Disclaimer: Prince of Tennis belongs to Konomi Takeshi and other people who are not me.


A Court of Appeals

part 3

As the wondrous, white-hot blaze of pleasure began to wane, other sensations came drifting hazily to the forefront: his breathing coming fast and deep, the sticky sheen of sweat slowly cooling his tingling skin, and the too-warm, too-heavy weight wholly pinning him to the sheets. Without a second thought, Ryoma coiled his arms around that uncomfortable mass of damp flesh and boneless muscle and held him close. Tezuka could lie there crushing him into the bed for as long he damned well pleased. In fact, a significant part of him was wishing desperately that he'd do just that. Anything, just let them stay there like this forever.

Slowly Ryoma let his fingers trace the contours of Tezuka's back, carefully savoring the smooth texture of his skin, every rise and dip of his spine, committing them to memory as best he could. Pressing his face into the warm curve of his neck, Ryoma breathed in his scent with cherishing reverence.

Tezuka-buchou.

He had been wanting this since he was twelve. Well, maybe not to this extent, exactly, but he had wanted to be with Tezuka then, nonetheless. Back then, he was always trying to please Tezuka, to make him proud, to gain his attention, and, most of all, to defeat him. Ryoma had believed he'd finally achieved that goal and had gone on to the US Open with no regrets. When he'd returned, however, he'd been confronted with an image of a perfected Tezuka playing in the Nationals, and he knew then that their rivalry would never be over. And that he never wanted it to be.

Yet, afterward, Tezuka had once again spurred him forward to continue the path to the world. With his inspiration in mind, Ryoma had conquered that world more swiftly and easily than anyone had predicted. Well, anyone but himself. Tezuka, however, had never taken that path, and when Sakuno had related that fact so simply and so innocently, Ryoma had finally abandoned hope and everything that went along with it. But when he had seen Tezuka standing there today, on the patio in his own backyard…

His heart had immediately jolted to life, hammering wildly, furiously, in his chest. For a moment, he had thought Tezuka had actually tracked him down, that he had actually come to see him, but the truth of that had been made plainly and painfully clear.

Tennis. It was always about tennis. And not even his own this time.

In reaction, Ryoma had quickly and shamelessly altered that, his competitive spirit instantly being rekindled even as an ugly jealousy toward his own son was insidiously spawned. His concern for Sakuya was quite real, but that was not the only reason he had been so adamantly opposed to the idea.

How pathetic could he get? To be jealous of his twelve-year-old son… and now he'd given up any semblance of pride just to have Tezuka here like this, in his arms, in his bed, just for this one time. Oh, but he had wanted him so badly…

After seeing him, playing him… Tezuka was the same. He had hardly changed at all—except he actually was thirty now instead of just seeming like he was. He looked so good… so damned good…

Tezuka was good. He was more than Ryoma had ever imagined. The taste of him, the feel of him, was utterly exquisite, and Ryoma didn't know how he was ever going to let him go again after this.

The confining weight moved suddenly as Tezuka stirred, and Ryoma had to stop himself from clutching him back when that weight finally lifted. Tezuka shifted carefully to the side, his hazel eyes open and coming to a warm, scrutinizing rest on Ryoma's features. The sight of him made Ryoma's heart clench in his chest. Bereft of his glasses, his hair damp and disheveled, his expression uncharacteristically soft—Tezuka was absolutely breathtaking. And, oh, did it hurt.

Blinking rapidly, Ryoma pushed himself up and took a quick, tremulous breath. "Sakuya will be home soon," he mumbled, climbing shakily out of the bed. He blindly began to retrieve his clothing. "The old man always insists on a game and my mom on feeding him, but then he'll be on his way. You can use the shower in here if you want. I'll use one of the others."

He didn't look back. If he had, he would have surely crumbled before the man, then and there. He showered swiftly, mechanically, and then threw his clothes back on. Then he made his way down to the kitchen and saw that neither Tezuka nor Sakuya were there yet. Ryoma was considerably relieved.

His hands were trembling uncontrollably as he pulled a can of Ponta from the refrigerator, so much so that he had trouble getting the thing open. He slammed it down on the counter mere moments later, frustrated by the stupid pop top that would not lift.

"Che!"

Fine. He needed something stronger anyway. Ryoma yanked open the cupboard and grabbed a glass, then began searching for something to put in it. After only a few chafing minutes, however, he gave up. If there had ever been any liquor in the house then his father had probably swiped it.

Stupid old man.

With a growl of anger he slammed the glass down next to the can. It promptly shattered in his hand.

"Damn it!" he hissed.

Pain darted up his arm as the pieces settled on the counter, the clear shards abruptly staining red beneath his palm. Wincing, Ryoma painfully gripped his wrist and drew it closer to inspect the damage. There was a small gash in the crease of his palm, just below his thumb.

Not only pathetic, but also an idiot.

"Echizen?"

Oh, please…

Tezuka's hand, warm and gentle, was suddenly wrapped around his wrist; he then tugged it effortlessly upward to examine the wound for himself.

"What happened?" he questioned softly.

Ryoma simply glared off to the side, thinking the answer was rather obvious.

Tezuka wordlessly guided him to the sink. A moment later Ryoma's bleeding hand was being held under the cold water of the faucet. The silence lasted for a brief while as the blood was carefully washed away. After turning off the water, Tezuka then collected some paper towels from the roll beneath the cupboard and pressed them lightly to the wound.

"What is the matter?" he asked, the timbre of his voice unusually tense.

"Nothing." Ryoma kept his gaze deliberately averted.

The silence fell again, unbearably more oppressive than before, and Ryoma had no clue at all how to alleviate it. He wished he was better at concealing his emotions, that he could look up without strain and give Tezuka one of his biggest smirks and effortlessly pretend his heart wasn't breaking into aching fragments of loneliness all over again even as they stood there.

"I should wrap this properly," Tezuka said finally, a troubled note of uncertainty entering his tone.

"It's fine."

At the sound of Ryoma's terse, clipped words, Tezuka slowly lowered his head in defeat; he then released Ryoma's hand. They stood there for another long, agonizing while without speaking, the stillness once more excruciatingly constrained. It was Tezuka, once again, who eventually broke it.

"I should be going then," he said, his voice little more than a whisper.

Freezing instantly in place, Ryoma could not bring himself to reply.

"Good-bye, Echizen." And with that, Tezuka evaporated from Ryoma's peripheral vision.

All the warmth drained from Ryoma's face, from his limbs, from his heart, leaving nothing behind but a cold, bleak chill. He heard the door open and then quietly close, and flinched at the harsh finality of the sound as it thundered grievously in his ears. A deep, agonizing pain shuddered through his being, and he cracked under the force of it, his soul splintering into a thousand bleeding pieces.

What had he done? How could he have done this to himself? He knew it would end like this, that he would hurt like this. But the sad, sick truth of the matter was that Ryoma also knew he would do it again, in a heartbeat, because in spite of everything, Tezuka had been worth it. He was worth any pain, any sacrifice, all pride and any sting of embarrassment. If he had to crawl on his hands and knees…

His heart spasmed violently in his chest, threatening to burst as the pain coiled tautly around it. His throat constricted, emotion swelling and nearly choking him with its venom.

He hadn't done enough. He hadn't tried hard enough. What was he doing? How could he just let him go like that? Again? So what if it was only about tennis? At least they had that between them. If he played hard enough, good enough, then maybe… just maybe…

Ryoma was halfway to the door before he even realized he was moving; then his hand was on the knob, flinging it open…

Tezuka stood unmoving on the walkway, still just a few feet from the house. At the sound of the door, he turned; the expression on his face was characteristically blank, yet his eyes were permeated with a vast array of emotions that Ryoma could scarcely comprehend.

"Buchou," he said, talking quickly, "we haven't finished our match yet."

His hazel eyes immediately widened with astonishment, and then they cooled several icy degrees and bore steadily into him. "I have no more time for games, Echizen," he said brusquely.

"Mada mada da ne."

Tezuka's cheeks flushed a dark, angry red, his jaw tightly clenching. "Don't make this about tennis," he said, his voice dangerously low. "If all you wanted was to defeat me, you should have stayed on the court. The rest of it… was completely unnecessary. Or is your resentment toward me sincerely that profound?"

Taken aback by the unexpected anger, Ryoma stared at him in shock. "I already told you, I don't resent—"

"You don't?" he bit back harshly. "Your previous words and actions would indicate otherwise. Why else would you deal with me so callously? I pushed you back in middle school because I could see that if you truly dedicated yourself to tennis, there would be no limit to how high you could fly. I was your captain; it was my job to inspire you as best I could. If you feel my effort was a mistake, then the only defense I can offer is that I was only fourteen years old and I truly believed I was doing the right thing for you."

"I said I don't resent you for that!" he returned. "I don't resent you at all! I admit I was disappointed that you never turned pro, but that was only because I wanted you to so badly. I just wanted to play you! Why did you never understand that?"

"So you did this to get back at me for some perceived snub on my part?" Tezuka asked coldly. "Forgive me for having a life outside of tennis."

At that, Ryoma's vision went red. "Excuse me? You were the one who deliberately manipulated me, telling me to devote my life to tennis and Seigaku—become their damned pillar, right? Forgive me for believing you shared that same devotion."

"When you came to Seigaku, you were nothing more than an arrogant, self-absorbed little snot whose only goal in life was to defeat his own father. As your captain, did I try to broaden your talents and horizons just a bit? Certainly, I did. Did I try to teach you to respect and be responsible for your fellow teammates? Absolutely, I did. Would I have done the same had I known you would throw it all away less than five years later? I don't know. Perhaps I would have just tried harder."

Ryoma felt the words like a punch to the gut, and was left utterly winded in their wake, floundering helplessly in pain. "I didn't just throw it away. I went looking for something… something I had lost."

"By hiding from the world?"

"I didn't go into hiding," he protested. "America is a just a really big place. I simply went back to school. It's not my fault nobody ever recognized me. It wasn't like I was using an assumed name or anything."

"You went back to school?"

"Yeah, finished college, even. I guess I was trying to get back what I had here at Seigaku… you know, the friendships and everything. Never really did, though. For some reason people are put off by me."

"I can't imagine why," Tezuka said dryly.

"Look, I meant what I said before. I don't hold any grudges, Buchou. I'm really grateful for everything you did for me."

Tezuka keenly held his gaze, his eyes scrupulously narrowed. "Then why did you do this to me?" he asked bluntly.

Lowering his head, Ryoma scrambled blindly for a reply, his face burning with shame. "I… I told you… I just wanted…" His lashes closed over the pain. "I just wanted to be with you… even just this once. I'm sorry I couldn't handle it better… afterward. I just couldn't say good-bye to you. It just… really hurt, okay?"

Trembling surreptitiously, Ryoma held his breath and awaited Tezuka's response. The wait was long and crucifyingly arduous. When Tezuka finally spoke, his voice was unbelievably gentle and very, very near.

"I thought you said you could see me," he said. "If you could always see the real me, then you would know that it was never just about tennis. I just didn't want to hold you back, Echizen. I never dreamed that you would be waiting for me, just as I never dreamed that you wouldn't be there after I graduated."

Ryoma's eyelids fluttered open, and he glanced up at Tezuka in surprise. Tezuka was peering directly, intently, into Ryoma's face, his eyes softly aglow behind his lenses. His hand rose to brush lightly across Ryoma's cheek. Then Tezuka took a deep, quivering breath, apparently to calm apprehensive nerves.

"I think, perhaps, I have always loved you," he said huskily, "since I can't seem to recall a time when I didn't."

Ryoma simply stared at him, speechlessly, incredulously, as Tezuka's hand warmly cupped his cheek. The tremors racking his body significantly increased. Then his eyes fell closed once more as he turned his face into the hand, his lips grazing tenderly over the palm and fingers. Tezuka's other arm wreathed around him a moment later, his fingers twining possessively through Ryoma's hair. Another moment and Ryoma was pressed against the doorjamb being thoroughly and passionately kissed. It was a long, sensuous while before they finally surfaced for air, their lips barely parting as they slowly breathed in the other's breath.

"Hey, Buchou," he murmured softly against Tezuka's mouth, "I think I've always loved you, too."


The End