told Fuji the afternoon before they were due to participate in the final fight, as he went over the pages of his notes and Fuji doodled little sadfaced cacti in the margins. "We're not going to win like this."

"Am I not yet heartless enough, o lord?" Fuji said with an extra bite of tartness, adding a baseball cap to one of the cacti. "Ought I to kick a puppy, perhaps, or maybe steal the little match girl's matches?"

"I believe you're well set in that department," Tezuka murmured.

"I'll think on it," Fuji announced as they readied themselves for bed, right before he came over in pajamas and laid a hand on Tezuka's shoulder. Tezuka's ears flickered - nervously, expectantly - but all Fuji did was flash a tiny baby smile and say, "Good luck tomorrow."

"Likewise," he said, and tried to ignore what remained unsaid.

*

The entire school gathered outside the Battle Room the following day, milling near the doors and spilling into the hallway.

He'd received a phone call of maternal encouragement that morning, and one of paternal anxiety. "I think your grandfather has spies inside the school," his father said, hushed. "Maybe he's watching you right now. Maybe he's monitoring this call - oh, dear," and hung up.

"I thought of something," Fuji had whispered to him as they folded their blankets. "It came to me in a dream."

Tezuka yearned wistfully for those times when he'd actually thought they'd had a fighting chance. "Oh, good."

"No, no, my family's always been pretty good at prophetic stuff - well, not Yuuta, really, and not my father, and hmm, 'Kaasan's never mentioned anything either, and I suppose it hasn't actually manifested in me so far - "

"Fuji."

"But Yumiko has to get it from somewhere, and genetics are mighty, you know."

"I'll be sure to place great faith in your mighty genes," he'd said. "Now go wash up."

Genichirou and his Sacrifice were already waiting when they arrived, along with the crowd, familiar faces blurred into strangeness through sheer numbers. But Fuji was tensing, noticeable only if you realized his spine wasn't usually set quite that straight, and Tezuka knew without looking that they'd just passed Fuji Yuuta - who was a nice kid, who'd honor his promises, and who would sever all ties to a world he felt at home in if the outcome of the battle went favorably for Tezuka.

Perhaps it should have been a consideration. It wasn't.

"I've heard that Yukimura has a delicate constitution, which makes it more imperative for Sanada to finish quickly and brutally," Fuji said when they neared the battle ring, pitching his voice to carry. "Surprisingly effective as a tactic - should I give it a try, you think?"

Genichirou's tail had bristled to twice its usual width, when Tezuka looked over to check, but Yukimura punched his partner's arm without any visible annoyance.

"It wouldn't help," he said, "in our case."

"So true." Fuji sighed and cast his eyes up, making a mockery of disappointment. Tezuka quelled the urge to punch his arm. "I suppose we'll just have to continue as we've begun."

"Less tell, more show," Ryuzaki-sensei said, striding up between them and Unstoppable. "Are the teams ready?"

"Yes," Tezuka said.

"And willing," Yukimura said, and smiled. Tezuka wondered how much they were going to pay for Fuji's earlier comment.

"Don't keep us waiting, then." Ryuzaki-sensei withdrew, leaving the four of them alone in the center of the room, surrounded by a wall of irrelevant audience.

"System expand," Genichirou said, at the same time as Tezuka said, "Expand system." They eyed each other until Yukimura gave Genichirou a nudge and he said, unwillingly, "Accept."

The first few minutes passed with feints and probes. Tezuka had fought Unstoppable before, but never with Fuji in any capacity other than a disinterested bystander; it was immediately obvious that he was stronger now, unhindered by pain and bolstered by the stacking power of his Sacrifice.

"Blood turns to ice," he said. "Thought slows, movement slows."

"Know the fury of Nature unleashed. Invade like fire."

Not enough, he thought, observing the dark focus of Genichirou's gaze and the way Yukimura stood like a prince despite the collar around his neck. Fuji would be under strain, now; he'd been making an effort ever since the bet with Yuuta, but remaining in the path of suffering instead of avoiding it didn't come to him naturally.

Four more passes, power increasing. Each blow came like a hammer. Fuji must be weakening - he knew it, yet the knowledge was distant and extraneous. If Yukimura collapsed now, he knew that Genichirou would stop the battle, drop the fight, accept defeat to help his partner.

"Obstruct. Mow down all opposition, swift like the wind."

"Shield of indifference. Wrap the enemy in coils of apathy."

We're not a team, for which it would be easy to blame Fuji alone, but he'd known better since the beginning.

"Pressure quiet like the forest," Genichirou said in the chink of his distraction, "weight immovable like the mountains," underlining why he really didn't want a partner. He threw up a hasty defense, but knew it was too late before half the words were out. Genichirou's next attack was coming, swift and sure.

This was it, then, after months of fumbling and two weeks of hope, and in the back of his mind he was aware of what this would mean for his family, for Fuji, for his future, but mostly he was just thinking, I'm going to lose.

"No," someone said. When he looked around, it was Fuji, on his knees and almost buried in restraints, but leaning towards Unstoppable like a knife poised to cut. His eyes were wide open and shining. "You can't touch me," he said. "You /can't/," and the leather binding him shimmered like a mirage and faded away.

The gasp went around the room like a cloth ripping.

No telling what he'd done, or whether it would be repeatable, and there was no time to lose. "Invade," Tezuka said, dropping the fancy attacks and reverting to the basics he'd been practicing since childhood before Genichirou could regain his footing, "Penetrate. Twist. Deflect. Shatter. Shatter. Shatter."

What did it mean, to be heartless? Not to be heartless to the enemy. Countless soldiers on every style of battlefield had mastered the trick of being heartless to the enemy.

Heartless meant being heartless towards your partner. Being heartless towards yourself.

"No pain, no love, no hate. You feel nothing. You are nothing," he said, watching Sanada throw up his defenses, knowing, as before, that they would come too late. "End."

*

"Extend my apologies and appreciation to your dreams," he said a long while later, after the congratulations and the questions and the lecture from Ryuzaki-sensei - after he'd heard in his mind for the first time Fuji hailing him: /Come on/, and they'd slipped off to an unfrequented corner of the schoolgrounds to avoid the crowd. Benches studded the path; he chose one underneath the shade of a ginko tree to stop at, its surface flecked golden with fallen leaves.

"They acknowledge and respond most graciously." Fuji grinned and handed him a candy bar. "Here. Victory snack."

Tezuka unpeeled it with the wariness a treat from Fuji was due, but it seemed to be pure chocolate. Fuji had magicked up one of his own during his inspection, and they spent a few minutes munching together in companionable silence.

"Interesting trick," he said after his candy bar was nothing more than a torn wrapper and a memory, leaning back on the bench. It was late in the afternoon, and the sky was beginning to take on the tint of orange sorbet. "Do you think you could duplicate it?"

"I'm not sure." Fuji squinted sadly at the remains of his snack, and sighed. "I thought that if Shameless could manage a full switch, it was worth a try. I imagine attack spells still won't work, though."

It made sense, in a way. Fuji wasn't stellar at imposing his will upon the world, recreating it in his image of it, but he was A++ would buy again in the task of disallowing the world to impose its will upon /him/.

He was, after all, a decent partner. "I don't suppose it matters."

"Mmm," said Fuji. He kicked at the stone legs of the bench, ran his fingers down the narrow planks of the seat, and then he took hold of Tezuka's tail, which had been resting between them, and wound it around a finger.

Tezuka endured it for around thirty seconds before he said, "Stop that."

"I don't think I want to," said Fuji, obeying as well as he ever did, which was to say, not at all. He seemed to be attempting to tease out the curl near the very tip. "I bet Yuuta's already constructing a voodoo-doll version of me."

"He might get over it," said Tezuka. "It's been known to happen," although not often, and never because of something as mundane as a protective brother. Of course, it was also rare for Sacrifices to turn their backs on the school and their Fighters simply because they preferred another life, but there was no reason to point that out.

"He'll refuse to talk to me, and stomp around the house, and mutter under his breath, and glare at me like I killed his puppy - which I only did /once/, and only because it was suffering and hadn't long to live, anyway."

The more he learned about the Fuji siblings, the more he embraced his status as an only child. "It'll pass."

Fuji played with his tail some more. "So you're not going to ask me to stay?"

"Probably not," he said, because he wasn't.

That caused a sharp, border-painful tug. When he glared over at Fuji, Fuji was gazing at him consideringly. "So if I leave three days later, or three months later, or whenever this starts getting boring again, you're not going to make a fuss?"

"I don't make fusses," Tezuka said, and Fuji hmm-ed and said,

"True." He released Tezuka's tail and turned, so that they were fully face-to-face, and said, "And if Mizuki starts misusing Yuuta again, you'll help me teach him as many memorable lessons as it takes to drive the point home?"

"If the opportunity arises," since the way Mizuki was using his authority over an underclassman wasn't strictly kosher.

"That's good to know," Fuji said and stood, smiling. "Let's go back, then - the dinner bell should go off just as we reach the cafeteria."

Tezuka followed him without comment. Before they stepped back through the entrance that led into the main building, Fuji paused once, to look back. "Do you really think this will work out?"

Tezuka shrugged. "It should be interesting to find out."

"I knew I liked you for a reason," Fuji said, and pushed the door open.


End
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