Title: Invisible to Everyone
Disclaimer: There characters are not mine, nor do I claim they are. No profit is being made from this.
Summary: How Echizen Ryoma became who he is now, and the role that one certain person played in that.
Author's notes: Written for round 5 of subrosa_tennis on LiveJournal.
If anyone asked Ryoma, he would say that he didn't mind being alone. That he didn't need friends, per se, only teammates and opponents. Anything more was unnecessary.
However, he couldn't help but remember a time when he had friends. Back in America, where it was all right to be different, where having your own personality wasn't a stigma against society. He had friends then, people who didn't mind his sometimes anti-social tendencies, people who did their best to remind him that tennis wasn't everything. He had fun with those friends, running, playing, bucking authority without serious reprisal. He was even known to laugh.
Ryoma couldn't deny that coming to Japan had excellent effects on his tennis. He was constantly being pushed to new levels that he knew he never would've been able to reach had he stayed in the States. For that, he loved Japan.
However, he also couldn't deny that tennis was the only thing that kept him from being completely alone. That if he didn't play tennis—if he wasn't good at tennis—he'd have nothing.
Ryoma was independent. He had been raised in a country that praised independence, and it was a lesson he had learned well. At home, he learned some of the formalities, but for the most part, Ryoma was free to be whoever he wanted to be. Respect was to be earned, not assumed. If the teacher made a mistake, one could correct them without fear of reprisal—in fact, praise often followed, as it was proof that the student was paying attention. It was one's merit that made a place, not birth order, grade level, or any other outside influence.
Sometimes, Ryoma felt that Japan was strangling him.
The things he had learned at home were of no help to him at all once he arrived in Japan. No matter how well he knew the language, he still didn't know the society, the culture. Ryoma had started school almost completely unaware of the upperclassman/underclassman dynamics. Within five minutes of his first day at Seigaku, he had gotten in his first fight.
Because he had grown up in the United States, Ryoma was considered a native speaker of the English language. Even though that was the case, he still had to take English with his fellow freshmen, with a teacher that had a rather basic knowledge of the language. The first time that Ryoma, thinking he was being helpful, tried to correct a mistake the teacher had made, he had found himself out in the hall holding buckets, a punishment that had completely mystified Ryoma.
At lunch, he heard the other students talking about him. About how the new kid was rude, didn't know his place. About how he was an embarrassment to his freshman class. How he was a bad influence, a bad seed, that anyone valuing their reputations wouldn't try to befriend him.
Ryoma refused to let them see how he was hurt by the remarks. He decided that maybe it was just best to be silent…and even that didn't work. His silence was perceived as arrogance, something else that could not be tolerated.
To Ryoma, the whole system was something that was intolerable. At least there was still tennis.
Even there, though, he found himself a prisoner to the system. It was his talent that forced his upperclassmen to acknowledge him, though all the skill in the world couldn't make them like it. Among the general team, Ryoma could feel the resentment wherever he went. Among the regulars, it was better, though not always by much. Ryoma's presence was accepted, his talents welcome, but he often felt that his teammates would like him better if he were to remain a living, breathing tennis machine. His most innocent comments were often treated as insubordination, and so, again, he learned to keep silent. He took the companionship he was offered, but never reached for it out of his own free will, for he was afraid of how his actions would be perceived. He knew his teammates considered him cold and arrogant, but it was what he had to do to survive the pressures of this new culture.
As long as he had tennis, Ryoma was able to pretend that he was fine. He made his path, and, as long as there wasn't a racquet in his hand, tried his best not to make waves, tried his best not to draw notice to himself. In all things except tennis he stayed aloof, studying the people around him, trying to figure out what it was that he was missing. He would make an overture, be rebuffed, and draw back inside himself, making himself stiller and smaller, convincing himself that it was what he had to do. It was his place now.
And then one morning, Ryoma looked in the mirror and realized that he didn't know himself anymore. His sense of self, something he had always considered sacrosanct and inviolable, was eroding away to the point of nothingness. Ryoma looked at his reflection…and saw nothing looking back at him. Nothing was left of Ryoma Echizen, the outspoken, sarcastic boy he had known all of his life. Instead all that was left was Echizen Ryoma, the silent, walled tennis prodigy.
He broke that day. But he did not cry. There was not enough left of him to care.
"Something's wrong with Echizen."
Oishi started and looked over at Kaidoh, surprised at the random comment. "What makes you say that?"
Kaidoh flushed a little and looked away, but still answered Oishi. "You can't see it? Look at how he's playing. It's like he's…empty. His body is there, but his mind is not."
Oishi studied Ryoma. "You may be right…but his play doesn't seem too off. Maybe he's not feeling well, or he's tired?"
Eiji, overhearing the conversation, decided to add his two cents. "He didn't even react when Momo and I were teasing him earlier. He just stood there—Ochibi never does that!" Eiji frowned.
"He didn't react? Odd." Oishi bit his lip for a moment, thinking. "Did you notice anything else? Did he say anything, maybe? Act weird, something?"
Eiji shook his head. "Nope. He's just been…Ochibi. Only different."
The three watched Ryoma play. "Well," Oishi said finally, "if his play is fine, then there's not much we can do but keep an eye on him. Though you may want to lay off the teasing for a bit, Eiji."
Kaidoh shrugged and walked away, his eyes never leaving Ryoma. No…something is wrong here. I have to find out what.
Kaidoh didn't even know why he cared at all. Echizen was just an arrogant brat, right? But something in him was saying differently all the same.
He waited until practice ended to intercept Ryoma. "Echizen, if I may have a word with you?"
Ryoma stopped, but didn't look at Kaidoh. "Is there something I can help you with, Kaidoh-sempai?"
"No. Is there something wrong?" he asked, deciding to be blunt and get right to the point.
"No…nothing I can think of. Did I do something offend you, Kaidoh-sempai?"
Kaidoh was taken aback that Echizen of all people would immediately jump to that conclusion. "No, of course not, Echizen."
"I'm glad to hear that, Kaidoh-sempai. May I get changed now?"
Kaidoh nodded, waving Ryoma away absently, watching him as he left. No…there's definitely something not right with Ryoma…and he won't talk voluntarily. He sighed and headed into the clubhouse himself. This problem was going to take some thought.
Kaidoh watched Ryoma carefully for the next few days. At first, nothing seemed obviously wrong, but as the week progressed, it became clear to everyone that there was something bothering their freshman. It was hard to miss it, really.
Kaidoh frowned as he watched the game in front of him, which was more like a slaughter than a game. Normally that wouldn't be too surprising, since Ryoma was one of the players, but this time….
This time, it was Ryoma being slaughtered.
A low hiss escaped Kaidoh's lips as he watched the game play. Even though his opponent, Momoshiro, was one who could make Ryoma work at times, for Ryoma to be consistently giving up points and having his serve broken was abnormal in the extreme. He could see Momoshiro's growing frustration at the situation, and Ryoma's continued indifference.
Finally, Momoshiro had enough. Tossing aside his racquet, Momoshiro approached the net and grabbed Ryoma by the collar, pulling him close. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked Ryoma angrily. "Are you playing some sort of game with me?"
Ryoma blinked. "I…what's wrong, Momoshiro-sempai? Am I doing something to offend you?"
Momoshiro shook Ryoma. "Don't call me that! Play seriously, or don't play at all!"
Ryoma looked down. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."
Momoshiro, not sure how to respond, let Ryoma go and backed up a step, studying the freshman. "Then stop acting like this, it's just not right." Letting go of Ryoma's collar, Momoshiro walked back onto his side of the court and picked his racquet back up. "Now serve."
A few minutes later, Ryoma missed another easy point.
"Echizen!" Momoshiro was close to yelling. "I told you to not bother if you won't play me seriously. What's with you?" He glared at Ryoma, both confused and angry.
"I'm sorry." Ryoma bowed, then turned and walked off the court, leaving Momoshiro to stare after him in confusion.
Kaidoh bit his lip, considering what to do next. Before he could move, though, a voice spoke up from behind him. "You're right, Kaidoh."
Kaidoh jumped and turned around. "Oishi-senpai…you startled me."
"I'm sorry. But you're right…I can see it now." Oishi sighed. "Something is wrong with Echizen." He looked at Kaidoh. "I saw you talking to him the other day…I don't suppose he told you anything?"
Kaidoh shook his head. "Nothing…though, I'm not surprised by that."
Oishi sighed as he watched Momoshiro approach Ryoma and be subsequently rebuffed by the freshman. "It's times like this that I really wish Tezuka was here," he said to Kaidoh sadly. "He'd know what to do. Do you think I should write him about this?"
Kaidoh bit his lip, surprised that Oishi was asking his advice, but too respectful to say nothing. "If you want," he finally said, "though I don't think he'll be able to do much from Germany. I think we may need to find the solution to Echizen's problems closer to home."
"Do you have any ideas, Kaidoh?"
"Not yet, Oishi-senpai. But I'll have some soon." He bowed and ran for the clubhouse, his mind turning over this new problem. How did I get myself into this mess?
Kaidoh considered the problem for a day before he realized that he was completely out of league. He just didn't know enough to be able to reach out, so he turned to the one person that he thought would know enough.
He stopped Inui after training and told him the story. "And I don't know what to do next, Inui-senpai. I don't know Echizen enough to just…talk to him like Oishi-senpai wants me to."
"Hmmm." Inui considered. "I had noticed that Echizen has not been his usual self lately. I considered approaching him, but I believe that Echizen does not trust me for some reason."
Kaidoh was too respectful to give reasons for just why that might be the case. "It's not like I'm the best person for this, either. Why not ask Momoshiro, or Kikumaru-senpai, or even Fuji-senpai to do it?"
Inui looked straight at Kaidoh. "Because you noticed and spoke up about it."
Kaidoh flushed a little. "Yeah, well…what do I do next?"
"My advice?" Inui picked up a notebook and started writing, though Kaidoh couldn't see what was so data-worthy about this conversation. "Start with tennis and go from there. Echizen may talk to you simply because you're not close to him."
Kaidoh nodded slowly. "I can challenge him to a game. I'm not sure about the other stuff."
"It can't hurt to try." Inui closed his notebook. "Go home. Worry about it tomorrow."
Ever obedient, Kaidoh jogged off, intending to head straight home. However, as he cut through a small park, Kaidoh glimpsed someone that looked familiar. Stopping for a better look, he saw that it was Echizen. He was sitting by a small pond and…. Is he crying? I've never seen him look so…unguarded before.
Without consciously willing it, Kaidoh found himself walking over to Echizen and taking a seat next to him. "Echizen," he said, being careful to not look at him directly, though he was watching Echizen from the corner of his eye.
"K—kaidoh-senpai…." Echizen hastily turned away and wiped at his eyes. "Why are you here?"
Kaidoh opened his mouth to speak, then paused, a dozen different responses on his lips. However, the one that came out surprised even him. "Are you unhappy?"
Echizen jumped a little, but quickly schooled his features into blankness. "Why would you ask that, Kaidoh-senpai?"
"Because you're not acting like yourself. You've been playing like crap. And happy people don't sit by themselves and cry." Kaidoh was blunt as he spelled it out.
"You saw that, then." Echizen glanced at Kaidoh, then down into the water. "It's nothing to worry about, Kaidoh-senpai."
"No problems at home?"
"No more than anyone else." Echizen's eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Why are you asking, Kaidoh-senpai? Why do you even care?"
That was the same question that Kaidoh had been asking himself, and hearing it aloud unnerved him a little. "Because we're teammates. And…maybe even friends, in a way."
"Friends." The word sounded both amused and bitter as Echizen spoke it. "Do you really mean that, Kaidoh-senpai?"
Kaidoh hissed a little, annoyed at being questioned. "Would I have said it if I didn't, Echizen?"
It was Kaidoh's turn to stare. "What?" Not his most eloquent moment, to be sure, but Kaidoh was confused by the seeming randomness of that.
"My name is Ryoma."
"I know that." Kaidoh hissed. "What's your point, Echizen?"
"That is my point." Ryoma stared at the water. "Do you know how long it's been since I've heard someone call me that? Just 'Ryoma'…no 'kun,' or 'san,' or, god forbid, 'sama.' Just…my name. Ryoma."
Kaidoh stared at him. "Echizen…who would dare do something like that?" He thought of someone outside his family calling him 'Karou,' and was aghast at the thought of being addressed so…well, intimately.
"There was a whole country of people who did, once. People who were friends and were able to just call me by my name without surrounding it with miles of formality. People that weren't worried about how things looked or sounded…just with saying hello to a friend." Ryoma swallowed, realizing how much he had said, and looked away.
Kaidoh turned Echizen's words over in his head. "You're…not happy here, are you?"
Echizen's expression was shuttered as he replied carefully, "It's not my place to say, Kaidoh-senpai."
"Was it really that different in America?"
Echizen stared at Kaidoh, snorting a little as some of his typical sarcasm came back to his voice. "Do you have to ask? Do you think people here complain about "rude Westerners" for no reason? It really is different here, Kaidoh-senpai. And I'm not sure that it's for the better."
Kaidoh considered that in his head. "Tell me about it?" He was shocked to hear the words come out of his mouth, but he found that he really was curious.
Echizen was shocked as well, but it didn't stop him from talking about a country where the social order was, in Kaidoh's mind, completely backwards. He couldn't imagine not giving respect automatically to his senpais. He couldn't imagine a lot of things that Echizen was saying…but he could see why Echizen felt so…smothered. "How long have you been feeling like this, Echizen?"
"Almost since the first day," he confessed. "I'd do it all over again, for my tennis, but…."
"But?" Kaidoh prompted when Echizen trailed off.
"A lot of days…all I really want to do is to go home." Echizen sighed a little, then looked at Kaidoh, scared all of the sudden. "You're not going to tell them this, are you, Kaidoh-senpai? This is just between us?"
Kaidoh looked a little uncomfortable. "I have to tell the senpais something, Echizen. They've noticed, too, and they wanted me to talk to you."
Echizen's expression, which had opened some while he had talked, shut down, became hard and shuttered. "I see," he said flatly. "Do whatever you want then, Kaidoh-senpai. I can't stop you." He stood. "I have to go home."
"I wouldn't want to upset the system by being disrespectful, now would I?" Echizen stalked off, and all Kaidoh could do was watch.
"Ryoma…." Kaidoh didn't even realize that it was Echizen's given name that he had whispered.
Kaidoh, contrary to everything he had promised Inui and Oishi, verbally or not, never breathed a word of his and Echizen's conversation to anyone else. He simply resumed silently watching Echizen, evaluating him based on their conversation.
Echizen, on his part, was both surprised and wary when none of his well-meaning senpais approached him to "talk." He figured that Kaidoh must've kept his mouth shut, but he couldn't fathom why Kaidoh would do such a thing. In reaction, Echizen had taken to watching Kaidoh in his free moments, wondering what the other wanted.
It was a pattern that escaped no one's attention, but no one was especially willing to get involved in something that they didn't understand, especially when it involved those two people in particular, so they just let things stand as they were.
Until it all came to a head one day in the most public way.
Kaidoh had gotten fed up with Echizen's indifferent and uncaring attitude. He could understand that Echizen wasn't happy, but he wasn't even trying anymore. Even Echizen's arrogance had fallen aside, so that all that was left of him was a blank shell. And it was annoying Kaidoh to no end.
He waited until most of the team was involved with drills to corner Echizen. "You. On the court. Now."
"Kaidoh-senpai?" Echizen stared up at him.
Kaidoh hissed in annoyance. "This needs to end…Ryoma."
Echizen's eyes widened.
From behind Echizen, Momoshiro gaped in shock. "Mamushi! Did you just call Echizen--"
Kaidoh glared at Momoshiro. "You heard me. And so did he." Kaidoh's glare moved back to Echizen.
"Fine." Echizen shrugged and grabbed his racquet, taking a spot on the court.
Kaidoh went to the other side and prepared to serve. "Play me for real, Ryoma. Play me with all you have." He served.
Echizen dashed for the ball. "Why are you calling me that, Kaidoh-senpai?"
"Do you not like it?"
"It just seems…strange, coming from you."
"Bad or good?"
Ryoma shrugged. "Just strange."
There was silence for the next couple of minutes as they fought for a point. Then, "Why do you care?"
Kaidoh stared across the net. "What?"
"You heard me. Why do you care what I'm like?"
"It's affecting your tennis."
"That's all I'm good for, isn't it? Tennis?" Echizen slammed the ball across the net, scoring a point and taking the game. "If I didn't play tennis, no one would have noticed anything."
"That's not all you're good for," Kaidoh tried to protest.
"Kaidoh-senpai…open your eyes. We're here playing tennis. You're here because my game is off. No other reason." Echizen's game was starting to fall apart again. "That's all anyone here can see."
"No. Not just that. All people can see is what you can give to everyone else. No one sees what it is you are."
"That's not true. We would've noticed you."
"Would you?" Echizen glared. "Name me five freshmen that aren't on or always near the tennis team."
Kaidoh opened his mouth…but no words came out.
"You can't, can you? They have no direct affect on you, so you don't notice them." Echizen lowered his racquet and let a ball fly by him. "Mada mada dane, Kaidoh-senpai."
"Ryoma…." Kaidoh approached the net, trying to suppress his frustration with the entire situation. "What do you want?"
"I want to go home." Echizen's words were a whisper, but he was heard by all who had gathered around.
"If you want to go home, I'll walk you."
Echizen shook his head. "Can you walk across the Pacific? Because that's where home is. Not here."
Kaidoh paused. "Would you really leave, if you could?"
Echizen shrugged. "There's nothing else keeping me here but tennis."
"What about your friends?"
"What friends? I have teammates, I have hanger-ons. I have people who act nice, then talk about me behind my back. Those aren't friends."
"Momoshiro is your friend."
"As long as I do what's expected of me."
Kaidoh glanced over at Momoshiro, who was sagging against the fence. "I think more people care than you realize."
"I just can't do it, Kaidoh-senpai. I can't be what everyone wants me to be. I can't live up to your expectations."
"All we expect is for you to be yourself. Nothing else."
"No. You want me to be this tennis genius that doesn't have thoughts or feelings outside of tennis. You don't want someone that's "difficult" to deal with."
"You're that already." Kaidoh hissed, both from annoyance and frustration. "What do you want?"
Echizen looked away from Kaidoh, up at the sky. "I want to like who I've become."
Kaidoh wasn't sure how to answer that. "There are people who like you. Isn't that enough?"
"They like Echizen Ryoma. Would they like Ryoma Echizen?"
Kaidoh couldn't answer that. "We've never met him."
"Would they want to know him? He's not what people here expect. He's completely American."
"And you're completely Japanese?"
Echizen lowered his eyes. "No. I'm not. But I'm not who I was, and it's not comfortable."
"Life isn't about being comfortable," Kaidoh countered, hissing a little.
"Then what is it about?"
Kaidoh thought for a second. "It's about getting through. Not making waves, respecting your betters, fitting into the pattern of society."
"You see? I can't live like that." Echizen's disgust was clear in his voice. "I was born to make waves. Who decides who my betters are? Not some arbitrary system, that's for sure. But that's how you want it to be here." He sighed. "I can't conform. I don't want to."
"Have you even tried?" Kaidoh hissed out the words.
Echizen shrugged. "Not completely. By the time I realized that I had to try, it was too late to change the first impressions. I wasn't prepared for this."
"But if you tried, now—"
"You're missing the point." Ryoma's eyes were flat as he stared at a point past Kaidoh's shoulder. "Why should I have to change?"
Kaidoh hissed in a combination of anger and frustration. "You expect society to roll over and change for you?"
"Then." Kaidoh took a long, deep breath. "What. Do you want?"
Ryoma looked at the ground for several moments. "To be Ryoma again. I want it all Kaidoh-senpai. I want the tennis, and I want myself. I don't want to just have one."
"Life isn't about being able to have everything! Sometimes, you have to choose! And you need to make a choice. Are you going to spend the rest of your life looking backwards, or are you going to look forward?"
Ryoma's fist clenched around the handle of his racquet. "Don't you get it? When I look forward…I hate what I see. I don't like tennis, not like this. I don't like being on this…this pillar," he almost spat out the word, "and I don't like being this…this thing that's both revered and hated! I look forward, and all I see is this…."
His eyes met Kaidoh's, and for the first time, Kaidoh was able to feel the desperation in them reach out and grab him. "I can't go back…help me, then? Help me be a person I can like, and who can live here?"
In that moment, Kaidoh knew it was impossible. There was no way that the two could ever be reconciled. Ryoma was a bright star, meant to burn, to shine and be noticed, and that type of person…could never truly fit in there. Ryoma was different from everyone that he had ever met before, and he knew, then, that he wouldn't want to see Ryoma change.
He looked at Ryoma's pleading eyes, looked at the silent team gathered around the court. Kaidoh had no idea what to say, but he knew it was all on him to say something, to somehow make this right for their freshman star. How could we have missed how fragile he is…he's not a child, but he's not like us, either….
Kaidoh closed his own eyes, composing himself. Whatever he said next could either salvage the situation, or break Ryoma completely, he knew that. He refused to have that on his conscience, and he wasn't good with words, so he was nervous, more nervous than he had ever been in his life.
His breath left him in a long, slow hiss, and Kaidoh moved to the net, grasping it in his hands, twisting the barrier in his grasp, wanting to tear it down the same way he wanted to tear down the barrier between him and the boy in front of him. "I…can't do that," he said slowly. "Who you are…you can't be accepted out there. You can't become someone who can be accepted by them." He took a hasty breath, wanting to finish his thought before Ryoma could crack. "But…here, you can be you. We won't turn away from you. We won't…change you. But you can change us. Maybe it's time for that. You've changed and challenged our tennis…why can't you do the same to us as people?"
He flushed suddenly, looking down to try and hide it, hissing in his discomfort.
"Kaidoh-senpai…." Ryoma, almost against his own will, came forward, his racquet falling to the ground as his hands clutched at Kaidoh's on the mesh of the net. "Can…can that happen?" It was the most raw and open that anyone had ever heard the freshman to be. "Can I have that?"
Kaidoh was by no means a weak or sentimental person, but Ryoma was making him be both as he looked around, glaring at the team, senpai and kouhai alike, daring anyone to argue. "If you can't be yourself anywhere else, you can be yourself here."
He almost regretted his words when he was rewarded with Ryoma flinging himself at Kaidoh, arms wrapped around his neck, ignoring the net pressed between them as he hugged his teammate as tight as possible. "Thank you," Ryoma whispered, low and hoarse, and for that, for the way he felt muscles that had been tense for too long suddenly sag and relax…for that, Kaidoh couldn't regret a thing.
The first time he had seen Echizen Ryoma step onto a court, Kaidoh had known that the other boy was going to change his tennis world in an irrevocable way. He hadn't had a clue that Ryoma was going to change him like this too, he thought, as his own arms wrapped around Ryoma. Kaidoh's eyes blazed, daring anyone to say a single word about the long hug being shared.
No one took him up on that dare.
Kaidoh and Ryoma never acknowledged what had happened between them, and no one on the team ever alluded to it, cowed either by Kaidoh's glare, or, later, the threat of Inui's juice. Still, Kaidoh thought of it often, when he watched Ryoma, watched as Ryoma impacted everyone he came across, and he sometimes wondered what would have happened if he had chosen another path on that day, what would've happened if he had tried to push Ryoma in a different direction.
He was glad that he never had to find out.
Ryoma thought about that day often as well, as he battled his way through both tennis and life. On that day he had stopped trying to be anyone but himself, a move that often brought him into conflict with the world at large, but there, in his world, he was accepted, and that was enough for him.
He thought about how he had almost broken, thought about how close he had come to being lost, and he knew exactly why it was that he was still there, whole and fighting. And though he never said anything to Kaidoh, thinking that one emotional scene was more than enough, he showed his gratitude in other ways. Most noticeably, in the way that he gave Kaidoh a respect that he never gave to anyone else, not even Tezuka.
And for Kaidoh, seeing it, feeling it, and knowing it, he thought he would never again receive such a high honor in his life.