pretty sure this is gen. kindly pardon my obsession with the burden of responsibility as a theme. thank you.


Distorted Lines
by MorphailEffect


"There is nothing that illustrates distance and your inability to shorten it any more painfully than a bad phone line." -- last train


The priests' chanting never reached his ears. He stood behind his mother, holding her shoulders... and beside his older sister, the stillest thing in the room.

His older sister looked out at their father's smiling portrait, her eyes dry and her face set in an expression that could have meant disdain, or else disinterest.

His mother's silence filled his ears. She had grown tired of grief. People had guessed it would be years, decades, before she could recover from the loss of her husband... but they never knew. She had exhausted her tears long ago.

Meanwhile, all around him, it seemed everyone else was crying.

He looked out at the flowery altar, at the portrait of the man who had been "a pillar of the community, a model citizen...and above all a dedicated husband and father."

This man had left too many pieces of land and property to give away. But at the heart of it all, there were his businesses, his shares of stock; the lifeblood of the Ohtori family.

And all of these, he'd left to his only son.

Everyone in the funeral knew his father as a generous man, a sociable, charitable soul. They had genuinely come to weep for him, and for the ones he had loved.

His son would have to manage everything now.

There he stands, some said silently to themselves, and still others whispered: Such a fine young man. Only 21 and in his third year in pre-law. But he's the only one his mother and sister are relying on now.

Look how brave he is. How grown-up. Only 21.

There were many other young people in the gathering, sons and daughters of the ones who came to grieve. They had come forward to offer their condolences, certainly... but not their comfort. None of them knew Ohtori well enough to provide that sort of familiarity.

Stand firm, Ohtori Choutarou, a voice said inside his head. Louder than his mother's silence, Now you're all alone.

****************

There was only one person he would have wanted to come to the funeral.

He hadn't missed that person so badly since they embraced, two years ago, to say goodbye.

On that day, Shishido had slipped a necklace around Ohtori's neck. A silver cross necklace, to replace the wooden one that had been lost for years.

They'd kept in touch since then, and there was no reason to miss each other. If anything, they'd grown even closer as friends. They were, after all, only attending different universities. If Ohtori had told him about his father's death, he would have come over. If Ohtori had needed him, he would have been there.

Which was exactly what Ohtori feared.

Shishido was finally on the road to achieving his boyhood dream of being a great tennis player. If Ohtori had made Shishido go to him, he would have gotten in the way.

Shishido had wanted a sports career, and after years of hard work and perseverance, he finally got it. It was only lately that he started rising up the ranks in pro tennis.

He was already 22, too old by his own standards.

Of course luck had nothing to do with it.

The young rookie Shishido Ryou was traveling around the world for pro tournaments... though it wasn't easy staying in the good favor of patrons. It was like a glorified scholarship, he had joked over the phone once: rich people were paying to see him play.

It made Ohtori's heart sink to think that, unlike Shishido, he could travel around the world, if he wanted to. He had the money, he had the time... he just never had the reason.

Sometimes he wished tennis called to him like it did to Shishido, growing only stronger and clearer through the years.

On the night Ohtori called, Shishido was in his dormitory room, resting for the night. But he should also be getting ready to fly off to train in France a few months, for an upcoming major tournament.

It had been three days since the funeral ended.

"Oh, it's going to be good, Choutarou." Youthful excitement rang in his voice. "No Japanese player's ever made the men's singles title in that meet! Not a single one!"

Ohtori closed his eyes and imagined the young man's flushed face somewhere close enough to touch. He smiled.

"Yeah, I heard that," he answered in almost a whisper. "You'll win it for sure."

Ohtori's smile turned bitter; he couldn't help himself. His fingers tightened around the phone receiver.

"Naa...it's getting late, we should be in bed. How about you tell me why you called, already?"

"Sh - shishido-san..." What was he about to say? I think I need you. Could you come to me?

The tips of his fingers absently ran over the cold surface of the pendant he wore. The other face of the cross stayed warm against his skin.

"...Choutarou? You say something?"

"...No. Nothing. I just wanted to wish you luck."

Laughter here. Bright and ringing clear enough to drive away the shadows. Any closer, and the sound would have killed them altogether.

"Ah, Choutarou... luck never did anything for either of us."

****************

"Choutarou-kun," Isogai, his father's one and only financial adviser, was telling him, as they strolled side by side through the accountant's orchard, on a not so leisurely weekend, "I always told your father to find other advisers. He always said 'I just need an excuse to see your orange trees..'"

Ohtori chuckled. He was even taller than Isogai. He had to slouch when he talked.

"My father knew you were the only one he could trust, Isogai-san. That must have been for a good reason."

The elderly accountant cleared his throat. "Yes, well... it may be true that I helped him consider his options. But I never told him what to do."

It was their first time to meet, but already they seemed like such good friends. Ohtori had called Isogai up the way he'd heard his father call him up, friendly and casual, in order to set up this meeting.

"I'm not asking you for instruction, sir," Ohtori gently corrected. "I'm asking for advice. You know my father's accounts better than anyone. There's got to be an explanation behind the anomalies in the Nagashima deal."

A shadow fell across Isogai's face.

"There was something I've always told him," he started to say, "but it had always been a very delicate situation. I'm not sure you're fit to handle it...Choutarou-kun."

Ohtori knew what his father's friend was referring to, of course. He thought he had come prepared for it.

But when he heard his name said like that, it made him feel small again, young again.

"It doesn't matter, does it," Ohtori said, half to himself. "It still has to be done."

****************

It was true, no one else could do what he had to do in his father's place. His father had assistants, partners... and subordinates, certainly...

But he was the only Ohtori. The one entitled by a few pieces of paper to make all the right decisions.

He sat all alone at that table in that expensive restaurant, looking a calm, composed sort of young. From time to time, the tip of his right middle finger idly traced the surface of the silver cross pendant around his neck. The pendant looked out of place with the American coat-and-tie ensemble he had on. But if anyone noticed, no one minded. In that place, you could pay off the suspicions that come with a little eccentricity.

A few minutes ago, a man 30 years older than himself had thrown down his cloth napkin, stood indignantly from the chair opposite Ohtori's, and none-too-quietly stormed out of the establishment.

"How dare you presume to know what's best for the company? You're only 21 years old! Your father and I were friends even before you were born!"

It had been painful to hear. But he had closed his eyes and sighed, thought of himself as far away from all this. He hadn't just fired one of his father's oldest executives because of conclusive evidence of embezzlement. He wasn't getting ready to announce to the board of directors that one of their onshore branches would have to be closed down.

He was seventeen and lying in a field of fresh-cut grass. Someone familiar was sitting on the grass beside him, asking him in a light-hearted voice if there was room in that place for one more. Then he was lying beside someone familiar, watching only the white and gray clouds passing overhead, talking sleepily to this someone about everything and nothing, silent with this person sometimes...

Nothing could touch them in that reality. No one knew where they were and they were children, so no one cared.

You're only 21 years old.

And no matter what, no one else could take his place. It had to be done.

****************

It felt a lot like living in a box. Between pre-law studies and being called on to make executive decisions (made so much easier by the presence of Isogai, but still stressful), it seemed everything had to be done on routine. And routine left little time for rest. Fly off to a certain place, spend a day or two touring, or sleep in because a recent exam had left him exhausted, then go home.

Life had become, ironically, all too simple.

It also seemed like many of his old friends had fallen out of touch. Old schoolmates from Hyoutei were busy with their own courses, or attending other schools and were getting rather used to his turning down party invitations and calls to "hang out, over the weekend or something." He had no time for such things. Or else, he was never really up to it.

However, there was always time to dial a certain overseas number.

"Yo. Shishido Ryou here. Out training. Leave a message."

That was becoming more and more frequent. Ohtori had thought that wherever he was, he always timed his calls so it would be early evening in France, right at dinnertime when Shishido was sure to be indoors. It used to be the best time to call, Shishido used to pick up when he was still new to the city...

But then, early evening has always been a good time for tennis practice. Less people, less distraction. Surely Shishido would take advantage of it, if he was serious about "making the most out of training with private coaches overseas." The odds were good that he was really out and couldn't be disturbed.

Still...

Still, he should have called back sometimes, shouldn't he?

Ohtori's own phones had answering machines. They could have talked through those if their free times never jived. Besides, there was email. Surely Shishido could be bothered to sit down a few minutes at a computer somewhere and tell about how his day went. Or set a new schedule for their phone calls. Ohtori could adjust.

"I...know you're really busy. You don't have to, but I hope you'll find the time..."

Three months had gone by. Then four. Not a single word.

A quick call to the Shishido family in Tokyo revealed to Ohtori that his sempai wasn't calling there, either. "He's probably really fired up about this tournament. You know how he is," the older brother had said.

It had occurred to Ohtori a few times, even when he was in school, that the way he looked up to Shishido was like the way his mother looked up to his father -- the person whose tasks he had assumed. The name he had taken on. Father won't be with us on this special day. It's very difficult for him, too... Though Choutarou suspected it was never really "very difficult" for any of them.

He had played with the idea of going to France over the semestral break. He could surprise his dazed and overworked sempai, then drag him off to a nice cafe or a long day downtown.

Ohtori had heard the French countryside was beautiful. Maybe they could find somewhere grassy and far away from everything... maybe that would be enough.

But then the semestral break found Ohtori spending more time with Isogai. It wasn't a matter of luck; he decided it was only practical to use up his free time in being productive. He needed to learn more about running businesses and being as hands-on as his father had been, anyway.

You have to understand. He wants us to be proud of him, that's why he's working so hard.

"I'll call back later," he would say softly, after he had put the receiver down. But there was never really time, later.

****************

His sister pointed it out. Whenever he was nervous or tense, he played with the cross around his neck. It seemed to calm him down.

As if it was a gift from some old lover.

The joke made Ohtori feel uncomfortable. But at that age he already knew how to stand outside himself, to see how he should react. So he only chuckled shyly and shook his head.

His sister's stare pierced through him. She had always been the one with the eyes. He almost smiled at that, at the freedom she was able to build around herself; the freedom to see things as they were. Their father had been expecting his sister to take his place. Law was a craft, after all, one that could be handed down to one's children. But it also ended up being the craft that Ohtori had placed upon his own shoulders.

She had wanted to be an artist; now that their father was gone, nothing was going to stop her from becoming one.

"So. Neesan. How's the work coming along?"

She shrugged. "People aren't into art so much these days. But at least, the gallery isn't just attracting flies."

He answered with a sad smile, "That's good to hear...sort of."

She took another long look at him. "You're tired. You need to find more time for yourself," she told him, in the matter-of-fact, lawyerly way she had gotten used to.

Beneath her gaze, the cross around his neck started to grow heavier.

****************

When Shishido finally called, it was to apologize for not being in touch. He was usually passed out on the bed at the end of each day, and he only ever woke up just in time to start his training regimen. He promised he was going to try and catch Ohtori on the phone during the tournament itself. He was getting ready for a big practice match, he had to run, but he was going to call, all right?

This message came through to Ohtori's machine while Ohtori was in Chiba, smoothing out a land deal.

Before this, there had been several calls from Japan to France: one daily, and none of them received. They all came at the time when Ohtori's mother was rushed to the hospital. Her heart had grown weaker. But the emergency passed quickly.

Within a week she was even well enough to joke that she'd told her heart to sputter because it got her children to come home and see her.

There were many calls placed to France, but nothing was said -- except at the last call. In it, a young voice said angrily:

"Listen. Never mind. Don't bother calling back. Just keep doing the things you -- "

A brief silence, then the call ended.

Shishido's brief, rushed reply to this message was received by an answering machine in an apartment outside a university in Tokyo. A silver cross pendant lay beside the phone. The owner had left it there before traveling to Chiba. The pendant was intact, but the chain was broken, as if it had been pulled off roughly instead of removed.

Ohtori came back to his apartment, listened to the message, deleted it. He glanced briefly at the pendant on the counter, but there was no expression on his face. And with a brisk swipe of his hand, he knocked the piece of dulled silver into a drawer, which he slid shut immediately afterwards.

Then he showered, ate his dinner, went over his lecture notes, and got ready for bed.

****************

Shishido Ryou was eliminated at the finals. His final opponent was a newcomer like himself, a young Caucasian with a permanent brooding expression.

In the two weeks the tournament lasted, there had been several calls from France to Japan: erratic, sometimes coming at three a day -- and none of them received. There had been several messages left in Ohtori Choutarou's answering machine, ranging in volume and temperance, asking, begging, demanding, for someone to pick up the phone.

The last message left was, "I'm coming home on the fifth." And the call ended abruptly.

When Shishido showed up in front of Ohtori's apartment one Saturday, it was a genuine surprise. He had not even been thinking about Shishido. For the past six months, it had been all about studies, exams, land titles, work documents, and phone calls to places that had become too familiar. It had all become painless, routinary, leaving no room for anything else.

For a moment, they stood facing each other without saying a word. Then Shishido's gaze traveled to Ohtori's neck, briefly noting the lack of a pendant there. A flash of anger crossed his face, but then he looked away.

"You wouldn't answer your phone," was the sullen greeting.

Ohtori regarded him for a second longer, a tired frown on his face. Then he stepped aside, holding the door open.

In the few months that they hadn't seen each other, so many things had changed for them both. There was no warmth in their meeting, none of the excitement and relief that they had both imagined would be there. Ohtori crossed the room to get to the counter where the phone was. He leaned back against it, folded his arms across his chest.

"How was France?" he began, blandly.

Shishido stood in the center of the spacious floor, looking around with a bored expression. His arms were folded across his chest as well.

"Okay," was the terse reply. "Didn't get to see much. Was busy training, didn't go out. Even if I was invited."

"...That's too bad."

Shishido shrugged.

"I saw the results of the tournament, by the way..."

That was all that was needed. Shishido started to talk about the game and the things that happened in it with the clinical precision of someone who had been sent to cover the event. Not to participate.

Ohtori interrupted briefly to ask him to sit. He ignored the offer, and went right on talking.

From the tournament, Shishido started to talk about the highlights of his months in training. He went on and on; it was half a year's worth of stories, after all. But it came out in a droning, bored voice; it was a duty and not a pleasure to tell.

He had some trouble getting used to French food and in the end, settled for making his own meals: not annoyed enough. One of the players had it in for him and had tried to injure him close to the start of the tournament: not angry in the least. The cherry blossoms made him miss home: not nostalgic or sad at all.

"Why weren't you picking up the phone?" It was bound to be said at some point. Though still in that uninterested tone. "Or leaving a message at least..."

Ohtori gave no reply. He carefully avoided meeting the visitor's gaze.

"As far as you're concerned, we're no longer friends. Is that it?"

Ohtori's hand balled into a fist and smashed down on the counter. The sound it made echoed dully in the room. Shishido didn't move. Didn't change expression. He had fixed his scowl upon Ohtori's face.

"If you," Ohtori began, in a controlled voice more fit for a boardroom, or a trial court, "are finished talking, please leave."

But his voice cracked at the last word. His fingers dug into his palms. He wasn't going to give in. He wasn't seventeen, there was no field of grass, no blue sky full of clouds traveling lazily overhead. He wasn't going to let anything get the better of him.

There was no answer.

He wouldn't raise his eyes. He could hear Shishido walking across the floor. He was unhurriedly going over to the table where Ohtori had stacked the things he had to work on that day: the resumes and the contracts and the supplier deals for signing.

He heard Shishido picking up the papers, studying them. He could almost imagine the older youth's puzzled frown. What was Ohtori doing with all those papers? What were they about, what did they mean?

A silence settled in the room. It seemed to stretch on and on, it reminded Ohtori vaguely of waiting for someone on the other end of the line to pick up. He waited to reach the other side of the world. He waited and waited.

And finally he heard the voice. Someone asking, was there room in that place for one more?

"Choutarou... your father... I..."

What made it hurt was the sudden tenderness there. He dared not hope it meant understanding.

But then...

He heard Shishido striding towards him.

He shut his eyes against the comforting warmth of Shishido's arms wrapping around his body.

He had never felt it before, this curious sensation of hate melting away. He reasoned with himself, it was father coming home after a long time away. It was the sound of mother's laughter, heard for the first time in months.

He shut his eyes as tight as he could. The tears flowing out the corners were a sad consequence.

Ohtori spared a moment to wonder how it could have gotten this way. He had been fully prepared to have Shishido walking out the door, and never coming back. It was just lucky that he had seen those papers, he supposed...

Though luck was never such a large part of their lives.



* ...so have never tried calling overseas only to bump into an answering machine. Caillen told me it's still going to be received as long as it's IDD, but more information would be great.

* have only the vaguest idea how to run a large enterprise. or how to play tennis, for that matter. so if there's gross misuse of terminology here, please inform. no hesitation. will do my best to make amends.



The End

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