A really long one-shot that is jittered and all over the place. I don't know what I wanted to write except angst angst angst. And possibly some compromises and growing up. Atobe comes up a bastard, Ryoma comes up a bastard….hell, but they are redeemable bastards. My OTP of all time :D A bit of unrequited Atoji, Momoryo, and Tezuryo as well.

Nothing belongs to me.

1.

To you, talent used to mean everything.

It's spring again; the green buds are returning to a desolate court, the team you thought of as invincible is here again, to conquer a national victory that you had claimed once.

"Echizen," Oishi would say, his brown eyes warm and full of promise, "Glad to see you back." Tezuka is in the background, his shadow firm, his presence as solid as the day in his middle school years. That's ridiculous, you know: Tezuka's in Germany, trying to conquer Europe and then later the world, he wouldn't have time for high school tournaments now, but dreams do not fade away so quickly and neither do nightmares. You wish you had your cap to pull over and hide your eyes. But you do not; you're old enough to conceal everything with a tight smile and a nod.

Oh, what captaincy had taught you.

2.

It's easier to lose after the first loss.

You lost once, to a newbie that came out of nowhere. You thought him inadequate, and didn't give everything out, and with that bitter regret came realization. He won, not with talent but with your dismissiveness of deeming him unworthy, and he proved that wrong. As that last shot rang out and you missed it, you briefly remembered your matches with Sanada, Atobe, Yukimura. Had they too lost, not because you were great, but because they deemed you as nothing? The thought had unsettled you once, not anymore. You had shaken his hand and he had smirked at you. You are gracious enough by then to smile back. You shoulder your loss with bravery.

But the other regulars do not see you in this way. To them, you are still invincible and unbreakable. So when you lose, part out of carelessness, part out of boredom in the first Kanto round, they stare at you as if they do not quite believe it.

"Well," Oishi stammers, "Er. Well. It's alright Echizen. We'll get them next time." And they all recover, or try to, and you look them on with a disinterested curiosity. It's almost a comedy.

You spot a speck of light brown dot flicked with grey. It moves away before you could remember his name.

3.

You now meet old enemies.

You play in the street courts. You never have, not in your third year of middle school, but for some reason you are lured here. You remember too many things that you had forgotten after your loss.

"Echizen."

You turn around and see the emblem of Hyotei and Atobe. Monkey King, you're tempted to call him, but the words just die in your mouth. You're not a child anymore, and your taunts just show immaturity. You see an older version of Atobe, smarted down in his Hyotei uniform and flair, his blue-grey eyes as sharp. He is as grand as ever. Should you nod? Should you demand a match?

But Atobe gets to him first. "I've seen your match today," he drawls out, and his hands are resting causally in his school pockets, his stance sharp and watchful. "What were you doing in your middle school circuits, playing catch with preschoolers?"

Once, not too long ago, you would have risen up to the bait like Atobe would have expected you to. It's funny in a way, how Atobe didn't change, while you had changed in ways you didn't imagine you would. You just shrug and walk towards the benches. Hitting against the wall was getting boring, and you need to go home soon.

But Atobe prevents that. "I want a match," he says, and you stop. "Surely your skills haven't rotted that much, ahn?"

You want to refuse, it's pointless. Taunting doesn't get you nowhere, and that's what Atobe wants: to rile you up and make you play at your best. But you could always pretend. You turn around and shrug again, turning to the direction of the courts. He watches you, and it's unnerving.

"One set," you say, and you take the ball out and you serve. It's not the twist serve.

4.

You lose.

You expected it, and it's nice, that losing doesn't take that much power than winning. Why haven't he thought of this before? This carefree attitude was better than fire.

But Atobe sneers, his eyes cold (like ice, you think, ice that makes you freeze and doesn't let go) as he doesn't come up to the net to shake your hand. "The fuck," he snaps, and for a moment you're taken aback. Atobe has never looked angry, and he never swore. Plebian, he might have called it, but here he is now, in a plebian setting and uttering plebian words. "What's wrong with you?" he says, his voice flat and hurtful and attacking. You don't care.

You don't even try to offer your hand. You just twirl your racket around your fingers and stare at the ball you failed to return. "Guess your tennis has gotten better," you say, and that would be the end. Walk away with that compliment Monkey King, you think, and savor it for what it's worth.

"Bullshit" Atobe snaps, "You just got crappy." His eyes narrow and his lips thin. "Or," he amends, "You just want it to act crappy."

You can't help it. You laugh. Of course Atobe would know, with his Insight. Or maybe because Atobe is almost no different from him: the eagerness to prove himself and to smirk down at all his enemies. You wonder very briefly if Tezuka would have understood that need. "Flattering," you say, when you've finished laughing, "Nice to know you think highly of me."

Atobe's eyes burn through you. "You haven't used the Pinnacle of Perfection."

You twist a smile. It must have been something in that smile, because Atobe starts, and he doesn't stop you when you go ahead to put your racket away and leave.

"That's because I can't," you say, and it's partly true. You've sealed it away.

5.

When you come home, your dad is there, awkward and silent because you've stopped demanding for a match a long time ago. He glances up at you and quickly turns away, burrowing his face into the newspaper, muttering about stocks and whatnots. You know that he heard, or even saw the match today, and you feel satisfied. Your point has driven home.

You go upstairs without any dinner. You momentarily think of calling for Karupin, but that's unnecessary now. You sometimes forget that your one true companion had died months ago.

Your room is silent without old men yapping away and cats purring. You throw your tennis gear at the foot of your bed, and that's when you notice that you've been shaking. Why? You grit your teeth and think, Fuck you Tezuka. It's not his captain's fault, he knows that, but he somehow needs to blame someone, and Tezuka is the perfect target.

But because you can't scream out the frustration, you bite your lips hard instead.

6.

One thing you haven't expected was Atobe waiting for you in front of the clubhouse. Oishi stops in his tracks, and so do the rest of the regulars do in turn, blinking and looking dumb, all except for you. You try to walk away with your face flat and unimpressed.

"Atobe," Oishi starts unexpectedly, his face trying to decide if this was a friendly visit or a hostile one—one can never tell with Atobe, "This is quite a surprise. What can we—"

"Your brat," Atobe cuts him off, nodding in your direction. You almost twitch at that, but you are proud of what captaincy had taught you.

"Echizen?" Oishi starts and turns to look at you. You don't react to it; don't even meet Atobe's eyes as he scans you knowingly. "What do you want with him?"

"Something to say," Atobe drawls out in the typically Atobe fashion, "I'm sure that the entirety of the Seigaku tennis club wouldn't have to wait to hear what. Although of course, in other circumstances I would have—"

"I don't want to hear it," you interrupt, and your eyes don't waver as you meet his. Yours won't be the first to look away.

Atobe's lips twist into a smirk. "You don't even know what I was going to say."

You want to scoff, you want to snarl, you want to throw a tennis ball at him. You do none of the above and break eye contact. Atobe's smirk grows bigger.

"Really, couldn't this wait until after practice?" Oishi tries again, his smile a bit hesitant, "We still have an hour or so."

Atobe shrugs easily, doesn't even look unnerved, as he eases off the clubhouse walls and looks at you again. How you hated those eyes back then, with its laughing mockery and scorn, something that conveyed to you a message of You're not good enough. Not for me, not for Tezuka, not for Seigaku. Hatred fills you so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and you feel like bursting.

"Street courts. I want another match," he says, and of course. You knew what he was going to say and he knew that you would know. Manipulation. Do all captains magically acquire that ability?

The words are out before you register what they mean. "Fuck off," you say testily, not with arrogance, not with snide, but with hatred and scorn.

Oishi whips around to look at you, horrified. "Echizen!"

But it's strange; Atobe looks unfazed, and for his credit, his smirk doesn't disappear. "Street courts," he repeats, still looking at you," If you're not there, I'll have Kabaji personally escort you."

You sneer and walk away from him. You won't be going, you've already lost. You've shown him a point and he would get no more.

You ignore the looks and glances the regulars trade and practice twice as hard. Because once, long ago, you loved this sport that chained you to what you once were.

7.

You could have fought with Kabaji. You could have tried to at least, and at first you were about to. Take a stance and give it all you've got, because by now you were pretty good at fighting. But people were watching, and back then and now, you never liked creating a scene. So you sigh and stare down the taller boy and follow him all the way to the street courts.

Atobe is there waiting, warming up. When you come he stops stretching, his eyes unreadable and closed, but his smirk is intact. "I'm glad there wasn't blood involved," he remarks, and just for a moment, you think it'd be nice to see the Hyotei boy bathed in blood. It's a disturbing image, and you quickly shake it off, and try to proceed for the more logical say.

"We've already had a match," you say flatly, "You won."

He raises an eyebrow. "And that doesn't bother you?"

It doesn't. You frown. "Should it?"

"If you're the Echizen I know, it should," he says loftily, "You would have been the one marching up to Hyotei and demanding me for another match."

Once, long ago. When matches were trophies and tennis was invincible.

You twist another ugly smile. "I don't anymore. You won."

This time it is he that frowns. "And you're content with that?"

"Yes." You don't know why it would be hard or even not understandable—you lost, he would move onto something better.

Atobe's eyes narrow.

8.

His serve comes as a surprise at you. It's the twist serve, coming sharp and deep and it rebounds just as you're about to return it half-heartedly. You blankly stare at the ball for a moment, and when that realization dawns on you, you laugh a bitter laugh.

"Nice," you say, a touch of sarcasm added in for effect, "Very cliché."

Atobe just gives you the same cold smile, and begins to serve again. His hands are firm, his movements are precise.

You lose again, and again, and again. You stare at him across the net and he does not offer to come any closer.

9.

The sky is sublime in its deathly shade of violet and hue, reaching beyond horizon as you trudge home. You open the door without a sound and head towards the direction of your room when…

"Oi, Ryoma."

Your father is standing in front of the staircase, his monk robes dirty and his eyes twinkling. You face him with a deadpanned look and ignore him, but he grabs hold of your arm and cracks a mischievous smile.

"Ho! Look at you, looking like crap. What have you been up to, boy?"

You scowl out of self-reflect and try to tug your arm free. Your dad won't let you, his face brighter than anything you have seen him for as long as you can remember. It's not like that, you want to protest loudly, you got it all wrong old man let me go, but his father would only take his sweaty clothes and dirty face for face value.

"Tennis, eh?" His father cranes his neck to look at his tennis bag with failed nonchalance.

"Leave me alone."

"Boy, oh boy, not that I care, of course, but you finally decided to drop the pretty boy act, eh? Good of you too, I was getting mighty tired of that—"

"Let me be." You tug sharply at your arm and it finally wrenches free; but even that doesn't discourage your father, who is still grinning like a fool and chuckling to himself.

"Tsk, tsk. Well, I knew it wouldn't be long. You couldn't get your dirty little hands on that racket now—"

You curse Atobe and his tendencies to make him get into unwanted attention.

10.

It's not going to work, this taunting and jeering. It has, once before, when you were young and they were all young. It was your pride speaking, whispers of shadows that were never meant to be yours, of pillars and geniuses and captains.

You remember your first match as captain.

The ball was sturdy in your hands as you bounced it on the hard tennis court. You barely looked at the opponent across from you; he was a new face, not even like the likes of Kirihara or Hiyoshi. An easy win, you think to yourself, and you prepare to serve. A twist serve, you remember well.

"So you're Tezuka's little boy, aren't you?"

You turn to that opponent. How you wish you could remember his face. He didn't look snide or mean, just curious with a touch of jeer into it.

You stare at him evenly.

"I've heard all about Tezuka of course," the boy continued, his voice barely audible amongst the fierce cheers of both sides of their schools, "Everyone did. He was the golden age of captaincy, wasn't he?" And here the boy had smirked and shrugged at you. "But you. You were just a rookie back then." He gave a little wave with his racket. "Just like me, except you became a pretentious genius while I was a ball boy."

You tightened your grip.

He laughed. "Funny, isn't it, how now we've leveled up. A prodigy never matters."

You demolished him.

You defeated Sanada, Atobe, Yukimura. Tezuka never had. And in the end, it had never mattered.

11.

He gets at you.

He's a person who knew you before you become obsolete. He doesn't know the Echizen Ryoma whose genius died with his age and shadow, with expectations and misgivings. No, he only knows you as the rookie who defeated him and shaved his hair. If you knew it was going to make such a huge impression, you never would have bothered, you think bitterly.

"This isn't your best shot," Atobe taunts out, and you think darkly, Obviously, dumbass. I never give it my best shot.

It's irritating how he doesn't give up at you, like the captain you used to know. Was Atobe suddenly going to sprout some pillar strategy to him? But that wouldn't make sense; you two have nothing in common. You are rivals, enemies, strangers.

One day, it turns out different.

You are exchanging a lazy rally, with you careless misgivings and false shots, when Atobe says something. It shouldn't get you riled up, it isn't even anything important, but somehow you are reminded of the boy, and his condescending smile.

It seems your genius died along with your captain, eh? The boy had laughed. And his generation had laughed with him.

You hit a straight ball and it slashes Atobe's court through.

Atobe's eyes grow slightly wide. He doesn't even try to return it.

12.

Atobe is quiet after that match. He stares at you across the far end side of the court. You ignore his thoughtful stare headed at you and pack your bags.

"You know Echizen," he finally says, "You're being really stupid."

You don't even bother to reply.

13.

You have a dream of you young, carefree, elated.

And then someday, you remember, it broke.

"Your dad," a kid had drawled out back then, and back now, "Your dad was the hotshot of the tennis world, wasn't he? What are you, his back-up?" And laughter, cruel, hysterical laughter.

What had Tezuka seen in his eyes when he saw you, panting on your knees and not able to accept defeat?

"Become the pillar of Seigaku," you captain had once said, his voice a careful weight of gravity you had never achieved as captain, "Become something that is yours." And mine alone, you had thought, accepting the hand that your captain held out to you. Was that a promise? Or was that something that Tezuka needed to say, for the sake of a Seigaku victory? Was Seigaku a worthy prize to sacrifice your integrity?

You wake up, cold sweat drenching your torso. You open your mouth to let something out—anything—but all you hear are night crickets chirping away.

And you think, for no apparent reason, Atobe.

14.

You call him at 4 in the morning. You call the number that he once pressed into your palm, after a match that was too long ago to think about now, and wait.

The voice picks up, and it's not a happy voice. "Hello?" If anything, it's irritated and sleepy.

"Atobe," you say to him without thinking, and it's strange, the way his name sounds in your mouth. It's unpleasant, it's vulgar, it's something you want to convince yourself with.

"Echizen," Atobe returns, his irritation a bit subsided, now that he knew who was calling. His voice still had a touch of edge to it though. "Are you out of your mind?""

Maybe, you might want to say. But you swallow and say something. Anything.

"I want a match."

Atobe is silent for a moment. You curse yourself inwardly. Because really, did you think a match would solve anything?

"It's late Echizen," he finally says, "Get some sleep." And he hangs up before you could backpedal anything you might have actually meant.

You listen to the beep on the other side for far longer you would have wished to.

Tezuka would have accepted, you think dazedly, before you come down with your next trail of thoughts, But he's not Tezuka.

15.

When you next meet him at the Seigaku gates (no one looks twice at Atobe now) he beckons you to his car. You frown, since the street courts are just 5 minutes away; you two have always walked.

"No tennis today," Atobe says with a little smile and grimace, you don't know which, as he sees you look hesitantly at the direction you two normally go into.

You refuse to mention the little disastrous phone call you have made last night, and he doesn't offer to bring it up. Yet somehow, you believe that this has something to do with it. "No tennis?" You echo, looking at the other boy. Atobe gives a little voice of impatience and reaches out to grab your arm. It's the first time Atobe touches you. You recoil out of surprise.

16.

Funny, that this would be the first time. You two have never shaken hands before, not even in the match that made Hyotei lose and made Atobe lose his hair of glory. Why was that? You remember; he had been unconscious, you had stepped towards the older boy, his hazy grey eyes unfocused but somehow staring right at you, and your heartbeat grew faster as you approached him. The fallen king.

"You can't do that!" Someone had shouted angrily, but you chose to ignore that, your hands steady as you leaned towards the boy, careful only to touch his sweaty hair and nothing else. When he awoke, he would be bitter, but you knew that he would also be resigned, because it was he whom had first offered his hair as a prize. The razor whirred and your hand cut off the fine locks of his grayish brown hair.

One lock, you would never admit, you kept. It sits in you drawer where dust is slowly gathering around.

The present rudely jolts you back as Atobe ignores the meaning of this (first) contact, or maybe he doesn't even know. But there is a slight pause in his action, and you know too, that he is thinking of your wrist that he is now holding, and for a moment your eyes meet. Then the moment is soon gone, and he pulls you into the car and closes the door behind him. He orders the driver to drive.

You stare at him indignantly.

"You can't just…" you stop, your words lost as you process what you're about to say. "Where are we going?" You ask instead, your arm still held captive in his hand.

He looks at you, perhaps a bit amused, and he lets go. A small tingle flows through your veins. "A restaurant," he says, his legs splayed across the car floor, one hand twirling a lock of his hair. "I feel a bit famished."

17.

The restaurant is Ginza district's finest, it's a deluxe cuisine you once dined when you were allured to play in the US Open in your second year of junior high.

"With your talent," the man sitting across from you had gushed out, "With your talents, my, we could go far!" He had leaned towards you, his hard little eyes promising all the things his father had once been crazy to throw away. "You could even take over the tennis world someday," he had breathed out, and his hands were just itching to touch you and make your hands sign the contract he had brought. You had looked on with a feigned nonchalance, but inside you were troubled. What about Seigaku? What about the promise that Tezuka had made for you?

"Think of it! You will fulfill the legacy your father had never dreamt of!"

What shatters such dreams and the taste of glory. You had pressed your lips and ate silently for the rest of the meal. Poor man, not knowing what had irked him.

But now it is not that man, it's Atobe, and he does not offer to speak or convince or offer anything. He just maddeningly sits quietly across from you, sipping a clear glass of water with lemon, and orders for the both of you ("Sushi," he had said without looking at the menu, "The special course A, with extra eel sauce. You don't mind, do you?" and proceeded to silence). You finger your cloth napkin under the table and you are determined not to stare at Atobe, or anything really, but you would wish he would say something. Why would he bring you to a fancy restaurant in the first place?

When the sushi comes out, Atobe does not touch his chopsticks, but proceed to complement them silently. You can't help but scowl, as the minutes go by, that Atobe has no desire to eat them. He reaches out to hold his own chopsticks, and chooses a tuna. Atobe's faint interest in watching you eat makes you all the more rebellious as you stare back at him. It's pretty ridiculous, the way to glare at him all the while your mouth full of sushi.

Then, Atobe laughs and shakes his head. He picks up his own chopsticks.

18.

During the course of the meal, you forget about the question of why Atobe would ever bring you here. The sushi was good, Atobe was quiet, and the silence was blissful. You eat and eat and eat until you feel like puking, and Atobe fiddles with the chopsticks until you have finished. When the meal is over you see Atobe motioning over a waiter and paying the meal. You don't comment on it and proceed to dab your mouth with the corners of your napkin.

"I thought you were the one starving," you finally manage to say, when you are out of the restaurant and into the chilly night air. You shiver a bit; you left your blazer in the club locker rooms, and your arms are starting to get goosebumps.

"Apparently not as much as you," Atobe says, taking off his own blazer and throwing it over to you. You catch it out of reflex and when you do, you scowl. "The car's this way," Atobe continues, not even bothering to look at you as you defiantly refuse to wear the Hyotei crest, "How about that match you so adamantly wanted last night?"

So it was about tennis, you think. Somehow, it leaves a bitter feeling and you don't care to analyze why.

19.

It starts out innocently enough: a match, a racket, lights to illuminate the darkness.

It does not end in quite the same note.

20.

You don't know why this match would be any different. You've played him multiple times for the past month, the ease of rallying, the leisure of losing. You were content with letting the ball roll lazily across the other side of the net, and you even enjoyed Atobe's face as he struggled to keep his temper under control. This amused you, the constant playing of a game you had nothing left in.

But something changes. You don't know what. You are suddenly hit with a strong flashback of junior high, when you were young and foolish, maybe even more foolish than you are now, and somehow you are reminded of hard concrete courts, the blazing sun, 116-117. Maybe it has to do with the hair. Maybe it is the eyes. You realize something and it hits you hard.

Atobe never uses the Ice World.

Your racket grip tightens as you think the bitter thought he's not as going as hard as he's made out to be, and the next thought was, so am I. Did you want to?

You remember many things in your ideals of junior high, but you forget that there is one thing you missed, and it is the tension and elation of thinking you could win and make others submit to you. You wonder if you miss that, sometimes.

Your grip slacks and tightens at the right moment, and the ball drives into a corner. Atobe misses it.

You can't help but grin as Atobe turns over to look at you. His face mimics your face, a smug satisfaction that you haven't felt in a long time. Sweat is running over your face, but you don't care, as long as this match doesn't end. Atobe picks up the ball and begins to serve again. His eyes haven't left you, and you feel elated, almost hysterical.

God help you, tennis was something that always came too easily.

21.

Your hands touch.

His grip is firm and sure, and possible not the childlike barbs that you two have exchanged more than two years ago. You feel his hard palm against yours and on impulse, you would have said Monkey King, how about another round? But no, you will not; your stamina is gone, and by the looks of Atobe, he is in no way better. But he still has a face of—content? Satisfaction? You briefly wonder if he will raise your hand high above the air, just like he did with Tezuka. The thought makes you laugh a little.

"What's so funny?" Atobe looks at you, looking amused and irritated at the same time. You just shake your head and laugh a breathless laugh.

The kiss takes you completely by surprise.

22.

You could take a leaf out of Inui's notebook and note that high adrenalines and hormones mixed together with the long endurance of tennis made Atobe lean over at you and kiss you. But the gentle kiss is in no way associated with the high blood pumping near your veins. His kiss is not desperate nor is it awkward. It's there one moment; gone the next. In the end, you wonder if that would have been a dream, but you see the closeness of those eyes and stifle back a deep breath you've been holding.

"What—" you begin to say, but Atobe is already walking over to the bench, his face not turning to look back at you, or looking at you in any way. He grabs his bag and with just a careless wave over his back, he is gone.

You are left there standing on the courts alone, your lips tingling, your hand unsteady, your breath uneasy.

23.

Atobe doesn't appear for the next few days.

You grit your teeth and tell yourself you don't care, and play against Momo, Kaidou, and even Fuji. You glare at anyone who asks about Atobe, and play as twice as hard. Endurance, you think grimly, and you play and practice until your limbs are shaking.

"Echizen, you should rest," Oishi chimes gently, but you nod and turn back to the courts to play up another match.

It is only when the world grows dizzy and then black that you realize you had let Atobe get to you. You sit up and blink, the regulars crowding over you, someone trying to give back your racket but someone else preventing it, another voice saying, "Echizen, you should go home for the day, you'll get sick at this rate—" and you don't complain of that opinion, just nod prettily and think darkly that someone was going to pay.

You pack your things without a word, your legs still wobbly, and shake your head at Momo's offer of a ride home. You grab a cab and cringe of the high price. Someone was going to pay for that too.

"To Hyotei High, please," you say.

24.

Atobe is there, shouting orders at presumably first years, all high and imperial. He doesn't notice you approaching him, but someone else does—a redhead, someone whose name you can't bother to remember—and shouts at him. "Hey Atobe! It's the Seigaku brat!"

He turns his head at you and sees you stepping over all the bleachers with your knees shaking. It's not very dignified, you have to admit, but the look on his face almost makes up for it. "You," he starts, but then he quickly shakes his head a little and composes himself. Too late, you've already seen the surprise on his face and…what would that be? Nervousness? "Practice isn't over until five," he informs you and turns back to survey the non-regulars again. He doesn't pay the slightest attention to you even as you climb down the last few steps of the bleachers and sit next to him, your legs still shaking, but damn if you let him know that. Instead, you watch the first-years swinging their rackets and have a sense of confused amusement. You could have been them, and you could have done that. Thoughts that you never would have harbored as a cocky middle school freshman, but you feel, if not older, maybe a bit more thoughtful.

He finally looks at you, but even then he doesn't meet your eyes, but choose to note the shaking of your legs instead. "Practicing hard, have we?" he comments, and you almost, almost want to raise a finger at him. But you refrain: this is his territory, this is his realm, and you're not cruel enough to stoop as low as Atobe and crush whatever respect he had here. Even if Atobe had suddenly burst into your tranquil life and took everything (gave it back?) from what you've known.

But you do not expect an ice pack to be thrown at you, and you catch it somewhat by surprise. You stare at the ice pack dumbly, until a huff is heard and a hand is guiding the pack towards your legs. "Stay there and be good," the order is imperious, and Atobe is soon heading towards the first years without another word.

You sit there with the ice pack and observe.

25.

Ever the patient one, you sit and see how Atobe uses the players; he seems to know how every member functions in his game of chess, and you suddenly wonder, if this—you, him, tennis—is all another part of his elaborate game of chess. Like Nanjiroh. The thought angers you, but not enough to get up and walk away. You see the fine curve of his back and his elegant fingers, his hair sparkling in the sun—

You laugh inside your head.

You wait patiently until practice ends, and then when Atobe takes leave, not towards the clubhouse but the main school buildings, you follow. He doesn't look back to see if you will; his strides are fast and big, and you have to jog to keep up. You scowl but don't comment on how the Monkey King can be such a child sometimes. He turns and twists towards the wide hallways, and Hyotei's hallways are huge; you barely look at anything but Atobe's back.

At last he stops at a huge door, and you slow down, a few feet away from him. He doesn't look at you but opens the door, expecting you to follow in. You still feel that dull anger stirring inside you; what does he think he is, ordering you around, expecting you'd follow him? But you are also intrigued, so you glare at the door for good measure before opening the door yourself.

It seems to be an office of sorts, with wide oak desks lining the side walls, and comfortable armchairs and sofas. But this was a school—and then you realize wryly, this was Atobe's school. Of course he would have his own office, that rich pompous bastard.

You close the door behind you. Atobe still hasn't turned around.

"What do you want?" he asks, not looking at you; his voice is flat and dry, not at all the situation you played out in your head. All you can do it gap at him. You feel like a fool.

The kiss, asshole. A few nights ago, when you fucking kissed me.

You can't open your mouth to retort back, or even do any of the familiar snide remarks you are used to making around him. You open your mouth to say something or the other, but what you say is completely different from the answer you wanted to convey. "Match," you say, and your voice is also flat, "Let's have a match."

Atobe laughs, but his laugh isn't something you want to hear. "You haven't changed," he says, and when he does finally turn to look at you, his eyes are hard and unreadable. "You act like you've changed from the twelve year old brat you were, but no. You're still as tennis-oriented as ever."

You see yourself back then, and you see yourself now, standing in Atobe'e office, hearing his biting words.

"No," you hear yourself say coldly, "The twelve-year-old me wouldn't have followed you here, idiot."

Atobe shrugs, as if your words aren't very important. He looks bored and dismissive, when it was he who led you here, and you had followed like a blind idiot, thinking that he would give you an explanation for the things you had agonized over—

When you make move to leave though, you take a closer look and see that Atobe's eyes are not flat, but guarded. He's watching your every move like a hawk. The twelve-year-old you wouldn't have known that; you would have just left, slamming the door behind you for good measure.

You take a step towards Atobe instead. When he doesn't move, you close the remaining distance and press your lips against his.

26.

The second kiss is desperate.

Atobe doesn't react at first, his mouth frozen and his lips cold against your own. Just when you think you've made a mistake and try to back off, his hands hold your shoulders and leans towards you. His mouth opens, and your tongue slips in accidently, and you are overwhelmed with a taste of mint. You wonder how you taste like.

Then your thoughts are swirled, because Atobe is probing, his mouth launched onto yours, his hands digging your shoulder blades, his feet moving towards the sofa and dragging you along with it. You make a small sound, but he doesn't seem to hear, his hands now stroking your hair and caressing your neck.

Burns, you think dazedly, and your hands reach out to hold Atobe's hair too; his hair is soft and silky, and you grasp a handful and you adjust your angle for Atobe to have better access. You don't stop even to breathe, so when Atobe finally stops and lets go, you feel like you will suffocate. You gasp for air.

Atobe's cheeks are flushed and his eyes are hazy. The sun is setting behind him; the rays almost make him look inhuman.

You meet his eyes and you're staring at him for the longest time.

It's Atobe who breaks the contact and chuckles. "Well, well," he says, but he wouldn't say any more.

His fingers linger on your cheek.

27.

It's shocking how carefully he touches you.

You still play tennis with him. He still snarks and goads and mocks. But there are the differences. His touches are longer, his eyes linger, and his lips move softly. He brushes your hand when it isn't necessary, and when you show even a desire to reach out, it is he who grasps you by the wrist and gently touch his lips against your knuckles.

Ridiculously you feel like a girl, but that makes you happy.

"What are you smirking about?" he murmurs in your hair, and you jolt out of your trail of thoughts and shake your head. You tilt your head up to meet those eyes that remind you of the ocean. He kisses you softly, again and again, when no one is looking, and you let him, your kisses all butterfly and clandestine. When you shift to feel his body pressed up against yours, he moves a bit back, and he laughs quietly at your scowl.

"Patience," he whispers, and dives in for a deep kiss this time.

In public you two never hold hands. You walk together, awkwardly side by side, or he comes by with his limo, hidden from view, waiting by the corner of the Seigaku gates when practice is over. Only when the door is closed does he take you in his arms and touches your forehead gently with his own, his hands coming up to smoothen your hair. You inhale, exhale. You grasp the front of his blazer.

You open your mouth to say his name, but at that moment, an image whizzes past you; brown hair, glasses, his mouth, his words.

Your hold on those clothes grows tighter.

"Echi—" Atobe starts, but you take the lead and seal those lips.

28.

You grab his hands and stare at it, transfixed. His hands are so beautiful, so elegant—he must have played the piano at one point—you open your mouth to ask, but now isn't really the time and frankly you don't really care just at this moment. You press against him and he presses back, his hips digging your own against the wall and you think, with a terrorized glee of a child's of getting a brand-new toy. Mine. He's entirely mine.

"What are you looking at?" he whispers, amused, and you just shake your head. You don't need to tell him this; his ego is big as it is.

He places little kisses alongside your neck, all butterfly and no teeth, and you arch your neck to grant better access. Your fingers dig against his sides and your legs coil in a vice around his torso and you think horrible things that you shouldn't be thinking but you do anyway. You grind your hips against his. He groans and his mouth seeks yours, and you oblige, opening your mouth and allowing your tongue to twist with his own, lips mashing together in a horribly awkward manner. His is hard against you, and his touches are barely controlled, but you're so amused at how calm, how placid he still is, about how he would treat you so willingly.

This, Tezuka couldn't have. And something inside you crow at that so loudly that it scares you. It is maniac laughter that rings your ears and you can't hear anything but that laugh.

29.

Tennis is still suffocating.

But, but. You wish that you could close your eyes and imagine a time when you loved it.

30.

"Tezuka didn't really like captaincy, you know," Atobe remarks to you one day. You're lazily tossing a ball against your racket; the words make you stop.

"What makes you say that?" you shoot back, not really serious.

Atobe shrugs, wiping his face on a towel while he gave out the façade of not caring where this conversation was going. You know better now; either his words all led to narcissist glories or a certain point.

"No one really likes to sacrifice everything for a team." Atobe gives out a little smirk and shrugs. "Tezuka isn't that exception. You glorify your captain too much."

"I don't," you counter a little too sharply. You throw the ball to Atobe half-heartedly and he catches it easily.

"You do," he says, still smirking, "He was willing to sacrifice his arm for Seigaku and for you—" here he looks into your eyes for a brief moment, and you're started by how bitter he looks before he turns away "—but in the end, he was just as selfish as the rest of us."

"At least he was willing to," you say a bit uncertainly, your racket loose and dangling.

"Willing," Atobe echoes, and then shakes his head, gives out a sharp laugh.

He doesn't get to his point.

31.

He kisses desperately.

You would have thought, with all his good looks and suave ways of speaking and his material wealth, that he would have landed the entire Hyotei population in his bed, and broken a few hearts after. But if he did, he doesn't have the skills to show it.

His probing drowns you and when you open his mouth to let him in, he grasps the sides of your head and doesn't let go, even if you want air. He pins you to the wall, the bed, the fence, almost as if you'll sneak past him and walk away.

"Oww," you hiss one day, when one of the fence posts has gotten loose and you're scratched by the jutting wire, "Wait, stop, stop."

Atobe just shoves you where the fence is smooth and proceeds to kiss you alongside your neck. You gasp and arch against him. That doesn't make the scab go away.

Later, as he hands you some ointment and bandage, you tell him bluntly, "You don't need to do that."

"Do what?" he raises an eyebrow.

Kiss as if I'll disappear. You shake your head and try to come up with coherent words. "Just….shove me up against a random wall," you say, and cringe inwardly. "It's not as if I'll go anywhere," you hasten to add.

He looks at you for a split second, and turns away. You still see his small twist of the lips that is too sharp and dry to be a smirk. "I thought you liked it rough," he replies, and doesn't answer to the second part of your question.

32.

When you were first made captain, Kaidou was the only one who understood.

"It's not easy," he had said to you when he handed you the clubroom's keys, "Being captain. Living in his shadow." He hesitates, and adds, "I don't know if giving up the US Open was the right decision for you, Echizen."

"I made it," you had said, and shrugged. You did not want it because your father had wanted it, so very much.

Kaidou looked into your eyes, and it was one of those rare times when the other boy was willing to say what was on his mind. "And you'll regret it," he said.

Now, when you sometimes pass by him during practice, he gives you a look, and quickly turns away, but he knows and you know.

33.

One of those Hyotei visits, you meet Jiroh.

You raise an eyebrow when you see him bubbly and eager for a match, at how his moves are irregular yet big, how he seems to love tennis.

Love, was that the right word?

He smiles and laughs and hits the ball every time, and when his turn is up he flashes a huge smile at Atobe and—the strangest part yet—Atobe gives him back a small smile. The blond boy then proceeds to head up to the bleachers and take a nap.

Atobe, in all the times you had known him, never learned to smile.

The nagging feeling inside you is annoying. You squash it down and look at the other matches unfolding before you.

34.

That night, you pretend you're asleep in Atobe's bed after a match and some kissing.

Atobe tries to wake you, but you try to even your breath out as you indulge in your (fake) sleeping, and in the end he gives up when even tickling doesn't work (you hold back the laughter as his slim fingers linger over your bare torso, his movements shift and slow, his fingers tracing back a small red welt from earlier times). He sighs and moves, walks out of the room to make a phone call, returns, throw a blanket over you. He dims out all the lights except the bedside one, and slides in bed next to you. His fingers stroke you hair for a brief second, then pauses.

"I know you're awake," he accuses, a faint disdain and amusement tone all rolled in one.

You drop the fake act immediately and crack open an eye. "I was," you say, a small smirk adorning your face, "but you work me up."

He rolls his eyes. "Please, I'm fairly confident by now that as captain, I'd know a fake nap from a real one."

"Hmmm?" You tilt your head in all innocence. "Are you saying that you molest people while they're trying to sleep?"

"I wasn't—"he stops and frowns. Your smirk grows wider.

He looks eerie against the lamplight. His face glows, his eyes gleam, and his lips don't move. You feel the need to asset something—anything—to prove that he's here, real. Your mouth goes dry as you think you feel the way he feels. This isn't how things are supposed to work. You're only there to indulge his ideas of grandeur and ideals.

You unclasp your belt and hook your fingers in your jeans. He looks at you, then at your jeans, and back at your again. His face is suddenly unreadable. Gone is the jest and mockery.

"What are you doing?" he asks flatly, as you toss your belt onto the floor. You meet his eyes and will yourself not to look scared.

"Something," you say, and it comes out as a small murmur, as you shift your way towards Atobe, your tongue darting out to lick your lips. He watches you, doesn't move. His silk pajamas still clothe him.

"You should," you straddle him, but he doesn't move to wrap his arms around you, "take this off." You lean closer and bite his ear, nibbling small kisses and fingering the smooth material.

He inhales a sharp breath. Finally, a response. "You don't," he says, and it seems to come out in anger, although for what, you don't know.

"I don't what?" Your hands side down the silk, revealing his bare shoulders. His skin is pale and perfect. Like a canvas, you touch him and scratch a small line. It leaves a pink trace.

He doesn't reply, but he also doesn't stop you.

When you kiss him, his lips feel cold.

"We need lotion for this," he says when you part. His eyes are still blank and his hands are still limp.

35.

It hurts but you don't scream.

You bite your lips until you could taste blood, and you turn your face away so you won't meet his eyes. His face is buried in the crook of your neck anyhow, and the bedroom is only filled with the sounds of skin against skin, an occasional grunt from him and no sound from you.

When he comes, you don't feel it, because suddenly you're so tired, and you close your eyes and let yourself be shielded by darkness.

36.

Morning comes and he's gone, a robe by the bedside and no note.

You want to laugh or sleep again or maybe even cry. But you're too tired to do any of the above and besides, your back hurts. So you groggily wear the robe and head towards the showers. You can't walk.

As water engulfs you, you can't help but think you wished Atobe would smile at you, sometimes. Someday.

37.

When you come out, he's suddenly there with a rolling cart of breakfast tray. He glances at you as you blink stupidly and open your mouth to try to say something. Nothing comes out.

"You didn't think I had the same manners as you when it came to guests, did you?" he says with a raised eyebrow.

Last night is not mentioned.

38.

You don't go to Hyotei anymore. You let Atobe come.

39.

The letters never come anymore, but sometimes they do, mostly because the name Echizen is still enough to cause a small stir amongst the people who once knew.

Another letter comes, this time from Australia.

You stare at the letter and the same words, but this is not the same country. It's not America.

"Ho! That's strange," your father remarks in passing, craning to see the letter, and suddenly a suspicion grows inside you. "Australia, eh? You never set foot in that part of the world before!"

"Dad…." You say before you think, and the letter feels hard and heavy.

He looks at you then, and turns away immediately. He was never the one to keep secrets. He signed you up, and the rotted anger you stored away grows fresh again. You tear the letter in half.

Your father looks at the letter, and then at you. His eyes hold a tint of nostalgia; you don't translate that to sadness.

These days, it seems as you can never make anyone happy.

40.

You call off sick to Atobe and curl up in your bed.

An hour later he comes up to your room.

"God," you mutter, covering yourself with your covers before he can even begin to start, "I see you every fucking day of the week. I need some time alone, you know."

"When you're alone, you have this tendency to mope," he points out, as he closes the door. You wonder if your mother would later ask about his relationship with Atobe, and your head hurts from just thinking about it. "Like now."

"I told you I was sick," you mutter.

"And I chose not to believe you. Clever of me," he replies easily, and sits on your bed. He yanks the cover away from you and you scowl at him in greeting.

"Your father told me about the Australian Open," he says, and you freeze.

"When did you and my dad grow chummy?" you bite out, but your voice holds too many emotions to pass it off as casual. Atobe notices.

"He means well," he says. You narrow your eyes and hate him.

"Did you come all the way here to lecture me about obligations?" you snap, and try to tug the covers away from him. He rolls his eyes and doesn't let go of your sheets.

"Stop acting like a kid. I said he meant well. It doesn't mean that he's right."

He's not Tezuka. You don't know how many times he has to show you to convince yourself. You stop trying to immerse yourself in a cocoon and look down at your hands.

He sighs and reaches for your hand. When you look up, his face is softer. "Come on," he says, and stands up. "I'll take you out for sushi."

41.

It's not until much later, your stomach full and the lights dim when you get caught up in the moment.

"You're not so bad, you know," you say. It sounds unromantic and trite, and Atobe would know that by now. You wouldn't spend so much time with him otherwise.

"Considering I almost emptied my allowance on your choice of cuisines, I would hope so," he says dryly, but when you look at him in the dark, it's not the face that you remember from the bedside. It's readable, and the feelings you read off doesn't scare you as much as you thought it would. Your hand reaches out for his. He gives it easily.

When he meets your eyes, his lips curve up. It's not a smile, but his eyes are warm. You close your eyes and allow him to kiss you.

42.

Days later, your father gets drunk.

"My my," your mother remarks dryly, as he staggers around the living room, singing off-key, "At times like this, your father must have seen his future of debauchery when he brought this house. At least there are no neighbors to complain." She sighs and looks at you, sneaks a little smile. "I think I'll be heading off to bed," she says, and pats you on the shoulder. "Have a heart-to-heart with him, dear." When you open your mouth in indignation, she gives out a little laugh and kisses your forehead. "He does love you," she says softly, "He just doesn't know how to show it."

You stare at her retreating back and then back at your father. He doesn't spot you yet.

You sigh and detach yourself from the shadows of your house.

"Dad," you begin, and he sees you now, and his face spouts a stupid grin.

"Oi, boy!" he sings, and he quickly staggers over to your side and loops an arm around you. You cringe. He smells of sake.

"Pour a cup for your old man, eh?" he says and steers you to the kitchen. "And have some for yourself while you're at it."

"I'm underage, dad," you say stonily, as he plops into a chair and grins at you.

"Tsk, tsk, so uptight," he mocks, and pours you a cup anyhow, "There now! Drink up!"

You sigh and taste the thick liquid. You still have some Japanese manners in you not to refuse and indulge a drunken elder.

43.

Two cups later (for your father, five), you feel dizzy and light. Your father is singing an old Beatles song, and you're tipsy enough to hum along with him. You suddenly miss Atobe.

"You know," your father suddenly says, "I always wanted a kid." He's not looking at you as he says this.

"You have me," you point out dryly, still wry in your drunken state. You're glad you're not alcohol-tolerant. "I'm sure I counted as a kid."

His father gives out a small chuckle. "I had you," he agrees and takes another swing of the bottle (sometime during their encounter, he opted for the bottle than the cup) "And then I had tennis."

Your throat constricts. "Dad," you begin uncertainly.

He shakes his head and waves a hand at you. "No, no, wait," he says loudly, "I had you and I had tennis. And I felt I couldn't have both of them all at once, because you were a baby who consumed every waking moment I had and tennis was….tennis." He gives out a small burp and rakes his hair with his fingers. "So I chose. One day, I hoped that I could have both again."

Does your father blame you for not sacrificing like he did?

"Dad," you say, louder, but your father doesn't even seem to hear you now. His eyes grow sadder.

"But I was young, and I thought….I thought," he pauses and give out a sharp laugh. It's unlike your father. "My god, I don't know what I thought. That you would like the damn sport if I brainwashed you hard enough?"

Your hands are clammy and cold. Your father doesn't seem to know that you're there, and his eyes grow morose and bitter as his plays with his last bottle of sake.

"You were so good at it, even better when I was your age, and I got greedy….and then," he pauses and notices you again. He gives out a small smile. "And then, there was that trophy. Remember that? Your fourth win in that junior championship. Constructive four wins, boy."

You can't speak now. You just nod.

Cameras, media, the press. Labels of prodigy and genius. Behind that, a shadow of something that your father once was.

"Those reporters," he chuckles, shaking his head, "Always wanting to pull at the public heartstrings. I still remember your face boy when they compared me to you. You were a little kid then, and your victory became mine. God, that should have been my first warning. But no, I decided that a new change in a new country would change you. And it did. Or at least, I thought it did. That brown-haired captain of yours did a fine job."

Brown hair, brown eyes, thin lips. Words and callous hands. Promises.

"But now…." He spreads out his hands, and laughs brokenly. "Now, I don't know. I don't know why I just didn't choose to make you happy."

Your father is asking for your forgiveness. He is not asking for gratitude at throwing away his fame and glory and history, and you are glad, for you can never give him that. But this, you can.

Once, you liked tennis. Loved, even. Before the courts became muddled with expectations and promises and shadows and pretenses.

"Dad," you say, and your voice is still even though your eyes sting. "Dad, you're drunk. Go to bed."

Your dad looks at you imploringly. "Do you hate me for it, Ryoma?" he says, and it's one of those rare times when he calls you by your name. The air is still and mystic, and you feel safe in telling the truth.

You offer him a wry smile. "I don't," you say honestly, and your breath smells of alcohol and you stagger when you stand but you still manage to get your father up the stairs to your parents' bedroom. He snores through the journey and will forgot all this come morning.

You go back to your room and lay back on your bed. You can't sleep.

44.

"What," Atobe says irritatingly after the fourth ring, "is it with you and calling at abnormal hours in the night?"

You lean against the windowsill and look out. The night sky has no stars and you feel sentimental in the wake of your first alcohol consumption. "I'm drunk," you inform him.

Atobe pauses on the other end for a minute, and you have to smile as you try to imagine his face. "Am I supposed to react to this?" he finally ventures out, still irritated and sleepy enough to act snappish, "So you had your first taste of adulthood. Congratulations. Can I go back to bed now?"

"I bet you had yours at seven," you shoot back easily, and you let your legs dangle in the empty air as you sit dangerously against the window ledge.

"Ten, actually," he says after a brief pause. His voice sounds stiff.

You let out a dry laugh. "You're such a prude," you say, and swing your legs back and forth, "You could hang up, if you want. I won't even remember this tomorrow."

"I'm sure you won't," Atobe agrees easily, but you don't hear the click on the other end, and it makes you relax. "Although, I'm fairly curious, what made you decide suddenly go down this particular road of deprivation? You are an athlete, you know."

"My dad dragged me into it," you say, and roll your eyes, "I thought your nagging would sound more tolerable when I'm drunk, but no. It's still annoying."

"I'm glad to hear that," Atobe snipes, "That's the point, you know."

You smirk and don't answer. The crickets are chirping near you.

"Echizen?" Atobe says after a moment. "Please tell me you haven't passed out on me."

You are about to say maybe I did, just to spite him, but the words that rush out of your mouth are entirely different. "I'm sorry the sex was so bad," you say, and as soon as you say it you cringe.

You are never drinking again.

There is complete silence on the other line and you think now would be a good time to hang up, but a minute later, a small sigh and some rustling can be heard. Atobe seems to have moved out of his bed. "It wasn't….bad," Atobe finally says, and his voice is weary. "And even if it was, it's not even your fault. But you didn't like it."

"I didn't," you agree quietly, and your cheeks grow warm. You grip the phone tighter.

"And it wasn't exactly how I imagined it either," he continues, with the same tired tone, "But you were…adamant about it." A small pause. "Care to elaborate why?"

Brown eyes, brown hair. Replaced by blond hair and full smiles returned with a small one. "No," you say, a bit too quickly.

"I thought not." It's a heavy sigh this time, marked with a more pronounced tiredness. "I'm tired, and I need to wake up for practice tomorrow. You should sleep."

You feel miserable. You want him to understand. "I should," you say quietly, and you want to pull him to your room, hold him, keep him. You hang up instead.

45.

One day, you feign illness and skip practice, just to creep into Hyotei and watch from afar. You see his golden hair and laughter, his carefree swing. His exclamation of success. Look, look! Atobe, see that serve! I bet even Fuji-kun wouldn't be able to return it! I'm sure he will, Jiroh, he is a genius after all, comes back the wry reply. Yet his lips are soft and unguarded, and he calls the boy Jiroh.

His laughter grows joyful, and you envy him. But that serve was awesome, right? Yes, it was, I suppose. His hand resting on those soft locks.

46.

Three days until the matches with Hyotei. You don't meet Atobe and he doesn't call you.

47.

"Akutagawa?" you echo, and you scan the list again. "Akutagawa Jiroh?"

Oishi hums and coughs. It's a weird mixture of in-between. "Strange, I know," he says and laughs a little, "But, you remember him, right? The volley played who played Fuji once."

Oh, you remember him. You bite your lip.

"We're trying to win before Atobe comes into play," Oishi says, and shrugs helplessly. "Since Hyotei is strong in both doubles and singles….and well, frankly, there's no one who could win Atobe, except Fuji or you."

But now? Your skills have rotted away, only Oishi was too kind to remark upon that. You raise an eyebrow and nod. Oishi smiles and pats your shoulders.

48.

You practice like a madman immersed in his play.

You feel the need to crush this blonde. Ball after ball, you hit and serve and hit faster. Harder. You play your father and hit the ball like you can kill. Your father plays you, but he is quiet, as if he knows the hatred behind every ball you hit across. His eyes are shut and he doesn't even tease. But he indulges you.

You hit five balls, ten balls at a time. Your father hits them all back.

The Pinnacle of Great Wisdom is unlocked and you even master the Pinnacle of Destruction. But the Pinnacle of Perfection is long gone.

You don't even try to earn it back.

49.

When the matches begin, your singles is the first up. Akutagawa is standing before you in human form, his hair gleaming in the sun. "Echizen!" he smiles at you, all cheers and no teeth. "I always wanted to play you!"

You don't try to smile back. Instead you see Atobe, lounging in the bench across from your team. It's been two weeks since you have spoken to him, but he's not looking in your direction.

"Atobe told me about your techniques," the other boy continues, unfazed by your silence, "So don't think you'll win that easily." He smiles, a bit knowingly, or is that just your imagination?

You shrug indifferently and head towards the end of the court. It's his serve.

He throws the ball and uses Atobe's signature serve.

50.

The Tannhauser.

You freeze as the ball swishes past you and the other boy's crow of "Atobe, Atobe! I did it!" and your blank look as you watch the ball land to a graceful stop. You don't even bother to try to return the ball as he scores the first point and the Hyotei crowds go wild, chanting the winner and the loser. Oh, this feeling of nostalgia.

"Jiroh!Jiroh!Jiroh!"

"Echizen," Oishi says as you stagger back to your bench as the referee calls for a change of courts, "Are you okay?" You sense his worry but also a small, very small tone of disapproval. He knows that you're playing out there and not giving your best.

Momoshiro is more forthcoming, leaning against the bleachers and frowning at you. "Echizen, this isn't like you," he says, and you want to laugh. What is it, you want to ask, that is me? But you just shrug and observe causally, "I'm still going to win."

And you are. You had won by sheer will alone to Yukimura, and this Jiroh wasn't the Child of God. Not even close.

When it's your time to serve, you take a deep breath and serve. You unleash the Pinnacle of Destruction.

Funny, that you would copy a technique from a person who had said, years back, that you were only an replica of all the great tennis players of that decade.

The cheers are cut off abruptly as your serve slices in, and the other boy is left gaping, his eyes wide. But his eyes soon gleam again, and he smile grows even wider.

"Awesome!" he exclaims, "You're even better than Atobe said you were!"

He will smile, you think, but not for long.

51.

Yukimura had once presented you with fear of the sport you once loved. But you had won, because back then, not only had you loved tennis, but the potential of what tennis could offer you. If you played him now, you are sure that you would lose.

You make Akutagawa lose his senses, one by one. How easy, how vain, how cruel.

Atobe's eyes grow colder with each move you make.

52.

In the end, he loses, in the middle of the court, blind and deaf and unmoving.

"6-1! Won by Echizen!"

There is no cheering, not even from Seigaku. Both sides are left dumb and quiet. It's Atobe who snaps his fingers and the chanting grows, hesitant, again. But it is not Kabaji who escorts Akutagawa out of the court. It is Atobe himself.

You stand there as he walks over towards the limp blonde, and lifts him up. Carries him as if Jiroh is made of something precious and fragile. He walks away without meeting your eyes.

You tell yourself you don't care.

53.

After the matches, when Hyotei wins but Seigaku still is in the run for Nationals, Atobe calls you.

"My driver will pick you up," he says, and hangs up before you can even say yes. You're tired and you want a bath.

When the car comes and drops you off, it's his house and his courts. His rules.

He's leaning by one of his courts, composed and cold (he never broke a sweat with his match against Kaidou, how far he's come). When he sees you, he narrows his eyes.

"I didn't know you've decided to enroll into Rikkai," he says coolly, "Seeing that you've decided to emulate their captains."

It's a war he wants, but by now you don't know why. At first you think it's Jiroh, and then you think it's Tezuka, and then you think it's Hyotei. Now, none.

You shrug lightly. "Their winning strategy works," you say.

"Really now," Atobe drawls, "I didn't know you were such an advocate of winning. You should have tried harder when you played against me all those times." Each word, sharper and sharper as he eases himself off the fence, walks towards you with precise, brittle steps.

"If this is about Akutagawa-san," you begin, and then you shake your head. "No, of course this is about him. What the hell do you want me to say?" You feel angry and hurt and empty. You don't want to think that Akutagawa is stashed inside one of Atobe's many rooms up there, sleeping in soft cotton sheets with warm tea.

"Oh, I don't know," Atobe mocks, lightly and coldly, "How about admitting that what you did was childish and barbaric? Perhaps for once in you self-delusional life."

"That's rich coming from you," you say, just as mocking and cold, "Remember Tezuka-buchou's arm? Who ruined that?" His grey eyes grow darker and his steps freeze. "No, even the Ice World," you sneer, unable to contain the ugly feelings inside you, "You're not higher than Yukimura and you don't play any fairer. The Ice World makes your opponents freeze and you splinter them off. Who are you to lecture me about tennis related shit?"

He is frozen to the ground but that doesn't leak the coldness out of his eyes.

"I didn't teach you how to play tennis," he says steadily, "And neither did Yukimura. Tezuka did."

You give out a sharp laugh. "Does that mean sacrificing my limbs for victory?"

"You take out all the wrong lessons from your captain," he snaps, "It means that you should at least harbor some self-righteousness like Tezuka wanted you to. You could have won without Yukimura's or Sanada's moves. I didn't think you moving out of Tezuka's shadows would mean attaching yourself to another player's."

You think to their match. And then you think to the before.

You're not even close to Tezuka's level, he had sneered. You had sneered back, does it matter? He had laughed, shook you off. Even offered his hair as a consolation prize, so sure that he would win and you would lose.

Why you thought he was better than the rest of them, you don't remember. He's just the same, no better than Sanada who had jeered at you, a mere projection of all the brilliance this era had to offer.

"Tezuka," you begin, and it's so strange to say his name without his title, "didn't have self-righteousness. He had self-masochistic tendencies."

"Do you think he wanted to let his arm rot?" Atobe inquires, and his laughter grows louder and colder. "You're more idiotic than I thought you were."

"Of course not," you try to interject sharply, because that wasn't the point at all, really, but Atobe isn't finished.

"Did you think Tezuka was stupid when he let me destroy his arm? No, he did it for the team, and later, he did the same with Sanada, only that time, he did it for you—"

Atobe stands in front of you now; he grabs your arm and holds it tightly, an ugly sneer twisting his features as he leans in, his eyes cold and deploring.

"Poor Tezuka," he sneers, "Wasting his future and potential on a self-decimating kid."

You yank back hard, but Atobe doesn't let go. His fingers curl around your arm and it hurts. "I never asked him to," you whisper harshly.

"I know," Atobe says, still in mockery and scorn, "That's why it's so hard to like you."

It had started with you destroying Akutagawa, yet it ends in Tezuka. It always does.

54.

You don't talk to Atobe for another few days, and you don't visit Akutagawa to the hospital. You don't feel the need to and no one suggests otherwise.

When Akutagawa is released from the hospital, it is only then Atobe calls you. "You are such a stubborn brat," he informs you acidly, "I don't know why I was ever interested in you."

"For my self-destructive tennis skills, apparently," you quip back sharply, tossing a tennis ball against your bedroom wall back and forth, "Are you done being an asshole?"

"Are you done being a child?"

"No," you say, and hang up.

55.

A week later you meet Atobe in the street courts, just when you have demolished possibly everyone around you. You have the courts to yourself.

"Strange that I'd meet you here," he remarks, noting the other player glancing at you in unmasked terror and fleeing. You bounce the ball back and forth, opting to ignore him.

He walks in front of you and grips your chin. He tilts it up sharply to meet his own eyes. You scowl. "Don't' play coy," you say rudely, but don't try to slap away his hand, "As if you haven't asked Oishi-buchou where I was."

"Actually, it was Fuji," Atobe says dryly, "Although, yes, you did make a close guess." His glance flits back to where the player who had fled a moment ago had been. "What have you been doing to the players? Not that I'm against it, but they won't be holding a racket anytime soon."

"Winning," you say and roll your eyes. "Remember winning?"

He sighs and releases your chin. "I didn't find you here to start another argument," he says.

"Oh, right," you say, crossing your arms. "You came to hear my apology."

"Apology?" Atobe feigns shock. "I didn't know you were capable of that, Echizen."

You glare at him. "I'm sorry for treating Akutagawa-san like crap," you snap and turn back to collect your tennis bag. "Now leave me alone."

"That wasn't an apology," he says, and grabs your arm so you're facing him again, "That's throwing a bone and expecting me to get lost."

"Great observation, Sherlock," you mutter and sigh. You're tired and worn, and seeing Atobe isn't helping anything.

"Play a match with me," he says, and when you snap up to look at him, his face is blank. "And play seriously."

56.

For the first time, he brings out the Ice World.

You grit your teeth and think so this is how it's going to be. He plays you like an enemy to be demolished, his features icy and cold, his movements sharp and fluid, his Insight honed to perfection. You use the Zone and he breaks it. You achieve the Wisdom and he slashes through your expectations. You finally narrow your eyes and use Destruction.

His tennis is aggressive and long. His strength has always been held in stamina and mentality, and he likes to torture his opponents with sheer will. His tennis slashes and cuts.

You remember Yukimura, you remember Atobe three years ago.

His tennis is beautiful. But like beauty, it's shattering.

You win in the end. But you win with the Zero-Shiki.

57.

You laugh brokenly when the game ends; you last serve a reminiscent of Tezuka and his influence in your life. Atobe doesn't even try to return the ball, he's worn and panting. His legs stagger as he approaches the net.

"So you can still play," he says with a small smirk, but that fades when he sees you.

What does he see? What do you feel?

"You were right," you say, and maybe it's the sheer exhaustion taking over you, maybe it's the heat, or maybe it's just him. "You were right, Sanada was right, the whole fucking middle school circuit was right."

"Echizen," Atobe starts, but you snap at him.

"God, just, shut up. Isn't this what you wanted to hear? I win by imitating people. I win by making people lose their future. I win by sucking off other people like a fucking parasite. So you've proved your point. What the hell do you want me to do?"

Your twist serve from your father, your Zone from his captain, your Perfection from a legacy. Nothing is yours. Nothing ever has been.

He stares at you, quiet. His eyes look pained. "Ryoma," he says. It's the first time he calls you by your given name. You suddenly feel like the child he claimed you to be, and you're drained, you want him gone.

You walk away and he doesn't follow.

58.

Your resignation form. Ten different times you write it, and all of them pile on your desk.

59.

The last person you expect to see in your doorstep is the Hyotei genius.

"Atobe is depressed," Oshitari informs you bluntly, "And it's weighing down on the team's morale."

You try to open your mouth to retort something, but all you feel like is a gaping fish.

Oshitari sighs and gestures with his hands. "If I may?" he inquires politely, and you lead him into your house.

When he sits in your kitchen and you offer him water, he accepts it and doesn't give you pleasantries. "Atobe is a bit of a dolt when it comes to relationships," he says, as he takes a small sip of his water, "So he really doesn't know what's going on in that head of yours. You'll have to bang it into his head."

"I don't have anything to say to him," you say testily.

Oshitari gives out a little knowing smirk and leans back in his chair. "Really?" he drawls out. "So, completely and utterly defeating Jiroh was due to your humane evilness?"

You scowl. He shrugs and gives out a little chuckle.

"Atobe still doesn't know about that," he remarks, "So I think it's best if you tell him in person. Because he does like you. He wouldn't be moping otherwise."

"So why doesn't he come himself?" you ask before you can help it. Oshitari raises his eyebrows and looks up at the ceiling.

"Well, he does have his pride. And considering how you've smashed his olive branch at every opportunity….." he trails off and looks at you.

You snort. "I would rather he mope and Hyotei lose the Nationals," you say, but you head out of the kitchen to change.

Oshitari laughs. "I'm sure you're not that cruel," he says.

60.

You don't meet Akutagawa's eyes when you march over to the clubhouse.

"Here," Oshitari steers you to the front door and swipes a card (a card?) to let you in. "Make up, and tell Atobe that he doesn't need to bother with practice." He shoots you a little smirk and you roll your eyes.

The door swishes open and you step in, hesitantly. You were never the one to initiate a peace treaty.

Atobe is there, on the sofa and staring off into space. He doesn't even notice you.

You cough a little, and he startles, his eyes zooming to you and blinking. "Echizen," he says dumbly, and a second later his eyes are distant and guarded. "What do you want?"

You shrug, and walk closer to him. When he also resumes his silence, you heave a sigh and stuff your hands into your pockets. "For you to stop acting like a martyr. You have a team to lead."

His lips thin. "Oshitari sent you here, didn't he."

"I didn't have to come," you remind him, and sit down next to him. "And who has a sofa in a clubhouse anyhow?"

"People who can afford them," Atobe says, but his bark is lacking. You lean back and feel the texture.

"98% Italian leather and 2% English wool?" you inquire, and when Atobe looks at you in confusion, you smirk a little. "People don't date you without knowing that, you know."

"I'm honored," Atobe says flatly, "That my company is used to know what material is consisted in furniture."

"Imported furniture," you say, and your smirk grows wider.

Atobe's lips curve up, but he quickly refrains before it leads to a smirk of his own. "Why are you here?" he asks instead.

You shrug and look down at your feet. You don't like admitting your feelings or being wrong. "You have a team to lead," you repeat stupidly, and waves a hand before Atobe could open his mouth to say something he would regret. "Wait, that came out wrong."

He stays silent, observing. You kick your feet back and forth. You choose your words carefully this time. "You're right, I'm sorry for acting like twelve," you say, and you don't look at Atobe when you say this, "But I don't like being reminded of Tezuka, and you tend to do that." You exclude Akutagawa out of it. He's not as important as Tezuka.

"I didn't mean to," Atobe says, after a brief pause. You still don't look at him, but you feel his hand brushing yours. "But if I did, I'm sorry."

You suck in a small breath and allow yourself a small laugh. "Well, that was fast," you say, and when you look at him, your heart stops.

He gives you a small smile. "It was," he agrees, but all you can see are his lips, curving softly.

61.

When Atobe visits your house the next time, your resignations are still sitting there. You curse inwardly as he assess over them, his eyes unmoving.

When he turns to you, he doesn't mention them, but his hands brush your cheek and your lips.

62.

You understand that by now, the sole reason you obsess over Atobe is because he is willing to be yours. That scares you.

You become bolder, defter. You press him against the wall, leaving trails of laughter and hysterical gayness all masked with cool indifference. He doesn't stop you, only encourages you, laughing softly (mockingly?) as he too, shoves you inside bathrooms and hallways, unbuckling your pants and going down.

You gasp and grasp his hair and arch back. You head bangs against the wall and you see stars.

63.

Your team bonds up with Hyotei for training matches before the Nationals. After some spiteful matches and feigned hostility, someone produces bottles and bottles of alcohol out of their luggage.

"You all have matches tomorrow!" Oishi interjects feebly, but no one heeds the notice.

Atobe smirks and leans back. He doesn't refuse the vodka they brought.

This is where they are all now, sitting down in a circle and drinking, playing games and dares.

"This drinking game has turned gay," Shishido mutters as he takes another swig of his drink. "Who plays dares with guys? Lame."

Oshitari shrugs as he smiles knowingly and clinks glasses with Mukahi. Such class, you would have mocked, but you are on your fourth glass by now and feel out of bounds. Oishi notices and frowns.

"Echizen, are you sure you're alright?" You wave a hand vaguely.

"I forgot, we have a baby amongst us," Mukahi mocks cruelly reaching out to pat your head roughly. You scowl at him.

"Mukahi, play nice," Atobe says, but doesn't look at you. Akutagawa is sitting next to him (of course he would, you think darkly) and he's on his third glass, not that you were counting. He seems tipsy and cheery, blabbing all over the place. You wish he would shut up.

"I always play nice," Mukahi snorts and looks at you rudely. "It's him that plays dirty."

You roll your eyes and smirk, cold and hard. "I learned from the best," you reply sweetly, and you make sure to look hard at Atobe when you say this. God, you were being stupid and you two have just made amends, but Akutagawa is annoying and leaning all over Atobe and you feel cheated.

Atobe, strangely enough, returns your cold stare with his own, and raises a glass in mock toast to you.

"Atoooobbbbeee," Akutagawa whines, and the moment is gone. "Atoooobbbe, I want another glass!"

"You had too much, Jiroh," Atobe says, not unkindly. You bite your tongue and drain down another shot of vodka

"Echizen, slow down," Oishi whispers, worried, handing you a glass of water. You take it, and look into your current captain's soft eyes, kind mouth. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," you say clearly, and even manage a small smile. "Thanks, Oishi-buchou."

He returns the smile, surprised, and pats your shoulder.

You see Atobe narrow his eyes out of the corner of your eyes. His hand moves in to hold Akutagawa—dear Jiroh—closer.

You want to throw up. You mutter bathroom, and Oishi frowns in thought and points down to a hallway.

You stand up, stagger a bit, and resume balance. Everyone is too far gone to take notice, but Momoshiro, who was next to you, take your wrist and laughs. "Whoa, hold on, Echizen," he says, searching your eyes, "You sure you can go alone?"

"He's not a kid," Atobe says mildly, but even in your hazy state, you detect a faint anger, "I'm sure he can find his way on his own."

You let your lips curve. "Actually, this lounge is huge," you drawl out innocently, not shaking off Momoshiro's grip, "I really don't know where anything is."

Momoshiro blinks, you never ask for assistance for anything, but he soon recovers and stands up as well, a feign of annoyance on his features. "You can't do anything by yourself, you can't," he jokes, and proceeds to lead the way. Or tries to.

Atobe is faster.

64.

His grip on your other arm is harder and tighter than Momoshiro's. You blink dumbly and Momoshiro stares at him too.

"Atobe-san?" Momoshiro says, but Atobe ignores him and glares at you.

The room is a tone quieter. Even Mukahi is looking at the three of you, standing in a room full of boys sitting down and getting wasted.

"Atobe?" This time it's Akutagawa, and Atobe reacts to that, looking past you and at him. His gaze does not soften though.

"I'll take the kid," he says coldly to Momoshiro, "You don't know the hallways of this house either."

Oh yes, you forgot. This is Atobe's summer mansion. Everything is his.

You try to shake off his grip but he only twists your arm tighter. You suppress a wince.

"I could go on my own," you tell him rebelliously, and by this time Momoshiro is suddenly uncertain of this tension that's enwrapping them both.

"Really?" Atobe says, amicably enough that it's mockery, pure and cold, "And just a minute ago you played dumb. Why don't you make up your mind about it?"

"Atobe," Oshitari interrupts, "Sit down. You're drunk."

"I'm not," Atobe snaps coldly, his eyes still on you. His glance moves to Momoshiro. "Sit down," he orders, and Momoshiro lets go of your arm slowly, the warmth lingering on your skin, "I'll take the boy."

Your cheeks pale and your heat falls. You hate that condescending tone.

"I could find the way," you say, even louder, and you match his glare with your own. "Let go."

"Atobe," Akutagawa says again, and god, wouldn't that blonde just shut up.

Atobe looks over at Akutagawa again, and this time he acknowledges the other boy. "Kabaji, make sure that Jiroh doesn't drink another shot," he says. Your wrist that he's holding is numb and cold.

"And you," he says, looking at you. His gaze scares you for the first time. "I'll show you the way."

He drags you, with a tint of madness in his eyes.

65.

As soon as you both are out of sight, you resist actively, dragging your feet and causing the scene you wanted to cause. "I said I'm fine," you hiss, kicking at Atobe's fast strides.

"I'm sure you are," Atobe says, his voice a soft whisper, and every pace, every syllable he spits out is too calm that it unnerves you. He doesn't let go of your wrist and it hurts, but he doesn't look back to see the pain etched on your face.

Atobe shoves you into the bathroom, and you stumble inside, cursing as you try to find balance by grasping to the sink at the last moment. He locks the door behind him and does not turn on the lights. Only the moonlight from the window illuminates his face.

He stands behind the door, five steps apart. You grip the edges of the sink tighter. His eyes are still calm, and a haunted smirk is pasted in his face.

This small room, him, you.

"Well?" Atobe says, gesturing to the air around him, "You were fixated on finding the restroom. You're here, aren't you?"

You scowl. "I can't throw up if you're in here too," you snap, but you don't move towards him. He laughs.

"Why not? Embarrassed?"

"Maybe some people just have manners," you say, but stop as Atobe advances towards you, still smirking. Your fear grows. Why, you don't know.

"You seemed to be holding your liquor pretty well through the night," he taunts, a step apart from you now, "Why waste it all now?"

You're not in your right mind to be playing this game of jabs, and neither, you note from his crazed eyes and crooked smirk, is Atobe. He's not composed at all, now that you see him up close.

"Go back to your teammates," you say, more steadily than the past few minutes. You try to regain the small sanity you have left.

He laughs harshly. It echoes around the small room as he suddenly grabs you, pushes away your black hair from your face and kisses you.

66.

You still feel like puking. His breath that reeks of vodka does not help, and you make a small sound as you try to kick him, and succeed by grabbing his arms and squeezing tightly. He curses and releases you, his eyes still not sane, but at least he's backed off. His bottom lip is torn.

You heave small, raspy breaths to control your vile, but Atobe notices and his smirk grows wider. Why was he doing this? You wonder. If anyone had a right to act like this it was you, but no, Atobe was enjoying this, relishing in your misery.

You can't contain it anymore and so you surge to the toilet. You fall down and grip the edge of the seat and wretch.

He watches impassively as you throw up the contents of your dinner.

67.

As you flush your vile and try to stand up, he presses you down and leans against you. His weight is heavy and suffocating. You try to slap him off; he pins your hand back and twists it so that you cry out.

You see nauseated and weak. You feel like twelve. This generation always makes you feel like this. Atobe Keigo makes you feel like this.

He unbuckles your pants and bites your neck sharply. You close your eyes as he kicks your legs apart in your kneeling state.

A knock sounds. Momoshiro's voice is heard. "Echizen? You okay?" Even in his slur, he sounds worried. How did he find his way from there to here?

"Such caring teammates you have," Atobe hisses in your ear. You ignore him and your hands are limp as you don't struggle.

"I'm fine, senpai," you say in a normal voice, and suppress a sound as Atobe's soft laughter rings on your skin.

If Atobe wanted to destroy you and humiliate you, he succeeded marvelously. You would give him a standing ovation if you could. Momoshiro's footsteps are gone, and Atobe's hands reach out to turn on the facet.

"For sensible ears that happen to pass by," he says, and turns you over so that you're facing his eyes now, icy blue eyes and cold hands. You feel like a rag doll. The water is running.

You don't want this. You miss the soft hands and the wry face he makes.

"Keigo," you say, and the first time you say his name, it sounds broken and jaded and young. Your world seems to be ending in his grasp.

He stops.

68.

His hands are gone from your body. You don't know how you look in his eyes, but he blinks once, twice and suddenly his eyes look pained, then sad. He looks miserable and just as young and foolish as you feel now. You almost want to reach out to him, but now you're drained and shivering and scared.

"Fuck," he says quietly, but more to himself than to you. His eyes regain cognition.

You are leaning against a toilet and he is kneeling between your legs and your pants are half undone. You feel your eyes glazing. He tries to reach for you, then pauses. You realize you flinched away from him by instinct. His eyes grow sadder.

"Fuck," he says again, and that's all you remember that night.

69.

You feel weak and cold the next day.

"You should skip practice," someone says, and you think it might be Oishi. You don't answer as you sleep the day off, snuggled in the warm covers stuffed with cotton and imported wool.

Later, you feel a cool hand touch you, and you flinch, but why, you don't know. The pressure is soon gone.

"Ryoma," you hear someone say, and it sounds morose, miserable. Tortured.

70.

When you wake up later, Atobe is sitting by your bedside and there's a tray of dinner besides you. He's looking out the window lost in thoughts, but snaps his attention to you as you stir awake.

"You had a fever," he begins uncertainly.

"Genius proclamation," you reply dryly. Your head hurts and the sight of food makes your stomach stir. "Food makes me sick," you say, and wave a hand at the tray, hoping it'd magically go away.

"You should eat something," Atobe says, more subdued than yesterday. To give him credit, you are pretty sure he's suffering a severe hangover too, the way his eyes are bloodshot, but now is not the time to be making observations.

"And look how that went well yesterday," you say cruelly, just to see Atobe bite his lips and look away, "No thank you."

A maid comes by and takes away the tray.

You two sit in silence after that.

71.

You avoid Atobe, ignoring his looks until he ceases to see you at all.

"You should talk to him," Oshitari says in passing when you're picking up balls. You stand up, a sharp retort at the tip of your tongue before Oshitari hastens to add, "Not that I'm saying Atobe is in the right. He's not. But the way you two are acting like two Romeos in denial is sickening, even for my tastes."

You give him a deadpanned look and throw a tennis ball at him in thanks.

There are still two days of this training bullshit.

72.

When you enter his bedchambers to talk like the civilized adult you are, he's not alone.

Akutagawa is there on his bed, fluffing up the pillows and beaming. Atobe is not exactly smiling, but he never had. He doesn't look annoyed, or he doesn't look at Akutagawa like he's a kid.

Your throat constricts.

Akutagawa is the first to see you, and his eyes grow wide. "Echizen!" he says, and Atobe snaps up his head to look at you. He looks surprised.

"Echizen," he says, but by that time you turn away.

73.

Night-time, last day of this horrid bonding. Everyone gets drunk again.

You're not stupid nor are you oblivious. You sense Momoshiro searching you, looking to see why you're so stiff and flat.

"Echizen?" he inquires, and waves a hand in front of you. "Oi, Echizen."

"Ryoma," you snap, and immediately regret it. This is America taking over your brain, with causal formalities and surnames awkward. Or no, it's just your plans.

Atobe doesn't hear and he doesn't look.

Momoshiro blinks, and nods stupidly. "Uh-huh. Ryoma," he repeats.

He's drunk than the last time and you use that to your advantage. Atobe made you like this.

"You're drunk, Momo-senpai," you say to him, almost kindly, and brushes your hand to his. You make sure that it's blatant, so that clever Atobe wouldn't miss it. He doesn't, but Oshitari notices as well and gives out a little frown. Momoshiro grabs your hand and looks at you strangely.

"Urgh! Oi, get a room, you two!" Mukahi jeers; mostly in jest (because he's drunk and besides, you're pretty sure that he's fucking the sullen Hyotei second year), but you laugh in a shrill notch and stand up.

Momoshiro follows.

74.

You lick your lips and straddle him, your moan low and your breath hot. He stills below you, his hands shaking as he carefully touches your hips and caress it softly. His knees are hard, and as you squirm, you feel his heartbeat fast and irregular, and you would feel amused, if only guilt is not consuming you. You heave a breath and whisper something in his ear, and he gasps, his hands now shaking so hard that you feel they would shake you along with it.

"Ryoma," he says, almost pleadingly, "Ryoma, are you sure?"

Oh, such a question. You want to say no and push him away. Instead you smile at him, because it's so easy to do things you never mean these days. "I'm sure, Momo-senpai," you whisper, and you think of hate and Atobe when you come. He rubs against you and you're sure that he wouldn't remember this in the morning, but still.

You make sure the door is open and that blue-grey eyes will be watching, every move and every kiss and every thrust you're making. The thought makes you ecstatic.

75.

You meet after the first match of Nationals.

Atobe doesn't bother with the pleasantries, grabbing your wrist as soon as he sees you and slamming you against the nearest wall, secluded from view and isolated. You have no time to blink before his mouth is upon yours. The past repeats itself for you.

You bite him hard and you taste blood, but he doesn't let go, his fingers digging deeper into your arms, and he kisses you until you can't breathe. His breath is labored, his eyes cold, and his hand reaches out to unbuckle your pants, no kisses, no caresses, no pauses.

You growl, and scramble to claw him, wanting to tear those eyes out. Why does he bring out the worst in you? You spit at him. He yanks your hair and strands float in the air before descending. You kick him. His hands grasp your throat.

"You," he snarls, his voice dangerous and low and so not the calm bastard you know him as. You are reminded of a drunken night and crazed eyes.

You might bring out the worst in him too.

Hypocrite, you want to snap, Instead you turn to him, your eyes ablaze and you return the same cold voice and says the words that he's not willing to say. "You," you repeat in a low voice, your lips brushing against his ear, "You slut."

He pushes away from you then, his breath still not controlled. He is so beautiful, you think, and you ache to think it. So beautiful and not yours. He pins you down with his glare and you return it just as coldly, your hands still squeezing, hungry for blood. You wish you could pluck out one of his eyes and see how a calm sea-blue color could turn grey and stormy the next. You want blood pouring out and splattering that pale face.

"You don't get to say that," he hisses, his hand still holding you tight, "You, of all people—"

You wish you could preserve those eyes, make them see you and only you. Not Tezuka, not Jirou. "Jiroh," you whisper, and you make it hard that it doesn't choke out of your mouth. Atobe's eyes grow wide, and you feel satisfied in a victory that you wish you lost. "Jiroh, Jiroh, Jiroh—mmmpphhh!"

He crushes your mouth this time, and it feels like he's trying to force that name back in. You try to bite again but this time he quickly moves on to your neck, muttering "Fuck, fuck, fuck—"and—was that his voice sounding pleased? You narrow your eyes and try again in vain to hurt him.

"You," Atobe breathes suddenly into his ear, his tone suddenly quiet and none of the hate from earlier, "Are impossible." And he unzips the rest of your pants and slides a finger in before you could ask what that could ever possibly mean.

You scream but he covers your mouth.

76.

Later, Atobe comments wearily, "So, Oshitari was right after all."

You don't acknowledge him as you wince and stand up. You pull on your pants and ignore the way Atobe is sitting undignified on the concrete ground, his own pants unbuckled and his shirt unbuttoned.

He studies you for a moment and says in a tired tone, "Are we really not going to talk about this?"

"About what?" you retort rudely.

"This. Us."

"No," you snap, and add for good measure, "There is nothing to talk about."

"Really," he says, "Because I like you and you like me and we both tend to get maniacally possessive."

It's the first time he even remotely mentions something that makes sense. You turn around and narrow your eyes.

"Before you openly protest denial," Atobe continues, sensing your itch to curse at him, "You wouldn't have jeopardized your friendship with Momoshiro like that. You should be glad he was so drunk."

"Well, well," you sneer, "Guess who inspired me."

He gives you a pained smile. Then a sigh. "There is nothing between Jiroh and me. He's just…."

"Fanboying over you?" you snap, and he cringes.

"Don't call him that," he says, rolling his eyes, "he's a good player."

"I've noticed," you say coldly, plucking out unwanted memories.

Atobe sighs again, but he doesn't pick another fight. He stands up and composes his clothing and himself while you look away.

"I'm sorry," he says, quietly, and you look at him again, "For the other night."

You want to make a sharp jab at that, but Atobe looks miserable and tired as it is. His hair is disheveled and he looks pathetic.

You can't help but laugh, but this time, it lacks any bite. "Yeah, well," you shrug, and wait another second.

He touches his hair and makes a face. "And for this, I suppose. Although it is partly your fault."

"Is not," you say, but step closer to him and rest your forehead against his. After you step on his shoes. He cringes but doesn't comment on that.

77.

You go to Hyotei in a long time.

You make sure your hickeys are visible as you wait impatiently for Atobe, aloof on top of the bleachers. You soon see Atobe giving out the orders and Akutagawa happily slinging one arm around Atobe's own. You stare for a moment and look somewhere else. He quickly spots you and walks over, Akutagawa in tow. You bring yourself not to care as you plaster a smirk and don't bother getting up from the bleachers.

"I thought you had practice today," Atobe says, and you could hear a tint of amusement in his voice. You shrug and look coolly at him, nonchalant your key name. You pretend you don't see Akutagawa there, his eyes resting on your neck and the red marks littering your skin. Akutagawa for his part remains silent but does not look away. You don't want him to. You meet his eyes instead and hide a smirk.

Atobe is the perfect nonchalant boyfriend as he leads you inside the student council's office and tells you to wait for him there until practice ends. It's only after everyone has gone and everything was empty and void of human existence that you launch on to him and dig his perfect skin with your fingernails. It will leave a mark, you think, as Atobe grimaces. He doesn't push you off though.

You lean closer and closer to him until your noses are touching, and it is here you say the word you wanted to say.

"Mine." It is not a suggestion; it is an order.

Atobe's smirk is a slow curling of his lips as his hand snakes its way to your head and closes that small gap you two have. His kiss is probing and drowning as he imprints the promise inside your mouth. "Yours."

78.

"Who knew you were so boring," you drawl out, sitting on his lap, placing kisses on the side of his neck. He tilts back his head and makes a sound before comprehending what you just said.

"What?"

"You. You're boring." You dig deeper with your legs and he groans. His hands skim your sides under your shirt and you stifle a sigh.

"What is it with you and insults in bed?" Atobe mutters with no bite, leaning up to kiss you. "If I didn't know any better, I would say you get off them."

"Mmmm. Maybe," you murmur, "But it's true. We play tennis and then we do this."

"You're calling this boring?" And he does something with his hands that makes your eyes close and your back arch. You feel his smirk on your neck.

"Yes," you still manage to say, even when he's laughing softly, "It's still boring, and—stop laughing, asshole."

79.

When he says your name the second time, it's not as broken and wilting as the first, but it still holds the world.

It slips out, and as soon as he says it, his eyes are instantly guarded and closed.

You realize for the first time, that he's afraid.

Your lips lift involuntarily, but your mind is conscious when you reply back in half-jest. "Keigo."

His eyes soften and the ice dissolves. His lips curve.

You would like to think that you're both growing up.

80.

One day, you hide in the bushes and watch.

Akutagawa joins you.

"Hi," he says softly and you give a sharp jump.

"Shit," you snap, and then have a second look. "Akutagawa-san," you say uncertainly. He gives you a small grin and a wave. "Yup," he says happily.

You narrow your eyes but soon turn back to watch between the leaves. Atobe is playing.

"You don't have to hide, you know," Akutagawa points out, crouching in the dirt with you, "Atobe would be reeeeaaaaally happy if you came."

"He'll be thrilled," you reply dryly.

Akutagawa laughs softly and huddles closer to you. "But he will!" he exclaims softly, "Even if he doesn't show it. He has that look when you come over."

"Funny, he just looks as annoying as any day," you quip, and sigh. "Why are you here, Akutagawa-san?"

He gives a sheepish grin which you don't return.

"Well," he starts and you detect less cheeriness from before, "I suppose I came to apologize."

You raise an eyebrow. "There's nothing to apologize for. If anything, I should." When there's a pause, you add in awkwardly, "How's your tennis?"

"It's good," he assures you quickly with a bright smile, and turns away, "But, you were right when you had your suspicions. I maaaay have had a little crush on Atobe and flaunted it."

"You may have," you repeat flatly. Were you really having this conversation?

"Well, I did," he laughs again, more sheepish, and quickly amends, "But you know, Atobe never liked me. He liked you from the start and I'm just a teammate."

"Akutagawa-san," you say tiredly, "It really doesn't matter. I don't feel like having this talk."

But Akutagawa shakes his head determinedly. "You were right in being angry for some things," he says, more quietly, "But, you know. Atobe was never a part of it."

Atobe wins, he glows in the sunlight. Akutagawa and you both watch him and hear those cheers.

"He's really amazing," Akutagawa says softly, and looks at you. His eyes look a bit sad.

Your lips lift up. "He is," you agree. You look at Akutagawa and accept the olive branch he offers you. "I'm sorry for that match," you say, and his smile becomes brighter.

81.

"You know," you start off, and stop. His bed is warm and his hand is soft, stroking your hair unconsciously. You're sleepy and comfortable and you won't be getting up anytime soon.

"Hmm? Atobe murmurs. He's still half-asleep, his eyes closed and his breath even. His silk kimono slithers against your fingers as you touch it. You make a face but you like the smoothness.

"If I quit tennis, would you still like me?" you wonder aloud, and poke him. "Oi, this is important."

Atobe groans and mutters something under his breath. You poke him again. "Keigo," you say, and it's pleasant how the name rolls off your tongue these days. "Keigo," you try again and another poke.

"God," Atobe snaps half-heartedly and grabs your hand, "I would like you better if you stop waking me up at ungodly hours of the night."

"It's only three," you say and roll your eyes.

He cracks open an eye and glares. You stare back innocently.

"You ask inane questions that really don't do wonders for your intellect," he tells you flatly, and flicks your forehead. You stick out your tongue.

"You still haven't answered my question," you point out stubbornly, and Atobe sighs loudly.

"If I liked you solely for your poor lack of tennis skills that I surpass ("You do not," you object), I'm sure that Tezuka would have been the better choice. Yukimura, even, if I was more a masochist," he says, and turns away from you. You give out a small yelp as his arm is gone from under your head. "And before you bask in awe and sentiment at my forced declarations of affection, I really don't care why or how you like me. Let me sleep."

You scowl at him. "I still hate you," you mutter, but he doesn't reply to that, only a small snort of laughter.

82.

He once looked at you as if his world was ending and you felt elated that you had that power.

Now, you are not so sure.

83.

The next time he has you pinned to his bed, you hand him a lotion.

He freezes and searches your eyes. "Are you sure?" He says softly, a whisper. You two have done everything but.

You hum and pinch his arm that's enclosing you. "If you have poor moves like last time I won't be," you say and he rolls his eyes.

"Trust you to break the moment," he says but his lips are soft, his hands are warm.

84.

Your mundane world was too good to last.

Tezuka comes to Japan.

85.

"Tezuka!" Oishi exclaims, happy and excited like the rest of them. You freeze, try to smile. Try to say.

Tezuka hasn't changed; he is still as you remember him: stoic and calm, warm and strict.

"Oishi," he replies and nods at the Seigaku regulars. When he looks at you, he is surprised. "Echizen," he says, and you know what he's thinking. Of your second year and promises, of becoming pro.

You try to say something. "Tezuka-buchou," you say, and it sounds horrible.

He offers a small smile, hesitant. Is there disappointment? You really don't know.

By the end of practice and a team cheer of the match tomorrow, Tezuka hands you a ball. "Street courts. Do you remember where?" he asks.

You look at the ball and him. "You're a pro now, buchou," you try to joke and fail. "I won't stand a chance."

Tezuka's lips twitch a little. "Modesty doesn't suit you," he says, and his hands are warm where he touches you.

86.

"So," Atobe says later on the phone that day, "I heard Tezuka was back."

"Mmm," you say, leaning back against your bed. You stare at the ball he's given you.

There's silence on the other line and Atobe ventures out, "What did he want?"

"Nothing," you say, surprised that there would be something, "Tennis. School." You sit up and try to think. "Is he supposed to want something?"

An exasperated sign can be heard. "Ryoma," Atobe says, trying to have patience and failing, "Tezuka once sacrificed his entire pro career for you. Surely that would mean something."

You scowl. "He wanted the Nationals," you say sullenly.

"Nationals or a future Wimbledon," Atobe says dryly, "You know, some people have priorities."

When you're silent, Atobe sighs again. "Just don't be surprised, is all," he says, and he's sharp when it comes to other people, only slow when it comes to himself and you.

You snort. "Tezuka-buchou isn't made to surprise people," you inform him.

My, my, how wrong you were.

87.

When you play against Tezuka, you play your best because you don't want to insult your former captain. Or at least that's what you tell yourself.

His tennis is beautiful. But it's not like Atobe's. It's too perfect for you to want to have; you don't want it and you don't need it.

Your grasp your racket tighter and feel like the stubborn and bitchy American Tezuka trained once.

Become, be. Have it all.

With Tezuka, you feel less than perfect, and you hate yourself for it.

88.

"I still can't beat you," you say to him ruefully after, a small smirk on your face. He studies you and a smile flickers over his face. It's amazing how such a small twitch can light up his face.

"You've changed your tennis," he replies, and his grip is firm and sure as he touches you. You laugh aloud. The sun is setting. At least you've made him fight for his win, for he is sweating and his breath is very uneven.

"Maybe you've changed, buchou," you say. He looks at you once more, his smile not yet quite gone but still, fading.

"I thought I did," he says in his quiet self, "Now, not so much."

It is after he is gone and you stare at his back that you understand what Atobe tried to tell you.

You press your numbers in your cell unconsciously, and ten minutes later, a black Bentley comes to pick you up.

89.

"I can't believe you didn't know," Atobe says disbelievingly. You stop eating your soup and shoot him an evil glare that doesn't faze him.

"No, I mean really," he continues, polishing his oysters and muttering, "Tezuka couldn't have been more obvious. He threw out a limb for you, literally. He waited for you and offered his arm to Sanada."

"You're making me feel stupid as I already feel," you snap, "Stop it."

Atobe tsks. "Poor Tezuka," he says, "Pining for years over a clueless brat."

You kick him from under the table.

90.

When Tezuka leaves again, gone, Atobe lets you go to see him off, but it is you who stay in bed.

"You need closure," he says, but doesn't say anything more.

You shift and turn to look at him. He holds your gaze.

"I just need sleep," you murmur, and closes your eyes as his hands wrap around your own.

Someday you will forget, but it will not be today. No, you may have grown, but not that much.

91.

When you think in your head, Keigo, and feel comfortable with it, there comes colleges and open worlds.

You realize how far you've come when you grudge Keigo for sticking to Japan.

"You have England," you snipe, "And your posh, snobbery accent to go with it."

He frowns and stays quiet.

He plays the world at his fingertips, and you know that is one of the things you had always loved about him.

Love. Do you love him?

92.

There was a time when you had a choice.

"It's the US Open or the Nationals, kid," your father had drawled out, his eyes speculating, assessing over you, "It's not a very hard choice to make."

The letter in your hand had remained steady, your eyes downcast. The fine print that read your name had no legacy with you and bore no history. You could have become a world star then, had you grasped that hand, had nodded and signed your name in that luxurious restaurant not your world. You could have conquered the world earlier than Tezuka, because Tezuka was still training for pro at that time in Germany, when you, an aspiring star in your second year of middle school had an advantage over him: age.

But that victory would not be your own; it would have been your father's, twenty years ago, when he sacrificed everything for you and you alone. He had forsaken the world for you, and you had never thanked him for it.

Would Keigo hate you for it then, when you would ask the same thing from him?

His letter of acceptance to Oxford, Trinity Collge should not be a surprise to you. He was the heir to the core of Japan's economy and one of the richest heirs in the world. If not by merit, he would have gone by money, building an entire college devoted to his name. But Keigo would not have done so, because he believed in dignity more than anything. Your throat tightens.

Would you be selfish for the sake of your happiness by blocking Keigo's?

He looks over at you, his coffee cup still. He has not looked at the letter once, but only at you, just like you had always liked it, but now it was suffocating, despairing.

How you had loved those eyes. Once you had imagined yanking those eyes out and holding them in a jar, where the blood would preserve the glass and the blue-grey irises would float besides your bedside.

But that was not your integrity, nor would that be your answer. Once it would have been, surely.

Your voice does not tighten—hell, it will not tighten—as you try to find your answer. Would it be the world or your life?

"You should go," you say, and you know that is not the answer that Keigo would have wanted to hear. You could see it just by the way Keigo's eyes narrow and his lips thin. But his face is still blank, not conveying anything, pale and white as paper. You wish he would feel something and show it.

Stay, Please stay, for me.

No, you will never say that, because in the end, that choice Tezuka forced on you has made you miserable and you had hated Tezuka for it.

"You do realize," Kegio says stiffly, and you think how angry he might sound, had it been any other person but Keigo, "That this isn't just a block from the world? It's another country."

Your hands tighten under the table.

"I know," you say steadily; the things you have learned from him, oh how he would grit to think of it now, your calm face.

"It's three years. Possible four." His voice gets sharper with every word.

"Yes."

"I won't have time during vacations, because my father—" here Keigo's voice stills, and when it continues, he is struggling to keep it under control, "—would want me to travel to conferences with me, which I wouldn't be doing if—"

If I stayed here. With you.

This seems so trivial. You want to laugh. It was a long-distance relationship that every relationship goes through. But with Keigo comes obligations, engagements, other formal relationships. Perhaps he might even fall in love again elsewhere. Perhaps their own relationship would break, twist, fade. In Japan, you could control him. He would still owe you, and you him.

You look at him in the eyes and do not back down. "I don't want you to blame me," you say quietly, and that means everything to you. You wonder if Keigo realizes that. Because your life had consisted of twisted hatred and obsession over everything you could not reach, and you could have done things.

You know why you had chosen Nationals over the US Open, just like you know why your father had chosen you over the world. Feelings, love, possession. Something that you thought could be yours and yours alone. When you had obsessed over Nationals, you were met with demolition until you destroyed yourself.

There is only silence from him, and you do not open your eyes yet.

"That's…..that's pretentious," his voice echoes disbelievingly, "That's downright arrogant of you to—" He draws up a sharp breath and says more sharply, "Is this about Tezuka again?"

"Everything is about Tezuka," you say just as sharply, your eyes opening and meeting his own.

"I would never—"he starts and then stops. "I would never blame you for the things I never wanted in the first place," he tries again, but now his voice is more subdued. He knows what you are thinking, and he knows how alike you two had once been.

You shrug lightly. "You want the world, Keigo," you say simply, "And I want the Keigo who wants that ambition."

He stares at you, quiet. You don't try to break the silence; it would be up to him. And you both know the answer that he would be choosing.

"You won't wait for me." He states that as a fact: dry and hard and terrible.

You smirk wryly. "I won't."

"But you'll play tennis?" This time he is matching your own wry smirk.

You can't help it; you laugh. "I will," you say, and that is the best you can give him. It's your commitment to his.

He heaves a sigh. "Well then," he says, and extends a hand to you. Those hands you had loved and held and caressed and kissed and shunned. Slim, elegant fingers. You take it and slide your palm against his.

"Come find me in Wimbledon," he murmurs, and it will be his oath.

He does not say love but his eyes tell something else.

93.

You do not wish him farewell. You stand inside the airport, looking past the window and see him get into his private jet, Akutagawa holding Keigo's arm one more time, Keigo tousling his blond locks. You watch impassively and cross your arms. Once you would have clawed at him. How far you have come.

When Keigo looks up, you know that he can't see you, hidden in the third floor of the airport glass-pane windows, but you like to think he can.

It is strange what memories can conjure. You have a brief flash of your first meeting, and him looming over you, covering the sun, standing on those street court bleachers ten steps above you. You had always entertained the notion of someday reversing that position.

So irrelevant, and yet it brings laughter on your lips.