Chapter 9: The countdown starts

"And that's why I'm saying university life is torturous." Tomoka Osakada explained with voice louder than her usual.

"I mean, Friday should be a day off for us, too, right?"

It was pretty much clear why the girl's tone was whinier that day. As for the jostling and commotion around them, well… they were inside a fast-food restaurant to celebrate Sakuno's first day-off and Tomoka's 'thank-God-it's-Friday-night.'

"Why would they give us a project that will be due on a Sunday? Where's the justice in that?"

Sakuno wondered why Tomoka looked drunk even if it was not even past seven and they were drinking nothing but cola. On a second thought, she could note the not-so-usual bags under her best friend's eyes and her similarly not-so-usual sweatshirt.

Sweatshirt and Tomoka. Without make-up. On a Friday night.

Her friend must have been under a lot of stress for the past few weeks.

"And isn't it a summer class?"

It had been long since they talked and she was grateful that Ryoma gave her a day she could use to spend time with her friend. Since she took medicine and her friend took the route of fashion industry, they saw each other less. She was glad she could be there and listen to her friend's rants when she needed her the most.

"Where's my breather?"

After the telephone call from Kumiko-san, Sakuno saw the huge attitude change from both Echizens. As much as possible, she noticed, they, Ryoma-junior particularly, kept her away from answering the said machine. It was not even surprising her if this was one of their methods to further ensure that she would be at a safe distance from the telephone.

Was it because they were afraid she would tell Kumiko their little experiment?

She let out a sigh at the thought.

She wouldn't do that. She needed the money for the next semester.

"That's the sixth sigh I heard since you sat down on that yellow chair," Tomoka commented, her nose scrunching in dismay. "And all I've heard from you is 'yes' and 'yes' from the moment we saw each other. How about a 'no'?" she rested her chin on both her hands as she leaned on the table. "Or maybe tell me your love affair with your boss? How's Ryoma-sama?"

Sakuno frowned. As expected, her friend laughed at her misery.

"It's a little complicated."

"Oh yeah? Tell me about it."

The questions were pressing but she heard it all on their telephone conversations. Sakuno was just glad that Tomoka got sensitive and lowered her voice when the woman from the adjacent table started giving them sideward glances with an inexplicable expression in her eyes. Probably annoyed or probably just eavesdropping.

"It's a long story," she evaded.

"I got time. It's Friday night, Sakuno."

Another sigh.

"That's it. That's the seventh!" Tomoka clapped her hands together to emphasize her point. "Something must have really happened."

The woman, Sakuno noticed, was already boldly looking towards their way.

"Tomo-chan, lower your voice down." She gave an awkward and apologetic smile to the mysterious lady.

"So?" A prolonged 'o' sound brought her attention back to her companion. "You can't hide this forever from me. I know you're trying to divert the topic whenever we talk about Ryoma-sama's arrival."

A raised brow and two interrogating brown eyes.

"It's just that…" Sakuno felt her face heating up. It was that memory again. Her on Ryoma's bed with him on top of her – pinkies away. "The ring."

Desultory much?

"The ring?"

She was biting the insides of her cheek, uncertain of what to say or where to start. It was as chaotic for her as it was confusing for Tomoka. "Ryoma-kun told me he was willing to give it a try."

Her friend's eyes widened and she just knew she would blurt out something loud and inappropriate. So before Tomoka was even able to grabble that opportunity, she supplemented with the rest of her story. She talked about his son and the way they would constantly keep her from the telephone. Well, at least, Ryoma-junior.

"It just keeps getting weirder. I heard Ryoma-sama the other night talking about something like…a bomb."

"A bomb?"

"Yes. And there's his uncle as well."

"His uncle?" Tomoka repeated. She had been doing that for the past few minutes.

"The one named 'Alyssa-chan' on Ryoma-kun's phone. Ryoma-kun has a brother."

Sakuno's brown-haired companion tilted her head to the side. "Really? Why have I never seen him before?"

Sakuno had been asking herself the same thing, but, to no avail, she found no answer.

"So what exactly are they trying to do?"

"That's what I want to know," Sakuno replied but not after her eighth sigh.

"Hm, I won't say I'll support them. For one, your grandmother won't find it lovely if she sees you having an affair with a married man, right?"

True.

"And two, they look as if they are just playing around."

Sakuno nodded. As expected, her friend knew the right words to say. Tomoka Osakada had been Sakuno's number one adviser time and again and she would prove that she would be worthy of that title in this same circumstance. Even if it involved her favorite tennis player and her high school crush.

"But don't you want to know how it will play out? How about you pretend as if you're trying?"

Sakuno almost fell from her seat. The insinuation was the least thing that she wanted to hear from her best friend. Where was the 'if it's an illegal affair, it's not worth it' drama?

"I won't," she forced out.

Much to her surprise, her friend seemed as if she was shocked from her response. "Why not?"

"Because Kumiko-san is a kind woman, and I would like to keep my job, thank you."

She had been telling everyone the same reason, but no one would support her for it. Not her boss and not her ex-boyfriend - the child who happened to be her employer's son.

Tomoka pursed her lips as if considering the gravity of the situation. "But I'm not telling you to be with Ryoma-sama. Just test how it will unfold. If he will ask you out on a date, don't refuse!" she paused dramatically and raised a finger. "But don't let his actions get into your heart."

The usually vocally loud woman whispered as she placed a hand on the fries-strewn tray in front of her. "No kissing."

Sakuno leaned back on her chair, her arms protectively placing themselves in front of her.

"Wha-What are you talking about? I won't. Why would Ryoma-kun want a date with me? And…" her voice got softer. "I have to be with his son all the time. I don't have the liberty or the time to flirt with my employer."

Her friend grinned and patted her back. "You like the idea right? And it's not as if you haven't seen him without his shirt on."

Sakuno almost covered her ears. Ah, the memory.

And here she thought her friend would be her conscience.

"Don't worry about his son! He said he likes you for his daddy, what's there to lose? Ask him if he could give you a little moment with his father." Tomoka winked as if it the suggestion was something as simple as giving a candy to a kid.

"Tomo-chan!"

"All right, all right." Tomoka laughed. "All I'm just saying is that if you keep getting pissed and panicked every time they do something like that to you, you'll gonna lose. You have to face them upfront and play their game. Show them in the end that you're not the girl that they should mess with."

Sakuno stayed silent.

Tomoka flipped her hair. "What's that? I think I said something really intelligent just now."

Sakuno could not believe her friend said that out loud. "Fine. But no holding hands," Sakuno added just to make the deal clear.

"Sure!" her friend enthusiastically replied. "And in the process…"

"Figure out what the two Echizens are up to," someone eerily completed the sentence on Sakuno's right ear.

Eerily familiar it was.

"Fuji-senpai!" The moment the brown-haired man appeared to her sight, Tomoka's fatigue seemed to be removed off from her countenance.

Sakuno never knew Fuji Syuusuke was the best beauty product a woman could ever have.

"Fuji-senpai," she timidly greeted as she watched him sat on the seat beside her.

He greeted back with his usual smile. "I was just on a meeting with my partner for our next project this weekend when I thought I heard a familiar voice," he said, his thumb pointing at the mysterious black-haired woman who was sitting at the table next to them.

After giving them a smile and a nod, the woman lowered her head and started typing on her phone. Seconds later, from Sakuno's peripheral view, she brought out her bag and took out her laptop. Obviously a busy fellow.

Could she have known Ryoma? Then again, most people should know a Japanese tennis star.

"She's a writer in a sports magazine," Fuji casually commented. "She requested me to leave her side for a while because she has to finish pasting my photographs in her article."

Sakuno froze, her head turning to Fuji slowly and mechanically. Her eyes were frightened as she opened her mouth, attempting to let the words out.

Rumors could not get out. Especially rumors that would involve her employer.

"Don't worry. She's not that type of journalist, and she's currently under my supervision," Fuji assured as he picks up a fries from Sakuno's tray.

"Great!" Tomoka chirped in, beaming brightly like the way she would ten years ago. "So do you know about Ryoma-sama's affair with Sakuno?"

"Tomo-chan!"

Fuji gave out an amused chuckle. "I got a wind of it a few minutes ago. How's the affair going?"

"Fu-Fuji-senpai!" Sakuno exclaimed, blushing and bowing her head in embarrassment.

"Want me to help you with Ryoma?" was the tensai's offer after a few moments after that caused her head to snap up once again. "I can play strings, too."

As much as Tomoka thought how mysterious and exciting it would be, she couldn't help but sense the dark plan behind the seemingly innocent smile of the man.

And did Fuji-senpai just say strings?

"Don't worry, I don't intend to put Ryoma in danger," he assured her.

Sakuno laughed nervously. "I wasn't thinking about that, senpai…not at all!" She shook her head and waved a dismissive hand. "But I…I don't want to get in the way of your work…obviously. You'll probably be preoccupied with…taking pictures of…things."

"I'll be around," he patted her head. "Who knows? Maybe we can coincidentally meet tomorrow again like this."

Did that sound like a threat?

"Ahh~" Tomoka almost swooned at the man's oddly attractive feminine voice. "Lucky you, Sakuno! You get Ryoma-sama and you can have Fuji-senpai by your side as well."

As far as Sakuno was concerned, that didn't really sound like a welcoming idea that she would want to entertain.

0.0

"You're late," someone said as soon as Sakuno closed the big, oak doors of the Echizen's residence.

There, sitting with all his glory, was Ryoma-junior with a leg crossed over the other and a glass of milk in his hand.

He was funnily hot.

Yes, except that Sakuno had to remember that one, the kid was her boss – the idea was inappropriate – and two, his father, who himself was the epitome of hotness, was approaching where they were as he busily spoke with whoever was on the other line of his cellphone.

"Sorry," she apologized stiffly as her feet carried her towards the kid. "I got sucked into the conversation." With a smile, she sat beside Ryoma-junior, expectant for an answer.

This had been a developed habit of hers. Whenever Ryoma would be on a one meter radius, she would instinctively come rushing to her sole refuge and shield and start chatting as if such activity was as natural as breathing to both of them. Regardless of the child's silent demeanor.

"How's your day?" Sakuno continued after sparing the older Echizen a quick and wary glance.

For a moment that goes by as frequent as the sun rises, silence meets Ryuuzaki Sakuno.

"I mean, mine was so eventful!" She reached for Ryoma-junior's free hand and enthusiastically recalled the happenings of her 'eventful day'.

"And then there was Fuji-senpai."

At the mention of her old junior-high friend, the kid's brow rose in sudden interest. "Fuji-senpai," he repeated.

Not a question but rather an irritated reiteration of the name. It was not brought up without a slight scoff, of course.

"Yes," Sakuno replied and wondered why the kid didn't like her mentioning the tensai. "You met him before right? We were talking about his—"

"That's against the rules, you know? You just had an affair and now you're flaunting it to your boyfriend."

"I thought we already broke up?"

"Says who?"

Shocker.

"You're conveniently bringing this up now when just a day ago you broke up with me because you wanted to play the games of your father." She frowned and let go of Ryoma-junior's hand, putting some respectable distance between them lest the child's father, who finally closed his phone off and was now looking at both of them, gets the wrong idea.

"I need my manager tomorrow," Ryoma curtly informed them.

Honestly, though? She could just say 'who cares?'

"And he wouldn't go home," Ryoma-junior supplemented and returned the stare of his father.

Sakuno, on the other hand, deciding that it wasn't the time for her to be interrupting Ryoma's business problems or to be discussing who Fuji-senpai was or her complicated relationship with the kid, stood up with the impression that it was the perfect time for her to finally go back to her room.

Unfortunately, the rustling of the cushions when she made the mistake of ever even moving got both of her companion's attention. Grin. Grin. The child's hand reached for hers, encouraging her to place herself back where she was initially seated just a couple of seconds earlier.

"My girlfriend loves assisting people."

"I'm sure she does," nonchalantly replied the man in front of them as he began typing frantically on his phone once again. Probably to note his assistant of his future plans.

"She sure won't mind if it's for her father-in-law."

"Wha-What?"

"Horio will be back on Sunday, so I'll just need her for twenty four hours."

Click, his phone shut off.

"Well, as they say… absence makes the heart grow fonder."

The child hopped off from his throne and let go of her hand. "We'll have a date once he lets go of you so don't worry."

Preposterous.

She was hardly worrying over that matter.

But even before she could object to the suggestion, Ryoma-junior's back was already facing her. His form running up the stairs and towards his room. Blame it to his long polka-dotted pajamas that he did it so ungracefully.

And here she wondered why the child was still up eleven forty-five in the evening. He and his father obviously had it all planned out. They wanted her to come with the tennis prince tomorrow to some schedule or event and they knew she wouldn't say yes if it wasn't Ryoma-junior's mouth doing the talking.

After all, who would say 'no' to an innocent and not-so-cunning child?

"No."

Well, Sakuno would.

"It's not a date, Ryuuzaki."

They would deny it, obviously.

So squarely, she would refuse. She would not fall into their traps again. If there was one person she would be loyal with, it would be the kind-hearted mother and wife Kumiko-san. She was the one who treated her with respect; Sakuno would return the favor.

With a determined set of eyes, she shook her head no.

Being Ryoma's assistant was never in her job description to begin with.

"I got it all written, Ryoma-kun," she uttered and rummaged inside her bag that was idly sitting close to her. "The young master, the racket, and the cat. That's the order." She raised her head to meet her Ryoma's eyes. "There was never the father in the equation."

Her hand lifted the small notebook so that it would face Ryoma. The pad where she had written all of Kyoko-sensei's reminders the first day they met and the day she was employed.

In all actuality, she had expected Ryoma to be impressed. She was anticipating an expression that would look as if someone had lost his battle. But then again, Echizen Ryoma would not have conquered the world of tennis if he was one to give up a fight without putting a struggle.

"I will be sent back to Australia if you don't do this."

Was her mind getting rusty from all their incessant teasing? Sakuno couldn't put her finger on where the weapon was in such pronouncement.

He sighed when her befuddled brown eyes questioned his. Not wasting his time to parade his humbling aura, he sat down on the sofa opposite her. Calmly. Arrogantly.

"That doesn't change anything, Ryoma-kun." Sakuno lifted her chin to emphasize, trying to hide her faltering voice.

She totally missed something.

"My son will feel sad, you know?"

She bit her lip and he lifted his phone once again.

"If that's what you want."

Sakuno didn't answer.

The hand proudly holding up the small notebook a little while ago now shakily settled itself to its owner's lap.

"Why are you doing this?"

"I didn't," was his immediate response. "Horio did. He had to deal with some endorsements I left in Australia for this one week vacation."

And that was when it hit her. Ryoma wouldn't leave her alone. He couldn't. He had to make his one week vacation worth it and that would only be achieved if he would be around her to try out his adulterous game.

"Give your 'young master' a favor and be my reliable manager tomorrow."

"All I'm just saying is that if you keep getting pissed and panicked every time they do something like that to you, you'll gonna lose. You have to face them upfront and play their game. Show them in the end that you're not the girl that they should mess with."

"I'll be up at 6, what time do you need me?"

"By nine."

And Ryoma-junior?

The child was not her shield and refuge anymore. Oh, he never was. He was much too willing to sell her out and make his father's time in Japan worth it.

"All right. I'll be here."

0.0

To say that she was angry was an understatement. She was furious that the two Echizens were doing this to her for an immature justification. She wanted to be rational and give them the option to back off by raising the issue of her job description, but they predictably turned the tides on her.

"You're not angry, Sakuno," she said to herself like a mantra as she looked at her reflection in the mirror.

If it was any consolation, she had confirmed last night that it was just a game. At least she was very well aware of it and wouldn't fall into the dangerous grounds of mistaking Ryoma's attention for sincerity. If it was an inevitable game, then she would play it. No strings attached.

"This is crazy," she mumbled to herself, her head hanging down in exasperation. "Who am I kidding? I'm nervous."

The admission made her flinch. Indeed, truths hurt. Sakuno was just glad it wasn't her heart she was dealing with but her pride.

Pride, she could manage it. She could piece it back together after one week.

With renewed energy, she spun around to meet her dilemma.

As promised, she was already up by six. She had been rummaging her wardrobe since then and, with no progress, found no article worth to take. Her babysitter uniform was still on her, and she couldn't even rest because her bed was strewn with all the hangers and clothes she fished out from her cabinet.

It had been clear to both parties that what they were about to involve themselves in was by no means a date. But she couldn't help it. She was back to her twelve-year-old self who would be late thirty minutes because she wanted to give her outfit a best shot even if it was just nothing but a trip to the racket stringer.

"Don't even go there," she told herself with a slap.

Had she mentioned? Her face looked as if blush on had already been applied on it. She had to take desperate measures to keep herself from remembering old childhood memories or from being too hopeful about the result of this whole ordeal.

"…you'll gonna lose. You have to face them upfront and play their game."

Her friend's voice replayed itself to her mind.

"Oh right," she gasped like she had stepped not on a bright idea. "Tomo-chan! She should know!"

In a rush, she went to her bedside table and grabbed her phone.

Why had she never thought of her friend when she was the best fashion designer in Japan?

"Tomo-chan!" she said excitingly.

The previous declaration, by the way, was just her best friend figure talking. She was well aware that her friend was still in the process of taking her degree and she was not exactly enjoying every second of it. Regardless, Sakuno still believed that Tomoka's genius would help her sort out today's outfit. Whether she liked it or not.

In the first place, Sakuno wouldn't be in a tight spot right now had Tomoka didn't provoke her to take part in Ryoma's game.

"Sakuno?" answered the receiver after a yawn and a three-second juncture.

"I have a da—I have to be with Ryoma-kun today for some kind of…schedule."

3…

2…

1…

"Oh God! That's wonderful!"

To be expected.

Sakuno thanked God because she had the brains to move her phone away from her ears.

"It's not. Listen, I have to sort out my wardrobe, I can't appear to be trying hard. I have to look business like. Can you help me?"

"It is wonderful. You have to look sexy!"

"No! I'll just be assisting him to some kind of deal or schedule…I don't really know, but it's not a date."

"There you said it. You have to look pretty. Wear a skirt and a blouse that would show your curves. Show him your sex appeal, Sakuno!"

"Why would I show his my sex appeal? Where's no kissing? No holding hands?" Her voice almost sounded pleading.

A pause.

Finally, Tomoka was brought back to her sense. "Oh right. Right. I forgot we should know about their plan. We are not to seduce Ryoma-sama who happens to have his wife already."

"Don't remind me that," she interrupted.

As usual, she was ignored. "Just wear some jeans. You'll be fine. And I don't mean leaving out your shirt."

"Give me specifics. My cabinet's a mess."

"Wha-all right. A sec. Let me remember your dresser." Sakuno could hear her friend's breathing through the other end of the line. She would call it creepy – that Tomoka exactly knows what was inside her cabinet – but she decided she had to keep the comment to herself for today provided that she had a bigger problem to face later.

"Hm~ since it's summer, it'll be hot outside. No blazer. Tell me, are you having lunch together? What time are you needed again?"

"I don't know. And nine, he needs me by nine."

"Oh, you'll be lunching together. Since you tend to eat a lot, don't wear fit clothes. It'll show unnecessary fats. Not that you have them, but just in case. Do you still have the bow creped blouse I bought you for your birthday?"

Sakuno didn't have any idea what Tomoka was talking about. "Yes…I think. Yes, I think I do." She nodded and dragged her feet back to her closet.

"Thank heavens you got a little taller for the past ten years. Wear it with the white trousers and get your brown stilettos."

"You have it with you. I lent it to you last time."

"No, you didn't."

Sounds of muffled noise and hard objects being thrown randomly could be heard for fifteen or so seconds before Tomoka's ragged breathing was on the speaker once again. "Okay, it's with me. Change of plans. How about the pleated shoulder shirt? The black one. It's perfect. It'll show your boobs and it'll be loose on the lower torso. Won't show your flabs. Just in case you miraculously have them during lunch."

"Uhm…yes, where did I put that again?"

"The one on the third box with the jeans? I mean when we were moving our things last semester to our apartment."

Tomoka was a goddess.

"Yes, I remember that," she fumbled once again through her wardrobe.

"Good. Now pick up the dark fit jeans I was talking about. The one with five pockets. It should go well with your pink leather sandals. Right. The one with the strap. The shoes from Mango."

Some people would pity her because her parents passed away at an early age and her grandmother left before she even finished college. But she begged to differ. Her best friend is still with her. The person who memorized her closet more than its owner. How could she ever survive without Tomoka?

"Thank you, Tomo-chan."

She was tearing up. Really.

"Yes, yes. I'll have you paying my lunch next Friday. Now, don't forget to ask for another date. If he leans in for a good night kiss, remember to turn your head to the side so your noses won't bump to each other. Oh! And for the romantic effect, raise your left heel."

On a second note, sometimes, Tomoka could be a bad influence.

"I'll keep that in mind. But no thanks. I have to go. I still have to prepare Ryoma-sama's breakfast."

A laugh was heard before her friend said goodbye and shut the line off.

She placed her phone on the floor and kneeled in front of her closet. The talk about stilettos, creped blouses and shoulder shirt sure drained her energy.

"What's all this?" she heard the child's familiar voice from the doorway.

"Can you please knock first?"

Ryoma-junior shrugged and raised his fist, giving the door a sarcastic thump. "Are you really that nervous to have a date with my father?"

"It's not a date."

Sakuno sat on the floor, her legs and feet completely giving up.

"Just go with whatever."

"I already have something to wear, don't bother."

Now she's speaking to the 'young master' as if he was just another friend.

"I'm sorry. That was…my friend already helped me to find an outfit, so even if it's very kind of you, I'm afraid I have to dismiss your suggestion," she corrected.

The child didn't speak. He opted to sit himself beside his 'nee-chan' and looked curiously on the small gadget near her.

"Fuji-senpai, was it?"

"N-No! It was Tomo-chan, my best friend, actually" she frantically denied. Why on earth she panicked that the kid might get the wrong idea, she had no clue.

"He's calling you." Ryoma-junior continued to stare at her phone.

"Oh right." What better way to break off the awkward atmosphere she created than getting the buzzing phone and answering it? "Fuji-senpai?" she asked uncertainly.

She wanted to move away from the child to get some privacy, but that would only rouse his suspicion. No point. He would ask her about it later.

"Ryuuzaki-chan, do you have any plans today?"

"Ah, yes." She nodded her head in confirmation. "I have to accompany Ryoma-kun to some place."

"I see. And the child?"

"The child? You mean Ryoma-sama?" She gave Ryoma-junior an apologetic look when he scoffed at the reference. "He's here with me, why? I mean, he's not going with us later but…"

The conversation was suspended. Clearly, Fuji-senpai was waiting for her to continue her sentence. And so was Ryoma-junior.

"But I'll be with him on Sunday."

The kid smirked.

He obviously resents it when people treat him like a child. Not that he isn't one.

"A date?"

"So he says."

"I see. Good luck with your appointments then. I'll call you later and hear your report."

"Ah, yes. Thank you for all your help as always."

And then her phone shut off for the second time.

"He isn't just any other friend." The kid's small hand snatched the phone from Sakuno's hand as soon as she was done with it. "He's calling you at 7, why?"

An interrogation from her little boyfriend.

"He's helping me out with some things."

The kid's brow rose, discontented. He and his scheming-filled mindset.

She actually wanted to tell the kid that it was not really his business to meddle in – it was an adult talk, kids should be left uninformed. But then, their current relationship would be brought up again and Sakuno least wanted such awkward topic to be wedged in the middle of an early morning conversation.

"About a photo for the…lookbook," she explained, her hand inching its way towards her precious gadget that was left in possession of the kid's right hand. "It's a fashion thing. Tomo-chan has a deadline at lunch and he was wondering if I can deliver it to my friend later."

Smooth. She smiled confidently after delivering her lie.

"He asked about me."

Sakuno waved a dismissive hand. "He knows you're my boyfriend so he was wondering why I'm not with you on a weekend."

The thing about kids is that they believe everything that adults say. Ryoma-junior might have a cunning mind, but he was only good with people who wouldn't know how to create a believable story.

Sure enough, when one got to know his enemy's weakness, he was sure to win.

"Thank you," she replied when he returned her phone.

0.0

A/N: I'm so stoned. Why did I forget that I already typed this chapter? I think this one is incomplete but whatever. Haha

Anyway…if you actually still read this…thank you so much! I kind of forgot everything. I had univ and now I have to find a job and I don't even know what I wrote up there. So I really would try to update again but (after all those years) you probably know me. Haha I'll try to write my speech first for our grad ceremony and see if I could add another chapter again before next week starts.

Thank you for reading! I love you lots! A penny for your thoughts?

Uhm...my thoughts after reading this? I finally realized I really suck at writing =)) I'm so sorry for myself. OTL