Part Three: The Day I Tried to Live
Tezuka was the type to keep his own counsel, but at times he needed input from others. That's how he ended up at dinner in Kawamura's shop the next day with Fuji, Oishi and Inui. He was treating them – a rare thing, since Inui liked to order the most expensive items on the menu and Fuji ordered the weirdest and then insist on sharing. He had decided the burden to both wallet and taste buds was acceptable in this instance.
He'd also extended the invitation to Kikumaru, but the redhead had declined. He knew that Kikumaru tended to be nervous around him, and regretted that he was relieved that Kikumaru said no because of a family obligation. Tezuka didn't dislike Kikumaru, but knew that serious conversation was difficult with Eiji around.
They ate together quietly, complimenting Kawamura on his cooking. The former power player really had improved a lot, and Tezuka knew the shop had a good future. Tezuka himself was distracted by his thoughts, trying to figure out how to voice his concerns. He hadn't told them why he wanted to meet, but they all knew it was about Ryoma. The problem hung over the table like a gray cloud, dulling the usual playfulness of their banter.
Tezuka set his chopsticks down when they were nearly done, and decided to state the situation flat-out. "Nanjirou-san died about a month ago," he said.
He watched as shocked, then dismayed, recognition passed over the faces of his teammates. They were a smart bunch, and all of them immediately recognized the impact the tragedy had on Ryoma. It was no wonder he wasn't playing tennis anymore.
"Are you sure? Why wasn't there an obituary or something?" Oishi asked. "Nanjirou-san was pretty famous."
"Maybe the newspapers didn't pick up on it since he lived in America," Fuji said with a shrug. "Though I would guess Inoue-san will get there eventually, publish some kind of retrospective thing."
"How did it happen?" Kawamura asked, leaning across the counter. "An accident?"
"Some kind of aneurysm," Tezuka said. "No one saw it coming, from what Echizen told me."
They all abandoned any pretense of interest in their meal. "So what do you want to do?" Inui asked. He had a green notebook out, pen poised to make notes.
"I was hoping for your input," Tezuka said stiffly. What he'd been hoping was that one of them would have a brilliant idea on how to handle this. It was likely they were just as clueless as he was, since none of them had ever been faced with this kind of situation before. Oishi was good at dealing with emotional things, Inui was innovative, Fuji was perceptive and Kawamura had common sense. Surely they'd be able to help him somehow.
They were all quiet for several long minutes, each retreating into himself and they considered the options. "Does he want help?" Fuji asked after a long moment.
"That doesn't matter," Oishi replied. "It's clear he needs it, and we're his senpai. He needs to know he can rely on us to help him through this."
"So you're thinking of an intervention or something?" Fuji asked, arcing an eyebrow at Oishi.
"He would not react well to that," Inui said. "Unless he has changed greatly, all data indicates he would be offended by poking into his family life."
"There's basically two options. Either we try to confront him, or we let him go," Fuji said. "Echizen is a very direct person. He doesn't like people who don't say what they mean."
"He needs a friend," Kawamura said. "Maybe Momoshirou-"
"No," Fuji said gently, "he needs someone to look up to."
Their eyes all went to Tezuka, and it was only his discipline that kept him from squirming in his seat. He had known they were likely to put the ball back in his court, but had been hoping to avoid it. "I'm not sure-" Tezuka started to protest, feeling the stirrings of an impending migraine gathering behind his temples.
"You inspired him once before," Fuji said. "I think you need to do the same now."
Inspiring someone to play tennis was one thing. Trying to help someone through grief was something else entirely – especially since Tezuka admitted he wasn't that great at reading other people's emotional states. Tezuka opened his mouth to protest, but Oishi interrupted.
"Tezuka, if you can come up with a better idea, we'd love to hear it," Oishi said. "But I think it's the best we have. Even if it doesn't work."
They had to make some effort to help Echizen, Tezuka knew. And rationally he was the best choice; but the same rational pointed out that Tezuka was horrible at dealing with "personal issues." He wasn't the type to express pessimism vocally, but it was definitely in his mental processes. He knew this was going to wind up a fiasco.
"Is it in his best interests to keep playing?" Fuji asked, turning to Tezuka. "He may have too many memories associated with his father, and it could be better for him to find a different path."
"Tennis is his legacy from Nanjirou-san," Tezuka said softly. "And it's what he was born to do."
"Maybe," Fuji replied, his voice soft. "Maybe not."
"Echizen needs to confront his grief," Oishi said. "Bottling it up will only lead to trauma later in his life."
"Thank you, Oishi-sensei," Fuji murmured dryly, before taking a sip of cooled green tea. "I agree that trying to help Echizen is a good idea, but we should accept that maybe he's right to not play anymore. We all must grow out of our family's expectations."
It was poetic and profound, and Tezuka found himself gritting his teeth in irritation. Fuji had a way of planning for worst-case scenario that managed to irritate. Luckily Inui spoke, sparing Tezuka from having to think of an equally weighty remark.
"As much as I hate to say this, there are other sports Echizen is suited to," Inui added. "He's a superior athlete, and will find it easy enough to adapt to another field, if he choses."
The idea was anathema to them all, since tennis was tennis, and anything else was seriously less. But it wasn't a bad idea, to have Echizen at least consider what the other options. Echizen was a good student, but a world-class athlete. He had the enviable ability to adapt to whatever he chose, and it would be a shame for him to give up sports entirely.
"But we'll make sure he gives tennis one more shot," Fuji said, nodding in satisfaction. "No matter what he does, we'll support him and let him know that."
All eyes turned once more to Tezuka, and it was only his self-control that kept him from squirming. Kawamura seemed to understand his discomfort. "If you do your best, no one can ask for more," Kawamura said consoling.
Since Tezuka always expected himself to not only do his best, but succeed, it wasn't a comforting sentiment. Hopefully he could figure out something that wouldn't add to Ryoma's mental scarring.
He waited a couple more days, knowing that Ryoma had raised his self-defenses. Tezuka wasn't a great student of human nature, but he was smart enough to realize that catching Ryoma off guard was a good idea. Surprise might be his only weapon against the younger boy's formidable stubbornness.
On Saturday, he informed Oishi that he would be missing afternoon practice due to other business. His vice captain nodded in acknowledgment, but didn't raise a fuss, adding that he'd have Inui create a special training menu for the day. Tezuka smiled; if Inui was in charge of training, that would keep the data geek from deciding to find out what Tezuka was up to. While Inui had made definite inroads into controlling his stalking tendencies, a chance to witness the first Tezuka-Echizen match in years would be irresistible.
He caught Ryoma by the gates, carrying a full backpack and moving with a shuffling, distracted gait. His eyes were staring up at the sky, which was threatening rain. "Echizen," he said, and the younger boy turned his head.
"Don't you have practice, buchou?" There was insolence in the set of his lips, like a smirk had been mixed with a scowl.
"I had something more important to do. Play with me, Echizen," Tezuka said calmly.
"I told you I quit," Ryoma replied, snorting, and he turned to leave.
Tezuka caught the younger teen's shoulder, breaking his usual rules about respecting others' personal space. "Play with me. If you decide this is the last time, I will ensure that no one from the tennis team bothers you again," he promised.
"Fine. One game," Ryoma replied sullenly. If he'd been wearing his usual cap, he likely would have pulled it down low to cover his sulky expression.
"I'll meet you tomorrow at ten, at the courts near the underpass," Tezuka said. "No referee, just us." There was the possibility of Echizen having second thoughts and not showing up, but he had to offer some sign of trust. Echizen had never disappointed him before.
Ryoma nodded wordlessly, and then walked off. Tezuka chose not to be offended by the implied rudeness.
Tezuka spent that afternoon preparing, gathering the gear he'd need and mentally preparing. Before big games, he usually spent some time considering his strategy, and this had the potential to be the biggest of his life. More rode on the outcome than a simple championship.
He woke early the next morning, and set off for a jog. He wasn't a morning person naturally, although he'd trained himself to become an early riser. Physical exercise was better than a cup of caffeine to get his thoughts going. He carefully kept his mind on his more mundane concerns, like the history test that he was convinced he was going to flub. Tezuka was ranked top in his classes, but it required stretching himself thin to keep up with.
The sky was overhung with threateningly gray clouds, and he wondered if it was going to rain. It would be an excuse for Echizen to cancel on him, and Tezuka had the feeling that if that happened, they would never play another match. Excuses had a way of compiling on top of each other, much like late homework assignments.
He left for the court about an hour early, deciding to get his warm-ups in before Echizen arrived. He didn't get to practice as much as he would have liked – Tezuka would have loved being able to practice all day, every day – but responsibilities had a way of rearing their ugly heads. He needed to be on his best game today.
The court was empty when he arrived. It was that off time, after the early morning players had finished and before the students looking to hang out during the afternoon arrived. Tezuka was glad, since he didn't really want an audience for this match. Many tennis aficionados would recognize him, and some might even remember the "fabulous freshman" from several years ago. Echizen Ryoma's name was legendary in some circles.
He'd brought three containers of balls, all of them new. Two of them he planned to save for the match. Popping the seal on last set, he pulled out a ball and went to practice against the board. New balls just bounced differently than ones that had already undergone repeated impacts. It would be disrespectful not to give his best.
It was the same court that Tezuka had first played Ryoma at, defeating him soundly. He had a sense of deja vu as he glanced over the net, although Echizen was much taller than he'd been, and also appeared less interested. He still remembered that fierce look of determination Echizen had worn during that match, which Tezuka had transformed using his tennis first to shock, then frustration and finally awe.
But he'd known what he was doing then. Now he wasn't so sure. Tezuka had never been one to gamble, unless matters were important. He'd shuffled the deck; now he had to see how the cards landed. But Tezuka wasn't going to back down. If life had taught him anything, it was that he could only do his best.
Echizen arrived ten minutes late, no surprise considering he was only a passing acquaintance with the concept of punctuality. At least he looked like he had warmed up, probably jogging from the station. While Tezuka had lots of patience, he wanted to just play. He had to remind himself that he wasn't here to gage Echizen's progress, but to encourage him to continue to play.
Ryoma wore an old tennis shirt and black shorts, looking like he had in middle school – except his Fila cap wasn't there. Instead he wore a baseball cap emblazoned with the New York Yankees logo.
He looked different, Tezuka thought. And entirely unwilling to play, if the slouch of his shoulders and sullen set of his face was anything to judge by. No one said this was going to be easy, but Echizen was determined to stick his heels in and drag them like a stubborn mule.
Instead of discouraging Tezuka, the sight invigorated him. Stubbornness he could handle; he had more than his fair share of the quality. As Echizen set his belongings down and did a few obligatory stretches, Tezuka stared up at the sky, relieved that the clouds were moving on.
Echizen didn't say anything, instead wisely moving through a quick series of exercises to avoid pulling something later in the game. Tezuka took a drink of water, and waited for the underclassman to finish.
Finally Ryoma went to his bag to retrieve a red tennis racket. From five feet away, Tezuka could see that it was relatively new, meaning Ryoma had upgraded since middle school. Tezuka still used the racket he'd saved up to purchase while in the final year of elementary school. Ryoma made a couple of practice swings, then walked onto the court.
Tezuka went to the net, holding his racket. "One set match," he told Echizen. "We can judge for ourselves. Rough or smooth?"
Ryoma seemed a bit disconcerted that they were actually going to flip for serve. Maybe he'd been expecting Tezuka to grant him the serve out of some sort of deference to his grief, or lack of recent practice. He should have known better. Tezuka planned on giving nothing to Echizen except a fair match. "Rough," Ryoma said after a second, and Tezuka spun his racket.
He won the serve. Going back to the baseline, Tezuka bounced the ball a couple of times, calming his nerves. Tennis was something he understood. Then he served, and scored an ace. Then another, and another. Before Ryoma had time to so much as blink, the game flew by, and Ryoma never had a chance to respond.
He looked across the net to see how Ryoma was taking this. Was he being deliberately apathetic, and going to let Tezuka win? That didn't seem like him – he'd always been extremely competitive – but neither was quitting tennis.
Ryoma's face was ashen, which was worrisome. Tezuka wondered if he was going to faint. But he was thankfully stubborn, since a couple of seconds later he was using his twist serve to try to get a bit of his own back. Tezuka met it squarely, sending the ball back over the net.
It was the first volley of the match, and Tezuka used his skills to offer pinpoint-accurate returns, sending Ryoma running from far right to far left in a desperate bid to keep up. A couple of weeks without playing had dulled Ryoma's edge. He was still very good, but the fine line of honed perfection was missing, and it showed. There was no way Ryoma could win.
For him to play a national caliber player of Tezuka's level was unfair. Had Tezuka been a gentler soul, he might have gone easier on Echizen, but he wasn't. Ryoma didn't learn anything from winning; it was too frequent an occurrence. Ryoma was one of those rare players who learned more while losing.
The next game went by just as quickly, but in the fourth game, things started to shift. Ryoma's eyes narrowed dangerously, and he started to move better, like he had triggered the skills that have been dormant. He managed to secure a point, but then Tezuka crushed him back down taking the game. The fifth and sixth games went much the same, with Tezuka dominating, winning 6-0.
The whole match had taken only fifteen minutes.
Tezuka's sense of deja vu just increased as Ryoma slumped to his knees, his hands unsteady as he held onto his racket. "Why did you insist on playing? To prove you're still better?"
"No," Tezuka replied, "to prove you still have a long way to go."
Ryoma's grip, slippery from sweat, relaxed on his racket and it clanged to the hard court. "But I don't want to play anymore."
"Don't lie to me, Echizen. It's okay to want to play. It's okay to find other opponents," Tezuka said. "Tennis isn't about having just one rival; it's about pushing yourself. You wouldn't have become a nationally-ranked tennis player if you didn't know that, somewhere." He paused, feeling a bit embarrassed as he concluded: "It's okay to love the game, even if your father isn't there to encourage you."
A sniffle came from across the net, and then Echizen had tears rolling down his face. Tezuka just stared, feeling gauche. Oishi or Momoshirou would have made some move to comfort the underclassmen; Tezuka didn't have an idea where to begin. Instead he stood watching, letting Ryoma cry. He cried quietly, without any gasps or sobs.
The whole situation was embarrassing for the both of them, but Tezuka wasn't about to point that out. Ryoma made no move to wipe the tears off his face, but Tezuka didn't think less of him for it. "Thank you, buchou," he murmured quietly.
"I'll see you at practice tomorrow," Tezuka said. "Ranking matches are next week, so you have a lot of work to do. After you do twenty laps for skipping. And if you're slow with them, I'll assign you another ten."
That made Ryoma laugh, a stressed, tired sound, but to Tezuka, it was beautiful. Things were going to be okay, both for his prodigy and his team. Maybe was being selfish in forcing Ryoma back into tennis, but Tezuka couldn't regret it.
The chance to win the national title was within their grasp, since Echizen would undoubtedly upset the whole structured Japanese tennis scene again. And maybe that would help him continue to heal. Grieving was a continual process, and Tezuka wasn't foolish enough to believe that this match has magically solved all of Ryoma's problems.
But it was a start.