A/N: Okay, this chapter is really long and has nothing that I promised in the previous chapter. But the Rikkai ladies make another appearance.

Also, Niou x Sayaka got wildly popular all of a sudden (within the span of one chapter). How did that happen? I wrote a scene, just for you guys.

To Recap: In the last chapter, White Day gifts were exchanged, Izumi went on a "date" with Yukimura, Reina got rejected by Inui, etc.

The title is courtesy of Twitter handle iamMeshh.

Forgive me for any typos. I am jetlagged out of my mind.

Also this chapter is like 42 pages. You're welcome.

To Catch A Falling Star, Chapter 31: A Different Kind of Rivalry

-x-

Fifth place.

"Man, the midterm exams were hard on everyone…"

"Yeah, even the top rankers did worse than usual…"

Fifth place.

"Oh, looks like Tezuka is in the top spot again."

"Natsuko almost got him, though! She's only a few points behind."

Fifth place.

"Oishi! You did really well this time, nya! You made it into the top three!"

"A-ah, thank you, Eiji. It was luck, I'm sure…"

Fifth place.

Some people glanced at her warily as she passed them. Kikumaru opened his mouth, as if to say something, and then closed it again.

Fifth place was obviously not good. Fifth place was worse than anything she'd ever gotten before, even though she had a perfect score in both History and Japanese Literature. Izumi had grown accustomed to seeing her name just a line below Tezuka's. Now that her name was a good four lines below his, it was a bit of a tough thing to swallow.

This term, both Tezuka and Oishi had ranked higher than her. Both Tezuka and Oishi and student council responsibilities on top of their tennis team responsibilities. She was no longer on student council; she was nothing but a player on the tennis team. She had absolutely no excuse for faring poorly.

Izumi knew that this was only to be expected. She had studied just as hard for this round of examinations as she had any other, but there simply hadn't been enough time.

Before, she spent her afternoons with only her textbook. Now, she spent them running laps, swinging her racket, playing matches, and recently, at the burger restaurant with the rest of the team. On weekends, she was at the dance studio, honing her technique. She visited Yukimura regularly at the hospital, and she continued to help Fuji with his photography project.

In light of the alternatives, her textbook no longer seemed like an attractive option.

She could feel her body changing, too. She was getting stronger. Her muscles were getting toned, her pale skin starting to tan healthily. Absently, she felt for her ribs through her shirt, and noticed that they did not feel as prominent. Though she was still too thin to be healthy, she'd lost the skeletal look.

Perhaps before, she spent so much time with her textbooks because they were her only companions.

She had other companions now. She smiled at Kikumaru's antics, accepted Akane's speeches, listened to Tezuka's orders with reverence. They were a team. They were a family.

Half a year ago, she would've have snapped at someone for their sympathy regarding her dropped rank. Her identity was her academic standing. Now, she was more than just a name and a rank. There was more to her life than academics. There was tennis, there was dance. There were friends.

Izumi turned away from the board, smiling softly to herself. Fifth place wasn't good, but it was okay.

~x~

"Kimura, I called Tezuka-kun in today to discuss your specific situation…" Her teacher consulted some papers in her hands with squinting eyes. "Last semester, we put you on academic probation. That made you ineligible to play on the tennis team."

Suzume made an indifferent noise.

"However, your brother explained your family situation, and we made an exception. That was on the basis that your grades would continue to improve. Which they have not."

"That's not true," Suzume countered sulkily, her arms crossed. "I passed all my subjects this term. That never happens."

"Kimura," the teacher said in a reproving tone. "That's not the attitude to have. Schoolwork is important! Look at Tezuka-kun!" She gestured towards him. "He has prospects; he could go pro, or he could get a degree! Scouts and colleges are fighting for him."

She barely resisted an eye-roll. Stupid golden boy.

"Sensei, I would like to resolve this matter as smoothly as possible," Tezuka said diplomatically, like the model student he was. "What can I do to help?"

"I am willing to give you another chance, Kimura. If you can get above a seventy percent in all your subjects on the next round of exams. If not, I will not hesitate to revoke your extracurricular activities." Her teacher turned to Tezuka with a firm look. "I'm sure Tezuka-kun will see to it."

He gave her a single nod. "Of course."

Suzume picked at a fingernail contemptuously. "Fine. Whatever."

"Kimura, you are very smart. You just don't apply yourself. At this rate, you won't even be able to graduate high school. Do you have any idea what you want to do in life?" Her teacher leaned forward. "Don't you want a future?"

"No. I just want to flip burgers at the McDonald's across the street." Sarcasm dripped from her voice.

"Thank you for your time," Tezuka said respectfully, standing up. "Let's go, Kimura."

With a loud sigh, she pushed back her chair and followed him out.

"Kimura," Tezuka was saying as they left, "Your sensei is looking out for your best interests. Have you given any thought to what you want to do in the future?"

She raised her voice deliberately. "Certainly not a teacher, if that's how they all turn out."

~x~

Elsewhere across Tokyo…

There was a giant crowd around the ranking results from the midterm examinations. Hmm… now that just wouldn't do.

Atobe snapped his fingers, and the other students parted for him like the red sea. He always wanted Kabaji to announce his presence like in those movies, 'Make way for the king!', however his friend had refused in that silent, judgmental way of his.

Atobe gave the list on the board an imperious glance. "Of course Ore-sama is number one. That's the only acceptable result, ne, Kabaji?"

"Usu."

"You did very well this round, too," Atobe commented, looking at the second-years' ranking list that was posted next to his. "Number five is a good seat to be in, isn't it?"

"Usu."

Atobe's eyes scanned down the list for familiar names. Shigohara and Oshitari had both made the top ten, as well as some officers from student council. That girl from his class, Suzuki, had also made it; she was abysmal at Greek but stellar in all her other subjects. The top twenty included Ayumi and Omae from the girl's team He tsk-ed slightly when he came across Mukahi's and Shishido's names well into the thirties. Jirou's name was all the way down into the sixties, although, by some miracle, the sleepy third year was able to pass all his subjects.

'Strange,' Atobe thought to himself, re-scanning the list. 'I must've missed…'

His eyes landed on the name he was thinking of. #11 Fuuma Eri.

'Eleven?' He frowned. Although Fuuma had never cracked the top three, she'd also never ranked below number five before. A drop like this was astronomical by her standards. Surely there would be consequences. Surely there would be repercussions.

"Well, it doesn't concern me…" Atobe finally concluded, albeit hesitatingly. He glanced at the name one last time before turning away. "Let's go, Kabaji."

-x-

There were two sounds in the world that could make Fuuma Eri's skin crawl terribly: nails on a chalkboard, and the sound of high heels on a marble floor.

As far as she knew, the 'nails on a chalkboard' thing was universal. But Fuuma had a hard time explaining to others why she jumped like a scared rabbit every time she heard the sound of high heels coming down the hallway. Like a war veteran who'd just heard a gunshot, her heart raced, her face turned pale, and a cold sweat broke out on her forehead. It was enough to ruin any day of hers.

Today happened to be one of those days.

She should have seen it coming. The minute the ranking list went up, she should've expected it. However, Fuuma still managed to feel shocked when she heard the unmistakable sound of her mother's high heels coming down the school hallway.

Clack clack clack.

"Mama!" she said, trying to force a smile. "Mama, what are you doing here?"

"Your teacher called me." Her mother didn't stop, and walked right up to the bulletin board where the exam results were posted, her heels click-clacking sharply against the floor. "So it's true," she confirmed as her eyes found her daughter's name.

People were already turning to look. "Mama," she pleaded, the smile dropping from her face. "Mama, I'm sorry. I just—"

Her mother's hand reached out and struck her across the face. "You are a disgrace," she spat.

Several students gasped.

Fuuma resisted the need to cup the tender side of her face, and clenched the woolen fabric of her skirt tightly. Her eyes were fixed on the ground. 'Don't react. Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't be weak."

"You look at me when I'm talking to you," her mother commanded.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see some of her friends – Ayumi, Rie, Mukahi, even Shigohara… but all of them looked away painfully. They knew not to intercede. They dared not. Not when Mama was on the school board, and had the power to kick them all out of school.

"Look at me."

She breathed. With a willful push, she drained every last ounce of emotion from her face and lifted her eyes to meet her mother's.

Her lack of response seemed to anger her mother even further. She seethed, "Ungrateful child. We work to give you a good education, and this is how you use it? You are a disappointment to the entire family." She raised a hand again, and Fuuma winced, eyes shut, bracing herself.

Out of the blue, a giant, looming figure stepped between them, forcing her mother to step backwards.

"W-What—"

Fuuma opened her eyes, mouth slack in disbelief.

It was Kabaji.

Her mother quickly regained her composure. "Move aside, young man. This doesn't concern you."

To Fuuma's utter surprise, Kabaji voiced but one word—

"No."

The halls were dead silent. Everyone was staring.

Her mother was speechless for a moment as well. "Young man, I demand you get out of the way this instant!"

"No."

Kabaji's deep voice resonated through the hushed hallway, and for a moment Fuuma felt so safe and relieved, but... This wasn't right. She couldn't let him do this for her. She couldn't let anyone, much less a kohai, step forward and fight her battles for her. What would that say about her? 'Don't be weak. Don't be weak.'

"Munehiro-kun," Fuuma finally whispered, reaching up to touch his shoulder lightly. He turned at her touch, like the aftershock of an earthquake. "It's okay. Thank you, but it's okay."

Kabaji gave her look of gentle thoughtfulness. Then he stepped out of the way, only to take a protective stance right behind her right shoulder.

It started like a ripple. Atobe walked briskly forward, coming to stand next to Kabaji. The captain murmured something under his breath, and Kabaji responded with a single nod and, "Usu." From her left side, Fuuma caught a glance of Rie's platinum hair and Ayumi's black curls, also stepping closer.

"Fuuma-sama," Atobe addressed her mother with the utmost pleasantness. "It is lovely to see you again. As the student council president, I have to strongly advise you against physical violence on school premises as it is terribly uncouth." He sniffed slightly. "Hyotei students value grace more than anything, as your daughter demonstrates."

Fuuma was glad she was biting her lip, or else her jaw would've hit the floor. 'What in the—'

Only Atobe. Only Atobe could talk down to someone like her mother and get away with it. Of course, it helped that the Atobe Corporation funded over 60% of all school functions, so even young Atobe had more power than Madame Fuuma could even dream of.

"Mama," Fuuma said quietly, though emboldened now with the support from her friends. "Please. Can we handle this at home?"

Her mother's face was white with fury. She pointed a shaking finger at her daughter. "This is not over. I'll deal with you later." She turned on her heel angrily and click-clacked down the hallway.

For a moment, no one spoke.

Then Rie said, "No way in hell are we letting you go home to that. C'mon, crash with me tonight."

-x-

"Hey Sakuno!" Tomoka came skipping up to her, doing a little victory dance. "Sa-ku-no! Guess what? Guess what?" She jumped in excitement.

"A-ah Tomo-chan!" Sakuno, in between lacing her shoes, giggled at her behavior. "What's going on?"

She flashed two colorful tickets in Sakuno's face. "My mom has extra tickets to the carnival on Saturday! Let's go, let's go, let's go!" She pumped her fist in the air. "Go, go, go!"

"This weekend?" Sakuno said, her expression crestfallen. "I can't go. Some of the girls are having practice at the street tennis courts to prepare for the ranking matches."

Tomoka's hand holding the ticket dropped to her side. "Oh. Do you have to go? Can you blow it off?"

She fiddled with her racket strings anxiously. "I don't think so…"

"Did your grandma say it was mandatory?"

"No… but…"

"Then you don't have to go!" Tomoka decided. "She could cut you some slack, just this one time! C'mon, there's supposed to be a Ferris Wheel, and all sorts of games—"

"Tomo-chan," Sakuno said, the pitch of her voice low. "I.., I have to go."

Tomoka stopped. Stared at her, as if seeing her for the first time. Said slowly, in an aching sort of realization, "I… see. I see how it is."

"I'm sorry," Sakuno said unhappily. "Maybe next time!"

"It's fine… whatever."

"Tomo-chan?" Sakuno said, worried and confused at her tone.

Tomoka turned away, brown bangs casting shadows over her eyes.

"Wait, Tomo-chan!" Sakuno stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing!" Tomoka snapped, waving her hand. "Just go! Go have fun with your team!"

So that was it. Tomoka was jealous. "Tomo-chan…" She clutched her racket to her chest, her arms trembling. Her voice got very, very small. "I… need to practice... If I don't play well in the ranking matches, I'll get pushed out of the regulars."

"Yes, I get it! And I know!" Tomoka said angrily. "I've been to every single one of your games! You…" She breathed out furiously. "You just never have time for us anymore! It's always tennis practice, or a winter break in the mountains, or… doing archery with the regulars!"

"Th-that's not true," Sakuno tried to point out unconvincingly. "We made chocolates together for Valentine's Day…"

"Oh sure," Tomoka said sarcastically, hands on her hips "Whenever you need something, you call me over for help. But when's the last time we hung out, just for fun?"

Sakuno fished through her memory for an example. There was that time they went to the movies… and when they went to the park… and that time that they just did each other's nails at Sakuno's place… But those were all at least a month ago. Where had the time gone? Sakuno suddenly realized that since then, her weekdays were spent at tennis practice, and her weekends were occupied with tennis training with Suzume-senpai.

"I can't compete for your attention with an entire team," Tomoka said crossly. "Best friends don't work that way."

"Tomo-chan…" Sakuno whispered. "I'm sorry… I didn't know you… I didn't realize…"

"It's fine," Tomoka said with a huff. "Whatever. I just can't be your backup anymore, okay? You have new friends now, and that's fine." To her horror, her eyes started to well up with tears, which she brushed away roughly. "That's fine."

"To—" Sakuno started.

"Forget it." Tomoka slung her bag over her shoulder and walked away. "Just forget it."

-x-

It was a good thing that today was self-practice, Sakuno thought, as she hit the ball to the wall over and over. The mundane rhythm helped her sort out her jumbled thoughts.

-pok-

Tomoka was angry with her for all the time she spent on tennis.

-pok-

She understood Tomoka's frustration, but what could she do?

-pok-

What could she do?

-pok-

She'd worked so… so hard at tennis. Couldn't Tomoka just support her in this one thing?

-pok-

Why couldn't Tomoka understand how much she needed this?

-POK-

You couldn't just blow off tennis practice. Not when you were the weakest member on the team.

-POK-

Ranking tournaments were next week. What if she lost?

-POK-

She needed this practice. God, she needed it.

-POK-

A pink head suddenly popped up above the wall, startling her. "Hey!" Kimiko chirped. "What's going on with you, Sakuno-chan?"

Sakuno stopped hitting the ball into the wall and caught it between her hands. "Um… nothing…" she said, seeing it was Kimiko. Kimiko was one of the senpais that she wasn't quite as close to. Though the short second year was friendly to her, she was also friendly to everyone, and she didn't really go out of her way to give Sakuno special treatment.

Kimiko cocked her head to the side. "Lies, Sakuno-chan," she said in a sing-song voice. "Lieeees." Swinging her legs out from under her, she leaped down from the wall, as light as a feather. "So, tell me what's wrong?"

"Really, it's nothing…" Sakuno tried to deny. "It's noth—"

"Nothing?" Kimiko repeated doubtfully. She spread her hands. "Because here I am trying to sneak a nap behind that wall there, and suddenly it goes 'BOOM!' like a cannon!" She mimed an explosion. "And then I pop up, and I see an angry Sakuno trying to kill the wall with a tennis ball."

"I'm not angry…" Sakuno protested weakly.

"Say, you didn't lose a practice match today, did you?" Kimiko peered at her dubiously. "You're kinda acting like me when I lose a match."

"No, I didn't lose… I just…" Sakuno trailed off. "Um…"

"Just…" Kimiko prompted.

Sakuno gave in, breathing out. She looked downwards at the ground. "My friend… " she said, her toe tracing a circle on the concrete. "I think… I think she's mad at me because I spend so much time with the team."

"Your friend Tomoka?"

Sakuno looked up, surprised that she remembered the name. "Yeah… that's her."

"She's still in the tennis club, isn't she? Is she in the ranking matches?"

"No… she decided not to participate this round." Tomoka had gotten too busy… doing what? Sakuno bit her lip when she realized that she didn't know what was going on in her friends' life. 'I've been a terrible friend…'

Kimiko nodded knowingly.

"I… I know she's upset…" Sakuno said quietly. "And she's really important to me… but I don't want to get kicked off the team. It's important to me too…"

"I had a friend like that," Kimiko chimed up. "She was one of my besties my first year." She mimed swinging a racket. "Then I got suuuuuper involved in the team once I became a regular, and she joined the health committee."

"What happened?" Sakuno asked, her interest captured.

Kimiko shrugged cheerfully. "We drifted apart! And that's that."

Sakuno's mouth dropped in dismay. "But… I…" 'I don't want us to drift apart…'

"Sometimes it happens."

"But senpai… Aren't you sad about your friend?"

For a moment, Kimiko's eyes held a faraway look. "Yeah, I guess… But that's life! And I think if we were better friends, maybe we both would've tried harder. It just wasn't meant to be." She sighed contently and spun the tennis ball on her finger.

"But I just…" Sakuno suddenly blinked, distracted by the small ball on Kimiko's finger. "Th-that's a really cool trick, senpai!" Tomoka could do it with a basketball, but basketballs were a lot bigger and easier to maneuver, weren't they?

"What, this?" Kimiko beamed, before bouncing the ball onto her left shoulder. Without missing a beat, she rolled it right over to the other shoulder, and caught it in her hand. "I play around sometimes when I'm bored. I'd like to know how to balance it on my nose, though!" She placed it on the tip, her eyes becoming cross-eyed. It immediately rolled off. "Ah, well… Practice, practice!"

Sakuno laughed, forgetting her troubles for a moment. That was the thing about Kimiko, she suddenly realized. She cheered people up with her childish antics, entertained them with her youthful charm. She drew in people and then held them at an arm's length, as if all she craved was a friendly distance as opposed to true intimacy.

How many people truly knew Kimiko beneath the surface level? Though she and Aiko had gotten close as doubles partners, Sakuno wondered if the language barrier between them was a wall that Kimiko was comfortable with, a line that she would prefer to not cross. Kimiko was liked by everyone, but close with no one.

Humans were complex individuals, and the tennis team was no exception. Among the female regulars, Sakuno gradually learned that Reina-senpai hid shocking insecurity behind her beauty, Suzume-senpai masked her affection with a cold attitude, and Izumi-senpai cultivated walls that she secretly wished for others to tear down.

But Kimiko-senpai… Kimiko-senpai was, thus far, a closed book. She seemed perfectly content with her role as an idle support system, one that appeared expendable, yet everyone counted on its existence at one point or the other.

Kimiko didn't seem want close friends.

Sakuno curled and uncurled her fingers around her racket. Did she really want to take friendship advice from someone like that?

Kimiko, now bored with the task of juggling the tennis ball off various body parts, turned back to Sakuno. "Really, it comes down to one thing with your friend," she finally said, bouncing the ball off her head and straight into Sakuno's hands. Her lavender eyes held a sense of maturity that Sakuno had never seen before. "Do you care about her as much as you care about tennis?"

-x-

A few days later…

-x-

"Ok Mom," Tomoka said into the phone, trying to keep one eye on her younger siblings and the other on the clock. It was futile. She needed to grow a few more eyes.

One of her brothers crawled onto the dining table and was about to do an outstanding dive into the hardwood floor. Tomoka barely managed to get there in time and pluck him from the table. "Yeah Mom," she lied through gritted teeth. "They're being good. I've got it under control."

Her mom said something into the phone about running to the grocery store for some key items. She wondered if she could also buy a tranquilizer gun. "Wait, can you repeat that…. –Hey!" She shouted at her unruly siblings, one hand over the receiver. "Knock it off!"

Sighing, she returned to her call. "Okay, Mom… let me grab a pen to write that down…" With one hand, she rooted around in the drawer beside the couch.

As if sensing that her stress level was at a snapping point, the doorbell chose that exact moment to ring.

"Arg, I can't deal with this right now!" Tomoka exclaimed to herself. "Mom, I'm going to have to call you back." She slammed the phone in the cradle, yanked open the door, and said very ungratefully and without looking, "What do you want."

Poor Sakuno looked like she was about to cry. "Um… um, n-never mind."

"Oh. It's you, Sakuno," Tomoka rubbed her forehead, feeling like a jerk. "What are you doing here?"

"I thought… um, if you still wanted to hang out or go to the carnival… I thought we could do that… if you want," Sakuno stammered.

Tomoka looked at her blankly. "What?"

"I… I want to spend time with you, Tomo-chan," she said. One hand reached up to thread her fingers nervously through her braid. "I've been a terrible friend."

"But…" Tomoka could hardly believe what she was hearing. "What about tennis practice?"

Sakuno smiled sadly. "I care about tennis… but I care about you more, Tomo-chan! And one missed practice is okay…" Her eyes were bright, and her voice trembled slightly. "I don't want you to have to come second to tennis, ever. You're too important to me."

For a moment, Tomoka just stared. Then she sighed and grabbed Sakuno by the hand. "Hurry. I've got some workout clothes in the closet. If you change now, you can make tennis practice on time."

"Eh?! But Tomo-chan—"

"It's all right, it's all right," she said, and she realized that she meant it, too. "Hurry, you're going to be late!"

-x-

"Come on, Izumi, let's see you put some bite into that forehand!" Akane yelled as she whipped a shot across the court.

The black-haired girl ran down the concrete, took aim, and swung right for Akane's open side. To her satisfaction, the ball skidded across the court wildly on its heavy topspin.

"That's what I'm talking about," Akane commented with pride as it passed her. She rested her racket on her shoulder. "Ryuzaki-sensei thinks you need more work on your timing."

Izumi's expression wavered ever so slightly, which was about as offended as she could look. 'Timing?'

Akane laughed, slapping her on the shoulder. "I'll tell her that she doesn't know what she's talking about. Take a break." The former captain glanced around the court for idle members, and noticed that their pool was significantly smaller than usual. "Hey," she said to no one in particular. "Who are we missing?"

"Reina," Chiharu responded automatically, sitting on her hands. The data oriented senior had been missing practices sporadically since White Day.

"The sparrow," Sayaka muttered. "Sakuno's not here, either…"

"Aiko-senpai!" Kimiko put in, pouting unhappily. "Which means I can't do double drills today. Today is a sad day."

"Aiko's seeing a physician today about her leg," Akane responded with a dismissive wave of her racket. "It's just a precaution."

"I know," Kimiko muttered inaudibly, a thread of irritation in her voice. She seemed annoyed that Akane thought she knew something about Aiko that Kimiko didn't.

"Where are the other three?" Akane sighed. "Guys, I know these practices aren't mandatory… but they're important." The optional practices that they had at the street tennis courts were the only time they practiced by themselves, as an all-girl team, with no boys to distract them. They could focus on basic skills, technique, but most importantly, team bonding.

"Here!" Sakuno suddenly came into view, sprinting for the courts. "I'm here! I'm here!" She halted to a stop in front of them, breathing hard, with her hands on her knees. "I'm-" wheeze "sorry! I-" gasp "-got lost!" For a few more seconds, she doubled over, trying to catch her breath, as her teammates laughed good-naturedly.

"All right, Sakuno," Akane said, her eyes crinkled into a laugh. "It looks like you've warmed up enough. You're my next victim. Get onto the court, we're doing some forehand drills."

'I gave up a day of hanging out with Tomoka for this?' Sakuno sucked in a few more breaths while she still could, and then ran over to the service line. "Yes ma'am!"

-x-

50 footwork drills, 1 hour of serve practice, and 20 suicides later, their optional practice was over. "Jesus, Akane-buchou…" Sayaka gasped, sprawled on the ground by the end of it. "Are you trying to kill us?"

Lying on her back, Akane chuckled and conceded, "Maybe a little..."

"You… meanie…" Kimiko panted, using her sports bag as a pillow. "I'm so… tired…" She curled up into a ball. "Sleepy time, sleepy time..."

Even Chiharu was winded, her cheeks flushed with exertion.

"Have our blocks been divided up for the ranking matches yet?" Izumi randomly asked, fiddling with the strings on her racket. Out of all of them, she was the least tired. Akane suspected she'd either started working on her stamina secretly, or hadn't tried very hard in those practice drills.

"Yeah, I got them here. Do you want to hear them?"

Everyone sat up with a little more attention. Kimiko perked up as well, sleep forgotten. "Yeah."

"Yes, please," Sakuno echoed faintly, fearfully.

The Seigaku girls' team decided their regulars the same way that the boys did, by having groups of players compete in a round-robin style. The top two members from each group would be added to the regulars' lineup, and an additional reserve would be chosen from a consolation match.

Ranking matches not only allowed non-regulars to compete for regulars' spots, but also allowed the current regulars to test their skills against each other for real, a rare opportunity.

"Me and Reina are in Block A," Akane read from a sheet of paper she'd fished out of her bag. "Izumi and Sayaka, you're in Block B."

Sayaka and Izumi looked at each other.

"Aiko and Chiharu are in Block C," Akane read on. "Kimiko, Sakuno, and Suzume are in Block D."

"Lemme see." Kimiko crawled up to peer at the sheet over her shoulder, her violet eyes scanning the paper quickly. "You put Hihara-chan in our block too?"

"Hihara-san?" Sakuno asked. They weren't close friends, but Hihara was in the class next to hers, and their paths had crossed a few times.

The ginger-headed captain nodded. Hihara was the only first-year other than Sakuno in the ranking tournaments. Although relatively new to tennis, she demonstrated great athleticism and a natural affinity for the sport, enough to warrant a chance.

Akane folded up the sheet and put it back into her tennis bag. "I just want to see how her level compares to our other first year." She gave Sakuno a wink. "So pound her into the court, all right?"

"Um… yes," Sakuno said, feeling a little apprehensive. Would Akane ever stop testing her?

"Son of a—!" Sayaka suddenly shouted, glaring at her phone screen. When everyone looked her way, she hastily amended, "Nothing. It's nothing. Just something this guy texted me."

"GUY?!" All the girls immediately crowded around her.

"It's nothing," Sayaka emphasized, tucking her phone protectively in her pocket. "He's stupid. I don't even know him. I don't care."

"You are enunciating an awful lot for someone who doesn't care…" Akane noted casually.

"Who is he? Who is he?" Kimiko asked excitedly. "Is he cute? Is it Kenji? You're going out with Kenji, aren't you?"

"Congratulations, Sayaka-san," Izumi added politely.

"I'm not… I… I'm just gonna…" Her purple eyes darted around. After a brief pause, she chickened out, grabbing her bag. "Yeah, I have to go." She took off in a run, a cloud of dust in her wake.

Izumi smiled softly. She had to hand it to Sayaka. Her method of dodging questions, though admittedly not very subtle, was extremely effective.

-x-

Moments earlier…

Unknown: Yo. You got a minute?

Sayaka had stared at her phone wordlessly for a second. After realizing who it was, her thumbs had moved frantically, typing out a series of angry insults. Then she'd paused, backspacing through all those words. She'd breathed and typed more calmly:

Sayaka: For you? Nope.

Satisfied with herself, she'd put the phone back down on the ground decisively. A second later, it'd beeped again.

Unknown: Meet me at the Edison Café at 5pm.

She'd practically choked on indignation.

Sayaka: Wtf, dude. I told you I'm busy.

Unknown: See you there.

"Son of a—!"

She almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it all, and thought it would serve him right when she didn't show up. A teeny, tiny part of her wanted to see him, and she decided that part of her was an idiot.

However, after escaping interrogation from the other girls on the tennis team, it was still early in the day, and Sayaka found that she didn't really have anywhere to go.

'Go home,' the little angel on her shoulder said. 'Go home and finish your homework.'

'Or you could go,' said the devil. Why not? It's not like you have anything better to do.'

'You have math homework to finish,' the angel chided. 'Don't make me remind you of your current rank in the midterm exams…'

'Go see him,' the devil coaxed. 'You know you want to. What harm could it do? Plus, he's kind of hot.'

"He is not hot." Too late she realized that she'd said that out loud. People were looking at her curiously. "Don't mind me," she said weakly, with an awkward salute. "Carry on, carry on…"

Sayaka clutched her forehead and sighed in desperation. She might as well go, or else she'd end up in a mental institution if this went on for too long.

At exactly five o'clock, he strolled through the door casually, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched. Sayaka's face almost lit up when she saw him, but she reigned herself in and waved in what she thought was a cool manner. He noticed her, and gave her a simple tilt of his head.

(That irked her a little. 'You drag me out here and all I get in greeting is a nod?!')

"Shoot. What do you want," she said, after he'd sat down.

He just looked at her.

"What? I don't have to be here, you know."

"But you are here."

She rolled her eyes skyward in mock irritation, and in doing so, her eyes landed on the shadows of light seeping through the spiral steel staircase. The railing was bent and twisted in different areas, and the steps carried just enough rust to look artistic. "Hey… this place is really cool." She craned her neck to look around. It was a coffee shop that appeared to be in a remolded factory of some sort. The lights that hung from the ceiling were old fashioned, industrial-looking bulbs on wrought iron chains. In the corner, next to the coffee maker, were the remnants of an old steam engine.

"I always sort of wanted to be a hipster," she confessed with a laugh, taking a cookie out of the tin that came with her coffee. "But I think it's too much work to figure out what's cool before everyone else does."

He took one of the cookies and examined it disinterestedly. "I don't look for cool things. Cool things gravitate towards me."

"You're so full of it," she wanted to say flirtatiously, but didn't believe she could pull it off. Instead, she settled for a skeptical "Is that so."

He leaned back. "You're here, aren't you?"

"You think I'm cool?" Sayaka couldn't help it; a stupid, self-gratified grin started to spread across her face.

He looked amused. "Less so now that you are smiling like an idiot."

She threw the cookie at him. "What do you want from me?"

The silver-haired boy surveyed her. Thoughtfully so, up and down, with those eyes in a color she couldn't quite name, because she was nervous to look into them for too long. "Momoshiro-chan," he said evenly. "Tell me about your day."

There was an incredulous pause. "You brought me here to hear about my day?!"

He waited. She wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a yes or no.

"I just… I don't get you."

"Never gotten that before," he drawled sarcastically. She rather liked his drawl. It reminded her of something enticingly dark, like the woods at twilight.

"Why do you want to know about my day?" she asked suspiciously. Briefly, she tried to recall if anything unusual happened to her today, but… no. It had been a pretty ordinary and boring day.

Until now.

"Tell me about your day," he said again. "And I'll tell you my name."

"What kind of trade is that?!"

"Or you could continue to refer to me as "Sexy" in your mind, if you'd like…"

"It's 'Moron!' " she retorted. "I call you 'Moron!' I don't… You… Fine," she gave in. For some reason, she was smiling. "Fine. I got up, went to class, then had tennis practice. Then a moron texted me and I, being stupid, listened to him and came here. The end. Happy?"

"Ecstatic," he responded dryly.

She felt like laughing exasperatedly. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"Just." He shrugged. "Tell me things."

-x-

"It just looks like stress to me…" The doctor murmured, feeling along the muscle in her lower calf. He looked back at the X-ray on the screen, illuminating his face in a soft blue light. "There's no damage to the bone, and it's not a noticeable sprain. There's nothing wrong with it."

'Nothing wrong with it?!' Aiko wanted to scream in disbelief. Her leg was twitching like it had a life of it's own, reminding her of the first and only time she watched Kawamura butcher a live fish. "It's… it's possessed."

The doctor laughed. "That's happens sometimes when our muscles are overexerted. Just take it easy the next few days. Drink some coconut water."

'Take it easy?' "I have a match."

Dr. Akitaka sighed, having heard this excuse many times. "How important is the match? Do you have to play?"

It was the intra-school ranking matches. It was as important as any match was to her. It was critical. Aiko locked her jaw stubbornly. "I have to play."

The doctor was silent for a minute while he studied her. He turned back to her X-ray, pointing at the white line that was her bone. "Do you see this here? These thin lines?"

Aiko couldn't, but she nodded anyways.

"That could be the beginning of an impacted fracture. If that happens, you could lose a lot more than just a match."

Something in her gut tightened. "I… understand. Thank you, doctor."

"No problem. If you are feeling any more pain, please call me." He pressed a button on the intercom. "Risa? Komboi-san is on her way out. Could you send my next patient in, please?"

"He's on his way up, Akitaka-sensei."

"Perfect. Oh, before I forget…" The doctor scribbled something on a slip of paper and handed to Aiko. "Here's a prescription for some light painkillers if your leg starts to bother you too much." He wiggled a warning finger at her. "Remember that it only cures the symptom, not the cause, all right?"

"Yes sir," Aiko said obediently. Just as she turned to leave, the door opened and his next patient walked in.

"Good afternoon, Akitaka-sensei."

Aiko stared in shock. "Tezuka-buchou… what are you doing here?"

-x-

Reina was an absolute mess.

Not in the way most people were messes, no—but a mess nonetheless.

Oh, she'd been a mess like everyone else at first, complete with tears and chocolate icing and Adele. But now, she was a different mess. Gone were the tears and the self-pitying sighs, and what she was left with was an empty hollowness. She almost wanted the rest of her misery to come back to fill the void.

Sighing, she twirled the daisy in her hand and began mindlessly picking off the petals. (He loves me, he loves me not…)

This was how she spent her afternoons these days. Alone, on the roof, with nothing but the garden and her thoughts.

She couldn't go to tennis practice. Not with him there, reminding her of everything she wasn't, of everything she couldn't have.

She couldn't play tennis, either. Literally couldn't, in the way a bird with broken wings couldn't fly. Her mind, which usually held strategies and analysis, was a tangled knot of confusion and whys. There was nothing left of her laser sharp focus.

Reina envied that blonde girl from Hyotei, the one that could close her heart. What was her name? Fuuma Eri. How she could take all her emotions and feelings, and rip them into nothingness. How she could crumple her heart into a ball and toss it out of her own body, like an essay littered with errors.

She smiled forlornly. Was there some kind of drill that one could practice for closing one's heart?

In her phone were a few dozen texts from both Chiharu and Akane, all of which were unopened. She had no desire to read Akane's texts of irritation regarding when she would return to practice, or Chiharu's texts of concern on her wellbeing. She had no desire to see either of her friends.

She didn't want to see the way Oishi would wait for Akane after class, how the two would hold hands when they thought no one was looking. How they would share a gentle kiss beneath the sakura trees after everyone else had left. How they looked so blissfully happy all the time, for no reason at all. Reina couldn't see that, couldn't see that and not want it so much that it made her heart ache.

She didn't want to see the way Chiharu pined after Tezuka. How she would smile hopefully in his direction, and how he would respond with a nod and a special gaze, meant just for her. How he wouldn't reciprocate her kind actions and shy smiles, but accept them, like he did no one else's. She couldn't see that and not want to yell at her friend for how naïve she was being, how useless it all was, how she would just end up with a hundred pieces of a broken heart.

So Reina settled for watching from the roof. Which was probably worse, because there, she saw everything.

The door to the roof opened, and someone walked in. Reina froze.

Why was it that the people you wanted to avoid somehow ended up running into you anyways?

(She was starting to empathize with Izumi.)

For a slow, agonizing minute, neither of them spoke. It felt like hours.

"Reina." Inui finally stepped out and broke the ice. "It's good to see you. How are you?"

"I'm… well…" Reina managed, thankful that her voice did not crack. "And you?"

"I'm… also well…"

They stood, facing each other, and realized that they no longer knew how to act around one another.

'You said this wouldn't affect our friendship.'

"What are you doing here?" she finally asked. Tennis practice wasn't due to be over for another hour, at least.

He pulled out a pair of binoculars, looking guilty. "Fuji never plays to his true potential when he knows I'm watching. I was hoping to observe from a distance. This seemed like a good view."

She thought of Chiharu's pining looks, Oishi and Akane's secret smiles, of all the wonderful-awful things she could see from the roof. She smiled through her pain. "It is a good view."

Inui put his binoculars back in the bag, fixing his gaze back on her. She wished she could see his eyes, so she could tell how he was looking at her. Hopefully? Irritably? Pitifully? Instead, she focused her eyes on his mouth, searching for clues.

"Reina," he said, his lips betraying no information. "What are you doing here?"

Getting over you.

And it's not working.

"Nothing. I… Nothing." Her fist was curled around the fabric of her skirt. "I can't… play. Not now. Just… I need a little more time."

His mouth twisted. He tried, "Reina…"

'Did I do this to you?'

Reina was sure that if she stayed any longer, she would fall to pieces right in front of him. "I was just leaving. I'll see you later."

"Reina…" It was all he could say. "I…"

As she turned around to leave him, he reached a hand out towards her shoulder. 'Wait. Please.' But his hand stilled, and he didn't. Didn't clasp her on the shoulder, didn't stop her from closing the door. Didn't do whatever it was he wanted to do.

'I won't leave you,' he wanted to, no, should've said. 'I won't leave you like she did.'

-x-

Aiko walked quickly back to the kitchen, squinting at the pad of paper in her hand. "Right, Taka-san… I need two orders of salmon nigiri, and a toro cut roll."

"Coming right up!" He expertly layered the rice on top of the bamboo mat, rolling it out in a perfect cylinder shape. "How did the doctor's visit go, by the way?"

"It went… okay," Aiko couldn't help glancing at her leg, which, thank god, had stopped spasm-ing like a fish. "I don't know. He thinks I should take it easy, but the ranking matches…"

"Are not that important," Kawamura finished gently, chopping out the roll in decisive strokes. "It's not an official match, and you can beat most of the girls on one leg anyways. You should listen to your doctor."

"I guess so."

He sliced out the salmon, catching her eye in an understanding gaze. "It's hard, but nothing is worse than not being able to play at all. You don't want to do that to yourself."

Aiko hesitated. "Yeah…"

—FLASHBACK—

"I haven't told the rest of the team."

"Why not?"

"I don't want to burden them. They don't need to know."

"Tezuka-buchou… they would want to know."

-x-

"We will now begin the ranking matches! All regulars check the scoreboard for your respective court numbers!"

Sakuno studied the board. 3pm – Ryuzaki vs. Naito, Court D. She was one of the first to play that day. Naito, she remembered, was a second-year that had been in the tennis club for a while.

After she got to the court, she unzipped her tennis bag and surveyed her options. She'd recently acquired a new racket, with a higher string tension. With all the extra practice time, the strings were getting worn out more quickly, so it was good that she had a spare. She chose the older, pink-colored racket.

"SAKUNO! WHOOOOO!"

Sakuno whirled at her name being shouted across the courts.

Tomoka grinned from behind the fence, wearing a shirt that had a giant "S" on the front. "Go Sakuno!" she cheered, waving a hand. "Whoo! Sa-ku-no! Sa-ku-no!"

"Ah… thanks, Tomo-chan!" Sakuno said abashedly. "But I haven't even stepped onto the court yet…"

"Well I'm here to pump you up! Beat that other girl! Go go go!"

Sakuno smiled in relief. Tomoka hadn't brought up their fight since she let Sakuno go to tennis practice that other day. They had moved on. There was an unspoken agreement between them now, she believed; she would try harder to make time for Tomoka, and Tomoka would try harder to accept her tennis team duties.

At least she knew how Tomoka felt now, and she knew not to take her for granted.

"Oh!" Kimiko popped up next to her, hopping up and down lightly on her feet as a warm-up. "You worked it out with your friend!"

"Ah… yes…" Sakuno said slowly, trying to gage Kimiko's reaction.

"That's great!" Kimiko enthused with a thumbs-up sign. "I'm so glad for you guys!" And she did seem that way. Genuinely glad.

It made Sakuno feel… well, not uneasy. But not entirely comfortable either.

As she watched Kimiko bounce away, humming a pop tune to herself, she couldn't help but think, 'Isn't it exhausting to be so happy all the time, senpai? Is there anything that makes you sad?'

She'd seen Kimiko annoyed, frustrated, and unhappy. But never for long, and never in a completely desolate state like she'd seen so many of the other girls.

It wasn't that she doubted her senpai. Kimiko had never given her a reason to be suspicious. Sakuno just had a feeling… a weird feeling—that she knew next to nothing about Kimiko. There was so much about her that she had yet to learn.

-x-

"Game, Morioka! Five games to three!"

Sayaka clenched her racket, her palm sweaty. 'I knew Izumi-senpai was good, but I didn't think she'd be this good.' She cursed herself for underestimating her senpai, a rash mistake.

Izumi was one of the most underrated and overlooked members on the Seigaku team. She'd lost her Singles debut game against St. Rudolph, she'd been benched for the Hyotei game. She drew more attention to her health issues and relationship dramas than to her tennis skills.

Now on court, Izumi was using her elongated steps and pace to slow down the rhythm, throwing off Sayaka's timing completely. The tall second-year misjudged another shot, somersaulting in too late. She missed her chance completely.

Izumi was a damn good player, and Sayaka was remembering this too late.

"Game and Match, Morioka!"

Sayaka shook her hand across the net. "Nice game, senpai. I still need to work on a long of things. That was fun, though. Thanks for not holding back."

"My pleasure," Izumi said. Then, she lowered her voice, "Sayaka-san." Said, more gently, "Sayaka-san, are your wrists okay?"

"What?" Sayaka laughed, bewildered. "Yeah, they're fine! See?" She twirled them around, back and forth, like little flowers.

"Okay," Izumi said, her tone nondescript. She shifted, seeming unsatisfied with her answer, but didn't push it. "Okay. Then, thanks for the game."

Suzume was waiting for the tall second year at the fence, her arms crossed. "How'd it go?"

"Pretty awful," Sayaka admitted cheerfully, though not without the slightest tinge of sourness. "She schooled me."

"Yeah? That's Izumi-senpai for you," Suzume said, unsurprised. "She can be pretty scary, when she's not scared shitless herself."

"Senpais! Excuse me, senpais!" The freshmen trio came barreling for them, all of them panting and out of breath.

"What is it, you three?" Sayaka asked.

After a gasp of air, Katsuo cried, "Watanabe-senpai is losing!" His eyes were wide with worry. "She could get kicked off the regulars!

Sayaka and Suzume exchanged a stunned glance and followed them immediately.

-x-

"Game, Nakaya! Five games to two!"

Chiharu pressed a hand against the fence. "This isn't good. Reina can't afford to lose this game."

Reina had been placed in the same block as Akane, and lost to her at an abysmal score of 6-1. If she lost now to Nakaya, the latter would take her regular's place on the team.

"Akane…" Chiharu said softly. "Reina can't be replaced by her. Nakaya isn't good enough. We could never get to Nationals without Reina."

Akane drew her lips into a tight, thin line. "I know."

On court, Reina double-faulted into the net. Some of the team members turned away. It was getting too painful to watch.

"Akane, can't you do something?"

"What would you have me do?"

"I don't know! Maybe…" Chiharu racked her mind desperately, her eyes landing on Reina's opponent. "Maybe… convince Nakaya to throw the match?"

Akane stared at her. "Seriously? That's what you would have me do. Lead the team through manipulation and underhand favors. Wow. That's really cowardly of you."

Chiharu's first thought was, 'Don't pretend you are above using people's feelings', and it stunned her, that she would have such a malicious, ugly thought in her head. Instead, the only thing that left her lips was a defeated "I-I'm sorry…"

Suzume suddenly appeared behind her senpai's shoulder protectively, as if she could sense Chiharu's distress. "What," she said to Akane scathingly. "So now we're a strict hierarchy based on performance and merit? No second chances? That makes us no better than Hyotei."

"And Hyotei beat us," Akane shot back, her eyes flashing. "As you so colorfully reminded us a few weeks ago."

Suzume's eyes narrowed like a cat's. "Losing Reina-senpai," she said in a controlled tone, "Would destroy us. You know that."

"I don't have a choice. You know that."

Her hands clenched, the coil in her stomach snapping. "It was your choice to pull Reina-senpai from the lineup against Hyotei," she said, her voice rising. "It was your choice to—"

"Suzume, that's enough," Chiharu suddenly interrupted, stepping in between the two like a referee at a boxing match. A split second of hesitation later, she said, "Akane's right. There is nothing we can do right now but support Reina and pray for her victory." Her tone, though resigned, was one of finality.

On the court, the dark haired girl bounced a ball on the ground, her eyes hazy and unfocused. The racket felt heavy and foreign in her grasp. 'What are you doing what are you doing what are you doing…!'

"Why?" Sayaka asked no one in particular, her brows scrunched in worry. "Why is she playing so terribly?"

"Something happened," Izumi responded quietly. She knew that feeling all too well.

Something heavy was weighing on Reina's mind.

"Holy shit, what's going on here?" Momoshiro joined them, his mouth open in shock.

"It's just as you see it," Akane said coldly. "Shouldn't you guys be watching the boys' ranking match?"

"Nah," Momoshiro said, waving a hand good-naturedly. "There's no fun in watching Tezuka put cocky second years in their place. Or in watching Mamushi devour the little ones, bit by bit."

"Momo!" Kikumaru shivered at his word choice. "Don't say it like that!"

"But seriously." The tall power player looked at the court with a solemn gaze, his eyes wide. "What in the world happened to Watanabe-senpai? This isn't like her, it isn't at all…"

"Surprising, isn't it," Suzume commented. "Considering you had your ass handed to you by her in that mixed doubles match."

His face went hot. "Shut up," he muttered, even though it was absolutely true. In fact, her poor performance now completely baffled him. This was the same girl that had hit serves that rivaled his – no, were faster than his own in a match. This was the girl who could outwit St. Rudolph's strategist by a thousand-fold. 'What happened? How is this possible?' One of his hands clutched the wire fence. 'How could someone fall so far?'

"It seems that Watanabe-san is in a bit of trouble," Fuji gathered, having joined them. His eyes were open, watching every movement on the court.

"She can win," Izumi said softly. "She just… she needs to focus on something else." 'Anything else.' The last time Izumi had dark thoughts plaguing her mind during a match, she'd lost four straight games to that St. Rudolph girl. "She can win."

"She has to win." Suzume sounded angry. "We need her. We can't make it to Nationals without her."

Chiharu blinked, and all of a sudden saw a much younger Reina on the court, scrambling to hit a ball, any ball. She blinked again. "It's like back then…" she murmured, biting her lip. "When Miyuki-senpai left…"

Watanabe Miyuki. Reina's Pillar.

Chiharu felt her eyes fill with tears. 'Your pillars… They just keep leaving you, don't they?'

"She has to get it together," Akane said unsympathetically. "She can't just go on a losing streak for a month, like last time."

"Akane," Chiharu's voice was softer, quieter now. "Please. She's already at risk of losing her regular's spot."

"You're denying her the same chance that you gave Ryuzaki," Suzume added scornfully, but Akane ignored her, jaw locked.

Even Nakaya showed signs of surprise, now that the victory was almost in her grasp. She certainly hadn't planned on dethroning the No. 2 seed in Seigaku.

"Don't give up!" Kaidoh, who'd just joined them, suddenly yelled in a guttural growl. "Senpai, don't give up!"

"That's… right…" Horio said slowly. "We should cheer for her!" He cupped his hand around his mouth. "Go, Watanabe-senpai!"

"Fight, Fight, Reina-senpai!"

"You can do it!"

Reina didn't appear to have heard them. She was lost in a world a thousand heartbreaks away. That girl on the court may have well been a dummy, a shell, a doll… Broken, like her heart, into jagged fragments of porcelain.

Her ears were filled with Miyuki's laughter, the sound of a thousand sleigh bells tinkling. Sweet, kind Miyuki, who wasn't pretty, but had a smile that could promise you everything and the sun.

'Do you know what happens to a world with no sunlight?'

"Inui," Kikumaru whined. "You know her the best! What do you think is up with Reina-chan?"

Inui jerked up like he'd been touched with an electric wire. "W-why would I know anything about that," he stammered, a rosy blush blossoming across his cheeks. "I-I I didn't do anything!"

He could not have said anything more obvious.

"YOU!" Kikumaru accused, pointing a finger at Inui's face. "You did something!"

"Inui-senpai?!" Momoshiro said disbelievingly.

"S-senpai?" Kaidoh stammered.

Only three people knew the full story: Akane rubbed her temples, Chiharu looked away. But Inui stood frozen, a mortified blush all over his face.

Comprehension dawned on the rest of the regulars as if little cartoon light bulbs lit up above their heads. It didn't take them long to drain the entire story out of him.

"Wait so… she confessed and you turned her down?"

"Inui-senpai, what were you thinking?!"

"Hmm…" Ryoma suddenly appeared beside them, musing contemplatively. "So it's all because of Inui-senpai…"

Sakuno jumped slightly at his abrupt presence. "Ah, Ryoma-kun!"

His gaze wandered around the field lazily, from the scoreboard to the girl on the court, taking in the situation. Then he smiled like a cat with the canary. "Well, I guess Reina-senpai is human after all. She's not a complete robot."

Akane shot him a stern look. "Echizen," she warned.

"So, are the two of you in love?" Before Inui could answer, Ryoma shrugged and said, "Well, I guess it doesn't matter. Love means nothing in tennis."

Reina swallowed, trying not to crumble to her knees onto the court. As if she didn't know that already. She'd been hearing that word since the beginning of the match. ("Forty-love, one game to love, two games to love….")

"Oi, Echizen…" Momoshiro said worriedly.

"But," Ryoma continued with deliberate nonchalance. "This is the difference between boys and girls."

Reina's eyebrow twitched, almost imperceptivity.

"You little brat—" Suzume lunged towards the freshman, but Momoshiro grabbed her arm, restraining her, while hiding a grin. 'He's up to something...'

Ryoma smirked, and delivered the final blow, "Only a girl would allow her emotions to get in the way of a tennis game."

"Ryoma-kun!" Sakuno said sharply, but she was cut off by a sudden movement on the court. The shot sliced across the court like a laser, a perfect ace.

Jaws dropped.

"Fifteen-love!"

Suzume stared at Reina, and then at Ryoma incredulously, before shaking off Momoshiro's arm. "Che, I can't believe this kid…"

"Not bad," Ryoma called tauntingly. "For a girl."

Boom. Another flawless serve.

"Thirty-love!"

This time, Ryoma turned to Sakuno, though he raised his voice in volume. "Does Reina-senpai always play like a girl, or just when I'm watching?"

Sakuno faltered, "Ano—um, uh—"

Reina's eyes were as dark as coal. BOOM. BOOM.

"Game, Watanabe! Five games to three!"

Kikumaru's eyes were bulging in astonishment. "W-what? What just happened?"

"He… he provoked her and it worked…"

Momoshiro grinned. "Echizen… you rascal."

"She just won that entire game with service aces!"

"She's turning the game around!"

Akane looked downwards, fighting the urge to chuckle. 'That Echizen is good…'

Ryoma smiled. "Mada mada da ne."

-x-

"Game, Komboi! Four games to love!"

"Go, Aiko-senpai!" Kimiko cheered, pumping her fist in the air. "Let's crush 'em!"

One of the other girls in the tennis club poked her. "Don't be so mean, Kimi-chan. We're all just looking for a chance to be a starter."

"Well, you aren't gonna get it in Aiko-senpai!" Kimiko responded happily. "She's a beast."

"Yeah. No kidding," Sachi, a sub-regular, said. She'd played Aiko earlier that morning. "It's like trying to topple a motherfucking skyscraper. Too bad I'm not in Ryuzaki's block."

Another girl said, "You didn't hear? Ryuzaki beat Naito this morning with a score of 6-3. That girl has gotten pretty good."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah! Did you get a load of her drive volley? It was damn strong!"

"I heard that Kimura's been whipping her into shape."

Kimiko's ears perked up slightly at this new information. 'Suzume-chan is…?'

"That explains it," one of the first years said. "I bet if Kimura-senpai took me under her wing, I'd be a regular in no time."

"Would you really want her to, though?" One of the other girls made a face.

"I heard that she's gunning for the captaincy next year."

"Kimura?" Usui, another second year, shook her head disgustedly. "That sucks. I'd drop out if she was made captain."

She could understand where Usui was coming from, but something about that comment didn't sit right with Kimiko. "Hey, you guys," she cut in, smiling to soften her words. "Don't say stuff like that. Suzume-chan could kick all your behinds to Mount Fuji if she needed to."

She was slightly surprised when everyone, even the older girls, bowed their heads and mumbled their reluctant apologies. Kimiko didn't really feel like she had any sort of authority over them – after all, she was only a second year, and she hardly ever acted like a leader.

Though, she realized as she looked at her uniform, it was the power that came with being a regular. People respected you, no matter how immature, mean, silly, or short-tempered you were. Power wasn't something she was familiar with, or ever really wanted. It made her uncomfortable. People in power didn't make friends.

'Take a look at Akane, for example,' she thought to herself. Though the confident captain had Chiharu and Reina beside her, how many times had she alienated them in doing what was right for the team? And who could forget, (Kimiko remembered this with a touch of resentment), how she'd convinced Kimiko to partner with her in doubles, despite knowing all along that they were not a good match?

'You can't be close to people if you are in a position above them.'

'You wouldn't be one of them any more.'

At that moment, Aiko hit a striking backhand straight to the baseline, the ball shooting into the fence. All the girls gasped in wonder, and Kimiko was pulled from her thoughts back to the present. The poor girl on the field waved her racket at the dark-skinned senior. "Aiko-senpai, go easy on me! This isn't even an official match!"

"Aiko-senpai doesn't know how to go easy!" Kimiko grinned, flashing her a victory sign.

Her partner grinned back at her, her teeth white against her dark skin.

Though Kimiko continued to cheer vehemently for her partner, there was a coil of unease forming in the pit of her stomach. Watching Aiko flatten her opponent in a series of love-games was worrying. Aiko was a great player, a great singles player. What was stopping her from taking on the world by herself?

The thing Kimiko feared most wasn't any sort of demon or monster, or even losing, for that matter. It was simply being alone.

-x-

"This concludes our ranking matches!" Ryuzaki Sumire called through the megaphone. "Congratulations to all our regulars!"

Everyone, including Reina, managed to hang onto their regular's spot, once again proving that they were Seigaku regulars for a reason.

"Thank you for today!"

"Hey, nice going there, Ryuzaki-san!" The newest addition to the sub-regular roster, Hihara, gave her a fist bump. Sakuno had narrowly defeated her with a score of 7 games to 5.

"Great work. No wonder you're on the team," one of the older girls said with approval. "You nearly had Kimura in the beginning, too."

That was a rather large exaggeration. Although Sakuno had lost to Suzume at a score of 6 games to 1, her solid performance was winning her respect among her teammates.

"A-ah, thank you very much!" Sakuno said, a shy delight in her voice.

Aiko approached Chiharu, limping slightly. "Oshiro. I couldn't go all out today and give you a good game. I'm sorry." She bowed her head, braids spilling over her shoulder. "I'm sorry. Gomenasai." 'I'm sorry.'

Chiharu looked at her in shock. "No, please don't worry about it! I didn't even know you were having trouble with your leg. You played amazingly well!" She reached up to put her hand on Aiko's shoulder. "Listen. Nothing is more important than taking care of yourself. If you'd got injured in that game, I would've never forgiven myself."

Their game had ended quickly, also in a score of 6-1. Aiko had held out well in the beginning, relying on her powerful serve, but Chiharu was her third opponent of that day, and she'd already used up too much energy in her previous matches. Somewhere along the fourth game, her leg had started cramping. The match ended shortly after that.

"Come with me," Chiharu said, leading her to a bench. She helped her prop her leg up, and tenderly squeezed along the muscle with her palms. "Does that help?"

"It does," Aiko said with a note of surprise.

Chiharu smiled. "Aiko-chan, you are too… Fierce," she said in English. "You're too fierce, sometimes."

Aiko laughed and had to admit she was right.

-x-

"We've got to attend the official tennis lot drawings this weekend, right?" Akane asked Oishi as everyone was packing up.

"Ah, yes. Those draws will determine who we play next in the tournament. With any luck, we won't be facing Fudomine or any of the stronger schools until later."

Akane waited for everyone else to leave the courts before taking his hand in hers, pressing a kiss to his cheek. "You're all the luck I need."

-x-

All matters regarding the tennis tournaments were settled in a small local school at the heart of Tokyo. This included when school teams would draw lots at the Kanto Regional registration to decide which opponents they would be facing first. The ambiance at today's event, in particular, was filled with suspense. The air was thick with unlit tension, as if one spark could set the entire atmosphere aflame.

Hayashi Yuzuru, Rikkaidai vice-captain, thrived in this kind of environment.

Being a history nut, she could liken the atmosphere to that of treaty meetings between feudal age warlords, their swords warm in their scabbards, their throats thirsty for blood. The different colored jerseys may as well be flags and crests of different nations. Already, she could sense other teams glancing her way warily, sizing her up. 'Yeah, you better be afraid,' she thought with an internal grin, smoothing the front of her jersey so the Rikkai symbol was even more obvious.

Since the beginning of the tournament, her team had blazed through opponents one by one, showing no mercy and not even sparing a game along the way. The Rikkai girls' team had made a name for themselves, one that struck fear in other teams.

To Yuzuru, this drawing of the lots was little more than a formality. Rikkai had already secured a spot in the Kanto finals, and everybody knew that.

Now, the only question was who their opponent would be.

"So that's Seigaku?" Yuzuru said as she noticed two girls in white and blue uniforms walk through the door. The Seigaku girls' team had developed a bit of a reputation of their own, although Hyotei was still considered the top dog from Tokyo. She leaned back in her chair complacently. "They don't look very tough."

Fukuda Hanae, her captain, raised a stern brow.

"I'm just saying," Yuzuru said, mildly defensively. "Don't look at me like that."

Hanae's gaze did not change whatsoever.

Yuzuru rolled her eyes. "I hope your face freezes like that."

Hanae sighed quietly, fixing her gaze back on the two Seigaku members. "They nearly beat Hyotei. They are worth keeping an eye on."

"But they didn't," Yuzuru pointed out. "And even if…" She trailed off, seeing as Hyotei's pair just walked up to the Seigaku members. She leaned back in her chair once more to watch the exchange, like viewing live theater.

'Well, this will be entertaining,' she thought. Then, wistfully, 'I wish I had popcorn.'

-x-

"Ito-san. It's good to see you." Shigohara extended her hand, with the back ever-so-slightly turned up. It was impossible to discern if she was mocking them or if she really considered herself a queen. Knowing Shigohara, probably both.

Akane, after staring in disbelief (was she serious?) for the tiniest second, shook her hand. "Same," she responded coolly.

Shigohara, as usual, had Fuuma by her side. Akane and Fuuma exchanged some forced pleasantries.

Well, more 'forced' on Akane's side. She was still pretty bitter about losing.

Today, Akane had brought Reina along as her 'vice-captain', though Chiharu was usually her companion at official tennis events. Akane hoped that this would remind Reina what an integral member of the team she was, and how much she mattered to Seigaku.

Shigohara flicked her eyes towards Reina briefly. "I was hoping to see Oshiro-chan today, but I guess she's not here."

"I'm sorry to disappoint," Reina spoke up, a razor blade in her tone.

Shigohara's eyes leveled onto hers once more. "Not at all," she said slowly. "Though it is a pity we didn't get to see you play in the girls' team match, Watanabe-san."

"Pity?" Reina laughed musically. "Consider it luck. If I'd been in the team lineup, there's no telling who would be the number one seed from Tokyo now." She tossed her hair over her shoulder imperiously. "Or have you forgotten our mixed doubles match already?"

"How could I ever forget…" Shigohara murmured, her smile turning a sub-zero temperature at the mention of the mixed doubles match. "Well, I suppose we'll be seeing you in the finals, then."

"If you make it that far." With that, Reina turned smartly on her heel and went to greet some other familiar faces.

Shigohara watched Reina walk away, seeming unaffected at her snub. If anything, she seemed somewhat impressed. She looked back at Akane, who at this point, was fighting to keep the smirk off her face. "Do give my best to Oshiro-chan. I owe her my thanks." Her eyes, for once, held a genuine glow.

After she turned and swooshed away, Akane bore her grin openly on her face and joined Reina's side by Fudomine's An. "Damn, girl," she said, slapping Reina on the shoulder. "I need to bring you with me more often. It's hard to intimidate people when Chiharu's busy telling them to 'Have a wonderful day.'"

Reina merely arched a brow impishly. "Let's take our seats, shall we?"

Akane smiled. "Yes. Let's."

'Damn. That Echizen kid really riled you up, didn't he?'

-x-

As it turned out, the draw was fairly favorable to the girls of Seigaku. The Hyotei, Chiba, and Rikkaidai teams were automatically seeded to the other three corners of the board. Their first opponent was a low-seed school, Rakunan High.

"If all goes as prognosticated, we will be facing the Chiba seed in the semifinals," Reina surmised. "It should not be a scabrous endeavor."

Hearing the resurface of Reina's vocabulary, Akane released a breath she'd been holding for a week, relieved. She never thought she would miss Reina's usage of impossibly long words. 'That's good. You're almost back to normal.' Reina would be okay. Everything would be okay.

As Akane walked outside with Reina, she saw Tezuka and Oishi coming out of the adjacent room where the boys' meeting had been held. The shorter boy had a solemn expression on his face.

"Oishi. Hey, Oishi." She went right to his side, concerned. "You look like you've just seen a ghost. What happened in there?"

The poor boy's lips were pale. Akane was tempted to wave her hand in front of his eyes, just to make sure he was still with them and not possessed by one of those alien creatures in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

"We'll be playing Hyotei in the first round," Tezuka answered for him.

"In the first round?" Reina and Akane exchanged a glance. That meant that one of the two best teams in Tokyo would not be advancing to Nationals. Hyotei was still the favorite to win the Kanto Regionals, and after seeing the power of their girls' team… No wonder Oishi was worried.

"Ah," Oishi confirmed, running a hand through his bangs. "It's not ideal… but we have to make the most of it! I'll call Inui and start figuring out a training regimen."

Tezuka nodded. "Hm. I'm counting on you."

"Hey Tezuka, I'm going to borrow Oishi for a second," Akane said before dragging Oishi off to the side. He was too preoccupied to even complain.

"Oishi. Hey, Oishi." She snapped her fingers in front of his eyes, jerking him back to the present.

"Ah, yes?" His eyes were on her, but his gaze was unfocused. There were too many other thoughts plaguing his mind.

"Look at me." She cupped his face in both her hands, her turquoise eyes searching his face. "Hyotei's strong, but you guys can take them. Don't worry about it."

"You guys lost to Hyotei," Oishi pointed out. Then, "I didn't mean that. I'm sorry."

Akane sighed tiredly, dropping her hands. "It's fine. And that just means that you guys have to get revenge for us, right?"

He smiled shakily. "Yeah, of course. We'll do that."

She cringed and felt like hitting herself. "Sorry. I don't mean to layer on the pressure at all, okay?"

Oishi wasn't really listening; he was too busy imagining the upcoming matches. If Tezuka had to face Atobe in Singles One, his arm could… his arm would…

"Look at me," she said again. "Look at me. Now take a breath. Repeat, 'It's going to be okay."

"Akan—" He started to protest.

"Do it."

He sighed. "It's going to be okay."

"I'm Oishi. I'm a tough guy. I can take all these suckers on."

He bit back a nervous laugh. "I-I'm Oishi. I'm a tough guy. I can take all these suckers on."

"I am going to kick some Hyotei butt next weekend."

"I am going to kick some Hyotei butt next weekend."

"And then I'm going to take my hot girlfriend out to dinner."

"And then I'm going to—" He caught himself and stopped, laughing self-consciously and flushing shyly. "I mean… if you want…"

"I kid, I kid," Akane said, ruffling his hair affectionately. She looped her arm in his with a wink, and added, "When you guys win, it's my treat."

-x-

"I can't believe we didn't know Seigaku had her…" Yuzuru grumbled. "You'd think Yanagi or Bunta or someone would've told us."

"Why?" Hanae said apathetically. "Yuki-chan didn't. And it's not as if it matters." There was, however, a slight jut to her chin that wasn't there before.

"It matters to me if it means we drop a game before reaching Nationals," her vice-captain countered. "We're going for a perfect record, remember? The boys team have one right now, and we wouldn't want to lose to them."

Hanae rather suspected this had less to do with having a perfect record, and more to do with Yuzuru's heated rivalry with Sanada.

"Speak of the devil… Don't look now," Yuzuru said lowly, seeing the boys team approaching. "But here comes Yukimura and his posse. So try toning down that scowl, would you?"

Hanae, to her credit, did not change her expression one tiny bit.

"Fukuda-san. Hayashi," Yukimura smiled. "It's good to see you both."

"It's good to see you too, Yukimura," Yuzuru answered for the both of them, seeing as Hanae was still trying to burn him with her laser glare. "Out and about today, I see?" Now that he was in the process of preparing for surgery, his appearances with his team were less and less frequent.

He laughed lightly. "I begged Sanada to take me along for today. I 'd like to know what my team is up against in my absence."

Hanae resisted the urge to snort. 'Begged' was not the correct term. 'Commanded' was probably closer to the truth.

"Good to see you too, Sanada," Yuzuru smirked. "I'm surprised you changed your hair back. I thought the pink suited you better."

A vein pulsed in his forehead. "We shall not speak of it," Sanada growled through clenched teeth, shooting Niou a death glare.

Yuzuru practically glowed with delight as his irritation.

Hanae was in no mood for a war, so she simply said, "Yuzuru." Her vice-captain shot her a look, but stepped back at her tone.

It seemed that Yukimura had the same idea, as he quickly diverted the subject: "So, was the draw favorable to your team, Fukuda-san?"

There was no way to ignore him this time. Hanae lifted her shoulders fractionally. "For the most part."

"We got a surprise from Seigaku today," Yuzuru elaborated, after sharing a look with her captain. "They've got something interesting on their team."

"Oh?"

"Watanabe Reina." Yuzuru shook her head. "Watanabe Reina."

At this name, nearly all the regulars looked up with interest. Niou and Yagyuu exchanged a low glance; Yanagi almost choked on his drink.

"I take it you didn't know," Yuzuru said to Yanagi, who chose not to respond. Which meant that yes, he had no idea, and he was irritated. He did not like not knowing things.

Yagyuu brought a finger to his chin. "She didn't play against Hyotei? That's odd."

Yuzuru nodded, voicing what they were thinking. "If only she did. Then we might be looking at a different tournament setup."

Hanae consulted a piece of paper in front of her with a list of their opponents. "Seigaku typically plays with two reserves."

Marui' s eyebrows shot up slightly. "Safety net?"

"Hardly. I would say their emotionally volatile members keep getting benched. Say, aren't you acquainted with one of them, Yukimura?" Yuzuru suddenly said. "A Morioka Izumi?"

Yukimura barely acknowledged this with a smile that was tinged with frost, before he turned right back to Hanae. "It seems your lineup might need rethinking, Fukuda-san."

She gave him her signature don't-tell-me-how-to-run-my-team glare, to which he countered with a you-know-damn-well-I'm-right smile.

"So? What's your plan, Hana-chan, ZuruZuru-chan?" Marui popped a bubble. She and Yuzuru were both in his class, and he'd taken to calling them (and the majority of their team) with affectionate and mildly insulting nicknames.

Hanae considered quietly, rubbing a slender finger down her jawline. After a moment, she said, "Pull Sugimoto from the reserve."

Yuzuru practically spat, "Hell no. No. Fucking. Way."

"Why not?" Marui asked curiously. His eyes were bright, bright in a way that was predatory, like a falcon. "Midori-chan is one of my favorites."

Yanagi nodded. "I agree. Midori could be the perfect wild card. And you have that new transfer who could step up and be the reserve."

Yuzuru crossed her arms. "Midori nearly gets kicked off the team every week. I can't put her in the official lineup. She's completely unreliable."

"She doesn't have to be that way," Yukimura put in lightly. "Not if you train her properly, Hayashi."

Yuzuru bristled, and was once again reminded of why Hanae disliked Yukimura so much. With a defensive shrug, she concluded, "If Seigaku continues to play like they played Hyotei, it won't matter. The Chiba seed will devour them."

-x-

Niou Masaharu: Hey. Don't you play for Seigaku's tennis team?

'Niou Masaharu', she thought, finally putting a name to her unknown contact. That was his name. And he hadn't lied to her; she Googled his name just to be sure. It turned out that he was quite an accomplished tennis player, as the tennis forums were abuzz with gossip regarding him.

Momoshiro Sayaka: Yeah. What about it?

Their meeting at the Edison Café had started off odd, and ended even more strangely.

They'd been there for about an hour. She'd talked about… well, whatever came to mind. Her family, her hobbies, tennis… The conversation had flowed easily. It was when she'd asked about him that he'd suddenly stood up, tossed a couple yen bills on the table and said, "Well, I have to go. See you around."

To which she'd sputtered, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me!", which made his lips quirk into a secretive smile.

In short, she still knew nothing about this kid. But at least now she knew his name.

Niou Masaharu: You weren't at the Kanto Regionals Registration.

She frowned, and typed back.

Momoshiro Sayaka: I thought only captains and vice-captains go to that.

A second later, her phone beeped again.

Niou Masaharu: Hmm. Right. Guess you aren't that important.

She sucked in an indignant breath.

Momoshiro Sayaka: Right, and I suppose you are the Prime Minister of Japan.

Somewhere across Tokyo, she was sure he was laughing at her. Probably not out loud, but with his eyes – those colorless eyes, dancing with mirth.

She wondered what his laugh sounded like.

Niou Masaharu: What can you tell me about Watanabe Reina?

Huh. That was random.

Momoshiro Sayaka: I'm not telling you anything until I get some answers out of you!

Momoshiro Sayaka: And why do you want to know?

He didn't respond for another hour, and when he did, it was:

Niou Masaharu: Edison Café at 5pm on Tuesday. See you there.

-x-

"Hey you," Yuzuru said. "Newbie. I'm talking to you."

The girl she was addressing looked up as she finished knotting her shoe. "Yeah?"

"Get yourself over to Court B. You're our new reserve. This doesn't guarantee that you'll play," Yuzuru added, eyes narrowed. "But from this day forth you'll be training like a regular."

"Sounds good to me."

"And you better be prepared," Yuzuru cautioned darkly. "You're at Rikkai now. We don't mess around."

The new girl smirked, tossing a long white pigtail over her shoulder. "Excellent."

-x-

End Chapter Thirty One.

A/N: No, I am not going to give Kimiko an angsty backstory. Have a little faith in me, will you? XD She's just going to be explored a little more deeply as a character.

EDIT: Since Rikkai will be appearing more frequently in the next few chapters, it might be good if you re-familiarize yourselves with the characters that were mentioned.

Fukuda Hanae - Captain, mentioned in CH25 (end), appears in CH29 (unnamed) CH30 and CH31

Hayashi Yuzuru - Vice Captain, mentioned in CH25 (end), appears in CH29 and CH31

Tsukino Anna - regular, appears in CH29 and CH30

Sugimoto Midori - former reserve, appears in CH25 (unnamed), mentioned in CH28 (in Izumi and Yukimura's conversation), appears in CH30 (unnamed), mentioned in CH31

"Yoshima-chan" - mentioned in CH25 (end) for being defeated by Shigohara and for playing evenly with Akaya.

"Yuki-chan" - mentioned in CH25, CH29, CH30 (as Yanagi's date) and CH31

Yeah, all the stuff with handcuffs and whatever will be in the next chapter. Tee hee.

I am writing a separate Oshitari x OC fic as a companion fic to It's All Greek, that will feature Shigohara. So, if you want to see more of them, keep an eye out for that fic.

Fun Facts about Morioka Izumi

She uses perfect grammar and punctuation when she texts.

Her favorite foods are zaru soba (cold noodles) and okonomiyaki. (Japanese pancake)

She secretly adores Miyazaki films and has a giant stuffed Totoro plushie in her room.

She is extremely flexible. One time, during a dance routine, she kneed herself in the face and chipped a tooth.

When she was little, she used to put a traffic cone on her head and pretend she was a unicorn. There are baby pictures of this that her mother covets. Izumi is still plotting on how to destroy the evidence.

I have 10 pages of the next chapter written. Whoooo.

I am going to make a solid effort to update more often with shorter chapters.

Also, I can't believe some of you guys compare me to Neon Genesis, because honestly I want to be able to write like that. She's so amazing and I'm just sldjfsljfslkjf.

Anyways, review! And tweet me.