Fandom: Prince of Tennis.
Canon: This fic follows manga continuity, but contains themes and elements from the final arc of the anime.
Disclaimer: PoT belongs to Takeshi Konomi.
Thank yous: Thank you so so much to franzeska for the beta and the title help; to prillalar and two_if_by_sea who probably did more collectively to inspire this fic than anybody else; and to flyby, mmmdraco, and loftily for the unending support and feedback.
Most especially I want to thank glockgal for her beautiful, amazing artwork. Few things have ever made me quite so happy. ♥ Sweetie, this fic is dedicated to you with much love.
Special Note if you are reading anime fic for the first time: Names are reversed in Japanese so your family name is the name people are most likely to call you, and your familiar name is something special. “Buchou” is a title meaning “captain” or “leader.” Tezuka’s full name is Tezuka Kunimitsu. Ryoma’s name is Echizen Ryoma.
More notes and thank yous follow at the end of this fic.
Everything That Falls
-Rie Fu, "Decay"
Tezuka’s earliest memory is watching the U.S. Open with his grandparents when he is two years old. He doesn’t know what he is seeing, but he knows that the tall player with the dark hair and the long-haired blond are locked in a battle for something important. He remembers the dark-haired player standing holding a trophy, and his grandfather saying, “You’re watching history, Tezuka.” Tezuka does not know why he is watching history, but he remembers the look on the dark-haired player’s face.
When Tezuka is seven he sees them play again. He does not recognize them both at first—the blonde has shaved his head, and he looks much older. When he sees the dark-haired player, though, something clicks in Tezuka’s memory, and suddenly he knows them both.
He sits down in front of the television, and watches. He sees the way the dark-haired player holds the racket: the control and strength when he sends the ball over the net, the speed and motion when he returns it back across.
“When they were teenagers,” the announcer says in translated Japanese, “they played each other in Junior tournaments. Agassi was the stronger player when they were younger, but time has reversed their roles. The Samurai has emerged.”
Tezuka is the same age as Pete Sampras when he plays tennis for the first time. The racket is light in his hands, and the court is dry and springy beneath his feet. He bounces the ball and wonders if there is a Samurai inside himself.
The first time Tezuka plays Echizen Ryoma, he understands how a teenage Agassi must have felt.
When he is twelve, Ryoma defeats Yukimura to give Seigaku Junior High the national title. His final volley is a powerhouse of confidence and brazen luck, and the photograph of him slamming home the final twist smash for the win appears in Sports Illustrated and various AP reports the world over.
Tezuka defeats Sanada by one set. He registers Sanada’s determination, the grip of the racket in his hand, the burning of his muscles and the glare of the sun overhead. He does not register a sense of victory at his own win. It is only after Ryoma has delivered the tournament-point that Tezuka registers feeling anything at all besides exhaustion. He makes it through the next hour of awards ceremonies, press interviews, and meetings with college recruiters, most of whom are there for Ryoma, by replaying Ryoma’s final shot in his mind.
Two nights later, Ryoma appears on his doorstep. Tezuka’s mother invites him to have tea, then sends them to the porch to drink it. Ryoma looks at his cup and asks Tezuka, without looking up, when he is planning to go pro.
“It’s very unlikely I would be eligible for pro status at this point,” Tezuka responds. “The youngest players have all been 16 and older.”
Ryoma takes off his cap and fiddles with it. “I might go back to the U.S.,” he says. “They let you qualify earlier there.”
Tezuka looks at Ryoma. His Seigaku jersey fits him better than it used to, and he has grown taller over the year. His hair falls in his eyes, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Tezuka wonders how long Ryoma had to ride the train that took him to Tezuka’s house.
Ryoma looks up at him. His eyes are wide and vulnerable. Tezuka has seen that look a handful of times, and knows enough about Ryoma to know that that is a great deal more than Ryoma has ever allowed anyone else to see. He suddenly recalls Fuji murmuring to him in practice one day, “Ryoma looks at you a great deal, Tezuka.”
As if Tezuka hasn’t noticed.
He takes a sip of his tea, and gives Ryoma the correct answer. “If you feel that it is necessary to make your tennis stronger, then you should go,” he says.
At the look on Ryoma’s face, he adds, “But what you want for yourself should come first.”
Ryoma puts his tea down on the table between their knees. “Buchou,” he says, his voice harsh as if he is struggling to keep it even, “Do you think I should go?”
Tezuka looks at Ryoma’s twelve-year-old face and thinks of the kind of player he will be in a year, or two years, or five. The kind of player he is now. He thinks of the samurai Ryoma has given him flashes of, the perfection that will emerge whether Tezuka is there or not.
“Yes,” he says, because there is only one right answer.
Ryoma looks down at his tea and says, “Oh.” He stirs it and does not look up again until Tezuka’s mother invites him to dinner. He does not stay, and Tezuka is certain when he leaves that it will be the last time he ever sees Ryoma.
The word sacrifice lodges in his brain, and it is weeks before he can dismiss it.
Tezuka retires from the junior high club, along with the other third-years, and expects Ryoma to disappear. In his capacity as club president, he does his paperwork, consults Oishi and Ryuzaki-sensei, and appoints Momoshiro and Kaidoh the new captain and vice-captain with a surprisingly minimal amount of drama. Kaidoh is struck speechless, turns pink, and stares at the floor for long minutes. Momoshiro stammers his gratitude many times over until Ryuzaki-sensei reminds that he will have to work with Kaidoh on a regular basis.
Momoshiro and Kaidoh exchange awkward glances, and immediately begin arguing over the new practice regimen.
When he leaves them, Tezuka hangs his Seigaku jersey in the locker room, and suddenly it is the last time. He stares at it, the way he has stared at the Nationals trophy in the showroom, trying to make it feel real.
Tezuka turns, and does not ask why Ryoma is there, why he is still there. He is wearing his jersey and hoisting his racket over his shoulder, and Tezuka is suddenly jealous, suddenly covetous.
“Will you practice with me?” Ryoma says. “On days we don’t meet?”
Ryoma, Tezuka thinks. He looks at Ryoma for so long Ryoma’s shoulders slump.
“You can’t practice with the team until spring,” he mumbles. “I thought—“
“Echizen,” Tezuka says sharply. Ryoma looks up at him as if Tezuka has boxed his ears. “Focus on supporting your team, and making it stronger.”
“You said I had to support my teammates,” Ryoma mumbles. “You didn’t tell me when I had to stop.”
Tezuka draws in his breath. He turns and shoulders his tennis bag, and makes sure Ryoma is not following him when he leaves.
The weeks pass. Ryoma stays.
“Tezuka,” Ryuzaki-sensei says some time later over the phone, in that quiet, leading voice she uses whenever she is about to remonstrate him. “What did you say to make him stay in Japan?”
Tezuka fights the urge to hang up in protest . “I told him I thought he should go,” he says, wondering if the creeping fear in his stomach is helplessness.
Ryuzaki-sensei laughs. “So there is still a bit of Nanjiroh in him,” she says. “I had hoped you had ironed it all out.”
For the rest of the year, Tezuka focuses on schoolwork, preparing himself for high school, and not letting Fuji beat him in their routine practice games. He thinks he has forgotten what the hunger for victory feels like, until the moments when he sees Ryoma and tastes it again, sharp and bitter and urgent.
The former Seigaku regulars meet whenever one of them has a birthday. In October, Tezuka asks Ryoma how he is doing in school, and how the new regulars are progressing. At Christmas, Ryoma gives him a gift, a box of fishing tackle and a roll of grip tape. Tezuka smiles at him, and wonders if the look he sees in Ryoma’s face at such moments is homesickness. He wonders if Ryoma knows how much he is missed.
It takes two years of birthdays for Tezuka to realize that yearning can feel like remorse and resentment all at once.
The Christmas Ryoma turns fourteen, his family invites his friends to a special dinner at their house. Tezuka does not plan to stay. When he arrives the new crop of regulars, most of whom he vaguely remembers as the other freshmen who followed Ryoma around, are playing monopoly in the living room with Momoshiro, Taka, and Kaidoh. Fuji and Inui are talking in the corner, and Eiji is taking pictures. Ryoma’s father looks at him and says, “Oh, you’re that kid,” and returns to reading his magazine. Ryoma’s mother sees the present he has in his hands and points him into the family room where the presents are being kept.
Tezuka places it under the tree, and notes that the university recruiters have not been lax in their duties. He looks at the cards from colleges and even some high schools, wishing Ryoma a happy new year and good luck on his entrance exams.
“Those things are so stupid,” Ryoma mutters behind him. Tezuka turns. Ryoma is still short, but his features are narrower and sharper, and he looks much older to Tezuka. Tezuka wonders if he looked this way at fourteen.
“It’s good to be sought after because of your talents,” Tezuka says.
“I’m not going to finish school,” Ryoma says. “Are you?”
Tezuka hesitates. “Getting a good education is important,” he says.
“Then you’re going to wait,” Ryoma says. “To go pro.”
Tezuka sits down in the chair nearest the fireplace. It has been two years and he has never asked Ryoma why.
Ryoma pulls a chair next to him and sits in it without a word.
“There are things I want to do first,” Tezuka answers carefully.
Ryoma looks at the tree and Tezuka wonders if he is sizing up his present. “Are you going to go to the nationals again?” Ryoma asks.
“Fuji has become very strong,” Tezuka says. “The team is growing and the potential is there.”
“Buchou,” says Ryoma. “What are you going to do later?”
“Later?” Tezuka asks.
Ryoma doesn’t respond, and it takes Tezuka a moment to realize what Ryoma is talking about.
“I meant later tonight,” Ryoma says after another awkward moment. “You want to play a match?”
Tezuka stands. “I can’t stay,” he says.
Ryoma looks disappointed for a moment before he lifts his chin and says sulkily, “Don’t you want to see if I can beat you yet?”
“If you want to beat me, do it in a real competition,” Tezuka replies. “Then everyone will know how strong you have become.”
Ryoma looks down before Tezuka can see him roll his eyes.
“Whatever, Buchou,” he says in a low voice. “Everyone else already does.”
When the third April sees Ryoma standing on Tezuka’s courts again, Tezuka doesn’t know whether he should feel grateful or guilty. He is both.
Tennis without Ryoma has felt incomplete in a way Tezuka does not realize until Ryoma is back, throwing him long looks beneath the brim of his Fila cap. Tezuka feels the hunger for his team to do well again, in a way he hasn’t since the last time he was captain of a tennis team.
He is ranked as the number one high school tennis player in Japan until Ryoma’s first match, when Tezuka’s rank immediately drops to number 2. Fuji is still Tezuka’s constant rival, and ranked fourth only because he could care less about being ranked any higher. The high school coach cannot contain his glee at having three of the top five tennis players in the country on his team, and Tezuka wonders what he would say if he knew that two of them would rather be somewhere else.
The other regulars are awed into excellence by Ryoma’s appearance, and Tezuka feels the pressure escalate the more he realizes that the nationals are in sight this year as well. His phone rings almost daily with university recruiters, many from outside Japan. His guidance counselor tells him his exam scores would enable him to get into any university in the country, and then laughs that such a fabulous score should be wasted on someone who won’t be using it.
Ryoma takes his cap off one day in the sun, and Tezuka feels all the deeply shuttered parts of himself being wrenched open. It feels stranger than he thought it would—the swooping of his stomach and the effect Ryoma’s voice has on him when they speak to each other. There is something certain about it, too: it couldn’t have been anyone else.
In the locker room after practice one day, Ryoma leans into him, his body warm through the fleece of his jersey. Tezuka goes still for a moment in which the most important consideration is that his hands remain by his sides instead of sliding into Ryoma’s hair or around his thin back to clutch at his jersey.
When he steps away he feels hollow. This should be enough, he thinks.
It will not be, and he knows it.
Tezuka has won the All-Japan Junior Under-16 Tournament two years in a row. It is the first time that has ever happened.
His third year, Tezuka is invited to the Under-18 Tournament. This time, Ryoma is with him. He has been invited to join the Under-18 grouping instead of the Under-16 grouping.
It is the first time that has ever happened as well.
Ryoma defeats him, 7-5. Tezuka plays his best, not because he wants to win, but because he wants to push Ryoma further. It is the best match, and his limbs are watery and weak when he meets Ryoma at the final handshake. Ryoma’s grip is firm, and he is almost Tezuka’s height now.
“Buchou,” he says before letting go of Tezuka’s hand. “Let’s go out someplace.”
It is an hour before they can get away from the crowd, from the press, from their parents. Tezuka’s mother smiles at Ryoma, and says, “You’ve been a good friend to him,” while ruffling Tezuka’s hair.
Echizen Nanjiroh says, “Oh, you’re that kid,” to Tezuka while Ryoma looks stubbornly in the other direction. “The one who taught him everything he knows.” Tezuka is about to reply when Nanjiroh elbows him in the ribs and says, “The one he stayed in Japan for, right?”
“We’re leaving,” Ryoma says, walking away without waiting for Tezuka. Ryoma’s mother purses her lips. Tezuka’s mother looks at Tezuka, who bows and excuses himself.
They sit silently, watching a movie Tezuka has already forgotten the name of because he has spent the first half hour of it being acutely aware of the bag of popcorn between him and Ryoma’s greasy fingers, his thin shoulder, the messy hair poking out from beneath his cap.
Tezuka looks down at his mobile to check the time just as Ryoma says, “Hey,” beside him. It is exactly 7:32. Ryoma leans over the seat. Tezuka closes his eyes.
Ryoma’s mouth slides against his as if Ryoma has a map inside his head, a guide to Tezuka that he can navigate even in the dark. His lips are wet and clumsy, and Tezuka’s are too. Tezuka breaks off when Ryoma’s tongue touches his teeth. He pulls back in mortification, and Ryoma’s expression stills for a moment under the wide brim of his cap before he sits back in his seat and dips his hand inside his bag of popcorn.
Tezuka looks at Ryoma for a long time while the movie drones on. When he finally looks back he has no idea what is happening onscreen, and he is even more aware of Ryoma’s hand, centimeters away from his own, wrapped steadily around his popcorn as if they have not just kissed, as if the two of them have not just battled for the highest tennis honor in Japan, as if the team nationals aren’t a week away, as if Ryoma hasn’t stayed in Japan because of Tezuka, as if Ryoma knows Tezuka better than Tezuka knows himself.
They don’t talk on the train, until the stop before Ryoma is to get off. He turns and says, “Buchou,” to Tezuka evenly, and Tezuka responds just as evenly that he hopes Echizen won’t be late to practice tomorrow.
Ryoma tilts his cap and responds, “Don’t worry.”
Tezuka stares at the posters on the train. After a moment more, Ryoma says, “I think I’m going pro once the nationals are over.”
“It will be good for you to play stronger players,” Tezuka says.
Ryoma looks up at him, eyes large and dark. “Buchou,” he says intently. “You’re still turning pro, right? So we can play each other.”
Tezuka replies, “Focus on the match in front of you,” immediately. Ryoma looks crestfallen, but he nods. “Thanks for the movie,” he says when he gets off the train.
Tezuka’s block is three stops down the line. He rides it for six, until his skin has stopped burning from the last time Ryoma touched it.
Tezuka’s guidance counselor looks at him blankly and asks him if he is sure.
Tezuka is sure.
The day after Seigaku wins the nationals, Tezuka is named to the All-Japan Amateur Goodwill Tennis Team. For several seconds the only name Tezuka hears after his own is Ryoma’s, and then the rest of the lineup registers: himself, Ryoma, Fuji, Atobe, Sanada, Yukimura, and Fuji Yuuta, with Tachibana as alternate.
Fuji smiles. Ryoma looks at him without words. Atobe points at him and winks, and Tezuka wonders if anything can diminish the heaviness inside of him.
Two weeks later they are in New York in a ridiculously overpriced hotel overlooking Times Square, and the entrances in every direction are identical so that Tezuka never knows which street he is on when he exits. Ryoma finds his way like a homing pigeon, around Manhattan and into the stale-sheeted bed Tezuka has claimed in their hotel room. When Tezuka attempts to push him away, Ryoma only murmurs “Buchou,” and clings closer, until Tezuka’s chest is tighter than ever and his hands are light over Ryoma’s skin.
The Goodwill games are held at the Louis Armstrong stadium in Queens, at the site of the National Tennis Center and the U.S. Open, and are as well-attended as they are well-publicized. Corporate sponsors from Adidas, Penn, Wilson and Coke hover around them. Their bags, their jerseys, their shoes, and their complimentary room gifts all have corporate names on them. Ryoma’s coach scolds him for wearing his Fila cap because Fila isn’t an official sponsor. The U.S.T.A. officials give them grand tours all over the city. On their third day in New York, their third day of constant practice and pre-planned tours and photo opportunities, Fuji remarks, “He wants you to enjoy the city.” There are cameras on Tezuka constantly, and too often they flash when he is watching Ryoma. Where there are no cameras, there is Ryoma, who pulls him into an alcove at the Cloisters and kisses him, and who keeps his hand against Tezuka’s elbow for half an hour on the boat to Ellis Island. At night Tezuka exhausts himself and falls asleep with Ryoma curled around him like a monkey. When he wakes it is always too early, and always he feels too refreshed.
He sleeps more deeply with Ryoma.
The fourth day he requests a room change.
Kevin Smith courts Ryoma openly. If Ryoma is reticent about his privacy, Kevin is not, and the press follows his adolescent obsession with Ryoma on and off the courts as if it is a readymade rivalry, a Hewitt-Federer for the next generation.
Tezuka watches. Atobe presses him against the lockers one day after practice and Tezuka does not resist. Atobe is graceful and sly and cool-handed, and all Tezuka can think is Ryoma, Ryoma, which is why he gradually moves into Atobe’s languid embrace as if he wants it, as if the memory of Ryoma’s mouth sliding over his skin does not conquer every drawling word falling from Atobe’s lips.
That night he locks his door and does not dare to see who is knocking persistently on the other side.
The weekend passes, the first day of the tournament arrives, and the racket in Tezuka’s hand is the only safe thing he knows. Ryoma talks to everyone but him. Tezuka focuses on his match, on the opponents, on the cushion of clay beneath his feet. The play is best 2 days of competition out of 3, with each tournament match in 3 sets. Tezuka feels ready. When he takes the court the heaviness falls away from him. Focus and concentrate, he thinks, and when he finds the zone his skin tingles with the rush.
He pulls it out in two straight sets, winning the second 6-4. It is one of the most exciting games of his life. His heart is still pounding in his ears when he slips on his jersey again and steps off the court. Amid the clatter of excitement from his teammates, his eyes meet Ryoma’s, and the thick weight of worry and want that has been missing for the last two hours slams back into his chest, stronger than ever. Ryoma doesn’t look away until the announcer calls for the Doubles One match to begin, and Atobe whispers something silky and obscene against Tezuka’s ear.
As a team, Sanada and Yukimura are everything a doubles pair should be: grace, rhythm, and synchronicity that makes it easy to believe Rikkai’s regulars share a single heartbeat. Where Fuji and Yuuta as Doubles Two are sharp-edged and fierce, each bringing out the competitiveness and none of the wisdom in each other, Yukimura brings out Sanada’s power and resolve, while Sanada pushes Yukimura to play with an intensity he has not shown in years. Watching them, Tezuka is reminded of Oishi and Eiji and the power they generated between them. Sanada and Yukimura together are the nearly perfect player, united and driven in a way that few teammates are together.
He looks at Ryoma. Tezuka suddenly remembers Ryoma at twelve, the first time they played each other: Ryoma with his huge eyes and huge mouth and small body, the light, thin frame Tezuka knows as well as his own, better than he should. He remembers the fire inside of him as they played their last match, the tennis that only Ryoma can pull from him, because only Ryoma plays that way. With other players, Tezuka thinks, tennis is a competition. With Ryoma it is worship.
Ryoma’s eyes snap up to meet his. Then he smiles beneath his cap, perhaps at Tezuka’s embarrassment at getting caught staring, and says, “Hey, Buchou, you should practice your speech for when we win.”
“Just play your best,” Tezuka says.
Ryoma tosses the tennis ball in his hand into Tezuka’s own. “I will if you tell me to,” he says, and looks into Tezuka’s eyes for a moment before unzipping his jersey and making his way onto the court.
Singles One is the most anticipated match of the day, and Ryoma’s popularity second only to Kevin Smith’s. The first few moments of the match feel more like a rock concert in Tokyo Stadium than tennis to Tezuka; but suddenly after the first few volleys the mood shifts, and Tezuka can’t look away from Ryoma, couldn’t if he chose to, because Ryoma is unstoppable, power and fire and control, everything that—everything, Tezuka thinks. Kevin Smith is better than he is expecting, but Tezuka quickly realizes that his drive is centered only on conquering Ryoma. And trying to catch Ryoma is like trying to bring down the moon.
Ryoma never looks up from the court, though the game runs long. Tezuka hears no one, sees no one around him until Ryoma’s final drop shot rolls to a stop and the stadium erupts. Ryoma takes his hat off and looks up into the audience, smiling.
After Japan’s unexpected win on the first day of play, it is nearly two hours before the team can detach itself from the press and the fans. At the press conference Ryoma sits next to Tezuka and fields most of the questions in English. Someone asks him what the most enjoyable part of the trip to America has been. Ryoma answers in English first and then Japanese. “Being here with everyone,” he says. “Getting to play with my captain and my teammates one last time.” It is the longest answer he gives in the entire conference.
Someone asks Tezuka what it has been like to watch Ryoma grow up and develop into the player he has become. Tezuka measures his words; the silence before he speaks feels crisp and intense.
“With a player as complete as Echizen,” he answers in slow English, “you find ways to push, and then you step back and observe. It’s not that he has no weaknesses, but that he solves them on his own.”
At this Ryoma leans forward and blurts “Tezuka-Buchou has taught me a lot,” into the mike they are sharing. Tezuka is relieved this goes untranslated for the non-English speakers in the barrage of questions that follow for Ryoma. Tezuka looks at the row of cameras at the back of the room, squinting against the lights until the conference ends.
On the subway back to Manhattan, Ryoma gets a call from Momoshiro and the phone is passed around. “Buchou, Momo-senpai says to tell you not to get careless,” Ryoma says, and everyone laughs. Tezuka hones in on the sound of Ryoma’s voice amid the laughter and the noise and the grinding of the subway wheels. He hears Ryoma mumble, “Shut up,” into the phone, and then, “Che. I’ll tell him you think so. He won’t be able to make you run any more laps,” and then finally, “He’s going pro.” Tezuka turns his head and stares out the window into the windows of the train going the opposite direction.
When they get off the train Ryoma is frowning. Tezuka convinces himself he has no responsibility to find out what’s wrong. When they meet up for dinner he is not with the others, and halfway through drinks, Atobe snaps, “Tezuka, quit being boring. Go find your lost puppy instead of brooding.”
Tezuka goes, if only because he is too mortified to stay.
He knocks twice on Ryoma’s hotel room door. Ryoma opens it wearing his robe, his hair ruffled and damp. Tezuka remembers the last time they were together, in the shower that Ryoma insisted on climbing into with him, pulling him under the showerhead and kissing him hungrily until water and lather were all he could taste.
“Buchou,” Ryoma says with a dip of his head. He steps back but Tezuka remains in the doorway.
“Echizen,” Tezuka says. “Are you prepared for the game tomorrow?”
“Che.” Ryoma shrugs and leans against the wall. “Tomorrow will be harder than today.”
“Are you ready?” Tezuka asks again, more gently.
Ryoma’s expression shifts; he stands up straight, takes his hands out of his robe pockets, and takes a step toward Tezuka.
“I want to play you,” he says. “Before we leave New York.”
Tezuka hesitates. “We just played one another two weeks ago.”
“Every match is different.”
“Your playing is beyond mine,” Tezuka says. “You should be focusing on players you can still learn from.”
Ryoma’s eyes widen a bit, as if Tezuka has surprised him.
“That’s not why,” he says.
Tezuka knows that he is going to step back, that he is not going to touch Ryoma or tilt Ryoma’s head back or place his lips against Ryoma’s skin. He wonders if everyone feels this plummet around Ryoma, as if he has developed his own gravitational pull and every moment you must either fight or fall. He hopes Ryoma understands that his hesitation is his concession—the only thing he can give Ryoma that Ryoma has not already taken.
He steps back into the hallway. “Get a good night’s rest,” he says.
He is a few steps toward his own room when Ryoma calls, “Hey, Buchou.” Tezuka turns.
“How do you like New York?” Ryoma asks.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Tezuka replies. It isn’t until he is reading the paper in his own room half an hour later that he wonders why Ryoma would ask.
Tezuka dreams that he and Ryoma are playing against each other on a court that is moving, shifting, dividing like tectonic plates. Ryoma points his racket at Tezuka, says, “We’re tied, aren’t we?” and hits a serve that splits the world in two between them.
On the second day of tournament play, Fuji and Yuuta still struggle, Atobe wins easily, and Tezuka takes a loss in three sets and a tiebreak. Yukimura and Sanada play even more fluidly than the previous day, and Ryoma begins warming up with Tachibana earlier than usual. Tezuka wants to tell him to be cautious, to keep from over-exerting himself, but the less advice he gives Ryoma at this stage, the better.
The moment the match begins it is apparent that their previous match has awakened something within Kevin Smith that Ryoma will have to fight seriously. Ryoma has played endurance games before, but none have ever felt so much like a war to Tezuka. Ryoma’s abundant strength feels like nothing in the face of a transformed Smith, and the more he expends the more it appears Smith has in reserve.
When he is down 4-3, Ryoma, stamina almost broken, sits down beside Tezuka for the first time since the match began. He takes a drink of water and looks down at his racket. Then he looks up at Tezuka.
Tezuka’s heart stops and starts again. Ryoma, he wants to say. He is slicing to keep you from controlling the rotation. He is anticipating your moves. He has evolved.
He wants to put his fingers against Ryoma’s cheek. To make Ryoma take the rest of him, whatever is left.
Show me your tennis, he wants to say. Play for me. Play for both of us.
Ryoma looks at him for another long moment before standing and returning to the baseline.
Then he loses, 6-3.
That night the Japanese tennis team is invited to have dinner with Andre Agassi and family. The experience is largely surreal: they are ushered into limos and driven into the city, and served at a restaurant whose entire menu is in Italian. Their coach, staff, sponsors, and translators take up a table all by themselves, and the translators throw the team members grim looks, as if they are all culpable for the crime of speaking English decently well.
Tezuka is content to listen and let the other members of the team talk. Steffi Graf asks Yukimura, who is seated next to her, what his plans for the future are. Yukimura tells her, and the question travels around the table. Tezuka excuses himself to visit the restroom. When he comes back, Atobe is playing with Jaz’ pigtails and Jaden is decorating tennis balls with Yuuta. Graf is talking about playing Kimiko Date. Ryoma, who has been eyeing his plate without eating most of the night, is watching Tezuka with a strange look on his face. Tezuka ignores him, and when he sits down Ryoma returns to glaring at his dinner.
Agassi talks about playing Michael Chang and John McEnroe. He talks about Pete Sampras and the 2002 U.S. Open, and Tezuka sits up straighter in his chair.
“No one I’ve ever played had a greater will to win than Pete,” Agassi says. Whether he means to or not, he looks at Tezuka. “People thought he was dull, but nobody who played him ever made that mistake again. His passion was focused on something bigger than the game he was playing at the moment.”
“What was he playing for?” Fuji asks.
Agassi thinks about it. “Tennis,” he says after a moment. “The game, the history. He was playing for the record books.”
“Che,” says Ryoma, causing everyone at the table to look at him because it is the first time he has spoken the entire evening. “Sounds boring.”
“Boring?” says Sanada. “To work toward the goal of becoming a legend?”
Ryoma shrugs. “People have short memories,” he says.
Agassi looks over at Ryoma. “Your father is Nanjiroh?” he says. “Nanjiroh Echizen.”
“He’s an idiot,” Ryoma says.
“I saw him play in the U.S. Open,” Agassi says. “I was your age. It was the year before I turned pro.”
Ryoma twirls the pasta on his plate and looks as bored as it is possible to look under the circumstances. Agassi continues, “It was extraordinary, watching him play. He had such agility and strength. To see him defeat Ivan Lendl in straight sets that way—people still say that if your dad hadn’t walked away after the semi-final Lendl’s career would have been a completely different story. Mine and Pete’s might have, too.”
Tezuka watches Ryoma’s face, and thinks that if there is any reflection of Nanjiroh in Ryoma, it is in tennis and nowhere else.
“It is a great mystery, why he left,” says Graf lightly. “I remember his withdrawal from that tournament and the uproar it caused after he took the semifinal match against Ivan. I remember Ivan and John both saying they were going to send him thank-you notes.”
Ryoma shrugs. “He thought McEnroe wasn’t worth beating,” he says. “Plus he had better things to do.”
“Better things to do than tennis?” says one of their sponsors, and everyone laughs.
“Che,” Ryoma says, and his eyes meet Tezuka’s across the table.
When the team takes their leave, Agassi shakes Tezuka’s hand and tells him his play is impressive. Tezuka thanks him courteously. “Perhaps we’ll play each other someday,” Agassi tells him. Tezuka meets his eyes and thanks him for his courtesy.
When shaking Ryoma’s hand, Agassi repeats the injunction, a bit more enthusiastically. Ryoma grins for the first time that night and tells Agassi that they should practice together sometime.
They are driven back to the hotel in the same sleek stretch limos. Tezuka looks out the window at the city at night, thinking how much like home it is, and how different. The Seigaku regulars and Atobe are in one car, and Tezuka is only vaguely aware of the conversation until Ryoma says abruptly, “Hey, Buchou, is there anything you want to tell us?”
Tezuka looks over at him and then says carefully, “Rest well. Have a good match tomorrow.”
Ryoma mutters something under his breath and stares out the window on his side of the car. Atobe smirks. “Tezuka keeps secrets from us all, don’t you, Tezuka-kun.”
“Everyone has secrets,” Tezuka replies blandly, and turns to stare out the window again.
Fuji doesn’t attempt to make conversation, and an awkward silence settles over them for the remainder of the drive.
When the limo pulls up outside their hotel, Atobe holds out his hand to Tezuka, quirks an eyebrow and says, “Tezuka, have a drink with me.”
Ryoma lowers his cap. Tezuka thinks that all he has to do to end this is to say yes, to nod and go with Atobe, even if only into the hotel.
He opens his mouth to reply, but Atobe snaps his fingers and chuckles, “Too slow as usual, Tezuka-kun.” He gets out of the car by himself, and Fuji looks in the other direction.
Amid the handful of onlookers eyeing the limousines, someone recognizes Ryoma. Immediately a small crowd forms around him, and Ryoma borrows a pen from the limo driver to sign autographs. Tezuka and Fuji wait for him, Fuji leaning against the round cement columns of the hotel entrance.
“You’re worried about Echizen, aren’t you, Tezuka,” he says. Tezuka looks at him, but has no answer readily available that will not provoke more questions.
Fuji looks at Ryoma, who has pulled his cap down halfway over his face, and is talking as little as possible. “It seems hard to believe three years are gone so quickly. He has grown so much.”
Tezuka says nothing, secure in the knowledge that Fuji will talk so he won’t have to, a dynamic he has been grateful for often in the past. When Fuji speaks again, his tone has changed. “Yuuta is not growing in this tournament. I thought the opportunity would be wonderful for him. But I’m holding him back.”
“He’s holding himself back,” Tezuka responds. “You’ve pushed him forward.”
“Have I?” Fuji says, shooting him a clear sidelong glance. “Sometimes I wonder if I—”
He stops for a moment, until prompted by Tezuka’s expression. “Sometimes I wonder,” he says coolly, “If I’m only seeing what I want to see inside of him, instead of what’s there. If I’m only seeing what I want for him and not what he wants for himself.”
“Fuji,” Tezuka says.
“He doesn’t need an older brother,” Fuji says.
He doesn’t need a captain, Tezuka thinks.
“Tezuka,” Fuji says, “What will we do when—”
He never finishes. Tezuka doesn’t ask him to.
The girls on the elevator recognize them from the papers, or claim to. “When are you going back to Japan?” one of them asks.
“Sunday,” Fuji says.
“I have dual citizenship,” Ryoma answers. “I’m not going back.”
Tezuka’s stomach lurches as if the elevator has dropped. Fuji draws in his breath, and the three of them are silent until the elevator doors open.
Ryoma goes into his room and shuts the door, and Fuji says after a moment, “It isn’t a surprise. Not really, Tezuka.”
This is what’s best, Tezuka thinks. He says nothing. He goes inside his own room.
He has a message from his mother and a message from Oishi. He calls his mother, who tells him he should be in bed instead of out so late, and that she just wants him to be happy.
He calls Oishi, and Kikumaru answers, and squeals, “Hoi, hoi, Tezuka-Buchou, Oishi is right beside me grabbing for the phone!” before it is grappled away from him.
Tezuka wishes for a moment that he had reached Oishi when he was alone. “Tezuka, aren’t you excited?” Oishi says. “It’s nothing like the Nationals, is it?”
“It’s noisier,” Tezuka answers.
“I can’t believe it’s been three years,” Oishi says. “Remember? We were going to go out and party after the victory but we all wound up going back to Kawamura Sushi and playing Monopoly.”
“And Tezuka-senpai sat off to the side watching Ochibi the whole time,” Kikumaru calls into the phone.
“Eiji!” Oishi exclaims, and Kikumaru has time to ask Tezuka if he and Ochibi are still being stubborn before Oishi bats him away and apologizes.
“He’s just excited because we got our selective exam results back,” Oishi tells him. “We both got into Tokyo University.”
“Oishi’s right,” Kikumaru calls. “We’ll always be together!”
Tezuka listens to the noises in the background. “It would be hard to be separated from someone you love,” he says.
“I wasn’t really worried,” Oishi says, and Tezuka can tell by the tone of his voice that he is smiling. “Eiji will always be Eiji, no matter where he is. Some things change, but not everything has to.” His voice drops. “Tezuka, how is your tennis? Is your shoulder—”
“It’s fine,” says Tezuka.
Oishi says, “Oh,” in what is more concession than relief.
“Echizen has done well,” says Tezuka, more because Oishi is listening than because he thinks Oishi will care. “He’s staying here after the tournament ends.”
“Oh,” says Oishi again, and it sounds as if he has motioned for Kikumaru to shut up. “Are you coming back?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Tezuka asks.
“I thought since you made your decision…”
“Yakanawa-sensei will be making arrangements to have me take the selective exams when I return,” Tezuka says.
“I see,” Oishi says. “Tezuka… does Echizen know?”
“I haven’t told him,” Tezuka says.
“He’ll be disappointed,” Oishi says.
“He has better things to focus on,” Tezuka says. “Our rivalry was never meant to be more than a stepping stone to push him forward.”
Oishi sighs into the phone, and Tezuka stills. “What?”
“You’re still you, Tezuka,” Oishi says. “When you can’t control a thing you always make it harder than it has to be.”
“I won’t be responsible for holding Echizen back,” Tezuka says tightly.
“After tomorrow, you won’t be his captain anymore,” Oishi responds gently.
“After tomorrow, it won’t matter,” Tezuka replies.
“He’s beyond all of us, isn’t he, Tezuka.”
“Yes,” Tezuka says.
“Tezuka, you should enjoy tomorrow and be happy,” Oishi says. “I never dreamed that when we said we would go to nationals six years ago, so many things would happen.”
“I am proud of all of you,” Tezuka says.
He promises to pass around messages to his teammates, listens to Eiji tickling Oishi into handing him the phone long enough to say goodbye, and hangs up. Times Square is blazing in neon below, and the city skyline drizzles black and gold across the view from his window.
There is a knock on the door.
Tezuka goes into the bathroom and washes his hands. He folds the washrag on the counter, and opens the box of condoms in the drawer of the nightstand.
Then he lets Ryoma in.
Ryoma slides in the entryway beside Tezuka. They look at each other. Ryoma puts his hand against Tezuka’s cheek. Tezuka holds his breath, and closes his eyes.
Ryoma’s mouth opens beneath his and he is just the right height, and Tezuka feels as if he hasn’t had this for years. He puts his hands in Ryoma’s hair and kisses the smooth white hollows of his collarbone. Ryoma draws in his breath and winds his arms around Tezuka’s neck, and he feels so light and wiry against Tezuka that Tezuka forgets for a moment they are not twelve and fifteen. He forgets and pulls Ryoma up, lifting him and moving Ryoma’s legs around his waist, until Ryoma says, “Tezuka,” in a thin, low voice and the sound is new because Tezuka has never heard it before.
Ryoma is still wearing his jersey, and Tezuka unzips it slowly, following every centimeter with his tongue until Ryoma is squirming and breathless. He laughs when Tezuka presses him against the mattress, and falls silent when Tezuka buries himself inside of him, hard and aching and hot, and whispers, “Buchou,” again and again when he comes.
At some point in the night, Tezuka wakes, and knows that Ryoma is awake beside him. He turns. Ryoma is facing him, eyes wide and alert.
“You should sleep,” Tezuka tells him.
Ryoma nuzzles Tezuka’s shoulder. “I don’t know if I can beat him.”
Tezuka rolls onto his back, which Ryoma takes as an invitation to slide against his chest and decorate it with his tongue.
“Play as if tomorrow will be the last game you ever play,” Tezuka says.
Ryoma lifts his head and gives him a level stare. “Is that what you’re going to do?”
Tezuka looks away and lies back against the pillows. After another moment, Ryoma wraps his fingers in Tezuka’s own and slides his lips against Tezuka’s cheek.
“Kunimitsu,” he murmurs. “Don’t go back.”
Tezuka pulls him close and kisses him, because any other response is unbearable.
“Will you practice with me in the morning?” Ryoma mumbles.
Tezuka’s throat goes dry. “Yes,” he says, and he slides his arm around Ryoma’s waist.
Ryoma curls into him, close and warm, and Tezuka sleeps in spite of himself.
Tezuka is awake by five. He wanders downstairs, then walks around Times Square, cold and dirty and surprisingly deserted on a Saturday morning. He buys a paper from a news stand in front of Lindy’s; buried in the back of the sports section there is an article on the tournament, focusing mostly on Kevin Smith and his match-up against Ryoma. There is a black-and-white photograph of Ryoma and Tezuka, sitting next to each other during the match the day before. They are looking at each other, and Tezuka sees clearly how Ryoma’s shoulders slump, how his chin is angled down. He sees himself. He throws the paper away.
It is nearly six when he returns, and Ryoma is awake. He drags Tezuka back to bed, and Tezuka lectures him between kisses on not exhausting himself before the match. They have sex anyway, and Tezuka doesn’t argue when Ryoma follows him into the shower. Ryoma leaves marks all over his stomach and thighs, and Tezuka presses him against the tiles and kisses him until the water loses pressure.
They are the last members of the team to assemble for breakfast. Ryoma slips his hand into Tezuka’s when they walk in, and keeps it there when they sit down together. “Federer is going to be there,” their coach tells them excitedly. “Possibly Hewitt. But definitely Federer.” Ryoma lifts his cap and traces his fingers in languid patterns over Tezuka’s wrist.
The sky is bright and cloudless, and when Tezuka steps off the subway into Queens a warm spring wind hits him full in the face. He tries to savor it, all of it: the mild air on his skin, the fans snapping pictures and waving as they enter the pavilion; sun gleaming off the top of the World’s Fair spires, and the deep, glorious ache in his chest.
He hardly speaks to anyone, and to Ryoma not at all during practice. Ryoma looks at him and doesn’t look away, and it is a warm-up, not a game, but it is tennis all the same—their tennis—and Ryoma always knows where Tezuka is going to hit the ball.
Tezuka tries to hold on to the images as they occur, tries to memorize the day as it happens around him. Fuji and Yuuta take their third straight loss, but it is a tiebreak in eight rounds. When it is over, Yuuta wraps his arms around his brother and cries, and when they separate he is smiling and Fuji’s eyes are bright.
Atobe takes full advantage of the crowd sympathy when he walks onto the court, blowing kisses and flinging his jersey into the audience. After all this his loss is disappointing, but when he sits down again, he winks at Tezuka and says, “Play a match with no regrets, Tezuka-kun.”
And then it is Tezuka’s game.
Tezuka stands and unzips his jersey. After a moment he folds it and gives it to Ryoma, who looks up at him and accepts it silently.
The last match, Tezuka thinks, and walks out into the center of the stadium.
In every match he has ever played, Tezuka has thought, I will not lose. In every other match he has ever played, he has willed himself to win, to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goal.
Stepping onto the court of the Louis Armstrong Stadium, for the final day of the American-Japan Goodwill Tournament, is like plummeting off a cliff. Somewhere in the back of Tezuka’s mind is a faint reminder that there is still a goal, winning the tournament for the county of Japan; but it is white noise in his head. He is holding the racket in his hand and there is tennis, only tennis.
He has thought about this moment countless times in the past two weeks, but in the moment itself he feels as if something is being ripped from him, painfully and permanently. There is tennis and only tennis, because after this, there is nothing.
Tezuka serves. He feels made of light. Made of energy and desire. He wants this, wants the swing of the racket and the ring of the sweet spot and the adrenalin churning through him; and, more than wanting, loves; Tezuka loves this, loves it so much his heart will burst through his ribcage with love before he ever stops loving it; and he is lost, and then it is match-point and he doesn’t understand why his face is wet.
When it ends he feels shock for a moment: it is over, and pieces of him have fallen forever away, and Tezuka had thought that he would be playing this game forever. He knows he has won, but he does not know how he has won, because his head is on fire and it is his last match—his last match and people are screaming, cheering, on their feet around him; and Tezuka shakes his opponent’s hand in a daze, and does not know what has happened until he sees the scoreboard and sees 6-0, 6-0, and even then he does not know what it means until his teammates are crowding around him and Ryoma, next to him, says against his ear, “So that’s what your tennis looks like, Buchou.”
The crowd is on its feet, and Tezuka stands in the middle of the ovation, weightless for the first time in his life.
The Doubles One match is swift and beautiful, and halfway over before Tezuka has fully absorbed his own match. Ryoma sits beside him, his knee touching Tezuka’s, staring straight ahead. Sanada and Yukimura are effortless in their third win, and the crowd gives them their second ovation of the afternoon. There are about 7,000 in attendance, but 7,000 people on their feet screaming is a new phenomenon to Tezuka. The noise vibrates in his bones. By the time Ryoma’s match is ready to begin, the crowd is chanting “U.S.A.—U.S.A.” and the stadium rumbles.
Ryoma turns to Tezuka. “Our hosts are really nice,” he says. “Too bad we have to beat them.” He stands, unzips his jersey, and takes it off. Then he folds it and lays it in his seat, on top of Tezuka’s.
It is the first time Tezuka has ever felt nervous for another player. The intensity of it washes over him with the noise from the crowd. “Play your best,” he says.
Ryoma looks down at him. He lifts his cap.
“Mada mada dane,” he says, and walks onto the court.
Ryoma and Kevin Smith are rivals in every way, and anyone who has suffered a defeat like Ryoma’s, at the hand of such a rival, will let it show in their tennis, at least at the beginning of the rematch.
Ryoma’s opening volley against Smith is the greatest Tezuka has ever seen. Smith is intense, focused, and Ryoma is effortless, continuous motion, like the swing of the racket in his hand. Everything Smith hits is an invitation.
Tezuka has seen Ryoma transform himself before. He has seen Ryoma evolve to a higher level in order to defeat his opponents. He has seen Ryoma reach deep within himself to a level of competitiveness that cannot be surpassed, time and time again. But this day, this moment, is different, and as Tezuka watches the boy he has known for three years, the boy he has seen grow into a genius and a legend and a fifteen-year-old who likes to drink Ponta after sex, he suddenly understands.
Ryoma is following his example.
Ryoma is playing for love.
Later, when they are on the podium during the award ceremony, Ryoma looks up at him and says, “So, Buchou. Now how do you like New York?”
Tezuka takes in the cheering of the audience, sees the banners speckled across the stadium waving Ryoma’s name, and even one with his own; he takes in the skyline of the city across the river, then looks down at the giant trophy, at the Tournament MVP medal slung around his chest.
He glances at Ryoma and smiles before he can look away again.
When the ceremony ends, the tennis team is introduced to Rodger Federer.
“Wow,” says Yuuta in English before lapsing into a string of excited Japanese.
Fuji smiles. “Such an honor,” he murmurs.
Sanada nods. “You are an inspiration.”
Yukimura bows. “Thank you for attending our matches.”
Atobe winks. “I’ve learned a lot from watching you.”
Tezuka straightens his shoulders.
“Your victory today was truly incredible,” says Federer.
“Thank you,” Tezuka replies.
Ryoma lifts his cap and looks up into Federer’s face. “Hey,” he says. “You might want to work on your backhand before we play each other.”
A translator taps Tezuka on the shoulder. “There is someone who would like to meet with you privately,” he says. Tezuka leaves his teammates and is ushered into the press box, where a man in a black suit is sitting with an open briefcase. He stands and shakes Tezuka’s hand.
The man’s name is Kenneth Thatcher. He is tall, dark-haired, and polite. He congratulates Tezuka on his victory and the win for Japan. It is evident that he knows nothing about tennis.
Tezuka sits down beside him. “I’m acquainted with your guidance counselor, Mrs. Yakanawa,” says Kenneth Thatcher. “She contacted me recently and explained your situation—that you had rather unexpectedly made the decision not to turn pro this year. Is that still accurate?”
Tezuka blinks. “Yes,” he says. “I made my decision shortly before coming to New York.”
“Ah,” says Kenneth Thatcher, and it is evident that the twists of fate that befall professional athletes mean nothing to him. “Mrs. Yakanawa sent me your transcript and I have to say I was delighted. I’d like to offer you the chance to play tennis at the University of California at Los Angeles.”
Tezuka sits still for a moment. “I—I have already been assured admission into several of the universities in Tokyo,” he says awkwardly.
“I am sure any student with your transcript and your record of achievement would be accepted anywhere you applied,” says Kenneth Thatcher smoothly. “But this is an opportunity to be a part of the best tennis program in the United States.”
Kenneth Thatcher does not know tennis, but he does know his statistics. He would be a part of the team currently ranked number one team in the country. Tezuka would be playing on the same courts as Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. He would be part of a program that boasted more nationally ranked players than any other school in history, in addition to 15 collegiate national championships and 38 collective Grand Slam titles. Not only that, but Tezuka would be attending one of the top 25 research universities in the country.
“With your academic credentials and your record of personal achievement,” Kenneth Thatcher tells him, sliding a brochure into his hand, “there is every indication that you could excel in every area. Frankly, your tennis record alone would be enough to earn you a full scholarship anywhere else, but at UCLA what drew your name to the attention of our admissions committee was your academic transcript. The scholarship we would like to offer you is a mark of our faith in your abilities.”
“I don’t deserve—” says Tezuka, and stops.
“The university would like to fly you out to California before you return to Japan,” says Kenneth Thatcher. “We’d like to invite you to meet Coach Martin and tour the courts, maybe meet some of the players.”
Tezuka feels the earth rotating under his feet. “I am flying back to Japan tomorrow,” he says. “I don’t think I—”
“It’s all taken care of,” says Kenneth Thatcher grandly, with the air of someone who produces miracles every day. “The university will arrange to reroute your flight from L.A. if you want, or if you want to fly back from New York we can do that too. Let me give you my card.”
Tezuka lets the card be pressed into his hand.
“Naturally you’ll need to think about this, call home, discuss it with your family,” says Kenneth Thatcher. “Ordinarily UCLA doesn’t recruit widely outside the U.S. because the tennis program is so competitive. This is a special circumstance due to your being here and due to the suddenness of your decision.” Kenneth Thatcher looks Tezuka up and down. “And if you do decide you want to play professional tennis after college, UCLA would be the perfect place to launch your career.”
Tezuka’s hands are shaking when he exits the press box. He carefully tucks the information Kenneth Thatcher has given him into his tennis bag, and finds the team waiting for him in the courtside hallway. He dodges their questions but instantly notes that Ryoma is not there. He walks beside Fuji to the pavilion before asking the obvious question.
Fuji smiles. “He’s in there,” he says, and points across the courtyard. “They let him in to look at the view from the courts.”
Tezuka stares across at the outside of the stadium, which seems much too immense to only seat 25,000 people, and Fuji remarks, “They’ll probably let you in too.”
Tezuka does not expect the doors to the center to be unlocked. They are, if only because Ryoma is already inside. Ryoma is standing at the baseline on the north side, his tennis bag still slung on his back. Tezuka joins him, and stands beside him for a moment, looking around. The stadium is immense, and the stands stretch hundreds of feet into the air around them. A plane from LaGuardia passes over their heads. Tezuka can’t imagine playing on this court in an actual competition.
Ryoma leans against him for a moment. “Buchou,” he says. “Wanna play?”
Then he unzips his bag.
That night Tezuka cannot sleep.
Ryoma shifts in his arms. Tezuka looks down at the blur of messy hair scattered against his chest. He runs his fingers through it, and Ryoma moves into the touch. He is sleeping with his arm slung across Tezuka’s ribs and his head tucked against Tezuka’s side like an awkward fledgling.
Tezuka presses his lips against the top of Ryoma’s head, and hears Oishi’s voice in his mind.
Some things change, but not everything has to.
The team meets the next morning for breakfast at the top of the hotel. The plane departs from LaGuardia at nine, and Tezuka has packed his bags. Ryoma is staying until his parents arrive later in the week; Tezuka turns in his hotel key and lets the concierge know what to do with Ryoma’s room.
When he enters the restaurant the team is being served giant omelettes and waffles, and sunlight is streaming through the windows overhead. The air is full of noise and light.
Tezuka takes out his mobile and dials the number Kenneth Thatcher has given him. Kenneth Thatcher answers in a bright, cheerful voice which suggests that even on a Sunday he has been awake for hours.
Tezuka looks out the window of the hotel. He can see the Hudson glinting in the sun, and all of Times Square below in a blur of color and asphalt. He feels stretched and satisfied, as if he has been running laps for days.
He thinks of the plane taking off in two hours, and wonders if Ashe Stadium looks as immense from the air as it does from center court.
When he looks back at the restaurant, Yuuta is stealing a bit of food off Fuji’s plate, and Fuji is smiling. Atobe is flirting with one of the translators, and Yukimura and Sanada are sitting quietly, side by side. Ryoma is sitting in the middle of his teammates. The light pools in his hair the way it did that day on the courts months ago. Tezuka wonders how many parts of himself there are still to unlock.
“Have you decided?” Kenneth Thatcher asks.
Ryoma looks up and sees him, and keeps looking.
Tezuka says, “Yes,” and looks right back.
There are literally dozens of people I owe thanks to for helping me find my way through this fic. If you have ever made a post or a comment or a fic that deals with Tezuka, then I have soaked up your ideas and your discussions like the desperate sponge I am. Thank you to prillalar, assyrian, riddering, lawnmower_elf, and many others for your commentary and insight. My complete undying thanks to all of you who kept me from throwing up my hands in defeat while writing this: danibennett, samenashi, wednesdayschild, memlu, prillalar, vanillafire, ponderosa121, suaine, freewayspike, svz_insanity, and zionsstarfish. SO MUCH LOVE YOU HAVE NO IDEA.
* God. So many apologies to Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Jaz & Jaden Agassi, Rodger Federer, and my favorite, Pistol Pete, for putting you in a slash fic, and for putting words into your mouths.
* Seigaku is an elevator school. Technically, high schools in Japan usually require entrance examinations to get in. But if you are in an elevator school then you stay there until you graduate high school. I won’t go into how many drafts it took me to figure this out.
* Ayumi Morita became Japan’s youngest pro tennis player ever earlier this year when she went Pro just after turning 15. Before that the youngest tennis player to turn pro was 20 years ago, at age 16. I didn’t, under those circumstances, see Tezuka feasibly turning pro until he was out of high school.
* The Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Arthur Ashe Stadiums are real places in the National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York (Queens). The Ashe Stadium seats 23,000 people and is apparently a real bitch to play in.
* The more research I did for this story the more I came to associate Tezuka’s style of play with Pete Sampras’—not in terms of technique, because Tezuka as far as I know has never been a serve and volley player, but in terms of temperament. They are both accused of being too dull and lacking passion for the game. Sampras however had his sights focused not just on winning but on making history. The more I read about him the more I came to understand Tezuka’s goals as being personal, not in terms of beating his competition, but in terms of securing a place for himself in the record books—even if only vicariously through Ryoma.
* This story postulates that Echizen Nanjiroh’s circuit run was in 1985, and that he defeated Ivan Lendl in the U.S. Open semifinals that year before withdrawing to allow Lendl to beat John McEnroe. Tezuka was born in 1988 and would have been 2 years old the year Pete Sampras became the youngest player to win the Open in 1990, the same year Ryoma would have been born.