Chapter 1: Sakuno's decision
"Sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three..."
The tennis ball hit the wall, rebounded, and met the racket. Sakuno gripped the racket firmly and pok! sent the ball flying back to the wall.
The sun burned hot on her back, making beads of perspiration break out from her forehead. Her arms were getting sore from the numerous swings, and her legs were getting tired from sprinting around. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Sakuno applied all her remaining strength to the final swing, and the ball flew over her head, landing on the soft grass behind. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, Sakuno went to retrieve her ball.
For a moment she looked down on the ball in her hand. Echizen Ryoma's cocky face, which she had carefully drawn, stared back at her.
"Ryoma-kun..." she uttered softly.
It had been three weeks since he left for the U. S. Open. Since his departure, Sakuno felt as though a part of her had gone as well. Often in class, she found herself staring at the empty desk he occupied. The teachers would call her name, and she'd snap out of her reverie and gasp, "H-hai!" while the rest of her classmates burst into laughter.
She no longer haunted the tennis courts. Somehow, without Ryoma there, she felt out of place. Moreover, Momoshiro and Eiji sometimes came and patted her head, telling her not to feel sad and Ryoma will be back soon. Yet sometimes, she was seized with fear that Ryoma would no longer return. He had already defeated Tezuka, arguably the best tennis player in the middle schools. It is natural that he should move on and set his sights beyond Japan.
At first she simply went on with life as usual, putting on a cheerful barricade, pretending nothing happened. She studied until her brain was jammed, she went out with Tomoka when she had time, and once she even baked a scrumptious blueberry cheesecake for her grandmother. Ryusaki Sumire had joked that she might have to return to the hospital for a dentist checkup.
But inside she felt hollow. Empty. Though there was the Nationals to look forward to, Sakuno felt it wasn't enough. What was wrong with her?
Tomoka's exuberant voice greeted her once she opened the door. Sakuno was almost blasted by her friend's loudness.
"I've brought Ryoma-sama's latest video!" Tomoka announced, brandishing the tape. "Once it came out, I made Momo-senpai give me a copy immediately. Come on, let's watch it now!"
Tomoka bounded into the living room. She had been over a dozen times, and knew where the video player was. She popped the video in the playerand pressed the Play button.
"Sakuno, hurry up! It's beginning."
"Okay; I'm coming."
Sakuno came out of the kitchen, bearing a tray of orange juice and cookies. Tomoka was already rooted in front of the TV.
"Ryoma-sama!" she screamed, as soon as Ryoma's face appeared. "Oh, he looks so cool! Don't you think so, Sakuno?"
"To--Tomo-chan, please calm down."
It was funny how Tomoka could get so hyper over a mere video. Sakuno sighed, but couldn't keep her eyes off the screen either. There was Ryoma, delivering powerful serves one after another. His opponent was tough, but eventually, Ryoma won 6-4.
"YAY!" Tomoka punched the air. "I JUST KNEW IT!"
"What's all the noise?"
Ryusaki Sumire had just entered the house, carrying two bulging bags. She glanced at the TV, shook her head, and smiled.
"Well, well, so it's Ryoma's latest match eh? I knew he won, but how was the score?"
"You're back, Obaa-chan!" Sakuno ran to help her grandmother with her groceries.
"Six-four, Ryusaki sensei!" Tomoka gleefully reported. "As expected from Ryoma-sama!"
"Yes, isn't it great?" Sakuno smiled. Ryusaki glanced at her granddaughter briefly. The latter looked away.
Tomoka was jabbering away at Ryoma's awesome prowess on the tennis court. Sakuno listened, smiled, nodded, but somehow she felt unhappy. Was this all she had left? To simply sit here and watch videos of her prince of tennis?
"Sakuno? Sakuno?" Tomoka was waving a hand in front of her. "Snap out of it, Sakuno?"
"Hmm?" Sakuno looked around. "Sorry, I wasn't paying attention..."
"You sure you're all right? Haven't got a fever or something? Oh, and you know, Fuji-senpai and Tezuka buchou have a match tomorrow! Let's go and see it after class!"
When Tomoka left, Sakuno went up to her room. She sank on the bed and put her hand on her forehead. She was tired.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Since there was only her and her grandmother, Sakuno no longer bothered to put up a facade. She just ate the boiled pork and beans steadily and quietly, vaguely wondering how many more days were going to be the same like this.
"Sakuno?" Ryuzaki Sumire prodded her. "You all right, child?"
"Of course!" Sakuno quickly said. "What can be wrong with me?" She smiled, but it did not convince her grandmother.
Ryuzaki privately guessed the reason. But she was not the kind to tease Sakuno about boys (something Momoshiro or Eiji would love to do), and the truth be told, she was rather alarmed at the effect Ryoma held over her precious little granddaughter.
"Before the summer holidays, the girls' tennis club will have a tryout."
"Would you like to give it a try?"
"Try what?" Sakuno's eyes were wide and round.
"Fora spot on the regulars, of course."
The magic word "regular" hit her like a tornado. Sakuno could have toppled over in surprise.
"Regular? Me? I can't! Obaa-chan, how could you suggest such a thing?"
"It's different from the boys, so don't worry." Ryuzaki crossed her arms. "The girls club is just a year old, and they are much less competitive. More of a recreational nature.I'm not saying you will definitely have a place, but if you train hard enough, there is a ten percent chance. Oh my, I'm sounding like Inui now."
Sakuno smiled, but it was impossible. Wasn't Ryoma always telling her her shoulders were too wide, her knees weren't bent enough, and...Sakuno touched her braids self-consciously.
"Just a suggestion." Her grandmother said, rising from the table. She put a hand on Sakuno's shoulder affectionately. "The boys' club is training so hard for Nationals, and Ryoma is doing his best in America. I just thought that you, Sakuno, may also want to work hard. When you have a goal in life, it makes it much more interesting."
That night, when Sakuno was tucked up in bed, her long hair spilling over the pillow, her grandmother's words kept echoing through her mind.
"When you have a goal in life, it makes it much more interesting."
But a regular on the girls' tennis club? Sakuno couldn't picture herself competing. Always, she was outside of the court. And perhaps, also outside of Ryoma's world. What had she done? All she could do was be a pathetic cheerleader. Sure, she played tennis now and then, but she never worked monstrously hard as the Seigaku boys club. She just did it because tennis was Ryoma's No. 1.
"If you train hard enough, there is a ten percent chance."
She didn't want to be just an spectator anymore. She wanted to be strong, to be athletic, and tomake her grandmother proud. She wanted to be in Ryoma's world.
The next day, Sakuno packed her tennis clothes and racket neatly into a bag, and slung it over her shoulder, along with her school bag. When Ryuzaki dropped her off at the school gates, she smiled and waved.
"I'm going to work hard, Obaa-chan! See you later!"
Ryuzaki Sumire nodded. That's the spirit, she thought.
However, things tend to be easier said than done. Sakuno had been practicing by the wall. She could hit the ball for several swings, but only when she applied her strength moderately. If she hit too hard, or hit a spot at the corner, the ball wouldbounce in an angle hard for her to reach.
Why couldn't she keep hitting the ball smoothly? Sakuno bent her knees and wiped her forehead, panting. No matter how hard I try, she thought sadly, I can never be half as good as Ryoma-kun. No, not even one-tenth.
"Ryuzaki?" a voice spoke behind her.
Sakuno whirled round, so sudden that the end of her braids were caught in her racket. Still, she caught a glimpse of a figure wearing a Seigaku regular's uniform. She had seen him many times and recognized him immediately.
"Fu--Fuji senpai! A--ano--"
"Here, let me help you."
Gently, but firmly, Fuji removed the racket from her hair. One of her hair bands, which was a string with artificial flowers, was caught between the net.
"Th--thank you so much, Fuji-senpai." Sakuno blushed and bowed her head. Inside, she berated herself for being such a klutz.
"No problem," he said, smiling. He went to the taps and dunked his head under the running water.
"Ah, much better. Tezuka was a excellent opponent. I haven't sweated so much before."
"How...how was your match with Tezuka-buchou?" Sakuno asked timidly.
"I lost again. But it was a good game." His smile was genuine. "So you're self-training here?"
"Un." Sakuno nodded. "But...but I'm really bad." She sighed, rubbing her forehead, where she had once managed to hit herself with her own tennis ball.
"Well, the point is to have fun. Do you have fun, Ryuzaki?"
"Yes, but Obaa-chan told me to tryout for the girls' tennis club regular. I've only been playing for a few months, and I don't think I can make it."
"The girls' club?" Fuji opened his eyes.
"Yes." Sakuno bowed her head. "Re--recently I feel so pathetic, I can only be the cheerleader. But--but I want to be good too. I want to be serious about tennis, not, not just because..." She blushed furiously, making her small face look like a big pink rose.
"Because of Echizen?" Fuji said, smiling.
Sakuno couldn't utter a word. He had hit upon the truth, and somehow, she couldn't lie before this tall, friendly-looking senpai.
If it were his team-mates or his brother, Fuji would have asked more about Ryoma and see Sakuno squirm with uneasiness, since Fuji loves to see people suffer. But this was Ryuzaki Sakuno, grand-daughter of their coach, and a dear, sweet little girl that even he did not have the heart to torture.
So he just said, "Well, I'd better be going back to practice. But if you don't mind, maybe I can coach you some time, and hopefully you'll be selected for the girl's club regular. Would you like that, Ryuzaki?"
"Oh!" Seigaku's tennis prodigy volunteered to coach her? "I--of course I don't mind--but Fuji-senpai, I feel bad about taking up your time--you have to train yourself already..."
"Now, don't worry about it." Fuji said soothingly. "I have more time since Yuuta went to St. Rudolph." A sad look passed over his face, but very briefly. "It would be a pleasure to coach you, and isn't it a senpai's duty to look after his kouhais?"
"Then, then if you're sure it isn't any trouble..." Sakuno faltered.
"Not at all."
"Doumo-arigato, Fuji-senpai!" Sakuno made a low bow.
Fuji smiled, arranged a time and place for them to meet, and walked off.
Sakuno clasped her hands, her eyes shining. Of course, she would have preferred her Obaa-chan or Ryoma, but realistically speaking, this may be the best choice. Ryuzaki Sumire was a very busy woman, and Sakuno didn't want to burden her grandma further by extra coaching. She still remembered the day when Ryuzaki Sumire fainted and had to be sent to the hospital. And Ryoma--well, even though she had a huge crush on him, he made her nervous, and she was likely to blush and stutter and make a fool of herself. Plus, he wasn't the most sympathetic person around. Fuji was always nice and friendly, so she wouldn't feel much pressurized around him. In fact, among the Seigaku regulars, he was the least intimidating person to her--except for Oishi, perhaps.
"I will make the girls' team," she vowed, holding her racket tightly.
A/N: I'm not a huge Sakuno fan even though this fic is Sakuno-centric. I think it's the indignant feministic streak in me that longs for Sakuno to develop a backbone and stop being a pathetic echo, but on the other hand I don't want her to suddenly grow into a Mary-Sue. So I'm trying to make the characters as canon-ny as possible, but excuse me if there's any unrealistic element to suit my (pitiful) attempts at humour.