Title: In the Midst of Solitude and Winter Breeze (1 of 2)

Author: Angel

Pairings: AtobexRyoma, one-sided TezukaxRyoma, OshitarixFuji. Implied: OhtorixShishido, OishixEiji, and more along the way.
WARNING! This fic features Emotional!Ryoma, Angsty!Atobe, Rash-Expressive!Tezuka, Best-friend!Shishido, etc.
Disclaimer: PoT is no way mine… Duh.

"I want to know the reason why you are sad
Even with all my efforts, I cannot protect you
Lips deranging the complicated distance
But it seems that all will be lost if I reach out to you…"

- Atobe Keigo : Riyuu (Reason) -

Angel presents
IN THE MIDST OF SOLITUDE AND WINTER BREEZE
An Atobe x Ryoma Story

He wondered why it felt so hollow.

His Tensai friend recently pointed out to him that his Hametsue no Rondo had been lacking in force and accuracy. Atobe Keigo was feeling something close to guilt, for he refused to believe in guiltiness and repentance. He believed that his decisions were all justified, given the amount of reflection and thoughts he put himself through before stating his stand. Thus, he refused to believe that his decision of letting go of one Echizen Ryoma was slowly eating him whole since the day he told the other boy so.

Three years… For three years, Atobe felt he had not been fair to Ryoma at all. The younger boy had turned down so many offers to tennis academies overseas. Although he claimed that he was not the least interested in what they had to offer, Atobe knew otherwise. He knew that he, Atobe Keigo, was the tie that bound Ryoma to Japan. Yes, Atobe knew how genuine the boy's feelings towards him were. His feelings were undeniably sincere too, for he was willing to give the boy all diamonds in the world and every ounce of his attention. Yet, he did not like the uneasiness that settled in his stomach like invisible, barbed chains tearing and scratching at the walls of his heart.

"So… Everything was just a game for you?"

"Aa."

THUD!

The sound of high-speed ball colliding with hard practice wall reverberated throughout the almost-lifeless practice ground. It was even possible for it to crack, so how the hell could Oshitari say that Atobe's smash had been lacking in power? Another hit, and this time with a yell resembling a battle cry.

Ryoma looked so sad when he turned around before they parted ways.

Atobe almost panicked. His heart was beating like crazy as he himself tried to stop the tears that he knew would fall the moment the other boy disappeared from his field of vision. 'No, Ryoma, don't give me that sad look. Don't look like you're going to cry! You never cried before, so please don't start now!'

THUD!

Atobe watched as his favourite tennis racket crashed into the wall with indefinable momentum. The piece of metal was bent so bad that it barely looked like a racket anymore. The hand that was previously holding the grip of the destroyed racket was touching his face in disbelief. "Why?" Atobe's question came out in gasp of incredulity.

A couple drops of tears had fallen down his slightly flushed cheeks before he could stop them.

"Thank you for everything."

His heart constricted in his chest as Ryoma's lips formed a sweet smile, a smile that resembled the one directed his way when Atobe confessed for the first time.

"I.. I loved you, you know."

And then he was gone… as the rain started to pour.

"I did the right thing… did I?" Suddenly, Atobe was not so sure anymore. How could he, when it felt like a big portion of his soul had suddenly left his body? Maybe this was what they call 'playing tennis without your own tennis style'. He had been recklessly swinging his racket for the past few hours, hitting the balls with utmost force and accuracy. But that had not been his style of tennis. It seemed as if his play had lost its soul, reducing Atobe's once wondrous play into remnants of insignificant, soulless tennis.

"That's one, big, ugly tennis, Atobe."

Wiping the remnant of sweat on his face with his wristband, Atobe turned around, calling every bits of dignity he had left to face whomever it was who dared to make such blunt statement. When he did, he was not the least surprised.

"Shishido."

"Yo, Atobe. You look pretty much like a lost, battered, little puppy there."

"Get lost."

A low chuckle escaped Shishido's throat as he advanced towards the scowling captain. "Now, now, you don't really mean that, do you, Keigo? Or, is it you just don't want anyone to see that sulking face of yours?"

Atobe almost growled. "I'm warning you, Ryou. You're playing with fire here."

The dash specialist shrugged. He didn't even slow his pace either. "Ask me if I care. By the way, I dropped by your house earlier this morning. Your parents said you haven't been yourself lately. So, your Dad asked me to do something."

"What?"

Atobe didn't have the chance to ask further when a heavy punch landed on his face, sending him down onto the hard clay court. He was back on his feet faster than he fell. "What the fuck, Shishido Ryou! You –" A quick punch from Atobe was successfully evaded, but Shishido was not fast enough to escape the second one.

"How does my Blow to Destruction feel to you, huh?"

Soon, they were throwing kicks and punches at each other like they were arch-rivals who wanted one of them dead or brutally injured. The fight only ceased after an hour, as both of them reached their limits. After all, fighting required more energy than playing tennis.

"Feel better yet, Keigo?"

"Aa."

They were both lying on the ground, panting and sweating and soiled from head to toe covered in bruises. Fortunately for them, none of the bruises were serious. This scenario might seem out of place for most of their friends, but this was reality. Atobe Keigo and Shishido Ryou were childhood friends. They were good friends despite their social ranks and differences. Shishido used to spend most of his time at Atobe's house when they were little. It was only common for the rest of Atobe household to be familiar with Shishido. The guy might act like a brat towards Atobe, but he was the good guy in front of the other Atobes.

"You've been lost to the world for a while. I know I said I'm not fucking interested in your fucking affairs, but it's been too bloody ridiculous for me to just shrug it off. What the hell happened to you?"

Atobe sighed. "I don't know what's wrong with me either."

A long pause…

"It's Echizen, isn't it?"

Shishido's innocent question was left unanswered but he knew it was true. Anyone who knew Atobe would know it too. Three years ago, Shishido was the first to find out about Atobe and Ryoma. He had been surprised for he thought if Echizen Ryoma were to be in a relationship with someone, it would either be Tezuka or that Momoshiro guy. He didn't know about their countless accidental meetings at the street court when no one else was present. Shishido only found out about them when he caught them kissing after a match between Seigaku High and Hyotei High in his and Atobe's first year of high school. When Shishido saw the second-year junior high tennis prodigy in the crowd earlier, he had assumed that Ryoma was only there to watch his seniors.

Their relationship particularly had good effects on Atobe. The young man was always in good mood. Jirou claimed that 'Keigo's light shone brighter than ever in Ryoma-kun's presence'. The light seemed to have died out after their official break-up a couple of months ago.

"What the hell's been bothering you? What the hell really happened, Keigo?"

"I don't know. It's just that, I feel like a large portion of my heart is gone. It's so empty inside. I don't know what I'm feeling anymore." At this point, Atobe had both his hands covering his face. He didn't want Shishido to see his expression of confusion.

"Hmm… Maybe it's the aftermath of having to let go of someone who had always been so close to you all this time. I can't say I know how you feel, but when we were graduating from junior high, I felt like I'm leaving my heart behind. I felt so empty when we started high school even though Yuushi, Gakuto, Jirou and you were there. And then last year… The one who holds my heart got an offer to continue his studies overseas…"

Atobe chuckled. "It was hard for you when Ohtori told you about the offer, wasn't it?"

"Damn straight it was hard! He wanted to refuse the offer because he didn't want to leave me!"

That struck a chord in Atobe's heart. He immediately sat up in spite of the pain inflicted by their previous fight. He hadn't known about that one; hadn't known that Shishido Ryou had had to go through a situation similar to his. "And you… Did you break up with him? Not that I want to pry into your private life or anything, but, did you?"

Shishido narrowed his eyes in distaste. "Baka! Why the heck would I do that? I just kind of let him go… Beat some sense into his head. Well, I think I told him I'll always be where I am now. If he still wants me after he comes back, then I'll be welcoming him home with open arms. We didn't break anything. I still tell him I love him, and he does the same whenever he can. I know France is not that close, and I don't have the luxury to go and visit the country whenever I want to – unlike you. But then again, that's what telephone and internet are for, right?" He was grinning by the time he turned to look at Atobe. The grin promptly vanished as his eyes fell on the other boy.

Atobe was shaking; shivering like someone had just doused him with ice water.

"Oi, Keigo…"

"I… I think I've done something really stupid."

Shishido was confused. Somehow, he knew Atobe was talking about his break-up with Seigaku's youngest pillar of support. Atobe had told them that the break-up was mutual, that they didn't have anything to regret. If it was mutual, then why was Atobe acting the way he was? Even Yuushi, who was dating Fuji Syuusuke, mentioned Fuji's concern about Echizen's recent behaviours. Had his and Choutarou's story affected Atobe this much? Perhaps, Atobe was still in love with Echizen. Perhaps, they loved each other still… Perhaps…

"Keigo…" Shishi gasped, realisation settling in. "You were the one who called the relationship off, weren't you? You… You must have told Echizen that you didn't love him anymore, haven't you? For God's sake, you did it even though you're still in love with him?"

Atobe's head bowed in defeat.

He'd thought it was the right decision – the best one. He thought by letting Ryoma go, he would be doing a favour for the other boy's future. The moment Ryoma surpassed him, Tezuka, Fuji and even Sanada and Yukimura, the boy still stayed. Even when he was finally able to defeat his father, Ryoma stayed. When they were together, there was a comforting aura regulating around them. Though Ryoma seldom spoke much, their relationship was never put on risk. True, it was a little bit shaky at the start but it had got better as months and years passed by.

And he'd gone and broken what they worked so hard for.

Shishido sighed. He knew Atobe must feel like shit now. Having to say you were no longer in love when the truth was otherwise must be the hardest thing to do in someone's life. Being left by someone you're very much in love with was even worse. "You know what? You can still make amends, if you want to. I won't ask you what happened between you guys but… Hell, how do I say this! I mean, you're our captain, and you're my friend. I hate seeing you like this, Keigo. We've been worried, if you can't tell. Jirou doesn't sleep as much now. He said he couldn't sleep because he's worried you'd go and do something stupid while he was asleep. Mukahi is not as bouncy as before. Even Choutarou freaked out when I told him."

". . ."

"This is as far as I can say. The rest is up to you."

Opening his eyes, Atobe lifted his head. He had his friends worried sick about him. When Akutagawa Jirou spent more time awake and Mukahi Gakuto ceased to be bouncy, Hyotei Gakuen Kou would never be the same. Shishido was right. He had to make amends for his deeds. Whether or not Ryoma would accept his explanation was another matter. He'd hurt the boy deeply, he knew that much. For now, he had to find the boy first.

"Oi, Ryou…"

"Huh?"

"Thanks."

Shishido smiled. "Don't mention it." Just then, the sky deliberately turned darker by a few shades indicating that rain was coming soon. As if to emphasise the thought, a long rumble reverberated throughout the sky. Atobe got to his feet and said goodbye to Shishido.

"Oi, Keigo! Where are you going? It's going to rain!"

"I need to go find someone!"

And then he was gone.

Shishido shook his head. "That Atobe…" He hoped everything would change for the better from that point. 'Everything will work out in the end. So, you don't have to worry that much, Choutarou. We'll be just fine.'

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

The front door slammed shut with a loud bang. Oshitari Yuushi looked up from the sofa to see his apartment-mate entering the living room with a dark look on his face. He took off his glasses and set it aside, beckoning for the other man to sit down next to him. "What's wrong, Syuusuke?" Oshitari asked with every bit of worry dripping from every word he spoke. Fuji's eyes were open, and the usual smile he always wore was absent. The tensai of Seigaku sighed, flicking back a stray lock of hair falling on his eyes. All of a sudden, their shared apartment seemed too silent and too empty.

"Syuusuke?"

Fuji blinked. "Ah, sorry, Yuushi-kun. I was just thinking."

Sighing again, Oshitari sigh and pulled Fuji closer to him. The latter snuggled up against the warmth instinctively. It was Fuji who broke the silence later too. "Our pillar of support is crumbling, "Fuji said sadly. " He's withdrawing himself from us more and more. The power of his shots is going down too. It was like he has given up on tennis. I have the feeling that the break-up wasn't mutual like he said at all."

Oshitari nodded his head. "The break-up was never mutual. It was Atobe."

Fuji suddenly broke free from Oshitari and jumped to his feet in mere seconds. His eyes were shining with anger and fury. "I knew it! That Atobe… I warned him… We warned him…"

Oshitari knew better than to contradict. An enraged Fuji was not fun to cross – at all. "Our Atobe is a fool who loves too much and thinks too much. He rarely acts on instinct for he believes that actions without thoughts are detrimental to future results of the acts."

Fuji's open eyes narrowed in anger. "Does that mean the break-up was planned too?"

The tensai of Hyotei shook his head. "Like I said, Atobe is a fool who loves too much and thinks too much. He is sometimes blinded by what he himself thinks is best. When he realises that his thoughts and actions have not been right all along, he will go into bouts of denials before coming to terms with himself. Sometimes, it even takes another party to beat some sense into his head. He might be conceited and vain, but he's serious when he loves. Trust me, the break-up is eating up on Atobe too."

Fuji gasped in shock. "You mean, Atobe is still in love with Echizen-kun?"

Oshitari nodded. "I've known it the moment Atobe told us they had broken up. He doesn't have the aura of a man who has completely fallen out of love with his special someone."

Both of them fell back into their previous position on the sofa. "If Atobe is still in love with Echizen-kun, then why did he do it?"

"As for that, I don't know."

"Yuushi-kun, why didn't you interfere if you knew of Atobe's decision?"

Oshitari chuckled at that. "He needs to overcome his problem on his own sometimes. But, even if I don't interfere, someone else will. He might even have done so by now."

"Who?"

"Did you know that Shishido is Atobe's childhood friend?"

"Ah… I see..."

"Forget about that for a while. How's your family?"

"Oh, they're fine. Yuuta still freaks out when I invite him to come and stay with us. He said he doesn't want to know anything that has to do with our love life. Mom sends her regards and Yumiko-neesan is as cheerful as ever. But…"

"What's the matter?"

"Onee-san did some fortune telling again. She predicted that something bad is going to befall us soon. I don't know if I should believe it or not, but her predictions always come true. And she looked so grim when she told me that."

"You shouldn't see too much into it, Syuusuke."

"But, Yuushi-kun…"

"Hmm?"

"I'm scared."

Oshitari lovingly kissed Fuji on the forehead. "… I'll protect you if something does happen."

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Meanwhile, Tezuka Kunimitsu was having trouble concentrating on his homework. The pitter-patter of rain that had just started to form a heavy rain was not helping either. His mind kept trailing back to replay the image of a certain freshman of Seigaku Kou. The boy had not been himself after the break-up with Atobe. His play-style had been going haywire for weeks. There were times where his play was too slow in pace and there were times where he was too erratic. He stayed back after practice to play against the wall regardless of the summer rain beating incessantly onto his tired body. Tezuka was worried, so worried that it was making it difficult for him to sleep at night. Ryoma had told the team that the break-up was mutual, so no one asked him further. Somehow, Tezuka knew there was something that Ryoma was keeping to himself alone.

If only he knew the truth…

"Kunimitsu, your team-mate is here!"

The sudden call from his mother startled Tezuka a bit but quickly regained his composure. It was rare for anyone from Seigaku to visit him on Sunday evening. Eiji would never ever visit his place, nor would Momoshiro or Kaidoh. Inui would be collecting data somewhere else or even went up to meet his Rikkai friend of his. Fuji must be with Oshitari, and Echizen… Well, what would Echizen want with him? Even though he was secretly hoping that it really was Echizen, he knew it was impossible. It must be Oishi again, fretting about anything that went wrong the club or something. When he saw said team-mate at the door, however, he had to mask his shock.

"Echizen?"

Ryoma's had his head hung low with his bangs shielding his catlike eyes from Tezuka. He was drenched. Tezuka's mother had given him a towel to dry himself off but Ryoma seemed to not be making any efforts towards that purpose. "I'm sorry for bothering you at time like this, buchou." The sentence was delivered in the softest and most strained voice ever. Tezuka shook his head to contradict him and asked Ryoma to follow him to his room. Ryoma had grown taller in three years. He would be able to fit into one of Tezuka's old clothes. Tezuka sat on the new sofa in the corner of his room while Ryoma was changing his clothes. His mother insisted to put one in his room in case his friends came to visit.

When Ryoma came back from changing, he still refused to lift his head. It was making Tezuka worried more than ever. "Is there anything I could help you with, Echizen?" He could see how Ryoma stiffened at the innocent question. The younger boy released a choked sob. He unexpectedly sat down on the floor and rested his head on Tezuka's hips. Tezuka was too shocked to react but when he realised that the younger male was shaking, his shock once again turned into worry. It took him a while to realise.

Ryoma was crying.

"Echizen…?"

"Buchou… I just accepted the invitations."

Tezuka blinked a couple of times. What was Ryoma talking about?

"I… I just accepted the invitation to participate in US Open… and the enrolment into a tennis academy in the States."

Tezuka closed his eyes. He knew this would happen eventually. So, why was he feeling so sad? His hand caressed the boy's damp hair as Ryoma sobbed silently. "That… That's great," he said reluctantly. Three years ago, he had lost his chance to Atobe Keigo. Now, not only he felt losing the chance to love Ryoma, but also their friendship and companionship that he had grown to cherish. It was hard enough to see Kawamura leaving the tennis team. To have Ryoma leaving the team too… A lot of things would have to change. "You'll do well there, Echizen."

"I don't know."

"You'll do well… You've been the strongest pillar of Seigaku long enough. It's time to expand the coverage of the pillar."

Ryoma shook his head. "You don't understand, buchou. I had no choice," he said dejectedly. "I'm making the team suffer. Every part of Tokyo makes my heart ache! I can't play like I used to. If I don't go… I would have to quit tennis."

Tezuka Kunimitsu wanted to kill Atobe Keigo – now.

He lifted Ryoma's head so the boy was looking at him. Tears were still spilling from Ryoma's eyes. He was just 16 and he looked like he was carrying the burden of the world on his shoulder. Tezuka pulled Ryoma into a loose hug as to avoid startling the boy. "You're not making the team suffer, Echizen. By all means, if it takes you going away to regain your posture in tennis, then do so. Don't let that talent of yours go to waste." He kissed the boy's forehead affectionately. "And when the time is right, we might see each other again in a tournament somewhere."

That only made the boy withdrew. "I'm not strong enough, am I? I'm not strong enough to be Keigo's equal."

Tezuka frowned. "That's nonsense."

Ryoma didn't seem to hear what he said. "I have to get stronger. I need to fly higher so you efforts wouldn't go to waste. You guys have helped me so much… It's time I prove I can take care of the wings that all of you helped make stronger." Loosening his hold on Tezuka, he smiled tearfully at the respected captain. "Thank you so much for everything, buchou. I'll be going in three days." Tezuka returned the smile and squeezed Ryoma's hands that he was still holding. Deep inside, he was touched. He was really glad that Ryoma was not scared to pour his heart out to him after what happened between them three years ago…

Ryoma had won against Atobe in the Nationals. After the win, the boy had stormed out of the courts to God-knows-where. Tezuka had taken it upon himself to find the rookie after the handshake with the rest of Hyotei regulars. Fuji said Echizen might be disappointed because he had been looking forward to watch a match between Tezuka and Atobe - that he didn't expect to be the one to face Atobe in the Nationals. Tezuka, however, was not so sure about that. He was worried about Ryoma even though he didn't look like it. A week prior, he had secretly asked Ryoma out. Tezuka had surprised even himself when he confessed to the boy.

But then, Ryoma had politely turned him down with a smile.

No one knew about the confession but Tezuka suspected that Fuji knew something about it. While he was searching for the boy, he heard a soft mumble coming from behind a tree. When the voice spoke, he sounded like Ryoma. He wanted to approach the boy but was promptly halted as he heard another voice.

"It was a fair match. You won, and I lost."

"But… I didn't expect to win against you this fast."

The other voice chuckled. "Hey, you make it sound like I was weak! What if I say that it's just your luck this time, an?"

This time, the first voice chuckled. "Baka Monkey King!"

Tezuka's blood ran cold.

Won…

Lost…

Fair match…

Monkey King…

'No, it couldn't be…'

Slowly, the Seigaku captain walked closer to the tree that was shielding him from the two people currently engaging in a conversation. True enough, Ryoma was there… with Atobe. The latter was pulling Ryoma into a kiss when Tezuka saw them. Tezuka's mind went blank as his hand shot out on its own. Before he knew it, he had punched the Hyotei captain. Ryoma's eyes were wide open in shock. Atobe sputtered indignantly and cursed loudly. "Oi, Tezuka! What do you think you're doing?" After getting back to his feet, Atobe returned the blow with just as much force if not more.

Tezuka retaliated.

What started out as an exchange of punches and blows turned into a full blown fight. Ryoma could not move even until Fuji and Oshitari found them. "Tezuka, stop it! Have you lost your mind?" Fuji yelled as he ran towards them. Tezuka didn't seem to listen as he returned Atobe's kick with his own.

"Watch it, Tezuka!" Oshitari yelled, and hit Tezuka in the face with his fist. Enraged, Fuji hit him back.

"You're the one who should watch who you're hitting, Oshitari!"

"Tsk, Fuji Syuusuke…"

Atobe and Tezuka went on with their fight. It wasn't long before the rest of Seigaku and Hyotei found them. "Damn you, Tezuka! What the hell is wrong with your head? I thought it's only your shoulder."

DUSH!

"What did you think you were doing to Echizen?"

DUSH!

"Fuck you, Tezuka. Haven't you seen someone kissing before?"

DUSH!

"Fuck yourself, Atobe. What you did to Echizen was…"

By this time, Fuji and Oshitari had stopped arguing. They were gaping at Tezuka's 'colourful' choice of words instead.

DUSH!

"It's not like I don't know that you lust after the boy too!"

"Atobe! You –"

"STOP IT, BOTH OF YOU!"

Tezuka stopped, and so did Atobe. They didn't notice that there were other people there. Ryoma was shaking with anger and embarrassment. No one dared say anything for fear that it would make the situation worse. "Don't talk as if I'm not here," he spat, throwing his white cap to the ground in rage. "You (he pointed to Tezuka) and you (he pointed to Atobe), I never expected you to act so childishly in public no less! And people said I'm the childish one! Especially you (pointing at Tezuka), buchou! I am so disappointed in you!"

Seeing as no one said anything, the petite tennis prodigy continued his tirade. "And Keigo (everybody gasped at that), you should not have taunted Tezuka-buchou like that! I thought you have more sense in you. Looks like I was wrong about that too!"

Atobe and Tezuka looked away from each other, both still panting and furious at each other. The former quickly went to Ryoma's side and glared at Tezuka. He wiped the blood at the corner of his mouth and eyed the crowd. "Listen here, you guys. Ore-sama and Echizen Ryoma here are dating. Ore-sama does not appreciate anyone who tries to interfere with our relationship. Not even you, Tezuka! Echizen doesn't need your 'blessing' to go out with anyone."

Tezuka's eyes widened in disbelief. He brought his gaze to Ryoma for conformation while partially hoping that the boy would say otherwise. But the youngest tennis player on their team didn't say anything. He just looked at Tezuka with a mixture of hurt and anger before turning away. "Echizen… You…"

"I don't want to talk to you right now, buchou."

That had hurt – really hurt.

After the incident, it took Ryoma a month before he was able to meet Tezuka's eyes when they talked.

As soon as it stopped raining, Ryoma excused himself after thanking Tezuka's mother for her hospitality. The captain walked him to the front gate although Ryoma told him it wasn't necessary.

"Thank you very much for everything, buchou."

"Don't mention it. I didn't do much, anyway. You're the one who evolves on your own. I just helped you realise your potentials so you could summon them out in times of need," with that, Tezuka lowered his head to give Ryoma a chaste kiss on the lips. "Seigaku will miss you." He'd meant to say 'I'll miss you' but he knew Ryoma would understand what he meant.

Ryoma blinked stupidly before smiling sadly. "I'll miss you too, buchou. I'll miss everything and every one of you."

Both of them said their goodbyes. Tezuka waited until Ryoma was out of his sight before retreating into the house. If any of them had turned to the left side of Tezuka's house, they would have seen Atobe Keigo fall to his knees at the scene in front of him just a few moments ago.

'So you've chosen Tezuka now, Ryoma…'

After saying goodbye to Shishido, Atobe had run to Ryoma's house. He didn't even call his driver or Kabaji to help him. He wanted to show how sincere he was to Ryoma; he wanted Ryoma to know that he really was sorry. By the time he reached the household, it was raining quite heavily. Atobe was disappointed when Nanako told him that Ryoma was not home. Judging by the look on the young woman's face, he knew that his presence was no more welcomed there as it was before. He couldn't blame her for having a grudge against him. Technically, it was his fault in the first place. Atobe practically begged for her to tell him where Ryoma had gone off to. She was reluctant at first. In the end, she relented as she realised that Atobe was drenched and shivering. The Hyotei captain didn't waste much time in making his way to Tezuka's house as soon as he found out.

Somehow, his effort seemed wasted now. He felt like throwing himself off of Tokyo Tower when he saw Tezuka kissing Ryoma. For a moment, he thought that he still had hopes with Ryoma. He wanted to apologise, even beg for forgiveness if that meant he would be gifted with Ryoma's love once again.

In the end, he was too late… and he had no one but himself to blame.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

The next day, Seigaku was shocked to find Echizen Ryoma absent from practice after class. Oishi, especially, was worried to the point of freaking out. Eiji and Momo rattled on about Ryoma and whatever illness that could have befell the boy. Inui was silently conversing with Kaidoh, with the former kept glancing at the gate as if Ryoma would appear any moment. Through the years, he had become quite protective of the boy. When he denied it, Inui claimed that it was just Kaidoh's brotherly instinct kicking in. The guy did have a younger brother, anyway. As for Fuji, he was currently having a conversation with Oshitari had dropped by to deliver a document from Sakaki to Ryuuzaki. Both of them did not seem to notice Tezuka's presence at all. The captain was about to tell them off before overhearing the name 'Atobe' and 'Echizen' in the same sentence.

"Atobe looks like he's going to explode any moment, today," Oshitari sighed, shaking his head exasperatedly. "He's drilling everybody to run laps. if you do so much as small hardly-recognizable mistakes, he'd be so ticked off that you wouldn't hear the end of it."

Fuji frowned, looking like he was deep in thought. It was hard to tell for he had his eyes closed. Tezuka felt bad for eavesdropping but he was so curious, especially if it concerned Atobe and Echizen. "Hmm, isn't that normal for Atobe?" Fuji asked, confused.

"Not really. That's your captain, if I'm not mistaken. Or maybe Sanada or Tachibana."

"Yuushi-kun! I thought you agreed not to badmouth Tezuka behind his back. And you don't have to bring Sanada-san and Tachibana-san into the picture, you know," Fuji reprimanded half-heartedly.

Oh, how Tezuka wanted to assign laps now…

Oshitari laughed good naturedly at his boyfriend's playful tone. "Haha… My bad, Syuu-chan. Anyways, I sort of cornered Atobe about him and Echizen this morning. Well, I have to say that I was not at all expecting his reaction when I brought the matter up."

"What did he do this time?"

Oshitari's expression changed considerably. A grim look quickly replaced the playful one. "He… He said that Echizen is getting weaker and lousier, that he couldn't find what he used to see in the boy anymore. And then, he kind of said that breaking their relationship off was truly a good idea and that he didn't regret it. And when I asked 'how come', Atobe started yelling that he doesn't give a damn about the boy anymore. Really, I wasn't expecting the outburst at all. You have to see Shishido's face when he said that. I can't begin to describe it. It was just so scandalous."

Fuji, however, had stopped listening after Oshitari said Atobe didn't regret the break-up. Apparently, Tezuka had also reached his limit. "FUJI! This isn't your personal chatroom. 20 laps around the courts for slacking off during practice!" Tezuka roared, trying to not let his anger be so obvious. He didn't know if either Fuji or Oshitari was aware of his presence. Judging by their look of surprise, Tezuka thought he knew the answer. Fuji mumbled a small 'sorry' before running his laps as Tezuka turned to Oshitari and regarded the tensai of Hyotei blankly. "You've done your task. Don't you have practice in your school too?"

Oshitari simply glared at him. Mumbling to himself, he brushed past Tezuka nonchalantly. Both of them were clearly not in good terms with each other. Well, come to think of it, Tezuka was hardly in good terms with anyone from Hyotei after the incident with Atobe three years back.

"By the way, Oshitari..."

"Hmm?"

"Tell Atobe I said 'Hi'."

Oshitari was left blinking in confusion after Tezuka walked away. He didn't like the captain's tone while he mentioned Atobe. And speaking of which, Oshitari just realised that he left out the crucial part of the story that he'd just told Fuji.

Ryoma was there during Atobe's outburst.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Oi, Seishounen! Have you informed your friends about this?" Echizen Nanjiroh roared into the room where Ryoma was currently stuffing various items into his suitcases. The young boy didn't move an inch from his position. He was not in the mood to argue with his father. He plainly ignored his father and continued with the task at hand; that was until he felt his father's hand on his shoulder. The hand was firm yet gentle in its own ways. It was just how Nanjiroh showed his care towards his son. Their father-son relationship might seem weird but in truth, Nanjiroh always worried and cared for his son.

"You'll be okay there, Ryoma."

Ryoma closed his eyes. He felt warm inside, too touched to say anything. His father rarely gave him words of encouragement. When he did, Ryoma treasured every word of it, albeit secretly.

Giving his son's shoulder on last squeeze, Nanjiroh left the room. Ryoma's hands shook. Truthfully, he was not sure whether or not he would be okay. His intention of leaving Japan was too selfish, and no one knew about it but him. It wasn't that he wanted to move a step forward in tennis. He just wanted to run away from the place that was starting to haunt it,

The arcade…

The tennis courts…

The malls…

The train…

The roads…

Even the cans of Ponta…

Everything reminded him of the time he spent with Atobe. When they were still together, Atobe was willing to ride the commoner's train with him, visiting arcades and even went to McDonalds with him. He played tennis with Ryoma in common street courts, strolling downtown on foot and sharing cans after cans of Ponta. And then Ryoma would be reminded of the grape flavoured kisses they shared in the rain or after playing tennis under the blazing sun.

Three years ago, he was just a normal, emotionless boy who cared about nothing but tennis. His days were monotonous, like a repetition of an old record in an old, dusty room. The ice around his heart melted little by little everytime he blended with his team-mates. Tezuka was the first one who saw through him. His ex-captain failed to completely crack the ice. The one who succeeded was Atobe. They complemented each other perfectly. It was no wonder that Ryoma would need a lot of time to pick up all of the broken pieces of his fragmented heart.

But it didn't seem that way for Atobe, or so Ryoma thought…

--- To be Continued ---

I know… They're so OOC…