AN: I will give no reason for the the lateness of this chapter, although there are many. Enjoy.

Dedication: This story was inspired by chapter 48 of expendable's Changechildren.

Warnings: Angst, child abuse, psychological abuse, OOC.

Standard Disclaimer: Sugarpony does not own Tennis no Ohjisama. It belongs to the brilliant Takeshi Konomi. No copyright infringement is intended.

If Wishes Were Horses

Chapter Eight

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,

The reason why I cannot tell;

But this I know, and know full well,

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

-"I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell," a Mother Goose nursery rhyme

Ryoma opened his eyes to see the angry face of his mother hovering over him. She pulled him off the floor by his elbow, growling at him through her teeth. "Inside, now," she hissed.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Ryoma was tossed into the kitchen table. "What were you doing?!" she roared. "I told you to find someplace else to stay, not to curl up in the middle of the hallway where people walk by! The manager called me saying you had been locked out. I had to tell him I was in the shower when you got back to cover for your stupid stunt!"

Ryoma stumbled back into the living area, but his mother matched him step for step. "I-I'm sorry," he said, raising his hands in surrender. "It won't happen again."

"No, it won't." Rinko grabbed his ear and used it to slam him head-first into the coffee table. Then, while he was nursing his head, she kicked him sharply in the stomach. Ryoma was knocked onto the carpet. "Now get in your room, and don't let me see you again until tomorrow night."

Ryoma scrambled off the floor, grabbed his bag from where he'd dropped it by the front door, and raced to his room. Once the door was safely locked behind him, he collapsed on the bed, holding his abdomen in one hand and his head in the other. Right then, he really would have appreciated a warm furry body to cuddle with–but he tried not to think about that. He focused on the pain of his injuries, rather than the pain of losing Karupin.

Ryoma leaned back into the pillows and groaned. He made the executive decision that his homework could wait until before class tomorrow morning; there was no way he concentrate on school work at the moment. Mind made up, he closed his eyes and drifted off.

Kaoru stroked Karupin's soft fur as the cat lay curled up in his lap. It had been almost a week since he'd found him sinking in the creek, and he appeared to have recovered well. Kaoru had taken him to be checked out at the local vet after pulling him from the water, and the doctor had told him all seemed well and the cat just needed some food and rest.

From the veterinarian's office he had taken Karupin straight to Echizen's temple. When he'd arrived, intending to return the feline to his owner, Kaoru had received an unexpected and wholly unwelcome surprise.

Echizen no longer lived with his father. After classes on Friday his mother had taken him to live in a different district, and she'd even gone so far as to enroll him in a school closer to his new home. Before meeting her son at Seigaku that afternoon she'd stopped by the temple to pick up his things, including Karupin.

Echizen Nanjiroh was lived when Kaoru told him he'd found the cat sinking into the creek, and the young man didn't really blame him. He was more than capable of putting two and two together to make four; Echizen Rinko had been the last person in possession of Karupin before his unplanned swim, which meant that it was likely she who had tossed him into the water like a piece of trash.

Echizen's dad had asked Kaoru to look after Karupin for the time being. So Kaoru spent the next week grooming, playing with, and petting the long-haired cat, but all the while he was cursing every animal-hating person he could think of.

Kaoru awoke with a splitting headache pounding behind his eyes. He worked through his morning training regimen, but the migraine didn't dissipate as he had hoped it would. It must have shown on his face, because everyone who came into view, students and teachers alike, hurried to get out of his path as he stalked down the halls.

"Hey, Viper!"

Kaoru groaned as Momoshiro flopped onto his desk. His teammate looked up at him with the biggest, roundest eyes he could muster. "Please tell me you did the math homework. I got stuck babysitting my little cousin and didn't have time to finish."

Kaoru glared and slid his school bag under his chair, out of reach of Momoshiro's itchy fingers. "No way. You're not copying the answers from me."

"Oh, come on!" Momoshiro inched closer, pleading. "It's not my fault! I just need a little peek. I'll buy you lunch for a week! I can't get another failing grade, my parent's will kill me!"

"I said no, now beat it, peach butt." Kaoru slammed one arm on his desk, forcing his rival to back off.

Momoshiro scowled and scratched at his head. "Che, some friend you are. See if I ever ask you for a favor again."

Kaoru breathed in deeply through his nose, trying to contain his temper. This idiot had no idea what kind of weekend he'd had. He obviously didn't know that Echizen had been taken away, or he wouldn't be whining about a few measly math problems. Goodness knew Kaoru certainly couldn't focus on classes at the moment, and for good reason.

Thankfully the teacher walked through the door, and Momo crossed the room to sit at his own desk. Attendance was taken, the lecture began, and Kaoru tried to put aside his worries and take in at least some of The Tales of Genji.

The morning could have been worse, but then break came and Momoshiro was once again moaning and groaning and trying to wheedle Kaoru's homework out of him. Kaoru was beyond thankful when the bell for lunch finally rang and his annoying rival headed to the cafeteria in search of food. He was able to enjoy a full twenty minutes of relative peace and quiet before his classmates started to trickle back in through the door.

Momoshiro plopped gracelessly into his chair, leaning back and balancing on two of its legs as he rubbed his stomach contentedly. "Mmm," he hummed, "that really hit the spot! A little pick-me-up is just what I needed!" Just as he stretched his arms above his head, the chair giving an ominous wobble, the sliding door crashed open with a clatter, and Momo suddenly became intimately acquainted with the dusty floor. Kaoru sniggered.

"Momo-chan-sempai!" The group of first-years that tended to follow Echizen around wove through the desks to where the boy was nursing a bump on his thick head. "Momo-chan-sempai, we have a question for you," the mousy, nervous boy spoke. "Er, we were wondering if–"

"Get to the point, stupid!" The brash girl in short pigtails shoved her way to the front of the small crowd. Ryuuzaki-sensei's granddaughter pulled on her friend's sleeve, blushing.

"T-Tomo-chan, please–"

"Come on, Sakuno, he was taking way too long!" Oh, yeah, this was Echizen's self-proclaimed number one fangirl, the one who always hurt his ears. She always was impatient and bossy, Kaoru thought, as the girl turned a blazing glare to Momoshiro. The second-year stiffened and seemed to shy away from her, and Kaoru didn't blame him one bit.

Tomo frowned, brows furrowed. "You're Ryoma-sama's best friend, right? So you should know where my Ryoma-sama is! He missed so many days last week and now he's not in class again!" Her screech morphed into a petulant whine halfway through the sentence, and Kaoru winced.

Momo picked himself and his chair off the floor and frowned at the freshmen. "Wait, you mean Echizen's not in class today?"

Horio the braggart snorted. "No, he hasn't been here all week. I still say Echizen just thinks he's too good for us now that tennis season's over. This is what he did last time, right?"

"How dare you! My Ryoma-sama is a prince, a prince! How dare you tarnish his perfect image, you–"


The squabble devolved from there, all five of the brats sniping and simpering back and forth, until Kaoru's migraine decided to reappear in full force. The viper felt his left eyebrow twitch, and he let out a long "fshhh" in an attempt to keep his temper. Finally, though, he couldn't take it anymore and slammed a fist on the solid wood in front of him.

All eyes turned toward him as total silence rang. "Echizen hasn't been here," he bit out, grinding his teeth, "because he doesn't go here anymore. His mom transferred him out last week."

The others were stunned still for a moment before the fangirl threw her head back and let out a wail, falling to her knees. Before anything else could be said the bell to signal the end of lunch rang, and the rest of the invaders were forced to drag her back to their own classroom.

Momoshiro stared at him, slack-jawed, as Kaoru resolutely turned his maths book to the page their teacher instructed. Truth be told he was ashamed he'd lost control and spilled what he knew to the school's biggest gossip-mongers. It really wasn't his place to spread Echizen's business to anyone else, even his friends. If he wanted them to know he would have told them himself.

But then, Kaoru also could feel a few of the strings that had been knotted tightly in his chest loosen, and he was able to breathe a bit more easily as his headache slowly tapered off.

Ryoma hopped the school gates and crept toward the front entrance. He estimated homeroom had passed and that it was now halfway through first period. After lying down and falling asleep the night before, he had only woken though sheer chance as one of his curtains fell partially away from the window. The alarm clock he'd forgotten to set had read 8:37AM.

His mother already at work, Ryoma had snitched a few bites from several pieces of food in the tiny kitchen before racing out the door. His stomach rumbled, reminding him that what little energy he'd regained had been spent during the hurried run across town. Ryoma bit the inside of his lip and gently, quietly pulled on the heavy door.

It wouldn't open.

The tardy student groaned, closed his eyes, and leaned his head against the cold metal. Acknowledging that there was nothing else for it, he slowly raised his hand to lean it on the intercom's buzzer. "Please report to the main office," a voice crackled, and a brief humming indicated that the door was now unlocked. Ryoma dragged himself through the entrance and down the short hall to the office where, he was certain, his punishment was awaiting.

A slightly hefty middle-aged woman with short, graying hair was working at a computer as she manned the front desk. Her long, well-manicured fingernails clacked against the keyboard as she typed. Ryoma slid through the door and stood silent, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as he waited for her to acknowledge him. After a few minutes the secretary swiveled her chair around and handed him a tardy slip to fill out.

Ryoma's hand was on the door handle when he was called back. "Ah, just a moment, Echizen-kun." The office worker shuffled through some papers before holding out a note, gesturing for him to take it. "Your make-up physical is scheduled for this morning. You're to report to the nurses's office at 11:00."

Ryoma grabbed the piece of paper and stuffed it in his pocket before escaping into the hallway. He had already skipped the appointment originally made for the beginning of the week, and he had no intention of doing anything differently this time around. He didn't need some know-it-all busy body sticking his nose into his own business.

Ryoma's side gave a twinge, and he shuddered to think of what would happen if the nurse saw the bruises there. He'd ask where they came from, and then the idiot would call his mom to ask her if she knew about them. Maybe he'd think Ryoma'd gotten in a fight with some of his classmates. Whatever the reason, Ryoma knew that his mother would be decidedly not happy about the inquiry, and Ryoma would be the one to face her ire. No, it was much better to just avoid the nurse's office altogether.

After Ryoma handed the tardy slip to his teacher, he ducked to his seat in the back of the classroom and the morning seemed to pass as usual. His attention wandered from the lecture to the view outside the window to his growling stomach to his aching body, and he caught himself nodding off to sleep from time to time. His eyelids were blinking shut near the beginning of his English class when a sharp knocking startled him awake.

The door slid open and in walked the absolute last person Ryoma wanted to see. The boy had spent the majority of the past week avoiding his snooty upperclassman, and yet here was the Monkey King himself conversing with his teacher. After a moment Urahara-sensei turned to Ryoma and waved him to her desk.

"You're excused from class, Echizen-kun," she told him once he'd joined their little pow-wow. "Atobe-kun will escort you to and from the infirmary since you're still learning your way around."

"I will take good care of my kouhai, sensei." Atobe plastered a charming smile on his face as he rested a hand on Ryoma's back and ushered him out the door.

Once the classroom was behind them, Ryoma shook off Atobe's arm. A scowl marred his features as he stomped through the building. "What are you doing here, Monkey King?" he demanded.

Atobe let out a put-upon sigh and elegantly folded his arms behind his back. "Ueda-sensei realized you must have missed your appointment because you got lost. I was happy to volunteer to help you find your way today, as I have a free period now." He smirked at his charge. "After all, you would never intentionally skip a required meeting, would you, Echizen?"

Ryoma grumbled. Stupid Monkey King, he thought. Stupid teachers, stupid doctors, stupid, stupid physicals. The rest of the walk to the infirmary was silent.

Atobe remained in the hall but reassured Ryoma that he would be there to escort him back to class when the time came. Ryoma did he best to ignore him. The inside of the nurse's office was like any other infirmary; the walls were lined with locked medical cabinets and posters displaying health advice and corny phrases above cartoon pictures, and close to the desk were two beds complete with curtains which could be drawn for privacy. On the far wall was a door which Ryoma was certain led to a small bathroom.

Ueda-sensei was a handsome young man with stylish glasses and artfully tousled red hair. He stood, revealing his impressive height, emphasized by his long legs and slender torso. "Echizen-kun," he greeted, "how good of you to come. I've been eagerly anticipating our meeting all week." His words and casual posture oozed sarcasm, but Ryoma didn't twitch. After all those years of living with his old man, sarcasm didn't phase him.

Ueda-sensei quirked an eyebrow at his defiant patient. "Well, have a seat."

Ryoma stiffly settled on the edge of the bed, staring down his doctor. I dare you to find anything out of the ordinary, he tried to convey. You're not getting anything out of me.

The exam began as every other medical exam Ryoma had been subjected to. He was asked the requisite questions about whether or not he'd been feeling any symptoms of illness creeping up on him (Not since he'd had the flu two months ago), if he ever used drugs or alcohol (No, that would interfere with his tennis playing), and if he was sexually active (No. Just... no). Then came stepping on a scale to measure height and weight, followed by the taking of his vitals. Once Ueda's stethescope was replaced around his collar, the doctor leaned back in his chair and grabbed a clipboard from his desk.

"Let's see," he glanced through the forms as he clicked his pen repeatedly. "I need to get your measurements and check your abdomen, and then you're free to go." He set the clipboard aside and snapped on a pair of surgical gloves. "Remove your shirt and lie down on the bed, please."

Ryoma stiffened, considering making a break for it and hiding on the roof the rest of the day. One look at Ueda's impatient face told him that even if he somehow made it out the door and past Atobe, the doctor would just track him down and make his experience even worse than it likely already would be. Ryoma decided to just bite his tongue and get it over with as quickly as possible. He shrugged off his blazer, pulled his tie loose, and put his nimble fingers to work popping his shirt buttons out of their holes.

To Ueda's credit, he barely blinked at the patterns of mottled yellow, green, and purple painting Ryoma's torso. He pressed firm fingers against the boy's abdomen, instructing him to breathe deeply, before gently prodding his ribs and sides. "I don't feel anything broken," he declared, pulling off his gloves and tossing them in a nearby trashcan. "How's the pain?"

"Fine." Ryoma pushed himself into a sitting position and replaced his shirt and blazer. Ueda either didn't believe him or saw something in how he moved, since he forced two painkillers into him along with a glass of water.

"So," Ueda started, placing the bottle of medicine back onto its shelf, "where did the bruises come from?"

He sounded bored, as if this was another question he asked every day. Ryoma stared right into his piercing blue eyes, not flinching. "I fell down the stairs," he said.

Ueda quirked that darned eyebrow again. "Mm-hmm," he muttered, but to the doctor's credit he dropped the subject and waved his patient to the exit. "Alright, Echizen, get back to class. Don't let me see you in here again until next semester's physical, got it?" Ryoma was out the door before he finished his sentence.

He heard Atobe calling out to him as he blew past the third-year, but Ryoma didn't slow his wide stride until he was safely back in his seat in classroom 1-B. He'd had more than enough of cocky know-it-alls for one day.

The rest of the school day passed quickly, and Ryoma was soon heading home at the end of his daily stroll around town. He came to his apartment door just as his mother was turning the key in the lock, and he slipped inside before she could slam it shut again. Once safely ensconced in his bedroom, the door locked behind him, he pulled out his homework and attempted to wade his way through his maths equations while he had the opportunity.

Ryoma's concentration was broken by the harsh buzz of the doorbell. He stretched his arms over his head and leaned backwards in his chair, craning his neck to look at the clock on the wall behind him. About twenty minutes had passed; his mom would start cooking dinner soon, and after she'd finished eating and put the leftovers away he would be expected to clear the table and do the dishes. If he was lucky she would take a quick shower and Ryoma could pinch a decent snack from the cupboards while he was at it. Of course, his timetable depended on how long it took Rinko to deal with whoever was at the door, so he would need to make sure he didn't zone out again until after the person had gone.

Even so, Ryoma was startled when a gentle rapping knocked on his door. "Ryoma," his mother called sweetly, "please come out and greet our guest."

Ryoma's brow furrowed as he closed his textbook and stood. His mother wanted him to join them? Who could this mysterious visitor be?

He shuffled down the short hall leading to the kitchen, where Rinko was adding extra meat to whatever she was cooking on the stove. A young man was seated at the table, adjusting his glasses. "Please pardon the intrusion, Echizen-san," he said.

Rinko smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling attractively. "Not at all, Haruno-sensei. Please make yourself at home. Although, it is Takeuchi-san, if you don't mind."

"Of course, Takeuchi-san, please forgive my mistake. Ah, Echizen-kun!" Haruno-sensei turned to Ryoma, who recognized him as his homeroom instructor. "I was just explaining to your mother that Hyotei requires their teachers to conduct home visits on all their students, including transfers. Why don't you show me your room while your mother finishes dinner?" He turned to Rinko as he stood and replaced his chair. "If that's all right with you, of course, Takeuchi-san?"

Rinko's smile never dropped. "Of course, Haruno-sensei. Ryoma, you will entertain your sensei, won't you?"

"Y-yes, ma'am." Ryoma shifted his weight at the concealed bite in his mother's tone and gestured for this teacher to follow him. "It's this way, sensei."

It was the first time anyone other than Ryoma himself had been in his room, and he became acutely aware as Haruno stepped through the threshold how bare and utilitarian it seemed. He yanked his messy bedcovers into place and sat down, leaving the desk chair for his guest. "Er, so this is it…" Ryoma trailed off, unsure what to say or do.

Haruno took his time examining his surroundings, taking in the empty walls and single clock sitting alone on his bedside table. He let out a pleased hum at the sight of his homework laid out on the desk. After a few long moments, his gaze settled on his student.

"So, Echizen-kun," he began, "how have you been settling in?"

Ryoma shrugged. "Fine, I guess."

Haruno leaned back, resting one hand on his knee. "I imagine it's been confusing, all these changes happening at once. Probably frustrating, too," he added. "I hear you managed to lock yourself out earlier this week?"

Ryoma turning his head to the one small window and stared at the wall of the neighboring building. He heard Haruno stifle a chuckle. "I remember doing that more than a few times myself, when I was your age," he said. "Luckily we never locked our windows, so I was able to get inside that way for a while. Until I hit my growth spurt and I got stuck!" He laughed, sounding both fond of and embarrassed by the memory.

"After that, anytime I forgot my key, I called my folks from the neighbor's house and let them know that's where I'd be when they got home. Sometimes I ended up having dinner over there, too. How long did you have to wait before your mom rescued you?"

"Not long," Ryoma said, not turning from the window. He watched as a small bird flew into the alley and alighted on the opposing fire escape. Technically, he had only been waiting a few minutes; he'd been asleep the rest of the two and a half hours before his mother had pulled him into the apartment.

If his teacher knew any better, he didn't call him out on his half-truth. "That's good, at least," he said instead. "Although for future reference, your building manager should have a master key that opens all the doors. If you ever get locked out again, you should go to him so he can let you in."

Good to know. Also never going to happen, since he didn't think he'd ever feel like getting his skull smashed instead of camping out in the library. Ryoma nodded to humor him.

"What's most different living here from before you moved in with you mom?"

"Hm." Ryoma grunted noncommittally, stalling for time. He scowled as he thought of possible answers. Oh, I dunno. Only getting one meal a day? Or maybe getting thrown around every time I'm actually in this stupid apartment? Not like he could actually tell anyone that.

"It's smaller, I guess," he said eventually. "And a lot quieter since my dad's not around."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"I dunno!" Ryoma spun away from the window and bunched his blanket in his fist. "Why does it even matter? I'm not gonna be here very long, so who cares if it's different or if I get used to it or not? Three more weeks and I'm outta here."

Haruno slowly leaned forward on his elbows so he was almost doubled up in the chair. He met Ryoma at eyelevel and waited for the boy to meet his gaze before speaking, choosing his words very carefully.

"It matters," he said, "because even though you'll be at your dad's in three more weeks, you might be coming back here again after that. No one can say for certain right now where you're going to end up or who you're going to be living with. It's frustrating, and it's stressful, and it's overwhelming. It can even be scary at times, but it's the reality you and your family have to live with right now."

Ryoma stared at his knees and tugged at a loose thread on his comforter. His teacher continued, laying a gentle hand on Ryoma's knee. "Divorce sucks. It's never any fun for anyone involved. But part of my job is to help make sure that you get the best deal you can out of it. Whether it's back with your dad or here with you mom, we want you to end up where you're going to be well off. We want you feel safe and comfortable and have friends and people you feel you can go to when you need help. Okay?"

He paused and seemed to be waiting for a response, so Ryoma jerked his head in a half nod, half shrug. The slight pressure on his knee withdrew, and he heard Haruno sitting back in his chair.

"Now then," Haruno said, "if my nose isn't lying to me, it smells like dinner's just about ready. Let's go rejoin your mother in the kitchen, shall we?" He stood and slid the chair under the desk where it belonged. Ryoma huffed a pent up breath through his nose and gave one last yank at the blanket before joining him on his way to the kitchen.

"Everything smells delicious!" Haruno exclaimed.

Rinko smiled as she laid the last of the meal on the table. "I hope you don't mind stir-fry, sensei," she said. "I'm afraid I haven't had the chance to get to the store lately."

"Not at all," he told her. "If it tastes half as good as it smells then you must be a wonderful cook, Takeuchi-san."

Rinko laughed playfully. "Now Haruno-sensei, don't get too friendly with the compliments. After all," she teased, "I am a single woman."

Haruno chucked politely as he joined his host at the table. Ryoma felt slightly nauseous as he did the same.

"I apologize again for the intrusion, Takeuchi-san," Haruno said once he had placed some food on his plate.

"It's no trouble at all," Rinko told him.

"How have you been doing since becoming single again, Takeuchi-san? It must be very stressful, all these changes happening at once."

"Oh, it's nothing I can't handle," Rinko said. "As a lawyer, I am quite used to stress. It is very thoughtful of you to ask, though."

"And you, Echizen-kun? I imagine it must be difficult, transferring schools in the middle of the semester."

Ryoma's eyes were drawn to his mother's pearly white teeth, which grit together as her smile became reminiscent of a shark looking for its next meal. "I'm fine," he said. "School is school."

"Ryoma's always been rather easy-going," Rinko explained. "Not much can rattle him. Although," she added, lowering her voice, "he hasn't had much of an appetite lately, to tell the truth."

Haruno's eyebrows furrowed as he frowned. "Is that so," he breathed.

Ryoma jerked his head and shoulders in something halfway resembling a shrug. Sure, he thought, let's go with that.

Rinko leaned across the table to place a small bit of stir-fry on his empty plate. "Please at least try to eat a little something," she cooed at him.

Ryoma swallowed hard around a dry lump in his throat, suddenly realizing the story wasn't entirely untrue, after all. He didn't feel very hungry knowing this dinner could only end poorly, no matter how well it went. He picked up a small bit of chicken and plopped it in his mouth.

The conversation followed in much of the same vein throughout the meal; Haruno asked how work had been going for Rinko, how she was settling in the area, how she was coping with being a single parent. Ryoma, for his part, stuttered out a few neutral answers when questioned about school and friends, and did his best to remain invisible when attention was not focused on him. Finally, after an agonizing twenty minutes, his teacher stood and excused himself from the table.

"Thank you for a delicious meal, Takeuchi-san," he said as Rinko rose to escort him to the door. "I appreciate you welcoming me into your home for the evening."

"Think nothing of it," Rinko smiled as she helped him into his jacket. "Thank you for your company and concern. Please take care on your way home."

"I will, thank you very much." Haruno bowed politely as he stepped into the hall. Rinko returned the gesture with one of her own before closing the door, leaving only mother and son in the humble apartment.

As soon and the sound of footsteps had faded, Rinko spun toward the kitchen, a deep scowl etched on her face. She stalked over to the table and slammed a hand on it in front of Ryoma. "What did you tell him?" she demanded.

Ryoma pressed himself as far back in his chair as he could manage. "N-nothing," he insisted.

"Don't lie to me," his mother growled. "The two of you were alone for a while. Now what did you tell him?"

"Nothing, really! He just wanted to know how I liked the new place, that's it!"


"And I said it was fine! Nothing else happened, I swear!"


Ryoma was sent reeling onto the floor as his chair toppled onto him. He could feel his cheek stinging where his mother's rings had dug into his flesh. He sat, dazed, while a screech filled his ears.

"Don't you ever take that tone with me!" A pointed toe dug into his ribcage as Rinko struck out with her foot to emphasize her order. "Nothing else better have happened," she hissed through clenched teeth, "or you won't live to regret it.

"Now get this mess cleaned up!"

Ryoma heard a cupboard slam open and shut followed by heavy stomping toward Rinko's bedroom. The resounding boom from the door shook the walls of the small apartment.

Ryoma clenched his fingers and pressed them tight against the cool tile of the floor. His body trembled as adrenaline flooded his system, and he choked back a quiet whimper. All his muscles were tense, and it took all his control to keep from biting his tongue in two.

Why couldn't people just mind their own damn business, he thought. No matter what he did, someone would poke his big fat nose where he didn't belong, and Ryoma was always the one who had to face the consequences. Why couldn't everyone just leave him alone?

Ryoma forced a shaky breath through his nose, willing his heart to stop jackhammering its way out of his chest. He allowed himself a few moments to collect the pieces of himself and force them back together. Then, he picked himself up off the floor and began clearing the table.