Half a week after his conversion to one of the—and he snickered a bit—'creatures of the night', Ryoma decided to drop by his house for a few items. He had no idea what he was supposed to say to his parents, his cousin.
And he really, really, missed his cat.
The house was dark, since it was almost midnight, and his parents usually slept reasonably early. He crept past their room to get to his, but a loose floorboard just had to choose that very inopportune time to make itself be known. A loud squeak resounded through the still house.
Ryoma swore under his breath. And waited. He wasn't disappointed.
"Who is that?" Came a sleepy male voice. "Ryoma?"
Shitshitshitshit! He dashed to his room, but didn't make it in time. One large hand hauled him back by his collar, and he found himself face-to-face with an extremely incensed and rather groggy Echizen Nanjiroh.
"You disappear for a whole week without any notice, you don't turn up at school, and now you sneak back in here like some thief! Your mother and I did not bring you up just so that you can become a delinquent like this!"
Ryoma sighed. He should have expected something like this to happen. "Geez, give me a break, oyaji," he muttered. "I fell sick after practice and someone took care of me until now. I was completely dead to the world for the first four days." He managed to say the last bit without laughter, and was relieved.
"Sick?" Nanjiroh's brow wrinkled. He released his errant son and ran his hands over Ryoma, as if to check that he was still in one piece. "Are you okay? What happened? And why the heck didn't you call once you were better, idiot!"
Glad that his son was, indeed, whole, Nanjiroh swatted Ryoma's head and glared at him. "Do you have any idea how worried we were? We called the neighbours, your friends, the school… I wanted to make a police report, but your mother…" He sighed and scratched the back of his head. "She felt that making a report would make it seem final—that you really had just disappeared. If you hadn't shown up now…well, I was going to call them tomorrow morning anyway."
Ryoma swallowed the guilty lump in his throat. "Is she okay?"
"She's been too worried to sleep the past week, so she's been taking something to help her sleep."
Ryoma scowled. "Stop trying to make me feel even worse. I told you I was sick and that's why I couldn't call! Look, I'll stay until she wakes up, but I have an appointment at ten for a checkup. The guy who was taking care of me knows a doctor. He'll pick me up tomorrow."
"I want you back for lunch."
"I think the examination's going to take up most of the day." But then Ryoma sighed and he tried to smile. "But I'll try to be back for dinner, okay?"
Nanjiroh punched him lightly. "You had better. Knowing your mother, she'll spend the afternoon cooking up a feast. You eat everything she puts on your plate, and then some more. Got it?"
"Ha-i… Can I go and sleep now?"
"Whatever," Nanjiroh muttered gruffly. "The cat's on your bed, in case you were going to ask. He's been pining for you the whole week."
Ryoma managed a small smile. "I missed him too. Thanks."
"Yeah, yeah. Goodnight." He waited until the door was almost shut, then muttered, "Okaeri, Ryoma." Nanjiroh heard the whispered "tadaima", and then returned to bed, his heart far lighter.
The following morning, he was jolted awake by his mother's overjoyed cry and a tight hug.
"If you ever do this to me again, I'll find you and cook you, you horrid little boy!"
"Kaa-san…" he gasped. "I can't…breathe!"
She loosened her grip slightly, but not enough for him to squirm out. And then she began crying. "I thought you had been kidnapped, or killed, or knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, or fell into something deep and couldn't get out, or injured, or-"
"I'm fine. I'm fine!" He shook his mother slightly, and then enveloped her in a gentle hug. "See? I'm okay. I'm here, and I'm okay."
"You didn't call me!" She sniffled. "You're my only son, Ryoma. My only child. What would I do if something ever happened to you?"
"Well, I think oyaji would be quite happy to make you a new kid. Or try."
"You're just as perverted as your father," she sniffled, smiling slightly. "What would you like for breakfast? I'll make you anything you want, how's that?"
"Anything will do. I'm going to see the doctor at ten, but I'll be back for dinner, okay?"
"Okay," she replied with a teary smile. "I'll make all your favourites for dinner, okay?"
"Okay. Let me know if you need me to help you get anything from the grocery store on the way home."
His mother pressed her cheek to the top of his head. "You've been such a sweet boy, Ryoma… I love you so much. You must take care of yourself, okay? Don't make me worry so much…" She laughed. "What am I saying? I'll always worry… That's the curse of being a mother, Ryoma." She hugged him again. "Be careful, okay? You're my darling son…"
"I'll be careful, kaa-san. Really I will." And I've got friends who'll care for me and protect me for the rest of my life…and theirs. "I'll be okay." He gave her a last squeeze, then let go. "Shouldn't you be making breakfast now? Or I'll be late for my appointment."
She wiped the tears from her face. "Yes, I should." She smiled, her smile bright and happy. "I love you, dear. I'm so glad you're safe." And then she left to prepare a breakfast fit for her little prince.
Ryoma exited his house and tugged the brim of his cap lower over his eyes. The light was glaring. It was still reasonably early, and the sky was covered with grey clouds that promised heavy showers later, but the gentle light was bright enough to make him start tearing. A muted honk had him looking up at the road, where a sleek little sports car waited for him.
He opened the passenger door and slid in. "Thanks for picking me up…"
"You should have waited inside. You won't be used to the sensitivity of your eyes for another few more months. Some things take time. You have to be more careful."
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. So are we really going to see a doctor?"
Ryoma snorted in derision. "Who? We're not exactly normal, you know."
"Oishi's descendants have always been doctors and specialists in the medical field. His legend is passed down from one generation to the next, and it is their duty to care for him and those he cares for."
And that was all either said until they reached the hospital, since neither of them was any good as a conversationalist. Tezuka parked the car in the basement parking lot and led Ryoma into a small building, separate from the main hospital. They took the discreet elevator up to the ground floor, where the receptionist was.
"We have an appointment. He's expecting us."
The receptionist smiled and gestured to a corridor of doors. "Yes, he's waiting for you in that last room, at the end of the corridor."
"Thank you." Tezuka led Ryoma down towards the room, and although it was brightly lit, Ryoma had the sensation of walking through a dark, dank dungeon.
Nanjiroh looked at the report Tezuka had given him. "So my son is now allergic to sunlight, and will have an adverse reaction when exposed to copious quantities of it?" His tone was disbelieving.
"In short, yes. That was apparently why he was sick at school. The doctor said that as long as he obeys the orders listed here, we will be fine."
Nanjiroh raised an eyebrow in question. "Then how is he supposed to go to school?"
"I'm afraid you will have to withdraw him from school and enroll him in a school where they have different school hours. Or engage a home tutor."
He sighed and shook his head. "I have some money stored away from when I was a professional tennis player, but that's meant for his university education. Private schools and private tutors are just too much." He scowled. "What kind of doctor did you bring him to, anyway?"
Tezuka's expression never changed. "My family doctor. If you don't mind me suggesting, I may be able to secure him a private tutor for a substantially lower fee than you may be able to."
"Yes? And pray tell, who will you go about accomplishing that?"
"My family and relatives also suffer from this condition. In our case, it is genetic." He pushed up his glasses. "We have a tutor who comes to teach the affected children in the evenings. It would be of little trouble for Ryoma to be included in the classes."
Nanjiroh's eyes were wide. "Really? Ryoma would be able to learn enough to pass university entrance exams?"
"If he is appropriately diligent."
Those amazed eyes narrowed once more. "How much?"
Tezuka named a sum that was even a little bit less than what Ryoma's currently education was costing his parents. "Ryoma would also be able to continue his tennis practice, as there are many in my family who play the sport at a reasonably high level."
A relieved smile broke over Nanjiroh's face. "Tennis means a lot to my son…to me too. He has the potential to compete in national tournaments, and then international ones, if he keeps up his practices. If your family would be able to provide him with education both in the court and out, I would be very grateful."
"It's of no trouble. I will let my family know, and monthly statements on Ryoma's progress will be sent to you, as well, as a bill. He will be given sufficient homework. You may check, if you wish. Classes will start with effect of Monday."
"Then that's done with-"
"Not quite. It would be best for Ryoma to live with the others who suffer the same condition as him. It would help prevent him from feeling depressed, as well as have companionship. Also, it would make traveling easier, as he will not have to worry about being exposed to the sun unnecessarily. You and your wife are welcome to visit him, of course, and he can go home on weekends if he has completed his homework. It's quite like a dorm."
"What?" Nanjiroh stiffened. "I've just gotten my son back, and now you're telling me that I'm going to lose him again!"
"You will not me losing him. It is just like attending a school where he will be required to stay in a dormitory." Tezuka shrugged. "Like I said, you are welcome to visit, although a call would be wise. Due to the rather nocturnal nature of their studies, the students tend to sleep in the day, rather than at night. Ryoma may have to adjust to this new clock, but it shouldn't take him too long to adapt."
"He's so young…" Nanjiroh muttered. "He's barely grown out of boyhood." He looked down at the report in his hand, seeing the words, but not really registering them. His hands shook. He remembered Ryoma as a little boy, barely larger than the tennis racket he held, golden eyes determined, as he tried to bat at the ball approaching him. He'd always doted on his beloved son, and ever though their relationship seemed strained at times, he'd never stopped loving Ryoma, never once loved him any less. In fact, as he watched his son grow from tottering toddler, to smart-ass boy, and into mildly-arrogant adolescence, he could only love Ryoma more. Sometimes, it seemed to him that he was looking at a mirror.
Tezuka's usually cold, expressionless eyes warmed up considerably. "Echizen-san, this is nothing more than an earlier occurrence of what would happen when he goes into university. It is inevitable that he leave your household. In his case, he is only leaving a bit earlier than he would have otherwise."
"He's not even seventeen yet…" Nanjiroh looked at the tea that was growing cold on the table. "He's only just started high school." The papers in his hands shook even more. "He's still just a boy…he's still just my little boy."
"I'll always be your little boy."
Nanjiroh turned sharply to the doorway, where his cat-eyed son stood, leaning against the doorframe. He expected the usual smirk on Ryoma's face, but there was only concern into bright golden eyes of his, only a sad smile on that young face.
"Nothing changes, oyaji…" The term that he usually snorted at seemed…softer. Less disrespectful. "I'll come home to visit on weekends. You can call me on my cell phone if kaa-san needs to talk to me." Nanjiroh fought the urge to smile as he heard the faint sneer there. "You can visit me anytime you like, just call first, since I might be sleeping. Or busy." He touched the brim of his cap. "We can still play tennis—just in the evenings instead. And even that's not too far off from what happens these days, anyway, with school ending so late."
Nanjiroh simply looked back at his son. Where had that snotty little brat disappeared to? His son, so fond of teasing and biting remarks, and occasionally rude barbs, was trying to…comfort him? He glanced down at the cup of tea before him, and was the earthenware being to waver, as his eyes filled with tears. His little boy had grown up so fast, and he had barely even noticed. It seemed like it had only been days before that he'd first put Ryoma's first racket into those tiny, chubby hands.
"Ryoma, you'll take care of yourself over there, won't you?" His mother appeared from the kitchen, where she was cooking up a storm. "Okaa-san won't be there to fold your clothes and make sure you're not hungry, and do your laundry."
Ryoma smiled, his eyes warming into molten gold. "I'll be fine. And I'll just bring my laundry home on weekends."
Ryoma's mother widened her eyes on mock horror. "Unbelievable! How will you ever learn to be independent! No, kaa-san will not continue doing your laundry. I'm afraid, Ryoma-kun, that you'll just have to manage on your own. Right, tou-san?"
Nanjiroh, snorted, more composed now. "Such a brat, expecting your mother to continue cleaning up after you even after you leave the house." He turned his now dry eyes on Ryoma and then Tezuka. "He can go, but I'm holding you responsible for his welfare, Tezuka-san. If anything happens to my little boy, there won't be any place you can hide from me."
Ryoma stifled a snicker. Ah well, he supposed it wouldn't do any harm to allow his father that illusion. Tezuka, on the other hand, took it more seriously. He'd seen what a family member could do, in the dark grips of grief. He nodded solemnly. "Don't worry, Echizen-san. I'll take care of Ryoma as if he were my own family. He sort of is now, isn't he?" He managed a slight smile.
Nanjiroh returned the smile. "I guess so. So you'd better treat him well." With that, he rose. He drained the tea in one gulp, before leaving the room. As he passed by Ryoma on the way out, he snatched the white cap from his son's head. "Guess you won't be needing this anymore, since the sun won't even be out when you play."
He strode to where the large bell that he helped the temple ring. Karupin was waiting there for him. Unlike previous occasions, where he'd jump on his master with flashing claws, he sat there meekly, tail limp. Nanjiroh scratched him behind his ears. "He'll be back for visits…it won't be forever." He twirled the cap perched on his index finger. "It's not like we won't see him anymore, ne, Karupin? He'll come back."
"Mreow?" Karupin hopped nimbly onto his master's lap, and nuzzled the hand that still held the reports, and then he curled up into a soft ball and watched the cap spin and spin. He batted at it, whiskers quivering. And finally, he snagged it with a claw. It landed over him. He purred as his young master's scent enveloped him. He knew better than his master. His long-time friend was gone, and it would be rare times when they'd see him again.
Nanjiroh watched at the cat played with the cap on his finger. The tension that had gripped his chest, the lump in his throat, they began to rise, more intense than ever. He watched the sun set, never noticing when Karupin had managed to get the cap from him. He stroked the Himalayan cat's silky fur absently as he stared into the fiery sky. He felt like it was burning his eyes. Surely that must be why his eyes were feeling so painful, so hot. He clenched his other hand, crumpling the report, as his vision blurred, and then cleared somewhat.
It was slowly sinking in, what his feline pet already knew. Ryoma was gone. That smart-mouthed, irritating, disrespectful little brat was leaving. He thought he'd be prepared for it. But he never knew… His clenched fist released, and the crumpled report slipped from his loose fingers. He never knew that it would feel so empty.
"It'll never be the same, ne, Karupin?"
"Mreow…" Karupin peeked out from beneath Ryoma's cap. He offered his saddened master the cap, but Nanjiroh simply shook his head and smiled sadly. "No, you keep that. It'll remind you of him, ne? Me…I don't need it."
No, I'll never forget him. My precious little boy…I'll never forget you.
He shifted and laid down on the sun-heated stone. Karupin hopped off long enough to let him get comfortable, before resuming his position on his master. He fell asleep, the flaming sunset in his mind. He missed dinner, and sometime later at night, he stirred momentarily to find himself covered with a thick blanket, he head resting on a pillow. He raised his leaned hand sleepily, and found the cat resting on his stomach, curling around the cap like a protective barrier. He smiled slightly, stroking the warm fur, and then fell back asleep again.
"Oyasumi, Ryoma…and sayonara…"
I never meant for this chapter to turn out the way it did. I blame it on the music I was listening to as I typed the last section… I'm listening to the music that plays during the ending credits of 'Meet Joe Black'. It's been awhile since I last heard the original version of the two songs in that medley, but I think I find those songs…partially sad too… gaaaaaaaaah… This is the result of my typing while listening to music.
And yes, this chapter is quite a bit shorter than my other chapters. I generally try not to type chapters shorter than 4000 words, but I felt that to continue after the above scene would… lessen the effect somewhat. So the result is a shorter chapter. About 3100 words or so, I think. Hope you enjoyed this.