The first time Ryoma measures his height against Tezuka’s, they’ve just finished the sixth game of a set. They’re tied, three games to three. Both of them are covered in a light sheen of sweat, but neither of them has expended that last burst of energy yet, the one they can count on when they’re close to the end. That’s the part that makes their matches, the part when everyone who’s watching starts to stare, wondering at this tennis that’s beyond anything they’ve ever seen. It’s also the part when Ryoma starts to grin, because it’s all just warm-up before that point.
Of course, no one’s watching this match, and they haven’t gotten to that point yet.
Ryoma lets the ball bounce twice as though he’s going to serve, and then he stops. “Buchou,” he says, tilting his head to the side like an inquisitive kitten. “Come here.”
Tezuka pauses, thoughtful, for a moment, and then he walks forward to meet Ryoma at the net. Ryoma looks up at him, considering. Then he lifts his racquet and measures the difference between their heights, using the racquet as a guide. He brings the racquet down, looking at the place where his fingers touch, just about where the handle meets the head. “Che.” He’s one hundred and fifty-one centimeters. Tezuka is one hundred and seventy-nine. He’d known this already, but the proof is more concrete when it’s captured on the court with his racquet.
“You’ll grow,” says Tezuka. “You have years of growing to do.”
“I know.” Ryoma looks up and grins. “I’ll catch up to you.”
After this they play the real match, the one where both of them give everything they have left. Ryoma wins, seven games to six. His next goal, he thinks, will be to beat Tezuka without taking the match into tiebreak. He knows that he won’t be able to do it more than once, but if he can do it even once, he’ll be satisfied for another round, for another month or two, until Tezuka catches up to him.
His long term goal, however, is now something quite different.
He grows another three centimeters over a very short length of time. Inui is still tracking his progress, despite the fact that he’s in high school and Ryoma is in junior high, and Inui is pleased with this sudden growth spurt. “The milk’s effect, combined with the juice,” he says, marking something ridiculously complicated (given that Ryoma’s only three centimeters taller) in his notebook.
Ryoma snorts. Giving milk and Inui Juice credit for a perfectly natural part of puberty seems stupid, to him, but then using data for everything has always seemed stupid.
But Ryoma takes his own kind of data a day later when he and Tezuka play again. Ryoma’s ostensible reason for inviting Tezuka out here is to practice for the Regionals, which are rapidly approaching. Possibly that’s even one of his real reasons, too.
He forgets for awhile to do what he’d come to do, lost in the tennis, lost in the sight and the sound and the feel of Tezuka across the net. They play hard right from the beginning now; both of them have enough stamina to do it, and they don’t have enough willpower to stop themselves, not when it’s each other they’re facing.
The tie comes remarkably quickly, six games to six. Ryoma isn’t tired, he’s restless and excited, on his toes with all the energy he still has left. He paces to the net, his strides clipped but longer than they have been in the past. Tezuka doesn’t need to be told what to do; he drops the tennis ball into his pocket and walks up to the net as well, meeting Ryoma there.
Silently Ryoma holds up the tennis racquet again, gauging the distance between them the best way he can. The top of the racquet bumps lightly against Tezuka’s head and the handle taps against Ryoma’s forehead, and this should be silly, but it’s not. This time the gap is smaller by just a little bit. Not good enough yet, Ryoma thinks.
“You’re still growing,” Tezuka says, as though he can read Ryoma’s mind.
“Maybe I’ll do it faster if I drink more milk,” says Ryoma, and Tezuka chuckles, actually chuckles, making Ryoma grin.
Tezuka beats him in this match, seven to six. It’s always seven to six now, no matter what they do, no matter which of them overcomes the other. Ryoma thinks that he might be satisfied with seven games to six.
That’s not going to stop him from trying to win by more, though, and he knows it’s not going to stop Tezuka either.
The day Ryoma finally graduates from junior high, he plans to go home and spend a quiet evening with his cat, avoiding his father, who’s been crowing about his son’s academic achievements all through the graduation ceremony. Ryoma’s quiet evening is cut short when all of the old Seigaku regulars, plus some of the new ones (Arai, Ikeda, Katsuo, Kachiro, Horio) show up to kidnap him from his bedroom. Ryoma mutters complaints all the way to Kawamura Sushi, but he can’t really mind. He’s stuffed into the backseat of Fuji’s sister’s car, squished against Eiji on one side and Tezuka on the other. He squirms away from Eiji, who’s chattering excitedly to Fuji, and he ends up halfway on Tezuka’s lap.
Tezuka doesn’t protest, but shifts so that they’ll both be more comfortable. Their arms are resting together, and a moment later Ryoma moves his so that his hand is on top of Tezuka’s, fingers almost linked but not quite, just touching. No one else seems to notice, but Tezuka says, so quietly that Ryoma is barely sure he hears it at all, “Congratulations on graduating, Echizen.” Then he links his fingers with Ryoma’s and they ride like that until Yumiko pulls up to the curb next to the restaurant and tells them that they’ve arrived.
Supper is a whirlwind of laughter, conversation, and stolen bits of eel. Momo and Kaidoh squabble over the last tuna roll. Momo wins and gulps down his prize triumphantly before realizing that it’s full of wasabi. He chokes and gasps and flails until someone passes him a glass of water.
“You knew that had wasabi in it, didn’t you,” Ryoma says to Fuji.
Fuji smiles and picks up one of the pieces of sushi on his special tray, which are supposed to be the only pieces with so much wasabi in them. “Why would I let him eat it, when it’s something I like so well?”
Because you’ve done it before, Ryoma thinks, but says nothing more on the subject.
Eiji tries to persuade Kawamura into bringing them a bottle of liquor on the sly, “just this once,” and Kawamura keeps laughing and refusing. By the end of the night they’re all acting intoxicated anyway, and Ryoma’s thinking it’s a good thing they’d never gotten any alcohol. Kaidoh’s leaning on Inui’s shoulder as though he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s glaring at Momo from there.
Momo’s not paying any attention; Eiji’s draped between Momo and Oishi, arms around them, his chin resting on Oishi’s shoulder. Horio is giving an animated lecture on his two years of high school experience, with Katsuo and Kachiro listening patiently despite the utter nonsense of his claims. Kachiro, who’s become far more outgoing since his first year of junior high, is just about draped over Arai’s lap, while Arai looks stunned and Ikeda looks even more so. Fuji’s perched on one of the stools at the counter, watching them all with amusement and chatting with Kawamura while Kawamura finishes cleaning the knives.
Tezuka isn’t next to Ryoma; he’s at the end of the table, next to Oishi. But every time Ryoma glances at him, Tezuka is watching him. Ryoma has to look down so that he doesn’t laugh, or smile, or do something equally incriminating.
It’s past ten o’clock by the time the party starts breaking up. People start leaving singly or in groups, most of them yawning and eying the clock above the counter. Ryoma is there after almost everyone else has gone, not because he’s waiting for anything but because he’s half asleep at the table. “Echizen. Echizen, wake up.” Oishi’s shaking him gently.
Ryoma lifts his head and stifles a yawn. “What time’sit?”
“Ten twenty-three,” says Kawamura. He’s closing up the restaurant, putting everything back where it belongs and cleaning up. Fuji, not surprisingly, has stayed to help him.
“You’d better get home,” says Oishi kindly. “I can walk you to the train station.”
“No, Tezuka can do it,” Fuji interrupts from behind the counter. He’s got a towel over his shoulder and a sushi tray in his hands, and Ryoma wonders sleepily whether Fuji and Kawamura are going to end up married.
Oishi gives Fuji a quizzical look. “But-”
“Oishi. It’s all right.”
“Oh, Tezuka.” Oishi looks up and back and smiles. “Are you going to walk with him, then?”
Tezuka nods, and Oishi leaves. Ryoma gets to his feet, feeling abruptly more awake than he’s felt all night. As he and Tezuka step onto the sidewalk, Fuji calls after him, “Congratulations, Echizen.” Ryoma darts a suspicious look back at him, but he can’t see Fuji anymore and certainly isn’t going back inside to ask if he means congratulations on graduating or congratulations on something else.
The two of them walk down the street. There’s no one else around at this time of night on this small street, although the sidewalks in downtown Tokyo will be crowded for hours to come. Ryoma can almost take one stride for each of Tezuka’s and stay caught up, but not quite. Inui would probably tell him exactly how many steps he has to take, one and two-sevenths or something like that. Ryoma doesn’t care exactly how many steps it is, though. He only cares that his legs still aren’t long enough.
“Buchou.” Ryoma stops by the side of a store, a brick wall across from the park. “Hold on, I’m tired.”
Tezuka knows this is a lie and accepts it anyway, which speaks volumes. Ryoma leans against the side of the building and closes his eyes, wondering if anything is going to happen or if they’re just going to stand in the dark and then go on to the train station.
No, something is going to happen, because Tezuka says, “Echizen,” when he doesn’t really need to. Ryoma opens his eyes. What is between them and still unspoken simmers and seethes like a living thing beneath the surface of a calm lake, like the air between them does in a match where they haven’t started playing their hardest yet.
Of course, living things in lakes sometimes come up for air, and some of them can even fly. Ducks, for instance. Ryoma has to laugh at that. Tezuka steps toward him, and then stops. “I was thinking of ducks and how they fly,” says Ryoma.
“Yeah.” Ducks, and the word fly written for him, and the fact that they’re still flying after all this time. Ryoma doesn’t have to say that part. Tezuka knows that part already. “Buchou…” He’s going to say “come here,” but Tezuka is already there, and considerably more that plain old “there.” Tezuka’s going to kiss Ryoma, obviously, but he hesitates just before their lips meet and Ryoma has to lean up to get rid of the distance between them.
They’re leaning against the side of a brick building at ten-thirty at night, learning how to kiss each other. “We should be on the court for this,” says Ryoma, during a pause for breath.
“We will be,” says Tezuka. “Next time.”
Next time is so good to hear that Ryoma completely forgets to measure how much taller he’s gotten. He doesn’t have his racquet with him anyway, though, so it doesn’t matter.
For a year they keep playing matches that end up won seven games to six. Ryoma feels just the way he felt back in junior high when he couldn’t beat Tezuka at all. They need to push harder, he thinks. They need to go higher, or they’ll be stuck in the same place forever, and that’s no good for flying.
So Ryoma pushes harder, and finally, finally he wins six games to four.
They never have been able to prevent the heated glances between them while they’re playing a match, and this time is no exception. However, Ryoma notes, heated glances are far less maddening when he can actually act on them, practically running (flying, his mind corrects) to the net and kissing as though they’re playing another match right then and there.
“Notice something?” Ryoma asks, breathless and punctuating what he says with little kisses like one of their rallies that lasts ten whole minutes.
Tezuka holds up his racquet, which shows that the difference in their heights is nonexistent. “Yes,” says Tezuka with the best kind of smile, the one that only reaches his eyes and is therefore only for Ryoma.
“Good,” says Ryoma, satisfied.
Less than three months later, Tezuka beats him again, and not seven games to six either. Before he reaches the net, Ryoma stops, suspicious. Something is different. He goes closer, and Tezuka waits patiently as Ryoma holds up his racquet again, only to find that there is a centimeter’s difference between them again.
Ryoma looks accusingly at Tezuka. “You were supposed to stop growing by now.”
Tezuka replies, with a perfectly straight face, “I drank more milk.”