As soon as this Matsueda character had shown up at the street court, Momo had figured he was bad news. He had the contemptuous smirk of someone looking to make trouble, but he hadn’t moved right away, and it was a bad sign when troublemakers stopped to think first. He’d waited, watching the other players, and finally approached Echizen for a game. Even though Echizen didn’t play at speed on street courts like this, unless someone really got his goat, it was clear to Momo that Matsueda had pegged Echizen as the best player present. And, of course, the day Echizen turned down a challenge would be the day there was a blizzard in July. Momo had still disliked the look of Matsueda enough to murmur in Echizen’s ear to keep an eye out, even if it did make his friend give him the raised eyebrow.
By the end of the third volley, Momo was sure there would be trouble.
When Echizen switched to his left hand at the end of the first game, Momo’s jaw tightened. A whisper swept around the court; the ones who played in this area regularly knew, by now, what it meant. This challenger was good.
And he was, Momo had to admit. Not good enough to win against Momo himself, and certainly not good enough to win against Echizen. But good enough to make Echizen smile.
Echizen wasn’t smiling now.
Momo swore silently. He knew what was wrong. He’d met a few of Matsueda’s kind before; even played one, once, and regretted it after. But he didn’t think Echizen ever had. Oh, he’d played plenty of the crazy ones, the ones who were out of control and dangerous. Heck, he’d been on the same team with Fuji-senpai, and Momo hadn’t even taken a whole year to figure out that Fuji-senpai would have been one of the crazy ones if Tezuka-buchou hadn’t, somehow, steadied him.
But even the craziest had respected the game, or at least they had once Echizen was done with them. A real challenge, the chance to gain the respect of someone brilliant… that did it every time. Forged a connection in the heat and glee and craziness of the game itself. Even that lunatic Akutsu had responded to that, and it had eventually brought him back to the game once everyone had the brains to stop nagging him.
Momo remembered being concerned during that game, too, worried that the nut case Echizen was playing would cross the bounds of the game, worried how Echizen would deal with an opponent who held the game itself in contempt. But, in the end, Echizen had broken through. Echizen had seen past Akutsu’s derision to the desperate, frantic desire for a real challenge underneath, and, in his own inimitable way, had kept hammering until he’d reached it. Momo remembered going from being a bit worried about Akutsu’s dismissive contempt to being a little alarmed at his absolute, devouring, manic focus on Ryouma, once the game heated up. At no point had Momo really been surprised, though. Even then, he’d taken it pretty much for granted that Echizen could hold any fire barehanded, on the court.
But not this time.
This time, it was acid, not fire, and Momo didn’t like to think what might happen if Echizen grasped it. There was a vicious edge to Matsueda’s smile that got sharper every time he pulled out another move, pushed Echizen a little harder. A fast drop shot; a respectable smash; a sly, curving slice that came in deceptively slow. For all Matsueda’s skill, though, Momo could see that the true center of his attention was elsewhere. By the end of the third game he thought Echizen had seen it too. Momo would have bet a week’s tab at McDonald’s that it had only taken so long because the very idea was so utterly alien. The ones he’d played who thought like that, that Momo knew about, had always been pretenders; no real talent, no challenge.
Echizen stood for a moment, before he served, staring at his opponent.
“What’s the matter kid?” Matsueda called. “Getting scared?”
Echizen’s hand clenched around the ball, and Momo snorted. It was probably the best thing the bastard could have said right then.
The best thing for Echizen, at least.
Echizen’s mouth set hard, under the shadow of his cap, and Momo knew he had laid aside his disturbance for later. The line of his body and the flash of his eyes as he cast the ball up said that now was the time to end this.
The last games rushed by in a flare of power and finesse that left Matsueda’s jaw hanging. Despite his own misgivings, Momo could help a smirk as the man slunk off at the end of the set, chased by the grins and condolences of the other players. The grin faded as he watched Echizen pack up, too. Momo zipped up his own bag and silently fell in beside his friend as Echizen left the court.
Echizen never exactly chatted, but his quiet now made Momo uncomfortable. Despite that, he didn’t press for conversation; it wasn’t the time. He watched Echizen as they walked, following his path without comment. They weren’t exactly going in circles, but every time they went a little closer to Echizen’s house, his friend managed to take the next turn in another direction. Momo was just wondering whether he should nudge Echizen toward the school and let him walk around the track until he wore himself out, when they fetched up in a playground between his house and Echizen’s.
Echizen finally stood still, there, and Momo eyed him, considering whether it was time to push. A violent shudder ripped through Echizen, dropping his bag off his shoulder, and he started moving again, pacing between one hollow cement animal and another. Momo’s mouth thinned.
“He didn’t care,” Echizen said, voice tight, spinning on his heel for another round.
“No, he didn’t,” Momo agreed, quietly. Ryouma whirled on him.
“How?” His eyes, even in the low light, were shadowed, wide and hurt. “How can you be any good and not care? Somehow?”
The drawn look and voice were too much for Momo, and he took the two strides forward that would bring him to Echizen, and pulled his friend close. Now he could feel just how tense Echizen was, almost shivering with it. Ryouma didn’t protest, for which Momo was belatedly glad; his friend still wasn’t quite as tall as Momo, but he wasn’t tiny anymore, either. If he were upset enough to strike out it wouldn’t have been fun. But the fact that Echizen stood still in his hold, neither stiffening nor grumbling at him, more than anything, told Momo just how upset Ryouma was. He sighed and leaned back against the climbing tower, tugging Ryouma with him. He’d known Echizen wouldn’t understand it; so, how to explain?
“I asked Ryuuzaki-sensei that, after the first time I played someone like that myself,” he recalled, after a bit. “She said it just happens, sometimes.”
Ryouma stirred against him, and Momo heard a shadow of his usual sniff of contempt.
“She said,” he continued, encouraged, “that there are two kinds of players who are bad. Bad for everyone else, dangerous to the game. One is the kind who has a whole lot of talent but no challenge. She said that those are the ones who don’t respect anyone else, and do stupid or dangerous or cruel things because they’re bored. Like they’re trying to provoke someone into stopping them.”
Echizen nodded, faintly. Momo had figured that description would ring a bell.
“The other is the kind who has talent, but only sees the game as a means to an end. Not something they enjoy for itself, just something that lets them get something else they want.”
Echizen stood very, very still for a long moment.
“Like I was,” he said, at last, muffled, “before Tezuka-buchou…”
Momo’s arms tightened in automatic response to the blank emptiness of that usually sardonic voice. His first instinct was to deny it completely, because, damn it, he’d always seen more than that in Ryouma from the first moment they laid eyes on each other. But he hadn’t spent a year as team captain without learning to face unpleasant thoughts, and he was sure that if he was anything less than totally honest right now Ryouma would ignore him entirely.
“If Tezuka-buchou hadn’t gotten through to you, you might have been,” he answered, carefully. “Eventually. But I can’t believe you would have gone much longer, anyway, without meeting someone who could show you what else tennis could be.” He puffed a little laugh against the raven-wing hair beside his cheek. “You had too much fun with it, even if you wouldn’t admit it yet.”
He felt, rather than heard, Ryouma’s answering laugh, and breathed a sigh of relief.
“All you can do is what you did,” he concluded. “Beat them fast and go on.”
Echizen slumped against him, head thumping down on Momo’s shoulder.
“Great,” Ryouma muttered.
Momo grinned and ruffled his hair, and this time Ryouma swatted at his hand with a growl and pulled away to stand upright. Momo was impressed all over again with his friend’s resilience. He’d needed a few days of not playing anyone but his teammates to get over his own encounter with tennis slime. As they collected their bags and walked on he thought the atmosphere had lightened enough to tease Echizen about having fast recovery time. Ryouma blushed and glowered at him.
“Momo-senpai…” he drawled, threateningly.
“When are you going to get a girlfriend, anyway?” Momo prodded at him, having to choke back a snicker at the shudder and grimace he got in response.
“Never!” Ryouma’s response was particularly heartfelt, and Momo figured his little fanclub must have been especially shrill this week.
“Boyfriend?” Momo suggested, helpfully, and got an elbow in the ribs for his trouble. The familiar chaffing made them both smile.
“Seriously, though,” he added, “I knew you could handle it. After as many of the crazy kind as you’ve come up against, the slime are just a nasty shock. Not a challenge.” Momo shot a sidelong look of satisfaction at Echizen.
“Haven’t been that many,” Echizen objected with a small shrug. Momo snorted.
“Yeah? Just think for a minute about how many people you’ve played who fit that first description.”
Echizen tucked his hands in his pockets and slouched along thoughtfully for the block that remained before the turning that would take each of them home by separate ways. Momo expected an absent good night, or possibly a smart remark about the relative sanity of tennis players. He did not expect Echizen to stop short at the intersection, and stand as if turned to stone. Momo, looking over in surprise, caught a haunted, sick expression on Ryouma’s face before he shuttered it.
“Echizen?” he asked, startled. Ryouma swallowed twice.
“I don’t want to go home yet,” he whispered at last, turning sharply away from his street.
Calculations cascaded through Momo’s mind, starting with just how long someone in Echizen’s excellent shape could stay up, walking, if he decided to; touching on the number of times he’d seen emotion that open from Ryouma, a very small figure; and finishing with the best way to actually get some sleep while not leaving his friend alone with whatever thought had hit him so hard.
“You can come home with me, if you want,” he offered.
Ryouma blinked up at him, and Momo gave him a half-smile in reply, turning toward his own street.
“Come on,” he directed. As he’d hoped, the peremptory tone broke Echizen out of his paralysis, and if his friend gave him a dark look he still came along. They were about half way there when Momo remembered that his sister had friends over to stay, this being Saturday, and wondered whether they had left so much as a spare blanket, let alone a spare futon.
There was one extra pillow sitting, lonely, on the shelf of the linen closet. It was, Momo reflected with some resignation, better than a bus provided and he and Echizen had managed to nap on plenty of those. Echizen barely seemed to notice, accepting the t-shirt Momo offered and climbing into bed, when Momo scooted over to make room, with a somewhat abstract look on his face. When Momo turned on his side to give them both a little more kicking space, Ryouma turned his head on the pillow and gazed at him for a long moment. The large, dark eyes seemed to swallow what little light was in the room and Momo laid a hand on Ryouma’s shoulder, questioning. Ryouma grunted and turned over too, putting his back to Momo.
Momo smiled and let his hand stay on his friend’s shoulder as they settled down to sleep.
He woke, slightly disoriented, when sunrise speared light through the blinds he hadn’t closed all the way. It took several seconds to pin down the cause of the disorientation. He remembered right away that Ryouma was next to him. He wasn’t in quite the same place, however.
Ryouma had, in fact, turned over, managing to steal most of the covers, and burrowed against Momo’s chest. He had also managed to throw an arm over Momo’s ribs without in any way compromising his possession of the blanket. Momo snorted, and let himself drift back to sleep. He knew better than to try and get the covers back, and Ryouma himself was warm enough. He had no idea how long he dozed, but he was jarred to partial alertness when Ryouma woke up and stiffened with a start. Still half asleep, Momo responded with the protective reflex that had always run hand in hand with his competitive reflex where Ryouma was concerned.
“Sh. ‘S okay,” he mumbled, rubbing Ryouma’s back soothingly.
Ryouma didn’t relax in the least. Momo woke up a bit further, recalling that he had reason to be concerned for his friend, and tightened his hold.
“Ryouma,” he murmured, “it’s all right.”
For a long moment Ryouma was so still Momo wondered if he was breathing, and then his head tilted a bit, hair brushing Momo’s collar bone.
“Is it?” he asked. His tone was soft, hesitant. Momo had no idea what was behind that question; he was only sure that whatever it was struck deep. Ryouma usually covered any uncertainty with an easy sang froid, or else overwhelmed it with fiery determination. Was it all right? Was what all right? How could he answer?
One corner of his mind, slightly more awake than the others, perhaps, noted sharply that he could damn well answer the way he always answered when Echizen needed help.
Calmness settled over Momo’s internal dithering. If he didn’t know what had moved Ryouma to actually ask for reassurance, he did know that he would back his friend up, whatever it turned out to be. That was all he needed to know right now.
“Yes,” he answered, with certainty. “It is.”
Ryouma let go a tiny breath, and slowly, like stretching a sore muscle first thing at morning practice, relaxed. His back loosened; his head settled into the curve of Momo’s shoulder; the hand Momo hadn’t realized was clenched in the cotton over his side let go; a faint shiver completed the progression, and Ryouma lay quiet against him.
Now it was Momo who had the urge to hold his breath, rather than break the moment. The warmth of Ryouma’s trust, more than even he had ever been given before, stole over him like the sunlight creeping across the bed. He gathered Ryouma closer, and pressed his lips silently to the morning-ruffled hair. Ryouma settled himself a bit more comfortably, with a very faint sigh, and they were still. The shrieks and crashes of his sister and her friends getting up and fed came and went with only the smallest twitch from Ryouma at the especially impressive bangs.
At last, though, Ryouma stirred, and Momo loosened his hold. He propped his head up on one hand as Ryouma flopped over onto his back and looked up at him. Ryouma’s expression was… odd. Almost wistful. Almost scared. Maybe a little sad and a little hopeful. Momo had to quash a strong urge to catch Ryouma back into his arms and not let go. Normally, Ryouma could be counted on to whap him over the head for doing any such thing. Momo wasn’t sure what would happen if he did it this morning.
Ryouma lifted a hand and laid it on Momo’s chest, light and tentative. Momo had to close his eyes for a second, before he covered Ryouma’s hand with his own. A smile lightened Ryouma’s eyes. Momo wondered, not for the first time, whether Ryouma had started wearing his beloved cap when he played in order to hide those expressive eyes that showed every thought and feeling unless he was very careful.
“Good morning, Momo,” Ryouma said, quietly. Momo ran his fingers through Ryouma’s hair, and, for once, Ryouma accepted the gesture.
“Good morning, Ryouma,” Momo answered.