Despite Tezuka's best efforts to keep his "therapy" on track, Echizen proved a difficult patient during the more mundane parts. The only aspect the younger player seemed not to complain about was the second set of creative stretches. Then again Tezuka put every single lesson he'd ever learned about pleasuring a lover into it, and despite Echizen's condition, the man's lower body was still deceptively flexible. Or maybe the therapy was already working a miracle on Echizen's over-stressed joints. It was wishful thinking, but Tezuka was almost – almost – willing to believe in one.
When they returned to Tezuka's room for the bed rest part of Inui's regimen, Echizen's limp was gone and his left arm swung normally at his side. But then he shrugged off his robe, and Tezuka noticed Echizen grimace.
"Lay down," Tezuka said as he moved to his small travel case to retrieve his pajama pants. "I'll call Inui and confirm when we should meet tomorrow."
"Call him later." Echizen complied with the request to lay down but hardly looked like he intended to rest from the provocative view Tezuka got of Echizen's naked form out of the corner of his eye. Tezuka forced himself to look at the clock instead and decided Echizen, no matter his intent, might be right. It was later than he'd expected. Inui was probably asleep.
Echizen smirked as Tezuka moved to go to the bathroom. "You're not actually going in there to get dressed are you?"
Tezuka rose an eyebrow. "I was planning to, yes. However, if you would prefer, I can go to your room tonight instead."
Echizen's scowl was both nostalgic and simply...beautiful for some strange reason. "No way, Buchou. Now get your ass over here." Tezuka narrowed his eyes. "Please," Echizen added diplomatically, or as diplomatically as he figured Echizen would ever get.
Tezuka considered it for a moment, for Echizen still had made no move to cover himself, then tightened the belt holding his own robe closed. Reminding himself that his own role in Echizen's short-term recovery had long-term implications, Tezuka pushed his reservations aside. He placed the pajama pants on the nightstand and joined Echizen in bed. To Echizen's credit, and to Tezuka's surprise, Echizen didn't reach for him. He rolled from his side onto his back and made no move to cover himself as he laid his arms straight down, elbows slightly bent.
"Inui said I need to start like this. If I make a move that hurts enough to wake me up, go back to this." He turned his head and grinned. "I'm not much of a back sleeper though, so we may be up for a while."
Tezuka nodded, still trying to comprehend Echizen's sudden complicity. After several minutes of silence, Echizen gave all the explanation necessary. "We're having our match on Friday."
Tezuka's sigh came from his soul more than his lungs. "Echizen..."
"We're having our match," Echizen stated, his determination as clearly defined as if he'd been on the other end of the net. "I need us to have that game, Buchou. I've waited my whole career, my whole life maybe. And I can't think of a better last game to have."
The atmosphere seemed to thin inside the hotel room, and Tezuka caught himself taking an extra deep breath. "Your tennis should not end here."
"My tennis shouldn't happen, period." Echizen snickered. "Did you know," he said, "there's a group in the UK that have studied my games against Kevin since we turned pro?" The mention of the blonde's name jarred Tezuka, but Echizen seemed not to or chose to act as though he didn't notice. "Apparently they were the second to realize our play styles were physically unsustainable. Mine a lot more than his though. The sponsors raised hell when they tried to make it public. They think it's great showmanship, and they did manage to keep it under wraps in the end."
Tezuka frowned. "I don't understand."
"They pay premium for me because people like to watch me play guys like Kevin. Radical tennis, they called in a commercial. I can't remember which one it was now..."
"But that has nothing to do with why you play in such a way," Tezuka said.
Echizen shrugged, and Tezuka caught him wince again. "That's my tennis." He closed his eyes. "That's me. It's everything I am when I can do it. It's the game you made me realize I actually had fun playing, for more reasons than just beating my dad one day."
Tezuka, despite himself, asked, "Did you?"
Echizen's eyelids opened slowly. "Beat my dad?" Tezuka nodded, although he knew the answer already. "Of course I did."
Tezuka considered that simple statement for several seconds, recalling everything he'd learned about Echizen's equally remarkable father over the years. The man himself had been an inhuman player by all standards. But his play style, unlike his son's, had been fairly conventional. Then it clicked.
"Echizen Nanjiro." Echizen cocked an eyebrow at him, so he explained. "You stated that the British researchers were the second to declare your tennis style as physically unsustainable. Your father was the first."
Echizen rewarded him with a wink. "I thought he was going to kick my ass for sure after that game. As it turned out, he didn't even tell me to tone it down."
Tezuka's curiosity peaked. "I am sure he offered advice of some sort. You are his son."
"He said, I hope he's worth it."
Tezuka didn't hide his reaction fast enough obviously. The younger man's exquisite golden eyes locked on. They dared Tezuka to show any shame or weakness beyond the surprise of hearing the statement. They left no room for speculation about whose worth Echizen had, even then, placed above everything, including his professional career. Tezuka, more than anything, knew he needed to change the younger man's mind.
So simply put, yet those few word spoken firmly and with such conviction held Tezuka under a spell that would have made Fuji kneel and pay homage. And as Echizen turned his whole body toward him this time and untied his belt, Tezuka's trademark situation control couldn't compete. He wanted badly to argue the point, felt compelled to at least make the case as his former captain, his school senpai, and as a fellow player.
But their was a new reality within Tezuka's consciousness. There, in that underdeveloped realm he was consumed, thoroughly addicted, and shamefully powerless. Echizen Ryoma's tennis, that amazing, brilliant, unfathomable talent that was his tennis had belonged to the world at large. But in this place, he met an Echizen that was pure essence and belonged to no one else but him.
Inui jotted a few notes while Freddy injected Ryoma with a cortisone shot. Then the trainer went through a few standard stretches with him. Apparently satisfied but still scowling, he turned to Inui. "I'm still not sure how you managed it," he said, "but it looks like most of his range of motion is back."
Ryoma slipped off the medical cot and reached for his shirt. The cortisone was already working; he didn't even feel sore as he pulled it over his head. "I have to admit, you did good this time, Inui-senpai."
Inui nodded. "Your progress is consistent with my calculations. I was concerned your left shoulder would not respond to the treatment as quickly, so I'm pleased with the overall result."
Ryoma finished dressing and took a minute to flex his left hand. "I'll be ready tomorrow," he stated more to himself than anyone in the room. But Freddy looked like he was ready to punch him out.
Inui just smiled. "I see. So the negotiations are already over."
Ryoma smirked. "You didn't think I was going to lose this one, did you?" It diminished however as Inui's expression betrayed a mixture of envy and regret.
"I never predict that you will lose, Echizen. I did, just this once though, hope you might."
He pretended Inui's words didn't bother him as he collected his new day's regimen and made a swift exit before Freddy could really lay into him. Freddy, for all his good intentions, couldn't understand his reasons or his feelings, and he especially wouldn't condone putting the two together. He knew two people other than Inui-senpai who would understand though. And is it turned out, he had unfinished business with both of them.
Fuji's room was just down the hall, and Ryoma figured that talking to Fuji would be a lot easier than what would be coming with Kevin.
"Come in," came the sing-song call and the door cracked open. Ryoma accepted the invitation but caught himself engrossed for a few seconds too long as Fuji's lithe form, covered only by a towel wrapped low on his hips, practically floated to the sofa on the other end of the room. He'd obviously just gotten out of the shower, and his normally silky hair clung to his cheeks and neck. When Fuji turned to face him, Ryoma caught himself staring at several purple and pink marks along Fuji's otherwise pale skin.
Fuji sat down demurely, giving him time to shake himself out of the hickey inspired hypnosis, and looked at the door. "Is Tezuka not with you?"
"He's got a match this afternoon, so he's getting ready."
"Of course." Fuji smiled. "Please, sit. You look so much better today, Echizen. I was worried sick all night if you must know." Upon Echizen's very obvious second look at the proof of Fuji's lovemaking the night before, Fuji amended it to, "Well, most of the night."
He didn't need to know, and the guilty feeling Inui had planted in his gut grew roots. Still, there was no point in putting it off. "I'm playing the match with Tezuka-buchou tomorrow."
There it was again. The jealousy. The look of mourning. "I assumed that's how it would turn out. Even Tezuka cannot deny you the one thing you've wanted for so long. I'd at least hoped he would hold out a little longer though. Or perhaps allow all of us to discuss it together. But more than anything," he continued, his voice becoming even more melodic, "we all love you, Echizen. There is nothing more important to all of us than your happiness. Even your dear friend Kevin agrees with that."
The guilt grew a little more. "Why do I get the feeling you helped to convince him?"
Fuji shrugged, a suggestive little gesture that made Ryoma shiver. "He was so very lonely last night."
Oh hell... "You shouldn't mess with him like that, Fuji-senpai. I can handle Kevin."
Fuji's demeanor morphed subtly, but Ryoma suspected Fuji was about to go tensei on him. And Fuji didn't disappoint.
"Your friend does not need your apologies or the confirmation of what he already knows. And really, what would you say to him? It is difficult, you see, to remain by the side of someone who loves another, but it's impossible to break free of that person when your heart is theirs and they are too kind and too cruel to push it away." The hypnotic blue eyes hardened. "Neither you nor Tezuka have ever endured that. You cannot comprehend the way such feelings whittle away at your self-respect and your simple definition of self."
Ryoma tried to swallow, attempted to speak. His throat was too dry and Fuji had apparently stolen his argument with the damning spell song.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, Fuji's body seemed to relax. "Let me comfort Kevin Smith. Let Kevin Smith comfort me. He wants nothing more than that right now, and I surely wouldn't mind the company for a while longer. And after we begin to heal each other..." Fuji smiled. "Who knows what may come later?"
Ryoma took several minutes to digest it all. Fuji really knew how to plant a worm in the brain, but still he knew, somehow, that Fuji's overall intentions were both genuine and in good conscience. And for that he was grateful. He could hardly match Fuji with words, so he conveyed his acceptance the best way he knew how. He leaned over, took Fuji's delicate chin into his hand, and kissed him deeply one last time.
Fuji seemed to understand, or pretended to. Or maybe he was just being polite. Ryoma wasn't sure, but his former teammate responded in kind with no more and no less than what was offered. And when Ryoma pulled away, Fuji was smiling.
"You should hurry," Fuji said after a pause. "You wouldn't want to miss their game, would you?"
Ryoma huffed. "I would, but I've got more rehabilitation to deal with, and it's not like I don't know how it'll turn out."
Fuji tilted his head. "I'm surprised. I thought you of all people would want to watch this match. It is, after all, against the only other player who's defeated you recently."
Ryoma's mind reeled. He'd been so caught up in...well...everything else, he'd completely omitted every other detail about the day except its relation to his match with Tezuka tomorrow. But today was Thursday. Prior to his reunion with Tezuka, there was only one thing he'd looked forward to during this exhibition, and that was Tezuka's afternoon match up for Thursday.
Tezuka's match that was scheduled against Kevin Smith.
Fuji was kind enough not to mention how dense he was. He simply waved his hand towards the door and said, "Go."
Tezuka hadn't known what to expect from his game with Kevin Smith. In addition to that, he'd intentionally not reminded Echizen who his opponent was for his game that day. In part, he preferred Echizen focus on his own situation rather than get caught up in a match between his current and former lover. Or Tezuka assumed Kevin was now Echizen's former, although they hadn't specifically said as much. He took note and filed it away; they would certainly have to make that point clear.
The other reason was more base and infinitely more selfish. Echizen had played Kevin Smith many times. Tezuka had not. And he wanted to. Naturally he had wanted to test himself against Echizen's strongest rival all along. He needed no comparison between the two. Tezuka accepted that Kevin Smith was his own player with his own strengths. He desired this game not to test his skills before his match the following day. What he needed, what rubbed like sandpaper against his principles, was that he required affirmation.
In his core, Tezuka himself needed to know that he was the stronger than Kevin Smith. If he was not, then he had no right to play the game which would steal Echizen from professional tennis forever.
He finished a rigorous warm-up and made his way to the center court. Whether it was due to his increased notoriety from his debut and current sweep, or if it was the buzz surrounding the previous and future matches involving Echizen, the arena which had been filled to half or less for most matches was filled to capacity as he walked onto the clay. That was understandable and something Tezuka took in stride. Sixth sense or habit brought his eyes to the VIP box once again.
Tezuka had expected Inui and Fuji to attend in the two spots he'd reserved. Inui took his appointed place, but Tezuka hardly noticed. He'd been hijacked by Echizen's vicarious glare. And when those golden globes slid sideways several breathless moments later, Tezuka found himself looking over as well.
Kevin Smith looked to Echizen, then to Tezuka, then back to Echizen one more time. The blond's mouth tightened into a grim line and he stalked to his side of the court.
Tezuka knew most matches began with an introductory exchange and fell into rhythm as the game progressed. This was not most matches.
It took milliseconds as Tezuka watched the final shot of the game, his only service ace on the last point of the 33-35 tiebreak, and analyze what had truly occurred beyond the 7-6 score. Kevin Smith had played to save Echizen's career. The American had devoted everything, absolutely everything, to that single game. He had played for his own dignity. He had chased redemption and had fought relentlessly to the very last minute to capture it. Kevin Smith had laid his soul bare and wagered it all on this single match. Tezuka suspected, no matter their personal issues, that he had found his own new career rival.
But the result, for this day, for this match on which so much had been staked, was the same.
Kevin Smith had been defeated.
For only the third time in memory, his or anyone else's, Tezuka cried out from the depths of his soul in his victory - "YES!" And then he dropped, with little of his typical decorum he would later realize, right on his ass as the tension and adrenaline vanished.
Tezuka lost track of how long he sat there, but then a pair of clay caked tennis shoes came into his vision. He looked up, unflinching, into the painfully diminished but still fiery blue eyes of his opponent. And he offered his hand. Kevin stared at it for a moment, then shook it very deliberately.
"You... were brilliant. Thank you."
Kevin's Adam's apple bobbed a few times as though he was choking. Clearly the young player was slowly losing a war with his grief. And then another voice cut through the din of the applause and shouts.
Both of them looked as Echizen, taking his turn to break general protocol, came onto the court. Tezuku took a deep breath and watched as Echizen moved straight to Kevin Smith, grabbed a handful of the man's bangs, and rammed their foreheads together. It was a good display of Echizen's renewed mobility, but the look the two shared was so intense, so profound from his front row vantage point, Tezuka knew he should look away. Yet he remained transfixed on the pair and saw Kevin's first tear fall from his chin.
"You," Echizen growled, "better give him hell every chance you get on the court from now on. Every time. Promise me."
More tears found their way down Kevin Smith's cheeks. He nodded once, firmly and in purest commitment. Echizen, looking satisfied, released the blond's hair. Kevin remained long enough to clear his vision and then he was gone.
Tezuka regarded Echizen from below. "You have ensured there will be a great deal of excitement for our match." Echizen's brow furrowed. "At the very least, you have made it appear as though you will be ready for tomorrow."
Echizen shrugged. "Either they'll assume yesterday was a fluke or tomorrow's gonna be a massacre. Not that it matters. They'll have other stuff to report besides whether or not I'm injured." He then offered his right hand – Tezuka allowed a minute bemused grin at the gesture – and hauled Tezuka to his feet finally.
Tezuka opened his mouth to thank him, and instead had it dominated by Echizen's own before he could counteract it. And then he saw Echizen's logic; this would certainly garner more speculation than anything they did with a racket. Tezuka knew only days earlier, he would have been mortified at the brazen display. Now however, it felt in perfect accord with the moment. When they broke, Echizen grinned.
"You're mine now, Buchou. Like it or not, you're stuck with me for good."
"We still have our match."
For a moment, just one brief but heartbreaking moment for Tezuka, Echizen's face betrayed a hint of uncertainty. Just a shadow, and for no longer than it took him to huff it out of his system. "Sure we do. But I'm kinda crazy about you, and I know you've got to feel the same way if you let me kiss you in front of a few tens of thousands of people. Is who wins our game going to change that?"
Tezuka pulled Echizen against him and moved the man's face upward to his own. Oddly, he felt as though he as answering his own question along with Echizen's. "Absolutely not."
A/N: First of all, this is kind of embarrassing. I just realized it's been almost four years since I wrote what was meant to be the second-to-last chapter of this story. Secondly I had to reread my own fic before deciding, a) this one was worth finishing, and b) I was overdue to wrap this one up by...almost four years. So forgive me for wasting a little time now to make a few notes.
To new readers, or ones like me who don't start a story until it's tagged complete: I began this fic in 2006. There was no National Championship yet (or they may have started it in the manga but it was early on and many of us ignored it at the time), let alone the second actual series that came out this year. My intention was never to go against the canon; it simply wasn't available yet, and I chose – then and now – to stick with the premise with which I began.
And to those who thought 's notification tool glitched when you got word of an update, or those who read this and forgot it and just happened to come back and look after this new series wrapped up: I love you guys. I'm not kidding. I don't care if you never reviewed the story. I don't care if you still want to flog me for the ridiculous wait time. Thank you, truly, for coming back. Since moving to original fiction and publishing my first novel, I never forgot those of you who read my works while I polished my skills and worked up my nerve right here on . I hope finishing this, despite the delay, help convey how grateful I am.