Ryo sat on a bench near Hiroki's field. When was he going to finish? She leapt up when she saw him, face glowing.
"Hiroki!" she called.
"Tofu!" Hiroki grinned.
"I thought I told you not to call me that."
"All right, Miss Fish Cakes," Hiroki said with a chuckle.
"Get back here, Takasugi!" Ryo yelled as she ran after a fleeing Hiroki. She embraced him from behind, giggling.
"I love you, Hiroki," she whispered.
Hiroki turned around to look at Ryo. He ruffled her brown pixie cut. "Last one to the park is a rotten egg!" he declared as he took off.
"Hey! Get back here, Takasugi!" Ryo cried as she raced after him. "You still haven't given me my birthday present!" She slowed at a crossroads, searching for him. "Man. Lost him. He is such a tease."
Takasugi pulled her behind a nearby tree suddenly. "Good grief--" He spontaneously kissed her. It was a nice kiss, soft, tender, and long.
"Happy birthday, Miss Tofu," Takasugi breathed when they parted.
"It's Ryo's birthday today, Seishiro," Hikaru said as she modeled for her boyfriend. "We should go wish her happy birthday."
"Why don't we wait till tonight at the surprise party at Himuros'?" Seishiro suggested.
"You're right, I suppose," Hikaru admitted. "I wonder where everyone else is."
"Probable getting ready," he said, giving her a peck on the cheek as he showed her the sketch.
Seira wandered through the slums in a bored state of mind. It was only noon and she had seven more hours to waste before Ryo's party. Her blue eyes spotted her baseball coach.
"Hey, Coach!" she ran to talk to him. "Are you coming to Ryo's party?"
"Will there be beer and pretty girls?" he asked, slurring slightly.
"You sleaze ball!" Seira exploded. "It's a surprise party for a sixteen-year-old! Of course there won't be any beer!"
"Will there be pretty girls?"
"Man, you are such a perv," Seira said with a toss of her red hair. "No, it'll just be Hiroki, Seishiro, and the girls' baseball team."
"Too young," he paused in thought. "Will Ryo's mom be there?"
"Uuugh!" Seira stormed off.
Yoko glanced at the clock. Two hours until she left to help prepare Ryo's party.
"Hey, Yoko baby, ten till you're shot," her agent said.
"Okay," the blonde said cheerfully and glanced at the clock again. She couldn't wait to see everyone again. A smile turned up her lips. Yes, even seeing Seira was pleasantly thought of. Two hours…
Yuki gathered the streamers and confetti. This was her contribution to Ryo's surprise party.
"Fifi, I hope you can see how happy I am," she whispered. "Watch over us from Yukara."
Mao did a sit-up and whispered, "One hundred." She looked at the dress she had chosen for Ryo's party. She fit in it fine but she still wished she were smaller. She stood and began to gather Ryo's unwrapped present, scissors, tape, wrapping paper, and ribbon. She began to measure and cut.
Koharu nodded off on her bed. She had just been practicing her swing. She wondered where everyone on the team was and what she was doing. She was providing the picture frame. Their collective gift to Ryo. Without her, they never would have gotten to the semi-finals. Their captain. She smiled and rolled over.
Kanako carefully filled in the y in happy. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a smear of red paint. She stuck out her tongue and began to outline the b on the banner. She couldn't wait to see Ryo's face at the party.
Nene read the cookbook.
"Two eggs," she mulled as she crossed the room. "This is going to be the best birthday cake ever!"
She tripped with the dozen eggs. "Aaaaah!"
A sickening crunch heralded the landing of the eggs.
"Nooooo," Nene moaned. "Now I have to go buy more."
She picked up the slimy carton and threw it out. After tidying up the kitchen, she threw on her coat and skipped off to the store. Only two more hours till she went to Izumi's.
Izumi directed the servants with the furniture.
"Move the coach to the wall. Leave the stereo." She moved to the next room where the food would be. All was ready. All she had to do was choose the music for the night. She climbed the stairs to her room. She began to look through her CD collection.
At two o'clock, Yoko dashed out of the agency's office and headed to Izumi's. It was time to begin decorating.
Meanwhile, Nene had just arrived at Izumi's with the cake.
"All ready, just like I promised," she grinned.
"It looks delicious! You sure have improved, Nene," Izumi complimented her.
"Where're Kanako and Yoko?" Nene asked as she removed her shoes.
"They haven't gotten here yet," Izumi led Nene to the kitchen. "Kanako called earlier saying she might be late because the paint's not dry."
"Yoko's modeling is doing well," Nene said.
"Yeah. Who thought she could do it?" Izumi smiled.
"Did you see her latest commercial?"
"You mean the one with the baseball footage?"
"She's been practicing."
"And she's improving."
"I'll get it," Izumi left the kitchen. She opened the door and Yoko and Yuki entered.
"Hey, Yoko, Yuki. It's nice to see you."
"Sorry I'm late," Yoko said. "The agency didn't want me to leave."
"I'm not surprised," Izumi replied. "I've seen your commercials. You're doing wonderfully."
"Why, thank you. I always knew I was star material. It's about time you all acknowledged it," Yoko said proudly.
"I'm surprised you even knew the word acknowledge," Seira grinned from behind Yuki. "Moron."
"I do too know big words," Yoko protested. "And you're the moron, Morimura."
"Aaaah! You're gonna pay for that, dingbat!" Seira head locked a screaming Yoko.
"They haven't changed a bit," Yuki said as she entered the house.
"Nope. I guess that's just their way," Izumi agreed.
"Sorry I'm late," Kanako said as she rushed in with the banner.
"You're just in time," Nene grinned as she tried to pry apart Seira and Yoko.
"Why are you here, Morimura?" Izumi asked.
"I was bored and figured you might need some help setting up," Seira said with a yawn.
"Well, let's get started!" Yoko shouted. "We've got five hours till Ryo arrives!"
"Right!" Nene cheered.
The others nodded.
The karaoke machine was set up and the girls were playing with it.
Yoko sang and Seira guffawed when it gave her a twenty.
"The baseball player can't sing, that's for sure," Seira laughed.
"Hey, I'm sure the machine's just broken to have not noticed my stellar skills," Yoko protested.
"All right, girls. Time to clean up," Izumi said. "Ryo will be here in fifteen minutes."
Eight girls reluctantly abandoned the karaoke machine.
"Hikaru, why didn't you go up?" Seishiro asked.
"I just didn't feel like it," Hikaru said. She had wanted to. She loved karaoke. She just didn't want to get laughed at by the team. "I'll do it later tonight," she told her boyfriend.
"Shh!" Kanako remonstrated Nene.
"Shush!" Hikaru told Seishiro.
"Shut up, moron!" Yoko hissed at Seira.
"Shut up yourself, dye-job!" Seira replied heatedly.
"She's coming!" Yuki whispered.
"Shut your mouths!" Izumi growled.
A hush came over the girls as Ryo entered the room.
"Surprise!" nine girls jumped up grinning. "Happy birthday, Ryo!"
"Aww, guys, you shouldn't have," Ryo said, tearing up.
"Happy birthday," Hiroki whispered, kissing her ear. "Princess Ryo."
"Well, Ryo, how does it feel to be a year older?" her coach asked.
"Coach! You gave up a night at the bar for me?" Ryo asked. "I'm touched."
"Well, actually, I had to drag the loser out here," Seira grinned.
"Happy birthday, dear," Ryo's mother gave her daughter a peck on the cheek.
"Congratulations," Mrs. Himuro hugged Ryo.
"I'm sure your father would have been proud," Coach said gruffly.
"Now, let's get this party started, girls!" Hikaru grinned.
Izumi hit a button on her remote and the music began to play. The group moved to the presents and Mao handed Ryo the first package. Ryo eagerly ripped off the wrapping paper.
"I love it!" Ryo fingered the baseball tenderly.
"It's authentic," Mao put in. "That's really your dad's signature."
Ryo wiped at her eyes. "Next," she chirped. Hikaru had given Ryo a locket.
"Now you and Hiroki can put your pictures in there. Or whatever," Hikaru rushed on.
Izumi gave Ryo a medal for being the best rival. Seira gave Ryo a pool ball in memory of the way they met. Yuki had made a doll like Fifi for Ryo. Nene gave her a handmade handkerchief. Kanako gave Ryo a hairpin with exquisite flowers on it. Yoko gave a hair volumizer. Koharu gave her a fishing pole.
Koharu stood and grabbed a package from the table. "This is from us as a team." When Ryo unwrapped it, she gasped. There was the team in all its splendor in a beautiful wooden frame. She smiled tearfully. "Thanks."
"Now it's our turn," Coach said. He presented Ryo vegetable seeds. "To keep up that 'Lightning Ball.'"
Ryo shook her head in disgust and accepted Mrs. Himuro's gift of Ryo's dad's photograph, locket-sized. "So you can have him with you all the time," she said.
Her mom presented Ryo with an amulet containing a blessed grain of rice. "For good luck on your games." Seishiro slipped in and gave Ryo a painting.
Hiroki stood and walked to Ryo. Her heart began to pound. Is he going to kiss me? She wondered.
"Ryo…here." He gave her a broken bat. She smiled. His bat. Her pitch. How they had first met. When he first called her his girlfriend. And she had asked if he had rocks for brains. That stupid smudge of dirt.
"Well, now the cake," Izumi announced, standing. She brought it out a minute later glowing with sixteen candles.
The group sang to her.
I'm so lucky to have such great friends, Ryo thought. I wish that we would always remain together. She blew out the candles.
Hikaru got up later that night and sang on the karaoke machine. She was a hit, scoring high and giving an encore. Seishiro cheered the loudest, of course.
"It's a beautiful night," Ryo sighed as she and Hiroki walked home together.
"Not as pretty as the girl next to me," he said, taking her hand.
I'm so nervous, Ryo thought. My heart feels like it's about to burst out of my chest. Can he hear it? I'm so hot. Am I sweating? Do I smell? Does he know it!
Takasugi leaned towards Ryo.
Is he—going to k-k-kiss me? Again? Ryo squeezed her eyes shut.
"Well, I'm not very good at this kind of stuff, Ryo," Hiroki paused here as he fished through a pocket. "So, umm, will…will you be my girlfriend, Ryo?" He held out a simple gold band to her.
"Of course!" Ryo threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the lips.
The stars twinkled in the ebony sky.
Ryo slipped into her pajama top. She padded across the room in her bare feet. She knelt before her father's picture.
"Well, Dad, I'm sixteen. My team and friends threw a surprise party for me. Hiroki Takasugi asked me to be his girlfriend tonight and he gave me a ring. I can't believe it's official after all these months. Dad, I wish you could've been here today. Don't worry. We may not have own this year. But we will get to Koshien next year. And we'll win by the year after that!"
Ryo padded to her bed and climbed in. "Goodnight, Dad."
It almost seemed like her dad nodded and smiled even wider at his sleeping daughter.