Author: Ayane Selznick
VII. Hearts Softening
"Eh? Why is Sakuno-chan doing in your house?"
The person who had been posed a question glanced at the subject, then followed with a sigh.
"Something came up with the coach and then we all agreed to let Ryuuzaki stay here." Ryoma started walking out of the gate.
Momo was still curious about the situation that Ryoma and Sakuno were in. He just hoped that nothing serious happened to their previous coach. Still on his bike, Momo tried to follow his kouhai (lower classman) with Sakuno trailing behind.
"Why? What happened to Ryuuzaki-sensei?"
Sakuno felt Momo's concern for her grandmother, but it made her speculate more when Ryoma tried avoiding the issue. She told herself that if Ryoma didn't say a word until they got two blocks away from the campus, she would tell Momo. Then again, Momo was no fool. He knew that Ryoma would not say anything, seeing as this could be a chance to get back at his senpai-tachi (upper classmen) – keeping important issues. Feeling exasperated due to the failure of several attempts to dig out the truth, he gave up and decided to ask the person who surely didn't have anything to hold back.
Stopping in his tracks, the senpai turned to look at his female kouhai. "Sakuno-chan, what happened?"
Ryoma stopped walking.
Sakuno knew all her senpai-tachi's hardships and help after that incident. They all took the role of older brothers with utmost consideration. They would find out what was wrong with her and tried finding ways to help her. Immensely grateful, she could not bear to keep any matter from her senpai-tachi.
"Obaa-chan (grandmother) is in the hospital." She heard his sharp gasp. "She was attacked by someone she didn't know."
Sakuno continued. "Obaa-chan asked Echizen-san to take care of me until the situation is safe."
"Was it the same man we saw last time?" He turned to look at Ryoma.
The freshman raised his head a little and then nodded.
"He doesn't quit huh? He really doesn't."
Sakuno noticed the knitted eyebrows of her senpai; she knew that Momo might come up with something unexpected if they stayed long, so she quickly told the boys that they were going to be late for school. What she didn't know, however, was that Ryoma was pacing faster than the rest of them.
This is unfair.
He thought that this issue was to be kept within his family only.
Nobody in their classroom knew what had happened, but they were starting to discern that something was strange between her and Ryoma. At lunch break, Ryoma had whispered to Sakuno where they were going to meet. Some of their female classmates wanted to find out what they were up to, but the couple immediately disappeared before the fan girls could even reach the door of their classroom. Other freshmen saw them together walking upstairs but were still clueless about where they headed.
During their P.E. period, while Sakuno was asked to run an errand at the infirmary, and Ryoma made an excuse to leave. But as soon as he was out of their range, he started following Sakuno. Once Sakuno noticed him following, she asked him if he was also going to the infirmary. Ryoma practically fretted, finding an excuse for trailing.
"I forgot something in the classroom…"
"Ohh… I see."
Fortunately, their classroom was on the same floor as the infirmary. He told Sakuno to go inside. When the girl got into the infirmary, a familiar voice shocked him.
He gulped. "Oishi… senpai."
"You look pale. What happened?"
"I'm fine. I was heading to my classroom."
"Oh really?" He looked at the hallway where Ryoma's classroom was, then back at his kouhai. "P.E. classes?"
Ryoma nodded once and before his senpai could utter anything, he instantly took his leave. Unbeknownst to him, the said senpai had already read his mind the moment he was caught.
I never knew that Echizen could be this protective.
Oishi looked over his shoulder to see Sakuno talking to the school nurse, then left.
Strange dealings occurred in the succeeding days.
Nanako was on her way to do the grocery in the afternoon, and Sakuno decided to tag along. The little girl only wanted to help Nanako because Nanjiroh was no where in the house to help his niece with the groceries. Sakuno was certain that Ryoma was exhausted from his club practice, which led to Nanako crossing him out.
"It's okay Sakuno-chan, I can handle it." Nanako beamed at the kind girl. The teenagers just arrived home, and she would never do such a thing to tire out her lithe body. "I used to do grocery all by myself."
Nanako pushed Sakuno back into the hallway. "Auntie's not yet home, so why don't you stay with Ryoma-san for a while?"
It was at that moment when Sakuno fully understood the situation. She forgot that Nanjiroh would stay at the temple until before dark. Rinko would arrive before dinner. Now that Nanako will be going out for groceries, Ryoma and she would be the only beings in the house.
"See you later, Sakuno-chan!"
Nanako hastily left, thinking that she had to hurry so she could prepare dinner.
Sakuno sighed as she turned around at the doorway.
What do I do now?
While making a mental list of what chores she should start with, she remembered her worn clothes. She had been staying at the Echizens for two days already, so she must do her laundry. Sakuno climbed the stairs then went straight to her room to get her clothes. The eagerness to start her small household chore rendered her to forget that Ryoma was also in the house. She pulled all her worn clothes out of her bag then piled it up on her arms.
After gathering her garments, Sakuno walked briskly to the small hallway. She was already stepping for the stairway when—
"What are you doing?"
The jerk of her shoulder proved how surprised she was when he spoke. It also caused her to loosen her hold on her bundle of worn clothes. With a squeak, Sakuno watch her pile of garments plummet to the floor. Ryoma on the other hand had raised an eyebrow. However, despite such a cold façade, the young Echizen felt guilty for startling her.
"Mou…" Sakuno crouched down to pick up her garments.
She didn't want him to find out that she was carrying her worn clothes; it was so embarrassing. Not because she was planning to do it by herself, but because there were undergarments in that pile. What she didn't know was Ryoma was just too naïve; he did whatever that came to mind.
On the other hand, since Ryoma wasn't used to simply saying sorry for what he just did – startling the hell out of her – he decided to just help her.
He crouched down beside her and was about to reach for a small pink colored triangular fabric, when Sakuno snatched it from beneath his hand with a speed he didn't know she possessed. With furrowed brows and a little pout, Ryoma stared at Sakuno and thought how impolite her action was.
"I-it's okay Ryoma-kun. You don't have to…" Her face was already colored in an alarming shade of red.
Just as Sakuno continued hastily picking up her clothes, Ryoma stood nonchalantly, albeit with a bruised ego (because a particular girl just learned to refuse his help), then walked past her and down the stairway. He got curious as to why she suddenly declined his offer to help. He thought that he might have done wrong or something. Ryoma was at the last step of the stairway when he noticed a pair of cup-like fabric lying innocently at the floor. He picked it up carefully for close inspection.
She looked at him.
"Is this yours?"
She never knew which one was more embarrassing: the look on her face or the fact that Ryoma was holding her bra.
There was also a time when Karupin disappeared for the umpteenth time with Ryoma frantically searching for him.
The Himalayan cat went missing after dinner, and Ryoma had no idea why his pet suddenly ran away. Nonetheless, the young Echizen slipped out of the house, unaware that Sakuno was trailing behind.
Ryoma tried looking at the places where he would usually find Karupin. "Karupin!! Karupin!!"
Sakuno felt that Ryoma must really love his pet – considering the cat had been Ryoma's playmate since his childhood days. She rarely saw Ryoma losing his cool like this. The way he called his pet was full of anxiety and love. She wondered if he would use such a tone when she was gone—
Sakuno was brought back to her senses when Ryoma yelled. She felt quite guilty, daydreaming about him being concerned about her welfare instead of helping him. Besides, shouldn't she be thankful that he had agreed to let her stay in his house with his family? They've had so many moments spent together, thus it was wrong to want more.
Or was it?
Shaking her head, Sakuno focused on task at hand when—
Sakuno fell silent, trying to verify what she had just heard. She tried searching in the direction of the sound without uttering anything.
She walked towards the source of the noise. "Ryoma-kun! Over here!"
Ryoma was quite surprised when he heard her voice but before he could ask questions, Sakuno waved her hand - telling him to come closer. He quickly marched towards her with thoughts like: 'why is she here?' and 'we've been telling her not to come out at night even if I'm with her.' Sakuno was unaware of Ryoma's expression; she cared only about verifying the source of the noise she had been hearing.
Ryoma stopped a distance from her. "What is it—?"
"Shh…" Sakuno put a finger on her lips while the other hand pointed at the bushes.
Ryoma could only follow her little finger pointing at the location. With squinted eyes, Ryoma tried to hear whatever Sakuno was telling him to listen to.
He ran over the bushes and there saw his spoiled Himalayan cat playing with a stray cat. Ryoma looked at the two cats observing one another before they started playing with the ball that he bought for Karupin. Sakuno quietly followed behind with a small smile on her face.
"Looks like Karupin found a friend."
Ryoma blinked, then started walking towards his pet. "Maybe he's too fed up with oyaji (old man, dad)."
Sakuno noticed the sadness on his tone that she couldn't help but mention it out loud. "Ryoma-kun seemed sad about it."
He took a sharp intake of breath before he looked over his shoulder just so he could glare at her and defend his emotional barrier.
"I do not."
She simply smiled at him then crouched at the ground – calling to his pet. Karupin's big eyes stared widely at her before it started walking towards her waiting hands. Ryoma took this chance to verbally ask about her very presence.
"Why did you follow me?"
Should she tell him how much worried she was when he suddenly flew away from home in search for his cat? Or the fact that he suddenly lost his cool when he found out that his cat went missing? In all means, Sakuno couldn't tell if this is her chance to tell him how much she cared for him. But during this particular circumstance, would she dare ruin that trust and time she spent under his care and protection? They might get awkward to each other once she spill out what her heart really wants to say.
She didn't turn around when she spoke. "I… I just wanted to help you find Karupin."
In Ryoma's understanding, Sakuno thought that he's helpless in finding his own pet. He couldn't help but frown and get somewhat infuriating at her. But on a second thought, she meant no harm in her words and actions – because she simply wanted to help. Nevertheless, Ryoma thought he should make a plausible excuse to turn tables on her.
"You should have thought that it isn't wise to follow me around at night. Nobody knows when that man might come."
Sakuno noticed the frustration in his voice. She wasn't sure what he wanted her to understand, but what she only got was - he's probably surprised to know that she followed him in search for his pet – which doubles his anxiety. This meant that he was actually showing some emotion aside from his cold and arrogant demeanor. She faced him with a small smile with a cuddling pet in her arms.
"But Ryoma-kun was so worried when Karupin ran away."
He choked and looked away.
"That doesn't make any sense." He awkwardly looked back at her then walked past her. "Let's go."
Sakuno just smiled brightly.
One morning, Sakuno had taken the liberty to use the only bathroom in the house. It was school day and she thought of starting a day looking and feeling fresh. While taking time in her morning rituals, Sakuno couldn't suppress thinking about the welfare of her grandmother. She knew that she must have left the hospital by now and thought of visiting her at home but knowing her grandmother – she wouldn't probably let her, well, unless Ryoma's with her.
He had taken good care of her – just as his father had promised to her grandmother. As the day goes by with them living in one roof together, she was beginning to know everything about him. She just hoped that even after this event, he would stay the same.
"Itai! (ouch) Soap in the eye!"
Sakuno tried to feel the faucet of the shower.
Ryoma opened his eyes lazily. He stared at the familiar four corners of his territory then yawned loudly. Then he fixed his eyes landed on a lump behind lower torso. Slowly, he pulled up the blanket to make sure that it was his pet – which was sleeping so soundly.
"You really ought to exercise, Karupin." Ryoma muttered while he petted Karupin's head.
When the young Echizen got out from his bed, he stretched his arms upwards while yawning. He really wanted to get back to bed but morning activities in Tennis club prohibited him to do so. Besides, Tezuka-buchou has been tolerating his tardiness. He was running out of excuses as of late, and if the need ever arose, he would use Sakuno as one.
He shook his head. Whatever. I'm up already. He glared at nothing in particular before he turned around to check his clock. 7, huh?
Ryoma decided to take things slowly since he had the time today. He dragged his feet to his new trousers and towel which hung from his closet. He put out his uniform and laid it on top of his chair.
Maybe I should get there before Momo-senpai does.
At least for the record.
He realized that he was already trudging his way towards the bathroom, after thinking of several ways just to make his senpai (upperclassman) pay for his meal this afternoon. It was only occasionally that Momo-senpai paid for his meal, and so Ryoma thought that senpais like him should treat him about now.
I'm so sorry Momo-senpai, but this isn't going to be your day.
Determined to destroy a senpai's day, Ryoma's smug smile was plastered all over his face when he slid open the door of their bathroom only to realize that—
A certain mahogany-colored hair young lady—
Clad only in her red and white towel—
Their eyes met.
Standing in front of him—
With a very red color splashed all over her face.
He broke out of his dreamy state when that certain goddess suddenly shrieked, an earsplitting cry.
That very same morning after hearing his father's wholehearted laughter during breakfast, Ryoma and Sakuno announced their departure with much awkwardness. Sakuno's hand imprint on Ryoma's left cheek was still so visible that he had to put his cap on. She really wanted to apologize for what happened, but Ryoma seemed so shameful for that innocent accident.
This can't go on the whole day… Sakuno nodded to herself and then collected herself before she spoke out loud. "Anou, Ryoma-kun…"
He only lowered his cap to conceal the red mark on his cheek. He didn't want to look more embarrassed anymore.
However, Sakuno was persistent despite her bashful layer. Even while she was stuttering, she sought courage to tell him whatever was inside her mind.
"I'm… I'm really sorry about… earlier."
Ryoma still could not look at her. "… You don't have to."
Sakuno stammered. "But I…"
"It was an accident." Out of nowhere, the fragment of that certain period where he saw her in their bathroom appeared in his imagination. He couldn't help but shake his head to erase his growing perverseness – in thoughts. "… I apologize for the intrusion." He said at last.
But the day had only started, and Ryoma had yet to defend, or rather make up excuses, when people find the certain red hand print on his cheek, especially when that certain person had to be Momo-senpai.
"Oi Echizen!" He noticed the mark instantly. "Eh? What happened to your face?"
Seems like it wasn't his day after all.
There was a time when Ryoma could not sleep at night, in which he opted to stay at the open living room with his cat lying ever-so peacefully beside him. The night was cool and everything else was quiet, much to Ryoma's satisfaction.
Somehow his observant side was able to activate outside the tennis courts, when he realized that he was improving in socializing aspect. Perhaps the only time he should use his intimidation was during tennis matches and nothing else. He realized that at some point, people preferred words to actions. But if actions were ever delivered, he had to make him or her know what and why he had done it, because not everyone thought the same way he did.
Ryoma thought that Sakuno had taught him something. He seemed to find it funny because the once klutzy young girl had matured first. Nonetheless, he secretly thanked her for that small help and teaching she had unknowingly shared with him.
Unbeknownst to him, Sakuno was looking at him from the hallway near the stairs. She wasn't able to sleep as well but after finding out that Ryoma had taken the spot at the living room and was more likely to enjoy the silence alone, she decided to watch him for a moment.
"You're gaining lots of weight Karupin." The owner said to his cat, who in turned stared widely at him. "You need exercise, you spoiled cat."
Sakuno smiled at him. For a person who rarely talked to people, he sure talked a lot when he was alone with his loving pet. She whispered 'good night' to him before she decided to climb upstairs.
Karupin turned its head to the hallway and alerted its owner about the other's presence. "Meoooowww!"
Ryoma raised a brow at his pet before he followed his cat's gaze. Even in darkness, Ryoma could spot signature details of any person he knew.
"Can't sleep again?"
Sakuno gulped; she was already caught, but it wasn't like her to go on without looking back at Ryoma.
"Uhm… yeah…" She turned around and walked towards the spot where a little illumination would aid Ryoma in seeing her.
How long had she been there? Ryoma asked, feeling rather bashful of the fact that he's talking to his cat. He nervously returned to his position where his back was now facing her.
Sakuno noticed his uneasiness which made her heart sink. Maybe he really doesn't want me around this time…
"Anou (well)…" She started without looking at him. "I'm on my way to my room anyway… so…"
"You can stay." His words surprised the both of them, but he easily recovered. "Just kill some time until you feel sleepy."
Sakuno felt so happy at his invitation. "Hai (okay)."
She walked towards the spot where he sat until the ever-so intelligent cat decided to rise from its position and decided to give his master and his guest time alone. Sakuno was about to stop Karupin, but Ryoma said that it was probably heading towards his room to get its much-awaited sleep. Sakuno giggled at that before she settled herself with a considerable distance from Ryoma.
Silence had been their company for a couple of minutes, which made Sakuno think that sitting next to him was not a good idea after all. Up till now, she hoped that somehow Ryoma would occasionally open up to her. She knew that he only saw her as a friend, but it wouldn't hurt him if he told her something about himself or just anything that came up in his mind. But contradicting her negative feelings, she knew that Ryoma loved silence – he loved serenity and only selected people were given the opportunity to share this silence with him. Fortunately, it was her.
"This is like the first night I came here, isn't it?" She said in a low, soft voice.
He looked at her from the corner of his eyes. "Has it been that long?"
She smiled - glad that he was willing to have a conversation. "It's been almost a month." She let her legs sway after feeling a little numb from its previous position. And even though it's been that long, I can't get over the feeling of shyness. She added as an afterthought. "Though… I wonder what could have happened to me if I wasn't here…"
You would most likely develop an extreme paranoia. Ryoma would have stated his opinion but held it in – thinking that she would find this offending once he blurted it out loud. And knowing her for quite a while, Sakuno should be approached in a gentle manner. "Senpai-tachi (upperclassmen) would get worried even more. Furthermore, that man's still lurking around. Your life is still at risk. We can't afford to throw away your safety."
His words touched her heart. Normally, his words sounded like alt added to an injury. Tonight was different, and she found his words as something she would etch in her memory.
"That's why I'm glad that you and your family let me in." She smiled softly. "Not only did I feel safe, but I also enjoyed staying here." Ryoma noticed the longing in her eyes when he glanced at her. "I normally live with obaa-chan (grandma) because my parents are always away. I never felt the fun of having so many people at home."
He didn't say anything, but he understood what she meant, only that his case was different. He had been accustomed to live with so many people at home; his relatives sometimes gathered at their home for a week, but he still felt lonely. People would only see him as a Tennis genius and a hopeless case in socializing. They would admire his cuteness, then his father would sometimes humiliate him, but nothing more. Besides, people thought he had never spent a moment to think of them – they thought he never cared.
"Above all…" He was surprised when she spoke. "I've gotten to know you." Her cheeks burned. "There are good things that people didn't see in you."
Ryoma stared at her. Just what are those things she knew? For sure, only a few had read his attitude like an open book, but to actually hear such things from her – a person he rarely showed his true self to – was just surprising.
He quickly masked his reaction. "I'm mischievous alright."
Sakuno turned her head to him. "You're only saying that, Ryoma-kun." She noticed his narrowed eyes. "I know you're a kind person. You would stand up for your friends even if it means to stand against a senpai (upperclassman)."
Ryoma lazily brought his left hand on his knee to support his chin. "Not really."
Sakuno thought that Ryoma was convinced. "Pe-people usually say that you're arrogant and distant," she noticed his brow twitching, "but in fact, you're hesitating every time people gather around you."
This time, Sakuno was nervous. "A-and… you-you usually use your Tennis tactics in real life that you find difficulty in… gaining the… upper hand of the situation…" Her last statement became a whisper the moment Ryoma glared back at her.
"I don't do that." He continuously denied. But if you're so up to this challenge… "If you think I have my flaws, then what about you? Why do you act like you're okay when you really aren't? Ryuuzaki is a bad liar."
"You can't even keep secrets from senpai-tachi (upperclassmen)."
"Ryoma-kun was the one who wanted to keep this situation from senpai-tachi. I really don't see why we have to keep this a secret."
Ryoma could only glare at her, then start murmuring incoherent statements under his breath. Sakuno found this so funny that she started giggling.
It is not only admiration that I feel for Ryoma-kun… She was still giggling. It wasn't because of his tennis skills at all. Her soft chuckles faded when she stared at the sky. Ryoma-kun has a wonderful heart.
When Sakuno looked up at the sky, Ryoma turned to his side then clutched the shirt near his chest.
His heart was surprisingly beating fast.
To be continued…
Author's Note: Hehee… I know it's been a month and this is the only chapter I've made (a filler chapter, too). I've been busy preparing for cosplay and since I'm done with one, there are two more! XD Anyway this chapter not only serves as filler chappie but a little proof that somehow Ryoma and Sakuno have looked at each other. So, will I see you in the next chapter? Hopefully!