Good lord. Over a year in the waiting, this part. I honest to God didn't mean for this to take so long. Many, many apologies. Oh, and I tortured Ryoma here. This is actually a surprisingly lighthearted chapter. Heh.


Chapter VIII

Ryoma wondered if he had gone too far.

Noticing the way Tezuka had completely avoided his gaze that morning, he thought maybe he did. He sighed to himself. He was much more of an instinctual person than most gave him credit for. Echizen Ryoma, tennis prodigy, a skilled tactician on the field—he could have laughed at the sound of it. His tennis had never been strategic like Fuji or Inui's—he reacted solely on what seemed right to him. He had the best instincts and raw understanding of the game. That was what made him win.

Apparently, outside of tennis, the case was something else altogether.

Sometimes instinct didn't work on other people—especially when it came to wooing others.

Ryoma groaned and plopped down on his bed. The others had gone for a second round of skiing. He had chosen to stay behind and do some thinking—copying Tezuka's own actions from yesterday. Only Ryoma was not really pondering his actions as much as he was rebuking himself for his idiocy. He rarely regretted anything in his life. But he was seriously regretting yesterday night.

Tezuka hadn't responded at all to him. It was a silent staring contest between the two for some seconds until the older man turned over and hid himself under the sheets. It was then Ryoma knew he had done something wrong. Whether it was the kiss or the words—or just the timing of it all—he knew he had done something fundamentally wrong. Tezuka had skillfully ignored him all day and even Kikumaru and Momoshiro had picked up on it; their silence was a blessing to Ryoma. He really didn't think he could have dealt with them teasing him about it.

"People are so complicated," he said out loud to the empty room.

Ryoma realized that his problem also lied in the fact that he really had no experience in dealing with people's emotions. He didn't have Fuji's witty charm or Inui's constant observations. He handled people the same way he tackled everything else—bluntly and with no real consideration. He also had poor skills when it came to reading people's reactions. So Tezuka was ignoring him, what was he going to do about it? Ryoma knew there was some kind of formula to follow in these types of situations, but he could not figure it out for the life of him. Confronting Tezuka would be his initial response, but what was it about giving people some time to think? Was he supposed to wait until Tezuka came to him then? Ryoma scrunched his eyes shut and shook his head.

"This is impossible!"

"Ah, Ryoma, what are you going to do about personal relationships? You're great at tennis—you're great at any sport you decide to go for—but let's face it, shounen, your Achilles heel is love. And trust me, that's going to come back and bite you in the ass when you're older."

"I hate it when the old man's right," muttered Ryoma darkly. He stood up and walked over to the window. The snow had piled up through the night and the storm was still continuing on a lighter path, blanketing the entire world in white. Ryoma squinted as he looked into the horizon. Various shapes crossed over the hills and pathways—Tezuka was somewhere in there. Ryoma pressed his forehead against the window pane, feeling the cold air bite his skin. "I can't believe I'm locked up in here like this—to think I would have converted to some lovesick high school girl, moaning over her latest failure in capturing her crush. So this is how it feels to care for someone like this, huh? It's not very nice."

He was moping. Ryoma could have laughed at his pathetic state. In fact, he did. He shook his head and laughed into the empty room, wondering why he was encaging himself inside. With a resolute expression, he gathered his coat and headed out. He couldn't stay in the room forever. This was their last day. He only had a few more hours until they were back in Tokyo. And then Tezuka would make his decision. Ryoma sighed as he pulled on his gloves. Well, there wasn't much else he could do now to win over Tezuka. He was sure the older man had already made his decision anyhow. Ryoma just hoped his actions last night had not royally screwed him over.

"Heading out?"

Ryoma looked at the receptionist. He was a kindly old man who had greeted Ryoma and his company with surprising grace and humor considering their rambunctiousness. "Just for a walk. We'll be leaving tonight," he said.

"Ah, such a shame. You boys were an interesting bunch. Especially that red-haired one…"

Ryoma had to smile a little. "Kikumaru. He's an interesting one all right."

The receptionist smiled. "Well, have a good walk."

Nodding, Ryoma left the lodge and entered the wintry wonderland. He stood for a few minutes, adjusting to the cold, before taking a random path. He stuck his earphones in and then waited for loud American rock to greet him.

For a while, all was peace. Ryoma walked through a forestry pathway, admiring the trees and stillness around him. You certainly didn't get this kind of calmness in the cities. It was frigid cold but he relished it. Eventually, his walk took him into a hidden glove. Ryoma stopped for a bit, staring upwards at the open sky. The snow had stopped briefly, leaving him with a clear view of perfect grayness. Ryoma closed his eyes. It was almost mystical—and he could have berated himself for using such a term—but this place was truly magical. He could find no other word to describe it. Pulling out his earphones, Ryoma listened to the silence.

"Help! Mama! Papa!"

Golden eyes snapping open in alert, Ryoma looked around in surprise. The voice sounded suspiciously like a child. Frowning, he began running in the general direction of the cry. "I'm coming! Where are you?" he called back.

There was a pause. And then, "I'm over the ledge! I'm stuck down here! Please, help!"

The child was panicking. Ryoma cursed under his breath. Either the child had left her parents willingly, or it was the parents that were the irresponsible ones. He really didn't care for this type of drama. It was his luck that he would be stuck with rescuing a kid. Ryoma sighed to himself. Such was fate.

He came to a ledge and looked down cautiously. He saw the little girl eyeing him fearfully from a few yards down. "Jesus," he muttered darkly, looking around for something that was strong enough to pull the child up—or at least something he could have tethered himself to. "Hang on, kid."

"No! Don't leave me! I'm scared!"

The kid was crying. Ryoma groaned inwardly. Even he didn't have the heart to ignore tears. "Stop crying. I'm not leaving. Just…let me figure out something. Be a good girl and stay quiet," he said. The child nodded and sniffled. She must have been five or six. Ryoma narrowed his eyes. There was nothing around him he could use as rope. He had no choice but to go back to the lodge. He cursed himself for not bringing his cell. "All right, listen, I'm going to have to…"

He should have known not to put his guard down. Ryoma could have died from shame. As it was, the portion of the ledge he was standing on began to crack and groan. And before he could even finish his sentence, the ledge broke and Ryoma went sliding down to meet with the child, who screamed as the debris cascaded on them. Instinctively, Ryoma went to protect the girl and waited for the snow and ice to pass them, praying that they would not fall even further. After a few seconds of holding his breath, silence resumed, and Ryoma dared to look around them.

So he was now stuck in the same place as the kid. Perfect.

"This is not my day," he groaned, shifting around slowly, grimacing at the pain in his right shoulder. He rubbed at it idly while trying to catch his bearings. "Sorry, kid, looks like we're stuck here together."

"Niichan's hurt."

Ryoma looked down at the child. The girl peered up at him, not annoyingly, but in concern. He refrained from rolling his eyes. As sweet as the child was, Ryoma found it disconcerting that a child probably more than a decade his junior was worried about him. But he hid his discomfort and smiled a little. "Nah, I'm fine. I've suffered worse from tennis," he said.

The girl's eyes brightened. "Echizen Ryoma! You're really him?"

"You know me?"

"No, but Papa's always watching your games! Wait till he comes and rescues us! He'll be so excited!"

Ryoma could not hide his amusement at the child's sudden lack of fear. He looked up from where they were standing. It was not a good location, and he had the strangest feeling that if they lingered there longer something worse would happen. The ledge cliff was not so far from his reach. He probably could have made it up by jumping. Then he froze.

"What's your name, kid?"


"All right, Meimi, come over here. You think you can reach the ledge if I put you on my shoulders?"


She's a kid, Ryoma, no complicated questions remember? Ryoma gestured with his hand. "Come on, it'll be all right. I'm pretty strong you know," he said reassuringly.

Meimi nodded, smiling brightly. "Okay!"

Bless children's innocence. Ryoma almost felt guilty for guiding her so blindly. He picked the child up from under the shoulders and placed her around his neck. Thank God she was just a kid—and thank God he had that late growth spurt. Meimi squealed in delight at her sudden change in height and giggled happily. Ryoma smiled.

"Do you see the ledge, Meimi?" he asked, turning them around to face the cliffy ledge.


"Can you reach it with your arms?"

"Uh huh!"

"Good girl. Hang on tight," said Ryoma tightly, prepping himself for what was probably a risky maneuver. His shoulder was aching terribly too. "I'm going to—"



Ryoma suddenly felt a load lifted off his shoulders and looked up. He could hear a man and woman crying desperately while Meimi laughed obliviously.

"Meimi, how could leave like that? Do you know how worried Mama and Papa were?" cried the man.

"Papa! Guess who's down there! It's Echizen Ryoma!"

"Now Meimi, what did I tell you about telling lies…"

"But I'm serious! Look down! I think Niichan's hurt!"

Ryoma could almost sense the father's hesitation and waited patiently—if not somewhat embarrassingly—for the man to appear. When the older man's face popped up over the ledge, he gave an insincere half smile.


"Oh my God!"

The man disappeared. Ryoma sighed. The man reappeared again. "Um, please, hold on, Echizen-san! My wife went to get help! She'll be back shortly! Um…did I mention what a great fan of yours I am?"

"No, but your daughter has."

The man blushed. "Ah, yes… Meimi loves to talk…"

Ryoma felt it again. The snow crunched below him and there was a moment of absolute stillness where he cursed his luck once again before the ground gave away below him. Meimi's father gave out an alarmed cry as Ryoma fell—which brought the young man back to reality. Yes, he was falling. And yes, he was probably going to be hurt after this. Damn. He just hoped it would not be a long fall. But as the scenery swept by him—as he watched his own hand attempt to grab onto something to stop his rapid descent—he knew he was screwed. Rapid images of the gray sky, snow flying in the cool air, rocky bits colliding with ice, and the ledge appearing farther away from him flashed before his eyes. And then it was over.

And then the pain kicked in.

And then Ryoma really began to curse his luck.

"Shit," he groaned, shifting to his side.

He had landed awkwardly. His right leg looked a little bent out of shape—to which Ryoma realized with some growing horror—and his side was aching. When he looked up, he saw he had fallen down into some sort of trench quite a ways below the ledge he was originally perched on. So much for snowy ledges. Ryoma made a mental note to avoid all solitary walks into snowy woods from here on out.

Meimi's father was still calling out to him.

"Echizen-san! Are you all right?"

The man sounded much further away but Ryoma could still see the man's head peeking over the cliff. "I'm okay!" he shouted back. He surveyed his cramped surroundings and twisted leg, the pain really beginning to roar its ugly head now. He cringed. "I think I broke my leg," he added.

"My wife's coming! There are workers on their way now!"

Yeah, but how long is it going to take them to get down here, asked a sadistic voice in Ryoma's head. The young man sighed tiredly. His shoulder and ribs ached, his leg was probably broken—somehow, there was still one good outcome to all this: It had managed to thoroughly wipe Tezuka out of his mind. Until now that is. Now Ryoma wished he had stayed in his room. Moping was certainly better than this. And he could only imagine the others' reactions when they found out what happened to him. Kikumaru and Momoshiro would never let him live it down. Oishi, Kawamura, and Kaidou would probably be the only ones really worried—of course Kaidou would never show it openly—and Fuji and Inui would probably show some concern in addition to amusement. Those two were sadistic sons of a gun.

Tezuka would be worried too.

Ryoma ran a hand through his hair. The former captain would no doubt give him a good lashing with some very stern words and that severe look of his whenever he went into his lecture mode. Ryoma almost smiled. In that sense, Tezuka was as predictable as ever.

"Echizen-san! Are you all right?"

That was the voice of one of the workers. Ryoma tried to sit up comfortably, hissing sharply when his leg protested. "Not exactly," he answered.

"We're sending workers down to where you are. They'll have better access. Can you move on your own?"


"We'll be calling for paramedics then."

Ryoma winced and then pulled out something from below him—his iPod. It was still working. He sighed. Well, that was another good thing. He was rather fond of this one. It had been a gift from Nanako a few years back after his victory at Wimbledon. Ryoma never said much to his cousin, but he had been touched when she gave the present to him.

"How long will this take?"

"They're on their way now. It shouldn't take no more than a few minutes."

A few minutes turned into half an hour before Ryoma found himself out of the trench. By that time he was still conscious, in total pain, but very much awake and irritable. His paramedic had asked him all the standard questions as they loaded him onto the van and Ryoma was about ready to kill someone before Meimi showed up with her parents. She had tears in her eyes again.

"Is Niichan going to be all right? Meimi's sorry for hurting Niichan."

Ryoma's temper was ignored in favor for ruffling the girl's hair affectionately. He managed a tight smile. "No, Niichan's fine. It's just that I don't like these guys too much," he said, waving to the paramedics around him in annoyance.

Meimi giggled, nodding. Her parents moved in to thank Ryoma again for saving their daughter before the doors were slammed and the ambulance was on its way. Ryoma leaned back in the stretcher, watching everything unfold around him hectically. Today had been an interesting day all right. And it wasn't even half done.

"…Ochibi, nya! When will he wake up?"

"Patience, Kikumaru. He did have quite an accident."

"Man, I can't believe this guy! Nearly gave me a heart attack when the receptionist told us he was at the hospital!"

"But he did save that little girl."

"Yeah, and since when did Echizen turn into such a nice guy?"

"Shut up, Momo," groaned Ryoma, lifting a hand to his eyes. He was groggy beyond belief. It felt as if a ton had been placed over his eyelids—he could barely open them. He was also aware of too many bodies in one room. Weren't there normally restrictions on how many people were allowed to visit a patient? When he finally managed to open his eyes, he could make out Kikumaru gazing at him closely from his left, Momoshiro on his right, and a group of bunched up shapes at his feet. "How long was I out?"

"Only an hour or so," replied Fuji calmly.

Ryoma began to make out the shapes better. It was Fuji, Inui, Oishi, and Kawamura at his feet. Kaidou and Tezuka stood off to the side. He sighed. "So what's the diagnosis?"

"Dislocated right shoulder, two fractured ribs, and a broken leg—the lattermost will take the longest to heal. The doctors said you could leave whenever but advised you to stay for at least two days under observation," answered Inui.

"Great," muttered Ryoma. "Are we leaving tonight then?"

There was a small outcry of protests in response to his words. Oishi looked horrified and began lecturing Ryoma on taking his health more seriously. Even Fuji had gazed at him with no small amusement in his eyes. Ryoma closed his eyes and blocked out the voices around him. A part of him knew it would be safer to stay at the hospital for several more days—but he also knew he hated being pampered when he didn't need it.

"It's his choice. If he wants to leave then we can do that. He's not a child anymore."

There was silence. Ryoma opened his eyes and looked at Tezuka, who was staring back at him just as intensely. The older man had a frosty look about him, but the eyes directed at Ryoma gave away nothing.

"Tezuka…," murmured Oishi, knowing his battle was over. He looked at Ryoma concernedly. "Are you sure, Echizen? You don't have to feel obligated to go back just because of us. An extra few days is no big deal."

Ryoma's gaze softened at the older man. "I mean it. Let's go back home."

Oishi sighed deeply, but he managed a small smile. "All right then. I guess we should get your paperwork ready," he said, moving out of the room. "I'll go inform the doctor."

"Thanks," smiled Ryoma.

Momoshiro bopped him on the head lightly. "You bastard, trying to act all tough, huh?" he teased.

Ryoma smirked. "There is no try."

"Don't go all Yoda on us, wiseass! I know Star Wars."

"That's all you know, Momo."

"What the—? Let me at him!"

The group laughed as Momoshiro was jokingly held back by Kawamura. Ryoma grinned openly. As fundamentally wrong this day had turned out to be, it looked like everything was going to end all right. He thanked whatever karma he had for at least this much.

It turned out to be an afternoon of laughter and jokes. Fuji had managed to persuade the doctor into allowing them to stay until Ryoma would be released—a trick the young man wouldn't have minded learning from the former tennis prodigy. A few hours later, with not too much disgruntlement, Ryoma was out of the hospital and being driven back to the lodge. Kikumaru took control of the wheel this time—Oishi had kept turning around in his seat to make sure Ryoma was all right and had nearly crashed them into a tree—and in less than half an hour the ex-pro was back in his room with Tezuka. Dinner was quick—some instant noodles and grape juice—and soon, the packing was underway. Ryoma remained on the bed. Tezuka had insisted he get his rest. It wouldn't have been so hard to pack the younger man's things anyway. Ryoma had always traveled light.

As Ryoma watched Tezuka fold his clothes in pristine manner, he couldn't help but smile. Everything was organized. Even his socks had been rolled into neat balls and packed carefully. It occurred to Ryoma that Tezuka was a little anal. And that made him chuckle out loud.

"What is it?"

The bespectacled man looked at Ryoma. A genuine smile from the younger man was rare enough. Tezuka couldn't recall a time where he'd seen Ryoma laugh openly. The sight softened his temper a little. He had been struck with concern and fear when he'd heard Ryoma was in the hospital—hit with anger and frustration at the man's recklessness when he said he wished to leave that very night.

"You're very organized, Kunimitsu," replied Ryoma, a trace of laughter still in his voice.

Tezuka paused. "And you are not."

This time Ryoma grinned. "Of course. I hope it didn't take you this long to realize that."

"I was your captain. I saw your locker. I knew."

"I never knew you paid attention to stuff like that," said Ryoma. He sat up a little straighter. "So who's the messiest out of us all?"

Tezuka continued folding clothes, thinking of the answer. He then smiled faintly. "Kikumaru," he answered.

"Seriously? I always thought it'd be Momo," remarked Ryoma.

"Momo is actually very organized. Not nearly as much as Oishi, though. He's the worst."

Ryoma smiled. "And Fuji? Inui?"

"Both are relatively messy. Inui's room is horrible. Only his desk area and file cabinets are in perfect order. Kaidou is also fairly organized. He has his own interesting method of organizing, though. Something only he understands. Kawamura is also very neat."

"What's my range then? Better than Kikumaru but worse than…"

"Fuji. Inui is actually a close runner-up with Kikumaru," replied Tezuka easily.

Ryoma raised an eyebrow. "That's surprising. His locker was always so clean."

"His locker held his notebooks. It was a part of his work. So yes, it would have been organized."

It occurred to Ryoma then the conversation was a bit stilted. As amusing as he found it that more than half the team were actually neat freaks, he wasn't all too comfortable with the way Tezuka kept staring at him. Unblinkingly. It was as if the older man was somehow gauging him. But Ryoma had no idea what Tezuka could have been watching for. He cocked his head to the side. Already feeling too vulnerable from the day's events, he acted defensively.

"There's nothing wrong with being messy," he said, inwardly cursing at how petulant he sounded. Old habits died hard. Whenever Ryoma found himself insecure, he automatically reverted back to his twelve-year-old self. "Besides, the disorderliness has an…order."

When Tezuka failed to give him a proper response within a five second timeframe, Ryoma shook his head. Painkillers. He had never taken them in such a large dosage before and they must have been screwing with his head more than he thought.

"Is this your way of telling me you're upset with me packing your things?"

Ryoma started. He looked at Tezuka in alarm, an objection already on the tip of his tongue when he noticed the older man's smile. He hesitated and then watched him. Tezuka continued smiling. Ryoma sighed, smiling despite himself. "Still not used to you joking, Buchou."

"I'm sorry."

"You gotta work on your vocal delivery. Add a little more sarcasm to make it more obvious. If it were anyone else, they would be offended."

Tezuka looked at him again, earthy brown flashing. "If it were anyone else, I wouldn't have even tried."

Ryoma always prided himself as a quick thinker. And as much as Tezuka's words had thrown him off, he took it to stride and replied just as he normally would. "Does that make me special then?" Throw in just as much cheekiness in the words to make it not seem like he was an arrogant bastard. He was not Keigo after all.

Tezuka studied him a while longer before answering. But when he did, Ryoma had no comeback to offer.


The silence that followed seemed to please Tezuka and he went along with folding the clothes. He had finished Ryoma's packing. Now he started with his own.

Ryoma leaned back against the headboard. "Well, I guess I'll have to postpone the starting of my surfing career."

"What do you plan on doing with your spare time?"

"Who knows," shrugged Ryoma. He eyed Tezuka. "Maybe try and woo you over."

Tezuka didn't meet his gaze for a while. He continued folding his clothes for several minutes—calmly, casually. Ryoma narrowed his eyes. Such a strange dynamic was between them now. Last week it had been Ryoma in control of the game, influencing Tezuka's mood and actions with the slightest effort. Now Tezuka had gained a hold of the situation. It was obvious to Ryoma that the older man must have been thinking quite a lot the past few days. But whatever conclusions he had come up with were unknown to him—and it was beginning to bug him to no ends. Ryoma felt hesitation and some fear. He had walked into this fairly confident he would be able to win over Tezuka. Perhaps he was wrong.

"Seems like a waste of time to me," said Tezuka finally, resting his palms on his thighs. He looked up at Ryoma from the floor. "If you plan on staying in Japan for a little longer, I thought we could do something together."

For a second, Ryoma's head was blank. Then he started—almost violently—jerking up from the bed in a flash. "What?" he asked sharply. Then he cringed and gingerly massaged his side. Painkillers. They were doing jack for him. Not only were they messing with his head, but there was still hellish pain. Tezuka rose quickly and eased him back gently, apprehension in his gaze—with a just a smidge of amusement.

"You seem…a bit jumpy since you got out of the hospital."

Ryoma glared at him. "I don't do well with meds in my system."


"So what exactly are you proposing?"

Tezuka looked at him. "Exactly what I said."

"'Doing something…' Forgive me if that seems a bit vague. Does that imply exclusiveness?" Ryoma was beginning to feel snappy. In fact, he got the odd feeling he was channeling Keigo. He shook his head and sighed. "Sorry. I'm…a bit screwed up right now."

This time Tezuka regarded him worriedly. Ryoma almost rolled his eyes. He certainly was an expert in worrying people today. Then Tezuka moved and he was suddenly sitting by him on the bed. Ryoma looked at him in mild surprise.

"You really don't do well with medications," he said, smiling slightly. "The lunacy can be forgiven in favor of you saving a girl's life."

Ryoma felt the faintest threat of a blush coming to his cheeks. He suppressed the bubbling joy and giddiness in his stomach with great effort. This was certainly not his best day. On the one hand, Tezuka seemed to be genuinely expressing his feelings and was warmer to him now than all the previous occasions they were together—but Ryoma himself was sensing disaster on his side. He was acting like a schoolchild. His collectivity was AWOL. His coolness—a trait he prided in himself—had been heated to a boiling point. He was a great mess right now. So of course this had to be the moment where Tezuka would open himself to him. Ryoma had never felt so utterly vulnerable in his life. This was why he didn't do medicine. When he got sick, he isolated himself from the world to avoid any embarrassment. Echizen Ryoma and medicine did not work well together. He almost prayed for some kind of distraction.

"I…er… Yeah, thanks."

A most brilliant save if Ryoma ever saw one. He balled his fists and looked at Tezuka almost desperately. "I don't do well with people near me when I'm…unwell," he said finally, noticing how strained his own voice sounded to himself.

Tezuka blinked. "There's no need to feel embarrassed."

Ryoma could feel a weird panic rising from within. "No, not just that. It's… I get really…weird when I'm on meds. I mean really. Can't you tell already? I'm talking way more than I usually do. I don't like people seeing this side of me."

His hands were shaking. Usually, Ryoma was able to avoid these situations by intimidation. When he was sick, he acted so explosively that even his own father avoided him at all costs. But Ryoma couldn't do that to Tezuka. Had it been anyone else he would have just said "fuck off" and be done with it. Tezuka wasn't just anyone else, though. Ryoma gripped the sheets tightly as Tezuka leaned in closer to him, feeling his forehead.

"Are you all right? Why are you so tense?"

The tenderness in Tezuka's eyes ripped through Ryoma's heart. Tezuka could be so alive and beautiful sometimes that it took Ryoma's breath away. That the older man would choose to alienate himself from life reminded him of what he was supposed to do—something more important than a little embarrassment on his part. Meds or not, he did have one hell of a strong will. Surely that counted for something, right?

Taking Tezuka's hand, Ryoma squeezed it gently. "I'm fine. Don't worry about it," he said, happy to hear his voice return to normal. He allowed himself to stare at Tezuka unabashedly. "So am I allowed to think I don't need to 'woo you over' anymore?"

Tezuka seemed taken aback. But there was no real panic in his eyes. He did not attempt to take back his hand from Ryoma. "I think you're allowed to think I'm at least willing to give this—whatever it is—a chance," he replied.

For a while neither of them said a word. Ryoma held Tezuka's hand still, rubbing circles gently into his palm, drowning himself in earthy brown depths. Tezuka allowed the action to persist, gold irises piercing through him. Then Ryoma smiled. A stunningly beautiful smile, one Tezuka had never seen on the younger man. It made all the other half grins, gentle quirks, and tugging of the lips pale in comparison. It made Tezuka smile himself.

"Poor, poor Keigo," murmured Ryoma.

The words amused Tezuka. "He certainly gave me less grief than you, though."

Ryoma glowered at him darkly. Tezuka pulled his hand away and stood up from the bed. "I have to pack up everything else. We'll be leaving soon. And since you're incapacitated at the moment…"

"Hey, I didn't fracture two ribs, dislocate my shoulder, and break my leg on purpose," interjected Ryoma, though they both knew it was in good humor.

Tezuka smiled a little and bent over Ryoma, placing a gentle kiss on his forehead. He kept himself from grinning when he felt the younger man's surprise. "You intrigued me the day you first came onto the tennis court. Living life so freely, so magnificently—and you say you want to light a fire in my soul… I think you have already lit a spark," he said.

He didn't wait for Ryoma to respond—in fact, he did not want him to respond. He just turned away and began rummaging through the remaining drawers, leaving an air of finality. Ryoma knew the moment was a rare one—and another would probably not happen again for a long time. He watched Tezuka's back. Such support and strength lined those muscles and frame. How long had Tezuka been the one to keep everyone secure? It was a heavy burden. Ryoma knew it from experience. He had been alone to lead a whole new group of future tennis players when all his senpai graduated. It had been an enduring journey and one that broadened his perspective considerably. His former charges would say he had been an excellent captain and one worthy of awe and respect. Ryoma knew he was never meant to be a true leader, though. He inspired people sure, but leading them was a whole other skill he never possessed or tried to hone.

Tezuka Kunimitsu—not many people would remember his name because of how he dropped off from the face of the tennis world. His friends and peers would always remember him, though. He was a legend among his generation not only for his tennis skills, but also because of his extraordinary sportsmanship. But even the best man can get sidetracked. Ryoma wondered when was the last time Tezuka had needed saving. Not only that, though, but Tezuka was changing him. Perhaps they had both been stuck in time and perception. Tezuka, allowing himself to live life from the sidelines and Ryoma, idolized by the world and fixed in eternal fame—never moving, always still. It was only by coming together were they able to stop the ebbing of time and fast forward to reality. Ryoma liked that idea.

He would have to thank his dad later for persuading him to come back to Japan.

And maybe Fuji too for his damn interfering that nonetheless aided him tremendously.

Then pay back Inui for his aspirin.

And finally, see how Tezuka fared on ice—which should be entertaining if nothing else.

That sounded like a plan.