Disclaimer: Prince of Tennis was created by Konomi Takeshi. No profit is intended to be gained by this story.
AN: This is a sequel to my previous fics, December 24 and January 14. As I was writing them, I had this elusive idea that I should continue the series by writing fics around certain key dates, and about how they would explore the gradual progression of RyoSaku's friendship. Let's just hope that it doesn't take me another two years to write the next one. Enjoy.
Ryuzaki Sakuno wasn't exactly sure how it happened. It just hit her one day. She and Echizen Ryoma were friends. It was strange, if she took the time to think about it. She had always just resigned herself to being an acquaintance. But when she truly pondered it, they were actually quite good friends. A person didn't visit an acquaintance's home everyday just to study, play a new video game, or pet that acquaintance's cat. Perhaps once in a while, but not everyday. Which was exactly what this was.
It started on his birthday, of all things. Not that Sakuno knew it was Ryoma's birthday at the time. He didn't divulge the information, so she didn't know it. It turned out that his family threw gatherings on Christmas Eve, so she and her grandmother were invited. And while on her way back from the bathroom, she ran into Ryoma and ended up spending the evening with him.
It should have been awkward, spending one on one time with the boy she liked. But strangely enough, it wasn't. And then when Ryoma invited her over again and they spent even more time together, it was just... right. Comfortable. Like they had been doing it all along.
They had a few hiccups. Every relationship did. But after they got over them, their friendship became even stronger. And now they were seeing each other everyday.
Spending so much time together, Sakuno got to see the sides of Ryoma that he never showed to other people. His pushy side. His bratty side. His protective side. There were so many. It made her feel special, being privy to such an otherwise aloof boy.
It put her in an awkward position at times though. Because she liked him even more now. What had started out as a childish crush grew into a deepening affection with each day they spent together. How could she help herself? It was his fault. Who told him to show her his sweet side and make her fall even deeper?
And there was no getting out of it too. She was head over heels. Not that he knew about it though. Ryoma was smart, but he was also really, really obtuse. In her case, that was a good thing. If he found out about her one sided feelings, it would ruin what they currently shared. Sakuno couldn't bear that. So she decided. She would hold this secret close to her heart.
Even if that meant watching the boy she loved accept chocolates from other girls on Valentine's Day.
The pigtailed girl sighed over this, exhaling on her fingers to keep them warm. She couldn't find her mittens so she had resorted to huffing on them in a vain attempt to coax them from their numbed state. Lips parted, her breath came out in a puffy cloud. "Hahhh…" she breathed. She would've been warmer if she wasn't standing out here in the cold, but the camphor tree she was waiting under marked their usual rendezvous point. It was convenient because it was the midway spot between the girls' and the boys' tennis courts.
The warmth of her breath evaporated and Sakuno huffed on her fingers again. Preoccupied, she didn't hear the quiet footsteps that approached.
"Looking for these?"
Glancing up, Sakuno beamed, sad thoughts forgotten. "So Ryoma-kun had them," she said, referring to the woolen mittens in his grasp. They were each adorned with a large white pompom on the back. Ridiculously girly, the pink mittens were the exact shade of the ribbon on her school uniform. They were Sakuno's thirteenth birthday gift from Tomoka, and Sakuno loved them very much.
"I only had them because someone forgot them at my house," he said, raising his eyebrows pointedly.
Sakuno graced him with a smile that was equal parts apologetic and angelic, as she reached for the mittens. Her icy fingers brushed his warm ones and Ryoma frowned. Even encased in wool, it would take a while before her hands would warm up. They had a twenty minute walk ahead of them. She had only just recovered from a cold. If she got sick again…
Ryoma sighed to himself as he grabbed her hands, briskly rubbing them between his own. She was cursed with poor blood circulation. It was the only reason he could think of, because his hands weren't cold at all.
"Ryuzaki should take better care of herself," he admonished.
"U-un," she murmured, cheeks that were rosy from the cold turning even rosier.
Cat shaped eyes studied the petite girl in front of him, who was glancing down at her shoes. She winced but didn't pull away. Ryoma frowned again. If it hurt, she should let him know. But she was always like that. Sakuno rarely voiced her discomforts. It was her way of not bothering others. He learned that if he wanted to know her feelings, he had to observe her expressions.
Ryoma gentled his actions and Sakuno's face relaxed. Holding her hands in his, the differences between them couldn't be more stark. Her skin was soft, her fingers dainty and feminine. In contrast, his hands were rough, callused from years of handling rackets and tennis balls. He forgot how delicate she could be. Ryoma gentled his actions even more and Sakuno's eyes fluttered closed.
It was times like this, this easy intimacy between them, that she loved the most. Leaning against her when he helped her with her homework, reaching around her when he needed something and she was in the way, tugging on a pigtail to get her attention... And now this. Warming up her hands. In the brief duration of their friendship, Sakuno discovered that Ryoma was quite tactual.
She wasn't used to being touched, not by someone of the opposite gender, so the first time it happened was unsettling, to say the least. They were walking home together, and she was fumbling with her bag and not paying attention to the light post in her path. Ryoma had pulled her in around the waist and saved her from a nasty collision. His actions had been so casual, so second nature. Just like now. To him, touching her wasn't a big deal. He never thought anything of it. It had taken some getting used to, but Sakuno had come to enjoy these moments, instead of feeling awkward about them.
"Better?" Ryoma asked.
He placed her mittens in her hands, folding her fingers over them. Sakuno put them on, feeling warm and toasty all the way down to her toes. It was probably insignificant to him, but she cherished every kind gesture he showed her. Ryoma acted indifferent, but he looked out for her in dozens of small ways.
Looking up from tugging on her mittens, Sakuno nodded with a soft smile. She hefted her bag strap more securely upon her shoulder as she fell into step alongside her companion.
The ground was wet from the recent rain. Damp leaves clung to the sidewalk and Sakuno picked her way with care, making sure not to step on the slippery foliage. She hadn't had a klutz attack all day yet, and she was determined that it would stay that way.
Ryoma looked at her from the corner of his eyes. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth, her face one of utter concentration. Ah. She was taking care not to slip again. Like how she did yesterday before he steadied her. How she was able to reach the age of thirteen without seriously injuring herself yet was anyone's guess, but Ryoma was determined that she would not come to harm when she was in his care. The stories from his old man, in addition to his first hand experiences, told Ryoma that Coach Ryuzaki could be one scary old hag if she had cause to be. Her granddaughter getting injured would likely be a good trigger.
He didn't have to put up with the risk. No one was forcing him to spend time with this pigtailed girl. But there was something about Sakuno that just made Ryoma feel at ease. Hanging out with guys was different. There was always that underlying sense of rivalry, like with Momo-senpai. Who could eat the most burgers? Who could run faster? While fun, it was also tiring. Ryoma got enough of that from tennis. He didn't need his spare time filled with more competitions. With Sakuno, Ryoma was content to just be with her. And it was nice.
She was quiet and sweet and good natured. And Karupin liked her. A lot. That was important. Also, for some reason, his old man even stopped bugging him about girls! Amazing. He should have befriended Sakuno sooner.
They slowed to a standstill, waiting at a stoplight. Raising a hand, Sakuno nuzzled her cold face against her mitten's pompom. They were absurd, those soft, fluffy, oversized adornments, but Sakuno loved them all the same. She closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of it against her cheek.
Ryoma found himself staring at her. Lucky pompom…
The cat eyed boy blinked. Where did that thought come from?
Sometimes, when Ryoma felt especially restless due to the inclement weather, they went to the indoor tennis center. At first she would simply watch him, content to admire his easy grace and steady technique. He was just so good. Sakuno couldn't help but feel privileged, being able to watch an athlete in his element. Ryoma belonged in front of a crowd of spectators, his talent deserved to be recognized by everyone. But it was just her during these times, and it felt nice. Not sharing him made her feel all the more special.
The popping sound from the automatic ball feeder stopped, and Ryoma took that moment to turn around. The silly girl was just standing there, hands behind her back as she looked inside the enclosure he was in. What was she doing just standing there? She'd never improve her technique if she remained a bystander. Well, he'd make sure she'd play today, and check out her form while she was at it. She didn't have her racket with her, but that wasn't a problem.
"There's a spare in my bag."
Confused reddish brown eyes gazed at the tennis prodigy. Instead of looking back at her though, he was picking at the gut of his racket, adjusting the strings.
"Ryoma-kun?" Sakuno asked for clarification.
With his chin, the teen pointed to the tennis bag at her feet, the bag that she was guarding for him. Oh. Oh! Maybe he wanted to switch rackets. Hunching down, Sakuno opened Ryoma's bag, looking for the spare. A light wash of crimson diffused her cheeks. He had given her permission to go through his personal belongings. Those simple words had implied trust and Sakuno couldn't help but feel pleased.
Racket in hand, Sakuno entered the enclosure to give Ryoma his spare. Instead of reaching for it, he simply looked at her in return, pointedly staring at her mittens.
"You expect to play in those?"
"Eh?" Sakuno asked, eyes large and questioning. She looked down at her hands encased in fuzzy wool. Wait… He wanted her to play as well? She had never done this before; she would surely flub it up.
"Ano, that's ok. I'm fine just watching Ryoma-kun play," she said, waving her hands as she stepped back. It was too sudden and frankly, too embarrassing. What if she fell down again? Or worse, hit him with a stray tennis ball? Her ball control was nonexistent as it was.
He approached her with a frown. With his typical unreadable look, Ryoma stopped and peered into her face. Unnerved, Sakuno leaned back, her body pressing into the fence. Reddish brown eyes rounded in surprise when Sakuno felt her bangs being brushed aside. The warmth of Ryoma's palm seeped into her skin.
She looked flushed. Ah geez, maybe she did get sick again. That must have been why she didn't feel like playing. Without thinking about it, Ryoma did what his mother did every time she thought her son had a fever. He leaned down, touching his forehead to hers.
No one ever said it was easy being Echizen Ryoma's friend. This was a fact that Ryuzaki Sakuno could attest to, as she stood there, back against the fence, trapped by the boy she liked but who was completely oblivious to her feelings.
Sakuno forgot to breathe. Ryoma's face was this close to hers. Her heart kicked it into overtime, thumping loudly in her chest. The overwhelmed girl slammed her eyes shut, trying to block the image of his mouth mere inches from her own and the feel of his warm breath caressing her lips.
The warmth disappeared and Sakuno gasped for air. Ryoma straightened and knuckled her chin up, taking in the odd flush to her cheeks. He caressed them with the back of his fingers, mentally comparing the difference in temperatures. She wasn't overheated, which meant that she didn't have a fever. Her face was too cool to the touch. Her red cheeks just meant that she was cold. Well, that was easy to fix. A little bit of exercise would warm her right up.
For the second time that day, Ryoma grabbed Sakuno's hands. Tugging off her mittens, he placed the handle of his spare racket into her grasp.
"Come play." And that was that.
Sakuno looked dazedly at his profile. He was inserting yen into the coin slot of the payment machine for her. When her senses came back, she didn't have time to argue. Tennis balls were flying straight for her, and it took all of her concentration to hit them away.
To her surprise, she quickly picked up the consistent rhythm of the machine. Sakuno discovered that when she didn't have to worry about when or where the ball would come to her, she could focus on swinging properly, and that made all the difference. She was hitting the balls deep and steady, and for the first time, Sakuno felt confident with a racket in her hands. She turned towards Ryoma with the brightest smile and shouted over the commotion of noisy balls popping out of the machines.
"This is really fun!"
It was small, but his answering grin told her that he thought so as well.
"Un," she nodded, smiling as she wiped the perspiration from her damp brow. She felt good, invigorated by the exercise, but now her body needed fuel.
They gathered their belongings and left the indoor sports center, heading towards a nearby burger joint. Sakuno was considering the number four combo when she opened her coin purse and realized that she had used all her yen on tennis.
"May I take your order?" the perky girl behind the counter inquired.
Sakuno blushed. "Ah, no. I'm sorry, I changed my mind." She took a step back, feeling stupid. Sakuno started to bow in apology until she felt the press of a hand at the small of her back bringing her towards the counter again.
"She'll have the number four combo. I'll have the number one. Cherry Ponta for her, grape for me."
"Ryoma-kun?" She couldn't hide her surprise if she tried.
"I'll take care of this. Go get us a seat."
Sakuno nodded, fighting off the blush threatening to blossom on her face. She felt bad leeching off of him. She wouldn't even be able to pay him back because she knew that her piggy bank was completely empty. Ahhh, why did she go on that shopping trip with Tomo-chan last week?
Sakuno sat down in an empty stool by the window, head in her hands. Ryoma was so nice. She didn't deserve it. Then she blinked, head tilting to the side. Wait... how did he know that she wanted a cheeseburger with curly fries and a cherry Ponta? She pursed her lips in thought. He wasn't a mind reader.
The pigtailed girl sat up straight when the realization struck her. He knew her that well?
For the nth time that day, Sakuno couldn't help the warm feelings that filled her heart.
"That's a date," Osakada Tomoka pronounced, her smile big enough to cover half of her face.
"It is not, Tomo-chan!"
"Is too! He took you out. You guys did stuff together, and then he fed you and took you home. That's a date!"
"I ran out of money. Ryoma-kun didn't pay because he wanted to."
"Hn. How do you know that? You never gave him the chance before."
Sakuno closed her eyes and sighed, lifting the receiver away from her mouth. She was lying in bed in her favorite pajamas, partaking in one of her nightly rituals, chatting on the phone with her best friend until bedtime. Though right now, she was regretting it.
"Can we talk about something else?" she asked, twirling a mahogany lock of hair around her finger.
"Hmm, okay." Tomoka easily shifted gears. Sakuno could be quite stubborn when she wanted to be. If she refused to believe that it was a date, well, no use in pushing the issue.
"What are you going to give Ryoma-sama for Valentine's Day?"
Sakuno frowned at the turn of conversation. But she answered truthfully, as was her nature.
"I'm not giving Ryoma-kun anything."
The young teen winced and held the receiver away from her ear. The torrent of words that spilled out of the phone was too fast and too garbled for her to make out, but she didn't need to hear it all to understand. They weren't best friends for years for nothing. Sakuno waited patiently until Tomoka had calmed down.
"But you like Ryoma-sama. I don't get it."
"We just aren't like that, Tomo-chan."
"He walks you home, ne? He teaches you tennis, ne? He likes you, Sakuno. Ryoma-sama wouldn't spend so much time with someone he didn't like."
Sakuno closed her eyes again, forcing her lips to say the words that she knew was true, even though it hurt. "Ryoma... Ryoma-kun only sees me as a friend. Even though I want to, I could never give him chocolates. It would make things weird."
"Weird? So what! You should let him know."
"I'm not like you, Tomo-chan. I'm not that brave. Things are fine the way they are. Really."
"So you're just going to stand aside when other girls give him chocolates? You know how popular Ryoma-sama is. What are you going to do if someone confesses to him?"
Sakuno bit her lip, clenching the phone tightly in her hand. What would she do if a girl approached him on Valentine's Day? Hn. They wouldn't dare. She would glare them down. She would slap them silly. She would tell them all off. She would! She would! She would do a million things to let them know that Ryoma was off limits.
The young girl sighed again. No, she wouldn't. She would do nothing.
The long silence over the line told Tomoka everything. It hurt seeing her friend in pain, but this had to be Sakuno's decision. It wouldn't be right to make her confess when she wasn't ready. Tomoka shrugged and proceeded to change the topic.
"Well, if you're not going to make chocolates, mind helping me shop for something Kaidoh-senpai might like?"
Echizen Ryoma was not having a good day. It had started out promising. He woke up on time for once. Kaa-san cooked an Eastern breakfast. The sky was clear and bright. They'd be able to play tennis again!
He was halfway to school when it started raining. Not paltry little warning drops, either. Big, fat, puddle inducing rain. So no, this wasn't a good day. Especially without an umbrella.
Ryoma was shaking the raindrops from his hair as he entered Seigaku, walking towards his shoe locker.
Hm? The damn door would not open. As this had never happened before, Ryoma tugged harder, thinking that the humid air had rusted the hinges. A good, hard yank almost tore his arm from its socket as little boxes wrapped in colorful paper and ribbons bounced onto his head.
"What is this crap?" the irate teen muttered under his breath, glaring at the offending packages. They were clogging his shoe locker and jamming the door. He reached his hand in and unearthed his shoes, pushing aside more cutely wrapped objects.
"Man, check out Echizen's stash!"
"I'm so jealous!"
"How many do you think there are?"
Ryoma turned around, finding himself the focal point of a circle of bystanders, all male. Ugh. Growing up on tennis courts, he was used to spectators. It didn't mean he had to tolerate it off the courts though. As was his typical modus operandi, Ryoma made himself scarce, slipping by the throng of students when they bent down to marvel over and count the pile of packages on the ground. He didn't know what they were or why they had been in his locker, but if they induced this much hassle, he didn't need them.
Walking swiftly and quietly, he ducked into his classroom. Safe! Ryoma eased into his seat, intent on taking a quick nap before the class started, when the voice of a certain classmate with two years of tennis experience buzzed in his ear.
"Echizen, did you get any chocolates?"
Lifting his head and peering over his arm, Ryoma raised an eyebrow. He would have simply ignored him, but Ryoma knew from long time experience that Horio Satoshi was not a boy easily deterred, and that life would be simpler if Ryoma just answered his questions.
"Ahhh," Horio nodded with a wise look on his face, rubbing his chin between forefinger and thumb. "Echizen didn't get any chocolates either, huh?"
Ryoma blinked. Why would he be getting chocolates? It wasn't Halloween. Heck, they didn't even celebrate that holiday here in Japan. It wasn't the right month, anyhow.
Horio looked at his classmate, suspicion dawning. Could it be that Ryoma was that clueless? Sure, the boy knew a lot of things on the courts, but off the courts, sometimes he was a mind boggling ignoramus.
"Echizen," Horio spoke slowly, fuzzy eyebrows contracting into a shorter line, "do you know what today is?"
Ryoma shrugged. Horio was going to tell him anyways, so it didn't matter what he said.
"It's February the 14th, Echizen." At the blank look on Ryoma's face, the tawny haired boy clarified. "It's Valentine's Day."
"They celebrate that here, huh? Hn."
With that, Ryoma laid his head back on his arms. Horio proceeded to fall out of his chair.
No, the day was not looking up at all.
Ryoma sighed, arms crossed as he leaned against rough, wet bark, breath creating visible vapors from his mouth. He wasn't doing his health any favors, standing under the leaky protection of the camphor leaves, but in this case, it was worth it. He didn't think he could tolerate another girl offering him a Valentine's Day gift. Thanks to the expansive branches, he was out of sight from the buildings. It would be harder for them to find him here. It was also raining relatively hard, so that was an added deterrent.
Ryoma grimaced, thinking back on his day. He had gotten ambushed by girls he had never met. It was disturbing, to say the least. The word 'no' had become his mantra. His clueless, previous self would have just taken the chocolates and be done with it. Chocolates were good stuff. After being educated by Horio, however, Ryoma declined them all. Accepting chocolates would be like accepting the affections behind it, and that was one thing that Ryoma did not want to encourage.
Affections from a girl he didn't like back? What would be the point in that?
The chocolates that managed to sneak into his bag, his desk, or his locker, Ryoma gave away indiscriminately to any male student that happened to be in the vicinity. 'Merry Christmas,' he would mutter. By the time the recipient deciphered the confusing words, he was already walking away.
The pattering of soft, slightly splashy footsteps and the bobbing of a distinct umbrella, one emblazoned with cheerful yellow rubber duckies, approached and Ryoma straightened from his position.
"Sorry for the wait," Sakuno breathed, huffing lightly.
He shrugged, adjusting his bag strap. It was no big deal. He had made her wait longer before. Though the faster they got out of here, the better. Ryoma wanted to put this day far, far behind him. He started to walk when he felt a hesitant tug on his sleeve.
"Ryoma-kun..." Sakuno pointed to the empty space above him. "Where's your umbrella?"
He jerked a shoulder carelessly. "Forgot it."
"Forgot—?" Sakuno shook her head, braids swishing side to side. "Well, you can't walk home like this. You need an umbrella."
"I have a jacket."
"That's not enough!"
"It's just sprinkling. I'll tough it out."
She stamped her foot. "It is not! Your hair is already soaked!"
Instead of making their way home as soon as possible, she wanted to argue out in the rain? He was getting wetter by the second and they were still in the same spot.
Sakuno frowned. "No. What if you get sick?"
Ryoma was starting to get annoyed. He had a crappy day and she wasn't helping. Why couldn't she just let it go? Then he noticed how Sakuno's eyes sparked and her cheeks puffed out. His crabbiness melted away. She was adorable when she had that frustrated expression on her face. How could he get upset at her when she was this concerned for him? His bad mood instantly became playful.
Seizing the opportunity to tease her, Ryoma leaned in close, startling the girl under the taut nylon canopy. "Then give me yours."
"Wh—? Oh. Well. Okay..." She extended her arm, relinquishing her umbrella. Sakuno then winced and rubbed her head. Ryoma had bonked her with the edge of his palm. "Hey! What was that for?"
"Ryuzaki is an idiot."
Sakuno huffed, ready to dispute his rude comment. She opened her mouth to argue. Ryoma beat her to it.
"What does giving me your umbrella do? That doesn't make any sense."
"But you asked for it!"
Ryoma slapped his forehead against his hand. She was really dense. Giving him her umbrella? That wouldn't solve anything.
"I meant this." Reaching out, he pulled Sakuno into a sideways embrace so that they both stood under the small, protective canopy. He then took the handle from her shocked, loose grasp. "It's called sharing. Heard of it?"
The flush on her face was instant and pleasing. Ryoma fought a smile. She was just too easy.
"Eto..." she said, twisting her mitten encased fingers together. "What if people get the wrong idea?"
She flushed even deeper. He was going to make her say it. It was so embarrassing, too.
"Th-this is what couples do."
Ryoma gave her a confused look. Sakuno groaned inside. Why was he so obtuse? She would have to explain better.
"Sh-sharing an umbrella. It's what couples do. People will get the wrong idea."
Ryoma paused, cat shaped eyes scrutinizing her face. "Can't we do this too?"
Sakuno's heart stopped beating. His face was so serious. Did he mean... did he mean...? He couldn't possibly mean that they were a couple. Could he? She mentally shook her head. Of course not. He meant it as friends. Silly girl, she was thinking too much into it.
"O-of course. Friends do this too."
Sakuno didn't catch the flicker in his eyes. She was too busy forcing a lighthearted laugh. And then she was too busy trying not to feel Ryoma's arm pressing against her own on their walk home.
"Doesn't this bring back memories?" Sakuno grinned, setting down twin steaming mugs of hot cocoa on the coffee table.
She had invited him in to warm up and wait out the rain. Since his head and clothes were damp, Sakuno had directed Ryoma towards the bath while she ran his clothes through the washing machine. The same situation had happened exactly a month ago, on her birthday. Karupin had ran away from home and ended up at her doorstep. Ryoma had come to fetch his cat, only to be caught up in the rain instead. In a fortuitous twist of fate, Sakuno had gotten exactly what she wanted on her birthday.
The fond memory turned her mouth up in pleasure. It was amazing how much their relationship had changed since then, and how much had still stayed the same. She took a seat next to him, closing her eyes briefly when the short whoosh of air carried the crisp laundered scent of the borrowed yukata he was wearing, and the clean honeysuckle smell of his hair. He had used her shampoo. It was silly to be pleased about that, but her smile deepened anyways.
Sakuno paused as she observed Ryoma sipping from his mug. It hit her then. Cocoa was a form of chocolate. Sure, it wasn't exactly the orthodox way of expressing one's affections on this day, but cocoa was still chocolate. It counted, right?
The pigtailed girl bit her lip as she mulled it over. She had given Echizen Ryoma chocolate on Valentine's Day. Word had circulated around campus that he had refused every chocolate that had come his way, but here he was, accepting hers.
"It's good," he nodded in appreciation.
Sakuno's lips formed a smile as she watched him over her own mug, the scent of the velvety rich liquid sweetening the air. So maybe Ryoma hadn't grasped the significance behind this moment. She did. And watching the boy she loved enjoying the chocolate she had made for him was enough.
It was Valentine's Day and they were spending it together. Ryuzaki Sakuno could not have asked for anything more.