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: The second half of this chapter is a bit exposition heavy. :/ But the first half has Seigaku Regulars! Yay!
The Dispossession of Echizen Ryoma
Tuesday afternoon practice had some of the more promising juniors pitted against each other in matches, leaving the regulars and freshmen to watch. Most of the non-regular seniors were exempt from afternoon practices now, giving a choice to those who valued their studies more than tennis, even though most people still attended. Coach Ryuuzaki was present and in good spirits, wandering the courts shouting corrections to forms and spouting criticisms left, right and centre. She’d obviously missed it after having a team of regulars that managed and coached themselves so well.
“So, Inui, what’s the latest word?” Fuji asked, sidling over to the data-gatherer.
“Fuji. There seems to have been some improvement, though I have not come any closer to determining the cause. A confrontation might be necessary after all.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Momoshiro asked, barrelling into the conversation. The commotion drew Kikumaru’s attention, who dragged his doubles partner over with him. Naturally, wherever the majority of their senpai gathered, the freshmen trio followed. Only Kaidoh, Tezuka and Echizen remained in place on the other side of the courts safely out of earshot, though the Viper kept glaring in their direction. Probably because his rival was present.
“Echizen,” Fuji replied with a smile.
“Eh, Ochibi? What’s he done now?”
“We’re not exactly certain. That’s why we’re talking about it,” Fuji responded easily.
“He has been acting peculiar for some time now,” Inui reported. “Most strange of late is how he’s been shadowing Tezuka. He’s even been eating lunch with the seniors.”
“Nothing so strange about that, Inui,” Oishi remarked with a light smile. “Didn’t you stalk Tezuka for several months at some point?”
“I concede your point. However, the situation is entirely different.”
“What are you talking about, Inui-senpai?” Katsuo asked earnestly, appearing to sport genuine worry for his classmate.
“Something fairly severe was bothering him a few weeks ago,” Inui noted, flipping through his notebook. “Based on the data at the time, I concluded that he had fallen ill. Based on more recent data, I believe that conclusion was incorrect.”
“Oh, I remember!” Kikumaru recalled suddenly. “You’re talking about when Ochibi drank your juice and didn’t react at all, right? Hey, has it happened again?”
The data-expert just shook his head. “Negative. Echizen’s performance in practice since has been exemplary, so no further opportunities have arisen. It is obvious that he has been doing quite a lot of additional practice outside of club hours.”
“So why is that a bad thing?” Momoshiro asked. “The Viper still keeps up his insane routine every day.”
“But not at the expense of his health. Echizen has not been looking well lately, wouldn’t you agree?”
“He has been looking tired, even though he’s been getting to practice early,” Oishi commented, starting to look worried.
“Saa, he’s been losing weight, too, hasn’t he, Inui?”
“It is a difficult thing to measure, but I believe so, yes. Something is definitely amiss," Inui concluded.
"I agree," Fuji said with a smile on his face.
"It's been bugging me," Momoshiro piped up suddenly, "But Echizen used to hitch a ride on the back of my bike to and from school pretty regularly. He hasn't done it in ages, though. I don't even pass him on the way or anything."
“His homework’s been really messy, too,” Horio commented. When everyone looked at him he defended, “What? You wouldn’t try to copy from one of the top kids in the class? I mean… that is…”
“He seems to have picked up a little over the past week, though,” Fuji mused, slanting a glance towards where their two strongest players were silently watching the matches.
Across the court, Tezuka kept a wary eye on his team who seemed to be congregating in a circle - usually that meant either gossip or trouble. He hoped it was the former, and hoped it wasn’t about him. Regardless, he could hardly assign them laps for not practicing, as with all of the courts currently occupied, there was nowhere for them to practice. Ever since their win at the Nationals, the ranks of their tennis club had swelled somewhat, and it was putting a slight strain on their facilities. Seigaku’s tennis club was probably one of the better-equipped clubs in the school – especially after winning the Nationals - but it still didn’t have the sort of facilities a private school like Hyotei boasted.
Turning his attention away from the group on the other side of the courts, Tezuka cast a critical eye over his companion instead. The past few days had certainly been kinder to his guest; in fact, the difference was so startling that the senior found it hard to believe that none of them had staged some sort of intervention sooner. Echizen still had that lost and troubled look about him a lot of the time and continued to struggle with maintaining eye contact, but his spirit had picked up some. During tennis practice at the very least he seemed almost cheerful. That is, cheerful for Echizen. The dark bags under his eyes had diminished to faint shadows, and he was much better kempt and healthier looking than what he had been when Tezuka had first taken him in. He would still need to gain some weight back, but the senior was no longer concerned for his physical health. Practically force-feeding the youth breakfast, lunch, and dinner in addition to making sure that his guest made it to bed at a reasonable time each night had helped there.
Now there was the much more delicate matter of his protégé’s mental health to consider.
Admittedly, Tezuka was not an expert in deeply emotional matters. He normally left the emotional wellbeing of the team members to Oishi or one of the other seniors, all of whom were better equipped for understanding and handling matters when someone had some sort of personal crisis. Of course, none of the other regulars even knew about Ryoma's situation, so the duty of making certain the freshman wasn't going to fall apart lay with him.
He was really rather impressed with how well Echizen had held it together so far, but now that he was aware of the situation he'd have to be blind not to see how the freshman's nerves were fraying under the stress and emotional turmoil. The breakdown he had in the middle of the night a few days ago was proof of that. Tezuka originally hoped that after that Echizen would open up to him some more, but frustratingly it seemed that the opposite had occurred. The already introverted first-year had largely withdrawn into himself, almost to the point where it felt somewhat like when he'd first arrived at Seigaku. All of the team had grown rather used to Echizen's personality by now, so most of them were unlikely to notice the increased reticence unless actively looking for it.
The only solution Tezuka could really come up with was to keep an eye on the other boy as much as possible. So far, it was turning out to be easier than what he’d thought. After the first few days of quite literally dragging Echizen to lunch to make certain he ate, the freshman started coming of his volition. Ryoma also waited for him after practice these days, rather than running off for burgers with Momoshiro as he used to. Classes were now the only times he wasn't being shadowed by the first-year, and while in some ways he was relieved - it made it much easier for him to keep a vigilant eye on the youth - he was concerned by how distant the freshman regular seemed from his peers. Had Ryoma always been like that and they'd just never noticed? He wondered if the easy-going friendship with Momoshiro had simply blinded them to how disconnected Echizen was from his surroundings.
It was hardly a problem now, of course. Echizen got along quite well with the rest of the regulars, remarkably so when you took into account his outwardly unsociable nature, but Tezuka was concerned about what might happen to him when the seniors graduated, and then the current juniors the year after that.
Several of the matches dragged on into tiebreak, which Coach Ryuuzaki eventually called to a halt, finally allowing practice to end. Echizen rebuffed Momoshiro’s offers to go out for burgers again, which only caused Tezuka more worry. As much as he liked being able to keep a close eye on his charge, it was troubling to watch Echizen actively try and estrange himself.
Regardless, it was one of those things that he probably should not comment on, as Echizen had always been very courteous in not editorialising on his own social life; and there were plenty of editorials to be had there, too. So they walked home in companionable silence once again, did their homework - with Echizen occasionally looking over his shoulder to correct his English, himself returning the favour for Maths - and then headed downstairs to organise dinner.
Tezuka finished up with the food while Echizen set the table in what was quickly becoming an oddly comfortable domestic routine. He’d originally expected that the burden of a houseguest would mean extra work for him, but contrary to what he expected from the often-lazy freshman, Ryoma wordlessly pitched in with chores whenever he could, even without being asked. He had taken over dishwashing, was vigilant about picking up after himself, and was always sorting and taking out the trash. He even took care of his own laundry. It was actually a little unnerving. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t that surprising. Echizen had clearly developed a fierce independence streak.
There was one comment he couldn’t withhold as they sat down to eat, though. Dinner was the safest time to try and get Echizen talking as the food provided a good distraction when the subject matter got too awkward. There was the added bonus that when asked a difficult question Echizen couldn’t just escape. The one thing he had brought away from those books at the library had been that talking was apparently important, so Tezuka was quite intent on it.
"What I don't understand is why you don't go defeat Ryoga now," Tezuka stated without preamble. "In a match where you are in optimum condition and aware of the consequences, there's no way you could lose to him. And certainly not with all that extra training you’ve been doing lately."
Echizen mulled over that for a moment, before reluctantly replying, "It's a little more complicated than that. For one, he's been training with the old man for over a month. He was a tough opponent before - now I can't be sure I could win a fair match. Besides, Ryoga isn't the one I want to beat."
Echizen shook his head, cutting him off. "Buchou... what difference does it really make if it's Ryoga or me that gets thrown out?"
"He's certainly old enough not to be relying on your parents, for one. Whereas you are still expected to attend school."
"Che. I'm managing fine."
It was a lie and they both knew it. Echizen couldn't have lasted forever in his previous situation. As it was, Tezuka wasn't sure how long-term the current situation could hold for. The freshman was good at keeping his own secrets, but the other regulars were going to find out about his situation eventually, and they were not quite so clandestine.
Still, Tezuka understood one thing: Echizen was not cold-hearted enough to knowingly inflict that fate upon another person, especially after living through it himself. He expected that Ryoma perhaps even felt it fair, given that in his mind his brother had given up quite a lot for him so many years ago, and that it was simply time to return the favour. Of course, admitting that he would rather suffer the discomfort instead of somebody else was not Echizen's style, so Tezuka didn't press the issue any further.
"I'm still rather surprised that you haven't put up more of a fight," the senior admitted. "From what little I've heard from Ryuuzaki-sensei, and my impression of your personality, you seem more like the kind of person who'd cross his arms and stay put rather than leave simply because your father told you to."
Echizen hunched his shoulders. "I did sort of try. But he just picked me up and threw me out of the house. I'm still not strong enough to beat him."
Tezuka visibly started. "He physically threw you?"
Ryoma scowled. "No cracks about my height, please."
"Since when I have I ever made fun at your expense? It was a serious question."
Seeming puzzled, Echizen replied, “Well, yeah. I did say I was thrown out, Buchou. I didn’t leave willingly.”
Every time Tezuka started to develop some optimism about the situation, it seemed to become more hopeless. He’d been wondering why Echizen apparently hadn’t even tried to return to his house, especially when things became as difficult as they had. Since it was Echizen, there was obviously some pride at work, but if it had been such a forceful expulsion… of course the youth hadn’t considered trying to return.
It was still difficult to reconcile this with his image of one of his old tennis heroes, though.
Ryoma, for his part, watched silently as Tezuka seemed to turn over the latest piece of information in his head. He was getting a little better at reading the enigmatic captain, probably from the sheer amount of time they’d spent together over the past week if nothing else. It still struck him as a little odd that their normally reticent leader had effectively been playing the part of his counsellor – it seemed like more Oishi’s sort of thing – but at least the senior didn’t ask him to repeat himself, and avoided the topics that made him the most uncomfortable. As mortified beyond belief as he was, Ryoma had to admit that Tezuka had already helped him a lot. It was such a weight off his shoulders that someone knew; that someone understood what was going on when he was a little off-colour. He didn’t exactly appreciate the mothering, but then, Tezuka’s form of mothering wasn’t so bad. As embarrassing as it was to even remember it, when he’d broken down in the middle of the night the senior’s presence had been soothing.
When he thought about it, Ryoma supposed that was part of the reason why he'd started hanging around Tezuka so much; he didn't have to be on edge all the time, so conscious of his behaviour. With the others, he was constantly worried about them finding out about his situation, but since the senior already knew he didn't have to explain himself if he did something that might have been considered out of the ordinary.
In addition to the emotional support, his senpai had been so generous… he’d cooked meals, given him shelter – he had even lent him a warmer pair of pyjamas as the nights became cooler. Ryoma was acutely aware of how very much he owed the senior; the extra food alone had to cost a fair bit of money. Tezuka had rebuked his offers to contribute to the food budget, insisting that his parents had left behind more than enough funds when they went away and that he should save his money for things like clothes and tennis gear. He’d tried to make up for the burden in other ways, like taking over garbage duty and cleaning the dishes, but it didn’t feel like nearly enough in the wake of the inconvenience he had to be causing his senpai.
On the weekend, he’d watched Tezuka do the cleaning, making mental notes of everything involved. The only thing he could really think of was perhaps taking over the rest of the housework. As much as he detested housework, it was apparently - like laundry - something he ought to know how to do, and it was one of the few things he could potentially do to at least minimize the impact of his presence in the senior’s household. He’d try to take over that next weekend. It seemed simple enough - no more complicated than cleaning duty at school - and it wasn’t like the house was that messy so it shouldn’t be too hard.
He’d still feel better if the captain accepted some money, though. Not that he really had the money to spare – he had already had to spend a good chunk of the money Nanako had given him on some winter clothes, and his weekly earnings at the tennis club were half eaten up just on transport costs alone through the week. He needed to get toiletries, too. Doing the math, after those expenses he wouldn’t be able to contribute enough money to cover all that he ate - or rather, what Tezuka made him eat – but even a small amount would make him a feel a little better.
Some sort of present to convey his thanks instead, maybe? Again, that presented the money problem, but he was sure that he could budget for something. Though Tezuka might not accept that, either. What could he get the senior that would be appropriate, anyway? Ryoma turned the thought over in his head as they finished eating dinner, but continued to come up blank. It was frustrating. He really had nothing to his name. What on earth could he do to repay the senior he owed so much?
It was the same as finding a job, he reasoned. In what ways could he be useful? Unfortunately, with someone of Tezuka’s skill, tennis wasn’t really an option – if anything, tennis was one of the things Ryoma was indebted to the senior for. His only other marketable skill was his fluency in English. Would the captain accept tutoring? Probably not. Tezuka seemed to have a bit of a gift for languages – he was practically fluent in German after his stint in Germany, and was probably the top of his class in English as well, though Ryoma could still pick on his grammar and vocabulary.
Ryoma sighed without meaning to, drawing a curious glance from his host. He just shook his head slightly, dismissing the matter. It was a lot better staying here than in the clubhouse, certainly, but the idea of being a burden to the person he respected the most continued to bother him.
There was one thing he could try, he realised, the seeds of an idea forming in his mind. It was a bit of a long shot… but it was something he could do, probably. He owed the senior enough. If it were for Tezuka, Ryoma would now even lose a tennis match on command.