The room was silent and dark this early in the morning with the autumn equinox just past. With the red light coming from the digital displays of Atobe’s half dozen or so coffee-related appliances, Tezuka could just see the leaves skittering across the balcony outside their living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The world they gazed out upon was equally crisp, the warmth of the day not yet begun to settle in.
Tezuka let his eyes relax over the scene before him, took a deep, steadying, warming breath, and moved into the first form of his morning tai-chi exercises. His shoulder didn’t protest on the first extension, which was reassuring. He’d picked up the forms in the first place, in order to try to ease the twinges that occasionally still beleaguered him even after all this time.
The transitions all came easily to him today, his shoulder feeling as solid as it ever had. He’d been having a good stretch of late. It was reassuring. Last season, he’d wondered if he would make it the next few years, but this season had been different. Perhaps he had another half-decade left in him, after all.
Although even that thought was terrifying. Five years, and he'd already have outlasted most players on the circuit. Five more chances to prove himself. Only one more chance, if one thought about the Olympics. It certainly put everything in perspective, how - even with outstanding success - life at the top was still so brief.
The wind whistled against the glass panes as he stepped seamlessly from one form into the next, alternately focusing carefully on his breathing or allowing his mind to drift away from such consuming thoughts, like the fallen leaves on the balcony.
It wasn’t until he was at the mid-point of his routine that Tezuka realized he had a shadow.
The breeze at his back was perfectly silent, but Tezuka felt the brush of air against his nape, felt the tingle of chill in the raised hairs along his extended right arm. He could have looked, but he didn’t have to. He knew with sudden, perfect clarity that he wasn’t moving alone anymore but in parallel.
He swept through the next set of forms with fluid grace, his core steady and solid, his hands slicing through the air. Every so often he caught, just out the corner of his eye, the hands of the man behind him, keeping perfect pace with his every move.
Tezuka took a deep breath, pivoted, and caught a quick glance of Atobe’s silhouette, dark against the backdrop of the kitchen clock’s lights, twisting lithely in sync with Tezuka’s movement, anticipating each step as if they were one mind. As if they were dancing.
Then Tezuka followed through with the pivot, and he was facing the windows again, Atobe at his back once more. Now that Tezuka knew Atobe was there, it was as if he could feel the core of Atobe’s heat warming his back. He tried to focus on the sounds around him – because Atobe really shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on him like this – but there was nothing. Atobe’s steps and shifts and breaths were all so carefully paired with Tezuka’s own that there wasn’t a sound to betray Atobe’s presence, only the knowing thrum in Tezuka’s chest.
Tezuka, never one to back down from a challenge, switched his sequence, deviating from his usual routine in an effort to throw Atobe off his rhythm. He didn’t know what Atobe’s game was – probably, he was just trying to provoke a reaction out of Tezuka by teasing him a bit – but Atobe didn’t practice tai-chi regularly and wouldn’t know anything beyond what he’d watched Tezuka do.
To Tezuka’s surprise, though, Atobe didn’t falter but matched all of Tezuka’s changes cleanly, precisely, as if he knew which way Tezuka would move even before Tezuka decided. Tezuka pivoted again, because he was even more puzzled at Atobe now, and the glimpse he caught of Atobe’s face – calm, focused, intent – was enough for him to know that he’d misjudged. Atobe hadn’t memorized Tezuka’s routine, and he wasn’t joking around now as he copied it. Atobe was using every bit of his insight to read Tezuka’s movements and harmonize with him, and he was deadly serious about it.
Tezuka paused, just for a moment, and with that, Atobe completed the follow-through before him, so that Atobe was just slightly ahead.
There was a moment there, a pull, a turning point. Tezuka was tempted to resist, to throw himself back into his regular routine and soldier onward. With anyone else, Tezuka would have fought against the tide. But this was Atobe, and they’d known each other so long – as opponents, rivals, friends, companions, lovers, spouses – that Tezuka, for rare occasion, just yielded.
Atobe swept him through the rest of the form and into another. Tezuka was the shadow now, at Atobe’s back, accepting Atobe’s lead and moving in time with him based on over a decade’s practice. It was so easy now, Tezuka realized with some surprise; his body naturally harmonized with Atobe’s so that all he had to do was be himself and they moved together in perfect accord. He’d felt something similar, of course, when they danced or made love, but this was the furthest he’d ever tried to extend that extra sense that now told him exactly what Atobe was doing.
Tezuka’s heart pounded in his ears at the realization, undoubtedly beating in time with Atobe’s own, and just as the intensity of their shared panted breaths became almost too much, Atobe fell just short on the last extension, so that Tezuka surged to the front once more.
Tezuka took the lead wordlessly offered, swept Atobe through a final series of katas, the two of them whirling in time, hands and bodies missing each other by mere millimeters as they accommodated each other in an ever-rising tempo.
Tezuka could feel the end near, like the coda to a sonata, swelling, easing, slowing, and finally resolving to their final position, side-by-side, hands pressed together before them, panting for breath.
Tezuka let the position drop and snapped out of it, almost like a trance, so that for the first time their harsh gasps of air fell out of sync, and Tezuka could hear and see Atobe for the first time: another disconnected person suddenly loud and harsh at his side, and not just an extension of his own being. For the moment, at least.
Atobe bent over, stretching his back and shoulders, his pulse still calming back to its usual regular thrum. And then he grinned up at Tezuka devilishly. “You’re such a bastard,” he accused fondly.
Tezuka shrugged and adjusted his glasses, because he had done that on purpose, after all. His first instinct was always to try to throw people off, out-run, out-do, out-compete, and with their long rivalry, Atobe was no different. The part that was different, was that Atobe always matched him ultimately, caught up if need be, but in the end, when Tezuka thought he had thrown off all the competition, always there was Atobe, right there, with that exact grin on his face.
“Your point is taken,” Tezuka conceded and did some of his own slow stretches on his shoulder. The tai-chi was supposed to help with that, of course, but Tezuka had gotten so carried away that his morning relaxation had turned into something of a grueling workout instead. Tezuka offered an apologetic thought to all the masters of the art, who were no doubt rolling in their graves at Tezuka’s perversion of their perfectly lovely discipline.
“It is what it is,” Atobe said surprisingly neutrally.
“Hmm,” Tezuka agreed.
At times like this, when they were alone and quiet and just themselves, Tezuka sometimes thought he saw the most clearly. After all, their best matches had never been center-court; they'd always been hidden away on back courts, in unused parks, or after everyone else at their club had left for the night. Then Tezuka and Atobe played each other the way they'd always been meant to play: solely for and against each other, as if no one else in the world existed.
Atobe said nothing then, because there was nothing left to say. Atobe was hardly subtle with his request, but he didn't push either. Rather, he pointed out the inevitable: what they were, are, and could be to each other. In the face of that and the endless ticking of time, there wasn't any other choice Tezuka could make.
He straightened slowly, and Atobe followed. Tezuka's hand came up to trace the line of Atobe's jaw, soft against the faintest light of predawn. Atobe's eyes shut in response, and he leaned in to Tezuka's palm, dominating and yielding all at once in that way that still made Tezuka's heart flutter.
There was so little time left they had like this, and Atobe was magnificent, and just today a certain little arbitrary restriction would be lifted, and they'd be married here, in their home, for the first time ever. That changed things, not emotionally because they'd both damn well known they were married for ages now, but in tricky little important legal ways that certain governing bodies such as the ITF would have to acknowledge.
Tezuka had asked (and given) almost everything of Atobe, but there was still this, one last blurring between rivals and partners.
Atobe's eyes opened, and Tezuka couldn't see into them in the dark, but somehow Tezuka still knew that Atobe knew. That Tezuka had finally reached the conclusion of a lifetime:
“Play doubles with me this season?”
The edge of Atobe’s grin could cut diamond. “Why Tezuka,” he teased, not for the first time, “all you ever had to do was ask.”
A shiver of anticipation ran down Tezuka's spine.
"I'll file the official paperwork this afternoon. The Japanese team will miss me dreadfully, of course. But such are the sacrifices of married life."
Tezuka rolled his eyes, because Atobe really was a drama queen when he wanted to be, albeit it a lovable one. Lovable enough that Tezuka couldn't even imagine the Olympic committee denying Atobe's change of nationality; they all adored him far too much, even if all the legal arguments weren't firmly in place.
"Today," Tezuka agreed, "we train for Tokyo."
"Let's conquer the world," Atobe purred, and caught Tezuka up in a passionate kiss that nearly outlasted the dawn.