HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone! Aoshi and Misao send their best wishes – and wish to thank you all for having faith in the author of this fic – although Saito just snorted, smirked, and stuffed a cigarette in his mouth, mumbling something about 'idiots and wasting time.'

Heh…anyways, I just want to say that I'm REALLY sorry…but I do not think I can keep my promise about finishing this fic this year. # Bursts into tears # I tried, I really did! But…as it turns out, someone seems to hate me enough. Why? Well, on the last night of 2005, I'm supposed to be in bed, taking medicine. Lovely, isn't it?

Well, sorry if the author's note is a bit rushed, but I'm feeling extremely drowsy and my bed and pillow suddenly seem so inviting…Thanks once more to everyone who reviewed, and I hope this chapter meets your expectations!

Chapter Nineteen: Developments?

Megumi walked in through the school gates and did a quick scan around her, trying to see whether any one of her friends were already there. Her search produced no results, and for once, she wasn't surprised. Sano always came late – if not after the start-of-school bell rang, then seconds before – Kenshin could usually be seen wandering around the 3rd year classrooms, talking to anyone and everyone without feeling uncomfortable, Yahiko was usually half-asleep at this time in the morning, Kaoru usually went up to her class and chatted to one of her other friends there, and Soujirou, she was willing to bet, was always the first person in class – or on the school premises, she was willing to bet.

Sighing inwardly and smiling at one of the girls in her class who was waving at her, she continued to walk forward, deciding that she might as well just go upstairs to her own class, when a familiar figure caught her attention, stopping her. A more focused look told her that it was Seta Soujirou who was leaning against one of the concrete pillars and talking to some boy or the other. Changing her course, she hurried over to him, a soft smile on her face – the soft smile that she always had for him. Was it her fault that he was so darn cute? Anyone would feel slightly protective of him…although she knew there was no need to do that.

"Soujirou," she said, stopping by his side, "Ohayo." Soujirou looked up and flashed her a smile.

"Ohayo, Megumi," he said, before he turned back to the boy he was talking to when he said something and excused himself. Megumi raised an eyebrow in his direction.

"What was that all about?" she asked. Soujirou sighed.

"That was Shihiro-san," he mumbled, "He said he's planning on quitting the athletics team." Megumi's eyes widened. Quitting the – wow…so people are actually starting to make a move against the wolf's backside, are they?

"Is he the only one?" she asked, cautiously. Soujirou nodded.

"For now, yes," he said, "…I tried to convince him, saying that after the tournament at least, we'll get a new captain…but he said he didn't think he'd be able to handle things until then…" He ran a hand through his hair, "Mou…things are just getting worse," he mumbled, "And…I'm even more fed-up than before…"

Megumi looked sharply at him. "Fed-up?" she echoed, "Soujirou?" The younger boy looked up startled at the fact that she had heard him.

"Nothing," he said hurriedly, "It was nothing; really." Megumi raised her eyebrows at him, not looking away from his face.

"Really?" she asked, "Seta Soujirou, I'm sure you've heard from someone before that you can't lie…?"

"Hai," said Soujirou, smiling, "You told me that a few months ago…" He sighed when he saw the serious expression on the girl's face stay on her face. "Why do I have the feeling that I've had this conversation before?" he muttered to himself, before sighing. "Megumi, if I…asked you a question…would you give me an honest answer?"

Now Megumi was curious. It wasn't often that the naïve boy standing in front of her came to her for answers – not that she meant it in a bad way – and it wasn't often that he had questions that…sounded as perplexing as he made them sound. "Of course," she said, "if, that is, I know what you're talking about." She flashed him her famous foxy smile, "And I can't promise you that you'll like my honest answer…but you know that don't you?"

Soujirou nodded, even though his brows were slightly furrowed. "Why…why does Aoshi-san dislike me?" Whatever else Megumi had been expecting, it certainly hadn't been that.

"…Could you…repeat that please?" she asked, slowly, thinking that she had probably misheard the question. Soujirou shot her a surprised glance before nodding.

"Why does Aoshi-san seem to dislike me…so much?" he asked. Megumi nodded at him to show that she understood the question…and that she was thinking about it; which she was doing. In reality, she was surprised. Why is he asking this question? Heck, why is he asking ME this question? Did…something happen? An amused smile found itself on her face. Oh, has our dear naïve Soujirou…become not-so-naïve after all?

Soujirou watched the smile form on his friend's face and wondered whether he should be worried or not. From associating with Kaoru, he had learned that if a girl – much less one of these girls – smiled like that, while seeming to be deep in thought…it meant trouble; for someone. Nevertheless, he kept silent; he just wanted an answer.

Megumi exhaled. "OK…bear in mind that this is an honest answer, and that it's my opinion, alright?" Soujirou nodded. "Soujirou, you know that…well, that Misao has a crush on Aoshi, right?" Soujirou nodded. Do I know that… "And do you also know that Aoshi does have feelings for her?" Soujirou shook his head hurriedly.

"He – he does?" he asked, his blue-eyes widening. Megumi nodded, not quite able to decipher the expression that had found itself onto the younger boy's face.

"Yes, he does; Kaoru figured it out and…well, his behaviour towards you just shows how correct she was," she said. She smiled as she saw the puzzled expression on the boy's face.

"But…Megumi, I don't understand," said Soujirou, slowly, "If he likes Misao…and Misao likes him…why would he…dislike me?"

"Aoshi doesn't know that Misao likes him, and she doesn't know that he likes her," said Megumi, "Well, we can't say for sure that Aoshi likes Misao…but he definitely feels something for her." She paused. "OK, now, you're Misao's best-friend aren't you?" Soujirou nodded. "Which means you're really close to her…and that you know practically everything about her, right?"

"Well…I…think I do…"

"We – Ken-san, Sano, Yahiko, Kaoru and I – know that there's nothing going on between you and Misao," continued Megumi, "In the sense, that you don't like each other – "

Soujirou's eyes widened, " – But…I do like Misao…very much."

"Oh, yes, I know you do, but…I'm talking about a different kind of 'liking'…" said Megumi, trying to keep herself from chuckling, "Soujirou do you love Misao?" Soujirou took a minute to answer as he tilted his head to a side, thinking. Megumi didn't worry about the time that he took to answer her; she knew that the cute boy had no romantic feelings towards Misao. When he next looked at her and she saw the embarrassed flush on his cheeks, she couldn't help but worry. No…I'm just imagining things…he doesn't…he can't…no, he can't have feelings for Misao!

"I love her – "

" – W…what?"

" – in the sense, I've practically grown-up with her…and she's the first person I met who actually…took the time to talk to me…and - " Soujirou paused, "Yes, I would say that I love her…"

Megumi did her best to keep herself together. No, this was NOT happening. This COULDN'T be happening. Then…why WAS it happening? "You…you love Misao…?"

Soujirou nodded, smiling, "Hai!" he paused when he saw the funny expression on Megumi's face, "…Is something wrong?"

"You…love Misao…"


"You love Misao…" muttered Megumi, her eyes wide, "You…have…romantic feelings towards…Misao…"

"Romantic feelings?" Soujirou looked lost, "What are you talking about, Megumi? I just said that I love Misao." A sliver of hope glimmered in Megumi's mind as she looked at the confused boy. Could it be…?

"You don't have romantic feelings towards Misao?" she asked, slowly. Soujirou shook his head hurriedly.


"You don't have romantic feelings for her…but you still love her…?"

"Uh, yes…"

"How can you love someone and not have – " Megumi started shaking the poor boy – hard. "Let's get this straight; you have no romantic feelings for her?"

"N – No…" said Soujirou, sweat-dropping as the older girl continued to shake him.

"But you still love her?"

"Y – yes…" Soujirou's eyes were soon becoming swirls on his face.

"Whenever you see her, you don't feel like…wrapping your arms around her and kissing her? You…don't feel the need to have any contact with her? Your…your heart doesn't start racing when you see her? You don't get tongue-tied when she's around?"

"…M-Megumi…what…what are you saying?" gasped Soujirou, as Megumi released him – realizing that he was getting dizzy. "I…I don't! I'm not in…love with Misao! I just love her!" Megumi quirked an eyebrow. Oh, yeah Soujirou, THAT sure explains a LOT. You're NOT in love with her…you just LOVE her.

"You don't have – "

" – Megumi, please, I am NOT in love with Misao. I just love her for the person she is…and for the things she does," said Soujirou, seeming to have realized what Megumi had been implying, "How can…how can I be in love with my best-friend?"

Megumi would have hugged the boy in relief; but well, this was her…and she didn't do those kinds of things. "In the future, Soujirou, just…don't say that you love her. Stick to the 'like' bit, OK? It just gets really confusing…" She shook her head, "Anyway, what were we talking about?" She nodded, "Ah yes, Aoshi. Well, Aoshi thinks that you and Misao are in love – as you put it – and…I'm afraid that the cold treatment you receive from him is because he's jealous of what you and Misao have."

"So…he wants to be her friend too?"


A little while later:

Saito was walking down the corridor leading away from the science-labs. He didn't need to refer his time-table to know that he was free for the next hour. As he walked at his own, steady pace, his mind wandered back to what his mother had asked him about Aoshi the day before. He wouldn't usually be thinking about such things…but…something inside him told him that he should have told his mother that Aoshi never had anything for Kamiya Kaoru in the first place. He smirked; unless he would want to risk the jealousy of Himura, that is. And speaking of Aoshi…he hadn't seen the kid in school the past two days. Maybe he was ill…or maybe something else was up? He shook his head hurriedly. No, the kid was probably ill.

As he rounded the corner he came to a stop when he heard a muffled sob. He didn't stop because he was concerned about whoever it was that was crying…he did it only because he was surprised that someone would actually cry in school. Hearing a few more sobs, he made his way in the direction they were coming from, and stopped short when he saw the seated figure in the corridor that led to the supplies' room.

What made him quirk a thin, black eyebrow was the fact that it was Kamiya Kaoru who was crying. Now why would he care about Kamiya Kaoru? He shrugged…that was true. He had nothing to do with – he stopped short when he saw something fall out of the girl's hands. It was a photo-frame. He winced as he heard the glass of the frame crack, but the girl didn't seem to mind. She just stared down at the picture, tears brimming in her eyes.

Instinct made him step back into the main corridor, so that he wouldn't be seen, as the girl stood up hurriedly, scooping the photo with her. He watched as she quickly crossed over to the waste-paper basket and stare at the picture once more, before opening it and dropping it inside, on top of the crumpled pieces of writing-paper that had probably been dumped there by a lab assistant.

"Why did you lie to Otosan? To me, Okasan?" he heard her whisper, before she furiously scrubbed at her eyes and ran down the hall, no doubt just realizing that she was late for a class. Saito stared after her for a minute, before swiftly moving over to the waste-paper basket. Lifting its lid up, he picked the discarded photo from where it had been dropped onto the other sheets of paper there.

The picture showed a brown-haired rather stern looking man with glasses standing with his arm around a…pretty black-haired lady. In the middle, smiling happily at the camera was a familiar looking black-haired girl. Kamiya Kaoru. His eyes flitted back to the lady who was standing beside Kaoru, and he nodded unconsciously. Yes, she did look a lot like Kaoru…and something about her cheek-bones…reminded him distinctly of his cousin.

So this is the famous Kamiya Kaeri…who should have been married to Uncle Yuuji. He frowned. And this is…Aoshi's mother. His thoughts went back to the girl who had thrown the photograph. She had seemed really upset. His frown deepened. Had…something happened? Frowning, and making up his mind immediately, he carefully brushed off the broken fragments of glass and extracted the picture, before folding it and slipping it into his shirt-pocket.

He'd have to ask Aoshi about this sometime, if there was anyone who would know if something had happened at the Kamiya residence, it would be him. No-one may care, but I think I should know what's going on over there…I should be keeping an 'eye' out on my 'dear' cousin, shouldn't I?


Sano observed Soujirou out of the corner of his eye, a thoughtful expression on his face as he did so, before turning to look at Megumi who was occasionally shooting the boy a quick glance or two. "Something wrong, kitsune?" he winced as he was whacked on the back of the head by a scowling Megumi.

"Don't call me that," she hissed, before shaking her head, "I should be asking you that, with that huge bruise on your face." Sano gulped suddenly. "Don't bother giving me an explanation; Soujirou told me what happened." Megumi's glare increased, "And I'd just like to say what the hell did you expect? With the whole detention thing?"

"Save it Kitsune," grumbled Sano, "I know; I've heard the same thing from Kenshin too." Megumi huffed and turned her attention back to Soujirou who was, by now, decidedly uncomfortable with her gazing. She was just glad that she had managed to explain to the blue-eyed boy why Aoshi continued to glare at him, and how it wasn't because he had done anything to make him hate him; it was just plain jealousy. Of course, it had taken Soujirou a while to figure out why he was jealous…and she was surprised that she hadn't killed him in the process of explaining…but, somehow or the other, he got the point. Cute though he is I hope I NEVER have to explain something like this to him again. It's just…too draining…

Her attention was caught when Kenshin neared the table, giving them his usual smile although he had a rather pensive expression on his face as he sat down and made no move to open his tray of food. "Ken-san, something wrong?" she asked.

"I don't know, Megumi…" said Kenshin, quietly, "but…well, I think that something's wrong with Aoshi." Sano looked up immediately.

"With Aoshi?" he echoed, "Pray tell what it is, Kenshin." He snorted, "It surely can't be emotional problems; the guy practically has no emotions – no offence to Misao, of course." Soujirou shot him a disapproving glance, surprised that Sano was saying that; Sano who had been teasing Aoshi along with everyone else.

"Maybe he's ill," he suggested, which was a sensible opinion, as Aoshi hadn't come to school for the last two days. Neither had Kaoru, for that matter. "Isn't he coming to have break with us?" Kenshin shook his head.

"I saw him hurry out of class once it was over," he said, "I don't know where he went."

"Yeah? Well, Aoshi's not the only one who's acting weird," said Yahiko, sitting up straight, "Kaoru's been out of it for the whole day." That caught Kenshin's attention.

"Kaoru? Do…you know what's wrong?" he asked, concerned, "Maybe she's sick? I mean, she didn't come to school for the past two days, so maybe she is sick…"

Soujirou shook his head, "No, I don't think she is," he paused, "I…got the impression that she was upset about something." He looked at Yahiko, "She did look like she had been crying a lot when she entered class this morning."

"And what was even more surprising was that she was late," added Yahiko, "I mean, Kaoru never gets late."

"What could be the matter then?" asked Megumi, "Something…at home, perhaps?" Kenshin frowned, before shaking his head.

"No, that family seems really close…" he mused, "I don't think that something could have happened there…" He looked up, his violet eyes full of worry, "I hope…nothing's wrong…"

"Nah, she'd tell us if – "

" – Hang on, you said Aoshi's been acting weird too, Kenshin?" interrupted Sano. Kenshin nodded. "Could something have happened between…them? I mean, they both haven't turned up in school the past two days…and when they do turn up, they're act weird." There was a small silence as everyone looked gravely at each other.

Megumi was the first to break the silence, "No…no, that can't be…" she said, slowly, "I mean, well…Kaoru's always been in love with Kenshin…and Aoshi – well, isn't he – "

" – In love with Misao?" finished Yahiko.

"Yeah, but we don't know for sure whether Aoshi's in love with Misao, do we? We haven't heard any kind of confession from him, have we?" asked Sano. Soujirou glanced hurriedly at Megumi.

"But…you all said…that Aoshi-san is in love with Misao…" he said, beginning to look confused.

"Yes, Soujirou, that is the case," said Megumi hurriedly, not wanting to have explained everything to him that morning for nothing, "He is – " she glared at Sano, " – and he just needs a bit of help to confess that to Misao herself."

Sano returned Megumi's glare. "Yeah? Well I dunno…I think that there's something really suspicious going on with those two. Maybe Kaoru – "

" – Maybe Kaoru what?" Sano looked up when he heard the quiet voice. He started to smile when he saw who had interrupted him, but stopped in mid-sentence when he saw her properly.

"K – Kaoru?" he spluttered, staring at her. The pale-faced, teary-eyed, sniffing girl sat down, glancing briefly at him.

"What?" she mumbled, staring at her tray of food. There was an uncomfortable silence surrounding the table as everyone stared at the…different girl seated with them, knowing that it was wrong to do so, but not being able to stop themselves. Once again, Megumi was the first to break it.

"Did you…get any sleep yesterday, Kaoru?" she asked, kindly – surprising even herself. Kaoru meekly shook her head, biting her lip as she did so.

"No." There was another uncomfortable silence, and this time, Kaoru actually regretted coming to school. The past two days, she had stayed at home being unable to gather herself together to attend school. She had returned that day only because she didn't even want to spend a mere second at home. Of course, while she had been at home she had avoided everyone in her whole family. She hadn't spoken much to her mother, or to her father. And Aoshi…well, he had been avoiding her. She frowned, not noticing that her friends were watching her. Ever-since her mother had told her about…about her past, and about who exactly Aoshi was, her life had seemed surreal. It was like she was alive…but she wasn't conscious of days passing. Maybe that had been because she had locked herself up in her room, crying heavily…but whatever it was, that was what it felt like.

If she was going through that…she could just imagine what Aoshi had to be going through. All his life he had thought that his mother was dead…and – she blinked back tears – when his father had died, he had been orphaned and brought to stay with people he did not know at all; except for the fact that one of them was…was his mother and the other his…step-sister. She really thought it was unfair of Aoshi to avoid her. It wasn't like…she blamed him for what happened. Well, come to think of it, she didn't know who to blame. Her grandfather perhaps? Or maybe even her mother and Aoshi's father? Or her father?

Her eyes darkened. Or maybe she should blame Saito Hajime. Even when her friends had told her about what kind of a person he was, she…well, she hadn't had too much against him and she had always thought that it was because he had never done anything to her. But…after her mother had told her that Aoshi's aunt…had been informed by her son that she and Aoshi were…in a relationship…that was just unforgivable. And it wasn't because he had lied, oh no, but it was that lie of his that had prompted her mother to tell Aoshi about the truth…and that had caused everything to happen. I hate you, Saito! I really do!

She didn't notice the worried glances that her friends were sending her way; particularly Kenshin. A minute later, leaving her tray, untouched, on the table, she stood up, excusing herself. She needed to be alone…or rather, she needed to talk to someone. Anyone. She just needed to get it all off her chest and…and then think rationally about…about what had apparently happened.


A cool breeze blew around him, ruffling his black hair, but he did nothing to brush the long bangs out of his eyes. He simply stared ahead of him, not looking at the clean path that was there. His thoughts were far away. Feeling the throbbing in his head starting again, he let out a short sigh before he adjusted his position on the steps of the small cabin-like building (where the school's sports equipment was stored) so that he was leaning against the large door, resting his head and back against it.

The boy's father happened to be an engineer – and his father happened to be on the team of engineers that worked…for my father… He scowled, remembering all too clearly the look that had been on Mrs. K…no, on her face when she had told him about her 'best-friend.' He couldn't help but snort. Yeah…he was JUST her best-friend…her best-friend who…who –

He stopped, shaking his head violently as he felt the familiar tight feeling in his chest…and as the all too familiar lump made its presence known in his throat. He couldn't afford to give in to the urging of his emotionally exhausted mind. He couldn't. He…just couldn't. Especially not here, in school.

"Oh, this is a surprise. I haven't seen you here for a long time." He sat up straight, startled that he hadn't even heard anyone approach him. As he stared ahead of him, his ice-blue eyes remained as impassive as they could when they looked into the amber eyes of his cousin.

"…………" without saying anything – he really had nothing to say anyway – he flopped back, so he was leaning against the door once more, one of his knees drawn with an arm resting on it, and his other leg stretched out in front of him. Of all the people he had to meet; it just had to be his cousin.

"Cat got your tongue?" asked Saito, smirking as he observed the way Aoshi flopped back weakly, although he knew that that was not how the male usually behaved. Shrugging the thought out of his head, he moved forward, closer to the cabin and looked at his cousin again, "I haven't seen you in – " He could not help the fact that he had stopped in mid-sentence, or that he was almost gaping at his cousin. Or rather, at the seated male who resembled his cousin. What the bloody hell?

The last time he had checked, Shinomori Aoshi did not look like a vampire who desperately needed some form of blood if he was to keep himself alive. The last time he had checked, Shinomori Aoshi did not look like he had gotten lost in the wilderness somewhere – the only explanation for his unkempt appearance. And…the last time he had checked Shinomori Aoshi did not look like he was on the verge of a breakdown.

Aoshi remained silent, staring ahead of him. He knew that his cousin was taking in his appearance and that annoyed him. He knew that he didn't look his best – hell, he guessed that he looked pretty weak – and he didn't want Saito of all people to see him that way. God only knew the last he'd hear of it.

"You do realize that you have looked better before, don't you?" asked Saito, when he had finally recovered from his initial shock at seeing his cousin. Aoshi didn't reply. He didn't even bother to show that he had heard him. "Where've you been the past two days? You do realize that we've only got four more days for the tournament, don't you?"

"Tournament?" asked Aoshi, his voice uncharacteristically hoarse, "What tournament?" Saito allowed the momentary silence to answer Aoshi's stupidly asked question. "…That tournament…" murmured the ice-blue eyed boy, "…I…don't think I'll be able to take part in it…"

"Oh?" questioned Saito, his voice gaining a hard edge, "And why not?"

"…I just don't think – "

" – I think the fact that your name has already been written in the entry forms and handed over to the hosts…and the fact that you made a decision you knew you cannot back out of weigh more than you just not thinking you'll be able to take part, don't you think?" interrupted Saito, a serious expression on his face.

Aoshi opened his mouth to argue light-heartedly with him, when he remembered all those times before when Saito had managed to get him frustrated, talking about his…mother. That meant that Saito must have known about what he had been told yesterday. Or did he?

"Hey, I want to ask you something…" he said, growling mentally at the hoarseness of his voice. He saw Saito raise an eyebrow at him, before he reached into his shirt pocket and drew something out.

"Actually, I want to ask you something too," said Saito, looking at the photo in his hands. "Has…anything been happening with the Kamiya family?" Aoshi looked sharply at him.


"Has anything happened at the place you're staying recently?" repeated Saito, wondering whether he should bother to be alarmed with his cousin's strange behaviour. He watched as Aoshi rubbed his left wrist – something Saito knew that he had done since he was a kid…and that he did it whenever he was debating something or the other.

"Why…why do you ask?" asked Aoshi. Inside, his inner-voices were clashing with each other, one telling him to be careful and the other reminding him that this was his cousin after all. Saito leaned forward and handed Aoshi the photo. He watched as Aoshi's eyes scanned the picture, taking in the familiar features. His cousin's eyes widened. The hand that was gripping the picture started trembling slightly. "…Where…did you get this from?"

"The waste-paper basket in the science-block," answered Saito, his eyes fixed on the trembling hand of his cousin's. "That girl…Kamiya Kaoru, she threw it there." He paused, "She was crying when she did that." Saito did not expect what happened next.

"You…knew, didn't you?" asked Aoshi, quietly, "About my – about Kaoru-san's…mother?" Even as he said that, he realized that…he couldn't even call her Kaoru-san anymore. If…they did share the same mother, then she would be his…little sister.

"What does that have to do with anything?" asked Saito, raising his eyebrows, "But, if you are talking about what I think you're talking about, yes, I did know." He sighed heavily. "But I was asked not to…" Saito cocked his head to a side, rummaging in his pocket and pulling out a cigarette. Lighting it, he stuffed it in his mouth, knowing that it annoyed Aoshi and also thinking that he needed a cigarette anyway. As he inhaled a deep breath, bits and pieces of the puzzle he had been thinking about earlier in the day started to fit together.

Aoshi was looking…half-dead, Kamiya Kaoru was obviously upset…and Aoshi had asked him whether he knew about Kamiya Kaeri. Of course; what happened was now quite obvious.

Sighing, he ran a hand through his black hair, impatiently brushing aside the few longs bangs that were tickling his face. "So…you found out." It wasn't a question; it was a statement.

"Found out?" Aoshi snorted, "More like…I was told. And Mr. Kamiya found out."


"Two days ago." Saito observed his cousin closely, his face expressionless as he saw his attempt to control the emotions that were being displayed on his face. He was still clutching the photo in his shaking hand. Drawing another breath of his cigarette, Saito made a split-second decision.

Moving forward briskly, he sat down on the steps, beside his cousin. The two of them sat like that for a minute or so, before Saito broke the silence. "…I…was hoping it wouldn't happen like that," he muttered, the cigarette still in his mouth, "I thought…someone else would tell you…"


"Okasan herself should have told you…or maybe even Yuuji-ojisan, before he…passed away." Saito paused, growling as he inhaled down the wrong pipe and tried to stop a fit of coughing. "If it makes you feel any better, kid, I'm sorry." He sensed Aoshi tense as he finished speaking, but said nothing. He could tell that he needed to talk to someone…that he needed to let free whatever was tormenting his mind. The corners of his mouth turned upward into a smirk. Maybe if the weasel-girl was here…she'd be able to give him a helping hand…

"I just…don't know what to do anymore…" Aoshi's voice was barely above a whisper, and the fact that his head was bowed only served to muffle his voice even more. "What do I believe in, now? Who…and what do I trust? What…" his voice broke, rendering him unable to continue with what he had been about to say, although Saito didn't need him to continue. He could guess what he had been about to say.

Wordlessly, he reached over and gruffly draped an arm around Aoshi's shoulders, a disgruntled expression on his face as he did so. Hell, there was even a small part of him that demanded to know whether he was in a proper state of mind to be doing this. Yeah, he might have behaved as an 'older brother' to Aoshi – even though he was only a few months older than him – when they were much younger and his mother had had a part in raising Aoshi…but they were long past that stage now.

"I don't know the answers to those questions, Aoshi," said Saito, quietly. Aoshi said nothing as the two of them sat there on the steps, different thoughts on their minds. Glancing sideways at his cousin, Saito thought he saw the glimmer of something rolling down his face, but it was gone in a flash, so he shrugged it off and turned his attention ahead. Maybe I should have ignored what Okasan told me…and maybe I should've told him the truth earlier.

Or maybe you should have just kept your bloody mouth shut about Aoshi and Kaoru being an 'item.' He shook his head inwardly. No, if he hadn't said that, then Aoshi probably wouldn't have been told the truth. Even though he was clearly hurt by it, at least he knew the truth, and that was what counted. The truth hurts, kid…you've just got to realize that…


Hiko Seijiro shook his head as he walked around the athletics field, observing his team as they practiced the events he had told them to. He hadn't meant to miss the practice yesterday, but Kenshin had needed someone to really knock sense into him, so he had dragged the boy out of school and had even gone to visit the grave of the girl who had perished. He could tell that Kenshin didn't feel any better about himself…but he guessed that it had to have felt good, to finally be able to tell someone what was going on.

He stopped short when he saw the group of Yahiko, Soujirou, Sano, Kenshin, Aoshi and Saito. They were supposed to be timing each other while practicing the 100 meter relay. He didn't need to be a genius to figure out that something was wrong; especially when he noticed the not-so-positive aura Aoshi was emanating. Curious, he moved forward.

"That was brilliant timing as usual, Soujirou," said Sano, clapping the boy on his back and causing him to elapse into a coughing fit. Saito, awaiting his turn to run, shook his head.

"I would have thought that you'd at least try not to kill your friends," he said, "But I guess you're just the violent type…" Kenshin shot Saito a frown.

"Ignore him, Sano," he said, taking his violet eyes off the man at least, before turning to Aoshi, who had been standing there as still as a statue. One look at his face told him that he wasn't really concentrating on what was going on around him; heck, he had even forgotten to bring a change of clothes for the practice, and was thus wearing a pair of Kenshin's shorts and one of Sano's t-shirts. He really seemed out of it. "Aoshi?" he asked, kindly, "Are you alright?"

Aoshi didn't answer; he just stood where he was, staring into space. Yahiko looked curiously at him before moving forward and poking him in the arm. "Yo, Aoshi…?" There was still no answer. Saito watched as little by little, the rest of their small 'group' turned to stare at Aoshi, different expressions on their faces.

"Aoshi, are you feeling ill?" asked Kenshin, getting worried, "Aoshi? Aoshi?"

"Leave him alone, Himura," said Saito, watching them move around Aoshi, "Now, whose turn is it to start running? Sagara? Myoujin?"

"Look, you may not care, but we're trying to figure out what's wrong with him, OK?" snapped Sano, glowering, "Just give us a few seconds at least." Saito raised his eyebrows.

"I'd just like to see you try and get him to talk about what's bothering him," he said, sounding amused.

"Aoshi-san?" Soujirou was startled when Aoshi's head whipped up and as he stared wild-eyed around him. His ice-blue eyes finally landed on Soujirou.


"Well, we were – "

" – Aoshi, are you alright?" Aoshi stared at Kenshin, wondering what his classmate was talking about. Why was he asking him whether he was alright? Didn't he look alright, or was his façade slowly slipping?

"Oi oi! Did I give you six permission to talk?" asked Hiko Seijiro, from behind them, a scowl on his face, "Come on now, stop gossiping like old women and do what I told you to!"

"Demo, sensei, something's wrong with Aoshi…" protested Yahiko, stopping only when Hiko glared at him. He glanced sharply at Aoshi, knowing that there was something wrong with the boy, before shrugging.

"If there is something wrong with him – at least, something wrong enough to make him faint or something, we'll know soon enough," he said, after a second, "Now, come on, start working you lot." Kenshin shook his head.

"Iie, Sensei, something really is wrong with – "

" – For heaven's sake, Saito, tell your cousin to snap out of it, now," growled Hiko, turning his glare on Saito. Saito grimaced inwardly as everyone swiveled around to look at him. "Now hurry up and record your timing, we don't have all day…and the tournament's just around the corner." With that, he turned around and sauntered off to where Shihiro and another group of athletes were practicing with the hurdles.

Soujirou and Kenshin were the first to turn their gazes away from Saito, similar thoughts running through their heads. Oh dear…Sano and Yahiko, however, were still staring at Saito, who had grabbed Aoshi by the arm and muttered something to him, causing the boy to glare at him, before nodding his head slowly.

Aoshi shook his head clear of whatever he had been thinking about – mainly mentally cursing Saito for dragging him to practice, but grateful all the same as it was better than returning to the…Kamiya Residence along with Kaoru. He looked at the people standing next to him, oblivious to the glares that Sano and Yahiko were sending him. "Who's…going to run next…?" he asked.

"Er…well, Soujirou just finished," said Kenshin, shooting a worried glance at Sano, "I don't know, uh…Saito…?" Saito nodded slowly.

"Yeah, I'll go," he said, straightening to his full height, "Give the stop-watch to Aoshi," he added, looking distastefully at Sano who was holding it, "I don't trust this chicken-brain." With that, he moved forward, preparing himself. Kenshin, glancing again at Sano, saw that he wasn't paying any attention to what was going on and gracefully swiped the stop-watch from his hands.

"Aoshi…?" he said, handing it to him, "Saito said – "

" – Yes, I heard," was all that Aoshi said, before he grabbed the stop-watch, nodded at Saito, and pressed the 'start' button as the captain started running.

"Did I…just hear that right…?" asked Yahiko, staring hard at Aoshi. The taller male glanced at him.


"You're…you and Saito…are cousins?" Aoshi glanced steadily at him, before nodding. When did HE figure that out?

"Yeah." There was a brief tense silence. Kenshin glanced uneasily at Sano, getting a bad feeling in his gut.

"Ano, Yahiko…I think Aoshi should concentrate on Saito's – "

" – You never bothered to tell us, did you?" asked Sano, his voice low, "I guess it must have benefited you and your…cousin…you being our friend and all…"

"…………" Aoshi had turned back to the track where Saito was running, doing his best to ignore Sano. He already wasn't in a good mood…and he did not need Sano to add to it.

"Did you get a kick out of…spying on us?" snarled Sano, not ready to keep quiet, "…And no wonder you kept on stopping me from attacking Saito; you wouldn't want you dear cousin to get hurt, would you?" Aoshi glanced sharply at Sano, his ice-blue eyes glinting. Don't push it…Sagara…if you know what's good for you…

"And to think…" cut in Yahiko, "that we trusted you." He shook his head, "And all this time you didn't bother telling us…that you were related to him."

"…Was there any particular reason for me to tell you that?" asked Aoshi, his voice low as he shifted his gaze towards Yahiko.

"Well – "

" – No, there wasn't any reason; but if you weren't hiding anything, why didn't you tell us? All those times we were insulting him, couldn't you have told us? And no wonder he never insulted you; it was always us who had to get picked on by that ass," growled Sano. "And we actually called you our friend!"

"Sano, stop it." Kenshin glanced hurriedly at Soujirou who, for once, had a serious expression on his face. Oro…something's going wrong here…maybe I should call sensei over here…?

Sano turned towards Soujirou, "And you know what else, Soujirou?" he asked, "All this time we were wondering why he was throwing you dirty glances…maybe he was just…jealous of your talent…and nothing else…"

"…What did you say?" Soujirou glanced hurriedly at Aoshi, mentally wincing as he saw the expression on his usually calm face.

"I said that maybe you're just jealous of Soujirou's talent – I mean – "

" – If you don't know what you're talking about, Sagara, keep your mouth shut." Sano's eyes narrowed as he stared at this somehow…different Aoshi.

"I'd advice you to watch the way you talk to me, Aoshi," he replied, his voice low.

"And I'd – "

" – Sano, Aoshi, stop this," said Kenshin, stepping in between the two of them. "Do you know how – "

"And you know what else Kenshin?" asked Sano, not taking his eyes off Aoshi, "I'm telling you that the reason Kaoru's so down…and the reason she was crying is all because of him. They live in the same house don't they? He must have done something to her." Soujirou watched the taller male clench his hands into fists as he stared at Sano, and could tell immediately that Sano had stuck a nerve. But…what could it be…?

"You don't know anything," hissed Aoshi, before he dropped the stop-watch on the ground and turned on his heel, starting to walk away from them.

"Aoshi! Aoshi wait!" called Kenshin, startled at his behaviour. He had never thought that Aoshi would lose his calm in…that manner. He looked helplessly back at his friends as Aoshi continued to walk away.

"That wasn't very nice, Sano," said Soujirou, quietly, as he watched Aoshi's retreating figure.

"Not very nice? That idiot lied to us, Soujirou! He probably even used us!" exclaimed Sano, staring at his friend in surprise. Soujirou just shook his head.

"And what if he had told us that he was Saito's cousin? Wouldn't we just have been wary of him? Wouldn't we have pushed him aside right from the start?" he asked.

"Of course not," said Yahiko, indignantly, "We'd just have…known that he was Saito's cousin."

"But…if that's the case, why did you talk to him like that? Just because you found out he was Saito's cousin?" If Kenshin was surprised at the fact that Soujirou was actually speaking in Aoshi's defence, he didn't show it. Instead, he merely sent a thankful prayer up to the gods above, for making sure that at least someone else in their group of friends was sensible.

He was about to talk to Sano and Yahiko, a serious expression on his face, when a voice interrupted them from behind. "…Why is the stop-watch on the ground…?" He grimaced when he turned around and saw Saito standing there, breathing heavily and with an eyebrow raised.

"Saito…" Kenshin sweat-dropped, "You…finished…."

"Yes, I did," said Saito, "I was timed, wasn't I?" Kenshin scratched the back of his head sheepishly.

"Ahaha…well, er, you see…Aoshi…er…"

Kashiwazaki Residence:

Misao held on to the sobbing girl, not knowing what else to do. Her mind was reeling with what she had just been told, and thus could not think of anything suitable to tell her…to comfort her. Instead, she just held on to her, patting the back of her head awkwardly. "Kaoru…I – " she stopped. What could she say? She was sorry? She snorted mentally; yeah, sure, like saying that would help Kaoru one bit.

"I just – I never thought – Okasan would…would – you know…oh, Misao, imagine how Aoshi-san must have felt! Being an orphan and then…then suddenly finding out that he wasn't an orphan!" Kaoru paused, taking a deep, shuddering breath, "And – and Otosan…when he…found out – I just can't…believe that this happened. It's like…it's just like a very bad dream! And I don't even feel like – like going home anymore, but I know I should. And…and what if…what if Otosan asks Okasan to leave? Where will she g-go! And…and then Aoshi-san will…Misao-chan, I don't know what I should do anymore! I just…don't!" Kaoru broke off as she started sobbing again, "I don't want my family to be – be split up! I mean…I…I know you won't understand because…well, your family's still together, but…but…oh god, I just can't take this anymore Misao…"

Misao tightened her arms around her friend, sympathizing with her. Yes, she may not understand what it felt like to find out that she had a brother…or anything like that, and she could understand why her friend said that she didn't know what she should do anymore…but she could understand her fears for her family getting split-up. Yeah, do I understand you perfectly on that one.

"Kaoru, please, calm down…" she whispered, patting the back of her friend's head as she just clung on to her, sobbing. She didn't know how long they stayed that way, but, eventually, Kaoru's sobs died down and she pulled back from her friend's embrace, her head bowed as she brushed the tears off her face.

"Gomen, Misao-chan…I didn't mean to wail like a little baby…" she said, her voice subdued, "It's just that…I – I really don't want my family to be split up. All these years, I grew up in a stable…loving atmosphere, and now – now with Aoshi-san – " Kaoru stopped abruptly, and just stared unnervingly at Misao.


"I can't really blame Aoshi-san Misao…I mean, it's not like he did anything wrong. But…but who do I blame? Okasan, well, she had been in love with Yuuji-san for a long time, so…I can't blame her or him…but then what about Okasan's father? He was the one who forced her to marry Otosan…" Kaoru stopped again, feeling fresh tears fill her eyes, "And…and Okasan didn't even want to marry Otosan…so…does it make it my fault that…that Aoshi-san didn't have a…a mother?"

"Stop saying such stupid things," said Misao, sharply. "How could it have been your fault, Kaoru? You were born after your parents got married. Don't be stupid."

"Then…then who should I blame?"

"Why do you have to blame someone?" asked Misao, quietly. She saw the incredulous look that Kaoru shot her.

"Misao-chan, you…you don't understand…" she said, "I mean…all of this happening…it has to be someone's fault. Otherwise none of this would have happened, would it?" Misao shook her head slowly.

"Kaoru, I – "

"- No, Misao, you just don't understand. I wouldn't expect you to, either. I mean, you don't know what I'm going through right now with – "

"You're wrong, Kaoru, I do know what you're going through." Misao took a deep breath. No-one apart from Soujirou knew about what had happened with her parents…and now, she was going to tell Kaoru. "You see, my parents aren't…together either."

"What?" Kaoru looked startled, "Misao-chan, but…"

"No, it's true," said Misao, "My father's not working abroad like I told you…and my mum and I didn't move here, to my grandfather's house just because Kachan didn't want to stay at home alone, with Otosan out of the country." She sighed, "My parents, well, they never loved each other. Yes, I am their child, but they never really loved each other. It was an arranged marriage, you see…and Kachan's family only thought about the fact that Otosan was rich, and that Kachan would be comfortable with him."

She didn't see Kaoru's eyes widening as she continued to speak. "They kept on having fights…and, well, I don't know the details of those fights, but, four years ago, Kachan woke me up and told me that I had to quickly pack my things. I don't remember exactly what happened, except for the fact that I asked her what things I was supposed to pack…and then, well, I did what she asked me to." She played with a lock of black hair, "All my clothes, and basically whatever's in this room right now, I packed…and that afternoon, we left home, and came here."

"Misao-chan I – "

" – It wasn't so bad…I mean, I remember forcing myself to think that Otosan was just really going on a long holiday or business-trip or something, and that that was why we were staying with Jiya. But…as time went on, I realized what had happened; my parents had separated." Misao forced a smile on her face, wondering why it hurt to talk about it even though so many years had passed. "So, yeah…I guess I'm trying to say that…I know how you feel about the splitting up of your family issue. I can really relate to that."

"…Where is your father now, Misao-chan?" asked Kaoru, before she mentally kicked herself, "Iie, gomen…I didn't mean to – "

Misao shook her head. "No, it's alright. He has a house close-by…around an hour's drive from here," she said, "but he's moved to Osaka for a while, doing some business. It won't be a permanent move – or at least, that's what he said…"

"Do…do you see your…father…?"

"I used to go there something like every weekend…but, well, for the last month or two, I just didn't have the time…with school-work and stuff," said Misao, grimacing, "And he thought I was either ignoring him or that Kachan was not allowing me to spend time with him…" She shrugged, "And these days, well, I haven't visited him because of my injuries…and I don't think that I will be able to visit him until…the tournament's over…"

Kaoru stared at her friend for a moment or two, before reaching out and hugging her tightly; practically suffocating her. "I'm so sorry, Misao-chan. I really had no idea. But then again, I don't pry into other people's businesses, and you didn't tell me after all. But…while I'm sorry, I'm also…glad that you managed to survive all of this." She pulled back, a small, genuine smile on her face, "I mean, look at me; here I am, at the mature age of 16, wailing like an infant when you…are so…strong – emotionally, of course…"

"Er, Kaoru…that has to be the wisest or almost-wisest thing I've heard you say in all the time I've known you," said Misao, wanting to change the subject as soon as possible.

"Misao-chan, that's mean!" mumbled Kaoru, throwing her a weak glare, before she let out a huge sigh too. "Mou…this month's really messed up, isn't it?" Misao sighed as well as she thought back to her injuries and then to her beloved athletics captain.

"Tell me about it…" she muttered, before straightening up suddenly, "Kaoru, how's…Aoshi taking all of this?" If Kaoru had been her usual self, she would have grinned evilly at Misao, before teasingly asking her why she wanted to know about him. As it was, she just shrugged.

"I don't know, he…keeps on avoiding me…" she mumbled, her shoulders drooping, "which is unfair in my opinion…I mean, we're both suffering, aren't we?" She shuddered, "And that Saito…I really hate him, you know…"

"Aa…" agreed Misao, "I seriously can't believe that he's related to Aoshi. I mean…well, uh…" Misao trailed off, blushing. Kaoru, unfortunately for her, looked up and saw the blush, realizing what her friend had been about to say.

"You mean since Aoshi-san's so good-looking and Saito's not?" she asked, shrewdly. Misao flushed.

"N – no…" she muttered, "Fine, yes…but, Saito's not ugly either, you know?" She thought back to the times she had interacted with Saito…or rather, to the times he had just insulted her. "His eyes…they're an unusual colour…"

Kaoru sighed, "But then again, I guess I can't blame him, you know? If he hadn't told his mother that false rumor…then…Okasan wouldn't have told Aoshi-san or me about what happened, and we'd have continued to live a lie." She scowled almost immediately, "So should I be glad? That he said what he did?"

"I don't know Kaoru…I really don't know…" The two girls stayed where they were, seated on the bed, with different thoughts on their minds. The silence that had filled the room wasn't an awkward one; instead, it was a rather comfortable one.

Misao bit her lips and turned hurriedly to Kaoru as another thought popped into her head. "Kaoru…forgive me for asking you this, but…from what you've told me, about your mother and…Aoshi…" she paused, "does that mean…Aoshi's your…brother?"

Kaoru stared hard at Misao for a minute or two, before her blue eyes started widening. "M – M – Misao-chan…!"

Misao blinked rapidly. "OK…" she said, shaking her head, "…but…do you…want to have him as your brother?" Kaoru stared at her, her mouth slightly opened.

"Do I…want him as a brother…?" Misao nodded. "I…" Do I? Do I really want…Aoshi-san to…become my…brother?

Kamiya Residence:

Mrs. Kamiya looked around the room, and at the half-packed suitcase that was lying open on the bed. Her eyes misted over, and yet, she turned away and continued to look through the chest of drawers, checking to see whether there was anything of hers that she should take. She impatiently brushed aside the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. Now was not the time for her to…start crying like that.

Picking up a few more items of clothing, she tossed them into the suitcase, before noticing the opened door of the bathroom. Leaving the chest of drawers as it was, she headed towards the bathroom, looking to see if there was anything there that she might want to take.

Kaoru walked into her home, biting her bottom-lip as she cautiously looked around. She guessed that her father hadn't returned home from work yet – which was probably why his car wasn't in the garage. That meant that she only had to keep an eye out for her mother, as Aoshi would get back later from athletics practice. Relieved that she didn't bump into her mother on her way towards the stairs, she took her time in climbing them.

She couldn't help but think that Misao was right; she didn't need to blame anyone for what happened. What had happened in the past had already happened…so there was no way of changing it. All she needed to think about was what she should do from that moment onwards. She didn't need to answer the question her mind asked her about the situation at home. It was simple; really, no-one spoke to each other. But that didn't mean that they neglected what they usually did; no, her mother still made food for them, her father still went to work…and she and Aoshi…well, they went to work.

As she reached the next-floor, she was about to turn to her left and head to her room when she noticed that the door to her right was wide-open. She stood where she was, frowning. That was her parents room…A part of her firmly told her to just ignore it and head to her own room, asking her whether it mattered if the door was open or not. And yet, another part of her urged her to just go and peek into the room…to see if anything was…wrong. Okasan should be the only one at home anyway…maybe I should just…check and see if she's…fainted or something?

Her first inner-voice snorted. Yeah? And why the hell should you do that? After all she's done to you? Kaoru, even though she half-agreed with what the voice said, just shook her head and strode towards the room. Taking a deep breath, she hesitantly poked her head into the room. The sight that greeted her was an opened wardrobe, an opened chest of drawers…and – her blue eyes widened – an opened suitcase lying on the bed.

Being driven by something she didn't know, she moved forward, heading towards the opened suitcase. All it took was one glance at the contents of the case to recognize it as her mother's belongings. Adding to that the recent problems they had, her face paled when she realized what her mother was going to do.

No…she – she…can't! How can she…do something like this? Leaving…leaving us…? Leaving me? She ran out of the room, and down the stairs, not knowing where she was going or what she was planning on doing. All that she knew was that her mother looked like she was leaving…and no-one was there to stop her.

She didn't see the person open the front door and close it behind him, before he turned around heading towards the stairs as quietly as possible. So she let out a small yelp when she bumped into him, only to be steadied in a flash. She opened her eyes and saw Aoshi standing there, looking down at her. At first, all she did was stare at him, feeling as though she hadn't seen him in a long time – which was rubbish, really. It was, however, she saw Aoshi properly after…that evening.

And she wasn't surprised to see that he was looking as bad as she was; if not worse, with the only difference being that he didn't look as though he had just bawled his eyes out to a friend of his, unlike her. Realizing that he was staring, Aoshi dropped his gaze, although he had already noticed that the girl looked as bad as he did. He wondered whether he had been right to avoid her over the course of the last few days…but quickly nodded. Yes, he was right; she probably blamed him for everything that happened.

And to think that stupid idiots like Sagara think…think that – he didn't have a chance to seethe in anger as Kaoru started speaking, her voice quivering as she did so. "Ao…Aoshi-san…you…you have to d-do something…" stammered Kaoru, feeling tears well up in her eyes again, "O – Okasan…she- she's packing her bags…she's…she's leaving!"

Aoshi's ice-blue eyes widened. What? She was…leaving? "…What…?" Kaoru nodded hurriedly, looking as though she was going to lose control of herself soon.

"P – please, Aoshi-san…we – we have…we have to stop her!" wailed Kaoru, clutching the front of his light brown t-shirt, "I – I know that…that you're hurt by…by what she did, leaving you like…like that…but – " Kaoru choked on a sob, " – but…I – I don't want her to…to leave…p-please…"

Aoshi stared at the distraught girl standing before him, tears spilling out of her eyes. Why should YOU stop her? That woman…she abandoned you didn't she? Left you all alone, without bothering to even show up after your father died! Why should you even bother to stop her from leaving? Wouldn't it be better for what's left of her family if she left? Didn't she allow you to believe that you were an orphan before blurting everything out to you like that? Didn't she lie to her own husband? And to her own daughter? Didn't she –

- Didn't she also give birth to you, making her your mother? The inner-voices inside Aoshi's head refused to back down and allow the other to win. Gritting his teeth, Aoshi ignored them and glanced once more at Kaoru, to find her looking expectantly up at him…much like – he gulped –much like the way she had looked up at him days before, when she asked him to go for athletics practice and prevent any fight from breaking lose. Only, this time, she was actually crying. You're turning soft, baka…

Nodding curtly, he gently pushed past her and headed upstairs, ignoring his mind's panicked reasoning. And what the hell are you going to TELL her to stop her? Do you have any idea how STUPID this is going to be?

Mrs. Kamiya was doing her best to flatten the items in the almost full suit-case, in an attempt to close it. She blinked back a few tears, as she tried unsuccessfully to zip the case up. I need to get out of here before anyone sees me…I don't deserve to stay here with them anymore…please, let me leave unnoticed.

Using the back of her hand to brush her tears away, she turned around when she heard footsteps and her eyes widened when she caught sight of the person who had just entered her room. He was pale, and his ice-blue eyes were glinting as he just stared hard at her. She wondered whether she should attempt to smile at him, but quickly decided against it. "Aoshi…"

"…Are you…going somewhere?" Mrs. Kamiya froze. "…Are you?"

"I – Aoshi, I'm – "

" – A direct, honest answer will really be appreciated…" said Aoshi, coldly, wincing as Kaoru stepped up behind him and tightly gripped his arm. Mrs. Kamiya, he could tell, hadn't been expecting this. She probably wanted to leave before anyone spotted her…He watched her eyes go from him to Kaoru and back again.

"Aoshi, please, you don't – "

" – Understand? Is…that what you're trying to say Okasan?" asked Kaoru, speaking up and gripping Aoshi's arm harder, "Why don't you try explaining for…for a change?" Mrs. Kamiya opened her mouth to answer, before she shut it again.

"I…" she rubbed her temples, sighing, before she looked up at the two children – at her children – with a pleading expression on her face, "You have to understand, Aoshi, Kaoru…I…don't deserve to be here anymore. I…ruined everything, and…and the longer I stick around the…more trouble I'll probably cause, so – "

" – So giving birth to Aoshi-san means that you've…ruined things?" asked Kaoru, catching on to what her mother was implying. Mrs. Kamiya shook her head hurriedly.

"No, of course not! I just…regret not being able to…stay with him," she stopped, shaking her head, "Please, just listen to me; you two will be more comfortable with me around, so…just…let me leave…"

Aoshi's voice was hard when he spoke, "Before you think about leaving, shouldn't I do that?" Kaoru and her mother glanced hurriedly at him. "You had to tell me the…truth after all, only because I was staying here, with…you…"

"No…you had to come here. Kazuko-san…did the right thing, you had to come here," said Mrs. Kamiya, "You're…my…" she glanced at Kaoru who simply stared at her; "…you're my son, Aoshi…"

Two minutes later, Kaoru had released her grip on Aoshi's arm and ran to her mother, sobbing as she practically jumped on her. She buried her head in the front of her mother's blouse, sobbing. "Don't go, please don't go…please…I need you, Aoshi-san needs you…and – and even Otosan needs you…" She paused, "Please, Okasan, don't go…"

"Kaoru I…" Mrs. Kamiya stroked the back of her daughter's head gently, "I must, it's the…only thing I can do. It's what's best for…for the two of you…" Kaoru stepped back, shaking her head.

"No it's not!" she said, "We need you. Even…even Aoshi-san needs you, Okasan!" Mrs. Kamiya glanced at the immobile boy, wondering how true that was, "Okasan, you abandoned him once…don't…don't do it again."

"Kaoru – "

" – And…and I…I want Aoshi-san to stay with us…" This time, it was Aoshi's turn to look surprised. "Yes, I want him to stay here." She looked at Aoshi, "I…I've always wanted another sibling…and now…I have one…"


"Kaoru, I don't think that…Aoshi wants to…stay with us…" Kaoru's face fell, before she shook her head.

"Of course he does! He does! He wants to, don't you Aoshi-san…?" Aoshi found it difficult to look into the hopeful face that was staring at him and…tell her the opposite of what she thought. He looked back at Mrs. Kamiya, who was looking at him too. See what you get yourself into, Aoshi? You should just have firmly told Aunt Kazuko that you wanted to stay with her, instead of coming to this godforsaken place.

Ah, but…if you DIDN'T come here, would you have met a certain energetic young lady? Like…the girl who lives next door? Who also, apparently, likes you in the same way YOU like HER? Aoshi mentally reprimanded the voice. Now was not the time to think about…about her. He glanced icily at the two women in the room. "…I need to think about this…" Mrs. Kamiya nodded; she had guessed that he would say that. He wasn't Yuuji's son for nothing. Or my son either…

"I…understand…" she said, quietly, as Aoshi turned around and started to walk out of the room. The last thing he heard before closing the door was Kaoru's anxious voice.

"…So this means…you're not going, Okasan?"

Misao grinned as she ran out of the house, closing the door on her mother's frantic warnings. As she walked out, closing the gate behind her, she smiled genuinely down at her knee; her free knee. Ever-since her cast had been taken off, she had been practicing again – starting off with just a bit of walking and jogging, and then increasing it to running…at fast speeds. She hadn't tried the hurdles yet, but she didn't worry about them. Her doctor had told her that she would be able to return to school tomorrow…and then – she shivered in anticipation – three days later, it would be time for the tournament.

"We better win," she said aloud, to no-one in particular, as she started jogging on the side-walk. She caught a glimpse of Kaoru's house as she was jogging and the smile disappeared off her face for a brief second. Poor Kaoru…I can just imagine what she's going through right now…If it had been someone else, she would have invited them to come jogging with her, but…she knew that she couldn't ask Kaoru that. That girl was not athletic.

And – she felt bad for thinking this – but the more she spoke about her parents, the more she remembered what had happened to hers. And that meant that she remembered the raised-voiced fights…the screaming and yelling…the slamming of doors…She shuddered. Stop it. Don't think about this now. The last thing you need is for this to…enter your mind again.

Mentally berating herself for going jogging in three-quarter length track-bottoms and a sleeveless t-shirt, she tried to block the cold evening air out, and continued with her jogging. She had to do her best at the tournament. If not for her school – and for herself – then… (she blushed) to prove to Aoshi that she was good at what she did.

Misao-chan, STOP thinking about HIM too! Just focus on the tournament, that's all. The TOURNAMENT, not AOSHI.

Aoshi, for once in his life, was glad that he had listened to one of his inner-voices and had pulled on a long-sleeved shirt over the light-weight t-shirt he had put on after having a shower. And yet, despite the added layer of clothing that he was wearing, the cold evening air still managed to make him feel cold.

Shrugging, he turned his attention away from the weather, and tried to focus on the jogging that he had hoped to do. Apart from meditation, jogging was another thing that helped him calm down and free his mind of all troubling thoughts. All he had to do was focus on the task at hand, and he managed to calm down.

And yet, that wasn't working for him that day. Not when Mrs. Kamiya's and Kaoru's words were rotating around in his head, almost making him feel dizzy. Growling under his breath, he brushed his bangs from his eyes. He knew he should just have stayed at home and meditated. Yeah, and do you really think you would have been ABLE to do that in that atmosphere? He grudgingly agreed with that inner-voice of his. That was true.

Unwillingly, his mind wondered off to the question he had been asked. Did he want to stay? Did he really want to stay with…them? With the family who had taken him in after his father died, and yet…who had caused him far more problems than he could count. What the hell? Yeah, fine, they may have caused you problems…but they brought you good times too, didn't they?

What good times?

Didn't you…make friends quickly, after you transferred schools?

Friends? They're…not friends. They're…acquaintances. Besides, from what happened earlier, Sagara's definitely no friend. Neither is Yahiko.

But do you remember who stood up for you? Who AT LEAST told Sagara to stop what he was doing?


Exactly. And Kenshin didn't seem to care if you were related to Saito or not, did he?

…Kenshin's…well, that's just the type of person he is…

Didn't you feel…touched that someone actually asked you for help? Like when Kaoru asked you for help that day?

Can we not talk about that please? I still think that was the biggest mistake of my life.

Was it?


If you HADN'T done that, you wouldn't have managed to get closer to HER.

I have no idea who you're talking about.

Really? You don't know the bubble, cheerful, black-haired, blue-eyed, cute little girl that happened to catch your interest?

What? She hasn't.

For god's sake, just ADMIT that you have a crush on her, will you?

Why should I?

Because it's true.

No it's not.

Yes it is.

No, it's NOT. Besides, I still don't know what girl you're talking about, so I – Aoshi was forced to break off the debate/conversation that was going on in his head when he rounded the corner and, not paying any attention to where he was going, bumped into someone who seemed to have been turning the corner too.

" – What the – " He regained his balance immediately and turned sharply towards the person he had jogged into. His eyes widened as the panting girl looked up at him, an apologetic look on her face.

"Go – gomen," she panted, "I…I just wasn't paying – " Her voice trailed off when she saw him. "…A – Aoshi…?" Aoshi didn't know whether her appearance here was a good thing, or a bad thing. As it was, he finally tore his eyes off her, shaking his head. That's the girl I was talking about.

"No, it was…my fault, I wasn't concentrating on where I was going," he said, bowing his head. Misao flashed him an uncertain grin.

"I guess we both have other things on our mind then, eh?" she asked, before the grin disappeared. Of course he wasn't concentrating on where he was going! He was…probably thinking about…about Kaoru and Mrs. Kamiya…and – and –

Aoshi stared at her once more, wondering why a slightly horrified expression had found its' way on to her face. "You're…actually jogging? Out here?" Misao shot him a strange look.

"Y…yes," she said, "Why?" For god's sake STOP blushing!

"You're injuries…?" Remember what was written in Kaoru-san's notebook? About Misao liking you back?

"Oh, those…" mumbled Misao, "Well, the cast's off, as you probably can see…and the doctor said I can come back to school tomorrow!" Misao suddenly looked excited – and seemed to have forgotten that she was talking to Aoshi – "I've really missed that place! You won't believe it, but I've even missed running to class when I'm late, groaning when we get loads of homework…and meeting all my friends who, I might add, seem to have forgotten all about me for the past two days…"

Aoshi couldn't help but feel the urge to smile wryly when he saw her glance at him, realize he was there, and immediately turn red. He wondered whether she always did this. Probably just when you're around. "…Sorry," he said, "But…we've…all been busy…"

Misao nodded, "Yeah," she said, before she could stop herself, "Kaoru told me all about what happened at home." She clapped a hand over her mouth. Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! Can you get any more idiotic? "I'm sorry! I'm really sorry – I just…I couldn't – " Aoshi shook his head.

"No, don't worry about it," he found himself saying, "…I guess…Kaoru-san had to tell someone about it…" The two of them stood where they were, before Misao swallowed and spoke once more.

"Shall we, uh, continue with our jogging?" she asked, "If you'd like to, of course – " Aoshi shot her a small smile.

" – That sounds good." They continued to jog in silence, before Misao started talking again.

"Did you…see Kaoru at home?" she asked, timidly. Aoshi nodded slowly.


"Is she…does she seem…OK?"

Aoshi shook his head. "…Not really…" he muttered. And do I 'seem' OK either?

"You…don't seem OK either…" said Misao, biting her lip and forcing herself not to lower her head as he turned around to look at her. Aoshi looked at her for a few seconds, before shrugging and turning his attention ahead of him. Out of the corner of his eye however, he saw Misao bow her head, before she shivered and wrapped her arms around her, as a cold breeze blew past them.

A second later, Misao stopped jogging when she noticed that Aoshi had come to a halt, and she stared at him as he shrugged HIS unbuttoned shirt off. If she hadn't noticed that he was wearing a t-shirt underneath, she was quite sure that she would have fainted. As it was, she almost did, when he turned to her and, in a swift gesture, wrapped the shirt over her shoulders.

"It's cold." He couldn't help but smirk – yes he actually smirked – when, with the help of one of the streetlights, he saw the cute tinge of red that entered her cheeks.

"T – thank-you…" stammered Misao, wondering whether there was anything she could do to keep herself from blushing. She started jogging when he started again, and didn't notice that she was chewing on her lip. Say something Misao-chan…come on, say something! "Ano, Aoshi…?" Aoshi nodded to show her that he was listening, "Uh…do you…jog often?" W-H-A-T! Couldn't you think of anything BETTER to ask!

Aoshi was amused at her attempts to start up a conversation, and he allowed himself to show it by placing a soft smile on his face. "Only when I need to…clear my mind." Misao nodded, although inside, she was practically shivering in fear – lest she mess up this conversation again.

"Oh…" there was another pause, "Er…you need to clear your mind now, then?" He heard a somewhat muffled curse escape from her mouth, and shook his head inwardly. If he had hoped that jogging would take his mind off his…problems, he had been right in a way; only it was jogging with a certain person that actually helped.

"Yes, I…do," he said, quietly, as he couldn't help but wonder why he was being so…open with her. Well, more open than he usually was.

"I'm sorry…" said Misao, as she actually wore his shirt, doing her best not to inhale the…scent of, well, him that was stuck on the shirt, assailing her senses, "I'll leave you alone now then…" Aoshi actually stopped running.


"You…want to clear you mind," said Misao, "And – " she grinned, "I'm not exactly the best person to hang around with, if you want to clear your mind…"

"…Don't worry," mumbled Aoshi, "It's…fine."

"You sure?" asked Misao, frowning slightly, "Coz there's no need to just say that without really meaning it…I mean, I am a bit…uh, naïve," she paused, "And they say that just because until now, the only males I've been in love with were Rukawa Kaede from the anime series Slam Dunk and Guru Clef and Eagle from Magic-Knight Rayearth. Oh, and Kurei and Joker from Flame of Recca, but…come on! What's wrong with that?" She scowled.

Aoshi stared at her, his ice-blue eyes slightly wider than usual. She…she's in love with…anime characters? His inner-voice seemed to rise again, as it immediately said; Don't be jealous, Aoshi, she DID say 'until now' so you KNOW what that means! And besides, how can Clef, Joker, Kurei, Eagle or even Rukawa be any competition to you?

Misao let out an indignant huff. "And I'm told I'm way too loud for my own good – " She stopped abruptly when Aoshi nodded fervently. Her eyes narrowing, she reached out and grabbed his arm – surprising the both of them.

" – "

" – So you agree, do you?" she asked, dangerously, "that I am too loud for my own good? And that…I'm naïve?" Aoshi stared at the shorter girl who was standing before him, dressed in a pair of three-quarters and – his insides lurched – his shirt, one hand grabbing his arm and her eyes narrowed as she looked up at him. He couldn't help but chuckle. She WAS naïve…and loud…but – he blushed – in a good way. She was really unlike any other girl he had met before…In love with ANIME characters as opposed to real human-beings…

"Yes," he found himself saying, as he – for some unknown reason – brought his other hand up and placed it over her one that was grabbing his arm, "I do think you're naïve and loud." He did not take his eyes away from hers, "And, believe it or not, that's a good thing." He squeezed her hand gently, seeing her eyes shift to their hands, before back to his face and she blushed. "A very good thing…Misao."

Misao could have stayed where she was, her arm grabbing his, his other arm squeezing hers, their eyes locked in a…hard gaze. She really could have. Hell, she certainly would have…

If her stomach hadn't chosen that particular moment to give out a low rumble.

Her blue-eyes widened in horror as she stared at him before glancing down at her stomach, just as her face turned a…shade of purple? Smiling inwardly, Aoshi gently pried her hand off his, squeezing it once more, before letting go. "We should get back," he said, as he turned around.

Misao stared after him, a thousand curses – aimed at her stomach and its bad timing – racing around in her head. "No, w-wait! I'm…I don't mind, we c-can jog some more if you – "

"…Let's just get back, Misao," said Aoshi, looking at her out of his alluring ice-blue eyes, "…It's getting late anyway." He patiently waited for Misao to join him, not wanting to leave her alone on the road at this time. Yeah, that's the excuse EVERYONE uses, pal…when they just want to spend more time with the girl of their dreams. Ignoring his inner-voice, he looked at Misao, an eyebrow raised as he did so.

Aware that it was going to look rather bad if she stubbornly stayed where she was, Misao sighed before placing a smile on her face, "Yeah, c'mon, let's get back," she agreed, although she was screaming inside at how unfair life was. The two of them jogged back to their homes in companionable silence, asking a question or two about school every five minutes or so.


Now that, was LONG. Yikes! Once again, I want to apologize for not keeping my promise to finish this fic this year. And it doesn't help in any way when I'm spending the last evening and night of the year in bed, taking antibiotics every now and then due to enlarged and infected tonsils and fever.

# sigh # It's just NOT my day.

Oh well, at least I hope the chapter was good! And, of course, best wishes for the New Year to everyone! I hope you all have a bright and prosperous 2006! And keep smiling!

See ya soon!