The sky overhead was gray and downcast, a sure sign of inclement weather. 400 yards away from the spectator's seats, the girls' tennis team screamed high-pitched complaints. Oh no! The wind was blowing up their skirts! Now those stupid boys would see them! Oh no! The rain was messing up their hair! And they had spent hours getting the perfect style! Oh no! It was too cold to play! How could they possibly hold their rackets when they were shivering like this? Their wails carried across the concrete courts. "Coach, we want to go in!"

Two of many freshmen gathering stray balls nodded discreetly to each other. Every now and again, some clueless parent wondered aloud why Seigaku Junior High proudly trumpeted the success of their men's club, but somehow never mentioned their women's team. This was the reason why. The girls were ... girls. Their real coach had quit without notice after being on the job for three months. The serious athletes had long ago given up on this tennis club and gone to schools where the locker rooms smelled like sweaty shoes and hard work rather than perfume and hairspray. The triflers stayed on, more interested in their silhouettes than their game form. Which explained why they were crying hysterically about their falling hair.

The men's team looked up at the sky, saw no signs of lightning, and kept on playing. No one who lusted after that hand-crafted white jacket dared to even notice the rain. Rain? What rain? Matches continued, warm-ups continued, punishment continued despite the weather. Tezuka and Inui saw to that, their glasses fogged with steam and their mouths hard and stern. Behind Inui sat a pitcher of fluorescent red sludge waiting for anyone who dared to complain of fatigue. He insisted that it was tea, and no one wanted to find out if he was telling the truth. So Momoshiro and Kaidoh continued their 40-lap run without a murmur, Oishi and Fuji played one of their never-ending matches and made sure to hide every single twinge, and Echizen warmed up alone, having neither the strength to play Tawamura, nor the patience to counter Kikumaru. He was at practice court 3, solidily striking the ball approximately 5.2 cm over the wall's line. Just to tease him, Inui had made a notation next to the discoloration.

Not that Ryoma really cared about that. Or that he held his racket a little higher up the shaft when the wind blew like this ("approx. 2.14 cm" ... Inui had scribbled it down somewhere) or that no one his age had any business being able to strike a tennis ball confidently enough to counter a fair bit of wind. To him, it was natural as breathing. Or the sun rising. Or knowing that a pair of liquid brown eyes would be watching him silently from the right side of the court every time he played, eyes dark and rich in her pale face.

She was nothing like Horio, who seemed determined to speak his mind to everyone in the area at all times. She was always so quiet when she watched him play, clutching the fence with bloodless hands, motionless except for constantly moving eyes. He liked her better that way; the jittery, emotional, high-strung Sakuno frightened him and made him consider spending life alone with Karupin. Much better to have a chain-link fence between them and no words spoken except for the language of a tennis ball striking concrete. Besides, if he and Sakuno were to have an actual conversation, she might find out that he was just as timid around her as she was around him, and then bad things might happen, like the entire rest of the team deciding that they were soulmates and shoving them at each other, or the Ryoma Echizen Fan Club deciding that she needed a makeover and turning her into a poor excuse for a starlet.

Nope, he liked her just the way she was, staring at him.

But he also liked it when he pulled off an impossible shot, an ace serve, an improbable return. Then the blood rushed to her cheeks and her hairline, her mouth made a perfect "o" with surprise, and her eyes filled with stars while she tried to catch enough breath to whisper "Sugoi, Ryoma-kun." He heard it louder than any applause, and sometimes it meant more to him than winning the point. Not that he was ever going to admit it.

He watched her, safely protected behind the brim of his ball cap, and wondered if he could bring the stars out in her eyes without a racket in his hand. Would Sakuno be as impressed if she met Ryoma, the kid who puked when he ate boy choy, or Ryoma after tonsilitis? Would she care half so much about his day-to-day life that didn't deal with bouncing yellow balls?


Ryoma quickly lowered his head ("by 1.09 cm," Inui would have quickly noted) and turned back to the wall. That girl with the ponytails was here ...


"Where have you been? Everyone's been looking for you! Why are you out here in the rain? Come on, your birthday cake is ready!"

The tennis ball struck the line on the wall squarely. A blasphemy!

"But ..." Sakuno was being taken away. "Tomo-chan, I--"

"Hurry! It's so pretty, if all of the candles melt before you get there, that'd be a shame and your wishes won't come true! But it's a surprise, so make sure you act really surprised when you come in, okay?"

"Echizen!" older male voices called, specifically, Oishi and Tawamura. And Ryoma caught the ball without even thinking about it and marched back to the main courts.

The sun was beginning to set as a crowd of girls poured out of the clubhouse, still nibbling cake and party favors. Sakuno and Tomoka were the last to leave, slowly filling a bag with the small gifts that the guests had brought. Sakuno shivered in the damp air, but Tomoka didn't even notice the chill.

"That was great, Sakuno-chan! So much fun and so much food! Too bad bad Ryoma-sama couldn't make it, eh? But we know our regulars--always training!" She nattered on in a happy daze, and Sakuno just smiled. It was too bad that Ryoma hadn't been able to come, but then again, grandma hadn't made it either.

A tennis ball bumped insistently against her shoe, startling her. So far from the courts? It couldn't possibly be a practice ball; the freshmen would be skinned alive for leaving balls behind. And then forced to guzzle that awful juice. "Tomo-chan, did you leave your tennis bag open?" No answer. Besides, it couldn't be Tomoka's. There was writing on it. "Tanjoubi omedetou?"

Happy birthday?

From a dark corner, a boy watched in wonder at the stars in her eyes.