He doesn't think about it the first time, puts down the rush of sensation to how angry he is, how determined to have this match even though Buchou says no.
The second time is harder to ignore. Echizen is exhausted and sweating and still furious, and he's going to walk away from this match, something he's never done before, not once. He turns, thinking to drop his racquet but clenching his hand around it instead. He takes one step, another. He hears Tezuka's footsteps behind him and takes another step away from the net, the court, this match.
Tezuka takes hold of his wrist, grip firm and unyielding. "Echizen."
And Echizen suddenly remembers the first time. He remembers the adrenaline surging through him as he'd defied Tezuka, the only time he'd ever done it. He remembers Tezuka's grasp, just like this, like ghost fingers superimposed over the real ones holding him now. He turns back, forgetting to pull down his cap so that Tezuka can't see his eyes.
"You're not leaving," says Tezuka, and holds him.
And Echizen stays.
The feel of Tezuka's fingers on his arm lasts longer than it should. He touches his own wrist, but this doesn't send sparks through him, doesn't leave an invisible imprint on his skin.
Echizen turns his head as though Momo hasn't already said his name three times. "Grab my wrist, Momo-senpai."
Momo blinks. "Huh?"
"Grab my wrist," Echizen repeats, not so patiently.
"Are you going to pull some kind of martial arts thing on me?" Momo asks. "When my sister told me to grab her wrist the other day, she flipped me onto the floor, she did."
Echizen snorts and gives Momo a look. "Just do it." He holds out his arm right in front of Momo's face, brooking any further argument.
"Okay, okay, fine." Momo turns his hand, hesitates, and asks, "Should I grab it from the top or the-"
"Okay, okay." Momo grabs Echizen's wrist, right where Tezuka's hand had been before. One of Momo's fingers has soy sauce on it, and leaves an orange streak on Echizen's arm.
Echizen pulls away, making a face. "That's disgusting." He picks up a napkin and wipes his arm with it.
"Well, you said," Momo tells him, licking the finger with the sauce on it.
All Momo's touch leaves is soy sauce and the scent of hamburgers, no hum, no buzz, no chill through him. Underneath that, the memory of Tezuka's fingers remains, as sharp and clear as though Tezuka were still touching him.
A date, says Echizen's father, even though Echizen wouldn't call it that. His senpai say so too, though they only do it to annoy him. Momo and Kikumaru tease that he has a girlfriend now and won't have time for tennis anymore. Even Kawamura and Oishi joke about it when they find out, saying that the youngest Seigaku regular has finally grown up.
This isn't a date, Echizen thinks, walking into the café with the girl with the long braids. She doesn't play tennis very well. He doesn't have to remember her name.
She blushes whenever he speaks.
"What would you like to drink?"
"Oh!" She's startled, too busy watching Echizen to have noticed the waitress approaching. "Water, please. Ryoma-kun, do you want-"
"Grape Ponta," he says, and tugs his cap down so he doesn't have to look at the girl or the waitress. He hears the waitress walking away and still doesn't look up.
The girl with the long braids says, "Um…"
"What?" he asks, and glances out the café window. His father is sitting on a bench across the street, pretending to read a magazine. Momo-senpai, Eiji-senpai, and Inui-senpai duck away from the glass. Echizen sighs.
"I'm sorry that, that my grandmother couldn't come," says the girl timidly. "I know you probably don't want to be here with-"
"It's fine," he cuts her off. It's her turn to look away, down at the floor, probably wishing she was out with the loud girl or with Katsuo or Kachiro or even Horio instead.
They drink in silence and eat in silence, at least Echizen eats. The girl just picks at her food, darting him a glance every now and then. "Thank you, Ryoma-kun," she says when he pays, and puts a hand on his arm for a second.
"It's fine," he says again, and they step outside. He wonders where his senpai have gone, whether Kikumaru and Inui have left to actually do the homework that's undoubtedly more challenging now that they're in high school, whether Momo has left to do the responsible thing and set up the ranking matches the way a good captain is supposed to.
But no, that's not it. Echizen's eyes widen when he sees who has called them away from the window. "Buchou!" he says, without really meaning to.
Tezuka's eyes meet his, and then Tezuka nods. "Echizen."
Kikumaru and Momo are both squirming where they stand. They've probably got themselves in trouble for spying. Inui seems unperturbed, notebook closed and held at his side.
"Buchou," says Echizen, a second time. "It's been awhile." He holds out his hand, wondering if Tezuka will take it, if Tezuka will judge a handshake to be appropriate given the situation.
For a second (longer, maybe, than is strictly polite) it seems as though Tezuka will do nothing. Then Tezuka extends his own hand and clasps Echizen's in it. Echizen is taller, larger now, but his hand is still dwarfed by Tezuka's. Echizen resists the urge to brush his thumb against the back of Tezuka's hand, just there, over the knuckles.
The moment passes and Tezuka releases Echizen's hand. "Ryuuzaki," says Tezuka, nodding to the girl behind Echizen. She probably nods back, or gives him a shaky little bow, but Echizen doesn't turn around to see.
This is what Echizen remembers later, while his father mourns his son's chances of ever catching a girl; this is what Echizen remembers while he's lying in bed, staring at his dark ceiling with Karupin nudging his side to find a more comfortable position.
He remembers Tezuka's hand around his.
He doesn't live for those brief, rare moments, those brief touches that end too quickly but never really end at all; the impression of them lasting for days, weeks, months. But he thinks of them in between when he's not busy feeding Karupin or fighting with his father or eating ramen with his senpai or playing tennis.
Echizen can still feel Tezuka's fingers around his wrist if he concentrates.
"So what was it you wanted, Echizen?" Fuji doesn't stay still, but prowls the room like a curious cat, looking at Echizen's computer, at Echizen's photographs, at Karupin, who rubs against Fuji's legs, asking to be stroked. Fuji complies and Karupin purrs.
Echizen stands by the far wall, arms crossed. He just wants Fuji to go away now. He wants Fuji to stop charming his parents and his cousin and his cat. "I want you to give me something," he says anyway, because he's come this far already and he can't give up now, especially not with Fuji as a witness.
"Hm?" Fuji stands up. Karupin protests, and Fuji smiles down at him, shushing him. "What would you like, Echizen?"
"A kiss, Fuji-senpai."
If Fuji had been born a cat, his ears would perk up at that. He gives a good enough approximation, showing his interest all-too-clearly. "Oh?"
"Che." Although Fuji will know what he means, Echizen adds, "Yes."
"And here I thought you'd ask me to grab your wrist." Fuji smiles, pleased with Echizen's momentary look of surprise.
"You think you know everything," Echizen mutters.
"Of course not," says Fuji. "You had better come here. I can't kiss you from all the way over there."
Echizen steps closer, reluctant to see his own request fulfilled. He doesn't know what to expect from Fuji, he never does, even during a tennis match. Fuji plays hard, sometimes, more often these days than before, but mostly Fuji just plays, more to entertain himself than to win.
Fuji leans down, not far now that Echizen's grown taller, tips his head to the side and kisses Echizen on the lips. He's gentle and doesn't touch Echizen anywhere but there, just kisses him for a few seconds.
It's strange, the feel of someone else's mouth on his own. Echizen feels a mild rush of adrenaline and hormones, and somewhere in his mind, understanding: oh, that's what it is.
"You have what you want now?" Fuji asks him, pulling away. His breath smells like mint, normal mint, not wasabi or charcoal or whatever Echizen might have imagined Fuji's breath to smell like.
Echizen considers, then nods. "Yes."
"Mm." Fuji bends down to pet Karupin again; Karupin is impatient with these silly humans and their mouth-touching, and wants their attention directed at more important things, namely, himself.
"Thanks, Fuji-senpai," says Echizen, and means it.
Fuji leaves after that, but not without an invitation from both Nanjiroh and Rinko to come back anytime. Echizen watches him go, and is glad he'd asked Fuji-senpai, not anyone else.
Echizen thinks of the kiss later, when he's in his room with only Karupin for company. He remembers Fuji's lips on his own, the sound and feel and scent and taste of Fuji left on his mouth. He doesn't know exactly when he stops thinking of Fuji and starts thinking of someone else. It's as smooth and easy as a change of court, as a warm-up rally. He thinks of how a kiss would feel with Tezuka, and he shivers even though the room is warm enough.
When he thinks of this a day later, he remembers imagining Tezuka's kiss. He barely thinks of the real kiss at all.
Tezuka asks for the match, not Echizen, because that's the way it's always been. Even when Echizen is at home, staring out his window and feeling desperate way down in his stomach and wanting to play, he knows that he'll wait for Tezuka to ask. Tezuka always does, almost always before Echizen has a chance to be desperate.
"See you tomorrow, then," he says flippantly.
As soon as he hangs up with Tezuka, he hunts down his father. "Play with me," he instructs, tossing Nanjiroh his racquet.
Nanjiroh raises an eyebrow, and for a second it seems that he knows everything, about Tezuka's tennis game and about Tezuka's touch and about the way these things make his son feel. Then the moment is gone and Nanjiroh laughs, slapping his leg and leaping to his feet.
Echizen plays to forget his upcoming match and Tezuka, but every shot Nanjiroh slams past him only serves as a reminder.
And really, Echizen doesn't mind remembering.
"Buchou." Echizen looks up at him, across the net. His breath catches a little, maybe from the exertion of the match, maybe not.
Tezuka regards him solemnly, as though this is a formal ceremony involving only the two of them and the trains that roar by above. Then he holds out his hand.
Echizen takes it, remembering the feel of it from before. He wants to brush his thumb over it again to see what Tezuka would do. He wants to keep holding on forever instead of letting this instant pass by him like all the others.
And when Tezuka lets go, Echizen doesn't. "Buchou," he repeats. Tezuka can catch him and hold him in place; Echizen can do the same to Tezuka if he wants. And he does want.
Tezuka's fingers close around his again, and Echizen lets himself touch the back of Tezuka's hand with his thumb. Tezuka's fingers are tennis-calloused, but his knuckles are soft and smooth, well cared-for. Echizen looks up from their hands and sees that Tezuka's lips are parted as though he's about to say something.
Instead of saying something, though, Tezuka draws in a quick breath. Then he draws Echizen in by the hand and kisses him.
There isn't a moment of oh, that's what it is, the way there had been with Fuji. Echizen's mind tries to think it, but only gets as far as oh. He makes a sound, not even meaning to, a sound of wanting and needing and oh, yes, oh is the right word, a sound of having. Tezuka is touching him, free hand firmly against Echizen's lower back, but even better, Echizen can touch too. His free hand rests at the nape of Tezuka's neck, tracing idle circles there without even realizing, until Tezuka shivers under his touch and Echizen does it again, on purpose this time.
Echizen doesn't have to remember and imagine the feel of Tezuka's hand in his now. It's still there, and stays there, because neither of them wants to let go.