So, here's a 10k oneshot because... I read a few good ones on this site and wanted to see if I was up to the challenge. I wrote it in one day (it took some patience, bahaha).
It's based on a conversation in the anime, where Ryoma says something like, "I tried to quit tennis, but I couldn't." That remark always intrigued me.
I used some Americanisms for this story, so I hope those worked.
~ kittykittyhunter ~
He was nine years old when he decided that enough was finally enough.
The tennis ball went whizzing past Echizen Ryoma's left shoulder, moving so deftly that he did not even have time to lift the racquet. He knew that there was no point in turning back to check, no point in hoping that the ball had travelled beyond the baseline. The boy's opponent was a monster: one that never missed.
The man rubbed his head with the back of one hand. Then he wriggled his bare toes deeper into the ground, marking dark grooves. "C'mon boy," he chuckled, "you'll have to do better than that."
It was still Ryoma's serve. He twisted mechanically, moving away from the net to where the tennis ball had rolled to a stop. But, just as his fingers closed around the yellow sphere, he dropped the racquet. He let go of the ball and turned back to his father, the legendary Echizen Nanjiroh who had, many years ago, been a professional tennis player.
"That's it," Ryoma announced. "I quit."
Nanjiroh looked thoughtful. "I suppose it's almost dinner time," he conceded. He'd only ever halt their daily tennis practices for food. "Same time, same place tomorrow boy –"
"No," said Ryoma. He fixed his hazel eyes on his father's brown ones, and raised his voice to make sure that the old man could not misinterpret his son's words. "I'm not playing you tomorrow, or the day after that. I'm quitting tennis. I am never playing again."
Ryoma had been expecting a heated argument, but to his surprise (and private annoyance), Nanjiroh did not raise the topic during dinner. In a rare gesture of kindness, he asked his wife about her day – she smiled and recounted her adventures in the office. Ryoma chewed his carrots and listened closely, trying to block out the finality of his words from just half an hour ago.
His mother was an attorney. Ryoma wasn't entirely sure whether Echizen Rinko needed to work, or whether she simply had a job because she was good at what she did – as far as he could tell, they were fairly well-off, still comfortably living on the prize money his father had won back in the old days. Ryoma loved Los Angeles – a city forever swarming with activity; he loved California, especially at this time of year, when summer was reluctantly giving way to fall, and entire days were bathed in golden light. The Echizen family lived in a neat house, and in the back garden there was a tennis court.
The boy glanced down when something warm slipped against his ankles. He smiled briefly at Karupin, who was a Himalayan mountain cat. The Himalayas… the boy returned his attention to the food on his plate and slid the peas closer to the mashed potatoes. If he really wanted to give up tennis – and for good – he had a tremendous mountain to climb.
He smelt his mother's perfume as she leaned across to peck his cheek. "Have a good day, sweetheart." Then she was slipping into her work shoes and heading towards the front door. She was so quick that Ryoma barely had the time to wish her the same.
The boy took his time with his cereal. He separated the chocolate grains into three little tribes, giving them names. This was the Red Team, this was the Yellow Group and here were the Blue Gang, who were his favourites… the triangles swirled around in the milk. Ryoma ate the Red Team first, followed by the Yellow Group. He was reluctant to put an end to the Blue Gang, but his mother grew anxious when her son didn't finish his food, and in any case, the boy was hungry.
He glanced up at the clock. He had to get a move on, or he would be late. The boy's fourth grade teacher was strict about punctuality, and in the two weeks since term had begun, Ryoma had made an extra special effort to be on time. His father had promised that if the boy could make it all the way to November without a single late mark, he'd reward Ryoma with the sneakers he had rested his eyes on for so long.
At the thought of the sneakers Ryoma's stomach turned unpleasantly, and he wondered whether he should have demolished the three tribes after all. He'd wanted the sneakers because he'd needed to be able to move around faster on the court… but now that he had decided to give up on tennis, the sneakers weren't necessary anymore…
Still, that was no reason to be late. He debated leaving his bowl and spoon in the sink, but on a whim, chose to wash up. Then he went upstairs to grab his school bag. He was ready to go… his eyes fell on a sheet of paper on his desk, and the boy groaned. Great – he'd forgotten to do his Science homework. He sat down on the chair and plucked a pencil from the floor to hastily answer the multiple choice questions, marking the As, Bs and Cs with little thought, not caring whether his responses were right or wrong.
Then he hurried from the house, sprinting down the garden path. He had forgotten about his Science homework because he had gone straight to bed after dinner; if he was asleep, he couldn't think about tennis.
Unfortunately, he had lost against Nanjiroh in his dreams.
"Wow," said Michael. Ryoma wiped his knuckles over his face and sank into the seat beside his friend. "You actually managed to make it!"
"Yeah," Ryoma returned. He inhaled, trying to recover his breath. He had good stamina, but the last five minutes of that run – he sat back in the chair. He and Michael had been in the same class for the three years now, and the taller boy was familiar with Ryoma's habitual lateness. It was a recurring joke among their group.
After registration, the teacher pushed her glasses further up her nose and declared that they were going to be working on group projects for English: the class had to write detailed biographies on any celebrity of their choice. Ryoma and Michael nodded at each other, and the partnership was formed without any real effort. All around them, their peers were eagerly discussing who to research. Michael grinned.
"I guess you want to do a bio on…" he scrunched up his face, trying to remember a name. "Andy Roddick."
Ryoma's brow wrinkled. "Actually, I'd rather not. No tennis players," he said firmly. "Anyone but a tennis player."
Michael blinked. They settled that they would research a Hollywood actor instead. After all, Michael's father worked in the entertainment industry.
Why had he decided to give up, so suddenly? The question bounced around in Ryoma's brain as he made his way home. It was a Tuesday afternoon and he didn't have anything to do: no clubs to go to, no errands to take care of… he could have gone to the park to hang out with the others…
But something in the nine year old whispered that he just wasn't in the mood to be around other people. He wanted to be alone… or as alone as he could be when he was walking down a crowded street. A row of impressive stores gazed at him from on one side: they were filled with busy customers. On his right, cars coursed down the main road. The whole world was preoccupied with being busy, and it was something that the boy couldn't relate to.
His thoughts continued to wander. Yesterday's loss hadn't been any better or worse than the other days, so why had he reacted with so much defiance? It was part of their routine: Echizen Nanjiroh always defeated his son at tennis – in the five years that Ryoma had spent trying to beat his father, the young boy had never managed to get so much as a point past the old man. Yet, this seemed to be a closely-guarded secret; no one but the three Echizens knew how impossible it was for Ryoma to perform well on the court when the opponent was his dad.
The problem with the story was that it just wasn't convincing. Ryoma had been winning tennis trophies for years – he had never been defeated in a tournament, ever. His victories had been recounted in one or two articles, though few people knew the identity of the tennis prodigy's father. Yes, a lot of people called him a tennis prodigy… Ryoma adjusted his baseball cap with one hand. It was a pretty grand title to bestow on a person, and it wasn't one that the boy felt he entirely deserved.
Back in the second grade when they had been learning the basic rules of tennis during a PE lesson, he had astounded all of his peers by showing them his accuracy, his speed and power. The teacher had applauded his efforts and Ryoma had blinked in the spring sunlight: if they thought he was good, then they should really see his old man. Nanjiroh was so talented that he didn't even have to move to return shots – somehow, Ryoma's plays always went back to his father, as though the old man had a magnet attached to his chest.
And the previous year Ryoma had, at Rinko's encouragement, brought in a tennis medal for Show and Tell, even though he did not feel any particular pride in the lump of medal that hung around his neck. He couldn't even remember the opponent he had faced to win the prize. William? Daniel? No one had cared about his poor memory at the time – the medal had been passed around the class, and Michael had asked whether it was real gold, a suspicious glint in his eye.
So the whole school learned that Echizen Ryoma was a freak – no, not the whole school, the whole neighbourhood. There were kids who lived thirty blocks away who knew him as 'that tennis guy'. Alright, so Ryoma was a special kind of freak: he was a tennis freak, but a freak nonetheless.
It hadn't bothered him back then and he promised himself that it didn't bother him even now. For years Ryoma had accepted that he wasn't like most kids, that whilst the other boys in his grade aspired to be firemen and spies and astronauts, all he wanted to do was defeat his dad in a tennis match. He'd gone as far as to tell his teachers about his destiny, and that evening, had tiptoed through the hallway at home, listening to his parents discussing a phone call that had come from school.
"I can't go easy on him Rinko," said Nanjiroh in a low voice. "You know how much pride that boy has. If I let him win, he'd be upset about it later. Let them think that I'm some kind of tennis thug; I don't really care. I know what's best for my son."
Ryoma came to a sudden stop. He had tried to walk into his house without opening the front door.
He threw his schoolbag in the corner and changed into a different set of clothes. Then he played with Karupin for a while, and when she curled up on the mattress to take a nap, Ryoma went downstairs. He found his father lounging on the couch, watching… clips from the US Open.
"Tournament's over, old man," Ryoma said. He sat down beside his father and held out one hand for the remote control. "You've been at home all day. I want to watch TV."
Even as he said the words, the woman who was on screen served at more than a hundred miles per hour. Ryoma remembered the match well: he and Nanjiroh had watched it avidly before Rinko had summoned them to the dining table.
Automatically, Ryoma asked, "Can you do that?"
Nanjiroh shrugged. "I don't know," he replied. "It's been a while since I had the right opponent. If I did serve that fast, I'd probably take your head off – there's no way you have the muscles to return something that strong." Ryoma glowered but said nothing. He knew his father was right, and as much as the boy resented the truth, he didn't see the point in arguing aimlessly. "So, boy," Nanjiroh gave an exaggerated yawn, failing to cover his mouth. "You're just going to watch TV? Is that your plan for the afternoon?"
"Yep," said Ryoma decidedly. He glowered at his father, waiting to be contradicted.
"Don't forget to do your homework." Nanjiroh rose from the couch and stretched his arms. Then he rubbed his hands together, and Ryoma briefly wondered whether he should flit upstairs and attend to the thermostat. "I heard you scrabbling around this morning after your mother left," continued the old man. "You didn't get a late mark, did you?"
"No," said Ryoma, "I made it. And – I want something else."
Nanjiroh had been at the door, but he looked back over his shoulder. "For what? You want a reward for washing two things this morning? If you take that attitude, I'll have to buy Rinko flowers every single day."
Ryoma scowled. "That's not what I meant! Since…" he sat back and made himself more comfortable. He pressed his thumb on one of the buttons, turning away from the sports channel – now some weird polygon animals that the boy had never seen before were running through a house. "Since I won't be playing tennis anymore," Ryoma went on, "I won't need those sneakers. So I guess you can get me a video game or something instead."
He waited for his father to laugh. He crossed his ankles and folded his arms, sure that the old man would cackle, "You'll want those sneakers – you can't live without tennis." But Nanjiroh was determined to go against Ryoma's expectations; the man gave a single nod. "Alright," he agreed. "Just make it to November first, and then you can have whatever you want."
He left the room, closing the door behind him. Ryoma watched the cartoon with a vacant gaze. For some strange reason, none of the jokes were funny.
They were at the park, not playing seriously, kicking a muddy soccer ball from one person to the next. "So that's it?" said Jake, the shortest in the group. "You're just gonna quit tennis forever?"
Jake shrugged. "Good luck with that," he said. "I reckon you're addicted – the same way some people are addicted to chocolate and stuff like that. I remember when I was little I got addicted to biscuits." He shook his head at the recollection. "But if you really want to quit, you have to clear out all of your belongings. And I mean everything. You have to get rid of whatever reminds you of chocolate – chuck it out of the fridge, donate your special cocoa mug to charity… only in your case, you have to trash all your fancy racquets, I guess."
Michael raised an eyebrow. "Why are you such an expert?"
"My mom's on a diet," answered Jake. "All she eats nowadays is lettuce and crackers."
It made sense, Ryoma thought. How could he stop thinking about the sport while his room was filled with tennis medals and tennis racquets and tennis posters? He took a deep breath and kicked the ball, hard – it bounced off Harry's shin and the boy pulled a face at Ryoma before dashing off to retrieve it.
"You know," said Adam gloomily, "this really sucks. I always thought you'd get really rich one day so that you could buy me a proper trampoline."
Ryoma shook his head. "You freeloader," he said. "Besides – I was never planning on becoming a pro. I was gonna give up as soon as I beat my dad, anyway."
"So you beat your dad?"
Ryoma frowned. "Not even close," he admitted, wiping one hand on his shorts. "When someone's that obsessed with something, they're really hard to take down. My dad practices all the time."
Jake grinned. "You just described yourself."
It was the weekend and Rinko had the day off. At breakfast, Nanjiroh declared that they should all go on a picnic. The idea was met with unanimous enthusiasm – Rinko hadn't had a real chance to be out of the house in ages, and Ryoma was glad to be anywhere where he didn't have to see a tennis court. The boy joined his mother in the kitchen, buttering slices of bread while she prepared sandwich ingredients. Nanjiroh had gone out to see if he could find any fruits that would be pleasant to eat on such a bright day.
"How's school been?" Rinko asked.
"You've been on time?"
"Yeah," Ryoma said, "every day." He could hear the surprise in his own voice even as he said the words. It was strange: how did he manage to be on time for school when he stayed in bed for an extra fifteen minutes, simply staring up at the ceiling? The boy seemed to have time on his hands – far too much time.
Rinko smiled. She rinsed a knife and began slicing up a cucumber. "I'm glad to hear it," she said. "If you can keep it up, you'll definitely have that video game."
Ryoma glanced at his mother's face sharply – but Rinko was focused on the task at hand, fingers pinching the cucumber as she tried not to leave scores in her favourite chopping board. Video game? His mother knew better than anyone else how desperately he had wanted those sneakers, how he had circled them in five different catalogues and left the books around the house, open at the relevant page. She had taken him shopping on three different occasions only to find that he had fallen behind, loitering by the window of a sports store while throwing his mother hopeful looks.
He swallowed. His throat felt dry, as though he hadn't drunk water in a few days. "Yeah," he mumbled, "I'm really looking forward to playing it. My friends all say it's great."
They drove and drove until they had left the city, Ryoma peering out of the back window at the cars and other vehicles that rushed past. Karupin was beside him, passing the occasional comment as a meow; every so often the boy would nod, as though he could understand.
For a change, Nanjiroh was at the wheel. Ryoma continually forgot that his father could drive and wondered whether the man's license was still valid. But they appeared to be safe enough, so the boy kept his musings to himself. The last thing he wanted was for the family to turn around and go home; only a handful of clouds drifted across the clear sky, and his stomach rumbled at the thought of the treats that his mothered had stowed away in the picnic basket.
Rinko turned around in her seat, her eyes shining. "I'm not sure if I ever told you this," she began, "but I used to have a motorcycle."
"You?" Ryoma grinned, trying to picture his mother with a motorcycle helmet over her neat, dark hair. "That's pretty hard to imagine," the boy said.
"Not really," Nanjiroh said. There was a sing-song note to the man's voice, one that Ryoma knew too well from their endless tennis matches. "Your mother never went over the speed limit and she always drove so slowly that I was sure that I'd never make it to a tournament on time."
"But you were never late," Rinko reminded her husband, "so you can stop complaining."
"But I always worried that I was going to be late," Nanjiroh said, "and that threw me off my games."
"Liar! You never lost any of the matches I went to!"
They both laughed. Ryoma turned to stare out of the window once more. They were going to have a great time.
Later, Ryoma decided that he was ready to take drastic action and obey Jake's advice.
Generally, Jake was not the type of kid that people listened to – his suggestions were always coupled with strange anecdotes from his life, often involving his peculiar family. Ryoma remembered that, back in the second grade, Jake had told a girl who was scared of spiders to eat one of the arachnids: his aunt had gotten over her fear of snails in a similar way. Ryoma had blanched at the statement. The girl had been sick all over Jake's brand new shoes and the seven-year-old boy had thrown his head back and bawled.
Not that Ryoma was in any position to talk about weird families… he stood still in the centre of his room, trying to decide where to begin. People always said that it was best to work down from the top; there was nothing on his ceiling that he needed to worry about, so he switched his attention to the walls.
He pushed his chair closer to the first image and climbed. Then he reached for the farthest corner, beginning to peel carefully. He did the same to the opposite corner and with a flopping sound the poster folded in half. Ryoma got down from the chair and removed the poster from the wall altogether. He chewed his lip as he rolled it up and snapped an elastic band around the cylinder.
Two more to go.
Ryoma had to admit that Jake was right: now that tennis wasn't staring at him from every single surface, he felt… he had no idea how he felt. There was a dull ache throbbing behind his ribcage, and he couldn't give it a name.
Karupin was on the duvet, watching. She mewed plaintively.
"We're not moving," he explained. "I'm just… redecorating, a little bit."
He had never noticed how plain and white the walls were. Ryoma stared for a few moments before swivelling on the spot, trying to select what to get rid of next. His eyes fell on the cabinet – glass shelves of tennis trophies and medals, all jumbled together, none of them dusted or properly maintained.
He went to fetch a plastic bag from the kitchen and thumped his way back upstairs.
His hand reached towards the first trophy. It was nothing spectacular: just a cuboid with his name engraved on one side. Maybe… someone, somewhere, would buy the trophy? He could forget about the stupid agreement with his father and buy the video game for himself; not just one game but tons of games…
Something churned deep in Ryoma's stomach and he picked up the trophy by its wooden base, placing it carefully in the bottom of the bag. He decided that he didn't want to throw it away – he could sell the trophies when he really needed the money, like when a new games console was announced, or his father became too stingy for words to describe.
Now that the cabinet was empty, it was… pointless. Ryoma sighed: his room wasn't exactly crowded with belongings, but he didn't want it to resemble a prison cell either. Well, there was no need to have an empty cabinet in his room, and he wasn't about to pile the shelves with his schoolbooks. He placed the heavy bag on the floor and began to pull the cabinet. It slid forward half an inch.
Would it be better to deconstruct the thing first? Ryoma went downstairs to find his father. He checked the living room, but Nanjiroh wasn't watching TV. Then the boy peered into the kitchen, but Nanjiroh wasn't stuffing his face. Then he checked the garden – but his father wasn't out there, either.
Feeling somewhat spooked, Ryoma called, "Old man? Old man? Where are you?"
The boy jumped a foot into the air. He spun before landing, fixing his father with a scowl. Nanjiroh's stubbly beard looked messier than normal. "Don't scare me like that," Ryoma complained. "You could have given me a heart attack."
"What do you need?"
Ryoma blinked. His father used any and every opportunity to tease his son… there were shadows around Nanjiroh's eyes. Odd. Did tiredness make the old man more helpful? "The toolbox," said the boy, uncertainly. "I'm kind of sick of that cabinet, but it's really heavy so… I thought I'd take it apart."
Nanjiroh shook his head. "Little kids like you shouldn't be armed with dangerous power tools. I'll help you move the cabinet to the spare room."
They trooped up the stairs and into Ryoma's room. The boy watched the back of his father's head carefully, waiting for Nanjiroh to pass comment on the bare walls, the vanished medals. But the remark never came, and they spent the rest of the afternoon finishing what Ryoma had started – with his father's help, the boy carried the narrow cabinet through his door, across the hallway and into the spare room. They pushed it to one corner. Then, Nanjiroh stalked back to Ryoma's room and opened the cupboard.
"What're you doing?" Ryoma asked.
Nanjiroh pointed one finger at the polo shirts, all neatly arranged by Rinko. "You won't want these anymore," he said soberly. "Now that you don't play tennis, what's the need for all the sports wear? Try something different."
Ryoma frowned. "I'm still going to hang out with my friends and stuff," he said. "Besides – I like what I wear. What would I take to school if I got rid of it?"
"Fair point," Nanjiroh nodded. He glanced around the room and headed for Ryoma's tennis bags. "Get all of your racquets. We can put those in the spare room too."
After another fifteen minutes, they were completely done. Ryoma looked around his new room, and resolved to buy something to brighten up the wall.
Karuipin swished her tail from side to side.
He got out of the house earlier than normal and took a detour on the way to school, looking for a quiet place where he could just – sit. Eventually, he found a wall unoccupied by any birds or insects or… anything, for that matter. He hoisted himself onto the wall with ease and tapped his heels against the bricks, thinking aloud.
"I quit tennis because I was sick of it," he reasoned, hands deep in his pockets. "Because it's a stupid, boring game, and you go through the same feelings a million times without anything changing. I know I can beat the old man at hundreds of things, so it doesn't matter if I don't defeat him at one lousy sport."
But tennis was his father's pride – so it was the only field where victory mattered and counted for something worthwhile. Defeating his father in a game of chess or Monopoly was not the same as beating the man in a tennis match. Buying grip tape, selecting the best racquets and the greatest shoes… those little things were all a part of the tennis experience, and slowly but surely, the boy was letting all of them go.
"I don't care," he said to himself. "I don't want to play tennis anymore – that's all anyone knows me for; that kid who's obsessed with tennis." His mouth tightened, and so did his hands as they closed around the top of the wall. "That's all anyone will ever know me for, if I keep playing tennis. I need to have a life outside of sports."
Did he really?
He was nine years old – he was in the fourth grade! Why did it matter if he thought about tennis more than any other thing in the world: everyone his age was obsessed with something or other, right? He knew a kid called Sammie Davies who watched cartoon marathons all day long, buying box sets of stuff from the nineties; there was a boy in the sixth grade, Richard Armstrong, who did nothing but draw and would never lend anyone a pencil. Why was it so bad to play tennis all the time? Why was Ryoma any different to the other kids who had hobbies?
Then the answer patted the nape of his neck and the bottom of his spine, and Ryoma's feet stopped moving.
"Because they love what they do," he whispered. "And I really, really hate tennis."
He did not move for another fifteen minutes. The trees waved their branches in the slight breeze and an ant crawled across the boy's fingers, heading to an unknown destination.
Then something stirred at the back of his brain and Ryoma slid off the wall, realising that the sneakers – no, the video game – was out of his reach.
"How come you were late today?" Jake asked.
It was recess and the whole group were out in the playground. The wiry blonde was clambering up the swing set. He sat on the bar at the top. Thankfully, the teacher on duty was dealing with some kids who were fighting over a packet of potato chips – if anyone with authority saw Jake, they were all dead meat. "I thought," Jake continued, "your dad said he'd give you a reward for being on time."
Ryoma sighed. He and the others were sitting on the bark that surrounded the swings to allow a soft landing were anyone to fall; no one dared to sit on the swings in case Jake slipped and beheaded someone. "He did," Ryoma confirmed, shrugging one shoulder. "I lost track of time this morning."
"Were you playing tennis?" Harry asked.
Michael rolled his eyes. "He quit, remember?"
"Wow." Harry picked up a piece of bark and flicked it at Ryoma – the boy caught it one hand but felt a splinter penetrate his palm. "How long has it been?"
How long had it been? It felt like years since Ryoma had last played… somehow, taking the tennis out of his life had accelerated his growth, and he felt like an old man. "I have no idea," the boy confessed. "I stopped playing on a Monday, and… that was about three weeks?"
The boys roared with laughter. Ryoma blinked.
"Yeah right," said Adam. "It's been eight days. Don't get carried away!"
Ryoma was grateful when recess came to an end.
At the dining table, Ryoma squinted at his father, trying to work out what was wrong with Nanjiroh's face. There was something very different about the man, as dramatic as though he had lost an ear or a chunk from his nose… then, just as Nanjiroh passed Rinko the salt, Ryoma saw what was bothering him so much. "Your beard," said the boy, twisting his mouth. "You've shaved it off."
Nanjiroh sighed and nodded. "It was getting in the way," he sang in the stupid tone that Ryoma despised. Then the old man straightened and added, "But I'll be back to the old man you're used to in no time, so don't bother worrying about something so trivial."
"Good," said Ryoma, spearing the last of his potatoes. He disliked unnecessary or sudden changes – like when his mother couldn't make it home early so that the father and son had to settle for microwaved meals, or when one of the boy's favourite shows got cancelled because the TV network had run out of money.
"By the way," Nanjiroh continued, loading more vegetables onto his son's plate (Ryoma turned up his nose but the man took no notice, and Rinko said something placating about vitamins and becoming taller), "how's our little agreement?"
Ryoma shuffled on the chair. His father always had terrible timing – why did the man have to ask on the very day that Ryoma was late? Still, honesty was the best policy, and with an attorney for a mother, Ryoma had always been made to feel very guilty for lying. He remembered when he was five and had taken the last muffin without his mother's permission. She had placed her hands on her hips and asked her son what happened, even though the crumbs flecked his chin and cheeks.
"I didn't make it this morning," the boy said. "I left the house on time, same as I always do… but I ended up going to the park and... I just got lost in thought. The teacher told me off, but not too much, since it was the first time that I was late."
Nanjiroh raised his palms. "You tried," he said, almost gently. "That's the most important thing."
The boy used his fork to slice a wedge of cauliflower in half. His father couldn't be more wrong – trying was not the most important thing. Victory… now that was a goal worth striving towards.
But victory at what? Ryoma frowned suddenly. His heart quickened. Now that he no longer played tennis… he no longer had a rival. He no longer had an opponent whom it was critical to defeat.
He went to the pet store to find Karupin a new toy, because now that his days were devoid of tennis (a fact that the boy seemed to remind himself of at every opportunity, whether his gaze was wandering during his English class or whether he was at home, trying to fight through a boss level), his main focus was on his beautiful cat. That was fine… until Karupin slipped outside because she wanted some fresh air and exercise, leaving Ryoma alone. He hoped that if he found a fun toy, he could use it to bribe the cat back inside.
Shelves and shelves, aisles and aisles… what to pick? It wasn't as though he knew Karupin's favourite colour. Ryoma hovered by a ball of twine, then shook his head – no, he wasn't going to be that predictable.
Eleven days. He had bought a calendar to hang on his bedroom wall, and now he was crossing off the days with a fat red pen, one by one. He told himself that he was counting down to his birthday, but in reality, he knew that he was testing himself. He had read in a magazine at the dentist's that it took twenty-one days to break a habit – that was three weeks exactly, and he was slowly approaching the two-week mark.
He supposed that the number would be something to be proud of if he actually had a bad habit, like watching too much TV or… reading comic books in class. But tennis had kept him lively (sort of) and – he realised it somewhat guiltily, as the cashier handed him the correct amount of change – it had been the one activity that involved his father.
Without tennis in the picture… what did Ryoma and Nanjiroh have to talk about? What did they even have in common?
Not that they had ever discussed much while they were out on the court. Ryoma could still hear the twang of his father's racquet: it was a wooden construct and the gut, the boy had believed, was rather musical. And now that he thought about it, he could still feel the sheer exhilaration of racing towards the net and leaping into the air to counter to his father's assault with a smash –
Nanjiroh had occasionally indulged his son in a rally, a treat Ryoma had never really earned because he could only return his father's serves when the old man used less than a third of his real strength. But – when Ryoma was in the mood to reply – the old man had asked his son about his day, once or twice even offered to help Ryoma finish a piece of Geography homework…
"This is ridiculous," Ryoma said, stopping outside his gate. The wooden rectangles barred his way imperiously. "He won't hate me if I stop playing tennis. He can't. I'm his kid."
But his voice became tangled in his throat, along with a sudden upsurge of bile. He inhaled and opened the latch.
Even as he rolled out of bed and onto the floor Ryoma silently cursed the calendar. It had been a stupid investment and constantly reminded the boy of how many things he had managed to cross out of his life, and how much farther he still had to go. "Not yet," Ryoma said wryly, picking himself up. He went to the bathroom and began the usual morning ritual, squeezing toothpaste onto his brush.
It was a phrase he unashamedly borrowed from his father, because Nanjiroh was always insisting that his son was far from perfect – that he, himself, wasn't perfect. As Ryoma splashed cold water over his face, he frowned: since when had this whole tennis thing got caught up with perfection? There was no such thing as perfect tennis… of that, he was more than certain.
He bounded downstairs. Enough of the lethargy! Ryoma's stomach was growling with hunger, and he wanted today to be different.
To his surprise he found his mother at the kitchen table. Her eyes were circled with red rings and she was drinking from a mug. "Mom?" Ryoma approached her cautiously, placing a small hand on her shoulder. "Is everything okay?"
She gave a vague nod. "Of course dear," she said. She ran her fingers through his hair – then made a small noise, like a tut. "I feel knots," she smiled. "Make sure you brush your hair before heading out."
"Okay." He paused for a moment, wondering whether to have a slice of toast with blueberry jelly or be simple, and go for cereal. While he wrestled with the decision, he asked the woman, "Do you have a really hard case? You look so tired."
Rinko took a sip from her mug. The scent reached Ryoma's nose and he recognised it instantly – chamomile and honey. His mother only drank herbal teas when her throat was sore. He hoped that she wasn't coming down with a cold; for one thing, the illnesses weren't even in season yet. "I'm a little bit tired," she said, giving another small smile. "But I'll be fine – no need to worry about it. How are you this morning?"
Ryoma snuck one glance towards the door. His father was probably still asleep, or… what in the world did the old man do all the time?
The boy slid a chair closer to Rinko and sat down. She held out a hand and he took her cool fingers. He leant on the table with his elbow and cupped his jaw in his free hand. "I'm scared," he murmured. "I feel like I don't even know who I am unless I'm playing tennis. Doesn't that sound really stupid? How can a sport be the only thing that a person identifies with?"
"It doesn't sound silly at all," Rinko declined. Ryoma recognised her light, gentle tone: it was the voice she used when her son was curled up in bed with a violent fever, and the thought that she was concerned made his eyes sting. "It sounds perfectly natural."
He took his hand from his face and stretched his free arm. Then he drummed his fingers on the table top, trying to find the right words. Whether he spoke in English or Japanese, it didn't matter – his mother would understand what he meant. At least… so he hoped. "It's like there's a big hole in me," he continued. "Before I used to do the same things every day, but it didn't feel as – repetitive. Now, I feel like I'm on a loop all the time, even though my schedule hasn't changed that much."
He was lying, and they both knew it. Everything about his day had changed, from the determination that rattled through him on his way home from school to the amount of time he spent tying up his shoelaces. He even ate differently, picking at his food because he wasn't as hungry, because the only exercise he got was during PE lessons and with his friends in the park and when he was up in his room completing sit-ups and press-ups because he was so bored and lonely that he felt he was going to scream from the silence. He had barely slept the previous night; the restlessness had made him want to go downstairs and watch some boring DVD, because only creepy stuff would be running at two in the morning.
But they both pretended that Ryoma was right.
"That's the trouble with routine." Rinko took another sip from the mug. There was a little colour coming back to her cheeks. "Have you thought about starting another hobby? That would definitely help you fill up your time. Or… you could always study."
Ryoma shook his head. "I'm not a nerd," he insisted. "And most of my grades are alright. Besides – I don't have the pocket money to start a new hobby. I always bought tennis stuff, and since I was late the other day, I'm going to have to buy that video game, too."
"You know what a library is, right?"
"I hope that's a joke."
"Go find some nice books to read," said Rinko. She drained her mug and placed it on the table. "I still have your card in my purse."
He went to the library that very afternoon. As he entered the building he had to step back for a few moments, letting an elderly couple pass him as they slowly walked past the counter. The old man smiled with a twinkle in his eye and Ryoma looked away, embarrassed: he hated being thanked or praised when he hadn't done anything that was worth admiring.
He walked up to the first librarian he found. "Excuse me," he began. "This is my first visit here – do you have a map I could borrow?"
The woman turned with a smile. She was wearing neat clothes and a badge was pinned to her shirt. There was a blue cord around her neck. Her hair hung in ringlets, complementing her dark skin. "Is there anything in particular you were looking for?" she asked pleasantly. "What kind of books do you usually read?"
Good question. The last time he had read a book was during English class – and that text had been so terrible that he had slept through the last five chapters. According to Michael, nothing amazing had happened anyway: the story concluded with the main characters having a picnic.
"Tennis magazines," he said, shrugging. "But –"
"Alright! Just follow me." Then she was walking away, and Ryoma almost had to skip to keep up with her long strides.
She led him to the nonfiction section. He saw books on golf, books on soccer, books on baseball… the more Ryoma turned the more his eyes had to feast on; the woman chuckled softly and said, "Enjoy. Give us a shout if you need anything else."
People weren't supposed to shout in libraries.
"Thank you," he said. He made his way to the closest shelf and closed his eyes, pulling out a book at random. It was a tome on the history of Wimbledon.
His father was in the living room, watching, of all things, a news report. "Old man," Ryoma greeted warmly. He placed the bag on the floor and flopped onto the couch, next to Nanjiroh. "What's been going on in the world?"
"Nothing cheerful," replied Nanjiroh. His eyes flicked to the bag, and he said, "Your mother tells me you went to the library today. Anything good?"
"Sort of." Ryoma slid further down the couch, stretching one foot to grip the handles of the plastic bag. Then, he dragged it closer, until he could pick it up with his fingers. "The library was huge," he said, conversationally. "Really, really big."
Nanjiroh let some air slip through his teeth. "It's good if you can get into reading," he said. "As the weather gets colder, you'll probably want to be outside less and less."
Ryoma sat up on the couch until he was looking out through the front window. He blinked – when had fall decided to come into town? Leaves littered the garden, curling on the grass, which was a lot darker than it had been a few weeks ago. And the trees: they looked so barren and empty now. The boy could easily see a vacated nest: little less than two weeks ago, it had been hidden by foliage. "I didn't realise," he said, knowing that his voice was stretching with astonishment. "That means my birthday's coming up."
"And let me guess…" Nanjiroh flicked Ryoma's ear: the boy winced, even though it hadn't really hurt. "You want a rocket for your birthday?"
"No," Ryoma shook his head from side to side. "I'd prefer a spaceship, if you can find one."
He couldn't sleep. Again. Ryoma squeezed his eyes shut valiantly, hoping that he could just enter his dreams and forget about the world for at least a few minutes… but the more methods he tried to fall asleep (counting sheep as they jumped over a fence, reciting the alphabet backwards, trying to list all fifty States), the more sleep became dislodged from his system, until finally the boy sat bolt upright. He needed to do something.
He was going to make a sandwich.
The boy slipped a robe over his pyjamas and stole downstairs as quietly as possible. He had no idea where Karupin was, but she could take care of herself. As he flicked the switch for the kitchen light, Ryoma blinked in the sudden brightness, shielding his eyes. Slowly, he adjusted to the fluorescent glare. He exhaled. Now, it was time to work.
Bread. That was the first thing he needed, and since the boy decided, on the spur of the moment, that he was incredibly hungry, he took out four slices. He knew that Rinko was considering switching to brown bread; it was supposed to be the healthier option. But what was healthy wasn't necessarily tasty… Ryoma placed the four slices on the chopping board. Okay, that was the first step. Now he needed to find the real ingredients.
He opened the fridge door, peering inside. There was a hunk of cheese on a saucer – Ryoma pulled it out and placed it on the counter. And here was some lettuce: that would do perfectly. The boy wouldn't have to bother with a knife but could shred the lettuce with his fingers – after washing it, he reminded himself hastily. He wanted a big sandwich, not a bug sandwich.
Then he grabbed the bottle of squeezable mayonnaise, and for good measure, pulled out a jar of orange marmalade. Variety was the spice of life… or something like that. He had no desire to add anything spicy to his sandwich – the last thing Ryoma wanted was to return to bed with a raw, burning mouth. He tilted his head to one side, staring at the ketchup bottle… it was almost finished, so the boy grabbed that too.
Any other vegetables? No, the lettuce would be more than enough. Ryoma took his five ingredients to the kitchen counter. He spread the mayonnaise and the ketchup and the marmalade on all four slices. Then he lay down slabs of cheese, finishing the mix with some lettuce.
He took a step back to admire his handiwork – then frowned. There was definitely something missing.
He began opening the drawers, always careful to be silent. He found a tin of biscuits but shook his head; he didn't want to choke on the Sandwich of the Century. But if he wanted to give the snack such an impressive title, he needed to add more to it… he found a packet of potato chips and opened it, sliding the triangles from the bag and laying them on top of the lettuce. What else?
Chocolate. Chocolate was a must. Ryoma snapped the bar in his hands, laying squares of chocolate on the bread. Now was the moment of truth… he took a deep breath and moved the slices of bread closer to each. Then, he jabbed with one hand – he flipped the first slice onto the second slice, and apart from a few rogue strands of lettuce that flew out of one side, there was relatively no mess. He repeated the procedure: now he had two sandwiches.
Ryoma sat down and took a big bite.
Alright, so it wasn't the best sandwich ever, but it was satisfying.
Once the boy had ploughed his way through the two sandwiches, he drank a glass of milk (those classes on healthy eating caught up with the boy at the strangest times). Then he left the bowl and plates and knives in the sink, tiptoeing upstairs.
The next morning, Rinko told him to pick up some ketchup at the next available opportunity. Nanjiroh grunted from behind his newspaper, saying something about his son being an absolute slob.
And now he was past the two-week mark, and he hadn't picked up a racquet in over a fortnight, and he did not feel the beautiful freedom and sense of release that should have been his to claim. He stood in the cafeteria queue, eyes heavy, deliberating on the more important things in life: in this case, it was which dessert to select. It took him a while to come to a conclusion, and feeling the frown of the lunch lady, he selected a pot of yoghurt and joined his friends at their table.
Ryoma was barely attentive as he worked his way through the main part of his meal. His friends could probably see how tired he was – they did not pester him to join in with their conversation, and Ryoma was grateful. The food tasted dry and hard in his mouth, and when he sampled the yoghurt, it felt over-processed. He placed the spoon down on his tray and looked around the group.
The whisper at the back of his eyelids told the boy that he was not happy.
"So my big sister Ruth is trying to decide what school to go to," said Adam. Why did his voice sound so far away? Ryoma pinched his forearm. He leaned forward, trying to listen to what Adam was saying. "She wants to go to the same place where all her friends are, but Mom's against the idea 'cause she reckons Ruth can get into a much better school if she just bothers to try."
"Yeah." Jake shovelled some pie into his mouth and swallowed. For such a small person, he could really eat. "You know that some of the sixth graders are already talking about leaving? I mean – they still have AGES! What's the big hurry?"
It was about time that he made a contribution to the discussion. "Have any of you guys thought about where you want to go?" asked Ryoma. The group looked at him briefly – then their smiles disappeared as Michael spoke.
"Yeah," said Michael, suddenly glum. He rubbed the side of his nose with his fingers. "We're going to move out of state."
The others stared.
"You never mentioned this before…" Jake looked around at the group, eyes suddenly wide – Ryoma shook his head; he wanted his friend to know that he hadn't been left out of secret. Seeing the shock on their faces, Jake continued, "How come? Why the big move, all of a sudden?"
"I don't really know," shrugged Michael. "I reckon my parents are kind of bored of the atmosphere here – yeah, I know." He pulled a face and made a corkscrew motion at the side of his head. "I don't really understand how you could get bored here. There's so much to do."
"Make sure you call us and stuff," said Harry solemnly. Out of the five, he always recovered from bad news the fastest. "We'll miss you."
There was a silence, filled with the clattering of spoons and knives and forks. It was as though no one really knew what to say, and since Ryoma could think of nothing consoling, he kept his mouth shut. Suddenly, he felt his right bicep being nudged – he found that Adam was frowning at him. "How about you?" Adam asked.
"You know… which middle school are you gonna go to?"
Ryoma had to think about it. "I'm not really sure," he replied. "I think my old man is thinking about moving back to Japan –" when the others immediately started protesting, the boy raised a hand, "– but as I said, I'm not sure. So there's no point in thinking about something that's still years away. It might never happen."
Ryoma called his mother to let her know that he was going to be late coming home. Rinko said that dinner would be ready by the time he got back, and that he shouldn't be too long since it was cold, and he had forgotten to take a scarf that morning. Ryoma marvelled at his mother's attention to detail, and as he hung up, decided that he now knew why the woman was a successful attorney. He could barely pick out matching socks in the morning.
He took a short trip to the sports store. He swerved around the array of hockey sticks, ran past the aisle of cricket bats and looked away as he passed the tennis racquets. Finally, he found what he was looking for. Selecting a basketball from a huge box, Ryoma tested the ball on the floor: it bounced well and the boy purchased it. Thankfully, it wasn't very expensive.
Then Ryoma went to the public courts. The area was mostly deserted except for some teenagers who were hanging around, but Ryoma took no notice of the group. If he said nothing to them, they would say nothing to him. In theory.
He bounced the ball on the waxy lines and threw it at the hoop.
It bounced on the board and fell to the ground.
One of the teenagers gave a giant whoop of laughter, and that became the cue for the rest of his friends to join in. They sounded like a pack of hyenas.
"Hey kid, you're a bit short for basketball!" That was from a big guy in a purple jersey. Ryoma ignored the older boys and recovered the ball. He studied the orange sphere. It was so big. There was no way anyone he knew could ever carry a basketball around in their pockets… Ryoma wrinkled his nose suddenly, remembering that basketball was very much a team sport and all about team effort.
He wasn't a team player.
Ryoma continued practising and the boys continued jeering, even when the ball managed to slide through the hoop. What was their problem? After another ten minutes the boy threw the group the filthiest scowl he could muster; the largest teen, the one who had laughed first, who had started the whole confrontation, got to his feet and swaggered over.
Ryoma did not move at all.
The older boy was barely a foot from him: he smelled bad, and Ryoma almost recoiled from the stench – almost, but he managed to suppress the urge. In a voice that was barely above a hiss, the teenager asked, "You looking at me?"
He was offering a peace treaty. Ryoma could do things the easy way – he could avert his gaze and leave the area. But the boy loved a challenge: it had been ingrained into him, something that Nanjiroh had beaten into his son ever since the child could walk.
"Che." Ryoma shrugged one shoulder. "If I looked for too long, my eyes would fall out. Come to think of it, you don't exactly smell too great either."
The boy cracked his knuckles and spat on the ground.
Ryoma threw the basketball in the teenager's face. There was a roar from the lounging group – the boy couldn't care less what they were planning – he ducked, scrambled and ran: he knew when people were feinting and only threatening to hit him, and he also knew when they were preparing for the real thing.
And since the boy was not equipped with his tennis racquet, he was virtually defenceless.
He was sitting in the back garden and it was raining, and he told himself that he was shivering because the wind was too cold.
Rinko called him in once or twice, warning her son that if he was sick because of his own stubbornness, he would still have to go into school. For one thing, there was a Geography test on the horizon. Ryoma acknowledged that he heard his mother but remained outside. It seemed like a long time had passed since he had last felt the rain on his face; it was a stranger to the conflict that had been quietly raging in the Echizen house and for that reason, was almost friendly.
The boy heard footsteps approaching; he knew they were his father's. They were both silent for a little while, and when Ryoma became tired of hearing nothing but the endless raindrops, he opened his mouth.
"Why didn't you tell me?" the boy asked numbly. His shoulders were aching and he wanted to take a long bath and forget about everything. "Why didn't you just tell me in the first place so that I never tried?"
Nanjiroh sat down beside his boy. The familiar stubble was grazing on his face. His eyes were distant as he looked out at the tennis court. "Would you have believed me, even if I told you?"
Ryoma was about to argue that he would have – but the words died on his tongue; he knew that they were lies. Instead, he shook his head. "I can't take this anymore," he said quietly. "The only thing that's driven me for so long was the thought of beating you, and I took that away from myself… I feel like I've come to a stop."
"Tennis is fun."
"I don't believe you."
"That's your problem, not mine." Nanjiroh shrugged and Ryoma glared at him – the boy's hazel eyes burned yellow and gold. "Personally, I think you have a point. Why play a game that you hate so much? That seems like a wasteful way to spend your life, boy."
"But you still knew," Ryoma said bitterly, "you still knew that there was no way that I could stop playing tennis, and you let me go through all of this because –"
"– Because there are some things you need to work out for yourself."
Ryoma sighed. The longer they sat out here, in the rain, the longer they would continue to speak in circles. Was that it, then? Had his whole decision to stop playing tennis been nothing more than a pointless experiment? He glanced at Nanjiroh again: the old man's eyes were still fixed forward, as though he was gazing at a destination that Ryoma, for some reason or other, couldn't see.
"I'm giving up," Ryoma announced.
A slight chuckle escaped from Nanjiroh's lips. "Again?"
"No, not that. I mean our dumb 'Be on time' bet. You can buy me the sneakers whenever you want. Or maybe Mom will get them for me, since she's a nice parent." The boy got to his feet and looked to his left. As he had suspected, there were two racquets lying on the floor. One was a wooden structure, whilst the other was standard. Ryoma reached for the second racquet and picked it up. He threaded his fingers through the wires in the gut and scowled at Nanjiroh, who tilted his head backwards.
"What?" asked the old man.
Ryoma shrugged. "We still have some time before dinner," he said. It didn't matter whether it was raining or snowing or the sun was shining; he would not be dictated by the weather. "Play me, old man."
Nanjiroh stared at Ryoma for a few moments before relenting and picking up his wooden racquet. He stood also and nodded towards the court. "You still have so much to work on," he sang, employing the stupid voice that his son despised. "And now, you have catching up to do."
"Watch out," warned Ryoma. "I'll beat you."