Disclaimer: Not mine. No, really.
Spoilers: Vague spoiler for the end of the anime.
Warnings: Um, too much Karupin love?
Word Count: 2,400
Summary: Growing up isn't what it's cracked up to be. Ryoma finds that too much changes and he cannot keep up.
Author's Notes: Continuation of Five Minutes Early. Beta'd by bookshop, who turned it into something decent, allowed me to fangirl Tezuka, and allowed me go crazy with the Tezuka/Karupin love. ♥ Am new to Tenipuri, but from what I've experienced so far, yay! Hope you enjoy. :)
Buchou is the epitome of self-control, restraint and stillness. No one else Ryoma knows can create silence like a rippling pool radiating from him; whenever he appears on the courts, silence falls, more awed and revered than even the respect given to the Regulars.
Ryoma has heard more than one person remark that Buchou has the personality of a block of wood, but it just means that they don't know what to look for. Buchou doesn't waste time with exaggerated expressions – it's just not him – but they're there when you know what to look for. His eyes narrowing; his lips thinning; the briefest smirk at the corner of his lip – Ryoma has seen them all at some point or another: he knows that they exist.
Well, he had to learn something from staring at him all the time, didn't he?
Silence has fallen, Buchou's measured, "Echizen," lingering in the air. They stare at each other, Ryoma crossing his arms across his chest as time trickles by. Ryoma is patient; he has it down to a fine art in dealing with someone like Buchou.
Buchou's eyes narrow slightly, just for a moment, and he frowns, gazing at Ryoma like he's making yet another judgement. Ryoma waits, conscious only of the sound of his own breathing and the expression in Buchou's eyes.
Buchou's shoulders relax, a fraction of a movement, and his chest expands as he lets out a breath. His eyes are no longer narrowed, though their expression is by no means less piercing.
"Echizen," he says again, but this time there is life in it.
Ryoma smiles; he has him now.
* * *
They speak of inconsequential things (the weather, Karupin, the merits of an early-morning jog) and carefully skirt over the important matters (the U.S. Open, the U.S. in general, why the hell won't you talk normally with me?). They both forego finishing their jog, instead walking side by side to nowhere in particular. The conversation is extraordinarily stilted, even by their standards, but Ryoma can tell when Buchou begins to let down his guard; he no longer feels like he's walking beside a block of ice.
Buchou seems to suddenly realise that they have school in less than half an hour and excuses himself. Ryoma watches him walk away, and only turns and starts walking when he is out of sight.
He misses morning practise and his first class, but doesn't care.
It doesn't surprise him that Buchou was perfectly on time.
* * *
It changes and doesn't change. He goes to practise, plays the ranking matches; everything goes back to normal, except it doesn't. He studies, ignores Nanjiroh except for when he has a racquet in his hand, and goes for food with Momo-senpai and the others. He wins his matches, takes what advice Buchou gives him in a curt voice and tries to figure it out. He still hasn't played Buchou, for that matter.
He and Buchou meet up to jog every morning. The conversation is slowly becoming less stilted and slightly less awkward than usual, though it's far from perfect.
Nanjiroh is even more idiotic than usual, teasing Ryoma about his 'before school date'. Ryoma ignores him and says nothing; this is not something he will share with him, not least because he doesn't understand it himself.
* * *
He dreams of Buchou one night. Ryoma's almost positive that he's had other dreams like this before - some mornings he wakes up just feeling awkward - but this is the first time he wakes up actually remembering.
Ryoma wonders if this is what growing up feels like. He's not sure that he likes it.
* * *
Karupin90 [20:08:56]: Buchou?
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:09:02]: Echizen.
Karupin90 [20:09:20]: We're jogging tomorrow, right?
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:09:40]: We always jog, Echizen.
Karupin90 [20:09:53]: Just wanted to make sure.
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:10:10]: ...were you planning on not coming?
Karupin90 [20:10:15]: No.
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:10:20]: I'm studying, Echizen.
Karupin90 [20:10:32]: You're always studying.
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:10:45]: I have entrance exams soon.
Karupin90 [20:11:01]: I thought you were going pro.
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:11:07]: I said I was doing entrance exams, not going to university.
Karupin90 [20:11:15]: Ah. Your father.
Karupin90 [20:13:07]: I'm not sure if I'll finish high school. Nanjiroh won't stop saying, "The pros wait for no one, not even high school graduates." Then I tell him that they waited for you and he starts choking.
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:13:10]: Echizen.
Karupin90 [20:13:15]: It's true!
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:13:24]: I'm studying, Echizen.
Tezuka_Kunimitsu has logged out
Karupin90 [20:13:31]: Che. Mada mada dane, Buchou.
* * *
Sometimes, Ryoma doesn't understand Buchou at all and wonders if Buchou understands even himself. Ryoma is beginning to think that he doesn't know himself at all.
Nanjiroh's jibs are starting to grate even more and he teases Ryoma about 'prepping himself' when Ryoma starts to get up another half an hour earlier before meeting Buchou in the mornings. Ryoma does not tell him that this is to bathe: walking up in a cold, clammy sweat is not a feeling he wants to carry around with him while jogging. It's bad enough jogging beside Buchou with half-forgotten images propping up at the most inconvenient of times.
He still hasn't played Buchou, but he's watched Nanjiroh play him. He remembers the coolness of the breeze rustling through the trees and the warmth of Karupin's fur between his fingers as the cat curled in his lap and occasionally yowled encouragement to the both of them. Nanjiroh's stance and expression were both serious and Ryoma couldn't help the brief feeling of resentment that Buchou deserved this respect while Ryoma still hadn't earned it. Buchou was silent, his expression solemn as he waited, but his eyes flickered once to Ryoma before they began to play.
Make him work for it, Buchou, Ryoma thought.
Nanjiroh won the match, but barely, and it was different seeing his father actually work for it for once. Ryoma tensed when the game was over and he realised that his father was watching Buchou like he'd suddenly become something interesting after being boring for so long. Ryoma glared at Nanjiroh, who winked.
Karupin was twining around Buchou's ankles, yowling for attention, and Buchou obediently bent down and petted him. Ryoma watched them, holding a towel and bottle of water, and wondered again what he would have done if Buchou hadn't liked his cat.
Buchou silently accepted the towel and water. After a moment Ryoma said, "Good game." Buchou didn't win, but he made Nanjiroh work more for a victory than since Ryoma can remember, so it is a victory, in a way, and through Buchou it is also a victory for Ryoma himself.
"Hn," is all Buchou said, rubbing his neck.
* * *
Ryoma wakes one morning gasping, his body coiled and burning. He flings off his blanket like it's on fire, sitting bolt upright and struggling for breath. Sweat drips from him and he can't stop shivering, and the memories of the dream are crystal-clear and he doesn't know why this is happening and he can't stop it. He aches as he struggles out of bed and staggers towards the door, ignoring Karupin's grumbling at being woken up.
Coming back from the bathroom, he glances at the clock and realises he has overslept. Buchou will already be up. He goes to the computer, opens a messaging window and pauses over the keyboard. Then he closes it again, empty, and goes back to bed.
He avoids Buchou for the rest of the day, an amazing feat.
* * *
He doesn't meet Buchou the next morning, either, or the morning after that. Buchou finally stops glancing at him when he arrives for practise, acting like he's not there except for when laps have to be run. Ryoma says nothing, either, and they act like perfect strangers to each other, a vision of politeness.
It is completely horrible.
* * *
He should have known that the Regulars wouldn't ignore this.
The last straw is when Oishi-senpai comes up and wonders, casually, if his game is all right. Ryoma blinks, trying to place it into context with what he was expecting to hear, and stares at Oishi blankly. The stare lasts and lasts and Oishi begins to rub the back of his neck, laughing nervously. Ryoma blinks again, spots Buchou standing nearby with his arms crossed, and narrows his eyes. Ah, his game.
"Che," he mutters, pulling down the rim of his cap (protection, protection) and turning away. Oishi does not follow.
Eiji has pounced and jibed and been a cheerful nuisance until Ryoma thinks his back is going to break and his hair is going to fall out; Momo has made burgers taste like cardboard. If Inui makes one more remark about how Ryoma has complicated his statistics by actually losing a few games, Ryoma is almost certain he's going to hit a ball in the direction of his glasses.
Kaidoh and Fuji have, mercifully, done nothing, which is a little relief. Tennis has become stifling and strange - the racquet is clumsy in his grip and the ball no longer seems to hold any force and nothing is as it should. He knows the others are trying to help - and why should they not? - but he also knows that no one can tell him how to look at Buchou without feeling pain in his chest.
He stops and absently hits a ball against a wall, but there is no satisfaction in the sound of impact and he lets the ball bounce away from him.
* * *
Tezuka_Kunimitsu [20:12:18]: Your game was off today.
Karupin90 [20:12:20]: Buchou.
Karupin90 [20:12:25]: No, it wasn't.
Tezuka_Kinimitsu [20:12:35]: You let Momoshiro win that game far too easily. You didn't even make him work.
Karupin90 [20:12:43]: Shouldn't you be studying? You have entrance exams soon.
Karupin90 has logged out
* * *
Ryoma wakes up to a morning of bright sunshine and groans, burrowing his face into his pillow. Karupin chirps, as cheerful as the sun outside, and Ryoma glares at him. He gets up and starts dressing, pausing when his mother taps his door and slightly slides it open.
"Your tennis captain is waiting downstairs," she says, sounding confused. "He says that you were expecting him - shouldn't you have risen ealier so as not to keep him waiting?"
Ryoma stiffens and stares at Karupin, who gazes back at him happily, swishing his tail. Ryoma clenches the cap in his hand and then tells her that he will be down in a moment. Karupin chirps, trotting out the door, and Ryoma begins to wonder if his cat likes Buchou just a little too much.
When he arrives downstairs, his father is nowhere to be seen and Buchou is sipping tea and politely nibbling what his mother had put before him and insisted he eat. Ryoma immediately watches Buchou's hand sneak to Karupin, who chortles in delight.
Ryoma sits and murmurs, "You shouldn't sneak him food. He starts to beg."
Buchou glances at him and says nothing, but the expression in his eyes is unsettling and Ryoma finds that he cannot eat anything. Karupin has hauled himself onto Buchou's thighs, leaving Buchou staring helplessly down at the dozing feline curled in his lap, and Ryoma finds himself having to pull his cap down hard enough that Buchou will not see him grin.
They leave after Ryoma assures his mother that he will eat a proper lunch for not eating any breakfast, silently walking down the street after Buchou has given Karupin one last pet (Did he come to see me or the cat? Ryoma finds himself wondering). Ryoma says nothing because he can think of nothing to say and Buchou seems to be following his lead. Besides, Ryoma is almost fully certain that anything he will say will be carefully considered, twisted, and used against him later in only the way Buchou can.
At last Buchou says, "I'll buy you breakfast. You'll be useless at practise otherwise."
Ryoma opens his mouth to argue, catches the look Buchou tosses at him, and closes his mouth again. After a while he mumbles, "Thank you," under his breath and knows that Buchou has heard.
He eats what is bought for him, glancing at Buchou all the while, who is staring into the distance, his eyes narrowed and his gaze piercing. His lips are pressed tightly together and Ryoma knows that he will not say whatever is clearly on his mind. He deliberates for a while, trying to put into words what he means without saying it directly, and finally asks, "Going jogging tomorrow, Buchou?" For all the emotion he puts into the words, he may as well be commenting on the weather.
Buchou glances at him, and then replies, "Of course."
Looking at him, Ryoma suddenly knows that deciding to come back to Japan is possibly the best decision he has made in years.
The next day, Ryoma is up early and is on time.
* * *
Tezuka_Kinimitsu [19:03:21]: Echizen?
Karupin90 [19:03:25]: Buchou?
* * *
The evening has started to bleed into twilight, a blue edging slowly creeping over the burning sky as shadows tremble across the ground. Ryoma stares up at it, frowns, and then starts bouncing a ball on his racquet. Bounce, bounce, bounce, up, bounce, bounce, bounce, up -
"Shouldn't you be practising?" Buchou asks as he walks out of the growing shadows.
Ryoma glances at him, continuing to bounce the ball for a moment, before flinging it up into the air and catching it neatly. "What for?"
Buchou silently holds up his own racquet, his face empty.
Ryoma raises an eyebrow. "A match?" he asks, keeping their gazes locked as he rolls the ball in his palm.
"A match," Buchou agrees, walking to his side of the court. He is framed by the setting sun, his shadow flung across the netting and the other side of the court. His glasses appear to be on fire and Ryoma cannot see his eyes at all. For a moment he does not look like Buchou at all, and Ryoma cannot help but stare.
Tezuka raises his racquet, a faint hint of a smirk lingering at the corner of his mouth, and says, "Your serve."
Ryoma grins back, tightening his grip on his racquet. He flings the ball into the air, tenses and when he jumps and hits, he feels like he is flying.
Onto the continuation: Rebirth.