The Death of Karupin
This is for everyone who loves Prince of Tennis as much as I do. The fans are what keeps the spirit in an anime long past after it finishes.
Summary: When Ryoma's cat dies, the Seigaku Regulars provide comfort in the best way possible. A friendship fic.
To Ciel, Sy: I broke my promise about reviewing yesterday. Waah. But I'm doing it now. Hehe. Bad me, bad me. And to Ato: I lost inspiration for the long 9k fic, but I don't want to leave you hanging, so I'm going to look over the old one I wrote, fix it up as best as I can, and post that instead. Sorry! xD It'll be up tomorrow!
Sorry for any typos! I didn't look this over!
The news came in a painful flurry from Horio's mouth.
"With my two years of tennis experience, I have discovered that Echizen's cat got run over by a car."
At first, the tennis club just half-heartedly laughed, the words not sinking in. Horio and his tennis experience + Ryoma's cat getting run over by a car sounded like a humorous statement. A cat, getting run over by a car. Momo chuckled. Why was that phrased so hilariously? It took him a moment to realize what that meant.
"Wait, wait…" he stopped, tennis racquet going limp in his hands. "Repeat that."
Horio was all too happy to say it again. "With my two years of tennis experience, I found out that Echizen's cat got run over by a car."
"His cat?" Momo felt his heart drop to his gut with a thunk. "How…how do you know that?"
Feeding on the attention, Horio said, "Kachiro and I went over to his house because he left his textbook, but his mother wouldn't let us in. She said his cat got run over by a car and he didn't want to see anyone. Of course, with my experience, I did try to prod her into letting me comfort Echizen, but – "
Momo felt weak in the knees. His cat. Ryoma's cat. He remembered when the furry animal had gotten lost in the school. There had been panic, worry in Ryoma's eyes. It had been the first time Momo had seen some kind of upset, startling emotion in his face. If his cat just getting lost had caused him to be that distressed, then…
"Hoi, what's this cat getting run over by a car thing?" Kikumaru skipped over to them, doing a flying kart wheel as he sailed past Momo and Horio. "Is it a new joke, Momo?"
"No," Momo felt lightheaded. He glanced at the front gates of the club. Ryoma hadn't come for practice today. Noticing the sparkling concern in Momo's eyes, Kikumaru halted to a stop in front of him and slung an arm around his neck. "Oi, Momo, what's the matter?"
Momo's mouth was dry. "Echizen…"
Kikumaru followed Momo's gaze. A frown caught his lips. "Hm, that's right. Ochibi's late today."
"No, that's not it," Momo shook his head. "His cat. It got run over by a car."
The pair of blue eyes in front of him went large. "Ochibi has a cat? Oh yeah, it's the one we returned that day when we were walking back, right? It was the day I got my new sneakers…" a twinkle caught in the acrobat's eyes. "Those sneakers were the best, Momo," he lifted his shoe up, holding them up. "See? They still aren't dirty."
Momo felt a rush of heat. "His cat died and you care about your sneakers."
"His cat died?"
"Yes," Momo said, lips pursed. "Like I said, it got run over by a car.
Kikumaru's eyes instantly watered. "But…but that…"
"It can't be, I know. But Horio said so and I don't think he was lying…"
"Of course I wasn't," Horio said proudly. "I'm just extremely close to Echizen."
He was ignored. Momo and Kikumaru exchanged glances, and both stared at the gates. Slim sunlight spilled in through the cracks, and broken leaves dangled around the edges, but there was no sign of their kouhai. The mingling sound of tennis racquets hitting balls drowned in the deafening noise of their worry.
"Should we see Ochibi?" Kikumaru swallowed. "A glomp might make him feel better."
"Maybe," Momo said. "He'll be a stubborn brat and tell us to go away, though."
"Then we'll kick open the door and barge in like in TV," Kikumaru giggled, "I've always wanted to do that."
Momo managed a half-hearted smile at the acrobat's enthusiasm, before his eyes searched for some kind of escape route. He knew Tezuka wouldn't let them go early, but he didn't think he could practice a minute longer without the gnawing worry of how Ryoma was doing. He'd seen how much Ryoma cared for the cat.
"Eiji," Fuji joined them. "Want to have a practice match?"
"Fujiko," Kikumaru wailed and threw himself at the prodigy the moment he saw him. "It's horrible. Ochibi's cat got run over by a car."
The words didn't take long for Fuji to process. He remembered the gray-and-while ball of fur that they'd been delivering to Ryoma's house. His sister had stopped him in the middle and offered to drive him home, but he had no doubt that the pet was precious to Ryoma. He stared up at the faint outline of the sky.
"That's awful," he finally said, voice soft.
"It's horrible," Kikumaru buried his face in Fuji's shoulder. "Poor Ochibi. We need to go give him a big hug."
Momo scratched his neck. "Do you think Tezuka-buchou would let us out early?"
"Probably not," Fuji's eyes caught a glint in the daylight. "But we could sneak out."
Momo cracked a grin. "I like the way you think, Fuji-senpai."
"So do I," Kikumaru rubbed his hands together. "It's like an undercover mission."
They all laughed, and as sincere as it sounded, the empty, mulling apprehension filed through. Their kouhai meant everything to them, and if he was upset, or lost something important, it felt like they'd lost something important too. Fuji's eyes looked faraway into the distance, and Momo kept gnawing on his lower lip. Even as Kikumaru brightened things up by talking about a plan to charge into Ryoma's bedroom, the light blue eyes were a shade darker than usual.
It was, after all, their Ochibi they were talking about.
"No," the hoarse voice slid through the crack of the door. "Tell them to leave."
Nanako fidgeted with her fingers, eyes darting down the lower floor where three of Ryoma's friends waited. She'd told them Ryoma didn't want to see anyone, but they'd insisted, with ferocity, that Ryoma needed them. With another knock with her knuckles, she said, "Are you sure, Ryoma-san? They look like they really want to see you."
"No. Tell them to leave," he repeated.
A silent, aching sigh escaped Nanako's mouth. She had tried to get Ryoma to come out to eat or at least have a glass of water, but he'd confined himself in his room. She'd hoped that his friends could persuade him, but clearly that was out of the question. With a wistful smile, she slipped down the stairwell.
"I'm sorry," she cast a grin, but it didn't do a thing to hide her distress. "Ryoma-san doesn't want to see anyone. He'd like if you'd leave."
Momo, Kikumaru, and Fuji exchanged glances. They'd prepared – no, they'd expected – for this this to happen, and had a plan backed up. With a smooth smile, Fuji stepped forward. His blue eyes peered open with dark laughter. "That's quite alright, Nanako-san," he smiled, charmingly, and captured her hands in her. "But…I can't help but marvel in your beauty."
Nanako flushed. "Oh, Fuji-san, I'm in university…"
"Love knows no age," Fuji said.
The young woman tried to pull away. "I'm afraid that – "
"Don't be afraid of love," Fuji said, swallowing his laughter. "It's worth it in the end."
As a flustered Nanako tried to push away a romantically clingy Fuji, Kikumaru and Momo tip toed passed to the stairwell without her noticing. She was too caught up with Fuji's intense gaze in her own. The moment they were out of sight, Momo and Kikumaru thundered up the stairwell. A long corridor awaited them.
"How do we know which ones Ochibi's room?"
"Should be this one," Momo found a door with a tennis poster on it. He tried the doorknob, finding it locked. "Oi, Echizen, let us in!"
There was some shuffling. "Go away."
"Echizen," Momo said. "You can't lock your senpai out of your room, you just can't."
There was stubborn silence on the other end. Momo ran his fingers through his hair, glancing at Kikumaru who was hopping on his toes. "Should we barge in, then?" he grinned at the prospect. Kikumaru bobbled his head. "Yes, I've always wanted to do it. I bet we'll look so cool, nya." Satisfied that his senpai agreed, Momo backed up against the wall.
Kikumaru did the same, eager light in his eyes. "On one, two..."
Momo flexed his legs muscles. "Three."
A second later, they sped and rammed their bodies against the door. "Ow," Kikumaru's shoulder clattered against the hard material, not making a different, but Momo's built muscle pushed it open and knocked it to the ground. Momo stumbled inside as pain roared up his shoulder, back, and chest, but ignored it when he saw the room.
It was a painful sight. The blankets were strewn, the clock on the ground, posters ripped and scattered. A vase was shattered into pieces. Momo swallowed furtively, fingers curling into his hands, painfully digging into his palms. And there was Ryoma. He was sitting on his bed, head propped up on the pillow.
His eyes were bloodshot, lips curled in a scowl, face in a trembling glare. "Get out."
"I can't do that," Momo tried to laugh. "I simply can't."
Kikumaru inched his way into the room. He rubbed his shoulder and frowned. "Nice place you've got here, Ochibi."
Ryoma tore at the fabric of his pillow with his nails. He just wanted them out. Out, before he couldn't control the wet, heavy tears building in the back of his eyes. Momo and Kikumaru watched him struggle, awkwardly, unsure of what to do. Kikumaru wanted to hug him, but he didn't know if Ryoma was up to that right now.
Fuji slipped into the room. "I think she was disturbed," he said. His eyes drifted to Ryoma, who was peering at them, golden eyes darker than usual.
"Echizen," the prodigy said with warmth.
"Out," Ryoma said. He snatched a pillow from his bedside and threw it at Fuji, who caught it deftly.
"Don't take your frustration out at us," Fuji mused.
Momo nodded. "We came to help."
Ryoma tried to quell the quivering of his lower lip. "You can't. So leave."
Kikumaru couldn't stand it anymore. His arms and legs prickled. Ryoma looked so helpless, and it was breaking every piece of his heart to see his kouhai like that. Without warning, he threw himself across the room and flung his arms around Ryoma. "Ochibi," the acrobat sniffled. "We missed you at practice, and, and we heard about your cat."
A shudder trilled Ryoma's thin body. He tried to push Kikumaru away. He didn't need hugs. Hugs would break him apart, make him… damn it, he was crying. He could feel the tears spilling down his face, and had no choice but to hide them in Kikumaru's chest. This was why he didn't like the hugs. They tore him apart more than he already was. Provided too much comfort.
Kikumaru felt the wetness on his shirt, but didn't say anything. Momo ventured up.
"Echizen?" he asked.
"Out," came the croaky, defeated reply. "This is my room."
Momo put a careful hand on Ryoma's head. "Uh, your room is kind of a disaster. And…" he wondered if Ryoma had eaten since the incident. "We wanted to take you out…to the sushi place…" Kikumaru looked at him quizzically, and Momo shrugged. Fuji smiled. He knew, despite how upset Ryoma was, how insistent he was to kick them out, that he needed this comfort.
"You know, Echizen, my Cactus died once," he said.
Ryoma felt his pulse rise. "A cactus is a plant. Karupin is a – " he swallowed, felt a sob escape his throat. "I mean was a cat."
"But my Cactus was very important to me," Fuji said. "I got him from my Grandpa before he died. I watered him every day, talked to him. He was like a person."
"Karupin was better than a person."
"Better than a person," Fuji's lips curled. "I was devastated when Yuuta accidentally mistook it for one of my other cacti – "
"You have more?" Momo said incredulously.
"And cut it in half with a knife."
The memory buzzed in Fuji's brain, and his heart ached, dull and distant. He'd gotten over it, of course. But the Cactus had been a present from his grandfather, someone he'd been very close with. Ryoma listened to the story, still shaking in Kikumaru's arms. "Your point?" he finally asked through a plugged nose. "You coulda taped it."
"He was dead," Fuji said, sharper than intended. He smiled to smooth it out. "And my point it that time heals all pain."
Ryoma's breathing was ragged, body limp in Kikumaru's tight hold. Momo felt himself biting his lower lip in concern. This was his best friend, and he was a wreck. Because the crying had stopped, Fuji thought he'd gotten through to Ryoma, maybe helped him a bit. A moment later, Ryoma's shoulders started shaking again, and another pillow was thrown at Fuji's face.
"Maybe we should have brought buchou here," Momo said aloud.
"Why?" Kikumaru asked.
"Echizen worships him, so maybe – "
Ryoma glared with watery eyes from under Kikumaru's arms. "I do not."
Momo took the glare as a good sign. He smiled, brightly, and rubbed Ryoma's head with affection. "Look, I know you're upset. Nothing's going to help that. You cry all you want. But no matter what, you're getting some food in your stomach, and we're taking you out for sushi," the words were said with finalism.
Ryoma swallowed thickly. The tears continued to trickle, but with less ferocity. "I'm not hungry."
"But Ochibi," Kikumaru loosened his grip. "Haven't you locked yourself in here since morning?"
"I said I'm not hungry," Ryoma repeated. On instinct, his stomach growled with desire. The three of them laughed, achingly, at the irony. They could see the red, puffiness around his eyes, the unruly hair, the distant gaze, the tired, apathetic glare. Kikumaru felt his stomach boil uncomfortably. It always pained him to see others in trouble.
"We're going to the sushi place," Fuji said. "It's not a choice."
"You can't make me – "
Momo grabbed him from around the waist. "We're stronger than you, especially all together."
"I'll call 911 – "
Kikumaru locked his arms behind his neck. "They won't appreciate the fake call. You'll probably be charged."
Ryoma felt frustration rise to his head. Just who did they think they were? He didn't ask for this. He didn't ask for his so-called senpai to barge into his room and drag him off to the sushi shop. He wanted to sleep, cry, sleep, cry, miss Karupin, cry some more – that was a nice, comforting pattern. Hadn't they heard of mourning in silence?
"Che, too bad," Ryoma tugged pointlessly at Momo's arms. "I have to go to Karupin's funeral."
Fuji's smile softened. "You're having a funeral? That's a wonderful idea."
Ryoma just glared.
"Is your family coming?" Kikumaru sat cross-legged, biting on his thumbnail.
"No. It's just for me."
"A funeral by yourself?" Fuji's voice slid with nonchalance. "I think we should come."
Momo's face glowed. "Yeah. We'll come with you."
"To give company, nya!"
Ryoma's stomach turned. They didn't understand. It had to be private. His plan was to sit there and sob until he felt so empty and tired that he'd fall asleep. Sleep, after all, was oblivion. Sleep meant there wouldn't be that pain that wanted to rip apart his insides and eat them away. But one look at Fuji's curled lips, Momo's grin, Kikumaru's bright eyes – one look, and he knew that this would be a battle he wouldn't win.
"I don't want you to come," Ryoma said, roughly. He stood up, the blanket slipping off the bed along with him.
"I understand," Fuji said. "But moral support is vital."
Momo slung an affectionate arm around Ryoma's neck. "He's just being a brat. He secretly wants us to come. Right, Echizen?"
"No," was his reply. Anger simmered in his eyes.
Kikumaru just hoisted Ryoma into his arms, not listening to his verbal threats that if he wasn't put down immediately he was going to yank off Kikumaru's hair. He pressed the chest of the boy to his shoulder, leaned his ear down. He could hear the repetitive beat of his heart, his unsteady breathing, slinking with heavy tears that wouldn't fall. "You think you don't need anyone," the acrobat said, seriously, "but we can see through that. That's why we're so insistent to help."
"What Kikumaru-senpai said," Momo nodded. "You just can't attend funerals alone."
Ryoma didn't reply. He just wanted to be on the damn ground.
Fuji smiled, deceiving and gentle all at once. "I should have had a funeral for my cactus."
"Echizen's cat died?"
The words were spoken with panic and horror from Oishi Shuichiro's mouth. He felt a cold shiver run down his spine. He hated death, any death. It was the one thing he couldn't solve with first aid kits and worrying. But he worried, anyway, especially for Ryoma. "Tezuka, you can't be serious. I remember, Ryoma looked like he really cared about his cat when we were giving it to him at his house…"
"It's unfortunate," Tezuka took a heavy breath. "Fuji texted me. He said he'd like if we all met at the Sushi shop at five."
"To do what?" Oishi's throat was clogged. "Echizen must be so upset. This is awful."
"We're supposed to cheer him up," Tezuka said. He desperately needed some Advil. He wasn't good at cheering people up.
"But…but…he must be heartbroken."
Oishi's wail, so stricken, so stressed, made Tezuka offer a comforting look. Even so, he wasn't sure if he was prepared to see Ryoma 'heartbroken' as Oishi put it. It was a very odd, unfavorable emotion to sport the freshman's face. But he knew he'd have to get around to saying a few words. He mentally began to prepare a nice lecture about time healing all wounds.
Inui joined them. "Funny that Fuji, Eiji, and Momo left practice early."
Oishi was frantic. "Echizen's cat died."
A pang hit Inui's stomach, hard like a bullet. He skimmed the pages of his notebook. "That…was unexpected." It was unexpected, and it made the writing beneath his pen quaver and stagger. Unpredictable. No information on his data. He hated dealing with things like that. Not only that, but he couldn't figure out how Ryoma would react.
"We're going to the sushi shop," Tezuka said, the edges of his voice weary. "To…cheer him up."
"Cheer him up," Inui cleared his throat. "That's not an easy task."
"I'm sure we can manage," Oishi swallowed, his knuckles white, "I mean, he surely can't be that upset. It's just a cat. Even if he's special, it's not…it's not…it's not like it's his mom or dad. He won't be scarred for life, right?" the panic flooded his voice, not leaving any time soon. Tezuka knew he needed to gain control over the situation.
"It's unpreventable," Tezuka said, firmly. "He'll get over it. Panicking won't do anything."
Kawamura and Kaidoh, who were in the middle of a practice match, finally noticed that none of the regulars were playing tennis. In fact, a few of them seemed missing, and the rest were huddled, looked distressed. Taking that as a cue, they casually walked up, trying to figure out what the problem was.
"Is something the matter?" Kawamura blinked.
Oishi's fingers warped together. "Echizen's cat died. It's horrible. I don't know what to do."
"You don't have to do anything," Inui said. "The knowledge is just disheartening."
Kawamura's face paled. "That's awful."
Kaidoh's skin went white as a sheet. Ryoma's cat. The racoon. The one he'd coincidentally bumped into several times. A kitten. Dead. A horrifying, sickly feeling filled his gut. He'd gotten to know that cat, on a personal level. And now he was dead. He wasn't sure if he could cheer up Ryoma because he felt like grieving himself.
On the outside, he kept his composure. "Fsshhh. The brat okay?"
"No idea," Oishi said. "We need to see him. We must seem him today at the Sushi shop, to make sure he's not thinking any suicidal thoughts or –"
"Oishi," Tezaka's voice came sharp, like a knife. "I told you. He'll be fine."
Oishi felt like a string in his head was going to snap, but he forced himself to take a deep, taxing breath. Tezuka was right, as usual. Panicking wasn't going to help the situation. He turned his eyes downcast. "You're right," he fiddled with the ends of his fingers. "I just don't know what to say or do when we see him."
Kawamura lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "I was thinking…maybe we could buy him something."
"Buy him something?" Tezuka inquired.
"A cat," Kaidoh said, too enthusiastically. The four of them swivelled their eyes to him, and he tried not to flush. But a second after, Oishi clapped his hands together, Kawamura's eyes brightened, and Tezuka nodded in approval.
"A cat could work," Tezuka said.
"It might make him forget about his other cat," Kawamura said.
Oishi pressed a hand to his relieved heart. "Yes," he said, "Yes, let's buy a cat."
Inui's pen inked over his paper. "Perhaps a Himalayan, like his last?"
"How do you know his last was a Himalayan?" Kawamura asked. He hadn't been there when they'd walked to Ryoma's house.
Inui gave a sinister chuckle, snapping his book shut.
When he saw the looks on their faces, he explained, "It was simply data."
Ryoma felt his throat clog up when he saw Karupin's grave, the one he'd created in a daze of shock with marker and cardboard. Tears clung to his eyes, ready to spill over, and he unconsciously let his hand reach out for Momo's. Momo was surprised when he felt the small fingers fumble for his own, but gave an encouraging squeeze in return.
Kikumaru whimpered, "It's so sad."
"I hate funerals," Fuji felt a chill cover his skin. It wasn't a graveyard, but Ryoma's face was so gloomy and death hung over the atmosphere of the backyard. They slowly waded through the uncut lawn to the cardboard gravestone. Ryoma felt his knees lock, his heart thump like a loud, unyielding bell in his ears. Nobody understood. Karupin was the only person – well, mammal – that understood him.
And now he was gone.
"Go away," Ryoma yanked his hand away, suddenly. "Please, go away."
Momo arched his brow. "Echizen – "
Kikumaru felt the knots in his stomach harden, and churn. "Ochibi – " he reached his hand out, but Ryoma jerked away.
Fuji closed his eyes, took a deep breath. "Echizen, let us support you. It's okay if you cry."
His voice broke on the hinges, "I said go away. Fuck off."
Nobody bothered to lecture his language. Kikumaru wasn't sure if he could hug him, the thing he always did when Oishi was upset. Ryoma squeezed his eyes shut, once, tightly. Didn't they get it? If they stayed, he'd cry, breakdown in front of them. Sure, he did it earlier in the room, but that'd had been different. He wanted to really breakdown; lose himself, to try to make the pain go away. And he couldn't, not with them there. His pride wouldn't let him.
"We're just your friends," Momo said. "You can scream and throw a fit for all we care."
"I'm not going to scream and throw a fit," Ryoma kept his voice low, insides shaking. "I just…go away."
Kikumaru's eyes caught fire. "I'm sorry Ochibi, but I can't leave you here to cry alone. When people go to funerals, they go with family. When they cry, they have a shoulder to cry on," the acrobat's voice was serious, unusual from his normal tone, "I know you think you don't want us here, but no matter what you say or do, we're not going to go away."
It was the firm, unwilling words that broke the first layer. Ryoma felt the tears coming before he could stop them.
"Ochibi," Kikumaru's face changed. "I wasn't trying to be mean or anything – "
"It's okay, Eiji," Fuji said. "It's not you."
The tears fell silently down his face, and he bit his lower lip hard from making a noise. Stop, he told himself, cry at night when they're gone, but he couldn't stop them, no matter how hard he tried. His shoulders shook. His breath rose and fell in unsteady harmony. And the damned tears kept falling, fast, furious, down his chin and neck.
"I said," his lips trembled, "I told you to leave."
"We're not going anywhere," Momo said. It wasn't determination in his voice, but reassurance. He pulled the kouhai into an embrace, even as his stomach muscles clenched with uncertainty. "I promise, we're not going anywhere." The silent tears made more noise now, the occasional sob escaping through Ryoma's tightly-pressed lips. He tried to hush himself, but someone was stroking his hair, murmuring soft words and he couldn't –
"Stupid car," Ryoma choked out, into Momo's chest.
"Stupid car," Momo agreed.
"Stupid car," Kikumaru said solemnly.
"I'll get revenge," Fuji said, with a thin, pained smile.
He got a strangled laugh out of Ryoma, but it was muffled by quacking sobs. Ryoma tried to cocoon himself, bury himself in Momo. If they couldn't see him, maybe it would seem like it wasn't happening. Maybe Karupin really wasn't dead, and this was all just a dream. But he knew better, and that just made him cry harder. Momo held him awkwardly.
"That's one helluva gravestone you made,"
Ryoma punched him the gut, tried to cut off his tears. They insisted and stormed down his cheeks anyway. "I hate you," he said.
"I think you'll be just fine," Momo grinned.
Fuji smiled, and paused from carding through Ryoma's hair. "He'll be fine. Fine for sushi, right? I'll put in some nice wasabi just for you."
"And I'm going to get Ochibi a supersized get-your-glomp-wherever-you-want button."
Ryoma felt the laughs mingling with his sobs. Dammit, they were making him laugh. He was supposed to be crying. His cat, his cat was gone. He reminded himself of this, and a dull roar ached in his chest, but he felt fresh. His cat was gone, but his friends were here. And they would help him through it. No matter how embarrassing it all was.
As Momo held Ryoma, Fuji flicked open his cell phone. A giggle escaped his mouth.
"What is it?" Kikumaru asked.
"Nothing, just…a text from Tezuka," the sly, smooth tone of his voice indicated that there was something behind the words. Kikumaru tried to peer over Fuji's cell phone, but the prodigy snapped it shut. Ryoma sniffled, rubbed at his eyelids, and leaned against Momo who awkwardly kept his hands on his shoulders.
"May Karupin rest in peace," Ryoma said.
"To the best cat ever," Kikumaru said.
Fuji slipped his phone in his pocket. "I hope you'll meet my cactus in heaven. I'm sure you'll be great friends."
"And we'll make that car go to hell," Momo said to the gravestone. "Just for you."
"I can't believe we're getting a cat," Oishi stepped into the pet shop, and a swift bell rang to acknowledge his entrance. Kaidoh kept his eyes on the ground. He could already smell the familiarity of animals and fur, and his fingers itched. There were cats everywhere. Kittens. Puppies. The last thing he needed was his soft spot revealed.
Tezuka swallowed an aspirin with his water bottle. "Alright, everyone. Split up in pairs and try to find a cat suitable for Echizen's tastes."
"There's an odd number," Inui said.
Kaidoh's brow creased. "I'll…go alone."
They stared at him, and he felt obliged to add a long, "Fsshhh" and glare. If he could separate from his senpai, he would be able to stare longingly at all the pets without disruption. It wasn't his fault his family resented animals. As Kaidoh headed into the opposite direction, Kawamura and Inui found a section with newborn kittens.
"They're adorable," Kawamura beamed. A small, furry kitten poked his nose against the cage.
"They look interesting," Inui said. "Definitely a species I could study."
"Do you think Echizen would like a newborn?"
"Probably," Inui said. "The chances of him wanting a newborn are 80%, particularly because of his state of mind. Since his cat recently died, he will want one that won't die in the near future, and a newborn provides that comfort the best."
Always fascinated by Inui's predictions, Kawamura just nodded his head. He agreed, in a way. The newborns were the cutest, too. As they strolled past the kittens, he noticed one in particular, curled up in the corner. When Kawamura saw its eyes, they looked sad, empty – unloved. He felt his heart ripple in his chest.
"What about that one?"
Inui flicked at his notebook. "It looks depressed. Echizen's probably depressed. A happy kitten is the best bet to cheer him up."
"But the kitten looks so sad."
"Taka-san," Inui said. "We can't help everyone."
"But – "
"Ah, look, there's Kaidoh," Inui said. The second-year was peering at a cat, with such intense longing, that Inui did a double-take, smirked, and scribbled in his notebook. Perhaps for Kaidoh's Christmas present, he would get him a cat.
"Did you find anything, Kaidoh?" Inui asked.
Kaidoh felt heat smother his cheeks. "Ah…nothing, senpai. They all look fine."
"They sure do," Inui said smugly. "Furry, cute, small creatures. I'd like one of my own. What about you Kaidoh?"
"Ah…I'm not a…cat person…" It was an atrocious lie, but Inui was giving him a look.
Kawamura's mind was still on the kitten. "If you pass the newborns, take a look at the third one in the second row. It looks really sad. I'd buy it myself, but my dad's allergic to cats so it wouldn't work out."
"I'm not a cat person," Kaidoh said gruffly.
Inui just smirked and wrote some more in his notebook, before the two of them walked off into another aisle. Kaidoh, once sure that they were both gone, cautiously ventured into the newborns sections. He felt his heart rise to his neck. There were newborn kittens everywhere – soft, mewling, wide-eyed kittens. Damn his soft spot for furry animals.
He ground his teeth and walked down.
When he saw the one Kawamura had been talking about, the heart that had rose to his throat dropped with a heavy thunk to his gut. Kawamura had been right. The kitten looked so sad, so lonely, with sharp blue eyes and shivering fur. Kaidoh stared at it for the longest time. His skin prickled. His knees flexed and bent to go eye level.
The kitten tentatively pawed forward.
They stared at each other.
After what seemed like forever, Kaidoh lifted his hand.
Oishi and Tezuka found the cat right away. They'd entered the newborn section, spotted a small Himalayan curled up in the cage with bright, shady green eyes, and deducted it was Ryoma's cat through and through. It even looked like Ryoma. Gold-green almond-shaped eyes, silk black fur with thick white stripes.
"Hey, there, little kitten," Oishi said.
The kitten mewled.
"He's the one," Oishi straightened up with a large grin, so wide and full his cheeks hurt. "Echizen will be much happier when he sees the cat."
Tezuka just looked at it. "Ah. Yes. Echizen should like it."
"It even has his eyes,"
"And it's so cute. Echizen will die."
Tezuka stared at him.
Oishi waved his hands frantically, "I didn't mean actually die, I just meant he'll be really, really happy." – quickly hoping he'd convinced Tezuka he meant no harm to his kouhai, he reached a hand through the cage and ran his fingers over the cat's coat of fur. The softness of it slid across his fingers like sheer silk.
"That's it," Oishi said. "He's perfect. We'll buy it."
Tezuka gripped his wallet. "We'll split up the cost."
"And give this kitten a home," Oishi said with dreamy eyes. Tezuka watched him eagerly go over to customer service, and shook his head. His friends were weird. Oishi was too dramatic in the oddest of ways. He spotted Inui and Kawamura coming over, shaking their head, saying they'd had no luck in choosing. Tezuka and Oishi pointed to the kitten they'd selected.
"He looks like Echizen," Kawamura said with a grin.
"80% chance Echizen will love it ecstatically but won't show it."
The four of them just stood around and admired the new kitten they'd bought, petting it, thinking of names. Once they'd paid and bought the kitten, they headed to the door.
"Hold on a second…" Kawamura pressed on the door. Rain hailed outside. "Has anyone seen Kaidoh?"
Oishi looked up from petting the soft kitten. "Oh, right, I nearly forgot. He's probably still looking."
Rain poured in heavy streams outside the sushi shop. Ryoma idly pushed around a spring roll in his plate. Maybe the funeral with his friends hadn't been that bad, but being dragged to the sushi shop was a thin line to insanity. His brain felt like it was being tangled and twisted. He wanted Karupin, not food, not his friends. His cat.
Momo's hair was slick and wet, and he ran a comb through it. "So, Echizen, aren't you super happy we dragged you here?"
A nerve, edgy, slivered up his spine. "No."
Kikumaru gobbled on food. "Aw, c'mon Ochibi, you know you're having the time of your life."
The time of his life? Ryoma had never wanted to curl up in bed and waste away the day more than right now. Instead, he was spending a rainy day with sushi in a rolling stomach and an ache in his chest that weighed down like fifty dumbbells. Nothing was going well. The rain had probably blown away his cardboard graveyard, too.
Fuji poked his fork into his sushi. "The rest of the regulars should be here soon."
"Isn't that great?" Sarcasm was like venom in Ryoma's throat. "Everyone can see me like this."
"Like what?" Momo asked.
"Like this," Ryoma said. His hair was a mess on his forehead, his eyes rimmed red.
"You look cute, Ochibi."
"Always do," Fuji said.
He hated them. Hated them all. Ryoma glared, wishing he'd brought his cap so he could cover his eyes and glower. As Momo broke into a chatter about what he'd done earlier the day, Ryoma tuned out and stared at the front door. The moment he did, he caught the sound of the doors opening, and the other regulars walking in.
Great, he thought, sinking in his chair. More people to dote over me. Just what I wanted.
Dote was an understatement. When Oishi walked in, dark hair a sleek bowl over his head, his moss green eyes immediately narrowed in on Ryoma. And then, Ryoma was being strangled. It was the weirdest feeling. He was used to it from Kikumaru, but Oishi was all tight, motherly hug and hair-patting and cheek touching.
"It must be so tough to lose your cat. Are you doing alright? You must be feeling so down."
Ryoma wriggled away from Oishi. "I'm alright."
"Are you sure? No suicidal thoughts?"
"No," Ryoma said. "Homicidal ones, though."
"That's horrible," Oishi went pale. "This could be a disastrous side effect of your depression."
Ryoma stared at him. "I was joking."
"Joking? Some people use humour to cover up when they're upset. Are you sure you're not- "
"I'm fine," the ball in Ryoma's gut coiled. His eyes flashed. Oishi sensed how frustrated he was, and took a step backwards. He smiled comfortingly, tensely, before taking a seat beside Kikumaru. He couldn't stop his fingers from tapping anxiously against the table and his eyes darting back to Ryoma every few seconds.
"He's okay, Oishi," Kikumaru said. "Really. I gave him a few glomps and he was as good as new."
Ryoma felt heat simmer under his heightening pulse. They were all getting on his nerves. Damn people. That's why he liked his cat. He glanced to the door and saw Kawamura, Kaidoh, Inui, and Tezuka walk in with equal strides. Tezuka held something behind his back, looking disgruntled at being drenched, but his eyes softened when he saw Ryoma.
Inui had his pen ready. "So, Echizen, how are you?"
"You're not interviewing me."
"It's just a question. From a dear friend."
"Inui-senpai, you're not a dear friend."
Momo winced. "Ouch, way to be harsh, Echizen."
It didn't faze Inui, who simply shut his book, eyes calculating. He knew he'd find the data out some way or another. He always did. Kawamura, with dripping hair, held a sheepish smile. "I had a fish once," he offered. "I cried when he died." Because Kawamura, aside from when he had a racquet, was the least irritating of them all, Ryoma cooled his temper.
"Sorry to hear that, senpai."
"You're too nice to him," Momo said. "How come you never treat me like a senpai – ow! Hey, that hurt!"
A glare, fierce and radiant, was Ryoma's response.
Momo rubbed at his stomach and whined about bony elbows and cocky freshmen.
Kaidoh scratched the back of his neck. "You alright?" he paused. "Brat."
"Kaidoh-senpai must be upset too," Ryoma said with the outlines of a smirk.
Kaidoh's face colored. With a glare and a hiss, he turned away from his kouhai. Who said he needed comfort? He seemed as good as ever. But then he saw Ryoma's eyes fall back to his lap, his lips draw close together, and realized he was more upset than he acted. He was just pretending to go with the flow of things, so no one would worry.
Tezuka cleared his throat. "Time heals all wounds."
Ryoma sniggered. Poor buchou, forced to comfort him. "I know," he blinked. "What's behind your back, buchou?"
Tezuka sighed. Why was he doing this again? "We decided to try to heal the wounds a little faster."
A curious look filled Ryoma's face. Before he could ask what they'd got him, he heard the distinct sound of a cat mewling. A second later, a Himalayan newborn slipped out of the shopping bag and crawled onto the sushi shop floor. Ryoma stared at it for a second. It was a cute, adorable newborn kitten, with black silk fur and thick white stripes.
"Che, you're all stupid," Ryoma felt tears thicken against his eyes. He pushed his chair up. "I don't want the damn cat."
"What?" Oishi said, taken aback. "Why not?"
Ryoma took a deep breath. He felt like crying all over again. "You think – " he swallowed hard, and gripped the edge of the sushi counter. "You think you can replace Karupin like that?" He shivered in his clothes, staring out at the rainy sky. "You can't. You can't make me forget about him that easily. You can't just –"
His voice broke, and shattered. He hugged himself tightly. He just wanted to be home all over again.
"Echizen," Oishi said in a soft whisper. "We didn't mean to try to replace him. We just thought you would be happier."
Tezuka painfully rubbed the spot between his eyes. "That's right. We will return him if it you would rather not have him."
All of the regulars watched Ryoma's tense back, the way he was biting his lip like the world was against him. Then they turned to look at the new cat, who was huddled on the ground. It was cute, and furry, and – "Return him," Ryoma snapped, looking like he was about to start sobbing. "Get him away."
"Are you sure?" Kawamura's eyes turned downcast.
"Yes," Ryoma glared at all of them. "Return him."
There was a long, pained silence. Slowly, Tezuka nodded. He reached down for the cat, feeling a numbing pressure in his forehead. He didn't understand. It hadn't been his idea to get a cat for him, but he'd approved of it all the same. It hadn't even struck him that Ryoma would feel like they were trying to replace his first cat.
He absentmindedly went to scoop up the new kitten.
The kitten mewled, and ducked under his arms.
Tezuka's head turned sharply.
"It's getting away," Fuji said lightly.
They all watched as the kitten scurried over to where Ryoma was standing, back facing away from them. They watched as the kitten crept between Ryoma's legs, snuggling and prodding his nose into his ankle and shoe. Ryoma's eyes widened, and he wiped a tear from his cheek. He looked down to see adorable, hazel eyes staring up at him.
"Huh?" Ryoma rubbed at his eyelids.
The cat nudged his nose into Ryoma's skin as a sign of comfort.
"Awww," Kikumaru cooed.
Momo blinked. "It's a shame Echizen won't have him."
"Go – go away," Ryoma demanded. The kitten didn't listen. Instead, it curled up by Ryoma's feet, continuously nuzzling against Ryoma's legs. They watched as Ryoma exhaled, and glared at the cat. But the cat wasn't affected. Instead, he purred, and gave Ryoma a long look. The regulars saw a wave of emotions flicker through Ryoma's eyes. His hard gaze softened.
He knelt down and seized the tiny kitten into his arms.
"Che. He's stubborn as hell."
The regulars laughed, tentatively. Did this mean that… -
"Well," Ryoma tilted his chin up, and stalked over to sit beside Momo. "He's mine now."
They all just stared at him, hopeful, and baffled.
"So…" Oishi looked like he would collapse from relief. "You like him?"
Ryoma didn't say anything. He stroked the kitten's fur. Even though he still missed Karupin dearly, and the thought of his death still sent daggers aching up his spine, this new cat was so warm, and comforting. He connected with this cat. Ryoma smiled softly, and let the cat nuzzle his cheek. "Thank you," he said quietly.
He looked up, and met their eyes steadily. This time, he spoke louder: "Thank you, senpai-tachi."
There was another moment of silence, a calm, silky one, where only the sound of rain pounding rang through the sushi shop. A second after, Kikumaru yelled," Success!" and engulfed Ryoma into a strangling hug. Momo took that as a cue to hug him as well, and a moment later, Ryoma felt himself being suffocated by his senpai.
He felt…okay now. Everything still hurt and ached, but his senpai-tachi were warm, and his new cat was snuggling up to him like he they'd known each other forever.
Tezuka stood awkwardly at the side. "Ah…will you be keeping the cat, then?"
Ryoma smirked, thin and shaky. "Arigatou, buchou."
Tezuka gave him a brief nod. "It was not a problem."
"Did you know Ochibi built a gravestone for Karupin?" Kikumaru bobbed his head up and down. "That's so sweet, isn't it? Nyaa!"
Oishi chuckled. "It is. I didn't know Echizen had such a sensitive side to him."
Ryoma glared from under the group huddle. "I'm not sensitive."
Inui flicked through his book. "Hm. This provides excellent data. Very, very excellent data…"
Fuji smiled sinisterly. "Echizen, you won't mind if I borrow your new cat for some…games, would you? My cacti seems to be getting lonely latel-"
"No!" Ryoma hugged his cat protectively to his chest. "Fuji-senpai isn't allowed."
Fuji looked amused. "Now why not? After everything I've done…"
Momo looked over them. "Hey, yeah, maybe you should teach him tennis."
"The cat?" Ryoma looked at him incredously. His senpai-tachi obviously didn't know the first thing about a kitten's wellness. But still, as their laugher and suggestion peaked the quietness of the room, he could feel newfound strength surging through him. He would be okay. It was hard for him to accept that his friends had actually helped him, but they had – they'd pushed through his stubborn walls, helped him break down, and then supported him in standing back up.
Ryoma had never felt so immensely grateful. As they chattered, Ryoma noticed a furry tail poking out from one of the bags.
He blinked. "Ne, what's that?"
The laugher immediately ceased. They all swivelled to see what Ryoma was talking about.
There was a small, newborn cat curled up by the table, shivering. For a moment, the cat just stared at them, and the regulars stared back. Inui murmured to himself, flicking through his notes. Kawamura's eyes went huge.
"It's…" he looked dumbfounded. "It's the sad cat from the store."
"The sad cat?" Ryoma looked confused.
"There was a kitten that was depressed…" Inui adjusted his glasses. "I wonder how he got here…"
"Yeah. That's weird," Oishi arched his brow. "We didn't even buy him…"
As they all became occupied by how strange it was that a cat they hadn't bought had somehow escaped through the pet store cages and followed them, the door to the sushi shop clicked open then shut. Kaidoh coughed, flushed, and indignantly crept away as quickly as he could. It wasn't his fault.
He definitely had nothing to do with it.