Genre: Drama

Rating: T

Summary : Like all good things, our world, the one we had together built around ourselves, had to end. We were at the top, the pinnacle, and from there we had nowhere to go but down.

(A/N): Okay so, this is the last chapter before the epilogue, so I hope you all enjoy. And as always, please, please, please review and let me know what you think!

Disclaimer: I claim no rights to this anime, though I am thinking about asking for them for my birthday.

Chapter Nineteen: The Man I Loved

"Would you like to run that by me one more time?" the incredulous voice at the other end of the phone asked. The speaker's tone was dangerously close to sounding sardonic. Ryoma cringed at the thought. The he lowered his hand which held his phone and brought up his other hand to massage his aching head. When he realized that no amount of rubbing would relieve him of his colossal headache, he returned the phone to his ear.

"It's like I said," he mumbled attempting for the moment to sound as inarticulate as humanly possible. "Then Momo told me to leave and-" Ryoma paused and fished around in his brain for an appropriate phrase. When none came leaping out at him, he merely lowered his voice and said, "Well, I left."

The other speaker did not say anything for a long time. In fact, had it not been for the faint sound of the other's breathing Ryoma would have had no indication that the other was still on the line. "Well?" the prodigy finally asked after a minute's worth of impatiently waiting.

"I think you're a moron," his doubles partner replied without a trace of humor.

"What?" Ryoma's indignation seemed to reverberate in the phone. That was not at all the answer he had wanted nor believed he would receive. He expected Kevin's sympathy not his "But I-"

Kevin cut him off. "Don't you even try and justify this! You left them again!"

The words stung more acutely than his friend knew. "It is for their own good!" Ryoma was angry now – furious, actually. He hated the fact that his doubles partner did not understand what was going on. There was no way he could stay here, not now. He voiced his thoughts. "I can't stay here! It's only going to hurt them! Momo said-"

"Momo is a moron too!" Kevin's voice was starting to match Ryoma's in anger. "Besides that, it sounds like he is angrier with you for killing his girlfriend that for what actually happened with your old team. Which, he is right, you are a major asshole, but that is beside the point." Kevin paused for a moment to sigh agitatedly and then added, "I just can't believe that you are dense enough to go and make the same mistake again?"

"Same mistake?"

"Your whole running off, being ridiculous and depressed thing! That's the mistake I am referring to." Kevin sighed. "If what you have told me is the truth, about Tezuka and Fuji then you are their leader now Ryoma." Ryoma's breath caught in his throat, but Kevin ignored that and pressed on. "It sounds like they want to depend on you, trust you with this team. And that is something considering your captain has the biggest stick up in ass I've ever witnessed." Kevin sighed again. "But how the hell are they supposed to do that if you go gallivanting off whenever something gets too hard?"

Kevin's words hit Ryoma like a slap to the face. But the truth behind them was undeniable, even though Ryoma had never thought of it in that light. For him, Tezuka was still buchou – he was still in charge. Now after hearing what Kevin told him, Ryoma realized that he had finally surpassed his buchou. He had become what they had all hoped him to be. "Listen," Kevin began once more, after he collected himself. "You are "perfect Ryoma" to them. It was you who beat Atobe and Yukimura. It was you who made it possible for your team to win nationals. You are the go-to-person on that team. In high school Tezuka and Fuji were that too, but they can't be those people anymore. Fuji sounds like he's struggling just to maintain, and Tezuka is not much better. They both can no longer hold this team together." Kevin paused and softly added, "That is your job now."

"So what are you saying then? That I need to go back?" Ryoma did not want to hear the answer to his question. But Kevin did not miss a beat.

"Yes. That is exactly what I am saying." Ryoma heard his partner shift the phone. "Listen Ryoma, we have both been running away from stuff for years now. You have been running from them and your responsibility and I have been running from well, my asshole of a father. But I really believe it is time for us to confront those things." Kevin laughed darkly. "We're not kids anymore. We need to not act like them."

"Kevin, you really don't understand." Ryoma sighed. How was he to explain everything to his friend? Kevin had not been there when everything had fallen apart. Kevin just knew the stories and had seen Ryoma's state. He did not understand what it had been like to live it.

But his friend would not let him explain. "No, Ryoma. I don't think you understand. This is not an option anymore. I'm not going to let you run and hide with me this time." Kevin's voice broke no arguments. "Until you can confront your team, our doubles team is on a temporary hiatus."

"What?" Ryoma could think of nothing else to say. Just what did Kevin mean?

The other boy sighed. "You heard me, and I mean it. It is time for Brendan Jackson to die." Kevin gave a mirthless laugh. "Besides, as I told you before that name never really did suit you."

Ryoma balked. "But Kevin-"

"In fact," Kevin began slowly. "I've been think for a while that maybe it is time that we start playing singles." Ryoma nearly dropped the phone. "No offense, but doubles is just too damn easy with you." Ryoma could practically see Kevin's grin, but Ryoma was not the slightest bit amused. "I need a bit more of a challenge when I play."

"So now you're abandoning me?" Ryoma's fury returned, but this time it was fueled by an emotion he had not felt in a long time. Desertion.

"No." Kevin's voice was so sharp that Ryoma paused from his mental tirade to listen to the other. "No, Ryoma. I am forcing you back to a team who loves you. There is a difference, and you know it. So fight it all you want, but from this moment on Brendan is dead." With those words as his parting, Kevin hung up the phone.

As the dial tone sounded, Ryoma could only stare ahead distantly. He had never thought the conversation with his doubles partner would go this way. He and Kevin shared such a close bond and the other boy understood every emotion Ryoma felt so well. For Ryoma now, this felt like the greatest act of betrayal. He needed his friend more than ever now, and Kevin had just literally dumped him on his ass. It hurt more than Ryoma ever realized it would.

"Bastard," he spat out acidly as he stuffed his phone into his pocket. "Damn it!" Ryoma wanted to hurt something, to lash out, to break anything. His eyes darted around the airport lobby looking for something to let loose his fury on. He debated for a few moments pounding the life out of the trashcan by the door, but thought better of it. Trashcans cost money and money was Ryoma's problem right now.

After nearly five years of tennis related fame, Ryoma had never worried about finances. In fact, if he was honest, after this last tournament he and Kevin had won he was pretty sure they were squared away for life, not that he would have ended his career because of it. Ryoma played for the fun of the game, the fact that he got paid for it was just an added bonus. That was why when his credit card was declined Ryoma had stared at the ticket person in disbelief. He told her to try it again at least six times, then had handed her his two other backup cards. All of them were denied.

This stunned Ryoma. His luck seemed to make it impossible for him to win today. It was this that prompted him to call his doubles partner. Kevin, however, had then proceeded to ignore the fact that Ryoma was broke and instead focus on the fact that he had once again abandoned his teammates. And now, after that infuriating conversation, Ryoma found himself broke and without a doubles partner standing in the Aruba airport mad at the world. It was quite clear to him that some divine being either hated him or was getting a good laugh at his expense.

Ryoma sighed and sank down into one of the secluded benches in the back corner of the airport. As he sat there Ryoma from found that his mind was awhirl. Was this is what he deserved? He asked himself seriously. To be brought down to this level. Was this his punishment for abandoning his friends twice? Maybe this was what he now needed to understand all the pain and hurt he had cast upon his team. He did not know. Ryoma bowed his head over, hands clasped out before him as he remembered everything he had exposed during the course of his stay.

"You had no idea, but the team was already crumbling long before you started drinking."

"I started to purposefully destroy my relationship with Eiji."

"Fuji and Tezuka didn't know what to do."

"He was the one who took care of me when no one else could."

"Guess yoou're not O-ochibi anymoore!"

"Inui just left."

"It's Fuji! He just fell down the steps!"

"You must promise me never to blame yourself for what happened."

"You crippled Fuji."

"My injury is permanent."

"You're the reason Tezuka-buchou can never play tennis again."

"You're the reason she is dead!"

"Tezuka and Fuji were wrong."

"It's all your fault!"


The sound of the voice jolted Ryoma out of his reverie, and he whirled around to see Sakuno standing behind him. She was framed by the just barely lit sky, hinting the impeding morning. Despite the early hour, she was dressed and her appearance sorely put to shame Ryoma's own dishelved one. The moment he saw her, Ryoma's first instinct was to run. He did not, however. Besides the fact that he had nowhere else to go, Ryoma got the distinct feeling that Sakuno would follow him. There was a steely look in her eyes which he had never seen before. The Sakuno he remembered was timid and sweet girl. This woman before him was not the same. She was defiant-looking and her body language said that she was ready to wage a war. Ryoma had never seen anything quite like it from her before.

"You're leaving then?" She addressed him directly, and even though her voice was calm he heard the accusation behind it. "And here I thought people were done running away."

"What makes you think I'm running away?" He glanced away, refusing to look her in the eye. He knew full well that if he did, he would never win.

A laugh, like the tinkling of bell ran in the pre-dawn air. "Well, you are the one being chased."

Ryoma's pulled his jacket around him subconsciously. "What would you know of it?

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw her shake her head. "Nothing, absolutely nothing, Ryoma. I could never understand what you've been through." A pause. "What I do know is that you've been running for five years now. Isn't it time that you stopped?"

Now it was his turn to laugh. "And how am I supposed to do that?"

"You have to face your fears."

"What fears?" Ryoma shouted back at her now staring directly into her eyes. This conversation brought his temper dangerously close to the surface once more. "What fears do I have?"

He expected her to flinch, to back away from him. He was extremely surprised at first when she did not, when her pretty eyes stared level with his and her body planted itself, ready to fight. This Sakuno, the person before him now, was not the girl he had known throughout his junior high school years. She no longer possessed the timid and sweet personality of a girl. Now she had the cool collected presence of a woman. Ryoma balked at the realization that even she had grown up, even she had taken on a role.

The woman shook her head. "What fears?" she repeated his question quietly. "Plenty, Ryoma." Sharp eyes held his as she accused, "You are afraid of what you see Tezuka and Fuji have become. You hate that Oishi and Eiji aren't together, that others have had to take what is your slack." She paused, and lowering her voice she stated, "You hate what Momo has become." Her voice was terribly sad. "But above all else you hate that you could not do anything to save them." Sakuno took a step forward and placed her hand on Ryoma's shoulder. "Those are your fears. Deny them as you will, but that does not change the fact that you need to face them."

Ryoma pulled back, trying to get away from her. But he found himself planted firmly. It was as though his body knew better than his brain what he truly wanted. "Why?" he demanded furious. "Why are you doing this?"

Sakuno continued to stare him down as her hands reached up and cupped his face. For a moment neither spoke, each one only staring into the others eyes in pure silence. Finally, Sakuno's voice rose up and stated clearly, "Because only you can, Ryoma." She let go of him, and as her arms fell to her sides she said, "You are their pillar. They depended on you, and you left them." At her declaration, her lips formed a thin line. "Don't leave them again, Ryoma. Learn from your mistakes."

"I can't."

"Why no? They love you!" She practically shouted throwing her arms up. "Despite everything that has happened, they all still love you!" Sakuno stared him down. "Despite the fact that you brought them down and then left them, they love you!" She shook her head sadly and asked. "Who do you love, Ryoma?" Ryoma started. Sakuno's question caught him off guard. Indeed, he really was not sure he knew the answer or that there was even an answer at all.

"I…I love them all." He finally answered weakly.

Sakuno stared at him then slowly she smiled. "You know, they say if you truly love something you'll always return to it."

Ryoma shook his head. "I can't." The words caused him great pain because he knew that it was not that he could not but that he would not. That he was afraid.

Ryoma had taken on the mask of fearlessness for so many years now. Ever since he had been a child he had carried it with him everywhere. He wore it like his own skin, and it had served him very well, until now. But now, when it was in his benefit to remove that mask and cast it aside, Ryoma found that he could not. The mask which had allowed him to do such amazing things, to win titles and matches, now served only to pull him away from what he truly loved and cared about. Ryoma did not know how to remove that mask, but deep inside himself, he realized that Sakuno might.

"They need you Ryoma." She urged.

Ryoma practically laughed when she said that, the mask creating the words, "No, you're wrong, Sakuno. I am the last thing that they need."

"You still can't see it, can you?"

"See what?" He asked, confused by what he had missed.

Sakuno bit her lip. "How they would do anything for you because they know they need you."

"Momo-" Ryoma began scrambling for excuses.

"Momo needs you most of all." Sakuno told him sharply.

"I killed An! Momo does not want me anywhere near him!" Ryoma felt tears from earlier sting his eyes. Ryoma felt his breath catch at this realization. How long had it been since he had cried? Years? Perhaps? He did not know. Brushing his fingers up towards the moisture, he could only stare in wonder as his fingertips came back damp. He marveled over those strange drops. What was happening?

Sakuno shook her head. "No, Ryoma. Momo thinks he needs to blame you. But what he really needs is his best friend back." Ryoma opened his mouth to protest, but Sakuno stopped him. Her eyes told him that it was not yet his turn to speak. "In one way or another, they all need you back. You carry their dreams in your ability to play tennis. You hold memories of a better time. You are the one who made it." Ryoma's eyes were wide at her statement. Did Sakuno know that he –? He had to ask. "How did you know that?"

Sakuno gave him a small smile. "The blond hair." She gave a soft laugh and quizzically asked, "Brendan?"

Ryoma felt his cheeks light up. "Kevin's idea." He lied in a mumble.

Sakuno continued, "They all need you, Ryoma." She paused, "They who love you who have held on and waited for so long, need you now most of all. Tezuka and Fuji need you. They cared about you so much," She smiled lovingly at him as tears began to fall down her cheeks shamelessly. "They need you, their son back."

By now tears were falling freely down Ryoma's face but he was too caught up to notice. "How can I go back to them now? Knowing that I am responsible for all of this." Ryoma shook his head. "I can't do that."

Sakuno stared at him thoughtfully and gently rested her hand on his shoulder. "They love you. You don't have to ask for their forgiveness. They forgave you years ago."

"Tezuka-san." Sakuno hated that her voice shook. She promised herself that when she went to visit the previous captain of Seigaku's team, that she would be strong and confident. Now instead, she was the quivering mess that she always was. She really needed to learn to be more self-confident.

The captain looked up from his hospital bed. Sakuno barely managed to contain her wince in empathy. He looked positively awful. His face was marred by several bruises each in a different stage of the healing process. The result leaving his face looking like it was a mosaic of green, blue, purple and black. The sheets of the bed were wrapped around him neatly, yet with all the neatness it was easy to see his right leg casted. It only served to make Sakuno's stomach twist uncomfortably. She hated situations like this, and she hated hospitals.

This was better than the last time she had visited. She reminded herself quickly as her heart fluttered nervously. Then Oishi had told that the captain was sedated. It was a week later now. She had returned to find the captain awake. Even so she still wanted to leave. Only the importance of her question kept her grounded. She could not wait any longer to ask. It was too imperative.

"Ryuzaki-san," Tezuka acknowledged her. His tawny eyes stared at her with mild curiosity. "How are you?"

Sakuno bowed her head. "I am well, thank you. And you?" Sakuno trailed off weakly. She was so accustomed to the routine asking of the question, that she did not even stop to think how stupid the question seemed. Luckily, Tezuka took her question at face value.

"I am getting better, thank you." He glanced at her nervous fidgeting and asked, "Would you like to sit down?"

Sakuno nodded eagerly, and slowly sunk into the chair placed alongside the captain's bed. The last time she had been here, it had been Oishi's space as he kept watch over his friend. She felt awkward sitting in it now. "Tezuka-san," she began softly. "I came here today because…" she paused. Unsure of what to say, Sakuno decided to rearrange her thoughts. She felt dumb for having to do so, after all she had spent nearly an hour before this meeting planning what she would say. Unfortunately, her perfectly ordered mental list was not complying with her highly nervous mind.

The captain did not seem to mind, however. He patiently waited while Sakuno nervously wrung her hands and sorted her thoughts. He was still waiting when she finally spoke. "Tezuka-san," she began in a voice less nervous than before. "I have to ask you about Ryoma."

Tezuka nodded his acknowledgement. He seemed to have anticipated this question. "What about him?" he prompted.

Sakuno's hands clenched and nervously she blurted out. "Do you still care about him?" She paused, and then murmured, "Do you still love him?"

Whatever the captain thought she was going to ask him, it was not this. Indeed, Tezuka did not answer for a long while. He merely stared at Sakuno as though he had never really noticed her before. She knew that she should have felt ashamed, but she did not. Something inside her said that he stared because of the question's simple acuteness. That he marveled over the fact that this girl who always seemed so distant in the past knew so much about his team and man she had loved.

"I love him," the captain stated quietly and simply. "Which is why I let him go."

Silence had fallen on the two. Ryoma contemplating all that Sakuno had told him, and Sakuno allowing him to mull it over. Finally, Ryoma broke the silence. "Sakuno," he said, staring at the girl who had loved him when they were children. The very same girl he had hurt. "Who do you love?" The reiteration of her question surprised Sakuno. But then, Ryoma watched as her lower lip trembled and she shut her eyes to hide the tears forming there.

Despite her best efforts a tear dropped from closed lashes. "I love you all." Two more followed. "I just want this to stop." Many more tears began to fall. "I don't want to watch you all hurt." A soft sob escaped her. "It breaks my heart, Ryoma." She was crying freely now. "I am tired of watching Eiji move from man to man getting so drunk that when they sleep together he is convinced that it is Oishi. I'm tired of watching him be miserable! I am tired of knowing that Fuji and Tezuka are in pain because they constantly worry about what has become of you." Sakuno shook her head, remnants of tears still on her cheeks. "I don't want you all to be sad anymore!" She choked back a sob. "That is why I told Inui to plan this."

Suddenly realization dawn on Ryoma. "It was you! You planned this."

Sakuno nodded slowly. "I did. I started this." She paused to stare at Ryoma. "But your presence made this happen. You brought Eiji and Oishi back together, you reminded everyone of what it once was. You took your position as the leader!" She was earnest and her eyes were so bright, so happy. "Without your presence, none of this would have happened."

"None?" Ryoma repeated softly.

Sakuno nodded as she brushed the tears away. "None," she affirmed. "You are the pillar, Ryoma. You make everything right."

It was although her simple statement made everything come together. He was the pillar? Ryoma mused. So what did that mean?

"Ryoma become the pillar of Seigaku!" He heard his buchou's voice loudly in his mind.

"But I did!" Ryoma found himself replying back. "I did become the pillar! I beat Atobe. I won against Yukimura! I brought you all to the top!" Ryoma protested crossly.

Suddenly another voice shouted, "Don't you see you stupid boy!" Ryoma heard his father say. "The pillar isn't just supposed to bring their team glory! But they're also supposed to be there when the team falls. They are the one to weather both the good and bad. Dumb boy! You brought them to the top and left them! That's not what you're suppose to do!" Ryoma could practically see his father shaking his head. "Mada mada dane."

It was although his mental tirade finally made everything click for Ryoma, and he finally realized what his place was on the team. He was the pillar. He was the one who held the team up in troubled times and helped them soar in the good. He was strong enough to do it, and Ryoma realized, he was now finally ready to resume that job and take his proper place.

"Sakuno," he began tentatively. "Can I come back with you? I think I know what needs to be done."

"Yes, Ryoma. Yes!" Ryoma was sure not even the midmorning sun shone so brightly.

They returned back to Inui's beach home after the sun had risen. Entering the estate with Sakuno trailing behind, Ryoma headed for the dining room. Through the glass doors he could see everyone seated around the table waiting to be served by Inui's servants. With firm resolve, Ryoma opened the doors and stood at their entrance. Almost instantly, every head in the room glanced his way. He saw Oishi and Eiji sitting beside one another, Inui heading the table with Momo beside him, Taka and Kaidoh either side and Fuji and Tezuka at the back corner all staring at him as though they could not believe their eyes.

Whispers of his name and questions of his presence echoed through the room as he slowly entered. A few of his former teammates stood from their chairs and stared at him bewildered. He paid them no heed, but instead circled the table heading back to where Tezuka and Fuji sat waiting – their eyes wide. Slowly as he came to stand before them he sunk to his knees at their feet. Bowing his head, he said the only thing he knew would truly matter. "Forgive me."

The room was dead silent. Not even the servants made a move. It was as though they too realized the gravity of this situation. Ryoma stayed bowed over the only sound he heard was that of his own breath as he stared at Fuji and Tezuka's feet. Suddenly, a gentle hand cupped his chin and his faced was tilted upward to meet the glowing smiles of his two sempais. Fuji smiled brilliantly at him, while Tezuka had a small but very present smile gracing his face. They did not say anything, no words were needed. Fuji's hand on his chin was removed. When the tensai removed his hand, Tezuka's hands replaced it, reaching for both of Ryoma's own, then the captain pulled the boy to his feet and embraced him like a father would a son.

Tears leaked down Ryoma's face as the man whom he had admired like a brother and loved like a father embraced him. Looking around, Ryoma saw that his tears were joined by tears on the faces of the other regulars. There were no words spoken. At this moment in time they were useless, even when Tezuka finally did let him go, Ryoma marveled at the silence as he looked around the room at everyone he loved. Their faces welcomed him and with a true, beaming smile, he joined them. Their prodigy and variable prodigal son had finally returned.

Thank you also so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this, the final chapter of this rather long story. I am currently in the process of writing up an epilogue which should show up sometime in the near future. I am also currently writing another really long epic which I am super excited about so if you want to read more of my work, check it out! The first chapter should show up sometime next week.

I want to thank all of you all who stuck through and read this till the end, and those who you who reviewed and gave amazing feedback and comments. Those reviews inspired me and helped me continue to write this story over the past two years. So thank you, thank you, thank you!

As always please review and let me know what you thought. I always look foward to feedback whether it be good or bad.