Disclaimer: I do not own Prince of Tennis, nor am I profiting from it in any way. This fiction was written purely for enjoyment.

Warning: This fiction contains shonen-ai. If you don't know what that term means, you probably don't want to read this fic. If you do know what it means and are offended by it, please don't read, and please don't flame me for something you were warned about.

Author's Note: I was going through my hard drive and happened upon a collection of half-finished fics that I'd originally never intended to see the light of day. Leaving things unfinished bothers me, though, so I thought I'd start posting this one and hope that it doesn't turn out lame. A new chapter will be posted weekly, probably on the weekend.

The Power of Gossip

Chapter 1 – One White Lie

By Sinnatious

In Tezuka's defence, it had been a very stressful day. The young tennis star had spent the morning enduring interviews and press conferences, and hadn't slept well the night before, despite having just played in an exhausting tournament final. The string on one of his favourite rackets had broken during morning training, and he'd completely run out of his favourite blend of tea. Then at lunch, there had been this one fan who just hadn't left him alone, despite his intense desire to have a quiet meal by himself before returning to the hotel to meet up with friends.

The fan in question was dogging him even as he entered the hotel lobby, and he was stretching his mind for ways to dismiss her as politely as possible, even though she had stubbornly ignored all of his previous hints.

"Yukina," he tried patiently, "It's been very nice having your company, but I'm planning on catching up with some people today. Are you certain you wouldn't rather visit your other friends on this fine Sunday?"

Maybe he was still being too polite after all.

"Of course not, Kunimitsu," she crooned. "Kaori's out of town all weekend and I've nothing else to do! Besides, she made me promise to keep you company while you were in Kyoto when she couldn't. She feels terrible about it, you know. And I'd absolutely love to meet some more of your friends! You never talk about yourself, after all."

Which was what made the current situation all the worse. Normally when his female fans started to encroach on his personal territory, he could curtly excuse himself and not have to worry overmuch about the ramifications. Yukina, on the other hand, happened to be the high school friend of a cousin of his that he'd rarely seen until he entered the pro circuit, but had suddenly started attending all of their family functions and visiting him all the time. His cousin he did not mind so much, but she often included her friend as though she were one of the family – no doubt at Yukina's insistence.

She didn't even seem remotely interested in tennis, to add insult to injury.

"Buchou," a familiar voice called out from somewhere off to his right.

"Echizen," he greeted, hoping his relief at the sight of the other tennis pro wasn't too obvious. The short-statured nineteen-year old, sporting a worn white cap, wandered over to them, giving the girl attempting to hang on to the twenty-one year old's arm a derisive glance, as though all too familiar with her ilk.

"Oh, Echizen Ryoma? You're Kunimitsu's greatest rival, aren't you?" she asked with mild interest. He saw the teen raise his eyebrows speculatively at the use of first name, sending his elder a sideways glance. Tezuka just shook his head imperceptibly. He'd tried to discourage the use of such familiar terms, but the girl was difficult. In all honesty, it was badly grating on his nerves, especially in his tired state.

"I suppose you could say that," he replied dismissively, and then continued, "You're early, Buchou. The others won't be here for another few minutes."

He'd come early in fond hopes of shaking his tag-a-long, but it had apparently been a fool's errand. "So, who was able to come? I saw Inui in the stands yesterday, but couldn't spot anyone else."

"Not everyone. Besides Inui there's-," Echizen started, before being cut off by the excited squeals of the girl attached to his arm.

"Oh, you mean one of your friends is Echizen?"

"Yes," he replied exasperatedly. Wasn't it obvious? And for a purported fan of his, she apparently knew very little – the magazines all made a giant fuss about the fact that he and Echizen had been on the same tennis team in the past.

"Hm," she said thoughtfully, then swung around to face him. "Ne, Kunimitsu? You like me, right?"

"What?" The question caught him off guard. Where had THAT come from? There was no honest answer that wouldn't offend her. "Ah, you're an excellent friend to my cousin, certainly. It was very thoughtful of you to keep me company today in her place," he hedged, dodging what he was suspecting the question was leading up to.

"Hmm, then how would you like to be my boyfriend?" she asked with a stunning smile. Well, he'd expected for his seed of suspicion to have a little longer to take root before being proven correct. So much for subtlety.

Something inside Tezuka snapped. It had been a very long day, and for all of his attempts at politeness, this was one particularly annoying fan he'd been unable to shake. So he did something he very rarely ever did.

Tezuka Kunimitsu panicked.

It was stupid. He simply DIDN'T panic. It wasn't something he ever did. Yet here he was.

Not even entirely aware of what he was doing, he made a frantic grab for the nearest individual, and blurted, "I'm sorry, but I'm already in a relationship, you see."

Even before the words left his mouth, he knew that they were ludicrous. No one would believe the bald-faced lie he was about to tell.

That was when he remembered that the nearest individual was Ryoma, and paled. He'd originally intended to grab the nearest girl, but when he paid closer attention to whose arm he had in his grasp, it appeared to belong to Echizen, who was indeed the person standing closest at the time. In a moment of disorientation, he'd mistaken the short and thin stature out of the corner of his eyes to be that of a female, though he dared not say so out loud – Echizen was still awfully sore about his height, which Inui's strict diet had only partially managed to fix. Even if he was no longer quite so incredibly small next to them as he had been when they'd first met, the young pro was still the shortest of the former Seigaku middle school regulars.

He was damned either way, now. It was suicide – not to mention rude – to openly mistake Ryoma for a girl, even if it was mostly due to his poor peripheral vision while wearing glasses, and equally reckless to face the woman in front of him without some sort of shield to fend off her advances. Might as well run with it.

"Yes, um… Echi- Ryoma and I… are quite attached. I'm sorry I cannot return your feelings."

Tezuka was suddenly incredibly grateful for Echizen's almost permanent deadpan and talent for under reaction. The only sign of his surprise when the former captain had pulled him in had been a slight widening of his eyes and a brief stiffening of his muscles when he'd made his announcement. He prayed that the young tennis star wouldn't be offended and would go along with it.

"Che. You owe me a game. Whenever I want," Ryoma muttered under his breath after a long silence, briefly forcing a strained smile onto his face for the benefit of the girl in front of them.

Tezuka thought he might faint from relief. "Fine," he whispered in response.

"And a Ponta."

He simply nodded, just grateful that at least the teen wasn't going to kill him, or worse, reveal his lie.

It had been a long shot - one that he hadn't really expected to work. The young tennis pro was surprised, then, when she merely blinked, her mouth formed into an 'o', and then broke into a radiant smile. "Kunimitsu! Why didn't you say so sooner? I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable by pursuing him like that," she added, addressing Echizen, who thankfully stayed silent. "Congratulations! I'm sure you two will be happy together. Ah, it all makes so much sense now!"

What? Tezuka stared dumbly as she continued her monologue of speculation and apologies and well wishes. Was it really so easy? She was just going to give up on him, just like that, and all it had taken was one slightly outrageous fib? No tears or wails or screaming declarations of love?

"Yes, well, we're supposed to be meeting up with friends, so we can't really stay around and chat," he started, but she waved him off with a giggle.

"Don't worry, Kunimitsu, I was just going to leave anyway. You take good care of Echizen now, you hear? And don't worry, I won't tell your parents before you're ready to come out to them." With a wink, a careless wave and a beaming smile, she skipped over to the hotel entrance. Apparently, it really was going to be that simple.

"Eeeehhh? It's official? Ochibi and Tezuka are going out?!" A familiar voice exclaimed from behind as she retreated from sight. "About time!"

Tezuka's heart plummeted to the bottom of his stomach. When had they arrived? Great, now he was going to have to endure all sorts of teasing and ribbing from his former team mates over his dilemma. He hurriedly dropped his arm from Echizen's shoulder. The young pro had yet to say anything else or properly change his expression.

"Of course not, Eiji," he chided, hoping that completely sidestepping the issue might spare him some ridicule. "And that is not the proper way to greet someone you haven't seen in months."

Alongside his old redheaded classmate was his doubles partner Oishi, the still-data-gathering Inui, and one embarrassed looking Kawamura. Fuji, Momoshiro and Kaido must have had their own commitments, and hadn't been able to come to the tournament, even though it had been a relatively local one for once. Well, local for them. Neither Ryoma nor Tezuka spent much time in Japan anymore, spending most of the year hopping between all of the tournament venues.

"But this is great news! You guys heard too, didn't you?! Ochibi and Tezuka at last!" the hyperactive boy hollered with a wide grin.

"Very funny. We're not going out. That was just to get rid of a fangirl," Tezuka explained, and then frowned. "And what do you mean 'at last'?"

"Probability of this occurring was 82, but this is much sooner than my previous estimates. Good data," Inui muttered, flipping open his ever-present notebook and quickly scribbling some information down.

"Buchou is telling the truth," Echizen's voice finally cut in.

Oishi gave them both understanding smiles. "You two don't need to be shy, really. I understand you like your privacy, but we're all friends here."

"Uhm, yeah, congratulations," Taka offered timidly, though he was grinning too.

Echizen threw him an exasperated glance, but Tezuka honestly didn't know what to do. He was at a loss. It wasn't as though he was regularly the butt of their jokes.

"Woo woo!" Eiji called.

"Eiji, twenty laps," he responded automatically.

"WHAT?! We're not in school anymore, Tezuka!"

"He was just joking, Eiji," Oishi reassured him.

"Tezuka telling a joke? I don't believe it!"

"Tezuka does indeed have a sense of humour, it is just exceptionally dry," Inui interrupted. "Congratulations also on your win yesterday, Echizen. I'm sorry we couldn't give it to you after the match."

"Che, Buchou's contacts were giving him trouble towards the end of the match." That concession was probably the closest the youngest pro was ever going to get humility.

"The wind blew dust into them, but I was able to clean them properly when we changed court," the elder pointed out. "You won the tie break fairly."

Echizen tugged his cap down over his eyes - after so many years, he still wore it - no doubt spurring the recent sponsorship offer from Fila, too. Inui added, "It certainly did make this tournament much more exciting. It has been five years since a top twenty player came to this tournament, and this time it received two. Even better, you wound up on opposite sides of the draw so it eventuated in a final."

"Most everyone takes a brief break after each of the Grandslam finals," Tezuka pointed out.

"But not you two, huh?" Eiji asked with a wicked grin.

"Eiji!" Oishi scolded.

Tezuka dismissed the jab, hoping that if he ignored their friend's wild speculations they'd forget about the whole silly performance with him and Ryoma and not try to tease him about it. "We can't afford to get careless. Speaking of which, how are your own tournament preparations coming along?" Oishi and Eiji were entering their first international tournament in America in a few weeks - it was effectively their debut into professional doubles tennis. The entire former Seigaku team were planning to head over to the tournament to celebrate it. Kawamura was even taking time away from the sushi shop to come, seeing as everyone else had managed to find the time in their busy schedules.

"Oh, it's going well, but we can discuss that when we get to Kawamura Sushi," Oishi suggested.

Echizen blinked. "Kawamura sushi? But we're in Kyoto."

Eiji elbowed the sushi chef playfully. "That's the other good news! Taka opened up a franchise store! He's moving out from under his father's direction!"

That was a pleasant surprise. "That is marvellous news, Takashi. Congratulations," Tezuka offered, patting his old classmate on the shoulder.

Taka, typically, just looked embarrassed. "I was finally ready. I don't think I'll learn much more if I'm always relying on my father. I want to make it on my own two feet."

"Yup, he only just opened too! So we get to be among his first customers! He even brought a van to drive us all there! So let's go, nya!" Eiji declared, hopping from foot to foot excitedly. For all he'd aged, the acrobat hadn't changed that much at all.

"Oh, I parked a few blocks away, so we'll have to walk. Shall we get going?" the demure chef suggested.

"Now would be an opportune time to leave if we wish to avoid the mid-afternoon peak traffic," Inui agreed.

With that, they headed out onto the street, Eiji practically bouncing circles around Oishi and Taka as they walked, Inui leading the way even while scribbling in his notebook. Tezuka allowed himself to fall to the back of the group, where Ryoma was dragging his feet.

"Heh. It's pretty rare to see you flustered like that, buchou," Echizen commented with a slight smirk as soon as they'd fallen behind enough to be out of easy earshot.

"She was a friend of the family," Tezuka replied tiredly. "I am afraid my usual tactics for dealing with overzealous fans cannot work on her without causing a great deal of trouble."

"And this isn't a great deal of trouble? We're never going to hear the end of it."

"I wasn't aware that the others had arrived while we were talking," he explained tiredly, then paused and added, "I'm extremely sorry to inconvenience you like that. I sort of panicked. Thank you for going along with it."

Ryoma shrugged. "I've tried the same stunt before when cornered by the fangirls. They never believe me for some reason, though." His smirk grew. "You still owe me a game. And a Ponta."

"Whenever you want."

Tezuka thought that was the end of the matter, convinced that his friends would let the matter drop now that it was obvious that there was nothing more going on and that the situation had been exactly as he'd stated. They'd probably make a few more laughs at his expense later, but it would slip from memory just as soon as the next amusing thing happened.

He had no idea how wrong he was.