“Here, buchou.” Ryoma pulls out a chair at the table for that captain of his, the one who graduated a year ago. Nanjiroh blinks from behind his newspaper. That was awfully polite of his usually-disrespectful son.
“Thank you, Echizen,” the boy says...what’s his name? Tezuka, that’s it. Nanjiroh has met him a few times before; he’s very stiff and formal, but damn, does he play a mean game of tennis.
“So, why’re you over here again?” Nanjiroh asks cheerfully, earning him a glare from Ryoma. “My boy rope you into another game?” It’s the third time in two weeks that Tezuka’s been over here.
Ryoma answers before Tezuka can. “I asked him over here for another game.”
“Mm,” says Nanjiroh, tone very nonchalant despite the fact that his son sounds quite angry with him. It happens so often that it doesn’t even bother him anymore.
“Want to play after dinner?” Ryoma asks casually.
Nanjiroh knows the question isn’t aimed at him, but gets a wicked grin and answers anyway. “Ah, of course, son! I’ve been waiting for you to ask.”
“Not you, idiot,” Ryoma snaps fiercely. Nanjiroh fakes a pained expression. “I am cursed with a son who hates me...”
Ryoma ignores him. His tone immediately warms when he turns to Tezuka, his eyes softening. “Buchou?”
“If your father wants to play, please do not deny him on my account.” Is Nanjiroh imagining it, or did Tezuka’s tone seem to be more stern than usual?
“All right, buchou,” says Ryoma, shocking Nanjiroh even further. He scowls at his father. “I guess that I’ll play you first, then, stupid father.”
Huh. This is now grounds for a formal investigation, Nanjiroh decides. Ryoma conceded that point far too easily. He studies Ryoma closely as the boy and Tezuka eat a light lunch. He watches and pretends to read his porno magazine.
He hears the way Ryoma talks to Tezuka; Ryoma, of all people, sounding respectful and admiring. What a shock! He sees how Ryoma looks at Tezuka, too: eyes smiling without a hint of a smirk. And also, he sees how Ryoma looks at Tezuka when he thinks that Tezuka isn’t looking. Ryoma’s expression is...wistful?
Then Nanjiroh starts watching Tezuka instead. Tezuka is harder to read, but Nanjiroh is a master at reading anyone. Tennis skills really do translate into the real world, after all.
He sees that Tezuka always listens attentively to Ryoma, no matter what the boy says. He sees the way that Tezuka’s eyes subtly shift to Ryoma and stay there whenever Ryoma looks away. And he sees the way that neither one of them knows what the other one is doing...at least not yet.
Nanjiroh is pretty sure that nothing has happened between them up until now. But he knows that soon something will have to happen, because his Ryoma always takes what he wants, when he wants it.
Tezuka asks for the salt shaker, and Ryoma passes it to him. Nanjiroh’s keen vision can see their fingers brush against each other, and then pull away. The two boys’ eyes meet over the table and they remain locked like that for a few seconds. It’s Ryoma who glances quickly down at his plate first.
Nanjiroh Echizen isn’t a fool, no matter how much his son may take him for one. He might not always be responsible, he might have different priorities than most people, his only real talent might be in the area of sports, but he’s no idiot.
He knows looks like that one don’t have anything to do with tennis.
Karupin is bored. He watches his Ryoma and that other boy play together. He licks a paw, then glances up again.
His Ryoma is watching the other boy again, when he thinks the other boy isn’t looking. His Ryoma gets a very strange look on his face when he does this. It’s not a play-look. It’s a look that says that his Ryoma wants a mate.
Karupin stretches, then peers intently at the other boy. He has those strange things called glasses on his face and he doesn’t smile very much, but he’s nice anyway. He doesn’t chase after Karupin like some boys do. He doesn’t trip over Karupin either, even when Karupin walks right under his feet. He has very good balance. That other boy is quiet but strong, almost as good as a cat. Karupin likes him.
Karupin sees the other boy giving his Ryoma a mate-look too...but again, when his Ryoma isn’t watching. What’s the point of a mate-look if the one you want as a mate can’t see it? Karupin has tried to tell this to his Ryoma, but even though his Ryoma is smart, he’s not smart enough to understand.
Both of the boys walk up to the net-thing, taking a break from their play for a moment. Ryoma holds out a hand with one of those green balls in it. Karupin’s ears perk up, but his Ryoma is just handing the ball to the other boy. The other boy takes it, but Ryoma keeps his hand on the ball for a second. Karupin can see their fingers touch. He can hear their hearts beat faster. He wonders if they’ll mate now, finally. It would make his Ryoma happy, he thinks. Mates are good.
But no, his Ryoma lets go and walks away from the other boy. The other boy stands there watching after his Ryoma, then walks away too. Karupin rolls over in disgust. Humans are so stupid sometimes.
Later, after the other boy is gone, Karupin jumps up onto his Ryoma’s bed and purrs, looking up into his Ryoma’s face. His Ryoma is staring at the wall. Karupin looks, but there’s nothing interesting there, not even a spider. It’s the mate-look again.
Karupin lets out a plaintive mew. “Do something about it already!”
His Ryoma blinks and looks down at him. “Hi, Karupin.” He gathers Karupin into his lap. Karupin purrs more loudly, hoping his Ryoma will get the point.
His Ryoma runs a gentle hand along Karupin’s back. He says, “Karupin, what do you think of Buchou?”
Buchou must be the other boy’s name. That’s what Ryoma always calls him. Karupin meows again, more impatiently this time. “Just make him your mate! He likes you, you like him. Simple!”
His Ryoma stares at the wall some more, still absently petting Karupin. “I wonder if Buchou knows that I like him.”
Well, he would if you ever gave him that mate-look when he was looking at you, Karupin thinks grumpily. He doesn’t bother saying it out loud. His Ryoma clearly isn’t going to take Karupin’s helpful advice.
Karupin thinks maybe he should steal that other boy’s glasses and give them to his Ryoma. Maybe then his Ryoma would see the other boy’s mate-look and they would become mates. He starts washing his tail, pleased with himself. He’ll try that the next time the other boy comes over.
Honestly, without cats, humans would never get anything done.
For the first time in his life, Echizen Ryoma ignored his buchou. He walked away with his cap pulled down over his face. He couldn’t see where he was going, but he didn’t care.
“Echizen.” Ryoma flinched and stopped. Ryoma didn’t cry when he was sad. He got angry and stubborn instead. It was easier for him to deal with being angry and stubborn. He had more practice with that. He whirled on Tezuka. “What?” he demanded, not quite loud enough to count as yelling.
“This isn’t your problem. It’s mine.” Tezuka’s voice was level and unwavering. As always, he’s stronger, better, smarter, Ryoma thought viciously, then felt bad for thinking it.
“It’s my problem too!” Ryoma’s voice broke. It was in the middle of changing and still hadn’t settled into the lower register. “You think it won’t affect me?”
“I know that it will,” Tezuka said. A hand took hold of the brim of Ryoma’s cap, pushed it up and out of his face. Ryoma scowled, blinking in the sunlight. He refused to meet Tezuka’s eyes.
“You can’t quit,” Ryoma snapped.
“I’m not quitting,” Tezuka told him, suddenly sounding older than he was. “You know that.”
“You are,” Ryoma insisted. He grabbed for his cap, but Tezuka was still taller. He thought they had to look like two kids in the park playing keep-away.
“I need some time away,” said Tezuka. “Tennis isn’t life. And it can’t be mine.”
“You told me that,” Ryoma replied, tone low and unhappy. He looked down and then turned and walked away again, cap or no.
“Ryoma,” and then Tezuka caught hold of his wrist, the first time they’d touched each other today. Ryoma tried to twist away, but Tezuka wouldn’t let him. With his silent grace, the grace and power that was evident in everything he did, Tezuka lifted Ryoma off the ground, one hand behind Ryoma’s knees, the other at Ryoma’s back. It had to be harder than Tezuka made it seem; Ryoma weighed at least three-quarters as much as Tezuka himself.
Ryoma refused to let out a startled yelp, even though he was startled. Instead, he snatched his cap from Tezuka’s hand, which was now within his reach. Tezuka let him do it. Ryoma squirmed, but Tezuka didn’t even show any sign of wavering. He just held Ryoma tightly, but not so tightly that it hurt.
Ryoma hated this. He hated not being in control of his body. He hated it. He wanted out, he wanted to get away, he wanted to be able to...dammit! He buried his face in Tezuka’s shirt, loving and hating the scent and the feel of it.
“You can’t change everything,” Tezuka murmured. He didn’t loosen his hold, but he leaned his head down so that it was resting gently against Ryoma’s hair.
“I want to,” Ryoma muttered, closing his eyes. He clenched his fists in Tezuka’s shirt, the blue shirt that Ryoma liked, even though he’d never mentioned it out loud. “Why do you have to quit?”
“You are still my life, even if tennis can’t be.” Ryoma could feel Tezuka’s voice in all the places they were pressed together. He could feel every time Tezuka took a breath and his chest moved slowly in and out.
Ryoma wriggled again, but he was stuck. He was stuck with everything, with Tezuka quitting tennis, with the way he was crying a little and he hadn’t even realized. Tezuka didn’t say another word, and Ryoma finally relented, relaxed in his arms.
Because no matter what else he was stuck with, and no matter how much he fought against it, being stuck with Tezuka was exactly what Ryoma wanted.