p l a y i n g   g r o w n   u p s

Every now and then Tezuka will get phone calls first thing in the morning. Over breakfast or on the way to school, he’ll listen to Echizen’s subdued voice as he says, Buchou, and asks for advice. Sometimes Echizen just wants to tell him something, about the courts or the sponsors or the opponent he has to face in the semi-finals. Tezuka never tells anybody about these calls. He’s not sure why, but it feels like a secret.

Echizen doesn’t call for a while, and Tezuka assumes he has been forgotten.

--

In Tezuka’s first year of high school he’s not captain anymore and his protégé is off conquering the universe, so he seems to have a lot more free time. He doubles his practice load and spends a lot of time studying. He jogs in the half-light every morning, passing Kaidoh by the park. Sometimes at night he tries to watch television with his older sister, but he can’t understand these Americans with their tiny Californian lives. Sometimes he watches the news with his grandfather. He prefers the paper, which he reads cover to cover alone in his room at night.

On Sundays he plays tennis with Fuji and the matches last for hours. He feels himself growing stronger. There is new force in the slice of his racquet through air, new grace in his feet against the clay. Sometimes Fuji will come close to beating him, and it makes Tezuka work harder. He imagines facing Fuji at Wimbledon. He imagines facing Echizen.

The year passes slowly. Sometimes he’ll drop by the junior high to see how Momoshiro and Kaidoh are faring with the new regulars. Oishi comes with him and they drink tea with Ryuzaki-sensei in her office. He worries about her. The lines around her eyes are deep and jagged now, and it seems like she’s aged ten years in six months. He can see it in the dead weight of her serve, the way it seems to fall more than it flies. He tries not to watch when she’s on the courts.

In August Echizen Nanjiroh sends Ryuzaki-sensei a video of Ryoma playing the US national championships, and the old team gathers at Kawamura Sushi to watch. Echizen is taller since the last time Tezuka really looked at him, and when he speaks to the camera after he takes the match (6-3 with a close final game) his voice crumbles and breaks over the words he speaks in English. He’ll be fourteen in three months. Tezuka watches his broad new shoulders flex as he serves, his long new legs stretch as he wins, and feels restless.

--

In Tezuka’s second year of high school, he’s not captain and there seem to be photos of Echizen all over Tokyo. Echizen stares at him from newspapers and tennis magazines, from the bottle of juice he pours in the morning. Even in advertising Echizen looks grumpy and slightly bored, like he’d rather be posing on a can of Ponta.

The new captain is Kugimiya Shizuka, and he doesn’t really like Tezuka much. In first year Tezuka had crushed him in the finals of the intra-school ranking tournament. Sometimes Tezuka can still feel that victory in the clipped tone with which Kugimaya addresses him. In first year, only Tezuka and Fuji had made the regulars.

Two months into the new school year, Echizen drops into practice. Tezuka doesn’t notice him at first, the unfamiliar new line of his body not registering in the corner of his eye. It’s not until he hears Momoshiro and Kikumaru’s mingled hollering that he sees him standing behind the chain link fence, faltering under the combined weight of his friends.

“Oi, Echizen, you sneaky little shit!” Momoshiro squawks, his knuckle rubbing Echizen’s crisp white cap askew. “Showing up without telling anybody.”

“That hurts,” Echizen says, wrenching his skull from Momoshiro’s grasp. Kikumaru is writhing with excitement, bouncing at Momoshiro’s side and clutching Echizen’s shoulder.

“Ochibi,” Kikumaru starts, “What are you –“

“Momoshiro, Kikumaru, twenty laps!” The captain calls. Tezuka feels a little like he’s fallen a year and a half into the past, like if he turns around to look the irritated figure shouting at Momoshiro and Kikumaru will be his fourteen year old self, long and stern in his old uniform.

He doesn’t look. He meets Echizen’s steady gaze for a moment before turning back to his game with Oishi. After practice everybody converges on Echizen. He’s in Tokyo for his cousin’s wedding. He’ll be gone again by morning.

--

In August, Tezuka is chosen as part of the team that will be sent to the US for a junior goodwill tournament. He sits beside Tachibana on the plane and tries to focus on the match ahead. Echizen Ryoma is the star of the American side, and when Tezuka closes his eyes he can see those huge eyes across the net, goading him.

“I imagine Echizen will play first singles,” Fuji says quietly, standing beside Tezuka at the baggage carousel. “How exciting.”

The Japanese line up has yet to be decided. Atobe might play first singles, or Kirihara. Fuji or Yukimura might take the position from him. Probably the only person that doesn’t want to play first singles is Kikumaru Eiji, who is unusually subdued in the face of Oishi’s absence. Tezuka tries not to think too hard about the line up, because they’re supposed to be a team. His ambition is selfish.

Still, as they pile into taxis at the airport he remembers Echizen’s victory on the clay courts by the train tracks and thinks, please. Please let me.

--

It’s awkward when the teams meet the day before the tournament. Echizen sits on the other side of the room with Kevin Smith and looks like he’d like to get up and take a seat next to Kikumaru. The teams bow and shake hands and afterward Echizen follows Fuji and Kikumaru to dinner. They eat in a pizza place Echizen must frequent. The waiters all seem to know his name.

“Nya, superstar!” Kikumaru says, bumping Echizen’s shoulder with his own. “You’re on my juicebox!”

“Shut up,” Echizen says, and pulls his cap low over his face. “They have a deal with the school.”

Tezuka doesn’t understand what kind of school would sell their students to advertisers, but Echizen has the best coaches and gets to play tennis half the day. Tezuka had been offered a place at the academy that Echizen attends. He wonders how life would have been different had he taken it.

“I hope you have not been neglecting your studies,” Tezuka says. He can’t eat the pizza in front of him, with its grease and clusters of mysterious meat.

Echizen swallows a mouthful of pizza. Tezuka imagines it forcing its way through Echizen’s body and congealing in his stomach. “Don’t worry, Buchou,” Echizen says. “I won’t be careless.”

--

When the coach announces that Tezuka will play first singles, his heart thumps once hard inside his chest. Beside him Kirihara is all muttered curses, while Yukimura just smiles serenely. When the positions are announced Tezuka thinks he sees Echizen smiling beneath his cap, but he’s on the other side of the room and doesn’t even know if the boy is listening.

--

They play so hard that Tezuka thinks he feels the ghost of his old shoulder injury burning and screaming in his muscles. Echizen has changed since the last time they played, but then so has Tezuka. They match one another point for point, and whenever he has a moment to look Tezuka can see Echizen grinning in exhilaration.

Tezuka takes the match, 7 games to 6.

--


Echizen Ryoma tries to come back quietly. The first Tezuka hears of it is Echizen’s name on the list of new club members he’s given on his first day as Captain. Then Echizen just shows up to practice and tries to help gather the scattered yellow tennis balls like all the other freshmen. Tezuka watches him and wonders if it’s easy for him to ignore the whispers that follow the movement of his body around the court. He remembers Echizen as a twelve year old, his unfathomable ability to ignore everyone and everything around him.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” Tezuka says later. Practice is over and almost everybody has gone home, but when Tezuka left the clubhouse Echizen had been lingering around the entrance, waiting for him.

Echizen blinks at him, and Tezuka doesn’t think he’s going to answer. “My mother thought that school was warping my social development,” he reveals finally. “She said that if you’re always on the court and never in the classroom, you never learn to deal with anybody.”

“Oh,” Tezuka says.

They walk toward the exit together, and a little beyond the gates. “Besides,” Echizen says finally. “All the best players are here.” He doesn’t meet Tezuka’s eyes. “Bye, Buchou.”

He watches Echizen walk away and thinks, this year we’ll take Nationals.

--

The day before the first intra-school tournament is scheduled to begin, Tezuka is leaving a bookshop when he sees Echizen standing awkwardly on the corner with Momoshiro and Tachibana An. The couple are all tangled arms against Echizen’s blank face. Tezuka takes a step towards them and can hear their voices, muffled in the cracks between the sounds of the busy city street.

“We’re heading over to the public courts,” Momoshiro is saying, “I have to practice before the big day tomorrow! Are you going to come?”

Echizen seems to be staring at their tightly clasped fingers; when Tachibana An calls Momoshiro Momo-chan, his face flickers a little in disgust.

“No,” Echizen says. “You go on ahead without me.”

Tezuka stands on the street and watches Echizen watch Momoshiro walk away. He moves in Echizen’s direction, but a group of tittering schoolkids intercepts him. When his vision clears Echizen is gone.

--

The regulars are as follows: Echizen Ryoma (1st year), Kaidoh Kaoru (2nd year), Momoshiro Takeshi (2nd year), Fuji Syuusuke (3rd year), Inui Sadaharu (3rd year), Kikumaru Eiji (3rd year), Oishi Shuichiro (3rd year), and Tezuka Kunimitsu (3rd year).

Just looking at the list makes Tezuka’s fingers tingle in anticipation. When they walk onto the grounds at the district tournament, he thinks he sees mouths dropping.

--

He dreams that he’s having tea with Fuji Yuuta and Echizen’s mother in a hotel he stayed at in London when he was thirteen. They’re eating tiny white biscuits and their teacups are full of wine, and at the end of the dream Yuuta becomes Ryoma and his mother disappears.

--

Atobe Keigo throws a party and invites all the Seigaku regulars, along with everybody Tezuka has ever met. When he arrives Atobe touches his shoulder with his perfectly manicured hand and offers him a glass of champagne.

“What are we celebrating?” Tezuka asks.

“My inevitable triumph at Nationals,” Atobe says, sliding long, cool fingers against Tezuka’s wrist before he walks away.

Tezuka leaves the champagne on the table in the hall and tries to find his team. He finds Oishi first, standing by the pool full of half-naked kids, wrestling and tumbling in the water. Oishi stares at them with his wide, wobbling eyes, and Tezuka knows he’s worrying about the effects of alcohol on a person’s reflexes, imagining a drowning, spluttering teenage girl, the arrival of an ambulance, her funeral and the articles in the paper.

“Come on,” Tezuka says, and goes inside. Atobe’s house has about a thousand rooms with ceilings a hundred years above their heads, but Tezuka hates it. Every time he comes here all he sees are the giant floral sofas swelling and mutating into monsters before his eyes, the gilded corners and polished marble blinding him with their reflected light. He hates the hundreds of strangers that flood these affairs, dwelling like parasites on every surface, their voices buzzing like locusts.

He wanders the halls with Oishi for a while, stopping to talk now and then to the boys they know from years of tournaments or the girls that approach with their lip gloss and sweet perfume. Eventually Oishi breaks away to find Kikumaru and Tezuka is left to join the poker game that has started in the half-lit library. He sits to Fuji’s left while he shuffles the cards, as he deals. Tezuka wins two hands and then loses a third when Yanagi joins the game. Kawamura is bent over his cards with a frazzled expression. He’d probably play better if someone would hand him a racquet.

Sometime during the fourth round, when Tezuka has just thrown a handful of chips into the kitty, Echizen wanders in. He’s drinking from a heavy glass tumbler full of a liquid that looks suspiciously unlike Ponta and ignoring Ibu Shinji. He stands behind Tezuka’s chair and looks over his shoulder. Tezuka can smell the fabric softener on his t-shirt and the faint scent of sweat beneath.

“Join the game, Echizen,” Fuji says.

“I’ll just bench coach,” Echizen replies. He leans closer to see Tezuka’s cards and says, “I don’t want to play against Buchou’s poker face.”

Echizen is close enough that Tezuka can feel his words stirring against his cheek and taste the faint edge of whiskey in his breath.

“Echizen!” Tezuka says. “What are you drinking?”

“I don’t know,” Echizen puts the glass down by Tezuka’s elbow. The light refracts through the tumbler and makes a kaleidoscope against the timber. “Atobe gave it to me. I think it’s Scotch.”

“Fifty laps on Monday. Don’t drink anymore.”

“I only had a sip.” Echizen pulls away to stand at Tezuka’s side. He looks the same way he always has when Tezuka rebukes him, half rebellious and half repentant. He’s always wanted Tezuka’s forgiveness, always stared at him with that unhappy smirk until it’s granted.

Fuji picks up the glass. “I’ll have this,” he says. “We can run those laps together.”

Fuji smiles at them over the rim of the glass, and Tezuka feels an acid burst of worry bloom in his stomach. When Echizen follows Fuji out of the room an hour and a half later, Tezuka wants to grab his wrist and force him to stay.


--

When Tezuka meets Fuji at the courts on Sunday he tries not to notice the malice in Fuji’s smile or the odd red marks that disturb the pale skin of his neck. Tezuka serves with force and takes the match six games to one.

Fuji watches him serenely and says, “You seem stressed, Tezuka.”

--

His father begins to initiate weekly discussions about Tezuka’s future. They are serious, solemn talks after dinner or over Tezuka’s homework. He could be a doctor or a lawyer or an orthodontist and that would please his father. It’s Tezuka’s mother that tilts her head to the side and says, “But what about his tennis?”

Tezuka tries to imagine a career that would make him happy.

--

The library in the evenings is calm and quiet and Tezuka likes hearing the crisp sound of turning pages almost as much as he likes the thwack of balls on racquets. Sometimes he studies here at night to avoid the weight of his father’s expectations hanging heavy in the air at home. Sometimes he just needs the extra resources.

He’s so used to being alone here that one night when he hears Echizen’s voice soft voice call Buchou, it stuns him. For a moment he thinks he’s dreaming. He looks up from his notes to see Echizen standing across the table in a black t-shirt and a pair of jeans, a hefty pile of books in his hands.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” Echizen asks. Tezuka consents and Echizen arranges himself in the seat opposite, opening his books and scratching out notes right away. Every now and then Tezuka will look up to see Echizen diligently making his way through a Japanese History textbook, distracted for a minute by Echizen’s serious golden eyes and the grace of his fingers as they turn the pages. Echizen’s handwriting is tiny and neat and the notes are all in English. Tezuka knows that Echizen performs well in all of his subjects, but he doesn’t know if he finds it difficult.

Echizen begins to pack up first and Tezuka looks at his watch and decides to follow. When they step out into the cool night air he sees Echizen’s cheeks flush slightly pink from the cold. From this part of town their homes are in the same direction and they walk quietly without saying much. Every now and then Echizen’s phone rings and he ignores it.

“What if that’s important?” Tezuka asks after the fourth or fifth time Echizen doesn’t answer the phone.

“Che,” Echizen says. “It’s not, I can tell from the ringtones. It’s just Momo-senpai.” He pauses for a moment, his eyes searching Tezuka’s face and shifting away. “And Fuji-senpai.”

“I see,” Tezuka says. He wants to tell Echizen not to be careless with Fuji, that Fuji’s motives are often suspect, that when his motive is pure his method is usually not. He wants Echizen to be careful. To be safe.

“I just don’t feel like talking to anybody,” Echizen says. “I’ll call them back later.” He gasps suddenly and says, “I didn’t mean you, Buchou, you’re not annoying like other people.”

Tezuka smiles at him faintly, touched. “I see,” he repeats.

Echizen smiles at him broadly. “Sometimes you’re annoying in your own way.”

“Ah.”

“But not usually.”

They’ve reached the corner of Echizen’s street. They stand in the light of the flickering television that pours out of his neighbour’s window. There are lines of red and yellow light on Echizen’s face, flashing blue and then green on his pale skin.

“Goodnight, Echizen,” Tezuka says, and walks the rest of the way home alone.

--

When Seigaku meet St Rudolph Tezuka lets Fuji play against his younger brother for the first time in tournament history. Fuji thanks him and touches Tezuka’s elbow as he walks out onto the court, but is moody and uncommunicative when he wins. He watches Echizen’s singles two match in silence and sits alone on the bus back to Seigaku, picking at his racquet strings one by one.

They celebrate at Kawamura Sushi and he sits soberly by Tezuka’s side, barely touching the wasabi rolls Kawamura has specially prepared for him. He waits until Kikumaru wanders off and they are alone before he says, “He should have improved by now.”

Tezuka considers this. “It is not that he has not improved,” he tells Fuji finally, “but that your own skills have also developed.”

“I would not mind it if he were to catch up.”

He understands Fuji on this point. Tezuka remembers the first year he had known Echizen; watching from the sidelines as his tennis improved, refusing his increasingly impassioned pleas for a match. Knowing that soon the day would come when Echizen would surpass him. He remembers that day beneath the overpass, the tears on Echizen’s cheeks. Since then it’s felt like they’re chasing one another in circles.

Echizen has been guarding his dinner from Momoshiro’s pillaging hands, but it only takes him a moment to notice Tezuka’s gaze. He stares back at Tezuka with huge golden eyes, making his way over to their table in time to hear Tezuka make a noise of agreement in response.

“What are we talking about?” Echizen asks suspiciously as he settles on his knees across the table from Tezuka. There’s a faint smudge on his chin that might be a bruise; Tezuka had seen him wrestling Kikumaru for the last grape Ponta earlier in the evening. Even now he looks oddly young and dishevelled, all rumpled clothes and messy hair.

“Our captain was just praising my improvement,” Fuji informs him cheerfully. “Perhaps I shall even be able to beat him soon.”

There’s a moment when Echizen’s eyes widen and Tezuka can almost hear the words mada mada dane tumbling from his lips, but he hasn’t said that in years.

“Not yet, Fuji-senpai,” he huffs finally, his voice low and disgruntled against the cheerful clamour of his team mates. “Probably not ever.”

--

The first time Tezuka remembers dreaming about kissing Echizen he wakes up hard and scandalised in the middle of the night. In his dream Echizen is in his Thursday afternoon English class and the teacher is drawing tiny animals on the blackboard in clouds of rainbow coloured chalk.

“The duck-billed platypus is only found in particular regions of Australia,” the teacher says in German.

“I hate this lesson,” Echizen says. Ich hasse diese lektion. He’s sprawled in his chair with longer legs than Tezuka remembers and the buttons on his blazer undone. His white school shirt is crisp and thin and Tezuka can see the faint peach of skin beneath.

“Pay attention,” Tezuka says. “This could be important.”

“I know.”

Somehow Echizen is right next to him now, all humid breath against Tezuka’s cheek. Tezuka waits for the teacher to reprimand them, but he’s paused with his chalk pointing at their bodies. “Please, continue, Tezuka-kun.”

“Pardon?”

Echizen kisses him and the teacher is still watching, poised with his short pink stick of chalk between outstretched fingers. Echizen tastes strongly of Strawberry Pocky and faintly of spearmint, and his hands are small and hard on Tezuka’s shoulders.

“Pay attention, Buchou,” Echizen says against his lips. “This could be important.”

--

The next morning Tezuka wakes and carefully prepares for school. He wonders if his mother can see his shame written in the dark circles beneath his eyes, in the tense set of his shoulders.

“Have a good day at school, Kunimitsu,” she says, and kisses his cheek when he leaves.

At morning practice, Echizen is playing with Kaidoh, easily deflecting the sharp bite of the Boomerang Snake. Tezuka watches the slide of his fingers on the racquet grip, the thick shifting of muscles in his forearms, and feels uneasy.

It’s not the ache of his body upon waking that bothers Tezuka, or the memory of the sweaty drag of his sheets against his skin. It’s the familiarity of the dream, the familiarity of that kiss. Watching Echizen on the courts now, Tezuka tries to remember when he has had it before.

This may become a problem.

--

Tezuka Kunimitsu has never been especially interested in girls, and this is why it is particularly irritating when they follow him around school giggling and asking him what his favourite colour is.

“Green,” he says finally, when a pair of junior girls corner him by the clubhouse. He can see Echizen and Kikumaru snickering at him out of the corner of his eye.

“Look, Ochibi-chan,” Kikumaru whispers, loudly. “Tezuka is a ladies man.”

The girls burst into a fresh fit of giggles and Tezuka growls, “Kikumaru, 20 laps.”

Echizen falls into step beside Tezuka when he walks briskly away. Tezuka is conscious of their elbows knocking together and the slight pink flush of Echizen’s skin.

“Buchou,” he says when they pass through the clubhouse door. “Those girls were ugly.”

--

Suddenly, it seems like the world is conspiring to throw Echizen in his path everywhere he goes. This is a paranoid thought that he cannot dispel. Though he realises that he is seeing Echizen no more or less than he has for months, he is oddly conscious, now, of every meeting. The few words they exchange in the dull morning sun seem loaded with secret code. When he warms up with Echizen, waiting for the others to arrive, the solid weight of the ball against his racquet feels inappropriate.
Sometimes Echizen will look at him strangely, his gaze lingering heavy on Tezuka’s face, and he wonders if he knows. Sometimes, Fuji will look at him strangely, eyes open and smile sharp over his lips, and Tezuka knows: Fuji Syuusuke knows everything.

Oishi comes to him at home one evening and tells him that he’d caught Echizen and Fuji in the locker rooms long after everybody else had gone home. He doesn’t have to elaborate beyond the word caught, Tezuka can read the details in the rising blush on Oishi’s neck, in the awkward, stammering spasms of his words.

He cannot help but picture them: smooth, small bodies, open mouthed kisses, Echizen’s moans like tennis grunts. Half out of their clothes, Fuji’s graceful, accurate hands. It hurts.

“I – I thought you should know,” Oishi says.

Tezuka already knew. He’s seen them leaving school together, sometimes, or returning after a mysterious absence. He’s seen Echizen’s rumpled clothing and the tiny fingerprint bruises on Fuji’s neck. As Captain he should probably say something to Fuji, but he never has. He can’t even imagine raising the subject with Ryoma.

“I’ll take care of it,” Tezuka tells Oishi, but he doesn’t.

--

They play matches. They win matches. This year, Seigaku is unbeatable, the name spoken in a hush at the start of every tournament. There are all kinds of scouts at every practice. Tezuka sees them salivating every time he serves.

At home, his father speaks the words Tokyo University with a kind of gleam in his eye. When his father looks at him, he sees small children and a pretty young wife, a gleaming family car and a house with four bedrooms. He sees security in his son’s future, a life just like his own.

At night, Tezuka dreams about fucking Echizen on the grass courts at Wimbledon.

--

Fuji brings Echizen to their Sunday afternoon match. When they show up Echizen looks sleepy and rumpled, soft and grumpy around the eyes.

“Fuji-senpai woke me up,” he sulks, throwing himself onto the coach’s bench by Tezuka’s side of the court. “I don’t know why you want me to see you lose so badly,” he calls out to Fuji.

“Incentive,” Fuji calls back, and serves the first ball. He’s on the offensive the whole match, the slice of his racquet sharp and precise like a surgeon’s knife. Tezuka returns with force, but with every movement of Fuji’s hand he feels as if he should bleed.

Tezuka barely wins. He hasn’t played this seriously in months.

“Maybe next time,” Fuji says pleasantly when he grips Tezuka’s hand over the net. Behind them, Echizen snorts. Throughout the match he’d looked tense and white, hands gripped to fists and ankles jiggling. Now, he’s slumped on the bench with his arms spread along the back, the tension bleeding out of his body beneath his baggy street clothes. To Tezuka, he looks like a delinquent.

“When are we going to play?” he asks Tezuka as they walk back to the bus stop. “I keep waiting for you to ask me.”

Tezuka swallows and looks away from Fuji’s suddenly open eyes, at the passing traffic on the street. Across the road there’s a little girl with a small brown dog. Beneath his cap, Echizen is staring at them, the dog’s excited circles around her feet. Tezuka can tell from the tilt of his head. When he takes too long to answer, though, Echizen looks up, craning his neck and squinting in the late afternoon sun. “Buchou?”

“Soon,” Tezuka replies, and hopes that it is true.

--

The week before the finals of the Kantou tournament, the Seigaku regulars spend a few days in the mountains. They sleepwalk onto a bus at five in the morning, considerably less enthusiastic than they had been when the trip had been announced. Tezuka is the only one who remains awake as they wind concentric circles up the mountain. He surveys the strong, jagged planes of rock that stretch up to the next level of the mountain, finding the footholds and ledges. He imagines heaving himself up, step by step. He hasn’t been climbing since before he hurt his shoulder. He loves the mountain, but he loves tennis more.

An hour into the trip, Echizen stumbles to the front of the bus and collapses into the seat across the aisle from Tezuka.

“Oishi-senpai is snoring,” he explains, throat husky from overnight disuse. Tezuka detects the faint grumble of Oishi’s snoring drifting from the back of the bus, but after a while he can no longer hear it above the low whine of Echizen’s sleeping breath.

--

Running, it seems like the mountain gets steeper beneath his feet. He can feel the body heat of his team mates around him, their competitive cluster creating a moving cloud of moisture, mingled breath and sweat. Kaidoh and Momoshiro are in the lead, elbow to elbow and shoving. Behind them and trying to break through, Tezuka feels the growing claustrophobia, his throbbing lungs and burning muscles. If he could just get in front of them, he thinks, he could get some clean, fresh air.

He shatters through the solid wall of their shoulders, and Echizen tumbles out after him, his heat on Tezuka’s back and gaining ground fast.

In the end, Fuji gets there first.

--

Five freshman have accompanied them to help out. Slaves, Momoshiro calls them affectionately, his booming, friendly voice demanding food the moment the regulars walk through the door. Echizen ignores them completely. Tezuka has always been ashamed that he can never quite remember the fifth freshman’s name; it’s something with a Y. Tezuka comforts himself with the thought that Oishi probably knows what it is. Tezuka’s strength has always been in silence. Oishi has always been better with people. He depends on Oishi more than most people realise. More than Oishi seems to realise.

Lately, he’s been thinking a lot about what life will be like when he won’t see these people every day.

--

Tezuka goes to bed early. They’re all sleeping in one room, two neat rows of beds with scratchy sheets and lumpy pillows. He takes the bed on the far end and listens, for a while, to Kikumaru’s muffled voice telling a story about shopping with Oishi’s mother. There’s a constant buzz of laughter in the regular’s voices now; morale is high. They seem happy. Every now and then there’s a slight pause that seems to be Fuji talking, or maybe Echizen, a frequency Tezuka can’t register through the walls. He lies on his back and feels the tension seeping out of his shoulders, and then he’s half asleep, Kikumaru’s voice settling on the edges of his exhaustion.

He’s woken by a slight rustling. Tezuka has never been a deep sleeper, which is why he retires early by routine. Sometimes he’ll wake four or five times in the space of one night, pulled gently from sleep by the rumble of his grandfather’s voice or the bleating of his sister’s phone. Sometimes he is awakened and doesn’t know why, as the sudden noise or burst of light has already faded away into nothing.

“Hey,” Echizen says when Tezuka’s eyes slide open. “Sorry.”

Echizen is a bundle of blurry blue and gold shapes kneeling on the bed beside Tezuka’s. He reaches for his glasses. As he slides them on the watery blobs of colour harden into solid geometric shapes, the firm, clean lines of Echizen’s tanned arms and worn navy t-shirt.

“What time is it?” Tezuka asks. The room is still empty and Echizen’s hair is wet.

“Ten.”

Tezuka pretends not to watch as Echizen settles into bed, tugging and twisting at the sheets until they’re up around his knees. They lie on their backs in silence, breathing and staring at the ceiling. Tezuka doesn’t take off his glasses. He counts the tiles in the ceiling. His hands are cold beneath the blanket.

When Ryoma rolls onto his side, eyes open and searching Tezuka’s face, Tezuka turns his head to stare back. It would be so easy, he thinks, to reach out and touch Echizen’s mouth, to tug his shoulders against Tezuka’s chest. From this angle, with their matching pillows and identical brown blankets, it looks like they’re sharing a bed. Tezuka could lean over and kiss Ryoma’s forehead. He could scratch the small of Ryoma’s back.

“Goodnight, Buchou,” Echizen says, and closes his eyes.

Tezuka can’t sleep.

--

The next day after endurance training they go swimming in the river. Tezuka sits stretched out on the bank beside a jumbled pile of discarded t-shirts and shoes. The soil is cool beneath his fingers and the sun slowly bakes his bare shoulders golden brown.

He watches Kikumaru and Echizen latch onto Momoshiro’s broad shoulders, hollering and shoving as they try to wrestle him into submission.

“Stop resisting, Momo!” Kikumaru yells. “Don’t be a baby!”

“He doesn’t want to mess up his pretty hair,” Echizen says. Tezuka is amused by Echizen’s ability to remain deadpan even as he’s jostling and pushing for dominance. His words float along the water’s surface without inflection, their quiet obnoxiousness barely even rippling the surface.

Momoshiro’s squawk is like a tidal wave in comparison. “I will never be defeated,” he screams, even as his face disappears underwater. At the last moment his arms shoot free and he drags Kikumaru and Echizen with him. They reappear separately, coughing and spluttering with tangled hair. Echizen smoothes his hands back over his head, slicking wet hair back over his skull. Away from his face. Water drips from his chin, from his hair at the nape of his neck, and rolls over the contours of his chest. This is what he’d look like in the shower. He smiles when he sees Tezuka watching.

“I think he’d like you to join them,” Fuji says, dropping to sprawl at Tezuka’s side. He’s just come from the water and his skin makes mud wherever it touches the ground.

“Maybe soon,” Tezuka replies. Echizen is still looking at him, though his expression has settled into something vaguely suspicious. He turns his gaze from Tezuka to Fuji, and then Kikumaru blindsides him with a tackle.

“But if you wait too long it’ll get cold.”

They watch the boys in silence, but Tezuka is aware of Fuji’s continued attention. He waits.

“You should join them, Tezuka,” Fuji says. Tezuka has never been very good at reading Fuji, but then, nobody has. That is Fuji Syuusuke’s greatest strength. Sometimes, he makes Tezuka nervous.

Tezuka stares out at the river beyond the thrashing bodies by the shore. Fuji is a niggling thought at his side, a distraction that he tries to dispel.

“You wanted me to be your one great rival,” Fuji says. When Tezuka turns to him blue eyes are open over rows of black lashes and he looks annoyed. “I’ve been playing for months and you’ve yet to even hit the ball.”

From the water, Echizen is looking at Tezuka again.

“You should hurry up,” Fuji says. “I’m getting bored.”

The sun has begun to fade, glowing warm and orange in the places where it is reflected in the surface of the river. It might get cold soon. The thought causes a slight edge of panic to push into his carefully preserved calm, and he curses Fuji.

Echizen smiles and ducks out from beneath Momoshiro’s arm as Tezuka slides into the river. The ice cold surface cracks and crashes against his skin, and Tezuka waits for his body to adjust before moving to stand at Oishi’s side. The mud of the riverbed squelches between his toes. He wonders if there are fish here.

“Hn, Buchou,” Ryoma says. “I was beginning to think you were afraid to swim.”

“I dare you, Ochibi,” Kikumaru calls out.

“He’ll never do it,” Momoshiro says.

Echizen’s mouth twists with grim amusement. “Sorry, Buchou,” he says, and then strong hands are on Tezuka’s shoulders and cool water is rushing over his head.

--

Tezuka takes walks in the evenings to escape, for a while, the colour and noise of his teammates. He hasn’t been sleeping well, waking every night at midnight to the pale glow of moonlight on Echizen’s skin, to Kikumaru’s sleeptalking, to the murmuring that goes on between Inui and Kaidoh. He sits for a while in the cool, peaceful damp of the forest, reading in the fading light.

Their fourth night at the retreat he returns to floodlights on the tennis court and the sounds of a match. The bounce, the thwack, the grunt. Echizen’s muffled cursing. The regulars are lined up along the chain link fence, heads swivelling as they follow the ball. It is Fuji’s serve. The ball soars in clean, perfect lines across the court.

At first, nobody notices Tezuka’s return. Kachiro is calling the match. He announces, “Game, Fuji. One game to two.”

As they change courts, Echizen meets Tezuka’s eye and touches his cap. He wins the next game; a perfect sequence of service aces.

Kikumaru stands with one hand clasping his elbow and the other on his chin, lips pursed in contemplation. “Ochibi’s never beat Fuji before.”

“He’s never lost, either,” Momoshiro says. Tezuka can see the pride in the slight smirk of his lips and the sudden puffing of his chest. “Fuji-senpai never lets him finish the game.”

There is new seriousness in the force of Fuji’s swing; Tezuka can see the shifting and bunching of the muscles in his forearm as the racquet makes impact. He does not taunt Echizen with easy lobs and chance balls. He is playing, finally, with his eyes open.

Echizen takes the match. When he approaches the net to shake hands, Fuji loops one elegant arm around Ryoma’s shoulders and kisses his cheek in front of everybody.

“You’re all grown up, Ryoma-kun,” Fuji says. Echizen wipes his cheek with the back of his hand and mutters something that makes Fuji laugh, his brow furrowed and grumpy in the way that he uses to conceal strong bursts of emotion.

Then Echizen says, “Thankyou, Fuji-senpai,” and walks away.

--

Tezuka cannot sleep. He leaves his bed at two a.m. and moves silently to the kitchen, listening to the muffled sounds of his sleeping team mates. As he passes Kikumaru’s feet he mumbles, “Moon volley,” and Oishi makes a noise in his chest in seeming reply. When Tezuka reaches the hall the floorboards gleam in the moonlight and he follows their glow to the kitchen door.

He makes a pot of tea and reads a week-old paper. Up here in the mountain it’s like the rest of the world only exists as history. No new papers, no mobile phones. They could return to Tokyo and find it a ghost town, wiped out by bombs or diseases in their absence.

A week ago, a woman was murdered in her apartment late in the afternoon, a truck plummeted off an overpass, a European princess was married and a new hospital was opened in Osaka. A week ago there was a recipe for French bread in the culture section.

Tezuka drinks a second cup of tea.

“Buchou?”

It is Echizen, of course, his voice settling into the stillness that Tezuka has carefully nurtured. He stands bleary-eyed in the doorway, blinking into the bright white kitchen lights. He has messy bed hair, it sticks up in back. Tezuka’s heart throbs painfully.

“Echizen,” Tezuka says. “You should be asleep.”

“So should you,” Echizen replies disapprovingly. Tezuka is not used to being chastised by his team. The vague criticism in Echizen’s tone settles uncomfortably against his skin.

“Aa,” Tezuka says, because he cannot think of anything else.

“Can I have some tea?” Ryoma asks. He walks further into the kitchen, the cuffs of his soft, striped cotton pyjamas dragging on the floor beneath his slippers. Tezuka pours him a cup from the still warm teapot, handing it to him as he settles into the seat at Tezuka’s side.

“Is there a sports section?”

A week ago, an Italian soccer player scored his hundredth goal and Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in straight sets. Tezuka hands Echizen the sports pages.

“Che,” Ryoma says, upon seeing the front page. “This is old. Why bother reading it?”

Tezuka doesn’t bother replying. He takes his cup and saucer to the sink and washes them, letting the hot water run on his hands to distract himself from the slope of Ryoma’s shoulders beneath his thin blue t-shirt, from the impossibly large eyes that are now, as always, following his every movement.

“Buchou,” Echizen says. His voice makes Tezuka nervous. It’s deeper than usual, and gentle, like he’s about to tell Tezuka a secret they’ve been avoiding for months.

Tezuka can’t turn around. He stares out the window into the dark grounds, seeing the gleam of the chain link fence in the moonlight. “Yes?”

Ryoma’s hands fist in the back of Tezuka’s t-shirt, pulling it taught across his chest. His knuckles graze against the knotted muscles in Tezuka’s back through the worn fabric.

“I want us to start playing again,” Echizen says. “Matches, I mean.”

“Aa.”

“You keep blowing me off,” Ryoma takes Tezuka’s arm and tugs until they are facing one another. Echizen stares up at him from inches closer than he used to three years ago. With every passing day he seems older. “Why?”

“I worry about you,” Tezuka says awkwardly, though this is only the barest fragment of the truth. Tezuka worries about Ryoma, but he worries most about the two of them together, and all the things they should not mean to one another.

“Oh,” Ryoma says. “Don’t,” and kisses him.

Ryoma does not taste like Strawberry Pocky. He tastes strongly of Jasmine tea and a little like Listerine, with something mysterious and bodily beneath. Their mouths mash awkwardly together until Echizen reaches up and into Tezuka’s hair and forcefully guides his head around his own. Ryoma’s tongue touches the roof of his mouth, and Tezuka feels dizzy.

Tezuka has been kissed once before, by the daughter of a family friend who had sought his help in her studies. That had been warm and moist and slightly nauseating, her body soft and terrifyingly fragile against his own. Later, she’d stared at him awkwardly and he wondered what she’d seen in his eyes, what she’d felt in that kiss. She’d never sought him out again.

Echizen’s body is thin and hard and reassuringly solid and Tezuka can’t help but slide his arms around that narrow waist, beneath the soft cotton t-shirt. He can feel the lines of muscle in Ryoma’s back and he wonders what they feel like, shifting as Ryoma serves.

They kiss pressed up against the kitchen bench for twenty minutes, until Tezuka’s hair is tangled around the spaces where Echizen’s fingers have been and his lips tingle from exertion. When they’re done he stares at Ryoma’s smirking, beautiful face, and feels the faint ugliness of shame welling up in his chest, but then Ryoma threads his fingers through Tezuka’s and leads him quietly back to the bedrooms, stepping over their friends in the darkness.

They slide into their separate beds and look at one another across the divide. They’ll have to be up in an hour and a half and Tezuka suddenly feels exhausted, bones heavy and liquid inside his body. Echizen looks happy.

He thinks Ryoma might be asleep when he leans over to kiss his hair and the curve of his cheek, when he whispers, “Goodnight, Echizen,” in the dark.

--

By the time he wakes Tezuka’s shame has mutated into a painful ulcer in his gut. He knows Echizen is by no means innocent but he looks it when he sleeps. In the bed beside Tezuka’s he is all sweeping lashes on soft cheeks, messy hair on his clear young face. He is so much younger than his tennis makes him seem.

Tezuka gets out of bed and avoids him for the rest of the day, or tries to. He throws himself into their training, ignoring the occasional heat of Echizen’s body at his elbow, the way that Tezuka’s silence seems to amuse him. He manages not to speak to Ryoma all day, until Inui announces that they are to be paired together for doubles training.

For a moment, Tezuka thinks this is mere coincidence, until he sees Inui and Fuji’s suspiciously matched smiles, the foreboding gleam of sunlight against Inui’s glasses.

“Good luck,” Fuji says as they walk onto the court. It’s a one set match against the Kaidoh/Momoshiro pair. Tezuka tries to collect himself as he stares at them over the net. He cannot be careless. They have the Kantou finals to think about, and Nationals after that. For the team’s sake, he cannot lose this match.

“How does the zone work when you’re playing doubles?” Echizen asks, spinning his racquet in his fist.

“I don’t know,” Tezuka replies.

He watches Kaidoh and Momoshiro murmur to one another and knock fists before they take their positions. He thinks about the movement of Echizen’s body on the court nearby, the way his back will bend and his legs will flex as he serves.

We can do this, he thinks, but they lose the first three games. They are playing awkwardly, cautiously. Their formation is polite. They lose three points when Echizen unexpectedly stands aside to let Tezuka have the chance ball; after each ball has bounced out of play he turns and stares at Tezuka like he’s rejected a precious gift. To Echizen, that’s probably what a chance ball is.

After the third game, Tezuka has had enough. He grabs Echizen’s elbow as he passes and tries to think of something to say. Echizen blinks at him and makes a noise low in his throat, touches the brim of his cap.

“Let’s go, Buchou,” he says, and they take the next two games. Tezuka can’t use the zone when Ryoma is potentially in the way of the ball, but he does manage, through trial and error, to manipulate the spin so that the ball flies from the opponent’s racquets to Echizen’s general vicinity. It is a good match, though not a perfect match. They lose another game to Momoshiro’s dunk smash and Kaidoh’s sheer perseverance, but it’s a satisfying win at six games to four. As they shake hands over the net Tezuka can feel the tension bleeding out of his shoulders, out of his wrists. Doubles has never been his game.

They don’t knock fists like Kaidoh and Momoshiro but as they walk away Tezuka says, “Good work, Echizen.”

“I hate doubles,” Ryoma grumbles. There’s a slight flush in his cheeks and he doesn’t look up at Tezuka, just straight ahead at the path before them. “At least this time I didn’t have to play with Momo-senpai.”

“I once had to play with Inui,” Tezuka reveals. His second year of junior high, in practice against the Golden Pair. They hadn’t been keeping score but at the end of the afternoon Tezuka had felt the shame of losing anyway. At thirteen he hadn’t been able to come to terms with Inui’s data, and Inui wouldn’t allow Tezuka to take over the match. Tezuka had gone home that night with stains on his white tennis shorts, where their fumbling had sent them both sprawling to the ground.

Echizen grimaces and says, “I can’t imagine that.”

“We were disgraceful.” The sun is setting over the lodge and Tezuka realises he has forgotten that he has to avoid Ryoma, that he should not be so casual. He walks more briskly, long steps with long legs. Echizen matches his pace without comment.

When they reach the lodge Echizen smiles slyly up at him and says, “Fuji-senpai said you’d try to get away.”

Tezuka stops just inside the door and says, “Echizen.”

The challenge is in Echizen’s shoulders and the cocky slant of his jaw. “I told him I wouldn’t let you.”

Echizen moves close and for a minute Tezuka thinks he’s going to kiss him again, but Ryoma just says, “You won’t beat me in this, Buchou,” and swaggers away.

Tezuka is still standing in the lobby when the rest of the team arrive, struggling to catch his breath.

--

Fuji-senpai said.

He seeks Fuji out after dinner, indicating with a slight inclination of his head that he wants him to follow when he leaves the lodge. They walk to the picnic area not far from the courts and sit at a table. The night sky here is brighter than in Tokyo, where the only stars are the streetlights and windows in distant buildings. Fuji stares up at the sky while Tezuka tries to figure out what to say.

He asks finally, “Have you been giving Echizen lessons on how to seduce me?” He tries to sound foreboding but Fuji has never been particularly afraid of him, and just turns to him with that same faint, unsettling smile.

“Oh Tezuka,” Fuji says, as if Tezuka is being embarrassingly simple. “Echizen seduced you a long time ago.”

“Fuji,” Tezuka says impatiently.

Fuji laughs, obviously pleased by whatever it is that he hears in Tezuka’s voice. Tezuka wonders if Fuji can detect the tremor. If he can hear the panic. “I may have told him a few things.”

“Please do me the courtesy of staying out of my business,” Tezuka says stiffly, and stands to leave.

Fuji stays seated, hands politely folded in his lap. “I am merely trying to be a good senpai. By helping a kohai attain a cherished goal.”

“He’s too young to –“ Tezuka starts, but Fuji cuts him off.

“At the moment, he’s the adult. He’s not running away like a frightened child.”

Fuji is rarely so direct with Tezuka.

“Maybe,” Fuji says, with a tremor of genuine humour in his lips, “you need to behave with a little more maturity. Everybody falls in love at some point, Tezuka. Even you.”

Tezuka walks off and leaves Fuji sitting alone in the dark. He feels the burn of Fuji’s smirk against the nape of his neck all the way back to the Lodge.

--

Tezuka wonders if Fuji is right. He wonders if he is acting like a child. He thinks of Echizen’s confident fingers against his skin, how brave he was, how brave he always is. Tezuka wonders if he is in love.

--

Tezuka is first to get on the bus the day they go home. He sits in the first row like always and stares straight ahead as the others take seats at two or three row intervals. Echizen is the last to board and he stands in the aisle by Tezuka.

“Can I sit here?” Echizen says. Tezuka looks at him for a long moment, and then slides across to let Echizen take the seat at his side.

When they get back to school it’s already getting dark and somehow Tezuka ends up following Echizen to a noodle bar not far from both their houses. As they walk Tezuka’s duffel bag is heavy on his shoulder and fighting for balance with his racquets. Echizen’s bags seem almost larger than his body.

They eat noodles at the counter on stools, and Tezuka notices that Echizen’s body is slightly turned toward his the whole time. The lighting in the place is dull and orange and there’s a radio in back somewhere playing old American music, Elvis and Billie Holiday. The restaurant isn’t all that clean and the food isn’t all that good, but they each eat two helpings. Ryoma tells him about the food in New York. Before New York, apparently, he lived in California. He hated California because his tennis club was full of rich kids with their own courts but no talent for the game.

“Like Atobe,” Ryoma adds with twisted lips.

Tezuka pays the bill because Echizen seems to expect him to. As they walk out the door, it occurs to Tezuka that this might have been their first date. His first date. He thinks they should probably have gone some place nicer.

When they reach Echizen’s corner Tezuka allows them a kiss goodnight, long and slow against his neighbour’s fence.

“You could come inside,” Ryoma murmurs, clutching at Tezuka’s shoulders. It’s obvious what he means from the press of his hips against Tezuka’s own.

Tezuka imagines sneaking past Echizen’s parents and up the stairs, locking them inside his childhood room. He imagines the single bed and stripping Ryoma of his t-shirt, pressing him back against the sheets. Being quiet so his parents won’t hear.

“No,” he says at length, and strokes one hand down the side of Ryoma’s face. “You’re already getting careless.”

“You’re careful enough for both of us,” Echizen replies, and kisses him once more before he leaves.

--

Tezuka had worried that he would neglect his training in favour of spending time with Echizen, but Ryoma seems to think that most dates should involve tennis of some kind, and usually calls him out to have a match at the clay courts or to the ball machine in the park. Some mornings Echizen joins Tezuka for his morning jog, but usually he can’t be bothered getting out of bed. The mornings that Tezuka finds Echizen standing outside his house in shorts and a t-shirt are rare, but Tezuka appreciates them.

The first time they play a real match since Echizen’s return to Japan, Echizen wins three sets to two and the match lasts for hours. In two days they will play Hyotei in the grand final. Echizen’s form is beautiful and strong in a way that it wasn’t a week ago. During the match Tezuka feels something inside himself break and has to put it together game by game until he’s stronger than before. He barely loses the last set.

Seigaku come first place in the Kantou tournament. Tezuka plays first singles against Atobe, feeling immense satisfaction in the new strength of his shoulder. Every time Tezuka plays Atobe he remembers to feel grateful for the second chance he has been given. His joy improves his game.

After the ceremony, when the medal hangs heavy and satisfying around Tezuka’s neck, Ryoma corners him in the bathroom and kisses him in secret. They’re both covered thick with sweat. Tezuka’s muscles ache, and they feel like they’ll snap when Ryoma presses his strong fingers into them.

“Monkey King has gone home to cry,” Ryoma says as they leave the bathroom. There’s glee in his eyes, and Tezuka is reminded of the twelve year old that couldn’t seem to go anywhere without challenging somebody to a tennis duel. Apparently Tezuka’s victory is as good as his own.

Tezuka looks ahead. Echizen’s bratty behaviour sometimes amuses him, but he never wants him to know that. “You are a noble and gracious winner.”

“Hn,” Ryoma frowns. “He can’t have you.”

“Atobe’s attention,” Tezuka says carefully, “is of no concern to you.”

Echizen hides his smile beneath the brim of his hat.

--

“Have you decided about university?” Tezuka’s father asks. This is the first time Tezuka has seen him for any length of time in a week. He’s been out late studying or training every night. On Tuesday night he helped Echizen with his Japanese History paper. He’d written a similar paper two years earlier.

“I’ve been thinking about going pro,” Tezuka says, without meaning to. “With tennis,” he clarifies.

“Oh,” his father says, touching one hand to his glasses. “I didn’t think that you wanted to.”

“I might.”

His father doesn’t seem to mind very much, he just reminds Tezuka that he doesn’t have all that long to make up his mind – but also warns him not to be hasty. It’s kind of terrifying, knowing that the decision is all up to Tezuka. He has no excuses now. He’s been working his entire life for this, now he just has to actually do it.

Echizen calls him that night and tries to drag him out for a match. For the first time in his life, Tezuka doesn’t feel like playing tennis. He takes Ryoma to a movie instead.

--

Tezuka starts to think about sex more than he would like. He sometimes finds himself daydreaming about the way Echizen’s skin feels beneath his t-shirt, warm and buttery over his firm stomach muscles. Tezuka has never daydreamed before in his life. When Fuji catches him in a stare one afternoon in the locker room he just smiles reassuringly and says, “Don’t worry Tezuka, you’ve finally reached puberty.”

This thing has been happening with Echizen for three and a half weeks. Tezuka dreams about him at night, every night, waking up hard and lonely and having to satisfy himself more frequently than he has since he was thirteen. Despite Fuji’s barbs to the contrary, Tezuka reached puberty at the same time as everyone else.

He’s just never wanted so badly before.

--

Echizen meets Tezuka’s mother one evening at the supermarket. Tezuka is holding her basket with its round green apples and cartons of milk. Ryoma is on his own, clutching a heavy-looking bag of cat food to his chest. He puts it by his feet when they stop to talk. Echizen is suspiciously polite, bowing and wishing them a good evening.

“He seemed like a nice boy,” his mother says when Echizen walks away, his body swinging slightly with the weight of his cat food. He’s not wearing his cap and his clothes are neat. His skin looks fresh and clean.

Tezuka blinks. “Not really.”

“Hm, you seem to like him well enough,” she continues. She is smiling slightly. Tezuka stares at the shelves, pretending that he is struggling to choose a brand of shampoo. He always uses the kind his mother uses. It comes in a purple bottle and has a fake French name. They have used it since Tezuka was twelve.

“I suppose,” he says, non-committal. He wishes his mother found him as mysterious as everybody else seems to. He wishes he could make her run laps and divert this line of questioning. “He plays well.”

Her smile grows. “You must be proud of him.”

Tezuka takes the purple bottle from the shelf and places it in the basket. It is on sale this week. They will save eighty yen. “I am proud of all my players.”

“Of course,” she says, but it sounds like she is humouring him. She winds one arm around his own and squeezes his elbow. She is much shorter than him. From this angle, if he looks down all he can see is the top of her head. “I am very proud of you, Kunimitsu. You’re a good boy.” She clutches his arm more tightly for a moment and then releases him. “A good man.”

Tezuka’s chest feels tight and broken, but he manages to say, “Thankyou, mother.”

--

Atobe throws another party, this time to celebrate the end of the Kantou tournament. Tezuka has known Atobe long enough now to know that Atobe will throw a party to celebrate just about anything, and he’ll invite the Seigaku regulars whenever he feels he can get away with it. Some nights he is attentive to Tezuka’s every need, and these are the nights Tezuka leaves early. Other times he is aware of him always at the edge of Tezuka’s field of vision, hovering in Tezuka’s orbit. At his birthday party last year Atobe had been so drunk that Tezuka was forced to put him to bed, bearing his weight as they stumbled up the stairs, taking off his shoes and tucking him beneath the covers. He suspects he should not mention that to Echizen.

Tezuka attends a family function and arrives late to Atobe’s. At the door the butler greets him by name and informs him that he believes Master Atobe is out by the pool. Tezuka heads in that direction, weaving through the bodies that mill throughout the mansion. He passes Yamabuki’s Sengoku, who is leaning against a wall flirting with a group of American girls. They nod to one another, and Tezuka is about to walk into the backyard when he catches sight of Echizen in the drawing room to his left. He pauses, torn between greeting his host and greeting his – kohai.

Hearing Fuji’s low, quiet voice and the resulting tug of ugly jealousy propel him into the drawing room, and he immediately feels foolish. Fuji is there, sitting close beside Ryoma on the couch, but so is Kikumaru, leaning between their shoulders to look at the photo album stretched across their laps. They all look up at once at the sound of Tezuka’s voice as he greets them.

“Come look at Atobe,” Echizen says without saying hello. “He was even more gay when he was a little kid.”

A nice boy, Tezuka remembers.

“Ryoma,” he reprimands. It is the first time he has ever slipped and called Echizen by his given name aloud; Kikumaru and Echizen don’t seem to notice, but Fuji looks at him in amusement. That is the only way Fuji ever looks at him lately. He would worry that his authority as captain has been damaged, but his relationship with Fuji has never been that simple.

“What?” Ryoma says. “He does.” He holds the album up for Tezuka to see, five year old Atobe’s floral art smock, six year old Atobe smiling and posing with a fluffy lavender teddy bear. Ryoma stares at Tezuka, daring him to protest. Fuji tugs the album back to their laps and turns the page, releasing Tezuka from Echizen’s wide gold eyes.

Tezuka moves to the back of the couch to look over their shoulders. Six years in Kikumaru’s acquaintance has taught him not to flinch when he leans an elbow on Tezuka’s shoulder.

“Look at Kabaji!” Kikumaru snickers, jabbing one long finger at the photo in the corner. It is Atobe with what is clearly a young Kabaji; the straight lines and blank calm of his face stand out clearly even though he is shorter and skinnier than his friend. “He’s so tiny!”

“Hey, look at that,” Echizen says, looking at the other page. “It’s you.”

Tezuka looks. “Aa.”

He is just in the background of a tournament photo. Atobe is posing with his racquet lovingly resting in his arms, familiar smirk on his young face. Tezuka is in the background talking to an official, dressed in dark shorts and a white tshirt. He is ten years old and has a skinned knee.

“Nya, you were so cute!” Kikumaru squawks. “I don’t remember you being that cute when we met!”

Tezuka grimaces. Ryoma cranes his head backwards to look up at him. “Your glasses were different.”

“Yes,” Tezuka says.

Ryoma looks back down at the album, fingers touching Tezuka’s skinned knee. He makes a noise that Tezuka can’t decipher, low and deep in his throat. He transfers the album to Fuji’s lap and stands, saying, “I’m thirsty.”

He walks out. Tezuka waits a few minutes before following. He finds him leaning by the stairs drinking a can of Ponta.

“I got you this,” he says, and hands Tezuka a glass of iced tea.

“Thankyou.”

“Are there bedrooms up there?” Ryoma asks. Tezuka’s internal organs grind together nervously.

“Why?”

Echizen rolls his eyes and turns to go upstairs, but Atobe’s voice stops him. He turns around on the first stair. Standing on that level, he’s a little taller than Tezuka.

“Tezuka,” Atobe drawls. He already has his hand on Tezuka’s shoulder. He smells a little like women’s perfume, and Tezuka wonders if he’s been with one of the girls that habitually follow him around. “You finally came.”

“Good evening, Atobe,” Tezuka greets.

Echizen touches the brim of his cap and hunches into his shoulders the way he does when he’s annoyed. “Atobe,” he grumbles. If they were in a more suitable locale he’d probably challenge him to a match.

“Hey there, Squirt.” Atobe reaches up to ruffle Echizen’s hair. Tezuka has a sudden headache, a premonition of doom that only intensifies when Echizen knocks Atobe’s hand away and Atobe lets it fall to Tezuka’s elbow. He leans in to speak low in Tezuka’s ear. “They’re so cute at this age.”

“Che,” Ryoma says, and there’s a look in his eyes that makes Tezuka’s internal organs stop grinding and start grating. “We were just going to go check out the bedrooms.”

Tezuka leaves them both standing there and goes home. He lies awake all night listening to his phone vibrating on his desk and thinking, I need to be more careful.

In the morning, Tezuka doesn’t go jogging. Echizen is waiting on his corner in shorts and a t-shirt. Tezuka sees him from his bedroom window, so he stays inside and does sit ups on the floor instead. He calls Fuji and cancels their regular Sunday afternoon match. He doesn’t go outside all day.

--

It is dark by the time Tezuka collects himself enough to check his phone. He sits on his bed in his pyjamas and scrolls through the listings; a series of missed calls from Echizen, Fuji and Atobe; one from Oishi that is probably unrelated. An email from Atobe that just says Ore-Sama can keep a secret. Two from Fuji that he can’t make himself read – he suspects they will be lectures, in that painful teasing way he has.

One from Echizen, sent not long ago, and it takes Tezuka a long time to press the read button. It’s just a photo, his face in the dim light. He wonders if this is an apology.

Tezuka turns off the phone and tries to sleep. He lies awake for an hour before he turns it back on. There is another message from Ryoma. Buchou, it says, and nothing more.

It’s late, Tezuka sends back. Go to sleep.

Tezuka lies on his back and stares at the ceiling. He’s slept in this room his whole life, beneath these ceiling tiles and lighting fixtures. He remembers the year he had his first big growth spurt it suddenly seemed much too small, like his elbows and feet would knock on the ceiling and the walls.

I can’t, Ryoma writes.

Tezuka can’t reply. Echizen terrifies him sometimes, the way everything seems smaller when he’s around, taking up the space. The way he makes Tezuka feel bigger himself, like he’s stuffed into the tight corners of his old life.

His phone buzzes on his chest.

I miss you, it says. Tezuka stares at it until the little black letters look like they’re jumping like insects off the screen.

Sweet doesn’t suit you, he lies.

I don’t like it when you’re mad at me. I almost lost a match today.

This room feels too small.

Go to sleep, Ryoma, he sends back finally. We have practice in the morning.

--

Morning practice is slow. When Tezuka finally read Fuji’s message this morning it was just a series of symbols he didn’t understand, in oversized letters. He almost wishes Fuji had given him advice instead.

At afternoon practice Echizen is still quiet and respectful, which makes Tezuka feel sick. He makes the whole club run laps around the court in preparation for Nationals, and Ryoma pushes himself faster and harder than anyone else. He finishes first and then collapses on the ground beneath a tree, leaning against the trunk and staring at Tezuka solemnly. When Tezuka leaves the clubhouse Ryoma is waiting for him. He walks at Tezuka’s side with his head down, cap pulled low over his face. They go to the noodle bar.

“Sorry,” Ryoma mutters after they have ordered. The word sounds strange from his lips, like Tezuka’s suddenly talking to a different person.

Tezuka considers his words. “I want to be able to trust you not to be –“

“Careless?” Ryoma finishes for him. “I can’t help it. I’m not ashamed.”

Guilt makes Tezuka’s hands tight around his napkin. “I’m not ashamed of you,” he says. The miserable flush to Ryoma’s cheeks makes his heart pound. He wishes things were different; maybe if they were older, or lived some place else. Maybe if he weren’t Ryoma’s captain.

“This is stupid,” Ryoma says. “It’s just Atobe. He’s a dick, but he’s not an asshole. He won’t tell anybody.”

Tezuka knows that. All this drama is new to him, though, these smouldering glares and obnoxious challenges. Standing at the bottom of those stairs he’d felt ridiculous, like the heroine in an old English novel. He never wanted to get caught up in all of this.

If it could be just him and Ryoma and maybe a tennis court, it’d all be so much simpler. He doesn’t want all these other people in their business. Their attention makes him self-conscious.

“My privacy is important to me, Ryoma.” He holds Ryoma’s gaze. “It isn’t stupid to me.”

Ryoma’s eyes drop to the table and he fiddles with his napkin. “I’m sorry,” he says in English. His ankle taps Tezuka’s beneath the table.

Their food arrives and he watches as Ryoma sprinkles seasoning into his bowl, as he prepares his chopsticks. He regrets the dark scowl on Ryoma’s face. “All this isn’t easy for me.”

Ryoma stops with his chopsticks poised halfway to his mouth and gazes seriously at Tezuka. The determined set of his jaw seems to age him a few years, and Tezuka can see him at twenty, at twenty five. How beautiful he will be. “So you need me to be your pillar again, Buchou?”

Tezuka smiles faintly. “Yes.”

“Okay,” Ryoma says, “but can you try not to look so worried every time I kiss you?”

He shifts uncomfortably. “Aa.”

“And stay away from Monkey King.”

“But we have a date all lined up,” Tezuka says. “It would be rude to cancel now.”

Ryoma scowls into his noodles.

--

The problem with being young and gay (and Tezuka supposes he is) and closeted is that it’s hard to find places to be alone. Tezuka’s grandparents are always home and Ryoma refuses to let him anywhere near his father, so in the next few weeks they spend a lot of time in parks and cinemas and pressed up against the lockers at school.

“If we were in America you’d be allowed to drive already and we could go parking in your car,” Ryoma grumbles when they leave the cinema on Thursday night. Tezuka’s lips ache and his skin burns in the places where Ryoma has clawed at it. It feels like he’s been hard for hours. “I don’t want to go home.”

“I have to,” Tezuka says. “I have a test tomorrow.”

“English?” Ryoma asks hopefully. He’d coached Tezuka for an English quiz a few weeks earlier, openly revelling in the opportunity to be the one tutoring Tezuka for a change. Tezuka actually finds English pretty easy, but he’d let Ryoma have his fun.

“Physics,” he replies.

Ryoma looks disgusted. “Che,” he says. “You’re on your own.”

“Somehow,” Tezuka says, his arm bumping against Ryoma’s. He wants to wrap it across Ryoma’s shoulder and squeeze, but there are too many people around. “I will survive.”

“Ha,” Ryoma says. “Barely.”

That night before he goes to bed Tezuka receives a message from Ryoma. Mechanical energy is the sum of the potential and kinetic energy, it says. Good luck.

--

After the first round of the Nationals, a man in a nice black suit hands Tezuka a business card and asks if he’s planning to go professional when he’s done with school. His company, he says, are interested in sponsoring him.

Ryoma looks at the card as they walk back to the bus and says, “Their racquets suck. You should hold out for something better.”

--

On Friday afternoon Tezuka goes with Ryoma to buy new shoes. He sits on the bench threading laces into the trainers Ryoma has yet to try on. Ryoma seems thoroughly disgusted with the entire process, discarding the rejects in haphazard piles when they don’t fit. The shopkeeper must know Ryoma because he seems wary, shelving tubes of tennis balls at the other end of the store and glancing at them occasionally. When Tezuka questions Ryoma he just says, “I come in here sometimes with Momo-senpai.”

Ryoma dumps another pair of white trainers, low cut Nikes with the victory sign splashed in silver along the side. “I’ve gone up a size,” he says.

He’s gotten taller, too. Today during practice Tezuka had noticed that Echizen had grown as tall as Oishi. He wonders if one day Ryoma will be taller than he is.

They leave the store with a pair of Fila trainers with blue and red accents. Ryoma buys Tezuka a lilac towelling wrist band with two white stripes and a pink star. Tezuka suspects he is being mocked.

“My parents are going out of town tomorrow,” Ryoma says, feigning casual. When Tezuka looks at him he’s pretending to be absorbed in a window display advertising stuffed toys in bright colours.

“I see,” Tezuka says.

That night, he stands alone before a ball machine and slams the missiles back full force. By the time the final ball slams into the centre of his racquet he has gathered the frayed ends of his concentration and tied them into a neat ball, small and hard enough for tennis. It’s this ball that he imagines striking his racquet strings, arcing over the net. Rolling to a stop, defeated by his zero-shiki drop shot.

He is prepared.

--

After school on Saturday, Tezuka waits for Echizen outside the school gates. He’d left practice half an hour early on school council business, but he’d promised Ryoma he would wait for him. That they would walk back to his place together.

Ryoma comes around the corner with most of the Seigaku regulars. Kikumaru has his arms looped around his shoulders, forcing Ryoma to stoop a little as he walks. The group is chattering and happy. Only Inui is missing. Tezuka knows he tutors a group of freshmen on Saturday afternoons. The scowl on Ryoma’s face indicates that whatever this is, it probably was not his idea.

“Tezuka-buchou!” Momoshiro calls. Beside him, Kaidoh closes his eyes and turns his face away in disgust.

“Ah, Tezuka!” Oishi breaks away from the group a little, coming to stand by Tezuka’s side. “You’re finished already!”

“Yes,” Tezuka affirms unnecessarily.

The group passes them and Oishi starts walking, seemingly expecting Tezuka to come along. “We’re going to Kawamura’s. Taka-san has invited us to try his new specialty.”

Ahead of them, Ryoma wrenches away from Kikumaru, who crosses his arms and whines, “Nya, Ochibi, I liked you better when you were little.” He turns around and calls back, “Oishi will walk with me, won’t he.”

Oishi smiles apologetically at Tezuka and jogs to catch up with Kikumaru.

“Whipped,” Fuji says as he falls into step beside Tezuka. They walk in silence for some time, watching the group ahead. Kikumaru and Momoshiro seem to be going out of their way to irritate Ryoma, probably because he is suddenly such an easy target.

Kikumaru steals Ryoma’s hat and perches it backwards on his head. “Hoi,” he says, slinging an arm across Ryoma’s shoulder. “I’m Echizen Ryoma. Mada mada dane.”

Momoshiro breaks into peals of laughter. Ryoma says flatly, “I would never say ‘hoi’.”

“No mind,” Kikumaru says. “I think I captured your essence.”

Ryoma huffs and tries to shrug out of his senpai’s hold.

“Ryoma-kun is in quite a mood,” Fuji comments. “It’s funny, he was in such high spirits earlier.”

Tezuka searches himself for patience.

--

By the time they leave Kawamura’s it is almost five pm. Echizen is quiet as they walk. He leads Tezuka through shortcuts, along back alleys and through parks. Tezuka watches him and tries to remember every detail of the way Ryoma looks today – the grace of his neck beneath his cap, the black blazer sitting firm along his shoulders, his hands still slightly red from practice.

Ryoma relaxes visibly when they walk through his front gate. He unlocks the door to the sound of mournful yowling and bends to pick up the cat immediately, murmuring and scratching its fur.

“Karupin, this is Buchou,” Ryoma says. Tezuka takes off his shoes and closes the door behind him. Karupin mewls and rubs his face against Ryoma’s knuckle. Ryoma is staring at Tezuka expectantly, as if he’s about to fail whatever test he has in front of him.

“Hello, Karupin,” Tezuka says awkwardly. The cat looks at him blankly. He has never been particularly good with animals. When he was a very small child he would play with his aunt’s small white dog. It died when he was seven and he’s had little contact with animals since.

Ryoma is still watching, so he strokes Karupin’s fur very tentatively. He’s warm and soft and rumbles when Tezuka scratches behind his ear. Ryoma smiles and lets Karupin jump out of his arms. The cat weaves between his feet as he walks away.

Ryoma’s house is quiet and neat. There is a framed photo of an incredibly young Ryoma with his father and a tennis racquet. Even at that age he looked disgusted with Echizen Nanjiroh. Tezuka touches the top of the frame and goes to find Ryoma.

He’s in the kitchen, still wearing his sneakers and spooning cat food into a dish that he sets on the floor. Ryoma is tidying what are obviously his breakfast dishes into the sink when Tezuka approaches, standing close behind with both hands on Ryoma’s shoulders. While Ryoma rinses his plate in warm water, Tezuka gently removes the cap from his head and places it on the bench beside them.

“Ryoma,” Tezuka says, resting his face in Ryoma’s hair. He kisses his temple, the skin just near his ear.

“That’s awfully forward of you, Buchou,” Ryoma says as he settles the dishes aside to dry. He turns to face him, smiling a little. “Someone might get the wrong idea about us.”

Tezuka reaches out to take Ryoma’s wrist. “I worry more about them getting the right one.”

“There’s no-one else here,” Ryoma says, and kisses him. Later, he takes Tezuka upstairs and locks them inside his bedroom. This is the most alone they have ever been, and it makes it safe to slowly unbutton Ryoma’s crisp white shirt, safe to let his lips linger on Ryoma’s collarbone.

Ryoma has an American style single bed that is soft and small as they sprawl across it. They are too large to share this space until Ryoma twists their legs together and wraps his arms tight around Tezuka’s neck. Tezuka feels fuzzy and desperate with no space between their bodies, with Ryoma’s weight suddenly settling on top of him, too warm and too heavy.

They kiss for what seems like hours until Ryoma looks at him with eyes that sparkle with the excitement of a new challenge. Tezuka is reminded of the first match they ever played, the way Ryoma had come back to the next practice with eyes just like that. He touches his cheek and almost says I love you, but Ryoma interrupts.

“Buchou,” he says, supporting his upper body on strong, lean arms, grinning at Tezuka like he’s issuing a dare. “I’m gonna make you smile.”

--

After (and that is the most explicit term by which Tezuka can think of it so far, just after and a hundred images of the skin and hands and his own fumbling that preceeded it), they crawl under the covers, warm cotton trapping their heat together. It had not taken Ryoma long to make him smile, to make him laugh a little. Everything in his body feels different now, stretched and exhausted in a way that even tennis can’t match. Ryoma hugs him tightly, invading his space with hands tangled in his hair. His first time. He tries not to think about how it’s not Ryoma’s.

“I’m going pro next year,” Ryoma says, shifting slightly to trap Tezuka between his body and the wall. Tezuka’s surprised by how heavy Ryoma is, all those muscles settling against his body like lead weights. His body feels sleepy and numb in the places where Ryoma’s covers it.

Tezuka makes a sound in his throat. He doesn’t want Ryoma to question him about his own plans. He’s still coming up with strategies, questioning the timing, the execution. He doesn’t want to have to ask if Ryoma is going back to play the American circuits.

Ryoma’s phone rings and he leans over the side of the bed to pick it up. Tezuka admires the lazy, loping beauty, the smooth skin on his back. He touches the indentation at the base of Ryoma’s spine.

He answers the phone with a disgruntled, “What?” and Tezuka knows it must be his father. He’s never heard anybody speak to their parents the way Ryoma does.

“You left food all over the kitchen,” Ryoma complains, reclining horizontally against Tezuka’s body. “I had to bring a guest into that pigsty.” Tezuka closes his eyes, listening to the erratic pauses in Ryoma’s speech that indicate that Echizen Nanjiroh is speaking on the other end of the line. If he listens to Ryoma’s even breathing he does not have to think that he just defiled somebody’s son in their very own house.

“Buchou,” Ryoma says. “No… No. You’re a pervert.” Ryoma scowls as he listens, giving one word replies or grunts of assent. His hand is tracing the line of Tezuka’s forearm slowly back and forth. “I’m hanging up now,” he says finally, and throws the phone onto the pile of clothes he left in the middle of the floor. He rolls over and kisses Tezuka’s chest, the ridges of his stomach. He lifts his head to meet Tezuka’s eye. “You’re thinking about your responsibilities again, I can tell.”

Tezuka touches his hair and lets Ryoma kiss him. They must have been in bed for hours now, evening stretching into night. He told his mother he was staying with friends to study. It is the first time he has ever directly lied to her.

Ryoma straddles Tezuka’s hips, kneeling and staring down at Tezuka for long moments. He’s all tousled, shining hair and flushed skin. He reaches out to remove Tezuka’s glasses and slides them onto his own face. For Tezuka, the world becomes an impressionist landscape, Ryoma’s face like Monet’s Waterlilies a foot in front of him.

“You’re blurry, Buchou,” Ryoma says, reaching out a hand to touch Tezuka’s face. He misjudges the distance badly and his fingers knock awkwardly into Tezuka’s nose. He adjusts the pressure and presses gently around the curve of his cheekbone. “I didn’t realise you were this blind.”

“I can’t see you at all,” Tezuka admits. He wonders what Ryoma really looks like in his glasses; he can only make out a thin streak of silver that’s probably the frames.

Ryoma pulls them off with one hand and guides them back onto Tezuka’s face. “They’re making me dizzy.”

It’s a relief to see his face again and Tezuka slides his hands up Ryoma’s thigh. As they lean in to kiss, Ryoma says, “I’m going to ask you about going pro eventually.” His breath is warm on Tezuka’s face. “You should be ready when I do.”

--

In the morning Ryoma drags him out of bed to have a match but they end up kissing over the net and only finish five games. “We can play any time,” Ryoma says, an odd sentiment to hear from his lips. Tezuka’s rarely seen him pass up a match for anything.

When Ryoma presses against him in the shower, Tezuka understands. Ryoma’s parents will be home at six. Each minute that passes their time alone together is running out.

--

The morning of the final round of the National tournament, he plays with Ryoma on the practice courts at the grounds. It’s just supposed to be a quick warm up, a routine exchange of serves and volleys, but somehow tennis never ends up that way with Ryoma. They’re careful to preserve their physical energy, but apart from that it’s no holds barred, and the warm up ends with Tezuka’s zero-shiki drop shot.

Swept up in the excitement of winning Nationals for the second time, Tezuka won’t remember until later the blond man in a tailored suit that watches them practice from behind the chainlink fence.

--

When the thrill of winning Nationals has faded, the seniors have to retire from tennis club in order to prepare for their entrance exams. On the last night of practice they all go to Kawamura’s together. Kawamura’s father gives them each a cup of sake to celebrate. When Tezuka drinks it his head and his heart feel heavy. Oishi’s eyes are glossy with threatening tears. The mood is sombre. This might be the last time they are all together for a very long time.

They talk about old matches, old rivals. Tezuka hears about things nobody ever told him about before, random dares and practical jokes that they didn’t think he would particularly appreciate.

“You can’t assign laps now,” Kikumaru laughs, but the moment it’s out of his mouth he looks sad again, and a little worried. He’s been studying hard all year in the hopes of getting into the same university as Oishi. “Maybe you could give me laps if you think I really need them.”

“You’ll be fine,” Tezuka says.

“I’m not coming back either,” Ryoma announces awkwardly when Kawamura brings out their food. The silence that follows doesn’t seem particularly shocked. Kikumaru makes a sound of distress even though he won’t be returning either.

Momoshiro is sitting across from Tezuka and he sees his shoulders rise high and stiff around his neck. “When did you decide that?” he asks. He’s trying to be casual but his voice doesn’t quite hit pitch, stumbling and breaking halfway through. Momoshiro has always been simple to read.

At Tezuka’s side, Ryoma fiddles with the tab on his Ponta can. “A while ago.”

“Congratulations,” Fuji says, as if he hadn’t already known. “What about you, Tezuka? Do you plan to turn pro?”

Ryoma is stiff with anticipation at Tezuka’s side, hand still on his Ponta. Tezuka doesn’t look at him.

“Yes,” he says.

When the rest of the regulars toast to their good luck, Ryoma’s hand settles on Tezuka’s knee and squeezes, beneath the table where nobody can see.

They leave the restaurant hours after it should have closed, parting with hugs and long, wobbling faces. They all seem compelled to fuss over Echizen as the baby of the team. Oishi puts his hands on Ryoma’s shoulders and rambles something about being safe and looking after himself, about making sure to stay healthy. Inui tells Echizen to call him if he ever needs data on any of his opponents. Kikumaru wraps his arms tight around Ryoma’s shoulders and cries.

“I’ll see you at school on Monday, senpai,” Ryoma complains, his voice muffled into Kikumaru’s jersey.

Everybody leaves in twos and threes until it is just Tezuka and Ryoma standing on a street corner with Fuji. Unexpectedly, Fuji hugs Tezuka, maybe just to set him off balance. Maybe Tezuka will be missed. It hadn’t occurred to him until now that he will miss Fuji. They know one another so well.

When Fuji says goodbye to Ryoma, he has to stretch up on his toes to kiss his forehead and touch his hair. Then he looks at Ryoma seriously and says, “You would have made a very good brother.”

Sometimes, Fuji is kind of disturbing.

Tezuka walks Ryoma home in silence, his arm thrown rather daringly over Ryoma’s shoulder. He can still taste the sake in the back of his throat, beneath the layers of salmon and soy sauce. Ryoma clutches Tezuka’s wrist where it hangs over his chest. He feels warm and solid beneath Tezuka’s arm.

“Are we going to go to America?” Ryoma asks. Tezuka doesn’t know yet, so he kisses Ryoma’s cheek and touches his neck to distract him from wanting a reply.

--

Tezuka barely sees Ryoma for the next two months. He seems to have endless homework, a study schedule that barely allows him to sleep. Sometimes Ryoma will come to the library and sit across the desk from him while he goes over his notes, while he calculates equations in long, boring rows in his text book. Occasionally he calls Ryoma right before he goes to bed. These conversations are mostly pointless and Tezuka is reminded of the days when Ryoma was still living in America and calling him to talk about his new opponent or the new technique he just perfected. It feels like they’re living on different continents now.

When the letter arrives, he doesn’t even have to worry about hiding it from Ryoma. He’s barely around to see the indecision written on his face.

--

The problem with being invited to the Australian Open at eighteen is that no matter how badly you want to go, you’ve still got to think about your academic career. Tezuka spends hours staring at the letter instead of studying, imagining the stadium, the crowds, his racquet in his hand. Roger Federer or Andy Roddick across the net.

His entrance exam is scheduled to begin just five days into the Open. He doesn’t finish school until a month after that. If it had been held two weeks earlier, he thinks, or two months later. If it had been a Japanese event.

He’s going to have to make a choice.

--

Ryoma appears on his doorstep with his own letter tucked into his back pocket, trying to fight the smile on his lips. Tezuka’s family are out, shopping or at work, so Ryoma can put his hands on Tezuka’s hips and press their lips together. Tezuka hasn’t kissed him in a week and a half. He’s missed him. Lately he’s been dreaming about them flying in a plane together, squashed into economy class seats, knocking knees and elbows.

When Ryoma tells Tezuka about his invitation to the Open, Tezuka almost doesn’t mention his own. He still hasn’t made a decision. Maybe next year, he thinks. He never intended to start his career at this scale anyway. Another year, another two, won’t hurt him.

Knowing Ryoma might be there without him, that hurts him.

“You haven’t said yes?” Ryoma asks. “Why?”

“I still have school,” Tezuka says.

Ryoma stares at him blankly. “So?”

Tezuka goes to the kitchen to make tea. Ryoma follows, looking vaguely disgusted with him. “I didn’t know you needed a diploma to play tennis.”

“I am considering it.” Two fine white cups, side by side on the counter. He waits for the water to boil. Ryoma is still standing in the doorway, his mouth turned down at the corners. When he arrived, he’d been so happy.

“I want you to come with me,” Ryoma says. “What’s the point in taking a Grand Slam if the best of your opponents stays at home?”

“I’m sure amongst the world’s top ten you’ll find somebody to occupy you.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Ryoma leans on the counter beside him. The challenge in those eyes. “I’ll always know you were supposed to be there.”

He closes his eyes and presses his face into Ryoma’s neck. He can see their names written on the backs of his eyelids, 7-6 7-6 7-6. The crowd in the stands and Ryoma’s twist serve smashing into Lleyton Hewitt’s face. He can see the pure, perfect arc of the ball through the air. “We won’t need a safety net, Buchou,” Ryoma promises.

He has to make a choice.

--

Ryoma sleeps through most of the flight to Melbourne, leaving Tezuka alone to read his book and watch the series of poorly written films that are supposed to make the flight seem somehow shorter. Every now and again Ryoma mutters and clutches Tezuka’s arm. The flight seems interminable.

From the minute they step out of the airport into the dry mid-January heat, Tezuka feels something building inside him. All over the city are banners and billboards advertising the Open, hanging from streetlights and rolling by on trams. Their driver tells them in his broad Australian accent that he’d picked up Roger Federer from the airport just that morning.

“His drop volley sucks,” Ryoma tells him. “You should see Tezuka’s.”

A liaison from Tennis Australia meets them at their hotel and leads them to adjoining rooms, gushing a little over Ryoma. The papers are already talking about the return of the twelve year old that crushed Lleyton Hewitt at the US Open three years ago. When she finally gives up her attempts to engender more than monosyllabic responses from Ryoma, she turns her attention to Tezuka. She looks at him a little blankly, like she’s not quite sure who he is.

Ryoma shuts her out of his room with a “Well, thanks.”

Tezuka intends to suggest that they go out and look around the city but when he turns around Ryoma is sitting on the bed, already pulling off his shoes, his t-shirt. They haven’t been together since the first time. Every piece of Ryoma’s exposed flesh seems new and mysterious. He’s sixteen now, arms and legs lengthened probably to their limit. The rising tension in Tezuka’s body blooms and swells against his ribs. Tomorrow, they’ll play the preliminary qualifiers. After that, who knows. He sees it all in brief flashes of skin and muscle, hands wrapped tight around racquets.

He presses Ryoma back into the mattress and kisses out their future on the dips and curves in his skin.

--

The first morning, the first day, they shower and Tezuka shaves. They brush their teeth side by side at the mirror. Ryoma’s hair hangs in his eyes, wet and dripping. Tezuka brushes it aside when he kisses Ryoma’s forehead and goes to get dressed.

He speaks to Oishi on the phone after breakfast. For the others, the university entrance exams will start the next day. Tezuka can hear the nervous tension in Oishi’s voice as he tells Tezuka he’s proud of him, as he wishes them good luck.

Ryoma spends the morning returning text messages.

They take a taxi to the Tennis Centre. Ryoma sits close at his side with his hands in his lap. Tezuka’s excitement soars as the Rod Laver Area comes into view. He’s not going home without playing there, at least once.

He wins his first qualifying match. Ryoma does too. They sit together in the waiting room, watching the other hopefuls stretch and prepare. They all know Ryoma’s name. By the end of the day, they’ll know Tezuka’s too.

When Ryoma’s next match is called he touches his cap and says, “See you on Centre Court, Buchou.”

Tezuka closes his eyes and sees their names written in the headlines, and Ryoma’s face across the net.



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