Tezuka had resigned himself to letting Echizen go, which was why he didn't go to the junior high tennis practises even though they only overlapped with high school practise three days a week.
Instead, as the end of the tournament season drew closer, he started watching them occasionally from the empty classroom with the best view of the courts.
The first time he showed up there, Inui turned completely away from the window and scribbled almost three entire pages in his notebook without looking outside again, which was almost disconcerting even with all Tezuka's experience of Inui, although he didn't say anything about it. Inui evidently didn't say anything about it either, because even after two weeks nobody else so much as looked at him funny--except Fuji, but he always did. Perhaps Inui's presence in the classroom was a secret too.
He and Tezuka developed a truce. Tezuka responded to Inui's remarks every now and then in the empty classroom and he always made a mental note when Inui looked up to say things like "Echizen is missing his sweet spot by an average of three millimetres" and "Echizen has gone up a shoe size again". He also agreed to two practise matches with Inui in the space of three weeks, but he never drank Inui juice anymore.
One day Inui slipped his notebook into his backpack and left the classroom when practise wasn't even half over. Tezuka saw him go, but he didn't look up until Inui stopped in the door. "Echizen has been practising more outside of school," he remarked. "His reflexes have increased seven percent--" which Tezuka already knew "--and he favours the closed courts near the bus station over the street courts in the park," which Tezuka didn't know. A few minutes later Tezuka saw Inui's figure approach the fence, where he stood with his arms crossed and watched Kaidoh's match.
If Tezuka started to frequent the closed courts near the bus station, it was mainly from curiosity--he hadn't seen Echizen play up close for a while. He didn't think about the fact that if they met there it would only make sense to play a match until the first time he found Echizen there.
Echizen was sitting under a tree outside the courts reading a book, with a can of Ponta in one hand. When Tezuka stopped in front of him, he looked up right away with an enquiring noise, blinking, dapples of sunlight sliding up over his face.
"Echizen." Tezuka nodded.
A smile spread from one corner of his mouth to the other, lighting his face. "It's been a while," he said.
"Aa," said Tezuka. It had been too long since they'd spoken directly, up close. Now that he was near he was not at all surprised Echizen's shoe size had gone up, that he'd been missing his sweet spot for a week until hours of extra practise sharpened his reflexes.
Thanks to Inui, he knew Echizen's height had changed by exactly two and a half centimetres, but he wanted to feel the difference for himself in the spin of the ball. It would almost have been rude not to ask, anyway, Tezuka thought. "Do you want to play a match with me?"
"Heeeh!" said Echizen promptly, "Of course." He started to sit up from the tree and paused with his finger in the book. The title, Tezuka saw, was Deep Secret. Echizen glanced down at the book, then at his tennis bag, then back up at Tezuka. "Buchou," he said. He always lingered on the title, as if to leave space around it for the unspoken remainder of a sentence Tezuka could never fully understand. "Do you have something I can use for a bookmark?"
"Aa." Tezuka turned away from Echizen to set down his tennis bag. He had paper in the outer pocket--a handful of convenience store receipts, a neatly folded piece of paper covered in columns of numbers in Inui's handwriting, a printout of the high school practise schedule and a hand-written copy of the junior high schedule. He picked up one of the receipts, and when his fingers hovered over his pencil case in indecision it was as if time slowed down.
He hadn't played Echizen in months, hadn't spoken to him in almost as long. Tezuka knew that this was his choice. Echizen would never turn down a match. It meant that the burden of letting go was entirely on Tezuka. Echizen didn't make it easier, with his casual assumption of familiarity, the trust in his eyes and his voice and the way he said "buchou" as if it were a mark of familiarity, like Tezuka's first name, instead of a title.
Tezuka didn't touch the pencil case. He zipped the pocket and turned around to hand Echizen the slip of paper, and they walked into the courts together.
There was more power in Echizen's serves, and Tezuka could feel it in the smack of the ball on the gut, in the pressure each time he returned it with a different spin. Echizen's control was developing to keep pace with the growing strength and reach, he could feel that too, and Tezuka knew from experience that it took a lot of work to keep the same level of control over your body through a growth spurt.
He kept his eyes on Echizen over the net the whole time, asking a question with his gaze, watching Echizen breathing open-mouthed, flowing across the court to chase Tezuka's balls and breaking the hold of gravity for vicious leaping Twist Serves. Inui was right that his endurance was better; the answer to Tezuka's question wasn't in his physical exhaustion, but in the determined set of his eyes and mouth instead, the little twitches of irritation at every ball that went out as he tried to break the Tezuka Zone.
Tezuka had never played a game with Echizen without being surprised, and this time it was Echizen's restraint which surprised him. He let the first game and the second go, testing his control and his reflexes against Tezuka again and again, perfecting his stance and his movements, his gaze on the ball burning bright.
Tezuka obliged him by going through his paces, repeating shots exactly when Echizen needed him to, even though a hollow space had opened up under his ribcage and was slowly filling with the aching memory of another match when their roles had been reversed, Echizen helping him to perfect the right-handed Tezuka Zone before his trip to Germany. The extra strain had left lingering traces he'd felt in the muscles of his right arm for days, and he'd gazed out the window on his transcontinental flight, flexing his hand on the armrest to feel the faint burn shifting under the skin of his forearm.
In the end, Echizen only took two games, but the last was long and close, and he was able to use the unpredictability of his new power to break through the Tezuka Zone more than once.
"It was a good game," said Tezuka, when they were clasping hands over the net. It was: it had been good for both of them, more practise than he'd had in the last week of high school tennis practises, and just what he needed.
"It was, wasn't it?" Echizen smirked, but Tezuka could see into his eyes under the brim of the cap, and for an instant they were filled with simple pleasure.
"Echizen, good work. The control will improve naturally with your strength."
Echizen's eyes widened involuntarily and his smirk melted into a warm smile. "You've gotten stronger too," he said. "You can't get careless, ne, buchou?"
"Aa," said Tezuka. He'd been waiting for that game for months. Maybe, Tezuka thought, he didn't have to let go entirely. Maybe he could let it be up to Echizen.
When Echizen was still in the shower, Tezuka took the book from Echizen's tennis bag and a pencil from his own. He held the book open on his knee, turned the receipt blank side up, and carefully printed his phone number, small but neat and legible. He hesitated for a moment over the name, but he put in the kanji for both his names before replacing the receipt carefully in the book and the book in Echizen's tennis bag.
When Echizen came out Tezuka was buttoning his shirt.
Echizen didn't call Tezuka in the first weekend after their match. He didn't call Tezuka in the whole week after that, either, or the week after that. Tezuka had carried his phone everywhere in his pocket since then, even at home. He had taken to charging it while he did his homework, so that when it was plugged in it was still on his desk, within arm's reach. It wouldn't have been polite to miss the call.
He knew for a fact that Echizen hadn't said anything about their meeting or the note Tezuka had written him on the back of that receipt to anyone else in the tennis club. This was because recently he had happened to see Kaidoh with his family at a department store and had, eventually, decided that he probably owed Inui the information under the terms of their truce. Although Inui doubtless already knew about every new pair of shoes Kaidoh bought, he had been so pleased - perhaps just pleased that Tezuka told him - that he had started calling Tezuka at least once a day.
Tezuka didn't feel the terms of their truce would allow him to hang up any more - at least not without listening for a while first.
He was confident that if he now knew every time Eiji's favourite flavour of toothpaste changed, all the minutest details of Kachiro and Katsuo's progress in doubles training, and all of Echizen's homework assignments each day, he could not possibly remain ignorant of it if Echizen had even brought a book to school, let alone said anything about tennis or Tezuka to anyone.
"Echizen's power has stabilised," Inui said one day as they watched practise from the empty classroom. "His control has continued improving, but his concentration has deteriorated over the past week."
Tezuka didn't say anything. He barely stopped himself from looking away from the window to observe Inui's face. He kept his hands in his pockets and his gaze forward. He knew he didn't have to say anything for Inui to continue. Once on the phone Inui had talked almost twenty minutes without any interjection from Tezuka at all.
Inui sighed and crossed his arms. The notebook casually open in his right hand was two weeks old and was labelled neatly, Echizen Ryoma, second year, vol. 1. (Tezuka Kunimitsu, fourth year, supplemental, series 4.) "Too much practise can be as detrimental as inadequate training or diet," he said.
"Echizen has demonstrated some signs of fatigue. In addition to this, my sources indicate he has partially or completely avoided his regular evening recreational activities. He has been training more, and at least one day he informed Momoshiro he was going to the covered tennis courts. I estimate the probability that he has been there every night this week at eighty percent."
Because he knew Inui made careful note of Tezuka's reactions to every piece of information he delivered, Tezuka was careful not to betray too much. He allowed himself to look over at Inui, though.
Inui's pencil scratched in the notebook. "If it's necessary, I can speak to him," he said. "I wouldn't want him to injure himself."
"No," said Tezuka. "Thank you. I'll take care of it." He glanced back at the window, but looked away again quickly. Instead of watching Echizen, he moved to an empty desk on the other side of the room and took out his homework. By the time practise was over, he'd finished it all.
He waited at the end of the block, outside the school's gates. He had been considering the possibility that Echizen would emerge accompanied by Momoshiro or some of the other second-years, but he was alone, walking with his hands in his pockets, his school jacket fastened all the way to the neck. His hair was still sleek and shining from the showers. He caught sight of Tezuka almost immediately, at a distance, and Tezuka saw the change in his stride before he was close enough to see his smile.
He stopped walking in front of Tezuka and looked up at him, still smiling. "Buchou?"
"Echizen. Good afternoon." He started walking again and he could feel Echizen fall into step next to him. He didn't look down. "How was practise?"
"Mmmmm. Mada mada dane," said Echizen lazily. "How is the high school practise?"
The high school practise was mada mada dane, too, but it was helping them all to keep in shape. "Good. I'm going to the covered courts now," said Tezuka. "Perhaps you'd care to come with me and play a match?"
"Sure," said Echizen, casually. "I could use a real workout."
If he had really been at these courts every night during the week Tezuka had kept away from them, it wasn't necessarily because he was hoping for another match with Tezuka. Any number of causes could be making Echizen frustrated or fatigued, could make his concentration suffer. He could be fighting another growth spurt; avoiding going home; struggling at school; it could be--personal.
But he'd smiled, even if he hadn't called, and Tezuka knew him well enough to detect his relief and excitement. He was eager for the match, and he'd been pleased to see Tezuka there. Perhaps the message simply hadn't been clear enough.
It took almost a whole game before the fatigue Inui had mentioned became much of a handicap for Echizen, although Tezuka could see it from the beginning. Echizen was determined and so intent that he almost looked angry, and his stamina was reduced a little, but he wasn't conserving his strength; he was playing deliberately and forcefully. Every time his focus slipped, every ball Tezuka got past his guard, made a sharp impression on him that Tezuka could see reflected in his face, a flicker of dismay and surprise, a flare of frustration.
Tezuka pressed steadily against his waning endurance, made him chase mercilessly after wide shots, then surprised him and took a point from under his nose. Where is your focus? he wanted to say.
In the third game, Echizen found it, but it was too late. He was drained past recovery; even if he'd pulled a hidden store of energy from somewhere, which wouldn't have surprised Tezuka at all, his reflexes were slowing and his ability to read Tezuka was, too. When he started fighting back fiercely, surprising Tezuka with a feint and taking two points in a row, Tezuka stopped playing to test him and started playing to win as quickly as possible. He had to end the match so Echizen could rest.
"Echizen," Tezuka said as they walked into the changing room. He eyed the white cap carefully, watching the signs of tiredness. They'd all started to show once Tezuka took the match point, like Echizen had let go of something he'd been holding onto tightly. He'd blinked sleepily at Tezuka over the net, eyes a little dazed.
"Shower quickly. The next bus comes in ten minutes."
Echizen just blinked at him and said, "Okay."
The fact that it took him almost all that time to finish showering proved effectively how tired he really was, and he was a little slow dressing, too. Tezuka had finished already, but he tried not to watch. He saw glimpses, though, flashes from the corner of his eye of the even paler skin on the inside of Echizen's upper arms, the taut cage of ribs, the sharply-delineated line of his spine. He resisted the urge to help, and just sat on the other bench with another piece of paper clasped in his hand. He'd written the numbers in pen, this time, and the kanji larger and clearer.
By his watch, they barely had time to the reach the bus. He stood up abruptly while Echizen was still tying his shoes and picked up both tennis bags.
Echizen seemed startled when he looked up to find Tezuka right beside him, holding his jacket. "Aa - " he said, "buchou - ", and Tezuka dropped the jacket over his shoulders. Echizen's eyes went wide, and he blinked once.
"Come on," Tezuka said, tucking the paper quickly into the jacket pocket at Echizen's left hip.
Echizen was still staring blankly at him, but he followed Tezuka and kept pace out of the building and out into the street and only stumbled once. Tezuka watched him carefully, ready to catch him if it happened again.
He rode the bus twenty minutes in the opposite direction from his house with Echizen beside him. "Echizen," he said quietly, when the bus had almost reached its stop.
Echizen's eyelids had been drooping heavily, and he blinked slowly, muzzily up at Tezuka. "You've been over-straining yourself," Tezuka said, and some of the sleepy haze vanished from Echizen's eyes. "You would have taken at least two more games today if you hadn't been so tired."
His face was sharp and serious, and there was something unfamiliar about the expression of his mouth that made Tezuka uneasy. "I know," he said shortly, and Tezuka realised that while they spoke he had sat up completely; his posture was perfect when he walked off the bus, and it made Tezuka's throat hurt to look at it.
Three days went by, and no one called Tezuka except Inui. He called once to tell Tezuka that Oishi and Eiji had been on a date; once to tell him that Echizen hadn't done his English homework because he'd slept all evening; once to tell him that Momoshiro had gotten into a fistfight with Fudomine's Kamio, which had been ended only when three members of Yamabuki had appeared in pursuit of an escaped pet rabbit; and twice to read Tezuka long lists of statistics gathered mainly at the junior high practise.
Fuji called him on the fourth day to demand, very politely, that he explain how he could prefer detective novels to Gothic romances in English literature. The ultimate result of this was that Tezuka began to re-read Wuthering Heights.
Inui called to ask him whether it was a good idea for Momoshiro to date Fudomine's Tachibana An. Tezuka did his homework outside, next to the koi pond, twice. He had started trying to forget his phone was in his pocket, but he never succeeded. He finished Wuthering Heights and started reading The Woman in White.
A week went by. Echizen didn't call him.
Tezuka went to the closed courts three times before he finished reading The Woman in White. The second time, he saw Echizen leaving, just turning the corner at the end of the block, just as Tezuka arrived. He didn't say anything. The third time they played a match, and Echizen took the first game with explosive force, opening with a left-handed Twist Serve and ending it with a return so fast Tezuka could barely see it streak past him and hit at his heels.
They struggled for every game, and when Tezuka ended the second with a Zero-Shiki, Echizen gave him a satisfied smile and a soft amused noise - and used one himself in the third.
Echizen won the match, and when their hands met over the net, he closed his around Tezuka's and tilted his head to the side. "Is it over already?" he smiled. "I'm not tired at all."
Tezuka relaxed a little and smiled back. He couldn't have stopped himself, when that satisfied, excited light was in Echizen's eyes, and it felt like the court was still resonating from the impact of the match point. "Mada mada?" he suggested.
Echizen's grin widened, and he didn't let go of Tezuka's hand.
"Good game," Tezuka said. The join of their hands was warm.
"Ne, buchou - next time, see if you can beat me." Tezuka's chest clenched a little, and he thought, I will, but all he had to do to say that to Echizen was let the corner of his mouth twitch up.
They walked to the changing rooms together. Echizen took a towel from his bag and paused. "Buchou," he said. "What is Wuthering Heights about?"
Tezuka thought carefully about it before he handed his copy of Wuthering Heights over to Echizen the next week. He flipped through it again, trying to imagine what Echizen might think if he read that, or that, or that. Mostly, he imagined Echizen frowning in boredom, or saying "Che!", so he stopped.
Then he thought about the bookmark. He used a clean sheet of paper and carefully tore off a narrow strip. With his desk clear of everything but that piece of white paper, its one corner and two straight edges and its organic curved edge, Tezuka was touched briefly with helplessness. The paper looked like it called for calligraphy, or for poetry, for some kind of message. Tezuka didn't know what to say, though. He wrote his name and phone number again, taking his time this time to form the kanji and numbers exactly right, though perhaps it wouldn't matter at all, in the end.
He slipped it into the book so that only the very edge was showing above the spine.
Echizen's expression when Tezuka gave him the book before a match at the covered courts was startled.
"You can borrow it," Tezuka said. "It's a Gothic romance."
He looked down at the book, wrapping his hand around it, rubbing the spine with his thumb. He glanced at the back cover, back up at Tezuka, down at the front cover, and then at Tezuka again. "Okay," he said at last, and slipped the book into his bag.
After the match, they stood outside the covered courts, next to the tree where Tezuka had seen him reading Deep Secret, and he said, "Do you like it, buchou?"
Tezuka considered excusing himself - he enjoyed aspects but Gothic wasn't his favourite genre; the mixture of themes and motifs, the suggestion of incest. "Aa," he said instead.
"It's a tragedy, isn't it?" Echizen asked. Tezuka had heard him use the same tone frequently of data tennis.
"Yes," said Tezuka. "It is."
"Hmm." Echizen sounded mildly interested, but his gaze was challenging when he looked up and met Tezuka's eyes. "Do you like tragedy, buchou?"
Tezuka frowned. Echizen's hair was more dishevelled than usual today, the ends curling out from under the edges of his cap. His cheeks were still faintly pink. "The tragedy isn't why you like it," Tezuka told him. The look on Echizen's face said that that had been the right answer.
Two days in a row Fuji caught Tezuka after school, the first day to ask him for help with a French paper (which took hours to complete, and it was too late to go to the covered courts by the time Tezuka left) and the second to thank him for the first. He made Tezuka drink two cups of coffee and tried to make him eat a pastry. When Tezuka had asked him if he wouldn't prefer something spicy, Fuji had handed him a paperback copy of Le Petit Prince and said, "It's not good for you to have the same thing all the time, Tezuka." He took a bite of the cherry Danish Tezuka had refused, put it back down, and sprinkled it with pepper.
After tests in calculus and Japanese literature and a paper Tezuka had to start writing for the end of the term in chemistry, it was five days before he could even make it back to the covered courts, and more than a week before he saw Echizen there again. Echizen was hitting a ball rhythmically into the same spot of wall again and again and again when Tezuka came up behind him.
He caught the ball when it bounced back and turned around. "Oh, there you are."
"I've been doing schoolwork," Tezuka said, and Echizen smirked slowly at him.
"Then I hope you've still been practising," he said, "because I have."
Tezuka wanted to smile at Echizen's casual, pointed taunting - it was as familiar and welcome now as the feel of the racquet in his hand. He let his face soften, but held the smile inside, and it seemed to catch on the inside of his chest, uncomfortably warm. "Then beat me, if you can," he said calmly.
Echizen hooked his racquet over his shoulder and went to pick up his bag. "Are all the courts still taken?"
"We'll wait," said Tezuka.
Echizen frowned in disappointment, his mouth curling down sharply at one corner and his brow wrinkling. "Che." The smile in Tezuka's chest twisted and pulsed.
While they waited for a court, Echizen drank a can of Ponta. "Ne, buchou," he said in between gulps, "that's not your favourite book, is it?"
"No," said Tezuka.
Echizen's eyes fixed on him over the can, then closed as he took another drink. "Good," he said. They didn't speak for a while. Tezuka glanced down at him, but Echizen appeared to be deep in thought. Finally he looked up at Tezuka with a strange expression on his face, determined and curious but a little uncertain. "What kind of books do you like?"
But the court opened up before Tezuka could answer. Tezuka found it an effort to concentrate fully at first, but Echizen was in good form, more than usually energetic and smiling the whole time, flinging taunts and praise across the net with every second or third return, never allowing even the smallest part of Tezuka's attention to wander: Nice one, That was easy!, I see you did practise, Don't get careless, buchou, Is that all you've got?, No more than I expected of you, Not bad! It felt like as much conversation as Tezuka had had all week, enough to completely erase those five days without tennis, though Tezuka hardly said a word. That had never bothered Echizen.
During the course of the match Echizen's spin control sharpened notably while he lost two games to the Tezuka Zone, until suddenly in the fourth game Tezuka found himself fumbling to adjust the angle of his racquet for a new spin - and even with his shift in grip and stance, he could tell before the ball left his racquet that it would curve further toward the centre line than he'd intended. Echizen took that game and the next before Tezuka wrested back control.
"Heeeh," Echizen grinned as he walked up to the net, swinging his racquet experimentally in his left hand, then tossing it to his right and repeating the same movements. "That spin control is harder than it looks." He tucked the racquet under his arm and reached for Tezuka's hand. "I can't really get a grip on it."
Tezuka swallowed another smile, thinking, But you will. It was difficult, like a gulp of too-hot tea pressing against the inside of his throat, burning all the way down.
He carried The Maltese Falcon and The Tattoo Murder Case, and two more bookmarks with his phone number printed on them, in his tennis bag until the next time they met.
"I like lots of kinds of books," Tezuka told him, holding out the books, and Echizen's face stayed blank. "But I like mysteries the best," he added, and Echizen smiled slowly.
But he didn't call Tezuka for another week, two weeks, three weeks, and five more matches.
Tezuka had all the resources of Inui's data at his fingertips, but they didn't help him. Tezuka didn't understand tennis, or anything else, through data. The understanding Inui reached through calculation, Tezuka knew automatically, by watching and feeling. Although he had eventually developed respect for Inui's methods, Tezuka would no sooner have attempted to use them than he would have taken a match with Tsubame Gaeshi or Hakugei.
He didn't understand what was happening now, though. Inui called him usually once a day, and Tezuka sat at his desk or next to the paper screen window in the dining room or next to the koi pond, listening blank-faced to all the data. Half a centimetre of height. Falling asleep in English class. Absent from lunch. Playing Momoshiro and Kaidoh together by himself until past sunset at the school court and winning six games to four.
"Echizen may share your taste in literature, Tezuka," Fuji said one day over lunch. "I don't think he likes Wuthering Heights very much either."
"I like it," Tezuka replied.
Fuji's mouth opened in a look of surprise, but his eyes stayed shut. "Oh," he said, and then smiled sunnily again and turned back to his bento. "Really?"
To Tezuka, the puzzle pieces remained scattered. What was the meaning of Echizen's trusting smile? His studied casualness when they walked together, his impertinent teasing? His decision to take a game from Tezuka with the Zero-Shiki? Why did he automatically seek Tezuka for matches when they met at the courts but never ask for a match in advance? Why did he take the books but never call? Echizen had spoken to him so much more during their match the one time Tezuka had been distracted, needing to centre himself in the game, that Tezuka hadn't given a thought to anything but their match until hours later, well after he'd eaten dinner. Why - how did Echizen always give Tezuka what he needed? For the first time, Tezuka wondered if the data would look the same to Inui as they did to him.
When they stood in the empty classroom and watched the tennis courts, Inui wrote mostly in the green Kaidoh Kaoru, second year, vol. 2 notebook, but his Echizen Ryoma, second year, vol. 1 (Tezuka Kunimitsu, fourth year, supplemental, series 4) notebook stayed on the windowsill or a desk nearby. This notebook was the source of much of the data Inui reported to Tezuka over the phone, but it wasn't only Echizen Inui wrote about; he frequently observed Tezuka directly and made notes while Tezuka looked out the window. Tezuka suspected that his reactions every time Inui spoke about Echizen to him were recorded in that notebook alongside all of Echizen's data.
Sometimes, while he sat by the koi pond and breathed evenly and wished he could hang up, Tezuka thought about asking Inui what the Echizen notebook allowed him to conclude about Tezuka.
Tezuka finished a rough draft of his chemistry paper late in the evening and slipped out the front door to walk to the closed courts. It wasn't too late to practise there - they wouldn't close until nine o'clock - but he stood across the street anyway, dressed in street clothes, no tennis bag over his shoulder, and looked up at the glowing windows. It was far too late to find Echizen there.
Tezuka was coming to conclusions about himself. This wasn't the first time he'd stood outside an empty tennis court at night with his thoughts full of nothing but Echizen.
Tezuka read Le Petit Prince in small pieces, a page or a chapter, in between The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, the latest Sue Grafton, a new ghost story by Yamada Taichi, and two 87th precinct mysteries.
"Ne, buchou, you read a lot of English books," Echizen had said to him the third time Tezuka brought him a book.
"Yes," Tezuka had said. "So do you," and Echizen had just nodded and turned it over.
"The Cat Who Knocked Over A Bookshelf?"
Tezuka hadn't been able to tell if his tone was pleased or sceptical. "It's a mystery," he'd said, and Echizen's face had cleared.
"Are you going to give me Sherlock Holmes next?" he had asked, wrapping both his hands around the glossy blue cover of the book.
Tezuka had thought briefly about his own omnibus volume, which was about the size of a dictionary and very heavy, but he'd seen smaller paperback collections at bookstores recently. "If you like," he'd said.
Since then Inui had reported twice to him that Echizen had been reading a book in class, but Tezuka was still surprised to be waylaid on his way to lunch and dragged into the empty space between a water fountain and a stairwell. "Echizen, Momoshiro, and Kaidoh," Inui informed him, "have spent the entire lunch period today together, sharing a book."
"A book," Tezuka blinked.
"Yes," Inui said. "Echizen has brought the book to school for several days, and yesterday at practise both Momoshiro's and Kaidoh's interest was aroused because the book is a mystery and deals with cats. Today they sat together at a single table during the entire lunch period while Echizen translated for them, since the book is in English."
Tezuka was a little impressed in spite of himself, though he knew Echizen's English must be perfectly fluent after so many years in America. "Sou ka?" said Tezuka.
Inui sighed. He sounded worried. "And probability is less than 20% that they finished eating their lunches. According to my information, the protagonist has a pet cat which has been kidnapped and the suspense in the plot is currently high. He was unwilling to talk longer about it right away."
Tezuka didn't say anything because he didn't have anything to say, although he was thinking that he should have given Echizen Lilian Jackson Braun sooner. Before he had to come up with anything, a warm weight thudded into his back and an arm hooked around his neck, which could only mean one thing: Kikumaru. Tezuka didn't move at all, because that was the best way to survive a Kikumaru attack without getting accidentally suffocated.
"Hoi hoi, Inui! What about cats? Why are you over here telling secrets about cats to Tezuka?"
"Ah, Kikumaru," said Inui. "I was just telling Tezuka that Echizen has been reading a book about cats during lunch with Momoshiro and Kaidoh."
There was a gasp near Tezuka's ear, and Kikumaru's chin dug into his shoulder. "Both of them?"
"This could be bad!" said Kikumaru, and let go of Tezuka's neck to grab Inui's hands.
"No, actually," Inui interrupted soberly. "Apparently there was relatively little conflict except one argument over who committed the murder."
"Murder?" Kikumaru shrieked.
"In the book, Eiji," said Fuji next to Tezuka's shoulder.
Tezuka turned around and walked to the cafeteria.
Inui had been leaving the classroom to watch the end of the junior high practise from the other side of the fence for weeks. He often left with Kaidoh, but today he was standing by the junior high's gates writing in his green notebook when Tezuka came outside.
"Ah, Tezuka," he said, pushing his glasses up his nose, and produced another book from somewhere. "You can take Echizen his book."
Tezuka looked down at the book in Inui's hand - it was Trigonometry - and then back up at Inui's face.
"He seems to have accidentally left it behind today, but the probability that he needs it to study for his test tomorrow is 100 percent."
Tezuka already knew about Echizen's test tomorrow, because Echizen's homework, often as far as a week in advance, was one of the things Inui always reported to him over the phone, as well as Echizen's progress in all his classes. Inui liked to calculate percentiles, so Tezuka knew that Echizen's English grades were first-ranked in his year (not surprising) and that all his others were in the top twenty (more surprising), even though out of respect for Echizen's privacy he tried not to pay close attention during that part.
"Taking into account the difficulty of Tawa's tests, Echizen's study habits and his scores on the last two pop quizzes, which you will remember - "
Echizen had missed two and a half questions on his last Trigonometry quiz (75%) and three on the quiz before that (80%). Tezuka did remember in spite of himself, because the grades had worried him, and he'd wondered whether Echizen needed tutoring. He took the book from Inui and tucked it into his school bag.
" - His rank in the class would drop at least three percentage points if he didn't have the book to study tonight."
Tezuka zipped his bag and settled it back on his shoulder. "I'll give it to him," he said.
"Good." Inui checked his watch. "He will already be at home now within - approximately six minutes. Probability is ninety-eight percent. Well, if you'll excuse me, I've already put off my training, so I should be getting to the park. ... Tezuka," he added.
Tezuka was already past him, starting towards Echizen's house, but he stopped and turned his head slightly.
"The probability that Echizen will challenge you to a match if you go there is seventy percent. Since my data on you are still incomplete, it's difficult to judge the probability that you will accept. However, should you do so, the probability of a favourable outcome is as high as eighty percent." His glasses glinted.
Tezuka tried not to wonder what a favourable outcome was all the way to Echizen's house.
Echizen answered the door after a wait of a few long moments and then just stood there, blinking up at Tezuka for what felt like almost as long. He'd changed out of his school uniform and into a blue and white polo shirt and shorts. He wasn't wearing slippers, just socks. "Buchou," he said after a few seconds, in a voice still blank with shock. He didn't move back from the door.
"Echizen," said Tezuka. "You left your math book at tennis practise."
"Uh - I did?" Echizen moved back from the door, so Tezuka stepped inside and closed it after him. "Tennis? How did you know that?"
"Inui gave it to me to give to you," Tezuka explained, although he was aware that it wasn't much of an explanation - yet at the same time it was almost too much to speak. Echizen's eyes were direct and bright, his gaze so sharp Tezuka could feel it under his skin. It wasn't a comfortable feeling.
But Echizen only wrinkled his brow and turned his head aside, muttering "Inui-senpai? Che," and rubbing a hand through his hair. Tezuka took off his shoes and followed him through a doorway into the kitchen. Echizen didn't seem to want to wait for his Trigonometry book, so Tezuka left it in his bag.
Echizen was standing at the sink, saying, "What do you want to drink, buchou?"
"I'm fine," said Tezuka.
Echizen mused, "At practise, you always drink water." He got a glass out of the cupboard and filled it.
Tezuka couldn't refuse the glass, so he just nodded and said "Thank you." He had to sit down at Echizen's kitchen table or else drink standing up. Echizen poured himself a glass of milk and sat across from Tezuka. His hair hung in front of his eyes but he didn't brush it out of the way, just took a long drink of milk, and Tezuka, watching him swallow, realised that he was thirsty and took a drink too.
When he put the glass down Echizen was watching him. His face was mostly expressionless, but Tezuka could read a hint of confusion and determination in Echizen's stillness and his unblinking gaze. The feeling was uncomfortable, still, but Tezuka didn't want it to stop. He wanted to look until he understood what it meant. He wanted to look and Echizen to look back until they forgot about words entirely and the things he wanted Echizen to know were as clear to Echizen as Tezuka's own feelings were to Tezuka.
"Buchou," said Echizen, "How's your right-handed play?" He flashed a tiny smirk at Tezuka over his glass of milk, then took a drink, eyelashes drooping when he lifted the glass.
"All right," Tezuka replied.
"Did you ever perfect it?" His tone was even, but it sounded a little clipped, not perfectly casual - and when he looked back at Tezuka, his gaze was careful.
"Not entirely," said Tezuka. "I don't use it often."
"Hnnnnnn," he said. "Your spin control is really something to manage. I'm impressed." He smiled a little more, again with that hint of smugness, as though inviting Tezuka to share a joke. "As I expect from you, of course."
Tezuka surprised even himself by replying, "You'll master it soon," and watched Echizen's eyes widen with a muted feeling of pleasure and an odd twinge of pain, like a muscle extended to the limit of its flexibility. He tried to push both feelings aside, but succeeded with neither.
Then Echizen leaned his chin in his hands, elaborately casual, and tilted his head slowly, not taking his eyes off Tezuka. "So, then. Have you tried Nitoryuu?"
Tezuka felt reckless saying "Yes," but Echizen didn't betray any surprise.
"How are you?"
"I can do it," Tezuka said, deliberately.
Echizen watched him a moment more, or two, or three - Tezuka watched him too, the shapes of his fingers folded under his chin and the calm gold of his eyes, and it dragged out so that he didn't know exactly how long it had been when Echizen stood up. "Let's see, then," he said, standing at the corner of the table, too close to Tezuka's chair. "Play a match with me."
There was a court behind Echizen's house in the temple yard, a net stretched out over a flat expanse of dirt. A bell stood off to one side with a songbird perched on the peak of its roof. The other temple buildings and the trees stood around them, and Tezuka couldn't see out over the stone wall. Echizen seemed relaxed as he stepped onto the court, his face unreadable with the sun falling on the brim of his hat at that angle, but he'd been looking at Tezuka only in sidelong glances as he led him here, as Tezuka set down his tennis bag on the porch.
Then Tezuka served and Echizen's focus closed on him again, and he leapt into place for the first return with the wind lifting his t-shirt and making it flutter for a moment like a flag against his body, his eyes fierce and his mouth soundlessly open.
Tezuka's focus narrowed too as he served twice more and took one point; he could feel their concentration on the game growing stronger together, as though it didn't happen in their minds but over the net, in the court between them. The temple and house around the court gradually receded and then the court faded too, and there was only Tezuka, Echizen, and tennis.
Echizen didn't try to control the direction of the ball immediately, but Tezuka could see that he was thinking about it in the thoughtful way his hand flexed on the racquet between serves. He expected Tezuka to do it first, Tezuka thought, or maybe he was just studying Tezuka's stance to feel how he might duplicate it or get past it. He opened his service game with a Twist Serve Tezuka could tell he wouldn't be able to touch before the ball reached the net.
Tezuka moved first, finally, out of his ground spot for the Tezuka Zone, closer to the net. Echizen smiled, sweat trickling down his face and his teeth showing, and sent the ball wide. He'd only manipulated the spin a little.
Tezuka refused to be impatient. He sprang after it, tossing the racquet to his right hand for the return. The feel of the grip smacking firmly into his palm travelled up his arm, carrying memories of long solitary practises late in the night. That was the real return. The ball was only secondary, though Echizen had to strain to reach it and fell to the ground with a puff of brown dirt.
He pulled himself to his knees first, and looked up at Tezuka over the net, his face glowing, clear and full of excitement. "Heeeh. Not bad!" Then he got up and swung his arm to point at Tezuka with his racquet. "Now let's see if it's a good enough defence."
With the net and those metres between them, and Echizen sighting at him down the racquet, Tezuka could let himself smile slightly. "Why? Are you going to use the Spot on me?"
He could have laughed at the way Echizen immediately wrinkled his nose. "Che." His posture was still a little indignant as he took up his position, but the serve was perfect, as satisfying to watch as always, hurtling towards Tezuka with all the intensity of Echizen's eyes, Echizen's finishing posture frozen for one long moment behind it.
Tezuka's arm strained against the force of the ball when he sent it back. Echizen smiled and made his next return faster, and the one after that faster still, and Tezuka returned them easily with alternating hands until Echizen's smile curled even more in the corners and he moved towards the centre line.
His control wasn't perfect yet, but when Tezuka returned the first shot it curved back and came easily within Echizen's reach. He faltered on the second and third, but reached them with a quick dash and a graceful sideways leap; Tezuka broke his control three times in a row at the end of the game and he grinned across the court as Tezuka won.
Echizen took the next two games. The first was close, but after three points at the beginning of the second one Tezuka couldn't break through again. It wasn't a perfect Zone Echizen performed, as Tezuka understood only gradually as the game progressed; it was a breathtakingly Echizen-like variation without clearly defined borders, no golden circle forming from the toes of his sneakers to ground Echizen to one spot on the court. You couldn't do that to him; he was built to fly.
As he played, Tezuka's muscles, which knew the reflexes of Nitoryuu already from his practise, started to feel it differently. Echizen only switched hands a scant few times, but in the absence of anything but Tezuka and Echizen on this quiet deserted court it was as if Tezuka could see Echizen's Nitoryuu anyway, or see pieces of it reflected in the game: in Echizen's serving stance, the way his back arched with the volleys, the way he rolled to his feet again after diving for a Zero-Shiki and missing it.
The sensation started in the soles of his feet, somehow, instead of his arms, as if the centre of gravity or the source of a heartbeat had moved itself. Tezuka was slowly absorbing the way Echizen's movements around the centre line so seamlessly blended his own lighter, more dynamic play style with the Zone. It felt reckless to let himself do that. He couldn't look away from Echizen though the sight of it was making Tezuka's skin heat, because he could feel how his game, their game changed in one long drawn-out moment, the understanding flowing from the soles of his feet and into every muscle in his body. He tossed and caught the racquet just in time for his return, changing his stance. By the time Echizen realised the ball was curving back out of his range Tezuka was in position for the Tezuka Zone.
He took that game, and the next, and then Echizen abandoned his Zone to force Tezuka into tiebreak, and by the time he won Tezuka could hardly breathe from the heat and pressure of seeing and feeling his tennis and Echizen's tennis mated so organically on the court. He knew they could never have played like this at the school or the public courts.
It was almost a relief that Echizen didn't immediately reach for his hand or look into his eyes when they stood at the net, as it gave him a moment to collect himself without withstanding Echizen's usual confidence and presumptuously intimate looks. Tezuka felt shaken still, an autumn leaf clinging tenuously to the branch in the wake of a strong wind.
But he put out his hand, and Echizen took it, then looked up at him. Tezuka wished immediately for his provocative teasing and his inviting smile instead. The puzzled look in Echizen's eyes and the tight restraint with which he shook Tezuka's hand were even more trying to look at. The cool mask on Echizen's face should have felt like a door slamming after that match, but it only filled Tezuka with a new wave of heat.
"Ne, it's too bad we can't practise here more," Echizen said. He paused, but before Tezuka could think of a better way to say It's a good thing that we can't, he went on, "There's more privacy, and you never have to wait for the court."
"Practising with other people is the point of a public court," Tezuka pointed out.
"Ch'," said Echizen, "they just get in the way." He stopped and glanced down uncertainly.
Tezuka was suddenly, painfully aware of their hands still clasped together over the net, sweaty and warm, of how near Echizen was standing, of those extra two and a half centimetres of height. He started to pull his hand back while Echizen was looking away, but it was as though his movement woke Echizen from a daze. Suddenly his forearm was caught in a firm grip, and Tezuka froze involuntarily, as though his whole body was tuned to answer the implicit command of Echizen's hand.
Echizen still wasn't looking at him. "Buchou, are you really busy in high school?"
Tezuka said carefully, "You could say that."
"Sometimes you don't go to that covered court for a long time."
Tezuka's heartbeat sped up. Echizen's thumb and forefinger were high on his wrist, covering the artery. He could probably feel it.
"Aa," Tezuka said. "I try to go whenever I can." He wondered if he should have said to practise.
At that, Echizen looked up. The mask had slipped. He looked faintly surprised. He still didn't let go of Tezuka's arm, but Tezuka didn't move away. He couldn't make himself want to move.
"Do you have a lot of homework right now?" Echizen said.
Tezuka wasn't the one with a Trigonometry test. "No," he said.
"Then," Echizen said, his gaze dropping away from Tezuka's face again, "can you go there tomorrow?" His voice was almost a mumble, but Tezuka heard it perfectly.
The words hung in the air between them for a moment, and Tezuka held himself very, very still. Even through the dim, rosy haze of sunset, he could see that Echizen's cheeks were pink under his cap. Tezuka began to re-evaluate the last several months. It felt like he had given his phone number to Echizen ten or twenty times, but he realised that it had actually only been six.
It was only when Echizen's hand stirred slightly on his arm that he realised he still hadn't answered. "Yes," Tezuka said, before Echizen pulled away, "Right after the junior high tennis practise is over."
"Oh." Echizen blinked up at him then. "Good." He let go of Tezuka's arm and they walked together back up to the porch where Tezuka had left his tennis bag, and Echizen had draped a towel over the rail. The sun had sunk below the edge of the garden wall, even though it hadn't set completely, so the sky was tinted indigo and the light was scarce, the shadows long and deep.
Echizen buried his face in the towel with a soft sigh that Tezuka heard even though he was turned away, reaching into his tennis bag for his water bottle. It was as if he heard it with his skin instead of his ears, like a physical touch on the back of his neck, and Tezuka felt a little shiver crawl down his back as if it had been.
He drank his water and patted the back of his neck dry, then took off his glasses and set them on the edge of the porch to dry his face, all in silence. His shirt was sticking to his skin, cooled only slightly by the warm breeze that stirred the leaves of the trees. Echizen leaned against the edge of the porch next to him, drinking a can of Ponta and looking out at the tennis court. He'd taken his cap off and dragged the towel through his hair, making it stand up in damp pieces. When Tezuka leaned over to put the empty water bottle back in his tennis bag, he could smell the sweat, the particular scent of it he recognised immediately as Echizen's.
Tezuka was glad they were going to be playing at the public courts tomorrow.
He could sense Echizen watching him as he put his glasses back on, but Tezuka didn't let himself turn to look any more closely than the glimpse he had from the corner of his eye of wildly tousled hair, Echizen's delicate pointed face smoothed with twilight and outlined in the last rays of the sun.
Once the glasses were settled on his nose, however, he saw the crease between Echizen's eyes even without trying. Echizen's mouth was tight as he studied Tezuka, but for several minutes, he didn't say anything. At every glance Tezuka took, his frown was a little deeper.
Finally, when Tezuka was putting the towel back in his bag, Echizen burst out, "Normal people use the phone for this." Tezuka straightened and turned to look at him. He was standing and facing Tezuka, his chin lifted defiantly.
Tezuka wondered where he had put the other books, and what could have happened to the bookmark in the Braun, since he knew Echizen was certainly reading that one at least.
"We've been practising together for months," Echizen continued, misinterpreting Tezuka's silence. He was evidently trying not to sound sulky, but Echizen was terrible at masking his exasperation, probably because he so rarely bothered to try. "It would save a lot of time that wa - "
Tezuka reached out and caught his wrist, and Echizen stopped in mid-word, his gaze flying to Tezuka's, his mouth hanging open.
Tezuka's fingers wrapped easily all the way around Echizen's arm, and he could feel the delicate bones through the warm flesh. He returned Echizen's gaze calmly, but his mind was occupied almost completely with the idea of pulling, drawing Echizen closer.
Instead he used his other hand to reach in the outer pocket of his tennis bag and take out a pen.
"Buchou - " Echizen choked, breathy and hesitant, his eyes full of questions. The muscles under Tezuka's fingers were tense, but Echizen wasn't moving away from him. Instead, he took a step closer so that his arm wasn't extended so far. There was no net between them this time.
"Favourable outcome," thought Tezuka.
Tezuka uncapped the pen and tilted Echizen's arm so the light fell on it. Then he pressed the point gently to the skin next to his thumb and carefully wrote the first digit. The skin of Echizen's wrist was silky, pale, and resilient, marked with a few faint scars from cat scratches. When he was finished, Tezuka's phone number followed the line of the tendon, covering perhaps seven centimetres and stopping near the heel of the hand where a few veins showed blue and purple through the skin. Echizen's face was flushed and it felt like Tezuka was struggling for each breath against a tight band around his chest.
"Buchou," Echizen said again.
Tezuka thought about putting the pen down, but he didn't want to move either of his hands yet. "So you won't lose it," Tezuka told him.
Echizen stared at him for a long moment without moving. "Aa," he said. Then he paused. "Do you want to help me study for my math test?"
The way Tezuka felt at that moment, it was a terrible idea. Maybe if he took a shower he would be able to concentrate. "All right," Tezuka said, and let go of Echizen's wrist. It was an important test, after all.
Echizen's bedroom wasn't exceptionally small, but it seemed narrower than it was because most of it was taken up with a large bed, neatly made. Tezuka sat on the end of it while he waited for Echizen to shower, and a fluffy Himalayan cat roused itself from a nap on Echizen's pillow to chirp at him sleepily. Tezuka blinked at it and the cat blinked back and crooned at him again, this time more like a question. Tezuka had the absurd urge to answer it that after every match he was only more excited to see Echizen's tennis again; or that sometimes when Echizen leapt into the air as if he were flying, all Tezuka could think about was reaching out and pulling him down, absorbing all that momentum in an embrace.
When Echizen came back, he sat down next to Tezuka instead of at the desk by the door - which Tezuka supposed he could understand, since the desk was so small, but he wasn't sure that it was a good idea, anyway. A warm feeling of inevitability had settled in his stomach, though, and he didn't say anything as Echizen took out a notebook and pencils and flipped open the textbook.
The top page in the notebook was Echizen's homework from last night, with Echizen's occasional corrections written somewhat sloppily in the margins. Tezuka read it while Echizen looked at the textbook, until Echizen said, "You don't have to do that, buchou, you can do your homework; I'll ask you if I have a question," and leaned forward over the book, resting his elbows on his knees. The shift made his arm brush by Tezuka's and their knees touch.
He glanced up at Tezuka, quickly, his eyes guarded, but when Tezuka didn't move away from him, he smiled and returned to his book. Tezuka put down the notebook.
He had to get up to get his school books, and he hesitated when he was standing in front of the bed again. Echizen had drawn his legs up and folded them in front of him, pale scar-marked knees sticking out to the sides, and sitting like that he appeared to have entirely too much long, slim arm and long, slim leg. But it wasn't only the guarded look he had seen too many times on Echizen's face that made Tezuka sit down close enough so that their knees were still touching. It was also the certainty that it would be much harder to concentrate on his homework with a space between them, now, than it would be if they were touching.
Tezuka let Echizen's knee brush his as he sat down, and he pretended not to notice when Echizen shifted closer the next time he turned the page. Then he started to read an assignment for Japanese literature, and the next time Echizen moved, he almost didn't notice, it was so slight: Echizen sat up and tipped his head back, stretching his neck, and then leaned back forward over his textbook again, and there were suddenly, somehow, only half as many centimetres between their hips as before. Tezuka read the same sentence three times, then put the reading aside and switched to his English assignment. At least that was easy enough to concentrate on.
He'd finished the English and gone back to the Japanese by the time Echizen said quietly, "Buchou."
Tezuka looked up. "Hai."
"I still don't know how I did this one wrong," Echizen said, pointing to a hand-drawn graph. Tezuka bent closer to examine the markings on the axes, close enough to smell Echizen's shampoo on his still-wet hair. After he corrected the equation he meant to slide away again, but when he straightened, Echizen moved with him, shoulders brushing, until Tezuka could feel his weight pressing into Tezuka's arm. Echizen was actually leaning on him.
Tezuka sat still for a moment in indecision, staring at the page of Edo-era kabuki open in his lap and seeing nothing but Echizen in the corner of his eye. Then he decided that it would be easier to concentrate if they were more comfortable. Echizen was making it perfectly clear how to make him comfortable.
Tezuka had always admired Echizen's perspicacity. He shifted closer carefully to take Echizen's weight more on the front of his shoulder than the side and put his arm behind Echizen's back, but before he could even finish moving Echizen had snuggled closer, tucking himself neatly into the curve of Tezuka's arm, filling half of Tezuka's lap with his leg. When he tipped his head back to look at Tezuka, it fell naturally against Tezuka's shoulder. His eyes were warm, his mouth quirking with that intimate little smile. Tezuka couldn't do anything about it then - he had no choice but to wrap his arm around Echizen.
Echizen sighed, and his eyes slipped almost all the way closed in pleasure as if he couldn't help himself. Then he lifted his head and turned his attention back to his math book, leaning on Tezuka in perfect comfort.
It was surprisingly easy to study with Echizen's warmth pressed against the whole right side of his body, feeling Echizen breathe against him. Erasing all the spaces between them had removed the need to think about where Echizen was; Tezukaknew where he was. He couldn't possibly worry about him in the face of that certainty.
Echizen finished his homework and the short set of review problems in about an hour.
"Do you understand it all?" Tezuka asked him.
"Yeah." Echizen straightened his back and stretched, and Tezuka's arm felt momentarily cold.
"Then you should finish studying alone," Tezuka said neutrally. "I have to go home for dinner." He didn't say that he would be late already and Echizen didn't waste words protesting.
He let Tezuka stand and pack his schoolwork away and didn't say anything, and Tezuka felt the weight of his eyes the whole time even though he was absorbed in his textbook when Tezuka turned and glanced at him.
"Buchou," Echizen called suddenly, as Tezuka was opening the door. Tezuka turned to look at him expectantly. "Thanks for the books." His smile was quick and mischievous. "I really like mysteries."
Tezuka let himself smile, slightly. "I'm going."
"See you," said Echizen, sprawling back on his hands and looking up at Tezuka. He made it sound like a promise.
Tezuka's phone rang before he had been walking ten minutes. He stopped and took it out of his pocket, and when he saw the unfamiliar number, he smiled to himself even as he felt something leap in his chest.
When he answered it, he wasn't at all surprised to hear Echizen's voice. "Buchou - " Echizen started, then broke off abruptly. He sounded anxious.
That did surprise Tezuka. "Echizen?" Tezuka said.
"Sorry if I shouldn't have called so soon," Echizen muttered. Tezuka was surer then that he sounded jumpy, his voice forcibly flattened.
"You can call me any time at all," Tezuka replied seriously.
There was a little pause. Then, "Buchou." Echizen's voice was low, but with the phone right next to Tezuka's ear he made it out easily. "Can you come back?" he asked in a rush.
Tezuka hesitated. "You should do your homework."
"Just for a second," Echizen said hastily, "it's fine."
Tezuka looked at his watch. "I'll be there in eight minutes." He was already retracing is steps. The blocks went by quickly but the minutes slowly, even though he was at the end of Echizen's block in seven.
Echizen was standing waiting at the gate, leaning on the wall next to it. The evening had cooled off some, but he was still barefoot, scuffing white toes in the dirt. He looked up quickly when Tezuka appeared, but didn't move, just watched him come the whole way without looking away from his eyes.
By the time Tezuka reached him, he had forgotten how to look away. "Echizen," he said simply. "What's wrong?"
Echizen tilted his head back and looked up at Tezuka, and moonlight spilled over the planes of his face. His eyes looked black. "I forgot something," he explained, and stepped closer until he was standing with one bare foot between Tezuka's feet. "I couldn't wait." Then he rose on tiptoe and wrapped his arms around Tezuka's shoulders.
Tezuka was slow to put his arms around Echizen again, compared to the speed with which Echizen moved. He was wrapped around Tezuka before Tezuka could react to hold him, his cheek pressing cold against Tezuka's for just an instant. Then he turned his head and kissed Tezuka on the mouth.
Reacting on instinct, Tezuka pulled Echizen closer, tightening his grip and lifting until Echizen's feet left the ground. Tezuka couldn't feel the ground either, actually; Echizen's weight in his arms was the only thing telling him that he was still touching it. His hands were full of Echizen, his mouth covered in the hard press of Echizen's cool dry lips, his lungs full of Echizen's scent, and he was covered in the warm impression of Echizen's body, Echizen all over. Tezuka felt all this as sharply and clearly as bruises all over his body or the sting of inhaling water.
The kiss lasted only a few seconds, and then Echizen drew back and Tezuka loosened his hold and set him on his feet. He sucked in a deep breath.
Echizen lifted his hand and touched his damp lips. "All right," he said, a little breathlessly. "That was all."
Tezuka just looked at him for a long moment, watching him breathe, seeing the black line of his eyelashes when he blinked. There was a knot somewhere in his ribcage that hadn't been there before, a tense tight knot with heat folded up in its centre, and when he looked at Echizen, thought about holding him again, the knot gave a slow knowing pulse.
"All right," he said.
Echizen started to lift the latch of the gate.
"Wait," said Tezuka, taking a step forward, and the Echizen got stuck in his throat when Echizen turned his head to look at him, eyes going wide.
He must have seen something in Tezuka's expression, from the way he said "Buchou - ?"
Tezuka was close enough that one more step brought him to Echizen, and Echizen's back to the wall next to the gate, and instead of answering Tezuka leaned even closer, crowding him against the wall, and bent down to taste his mouth again.
Echizen made a tiny surprised noise, hardly more than a breath, and knotted his hands in the back of Tezuka's collar, lifting his chin up invitingly. Tezuka leaned into him and felt dizzy with pleasure, the knot behind his ribs turning hot and unfurling slowly like a flower. He hadn't imagined kissing anything like this, hadn't known how the merest press of Echizen's mouth would promise more, more, sweeter, if he only let himself take it.
When Tezuka pulled away this time it was Echizen breathing hard, leaning against the wall as if he needed it to hold him upright. He let go of Tezuka's shirt slowly, staring with a face as dazed as Tezuka felt. "Oh," he said softly.
The knot behind Tezuka's ribs shivered and clenched. "Aa," he said, and reached around Echizen to unlatch the gate for him.
Echizen blinked. "Thank you."
Tezuka nodded and stepped back.
"I'll see you tomorrow, buchou." Echizen stepped into the opening of the gate. "I probably won't call again today. I've got everything I need now."
"Aa," Tezuka said, and turned to go, Echizen smiling after him.
Tezuka left the empty classroom with Inui the next day, and they stood together outside the junior high courts watching practise. It was eerily like and unlike the last few months, with Inui and Inui's red and green notebooks at his elbow, but here they could smell the dust and sweat of the courts, hear snatches of conversations and shouts and the sounds of balls hitting the court and the fence.
Inui had started hanging up on Tezuka after only a few minutes lately, saying he had to call Kaidoh. Kaidoh must have been used to his presence at the fence; he didn't look surprised to see him at all, but however expressionless his face, he turned to exchange glances with Inui five times in the last fifteen minutes, and once he watched for several seconds as Inui frowned to himself, bending over his notebook, completely unaware of the scrutiny.
Echizen's reaction was only a little different from Kaidoh's, though Tezuka had never been there before. He twitched minutely when he looked up and caught sight of Tezuka on the other side of the fence, but then he merely met Tezuka's eyes for an instant and turned back to his practise match. Since he was playing Horio, left-handed but restraining his power tightly, that concentration was hardly necessary. He gave Horio his focus anyway, pushing gently at a weak backhand with shot after shot, hitting wide volleys to test his range.
"It is almost time for the seniors to retire from the tennis club," Inui remarked after Momoshiro and Kaidoh had dismissed everyone to the locker rooms.
"Aa," said Tezuka.
They watched the new freshmen collecting balls for a few moments in silence, and then Inui closed his notebook and started walking slowly towards the clubhouse. Tezuka followed him. "The probability that Echizen will be a very good captain," Inui told him, after a while, "is ninety-seven percent."
Tezuka forced himself not to smile.
"Haven't you come to the same conclusion," Inui prodded, "over the last several months?"
"You should know that probability can't tell you everything," Tezuka answered at last. The clubhouse door opened; Ishida and Arai were first out, followed by a few of the non-regulars, then Katsuo and Horio with Echizen at their heels. Echizen turned towards Tezuka and Inui at once.
Inui flipped open the red notebook, muttering, "Probability of Echizen changing in under ten minutes: only six percent."
"Buchou. Inui-senpai." Tezuka looked into Echizen's eyes. He was smirking only slightly, not smiling, but that was probably because Inui was there. "Buchou, are you hungry?"
Tezuka said, "Are you?"
"Maa," said Echizen, his smile widening, "I've been practising hard the last two days."
Momoshiro came out of the clubhouse behind them, yelling, "I said I'd do the schedule, stupid Mamushi!"
"Baka," Kaidoh growled behind him, "If I could trust you to make the schedule when you said you would I wouldn't have done it."
"What - I oughtta - "
"Excuse me," Inui murmured, snapping his notebook shut and following them back towards the court.
Echizen quirked an eyebrow, and Tezuka smiled at him, just a little bit. "So," said Echizen, starting towards the school gate, "do you want to go eat something?"
"All right," Tezuka agreed. They walked out the gate and turned left instead of right, but then Echizen stopped him at the corner.
"Wait," he called, and when Tezuka looked down at him, he explained, "I forgot there's something else I wanted to give you."
Tezuka's shoulders tensed in anticipation, but Echizen didn't reach up for him; he unzipped the outside pocket of his school bag and pulled out a pencil, then poked through it a bit more and zipped it again with a frown.
"Hmm," he said, and thrust his hands into his pockets experimentally. He pulled a folded, worn slip of paper out of the left hip pocket of his school blazer. Tezuka watched with a familiar tightness in his chest as Echizen unfolded it, frowning in puzzlement. He watched Echizen read the number and recognise it at once, his eyes widening at the kanji of Tezuka's name, his face filling with realisation and flashes of other, less readable emotions as his head jerked up and he met Tezuka's eyes.
It felt like the moment last night when Tezuka had said wait, the surprise and hope and satisfaction mingled on Echizen's face with moonlight, the way Tezuka's chest had seized before he had pushed Echizen up against the wall and kissed him, the way that knot under his ribs had slowly melted and spread heat through his whole body. Tezuka wondered if Echizen realised exactly when the note was from, but he couldn't bring himself to say anything.
Echizen stared at him for a moment more, and then he turned the note over, lifted his pencil, and scribbled on the back of it. "Here," he said quietly when he was finished.
He held out his hand, closed around the note so Tezuka couldn't pluck it from his fingers. Instead, he turned Tezuka's hand over and put the paper in his palm, then folded Tezuka's fingers around it.
The tightness in Tezuka's chest was slowly easing as he looked at Echizen, and when Echizen looked up at him again, he was smiling softly. He said, "Where do you like to eat? Do you want ramen?"
"Sure." Tezuka already recognised the numbers Echizen had written, too, from that one phone call last night.
They turned together and started towards the nearest ramen shop. "Saa, buchou."
Echizen smiled again more widely, to himself this time, calm and satisfied. "You can call me any time, too."