Crumbling

Disclaimer: I don't own Prince of Tennis.

Author's Notes: Last chapter! Wow, I'm…I feel so proud. I want to thank you guys for supporting me through writing my very first completed story that could be considered novel length. Sure, it's a very short novel length, but it still counts. *Wipes tears* I feel like I really improved near the end of the story, and I hope to continue improving. I hope the last chapter is good enough, and thanks so much for all the reviews that just lit up my day!

Warnings: Weekly-ish updates. OOC big time on Rinko.


***PLEASE READ THIS ***

I think there was a misunderstanding with some people about the last chapter. I know I stated at the end of the last chapter about the private message thing, so some people thought that was the last chapter. I was actually saying it for this final chapter beforehand. Sorry for the confusion! Anyway, I know it seemed like the last chapter, and I guess I could have left it there, but I wanted to end it with TezuRyo! My inner fangirl had to! Enjoy!

*****PLEASE READ ABOVE****


Tezuka sat by himself at the marble counter. The table farthest from the kitchen hooted with laughter and chatter – the Seigaku team being silly as usual. Ryoma was wedged between Kikumaru and Momoshiro, a smirk on his face as he told Momoshiro off. This – this was exactly what Tezuka had wanted, and his heart felt so warm when he saw Ryoma finally relaxing.

The past few days had been so hard for the younger boy – Tezuka had seen sides of him he would never have imagined seeing. He had seen the tennis rookie cry – not once, but three whole times. He had seen the vulnerable part of the ever-confident boy, the part he always managed to hide. All of it had been so stressful, and now, he could see Ryoma was finally unwinding.

Tezuka himself felt better than he had in days. Ryoma was happy – and that meant he was happy too. There were still a few things he was confused about, but the questions would be answered in time. He wanted to know why his heart thumped furiously whenever Ryoma came near him, and why he got an unexplainable desire to kiss him when they were face to face.

Sometimes, he thought about confronting Ryoma about it, but he knew he should wait. Ryoma was still fragile, and the last thing he needed was more drama in his life. Tezuka decided he would let things run normally – smoothly – and then maybe one day, when he got the courage, he would try to explain these awkward feelings to Ryoma.

"Buchou?"

Tezuka blinked. He had been stirring his coffee absentmindedly, and now, the boy occupying his mind was standing right in front of him. Ryoma chewed on a piece of sushi. His smile was bright and his bruises looked almost invisible compared to the fire in his eyes.

"Ah, yes Echizen?" Tezuka asked.

"Not Echizen," Ryoma's smile turned into a frown. "Ryoma, remember?"

"Yes. Yes, Ryoma," Tezuka let the name run smoothly off his tongue. He didn't know why he had called Ryoma by his last name again – it was probably in the moment of panic. It was hard to act casual in front of the preteen when his entire heart felt giddy.

Ryoma stared at him. "I'm done."

Tezuka took a sip. "Done what?"

"Eating sushi. And talking with my senpai-tachi."

Tezuka adjusted his glasses. He cradled the coffee closer to his chest. "I see. And? Do you want to go home?"

"No," Ryoma said. He straightened up and looked Tezuka in the eye. "Let's go for a walk."

"A walk?"

"Yeah," Ryoma pulled his cap down lower. He reached out and touched Tezuka's arm. The latter was relieved he was wearing his jersey because if Ryoma had made contact with his bare skin open, Tezuka wasn't sure if he would have been able to contain his shiver.

"Ryoma-"

"Please. Oishi-senpai and Kikumaru-senpai always do stuff together. We should too. Let's go."

Tezuka closed his mouth that had parted the slightest. He couldn't believe Ryoma was asking this – the way he said it, he made it sound like it was almost a date. Really, Tezuka had no idea why Ryoma suddenly wanted to go for a walk. They would be walking back home anyway, so it was kind of pointless. Tezuka stared at Ryoma's gold eyes, shiny and full of hope.

"Fine," Tezuka sighed. He reached out and squeezed Ryoma's hand, and warmth spread over the both of them. "But I will decide where we go."

Ryoma's eyes lit up, but he tried to conceal his excitement. All he could feel was the twist of his stomach and the brush of Tezuka's skin against his fingers.

"Okay," the small boy finally said. "Lead the way, buchou. You do that best, anyway."


Fuji could see Ryoma and Tezuka inching away towards the doors. He smirked. Haa, leaving without saying goodbye? He glanced under the table where he had rested his tennis bag. I forget why I brought my tennis rackets with me, but I wonder…The prodigy leaped out of his chair and excused himself towards where Tezuka and Ryoma were. His fist curled around the tennis bag.

"Escaping, are we?" Fuji grinned slyly. "Didn't even bother to give a farewell."

Tezuka didn't look fazed. Ryoma just smirked, one hand in his pocket.

"Well, before you both leave to do whatever you're doing," Fuji waggled his eyebrows at the end of the sentence, before he handed the tennis bag to Tezuka. "In case you get bored, or if things get awkward, tennis is always an option."

"Fuji-" Tezuka started.

"No need to thank me," Fuji said pleasantly. He nodded at Ryoma once before swiftly walking back towards the table where the rest of the regulars were seated. Tezuka sighed and and looked down at the tennis bag in his arms. He glanced at Ryoma who had a smile on his face.

"We should play a game."

"Ryoma," Tezuka said. "Weren't you just complaining about how tired you were?"

Ryoma's eyes glinted. "I'm not anymore."

"Ryoma, you're not in a healthy condition to play tenni-"

"-But I-"

"Look," Tezuka said. He wouldn't let Ryoma's stubbornness win this time. "You said I got to choose where we go. And we're not going to the courts."

"Can we just play one game?" Ryoma asked.

Tezuka narrowed his eyes and shook his head firmly. The look on his face made Ryoma swallow back his complaint. Maybe he was going too far, taking liberties with the captain. Even though they had grown closer over the past few days, he was still the buchou, and Ryoma knew he should probably just nod and obey.

But damn, I want to play tennis. How am I supposed to beat Oyaji if I miss valuable practice days like this?

"Fine," Ryoma pushed the exit door open. It was a little darker now, but oranges and deep pinks still coloured the sky. The sound of the train rushing overhead was faint in the distance. The moment they stepped into the cool air, Tezuka's hand latched onto Ryoma's.

This time, Ryoma didn't feel awkward nor annoyed. It felt so natural that he barely realized that they were holding hands, and that most boys didn't do that.

The walk was rather silent. Tezuka focused on the small fingers he was holding – admittedly, they weren't that small, but compared to his own hand, they felt tiny – and the footsteps of the boy as he kept alongside him. He could feel something bugging Ryoma – a stir of challenge, a determined goal.

"Buchou?" Ryoma looked up and Tezuka found himself staring down at nervous gold eyes.

"Yes?" the captain asked tentatively.

"I know you already said no, but can we please play tennis? Not a game even, just light rallying." When he saw Tezuka's face, Ryoma added, "Really light rallying."

There was a split second of silence and Ryoma waited to be scolded. The response that came next surprised him.

"Okay," Tezuka said quietly. "If you insist."


Tezuka suspected agreeing to Ryoma was worth it. He seemed in a considerably brighter mood, no longer grumpy, and his eyes were on fire. That was something Tezuka had truly missed – Ryoma's full eyes, lit and determined. It had been awhile since he had seen the raging storm flecked in those pupils, and Tezuka was beyond glad to see it come back. Their walk towards the street tennis courts continued to be fairly quiet. Tezuka himself knew he wasn't one to start small talk, and Ryoma tended to be pretty aloof as well, so they pretty much didn't interact.

It didn't matter. Tezuka felt content just holding Ryoma's hand.

"Am I allowed to try my twist serve?" Ryoma asked at one point.

"No."

"What about…Drive B?"

"No."

"Drive A?"

"Most definitely not."

Ryoma made a discontented noise and pulled his fingers apart from Tezuka's so he could fold his arms behind his head. His shoes brushed across the sidewalk. "When I said light rallying, I didn't mean like, really light…"

"That's what you said," Tezuka reminded him. "I agreed to really light rallying. As in, underhand serves."

Ryoma stopped for a moment, then frowned and jogged up to catch up to Tezuka. "Underhand serves? That's so lame, buchou."

"Also," Tezuka said, apparently not fazed. "You won't run around the court. You will stand in the center and I will make sure to pass the ball so that you don't have to move."

Ryoma furrowed his brow. "That's not even tennis."

Tezuka shook his head. "Of course it's tennis. It's like the Tezuka zone."

"Yeah, except I'm not doing anything except swinging the racket."

"Swinging the racket lightly."

Ryoma didn't like this, but he supposed he had no choice. He understood that Tezuka was simply being protective of his injuries – in all honestly, he was lucky the captain had agreed to any tennis at all. Ryoma himself didn't mind if they played a full out game. Even though he was sore and some parts still hurt, it was minor enough for him to just look past it and play. I want to play a real game with buchou. Not rallying.

"Here we are," Tezuka grabbed Ryoma's hand and guided him towards the empty street courts. The younger boy had a pout on his face and Tezuka sighed.

"I know you want to play a real game, but that's not going to happen."

"But why?" Ryoma tried to argue. "I'm the one who would be in pain, not you. Why do you care?"

A flame erupted in Tezuka's eyes – and Ryoma was startled to identify it as anger.

"Why do I care?" Tezuka snapped, but his voice stayed steady. "You're my teammate, my kouhai. Of course I care. Your pain is my pain."

Ryoma stared at him with wide eyes. His cheeks burned in shame.

"Sorry," he mumbled. There was a tense silence. After a short moment, Tezuka sighed and rested his hand atop Ryoma's head.

"It's okay. Just don't push yourself. I'm not letting you have a real match only because I care about your well-being. Do you understand that?"

This time, Ryoma knew better than to argue. He simply gave a little nod to show his agreement. He still felt embarrassed for getting the captain angry by asking such a stupid question. Tezuka was right - obviously Tezuka cared about his pain. He wouldn't have helped him so much if he didn't.

As they walked past the clunky fence and into the courts, Ryoma felt his thoughts dissolve into nothing as he felt a peaceful welcoming ease over him. The familiar scent of the vibrant green grass and rumpled nets beckoned him to play. He swiftly walked over to the closest side of the court to the entrance, a small smile on his face.

It had only been approximately a week since he had played tennis, but to Ryoma, it felt like it had been forever.

He was so occupied in taking in the fresh familiarity of the tennis courts against the sunset that he barely noticed Tezuka step beside him. The older boy handed him a racket.

"Here,"

Ryoma nearly grabbed the item from Tezuka's fingers, eagerness clear in his face. He let his hands slide over the grip. Tezuka watched as the boy grinned and swung his racket over his shoulder.

"Ready to play, buchou?"

Tezuka's eyes ran over Ryoma's bruises wearily. "Yes. Light rallying, remember."

Ryoma rolled his eyes. "How could I forget?"

Tezuka ignored the sarcasm dripping in his tone and took his position on the other side of the court. Ryoma angled his racket in preparation.

"Ready?" Tezuka asked.

Ryoma bent his knees and smirked. Taking that as a response, Tezuka slowly let the ball fly up into the sky. With the gentle twist of his body, the ball connected with his racket and he let a beautiful underhand sail across the net.

Ryoma stared at it in disbelief. Beautiful and painfully slow.

With a frown, the preteen hit the ball back with as much force as he possibly could. He winced as pain shot up his arm but winced even more when Tezuka returned his shot equally as slow as the previous serve. "Are you serious?" Ryoma murmured. To his dismay, the ball also came right towards him with pinpoint accuracy, so he didn't even have to move to return it.

Tezuka, on the other side, frowned at how fierce Ryoma's shots were.

"I thought I told you to take it easy?" the captain called. He tapped the ball delicately past the net. Ryoma growled in frustration.

"Too slow," he snapped back.

"This is what light rallying is," Tezuka scolded gently. He continued to hit soft, light balls, that even Horio or Ryuuzaki's granddaughter were capable of returning. He could see the frustration in Ryoma's eyes, but was even more worried about how hard the 12-year old was hitting the ball back. He looked like he was trying to provoke Tezuka into hitting harder shots.

"Ryoma," Tezuka said firmly. When the ball sailed over the net to his side, instead of hitting it with his racket, he caught it with his hand. "Stop hitting so hard. You're putting too much pressure on yourself."

"I'm not." Ryoma said. He bent his knees further and gritted his teeth. "Serve."

I want to play a game, dammit. I'm not some wimpy girl who can't handle hitting a heavy ball.

Tezuka didn't make a move to restart the rally. "Echizen," his voice was stern, and Ryoma knew that should stop arguing. The captain had even called him by his last name. "I understand that this is very boring for you. However, you're the one who wanted to play tennis, and I'm not risking the chances of you furthering your injuries."

"But my arm's fine."

"You have a few bruises."

"But they don't hurt. I'm just a bit sore, that's all."

Tezuka sighed. "Okay, I'll make the shots a bit faster, but I don't want you to return them with such power. Remember, we're taking it easy."

Ryoma glared at the ground. "Fine."

The next few shots made Ryoma frustrated all over again – they were a tad bit faster but way too easy for him to handle. However, after a little bit of rallying, he kind of forgot about his irritation and simply enjoyed the sound of the ball as it impacted with the racket and hit the ground with a thud. He had missed this feeling, with the breeze entangled in his hair and his full attention on nothing but tennis.

"This is fun," Ryoma said as he impatiently waited for the ball to reach him. When it did, with excellent timing, he took a step back and let it whiz towards the captain. He had listened to Tezuka and hit with only 50% of his power, and he was a little glad he had now. His arm was starting to hurt after playing for a while, and he knew if he had kept up his stubbornness, he would have been too tired in less than half of what they had played so far. Again, how come Tezuka-buchou is always right? It's so unfair!

"I thought you were upset about the slow balls," Tezuka said as he easily returned each shot.

Ryoma shrugged. "I am, but boring tennis beats no tennis at all."

Tezuka didn't respond to that and so they continued to swiftly pass shots. Ryoma still disliked being stuck in the same spot because no matter where he hit the ball, Tezuka always managed to return it directly to where he was standing. I don't even have to move, Ryoma thought bitterly. Feeling a bit angry again, he hit the ball harder than necessary.

Startled at the change of pace, Tezuka returned the shot awkwardly. The ball soared high above them.

Heeh… Ryoma's eyes perked. My chance!

Tezuka watched the smile grow on Ryoma's face as the boy started to run forward. He watched as the two sneakers lifted perfectly off the ground and hopped into the evening air, the glow of the sky reflecting off of Ryoma's cheek.

Tezuka wanted to shout – No, Ryoma, no smashing allowed! This is light rallying! – but his entire throat felt like it was clogged up. Against the dying sun, Ryoma floated in the air, racket extended to smash the ball. His whole face gleamed with joy.

He's flying, Tezuka thought, and his heart overpowered his rules. Fly, Ryoma, fly.

A moment later, Tezuka felt a strong gust of wind as the ball whooshed past him and hit the ground hard. It bounced onto the fence and clattered to the ground. Ryoma landed firmly on his feet with a grin on his face, but the grin disappeared quickly enough.

"Ow," he groaned, and dropped his racket to clutch his bruised arm.

In a flash, Tezuka snapped out of his thoughts and hurried over to the other side of the court. His eyes flecked with worry as he saw Ryoma rub his forearm with a dazed expression. Tezuka put a hand on Ryoma's shoulder and looked him straight in the eye. "Are you alright? Did that hurt?"

"A little," Ryoma grimaced. He shook his arm out. "Not too bad, though. Plus, it was worth it."

Tezuka stared into his eyes deeply. "Please Ryoma, be careful. You're always worrying me."

"I-" Ryoma's words were stuck in his throat. His face went hot. "I'm sorry for worrying you, buchou. I just wanted to play a little. But honest, it doesn't hurt much at all."

Tezuka sighed and finally let go of Ryoma's shoulders. He looked down at the boy fondly. "Alright, that was a good smash Ryoma. But I think that's enough for the day. You're probably tired."

"Not really-" Ryoma began, but stopped when he saw Tezuka raise his eyebrow. He grumbled under his breath. "Fine, we'll stop."

Tezuka nodded in satisfaction. Ryoma reluctantly put his racket into Fuji's bag, a frown on his face the entire time. He, once again, knew Tezuka was right – the captain was always right – yet Ryoma still wanted to play more. Tennis was the kind of sport that once you began playing, it took forever until you were ready to stop.

"Are we going home now?" Ryoma asked. He paused. "I mean, to your house."

It was funny how much he considered Tezuka's place home now even though he'd only been there for a few days. Every time he entered the house, a warm feeling exploded in his chest. Tezuka's house made him feel safe and comfy.

"We could, if you're tired," Tezuka's eyes flitted to the giant willow tree. "Or we could sit and relax for a bit."

Ryoma followed Tezuka's gaze. He smiled softly.

"I'd like that."


Ryoma stretched his legs out and leaned his back against the bark of the tree. Dew-sprinkled grass tickled his bare skin, and the sky had darkened almost to night. Beside him, he could hear Tezuka's soft breathing as the captain zipped up Fuji's tennis bag.

"Good thing Fuji-senpai forced us to take his tennis bag, right?" Ryoma said after a moment.

Tezuka nodded. "Somehow, Fuji always knows what to do."

There was a short silence. Ryoma pulled at a clump of grass. "I don't know about that. I think you always know what to do. You're never wrong."

The wistfulness in Ryoma's voice made Tezuka want to smile. "I suppose."

"Have you ever been wrong?" Ryoma asked curiously.

Tezuka glanced over at his serious face. "Do you remember when I faced Atobe and played until my arm hurt?"

"Hm." Ryoma scooted closer to Tezuka so that their legs brushed. The older male swallowed and tried to focus on staying collected.

"Yes, well, I was wrong to push myself so recklessly."

Ryoma skimmed his fingers along the grass. "Oh."

"However," Tezuka reassured him, "If I was to repeat what happened, I would have done it the same way."

Ryoma leaned his head back with a contemplating expression. For a minute, Tezuka worriedly tried to figure out why the boy wasn't responding. He seemed to be in deep thought, brows furrowed, a faraway look in his eyes. Tezuka reached and entwined their fingers to snap Ryoma out of his daydream. When the boy jerked his head to look up, Tezuka was shocked to see Ryoma's gold eyes shine with tears. "You know," Ryoma blinked furiously and rubbed at his eyes. "I never knew you were this nice buchou. I always admired you, of course, but I never thought…I never thought you would help me so much…like you did…"

Tezuka's breath caught. "Ryoma-"

"No, wait. Let me finish. I didn't tell anyone because I didn't think there was any point – I didn't even want to tell you, but you forced me to tell you. At the time, I thought you were mean and were invading my privacy…" Ryoma smirked and wiped his eyes firmly. "but I don't know how I'm ever supposed to return the favour of everything you've done."

"You don't need to."

"Hm?"

Tezuka's face was warm. "You don't need to return the favour. Ryoma, you're my kouhai and teammate. It's my job to help you."

"I know, but still," Ryoma said. He frowned. "Thank you so much."

Tezuka stared at Ryoma's flushed face and glistening eyes. The delicate smile on his face was so beautiful that it reminded Tezuka of an innocent child. Wait, Ryoma is an innocent child. Perhaps not very innocent, but he's only twelve all the same. The captain's heart thudded loudly in his ears, and something in his mind urged him to do something – to take a leap. He was always one to think everything through before he acted. Not this time.

Just do something. To show him how special he is to you.

Tezuka closed his eyes and ignored his nerves. In another split second, he wrapped his arms around Ryoma's waist and lifted the boy into the air.

"Hey, wha-"

Then, he promptly placed the small boy in his lap.

Ryoma's eyes widened. He could feel the grip of Tezuka's arms around his stomach, and he hoped the captain couldn't feel his breathlessness. What is he doing? He just put me in his lap…I mean, I'm not complaining or anything…but…what? Ryoma's face flushed red and he stared intently at the grass. He didn't trust his throat to let him talk.

Tezuka, meanwhile, was horrified. What have I done? I just…what did I just do? I really can't do this to a twelve-year old. Even though we aren't actually doing anything. But he's not moving away, and he seems kind of comfortable. So maybe it's okay?

"Um…" Ryoma finally spoke. His voice sounded constricted.

"In case you were cold," Tezuka said vaguely. He swallowed hard. Since when did Ryoma make me so nervous? Since when do I even get nervous?

"Oh. I see.

Tezuka didn't reply anymore. He sat rigidly holding Ryoma in his arms. A few long minutes passed until Ryoma finally relaxed his shoulders and leaned against Tezuka's chest. Now that Ryoma seemed comfortable, Tezuka also felt his tension disappear.

"It's almost dark," the older boy stated.

Ryoma nodded. The sunset was gone, and the sky was turning a dark indigo. The lampposts from the street courts brightened the area enough so that he could see Tezuka properly. He wondered if it was going to be a clear night or a cloudy one – he hoped for clear. Then they'd be able to see the stars.

"We should head home. It's getting too dark."

Ryoma shook his head. "No, let's stay a bit longer."

Tezuka frowned, but complied. His grip tightened around Ryoma and the boy pleasurably closed his eyes. The night was still and perfect - and for once, Ryoma didn't have a single comment to make. He just wanted to stay here forever, warm in Tezuka's hold, his mind empty of thoughts. He felt his heart beat speed up as Tezuka brushed his fingers over his bruises.

"Do they hurt anymore?" Tezuka touched the one on the side of Ryoma's face gently. Ryoma winced but shook his head.

"Nothing hurts anymore, buchou."

He meant it, too. He tried to think about his mother, and the hatred in her eyes, but he didn't feel the painful stab in his chest. The crazy woman was replaced with the warmth and care of Tezuka. In a way, he didn't regret everything that had happened. He had lost his mother – but he had earned a friend. Perhaps Tezuka had always been his friend, but they had never been as close as they were now.

"You're very strong," Tezuka whispered in his ear. Ryoma closed his eyes and nodded. Maybe he was strong.

Up in the air, the night sky was clear and dark. Ryoma tried to let go of all his thoughts, all the pain he'd been through, and instead only focused on the present. Tezuka's arms were strong around his waist – protective, radiating with warmth. The night was dangerous – to be alone, he might have even been frightened. But he had Tezuka by his side, and that made him fearless.

"Thank you," Ryoma said.

Tezuka's arms only tightened around him in response, and they both forgot about everything that had happened except the bond they shared.


The End! Thanks so much for reading and enjoying my story! I'll be personally PM thanking everyone who reviews...for those who reviewed on the last chapter thinking it was the last one, I apologize! I didn't mean to confuse people!

On that Note: I'm thinking of writing a Thrill pair next…maybe… :/ What do you think?