SemisoftCheese

"Costume Party" (Ritsu Act 2-1)

Jun 30th, 2013
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  1. Costume Party
  2.  
  3. It's Thursday morning at Yamaku Academy for the disabled.
  4.  
  5. I have in my hands, courtesy of the kind Kenji Setou, two cups of warm, black, coffee. Among his many survival supplies for the apocalypse rests a coffeemaker, and after stumbling into me in the hallway, he offered to make me a cup or two.
  6.  
  7. Well, that's the story I'm going to tell Ritsu when I give her the coffee.
  8.  
  9. Not that Kenji set up the coffeemaker in the common room, made a full pot, tasted it, declared that he was being poisoned, and fled to his room to "administer the antidote."
  10.  
  11. I step into the classroom and take a look around. As always, there's a bunch of groups milling around. By the window, Miki, Suzu, and the rest of her group are lounging lazily, as if it's already the weekend.
  12.  
  13. The Student Council seems to be having an emergency meeting, or a thumb war, or something involving a lot of angry gestures.
  14.  
  15. Natsume and Naomi are hunched in a corner over the latest issue of the newspaper, their desks scattered with rolls of film and ink smears.
  16.  
  17. Everyone seems to be going around their own business.
  18.  
  19. I set my bag down on my desk and walk towards Ritsu, who's leaning against her desk, fiddling with her computer.
  20.  
  21. "Hey, Ritsu."
  22.  
  23. She looks up, breaking her focus.
  24.  
  25. "Morning, Hisao."
  26.  
  27. "I brought you some coffee."
  28.  
  29. "Ah, thanks."
  30.  
  31. I hand her the coffee and she puts down her laptop, giving me a contented smile.
  32.  
  33. We both lean back and sip in silence. The hustle and rush of the room around us continues at it's normal pace, but it seems as if we've created our own space in the room. Just me and Ritsu. Having morning coffee together.
  34.  
  35. It feels kind of nice. The kind where nothing needs to be said.
  36.  
  37. I take another sip. For a raving lunatic, Kenji makes a pretty good cup of coffee. A litter bitter, but not that bad.
  38.  
  39. I take a look at the clock. Mutou's five minutes late. Even though he's always disheveled, he's a pretty punctual guy. This is a little odd.
  40.  
  41. I guess everyone has their days. I take a glance at Ritsu.
  42.  
  43. She's humming a little tune as she adjusts the straps on her braces, shaking and sliding them into place until she's satisfied.
  44.  
  45. A thought strikes me above the hum of the room.
  46.  
  47. "Hey, Ritsu."
  48.  
  49. She looks up, focusing her golden eyes on me.
  50.  
  51. "Yeah?"
  52.  
  53. I pause a bit before asking my next question.
  54.  
  55. "Whatever happened to that dog? You know, the one that…" I let my voice trail away.
  56.  
  57. Wait, no.
  58.  
  59. I feel really shitty now. I didn't think that question through at all.
  60.  
  61. What kind of guy brings a dog to a hospital and doesn't even know whether it lived or not a few weeks later?
  62.  
  63. Her eyes raise in surprise.
  64.  
  65. I move to interject before she can reply.
  66.  
  67. "I mean… yeah." My voice trails away again.
  68.  
  69. Her eyes settle into a calm gaze as she understands what I didn't say.
  70.  
  71. "Oh, yeah. I took care of it."
  72.  
  73. She places her hand and ruffles it through my hair, the sensation made weirder and oddly more pleasant by the rough nylon of her braces.
  74.  
  75. "Don't worry about it, Hisao. All taken care of."
  76.  
  77. I still…
  78.  
  79. This feels more than wrong. Something I should have taken care of myself, I completely forgot about, and let Ritsu take care of it when she shouldn't have to do anything. It was my responsibility.
  80.  
  81. "But did he…"
  82.  
  83. She waves her hand in the air, allaying my fears.
  84.  
  85. "Yeah, he's at my grandmother's house in Kyoto. She's named him Kabu because he ate all her turnips in the first week. He's doing just fine."
  86.  
  87. She gives a light chuckle.
  88.  
  89. I breathe a sigh of relief.
  90.  
  91. "I guess I just…"
  92.  
  93. Ritsu gives me a light bop on the head with her forearm.
  94.  
  95. "Hisao, don't worry! It's all taken care of, I promise."
  96.  
  97. I shoot her a look and she gives me a mock pout back.
  98.  
  99. "Okay, okay, I trust you. Promise he hasn't been turned into hot dogs in China?"
  100.  
  101. She gives a satisfied smirk and settles back, taking another sip of her coffee.
  102.  
  103. "I'm sure. My grandmother had to tie him to a post, one because he managed to smash off his neck-cone, the other because he was eyeing her tomatoes. I owe her a present."
  104.  
  105. She pulls a face.
  106.  
  107. "And a new garden. She's been cultivating those turnips for years."
  108.  
  109. I give a chuckle and she smiles back. Ritsu's never mentioned her grandmother before, but I guess they're close.
  110.  
  111. Another glance at the clock tells me Mutou's twenty minutes late by now. I wonder where he's at?
  112.  
  113. The door opens, causing everyone in the classroom to turn.
  114.  
  115. A grey-tufted face pokes through, complimented by square, pink-tinted glasses, a salmon colored-jacket, and a vivid, polka-dotted tie.
  116.  
  117. The room goes quiet as he scans the room pensively.
  118.  
  119. I whisper to Ritsu
  120.  
  121. "Who's that?"
  122.  
  123. She keeps her attention focused on him, replying back through the side of her mouth.
  124.  
  125. "Nomiya. Art Teacher. A few fries short of a happy meal."
  126.  
  127. I give a snort of laughter and cover it up with a bout of coughing.
  128.  
  129. The pink-tinted glasses turn to me with a mixture of annoyance and concern.
  130.  
  131. "Young man, are you alright?"
  132.  
  133. "Yes sir. Sorry sir."
  134.  
  135. The pink squares turn to face the classroom.
  136.  
  137. "Everybody, Mr. Mutou is sick, so I'll be a subbing in for him today."
  138.  
  139. A collective hush rises and falls in the room.
  140.  
  141. Pink squares continues.
  142.  
  143. "But I have something to do today, so I'll be relying on one of you to make a report to me at the end of class today. Who here is responsible?"
  144.  
  145. I guess he's turning it into a study hall.
  146.  
  147. Everyone squirms in their seats, but a lone hand shoots its way into the air.
  148.  
  149. The hand belongs to Shizune.
  150.  
  151. Surprise surprise.
  152.  
  153. The tufted head turns in her direction.
  154.  
  155. "Young lady, are you responsible?"
  156.  
  157. Shizune turns to Misha, who immediately sticks her hand in the air.
  158.  
  159. "Yes! I will give the report, Shicchan is responsible!
  160.  
  161. Misha pauses, her brown eyes looking down in confusion.
  162.  
  163. "I mean… I'm responsible…" her voice trailing away.
  164.  
  165. I stifle another chuckle, covering it with another bout of coughing. This earns me a stiff elbow from Ritsu.
  166.  
  167. Pink squares shoots me a look, debates pressing the point, but decides that he's got better things to do anyway. Far better things.
  168.  
  169. "Okay, you'll find me in the art room if there are any problems. Behave, all of you."
  170.  
  171. A general exclamation of assent is heard as he closes the door.
  172.  
  173. Five seconds passes, then a clatter of noise explodes as the room relaxes into it's pre-class state.
  174.  
  175. An irritated look crosses Shizune's face as she sees everyone leave their desks and form into their morning groups, eliminating the possibly of completing any work whatsoever.
  176.  
  177. She raises a hand to stop the mess, but seems to think better about it, making fast, rapid signs to Misha.
  178.  
  179. I guess there's more Student Council work to be done. I wonder what they do, if it's anything significant at all.
  180.  
  181. Ritsu gets up from her chair, tucking her silver laptop into the main compartment. She lifts it without any apparent effort--I guess the key for managing whatever her wrist problems are is just angles and grips. I wonder what she's got planned for today.
  182.  
  183. She turns to face me.
  184.  
  185. "Come on, Hisao, let's go."
  186.  
  187. Huh?
  188.  
  189. "Go where?"
  190.  
  191. She flips her hair at the door.
  192.  
  193. "You know. Out."
  194.  
  195. I'm not entirely sure where this is going. I mean, the entire morning was going to be Mutou's class, so we do have a significant chunk of time, but I'm not entirely sure leaving the classroom is the best idea. What if pink squares comes back?
  196.  
  197. "Out where?"
  198.  
  199. She moves to adjust the hairband in her head, not understanding my lack of comprehension.
  200.  
  201. "Out, as in away, as in fun with Hisao, as in late breakfast in town. Come on!" Her voice is tinged with a happy kind of inflection, as if this is what Thursdays were made for.
  202.  
  203. I'm not entirely keen on the idea of missing class, but I'm sure I won't be missed for a day or two. Especially since we're not learning anything today anyway.
  204.  
  205. "Ok, let's go?"
  206.  
  207. Ritsu flashes me a brilliant smile, then shrugs her bag higher on her back and makes for the door.
  208.  
  209. I shoulder my bag and follow. I mean, it's not every day you get to have breakfast with a pretty girl who enjoys your company, right?
  210.  
  211. As we near the door, a high-piercing voices cuts through the din.
  212.  
  213. Before you get the treasure, you have to defeat the dragon guarding it.
  214.  
  215. "Miss Tainaka! Where do you think you're going?"
  216.  
  217. Ritsu turns to face the voice, which I know all too well, and I see her eyes flash in surprise.
  218.  
  219. "I'm going to have breakfast. What's the problem?" Her voice has a genuine note of surprise in to it.
  220.  
  221. I turn to face the pair and watch the unfolding drama. The room has gone quiet at the appearance of confrontation.
  222.  
  223. Shizune signs angrily to Misha, who puts her hands on her hips and leans forward.
  224.  
  225. "This is completely unacceptable! You are in a classroom setting and are expected to contribute to the well-being and accomplishment of the class! Not just leave because you feel like it!"
  226.  
  227. The room has gone deathly quiet. Ritsu leans against the wall and crosses her braces against her chest, her blue cardigan slightly wrinkled by her backpack.
  228.  
  229. "Well, it's not like there's much going on here. What's the difference?"
  230.  
  231. I sense a slight edge to her voice but it looks like she's keeping it in check.
  232.  
  233. Shizune makes more angry, clinical signs to Misha. These have a more threatening look to them.
  234.  
  235. "You can't just leave a classroom because you want to! This is truly unacceptable!"
  236.  
  237. In the corner of the room, I see Miki looking intently at Ritsu. Whether it's a warning or a sense of encouragement, I can tell this argument is more than just a one time deal. She catches my eye, shoots me a wink, and flicks her head towards Ritsu.
  238.  
  239. Ritsu's voice takes on a sharper edge, but it's carefully kept on a narrow line. A seasoned politician would approve.
  240.  
  241. "I'm going to get breakfast, because I'm hungry, and we aren't doing anything in class."
  242.  
  243. Shizune makes a rapid, cutting gesture, and her movements explode into a flurry, culminating in a downwards slash. Her arms are crossed in anger.
  244.  
  245. "Miss Tainaka, this is completely unbefitting a third year student! I will have to include this in my report!"
  246.  
  247. Uh oh. That's a line and a half crossed.
  248.  
  249. I remember when I read a book about prisons in hospital, and what particularly interested me was the idea of a prisoner's code.
  250.  
  251. You don't snitch on anyone, whether it be your lifelong friend or your worst enemy. Not even for a sense of practicality (so you can commit crimes and they can commit them), but for a higher sense of honor and unity. There is the administration, and there is the prisoners. There is us, and there is them.
  252.  
  253. I wouldn't go as far to say that people would cover for each other's crimes at Yamaku, but there's definitely a sense of unity among the class, even at the most basic level. I guess it's the general trend of youth vs age or whatever.
  254.  
  255. Anyway, I think Shizune's cross a line here. Despite her playing an ace, the stares towards her in the room are slightly harder. It's not refreshing to know a classmate, much less the president of the Student Council, would report you to a teacher for leaving a class that doesn't mean anything anyway.
  256.  
  257. Ritsu's voice takes a cool, poised tone. She looks Shizune straight in the eyes.
  258.  
  259. "I don't really think that's necessary, Shizune. I'm just getting breakfast. No big deal."
  260.  
  261. Shizune's arms cross impossibly tighter. I think she's going to take it to the next level.
  262.  
  263. "For a student who can't even bother to fit in, join a club, or even attend class, this is just another mark on your tarnished record! You should try to improve yourself, not ruin it even further."
  264.  
  265. Uh oh. Next level attained.
  266.  
  267. Personally, I don't think Shizune would go that far, but I guess she was egged on by the fact that she couldn't control the class, and she's picking on Ritsu for it.
  268.  
  269. Eeegh. To think I could have slept in this morning.
  270.  
  271. Ritsu's eyes flash in a gold fury, but something shatters inside. The gold gives way to a slight glistening.
  272.  
  273. Her voice shakes, and I'm surprised at the tremor in it.
  274.  
  275. "I'm going to go get breakfast. If you want to report me, and you think that's fine, you can."
  276.  
  277. She turns around and takes a step towards the door. Something makes her stop, but she continues, quickly, as if nothing else happened. Her eyes face front, and she doesn't stop to look back.
  278.  
  279. I see Miki resting her chin on her hand. I think she, of all people, knew there was more than meets the eye, but she didn't want to intervene in it.
  280.  
  281. I guess I don't really have a choice but to follow her. Miki turns catches my eye and gives me a wink, followed by a kissy-kissy face and a hand on her heart as she tilts her head back in a mock faint.
  282.  
  283. Well.
  284.  
  285. I guess for Miki, there's the big stuff, and then there's the stuff that's more fun. A lot more fun.
  286.  
  287. I follow Ritsu through the door wordlessly, and catch her form striding angrily along the hallway.
  288.  
  289. I run up to her, grabbing the top strap of her backpack to slow her down.
  290.  
  291. "Hey, what was that back there?"
  292.  
  293. She looks at me with a hurt shimmer in her eyes.
  294.  
  295. "I don't know, Hisao."
  296.  
  297. We step outside. It rained recently, so the sunlight shimmers in the air
  298.  
  299. The walk to town passes in silence, mostly with Ritsu looking down and taking smaller steps than usual, looking dejected.
  300.  
  301. We stop in front of the Shanghai.
  302.  
  303. Ritsu steps in, and instead of waiting for Yuuko, steps into a booth and sits down. She turns her gaze to the empty street outside, her chin resting on her wrists.
  304.  
  305. Yuuko steps out of the kitchen slowly, and I give her a nod and a finger to the lips. She takes a look at Ritsu, gives me a concerned look, and ducks back into the kitchen.
  306.  
  307. I take a seat opposite Ritsu, who doesn't even seem to notice my presence. I think she needs a little space. Which is okay by me. I'm just here to help.
  308.  
  309. I take a look at her. She seems even more depressed than usual. I take a look at where her eyes are focused.
  310.  
  311. Normally when people are angry they zone out, and their eyes take a glossy tone, but hers are sharp, focused.
  312.  
  313. They're focused on the wall across from us. It's a temporary wall-the kind you see in the city made of blue painted plywood and held together with nails. There's nothing of interest there.
  314.  
  315. Yuuko walks up stealthily to the table and gently places down a platter of sandwiches and coffee. Ritsu keeps staring out the window.
  316.  
  317. "Thanks, Yuuko."
  318.  
  319. She gives me a earnest, worried smile, and hurries back to the kitchen.
  320.  
  321. Ritsu turns to the food in front of her, her eyes down towards the table. She takes a sip of her coffee before looking out the window again.
  322.  
  323. She gives a sigh and takes a look at me, and looks out the window again. She opens her mouth to speak.
  324.  
  325. "I suppose you're wondering why I couldn't hold it together back there."
  326.  
  327. Well, yes, but I don't think the right answer is to push her on it.
  328.  
  329. I weigh my answer carefully before looking her in the eyes.
  330.  
  331. "I'm here if you need me, Ritsu. Anytime. But I don't want to pry into business that isn't mine."
  332.  
  333. She gives a soft sigh of relief and picks up a sandwich. All of a sudden she leans over the table and gives me a kiss on the forehead, her lips leaving a slight burning sensation on my skin.
  334.  
  335. I smile at her, and she returns a warm, glowing one back. But as quickly as it appears, it disappears, replaced with one of wistfulness.
  336.  
  337. "I knew I chose well when I met you, Hisao. You're a good kid."
  338.  
  339. She gives another sigh before demolishing her sandwich in two bites, the movements almost in anger.
  340.  
  341. "There's more to my life than what I told you on the hill a week ago. It's true, all of it, but there's more."
  342.  
  343. Okay?
  344.  
  345. She takes a long draw of coffee before continuing.
  346.  
  347. "It's true that I don't have a relationship with my parents, that I've traveled the world, and that I lived my life out of a bag. But there's something else I didn't tell you."
  348.  
  349. She looks at me carefully, with a trace of fear in her eyes, afraid I'm going to bolt away and run. Whatever this is, it's costing her a lot to say it.
  350.  
  351. She gives another sigh of relief before looking at me in the eyes again, a long, golden, gaze, I guess she's wondering how to break the news to me.
  352.  
  353. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm painfully curious to know what it is. And to tell the truth, a little worried. But I agreed to stick by her no matter what. And if this is what it takes, then this is what it takes.
  354.  
  355. Ritsu lets out another long breath before pulling her phone out of the pocket of her blue cardigan. It's an iPhone, rare in Japan, but I'm guessing that's not what she's trying to tell me.
  356.  
  357. She slides it over the table to me, and I watch as it comes to a stop in front of me.
  358.  
  359. I don't get it, but I don't want to interrupt.
  360.  
  361. She looks at the phone, then at me, and opens her mouth to speak.
  362.  
  363. "Hisao, google my name. Ritsu Tainaka."
  364.  
  365. I don't see where this is going, but I guess it's a step in one direction.
  366.  
  367. I unlock the phone and enter the search. A few moments later, the results pop up.
  368.  
  369. Ritsu Tainaka. Winner, Eddie Herr U-18's. Ritsu Tainaka. Winner, Orange Bowl 2010. R. Tainaka, Finalist, French Junior Open. R. Tainaka advances to finals of Wimbledon junior championships. Tainaka, R, Winner, Kalamazoo U-18.
  370.  
  371. I have no idea what these things are. I guess Ritsu is a winner, in something. But in what?
  372.  
  373. "Ritsu, what are these?"
  374.  
  375. She leans over the table to point at the screen as she explains.
  376.  
  377. "They're international tennis tournaments. Before I came to Yamaku, I was a top-ranked tennis player."
  378.  
  379. Evidently a good one judging by these results, but I still don't see her point.
  380.  
  381. "That's great, Ritsu, but what's up?"
  382.  
  383. I move to allay her fears.
  384.  
  385. "I think it's great that you're a winner and all, but what's it got to do with Shizune?"
  386.  
  387. She looks down at the table, her eyes downcast.
  388.  
  389. "Shizune was talking about being normal."
  390.  
  391. She gives a bitter chuckle.
  392.  
  393. "As if normal was a word you could use at Yamaku. I can tell you about normal"
  394.  
  395. Her braces dangle from the table, low and at her sides.
  396.  
  397. "Normal. It's a small word. You know what normal is. I don't know what normal is. I don't know what a date is. I don't know what a school is. I don't know what a desk is."
  398.  
  399. Her voice takes on a tone of urgency.
  400.  
  401. "I don't know what friends are, because any friends I made in my past life I had to compete against the next day, and when I beat them, they didn't want to talk to me anymore. I don't know what a school is, because I never went to school. I learned from a computer. I don't know what a home is, or a mother, or a father, or even someone to rely on. I don't know fucking anything Hisao, not a goddamn bit! All I know is how to hit a fuzzy fucking ball across a fucking bunch of knotted cords!"
  402.  
  403. Her voice is shouting, one of anguish, and her eyes are glistening with tears. It's fortunate the Shanghai is empty.
  404.  
  405. Her voice gets quiet.
  406.  
  407. "I don't even know you, Hisao. I have this fear that I"m going to wake up one morning and you're going to be across the net from me, not on the same side, and after I play you, you're not going to talk to me anymore, or eat lunch with me, or even look me in the eye."
  408.  
  409. I don't know what to do. Ritsu is nearly a wreck--sniffling, shouting, everything at once. I never knew this was so important for her.
  410.  
  411. I step out of my side of the booth and she looks up at me with glistening eyes. There's a fear there, a primal, open, fear, one that I've never seen before and never want to see again.
  412.  
  413. I pro-offer my hand and lift her out of her side, bringing her to stand in front of me.
  414.  
  415. I look her straight in the eye as she looks up at me.
  416.  
  417. "What I said before was true, Ritsu. I'm here for you, no matter what. I won't leave you, no matter what happens."
  418.  
  419. She looks at me slowly, in slight disbelief, and moves to rest her face in my shoulder, and I wrap her in a hug. I feel her body heave as she calms down slowly, steadily, until she wipes her eyes and pulls away.
  420.  
  421. She looks up at me, her eyes slightly red, and speaks in a hoarse voice.
  422.  
  423. "I'm okay now. Thanks, Hisao."
  424.  
  425. She moves to sit down and I sit down across from her. She picks up a sandwich gingerly and eats it slowly, pausing to sip coffee as she returns to a semi-normal state.
  426.  
  427. After a while, she speaks again.
  428.  
  429. "So that's why I couldn't handle Shizune today. She reminded me of everything I escaped. And I was afraid I was going to lose it again. Everything. The friends I thought I had. You. Because I was breaking a rule I didn't know existed."
  430.  
  431. I give her a light bop on the head.
  432.  
  433. "Skipping class isn't too bad, but let's not do it too much in the future, okay?"
  434.  
  435. She gives a chuckle, and a thought strikes my mind.
  436.  
  437. "Was it really that bad being a professional tennis player?"
  438.  
  439. She shakes her head as she takes a sip of coffee.
  440.  
  441. "Hisao, you have no idea. Let me take you through a day."
  442.  
  443. "Okay."
  444.  
  445. "At 6AM, you wake up, and you drink a liter of water and wolf down a handful of cereal, before it's time for a beach run--a tradition. You get dropped off in the cold, morning sand, before the sun is out, and you've got a five mile sand run to be made in 40-45 minutes, depending who's driving that day. If you don't make it, you get to walk back. After you get back, you have enough time to shower and eat another handful of cereal before you hurry to the courts, because practice starts at 7:30."
  446.  
  447. She waves a hand in the air.
  448.  
  449. "That's annoying, but it's not the tough part. You practice from 7"30-10:30, which mainly consists of drills, and fine-tuning certain aspects of your game. You get 3.5 hours for lunch, mainly so you can eat a meal large enough to replace the calories you burned. From 2-4 it's matchplay, where they pit you against each other, and from 4-5 is conditioning, and 5-6 physiotherapy and lifting."
  450.  
  451. This sounds strenuous. I don't think my heart and I could make it through five minutes, let alone an entire day.
  452.  
  453. She pauses and rolls her eyes to the ceiling, lost in thought.
  454.  
  455. "I guess I didn't really convey why it's such a terrible day. The physical stuff sounds awful, but it's pretty rote once you get used to it and everything."
  456.  
  457. She folds her brace on the table.
  458.  
  459. "Hisao, you ever play tennis?"
  460.  
  461. "Actually, no."
  462.  
  463. She gives a sigh and looks down again.
  464.  
  465. "Okay, I'll try and explain. What sports do you play, if any?"
  466.  
  467. I give a mock huff and place my hands on my hips.
  468.  
  469. "I played soccer, thanks every much. Not everyone can be a world class athlete like you, Ms. Tainaka, but we can try."
  470.  
  471. She gives a warm laugh and punches me on the shoulder.
  472.  
  473. "Okay, I'll try and explain it to you. On soccer, you're on a team, right?"
  474.  
  475. "Yeah."
  476.  
  477. She pauses before arranging her next answer.
  478.  
  479. "Tennis is unique in that it's one of the sports that requires other people to train, but ultimately, you end up alone on the court. It's you, your racket, and your opponent. It's a lonely game, and it's not an easy one."
  480.  
  481. She brushes an imaginary ball through the air.
  482.  
  483. "Every ball is a decision--it's make or break. So when you compete, and you play, you're alone. And this is constant, consistent. But when you train, you're competing, not only against yourself, but your training partners, because at the end of the day, the best tennis player is the one who beats everyone else."
  484.  
  485. She tightens a strap on her wrist brace.
  486.  
  487. "So you hold back a bit. Every day is a poker day. You hold your cards close to your chest. Sometimes, you don't want to practice with someone who asks you to, because they'll analyze your game and beat you next weekend. And it's hard to have lunch with someone you just humiliated, because it's easy--you're a winner and they're not."
  488.  
  489. She gives a sigh.
  490.  
  491. "I'm not doing a good job of explaining this at all. Basically, every hour--every minute--every second--is you trying to beat down everyone who's around you. And they're trying to do the same. So you get vicious. And tough. And you get guts, because you have to make those shots. BUt you also get pretty lonely."
  492.  
  493. She takes a long sip of coffee.
  494.  
  495. "That's it, I think. Or should I go again?"
  496.  
  497. "No, I've got it, I think."
  498.  
  499. The next question crosses my mind. It's a painful one, and I'm not sure she's ready to answer it.
  500.  
  501. "So what happened then?" I ask. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to," I add quickly.
  502.  
  503. She gives another wave of her hand in the air.
  504.  
  505. "When you wake up in your hotel room and you don't know whether you're in Beijing or Tokyo or New York or Rome it's time to go."
  506.  
  507. She takes a look at her braces.
  508.  
  509. "And when you can't grip a pencil because your wrist and shoulder have been torn to shreds from throwing a 320 gram racket through the air hundreds of times a day, when it should really be 290, it's time to go."
  510.  
  511. I do the painful math in my head. 320 grams… that isn't that much.
  512.  
  513. She answers the question after seeing my forehead screw in concentration.
  514.  
  515. "It doesn't seem that much, but just look at my wrists. Most female tennis players can't handle anything above 300, but I took it for the power and I figured I'd deal with the pain later. Another thing I don't know about normal. I talk about rackets like people talk about bands"
  516.  
  517. She looks at the braces on her arms as if she could tear them off with her teeth.
  518.  
  519. "I don't know what a home is. I don't know what homework is. I don't know what a teacher is, I don't know what hanging out is, I don't know what a boyfriend is. I don't know anything. I don't know how to cook eggs in the morning or even share a room with someone. I don't know ride a bike or swim in a pool. I only know how to play, and for a while, I thought I knew how to win."
  520.  
  521. She sighs.
  522.  
  523. "It doesn't seem like anything, Hisao, but it's scary. It's not what they promised me in the movies. There isn't a school gym and bullies and lockers and everything they told me. Everything I see is new, and it's scary, because all I've ever done is play a silly game my entire life. I don't know how to stand in line at a fast food restaurant, slow-dance with a boy, or even do my math homework. I feel like one of those prisoners they release after 40 years and he doesn't even remember how to tie his shoes, because he's been wearing sandals for all of his life."
  524.  
  525. She looks down.
  526.  
  527. "So there it is, Hisao. That's me. Look what you've gotten into."
  528.  
  529. She pulls her yellow hairband out of her hair and lets her bangs hang loose, waiting for my reply.
  530.  
  531. I pause. Her life doesn't seem that abnormal.
  532.  
  533. But the way she explained it, it kind of does. And it would explain the almost forced way she's been acting sometimes.
  534.  
  535. I mean, it seems cruel almost. As if she's been forced to be an adult from day one.
  536.  
  537. It seems cruel in a perverse way, that you spend your entire life working towards one goal, and it gets taken away from you, and you've got nothing left.
  538.  
  539. "Ritsu, that doesn't seem that abnormal. I mean, I guess it's been different, but you're still a teenager. You can still converse with me and go out to breakfast and stuff like that. You're a lot more normal than you think you are."
  540.  
  541. She looks up.
  542.  
  543. I take time to consider my next words.
  544.  
  545. They're important, so I'd better not fuck them up.
  546.  
  547. "And even if you aren't, you're fine just the way you are."
  548.  
  549. She bites her lip. Her eyes are full of shock and surprise. She opens her mouth to reply.
  550.  
  551. "I don't think anyone's ever told me that before. Not in a tournament, not on the court, not even when I won."
  552.  
  553. A childish smile makes it's way to her face.
  554.  
  555. "Say it again."
  556.  
  557. I say it slowly and throughly.
  558.  
  559. "Ritsu, you're fine just the way you are. I'll take you, braces, injuries, and all."
  560.  
  561. I pause.
  562.  
  563. "Even if you do burn the eggs in the morning."
  564.  
  565. Her childish smile is replaced with a warm, genuine, almost crazy grin, and she reaches over the table and grabs me in a tight, hug, pressing her face to my shoulder.
  566.  
  567. "You're the best, Hisao. I mean it."
  568.  
  569. She pulls back and flops on the couch, looking as if a huge weight has been lifted off her shoulders.
  570.  
  571. She gives an exhausted, pleased sigh, and gives me another golden smile.
  572.  
  573. "So that's all it takes to get a boyfriend?"
  574.  
  575. I return the smile.
  576.  
  577. "Not too bad, huh?"
  578.  
  579. For a while we stay just like that, smiling stupidly at each other as if there was nothing else in the world.
  580.  
  581. No past, no future, no present.
  582.  
  583. Nothing at all.
  584.  
  585. Just Ritsu and me.
  586.  
  587.  
  588. ========
  589.  
  590.  
  591.  
  592. "Costume Party" is a song by Two Door Cinema Club
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