t o   d e c l a r e   m y   l o v e

“Happy Valentines Day,” some girl says, and shoves a pink heart-shaped box into Ryoma’s hands. He stares at her, trying to place her face. Her brown eyes and glossy lips sparkle in the sun but her face means nothing to him. Maybe she’s in his Math class. It seems to be full of girls, with rainbow coloured calculators and glitter pens. They crowd over his desk to ask for his help, but he doesn’t know why. He’s not any good at Math.

This girl smiles at him widely, frighteningly, her hands touching his a little over the chocolates. Ryoma blinks against her enthusiasm.

“Okay,” he says, and walks away.

By afternoon practice his bag is full to bursting with gifts, chocolate melting and misshapen from being stuffed amongst his school books and jersey. Some girls give him baskets with rose-shaped pink chocolates inside. These are the ones that embarrass him the most. He shoves them at the bottom of the bag, their green tissue paper leaves crumpling and tearing beneath the weight of his history textbook.

Momo-senpai is stuffing his face in the clubhouse when Ryoma arrives. His lips and fingers are smeared with chocolate and there’s a rainbow explosion of little tinfoil pieces around him. Momo loves Valentines Day. He’s been talking about it for weeks.

“You’re not supposed to eat in the clubhouse,” Ryoma says irritably. This is the stupidest holiday ever.

“Where is it?” Momo asks, trying to tug Ryoma’s bag from his shoulder. Ryoma resists, grabbing the strap and wrenching his body away. He shoves the bag into his cubby hole and unbuttons his school blazer. Momo yelps indignantly, “Oi, Echizen, share the wealth! Don’t be stingy!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ryoma says. He folds the blazer neatly and leaves it on the bench. He changes into his shorts, his t-shirt.

“You’re so cruel to me,” Momo whines. “So cruel. You should share with your senpai.”

“Share what?” He’s going to need new trainers soon. When he slips the old ones on his feet strain at the fabric, stretching and pressing around the toes. If he plays too long like this he’ll get blisters.

“It’s Valentines Day,” Momo says. “Girls love you. Where is the candy?”

“I didn’t get any,” Ryoma lies. They’ve been through this every year since Ryoma was twelve. He’ll wait til Momo leaves and then he’ll dump the lot of it in Momo’s locker, and Momo will pretend that there aren’t name cards with Echizen-chan!!!!!! scrawled on them with pink pen attached to everything he eats. It’s a good system, because Ryoma’s father will search his bag when he’s in the shower tonight. Ryoma has come home empty handed for four years. Echizen Nanjiroh seems to think he’s really unpopular with ‘the ladies’. Ryoma prefers it that way.

Momo leaves, muttering about ungrateful kohai. Ryoma is still trying to adjust his shoes so that they don’t pinch around the toes, tugging angrily at the laces. He was supposed to go out and buy a new pair last week, but he ended up at the street courts with Ibu Shinji instead. At the time it’d seemed worth it. He hadn’t played Ibu in at least two years, but he’d watched him, noticed the way his game had evolved. His new techniques had been too tempting. Now, though, he’s going to have to play with aching feet and walk home with blisters.

He looks up when Buchou walks in and grunts a hello. He watches as Tezuka makes two neat piles of chocolates and pink heart-shaped cards in his cubby hole, foil-wrapped lace-trimmed pyramids. He hates Valentines Day, the way the girls follow him around. The way the girls follow Tezuka around. It annoys him to see Buchou thanking them politely, to see them blushing and stammering in his wake. He’s still staring darkly at Buchou’s neat pile of gifts when Tezuka leaves the clubhouse and he’s alone.

On Ryoma’s sixteenth birthday, his senpai-tachi had thrown him a party at Fuji-senpai’s place. Kikumaru-senpai had baked him a cake and they’d eaten it in front of the TV, watching some match on cable between two German guys Ryoma had never heard of. It was the best birthday Ryoma ever had, not that he would ever tell anyone that. After the fifth game he’d followed Tezuka into Fuji’s kitchen and kissed him, warm and nervous against the refrigerator. Buchou had pressed against him, hands large and possessive on his hips, but later he’d just looked at him and neither has mentioned it since.

He wants to throw out all of Buchou’s chocolate.

The first week had been awkward, the way that Tezuka would look at him a moment too long sometimes, the way he’d avoid Ryoma after practice. Ryoma would be hurt, but Tezuka always has to make everything harder than it has to be. He’d been expecting this. He just didn’t expect it to last so long.

After the first week, it was just kind of sad.

Ryoma dumps all his chocolate out of his bag and into Momo-senpai’s, forcing the zip over the mountains of squashed hearts and box corners. When he finally closes the bag he notices that a silver heart the size of his hand has fallen out. It lies shimmering in the light on the bench by Ryoma’s knee, and he picks it up and looks at it. Looks at Tezuka’s neat piles, all those girls that don’t really know him. Most of them don’t even play tennis.

On his way out of the room, he leaves the heart on Buchou’s folded black blazer. He joins his senpai-tachi on the courts. Returns Kaidoh’s boomerang snake and destroys Fuji’s triple counters, and thinks about Tezuka finding it, taking it home. Unwrapping it alone in his room.

That night he dreams about Tezuka eating chocolate, breaking it into neat squares and licking the mess from his fingers.

--

The next morning Buchou is waiting on his corner, his school uniform laying crisp and flat against his slender body. Ryoma pretends to be nonchalant, pulling his cap low over his face to hide his smile. His house is twenty minutes out of Tezuka’s way.

As he approaches Tezuka holds out a folded piece of paper, pale pink with red hearts around the edge. Ryoma’s name is written in tiny, neat characters on the front. There are smudges of chocolate on the corners like it’d been pressed behind the foil.

“I found this in some chocolate,” Buchou says, his eyes calm behind his glasses. Ryoma takes it awkwardly and shoves it in his pocket, feeling the paper crumple and bend in his hand.

“Che,” he says.

“She was very taken with you,” Tezuka tells him, and Ryoma can see his mouth twitch a little as they start walking. He is conscious of the sound of Tezuka’s steps in rhythm with his own, his feet lifting as Tezuka’s fall.

“I don’t like girls,” Ryoma says. “They’re boring.”

Tezuka looks down at him, sun swimming along the surface of his glasses. Ryoma has watched those glasses get closer every year since he was twelve, every month another few centimetres. He’s watched those lips get closer. “Aa.”

“You owe me a White Day present, Buchou.”

Tezuka’s fingers settle, after a moment, in the small of Ryoma’s back, and he says, “Okay.”



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