Summary: When Ryoma finds himself in a tough situation, his pride might keep him swimming, but it’s Tezuka who keeps his head above water.
Author’s Note: Another slightly shorter chapter, and probably another one of my personal favourites. It is not hard to guess why. ;) Usual thanks to ka0richan for the beta.
The Dispossession of
The rest of the week passed largely without incident. Ryoma had already decided that he had to repay his captain somehow for his generosity, but it was difficult to work up the courage to broach the subject. Thus once again he was barely paying any attention in classes - by now that wasn’t anything new. So long as he did his homework he’d be fine. Tezuka had started checking it for him, and the senior pointed out any mistakes he made. It was just one more thing he had to thank his senpai for.
Tennis at least was still enjoyable, but Ryoma couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the other regulars were paying a bit too much attention to him lately. Inui in particular seemed to be following him around. Though Inui and stalking were practically synonymous anyway.
All of those concerns were immediately pushed aside when Nanako arrived towards the end of practice again. She’d started dropping by the tennis courts every couple of days; asking how he was, bringing him a bento with his favourite foods, and transporting occasional odds and ends she thought he might need from his room. The previous time she’d even smuggled Karupin with her, and Ryoma had spent a good ten minutes hugging his cat and trying not to cry. It had been even harder to send Karupin back with her, but he knew that he couldn’t care for his pet properly in his current situation. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if his cousin’s visits were breaking his resolve or keeping him sane, but he never left her waiting when she turned up towards the end of his tennis practices. He knew that by now some of the tennis club members had noticed his regular visitor, but Tezuka stopped them from interfering. Ryoma was once again incredibly grateful to his captain. If it hadn’t been for Tezuka, he really didn’t know how he would have lasted.
Due to the visits, he’d come to know Nanako a lot better. By his nature, he wasn’t a terribly chatty person, but he usually made an effort to give courteous answers to her questions when she pressed him for the first five minutes of every meeting. After that she’d happily fill the silence talking about this and that and usually having a good rant about his father. There were times when he was convinced that his cousin had to be a saint, going to so much trouble for him, but when he heard her talk about his father he quickly changed his mind.
She usually left after ten or twenty minutes, when it looked like practice was about to wrap up. It was odd that no one grumbled about him missing drills, or even at Tezuka’s laxness on the matter – usually people had to run laps for interrupting practice – but Ryoma was grateful for it. It was probably the knowledge that out of all those who’d be in the club the next year, he was probably the one that needed to practice the least.
He went and hit a tennis ball against a wall while Tezuka locked up the clubhouse; mind half on his cousin’s visit and half on the conversation he was planning to have with the captain later. Tezuka, for his part, did nothing more than slant a curious glance at the freshman, who had been sneaking quick looks at him all day. He hoped nothing serious had happened – Echizen’s edginess had rubbed off on him during practice, and he’d assigned more laps to the others than usual. It had the benefit of distracting them from asking about Echizen’s cousin, at least.
The walk and bus ride home that day was quiet – not that he and Echizen usually spoke much, but Tezuka usually made a point of asking a few cursory questions about the freshman’s day, given that there wasn’t anyone else to do so. The mood was somehow unusually tense, and the senior didn’t dare break the first-year’s reverie, since he seemed to be concentrating particularly hard on something. If he had to guess, Tezuka would have likened it to the way Echizen acted whenever he was psyching himself up for a match with a difficult opponent. But who was the opponent this time?
The odd vibe lingered while they did their homework that afternoon, and persisted through a silent dinner. Tezuka made a mental note to go food shopping again soon. Echizen still wasn’t matching the sort of appetite he recalled Momoshiro complaining about, but was managing a more normal diet now, even if he still had rather small servings.
It wasn’t until they were back upstairs in his room, reading before bed, that Tezuka finally got to discover what had been eating at the freshman.
He’d returned from his bath to find the first-year sitting in his chair, book in hand, staring into space. Echizen had jumped upon his return, but Tezuka said nothing of it, merely retrieving a book of his own and settling on his bed to read. Or rather, trying to. It was rather hard to concentrate when the other person in the room kept alternating between pretending to read a book and staring at you.
“Echizen, is something bothering you?” he asked finally.
There was a long pause, to the point where the senior had just about resigned himself to not getting an answer. Then…
“Buchou… I really am grateful, you know?”
Tezuka paused at the unnatural smallness of Echizen’s voice. It had been a hopeful sort of whisper with a slight waver to it. What had brought that on? “For what?”
“You know… all this. Everything.”
“You don’t need to thank me, Echizen. Anyone would have done the same.”
“No, I have to thank you,” came the stubborn reply. Tezuka sighed, setting aside his book as Echizen moved to sit on the bed next to him.
“Really, thanks aren’t necessary. I’m sure you would do the same for me if I were in your position.”
There was an odd light in the freshman’s eyes. He watched curiously as the other boy seemed to have an internal struggle.
“Yes, Echizen?” he replied patiently.
The response he received was not one he had been expecting. Echizen suddenly divested himself of his shirt, hesitated, then pulled him forward and pressed their lips together.
The kiss was awkward, and even though he’d instigated it, Echizen didn’t seem to know what exactly to do next. Tezuka carefully placed his hands on the youth’s shoulders and gently pushed away, trying to ignore the enticing warmth of the pale skin beneath his fingers. He was a teenager after all, and while he was not quite as ruled by his hormones as some of his peers, he was just as responsive to stimuli as all the others.
“Echizen, what is this about?” Tezuka was relatively certain - having come to know his protégé a little better recently - that Ryoma wasn’t acting on some newly developed crush. There had to be another reason behind the unexpected action.
Echizen’s voice was small when he replied. “You keep doing so much for me. I don’t have anything – this is all that I can pay you back with.”
“You really think that I am the sort of person who would demand payment?”
“I don’t like being in anyone’s debt,” came the muttered reply.
Once again, it seemed like Echizen’s pride was his biggest downfall. Still, the fact that he went that far was troubling.
“I couldn’t do it before, but if it’s you…” Echizen blurted, stumbling over his words. “I can do it if it’s you.”
“You don’t really understand what it is you are offering, do you?” Tezuka asked softly.
“No, you don’t. Not properly,” the senior observed, pulling the boy into a gentle hug. As he expected, Echizen was trembling. He’d been nervous. How long had it taken the first-year to work up the courage to do that? And where on earth had he acquired the idea?
Tezuka suddenly recalled that chance encounter with Echizen in the business district. It had troubled him at that time, but now that he thought back with the new context, it made a lot more sense.
Echizen hadn't actually been trying to sell himself, had he? The freshman was rather reluctant to talk about a lot of what had transpired in the past month, but Tezuka already knew that the rookie had taken up that junior coaching position at the nearby tennis club to earn some money. From what the senior could gather, prior to that he'd been desperate. Desperate enough to do that?
He shook his head to himself. No, while it was likely that man offered to pay for Ryoma, he had obviously resisted the notion, which explained a lot about their position when Tezuka came across them. Besides, he could still remember how Echizen had quivered for nearly an hour afterwards - he'd obviously been badly spooked. Knowing the full situation as it stood now, Tezuka was glad he'd insisted on the freshman staying the night - he didn't want to try and imagine what sort of state Echizen might have been in the next morning if he'd spent the night alone in the clubhouse after a harrowing experience such as that.
“Why not?” came the whisper next to him. “Am I not good enough? Is it-”
“It’s nothing to do with you,” Tezuka interrupted before that destructive train of thought could continue. Honestly, he was having difficulty reconciling the fact that this painfully unsure of himself Echizen was the same boy who was so cocky and arrogant on the tennis court. “I just don’t believe you have any need to do such a thing. And I refuse to take advantage of it.” He made a mental note to keep an even closer eye on the youth to make sure he didn’t try it with anyone else, and then winced at the thought that things had even come to that point. “Besides, it would be illegal. You’re underage.”
“I’m almost thirteen,” Echizen grumbled under his breath.
“Almost. And that wouldn’t change a thing anyway.” There could be no room for argument. “Put your shirt back on. Besides, do your preferences even lie in that direction?”
Slowly dragging the shirt back over his head, Echizen asked, “Does that even matter?” Then paused. “Oh, sorry Buchou. I guess you might have taken offence-”
“Don’t apologise,” he interrupted again, wondering if the situation could possibly get any more awkward than it already was.
Pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers, Tezuka admitted, “I honestly haven’t even thought about it before. But as I said, it wouldn’t change anything anyway. You shall not turn into a prostitute.”
Echizen scowled – whether he was offended by the term, or embarrassed at being rebuked was anyone’s guess. “Then what else can I do?”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“Echizen. This matter is not open for discussion. The only things I expect from you are that you take care of yourself, keep up in your studies, and play tennis. I am not going to ask for anything more.”
“I don’t want to be a charity case!” Echizen lashed out.
“You aren’t. You’re scarcely a hassle at all. If anything, your presence has made the house less empty in my parent’s absence. Enough of this nonsense. It’s time to go to sleep.”
Somewhat sulkily, Echizen retired to his own futon. Tezuka hopped under the covers of his own bed and flicked off the lamp, hopefully killing any further attempts at discussion. That certainly was an awkward affair. It was fortunate that his concern over the fact that the first-year had tried something so outrageous outweighed his own embarrassment. It would take a while to erase the mental image of a shirtless Echizen Ryoma offering himself to him.
Needless to say, Tezuka didn’t sleep well that night. He had the feeling that Echizen didn’t sleep very well either.