Embers of Summer's Glory
Chapter 68: Depths of Our Despair

: * :

Forever searching; never right,
I am lost in oceans of night.
Forever hoping I can find memories,
Those memories I left behind…

-"Evening Falls", Enya

: * :

"Uo-chan, do you have the butterfly clip in your top drawer?"

"Uh, yeah, somewhere in there. Can you find it?"

"No…oh, yes, here it is! Thank you!"

"Sure."

The young lady was in a flurry of activity as she finished dressing, excitedly retrieving the accessory to top off her casual but dressy look. The butterfly broche was the perfect touch to her outfit.

Yet her reflection in the bathroom mirror turned from a joyous moment to anxious as thoughts swirled in her mind like a storm.

'Perfect…it has to be perfect. After so long…after what's happened, everything has to be perfect. No more screw-ups, Tohru. No more.'

Clenching her hands together, she silently prayed for strength from her mother and once again took in deep breaths. It was the only thing that kept her from passing out from sheer nervousness.

'I can do this. I must. I will.' Looking at her reflection once more, she nodded to herself before heading back into her bedroom to choose her shoes.

Uotani barely lifted her eyes from the book she borrowed from the library when Tohru was running around getting ready to go out. Myths and legends weren't normally her preference but the cover jacket gave the book glowing reviews. She had to agree and would've been engrossed with her book had it not been for the poor mood her other housemate was in.

"Oi, Saki, you frowning up a storm is not gonna help convince Tohru to change her mind."

And all Hanajima's mind registered was her own private thoughts.

'She should stay far, far away from them.'

However her opinion was only acknowledged, never heeded to.

'Why does she continue to ignore my warnings?'

It was times like these that Hanajima wished that the Sohmas didn't exist. The whole lot of them were nothing but trouble…the deep, dark kind of trouble. Nothing of the likes that their beloved Tohru should be involved in.

She turned away from the window and addressed her companion quietly, "Arisa, we can't just stand by and allow—"

"—'allow' nothin'. We can't control her decisions. If Tohru wants 'in' on that family, then that's it…period," cut in Uo firmly. Sighing heavily from her place at the low table in the living area, she sipped her cold beverage slowly and looked to her agitated friend with resignation. She remarked quietly, "Hell, I don't have your 'wave' radar, and I knowsomething's…off. It ain't right…whatever it is…"

Neither spoke after that, knowing full well the futility of trying to stop Tohru from further associating with the Sohmas. Uotani had limited contact at best with Kureno, but now it was non-existent. Something was definitely afoul. There were always doubts about that family in the past—who wouldn't question free room and board with such a reclusive family—but now…

It had been weeks after the tournament when Tohru first received word via email from Kagura that the Sohma boys and everyone else for that matter were in good health. Brief and to the point as she nervously read it aloud, but it was enough to lift her very low spirits, if only a bit.

"We're fine at the estate with Yun-chan…he's getting better. Kyo-kun is at Shii-chan's home doing better, too. Please don't visit just yet…privacy is a MUST right now. Stay sweet and strong for us!"

Uotani and Hanajima thought it very odd to be told not to visit, but it didn't faze Tohru in the least, especially reading the word 'yet' in the short note. She declared that it was enough to know they were fine, and that she will be strong for her surrogate family and wait to hear from them. Yet time marched on and not one Sohma relative, least of all Yuki or Kyo, had contacted her since then. No lively chat room conversations, drop-in visits, phone calls…they seemingly disappeared from their lives.

Tohru had kept up her smiles, strained as they were but still there. She was becoming more distracted…despondent even when she thought no one saw her. While she never cared to hear or see the media coverage on the aftermath of the earthquake, her housemates soaked it up.

Little was said about the Sohmas (their exhibit hall closed for the year to undergo repairs was the extent of the news on them), but they were able to learn how revered the family was in the eyes of the media and in business politics. Tohru had never once mentioned that the seat of their family estate was as big as a city block! To think their cherished friend was even remotely involved with a family like that, it made them wonder the reason behind their charity with the young lady.

And just when they thought that the mysterious family had dropped out of their lives as swiftly as they had dropped in, another sudden and even briefer email was delivered to Tohru yesterday, over a month since the incident at the hall.

"We're good to go! Come with me tomorrow to visit Kyo-kun…I'll be waiting by the turnoff."

Needless to say that this time they did not let the matter rest. They both pleaded with Tohru to directly confront this family and her so-called friends either by phone or by paying them a visit. If it weren't for the terrified expression on her face just then, they may have worried less, but to have seen it…

Something was very wrong. And their beloved girl was no doubt too caught up in that family's mess to walk away. Yet, how could they protect her when she adamantly refused their help, even going so far as to reject their presence by her side when she went to visit the Sohma boy?

'If it wasn't for that look in her eyes when she literally got on her knees and begged that we stay behind when she visited that family…' Shaking her head with a heavy sigh, Uotani snapped her book shut as she stood up. She then went over to Hanajima and slung her arm around her small shoulders.

"You know, we can't hold her hand forever. You just got to let go and see what she does for herself. Good or bad…"

"Hn, it's the last part I'm most worried about," Hanajima replied reluctantly.

"Yeah, me, too. Me, too."

A burst of activity interrupted the solemn mood as Tohru tore through the room with shoes, purse, hat, and gift in hand. Her whole face was lit up…it was heartbreaking.

'How can we not support her when she's now so damn happy? Damned if I know when it happened…when the Sohmas became her whole world…'

Shoving the hurt and, dare she say, envy deep down, Uotani remarked casually, "So, got it all together? You sure you don't need a cart to get that all down to their house?"

"Heh, I'm fine," Tohru replied bashfully. Suddenly, she reached out and hugged both ladies. "Thank you…so much."

"Eh? For what?" was Uo's stunned response.

"For being so good to me, even if you don't agree with me." Slipping her shoes on, Tohru juggled her items as she opened the door. Stepping out, she widely smiled. "Oh, um, I made dinner earlier and left it in the fridge, so just heat it up for ten minutes in the oven! I may be a little late, so don't wait up for me…bye!"

Silence followed the closure of the door. But only for a few moments.

"If that family so much as harms a hair on her…," trailed off Hanajima.

Uotani snorted. "Yeah…no mercy. None."

ooo—

Deep in the heart of the forest, leaves flutter in the gentle breeze. Birds sing beautifully to their own tune, grateful for the reprieve of the rainy weather. With the sun filtering through the shade, the tranquility and serenity of the scene was mesmerizing…

"~In the forest, the mighty forest, the kitty sleeps inside~"

…until it was shattered by a song sung off-tune…very loudly…

"~In the forest, the quiet forest, the kitty sleeps inside~"

"It ain't quiet anymore, damn mutt…"

"~A-wimoweh, a-wimoweh (dodge) a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh~"

"Get the HELL OUTTA MY ROOM!"

(Jerks to the left) "~A wimoweh, a-wimoweh a-wimoweh, (ducks) a-wimoweh~"

"DO THE HOO-LAH ELSEWHERE, FREAK!"

-"~A-wimoweh, ('Hey, that almost hit me!') a-wimoweh a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh~"

'I swear, if that mutt don't SHUT UP…'

"~In my home, this peaceful home, the kitty still sleeps inside~"

"It ain't gonna be peaceful for long, MUTT!"

"~In this home, my humble home, the lazy kitty is STILL sleeping INSIDE~(GAH—!)"

Bolting from his bed, he grasped the flailing Inu in a fierce headlock. Kyo gritted through clenched teeth, "Who you callin' 'lazy'?!"

Shigure widely grinned though still wheezing for air, "Certainly not you, almighty Kit—(GAH)!"

"I'm trying to recuperate, here!"

(Gasp) "Damn fine grip you got there, Smitten Kitten…" 'Heh, mission accomplished.' With that passing thought, the struggling Inu ceased all movements and elegantly poked one delicate finger to one—

"OW! DAMN, FRIGGIN' MUTT—"

"Oh, tish, tosh…it wasn't that bad a poke, you big baby."

"THAT WAS A BUSTED NOSE!"

"And well on the mend. At least now you're up and OUT of bed," glibly retorted the indifferent man as he slid out the door. "Honestly, you did just put me in a headlock… (Poked his head back in.) Oh, the bathroom's ready, your grace."

"Argh…stupid idiot…" Rubbing his sore nose once more, Kyo soothed other aches that also manifested themselves when he had jerked up and out of the bed. 'Great…Hatori will hang me if I make the ribs worse. Or the leg…or—aw, the hell with it. I'll live.'

Breathing calmly, he gently massaged his damaged ribs, glad that for once the act no longer gave him agonizing pain because of a dislocated shoulder. Thankfully the joint was reset into its proper place by Kazuma himself once the cracked ribs were in better shape—he would never live the humiliation down when he had admittedly screamed like a girl. Shigure swore he busted a kidney with laughing so hard, so naturally the Neko in him felt quite justified in smacking the bark right out of the Dog. Said Dog sulked for a week.

He only wished his broken leg was so easily fixed, but he was grateful that it was a closed fracture of the fibula (the outer bone that runs alongside the tibia below the knee)…oh, how it could have been so much worse. A sturdy leg brace and a pair of crutches for now, then just the boot alone, and then months of rehab therapy…truly, he was grateful for small miracles.

All in all, he was doing much better…so much so that Kazuma saw fit to leave him in Shigure's care. Apparently Master Haji was in dire need of his father's assistance at the clan's remote villa in the country. The cataloguing of all the heirlooms and exhibit pieces was so overwhelming that the elder Sohma needed the extra help for the next few weeks. It was certainly an abrupt departure (he had been told of it one late afternoon and the martial arts teacher was gone by dawn the following morning), but Kazuma made sure to leave many instructions on his son's care, including recipes on how to cure the common cold, flu, diarrhea, constipation…

'Shishou sure can worry about everything. And those hugs of his the night before were damn near bone-crushing. Good thing the painkillers dulled the pain.' Kyo gathered his toiletries and towel and headed to the bathroom for a long visit. It was difficult to maneuver with crutches inside the humid room, but by keeping his injured leg in a plastic bag, he could soak in the tub for a while, further soothing his injured body.

'It was ingenious the way Shishou did this bag get-up. He must have had practice with others.' Reaching his destination, he shut the door behind him, leaving it unlocked in case of an emergency. He commenced his normal routine of brushing his teeth and once done, took his clothes off to start his bath. Carefully maneuvering himself and gently cleansing himself, he got the job done. He then very carefully set himself in the tub, finally able to sit back in relative peace to soak in its heated waters.

'Man, this hits the spot.' Heavily sighing, he draped a wet, heated cloth over his face. All the aches and sore muscles were literally singing in his ears out of sheer bliss. 'Hn, this beats any drug-induced sleep any day…how I hated it when Shishou or Shigure spiked my food or drink with the narcotic. That crap kept me so freakin' drowsy a lot of the time…damn near slept my way through the pain all these days!'

Letting out a long sigh, he re-soaked his towel and draped it over his face once again. He cleared his thoughts and put forth the effort to think of nothing else but the heat of his watery oasis. He ignored many drifting thoughts as he did this…

The image of shattering glass, falling all around him…

The screams of sheer terror from either a dream or the people that had the glass shattering all around them…

The floor trembling beneath his feet…

Words like daggers thrown his way by the lips of a viper…

"It's said that betrayal is the blade we all carry within us…that it's entirely left to our hearts to wield it against those within our reach. (Pause—she turns to him, face hidden in shadows.) I will never betray you…not now, not ever. You have to believe me."—

Truths…hard truths…sad ones as well…

A face of a gentle soul…begging, pleading to deaf ears…

Eyes…eyes vibrant as the amethyst but cold…so very frigid in its intensity…

The one saving grace of the painkillers was that it blocked most if not all of these thoughts. But he was very lucid now, in no way capable of blocking them. So he chose to ignore it…ignore it with a passion.

The feel of a wooden weapon in his hand…foreign, yet so eerily familiar…

Rage…fierce, cold fury…within his bones…simmering.

His family…a father, brother, sister…none by blood but by bond…fighting for him…against him...

Dark fury leaving him incapable of mercy to anyone.

Breathless by one, sharp pain…weightless as he felt nothing but gravity dragging him down...

His eyes seeing but still not believing…the face of a young boy looking down on him from the balcony…steel-cold, dark blue eyes piercing his being…unnaturally, mouthing three words.

Fear…stomach-turning, wretched fear…paralyzing…

Wracking pain as he landed hard…

The echo of a child's voice condemning him…unrelenting…

To fear so much…to equally hate

—"You will regret."

Silence from his beads…

ooo—

"Agh, Kaguwah-fan…I…choke…"

"What a glorious, wonderful girl you are! I think you've grown taller since I saw you last!"

"…"

"Oho, speechless now, huh?! Yeah, my hair was getting too cumbersome to style so I went bold and chopped it all off—bob cuts are so me! Hey, say something!"

Taking big gulps of breath as the Boar of the Zodiac finally released her from a very firm hug, Tohru smiled weakly. "Your…ahem, your hair looks great…you look great! (Sigh) It's so good to see you, Kagura-san! I missed you all!"

"Same here! I'm just glad the rain let up so we can both visit Kyo-kun together." Turning on her heel, Kagura purposely headed into the forest down the familiar worn path that led to the Inu's hidden home. "I can't wait to have Kyo-kun and Shin-chan try out my new muffins. And you, what did you get Kyo-kun?"

Looking at Kagura's bright-red bag, Tohru then looked sadly to her own smaller blue tote. "Hm, I didn't think to bring food for Kyo-kun…that should have been obvious…"

Kagura waved off the worry. "Oh, it doesn't matter. The big doofus will happily take mud from you if that's what you got him. So…what is it?"

"Well, I thought he'd be bored staying indoors so much to…get healthy again. (Sigh) Puzzles…that's what I got him," she lamely finished off.

"That's great! We'll try one tonight before dinner," the Boar cheerily replied. Linking arms with the other, she breathed in heavily and smiled widely as she serenely took in the calm, sunny weather through the forest around them. "This feels so wonderful, ne? It's been too long since we've last done this."

"It feels so…normal…"

Kagura felt the change in mood upon hearing that. Looking to her companion, she noted that Tohru had the infamous 'but' all over her face.

'Yeah…the 'but' of all 'buts'. Can't blame her…' Sighing heavily, Kagura slowed her pace. "I'm so sorry, Tohru-kun. For so many things—"

"No, not at all! I hadn't meant anything by saying that—"

"…but it's not my place to give you any explanations, Tohru-kun," the young Sohma lady went on without letup, biting her lip in obvious frustration. She held up her hand to still further protests. "And you do deserve them. You're no stranger to us…you're part of the family. Trust me when I say that what's been said or done, back at that hall up till now, in no way should be taken that we don't think of you as family. You are…you're very dear to us, okay?"

She swiftly took out a handkerchief from her purse and carefully wiped the fall of tears from Tohru's face. Smiling gently, she laughed lightly, "Look at this…our little Tohru-kun was so stressed over possibly losing us. Silly Tohru-kun…"

'Had I really been thinking that all this while?' Hastily, Tohru tried wiping her tears with the back of her hand, sniffling heartily. "Sorry…(sniffle) it's just that…I was so sure…(sniffle) thank you. Thank you so much, Kagura-san."

"Well, now, that's better. You must have been carrying around that load of doubt all this time." Leading her friend by the hand, Kagura started towards the hidden home again. "We certainly didn't help any with cutting you off there for a while."

"Oh no, no, I completely understood you were all so overwhelmed with…what had happened." Tohru quietly added, "All of you must have suffered so…I'm sorry I couldn't be there for you…"

The silence that followed was thick with emotion that neither girl felt needed an explanation. Throwing her arm over the slim girl's shoulders, the gentle Boar gave her a squeeze.

"We all missed you, too."

As they continued on the winding path, the soft breeze swept past them, the trees swaying just so. The soft chattering of birds was in the background, and the serenity accompanied the girls as their thoughts took them in all different directions. Yet, in the end, they all centered on the same two individuals…

"Kagura-san?

"Yes?"

Twisting her hands on the handles of her gift, Tohru pressed forward boldly with the one question that had been burning in her heart for weeks.

"Will I ever know the truth?"

Kagura looked over to her distraught companion, daring to answer that question fully…yet falling short. 'I'm no more merciful than Akito herself…' Pressing her lips together, she looked forward once again, taking measured breaths to steady the onslaught of an impending emotional outburst. Instead, she gave the only response that answered everything…and nothing at all.

"Tohru-kun…"

"Hn?"

With the house now coming into view, Kagura whispered softly, "Our boy is very hurt."

Tohru had started to reply but found that her mind could find no words to respond. Apparently they weren't needed.

"Any questions, doubts, worries…there shouldn't even be a glimmer of those when you walk through that door. The dimwit would never forgive himself if he sees it in your eyes."

Slowing her gait further, Tohru looked to Kagura's determined expression, the Boar's eyes staring straight ahead. The picture of maturity.

It was high time that she, too, shed that bit of her childhood. Naiveté, uncertainties, and yes, even that blissful ignorance of being too young to understand has no place here. She was no longer an outsider…she was a member of this family, and it was long overdue that she started to realize that she had responsibilities as such to her surrogate family. As her mother would put it, it was damn well time to man up.

Her nod was firm. "Of course."

And thus her first step onto the wrap-around porch was the start of new beginnings…and the coming end to all she held dear.

ooo—

Humming along with a tune on the radio, Shigure leaned over the counter, head in his hands as he glumly read from a cookbook that Kazuma kindly left behind.

"Honestly, the man spoils that boy too much…plain ol' donburi is just not enough. (Sigh) Well, I promised. Now let's see if I can do this…"

Covering his eyes with one hand, he flipped through the book with the other. After a few moments he stopped and removes his hand over his eyes. "So, who's the lucky dish today? Shabu-shabu, is it? Of all the…why does it have to be the hard ones?"

Heaving a heavy sigh, he read the instructions, his expression becoming gloomier as he read on. "Teaspoon of this…tablespoon of that…pft, they're spoons so what's the difference? Honestly, why make this so damn hard on us idiots?"

And the blessed sound of a knock from his front door had him almost singing.

'This is too good to miss.' Widely grinning, he grabbed his cell from the countertop and called out from the kitchen, "Oi, Kyo-kun, grab that for me, will you? It's a delivery for you."

A muffled but very upset response could be heard through the home, "Are you freakin' kidding me?! I'm barely out of the damn tub! YOU TAKE IT!"

"No can do! I'm making lunch, remember?"

"SHIGURE—!"

"Oh my, he's leaving—you better hurry down! What if it's urgent?"

Words best left to no man's ears were heard echoing all the way from the hallway, down the stairs and through the living room. And when the mischievous writer laid eyes on the dripping mad kitty, he stifled a loud snort. With the cell recording LIVE, he turned it to face him and bit out a choked whisper, "I apologize to all those eyes aged 17 and under! But I just can't edit this!"

"Stupid, damn mutt…" growled lowly Kyo as he struggled to keep his towel tied to the waist plus maneuver himself on crutches to the door. Sliding the door wide open, his patience nil, he yelled at the deliveryman, "WHAT THE DAMN HELL IS SO DAMN IMPORT—"

(SHRIEK!), (KYAAHHH!), (AHHHGH!)

Kyo would forever swear that he did not just scream like a girl just then.

"HOW DARE YOU SHOW YOUR BITS TO US, KYO-KUN?!"

'That was no deliveryman' was Kyo's last thought as he slammed the door shut. And apparently he lost the battle against the towel. It would explain the cool breeze…

"Oooohh, the aura of the kitty grows darker, dear fans. Fear not, this is only a film."

Though Kyo gave no intelligible response through gritted teeth as he hurriedly rushed by the cameraman, his finger gesture more than made up for it.

"Hey, now, don't be crass, I didn't tell you to come down stark naked. Be glad I'm recording from the waist up! This can't have a triple 'X' rating, you know."

"SHUT UP, I SWEAR I'M GONNA CUT OFF YOUR—"

Shigure quickly swung the camera to himself. "And we'll mute the rest of that commentary for you gentle ladies out there…no need to pollute your minds further. Besides, a quick shot of his bare butt is more than enough, right?"

Records were set that day. With how quick he maneuvered his crutches up a flight of stairs to how swiftly his clothes came on that fully covered him from neck to toe regardless of a boot, Kyo's flushed face was both from exertion plus one hell of a humiliating experience that he won't soon live down. Not that anyone else will let him forget. He just hoped he didn't scare off the one lady he had no hopes of ever seeing anytime soon.

With that last thought, he hurriedly rushed out to the hallway and down the stairs, wildly swinging his crutch and missed hitting the Inu who was rolling around the floor laughing his merry little ass off.

"Damn you, Shigure…you're gonna pay when they leave!" Kyo also mentally noted that he needed to somehow swipe Shigure's cell and break it apart if he hopes to salvage any shred of dignity. Upon reaching the front door, he took in a deep breath, reached out and opened—

"IF YOU FLASH US AGAIN, PERVERT, I'LL SWING THAT WHITE ASS OF YOURS OUT TO THE MOUNTAINS, BUSTED LEG OR NOT!"

"I'M DRESSED, OKAY?!"

Thus the long awaited reunion had arrived…with two pairs of wary eyes looking at the Cat of the Jyuunishi…staring solely at his face. The silence stretched endlessly…

"Well, I gotta say that I didn't know about that birthmark down there."

And the Boar just had to speak.

ooo—

The sun shone warmly through the gaps in the clouds overhead. Sweet smell of grass lingered in the air and a pair of birds twittered from some far-off branch. The gardens literally thrived in the daylight since the rains had ceased.

'I wonder how my vegetable garden is doing…probably full of weeds. Doubtful I'll see it anytime soon.'

"Yuki!"

"Out here," remarked the recovering youth as he laid back on the floor under the veranda. Closing his eyes, he felt the presence of another body lay alongside his. "So…you're my next sitter?"

"Yeah…but I think you'd prefer my pleasant company over Momiji's. He's a handful."

"And when you go 'black', that's what…an inconvenience?"

'Hmmm, so feisty today…' "Pft, says the guy that put two martial arts experts in the hospital and another in a body cast. That's practically assault and battery or something like it."

Yuki merely gave the Ox a side-ways glance, noting the teasing smirk he found there…his darker half was already surfacing. 'And he's back to rubbing that in…the jerk.' "I…disagreed with them—that's all."

"HAH! You went postal on their asses! My going 'black' is a cordial interchange compared to your 'disagreements'. And you're still not the least bit sorry."

(Sigh) 'There's no peace with Haru like this…he just won't care to drop it.' Closing his eyes once again, the recuperating teen quietly mumbled, "Not today I'm not."

"Damn, ruthless! Hells, I love ya like this!"

"Glad to make your day…" Tiredly, Yuki shifted to his left-side to face the gardens, only to wince and slightly hiss when his injuries made themselves known. Carefully taking deep, measuring breaths, he shifted back to his original position, pointedly ignoring the worried gaze of his now normally-sane companion.

"You know, it'd hurt less if you take the painkillers—"

"I've slept plenty…no thanks."

Haru sat up as he observed the stubborn Rat bearing the pain from his injuries. Resisting the urge to go fetch Yuki's pain medication from inside, he opted to do his favorite pastime as of late. It's not everyday that the touchy Mouse allowed him the luxury…

'Why do all our bones and ligaments have to be so tied to one another?' mused the injured youth as he gritted his teeth against the waves of pain when he tried bending his left leg to bring his foot closer. He couldn't exactly massage his pain away but maybe just a slight rub would do the trick. 'Anything but the drugs…those things would knock you out 'til next week.'

Yuki suddenly felt warm fingers sift through his hair, soothing away some of the tension he was feeling. Admittedly he usually hated being coddled so since it made him uncomfortable, but for now he didn't much care. If it lessened his pain some, then he was all for it.

Sighing heavily, he drifted into his thoughts further…it was his way of distancing himself from the aches his body endured as of late. And there were plenty of those…

Incapacitated. Handicapped. Crippled.

Permanent.

'It's been two weeks since Hatori lowered that bomb…' The soreness of overtaxed muscles, a bruise here and there, a few cracked ribs…add that all up and it was those words from the family physician the other day that struck him hard and stayed put in his mind. How could they not…to be told he would never walk normally again without the use of some aid. There was always the hope of therapy…beating the odds…new treatments. Still, what utterly dismal news to receive when he just woke up from—

His breath caught suddenly, a familiar tightening of his chest starting to come over him. Oh, how he has come to hate these attacks over these last few weeks—absolutely deplorable! His hand reached up to soothe it away, but was interrupted by a loud commotion.

Haru immediately noticed the distress of his companion…the desperate, wide-eyed stare and the sudden change in breathing were both telling signs. He was about to call out to him when he was none-too-gently shoved over by another worried individual, knocking him right over the ledge of the porch onto the ground below.

"Precious! Don't worry, I'm here!" Ayame wasted no time in following Hatori's strict instructions on how to handle these attacks. He quickly set the portable oxygen generator nearby as he placed a breathing mask over Yuki's nose and mouth. Adjusting the settings appropriately, he turned his full attention on calming down his troubled brother as only he could.

Fist-pumping the air, the elder Sohma cried out, "Boo-yeah! Five seconds, baby! Practice does make perfect after all! I daresay this is the fastest I've ever had you setup on this contraption, my beloved."

Looking around, he noticed that someone had missed out on witnessing his prowess. "Haru-kun, where—ah, there you are! What are you doing all the way over there? Honestly, Yuki here is in need of your assistance and you're fooling around. Go, grab the tea tray set I left over in the office. (Claps hands) Chop, chop!"

Steaming mad would be putting it VERY lightly…he was at level ten on the 'black' meter. Yet one look to his ailing cousin and his anger quickly simmered to more manageable levels…at least to the point that he wouldn't outright commit murder with Yuki around.

Snapping his fingers to hurry the boy on, Ayame completely ignored the daggers of death from the tall youth as he stomped past him. He remained focused on his brother, noting that the attack was mild unlike the others. He mentally gave a heavy sigh of relief.

"Well, it looks like you are very fortunate today, my dear," he quietly remarked, keeping any internal anxiety out of his voice. Widely smiling, he began humming a soft tune while gently caressing his little brother's face. After a few minutes, he saw that Yuki wasn't as pale as before. "There now, take your time. Can't rush greatness, ne? You're looking beautiful already."

His smile turned into a frown as he saw his younger brother settle his weary gaze on his neck, or more precisely, the cloth bandage wound around his neck. Covering those haunted eyes with his left hand, Ayame sighed in exasperation as he retorted, "You worry too much over the little things, mon cheri. It's no wonder your attacks are so frequent. For the millionth time, I'm fine, never better. It looks far worse than it really is."

He felt the bandage around his neck, the skin underneath still a bit tender. When he applied the ointment that morning to make it go away faster, even he had to admit it looked like he had mold growing in his skin or some other sick deformity. Yuck. It's why he kept the bandage on…at least, that's the story he told everyone.

'Dear boy, that guilt you hold in your eyes each time you see me…it's far worse than any wound you'd given me.' Shaking off his melancholy, he smiled broadly and removed his hand from Yuki's eyes. "Now, behave for your wondrous Onii-san. I brought sustenance to get some meat back onto your bones. (Looks around.) Well, Haru-kun was supposed to bring it. I sent him to fetch it over in Tori-san's office. It's just next door!"

Just as he was about to yell, he looked down to his brother and quickly covered his ears. "Sorry, where are my manners…ahem, HARUUUUUU-KUUUUUUN!"

A faint 'what!' plus other unmentionable words could be heard somewhere in the clinic…deep inside. "Oh, for heaven's sake! Honestly, must I do it all…" Turning to Yuki, he gave him a quick peck to his forehead. "Don't worry, darling, trust your Onii-san to take care of it."

And off he went with a flourish that only Ayame could manage. Yuki could only look on and wonder how that Snake ever managed to have so much energy despite having so little sleep. He knew this to be true…every night that he woke up with either breathing problems or from some bad dream, his brother was right there, stitching sample in one hand and the other soothing away his fears with a damp, cool cloth to his forehead.

'He'd talk about everything, anything so long as it kept me distracted. So much so that I don't even recall those dreams…' He reached up and slipped off the breathing mask, glad that his breathing was finally coming at steady pace. He rubbed his itchy eyes, willing away the fatigue that so often came with these attacks.

A door slams in the distance…he jerks to attention. An ensuing silence follows. Nothing else is heard. He sighs, 'Must Nii-san be slamming doors like that…or maybe Haru? Or one of the house servants…'

He started to relax and drift off when something occurred to him.

He opened his eyes and looked all around…and the silence continued. As if a giant void swallowed every noise, leaving nothing behind but a brisk wind through the tree branches. Not even the twitter of a bird or scurrying of a squirrel. The weather didn't look any less inviting than before. No…just a simple silence…as if waiting…

(BANG!)

"Is that you, Nii-san?" he called out hoarsely and not without a little apprehension…his heart nearly jumped out of him! It was such a booming sound that reverberated through the air…it sounded so very close. And still, the silence was the only response.

He shakily propped himself up by the elbows and with an agonizing slowness, he lifted himself so that he sat up. All his aches and pains protested loudly, but he clenched his teeth and bore it. He felt his breathing becoming heavy and the slight twinge in his chest starting to blossom. He quickly slipped the oxygen mask back on and took small, measured breaths.

'Don't force it. Don't panic. Don't lose focus. Repeat.' Hatori's constant instruction on how to manage his attacks better rang through his thoughts as he dutifully followed them.

(BANG!)

'Damn that was close!' he all but yelled the thought aloud. With a rapidly thudding heartbeat, he dazedly looked around to see where that noise came from. Who could be banging on the door that loudly and so close by? It was getting harder to breathe again… 'Damn it all, slow and steady…slow…short breaths…'

Movement…so brief…from the corner of his eye…he jerked to the right. Nothing but an empty porch.

'Great…fine mess I am. Now I'm seeing things…a bird or—'

He felt a cold shiver shoot straight through him then. He felt so vulnerable then with no one else around…how stupid was that? He had wanted peace and time to himself and now that he had it, it was the worst feeling ever—

He whirled (albeit painfully) around to look behind him—he had distinctly felt eyes staring at him from behind. Still, no one was around. His aching body protested enough at this point that he closed his eyes and breathed steadily in and out, gently soothing his aches with his hands.

"…"

His eyes snapped open—someone had spoken just then. A voice he didn't recognize but he was certain he heard it. Yet he couldn't make out the words. His mouth felt dry…

'Was it from behind me? …In the gardens maybe…'

Absolutely absurd would have been his next thought but his thumping heart gave him pause at a new possibility. 'Wait…Akito's chambers are off in that direction…'

The troubling thought would not leave him alone…and his breathing was getting worse again. He looked all around him, hoping to see his brother or Haru…anyone would do.

Again…eyes were on him…he jerked to look behind him. There…in the gardens…someone was standing in the middle of the koi pond. But all he could focus on was the movement of his (or her?) mouth. How bizarre. He must have blacked out momentarily because the next moment he felt hands on his shoulders shaking him from his stupor. When had he lain back down? Or closed his eyes?

"Yuki, don't slip off your breathing mask until I tell you to. You timed out because not enough oxygen was getting to you," scolded the elder Sohma.

Blinking away the fuzzy vision and ignoring his brother's continuing rebukes, he croaked, "Nii-san…there. The pond…some kid was…standing there."

Having gone and found Haru, Ayame led him to the office only to remember that he left the napkins in the kitchen. Wary about letting Haru go get them (he'd never see the Ox again that day for sure), he went off quickly to grab them. On his way back, he went directly to where Yuki was to ensure all was still okay. His brother was quite stubborn about not being 'smothered with attention' as he put it, but just as he arrived, said brother was apparently in distress.

Struggling to take in air, Yuki was hunched over. Laying the ailing teen back down, Ayame wasted no time in further adjusting the machine's settings to provide more oxygen as required. Seeing the youth dazed, the elder brother snapped fingers by the ears, gently stroked his face…anything to draw him back to reality.

"There you are, now focus, Yuki, hear my voice." Ayame smiled widely as he saw the amethyst-colored eyes of his brother show recognition of him. "You almost went off to the land of dreams, silly boy. You've got to have a decent meal before I allow you any sort of slumber, got that?"

What followed that remark was a puzzling response from his brother. Looking at Yuki curiously, he then became alarmed. 'A kid…pond…oh my.'

Ayame swiftly left his brother's side and dashed to the koi pond that was a stone's throw away from the veranda. It's not that deep but it's rather large and a small child could drown. It's why Hatori hardly let any of his smaller patients come this far outside of his office.

As he looked all around the pond, he noted nothing out of order. He even double-checked the crystal clear water. Just Hatori's little friends swimming round and round like good little fishies…

'Nothing fishy there….HAH, I laugh at my humor!' Heartbeat now slowing down, he turned back to his brother with a wide smile. "Dearest, all is well…nothing amiss here. No child at all. Could you've imagined it? You were having problems keeping consciousness after all."

Yuki looked doubtful…whether at his own judgment or the fact that there indeed was no child running around the gardens, he wasn't all too sure. Focusing on his breathing, he tried looking past his brother if only to visually assure himself.

"Precious, trust your Nii-san!" Ayame's beaming face cut into his vision. Cradling his brother's face between both hands, he smoothed away the ugly frown he found there. "And consider another possibility…the kid could've run off to his family. So don't fret so much…it ruins your fair complexion."

Rolling his eyes at the last remark, he nodded in agreement. Concentrating on his breathing once again, he gave the matter no further thought until he remembered what he had wanted to ask earlier.

"Nii-san…where is Hatori? He's usually around…"

"Keeping Akito company," interjected Haru as he came bearing a plate of snacks and tea. "And no, she's not taking visitors today either. Looks like you're still stuck with us for a while longer."

Apparently his incessant requests to see the family head were now expected at every encounter with family, not that it got him the answer he wanted to hear. As childish as it was, Yuki could do nothing more than stick his tongue out at him in response.

Chuckling lightly, the younger teen smiled broadly as he kneeled and began pouring the tea in cups. "That just makes you look cuter, you know? Silly, but definitely cute."

The elder teen's desire to smack that smile right off was thwarted by a sudden coughing fit. His brother was quick to lift him up so he wouldn't choke on his own spit. But, oh how much it hurt…

Ayame solemnly looked on as Yuki's fit passed. According to Hatori, it was to be expected with someone of Yuki's condition. Still, it was so hard to see his younger brother tearfully blink back the pain as his lungs struggled to take in air as well as pushing against his sore ribs from having to cough so much these last weeks, not to mention all his aches magnifying by a hundred as his body jarred with each cough.

"Focus, Yuki, focus on my count. Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…" Dabbing Yuki's eyes of the tears, Ayame looked over at the equally solemn Ox. Along with everyone else in their tight-knit circle, they've become quite the Jyuunishi set…looking so defeated.

'But defeat be damned…hell if I'm going to let that stop me!' Shaking away the stifling melancholy, he smiled widely as he finished the count backwards, loudly remarking, "You were great, my sweet gem! You stopped the worst of your cough at ten—that's three better than yesterday's! You are certainly on the road to full recovery."

'Yeah…a road loaded with pain. The joys of being me…' Nonetheless Yuki had no other hope but to believe in those spoken words because the sooner he got better, the sooner he could leave this horrid clinic. It was just too many memories for him to fall back on. And most if not all were rather depressing. Still…

He wearily looked at Haru's anxious expression and instantly knew to carry on his brother's bright example. Now was not the time to lose to despair, as tempting as it was. His family needed him to be the anchor in their sea of storms. Tired, so very tired, and yet he called on his every drop of strength in his Nezumi being. He hardly ever had to do it, but times like these called for pride to be set aside.

Haru knew Ayame's words to be true, but nothing lifted the veil of despair from his demeanor as when he saw Yuki's delicate smile.

"Hey…"

Amazed by the strong voice, Haru tentatively returned the favor, "Hey…"

"You look…awful."

"I look like awful?"

"See, we agree."

It was all Haru could do to even think of a reply to that. Shaking his head ruefully, he heaved a heavy sigh and lowered his head to Yuki's chest, closing his eyes in bliss to hear the steady beat of a heart and good, measured breathing.

'How the Rat beats the odds against him, I'll never know.' It was then and there that he made a silent vow to himself and to Yuki. Silent for now…he'll tell him another time.

"Well, now that Haru has confirmed that you're alive and breathing, let's have some of that hot tea before it gets any colder." Just then Ayame felt the vibration of his cellphone in his pocket. Pulling it out, he looked down and noted the caller ID. Grinning broadly, he swiftly stood up. "Sorry darlings, this may take a few minutes. The Fall line is giving Mine major headaches without me there. Please start without me…I'll be right back."

As his brother wandered off to the gardens, Yuki couldn't help quietly voice his thoughts then, "That man is a force to be reckoned with."

"Pft, well, that's no surprise…he can seriously wear you out with just that mouth of his," replied Haru with a grimace.

"That's not what I meant." He lifted his right hand high above him, his arm slightly wavering. It was this hand that almost…

He turned his hand over and brought it closer for him to see, peering at the lines in his palm…such a normal hand. It would not act without his say-so, his control—conscious or not. It just wouldn't.

'Five, six, seven…' He kept the count going if only to keep his nerves calm…they've been so frayed, so touchy lately. He folded his fingers inwardly, forming a fist, then released his fingers once again. 'Focus…focus on the lines…focus…'

He should be dead. There was no dodging that truth…a truth that thankfully did not become reality. He should be dead…his brother…stupid, arrogant, flamboyant, annoying…he should be dead. Caring, stubborn, kind…loving.

He should be dead.

'Because I DID want it dead…whatever it was that was chasing me into the light of that hospital room.' He clenched his trembling fist tightly. 'And all I have to show for it is this damn fist that nearly killed my brother.'

"Nii-san has never held himself in check…ever. It's always all or nothing with him. (Whispers) That's a luxury I can't afford."

"Pft…as if that stopped you from tearing apart half a building!" Haru looked at the teen square in the eye, his darker mentality unflinchingly daring him to turn away. "Hide that rage all you want, Nezumi…but it's there. And once unleashed, it don't go back inside that pressure cooker you've had it under all these years."

Yuki ignored the pointed stare of his cousin, never letting his eyes stray from his hand. Open…close…open… His hand continued to tremble…

Rage? The trembling of his hands…the numbness…his thoughts many, but little sense to them…is this what rage looked like?

No, not by a long-shot. He thought back to those dark moments at the exhibit hall. Rage. He felt it flow through him then…there was nothing chaotic about it. It was simply a single thought and emotion joined as one…nothing else. It was serene in its own demented way.

To be capable of so much disaster…

He looked to his hand again. The very one that hurt so many…

Finally taking his vividly bright eyes to meet his cousin's hard stare, his fingers reaching out to gently trail an invisible line around his cheek, only to abruptly (and painfully) flick his fellow companion on the forehead. The ensuing yelp made him smile. "Hey, Haru…"

"Damn, what?! That hurts when you do it!"

"Hey…"

Haru continued to rub the sore spot on his forehead. "What?"

"Do I scare you?"

He snapped his head to Nezumi, notably caught off guard with the question. And this time around, Yuki held his gaze…his vividly colored ('damn, are they glowing?!') eyes dared him to look away.

"Well, do I?"

"Man, don't do this to yourself—"

Yuki noted Haru's widened eyes, but did not loosen his firm grip around the Ox's neck. 'It was just like this…I held my brother's neck just like this. Squeezing…and squeezing until I was satisfied. I was not satisfied when I heard the order to stop.'

"Do I scare you?"

The younger teen had to admit that his elder was a frightening picture just then. Eyes cold and without remorse…his voice leeched of all emotion. Just like then…just like at the exhibit.

Just like with Akito.

"You do."

Yuki didn't lessen his tight grip.

"You scare me…when you can't breathe ('know how that feels now'), when you sit in…the dark alone, when you…don't talk to anyone…(gasp)…"

"…when I'm angry…?"

'It's tighter!' He unflinchingly returned the elder teen's hard glare. "Ain't no shame in it…be pissed off (gasp)! Take it out on (gasp) those of us who can take it. (Gasp) We'll gladly take it on. Besides…"

The Nezumi's grip only tightened further.

"Keep tightenin' it (wheeze), and I'll turn blue."

"Besides what?"

(Gasp) "Besides…you need us to stop you, right? (Wheeze) Because that's what terrifies the hell out of you(gasp) that you won't be able to stop. That you (gasp) wouldn't want to stop."

Only then did the Nezumi allow his grip to loosen and his hand fall back. Seeing his relative cough hard, he oddly didn't feel bad…just weary. Tired…yet relieved.

"Idiot…you should've stopped me."

"Yeah, well…(cough)…it's a gift." Seeing Yuki close his eyes with a barely suppressed grin, Haru narrowed his gaze. (Cough, cough) He rasped, "You could just thank me. Pft, forget being the Rat—you can be such a jackass."

"Well…it's a gift."

The youth was widely grinning now, but before Haru could retort further, his cousin reached up and gently weaved his hand through his unruly black and white hair.

And that was all the thanks he could ever hope for.

'I am an idiot…will happily be the idiot just for him. If only that were enough…'

A ways away, the Jyuunishi being spoken of earlier stood amongst the most fragrant of roses. With his long, soft hair swaying with the gentle breeze, and a hand holding a cellphone to his ear, one could tell that his conversation was not of the lively sort that he usually had with his assistant.

Sohma Ayame was no liar, of course—his Fall line was driving his assistant insane. He just neglected to clarify that the call was not from Mine. So here he was, looking intently at the bright red roses before him. Saying nothing at all…just listening to the grim news.

"Are you sure?"

-"She can't take another attack. It's better if I keep her sedated…it's less stress on her body. And Yuki?"-

"He's toughing it out as always."

-"Good. Don't tell him about Akito just yet."-

"Tori-san, he'll know…he just will. If not his bond with her, then the proverbial 'elephant in the room' won't escape his impeccable notice. And I…(pause)…I can't have that boy under anymore duress. He's in no state to—"

-"You and Shigure along with Kureno and I swore to uphold Akito's mandate. We cannot lose sight of that. It's the least we can do for her now that she…(pause)…she's incapacitated."

Swallowing hard, Ayame took in a deep breath, ignoring the cold, clammy feel of his hands as they brushed off lint from his jacket. His next words were the toughest he's ever had to utter.

"She won't be waking up anymore, will she?"

The silence that followed proved far more deafening than anything else.

ooo—

"And as soon as this boils, add the last ingredients. That's all you need to remember. It's not so hard, right, Kyo-kun?"

'Focus on food, not on earlier. Food…the most delicious, the most EDIBLE food you've had in ages…' Shifting on his crutches and avidly avoiding her gaze since she came into the house, Kyo quickly glanced at the boiling pot and nodded. "Sure, yeah… Let me get the bowls from the cupboard."

As she watched him shift away from her, stumbling with his crutches when making a turn, thoughts of pity resurfaced…of rushing forward to help…of apologizing for not being enough to stop the madness that consumed them. She brusquely turned away and berated herself…

'I just finished promising that I wouldn't burden him with my worries…idiot.' Turning back to him, she saw that he had taken the bowls and placed them on the counter, only to now stand there with a frown. She suddenly realized why. "Oh, Kyo-kun, please let me take those."

"I can manage—"

Her smile widening, she shook her head. "Of course…it's just that I need you to set up the table for me first before I bring out the bowls. The soup will be piping hot, so they'll be brought out one at a time."

The slight sting upon having his disability brought to light was snuffed out with her words. Not that it really bothered him…goodness, Shigure shamelessly exploited it on a daily basis…but it was different when it came from her. He heaved a heavy sigh, realizing how much he was overthinking the matter. Really, it's not like she didn't know what had happened…

And there it was. That which had made Tohru's normally calming presence now feel like a suffocating weight. And that just won't do…

"Tohru…"

She turned from her boiling pot when she heard him…so softly yet it held such heaviness in his tone. "Kyo-kun?"

He stood steadily on his crutches, his back still to her, as he looked out the window. He then wordlessly made his way to the back door and slid it open, his crutches steering him out to the back porch, moving him further away.

As she stared at his retreating back, she wondered what it was he had wanted to tell her. She was bewildered, but suddenly the truth of the matter finally rang clear in her head. She quickly turned off the stove, set the pot to the side, and followed the injured youth outside.

"Kyo-kun…" Just as she called for him, she saw that he had just sat down on the far edge of the porch, away from the doorway. Pity bubbled up once more in her heart when she saw his grimace as he maneuvered to sit against the porch post. She mentally gave that pity a big shove from her mind, walked onward and sat down beside him, remaining silent as he was.

The calming silence of the wooded area around the home was abruptly broken by a violent sneeze. Tohru barely caught his pained scowl as he steadily took in slow breaths…his groan of pain, however, was clearly heard.

The question burned in her mouth, but she did not ask it.

Kyo, on the other hand, thought over what he had realized about Tohru that had made her normally calming presence feel like he was being smothered. Despite all apparent rejections from his family…from him, she still came when called upon, so dutifully. It was her genuine concern that made that gnawing pain in his gut all the more unbearable.

That never-ending emotion…his guilt.

"Would you like me to ask Shigure-san for some pain medication?"

"NO. (Sigh) I mean, that's alright. It comes and goes…I'll be fine in a few minutes."

"Oh…okay."

Awkwardness set in between them, so much like in the beginning of their relationship—she the female intruder in their male household and he the Neko with a chip on his shoulder, a big one. Had everything really reverted to that level…to start over from the beginning?

No, that wasn't wholly true. She is now more confident and less prone to apologizing for anything that went wrong. And he…he now carried such a heavy weight in his heart that nothing soothed him anymore, not even her presence.

What a useless friend he was.

-"You should never have betrayed her."-

How that memory of a far-off dream led to another conversation with the gentle girl beside him in a vivid dream landscape…

-"Just don't let your heart wield that blade because you're afraid, no matter how just and right it may seem to be. Betrayal can never be just or right—it can only divide us all and break our bonds with one another…"-

Now in hindsight, he gave those words more thought…a warning, an impending threat? Such echoing remarks haunted him at every hour of every day. How much truth they held now that he's seeing clearly without his rage in the way…

She deserved to know…the very least, she deserved to hear the truth from him.

"Do you know why I hate leeks?"

Odd wouldn't even begin to describe such a question. She was sure her confusion was written all over her face, so she merely shrugged and shook her head, certain she would sound like an idiot if she had said anything.

"Years ago, I think I was about ten, I was having this party with Shishou, you know, like an actual party with a party hat and balloons. He was so proud when I won some junior martial arts competition—he just had to celebrate. Anyway, Kagura was there and she brought over this cake as big as a table; hell, that girl never did anything half-assed even back then."

Tohru couldn't help but smile widely as he continued with his story, not daring to mutter a word, afraid she'd shatter that nostalgic smile from his face as he stared out into the forest…seeing events from so long ago.

"Along with her came this scrawny brat…short, quiet, and hauling a big bag. And as soon as he set the bag down at the table, he calmly said to me, 'Carry your own damn present next time.' I mean, what the hell is what I thought, right, so I just let him have one good smack on the head, wham."

She gasped slightly as she held in her laugh. "What then?"

"Well, naturally, Kagura was quick to send a round-house kick to my head and sent me flying through to the kitchen. 'Kyo-kun, you jerk, don't pick on kids' is what the banshee yelled at me at the time. I yelled right back, 'Hey, freak of nature, that kid just blew me off—who the hell is he anyway,' and so on and so forth. Man, did that kitchen need a renovation after that 'argument'."

She didn't bother holding back her laughter now. It's strangely normal to hear how often property was damaged within this family…she missed it.

"Yeah, Shishou was none too happy with us so he asked that 'sweet' little boy what should be our punishment since he was the 'victim'—so what's a little bump on the head was my thinking back then. And you know what he said?"

She shook her head. "What?"

"Punk brat said, 'Shihan, the Neko needs more juice in his juice 'cause he can't hit worth spit. No wonder Kagura-nee got him free-weights for a present.' Argh, that little punk jerk just ruined the surprise and insulted me all in one breath! What else could I do but rip him a new one—I was dead set on showing him why I was the youngest winner at that year's youth karate competition. So I grabbed his black and white mop of hair and just smacked his face right into the cake…bam! I was really smashing him into that cake until he had cake comin' out of his ears. But, man…it hurt."

"Sticking him into the cake?" she remarked incredulously as she wiped a tear from laughing so hard.

"Nah, Kagura laying it on me afterwards. She was LIVID…damn woman was the complete picture of a horror classic…eerie eyes, larger than life, death in her hands kind of thing, you know; I swear I saw her hair standing on end like that snake-head lady Medura, Mulusa—Medusa? Whatever. Anyway, how was I supposed to know she actually baked that king-sized cake?"

Tohru couldn't comment even if she had anything to add…it was too funny she was laughing too hard.

"So…after being beaten black and blue by a girl, this amateur karate junior champion was down and out for the day, thereby ending the celebration pretty quick. I was so mad, I actually came down with a migraine, and naturally Shishou felt obligated to dose me…"

And she was now picturing it clearly in her mind…a hapless father giving his son what he thought would cure all ailments. She shook her head amusedly at that.

"Oh yeah, that was one heaping helping, large bowl of leek soup…LEEK soup. UGH! Damn stuff made a hole in my gut, that's for damn sure! And after I had a long visit with the 'throne', Shishou had the nerve to tell me it was meant to 'cleanse my dirty mouth'! Pft, how does he come up with this stuff?! So let's recap…bad party, bad guests, bad beat-down, bad headache, and to top it all off, a really bad bowl of soup…though, point of fact, I couldn't tell if it was because of the leeks or because Shishou cooked it. So yeah, overall a BAD memory, so why the hell would I ever want to see one single leek, EVER?"

Dabbing her eyes with her apron, she remarked, "Heh, Kyo-kun, it's good that you have such good memories of your family. I always cherish mine with my mother."

He wryly smiled as he heaved a heavy sigh. "Yeah, I guess. I would've preferred something else more worthwhile to remember, but I gotta admit…those were the times I best remember about them—her terrorizing me one way or another, Shishou hovering over me at home or at the dojo like a mother hen…punk Haru getting me into trouble when he dared me into fights. Pft, never a dull moment…"

Her laughter died down as she noted that his voice drifted off softly, his gaze unfocused as he saw into those memories he carried within him. His eyes, so lively as he retold his tale were now losing their vibrancy…turning pained. She couldn't understand why…they were such beautiful memories…

"Never…alone…"

A bird tweeted from a far distance in the woods.

"You know, I would demand for peace and quiet anytime they were around."

A strong breeze fluttered the leaves overhead.

"But damned if it was the farthest thing that I wanted…and I…I wanted so much."

She needed to strain her ears to hear that soft remark. "Kyo-kun…"

"I need you to believe me," remarked Kyo earnestly as he looked straight into her troubled eyes. "I never meant for it to go as far as it did…exposing my…"

He looked away again in bitter shame. He should've had more damn sense…back then. Even a little…he could never forgive himself for that. His stupidity very nearly cost him…everything. And his family was everything to him.

"I didn't think it'd go down like that. None of it. But…"

It was at this point that he glanced away, clenching his jaw tightly as he ran his hand over his face in a vain attempt to pull himself together.

"You couldn't hold back anymore, could you?"

He always worried about telling her anything distressing…she had shed so many tears for them since first coming into their home. Yet upon hearing her soft remark, he looked back to see her face, only to be surprised that instead of tears and a broken-hearted semblance, a determined gaze met his own. And she went on.

"You wanted to be heard. You wanted your pain to be heard."

No, he could no longer hold her gaze…gentle in its determination to see into his being, but how it hurt. Her statement hurt…it held so much truth in its simplicity.

"Kyo-kun…"

When had he closed his eyes? He opened them, seeing only his one good leg not in a cast.

She whispers, half to herself, "Why must it be so hard to say what you feel?"

He bitterly laughed, barely suppressing the strong emotion he knew as raw guilt.

"Yeah, well, a lot of 'GOOD' that did us all, huh?! I sure ripped up the place but good…damn fine Sohma property was not spared, I saw to that!" By now, he gave no thought at all to the words pouring out as he stood up on his crutches and glared down at her. "Anyone who got in my way only met with my fist. Tetsuya, Oyaji…hell, even Shishou! I didn't care one damn bit of the 'after'…it was all about the moment. And I never felt so ALIVE…so FREE up until that moment. I was UP THERE, with THEM…I wasn't being looked down upon anymore. I, the CAT, was an EQUAL!"

Breathing hard, he stopped, finally hearing the words that left his own lips. He shook his head at comprehending what that all meant. How could it still be true…why? Why could he not just break these…CHAINS—he wanted nothing more to do with them, that 'God' and the pet Rat, the whole damn myth! Why did he still care to seek their attention—their FREAKING BLESSING?

-"Have you ever wondered if being this angry is probably why you can't 'hear' it? Down in those dark depths of your spirit Neko…must be pretty quiet…lonely."-

-"The only truth you know is only what YOU want to SEE, what YOU want to HEAR, what YOU want to BELIEVE, you SELFISH CAT!"-

"NOOOOOOOOO!" He turned abruptly and mightily swung one crutch against a post of the porch. And he didn't stop, not even when it finally broke. He furiously continued to curse and sank to his knees, his physical pain blending with his raw emotions as he pulled hard at his hair, yelling incoherently until he was all but hunched over on the ground, a sharp pain in his chest all that was left in him.

The silence that followed stretched for several minutes. He was sure he scared Tohru off at some point since only the dead silence could be heard. But he was jerked from his stupor when he heard her whisper.

"They heard you, Kyo-kun. They heard…and listened."

He couldn't tell when he had started to shed tears…was it when he was crushing his crutch against the post or when he was yelling 'til his throat gave out? Or was it when he felt her hand softly stroking his hair…he didn't know. He just knew that he was tired of being looked down upon…of being ridiculed…of being pitied…of feeling guilt. He was…tired.

-"It's shameful that we have to keep hurting each other just to lessen the pain we always carry. In the end, it changes nothing. And I really am tired of it."-

'How much more 'til I admit that I never had a hope…period?'

"I can't DO this anymore."

Half-laughing, half-sobbing, he looked down to his trembling hands, the adrenaline rush from his rage still coursing through him. He saw the growing discoloration where he must have banged his hands too hard…he hardly felt the pain as he saw his own pathetic tears drop one by one onto such useless hands.

"There's no fixin' my mess this time. Akito will see to that."

He closed his eyes as he softly uttered that inevitable truth…and most certainly he won't be the only one. What of his father? 'No, please…no…not him…' A fresh wave of despair tore through him, and pitifully, he only had himself to blame.

'How much more before I'm too broken to care…like all the other Cats before me?'

Tohru saw such a broken young man drown in his own bitterness. It was all she could do to hold in her tears, her despair for him. Tears and despair will do him no good here. She swallowed back her lumpy throat, and took in a deep breath. She remained kneeling next to him as she stroked his hair, and as she took his hands unto her own, she fervently prayed for miracles of any sort…anything…though she knew none would ever come. Not for them.

It is the essence of a curse.

"Whatever comes, Kyo-kun, we'll get through it together," she quietly remarked as she rubbed his hands comfortingly, warmly accepting his tears. "No matter how far you feel that you've fallen, we'll all be there to help you up. All of us. It's what family does. And that's a promise that's far stronger than any curse out there…"

She hoped, heavens above, she hoped so much for him…for all of them.

ooo—

The breeze flowed through the stifling living area. Both took their sips of their cold tea quietly as they heard the commotion out in back. When silence finally descended, Shigure was moved to break it.

"Well, if that's not something to be proud of."

"What?"

"Tohru-kun…I do believe our little flower on the wall is finally standing on her own two feet. Remarkable."

"We all must if we're in this family."

"Yes, true enough. But I must say, there are more than a few of us taking a stand. I have to extend indirect thanks from Kazuma-sensei on your 'discretionary advice' the other day. He lit out of here quite unexpectedly after speaking with you."

Kagura looked into her cup before meeting his knowing stare.

"I only told him that I was coming to visit Kyo-kun with Tohru-kun. What he did on his own was his own business."

Smiling widely, Shigure shook his head amused. "Your way with words is much improved upon, Kagura-chan. I see that extended time in Akito-san's presence has done wonders for you. Still, I'm sure Kazuma-sensei appreciated the warning. After all, it wouldn't do for him to be present if you came—you do have marching orders from Akito-san, ne?"

It hardly surprised her to hear Shigure admit he knew the purpose of her visit, beyond her personal interest to see Kyo. She thought back to when she received those 'marching orders' from Akito. They were in her bag, the envelope containing eviction notices for both Kazuma and his long-time employee, Kunimitsu Tomoda. The papers on the seizure of his assets, dojo included, were already in his hands, courtesy of Kureno.

'She explicitly ordered that these eviction papers be done in person…and in front of Kyo-kun.' She closed her eyes to that memory—Akito sitting on the walkway overlooking the gardens below, watching as a recovering Yuki argued with Hatori about some medication he detested. When she turned to Kagura, those eyes held a raw rage that would not be soon quenched. Needless to say, any refusal on following through with her clan head's command would only make the matter worse, though she couldn't think of how it could get any worse. Then again, this is Akito…she was a master in the art of punishment.

'Kyo-kun wouldn't survive this blow—no matter what Shihan or anyone else would say to him, Kyo-kun would never forgive himself. It'd…break him—exactly what she wants.'

"However, my dear, delaying the inevitable will only prolong the agony—as you and I clearly heard, he's already anxiously waiting for that ax to fall on his head. If you do it sooner rather than later—"

"As much as your insight into people's hearts is appreciated by your male readers, I'd give two turds for your advice right about now," declared the Boar tiredly but firmly. "I'll do the 'deed' when I'm damn good and ready, and more importantly, when Kyo-kun is stronger to take on the news. It's the least any of us can do for him."

Shigure met the determined stare of his young relative with his own amused expression for one long moment before breaking eye contact first. Smiling widely he raised his glass in her direction.

"Touché—you are indeed standing on your own two feet, my dear Kagura-chan. Alas, the children around me are starting to grow their own wings and fly off to distant lands called 'adulthood'. 'Adulthood'—hm, now that brings to mind rather pleasant treasures found there. If you or Ritsu-kun ever need advice on that regard, please—"

A small, feminine, and solid fist met his gaze suddenly, stopping millimeters from his nose.

"Ahem, would you like more tea, oh beloved, Kagura-chan?"

ooo—

It was therapeutic, he concluded. Despite the ache in his hands, arms, and back from lack of a workout, he kept at it. No matter what anyone else thought, pulling weeds is quite therapeutic.

'And that's why I'm disobeying doctor's orders. When bed rest becomes too tiresome, it's time to change the routine, Hatori…duh. (Sigh) And now I'm using the word –duh-...I'm losing my ever-loving mind!'

So Yuki (now fervently) continued pulling out the offensive plants from the flowerbeds around Hatori's clinic, shooing away any of the house staff that tried to pull their revered clan head away from such a demeaning task that was entrusted to them. They were quite persistent for the first thirty minutes he was out there…

'Maybe I was a little too harsh to pull rank on them, but really…the cow-towing to me was literally driving me crazy!'

He wiped his brow of the beaded perspiration that was accumulating there. Taking in a steady breath, he paused in his task as he looked all around. The flowers were bright blooms against the dark mulch used to hold the rich soil in place. Trees were nicely trimmed, swaying gently in the breeze. He caught glimpses of birds as they flew from one branch to the next, singing a song only known to themselves. The occasional butterfly fluttered about the gardens. It was beautiful…serene.

No one was around…or so his surroundings told him so.

He went back to his task of pulling weeds. And just as soon as he pulled one, there was the faintest of whispers from behind him. He blew his stray hairs away in a huff. This was getting irritating…

'It has to be Nii-san. He can be very loud when it comes to a crisis with his fashion line.' It was a feeble excuse at best, but it was enough to keep his nerves in check. If he didn't want another breathing attack, he had better keep his damn nerves—

His hands were trembling again.

He pointedly ignored the repeated, unintelligible whispers that were like mere faint smells caught in the breeze and just as quickly carried off, and focused squarely on his hands. Taking his gardening gloves off, he gently massaged each finger, working his way up to the palm of his hand. He stamped down on the cold dread growing in the pit of his stomach. He rubbed his arms down for good measure to ward off the chill he felt growing all around him.

He looked to his booted, injured foot and the crutches to the side—it would hurt a hell lot if he had to maneuver himself up from the ground. 'Damn the dignity crap.' Pulling out his cellphone, he texted his wayward brother for assistance, having run off Haru so that the Ox could complete his study worksheets for all the days he missed out on school. At the rate the youth was behind on his schoolwork, it would take more than a little sweet talk from a family rep to keep the school from flunking Haru.

"Nii-san better hurry up…and lower his voice," he grumbled to himself as he pocketed his phone. And it wasn't because the whispers were no longer faint.

"…coming…"

He jerked his head to the house—he hadn't known the house servants to be so loud. He thought of calling out to them but then he'd have to convince them again that he was fine out there although he really wanted to get back in but he'd rather wait for his brother but then his brother is taking his sweet time…

'Aw, hell…now I'm rambling. I've officially become my brother.' He hung his head low at that revelation.

"They're coming."

Now that remark was no whisper as he jerked his head up. It wasn't a shout but clearly stated. And as he frantically looked all around him, heart pounding, he'd come to realize…the gardens around were empty but…

'And my hand isn't the only thing trembling now…'

However illogical it was, every fiber, every cell in his being told him so…he was not alone.

"Betrayal is the deadliest of blades."

His blood pounded loudly in his ears…it actually hurt to listen. Closing his eyes, he took in deep breaths—he was going to manage his nerves even if it killed him. He was not going to pass out. He had to pull it together, he must…

Even if the voice spoken was one he recognized from a hallway that only existed in a long ago moment of terror…

"RUN! DO NOT STOP!"

—If only it can be undone—

The piercing screams were only punctuated by the soft, solemn whispers of despair…

'It's not here…I'm not there. It's not here…I'm not there. It's not here…I'm not there.'

He chanted this to himself as he slowly and very painfully struggled onto his feet with his crutches. And he adamantly, fervently ignored them all as they grew louder, if it were possible…and far too clear to understand.

'It's NOT here. I'm NOT there. I'm NOT there. It's NOT here.'

The ground moved beneath him he thought as he tried taking a step forward.

"THEY MUST NOT ESCAPE!"

—If only the light can shine in the darkest of plights.—

His breaths were becoming labored.

"SEIZE THEM! SEIZE THEM ALL!"

—If only I hadn't failed…

'Too loud…too much…TOO MUCH.' The screeches were reverberating inside his skull…

"THEY MUST ALL BE ELIMINATED!"

—If only…—

"NOOOOOOOOOO!"

"YUKI, OPEN YOUR EYES!"

He sucked in a deep breath and snapped open his eyes, his heart beating a deafening rhythm in his ears. He suddenly realized that he was on his knees and was grabbing his ears painfully, no doubt trying to beat out the screeching that was all around him…or was it? He can't be sure anymore…not of anything…

Ayame had promptly concluded his call with Hatori when he saw Yuki's text and swiftly returned to where he last left him, only to find the veranda empty. He huffed petulantly…he wished Yuki hadn't wandered off. The gardens could be such a maze to go through…and he loathed to perspire against fine silk.

'Oh bother! This child does his very best to disobey Hatori's orders of staying close to the house and resting—'

His thought cut there upon hearing Yuki scream. He swore that bitter cold water had washed over him upon hearing such a heart-wrenching sound. He fairly gunned it down one path in the garden that led to one other then another… Upon finally seeing Yuki, he thanked all manner of instinct and gene pool that led him straight to his brother.

'And there he is…but how in the world did he get here without his crutches?'

He took in more of Yuki's state then…the overall trembling as the younger brother fell to his knees, the death-grip on his hair and ears, his eyes clenched shut. He immediately ran over and swept Yuki into his arms. "Precious, what's the matter?! Talk to me!"

"NOOOOOOOOOO!"

The blood-curdling scream pierced his heart and the feeling of rejection ran cold through his veins as he very nearly jumped away from his brother. But he held fast and instead reached up to firmly take hold of Yuki's face into his hands.

"Yuki! It's me! Yuki, sweetling, open your eyes…OPEN THEM. Yuki…please…YUKI, OPEN YOUR EYES!"

Seeing his younger brother finally snap his eyes open and wildly looking all around them ('and breathing, thank heavens!') he let a sigh of relief overwhelm him as he once again embraced his brother and rocked him gently, rubbing his back soothingly.

"Remember, precious, measured breaths…calmly count the numbers. There you go…"

Despite the logic of science, the minutes were long and ticked slowly by…but they did roll along. And after a few more minutes, he finally sensed Yuki's trembling subsiding just as slowly…but it was subsiding.

"Darling, you mustn't frighten me like this! My hair will be stark white instead of silver-gray at this rate!" His dry humor fell flat even to his ears…and that was saying a lot.

"Nii-san…"

His brother's voice was raspy after all that screaming it seemed. "Yes?"

"Oh! Pardon me, sirs!"

One of the grounds maintenance members came upon them as he walked by with his tool kit in hand. "Is there something amiss…do you need anything? It could be dangerous if you stay sitting here—"

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN IF SOMETHING'S AMISS?! My brother was screaming for high heaven, and I sure as hell don't see anyone lifting a finger to help him!"

The elder brother's livid response caught him off guard. It was not typical of this member of the family to be so enraged. He sputtered in reply, "Sir, I was…that is, I mean, I sincerely apologize. I wasn't aware of this—"

"He SCREAMED loud enough for our dearly departed ancestors to hear him!"

"I'm very sorry—"

"Not one more word. Honestly, such behavior amongst this staff leaves much to be desired, and so help me, this will not go unnoticed. Make yourself useful and find his crutches in the gardens. GO!"

"Ha-HAI! Yes, at once!"

Seeing the maintenance man scurry away like a frightened mouse (excuse his ill-timed stray thought), he took his own advice and took in measured breaths. All his fears and desperation on this day culminated into a very nasty confrontation with some nameless staff member. But truly, really, how could he or anyone else within the compound vicinity not come tripping over themselves to aid their clan head's clearly distressed call? Deeply sighing now, he rocked the boy in his arms, mainly for his own benefit.

"I am terribly sorry you had to hear that, Otouto. Your most high brother does have moments of distaste for the lack of service around here. I'm sure we can get that addressed as soon as you're well—"

"Nii-san…"

He only realized then that his brother held him in a firm embrace as well. He was elated, to be sure, but clearly something was going on.

"Yes?"

A memory haunted him…so intense was the terror of it that Yuki could literally taste the fear of the Rat spirit within his blood. But it was a memory…fading much too quickly from his thoughts.

Why was he afraid? What was causing the cold churn of his blood—the deep thuds of his heartbeat still ringing in his ears? He was gardening, pulling weeds, however minor…his brother wasn't there. He was left alone. He was alone…right?

His memory seemed to want to dare him to remember but all the same stay out of his reach. And in the end, all he was left with was a taste of fear.

"Otouto, could you at least tell me what had vexed you so? Anything?"

It's gone. Whatever it was had fled the reaches of his normally sharp memory. Yuki could only shake his head, his breaths coming in steady once again.

"Why were you leaving the Honke then?"

Leaving? He had not thought to look at his surroundings, his eyes unseeing as he remained on the floor. But his brother was right. Looking all around him, he found himself just outside of the gate leading out to the street…sitting on the driveway.

And within his firm grasp, a long, beautifully ornate, very familiar scabbard…its sword still sheathed within.

"Nii-san…"

"Yes?"

"Why…why is this here?"

Ayame never once stopped his soothing gestures as he gently grasped Yuki's left hand into his own and removed the scabbard from his grasp. He caressed his brother's hair further, holding him close, never once breaking contact.

Yuki couldn't truly help it anymore. He was so very tired…emotionally, mentally, physically. Add to that, he felt so utterly lost within his own mind. How much more must he endure…how come it's all falling apart?

How much more is yet to come?

"We'll sort it out, precious. We will."

Ayame continued to hold onto his brother, not minding at all that his silk garments were already permanently stained from the floor nor did he give one damn about them being stained by his brother's tears. He would lay there for all eternity if only to give small comfort to such a broken soul as his brother's.

And very privately, in his most inner mind where his most quiet thoughts remained, he resolved to never tell his brother what he had just seen…

'His eyes were the color of deep green from a jade stone. The very same color as when he first opened his eyes to me at the hospital. They are just as compelling now as they were then. The very same eyes that were oh so hauntingly beautiful…but they were not my brother's.'

He held his brother even tighter, hoping so very much to ward off the terrible truth.

'Such eyes of rage…of sorrow were not those of my brother.'

***TBC***

Dark corners:
Date: 12-14-15

Yes, it has happened. And who would've thunk it? Thunk isn't a word I normally use—heck, it's not even a word—but it stays. My goodness, first off, welcome to my dark corner…please take a seat!

Thank you ever so much for leaving me your reviews and support to continue on. Needless to say, it's been a long journey to even make it to this point. There were certainly hard times these last few years that I wasn't where I wanted to be with this fic and couldn't release what I had for the sake of releasing. Looking back at my writing over the years, I am now amazed that many of my good readers stuck around. I hope I've improved to your satisfaction with this new chapter release!

Wow…this chapter was a mauling bear for many a night. Kyo's and Yuki's segments were beating me, especially Kyo's. I had to truly reach into myself to find the right balance of levity and despair in this fic because life is very much like that. Kyo's history with leeks was something I made up to bring the right balance to his segment. For many a reader, this segment was one that was long awaited for. I've brought Kyo's flaws to light so many times that a few readers thought me to be too one-sided with Yuki. Hardly the truth, really, but it was necessary to make it appear that way to make way with what I ultimately had in mind for Kyo's character. As much a headache as Kyo can be, he's a lot of fun to write for.

And then there's Yuki. The health of our little mouse was of course not scientifically authentic so please bear with me if discrepancies abound. Also his interactions with Haru were something I struggled with a bit. Let me stress that he wasn't being violent with Haru but, as with anything lately, he was trying to make an important point. Haru could take the 'beating' and both knew this—I hope I conveyed Haru's lack of alarm to this odd behavior with Yuki. It goes without saying that Yuki hasn't been himself lately with all the mayhem pounding the family.

You may have noticed the recycling of key moments/remarks from much earlier chapters, some as far back as ten years! Yeah, it was incredibly enlightening to see the date on some of those early chapters! Truly, thank you for sticking with me. But so many of those early chapters have key ingredients that are finally coming together for the ultimate goal.

As many of you are aware by now, I'm a musician at heart—well, I love all sorts of music. Today's opening segment was from Enya's Watermark album, song "Evening Falls". It's a really beautiful backdrop theme for this chapter. For Kyo's/Yuki's moments in this chapter and really throughout this fic, Christina Perri's "Human" song was spot on with the despair these two shared. Heck, I kind of wished this song came out ages ago…would've served as a perfect inspirational piece as I wrote up Kyo's segment and maybe it would've been easier to write!

The last part with the mystery of the screams, etc.—remember, the Jyuunishi curse is upon them and is finally making itself actively known amongst them all. This is a big drop to the plot line. A turning point is coming to the next chapter that will FINALLY conclude the Embers of Summer segment! Hooray! Stay tuned…and if you're still around from the early days, drop me a line. My inbox is always welcoming!

HelloKat