TITLE: and i will face death with dignity
FANDOM: Prince of Tennis
SUMMARY: Sakuno learns early on that the only words that could possibly describe the enigma that is Yukimura Seiichi are interjections and his name.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own Prince of Tennis.
DEDICATED TO: fyerigurl. Happy birthday, 언니! Everything I write for you ends up being about Rikkai, oops.
NOTE: Based on the manga, not the anime, which is why Sakuno's actually good at tennis and probably why Rikkai comes off as a bit ruthless in her eyes. (Please don't shoot me.)

.

From what she has heard, what she has seen, Sakuno assumes that Yukimura Seiichi would be an intense version of Fuji.

Then she sees him play.

Oh, is all she can bring herself to think about him. Oh, because there is something very, very different about Yukimura Seiichi that Fuji isn't, and she can't quite put her finger on it. Oh, because the only words that could possibly describe the enigma that is Yukimura Seiichi are interjections and his name.

.

Sakuno never quite forgets about Yukimura Seiichi after that match.

She forgets to remember him, as people do with near-perfect strangers when they lead busy lives, but cheering for her school's tennis team makes completely forgetting Yukimura Seiichi wholly impossible. Momoshiro and Kaidoh will bring him up whenever they mention this year's upcoming Nationals.

"It's a good thing Yukimura and Sanada graduated," Momoshiro will say sometimes, stretching his arms over his head. "Rikkai should be a breeze."

Kaidoh always hisses. "Don't be overconfident," he'll grunt. "There's that Kirihara we'll have to watch out for."

Those conversations always make Sakuno squirm, because any mention of Yukimura is always, always associated with Echizen Ryoma. It brings back rather embarrassing memories, full of cat-like smirks and 'mada mada dane's and, if she's being brutally honest, rather pathetic 'Ryoma-kun's on her part. Still, she thinks fondly, they are good memories. They are the kind of memories that she will cherish with all her heart.

When her infatuation with Echizen Ryoma begins to fade with absence of presence and passage of time, she begins to remember Yukimura after remembering Ryoma. Sakuno can recall a remarkably feminine boy, an elegant enigma. And then she faithfully recalls her, 'Oh', because even in hindsight, that is all Yukimura Seiichi is to her–an Oh and his name.

.

Three months before the end of Sakuno's second year at Seigaku, her father comes in and announces that he's been offered a huge promotion. The family immediately begins to congratulate him until he raises a hand to stop them.

"The job's in Kanagawa," he says quietly.

Sakuno meets her grandmother's eyes, knowing that they're both thinking the same thing: Seigaku is in Tokyo.

The commute would be long–around an hour and a half, perhaps–but it isn't unheard of in Japan. Sakuno makes a mental note to look at train schedules, for the days when she and her grandmother can't commute together.

Ryuzaki Sumire speaks. "The commute will be long."

His face darkens. "…Too long."

The adults in the room look at her, and Sakuno can't help but feel the weight of the silent question they're asking her. Still, she knows what the answer will be. She's known the answer ever since she noticed her father's knee bouncing up and down rapidly as he made his announcement.

"I think you should take it anyway," she says quietly.

.

Sakuno never expects to transfer to Rikkai Dai, of all places.

"It has a good tennis club," her father says, beaming proudly. "I thought it would be a good place for you to adjust."

Sakuno just nods numbly, wondering what her father would be saying if he knew the type of tennis that Rikkai Dai played. She remembers Rikkai Dai quite well. Rikkai Dai is the school with Yukimura Seiichi, Sanada Genichirou, and Kirihara Akaya–the school with the violent tennis. Rikkai Dai's tennis was the kind that destroyed tennis for its opponents. Obaa-chan cried then, she thinks.

Sakuno cries after she picks up her new uniform.

.

The fact that Yukimura Seiichi continued to have a presence at Rikkai Dai two years after his graduation doesn't faze Sakuno. It shouldn't have–not when he'd managed to loom over Seigaku last year. But the sheer magnitude of his presence catches her off guard.

She supposes it's because she's joined the girl's tennis club.

Sakuno also supposes it's because Yukimura Seiichi's sister, Chiyo, happens to be in her class. Sakuno realizes who she is the moment she lays eyes on her–the family resemblance is strong. They have the same delicate facial structure, the same colored eyes, and–perhaps the most striking–the same quiet dignity.

"He's doing well," Yukimura Chiyo answers on the first day, when people had asked her how her brother is doing. "He'll have his hands full with tennis, now that school's starting again."

Either way, Sakuno has to marvel once again at Yukimura Seiichi when her classmates first think of her in association with him. "You're from the school that beat Yukimura-senpai," they say after she tells them she transferred from Seigaku. Then, playfully, "Don't go telling your former school our secrets, now."

Yukimura Seiichi aside, Sakuno actually finds the people at Rikkai Dai surprisingly nice.

.

Despite the pleasant surprise, Sakuno mainly keeps to herself at Rikkai Dai, as shy as she's always been. She occasionally makes small talk with some of the girls in her class and in the tennis club. But for the first week, she avoids Yukimura Chiyo like the plague. The girl seems friendly enough, but consciously or not, people like the Yukimuras use their dignity like shields, and she has always found that unsettling.

One morning, as she switches shoes, she hears an elegant, "Good morning, Ryuzaki-chan."

The voice is a dead giveaway, and Sakuno instantly feels her muscles tense and the hairs on her neck stand up. Still, she shouldn't be rude, so she turns around and gives the girl a shy smile. "Ah–good morning, Yukimura-chan."

Yukimura Chiyo smiles back pleasantly and leans against the column of lockers next to hers. "Are you adjusting well?"

Sakuno nods, not knowing quite what to say. Yukimura Chiyo takes her awkwardness in stride.

"Have you signed up for any clubs?"

"Tennis. And you, Yukimura-chan?"

Yukimura Chiyo smiles again. "I'm the head of the badminton club."

Sakuno nods again, desperately thinking of a way to politely extract herself from the situation at hand.

"Do you plan on trying out to be a regular?" her companion asks again. "Rikkai's famous for its boys' tennis club, but the girls' tennis club is quite good as well."

She shrugs. "I– …maybe."

Yukimura Chiyo tilts her head slightly to the left, eyes narrowing as she tries to make out the meaning behind Sakuno's words. "Are you any good?"

Sakuno thinks. She's placed in some local tournaments in the past two years, yes, and she has improved significantly since freshman year. Then she remembers freshman year–remembers people like Tezuka Kunimitsu and Ryoma-kun. So the answer must be–

"No," she answers honestly. "Not especially."

The other girl waves off that reply with her hand kindly. "You should try out, anyway, if only to see how good you are."

"Maybe," Sakuno nods unconvincingly, curling in towards herself.

.

Sakuno still doesn't quite know what to make of Yukimura Chiyo, so when she goes home that day, she consults someone who probably does: Tomoka.

"Yukimura-san's little sister talked to me today," is the first thing she says after they've exchanged the typical greetings.

Tomoka goes silent on the other end–a rare instance for her. Sakuno realizes that her friend must be awfully surprised.

"What's she like?"

Sakuno hesitates. "She's… She reminds me of her brother."

"Is she in the tennis club?" Tomoka sounds alarmed now, she notes.

"No, badminton. But she did suggest I try out to be a regular."

There's a sigh. "You shouldn't. I mean, you got really good in the last year with the form that Ryoma-sama helped you work on, but Rikkai seems…" Tomoka trails off, trying to think of a word.

"I know."

"You saw Tezuka-senpai's arm after that match with Sanada–"

"Yes."

"–And Inui-senpai's face. I mean, what kind of school allows that kind of tennis? No offense, since you go there now."

Sakuno smiles, then, because Tomoka's the same as ever.

"–And from what Horio-kun told me about Ryoma-sama's match, that Yukimura guy seems pretty brutal. Rikkai will eat someone as nice as you alive."

Yes, Sakuno thinks, and then, out of nowhere: but Ryoma-kun looked like he was having fun.

Tomoka takes her silence for agreement. "But if that guy's sister thinks she'll be your new best friend, I'm going to Kanagawa to kick her ass."

.

Tomoka's grudging approval of Yukimura Chiyo reassures Sakuno, so when the girl in question greets her the next day, Sakuno can brush off her initial intimidation and offer her a smile easily. They converse leisurely throughout the day when they can, and even sit together for lunch.

"Call me Chiyo," she offers.

Sakuno blinks. Yukimura Chiyo does not strike her as the type of girl who foregoes formality so easily. Still, her dignity makes her foregoing feel like a formal ceremony, and Sakuno can't help but feel inclined to do the same.

"Sakuno-chan," Chiyo says thoughtfully, testing it out on her tongue.

Chiyo thankfully doesn't mention the topic of tennis tryouts again that day; then again, Sakuno realizes, Yukimura Chiyo is probably the kind of person who knows that she doesn't need to repeat herself. Her carriage is the type that ensures a reaction, and her delivery is the kind that usually ensures the reaction she wants.

That day, against all thoughts concerning personal safety flitting through her head, Sakuno signs up for the tennis tryouts.

.

Not living with her grandmother proves to be an adjustment, but it isn't as bad as Sakuno expected; not with weekly phone calls that last for hours at a time.

"What are you doing lately?" her grandmother asks after she updates Sakuno on the happenings of Seigaku's tennis club.

She hesitates. "I signed up to try out for a regular position the other day."

"Make me proud, Sakuno," is all her grandmother offers.

When the call ends an hour later, Sakuno can only wonder what her grandmother means.

.

Sakuno walks to school the day after her tennis tryouts. She calls Tomoka on the way, panicking about the results until her friend barks, "You kicked ass! Of course you made it!" and hangs up when she reaches the school gates. Chiyo is already waiting for her, and her quiet grace forces Sakuno to stop the tremor of her hands.

They walk to the tennis club room together, making their way through the crowd that has already gathered at the door. Chiyo has to remind Sakuno to open her eyes when they reach the list.

Sakuno looks up.

There, three up from the bottom, is her name.

She can only gape.

"Congratulations," Chiyo says, and somehow amidst her incoherent thoughts of surprise, Sakuno can only wonder at how even Chiyo's beam seems formal.

.

Sakuno answers Tomoka's call nervously that night. "I… I made it, Tomo-chan."

"Hell yeah!" her friend yells. "I'm totally going to go to all of your matches now, Sakuno-chan. I'll even be president of your fanclub."

Sakuno manages to laugh and groan simultaneously.

.

Three weeks into school, Chiyo invites Sakuno over after school. She's showing Sakuno the living room when they bump into her brother.

"Chiyo," he says, face swiftly setting into a polite smile. "You brought a friend."

"Nii-san, this is Ryuzaki Sakuno. Sakuno-chan, this is my brother, Seiichi-nii."

Sakuno sees the way his eyes flash in recognition at her last name, and she bows before he can bring it up. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Yukimura-san."

"Senpai, Sakuno-chan," Chiyo chides gently. "He's technically your upperclassman now, right?"

She flushes, and apologizes.

"It's all right," he says easily, smile unruffled. "The pleasure's all mine."

Oh, Sakuno finds herself thinking again, because the image of Yukimura Seiichi politely smiling in his house without shoes starkly contrasts the image she's held for the past two years; the one of Yukimura Seiichi with a tennis racket in his hand. His smile is kind.

.

The Yukimuras are nice people, Sakuno finds. Chiyo's father is the type who is stern but fair, her mother is as elegant and charismatic as her children, and her grandmother is the type of person who wears a kimono on a daily basis. Still, even the Yukimuras put down their shields at home.

"Are you in the badminton club with Chiyo?" her mother asks once the dinner table's been set.

Sakuno fiddles with her skirt. "No, ma'am. I play tennis. Itadakimasu."

"Her grandmother coaches at Seigaku," Yukimura Seiichi supplies quietly, after his father and grandmother have a bite to eat. Sakuno's face burns.

This makes his father nod in recognition. "The school that beat Seiichi. Are you good?"

"Not especially." Sakuno murmurs, looking at her soup.

Chiyo chuckles. "She's being modest. Sakuno-chan's a regular."

Her mother smiles. "Then you must be good. Perhaps you could have a match with Seiichi sometime. I'd like to see you play."

Sakuno's grip on her chopsticks tightens as the image she'd had of Yukimura Seiichi for the past two years slowly fades back into her mind. "I… It wouldn't be a very good opportunity to see me play, Yukimura-san. He'd crush me."

If Yukimura Seiichi notices her white knuckles, he doesn't show any sign of it.

.

After that, Sakuno and Chiyo frequent each other's houses on a weekly basis. This means that the girls begin confiding in each other, exchanging crises and secrets. This means that they distract each other from doing their homework and giggle quietly together.

This also means that Sakuno's default image of Yukimura Seiichi begins to change from the one of Yukimura Seiichi holding a tennis racket to the one of Yukimura Seiichi politely smiling in his house without shoes.

Sakuno only notices during one of her visits to the Yukimura household two months into the school year, when she is sitting with Chiyo and her grandmother in the living room. The students are working on their homework; the elder is gazing out the window. And then there is Yukimura Seiichi, who walks in eating a cream puff. He gives Chiyo another one and sits down on the couch, earning a sharp look from his grandmother.

"Sakuno-chan may be a friend and a frequent visitor," she says gravely, "but she is still a guest."

Yukimura Seiichi ducks his head in apology, and even has the grace to look–no, not sheepish, Sakuno corrects herself. She doesn't know if Yukimura Seiichi could ever look sheepish. She can imagine him look ashamed, humiliated–embarrassed, even. And here, she sees him look properly censured as he pads lightly back to the kitchen to prepare a plate of food.

Sakuno thinks back to the first two times she saw Yukimura Seiichi. Oh, she'd thought both times. It's a word that could describe him here, too, nevermind for very different reasons. So she thinks it again as she feels her face burn pink: Oh, because Yukimura Seiichi is more than a legend after all.

.

When she relays all of this to Tomoka during their daily calls, her friend laughs.

.

In one of their weekly calls, Ryuzaki Sumire brings up Sakuno's recent companions. "Your father told me that you've made friends with the Yukimuras."

"I… Yes, Obaa-chan. I have."

Her grandmother doesn't speak for a few seconds–only sighs and offers, "The boy is very good at tennis."

Sakuno feels guilty, then. She remembers again that Ryoma's match with Yukimura Seiichi had made her grandmother cry.

"I'm only close to his sister, though," she says.

"Hm."

"Chiyo-chan is very different from her brother." There is conviction in her voice when she says this, and that more than anything seems to an effective comfort because Sakuno hears a rustle on the other line as her grandmother nods before telling her about a cake she'd made.

.

With the upcoming regional matches, Sakuno throws more of her time into playing tennis. She frequents the neighborhood's tennis center for hours on end, practicing her aim with her backhand drives.

She's about to feed more coins into the machine one evening when she hears an, "Ah, Ryuzaki-chan."

Sakuno can't help that the grip on her racket gets tighter. She's heard Yukimura Seiichi's voice enough times now to recognize it halfway through the first syllable, but she notices that there is something very different in his voice here, at a tennis center, where he is undoubtedly wearing his shoes. Sakuno doesn't need to turn around to know that this Yukimura Seiichi is holding a tennis racket.

Ah, she thinks, resisting the urge to wring her hands. He's put up his shield again.

Still, Sakuno turns and greets him with a polite bow. "Yukimura-senpai."

He smiles kindly, but there is something cautious in it. "Preparing for regionals? Do your best." And then, after her nod, asks as casually as if he were asking her about the weather, "How about a match?"

She can't find the courage to refuse.

They're only through the first set when Sakuno realizes why her grandmother had cried, why she was so terrified of Yukimura Seiichi when he held a tennis racket. Yukimura Seiichi is perhaps the most dangerous opponent to have; he crushes people's resolution into particles of despair. He takes the tennis that people start to love and molds it into a source of bitterness; a source of pent-up frustration and washed-up regret.

But Ryoma-kun had fun playing against him, Sakuno reminds herself. She realizes that relying on a past crush for determination isn't healthy, but the reminder comforts her nonetheless. Sakuno likes knowing that a challenge can be worth the effort, even if it doesn't necessarily apply to her. So Sakuno puts her effort in making the impossible possible, just as Echizen Ryoma had.

The outcome of the match is embarrassingly predictable: he crushes her 6-0. Still, Sakuno can find reason to give herself a mental pat on the back. She hadn't completely despaired, she tells herself. Despite the overwhelming frustration, the anxiety, and the humiliation that comes with not being able to properly move or see, she'd always continued trying to break out of Yukimura Seiichi's mental hold. Nevermind the fact that she'd lost the match, that she hadn't even been able to swing her racket. She considers her obstinacy a success in and of itself, so when the match ends, Sakuno greets Yukimura Seiichi at the net with a smile.

As she drinks some water, Sakuno is suddenly hit by a wave of nostalgia, because she can suddenly see why Echizen Ryoma looked like he'd been having fun during that match. It is just like him to find fun in hopeless situations.

.

On his part, Yukimura Seiichi is pleasantly surprised. He'd asked her for a match out of simple ennui, but Ryuzaki Sakuno is a better tennis player than he'd thought. Despite her considerable lack of strength and ability to improvise, her form and general technique are lovely; he deduces that it must be the result of meticulous attention during her days as a beginner.

Still, what surprises him most is her sincerity as she shakes his hand and says, "Thank you for the match."

Yukimura Seiichi can't help but smile softly. Her face is flushed from exercise, and it makes her eyes seem all the more brighter. He knows, now, why Chiyo had decided to befriend her.

.

That night, when Sakuno calls Tomoka and tells her about the match, she has to pull the phone away from her ear. Tomoka's shriek ("YOU'RE STILL ALIVE?") is still crystal clear.

.

After their match, Yukimura Seiichi begins to talk to Sakuno. His exchanges with her are now more than just polite greetings. He congratulates her on her matches. He asks her about her day. He begins asking for her opinions about things–like the flowers he should plant in his garden.

("You garden?" is her response.

He only smiles and nods, as if a feminine hobby like gardening is perfectly natural for the tennis player called "the child of God". "What do you think? I'd like one that can last through the summer and the fall."

Sakuno takes a few moments to process this information. "Asters?"

He nods again. "What color?"

"Light purple."

"Wonder of Staffa asters, got it.")

At her next visit, Yukimura Seiichi talks to her about a cake she'd made for Chiyo's birthday.

("I didn't know Ryuzaki-chan bakes. You must be good at it–Chiyo loved the one you made when she went to your house."

"Ah, the angel cake? Obaa-chan gave me the recipe."

"Is that what it was?")

Chiyo looks quizzical at first, but one morning she greets Sakuno smiling as if it were Christmas, "Nii-san planted the aster seeds yesterday."

Sakuno takes this new development in with her predictable bewilderment. "Oh," she says back, secretly pleased.

(Still, she's grateful that he doesn't come to the tennis center again. Even though she'd played against him, even though she'd smiled after their match, Ryuzaki Sakuno is still deathly afraid of Yukimura Seiichi when he plays tennis.)

.

Yukimura Seiichi still brings all his test scores to his mother.

They are always impeccable–never anything below a 96; Sakuno can see why he wants to brag about them. Still, the fact that he wants to brag to his mother makes the fact that he wants to brag all the more tender. (Adorable is just another one of the words that one could never possibly use to describe the enigma that is Yukimura Seiichi.)

He always hands them off nonchalantly, Sakuno notices. Everything about his posture displays the casual confidence he has in his ability to meet others' expectations. His mother is no different–she receives them with a casual, "Oh, another one?"

The reward he gets is always the same: a kiss on the cheek from his mother. It is a reward that, despite the expectations and the repetitions, always manages to become more heartfelt the more she witnesses it. Yukimura Seiichi always smiles somewhat smugly when his mother's lips meet his cheek. He always stands straighter, taller when she pulls away; sometimes, he will even lean down as his mother peruses the exam, tilting his head in a way that allows his cheek to face her just so. There is something very endearing about the respect and love he has for his mother.

Oh, she finds herself thinking as she witnesses yet another one of these exchanges. I could fall in love with him if I let myself.

The thought terrifies her. Sakuno is suddenly very, very tempted to take her heart and lock it away. She does the next best thing.

"Tomo-chan," she murmurs into her phone when she gets home.

"What's up?"

Hearing Tomoka's voice makes Sakuno want to cry–makes her want to go back to her freshman year at Seigaku. Seigaku had been warm. It had her grandmother, her friends since elementary school, and her nice upperclassmen–and back in freshman hear it had had Echizen Ryoma. More than anything, Sakuno wants to go back to the time when she'd had embarrassing crushes on cocky boys who weren't dangerous in the least.

"I… I think I have a crush on Yukimura-senpai."

There is a prompt crash on the other end of the line.

"Sakuno-chan," Tomoka says seriously. "You… you can't. I know that he'll be the death of you just from what I've heard about him."

Sakuno leans her head against the side of her bed. "I know, Tomo-chan."

.

Sakuno wishes she could avoid Yukimura Seiichi; absence does not make the heart grow fonder, as she has seen with the crush she'd had on Echizen Ryoma. But she can't avoid Yukimura Seiichi without avoiding Chiyo, and doing that without hurting Chiyo's feelings is impossible. So Sakuno flushes in his presence; and when she becomes adept at suppressing blushes, fidgets with her skirt, her pencil, her fingers; she starts controlling her nervous stutter. In short, Sakuno learns how to stumble her way through an embarrassing crush into a more mature and confident "like".

She knows this is dangerous. Her exchanges with Yukimura Seiichi become even more so when he calls her out into his garden to show her the asters that he'd planted. Chiyo doesn't even bother getting up, just offers her a knowing, catlike grin that makes Sakuno want to crawl under the rug in the Yukimuras' living room. She trips over her own feet instead.

Yukimura Seiichi watches her catch herself. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," she squeaks, suppressing her flush with her newly acquired expertise.

He nods, and leads her outside. "They've started blooming nicely. They'll be quite pretty in a few days."

Sakuno stares at the flowers. Their petals are stretched out, angled awkwardly in mid-bloom. Still, she thinks, the color is a lovely delicate shade of purple.

It hits her then.

Oh no, she groans inwardly. They match his hair.

.

Sakuno realizes the main difference between Yukimura and Fuji on a sunny afternoon, as she and Yukimura are sipping overpriced coffee in a café. (It's a treat–an effort on Yukimura's part to make up for the gap left by Chiyo, who's suddenly suspiciously bedridden with a cold on the day that the two girls planned to go shopping.) This particular café has an excellent roast, and can make beautiful latte art, she explains. Never mind the simple heart on her latte–see the fern on his?

Yukimura smiles and concurs, and Sakuno can't help but giggle.

"What is it?" he asks.

"Nothing," she says, smile stretching across her face in a self-deprecating sort of disbelief. "It just hit me how very different this is than what I'd pictured for myself three years ago."

He smiles indulgently. "We were all different people three years ago. I was much too arrogant, then."

Sakuno giggles again. "Most of the people I knew were."

"Ah," he murmurs, eyes glinting teasingly. "I'd forgotten you'd gone to Seigaku."

Sakuno smiles. "To be fair, I think Ryoma-kun made up half of Seigaku's arrogance back then."

It's the way that she says "Ryoma-kun" that makes Yukimura stiffen. Sakuno still breathes that name on an exhale, a sigh, and she smiles fondly as she does it. Her eyes flicker to her lower left, which is only a small comfort. She is not remembering him so much as her previous infatuation with him, he tells himself. The lower left is the direction of revisited emotions. It is the direction he looks in when he recalls the grim determination he'd been consumed with during that fateful match, and the overwhelming sense of defeat that had promptly replaced it when he'd lost. But three years ago, Yukimura thinks traitorously, her eyes would have flickered to the upper right as she'd recalled his face.

"Call me Seiichi," he tells her, lips thin. His voice rips her out of her nostalgia, and when she looks at him again, he is glaring a hole into her foam heart.

Ah, Sakuno thinks in interjections again. He's actually very proud and bitter. She hides her blush by taking a sip of coffee. The heart in the foam distorts, and the one in her chest explodes.

Tomo-chan was right. He'll be the death of me.

.