A/N: This arose out of a semi-challenge from, believe it or not, an AzumaxTsukino LJ community. A couple of people had done some sketches of Azuma and Tsukino, sorta in a comic-esque style, and it was just so unbelievably cute and sweet. It wasn't Super Artistic Awesome, and it had some faults, but the merits just shone right through and it was lots of fun.

I'd had this in development for almost a goddamn YEAR by now, and that was just what I needed to get this out. It has the semi-dubious honor of being the first non-shonen-ai fic in the YakiPan category, so I'm hoping that this at least reaches one or two interested parties. It's a one-shot mostly because I don't have the time to take on another long fanfic project; hopefully any of my loyal readers don't think this is too much like Deeper Water or ISO… I tend to way overdo the introspective lead character to the extremes. :-/

I like AzumaxTsukino as a pairing, but the dynamic that happens between Kawachi and Tsukino is too subtle to ignore. It's the kind of thing that inspires devotion by action, not from chemistry. Besides, the idea of a Pantasia princess with a poor baker is too perfect an archetype to ignore.

On with the show!

Front Crawl
Forty laps to start. I can't take it easy, today of all days. There's more weight on me now, more now than ever.

His dive had improved by leaps and bounds since he half-fell into the water, awkwardly splashing about with weights attached to his waist. His form wasn't anywhere near Olympic quality, not even that of a professional, but it was just a vehicle. A booster stage. A running start.

Kyosuke Kawachi launched himself into the water, starting from a low crouch. Although his training was almost entirely on his upper body, he had somehow accumulated enough power to launch himself almost three meters before splashing into the pool.

Left, right, left, breathe, right. Left, right, left, breathe, right. The rhythm had implanted itself into Kawachi's body over the months of training. Remember to keep your eyes open. Kick in time. Left, right, left, breathe, right. Every stroke and you're gonna get closer. You're streamlined. You'll do it today.

He touched concrete at the edge of the pool and reacted instantly; he thrust his legs forward, turned around, and pushed himself off with a kicking thrust.

Use the momentum. Every forward movement starts from that momentum. Thirty-nine more laps to go.

Kyosuke's world faded into the splashes of blue, chemical-tasting pool water, lanced with occasional flashes of the lane markers, the tiles on the walls, and the dark early-morning sky. The sun still had yet to rise on southern Tokyo.

Keep it going. Get stronger. Thirty-eight laps to go.

Kawachi didn't feel the sting of the chlorine in his eyes anymore. It didn't have the pain it had the first time that he was shoved headfirst into the water. Sure, it still burned, but just like he had learned to time his turns, he'd even timed his blinks and squints to keep the water out of his eyes.

Time it right, move in the right means, timing and motion. Stir through the water, knead through the water, mold through the water. Do it. Thirty-seven laps to go.

His fingers touched concrete again, and he jackknife-thrusted himself opposite the pool again. The weight belt was still there, doubled up for the first time in a couple of weeks. He swam with twenty kilos of waterlogged foam pulling him back instead of the usual ten. Once it had only been four, then five.

I owe it. I owe it to everyone who wrote me off. This is going to show them up first. Mom, this is to show you that I'm better than you ever thought I'd be. Dad, this is for you. Thirty-six laps to go.

It had been eight weeks worth of training to get him to this point. Swimming was only a warm-up for him now; it was all upper-body training after that. Pulling on muscle bands, abdominal crunches, torso twists, the pectoral fly, the bicep curl and tricep push, followed by a delicious breakfast of egg whites with protein powder, mixed in with a powder of black and white sesame seeds, green tea powder, toasted seaweed, and countless other anti-cholesterol supplements. It ain't so bad when it gets cooked, Kawachi lamented, but there's nothing that can flavor a mass of steamed eggs with seaweed and stuff. At least the protein shakes aren't bad. Thirty-five.

He didn't hear the creak coming from the door of the municipal pool building as it opened partway, nor did he hear it closing barely a moment later as he splashed through the 50-meter lane, turning around again. It was open only long enough for a head to peek through for a moment before dashing away towards the attached gym.

Thirty-four. I owe her for this.

He started to feel a strain in his arms around lap twenty-seven, his arms starting to burn a little from the extended exertion. Burning is the only thing that's ever motivated me, dammit, he thought, continuing his weighted-down crawl stroke. Fire. Anger. Passion. It figures I have to swim like this. Keeps me focused. Keeps me on target. I won't make any headway with this. Thirteen laps to go. You owe her. Keep going.

He didn't really feel the changes that had come over him in the weeks since he'd started all this training. His body still felt the same, and there weren't any really dramatic changes to his shape yet. It's because I never ate well enough before this. All that cheap bread and miso soup with tofu and seaweed was just enough to keep me going. I never got fat, but I never got bulky either… I wish I had Azuma's metabolism. Twelve.

In fact… when did I ever really eat well? When have I ever been able to pay people back for yakiniku? When haven't I baked my dinner before I got into Pantasia?

When have I had the chance to learn these things? Bread is the stuff of life, but the stuff of a proper diet… eleven…

"Keep going, Kawachi-san," that's what it was. Anyone who's called me "Kyosuke" knew me too well, knew how stubborn I can be. They knew that I go to extremes. They just stopped thinking about me when they knew me that well. But she called me "Kawachi-san." Ten.

The door to the pool opened and closed again, and he heard it presently, but he was still too busy to look, too busy to even turn his head. Move forward. Keep swimming. If you stand still here, you'll drown. You'll be dragged down by the extra weights. This is just too damn ironic. All the extra burdens will be my undoing, huh? Nine more.

His splashes had subsided in intensity, but somehow he kept on moving, kept on crawling through the water. My hands are drying up, getting all wrinkly. Hell, with a morning dunked in chlorine and sweat and spending all day in front of a hot oven, I'm going to wrinkle up like my dad soon. Hear that, old man? I'm really gonna turn into you one day. Dammit. I swore that wouldn't happen, and now look at me. I was gonna make a name for you, not be you. Funny, huh? Eight more…

Even that ultimate dinner bread. It burned you to a crisp, literally. I never even had a chance at that, even when you were alive. Even all those things that held us down, everything you couldn't do. Maybe I won't be able to do it on my own… but I'm not like you. I'm not doing this on my own. Seven.

Watch me, dad. I'm doing it. I'm doing it because someone believes in me. I don't know if you ever did, but now I see it. You couldn't provide for me, but now that I can take care of myself… I can do something now. Six more.

I can become the best bread artisan ever. Five more.

I was born to you, so I deserved whatever it was you did for me, but because I have her, I have to work for it. She's really wonderful, dad. The same way that you had your way of wanting something so bad you only felt pity… no, that's not it. Four more.

I have no pity. I'm just angry whenever I think about why I want this so bad. It's not for my sake anymore. Not for yours. Not for bread, not for the people of the world, nothing so noble. Three more.

Yeah, I guess I'm greedy now. I guess I don't deserve to have her help me, have her believe in me. I want her to be happy, to be free. That's all, I swear. That's why I want to train, to get stronger. I want to be the bread artisan that saves her. I want to be that one man. I may not even be a man yet, but I want to start off being that man to her… two more.

I swim, I strive, I work, I practice. I'll keep doing this, dammit. Who cares if I'm not the best. I want to be there, and if I have to swim in the Olympics to do it, she doesn't even need to ask. Last one.

You hear that, dad? I want to be her man. I want to be that great man, even if I'm just a chef. That's who I am now. That's who Tsukino is to me.

He hauled himself out of the pool, not a simple task with the extra kilos of weight attached to his waist. Kawachi unbuckled the waterlogged weights, breathing heavily as he did so. A bottle of water was waiting at the end of the lane; he drank it down with gusto, pausing only to pant more.

"So, how did it feel, Kawachi-san?" a friendly voice asked. He hadn't heard her approach.

"Uwaaah, I'm already so tired, Tsukino-san," he whined, not really mocking enough. "My arms feel like they're going to fall off."

"Don't forget to stretch," Tsukino Azusagawa said, crouching down next to him, smiling. "We still have your morning exercises to go through."

"Yes, ma'am," he sighed, letting out a reluctant grin as he downed the rest of the water. "Anything for the sake of Solar Gauntlets and the Southern Tokyo Branch."

Yeah. Anything.

"Come on now, Kawachi-san," Tsukino chided, straightening up and offering him a hand to help him up. "Get out of that wet swimsuit and change; we've still got work to do."

"Yeah, you're right," Kawachi half-exclaimed, his grin turning into an earnest smile. "We've got work to do."

Whatever it takes. I'll swim as far and long as you want me to.