Ryoma walks out on to the court, his racket clutched tightly in his left hand. The hard spring of the ground below his feet is refreshing. He always has enjoyed playing on grass courts; there's just something about the feel of it, like he can almost dig his toes in through his tennis shoes.
The sun is bright overhead, in a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. Perfect tennis weather. Ryoma shields his eyes against the sun with the hand not holding his racket, and scans the crowd until he finds a familiar group of people. He feels a bit shocked to see Nanjiroh sitting there as well. Ryoma thought the old man might not bother to watch. Nanjiroh came for the free vacation, and has spent the entire tournament so far watching the Ladies' matches and making rude remarks whenever he sees Ryoma about the wonders a strong breeze can do. Nanjiroh is currently blabbering on about something to Fuji, who is sitting to the old man's right. Fuji has that smile on his face that has always managed to creep Ryoma out, but the combination of Fuji and Nanjiroh is far too disturbing for Ryoma to linger on.
Ryoma looks farther down, at the rest of the old Seigaku team. There's Oishi. He was the one who said none of them would miss this match for the world, and apparently he'd spoken truthfully, because even Taka, who hasn't played tennis since middle school, is there. Kikumaru's bright hair stands out in the crowd, and Ryoma can tell he's being held in his seat by the arm Oishi has draped over his shoulder. Next to them, Momoshiro and Kaidoh seem to have gotten into another argument, and Inui… yes, Ryoma is pretty sure that's a notebook.
Some things never change, and for a moment Ryoma feels like he's back at Seigaku, a strange feeling he finds both comforting and unsettling.
Ryoma smoothes down his stark white shorts –damn dress code, he started wearing a new, blue pair about a year ago, and he much prefers them now. Then Ryoma runs a hand over the familiar lump from the extra ball in his pocket. Like he said, some things don't change.
Then –oh god, where did the time go?— it's time for the match to start. Ryoma pulls a ball out of his pocket, lets it roll across his fingers, bounces it once, twice, and on the third time looks across the court. His eyes narrow and he feels the familiar sensation of everything in the world narrowing to this one court, this one match, this one opponent.
The yellow ball glints against the bright blue sky, and as Ryoma whips his racket through for the serve he thinks this is going to be fun.
When Tezuka was 19 he went pro. Echizen, much to Nanjiroh's annoyance, the newspapers' questions, and Tezuka's slight confusion, did not. Instead, he went to California for six months to train with the best coaches money could buy. This might have made sense for anyone else, but Tezuka knew Echizen was ready. When he tried to speak to him about it, though, Ryoma's eyes blazed and Tezuka didn't mention it again. Echizen would do things on his own time, and for once Tezuka was content to let that happen.
When Echizen shows up in October, fresh off his plane from America, he waits on a bench outside the courts where Tezuka practices, drinking a Ponta and waiting for Tezuka to finish working with his trainer. Tezuka tries to ignore Echizen for the rest of practice, but his coach's remarks about it being the best showing Tezuka has had in a while effectively proves he didn't.
Tezuka packs up his bag slowly, then walks towards Echizen. They are silent for a moment, then Echizen tells Tezuka that he really missed Ponta while in the States. Then Echizen asks if he can train with Tezuka.
Tezuka pauses, looks down at Ryoma's upturned eyes, peering at him from below the brim of his white cap. Tezuka doesn't know why he agrees, but after today's practice he's sure his coach won't mind.
Ryoma works with Tezuka from then on, and Tezuka's coach praises him daily for how well he's doing. He goes into the Australian Open at the top of his game. Ryoma travels with him, an arrangement that happens naturally, and with little surprise for Tezuka. They share a hotel room -Tezuka tries not to sigh too loudly at the mess Ryoma leaves- and they play a match the night before the tournament starts.
It's the first they play since Ryoma left for America. Tezuka wins 6-4, and goes on to take his first grand slam tournament, a 19-year-old newcomer shocking the world of tennis.
Amid an avalanche of press reports and magazine articles they head back to Japan and Ryoma still doesn't say a word about going pro.
Ryoma stocks up on Ponta before they leave for the French Open. He says he missed it too much in Australia, and Tezuka tries not to roll his eyes when he notices Ryoma has filled his suitcase half full with cans.
They share a hotel room again. Tezuka has now gotten used to the way Ryoma murmurs Karupin in his sleep, so it only makes sense.
Ryoma doesn't challenge Tezuka to a match this time, and Tezuka doesn't raise the issue himself. He does catch a glimpse of Ryoma's white hat in the stands, right before the final match, though. Tezuka wins his second consecutive grand slam tournament, and the world of tennis is once again thrown into a tizzy at this Japanese player who can switch court types so easily. Ryoma just smirks at all the new, astonished newspaper articles. Buchou overcame that glitch in the Tezuka-zone his first year of high school.
As they fly back to Japan, Tezuka contemplates the difference between hard and clay courts while Ryoma sleeps on his shoulder. The heat of the small body is comforting against the phantom ache Tezuka still feels sometimes. Tezuka has a strange feeling that change is in the air.
When they arrive in London, Tezuka discovers Ryoma has gotten himself registered in the Junior Wimbledon tournament. Tezuka vacillates back and forth between keeping his expression devoid of shock and amusement as Ryoma drags him to the registration desk.
Ryoma's ID photo turns out terrible. (They made him take off the hat, and Tezuka didn't manage to flatten the stray hair before Ryoma marched off in a huff.) Ryoma narrows his eyes and shoves the ID into his back pocket. "They offered me a hotel room, but if it's okay I'd rather stay with you."
Tezuka nods, and they go back to the hotel he booked.
That night, Ryoma drinks a good portion of his Ponta stash and watches television while Tezuka tries not to dwell on the motivation for Ryoma's actions. That almost always leads Tezuka to a headache and no closer to the truth.
When the tournament starts, Ryoma blazes through the Juniors competition. He doesn't drop a set until the semi-finals, and only his opponent in the finals could claim membership to those Ryoma Echizen has played seriously in tennis.
Ryoma drops a zero-shiki to take match point and the tournament. He finds Tezuka in the stands and mouths "mada mada dane" as the crowd explodes in cheers. Tezuka is left with a strange, happy feeling in his stomach, but also feeling more confused than ever.
That night they have barely escaped from the crowd of newly Echizen-obsessed reporters and back to the hotel room when Ryoma challenges Tezuka to a match.
Tezuka pauses, meets Ryoma's eyes, then agrees.
Ryoma pushes Tezuka to tiebreak, nearly gets swallowed by the zone, then finds his crack. As the ball rolls away from Tezuka, he looks up at Ryoma across the court. Ryoma's hat has fallen off, and his eyes are big, full of confidence and delight and understanding, but no surprise.
For the first time Ryoma has beaten his buchou, and when they meet at the net Tezuka, for the first time, kisses Ryoma.
Ryoma falls into the hot lips against his own, shivers as Tezuka's hands clutch at his back. He's never done this before, not just kissing Tezuka, but kissing in general, and he fumbles a bit but gets the hang of it pretty quickly. Ryoma's always been a fast learner.
They spend a considerable amount of time on the bench by the practice courts that night, and the next, and despite the blazing sun, Ryoma keeps his tennis jacket zipped up all the way as he watches Tezuka steal Wimbledon from Federer.
His overwhelming win at Wimbledon Juniors starts up the rumor mill about Ryoma again. He's showing up in newspapers and magazines once more, side-by-side with photos from Tezuka's final match. Inoue calls every other day for a month until he takes the hint from Ryoma's short, verging on rude responses to his questions, and stops trying.
Tezuka thinks that maybe now Ryoma, fresh off the grass of Wimbledon, will make up his mind to finally join him, but in the lead-up to the US Open they train together as usual. The only difference is that now Ryoma tends to do something akin to tackling Tezuka as they walk home from the courts in the evening.
Every day, Tezuka has been arriving home later and later.
They head to New York, and Tezuka feels that maybe Ryoma will challenge him again. He anticipates a match that doesn't come, though. Instead Ryoma drags Tezuka around the city for a few days. Tezuka feels frustrated going into the opening rounds, though he won't admit to himself it's because he wanted to play Echizen. Instead, he thinks back on Ryoma's cocky instructions to "not get careless, Buchou," and vents his frustration on his opponents.
Tezuka finds Ryoma in the crowd moments before serving match point, then he wins a grandslam in his first four major tournaments. Ryoma was smiling, is all Tezuka thinks about as he silently enjoys the accolades of being the world's newest hero.
Girls scream as Tezuka leaves the court, looking everywhere for Ryoma. He doesn't see him until they're back at the hotel room, though, where Ryoma congratulates Tezuka in an even more enjoyable –and frustrating- way than any cup or fan or interviewer ever could.
When the Australian Open comes again, Ryoma doesn't travel with Tezuka.
The empty plane seat next to him on the trip over gives Tezuka an odd feeling that lasts through the first round of the tournament. Tezuka drops the first set to an unseeded opponent.
Shaking himself for his carelessness, Tezuka proceeds to take the next three sets 6-0, 6-1, 6-0. It isn't until Tezuka returns to find Ryoma sitting on his hotel bed, Ponta in hand, that Tezuka understands.
Ryoma sets down the drink and looks up at Tezuka, who is still standing in the doorway holding his tennis bag. There's a lost look in Ryoma's eyes, and his body –knees tucked into his chest and back against Tezuka's pillow—looks small. Smaller than usual, that is. It frightens Tezuka.
Ryoma doesn't even say hello, just challenges Tezuka to a match. Tezuka agrees. He's got the second round tomorrow, and a late night match with someone as tough as Echizen is probably a horrible idea, but this is Ryoma so of course he agrees. It's raining, so Tezuka pulls out a big black umbrella Ryoma bought him at the French Open last year, and they both huddle under it as they hurry off to a covered court nearby.
They start, and Ryoma has to be jet-lagged as hell, but his play doesn't show it. Tezuka takes the match 7-6 with a zero-shiki Ryoma just reaches, but knocks into the net. Tezuka is a bit shocked to see relief in Ryoma's eyes.
When they meet in the middle, instead of shaking hands Ryoma smiles and says "I beat the old man."
"Nanjiroh?" Tezuka breaths.
The lost look Tezuka saw earlier in the hotel room flickers across Ryoma's face for a moment, but then he nods and it disappears quickly, replaced by the familiar smirk Tezuka dreams about sometimes.
"I'm going to beat you at Wimbledon," Ryoma says in English, and Tezuka can't stop the smile that appears on his own face.
They kiss, rackets clattering to the court, sticky fingers scrambling to clench sweaty shirts. Back in the hotel room that night they have sex for the first time, Ryoma falling asleep in Tezuka's arms. Tezuka wins the Australian open for the second time that week, but as he holds the trophy and cameras flash in his face, all he can think of is Wimbledon.
Ryoma aces his first serve, and smirks across the court, but Tezuka remains stoically Tezuka as 15-love is announced. Tezuka aces his return next, making it 15 all, and they're off.
They fly, trading points, games, sets, at an equal yet unmatched tempo. The yellow ball is a streak between them, as they force each other higher and higher, and Ryoma can't distinguish between the roar of the crowd and the roar of his heart, pounding in his ears.
It's just this game, and both are giving everything as point by point they fight towards a conclusion.
As Tezuka rockets a forehand past him, Ryoma remembers falling to his knees once, on a tennis court by the train tracks, when things changed for the first time. He remembers a long array of match points –of wins against junior high and high school opponents, and losses to Nanjiroh—as he gains advantage, falls to deuce, to advantage for Tezuka, then back again.
The tie-break stretches on as the sun crawls across the sky, and then Ryoma remembers a covered court in the dead of night in the throws of Wimbledon. He drops a volley right behind Tezuka, and now it's match point, Ryoma is serving, and he finally stops remembering.
Ryoma feels the ball in his hand, tosses it up into the sky, then sends a twist serve across the net that, even as Tezuka dives, he knows he won't reach.
Ryoma watches as Tezuka remains on the grass for a moment, then picks himself up. As they walk towards the net and each other, the world opens up again. Ryoma can hear the roar of the crowd now, can feel the sweat dripping down his back, and can realize that seven of his friends and his father have just watched him win. All of them know, except for Nanjiroh, so that means shocking seven and surprising one.
His opponents will push themselves higher soon, some are already out for Tezuka's blood, and Ryoma knows that they both will rise to meet them. But for now, Ryoma has finally shown Tezuka his tennis, has realized for himself why he will continue to play the game, and now it's time to show the world.
When they meet at the net, Ryoma smirks, then tells Tezuka he might want to turn away from the cameras a bit. Then he grabs a handful of Tezuka's shirt, right in the middle of his chest, pulls him towards the net, and kisses him.
This game is about the challenges you face, the matches you take, and the surprises you meet head on, and that is why you play.
Ryoma feels Tezuka's hand sliding down his back. He jumps, and they finally break apart. Ryoma sees Tezuka's eyes flashing, and the very beginnings of a smile creeping onto his lips.
"I'm beating you at the US Open, Echizen."
Ryoma smirks. Tennis, he thinks, is about the game. And possibly being felt up by your boyfriend on Center Court, Wimbledon.