"Speed" (Ritsu Route Act 2-4)

Aug 14th, 2013
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  1. “Hey, Hisao, come help me pick these turnips!”
  3. I can only groan a reply.
  5. “Whyyyyyyyyyyy”
  7. A loud sigh can be heard in from the neighboring garden.
  9. “Fine, fine.”
  11. A lower mutter makes its way through seconds later.
  13. “Lowlife.”
  15. I give a half-smile and roll over, trying to go back to sleep. It’s so hot around here. The fact that the air-conditioner is broken doesn’t help either.
  17. We’re at Ritsu’s grandmother’s house in the Akita prefecture. But house isn’t as appropriate house as playboy mansion.
  19. It’s like one of those low-slung houses you see in Hollywood—with a wraparound driveway and gate, lodged deep in the Japanese mountains. The house is styled in traditional Japanese style—with low tables and mats—but at the same time boasts the latest amenities, like a housewide climate control system and a sub-zero fridge big enough to walk into. The entire thing was custom built for Ritsu’s grandmother, and it must have cost a fortune.
  21. To get here we flew from Sendai to Akita, then a friend of Ritsu’s grandmother picked us up at the airport and drove us up to her place. It’s a beautiful drive--the road leads to nowhere, so it’s lonely, perfect strip of asphalt, snaking it’s way through the green mountains. I guess if I was a motorhead I’d be in heaven.
  23. Ritsu’s grandmother is also something else. She looks like the prototypical grandmother, but Ritsu warned me that she was anything but. To be honest… she kind of reminds me of Ritsu. Our first meeting went like this:
  26. =====
  29. “So you’re Ritsu’s boyfriend, eh?”
  31. “Yes, Obaa-san.” At this point I give a low bow. Manners first.
  33. She beams at me.
  35. “How nice it is to see manners nowadays.”
  37. Then she frowns. Uh oh.
  39. “You could use some meat on those bones, though.”
  41. She shook her head in a dismissive manner.
  43. “Knowing my daughter, she’s probably feeding you those stupid cardboard bars.”
  45. This draws a protest from Ritsu.
  47. “Hey! They’re healthy!”
  49. Ritsu’s grandmother shakes her head again and ruffled Ritsu’s hair.
  51. “Silly corporate sponsors shouldn’t tell you what to eat, dear. I’ll put in a call tomorrow and get you another shipment.”
  53. Heh. Ritsu told me her grandmother used to be the head of PepsiCo Japan. According to Ritsu, she was the most deadly corporate figure in Japan for twenty years—brilliant, politically suave, and absolute hell to be crossed. Ritsu said her grandmother took business to the next level. For twenty years, she didn’t make a mistake. Even if she just seems like your average ordinary grandma.
  55. I didn’t really believe it at first. Ritsu’s grandmother is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, but she really doesn’t miss a beat. After a rib-busting dinner of home-made sushi, we all retired to our rooms. When I stepped into my guest room, there was a small satchet of gyokuro tea for me, along with a neatly written note that simply stated “it helps the heart.”
  57. I never mentioned my disability to her, and she never asked. But she was sharp enough to know that since I attended Yamaku, I had a heart problem, and she must have asked Ritsu. This must have been her way of telling me she knew. With a discreet gift and note. Classy.
  59. It also helped that that last time I checked, gyokuro tea was 2000 yen a sachet.
  61. ========
  63. Back to the present.
  65. When I discussed spring break plans with Ritsu, she insisted we go see her grandmother. I didn’t have any other plans, so I figured I’d come along.
  68. It’s only been two days so far, and it’s been nothing but terrific. Ritsu’s grandmother gives us our space but at the same time manages to be present whenever there’s the slightest need. It’s really something else. According to Ritsu, in retirement, her grandmother alternates between composing poetry and trading stocks. So far she’s beaten the Nikkei 225 by an average of ten percent annually. She really is something else.
  70. Of course, there was another reason that I came up to Ritsu’s grandmother’s house. It’s black and furry and licking my hand with wild abandon.
  72. “Kaaaaabbbuuuuuuuuu, go away.” I groan.
  74. Kabu, completely undeterred, takes it a step further and pads onto my sleeping mat. His body radiates heat.
  76. As it it weren’t fucking hot enough already.
  78. “Kaaabbuuuuuuu.”
  80. He’s already fallen asleep. Kabu is the dog we rescued on our first... outing I guess. He made a full recovery in the hospital and since Yamaku has a no-pet policy, Ritsu sent him to her grandmother. Besides eating all her turnips, Ritsu’s grandmother seems to genuinely enjoy taking care of Kabu. He’s a pretty good dog, too. Very happy, very furry, and unfortunately, very warm.
  82. Resigning myself to my fate, I fall asleep listening to the rythymic thump of his tail.
  84. Thump.
  86. Thump.
  88. Thump.
  90. =======
  92. I wake up in a puddle of my own sweat, Kabu still pressed close against my body. Looking outside, I can see the sun is just starting to set, so it’s around late afternoon. I smell gross. I should probably shower.
  94. Stepping into the shower, I run my hands through my hair. I never thought I’d really have a relationship in high school. Iwanako was more of a surprise than anything. To date Ritsu… it kind of seems like I’m living in a dream. She’s sharp, witty, kind, and pretty. Whenever I’m forgetful or come up short, she covers for me.
  96. Thinking all these thoughts, I feel kind of terrible. She’s even paid for most of the stuff we do. I know she doesn’t think less of me for a second, but I just feel terrible about it. I should do more.
  98. I finish my shower, get dressed and head outside. I wonder if Ritsu’s still in the garden.
  100. She’s not.
  102. Hmmmmm.
  104. A quick through the house reveals she’s not in the garage either. Tainaka-san’s busy at her computer, but she stops to give me a polite nod.
  106. “Good afternoon, Hisao. How was your nap?”
  108. I pull a face.
  110. “It was great, until Kabu decided to sleep next to me like a personal furnace.”
  112. She laughs.
  114. “He just likes being near people. The first month I had him, he followed me around for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was like he was afraid I’d disappear or something.”
  116. She gives me a smile, and I can’t help be reminded or Ritsu. It’s warm and genuine, yet sharp and clear at the same time.
  118. “Hey, do you know where Ritsu is?”
  120. Tainaka-san rubs her head for a moment.
  122. “I think I saw her heading into the garage.”
  124. “Ah, thanks.”
  126. I bow and start heading towards the garage. Like a Hollywood mansion from the movies, this house has a wraparound driveway with a garage underneath the main building. I wonder what Ritsu’s doing in the garage.
  128. Speaking of which, I haven’t actually been in the garage before.
  130. I follow the stairs down past the basement to the garage entrance. I hear a slight rustling inside. Must be Ritsu. Opening the door, my jaw drops to the floor.
  132. Inside the garage sits a matte powder-grey, Ferrari 458 coupe. The light just slides off it. Guiding my eyes over the car, I notice the yellow disk brakes and distinct tricolor logo. The entire car seems like it’s ready to pounce, yet the slate-grey color and paint job give it a subdued look. The entire car speaks of tamed power. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I feel like it’s ready to roar out of the garage any second.
  134. I used to read the car magazines back in the hospital, but I never thought I’d see stuff like this.
  136. The entire garage seems like an auto enthusiast’s dream. Parts banners line the wall, and neat, fire-red mechanic’s cabinets line the walls, along with racks of slicks, racing rims, and memorabilia.
  138. Next to the Ferrari stands a black Toyota 4runner, sporting TRD and Limited badges, and a late model, jet-black, BMW 7 series, with tinted-out windows.
  140. In the far corner is what looks to be a ’73 Chevelle, also in powder grey. American muscle, huh. Tainaka-san’s has quite a refined palate.
  142. Two Suzuki Hayabusa bikes, sporting factory logo decals, round out the garage.
  144. Each one of these cars, excluding the BMW, is tastefully unique. The Ferrari is pretty obvious. The 4runner was remarkable for sporting a full V-8 and having a fluid-dampening suspension system as opposed to magnetic or conventional springs. It’s one of the few V8’s designed for true offroading, with skid plates and a center Torsen differential. The TRD designation means that it has further personalized off-road modifications, and Limited designation means that it’s the v-8 model with a full featured interior.
  146. The 73’ Chevelle is also an interesting story. The Chevelle was the last car John DeLorean worked on before leaving GM and famously starting his own motor company—which then made the cars seen in Back to the Future movies. Even though the Chevelle was released just as the oil crisis started, it ruled the stock car circuit for an impressive four years—racking up a championship win in it’s debut year. Most auto enthusiasts consider to be the last car of Chevy’s “Best Car” era.
  148. The Hayabusa bikes are simply and quite brutally the fastest production bikes in the world. Speedwise, they shattered the world speed record for motorcycles and still hold it today at 312 kph, or 194 mph. Also gifted with notable handling and comfort, many consider the Hayabusa to be one of the greatest bikes ever made.
  150. This is one of the most stunning collections of automobiles I’ve ever seen. This is fucking sweet.
  152. Resisting the urge to run over and act like a five-year old, I survey the garage again. Hearing a thumping, rummaging sound, I start to head toward it. I wonder if an animal got in?
  154. The rummaging sound turns out to be Ritsu rattling around in a large red mechanic’s cabinet. Woops. I completely forgot about her.
  156. “Hey Ritsu, what’re you looking for?”
  158. She pops her head out in surprise.
  160. “Oh, Hisao. Give me a sec.”
  162. She pops her head back in, and after some more rummaging, returns with a red Ferrari racing jacket, which she promptly shrugs into.
  164. “I was cold.”
  166. She looks up at me.
  168. “So, what were you looking for, Hisao?”
  170. “Your grandmother has a pretty cool garage.”
  172. She smiles brightly.
  174. “I know, right? It’s one of her cooler aspects.”
  176. “Anyway, I was just wondering where you were.”
  178. She looks at me in a puzzled manner before her eyes snap together in understanding.
  180. “Oh.”
  182. She looks sad for a moment.
  184. “Sorry, I’m still not used to this boyfriend-girlfriend thing.”
  186. I rub her head with my hand. Her hair is surprisingly silky.
  188. “That’s okay.”
  190. She beams at me, and then wraps me a quick hug.
  192. “I’m so glad you’re around, Hisao.”
  194. She releases me and pulls a set of keys off the wall, heading towards the Ferrari.
  196. “Ritsu, what’re you doing?”
  198. Opening the door, she’s one-leg in before turning to look at me. It’s a strangely sexy pose.
  200. “Driving.”
  202. An amused look passes over her face.
  204. “Get in loser, we’re going shopping.”
  206. Trying to calm my racing heart at the thought of sitting in a Ferrari, a question is lodging itself in the front of my mind.
  208. “Is your grandmother okay with this?”
  210. Ritsu waves a dismissive hand.
  212. “She said that once I amass more than two crashes, I’m toast. But I’ve had performance driving training. It’s one of my lesser known talents.”
  214. With a wink, she steps into the driver’s cabin and closes the door, clearly expecting me to step inside.
  216. Welllllll… I think only a fool would turn down a chance to ride in a Ferrari. And
  217. Ritsu doesn’t seen like a driver who can’t handle her car.
  219. As I open the passenger side door and settle into the seat, I’m a even further surprised. It’s not the luxurious, leather interior I expexted—instead, it’s downright hardcore. Ritsu has a full driver’s gauge cluster and driving wheel, but the center console has been replaced by a dazzling array of switches and buttons. The dash, instead of being the soft leather I was expecting, is utilitarian carbon fiber, with exposed airbags and air-conditioning routing. The car’s frame sports a bright orange rollcage and the back seats have been entirely removed. My seat is not plush leather, but a hard racing seat with a harness. I guess this is a serious track car.
  221. Noting my apparent surprise, Ritsu starts to explain.
  223. “My grandmother isn’t one to do things halfway. If she wanted a comfortable ride, she would have been driving a different car. Besides the air conditioning, everything in this car is as racing-grade as street regulations allow. There’s no radio, the engine has been tuned for another 100 horsepower, the pushrod suspension has been tightened and slicks have been fitted, along with Volk racing alloys.”
  225. As she rattles off this somewhat bewildering collection of facts, her hands are darting over the dash and console, flicking switches and activating pumps.
  227. “The ECU has been completely remapped so it accepts non-factory parts, and as you’re aware, the entire car has been stripped for weight. As a final and recent upgrade, nitrometh injection as well as nitrous oxide injection was added to the car. The nitrous is illegal to be constantly hooked up in the car, so we have a “plunger” hook in where we can automatically connect and inject nitrous when the driver wants it, then disconnect when it’s no longer desired. The nitrous shot is a 50-increment wet shot, max 200 horsepower shot because it’s a four bottle cluster. This car is so sensitive that if you run it on anything but grade 99-fuel, the engine will seize up and you won’t be able to drive. Even if, this car will seize up if it isn’t run right, which is why a Formula 1 type-fuel system has been fitted, which allows the driver control the “richness” of the fuel, or the oxygen-to-fuel mixture the engine receives. ”
  229. After doing a visual check, she flips a final switch and the engine roars to life. It’s a deafening assault of sound—as it was a lion asserting its territory. Ritsu eases on the pedal, and the car leaps forward like an eager panther.
  231. As we pull out of the driveway, this car feels like…well, like a prancing stallion. It jumps forward at the slightest touch, and the car seems to swerve and jerk at such sudden applications of power. I can see Ritsu’s face knitted in concentration as she guides it onto the main road.
  233. As we turn onto the main road, Ritsu gives it gas and the car roars into the turn, leaving a burnout and she kicks it into gear. The winding mountain roads unfold before us, and Ritsu opens the throttle, the sound of the engine echoing through the valley. It’s a terrible racket, but at the same time I’m in awe of the terrible engine power behind my seat. The engine isn’t so much as a hum as a terrible wail, Ritsu keeping the car in the 7-9000 rpm band for power. As she clicks gears and in and out, the car doesn’t so much turn as dominate through the corners, with unreal grip and speed.
  235. Ritsu herself is a talented driver—she must have done extensive training. She uses every aspect of the car to her advantage—engine braking, cutting extreme corners with a drift, clutch kicking to edge out a final corner--itt’s the most beautiful I’ve ever seen her. It’s like Ritsu’s dancing with the car almost—a unique dance between driver and machine.
  237. Normally I like to talk on drives, but Ritsu’s face is completely blank, wrapped up in controlling the near 1000 horses in this car. On the straight, she’s quick to activate the nitrous, bringing the power of the car near 1,200 horses. I doubt she would be able to hear me over the engine anyway.
  239. As she powers the car through the turns I’m acutely thankful for both the rollcage and the harness securing me to the seat. I think if I wasn’t so excited and impressed by her driving I would have shit my pants.
  241. Approaching the final switchbacks to the town, Ritsu gears up the car until the engine is a low, throbbing rumble, and flicks two switches on the center console. The sound is low enough so we can talk. Local traffic starts to appear, and we find ourselves stuck behind a slow-moving truck.
  243. I’m the first to strike up the conversation.
  245. “Nice driving back there.”
  247. She looks at me in an absentminded way, still focused on driving.
  249. “Thanks.”
  251. “What’d you turn off back there?”
  253. Her eyes still focused on the road, she answers me in the same absentminded way.
  255. “I turned off the nitrometh injection and lowered the fuel-rich ratio, which means that pressing on the gas sends in less fuel, making the car less jumpy. I also turned on KERS, so the brakes are less sensitive. ”
  257. Her voice has a distracted tone, and I get the sense that it’s probably best to leave Ritsu alone when she’s driving.
  259. She guides us through the main streets of the town, the car growling at the slow traffic and we eventually pull into the marina area, parking at a seafront strip of shops. Ritsu kills the ignition and steps out of the car, flicking her hair behind her and readjusting her headband. It’s as if she just stepped out of an air conditioned room—despite screaming through the mountains at a pace few people can attain on a highway straight, never mind a mountain pass, in a tuned racing car—she’s as cool and composed as ever.
  261. “Hey, where are we going?”
  263. Ritsu tilts her head at the coffee shop directly in front of us.
  265. “Right there.”
  267. “We drove across the mountains for an hour to get a cup of coffee?”
  269. She shrugs.
  271. “Hey, sometimes you need to get out.”
  273. Considering the conversation closed, she steps forwards into the coffee shop and I follow. It’s pleasant mix of upscale and low—with tasteful dark panels lining the wall, and cheerful green chalkboards announcing the drink of the day, but with an earnest and humble feeling in the air.
  275. It kind of reflects the area of the town itself—on the wharf outside, 50-year old fishing boats share space with speedboats and yachts. It’s a pleasant mix, and it seems to keep everyone happy. All the obnoxious rich people want to live somewhere else, I guess.
  277. I need a pick-me-up after that drive, so today it’s a red-eye: Americano coffee with a doubleshot of espresso. Ritsu pulls a face at me and orders a hot chocolate. She moves to pay, but I cut her off.
  279. “Here, I’ve got this.”
  281. She seems a little surprised, but then inclines her head.
  283. “Thanks, Hisao.”
  285. A mischievous grin fills her face.
  287. “You know, if I hadn’t paid for the last two dates and we were staying at my grand—“
  289. I hush her by placing a finger on her soft lips.
  291. “Hush, you.”
  293. She gives a rare, girlish, giggle, and moves to secure a table while I wait for our drinks to be prepared.
  295. Collecting our drinks, I look around to find Ritsu in a low-hanging booth, fiddling with her phone.
  297. “Here you go.”
  299. “Thanks, Hisao.”
  301. Both of us sit for silence in a moment, sipping our drinks. It’s a nice moment. The kind where nothing needs to be said.
  303. Ritsu’s such a strange girl, in a way. Professional tennis player. Trained to handle what’s pretty much a racecar. Powerbar junkie (she still eats them for lunch every day). Kind, sweet, pretty, and dating me. It’s like she’s a bunch of legos from different sets, cobbled into an entirely new one. As long as I’ve known her, I still can’t make heads of tails of her. What drives her. What wakes her up. I don’t know it at all.
  305. Do I want to know?
  307. “Ritsu, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
  309. She tears her attention away from the art on the wall to focus her golden gaze on me.
  311. “Sorry, what?”
  313. “Ritsu, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
  315. She looks at me and there’s confusion in her face.
  317. “When… I… grow up?”
  319. “I mean, you can drive racecars, you’re a world ranked tennis racer, you speak English fluently… what do you want to do in life?”
  321. Her face twitches and the confusion is replaced with fear. I didn’t expect this. I shouldn’t have asked this question. She looks down at the table.
  323. “I don’t really know, Hisao.”
  325. She looks up and down again.
  327. “You see, I had tennis, and then this injury happened… and I don’t know, Hisao. I don’t.”
  329. She shudders.
  331. “It’s… it’s scary. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.”
  333. I feel kind of bad that my question prompted such a painful introspection.
  335. “Ritsu, it’s fine. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
  337. She waves the same dismissive hand and looks me in the eyes. Her gaze is steady, but it’s missing the familiar swagger I’m used to.
  339. “No, I think I should. I mean, it’s scary.”
  341. She exhales slowly.
  343. “This is a question I should be able to answer.”
  345. Another sip, another exhale.
  347. “But I can’t. I can’t right now.”
  349. She smiles bitterly.
  351. “You know, on the tennis court, I was always good at pulling the trigger.”
  353. Seeing the confused and somewhat fearful look on my face, she quickly clarifies.
  355. “No, no, not an actual trigger, sillypants. Like you know, making a decision and sticking by it. Taking the aggressive shot or making a risky play. I was always good at making choices—and that always paid off in spades for me.”
  357. “But now I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my life. Nothing really has the same glow. It’s like the entire world is in monochrome or something.
  359. She reaches over and pats me on the head.
  361. “And that’s why you’re so special, Hisao. You’re smart, loving, and kind. You’re new. You make my world in colors. I don’t think I would have made it through these past few months without you. I was almost at my breaking point when I met you at Yamaku. I missed the game so damn bad, and my friends, and my old life, that I had no idea of what to fucking do.”
  363. This is followed by a long, lingering kiss, which I consent to willingly. Ritsu’s lips taste like hot chocolate and sugar. One of the better ones, most definitely.
  365. “So what are you doing to do?”
  367. She shrugs.
  369. “I don’t know yet. I’m near 17—there are a lot of big decisions I have to make in my life soon. To be honest, I still feel like a five-year old. I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I feel like I’m just watching through one of those one-way interrogation mirrors. I can’t say anything, just watch.”
  371. Ritsu stares at me, long and hard, and I resist the urge to pull away. Her golden gaze is piercing, analytic, and it takes all of my willpower to match it. I owe her at least that much.
  373. Reaching a decision, she does something unexpected—she picks up her arms and lays them out on the table, her wrist braces. Normally when she sits, she hides them by crossing her arms or letting them dangle by her side, out of sight. She’s sensitive about them, and I’ve never nagged or teased her about it. She never mocks my heart condition, either. It’s kind of an unspoken code.
  375. Ritsu does something else unexpected—with a careful, deft, movement, she undoes the Velcro strap on her left brace—using her pinched right thumb and forefinger. She undoes three straps until the brace sits loose on her arm. Doing the same with her left arm, she lays her arms on the table, the braces loosely wrapped around her arm. Then she slides her arms out of the nylon braces and lays them on the table, wrists up, her arms almost reaching the other side.
  377. The skin covered by the braces is a pale white, but I’m surprised at the muscle in her arms. Ritsu is, for lack of a better term, ripped. Her forearms are defined and speak of power. Yet running from a centimeter inside her elbow down to the bottom of her wrist is a long, red, angry, scar.
  379. She starts talking without looking at me.
  381. “They took the tendon from my thigh to replace the one that was virtually non-existent in my wrist. What was left was nothing but scar tissue written over and over again—the result of repetitive, stressful, injury. Before my surgery, I could barely lift a pencil.”
  383. Another smile.
  385. “Like I said, this is what happens with you choose a Head Radical and Big Banger.”
  387. Something about rackets, I think. But the smile disappears and her voice takes the same wavering tone.
  389. “When I went for my surgery, there was a 50 percent chance that I would lose all movement in my arms. They were operating so close to the nerve that there was a high probability that they could cut it or damage it. The excess scar tissue had to be cut away, which only complicated the process. Cortisone shots had all but ruined anything resembling normal muscle growth in the area.”
  391. “You had cortisone shots as a junior?”
  393. She pulls a face.
  395. “Hisao, when the tournament is two days away, and it’s the biggest tournament of the year, and you’ve trained all year and now you can barely lift a racket, are you going to turn down the damn shot?”
  397. Ritsu looks down again.
  399. “But once you’ve had one, it’s not so easy to say “no” to the second one. Or the third one. It’s scary.”
  401. She looks me in the eye and chuckles.
  402. “You know, I always found it funny when I read about teenage girls worrying about their image whether they were too fat or whatever. Yes, because I was a girl I understood, and I want to look good too, but simply looking good for looking good was always funny to me.”
  404. Her eyes get serious.
  406. “On the junior circuit, a constant worry isn’t just whether if you’re good enough, but if you’re strong enough. Early bloomers are rewarded immensely in tennis—they can train longer, hit harder, and go faster. As a result, they acquire skills faster, and those skill points multiply and stack up over the years. This means that in the junior level, steroids and performance-enhancers are a constant worry—everyone is afraid, but everyone wonders if it can take them to the next level.
  408. “Did you ever—“
  410. She shakes her head.
  412. “No, because I didn’t want to do that stuff, but it was scary, you know? What if everyone else was doing it and they would leave me behind? I spent a lot of long, hard, night thinking about that question.
  414. I almost have to stutter out my reply.
  416. “About taking steroids? Just to get stronger?”
  418. This is pretty shocking. I kind of just want to laugh it off and change the topic. But Ritsu is dead serious, staring into the space above the right of my head.
  420. “Everyone, like the newspapers and stuff, thinks that steroids are just to get stronger. Like, you know, athletes shoot them so they can hit 500 home runs or run a mile in four minutes. They treat steroids like it’s a matter of greed—like you take them because you want your way to the top, no matter what the cause and damn the rules.”
  422. She drains her chocolate in one gulp.
  424. “That’s wrong for a couple of ways. First off, most sports, excluding baseball and weightlifting, place an emphasis on fitness just as much as raw power. Thus, raw muscle is more often than not useless—it’s just extra weight. Most people who “dope” use oxygen-enhancing drugs like Vaxocontin, which increases the blood’s capacity for oxygen, or pain compounds so they can deal with training harder. It’s rare for people to shoot up pure muscle building compounds. Tons of people pop speed, because it gives them that extra competitive focus.”
  426. “The truth, is, taking steroids is just a matter of survival. It’s the fear that drives you—the same fear behind every loss, the same fear behind every miss. That fear that you’ve been faking it all along and you’ll wake up tomorrow and not be able to hit a ball across the damn net. You can’t trust your body, because it keeps getting injured. You can’t trust your head, because no matter how good you are, everyone makes wrong decisions sometimes. Steroids are so appealing because you know they’ll take you stronger—like a cheat-sheet for a test. You know the cheat-sheet has the right answers. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
  428. “So why didn’t you take them, again?”
  430. She shrugs.
  432. “I was lucky to have enough success that I didn’t doubt my ability to win. But that’s a very rare characteristic. Even then, after a tough loss, or even a string of losses, it took a lot not to pop the pill into my mouth. It was there—but I didn’t want to do it that way. Still, it wasn’t weird to walk into the locker room and see a girl swallowing unmarked white pills, or people going to see “the doctor” a lot.”
  434. I give a sigh of relief. I’m glad Ritsu’s not a secret drug addict. Not that I wouldn’t stick by her, or anything, but she had me for a moment there.
  436. I roll my eyes.
  438. “So you’re not a junkie, huh. Shame.”
  440. This earns me a punch on the arm.
  442. “Hey, you! I’m trying to be serious over here!”
  444. She takes a breath and tries to drink more hot chocolate, but realizes she has an empty cup. This is remedied by the seizure of my drink.
  446. “Hey!”
  448. “Just a sip!”
  450. Taking a long pull from my coffee, she continues.
  452. “What I’m saying is, I’m worried about it. Life. Everything. Even you. I wake up every day and wonder if I’m in a dream and I have to be on the court in five minutes. It’s a terrible relief when I realize I don’t have to. But at the same time, it feels nothing short of awful. I miss tennis. But I would miss you as well.”
  454. Her face is a mix of conflict and relief.
  456. She drains the rest of my coffee in one gulp, and then stands up from the booth.
  458. “Coffee break’s over, Hisao. Back to work.”
  460. We head towards the car, but before we get in, Ritsu stops me.
  462. “Hey, hold up, Hisao.”
  464. “What’s up?”
  466. I’m kind of expecting it, but this kiss is different. It’s soft and amazing and I feel her body press against me and I have to calm myself down, but there’s another part that’s even better.
  468. It tastes like a mix of hot chocolate and coffee. The most delicious kiss ever.
  470. After we pull apart, I can’t stop grinning. She notices.
  472. “What’s up, Hisao?”
  474. With a manic grin on my face, I reply.
  476. “You taste like hot chocolate and coffee.”
  478. She blushes, and then swats me on the head.
  480. “Just get in the damn car, Hisao.”
  484. ========
  487. "Speed (burn and Lotus F1 Team Mix)" is a song by Avicii
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