Echizen Ryoma's first language was tennis. He learned Japanese and English at home, through the usual osmosis, but truly everything he'd ever needed to say, or needed to understand, came to him in terms of serves and sets, and the spin of a yellow ball over a long white net.
Tezuka Kunimitsu's first language was responsibility, but he took to tennis with a native fluency that left little doubt in Ryoma's mind that they were both of the same nationality, regardless of what Tezuka said in any secondary language.
As the years passed and Ryoma grew up, he found it slightly less troublesome to deal with people in standard speech, but he could never shake the feeling that with most people, he never quite got his point across. There were things that faltered in translation, and much that went unsaid. Though most of the time, he was the only one to notice.
Tezuka noticed the difference. His tennis spoke volumes of meaning; things which never made it past his stern countenance, or the bare minimum of words he ever put forward in any other tongue. Tezuka was never careless with words, or gestures, but the eloquence of his game--his drop shots and serves, and his indomitable persistance in competition--told Ryoma that in essence, at the core of themselves, they were the same.
Whatever Tezuka left unsaid, Ryoma could always grasp it on the court, and as long as they could play, Ryoma could say and understand all he needed to.
There was only one match ever left unfinished between them. Seven years into their acquaintance, on a quiet court at an undistinguished suburban park. It was a Wednesday morning, breezy, and Ryoma was up two games with his cap tilted down against the bright sun. He'd just returned Tezuka's lob with a hard flat shot, both hands on the grip of his racquet, heels dug into the clay.
With Tezuka, he always played all-out. It would never have occurred to him to do otherwise. Their strengths had become so closely matched that predicting the outcome of any game was impossible. At that moment, Ryoma was preparing for Tezuka to try and break his rhythym. With a spinning slice, or a pinpoint volley to the service line. He was ready for what might come, any second now.
Which is why it threw him completely when, instead of the ball coming back, he watched it slap the center line and bounce, bounce, bounce to the fence.
He lifted his eyes to Tezuka, who stood gazing at the net, arms down at his sides, racquet loose in his palm. Breathing. He hadn't even moved for that ball.
"Thirty-fifteen," Ryoma said, frowning. It was an easy enough shot, and Tezuka always played seriously. Even after seven years and two Grand Slams between them; even in a public park without a single spectator. It was an ironclad fact of the universe that Tezuka did not lose focus in his game, any game.
And yet the longer Ryoma stood, waiting for some response or explanation, the more undeniably clear it became that for no obvious reason, Tezuka had checked out.
Aware of the strange, ringing silence all around, Ryoma lowered his racquet and warily approached the net. He eyed the forgotten ball against the fence, and then drew in a breath and looked squarely at Tezuka.
"Your shoulder," he said. Because he'd always believed in meeting your fears head-on. Especially the very worst ones. Tezuka's old injury hadn't held him back since that spell in high school, first year, but since Tezuka himself was incapable of holding back in his game, there was nothing saying that would always be the case.
For years, Ryoma had tried to accept--at least in the back of his mind--that there may come a day when there was no Tezuka to play anymore. But it was like imagining there was no more air to breathe. Or a day when the world went speechless. Ultimately, it was beyond his power to conceive.
Finally Tezuka lifted his head, and met his eyes, and Ryoma waited for the sky to fall.
"I've been wondering. How many matches have we played?"
It took ten seconds for the question to filter through Ryoma's anticipation of imminent doom, and several more for him to realize he could be all day coming up with an answer. Four hundred? Six hundred games? Did pickup games and warmups count?
He could've asked why Tezuka chose now to bring it up, but had long since learned that Tezuka's reasons for things emerged in their own time. If he had a point to make, he would make it, and there was no budging him otherwise.
Ryoma shrugged. "Dunno. Guess I lost track."
"You remember the first one."
Well that was easy. He would remember that match to his dying day. The commuter trains screeching past the courts, sunset bleeding out behind the skyline, and the ball whistling past him over and over, so much power it took his breath away.
Show me your tennis! Tezuka had demanded, with those awesome, scorching serves. Hit a shot I can't return! Forcing Ryoma to dig harder than ever in his life, down into his guts and bones looking for something, anything he could give back.
Tezuka won that match 6-0. Ryoma never scored a single point. He was twelve years old, and had never lost to anyone but his father, who never played seriously, never tried. It was a stunning, terrifying experience. But somewhere in the course of it, somewhere amidst the merciless pressure and panic of that game, Ryoma found his voice for the first time.
He'd always known the language of tennis, but until he played Tezuka, Ryoma realized he had never truly spoken for himself.
"We should remember this one," Tezuka said, watching him, and Ryoma cocked his head, wondering, why? They weren't even playing. Just standing around an empty court, in an empty park. He looked up to the sky, in case there was some answer there. But it was just blue, with chalky clouds scuffed here and there. So what was so special?
"Tezuka." He fumbled a hand toward the net, with a dazed, swimmy feeling behind his eyes. "You don't--." No. This couldn't be the last match. They hadn't even finished it. Seven years was nothing. However many games they'd had, it was nowhere near enough. He refused to stop here, not with so much they still hadn't said.
"We'll play another hundred matches. Five hundred more. We should remember some." Tezuka glanced down at Ryoma's hand on the net and then looked back up, sober and certain as always. "This one. We should remember."
Five hundred more, he'd said, and Ryoma thought it might be safe to breathe again. He waited for his equilibrium to level out, and his heart to settle back to a normal rhythm, before trying to talk.
"You're not hurt," he said first, just to be sure.
"And you still. You still want to play."
To be absolutely, positively certain, Ryoma added, "You still want us to play."
Tezuka regarded him levelly. "I can't imagine us not playing." Then his brows pulled to a puzzled crease over his glasses, and he added, "I don't care to imagine that."
"Oh," said Ryoma, before turning and staggering off toward the sideline bench before his knees gave out.
Who knew how many times they'd sat together on the bench like this? Side-by-side, with their racquets and towels and water bottles. Ryoma on the left with his hat in his lap and Tezuka on the right. Resting in the well-worn, familiar groove they'd made together, at a time when most people would be thinking of excuses to talk.
"You could've said something before," Ryoma eventually said, once he'd decided he forgave Tezuka for scaring the hell out of him.
"It just occurred to me."
It was getting on lunchtime, and Ryoma remembered that noodle stand they liked, down by the bus stop. He was halfway to suggesting they drop in on the way back, and grab a bite, when something odd struck him.
"It really used to bug me, when I didn't finish a game," he said. "I couldn't sleep. Couldn't stop thinking how it would've turned out." He damn sure wouldn't have been thinking about ramen. It's doubtful he could've even sat still on this bench, watching the dappled shadows of the trees teasing the edges of the court.
And when had that happened? Was it just today, or had it been creeping up on him, without his noticing?
Looking over, he caught the corner of Tezuka's mouth turning up in a faint smile. "And now?"
Ryoma thought about it. Thought about how he really felt. "Well, this game. We could finish it tomorrow, if we wanted."
"Or next week. Or a year from now."
Tezuka brushed his fingers over the strings of his racquet, laying across his knees. "Ten years," he suggested softly.
"It'll always be there, won't it. Any time we want."
He leaned back against the bench and relaxed into the idea. Let it take him ahead thirty, sixty years. The two of them sitting on a porch somewhere, with white hair and wrinkles, thousands of matches behind them, and this same comfortable space between, as satisfying as the fit between two matching puzzle pieces. A whole lifetime, and still, this one game they could finish any time. Kept between them, and remembered, like a promise.
Looking back at Tezuka, he couldn't help the grin stretching his face; that, and the sudden impish urge to make a challenge of it came as a relief. They were okay. Everything was okay.
"I can wait on this one. But you'd better be ready, when we do finish it."
Tezuka's smile emerged slowly, rare and warm, spreading until Ryoma could feel it, settling on his skin like the sunlight.
"Always ready," he answered.
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