A Tennis no Oujisama Fanfiction
Notes: This is part of the Dross universe, but it stands alone as a gen Ryoma character study. It's a prelude.
Part One: Could We Start Again, Please?
It was always exciting to begin a new year of classes, but this year Kachirou felt a sense of apprehension. It was almost as though he was stepping backward by entering Seigaku High School. It had been so long since he had been a nervous first year - it was decidedly off-putting to be knocked back down the ladder of seniority.
As he adjusted his dark blue uniform that had a subtle "I" on the collar to indicate his lowly status, he glanced around his classroom, wondering who had been assigned to his class. Katsuo hadn't ended up in his class, and as he had entered, he had heard Horio's voice from two doors down. A part of him was a bit relieved, though he felt guilty for not wanting to be around his friend. Horio was so tiring to be around, though, that guilt was brushed away with practicality. He'd see Horio at tennis practice.
In the corner of the room, he saw two girls twitter nervously as they eyed his tall, slender form - obviously they recognized him as the former captain of the Seigaku tennis team. He offered them a shy smile before pretending to turn his attention to a book on studying tips he had conveniently open on his desk. He had never learned how to deal with the adoration of females.
The nice thing about changing schools would be his senpai would once again be the focus of those stares instead. A part of him wondered if there was any chance he'd be a regular on the high school team, but he knew, intellectually, that wasn't a possibility. At least not till next year. The team that had won the nationals while he had been a first year was almost entirely regathered - only Kawamura and Echizen would not be back.
He hesitated as he turned the page, wondering why he was thinking about Echizen. Maybe it was because he was back in first year, and Echizen was so tightly wound in his memories of being a first year. His former classmate had left Japan before second year to study in America. Kachirou couldn't help but keep an eye on international tennis magazines, waiting for word on the Japanese tennis player who was shaking up the scene, but no word ever came. After a while, Ryoma had faded to the back of his mind, a legendary person that had crossed his path and never had truly been a part of his world.
The door swung open again just as the bell rang, and he put his book away, waiting for the class to be called to attention. Glancing up, he stared at the front of the classroom to assess his new home room teacher, but the person who had just entered wasn't an adult - it was another student - one who was eerily familiar.
His heart almost stopped as he stared into the face of an older Echizen Ryoma.
It was as though his thoughts had summoned the specter of the past, but it was undoubtedly him, a Ryoma who had changed with three years of time, grown into a young man who moved with the grace of a world-class athlete, reaching the promise he had inherited from having a former pro tennis player for a father. The face was a bit more angular, having lost its baby fat, and he was definitely taller, but it was still Echizen.
Ryoma didn't see him, moving down the aisle with nonchalant care, tossing his bag onto a seat two over from where Kachirou himself sat. Kachirou couldn't keep from staring, unable to believe the sight. He had never expected to see Echizen again, not after he had left.
Someone else in class noticed as well.
The sound of a pencil clattering to the floor momentarily diverted his attention, and Kachirou realized that Ryuuzaki Sakuno was sitting three rows back. It wasn't remarkable that he hadn't noted her presence before - after Ryoma had left, she had drifted out of tennis, and she was naturally a retiring personality, the kind of girl who became a part of the scenery. Pretty, but not a knock-out, a girl who would make someone a nice, sweet, undemanding girlfriend someday.
Ryoma deigned to glance back at Sakuno, and it took a moment for recognition to cross his face. He nodded briefly, the casual kind of greeting that a person offered to someone they saw daily. "Ryuuzaki," he said, deigning to admit who she was.
A brilliant red flush stained her pale cheeks, and she looked about ready to faint. "Ry-ryoma-kun... you're back!" she said, apparently unable to quite process the sight of him.
He didn't offer her a snarky comment, but neither did he give her an explanation. At that moment, the teacher bustled in, full of apologies for her tardiness, and any explanation they may have demanded out of Ryoma was put off until later.
For Tezuka Kunimitsu, the sound of tennis balls striking the pavement was as familiar as his own heartbeat. He could tell who was playing by the rhythm of the game; on court B, he could hear the sounds of the first years warming up, the slight "whoosh" of air against the gut of racket pleasant to his ears. A slight smile decorated his normally stern features, but he decided it was well-earned. He was captain again, and it was like a great pressure had been released from his shoulders.
Many would have thought it would have been the other way around, but he could never truly relax while under the command of others. Serving as vice captain for a mediocre player was difficult, since he walked a careful line, trying to keep from undermining his senpai's authority. Others would instinctively look to Tezuka whenever an order was given, checking to see if it was a wise decision, and Tezuka had to agree, even if he thought a mistake was being made. Now that was in the past, and he could conduct things his way. It was hard not to smile as people called him "buchou."
He wasn't gloating - quite - but he couldn't help look over the first years with a critical eye, pinpointing last year's captain of Seigaku, Katou Kaichirou, and evaluating how he would transition. The captains always had the worst time learning how to give up authority, and learning to yield to another. Momoshiro had done well enough last year, and it seemed that Kachirou, too, would readily concede. Neither of them were of Tezuka's mold - Kachirou in particular reminded Tezuka of Oishi, a good second, but someone whose quiet presence wasn't the compelling stuff of legends.
Kachirou seemed distracted, glancing around the courts in a bit of confusion, an action which earned Tezuka's ire. Tennis wasn't precisely dangerous, but it required focus. There was no telling the damage a ball could do if a player wasn't paying attention.
"Kachirou!" he called, his deep voice ringing over the name as he prepared to sentence the truant to punishment laps.
"Yes!" The first year stiffened, but there was only worry on his face.
Something rang amiss about this situation to Tezuka, and he knew enough not to ignore it. "Is something wrong?" he asked, coming over to him. He'd been in the same place two years ago, the former captain of a tennis club, knocked down to entering first year status. It was impossible not to have any empathy.
Had Kachirou been the child Tezuka had known back in junior high, he would have stammered and been awed by Tezuka's attention. Now, though, with his own prestige behind him, he was able to answer in a steady voice. "I... Tezuka-buchou, did you hear anything about Ryoma-kun? I thought I'd see him here today."
Tezuka stared at Kachirou, and for a second it crossed his mind to ask if the boy was having memory lapses. He hadn't heard that name in quite a while. "Echizen... Ryoma?" he said finally, the name awkward on his lips.
Kachirou seemed to realize that something was wrong, and his brow furrowed in puzzlement as he leaned back against the fence. His arms wove across his chest as he considered what to say. "He's in my class, but I didn't get a chance to talk to him. He went somewhere during lunch too quickly for me to catch him, and he got out of there as soon as the bell rang... but I thought he'd come here."
Tezuka never let surprise show on his face, but he was surprised. "Hnn."
"Maybe he's not allowed to play in a school club? If he's going pro?" Kachirou suggested helpfully.
It was a possibility, but one which Tezuka didn't believe. Echizen wouldn't have been able to resist the opportunity to challenge his senpai and to display how much stronger he'd become. Something about this situation was raising Tezuka's internal alarm.
"I'll talk to Murakami-sensei and see if he knows," Tezuka said, effectively ending the discussion.
It wasn't until later that Tezuka managed to corner Murakami. The man, in his early forties, looked ten years younger. He had once coached professional tennis players before becoming dissatisfied with their attitude toward his beloved sport, but had been unable to stay away. He had decided to work with younger players, and hopefully teach them to respect both the game and each other. He also enjoyed fishing, and tied his own lures. He'd even offered Tezuka a few. Needless to say, he and Tezuka connected very well.
The end of practice, Oishi and Tezuka had planned on having a review - without Murakami. Their coach preferred to leave most matters in his captain's hands, only stepping in when he felt intervention was necessary. Some people thought his hands-off method approach indifference. Tezuka thought it was wise, since it showed trust in his young adult players.
"I think this year's team is going to be very good," Oishi said enthusiastically. "We have almost all of the old team from junior high, and a few of the first years look promising as alternates."
Tezuka couldn't have asked for a better opening. "There's one first year I am concerned about. Remember Echizen Ryoma?"
Oishi was unable to keep from laughing. "He's not someone you forget easily!" He frowned. "Is Horio making a big deal about him still?"
"No. Kachirou said that he's going to this school."
It was interesting to watch Oishi's face twist as emotions played through his mind. Shock; delight; confusion. "I haven't seen him..." he said slowly. "He wasn't with the other first years, and I haven't seen him around."
"We wouldn't, necessarily," Tezuka said.
Oishi nodded his agreement. The school was really quite segmented by year, and the classes were large enough that Oishi didn't even know everyone in the third year. "Is there any reason he isn't playing? I haven't heard anything about him going professional..."
"I think Ryuuzaki-sensei would have told us if he had," Tezuka replied, crossing his arms over his chest. "I want to ask Murakami-sensei if he knows anything before I pursue the situation."
"If Echizen is in school, he should definitely be a member of the team... unless he hurt himself playing? He always played so hard, and his body was so small..." Oishi began to worry as he set off at a steady pace for the teacher's room. Tezuka followed in his wake, a bit amused at how smoothly Oishi had taken control.
Oishi's days of being substitute captain had resulted in lasting effects on the previously retiring young man; there was a delicate balance of power between him and Tezuka, one which teetered precariously every now and then as Oishi unthinkingly took command. It wasn't something to call Oishi on. He had encouraged it, and he knew better than to complain when his creation exceeded his expectations.
Murakami was in the teacher's room, playing with some colored bits of thread, knotting them into an intricate design that matched the genius of anything Tezuka had on his wall. Murakami didn't believe in using the same pattern twice, so each was a piece of art, in Tezuka's opinion. This one looked only about half done, and while some people could tie flies in a matter of minutes, Murakami tended to linger on his work, making sure each thread was perfect.
He didn't look up at the sound of the door opening, and Oishi fell back, respectfully taking a place at Tezuka's shoulder. Tezuka cleared his throat, hoping for an invitation of some sort, but Murakami was too absorb to notice - or seemed to be. It was hard to tell with him.
"Excuse us, Murakami-kantoku?" Tezuka said after a moment. The man didn't bother lifting his eyes, but gave a slight grunt to indicate that he was listening. "We had our first practice today."
"I assumed that you would, since it was on your schedule. I'm not going till next week, after you weed out the rabble," he said. "We already talked about that."
They had indeed, at length, before school started. The first week would be conditioning, with a training menu designed with heavy input from Inui, who was also serving as manager. The schedule was grueling and only the most devoted students would stay, because despite the reflected glory of Seigaku's tennis team, the work more than paid for it. Tezuka expected over half the first years to drop within the first week.
"We know," Tezuka said. He tried to think on how to phrase the question about Echizen. It wasn't the club's policy to recruit, no matter how much potential a player had. "I was a bit surprised that Echizen Ryoma didn't turn up."
It was a subtle probe for information, one which Murakami was more likely to respond to than a demand. Three years ago, the entire tennis scene had been captured by the charisma of the confident first year. Murakami would know who he was.
"Ah." Murakami added a bit of red thread to his current piece. "There's probably reasons for that."
"Reasons?" Oishi echoed.
"Have you ever been ice fishing, Tezuka?" Murakami asked, finally tying off the fly. His non sequitur was entirely like him - he would often abruptly change the course of a conversation, and it would only be later that Tezuka would realize his hidden point.
"I have. It's a wonderful feeling. You're standing out on a floor which won't be there in a month or two, trying to catch something most people have abandoned for the season. It's very cold, though, Since its so flat, the wind races along like nothing will ever stop it - you could catch your death from it - but that's not the real dangerous thing. I've known people who've gone through because they went out too early or late into the season, or sometimes just stepped where the ice is weak." He pretended to hold a fishing pole, and his eyes grew distant with longing. "But it's fun, because if you really love fishing, it's a way to keep the sport going year round."
Oishi looked utterly confused and a bit resigned. He didn't understand the way Murakami thought, and almost all of his analogies went right over Oishi's head.
"Thank you, sir," Tezuka said, his expression thoughtful.
"Have fun at practice," Murakami said. "Ranking matches are in two weeks. Let's put together the best team we've ever had."
The next day, Echizen Ryoma was in class, so Kachirou knew he hadn't been dreaming about the prodigal player's presence. There was no indication that Echizen was aware that Kachirou was confused at all - instead, he arrived just as the bell rang and proceeded to fall asleep, ignoring the first class, which was English.
The teacher had learned yesterday through a rather embarrassing display where Ryoma pointed out three mistakes in her pronunciation that the Japanese American had a firmer grasp on the language than she did. Ryoma clearly wanted to be left alone, and after casting him a somewhat resentful look, she left him alone to his nap as the others struggled through conjugating verbs.
Kachirou slipped him occasional glances, but nothing changed. Ryoma was still on the small side, but he could see even from two seats over that his arms still had the well-defined muscles of an athlete.
He wasn't the only one who was distracted by Ryoma. Most of the girls were stealing sly looks, giggling in appreciation. He heard the crinkle of paper as notes circulated, and he would have wagered that most of them were about his friend.
He wondered if calling Ryoma his "friend" was still appropriate. Echizen Ryoma had always been something of a cold fish, shying away from social engagements that didn't involve tennis. He had never really responded well to overtures, tolerating people more than actually enjoying their company.
He didn't realize how hard he was staring until someone poked his back. He glanced over his shoulder at Ezaki Ryohei, who was prodding him with the eraser-end of a pencil. "What?" he whispered in announcement.
Ezaki just gestured to the teacher, who was regarding Kachirou with a flushed face of annoyance. "Now that I have your attention, Kachirou-kun, would you care to read page 23? After, of course, you can go the hallway and hold buckets to improve your focus."
Kachirou sighed as his classmates tittered. Ryoma, he noted, was still snoozing.
The rest of the day passed on that note. Ryoma vanished before Kachirou could offer to eat lunch with him, probably heading for the roof. Kachirou wasn't desperate enough to stalk him up there. Instead he was conned into eating lunch with Horio, who appeared in the class right as the period started, with Katsuo right behind him.
Katsuo was more than willing to share the bento he had packed. It was full of tantalizing morsels and looked like something a professional cook had created. Horio, of course, abandoned most of his meal in favor of Katsuo's. Kachirou was more polite, only accepting a few tidbits.
"Have you seen Echizen around?" Katsuo asked. "I was going to invite him to join us..."
"Echizen?" Horio's voice still sounded like an out of tune trumpet. "You mean Echizen is back?" He started to crane his head around frantically, like that would make him appear on command.
"He's in my class, but I haven't really spoken to him," Kachirou said.
"Why not? Wait, why didn't I see him at tennis practice yesterday?" Horio demanded a bit angrily. "You were hiding him, weren't you?"
Horio's voice was still as shrill as it has been three years ago. Kachirou blushed as half the class turned and stared at what the trio was doing. "Horio, please," Kachirou said in embarassment.
Horio was always like a dog with a bone. Once he got something in his mind, he refused to let go. He pushed his chair back, wove his arms across his chest in a gesture of stubbornness, and turned his nose up. "Well, I'm going to see him right now!"
"Horio!" Katsuo and Kachirou said in horror. Numerous scenarios for how the encounter would go exploded through Kachirou's mind like a grenade. It wouldn't be pleasant if a testy Ryoma was confronted by Horio, of all people.
Horio was fast, and Kachirou and Katsuo were a good ten steps behind him after setting their lunches aside neatly. The sound of his school-issued shoes beat against the stairs as he made for the stairs. He apparently remembered, as Kachirou did, that Ryoma had always been fond of the roof.
It was with a resigned feeling of dread that Kachirou watched Horio open the door and dart through. He followed more cautiously, wondering if Ryoma's tart tongue would deal with the situation before it became a problem.
He was surprised to suddenly plough into Horio, who had frozen to the spot. "Ouch!" Horio yelled as he spun forward, thrown to the ground.
Kachirou was immediately contrite. He should have been paying closer attention. "I'm sorry, Horio-kun," he apologized. He started to ask why Horio had stopped when he saw something that made him rub his eyes.
Ryoma was studying.
He had expected to find Ryoma on the roof, but Ryoma usually stole a few extra minutes of sleep in the sun, lounging like a cat. Sometimes they had teased Ryoma about being solar powered and needing to replenish his battery.
Horio stared, wide-eyed, as he studied the friend he hadn't seen in years. Ryoma was dressed neatly in the school uniform, which was worn exactly to regulations. It fit him perfectly, and there was nothing done to individualize the style. Most "cool" students would wear something that marked them as unique, but Ryoma looked like he was ready to be photographed for a school guide.
Kachirou squinted, wondering what was missing before realizing. Ryoma wasn't wearing his wrist-band. That wristband had been nearly as much his trademark as his white cap. No matter what he was doing, he always had worn it. Kachirou had thought it amazingly cool at the time, realizing only later that Ryoma probably just forgot to take it off most of the time.
It didn't take long for Horio to get over his shock, and puff up a bit, his chest thrust out belligerently. Kachirou tried to grab hold of him to pull him away discreetly, but Horio was already moving.
"Echizen!" His voice sounded like a whining hacksaw.
Ryoma went rigid, resembling a cat who'd just had an unwelcome encounter with water. He looked at the book he was reading, over at Horio, and gave an almost undetectable sigh. The book shut with a snap, and he leveled a rather intimidating stare on the trio. "Yes?" he asked, sounding testy.
Horio wasn't one to be easily deterred. "What are you doing up here? Why didn't you stop and tell me you were back?"
The look in Ryoma's eyes was tired. "I wasn't aware I had to tell you of my actions." He looked over at Kachirou and Katsuo, nodding acknowledgment. "Long time no see."
Katsuo waved hesitantly, but Kachirou, relieved at finally being acknowledged, felt the dam burst. "Ryoma-kun! Why aren't you going to practice? Are you playing professionally or something?"
There was only the slightest of hesitations before Ryoma answered. "I don't play anymore."