Disclaimer: The plot is mine; the characters are not. And I have no beta reader, and I suck at self-editing. That should cover all the warning bases.
The Games We Play
Eight years. That's how long it had been since he'd watched Tezuka-buchou play a match in person.
Ryoma snickered. Old habits died hard apparently. Tezuka wasn't his captain anymore. Tezuka Kunimitsu was a pro now, and a rookie at that. Ryoma allowed himself a moment to enjoy the irony of that fact. Perhaps his former captain would call him "Senpai" when they faced one another on the court once again.
Right, like that would happen.
"Don't get careless, Echizen."
Years had passed, yet he couldn't get those unnecessary words out of his head.
A lingering annoyance crept into his mind. What had taken Buchou - Tezuka, he reminded himself again - so long? His own first US Open appearance had earned Japan a blip on the world's talent radar.
Once the connection between the illusive Nanjirou Echizen and him was finally made public, scouts and sponsors alike began flooding the island country. Previously unknown school tournaments became internationally televised events; mispronounced names poured from sportscasters' lips on ESPN; agents collected young players like coins.
To the net, and drop.
"GAME AND MATCH. RYOMA ECHIZEN - SIX GAMES TO LOVE."
As the crowd chanted his name above his head, Ryoma groaned. Don't get careless, huh? What a joke. Still he walked to the net for an obligatory handshake, forcing a shadow smile as he thanked his so-called opponent. The poor guy seemed more like a victim. The stupid bastard had acted as though he'd already lost before Ryoma sent him the first serve. Unfortunately the number of such players was increasing with each match Ryoma won.
He had his rivals, of course. Not every game was a massacre. He'd even lost a few over the years. And there was always Kevin, who'd single-handedly talked him out of retirement and buying a one-way ticked back to Tokyo more than once. Kevin was indeed an incredible player and a worthy adversary, among other things.
But now, now things would get really interesting. Buchou had finished high school and four years of college between Germany and Britain, or so Ryoma had heard from various sources back home. And now Tezuka Kunimitsu was doing the only other thing he could do, the only thing Ryoma knew his ex-captain was born to do. Buchou was here, in the States, in this very arena, about to make his professional debut. Ryoma didn't care that they were only playing exhibition matches for the benefit of the sponsors over the next few days.
Buchou had finally arrived, and soon they would have their turn once again.
As he gathered his gear and entered the arena's breezeway, that overwhelming sense of destiny unfolding made Ryoma's skin prickle, his muscles tense, and his pulse race with anticipation. Tezuka's match would begin in less than an hour, and no creature within heaven or hell would keep him from witnessing Buchou's perfected skills from the closest possible vantage point.
Ryoma blinked himself out of his reverie just in time to brace for the collision of a deceptively slim body much like his own against his back. An arm twined around his shoulders, yanking him back and forth.
Kevin grinned. Although the shaking stopped, the blond player left his arm draped across Ryoma. "So was that loser as bad as he looked?"
Ryoma sighed. "Worse."
With a laugh, Kevin shrugged. "That's okay. We'll consider it a practice match. Your first real match is tomorrow, right?"
Ryoma stiffened slightly; his inner fire roared to life. He turned his head just enough to catch Kevin's blue gaze. "I'm taking that one too. Since it's just you."
Kevin chuckled again, this time next to Ryoma's ear. "Take it if you can."
The fire became an inferno, and Ryoma muttered, "Fine." He twisted out of Kevin's grasp, grabbed him by the collar, and drug him out of the hallway. His companion offered no resistance as Ryoma pulled him into an empty changing room. Ryoma slammed the door shut, then pushed his long-time rival against it with equal fervor.
Kevin tipped his head slightly down as Ryoma leaned in, earning him an impatient growl. "You're unusually fired up today." Kevin raised a brow. "Especially since the guy you played today sucked so bad."
Ryoma shrugged and pressed himself into Kevin even more. "You started it."
Kevin acknowledged the truth with a shrug of his own. "And if someone comes in?" Kevin asked, although his tone revealed the closeness was taking its toll on his self-control.
"This is L.A., and we're not movie stars. Nobody cares what we do."
Before Kevin could respond, Ryoma grabbed a handful of blond hair and forced Kevin's head up. He kissed Kevin hard and fast, melting the previous conversation into nothing but a kaleidoscope of physical sensations.
After all, he didn't have time to waste if he was going to make it to Tezuka-buchou's match.
Tezuka grabbed another water bottle and walked away from the television in the players' lounge. His expression remained stoic as he headed for the warm-up court. At the same time his mind went over every disappointing minute of the previous match.
Echizen had won that game without even trying. Tezuka felt disturbed by the dull glint he'd seen in Echizen's eyes at various intervals during the match. The twenty year old prodigy had actually looked bored until he was walking off the court. It wasn't the first time Tezuka had seen that expression on the boy's face over the past eight years.
That win meant nothing; most probably didn't. Tezuka recognized that with painful clarity. Tezuka had watched every televised match Echizen played. Every single one. He'd even managed tickets to Wimbledon twice during college. Even during those tournaments, Tezuka could only remember seeing Ryoma's old fire burst to life twice. Both times were during the finals. Both times were against Kevin Smith, the one player in professional tennis considered real completion for Ryoma Echizen.
As he dropped his gear onto the bench outside of the practice court, Tezuka's jaw clenched. He had been among those who spurred Echizen toward the pros, and he suspected his encouragement had tipped the scale in the end. The once insolent youngster had a habit of limiting his own potential in those days. First he only saw his father, then Tezuka himself, and then players within the shores of Japan. Even after Echizen's first match against Kevin Smith, the boy had still only thought of the Nationals. His reaction after learning he'd been entered as a wild card for the US Open proved that.
Unfortunately Tezuka realized too late that, with the possible exception of Kevin Smith, Echizen's potential exceeded the current level of professional tennis as well. But that would change soon. He would change it, with his own hands.
The wait had been excruciating. Still Tezuka had fulfilled his obligation to his family by finishing high school in Japan. Afterward he'd kept the promise he'd made with himself to go to college. He'd continued to play tennis no matter where he went, and there was no shortage of scouts hovering around him all the while. The rewards of his time in Europe showed in his game, he knew. Europeans rarely displayed unusual techniques in their play styles, but their sheer power and forethought could be overwhelming to an unprepared opponent. Tezuka had learned a great deal from such players.
He finished stretching and grabbed his racket. He started with light strokes, then increased his pace until he fell into a comfortable rhythm. Tezuka resolved not to disrespect his first opponent as Echizen had. He would give his all in each and every game, just as he always had. He would once again lead Echizen by example from the outside, and then he would face the younger man himself.
Tezuka tightened his grip on the racket. Their game would take place in three days. In three more days, he would experience firsthand what Echizen had become over the past eight years. And he planned to reciprocate to the paramount extent of his abilities. Even beyond them in necessary.
He sent a sharp backhand toward the wall, watched it ricochet toward his face, and caught it in his hand inches from his nose. He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost time for his own inaugural match.
He packed up his racket and shouldered his bag again, forcing thoughts of Echizen from his mind for the moment. Instead he focused on the path ahead - the hallway which led to the main courts, the crowd he could hear clapping as his opponent's and his names were announced, the perfect line where shadow and cement ended and sunlit grass began.
He entered the arena to thunderous applause. Tezuka ignored the noise and headed for his bench. He propped his bag and pulled to rackets out, leaning the spare against the bench as well.
He stood straight as the National Anthem played, bowing his head briefly in respect upon its conclusion.
Then Tezuka sensed someone staring at him. Not just any spectator either. No, this was an unspoken, soul-shaking challenge. It had been years since he'd felt such pressure, the imposing stroke of that golden gaze upon his consciousness. He lifted his own gaze to the bleachers. In front of him, aligned with the net, was one of the VIP boxes.
He stood in the corner closest to Tezuka. One hand rested in the young man's pocket, the other held the brim of his cap, and a genuine, albeit minute, smile graced his lips.
As the crowd settled, Tezuka allowed himself another moment to look his former team member over. Echizen was still shorter than most male players, but not by much. The definition in is exposed arms and neck testified to the training he'd endured to hone his natural athleticism. And his eyes…his eyes burned.
No words needed. Tezuka simply nodded once.
He definitely would not lose this match. Nor any other over the next three days.
Echizen jerked suddenly, and his eyes went wide for a second. Tezuka blinked as a blond man appeared from behind Echizen, waving emphatically.
"Yo, Tezuka! Long time, no see!"
Tezuka's brow creased. Of course, Kevin Smith was participating in the exhibition as well. However, the American player appeared so suddenly, and in the same box as Echizen…
Kevin continued to wave, but his other hand appeared as well and ruffled Echizen's hair. Then the hand hooked over Echizen's left shoulder. Tezuka frowned at the evident familiarity, particularly since Echizen made no attempt to reclaim his personal space. Echizen just rolled his eyes as Kevin, still smiling and holding on, leaned in and said something into ear. Then the two sat down. Echizen raised an eyebrow in Tezuka's direction and gestured toward the net.
"Mr. Kumitisu," the judge called, and not for the first time if the exasperated tone was any indication.
Right, the match…
Tezuka ignored the variation of his name. "Yes, I apologize for my rudeness," he said in English and bowed low to the referee. Then he repeated the apology to his opponent, this time in the man's native French. His opponent looked taken aback, but offered his hand and a grateful smile a moment later.
Not since Seigaku, since Kikamaru, who'd drape himself over any willing body during Junior High…
Tezuka once again had to force himself to focus on the game before him instead off thinking about Echizen's strange behavior. Besides, he'd already promised not to lose.
"Let's have a good match," Tezuka said.
A/N: I just posted on my LJ today how I wouldn't put this up before I finished it. Old habits really do die hard, I suppose. I blame my muse and my inner attention whore. They've conspired against me. Really.