Standard Disclaimers Apply.
A/N: I am, apparently, alive! Hope you enjoyed the last chapter. As for the timeline, we are in the last week of November; Echizen resolved the triangle issue the first Sunday, and Tezuka and Fuji have been going out for three weeks, give or take. I fell out of fandom for a while, but I'd really like to try finishing this story. So I apologize if the writing tone or style changes a little bit throughout the story. Also, just as a note, anything I write about certain character archetypes may not necessarily be my own thoughts, but the thoughts of the character thinking them at the moment. Please don't be offended!
I know this chapter is still pretty short, but I liked how the ending was circular in its way. Also, I wanted to get it out faster, since you've all been very patient.
He's been cooking more often, since both his mother and Nanako have been pretty busy. It's easy to do; most days he just makes a giant pot of stew or curry and the family just eats that for about three days on end. He gets sick of it too, but it isn't as if he doesn't have anything to do. Homework takes time, and so does tennis. Even though the cold is sapping away some of the bounce of the tennis balls and the vitality of the regulars, Tezuka has decreed that they won't stop practice until the first snowfall.
The alarm clock isn't enough anymore. Most days now, it takes both Karupin and Oyaji to wake him up, by purring against his chest, meowing in his ear, and shaking him awake roughly. He has nightmares of being shut away, in closets, in classrooms with no windows, in an empty clubroom with lockers dented all around him, the benches torn in half with tremendous force. And always, there is glass or splinters that cut into the calloused flesh of his hands, dig into his legs and make him bleed. There are no bandages, or alcohol pads to clean himself with, and he ends up crouched against a wall, hiding until the door opens, with two silhouettes at the door.
And he wakes up.
"Echizen!" Momo shouts in greeting, as he brakes at Ryoma's door. Ryoma murmurs something vaguely polite as he clambers onto the bike with heavy limbs, sagging leadenly against the back of his friend, arms flung over broad shoulders haphazardly in a mock-hug. The scarf bundled against his face and neck makes for a soft pillow, and he can almost imagine his ever-thickening coat to be a blanket.
"E-Echizen?" stutters Momo, a little wary of the sudden sloppy affection directed towards him. "Are you okay?" he starts pedaling regardless; they can't afford to be late to the practices in the winters when everyone, including Oishi-fukubuchou, is a little bit cranky. Ryoma doesn't answer, just sighs against the warm back that shields him from the cutting wind, grateful that Momo isn't complaining about the extra weight he's had to support from Ryoma's unusual position.
"…hm?" Ryoma flexes the hands that have knotted themselves into the front of Momo's windbreaker.
"Are you alright?" Momo sounds hesitant, nervous. This cuddling is not typical Echizen behavior.
Echizen's hands clench, in surprise or wariness, Momo does not know. His voice gives nothing away, carefully metered. "Why do you ask, Momo-senpai?"
"Well…you've been really intense lately," Momo murmurs, cheeks red with embarrassment and wind-chill, eyes pointed firmly on the road ahead. "And you look really pale….and…and…"
He trails off, unable to place words to feeling. It's true. Echizen has been intense, almost inhumanly focused on his tennis. He is always looking drained and pale, his eyes almost fever-bright with some kind of dry-burning fire. And he looks like glass with his monochrome coloring in the fall days, a moving, walking, talking glass statue with amber for eyes. And among the seniors, there has been some talk, hushed to stop Echizen from hearing, with Kikumaru the most vocal: "What's wrong with Ochibi?" And no reply is received, nothing but the uneasy glances between the regulars, and Inui's mutters of increasing surveillance.
"….Your senpai are worried about you, you know," Momo finally manages, summoning the courage to slide his eyes back, hoping to catch Echizen's glance for a split-second before returning his attention back to the road.
Echizen is quiet on his back, hands clenched tightly in Momo's jacket, thinking of teammates and love and everything in between. He lets out another sigh, another gust of air, blowing out the flames he kept trapped inside.
"Tired…I'm just tired."
And when they get to school, Momo is surprised over by the slight squeeze of Echizen's arms before he gets off the bike.
"Thanks," Echizen mutters, putting his cap on to hide his red face, before turning and darting off to the locker room to change.
Momo stares after him, surprised. He snorts, heading toward the bike cages.
"That's not cute, Echizen. That's not cute at all."
Tennis is tennis, as usual, because Seigaku is Seigaku and they never quit even when they should, and that's how Ryoma ends up doing doubles practice with Fuji because, frankly my dear, he doesn't give a damn if Inui's secretly the new Einstein, there's no way in hell he's eating the new monstrosity Inui had to spend four days secretly slow cooking in the home economics room. He's pretty sure Inui's the reason they had a fire drill two days ago; he doesn't care if Inui's creation looks like the most innocent muffins in the world, they wobble when you poke them, and parts of them are a bright neon green like Inui thought the best types of muffins were the kinds with radioactive cinnamon crumble on the top.
He thinks he's going to cry because Fuji looks like he's trying to lose on purpose, because of course, Fuji is a crazy fucker who actually likes Inui's toxic experiments, and Tezuka? Who's Tezuka? Ryoma's busy trying to stay alive thanks very much, okay, buh-bye now—priorities are some important stuff.
Exactly, priorities, because he's definitely not thinking about whether or not Fuji and Tezuka nookie in the showers, or what they do when they're alone together, or why Fuji keeps looking at him like that, with this strange slow-burn blue-eyed gaze like he wants to eat Ryoma for dinner. He's definitely not doing his best to get a glimpse of the back of Fuji's neck where he thought there was a pink spot, and he just can't stop himself from looking at it, he needs to know if he dreamed it up, or if it was a mosquito bite, or if Tezuka put his mouth there and sucked—
So, of course, they lose, because Echizen's a bad team player who's ridiculously distracted and Fuji's a manipulative man with a plan. And as Echizen bites into a pseudo-muffin that's got the texture of monkey brains and the taste of his father's Ultimate Cooking Attempt #34, he's almost relieved when he realizes that first period is English today, and he can sleep all he wants now.
That is, until he wakes up with Fuji looming over him like a crazy axe murderer. For all he knows, Fuji probably is a crazy axe murderer (more like a batshit boyfriend stealer) but hey, priorities, focus on the possibly homicidal senpai who looks like you just sucked all the water out of his favorite pet cactus.
On his part, Fuji volunteered to take Echizen to the infirmary when he collapsed after one bite of Inui's Muffin Surprise, which needed a bit more Tabasco sauce and durian. Tezuka had sent him a warning glance from across the tennis courts, and Fuji felt his smile stiffen, a brief flare of jealousy sparking in his throat, burning as he turned away, his fingers digging into the meat of Echizen's thighs. Tezuka was his boyfriend, Echizen had given him up, he knew that—but uneasiness slipped around him, through his attempts to grasp it, slippery and sly as an eel.
Echizen was a slight, but substantial weight on his back, his black hair tickling Fuji's ear as a residual autumn breeze rushed by. For a moment, Fuji almost felt like they were just sempai and kouhai again, though they had never been conventionally so. Theirs had always been a push-and-pull of fakeouts, jabs, and challenges, a game of subtle cues and precise words. Echizen was fun that way, even when he lost, because he always found a way to get Fuji back and keep his sempai on his toes. But Tezuka was one thing that neither of them was willing to give up, and the thrill of dancing around each other faded when they started to play for keeps.
It's difficult for Fuji to say if he misses it. While they were on good terms, he and Echizen have never been particularly close. They've always found each other interesting, and he watches over Echizen like he would any other junior on the team, but they couldn't exactly be considered friends—if Seigaku was a family, Fuji would be the occasionally helpful uncle who thought all he children were really quite entertaining. They were close, but still too far.
Nevertheless, the distance is strange. It isn't like people haven't avoided Fuji before, but it's not usually like this. The space between him and Echizen is awkward and full of potholes, an unsure thing with an odd potentiality, for what Fuji does not know. He still wants to know, still feels as he simultaneously owes something and is owed something, and when he looks at Echizen's face, still young and round with baby fat, something lingers there, between them. Jealousy, yes, envy, yes, but the unidentifiable runs loops about his head. To open Echizen up, to pry him apart atom by and atom and see what components build to make him up, it seems almost cruel. He looks so young, and sometimes it doesn't even feel right to go against him the way Fuji's doing.
Even if Echizen got away with being the good man, Fuji had believed in him, believed in his strength and his focus and his love for Tezuka, put it on level with his own, and looking back, his denial seems flimsy and irregular, a scared, cringing thing of outright refusal. Fear, fear of himself and the strength of his emotion, fear of chasing someone away again, and Echizen stood there on the school roof and told him that he had been looking in the wrong place the entire time. Even then, Echizen was unyielding. Supporting. Bolstering.
Had he been relying on Echizen the entire time? Trying to get him together with Tezuka, so Fuji's feelings would have no choice but to gutter out? Trying to be selfish, to hoard all the pieces of himself close so he wouldn't be hurt? He owes Echizen much more than he can pay—if it weren't for him there would never have been any resolution. Fuji had been willing to fight the day he met Echizen and Tezuka at the cafe, and that was only due to Echizen's pushing and nagging. But that is also why he feels he is owed. He should been allowed to find his own feet, should have been able to make his own peace with Tezuka. That isn't to say he isn't happy, he is, incredibly so, but he wasn't able to achieve it with his own strength. It bothers him that he has this but only because someone gave it to him, because someone thought that he couldn't do it on his own.
And he could have done it; he can do anything that he wants on his own. He's a genius. He does things on his own. That's what geniuses do, they do things that other people can't, by themselves. And geniuses are geniuses, regardless of how people react to them.
"Why did you do that?" he asks Echizen, eyes slitting open.
Fuji-sempai is not that tall, but when Ryoma's lying on an infirmary bed and Fuji-sempai's leaning over him with his eyes open with the light shining over him, he looks pretty scary.
"Do….what?" Ryoma replies, a little intimidated and more than a bit weirded out. "Eat Inui's jello muffins? That's a dumb—"
"Why didn't you fight for Tezuka?"
Air rushes out of Ryoma's lungs as he stares incredulously up at his sempai. "You're still hung up on that? Honestly, Fuji-sempai, it's been an entire month. If you haven't put the moves on Buchou yet, you're hopeless."
He does his best to dig himself a hole in the mattress when Fuji's face suddenly looms much, much closer—it feels like Fuji-sempai's trying to suck out his soul just by staring. "E-chi-zen—" Fuji purrs through gritted teeth. "Let me ask you again: why didn't you fight for Tezuka?"
"If you try to kill me, I'll scream, you know," Echizen says in response, eyes large and wary, suspicious.
"I'm not. Trying. To kill you. Stop dodging the question." Fuji looks like he just wants to grab him by the neck and shake. "Why didn't you fight for Tezuka?"
"Yes, really, Echizen-kun."
Echizen scowls at him, crosses his arms over his chest.
"I thought we were done with all this. I said it didn't I? I got tired of waiting."
"And since when do you wait?" hisses Fuji, with a strange vehemence only partly recognizable as his own. "Since when did you start giving up? That's not the Echizen I know. The Echizen I know never takes no for an answer. The Echizen I know challenges, he plays people taller and faster and more powerful than him, smirks at them in the face and leaves them in the dust. So I'm asking you again: why didn't you fight for Tezuka?"
Echizen shoves Fuji back into his chair roughly, doesn't meet his eyes as he sits up. "Fuji-senpai, I already told you that I—"
"You know just as well as I do that that's not an acceptable answer. Tezuka may not have noticed, but I have. What's going on, Echizen? Why did you give up?"
"What does it matter?" Echizen scoffs, moving to get off the bed and leave. Fuji stands, the chair rattling from where he's kicked it, pins and blocks Echizen with his own body, hands gripping Echizen's wrists, his eyes open and furious, his face looming too, too close.
"It matters," Fuji whispers, breath hot where it fans Echizen's cheek. "It matters to me. Because you took my chance away. You—"
"I didn't do it for you," Echizen hisses, yanking at his wrists, meeting Fuji's gaze fearlessly. "You aren't the center of everything. You're not special. I did it for myself. I did it for me!"
"So I'm asking you—"
"Why do you want to know anyways?" Echizen shouts, struggling earnestly now. His feet kick at Fuji's legs, and he tries to reach over to dig nails into an arm so his wrists will be free.
"Because I relied on you!" Fuji shouts back, pinning Echizen's wrists to the bed beneath, their faces closer than ever. "Because I could have done it for myself! Because I could have had him all on my own—"
"Oh, just shut up! You're just looking for some validation, huh?" Echizen spits, still struggling, as he lunges closer, eyes bright and mouth twisted into a growl. "Oh boo-hoo, poor Fuji-sempai, can't even confess on his own because he isn't worthy—"
Fuji's nails bite into the meat of his wrists; Echizen flinches as his grip tightens. "That's right. I am looking for validation. I came that day, because I was ready to do something, and I was only ready because of you!" Fuji snarls, voice slowly working up in volume. He shakes Echizen firmly as he speaks. "I only ever moved when you were there. I only ever started playing the game because you were already on the board. I thought it would be safe! I thought—"
"You were thinking about yourself!" Echizen yells into his face. "You were trying to use me! I can't have Tezuka so if I shove him together with someone I approve of it'll be okay! And what about us? What about our feelings? You didn't ask Buchou how he felt. You didn't ask me how I felt. You just, you just tried to, to get use together—"
"Because you fit! Because—"
"Didn't it ever cross your mind that I didn't want to like him?" Echizen shrieks, stunning Fuji into silence, and he keeps talking, mouth moving faster and faster like he can't control anything anymore, water beginning to pool across his eyes. "I didn't want to! I didn't want to like him! I didn't want to look at him! I didn't want to be unwanted and I didn't want to be rejected because I wasn't you. He never even—he never—he never looked at me. He never wanted me. And after I told him, he didn't even try, didn't even keep playing matches with me, didn't want anything to do with me anymore." Echizen blinks, only faintly registers the taste of salt lingering in the corner of his mouth, his hands limp in Fuji's grip. His voice wavers and cracks when he speaks.
"It hurt, you know? He never looks at me anymore. Still doesn't look at me. Treats me like I'm something dirty. Told me sorry in the locker room, no one else was around, like, like I was something to be hidden, and then never talked to me again. Like—like he was sorry for himself. Not for me. Never for me."
Fuji's hands are stroking his arms, thumbs skating up his cheekbones to wipe tears away, sweeping back stray curls of hair, and he hears distant murmuring, hushing noises, comforting noises, the kind his mother made when he was sad. An arm curls around his shoulder, tugs him close. He rests his head wearily on a proffered shoulder, feels hollow, feels exhausted, doesn't even care anymore, lets the water from his eyes drip and disappear into Fuji's jersey.
"So…so I used you. I used you like you were using me. If Buchou was with someone, I thought I could—I could just stop. I wouldn't be able to like him anymore, wouldn't be allowed to like him anymore, because he would have somebody. So I set you up. I made it so there was no choice. And it worked!" Echizen croaks out a shaky laugh, coughs on a dry sob. "It worked. But it didn't…it didn't stop. It didn't go away."
Fuji hums soothingly, runs fingers through surprisingly soft hair. Echizen is small and warm by his side, and he can't take him apart anymore, has no need.
First heartbreak. He's known that one too.
And now it's Echizen's turn. Fuji, wrong again, Echizen, playing at being strong to preserve himself. Once again, they are more similar than one would think, in all the worst ways possible. He still feels flickers of resentment, still feels cheated, but he understands.
"I could have done it," Fuji says into the air. "I was able to do it, near the end, because you were there. But you were also the one that stopped me. You didn't let me do it. Didn't let me stand on my own, and try."
And that's important. Fuji's never really had anything to work towards before, nothing of real value at least. Everything that does, leaves, like Yuuta. It's the way genius can ruin things, makes you so certain but so weak.
"You didn't need to," Echizen says, rolling slightly red rimmed eyes and jabbing him in the side. "For a genius, you can be really stupid, Fuji-senpai."