WHEN FUJI BECAME AN ECHIZEN

Written by Playgirl Eugene and MoonExpressions

Author's Note : This is the first story co-written by Playgirl Eugene and MoonExpression in the favour of once again reviving the community of Thrill Pair. It's a great honour for us to represent When Fuji Became an Echizen, a dramatic story of nonsense and hilarity. And we hope to receive good response from our fellow Thrill Fans and inspire them to once again write.

Standard Disclaimer : The original Prince of Tennis and all of the characters, including the original plot, belong solely to Konomi Takeshi-sensei. The both of us own nothing of it and we do not earn any profit from this. This disclaimer stands firm for the whole of the story. Furthermore, if we use any material that needs to be disclaimed, there will be individual credit where due.

Warning(s) : In the future, depending on the readers' request, this fic might contain excessive, uncensored sexual themes; including sex between males, masturbation, foul languages, and similar traits.

Summary : What will happen when the Fuji family becomes a part of the crazy Echizen family? Especially when you throw in a one-night stand, attraction, and the promise to dominate the 'new' sibling.

Setting and Timeline : Unrelated to the original setting and timeline since this is technically an AU story.

Character Setting : Nanjirou (43), Yoshiko (49), Ryoma (19), Shusuke (21), Yuuta (20), Yumiko/Nanako (30), Ryoga (25)

Chapter Details : None in particular.


-- Prologue --


St. Maria Hospital

New York, America

08.30 PM

"He's beautiful, Rinko-chan…" a man, whose eyes gleamed with sad, but untold pride and joy, said as he used both of stretched hand to hoist the pink baby up in the air. A fit of small giggles broke as the baby squirmed a little; inky hair spilled over the small forehead and large golden eyes already glinting in innocent mischief as he gazed curiously to the brunet man.

The man, grinning almost brazenly, lowered the baby once again and tickled the baby's chin playfully. The baby reacted by grabbing the callused finger with tiny hands and proceeded to put it into his mouth before he started to gnaw on it with toothless gum in the earnest.

"Hey, now, little fella. That's not your chew toy, mind giving it back now?" The grown man faked a pout as he half-heartedly tried to pull his now saliva covered finger away; the infant though, refused to let him go and stubbornly chewed on the finger. He sighed dramatically after, "Only a baby… and he's already an Echizen. Stubborn little brat."

The tone was fond and proud though, tenderly loving at the same time.

"… He looks like you. Kinda quiet for a brat."

The brunette woman, pale and frail, chuckled softly from her place in the bed as she took in the accusing tone of her husband, who was frowning now as he narrowed his eyes to for any similarities between himself and his child.

A smile curled the man's lips as he gazed lovingly at his wife, "… We made one great looking brat, saiai." He reached forward, cupping the thin hand of the brunette within his own larger one and smiled at his petite wife. The woman stared at him with a pained, soft expression as she noticed the trembling hand grasping hers, and the golden eyes; usually so indignant, so passionate and strong, now almost pleading and tired and utterly… broken.

Heart-breaking.

She felt tears sting her eyes as she felt the overwhelming agony, love, desperation and kempt frustration, every single emotion that her husband tried to convey to her without words to do so. Her husband was still young, still so free and so wild even after marriage tamed him to a point. The burden she left him was not to be trifled with, and she knew she wasn't being too fair leaving him with two little boys so suddenly.

"… His eyes though…" her husband looked up to meet the gentle eyes, "… they're yours, anata." she whispered, voice hoarse and so very tired.

The tennis player's glazed eyes widened a bit before those eyes softened once again and shakily, he muttered, "Yeah. Yeah, it is, isn't it…?"

She softly laughed; her breath shaky as the whispery sound ceased. "I'm tired…" the woman whispered, making him choked back a sob. "… I'm so sleepy, anata."

"… Yeah, I know."

'But I'm not ready to let go… even though I know, even though I'm prepared for this… but to actually let go…'

"… I want to sleep… want to so badly…" Rinko leaned back further into the white pillow as she closed her eyes while the man, with tears streaming down his face, bit down on his lower lip hard; so hard, he didn't realize that he was drawing blood.

"… It's time."

He forced a smile, a wavering and filled with pain kind of smile. To hell with his pride; this woman was his wife – his beloved wife. He could barely contain the sobs that threatened to spill should he speak now.

"My time… is up…" she let her eyes fluttered open and she titled her head a bit to gaze at the man, "Nanjirou, being with you, having him… I can never ask for anything else."

"… Rinko," Nanjirou managed somehow.

"Aishiteru. I really love you… and Ryoga, and I love our son. Even though our time is so little, a-and I might never see him grow… I'm sure he'll be a good child." Two trails of cold tears trailed down her pale, pale cheeks.

"Rinko, don't cry…" Nanjirou sighed in frustration, a hint of panic colouring his voice. He was never good dealing with a crying woman. "God, please don't cry."

"I-I'm very happy, Nanjirou. I was able to deliver him safely," Rinko managed through her slightly laboured breathing, "I'm just sad I'll never hear him call me 'okaa-san' or there to see his first walk…"

Nanjirou gritted on his teeth as he witnessed how death slowly consumed and claimed his wife. Possessiveness suddenly surged, knowing he couldn't stop her from leaving, and felt completely helpless. It was time.

"O-oyasumi, saiai…" he whispered quietly and painfully, hand never wavered in his hold despite his trembling voice.

"… Oyasumi, anata." Her dropping eyes broke from that of her husband's to her now silently crying baby, as if he knew what was happening and understood that it was not the time for him to make it worse. Rinko smiled, he was going to be a smart boy.

Too bad that she wouldn't get the luxury to watch her sons grow. Smiling knowingly, she knew that her husband would do it in her stead. Although she wanted to say so much more, she knew her time was up. Unable to continue to struggle to keep herself awake, she uttered the last thought off her mind.

"… Oyasumi, ne… my little Ryoma."

And she closed her eyes, face serene with a peaceful smile on her pale face—falling asleep in the frozen time, as one professional tennis player who was still wearing his tennis ensemble bent down and cried in sorrow into his wife's chest as he cradled the crying baby.

-

-

Fuji Household

Tokyo, Japan

03.55 PM

A twelve-year old Yumiko, wearing her trademark sailor uniform and pigtails, entered the house and bent down to pull off her shoes as she muttered 'tadaima'. Tugging on her slung bag pack that was slightly drenched, she walked toward the living room, passing to see her baby brothers playing in the middle of the room.

Shusuke, the oldest son of Fuji family, was smiling—an expression that never left his face ever since he was born, which was kind of disturbing because the child seemed to quiet and too knowing for some reason, but it bothered Yumiko the least. Shusuke was cute and sweet in her opinion, while Yuuta was a little noisier but still very cute too. She had a suspicion that Shusuke liked teasing on their youngest brother, though it was still too early to confirm.

"Ah, Yumiko-chan." Yoshiko appeared; a smile on her kind face. "Okaeri."

Yumiko looked up to see her mother's smiling face, one that she suspected to be inherited to the second child of the family. Yoshiko, beautiful in her own right, was standing there with a soft yellow sweater and white skirt—an apron on top of it with a wet towel held between her hands, her braided hair was gathered to one side; she looked like the perfect mother.

"Okaa-san." Yumiko nodded in greeting.

The brunette woman placed a hand on her cheek with a concerned look, "Ah, you're drenched…"

"It was raining on my way home and I forgot to bring my umbrella this morning. I think it'll worsen though. The roads were already slippery as it is," the girl muttered in relief; she didn't think that she'd manage without an umbrella.

"I see. Well then, have you had lunch yet?" her mother asked as she walked back to the kitchen.

"Not yet. What are we having today?"

"Well, we're having eggplant curry. Your father had been saying that he wanted it for quite a while." Yumiko raised an eyebrow, and Yoshiko smiled back at her. "He'll be back for lunch today."

Yumiko smiled as she watched her mother, knowing how much it meant for her when her father came home for meals. Her father had always been a busy man and rarely had time to come home. It was quite a surprise that he had the time to have lunch with them today. She was married to her father at a surprisingly young age, going against her family's wishes for her to enter college.

"I see. Well, then I'm gonna take a bath—" Yumiko was halted when the cards she slipped inside the pocket of her skirt fell onto the floor; the tarot cards that one of her classmate gave her for birthday present a year ago when she started to show interest in fortune telling and it was a popular trend between the girls at that time. Groaning, she knelt to pick up the cards, only to suddenly felt dread. Out of the cards scattered, only one was flipped open.

The card of Death, the omen of impending disaster, and the phone rang at that very moment, startling the dazed girl.

"Yumiko-chan, can you pick up the phone please?" her mother's voice called out from the kitchen, snapping her out of her trance.

"A-ah…" Somehow, Yumiko didn't feel so good. She walked to the phone and with slightly shaky hands; she picked up the phone. "M-moshi-moshi. Fuji's residence—"

As she listened, thunder roared outside in the rain, startling Yuuta and causing the toddler to burst out crying. Yumiko's eyes widened in terror as the phone slipped her hand and dropped to the floor, the voice of the other side of the line was heard, though sounded distant to her ears. Her mind swirled and her body felt numb.

"Yumiko-chan? Yumiko?" Her mother's worried voice was heard as the woman showed up by the doorway, holding a pot of stewed curry with both of her gloved hands. "Yumiko, what is it…?"

Yumiko suddenly collapsed to her knees and she started to cry, causing her mother drop her pot. The curry was spilled and soaked the rug, but her mother was more worried as to what made her usually calm daughter so distraught.

"Yumiko, what is it, sweetie?" She knelt beside her sobbing daughter, who immediately grabbed her and cried into her chest. Yoshiko began to feel dread as she stared at the neglected phone. Gulping, she picked it up with shaky hands.

"Moshi-moshi?"

She listened and then, she felt her whole body numbed in shock in the same manner as her daughter's had.

The scattered tarot lay forgotten on the floor.

Shusuke, barely even two years old, leaned over to hug the terrified and wailing Yuuta and something in him made him scared. He wanted to cry like he had never before. Young as he was, years later Shusuke would realize that he had had a feeling whatever had changed at that moment was going to change the rest of their lives, and he was right.

Nothing was ever the same again for the Fuji household.

-

-

Echizen Residence

Tokyo, Japan

Six years later

A raven haired boy with bright eyes frowned and crossed his arms as he sunk into a sitting position under the shade of one of the few pine trees of the new Echizen residence. He liked their new home fairly despite the lack of that familiar orange orchard and the new tennis courts were cool enough though he still thought that the ones they had in New York were better. It wasn't like his father to suddenly want to move and leave to a whole new continent but then again, his father hadn't quite been the same since his mother's death. All in all, his father still tried the best he could, and Ryoga forgave him for yanking them all out of New York and placing them in this place. But one thing that had not changed was the fact that he still didn't like his baby brother.

"I hate him."

His frown deepening, he grumbled and picked up a stray tennis ball from the dozens scattered around the court and chucked it at a tree opposite him as hard as he could. The ball bounced sharply back towards him and hit his forehead with a light thump, knocking his backwards-white cap off.

"Ouch!" He rubbed his forehead; the disarrayed mop of short emerald tinged dark hair standing up on end. Collapsing on the court, Ryoga let out a frustrated breath as he continued to rub his forehead.

"Why do I have to share a room with him?" he groaned, flailing his arms and feet wildly about in childish frustration, one that he'd usually deem unfitting for his proud thirteen-year old self, "Stupid old man!"

He could never really forgive his brother for the death of his mother. He knew, as people all around him—adults especially, that it wasn't his brother's fault. It was never the brat's fault; it was an unwanted accident. It was his mother's choice to give up her life for his little brother's. He shouldn't have blamed the innocent boy that didn't know anything, one that never even met the woman that delivered his life into this harsh world.

But he was a child; he was a son who adored and loved his mother and he was still in desperate need for her. Sometimes he himself knew that it was most likely the stubborn Echizen pride that disallowed him from liking his brother once he set his heart on it.

He watched as a boy, no more than six-year old sat with his legs spread in the middle of the court and scattered balls. The cute little toddler was hugging a racket, almost if not bigger than his own size, close to his body. He was wearing a baby sweater one size too big on him and cute corduroy denim, with a white cap that kept on slipping to his face. He was sulkily pouting and muttering about something, as much as a toddler could.

"Aniki… won't play with Ryo-tan." he sulked moodily, throwing balls randomly all around. "Why won't aniki play? He even took Ryo-tan's orange…"

Ryoma's pout, if possible, morphed into something more intense. It was now a full force kicked puppy expression. Should anyone be offered such an expression, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to deny him of his caprices. Much to his dismay, even Ryoga admitted that it was quite irresistible. But slowly, as the childish frustration slowly passed, Ryoma's face morphed into a lonely frown.

Ever since his early childhood, he was shunned away by children, mainly because of his Japanese heritage and girlish features. And despite his father's social standing, he was a motherless child. Every kid in the neighbourhood teased him for that. But what was a mother? He never even met his mother. Ryoga hated him because apparently, Ryoma killed their mother. Was it a bad thing?

Ryoga would always wander off somewhere, having disappeared earlier from the house to do something or to meet someone that he never bothered to tell who. Ryoma always wished that his brother would take him, talk to him without yelling at him, and smile at him. But it seemed to be so difficult, because he always made his aniki angry at him.

His aniki never smiled and never looked at him. Not once. How he wished that his aniki would though.

For Ryoga, it was either ignoring him or snapping at Ryoma; he knew that brat would always cry. Ryoma might be young, but he wasn't an idiot, as no Echizen ever was.

He just didn't get why his father never blamed Ryoma. They lost mother because of him, dammit! Instead he had to watch his old man pampered and coddled Ryoma to the point of being ridiculous, gave up his tennis career, and isolated himself from the world to raise that little brat.

At first, he was excited with the concept of having another brother, a new playmate. He has been the most eager to wait on his expecting mother, placing his ears to her round tummy in attempt to hear those faint heartbeats. He always talked about wanting to do this and that with the newborn brother; ones that made his mother chuckled. He couldn't wait for him to be born.

But everything went wrong when he heard that his mother died in order to deliver the said brother. And suddenly, he felt his whole world crashed and there it was—that blinding hatred he felt toward a brother he never seen and that feeling only enhanced when he saw the bundle of sleeping pink baby in the arms of his silently crying father when the man walked out of the hospital room. He had taken away his beautiful mother, his mother who smiled at him and hug him, kiss him and tell him he was a big boy and how she was proud and how she loved him; his sweet mother who should still be here.

So that was why, when Ryoma stumbled towards him to give him his messily wrapped up Christmas present, Ryoga had thrown the gift away, in front of the boy himself, and Ryoma silently cried. The youngest Echizen had always been a strong child for his age, intelligent and sensible beyond what was natural. He never cried, even with the treatment from the prejudiced society. But when it came to his aniki, Ryoma was just like any other kid their age. He wanted Ryoga's approval and love.

It had earned him a sound scolding from his father, but hell would freeze over first before he apologized accepted anything from Ryoma and that was the Echizen pride.

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

It was summer when the just turned seven-year old Ryoma stubbornly tugged on an irritated Ryoga's shirt so that his brother would take him somewhere to play together. The older of the Echizen siblings tried to shove his baby brother, but being unrelenting, Ryoma continued to whine until Ryoga's short-lived patience around him snapped.

He raised a hand to slap the seven-year old, ignoring Ryoma's flinch, but stopped midway when an idea popped up inside his head instead. Grinning, Ryoga complied to the childish whines and Ryoma's small face lit up with the biggest smile.

Ryoma was too happy when Ryoga agreed to take him out to play and Ryoga did bring him to the beach where he and a few of his friends were going swimming. He told Ryoma that he could join the big boys for the swim and though reluctant, the little boy really didn't want to disappoint his brother because it was the first time that the older Echizen ever agreed to take him along.

So, gulping down his fear for he didn't want to be called a 'scaredy cat', he followed his aniki's lead to the water.

"Aniki, I…"

Ryoga was way ahead of him as he raced with his friends. It was impossible for him to catch up. He hadn't had proper swim lessons before nor did he swim much when their father had time to take them out swimming. Still Ryoma gritted through and pushed himself to follow his brother deeper into the water. It was a while before Ryoma admitted defeat and tried to stay afloat as he searched for his brother, who had already swam too far away. He wanted to go back to the beach but he was so tired.

"Aniki!" Ryoma called out again as fatigue started to settle into his little arms and legs now. He was a bit far from shore to make it alone in this state but if his brother could help him, then…

"Aniki…" Ryoma called out again using the last of his strength to propel himself towards the shore, wanting to shout and reach for his brother. He could feel the exhaustion settling into his young, tender muscles; he wasn't going to hold out much longer. Forcing his legs to work he pushed his head out of the water as he took a huge gasp of air and tried to find his brother through the group of buddies, as Ryoga has called them. He could hear the sound of ocean, his own panicked breathings, and the laughter of boys from afar.

"Aniki…" Ryoma choked out as he tried not to swallow water. He was scared and he panicked as he didn't know what to do. He wanted his aniki to save him. That day, Ryoma nearly lost his life and caught a serious case of pneumonia.

Ryoga was pale and shaking; he had been so close to killing someone, even when that someone was someone he hated. He remembered Nanjirou that came rushing to the hospital, sweating and out of breath, looking pale and terrified and enraged. The usually laidback man had never looked so dishevelled and flustered before and when Ryoga jumped to his feet to explain, Nanjirou back-handed his oldest son hard.

The boy's face was snapped to one side; his cheek reddening and his eyes wide with shock. Nanjirou's breaths were ragged and his eyes were filled with fear, anger, disappointment, everything that Ryoga hated seeing coming from him. He was never one to raise his hands toward his beloved sons, not since Ryoga was born.

"You… you idiot!" Nanjirou roared, distressed and unable to express his anger with words at the same time. "I raised you to be anything but that! But look at what you've done!" the tennis player cried out in an emotional outburst. "What were you thinking?! God help me! Ryoma's only seven, Ryoga! He's only seven! He could've died and what will you do when that happens?!"

Nanjirou's words seemed to have left a certain pang in his hearts; slaps of reality about how fragile a human's life really was, his baby brother's life, and how everything could've been different if Ryoma didn't make it. Ryoma was seven, he only realized it then. He nearly lost his baby brother, nearly lost another someone in his life. His mother had long departed and he was an inch away from losing that small, frail figure following him everywhere in the past.

His father's tear struck and trembling lips face left an everlasting image to be committed to his memory; just like that expression he had on the day Ryoma was born. Ryoga peeked into the room where his brother was still not conscious yet; he bit his lips and swallowed his pride as he prayed to whatever god and deity hearing it, and for his mother to forgive him.

'Please, okaa-chan, make sure he's okay… please! I promise I won't do it again! I promise I'll love him, I promise!' Ryoga prayed fervently in mind as his fingers dug into his palm in desperation. 'So don't take him away!' the sting of tears entered his eyes as he tried not to think about the state his father and he would be going through if they lost Ryoma here. Where would they go to escape this? They had left New York to settle their feelings for the lost figure of his mother who would never come back. And now this…

"Come on," Nanjirou finally said as the doctor approached them. Although he had been furious at Ryoga, his warm hand wrapped around Ryoga's shoulder anyway as if trying to draw strength for the both of them and Ryoga knew at that moment, despite what may come and go; his father loved him no matter how much he may think otherwise. "Doctor," Nanjirou started, but found himself unable to ask.

"Don't worry, Echizen-san. There's nothing life threatening now." The doctor smiled warmly, as if he shared their relief; no one liked telling news of death even if they were doctors who were trained to. "He's still sleeping, but he should be up and about soon enough. He will have to remain here for a while though. He's a strong boy, and very lucky."

"Thank you… thank you so much, doctor…" Nanjirou lowered his face and bowed deeply; his hoarse, shaky, and emotion wrecked voice flooded with relief and gratitude. Ryoga quickly imitated his father, not finding the voice to speak.

The doctor merely nodded and showed them the way into Ryoma's room. Guilt assaulted Ryoga mercilessly once more as he watched Ryoma's small, drained body lay sleeping on the bed.

"I hope you've learned your lesson…" Ryoga heard Nanjirou spoke quietly from beside him and glanced as his father who was looking at Ryoma in worry despite what the doctor had said.

"Aa…" Ryoga muttered as his father glanced down at him before sweeping him in a tight hug. Strangely, under any other circumstance, Ryoga would protest to being hugged by his father. But to be held at this very moment was comforting and familiar. Together they waited for Ryoma would wake up as the doctor had promised.

When Ryoma warily blinked awake, Nanjirou and Ryoga had been both there; both dishevelled and pale from lack of proper rest.

Despite the remorse that flooded his senses as they crowded by Ryoma's bedside, the first thing Ryoma did was smile at Ryoga. Unable to stand the silence, Ryoga started sputtering questions if he was okay, if he needed anything, and apologies that he didn't mean for any of that to actually happen. Ryoma's smile was so bright when said he'd like to go play with his aniki again. Ryoga's eyes had widened, and he broke into a cry while holding his brother's hand. All fear and uncertainties was thrown out the door as the three occupants of the room found comfort from each other.

They would make it.

Yumiko was 18 years old, a student attending an average local college. It wasn't because she lacked what it took to take on Todai or Waseda, it was just that she didn't have the time to focus that much on her studies and be confident in passing her classes. She had already decided to dedicate half her time to helping her mother support the family through her part-time jobs when she wasn't studying. Her mother had told her that she should finish her study first, that they can afford the affordable government universities, but Yumiko had insisted. It was in no way that Yoshiko could manage supporting a family of four with three growing children on her own. Not without help, at least.

Shusuke and Yuuta were both still in their elementary and there wasn't much they could do at that age besides a few minor chores around the house. Yumiko knew it was up to her and her mother to pay the bills and put food on the table so she took it upon herself to help their family's financial crisis.

Every day, she would wake up early and help her mother prepare breakfast before walking her brothers to school. Afterwards, she had to attend her own course classes then rush from school to her jobs. She worked as a part-time waitress at a family restaurant at day and a video rental cashier in the evening. She always went home late and could barely keep up with her studies but it always made her feel better to know that they would be surviving another day with the wages she earned.

Sometimes, she would feel exhausted, so tired of the hectic work pace she had willingly put herself in. After all, she was only eighteen, barely a woman, and she was supposed to be enjoying her college days—everything that she missed during high school because of her family's condition. But Yumiko was a mature and realistic; she was also a very patient person. She knew that she shouldn't be selfish, not when her mother had worked so hard for them.

She glanced at her mother from where she sat reviewing for her test the next day. Yoshiko had just returned for the night from her job and was as tired as she looked but she was forcing herself to do Yuuta's laundry.

Yoshiko, her mother who once had beautiful hands now turned calloused, took on several jobs to support them. She had married at a young age to their father and gave birth to Yumiko without ever tasting college. She had expressed her concern of Yumiko's sacrifices often since she didn't want her only daughter to suffer the same fate. But even with that said; Yumiko and she both knew that she wasn't capable surviving it on her own without Yumiko's wages as well. She wasn't young and as fit anymore, and with no man to support her family, she had to do it on her own, even when it meant that she had to sacrifice her daughter's hopeful future. There was no other way around it.

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

Yoshiko glanced at her eighteen years old daughter trying to concentrate on her assignment. She had wearily taken over the duty of doing Yuuta's laundry when she had returned from her night job and saw her daughter struggling to finish the laundry before revising her study.

Yumiko said that she never minded, but at times, Yoshiko could still see it in her eyes that Yumiko wanted to be just a normal teenager, having fun and be a little selfish without having to worry about anything. Yumiko never went to the beach during summer breaks, went on dates with guys that asked her out, or bought new clothes or accessories like her friends. Yoshiko felt so guilty, even when her beautiful daughter expressed such understanding of their financial standing. How she wished she could do more; how she wished she could make duplicates out of herself and be more capable as a mother.

She had such a good daughter. Sometimes, Yoshiko wondered if she should give up the memory of her beloved husband and remarry; just to ease her family's burden and then Yumiko might be able to taste a normal life, and her sons wouldn't think about walking down the same path as their sister. But she had to admit herself a bit selfish as well. She hadn't wanted to marry for money; she also wanted someone who would accept her, who she would love, and someone who could find it in his heart to love her children.

That was her problem. She always hesitated, always made excuses, and years spent in scattered thoughts went by. She was thirty-seven now, bordering on thirty-eight. No man would want a widow of her age with three kids when they could have the youthful and more beautiful that was still single and unattached.

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

One of Yoshiko's part-timing jobs was to work as a waitress at a traditional Japanese restaurant. Though rather old compared to the younger pretty girls that mostly worked there, Yoshiko was valued not for her youth; it was for her adeptness in taking in several matters into her hands at the same time.

Straightening her striped yukata and making sure none of her brown locks escaped the tight, simple bun she made; she walked with straight back and was as graceful as a woman her age could. Even with the lines of stress on her visage and the lack of vibrant smoothness that most waitresses here exhibited, she was still proud of her looks that her late husband had adoringly said 'caught him for life'.

That day, Yoshiko listened to the chatter of the young girls during lunch break as they giggled on and on about some rich 'old guy' along the lines of 'quite charming and cute' but 'perverted'. Yoshiko sighed wistfully at that. Oh, they were young. She was once like that too, squealing and blushing, when the jock of the school walked passed her and her group of friends; falling all over herself just to get a peek at a handsome guy who would never look twice at the average girls when they could have all the babes in their arms.

That day however, the manager ordered her to be the one to bring the apparently 'popular old guy' his orders. And so when she pushed the shogi to the side, she was met with the scene that nearly made her drop her tray.

The man had three young women around him, while he was having fun by telling jokes and innocently groping a bit here and there. Her eyes widened a bit as she stood there, and when the man turned his face to her. Their eyes met and Yoshiko felt a little perturbed by the strange golden eyes that seemed to either cut another off or just went straight through her. The smug grin though, contradicted his eyes, as he grinned brazenly at the brunette.

"Yo! Took you long enough!"

Yoshiko decided this was exactly the type she was terrified of marrying. "Gomennasai." Yoshiko apologized with a nod as she set the tray down soundlessly, trying to avoid those penetrating gazes. "If there's anythi—"

"Why don't you join us?" the man released his hold on one of the girls and slipped an arm around Yoshiko to draw her closer to where he sat with the other three girls.

"I-I'd rather not!" Yoshiko said as firmly as she could without being overly rude or sounding overly surprised. She jerked back defensively and with a curt bow she started to back out. If it were up to her, she never wanted to see this man again ever.

-

-

Daishoku Restaurant

Tokyo, Japan

09.15 PM

Yoshiko sighed as she walked away from the all-too-familiar scene in the expensive VIP room. It was the same for the last three weeks now and counting. The same man, known now to her as 'Echizen-san' or 'Echizen-sama' as some girls sighed over, was coming everyday and treating the restaurant as a host bar to flirt and grope with the young girls, flaunting hefty tips and small, fancy gifts.

She had hoped to be far and uninvolved from all that but it seems Echizen didn't want to be left out in adding misery in her already miserable life either. He had special requested her to continue bringing in his tea, his food, his miscellaneous things that she had to politely bring and inquire if he needed anything else. She couldn't refuse; the manager was quite satisfied with whatever the man left because he had threatened to fire her if she messed up and Yoshiko could not afford to lose this job. Not when Yumiko was already trying so hard and her boys were doing the best they could without her around to make dinner because the pay of this job was one of the biggest contributions for their daily income.

"Yoshiko-san!"

Yoshiko turned and almost groaned as a fellow waitress scurried to her side. The petite girl with a slightly rounded head due to her chubby cheeks gave her a quick smile before glancing towards the western hall. "What is it?" Yoshiko asked politely. The glance already gave a clue of what it could be since she had just exited the western hall.

"Echizen-sama requests that you bring his sake. He's getting ready to leave for the night," the girl said with a small smile.

"I'll be right there with it." Yoshiko said, pasting a smile on her lips. She was getting awfully good at looking serene and friendly when all she wanted to do was throttle the man and reprimand the other waitresses for their behaviour. Walking towards the kitchen, Yoshiko told herself to bare it and smile.

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

"I see they've left you already." Yoshiko said pouring Nanjirou his sake he always asked for before going home.

"They did…" Nanjirou said staring out the window. He made no move to acknowledge her further as she finished pouring the sake and stood with her hands folded neatly as she waited for any other order. She found it strange that the usually boisterous man was rather quiet but paid no heed; she should be thanking heavens instead. She stared longingly at the exit and decided to make a quick run for it after all.

"If you should—"

"Why do you avoid me?" He finally asked turning to face her with his mysterious golden eyes.

"Why are you—?" Yoshiko scrunched up her eyebrows, not liking the demanding tone.

"You don't have to hide it," the man interrupted, "I know you do. She used to do the same, never saying more than what was necessary." Nanjirou said picking up the cup with his sake. "It's rather annoying, but she never did take anything more than she's given."

'Is he drunk?' Yoshiko frowned, wondering who the man was talking about with such sad look on his face.

Instead of drinking it in a gulp like usual though, he just stared at it while twirling it slowly, as if he was lost in his own thoughts.

"I believe you're mistaken, Echizen-san. I merely take my work seriously." Yoshiko protested with a quiet voice, not wanting to appear rude to the guest. She was confused at the sudden change, and admittedly curious about whom was she that the man was talking about, but she knew prying wasn't the professional thing to do in this situation.

Nanjirou stared her and smiled, though not that wide and lecherous kind. "… Come closer and drink with me." Nanjirou invited as he patted the empty seat next to him, the one where one of those young girls occupied. He rested his golden eyes on Yoshiko again and she seemed paralyzed as the golden eyes drew her closer with slight challenge yet a touch of sadness.

Yoshiko considered the thought of joining him and bowed her head in apology instead. Somehow sense was telling her not to involve herself. "I don't think I should, Echizen-san…"

"You're quite interesting." the brunet man remarked, making Yoshiko tensed, "So serious and all. You don't quite fit in this restaurant…" Nanjirou assessed glancing at Yoshiko as he drank his sake.

"Come here…" Nanjirou said grabbing hold of Yoshiko's arm through her yukata. "Talk—"

"Let go." Yoshiko said, tugging back. She really didn't want to be involved with this man; something was telling her that it would be better if she didn't.

"I won't."

Yoshiko struck his hand that held hers captive with her other hand as she backed away in sudden fear; not quite fear, actually, but something close to it for the lack of words.

"Stop it…!"

Nanjirou stared long and hard at her before he waved her off in dismissal. Yoshiko hesitated; she was torn between running out and apologizing to him. If the manager got wind of this, she'd be in trouble… big time. Unable to think, she decided to leave without saying anything and shut the door behind her as she walked away from the room.

Nanjirou, on the other hand, was quite surprised she was unwilling to his invitation. It wasn't that she was married, not anymore at least as he had asked the other girls. And it wasn't as if he was interested in her either, or maybe he was… slightly. But she had reminded him so much of his beloved. Not physically though. There were evident that the woman had been as beautiful in her youth, but her beauty was different from that of his late wife's. No, she resembled her by the look in her eyes, the rather stern tone of her voice, her temperaments even. Turning his head back to the window, Nanjirou wondered if she'd forgive him for becoming so pathetic.

'Would you?' Nanjirou thought silently as he stared at the darkened sky where few stars shined.

-

-

Daishoku Restaurant

Tokyo, Japan

A week later

Yoshiko wondered if she dreamed the encounter with Echizen last week. She doubted her sanity because the man that walked into the same room in the western hall everyday since that night was the same man as the one she had met the first time. He was perverted, a gung-ho joker and a carefree lecher. He was nothing like the man who had almost forced her to drink with him; that sullen man with sad, sad eyes.

"Age is getting to you," Yoshiko muttered to herself as she arranged the tray of appetizers she had to bring to Echizen soon.

"Fuji-san!"

Yoshiko turned at the call of her name. "Manager Sasaki." Yoshiko turned to acknowledge the stumpy, balding guy heading towards her fast. Well, as fast as his short legs were able to carry him. "Is there something wrong?"

"There seems to be," the man said in a snippety voice readjusting his black-framed glasses to give her his best authoritative look. "Masahiro-san mentioned to me that you have been gone for fifteen minutes and still have not returned to Echizen-san's room with the appetizers he ordered."

"It will be there shortly if you'd only give me another few minutes." Yoshiko explained calmly, feeling a little annoyed but showing her best not to; she was used to these impassive masks ever since the hardness of life gotten to her years ago. Pleasing words and smiles were nothing more but a part of her job. "Echizen-san would want the best and not the quickly prepared, right?"

"You'd best be efficient, Fuji-san, or there may not be vacancy here for you. We could always do with younger, more efficient workers." the manager merely said and walked off to go pick on someone else. No wonder he didn't get himself a wife and a little wonder why everyone seemed to hate him.

Yoshiko bit back an angry response to herself and turned back to her work. There were times, though rare, when everything just pricked her temper. And this was one of those times. Arching her head a bit she inhaled a bit sharply as the soreness in the back of her neck ached from the movement. The pain had been there for three days now and it was starting to hinder her thoughts and efficiency.

"Fuji-san!" Yoshiko bit back a sigh, wondering if it was just not her day as she turned to face three girls who wore similar frowns on their faces.

"Is there something else Echizen-san needs?" the brunette asked masking her pain and exhaustion from her voice and expression immediately.

"Echizen-san is leaving earlier because he has business to take care of today." the brunette with twin braids said with a pout, "He wants his sake along with his appetizers right away."

"I see…" Yoshiko said moving towards the back room where they kept the sake. "It took three of you to come tell me that?"

"Actually he dismissed us because someone was taking her time in bringing the things he ordered," the black haired one with pretty grey eyes from the back hissed bitterly out as all three bustled out to find other customers to entertain. Apparently, they were pissed off by the fact that Nanjirou-sama preferred the company of a woman far older than them.

Yoshiko fought the urge to sigh again in resignation and didn't say more as she added the sake and rushed towards the western hall. If he was ready to leave early then she'd gladly let him go as quickly as she could as well.

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

"I'm sorry for the wait." Yoshiko uttered as she stepped into the room and began setting up the sake as she usually did.

"Mada mada…" Nanjirou merely said as he watched her set up the things he ordered. After a moment of awkward silence, he spoke up again – much to Yoshiko's displeasure. "How long have you been working here?"

The brunette woman glanced up and was met his golden eyes in an awkward moment. Breaking the eye contact quickly, she set herself back into pouring the sake. "It has been about six years now."

"Six, huh?" Nanjirou uttered almost too softly to hear. "It's been a while then…"

"Excuse me?" Yoshiko said with a slight frown. What was he referring to?

Nanjirou glanced back at Yoshiko and attempted to give a teasing grin. "Nothing much. I just thought that you're just a lot more mature than the others."

"That can't be helped. I'm older than they are by far." Yoshiko said offering the sake to Nanjirou with practiced ease. What was this man trying to say? Was he ridiculing her? Well, she wouldn't back out like a meek little girl if that was what he wanted.

"I see," Nanjirou said with a slight nod as he watched her graceful movements as she served him and he didn't say anything else. That was until he saw the look of pain cross her face and the slight imperfection of her usual graceful movements.

"Are you okay?"

"Huh?" she was caught slightly off-guard by the sudden question until he raised an inquiring eyebrow and she caught on. She was sure that no one else would see through her forced perfection though. "I'm alright." Yoshiko said with the best smile she could muster toward Nanjirou.

Despite Nanjirou noting that this was the first time Yoshiko had smiled for him, he moved to her side and reached for her neck.

"Wha—what are you doing?" Yoshiko yelped silently, jerking slightly from his touch; a blush of a woman far younger than her age flushed her cheeks.

"Hold still." Nanjirou said reaching over to massage the base of her neck with his long fingers trying to find where the pain was coming from; experienced from years being a professional athlete that required such expertise, "Just hold still for a bit," Nanjirou muttered softly when he pinpointed the spot by the looks that crossed Yoshiko's face.

Yoshiko quieted down and allowed him to help ease her discomfort. She was surprised that he even had this side to him though it was as awkward as last week. Looking at him now, she was realizing that he wasn't just the noisy pervert who came every week to make her life more difficult than it already was. He was a charismatic man, Yoshiko admitted.

He was actually… caring and attentive. And when he spoke during these times without the joking and teasing tone, he was actually quite attractive. Yoshiko admitted that he was quite handsome for a man of his age, one of the reasons that the girls fawned over him aside for his generosity – one who was seasoned and gave an air of masculine maturity that demanded attention. He was broad shouldered, toned and richly tanned with the finest of crowfeet at the edges of his eyes were only noticeable because of the paler coloration. His dark hair slightly unkempt, long enough to be tied back with a frame of shorter strands.

This apparently younger man kept on surprising her more and more each time. She just couldn't keep up with him. As age ate her youth, it didn't, evidently, eat away her consciousness as a woman. Yoshiko was painfully aware how his masculine hands were large and calloused, different from her late husband's. This man's fingers were definitely more experienced with women, because the way he touched her, though not in any sense sensual, was careful and skilled, gentle and comforting. This situation was uncalled for, yet not rejected.

Biting her bottom lip a bit to hold back a sigh of relief from the pain, Yoshiko continued trying to withhold completely letting down her guard in front of Nanjirou.

"Try to relax a little more…" Nanjirou muttered as he continued to massage her. Yoshiko thought to protest, but gradually her body relaxed itself against his… all caution was tossed out the door.

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

Yoshiko eyes fluttered open as she looked about the room trying to distinguish where she was. Her mind was still a bit clouded; she hadn't had such a good sleep in a while.

"Oi, are you awake?"

Eyes widening, she sat up suddenly and glanced over to see Nanjirou still sitting by the window in a casual, almost careless manner while looking at her with the piercing golden eyes; a cigarette was alight in his hands as puff of white smokes escaped his lips.

"Did I…?" Yoshiko immediately shot up as realization dawned on her, causing her eyes to widen in mild terror. "Did I fall asleep on you? I-I'm so sor—!"

Nanjirou let out a small laugh as he looked at flustered Yoshiko who was trying to collect what was left of her dignity and straightened herself. "It's okay. You were exhausted and I let you sleep it off. Is the pain in your neck better?"

"I-ah…" Yoshiko said noting that the pain was indeed gone as she reached up to touch the just recently sore spot, "… It is," she muttered almost in amazement.

"That's good." Nanjirou grinned while standing up with a slight stretch, crushing the burning end of his cigarette on the ashtray. "I best be getting home otherwise my boys will start to nag."

"Th-thank you, Echizen-san." Yoshiko said awkwardly hurriedly as she calm herself into a more presentable position.

The man frowned, "Che! That sounds so formal… and makes me sound so old." Yoshiko noted that his sulking manner was just like a child and fought back a small laugh. "Hee…" the grin was back on his face then, "You look so much better smiling, ne?"

Yoshiko's laughter receded though not her smile; a light blush settled on her cheeks.

"I'm sorry."

"Hey, there's nothing to apologize about! Chill," he waved dismissively, "Just call me Nanjirou. And you are?"

"Fu-Fuji Yoshiko." Yoshiko introduced herself rather nervously; come to think of it, though she knew of his name, he never did knew of her though she had always been the one who poured his last cup of sake. She couldn't find it in her to meet his eyes again and not be mesmerized.

"Yoshiko, huh? So how about loosening up more around me, hn Yoshiko-chan?" Nanjirou said, capturing her stray glance at him with one look. His voice was deep and rumbling. "I'd like it if we weren't so indifferent to each other."

"I…" at first, she was hesitant; after all it sounded a bit improper for a widow to loosen up around a married man. But this man, charming and a little annoying though in a good way, was getting into her good book fast. "I'll try." Yoshiko merely said with a small smile. She couldn't promise that nor deny him of it when he had been so… sweet.

"I'd like it if you do." Nanjirou said with a slight smirk to his smile.

-

-

Daishoku Restaurant

Tokyo, Japan

Five years later

Yoshiko chuckled lightly as Nanjirou recounted the moment his son's won their first match in tennis to her. His eyes lit up in a way that no one else could light when he talked of his two sons; like a buoyant kid in Christmas spirit. Despite his carefree nature, Yoshiko was now, after five years, able to see the kind of man Echizen Nanjirou really was; perverted and noisy and sometimes obnoxious, yes, but still a good man.

What sill puzzled her was the fact that he talked of his sons and tennis every moment, yet he wasn't at home doing the two things he talked about. He was here talking to her as he had for the last five years, fooling around with the other waitresses, and practically just keeping to himself here.

"But those brats are getting good," Nanjirou finished with a slight grin as he stared out the window re-living his son's matches in his mind.

"The why aren't you at home playing tennis matches with them?" Yoshiko inquired. She had, for the last five years, never dug deep into Nanjirou's life. But she felt it was time to do a spot of investigation. They had been confidante for years after all.

"Well, they've grown up now. My oldest is eighteen and my youngest is twelve, and they have their lives." Nanjirou said with a sigh before turning to face Yoshiko again. "You have a daughter that's graduating next year, don't you?"

"Ah, she's engaged to be married sometime in the next few months." Yoshiko answered although her mind was more on the fact that he had skilfully avoided her questions as he had for the last five years.

"Is that so? Well congratulations to her and you then." Nanjirou chirped with a grin, "Your husband would've been happy as well, ne?"

"Very likely," Yoshiko agreed at the mention of her late husband whom she still held dearly in her heart, "He would've been so happy to see her in wedding dress."

"But at least he left you all secure, right? That's what a man should do!" Nanjirou chuckled taking a gulp of his sake. "I wish I had a daughter like that though… it must have been fun." His words were so cryptic and nostalgic and it made Yoshiko felt curious but she smiled nonetheless.

"Aa…"

Despite their friendship of five years, there were some things she didn't mention just as he refused to mention and talk of as well. One of those happened to be the financial standing she was currently in right now. She had no wish for anyone's pity, even if it is Nanjirou—especially Nanjirou's. He had become a good friend and Yoshiko had no wish to add her troubles to what he may already be having and she didn't want him to think that she was taking advantage of that friendship.

"Nanjirou, won't you play tennis with me one day?"

"I thought you didn't know how to play." Nanjirou said with a lift of his brow in surprise at her request.

"Well, you tell me it's so fun so I thought I'd learn." Yoshiko smiled, not wanting and determined not to let the man to drop the conversation this time. "Will you teach me?"

"I-I don't think I'm qualified for that anymore." Nanjirou said trying to laugh it off. "I think I know an instructor at the local sports club that can—"

"But I want you to teach me." Yoshiko insisted not breaking eye contact with him. After five years, the intense eyes that stared into hers had long ago lost its intimidation.

"Yoshiko," Nanjirou started breaking eyes contact as he tried to wriggle his way out as usual.

"Seriously, Nanjirou." Yoshiko said placing a hand on his firmly, "Why are you running from what you love to do? Why are you running from your sons who you love so dearly?"

"I—"

Nanjirou realized that he had no answer for her.

-

-

Echizen Residence

Tokyo, Japan

7.45 PM

"Che. That old man is never home these days," Ryoga muttered as he pulled out a cup from the cabinet to fill with his favourite juice. "Made me wonder what the hell is he up to now."

"Orange juice again?" Ryoma groaned as he walked by his brother to the refrigerator to pull out his usual Grape Ponta.

"Which is so much better than your carbonated crap, thank you very much." the older Echizen shot back before opening the cap and taking his first gulp of his orange juice.

Ryoma merely frowned at his brother's grin but drank his Ponta nonetheless. "Where is he?" the young boy questioned glancing around the empty and rather dark kitchen as he leaned against the counter.

"As you can see, not home as usual." Ryoga shrugged before glancing at his watch with a slight frown. "And I'm getting late,"

"Hn, you two are never home." Quietly, but sharply, the younger boy accused with a hint or loneliness and irritation noticeably in his tone.

"Don't whine, brat." Ryoga said patting Ryoma's head as if comforting a lonely pet. "At least, I'm working my ass off and not wandering off like that good for nothing, pathetic excuse of father of ours."

"You don't even need to work!" Ryoma said with a slight frown, brushing off Ryoga's hand because he didn't want to be treated like a clueless brat. He had been left alone for far too long to be treated like a child. "Oyaji's rich enough, we even have our own credit cards—"

"That's his money brat, not mine. You'll understand when you get older." Ryoga muttered, rinsing out his cup quickly. "It's a man's pride when it comes to supporting himself."

"Whatever." Ryoma muttered watching his brother rush out the door without so much as another word. He was quite used to being left in the huge house by himself every afternoon and night now. His brother had matured from the stubborn, hard-headed brat who Ryoma remembered from the past and was now a heartbreaker, carefree, and even more stubborn older brother. Then again, he himself was not the little boy who used to crave his brother's attention and waddled after him like a duckling following its mother.

Collapsing into a chair, Ryoma wondered what he was going to do today, until his brother and father came home that is. In the end, he opted to go out and head for the game centre as usual.

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

Ryoga locked the door and headed down the block in a brisk, set pace towards the local sports club where he worked as an assistant to the tennis coach. He knew his little brother was lonely at home alone but he didn't want to be stuck there either. At times like these, he wondered why his father withdrew from the both of them so much in the last five years. At least back then he had been around and tried to be a mother and father to them. Nowadays he was always somewhere else.

Letting out a sigh, Ryoga figured at the moment he was no better than his old man to Ryoma because he had spent the last three years spending their father's money and hanging out with friends till late at night before finding the job he had now. But it would be soon when Ryoma also found things to do as well.

'Count it as learning to grow up, little brother.' Ryoga thought to himself with a slight smirk before he crossed the street and continued on his way.

-

-

Outskirt of Hyoutei Gakuen

Tokyo, Japan

Five years later

"Hey, you!"

The slender teen slightly turned when someone's hand landed on his shoulder. He had heard the person calling over five times already but hadn't bothered to see if it was for him since there were so many people around.

"You're from Hyotei, right?" the guy asked, heaving a bit heavily from breaking through Tokyo's afternoon rush to reach the teen. Ryoma surveyed his groomed hair to the darkened sunglasses he wore. It made him looked suspicious. Even his slightly wrinkled black suit and loose tie screamed working class male. Why he was calling for high school kids?

The only thought that landed in Ryoma's head that he was a pervert; like his father who oggled cute girls on television and porn magazines when he was home or those fans who came from God knew where and declared undying love for him or the old men trying to feel him up and offered him money.

"I'm not interested in going out with you if that's what you're asking." Ryoma deadpanned out to the guy who looked stunned by that response.

The man managed to laugh a bit, though a little nervously, between trying to catch his breath and shook his head as he removed the sunglasses to reveal amused green eyes. "Ahaha! No, no! I'm not into that. Not with high school kids, anyway. But you are from Hyotei, aren't you?"

"Are you blind?" Ryoma bit back, a bit annoyed that he had to deal with this man when he just escaped the teachers and the clingy, noisy girls from school.

"Of course not." the man scoffed out, amused and slightly irritated by the bluntness.

"Then why did you ask what you already know?" Ryoma, who was never one to like beating around the bush, glanced at his plaid pants, white shirt with the Hyotei emblem stitched clearly on, loose red tie round his neck and beige jacket tossed over his shoulder along with his school bag he carried with his left hand.

"Right…" the man trailed, obviously noting the boy's dangerous mood and almost too insolent mouth, "Anyway, what I want to ask is, would you be interested in becoming a model?"

Ryoma raised a slender eyebrow at him. "… A model?" he repeated in an even voice, not missing a beat.

"Yeah! You have that look and that bossy, aloof attitude of yours is just bonus!" the guy said enthusiastically though Ryoma frowned at the description. "If you start modelling now, you can be making lots of money soon with more exposure and I tell you, my company can offer you the right exposure!"

Ryoma stared at the strange man before shutting his eyes and muttered a soft, "Che." as he turned around, heading toward the bike he parked on the parking lot a bit further away from Hyoutei's ground. He never liked the parking ground crowded with fancy cars and bikes.

"W, wait!" the persistent man said running after him, making the moody boy even more pissed off. "This is your chance! One in a life time chance, you know! To become big!"

"And if I don't want to?" the irate teen shot back at the guy who was taken aback that there was actually someone who wasn't tempted by the glamour of that world. He didn't answer as he opened and closed his mouth a couple times trying to find a response. That was all Ryoma needed to keep on walking.

"B-but! Just think about the fame… the money!"

Ryoma froze a bit at that.

"That's his money brat, not mine. You'll understand when you get older. It's a man's pride when it comes to supporting himself."

The words his brother had adamantly said a few years back drifted to him. Would he know the value of money if it was his own? Would he appreciate it more if it was his? Would it be different? Would he felt what Ryoga did? Could he escape the lonely house and lifestyle he was living right now if he actually had something to do?

"So… what do you say? Just one photo shoot and I'm sure you'll be racking up orders in no time!" the man said enthusiastically, sensing he had Ryoma's attention again.

The boy contemplated the man's words. He seemed to be trustworthy enough, and his words did sound real. "So I can go wherever I want if I become popular?" Ryoma questioned considering the deal now.

He had refused to join the tennis team at Hyotei because he didn't want to be bothered by the sport—or any sport in that matter. He loved tennis, but it reminded him of too much pain. He didn't want to have any lover, because they were all too clingy and he had become too much like his brother for his liking. He didn't have any particular hanging out place either.

But this. This might give him something to do and somewhere else to go to after school as well rather than lounging around the huge and empty house counting seconds for his brother and father to return home each night.

The scout chattered excitedly, knowing that Ryoma was interested now. "Of course! Even to America and Europe if you're good enough!"

"Hn. I suppose one photo shoot won't hurt then…" Ryoma decided on the spot. He'd quit if it didn't meet te expectations, no sweat.

"Great! Come with me now to the studio, and your name is—oh, how rude of me! I'm Yoshida Mamoru, nice to meet you!" Mamoru ranted with a rather unnecessarily low bow while handing him a name card.

"Echizen Ryoma." Ryoma stated plainly, accepting and casually inspecting the name card, not bothering to say anything else as he shoved his hands into the pocket of his pants. Without further introduction or conversation, he followed Yoshida to where the company was stationed.

"Yoshida-san?"

Ryoma turned at the same time Yoshida did and came face to face with a black limo whose back window was on its way down to reveal the face of none other than the Atobe Keigo that everyone talked about at school; the mighty king that ruled Hyoutei. Ryoma suppressed a sigh at how this diva of Hyotei and Yoshida-san could be connected and waited patiently, hoping that the two wouldn't involve him in their conversation, which quickly turned into a vain hope.

"Atobe-san!" Yoshida greeted with an enthusiastic bow, "Where are you heading?"

"To see my father at the company of course," Atobe snorted, brushing his pale hair elegantly as if it should be obvious to the human race. Ryoma rolled his eyes; the monkey lived up to his name.

"Oh, I see! We're heading there as well!" Yoshida said with a nod to Atobe, obviously used to the young master's attitude to bring himself care.

"We?" Atobe said finally glancing past Yoshida to the person behind him, who had averted his face. "Ah, a student from my school, ahn?"

"That he is. And I'm sure that he'll definitely be a big hit with the girls! And boys!" Yoshida exclaimed with a wide, almost proud grin.

"Well, obviously he won't have Ore-sama's good looks or charm, but he will do when no one else can even come close." Atobe said looking the familiar looking slender, lissom form. "Although he's a bit short to model, don't you think?"

That did it for Ryoma, he couldn't help himself from retorting. "Che! Ore-sama really does exercise the part of king to its full potential, ne?" Ryoma finally raised his eyes, his tone brazen and careless.

Atobe was taken aback; so it was the infamous brat of Hyoutei after all. Then again, no one else in Hyoutei would be worthy enough to be scouted by Yoshida Mamoru, who was known for his startling upstart and steady success in the field, if not him. He quickly regained his smirk like the young master he was and laced his fingers together.

"What else can you say? That is what Ore-sama is."

"Right. King of monkey, that is."

Atobe was ticked as he casually leaned out the window further to get a better look at the person who dared to speak back to him in such a cocky manner. The boy was quite famous in school; unnaturally pretty face, smart, belonging to a well-off though not extravagantly influential family. But still…

"I'm afraid, although we attend the same school, we don't run in the same circles." Atobe's eyes gleamed as he stared back into those defiant eyes.

"That's because I don't run in circles." Ryoma shrugged with a snarky smirk, not in the least intimidated by the King of Hyoutei. "I tend to run my own way."

Atobe let out a short amused chuckle before leaning back into the car. "Tell you what, brat. If you make a name for yourself in the industry in a year, I'll take it upon myself to give you a social life."

A smirk grazed the face of the younger boy, "Just don't be offended when I dominate the industry and refuse your offer then." Ryoma shot back cockily as he turned to walk away calmly. "Are we going or not, Yoshida-san?"

"Hai!" Yoshida called out with a smile before turning back to Atobe and giving him a quick bow. The boy did have a presence after all; and he didn't lose out even when pitched against the one and only Atobe Keigo. "Excuse us then, Atobe-san."

Atobe nodded and watched as Yoshida caught up with the brat, attempting a conversation which turned out to be one-sided.

"Hee, that brat is interesting…" the diva muttered to himself out loud as he rolled up the window with a push and slid his eyes shut. It had been a while since someone boldly challenged to him like that. He liked that look in those eyes. Opening his eyes again; his gaze was intense and glazed over with amusement.

"Ahn, we shall see how far will he climb then."

-:- -:- -:- -:- -:-

It didn't take too long for Ryoma to make it after all.

Debuting under the alias Takeuchi Ryou, the Snow as they nicknamed him, he was an instant hit with the public. His aloof look, strikingly exotic beauty, eloquent sensuality, and unnaturally strong charisma suited the mature yet cold look most photographers adored. Posing was naturally done, his expressions heart-breaking, and Ryoma was so quick to learn that most photographers liked working with him. He was efficient, easy to instruct, and got the job done well and fast.

In the face of a camera, his body would react immediately to fall into the best pose of the angle; straightened back, raised chin, and defiantly sharp eyes—all rolled up in one. Though detached and insolent and arrogant, Ryoma just made himself a character that stood out from the crowd like a sore thumb.

It'd be a few months later that Ryoga and Nanjirou would stumbled across the front of a popular magazine and saw Ryoma, who had been coming home later and later now, on the front page as the fastest rising, most wanted model in years. His face were everywhere; televisions, billboards, magazines, news, practically everywhere. People adored him, whispering his name like a chant or a prayer.

Nanjirou had felt a bit guilty as Ryoma walked in the door and he tried to bring up the modelling business in hopes that Ryoma would tell him about the job more but Ryoma had coolly brushed it off and declared that he was off to New York as soon as he graduated next year. Nanjirou dreaded the next year. Not only was he going to lose his son but Ryoga himself had stated he wanted to do a bit of travelling for the next few years rather than go to college.

He was going to be all alone.

-

-

Daishoku Restaurant

Tokyo, Japan

A year later

Yoshiko sighed as she set the room up for Nanjirou as she usually did every day. Only today, more than Nanjirou's unusual drifting was worrying her, she had bigger problems.

It had been a normal day with Yuuta and Shusuke calling in to tell her they was going out with friends when the doorbell rang and she ran to answer it to discover a dishevelled, tear wrecked Yumiko and her twin children at the door. Akiko and Yusuke carried small suitcases and Yumiko carried two bigger ones. Yoshiko had immediately invited all of them in and the two kids lulled off to sleep within minutes at the sofa while Yumiko sat across the table from her mother later in tears.

"Kenji and I are getting a divorce mom. I quitted my job before we got married. Can the kids and I stay here with you, at least until I get a new place and a new job?"

Yoshiko had agreed almost immediately, not thinking of anything else but of her now homeless daughter and grandchildren. She didn't question why they were getting a divorce, she didn't question herself how she was going to feed three more mouths; she just did what her motherly instinct told her to do.

"Something's wrong?"

Yoshiko glanced up to see Nanjirou looking like he usually did these days, lacking sleep with worry and sadness within his eyes. In the twelve years they had known each other, Yoshiko hadn't thought to tell him that she really liked him nor did she mention anything near the subject of "maybe more than friends" to him.

"Yoshiko-chan?"

"I'm fine, just a bit tired." Yoshiko said with a small smile as she moved the sleeve of her yukata and started to pour his sake.

"You do look a bit worried and pale." Nanjirou said with a slight frown. "Perhaps you should've taken the night off."

"I can't… or else how will I feed—" Yoshiko stopped her tired rant. It seemed fatigue and worry had made her forget that she hadn't and wasn't ever planning on telling Nanjirou her financial status.

"Is there something wrong?" Nanjirou immediately latched on to the sign of weakness. "Are you in debt? What about the insurance your husband left?"

"I—"

"You can tell me anything. You know that, Yoshiko." Nanjirou coaxed gently, not wanting the woman to close herself off.

"I really can manage, Nanjirou. I'm just a bit… overwhelmed with everything and…" Yoshiko said forcefully, as she blinked back tears of frustration as she failed to realize she was clenching the sleeve of her yukata so tight, it could rip any second.

"I don't think you can," Nanjirou said pulling Yoshiko into a loose embrace with closed eyes, feeling more than seeing of Yoshiko's widening eyes. "… Tell me everything, Yoshiko. You know you can."

His rough voice had been gentle, so tender. Yoshiko could feel something in her finally crumbled as she clutched on his strong arms; tears stung her eyes and she bit on her lower lips so hard, it hurt. It mattered not that her condition was dishevelled, it mattered not that Nanjirou had nothing to do with her miserable life. She was tired and she needed someone to lean on; someone stronger.

And crying finally, she did. Yoshiko told her story, her struggle, and now her dilemma with Yumiko and her grandchildren. Throughout the tale, Nanjirou doubted Yoshiko realized tears were running freely down her face as she buried her face into his chest and soaking into his shirt which she clung onto as if it was her lifeline. The only thought that ran in Nanjirou's head was how strong she was to put up with her jobs, juggled the life with her kids, and be so selfless.

He wanted to do something for her, anything to help the woman who had listened to his stories and became such a good friend over the years. So Nanjirou said the first thing that popped into his head to solve his loneliness and her problems.

"Yoshiko…" he whispered softly, "I want you to marry me."

-

-

Tokyo Daigaku Photography Club

A few months later

03.15 PM

"Fujikoooo!"

The addressed twenty-one year old brunet raised his face to see a bouncy redhead leaping toward him before the bundle of joy did crashed upon him, with both hands circled around his neck, as the considerably taller and heavier boy jumped off the ground in excitement.

"Fujiko, Fujiko! Have you heard?! Have you? Haaaaaaavvvvvveeeeeee yooooouuuuu?!" Kikumaru squealed as he rubbed his face against Shusuke's neck. Shusuke merely chuckled as he patted on his friend's arm indulgently.

"What is it, Eiji?"

"Nya, nya! I heard from Tezuka-senpai that we're going to have a reaaaallllyyyy special surprise today, nya!" the redhead jibbed with his super fast talking pace, "A really famous someone is going to come today! And I'm sooooo excited!"

"Hai, hai. Demo ne, Eiji…" Shusuke smiled amiably, completely unfazed by the crushing hug. "You shouldn't call me Fuji anymore…"

Kikumaru stared at him before realization dawned to him as he hit a fist against his palm, "Oh! That's right, nya! You're no longer a Fuji, ne Fujiko? Eetoo, but it's so weird to call you with something else…"

The brunet gently chuckled, "Maa, maa… what else can we do?" before he titled his head to one side, "So what's this about this special guest for the day?"

Before Kikumaru could answer, another voice cut in from the side. "He's supposed to be extremely captivating."

"Eh?" Shusuke looked pass Kikumaru's shoulder and saw his slender, teal-haired friend. "Ah, Seiichi-kun! I didn't think you'd show today…"

"And miss the god Atobe sent?" Yukimura returned with a slight teasing smile upon his lips, "You must be joking. Knowing Atobe, he'd generally want everyone to be in awe so he might as well send in the Takeuchi Ryou. If we miss it, then the His Majesty will be very… upset."

"True…" the brunet agreed with a smile.

"Ne, ne! Who's that Fujiko?" Kikumaru asked wanting to be part of the conversation.

"Saa, I don't—" Shusuke started before a startled Yukimura cut in.

"You can't not know him!" Yukimura seemed a bit surprised, earning him questioning looks from the two. "There's no one who doesn't know Takeuchi Ryou, the Snow, these days. If you guys don't, then I guess you're the exceptions in that case. Just don't let Atobe know that you guys didn't know his top model."

"… But why would Atobe send his top model all of a sudden?" Kikumaru asked as he tapped on his chin, still feeling a bit lost.

"So we can be awed by his generosity and Tezuka will have no choice but to thank him personally for allowing his dear cousin the privilege of getting to touch and personally photograph Snow—which is a dream come true for any photographer alive." Yukimura chuckled, clearly amused by the way mirth danced in his gentle eyes.

Shusuke joined in with a small laugh on his own, knowing exactly what Yukimura meant, "And speaking about a certain stoic tennis captain's cousin…" he said, throwing a sideway glance towards the door.

"Minna! Gather up please!" Tezuka Mitsuru, a certain stoic tennis captain's very cheerful and very friendly cousin clapped his hands to attract the attention of the photography club in which he was the club president. He had walked in happily and as he looked around the room, he knew everyone was just as excited to see which model they were receiving today.

As the members gathered, amongst them whispering excitedly, he coughed a few times before smiling brilliantly. "Well, my fellow friends! Today I've a piece of veeeeeery good news that I'm sure all of you will love, ne!"

"One would wonder how he's the buchou's cousin, nee…?" Kikumaru whispered with scrunched eyebrows as Shusuke merely chuckled and nodded.

"Anyway! This friend of my cousin's finally agreed to let one of his models pose as our main object for our upcoming contest." Mitsuru chirped as he swung his index finger, "And I assure you that he'll be a wonderful object—if you can get him to cooperate, that is."

"Eh? What does he mean by that?"

"Dunno."

"Who the hell is he talking about anyway?"

"The special guest for today maybe?"

Mitsuru merely smiled as he stepped aside from the door, "Well, anyway, here he is."

The door was opened and someone stepped into the lighting of the photography room. Eyes bulged and mouth agape, every single one of them froze in motion as their eyes zeroed on a fairly tall, slender raven haired boy with strange dark hair and sultry eyes framed by thick, long lashes. He was pale, a bit effeminate. Shusuke couldn't take his eyes of the features; from the slopes of his forehead down to the stroke of his slim and elegant nose, his high and delicate cheekbones, the soft yet defined jaws, and down to his plump, kissable lips.

What disturbed him though, was the penetrating yet indifferent gaze of his golden eyes.

"Everyone, meet Takeuchi Ryou, also known as the Snow!" Mitsuru introduced with a wide, contagious smile and like a switch, excited and dreamy whispers and disbelieving exclamations broke.

"I-it's really him!"

"Kyaaah! I got to have his autograph!"

"He's so hot!"

"I can't believe this! We're soooo lucky!"

Yukimura smiled at the reaction the boy gained just by standing there, doing absolutely nothing. He had that charisma, all right; that unspoken confidence, the restrained passion, and a presence that screamed for total attention. No wonder he had been Atobe's one and foremost favourite over the year.

'You do have the eyes after all, ne, Keigo…?'

He was amused though, as he observed the various reactions, ranging from shock to awe to disbelief and jealousy and even lust, when his eyes fell upon the form and face of Shusuke—unlike the enthusiastic Kikumaru—was staring at the model with different eyes.

Sexual desire and sensual appraisal were things usually easy to associate with a model like Takeuchi Ryou, but Yukimura didn't think that Shusuke would be one to be impressed by good looks no matter what. The tensai was, after all, someone who was easily bored. Something about this boy must have caught the tensai's eyes.

'Saa… isn't this interesting…?' Yukimura giggled to himself privately, staring at the quiet model once more. 'Atobe… what kind of disaster have you sent to us now…?'

It was after the chaos was subdued that the model talked for the first time, "Well, let's get this over with quick." as he spoke, he yawned and stretched; knowing but uncaring about the fact that the little action earned him a spontaneous attention for his black shirt rode up high enough to expose enough tantalizing smooth, pale flesh and the low slung pants that hugged his curvy waist.

Shusuke's eyes gleamed dangerously as he took in the delicious sight. Unconsciously, his tongue darted out to lick on his lips; he looked like a predator locking on his prey. He knew he wasn't the only one, but he wasn't about to let others getting ahead of him either. He was the tensai for not just the name.

The boy didn't seem to notice the stares, or he was ignoring them if he did anyway. He turned to Mitsuru and spoke again, "So, what do you want me to change into?" he lowered his arms with a soft sigh as one of his hands sneaked to rub his slightly stiff neck, while shoving the other into the pocket of his pants. He really wanted to wrap this off quick—damn that monkey for making him do this—and go straight home.

He just wasn't expecting Mitsuru's smile to change a little bit; being a model over the year taught him how to read through people's masks pretty well.

"Why!" he beamed innocently as he clapped his hands together, "Nothing, in fact. We're doing nude photos today. So, can you please start stripping, Ryou-kun?"


End Note : And there's the prologue chapter! And kyaaa, 26 pages for the starter…! Because this is kind of rushed, it turned out that way. We hope you don't mind and review anyway. The time in between is generally how Yoshiko and Nanjirou got together. As to why Ryoma is referred as Takeuchi Ryou will be explained in the next chapter.