Also, I have the Christmas Song (Semero, Tsuyoku Nare... doesn't it sound like a Christmas song to you? XD) stuck in my head...
Disclaimer: Konomi's, not mine,
Pairings: past Pillar Pair, Imperial Pair (but this really isn't the focus! I swear.)
Warnings: Future AU, BL, boys kissing, angst
Author's Note: I'm not angry at Tezuka in the least. >___> I swear.
Tezuka returns from Germany two days after Ryoma begins as buchou of the Seishun Gakuen Middle School Boys Tennis Club.
To club he wears his regular face of apathy - I don't care and I never will - the one he's kept for his entire time at Seishun Gakuen. And why should he change now? Ironically, by reaching the top, he's reached the bottom; the team has no hopes for nationals this year, and Ryoma will be surprised if they even make it to Kantou. None of the second years are anything spectacular, and while Mizuno has shaped up quite nicely over the years, Katou is crippled in doubles now that Arai has graduated, and Horio is still a hopeless mess. Ryoma wonders how he inherited such a worthless, worn out, faded memory of a team; it had seemed so promising when it had been bequeathed to him those years ago. But now it's a burden, and so he assigns drills and laps and sits on the bench half-watching with apathy from under the brim of his hat.
To club, he wears apathy, but it all melts away the moment practice ends, and Ryoma is gone almost before he can dismiss the rest of them, because Tezuka is home, Tezuka is home. He practically runs to Tezuka's house, still in full Seigaku tennis regalia, and it's all he can do to keep the smile off of his face as he fidgets on the doorstep, waiting for someone to answer the door. He's bubbling, he's elated, and who cares if Seigaku doesn't even make it past the first round of prefecturals? Tezuka's back, and with Tezuka around, Ryoma will never be bored, Ryoma will never have to think about the mess that used to be a tennis club, because he'll have Tezuka.
It feels like forever, but finally, the door opens to reveal the person for whom Ryoma's been waiting, the person for whom Ryoma would wait forever. He looks just the same as middle school, glasses, lavender shirt, serious expression. Ryoma's the one who's changed, and having added five inches to his height in the past year and a half, he's pleased that he can almost look Tezuka in the eye without being looked down upon. "Buchou," he says with a grin, even though he's the buchou now, and though he's half hoping for some response in Tezuka's facial expression, he's not surprised when none comes. "Are you going to invite me in?"
Inside, he sits on Tezuka's bed, watching Tezuka unpack. They talk little, but they've never been big on conversation, and Ryoma's just pleased to be here. Occasionally, Tezuka will speak to him, too busy with what he's doing to look up, and Ryoma will answer, short strings of words. "You're well?" "Yeah. Your arm?" "Fine." "Really?" "Yes." Then silence, which Ryoma suddenly finds uncomfortable, and he squirms slightly to make the mattress squeak, only it doesn't. Tezuka looks up at him from where he kneels before a suitcase on the floor anyway, though, and the intensity of his gaze catches Ryoma off guard. There is a moment in which Ryoma swallows, and then, "Seigaku?" asks Tezuka, and Ryoma shrugs. "There isn't much to say," he replies, and Tezuka seems to stiffen, but Ryoma can't say for sure.
It's silence after that, and then Tezuka informs Ryoma that he needs to run errands. Ryoma nods and rises, catching Tezuka at the door and slipping his hand into Tezuka's large one. Everything feels right, but when Ryoma stands on his toes to kiss him, Tezuka inclines his head so that Ryoma's lips only brush his cheek before opening the door for Ryoma.
"Good evening, Echizen," he says, and Ryoma, not knowing what else to do, nods and pulls his cap over his eyes before heading back out into the chill of the night.
There is a short, sandy-haired first year in the tennis club who always stands in the back. He's a timid kid who shies away from Ryoma's gaze, and Ryoma first notices him not for his tennis, but because he's always the last first year left out on the courts, collecting the balls the others were to lazy to pick up. It's closing in on the end of the second week-- closing in on the ranking matches Ryoma is putting off organizing-- before he even sees the boy play, and it's really a fluke. He's leaving the locker rooms with Mizuno (who he's picked for his second in command; he's the only choice, really, the only one who could ever keep his wits about him) when he notices the boy still out on the courts, when he hears the sound of a tennis ball on hard court, then the sound of tennis ball on chain link fence.
He can't help but look, and he's surprised by how much he's taken in. Sure enough, the boy is hitting against the fence, but the rebound off the chain link is irregular, and the way he rallies to return it with pinpoint accuracy is beautiful to watch. He's not close enough to say with certainty, but he has a suspicion that the ball is hitting the same point on the fence every time, clink, clink, clink, over and over again.
He's not aware of how long he watches, but he's broken out of the trance by Mizuno. "What will you do?" he asks, and his voice sounds as if it's at the edge of a dangerous precipice.
Ryoma does not respond. The next day, as Ryuuzaki and Mizuno look on, he writes the boy down in the last row of the D-block.
Despite being back in the country, Tezuka is increasingly hard to track down. Every day, Ryoma emails to ask if he's free to play tennis, but, promptly, he always receives a concise "no," nothing more and nothing less. It's aggravating, but he has to remember, Tezuka has a life, too, and he's just gotten back into the country, and Ryoma knows he's going to have to be patient before he becomes a priority in Tezuka's life again. After all, they're both stubborn, driven people, and he knows better than to think Tezuka will put his life on hold for a relationship. Tezuka may be older and have more to worry about in life than winning the middle school national championship, but Ryoma's older and more mature, too, and he can wait. For Tezuka, he can wait.
Still, it's a little disheartening, rejection after rejection, and so the weekend before the ranking matches, he sends Tezuka an email asking him to coffee. "Just for half an hour," he explains, "I want to see you."
He waits longer than expected for a reply, but when one comes, it's a "no," all the same.
The freshman is the overall winner in the D-block. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the freshmen, he is awarded a (size small) Regulars' jersey. When Ryoma hands it to him, along with the rest of the uniform, he bursts into tears.
Ryoma watches him closely after that. It doesn't make sense to him, to have a boy too timid to even look him in the eyes, a boy who gets told what to do even by the other freshmen, and yet who is so talented at tennis. But Ryoma can't deny it; he is talented, in his first regulars practice, he defeats Katou seven to five. Ryoma speculates that it's because Katou is more of a doubles player, anyway, but the boy beams, blushing as he shakes hands with his senpai over the net. He politely thanks him for a good game before scampering off to collect balls with the other freshmen when practice is over. Ryoma is floored. He doesn't understand.
"He's cute," says Katou cheerfully, afterwards.
"He's a real talent," Mizuno adds.
Even Horio has nothing bad to say about him, besides, "He's too humble," but even then, he's grinning, because this boy is their chance, this is their chance.
And yet Ryoma thinks only of Tezuka. In the upcoming tournaments, he know there is no challenge for him. His days as miracle boy have come and passed, and he finds himself almost a little jealous of the little blonde first year who still has lots more to work on. He has room to grow, challenges to overcome. Ryoma has hit the ceiling and isn't sure where to go from there.
When he sees Tezuka with Atobe, stupidly, the first thing that goes through Ryoma's mind is this is why he's been avoiding me? He blinks, rubs his eyes, pinches himself, but nothing changes, and there they are, kissing over the net , plain as day. When his brain can function again, it tells him to move, tells him to run, tells him to look away, but he can do nothing as Tezuka pulls back from Atobe, before turning to Ryoma. It's amazing how void of emotion his features are, even as he runs a hand though his hair. "Echizen," he says, his voice, deep, even, and suddenly, Ryoma wants to cry, so badly he wants to cry, but he only stands, glued to the spot.
"Why?" he asks, and oh, that sounds so weak and so stupid, and his voice cracks with the strain of holding back tears, but he needs to know, he needs to know.
Tezuka looks back at him unblinkingly, face perfectly serious even as he pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I thought you understood," he replies, but there is no remorse in his tone, only matter-of-factness, as if he were reciting lines out of a grammar book. "It was never for you. It was for the team. It was for Seigaku."
And that one sentence, those few words are enough to shatter everything inside of Ryoma, and some pillar, he thinks, because he's crumbling faster than he can cover for it. He runs, but he's fairly certain Tezuka has seen the tears, and as much as he hates it, there's nothing he can do. He manages not to lash out, as he would have a year ago, he manages not to speak, and he thinks it's for the best once he's safely back in his own bedroom, curled up around his cat. Downstairs, his father has the news on too loud; something about a plane crash in the US, and his cousin calls him plaintively for dinner, but all he can think is how stupid he's been, how stupid he's been, and he falls asleep that way, curled at the foot of his bed, the pathetic aftermath of what should have been.
He puts it all away somewhere in the depths of himself, because the next morning, he's Buchou again, and he has to be strong. Pillar he is not, but he has a responsibility, regardless of whether or not he wants it. He has a feeling Mizuno and Katou can tell there's something wrong, but they say nothing, only watch him when they think he can't tell and whisper in hushed tones behind his back. He wants so badly to shout, to turn around and hit them, tell them that he's not upset and that he's stronger than that, of course he's stronger than that, but when he reaches the point that he almost does lash out, he's suddenly hit by the sickening realization that it's himself he wants to convince, and no one else. He needs to prove to himself that he's strong enough not to let Tezuka break him.
Ryoma has gone through his entire life with things to prove: to his father, his opponents, his buchou-turned-lover. But facing the fact that this is his own personal issue that he must overcome not in a clear-cut victory scored on a scale of six, but in the hazy, messy grey area that is his own heart, and the thought is daunting, terrifying. Because how can he ever forgive himself for letting himself become weak? Even if he uses loss to drive him forward harder, stronger in tennis, even if he builds a protective barrier between himself and the rest of the world, what will it accomplish, in the end? He can't hide this from himself, he can't look away from what he's become, what he is.
When he can find no answer, he uses the only defense mechanism he can think of-- he distracts himself with tennis. But unlike when he was a freshman, when he was a child, when he could run off and do as he liked when he was frustrated, now he has the club to run. He's prepared to think of some excuse, any excuse, to leave drills to Mizuno and escape, but, to his surprise, club is a better distraction. Because when he pours his attention into others, he doesn't have to face himself, and when he invests himself in the team, he doesn't have to judge himself. And so he watches the Regulars practice with painstaking intensity, watches every person individually. The advice he gives is harsh but honest, and despite a few brusque responses, to Ryoma's utter shock, he watches them grow and blossom before his eyes. Sure, they're not half the Regulars of Ryoma's freshman year, but when Ryoma watches them rally with hot intensity, watches their muscles tremble and the sweat roll into their eyes, he's filled with a feeling of warmth that he doesn't quite understand but that he likes very much. He hides his smiles beneath the brim of his hat.
He begins to play with them, when he's not watching. They're no challenge for him, but they're honestly trying, and as the days go by, they get two, three points, even a game or two from him. He tells them they still have lots more to work on, but he can't keep the smile out of his voice even if he can fight it off his face, and they grin back. Don't let your guard down, he wants to say, but he chokes on the words, even still.
They're good, all of them, they're getting better, but the blonde boy is the best of them all. Ryoma finds his hopes for prefecturals rising with alarming speed when, one week before their first match, he comes to Ryoma, tears rolling down his face. His right wrist is in a brace. Ryoma's stomach plummets.
"Tendonitis," says the boy before Ryoma can ask, "I can't play--"
He continues to sob out his misery, but Ryoma's mind is already racing ahead, the way it does on the tennis court when his own ingenuity is the only bridge between himself and victory. But the answer now is comparatively simple. "Have you ever played left handed?"
The boy's tears slow, and he looks up at Ryoma with wide, blue eyes. "A... a little?"
And then something strange snaps inside of Ryoma, and before he even knows what he's doing his mouth is opening and he's speaking. "Tomorrow afternoon, meet me at the clay courts at Haruno University. Come alone. I'll bring the balls."
The boy stares a moment before his eyes brighten and he nods enthusiastically. Obediently. Without a doubt, he will become the next Pillar of Seigaku.
Ryoma is not sure whether it is the worst or the best decision of his life.