Konomi's, not mine.
a/n: After a thorough spellcheck and edit, this is still pretty much woeful. Sucks to be me. Advance apologies for fic dumping over the next few days (especially to those not affiliated with PoT). I am doing my best to post outside of rush hour.
Four months after Echizen Ryoma turned fifteen, he had a growth spurt.
He went away for a week's vacation in Hawaii over spring break a squirt. He came back browner than usual, as bad-tempered as ever and two inches taller than Momoshiro.
"Ochibi!" gasped Eiji, who now had to look up at him. "You didn't drink anything weird in America, did you?"
"Inui wasn't in Hawaii," Momo pointed out, rubbing the back of his neck. "Drinks don't get weirder than what he makes."
"I, at least, saw this coming," retorted Inui. He had become pricklier about his concoctions after the time Horio was taken to hospital. In fairness, Horio probably shouldn't have mixed a Blueberry Special with ice-cream and French fries, but no one remembered this when it came to the rumours about how Inui had offed twenty freshmen. "I predicted that Echizen would hit puberty rather spectacularly. There's a twenty-eight percent chance that he hasn't even reached his full height yet."
Ryoma remained predictably mute throughout this exchange. When he pulled on his Regulars jersey, his wrists emerged from the sleeves for about a mile. His loose, modest shorts were no longer remotely loose or modest. "Che," he muttered. He pulled down the brim of his cap, but it was now so small that it slipped off entirely. He let his head droop forward in defeat.
Eiji eyed Ryoma's bare feet speculatively, while Oishi bustled about trying to locate a pair of sneakers that Ryoma could borrow for practice. An unholy gleam appeared in Eiji's eyes at the same moment that Momoshiro grinned wide enough to touch his ears with his mouth. At the same moment they both squealed, "Shopping trip! Fight-o!"
"Oh dear," murmured Fuji.
Unobserved by the rest of the team, Tezuka crossed his arms over his chest and stared out of the window.
"I'm not wearing that," said Ryoma, for the twenty-seventh time.
"Ochi-bi," moaned Eiji. "Do you want to walk around naked?"
Ryoma pulled a face, making it pretty clear that nudity would be preferable to donning the clothing in Eiji's arms.
"Perhaps we should have brought Fujiko along." Eiji slumped over Momoshiro's back, almost swamping him in a flowery shirt.
Momoshiro's eyes lit up. "I have a better idea."
"I'm going now," announced Ryoma. "I need to buy a new cap."
"Oh no you don't!" Eiji's arms came around Ryoma's neck like fronds of tenacious poison ivy, holding him down while Momoshiro speed-dialled one and, inexplicably, went bright red.
Twenty minutes later, Ryoma was napping in the changing room while a staged battle raged on outside.
"Why are you even here?" shouted Momoshiro. "I called Tachibana's sister. I'm pretty sure I would've remembered calling you, because I never would!"
"If you want my help, you shouldn't call me Tachibana's sister!" came an affronted female voice. "My name is really pretty and you're insulting it by not using it."
"Let's split, An-chan," snarled Kamio. "Maybe we can come back in ten years when this dork has found his brain."
"Nyah, guys, can you stop shouting for one second?" Eiji's voice was louder than the other three put together. "You're going to get us chucked out of the shop!"
Ryoma shifted so that his head was pillowed on a wool jumper. It looked like something he'd line Karupin's basket with, but it was undeniably comfortable. An ominous silence from outside caused him to crack open one eye. Four glowering faces were peering around the curtain.
"Well." An rolled up her sleeves. "I see what you meant by an emergency, Momo-chan. We'd better get stared right away."
"Since when do you call him --" started Kamio in a low growl, which An halted by looping her arm through his and smiling winningly.
"You know where those really awesome cargo pants are, right?" she asked, ignoring Momoshiro's strangled gasp. "You know, the ones you were wearing last week?"
Ryoma closed his eyes again.
Tezuka nearly asked why Momoshiro was bringing a stranger into the clubhouse.
Ryoma looked ... well, he looked like Ryoma. Yet there was something subtly different about him, like a painting that had got wet and smudged around the edges.
At least his clothes fit now. It wasn't right for a tennis player of any calibre to go around wearing tennis shorts that looked more like Calvin Klein briefs. It was good that Ryoma's jeans reached the floor once again -- even if they were made of a distressed, clinging material that bore little resemblance to any denim Tezuka had ever seen, and were held up with a thick white belt that emphasised how slim his hips were. It was good, too, that his t-shirt didn't look like it belonged to a toddler -- even if it emphasised the stomach that was too flat and hard for someone his age. It was also good that the leather strap around his neck had a cat pendant, because Ryoma liked cats (or at least, a cat) -- even if it nestled in the hollow of his throat a little too comfortably.
A little hazily, Tezuka realised that there were too many qualifiers in his list of good things. It didn't matter, anyway. Street clothes were one thing, but everyone looked the same in tennis gear.
Only Tezuka had forgotten how much Ryoma liked to be the exception to every rule.
The first thing Tezuka had ever noticed about Ryoma was his legs. Honed down to mere bone and muscle, they were as hard as white marble and gnarled as old oak. As Ryoma's legs bunched and stretched when he soared for the ball, Tezuka often forgot that he was supposed to be watching Ryoma's racquet.
It wasn't unusual to have an appreciation for another player's physique. Tezuka had often overheard his own being dissected at tournaments. Perhaps it was a little odd to find beauty in such a place, but Tezuka wasn't about to deceive himself -- beauty was what he saw and that was it. He would defy anyone not to take pleasure in Oishi's steady movements, Kikumaru's air-borne antics, Inui's precision, Kaidoh's tenacity, Momoshiro's strength or Fuji's unsurpassable grace.
That Ryoma was a little more special was hardly surprising. He was an exceptional player in every aspect of his game -- so like Tezuka in some ways and so utterly alien in others.
It was just that, after so long, Tezuka had a fixed image of the surly prodigy in his mind. Ryoma had hardly grown at all in the last three years. That he had so suddenly shot up meant that Tezuka had to make a mental adjustment.
His brain was having some difficulty in processing the sheer length of Ryoma's legs.
Ryoma didn't seem to be having an easy time of it either. His new, longer reach meant that his shots were erratic and his accuracy was severely curtailed. Several times during practice, Tezuka caught Ryoma looking down at his own hands with an expression of betrayal.
This was Echizen Ryoma, though; he adapted to the extra inches as quickly as he did everything else. His delight when he jumped as high as Momoshiro during their match was palpable. Although Tezuka was too far away to hear, he could tell by Momoshiro's face that Ryoma clearly had designs on his Dunk Smash.
Fuji materialised by Tezuka's side. "Just when I thought that kid couldn't get any scarier ..." Fuji's voice trailed off as he shook his head.
"It is ... surprising," said Tezuka.
"He's going to beat me one day soon," replied Fuji ruefully. "He's just too tall, now."
"You've played tall players before."
"None as good as him." Slowly, Fuji opened his eyes wide to look straight at the boy who was, once again, the freshman genius.
"Don't worry about it." Tezuka felt the corners of his mouth twitching, even though he didn't feel amused in the slightest. "He's going to beat me too."
The captain of the high school tennis team was allocated his own office. It was about as roomy as a shoebox, but Tezuka enjoyed having his own space within the club. Best of all, it had a lock. Even when Momoshiro and Kaidoh were murdering each other on the courts -- something that still happened with depressing frequency -- no one could get to Tezuka unless he let them.
Of course, it would be the one day he forgot to lock it that Ryoma slouched through the door. For someone who was so excellent at a highly challenging and athletic sport, it was odd that off-court Ryoma moved like a forty-year-old with a slipped disc. It never failed to annoy and surprise Tezuka in equal measures. He had not yet devised a way of politely couching a request for Ryoma to work on his posture.
"Buchou." Ryoma tipped his cap. "I need to ... talk to you."
"Very well." Tezuka gestured Ryoma to the only other seat in the room: a folding chair piled high with papers. They happened to be Tezuka's English homework.
"They don't eat wasabi in England," remarked Ryoma as he dropped the papers on to the floor. "Pretty good essay otherwise, buchou."
"Thank you," replied Tezuka through gritted teeth. "So. This talk. Are you having a problem?"
"Yeah." Ryoma squirmed. It was a little-boy move, one that sat uneasily on his gangly frame. The cat pendant bounced against his throat.
"Is it about tennis?" Tezuka tried not to catalogue Ryoma's outfit -- the now-familiar jeans, a bright yellow shirt over a black vest that hung low on his collarbones and high on his hips. He should have looked like a bee, but Tezuka had long since realised the universe was unfair when it came to Ryoma and his clothes.
"No. When do I ever have problems with tennis?" Instead of sounding his usual cocky self, Ryoma seemed distracted. He even took off his cap to card his fingers through his hair. It settled against his neck like shaggy feathers, and why hadn't Eiji seen to it that Ryoma cut his hair when he was buying him the wardrobe of the century?
"Well." Tezuka was at a loss. "Is it schoolwork, then? Perhaps the careers advisor would be a more suitable --"
"It's not school," hissed Ryoma. "It's private."
The tone of his voice assured Tezuka that Ryoma wasn't referring to property laws. He felt the colour drain out of his face, and pushed his glasses up his suddenly sweaty nose. "Ah. In that case, Echizen, shouldn't you be talking to your mother or father?"
"That stupid old man?" Ryoma looked horrified. "He'd laugh himself sick and make me read one of those disgusting magazines."
"A friend, then. Momoshiro seems quite knowledgeable --"
"Are you kidding, buchou?" Ryoma broke in roughly. "Momo would nearly be as bad as my dad."
Tezuka paused to consider this and concluded, sadly, that Ryoma was correct. If Oishi was the mother of the team, then Momoshiro was its father. But he was the sort of father who showed his son's nude baby pictures to his girlfriends on their first dates.
"A moment, Echizen," sighed Tezuka. He crossed the room, which took all of five seconds however much he fervently wished it were otherwise, and twisted the key in the lock. Then he went back to open the window as wide as it could possibly go and took a few deep breaths.
At last he had to sit back down and face Ryoma. It would have been better if Ryoma would put his cap back on, so that Tezuka wouldn't have to witness the odd mixture of defiance, embarrassment and anxiety that flitted across Ryoma's features. He couldn't bring himself to ask, though. "Very well, Echizen. Please tell me the nature of your problem."
"Well." Ryoma hooked one foot on the edge of the chair and began fiddling with his laces. "Ever since I got taller, I've been having these weird ... feelings. Down ... there, you know?"
"Yes," managed Tezuka. Why hadn't Ryoma just spat it out all at once, instead of waiting for confirmation? Any minute now and Tezuka was actually going to start blushing. He hadn't done that since he was twelve.
Round about the time this kind of thing started happening to him.
Ryoma's voice had dropped to a whisper. "It sort of aches ... and it's got bigger. Like, a lot. My legs and neck get sore from the growing -- Okaasan explained that. But she never said anything about ... it."
"Oh." Tezuka passed his hand in front of his eyes. "I see. Echizen, have you ever tried ... touching yourself? Down there?"
"Touching?" Ryoma sounded puzzled, but Tezuka couldn't see him. He hadn't managed to get his hand away from his eyes. "Are you supposed to do that?"
"You may find that it relieves the feeling," said Tezuka, speaking slowly. "It is quite normal for young boys ... and boys of any age."
"Buchou, do you?" The shock in Ryoma's voice made Tezuka drop his hand. He immediately wished he hadn't. Ryoma's hair was tousled from scrubbing his hand through it and his cheeks were as pink as strawberries.
"No!" snapped Tezuka. "That is, I -- sometimes. When it is necessary. But that is not what we are here to discuss. Do you mean to say you've -- never?"
"Yeah, when I go to the bathroom I hold it," said Ryoma. "Is that what you mean?"
Tezuka shook his head, barely trusting himself to speak. "Next time it aches, just touch -- just try it, all right? Not in the bathroom. At least, not during. It doesn't work like that."
"Right." Ryoma rested his head on his knee, appearing to ponder this.
"That was all?" Tezuka really wanted Ryoma to leave. Now.
"Yeah." Ryoma picked up his cap. "Thanks, buchou."
Tezuka just nodded. He allowed a suitable interval to elapse after Ryoma's departure, then made for the bathroom.
The ache came when Ryoma was lying in bed that night, as it often did. Up till now Ryoma had found that lying on his stomach until he fell asleep relieved it. But buchou had said to touch it, and buchou didn't tend to be wrong about most things.
He put his hand down the front of his pyjama bottoms, but it turned out to be a tight fit. He pushed them to his knees instead, which made things considerably easier.
When he wrapped his hand around it, the feeling wasn't at all the same as it was in the bathroom. His skin was hot and it jumped under his fingers. For some reason it got wet, too. But the ache didn't go away. If anything, it got worse.
"Stupid," Ryoma began to say, when there was a rush of liquid warmth and suddenly his fingers were dripping.
Ryoma sat bolt upright. "Oh, disgusting," he exclaimed. He yanked his pyjama bottoms back up with one hand and scrabbled around for a tissue. He found the towel from his bath and used that instead. The stuff got sticky as it dried. It reminded Ryoma of the damp patches he found on his sheets in the morning after a match with buchou. He'd thought they were another type of sweat.
Ryoma couldn't believe that this messy thing was what buchou had meant. He lay down, burrowing his hot cheek into the pillow. Sure, it had felt good -- but it wasn't nice. But buchou had said that all boys did it. That buchou did it.
Five minutes later Ryoma did it again.