It's lucky that they don't have to hand in their maths books. The maths teacher is a bit scatty and tests them whenever she remembers that she should, which means that Tezuka's maths book is owned by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On one side of every page, sums are neatly scribed, calculated, filled in. Not a single mistake, a smudge or correction. On the other side of every page, names. Ideas. Thoughts about the new tennis team Tezuka wants to inherit.
Second year exams are almost upon them, and Tezuka spends his maths lessons writing maths calculations on one side and names on the other, with remarkable composure. Oishi has to hurry along with his writing just to keep up with the teacher, but Tezuka has always been something of a genius at maths. And at tennis. And at, well, anything he put his mind to, really. Which is why it's so hard for Oishi to take him aside at the end of the lesson. He nods at his classmates as they brush past, and Tezuka just stands, facial expression fixed. The girls are looking at him and he's refusing to meet their eyes.
“Are you sure,” Oishi begins, not really knowing how to put it. “That you want to take on the tennis team again? It's not that I don't think you'd be good at it, just...you know. It's senior high now, and maybe...I mean. The captaincy would take up a great deal of your time and maybe...”
“Maybe you could go out with friends, or go on dates, or...”
“Listen, I know I sound like your mother, I just. I worry that you're doing this again when there's other things you haven't done, and maybe you'll regret that. In a year, you'll go off to do medicine and you may not have time to enjoy yourself. I know that you love tennis but you don't need to be the captain. You can do just fine as a player.”
Tezuka looks at him, thoughtful. He nods. “I'll think about that,” he says. “Thank you.”
“There's loads of girls who would-”
Tezuka screws his face up a bit. “Don't. It's getting unbearable. I thought it was bad when I was fourteen.”
Oishi laughs. “That's the problem with being all tall and attractive and moody. You should smile more. Scare them off a bit.”
“Seriously, you should try dating. It's a lot of fun.”
“How are things going with you and Moeko?”
“Good, I think,” Oishi says. “She's meeting my parents this Friday.”
Tezuka nods. All of it, it's a bit of a mystery to him. “Hypothetically speaking-” he begins.
“Hypothetically speaking,” Oishi sighs. “If you were going to build a team based on those players in that combination, I'd say you'd have an excellent team.”
Ryoma fills in sheets, dozens of them. Sheets reporting his grades, sheets analyzing his academic progress, sheets about his financial background, sheets about his future prospects. He doesn't know what he wants to do when he's 25. He's only 15, why should he know? And he doesn't even really want to go to school, he wants to play tennis. It's a shame that you can't just play tennis, he thinks, but then that's what Nanjiroh did with his life and nobody wants to end up like that.
He's not nervous about transferring to Senior High. Junior High went fine and he sees no reason why Senior High will be any different. Captaining the tennis team was the crowning highlight of Junior High, and he wonders whether the tennis team next year will match up. That's the only change that's bothering him. Alterations to other parts of his life are no problem, but tennis is a constant. The only constant. It needs to remain the same: himself, Tezuka, Nationals. That's the way things should always be.
Momo tells him that Senior High is like Junior High, only there's more hot girls, the lessons are harder and the tennis more brutal. Ryoma's really only interested in one of the three, or perhaps two if he's totally honest, and he relishes the idea of being pushed harder and further than before.
Momo tells him that Tezuka is considering going for the captaincy, only considering, and Ryoma thinks, when he goes to bed at night, what are you waiting for?
“So which one of them is the princess in the tower?”
Eiji is nodding but if his eyes had heads, their heads would be slowly shaking from side to side. Having conversations with Fuji is often like this. It's the way he makes you feel as though there's nothing specifically wrong with his perspective, you'd just have to alter your entire world view to accommodate it. Like standing on your head to get a different look at the world. It's lucky that Eiji is a gymnast.
Fuji narrows his eyes, no mean feat. “I'm not sure. I'd say Tezuka-buchou, but he'd look terrible in a dress.”
Eiji nods, and this time, the eyes nod too. “I don't want to see Buchou in a dress.”
“Maybe he's a feminist sort of princess and wears trousers,” Fuji says. “Anyway, the point still holds. Buchou is a princess in a tower. He's waiting for someone to come along on a white horse, and unlock the door. So he can go and play tennis and win the Nationals. Again.”
Eiji screws up his face. “I don't think this idea is working for me.”
“Anyway,” Fuji continues. “I figured I was the white knight, obviously. Only that didn't work out so well. Tezuka wasn't so much interested as...vaguely alarmed.”
“I think that makes you the dragon.”
“What? You know, like in Shrek. The dragon who gets it on with the donkey.”
Fuji looks decidedly cross. “I took Yuuta to see Shrek and he hit me every time he felt embarrassed. It was a long movie.”
“Yeah, I bet you were bruised. So you were saying, about the dragon?”
“Which I am not, yes. Anyway, I gave up my princess/white knight metaphor after that. And then Echizen came along. And he was tiny, and insolent and self-centered and irritating, and you know what Tezuka-buchou is like.”
“If he could have given Echizen his fingernails, if it'd helped him – he would have.”
“Exactly. So they were polar opposites. I couldn't see Echizen as the white knight. Not unless he were riding a Shetland pony.”
Eiji laughs, grabs his notebook and a pen. It's an image that's too good to resist.
“But then, against all odds and logical causality, Tezuka-buchou decided that he liked Echizen. And I started thinking: maybe Echizen is the white knight after all. He just doesn't know it yet.”
Eiji nods, his tongue sticking out as he doodles. “And then he got to be the prince of tennis and we all loved him and Nationals was ours, blah blah.”
“I put winning Nationals that year down to him, yes,” Fuji says, his face inscrutable. “I thought that might be the end of it. Tezuka-buchou and I would go on to Senior High and Echizen would find some sort of girlfriend and that'd be that.”
“I don't know why half the school wants to be in love with Tezuka-buchou,” Eiji remarks. “It's like having a crush on a brick wall.”
“I do not have a crush and I am not in love. 'Half the school' does not include me.”
“Alright, sorry. Anyway, Echizen is going to thwart your plan for total world domination again.”
“I think he's going to turn up and be obnoxiously endearing once more.”
“If Tezuka's trapped, he's not done anything about it. If, like, he's the princess then he's still in the tower. I think he's up there reading. Maybe he likes it. Maybe he doesn't want to be saved.”
“He's trying for the captaincy this year,” Fuji says. “It's like three years ago, all over again. He's not going to do anything else because he's decided he'd rather be a big, stupid masochistic captain again. He's going to be all noble about Echizen instead of treating him like-”
“Yeah, but it's right, isn't it?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, we still call him Buchou. We've always called him it, even when he wasn't. It's right.”
Fuji thinks about this. “Force of habit.”
“You don't think it's the right choice.”
Fuji sighs. “I think Tezuka-buchou will put off what he wants until he solves whatever it is he thinks is wrong with the entire universe. He's on a crusade. He just doesn't think about what he wants. He should. I think he'd be happier if he gave up on the captaincy and just got laid instead.”
Eiji looks skeptical. “Is this one of these things where you inflict yourself on someone until they give up and decide they like you after all?”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Fuji says. Eiji mouths 'Yuuta' and Fuji pretends not to see him, steals his pen and hides it in Eiji's pocket when he's not looking.
“I'm not after Tezuka-buchou,” Fuji says. “He's not after me. There's no point. I want someone pliable. Someone who'll succumb to my affections. Tezuka-buchou doesn't want my affections.”
“He's not even that good-looking,” Eiji says, reassuringly.
“No, he really is,” Fuji laughs. Eiji is looking for his pen.
“But mmmn,” Fuji continues. “There's always Yuuta.”
“Don't be gross.”
“Brotherly love is pure and natural.
“Not that sort.”
“You're so closed-minded, Eiji.”
“I'm not the one plotting to do...something with Tezuka-buchou and Echizen.”
“I'm just going to give them a little push,” Fuji says.
“I've heard that before. On things like Crime Scene Investigation.”
“That show is totally inaccurate in its portrayal-”
“Oh, fuck, don't start that again. So, what are you planning to do with them?”
“Nothing,” Fuji says. He's starting to smirk. “Just see how much Tezuka-buchou wants what he wants. Whether he's prepared to go for it, to let down his hair, say, or whether he just wants to stay locked up in a tower forever. And if he is prepared to climb out of the window, whether he chooses tennis or...life.”
“And if you're wrong, about Echizen?”
“I'm never wrong,” Fuji says. “Have you ever known me be wrong?”
“I really think that this is a bad plan, for the record.”
“You haven't even heard what I'm going to do, yet. Ye of little faith.”
Eiji looks at him, hard. “I really think that this is a bad plan, for the record.”
“Well, what would you know? You can't even keep track of a pen.”
“Where is it?”
Fuji says nothing, just smiles. Eiji pats himself down, finds the pen in his pocket. It's only later, when he's been searching for twenty minutes for the pen lid, that he finds it behind his ear. By this time, Fuji's tucked himself into his bed and is pretending to be asleep.
“What's the plan, then?” Eiji says, toothbrush in mouth. “I'll be nice.”
“You'll see,” Fuji murmurs.
“Can't I have a sneak preview? I'm your best friend, after all.”
“You don't deserve one, traitor,” Fuji says, plumping his pillow. “You don't believe in my plan.”
“I'll believe in your plan if you tell me something.”
“It's going to involve girls,” Fuji says.
“...That doesn't even make sense.”
“Of course it does.”
“How does it make sense?”
“That was your sneak preview. Enjoy it.”
“But. It didn't make sense.”
“Kind of like those 15 second porn previews, no? You download them because the screen caps look so good, and then the whole movie is just a shot of the pillow.”
“...Everyone always told me you were disturbing, and I ignored it, because I didn't think you were. But they were right.”
“I'm not disturbing,” Fuji says, pleasantly. “I just take a little getting used to.”
They study for their exams, some harder than others. Fuji spends his evenings with Eiji, drafting out his plan. Ryoma spends his evenings playing tennis, sometimes with his father, sometimes not. Tezuka spends his evenings plotting his first match in the knock-outs, he's playing against Kaidoh. Sometimes he thinks about what he'll do if he doesn't, if he can't, get the captaincy. Whether he'd be happier doing something else. But there's nothing else that he wants to do and that fear alone spurs him on. He works harder than he ever has, because Kaidoh's work-out schedule is more frightening than it has any right to be.
When it gets really dark, Ryoma pounds tennis balls against the wall. Fuji and Eiji drink milkshakes (one strawberry, one original concoction) and smudge their fingers on a big sheet of planning paper. Tezuka runs in order to stop himself thinking.
★ Seigaku Tennis Team Fundraiser ★
Ever wanted your muffin Buchoued? Ever fancied seeing just how flexible Kikumaru is? Ever been curious about Seigaku's tensai?
The Seigaku Tennis Team Summer Fundraiser is for you!
Reward yourself for your months of exam revision with a little piece of Seigaku's tennis team. All players to be auctioned off on the last day of term. Put it a high bid, and don't be disappointed. What will you pay for a summer o'love with your favourite, aha, athlete?
This isn't just a dating agency. This is a dating experience. Don't miss out!
To: Echizen Ryoma
From: Fuji Shuusuke
Download attachment? Seigakutennisteamfundraiser.jpg
Tezuka's too busy on the morning of his first exam to notice the sign up on the notice board. Oishi notices it instead and tries to get his attention, but Tezuka is the kind of person it's impossible to distract. Oishi frets through the exam, finds himself remembering more from Tezuka's maths book than from the blackboard, and corners his best friend afterwards. By the time he's got Tezuka to himself, he's so harassed that he can't speak. He just pulls him along to the notice board, where Tezuka reads, stony-faced.
“I wondered where Fuji had been all week,” he says, eventually.
“I didn't think we needed money,” Oishi says. “Do we need money? Nobody told me-”
“No, we're not doing badly, after the car wash Fuji made us do last year. He's not doing this for fund-raising.”
“Do you think he's doing this to get us back for not encouraging him to be captain?”
“He doesn't want to be captain, he never put himself in the running.”
“But maybe he wanted to and we didn't encourage him enough-”
“I think he's doing this because he wants to see what'll happen.”
“Moeko is going to go crazy.”
Tezuka looks at Oishi, then. “Tell him you can't do it.”
“He's already signed me up!”
“Then tell him you want to help organise it. If he's involved, then it needs an organiser.” Tezuka shrugs. “Someone impartial.”
“Are you going to do it?”
Tezuka looks back at the board, a little worried. “I guess so.”
Oishi grins. “Poor girl.”
“I pity the girl who gets you,” he says, impishly.
“Last week, you were encouraging me to date!”
“Not when the poor girl's had to pay for your company!”
Tezuka smiles, despite himself. “Fair point. I wouldn't worry. I don't think anyone will bid on me.”
“Oh, you'll be surprised,” Oishi says, hauling his bag on his shoulder. “Do you ever wish Fuji had gone to Rikkai, or Hyotei, or...somewhere? Is that a terrible thing to say?”
“I think we'd all be a lot more bored,” Tezuka says.
“I think I could do with more boredom in my life. Not that that's going to happen, any time soon. Echizen's going to be here soon, after the exams. I presume you hadn't forgotten?”
Tezuka frowns. “He's probably taken up golf. Snowboarding. Ice-skating. Monopoly. God knows what he's a prodigy at now.”
“You haven't kept in contact?”
“A bit,” Tezuka replies, non-committal. “He wanted to make the team his own. We didn't speak much last year.”
Oishi smiles. “I think he'll be back with a vengeance. A prodigy at getting on your last nerve.”
“He'll have grown up,” Tezuka says, firmly, as if by saying it he can make it so.
“It'd be nice for someone else to be captain of Echizen Ryoma, don't you think?” Oishi walks off, towards the library, ready to study for his next exam. “Someone else to have to deal with it all?”
Tezuka's face suggests that this wouldn't be nice at all. It suggests conflict, difficulty. He follows Oishi to the library.
To: Fuji Shuusuke
From: Echizen Ryoma
You're all still as stupid as ever, then?
Exams come and go, months of preparation condensed to one week, over too fast for something so unpleasant. And after that, they move swiftly onto their last year, without pause, as if nothing at all has changed. It strikes Ryoma as odd, having experienced the American system, that the years follow on from each other without a break in-between. Things just proceed as normal, and it's odd. He comes into Senior High in late April, and things are transitional: the tennis team yet to be decided, exam results yet to be printed. He sees Tezuka at practices but they don't know what to say to each other, without their old dynamic to fall back on.
The rest of the old team spend whatever time they can practising, Kaidoh and Tezuka more often than not playing each other. The list of players after the captaincy is long and Tezuka isn't the best amongst them, not in skill nor in charisma. Plenty of new people have become regulars, redefining Seigaku away from the eight who took the Nationals trophy three years ago. Over the net, Fuji interrupts Kaidoh and Tezuka's third game of the week. He wants to play them both, he says. From anyone else, this would be insane. From Fuji, it's both insane and plausible. Tezuka and Kaidoh don't question it.
“So,” Tezuka says, conversationally, as they begin. “This...dating experience.”
“What dating experience?” Kaidoh grunts.
“Aha,” Fuji says, neatly returning two balls one after the other. “You saw.”
“He's auctioning off the old team,” Tezuka says, by way of explanation.
“On eBay?!” Momo squawks from the sidelines. He's hoping to see Kaidoh beaten by an outnumbered player. “That's so cool! What's my current bid?”
“As if anyone would buy you, stupid.”
“No, not on eBay,” Fuji says, a little woefully. “Why didn't I think of that.”
“You're auctioning us off to a school full of teenage girls,” Tezuka says. “I'm sure that's far more malicious and unjust than eBay.”
Fuji looks reassured. Kaidoh does not.
“You did what.”
“It's a fundraiser for Seigaku,” Fuji says. “You're a charitable young man, aren't you?”
“I'm sure you'll make the team a lot of money,” Fuji continues. “A nice looking boy like you.”
“Is that even legal?” Momo asks. It isn't the first time anyone has asked as much of Fuji. “Doesn't Kaidoh need vaccinated or stuff first? We dunno where he's been...”
Kaidoh grits his teeth. “At least I'm not stupid enough to think I was being auctioned on eBay, moron.”
“You could have asked us first,” Tezuka says, sending a drop shot over the net. It skims, but Fuji catches it, smashing Kaidoh's brutal backhand a second later.
“You'd have said no,” he says, catching breath.
“That's why you should have asked us.”
“You know, in psychology, they have this exact ethical dilemma.” Fuji says. “To do with informed consent. You can either reveal the true purpose of an experiment and ruin any spontaneous, uninformed data you get out of it, or you can dupe the participants and actually measure genuine results.”
“Are we getting paid for this?” Momo looks skeptical. “Participants get paid for experiments.”
“You would know,” Kaidoh remarks, finally landing a shot over Fuji's head. He knocks fists with Tezuka.
“I might pay you,” Fuji says. “But as it's a fundraiser, it'd seem fairly unfair, wouldn't it.”
“The fundraiser isn't the true purpose,” Tezuka says. “We know that much.”
“Sure,” Fuji says, grinning, lowering down into Higuma Ootoshi. “But it's okay. You'll never work out the true purpose.”
He beats Tezuka-Kaidoh pair 6-4. Momo cheerfully agrees to be first up in the auction. Kaidoh throws his racket at the wall. Fuji looks at Tezuka, nonchalant.
“I wonder how Echizen is getting on in his first year. Have you spoken to him yet?”
“Will he be in your gang, Buchou? If you have a gang, that is.”
As part of the fundraiser effort, Fuji convinces the team to take some time away from the new influx of homework, and put themselves on show. They sit at a large table which Fuji has placed out on the school field, and girls giggle at them as they scuttle past. Occasionally, they get other boys trying to remove the banners and steal the balloons, but Fuji doesn't pay them much attention.
“Jealousy,” he mock-whispers. “Any of you boys thinking of bidding? It isn't just for girls, after all...”
Tezuka sits and reads a book, not even looking up when girls stand and try and catch his eyes. Fuji has to keep hitting him on the head, which he takes with a kind of determined perseverance. Oishi sits at the end, handing out flyers and reminding everyone that he's not for sale. He scratches the back of his neck as he says it, and his voice makes him sound like he's assuring people. Eiji tells him he'd be a prize, which cheers him up as much as it makes him flustered.
One of the girls stands for quite a while, waiting for Tezuka to look up. He knows she's there, and she knows that he knows, but she doesn't budge. Fuji is amused, and so strikes up conversation.
“It's hentai,” he says, nodding at Tezuka's book. “Y'know, manga porn.”
She looks at Fuji, hard. “It doesn't look like hentai.”
“Often, things don't look at all rude until you scratch the surface and reveal the kinkiness beneath. I've often found.”
“Fuji-” Oishi starts.
“Not that I'm saying, aha, that Tezuka is kinky-”
“Actually-” Inui begins.
Tezuka's eyebrow twitches.
“Unless you want him to be kinky? You look like the kind of girl who might appreciate it. Fill in an interest form and free of charge, we'll match you with a prospective team member!”
“No, thank you,” she says. “I just want Tezuka.”
“Shame,” Fuji says. “I'm pretty kinky.”
“He is,” Eiji says, somewhat mournfully. “Really.”
“Is he going to be long?” she says, looking at Tezuka, who is doing his best to pretend that nothing around him is actually happening.
Inui looks around Fuji, Eiji and Kaidoh, and narrows his eyes at Tezuka. “There is an 100% probability that he'll go on reading as long as you're standing there.”
“Oh, well,” she says. “I'll be back. I've got money to burn in this...thing, and he can't ignore me all term.”
“We don't do refunds,” Oishi says, worriedly. “Tezuka, we don't do refunds.”
Tezuka's voice is gruff and quiet, “I'm trying to read.”
She laughs, leans over his book so that all he can see is her big, girlish eyes. “I can see that. You're a bit of an open book yourself.”
“I can be open,” Fuji says, as she leaves. “Wide open.”
Oishi is beside himself. “I hope for his sake she isn't loaded, or Tezuka's in big trouble.”
“Inui,” Kaidoh says. “You told me that the 100% probability doesn't exist. There's always the factor of chance.”
Inui shrugs, a hint of a smirk on his face. “I thought that if I didn't get rid of her, there'd be a 99.9% chance Tezuka wouldn't pick me for his team next term.”
“If it is his team,” Fuji says.
Weeks pass and hysteria rises. By the beginning of July, everybody has heard about the fundraiser. The girls talk about it everywhere, and Fuji revels in it. He tries his hardest to keep mentioning it to Ryoma, even taunting him with the name Akiko, because it's Akiko that wants Tezuka for the summer -- but Ryoma maintains disinterest to a firm degree.
In the end, unfortunately for Oishi, Akiko's bid is the highest, beating out twelve others to win Tezuka's attention for the summer. The other regulars find themselves similarly popular, with Fuji's final total almost double that of Tezuka's. They raise a lot of money and Fuji is pleased at the discomfort he's causing everybody.
After the last class of the last day of term, they regroup in the locker room, aware that as of tomorrow, they'll have to act like typical teenagers. No more tennis sessions, no more cramming in the library. No more ice cream and pizza after school. After the summer, everything gets even more serious: the rest of their last year of tennis, the last months of school before university. And after that, life. But more daunting than that, a summer spent in the company of women. Few of them have dated much, always so busy with homework and tennis. Even fewer have more than contemplated and fantasized about sex. The last day of term and the idea of tomorrow, these are terrifying concepts for them and for the first few minutes, they're all quiet.
“Some ground rules,” Fuji says, breaking the silence. “This is a fundraiser for romance, not for anything more. Don't feel obliged to have sex with the girls because I'll be forced to spend the whole of next term calling you Seigaku Team Prostitutes rather than Seigaku High School Host Club. That said, this is my fundraiser, so you can, aha, lower the tone if you want to.”
“What does that even-” Momo begins.
“It means that,” Eiji says, waggling his eyebrows. “If you hit it off with the girl, then it's cool to do her.”
“I don't want to have this conversation,” Tezuka says.
“Don't do it for the money,” Fuji says. “Is what I'm saying. Do it for love.”
“I'm so glad I'm not involved in this,” Oishi says.
“Ahahaha,” Fuji says. “You are chief organiser, after all. Your job is to keep an eye on everyone. Take progress reports, that sort of thing. Make sure nobody is having any obligatory sex.”
Oishi looks momentarily pale. “I don't think I want to have this conversation, either.”
“But voluntary sex is okay. You must be specific on details, Oishi. I'll need to check your reports at the end of the summer. Make sure that nobody was used.”
“Details. Ooh, and whilst you're at it, please do note down any special acts the girls ask our boys to perform. There may be certain things that aren't appropriate. Everyone, report all details to Oishi. Oishi won't mind if you're crass, he needs to know in order to stand up for your best interests!”
Tezuka smiles at Oishi, head down so Fuji doesn't see him. Oishi shoves against him, shoulder to shoulder. “Really, Fuji, wouldn't it be better if you were responsible for that?”
“Mmn, no, I intend to be engaging in special acts myself,” Fuji says. “It wouldn't be right for me to be privy to other people's special acts. Not until after the summer, anyway.”
“I don't want to do special acts,” Kaidoh says.
“Pity,” Momo says. “You're special needs, so it'd be easy for you.”
“Aaah,” Fuji says, watching Kaidoh hold Momo against the wall by his neck. “I think some of the girls might be into homoerotic conflict. This is an excellent beginning.”
For the last few minutes, there's a long, heavy silence in the room. Nobody moves for quite a while, and when they do, they're careful not to touch each other in the slightest possible way.
Tezuka’s first date happens, somewhat ironically, on the street courts. Akiko wants to see him in his home environment, as if he’s wildlife and likely to behave differently on his territory. He holds his racket tightly and thinks that maybe he is. She sits on the sidelines with a big cup of cherry soda and watches the game with a hand above her eyes. She’s nice, really. She doesn’t giggle girlishly or get embarrassed around him. Akiko mostly seems content to observe. She reminds Tezuka of a female Inui.
Whenever he scores a point, she’s smiling. She doesn’t clap, or squeal like some of the girls do. She just watches and looks pleased every so often. Tezuka doesn’t think she understands the game, but she doesn’t look bored.
And then Ryoma turns up. It’s halfway through Tezuka’s match and so he goes over to the sidelines, watching. He’s grown, even in the last month or so, when Tezuka saw him in the locker room and they exchanged pleasantries, a small joke. He’s lanky. Confidently so. There’s muscle and strength where previously there was pure bravado. He no longer needs to look up at his opponents, maybe that’s the difference. His hair is black and thick, his eyes narrowed. Red t-shirt. Same cap. Tezuka doesn’t know what to think.
Ryoma looks at Akiko. “Girlfriend?” he calls out to Tezuka, who almost drops the ball he’s trying to serve.
Akiko turns her head to Ryoma, slowly. “Classmate,” she says, with more apathy than Tezuka could manage.
Ryoma narrows his eyes a bit more. “Not seen you here before.”
“I came to see Tezuka.”
“I came to play Tezuka.”
She looks at him, mind obviously doing a mathematical sum. “Aren’t you-”
“I’m fifteen,” he says, an obvious sulk in his voice. “And a half.”
“Oh,” she says. “How do you two know each other?”
“Played together in Junior High,” Ryoma says, tone dismissive. “Do you play?”
“No,” she says, idly. “More of a badminton kind of girl.”
“Yeah,” Ryoma says. “Less chance of breaking a nail, I guess.”
She laughs, good-naturedly. “I think this one’s about to end,” she says, nodding at Tezuka. He’s lining up another Zero-Shiki and Ryoma’s inclined to agree with her. His opponent looks tired, and Tezuka’s not sweating.
“I’m gonna warm up,” he says.
“Yeah,” she says, mischievous. “I think you could do with it.”
“Your girlfriend is mouthy,” He says, when he’s a net away from Tezuka. Tezuka spins the racket on the ground.
“Call,” he says.
“Rough,” Ryoma says. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“I heard you,” Tezuka says. Rough. Damn. “I was ignoring you.”
“That only works on Oishi,” Ryoma says. “Remember?”
“She’s not my girlfriend. And if she’s mouthy, maybe she should go out with you,” Tezuka says. It makes him feel awkward, saying it. He and Ryoma don’t discuss girls. Partly because Tezuka’s afraid of being asked for love advice, and it isn’t girls he’s interested in. Partly because he doesn’t want Ryoma to want love advice, or a girlfriend at all. That part, he isn’t so sure about.
“Meh,” Ryoma says. “Not my type.”
Tezuka shows him the racket, and Ryoma nods, pulling a ball from his pocket.
“My type’s more the tall, silent type,” he says. Tezuka doesn’t look at him, deliberately.
On the sidelines, Akiko reads a book.
“Is she going to stay here all day?” Ryoma says. “Boring date.”
“It’s not a date,” Tezuka says.
“It is. And it’s boring.” Ryoma says. He steps back, to serve. “For her, anyway.”
Tezuka beats him, 6-3. Last time, it was 6-4, so Ryoma is pissed. He’s been practicing.
“You better get the captaincy,” he says. “If you’re gonna beat me like that. You better get the captaincy.”
Tezuka is tired out. There’s sweat pooling at the neckline of his t-shirt. “You going to be on my team, then?” If he has a team.
Ryoma grins, the teeth showing. “No doubt.”
After the game, they go out, he and Akiko. Ryoma rather sullenly goes home, though it takes a bit to convince him. He hasn’t seen Tezuka in a while and he misses him, that much is obvious even if he doesn’t want to say it. Akiko tries to insist the two of them go for burgers instead, but Ryoma is petulant enough to refuse her. He’s rude about it, which puts Tezuka in a bad mood.
“Sorry about that,” she says, as they walk down the street towards Akiko’s favourite restaurant. “I didn’t realize that he’d be upset.”
“He’s being a brat,” Tezuka says. “It’ll be fine. He’s a bit…”
“I have two brothers his age,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s cool. I know the drill.”
“Oh,” Tezuka says. “Right. I’m an only child.”
“Wow,” she says, though it’s not uncommon. And, being honest, she’s not sure who’d want to be Tezuka’s sibling. “Weren’t you lonely?”
“Not really,” he says. “I was a bit of a loner.”
“I’ve three brothers,” she says. He looks alarmed, and she laughs. “One older. He’s at university. The other two are twins, they’re younger. I don’t think my mother intended on having more, really. She has her hands full.”
“I bet,” Tezuka says. “What’s your brother doing at university?”
“He’s at Tokyo,” she says, proudly. “Doing medicine.”
Ryoma meets Fuji on the tennis courts, late at night. He’s wearing a shirt and a tie. It’s terrifying.
“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” Fuji asks, innocently.
“Shut up,” Ryoma retorts. “You’ve not grown. In two years, you’re still a titch.”
“Lovely to see you too. You’re gigantic. What did they put in your water? Fertilizer?”
“Tezuka hasn’t noticed.”
“Of course he has. He’s not blind.”
“He doesn’t pay attention to me in the same way he used to.”
“Hopefully you’re not behaving like a spoilt child nowadays,” Fuji says. “That’s why.”
“He’s gone off with this girl.”
“Ah, yes, the lovely Akiko.”
“She’s his fundraiser person.” Ryoma says, sullenly. “I don’t like her.”
“Of course not,” Fuji says. “She’s his fundraiser person.”
“That’s not why I don’t like her.”
“You don’t think she has a nice hairstyle? Her clothes aren’t fashionable?”
“I think she’s delightful.” Fuji says. He sits down on the benches. “She suits him, don’t you think? She’s bright, lively. Intelligent. Sensitive. She has a brother doing medicine at Tokyo.”
“Tezuka’s applying for medicine at Tokyo next term.”
Ryoma falls quiet. Next term. He’s not sure he even wants to think about it. “He doesn’t like her.”
“He will,” Fuji says. “Give him time.”
“He doesn’t like girls, Fuji.”
Fuji stares at him. “That’s just a rumour. I know, I made it up.”
“No, it’s true.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know that,” Ryoma says. “She’s not right for him.”
“I see,” Fuji says. His tone is colder.
“So you should call the whole thing off.”
“Why?” Fuji fires back. “What harm will it do? It’s not like any of the boys put in a bid. What’s the problem with him making a new friend? Unless you want to get in there and get your hands dirty.”
Ryoma pulls a face. “This conversation is over.”
“Maybe it’s just a phase, Echizen. You ever think about that? Plenty of people just need to meet the right person.”
“He did,” Ryoma says. “This isn’t what he wants.”
“So,” Fuji says. “Show him what he does want. You’re the expert, it seems.”
“I’m not the-”
But Fuji is gone.
“So,” Akiko says. “Why did you agree to do the fundraiser?”
She’s tucking into steak. He hasn’t met many girls that eat steak. He has the steak, too. It’s good steak.
“I didn’t,” he eventually admits. “Fuji signed us all up. It’s for a good cause.”
She nods. “Did you guys make a lot of money?”
“It was popular,” he replies. “I don’t really understand it.”
“Girls just want a bit of romance,” she laughs. “Most girls. They get these daydreams about you guys and the idea of dating you, even if they’ve paid for it, and even if it isn’t real…well, it’s just a really big thing for them.”
Tezuka looks positively alarmed.
“Most girls,” she adds. “I’m not that romantic, myself.”
“Okay,” he says. “So why…pay so much money for this? I’m no good at romance. I’m not good at girls, full stop.”
“I just wanted to get to know you better,” she says. “And I knew you wouldn’t date me. And I knew you weren’t in the market for new friends, seeing as you’re not-”
“The friendly type,” he ends the sentence. He’s smiling, despite himself.
“Yeah. So…you know, I just wanted to get to know you a bit better. I don’t want you to feel obligated to romance me. I don’t want to go on…fake dates or anything. I just want to do stuff with you.”
“Okay,” Tezuka says. He wants to ask her whether she hasn’t girl friends to do that sort of thing with, but he doesn’t dare. It’s something she picks up on, nonetheless.
“I don’t get on well with girls,” she explains. “I have a couple of friends but they only talk about guys. And I like guys, but there’s other stuff I want to do first. I want to apply to university, like my brother. My parents are so proud of him. I want them to be proud of me.”
“What do you want to apply for?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I thought about medicine, like my brother, but I don’t think I’m smart enough.”
“Why don’t you think you’re smart enough?”
She grins. “This is why guys make better friends. They ask the nitty-gritty questions. They don’t just say something fluffy in the hope you’ll shut up.”
Tezuka blinks. She adds, “That’s a compliment.”
“I agree with you,” he says, sheepishly. “About guy friends. Most of the time. There’s exceptions.”
“Yeah, that’s true.” She nods. “Look, I just…my grades aren’t good enough to make medicine.”
“Where are you? Are you failing anything?”
“No,” she says, measured. “But I was at around 60%, in my exams. It’s not enough. Tokyo wants more than that. Where are you at?”
“If it’s above 75% you’re obligated not to tell me, at the risk of me bursting into tears.” She’s grinning, but it is a tad forced.
He smiles, closes his mouth.
“Fuck,” she says.
“Sorry. I could help you, if you want. If there’s something you can’t get your head around.”
“Would you?” she says, looking pleased. “Paying you for tutoring seems a lot fairer than for dating, don’t you think?”
He looks embarrassed, but shakes it off. “You know that I’m-”
“Yes,” she says, smiling. “I know.”
Special Acts. A list, by Oishi Shuichiro Oh God.
Tezuka - None. Unless tutoring counts. Does tutoring count?
Fuji - Sisterly love, ahahaha. Hope he’s kidding.
Momo - Likes ‘rough and tumble’.
Inui - Wears dresses. She does, not Inui. Is a girl. I’m so confused.
Eiji - None.
Kaidoh - Homoerotic conflict. Oh my God.
From: Fuji Shuusuke
To: Seigaku Team Prostitutes
Subject: How Is Everything Going? ^_^
Well? Details, details. Don’t be shy.
They sit in the library, Akiko and Tezuka. Over the course of a week and a bit, their relationship has started to blossom. Oishi completely encourages it, mistakenly thinking there’s romantic interest there. Tezuka doesn’t put him straight, partly because it’s putting a few things not-so-straight for him, and it’s a whole bunch of conversations he doesn’t want to have.
She’s just finishing some mathematical equations and he’s reading a chemistry textbook when she says,
“No,” she says. “I just. Did you really feel like spending the summer in a library?”
“I’m not into…er. Going out and drinking. I’d rather study.”
“What do you do to relax?”
“I fish. And I garden. I’m not ninety. I promise, I’m not ninety.”
“I’m not! I’m just a quiet person.”
“Tell you what,” she says. “If I get all of these sums right, I’ll take you for a treat tomorrow. Okay?”
“Okay,” Tezuka says. “As long as it doesn’t involve a bar, I’m good.”
“It doesn’t involve a bar, old man.”
She gets all her sums right.
The next day, she invites Tezuka and Ryoma out to a big lake, an hour out of the city. They get the bus down, the three of them. It’s a brilliant day and Ryoma has his cap on, as always. He’s not scowling, for once. She’s brought a picnic. In some parallel universe, Tezuka wishes that he did like her. It’d make his life a lot easier. But, no.
“Bit kinky,” Ryoma says, as the bus ambles along. “Bringing me on your date.”
“It’s not a date,” Akiko says. She reaches back, hits Ryoma with the magazine she’s brought. “Kids are so dirty-minded.”
“He’s not a kid,” Tezuka says, just as Ryoma exclaims the same thing. They look at each other.
“He’s fifteen,” she says, sticking out her tongue at him. “Same difference.”
“I’m nearly sixteen,” Ryoma says. “I’m only a year younger than you.”
“I’m eighteen,” she says. “So you’re three years behind me.”
“Tezuka isn’t eighteen,” Ryoma says, as if that’s all that matters. She looks at his face and she understands that, in his world, maybe it is.
“Tezuka is a hundred and five,” she retorts. Tezuka takes the magazine from her and hits her with it. An old woman sitting nearby glares at them.
“You’re practically her husband,” Akiko goes on, quieter. “That’s how old you are.”
“He’s only seventeen,” Ryoma says. “Stupid.”
“Have you got a girlfriend, Echizen?” she asks. “I have brothers your age. They’re into the same girl. It’s complicated at home right now.”
Ryoma snorts. “They could just both date her. It’s not like she’d know.”
Akiko frowns. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”
“I don’t want a girlfriend,” Ryoma says. “Girls are stupid.”
He pauses for a moment. “Except you. You’re only half-stupid. But you’re only half-girl, too, I reckon.”
“Thanks,” she says, sardonically. “You’re only half-adult, so I suppose that makes us even.”
It’s like they’re cut from the same cloth, Tezuka thinks. He’s reading the magazine now. It’s interesting: a grown-up sort of magazine. It isn’t all about boys and there’s no free nail varnish. He reads it until she takes it from him.
“Does he always read?” she asks Ryoma.
“Yep,” Ryoma says. “Saves him having to talk.”
“I can still hear you.”
When they get there, she decides that she wants to hire a rowing boat to go around the lake in. She wants to sunbathe on route, she thinks. Tezuka likes the idea, which means that Ryoma’s happy to do it, so that’s what they do. Tezuka rows, Ryoma tries to keep up with him, and Akiko sunbathes. If she hadn’t been clued in before now, the situation would have shocked her. She’s taken off her shirt and wears just a bikini top and her skirt, but neither of the boys are paying the slightest bit of attention. Tezuka is trying to tell Ryoma how to row, and Ryoma is doing the exact opposite of whatever Tezuka says.
Boys are stupid.
“You’re scaring the wildlife,” she says idly. “Just let him row the way he wants to row.”
“We’ll end up going around in circles,” Tezuka argues, stubbornly.
“We already are,” she says, dismally. “Anyone want a sandwich?”
They sit and eat sandwiches, marveling at the quiet.
After all the rowing and back on dry land, the boys are tired out, so she volunteers to get them ice creams. Tezuka isn't a fan of ice cream, but he doesn't let on. It's too hot to argue.
“Are you dating her?” Ryoma says, when she's out of earshot.
“No,” Tezuka says. “We're friends. I'm not dating anybody. I like her. We're just friends.”
“She's alright,” Ryoma says. “For a girl.”
“Yeah,” Tezuka says, smiling.
“You haven't been on the street courts,” Ryoma says. He tries not to make it an accusation, but it's hard. It's their thing and he feels a bit like Tezuka is slipping away from him. That he should be making an effort to keep him around. Showing that he cares, or something. Only Ryoma isn't good at that sort of thing. It comes out all aggressive.
“No,” Tezuka says. He blinks, surprised at the amount of days that have floated by without him thinking about tennis. He can hardly believe it himself. “I've been busy.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Having non-dates. I'm helping Akiko to study.”
“You're both doing medicine.”
“Yeah, that's the plan.”
“I'm always just going into something, just as you're leaving.”
“We have two terms,” Tezuka says. “I've two terms left. I'm not going to university just yet.”
“Do you think it'll be like it was before? Like Junior High?”
“I don't know,” Tezuka says, truthfully. “It hasn't been so far. It's different. Lots of things are different.”
“We can make it the same again,” Ryoma says. But it doesn't look as if that's what Tezuka wants. “You'll be captain. I'll be your annoying prodigy again.”
“If I get the captaincy.”
“You're not the type to doubt yourself.”
“Hm,” Tezuka muses. It's all he is, nowadays. Doubt. Uncertainty. On one hand: tennis is all he's ever known and all he's ever loved. On the other: an exciting, new life beckons. One where he can do all sorts of things he's never allowed himself to try. Whether Ryoma fits into this new life, that's really the problem. Perhaps all they ever had, after all, was tennis.
“You do want to be captain, right?” Ryoma pushes. This isn't coming out right, at all.
Tezuka doesn't answer. He just looks out at the water, so still and so pure.
They sit on the grass, Akiko and Tezuka, a few days later, watching the world go by. He's explaining his biology notes to her – he writes them for himself, and with the tennis team scribbles on one side, they look sort of odd to another person. She copies them down, nodding every so often and laughing at his scribbles. She likes Tezuka a lot, and it seems to be reciprocal. That's all she really wanted, out of this summer.
“Is Echizen going to be the star of your team, then?” she asks. “You've got his name down here so many times.”
“When I wrote that, yes,” Tezuka replies, slowly. His brow is furrowed. He's confused. Conflicted.
“Have you had an argument?”
“No,” he says. “I decided not to go for the captaincy.”
“Ah,” she says. “Too much pressure?”
“I've never had that feeling before,” Tezuka says. “I lived on it, pressure. I was good at it. It made me more determined to succeed. I just-”
“You want a life? I'd want a life. We're not going to have a life, when we get into medicine.”
She's never said 'when' before, only 'if'. It makes him smile.
“I want a life,” he says. “Outside tennis.”
“Well, nobody's forcing you to be captain, right? You don't have to be. You can do whatever you want.”
“True,” Tezuka says. He pulls up a few locks of grass, thoughtful. “True.”
Ryoma isn't speaking to Tezuka. By association, he thinks that he shouldn't be taking to Seigaku, period, but Fuji has an annoying way of being everywhere, all intrusive and uncomfortable, so he relents.
Kaidoh has improved his game recently. Had Tezuka not decided to bow out of the captaincy, it looks like Kaidoh might have had the edge on him in the ranking matches. It's been weeks since Tezuka last practiced, and Ryoma's given up hope of everything being the same as it was before.
On the street courts, the team are buzzing with the news. They pair up, play a few friendly matches together, whilst Fuji and Ryoma umpire from the sidelines.
“Everyone said he'd move on,” Ryoma says abruptly.
“I'm surprised,” Fuji says. “But it was inevitable, I suppose. Tezuka's entitled to a life. He's given this team a lot. Inui says he's finally experiencing puberty.”
“Shut up,” Ryoma says, nudging Fuji with his shoulder. “It's your fault, anyway. You made him date that stupid girl. She convinced him not to go for the captaincy.”
“She didn't convince him of anything,” Fuji says. “He's just never had many friends. Or anything much, except this team. He's having fun. He's never had fun before. Give him a break.”
“I just. I don't want this to be like this. I want it to be like-”
“It's never going to be like Junior High,” Fuji says, sharply. “We all want to go back sometimes. Erase and rewind. It doesn't work like that. He's not dating Akiko, is he? He's not leaving you behind. Nothing is going to change.”
“Everything is going to change.”
“How is it going to change?”
“We're not going to have tennis anymore,” Ryoma says, sullenly. “We are tennis. It's all we've ever been. And he's giving up.”
Fuji shrugs, mildly. “Maybe you should take a leaf out of his book and try doing something else.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Well, two people can't just be tennis. It's just not that interesting. If you don't want him to leave you behind, then be interested in him. Stop using him as your guidance counselor or your authority figure or your great guru or whatever it is you two have together. See him as a friend. Akiko is his friend. She makes him have fun. If you like somebody that much, you're interested in them, not in...tennis. Not just in tennis.”
Ryoma considers this. “I don't think we'd have anything to talk about.”
“Then you're not friends,” Fuji says. “And you need to forget about it.”
Tezuka turns up at the street courts. It's late, Fuji and Ryoma and Inui are the only ones still there. They're packing up, even though the lights on the courts are on. They've played their games and they're done. Ryoma lingers, when he sees Tezuka.
“I didn't come here to-” Tezuka begins, but Ryoma ignores him, grabs his racket, strides defiantly onto the court.
“Yes, you did,” he says. He has his racket in hand, preparing to call the first serve.
“No, I-” He has his racket with him, so technically, he came here prepared to play. Only there's so much he wants to say, or do, instead – and Ryoma isn't letting him.
“If we're not going to be tennis anymore,” Ryoma says. “Then play me.”
Tezuka considers. “But-”
Fuji and Inui sit. They don't see a lot of night games, and rumour has it that Tezuka's out of practice. Everything else is forgotten, as Inui brings out his notebook.
Playing in the dark is different from playing during the day: your senses go into acute overdrive. Ryoma concentrates harder than he ever has before, on each serve, on each volley, on each rally that goes his way, or Tezuka's. Tezuka plays a fine game no matter what the conditions, whereas Ryoma hates to play in the dark.
The ball trails yellow fire as it soars across the net, neither player eager to give in. Ryoma is more tired, but Tezuka is a little rusty, a little blurry around the edges, and the game they're playing is honest. The noise that comes from Ryoma's mouth is honest. Emotional, passionate, angry, tired. And Tezuka, he moves with genuine effort. He plays with raw edge, real concentration. He's being pushed to his limit, and Ryoma knows it.
The score evens gradually, nobody having an advantage for long. Inui has long stopped scribbling, because he can't take his eyes away from the match. Ryoma counters each move Tezuka makes, and Tezuka responds with harder, fast serves until Ryoma concedes, breathing heavily. And so it begins again, Tezuka high on his advantage before Ryoma finds a way to break him. It's endless, darkly beautiful. The lights flicker on and off around them. Their shadows are like dancers, the carved silhouette of Tezuka's serve is art.
Finally, it hits 6-5 to Tezuka, and the onlookers are torn between wanting it to end and wanting it to continue. Tezuka is exhausted and Ryoma looks halfway towards collapsing. If Oishi were here, he would-
“Play on?” Ryoma asks, and Tezuka grins, and Fuji just chuckles to himself.
It goes to a tie break.
The ball falls over the net, an arc that it positively ironic. Ryoma jumps, leans in for it, taps it upwards. Tezuka lowers into a Zero Shiki, lifts the ball against the net – it falls, just. Ryoma misses it. History repeats itself, at a skewed angle. A scent of memory. The game is won by Tezuka, 7-6.
After that, Fuji and Inui go home.
“If you can beat me,” Ryoma says, as they dry off. “You can beat Kaidoh.”
“I don't want to beat Kaidoh,” Tezuka says. “Not for this.”
“Why? Why don't you want the captaincy? You wanted it before the summer-”
“I wanted it because it's all I'd ever done,” Tezuka says, slowly. “It made me who I was, and I'm grateful for that. But I don't know how my life would have been if I'd refused it, that day when Yamato-buchou asked. I wasn't sure even then, that I wanted it, but I took it because I'd only ever played tennis. If I hadn't...I'd have had full use of my shoulder, for one thing. I'd have been able to do so many things.”
“You wouldn't have met me.”
“I'd have met you,” Tezuka reasons. “Just, I wouldn't have taught you.”
“I'd have been different, then.”
“Maybe,” Tezuka says. “Maybe not. We'll never know. But we could have been friends. It would have been different. I want things that are different, now.”
“I don't understand.”
“No,” Tezuka smiles. “I guess not.”
“Is this all about Akiko?”
“She made me see things differently,” Tezuka says. “But I don't want to be with her. It's not all about her. It's not all about tennis. It's all about...other things. Maybe it'll make sense when you're seventeen.”
“You're not that much older than me,” Ryoma says, sullenly. “You act like I've ages to go yet.”
“We should do something that isn't tennis,” Tezuka says. “I'd like to do something that isn't tennis.”
“What else is there?” Ryoma challenges, but he's smirking, all the same.
To: Fuji Shuusuke
From: Echizen Ryoma
Tezuka wants to do something fun, that isn't tennis.
To: Echizen Ryoma
From: Fuji Shuusuke
Subject: re: ...
You need to go a chemist to get supplies. I can give you the number, if you want. I've got an account but you can't use it.
How do you feel, about to become a ~man~? ^_^
To: Fuji Shuusuke
From: Echizen Ryoma
Subject: re: re: ...
Are you going to help me or not? You got me into this stupid mess. What fun things are there that aren't tennis?
To: Echizen Ryoma
From: Fuji Shuusuke
Subject: re: re: re: ...
There's a saying that goes, 'fish, or cut bait'. It means, either continue fishing or cut bait and go home. It's like 'put up or shut up'. Are you going to fish, or are you going to cut bait. That's the big question.
To: Fuji Shuusuke
From: Echizen Ryoma
Subject: re: re: re: re: ...
That is NO help. Are you suggesting we go fishing???
To: Echizen Ryoma
From: Fuji Shuusuke
Subject: re: re: re: re: re...
Nothing gets past you, does it? Just make sure you've decided what you're going to do before you go. Tezuka's good at fishing, and he doesn't cut bait.
Tezuka is nervous. Akiko is amused by him: she remembers seeing her older brother going on dates, the same awkward pacing, the unsure look on his face. Tezuka maintains that it's not a date, it's not anything, just two people meeting up and not playing tennis. Statistically, it happens every day, people meeting up without playing tennis. Only for Tezuka and Ryoma, it's an anomaly.
“Are you worried that you'll have nothing to talk about?” she says. “You could talk about tennis. Unless it's a banned topic?”
“It's a banned topic,” Tezuka sighs. “I just. I don't think it's going to work.”
“You seem to get on fine when I'm around. Let's face it, when I first met you it was like drawing blood from a stone, but it's cool now. We're fine. Right?”
Tezuka considers this. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“I know that it's different, because he's-”
“But you just need to be yourself. That's what everyone always says. You made the right decision. I think tennis was taking over your life, a bit.”
“Fuji always says there's two ways of living: you either fish, or you cut bait. Fish or not fish. I think not fishing is giving up, that's the bad way of living. But I gave up, and it was a good thing. It's strange. I've never given up before, and it's never been good.”
“Sometimes, you need to know when to stop,” she says. “I had this mad crush on a guy for a few years, and then I got to know him, and he became my friend. And I realised that that was the moment I had to stop. It was a good thing, because I like being his friend even more.”
Tezuka smiles at her, understanding. “We're both getting good at cutting bait.”
“We are,” she grins. “So, where are you and Ryoma going?”
Tezuka stretches and says, beginning to laugh, “Fishing."
They take the bus out, to the same lake. The day is less hot, the atmosphere more comfortable. Tezuka brings food, supplies, Ryoma brings himself and some magazines. He's slightly awkward, in a way Tezuka hasn't seen him before. Ryoma is rarely uncomfortable, possibly because he only puts himself in situations where he's on top.
They talk, about small things. Tezuka asks about the intricacies of his application process, and what extra modules he decided to take for his first year. He asks whether Ryoma knows what he wants to do for a career (tennis) and whether he has a back-up plan (no). Ryoma asks whether Tezuka has a back-up plan (no), because he's not sure Tezuka's smart enough for medicine.
It makes Tezuka laugh, and that, for Ryoma, is the best feeling in the world. He wants to do that again, and again, and again.
“How's Akiko?” he asks.
Tezuka nods, smiles. “She's fine. She says hello. Says she's sorting out her brothers. Some crisis.”
“Apparently, her brothers started dating the same girl.”
Ryoma just smirks.
Tezuka has to bite his lip, when Ryoma starts to row and the boat goes around in circles. Ryoma notices him, looking out of the corner of his eye, and he laughs.
“I know you want to say it,” he says.
“You're not doing that right,” Tezuka says, but it's soft, a lilt, not an instruction. And Ryoma realises that he likes the feel of it. The softness. The familiarity.
“I'm doing it fine,” Ryoma returns. “You're the one doing it wrong.”
“I'm very good at rowing,” Tezuka says, affronted.
“You couldn't be captain of the rowing team. You couldn't be the prince of rowing. So shut up, and let me row.”
“You're scaring away the fish,” Tezuka says, but he's laughing.
“You are,” Ryoma says. “It's your laugh. It's unnatural. Not of this world.”
“I'm going to push you overboard,”
“Do it,” Ryoma says. “You wouldn't dare.”
Tezuka hauls Ryoma back into the boat. He's soaked to the skin and absolutely incredulous. Swear words Tezuka's never even heard are falling out of his mouth.
“You're a bastard,” he's saying, “The water tastes fucking horrible!”
“I think all the fish are gone,” Tezuka says, mournfully.
“Whose fault is that?!”
“Yours,” Tezuka says. “You're all mouthy.”
“Your girlfriend is the one who's mouthy,” Ryoma says, pulling his t-shirt down. It's clinging to him, and he feels a bit self-conscious. Luckily, it's not that cold. He'll dry quickly.
“She's not my girlfriend,” Tezuka says. “I don't have a girlfriend.”
“Do you like them mouthy?”
“I like the lanky, sulking, petulant type,” Tezuka says. “Preferably wet, too. If they've got leaves in their hair, it's an added bonus.”
“I'll make sure to push Akiko into a lake, next time I see her.”
They don't fish, in the end. There's no fish to fish. They lie in the boat, heads together, legs dangling over the sides. It's a gorgeous day: not too warm, not too cold. Ryoma dries quickly. They don't say anything, just enjoy the peace and quiet. Ryoma eats most of the picnic, because he's got an appetite like a horse and Tezuka is too polite to stop him, so he'll take advantage if he can.
Tezuka is quiet and lazy, and Ryoma's not seen him like that before. He thinks that he likes it. They wouldn't have done something like this a few years ago, not alone and certainly not without discussing some team strategy, some new tennis serve. The latest match. Something to do with tennis. Ryoma feels that maybe, this is what it is to cut bait. When his father went to America, all he wanted to do was play tennis. That was his tunnel vision, his goal. Only he met Ryoma's mother, and he fell in love with her instead.
That's why Nanjiroh is so unfocused, so blurry. Ryoma would have understood him, on the day he went to America. They would have had the same unrelenting drive, the same selfish inconsideration of anything that didn't involve two rackets and a net. Only Nanjiroh is human: he has faults, he cares about other things, too, and Ryoma's tried so hard and so long to understand that, but always, ultimately, failed. Tezuka showed him the importance of tennis, gave him an angle from which to understand his father's competition. Later, Tezuka showed him the importance of everything else, gave him an angle from which to understand his father's laziness.
Ryoma doesn't want to be blurry. He wants to be focused and driven. But he always wants these moments: the peace and quiet. He wants friendship. He wants Tezuka in his life. And for the first time in his life, he doesn't want tennis to intrude. Suddenly, he understands why Tezuka chose not to go for the captaincy.
“You gave it up because of me,” Ryoma says, quietly. “I know it's a banned topic-”
“I gave it up because I wanted other things,” Tezuka says, just as quietly. “I didn't want to be your teacher anymore. I wanted to be your friend. I wanted to get to know you. I've spent so long being your teacher, putting a gap between us, in order to let you...evolve your game.”
“Will you regret it?”
“That depends,” Tezuka says, cheekily. “On how good a friend you are.”
“Oh, I'm supposed to prove my worth to you, right?” Ryoma says, poking him in the arm. “I owe you something, huh. I'm not changing. I'm not becoming some nice person. You want to be my friend, you can have me as your friend. I'm not changing. I'm going to annoy the living fuck out of you.”
“I look forward to it,” Tezuka says lazily, dangling his hand in the water.
“So, do we still get to play tennis?”
“Sure,” Tezuka says. “I'm still trying for the team. I just don't want to lead it.”
“Maybe I should apply for the captaincy,” Ryoma says. “Get back at you for all those times you pissed me off, three years ago.”
“You think you didn't piss me off?” Tezuka says, laughing with surprise. “You were a little brat. If you hadn't been so talented I'd have thrown you out the window.”
“I'm still a brat,” Ryoma says. “By the way.”
“Obviously,” Tezuka says. “I'm pedantic. I'm sure we'll make excellent friends.”
“We're talking about tennis,” Ryoma says. “Isn't that against the rules, Buchou?”
“I'll push you overboard again.”
“Stop me talking about tennis! I'm breaking a rule, Buchou! I'll have to run some laps! You'll have to punish me, I've let my guard down! I'm being care-”
Except, he isn't being careless. Tezuka's being careless. Because Tezuka is leaning over, and kissing him, in that annoyingly perfect, vaguely accidental way Tezuka has of doing everything. As if he's just decided to do it, and yet it's accidentally the greatest thing you've ever seen or done in your entire life. It isn't hard, or rough, or even all that decisive, but it's a side of Tezuka that Ryoma hasn't ever seen before. And, loathe as he is to admit it, he likes it.
It's not easy, in the end, to have a good kiss whilst lying down in a boat. Just as it's not easy to forge a friendship when there's all that history, all those years of having a solid dynamic. Just as it's not easy to fuse a bond between two people: a brat and a pedant. Nothing is all that easy. But in the end, if you try and you succeed at it, it's a sweet sensation. It's an exhilarating sensation. Ryoma kisses Tezuka back until his shoulders are hurting with the way the oars are digging into him, and then he draws back and opens his eyes.
The sunlight blares in, and Tezuka is looking at him, and his eyes are so soft and so open and so different, and it feels more right than anything. More right than smashing back a match-winning return, even.
Well. Maybe they're equal.
“So, we didn't fish,” Ryoma says.
“That's because you scared them all away,” Tezuka says. “Brat.”
“I was trying to use Fuji's metaphor,” Ryoma returns. “Pedant.”
“So in the end,” Fuji is saying, eying Oishi's notes. “Tezuka was a slutty host. He was supposed to be dating Akiko, not Echizen.”
“Well,” Oishi says. “I think he had some encouragement.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“And to be honest, that story isn't nearly as interesting as Kaidoh and Momo!”
“Even I didn't expect that,” Fuji says. “Who'd have thought that they'd enjoy homoerotic conflict so much?”
“I'm not sure their girls should have been allowed to team them up like that-”
“I think it's resourceful,” Fuji says. “Momo's girl liked rough and tumble, Kaidoh's liked homoerotic conflict. Girls are smart like that. They like to team up.”
“Not as smart as you,” Oishi says, smiling.
“You created this fundraiser to motivate Echizen into doing something about Tezuka.”
“Yes,” Fuji says, pleased. “I thought nobody would work it out.”
“And you knew that Tezuka wasn't going to take the captaincy?”
“I had a hunch.”
“The only thing I don't understand,” Oishi says. “Is how Akiko got Tezuka in the first place. She wasn't the highest bidder. Not by a long shot.”
“Ah,” Fuji says. “The other bidders...they dropped out of the running. Or so I heard.”
“But why Akiko? Didn't she have skeletons?”
“Hmn,” Fuji thinks. “She was like Tezuka. She had his drive, his need to succeed. She was Tezuka, without the tennis. She knew how to have fun. And she was like Echizen. She was mouthy, she stood up for herself. I thought she'd remind him of Echizen. And of himself.”
“I'm his best friend,” Oishi says, sighing. “And if I knew him half as well as that-”
“You're not obsessed, Oishi,” Fuji says, seriously. “I was obsessed. I made it my business to know him. I did the fundraiser to stop being obsessed. To cut bait. To stop fishing.”
“Did it work?”
“You tell me,” Fuji says. “Does it look like I've got a fishing rod in my pocket, or am I just happy to see you?”