Chapter Twenty-Five: A Falling Star
Disclaimer: I still don't own Prince of Tennis… I do own copies of all the anime DVDs, though! XD
Author's Note: Here's chapter twenty-five! Remember, the complete Author's Note for this fic is posted in chapter one. But here are the warnings, summarized for your convenience: May contain spoilers/ shonen-ai/ not-shonen-ai/ please review/ flamers will be sent to clean Seigaku's tennis uniforms. Lol.
Here it is! -takes a deep breath- It's the last chapter of this fic, along with an epilogue afterwards. I sincerely hope that all of you enjoy it. This is dedicated to all of you who read this far… I really appreciate it, and I'm still amazed how many people managed to make it through such a long story! Enjoy the ending, everyone!
It's strange, how you never know what you have, until you think you've lost it for good.
I realized last night that there is only one thing that I really want.
I want to be by your side. I want to stay with you…
For the rest of my life.
Ryoma walked up to the front gate, carefully pressing the correct numbers on the touch pad and waiting for the usual response. Slowly, the gate opened, and he made his way up the front walk, just like always. He was currently living at his estate in Florida, the place he called home during most of the off-season. After all, it was a much better place for training than New York. Besides, his personal trainer lived near Miami, which made it much more convenient for everyone involved.
This was why, for most of the year, Ryoma lived by himself in a mansion in Florida.
He didn't really mind living alone. His parents were content in their penthouse apartment in Manhattan, and he was usually too busy traveling to care where his home base was.
No, he didn't mind living alone… Even though the house was so huge that he sometimes felt lost inside it.
Once he reached the front door, he slipped his keys out of his pocket and began opening the lock. He could hear the faint sound of mewing inside, which meant that Karupin had already noticed that his master had returned. Ryoma smiled slightly, twisting the key all the way to one side…
Just as he was about to remove it from the keyhole, he froze.
There was that feeling again.
What was it? It was the strangest thing, something Ryoma had been feeling for years now, every once in awhile…
It was the faint sensation that two arms had just grabbed him from behind, squeezing him tightly in an affectionate hug.
He turned around, but just like always, no one was there. It was the most unsettling feeling of déjà vu. He knew that feeling. He had felt it before…
… But what was it? Who hugged him like that?
Turning back to the door, he finished pulling the key from the lock and twisted the knob. And as Ryoma walked inside the gigantic front hall, all by himself, he realized something. He realized what that emptiness inside of him really meant, whenever he felt the familiar touch of those invisible arms…
He was lonely. And he missed his friends.
He hadn't realized it before, but it was true. He missed his friends. And suddenly, he realized what he was going to do.
He was going to go back to Japan.
The nation of Japan was in an uproar.
Echizen Ryoma, the world-famous tennis star, had just appeared on the island country only two weeks after his fourth consecutive Wimbledon win. The visit was completely unannounced, and it was a shock, for the most adamant Japanese tennis fan to the most casual observer. After all, it went without saying that Echizen Ryoma was the most famous person of Japanese nationality to ever make it in the world of professional sports. And because of that, he was nothing short of a Japanese idol, even though he had never come to the country in person…
… Until now. Now, Echizen Ryoma was in Japan.
Yes, he was in Japan, and it seemed like every last person in Tokyo was scrambling to catch a glimpse of him, if the crowd around the convention center was any indication of that fact.
The press conference that had been scheduled was open only to journalists, of course. But that hadn't stopped a sizable crowd of civilians from gathering on the sidewalks, waiting to see Echizen Ryoma enter the building. It had created a traffic nightmare on the adjacent streets, and the police had their hands full trying to keep the most rabid fans out of the convention hall.
Unknown to most of those who had gathered outside, however, was the fact that the long-awaited star had already slipped under their radar. About forty minutes before the conference was scheduled to begin, a young man in dark sunglasses and a black hat had managed to creep into a side entrance with his entourage. A lone fangirl who had recognized her idol screamed out that it was him, but by the time anyone else had noticed, Echizen Ryoma had vanished safely into the building.
Now, the world-famous tennis star was standing backstage, waiting to face all of Japan.
The hall was fairly quiet, considering the occasion. It appeared that the journalists at least were conducting themselves with propriety. Nevertheless, the conference was going to be broadcasted live on national television. And it went without saying that Mike Davis, Echizen Ryoma's manager, was about to have a heart attack.
"Ryoma! Are you ready to go on in half an hour?" Davis fretted, as he ran right by his client to confirm something with the stage manager.
Ryoma didn't even bother to answer, since he knew that Davis was too busy to hear him. He stood by the side curtains, peering in between the drapes to catch a glimpse of the inside of the hall. Since the event had been scheduled in such a hurry, conducting a conference in an overly large venue had been a necessity… In fact, the tennis star wouldn't have guessed that there were this many reporters in all of Japan. But he was used to intimidating crowds. No, the crowd didn't bother him.
But the empty, aching feeling inside of him did.
As he stood there, staring at the crowded scene that had been laid out before his eyes, he felt as though he was looking through a piece of glass. There, on the other side, was the world, fluttering with activity. On his side of the curtain, though, he was just standing there, waiting in the dark.
In that darkness, he found himself remembering the past few days, thinking about the chaos that had erupted around him when he had finally returned to Japan after five years.
He had come back to Japan to keep a promise. In doing so, he had discovered a nightmare. And then he had done his best to bring his dearest friends back together, so that they could be happy again.
He had done that. He was sure of it. And so it wasn't the secrets or the lies that were echoing inside his ears now. But the voices that lingered in his mind did belong to those eight people, those same people that he cared about so deeply…
… What were those voices saying?
"We miss you, Echizen. We are very proud of you, but we will always miss you."
"How do we affect other people, Echizen? Sometimes we don't even realize our own power…"
"Thanks for coming back, Ochibi."
"Echizen, who is it that you love?"
"What do you want from life, Echizen? Hold on to it, and don't ever let go."
"Go ahead, Echizen. It's okay. It's you, after all."
"I've got him, senpai… It's Echizen. He has to be alright."
"And then, a funny thing happened. I realized that I loved him."
Ryoma swallowed as hard as he could, trying to will the choking feeling out of his throat. Even though his friends weren't actually there to repeat the words they had once spoken to him, it was as though he could hear their voices playing inside his head. And all at once, his friends felt so near that he could almost see them, but they were still too far away to reach…
As Ryoma stared out through the curtain, he felt as though the crowd had vanished, and everything was darkness.
"Enjoying the view, boy?"
A very familiar voice suddenly jerked Ryoma back to reality.
The tennis star whirled around, only to find himself face to face with his father, Echizen Nanjiroh.
"Oyaji?" Ryoma stammered, astonished. "What are you doing here?"
"Mr. Davis informed us of your visit to Japan a few days ago," another familiar voice answered. "So, your father and I thought that it might be a good time to come back for a visit too."
Sure enough, Ryoma discovered that his mother was standing right next to his father. And they were both looking at him with a kind of searching expression that Ryoma couldn't really decipher.
"Okasan, what do you…?" Ryoma felt as though he should be asking something, but he wasn't quite sure what.
Without letting him finish the question, Nanjiroh walked right up to the curtains and yanked them together, so that the view was blocked. Then he turned back to his son, remarking, "Well, boy, that's quite a crowd you got there. What are you supposed to say to them, huh?"
"Something like this, I guess," shrugged Ryoma, handing his father a few stray pieces of paper, which contained some hurried notes that his manager had scribbled out at the last minute.
Nanjiroh's sharp eyes ran over the lines, and he chuckled. "All the usual gibberish, I see. These managers are great for saying absolutely nothing, as enthusiastically as possible."
"Are you nervous, darling?" Ryoma's mother asked, coming up alongside her son and gently grasping his shoulders.
"No…" But Ryoma's hesitant reply wasn't in the self-assured tone that his parents had come to expect.
The couple exchanged a glance for a moment, and then Ryoma's mother turned back to her son, with a sympathetic look in her eyes.
"Ryoma, dear, is something wrong?" she softly inquired, examining her son's eyes very carefully.
"No, not exactly… That is, I mean… Well, there shouldn't be," Ryoma finally managed, almost in a whisper, as though he was afraid that the entire world was listening.
There was a pause, there in the dim place next to the curtain, as if the darkness itself was holding its breath.
Finally, his mother spoke again. "Darling, I hope you don't mind us asking… Why did you come back to Japan?"
Ryoma frowned. "I was… I had something to take care of, Okasan. That's all."
"Oh, I see," Ryoma's mother said, very calmly. "It's alright, then… You don't have to tell us about it. But does that mean that you're going back to America with Mr. Davis, as soon as he flies out?"
Ryoma nodded, though a kind of dim submission came into his eyes.
"Can I ask you why?" came the gruff interruption.
Startled, Ryoma looked over at his father. The older man's arms were crossed over his chest, while his eyes glared intently into his son's face.
"Why what, Oyaji?" Ryoma repeated, looking very confused.
Nanjiroh didn't move, and Ryoma started to feel as if those eyes were staring right through him. "Can I ask you why you're going back to America, boy?"
"Why…?" Suddenly, Ryoma felt very frustrated. "What do you mean, why? You know why! I'm going back because I'm a professional tennis player… And I have things I have to do, so I have to leave…"
Slowly, Ryoma's voice trailed off into silence, and he just stood there, with his parents watching him.
"But there's someone that you don't want to leave behind, isn't there?" Ryoma's mother said quietly.
Ryoma's heart stopped beating.
Someone I don't want to leave behind…?
"I love you all."
"You really are out of it, boy," Nanjiroh observed candidly, eyes still fixed on Ryoma. "You're shaking."
There was a pause, and for the first time in his parents' memory, Ryoma looked at them both with an overwhelming fear in his eyes.
"I'm just scared," he murmured at last. "I'm scared, Oyaji… Because for the first time in my life, tennis isn't… It isn't…"
But he couldn't finish. Nanjiroh knew exactly what his son wanted to say, though. And even though Ryoma didn't notice, he smiled.
Slowly, the retired tennis star walked up to the curtain, drawing it slightly apart again. He looked out across the gathering crowd, and he remembered another time, years ago, when faces not so different from those ones had been waiting for him to appear on stage… Waiting for him to announce something completely unexpected…
"You know, boy," he said suddenly, in a quieter tone. "You've already fulfilled all of my dreams."
Ryoma looked up in surprise, but he couldn't quite find the words to respond. Nanjiroh continued…
"In fact, you didn't just fulfill my dreams. You surpassed them. You completely shattered every last one of my expectations." He turned to face his son again, with that same knowing smile. "But now the question is… Ryoma, what's your dream?"
"My dream…?" Ryoma whispered, still trembling slightly.
Nanjiroh walked over to his son, and put a hand on one of Ryoma's shoulders.
"That's right, Ryoma. It's time for you to find your own dream, whatever it is," he said firmly.
"Echizen-san! We're on in ten minutes! Please get ready!" came a voice from somewhere beyond Ryoma's current scope of perception. He nodded absently, though to what, he wasn't quite sure.
To find my own dream…?
"We just want you to be happy, darling," his mother added, with her gentle smile.
He wasn't sure what to say to that, but before he knew it, his parents were giving him light squeezes on the shoulder and making their way toward the back passage.
"We'll be waiting in the wings, dear," his mother said quickly. "It looks like it's almost time for you to go on."
It was as though a splash of cold water had been poured over Ryoma's head, as he suddenly noticed how frantic the place had become.
"Don't worry about a thing," Nanjiroh put in, giving his son a wink. "You're ready for it, boy. Go ahead and shock them all to death, if you want."
Ryoma wasn't sure whether he felt like laughing or crying, so instead, he smiled as best as he could. "Thank you, Oyaji… Okasan… Thank you."
But he barely comprehended their responding smiles, as he was suddenly swept up in the flurry of activity to prepare him for the cameras. There was his manager, babbling into one ear, and the television supervisor, yakking into the other. The makeup artist had already pounced on him, and another person was straightening his shirt and smoothing down his hair.
And just as soon as the hustle had begun, it was over, and Ryoma found himself standing on the side of the stage, as part of the curtain was pulled back…
Echizen Ryoma, the world-famous tennis star, had returned to the spotlight.
- - - - - - - - - - -
I want us to stay together. Please don't go like this.
Because to tell us to "Be happy!" while you leave us for good…
That is something that we just can't do.
Eiji and Oishi were still sitting on the sofa in Eiji's living room, side by side, over fifteen minutes after Momo had left the apartment. The couple was watching the television screen with a mixture of anticipation and dread, when there was a sudden knock at the door.
"I'll get it," Eiji almost whispered, as he got up from the couch and walked down the hall.
Much to the redhead's surprise, it wasn't just one person standing there to greet him. In fact, Tezuka and Fuji were both in the hallway, accompanied by Inui and Kaidoh. And a glance across the way revealed that Taka was just coming out of the elevator.
"What in the world---?" The confusion was self-evident on Eiji's face. "Why is everyone here?"
Fuji shrugged a little, smiling his usual smile. "Tezuka and I wanted to come see you. As for the others, well, you'll have to ask them yourself. We don't know why they're here, either."
With the same astonishment in his eyes, Eiji turned to Inui and Kaidoh. With a slight cough, the data man adjusted his glasses and then spoke up.
"As for us, we were just paying you a visit. Right, Kaidoh?"
"Fsssshhhhh," was the articulate reply from Inui's roommate. The snakelike teenager seemed embarrassed about something.
"Okay… But what about you, Taka-san?" Eiji glanced at the future sushi chef with curiosity.
Taka just smiled, crossing his arms behind his back.
"I think we all know why we're here. We wanted to watch Echizen's interview together. Right?"
A few stray nods from the others were accompanied by a smile from Eiji, and he turned to open the door wide. "Right. Well, in that case, come in, everyone."
Before long, almost all of the former Seigaku regulars were gathered in Eiji's living room, glancing repeatedly at the television. For the moment, though, the screen still held nothing of interest for them. And so, as they waited for the broadcast to begin, these former teammates were forced to realize something…
For the first time in five years, they felt almost complete again. The air was finally cleared between them all, and the tension had disappeared. Even though so much had never been said, those ugly secrets from the past hardly seemed to matter anymore.
Yes, they were almost complete.
But then they realized something else. Where the most precious thing of all should have been, there was now a huge, gaping hole.
Of course, the pillar was missing… But something else was missing, too.
"Where's Momo?" Taka finally asked, sounding very concerned. At the question, both Eiji and Oishi's expressions fell, and the others were instantly filled with a sense of dread at the sight of those morose faces.
The former vice captain took a deep breath, looking at Taka as he answered.
"He left, about twenty minutes ago."
A few worried glances were quickly exchanged, before Kaidoh demanded, "What do you mean, he left?"
With sorrow in his eyes, Eiji held up the key ring that Momo had handed to him. "He gave these back to me. He's leaving for good… He said that he's transferring to Kyoto."
The shock in everyone's faces was as clear as glass.
"He's what?" cried Fuji, as Tezuka stood up from the chair on which he'd been sitting. Inui glanced quickly at Kaidoh, while Taka frowned to himself.
"He's leaving!" Eiji repeated painfully, as he threw the keys down onto the coffee table in front of him. "He told us that he had to move on, and that he was leaving now, because he knew we'd be alright… He said that he wanted us to be happy."
Tears were filling Eiji's eyes again, even though he held them back as bravely as he could. He continued, but it was in little more than a whisper.
"That Momo, he… He stayed here to help me, so that I would hang on until things got better… I think he tried to help all of us. I mean, I never noticed it before, and now… Now it doesn't even matter! Because he's leaving!"
Eiji choked out the last words, and then lapsed into silence, covering his eyes with his hands. The silence that followed was almost paralyzing in its anguish.
"But why would he leave so suddenly?" Inui muttered at last. "It doesn't make sense."
There was another pause. Slowly, Fuji's blue eyes opened wide.
"I know why. It's because Momo…"
Somehow, though, with everyone there, he couldn't finish the thought. And so it was Kaidoh who gruffly answered the question, even though the snakelike teenager stared intently at the floor as he spoke.
"It's because… It's because Echizen is perfect. That's what that idiot said… That he doesn't deserve him."
"Of course," murmured Oishi, almost under his breath. "Now it makes sense. That's why Momo's eyes looked like that."
"But that means… That strange look in Echizen's face last night, when he came into dinner…" Inui spoke slowly, catching all of their attention.
"Momo told him?" Eiji gave a voice to what they were all thinking. "Don't tell me that Ochibi rejected…"
Suddenly, their frenzied thoughts were all interrupted by an announcement from the television. The credits for the previous program had finally ended, and a voice was saying the following introduction:
"Today, we will be interrupting our normal programming at this time to bring you an exclusive interview. For the first time in his pro career, the world-famous tennis star Echizen Ryoma has come to Japan. In less than ten minutes, this channel will be broadcasting the momentous occasion on live TV. The interview will begin after a short word from our sponsors…"
The seven occupants of the room stared at the television during the entire length of the announcement. They watched, as images of the "world-famous tennis star" flashed by on the screen. They gazed at the likeness of the boy they knew, and just as Ryoma stood by himself backstage at the convention center and thought of them, they couldn't get him off of their minds.
In that moment, they all remembered the past few days, and everything that had happened. But most of all, they remembered the words of this "world-famous tennis star," and how much Echizen Ryoma meant to them, not as a star, but as the boy who had finally returned to them after five long years.
More than ever before, they realized who they had to thank for their new happiness. After all, it was that boy, and his most heartfelt words, that had brought them back together…
"Tezuka-buchou, there's someone you love! … And I don't want you to lose him."
"Oishi-senpai… Tell him. Don't wait anymore."
"He really cares about you, Kikumaru-senpai. Don't ever forget that, okay?"
"You're his flaw, Fuji-senpai. You're his weakness. You're everything to him now."
"I'm not going to avoid anyone. I'm keeping my promise, Inui-senpai."
"Kawamura-senpai… Thank you for telling me… I have somewhere I need to be!"
"Kaidoh-senpai, you should tell him. It's a risk, but he would never hurt you."
In that moment, when the only sound was the faint murmur of the television, everything seemed so clear. The reason why everything had fallen apart when Ryoma left, the reason why only Ryoma could have made it right again, the reason why Ryoma had been unable to bring himself to say goodbye…
Tezuka stood completely still, staring straight ahead, eyes fixed on that screen. Suddenly he knew what he had to do.
This time, it was his turn to be the pillar.
"Oishi," he said suddenly, catching everyone's attention. "I have to go somewhere. And I need you to come with me."
Oishi met the former captain's gaze, and it was as though he could hear the plea hidden in those sparking amber eyes. After a split second, he smiled, giving Tezuka a nod as he stood up from the couch.
"Right. We'll have to hurry, though. Did you bring the rental car?"
Much to the confusion of the room's other occupants, Tezuka quickly nodded and began making his way toward the door, closely followed by Oishi.
"Wait, what are you two---?" Eiji tried to ask a question, only to be interrupted by Fuji.
"Stop right there, Captain. You too, Oishi."
Both Tezuka and Oishi turned around, only to be shocked by the way Fuji's eyes were glaring. It was as though they had been lit with blue fire.
"What is it, Fuji?" Tezuka said, a bit warily.
The tension in the room seemed heavy enough to crush them all, until the tensai let a grin slip onto his mouth.
"You can go, but not without me. And I'm driving."
While some of the former Regulars breathed a sigh of relief, Oishi just laughed. And Tezuka smiled, even though his voice remained stern.
"And why would I let you do that? You drive like hell itself."
"And you will need that, won't you, Captain?" was Fuji's ironic retort, as he marched right past Tezuka with a flourish of his hand. "Or else we won't make it in time."
"What's going on?" Eiji demanded helplessly. The others looked equally perplexed.
With a slight shake of his head, Oishi returned to Eiji's side for a moment, taking his partner by the hand.
"We'll be back as soon as we can, Eiji. But you need to watch the broadcast for us, okay?"
Eiji looked searchingly in those green eyes for a moment, but then he smiled.
"Okay. We'll be watching. But come back soon."
"You don't have to worry about that, Eiji," Oishi whispered in the redhead's ear. "We'll always be together from now on. No matter what."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Everything will be alright…
I know it will. Without a doubt.
Because I've always believed in you.
Momoshiro Takeshi stood on a train platform, watching as a long line of cars rocketed down the nearby tracks. The express to Kyoto wouldn't be arriving for another twenty minutes, but he didn't mind waiting. He wasn't in a hurry, after all, though a part of him secretly wished that he had already escaped from Tokyo…
In his right hand, Momo was clutching a newspaper.
TENNIS STAR ECHIZEN RYOMA TO APPEAR IN TOKYO PRESS CONFERENCE TODAY!
He had already seen the headline earlier that morning. In fact, he had known about it long before he had gone to finalize the college transfer paperwork. But it hadn't swayed him in his decision, not for a second…
No, from the moment that he had confessed his feelings to Ryoma, Momo had made his decision. He was leaving Tokyo, and that was that.
He had thought about it for a long time, really… What should he do if Eiji ever managed to reunite with Oishi? He had always known that he didn't want to be a third wheel in that small apartment, assuming that Eiji even decided to keep the apartment at all. For all Momo knew, the Golden Pair might both move to England, in which case he really didn't want to be tying them down.
More than that, though, Momo felt that he just couldn't stay in Tokyo anymore. It had been one thing when Ryoma had left for the first time. Back then, when he had watched everything fall apart, he had decided to stay until things could be made right again.
But now they were right again. And Ryoma was leaving for a second time.
And this time, Momo wasn't sure that he could bear it.
Taking a deep breath, Momo set his duffel bag on the ground, taking one last look at the headline before slipping the paper into a pocket. But as he did so, something else fell out of the bag, and he knelt to pick it up.
It was a magazine.
There on the cover was a beautiful thirteen-year-old boy, holding a gleaming trophy up to the camera. But the smile that he was wearing was even brighter than the metal.
ECHIZEN RYOMA: YOUNGEST WIMBLEDON CHAMPION IN TENNIS HISTORY.
As he gazed on the photo, from just over four years ago, Momo felt that familiar sensation come over him. It was like a fluttering of wings against his chest, followed by that queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He'd grown used to that feeling, whenever he looked at photographs of Ryoma, but now…
Now, for some reason, it almost made him want to cry.
Because he was Momo, though, he forced himself to laugh.
"Well, it looks like I'll have you to keep me company," he said softly to the magazine cover, smiling a little. "I just can't escape you, can I?"
Without even glancing around to see if anyone was looking, Momo brought the cover closer to his face, lightly brushing his lips against the smooth surface.
Laughing again, he shook his head and stood up, taking the duffel into his hand once again.
Really, I'm as bad as a high school fangirl.
He walked over and took a seat on an empty bench, setting his bags next to him. He took the magazine in both hands, still staring at it. Somehow, he just couldn't pull his eyes away from that picture-perfect image.
"You are perfect, Echizen," he whispered. "That's why I never expected an answer from you. Because I know that you could never actually…"
He paused for a moment, listening to the roar of an approaching train. Was that the express to Kyoto? He glanced up, and sure enough, his train had just pulled into the station.
"Well, enough of that. We'll be alright, won't we?" He smiled again at the picture, and then he carefully slid the old magazine back into his bag and fastened the zipper.
Taking up his bags again, he rose from his seat and took a deep breath.
"After all, everyone is happy now. And that's all that matters."
He was managing to ignore the growing ache inside of him quite successfully, until a faint murmur caught his ear. At the sound of that familiar voice, his body froze, and his heart leaped right out of his chest.
He looked around quickly, trying to find where it was coming from.
… Where was that voice coming from?
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Echizen Ryoma certainly looked the part of a famous tennis star. He was wearing a classy polo shirt and a designer sports jacket, with the usual white cap on his head. Before the questions had even begun, the room was filled with the flashing of cameras, as every last photographer in the place started frantically taking shots of the teenager.
As the journalists would later report, Ryoma also looked remarkably calm, as he faced the cameras with what appeared to be a kind of amiable indifference. Yet anyone who knew him well would have noticed that the star looked slightly pale, and that the blank look in his eyes betrayed that his thoughts were traveling a mile a minute. Still, his voice was perfectly normal as he greeted the reporters, and it seemed as though the press conference would go exactly as everyone expected.
However, everyone's expectations were shattered by the time Ryoma had answered the very first question.
The question was asked, as it turned out, by a reporter for a tennis magazine called Pro Tennis Monthly. The reporter, a man by the name of Inoue, asked Ryoma the following question…
"Echizen-san, would you please tell us what it is that drives you to keep playing tennis?"
Ryoma gave a slight nod, to show that he had heard the question. But then, for a moment, he was silent. He looked out across the sea of reporters, as though he were examining his surroundings and carefully formulating his response.
In fact, no one knew it, but that in that very moment, Echizen Ryoma was frozen in terror.
After a moment, though, he took a deep breath, shaking himself out of his trance. And then he began to reply, speaking every word in a clear tone that echoed in the microphones in front of him.
"Before I answer your question, Inoue-san, I would like to thank the people of Japan for their overwhelming support throughout my career. And I would also like to thank you all for coming here today for this interview."
There was a brief pause, as Ryoma slipped something into his pocket, much to everyone's confusion. They didn't know it, but the tennis star had just put away his manager's notes. From that moment on, every word that he said had never been written as part of a script, or pre-advised by his entourage.
From that moment on, it was simply Echizen Ryoma, speaking to the world.
"To answer your question, Inoue-san," he began again, looking back up at the crowd. "I don't have a good answer for you. As you know, I started playing tennis when I was very young. Tennis became a part of me, and I couldn't quit, even if I wanted to. And at first, that was all there was to it."
Ryoma looked straight into the cameras then, as if there was someone inside of them that he wanted to reach.
"But five years ago, I realized that there had to be more to it than that. Five years ago, someone showed me that there were more important reasons for playing tennis. This person inspired me to become the best tennis player that I could be. And with his encouragement, I eventually went on to enter the pro circuits."
Ryoma frowned then, and he didn't stop speaking, much to everyone's surprise.
"However, I made a mistake. When I entered the pro circuits, I made the mistake of thinking that becoming a world champion would give me everything I wanted from life. And I have to come to realize that it did not. In fact, there are things in life that I missed, because of that decision. Because of my ambition, I overlooked what was really important, and I left behind the most important people in my life."
The crowd was starting to get slightly restless by this point. They were all bewildered as to the direction the interview was taking, almost as bewildered as Ryoma's assistants backstage. What was the tennis star getting at…?
"And so, because of this…"
Here Ryoma faltered slightly, and the ensuing silence inside the hall was deafening. As it turned out, it was the calm just before the storm…
"Echizen, become Seigaku's pillar of support!"
"Because of this, I am here today to announce my retirement from the pro circuits," he finished decisively.
The convention hall exploded in a wave of astonishment. Papers were rustling like trees in a hurricane, and a barrage of camera flashes filled the air. Backstage, Ryoma's entire entourage was engaged in a flurry of shock and dismay. Suddenly, though, Echizen Ryoma was completely calm. He felt as though a gigantic weight had been lifted off his shoulders, once and for all. And now that he had finally said it, he realized that it had been the best thing he had ever done.
From behind the curtain, Echizen Nanjiroh watched with a smile.
I don't know who it was, but the person who gave that boy a reason to play tennis gave him something else as well…
He gave him a reason to live. And that reason had nothing to do with a ball and a racquet.
… It's just lucky for the tennis world that he didn't realize it sooner.
And Nanjiroh watched, with a paternal kind of pride in his eyes, as his son faced the cameras with newfound composure.
- - - - - - - - - - -
"I don't know if I will ever return to the pro circuits."
As Eiji watched Ryoma on television, saying those words with such confidence to the camera, he was filled with a rush of happiness.
"I can't believe Ochibi is doing this," he murmured. "And he's doing it for us."
From the looks on Taka and Inui and Kaidoh's faces, they couldn't believe it either.
But that didn't stopped them from smiling uncontrollably, as they watched Echizen Ryoma retire from his tennis career at the ripe old age of seventeen.
- - - - - - - - - - -
"For the time being, however, I will no longer compete in professional tournaments."
Tezuka and Oishi were listening intently to the car radio, as Fuji sped along in the rental car.
"Can you believe this?" Oishi said softly, glancing at Tezuka. "He's actually retiring. I would never have guessed that he would do something like this…"
Tezuka said nothing, but Fuji managed to remark as he sped through a red light, "I'm not surprised. He's got a perfectly good reason to stay, after all."
"He won't if you don't drive faster," was Tezuka's observation, even though both Fuji and Oishi could tell that the stoic captain was happier than he'd been in a long, long time.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
"I'm sure I'll never stop playing tennis. But for now, there are other things that I need to learn."
Momo was staring, completely stunned, at the tiny television that was mounted above the train schedule board. He hadn't even noticed that the interview had been going on above his head, until he had heard Ryoma's sudden declaration that he was retiring.
His luggage lay forgotten on the ground, as the express to Kanto left the station. Momo didn't notice its departure, though. He was too busy staring in astonishment at the television screen.
In fact, he was so busy staring that he didn't even notice three men come running up the stairs straight toward him.
The power player turned around in surprise, only to see Tezuka, Fuji, and Oishi coming up alongside him with determination in their faces.
"Momo, you have to come back with us," Oishi said, grasping the younger man by the shoulder. "You can't leave. We need you."
"Oishi-senpai…" Momo was about to reply, when Tezuka interrupted him.
"Echizen needs you too, Momoshiro. Just as much as we do."
"Don't disappoint him, Momo," Fuji added. "Don't try to run away, like we did."
For a moment, the younger man just stood there, completely bewildered at all the sudden changes in events. And then, as he listened to the familiar voice above his head, he smiled.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
"I need to learn how to take care of the people that I care about."
In a busy restaurant in another part of Tokyo, a young man glanced at one of the televisions above his head. His eyes widened, and he pointed intently at the screen, even though no one was paying attention to him.
"Isn't that Echizen-kun?" he murmured, pausing for a second to think about this. But then he started rambling on in a monotonous voice, heedless of the other people around him…
"Of course it is. It's Echizen-kun. I'd know that face anywhere. But what is he doing on television? … He's retiring from the pro circuits? Why is he retiring from the pro circuits? … I didn't think that he was losing any of his matches. And what's the point of retiring if you're not losing? Although he's always been a show-off like that…"
"Shinji, what on earth are you mumbling about this time?" came a voice behind his head.
"Oh. Tachibana-san. Look." And Shinji kept pointing to the television screen.
The former captain of Fudomine watched for a moment, gazing at the world-famous tennis star, as he told all of Japan that he was retiring…
And Tachibana Kippei crossed his arms and smiled, shaking his head.
"Kamio, you've got to come see this. You too, An," he called, even as he kept shaking his head in disbelief.
"I can't believe it," Kamio said after watching the television.
"Neither can I," An agreed, staring at the screen. "It's actually happening…"
After a split second, the two of them looked at each other.
"Well, it's about time!"
- - - - - - - - - - - -
"I need to learn what's really important."
Far away, in another part of Japan, a young man was gazing quietly into a store window. Inside were several television screens, all of which showed Echizen Ryoma retiring from the pro tennis circuit. As he watched that familiar figure tell those reporters that he'd finally found something more important than tennis, the observer smiled to himself.
"I'm happy for you, Aniki," he said under his breath. "They can be your closest family now. I know they'll take good care of you... Especially him."
There was a pause, and suddenly Fuji Yuuta heard a voice beside him.
"What in the world are you watching, Yuuta-kun?"
"Ah, Mizuki-san, I'm watching Echizen Ryoma's press conference."
Yuuta couldn't resist smiling, as he watched the corner of Mizuki's eyebrow start to twitch.
"Echizen Ryoma's press conference? Why I didn't know about this? … I always know about everything that goes on in the tennis community! To think that something like this should slip under my radar is nothing short of absurd…"
Yuuta laughed, as his former manager went off on a most characteristic rant. But he couldn't resist glancing one last time at the television screen.
Thanks, Echizen. I owe you one.
- - - - - - - - - - -
"And there are people who need me. So I have to be there for them, first of all."
In a large mansion in the picturesque setting of Switzerland, the faint sound of clapping was echoing inside one of the hallways.
Inside the study, a huge flat-screen television was showing a broadcast from a Japanese news network via satellite. And standing right in front of that giant screen was a familiar figure in a silver bathrobe, applauding quietly.
"Well done, Echizen," Atobe said with a satisfied smile, gazing at the picture of the tennis star.
"Sir, do you know that young man?" a servant asked.
Atobe never answered the question, instead giving the servant a typical command. "Ah, there you are. Wake my other guests, would you? I imagine all six of them want breakfast, and I wouldn't want them to miss it."
"As you wish, sir."
After the servant had left the room, Atobe smiled again, coming up alongside his leather chair. With a very satisfied look, he sat down and crossed his legs.
"And that is how things should be. Wouldn't you say, Kabaji…?"
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
It was a very happy day for nine former teammates, when they were finally reunited after the press conference. It was one of those things that happened at just the right time, in just the right way, and it was something that they never forgot.
When the interview ended in a hurry, due to the chaos that Ryoma's announcement had caused, the tennis star had attempted to make it out of the convention center and start heading toward the hotel. By that point, however, the sidewalks were so crowded that the task was nearly impossible, and he had started to give up hope of ever making it to his hotel room, much less Eiji's apartment.
Much to Ryoma's surprise, however, he was then suddenly yanked inside a little red convertible. Having decided while he was watching the conference that Ryoma would need a ride home, Eiji had driven all the way to the center, only to whisk him back to the apartment in record time. Once they arrived, Taka and Inui and Kaidoh had been there to meet him.
And as they began to make their way back up the stairs to the building's entrance, another car pulled up and jerked to a halt.
Ryoma was standing at the top of the small flight of stairs that led to the door, as he watched Momo get out of the car.
For a moment, Momo just stood there, staring up at Ryoma from a distance.
"And then, a funny thing happened…"
As their eyes met, Ryoma suddenly understood what could hold the stars up. They were suspended every night, after all, in a deep purple sky. That was why they were able to fly high above the earth, supported by the dark, invisible arms of heaven…
Now, though, Ryoma knew what he really wanted, more than anything else.
He just wanted to fall back into that sky.
He held out his arms toward Momo, and the power player found himself rushing forward, as the former tennis star jumped down the steps…
"Then I realized it would be like trying to catch a star."
"If I am a star, I would rather fall."
Momo caught Ryoma in his arms, holding him tightly in that familiar embrace, the one that Ryoma had finally recognized from his stray moments of déjà vu.
And of course, it was suddenly so obvious.
This was what he wanted from life.
A funny thing happened. I realized that I loved him.
As he thought it, Ryoma smiled to himself.
"I love you, Momo-senpai," he said, sounding so much like the boy they all remembered.
"I love you too, Echizen," was Momo's simple reply, even though it was filled with the most genuine kind of happiness.
"Thank you," Ryoma added, as he locked his arms around his senpai's neck. "If it weren't for you, I would have left, and I never would have realized…"
Ryoma never finished the thought, and there was a moment's pause, followed by a bright interruption.
"You want to stay with us?" Eiji offered hopefully, causing a few stray laughs.
"Of course I want to stay with you!" Ryoma exclaimed, laughing himself. "I thought you were watching the TV, Kikumaru-senpai!"
"Hey, you didn't say it, Echizen," Momo teased, still holding Ryoma in the air.
"Oh, right. Mada mada dane."
"Now that's better," declared Momo. "And now, what does our prince want us to do, if we're going to stay together?"
Ryoma thought about this for a moment, and then he smiled, winking at Fuji.
"Maybe we could run away."
But Fuji just shook his head, with a genuine smile.
"No, Echizen. This time, we won't have to."
The tensai looked at Tezuka for a moment, and then turned back to Ryoma, gazing happily into those perfect golden eyes.
"This time, you're here with us, after all."
Tezuka nodded, offering the teenage boy his own smile.
"So, everything will be alright."
For a moment, Ryoma looked at all eight faces that were smiling back at him. And for the first time, he could feel it… Those words weren't a hopeless wish. At last, they were a fact, because he had finally realized what he wanted. And there was no way that he was ever going to let it go.
"Yes. Everything will be alright. I promise."
Echizen Ryoma was a legend in the world of tennis. He shattered the age records for all four Grand Slam tournaments within the first five years of his career. But at the age of seventeen, he suddenly retired from the tennis scene. To the general public, his reasons for doing this were completely unknown, and would remain so during his years away from the pro circuit.
During this time, however, Echizen Ryoma was anything but idle, a truth unknown to most of the world. He traveled extensively, and it was a little known fact that this was because of his eight former teammates from junior high. Despite having frequent reunions, as they had promised each other upon Ryoma's retirement, they were still scattered throughout the world, busily fulfilling their own unfinished dreams. Ryoma had his hands full visiting them all, keeping in touch, and often changing their lives in ways they never even imagined possible.
Shortly after Ryoma retired, his friend Kawamura Takashi was married to a woman named Hoshina Kimiko. The former tennis star attended the wedding, which was a perfect Japanese ceremony, followed by a less formal reception. When Ryoma showed the bride how to throw a bouquet in the Western way, however, it caused quite a stir… Mainly because it was Eiji who caught it, and he blushed like a schoolgirl when he discovered what the tradition meant.
Kawamura Takashi and his wife would go on to have a baby only a year after their wedding. It was a beautiful little boy, and they gave him the name 'Shusuke.'
As for Eiji and Oishi, the Golden Pair, they were living in an apartment in England, thanks to Ryoma's financial generosity. Oishi was able to finish out his education at Oxford, and later went on to publish a book of poems in English that won considerable literary recognition. The poems were highly acclaimed for their powerful depiction of unrequited love, and readers and writers alike often wondered what the source of the young Japanese writer's inspiration could have been. As for Eiji, he decided to quit school around the same time that Ryoma retired. He spent his days with Oishi, taking care of the apartment and spoiling their cat, Shuuko-chan. They never left each other's side, and it was impossible to find one without the other. And so, even though the Golden Pair never picked up their tennis racquets again, it was obvious that they were two of the happiest people alive. They would remain so for the rest of their years.
Echizen Ryoma was known for being a genius at tennis, but he would often insist that the only real genius that he knew was a young photographer by the name of Fuji Shusuke. This man lived in Paris for much of his time, working on whatever project struck his fancy and creating quite a stir in the Parisian art circles. Shortly after Ryoma's retirement, this same Fuji created the most famous work of his entire career. It was a vivid black and white photograph, very similar to his earlier piece "A Fallen God." This masterpiece, however, was titled, "The Faithful Prince," and Ryoma himself was the subject.
Living with Fuji was another man by the name of Tezuka Kunimitsu, who, as rumor had it, was a tennis player undergoing extensive rehabilitation at the cost of none other than Echizen Ryoma. It would be several years before Tezuka's weakened arm would manage to heal completely, but once it did, this man shocked the tennis world with his ability. In fact, he was rumored to be a player with talent rivaling that of Echizen Ryoma. However, he did not register for the pro circuits, so the assertion remained largely unconfirmed. The reason for this decision remained a secret, but at its heart was Tezuka's affection for Fuji Shusuke. The photographer was said to be afflicted with a repressed form of schizophrenia, and with Ryoma's help, was getting treated for his disease. It was Tezuka, however, who refused to leave his side, remaining in Paris for as long as Fuji called it home.
It was a relief to all tennis fans when, nearly four years later, Ryoma announced that he would be returning to the pro circuits. By this time, though, new talent was starting to appear in the field. Another Japanese upstart by the name of Kaidoh Kaoru had taken the tennis world by storm when he appeared on the pro circuit, about a year after Ryoma had first retired. He was under the exclusive care of a new trainer named Inui Sadaharu, whose remarkable advances in liquid nutrition stunned the medical community.
In all the intrigue surrounding Echizen Ryoma's sudden retirement, it is interesting to note that one mystery was never solved. The exact reason for his departure from the tennis scene for four years was never discovered. It is known, however, that wherever Echizen Ryoma goes, a young man with black hair and dark eyes follows him. The two, however, have remained particularly adept at outwitting the paparazzi. It is said that they even seem to enjoy pulling off great escapes to stay out of the spotlight, so if the two do have some kind of relationship, the world at large will probably never know more about it than that.
Final Author's Note
Well, after about a semester of writing, 'When I Come Back to You' is finally finished. I almost can't believe that it's over, but then again, it doesn't seem like it took that long to write. I know I made it pretty complex, with all the secrets and plot twists, but at its heart, it's a very simple story. It's really just about the Seigaku Regulars, and also about how I think the anime ending was incomplete, what with Ryoma leaving to enter the US Open and all that. This is because I see Seigaku as a unit, and I don't think they should ever have to 'do without' Ryoma being at their side. So I just wanted to write a story about the way I think we all wish it had ended… With the Seigaku Regulars together again.
Still, it was a pretty complicated story, and I know many of you probably think I glossed over all the problems at the end. Also, it seems like the Regulars finally reunite, only to part again in the epilogue. I am aware of this, but I did that on purpose. The healing that many of the Regulars will need, outside from having Ryoma again, is the kind of healing that takes time and effort to obtain. Additionally, I didn't want to write some kind of escapist ending, where they all immediately abandon their own dreams just to be together. Obviously, I didn't have room for all that in the story, but I did write an epilogue that I hope gives you a glimpse of what happened afterwards. Also, I am aware that this means there is room for a sequel. Whether or not there will be one, I still haven't decided… But you can feel free to add me to your Author Alert, if you are interested in reading a sequel, or just keep an eye on the PoT section here on all that said, I just wanted to say that I can't believe the support that this story received. And I want to say a sincere, heartfelt, gigantic THANK YOU to ALL my readers and reviewers. You are truly amazing, and I can't tell you how much you encouraged me, not only to finish this story, but to keep writing in general. Honestly, I don't think I deserved all the praise, but I am so grateful for it. Thank you so much, everyone!
I know it's not a huge payback, but as a present for my reviewers, I did want to say this… I will reply to every single one of the reviews on Chapter 25, to tell you how much I appreciate your support, and to answer any questions. It's the least I can do, to thank all of you for reading this far and for giving me so much encouragement. So, thanks once again! -bows-
On a more personal note… I do apologize again for the delay on this final chapter. I did my best to get it out early in the week, but I forgot that my family was leaving on a short vacation. So I was away from the computer for most of this week! Sorry to all of those who have been trying to contact me via e-mail… I'll get back to you asap!
It does seem fitting, though, that because of the delays, I am posting the last chapter (a few hours late) on Ryoma's birthday, and just in time for Christmas. So this last chapter is my birthday present to Ryoma, and a present to all of Seigaku as well. -hugs them- I love you all, my dears! This story was for you, whether or not you would appreciate such a sugary sweet ending. Lol. XD
Well, that's it, folks! Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll maybe consider checking out my upcoming projects, once I do get around to posting them. Merry Christmas, and a happy holiday to you all! -waves goodbye-