Disclaimer: Prince of Tennis was created by Konomi Takeshi. No profit is intended to be gained by this story.
AN: Written for the Ponta Pair Works LiveJournal Community Challenge. Dedicated to Beriath. Happy birthday, aibou!
This is a sequel to my previous fic, December 24.
It had all started when Echizen Ryoma came to the realization that playing video games by himself sucked. It wasn't that he needed company. He didn't. But playing against the computer was no longer fulfilling, and this became especially apparent when he received another tennis game for his birthday. He played it when the rainy winter weather forced him indoors. In the absence of playing real tennis, playing the virtual version was the next best thing.
After several hours of this, that was when he realized it. It was more fun playing with Wobbly Hips. And then he realized something else. If he wanted to play with her again, he would have to do something about it. The wheels in his mind turned as he stoked Karupin's ears in thought.
"I want a rematch."
Dainty fingers stopped in their shuffling as their owner paused to look up at her unexpected visitor. Twin pigtails moved in unison as Ryuzaki Sakuno tilted her head in confusion.
"Rematch? Of what?"
The look of utter bafflement on her face would have been annoying had he let it. She obviously did not put much stock into her time with him. On his thirteenth birthday, no less. It would have hurt, but at least he was not losing to an animal this time, Ryoma thought wryly.
Understanding dawned on her features. "Oh! That game?"
He nodded, face solemn and serious as he set his bag onto the library table she was sitting at and pulled a slim container from its zippered depths. The silhouette of a tennis player in mid serve adorned its surface. Reddish brown eyes examined the words on the video game cover in his hands. Could this be the sequel to the game they had played two nights ago? Sakuno looked up for confirmation.
"Rematch. After school, okay?"
"Ano, I need to study for a vocabulary test tomorrow…"
Cat shaped eyes examined the flashcards in her hands. He picked one up, studying the carefully printed words.
"I'll teach you."
"So that you'll be able to play with me." He obviously was not taking his bereavement from tennis very well if he was being this pushy. Ryoma decided that he didn't care. It was just Wobbly Hips. No need to convey a cool image around her. She was not an opponent.
Sakuno blinked. Ryoma-kun was being particularly assertive. It was rather disconcerting. This was a new side to him that she had not realized he possessed. While she admitted that she did not know him that well, he had always struck her as passive off the courts. He didn't seem like the type to force his will on others. Then again, maybe his life was so charmed that he didn't have to. It was rather hard saying no to him, after all.
"Um, okay then," she agreed.
"Appreciate," he said in English, reading the word off her flashcard.
"Hmm," she mused, one finger tapping against her chin as she walked beside him on their way to the Echizen residence. "That means to be grateful for something, ne?"
"Correct. Now spell it."
"Then use it in a proper sentence."
"And give me the conjugated forms for it as well."
"That's too much, Ryoma-kun."
"You mean Echizen-sensei."
Her mouth refused to work as she stood there, speechless. He smirked at her appalled expression before bopping her in the head with the flashcard and walking away.
"Wobbly Hips also needs to learn how to walk faster."
"Mou, Ryoma-kun!" she said, trotting to keep up with him.
They played against each other, but after he eventually beaten her, their game play evolved to them competing against the computer. There were only certain special items he could unlock during doubles mode, so he needed her for that.
After several days of this, it had become a familiar routine. Since they engaged in similar after school activities, their schedules always coincided. When he was ready to go home, she was ready as well. Walking back to his place and falling into their easy cadence felt natural. It was pleasant spending time with her. She was sweet, earnest, sensible, and best of all, incredibly amusing to tease. The fact that Karupin adored her and that she good naturedly put up with the annoyance he called his father also didn't hurt.
On the days that she had stayed late because she had needed extra help on a certain aspect of the English language, Sakuno was invited to dinner. The Echizen family had readily accepted her to their table. She was the granddaughter of an old family friend, after all. No big deal.
With the winter season turning the skies prematurely dark, he'd walk her home. At first it was because he couldn't trust her to find her way back alone, especially at night. Eventually, walking her back became a habit as well.
Then came the day when it all ended.
"I guess you don't need to tutor me anymore," Sakuno said the day they had beaten the game together.
Ryoma looked at her, caught off guard by her statement. It was true. His offer to tutor her would only last as long as she could help him conquer the game. Their deal would end when it was no longer mutually beneficial. Now since he didn't need her anymore, they no longer had to do this.
"I… guess not," he replied.
He was silent as he watched her pack her things. She gave Karupin a tight hug, said goodbye to his family, and made her way to the door. When Ryoma started to put on his shoes, Sakuno raised her hand to ward him off.
"Oh, Ryoma-kun doesn't need to do that. I know my way back now."
He evaluated her with cat shaped eyes, and then shrugged his shoulders. "See you at school then."
"Sure." The cheerful smile she flashed him didn't quite reach her eyes.
With a slightly confused expression, the teenager watched her disappear, wondering why he felt so oddly bereft.
Sakuno's smile wobbled and then completely shattered when she was positive that she was out of Ryoma's field of sight. Her brisk, cheerful pace slowed after she turned the corner. She lost the battle against the sniffles one block later.
They weren't really friends, so why had she hoped that he would still want to spend time with her after they had beaten that stupid game? She had given him the opportunity to continue this camaraderie between them, and he had showed her exactly what he thought of it. He ended it, and it didn't even take him a second to decide.
She knew she was being silly feeling this way. Hadn't they agreed to use each other? It wasn't supposed to be anything more than that. Just because he stopped this… thing they had. This intangible, unnamable thing.
It was a good two weeks together though, right?
Sakuno dashed the errant tears from her eyes, and spent the rest of her walk home composing herself. It wouldn't do for Sumire to notice that her granddaughter was crying.
Life after that day was weird. She had stopped walking home with him, even though they lived in the same direction. Once, when he saw her in the hallway and suggested that she come by again, she declined.
"You can play with Karupin. He misses you." It was the truth. The Himalayan cat was driving Ryoma crazy with its plaintive meowing for her.
The warm smile on her lips died at his words. Ryoma-kun just wanted her around to cheer up Karupin? While she loved his cat, she felt saddened that he didn't invite her over for her own merits. If only he had wanted her over because he wanted to spend time with her.
"I'm sorry, Ryoma-kun, I'm kind of busy," she had said before ducking into her classroom.
He stood there, looking at the door she closed in his face. That… hurt. Since when was she too busy for him? Weren't they friends?
Ryoma was shaking the rain from his umbrella, back home from spending his Sunday at the indoor sports center when his cousin told him the news. Karupin had run away again, right before the turbulent weather hit. No one had noticed the cat was missing until the phone had rung, and an amused Sumire informed them of a furry raccoon that would not leave her granddaughter alone.
"But Ryoma-san needn't worry. Ryuzaki-sensei said that she would drop Karupin off later tonight. She's sort of busy with Sakuno-chan's birthday right now," Nanako said.
The pretty girl placed her hands on her hips before giving an exasperated sigh. She might as well be conversing with a wall with the amount of attention her cousin had given her.
Sakuno lifted the furry creature into a hug and laughed at the tickly sensation of its whiskers against her cheek. "I've missed you too, Karupin. I don't know how you got here, but I'm happy you came."
The feline meowed.
She grabbed his forelimbs, fussing over his paws. "It's raining really hard, ne? I'm glad you came before your feet could get wet. The puddles outside must look like lakes to you."
The pigtailed girl laughed and then confided in a whisper, "When the storm drains get all backed up, they look like lakes to me too."
The cat nuzzled its cheek against hers.
"Are you hungry? Obaa-chan left to pick up dinner. It's my birthday today, did you know that?" She stroked her hand down his back. "If you had come earlier, you would've met Tomo-chan. Too bad she couldn't stay; we're having sushi tonight. I'll share some of my sashimi with you, you'll like it. The fish at Kawamura-senpai's restaurant is very fresh."
Her hand trailed down his tail and stopped as her words ebbed off and died. Who was she fooling, keeping up such lively chatter? Sakuno looked at Karupin with watery eyes before immersing her face into its deep fur.
"I want to see him."
Karupin could only meow at the sadness in her voice.
The chime of the doorbell roused her from her sadness. "Obaa-chan came back so quickly," Sakuno murmured as the cat leaped out of her arms and ran across the room to paw at the door.
"I'm coming," Sakuno said, not dwelling on why Sumire would ring the bell. It wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine her grandmother's arms over laden with food. The Kawamuras did tend to go overboard with the size of their sushi platters. Shooing Karupin away so that he wouldn't get hit, Sakuno swung the door wide open.
"Welcome home, obaa—" the words died on her lips. There, on her porch, stood the last person she'd thought she'd see.
He was dripping wet from head to toe, and his umbrella was broken. The lightweight aluminum frame was no match against the velocity of the wind, a lesson Ryoma learned halfway on the trek to her house. The torrential downpour cast a shifting curtain behind him against the backdrop of the dark night. His hair was slicked down from the weight of the rain and little clouds of vapor formed on his every exhale.
Concern drew her eyebrows together as she beckoned him in from the elements. "Are you okay?"
"Just a bit wet," he said, a wry grin touching his lips. "I came for Karupin."
He kneeled and opened his arms for his cat. The animal meowed in protest, hiding behind Sakuno's legs. Karupin did not want to be held by a drenched Ryoma, and he made that fact understood.
"Ingrate. I stepped in puddles for you."
Sakuno stood there, watching Ryoma reach for his cat only for the animal to dart away. He was creating visible tracks on the wooden floor, wet footprints forming from each of his water-logged socks. There was a stubborn expression on his face, and it all seemed so childish and absurd, Sakuno could no longer withstand it.
Cat and owner looked up when soft, muffled giggles reached their ears. "Ryoma-kun really loves his cat," Sakuno said, hand over her mouth and eyes crinkled up with mirth.
He straightened, a slightly cross expression forming before a grin took over. "I should get out of these wet clothes, shouldn't I?"
She nodded and guided him to the bathroom.
With his clothes running through the washer and all the soggy footprints erased from the floor, Sakuno was in the kitchen, apron on as she stood in front of the stove, heating up some milk. She looked over her shoulder when she heard the sound of his slippers approaching. He stood there, ensconced in the guest yukata Sakuno had put out for him, rubbing a towel through his hair.
"I thought Ryoma-kun would like something hot to drink," she said as she indicated the can of powdered cocoa on the counter beside her.
"I appreciate it," he said.
Sakuno nodded her head in understanding before she froze. Wide, reddish brown eyes looked at him. "Ryoma-kun said that in English."
"You mean Echizen-sensei."
Somehow, hearing him tease her like that again, made Sakuno's heart feel lighter. Sakuno smiled.
It should have been weird, being in her kitchen, wearing a yukata, waiting for his clothes to dry so that he could go back home. But it was actually kind of nice. Relaxing. She was fussing about in her apron making hot chocolate for him and she just looked so cute and domestic and—
Wait. Did he just think of Wobbly Hips as cute? Ryoma frowned, observing her. There wasn't much to see, since her back was facing him. Only the small width of her shoulders, the smaller width of her waist, and then her hips. Nothing particularly cute there, except maybe the slight way the ends of her braids bounced against her butt.
Ryoma closed his eyes. Why was he thinking about her butt? He touched his forehead, feeling the heat emanating from it. He had a fever. That could only explain the idiocy of his musings.
He was Echizen Ryoma, tennis prodigy, and he had no reason thinking about Wobbly Hip's butt. No reason thinking about how attractive it was accentuated by the apron. No reason to think about how aesthetically pleasing each twin, uniform curve was to the eye. No reason whatsoever. Zero. Nada. Zip.
He peered at her beneath his lids. It was a cute butt though.
And then the thought came to him. Were other guys thinking about her butt when they saw those braids bouncing against it? Ryoma frowned. They had better not! She was much too good for the likes of them. He knew first hand, because he had spent two weeks in her company.
He opened his mouth to admonish her about the length of her hair. But then he stopped. She might ask him why she should cut it. How would he reply? That it was too distracting? But what if she realized that it was only distracting to him?
Better not to say anything at all.
The clink of ceramic against wood roused Ryoma from his musings. He observed her setting down a shallow dish of warm milk on the floor for Karupin. The cat meowed in approval before lapping it up. It was all just another bit of evidence of how good she was, to take care of a cat that wasn't even her own.
They were sipping matching mugs of hot chocolate together in the living room, a sleeping Karupin snuggled between their laps, when the front door opened. Sumire had finally returned, balancing a massive takeout platter of assorted sushi in her arms. She took one look of Ryoma, in a yukata of all things, and raised her eyebrows.
"Sure moved fast, didn't you, boy? Taking after Nanjiroh after all, hmm?" Sumire said, a teasing light in her eyes.
Ryoma's lips thinned, her innuendo not lost on him. Sakuno, clueless, got up to relieve Sumire of the platter while she gave her grandmother explanations. After grasping the situation, Sumire invited Ryoma for dinner. His clothing still needed to dry, so he might as well eat with them. Kawamura had outdone himself, and there was plenty of food for three people to feast on. She could drive him and his cat home afterwards.
Ryoma hitched his shoulder in a shrug. Why not?
When dinner was finished, Sumire brought out dessert, a strawberry decorated cake she had baked earlier in the day. The lights were switched off to pronounce the effect of the thirteen candles gracing it.
"Make a wish, Sakuno."
The teenaged girl smiled, eyes gleaming in the candlelight. Her gaze traveled from her grandmother to her unexpected visitors. To one unexpected visitor in particular. And Sakuno knew. She didn't have to make a wish. It had already come true.