DISCLAIMER: As my demented mind consistently tells me, I make no profit from my Fruits Basket fanfiction. Not a dime. No wonder I'm poor.

Note: Yes, this is the real deal…and for all those that have read, reviewed, fave'd, and waited for over a year, this two-chapter-in-one is for YOU. Enjoy!

Embers of Summer's Glory
Chapter 67: Blind in our Darkness

Clouds.

Rain.

Fog.

This all continuously plagued his limited vision along with dark, green-leaved trees standing tall yet weighed down with the large amount of rain on its leaves, occasionally rocked by the unseen wind.

'Always the same.'

That's what greeted one youth in bed as he opened his bruised eyes to view the world outside his bedroom window. He let out a long, pained breath. The scene hadn't changed in the five days he's been in bed, unable to leave it due to his injuries.

This was all very damn well pathetic…and depressing.

If he hadn't felt such an ache in nearly every cell in his body, he'd scream loud and hard in frustration. He swore that even the tips of his orange-red hair were sore. As it was, he could barely move his mouth to speak, the only action that gave him the least amount of pain. Hatori had told him that his jaw had been dislocated for so long that some facial muscles were still healing from the unnatural pull. At least the swelling was going down. The good doctor had insisted on having him take a sedative to sleep off the pain…

No. No sedative and barely a dose of pain relievers. Nothing more. He wanted to feel the pain. It blocked out more…unpleasant feelings. Physical pain was a cake walk compared to the alternative.

'Where the hell is Shishou?'

Usually his father-figure was by his bedside fretting over his care…making sure his pillows were all well fluffed for optimum comfort for both his broken leg and dislocated shoulder but also keeping his torso comfortable to put less pressure on his broken ribs. And if that weren't enough, Kazuma would be spoon-feeding him broth he had made downstairs…it's what the injured youth feared most each and every day he lay in bed. He could swear that the broth had some type of bacterium that will land him in the hospital…

That is, if he was allowed to go to one. When he had regained consciousness in his bedroom after having blacked out at the exhibit hall from his painful landing, he was not at all too surprised that he wasn't at a hospital. Having a guy go 'poof' and become a cat was a real possibility at the time he was out of it. That wouldn't go over so well with the medical personnel, and he was sure Hatori was more than exhausted…

No…no, he will restrict his thoughts to only now. It was infuriating the way his mind would rebel and insist on thinking thoughts that would naturally lead to what had happened to all of them…on that day…at that hour…in those moments. The feelings those thoughts brought on…he wanted no part of it. Physical pain is all he's willing to endure…for as long as possible.

"Oi, Shishou…"

The muffled, strained voice reached the ears of the dojo master who was busily reading a cookbook in the kitchen…with the fridge door wide open…forgotten.

"I'm coming, Kyo!"

"…fridge door…"

At the foot of the stairs, Kazuma sheepishly grinned as he turned on his heel and quickly strode into the kitchen to complete the forgotten task…he really had meant to look for juice.

'Ah, Kyo, you know me too well.' Task done, he rushed up the stairs, not wanting for Kyo to strain himself more than necessary to speak, let alone to breathe.

'If he moves too much again, his ribs will not heal as they should. His shoulder is in much better shape, but his leg…' He halted his spiraling thoughts then and there. It always brought back the mental image of how he had found Kyo on that day.

There's nothing that could quite describe that moment in his life except that he never wanted to repeat the day…ever.

'Focus. Kyo's health comes first. All else…everything…it can wait.' Pausing momentarily on a step to gather his wits once again, he proceeded up the flight of stairs, with a wide smile in place. He went into his temporary bedroom (it was a given he'd stay in Tohru's old room) and picked up a tray he placed there earlier.

"Kyo, I have fruit all cut up for your enjoyment," called out the man happily as he strode into the teen's room. With a flourish he sat down next to the invalid and took up a pair of chopsticks. "Well, tell me…what would you like first? I have pears, strawberries, peaches—"

"Water?"

"Eh? Oh yes, of course." And of course it'd be the one item he hadn't thought to bring. Kazuma was on his feet once again. "One pitcher of water, coming up."

(Knock, knock)

Both males stared at one another in bewilderment. Shigure had gone out earlier and had said he wouldn't return until around dinner time, leaving strict orders that no one attempt to make anything resembling dinner as he will bring home take-out.

"Well, that could be Shigure-kun's editor. Perhaps he missed another deadline," Kazuma remarked as he left his son's side and took off down the hall and stairs at a brisk pace. He didn't need any 'outsider' coming into the house with Kyo still as delicate as he was.

"I am terribly sorry," he called out as he approached the front door, "but Shigure-kun had an appoint—"

The elder Sohma did not continue further, clearly shocked with who was standing there before him.

"Please forgive my intrusion, Shihan. I was told that you are currently staying here while Kyo recuperates."

"No, no, not at all, Tetsuya-kun, please come inside…it's much drier, I assure you." Allowing the younger Sohma entrance into the house, Kazuma quickly led him into the living room. "Please have a seat. I would bring us some tea, but…eh, Shigure-kun was rather…blunt about me never using his kitchen…ever. I don't think he's forgiven me yet for the tiny fire—"

"Fire?"

"Really, the sparks were what caused them, I mean, microwaves aren't as safe as they claim to be, let me tell you—"

"The microwave?"

"And, honestly, the stove was getting on in years—"

"Ahem, I see," commented Tetsuya as he repressed a wry grin…and shivers. He was all too familiar with the dangers involved when Kazuma was in the kitchen. The stories were legendary.

Giving his elder a comforting pat on the shoulder, he remarked, "No worries…I'll make some tea for us."

Kazuma immediately protested, "Oh, I hate to put out my guests that way—"

"It's fine, Shihan. I'm happy to do it." Tetsuya wasted no time in settling himself in the kitchen, opening cabinets and drawers to find the necessary utensils and ingredients to make the tea.

"Look at you, all so wise…I'm rather envious," remarked Kazuma wistfully. He suddenly jerked to attention and gasped, "KYO!"

"I thought he'd be asleep since you're down here—"

The distraught father quickly ran around to retrieve a cup of water. "Oh my, my brain has been made to a fine mess nowadays! I'm sorry, Tetsuya-kun, let me take up some water to him, and then I'll be right back down."

"Certainly. I'll have this done by the time you come back down."

Kazuma wasted no time take the pitcher of water up the stairs and to Kyo's bedroom. As he poured water into a cup, he caught Kyo's questioning glance and replied, "Not to worry, it's just Tetsuya-kun. He's come to pay us a visit. Would you like for him to come up here and visit with you?"

Kyo had heard the muffled sounds of conversation so he knew it was someone Kazuma was comfortable letting into the house. But to know it was Tetsuya…

"He knows…don't he?"

The elder Sohma was not oblivious to what Kyo was referring to…nor did he fail to notice the same old anxiety that plagued the youth since he was a child. They had both overheard Master Haji instruct Hatori that erasing Tetsuya's memories of the event was not necessary as Tetsuya will be taking over Seto's position on the board in due time. So, it was true…Tetsuya knew, and if Seto had anything to do with it, his son would know each and every last detail.

Yet…

"Yes, he does know." He dipped a straw into the glass of water and tipped it just so for Kyo to drink from. As the boy swallowed carefully each sip, he softly continued, "But when he referred to you, he referred to you by your name."

Kyo quickly glanced to catch Kazuma's steady gaze. It was always the same, calm gaze that always told him all he needed to hear without being told.

Acceptance.

At any other time, it would be a relief. But not now. Not when he's yearning to feel only the pain in his bones. He wants nothing to do with feeling better. He shouldn't. He has no right to that. Pain…undulated pain was all he wanted to feel.

"No…I just want to sleep."

Kyo turned away from his gaze, opting to see out his window. To see beyond the rain-sodden leaves, murky sky…to see anything that had nothing to do with anything... Blissful denial.

Kazuma heaved an inaudible sigh and set the tray and glass of water on the desk. "Perhaps another time then. I'll be downstairs for a little while. Call me if you need anything."

The youth had seemingly tuned him out already, and Kazuma didn't bother to look back as he walked out, quietly shutting the door behind him, leaving it slightly open. Shoulders slumped he walked the long walk down the hall and stairs to the small dining table. He barely noticed the other's presence as he quietly sat down.

"How is he?" Tetsuya softly asked as he set a cup of hot tea before the tired man.

Sipping his tea, Kazuma murmured, "How is he indeed…"

Both men remained silent at the table, the heaviness of the weather having little to do with the heavy atmosphere in the house.

"I'm sorry, Tetsuya-kun," remarked the elder man suddenly, "you make the effort to visit, and I'm such poor company. Please forgive me."

"No, please Shihan, I was the one who imposed on you," immediately protested Tetsuya.

"And after making me such good tea, too." Sighing heavily, Kazuma's sincerely smiled for the first time that day. "Well, enough of my melancholy. I truly appreciate your visit. Please, tell me how have you been? And the others from the dojo? I…I was so immersed in looking after Kyo these past few days…I'm not very aware of what's going on… I've not even contacted Kunimitsu—"

"Tomoda-sensei is doing fine with all the details pertaining to the dojo, so please don't worry. And I'm well. I didn't need any medical care beyond a few scrapes and bruises that are all on the mend. I…I had gone to visit the community hospital where Ohashi Hajime-san and Tenaka Hiko-san are still hospitalized."

"Yes…how is their condition?"

Tetsuya hadn't wanted to go into detail but Kazuma's quiet but demanding gaze said otherwise. "Ohashi-san certainly had some damage done to his jaw. Currently it is wired shut. He'll be in the hospital for quite some time until that's all fixed up. Tenaka-san had his shoulder dislocated but the damage was minimal there. His collarbone is a different story, so he's fairly well bandaged up around his torso…he'll need therapy for some time but he'll be fine...they both will be fine in time."

"And…how do they remember the events?"

Tetsuya hesitated before lowly continuing, "They were frustrated that they couldn't remember many details after coming into the exhibit hall. They do recall meeting Kyo, but little else. The doctors explained to them that their memory loss was from a concussion and that all their other injuries were attributed to the debris that fell on them when the quake happened."

And that was all Tetsuya would say on the matter. The terror he saw in their eyes when he mentioned Yuki's name in passing…they remembered nothing of the facts, that much was certain, but their bodies' remembered the fear instilled by the Sohma teen. No, he will never say anything about that. Not to anyone…not ever.

"I see…that is good to hear." The melancholy returned to Kazuma's eyes momentarily before brightening once again. "Yet, that isn't really what you wanted to talk to me about, was it?"

Tetsuya met Kazuma's all-knowing gaze with a look of trepidation, unsure if he should broach the subject that concerned him most above the condition of his teammates. He set down his cup of lukewarm tea and moved a bit from the table in order to lowly bow to his elder.

"Tetsuya—"

"Please, Shihan…no, please Uncle," implored the young man without lifting his head. "I…I wish to offer my sincerest apologies for failing both you and Master Haji!"

"There's no need—"

"No, Uncle, there is. I broke a solemn rule you've both always taught me and that was to never underestimate my opponent. Looking back, I now know that I had lacked conviction in my attempts to help deflate the escalating situation. My foolishness allowed for your injuries to occur amongst other things. I do not ask for forgiveness, but I am so very sorry, Uncle…so sorry."

Kazuma brought his hand up to lightly trace his neckline. He would be lying if he didn't admit to having felt just a trace of fear when Yuki looked down on him with one foot pinning his chest down while a sword was pointed to his neck…the dark gaze in the Nezumi's eyes chilling him through and through. He had been physically too weakened from whatever unnatural force Yuki had used on him to do much of anything when he helplessly witnessed the Nezumi swiftly aim the blade across his neck, only to then realize that it wasn't his neck that was cut.

'All that splash of blood across my face…it was a carefully timed movement that gave the perfect illusion…exactly what Yuki had wanted. Never did Kyo notice that it wasn't my neck but Yuki's foot that was cut clean through.'

He had seen horror-stricken faces before when the death of a loved one was made known. It was as if a dull hammer came and knocked your heart out of its cavity. He never wanted that experience for his son. But it was not a choice then…that look of horror on Kyo's face when Yuki seemingly cut him open.

'And I was too weak to move a damn muscle, not even to call out to the boy. What use is all my strength if it can't even spare the one person I care about most the grief that wasn't real?'

He sighed heavily and mentally shook the misery away. Whatever regrets he has were his to reflect on alone. For now…

Smiling fondly, Kazuma remarked, "You've not called me 'uncle' in so long. It makes me happy to hear it again."

"But Uncle—"

"No, no, I will not have you groveling before me like this," replied the elder Sohma as he reached over and pulled up Tetsuya's down-turned face. He looked him squarely in the eyes. "I'm not hurt and you are not at fault for what took place. No one could have held back what was inevitable. Crossing that line of no return…with those two, it was always a matter of when, not if, when. To be frank, I am surprised it hadn't happened sooner, given their nature…"

Long, silent moments passed as the two pensively regarded each other before Tetsuya visibly relaxed the tension from his stiff shoulders. He took a small sip of his lukewarm tea, wryly smiling. "Well…if nothing else…at least the mystery behind their 'nicknames' has been solved…from my point of view anyway."

"Do…did your perceptions of them change?" It was a loaded question but Kazuma had to ask. He had to be assured, for Kyo's sake.

The younger Sohma looked to his sensei with consideration and carefully worded his reply, "I may be my father's heir, but I am my mother's son as well. Whatever prejudices my father adopts were weeded out of me long ago by my mother."

He settled his forlorn gaze on the misty rain outdoors through the windows, heaving a heavy sigh before continuing. "When it was all more or less explained to me by both of them, I admit I felt…doomed and a bit cheated, however illogical that was. This blood that runs in my veins…how cursed it has been all this time…any descendants of mine will likely be…afflicted with this…with no hope of them ever feeling the embrace of a loved one that is not of their respective gender. How…tragic that will be for them."

Returning his gaze to Kazuma he gently but sadly smiled. "I can't possibly imagine what it's been like for you or anyone associated with this burden. (Pause) Yet, given what's happened, I can't give any further answer beyond that, Uncle. I am still…uncertain about many things. But…when I am ready, you…and Kyo may count on my support."

Kazuma had looked down as he traced the rim of his cup, silently listening to Tetsuya's response. He knew that it was no easy thing to hear of the family's secret let alone to accept it. He's had decades, and it was still heartbreaking at times. But now with what's happened…it would seem that all the Jyuunishi's efforts to live their lives as they chose was just a lie. In the end, they still played their roles as the Jyuunishi they were born into.

'What bright future can they hope to achieve when a fable holds more truth over their lives than reality? And what of future Jyuunishi? Is it always to be this tragic? All of it…it's just so…heartrending.'

He has never felt so exhausted…the years of hardship were truly taking their toll on his heart. He joined Tetsuya in gazing pensively out the window, idly wondering how much the dreary weather mimicked the state of their family. So…despondent…

'Without hope…'

ooo—

"Can you turn down the damn volume?"

"I'll turn it down, Hiro-kun."

"Kisa, let dum-dum do it!"

"It's not my fault the commercials are loud…you turn it down!"

"You have the remote, baka Usagi!"

"It doesn't work, remember? Haru broke it."

"Hey, Kisa, turn it down."

"Hai, Haru-oniisan."

"Don't get up, Kisa, the baka Usagi wanted to watch this program, so let him do it."

"It's not like there was much choice, it was the only channel with no news coverage, stupid Hiro."

"So? Get up and turn it down!"

"You get up!"

"No, YOU!"

"YOU!"

"Why don't the BOTH of you get up and turn down the damn volume before I kick your asses?"

"Black Haru is back…"

"Argh, you see what you did, baka Usagi?"

"Would you all just knock it off and just get up and turn the damn thing down?" Kagura made short work of her trek to the TV…all two feet. 'Honestly, so damn lazy!'

"Thanks, Kagura-nee. You're good."

"It's your fault that the remote control was broken to pieces, Haru-chan!" she fumed.

"Yeah, bummer…could you tone it down? The program's on…oi, since you're up, turn up the volume. I can't hear."

"ARGH!" she loudly groaned, not only turning up the volume supremely loud but also whacking Haru on the head as she angrily stomped out of the lounge area of their suite the hospital had provided. "Sorry, Kisa-chan…cover your ears!"

"DAMMIT, IT'S TOO LOUD! TURN IT DOWN, HIRO!"

"BITE ME, BUTT-FACE!"

"NO, HARU, STOP!"

"HARU-ONIISAN, HIRO-KUN, MOMIJI-KUN…YOUR RUNNING AROUND WILL BREAK—"

(CRASH, lights flicker)

"Now you done it, Rabbit."

"ME? You pushed me, stupid Hiro!"

"Pft, well…at least the volume's down. Go get me a drink, Hiro."

"Kiss my ass, Black Haru!"

"Oh yeah, egg him on, idiot…"

"I SWEAR they're driving me to drink…" Kagura grumbled lowly to herself as she walked down the hallway to another room that was serving as their kitchen/dining area. "Rit-chan, I hope you're done with the snacks because they're about to have ALL their male-testosterone butts kicked out the damn door! AND I'M NOT HOLDING BACK!"

As he finished up on dishwashing duty, Ritsu calmly noted from his place at the sink that his dearly beloved had seen to making another alteration to the innocent wall with her fist. After seeing her do this repeatedly during their stay at the hospital, he had stopped reacting adversely to each 'episode'.

'At least she's matching the size of the hole to the others beside it…' "Is it the TV remote again? I can order another one with maintenance."

"No, the TV. Good thing the family owns the place….eesh, the damages will be sky-high by the time we bail this private hospital!"

'Of that I have no doubt…especially with her additions to the walls.' Heavily sighing, he turned off the faucet and dried his hands, mentally giving profound thanks to those in the family who had provided this hotel-like lodging on this floor with little outside interference, especially given their 'peculiarities'. It would not do to have prying eyes when a young woman capable of punching holes through plaster had no injuries to account for it. Truly, privacy was a must for them.

Done with his daily duty, Ritsu went over to the dining table, retrieving a heaping plate of sandwiches that he had prepared earlier. It seemed a fellow Jyuunishi was already snacking on them. "Ayame-oniisan, how do you like them? I had hoped I prepared them perfectly to your tastes."

Dabbing his mouth delicately with a lace-trimmed handkerchief, Ayame nodded wholeheartedly before replying, "You are a wonder in the kitchen, Ritsu-kun! I would expect nothing less from an admirer of mine! You could feed a small army with this one plate!"

Aghast, Ritsu looked to the plate before him and agreed…three dozen sandwich halves were more than enough. "Gracious, you are precisely correct as always, Ayame-oniisan! This is a lot! They'll be too stuffed to move around!"

"Perfect." Kagura quickly placed the large tray in Ritsu's hands and steered him to the doorway. "Be a dear, darling, and go on and serve it to them. If I go, I may just hurt them out of spite."

"Eh…certainly." Not known for his prowess, Ritsu barely managed to keep the tray level as he walked out the door and down the hallway. Kagura only heard the inevitable happen as he entered the other room, no doubt running into one of the wayward Jyuunishi.

'Ritsu's apology streak will be a long one…that'll keep them busy for a bit.' Sitting down with a huff next to Ayame, she silently watched him remove all stray crumbs from his hands and clothing with his handkerchief. Tiredly, she laid her head on her arms, craving for a sense of peace to seep into her bones. Just for a moment really…

Alas, though, it was futile…

She looked up when she heard Ayame stand up, only to seat himself once again by the window, shaking his long, flowing tresses free from the bun he had it in when he was eating. The dreariness of the weather was not daunting him in the least as he once again took up his stitching…quietly humming a tune to himself. It was far from the norm for the chatty designer, to be so reserved, especially with his feelings. But then…this week was far from normal…

She rubbed her temples hard, forcing down another wave of frustration. She was so on edge as all the others were. Always that same frustration of being so…helpless…so very…worried…

Five days. Five nights.

At any given time, any one of the younger Jyuunishi were either walking down hallways around their private floor or watching TV in the lounge room. Neither activity truly held their attention, so inevitably pent-up frustrations resulted in bickering and damaged property. And that was during the day…at night, silence reigned thick at times, filled with tension and worry. Food and restless sleep brought brief respite as they went through these motions of their days.

Five days. Five nights.

Hatori would be rushing from one room to another or from another level of the family hospital, ensuring all met his strict approval. Kureno would be much the same, though, lately, it seemed that he was busy at the family offices since she's hardly seen him these past few days. Shigure would drop by for short visits and leave quickly, claiming his editor is swift to hunt him down while in the city. Ayame was the only elder Jyuunishi that had no real duties to attend to, having left his shop in the care of his assistant. It was just as well…he spent much of his time with Akito in Yuki's room. If he couldn't for whatever reason, he would stay with the rest of them in the kitchen or lounge area, his sewing going at full speed while patiently waiting to be allowed back to where he most wished to be.

Five days. Five nights.

Akito would emerge every so often, meals and private toiletries an inevitable need that even a clan head must see to. Mostly she remained behind closed doors in Yuki's suite, much to the relief of the younger Jyuunishi. They needn't have worried. She never interacted with anyone other than Hatori, maybe Ayame. Not a word…not a nod…not an acknowledgement…she ignored them all.

Five days. Five nights.

Waiting.

Hoping.

Praying…

'Will he wake up?'

The clocks chimed and the days blended into one another…time flowing forward, ever changing…but Yuki still remained the same.

'Unconscious…neither in a coma nor sleeping. Simply…out of reach.'

Hatori's words to them shocked them to the core, words he had to say as it became apparent that Yuki was not going to wake up when three days had passed with no change to his condition. No stirring of the eyes…no change in his breathing…no twitch of a nerve…nothing. No change.

Was it because of his physical injuries? Either from his fight with Kyo or from his match at the tournament (it was hard to tell at this point), the youth's injuries were not light in the least…

Apparently moments after he collapsed at the exhibit hall in his transformed state, he suffered a severe asthma attack. By the time they reached the hospital, he had his human form back but was having difficulty breathing. Further medical attention by Hatori's designated substitute confirmed the asthma attack but also more. Whether or not it was exacerbated by the few fractured ribs they further diagnosed, the damage was bad enough to collapse one of his lungs.

When the possibility arose that he had suffered trauma to the brain from the brief lack of oxygen, all scans and tests known in the neurological community were conducted, but other than a concussion, all stated that the youth was the picture of health on that regard. No other problems were detected.

Lastly…his left foot. Severed ligaments, damaged nerves, stress fractures of the bones on his forefoot that were protruding from the skin…and these were in addition to a severe ankle strain and loss of blood from his self-inflicted injury. In short, his foot was a mangled mess.

The orthopedic specialist was unable to give encouraging news. It was a great sadness to be told that the youth will likely no longer be able to walk as gracefully as he had before, his foot having taken on too much damage for a full recovery. It was the specialist's hope that after intensive physical therapy, Yuki will be able to walk with an aid of some sort, be it a crutch or something else.

It went without saying that when Kureno told them all of this as they arrived at the hospital, no one dared leave. And not one spoke all that evening, each lost to horrific thoughts.

Thankfully the doctor in charge performed admirably and quickly to repair the injuries as best can be had. As it was prearranged, Akito remained close by despite her apparent frail health, thereby cutting down any chances of Yuki transforming before 'foreign' eyes.

No, his injuries weren't light by far. But by all accounts he should be wide awake, with no small ache, yet very much aware and alert to his surroundings.

Why? Such a small word that rarely has an absolute answer…now was no different. There was no reason for his body to be so unresponsive, thus Hatori's conclusion. Yuki was simply…out of reach. Shut down. Present in their bond but…far.

What consolation Hatori could give them all was that the unconscious youth was not worsening in his vegetative state. Brain patterns all indicated minimal activity holding steady and that the state of rest was probably for the best given how much the youth had put his body through…the physical strain…his emotional state…

'Pft, at this rate, we'll all be in no better shape. Especially Aya-chan.' She stood up and sat across from the Nezumi's elder brother at the window seat, softly remarking, "Ne, Aya-chan, I heard that we can have food delivered to the reception desk up front. How about we change the menu for tonight's dinner and order out? It's faster and you'll be able to eat earlier, maybe get some real sleep tonight."

He barely glanced her way as he continued with his sewing, his voice slightly put out as he responds, "I sleep well enough at night when everyone else sleeps—"

"You sneak out and join Akito-san in Yun-chan's room," she gently cuts in. She reaches out to lightly trace the darkened area around his eyes. "I seriously doubt you get enough rest in there."

"…Pft, well, my infamous stealth sure needs work, doesn't it? Regardless, at night is when I'm most needed—"

"But Hatori-chan will scold you…again." She recalled the stern reprimand that Hatori gave Ayame late one evening while she sat in the dark at the kitchen table drinking cold tea, everyone else having long gone to sleep. In the hallway, the doctor showed no remorse as he threatened to cut off Ayame's visits permanently if the tailor didn't take better care of himself. She had never seen the usually obedient Snake look so determined to not back down…but in the end he did relent…for the moment apparently.

"Yes, yes, that is unfortunately so very true," he mused, breaking her out of her thoughts. "But Tori-san is breaking at the seams…much more so than I am. He needs my help."

"But Aya-chan—"

"Trust me, my dear," he steadily remarked, turning his mesmerizing gaze and holding her eyes prisoner…a true enchantment from the eyes of the Snake. "I am tired, DEAD tired, but HE'S exhausted beyond HIS insane limits. All that keeps that poor man on his feet is his marvelous Jyuunishi strength! So I do what I can for him by keeping close watch on Akito and Yuki at night, and dear Gure-san does what he can during the days he can visit. So, please, lay your worries to rest."

He released her from his penetrating gaze, his eyes resuming their observation of his stitching. She was surprised but pleased with his adamant behavior, which was more like him anyway. True, his chatting was at a minimum but obviously his mind was working on full engines. And this clarification on his part certainly sated her curiosity…Shigure did tend to pop up unannounced, like today.

"Gure-san certainly has good timing…Akito was a bit restless last night." Setting his work down momentarily, he wryly grinned saying, "She actually asked for my assistance by staying over at the Honke for the time being when Yuki returns. Truly if she was craving for my help, she was desperate for a little company. Gure-san is always good for that."

'-Asked- he says…I wonder about that—wait…' "Wait…Yun-chan is going back to the Honke? Not back to Shii-chan's?"

"Eh…ano, I was supposed to keep that to myself!" he gasped as he realized his blunder. Sheepishly grinning, he patted her on the head in an assuring manner. "But not to worry! He'll be staying mainly at the clinic on the property…which actually may be worse…but anyway, it's fine. Tori-san needs to help him with his therapy once he's up and about, so it'll be much easier if Yuki was at the estate, ne?"

"That's true…" She really wasn't alarmed, just surprised…it's good to be 'in the know' with Akito and Yuki. She no longer feared for Yuki if he stayed at the estate for an indefinite period…he really couldn't be in better hands. Otherwise she'd be just as worried as the others will likely be when they find out. Hopefully they could see the obvious logic behind having Yuki at the estate and not raise such an alarm. Maybe she better prep them for it…it'll be a load off Hatori's list of annoyances.

She was suddenly shaken when she heard a glass shatter in the TV lounge where the others were. She could hear Black Haru swearing loud enough to make her ears bleed and Ritsu apologizing to the heavens above. She pitied Kisa…really.

"And what of you, my dear? Are you not troubled over Kyon-kichi as you are with the rest of us? You've hardly left us these past few days to at least pay him a visit."

If she had expected this question to be raised, she did not think it would be Ayame asking it. If nothing else, she would have expected him of all people to sound indignant upon having to mention the Neko's name. That was obviously not the case as he just casually stated the question, even keeping to calling Kyo by his pet name for him.

But then again, she hadn't told him anything of what had happened. Upon Akito's 'request', she relayed to the rest of the Jyuunishi none of the facts as to why Yuki and Kyo had fought the way they did. She knew better than to defy that 'request', especially when it was accompanied by a gaze so sharp, it put swords to shame. So, she had let them ponder on their own as to the 'whys' and 'how comes', ignoring Haru's knowing looks and adding little to the speculations. Yet she had good reason to believe that Shigure, Kureno, and even Hatori knew the real reason. But as for Ayame…

'I can understand Kureno never saying a word about anything, but the others? They're supposed to be his best friends… I KNOW that at least Shii-chan is not THAT obedient. Why do they shelter him so much? Is he really that oblivious?'

"Ne, Kagura-chan, you are sailing away again to the far reaches of beyond."

Coming back from said oblivion, she gave a start when she suddenly realized that Ayame was staring at her up close. The heat rushed up to her cheeks at such close proximity to the beautiful man…'and damn if those golden-jade eyes of his can hypnotize and melt anyone into a puddle of goo. He really has no idea what an effect he has on the female gender…'

"I heard you, silly," she remarked bashfully as she lightly shoved his face away from her own. "And yes, I worry for that idiot, too. But he's wide awake and Yun-chan—"

"—will awaken in due time," cut in Ayame, his firm declaration punctuated by his equally determined gaze. "I know Tori-san thinks I'm being absurd, but I know Yuki will be awake in no time at all…when he's ready." He looked momentarily to the stitching pattern in his hands, the mice delicately sewn around the border, before continuing. "Yuki…(sigh)…the poor soul is so tired, more so than Tori-san and that's saying a lot. He needs this time to himself…this is a good rest for him."

She could not refute his ardent remarks, not when he declared them with absolute conviction. Professional opinions be damned…no amount of medical jargon from Hatori or any other specialist would sway the elder brother.

Despite his fatigue, seeing him so at ease, almost indifferent to the severity of the atmosphere surrounding him, she couldn't help voicing her next thoughts, "Aya-chan…Yun-chan is the way he is now because of Kyo-kun. Doesn't that…I don't know, make you mad or at least bother you?"

He looked to her at that remark, pinning her to her seat with a blank expression. She couldn't tell if he had taken offense, but his gaze was now averted to the world beyond his window.

"This wet weather is doing nothing for my mood." Sighing heavily, he took up his stitching again, his hands carefully weaving another pattern with the needle. "Now dear, why are you so set on my getting upset with Kyon? Yuki is here because he overdid it, not because of Kyon-kichi."

"Well…I guess that's true…" she reasoned but more surprised that he saw it that way.

"Besides, if Yuki had seen fit to beat the living tar out of the rambunctious kitty to the point that our ancestors from beyond the grave felt it…then…well, he had every right to do so. Far be it for me to judge either of the two for what they did to one another."

Her stare was of incredulity. "That's all? I mean…really, is that all you have to say about their…their—"

"Tiff? Yes, I suppose that's pretty much the gist—"

"Aya-chan! It was more than just a 'TIFF'! Tiffs don't get you into a near-body cast! And they definitely don't involve hospital stays!"

"Hm, true…" he murmured in response as he raised his sample stitching in the air for uniformity. "Pish, it's all off—"

"Aya-chan!"

"But it is!"

Groaning loudly, she thumped her head against the window pane, dragging her eyes to the dreary scene out there. 'Sometimes, it's just impossible to talk 'Ayame'—that's Hatori's job—'

Her thought process came to a halt as she felt a hand on her head, gently ruffling her hair. She jerked her head up to meet a pair of indulgent golden-jade eyes.

"You worry too much."

"EH?"

He laughed at that and went straight back to pulling out the bad stitch work. "It'll be fine, Kagura-chan. Neither I nor the others would shun our daring kitty…promise!"

Her retort was ready and waiting to be made, but she stopped short. Was it really that? All her questions…her persistence in all this… Was she really that worried that Kyo would be cast out of their friendships because of what he did to Yuki? Was that really all her fretting about was really about this whole time?

'Is that really why I can't bring myself to see Kyo-kun? Too afraid to tell him that he may have lost his friendships with some of us because of what he did?'

That would be too terrible a possibility…and thankfully, not true. Not true at all.

She felt her body give one long sigh of relief, her shoulders slumped as if an immense weight was just lifted. 'It's just like Aya-chan says…it'll be fine. Right.'

Looking at him, she inwardly laughed at herself. 'How strange he knew…he simply knew. Not oblivious at all…just sees things differently. Heh, guess Yun-chan is more like his brother than just for looks.'

"I'll be sure to tell Kyo-kun that you called him a 'daring kitty'. He'll like that."

"Good." Looking back up, he gave her a stunning smile before continuing. "You know, as daring as he was, I am partial to my beautiful brother…he was quite the devastating wrecking ball on poor Kyon, ne? Honestly…my precious Yuki knows no limits to his ire when it rises and goes over the edge."

"He sure can be scary when he wants to be, ne?"

"Mm…my precious can certainly make you find religion, no doubt!"

"Eh, are you discussing about Yuki-sama?"

Both Jyuunishi jerked their attention towards the doorway, too stunned to respond.

They both knew this person was here for only one thing…and Akito was not in a forgiving mood.

Pissing off the Nezumi was one thing…but to piss off Akito…

"Well…DAMN."

Kagura couldn't have agreed more with Ayame's bemused outburst. Truly, she asked herself, what level of possession did this man have to come here of all places?

'Akito…she won't hold anything back if it involves Kyo-kun. Not a thing.'

ooo—

"I updated his chart just an hour ago with the latest blood count and vitals. Should we start another line for his IV fluids?"

"Not yet. First we'll need to start looking for the next IV site that works best. Preferably around the chest area…his veins will be much stronger there."

"Of course, Sempai—"

"Calling me by my name is fine, Kana-san."

The younger colleague blushed as she consented to the request. "Gomen ne, Hatori-san. I'm just so used to calling you formally…"

Hatori looked up from his chart and smiled tiredly. "That was certainly a while back, when you were my assistant at the Honke. So much has come to pass since then…"

"Yes. Oh, did you know that after I completed my training with you, I found employment in the city and wouldn't you know it, I also found my future husband there, too! A career and family all in one location…I'm so blessed!"

Both allowed the silence to follow, each lost to their own version of the memories. Despite the pain in his memories, Hatori was glad to see that hers were full of joy. It was all that he wanted for her…even if that meant that he was no longer a meaningful presence in her life now.

He had his worries…very serious worries that she might have recalled events from her past that were 'erased'. He should not have doubted his 'gift', but yet he did worry…he had never wanted to take the risk before but when he direly needed help…

'Not once did she ever question me calling her up out of the blue with an emergency…not once questioning that I knew of her attendance at the tournament. She was more than eager to help me with Yuki's medical needs and with Akito when I had to stay behind to 'clean up' the mess at the exhibit hall. Even now…when she should be with her husband enjoying her vacation, she stays with me all these long hours.'

That's one thing that could never be erased…the devotion. Yes, she will attribute her eagerness to help to her friendship, to their past working relationship, and to aid the family, but he knew the truth…and would take his knowledge to the grave.

'She had always said her devotion once given will always remain. All these years…in the deepest recesses of her soul, far away where my 'gift' will never reach…her devotion to me is still there. And I will treasure it…that is enough for me.'

He shook his head wearily…the past was the past, and at present, he has a very sick patient (not counting his stubborn outpatient). He looked down to the charts…there were thick records here. But Yuki always did have a complicated medical history…

'This boy will send me to early retirement at the rate he's always getting sick or injured.'

"Hatori-san, before I forget, Akito-sama had informed me that Yuki-sama's medical records should remain confidential and to speak of them to no one else, especially not to his parents. Is this…normal procedure? He is a minor…"

Yuki's parents…damn, he had forgotten all about them. All the signatures needed for consent on Yuki's medical needs were signed off by Akito, so he hardly gave thought to his parents. And Ayame certainly had no qualms with keeping his parents in the dark about Yuki's condition.

"Yuki's parents have no authority over his medical care. I'm sorry I can't say anything more on that subject. Please gather all his medical records and bring them to me."

"Of course." She dropped the subject as soon as Hatori dismissed it. Far be it for her to question any further her superior or instructions directly received from the clan head. She may be a married woman, but her blood will always be Sohma.

Looking further at the records before her, she couldn't help voicing her shock. "Oh my…the poor kid. This just isn't his year, is it?"

"Hm?" Glancing up from his paperwork, he saw that she had in her hands Yuki's most recent medical records as of last winter. Sighing heavily, he nodded. "It was fortunate we caught the disease in time before it developed any further. He finished his treatment some time ago…the tuberculosis left slight scarring of his lung tissue but otherwise he's healthy on that regard."

"What a relief it wasn't drug-resistant. And his ulcer? His records show he was infected with the Helicobacter bacterium…? I'm surprised he was only treated with just the drugs…no surgery?"

Turning his attention back to the documents needing his signature, he pondered on those memories from last spring. It was the day after Yuki's graduation that he literally dragged the reluctant teen to his clinic to do a full medical examination…and he meant EVERYTHING.

'Yuki certainly turned many shades of red. He hardly spoke to me for a week afterwards. But he did learn the hard way…he sure never missed his dosage or his monthly appointments after that.'

"Yes, the 'darling boy' admitted to me that he had neglected to inform me of his symptoms. The usual excuses as you typically hear from your patients… Of course that didn't stop it from building up and causing a bad flare-up. He was extremely anemic by the time I ran the tests. I didn't wish to expose him to surgery if the experimental medication worked out, which thankfully it did."

She smiled broadly as she heard him briefly recount the story behind the medical record. It was the first time in all these days being there that he actually came close to smiling. "I'm certain Yuki-sama was grateful in the end for your care. He must have been relieved that you treated such dreadful illnesses with great success."

He looked to her then, the seriousness back in his gaze. "Kana-san, it's important that you not tell Yuki of these medical problems when he awakens. That is an order that even I must follow."

She looked away this time, unable to meet his firm stare. She bowed her head as she lowly commented, "Of course, Hatori-san, if that is your instruction, I will obey."

He noted the change in her demeanor immediately and mentally berated himself. Rubbing his eyes in frustration, he then reached out to softly pat her shoulder. "I'm sorry…that was rude of me."

"No, not at all!" she immediately interjected as she raised her head. "I am a bit confused…but that's nothing new with me, heh!"

She was happy to see his small smile return…and even happier to see him finally stand up from his chair. He had been in that same position since dawn no doubt.

"Your confusion is understandable, Kana-san. Akito's orders can only be fully understood by none other than Akito." Leading the way out of his office, they slowly walked down the hallway to the reception area. "Once Yuki awakens, I will be able to move him to the clinic at the Honke. Akito will be more…assured once I do so. It will also be much easier to manage his care and eventual therapy there. You can then be free to return to your clinic in the city."

She briefly bowed her head before replying, "Thank you for allowing me to stay on, Hatori-san. I can't ever rest easy if I just left without ensuring Yuki-sama's welfare, even if there isn't much that I can do now."

He softly looked in her direction. "Not at all. Your presence here has been of great support to me. I couldn't have made it this far without it."

She gently nudged him with her elbow as she widely smiled. "Now, now, no need to give my ego a boost! But thank you just the same. Why don't we get a real lunch downstairs—?"

She had stopped dead in her tracks when she stopped talking. Turning a curious gaze behind her, she then backpedaled 'til she reached a connecting hallway that lead to the family's quarters. She was never allowed to go down there, and she was pretty sure the person she's now seeing down there wasn't supposed to be there either.

"Ano, Hatori-san…did you allow that visitor into your family's private area?"

His change in mood was swift.

"Go downstairs, Kana-san. I'll be down shortly."

It was back. The rigidness in his shoulders…the severity in his step. Walking away from her down the hallway, he was back to having the world crash down on his shoulders, much like she had seen earlier that week.

She heavily sighed as she walked to the elevator, resigned to always being kept outside of his family's affairs. No matter how closely they worked in the past and even now, no matter the family ties between them, she could never be a part of that world he lived in. He had never allowed it then and certainly not now.

'What a shame…we could've been such good friends. Maybe…more…'

ooo—

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"So, there I was, being the innocent victim of having my short novel eaten by the computer and there stood my editor in my office literally snarling at me as if I were the culprit!"

He shifted the vase of flowers closer to the center of the table, amongst many others.

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"Really, how was I supposed to know that a power outage was going to corrupt the hard drive, ne?"

Deciding it looked too cluttered, he took the vase and placed it on another table that was full of get-well cards. It looked better here…

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"Although, I have to admit she was much angrier that one time when I told her I lost my novel to a pack of wolves. And for once that was the honest truth! Damn pack just came trolling through the area and took off with the manuscript when I was dozing, I mean, meditating outside on the veranda."

Now that he thought about it, he really hated these flowers…they were atrocious and smelled of stagnant water.

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"She obviously has misplaced anger management issues…I do worry for her, you know—"

"Will your mouth ever shut up?"

And so now the real conversation commenced. Akito had not said one word to him since he'd arrived that morning. It did not bode well if she was already that sour early on in the day.

'Well, thank goodness she said something. I was running out of stories.' Giving up on the bouquet of orchids he brought in, Shigure turned to her with a wide smile. "Now my dear, what has you in such a snit this early in the day? Surely Aya's enthusiasm has not proved too much for you to handle, ne?"

She continued to sit there, rubbing the bridge of her nose, seemingly ignoring the Inu until she spoke again, "Ayame has lessened the use of his mouth since he's been here. Even an idiot like him knows to behave in a hospital. Why aren't you any smarter?"

"I'm actually too smart for my own good, as you've repeatedly pointed out," he replied easily, his eyes taking on a glint that went unnoticed. Seeing her ignore him again, he heavily sighed and kneeled next to her as he quietly remarked, "Akito-san…he will wake up—"

She suddenly shot up from her chair, turning her back to him as she angrily remarked, "I know that, I don't need to be told every five minutes as if I were a child!"

"Even adults need assurances, Akito-san." He stood up but took care to keep his distance…she was truly at her breaking point if idle chat was already tipping her off.

"Assurances?" she harshly bit out. "A lot of damn good they do when reality is all that you're left with."

"It won't always be this way—"

"Reality will ALWAYS remain, NEVER forget that, Shigu—." She cut herself off abruptly, shutting her eyes as she took deep breaths to calm her escalating emotions. She then looked warily back at the lone bed in the room…

No change…nothing ever changed in that room but the slow wilt of the flowers. Even the world outside the window continued to remain as bleak as the room. The steady beat of the monitors and the ventilator…they had formed a melody that was constant and never-ending. It was all damn near…

'Hopeless.'

As quick as the thought registered in her mind, she shoved it furiously out. Steeling herself against the tide of desolate thoughts at the back of her mind, she jerked her seat back near the bed and sat down gracefully, keeping her hands folded calmly on her lap, her legs crossed. She made certain to keep her posture at attention, never allowing her fatigue to show through.

'As if I couldn't already tell.' Not daring to antagonize her by voicing that thought, Shigure slowly raised his hand and ever so gently laid it on her head, slowly threading his fingers through her soft hair. Oh how it brought back memories of years past…when it was just the two of them against the world or rather, her mother. When there was no Rat in their lives…

'How it all changed when he was born…how I changed…how you changed.'

He looked to the lone figure that lay motionless on those white sheets with all sorts of medical devices hooked up to him, oblivious to the havoc all around them that he had caused. 'Just like with Akito…everyone…every damn thing around us changed the moment he first drew breath. And now, look at us…one hell of a mess.'

He couldn't help it. He just couldn't help feeling the anger that was quietly simmering beneath his carefree mask during these past few days. Although to his defense, his current level of anger was a candle compared to that day when literally hell came raining down on them. Though in all honesty, he wasn't too sure if he was mad at Yuki or at himself.

'I left the tournament after Yuki's announcement…so sure that Akito would have left right after that. I even told Aya to wait for us at the Honke…I was just so damn sure. And I waited for her in the car. Waiting and wasting time with my editor over the phone. Never did it ever occur to me that… (Pause) There was so much rage to be felt, but when Akito's bond was fading…damn if my heart felt like it had been stabbed…'

He should have been there…hell, he knew a confrontation of the most painful kind was inevitable between the Rat and Cat after that announcement, anyone with a functioning brain knew that. But he had miscalculated. The possibility of Akito being caught in the middle of that clash should have occurred to him…just because Akito had never been directly involved with their altercations before did not insure she wouldn't ever. He was careless…he should have known!

'And we almost lost her. She had drifted too far away from my reach in the bond…there wasn't even a glimmer of her essence. Too lost to us…but not from him…' Admittedly, he was rather pissed, even now. He just didn't know if it was because he couldn't reach her in her darkest moments or because Yuki could. Regardless, one thing was for certain.

'Akito won't survive another round like that…she will succumb to that pit of infinite darkness. Just like all other 'gods' before her…just like all others after her.'

Time had run out.

"Akito-san…"

She said nothing in return, but she did spare a glance. It was enough.

He kneeled down and carefully took her small hands into his own, gently cradling them, knowing how close he had been to losing their warmth.

She said nothing, but she also didn't deny him the contact. It was enough.

He slowly bowed his head, his eyes hidden behind his fringe, and laid his head over their joint hands.

She said nothing. She did nothing. It was enough.

"Don't ever drift so far from my reach."

Gone was his cheery demeanor, the teasing air he carried about all this time…even the overbearing confidence was absent. None of it was of use to him here, now, with her.

'To know…to feel that ache in the pit of my bones when she almost…'

Denying the word didn't make it 'not real'. And death was very real.

In the face of that, he, a novelist, expert of the written prose, could not fathom a single sentence that not only she would believe but would also show her how much he felt for her…how much he feared for her.

How much he loved her.

How foolish…he thought too much. He simply had to shed his mask of ambivalence and give in to her…only to her. And, with that small whisper, he conveyed all that he had felt and wanted to say for the past five days.

And it was enough.

She still said nothing, but had he looked up, he would have seen the gaze in her eyes become haunted. She did do something then.

She pulled her right hand from his grasp and gently laid it on his head.

And really…it was more than enough.

They both remained as they were…lost to the mental tides that drove them quickly to the inevitable conclusion that their time together would be over very soon.

Far too soon.

ooo—

"The old man should hit the road while he still has his legs."

"That's rude, Hiro-baka!"

"You're the idiot, Usagi! He knows better than to be coming up here."

"Well, he's here now! And you got to show respect."

"That still don't mean he shouldn't hit the road before the shit hits the fan. Er, sorry, Kisa."

"Hiro-kun…do you think he'll leave soon?"

"Don't know…let's hope so."

"Haru-oniisan…do you think he'll go away soon?"

The elder teen merely looked to Ritsu standing next to them as they stood 'guard' by the doorway, blocking entrance into the living area they had thoroughly trashed earlier. As nervous as the Monkey was, he hardly paid any attention to the whispers going on behind him. His gaze was fixated down the long corridor on the young lady conversing with the surprise visitor, intent on going to her aid should she need it. But he then saw the Jyuunishi doctor come up to the trio in the hallway, wordlessly conveying to he and Haru to remain where they were. It soothed his nerves some to see Hatori there, but as time ticked away, his anxiety rose another notch.

Haru saw this and couldn't help but feel the same. The more time passed, the more likely that shit will hit the fan. Hiro wasn't mincing words when he said that. And Kisa had every right to be worried. Last thing they needed was an enraged Akito storming the hall and the fallout that usually came with that. None of them were in any shape, mental or physical, to deal with it at all.

"It's fine, Kisa-chan," the Ox assured the girl with a smile. "Hatori-nii and the others will get him out of here in time. Just go on back in…we need to clean up Hiro-kun's mess before Hatori-nii scolds us again."

"MY MESS?"

"Yeah, Hiro-CHAN, YOUR mess."

"DAMMIT, that DOES it. It is ON! C'mere, baka Usagi!"

"Wait, you two, there's still food on the floor!"

"Hm, passionate aren't they?" murmured Haru quietly as he lazily eyed each teen trying to outdo the other in an interesting game of pulling each other's ears off. 'Maybe Kisa-chan should douse them with water. Or better yet—'

(SHATTER!)

All thoughts, actions…breathing…it all stilled as they heard the distinct sound of glass shattering into tiny shards…a sound that wasn't coming from the two Jyuunishi in the room.

ooo—

"Please, sir, oh I beg of you…PLEASE leave."

"Kagura-chan, you know I cannot, not until I've finished my business with Akito-sama. Now don't fret over me—"

"If it were only that simple," Kagura murmured to herself. She implored once again, "Master Haji, Akito-san is not even allowing Yun-chan's parents to drop by. Please, sir, whatever it is, just leave it with us and we'll give it—"

"I'm not going to give it to her!" Ayame harshly whispered to her ear. "She's liable to throw it back in my face or worse, BURN IT!"

"Exactly, Ayame-kun. I must hand this to Akito-sama personally." Master Haji began to look around, trying to discern which room would be Yuki's, the likely place Akito would be. He had his reasons to be there…vital reasons.

"Ayame, Kagura…you can both go back to the kitchen."

All three turned to see the tall doctor come down an adjacent corridor to their location. And he looked none too pleased.

"That's my cue!" cheerily replied Ayame as he dragged Kagura back to the kitchen. "Come, my dear…(whispers) best to steer clear of the path of destruction."

Master Haji had hoped to avoid meeting the Jyuunishi doctor one-on-one. It was difficult to even gain access to this floor, and he was a senior board member of the private facility! Nonetheless, he had to literally bully his way there…but to get past Hatori, well, that normally doesn't happen. He would have to be frank about why he was there.

"Hatori-sensei, if I could postpone this I would. But I'm heading out tonight to the country villa and needed to get with Akito-sama before my trip back. Please, allow me entry to Yuki-sama's room."

Already Hatori was shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Master Haji, but your presence here on this floor will be enough to rile her plenty. Her health is not at it's best, especially now, and even if that weren't true, no one, and I do mean NO ONE, is allowed into Yuki's room without her express approval."

"This old man does understand," tiredly remarked the elder Sohma as he rubbed the bridge of nose before looking Hatori directly in the eye. "But I need to speak with Akito-sama about—"

(SHATTER!)

The glass shattered right at their feet. And everyone within hearing range looked towards the one individual capable and very willing to throw something made of glass to a person's vicinity.

'Oh sh—!' Shigure should have known that her abrupt walk-out from Yuki's room did not bode well. What it finally took for him to be truly alarmed was her silence and her picking up a glass of water from somewhere and continuing to calmly walk away down several corridors in a different direction from Yuki's room. As he followed her, it became abundantly clear upon hearing rising voices out in the hallway where she was finally headed…and he internally swore enough to put Haru to shame.

'Honestly, doesn't anyone have any common sense anymore? I am too damn fried to be of much use…' He quickly intervened with a grin as he popped his head over Akito's shoulder. "Uh…ahem, my dear Akito-san…that almost struck Haa-san."

"A-Akito-sama!" exclaimed Master Haji. "What is the meaning of this? Are you insane?"

Smothering a snort, Shigure replied in turn, "Eh, well, sanity for the sane is not a virtue Akito can claim, true enough."

"SHUT UP, SHIGURE!"

He grimaced as she shouted straight in his ear, knowing full well about his sensitive hearing. Pulling his head back, he massaged his tender ears. "Mou, Akito-san, your lovely voice just made my ears bleed, I think…"

"Akito-sama, this—"

"You be SILENT," Akito remarked icily as she pinned the elder Sohma with a furious glare. Turning to Hatori, she quietly ordered, "Go."

Hatori would be lying if he didn't confess to being overly terrified just then. The sound of the glass shattering in such close proximity to him…his recent reminisces into the past with Kana there…he was struck heavily with déjà-vu. The painful memories…both physical and emotional… But when she gave the quiet order, he was able to snap out of it. He looked to her and instantly knew not to dissuade her.

'This is not my responsibility…I can do nothing for him.' Bowing slightly to Master Haji, he turned away and walked around the shattered glass as best he could. In passing Akito and Shigure, he paused momentarily. "Would you like for me to stay with Yuki until you—"

"No, that's not necessary. Continue with your affairs." Nodding to him in dismissal, she looked beyond Master Haji to another Jyuunishi. "Ayame…"

Letting out a huge sigh of relief, he thinks, Ayame briefly smiled to Kagura and gave her a reassuring wink and pat on the shoulder. He gaily walked over, seemingly unaffected by the tense atmosphere and very happily remarked, "Ne, Akito, would you like for me to take over guard duty? I have the perfect story to tell Yuki—"

"Just remain by his side…QUIETLY," retorted Akito exasperated as she rubbed the ache from her temples.

"Aw, my poor Akito is all aches and pains lately…pish." Ayame quickly bent down to give her a quick hug…not at all appreciated by the glare he received from her. Such a glare just rolled right over him. "I, Sohma Ayame, will not fail you! This I vow!"

"Aya…"

"Not now, Gure-kun, I'm on a mission!"

And the whirlwind known as the Jyuunishi Hebi flounced out of the area, taking with him all the positive energy there was.

At least, in Shigure's mind that was so. As he sighed, he replied, "Eh, Aya has such drive, ne, Akito-san?"

"No more nonsense, Shigure." Turning her attention back to the eldest Sohma, she closed the gap between them, flicking the glass away with her shoe as she came closer. "You…why are YOU here?"

She was no longer raging, but Master Haji wasn't sure if she was anymore collected than before. He was fully aware of the fine line he walked on now…

"Akito-sama, first, I wish to offer my sympathies personally on Yuki-sama's condition. And to offer this…" Holding up a long, slim wooden box, he continued, "This is for Yuki-sama. He…wielded this so well, I was rather shocked to learn he had no experience before with such a blade, but… (Pause) In any case, this is his to have."

Akito knew of what he spoke of…she was well informed. She glanced down to the box in front of her, noting the fine details in the engravings…so very old…and emblazoned with the Jyuunishi seal. The family's seal was old indeed…

Opening it without further hesitation, she looked at the long sheath, its dark wood gleaming in the artificial light. She lightly fingered it before grasping the hilt and handle, the intricate details not missed by her fingers.

"How hidden our secrets are…so much so that even the knowledge of two blades in one sheath managed to stay hidden for so long." She looked up and slowly smiled, bemused. "Yuki is unique as you well know, Master Haji. I am not surprised by his innate abilities as the Nezumi. And this…(whispers softly, widely smiling)this symbolizes his devotion to me."

Master Haji could find no words to dispute that truth. He had seen that passionate devotion of the Nezumi with his own eyes.

"Shigure."

Closing the box, she carried it momentarily before handing it off to the Inu, her fingers trailing delicately over the item before turning back to the elderly man. "Now that Yuki's property has been settled, let us have the truth. You are here for one reason…and I believe Kureno was more than clear on where I stand on this."

Master Haji felt eyes from all around boring into him. The very fine line he was walking on…

"I cannot accept this decision, Akito-sama."

…he just crossed it.

ooo—

"Ne, Yuki, I was looking over my samples that I had brought from the shop. I must admit that they weren't nearly as magnificent as I had thought they were. They were just…ordinary. Nothing caught my attention…not the shape, pattern, nothing. I was so disappointed."

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"So of course yours truly had to rectify this travesty against my honor as a designer. I put an email through to Mine that all the other samples be burned as penance. It's only fair, ne?"

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"Naturally this brought to mind a time back in the days of my merry youth…back to when I was so innocent of the world at large. Just me with only my magnificence to keep me company during those long, dreary hours of gym class…I mean, honestly, who the hell cares to stay in shape in school? Then and now, I'm naturally fit and beautiful. Of course, if Gure-kun or Tori-kun had been in the same class as me, maybe I would've enjoyed walking a lap or two…"

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"Anyway, I was in charge of our school's sewing club and a quilt had to be presented by everyone. After working on my sample for hours, one day, out of the blue, I was so upset with the pattern in my quilt sample that I rushed to the incinerator at school and chucked the damned cloth into it. It was so…mundane, plain, just truly atrocious, so you needn't feel pity for the cloth."

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"Tears just fell oh so beautifully from my eyes…I was a vision…at least, that's what Gure-kun says. Heh, you wouldn't believe how he and Tori-kun were worried for me then…such darlings. They actually thought I was upset because someone had died! Isn't that funny?"

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

The constant chant of the machines was his only answer. But he kept his smile in place…his cheery demeanor never once relenting. Having finished rearranging the flowers and gifts, he went to sit by Yuki's side, no doubt placed there by Akito.

"You know, this is the first time Akito is not here with us. Just you…and me."

He took one of Yuki's right hand into his, marveling at how it seemed to be the only limb free of injuries. Well, that's not completely true…there was bruising on both hands and arms. The swelling had gone down finally, and the ghastly discoloration of his skin was intensifying, a sure sign that it was on the mend.

"Mou, I will bring you a foundation for this. I will not have you looking any less than your very best, Otouto-kun, even while unconscious."

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

He caressed the injured flesh…each delicate finger he traced carefully. "I marvel at your beauty…your magnificence outshines even my own."

Looking up, he stared at Yuki's face, bringing his other hand to caress the slightly discolored cheek. Apparently Yuki had done a marvelous job of defending himself since his face and other parts of his body were relatively unharmed. What injuries were classified as severe were either allowed to happen or done by his own hand.

"Honestly, Otouto-kun, you were very careless, and I will properly lecture you once you awaken. Be prepared for it. And Kyon-kichi, too…he must learn to never let his temper get the better of him again. What a mess you two made…making us worry so. Take this bit of wisdom from your beloved Nii-san—maturity doesn't always come along with age, but stupidity…that just grows right along with you. Trust me, I should know."

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

He paused in his ministrations, thinking back to the events at the tournament. It had started out with little trouble…so calm and a typical, normal flow of their lives. Yet, how it had strayed so far to the deep end of despair and in such a short amount of time…

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"Yuki…I am not…unaware. Details are not provided to me, but…I know enough. You would have to be a dead man to not have felt the despair…the rage…the hurt. As your brother, I felt that all from you in our bond. How I wished I could have spared you of that."

(Shwish—BEEP—Shwish)

He looked away from his brother, clasping his hand with both his own…not wanting to show his face…a face that was frowning. He quietly murmured, "For being put through such a nightmare as that…I will not forgive Kyo for his part in that. I, who had put you through similar hurts in our shared past, haven't forgiven myself for it, and I will tolerate it even less from others."

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

Glancing back to his sleeping companion, he smiled wryly. "I am wicked, ne? Well, rest easy, I won't act upon my feelings. You were more than thorough in your reprimand of the Neko. Kyon-kichi will absolutely be going through the fires of recovery for some time to come. Maybe I'll lay off on the teasing for a while…at least, I'll think about it. That's more than generous of me, ne?"

(Shwish—BEEP—Shwish)

"Akito is strong, Yuki. She held on, and I'm sure it was because of you. As I've always said and continue to say, your magnificence has no boundaries. It's because of that, that I am as certain as ever that you will come back to us. I know it."

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

Leaning over Yuki, he smiled gently down to him and gave him a small peck on the nose. "Akito holds a unique place in my heart as do Gure-kun and Tori-kun. Those two are my bestest of friends in the world…my brothers to confide in and share my joy with. No other will fill their spots in my heart. Not even you."

(Shwish—BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP—Shwish)

"But that's because the rest of my heart belongs to you. All others take up spots there, but you have all the rest. Your stupid brother has no room in there either for anyone else. It's yours alone."

(Shwish—BEEP—Shwish)

"So please…my very dearest…"

(Shwish—)

"…don't shatter it."

(BEEEEEEP)

"EH—(argh)"

ooo—

Silence.

Dead silence.

Even the once noisy Jyuunishi in the other room stood at the doorway…silent.

It was more of sense of utter shock. And not a little bit of trepidation.

The spike…no, the very definite bomb felt in their bond told them exactly how Akito felt at that moment.

"Ano…Master Haji," started the Inu warily, "it's been a very trying week for all of us. We're still a bit sensitive to our bond with Akito-san, so—"

He quieted upon seeing Akito raise her hand. He had expected her to go into one of her screeching fits or at the very least act upon her angered state (that was what they felt in their bond with her)…throwing a few glass bottles wouldn't be out of the normal realm of possibilities. Yet she merely stood there, not moving once…just staring.

But what a stare she gave the elderly man. The fires of the Sun felt cool when compared to her stare.

"Is that so? You…cannot?"

Her voice calm like the water trickling in a fountain…yet she was anything but. Master Haji knew her well enough and had seen that look one too many times when she had a row with Seto.

"Kyo-kun has acted rashly, I will not deny that. Foolishly reckless, even. But he has been brought down low and severely punished for it by the next head of the family. What will confining him to Shigure-kun's home accomplish? Or for that matter, why close down Kazuma's dojo? The poor man has been through hell as well, you can't possibly—"

"I can't?" she cut in with a smile that held no joy. "I can do whatever the hell I want and have. It's DONE. That dojo is closed and that FILTH is permanently under lock and key. Be grateful I am so sickened by his mere existence that I want him far and away from the estate. He will be banished and confined to Shigure's household. Yuki will be returning to the estate directly from here to recover and to live."

"Kyo's punishment aside, shutting down the dojo is not—"

"IS MY DAMN BUSINESS! DID YOU THINK I WOULDN'T KNOW HOW INVOLVED THAT LOT WAS WITH WHAT HAPPENED? NO ONE TOUCHES WHAT'S MINE…EVER!" She closed her eyes briefly, momentarily a breather from her 'discussion' with Master Haji. Rubbing her eyes tiredly, she quietly looked to the elder Sohma before pinning him with a sharp gaze and calmly asking, "Who am I?"

Master Haji knew only one way to answer. "You are my clan head."

"That I am still. And so the following must be true as well…to attack one of my own is to attack me, am I not correct?"

"…Yes."

"And this truth especially applies to my Jyuunishi, more so with the Nezumi. He is a DIRECT representative of my position and the future head of this family. Would attacks on the Jyuunishi…on your future head of this family be in any way tolerated?"

"…These are extenuating circumstances. As a part of this family, Kyo-kun must—"

"That stain in our family line was NEVER part of our bond, not even when it was conceived. He along with the others from that dojo attacked my Jyuunishi of their own free will. They therefore attacked ME. And I as YOUR clan head have made the decision. They will not go unpunished. Kazuma was warned…explicitly…that he would be responsible should something happen. THREE warnings…no more. The dojo is shut down indefinitely. And not one word from anyone will sway my decision."

Master Haji looked sadly back at her, barely shaking his head. "I beseech you in the name of your father…have you no mercy, no love for those family members that make mistakes?"

She didn't hide her incredulity as she remarked, "Love? I hate that word…such a wretched combination of letters. It's an infection that can overwhelm every damn sense of the mind. (Smiles widely) The Neko will never learn otherwise…to cross me is to bring a mountain of regret over his head. Let's see how willing he is now to defy me when he discovers that his precious father's dojo is no longer in business because of him."

The elderly man couldn't bring himself to rest his eyes on her. For he knew exactly what it was she wanted now done. After all, Kureno had explained it to him thoroughly.

"You really cannot do it?" She carefully comes to his side and slips her hand into his robe's inner pocket, grasping the papers she had signed just the other day. Pulling away, she reviewed and confirmed that all documents were in place.

"You were always loyal to my father when he was alive and fully carried out his wishes when he died," she remarked as she folded the papers oh so carefully. Looking at her elder, her sharp gaze hardened further. "It's only because of this fact that I've allowed for you to continue as you have today. You may rest assured as you retire to the country villa up north that as a token of my generosity, this matter will be settled for you. You may leave now."

Master Haji had only hesitated momentarily before nodding in submission to her request. For now…just for the time being. He was dejected in his heart, but he would not let the defeat show on his person. It would be a sign of weakness that Akito hated to see in subordinates of his level. The heavy silence that followed was only altered by the soft footsteps of the elder Sohma making his way down a corridor to the elevators.

"Proud man, ne, Akito-san?" remarked Shigure with a slight glint in his eyes.

She was no one's fool. This 'disagreement' between Master Haji and herself was only the beginning of a long line of grievances. Being on her guard is vital now more than ever.

Shigure was about to press the matter further when she suddenly bolted from there, heading down the corridors at a fast pace. With no explanation, he stood there stunned for a few seconds before he felt it…

The same cold, vicious string in their bond that froze the blood in their veins. It was the very same thing they felt when it all went down at the exhibit hall.

He ran after her.

The alarm from Yuki's room resounded against the hallways.

ooo—

A shining beacon of light.

The pitch black of darkness.

It was one or the other…always around him…

Silence had never sounded so loud.

Yet time came and went and this, too, changed.

Muffled sounds…whispers too quickly spoken to be understood.

Finally…he stood in a hallway…a long corridor…dark wood all around.

Light where he was…he could see his fingers and legs. Beyond him…darkness.

He walks…doors. None open. He continues.

Many hallways connect to the one he's in…all full of darkness.

He walks, turns, walks further…stops. Whispers…becoming louder…he turns.

He continually walks at a sedate pace…those whispers still make no sense.

Abruptly he turns to look behind him.

He was being followed.

He stops.

His heart beats louder than the silence.

Tremors…in the walls…from the floor.

A door opening is heard. He runs to find it.

Heavier…the tremors are heavier the more he runs.

The pounding of his heart hurts his chest.

Turn…stop…turn the other way.

Run.

Faster…run faster.

A wall stops him. He falls.

The creaking door…he sees it.

It's closing.

Run.

Run.

He's pulled back.

It's closing.

Breaks away…

RUN!

Barely nudges his way in.

He never once looks back.

'LIGHT…TOO BRIGHT.'

He's falling…glass shattering all around him.

Silence again.

Falling…

Free…so free…

He let's go.

He stops falling…danger before him. A dark mass…getting larger…

LOUD SCREECHING…everywhere!

He reaches out…

'STOP!'

"STOP THIS YUKI…LET HIM GO! YOU'RE CHOKING HIM!"

"His heart rate is through the roof, Hatori-sensei!"

"WHY AREN'T THE DRUGS HAVING ANY EFFECT, SIR?"

"YUKI, LISTEN TO ME…LET GO OF YOUR BROTHER!"

"HIS GRIP IS TOO STRONG, SIR!"

"Do I administer a higher dosage, Hatori-sensei?"

"NO!"

Immediately all efforts from the physicians gathered around the patient paused momentarily upon hearing Akito speak. Hatori was the first to react.

"Akito, please let us—"

"Be silent!"

She shoved Shigure's arms off her as she strode into the chaotic room. Ignoring the Ayame's struggles, she gently laid her hands on him, looking him straight in the eye. The panic was clearly there but she saw beyond that…such concern for his brother, even now as he was slowly choked to death.

"Stop moving." Her firm order however ludicrous was followed instantly as the Snake stilled his movements to free himself. Turning to the Nezumi, she saw all his tubing still in place, but his eyes… They were wide open…yet seeing nothing. His pupils were contracted to pin-pricks…his violet colored eyes were shining brightly in all their glory. They were truly a marvel to look at.

She laid a hand gently on his hand that firmly gripped his brother's neck. And her other hand…she swiftly brought it across his face in one firm stroke.

(SMACK!)

"You WILL listen to me, Nezumi. Release him now, or I will strike you down. NOW."

The seconds that ticked by seemed eternal with no change from the patient forthcoming…and then…

A twitch of his other hand that had lain immobile all this time.

A jerk of his head.

Akito slowly brings her hand away from Ayame's neck…taking Yuki's hand along with hers. When she finally brings their hands fully against her chest, the physicians wasted no time in bringing the sputtering brother off his knees and onto a chair. He was quickly given the necessary medical attention to bring desperately needed oxygen back into his lungs.

Ayame, though fatigued and in pain, smiled broadly. He gently pushed Hatori, gesturing that he go back to his brother's side.

"Hatori-sensei…I will attend to Ayame-san. Please, go to Yuki-sama."

Hatori was grateful for Kana's understanding as he squeezed her shoulder in gratitude. Nodding his thanks to Ayame, he went to stand by Akito's side, taking in the long awaited moment.

Yuki's eyes blinked open…aware.

And he was terrified.

***(tbc)***


Your eyes don't deceive you…(03-29-11):

And if you still think this update is a mirage, let me assure you that it's the real thing. After literally a year and some months, this chapter is from me to those of you that are still lingering around my neck of the woods. Many, many, MANY thanks.

Eh, I'm sure many are still wondering why such a long hiatus. Well, maybe not that many…some may ask it. And to those that ask it, well, let's say it had a lot to do with creative drive. Last year I was at my limits when I was slammed with a personal issue. So what I had for creativity quickly died out, and trust me, it took me a long while to recover it. I truly hate the first portion (Kyo/Kazuma/Tetsuya scenes) of this chapter because it represents a lot of my frustration and despair I had at the time. Much of Kyo's angst was derived from my own, so I'm sorry if that portion is a bit raw for some of you guys out there. I just had to let loose somewhere. Nonetheless, I'm glad that this portion was put together since it really set the tone of the chapter…very angsty with a dash of humor.

So I've been tinkering with the chapter for the last several months, since August really. But it really began taking off just these last couple of months. I've been saying that I get a lot of my drive from the music I listen to, and finally, one song just clicked for me in this chapter. "The Boxer" was performed/written by Paul Simon with Art Garfunkel and the lyrics…wow. It's an old folk ballad, and the message in the lyrics resounded so much with the tone in this chapter. I recommend it for you to listen…I know many would prefer a good dance mix by Lady Gaga over anything remotely related to the oldies, but trust me, the real music that you will likely end up listening to when you're truly down in the dumps is not a dance mix. You want to hear a song that reflects you at that moment, and so, from personal experience, this song clicked for me.

Now that I look all around me at the world in general since I've last updated, man oh man…as Ayame would say, DAMN. I think my chapter sets the tone very well, and I kind of wished I had released a happier chapter. It's only going to get more angsty as time crawls along. I hope you still stick with me despite my shortcomings.

Many have reviewed and faved me over the course of this past year and some even emailed me personally. Thanks to all of you…from the bottom of my heart, truly thank you. I deserve no real praise because as an author I should release with more frequency, but I so appreciate any and all words of encouragement you've sent my way. I sincerely do read them all, so don't stop bugging me if you find my updates to be a bit slow. I don't mind the push from my readers, just as long as you show respect in your remarks…in other words, threats to dump my story because of a lack of updates is not encouragement. I'm in no way angry or truly offended or anything, just keep in mind that you're not helping. If you want to personally email me, feel free to do so as others have.

Okay, enough of that…let's get on with the juicy details in this story! Yep, I've finally come back to a critical point in the story development! The main part is that Kazuma's business is shut down by Akito…that has been on my drawing board since the very beginning. It's important to include this because it is a personal blow to Kyo. Akito is merciless when she wants to be, right? Oh, I loved this chapter…LOVE it!

What do you guys think? You may need to re-read previous chapters just to get back on track, but let me know how this release works for you. I would love to hear who is still reading up on this! Thanks again to everyone passing through…take care out there and love to those of you going through hard times. 'Til next time!