Disclaimer: Not mine

A/N: An anonymous reviewer (although a different one than last time) once again brought up an excellent point. I mentioned Sakuno finding her ways to her classes in the last chapter but by classes I meant things like the Home Ec. classroom, the gym, the music classes, the labs, and the cafeteria NOT math or English. In Japan students stay in one classroom and the teachers come to them. Just wanted to clarify.

My beta, strawberry ponta-chan, gets her usual grateful accolades.

. . . Also, I'm sorry for the long break. I started University in August and that hasn't left me much time for fanfiction.

The good news is that an original play I wrote this year will probably be produced by the University's drama department next semester! Yay! And my Professor suggested that I finish the screenplay I wrote for her class this summer and then try to actually sell it. Double yay!

Anyhoo, here's the chapter. : )

Anyone remotely interesting is mad in some way or another.

~Doctor Who


Chapter Six: In which Akaya's temper gets the better of him, clues about Sakuno's Mysterious Past are dropped, and Yukimura Seiichi finally gets his say

Yagyuu Hiroshi prided himself on his manners, his athletic abilities, and his observational skills. Over the years he'd found that large quantities of all three were practically required if one wanted to survive extended contact with the tennis club. They were absolutely essential if you were a member or a Regular. His ability to charm his way out of tight spots had become integral to his continued existence after becoming doubles partners with Niou.

Being around his teammates required a certain degree of fortitude.

At first he had believed that Ryuuzaki Sakuno lacked that quality. She was so shy, timid even, that he'd given her three weeks at best before the madness that hung around the Rikkai Regulars drove her off.

It had been four weeks.

For once he was more than happy to have been proven wrong.

He smirked slightly as he finished his cool down routine. Far from running off screaming into the night, Ryuuzaki not only stood her ground, but managed to be charming while doing it. That took a level of skill that Yagyuu could appreciate.

Akaya had been the first to fall and, in customary Akaya fashion, he'd gone all out. The second year was in grave danger of becoming downright doting towards their coach's granddaughter. He wasn't even pretending to grumble about picking her up from the music room after practice anymore and had actually seemed genuinely disappointed when she started leaving early to go to her music lessons three days a week. He also didn't seem to appreciate the unexpected competition that had sprung up in the forms his various senpai.

Frankly, that had surprised Yagyuu as well. Marui he had expected. Ryuuzaki-chan could cook and the tensai's sugar addiction was well known, as was his habit of flirting with the cooking club to secure baked goods. Although he was never quite so . . .clingy, he supposed was the word, with the members of the cooking club. Marui was never shy with physical affection but he usually exerted at least a modicum of control, particularly with girls.

No, Marui's affection, although selfish in its foundations, hadn't been a surprise. Especially, he thought, since Ryuuzaki-chan had somehow gotten into the habit of making deserts for the tennis team nearly everyday.

The surprise had been Niou.

In general his doubles partner had never seemed interested in girls unless it was to torment them. Then again, he wasn't interested in most people unless it was to torment them, male or female. In general if you weren't either an interesting opponent or a teammate, you were simply a faceless victim to the trickster. Invisible until it was your turn to be picked on.

Although, after her actions two weeks ago even Niou's massive Powers of Dismissal would have been hard pressed to keep her in the Uninteresting category. Fortunately they didn't even try or else he thought his doubles partner's brain might have actually exploded.

Honestly, it had looked close to doing that anyway.

Yagyuu smirked harder at the remembrance and actually had to fight back the urge to snicker. Niou's face after the Event, as he had taken to calling it, had been truly priceless. He'd never seen the other boy look so stunned. He himself had been too shocked to move, even to laugh, as had the rest of the team.

The real shock had come, however, when not only did Niou not exact some sort of horrible, painful, humiliating revenge but actually seemed to make some sort of truce with her. Ever since that first day he'd gone to pick her up the two radically different individuals seemed to fall into some sort extremely bizarre friendship.

Niou obviously respected her, a consideration he granted to a pitiful few individuals and Ryuuzaki actually seemed fond of the silver haired menace now that he'd stopped attempting to scalp her with his bare hands. They even had a special greeting, strange though it was. Yagyuu was willing to bet that if anyone one else even thought of touching the trickster's ponytail, much less actually pulling on it, they'd end up missing a hand.

At least.

Nowadays it wasn't unusual for Niou to actually seek her out, just to talk. There was nothing the other boy loved more than an audience and Ryuuzaki proved to be an extremely willing one. She laughed, gasped, and squealed in all the right places and she never failed to be interested. Then again, tales of the Trickster's past and present exploits were generally far from boring and Niou was a very gifted storyteller.

Of course, peace was a myth at Rikkai especially where the tennis club was concerned and the new truce between the two of them had sparked new waves of conflict, with the junior ace at the center of it.

Akaya, in the throes of a rapidly developing crush, was becoming jealous more and more easily as of late and with Sakuno growing closer to other members of the team he was walking around like a rubber band about to snap. Niou and Marui certainly weren't helping the situation, latching on to her with ever increasing ferocity. They had even started going to pick her up before Akaya could manage to escape practice on some days, a habit that left the second year almost vibrating with fury.

Today, thankfully, was not one of those days. After Niou had locked the younger boy in the equipment closet yesterday in order to secure a turn at escort duty a tacit agreement to not push Akaya any farther this week had been reached. While everyone enjoyed teasing the younger boy on occasion none of them wanted to deal with the fallout of an actual meltdown.

Yagyuu finished up his cool down routine and straightened up just in time to see the object of his most recent musings stroll cheerfully onto the courts munching on a cookie, holding a bag that probably contained more. Ryuuzaki walked beside him in smiling silence. It was a calm, happy scene. Rikkai Rule Number One stated that it could not last for long.

It didn't.

Yagyuu watched the tableau dissolve the way people watched a car wreck happen: stunned silence. It was the work of seconds. Marui walked up to the pair chatted for a moment and then made a grab for the bag. Akaya dodged. Marui snatched again and managed to grasp a corner of the bag. There was a quick scuffle, an oddly loud ripping sound, and then cookies were flying out to scatter all over the ground surrounding them. For a moment there was silence.

Then hell broke loose.

Akaya howled and lunged at the tensai in front of him, tackling him to the ground. Marui squirmed and tried to break free to no avail. Though he was larger than the boy attacking him, Akaya's strength was fueled by rage and there was little the third year could do while pinned and out of breath from the fall. Yagyuu began running towards the pair, hoping to intervene before any permanent damage could be done to either party, from the corner of his eyes he could see the rest of the team rushing to do the same.

"YOU BASTARD!" Akaya screamed, rearing back one fist, obviously intending to beat the other boy into submission. Thankfully, before any such thing could occur Jackal reached the pair and intercepted the punch then began the arduous task of dragging the second year away from his intended victim. The task was made harder by the fact that Akaya had anchored his hands to Marui's throat.

The rest of the team converged on the scuffle almost as one and quickly set about separating the two combatants. Niou pried Akaya's fingers away from the tensai's windpipe; Sanada assisted Jackal in corralling the raging junior ace; and Yagyuu dragged a sputtering and gasping Marui as far away from the other group as he could manage.

Ryuuzak just stared.

Yagyuu couldn't blame her. Not only was the second year swearing a blue streak at the top of his lungs but he'd caught a long enough glimpse of Akaya's eyes to see that they were a seriously dangerous shade of red. It certainly wasn't something you saw every day.

As Yagyuu checked Marui over for any signs of permanent damage he could hear the sounds of struggle a few feet away slowing and finally stopping. He quickly shoved Marui off in the direction of the changing room in an effort to put space between the two of them. The tensai stumbled off in silence, his survival instincts obviously warning him to avoid provoking his kohai any farther.

After watching him walk through the door Yagyuu turned around to face the rest of the team. Niou and Jackal were still each holding onto an arm while Sanada stood in front of their captive like a human wall. Akaya's eyes were still red and he was breathing heavily. At a nod from Sanada, Niou and Jackal loosened their hold, allowing Akaya to wrench away with a snarl and stomp over to the bench where his bags were located.

The younger's boys movements were jerky and furious as he slammed his belongings into their containers, muttering fiercely all the while. Everyone jumped when he suddenly picked up a ball and threw it across the courts with a wordless scream of rage. He stared after it for a moment and then slumped down onto the bench as if exhausted. Sanada began to move towards him but stopped when Ryuuzaki began to do the exact same thing.

Her small face was resolute, the earlier stunned fear banished, and her steps were firm and determined. She stopped no more than a few inches away from Akaya's slumped form and rested her tiny hand lightly on his shoulder.

Akaya's head snapped up immediately, his expression livid, mouth already open to yell at whoever dared to intrude on his solitude. The moment it registered who it was, however, his jaws clicked shut and he stared. After a moment the angry lines etched into his face began to fade and the red started to recede from his eyes. Then with a rush of air he deflated completely, his eyes falling closed, his head falling forward to rest against her stomach. One hand came up to rest on top of hers where it lay on his shoulder. Yagyuu goggled. What on earth . . .

They were still for a moment and Yagyuu held his breath afraid to do anything to disturb the bizarre, but not unwelcome, event taking place not twenty feet away.

"You can come over today, obaa-chan won't mind. I'll make you new cookies. Whatever kind you want." Ryuuzaki's voice was soft, but in the silent environment of the courts it carried all the way over to where he was standing.

For a moment Akaya did not respond and when he did it was silent, just a slight nod of his head. He didn't even move away from where he was leaning to do it.

Being around his teammates required a certain degree of fortitude.

Ryuuzaki Sakuno appeared to have it in spades.

Thank God.

Prince of Tennis

Akaya followed silently behind the younger girl, clutching her tiny hand firmly in his own as they walked up the front steps to her house. It had been a long, awful week.

Nothing had gone right.

It wasn't fair. His senpai ruined everything! Sakuno had been his friend! His! They'd just started to get close and now, suddenly, they all were clamoring for her attention.

It. Wasn't. Fair.

Sakuno turned around to smile at him as she opened the door and he made a valiant attempt to return it and shake off his sulk. They could clamor all they wanted. They could lock him in the equipment closet and get him assigned extra laps and rush out of the shower before he had a chance to rinse off, it wouldn't matter. He was still her favorite. He was still the one she made cookies for and invited home with her.

"We can put our bags in my room," she said, slipping out of her shoes. "Obaa-chan doesn't like it when people leave them in the entry."

Akaya nodded silently, still feeling rather put out, and toed his sneakers off, trailing up the stairs behind her. The house was in a very nice neighborhood and was much larger than he'd been expecting. The inside was carefully decorated and he noticed that most of the furniture and other decorations looked expensive. He hadn't thought teachers made this much money, even at a school as prestigious a Rikkai.

Her room was more than twice the size of his own and he noticed with a slight twinge of jealousy that she had her own connected bathroom dominated by a large, luxurious looking tub. Her bed was a huge, comfortable looking four-poster and light came in through a huge picture window overlooking an expansive garden. One wall was entirely dominated by a menagerie of framed photographs of people he could only imagine were her family. Posters of what appeared to be classical artists covered most of the remaining wall space. Just what kind of extra work was Ryuuzaki-sensei involved in that they could afford to own a place like this?

He dropped his bag where Sakuno pointed and followed her back downstairs as she spoke softly about her day. Listening to her was nice. Comforting. She demanded very little, which after an afternoon of grueling practice was a welcome relief. He could understand very well why the others wanted to spend time with her.

But he didn't have to like it.

They were passing through the spacious, expensive looking living room when a large glass cabinet on the far side of the room caught his eye. It was filled to the brim with what appeared to be trophies. Naturally attracted to anything that had to do with winning he immediately moved to examine it. Plaques, medals, and freestanding awards were crammed together, three or four deep on a single shelf in some places. Shockingly, rather than being tennis awards like he'd expected they all seemed to be awards about music.

They were Sakuno's.

He turned around to stare at the small girl sheepishly examining her toes.

"These are all yours?" he exclaimed.

"Yes," she muttered.

"They're, like, all first place!"

"Yes."

"Wow." His voice was quiet. He'd know that Sakuno was good, really good even and she'd mentioned that she competed in passing once or twice but the contents of this cabinet said otherwise.

Sakuno wasn't competing. Sakuno was dominating.

He could totally respect that.

He goggled at the shining contents of the glass cabinet for a few moments longer and was fully prepared to turn and follow her into the kitchen when a small wooden cabinet in the far corner of the room, its doors flung wide open, attracted his attention. Unlike its larger, showier counterpart it's display was simple, just a few flowers and some incense framing a single picture of a woman in a delicate silver frame.

She looked like Sakuno.

Exactly like Sakuno.

Her hair was darker, her face slightly slimmer but other than that it was like seeing his kohai aged several years.

It was unsettling. Especially considering the woman in the picture was dead.

He moved towards the shrine and saw Sakuno move in the same direction from the corner of his eye.

"My mother," she said. Everything about her, from her voice to her eyes to her smile, was soft and sad. "She died when I was small."

Akaya was silent for a moment. He did not know how to deal with this quiet, gentle grief. Anger was his forte everything else was practically foreign.

"She's pretty." He sent a nervous smile in her direction. "You look a lot like her."

Sakuno flinched. Her face fell, the gentle expression momentarily replaced by a far more raw desolation before she gathered herself again.

"Not really," she replied, her face and voice oddly stiff as she turned from the shrine and started walking towards the kitchen once again.

Akaya followed her in silence. He wanted to ask what happened, wanted to know if her father was dead too or just gone, wanted to know why a compliment had put that look on her face. But he thought about how she flinched like he'd just hit her and about his own family and decided that there were things he didn't need to know right now. When she was ready she'd talk and he would make sure he was ready to listen.

He could wait.

For now there were cookies.

It was enough.

Prince of Tennis

If Yukimura had to pick the one thing he hated most about being in the hospital it would undoubtedly be not being able to play tennis.

If he had to pick two the second one would be being out of the loop when it came to his teammates.

Getting information without seeming like a gossipy girl or putting his pride on the line and appearing pathetically interested in the events of the world outside the hospital was difficult but Yukimura Seiichi was more than up for the challenge.

The real problem was finding a source of accurate information.

Renji was the obvious source when it came to the physical condition of the team but he wanted to know more than how their backhands were progressing. Unfortunately, Renji wasn't the most social person in the entire world and rarely analyzed personal motivations and influences outside of determining whether they were logical or not. They usually weren't.

He ran into similar problems with most of his other teammates as well.

Sanada was so socially inept that asking him to read social situations was like asking a blind man to drive a bus full of kindergarteners up a mountain. Akaya and Marui were too self-absorbed to care overmuch about those around them. Yagyuu was too polite to talk about others behind their backs and Niou's view of things was so colored by his own cynicism that it was difficult to trust in anything he said.

And then there was Jackal. Well-adjusted, friendly, sanity-saving Jackal.

Jackal was his in, his mole, his inside line into the team he could no longer truly be a part of and recently he'd had some very, very interesting things to report.

". . . calmed him right down. I've never seen anything like it. If one of us had tried it we would have walked away bloody but he didn't even yell at her."

"She's getting along with everyone then?"

Jackal chucklued. "I'd say so. Even fukubuchou has a bit of a soft spot for her."

Yukimura quirked a disbelieveing eyebrow. "Really?"

He'd known Genichirou for nearly three years and even he had a hard time equating the word 'soft' to anything even remotely related to his formidable teammate.

Jackal nodded, laughing again. Yukimura dodged a gesturing hand with an ease born of long practice.

"Really. It surprised all of us because, well, it's fukubuchou, you know? Even his fans are a bit scared of him. But Sakuno just says he reminds her of someone. I don't remember the name, probably one of her older cousins. She seems to have a never ending supply of them."

"So I've heard."

"It's actually kind of cute. I told you how she's gotten into the habit of bringing the team snacks, right buchou? It's mostly things she's baked, sweet things. And I guess that somewhere along the line she realized that fukubuchou never ate any of it. He's the only one too. She's a tiny thing but she can cook.

Jackal paused for breath. Yukimura smirked but didn't interrupt. Jackal was a talker. The generally quiet society of Japan was not his natural habitat.

The doubles player continued. "So about two weeks ago she shows up with a cake and a platter of onigiri 'just in case some people weren't in the mood for sweet things' she said."

Yukimura snickered. "Oh dear."

"Yeah," Jackal grinned. "Fukubuchou looked downright touched."

He paused.

"You know. For him."

Yukimura smiled blandly and let his teammate continue babbling, as he listened with half an ear for something else of interest. He had the information he wanted.

He'd known he was going to have to meet this girl eventually.

The difference was that now he really, really wanted to.

It was time to make the call.

Prince of Tennis

Yukimura watched his teammates talking nervously, all of them making frequent, agitated glances towards the door. Every time they heard footsteps approaching they all perked up only to slump back down again in defeat as the steps went past the door and on down the hall.

She was late.

Very late.

From what the others had said Ryuuzaki was a polite, if rather shy and clumsy, girl. It didn't fit what he knew of her personality to be anything other than punctual if she could help it. She also seemed to be the type who would call to tell her friends if something had come up that prevented her being there on time. He supposed that that was what the others were worried about.

She wasn't here, she hadn't called, and they were concerned.

All of them.

It was the funniest thing he'd seen in ages.

Of course he wasn't about to let them know that. He was having a grand time exacerbating the situation. Every put-upon sigh and annoyed glance at the door invited new levels of tension. Every time he tapped his fingers with impatience they all flinched. He'd honestly thought Akaya was going to faint when he'd finally resorted to crossing his arms and frowning faintly.

It was good to be the buchou. Things like this never got old.

Just as he was gearing up to make a vaguely irritated comment about the time footsteps approached the door and instead of passing it by actually stopped outside it. Everyone in the room straightened up as it opened.

And immediately slumped again at the appearance of a tall man in a long white coat.

"Just tell me he didn't let you ride the subway alone looking like this. If he did I swear I'll actually kill him this time. He has absolutely no common sense! I swear –" The doctor sounded very aggravated and very tired

"Iie. Ryu-nii drove me here himself." The voice that answered was young and female and made all his companions perk up once more. They were going to strain something if they kept doing that, he'd have to put a stop to it in a few moments no matter how amusing it was. "But with the way he drives I probably would have been safer on a train."

"No," the doctor said wryly. "You really wouldn't have been."

Yukimura only had a second to wonder at that response before the girl who had been speaking was revealed.

And then it all seemed very clear.

The girl was total pervert bait.

Yukimura sympathized. He knew how that felt and it definitely wasn't fun. The trains were always full of strange people on the hunt for kids like her. He'd make sure someone would walk her home although judging by the looks on his teammates faces getting a volunteer wouldn't be difficult at all.

Picking one was going to the hard thing.

Maybe he'd just let them fight it out amongst themselves. That had definite possible entertainment value. He'd stop them before they did any serious property damage of course but until then, well, things had been rather boring around the hospital since pitting the nurses against one another had lost it's initial charm. It was too easy.

His contemplations on the potential chaos that would be unraveling later were interrupted by the doctor.

"Whatever," the man sighed. "Are these your friends Sakuno-chan?" At a nod from the girl he sighed once more bid them a nice visit and instructed her to drop by his office before leaving. She agreed wearily and turned to her senpai, looking relieved to be out from under the doctor's watchful eye. Of course, being who they were, her senpai offered her very little in the way of reprieve.

Marui and Akaya reacted first and in unison.

"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WEARING?"

It was a good question. The frilly black dress would have been unremarkable enough but the chunky black boots with their large silver buckles were unilaterally eye-catching. The black lace gloves and matching tights were . . . unique as well. Her hair fell in shining waves past her thighs, adorned by nothing more than two large black bows, one on either side of her head. The whole ensemble made her look like she'd come straight to the hospital from a Lolita enthusiast's funeral.

The girl, Sakuno he assumed, took a step away from her howling senpai then stopped and clenched her tiny hands into fists. She raised her chin, set her jaw, and answered.

"Clothes."

Akaya snorted and glared at the delicate ribbons holding the bodice shut. "Barely."

Sakuno scowled and opened her mouth to answer but froze as Marui stepped closer to her and grabbed one end of the black satin sash cinched around her narrow waste, eyeing it skeptically.

"What were you doing?" the tensai asked reproachfully. "Tell me you weren't walking around like this."

"I was with my cousin—"

"Is he a pervert?" Niou sneered. "Because you look like a pedophile's imaginary friend."

Until that moment Yukimura had been content to watch the action unfold. His teammates were really too funny, acting all worked up over a dress that was actually rather demure, if a bit frilly for his tastes. However, at Niou's comment and the subsequent hurt flashing across Sakuno's face he decided it was time to intervene. Done right, he could kill two birds with one stone.

"That," he said quietly, "is quite enough."

He smiled gently at Sakuno. The girl's lower lip was trembling in a rather threatening manner although her chin was still raised and her back was still straight as a pin and he found himself oddly proud of the newest addition to his team. Without realizing it his smile changed from Caring Senpai Version Two to something a few degrees warmer, and a good deal more real. He stood up.

"I'm sure Sakuno-chan has an excellent explanation for her dress, which all of you have failed to mention she looks very pretty in."

He moved towards her, easily brushing Marui aside, and rested his hands on her shoulders.

"I'm sorry they're so rude. They seem to have forgotten their manners while I've been gone." This was not true. As far as he could tell, Akaya and Niou had never had manners and Marui only exercised his when it led to him being fed.

Watching the three of them turn virtually purple as they fought to adapt to the new situation, however, was well worth the fib. The rest of the team looked amused or mildly nonplussed. Sanada was as stone-faced as ever, although a bit stiffer than usual, tense. Yukimura suppressed a grin.

Fun!

He decided to se just how much of a reaction he could get before destruction was imminent.

He leaned in closer, putting his face nearly on a level with hers, and smiled his Conspiratorial Smile .

Sanada's already impossibly straight back straightened even further. Niou clenched his fists. Marui crossed his arms. Akaya made an odd choking gurgle, like a drain coming unstopped.

Just a little more . . .

"How should I punish them?"

Sakuno blushed softly but her answer was perfectly coherent. Interesting. Definitely interesting. She smiled.

"Laps."

The word fell from her lips as if it were a bowling ball and the room was a pond. The ripples were large and instantaneous.

Marui and Niou had the good sense to keep their shock silent. Akaya didn't.

"Sakuno-chan!" he wailed, eyes wide with betrayal.

Sakuno ignored him. Yukimura did the same.

"Good idea," Yukinura said. "Here or at school?"

"B-buchou!" Akaya sputtered.

Sakuno bit her lower lip when she thought. She really was a cute little thing. And so much fun to have around. The possibilities really were endless.

"School," she decided, giving her head a little nod. "They don't like it when people run in the halls here. The nurses yell."

Akaya seemed to have given up on speech in favor of incoherent noises of protest.

"Ah, good point. School it is. Do you think double is enough or should we make it triple."

"TRIPLE!" Akaya howled. "TRIPLE?"

Marui and Niou looked resigned. Silently.

Sakuno's already large eyes widened even further at the scope of the suggested punishment.

"D-double is good," she said hesitantly. She paused, adding, "Maybe less?"

"Less?" Yukimura responded, feigning shock. "You're too nice Sakuno-chan! They were so mean to you. Especially Niou."

He shot a sly glance at the delinquent as he said this and took in the way his shoulders stiffened and the suddenly reawakened glare.

It was almost too easy. He fought the urge to smirk. Time to up the ante.

"But if you're sure then . . .fifty laps. Does that sound good?"

Sakuno nodded and he straightened back up causing some of the tension plaguing his teammates to dissipate although they kept a wary eye on his hands where they rested on her shoulders.

"Now, why don't you come sit with me and you can tell me all about why you were so late."

He guided her gently to the bed and watched cheerfully as the room tensed back up again.

He lifted her onto the bed and sat down next to her, flashing a smile at the crowd standing before them. It's easy charm fooled none of them. The fighters were all in their corners. It was time for round two.

Sakuno launched into the story of her day and he fought the urge to snicker at the looks on the Regulars' faces.

He loved getting new toys.

Prince of Tennis

Sanada frowned down at his tennis shoes and shifted uncomfortably in the hard, plastic waiting room chair. The hospital bustled around him The visit today had been . . . eventful.

Yukimura had been in rare form, provoking Niou, Marui, and Akaya with virtually every word he spoke. They were fools for reacting. It only encouraged him. In the end they really had no choice, not anymore. Not reacting would have been worse.

Sanada had great respect for his captain and friend. Yukimura was a formidable player, the Child of God, and a dedicated leader. His presence in the club was sorely missed. His habit of riling up the troops, however, that Sanada could live without.

Yukimura was a good person but he got bored easily. A consequence of being stronger, smarter, and faster than most anyone you came in contact with was that a good challenge was hard to find. Here in the hospital, both far away from his main source of interesting opponents and too ill to play even when they were around, Yukimura was seriously lacking any kind of stimulation.

He'd resorted to playing with people.

In some ways Sanada could understand. In no ways did he approve.

Yukimura was his friend, probably his best friend, and he was very aware of all of the other boy's many virtues. That said, he was also aware of his flaws and his friend had seemed determined to showcase every one of them in his behavior today.

Normally, Sanada left well enough alone. Yukimura was responsible person, a good person. He knew when to stop, when enough was enough.

Usually.

The months he'd spent trapped in the hospital had done something to him, had changed something vital. His once harmless needling now had an . . . edge to it that made Sanada distinctly uncomfortable. He'd seen the glances Yukimura had sent his way today, had purposely allowed himself to react. If he hadn't he knew that the other boy would continue to push until he did.

And that was what worried him. Before, Yukimura would have stopped. Now, he'd either forgotten how to or he no longer cared. Sanada wasn't sure which would be worse. The thought of either made him feel sick.

He wondered if his friend had even really seen Sakuno. If he'd actually listened to a single word she'd said or if he'd been too busy playing human chess to notice who she was. What she was.

Sanada didn't worry about the Regulars. They could handle Yukimura's manipulations. But Sakuno was small. Young. And no matter how well she'd handled everything the club had thrown at her so far, she was undoubtedly too fragile to handle Yukimura at his worst.

The universe was too fragile to handle Yukimura at his worst.

Sanada took a moment to thank the Powers That Be that his friend had decided to go into tennis instead of weapons development.

"Senpai?" Sakuno's voice was small, hesitant. "Are you alright?"

He turned his head to look at her. She stood, clutching her small bag tightly to her chest, concern written all over her tiny face.

His face softened almost imperceptibly as he answered in the affirmative and stood up. She caught it and smiled brightly at him. He took her bag and started walking, his steps much slower and smaller than usual. She trotted alongside him happily.

He looked down at her.

She was a nice girl.

"I'm sorry you had to wait so long."

She didn't deserve to be manipulated.

"I hurt my hand a few years ago."

She didn't deserve to be hurt.

"It's fine now but nii-chan insists on check-ups."

And Yukimura . . .

"He worries too much."

Yukimura didn't deserve the guilt he'd feel once he realized what he'd done.

"Everybody does."

And he would.

"Like today!"

Once he was thinking clearly again he'd hate himself for it.

"Niou-senpai and Marui-senpai, and Akaya-senpai were being so silly."

Sanada knew his friend.

"But Yukimura-senpai was so nice!"

He knew what he had to do.

"I had fun today."

He looked down at Sakuno's bright smile and thought of Yukimura's that day at the bridge, small and strong and terribly, terribly kind.

"Did you have fun senpai?"

He would protect them both.

He had to.


A/N: Not quite as long as the last chapter but I had a very set idea of where and how I wanted this chapter to end.

As always reviews are both appreciated and adored.

Next Chapter: Seigaku. Finally. Also, Hyotei comes back.