Summer camps were great. Summer camps were fun. Summer camps were for camp food and bonfire, staying up past curfew to pull pranks, midnight fear fest, and sneaking into the boys’ rooms (or so Tomoka said). Not that Sakuno would want to do most of those, but it was the principle of the things.
Anyway, the point was that summer camps generally didn’t start a scarce week after the Nationals ended, with one’s grandmother hauling one half-asleep into the car at the crack of dawn and driving off for parts unknown. By the time Sakuno was awake enough to question what was going on, all her grandmother muttered in answer was something about a million-yen debt and nightmares with a chainsaw. Needless to say, Sakuno was quite startled to be dumped – again, literally – on the doorsteps of the old mountain lodge, where Seigaku boys’ tennis club Regulars had a brief special training session during the Kanto Regional.
And just like that, she’d been charged with the duty of overseeing the preparation for the grand arrival tomorrow morning. Before she could ask whose grand arrival that was, her grandmother was gone, leaving her alone with what looked like fifteen boxes of fresh towels and linens, ten crates of foodstuff, and three equally bemused lodge staff members.
Summer camps, Sakuno decided, were definitely overrated.
The alarm was blaring in her ear, and Sakuno shot up in her futon, startled. She hadn’t set her alarm last night. And the sky was already bright with sunshine.
“Grandma,” she moaned, burying her face in her hands. She was supposed to be up at seven to finish setting up the dining hall. It was eight thirty. Sakuno slipped out of the futon and dashed to the bathroom down the hall.
All she had time for was a quick wash up to make sure her face was clean, her braid was presentable, and her teeth were brushed. Without another second of delay, Sakuno raced down the hall back to her room. Rounding the corner, she nearly collided into someone.
Several someones, actually. It was only when the large hand on her shoulder rocked her back on her feet that she remembered: she was still clad only in a thin black nightdress that barely reached her mid-thighs. With spaghetti straps. (Her grandmother had packed her bags, and out of the questionable selection of nightclothes, this was the only one that wasn’t transparent.) Mortified, Sakuno’s voice froze in her throat, unable to apologize or even thank the other person for catching her.
Someone cleared his throat, but from Sakuno’s angle, all she could see were several pairs of socked feet and yellow pant legs. “We should go,” said a voice, low and mild, and the pairs of feet started moving again. Sakuno waited, her face on fire, wishing she could crawl into a convenient hole in the ground until they were gone.
She blinked when something yellow and soft settled on top of her head, draping over her like a cloak. By the time she raised her face, the boys were gone.
And there were new voices approaching. Sakuno jumped, clutching the yellow jersey tighter around her, and ran for her room.
Half an hour later, Sakuno was lurking quietly around the courts, surreptitiously scanning the ranks of Rikkai Regulars training there. She bit her lip. There were four people who had their Regular jerseys off. How was she supposed to figure out who was the owner of her mystery jersey?
“Hey. What are you doing?”
Sakuno jumped, nearly dropping the paper bag she held. “Um...I was...” Ryoma’s eyes were bright and wide, looking at her with a curious expression. Reflexively, Sakuno blushed, feeling as if she’d been caught doing something terrible. She could have just gone over to the Rikkai captain and asked, she supposed. But she’d been so embarrassed they’d seen her in her scanty nightdress that she just couldn’t. Not even to return the jersey to the person who’d so thoughtfully covered her with it.
“What’s that?” Without waiting for her answer, Ryoma leaned down to peer inside the bag, and looked back at her with a raised eyebrow. “Why do you have a Rikkai Regular jersey?”
Sakuno’s blush deepened at the memory, but she managed to stammer out an answer. “This morning...someone lent it to me. I didn’t see who...and I wanted to return it and— Ryoma-kun!”
Ryoma ignored her protest, taking the jersey out of the bag and holding it up. “Why don’t you just check the name?” he pointed out, and scanned the hem of the jersey. “There.”
Sakuno could have kicked herself. All Seigaku Regulars had their names sewed on their jerseys, as they were identical and could be difficult to tell apart. Of course Rikkai members would have done the same. And...she saw the name, and her stomach dropped.
Sanada. It was Rikkai’s vice-captain Sanada who’d seen her in her nightdress and covered her with his jersey.
“Oh God,” she breathed. Sanada was indeed practicing without his jersey, looking fierce and stern as usual. His voice boomed through the entire court, barking out orders that made her jump with each syllable. How was she supposed to return the jersey to Sanada – preferably without him noticing?
Ryoma was still watching her. Then, he shrugged and chucked the jersey back in the bag. Then, taking the bag, he strode toward the court entrance.
“Ryoma-kun!” Sakuno followed him, but by the time she reached the entrance, Ryoma was already inside, passing by the bench where the Rikkai Regulars had left their tennis bags. He dropped the paper bag so casually behind the bench, if Sakuno hadn’t been watching, she wouldn’t have noticed. Without pausing, Ryoma walked all the way to Sanada, pushing up the brim of his cap.
“Hey. How about a match?”
Sakuno quietly made her way to the paper bag. From her crouch behind the bench, she could see Yukimura stifle a laugh behind his hand. Yanagi was shaking his head, looking half amused and half exasperated. Marui casually stepped up behind Kirihara and closed the boy’s jaw for him.
As for Sanada, there was no reaction save for a brief twitch of an eyebrow. “Interschool matches aren’t until this afternoon,” he said at last.
“It’s fine if you want to run away,” Ryoma returned. “Though it’ll be my win by default then.”
It occurred to Sakuno then: while the entire Regular team was distracted, this was her chance to return the jersey discreetly. All eight bags were there, but each had name tags on the handle and – there! Sanada Genichirou. She put down the paper bag, paused, then took it back. Ryoma had thrown the jersey into the bag without folding it first. Quickly, she took out the jersey and folded it neatly, and put it inside the bag again. Sakuno’s attention was focused on putting the paper bag behind Sanada’s tennis bag without touching any of the other bags, and she missed what was happening entirely until Sanada shouted, “Everyone back to practice!”
Which made her promptly drop the bag. She made an involuntary sound of dismay, and looked up to see Yukimura, Sanada, and Yanagi all looking right at her.
From the way her face burned, they could have cooked eggs on her cheeks. She bowed deeply in Sanada’s general direction, and scampered out of there as fast as she could.
By lunch, the mountain lodge’s dining hall was crowded to the limits of its capacity. All the National tournament participants from Kanto Region were there. Sakuno had been worried about the Hyoutei and Rikkai members (especially Hyoutei members; she remembered her grandmother grumbling how unfairly rich and resplendent Hyoutei’s facilities were), but they’d been surprisingly laid back about the less-than-immaculate state of the lodge. Noticing something odd, Sakuno poked her head out of the kitchen a little more, studying the table arrangements.
Some of the players were mingling with players from other schools. There was that sleepy one – Akutagawa? – from Hyoutei, awake (for once) and chattering excitedly with Rikkai’s Marui. Ryoma was sitting quietly at the Seigaku table, but Fudomine’s Ibu and Rokkaku’s Aoi were sitting with him, each talking over the other at Ryoma, who didn’t answer either of them. Even Kikumaru and Oishi were chatting amiably with... Yamabuki’s Jimmies? And Momoshiro and Kaidoh were arguing loudly over at the Fudomine table, with each other and with Kamio. Over at Rokkaku table, Fuji was having a conversation with a laughing Saeki, occasionally interrupted by Itsuki. Down by the Hyoutei table, Oshitari chuckled at something Amane said, and Kurobane gave him an exasperated look before hitting Amane over the head with a practiced motion. Only Rikkai members were sitting mostly by themselves.
“Hey! What’s for dessert?”
It was that redheaded doubles player from Hyoutei...Mukahi, Sakuno finally recalled. From the way the lodge’s staff members were looking at each other, there hadn’t been anything prepared. Before, when Seigaku members had their training session here, they hadn’t had the time to indulge in anything more than basic meals. But they had other schools as their guests this time, and...
She ran out of the kitchen and headed to the room where the coaches were having lunch together. “Grandma! Could you drive me to the store? Let’s get some ice cream for everyone,” she said in a rush as she threw the door open, momentarily forgetting there were other adults in the room. The Hyoutei coach looked at her, and then at her grandmother.
“You don’t have to take so much trouble,” he replied with surprising amount of courtesy, and Sakuno blushed. She hadn’t meant to interrupt them; they must have thought she was terribly rude, bursting into a room where adults were talking. “They’re here to train, not play.”
The Yamabuki coach was nodding in agreement. Sakuno bit her lip, then spoke in a low voice. “But...it’s a summer camp...and everyone just finished Nationals. It...it’d be nice if they had...some fun, too?” she finished timidly.
After a moment of silence, she heard a familiar chuckle. “Come on, then,” her grandmother said, and stood to leave. Sakuno bowed to the other coaches and ducked out of the room, her cheeks still pink. “Ice cream, huh? I guess it’s cheaper than beef,” her grandmother observed with amusement, and that was all she said during their trip to the convenience store and back.
Nearly half an hour had passed when they returned, having raided the local convenience store for every carton of ice cream it had.
“Eh? Only ice cream?” someone said, with obvious disappointment.
“So what? I like ice cream,” said another voice, accompanied by a chorus of agreements. So Sakuno breathed a sigh of relief, and began serving the ice cream in disposable cups. She was surprised, however, to find Atobe waiting in line.
“Um...this is...” Her words failed her. Atobe was super-rich, right? He must be used to extra fancy desserts every day. She couldn’t imagine him finding the plain vanilla ice cream palatable.
“Vanilla is a popular flavor,” Atobe said, and Sakuno nearly dropped the ice cream scoop. “For a good reason. And no two vanilla flavors are ever alike, which presents an interesting array of possibilities.”
Sakuno wasn’t sure if she was supposed to answer that, so just nodded her head, wide-eyed. Atobe took the cup from her, thanked her politely, and moved away.
“Is everything okay?” asked a voice, and Sakuno looked up at Oishi’s kind eyes. “You look uneasy.”
Sakuno shook her head vigorously. “N-no! I’m fine. Just...thinking.” Oishi studied her, then nodded to her and left. The rest of the line was a synch – though after Kikumaru, Akutagawa, Mukahi, Marui, and Aoi, the remainder of the ice cream was decimated, and so was her naïve hope that there might be some left for her.
As she sadly put away the empty cartons, a shadow loomed over her, and she was surprised to find a cup of ice cream thrust at her.
“Here,” Kaidoh said gruffly. “You take it. I don’t like sweets.”
While Sakuno was still sputtering, Kaidoh stalked away, leaving her to call out a hesitant thank-you behind his back. Sakuno took a spoon and settled down in the kitchen. The ice cream was already half-melted, and the vanilla flavor was a bit too thick and sweet, but it was cool in her mouth.
Atobe was right, though. Sometimes, vanilla was really the best.
“...So...exactly what are we doing?” Hiyoshi glared at Ohtori, who held up a hand. “I’m just asking. They said to gather in the F-Court, they didn’t say anything else.”
“Whatever it is, it better be good.” Kirihara looked irritated. “I was about to set a new record. Damn it, now Sanada-fukubuchou has my PSP. He’s never gonna give it back.”
Momoshiro shrugged. “Maybe it’s a special training. But why only the first and second-years? Even Ryuuzaki’s here.”
And there went her hopes that if she stayed very quiet behind Kaidoh and Ryoma, maybe no one would notice her. But it was odd. She wasn’t part of the camp, exactly, and if this was for training, why was she here? Ryoma let out another jaw-splitting yawn, rubbing at his eyes, and she found herself wholly sympathetic. She’d been helping the staff members (who were quite short-handed, being only three) all afternoon and evening, and was rather tired.
“Can’t they hurry it up already? This is so annoying. It can’t be that they’re picking on us because we’re younger, is it? I’d never turn down training but this is so late, and it’s not like we can see anything. Anyway we should be resting so we can train tomorrow, don’t they know that?” Ibu continued, heedless of the fact no one was answering him.
“Okay. I’m going to go ask what we’re supposed to do,” Aoi exclaimed. “Um. Echizen-kun, can you come with me?”
“Why?” Ryoma looked and sounded half-asleep.
“It’s...well, it’s really dark and there’re no lights between the courts and the main building. So if you could—”
Ryoma pointedly ignored him, and Sakuno had to look away to hide a smile. Ryoma could be profoundly difficult to move when he wasn’t in the mood, and apparently, sleepiness made it a thousand times worse.
“And it’s just odd, isn’t it? It’s already been twenty minutes past the meeting time. Did you hear anything about this from Atobe-san, Kaba—” Ohtori suddenly stopped. After a moment, in a puzzled tone, he continued. “Where’s Kabaji?”
Come to think of it, Kabaji had been present when they first gathered in the F-Court, standing hunched near the edge of their group with quiet patience. And with his height, he wasn’t exactly easy to miss. Yet there was no sign of him now.
“What’s going on here—”
All the lights went out at once.
“Nooooo! It’s so dark!!”
“Shut up! You’re too loud!”
“Guys, guys!” It was Momoshiro’s voice, loud and clear. “It’s probably some test of courage the coaches cooked up. We just have to get back to the main building, right? And there are lights there, we should be able to see them from here—”
They all looked, and realized what was so strange: there was no light whatsoever as far as eyes could see. Even the tiny lamplight on top of the storage shed was off. And it was a starless night, with the half-moon hidden behind thick gray clouds.
There was a sudden hush.
“This isn’t really funny,” Momoshiro stammered.
“But where’s Kabaji?” Ohtori whispered back. “I mean, he was here a minute ago. Should we—should we go look for him?”
“How?” Kirihara this time, sounding nervous. “There’s no light. We can’t even see our way back.”
“Right, we need to stay together, and find our way back.” Momoshiro’s words would have been so much more reassuring if his voice wasn’t on the verge of shaking. “I can still see a bit. Hey Kaidoh, do you still have—Kaidoh?”
“Oh my God.”
Sakuno was right next to Momoshiro, and could feel his feet shifting nervously. “Okay, everyone calm down! It’s just—we just have to get back to the dorm building and—and get flashlights. And look for everyone.”
Ryoma’s voice was unnaturally quiet. The wind was picking up, and it was carrying a faint sound. Tum. Tum. Tum.
Someone let out a tiny squeak, and Sakuno wasn’t sure if it made her feel better or worse that the boys were just as scared as she felt. Somebody’s hand had latched onto her wrist, but she didn’t mind; it meant someone was there with her, and she wasn’t alone.
Tum. Tum. TUM. TUM.
The sound was louder now. And closer. Everyone froze. No one dared to even breathe too loudly.
Sakuno felt something cold brush her bare ankle, and yelped in surprise.
“Something just grabbed my foot!” exclaimed a voice next to her.
Suddenly a light flared, casting lurid shadows around them.
The next second, everyone was running pell-mell toward the lodge. Sakuno’s legs ached and her lungs burned, but a hand was clamped tightly on her wrist, pulling her along, and she couldn’t stop. When she stumbled over something and nearly fell, someone grabbed her other arm and hauled her up. Her heart was going a mile a minute when they finally stopped, and she collapsed against something solid and vertical – the front door of the main building. The hand attached to her wrist had disappeared. And someone’s hand was rattling the knob, trying to turn it without success.
“It’s locked,” panted a voice. The other boys were nearby – she could hear the sounds of hard breathing – though it was anyone’s guess how many of them were still here.
“Why it is so quiet?” came a hushed whisper. “Shouldn’t the third-years be in there? They can’t be all asleep, it’s not that late.”
Just then, Sakuno saw something move in the corner of her vision, and gasped.
Behind them was fluttering blood-red fabric, hovering midair. The moon emerged from the clouds at last, casting a pale glow on the dark hair hanging down the front of the scarlet dress. As they stood rooted on the spot, the empty arm of the dress suddenly lifted, reaching toward them.
And they were all shrieking and tumbling through the suddenly open door. The light switched on, and Sakuno winced as sudden brightness assailed her eyes.
“Gah! You scared me half to death!! What’s the big idea?” demanded an annoyed voice.
“Outside!! There was a—”
Mukahi’s annoyed expression turned puzzled. “Outside?” He reached for the door, and even as several voices cried out for him to stop, the door swung open.
There was only the silence.
“Ooookay.” Mukahi peered curiously. “There’s nothing there. Seriously, what’s wrong with you guys?”
A jumble of explanations erupted. Then, a tall figure appeared behind Mukahi, and everyone gasped in surprise.
“Kabaji! Where have you been?” Hiyoshi demanded, and under his annoyed tone, Sakuno thought she could hear relief.
Kabaji blinked at them. “Bathroom,” he said shortly by the way of explaining.
Ohtori was counting under his breath, calm and reasonable once more now that they were safe. “Everyone is here, but I still don’t see Kaidoh-kun. We should tell the teachers,” he added.
A grumble of assent, and they walked down the hallway together. If anyone noticed they were all sticking close enough to bump each other as they walked, no one mentioned it. Sakuno glanced at Ryoma, whose expression of boredom would be so much more convincing without the lingering pallor, and remembered something. “Ryoma-kun...thanks for helping me back there.”
Ryoma gave her a puzzled look. “Helping you?”
“Y-you know, for grabbing my wrist and...” Come to think of it, when she’d stumbled, someone else had helped her to her feet. “A-and someone caught me when I nearly fell...”
“That wasn’t me,” Ryoma said with a slight frown. “Momo-senpai grabbed me as soon as the lights went out. He didn’t let go until we got back.”
“Um, I was the one who helped you up,” Ohtori offered. “I was right next to you when you nearly fell. But I don’t know who was on your other side.”
Just ahead of her, Kirihara’s pace increased. Come to think of it, the tips of Kirihara’s ears were burning red.
“Um...Kirihara-san...?” Sakuno called hesitantly.
“I only grabbed you because you looked like you’d slow us down,” Kirihara said abruptly without turning to look at her. “That’s all.”
“Oh. Thank you,” she managed to say without blushing. It was oddly touching, actually. ...Wait. Something wasn’t quite right. In the F-Court, someone had been holding her wrist before they started running. And at the court, Kirihara had been standing furthest away from her.
Ah well. Sakuno had to admit she was a little disappointed it hadn’t been Ryoma who helped her, but two people had looked out for her even in that chaos. And now that everything was over, the whole thing had been pretty exciting.
After all, she didn’t know about the boys, but once she calmed down, she’d recognized the red negligee the ‘ghost’ was wearing.
The next morning, Momoshiro made fun of Kaidoh all the way through lunch for being found unconscious near the storage shed, until Kamio reminded him he’d been the first to grab for Ryoma and run after the lights went off. The third-years had been amused (and it turned out at that time, they’d all been drafted into helping with the preparation for a barbecue on the other side of the building), and spent the entire lunch comparing notes on the fear fests they’d been put through over the years. Sakuno noted everyone had pretty much given up on school tables, and mentally shrugged. It was kind of cute, the way most of the second-years were sitting together and fighting over dessert (gelatin today).
The dinner that evening was an outdoor barbecue. It was an odd picture, Sakuno supposed: everyone was sitting in mixed groups on large sheets of tarpaulin spread on the ground, talking over the plates of meat and rice. The conversations only ceased when the next day’s training menu was announced, which included an Inui-juice-enhanced team race event. And if other schools looked confused by Seigaku, Hyoutei, and Rokkaku’s response...well, they’d find out soon enough.
All in all, this was beginning to feel like a proper summer camp.
“Did you have fun?” her grandmother asked on their way home.
Sakuno didn’t have to think about the question. “Yes.” She hesitated, then: “Grandma, was it your idea? The test of courage.”
Her grandmother laughed. “Banji’s, actually. But Sakaki came up with the banging on the empty bucket part.” Ah, that explained the sound they’d heard. “We didn’t exactly prepare it beforehand, so we improvised.”
“Wasn’t that your favorite negligee, though?”
“I only dangled it on a line from the second-floor window,” her grandmother answered easily. “No harm done to my poor negligee. I’m surprised how well it worked, considering.”
“Well, it was pretty spooky without the lights,” Sakuno admitted.
Her grandmother said nothing for a long moment.
“We forget, sometimes, that you’re only kids. You were right, you know. The boys just finished the Nationals. They should get to have some fun once in a while. And for all their rivalry, they get along surprisingly well.”
It had been eventful four days. Soon, Sakuno found herself nodding off, lulled by the sound of the car engine. Just before she drifted off to sleep, she heard her grandmother ask in a suspicious tone.
“By the way, Rokkaku’s Aoi was nattering about holding a girl’s hand for the first time. Did something happen?”
Oh great. Now she was wide awake. Sakuno turned toward the window and feigned sleep, hoping her grandmother would keep her eyes on the road and miss the slow blush spreading over her neck.
When she finally fell asleep, she thought she heard her grandmother chuckle, soft and fond.