Sanada noticed the girl first.
It was a beautiful day for late autumn. The leaves had just finished turning golds and reds and oranges and some leaves were beginning to drift off of the branches and onto the ground. There was a little chill, cold enough to zip up jackets or turn up the collars on shirts. It was cloudy, the sky grayish-blue.
Right now, Sanada was at tennis practice, of course. He was always here after school. Along with the rest of the Rikkai dai males who'd joined the club. Practice was nearing a close, and so was the end of fall tennis. But tennis wouldn't completely die out for Sanada. It would live in his heart forever, as a part of him.
There was a tournament looming just around the corner. This tournament Rikkai dai had already won five out of the last six years. As vice captain of the tennis team, Sanada aimed to direct his team in another victory.
Because of the tournament, practice drills had been intensified for the regulars. Instead of the usual thirty laps, they were now required to run sixty. Instead of the hand-eye coordination, it was speed and reaction. And instead of the small practice matches against non-regulars, it was matches against teammates, and the result counted as if it were an actual match.
"Practice over yet?" Akaya called out as he ran by. He swiped a hand across his forehead, where sweat hung to his skin.
Sanada glanced over at Yukimura, who nodded. "One more lap. Then yes, it's over." Akaya rolled his eyes and Niou cursed, but like the rest of the Regulars, they rounded the court for one more lap.
Sanada reached up and pulled his black cap over his eyes. He flicked his eyes over his shoulder, checking out a girl that sat at the bottom of the bleachers. The girl was pretty, with sleek brown hair, highlighted with blonde and white-blonde. There was a dog sitting at her side, a pure white Samoyed. It had no leash, he noted, it was probably tame.
The girl was always sitting at the bleachers during practice. She would come in the middle of practice, then sit down and watch until it ended. Afterward, she would get up and leave, the Samoyed right at her heels. She always wore a pair of stylish, oversized sunglasses, even if there was little or no sunlight. Maybe it was the female fashion. Either way, Sanada didn't care.
He didn't know her name. He recognized her as one of his classmates in English. And he remembered seeing her around at lunch. She was a new student, this being her first year at Rikkai dai. She seemed to be faring well.
"Who are you looking at?" Sanada turned to see Yukimura standing there, his jacket hanging loosely on his shoulders. He wore a smile, one that Sanada knew well.
He shook his head. "No one important."
"Oh, really? Because it looks to me as if you are looking at her." Yukimura waved a hand towards the girl.
"Are you talking about Sanada?" This came from Yagyuu, the Gentleman, who was approaching them, followed by Niou, who always seemed to be at his side. "He is looking at a girl?"
"Impossible," Niou said, grinning.
"It may be hard to believe, but I'm sure that even Genichirou has an interest for females," Yukimura declared mischievously.
"She is pretty cute," commented Akaya, who had just come over.
Even Yanagi was finding humor in this situation. "I would say there is a seventy-five percent chance of Sanada hitting on her."
"I am not hitting on her," he replied, using a tone laced with steel. Miraculously, the girl seemed to haven't heard a word yet, even though it was impossible not to.
"That is a definite one-hundred percent chance of Sanada lying."
"Let's go talk to her," suggested Akaya. The others agreed, finding it fun to pick on Sanada.
Sanada opened his mouth, ready to object. But before he could even say a word, the Rikkai dai Regulars had left the court and made their way over to the bleachers, where the girl sat. He sighed and followed them.
The Samoyed had been resting its head on its paws, but when it caught sight of the newcomers, it perked up and gave a short bark. The girl turned her head.
"Hello," Yagyuu said. "How are you?"
"Fine, thank you."
"What a beautiful Samoyed!" Yukimura exclaimed. "These are quite rare to see in Japan. It's yours', I presume?" He bent down and gave the dog a pat.
"Yes, his name is Kayo. He was a gift from a friend of mine. He's tame, so he doesn't need a leash like other dogs." She smiled.
"You're lucky to have a dog so well-trained."
Akaya sat down next to her, running his fingers through Kayo's silky coat. "Are you a student here? I think I've seen you before."
"Yes, I'm in ninth grade. I'm new, though, this is my first year here." Sanada had been right.
"You're in ninth grade? I can't believe I've never noticed you." Niou smirked, using his charm. "You've got such a pretty face. What's your name?"
"Akemi Natsume." She turned in his direction vaguely.
"You have a boyfriend, Akemi?"
"Hey, easy on the charm," said Akaya. "You don't want to steal her. Sanada's got his eye on her, remember? If you take her, then we'll have to run even more laps." This brought laughter from the Regulars, except for Sanada, who kept his face expressionless.
"I do not have my eye out for her," he protested. But they shrugged, ignoring his words completely.
Akemi was smiling, and he found her smile dazzling.
One by one, the boys introduced themselves. Then afterward, Akemi said, "All of you seem to take tennis very seriously. Do you have something big coming up?"
"Yeah, we do," Niou said. "We're going to kick ass!"
"Excuse his language," Yukimura apologized fondly. The girl didn't seem to mind, though.
After a few minutes of friendly talk and banter here and there, she stood up. "Well, then," she said. "It was nice meeting you all. I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got a big biology test coming up and I haven't studied." Kayo stood as well, going to his owner's side.
"Take care, Akemi," Yukimura said.
"Yes, we'll see you around," Yanagi added.
"Thank you." For a split second, it was as if Akemi was dizzy on her feet. Kayo pressed against her leg, and she buried her fingers into his fur, looking grateful for the support. Sanada noticed as she clenched the dog, digging her feet into the ground for purchase. Was she ill, maybe? Then Akemi left, Kayo at her heels.
"She's pretty, isn't she, Sanada?" Yagyuu teased, elbowing the vice captain in the side of the ribs.
Sanada didn't do anything, he only replied, "Do you wish to run more laps?"
"Hell, no!" Akaya crossed his arms over his chest and set his lips in a stubborn line. "You can't make me do anything."
"…okay, fine," Akaya cried, giving up, "I'll run an extra ten laps tonight!" He grabbed his books and duffle bag and made his escape.
"I'll see to it," Yanagi said, as he was the sea-weed headed male's mentor. He went after his teammate. Yagyuu and Niou left, talking about whether tomato was a fruit or vegetable, of all things. Sanada was left standing with Yukimura.
"So, old friend," said the blue-haired male. He adjusted his jacket.
"I do not like Akemi." Sanada felt the need to tell him that, just to make things clear.
Yukimura chuckled amusedly. "I refuse to believe that, Genichirou." He felt the need to oppose his friend. "She is quite nice, and innocent. Maybe a girl like her is someone you need."
"Is that so." There was a comfortable silence as the wind whistled through the trees, nipping at their backs and legs. He zipped up his jacket, crossing his arms over his chest to provide some warmth. "Seiichi, there was something strange about Akemi. The way she stood up, how she grabbed the Samoyed for balance."
"I noticed that too."
Of course he had. Sanada could always count on his friend. "Have you noticed that she is always wearing those sunglasses?"
"It's possible that her eyes are sensitive. Or she might have an allergy."
"That's possible." But Sanada knew there was something different about her. "She's just not…"
"An average girl." At this, Yukimura smiled. "Exactly why you should ask her out."
He sighed. "That's not what I meant." But he couldn't keep off the fond smile from his lips. Yukimura always knew how to find humor in odd situations.
So it became a routine for Sanada to search for Akemi during practice. Practice would start off with thirty or so laps to warm up. Afterwards was either a practice match or drills, depending on the schedule. That was the time Akemi usually showed up, sitting on the bleachers, always the same spot, Kayo at her side.
He'd look over his shoulder at her, when he thought no one was looking. She would be leaning back, her hips against the seat behind her, her sunglasses pulled over her eyes. There was a faint smile on her lips, most of the time, as if she knew something you didn't. Sometimes she would toss back her head as she drank from her neon purple water bottle.
Sanada found the curve of her throat enticing.
…That wasn't normal.
Kayo quickly became familiar with the Regulars. Because Yukimura allowed Kayo to wander in the courts, the Samoyed would wander, sitting at Yukimura's feet. He was taking a liking to the blue-haired Captain. Everyone liked Kayo, giving him pats and scratches. But whenever Akemi whistled or snapped her fingers, the dog would trot back to his master's side.
"Hey, Sanada," one of the tennis members would say.
"Don't interrupt him," Akaya would say, oblivious to Sanada's pointed glare. "He's watching the love of his life."
Sanada didn't say anything, only glared at the sea-weed head, but Akaya laughed back.
During lunch one day, Yukimura had a brilliant idea.
"Why don't we invite Akemi to sit with us?" he offered.
Sanada glanced over his shoulder. He could see Akemi sitting with some other students a few tables away. They were in an animated conversation, but she was just finishing her chocolate shake.
"Yes, we should," Yagyuu said. "I do enjoy her company."
Niou started to stand up. "I'll go get her."
Sanada found himself on his feet, his chair shoved back hastily. "No, I will," he said.
The silver-haired Trickster just smirked. "Of course you will."
He laughed. Sanada ignored him. He made his way to her table through the stream of students.
When he reached her, the other kids glanced at him and nodded before returning to their conversation. Akemi herself didn't do anything that showed she knew he was standing there. He cleared his throat. "Akemi."
She only said, "Hmm?"
"It's Genichirou?" he prompted.
Slowly a smile spread over her face. "Oh! Right! Um, hi."
"Hi." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Uh, would you like to sit over at my table? With Seiichi and the others?"
"Oh, sure, I'd love to," she replied. She even wore dark-tinted frames over her eyes inside, he noticed. She was standing up when she stumbled.
"Whoa!" He put his hand on the small of her back to steady her, grabbing for the chocolate shake before it spilled. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, it's just…" She smiled helplessly. "My ankle, I twisted it and it's really bothering me. Sort of hard to walk."
"I'll help you, then." He steered her over to his table, deep in thought. Even the Rikkai dai Regulars' knowing grins as they approached didn't bother him, and Sanada wondered whether her ankle was twisted or not, considering the fact that he'd seen Akemi walking to class just a period before.
The day before the tournament arrived. Sanada was in a surprisingly better mood than he had been all week. He was actually giving small smiles off the court, smiles that didn't flash because he was beating the shit out of someone.
When practice ended, Sanada gathered his things. He went over by Akemi, who had just finished taking a phone call.
"Hey," he said. "You mind if I join you on your walk?"
He knew where she went with Kayo, and her walking route passed his street. So when she said, "Sure," he was sort of glad. It felt weird, to have a crush on someone. Usually he didn't have time for romance.
They walked together, and soon Sanada matched her pace. Kayo trotted happily at his side, for once; the Samoyed never had really liked Sanada before. He gave it a small smile and patted its head gently.
They talked, about school and about tennis and just about anything. Akemi was a surprisingly easy person to talk to. She had a good sense of humor, and she wasn't stupid, like most girls who attended Rikkai dai. Sanada was soon at ease.
As they passed a street café, where some males were lounging around, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, a few of them called out and made catcalls. Akemi didn't do anything, her face was a blank mask and she stayed silent as she strode by.
Sanada, on the other hand, was irritated. "Mind your own business," he snapped. His voice was icy and not a single man dared to defy him with words.
However, one of the men towards the back of the group finished his beer and then, weighing the empty can, hurled it at the back of Akemi's head. "Hey, baby," he called. "Bet you can't see that!"
Akemi gasped, whirling around. Sanada opened his mouth to warn her; Kayo growled low in his throat at the man and then jumped to intercept the can. But the dog missed and it hit its target, slamming into Akemi's face.
She fell, hard, her head snapping back. Upon impact, her mirrored sunglasses flew off.
The men hooted and laughed. "That'll teach you to speak to me, punk!" the culprit sneered at Sanada.
In response, Sanada punched him, hard.
"Hey—!" he yelped, blood spurting from his most probably broken nose.
Sanada paid him no more attention. He knelt by Akemi's side, brushing her long hair back from her face to see if that had done any damage. "Akemi, are you alright…"
His words broke off as he locked gazes with the girl.
She had beautiful caramel colored eyes, behind long blond lashes, but her eyes…they were horribly unfocused and dark…
"You're blind," he realized.
Kayo whined, pressing his cold nose into his owner's palm for comfort. Akemi scrambled for her sunglasses. She stood up quickly, shoving the glasses back over her eyes. "Kayo, let's go."
The Samoyed whimpered. He looked back at Sanada.
He went after his owner. Sanada watched as Akemi ran off, a thousand words rushing through his head. He glared at the man who'd thrown the bottle, and then thought about going after Akemi, but maybe she needed some time of her own. He hissed his breath out and shook his head. Damn it, did he have to find this out the day before the tournament?!
"Seiichi, there's something I need to…"
"You found out that Akemi is blind."
"How did you not know? Man, Sanada, we all knew."
"Quiet, Akaya. I wasn't talking to you. Seiichi, how did you know…"
"It was obvious, Genichirou, and I knew that you knew after hearing about the man getting arrested for assaulting a girl and her Samoyed with a beer can."
"…I was there..."
"Of course you were, old friend."
He never saw Akemi again.