Not the Triumph by Halrloprillalar
Prince of Tennis, TezuRyo, R, 1700 words.
Beijing 2008. Tezuka's last chance.
Note: I didn't do exhaustive research on things like "how to qualify for the Olympics" or "how Olympic tennis is organized" since I'm trying to keep the time per request story down and I couldn't easily find what I needed when I googled.
Tezuka sees Ryoma for the first time in the preliminaries. They are on adjacent courts and Tezuka looks over for Ryoma's first serve. Then he has to concentrate on his own game. When he finishes, Ryoma is still playing. Tezuka watches him for a few minutes.
It's been two years since Tezuka last saw Ryoma, at Roland-Garros, where Ryoma barely missed first place and Tezuka only managed the best eight. Tezuka-san, Ryoma called him then, and talked to him in careful Japanese instead of the English he used with everyone else, too quick and colloquial for Tezuka to follow.
Ryoma is playing easily today, limbs loose and fluid. He's saving himself for later, for the real matches. Tezuka wonders if they'll play. He wonders how Ryoma will play, against Tezuka.
Tezuka used to be able to see flashes of himself in Ryoma, a movement in his backhand, the line of his arm in his serve. But if they are there now, they are hidden, like colour blocked onto a fresh canvas and covered up by detail. Now all that Tezuka can see are his handprints on Ryoma's body and even those are fading.
He leaves the courts and goes back to his room.
When Tezuka wakes in the night, he is holding his shoulder. He opens a bottle of water and drinks it slowly in the dark, trying to not to wake his roommate. He picks up his mobile and finds mail from Ayaka. I'm up late studying, she writes. Work hard. My parents are coming over to watch your matches with me.
Tezuka reads the message three times. Get enough sleep, he replies. Do well in your studies. After he sends it, he realises he should have waited until morning. She will worry.
Focus, their coach tells them. Rest. Be careful. You are representing Japan. Conduct yourselves accordingly.
It's hard for some of them. The athlete's village is a playground and everything is free. Tezuka walks through without turning his head and visualizes himself winning his next match. He can feel the weight of his country on his back and it is at least as heavy as his own expectations.
When he is not playing tennis, Tezuka reads or meditates or does the stretches his doctor prescribed. Rehabilitation isn't going to work any more, he said. So be careful.
Tezuka is always careful, except when it is necessary not to be.
He is drinking tea in a café when Ryoma sits down at his table. "Tezuka-san," Ryoma says.
"Echizen." Tezuka puts down his book. He can't think of what to say. There have never been many words between them.
"Did you get my email?" Ryoma's eyes are sharp and Tezuka wonders what they see.
"I haven't checked." There is an internal email system, but Tezuka hasn't thought to use it. Messages from home come to his mobile.
"You dropped out of sight."
"Rehabilitation," Tezuka says.
"It's good you're here." And Ryoma smiles. Tezuka's chest begins to ache. He's never forgotten how that feels.
Ryoma asks Tezuka a few more questions and Tezuka answers them. He doesn't know what to ask Ryoma in return, what he could find out that hasn't been reported in every tennis magazine.
And then they sit and drink their tea. Tezuka looks down at the back of his book. There's an unflattering photo of the author and a blurb that spoils a plot point Tezuka hasn't yet read. Ayaka. That's what he should say. Ayaka.
It's been six months and she hasn't left him yet.
When Tezuka runs out of tea, he stands up. Ryoma stands too and moves around the table, closer to Tezuka.
At nineteen, Ryoma is as tall as Tezuka, maybe a little taller. His hair just brushes his shoulders. Tezuka wants to put his arms around Ryoma, pull their bodies close together.
"Echizen," Tezuka says. "I hope we'll play against each other." He walks back to his room without turning his head.
Tezuka gets up in the dark to close the window. The night air is fresh, but there is too much noise. In the room opposite, he can see a man and woman having sex. The lights are on, the curtains drawn back. The woman's head is thrown back, her dark hair falling down her back. The man mouths her breast, hands clasped around her waist. They move together. It's only when the woman looks over that Tezuka realises he is watching.
She laughs and beckons him with one hand. Tezuka closes the curtains and goes back to bed. He thinks about the last time he made love to Ayaka. He does a breathing exercise. He sleeps.
By the final rounds, the rest of the Japanese team is eliminated. The weight on Tezuka's back grows heavier. He plays carefully, steadily, portioning out his strength to meet each opponent. A reporter asks him if he is enjoying himself. Yes, he says, but he doesn't know if it's the truth. Only that there is nothing else he could be doing.
He calls Ayaka. "Make sure you're eating well," he tells her. She forgets to cook when she's studying hard.
The nights are louder now, the days too. An Australian beach volleyball pair propositions Tezuka at eleven in the morning. He has difficulty getting them to take no for an answer. In his room, he lies on the bed, eyes closed, until he has to go out to the courts.
He meets Ryoma in the semi-finals. They shake hands over the net. "Did you get my email?" Ryoma says. He wins the serve.
The first few games are strong, controlled. It is almost like they are warming each other up, rallying before a match.
And then they start to play.
Tezuka has watched Ryoma for hours on television, but that is nothing like facing him on the court. Everything that Tezuka has been saving -- his energy, his concentration, his arm -- he uses now. The universe shrinks to the size of the court and he and Ryoma are the only men alive.
The sun is hot and Tezuka is sweating hard. In between games, things appear: liquid, towels, a new sweat band. Tezuka looks across at Ryoma. Ryoma is looking back at him. Voices speak but Tezuka doesn't understand them.
His body moves without his direction, his brain makes decisions on its own. He wins the first set. Ryoma wins the second. And the third.
Tezuka feels pain but he doesn't know why. He hits the ball. Ryoma hits it back. There's a weight on Tezuka, slowing him, pulling down his arm. His body flames and someone yells so loudly, Tezuka's ears ring. He wins the fourth set.
They play for years. Gravity increases, the sun expands, the ground shakes. Tezuka is pain and hunger and exhaustion and thirst. He hits the ball. Ryoma hits it back. Tezuka reaches, flies, falls.
Ryoma wins the fifth set. "You played well," Tezuka says, gripping Ryoma's hand.
"Buchou," Ryoma says, so softly Tezuka isn't sure he really heard it, and they stand together until people come to lead them off the court.
Tezuka loses his final match. He has nothing left, his shoulder will hardly move. He's finished now. But the weight is gone. Tezuka has no regrets about his tennis.
Ryoma wins the gold and Tezuka watches him receive it: cap in hand, medal gleaming in the light, while The Star-Spangled Banner plays. Ryoma is grinning and this time, his smile makes Tezuka's chest swell until he smiles too, shading his eyes with his hand and perspiring under the sun.
Ayaka calls to console him. "It's fine," he says. "I'm satisfied." She promises to cook for him when he returns. "Study for your exams," he tells her. "That's more important."
There are still four days left. Tezuka goes to the café, but he can't read. He can't even think. He drinks tea and breathes while faces and voices blur around him.
When he goes back to his room, his roommate is gone, his roommate's belongings are gone, and Ryoma is sitting on Tezuka's bed.
Tezuka closes the door behind him. Ryoma looks up. Tezuka doesn't remember to feel guilty until they are naked and sticky, boneless and curled together, Ryoma's hair fanning out over Tezuka's chest.
They eat in the room. They barely speak, just fall into each other again and again. Tezuka goes out for more condoms and it takes him an hour to find a machine that's not already empty.
Ryoma's sponsors send him Scotch and they drink until Ryoma is laughing and Tezuka is reproving. "You should be more careful," he says and presses Ryoma down against the mattress.
When Tezuka wakes in the night, Ryoma's mouth is on his neck and Ryoma's arm is over his chest. Tezuka gets up to use the toilet. "No," Ryoma mumbles in English. "Stay here." Ryoma mauls Tezuka when he comes back and Tezuka has to make him stop because he's just too sore.
Instead, they lie face to face, breathing in each other's breath, fingers on each other's cheeks. Ryoma falls asleep and Tezuka watches until Ryoma rolls over and pulls the blanket away.
On the day of the closing ceremonies, they pack. Tezuka's shoulder burns and his chest aches. They stand by their bags. "Did you get my email?" Ryoma says. He kisses Tezuka and leaves the room.
Tezuka sits down at the computer and checks his account for the first time. There are six messages from Ryoma. He deletes them one by one. The last one has the subject Do not delete! and he hesitates. Then he opens it.
Ryoma must have sent it when Tezuka was in the shower that morning. I need a coach, it says and the words go through Tezuka like a knife. His hands are shaking. He deletes it too, before he can fall further than he has already. He will only pull Ryoma down with him.
At the airport, Tezuka takes out his mobile to check for messages. The battery has run down and he stares at the blank screen until their flight is called.
Then he goes back to Japan and waits for Ayaka to leave him.