Summary: When Ryoma finds himself in a tough situation, his pride might keep him swimming, but it’s Tezuka who keeps his head above water.
Author’s Note: We get a little bit of Tezuka POV at last. This chapter is pretty short, but the next one is much longer to make up for it.
The Dispossession of Echizen Ryoma
Tezuka Kunimitsu had many duties required of him. He was expected to be a model student, to do more than his fair share of work on the student council, to guide Seigaku’s tennis club… and those were just the duties he cared about. There were plenty of other social and otherwise obligations he was expected to fulfil. Achieving good grades came naturally to him, so an average amount of study ensured his position near or at the top of all of his classes. The student council demanded an unreasonable amount of paperwork from him, but he managed to prioritise all of the most important tasks so that they were always completed in time. The responsibility he took most seriously of all, however, was his duties as the captain of the tennis team.
Part of the reasoning for that was simply that tennis was the thing he liked best. Even if he had no immediate ambitions of turning pro, the thought was in the back of the senior’s mind that he’d probably like to enter the circuit someday. He had led the club to the Nationals, and they had won. But even though the hardest part was over, he wanted to continue running a tight ship so that the team that succeeded his would have the chance of trying for the Nationals again the next year as well, and the year after that. Just because the tennis season was effectively over until the Spring – at which point the seniors would be handing over the reins to the juniors – didn’t mean that he considered his duties done. If anything, he felt more pressure now, as his time left in the club had been narrowed down to a mere eight or nine weeks until the first snow was expected to arrive.
A good portion of his duties as captain was, of course, taking care of the team. This was why he was currently standing outside the fences of the courts, observing one Echizen Ryoma intently.
The youngest regular was playing a practice match against Kawamura that afternoon - being the smallest member of the team meant that Echizen was still the most susceptible to being blown away by power players. The freshman had plenty of power himself, but Inui was adamant about closing the gap in strength as much as possible, having pointed out that Echizen needed more training than he’d been getting doing drills with the juniors, as he was undoubtedly going to become Seigaku’s ace in Tezuka’s place. Of course, considering he was managing so well now, the day Echizen hit a growth spurt he was going to become a truly scary player indeed. Tezuka was going to have to work hard to stay ahead.
Still, there had been something somewhat off about Echizen lately. There had been that day about three weeks ago where the freshman had been completely spaced out, but he seemed to be almost back to normal the next day, leading them to assume that he had either just had an off day or had been unwell - his brief fever several days later supported that hypothesis. Indeed, since then Echizen had been playing better than ever, but that didn't change the fact that there was still something odd going on. Echizen's tennis seemed to be better than fine, but Echizen himself... there was definitely something off-kilter there.
Tezuka wondered if he was the only one that noticed. Fuji was normally quite sensitive to any odd behaviour, and Inui had to have at least observed that Echizen had been the first to the courts in morning practice for the past three weeks, despite the fact that he'd been almost constantly sporting bags under his eyes. Momoshiro, however, didn't seem to think anything was odd about Echizen turning down his recent offers of a ride home without fail, atypical though it was. Normally the young regular was well groomed as well, but lately his clothes had a slightly more crumpled look, even though they still appeared to be clean.
Perhaps most disturbing of all to the captain was the fact that Echizen hardly ever seemed to look any of them in the eye anymore. It wasn't the sort of thing one would normally notice, but Echizen had a particularly intense gaze, and its recent absence was somewhat unsettling. It seemed now that whenever Tezuka made eye contact with his protégé, those golden brown eyes would slide away, almost as though Echizen was afraid that his companions would find some ugly truth in them.
Alone these idiosyncrasies were all harmless and easily explained away. Together, they painted an unsettling picture. Tezuka had started to wonder if maybe it was all in his imagination, seeing as neither Fuji, Inui or Oishi had come to talk to him about it. Maybe he was just being melodramatic; finding deeper darker meanings where there was likely a simple and boring explanation. Either way it left a cold knot of concern in his stomach.
A scuffle broke out between Momoshiro and Kaidoh, pulling the captain away from his musings. Reluctantly, he abandoned his post and made his way to the quarrelling regulars and the trio of freshmen recklessly trying to intervene. “Momoshiro! Kaidoh! Thirty laps!”
Ryoma paused before serving, watching Tezuka head towards the two rivals out of the corner of his eyes. Kawamura used the brief opportunity to yell some taunts in his direction, “SCARED, ECHIZEN?! I’M BURNING, BABY! I’LL TAKE YOUR TWIST SERVE ON ANY DAY!”
“Che,” Ryoma tsked, throwing the ball into the air and executing a perfect twist serve. Even if most of the regulars had become somewhat accustomed to returning his signature serve, he’d been increasing the speed and power of it dramatically over the past few days. Kawamura barely returned it, and it left him unbalanced enough that Ryoma could put the point away with an easy forehand winner.
“Game, set and match to Echizen Ryoma, six games to one!” the junior umpire announced. Ryoma exchanged a customary handshake and a few idle remarks with his senpai before heading off to cool down. Practice wasn’t yet over, but he’d likely just be doing drills for the rest of it. His stomach growled irritably, and he comforted himself with the thought that he’d at least managed to convince Momoshiro to go out for burgers that afternoon.
The afternoon passed as normal; Tezuka called practice to a close, Ryoma mooched burgers from his senpai, then wandered off to the street courts. They were full, so he went for a lengthy jog instead, coming back to Seigaku once he was certain the rest of the tennis club had left and snuck back into the clubhouse to do his homework.
By the end of his second week of being effectively homeless, Ryoma had found a routine that seemed to work. He tended to wake up when the sun hit his face through the windows in the morning; however much more comfortable the clubhouse was than the park, he couldn't deny that the benches weren't designed to be slept on, which made falling back to sleep nearly impossible. The old tartan blanket was being used sort of like a sleeping bag, to make the bench seem a little softer, but there was only so much cushioning the ratty old blanket could provide before it was no longer performing its primary function of keeping him warm. His homework was now being done at lunchtimes on the roof or in the evenings by torchlight. He tended to go to bed earlier than he would have liked, always nervous about using the torch in the tennis clubhouse lest his makeshift home be discovered. And considering how hard it was to sleep on the clubhouse benches, he tended to get up early and do extra tennis training in the morning, though was always careful to wait until the main gates opened. That routine had been followed almost religiously for the past two weeks while living in the clubhouse. It seemed that the extra training was starting to show, too.
Ryoma trained with the sort of fervour previously reserved for Kaidoh, now. At first he'd justified it as wanting to beat his old man and Ryoga, but in the past few days he'd come to realise that it was simply that tennis was all he had left. It seemed to be the only thing capable of distracting him from his thoughts - and indeed, playing tennis was the only thing that felt normal to him anymore. In the event of his own family abandoning him, the regulars had become a surrogate family for him instead, dysfunctional as they were; and completely oblivious of it, too.
He didn't like to think about it, though. He didn't want to consider the notion that he could possibly be lonely, or that he might miss having matches in the evening with his bastard father. But he couldn't deny that he was impatient for his team mates to arrive at morning practice, and always disappointed when the time came to part ways with them in the evening. He'd even sat and listened to Inui murmur data during the juniors' practice matches a few days ago, going so far as to add his own input when normally he would have wandered off to hit a tennis ball against the wall. But at the same time, he was leery of hanging around them more than often. He was constantly worried about someone finding out his embarrassing predicament, so much so that he couldn't hold anyone's gaze for more than a few seconds, certain he'd find pity or accusing suspicion in their eyes. Especially the captain. It could just be paranoia, but he could have sworn he felt the Tezuka's eyes following his every move the past few practices.
Still, since he’d taken up residence in the clubhouse things were a little easier. He was sleeping slightly better, and getting out of the chilly air in the evenings had been enough to help fight off his impending cold. But even if his accommodations were temporarily taken care of, there were other things to consider. Such as the fact that he was almost out of money; after buying a rail card and a torch, he only had about eight hundred yen left that he was reluctant to spend on anything other than laundry or food. He'd been sponging off Momoshiro and Kikumaru for burgers in the afternoons - something which they'd been complaining good-naturedly about - and taking advantage of Tomoka and Sakuno’s generous offers of bento when they brought them, but that was hardly enough to get him through the day. Besides, he could only mooch off his friends for so long before they started complaining in earnest. Hunger was becoming a constant companion, to the point where it almost wasn’t noticeable anymore.
Ryoma sighed, leaning back against the bench. It was dark now, practice having ended hours ago. There was no helping it. He had to find some sort of part-time job – it wasn’t something that could be put off any longer. What kind of part-time work could he do, though? Most places wouldn't normally hire a twelve year-old, especially given the limited hours he could work: just evenings and weekends. He had some notion that there might be a minimum age for working, too. Then again, lots of kids did jobs around the neighbourhood for pocket money. He didn’t need a lot, really – just enough to keep up with food and laundry. There was sure to be something he could do for that.
What were his talents? He could play tennis, obviously. Maybe he could coach people? It was doubtful that there would be any adults willing to pay him to coach them, but there was bound to be a tennis club somewhere in the area that could use a junior coaching assistant for the kids who played on weekends. At least he'd still be practicing tennis, even if he wouldn't get to play anyone good. And if that didn't work out, he was fluent in English. There were plenty of students struggling in English that could be tutored for a fee. Coaching and tutoring really weren't his kind of thing though, being more suited to someone with Oishi's patient disposition. But considering his situation, he ought to be able to put up with it. After all, coaching didn't necessarily require one be liked. Tezuka was a perfect example of that. The senior didn't really care if everyone hated him for being unapproachable or making them endure hellish practices - people still respected him because of his skill, and thus would listen to his few words. Yes, if he used Tezuka as his example, he ought to do fine.
It was Friday tomorrow, and he didn’t have any plans for the weekend - he’d go job-hunting then. Find a map or a phone book and mark out all of the tennis clubs. There were bound to be indoor ones that ran through winter, and they’d probably be looking for extra staff to cope with the increase in demand for enclosed facilities around this time.
It would probably be pretty easy. He’d be fine. He’d show his father. He’d show everyone. He didn’t need to be babied, or pitied, and his tennis would be the best.
Ryoma drifted off into an uneasy sleep with the wooden edge of the clubhouse bench digging into his back.