Bearit's Notes: Despite some canonical errors I most likely intentionally made, please stick with the fic until the end because there are reasons for those canonical errors. Really. And I'm not well-versed at all in international tennis tournaments, so please bear with me. Manga/anime mixed canonical up until volume 17 and episode 74. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy! (And if you don't, uh, I have a happier fic in the works to make up for this one?)
Warnings: Het with some shounen-ai. Obligatory Golden Pear. Or else Pengi-san would murder me with a tennis racket. And that would hurt.
Japanese terms to know:
senpai - one's senior (colleague or student)
buchou - captain (in this case, describing Tezuka)
sensei - teacher, doctor
ochibi - "chibi" means "tiny", "o" is a sign of respect-- Eiji's name for Ryoma
Shichi-Go-San - means "7-5-3," and it's a festival in Japan for children of those ages and normally takes place in November. 3 is traditionally for girls, 5 for boys, and 7 for both genders
"Game set: 6-0!"
Ryoma Echizen rolled his eyes at the pathetic attempt his competitor had given him and strolled off the courts with his tennis racket swung over his left shoulder and his right hand curled into a ball inside his pocket. Quarterfinals were nearly all done and over with; he just had to wait to see who won the other events, and hopefully, it would be someone who would give him a better challenge.
Considered one of Japan's best tennis players, Ryoma had shown up in the international tournaments on several occasions; he was a regular member on the Japanese Olympic tennis team. Every four years he took a spot among the top three players, but the two who always defeated him were an American and a German: Jack Moore and Alex Schneider. Whoever was the world's best Olympic player varied on who was having the better day; they were said to be at the same level of competition. Even at the international competitions they were seen duking it out on the courts with absolutely no shred of mercy.
It wasn't that Ryoma was worse than them or anything. He held his own against and nearly defeated Moore more than enough times; Schneider proved to be a more difficult opponent. Of course, Moore owned a big head while Schneider walked with caution; however, the German was to become a professional after the summer Olympics in Dublin, so while the gold was nowhere in sight for Ryoma he could at least attain the silver from Moore and take Schneider's place in the competitions after the Olympics.
Ryoma never found himself yearning to become a professional. He wished to attain the gold first, and then see where life leads him. If it was certainly professional tournaments that Fate chose for him, then it was in the professional tournaments he would live. He had nothing else to live for, to hope for--he had dreams like any other human being, but they were impossible dreams that would never come true.
That reality finally set in ten years ago when he graduated high school.
Ryoma sighed as he entered the locker room and immediately came across the bright red vending machine beside the door. He dug into his pockets for some coins and after a brief count realized that he was ten yen off from the normal price of any beverage. With a dejected sigh he shoved the coins back into his pockets and located his locker. Nonchalantly, he packed his equipment and cloth items into his bag and deliberately walked to the door to meet his family.
Although his pace was not the fastest, he still managed to make it to the entrance before the family. He sighed and slumped his bag to the ground and rested against the wall. Well, he was in no hurry if the family wasn't.
He needn't wait long before a dreaded call was made.
Annoyed, Ryoma sighed and released his back from the wall. He was seriously not in the mood for reporters today, thanks, especially ones that refer to him so familiarly.
Before he could kneel to grab his bag's straps, the voice, somewhat recognizable, called again. "E-chi-zen! Hey! Wait a moment; don't leave!"
Ryoma finally snapped his head up to see who it was that was calling him, and his glower was immediately wiped off his face as he soon realized that not only the voice was familiar, but also the face, the body... the hair? The man approaching him couldn't be too much older than him if at all, and his body was well-built in a unique sort of way. Nostalgia told Ryoma that the man's hairstyle hadn't changed--still sleek and spiky. Curiosity made Ryoma want to stay, but he chose to succumb to annoyance; he picked up his bag and turned around.
"Ah, hey!" the man exclaimed as he finally caught up to Ryoma and spun him around. Ryoma glared, but the man smiled. "Don't you think you're being a little rude?"
Ryoma said nothing and jerked away and resumed his walk to get away from the stranger. The man sighed with a hint of amusement. "You really haven't changed. Not since junior high."
Ryoma did not stop but finally spoke up. "I'm impressed; most reporters don't remember me from junior high."
"I-I'm not a reporter," said the man, exasperated. "You don't recognize me at all?"
"Well... yeah, I guess," said the man, a little hurt. With a raised eyebrow, Ryoma turned around again and studied the man carefully and definitely recognized a specific person.
"Fudomine?" asked Ryoma.
"We were both students in the same school: Seigaku."
Ryoma shrugged a little. Test one completed. That didn't say anything, but...
He narrowed his eyes just as the man's own violet ones locked onto his. And then, it hit him. "Momo-senpai?"
The jovial powerhouse laughed with relief. "Sheesh, it took you that long? And I thought we were so close."
"You could have just said it in the first place," retorted Ryoma, "instead of leading me to think that you were some sort of reporter."
"That wouldn't have been nearly as fun."
Ryoma glared some more. Momoshiro chuckled lowly. "So, you're a famous Olympic star now, eh?" said the elder. "Bronze twice in a row, but I'm sure you're looking for that gold next year in Ireland, correct?"
"You still have Schneider to beat, and how do you lose to a guy like Moore anyway? I think you can defeat him next year."
"So otherwise, what have you been up to?" asked Momoshiro. "I know that much, but everything else is just rumors and speculations."
"How about you? You left Seigaku after your second year--even Kaidoh-senpai was worried a little."
Momoshiro snorted. Ryoma frowned.
"I said a little. Do you hold grudges that long?"
Momoshiro ignored the last statement and explained for Ryoma. "Do you remember the school from Soramachi, when the officials came during Kantou finals and the National matches scouting out players?"
Ryoma remembered. The green clad second year and third year high school students plus its pristine white suited coach were just little fragments that plagued his memories of junior high; they would never leave him alone, begging for him to go to their school for his last three years. He nodded.
"Well, apparently, many of us from Seigaku caught their interest. Particularly Taka-san, Fuji-san, Oishi-senpai and Eiji-senpai, Inui-senpai, and myself. Those of us who played during that particular match they witnessed. You were too young to have sparked their interest, I guess, and Buchou was not yet back from Germany. They saw us during Kantou finals."
Ryoma was about to point out otherwise, but decided it was trivial.
"They offered full scholarships to us if we tried out for the tennis teams at the school and made it in, and only Inui-senpai and I accepted the offer." Momoshiro shrugged. "I don't know, I'd thought I'd give it a shot. Since a lot of good high school tennis players go there, Inui-senpai was adamant on attending. Data. Go figure.
"We both made it in; that's where I was during my third year of junior high and all throughout high school. They said the school modeled American public high schools but you could start either after second year of junior high or third year." He gave a nervous laugh. "Sorry, I should have told you despite the busy schedule involved with enrollment."
Ryoma sighed. "You haven't changed either, Momo-senpai."
"More than you think," said Momoshiro with a beam. "How has your life been since I left Seigaku?"
"Normal," Ryoma said quickly.
"Normal?" Momoshiro laughed. "Hardly seems it. Why the Olympics instead of professional tennis? Want to defeat everyone you can?"
"That's not it."
Before Ryoma could offer an answer--not that it wouldn't have taken a long time to do so since he had no short answer--a young boy's voice called excitedly from not too far away.
"Dad! Dad! Dad!" said the dark-haired boy, barely reaching Ryoma's tall waist, as he tugged on his shorts. "Minoru-senpai called and he wants to practice but Mom won't let me so can you please say yes?"
Momoshiro raised an eyebrow. Ryoma sighed. "Honestly, if you can't convince your mother how will you be able to convince anyone of doing anything?"
"You know you're mean."
Ryoma shrugged when he saw a chin-length haired Sakuno walk up with a stern look on her now adult face. "Daisetsu-kun, your father's training schedule is not something to model yours after, not until high school at least. And besides, it's dangerous practicing this late at night--you might get lost."
The ten-year-old boy, Daisetsu Echizen, pouted. "I'm not as bad as you with my sense of direction. And it's not that late; it's only sunset, see!" He pointed at the pale orange sky for emphasis. "And besides, Minoru-senpai will see me home. He's always done it before!"
Sakuno gave her son a Look--not a stern one that most parents have but more of a helpless Look--and then turned to Ryoma, who immediately glanced away momentarily catching a glimpse of Momoshiro's puzzled yet amused grin. Finally, Sakuno sighed.
"It's no use," she said, and Daisetsu smiled triumphantly and ran towards the direction of the train station without anything more than a "See ya later." Then she finally noticed Momoshiro, and though she may still have a horrible sense of direction she had a better memory than Ryoma, that much the Olympic tennis player would credit her. "Ah, you're Momoshiro-senpai!"
Momoshiro grinned politely--politely in the Takeshi Momoshiro manner at least. "Glad you recognize me."
"I came by Seigaku not too long ago and I saw you and Inui-senpai working with the tennis team. I remember Grandmother telling me that you two took over after she retired."
Ryoma arched a brow. "Eh?"
Both Momoshiro and Sakuno turned to him more puzzled than he. Then Sakuno perked with sudden remembrance.
"That's right, you were in Moscow when Grandmother retired," she said meekly.
Momoshiro slowly smirked. "Ah, I get it now. I wonder why the old lady never told me," he said quietly but enough for Ryoma to hear. Sakuno, apparently, did not. "So, that kid, was he yours?"
"Oh," said Sakuno, although the question clearly was directed at Ryoma. He didn't mind, of course; Sakuno was good to have around for the uses of answering questions he wished to avoid. "Yes, Daisetsu-kun is our son."
Ryoma did not miss Momoshiro's slight flinch and the smile flicker when Sakuno answered "our son." But he hid it quickly enough so that Sakuno would not have seen a thing. "I see. He's still in elementary school, right? Second grade? Third grade?"
"He just started fifth grade," replied Sakuno. "You might have him as a student in a couple of years; we live close enough to Seigaku to comfortably send him there."
"Too much of a worrywart," Ryoma muttered.
Momoshiro then focused on Ryoma. "He looks a lot like you, Echizen. Though you have to look hard for any vestiges of your personality in him."
"Once you get to know Daisetsu-kun," said Sakuno, "not really."
Momoshiro laughed, and then Sakuno had a quick moment of revelation come upon her as she lightly pounded her fist on the palm of her hand. "That's right, I have to get home and help Tomo-chan with something. So I'll see you back at the house, okay Ryoma-kun?"
Ryoma sighed. "Fine by me."
Sakuno grinned slightly and said her farewells to Momoshiro before heading off in the same direction as her son had. Ryoma suddenly felt an uncomfortable silence between him and Momoshiro, and he had no idea how to break it. Momoshiro, too, stuttered to find something to say but couldn't. There were many years after absences that they had to make up for, but neither of them could find a way of starting their reunion. Where to start, and how? So many details, so many... emotions...
It felt awkward.
"So--" they both began and then widened their eyes. Then they both frowned and spurted out simultaneously:
"You're Seigaku's tennis coach now?"
They blinked, and Momoshiro smiled weakly. "Old habits die hard I guess." He laughed. "But I already lost anyway. Yeah, Inui-senpai and I work together as Seigaku's tennis coaches."
"An odd pair," Ryoma offered, and Momoshiro shrugged.
"We enjoy it, working with the kids and each other. Oishi-senpai and Eiji-senpai come down every so often to help out, too."
Ryoma frowned. "I see. And... wait a minute. Does Inui-senpai still make his special vegetable juices?" Momoshiro raised a brow, and Ryoma found his answer. "Figures. Can't you stop him, being his co-worker and all?"
"Would you try to stop him?"
Ryoma grinned, knowing that Momoshiro was right. He opened his mouth to respond, but the large crowd that approached the area where the two were standing, long delayed, made him realize that he was still in public. Reporters may be listening in; that was certainly the last thing he wanted. Momoshiro noticed the same thing, but before he could say anything Ryoma indicated for them to head back into the locker room for a chat. Momoshiro shook his head.
"Nah, it's better if we get moving on a train," he said and before Ryoma could protest, Momoshiro grabbed his wrist and dragged him in that general direction.
The walk was quiet for a while, but when the tennis courts were nowhere in sight behind them and Ryoma felt secure he asked, "So, you keep in touch with the rest of the regulars?"
"All but you and Buchou since you both are impossible to get a hold of; you're only in one city for so long, unless it's during the Olympics in your case, and none of us can ever get your hotel number or anything," he replied. "It's just lucky that I managed to catch up with you today."
"You sure Ryuuzaki-sensei..." Ryoma hesitated. Even though they were now in-laws, it somehow still seemed appropriate to refer to her as a teacher, a mentor. During the past ten years, he could never comprehend why. She was family, yes, but she didn't feel like family. Luckily Momoshiro didn't seem to notice. "... didn't tell you that I was going to be here?"
"She may have given us a hint."
Momoshiro ignored the questioning outburst. "But it's so strange, you being married to her granddaughter and not knowing a thing that we took over."
"It's strange that you kept in touch with her but didn't know that I was married," Ryoma retorted, but he had a faint idea why Sumire Ryuuzaki never said a word about his current marital status.
"That's true, too. Well, she always had weird ideas in her head," said Momoshiro as they approached the train station. He dug some coins from his pockets and went to a green machine, with Ryoma following not to far behind him. He pressed the yellow button indicating two adults; Ryoma stared at him, but before he could protest the pink tickets fell out of the dispenser.
"So, should we go?" asked Momoshiro with a wide grin.
"Are we going to the same place?"
Momoshiro laughed and handed Ryoma his ticket. After moving through the ticket vendor they went to the boarding ramp and continued their conversation.
"But I must say, it's shocking to hear that you are married," said Momoshiro. "I guess it shouldn't be, considering that Inui-senpai and Taka-san and Kaidoh are also married with kids of their own. We're not too sure about Buchou though and clueless on you, but now that we know that you are, well, it's only a matter of time before we find out about Buchou."
"Is this 'we' you speak of including you and all the regulars?" asked Ryoma curtly.
"Well, for a while, it was just Inui-senpai, Oishi-senpai, and Eiji-senpai, Taka-san too, since we all live in the same area," said Momoshiro. "But tonight, it's all of us ex-regulars."
Ryoma widened his eyes. "What?"
Momoshiro turned and grinned at Ryoma more brightly than he had during their entire time together from when he walked out of the locker room after his match. "Echizen, do you remember the sushi restaurant?"
Ryoma couldn't run away in enough time. He turned away, yes, but before he could take even a step Momoshiro grabbed his shoulder and forced him on the yellow train that had just pulled by the boarding ramp. Ryoma glared, but Momoshiro didn't seem to notice.
A reunion was not what Ryoma expected from Momoshiro coming to see one of his games and seeking him out especially for that reason.
Almost disappointed him.
After departing the familiar train station that was once located nearby their old junior high, the two walked along jovially in the general direction of Kawamura Sushi. Well, Momoshiro went along jovially, talking absentmindedly and always laughing at some inside joke. Ryoma was quietly fuming beside him. Really not what he had in mind. He wished he could use the old excuse of, "My wife expects me home, so I better not" but Momoshiro, unfortunately, knew him better, and despite Momoshiro's normally gallant attitude towards women, he would see straight through Ryoma's lie and continue pushing him forth.
Exasperating, it truly was. Especially since the lie part was not that Sakuno truly did expect him home, but that Ryoma didn't want to go home. The former was actually true; Momoshiro was there. But somehow, he just had that way of knowing...
Before Ryoma could sigh, they reached the familiar tiny restaurant, and Momoshiro slid the wooden paper doors open to reveal a happy cast of seven men Ryoma barely recognized. A dark red haired man was the first to notice and he jumped off the leveled tatami mats and landed gracefully into his slippers, and he jogged up to the duo with a bright smile.
"Momo! You brought Ochibi!" he said and stopped short of glomping Ryoma, to which the latter was grateful. The man, who Ryoma could not mistaken to realize it was Eiji Kikumaru, sighed. "Well, that's a wrong way of putting it. You're a head taller than me now!"
Indeed, Ryoma could now see the top of Kikumaru's head and had to look down to see his eyes. He almost didn't realize how much he has grown despite the fact that he now almost rivaled Momoshiro in height. But Ryoma couldn't respond, because right at that moment a man who was just the same height as the two of them came walking past the counter with a notebook in hand, murmuring little things.
"Results of Echizen's dietary plan-- ninety-eight percent successful," was all Ryoma could pick out from it.
Momoshiro laughed. "Thinking of giving Yamada the same, Inui-senpai?" he asked. Ryoma glared, but he couldn't decide who to do so more at--damn that Sadaharu Inui for being right about quick yet long growth spurt.
Quickly, everyone made himself revealed to Ryoma. Takashi Kawamura now worked exclusively behind the sushi counter, making treats to everyone's demands and likings. After Ryoma had a taste, he admitted to his senpai that the sushi wasn't bad, to which the other ex-regulars scolded him; it was the best sushi they ever tasted. Ryoma knew that to be true, but his stubbornness to say it finally had the others convinced that he has not changed at all besides in the height department. But, then again, most others had not changed much since junior high personality-wise, though by looks, well, there were definitely changes.
Kawamura was far more robust than Ryoma remembered, and his features, as to be expected, certainly matured to a level that showed that he was in his late twenties. Kikumaru had straightened his crimson hair and tamed it, though Ryoma figured that he must have had some help from Syuichirou Oishi, whose hairstyle had dramatically changed into a neatly combed, sleek and shiny top. Ryoma was taller than both, and like Kawamura, Oishi showed more signs of aging than Kikumaru, whose face actually looked virtually the same.
Inui had not changed a bit in any sense. Just a little taller and older, that was all. Even his glasses were the same; Ryoma wasn't sure if he was lucky or not, still not being able to see his eyes. Kaoru Kaidoh maintained his well-built body but somehow his expression was less frightening. Instead of glaring and brooding, he frowned and brooded. Certainly an improvement.
Kunimitsu Tezuka and Syuusuke Fuji were practically the same, but then again, many had continuously mistaken Tezuka as an adult when he was only fourteen, so Ryoma was not particularly shocked. Fuji on the other hand, while having grown a few centimeters taller like most others, was still the same. A seemingly innocent smile on his face and his eyes blissfully closed, though Ryoma was sure that when he opened them there would be someone scarier than back in junior high.
Besides everyone else, the others threw comments around about Ryoma's physical appearance besides height--he's not as skinny, he's more well-built, he looks strong, but not as strong as Schneider and Moore, and by the way, wouldn't it be a great surprise to everyone if he defeated both in the upcoming Olympics in Ireland?
Ryoma only sighed and devoured more rolls of sushi. If all this reunion was about was reminiscing than why was he here, exactly?
But wasn't that reunions were? There was something else, like, what did Momoshiro mention? Oh, yes, finding out what others were doing now, which while Ryoma wasn't particularly interested in, he may as well find out while he's eating free and delicious sushi.
Soon the subject was switched to so, but not in Ryoma's best interest.
"So, Ochibi, besides tennis, what have you been doing?" asked Kikumaru.
Ryoma shrugged and took a sip of his green tea. "Nothing much."
"Don't lie, Echizen," said Momoshiro. Then he turned to the others with a thumb pointed in Ryoma's direction. "This guy's married, with a ten-year-old son."
The others gasped. "EH?!"
Ryoma decided that it was for the better that he say nothing, but he simply could not ignore the horrifically shocked looks on all of the regulars faces--horrifically shocked for each individual; people such as Tezuka did not change expressions much. Inui only had an eyebrow raised. Kaidoh widened his eyes. Fuji actually opened his eyes. Nearly everyone else except for Momoshiro gaped like the dead fish Kawamura had once been busy cutting into pieces.
"But-but that's as long as you been out of high school," Kikumaru said. "Right?" He turned to Oishi, whose surprised expression suddenly turned grim nodded slowly.
"Technically, yes, since we've each been out for twelve, Kaidoh and Momoshiro excluded, who have only been out for eleven," said Inui.
Ryoma shook his head. "You're making too big a deal out of this," he scorned with his normal level of respect to his senpais.
As Kikumaru grew to protest, Kawamura quickly changed the subject with the help of Fuji after catching a glimpse of Ryoma's eye. Thankfully.
As the conversation shifted to the ongoing in the professional world of tennis, where Tezuka and Fuji worked, Ryoma did not miss Oishi's still serious expression gesturing towards Momoshiro, who sighed softly and followed the ex co-captain to a corner of the room.
Ryoma kept his eye stealthily on them so that they would not notice, and saw that both of their faces were dismal, though Momoshiro more so of regret, and Oishi more so of concern. Ryoma wondered what they were talking about, but as soon as Momoshiro suddenly grinned in his normal manner and walked away waving a hand at Oishi, Ryoma knew that he wasn't going to find out anytime soon.
So he ignored it for the time being, and soon, everyone's future was revealed. Oishi and Kikumaru were living with each other in an apartment complex not too far away from Seigaku, which was why they often came down to help Momoshiro and Inui with the tennis team in their free time. Of course, those instances were few and far between especially for Oishi, who followed in his uncle's footsteps and became a doctor. Kikumaru had a little more free time since he ran a small pet store in the nearby marketplace, but if he wasn't working there he was normally taking care of the couple's adopted two year old daughter, Nariko.
Ryoma raised an eyebrow at this, and the two recognized it as a sign to continue.
"Her mother was a patient of mine," Oishi explained, "who was raped. She died young from cancer about a year ago, but requested that I take her daughter in to care for since she had no one else to send her to. I couldn't refuse."
Fuji smiled serenely. "But that's typical of Oishi."
Kikumaru also beamed. "Not that we complain of course. Nariko-chan is a great kid. Very active. She says she wants to learn tennis, but we're going to wait until she turns three to start teaching her. You know, for Shichi-Go-San."
Ryoma nodded slowly. He missed his son Daisetu's Shichi-Go-San for the Olympics once, and then again for another tournament. For that, he was regretful, but he did it only to escape the family he never wanted.
The histories to date of everyone else were also slowly revealed. Kawamura married a nice woman, and together they had a two-year-old. He now ran his late father's store. Kaidoh, too, was married, and had two children of his own; he was the track coach for one of the local high schools. Tezuka and Fuji were both single still, as was Momoshiro. Inui, surprisingly enough to Ryoma, was also married with two sons.
They all admitted that the kids pretty much get along; since Inui's son Matabei was the oldest--after Ryoma's Daisetsu, but since none of the children knew him it really didn't count--he was often the babysitter, but he never minded. They all made it a point to at least teach the kids the basics in tennis, though Kaidoh's daughter Katsue showed interests elsewhere-- in art. All of the married ex-regulars were referred to as "Uncle" but the single ones, namely Momoshiro and Fuji, were called "Oniichan" instead.
Despite Kaidoh not seeming happy with his marriage, and Inui seeming a little regretful for his, all of the now-fathers were proud of their children. Even Oishi and Kikumaru were quite fond of "their" daughter. Although Ryoma had a son, he suddenly felt ashamed--he didn't feel the same way.
He was never around his family enough.
But his family was never what he wanted most. That's why he kept running away.
Soon someone located the beers, and Ryoma knew that it had to have been Momoshiro who carted them out of the fridge much to Kawamura's protest. Oishi kept away from them, not being the greatest fan of alcohol; Tezuka and Kawamura limited their servings; Ryoma tried to ignore it but only had a cup whenever Momoshiro forced him to have one; but everyone else enjoyed excessively. Soon blurred stories and memories popped up, and many laughed over some of the antics, over some of the tournaments, over some of the practices, back in junior high.
Ryoma listened to none of it, not unless he was the topic of the conversation and somehow thrown into everything. Then he glared at everyone.
The only real piece of the conversation he really listened to was when the national finals came up, and then he was forced to listen and to participate. But it was truly worthwhile, when the climax of finals finally arrived into the conversation and everyone became riled up with cheer and jubilance--even Captain Kunimitsu Tezuka, who smiled in a way Ryoma had only seen once: after they won finals. It was a soft, victorious smile with equally ecstatic eyes, as if his entire life's purpose had been successfully fulfilled.
That was when, that night, Ryoma realized how special that year's Seigaku team truly was. Nobody talked about what they did in high school, what kind of teams they were in; Ryoma knew that Inui and Momoshiro were on the same high school tennis team, as were Oishi and Kikumaru and Fuji and Tezuka. Kawamura and Kaidoh attended two completely different high schools. But nobody cared to bring up their memories of high school; no one really cared to. Their experiences in Seishun Gakuen that year was something that could never happen again, no matter how hard Arai or Horio tried after the third years graduated to high school, and Momoshiro left for the school in Soramachi.
Not even life after high school was as grand, though the conversation skipped over high school completely and trailed on to the modern day lives of the ex-regulars once again.
"Which reminds me," said Kikumaru after going on a tangent about something or the other. Ryoma was too busy eating to have listened. "Ochibi, I've been wondering for a while--why the Olympics instead of professional tennis?"
Momoshiro laughed. "I asked him the same thing, Eiji-senpai," he said. "You won't get any answers out of him."
Ryoma sighed. "No particular reason, really."
Kikumaru frowned in a way that showed that he didn't believe Ryoma. "You're married. Was it because of your wife?"
Oishi looked up from his tray of sushi and sent a warning glare at Kikumaru. His partner immediately noticed and turned to him quizzically, and Oishi subtly nodded towards Momoshiro. Kikumaru backed down sheepishly.
"But... was it because of her?" Kikumaru asked again tentatively.
Again, Ryoma sighed. "Maybe."
That was all he allowed himself to say. How would the others react to him being married to Sakuno only because they did something they were not supposed to have done during their second term in their third year of high school? And that it was his fault for it happening?
Or was it Momoshiro's fault...?
Ryoma shook his head violently. Alcohol was getting to his brain. He should not have drunken that last gulp--in which case, it was Momoshiro's fault for the somber atmosphere he was now creating.
"While we're on the subject, Echizen," said Fuji, "who is it that you're married to anyway? You never told us that."
"It was Momo-senpai who told everyone I was married; it should be Momo-senpai who tells everyone who I'm married to," Ryoma retorted. "It's his responsibility now, not mine."
Momoshiro laughed nervously, and once again Oishi had a look of concern across his face. This time, more than just Ryoma noticed. Tezuka and Inui raised a brow.
"But you're the one married to her," Momoshiro said through clenched teeth and a clenched smile.
"Yeah, but you're the one who volunteered the information. You should carry it out to the fullest."
"That's not the point!"
The two continued arguing for a while, and strangely Ryoma truly felt at home for the first time since the last club meeting after nationals back when he was a first year in junior high school.
It felt right.
Was that how it was with the rest of the regulars? Was that why they all, mostly, kept in touch with each other? Was that why despite how little contact Tezuka had with everyone else he never did anything but play in the professional tournaments, since many of his teachers and many scouts from all across the world must have said that if he didn't do something with his talents it would be an absolute waste?
Ryoma wondered if he should keep more in touch with everyone, but soon decided that it was a bad idea.
How could he go back to them now?
"Um, we let this argument go on for a while," said Kikumaru slowly, "to see if the girl would be revealed. It's not happening. Tell us."
"You do it!" Momoshiro and Ryoma both said as they pointed at each other angrily.
Finally, Tezuka proved once and for all that he had not changed a bit. "Momoshiro, Echizen. Both of you will tell us. Now."
Both of the younger members looked at their captain, exasperated. "Yes, Buchou," they mumbled. Both managed in one last insult to the other before they said in unison, "Sakuno Ryuuzaki."
And once again, the entirety of the group yelped, "EH?!"
The cycle was once again repeated.
"It's strange," said Inui, "that Ryuuzaki-sensei never told me."
He looked at Momoshiro with a glint in his eye. Momoshiro shook his head frantically; Ryoma knew that Inui still held the threat of his vegetable juices over Momoshiro's head. He held back a short snicker.
"No!" yelped Momoshiro. "I just found out today when I went to pick him up! She was there with their son. I'm not so dense enough to not put two and two together!"
"Fooled me," Ryoma muttered. Momoshiro glared.
But the atmosphere did not turn uglier. In fact, the others laughed and joked about how the chemistry between Momoshiro and Ryoma remained unchanged. They were still the same. But in some of the members' eyes, Ryoma saw that some of the ex-regulars knew more.
Eventually, somewhere late in the night when only streetlights illuminated the narrow roads of the city, a woman came down to the restaurant from the apartments above the shop and talked to Kawamura quietly. He nodded solemnly and announced:
"Sorry, everyone, but my son is going to sleep now."
Everyone knew what that meant; most all had children of their own. Kikumaru, of course, had to complain.
"That was too short of a reunion!"
Oishi laughed. "It's not like most of us don't see each other at least once a week anyway," he said, and Kikumaru pouted.
"What about our pros and our Olympic Ochibi?"
"Next time, next time, and by then it'll be easier to keep in contact with all of you, right?" said Oishi to Tezuka, Fuji, and Ryoma in particular. Tezuka and Fuji nodded in promise; Ryoma shrugged. That was all he needed. "Come on, let's get home, Eiji. The babysitter must have plans tomorrow and we can't keep her from them."
"Got it," said Eiji.
Before the Golden Pair left the sushi restaurant, they bid Tezuka and Fuji and Ryoma all good luck in their upcoming tournaments, and told Inui and Momoshiro that they'll be down at the school again probably Thursday, and that they hope to see Kawamura and Kaidoh around sometime soon.
Slowly, each ex-regular left, and when Tezuka and Fuji left they told Inui and Momoshiro that they expect to hear a record of three national titles in a row, or else when they retire from the pros they're kicking them out of the job. With a laugh, the new coaches of Seigaku waved them off with similar well wishes as Oishi and Kikumaru had given them.
Ryoma was the last to leave, and somehow he wasn't surprised when Momoshiro offered to walk him to the train station.
On the way out, Ryoma caught a glimpse of Inui and Kaidoh eyeing the two carefully from across the street.
Sometime later, after Momoshiro had all but worn himself out from extra vestiges of cheer from the reunion, the two continued to walk silently in the barely lighted residential streets. It was the long way to the train station. For a while Ryoma welcomed the quiet after spending several hours in a tiny restaurant with a group of eight loud men--generally speaking of course--until something rolled in his stomach, and he knew that it could not have been the sushi or the beer Momoshiro forced down his throat. First of all, it did not feel like any sort of food poisoning, or that he had too much of something. Second of all, it did not hurt. He did not feel nauseated or anything. Just... uneasy.
His tongue rolled against his teeth and lips, and he found himself yearning for something to say. But what was there to say?
"So, Echizen--" Momoshiro finally spoke up first. Well, better that someone did. "--about your marriage..."
"What about it?" Ryoma said with a little more snap than he intended. Yes, he wanted to talk about something, but not anything. Marriage was anything, not something, at least to Ryoma.
Momoshiro shifted uncomfortably beside him. "You don't seem happy."
"And you don't seem to care," Momoshiro finished, "that nobody seemed to approve."
Ryoma snorted. "What's that supposed to mean? Nobody approves, not even Ryuuzaki-sensei."
"That's why you didn't defend yourself?"
Ryoma hesitated. Truth be told, he noticed the gaping faces of the ex-regulars every time something about his marriage popped up--how could he not? But he never saw disapproval among the group. Unless he was blinding himself yet again with false reassurance.
"What's there to defend?" he finally answered.
Momoshiro sighed, exasperated. "Echizen, everybody was wondering. They never said it, but we all wondered. You aren't pleased with your marriage. Even Kaidoh, who was forced into his marriage by his family, has come to respect them and treat them as any husband and father should not only within the household but outside. You... don't. Nobody would know you were married until you told them right out."
Ryoma raised an eyebrow. "Kaidoh-senpai was forced into marriage?"
Momoshiro nodded. "Yeah. Something about family tradition or... something. You know."
Ryoma grunted a reply, but no, he did not know. At least it seemed less unfortunate than his case.
"Why did you get married, Echizen?"
Both of the men stopped at the same time and stared at each other while Ryoma gathered a reply. How could he put it? Especially when Momoshiro's tone made him feel so guilty? But what was Ryoma innocent of? Even Sakuno's parents continuously accused Ryoma of misplaced behavior--that was why although Sakuno was married to the man she loved, it meant nothing because he felt nothing back. It meant nothing because he used her...
Ryoma sighed and resumed walking. "It's a long story."
"Echizen, we took the long way for a reason," said the stationary Momoshiro. Ryoma stopped for a moment and looked at him, and then nodded, indicating for Momoshiro to continue walking with him if he wanted to know the story.
"It's not my fault," Ryoma started with a lie. But was it a lie? "I didn't mean to--it's hers. It's always her fault."
"Echizen..." His voice held a warning tone.
"Long story short, I was lonely and she was there and it was evening and everything else speaks for itself," Ryoma snapped. "Happy?"
Momoshiro widened his eyes. "Lonely? Why?"
Ryoma opened his mouth to answer but found no words. Why was he lonely? He had friends that last year of high school, yes. Of course. He attended the same school as Horio and Kachiro and Katsuo, yes, of course. They always stuck by him through thick and thin, and he always tried to provide likewise. But it wasn't the same as... what? It wasn't the same as something he would consider true friendship, something he found with the ex-regulars?
The four of them were friends, but Ryoma was looking for something more?
What was this more, and why did he try to look for it in Sakuno, of all people?
He tried to trace backwards. What happened way back then? In his second year of high school Nanako married an entrepreneur from Hokkaido, but that couldn't have been it, could it? Karupin didn't pass away until Ryoma returned from his first Olympic games, so that was far from it.
What was it that he was looking for, and why did he want it? What caused him to want it?
He knew. He knew that he should know, and he knew that he does know. It must be the alcohol affecting him again. He knew. He knew after he defeated the pathetic opponent earlier in the afternoon. He knew sometime in the middle of the reunion...
Momoshiro sighed, and then Ryoma remembered. The new Seigaku tennis co-coach sighed softly and said the now superfluous words:
"I'm going on a stretch here but... is it because I never told you about Soramachi or left you a way to keep in touch, or kept in touch myself?"
Ryoma stiffened, and Momoshiro suddenly laughed. "It's a joke."
But Ryoma knew he was lying.
"It's not your fault," he said stiffly. Momoshiro frowned suddenly.
"Echizen, I--" He stopped and took a deep breath. "If I had known--"
"I didn't even know."
That was when Ryoma realized that the two had stopped walking. Ryoma found his eyes on the ground, and found that he did not want to glance up even for a second, in fear of what he might find in his senpai's violet eyes. The eyes that haunted him for so long in dreams that would never come true. The dreams that were crushed by reality ten years ago...
"Echizen, I'm sorry," Momoshiro offered lamely, softly, hoarsely. "But even so... there is no one to blame but myself. Don't blame your wife. She did nothing wrong."
"She should have never come to bother me."
"She liked you, Echizen. Naturally, she was worried. If I know you at all, you must have been acting strangely," he said. "What happened was only... human. And I could have prevented it."
"You weren't there," said Ryoma, and in defiance to Momoshiro's self-doubt he made his mistake. His mistake of looking to meet Momoshiro's eyes and seeing something there he longed to see, but hoped that he would never. He swallowed a lump of bitter emotion. More quietly, he said, "I should have been stronger."
They stared at each for a while, then, and Ryoma felt like he was in high school again. What year, he could not tell. But he was walking home from school with his tennis bag slung over his shoulder and the colors in the sky reminded him of orange sherbet ice cream. He passed the junior high, and he peered past the gates. He could hear the sounds of tennis balls being shot through the air, but he missed the happy noises that always penetrated the courts when he was a first year. Why were those noises still so clear, even after they had left and he spent two more years in that place with no such noise?
Sighing, he continued walking home, but at the edge of the school walls was where he had to turn. As he turned, his heart pounded with hope. He was going to turn the corner and find someone there, someone of great importance in his life. Far more important than his parents or Nanako, or Horio and Katsuo or Kachiro. Someone from his past who left him all too suddenly, all too soon. But his heart fell when completed the turn and saw nobody there.
Now, nearly ten years later, underneath the yellow streetlamp and shimmering stars, he had turned the corner. And he found that someone there.
Was his dream finally going to come true?
Momoshiro closed his eyes and turned away, continuing the walk once again. Ryoma followed. "Oishi-senpai was talking to me earlier this evening," he said. "Asked me if I was all right with you being married. I didn't say anything to him. I just walked away and told him that it's your life, not mine; my opinion doesn't matter."
"But wouldn't have he responded that your emotions matter?" asked Ryoma, surprising himself a little. Was he going too far? But wait, this wasn't supposed to be his normal question.
Momoshiro smiled serenely. "Yeah. That's how he responded. I ignored him then. It is your life, not mine. But if you aren't happy with the marriage, I don't think I can be."
"I got her pregnant. Her parents, my parents-- they left me no other choice," said Ryoma, "I can't go back on that decision now."
"Echizen, you're missing the point," he said.
"What point?" Ryoma retorted, but he knew the point. At least, he hoped he knew the point. Or maybe he hoped that he only thought that he knew the point. Damn it all.
Momoshiro sighed again. "Back in high school, up in Soramachi, Inui-senpai and I became fast close friends on the account that we were on the same junior high tennis team, and a strong one at that. We trained together--bad idea, if you think about his punishment techniques. His last year of high school, my second year, he finally approached me on one of those touchy subject matters.
"He asked me what I was going to do with my life after high school. I didn't know at the time. I couldn't picture myself going international in the pros like Buchou or Fuji-san. But I couldn't picture myself in any other field. Then Inui told me that Ryuuzaki-sensei was looking to retire soon, and he's aiming for her old position.
"He changes the topic completely on me then, laying the bomb on me then... that he and Kaidoh had been in a relationship, but Kaidoh's parents were expecting him to marry to a woman and carry on family tradition or something of the sort. I don't care to know all the details. Inui, of course, was crushed, as was Kaidoh. But he wasn't the only one. Taka-san had to do the same, but he was more willing than Kaidoh. Not to say that he wasn't reluctant because he was, but I think out of all of the married ex-regulars, he's certainly the most satisfied with his life.
"Anyway, I couldn't believe how blind I was. I knew about Oishi-senpai and Eiji-senpai. Who didn't? But I didn't know that everyone else was involved as well, all except for you and me. That was what Inui-senpai said that day. He didn't know where his future was headed, either. All he knew that it felt right to go after Ryuuzaki-sensei's old position as Seigaku's tennis coach."
Momoshiro frown grew deeper. "This is what he said-- 'The nine of us had the strongest bond of any other tennis team in Japan, whether it be junior high teams, high school teams, or even professional teams. We all know this. Being away from each other is killing each and every one of us.' He asked the question again, if I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had no answer. Then he made his proposal. He said, 'Tennis is your major in high school. How would you like to make education your major in college?' That was when I, too, became a candidate for Ryuuzaki-sensei's old position. That was when Inui-senpai and I became colleagues."
Ryoma nodded slowly. "Oh." Not an explanation he expected. But Momoshiro was not yet finished.
"Oishi-senpai thought I was living on false hopes, false dreams," he continued, "once he found out what Inui and I were up to. Oh, sure, living the legacy of the nine of us was ideal. Not false. We could do it. Oishi-senpai saw the potential. But it was my particular hopes and dreams he was worried about. He always worried. Every time he came by he talked to me about it. He tried to get me to move on, go on dates... but... it never worked. Not even with Tachibana's little sister, who understood me more than most girls. But it never worked then because she understood me too well."
The train station's ominously golden lights dangled across the street from where the two men stopped and talked. Although the traffic was invisible, they still abided the crosswalk lights. Red: no walking. Apparently, Momoshiro took that as a sign of no talking.
He was finished.
Ryoma still didn't get the point. So he asked.
Momoshiro stared at him in disbelief. "Surely you can't be that--well." He sighed. "I'd best get this over with. It's been holding me back for too long." He took a deep breath, and Ryoma knew what was coming, especially when Momoshiro met his eyes. Then he stopped breathing.
"Echizen," said Momoshiro, "I-- you..." He took a deep breath. "... should know. I don't know... why you would not. Even if you feel nothing back... how could you not know?"
"Momo-sen--" Ryoma began, finding his breath again.
Then he bit his lip to stop himself from continuing.
No. No no.
This was wrong.
He was married.
He ignored the ache in his chest as he said slowly and quietly, "I have to go home. I'm... my wife... Sakuno... expects me..."
Ryoma turned his eyes away from Momoshiro's eyes, the ones that showed his last strings of hope within them, the ones that had just snapped. Then Momoshiro gathered him in a tight, radiating embrace, and Ryoma had to fight back the wetness of his dreams in front of him, snatched away, forever. Because he had to hold true to his morals. Because he owed Sakuno that much. It was all his fault.
Why couldn't he have been stronger?
"I wasn't lying," Momoshiro whispered into his hair. Ryoma managed a small nod.
"I know. I wish you were."
"So do I."
Momoshiro released him, and Ryoma forced his feet to move in the direction of the train station. The walking light had turned green. As he went across slowly, words and images and unspoken phrases swirled through his head, and as he reached the center of the road, he heard Momoshiro mutter:
"I'm just not strong. Not strong at all."
Ryoma halted and spun around, but Momoshiro was already on his way back the way they had come. Ryoma wanted to say something to him, but nothing would come. He drew in his breath, and headed towards the train station once again.
Back to the two things he had left-- back to the Olympics, to escape harsh reality; back to his family who was always there for him, the family he never wanted.