Disclaimer: Not mine. But, God, after today I feel like I should have shares in it or something.
Spoilers: Vague. Specific spoilers for Episode 25-26.
Summary: Focus. No holding back. Face only forward - the future lies ahead.
Author's Notes: Where to start? I'm going to be honest... I've never worked on something so hard like this ever. Honestly. Love, hearts, my potential first born all go to bookshop, who did so much for this fic that I can't even explain. We spent 12 hours
Men of few words are the best men
The sun is unnaturally bright today. Golden light bathes everything, a soothing contrast to the tension that has been building inside him for most of the day. Ryuzaki-sensai has left, her jibs and smile long since faded, and Tezuka stares straight ahead to what only he can see, his fingers absently tightening around his arm. This is worth it, to see Echizen break free from the bonds he has tightened around him, to shatter the glass ceiling he is oblivious of. Legend though he may be, there is more to life than Echizen Nanjiroh.
Tezuka lets out his breath, pauses, then draws in another. Focus. No holding back. Face only forward. Echizen's future waits, even if he doesn't know it yet.
Tezuka starts walking, one step at a time, his shadow lengthening with each step he takes.
His father's words ring in his ears when he slides his bedroom door shut ,and Tezuka pauses, tipping his head forward. He slides his glasses off and lets them dangle from one hand, pinching the bridge of his nose with the other. Sometimes, he swears there is a noose around his neck, tightening with every term that passes, every tournament that approaches. Tokyo University is prestigious, after all, and competition is fierce. Tezuka's academic record is excellent, of course, as are his tennis achievements, but for this he needs perfection. His father's presence is starting to taint even tennis, and there is no relief, no white zone for him to escape to anymore.
He wakes up. He jogs. He eats breakfast, goes to morning practise, meets with the coach when expected, pays attention in class, practises again. He studies, studies, studies, and the entrance exams only seem to gain more significance.
The pros will wait.
He is not sure that he will, not anymore.
Tezuka replaces his glasses and kneels, deliberately slowing his breathing. It has just become level when an insistent beeping trills from his tennis bag. He sighs, and rises, flipping it open and staring.
Buchou. Are you home?
Echizen. He knew giving him his phone number would lead to this; changing it when Echizen had left for America would have been the sensible thing to do.
If Echizen's phone habits are the same as always, he'll just keep texting until he gets a response; if not, he'll ring or email. Persistence is a laudable goal… in tennis. Tezuka sighs, replying, Yes.
A moment later, Echizen sends, Do you want to play a game, or something, or just hang out? Nothing serious, I promise.
Tezuka frowns at his phone screen; this isn't the first time that Echizen has made such an offer. The offers have no apparent motive… Echizen merely seems to have started them one day. They are always the same thing – tennis, food, nothing at all – and, so far, he hasn't accepted.
I have to go to the library and study. I appreciate the offer, however.
The reply is immediate, as if Echizen has already anticipated his answer. Okay. See you tomorrow.
Tezuka goes to the library. He props his chin on his hand and stares into space. When he looks down at his copybook, all he has written over and over again is Echizen Ryoma. Echizen Ryoma. Echizen Ryoma.
He throws the copybook away.
The sun is blinding, hitting against his glasses, but Tezuka deliberately stands in the glare, knowing the light hitting against his lenses is often an action that makes those facing him nervous. He doesn't want to make Echizen nervous – is that even possible? – he simply wants to unnerve him. Make him look beyond the act of beating opponents one by one and concentrate on the larger picture. Tennis is everything, once the player's intentions are honourable, and Echizen has much to learn about honour.
Echizen's eyes widen, almost the most reaction that Tezuka has seen from him. He's interested, of course, and eager – this is what he has been waiting for, after all.
Tezuka's eyes narrow as he takes the ball from his pocket and tosses it at Echizen, who catches it easily. Tezuka holds his gaze for a moment before he begins to speak.
His pace is level when he walks away. He does not look back.
This will be the making of him.
Echizen is already waiting for him the next morning, dangling a piece of string over Karupin, who watches it silently, his haunches tensed and ready to spring. Just as Tezuka arrives within Echizen's line of vision and Echizen glances up and grins at him, Karupin pounces, almost tugging the string out of Echizen's hands. Echizen yelps, glaring down at Karupin, who sits, swishing his tail innocently. "That was cheating!" Echizen tells his cat indignantly, who chirps. Tezuka deliberately keeps his expression neutral and greets Echizen calmly, bending down to pet Karupin.
This routine is normal now and they adjust to the other's pace easily, Echizen refusing to hold back. It is a beautiful day, warm with a mild breeze, and the sunlight filters through the trees on the sidewalk as they run, their sneakers pounding on the pavement in familiar rhythm. Tezuka has jogged and run alone for years, but now he's realised that he's become used to Echizen's company. When Echizen abruptly stopped their morning jogs, it didn't take him long to realise what he was missing. It was disconcerting to realise that Echizen had made his way so securely into his life, but upon later reflection, it seemed logical. Echizen had a way of affecting people, after all.
They've timed their runs well by now, so they both make it back to their homes in time to prepare for school and morning practise. Echizen is unusually cheerful through their run, and his cheerfulness remains at practise. Kikumaru, of course, remarks on it as he bounces beside him; Echizen rolls his eyes, but says nothing.
Practise is energetic – Echizen's good humour seems to inspire energy in the others – and Tezuka's criticisms are few when practise finishes. He reaches to turn off his mobile when it beeps. It can't be…
Buchou, he reads. We're playing tennis tonight. No excuses.
Tezuka stares at the screen for several moments, quickly turning off the phone when the bell rings for his first class.
He slides out his phone just before his second class, tapping a response before the teacher calls for attention.
Oishi has always worried, as if by worrying he can take people's worries and anxieties from them and into himself. Oishi has always worried about Tezuka too much. Oishi will have worry lines by the time he reaches high school.
He is worried now; Tezuka can see it by the tension in his back, the stiffness of his shoulders; the whiteness of his knuckles as he clutches the shoulder strap. His voice is low, lilting with concern. Tezuka listens to him because he owes Oishi that much, but it's more than an arm, an elbow, a ghost that lingers. It's more than disobeying doctor's orders; it's more than just a match.
Oishi feels that by worrying about people, he can save them, but Oishi can't save people from themselves.
Their game is intense, even though it's not apparently serious (an effort 'to hang out', in Echizen's words); tennis is too important for either of them to treat it lightly. The sun is burning behind them, like it did during that first match, and Tezuka is conscious that Echizen has chosen the same clay court for their matches since his return.
Sometimes, he wonders if he still knows the person that Echizen has become during his time away.
More often, he wonders if he still knows the player that Echizen has become.
His breath puffs into the air as the ball goes back and forth, the sweat gathering at his temples and trickling down his cheeks. Echizen's expression is pale and grim as he watches him, and Tezuka knows that his every move is being carefully calculated and noted for possible imitation – Echizen is very like Inui, in his own way.
They speak as they play, talking of inconsequential things and the not-so-inconsequential things, like they do when jogging; only it seems more important when said under the flaming sky and with the thwack of ball meeting racquet as accompaniment. When the game is over – Tezuka winning barely by one game – they towel and drink water in silence, constantly aware of the other beside them. Twilight is gaining on the last remains of sunset when they walk towards the train station, lost in a comfortable silence.
Tezuka is aware of the sidelong glances Echizen keeps sneaking of him and ignores them, knowing better than to bring attention to it. He's used to it, in a way – Echizen has always stared at him, sometimes in awe, sometimes not, sometimes like he's trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes Tezuka tick – but these glances feel like more, like they're standing on a fragile line that could change its meaning at any moment, depending on which direction they fall, and Tezuka knows that when they fall, nothing will ever be the same.
Or perhaps he is just tired and thinking too much of Echizen. It certainly wouldn't be the first time.
They board the train, still silent, carefully looking away from each other but also ensuring that they don't look at the other occupants, either. When the train is almost at Tezuka's stop, Echizen still averts his eyes, though his goodbye to Tezuka is sincere; Tezuka steps onto the platform, doing his best to ignore the sudden heavy feeling in his chest.
He is just at his house when his phone beeps; he knows who it will be even before he glances at the ID, casually flipping the phone open.
Goodnight, Buchou, he reads. Good game.
He says goodnight to his parents, politely dodging his father's questions about the progression of his studying, and goes to his room. He sits and stares at Echizen's message for what seems like hours as twilight begins to deepen. He finally replies, Goodnight, Echizen. Don't be late tomorrow.
Tezuka lies awake that night, thinking of everything and nothing. When morning comes with the shrillness of his alarm, he feels like he shouldn't have bothered closing his eyes at all.
In the time leading up to the match, Echizen's gaze follows him everywhere like a brand waiting to press deeper into his skin. They pass by each other and Tezuka's skin crawls, though he is sure to show no outward reaction. The air is thick with tension and the lines deepen between Oishi's eyes, though he does not interfere.
Tezuka knows this will be the beginning… if it doesn't become the end of what would never be.
Tezuka stops and turns slowly, watching as Fuji catches up with him. He inwardly sighs; he knew he should have stayed in the library and finished his last history chapter.
Fuji greets him cheerfully, smiling; Tezuka nods and they resume walking. Walking and talking with Fuji is not like with Echizen or Oishi; the silences are too strained, the tension in Tezuka's back never eases, and Fuji's gaze lingers heavy upon him.
Tezuka lets out a long breath when Fuji finally speaks.
The team's going well, isn't it?
He glances at Fuji, stopping when the lights change. At last he nods, beginning to walk when the lights change again without waiting to see if Fuji is beside him.
It's good to have Echizen back; his play has improved so much.
Tezuka raises an eyebrow, nodding again. Hn.
Silence falls soon after, but it is not the comforting silence Echizen brings with him, or the easygoing silence Oishi brings during the lull of conversation. Tezuka's scalp prickles; the tension at the nape of his neck is unbearable.
The Nationals are within grasp this year.
There has to be a polite way out of this conversation, but Fuji is like a wound under the skin: always there, never quite healed and faded.
Assuming there will be no more… tension.
Tezuka's body acts before his brain catches up and he grinds to a halt, apologising when several people almost walk into him; Fuji guides him so that they're at the edge of the street, rather than in the centre.
Fuji smiles, asking if he is quite all right… he seems a little… perturbed. Tezuka stiffens, narrowing his eyes and nodding brusquely. He excuses himself, saying that his mother is expecting him home, and turns to walk away.
Echizen, at that moment, walks out from a store near them, a bag of cat litter balanced in his arms. His mother is with him with more bags, and they are talking quietly. Echizen has seen neither of them, and Tezuka stares at him until he turns a corner and disappears.
After a moment, Tezuka turns to find Fuji right where he had left him, his smile sharp and double-edged. He bids Tezuka a soft goodbye and passes him, leaving Tezuka standing alone in the street.
On Sunday, when Tezuka should be deep in Math problems, Echizen invites him over. When Tezuka reminds him that he has to study, Echizen tells him to bring his homework over. Baffled, Tezuka complies and finds himself in front of the temple gates, his books with him, for the first time since he and Echizen renewed their friendship.
He is polite to Echizen's mother, who greets him with a smile and asks him if he would like anything to drink. Nanjiroh is lounging in front of the television, his nose stuck in one of his… magazines, managing to infuriate Karupin as he successfully pays attention to both the television and his reading. He glances up, a smirk curling at the corners of his mouth when his gaze lands on Tezuka, who shifts a fraction. Nanjiroh's smirk turns into an eye-roll when Echizen glowers and snaps at him, stomping over to rescue Karupin and heading towards his room. Tezuka bows to the two of them before following Echizen; even now, he has difficulty understanding the Echizen family dynamics, and he's not sure it's just because they lived in America for a time.
Tezuka immediately understands why Echizen wasn't put off by Tezuka's need to study; from the workbooks and pens scattered on the floor, Echizen is also in the middle of his. Echizen tidies the haphazard mess and they settle down, the only interruption to the silence being Karupin, who rolls listlessly on the floor and looks thoroughly depressed at the lack of attention. His mind already on the joys of Mathematics, Tezuka reaches out to absently scratch him behind the ears, and finds a purring bundle of fur cuddled beside him as he works through his workbook.
Both work in silence until Tezuka finally completes two subjects and stops for a few minutes. He keeps a relaxed grip on Karupin as the cat slowly but surely climbs up on to his shoulders, balancing carefully as the occasional wobble overtakes him. Tezuka sighs, wondering if Karupin's going to try and climb up on his head, when he glances over to find Echizen watching them with a grin, his English textbook propped on his raised knees. Tezuka raises an eyebrow, sighing again as Karupin propels himself onto his head with a mighty effort, reaching up to cautiously lift him off.
Echizen goes to find something to eat and Tezuka stands up to follow him, Karupin pressing against his leg to be picked up.
He remembers leaning against the temple walls, waiting for Echizen one morning, when a deeper and rougher voice spoke near him. He had turned to find a man lounging against the gates, watching him as a smirk curled his mouth. Tezuka had found himself staring into a pair of eyes eerily like Echizen's. All the pictures in the magazines that littered Ryuzaki's office had sparked in his memory, and Tezuka had suddenly realised who he was looking at.
Then he had bristled; had Echizen Nanjiroh just called him his son's before school date? He had opened his mouth to politely excuse himself, when Nanjiroh asked him his name. Conscious of whose home he was standing before, Tezuka had stiffly complied, frowning as the leering expression disappeared from Nanjiroh's face instantly.
Before he knew it, Nanjiroh had challenged him to a game, just as Echizen came out of the gates. He had frozen when he had realised who Tezuka was talking to, his expression darkening as he snapped at his father. Nanjiroh had raised an eyebrow and jibed and baited his son, clearly relishing what Echizen had up until that moment, Tezuka suddenly realised, been successfully hiding from him.
As Karupin yowled at Nanjiroh, Tezuka had met his eyes and accepted the challenge.
He remembers that Nanjiroh wore sneakers for the match. From the expression on Echizen's face when he realised this, Tezuka knew this was much more than just a game… but with the Echizen family, it always was.
He remembers breathing in cool air while staring at Nanjiroh across the net, aware that he was facing one of Japan's legendary tennis players and the man who had shaped Echizen into the twelve-year-old that Tezuka had found himself faced with. He remembers thinking that so many would do anything to be faced with this, when he hadn't even asked for it. When Nanjiroh had raised the ball to serve, Tezuka's gaze had flickered to Echizen before they began to play.
It had been one of the hardest games of Tezuka's life. He had made Nanjiroh work for it, conscious that he still had to keep proving to Echizen that there was still more to tennis than his father and Tezuka himself, and that there was still so much more waiting for him that he didn't yet know about.
Nanjiroh had won the game, but barely, and Tezuka had reached down to pet Karupin while he caught his breath, resisting the urge to lift the cat and hold him. Echizen had handed him a towel and a bottle of water, smiling as he had told Tezuka that it was a good game. Tezuka had accepted the compliment but paused when Echizen had asked if he'd like to come over again some other time, only not to play his father.
Tezuka had hesitated for a moment, before agreeing that he would like that very much.
Echizen pokes his head around the door and asks if Tezuka is coming. Tezuka balances Karupin in his arms and nods, following Echizen to the kitchen.
Tezuka's pondering an algebra problem that's been troubling him for the last hour as he helps Echizen's mother prepare a 'snack' for them when Nanjiroh saunters in, a magazine dangling from his hand. His eyes light up, and he challenges him to another game.
Tezuka stares at him, mouth thinning, before he bows, politely declining.
Tezuka is bouncing a little ball for Karupin as Echizen tackles his geometry homework when Nanjiroh pokes his head in. From Echizen's expression, this isn't something he particularly likes, but he goes back to his homework.
Nanjiroh's smirking when he challenges Tezuka to another game. Echizen tosses his father a look that could kill, as Tezuka lowers his head and quietly refuses.
Tezuka sighs as Nanjiroh opens his mouth and Echizen growls at him to go away before he even speaks. Nanjiroh snorts, eyeing them speculatively before he disappears. Echizen huffs and grumbles about fathers unable to mind their own business.
Tezuka looks down so Echizen won't see his faint smile.
Tezuka is discussing university life with Echizen's cousin while Echizen idly sneaks Karupin snacks, when Nanjiroh lowers his magazine and bluntly demands another game. Echizen stiffens, carefully not looking at either of them, while Tezuka meets Nanjiroh's gaze, slightly frowning. This is not his dream and Nanjiroh knows this, like he knows that Tezuka has nothing to prove to him. But when Tezuka remembers the expression on Echizen's face when he handed him the towel and the bottle of water, he wonders if he has become an extension of that particular dream.
Tezuka shakes his head, politely and firmly declining, his eyes on Echizen as he speaks.
Perhaps you might focus on the player in front of you.
Echizen almost drops the sardine tin he was lowering to Karupin as he stares at Tezuka, his gaze flickering to his father and back again. Nanjiroh stares at them, eyes narrowed as he wonders what he has missed, still frowning when Tezuka bows once more to him, before turning to follow Echizen back to his room.
They return to homework and the silence, Karupin having abandoned them for a cat toy and Nanjiroh's cackling, and Tezuka blinks when his phone beeps, his eyes immediately flickering to Echizen, who is immersed in his textbook.
Buchou… what would you do if you liked someone? Would you tell them? Or show them?
Tezuka stares at the screen, briefly wondering if Echizen's Ponta has gone past its expiration date. Time slows down to a crawl; the sounds from outside and downstairs seem suddenly muffled and exaggerated all at once, his breathing sounds too loud and feels too heavy; it is as if he is playing the hardest game of his life and has been losing from the very start.
For most of Tezuka's life, he has been steady and dependable, doing what is expected of him and then surpassing those same expectations, even in tennis. But where those expectations should have trapped him, he has always broken free, making his own goals that no one has been able to surpass –
– until Echizen. Always Echizen. Echizen. Echizen. Echizen.
Tezuka opens his eyes and finds his life waiting before him, his freedom beckoning, the past scattering to dust behind him. He can see a boy leaping into the air, his eyes on a ball, has seen hundreds of balls soaring back and forth, has seen a cocky grin light up on his pale, thin face.
He texts his reply, his fingers faintly trembling on the keys. Show him.
Echizen walks over and kneels beside him, taking the workbook and pencil out of his hands. Tezuka hears Echizen's cousin shout something at Nanjiroh, who shouts back. They stare at each other: Tezuka still a little taller even though Echizen has done more than his fair share to catch up. Tezuka is conscious of how thin Echizen still manages to seem, even after so much time has passed. Echizen reaches up and cradles Tezuka's face between his hands, and Tezuka finds himself catching one of Echizen's arms.
They kiss, and nothing is the same again.
Tezuka stares at Echizen from across the net, his gaze level as he grips his racquet and breathes in and out. Time stands still, yet rushes forward. He kneads the ball in his palm. Echizen appears serious, yet Tezuka can tell from the casual line of his body, the grip of his racquet, his underlying arrogance, that he has no idea what is about to happen.
Tezuka narrows his eyes and tightens his grip once more on the ball, before flinging it into the air and watching it soar upwards, his body already moving to meet it.
When his racquet impacts against the ball and sends it speeding forward, Tezuka feels like his chains have been broken as his breath escapes from his throat in one tumbling rush.
Tezuka wakes up the next morning and wonders if he is supposed to have changed. He doesn't feel any different, but then, this is not his first kiss. He rises and stares at his hands, frowning; seconds pass, and he finally lowers them, mouth drawn in dissatisfaction.
It isn't until he meets Echizen for their morning jog that he realises something has changed.
It is not a matter of awareness; Tezuka has always been aware of Echizen, nor is it a matter that anything appears to have changed; Echizen greets him the same as always with no apparent sense of awkwardness.
But something has changed; Tezuka knows that he is not imagining this.
It isn't until the run is almost over that Tezuka realises what it is: anticipation. He is aware of Echizen on a level that he wasn't before, aware that the lingering glances and persistence may result in something further now, something beyond challenges, cats and constant text messages.
Echizen knows what he wants, but then, he has never been afraid to reach towards it.
However, Tezuka is not precisely sure what it is that he wants. The thought is mildly perturbing – he feels like it should be obvious, since he should be like any other teenager – but his feelings have always been mildly inconvenient, except for his feelings about tennis; those have always been blissfully simple.
He knows that his annoyance is hypocritical – he and Echizen have never had what could be termed as a 'straightforward' relationship, after all – so deciding what this is and what he feels about it can hardly be a logical process.
Echizen knows what he wants.
Tezuka realises he is going to have to do some serious thinking.
A pity that he's always had a tendency to overanalyse things to death.
Echizen is panting now, on his knees as he struggles for breath. He stares at Tezuka, partly in awe, partly critically. It is the look he wears when he's searching for a crack, that way out, the final solution. Sweat clings to him, dripping off his face, but he's not going to give up. Tezuka can tell that much.
Come on. Just a little farther.
Eyes narrowed, Tezuka speaks, straightening.
A moment drags out for longer than Tezuka approves off, before Echizen gasps one last breath and straightens, his familiar smirk gracing his mouth. His reply makes Tezuka raise an eyebrow, and the match now properly begins.
Tezuka has never really enjoyed Valentine's Day, to be truthful. He endures it because it is expected it of him, not because he likes having chocolate, cards and far too much red and pink tossed at him. He endures it because apparently every girl needs a crush during her school years, and he is one of the many crushes girls have, not that he understands their logic.
It is the running joke of the team that Tezuka-Buchou, he of the stoic expression that remains even when hoards of girls surround him, gets more Valentine's gifts than everyone else, with Fuji and Kikumaru a very close second. He bows politely to all of the girls, whether alone or in protective groups, successfully dodges having to return any declarations of love, and escapes to the tennis courts as soon as he is able.
He makes sure to pile his gifts neatly inside of his locker, however; just because he will never be able to return any of their affections doesn't mean that he can be flippant with theirs.
Echizen comes in just as Tezuka is pulling out his racquet, both of them early. He changes in silence while Tezuka tenses at the sudden change of atmosphere, suddenly aware that they are alone.
He looks over to find Echizen eyeing what Momoshiro would term his 'Valentine hoard', an eyebrow raised and an altogether unimpressed expression on his face, whether for the girls or Tezuka himself. Tezuka catches a glimpse of Echizen's own impressive pile of red and pink in two bags and knows that it will all end up divided evenly between Momoshiro and Kikumaru soon enough; Echizen has told him more than once that he doesn't want his father 'getting any ideas'.
Echizen walks out on the court just as Tezuka's phone goes off. He doesn't even glance at the ID as he flips it open, reading the message silently.
Buchou. Even Karupin could've done better than most of that.
Tezuka snorts and replies, If you think so.
'Doing better', however, does not mean that Tezuka approves of Echizen kissing him on the courts, mere moments before the others begin to trickle in, most lugging bags spilling with frills and pink, joking and comparing with each other. Echizen smirks at him and saunters off to a court, looking entirely too pleased with himself.
Tezuka ignores both Fuji and Oishi watching him throughout practise, comfortable with neither of the stares.
Tezuka recognises the exact moment that Echizen's expression changes and he realises that this is far more than a game.
Tezuka smiles for the briefest moment, the action more a savage bearing of teeth than a comforting gesture.
Echizen does not linger when he realises that Oishi is patiently waiting for Tezuka, merely nods at them both and trots up to where Momoshiro and Kikumaru are hollering and waving at him. Tezuka can admit to himself that he is more than a little grateful that it was Fuji, and not Oishi, who decided to address the matter towards him first; he has experienced the worst with Fuji and it will be easier with Oishi.
The walk home is comfortable with sparse conversation; of them all, it is Oishi and Echizen who acknowledge his need for silence; Fuji is too adept at twisting silence and making it heavy and dagger-sharp. Tezuka lets out a long breath; he has missed this.
Oishi finally remarks that he and Echizen seem to have repaired their friendship well. Tezuka thinks to himself that Oishi has all the subtlety of a battering-ram.
He deliberates on vaguely misinterpreting the question and gaining a few minutes reprieve, and decides against it – there was already plenty of that with Fuji, of having to watch every word that passed his lips and every reaction from his body. He pauses, sighs, and asks Oishi to just say what he really wants to say.
Oishi has seen them kiss more than once – Echizen's persistence can often turn into carelessness, but then, Tezuka has always broken his own rules for him – and he listens well when the others don't realise it; he has picked up bits and pieces of the many rumours surrounding the length of time the two of them spend together, which they have both remained tight-lipped about. Tezuka begins to idly calculate the amount of laps he will assign them all, even Echizen, since they clearly have too much time for gossiping.
The lights change and they stop, Tezuka deliberating over how much to tell Oishi and where to begin. It takes most of the walk home, but Tezuka tells it in dribs and drabs, halting and picking up after a pause, more embarrassed than he thought he would be. Neither he nor Oishi have dated girls; Oishi will try his best to give advice, no doubt, but they're really both as clueless as the other. Besides, it's not as if Tezuka is dating a girl.
Is he dating at all, really?
Whatever his experience with the opposite sex, Oishi has an uncanny knack for getting straight to the root of the problem, perhaps the reason for Tezuka telling him in the first place.
Before they say goodbye, Oishi grabs his arm and asks him, quietly and earnestly, whether he is really all right. Tezuka smiles at him, closes his eyes for a moment, and tells him that he will be, and they go their separate ways.
At home, Tezuka goes straight to his room when he comes home, sitting on the floor and sighing. He takes off his glasses and lies back on the ground, automatically beginning to breathe slow and deeply.
Does he love Echizen? Does he want this to continue in the direction that it's clearly going?
Tezuka isn't sure, not positively certain… but he's beginning to think he really wants to.
Tennis just for the sake of defeating someone will never be enough for a player who's more than average, and Tezuka has to wonder at Echizen Nanjiroh's mentality for allowing Echizen to get this far while still in that mindset.
What will you have left? he asks Echizen as he slams the ball towards him, willing him to understand, to get it. What will be left for you?
But Echizen is no fool, tossing Tezuka's own advice back at him in a gasping retort, flinging everything he has into his shot. Tezuka is already moving into position for the Drop Shot, knowing that he has to make a choice. Spare his arm, his dignity, to play another day… or take the chance, prove the point, and open Echizen's eyes?
It isn't even a choice.
The entrance exams loom dangerously close, and apart from tennis, all of his spare time becomes devoted to study. The situation is the same for the other third-years, and Echizen stops trying to get him to come out, instead sending him emails and messages of encouragement and well-wishing.
On the days when being at home or at the library is too stifling, and the weight of his father's glances and heavy hints about further education begins to strain too much, Tezuka asks Echizen if he can study with him: the temple, no matter the eccentricity of its occupants, is soothing. Echizen guards him against an easy-smiling Nanjiroh, who abhors further education and tells Tezuka that he's wasting his time when he could be going pro. Tezuka replies that he's waiting for something and Echizen always looks away. Even homework seems bearable with Echizen and Karupin beside him – once, Tezuka fell asleep and woke up to find Echizen napping beside him, Karupin curled up between them.
After the exam for Tokyo University, the Japanese university that his father most wants him to get into, Tezuka abandons study and texts Echizen, asking if he'd like to play a match. Echizen responds enthusiastically, carefully avoiding all mention of his exam, and they go to a park, playing a lazy game, Tezuka too strained to even make a serious go of it. He finds himself relaxing with each set they play, the muscles in his neck and back easing as he falls into the familiar rhythm and allows Echizen victory by one game, feeling generous. As they walk afterwards, Echizen snorts and tells him next time not to let him win so easy, but that he'll allow him this one time. He offers no resistance when Tezuka pulls him into the shade of nearby trees, though his eyes are wide as Tezuka presses him against a trunk and kisses him.
They've improved at kissing – they couldn't not improve, with the amount of it Echizen insists they do – and they move against each other easily, mouths hot, wet, and sliding as Tezuka presses against him and Echizen winds his arms around his back. They break apart, gasp, and kiss again, Tezuka dazed with the realisation that Tokyo U's exam is finally over, that now he can play tennis again, and spend time with Echizen again without the guilt of unopened books lurking at the back of his mind. Tomorrow, he will have study and more exams to face, but for now, there is the shade, Echizen and his lips, and Tezuka is happy with this.
They sit on the grass for a while, Tezuka's arms wrapped comfortably around Echizen as they sink into silence. Echizen traces a finger on the back of Tezuka's left hand, apparently pleased not to have to say or do anything. Tezuka remembers Echizen coming over the night before to give him a good-luck kiss, eventually staying for hours and doing his own homework, Tezuka unwilling to spend the evening alone but also unable to say it.
Tezuka remarks after a while that they should go fishing soon, when his exams are over, and Echizen groans, but grudgingly agrees. Tezuka smiles as he presses his lips to Echizen's hair.
They stop on the way home at a ramen stand Echizen likes. Tezuka pays, barely touching his own food as he watches Echizen wolf his down – still growing, after all – and silently gives him his own when he is finished. It occurs to him while watching Echizen eat that perhaps this could be love, or something very close to it: paying for food that he will give to Echizen, kissing him when he wants to, certain that Echizen knows when to give and when never to, when to appear and when to leave well alone. Echizen knows him in a way that perhaps only Fuji can rival, but Tezuka wonders if perhaps Echizen's knowledge has surpassed Fuji's without any of them realising.
Echizen lightly kicks him and says that he has his 'stoic Buchou face' on again, and he grins at the look Tezuka gives him. He finishes and they leave, heading out onto the street as the twilight begins to fall around them.
Ryoma presses against him for a brief moment when they turn a corner and Tezuka pauses for a moment, before brushing their hands together. Ryoma grins, his eyes wide and brilliant. When they reach the temple gates they find Karupin balanced on the wall, trilling at them as his tail waves. Ryoma presses a hand against the wood and asks Tezuka if he'd like to come inside. The gate closes quietly after them.
Tezuka stares out over the city, watching as the patterns of sunset begin to deepen on the horizon. Night will fall soon. He sighs, gaze unwavering as his hand lingers over his elbow.
Tennis pros, geniuses, legends – all of the same, yet not at all; one doesn't necessarily mean the other. No one court is the same as another, just as one player isn't the same; all break out of the training mould eventually.
Tezuka lifts his head and stares again out over the city, a faint smile curling at the edges of his mouth.
Improve, Echizen. Show me only the tennis you can play!
This is only the beginning.
(Also, we have Omake for you, or "The Self Proclaimed Funny Bits", or "Why a 12 Hour Beta Session is a Really, Really Long Time".)