Achtung! I'm only gonna say this once, so you peeps listen UP!: Prince of Tennis is property of Takeshi Konomi, not mine . This is just for fun and I make no money off this.

With the exceptions of normal titles (san, sama, buchou) and some terms, this story won't employ much Japanese. But if you like you can supply Sakuno's 'eto', 'mou's and 'ano's in your head. Use your imagination, Jimmy-Jimmy! It's fun! Also, this Sakuno (15 years old now and just having finished middle school) will be a mixture of her anime and manga appearances—the events that happen in the anime will have occurred to her but she will also act more like her manga personality, which is essentially the same but more thoughtful and mature than her anime portrayal. Manga Sakuno is pretty spiffy! I'm more familiar with the manga anyway, so I'll take my cues from it when possible.

This story takes place in the future, so characters will occasionally act in a more mature fashion and there may be very slight changes in personality here and there. They're not OOC, they're OLDER! (this is the future-story author's Nuremberg Defense). Hopefully, however, they'll retain their basic personalities and won't be too off the mark. This is a Sakuno-centric story, yes, (she's a doll, come on!) and although she's older and bit stronger with age she's still Sakuno. I wrote this because I wanted to see what it would be like for an older Sakuno to interact with other people as well as Seigaku. Although it starts with Hyotei, Seigaku will make an appearance soon and so will Ryoma. But that is for another day! Enough talk, have at you! For now, please enjoy the start of this 10- part story of a very special summer of friendship and wackiness (oh, how wacky it will be!) as Sakuno begins to come of age :

The Onigiri Tastes Best Under the Summer Sun

Sakuno Adventure #1: Sakuno Vs. Atobe the Bento Thief

In the city of Tokyo, during the month of August when the schools had closed down for the summer break, there was a small food vendor's booth that used to be open only on weekends but now did business every day of the week except Sunday. Normally it was operated by a restaurant proprietor's family; but this particular summer a new face appeared to help sell the foodstuffs, a fifteen year old girl who had finished her last year of junior high.

This was the sweet and fresh-faced Ryuuzaki Sakuno who, if one hadn't seen her in action outside of her workstation, was most famously known for being of the clumsiest things alive on God's green earth. Yet, young as she was, she was good at her job and thrilled to have summer work doing what she liked best. It would both hone her skills as a cook—her greatest dream now was to be a professional chef and maybe even own a restaurant of her own one distant day—and it gave her pocket money to spend on her other hobbies, such as collecting fine clips and pins for her hair or saving up for that special all-in-one flash-fryer/double-boiler/atomic clock/julienne fry maker that had been made in the labs of the United States Army (outlawed in five prefectures; think of what she could do with one of those babies!). Quite an advantageous set-up for her.

And how did she get this job?

Most people who knew her from childhood agreed that she had had culinary skills from the time she was nine or so. She had earned practice by cooking meals for a small household which mainly consisted of her and her grandmother, though other relatives dropped in from time to time. She always seemed to cut herself when using real knives at first but it was clear the talent was there. By the time she was eleven she pretty much was cooking for the both of them, save for the times when she needed her grandmother's assistance doing something really complicated, since Coach Ryuuzaki was a busy lady and had very little time to focus on good cooking.

But in the first year of junior high Sakuno's confidence and ego had suffered a few setbacks all thanks to the careless offhand remarks of a cocky twelve year old boy on whom she had a major, earth-splitting crush; despite the fact he hardly ever had a kind word to say to her. To his credit, it wasn't as if he really meant to be unkind—he just had no clue at all about how to deal with non-tennis-related social interactions involving very, very shy girls who had easily bruised feelings. Still, even though the mix-up was later explained to her and that his scorn had been reserved for the match he'd been watching, not her bento, it still had rattled Sakuno's faith in herself. She had poured a lot of hard work into that bento, had wanted it to be so special that even Ryoma would be wrenched out of his tennis-obsessed mindset for just a few seconds and say, "Hey, this is pretty good, Ryuuzaki. Thank you for your concern and affection. I love you! Let's get married!"

Well, even if the last part was completely impossible (but a twelve-year-old with a whimsical imagination could dream just once or twice, couldn't she?), it would have been nice for him to given her the slightest acknowledgment. But after Ryoma had left once again a year ago to play in the States for heaven knew how long Sakuno, a bit lonely for him and downcast, had resumed her cooking studies. She really had never abandoned them since she continued to cook for her grandmother quite a lot, and in earnest. She took home-ec classes in school and proved very good at it—the top chef in her class, in fact. Her teachers had been quite impressed, suggesting that she apprentice herself part-time to a professional and start learning the tricks of the trade before moving on to culinary school or getting a food sciences degree in college later on. She had talked it over with her grandmother, who thought it was a good idea.

Thus Coach Ryuuzaki, pulling her weight, had asked the Kawamuras (owners of one of their favorite places to eat) if they wouldn't mind taking on another apprentice in addition to their son Takashi, who had by then retired from full time tennis to follow in his father's footsteps. The Kawamuras obliged and three times a week plus weekends for half a year now Sakuno reported to their kitchen, working as their sous-chef. As talented as she was it was quite the challenge to work with real professionals, even if her jobs mainly consisted of chopping up vegetables, mixing garnishes and watching over the soups. Sakuno didn't think that she could make sushi like Mr. Kawamura could in a million years; truly good sushi was really an art form which she had yet to master. But the experience was invaluable, the Kawamuras very kind, and they loved her baking. In fact, they began to feature her desserts in their menu, which were proving popular. The Kawamura restaurant really didn't specialize in baking so her concoctions were a pleasant surprise for its customers.

Sakuno also greatly enjoyed working with her Taka-senpai, whom she found really sweet and gentle when he didn't have a racquet in hand. They were both quiet and a bit shy but they had fun talking over their cutting boards, dancing along next to each other to the beat from the radio they liked to have playing while they worked, and exchanging talk about tennis, customers, schoolmates, what she could expect when she moved on to high school after the summer's end. Almost every week at least one of the old Seigaku Regulars stopped by the sushi shop when she working but Sakuno was too shy to even come out to the front. It wasn't as if she didn't adore her old seniors or wished to avoid them; she was just terribly afraid that they would eat something of hers in front of her and spit it out because it was so horrible. Taka always assured her that they liked her cooking just fine but it was a constant source of anxiety for her. Yet her recalcitrance didn't stop some of them from asking to come back into the kitchen to say hello.

Fuji-senpai and Eiji-senpai in particular liked to pop in whenever she happened to be on shift to compliment her food and chew the fat a little. It'd been a while since she last saw them and they didn't appear to have changed much. Fuji-senpai always smiled at her and kept on asking her to triple the amount of spices in his food (even when she'd already spiced it up as high as she dared); Eiji-senpai, his language deteriorating even more deeply into his gibberish-laced 'hoi hoi' and 'nyah' speech every time she saw him, kept trying to glomp her. It was nice to know some things were constant in this universe.

Now that Taka could stay longer at the home business, the restaurant did its traditional thing and opened up a small outlying street booth. It was located in a nice plaza within a good but not terribly upscale district along with other licensed street vendors. Some of them sold food but others dealt in trinkets, jewelry, and such like things. What she used to do only on every other weekend now for the whole working week through August, from ten to two thirty; Sakuno would take bento boxes pre-made and some desserts along with a small portable grill, food supplies, and a store of kitchen utensils so that she could cook on the spot when things were about to run out or if she wanted to supplement the wares in any way and report to work.

On this fine morning of the first Monday of August, Sakuno had arrived at the booth after being taken there by Mr. Kawamura. Normally her grandmother helped her but last night Grandma had gotten a rather nasty cough and fever and didn't feel well enough to drive, doped up with syrup as she was. It was nothing really serious but Sakuno couldn't help but worry. Secretly, ever since she was twelve and her grandmother had a stroke, she dreaded that someday a worse attack might come and she would be left all alone. Part of her hadn't wanted to come today, but her Grandma insisted. Sakuno agreed but decided that while she helped prepare the bentos in the Kawamura kitchen she would make her grandmother a very special bento, made with all her skill she could muster and filled with the elderly woman's favorites. She had then put the food lovingly into a shiny black lacquer bento box with swirling lilac flowers painted on its lid and drooping down onto the edges, its beauty useful as a reminder that this was a special treat. Sakuno was happy with herself. How happy her grandmother would be when she got this for a late lunch later in the afternoon!

Arriving inside the booth and putting everything in place, Sakuno beamed around her. She always liked working in this cozy place—she really just liked cooking in general. She had no real delusions that she'd be great in any other field, especially not in sports, but she was in her element now. She also liked the sense of order and control it afforded her; she was like a queen among the throngs of her courtiers and subjects, ruling them with a munificent yet powerful hand, commanding them to create works that brought life-sustaining nourishment to others. As she looked around, Sakuno passed her hand over a few objects as she addressed them regally, caught up in her flight of fancy.

"Good morning, Mr. Wok. Greetings, knife family! How do you do, rice steamer-kun? Is all well in the kingdom today? Will we make tasty treats for the peoples? Good! You make your queen so happy with your enthusiasm!"

Cheered up by her whimsy, Sakuno opened up the booth for business. The days tended to start out fairly slowly and pick up towards noon, so she entertained herself for a half hour by arranging everything according to her sense of perfection. The sushi rolls, the boxes, and the desserts must all be arranged like so…and she also liked to place flowers and scattered petals on the counter at intervals, not too much at once but just enough to add color and freshness. Sometimes she could be scatterbrained but she was very conscientious when it came to her work. That's why the Kawamuras had taken to her, Sakuno thought, and it would be a shame to let them down, ever.

Happily she bent over the displays of bento boxes, the light pastries with delicate embroideries of chocolate stringing and frosting applied on top, and the sushi pieces she had worked so hard to help make as symmetrical as possible and fresh, arranging them to look their very best and most delectable. She also moved the small flower buds and petals to accentuate the coloring of the food. If nothing else, Sakuno thought, she at least had a good eye for arrangement. She had moved her grandmother's bento off to the side, away from the others. It was the plan to set it down under the table next to her feet when she was finished making sure things were absolutely right on top.

A shadow suddenly blotted the gay colors. Without giving her time to look up to greet whoever was standing in front of her a voice launched into a mighty monologue.

"Ah! How charming this quaint little booth is. The flowers are an artful contrast. One rarely sees such work put into plebian establishments such as this. Ah, Kabaji?"

"Ossu."

Sakuno's eyes widened among the first crashing waves of utter stupefaction rolling over her. It had been one and a half years or so since her eyes laid on him last, ever since the third years had moved on to high school tennis matches, but her short exposure to him and his eccentrics had made him very memorable indeed. She felt her gut clench with extreme nervousness and shyness. He had always been rather pushy and pompous, much too full of his own greatness. Sakuno didn't know how to handle such flamboyancy. But since it would be rude not to answer him and just keep her head down, so she slowly lifted it back up with a wobbling smile.

"G-Good day, Atobe-san. I hope you are d-doing well."

Flicking his hair (which had grown out again after he cut it a few years back), Atobe smirked as only he could smirk. "It always goes well for Ore-sama. Ore-sama thanks you for your consideration of his health." His sharp eyes peered down at her and he pointed at her long braids. "You seem quite familiar to Ore-sama. Very much so. In fact--aha! Ore-sama knew his stupendous brain could not forget!" He turned his face slightly to address the large young man shadowing him, whose height had also contributed in the blocking out of Sakuno's light.

"Ne, Kabaji, is this girl not Coach Ryuuzaki's granddaughter? And did she not serve as a helper in the Invitational Camp two years, six months, and five days ago?

"Ossu."

Flushing with embarrassment, Sakuno bowed. She didn't know why he was addressing Kabaji instead of her directly but if it kept him from badgering her with questions Sakuno was all right with that. "It's good t-to see you again, Atobe-san."

The full force of his gaze was directed back onto her, smirk at full blast. He did seem pleasantly surprised, though for the life of her she didn't know why. It was a miracle, Sakuno thought, that he even remembered her. People tended to overlook her. She just wasn't memorable. "Likewise, you must be sure, Ryuuzaki-chan." He eyed her wares and didn't notice her odd look at his automatically familiar tone. "As Ore-sama said, this is quite a charming set up you have here. Your eye for decoration and delicate nuances of contrast is second only to Ore-sama's, yes, yes. The food looks almost as good as what Ore-sama eats at home. And Ore-sama employs only the finest chefs."

Deciding to take a compliment where she could, Sakuno smiled again at him, this time with more courage behind it and said, "Atobe-san is too kind."

"Ore-sama's beneficence knows no bounds. Ah, Kabaji?"

"Ossu."

Sakuno suddenly began to remember why Tezuka-buchou had sometimes flinched when he even heard the sound of Atobe's name. He wasn't really a mean-spirited young man but his attitude was almost suffocating; his use of the third person was also starting to give her a headache. She had always been a bit intimidated by him too, even when she just watched him play against her schoolmates in matches. Atobe was like some kind of alien being from Planet Honkinbighead and she wondered why he had even bothered to stop by. But if her treats had indeed enticed him--

"Would you like to buy some food, Atobe-san? A bento, maybe just a treat or two? I make them and taste-test them myself. I can guarantee they're made from only the very freshest ingredients."

"Hmm," he sniffed, eyeing the food once more, "this looks fine enough for most people, but Ore-sama is not sure if he's in the mood, especially since he has already had a fine brunch made by his servants. However," he continued as Sakuno lowered her head a little, giving this up for a lost cause, "perhaps in his bounty Ore-sama shall buy some plebian treats for his teammates."

Although she had never had such a mighty need to roll her eyes in exasperation in her life, Sakuno just smiled at him and asked what he would like to get for the Hyotei team. Atobe selected seven of her pastries, four cake slices and three small fruit tart confections. As she wrapped them up for him Atobe suddenly pointed to the lacquer box off to the side.

"What's in there?"

Gazing at where he pointed, Sakuno recalled her original plan and moved to grasp it. "Oh, this! This is a very special bento I made, Atobe-san. I worked really hard on it. It has jasmine rice made with a special curry and some homemade soba noodles and gyoza dumplings and tonkatsu and some yakitori made with a special recipe. It's for—"
But before she could finish Atobe's mighty finger had leveled itself at the beautiful box imperiously. "Ore-sama supposes he could deign to purchase that for a late lunch. How much does it cost?"

Gaping, Sakuno moved to place a hand on the lid, which hopefully would make him get the hint. "I'm sorry, Atobe-san, it's not for sale. I didn't mean to put it up here with the others. If you will please excuse me…Perhaps you would like something else?"

"Ore-sama does not accept the premise that something can't be for sale," came the reply as his own hand set down across from hers on the lid. "But it obviously means much to you and you do not wish to part with it for any common price."

Finally a small frown of consternation creased the skin between her eyebrows. He really was insistent. Her heart began to beat faster as her fight-or-flight (usually flight) tendencies began acting up. Sakuno did her best to swallow down her distaste for confrontation and managed to stand her ground. "I really am very sorry, but I cannot sell you this, Atobe-san. But look. This is a very nice bento right here--"

The launch into her spiel was suddenly interrupted by a wince-inducing clattering from a nearby booth. Looking over Sakuno saw that two places over an old lady who sold fruit had gotten her supply cart jostled by a clumsy pedestrian, boxes spilling out over the ground. The woman had gray hair with a wrinkled face and limping walk so Sakuno figured it would be difficult for the poor lady to bend over. Since Atobe hadn't seemed very interested in looking at the other bentos she considered him a botched sale. Excusing herself politely with a bow, Sakuno heedlessly left her station momentarily. It was very heedless indeed because Sakuno did not remember that Atobe was not easily swayed when he had his mind set on something. Proving no good deed goes unpunished, he waited stealthily for her to leave before springing.

When she returned to her booth it did not take long for Sakuno to realize that something was amiss. When she saw the empty spot on the table, the bills left in its place didn't immediately register; she got on her knees and hands and looked under her table, on top of her cooler and then inside it, almost practically everywhere in her small workspace before she picked up the bills, staring at them dumbly. There was 25,000 yen here. Judging from the sheer amount of it all and the fact he had been the last customer she had seen, everything clicked into place like a perfect machine.

Sakuno's face paled. She just wanted to get down and cry her eyes out. Her bento for her grandmother was gone. It didn't matter that the amount left would more than cover what she had spent for ingredients and would let her make the same meal several times over. She had poured her soul into making that meal for Grandma—now it was stolen. It was an outrageous violation.

Had it been her own personal bento Sakuno would have just grinned and borne it after a crying spell; but this was a whole different bag of fish. Her initial instinct to bawl was crumbling away into a stronger emotion of outraged indignity as she crumpled the yen in her fist, eyes watering now out of a sense of frustration and offense as she had never felt before. She had spent almost three hours working on that bento meal—not to mention that her poor Grandma was at home sick! It was almost monstrous to her. In Sakuno's mind she began to take to the idea that this Atobe Keigo fellow held nothing sacred, especially the love of a grandchild for the grandmother who had so lovingly raised her. Who had raised Atobe?, she thought indignantly. Probably the household servants! What did he know of family? He probably liked shoving his grandmothers, if he had them, down the stairs. He was obviously anti-grandmother stance. The beastly peacock!

Realizing that her thoughts were going uncharacteristically wild, Sakuno forced herself to breathe through her nose. She must be calm. She had to think rationally. She looked at the bills in her hand. He probably thought this would make it all right. In any other case she would just have let this go. But no, Sakuno thought, a determined look forming on her face, now was not the time to be her normal quiet, meek self. Atobe Keigo needed to know that just because he was as wealthy as he was beautiful that it didn't give him the right to do just whatever he pleased to whomever he pleased. Come hell or high water she would demand her bento back and give him back his money. Yes. Some things were worth fighting for.

With that in mind Sakuno put up a 'Be Back in 30 Minutes' sign on her booth and rushed out, braids flying with a will.

PoT PoT PoT

A few minutes later, Sakuno had to admit one thing: She really hadn't planned this out very well.

The girl leaned against the brick column of a colonnaded area that went through some nearby tennis parks to catch her hitching breath. Her braids had gotten messy, she'd nearly tripped three times over her own agitated feet, and now she had an awful stitch in her side that stung with every slicing breath. Randomly running off in the approximate direction she had thought Atobe would have taken proved to be less than a stellar strategy. And now she'd gotten herself lost, out of breath, and near tears again. She'd never find him at this rate. He had probably eaten the whole bento by now, knowing her luck.

She rested her forehead against the cool brick as she tried to collect her thoughts. If she continued she'd probably only get more lost than she was now. There was no sign of her quarry anywhere. It seemed so futile. But—she couldn't give up. This was a matter of principle; she had to do this for her Grandma. How disappointed she would be when her granddaughter came home with no promised meal to help clear that cough away. She could just imagine Grandma's fallen face…

Once Sakuno caught her breath she decided to make one last determined sally. She wheeled about to start running down the porticos, whereupon she almost immediately slammed into someone, a very tall someone.

"Oh, I'm so sorry! Please forgive me, but I'm in a huge hurry," Sakuno stuttered out, mortified. A lanky boy with light hair was helping steady her with one hand and he looked equally embarrassed. Flustered as she was, Sakuno thought him only slightly familiar at first.

"It's all right," the boy said. "I should have done a better job of getting out of the way. But still, you might hurt yourself if you don't be careful."

His advice totally ignored, Sakuno's eyes riveted on the cream puff pastry he held in his other hand, knowing it immediately as her own handiwork. Doe eyes growing huge with realization, the vague familiarity of the boy bloomed into recognition. Although her directional senses were still pretty bad, Sakuno had a much better memory of people she had met in the past, even if it had been some time since she last saw a match involving Hyotei. And she remembered Choutarou Ohtori being the gentlest of the team.

"Oh! Ohtori-san!"

His brow wrinkled a little. "You know my name? Do you go to Hyotei?"

Shaking her head quickly, Sakuno managed to explain, ending on a note: "No, Ohtori-san, I remember you from tennis. My grandmother—she was, still is, the Seishun Gakuen coach—and your captain Atobe-san stole her bento from me!"

It was a bit much to process, she had to admit; still, she wished the dawning look on his face appeared sooner. "Wait—I remember now. I shouldn't have ever forgotten, not when Coach Ryuuzaki is your grandmother and when you have hair that long. I knew it looked familiar!" The expression shifted into confusion once more. "But what's this about Atobe-buchou?

After she explained quickly once more, he shook his head in disbelief. "I don't know, Ryuuzaki-san. Buchou can be pretty thoughtless sometimes but he'd never stoop to taking things from you. But then again…he does have a habit of not listening very closely…and he does think that money can solve pretty much everything…"

"Well, that's a wrong attitude to take!" Sakuno cried, her shyness overridden by the resurgence of indignance she felt just thinking about what had happened. "Please, Ohtori-san, do you know where he might be? I really need to talk to him. You know he shouldn't have done that. I—I just can't stand the fact that he thinks he can do just whatever he likes. I don't suppose anyone's really refused him anything very often, but he has to learn!"

Choutarou was seeming increasingly flustered, obviously caught between sympathy for her and reverence for his senior and captain. Noticing his hesitation Sakuno sighed deeply as her heart grew heavy. She was too old to be crying in front of him; but perhaps there was one thing she could to appeal to his better nature. Sakuno lowered herself onto her knees, hands clasped in supplication.

"Please, Ohtori-san, help me find him. I'm begging you: just lead me to him. I'll take care of the rest. This is for my Grandma." Her resolution not to cry wavered just a bit with her emotions as a single large tear started welling up in her eye and dripped down onto her cheek, but that one drop was like throwing an A-bomb on Ohtori's conscience.

He never had a prayer.

"Well, buchou gave us these treats he said he bought and then we all split up, but we're supposed to meet up again in a few minutes…"

PoT PoT PoT

It was good to know that she might be able to get her bento back soon, if that monkey-king hadn't eaten it already. However, as she walked next to Choutarou at a very brisk pace to keep up with his longer steps, Sakuno would not let herself relax until she had that special box back safe and sound in her hands. Ohtori kindly was reassuring her that when the team went out together they normally ate at the same time. She appreciated his thoughtfulness, smiled at him in her shy way, but did not want to fully hope for a good resolution just yet.

A few blocks from the porticos was an elegant fountain, the place Choutarou said was their rendezvous point. Indeed, when they started getting closer Sakuno could detect the sounds of 'kyaaah's and 'Atobe-sama's being screeched into the air. Her companion smiled encouragingly.

"Yep, he's already there, Ryuuzaki-san. We'll just talk to him and show that this was all a big mistake. I'm sure he'll understand."

Approaching the fountain they could see six other young men behind Atobe, who was currently waving to his omnipresent fans and signing a few autographs. Most of his team was sitting but one was on his back taking a snooze, curly head turned away from them. Atobe had just finished the last autograph and now was basking in adulation. Choutarou helpfully guided Sakuno up through the mass, using his larger bulk to its advantage. At their coming Atobe narrowed his sharp eyes then widened them a little.

"Ah, Choutarou! What is the meaning of this? Why are you late? And why are you, little Ryuuzaki-chan, accompanying him? If it is to thank Ore-sama for his purchases—"

Her braids shook along with her head as Sakuno stepped forward. Her face was blushing from shyness against her will, eyes cast down, but she could feel all these eyes on her and hated the sensation, just like being pricked with hundreds of tiny invisible pins. Licking her lips she managed: "I—I would like for you to return m-my bento back, A-Atobe-san. I said it wasn't for sale and I, I meant it. Please."

In the background the other (conscious) members of the Hyotei tennis team began to chuckle at this development. Oshitari's glasses gleamed when he leaned down to comment offhandedly to Gakuto that this might just be a first for them, seeing a fangirl demand a gift back.

"Doesn't look like the usual breed of fangirl to me," Shishido answered with a concentrating look at the girl. "She doesn't act like they usually do. This might be interesting."

"Let's watch the fun," said Gakuto. "It's been a boring day so far."

In haughty response Atobe arched an imperious eyebrow at her. This was a surprise request. "Why should Ore-sama do such a thing? Ore-sama purchased this fair and square."

"It doesn't matter if you paid for it, Atobe-san," Sakuno cried out, finally giving a steady voice to her words. "You took that bento when I said you couldn't! You didn't even let me explain. That's not a young man's bento! It's for my grandmother who's sick at home with a cold. I promised her I'd bring her home supper. And you...and you…" Unable to find the words she turned to the large shadow behind him now, frowning at Kabaji. "And you! You were with him. Why didn't you stop him, Kabaji-san? You know what he did was wrong!"

Kabaji had the decency to blush, giving her a silent pleading gaze. Kabaji had rather expressive eyes and Sakuno felt her anger at him ebb away; he probably had protested but Atobe hadn't listened very well. The boy was the king of selective hearing.

"You took food that was supposed to be for a sick grandma?" Oshitari demanded from his perch on the fountain; even he looked a bit scandalized. Jirou even pricked up his sleepy head from the pillow of his arms. "That's a new low for you, Atobe."

"Why don't you go rob a nursing home while you're at it?" chimed in Gakuto. "Are you really that bored you get your jollies from taking stuff from old people?"

"And not just any old person," added Jirou.

"Sumire Ryuu-freakin-zaki," Shishido ended. Even he looked alarmed, shuddering at his remembrance of how fierce the old woman could be. "You're just lucky you haven't opened the bento yet. Or else we'd be trolling Tokyo Bay for your body, Atobe."

Sakuno looked all around at them, half torn between being relieved that they were taking her side but also a bit distressed that they saw her grandmother as some kind of ogress. She wasn't that mean—she just very strict! Although it had to be conceded that her grandmother wouldn't be happy to learn about this. Maybe they weren't so far off the mark, though she doubted her Grandma would ever really seriously hurt anyone. "She wouldn't do anything like that!" she cried, then hesitated. "But—Grandma wouldn't be happy, either. Even if I made her another bento, she'd be mad just on principle. Besides, she likes my cooking. She'd find some way to show you how displeased she was, Atobe-san. And my Grandma isn't afraid to smack!"

Taken a bit off guard from so much protest, Atobe felt compelled to defend his intentions. "Ore-sama paid for the bento, didn't he? You could make many such bentos. And Ore-sama truly thought he was blessing you, a commoner, with his glorious solicitation. And you denied it! Do you know how many young ladies would kill or be killed for such an opportunity to occur to them?"

She began flapping her hands in agitation, so upset was she, and the ends of her braids flapped with the motion so it looked like she almost had four hands. "That's not my point! You just took it! That was very rude of you, you know! And very disrespectful of my grandmother. It's like--like if you went up to her and just slapped her on the face. I don't care what you think of me, Atobe-san, but my grandmother deserves your respect and consideration. I'd have let it go otherwise but that's just one thing I won't stand for. And so here I am. And I am asking you to please give me back that bento, or else—"

Taken aback at this delicate-looking creature's vehement defense, Atobe was snapped out of his stupefaction that a girl was chewing him out instead of falling at his feet in worship. "Are you threatening Ore-sama? What could you do, little one?"

Taking in a calming breath, Sakuno wiped at her face and regained some of her normal sweet demeanor. "I would never dream of threatening you, Atobe-san. I myself can do nothing and even though I was mad I really would never wish you harm. However—I also am very close with my dear Grandma. And when I come home tonight with only a bought bento and not homemade like I promised, she'll ask questions. And when she does, I'd never lie to her. And when she gets better—I don't think even I could stop her, nor all of your bodyguards. And she'd call your parents beforehand and tell them just what has happened, too, so I don't think you'd get help there. She'd do it, too. She's not afraid of anyone."

Atobe regained most of his poise now but his face was rather white. Sakuno waited for his response. Suddenly all of her adrenaline she had built up trying to find him and then standing up to him drained out of her and Sakuno felt her shoulders trembling terribly. All her former boldness seeped away. She wondered if she really had been too hasty, too vehement, too forward. She hadn't been bombastic like her friends Tomo-chan or Ann-chan might have been, but it was the harshest she had ever spoken to anyone. She really had been so angry, it was almost unbelievable.

She felt a hand steadying her shoulder and looked up into Choutarou's concerned face. "Are you all right, Ryuuzaki-san? You look pale. Maybe you should sit down?"

Sakuno managed to smile up at him but it was wobbly. "I'll be fine, Ohtori-san. But I really would like my bento back now, Atobe-san."

"Give it back to her, Atobe. Don't be a jerk," Jirou counseled. Atobe scowled a little but with a dramatic flourish of the knee was about the bend down and offer it back to her when Gakuto made a terrifying observation.

"Hey," he said, "it's pretty quiet. Where did the fangirls go?"

Indeed it was just as he said. The normal throng of Atobe's devoted worshipers was nowhere in sight. The stillness was eerie.

Shishido's face paled. "Oh, shit," he said.

Even Hiyoshi's stolid face flinched as he turned to his captain, eyes showing an unusual amount of alarm. "Atobe, you better give that back to her right now. I mean it. They're getting reinforcements."

"Too late!" mumbled Jirou, who seemed almost half-awake now. "They're coming."

A small cloud of dust appeared at the end of the block. Soon it resolved into a small pack of absolutely furious young women, perhaps some young men as well. Just as if it were a natural disaster, none of them could wrench their eyes away or even move. It was too mesmerizing in its terror.

"There she is!" called a voice. "The girl who spat on Atobe-sama's patronage and demanded he give back his rightful bento as if he were a commoner!"

"How dare she give him treats when she's not in the club!"

"Pull out her braids! Teach her proper reverence for Atobe-sama!"

Sakuno screamed as the fangirls dove in all around her and she shielded her face, knowing that fangirls always liked going for the eyes first. They were all utterly enraged like a herd of bulls and just as unstoppable. She really wondered if this was going to be the end for her. She could feel their breath on her neck, winced in anticipation of her braids being torn out of her scalp and other such torments.

Miraculously, none of these things happened. Instead she felt someone stand in front of her and wrap her up tightly, shielding her. Ohtori's voice came from above: "Hold on to me, Ryuuzaki-san, and pull your braids forward. We'll protect you!" She did as she was told, quickly brushing her braids so they hung past her ears and down her blouse front. Then she squeezed her eyes shut in the ultimate gesture of trust. Ohtori was tall and could easily cover her but the sheer numbers made her worry that he would not last long. She didn't want to see his fate or her own if he succumbed to the fangirl onslaught.

The terrible din was still quite audible, however, and the shrieks and cries were sounding out all around. She also heard some random coos as some girls probably looked back briefly at Atobe and his team. She could also discern Atobe's frantic orders.

"Oi, Kabaji! Keep that bento out of their reach. Yes, yes, hold it above your head, that's good. Ore-sama needs to call all of his security forces!" She thought she heard him yelling at his bodyguards but it was indistinct. Things didn't seem to be going so well; Sakuno dimly heard him through her fright that there was not enough bodyguards to both protect Atobe and ward off the legions at the same time, nor could Atobe prevail on his bodyguards to go to the girl's aid. So instead there came another yell.

"Ore-sama must resort to desperate measures! Fetch Ore-sama his racquet! Good. Hiyoshi! Get into place! Ore-sama gives you full reign to use your force with extreme prejudice! All ready? GO!"

"HAIYAIYIYIYIYIYIYIYIYI!" came an unearthly cry. It sounded almost like a karate yell but with much more energy than normal behind it. It was rather terrifying.

Immediately there were thwacking sounds and yowling screams of fangirls. The karate yells continued high above the rest of the clamor and she heard the other Hyotei boys shouting encouragement like "Kick ass, Hiyoshi!" and "Aim for the crotch, Atobe!" and the sort. After a minute or so the tumult died down, the retreat sounded. Everything was still once more. Sakuno was still shaking with fright but managed to crack open her eyes. She stared into Choutarou's shirtfront before moving her head around to look at the others. Hiyoshi was still pumped up and shuffling on the balls of his feel just in case of any surprises. Atobe had his racquet in hand; tennis balls, empty cans, and various other hastily snatched up debris lay scattered in the small combat area. He scowled slightly over at them.

"You may stand down now, Ohtori. It's over."

Choutarou released her, his face a bit red. Sakuno stared, a bit shocked still, when Atobe came up to her with the bento in hand. He presented it to her on his knee very regally, genuine regret on his face. Sakuno smiled upon taking it. He really wasn't so bad after all.

"Ore-sama apologizes profusely for that fright given you, Ryuuzaki-chan. He did not mean to cause you such grief. Accept this with our deepest regrets. And," he produced a bunch of roses, "these as well."

Mouth open to thank him, Sakuno accepted the objects, flowers included (though that made her blush some more)--they'd be a nice thing to decorate her booth with.

"You have also done what many have not and showed a fine spirit to Ore-sama, defending your family honor and facing his awesome presence! And thus," he continued, "Ore-sama shall bestow upon you, Sakuno-chan, the greatest gift he can grant." He paused importantly, smiling in a way that Sakuno thought was his most genuine smile yet. "A date with Ore-sama. Be awed by Ore-sama's munificence!"

Gakuto had crammed his knuckles in his mouth to keep from laughing and was gnawing on them. The others looked either sour or bemused. Sakuno felt her face erupt into a warm blush yet again. It was probably down to her neck now.

"I am sorry, Atobe-san, but I must decline your generous offer."

At Atobe's look of pure shock everyone except Choutarou and Kabaji had burst into laughter. Jirou and Gakuto acted as if they were about to have fits. Jirou actually laughed so hard he fell back into the fountain but didn't seem to care how wet he got. Sakuno looked up at the tall boy behind her but he just looked too stunned himself to help.

"Ore-sama insists he make this up to you, Sakuno-chan. Ore-sama thinks he shall call you that from now on; we will have a date together, after all. Ne, Kabaji?"

Shockingly, Kabaji didn't even answer. Sakuno decided to take this chance and came up with the only thing she thought might work.

"Look!" she cried, pointing behind Atobe, eyes wide. "Isn't that Tezuka-buchou?"

Only someone who was a totally Tezuka-obsessed prima donna would have been suckered by the trick; and luckily, since Atobe was both of these things, he immediately whipped his head in all directions. "Where!? Where is Ore-sama's greatest rival?"

The few seconds were all Sakuno needed to fuel one of the fastest retreats ever made by man, or at least teenage girls. By the time Atobe had stopped looking around she was already a full block away and speeding still. If she were a cartoon there'd have been a smoke trail behind her.

"Atobe, you sucker," Gakuto muttered, incredulous.

"A—Ah! Hey! Sakuno-chan!" Atobe called out after her, voice with more than a hint of desperate confusion. "Girls run towards Ore-sama, not away! You're in reverse! Retreat backwards!"

"Wow, look at her go!" Jirou whistled, shading his eyes and pushing his sopping curls away as he watched the flying pigtails vanish into the crowd, since of course Sakuno was not going to be stopping for anything. "She moves lots faster than you'd think with such slender legs like that."

"You're losing your touch, Atobe," Oshitari drawled amusedly. "Your got denied twice in one day by the same girl? That's never happened to you since you tried coercing a date from that Tachibana girl, has it?"

"Silence! And you, Jirou, what are you doing, looking at her legs?" Atobe snapped, whirling around at them. "She is obviously in denial of Ore-sama's prowess. Ore-sama's aura is too great for the fairer sex to handle sometimes. In this case, its force was too great for her to even stand and swoon in Ore-sama's presence; it made her fly away for her own safety and health, as she is a delicate-looking creature."

Hiyoshi just scowled more deeply and Shishido muttered something about never having seen anyone with his head crammed so far up his ass. Oshitari removed his glasses to wipe away a tear of mirth. Scowling at their lack of awe, Atobe just snapped his fingers.

"This place tires Ore-sama. Let us take our repast and move away so that no unfortunate creatures are overcome by Ore-sama's prowess."

Despite his outward denial, the autumn wind does not strip the leaves from the thick tree bark more swiftly than Atobe's sense of importance had been stripped just for one brief moment when the weight of all that one slender girl's resistance had fallen upon his ego. It had quickly reinflated to full size once she was gone but it was something he would not soon forget.

Unfortunately for Sakuno, other people wouldn't forget so easily either.