Across the Line


I am on a roll, aren't I? xD Also, I'm sorry about all the italics getting joined in with the words. It's because of the way I copy pasted it, and I couldn't be bothered to go back and change all the italics, since it's quite a long story. xD

They were not brothers. They were rivals.

Maybe they hadbeen brothers long ago, but even then, Ryoma was skeptical. He remembered playing tennis across from his big brother, and the taunts that were always shot his way, "Oi, Chibisuke, you 'aint gunna get anywhere playing like this!" and,"Dad, this is boring. Can't youplayagainst me. Chibisuke sucks."

Ryoma brushed his fingers along the net. His father had always joined in too. "Ryoma, that's not how you do it, kid. Watch Ryoga. He's got it down."

Ryoga always had it down.

A raindrop plopped onto Ryoma's forehead, and he felt it slide down his nose and slip into his lips. If he looked up, the clouds were dark and grey. Raindrops scattered the slick court. Rain was annoying, and he didn't want to go back inside just yet, but it was probably a good idea to get going soon.

His friends would worry if he stayed out too long on the cruise ship.

Friends;the word still constantly made Ryoma laugh. He had friends, and it was obscurely weird, foreign, unthinkable, that it made him proud. When he was little, he couldn't interact with anyone, and had tagged relentlessly wherever Ryoga had gone. Ryoga would try to brush him off, complaining about 'annoying clingy little brothers who needed to get their own friends', but Ryoma had been too young to really understand that that meant go away.

But now he had friends. Better ones than Ryoga. And he didn't need to tag along.

"You're going to get soaked. And if I'm lucky, hit by lightning."

There was the voice; the taunting voice that had scarred his childhood into pieces. The voice that constantly overpowered his own, outweighed his own thoughts; the voice that had torn his independence apart. Maybe it had been too long to hold a grudge on the way Ryoga acted when he was ten, but Ryoma still remembered too clearly to let it go.

"You'd want that," Ryoma didn't look at his brother. "Then you wouldn't have to get humiliated in front of the whole cruise ship when we play."

"That's a good one, lil' bro. Too funny. C'mon, you and I both know that's not going to happen."

"I'm better," Ryoma said.

Ryoga said, "Well, newsflash, but Iam too. I've been practicing. And you weren't even thatgood when I saw you on those videotapes."

Because that was a while ago, and I improve a shitload faster than you do. Ask anyone.But Ryoma didn't say that; he stayed silent and stared into the distance. Ryoga would understand when they played. If they really played. Stupid brother. "At least I'm not corrupted," Ryoma said absentmindedly. "Apparantly I'm supposed to lose the game on purpose."

Ryoga didn't blink. "It's the real world. Get used to it. It's not like it's a big deal."

It was a big deal though. Ryoma tore his gaze away from the distance and locked it on Ryoga. Rain slithered over Ryoga's tanned face, wet and moist. His eyes were dark with laughter, and his fingers spun a tennis ball almost unnoticeably. He really hadn't changed much. Ryoma pulled his cap down, and wondered what Ryoga thought of him.

The silence must have unnerved Ryoga, because a second later, he shifted over so he was standing next to Ryoma. They stood in the rain, on the courts, on the same side of the net. "You were always so bratty," he said, voice just above a whisper. Ryoma frowned, but didn't say anything. Maybe he was bratty. That didn't matter. Momo liked him. Kikumaru liked him.

"It wasn't a bad thing," Ryoga said. "You were like the sass master of kindergarten."

Ryoma still didn't say anything. Ryoga ruffled his hair, and Ryoma resisted the urge to smack the hand away. They were not brothers. They were rivals. Maybe even less than that, if Ryoma thought honestly. He stared at the back of his hands, the rain that spat between the space between each finger, the blisters from endless hours of tennis. He glanced back at Ryoga's grinning face.

And that would never change.

"Aw man, it's pouring."

Momo paced back and forth in their room, hands folded behind his head. He was clothed in pajamas, eyes flickering out the window, at his tennis racket, then back out the window. Ryoma watched his fingers curl with impatience, and silently laughed to himself. Somehow, Momo sensed the internal joy, and glared at him.

"Enjoying the show, huh?" he stomped his foot. "The one day I just needto play tennis after that stupid fight with Kaidoh, it rains."

"Heh," Ryoma couldn't help but agree. "We could play anyway."

"And get ours ears pulled by the old woman," Momo winced, and rubbed at the sore ear he'd gotten after launching Kaidoh into the wall. Ryoma snickered under his breath, but otherwise kept quiet, his mind too occupied to really delve into other matters. He flopped down onto his back, one leg over the other. Momo watched him with a smile on his face.

"You know, you could have mentionedthat you had a brother."

There was a crack of thunder, and Ryoma buried his face into the pillow. There really was no sneaking out and playing tennis now. He closed his eyes, the exhaustion of the day finally settling into his aching muscles. He thought about what Momo had said, and he wanted to say 'he's not my brother. He's my rival' but he decided to keep his mouth shut. It was a stupid theory. Ryoga was his brother, whether he wanted it or not.

"Antisocial as ever," Momo chuckled, and Ryoma felt a blanket thrown on top of him.

He curled further inside of it, and let images of the grassy field of Japan fill his mind. The field with the courts and oranges and trees and freedom; the taste of picking blueberries with his mother at the farm, and waking up at the crack of dawn to play tennis with his father. The memories were vibrant, and oddly comforting, but then there was always Ryoga.

Ryoga, who picked more blueberries than he ever could.

Ryoga, who always woke up first, and snagged the best racket.

Ryoga, who was always, always one step ahead of him.

There was another clap of thunder, this time loud enough to shake the house, and Momo jumped into his own bed. "This is gunna be a long night," he announced, blankets strewn, limbs sprawled. "I have no idea how someone's supposed to sleep when-" he paused, and lightning flashed and lit up the gray walls of the room. "- with this noise."

"Shut up and sleep," Ryoma said. He closed his eyes.

Things would change – everything would change tomorrow, when he played Ryoga and won. Because tennis was hissport, histhing, hispassion – and no matter how much Ryoga loved it (if he even loved it), Ryoma knew he loved it more. The court was his home, the tennis racket his breath of oxygen, and nothing would ever get rid of that.

Momo flicked the lights off. "Okay, I'm seriously going to sleep now."

"You do that," Ryoma said, and he curled into his blankets to do the same.

"Good morning, Chibisuke."

The greeting made Ryoma suddenly want to spit out his eggs and bacon, but he chewed and forced himself to swallow. His stomach was in knots – knots of what, he wasn't sure, and he refused to call it nerves. Because it had been ages since he'd been nervous, and he wasn't about to start now. Ryoga looked over his shoulder.

"Mind sharing some of your breakfast with your dear, beloved brother? He's kind of broke."

Dear; beloved –what a joke. Ryoma snorted, and refused to look up. The rest of the regulars watched the scene with their own breakfast, eyes wide in fascination to see how the two brothers would interact. Ryoma kept his head down, and took another bite. Chew; swallow; breathe – then repeat that cycle until his stupid brother left him alone.

Ryoga's stomach growled. "Aw, c'mon, you're being mean now."

Ryoma bit his tongue, pulled a five dollar bill out of his pocket, and slapped it into Ryoga's hands. "Here," he said, and hoped his voice showed his intense irritation and hate. Apparantly it didn't, because Ryoga's face lit up, and he floundered off to get himself some food without the curtsey of a thank you.

"So," Fuji smiled from across the table, having seen the exchange. "You have an interesting relationship with your brother."

"Yeah, so do you," Ryoma said, and he turned his cheek away so Fuji would get the message. Fuji's smile dropped, and the breakfast table stayed strangely silent. They were all watching him – Ryoma could tell, even as some of them tried to hide it. Inui looked perplexed at the situation, like it was troubling him that he couldn't perfectly analyze their relationship.

"Your brother's an asshole," Momo finally said.

Thank you.

"Yes, he is," Ryoma offered the rarest of smiles at Momo, who understood that Ryoga deserved to be bashed. Tezuka obviously didn't approve, because he looked at Ryoma with his eyes narrowed, as if he could see right through him. Ryoma swallowed, and didn't meet his eyes. His captain knew everything, and he didn't want to disappoint him.

"He seems nice though," Kikumaru blinked. "He's always so friendly to you."

Kaidoh glanced down the table. "Senpai, he wants us to lose the game on purpose."

"But he looks like he has a kind soul," Kikumaru grinned. He put his hand on his heart, eyes twinkling. "You know, I can see on the inside, he's truly just gone in the wrong crowd and –" Ryoma glared at him so fiercely Kikumaru stopped what he was saying and shrunk back, making a small whimpering noise. He turned to Oishi. "I was just giving him my advice."

"Well," Oishi patted his back awkwardly. "You can't really see through souls, Eiji."

"Yes I can," Eiji said.

Ryoma turned away and pushed his plate in front of him. He stood up, and glanced out the window where the sky was overcast and damp from yesterday's storm, not a single strand of sunlight parting through. He slung his tennis bag over his shoulder, and walked away, ignoring the calls of "Hey, Ochibi, you didn't finish your food!" and "Echizen, hey, wait for me too!"

Ryoga was not bad. He was not good. He was better.

And Ryoma was determined to change that.

Ryoma, you have the whole world on your fingertips.That was what his father always used to tell him. He would sit next to Nanjiroh as they watched Ryoga shimmy up the tree to grab an orange. His father would point, and be like, "See Ryoga, holding that orange in his palm? Pretend that's the earth." He would ruffle Ryoma's hair right after. "He's got the whole world in his hands. You can too. You just really have to want it."

"And I want it," Ryoma said, gruffly. He panted, hand tight around the tennis ball. Sweat beaded his brow. He slammed the ball into the clay wall, again and again, as if drilling a hole would calm the twist in his gut. The ground was slippery from last night's rain, and Ryoma was shaky on his feet as he bounded back and forth to receive each return. Ryoga took my orange,Ryoma let the distant memory flicker in his mind, Gotta return the favour.

"Planning to pass out before our game?"

"You wish," Ryoma snorted, then wished he'd ignored him. He caught the ball, and looked over to see Ryoga leaning against the fence, slurping on an orange, hair combed back with gel. Ryoga waved merrily, like everything in the world was right, and Ryoma resisted the urge to pound his tennis ball in the grinning face.

"Ya know, you're going to lose tonight," Ryoga chewed. "Might as well not get your hopes up."

Ryoma looked away, and swallowed. "I won't lose."

"But you will.If it isn't from my great tennis skills, then it'll be from my coach. We've got ways."

Ryoma's eyes flashed, and he looked at his older brother with such hatred that Ryoga recoiled, and the smile slipped off his face. They just stared at each other for a moment, Ryoga's eyes wild, bright, confused; Ryoma's dark and steady and unnerving. Ryoga was the first to look away, but his face was full of an emotion Ryoma couldn't decipher.

"What?" Ryoga asked quietly. "Do you have some problem with me?"

"Yes," Ryoma said. He didn't bother to elaborate. His brother had to have half a brain to know that trying to corrupt the tennis game wasn't going to win him in his favour. And even if it wasn't the tennis game, Ryoma would still have problems with him. There was a long sigh, a whoosh of exasperated breath, before Ryoga spoke:

"You can hate me," he said. "But it won't make a difference. I still care about you, Chibisuke."

Fuck no, don't pull that on me,Ryoma ignored the deep, throaty pang in his chest and neck. He closed his eyes and turned away. Hate and love were on such a fine line, and Ryoma knew his leaned towards the former; but what about Ryoga? Was he lying right now, openly announcing that he cared? It was certainely a Ryoga thing to do.

"You know," Ryoga patted his head, like he was a child. "I might just pull some strings with my coach. Just for you. And we'll have a real match."

This time, Ryoma did swat Ryoga's hand away, and didn't bother to acknowledge the statement that sent his heart leaping. Ryoga cracked a silly grin, ran his fingers through his own hair, and walked away. "One day," he called over his shoulder, suddenly overly happy, much too happy for Ryoma's liking, "I'm going to take you travelling around the world."

"I won't come," Ryoma scoffed, and pressed his lips together.

Ryoga just laughed, long and loud, before the court door crashed behind him. Ryoma stared at the distance where he had been, and wondered why suddenly he didn't feel as angry, as irritated with his big brother. He curled a hand around his tennis ball, and looked at the white lines that embroided the vibrant yellow.

Maybe he didn't hate Ryoga. Maybe he cared just a little bit.

Laughter pealed the bedroom; it was another rainy night, and the tournament had been forcefully postponed for a week. Ryoma sat on the edge of the bed, blankly tossing a tennis ball up and down, teeth gritted and mind scattered. He had mentally and physically prepared all day for the match, and now it had been cancelled.

"Eiji-senpai, don't cheat," Momo said. He covered his cards. "You're peeking."

"I'm not," Kikumaru giggled, and sporadically looked over Oishi's instead. "You guys just don't know how to hide them."

"We shouldn't have to hide them," Momo grumbled good-naturedly.

Rain clattered against the window, and the regulars crowded around Momo and Ryoma's room to play cards. Fuji had been winning every round, but claimed it was only because Tezuka had politely declined because of a headache. "He always has a headache," Fuji said to Kaidoh with a smile, "I think it's the excessive green tea."

Kaidoh didn't reply, never wanting to say a bad word about their buchou.

"Oi, Chibi," Kikumaru craned his neck over Inui's head to look at Ryoma. "Don't sit there and be lonely."

"I'm not lonely," Ryoma said. He rested his head on his knees, arms around his calves. Kikumaru frowned, put down his cards, and hopped onto the bed beside Ryoma. He slung an arm around the young boy and squeezed his shoulders. "I know you wanted to play a match today Ochibi," Kikumaru failed to keep the energy and enthusiasm out of his voice. "But think about it this way! You get more time to practice."

Ryoma didn't say anything. Kikumaru pulled away, and patted his head. Ryoma wondered why everyone treated him like a child these days.

"Ochibi, we should go dance in the rain," Kikumaru said.

"I don't dance," Ryoma said.

"Everyone dances," Kikumaru hoisted a smile onto his face. "Maybe not in public. But I've bet you've danced in the dark by yourself in your room. Am I right, Ochibi?"

"No," Ryoma frowned, and turned away to bury his face in the pillow. "I haven't done that."

The sharp tone in his voice meant all the words he hadn't said: go away, and leave me alone. Kikumaru shielded back, and shook his head, before bounding over to Oishi and yanking him upright. "Cards is boring Oishi," he declared with a pout. "Let's go dance in the rain." The new idea was a firm belief in his mind, and Oishi was helplessly dragged out the door.

"Poor Oishi-senpai," Momo said.

"Kikumaru means well," Fuji smiled. "And they always do say that you should dance in the rain at least once in your life."

Ryoma scowled at the words, even though they weren't directed to him. He pulled the covers up to his neck, and listened to the sound of heavy rain on the windowsill. Things like dancing in the rain were silly, almost ridiculous; it wasn't something he wanted to do before he died. He wanted to play tennis, and reach for the top with his tennis, and beat Ryoga.

Beat Ryoga. For once.

That was something he wanted to do at least once in his life. Not something silly like dancing in the rain.

He found himself, not dancing, but walking in the rain. It was the second time on the cruise that he had gotten himself drenched, but he didn't really mind. He balanced the tennis ball on the rim of his racket, steps heavy as they glided around the slippery edges of the pool. The water rippled, and the moonlight shone just enough that Ryoma could see his hazy reflection.

He stared at it for a moment, and wondered why his eyes looked so empty and lost. Before he could mull over it, another reflection joined him, and Ryoma's muscles went tight in an instant. Compared to him, Ryoga's eyes looked full and whole, and Ryoma gritted his teeth. Again; Ryoga had won again, just like he always did.

"Hey, lil' bro," Ryoga said. "Seems like you've got a thing for the rain."

"Have not," Ryoma said, childishly. Ryoga laughed, all too pleased at the words.

"We should have a talk."

Ryoma turned away, and his balanced tennis ball teetered and fell into the water with a plop. "There's nothing to talk about," he said, watching the vibrant yellow float amiably in the water, bobbing up and down without a care in the world. Sometimes, Ryoma wished he could whollybecometennis.

"Sure there is," Ryoga's wet skin glittered, and his eyes crinkled. "Remember when we were little and you used to tell me everything."

No; Ryoma really didn't remember that. He did remember sitting on the hilltop that overlooked the city and talking to his big brother about how tall he was going to grow, tall enough to touch the brightest blue of the sky. That dream obviously hadn't come true. Ryoma still disliked his height, but had come to accept it.

"It's raining," Ryoma said. He faced away. "I'm going inside."

Ryoga said, with vigor, "No, not yet. C'mon, I have to talk to you."

"There's nothing to talk about."

He stalked away with finality, leaving Ryoga muttering 'stubborn little brat' under his breath. His soaked clothes clung to his body, and shivers rapidly ran up and down his spine, but his thoughts were elsewhere – on an older boy he kept leaving behind, on an older boy that had once been his security blanket long ago.

When he stepped inside, most of his friends were still awake, and they greeted him all too excitedly when he walked back in. He left the door a crack open on purpose, and complained on cue when Kikumaru squeezed him tight and Momo ruffled his hair too hard. He left the door open the whole night, and embraced the laughter that slipped through the crack and down the hallway.

He hoped, strangely, that Ryoga heard.

Just when everyone was getting sleepy, and irritated, Ryoga burst into the room with a pack of soda, candy, and a grin on his face. Ryoma watched with stupor as he got everyone on an energy rush, put a game of snakes and ladders in the middle, and become the life of the 'party'. Momo and Ryoga instantly befriended, and Kikumaru adored his energetic personality that nearly matched his own.

"No, I was just about to win," Kikumaru complained when he was forced to go back down to the bottom.

Fuji smiled, rolled five steps, and gained two steps away from the finish.

"Fuji-senpai hasn't had to go down a snake since we started," Momo said, reproachfully. "I swear, he has control over the dice."

"Nothing like that at all," Fuji waved his hand.

"Yeah, it's pure luck," Ryoga said, too enthusiastically for being in last place.

Ryoma watched them play, and tucked himself back in the far corner of the bed, no longer interested in joining them. He rubbed at his eyelids, tired, and too stubborn to drink the pop Ryoga had offered him. He curled his fingers around the blankets, and shrunk under the covers. His throat felt tight with nausea – he would never win. Ryoga got everything, always.

He refused to watch them longingly, because that would be pitifully weak of him, and instead picked at the stray string on his pillow as if it was fascinating.

"I win," Fuji announced.

"Let's play again," Kikumaru demanded. "And this time we'll bet something on it."

Ryoga said, "How about whoever wins gets to tickle Chibisuke to death?"

Stupid brother,Ryoma didn't look up, not wanting to give him the satisfaction that he was listening. All of his other friends (minus Kaidoh, who had been abnormally quiet, Inui, who didn't care much for tickling Ryoma to death, and Kawamura who was too nice to consider such a thing) were ogling over the brilliant idea.

"I wonder if Ochibi's ticklish," Kikumaru said.

"He is," Ryoga said. "That's his secret weakness. Only big brothers get to know."

Extra stupid brother,Ryoma decided, and he resisted the urge to bang his head on the headboard of the bed. Instead, he quietly pulled the blanket over his forehead, and hoped that it would drown out their annoying laughter. He still couldn't belief Ryoga had promptly intruded everything and become jolly friends with hisfriends. How did he do it so easily?

"Man, Ryoga, what did you doto the board? There's like a giant hole in the corner," Momo said.

"I bought it on sale for two dollars," Ryoga defended. "It's meant to be cheap."

Momo laughed at that, because it was just sofunny, and Ryoma shuffled further in his bed. At least Kaidoh had some sense, and didn't warm up to Ryoga. He sat through the entire game silently, occasionally hissing at his brother for being in a team that was corrupted. It was at that moment that Ryoma decided that Kaidoh was his new favourite senpai. Or maybe Tezuka, who hadn't even come.

Ryoma was suddenly aware of heavy footsteps and his blanket being lifted off of his face. "Hey," Ryoga said, too quietly for him to being his stupid self. "Why don't you play this round too?" he poked his forehead. "I'm sure you're not too sleepy yet."

There was a silent plead in Ryoga's eyes, one that begged to glue back the rift between their relationship. Ryoma watched his brother's dark eyes dance, still full and happy, but conflicted with emotion. Maybe he should just forget about how much Ryoga had done, and just give in to the prospect of having his big brother back. Or maybe he should punch Ryoga in the face.

He did neither, and instead pushed the covers back over his head. "Go away."

Ryoga sighed, and Ryoma heard a sharp, "Such a child," as if Ryoga was finally fed up and done with his attitude. Ryoma swallowed the ache in his throat, and blocked out the continuous voices that surrounded him with the comfort that he was only defending himself. He just wished, so desperately, that Kikumaru or Momo would go talk to him, so Ryoga would know that he wasn't someone who just sat on the sidelines and watched everyone else have fun.

That was what he used to be, when Ryoga was the centre of attention, and he didn't ever want to go back to that place again.

"Ryoga's last again," Momo said with a twinkle in his voice.

"Hey, it's not my fault I have bad luck," Ryoga said.

"And I'm winning again," Fuji said pleasantly. "I must say Ryoga, this cheap board of yours really favours me."

But it always went back to that: Ryoga being in the middle, in the glory of everything, being the best, receiving the best, and doing everything and anything that Ryoma wanted to do. Ryoma wanted to be the one whose friends didn't complain that he was grumpy or bratty. He wanted to be the one that knew how to talk, and not just play tennis.

Ryoga was perfect; a startling image of his father, and Ryoma just wished it could be him instead.

When night finally pulled everyone to sleep, Ryoma stayed awake and listened to the rain. He really listened, to the sound of each thundering drop, and was slightly amazed at how much rain the clouds produced. Distracting myself never works,Ryoma decided, and despite that decision, he tried to listen to the rain some more, hoping it would suddenly give him the boost he needed to violently chuck tennis balls at Ryoga's face.

"Knew you'd be awake."

Ryoma blinked, and shifted, only to be met with a pair of gold eyes that were all too familiar with his own.

"What?" Ryoma said, too tired to sound angry.

"I just want to talk. Just one talk, with you not lashing out on me or ignoring me."

"Like I said before," Ryoma wished his voice didn't sound so feeble. "There's nothing to talk about."

Ryoga pulled the covers off of him, and Ryoma groaned as cold air hit his body. He tried to grab the covers back, but Ryoga threw them behind him, a grin of satisfaction smug on his face. "You can't escape this time," he abruptly grabbed Ryoma's wrist, tightly, and dragged him off the bed. Ryoma momentarily considered screaming kidnapper, but kept his mouth shut for the sake of Momo who was peacefully sleeping.

"What areyou doing?" He said as he let himself be dragged back to the pool. The rain had stopped, and now the air was cool and humid.

"Getting what I want," Ryoga teased, and finally let go of his wrist which burned from the iron grip. Ryoma shook his hand off, and thought bitterly, don't you always? He didn't say the words aloud, and rubbed at his flushed skin, glaring at Ryoga the whole time. The older laughed, and scratched the back of his neck.

"Sorry. Sometimes I don't realize my own strength," he paused, grinned wider. "Then again, it probably affects skinny little Chibisukes like you more."

You're not funny, or charming, Ryoma wanted to say. He wanted so badly to say those things when Ryoga acted like he was the most brilliant person on earth. Instead, he just shoved the aching verbal attacks back down his throat and composed himself. He couldn't act like he cared. He just couldn't,or it would defy everything he stood for.

"I'm starting to think you hate me," Ryoga said. His tone was light, unfazed. "I thought you should correct the theory. Because, god, I really don't want you to actually hate me."

Ryoma was silent for a moment, eyes on the ground. "I don't," he finally said, very quietly, almost regretfully. Ryoga's eyes lit up at the mere words, but Ryoma wasn't done. "I don't hate you, Nii-san. I just can't stand you."


Ryoma met his gaze full-on. "I just can't stand you."

Seeing the look on Ryoga's face wasn't worth it; it only made Ryoma's throat tighten more, but he knew the truth needed to be said. Ryoga looked awfully surprised, despite that Ryoma had shown his dislike clearly throughout the trip. His face changed from hurt, to a tight pull of emotion Ryoma couldn't place, until it was smiling again.

"I see," he said. He tapped his fingers against the railing. "So you can't stand me."

"Not at all," Ryoma said.

"And can I change that?"

"Probably not."

Ryoga exhaled loudly, and for the first time, Ryoma noticed how incredibly exhausted his brother sounded. He tilted his head slightly, and he was surprised to see dark lines under his eyes, and stress on his forehead that he'd missed before. Unconsciously, his throat went tight again, and he willed the sympathy to go away.

"You know," Ryoga said. "I'm really trying. I don't see what I'm doing wrong. I'm trying to get along with your friends," he paused, and chuckled, but it was empty. "They are fantasticpeople by the way. I'm glad you didn't get stuck with some idiot druggies like I did." His voice was sad, almost envious, and Ryoma was startled at the sudden change.

"I just want tennis," Ryoma murmured. "A match with you."

"So you can win?" Ryoga asked.

Ryoma forced a wry smile. "Why else?"

"Of course," Ryoga laughed, so forcefully that it hurt. "That's all you care about, don't you?"

Ryoma could sense the foreboding of a fight. It was the last thing he needed. Without a word of acknowledgment to the sentence, because it could possibly be true and he didn't want to accept it, he turned on his heel to the door. But the moment he took a step, Ryoga grabbed his wrist, much rougher then the first time.

"You're so self-absorbed," Ryoga said. The moon cast a gaze on him that made his friendly eyes look haunted. "Can you get over yourself, and just have a proper conversation with me? I mean, it's not my fault you were such a social outcast in America, and that you didn't have anyone but me to cling onto – just because I left so unexpectedly doesn't mean you need to throw a childish tantrum over it."

Ryoma didn't look at him, but the words hurt so much, and the grip on his wrist only got tighter.

"It's not my fault I'm better than you," Ryoga said, sharply. "It's not my fault you were always second. Doesn't mean you need to be a fucking baby about it."

If that was the truth, Ryoma didn't want to hear it. He'd never heard Ryoga sound like this before. He suddenly longed for the annoying smile and ruffling of hair. His eyes burned, so fiercely and threateningly, that he covered his face just in case. He immediately wished he hadn't, but it was too late, and he turned and ran for the bedroom. He heard nothing for a moment, except the own roaring in his ears that was so loud it threatened to overtake his senses, and the tears that wanted out but wouldn't come.

When he slipped into bed, he didn't end up crying, but sat there mulling over Ryoga's words. Maybe they were right. They probably were. But if it wasn't Ryoga's fault that Ryoma always came second, then it wasn't Ryoma's fault either that all he wanted to do was beat him. It wasn't Ryoma's fault he couldn't like his brother, it wasn't Ryoma's fault he didn't return his smiles and gestures.

The rain started up again, spattering the window.

Or maybe it was. Maybe he was just an awful, awful person that cared about no one. He fell asleep around two, with wet eyelids, a heavy mind, and a burn on his wrist that would leave a mark. He sort of half-woke up at four, and in his subconscious state, he felt a hand stroking his hair and friendly eyes that said 'sorry', but it was all a blur, and when Ryoma woke up the next morning, he was sure he had imagined it.

"Have you ever wanted to be the best at something?"

Ryoma woke up to Momo's question. The older loomed over him, already dressed, but his lips were pulled in a thin line. Ryoma rolled over, and slipped off the bed. Yes. He wanted to be the best at everything. He wanted so badly to be the best at tennis. But some things, like beating Nanjiroh, seemed so far out of reach, so impossible.

He shrugged. "What about you, Momo-senpai?"

"I do. You know, I'm never the best. Not in school, not in tennis. It's you, Fuji, Tezuka. Nobody really cares about the name Momo."

Ryoma didn't know where this sudden confession was coming from, but so many sudden confessions had happened in the past few days that he didn't have the strength to be surprised. But he could hear the tone of Momo's voice. It was the way he felt about Ryoga, and whenever he lost himself in that envy, he had wished someone could pull him out.

Ryoma shifted uncomfortably. "You're my friend."

"Yeah, well, there's that."

"It's something. Not many people are my friend."

"That's – I mean, c'mon, Echizen. Everyone loves you. That's just bull."

Ryoma just stared at him. "Not many people are my friend," he repeated, and he turned away. The walls were bright from the morning sun, but his stomach felt tight, and his head felt empty. Ryoga's word were stuck in his mind. He ate breakfast with the rest of the regulars, and not once did he see his brother's face, or all-too-eager-smile.

"Have you guys seen Ryoga around?" Kikumaru asked. "He left his stuff in Momo and Ryoma's room last night."

"I'm sure he won't mind if his cheap board goes missing," Momo said. He shovelled through his eggs. "But, yeah, now that you mention it, I haven't seen him this morning."

Fuji smiled. "He was talking to me last night."

Ryoma stopped, and went cold. His eyes shot over to Fuji. "What?"

The eyes were light with laughter, the pale face delighted. "He told me everything," he said. "About your conversation last night."

"What conversation?" Momo asked.

"Fuji, what are you talking about?" Tezuka asked.

Ryoma pushed away his plate, and felt sick again. He couldn't believe his brother had told Fuji about what they had talked about it. It was personal. He had trusted Ryoga, in a strange way, to admit how he felt about him. He didn't have the right to – Ryoma struggled to keep his face blank – he didn't have the right to go telling everything to Fuji.

He looked at Fuji. "Did you ask?"

Fuji said, with too much venom, "He was actually coming back from your room."

So it hadn't been a dream. Ryoma felt sicker. Fuji's next words, as nonchalantly as they were said, made him want to throw up.

"I bumped into him. Before I could say anything, he passed out."

There was a hush around the table. Kikumaru's eyes got huge, and Ryoma felt his breath leave him. He remembered how tired Ryoga had looked by the pool, the circles under his eyes. The weight of the event, as small as it may have been, hit his chest hard. Fuji's eyes zeroed in on Ryoma, and there was laughter in them.

"When he woke up, he told me everything. And then he fainted again."

That was it. Ryoma stood up, and ran for the bathroom. He threw up into the toilet bowl, eyes wet, shoulders shaking. Momo must have ran in after him, because halfway through someone patted his back, and thrust a glass of water in front of him. Ryoma took the glass with sweaty hands, and gulped the water down. He didn't know why he was so upset.

It wasn't a big deal. It wasn't. Maybe it because just for that split second, he had thought something was seriously wrong with his brother. And the thought was terrifying.

"Yo," Momo patted his shoulder. "You alright?"

Ryoma shivered. "Fine. I'm fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. Of course I'm sure."

The words held innocent fright. Ryoma bit his lower lip, and turned away. When he got out of the bathroom, Fuji's smile was gone, Kikumaru's face was pulled tight, and Tezuka looked like he was torn between getting an Advil or comforting Ryoma. The lines on the wall in front of him blurred, and before he knew it, he was crying.

It was all stupid, really. Stupid. He shivered, and tried to gulp back the tears, but they wouldn't stop. They insisted on falling. He didn't even know why he was crying. Ryoga wasn't that bad. Nothing was really that bad. He curled into himself, and choked on his own tears. Momo's concerned arm went around him, and Tezuka quietly told him that there was no need to cry.

"I just wish," Ryoma said. "I just wish he didn't leave."

The words surprised himself, but amidst his tears, they were the truest words he'd said in a while. He yanked away from Momo's grip, still crying, eyes shiny, face wet. "Don't follow me," he said, and he walked down the hallway, feeling so frail and weak he wasn't sure how his own two feet were holding him up.

He hadn't seen where Ryoga was staying until now.

The room, of course, was nothing first class. It was the same as Momo and his. But there were pictures everywhere, all framed. Most of them were of Ryoga with people Ryoma had never seen. His friends. All his friends, the millions he had from travelling. Some of them were with their mother and father. One was of the two of them, and Ryoma stared at it the longest.

It was of Ryoga with his arm around him, and they were sitting on one of those teacups that spun you around until you threw up. They both looked delighted, and Ryoma was looking up at Ryoga with admiration reflected in his eyes. "Pfft," Ryoma said, throat scratchy from crying. He wiped at his eyes. "Stupid brother."

"The feeling's mutual," a smug voice said.

Ryoma glanced over his shoulder, where Ryoga had propped himself up on the pillow. His face was as pale as a sheet, and the bags under his eyes looked even heavier.

"Fuji said you fainted," Ryoma stared at the ground.

"It was nothing."


Ryoga winced, and the stress on his face was so obvious in the daylight. And yet, Ryoma saw, his eyes were still so full and bright. The hope filled his face, and made him look like a child. Ryoma pressed his lips together. "Twice," he said. "Why?"

"Felt like it."

Ryoma shot him a sharp look.

Ryoga held his hands up, and his body shook with silent laughter. "Sorry. I was seeing if you cared. Which you obviously do."

Ryoma's face went tight, and he turned away. "I don't," and the awkward pause betrayed the words. Because he suddenly did care and he'd cried and it was all so stupid. Ryoga was so stupid. His jealousy was so stupid. Fuji was so stupid. And the dumb tennis match. It would have been better off if Tezuka had just played it.

"You should get it checked," Ryoma finally said.

Ryoga said, "Uh, no. There's no need."

"You fainted twice. It can't be for no reason."

"Stress, okay?"

They just looked at each other, one meek, the other defiant. Ryoma finally shrugged, like he didn't care, but his twisted gut didn't loosen. The moment Fuji had said Ryoga had fainted twice, Ryoma had thought of the worst thing: some kind of cancer, or some horrible incurable sickness. It had been a stupid assumption, but it scared him.

Ryoga grinned, and patted the space beside his pillow.

Ryoma thought about walking away, like he did most of the time, but something forced his legs over and he slid beside him. Ryoga's face lit up, so bright, sobright, that Ryoma shivered, but he felt a faint outline of a grin trace his face. Ryoga slung an arm around him, and started to talk:

"Okay. So. Okay, my gang has issues. A lot of issues. Drugs. Mostly, it's drugs, and it's really horrible because how can they play tennis when their abusing their bodies like that? It's awful, Chibisuke, truly awful. And I have to see them. And sometimes their drunk too. A lot of times. It's all really awful."

Ryoma scoffed, "Dump them."

"Can't. I get paid for this."

"Find a better job."

"It's not thatsimple, alright?"

Ryoma sunk into the pillow. He closed his eyes. The moment, he could tell, asked for him to spill everything he'd thought about. How angry he'd always felt toward Ryoga. For being better, for being perfect, for getting everything. How upset and jealous he'd always been, especially when he left so abruptly. But he didn't want to say that stuff. He couldn't.

"I'm sorry about before," Ryoga said awkwardly. "By the pool. I feel bad."

Ryoma swallowed, shrugged. "Whatever."

"It wasn't whatever. It was mean."

"I was mean, too."

"Yeah, but you're still little," Ryoga said, like it was the perfect excuse ever. Ryoma wanted to cut his throat out for the words, for the leeway when he didn't deserve one, but he didn't. He just let the words wash over him, comfort him. He was still little. Twelve. He was allowed to make mistakes. Ryoga ruffled his hair, and Ryoma didn't swat the hand away.

"Fine," Ryoma said. "I'm okay."

"Yeah?" Ryoga's head hit the pillow with a thump. "That's a relief. Your eyes are red. I thought – "

"I wasn't," Ryoma said, too quickly. He had been crying, so hard down by the bathroom, but he couldn't admit that. Not yet. Accepting Ryoga, and that he cared for him, was still such a gentle, quavering feeling that he couldn't quite grasp. They sat next to each other for a while, and Ryoma's eyes glanced at the picture again. They looked so happy, familiar with each other, and he willed himself to let go.

"Hey," Ryoga ran a hand through his own tangled hair. "How come you aren't bitching at me like you normally do?"

Ryoma smirked, and felt a wave of weight roll off his shoulders. He would let it go, for now.

"I got bored, Nii-san."