Title: The Payment

Rating: PG13

Pairing: Atobe Keigo/Tezuka Kunimitsu

Genre: Romance, drama

Warnings: manipulative Atobe

Disclaimer: I don't own Prince of Tennis nor any of the characters presented in any of my pieces of fiction. I do not make any profit of writing these stories.

Summary: Tezuka, inspired by his conversation with Echizen, wants to create the inverted Zone. There's only one person he can ask for help in training: Atobe Keigo. However, the heir demands an unusual payment for his time and effort.

Nobody greeted him upon his arrival.

Atobe didn't expect to see him there, all alone on the Hyoutei training grounds, and he couldn't be blamed, because Tezuka also could hardly believe that he actually went there. It was a rare moment of temporary insanity on his part, nothing more; for a while, he'd actually considered asking the Atobe Keigo of Hyoutei for help.

He did have his reasons for that, and they were carefully thought out; however, coming up with a plan and then showing up at a rival school were the easy parts. Admitting to being in dire need of assistance from Atobe, of all people, was a completely different matter whatsoever. Tezuka was not a type of person who habitually depended on others – it was the exact opposite. He was the one to be depended on. He was a strong leader that could overcome every obstacle on the long, but promising road to victory. His Seigaku could count on him.

Which was why he'd come to Hyoutei in the first place, now, wasn't it? And this meant that he really had to gather up the courage to finally face Atobe for the first time since they'd last seen each other at the quarter-finals, to properly talk to the other captain, like he should have done much earlier. Had he encountered Atobe sooner, he wouldn't have been this nervous and hesitant; seeing as he was there to explicitly ask for the heir's time and effort, he felt especially bad that he'd done nothing to dissolve his rival's obvious disappointment over a match that they could have played.

It was a bad idea, coming to the barely familiar territory. But there was no turning back now that he was there; he had let Atobe notice him, and he could see the other boy quickly excusing himself from warm-up practice, despite the surprise he must have been feeling.

He didn't really know why his heart was beating so fast as he observed Atobe slowly approaching; was it the gripping nervousness or the fear his rival so easily induced upon him, or maybe something entirely else? Something like anticipation and excitement, because they were going to talk to each other again.

None of the emotions Tezuka was experiencing showed on his face. He made sure of that. He was particularly good at keeping everything inside, hidden safely from prying eyes and from keen Insight. For the sake of his team, as well as for his own sense of security, he remained the stoic, emotionless person he was accused of being. He had no intention of ever letting his mask slip away, even in front of Atobe.

Especially not in front of Atobe.

'Tezuka! What a pleasant surprise!' The heir greeted as he came close, presenting Tezuka with his charming, wide grin, so full of arrogance and self-confidence. Nothing could deter Atobe Keigo from being pleased with himself, it seemed, not even the painful failure in the tennis tournament, nor a far more personal loss – that of his perfectly styled hair.

His current hairstyle suited him just as well, but some of his earlier brilliance was now lost, gone along with the previous, admittedly more flamboyant look.

'What is it that brings you here to Hyoutei?' Atobe asked, oblivious of all the thoughts running through Tezuka's head.

'I need you to do me a favour,' Tezuka replied simply. He was always like this, straight to the point and bold, because going about it in circles would earn him nothing. Especially not when it came to Atobe, who could read through any deception techniques with practised ease.

'I see,' said the heir, nodding his head. He raised his hand as if to flick his hair, but stopped in mid-gesture and just let his hand drop. For some reason, it made Tezuka feel guilty. 'What exactly does this favour require me to do for you?'

The Seigaku captain hesitated. He still had a chance to turn back. Once he stated his business, that chance would be gone.

'I need you to train with me,' he said softly once he made his decision. There was something he had to accomplish, and Atobe's help was absolutely essential for it to happen. 'As I am now, I cannot win if I face Sanada in the final match. Before you ask,' he added, noticing that Atobe was about to interrupt him, 'there is nobody else who can do this for me. It has to be you.'

'Why?' Questioned the heir; the smile was still there on his face, but it was no longer sincere. 'Why does it have to be me? Forgive me, Tezuka, but I cannot understand your actions. First, you refuse to talk to me for weeks after I followed your wishes and did my best in that match against your brat. I could see your reasoning behind having him face me, I knew why you were, in fact, afraid of facing me yourself; I wanted you to talk to me and explain everything in person. You didn't, and yet here you come, long overdue, and instead of explaining anything, you ask me to help you defeat Sanada. I'm sorry, Tezuka, but you have to give me more than that. I need to know why you're asking me, when you could easily train with your team.'

Yes, that is a good question, Tezuka thought and shook his head. He was aware that eventually, this would come up, but he'd hoped it could be avoided until further time. He had been taking Atobe for granted for much longer than he should have, and he regretted it now; yet, the answer the heir demanded from him was still something he wasn't really ready to give him.

'It can't be my team. They have their own problems, their own training,' he said instead of the truth. 'They think I am much stronger than they are, and I have to become so. They believe me invincible, Atobe, and I do not wish to show them any weakness.'

Only after saying the words, Tezuka realized their meaning. He didn't wish to show his team mates his weakness, but he didn't mind showing it to Atobe; in front of his friends, his comrades, he was willing to pretend to be somebody else, but Atobe was privileged to see the real, honest him. Why did he say that? He wasn't sure if he really felt that way; he respected Atobe and even trusted him enough to ask for his help, that much was obvious, but apart from that, he just wasn't sure. Everything he was feeling about the other captain was too complex, too hard to sort out; he wasn't used to being this confused.

'If that's the case,' said Atobe, purposefully making his tone a lazy drawl; he was still as much of a drama queen – king? - as he had been before. 'I suppose I can help you, Tezuka.'

The wave of relief that washed over him never showed on his expressionless face, but it could be noticed in the way his whole posture became much more relaxed. He was aware that this was not the end of their conversation, that they still had to talk, to be sincere with each other. However, that could wait. He was a person who did one thing at a time, who accomplished his goals one after another. For now, his goal was winning the National Tennis Tournament with his team.

'You have to know, though, that I have a tight schedule. I can in no way guarantee that I'll be there for your every beck and call. I wouldn't be, even if I had all the time in the world, because I am nobody's servant,' the arrogant heir said, a very self-satisfied grin adorning his face. 'We can meet three times a week after your training. Maybe I can be persuaded to sacrifice some time on weekends, as well.'

'Three times a week will do,' Tezuka said with a nod. 'Where shall we meet up?'

'My driver will pick you up from school. Is tomorrow alright with you?'

It was.

True to his word, Atobe did send his driver to pick Tezuka up. The car that was waiting for him was, to his surprise, not a limousine, but a regular, inconspicuous family vehicle – from the top shelf, sure enough, but still far from Atobe's usual flamboyant style. The Seigaku captain was grateful for that; this way, he didn't have to explain to his team why, exactly, he was accepting a ride from someone such as Atobe – he simply told Fuji that his father's associate would be conveniently picking him up from school every other day.

The genius didn't believe a word he said, of course, but didn't ask.

Tezuka was taken to a part of Tokyo he didn't normally visit. Littered with extravagant, rich villas, each of which seemed to have a swimming pool and at least two garages, the neighbourhood literally oozed high class. It was a place where people like Atobe dwelt in their foreign-looking manors, treating everybody else as poor peasants, refusing to mix with who they called "commoners". If he were to choose, Tezuka most certainly wouldn't want to live there. He felt even more out of place there in his Seigaku Regular outfit when he was sure none of the inhabitants could ever be found wearing anything short of the most expensive designer brands.

Atobe's estate was astounding even when compared to the other properties in the area. The mansion – which, in Tezuka's opinion, looked more like a palace – was surrounded by a beautiful flower garden; there was a park on its grounds and, understandably, a large swimming pool. The driver also informed Tezuka of a heliport, fishing ponds and a sports centre, complete with two well-kept tennis courts also available on the premises.

Tezuka always knew Atobe was wealthy, but he'd never suspected it was to such heights. Compared to this estate, his family's traditional house with it's garden and koi pond was ridiculously small. It made him feel inadequate.

And here he thought he didn't care about such trivial things as money.

'Welcome to my humble domain, dear Tezuka,' Atobe greeted him in front of the mansion. He was already dressed in comfortable sports wear. He had his tennis racket with him, and it was obvious he had been waiting for Tezuka specially. 'I hope your trip was pleasant?'

'It was, thank you,' the Seigaku captain replied.

'Will you have something to eat or drink, or do you wish to progress straight to the courts?'

Tezuka didn't want anything, so they walked to Atobe's private training grounds in companionable silence. The heir lead the way, and Tezuka spent the time on looking around and taking in his surroundings. While the sheer enormity of the place overwhelmed him, he didn't think living here would be quite that bad. He liked the idea of a fishing pond all to himself, where he could sit for hours, putting his worries to a dark corner of his mind, where he could relax after a stressing day and let all anxiety slowly go away.

If they'd been friends, he would have asked Atobe if he minded him using the pond sometimes. Alas, they were no friends. Actually... what were they?

'We're here,' Atobe said with a hint of pride in his voice.

He had a lot to be proud of. The courts were nothing short of professional; one was a grass court, the other a clay one, which was more standard in Japan. Both were exceptionally well-kept and the clay one even had a mechanic roof that could cover it in case of a downpour. There were no seats for audience; Tezuka supposed Atobe didn't need crowds in the privacy of his own home.

'I'm planning on having a hard court built here sometime in the near future,' the heir informed him in a matter-off-fact tone. 'After all, it is essential that I perfect my play on every surface if I want to become a pro. We shall be using the clay court for now, though.'

Tezuka nodded in agreement. He retrieved his racket from his bag, which he left on a conveniently placed bench, and stepped onto the court. He was ready to play; he'd had practice before coming here, so he didn't need any more warming up. The same seemed to be the case for Atobe, who strolled onto his half of the court with unbelievable confidence.

'You will have the first serve,' he told Tezuka boldly. 'But before we start, let's discuss the price.'


Atobe had failed mentioned he wanted something in return for his help. Had he done that on purpose, only bringing it up now when Tezuka probably wouldn't turn back? There was a possibility he'd simply forgotten to say anything before, and this was actually an innocent demand. Or it could be a joke. But Tezuka doubted it. There was something positively devilish in the way Atobe kept grinning at him like he knew all his dirty secrets.

Tezuka didn't even have that many dirty secrets to begin with.

'My time, dear Tezuka, is valuable. Believe me when I tell you that many people would pay a lot of money to get a minute of my attention in return. You are, however, a very special person,' Atobe said smoothly. 'You are my rival. That's why I am far from charging you money, which I have in abundance. However, there is something that I want from you, Tezuka.'

The Seigaku captain wanted to take a step back under the suddenly intense look Atobe was giving him. And yet, he couldn't move a muscle, transfixed, frozen in the spot.

'What is it?' He asked, forcing himself to sound casual. It was hard. For some unfathomable reason, he could feel himself blushing.

'For every game we play – for every single one, no matter how many there are – I want a kiss on the lips. That will be a fitting payment for my precious time,' said Atobe. He was still staring directly at Tezuka, who found himself looking anywhere but at those piercing, blue eyes. His attention was drawn to the mole under Atobe's right eye. A charm point, indeed. 'There will be no negotiations. You can either agree or find somebody else to help you.'

Without a word, Tezuka turned on his heel and headed back.

In the end, he didn't leave. He realized that there really was nobody else that could help him; of all the people he knew, only Atobe was good enough. However, the payment he demanded... it actually confused the hell out of Tezuka. Why did Atobe demand such a thing? It would be more understandable were Tezuka a girl, but he definitely wasn't; as far as he was concerned, he didn't even look particularly girl-like.

He wasn't really opposed to kissing another boy. He had, in fact, never considered kissing anyone at all, mindful of the fact that he was too young for romance, and there were other things he wanted to concentrate on. Like tennis. Winning the Nationals. Going pro. He supposed he might want to kiss somebody – probably a girl – in the future, but it was not something he really deemed very important.

Atobe, obviously, thought otherwise.

Tezuka had to admit that the other captain was attractive. He noticed that even when they'd first met, although he never gave it much thought afterwards. Why would he? Atobe had ruined his shoulder, forcing him to leave his team to go on rehabilitation. Even though everything was eventually forgiven, it didn't make Tezuka want to ponder on whether the heir was rather handsome or ugly like a toad. They were both boys, so wondering about this wasn't even encouraged.

'I agree,' he decided finally. 'But it will mean nothing to me. It's just payment.'

It wasn't true, but he wished it was.

They played. Tezuka hoped the first game would be a long rally, but it was actually very short. Either Atobe's returns had got better, or his own skill had dropped due to his absolute lack of concentration; so focused he was on drawing out the play, he actually forgot what he was supposed to do here. When he did remember, the score was already forty-love for Atobe, and Tezuka realized there was no escape from what he'd agreed to.

He started putting a spin to the ball with the serve. But he wasn't trying to create the Zone, which could be easily defeated by both Atobe and especially Sanada; actually, what he was about to do was the exact opposite. He already had the theory worked out; now, he needed to put it to good use. The inverted Zone was, theoretically speaking, a technique that would, if executed properly, send all of the opponent's shots on out. It was created by putting a much stronger spin on the ball than in the case of the Zone and required a lot of precision, strain and effort. However, Tezuka thought it was worth it; if he managed to complete the technique according to his plans, he would have the means to defeat Sanada in the final match were they to face each other then.

The serve went on out. So did the repeat, both driven by too much force and a chaotic spin. Tezuka frowned; this was going to take a lot more time than he'd first expected. He thought that, having perfected the Zone, he would have no trouble with applying just the right amount of strength to the serve, with giving the ball just the right spin. He was wrong. It was a whole new territory.

Speaking of new territories, he looked up at Atobe, expecting the heir to want to collect his first payment immediately. Much to his surprise, Atobe shook his head.

'Later. Let's make it a three-set match. You'll pay me when we're finished,' he said quickly. It was his turn to serve the ball. Tezuka just nodded.

Only once did Tezuka succeed in making the ball go out of bounds at Atobe's return. It was in the fourth game of the third set, and he wasn't actually sure if it was because of the spin on the ball, or because Atobe screwed up. He did learn, however, that putting the spin during the serve was more than likely to be a failure, so he dropped that idea. He also almost managed to do it right in the last game, but a pang of pain shot through his shoulder and he dropped the racket, more shocked than really hurt.

He lost all three sets, with the scores of 6-3, 6-2 and 6-4, but he didn't mind. It wasn't about winning or losing this time, after all.

'What are you trying to do?' Asked Atobe, sounding impatient. And disappointed? 'Your game play today was mediocre at best. Were you trying to accomplish something? If so, do tell. How am I supposed to help you if I have no idea what you are doing?'

Tezuka realized Atobe was actually right. If he told the heir what he was aiming at, it would be easier for both of them; Atobe could pass him controlled shots and he could put the spin on them, which would give him much clearer and more accurate results. Maybe they should have started from that, instead of playing a regular match.

He explained his plan.

'I thought it was something like that,' Atobe said. 'Some of those balls had a wild spin indeed. Next time we play, it's going to be a regular practice.' He shook his head. 'You should have said something earlier. We wouldn't have wasted so much time.'

'We didn't waste it. I already learned something,' Tezuka replied, walking up to the net. He held out his hand for Atobe to shake; he did it out of habit.

He didn't expect Atobe to grab his hand and pull him close. He didn't expect for the other boy's lips to touch his own gently in a kiss. He didn't expect Atobe's lips to be so soft. He didn't expect a kiss to feel so nice. He didn't...

He was driven home much later, after having paid Atobe with precisely twenty seven kisses. Fortunately, his parents didn't notice his dreamy look and slightly swollen lips.

The inverted Zone was much harder to complete than Tezuka had anticipated. Unlike the original Zone, the inverted one depended on spin as much as on other variables, like the angle of the swing and, even more, the strength and speed with which the opponent hit his return. It didn't work at all for regular shots, so Atobe was forced to switch to a more powerful, faster play style, which wasn't his speciality, but he was willing to exercise it for the sake of Tezuka's progress.

The technique, he discovered soon, also had an another flaw, one which could prove fatal in the long run: it put great strain on Tezuka's whole arm, especially weighting down his shoulder. The Seigaku captain pretended nothing was happening, but it was no use against Atobe's famous Insight. They argued about it. Fiercely.

Or rather, Atobe argued fiercely. Tezuka just frowned at him and refused to say a word until the heir gave it a rest. However, Atobe did force him to stop using the inverted Zone excessively. He went as far as to walk off the court when he thought Tezuka was overdoing it.

All the while, every time they met, Atobe kept count of the games and collected his "payment" before letting Tezuka go. By the time the inverted Zone was halfway done, the kisses were no longer the gentle caresses of lips on lips they'd started out as, instead becoming much more demanding, deeper and moister, with a lot more touching in between. The progression should have frightened Tezuka, but he was surprised to find he didn't mind.

Kissing Atobe felt good. At first, the fact that they were both boys bothered Tezuka, but eventually, it stopped being important. After all, they were not a couple or anything. Technically, they weren't even friends – they were rivals. Anyway, nobody had to know but the two of them, just like no-one else knew about their training sessions. It was not a problem as long as they didn't let it become one.

He wondered if this is what he'd really wanted from Atobe all along.

He had managed to complete the inverted Zone in time for the final match. Even though Atobe made him promise that he wouldn't overuse it, upon learning he was indeed going to face Sanada, Tezuka knew he was more than likely to break the promise. The heir was probably aware of it, too.

He didn't watch the match, having gone to fetch Echizen from wherever the brat had been instead. Tezuka lost, almost having his shoulder destroyed again in the process. The inverted Zone – the Phantom, as the Seigaku team dubbed it – was as efficient as it was supposed to be, breaking Sanada's Lightening successfully. Still, the first match was Rikkai's victory.

Tezuka didn't show the team his disappointment. He was their captain and as such, he had to be strong for them so that they wouldn't lose hope.

In the end, Seigaku won the Nationals.

Atobe didn't contact him for weeks. At first, Tezuka thought nothing of it, but as time passed, he realized that he was missing his rival. The discovery was rather astounding, as Tezuka wasn't accustomed to missing anybody at all. He also had to admit that he missed the kisses, but that was actually a lesser problem. The big problem was the fact that whenever somebody mentioned the stuck-up heir, Tezuka felt a strange pang in his chest, and he couldn't focus on anything for the rest of the day but one thing.

He wanted to see Atobe.

They met again in Autumn, and the meeting was as much accidental as it was desired for both boys. Tezuka was walking back home from school, but strayed from the path just because, for no rational reason at all. He was alone. Atobe wasn't alone, but when he saw Tezuka, he told Oshitari to go ahead without him, and stayed behind. The Hyoutei genius gave Tezuka a strange look, but said nothing as he strolled away without as much as a shrug.

Tezuka talked first, and Atobe listened. Then, Atobe talked and he was so proud of himself for no apparent reason, like a peacock, so Tezuka couldn't help but smile. It made the heir shut up.

Later, Tezuka asked Atobe if the heir would let him use his fishing pond sometime.

With a laugh, Atobe said yes.