Disclaimer: Prince of Tennis belongs to Konomi Takeshi and other people who are not me.
A Court of Appeals
Taking one last glance at the paper in his hand, Tezuka Kunimitsu pulled his car over to the curb and turned off the engine. This appeared to be the correct address. As he stepped out onto the sidewalk, the house in question loomed before him, not extravagantly large like the monstrosity Atobe liked to call home, but it was large all the same. The surrounding area was clearly a cut above the average middle-class neighborhood. He merely noted the fact as a random bit of information, however, trying not to let it unduly affect him as he made his way to the door. Nevertheless, he could almost hear Inui's voice murmuring "good data" in his head as he lifted his hand and knocked. Almost a full minute passed before the door finally opened, and Tezuka found himself gazing down at the boy he had, indeed, come to see.
"Tezuka-sensei!" the boy exclaimed, wide brown eyes peering up at him in surprise beneath a tousled mop of matching brown hair. He held two cans of unopened Ponta clutched awkwardly against his chest as his other hand held the door aloft.
"Ryuzaki-kun," Tezuka addressed him, "is your father at home? There is something I would like to discuss with the both of you."
"Y-yes, Sensei," the boy replied, his young face crumpling as he shot a worried glance behind him. "He's out back. Is this about… that?" he asked with a slight wince.
"It is," Tezuka returned with a nod.
"I really don't want to bother him with that," Ryuzaki protested softly, glancing over his shoulder once again. "I already told you what he thinks. He just doesn't care for school sports and stuff."
"I would like to hear the reasons for that myself," Tezuka said firmly. "I would also appreciate a chance to change his mind."
Tezuka raised a single questioning brow.
The boy sighed in defeat. "Ok," he said, opening the door further to let him in. "This way, Sensei."
Tezuka followed the boy through a comfortably furnished Western-style living room to a large sliding door near the back of the kitchen. Ryuzaki Sakuya hesitated but a moment before tugging it open and continuing outside. As Tezuka stepped out into the backyard, his eyes widened slightly in surprise. He didn't know what he had expected, but a full tennis court along the length of it was not anything close. And Sakuya had said his father didn't like sports? No, it was school sports. Puzzlement creased his brow at the apparent conundrum.
The boy walked up to a figure dressed in shorts and a light polo shirt reclining back on a lounge chair and silently offered one of the Ponta cans. Without looking up from the book he was reading, the man reached out and took hold of the can, wordlessly nodding a brief acknowledgment.
"We have a guest, Dad," Sakuya mumbled quietly, gazing down at his own feet.
At that, the man glanced up at his son, and then turned his head toward Tezuka and halted. And stared. At least, he seemed to be staring; it was hard to tell where exactly his eyes were directed behind the dark pair of sunglasses adorning his face.
For a minute, Tezuka merely returned his stare, taking the time to apprehend and examine the man's appearance. Sakuya didn't resemble his father much. Instead of a warm, chocolate brown, his hair was a dark, glossy black that jutted down to his shoulders in chaotic angles. He was not a large man, though his physique clearly argued the strong, well-toned muscles of an athlete. And still the man stared at him, unmoving, as if completely taken aback by Tezuka's own appearance. It was then that Tezuka's manners finally kicked in as he recalled his purpose for being there. He bowed before him, low and formal.
"How do you do, Ryuzaki-san?" he greeted courteously. "Please forgive the intrusion. My name is Tezuka Kunimitsu and I am the tennis coach at Seishun Gakuen." He straightened. "I would like to talk to you about your son." He waited then for a response, but, oddly, there was none immediately forthcoming. It was Sakuya who finally broke the silence.
"Ah, Sensei," the boy said, fidgeting anxiously with the can in his hands, "he's not… that is, my father's not—"
"Sakuya." The name was spoken softly and without any trace of admonition, yet the boy instantly stilled. "Why don't you go up to your room and start your homework?" he suggested, his attention trained wholly on Tezuka.
"Ok, Dad," he replied, his voice quiet and troubled.
"Don't worry," Ryuzaki said, giving him a small, reassuring smile.
Sakuya nodded mutely in return, and actually did appear to calm a little. Then he bowed briefly to them both before turning to make his way back into the house, sliding the door shut behind him.
Tossing the book down on the lounge chair, Ryuzaki rose to his feet, carefully watching Tezuka the entire time. There came an overly loud pop as the can of Ponta was opened. Tezuka absently noted the distinctive purple coloring on the can as Ryuzaki took a long, healthy swig. He tried not to let it bother him, but as usual failed miserably. With a surge of determination, he shoved the memory of bright golden eyes out of his mind.
"So… Tezuka-sensei, is it?" the man drawled, his arms casually crossing his chest, the can still clasped in his hand.
Tezuka couldn't be certain, but it sounded as if the "sensei" had been somewhat accentuated. He wondered if it was really school sports and not just school in general that the man had a problem with. He gave a short nod in response to the clarifying question.
"Your son was invited to play a game today after school by one of our regulars," Tezuka said. "I have to admit, I was extremely surprised that he hadn't joined the tennis club already when I saw his skill level. I'm sure you must know how talented he is."
Ryuzaki's mouth curved ever-so slightly. "I'm well aware of Sakuya's abilities."
"Then would you be open to the idea of allowing him to play for Seigaku?" he asked. "I'm sure Sakuya—"
"No," he said flatly, abruptly cutting him off, his stance and expression never wavering.
Tezuka found himself instantly annoyed by the man's overt bluntness and shrouded stare. Carefully maintaining his composure, he tried again. "I'm sure Sakuya would greatly benefit from—"
"Just because my son has exceptional skills, Sensei," he broke in again, "doesn't mean they should automatically be available to you in order to obtain your precious trophies."
Startled, Tezuka blinked. "I assure you, that is not—"
"Isn't it?" he interrupted sharply, once again. "You want your team to win, don't you? In fact, I bet you want your school to go all the way to the Nationals. Sakuya could definitely help out in that direction if the rest of your team is any good at all."
Tezuka felt himself go cold. His eyelids narrowed. "You insult me, Ryuzaki-san," he said brusquely. "My only interest is in the growth and well-being of my students. It is my job to help them reach their full potential as players, and, yes, as a team we strive toward the Nationals. Having that goal in front of them inspires them to work hard and to do their best."
"Except, Sensei, you are merely assuming that that is what's best for them," he countered. "Yes, it is your job to teach those students who have chosen to join the tennis club. However, you are here for my son, are you not? Sakuya is not one of your students. I find your presumption arrogant that he would be better off playing tennis for you rather than for himself."
Frowning inwardly, Tezuka paused to consider his words. "It has been my experience, Ryuzaki-san, that a person improves more by playing as many different opponents as possible. It may not be the only way, but I do believe that is something the school tennis club can offer your son. It is also my personal belief that Sakuya wants to join, but doesn't out of deference to you. When I asked him, he said he couldn't because his father doesn't like school sports."
Ryuzaki's chin lifted, his nostrils flaring in defiance. "You think I'm holding him back? Everything I do is for my son, Sensei," he said, a low growl ruffling his voice. "You think you can do a better job with him than I can? I know full well that Sakuya could learn a lot by playing a variety of opponents, and probably quite swiftly, too. However, it is still just your own damned arrogance presuming that the quicker and sooner that happens, the better. You are assuming that Sakuya is emotionally prepared for everything that accompanies your beloved school tournaments just because the playing potential is there."
"Everything that comes with the tournaments?" Tezuka repeated, completely bewildered by the idea. "I don't think there is anything all that negative about participating in the tournaments—unless you believe the possibility of losing to be too traumatic for him."
The man snorted. "Oh, please, he loses to me all the time, and if he seriously lost to someone his own age… well, that certainly could change his outlook on the game, but it would hardly traumatize him. This just reaffirms to me that you have no clue about what's best for my son."
"Then please explain it to me," Tezuka said, frustration starting to gnaw at his insides. "I think Sakuya's potential is too great to be ignored. I haven't seen a player with skills like his in years. Not since…" Steeling himself, he literally had to force the words out of his mouth. "Not since Echizen Ryoma."
Ryuzaki just stared at him through the dark tint of his sunglasses, his mouth a thin, straight line. "Echizen Ryoma, huh?" he said finally. "Fine. Let's talk about Echizen Ryoma, then. A perfect example of the point I'm trying to make."
Tezuka immediately regretted bringing him up, his stomach already protesting as it churned and twisted within his gut. He had no desire at all to talk about Echizen.
"He was twelve when he turned pro," Ryuzaki began, completely oblivious to Tezuka's current discomfort. "The same age Sakuya is now. By the time he was sixteen, he had won all four Grand Slam titles—twice."
"Your point is?" he prompted, when Ryuzaki paused for dramatic effect. He wanted to get this over with.
"My point is simple: Where is he now?"
The question bit into him deeply, just as it always did, as it had from the moment the world had begun to ask it. "No one knows the answer to that," he replied, trying to keep his voice normal, trying to suppress the dull, desolate ache roiling hollowly within. "No one has heard from him since his retirement."
"Yes, and he retired when he only was sixteen," Ryuzaki stated coolly, matter-of-factly, and then paused again to take a sip of his drink. "I don't know about you," he went on, "but I don't want Sakuya's career to be over before he's even finished puberty. My point is, Sensei, there is no need to rush it.
"Sakuya loves tennis," he continued, his voice softening a little. "Loves it. He loves it even more than y… well, more than anyone else I know. He doesn't really care right now if he wins or loses; he just loves to play. I don't see any reason to burden him with the weight of tournament pressures at this stage of his life. He's young. He doesn't need you to push him right now, Sensei."
"But what if it is what he wants?" Tezuka asked, feeling benumbed and empty, yet was somehow unable to let this go. "What if he's deliberately holding himself back because he believes that's what you want?"
Ryuzaki frowned at that, his head angling speculatively toward the court for a long, deliberating while. "If that is the case, then he can do what he likes," he murmured finally, the timbre of his voice quiet and subdued.
"Tell you what, Sensei," he said, his tone changing abruptly, his gaze sliding calculatingly back to him. "Why don't we play a match? If you win, I'll talk to Sakuya and find out which of us is right. If I win, you drop this whole thing."
Taken aback, it took Tezuka a moment to absorb his words, and the meaning that lay behind them. "You want to play me… for Sakuya?"
A small smirk lit up Ryuzaki's features. "Yep. I haven't had a decent game in years." With that, he strolled over to the large round patio table behind him and set down the Ponta can. There were several rackets lying arbitrarily about; Ryuzaki picked up a red one from the table.
"Take whichever you like," he said with a flourishing wave of his arm. "I assume you're still in good shape, Tezuka Kunimitsu-sensei."
Tezuka arched a brow in surprise as the realization struck him. "You know who I am."
"Yeah," he returned with a grin. "I lived around here back then. Seigaku won the Nationals that year. I remember you, all right, though I hadn't heard you were coaching there now." Ryuzaki tilted his head sideways, eyeing him intently. "I always thought you would go pro someday."
"The timing was never right," Tezuka replied smoothly, as he usually responded whenever that particular question was raised. Then he bent down and retrieved a light blue racket that seemed as comparable to his own as he could find. He carefully tested the strings with his fingers and deemed them adequate.
The sensible portion of his mind was secretly wondering why he was so readily agreeing to this unusual challenge, and the ridiculous bet that went along with it. He was actually gambling on a student—for a student—and had yet to truly protest the morality of such an unscrupulous thing. What was he doing? And why was his whole being itching with anticipation for this game?
"A simple one set match. As you are my guest, you can serve first," Ryuzaki said as he wandered onto the right side of the court, stretching his arms as he went. It appeared he was a left-handed player, like himself.
Nodding in reply, Tezuka snagged a couple of tennis balls randomly off the ground and moved to the opposite side of the court. For some reason, his body was already charged with galvanizing adrenaline. This man beat Sakuya all the time, huh? It was time to find out just how far the apple fell from the tree.
Tossing the ball high into the air, Tezuka followed through with a hard smash of his racket. If Sakuya's future was truly on the line here, then he would definitely be playing for keeps. In a flash, the ball bounced perfectly in the opposing service box and kept right on going.
Ryuzaki glanced over at the ball a moment and then back up at him. "Che, I really am rusty," he muttered, though the grin on his face grew incongruently fiercer. He bent his knees further in primed anticipation.
Tezuka served again, straight, fast and clean, and Ryuzaki moved this time, quick as lightning, to intercept the ball, and sent a return ace crashing back into the far corner of the court. For a second, Tezuka's breath caught in his throat. Staring dazedly at the man across the net, he could feel the speed of his pulse greatly increase until the blood was racing swiftly, wildly, through his veins with a familiar fervor.
Just how long had it been since he had played a decent game? Tezuka could hardly remember, and whenever he tried, it was always the games he had played against Echizen that came to mind. He had never felt anything as marvelous or exciting as that ever since.
Why? The question needled him as he readied himself for another serve. Why had he ever given this up? Yet as the ball sailed expeditiously past his opponent for the second time, he already knew the answer. Two more serves and he had taken the first game.
"Heh, not bad, Sensei," Ryuzaki said, bouncing a ball before him, still brandishing that wicked grin. "But now it's my turn."
The form of his serve was common, one Tezuka had seen many times before, yet after the sharp swing of Ryuzaki's racket, he never saw the ball again. He heard it, though, as it hit the ground somewhere before him and then the fence at his back. He couldn't move. He could hardly breathe. Never had he seen anything so perfect. The level of this man's ability was phenomenal. In an instant Tezuka knew that he had never faced anyone this good before.
Ryuzaki simply grinned and cocked his head as if about to say something, but then appeared to change his mind. He pulled another ball from his pocket instead and sent it roaring past him the same as the first. And then the third. And the fourth.
Not even ten minutes had passed, yet Tezuka's entire body was already covered in a thin layer of sweat as they wordlessly exchanged places. Ryuzaki's grin had dimmed as a more serious atmosphere seemed to steal over the court.
One game all.
It was Tezuka's turn again, and he knew that he had to keep his service game if he wanted to win this. If there was even a chance of winning this. He hit another service ace, but then Ryuzaki returned his second serve once again. Tezuka was better prepared this time and moved to intercept the ball.
They rallied back and forth for a while after that, carefully testing each other's strength with every stroke of the racket, and with each stroke, Tezuka's body remembered. He knew this game. He loved playing like this. His eyes watched the ball scrupulously as his arm began to swing with polished precision, slowly, painstakingly, creating the Zone. His feet stopped moving near the center of the court as he fell into position, and then merely pivoted his body in place as needed.
Ryuzaki's mouth pursed as he took note of it, but then quirked up as he subtly shifted his arm. His next return broke free of the Zone and bounded into the left corner and out.
"Fifteen all," Ryuzaki said, that small, insolent grin taunting him once more.
Outwardly ignoring him, Tezuka inwardly calmed himself while recovering several balls from the ground, pocketing a few, and then proceeded to serve again. He allowed himself to feel a certain amount of satisfaction when Ryuzaki missed his next two serves. The man did manage to hit the third, however, and another intense rally began. With a twist of his wrist, Tezuka ended it with an impeccable drop volley. The satisfaction felt particularly good just then. He was quick to shrug it off, however, when Ryuzaki positioned himself for his serve.
Concentrating intently on the ball, Tezuka strove to keep it in sight; he had to get the timing down if he had any chance at all of returning it. By the third serve, he still couldn't see it very well, but by the added sound of the ball's bounce, he had a good idea where it was. On the fourth serve, he reached for it, only to have it strike the side of his racket and go rolling off behind him. Still, he had indeed found it.
His expression did not betray his inner excitement as they traded places again. Above the rim of his sunglasses, however, Ryuzaki raised a dark, venerating eyebrow to him as they passed.
Two games all. They were still tied and neither had lost a service game.
Ryuzaki seemed to easily catch his next serve, though Tezuka doubted that was truly the case. As the ball shot back and forth between them, Tezuka once again initiated the Zone, yet this time implemented a tad more subtlety. His feet continued to move across the court, but this was merely an illusion as the ball returned to the precise place he was sending it, giving himself plenty of time to reach it. Fortunately Tezuka won several points before Ryuzaki figured it out.
"Heh, tricky," was all he said, though, before breaching the Zone once again. Tezuka still took the game, however, with a clean ace on his final serve.
Leaning forward, he readied himself for Ryuzaki's serve. It took him two tries before he finally hit it properly, and took a point from Ryuzaki out of his sheer surprise.
"Thirty - fifteen," Tezuka said coolly, unable to restrain himself.
The corner of Ryuzaki's mouth twitched, but he said nothing in response. He simply served again, testing to see if Tezuka's return was intentional or merely a fluke. Tezuka swung again and sent the ball flying back crosscourt, where Ryuzaki hastened to receive it.
As they fell once more into the celeritous rhythm of a fierce rally, Tezuka could feel his heart pounding violently within his chest, and not from the rigorous excursions of the court. The excitement, the sweet adrenaline high he was currently basking in, was excruciatingly delicious. There was something so good, so marvelously sublime about this game, about this opponent, that his whole being was practically vibrating with the wonder of it all. The feeling was gloriously new and yet agonizingly familiar, for he had felt something similar to this once before.
Only a few times in his life, a remarkably splendid few, had he felt this impassioned, this alive, and only when facing Echizen Ryoma. Though not solely when playing tennis with him. Only Echizen could make his blood burn like fire in his veins. Only Echizen could make the world taste crisper, more delectable upon his tongue as he simply breathed in the air around him.
When Echizen had gone, when he'd all but vanished into the void, the world had become a dull, stale place that had far too little to offer one Tezuka Kunimitsu. When it had finally dawned on Tezuka that Echizen was never coming back, there was a place deep within him that had subsequently withered and died, a part of him that had been unconsciously waiting all those years to be imbued with such dynamic emotions again. It was terribly ironic, he thought, to have discovered far, far too late what his own heart secretly longed for. His regret was sharp and bitter that he had ever let him go, that he had once stood side by side with brash, impudent splendor and had lamentably pushed him onward. Left floundering in Echizen's wake, Tezuka's life had become nothing more than a monotonous, well-worn routine without any relief in sight.
Except now there was this, tennis, once again, and the magnificence that it was struck like a thunderbolt straight to the core. His body thrumming with pleasure, Tezuka lowered his racket a few precise millimeters and hit the ball just so. He watched with silent relish as it floated lazily over the net and dropped to the ground, then instantly rolled backward.
Ryuzaki simply stared at the ball a moment, his lips slowly curling upward with visible delight, before finally going to the net to retrieve it. It was then that Tezuka realized that Ryuzaki was enjoying this game just as much as he was.
Without uttering a word, Ryuzaki strode back to the baseline and prepared to serve again. His posture seemed a bit different as he threw the ball in the air; the angle of the racket appeared different, as well. As the ball bounced with a swirl and then leapt toward his face, Tezuka was quick to figure out why. A twist serve. Now that Tezuka had conquered his leading serve, Ryuzaki had summarily changed tactics. Springing backward, Tezuka managed to avoid the ball, but not to return it.
"Forty - thirty. Let's not get careless, Sensei," Ryuzaki mocked with an obviously feigned nonchalance. Then he cast up another ball exactly as before. Tezuka was ready for the serve this time as the ball lurched toward his face and stepped back to receive it.
Ryuzaki might be enjoying the game as much as he was, but did he have to be so arrogant about it? Tezuka found his attitude to be more than annoying to say the least. The ball came skyrocketing back seconds later and Tezuka slammed it forward once again. There was something irritatingly familiar about the man's demeanor, as well. Perhaps because his arrogance seemed to rival Atobe's in magnitude if not in actual manifestation. Ryuzaki was far more subtle than that. In fact, he reminded him more of—
Tezuka stumbled a little as he reached for the ball, yet still managed to send it darting over the net. His mind, however, had shifted abruptly into overdrive, flitting rapidly, desperately, through the afternoon's events. One by one the disjointed pieces flew together, sliding easily, flawlessly, into place. There was no stray factor that didn't fit into the picture now coming into focus before his vision: the grape Ponta, the court in the backyard, the blunt speech, the cocky grin, the left hand, the astonishing skill level, the tennis, the tennis, the tennis.
Tezuka stumbled again, yet this time plunged painfully to his knees. Utterly abandoned, the ball shot uncaringly past him. His racket fell from paralyzed fingers to the hard surface of the court.
"Sensei?" he heard him call out in concern. His footsteps drew harrowingly closer. "Hey, you all right?"
Dazed and benumbed, his mind reeling wildly from the shock, Tezuka shook his head, partly in denial and partly in an attempt to clear it. Then his eyes rose almost against his will to the dark-haired man standing across from him at the front of the net. Slowly, meticulously, with wide eyes and a stupefied gaze, he took in every perceivable feature: the cut and color of his hair, the high curve of his cheek, the stubborn set of his jaw, the negligible expression on his lips. Staring helplessly up at him, Tezuka's mouth moved, but no sound emerged. Then finally there came a single, soft, half-strangled word.
The man went instantly still. Then the concern smoothed away from his visage, and his mouth thinned into a flat, emotionless line. Even before it was confirmed, Tezuka knew it to be the truth. The man's lips twisted wryly.
"Mada mada da ne, Sensei," he said, his inflection cool and rife with biting sarcasm. With that, Echizen Ryoma turned on his heel and strode wordlessly off the court. He paused only to drop his racket off at the table and to collect his half-finished can of Ponta. Then he tugged open the sliding door and disappeared into the house.
Tezuka could only gape at the empty doorway in incredulous awe. His entire body was frozen numb with an icy, uncomprehending disbelief.
That was Echizen.
This whole time, he had been talking, arguing, playing…
No wonder he had felt so good, so miraculously alive. It had been no miracle at all, only Echizen… though perhaps that alone was a miracle in and of itself.
Echizen was here. Not lost, not gone, but actually, physically, here. The reality of that was finally starting to sink in, though the meaning and all the possible ramifications of it… his mind couldn't even begin to wrap around those yet. He had so many questions…
And Echizen must think him an absolute idiot. All this time, not seeing him, not recognizing him… he was an idiot. How could he hope to apologize for such a stupid, tactless error? Echizen had every right to be angry.
And angry he was.
After dazedly receiving that cold, caustic remark, Tezuka had been all but dismissed as Echizen stalked deliberately away from his presence. The pain that erupted from that sudden realization was acute enough to jolt him out of his stupor.
Blinking away the aberrant moisture in his eyes, Tezuka forced his limbs to move, only to discover that said limbs were presently aquiver with violent, uncontrollable tremors. He immediately closed his lashes against the pain and fought to regain control of himself. Several long, deep breaths were heaved in and out of his lungs as Tezuka carefully rebuilt his composure. He would not fall apart in front of Echizen—if Echizen would even see him again after this.
When his eyes finally opened, his emotions had calmed somewhat and the tremors had minimized to an acceptable level. Breathing out a sigh of relief, Tezuka pushed himself cautiously to his feet. Thankfully they held. He took his time picking up the discarded racket and transporting it over to the table. With almost reverent care he laid it beside the bright red one, and absently wondered if it was the same racket Echizen had used all throughout his freshman year. When he was done, he was once again in full possession of his faculties.
It was time.