Disclaimer: Prince of Tennis was created by Konomi Takeshi. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is being made from this creative venture.


Understanding

By Gen X


He isn't listening to the lecture, instead he stares blankly at his desk. His fingers trace the edges of the photograph almost reverently. It's finally the last class, he's not quite sure how he's made it through the day. He's been wandering from room to room in a silent daze. Perhaps he should have stayed home, it isn't as if he's learning anything.

The edges of the picture are staring to wear and Ryoma frowns. For a moment, his attention is distracted from the picture's subject to the photograph itself. It was fine when he left this morning. The wear and tear is probably because it's been in his pocket all day. He smoothes the edges with the side of his finger, and tries to avoid smudging the picture. There are faint creases on the front as well, but he can't do anything about those.

He frowns, upset at the picture's state. It's not even the best picture, a bit off center, but still. Now it's mangled, abused, he wonders mournfully how long it will be before it rips and tears, and dies. The tight feeling in his chest is back and he swallows hard, pushing it down. He's determined not to make a scene.

He smoothes the picture with his sleeve; it's the best he can do. The creases don't look as bad. He smiles slightly, fleetingly, as the sense in of helplessness overcomes him again. It really isn't any use. The picture is ruined. Ryoma hangs his head.

He hopes his mother has the negative at home. She probably does, she's good about those things. Collecting memorabilia has become second nature. Trophies and medals are all carefully packaged about. She keeps the pictures sorted in a box, carefully placed in the hall closet. They're on the second shelf. They never use the bottom self for anything. They had tried storing magazines there, but it didn't work out... because... they always got chewed... and then his father would always... and then...

The picture blurs in front him, the whole desk really. Ryoma swallows again, and tries not to blink. He hangs his head caught up in a memory-- a good memory-- that just hurts so much at the moment, because it won't ever happen again...

Time slips away from him and he finds himself in an empty classroom. Stiffly, he gathers his things and heads outside. He isn't even sure if he wants to go home, because things wouldn't be the same. Conflicted, he stops right outside the school entrance.

"Eh? Echizen?" Horio stops short. Kachiro and Katsuro falter, nearly running into him. They're changed for club. They must be doing laps, Ryoma notes detached.

"Ryoma-kun?" Kachiro looks concerned, but he always does.

"Are you sick?"

"Huh?" Ryoma turns slowly to look at them. He looks as confused as his friends.

"You're not going to club today?" Kachiro asks.

"Ah, Echizen!" Horio looks offended. "If you're not coming, you should tell the captain."

"Oh." Ryoma turns away, walking towards the clubhouse. It's better than home, he thinks. It seems so far away, but then so did America. Which wasn't that intimidating once they got there, and that's where he got Karupin. They had been in a mall, and his mother had gotten attached to this kitten...

His movements are slow, lethargic, and he walks without seeing. Everything blends, the courts, the bricks, the grass, and the sky. It all looks fake; nothing at all seems real. Nothing seems right. It's dark inside the clubhouse and Ryoma drops his bag just inside the entrance. What little motivation brought him here has dissipated, and he sits heavily on the side bench.

Tennis is the furthest thing from his mind.

He wishes he could push other memories away as well. He just can't get past it, probably won't be able to for a while. When he tries to think of anything, the memories come back again. It's as if he's hypersensitive, looking for references and memories, which he is.

He fishes the picture from his pocket. Now, there's a long crease running down the side. He swallows hard, unsure whether he's upset or saddened. He tried to be careful, but... That stupid helpless feeling is back again and it doesn't seem as if he'll be able to ever get rid of it.

And it's wrong that everything reminds him of Karupin, and it shouldn't be this way.

It just shouldn't.

He shouldn't have to look at Karupin in a picture.

And it's just not fai--

"Echizen?" The door opens, and Momoshiro enters. He smiles brightly. "Thought so. They said you were in here. What are you doing just sitting around in the dark?"

He turns on the light that Ryoma hadn't even noticed was off. He frowns, Echizen hasn't moved a muscle. "Hey, what's wrong?"

Ryoma doesn't bother to look up. He can hear Momoshiro moving closer, and feels him sitting down next to him. He holds the picture tighter, unsure that he can even let it go. It's not the picture it's just... he doesn't want to look up. It's not something he knows how to articulate, because he wants to think of Karupin but that hurts. Besides, when he tries not to think, guilt creeps up, and it's not like he can forget the picture because it feels so heavy in his pocket.

He frowns again. It's just a picture, it shouldn't... he crumples it slightly and the crease gets longer. It upsets him and he feels like screaming his frustration. He doesn't know what he wants to do, beyond shaking this feeling. It doesn't ever seem like it'll end, and Ryoma has no idea how to express it. It makes no sense.

He stares at the picture, avoiding his friend. It's easier that way.

Momo leans over his shoulder, Ryoma can feel their clothes brushing. He blinks at the picture. "That's your cat."

"Karupin," Ryoma corrects, his voice nearly breaks. Damn it, he thought he was doing better. Why is it so hard to talk about it?

Momoshiro feels the smile slip from his face. "Did something...?"

Ryoma ducks his head, never more thankful for his baseball cap. He still hasn't moved from the bench. He can hear sympathy in his friend's voice and isn't sure if he wants that. He isn't sure if he wants him to know. Not sure about anything except for the fact he wants Karupin back, but that isn't going to happen. The picture is blurry again. He tries to blink away the tears, but one falls down, hitting the edge of the picture before rolling off to the floor.

The picture's trashed now. He should have been more careful. It's all his fault, and he wasn't doing anything, and would have done something, but he didn't know, and there was nothing he could do... and he just feels so helpless... and the vet was so kind... and he didn't want to see Karupin even though the vet said he could but he didn't want that to be the last image he ever saw to be... and the picture is so blurry right now that he doesn't even know....

"Oh, Echizen..." Momo's frowning now, not that Ryoma can see. His leans closer to him, and slowly, cautiously, he reaches out to take the picture from his friend's hand.

"I remember," and his tone is soft, understanding, "when he followed you to school that day. We looked all over, and I think everyone saw him."

Ryoma bites his bottom lip and nods. He wipes his sleeve across his eyes. "And Momo-sempai found him... and brought him ho--" His voice fails him at the last word.

"Yep," Momo says softly. "Kikamaru-sempai thought he was a raccoon and he refused to come in here. You should have seen it."

Ryoma quirks a smile. It hurts so much to smile, even more than it did to cry. He tries to laugh but it sounds more like a sniffle. It's a good memory, a happy memory, but that's all it can ever be.

"Ah," Momo leans back against the wall. He would be staring at the ceiling, but instead he watches Ryoma in his peripheral. "I'll miss him too."

"Momo-sempai?"

"Aa?"

There's no warning before Ryoma buries his face in Momo's jacket. Startled, the other boy isn't quite sure what to do. Ryoma doesn't notice, doesn't care, it's just that someone might understand and he can't hold it in anymore and he doesn't want to. He sniffles, the sound muffled by the Seigaku jacket and mumbles. "I just miss him."

Momoshiro isn't quite sure what to do, but it doesn't seem as if Ryoma's going to let go anytime soon. Something that might be a sniffle.

"I know," Momo consoles. He settles for patting Ryoma lightly on the shoulder. "It's okay."

Ryoma nods against his jacket.

"I understand."

~fin~