A/N: My second RyoSaku. Hopefully, lesser OOCs this time around. ;)
The Prince's Homecoming
"Goodbye, Teacher! And thank you very much!" Ten-year-old Akahana Asa bowed respectfully, to the delight of twenty-two year old Ryuzaki Sakuno.
"You're always welcome, Akahana-san." Sakuno gave her young student a bright smile. She cheerfully waved to the lass, who hurried to the playground to join her other classmates. She dismissed the class earlier than usual to make way for a PTA meeting this afternoon.
"Yes, Ms. Ryuzaki, we are certainly very grateful." Asa's father, dressed smartly in a dark pinstripe suit and a subtle toupee covering his balding head, practically beamed at her. "The patience and kindness you show my daughter every day is incredible! You're Asa's role model, if you must know. She couldn't have picked a lovelier, more admirable person to look up to."
To her embarrassment, she buckled slightly. "T-Thank you. You are very kind, Mr. Akahana." She was never good at taking compliments without making a fool out of herself, too.
He was quick to pat her hand. "Please. Let us do away with the formalities when we're not in class." He flashed her his most winning smile. "Call me Francis. Our age gap is not wildly disparate, you see."
She was barely able to conceal her flabbergasted expression, but the aging father mistook her slack jaw for something else.
"Ah, you're not the first person to find my first name surprising. You see, I am a businessman whose work takes me around the world. Some people still have their own silly perceptions of Japanese businessmen, so I try to... shake things up a bit… starting with my name." All the while, Francis refused to let go of her hand, despite her polite, delicate tug to free herself from his grasp.
"That sounds very interesting, Mr. Akahana…" She carefully maintained a pleasant smile. "You sound very successful, and I'm sure you worked very hard for it." Her tone suggested courteous dismissal.
She inconspicuously checked if any of her students were seeing the audacious behavior of the man twice her age. To her relief, the kids were gathered in the corner of the playground, as a tennis ball bounced somewhat steadily up and down in the air. Asa-chan must be in her element again, proudly displaying her promising tennis skills to her adoring classmates.
"Francis," Mr. Akahana corrected smilingly, bringing her attention back to him. "And yes, some people do say I have it all: a profitable business, a talented daughter, parcels of land here and there…"
She sighed inwardly.
"… but there is one thing missing in my life." His gaze locked on to her meaningfully, and she felt his clammy grip tighten uncomfortably. "A wife."
"Dad, heads up!" squealed Asa.
"Wha—argh!" A tennis ball knocked his carefully-placed hairpiece off balance, and the old man frantically let go of her to steady his toupee.
"See that? That's the reason ball control is important," said a male voice dryly. The familiar tone made Sakuno's heart pound suddenly, madly. It had been months since she last heard it—since she last saw him.
Slowly, hesitantly, she turned to the source of the voice.
A man in his early twenties was standing in the middle of the playground, towering above her students. He was wearing a white sport shirt paired with belted khaki cargo pants. His face was partially obscured by his long dark green hair, but she could vividly imagine the self-satisfied smirk on his face.
He was holding with much familiarity a racquet she was sure that belonged to one of her students. Ah, but he was the prince of tennis, and was therefore more than capable to commandingly wield any racquet he damn well pleases—even one that happened to be pinker than Hello Kitty and Barbie fashion items combined.
The said male met her gaze, and his free hand waved at her in acknowledgment. "Yo."
Ignoring the colorful curses of the old man behind her, she smiled at him happily through her tears. "Welcome back, Ryoma-kun."
Echizen Ryoma was wearing an unmistakable expression of boredom as he sat a few meters away from where Ryuzaki Sakuno stood, bowing repeatedly in apology to the dirty old bastard who was presently shooting lethal glares at him.
"—I truly apologize, Mr. Akahina. Please let me take you to the clinic to have you checked," pleaded the mahogany-haired teacher.
"Wigs don't have nerve cells. He's fine," he remarked wryly. He watched in silent amusement as the pig-tailed woman cringed, while the old man's nostrils flared.
"We're very sorry, truly we are." Prim and proper Ryuzaki Sakuno gave her a pleading look, as if saying, Work with me on this, will you?
He fought the urge to laugh out loud. Despite the years of knowing her nature, the unconditional kindness of Ryuzaki never ceased to be a source of both annoyance and entertainment to him.
"I don't understand how you've become acquainted with such a callous fellow," said the Akahina guy disdainfully. "Under normal circumstances, I would have brought this matter to the school directress because that trespasser is not supposed to be in the school grounds in the first place—"
His forehead creased as the female teacher bit her lower lip nervously.
"—but if only for you, Ryuzaki-sensei, I will keep my lips sealed," finished the old man, and to Ryoma's irritation, Akahina was looking at his former classmate with ill-concealed desire.
He was about to open his mouth to say something when the woman shook her head firmly at his way. Automatically, his mouth clamped shut.
"Thank you, Mr. Akahina." She flashed him a grateful smile. "Anyway, let me check on Asa and see if she's ready to go."
"Certainly." All of a sudden, the father looked good-natured again. "And please, call me Francis."
The teacher merely smiled, but said nothing. She hastily headed for the playground to talk to her students. The man then stood up to follow.
The older male faced him, surprised. Then the plentiful wrinkles on the aged male's face contorted angrily. "Why you—"
"Ryuzaki doesn't owe you or your flaccid bulge anything, Francis." He spoke in a soft, icy tone. "Mess with her again, and you'll be dealing with me."
He smiled smugly as more expletives ensued.
"I didn't know you were coming back to Japan this month," Sakuno began as she and Ryoma walked out of the school gates together. Asa and her father had earlier left in a rush, which for some reason slightly worried her. (Though when she asked Ryoma about it, he only gave her a careless shrug). "Did you mention that in your last letter?"
He glanced at her as if she just asked a terribly pointless question, and that any answer he would give her was an act of indulgence on his part. "Do I need to?"
Her cheeks burned. "W-Well, of course not! I was just curious." Her eyes then crinkled to a smile. "But I'm very glad to see you back! Grandma will be thrilled to hear about your games in America! And our senpais…"
He grunted, eyes set straight ahead of them.
"How long will you be here?" she asked, unaware that her eyes lit up hopefully.
He threw her a momentary look, and then turned his gaze back to the setting sun. "Two weeks."
"Oh." She hugged her folders closer to her chest, unsure of how to feel. It was longer than the two or three days he usually spent in Japan, but as always, it didn't seem enough. She furtively looked at Ryoma, then sighed inwardly. Eight years…
"Y-Yes?" She turned to him, flustered.
"Do you mind if we drop by my house?"
"So my wayward son finally came home after months of ignoring my letters," Echizen Nanjiroh grinned at them welcomingly. He was sitting on the verandah, enjoying the warm summer breeze.
Sakuno noticed the younger Echizen didn't even look concerned. "Letters? Might have missed them."
"Oh. And my phone calls?" the older male asked, eyebrows raised.
"Might have missed them, too."
Nanjiroh's eyes narrowed. "Have you changed my name on your phone book yet?" The last time his son was home, he was morally obliged check whether his son had added contact numbers of gorgeous American women yet. What he found instead was his phone number under the name, Old Man-Don't Answer.
His question was unceremoniously ignored. Ryoma had turned to the bemused teacher behind him. Ryuzaki Sumire's granddaughter, he noted smilingly. There were only two female names in his son's phonebook, and Ryuzaki Sakuno happened to be one of them. The other name happened to be his wife Rinko's.
"Come in. Wait for me in the living room, I'll be back," he instructed the woman, to which the latter nodded shyly.
Ah, he knew what Ryoma wanted to do. Nanjiroh's grin widened. His son wanted to keep the girl as far away from him as possible, knowing fully well his penchant for nosing around his son's private affairs. He adjusted the hem of his robe, clicking his teeth sadly. "How cold, Chibisuke. Why deprive the young lady of my company?"
A vein popped on his son's head.
He smilingly turned to Ryuzaki's' granddaughter. "How are you, Ryuzaki-sensei? I apologize for rearing a boring excuse of a son whose world revolves around hitting the balls of men from different nations—"
Dark aura began to emanate from his son.
"What? I'm proud of the fact that you're the Number 1 tennis player in the world!" Nanjiroh gave them an innocuous smile. "But when it comes to women—"
"Uncle!" Nanako Meino looked at the older Echizen disapprovingly. She just emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands with a hand towel. She then smiled at her cousin and Sakuno. "Hello there, I was about to prepare snacks for us, but I just saw we're out of honey buns." She directed her pointed gaze back at her uncle, who proceeded to look away, whistling. Satisfied, Nanako turned to them once more. "So if Sakuno-chan will be able to wait for a few more minutes…"
"I-I can come with you to the store," volunteered Sakuno bashfully. Her eyes flicked at Ryoma for a second, and then at his cousin. "I-If it's okay…"
"But of course!" beamed Nanako, clasping her arm in a friendly manner. She lightly tugged her away from the Echizen males. "I will see you guys in a bit!"
"I-I'll be back, Echizen-san, Ryoma-kun," she bade, waving shyly at them.
"Bye-bye, Ryuzaki-sensei! Nanako-chan, bring home bigger buns this time! Take care!" Nanjiroh happily waved at the leaving females. "Chibisuke, you really are so cold. No goodbye kiss to your girlfriend?"
His son glared at him "Sometimes, I wonder why my mother decided to marry someone like you."
"I know. She's amazing like that," laughed Nanjiroh. "So the bags I saw in your room earlier are for her, I assume."
"Yes." Then his son stepped into the house. A few minutes later, Ryoma returned, carrying the shopping bags with him. Expensive boutique and perfume labels and were prominently written on each bag. "Which bakery does Nanako buy the buns from?"
"So you can intercept them on their way back and send Sakuno-chan home?" Nanjiroh cupped his stubbly chin in amusement. "You really don't want her to stay long in the house, do you?"
"Not when you're around," grumbled Ryoma, eyes narrowed. "Because you say the most ridiculous things."
Nanjiroh's eyes twinkled. "Ridiculous, eh? I can't help it. She's the only person other than your family that have put up with you for so long." Then his gaze turned earnest. "Eight years, Chibisuke. For eight years, you've come and gone, while she waited."
Ryoma said nothing, but his grip on the bags visibly tightened.
"Well, I can't blame you. The setup is so convenient." The older Echizen crossed his arms in front of his chest. "A woman who won't nag you for not coming home to her nest every night. A woman who does not make unreasonable demands. A woman who unconditionally waits for you, even if it takes forever."
Nanjiroh fixed an admonishing stare at his biggest source of pride. "I've always known you were a cocky brat, but you were never unfair."
Ryoma looked away, slivers of guilt on his golden eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You were always there for the most important events in her life—her birthday, Christmas, Graduation, oath-taking… and when the boys in your school wrote that the girl is starting to get more suitors, you started coming home even more frequently." The father's brows furrowed. "And I've heard all of the flimsy excuses you can make to explain your fleeting but constant presence, when there's really only one reason."
Curse the old man for being able to read him like an open book. As always.
"If you can't commit, then stop making her wait. The girl still has the rest of her life to live." Nanjiroh proceeded to mutter, punctuated ever so often with loud snorts, like "A chip off the old block" and "An ass like his dad".
On the other hand, the younger Echizen looked at his shopping bags thoughtfully, saying nothing. This went on for some time until Nanako and Sakuno arrived, carrying paper bags. Nanjiroh's face relaxed into his customary grin once more as he welcomed both girls back, while Ryoma sat down the veranda, placing the shopping bags carefully beside him.
"Thank you very much for inviting me to eat in your house, Ryoma-kun," gushed Sakuno gratefully as he walked her home that night. "Nanako-san's a great cook! And your father is so nice!"
He grunted. Samurai Nanjiroh's charm aged like a good wine in a well-kept cellar, brought out from time to time whenever he wanted to dazzle people.
"I met Momo-senpai on my way back. He said he'll be over at your house tomorrow so you guys can play a quick match. Kaido-senpai overheard him, and said he'll beat Momo-senpai to your house," narrated the woman cheerfully.
"Pft." But his mouth twitched ever so slightly.
"Inui-senpai said he misses you, and he's excited to write an update on your databook," continued Sakuno with a smile.
Brr! A shiver ran through his spine. Sadahara Inui missing anyone sounded more like an omen than a form of endearment.
"Kikomaru-senpai will drop by, too, and he said that unlike Momo-senpai and the others who had to invent reasons to satisfy their curiosity, he asked me to tell you directly that he's there because he loves you to pieces."
A bead of sweat formed on his head. "Where did you see them?"
"I-In the train…" Her smile vanished abruptly.
His brow lifted inquisitively. The bakery was just a couple of blocks away.
The teacher refused to meet his gaze. "I… I thought that Ryoma-kun is so nice, always bringing me something home from his trips abroad whenever he visits Japan, yet I haven't really gotten him anything to return his kindness… so I told Nanako-san I'll meet her in your house instead. She agreed, because she happens to have another errand to do. I thought it'll take me some time… I don't really know what to get Ryoma-kun who practically has everything already."
"Idiot." Yet the quiet hint of fondness in his voice when he said that made Sakuno smile faintly. She continued to narrate.
"I ended up meeting our senpais on the train, and I ended up buying this, too." She stopped walking and rummaged through her bag. She then brought out a red package he recognized as a bookstore label. "Here."
He curiously peered through the semi-transparent plastic packaging. "A book?"
"To teach you Japanese." Her cheeks colored. "It's a storybook with illustrations, so it'll be easier to read. A-And it has an English translation at the back, too."
He gaped at her.
Her cheeks turned hotter. Frantically, she grabbed the book back and hugged it to her chest, embarrassed. "S-Sorry…" I thought I wanted to get you something that won't remind you of tennis for once. You've been playing this all your life, so I thought… I thought you might want to work on other things you haven't mastered yet." Her voice fell to a tight whisper. "I'm sorry."
"Thank you." He attempted to get the book back, but she stepped away to his surprise. "Ryuzaki—"
"Ryoma-kun, t-the truth is… I also wanted to give you this book… to remind you that Japan is your home, too," she confessed, her voice cracking. "When you're in America, winning one trophy after another, I want you to still remember that you have people like us here… who are waiting for your return."
He fell silent.
"I hope the book will tell you my dearest wish…" She embraced the book tighter. "…that one day you'll find yourself coming home and staying here… for good." She finally looked at him, eyes misty with tears. "But you're a prince, with so many kingdoms left to conquer. The whole world toasts your name—" Her voice broke. "Oh, Ryuzaki Sakuno is so selfish, isn't she?"
He stood still, watching her intently. And then he shook his head. "Idiot."
His arm stretched and encircled her waist, then abruptly pulled her closer to his side. She lost her footing, but he caught her swiftly in his arms. The book she was holding on to forcefully earlier was now on the pavement, but along with her balance, she lost all sense of time and circumstances.
"Ryoma-kun!" She instinctively looked up to him. Then her eyes widened as she realized the meager distance separating their faces.
He meant to gently hit her forehead with his in a reprimanding fashion, but he ended up affectionately resting his forehead on hers instead. "Mada mada da ne." Yet he sounded more like he was talking to himself. His lithe, calloused fingers moved to trace the wet path her tears made, his eyes softening in remorse.
Sakuno's heartbeat raced. "Ryoma-kun—"
"Did you happen to hear what the old man said earlier?" he asked quietly.
She vigorously shook her head.
The familiar vintage Echizen Ryoma smirk formed on his face. "You're the worst liar I know, Ryuzaki."
To her consternation, her flaming cheeks betrayed her yet again. "You don't have to worry about me, Ryoma-kun. Waiting is my prerogative. I've waited for eight years, and surely, I can wait some more—and you can't talk me out of it!"
He gazed at her, momentarily awed by her outburst. And then he did the last thing she expected him to do at that instance—he broke into delighted laughter.
"R-Ryoma-kun?" She gazed at him in shock.
He couldn't reply; he kept right on laughing, feeling the happiest he had been in months. His father truly knew him best—all those frequent, expensive trips he made back home for the past eight years were all because of one reason.
His eyes tenderly searched Ryuzaki Sakuno's mystified beautiful face as his father's words reverberated in his mind.
"You don't want her to forget you, Chibisuke. You want to keep chasing after your dreams, but you can't disrespect her feelings by serving two masters at a time. That's why you keep wasting your savings on your plane tickets to Japan, branding her as yours for the whole town to see until such time you can finally claim her, you conceited son of a gun!"
The time was growing nearer than he initially thought. Suddenly, the horizon wasn't so far away as he imagined. Carefully, he cupped the startled woman's face and planted a feathery, light kiss on her forehead. "I'll be coming back home very soon… for good," he promised solemnly. "If you will still have me…"
She nodded tearfully, eyes sparkling in emotions that all the years of waiting merely strengthened.
"Good," he smiled, a catch forming in his throat, too. "Because I don't intend to lose you either, Ryuzaki. Not now, not ever."
"History has an uncanny way of repeating itself, doesn't it?" Mamoru Inoue placed the newspaper in front of his partner's steaming cup of coffee.
Saori Shiba instantly recognized the picture she took and then contributed to their town paper. It was a composite of the country's brightest tennis star holding one of the many elusive trophies he captured abroad, and right beside it was his wedding picture. The grayscale photos failed to hide the genuine happiness on Echizen Ryoma's face, especially on the right-side picture.
The who's who of the tennis world lamented on the "premature" retirement of one of the greatest players in the world today; fan girls wept (not without bitterness) over their beloved prince finally tying a knot with someone who used to be from the same stature as them;while major media stations fought to get the most coverage out of this hometown fairy tale romance.
"It's like Samurai Nanjiroh's wedding all over again," Inoue commented wryly.
"I'm going to miss covering Ryoma's games," sighed Saori, cupping her chin thoughtfully. "I mean, he left some really big shoes for people to fill. Who knows when will our next prince of tennis emerge?"
The sports journalist chuckled heartily. "I have a feeling they won't make us wait too long."
"They? They who?" asked the female photographer curiously.
"Who else?" grinned Inoue as he imagined his prospective story in a few years: the next tennis royalty who will take the sport's world by storm, under the tutelage of Echizen Nanjiroh and Echizen Ryoma, respectively.