"Kon ban ei ga o me mass en kar. Hmmmm..."
Ryoma Echizen kicked off his shoes at the front step and turned his head slightly to take in where the confused voice was coming from. Sat at the table in the kitchen was his cousin's English friend, on exchange from her university in England. Stepping into the room where she was he greeted her and his cousin with a casual 'I'm home.' before plunging himself bodily into the fridge to root out a bottle of milk.
'Hi Ryoma-san!' greeted Nanako 'Poppy-kun is learning Japanese. It's so sweet!' The English girl looked up warily at the sound of her own name before sighing deeply.
'It's a bitch!' she declared, earning a confused look from her Japanese classmate and a smirk from Ryoma. He pulled a bottle out of the fridge and took a glug of milk before pulling off his cap and looking at her from under his fringe.
'Really? Cos English isn't hard.' he replied in fluent English.
'I tell you what, my 'Ochibi', I'll come follow you around for four years here and then we can make comparisons!' replied the blonde student fixing her eyes on the younger boy's face, before breaking into a grin and sticking her tongue out. 'Don't forget kiddo. We have a date for tomorrow afternoon and if I'm not going to look incredibly dense in front of your team mates I'd better get back to this.' She waved her hand vaguely at the textbooks in front of her.
Ryoma stiffened his shoulders a little at the mention of a 'date'. He knew Ryuzuki-sensei was aware that he was bringing a student to observe the training session because his father had phoned and asked her to help his niece's friend. Poppy was studying psychology or something and was researching different teaching methods in schools. However, Ryoma could well imagine the variety of reactions his teammates were going to have. Ryoma couldn't honestly say he was that interested in girls, beyond being vaguely aware that some of them were nicer than others – or at least some of them watched nice and quietly when he played tennis and some of them just made a racket. His team mates, however, seemed to be obsessed by girls or, at least, who amongst them might have the opportunity to be near the opposite sex.
He sighed and went to pick up his bag. Before he left a thought struck him.
'Hmm? If you insist on this suffix business, Poppy-chan is fine ...'
'Poppy-chan. Do you play tennis?'
'Nope. Never picked up a racquet in my life. I played lacrosse at school. You'll have to teach me, kiddo.'
Ryoma rolled his eyes in response and made to leave as his cousin began drilling her friend in basic Japanese again
'Kon ban teh ree bee o mee mass en ka'
The freshman shook his head and muttered 'Mada Mada Dane'
Ryoma had dinner with his family and their guest, Nanako and his mother helping Poppy identify different foods and his father curiously quiet as he always was when his mother was in the house, before heading out to meet Momoshiro and do some light practise. He got back after dark and went to his room to complete his science assignment, sitting at his desk with Karupin upon his lap. He finished it with relative ease and thought it was probably time to sleep as he had morning practise before school because of the upcoming tournaments.
'Better drink one last bottle of milk before bed' he said to himself. Karupin meowed at being unseated as Ryoma stood up.
His cousin and mother were watching a film so he said good night to them on his way to the kitchen. Walking towards the fridge he was surprised to see Poppy there, still making notes.
'You can't learn a language in a night, y'know' he said with a slight smile, opening the fridge.
'Don't I know it. Anyway, this isn't Japanese. It's notes for my dissertation.'
'Dissertation?' Ryoma rolled the unfamiliar word around his mouth.
'Long essay, basically. This one is about what motivates people to improve. I'm just working on the statistical analysis. Data, really.'
Inui's face flashed into Ryoma's brain.
He smiled slightly 'I have a friend that's really into this stuff. Don't think he's that great at English though.'
Poppy smiled. 'That's a shame. It would be nice to have someone read through it and give their thoughts. It'll just have to wait until I'm back home.'
'Hmm.' Ryoma let his eyes glide over the first page of notes. He was the most fluent at English of anyone he knew here in Japan but even he was left baffled by some of the words.
Omniscient? Verisimilitude? 'Well, it's too hard for me, Poppy-tensai.'
'It means old and ugly, Look it up.'
She stuck out her tongue again.
'Anyway, I'm going to sleep. I need to be at practise early so be ready tomorrow.' Ryoma yawned and began to saunter out, milk in hand.
'Okay, thanks kiddo.'
He paused before leaving the kitchen and looked at her sideways on
'... and bring something you can run in for the practise. If you can run.'
She threw a book at him which he deftly caught.
'And we can work on your aim too' he said throwing it back to her.
She looked up thoughtfully. 'Ryoma, do you jump a lot in tennis?'
'Jump? Well, yeah. Why?' he frowned slightly, raising his face slightly to see her expression.
'Hmm. Perhaps it isn't a complete loss then.' she purred with a sly smile.
He just shook his head and continued on his way out. 'Jump? What about jumping?' he thought 'And what's a loss with jumping?'
He wondered if perhaps he should pay more attention in English, maybe he was losing his touch. Then he thought about how in his last lesson they were discussing 'under, round and through' and figured his time was still better spent thinking about tennis.
He pushed Karupin off his pillow, yawned and got under the bedsheets pushing all thoughts from his head bar replaying a French Open match he had recently seen, mumbling 'cross court shot' as he drifted off.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
Ryoma yawned and threw a slim hand out from under the covers searching for the snooze button.
'Huh? Naaa...' Ryoma found his cousin and Poppy already in his room.
'Up! Up! I have lots to do and you're showing me around, right? Plus you don't want to be late for your bat and ball session right?'
Ryoma rubbed his eyes blearily and sat up slightly, trying to bring the world into focus.
'Bat and ball session?' he repeated with a slight smirk.
Nanako smiled sweetly and then said in very rapid Japanese 'Don't you dare make Poppy-chan late on her first day working at your school, Be nice, be polite and show her some respect.'
His cousin wasn't often one for sharp words so Ryoma figured he should do as she said.
'Okay, okay. I'm getting up.'
'Good, then I'll make sure breakfast is ready.' she turned to her friend 'Poppy-chan, let's go.' she finished in English.
Ryoma gathered himself together and made sure he had packed his racquets and kit for the practises that day. Carrying his bag into the kitchen, he sat down to the food his cousin had prepared, and drank his allotted portion of milk.
Poppy seemed lost in thought. 'Are you nervous?' asked Nanako as she sat down.
The blonde girl looked up and considered the question, 'A little, yes. I'm going to be in English classes all day but I think I'm worried everything else will just be too difficult to understand. It's like being the new girl at school but this time no-one speaks the same language!'
Ryoma put down his chopsticks. 'I'm done.' he announced. 'Are you ready to go?'
'Yep, let me just put my notes into my bag.' Poppy replied, stuffing a large battered notepad into her satchel.
'Bye! Have a good day' said Nanako as they left the room for the door.
They were just slipping on their shoes when Ryoma heard a familiar voice.
'Echizen! Oi, Echizen!'
'Hmm, Momo-sempai.' he murmured.
Ryoma opened the door to find the sophomore on his bicycle outside.
'Hey, Echizen, we had ... Oh!' Momoshiro stopped short at the sight of the college student pulling the gate closed. 'Hey, Echizen. You didn't tell me you had a friend staying.' he smiled wickedly.
'This is my cousin's friend Poppy-san. She's staying here on exchange and doing some stuff at school for her studies. Oh and she doesn't speak a lot of Japanese.'
Poppy waited patiently for the bit where Ryoma would introduce his friend to her in English. A beat passed, she rolled her eyes and stuck out her hand.
'Hello. My name is Poppy, Nice to meet you. Erm, Dozu Eur osh koo?'
Momo flashed Ryoma a big grin before saying in his best English
'Hello Poppy. I am Momoshiro. Meeting you is ... delicious!'
Ryoma and Poppy looked at each other before looking away with big grins on their faces.
On the walk to school, Momo and Ryoma spoke to each other in Japanese while Poppy walked slightly behind. Every so often, Momo would turn around and smile broadly at her saying encouraging things like 'Near at school!' and 'Close! Closer!' which earned him a grin from the blonde student and also from his younger companion, although Ryoma was careful to keep it hidden under his cap.
As they approached the gate, Momo started making animated pointing and racket swinging motions for Poppy's benefit and she dutifuly replied with 'Tennis desu ka?'
Poppy turned to the younger boy with her.
'Is it okay if I stick here for your practise before school. I don't want to wander off and get lost here. '
'Yeah. Just stay out of the courts. There's a bench over there.'
Momo turned to Echizen filled with exaggerated anger as Poppy walked over to where the seventh grader had indicated.
'Oi, Echizen-kun. You're meant to show a lady to her seat!'
'Be my guest' the boy replied, turning towards the club house.
'Poppy-san! Poppy-san! Sit here now! Now!' Momo called after the student. She smiled at him.
'Ari gato Go zii muss, Momo-kun.'
Feeling satisfied with his hospitality Momo also turned to the clubhouse.
Slowly boys began to filter out, some in blue jackets and some like Ryoma and Momo in blue and white jackets with 'Seigaku' on the back. Sat on her bench, Poppy vaguely wondered why they were in English before realising that it was just a Romanization of their school's name. A portmanteau in fact. I should teach Ryoma that one, she thought. Watching them pair up and play, it was clear the boys with the Seigaku jackets were much better than the others. She didn't know much about tennis – occasional attendance of Wimbledon aside – but her psychology background clearly showed her who was most ready for battle on the courts. She smiled wryly wondering what they stitched the jackets with to encourage such a driving spirit before idly concluding the wearing of the jacket itself was motivation. She scribbled this observation into her notebook and pulled out one of her set texts to read while the boys played opposite.
On the courts, her appearance – both literally and figuratively – has been noted by Ryoma's teammates.
'Ochibi, Ochibi!' Kikumara Eiji bounced over to the younger player 'Who's the girl you brought?'
Ryoma rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to answer before Momoshiro cut in 'She's English, a college student, over here studying and staying at Echizen's place. Hands off, I saw her first!'
'But Momo you have Tachibana-An!' whined Eiji looking over to the girl on the bench.
'We're just friends!' protested Momo
'Well, maybe I can be just friends with Ryoma's friend!' he gripped Ryoma in a vice-like bearhug. 'That's okay, Ochibi? Right?'
'Get off me!' came the muffled reply.
'There is a 95 chance she will think you are too young to have a relationship with'
Eiji jumped, releasing the smaller player from his grip, 'Inui! Why do you always creep up like that!'
Inui gave a small smile by way of an answer and adjusted his glasses slightly.
'It is true. Being of college age, it is likely she is over 18 and probably closer to 21.'
Ryoma pulled his cap down lower 'Actually, she's 23. Can we play some tennis now please?'
Just a moment later the captain Tezuka came on to the courts. 'Regulars are to have a practice on courts A and B, first-years please be ready to collect balls.'
Unfortunately for that effort, Poppy stood up at that exact moment and pulled her hair out of its bun and shook it free, with the intention of plaiting it to pass the time, attracting the attention of every boy there. Momo and Eiji nearly fell flat forward, clutching each other.
It wasn't that the college student was some exceptionally good-looking woman, though she was pretty in a girlish way, but more that she was a girl with long curly blonde hair that fell forward causing her to push it from her face as it fell in cascades over her body, which served to emphasize that she had a body with curves. Tezuka was aware that he had lost the attention of his team and looked over to the cause of this disturbance. The disturbance was blissfully unaware that anything was going on and even Tezuka paused for a fraction of a section before shouting 'Regulars! I said courts A and B. 10 laps for not paying attention!' There was a collective groan and Momo said 'It's Echizen's fault for bringing beautiful women to practise!' Kaidoh hissed 'It's your fault for staring so obviously at her!' Tezuka took this in for a second and then called out 'Echizen, come here please!'
The rest of the regulars began their laps – Eiji complaining that Echizen had got out of it – as the boy in question approached his captain.
The captain looked over to the girl on the benches
'Echizen, do you know who that girl is?'
'She's an English exchange student staying with my family. She's doing some research here at school with Ryuzuki-sensei. Her name is Poppy.'
Ryoma felt compelled to defend himself. 'I have to show her round after practise. She asked if she could stay here so she didn't get lost.'
Just at that moment, the regulars reached the bench where the student was sat. She had watched their approach with mild interest, moving her bag from their path.
'Hoi! Hoi! Kikumaru dash!' cried Eiji sprinting to the front
'She'll be here later too.' said Ryoma as Kaidoh also put on a concerted run in front of the bench.
'Then you will introduce her properly to the team then.' Tezuka said, watching the players put in extra effort while sprinting past the student.
'Hai.' the freshman said adjusting his cap.
'Back to the court then. Warm up and you can play Eiji once he has done his laps.'
Ryoma turned and began to walk away
'Hmm?' he turned to look back at the third year.
'Does she speak Japanese?'
'No, not much.'
'Please be her translator here at the courts.'
'Sure.' the boy turned and walked to the gate of the court
Interesting, he thought tugging down his cap. Even Tezuka is curious.
The rest of the morning session passed uneventfully. Even Momo stopped trying to dunk smash everything coming his way once he realised Poppy was buried deep in a difficult-looking textbook. Tezuka called an end to the practise and everyone trundled to get changed. Poppy packed up her bag and made her way to the door of the clubroom to wait for Ryoma to emerge. Evidently he was concerned that either she or he might be bombarded with questions as he appeared at the door changed and ready to go with a speed she hadn't seen him use in the four days of her visit so far.
'Hey!' she greeted him with a grin 'You've got game, kiddo.'
He shrugged. 'I'll take you to see Sensei' he replied.
The rest of the morning passed by quietly enough for Ryoma. He had mathematics – boring but simple – followed by double Chemistry. He spent break bouncing a tennis ball idly against a wall watching Horio being chased about by a perpetually angry Tomoko.
'Oi! Echizen' the loud-mouthed boy cried 'Can't you stop her?'
'Don't want to' Ryoma replied, not taking his eyes from the ball.
'What lesson have we got next?' Sakuno asked timidly.
'English' replied Horio 'It's so hard!'. Echizen merely yawned in reply, as the bell rang.
Ryoma trailed behind the others entering the classroom, vaguely aware as he entered that there was a buzz in the atmosphere. As he took his seat it became immediately apparent why. Poppy was sat at the front by their teacher 'Mr Mizuno', as he insisted on in class.
'Good morning, class 2'
'Good morning, Mr.Mizuno'
'Today we have a special guest, all the way from England. Please make her welcome. Poppy, please introduce yourself.'
'Hello everyone. My name is Poppy and I am a university student. I do not speak much Japanese but I am delighted, er pleased, to be here.'
'And would someone welcome Poppy on behalf of the class? Horio?'
Horio reluctantly stood up and stuttered 'Hello. This is the class. We welcome it.' he bowed and sat down quickly, replaying the words in his head.
Poppy caught the smirk on Ryoma's face and quickly looked away back to Horio.
'Thank you very much for your kind welcome.' she smiled sweetly.
They set to working on an exercise from their textbook with both the teacher and Poppy going round and checking their work. Horio kicked Echizen who was dozing quietly in his chair, having finished some minutes ago,
'Echizen! You know that girl don't you?'
'She's a friend of my cousin.'
'What's the answer to question 4?'
Ryoma looked down at the textbook 'think of three adjectives to describe yourself – remember adjectives are description words'
Ryoma looked over to Horio 'try loud, annoying and conceited'
Horio scribbled them down 'c-e-i-t-e-d... thanks, Echizen.'
At that point Poppy stood between the boys' desks and read their work.
'Ryoma-kun, you know more sophisticated words than 'quiet, dark and short'.'
'Yeah but whenever I use them the teacher has to get his dictionary out.'
Poppy smiled a little and looked over to Horio's work. She couldn't supress a giggle.
'Horio-kun. perhaps you shouldn't rely on Echizen-kun quite so much.' and glided away leaving Horio asking everyone around him what he had written that was so funny and Ryoma ignoring his complaints in favour of light dozing once again.
Eventually the bell rang for lunch. The English teacher told Poppy where the cafeteria was and asked Sakuno to show Poppy around. Sakuno asked hesitant questions in English about Poppy and where she was staying, her eyes lighting up when she realised the student knew Ryoma.
She clutched her hands to her chin as she said 'Ryoma Tennis is good!' Poppy grinned at the shy girl next to her. Very sweet. she thought. A crush. 'Yes' she replied to Sakuno.'His tennis is excellent!'
'Excellent' the girl echoed, before backtracking the corridor. 'Gomen! Gomen!' she said going red 'Food here!'
The cafeteria was rammed with students. Poppy spotted Momo at the back of the queue bellowing his order to the lady furiously dishing up meals.
'Hai! Hai!' she called.
'Hey Poppy-chan!' Momo shouted before continuing in excited Japanese. She looked at Sakuno, who simply blushed and shook her head.
'He wants to know if you'll eat lunch with him' said a voice behind them. The girls turned to see Ryoma there. 'But if you do he'll probably eat everything on your plate before you get a chance. Let's go queue.'
'Ryoma-kun!' said Sakuno blushing. Poppy smiled to herself, Echizen probably unwittingly made that kid's day.
They joined the queue behind Momo, who started talking in an excited manner about what seemed to be on the menu for the day. Poppy had a sudden thought.
'Hey, kiddo ..'
Ryoma turned to her, 'Hmm?'
'What should I eat. I don't know many Japanese foods and I'll feel like an imbecile pointing and grunting.'
Poppy was suddenly aware that the entire queue, indeed most of the cafeteria, was watching her now. Momo erupted into an animated speech to the crowd which seemed to rapidly disperse onlookers.
Poppy looked at Ryoma, wariness and confusion playing out across her face.
'What did Momo say?'
'Nothing much. He just said you were property of the tennis team and Tezuka-buchou would be concerned if anyone upset you.' said the freshman with a glance forwards to the line.
'Oh. And for lunch?'
Ryoma smirked 'Just ask for an ongiri bento. It's a takeaway lunch sort of thing.'
As the queue moved forward and Poppy placed her order, the freshman wondered how many laps Momo would get when the captain learned that the sophomore had claimed Poppy was Tezuka's girlfriend.
It was a sunny day and so they took their lunch outside. Momo and Sakuno tried to help Poppy with chopsticks, while Ryoma ate quietly watching the college student attempt to eat her rice parcel, hindered more by Moma's enthusiastic demonstration than her own inexperience. Finally, she sighed.
'I'm getting hungry. These fiddlesticks are a bitch.'
She reached into her bag and pulled out a plastic fork. 'Right, let's see what this grub is really like then.'
She took a big mouthful at last. 'Mmmmmmmn'
'Ooishi desu ka?' said Sakuno hopefully
'Mmn, ooishi desu.' Poppy replied with a wide grin.
Ryoma smiled slightly. 'You should tell Momo-senpai you find him ... ooishi.'
Poppy giggled remembering this morning's greeting. The sophomore in question clearly couldn't quite translate what had been said but took it as reason enough to bind the younger boy in a headlock and knuckle his head.
'What did you say, Echizen?'
Poppy smiled. She could well remember lunchtimes like this when she had been in school but she was no longer 13 and couldn't really continue to watch. Being old was so boring sometimes.
'Momo-kun.' she said seriously 'Stop.' she raised her hand as an indication of her meaning. Momo dropped Echizen immediately and looked self-concious. He had clearly forgotten he was in the company of an acting-staff member.
'Sorry, sorry, sorry.' he said smiling apologetically. Poppy smiled in return before turning to Ryoma who was adjusting his hair.
'Hey, Ochibi. Can you take me to the classroom for Class 6? I'm teaching English there next lesson and I have some notes to make before hand.'
Ryoma turned to Momo and Sakuno 'See you for practise later.' Poppy waved and they both turned towards the school.
At that moment Tomoko came bounding towards Sakuno. 'Saki-chan, Saki-chan, where have you been all lunchtime?'
Momo gave a sly grin. 'She's been having lunch with Ryoma-kun.'
'WHAT? WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME!!'
'Well,' the girl with the plaits protested 'He has a girl staying at his house and really I was showing her round and ..'
'WHAT? WHO IS SHE? WHY DID NO ONE ASK ME?!'
Momo got up and sauntered away grinning. Echizen was going to have to bring more mystery women to school. It caused all kinds of excitement. He spotted Kaidoh up ahead.
'Hey, viper! We have science. Wanna walk up to the lab with me?'
Poppy dutifully followed her young friend up the stairs and into the classroom for class 6. Some of the third-years were already there and the moment they entered she recognised one particularly bouncy one from the tennis practise earlier.
'Ochibi! Welcome to class six, nya!' the red-head singsonged.
'Oisu.' Ryoma replied. 'I'm making a delivery.' he indicated the blonde girl in his shadow. Poppy casually walked towards the student support desk at the front and took out a book and notepad from her bag.
'Oh, she's so pretty, nya. Is she joining our class?'
'Yeah. She doesn't speak a lot of Japanese though'
Shuusuke Fuji stood up and wandered over to the doorway where Eiji was talking to the freshman. He smiled lightly.
'Hey Echizen-kun. You don't come by very often.' he said softly, looking over to the 'delivery' making hurried notes.
'Yeah, well. Take care of Poppy-tensai, Fuji-tensai.' the first-year replied with a smirk.
'Hoi! We will.' Eiji turned his eyes on the girl sat by the blackboard, leafing through her notebooks.
Ryoma turned to leave.
'Thanks Ryoma-kun!' Poppy called.
Just then the bell rang. Poppy looked up, met half-a dozen curious faces and decided to wait until the teacher arrived before making any sort of introduction.
More students filed in taking their places and chattering excitedly. Someone asked her if she was the new teacher in Japanese. She replied in English. 'I am your teaching assistant for today. I am here to learn all about you and use it against you at a later date.' in amongst all the nodding she heard a soft laugh from Fuji. She recognised him from the tennis too.
'Hey, kid. Your English is pretty good, huh?' she grinned, delighted someone had got her joke.
'Saa, it's not as good as Echizen-kun,' he replied, still smiling 'But I try to read English whenever I can.'
'Hey, Fuji! Fuji! What's so funny, nya?' asked the red head, pouting as the other third year made obvious inroads with the English girl.
Just then the teacher walked into the room. Poppy groaned inwardly as she realised it was Mr.Mizuno again. His lessons weren't exactly inspiring. In a flash, she knew what she was going to do with her portion of the lesson. Introductions were made, this time a lovely willowy girl greeted Poppy on behalf of the class by saying she was pleased to welcome such beauty to the classroom. Poppy blushed despite herself and thanked her for her kind welcome.
As these were third years, the majority of the lesson was conducted in English – with some enthusiastic miming by the teacher to get his instructions across - and Poppy was able to take some good notes about motivational practise. The last twenty minutes were given over to her to teach extended vocab. She grinned and got to her feet.
'How many of you here play sports or games?' The majority of students raised their hand.
'Okay then let's learn some sports. We will go from easy to hard. Okay?'
First, she mimed swinging a bat
'Baseball!' the class shouted.
Next, she swung a racquet
'Tennis!' the class shouted louder.
She went through a number of different sports teaching them the English names for rugby, rowing, hockey, archery, swimming and finally getting to gymnastics and trampolining. The class were amused by her enthusiastic miming – as she had hoped – and got more and more into it.Finally she finished with ironing, which earned her some confused looks, so she handed round some pictures of 'extreme ironing'.
'It isn't an Olympic sport yet but maybe in the future ...' she joked.
Next she got the class to join her in learning synonyms. She got out a mini-thesaurus and passed it around for the students to see.
'In English, there are lots of words that have similar meaning but aren't the same. We can use these to vary our vocabulary and learn more words.'
She jumped up and down.
'What am I doing?'
'Jumping!' cried Eiji, delighted there was a word he knew straight away.
She changed to one leg
The class looked confused
'I'm hopping' she said. 'Hop. Hop. Hop. Everyone join in.'
She indicated that the class should join her and there was much scraping of chairs and kicking of bags as the third-years joined her in hopping on the spot.
'All together. Hop, hop, hop.'
The class all began to hop and up and down together.
'Okay, copy after me. I hop.'
She stopped hopping and the class followed suit giggling and moving their belongings back to where they had been hopped out of place.
Next she ran out the spot.
'What am I doing now?'
'RUNNING' cried the class
She slowed her pace
'Walking?' ventured a girl near the front.
'Not quite.' Poppy slowed down more, 'This would be walking'. She moved up a pace.
'Everyone join in.' the class copied her once again. 'Okay, now you are jogging. Jog, jog, jog.'
'Jog, jog, jog' joined in the class.
'YOU JOG ...'
This continued as Poppy taught them sprint, dash, catch, throw, skip and their conjugations.
Finally, the bell rang and she flopped back in her chair exhausted.
'Saankyoo, Poppy-sensai' said Eiji enthusiatically, as he gathered his tennis bag.
'You're welcome. Oh, Eiji-kun. Can you show me where the tennis courts are from here?' Poppy said grabbing her bag, 'I'm meant to be observing, er, watching' – she corrected herself watching confusion cloud the slim boy's face – 'the team play.'
'Hai! Come follow me!' he beamed at Poppy, delighted to have a claim on the student's attention.
Fuji followed the pair out as Eiji sprang around them
'Hoi! I'm Kikamuru Eiji. Nice to meet you Poppysensai-chan! Do you play tennis?'
'No, not tennis.'
'Oh no! We could have played together.' his face fell. 'Well, we can teach you!' he said with a wide smile again.
Fuji smiled at the blonde girl to his left, noting she wasn't even as tall as Ryoma Echizen.
'Are you here to watch Echizen-kun?' he asked
'I'm here to watch the whole team train. I hope you will have a starring role in my college work.' she smiled. 'I'm studying motivational training.'
'Moh tee vay shun' replied Fuji. 'I know that word. We use it a lot in tennis.'
'Then I'm definitely watching the right team!' Poppy grinned.
They reached the tennis courts and the boys disappeared to get changed. Poppy walked onto the courts and was greeted by Ryuzuki-sensei. She looked over the courts indicated by the teacher and felt a bit at a loss.
'My Japanese is not good. Please forgive me.'
'Don't worry' replied the teacher in English 'My English is not good either. Together we will find a way.' she gave a knowing smile. 'A few on the team speak well so they will help.'
'Thank you,' Poppy replied, grateful for the encouragement. She didn't want to be more of a burden than a help and really the coach's English seemed a lot better than her Japanese.
As the boys began to filter out, the coach noticed Poppy was still wearing heels and a skirt.
'Do you have other clothes?' she asked
'Yes, where should I change?'
The coach called over to her granddaughter, the girl she had had lunch with earlier, Sakuno.
'Please show Poppy-san where to change.'
Sakuno beckoned and Poppy followed the girl with the plaits towards the clubhouse. Just as they got there a small boy with a mop hair cut tripped on a tennis ball, dropped by the boy with the garish shirt Poppy recognised as Horio, falling and spraining his ankle.
'Kachiro-kun!' cried the younger girl, gathering him from the floor.
'Take him for help' said Poppy, 'I'll be fine here.'
As the boy limped away leaning on the skinny girl for help, Poppy stepped into the changing room. She quickly dressed in leggings, a t-shirt and her lacrosse skirt - all in her university colours of blue and white – leaving a towel on top of her bag for later. Last she laced her shoes, fixed her hair in a tight ponytail and headed out. The captain was speaking to the whole club. She noted they stood in a formation with the regulars at the front in their jackets. Captain Tezuka Kunimitsu had quite an aura about him. His charisma clearly kept everyone in line. She was reminded, with a pang, about an old captain of hers now training people for the upcoming Olympics. To have that air of leadership at just 15 was something special. She stepped onto the court expecting to slip by unnoticed but the coach called her to the front. Poppy listened as she was introduced and was surprised that in just a few short days her comprehension was picking up, enough to understand that she was being warmly complimented if not specifically over what.
'Listen up everyone. We have a visitor. This is Poppy-san. She is a student at a very good university in Europe, studying psychology and she has come here to observe our practises. She doesn't play tennis but she is involved in other sports so it will be a learning experience for everyone. Also, she doesn't speak a lot of Japanese but as she recieved a very prestigious scholarship to come to Japan I expect you to treat her with nothing but respect. Understood?'
Ryoma's ears pricked up. He didn't know Poppy had got a scholarship to come to Japan. He glanced over to Tezuka whose interest also seemed to be piqued. The captain took a glance at the crest on the student's skirt. Trinity College. Ryoma caught his expression flicker with slight suprise before settling into its usual serious mask.
'Okay, regulars will be training together today to show Poppy-san what a team determined to win the Nationals does each day. This will be on court A. Do your best. Everyone else will have practise matches on the remaining courts.' said Ryuzuki-sensei before stepping back to indicate people were to move on.
Poppy realised she was already on court A, so she waited to see what the coach would suggest. Instead it was a very tall boy with glasses who stepped forward presenting a sheet to everyone with their instructions on and talking through what the team would be doing. Suddenly Eiji grabbed her hands.
'Pair, yes?' he beamed, bouncing up and down. She realised that everyone had paired up.
'Er, sure. What are we doing?' She looked around to see everyone stretching and warming up so she followed Eiji's lead as he chattered excitedly about tennis using all the words he had learned in their English class today. She smiled, his enthusiasm was infectious and it amused the rest of the team.
'Hoi! Hoi!' he cried backflipping 'Acrobatic playtime!'
'You are bendy.' smiled Poppy
'Ben dee, ben dee' repeated Eiji 'Kikamuru Bendy!' he grinned, bouncing about.
They went through a practise, chasing balls and jumping for smashes – though Poppy sat out on that - before finishing with flexibility practise.
Poppy smiled to herself, watching Eiji literally run rings around the other team's efforts of jumping and reaching for balls.
She stepped forward and said simply 'Eiji-kun'. He turned to see her complete three backflips and jump forward over the net.
'Hoi, hoi!' she smiled. The team took a shared intake of breath before cheering.
'Nya!' cried Eiji 'That's my trick!'
Ryoma pulled his cap down, bouncing a ball on his racket, and recalling the conversation they had had the night before. 'Jumping, hmm.' he said to himself watching the blonde girl walking over to the coach and captain. She talked briefly to them before pulling a phone from her small kitbag left on the side.
Ryoma started rallying with Momo, helping him control his smashes better, watching with half-an-eye on what his captain and the student were discussing. He hadn't realised Tezuka was so fluent in English but he seemed to be translating what Poppy was saying for the old lady well enough.
'Oishi-senpai' he called over to the other court, where the vice-captain was facing a very burning Kawamura. 'Is buchou good at English?'
'Hai! He is the best in our class.' beamed Oishi proudly.
Ryoma said nothing further but continued to watch as the captain nodded as Poppy spoke.
Momo cut in. 'Those three must be planning something. They must be.'
'I hope it doesn't involve Inui's vegetable juice' sighed the freshman, before sending a twist serve shooting towards Momo.
'Oi, Echizen! That's not fair, warn me before you do that!'
Echizen replied by sending another ball the way of the tall sophomore.
Poppy was delighted to find that the captain had a very good comprehension of spoken English - well above 9th grade level - which made talking with him a pleasure. He explained the aims of the team's training and what their collective weaknesses were. He said that - Oishi and Eiji aside - they weren't always very good at working together. Poppy explained a training method she had supervised before back home that they could replicate at the university's facilities. As she explained her plan, the coach and captain exchanged a knowing glance. It certainly explained the acrobatics. Poppy phoned a student she knew at Nanako's college who readily agreed to assist.
'It's all set for 10am Sunday morning.' Poppy reported. Tezuka translated for the coach who smiled in agreement.
'I am going to see what the juniors are doing' the coach said,
'Tezuka-buchou, please answer Poppy's questions to the best of
He turned to the student opposite him as the coach started barking commands to the freshman hitting practise balls.
'We are honoured to have someone from such a prestigious college join us here.'
'Ahh, you know Trinity?'
'I know if its reputation.' Tezuka looked solemn.
'Well, thankfully, I find it is not especially well known amongst the students here. It means no-one expects too much from me and I can research without pressure.' Poppy smiled.
'You find it a burden?'
'I like my college and my work but I came to Japan to experience a different country as well as research for my course.'
The captain paused, reflecting that the young lady in front of him had successfully evaded his question but he did not want to push her into a topic she was uncomfortable.
She looked across the court and continued 'I made friends with Nanako, Ryoma's cousin, through a college exchange. She told me her cousin attended a good school in the Tokyo area and I should apply to do my research here. Everyone has been so helpful. I feel very lucky to be here.'
'Sensai mentioned you won a scholarship.'
'Um, yes, a travel fund for research into sport psychology.'
Tezuka raised an eyebrow, but the student grinned in return.
'Don't worry. I shan't be running off and selling secrets to the Russians' she giggled 'Part of my remit here is to teach new techniques as well. That is why I am here at the school. Schools of this level rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to use someone with my sort of background. My research paper will suggest that this should be remedied soon so that new champions can be found right from elementary school level. If you know who has guts, you know who is worth training.'
Tezuka bowed. 'I look forward to what you have to show us, Poppy-sensai.'
They both surveyed the courts for a
moment more, before Tezuka called the practise to an end. All the
members lined up to listen to their captain.
'That was good work everyone, thank you. Regulars, we have an additonal practise which will be led by Poppy-sensai. It will be held at 10am Sunday morning, at the university gymnasium across town. Tomorrow I will give you a map.' The regulars looked at each other and then at Poppy who, guessing the topic at hand, developed a sudden interest in her nails.
'10 am Sunday!' sighed Momoshiro.
'Quiet!' said Tezuka forcefully.
' Yeah, don't complain! At least you get time with the cutie!' said a voice at the back.
'Twenty laps! All of you!' said Tezuka
'Awww, dammit' said Arai 'You've upset Tezuka-buchou by hitting on his girlfriend. That's what you said in the cafeteria, earlier, right Momo-senpai?'
Tezuka's eyes narrowed dangerously
'Fifty laps! Go!'
Poppy watched this exchange with some suprise. She thought the practise had ended but apparently they were going to run a marathon or something first.
Tezuka turned to her and bowed 'I must apologise for my team.'
She reached out and lightly touched his hand 'I didn't understand a word of what went on other than Momo-kun's mouth is too big. I am not upset by anything. Besides they're just kids.'
Tezuka bowed again 'Thank you'. As he did so he was aware that something about what Poppy had just said had bothered him but he couldn't put his finger on what.
'I am going to join them running now,' he said.
'You join in with punishments you set?' she asked.
'If the whole team is involved I must count myself among them.'
'Very astute.' she replied, gathering up her belongings. 'A true captain.' She smiled, turning towards the changing room as he went to encourage the first-years straggling at the back.
Once inside, she took
her time sorting out her notes and refiling bits she had taken out to
review, before stripping down and heading for the shower area.
'Long hair is always such a pain to wash,' she mumbled to herself wondering once again why she didn't get it cut into a style that didn't take so long to rinse and style.She was lost in thought, only vaguely registering other people coming into the changing room. Kikamaru Eiji was the first to realise there was an issue. He bounced into the changing room, half singing a J-pop song to himself, and grabbed his towel. He would be grateful for rinsing off the sweat from his body. Running was not his favourite activity by any means. Stepping into the showering area he froze, aware that someone he didn't know was there and that someone had long blonde hair.
He quietly backed away and headed the other regulars off at the door.
'Nya! Ochibi!' he whispered 'Your girlfriend is in the showers!'
'She's not my girlfriend ... wait, what?' Ryoma replayed the sentence before sighing 'Sakuno-kun.'
'What?' asked Momo 'Is she in there too?'
'No, no. Ryzukai-sensai asked Sakuno-kun to show Poppy where the girls' changing room is. She isn't very good at directions,' he finished recalling the first time he had met the girl and how it had let to him being late and defaulting for a tournament.
'What can we do, nya?' asked Eiji 'We can't go in, but ...'
Tezuka arrived at the door. 'What is the problem?'
'Poppy-sensai is in our shower.' replied Echizen simply.
The captain looked confsued for a second before reconciling the issue in his head. 'Well, you'll have to go in and let her know her mistake. You know her best.'
The freshman was sorely tempted to reply that Tezuka had spent longest talking to her but he knew better than that. Eiji and Momo pushed him into the changing room and then pressed their heads against the door, listening intently, closely followed by Inui muttering about gathering data.
'Poppy? Poppy?' the boy
'Hmm, what? Ryoma, what are you doing ... oh!'
Poppy looked out of the shower, to see Ryoma stood there with his cap pulled right over his face.
'Erm, what's going on?' she asked switching the shower off and grabbing a towel.
'You're in the boys changing room.'
'Oh Geez. I'm so sorry. I didn't know. No-one was in here when I arrived. Did I scare anyone?'
'I think Eiji saw you but I don't think scared was the right word for his reaction.'
Poppy frowned slightly.
'Oh well. Listen, tell everyone I'm sorry and I'll be right out of the way in 2 minutes, okay?'
'I have a towel round me now. You can put your cap back on.'
She smiled a little as the teenager pulled his cap back on his head and gave her a short appraising look. She lent forward and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
'You are too cute, kiddo.'
Blushing he left the changing room. Poppy could hear the commotion as he exited.
'Ochibi! You're blushing!'
'Oh, to be young! To be young!'
'Ochibi has a girlfriend!'
'She's 23! She's not my girlfriend!'
Less than a minute later she stepped outside
to be greeted by giggles and cheers as the boys filed in for their
'Gomen! Gomen' she said and then she turned to Eiji 'Sorry! Sorry if I scared you!'
'Nya, it's fine!'
'We're going to eat sushi' Ryoma said flatly 'After we've got changed. You know, if you're done now.'
'Oh, sure, okay. I haven't had sushi here yet.'
'Taka's father makes it. It's good.'
'Well, I'll wait here.'
Poppy passed the time by plaiting her hair and pinning it up into what she hoped was a neat style. She thought about the people she had met and how kind and tolerant Ryoma had been with her all day.
He's a good kid, she thought, Although maybe he lets more of that show when he's speaking English with me and he knows not many people know what he's saying.