Author's Note: I think I gave myself cavaties from this last chapter, but the fic overall has been terribly fun to write. Thanks to everyone who reviewed. I hope you enjoy the last chapter.

The Power of Gossip

Chapter 14 – A Lot Like Tennis

By Sinnatious

Tezuka spent most of the morning wandering around the hotel foyer and tennis courts, trying to figure out what on earth to say to Echizen when he confronted him. He figured that it was probably best to have some sort of plan for what he wanted to say, so that he didn't screw up and somehow make the situation even worse.

Twice he returned to the room, and both times as soon as he started to try to speak, Echizen had turned on the shower to drown him out. Defeated, he retreated. When his friends returned later and he informed them of the situation, Momo had gone instead, but just shook his head when he returned to the lobby. The others didn't try after that, knowing that if Echizen wouldn't even give his best friend the courtesy of hearing him out, the rest of them had no chance. Instead, they hovered around, offering their support and endlessly apologising for the chain of misunderstandings. It struck Tezuka as absurd, really, since it has been his moment of panic that had landed him in this predicament to begin with, but at the same time he was glad none of them were blaming him for what had happened.

On a trip to the bathroom, he tried to establish some line of communication again - calling Echizen's phone - but it wasn't picked up. It had been a long shot – the other tennis player would likely just assume it was his bothersome manager again and not even look at it. Did the woman even know that she was going to be out of job yet?

The day dragged on, with his friends coming and going, though they seemed to be making sure that he had a baby-sitter at all times. Being idle was starting to irritate him, so he excused himself at some point in the afternoon to go run solo drills on the tennis court behind the hotel. There was the risk he'd miss Echizen if the teen tried to leave, but he'd go completely crazy if he just kept sitting around brooding. Tennis always helped him think, anyway.

His control was terrible, his strokes sloppy, and his power non-existent, but that was to be expected given that he was operating on no sleep. Fuji, Inui and Momo had stuck around, no doubt wanting to keep an eye on the situation, but thankfully none of them commented on it. Unless you counted Inui's endless note-taking and inaudible murmurings as comments.

Letting his mind go blank, he tried to look beyond the situation if the worst case scenario eventuated. He'd still have tennis. Not that much would change – at the worst he'd lose Ryoma's friendship. As painful as that thought was now, and how world-ending the notion seemed, he knew rationally that after a time he'd get over it. It wasn't as though he'd been leading up to this for months and months, after all – he'd only developed a romantic interest in his colleague very recently, and while it felt longer due to his lengthy period of self-denial, it wasn't as though he'd invested years into it.

Rationally, he knew all of this. Once again, though, looking at the situation logically didn't seem to help him feel any better about it.

A shot went wide, and Tezuka suddenly became aware that someone else had entered the court. For one brief moment, his hope sparked as he thought it might be Ryoma, but that notion was quickly dashed when it turned out to be Fuji instead.

"Tezuka, it's getting late," his friend said, no trace of that ever-present smile on his face. Well, even Fuji, legendary for smiling at inappropriate times, knew that there was a time and place.

So it was. The sun had set, and twilight was setting in. How long had he been robotically running through sloppily executed solo drills?

"Sorry, I lost track of time. Has Echizen…"

"No, Inui was keeping an eye on the elevators, and he hasn't gone past. Do you want to see if one of us should try talking to Echizen for you again maybe?"

As tempting as the notion was, he shook his head. "Thanks for the offer, but it really is a private matter."

"Ah. Of course. We all really would like to see you and Echizen happy, though, so don't hesitate to ask."

"Thank you," he repeated, and meant it. His earlier irritation at Fuji for poking the proverbial hornet's nest had mostly evaporated.

"Still… I hope Echizen comes down to eat. Momo was worried, since he hasn't tried to talk to him, either. Though I guess he can order room service… still, it must be very quiet and boring in there. Especially if he's hiding in the bathroom."

Tezuka felt even worse when he realised that Ryoma had now been holed up in the room by himself all day. He'd been so busy worrying about how to get the teen to talk to him that he'd almost forgotten the fact that Echizen had refused to talk to anyone. Earlier he'd been so grateful to have his friends supporting him, throwing him advice, keeping his thoughts on track… but his roommate had spent the night apparently wandering the streets by himself, and now had spent most of the day alone as well, brooding in the bathroom.

Worry was replaced by something very close to panic. It was a bad idea to let Echizen stew in his own thoughts. They'd all witnessed the problems it had caused first hand when the youth, as a twelve year old, had been given the opportunity to go to the American Open. There had been other cases, too, but normally one of the regulars spotted the symptoms in time – usually Oishi or Momo – and they'd forcefully intervene to set the other boy straight. Echizen's logic, though always reasonable, sometimes became skewed and heaped unnecessary grief onto the younger player, and his pride stopped him from asking for help when he needed it.

The thought that the nineteen year old could be experiencing that again right now, alone in their room, was all that Tezuka needed to finally spring into action. It was his mess that had caused Echizen to get this upset. He'd fix it, even if it was at the cost of his own heart.

Muttering some generic excuse, Tezuka all but ran back into the hotel, ignoring the surprised exclamations from Momo and Inui from the sidelines. He jammed the elevator button with the palm of his hand, striding purposefully into the elevator before the doors had even finished opening. The slow ascent to his floor felt painfully long. How could he have even briefly entertained the notion that Ryoma would come around on his own? He should have waited outside of that bathroom door for as long as it took – wasted water be damned!

He fumbled awkwardly with his card key at the door, almost slamming it shut in his haste to get into the room. It was dark – obviously the lights hadn't been turned on yet. Had Echizen really spent the entire day locked in the bathroom? He'd assumed that the teen would come and go as soon as he heard him at the door. Was the other really that paranoid about running into him? Was he that angry?

It didn't matter – he wouldn't back down this time. "Ryoma!" He called, banging on the bathroom door. "Have you been in there all afternoon?! Come out! We have to talk. Ryoma!" He tried the handle, but it was clear the door was still locked.

There was still no response, but Tezuka could hear movement inside. Cursing to himself, he considered his options. The other pro had already proven that talking through the door wouldn't work – he obviously had to see his roommate face to face. That only left one choice: breaking the door down. It didn't look that heavy, and the lock mechanism was rather flimsy – it would probably give under a hard jolt of pressure. It was extreme, and Tezuka knew he was overreacting, but trying to work the situation rationally hadn't helped his case any yet. Damages be damned – he could afford to pay the hotel the cost of a broken door. What he couldn't afford was to let the situation with Echizen drag out even a minute longer.

Backing up, the pro tennis player braced himself, then ran at the door. Just as his shoulder connected, though, the door suddenly gave way, and Tezuka, driven forward by momentum, found himself tumbling in a flail of limbs into the bathroom.

For a second the world was spinning crazily, and he couldn't quite figure out what had happened. Mentally checking that he hadn't injured himself – well, aside from a probable bruise here and there – he then turned his attention to the warm body pinned underneath him.

Ryoma let out a groan. Tezuka pushed himself up on his elbows, frantically checking over the other individual. "Are you alright?" It looked like they'd both come frightfully close to hitting their heads on the edge of the bathtub.

"What were you doing?!" Ryoma demanded, raising his free hand to gingerly check his head, eyes still squeezed shut.

"Trying to break down the door," Tezuka admitted a little sheepishly. It appeared that the younger pro must have unlocked it and started opening it at the exact moment he'd charged.

The teen let out a choke that sounded suspiciously like a muffled laugh. "I didn't think you were the sort of person to do something like that. It seems more like Momo's sort of thing."

"I was desperate."

Ryoma finally opened his eyes at that, staring at him expressionlessly. At least it was a slight improvement from the chilling look earlier that day. Tezuka matched his gaze steadily. Neither of them moved, and the moment drew out until the nineteen year old finally asked, "Would you mind getting off me?"

His reflex was to scramble from their compromising position immediately, but even as he started to raise himself, he paused and considered the other man thoughtfully. "I'm not so sure. Are you going to run away the moment that I do?"

Sighing, Ryoma just shook his head slightly, looking defeated. The expression didn't really fit his rival.

Tezuka clambered somewhat awkwardly to his feet, which was rather difficult without putting his hands in the wrong places. Eventually, he managed to extract himself and back out of the relatively small bathroom, giving the sharp-eyed teen room to sit up. Ryoma winced a little, massaging the back of his head that, while missing the tub, had probably hit the tiles rather hard, before standing also.

"I wanted to talk," Tezuka began, once it appeared his companion had regained his bearings.

No response – just an expectant look as if to say that was obvious.

"I probably should have said this to start with," he began, keeping his posture rigid and speaking formally. "I like you, Ryoma."

Echizen opened his mouth as though to respond, then closed it again. The lamplight caused his eyes to gain that haunting shade of gold. Finally, he muttered, "Do you really?"

That wasn't quite the response he'd been expecting. Typically, in that situation there was either a return of the feelings, or an outright refusal. A little bit scandalized by the suggestion he would joke about something like that, he protested, "Of course I do!"

"Why all of a sudden? We've known each other for years!"

"I know. I think I've felt this way for a while, but I only realised it recently," he explained.

"'Everyone else thinks its fate', you said," came the biting words.

"You asked if it was okay, and I said yes. I know my wording was slightly…" Tezuka paused, trying to find the right words. "…Unorthodox, I suppose, but I would have thought my meaning obvious. Why did you react so badly?"

"How was I supposed to know?!" Ryoma suddenly lashed out, eyes blazing. "Nothing you've done lately has made any sense! What am I supposed to think, buchou?!"

Tezuka took an involuntary step backward at the sudden burst of emotion from his normally stoic roommate. Nothing he had done made any sense? What could be a clearer indication of his intentions than kissing him?

The blood practically drained from Tezuka's face as he rethought the past few weeks. Dear God… he'd made such a fuss over trying to dispel the rumour, then followed it up by avoiding Ryoma all week, and then the first time they spent any amount of time alone together again he'd done that… of course his roommate was confused! He'd been sending such terribly mixed signals all along…

"I see… I should apologise. I hadn't thought… how my earlier actions would appear to you in light of doing that."

Echizen just folded his arms and looked away petulantly.

Regaining his sense of equilibrium, he adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. "I acted irrationally. I must confess that the situation was surprising for me and I wasn't quite certain of the best way to handle it, and so let me nerves get the better of me. Really, I am very sorry."

"Hn, that's not like you at all."

"I suppose it isn't. But I dare say that when it comes to such emotional matters, even the most level-headed among us can act like idiots."

The other pro smirked briefly, seemingly proud that he'd forced that admission.

They stood there in silent stalemate for a long moment. Finally, Tezuka stated again, "I do like you. I didn't confess properly like I'd intended, but that fact remains true."

The teen stepped forward suddenly, gaze burning as he looked up to meet his eyes. "Is it real? Are you really sure you actually like me, and aren't just telling yourself that you do because everyone expects you to?" Ryoma challenged.

Then it all finally made sense. That was the real crux of the matter. That was why his roommate had reacted so badly to that one comment. He thought that Tezuka was simply being peer-pressured into it. The conversation they'd been having only the night before suddenly rushed back into the forefront of his mind. All that talk of people's opinions, of public image… of course his comment would be misconstrued in that context! How could he have been so careless?!

Two long strides forward, and he was suddenly crushing Echizen against his body in his tight hug, eliciting a surprised gasp from the other tennis player. "Of course I'm sure," he whispered into his ear. "I'm just more amazed it took me this long to figure it out."

"Buchou…?" The tone was unsure, now.

"I won't deny that I care about what the others think. I can't just stop that. But you… Your opinion is the one that matters to me the most."

It was the complete truth, probably one of the most honest things he'd said recently. There was no uncertainty that his feelings were genuine. He'd briefly tried to squash them for a time, but for once his powerful logic and self-control had been unable to override his emotions.

When Echizen didn't move, he started to hesitantly withdraw from the embrace, but before he could a pair of arms wrapped around his back and Echizen buried his face in his shoulder.

"Ryoma?" he asked hesitantly.

"I like you too, buchou," came the muffled reply. The hands clenched in the fabric of his shirt.

"Ryoma…" It was the best response he could have hoped for. Tezuka had to resist the urge to pinch himself to make sure he wasn't just imagining it. Somehow, he'd been so prepared for the worst-case scenario that he hadn't thought too deeply about what would happen if his feelings were returned.

"Just let me stay like this. Just a little longer," came the quiet voice.

Tezuka smiled, tiredness forgotten, and threaded his hand through the green-black hair. "For as long as you want." Then a thought occurred to him. "Where did you go last night, anyway? I was worried."

"Heh. All-night movie marathon."

"Oh. What was playing?" It was an inane question, but after a day of silence, he desperately wanted to hear the other man's voice as much as possible.

"One horror, one comedy, and that movie we went to go see with the others. It was awful."

"Surely you would have already known that."

"Yeah, but I wasn't really watching the first time."

Tezuka hugged him just a little tighter at that.

They stood there for a long time, before Ryoma's rumbling stomach broke them out of their reverie. Glancing at the clock, Tezuka realised that it was already dinner time. "You probably haven't eaten all day, have you?" he asked, half amused and half concerned as they broke apart.

Echizen blushed slightly and looked away.

"Do you feel like coming down to dinner?"

The young tennis pro crossed his arms. "Can't we just get room service?"

It was tempting. But the heavy fog of sleeplessness and worry that had clouded his mind for most of the day had finally lifted, and thinking about it, he'd just run out on Fuji earlier with nothing more than a garbled 'have to go to do something'. "We should probably at least see the others first," he said, a little reluctantly. "Momoshiro and Kaido were both quite worried about you. Oishi, too."

"Oishi being worried is nothing new," Ryoma snorted, but moved to put on his shoes anyway. "At least those rumours are the truth now, right buchou?"

Tezuka cleared his throat, even as he changed his shirt into something more appropriate for eating out. "Actually, they all believe me now. It seems Fuji figured it out at some point."

There was a pause. "…Somehow I'm not surprised." Then a longer pause. "Then when that bastard gave me that-"

Hurrying along, Tezuka handed Ryoma a hairbrush to distract him before the teen could get riled up and started slipping on his own shoes. "I'm sure they will be pleased to know that we've sorted things out, though Kikumaru will likely be very confused. He saw your neck this morning," he informed the other man carefully.

Ryoma's hand flew to the still-visible mark on his neck, blushing furiously much to Tezuka's amusement. He tugged up his collar a little higher, frowning, before sending a sly grin over his shoulder. "Ne, buchou, you know this means we're never going to have to worry about fangirls proposing again, right?"

"An unexpected boon," he responded dryly as he held the door open.

They stood in silence in the lift on the way down, though just before it reached the ground level Tezuka felt another hand take his own. It took a lot of self-control to keep his smile at the shy gesture small. Really, he wasn't one for public displays of affection at all – and hadn't imagine someone as prideful and private as Ryoma was to be either – but it was reassuring given the tumultuous twenty-four hours they'd had, and would tell their friends everything they needed to know in a glance.

Indeed, as soon as they stepped into the lobby – it looked as though everyone had been waiting for them – Eiji spotted them and let out a loud "Woo woo!"

It was whirlwind of faces, questions and answers after that, as Oishi scolded his doubles partner and everyone came rushing over, firing questions left and right. Momo hovered over Echizen, slapping his back and asking questions, Inui took data, and Kikumaru was so excited he was practically running in circles. Most of it passed in a bit of a haze for Tezuka, as he automatically assured his friends that everything had been worked out now and thanked them for their interference, regardless of the temporary negative effects it had wrought. The only thing that really stood out through the sea of faces and barrage of words was the sensation of the warm hand firmly attached to his. It assured him that it was real, and not merely a happy fantasy dreamed up by his sleep-deprived brain.

They let up on them while they went to dinner – just the nearby McDonalds this time, which was hardly the healthiest food they could have eaten but Ryoma, Momo and Eiji seemed pleased by the choice so everyone else went along with it. Almost as soon as everyone was finished eating, though, they started back up again, seeming not to need their input anymore to discuss the blossoming romance in their midst. It was like a dam had burst.

Tezuka tolerated it, though, mostly because of how relieved Oishi had been. His friend had practically been in tears, and Eiji had whispered to them that his partner had been absolutely hopeless in practice due to his guilt and worry, and that it was a damn good thing he and Ryoma had sorted things out otherwise they would have lost the quarter-final the next day. Somewhere amidst all that had happened, they'd almost forgotten that they were there to watch a tennis tournament. Inui, on the other hand, looked far too pleased with himself, no doubt feeling vindicated by the fact that his data had not been in error after all.

There was one question he had, though… "Fuji," he said quietly as they started to leave the restaurant. "When did you figure it out?"

His friend smiled at him. "I'd like to say from the very beginning, but truthfully? It was when you asked Echizen when he wanted his game and Ponta."

Of course Inui would have probably transcripted their conversation after the 'revelation' and relayed it word for word, but trust Fuji to make the connection from a careless comment three weeks later. At least it meant when his friend had been teasing him initially, he hadn't already known. Although that still meant that his other stunt… Tezuka forced himself not to think about. It truly was better to just bask in the moment in this case.

About halfway back to the hotel room, the lack of sleep seemed to catch up with both of them. Tezuka barely recalled returning to the room and having a shower, and wound up fumbling rather badly when folding his glasses and placing them on the nightstand. He blamed the exhaustion for the overly sentimental kiss he placed atop Ryoma's head when he crawled into bed with the other man. Somehow, it wound up turning into a lengthy make-out session, which was only broken when Ryoma let out a protracted yawn as they broke for breath – quite effectively killing the mood. Tezuka would have been offended if he weren't trying so hard to avoid laughing. "Alright, sleep," he ordered. The teen pouted, but didn't argue.

Flicking off the lights, he settled into the blankets, feeling another body scoot up next to his. It wasn't as though they weren't likely to wind up in that position by morning anyway, but given the situation he figured it was nice to start out that way for a change.

Despite his exhaustion, sleep didn't come to claim him immediately. It took quite a lot of discipline to force the thoughts whirling in his head to quiet. Just as he was about to drift off to sleep, though, comforted by the presence of the warm body next to his, Ryoma suddenly spoke up.

"Hey buchou?"

"I thought I said you could call me Kunimitsu?" Tezuka groaned, rolling over onto his stomach. It was as though his roommate had sensed the exact moment he was about to finally lose consciousness.

"Yeah, but buchou suits you better." When Ryoma said it in that breathy tone of voice, he had to agree.

"What is it?"

"I was thinking... maybe we should go into doubles."

"What are you talking about? We're both terrible doubles players. Neither of us have played doubles since middle school," Tezuka mumbled into his pillow, half-asleep.

"Yeah, but I wouldn't mind playing with you."

"I wouldn't mind either, but our tournament schedule is already crazy enough without adding doubles to it."

"It would be funny though."

"Why, because we'd be a team in the doubles final and then equally exhausted when we played each other in the singles final?" Tezuka normally tried to avoid that sort of arrogance, but when he was half asleep the blunt truth was good enough. Ryoma would have said it if he didn't, and it WAS true. Neither of them had a threat to their No.1 or No.2 status other than each other. The past year had been spent simply trading the spot between them.

"Might be a challenge. We've practically mastered our singles games. Maybe we could learn some new tricks from doubles."

That was a more compelling argument. "Hmmm..."

"And Kikumaru and Oishi will need a good challenge. They're breezing through this tournament. They're going to slaughter the competition in a year if they do that weird synchro thing of theirs."

"Maybe after they've won a few tournaments. It would be a shame to steal their thunder," Tezuka conceded.

Ryoma laughed softly. "I thought you said we were both terrible doubles players, and now you think we'll be able to beat them first go?"

"You must be a bad influence on me. Now go to sleep."

Even though he couldn't see it in the darkness, Tezuka could sense that cat-like smirk all the same. Eventually, though, his companion's breathing evened, and the room was quiet was once again. It was tempting to just lay awake and relish the assurance of Ryoma's presence, despite his own tiredness.

He let himself drift off, though. After all, Eiji and Oishi had a match tomorrow morning they were expected to attend, and while there weren't that many days of this strange little holiday left, he was sure that he and Echizen were going to have plenty of time later to explore their new relationship. He had the feeling that it was going to be very much like tennis, and neither he nor Ryoma ever played tennis halfway.

Thanks for reading.