"Germany, huh," he feels more than sees Kevin flop down beside him on the couch. "That's kind of far."
Having been together and as close as brothers since they were kids, he can't blame Kevin for being uneasy about his departure. When Kevin had gone back to Florida to settle matters with his father the previous year, their shared flat had felt far too wide, as if there were empty spaces where there weren't supposed to be. It feels wrong having to leave Kevin behind to feel the same loneliness this time.
"It's only for two months," he says. "I'll call everyday. And I'll be done in time for the Roland Garros."
Kevin gives a heavy sigh. "I'll meet you in Paris, then?"
He nods, kneading Karupin's tummy with his well hand. "In Paris."
The rehabilitation center is just as he had imagined it; dry, white, and ascetic. He doesn't think he can survive two months here, alone with his wander-prone mind. He fears he might go insane; heaven knows he has the genes for it, given his father's proclivities.
Said father passes him by and approaches the front desk, where a nurse immediately recognizes them and beckons over a trio of doctors who apparently had been waiting for them for a little while now. (Well, at least he can guiltlessly tell them that their tardiness is not his fault. Perverted shitty old man.)
It doesn't take long to settle him in and begin his preliminary examinations. He quietly obeys as the doctor takes his injured wrist and clucks a tongue at its state.
"Too much reaching, too many heavy balls, too little training, and such a small frame! You're practically asking for this. It's an early stage of tendinitis, and it's good that we caught it early," the lady doctor carefully turns the hand over. "I assume you will want to participate in the coming Roland Garros, so we will have to incorporate your training into your rehabilitation—they're two completely different things, mind you—so you'll be fit just in time for the tournament. You will want to strengthen your forearms and wrists so this won't happen again when you face an opponent like Sampras who gives low-skid heavy shots."
I won, though, he thinks to himself, and takes a moment to savor the bright white spike of victory searing through his nerves. Defeating Pete Sampras on hard court is an accomplishment few can boast, and it's an accomplishment he is particularly proud of. If the world hadn't been looking at him before, they sure are now.
But that isn't precisely why this victory brings him such pleasure. The high-tension game that Sampras had given him was something he hadn't even known he'd been intensely craving—and the hunger had been so bad that in the middle of the game, he could feel it threatening to drown him in its depth. That one game with Sampras brought such an unexpected and brilliant rush that for just a short while, the hunger faded into a wash of electrifying white, a torrent of satisfaction and fulfillment unlike any other he had ever known in his short twenty years of life.
He fears now that he will go insane with the dark cloud of hunger hanging over his head and his left wrist preventing him from playing even just one game. Now that he has had a taste of what truly lies within a fulfilling game against a worthy opponent, he does not know if he can stand three months of nothing but waiting.
When he is finally taken back to his small, blue room to rest for the night, he sits in the darkness and holds Karupin close, seeking a comfort he knows he will not find here.
He wanders the vicinity of the rehabilitation center, set in a nice suburban neighborhood of Berlin. There is an intense atmosphere of concentration and rekindling hope everywhere he goes, and he finds that he cannot stand it. It scathes the dark hunger within him, so he purposefully avoids people, unless otherwise absolutely necessary.
A fortnight passes as he diligently follows through with his doctor's orders, if only to have this end quicker and clear him for tournaments once more. He doesn't know any other place where he can meet worthy opponents, unfortunately, so he quietly does his flexing exercises and takes care to apply ice whenever the swelling begins to return.
He's allowed light play using only his right hand, which somehow feels very different, even though he's ambidextrous. His left hand is a substantial factor in his game; its loss cripples him, and he can feel it, intimately so. But eventually, hitting against wall becomes a bore as well, and moving his body about in such familiar motions only serves to agitate the monster inside him. He hates this with a passion, and it's not going to end any sooner despite it.
Two weeks and a half into his regimen and maybe his displeasure is beginning to show. His doctor discreetly begins to search for practice partners for him behind his back—he notices this, and does nothing to stop it. Even a complete amateur would be more amusing than a stationary wall.
But an amateur isn't what he gets—"This is Tezuka-kun; he's with one of our visiting doctors from Japan. He's currently in medical school, but he used to play competitive tennis in middle and high school."—and here the hunger within him begins to stir.
"It's an honor," ever-polite, these Japanese, he thinks, as they stand face to face in the middle of the small, hidden court. They're at the very back of the facility, a place where almost nobody wanders into unless necessary. The place, at least, is well-maintained; there will be no hindrances for their game.
"Whatever, let's get on with it," he sighs, dipping his head in a parody of a bow, and walking confidently back to his post. It's his opponent's serve first—Tezuka, was it?—because he feels somewhat generous today. He admits he's rather curious too, if this Tezuka is any good at all. He takes care not to expect too much, however; he has learned long ago that it's a big mistake to do so.
From across the court, his opponent tosses the ball up and down, up and down. He positions himself, lowering his center of balance, leaning forward the slightest bit, eyes sharp for the quick slip of yellow. He takes care to put the full weight of the racket on his right hand, only using the left to steady and assist—never any pressure on the injured wrist.
A ball rolls to meet the heel of his right foot, having already bounced against the rusty fence.
He didn't even see that coming.
Turning back, now with full concentration, he watches as the ball goes up, down, up—his body jolts into movement as his racket tilts and receives the ball, hitting it back—out.
He quickly returns to position and waits for the next one—this time he hits it back in, and they rally back and forth once, twice—and Tezuka gears for a drop—he darts forward—don't you underestimate me—and the ball, strangely enough, does not bounce towards him. Instead, the queer little drop shot spins on the ground and rolls away from him, as if purposefully taunting him by avoiding his racket.
…what the fuck?
Tezuka straightens on the other side of the net and looks down upon him with stern, admonishing eyes: "I would think its common courtesy for any tennis player to repay his opponent with an equal amount of respect, Echizen Ryoma."
It's then that the blooming frustration within him churns into bewildered anger.
In the end, he loses—and of course he would lose. He's shamed himself by playing with anger in his heart. Tennis should not be played with anger; only instead with determination, with a will to win, and, as much as he hates clichés, with love. His father had taught him no less than this; through his tournaments, he should have learned no less than this. Or had he not been learning anything at all?
For the rest of the night he locks himself up in his room, curled up under a warm blanket with Karupin cuddled close against his chest. The purring ball of fur brings him much-needed comfort in the face of an unexpected loss to an unknown enemy. He has yet to find out anything about Tezuka Kunimitsu, apart from the name, the face, and that wicked little drop shot. He wants to know if there's more.
The next day, he seeks Tezuka out, but does not find him around. The following day after that, he seeks again, but Tezuka isn't anywhere. On the third day of seeking, he finally finds the ever-stern figure, carrying a lunch tray to the courtyards. He approaches.
"I would like to ask for a rematch with you," he asks as politely and quietly as he can, purposefully swallowing his pride and inborn rudeness. He truly wants this rematch, and if a little bit of politesse can secure it, then politesse he shall give.
Tezuka nods once, and motions forth. "Please, sit."
"Another match with you would be more than welcome. I could sense that you were not playing at your prime concentration the other day," Tezuka says after a stretch of rather stiff silence. "However, I shall ask of you one thing in return."
Squaring his jaw, Ryoma says, "Anything."
"You have to promise me," Tezuka begins, "that from here on, you will never again disrespect or disregard any of your future opponents—or even just any tennis player—without prior knowledge of who or what they are. I think it's unbecoming of someone of your caliber—and I have had enough experience with tennis players to know that one's personality plays quite a role in determining the potential of one's talent." Tezuka pauses for thought, and then continues, "I think you will find that a quiet congeniality will help you draw much information from your opponent without them even knowing it. It can be a valuable weapon, as well."
Ryoma finds himself pressed into a somewhat awed silence. Most people would never dare speak to him in such a manner, as if he were their inferior, an apprentice of sorts. His father sometimes does so, but very rarely. Kevin and he are equals, and he can think of no one else in his life familiar enough with him to attempt such a tone.
But this man—this man—had just admonished him in a manner that gave him enough clues to figure out where to go next. It's as if he's being taught.
"Well?" Tezuka prompts him, and he jolts out of his little reverie. That one little monologue had seemed so long that he'd forgotten that he was supposed to promise.
"I-I promise. Never again."
It's just the barest of a fraction, but Tezuka relaxes, and for a fleeting instance, Ryoma thinks he sees a flicker of a smile on the older man's face.
Their next game is still a game he loses, most likely because his pace is still rather stilted. The aftershock of an overwhelming victory combined with the lingering sting of an unexpected loss is a potent combination against his peace of mind. Slowly, though, bit by bit, he recovers his ground, and soon, they are playing even, pushing against each other each time they meet across the net.
However, he has this desperate feeling that Tezuka still hides something—still has yet to unleash all of what he can do. And it might just be as well, Ryoma thinks, because it would be an unfair game, with his favored wrist sprained and his mental balance still recovering.
So they occupy day by day with small games, warm-ups, if anything, and these little reminders of the court keeps Ryoma's hunger at bay. Whenever Tezuka can't play for one reason or another, Ryoma wanders around in wait for something to amuse him, or pays attention to Karupin, who is beginning to feel lonely and trapped inside his room. He decides to bring Karupin on a little walk every Monday and Thursday, when Tezuka is gone elsewhere and he is dead bored inside the rehabilitation center.
The days pass quicker now, turning into weeks with him barely noticing. The days pass in a white, somewhat wet blur. The winter is beginning to melt—spring should already be beginning in New York—and the blossoms are coming out of their buds. Karupin feels cheerier during spring, and in general, so does he.
Periodically, he calls his father (who always asks, multiple times, when he's going out to get himself a pretty German girl) and Kevin (who practically wails at him for not calling often enough). The rest of his time he burns walking about the place, rotating his wrists in exercise (the tendinitis is healing wonderfully, a result of his diligent regimen).
On one certain rainy day, he chats with Tezuka in one of the lounges. They sit by the window and watch the rain drench the city, turning the skies a darker steely grey. He has hot chocolate in hand, while Tezuka has tea and stories of Japan—a place he has never been to, but is an important root for his blood. His father came from Japan, and learned his beginning skills in Japan. Ryoma will not deny his curiosity.
Apparently, there are quite a group of talented young players in Japan, except they aren't really given the opportunity to shine on the international stage, more than likely because of local technicalities, or personal situations. Such cases Ryoma always finds pitiful. Simply thinking of all the wasted talent and challenge turns his very stomach.
"Maybe I should go to Japan, then, when I'm in need for a good challenge," he grins a tiny grin over the rim of his mug.
Tezuka reclines against one of the couches and looks down into his tea. "The media will not think lightly of you leaving the professional field to play with amateurs."
Ryoma pouts, "Who cares about the media, anyway? They've less than nothing to do with a good game."
This coaxes a chuckle from Tezuka. "You should consider your position more carefully. Many can only dream of such prestige and privilege; don't be too quick to throw it away, despite it's… inconveniencies."
He can only snort. Inconvenience is too light a word for the trouble he and Kevin both get from the media sometimes. Never mind the paparazzi; the fans are beyond difficult.
He sips a bit of chocolate. "How about you come to the professional scene, then? You're certainly good enough." He hopes that the challenge is clear within the tone of his voice and the shine of his eyes, and if not, he braces himself to say it outright. But the answer he gets is not what he expects.
"I'm afraid I can no longer play competitive tennis."
Ryoma watches in bemused silence as Tezuka relinquishes the cup of tea on the table. The pitter-patter of rain is steady and growing heavier by the second, but it is only white noise underneath the tension sizzling between the two of them. He's confused; did Tezuka just refuse his challenge?
"Please do not misunderstand," Tezuka amends quickly, perhaps seeing the look on his face. "I don't wish to push your challenge away, and if I could, I would in a heartbeat face it and take it. But I'm afraid I can't."
"Is this because of school?" Ryoma demands. He has to know the reason why he is being refused—he thinks he has the right to know that much, at the very least. "Is your family pressuring you into medical school? That doctor you came here with is your uncle, right? Are they going to hold you back from professional tennis?"
But Tezuka is already shaking his head no.
"Then what? Why?"
Sighing, Tezuka leans forward, and rests his elbows on his knees. Ryoma watches as Tezuka's head dips in a bow. "Let me tell you," Tezuka begins, "of the first time I came here, nearly eight years ago."
Late that night, while in bed, is the first time Ryoma finds himself appreciating in full the effort his father had poured into keeping his talent safe and protected, guarded on all corners as he grew up. When he was little, he only saw it as the old man meddling, always standing in the way of his amusement. But now, he sees.
He has never had to suffer such a tragedy as Tezuka's. His body, his investment, has always been kept healthy, fit. Both his parents had expended much money into keeping his athleticism at its peak form. But Tezuka, who had none of the insurance and security he did, lost this athleticism even before it could bloom.
The thought of this makes Ryoma's chest burn.
For a moment that truthfully isn't too fleeting, he considers flying to Japan at this very moment, hunting down Tezuka's ex-teammates, and shoving a million tennis balls down their throats. For a moment, one staggering little moment, he wishes desperately that he had been in Japan when that had happened, that he could somehow turn time back and prevent it from happening—he wants to believe that maybe, just maybe, there's still something to be done.
He rolls over and buries his face into his pillow, acknowledging the burn and sting and fall of the tears in his eyes. There is but frustration blooming within him; his hunger has been denied.
Two days later, on the night before his release, he asks Tezuka for one last game.
He feels it again, that white hot spike of bright victory burning in his throat, as a tongue slides against skin, as a hip grinds against hip. He feels it again, and again, and again, even brighter, even more vivid, as heat sears into him, as he feels the girth and length and depth of Tezuka within him.
The growl that overflows from within his chest is a manifestation of this hunger that he will forever carry, forever, unless he can have this—this substitute, or not really, because this is their real game—and he will have this, a piece of this, to carry to Paris, and to London, and to New York.
If he can't have Tezuka on the court, then he will have him off of it.
Directly after sweeping London with his victory, he goes to Japan.
It is midsummer, muggy and hot, but inside Tezuka's flat is cool air, with wide spaces white and blue. He sits by the window and sips hot chocolate, and just like winter in Germany, he waits for Tezuka to come home, so they can play.
( end )
Written for The Official TezuRyo Revival Post on 30 Dec 2009, originally posted on my LJ (iluxia dot livejournal dot com), mirrored on AO3.