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He'd known they weren't going back to their old house, that it had only ever been on loan, but when he'd pictured returning to Japan that was still where he saw himself living. Or somewhere like it: a quiet neighbourhood, a traditional house, a big garden, a tennis court. His dad lolling around on the porch or the court or in front of the TV, his mother in the kitchen or coming home from work. Karupin running to meet him at the door.

Reality was a two bedroom apartment in a high rise block, half-heartedly furnished with a couple of lumpy futons and a couch leaking foam onto cheap, peeling laminate. It didn't allow cats.

He could, he supposed, pretend his mother was at work and would be home any minute to bully them into cleaning. If she didn't go right out and find them a different place, "Honestly, Nanjiroh, I asked you to do one thing - ", soon there'd be a new floor - tatami, even though she'd complained sometimes about keeping it clean - and the walls would be repainted and he wouldn't have to sleep on a futon. Or eat ramen again.

"What flavour do you want?" his dad said shortly. They didn't talk about tennis anymore, which meant he hadn't had a conversation with his father in weeks that didn't revolve around what kind of take out or instant ramen they should have for dinner. "Well?" He held up two identical looking packets. Ryoma shrugged, and his dad sighed and went back into the kitchen. Kitchenette. Eventually the microwave dinged and they silently ate and his father silently retreated to his room and that was the end of the day's father-son bonding exercise.

After dinner, such as it was, he dug through boxes to find a hat. It wasn't hard, there weren't many boxes, or much within them; books, clothes. All his rackets had been thrown away or left in America, all the balls, the posters, even the tennis games for his DS, and he burned with resentment at their absence. They'd been his, if he'd wanted rid of them he'd have said. And his room still looked weird without any tennis paraphernalia, like someone else's crappy hotel room. Bland and alien. He wrapped a scarf around his face as well, to ward off March and camera phones, and grabbed his wallet.

At the door he paused, ready to call: "I'm going out!" and then gave up. Like dad would care, he thought sulkily. Like he would even notice if Ryoma wasn't there. "It's not my fault I can't play anymore," he wanted to say, "we could do other stuff." But he couldn't think of a single thing he could do with his father that wasn't tennis, so he supposed he couldn't blame him for not being able to think of one either. He compromised on slamming the door as he left, that was message enough.

*

There wasn't a single court in the vicinity of their apartment, as if his father had deliberately chosen an area bereft of them. He wouldn't have put it past him only he didn't see how he could possibly have arranged something like that, especially when so little care seemed to have gone into choosing the apartment itself.

He couldn't help looking for them, he'd been programmed by years of going out for no other purpose. The same way he couldn't stop looking for familiar faces everywhere he went, even knowing the populations of entire smaller cities could be lost in Tokyo's millions. He could never decide if he wanted to find one, court or face, and his gaze would fix sullenly on the ground, dart back up again, down again, with constant, stupid uncertainty. This time he wandered further afield, until his trained ears caught the distant sounds of a street court, outs being called, the thok. thok. of balls returned, and his feet took him towards them without any conscious decision-making needed at all.

He rounded another corner, divided and irritable, telling himself I will just have a look, see if it's anyone I know and then there was the court, and there was Buchou. Who did not, some part of him noted with stunned indignation, even live anywhere near here.

He was playing a match against someone Ryoma didn't recognise; he spared half a point to watch him and then dismissed him as unworthy of both his and Buchou's attention. A waste of time, when he could instead drink in the long line of Tezuka's perfect body, Tezuka's perfect serve, every movement economical and glorious. He hadn't seen a match in months and it hit him like a drug. He almost laughed out loud; really, he should've started by watching someone mediocre, not gone straight for the premium grade drop shot. He had to pull his scarf down so he could breathe properly, dizzy with want.

Somehow he'd convinced himself that Buchou wasn't really that good. Excellent, of course, but not transcendental. It was only tennis, after all, and he hadn't really walked away from the best of all possible opponents to play annoying adults, who were so rarely the challenge he'd been promised. His fingers twitched to be bent around a racket, his feet itched to step onto the court. He wanted to push that mediocre stranger out of the way and take his place.

He came back to himself when they changed sides. A wary look around revealed no-one else he knew but there was a boy staring right at him, taking a step and then another step towards him. "Hey," he said, gaping in idiotic astonishment. Ryoma scowled at him furiously and tugged his scarf back up. Just what he needed, another round of: Hey, aren't you Echizen Ryoma, famed and failed Prince of Tennis; Hey, didn't you fuck up your arm; Hey, didn't your mom run off with your manager while you were still in rehab, hey, how much did that suck --

He turned away, hearing the rumours already starting up at his back.

He didn't even get around the corner before, "Echizen," a low voice behind him called, and he stopped because he couldn't not, for that voice. Still so familiar it made his whole body ache with nostalgia and tense to run laps. He turned a little, enough to welcome Buchou falling in beside him without giving anyone a decent photo op, and they left the court full of boys to gossip behind them.

They passed a 100 yen shop and most of a park before Tezuka said, "I didn't know you were back in Japan."

Ryoma hunched his shoulders guiltily. "Not for long. Couple of weeks." He couldn't help reading accusations into the long silence that followed and offered, like an apology, "I'm starting at Seigaku in April."

"That's. Good. You took the entrance exam?"

Yeah." Belatedly, and he'd done very badly, but they let him in anyway. Echizen Ryoma was a national fucking hero. Also, rich.

"I saw your match," Tezuka said and then looked like he wished he hadn't.

"Which one?" Ryoma asked, rude and unfair. Like he didn't know. Like everyone wasn't always going to mean the same match, now and forever.

"The last one," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "It's not your fault, Buchou."

"Is it - will you be able to -"

"No, it's fucked," he said bluntly, holding out his left arm like some kind of illustration. It wasn't like you could tell, from looking at it, that the fingers didn't quite clench properly. "God, but I had enough operations to try and fix it. Waste of time." He shrugged again. "I can still use it for a lot of stuff, and it doesn't really hurt anymore. It'll be fine." Ryoma had worked hard on thinking of that as the upside, but Tezuka looked broken-hearted. Really, he thought irritably, stuffing his hand back in his pocket, what was the point of being all stoic if everyone around him was going to act like it was the end of the world?

"Will you be rejoining the tennis club?" Tezuka asked abruptly.

Ryoma was taken aback. 'I don't play anymore', he started to say, but he'd never said it before and the words stuck in his throat. He couldn't even tell what answer Tezuka was hoping for. "I don't know," he said instead. "Maybe."

He felt like a liar but Tezuka nodded solemnly, like he'd just been made a promise.

It started to drizzle a little, as if even the weather was discouraged by how little they had to say to each other. The dizzying high of watching Tezuka play had faded already. Just say no, kids. "I'd better get home."

Tezuka nodded again. "Where do you live now?"

Ryoma looked around and realised he didn't have the faintest idea. "That way," he chose a direction at random, "Well. See ya," and walked off, head hunched down, too fast to welcome pursuit.

*

Unsurprisingly, he got lost. It made him furious to find he didn't know the city like a native should. It made him feel like an American tourist, like his Japanese would suddenly have an accent if he asked for directions. By the time he got back it was full dark and he was cold and wet and worn out with being emotional. He wanted to collapse in front of the television and watch something stupid; he could not have been less in the mood to deal with his father's stupid instead.

But there he was, sitting in the dark like some tragic hero, picking more foam out of the couch. It would deflate entirely at this rate.

He decided to head straight for his room, but, "Hey, brat," Nanjiroh said, soft and mild. He almost sounded like normal and it made Ryoma hesitate. "Where you been? You're late home."

"Did we have something planned?" Nanjiroh sighed, like Ryoma had disappointed him again. God knew how this time, he could only fail to be the best tennis player in the world once. "I just went for a walk."

"See anything interesting?"

A tennis court. Buchou. Half of Tokyo. "No."

"Siddown. C'mon."

"I was going to -"

"Sulk in your room, I know, I know. You can do that later. Siddown."

There was nowhere to sit except the leaky couch. He perched reluctantly at the other end, eyeing his father warily.

"How's the arm?" he asked abruptly.

"Okay."

"It's been cold lately. Is it hurting?"

"It's fine."

"Didn't think it would be so cold. Supposed to be Spring." A few more bits of foam were torn away and dropped to the scattered pile at his feet. There was a hole the size of a fist in the side of the couch now; Nanjiroh seemed bent on tunnelling all the way through it. "A new start, right? Back to school and normal life and everything."

"Yeah." Great.

"Should've done that in the first place." His voice turned suddenly rough. "Instead of letting you go pro so young."

"What're you talking about?"

Nanjiroh didn't even seem to notice he'd spoken. "Let you, ha. Was my idea, wasn't it? You didn't even want to do it at first. Wanted to stay in Japan, go to Nationals with your friends. I just - I wanted you to be -" The best player in the world. A babe magnet. A worthy opponent. "Happy."

Ryoma felt lightheaded with confusion. The dimness of the room, his father's quiet voice finally breaking weeks of silence and not to rail at him in bitterness - there was something dreamlike about it. But when he dropped a hand to squeeze his thigh through the rough, damp fabric of his jeans, nothing changed. He was awake and his father was still talking.

"Your mother didn't like it, she was against it from the start. Played merry hell with her career, too." Through the numbness Ryoma felt an odd, alien sense of guilt at that. He suppressed it hastily. "She didn't blame me though, you know. That's not why. I think she blamed herself, for not sticking to her guns. Well, and I was kind of a shitty husband. And that asshole, with his, his, nice hair, and." He bent over, pressing his palms against his eyes. "Oh hell, kid, I'm sorry."

"Dad -" Ryoma just stared at him for what felt hours, frozen with shock and emotional incompetence. He found himself looking wildly around, willing his mother to appear and take over - but that was kind of the problem, wasn't it. Hesitant and unsteady, still feeling like the ground would shift beneath him any second, he stood. He took a couple of crablike steps sideways, rested a hand on his father's shoulder. He gave it a sort of pat, half expecting Nanjiroh to suddenly leap up and burst out laughing, "ha ha, stupid kid, got you - " He didn't.

He reached out and pulled Ryoma down beside him, tugged him close in a raw, clumsy hug. "Ryoma, I'm so sorry."

Ryoma didn't know what to say. They didn't talk about it, that was all. When they had to talk about his arm it was all in stiff, roundabout medical terms; when they had to talk about his mother - well, they mostly didn't talk about his mother. "You should call her," was the most his father had said about her since they'd come back to Japan, and then he'd left the room so there'd be no chance of his overhearing her tinny, distant voice. Ryoma hadn't called her, and refused to feel guilty about that either.

It hadn't actually occurred to him that his father might feel guilty. It was like imagining him feeling embarrassment, or exhibiting common sense; why would you even bother with that sort of bizarre thought experiment? Only here he was. Apologising. "Everyone acts like I only got hurt because I went pro so young," he mumbled, finally. "It's not like adults never get injured. It just happened, you don't have to be such a drama queen about it. I don't blame you," he added awkwardly, truthfully; that had never occurred to him either. "Well, except for making me live in this crappy apartment and eat ramen all the time. But you could learn to cook."

"I'm sorry," his dad said again, dismally.

"We could both learn to cook," he offered nobly, if not with much enthusiasm. Nanjiroh clutched Ryoma to him tightly, smoothing back his hair like he was a little boy again. It was embarrassingly nice.

And then he started crying, which was when Ryoma realised he was drunk.

"Oh, for God's sake." He tugged irritably free of the embrace. Nanjiroh tried to follow him and fell in a pathetic heap on the floor.

"I'm so sorreeeeeee."

Ryoma stood and watched him flail about for a moment, then sighed and hauled him up. They lurched together in an ungainly stagger to the master bedroom, where Nanjiroh fell in a messy, snuffly sprawl on the bed, still sniffing apologies. "Yeah, you should be sorry," he grumbled. Because he was a kind and loving son who deserved medals and a parade he tugged off the idiot's slippers and threw a blanket over him; because his father had never apologised to him for anything in his life before he left it at that. "Try not to choke on your own vomit," he commanded as he stalked out, closing the bedroom door more quietly than the old man deserved. "Asshole."

*

Fortunately his father proved not to be heavily invested in his newfound alcoholism, and the next day he seemed more like himself than he had in months. You could tell, Ryoma thought, by the incessant whining about his terrible headache and his ungrateful son, the latter being disinclined to cease talking, moving, eating or breathing in order to accommodate the former. In the afternoon, after a morning largely spent lecturing his coffee mug on why it should never reproduce, he dragged Ryoma out shopping. "Furniture!" he declared with renewed, and highly caffeinated, energy. "We need a table. A telephone. A cupboard - no, two of them, one for the bathroom. Get you some drawers and shelves, so you can unpack properly. Disgraceful, the way you've left that."

"The way I've -"

"Disgraceful! And we should get you a new hobby, something you can't cripple yourself doing. How do you feel about crochet?"

"Oh, we're joking about it now, are we?"

"Well, you didn't seem to appreciate my heartfelt tears of parental agony. Heartfelt."

Ryoma rolled his eyes. "Anyway, people cripple themselves with crochet. Repetitive Strain Injury."

"Get a vasectomy!" Nanjiroh suddenly roared at a passing couple, in response. "You'll thank me later!"

"This is like child abuse," but he couldn't help finding the way the panicked couple leapt away funny. God, what if he grew up to be like his father? He mourned the death of his dignity in advance.

"Don't think I can't see you smiling, brat," his father threw an affectionate arm around his shoulders; Ryoma scowled at him but let it stay there, even though he wasn't smiling. "Now, first a telephone, before you bankrupt us using your cell all the time -"

"I bankrupt - I never use my -"

"- and this time you really are going to call your mother. Just because she has terrible taste in men doesn't mean she deserves an ungrateful son."

"She's always had terrible taste in men."

"Saa, and she's always had an ungrateful son," Nanjiroh said wonderingly, "how about that? Ooo, let's get one that looks like a robot!"

They got one that looked like a lobster, in the end, and a table that doubled as a pool table, and a chair shaped like a giant purple hand, and a rug with a dart board design, and a mirror with a wooden frame carved with naked women. Apparently the only thing keeping their house from looking like a factory for tacky novelty furniture all these years had been his mother. He'd never missed her more.

"Please tell me my winnings aren't going to buy any of this crap."

"This is a beautiful work of art," his father said in a hushed voice, looking soulfully at his grotty reflection in the mirror. "This is going in my room."

"I want to buy a racket," he said, more loudly than he'd meant to, and avoided his father's instantly serious gaze. "I'm allowed to now, right? I mean - it's not like I can do any more damage running around."

"You - "

"I can still play right-handed."

"Yeah. Yeah. You can still play right-handed." He put the mirror down, subdued. "Well. Let's find a sports store, then."

"It's not a tragedy," Ryoma snarled, remembering how Buchou had looked at him, like he was broken now. How he'd asked if Ryoma was going to join the team. "People play tennis right-handed all the time. And this is the ugliest mirror I've ever seen in my life," he told a flustered saleswoman as he picked it back up and thrust it at her. "Please do a terrible job wrapping it up so it gets broken."

"So ungrateful," his father mourned, and put an arm around him again to keep him trapped while he embarrassed all concerned by flirting with the saleswoman.

*

The ten days until school started again were mostly spent unpacking, shopping, and being appalled at what awful shape he was in. There was no excuse for it; for a long time he'd been forbidden too much jumping about, but his arm had been healed enough for proper exercise for weeks. He spent most days at the tennis club where his father had reluctantly bought them both memberships, hitting against walls and ball machines and working out in the gym, too embarrassed to play a proper match with anyone. His dad didn't offer and he couldn't decide if he was grateful or offended.

He went back to the street courts a couple of times, peering at them from around the corner like a scared child, but he didn't see Tezuka there again. As he walked away the second time, feet heavy with relief and disappointment, a elderly man frowned at him, all wrinkly with disapproval. His hands went instinctively up to check his scarf, his hat, down to tug his sleeve safely over the bandages, but all the old man said was, "Shouldn't you be in school, boy?", and he realised it was 11 am on a school day. Tezuka was in the middle of his year end exams, not wandering about street courts waiting for Ryoma to show up. He felt too ridiculous to go back again after that.

The morning he was to start school he woke up at 4.00 am and couldn't get back to sleep again. He just lay there, wishing he'd been a better correspondent or that he'd called Momo in advance so he wouldn't have to deal with them all at once. Tezuka would've told everyone he was coming back, he reminded himself. They'd be expecting him, it wouldn't be weird, they'd have got all their surprise over with and it would be just like coming back after the summer. Tezuka would've told them he was coming back, and not to be stupid at him, and it would be fine.

*

Tezuka had not told anyone he was coming back.

This became clear when he showed up at morning practice, early for the first time ever. At least, he'd thought he was early but everyone else seemed to be early too, dozens of people already changed and out on the courts.

Silence rippled out around him as he walked towards the changing rooms, like the inverse of the silence he used to cause stepping onto a court. Then it had been stadiums full of people holding their breath for his first serve, swallowing their cheers. This was people biting back their whispers until he was past. Was that Echizen Ryoma? Does he go to Seigaku? Did you hear about - He stifled the urge to wave cheerily and tell them his name was Horio and he had five years tennis experience.

"Ochibi?" a disbelieving voice broke the silence, "Is that really -!" Eiji-senpai was on him before he was even properly turned around. "Eeeeeeee! Echizen, Echizen!" So, one person was glad to see him at least. Ryoma was so relieved he actually hugged him back, which startled Eiji enough that he leapt away with a squeak.

"Hi senpai," he said hoarsely, horribly aware of his broad, foolish grin. They both took a moment to properly examine each other - no wonder he'd walked right past him, Ryoma thought, Eiji's hair was buzz cut short, and had gone darker, almost brown. And he'd lost the band aid; it had apparently been hiding a completely insignificant scar. He was taller and broader and looked almost an adult. He was almost an adult, Ryoma realised in startlement; he hadn't noticed so much with Buchou because he'd always looked like a grown up, but they were both seventeen now, almost eighteen. Almost finished with school and childish things. The idea made him feel a bit queasy.

"Hey," said another familiar voice, "is that - " and then it was all hugs and questions and exclamations of astonishment. Buchou wasn't there, or Kawamura or Fuji, but the others crowded suffocatingly around him. He looked uneasily from one to the next. Eiji wasn't the only one to have changed. Oishi-senpai was almost unrecognisable with normal hair, just some short, average looking guy with a bewilderingly deep voice. Momo's height had surpassed Inui's, and possibly Michael Jordan's, and he had a ponytail and a - well, an attempt at a goatee. He looked stupid, but also about twenty.

"You all look so different," he said uncertainly, feeling very small and young in comparison. He'd never felt like that around all the actual adults he had to deal with on the circuit.

"Different how?"

"Taller," he managed, and they laughed. What he really meant was older, and that he didn't like it. "Why'd you all change your hair? Did you lose bets?"

"Hey, yours is different too, Ochibi."

"No it isn't."

"It is, look how long it is!"

"Well, that's -" That was only because his mother was always the one who nagged him to get a hair cut. Without her around - "I'm growing it." He put a hand up to finger its length and noticed Eiji's eyes, still eagle-like, fasten at once on the tiny sliver of bandage that revealed. He dropped his hand but it was too late, the atmosphere had gone tense and awkward already.

"Are you back, Echizen? At Seigaku?" Momo seemed to notice his uniform at last.

"Yeah," he smiled, but no-one else did. He rolled his eyes, a little hurt despite himself. "Che, don't everyone look too happy about it."

"Idiot," Momo grabbed him around the neck again, though a lot more gently that he'd used to. Like he thought Ryoma was fragile, the moron. "'Course we are. Just - you're not - it's not permanent, is it? Your arm - the papers were all -"

"Shh, Momo," Eiji hissed, waving his arms dramatically. Ryoma felt instantly better; clearly Eiji hadn't grown up that much after all.

"It's fine, Eiji-senpai. No, my arm's - yeah, it's permanent." It was a bit more complicated than that but it was vanishingly unlikely it would ever function well enough for professional tennis and that was all anyone cared about. They looked devastated, Momo's arm falling from Ryoma's shoulders in dismay. It was his own fault, he admitted to himself. He should've answered some of the emails and texts and phone messages they'd sent him, after. Then they'd be used to it by now and he wouldn't have to be watching their faces when they found out. It was just, he'd been waiting until he had good news. Until he could say, no, it's fine, it's going to get better. Everything's going to be okay.

"It's okay, senpai," he reassured them. "I can still play right-handed." They failed to look reassured. It was probably just as well they hadn't actually seen him play yet, they were going to be really upset then.

"Well now, what's this then," a hearty, unfamiliar voice thankfully interrupted them. "Here now - " The new arrival stopped and stared at Ryoma. Ryoma stared back, stunned by the most terrifying moustache he'd ever seen. It was shiny and black and extended about six inches either side of its owner's face, forming loops big enough to encircle Ryoma's hand. It was like the man had grown himself a hairy pair of handcuffs.

"Oh, Echizen, this is our coach, Furuwara-sensei. Sensei, this is -"

"Echizen Ryoma!" The moustache said cheerfully, holding out his hand and pumping it excitedly.

"Yes, sensei. Pleased to meet you," he remembered to say, and ducked his eyes in a belated attempt at a bow. He had a horrible premonition he was going to get in a lot of trouble before he got the hang of Japanese manners again, but Furuwara-sensei paid no attention.

"Well now, well now, Seigaku's famous son!" He clapped his hands together. "What an honour! What a delight! Not much I could teach you, I daresay!" This didn't seem to need a reply, fortunately. "The headmaster told me you were coming, of course, and of course I know all about your injury. Terrible, what a tragedy. What a loss to Japan." Ryoma had no idea what to do with that either, except desperately hope Furuwara-sensei wasn't going to be one of his teachers. The offended glares his team fixed on him, however, seemed to awaken some small measure of self-awareness in the coach. "And to you, of course," he added hastily. "Well now, are you rejoining the club, Echizen-san?" Echizen-san?

"I - yes, if I'm allowed, sensei."

"I don't see why not. There aren't actually any rules about it," he added, moustache bobbing horribly as he talked, "I checked. I don't think anyone in Japanese tennis has ever gone pro while still in high school before. Let alone gone and come back again." He laughed, and the moustache vibrated, and Ryoma smiled politely, and everyone else looked ill. "If someone kicks up a fuss we'll deal with it then. Well now, let's get moving, come on!"

Buchou didn't show up until practice was half over, by which time Ryoma was almost wishing he hadn't rejoined the club after all. Furuwara-sensei insisted it was a waste of his time to practice with the freshmen - which was hard to argue with, but made many of the other club members stare at him resentfully - and had him practice with the regulars instead. He was used to dealing with resentment, and would've been happy to practice with his friends again, except Furuwara was so constantly interrupting they couldn't actually get anything done. Practically every ball he was bustling over, correcting his stance and his grip, offering advice about his technique, and always finishing it with, "Not that I can teach you anything of course, Echizen-san! Ha ha!" Ryoma was one more helpful suggestion away from trying to see if he could get a tennis ball through one of those moustache loops when Buchou's deep voice interrupted instead.

"Thank you, Furuwara-sensei," perfectly polite and calm but Furuwara's pretence of authority dissolved at once, like a pointless little puddle into the ocean.

"Well now, Tezuka!" He looked suddenly very short and very worried. "Here you are then! Good, I'll just - let you take over here, very good, good. I think you'll be alright now, Echizen-san." A bracing pat on the shoulder, "just wanted to get you started off, settled back in, very good. Good," and he sidled off to torment the freshmen instead.

"What have you got on him, Buchou?" Ryoma asked in wonderment. "Does he sleep with goats or something?"

"Welcome back, Echizen," was all he said - not even a reprimand for being disrespectful to a teacher! - but Ryoma caught a smile in his eyes before he turned away to order laps for everyone. Definitely goats, Ryoma thought, and grinned for ten straight circuits of the courts.

*

Being back at school was weird, and not as much fun as he'd allowed himself to hope. For a start the school work was much harder than he'd expected and he was behind in every class. He kept finding himself imagining his mom leaning over his shoulder to correct his kanji or sigh over his terrible handwriting, gently admonishing him about doing homework occasionally instead of always playing tennis. He frowned down at his worksheet angrily. He didn't need her. None of her obsession with his education had helped anyway; she'd insisted on a tutor but Ms Hernandez had been American, which meant he was all caught up on the U.S. Civil War and had no clue about the Edo period. If she was so smart she'd have hired a Japanese tutor, he thought furiously, and deliberately made his handwriting as ugly as possible.

Nor were all the faculty as much impressed by "Seigaku's famous son" as Furuwara-sensei. He tried to keep his head down and not act like an arrogant American who thought having been a pro made him too good for high school, but apparently he just had an arrogant American aura or something; no matter how polite he was someone was always being astonished at his extraordinary capacity for rudeness. Of the teachers that didn't fawn over him for being famous - or give him sad, disappointed looks for not being famous any more - a few liked to make an exhibition of how much they were not fawning on him.

"You'll need to do much better work than this, Echizen, to have the slightest hope of getting into a good university," his Japanese teacher told him coldly, keeping him back after class but not waiting until the room emptied to expound on his many deficiencies. Again. "I gather you won't be returning to a career in professional tennis," she sneered 'professional tennis' like he'd been a circus clown or something, "so perhaps you'd better give a little more attention to your schoolwork from now on. I know you are having to write with your weaker hand but I understand you are ambidextrous?" She raised snide eyebrows until he nodded, "and this -" she waved his worksheet, "is unreadable. I can barely even tell what language it's in." It was possible, he privately acknowledged, that he'd gone a little overboard with the bad handwriting, and also that he'd forgotten himself and written some of it in English, but it still rankled to have to apologise instead of telling her to get lost.

Things were not much better where tennis was concerned.

He played matches with most of the regulars and mostly lost, to scornful whispers, pitying looks and cries of dismay every time.

The only upside was that Furuwara-sensei mostly lost interest in him after seeing a few of his matches.

"It's like you're a whole different player, Ryoma-kun," he said sadly, petting his moustache as if to comfort it. "What a loss, what a terrible loss." Ryoma gave him the polite, unaffected smile he was trying to perfect and joined the non-regulars for smash practice.

It wasn't just six months without playing, even if he'd never before in his life gone that long without a game. It wasn't just that he was still a bit underweight and had the stamina of a small and lazy child. It wasn't just that he kept favouring his left side despite himself, trying to protect his arm six months too late. It was that he hadn't played a full, hard match with his right hand in years. Even when he'd had an opponent unworthy of his best game, other pros had tended to take his using his non-dominant hand as a sign of contempt. So he'd stopped.

He'd been trying to be mature.

This is what you get, he thought wryly when Inui pounded him into the ground 6-2, 6-7, 6-1, for not being a cocky brat. He should've stayed true to his fundamental nature. "Better luck next time," Inui offered cheerfully with his handshake at the net. Ryoma grinned; Inui-senpai was about the only person who didn't tiptoe around him like someone had just died, offering training menus and diet plans in lieu of sympathy.

He didn't play Buchou, even when Tezuka drew him aside after practice to ask him.

They stood by the side of the changing room, dozens of club members laughing and bickering on the other side of the wall, but Ryoma felt a strange hush fall about the two of them there, like they were quite alone. Practice had run late and behind Tezuka's shoulder the sun was starting to drop over the empty courts. It made a halo around his hair, made the arms of his glasses shimmer, made shadows form on the harsh, clean lines of his face. Ryoma's heart clenched at how beautiful he was, at how longingly he looked at Ryoma.

Then, "Play a match with me," he ordered quietly and the tightness in his chest turned to disappointment. Tezuka's intensity cut through him the same way it always had, tore open the carefully guarded scabs on every wound. Made him want. But he'd thought Tezuka understood that neither of them could have what he wanted anymore.

"Buchou, you know I can't give you a good match right now," he answered as calmly as he could. "I'd just be - it would just be embarrassing. You'd be bored." He couldn't deal with that. He could play badly against anyone but Buchou, deal with anyone else's pity, but not -

"Echizen -"

"Saa, you're not one of those assholes that just wants to boast about beating the great former pro, are you?" he tried teasingly, "because you've already done it before, you can boast all you want."

Tezuka only looked more uncomfortable. "You don't need to try so hard to be - to make a joke of it. It's understandable that you would be upset - you must know that I would understand." His hand twitched briefly upwards like he wanted to clutch at his elbow, his shoulder. "Echizen, you needn't pretend with me -"

"I'm not pretending," he said hastily. Tezuka looked disbelieving. "Look, it's been over six months. I've been upset, ok? I had tantrums, I yelled at doctors, I hurt myself again trying to use my arm before it was healed. I threw a vase at someone," he offered impatiently when this seemed insufficient. Tezuka blinked at that; clearly there were limits to both his understanding and precisely how upset it was acceptable to get. "Well, not really threw, I just knocked it off the - look, I'm just trying to get back to -. I'm just trying to do what you would do, Buchou," he admitted with final, awful honesty, but for some reason, for a moment, Tezuka looked like this was the worst thing he'd ever heard. Ryoma stalled, at a loss to know what he'd said wrong. "I'm playing again," he said desperately, "I'm back in the club, everything can be just like it was before."

"Is that really what you want?" Ryoma had never believed Tezuka unemotional but he couldn't read a thing from him just then. He could only stare at him, so confused he was almost relieved to be interrupted by Furuwara-sensei.

"Ah, there you are, there you are, very good," he bustled unapologetically into their private bubble, bursting it instantly. Ryoma was only aware then, as Tezuka's expressionless face snapped shut like a book, how much emotion he'd been showing after all. "Good, well." He looked between them inquisitively. "I really just wanted a quick word with Ryoma-kun." He looked hopefully at Tezuka. Tezuka looked a polite inquiry back, not moving an inch. "Yes, well," Furawara deflated a bit, "The thing is, Ryoma-kun, I hate to say it," he gave an elaborate sigh and fingered the moustache to illustrate his pain, "I do, but Ryoma-kun, the thing is, you are one of the freshmen, you know, and not on the Regulars. Really you should be helping them with the nets and cleaning the courts and so on -"

"I have been doing," Ryoma said flatly, not making even a pretense at politeness.

"Some people have complained, you see. There are always those -" Ryoma took a quick step to the side but still couldn't escape a shoulder pat, "always those who will be jealous. Not that there's any reason to be jealous of you anymore, sadly. Such a tragedy."

"I have been helping the other freshmen, sensei."

Furuwara looked at him pityingly and dolefully stroked his moustache. "I don't blame you for not wanting to lower yourself to that sort of thing. Ah, you were meant for bigger things."

"Sensei!" Buchou said sharply.

"I can still do big things," Ryoma objected, stung despite himself. "Just, not left-handed." He wasn't even sure anymore that professional tennis was all that big a thing, but no-one would ever believe him if he said it. "I have to get changed," he muttered instead, feeling like a sulky child.

"Ah yes, of course, of course. Insensitive of me -"

"Quite," Tezuka said coldly, but there was that strange flicker of grief in his eyes again, when they brushed across Ryoma's. Like Ryoma was breaking his heart.

Like if he wasn't good at tennis he wasn't good for anything.

*

He rode home on Momo's bike. Just like old times, except Momo was going several kilometres in the wrong direction to drop him off. "Cycling's good exercise," he insisted when Ryoma tried to get the bus instead, "especially with a big weight on the back of the bike. You've gotten taller, Echizen, you really have. Maybe even five whole centimetres!" Momo had stopped looking like a grown up to him remarkably quickly.

"Funny," he said sourly, and tried to think up a rejoinder about Momo's immense height, which made the two of them look like some kind of comedy duo when they stood beside each other.

Before he could come up with anything, "Hey, is that a street court?" Momo was whizzing around the corner to the courts where he'd first seen Buchou playing. "Ah, they're all full." Ryoma didn't much want to play there but he couldn't say that to Momo without epic poems being composed about how the agonies of his life had changed him, so he feigned the proper enthusiasm. There were enough kids hanging around that Ryoma didn't rate their chances of getting a court anyway, unless they traded on his fame or Momo's size. Determined not to, he abandoned Momo while he was securing the bike and headed directly to the top of the bleachers, as far from anyone else as possible.

"Echizen, wait up," Momo called. Ryoma glared back down at him in exasperation as a half a dozen heads turned. "Sorry," he apologised, tugging Ryoma's cap brim as he caught up, "keep forgetting you're such a big shot." Ryoma had to forgive him a minute later; when a couple of kids looked like they were going to head over Momo stepped casually in front of him, holding himself like a bodyguard, or at least like someone who could squash them with one finger. They took one look at him and decided not to bother, though a few others were getting out their phones anyway. Ryoma could only hope seeing his goatee in print would make Momo reconsider it.

"Must be a pain," he mused thoughtfully, throwing himself down. "People bothering you at school?"

"Nah. Not really much of a big shot anymore." Pointing this out was, of course, a mistake; he could see Momo thinking up rhymes for 'tragic loss' before he'd even finished saying it. "One of the teachers asked me for an autograph," he offered quickly. It had actually been hugely embarrassing but Momo looked pleased to hear it. Sometimes it felt like everyone wanted him to be famous except him.

"Anyway, it's ranking matches soon! A few more days and you'll be back on the Regulars."

"Yeah, maybe."

"Hey, what now? You can't get all pessimistic on me, Echizen, you really can't."

"It's not pessimism. Look, I can't beat any of the regulars right now. Well," he furrowed his brow, mock thoughtfully. "Maybe you."

"Hey!"

"Heh."

"Little bastard. Anyway, you're still better than all the non-regulars. Kind of a sorry crowd, this year," he added, not looking too broken up about it. "Not that you could only beat a sorry crowd!" he backtracked, raising a hand to wave his own words away. "That's not what I meant at all!"

"I might end up against Kaidoh and Fuji or something - Kaidoh-senpai's kind of terrifying now, isn't he." Momo reluctantly grunted agreement then turned and stared at him.

"No, no," he shook his head vigorously, like a dog, and gripped Ryoma's shoulders, peering earnestly into his eyes as if looking for signs of concussion. "Echizen, Tezuka-san wouldn't do something like that. Not to you."

"He would if he thought I wasn't up to it." Ryoma stared back, just as surprised. "He's the captain, it's his job. I wouldn't - it would be okay. I'm still getting back into shape." Tezuka hadn't hesitated to give up his own place on the team when he'd been injured, he wouldn't go any easier on Ryoma than himself. It would be okay if he didn't, Ryoma assured himself, it wouldn't mean anything -

Momo just shook his head again. "He won't. You'll see," he said confidently.

"I guess I will," he agreed, glad to let it drop. They watched the matches for awhile, both of them trying to pretend the silence was companionable and ordinary. He couldn't quite remember what he'd used to talk to Momo about. He felt like he'd forgotten how to talk to people altogether, except in interview soundbites, it had just been him and his parents for so long. And Simon. His faithful manager Simon, who'd sometimes seemed the only person who didn't want something from him, even though he was getting paid to want things from him. Who had teased conversation out of him, who'd tried to make him act like a kid, who'd kept his career mostly sane and the press mostly away from him. Who'd screwed him and his whole family over at the worst possible time -

The last time he'd seen him he'd actually tried to hit him, which was ridiculous in retrospect. Well, it had been ridiculous at the time really, especially since he'd forgotten himself and tried to use his left hand. Ended up on the floor almost sobbing in pain, while Simon stood over him uninjured and exasperated.

"God, Ryoma, are you okay? You've got to stop hurting yourself - "

"I don't need your advice."

"I'm still your -"

"You're not my manager anymore." He brandished his ruined arm like a weapon. "I don't need you."

"Still your friend, I was going to say," Simon had said evenly.

With friends like that -

Momo prodded him. "What're you thinking about?"

Ryoma searched quickly for a safer topic, "My mom," he blurted, which decidedly wasn't one. He winced.

"Hey, yeah. So, uh, how's she doing?"

He shrugged and hauled over his tennis bag, poking through it for a change of subject. All he found was that he was out of grip tape. "Wouldn't know."

"When'd you last talk to her?"

"Airport."

"What, when you left America? Not since then?" He shrugged again. "Geez, mine would kill me if I did something like that."

"Yeah well, mine sent me to another country to get rid of me," he retorted churlishly. Besides, if she wanted to talk to him that bad she could phone. He'd only hung up on her that once.

"What?"

"It was her idea we come back to Japan." He hadn't found out until they'd got back. He'd thought it was Dad's idea, that he must need the space from her or something. But no, apparently she was the one who wanted an ocean between them.

"But you like Japan. Don't you?"

"That's not the point."

"Maybe it is, maybe she thought you'd be happier here. It never sounded like you had many friends in America." He'd never had any friends in America, unless you counted Simon. Which he didn't. "Maybe she thought - I mean, if you can't be a pro, Nationals is the next best thing, right?" Ryoma was unhappily aware that there was something terribly wrong with that, but he couldn't find the words for it. He didn't try, just hunched his shoulders defensively.

Echizen," Momo prodded him again, harder, "I've met your mom. You can't really believe she sent you away because, because she hates you or something."

"She didn't want custody," he muttered sulkily, which wasn't exactly true. He'd announced flatly that he was going with Dad before the subject had even come up, but she hadn't argued. Hadn't even looked surprised really, just tired and sad. Like she knew that, even if the break up hadn't been all her fault, he'd always have chosen his father.

Momo sighed, leaning back on his elbows. "Saa, I've heard kids always blame themselves when their parents split up."

"Yeah, but it probably isn't usually their fault." If he hadn't gone pro in the first place, or if he hadn't fucked it all up - or if he'd chosen an older, uglier manager, instead of someone he'd liked -

"Hey - hey," Momo sat back up, "Echizen, you can't blame yourself."

He stood up. "I don't. I blame her."

"Echizen -"

"We're never going to get a court, they're hogging them on purpose. I'm going home."

"Echizen."

"I can walk from here," he said stubbornly, hauling his bag back up.

Momo sighed and gave up. "God, don't be an idiot. I'll take you."

Momo was still too irritated with him to come up after dropping him off, which Ryoma was kind of relieved about. Quite apart from not wanting to have any more conversations about his feelings, Nanjiroh had repainted the apartment and now it was pumpkin orange and lime green. He didn't want to expose Momo to it in case the bad taste was contagious to the stylistically vulnerable, which Momo clearly was.

He kept talking about getting an earring. He seemed to spend all his time worrying about clothes and trying to impress girls. He was the approximate size of a house, and on the Student Council, and didn't really fight with Kaidoh-senpai anymore. Ryoma knew they'd always been friends, really, but he'd never expected them to admit it. Kaidoh himself had stopped wearing bandanas and started wearing socks and reading glasses, and seemed generally less filled with rage. Possibly it was because he'd finally been allowed a kitten; he'd shyly shown Ryoma a picture of her. Several dozen pictures of her, actually, and had made Ryoma miss Karupin terribly. Inui-senpai had thinner glasses and a girlfriend. Fuji-senpai had a part-time job as a foot model which, really, was weirdly typical of him - but everyone had changed, in big ways and little ones. Even Buchou, though he looked much the same, was different now, in strange, subtle ways he couldn't put words to.

"I'm going to the club to practice," he announced after he'd grimly choked down another bowl of instant ramen.

Nanjiroh eyed him thoughtfully from where he was getting animal cracker crumbs all over the new couch (yellow, rainbow polka dots). "You want a hitting partner?" he offered, with every appearance of casualness.

"No," he said too quickly. "Thanks." Nanjiroh's expression didn't flicker but he found himself standing frozen as a cornered animal under his steady gaze, like his father might come at him with a racket and drag him onto a court whether he liked it or not. He tried for a distraction. "The ranking matches start on Saturday."

"And they're letting the likes of you try out? Tch, standards have dropped since my day."

Ryoma headed for the door, relieved at being given an escape. "Yeah, they had to start taking people with egos smaller than a continent."

Nanjiroh beaned him on the head with a cracker.

*

The lists were up for afternoon practice the next day. He found his name in B Block. He was up against Kaidoh, Arai, and a group of second and third years he didn't really remember. He frowned uneasily but Momo dropped a heavy hand onto his shoulder, obscenely happy.

"You see? I told you it would be okay."

"Figures," someone snorted beside him. "Tezuka rigged it."

"What?"

"You think Seigaku needs you, Echizen? We've got a heap of Nationally ranked singles players already - Tezuka, Fuji, Inui, Kaidoh - what use is an injured reserve? We need another decent doubles player, but there's no chance of that now, is there?" He waved a hand at the block lists, and Ryoma looked again, feeling his uneasiness grow as he examined B Block. Him, Kaidoh, and a bunch of people who couldn't measure up. Rigged?

Momo was already telling the other guy off - not yelling or trying to punch him, like he once would have, but still focused enough on his rant not to notice Ryoma slipping away. When he burst into the coach's office Tezuka didn't look surprised at all, only rose to his feet and faced him.

"Did you rig the ranking matches?" he blurted. He hadn't really thought it could be true, but for a moment Tezuka looked guilty. "You did. You -"

"I didn't," he said calmly.

"But - it is true," he said slowly, admitting it to himself as he spoke. Betrayal crept over him like ice. "The team doesn't need someone like me. You need another doubles player, not a second rate reserve. You, you set it up so -"

"That's not how ranking matches work," Tezuka looked at him intently, any hint of guilt or doubt gone. "There are two Regulars in each block, the same as always. B Block has the strongest of the non-regulars, and that includes you. It's designed to -"

"- get me back on the team."

Tezuka shook his head reflexively but it wasn't much of a denial.

"But you're the captain." His voice was trembling. He thought he might actually cry, at this of all things. "You're supposed to do what's best for the team."

"I did," Tezuka said urgently. "Ryoma, you are." He came around the desk, stumbling in his haste, grabbing carefully at Ryoma's good arm, his left shoulder -

"What, do you need a mascot?" Ryoma jerked in his grip but was held fast, helpless.

"It's not like that. Listen to me - " but all he could hear was his own voice saying 'everything can be just like it was before'. Was this meant to be a gift? Was Tezuka trying to give Ryoma the next best thing, or did he just want everything back how it had been too? 'Is that really what you want?'

"Do you - I thought you understood, do you just pity me, like everyone else - "

"It's not like that." He lifted his hand hesitantly, then smoothed it carefully over Ryoma's hair, so warm and gentle it hurt. Ryoma stilled under it, quivering like a wild animal.

"I don't understand you at all," he whispered, and that was almost more of a betrayal. He'd always understood Tezuka. Tezuka always made sense.

"Play a match with me."

Ryoma could only shake his head, mutely, but this time Tezuka didn't look surprised, or upset. "You'll take part in the ranking matches like everyone else," he commanded quietly, releasing him. He skittered clear, still staring at him, but he couldn't think of a thing to say. He turned and fled.

*

It didn't occur to him until he was in bed that night that Tezuka could've put the two of them in the same block just as easily, if all he really wanted was a match.

*

His first set of matches went much as he'd expected; the strongest of the non-regulars weren't especially strong, and mostly not very gracious in defeat.

"I'm looking forward to your match with Kaidoh," the last of Saturday's told him grimly.

"I'm looking forward to it too," he said honestly, and didn't even add that he could do with a decent opponent.

It was his last match on the first day and despite his ambivalence about the rankings in general, very privately he thought he might have a shot. High school tournament matches were three sets, but ranking matches were only one - for a single set he dared hope his skill might edge out a win over Kaidoh's stamina.

But Kaidoh really was one of the team's monsters now; skilled, flexible, clever, and with enough physical strength behind him to rival any power player. He'd made himself into one of the best players in the country and Ryoma could feel himself getting better and stronger as they played, the way he'd always improved with every good match. Being pushed by the challenge into moving faster, hitting harder, jumping higher; being pulled up by a worthy opponent, up a level with every game. It was so exhilarating to finally have that again he didn't even mind losing. Not very much.

But it came down in the end to an endurance battle and even at his best he'd have tried to avoid that. Kaidoh had the endurance of a mountain. He could throw himself against that wall all day and enjoy every frustrating minute of it, but in his condition all his senpai had to do was outlast him.

"Thanks for the match, senpai," he said easily at the net, holding out his right hand and trying not to fall in a soggy, sweaty heap. Kaidoh looked enraged and also like he might cry.

"You're out of practice," he hissed furiously, as if Ryoma playing him whilst not on top form was a personal affront.

"Yeah, no shit, senpai," he said, still patiently holding out his hand. "Just wait, once I get back into shape you're screwed."

"Like hell," but he looked relieved, and squeezed Ryoma's hand unnecessarily hard. From Kaidoh, that was probably meant as a reassuring gesture of friendship.

So he said impulsively, "I had fun, senpai," very quietly, surprised at himself, "didn't you have fun?" He had no idea what the look Kaidoh gave him then was supposed to mean, and he got no opportunity to decipher it with Momo and Eiji and god, Horio, all crowding onto the court to look at him with the big sad eyes of Ryoma's-not-a-pro-anymore.

Everyone acted like his playing high school tennis was a tragedy, as if all of them weren't playing high school tennis too, as if they weren't having the time of their lives doing it. Even when he won his team looked ready to burst into tears because it wasn't against Roger Federer. Not that Federer was all that. Not that he wasn't a bit sorry he'd never get to play Federer, but - there was no way to say, now, that he'd missed this too. That he'd thought about coming back, and known he couldn't because pros didn't go to high school and pros didn't play high school tennis and pros didn't have friends, apparently. Pros were supposed to like living out of hotels and suitcases and airports and dealing with paparazzi and doing interviews and playing people ten and fifteen years older who constantly whined about losing to a kid and insisted he be tested for drugs every five minutes. And pretended to be sorry when he couldn't play anymore, even while they gave self-important interviews about how his youth had doomed him from the start. Pros were supposed to think putting up with all that crap was worth it to get to play other pros, to get paid, but the truth was he'd liked tennis better when he was mostly playing people he didn't hate. When he was just playing for love.

"Tennis is tennis," he told Momo when his friend tried awkwardly to apologise for not being Roger Federer, for the street court not being Wimbledon, but he didn't get it. Everyone thought he was secretly crying into his crochet about his arm so there was no way to say now that sometimes, secretly, he'd wished for something to go wrong with his stupid career so he could just come home.

*

The second day passed even less eventfully. His very last match was against Harada Kouta, the third year doubles player who'd been the eighth regular most of the winter term. He'd half planned to throw it. He'd half hoped Harada would actually turn out to be really good, some new talent he just wasn't aware of. Proof that Tezuka hadn't cheated after all. But Harada turned out only to be kind of an asshole and levels and levels below the others. He might have been a fine doubles player but Ryoma just couldn't bear to lose to him.

When he slammed the last point home it didn't feel much like victory but it was at least the end of it. A Regular again. Hail the conquering hero.

*

The next week was nothing but practice, of course, no matter how many dirty looks his Japanese teacher gave him. There were times when it was a sheer relief to just throw himself back into tennis, to have to think about nothing but hitting the target or calling the colour or beating the stopwatch. To just be in his mostly obedient body and forget everything else. But when he came back to himself the world was still there, more tension infecting the club than the upcoming tournament could explain.

Momo and Kaidoh were arguing all the time but in low, snarling undertones instead of just punching each other to clear the air. Oishi was in a constant panic about his entrance exams, mourning every practice as time he ought to spend studying. Sometimes he tried to do both at once, until the day he hit a ball with "Principles of Mathematical Analysis" and Tezuka banned textbooks from practice. They were constantly beset by reporters and though Tezuka banned them too Furuwara kept trying to give them interviews when he thought no-one was looking. The non-regulars seemed more bitter and resentful by the day, always shoving and glaring and calling him Ojisama under their breath. More than half the third years just left, though Momo assured him this was traditional after the first set of ranking matches, as people decided if they were never going to make the team they might as well focus on school instead. Still, something ugly and uneasy seemed to hover over the club like fog and Ryoma had a horrible feeling it was him.

Most unbearable was Kikumaru, who seemed to have decided what Ryoma needed most was a replacement mother.

"Did you warm up properly?" he asked anxiously, fluttering over him.

"I know how to warm up, senpai."

"It's just, you're out of practice, so -"

"I didn't break my brain, Kikumaru," he said through gritted teeth. "I still know how to warm up."

"Okay! Okay!" Eiji threw up his hands, darting back, but Ryoma scrambled up and shook him off.

Only Tezuka seemed unaffected by the general malaise and when hitting against a wall didn't soothe him any Ryoma found himself circling outside the coach's office again. He didn't so much want to talk to Buchou as just catch sight of him, rest his eyes for a minute on someone who at least looked like they knew what they were doing. He hovered indecisively in the hall - if he went in, would they have to talk? - and was oddly shocked to actually hear the coach's voice, for all it was supposed to be his office. Furuwara came to the courts almost every day but rarely for longer than it took to disrupt practice and confuse a few less experienced players about their footwork. He generally kept away from Tezuka and the regulars, orbiting them at a careful distance as if the captain had taken out a restraining order.

"I'm not sure this line-up - Tezuka, now, surely Ryoma-kun should be the reserve? I mean, really. It's very sad, of course, very sad, no-one could be sadder about it than me - what a tragedy - but we must face facts. He's not really up to the mark, is he?"

"Echizen's more than capable of dealing with Matsumoto, sensei."

"He's a Nationally ranked player, you know. Nationally ranked!"

"Yes, sensei," the highest ranked player in the Nationals said very dryly, "I know." Really it was unfair, Ryoma thought, that Tezuka could be so rude to a teacher and always be thought so polite, while Ryoma's very best manners still got him a telling off. "Echizen is a Grand Slam Champion, I daresay he can handle it."

"Well, there's that too, isn't there? Not quite fair, is it? I mean - as you say! Just as you say, a Champion! Not sure it's really quite - "

"I'm afraid I don't quite understand you, sensei. Is it that you think he's too good, or not good enough?"

Ryoma sidled away again, as quickly as he could. Even from Furuwara, he didn't want to hear the answer.

*

He was nonetheless unsurprised to find himself on the court for Seigaku's first tournament match of the season. Singles 3.

It had drawn a ridiculously large crowd for a district tournament, and far too much press. He'd hoped not to be news anymore, but he supposed no matter what happened someone would write about it: if he lost, how far the hero had fallen; if he won, how unfair that a former pro should enter an high school tournament.

He'd barely spoken to Tezuka all week, though he felt like Tezuka was always looking at him. Every time he picked up a racket, hit a ball, turned a corner, there was Buchou, turning everyone else into wallpaper. And always looking straight at him, searching him for - something. He didn't know what Buchou was looking for, but he was terrified he'd find it just wasn't there anymore.

Even that fear was eclipsed, temporarily, by the prospect of humiliating himself in front of so many people. He'd never cared about that before. Never cared about anything except the tennis. He'd looked like an idiot in front of bigger crowds like this, missing one point after another while he perfected a shot. He'd lost to Kaidoh a week ago and it hadn't hurt, but -

"Echizen to serve!"

It went all right to begin with. His opponent - he couldn't remember his name, or the name of his school for that matter - was competent. Nothing special. Far beyond Harada, but that was no great consolation when Fuji had been made reserve so Ryoma could be second-rate in front of hundreds.

But it went fine, until he made a lucky hit that Ryoma could more easily return with his left. Instinctively he tossed the racket over, body already in motion to catch it and take his shot. For a moment he was completely bewildered by what happened next: the racket skidding away from him, the sharp pain in his forearm, the gasps of shock from the crowd, the point being called against him. None of it made sense.

And then he remembered. He wasn't twelve anymore. He wasn't left-handed anymore. He wasn't playing right-handed to be fair, or as a sign of contempt; he was playing right-handed because that was all he had. He dropped to one knee to pick up his racket, wishing his cap hid more of his face. Behind him, his opponent made an obscene suggestion about how such a has-been had got to be a starter at all, and the umpire reprimanded him to a tired backing chorus of more shocked gasps. Ryoma processed it numbly as he picked up the racket. It should have been laughable, but it was true enough to hurt. He shouldn't be on the team. It was favouritism. Even if he hadn't earned it, as his opponent implied, on his knees.

But since it was too late now to turn it down, he thought grimly, he'd just have to earn it another way. If he was good enough, then it wouldn't be pity. It would just be Buchou being right.

He summoned all the arrogance it took to walk onto Centre Court at thirteen and raised his head. His opponent, and the crowd, fell instantly silent. "Enjoy your service game," he purred. "It's the only time you'll get to hit the ball."

Whatshisname's next serve was fast - for a high school student. Ryoma didn't sneer, just raised his racket the bare minimum and sent it back along the same line, straight through Whatshisname's legs.

"15-40," said the umpire.

"Ooooo," said the crowd.

Whatshisname gritted his teeth, clenched the ball, threw it wildly. Ryoma yawned and rested the racket on his shoulder. "Fault!"

A bored tilt of his racket dropped the next serve on the line, flying swiftly out for another no-touch return and the game. He took the next with four straight aces - each of them too fast for Whatshisname to even clip. The one after that was four more no-touch returns, and then four more aces for the set. The crowd was silent now. His opponent was frothing at the mouth.

"You crippled little bitch - "

"Matsumoto-san!" Oh, that was his name, right. "Any more of this behaviour and you will be disqualified!"

Matsumoto's anger made his play steadily worsen throughout the second set, though Ryoma supposed an outside observer wouldn't be able to tell. He wasn't getting to do much actual playing. Ryoma's anger, on the other hand, had just made him sharper, enough to cut.

This ball on the line. That one in the corner. The other corner. Every ball bouncing straight out or blazing past before Matsumoto could even see it, let alone touch it. Or flying by without dropping, deceptively slow, so Matsumoto swung and missed and looked like an idiot. Nothing fancy, just exhausting, unending precision. It wasn't fun. It wasn't tennis, it was - there was a time he'd have enjoyed destroying an opponent like this, he acknowledged. Now it was just a chore, one that made his arm hurt, and his head ache with concentration.

Now he'd rather lose, he realised, taking another point without stepping from the baseline, to someone like Kaidoh, than win a match like this. He'd rather lose, God, those were words he'd never thought in that order before. He must've grown as a person.

But Matsumoto had insulted Buchou as well as him, had insulted Seigaku, had insulted tennis. So he kept his expression bored, his movements languid, he made it look like he was about to fall asleep from sheer ennui; he took every single point with a single, casual sweep of his racket. Matsumoto's service game was the only time he got to hit the ball.

"Game, set and match," the umpire called, perhaps five minutes later. He sounded disapproving but it was impossible to say who of. Matsumoto threw his racket with a scream of pure rage - Ryoma didn't bother moving out of the way, his aim had deteriorated shockingly. There didn't seem much point offering to shake hands either; he just pursed his lips, blew the asshole a kiss and sauntered off the court.

No-one applauded, not even his team. He had a feeling he knew exactly how the articles were going to read.

"Well now," Furuwara offered tremulously as he approached but Ryoma breezed right past him to stand in front of his captain. Head cocked, racket jauntily over his right shoulder, left hand casually lodged in his pocket to hide the way it was spasming with tension.

"Good match," Tezuka said blandly, but Ryoma detected a faint air of 'I told you so' about him.

"That wasn't a match, Buchou," he said, loud enough to carry to the other team. "That was barely even a warm up."

He stalked away, keeping moving to keep anyone from seeing that his whole body was shaking. To keep anyone from seeing him throw up, because he was pretty sure he was going to.

He found a changing block to lean against, quiet and sheltered with trees. No-one to watch him fold over like an old man, one hand clenched on his knee, one curled protectively to his chest. His breath came in gulps that shredded his throat like glass. He didn't throw up.

He felt a shadow fall on him and knew who it was without looking up.

"You ready for that blowjob now, Buchou?" he said bitterly. Tezuka didn't say anything but when Ryoma glanced up at his face he was suddenly back in his room at the clinic, watching his mom and Simon tearfully apologise for loving each other. All he'd felt at the time was viciously glad he could make them cry.

"Sorry," he mumbled now, ashamed. He took a last deep breath and straightened, rubbing his right hand through his hair and trying to drop his left unobtrusively to his side. He winced a little, and turned his face so Buchou wouldn't see it, but -

"You've hurt your arm."

"It's fine. Just -"

Buchou took him gently by the elbow and pushed the sleeve of his jersey up. He still kept his arm wrapped, though it wasn't supposed to need it anymore. It just seemed to hurt less with a bit of gentle pressure on it and Buchou seemed somehow to know. He wrapped his large, warm hand around the top of his forearm and moved it one slow handswidth at a time towards his wrist, gently squeezing out the tension. Ryoma felt his shoulders slowly ease as well, his legs trembling more beneath him with every touch. He leaned heavily into the wall to stay upright, swallowing every breath because he didn't know what kind of sounds would escape him if he didn't.

When Buchou reached his hand he pressed it flat, palm to palm, like he was going to tangle their fingers together. Instead he moved to stroke the back of Ryoma's hand and pressed a firm thumb into the centre of his palm. Ryoma closed his fingers around it, as much as he was able. They still quivered a little.

"Inui seemed to think you'd have exercises you were supposed to be doing."

"Yeah."

"Have you been doing them?"

"Yeah. Mostly." Buchou's disapproving silence spoke of laps. "Yeah, alright." He could feel Buchou looking at him, like the warmth of the sun on his face. He wanted to know what kind of expression he was wearing, if it was longing or sad or exasperated, but he kept his gaze on their hands.

"Is it because I won a match?" small and plaintive and out before he could stop it but Buchou gasped like Ryoma had hit him.

"No," he sounded despairing, desperate. His other palm curved around the back of Ryoma's neck, his forehead pressed down against the top of his head, his hand tightened on Ryoma's like he was trying to press the answer in through his skin. "No, no. No," like he couldn't say anything else, or do anything else except hold him. Ryoma felt a shudder go through him, or through Tezuka maybe, passing through their joined hands so they both shook together.

He didn't cry and didn't cry until it stopped feeling like a miracle that he wasn't crying.

Before his breathing was quite calm he could hear people - Kikumaru, Momo - roaring their names, distantly and coming closer, but Buchou didn't move away. He thought maybe Buchou just wouldn't, no matter how many people came upon them. Maybe Buchou just wouldn't, and Ryoma should stop expecting him to.

"Tomorrow," he said finally, pressing the words out through a tight throat. "3pm. I'll bring the balls."

He felt Buchou hesitate, felt him nod. Then he finally detached himself; right hand from Ryoma's neck, lips from his hair, left hand from his useless left hand, the big shelter of his body taking one step after another away. Ryoma felt very cold without him.

*

"I'm home." He found Nanjiroh in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, rounding up spices and plates and pans and looking uncharacteristically intense about it. Ryoma felt wrung out and in need of a functional parent of some kind, and Nanjiroh almost looked the part just then. He slumped against the counter and just watched him for a few minutes, finding something a bit soothing in his tasteless apron and his frenetic activity, before he volunteered, "I won my match."

"I know, I was there," he said absently. "Your backhand was terrible. Look, that terrifying giant with the glasses cornered me -"

Ryoma straightened despite himself. "Buchou?"

"And lectured me about your diet and forced me drink something that made me want to die -"

"Oh, Inui." He slouched back down.

And he says you're showing the first signs of scurvy. Scurvy! So here, I made you a carrot." The carrot thrust at him was raw and unpeeled; Ryoma wasn't sure what he meant by 'made' unless he'd willed it into existence. "Also, this fish." The fish was raw and unpeeled too and stared at him judgmentally with its single fishy eye. It reminded him a bit of Simon. "Lots of healthy, nourishing vitamins in fish! So I thought we could make sushi. Because I am the best and most loving father in the world, and I know how much my darling son loves sushi!" He clasped his hands together triumphantly, as if the sushi was already plated and ready to serve.

"Do you know how to make sushi?"

"Oh, come on, how hard can it be?"

Ryoma thought about Taka-san, who'd spent years learning it but still wasn't allowed to sell his food to paying customers, and took a glum bite of his carrot. It tasted liked raw fish. "Couldn't you at least have gotten one already cut up? It'll still have all its intestines and things."

"You're so picky. I am so unlucky to have a picky brat like you." He looked at the fish a bit doubtfully, however. "Besides, for all you know fish don't even have intestines."

"Of course they -"

"No, they only eat fish food, don't they," he insisted, "Fish food! That's like sand, practically, what would they even need intestines for?"

It did sound like a logical argument, Ryoma conceded. Still. "Is this all we've got? Carrots and a fish?"

"And ramen." Nanjiroh looked at him expectantly.

"... Che. Fine. But you'll have to cut it." He waved his hand to indicate his tragic inability to both play professional tennis and dismember fish, then folded his arms firmly across his chest. Nanjiroh sighed and picked up the knife.

*

It turned out fish did have intestines.

*

The train racketed to a stop and Ryoma threw himself off as soon as the doors opened, taking clean, deep breaths of warm spring air.

The only advantage of his father's cooking, he reflected, was that even a day later it gave him an excuse for feeling so ill.

They walked together down the length of the station, down the stairs. Ryoma half wanted to race down them and half wanted to get back on the train. He kept his steps steady and moving forward until he heard it leaving above them, gaining speed as it clattered across the bridge.

The companionable silence lasted almost to the court, until it was finally, predictably, broken by whining.

"Kid, you gonna tell me where we're going? I'm busy today."

"No you aren't."

"I'm looking for a job."

"No you aren't."

"I could be looking for a job," he said defensively. "You don't know. You have no idea what I do all day, while you're lazing about at school, getting terrible marks. Your teachers call me, you know. Not that I'm home when they call, because I'm out looking for a job, because I'm a responsible -"

"No, you aren't."

"You're still bitter about the fish, aren't you."

"Not at all, father," he said pleasantly. "I'm sure vomiting is great for scurvy. I'm going to tell Inui-senpai to put it on my menu."

Nanjiroh's single taste of Inui Juice had apparently left an impact, he fell back into a cowed silence immediately. Ryoma made a mental note to get a supply of Juice for his very own. Inui-senpai would be so pleased to have someone other than Fuji take an interest.

It was not quite 3pm when they walked into the court but Buchou was already there. Grave and formal, he looked more ready for an execution than a tennis match.

"Echizen-san," he said politely, frowning as his eyes flickered between them. "Echizen?"

"Oh, it's one of the brat's little minions." His father disdained politeness as always, but there was puzzlement in his voice too. Ryoma ignored them both, dropped the tennis bag on the bench and fished around for the racket.

"Here you are, old man," he said gently, tossing it at him. They both looked at him in shock and awakening understanding, Buchou's fingers growing white around the grip of his racket, his father's eyes growing serious. "Che, I guess I'd better make the introductions. Tezuka Kunimitsu, this is my father, Echizen Nanjiroh. Dad - this is my captain.

"I thought it was about time I organised you two a play date."

*

He'd wondered what they'd say to each other, his father and his captain, these two men who talked in tennis as much as he did.

Of course, he realised as they finally began: they'd talk about him.

My son is a horrible little brat, his father's first serve seemed to say, don't you think so?

Yes, Echizen-san, I quite agree, he attributed to Buchou's return. I don't know what I see in him.

He stifled his laughter but the choked sound still paused the game for a moment for them both to look disapprovingly over at him. He just glared disapprovingly back; if they were playing properly they wouldn't be distracted by anything.

But their first wary exchanges grew swiftly bolder, neither of them a player inclined to waste time feeling out an opponent they could be annihilating.

He didn't bother calling the points or the outs. They didn't need an umpire, just an audience. A witness. So he watched, feeling his eyes get so wide his face could hardly hold them, holding his breath until his lungs begged for air, clenching his fists until his fingers tingled. Watching until he thought the court might catch fire from how good they were, from how much they loved tennis, and loved winning, and loved him.

It was too beautiful to be jealous, and if part of him ached anyway to be standing on that court, to be playing at that level, well, he could keep it to himself. He was a grown up now and had learned how to lose.

He laughed again, very quietly, but this time neither of them noticed.

*

For possibly the first time in his entire life, his father showed some tact. He took himself off after the match with a cheerful wave and only a single leering, "Don't keep your little captain up too far past his bedtime, brat!" Ryoma flicked him off and picked up his own racket at last, rolling it hungrily between his palms.

"Good match," he said dryly as Tezuka finally stumbled off the court and collapsed, smirking at the dirty look he got in return.

"Thank you." He still seemed a little awestruck though, eyes following Nanjiroh as he left, and that just wouldn't do at all.

"C'mon, Buchou. Play me now."

The slightly dazed look his father had put there burnt off like early morning mist under the full summer sun; the blazing heat turned on Ryoma then belonged to him alone. So did the exasperation. "Now?"

"Heh, I might stand a chance if you're tired enough."

"I'm tired enough," he confirmed darkly, but he rose easily to his feet - renewed, perhaps, by the prospect of finally getting their match, for he never looked away from Ryoma. His gaze was so heavy, so intense - Ryoma had been faltering under the weight of it all week, afraid to look him full in the eyes. Now he didn't know what had been wrong with him; he could bask under Buchou's gaze forever. Planned to, in fact.

He thought they could as easily stand there all day staring at each other but Buchou finally quirked his lips in a smile and took up his racket - in his right hand, Ryoma noted.

"Che," He shook his head. "I'll make you use your left, Buchou, before we're done," he promised.

*

He was in no hurry, however.

He hit repeatedly to Tezuka's backhand to try and beguile a zero shiki out of him. He hit a high, easy lob just so he could see his irritated smash.

"Play seriously," Tezuka commanded impatiently.

"I am serious," Ryoma said and returned the next serve with Horio's signature move, The Rabbit. All it did was hop the net and bounce spasmodically about in a fashion so embarrassing he always felt a bit sorry for the ball. It was very easy to return but the first time they saw it most people just stopped and stared in horror, like Buchou was doing. When the ball finally rolled to an abashed halt his glare rose from it with grim slowness to pierce Ryoma like a laser.

"30-15," Ryoma announced innocently.

Buchou kept playing to win and Ryoma kept hitting the shots that were the most fun to play, this is supposed to be fun, he coaxed with every ball, Buchou, Buchou, this is still fun, right?

He gave Buchou a perfect opportunity to take a point hitting cross court, and laughed out loud when instead he turned it into a drop shot for no reason at all. Yes.

They pulled out every technique they'd ever played and ever seen. Buchou barrelled a Twist Serve past him hard enough to drive the ball into the fence. Ryoma couldn't, yet, manage the Tezuka Zone right-handed for more than a couple of balls, but it was enough to take a point. Neither of them had any trouble with Tsubame Gaeshi, but Ryoma was quietly impressed by Tezuka's Hakugei.

Ryoma's first Boomerang Snake went wildly out but Tezuka's expression made it worth the attempt. Tezuka blazed a Cyclone Smash past him, Ryoma managed a beautiful Jackknife. Tezuka had a go at the Drive B and fell on his ass and Ryoma fell on his, from laughing so hard.

And then Buchou switched to his left hand and they gave up all the fancy moves and just played. Better with every ball, stronger with every point, higher with every game, until Ryoma thought he could touch the sky. Until it brought him to his knees.

Right back where he'd started, except that he was a different person now. A whole different player, just like Furuwara-sensei had said. "Can you imagine The Moustache being right about anything?"

Tezuka, startled into rude honesty, said: "No," very definitely. Ryoma raised his hand and was pulled up, swaying into Tezuka as his knees wobbled, a strong arm coming around him to hold him safely on his feet. He leaned gladly into Buchou's warm body, feeling their racing heartbeats everywhere their sweat-slick skin touched. If he'd got this the first time they played, he thought, nothing could have induced him to ever leave at all.

He mumbled, "Wanna go another set?" into Tezuka's shirt to make him laugh and it did, a deep, sensual rumble that he could feel all through his body.

They got changed instead, both of them slow and shaky with reaction, gulping down water between every item of clothing. They walked to the station and in unspoken accord walked past it, meandering down the footpath in exhausted silence. Even so, the foot or so of space between their bodies hummed with so much banked energy he thought he could feel every emotion that went through Buchou without even looking at him, that they could talk for hours and not need to say a word.

He thought there were a few things he'd better verbalise all the same.

"I'm quitting the team." Tezuka threw him a pained look, though he really should have known it was coming. "You saw the papers this morning, right?"

"You don't have to pay any attention to -"

"I know, Buchou, I've been ignoring reporters for years. But they're right this time, it wasn't fair." He grinned. "I'm just too good."

Tezuka hunched his shoulders and sighed, but nodded. Apparently he'd known it was coming after all. "It's quite late." He glanced demonstratively around at the darkness and the street lights. He put his hands behind his back and clasped them firmly, and then unclasped them again, and then put them in his pockets. "Would - would you like to get something to eat?"

"Yeah." Ryoma bit his lip but it couldn't stop his smile. "Anything but ramen. Or sushi. Wait, no, I can't, not tonight."

"Oh."

"I have to call my mom," he explained, a little shyly, but Tezuka just nodded understandingly, as if calling one's mother was a perfectly valid reason to turn down a date. A date. "Tomorrow?" Tezuka nodded again and Ryoma beamed stupidly down at the pavement. He kept talking to try and hide it. "I have to tell her to send Karupin over, he can stay with Kaidoh-senpai until we get a better place. And that I'm thinking about university, she'll like that."

Buchou gave another nod, staring down in frowning silence, as if debating with himself. When he finally spoke it was with a rare, apologetic hesitance. "I know you must miss being - must miss your old life, but -"

"I like playing you better. Don't you like playing me?"

"Don't fish for compliments," Buchou said with automatic sternness, but Ryoma knew that meant, yes, more than anything. Then his voice went very quiet - ashamed, like he thought he was making a terrible confession.

"I'm glad that you came back."

Ryoma just smiled at him, as open as he knew how, and reached out to take his hand - his strong left hand, in Ryoma's right.

"Me too," he said, and let Buchou walk him home.