What is love?
To Echizen Ryoma, this seemingly profound term comes in the form of tennis, Ponta, and Karupin (exactly in this order), and apart from these three, 'love' is just an abstract distraction meant to veer him away from being number one. But in all actuality, his thoughts never drifted outside his mind's accustomed boundaries, so the probability of pondering over such concepts was nil. In the end, 'love' was just a four-letter word which was of no use to him.
To Ryuuzaki Sakuno, love takes a much more concrete and deeper meaning. Although having no experience in an actual love relationship, she was very much aware of the feeling and the fruits it would bear. She loved her parents, her grandmother, Tomoka, and possibly, the resident tennis prince himself. And with every bento, hug, and time she offered, it was a piece of herself she was giving to them. In love, it was all about self-sacrifice.
But they were twelve, so what grounds do they have to claim they know the real meaning of love? Even with their own interpretations, their inexperience screams that love was a foreign concept they cannot fully comprehend at this time.
So what happens when one sunny, breezy April afternoon, Sakuno approaches Ryoma, who was lying flat on his back under the Sakura tree, to ask him to accept her feelings? He sits up abruptly, gazing at her with his piercing golden eyes and leaving the question hanging for several moments until Sakuno begins to quiver in apprehension. She struggles to keep a straight face in the deafening silence when tears suddenly well-up in her eyes, and Ryoma decides it wasn't fun anymore, so he flashes a smirk and gestures her to sit down beside him, which was the closest to him saying "I accept"?
It was the start of their journey towards learning.
i. acts of service
Sakuno never missed any of Ryoma's games; she was bound to be always watching and cheering in the sidelines. After every tennis match, she would immediately seek him, ready to tend to any wounds or pamper him with her cooked meals. He accepted everything she gave him for her presence was his most effective tranquilizer, her undying support her greatest act of service.
On a more subtle note, Ryoma saving Sakuno from those high school hooligans was his first show of chauvinism. Albeit unintentional, that happening was the first of many. He popped up whenever she was in trouble. He coached her in tennis. He tutored her in English. In all sense, he was always there whenever she needed him, and that's what made him a prince in Sakuno's eyes.
From day one, their love story had been marked by an act of service.
December 24, 25, and February 14 were among the most important dates in Sakuno's calendar. She took gift-giving seriously and was known to put humongous effort in coming up with the best present. Her tennis balls with penned chibi faces, boxes of bento, and homemade chocolates were among Ryoma's most cherished gifts from her. Although faint, he had always acknowledged her efforts – sometimes with a rare smile – and to Sakuno, that was enough.
Ryoma, on the other hand, wasn't an avid fan of gift-giving. For two years in junior high, he had always been the subject of such frivolities, and though he'd be caught dead before admitting it, he had constantly looked forward to Sakuno's present. It was only after her fated confession when he got around to returning the favor. Ryoma has been labeled the epitome of coolness, and when it came to gift-giving, he never uttered words of burning passion or cracked an expression of endearment but merely handed the box wrapped in pink paper. Sakuno never made a fuss when it came to his lack of display of affection.
Because the mere act of giving had already spoken a thousand words.
iii. words of affirmation
The last Sakuno verbally expressed her feelings to Ryoma was her actual confession itself. Ever since she had become acquainted with Ryoma, Sakuno had always been bashful around him, so it was an unremitting struggle to properly say something in his presence. She was more likely to articulate her gratitude or affection through acts of service or gift-giving, and since this often resulted to her desired effect, she didn't find it necessary to voice them out. She was fairly certain he understood her anyway.
Hell would freeze over before the words 'I love you' would frequent Ryoma's mouth. He was even more reserved than Sakuno, and the closest to words of affirmation would be his persistent teasing and criticism. Apart from that, Ryoma and the typical verbal assurance?
iv. physical touch
Sakuno liked holding Ryoma's hand. Although it was callous because of years of playing tennis, she liked it because it was warm; his large hand firmly clasped around hers made her feel secure. Ryoma, on the other hand, would often be seen touching Sakuno's lower back, especially in the presence of other boys; it served as a fair warning to those who would dare. Most of the time, both would attempt to be casual when it came to being physical, but as far as public display of affection was concerned, the aforementioned would be the farthest they would go.
However, it was a different story altogether when no one was looking. It started with simple caresses; Ryoma was fond of running his fingers through Sakuno's long, auburn hair whenever she was distressed, for it always calmed her. Similarly, in idle moments when Ryoma would lie on Sakuno's lap, she would comb Ryoma's tresses until he would fall asleep. Their touches were innocent. But as time progressed, it became more rabid.
At first, there was reluctance. Sakuno didn't have the courage to up the ante and Ryoma was simply too dense when it came to matters of the heart. But eventually, from innocuous touches, strong urges had bottled up until it was too much to bear. In empty classrooms and behind book shelves they became slaves to sinful touches. She moaned in pleasure whenever he nipped her neck. He growled in satisfaction whenever she tugged his hair. It was a secret tongue they began to speak, and they learned it gradually.
In Echizen Ryoma's words, they were still 'Mada mada dane'.
But that's alright.
They were fast learners.
v. quality time
Every moment they spent together brought about a variety of enlightenments: like Ryoma finding out that Sakuno and he used the same shampoo after taking a shower during a heated 'sleepover' and Sakuno discovering a box of her letters to him under his bed when she spent the New Year's with the Echizens. Even with everyday encounters, whether they were eating lunch on the rooftop or playing a friendly game of tennis, they never fail to learn something about each other.
There was no need to talk about their similarities and differences or preferences though; their knowledge came naturally, often popping out at the most unexpected moments. But there was no doubt that currently, they knew quite a lot about each other; it was as if after two years of watching each other's back, it turned out there was no use for utterances.
They simply knew.
But there was still so much to learn!
After all, they had only started speaking the language.
Ryoma didn't look up when he heard the soft "thud" of the door. With his eyes closed, he lay motionless on the bed and feigned sleep, certain that she would come over and break the silence. Though he knew she wouldn't buy his act, teasing her never grew old.
The mattress shifted.
His eyes remained shut.
Still no movement.
She sighed. "Our test's tomorrow, Ryoma-kun, and I have to be back before dinner."
He suppressed a smirk. He was getting to her.
"Ryoma-kun!" He sensed her panic – her breath tickling the side of his face, her hand enclosing his arm.
"Ngh." He shifted, turning away from her.
A moment passed.
"Ryoma," she whispered.
Sakuno reddened when Ryoma immediately crawled back to her side and plopped his head on her lap. He made himself comfortable and upwardly gazed at her, a smirk tugging at his lips, before burying his face against the flat of her stomach. It was at moments like this when Sakuno would think that Ryoma greatly resembled a cat.
"Ryoma…" she started, "You're still going to tutor me for English, aren't you?"
"Hn." Was his non-committal response.
Sakuno scanned the rest of his room: his duffel bag was zipped open with assorted paraphernalia sticking out and piles of clothing lay discarded on the floor. Normally, his room was a lot neater, but she figured today's practice was more inhumane than usual since the tournaments were just around the corner.
Sakuno gently combed Ryoma's hair with her fingers, her expression softening, "You must be really tired from practice… I'm sorry for bothering you—"
"Read. I'll translate." Ryoma said with finality.
Sakuno smiled, pleased, "Uhm… Don't you think it would be better if we both sat by the desk so we can study properly?"
"No," Ryoma held her wrist to stop her from standing up. Her blush increased a tenfold when Ryoma circled his arm around her waist.
Really, how did he expect her to concentrate?
"Ryoma…" she admonished, but her words fell on deaf ears. Sighing, she knew she had to yield. She reached for her English book from her messenger bag, opened it, and began to read in silence. She decided she'd bother Ryoma as little as possible and only nudge him awake when she needed help with a translation. He was dead tired – he needed rest, and she would give him that.
*I think that I shall never see. A poem as lovely as a tree—
Hot lips suddenly seared her stomach.
"R-Ryoma!" she shrieked, inching herself away from him. "I'm studying—"
"I said I'll translate." He met her gaze. "You're not reading aloud."
"I was able to translate that part already, wait…" Sakuno blushed, flipping to another page, "I'll let you translate common English phrases then… Here: I'm coming home."
"I'm coming home," he said without missing a beat, then paused and looked up. "I think we should reverse so you can practice."
Sakuno nodded, seeing his point, and put her book away. "Alright."
For an hour, Ryoma threw her several English statements, and Sakuno managed to translate most of them. He continued to lie comfortably on her lap while she played with his tresses, stroking them gently. Ryoma's mind slowly started to enter haze at her continuous caresses, and the list of English phrases they needed to memorize flashed one last time in his mind.
"I love you."
Sakuno stilled. Suddenly the air seemed so thick that she found it hard to breathe. "W-What?"
"I love you," he reiterated, as if he was saying something as bland as "My socks are in the dryer."
Then it dawned on her that she was the only one making a big deal out of it; evidently, Ryoma still had English translation in mind. After all, what to make out of it? 'I love you' was one of the most known phrases in the English language – it was in the list! So it shouldn't upset her if Ryoma, who had never verbally expressed his feelings, would casually say 'I love you' and be totally oblivious that he tugged at her heartstrings.
There was silence.
"It's seven, Ryoma-kun… I need to go," she whispered, firmly pushing him off her lap.
Ryoma sat up, slightly disoriented. "Did you translate everything?"
Sakuno was disheartened at his ignorance, but she tried to smile. "Mm… You don't have to bring me home. Rest well," she said, standing up.
But Ryoma gripped her arm and pulled her back on the bed. She lay face up as he hovered over her.
"You didn't translate the last one," he muttered, his eyes piercing her.
Sakuno blushed to root ends and looked away. His alarm clock looked a whole lot interesting all of a sudden. "I-I know the translation anyway... Thank you for helping me out today, Ryoma-kun…" She attempted sitting up, but Ryoma kept her in place.
"Translate it," he insisted, his hands pinning her arms at the sides.
A moment passed.
Sakuno shut her eyes close. "…I love you."
Ryoma had already sealed her lips with a kiss. It was chaste, but eventually it deepened and grew hungrier with every passing moment. They were entering familiar territory. Her arms were wound around his neck while his hands fisted her hair. She breathed in his musky scent as he savored her intoxicating flavor. She whimpered at his soothing ministrations, he purred at her scorching kisses.
And suddenly, there was no use for words…
…Because even without them, they understood.