His eyes narrowed in concentration, flicking back and forth, measuring the distance, sizing up his opponent and waiting for the right moment to strike. Ryoma hated to lose. He also hated the knowledge that he was outmatched.
He watched for the signs that would tell him his opponent's strategy. The shift of his weight, the direction of his gaze, and the movement of his body. Ryoma tuned himself into these indicators and frustratingly still found himself losing this battle for dominance.
The shoulders of his opponent shifted right and Ryoma made his play. With great speed he moved to block, but his adversary was faster and quickly changed direction to the left bolting through his legs and under the bed.
Ryoma sunk to his knees and peered under the bed. Karupin was crouched in the back corner well out of his reach, paws entangled with Ryoma's last remaining intact shoelace. 'Karupin, I'll be late for school,' he pleaded. But Karupin only blinked his glassy eyes... once... twice... and a yawn for good measure. 'Here kitty, kitty, kitty.' He held out his fingers for Karupin, but the cat was too clever for such a paltry bribe.
Ryoma momentarily rested his head in his arms in defeat. If he was startled by the questing nose that poked at his limp hand he didn't let his body show it. With a hidden smile he began a languid and lazy rub on the cat's head. Under his chin, around his ears, over the bridge of his nose in a firm circular motion, until his gentle administrations were accompanied by the rumbling purr of his contented cat. Slowly he let his hand feel about for his shoelace. Karupin was lying on it. Still if his grip was good enough...
Ryoma slipped his fingers to the lace. His gentle tug only earned him a swipe from Karupin and a bleeding scratch on his hand as the cat moved back out of reach. 'Ow, Karupin...' Ryoma winced and sucked on the stinging cut. He really did have to leave for school. Regretfully he stood up from the floor and slung his school bag over his shoulder. At this pace he would miss his ride with Momo-sempai and have to walk to school. Ryoma grabbed his lace-less tennis shoes and shoved them into his sports bag.
Why couldn't everything be tennis?
'Yo, Echizen. What's wrong?' Momoshiro tossed his regulars jersey into his sports bag and collapsed onto the bench beside his little friend, long limbs flying akimbo. 'You've been in a mood all day.'
Momo watched the almost imperceptible shift of emotion in Echizen's face, followed by a very slight frown that indicated to him that there was indeed something bothering the younger boy.
'I'm not in a mood sempai,' Echizen replied.
Momo shrugged his shoulders. 'Okay...' He hadn't expected Echizen to tell him what was on his mind. 'What's up with your shoes... is that string?' Momo grabbed Echizen's ankle ignoring his kouhai's cries of protest at the manhandling. He had a hard time holding in his chuckle of amusement... and he hardly tried.
The younger boy's shoes were a patched mess of various string knotted together to hold them on. 'What the heck?'
Ryoma shook his foot in protest. 'Let go, Momo. It's nothing.'
'Same nothing that has put you in the mood you're denying?' he queried.
Ryoma declined to reply and struggled to get free of his steady grip. His kouhai tried to wiggle out of his grasp but he held on tight. Momoshiro's face suffused with heat as Echizen squirmed half on the bench half on his lap. The twist of guilt spread and tightened in his chest, he shouldn't tease Echizen this way. But that never stopped him.
'Momo,' Echizen whinged, pausing for breath.
'Ryoma,' he mimicked back, pulling the boy further onto his lap, thrilled when the boy's shirt hitched up revealing smooth skin and a little mole just above the hip. His breath hitched behind his teeth. He could power his sexual fantasies for weeks just on the exposure of that one little mole.
He wanted to do something, anything, just a touch would be good. Momo held back a groan as Echizen sat up in his lap and squirmed over his groin. 'Ow,' he exclaimed in surprise as Echizen attempted to break his fingers from around his ankle.
'When then let go,' he huffed in irritation.
'Nope,' Momo grinned, using the moment as an excuse to grab his kouhai around the waist and entrap Echizen's arms at his side.
Momo held him tightly to his chest outwardly teasing, inwardly shamed for taking advantage of his kouhai's naivety. They were so close his breath ruffled the ends of Echizen's hair. With his heart hammering against his ribcage and his blood racing with excitement, during a particularly valiant struggle by Echizen, he slipped his hand under the boy's shirt and over his hip. And though he couldn't see, he was sure he brushed over the slight rise of a mole. He was so caught up in the thrill of skin on skin it was several minutes before he noticed the sudden stillness of Echizen.
'Sempai,' the boy whispered. 'What... I...'
Echizen moved to sit back, but he tightened his grip in panic to prevent him. He didn't want Echizen to look at him. A sweat broke out across his forehead, his chest, his armpits. 'No... wait...,' his voice was strangled.
Wait for what? Time to suddenly reverse itself for his benefit...
The clubroom door swung back on its hinges.
In his haste to release Ryoma his head snapped back against the wall, his jaw connecting with a resounding clack as Echizen tumbled from the bench to the floor. Echizen turned to look at him, but he looked away, only to catch Tezuka gesturing for the other regulars to leave. A brief glance at his buchou's angered gaze was enough to show him the truth.
He was disgusting. Momo settled his gaze firmly on the toes of his tennis shoes.
Tezuka entered the clubroom and closed the door behind him. 'Echizen,' his voice trembled with an intensity he was trying to master. 'You may go... buy some new shoelaces...'
Echizen clambered to his feet and picked up his bag from the bench. 'I usually wait for Momo-sempai...' he trailed off sounding uncertain and lacking his usual impertinence.
'Echizen! Go now,' Tezuka snapped.
Momo watched Echizen's hasty departure. When the door shut behind him the silence settled like a blanket over the room. He expected yelling. He feared the angry silence of his captain.
Momoshiro met the angered gaze of his buchou, the sempai he respected more than any other, he couldn't hold it and looked away in shame.
'Oi, oi, shōnen?' The call came from across the net.
Ryoma was taken by surprise when the tennis ball slammed into his chest, losing his breath for a few moments. 'Otōsan!' he complained weakly.
'What's wrong with you boy? You are playing worse than usual. I could beat you tied to a chair with my racquet clenched in my teeth... Oi!?' Nanjiroh leapt over the net as Ryoma sat down on the opposite side of the court. 'Ryoma?'
He looked up to his father in surprise, it was rare that he was ever called by his given name. 'Hmm... Otōsan, I don't feel like playing tennis.' His father's face went through a rapid wash of expressions before bolting into action. Ryoma found himself swept over his father's shoulder, his tennis racquet clattering to the ground as he was whisked from the tennis court towards the house.
His father yelling in panic as he ran towards the house brought his mother rushing out into the garden where he was tossed onto the steps, somewhat in shock.
'He's dying,' Nanjiroh exclaimed.
'What!' his mother cried.
'I'm not dying,' Ryoma crossed his arms defensively.
'He said he didn't want to play tennis.'
Ryoma felt the horrified gasps were a bit over dramatic. 'No, I said I didn't feel like playing tennis.'
Nanjiroh threw up his arms, 'What's the difference?'
'Nanjiroh, don't yell. Maybe he just wants to try something else for a while,' his mother intervened, placing an arm around his shoulder which he immediately shrugged off.
'Oi, oi, who asked you woman?' Nanjiroh scowled at his mother. She only shook her head and moved back into the house.
'I don't want to quit tennis,' Ryoma paused to wait out his fathers melodramatic exclamations of relief. 'I just have to think about something first.'
Nanjiroh settled on the steps beside him, nodding his head thoughtfully. 'So tell me about it... then we can play. Is it a girl? I'm good at problems with girls.'
Ryoma shook his head. Even if he did have a problem with a girl, he knew better than to ask his father about it. 'No, Otōsan, we can hardly even talk about tennis.' Ryoma stood up from the steps and entered the house, just missing the brief flash of hurt across Nanjiroh's face.
Nanjiroh laid back on the porch in defeat. 'But who's going to play with me?' he whined.
Ryoma slid his bedroom door closed behind him leaving it open just enough for Karupin to sneak through. He flopped face first into the bed with a sigh of relief. He rolled onto his back and kicked his shoes off onto the floor. It had been a very confusing day.
Most days for him were straight forward. Morning snooze with Karupin, school, tennis club, sometimes burgers with Momo-sempai, a game with Otōsan and then a snooze with Karupin bringing the day around full circle. Slowly things were starting to change and he didn't like it. He was noticing things that he had never noticed before, some of them entirely unrelated to tennis.
There was a lot of talk at the street courts. Though he never joined in he still heard, and it was all about sex. Groups of older students loitering around and talking while waiting for their turn on the courts. It was all about legs, breasts, ass and getting some. He thought it was a waste of time. Though he wasn't entirely clear on all the specifics he had a general picture and was certain that he would much rather spend his time playing tennis.
And yet somewhere today in the general horseplay with Momoshiro something had changed. He didn't know when or how, but for a moment they touched on something. He knew it was sex. He could feel it in his groin. The instinctive and uncontrollable urge to press his hips forward, to touch physically, the excitement he felt at the brush of Momoshiro's hand against his bare skin. For a moment he was exhilarated, just like playing a big tennis match, but the feeling was quickly doused. Tezuka's anger left no question that what he had done was wrong in some way.
Ryoma tucked his arm behind his head and encountered an uncomfortable lump of fabric. Pulling it free he was surprised to see his Seigaku playing shirt... with the collar torn and mangled. 'Karupin!' he shouted in frustration. He tossed the shirt to the floor. It was a lost cause that he hadn't any energy to fight. He hugged his pillow to his chest, wishing it was his cat. He was unsettled and a little confused.
The door rattled. The mattress shifted. A soft furry body pushed its way under his arm and took up a steady and contented purr. 'Mad at me Karupin?' he questioned the curled up cat. Karupin's ears twitched at the sound of his voice and he blinked his eyes lazily. 'Why is life so confusing?' Karupin only stretched his hind legs.
Ryoma closed his eyes. Why couldn't everything be tennis?
Sempai are supposed to take care of the kouhai, not take advantage. Tezuka's words rang through his head, the shame through his gut. He was halfway between home and school unsure of how he could return to either. A day at school under the stern gaze of Tezuka and the confusion of Echizen seemed too much to bear, but at home his morose behaviour had already caused concern. He had gotten up this morning just to halt the pestering questions and concerns of his mother and sisters. He had considered ditching school and spending the day at the street courts, but it seemed that enduring Tezuka's disapproval might be the only way to earn back his confidence and certainly the only way to save his place in the Seigaku tennis club.
Tezuka made it clear that his behaviour warranted being tossed from the team, maybe even the club, and yet he had hesitated at actually doing it. Momoshiro wasn't going to count on it, but maybe there was a chance to avoid public disgrace and keep playing tennis.
Echizen. He didn't know what to do and it seemed that Tezuka didn't either. Did Echizen even know what he had been doing?
For two weeks now tennis club practice had been unbearable... for everyone. The tension amongst the regulars was palatable and had seeped into the general members of the club making practice a long solemn process filled with more laps than usual.
At first he thought that Tezuka-Buchou might also be angry with him, but a direct question resulted in a slightly stuttered reply of, 'No, Echizen, everything is fine.'
But everything was not fine. Buchou's anger with Momoshiro was unquestionable and open. Momo-sempai spent a week ball fetching with the freshman... without complaint. If Momoshiro was unhappy with the current rift between him and Tezuka, Ryoma wouldn't know as Momoshiro had successfully dodged him for two weeks running.
The only place he now saw Momo-sempai was at tennis practice and although Momo was back practicing with the regulars, it seemed that both Tezuka and Oishi were actively keeping them apart. The absence of Momoshiro's laughter had changed the dynamics of the regulars. Tezuka was permanently angry. Oishi was in a constant state of worry. Eiji was high strung due to Oishi's worrying, and everyone else was either avoiding the fall out or tersely whispering just out of his earshot.
It seemed that everyone knew what had happened except for him. It was annoying. He was a regular too, and yet they excluded him. So he exacted revenge in the only way he knew how... tennis.
His tennis wasn't pretty to watch. At the moment he was facing an angry Oishi. He had once thought that nothing could anger the calm and genial sempai, but apparently striking Eiji twice in the face with his twist serve, on purpose, was enough.
'Hey, Oishi, it's okay. Ochibi-chan didn't mean it, ne Echizen?' Eiji cajoled Oishi, his face still red with the strike. Ryoma only shrugged his shoulders. A hurt expression flashed across his sempai's face, but it wasn't enough to make the anger go away, and the regret was only momentary.
He had never lost so many games. The anger was impairing him, shortening his strokes, leeching his speed and throwing off his accuracy. Fuji-san took particular delight in beating him, and with each loss to the tensai his frustration built.
'Game and set Fuji-san.'
Ryoma growled in anger and stalked off to the benches. His tension was killing the game, and this wasn't how he liked to play tennis. He threw himself down on the bench, tucking his knees up and resting his head, trying to ignore the constant observation he was under by his sempai's. His back and shoulders were knotted and uncomfortable, the anger unbearable, the additional loss of a game unacceptable. He dug his fingers into his thighs in an attempt to beat down the sting of oncoming tears. He hadn't cried in years, he wouldn't start now.
It was with some irritation that he realized how much he depended on his sempai to take care of him. The time he spent with Momo eating lunch, talking about tennis or the club, and playing against each other for fun, were the things that kept him focused and relaxed. Momo was his only close friend and he was missed. As much as someone could miss a person who was only a tennis court away. Ryoma turned his face away as a tear rolled down his cheek. He didn't want anyone to see.
Why couldn't everything be tennis?
'Eiji-sempai?' Ryoma sat down beside the red haired tennis player in the quiet of the Seigaku library. After studying his relationships with the other regulars, Ryoma decided that Eiji was not only the easiest to talk to, next to Momo of course, but was also likely to be the most helpful. Of course... he had to apologise first.
'Echizen.' Eiji continued writing his English paper, with the assistance of a dictionary and a few sheets of what appeared to be Fuji's notes.
'Ne, Eiji that word needs to be in past tense...' he trailed off as usually genki boy snapped down his pencil.
'Are you here to correct my English, Echizen?'
'No, sempai. I'm here to apologise.' It must have been an unexpected reply as he blinked in surprise and his face lost a bit of its tension.
Eiji took a moment. 'Okay, Echizen.'
He had never actually apologised to anyone before and he had been hoping for a little bit more of a lead in. 'Sorry for hitting you,' he mumbled.
'And?' Eiji prompted.
'And what?' he scowled.
'You've always been a brat, Echizen, but you've never been mean.' Eiji crossed his arms defensively.
'Mean?' Ryoma frowned, he had been mean. 'Fine, I'm sorry for being mean, but then you have to apologise too.'
Eiji's brows drew together, 'what for?'
Ryoma shifted in his chair uncomfortably, before tucking his legs up underneath him. He wasn't any good when it came to talking about... well anything that was unrelated to tennis. 'Eiji-san, why is everyone mad with Momoshiro? Have I done something wrong? Is it... is it about sex?'
Eiji flushed a little in embarrassment, but his scowl melted away. 'Oh, Ochibi-chan,' he exclaimed grabbing Ryoma and pulling him in for a hug.
'Don't hug me,' he complained fearful that he might cry again.
'Right, sorry.' Eiji released his grip and wiped his eyes unashamed that he had become slightly tearful. 'Oh, it's just been awful... you didn't do anything wrong Ochibi.' Eiji patted his shoulder in a comforting manner.
Eiji fidgeted for a moment before taking a glance around the library and leaning in closer to him. 'How much do you know about sex, Ochibi?'
Ryoma shifted in his seat, 'how much do you know, sempai?'
With a red face Eiji replied, 'a little.'
Ryoma had never been so uncomfortable in his life, but it was still better than the constant anger of the last two weeks and he was right when he assumed that Eiji would be able to help him. 'With Oishi?' he gamely ventured.
The look of shock was worth the punishment of a good natured strike. 'You don't pull your punches do you... hai, a little bit with Oishi. Not... you know...' Ryoma shook his head in the negative. 'Not actual sex.' Eiji blurted out, his face now as red as his hair.
Ryoma decided to nod as if he knew exactly what it meant. 'And it's okay for two boys?'
Eiji clenched his hands and wiped his damp palms on his thighs. 'Well, some people really don't like it, but it's not wrong.'
'What do you do together?'
Eiji eyes widened in surprise, but recognised his seriousness. 'Um... we spend a lot of time together... talk... kiss... and touch each other...'
'Jeez, um... all over,' Eiji stammered.
'Hmm, anything else?' he questioned.
'Would you like to take notes?'
'Hai, maybe later,' Ryoma smiled for the first time in weeks. 'So, if it's not wrong, then why is Tezuka so angry at Momo-sempai?'
'You're twelve, Ochibi. Did you even know what was happening? Momoshiro was taking advantage of you... Tezuka was worried,' Eiji asserted.
Ryoma thought back to that afternoon in the clubroom. 'I didn't know... at first, but I felt it... felt good...'
'Where Ochibi?' Eiji grinned mischievously.
'All over,' he dead panned the reply. 'Besides, maybe I want to know...'
'Ganbatte, Echizen,' Eiji called after him.
Momo stalking was harder than expected. For a loudmouthed, lumbering teen that was extraordinarily tall for his age, he certainly did know how to disappear. Ryoma had spotted him many times in the hallways of the schools, but failed to catch up. He had even ditched one of his classes to wait outside of Momoshiro's math class. Unfortunately Kaidoh-sempai was there to run interference.
There was only one place he was certain to be within a ten metre radius of Momoshiro and that was at tennis club. Where he had been unable to talk to Momo for the last two weeks due to meddling sempai's.
Ryoma did have Eiji on his side now, but sneaking about wasn't really his way. He didn't possess Fuji's talent of manipulating people to do him a favour and then convincing them that they liked it. He was a direct person, and the most direct way was straight to Tezuka.
'Buchou, I need to talk to you,' he was so caught up in his plans he failed to notice he had interrupted Tezuka in the middle of an address and drawn the attention of all the regulars.
Tezuka adjusted his glasses and lowered his clipboard. 'Hai, after practice Echizen, may I continue?'
'Iie, Buchou, before practice... please,' he slightly adjusted his reply in the vain hope it might pass civility and he may avoid running extra laps. Tezuka nodded, and continued with the last of his opening instructions before indicating for him to follow.
Ryoma followed Tezuka to the club room a little nervous at facing the formidable captain on his own. Ryoma sat down on the bench and met the stoic face of his leader.
'It's wrong to be angry with Momoshiro, Tezuka-Buchou,' his voice was steady and certain.
Tezuka shook his head. 'I am certain that you did not know what he was doing, my actions were for your welfare.' Tezuka turned to leave but Ryoma stopped him.
'I was figuring it out, but you didn't ask me about it.'
Tezuka sank slowly to the bench, and rested his clipboard beside him. 'True. Okay I'm asking you now.'
'Momo is my sempai, and is completely innocent of any wrong doing.' It was a graceless statement, but Ryoma was happy with it.
Tezuka raised his eyebrow.
'...mostly innocent,' he amended. 'I wasn't unhappy with what he was doing,' he mumbled quietly.
'Startled, not scared.'
'It's my responsibility to take care of all tennis club members.'
'Ne, Tezuka-san. It isn't possible for you to look out for everyone, that's why we have sempais... Buchou, everyone is unhappy.' Ryoma stood up from the bench and swung his racquet over his shoulder, relieved to feel the last vestiges of anger draining away from him. Being angry was annoying.
'Why can't everything be tennis, Eh, Buchou?' Echizen lamented, and Tezuka couldn't have agreed more.
The door swung shut behind a much revived Echizen and Oishi stepped out from behind the lockers.
'I am a bad captain.'
'No, Tezuka. You are wrong, you are a very good captain,' Oishi rested his hand on his friend's shoulder.
'Echizen is right, everyone is unhappy and performing badly. The team has floundered because of my erring decision.'
'Tezuka, a person can not make all the right decisions. A good leader will admit to his mistake and correct it.'
The general gasp of surprise was audible when Tezuka returned to court and posted practice pairings, 'Momoshiro, Echizen court A.'
Momoshiro was happy, maybe happier than he had ever been. The reprieve had seemingly come from nowhere and he was surprised when Tezuka took him aside for a moment to apologise. His kouhai had come to his defense, even though he was certain Echizen knew that he wasn't really innocent of the transgression. To himself he swore a solemn oath never to take advantage of his kouhai again and to be a sempai that would make Tezuka proud.
Things had been awkward for the twenty minute walk between Seigaku and the burger joint where everything had just slid back into place. Except for one thing...
He was under the distinct impression that Echizen was closer to him and he didn't mean emotionally. At tennis club when they sat side by side Echizen had his thigh against his. At the burger joint standing in the crowded lines the thinnest buffer of air prevented Echizen from leaning back against his chest.
His solemn oath was beginning to crack under the strain of constant temptation, but he refused to disappoint his team members again.
Eating lunch in the park behind the street courts on a Sunday was always fun. Momo sat on one of the many benches that were placed beneath the sakura trees. Echizen sat down right beside him, the bare skin of his knee touching Momo's. He attempted to imperceptibly shift a little further down the bench, but Echizen had noticed.
His kouhai scowled at him and moved closer. Momo shifted away. Echizen shifted so close his was practically in his lap. He quickly moved away again. 'Eh, Momo-sempai, you are going to run out of bench.'
'Then you should stop moving closer when I move away. I'm trying to be a good sempai like Oishi.' Echizen snorted. 'What's so funny?'
'If Eiji-kun moved closer to Oishi-sempai, he defiantly would not move away.' Echizen turned his body to face him and slid closer to him. His kouhai briefly brushed his hand across his arm and trailed it down to his hand. The boy's fingertips gently ran across the back of his hand before resting lightly between the junctures of his own fingers, interlocking. 'You are a good sempai, Momo,' Echizen said quietly. 'I don't know how else to get close to you.'
'I didn't think you'd want to,' he replied.