The friend is the man who knows all about you, and still likes you.
- Elbert Hubbard
Ryoma rubbed his nose with his wrist, sniffling. He wondered if he caught a cold after his little dip in the shallow river yesterday as he lazily dragged his feet towards one of the third year classrooms. He was carrying a paper bag with a newly washed towel inside.
He approached one of the third years chatting by the door and asked for Fuji. He smiled and told Ryoma to wait a second while he called his classmate. He came back with Fuji and Eiji in tow.
"Thanks" Ryoma gave him a curt bow.
"No problem" The senior went back to chatting with his friends.
"Thank you for yesterday, Fuji-senpai" Ryoma gave him a small smile as he handed the paper bag.
"Anytime" Fuji grinned back, accepting it.
Kikumaru curiously tried to peek at what was inside, which Fuji's sharp eyes did not miss so he opened it to show his best friend what was inside.
"A towel?" Kikumaru raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah. I happened to see Echizen soaked after swimming on the river close to your street yesterday, so I leant it to him." Fuji chuckled.
"Huh…" Kikumaru looked like he still did not make any sense of it, but simply shrugged it off. He then noticed what Ryoma was carrying in his other hand- a juice box and melon bun. "Ohhh, are you headed for the rooftop to have lunch? I wanna go too!"
Without waiting for Ryoma's response, Eiji quickly dashed to his desk to grab his own bento box. Halfway towards the door, he did a 180 and went over to Fuji's desk to grab Fuji's lunch as well then handed it over to Fuji when he got back. "You're coming too, right?"
"Do I have a choice?" Fuji teased playfully.
Ryoma climbed up the familiar staircase followed by his seniors. It was a sunny day, but the heat of the sun was toned down by the cool Spring breeze making it a pleasant day to be up on the rooftop. They sat together and ate- Ryoma in silence while Kikumaru and Fuji chatted with Kikumaru talking 98% of the conversation and Fuji simply smiling.
"And so you know~ Oishi and I went to see this place and it was great! It's a new apartment building, and if we buy it we'll be the first tenants. There's a gym, a pool too! The apartment itself isn't really that big, but it's okay because there are only two of us. Plus it has a kitchen, dining…"
Eiji's suddenly halted his train of babbles when he heard Ryoma sneeze.
"Ochibi? Did you catch a cold?" Kikumaru peered at him, making Ryoma slightly uncomfortable.
His two seniors could easily tell by now that Ryoma's silence meant 'yes'.
"Is that why you didn't go to school with Momo this morning?" Fuji asked, though his tone sounded like he already knew the answer. He just wanted to hear it from the person himself.
"Urk" Ryoma flinched.
"Of course! Knowing Momo, he'd probably tell you not to go to school." Eiji piped in.
"I just didn't want him to be nosy." Ryoma pouted in defeat.
"That won't do, Ochibi-chan. Don't hide things like that from Momo just 'cause you don't want him to worry. Doing things like that, sometimes if backfires, you know?"
There were times the usually hyperactive Kikumaru's sharpness surprised him. Ryoma then remembered what happened between the Golden Pair just a couple of days ago. Because Oishi had kept his application to university a secret from Kikumaru, it made the latter feel like he wasn't trusted. And in every friendship, trust is always the main foundation.
'I've… been unfair to him.'
While Ryoma was lost in thought, the bell rang signalling the end of lunch.
When classes were dismissed, Ryoma saw Momo waiting for him where he always parked his bike. Momoshiro got on before Ryoma hopped on the back. As they rode out of the school gates, Ryoma lightly tapped the broad shoulder he was holding on to.
"Momo-senpai… Can we go to the tennis court by the temple where my dad rots all day reading porn?"
"Pfft, did you really have to say it like that?" Momoshiro snorted.
"There's something I want to show you."
When they got there, Momo looked around the place with a nostalgic smile.
"We used to play here all the time. Where's your dad?"
"He probably left already. He's usually home by sunset." Ryoma said nonchalantly as he picked up a couple of racquets leaning on a well. "Shall we go for a round?"
"Seriously?" Momo grinned widely, eyes glimmering with excitement. "But wait, if you're able to play already, why didn't you join the tennis club then? I heard you got in a car crash when you were in America, so I always thought, you know, your injuries and all…"
Without answering, Ryoma stood in serving position, grabbed the neon green felt ball Tezuka gave him from his pocket, and threw it up in the air. He swung his racquet, and at that moment Momoshiro admired his perfect form before he had to dodge a racquet that missed his face by mere centimeters. It took him a few seconds to realize Ryoma lost hold of his racquet, making it fly towards his senior. Looking at the other side of the old worn out net that was torn in a lot of places, Momoshiro saw the shorter boy simply standing there, staring at his hand which was trembling.
He hastily picked up the racquet, jumped over the net and ran over to his best friend's side.
"This is the reason I didn't join, Momo-senpai." Ryoma's voice came out barely louder than a whisper. "Every time I hold a tennis racquet, I remember what happened that night, and I just start shaking all over. You see, the accident happened right after a tournament. Kevin and I both won our competitions. But on the drive back home, a car started following us. One thing led to another and it became a race… a stupid race that led to that accident. And Kevin…"
Ryoma clenched his fists.
"I could've done something to prevent it, but I didn't. It's no different from that being all my fault. Whenever I think about how he can no longer play tennis, my hand- my entire body- just goes numb."
Not knowing what to say, and not wanting to force himself to say anything just because he felt like he had to, Momoshiro kept quiet. He was still trying to process everything he heard from the shorter boy who was carrying a heavy burden on such a small back. Their awkward silence was broken by Ryoma's sneeze.
"Come on. It's getting late, I'll take you home." Momoshiro said, ruffling Echizen's hair.
Ryoma simply nodded, rubbing his nose with his index finger as he picked up the fallen tennis ball with his other hand and pocketed it. He got home just in time for dinner, but he told his mother he was not hungry and wanted to go to sleep. His mother simply nodded, but after Ryoma went upstairs to his room, she told her husband to prepare a basin with warm water and alcohol along with a small towel.
"Wahhh, so troublesome." Nanjiro whined, scratching his stomach.
"Then, would you rather take over cooking so I can do it instead, Honey?" Rinko smiled sweetly, reaching out the ladle to her husband.
"Fine" Nanjiro sighed in defeat, lazily getting up from the porch.
"You were right after all, Auntie? Did Ryoma-san come down with a cold?" Ryoma's cousin asked while cutting up peeled carrots on a wooden chopping board.
"Yes. He doesn't have any appetite whenever he's sick. Other than chocolate, he won't touch anything I give him. Not even plain chicken soup or porridge."
"But wow... It's amazing that you can tell right away your son has a cold. Mother's instinct?"
Rinko chuckled upon hearing that.
"Nanako-chan, would you believe if I tell you it's his dad who's always first to notice whenever Ryoma has a cold?"
"EH? Really?" Nanako's eyes widened in surprise.
'I get the same reaction every time' Ryoma's mother thought in amusement, sipping a bit of the soup from the bubbling curry to taste.
To be continued…
A/N: I have no excuse. I'm really sorry for taking so long. (weeps)