Title: Twelve Matches: One Fuji Never Played, and Eleven He Did
Fuji Shuusuke, Tezuka Kunimitsu
Twelve tennis matches can change everything.
Post-Nationals fic, originally written for Round Five of Tennis Subrosa on LJ. Mostly gen, with hints of Tezuka/Fuji around the edges. 5385 words.

Twelve Matches
One Fuji Never Played, and Eleven He Did

1. Frustration

It was a silly thing to be irked by, but it bothered Shuusuke to no end that Echizen left Japan before they had a chance to play each other again. Indeed, Echizen's family whisked him away so abruptly that it was half a wonder that the rest of them found out in time to give him the sending-off party that Echizen skulked through, hat pulled low and doing nothing to disguise his embarrassment at the fuss his senpai were raising over him.

He was gone by the time September was over, as mysteriously as he had come. The feeling of having unsettled business with him nagged at Shuusuke, an itch he couldn't scratch--one that he expected that he would never get to scratch. Echizen was bound for the pro circuit. Wherever it was that he had gone, Shuusuke knew, it was to bide his time until he was old enough to play professionally. Shuusuke had never been inclined to pursue tennis professionally, so that, he supposed, was that.


2. Unfolding

He almost let himself make the same mistake with Tezuka, who was just as closemouthed as Echizen had been about leaving. As it was, when Shuusuke heard from Eiji, who'd weaseled it out of Oishi, that Tezuka was going, there were only a few tattered scraps of leaves left on the trees.

"Germany?" he said, after lying in wait for Tezuka outside his classroom.

Since he hadn't bothered with a preamble, Tezuka didn't either. "In the spring, after exams."

Shuusuke eyed him, but Tezuka no longer let things show easily, the way that he had when they'd been first years. Now he could be talking about going to the store to buy gum, for all that his expression gave away (supposing that Tezuka ever did such a thing so whimsical as chewing gum, that was). "Congratulations," Shuusuke told him, after a measured moment. "I'll want a game before you go, of course."

"Will you?" That tone was one Tezuka had perfected somewhere in their second year; it was politely guarded, and Tezuka generally only used it when he was waiting to see what Shuusuke was about to do next.

From a certain point of view, Tezuka Kunimitsu was one of Shuusuke's finest pieces of art.

Shuusuke waited for an eddy of their classmates to drift past before he answered. "I want a chance to play against you for real."

That, he knew, had Tezuka, by the way Tezuka stood just a little straighter and the way his eyes glinted, just briefly, like a ripple in deep water. "It's cold outside," was all he said. "We can play at the club where I practice."

"That will be fine," Shuusuke said, which was true.

They met later, at the end of the day's classes, and rode the bus downtown in silence. Shuusuke liked that Tezuka understood the value of stillness. It could be a weapon as easily as not, but Shuusuke didn't mind that. It made Tezuka that much more interesting.

Who was he going to play with after Tezuka left? A distressing question, that one; he set it aside as one to worry about to later.

In the meantime, it was good to set himself against Tezuka and unfold himself completely, however unused to the feeling he might be. If Tezuka himself was a river, with deep and fast-moving currents, his tennis was something sturdier. Not a pillar, exactly, nor a stone. Those were too stolid. It was a tree, perhaps, one with roots going deep and leaves that were still unfurling.

Shuusuke was still trying to decide what his own tennis was going to be. He'd thought of it, of a mirror, once, a reflection that didn't surrender anything of itself. These days, he was less certain of that. It seemed that something would have to be surrendered, if he wanted to keep moving forward. He just wasn't sure what, yet.

As Shuusuke had rather thought he might, Tezuka won, but just barely. "There's nothing like playing the real thing," Shuusuke told him. Tezuka didn't have anything to say to that, but Shuusuke thought he might have snorted.

"I practice here on Thursdays," Tezuka told him, after they had changed clothes and were waiting for the buses that would take them home.

"Do you?" Shuusuke glanced sideways at him, but there was nothing to glean from Tezuka's face. "I'll have to remember that," he said, as his bus rolled to a stop.

And he did.

3. Hierarchy

The first day of high school tennis did not impress him. The absence of certain faces--Taka, Tezuka, three irrepressible kouhai--on the unfamiliar courts felt like a hollow space in Shuusuke's gut. Being relegated to ball duty and endurance training unsettled him even more, especially when their senpai deliberately lobbed the balls over the court fences.

At the end of the day, Shuusuke hung back after Yamato-buchou had finished speaking with Miyano-senpai. "Put me in the ranking matches," he said, baldly, when Yamato-buchou looked at him.

One of Yamato-buchou's eyebrows quirked up. "First years don't play until after the summer tournaments," he said. "They aren't in condition for three-set matches until then."

Shuusuke met Yamato-buchou's steady gaze, unsmiling. "I'm already in condition."

Yamato-buchou's answering smile was infinitely kind. "Most first years think they are."

Shuusuke knew, then, that Yamato-buchou wasn't going to say yes. "Very well," he said, and went away. He held his tongue for the next few days, watching his senpai practice as he and the first years drilled endlessly and ran laps until they were ready to collapse.

"Say, Inui," he said, Friday afternoon as they were warming up, Inui's hands heavy on his shoulders, pressing him forward to stretch his legs. "Our senpai. Which is the strongest?"

Inui made a sound, a thoughtful hum between his teeth. "You mean besides Yamato-buchou?"

"If you like," Shuusuke said, catching his toes and holding them, feeling the stretch in his calves and hamstrings and back.

"Miyano-senpai," Inui said. "He and buchou are about the same level."

"Mmm. That's what I thought, too." Shuusuke pushed himself up, set his racquet on his shoulder, and sauntered over to the court where the Regulars were clustered, waiting for Yamato-buchou and Ohkawa-sensei to emerge from their pre-practice conference.

"That eager to pick up balls, Fuji-kun?" Yusa-senpai asked, when they got around to noticing that he was standing there. His smile was nasty; he was the one who hit the most balls over the fence.

"No, senpai," Shuusuke told him. "I'm here because I want a match."

Some of them laughed; Miyano-senpai was one of the ones who didn't. "Big talk from a first year," Yusa-senpai said, finally.

"And tell me, when was the last time you won a national title, senpai?" Shuusuke smiled as they went silent.

Miyano-senpai was the first to respond, as Shuusuke had rather expected might happen. "All right," he said, and broke away from the group. "Let's see what you've got."

What Shuusuke had was a winter of weekly games against Tezuka, coupled with the daily fifteen kilometers he ran before the sun had even come up and the intolerable thought of a summer without competitive tennis, now that Tezuka had gone. And Miyano-senpai was good, with a fine brutal edge to his tennis that was almost enough to lean into, almost enough to push Shuusuke to his limits.


When they called the game at two sets, Miyano-senpai had the look of someone waking up from his boredom. Shuusuke recognized the expression; he'd felt it on his own face many times.

Yamato-buchou had emerged from his conference with Ohkawa-sensei at some point during the match, and was standing at the side of the court with his arms folded. "Is there some reason the two of you are disrupting practice?" he asked, when Shuusuke and Miyano-senpai turned away from each other.

Subtlety wasn't going to be an ally here, he decided. "You tell me, buchou," Shuusuke replied, standing straight and conscious of the fact that half the club was watching.

Yamato-buchou looked at him for a moment, and then he laughed. "Is that how it is?" he asked, and clapped his hands. "The rest of you, back to work. Miyano, Fuji, laps until I tell you you're done."

Shuusuke nodded and pelted off with Miyano-senpai, and spent the rest of practice considering what he would do next, if this hadn't been enough.

There was no need for it; the following Monday, his name was on the ranking match grid.

4. Ranking

His arms and legs felt like rubber, but Shuusuke had won every other match so far, and his spot as a Regular was very nearly certain.

There was just this match with Yamato-buchou to get through first.

Shuusuke threw himself into the first set, and gritted his teeth against the fatigue of three days straight of three-set matches. Through it, he could feel the weight of Yamato-buchou's eyes regarding him even as his tennis answered Shuusuke's, smooth and nearly impenetrable. Shuusuke wrestled the set away from Yamato-buchou, barely, and braced himself to fight through the second set.

Yamato-buchou stopped him at the net before it began. "I'd heard your tennis had changed."

Shuusuke concentrated on holding his expression, and his hands, still. "Most things do," he said, offhand.

"Do they really?" Yamato-buchou's smile was cryptic. Looking at it, Shuusuke wondered whether this was how people felt when he smiled at them. "Why not wait till the autumn, when the third years retire? You know you'll be guaranteed a spot then."

"But I want to play tennis now," Shuusuke told him, after measuring all the clever replies he could marshal and then discarding them as useless here.

Yamato-buchou tapped his racquet against his shoulder. "When did that change, I wonder? I can't recall that you were ever this excited about tennis before."

"Things change," Shuusuke told him again. "And tennis got interesting."

"Ah," Yamato-buchou said, one syllable pregnant with heavy meaning, more than Shuusuke could quite decipher. He straightened his shoulders. "Let's play."

In the end, Shuusuke lost, struggling through the last two sets with muscles too fatigued and sore with lactic acid to respond the way he asked them to. Yamato-buchou shook his hand, after. "We'll have to work on your endurance. It'll do for the district matches, but you'll have to be able to last longer for prefecturals."

"Of course," Shuusuke said, going light-headed with relief, and because it seemed like the prudent thing to do, added, "Thank you."

Yamato-buchou shrugged. "Never let it be said that I don't learn from my mistakes," he said, and walked away.

His... ah. Yes. Of course.

Shuusuke squared his shoulders and made it off the court, legs not shaking only because his pride wouldn't let them, and went to report the outcome of his match and his spot among the Regulars.

5. Prefecturals

They called the match 6-3, 6-2 in Shuusuke's favor; he shook the Hyoutei third-year's hand and returned to the Seishun stands as the scoreboard flipped over to show two matches for Hyoutei and one for them.

"Nice job," Inui said, as Shuusuke mopped his face off.

Shuusuke shrugged. Hyoutei third years, he thought, ought to be made of sterner stuff than the one he'd just faced. "Why isn't Atobe over there?" he asked instead, because no one with an ego like Atobe's would have stayed out of the front lines for long.

Inui looked at him, clearly puzzled. "Didn't you know? He went pro, too."

"I didn't," Shuusuke said, after a moment. "I thought he was the only son?"

"He is." Inui shrugged. "I believe his father prefers not to have to deal with a struggle over who'll be running the company just yet."

"...makes sense." Shuusuke drained half his water bottle and added another name to the list: Tezuka, Yukimura, Sanada, Shiraishi, Echizen any day now, and now Atobe... "Professional tennis will be exciting these next few years."

"Yes," Inui agreed. "It certainly will."

6. Diagnostic

The Kantou regional finals ended up being a washout. After that, even the presence of Oishi and Eiji and Inui among the Regulars where they belonged couldn't soothe the raw edge of Shuusuke's nerves.

"Do you have time for a game?" he asked Inui one afternoon. There was something missing, and if anyone could spot it, it would be Inui.

"Of course." Inui's eyes glinted with anticipation behind his glasses, as Shuusuke had hoped they would. "Any time you like."

Inui was always a useful opponent. Shuusuke doubted there was anyone else in Japan who knew his tennis as intimately as Inui did, even if half the pleasure of playing Inui was in frustrating what Inui thought he knew. That was still only half of Inui's knowledge accounted for; the other half meant that Inui was a challenge who knew what to expect more often than not. The steadiness of his tennis, present at every turn Shuusuke took, was almost enough. But only almost.

He rather thought Inui was able to see or sense his frustration, because after Shuusuke's last return rolled to a standstill, Inui tipped his head and asked, "What's bothering you?"

Shuusuke resisted the immediate urge to lie and say that nothing was wrong. "I don't know."

The admission made Inui look like he wanted to pull out one of his notebooks and begin scribbling. "Oh?" Some days, Shuusuke was all but convinced that Inui had a career as a psychiatrist ahead of him.

"If I knew, I wouldn't have needed this match," Shuusuke told him, pushing the sweaty hair out of his eyes.

"I see." Inui made one of his thinking noises as he moved off the court. Shuusuke followed him and let him process whatever it was he was mulling over. At last, Inui said, "Tachibana's still in Tokyo. Coaching Fudoumine, I believe."

The non sequitur threw him. "And that has... what to do with me?"

Inui chuckled. "You probably won't be bored playing him. If you are, Chitose's still out in Osaka, trying to pretend that he's retired from tennis."

"Oh," Shuusuke said, and then, "Coaching Fudoumine, you said?"

7. Challenge

"What are you doing here, Fuji?" Tachibana was looking well these days; if somewhat impatient to have an interloper on his courts. Beyond him, his team was pretending to practice while watching Shuusuke warily.

"I heard it was one of the most reliable places to find you," Shuusuke told him. "Your team is looking good. I hear they're terrorizing the tournaments this year."

The compliment unbent some of the iron in Tachibana's mouth. "Thank you."

"I wouldn't dream of interrupting their practice," Shuusuke added, when the watchfulness in Tachibana's eyes didn't ease up. "I was just hoping that you might have time afterwards for a game."

Tachibana looked at him, speculation lighting in his eyes. "I might," he said. He gestured at a bench. "You can sit there while you wait."

"Thanks." Shuusuke settled himself where indicated, and leaned back to watch Fudoumine's practice. Tachibana's people orbited around him, turning their faces to him constantly. They way they did it looked wholly unconscious. Tachibana's response to them looked just as unthinking. He moved among them constantly, offering a word of advice here and demonstrating a stance there. It was no wonder he was still here, serving as an unofficial coach. It was clearly where he belonged.

Tachibana had to shoo his team off at the end of practice, and even with the shooing, Kamio and Ibu hung around, looking stubborn. "It's all right," Shuusuke said when Tachibana began to remonstrate with them. He shook his arms and legs out, warming himself back up again. "I don't mind if they want to watch."

"So glad to hear it," Kamio told him, dry.

Shuusuke just smiled at him, anticipation already humming in his blood. "Are you ready?" he asked Tachibana.

Tachibana looked almost as eager as he was. "Whenever you are."

Somewhere in the past year, Tachibana had learned to be comfortable with the wildness at the heart of his game. The fierceness of it rolled over Shuusuke like cool water on a hot day. Shuusuke threw himself into it, into the first really challenging game he'd had since Yamato-buchou and Miyano-senpai had retired from the team, reveling in the demand in every shot that came across the net and the way the racquet vibrated in his hands with Tachibana's strength. It was deeply satisfying, the way tennis was supposed to be, and he found himself even reaching for the finest edges of his technique in order to end the game in his favor.

"Thank you," Shuusuke said, breathless, when he was shaking Tachibana's hand. "That was perfect."

Tachibana's smile was quick. "I'm glad you think so." He nodded his head at the benches, and they walked off the court together. He gestured at Kamio and Ibu, who took themselves off, standing a discreet distance away. "May I ask you a question?"

"Of course." He could hardly say no, not after receiving such a favor from Tachibana.

Tachibana took a drink from his water bottle and then looked at Shuusuke, direct. "What are you doing here?"

That was hardly the question Shuusuke had expected. "Looking for a game," he said, with a laugh.

"No, I mean... what are you doing here?" Tachibana gestured, hands describing a vague circle. "Why are you still playing high school tennis?"

"Why--what?" Shuusuke blinked. "I'm in high school. They're hardly going to let me play college tennis, you know."

Tachibana huffed. "It doesn't seem to me that you're going to be happy playing high school opponents for very much longer." He glanced sideways at Shuusuke, eyes very sharp under the shaggy fall of his hair. "Assuming you're happy now, of course."

"I don't really suppose that's any of your business," Shuusuke snapped, before he could help himself. He took a quick breath. "Sorry. That was rude."

"Don't worry about it. So was I." Tachibana shrugged. "I just didn't suppose you of all people would end up sticking around. I figured it would be professional tennis for you the minute you graduated."

"No, I... never planned on that," Shuusuke told him, and glanced at his watch. "It's getting late. Thanks for the game."

"No problem," Tachibana said. "Stop by any time you like."

"I'll do that," Shuusuke promised, hefting his bag onto his shoulder.

He was fairly certain, from the way Tachibana smiled, that they both knew he wouldn't.

8. Catalyst

Tezuka returned for a visit at the end of September. Shuusuke hadn't even known he was coming, until the day Neya-buchou had released them from practice and Eiji exclaimed, "Buchou!" as they emerged from Seishun Koukou's main gates.

Tezuka had always looked too old for his features, which had led to no end of amusing mix-ups, once upon a time. Now, looking at him as he leaned against the wall, almost smiling at the fuss Eiji and Oishi were kicking up between them, Shuusuke thought that "too old" no longer quite fit. It was almost as if the half year away, playing in newcomer tournaments around the world, had let Tezuka settle into the role he'd been readying himself for. He didn't look too old for his age any more. He just looked... like an adult.

What an astonishing thing.

With Tezuka there, the only natural thing to do was descend on Kawamura's restaurant for an impromptu reunion. Taka was behind the counter when they came in, but when his father realized what the occasion was, it wasn't long before Taka came around to the front to join in the laughter and the talk. Nor was anyone really surprised when Momo and Kaidoh came in, especially not Shuusuke, who had seen Inui sneak his phone out to send a text message. The laughter and the shouting made it seem almost like old times, save for Echizen's absence.

Half a year didn't seem like it should be so much, but apparently it was. Inui had endless questions about what being a pro was like, and Momo was happy to tell Tezuka all the details about how Seigaku's summer tournament had gone (not as well as anyone would have hoped, though they were all careful not to say as much). Eiji was more than willing to do the same for the minutiae of the high school's club, which led to the only time that Tezuka looked surprised all afternoon. "You played in the summer tournament?"

"For as long as it lasted," Shuusuke told him, careful. What else would he have done?

Oishi made a face. "He insisted on it," he clarified. "He challenged Miyano-senpai at the end of the first week."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Shuusuke defended himself. Compared to a summer spent on conditioning exercises, it had been.

"I see," was all Tezuka said to that.

Later, when the party was breaking up, slow and reluctant, Shuusuke caught Tezuka looking at him. "I suppose you don't want to play tennis on your vacation," he said, as casually as he could manage.

"Why wouldn't I?" Tezuka replied. He seemed as confused as he ever looked at such a foolish question.

Oh, good. Good. "Want to play while you're in town?" Shuusuke ventured.

"Of course." Tezuka was still looking at him, something even more unreadable than usual in his eyes--or perhaps Shuusuke was just out of practice with reading him. "This weekend?"

"That should be fine." He'd gone this long without a really good game; he could wait a few days longer.

Even so, the days until the weekend seemed to drag on forever.

He'd almost forgotten what it had been like to stand across a tennis net from Tezuka and feel the sheer presence of him burning across the court. Tezuka had always had that poise, even in their first year of junior high, but it had gotten sharper in the past six months. So had his tennis; Shuusuke hurled himself against the solid strength of it, something that almost felt like a sob of relief catching in his throat as Tezuka met him, and required more of him, and more, until Shuusuke was playing with everything he had, and more, and Tezuka was still pushing him back.

Had the last time he'd been defeated--by something other than his own fatigue--really been in the spring?

The shock of that thought made Shuusuke blurt, "I've missed you," once he'd caught his breath again, and that left Tezuka staring at him. "No one plays like you do. No one who's left, that is." Tachibana had come the closest, but had strange, uncomfortable ideas, and Chitose was too far away to reach. Tezuka was still looking at him, like he was puzzled, so Shuusuke sighed, and added, "I haven't been pushed like that in a match since the third years retired."

"I hadn't realized that being pushed was one of your priorities now," Tezuka said, noncommittal.

"It never used to be." Shuusuke turned away from the level way Tezuka was looking at him, and searched through his bag for a towel. "I think you and Echizen may have ruined me."

"I'm sure we didn't mean to."

Shuusuke closed his eyes; yes, he'd earned that note of reproof. "Mm. I suppose it's too late now."

"Indeed." When Shuusuke glanced up, Tezuka was still looking at him. "They said you insisted on playing as a Regular this summer."

"Yes." When Tezuka simply waited, Shuusuke sat down and leaned his head back to look up at the sky. "It was the only thing I could do, if I didn't want to be bored stupid."

Tezuka took the seat next to him. "I'm surprised they allowed it."

Shuusuke looked at him, watching Tezuka from his peripheral vision. "I think I may have been standing in for you."

Tezuka's only reaction was to blink once, slow. "I... see."

"And there was the fact that I did challenge the strongest player in the club," Shuusuke added. "I think they knew they had to do something with me."

"How is this any different from normal?"

"There's no need to be mean." Shuusuke busied himself with his towel, folding it into precise quarters. "I thought it would be enough."

Tezuka's answer took a long time in coming. "When you reach a certain level, there start to be very few people who can present a challenge."

"And they've all gone pro on me," Shuusuke said, petting the rough terrycloth of the towel. "So I'm doomed to be bored."

"If you stay where you are, yes." Beside him, Tezuka took a breath. "What is it that you want, Fuji?"

Perhaps it was because it was so similar to what Tachibana had asked, the answer presented itself to him Shuusuke, whole and complete. "I want to play tennis," Shuusuke said, wondering at himself. "I mean, I--want to play tennis. Which is--I never wanted to, before."

"Yes," Tezuka said, tone suffused. "I noticed."

Shuusuke, giddy with sudden epiphany, made a mental note to get back at him for that tone, later. "I--but--I didn't want to play professionally. I really didn't. I told all the scouts so."

"...if," Tezuka said, giving Shuusuke the impression that he was choosing his words carefully, "If you like, I can speak to my agent for you."

"Yes," Shuusuke said, "yes, please."

9. Audition

Kirihara looked as surprised to see Shuusuke as he was to see Kirihara. "What are you doing here?" Kirihara asked, blunt, and then covered his mouth. "Um--sorry."

"Meeting a scout," Shuusuke said, looking at the tennis bag slung over Kirihara's shoulder, a suspicion beginning to form at the back of his mind.

Kirihara confirmed it for him when he said, "You too? I thought you weren't--um." Kirihara stopped himself, turning pink around the ears.

"I changed my mind," Shuusuke told him, breezy with the rightness of it all.

"Well, good. Yukimura-senpai always did say it was a waste that you didn't--" Kirihara stopped himself again, this time going red to the roots of his hair. "Um."

"He always was a sensible one," Shuusuke said, since there was no point in being annoyed by what was true, although there might be reason to be irritated by being the subject of Rikkai's gossip. "I suppose they're going to want us to play a match against each other," he said, to change the subject.

That snapped Kirihara out of his blush immediately. "This time I'm going to win," he said, drawing himself up to his full height--which was more than Shuusuke recalled it being.

Shuusuke permitted himself a smile. "We'll just have to see about that, won't we?"

He half-expected Kirihara to get angry, but instead the boy just cocked his head to the side and looked at him. "You've changed since last year," he said, finally.

"Yes," Shuusuke said, after the split-second of surprise had passed. "I think I have."

It rather went without saying that he wasn't the only one.

10. Left and Leaving

"So I guess this is it, huh?" Yuuta said, bouncing a tennis ball against the face of his racquet, cheeks scrubbed pink with the raw March breeze. Before Shuusuke could say anything, Yuuta shook his head. "Man, this is not fair, you know that?"

"How so?" Shuusuke asked, uncertain the way only his brother could ever make him.

"I spend all this time trying to catch up with you and looking forward to kicking your ass in high school, and now you're gonna go pro on me?" Yuuta's grin was swift and rueful. "Seriously not fair."

"Sorry about that." Shuusuke looked down at his laced hands. "I guess I'll have to visit often, so you can get plenty of chances to play me."

"The hell with that." Yuuta's elbow caught him in the ribs, playfully. "Like I'm gonna just sit around here waiting on you. I'm still gonna catch up with you, even if you keep moving the bar on me."

"Big words, little brother," Shuusuke told him, and got elbowed again for it, sharp in spite of Yuuta's grin.

"Just you wait and see," Yuuta promised him. He caught the ball he'd been bouncing. "C'mon, Aniki, that's enough resting. Another match. Best of three this time."

"What, do you run on batteries or something?" Shuusuke asked, smiling as he picked his racquet up again and following his brother onto the court. "Honestly, Yuuta."

"Wouldn't you just like to know?" Yuuta rocked in his sneakers, eyes already bright with his anticipation. "C'mon, Aniki."

Shuusuke served, and smiled at the heaviness of Yuuta's return against his racquet. He'd miss this when he was gone. So much the better if Yuuta didn't intend to let him miss it for long.

11. Newcomer

The sun was different, here; brighter and hotter than he was used to. Shuusuke hadn't quite acclimated to that, yet, even though he was pretty sure it was mostly a matter of perception.

It wasn't anything he couldn't deal with, anyway.

It looked like it was bothering his opponent significantly more. Neumann had the fair skin of someone who was from the very far north, and was red with the sun now and dripping sweat. He was good, too, but Shuusuke could already tell that he was better, however much Neumann pushed him.

Tezuka had left the country before Shuusuke had signed his contract, but Shuusuke had decided not to let that stop him from calling Tezuka to share the news. Now, heading into the second set with poor sunburned Neumann, he recalled what Tezuka had said to him then: "Not every pro will push you," he'd said. "Especially not at first. Especially not you."

It didn't matter, Shuusuke decided, as he hammered a smash past Neumann. Eventually they would, as long as he kept going.

He won his first match in two clean sets, 6-0, 6-0. It was, Shuusuke decided, auspicious.

Tezuka called him that night, for the first time ever. "Congratulations," he said, immediate and without prelude.

"Thanks." Shuusuke stretched his legs out on the bed and leaned back against the headboard. "You were right. They didn't push me much today."

The line hissed with the continents and time zones between them; it was morning where Tezuka was. He must have checked the results first thing when he'd woken up. "Are you disappointed?"

Because it was Tezuka, he considered the question fully. "No. Not really. It's one tournament closer to catching up with you."

The crackle of the line wasn't quite enough to disguise the breath that Tezuka took. "I see," he said. "I'm looking forward to when that happens."

Perhaps it was because the connection was bad and Shuusuke was straining to catching everything that he heard a nuance in Tezuka's voice that he'd never heard before. It was a note of yearning, maybe, or eagerness, which shook open entirely new vistas, ones that had nothing--and everything--to do with tennis. "I'm on my way," he said, dazed with the sudden possibilities. "Just be patient with me for a little longer?"

Tezuka must have been listening just as closely, because he snorted. "When," he asked, almost gently, "have I ever been anything but?"

"I hope you end up thinking that it was worth it," Shuusuke told him, still dizzy.

Tezuka was silent for a long moment before he finally spoke. "I have no doubt that it will be."

12. Full Circle

It took approximately a year for Echizen to finally catch up with them once he'd finally entered his first pro tournament. He zoomed up the ATP ranks as precipitously as he did everything tennis-related, and Shuusuke always smiled when he overheard fellow players talking about the Echizen kid in hushed, awed, and sometimes faintly-terrified tones. They hadn't, Shuusuke knew, seen anything yet.

"You know," he told Echizen, when they met in Buenos Aires, "I was really annoyed that you left Japan before we got to finish that match."

Echizen, who was clearly still a brat at heart, adjusted his cap and grinned. "I know," he said. "Why do you think I did it?"

They had to wait until Shuusuke had stopped laughing to start the match.


As always, comments are welcome!