AN: Damn. Five weeks, eh? Heh. My fault, my fault. Sorry for the wait, but things have been odd around here. Mainly related to parental arguments and calculus. Yes, damn calculus. To hell. But anyway, I'm making this AN as short as I can, cuz I want to sleep. It's almost 2 AM here. So, on to the reviewers. There were a lot of you this time, and I had great fun reading everyone's comments!
AKC: Ah, what can I say to you? You are like, my favorite reviewer person ever. You inspire me, dangit.
LilyBlaze: I'm glad I could brighten your day. Hopefully, this chap is as useful to you. Thanks for being such a nice, faithful reviewer!
TigerLilly: One day, Ichigo will take advantage of it. Possibly in a Healing-related one-shot. Mhmm. And yea. Actually, in two days, I get to go to Florida for a week with my brother and my mother. Gods, I hate my mother. It shall suck. Spring break, and again, no anime or anything. Just… that woman…
Noc and NC: I'm glad you like it. I'm always relieved to hear when I get characterization right, cuz I tend to suck at it. Canada was nice! I liked the snow.
BlackWingedGabriel: So sorry for the wait! Nah, don't need glasses. Just sleep. Which I won't get much of tonight, again. Dang.
Dust-in: You are generally the reason I'm bothering with the sequel. I need it to get Pai and Lettuce together :P. My spring break will be filled with my mother. I pity myself.
Snowbluerat: I realize this is late, but my sympathies for you and your pet. I've had pets die. I've seen other people's pets die. I've held for euthanasia. I know it's damn hard. Hope you're okay.
goldwing-silverwing angel: You read it in one go? Poor you :P
Sakura: Yup. They're long. This one is as long as the last :P
STLC: Last one! And go update…
Tamashi no kaitou: Thanks for your support. I'm glad I did something right in the characterization…
Okay, I know a hell of a lot more people reviewed, but I just can't go on tonight. If I get to it, I may reply using the reply button thing. Right now, I think you all just want to get to the chappie anyway :P.
So, without further ado:
Disclaimer: If I owned TMM, Kisshu would have gotten Ichigo, Masaya would be dead, and I wouldn't have to lose sleep writing this fic :P Hehe. Ah well.
Lettuce was shaking.
He had never yelled at her before. He'd never even snapped at her, complained to her, done anything that voiced some sort of displeasure. Granted, he'd often start arguments with Ichigo, or scold one of the other girls (except for Zakuro; no one really crossed her), but he had never said anything of the sort to her.
So now, wide eyes staring at the blonde as Keiichiro gently forced him to sit down, murmuring some random phrases he undoubtedly hoped would calm his friend, Lettuce trembled with the total shock of seeing Ryou at his most enraged.
All it had taken was a soft "K-Kisshu-san is…"
Somehow, probably through a combination of her reaction to his phone call a few days ago and his own innate genius, and probably the added "-san," those two stuttered, whispered words were all it took, and he had instantly switched from mildly concerned and curious to cold disbelief. A heartbeat after that, she had found herself barely able to breathe as an unbelievable fury entered his eyes and voice.
She had never seen those clear blue eyes so clouded by vicious anguish…
…for a moment, she wondered, if perhaps, this was the look he had worn when his parents had—
And then all thought had vanished as hope, any hope of a peaceful negotiation, swiftly fled, chased off by this rising wrath.
She was startled not by renewed anger, but by the soft tone that carried her name.
The girl looked up to see the eldest member of the Mew Mew Project trying to be both gentle with her, his eyes soft and silently pleading as they captured her gaze, and firm with his companion. A quick side-glance saw how his slender hand was perched on the blonde's shoulder, fingers tense in an anxious firmness…
It startled her so badly, that all she managed in answer was a stuttering "H-hai?"
Strange, eerie, even, how calm his voice was: the exact opposite of Ryou's near-wild tirade of a minute ago.
"Where are they now?"
Somehow, his tone brought her thoughts to order. She swallowed quietly before straightening in growing resolve.
"They're coming here. They should…" she glanced back down at Keiichiro's hand; its muscles had flexed ever so slightly in response to the barely visible twitch Ryou had given at the words "coming here." "They should be here soon." She swallowed again, almost in time with the blonde making as if to get up, only to be pushed back down, silenced again by that almost desperate look…
Somehow, that little series of movements compelled a rise of courage within the girl, and before she knew what was happening, she heard her voice leap forth from her tight throat as her hands, trembling slightly at her sides, clenched and unclenched.
"Shirogane-san, if you would just—"
His blue eyes settled on hers.
She recovered from the falter.
"Please, maybe, if you would just listen, just for a moment, we could—"
"They have never wanted to negotiate before. What makes you think it would work now?"
Both of the men and Lettuce turned to the new voice, for Zakuro had taken to opportunity to walk in, no doubt a pseudo-ambassador for the other two Mews listening not-so-covertly at the door (when Lettuce had arrived, all three other Mew Mews had been present at the café; when asked, each claimed to feel a need to be there at that specific time. Lettuce supposed their bonds to each other had just grown that strong). She surveyed the scene with ever-blank eyes, arms crossed and head tilted just barely to the side, looking as curious as her cold demeanor would allow.
Maybe it was the coldness, the deep apathy, of that dark slate-blue gaze that called up a wave of vibrant courage within the porpoise-girl. Whatever managed it, Zakuro and the men found themselves staring at Lettuce in mild shock as her voice rose to its loudest, her eyes sparking with a passion that immobilized all three of them for a moment.
Actually, Zakuro and Ryou were the most shocked of the trio; Keiichiro was watching with a mix of curiosity and…dare he think it?…pride?
There was, no doubt, something about the conviction in Lettuce's gaze that inspired a definite sense of satisfaction in the man, and it lessened his disbelief just a bit.
Was there some merit to what she was saying? Could she actually be…?
"But we never gave them a chance!"
It was all she had to say to coax a soft, half-whispered "Lettuce-san…" from Keiichiro's parted lips.
Zakuro and Ryou, in turn, stiffened.
For a second, as Lettuce held their gazes, she thought, for just the most miniscule moment, that something had clicked. Ryou's blue eyes flickered.
Then, Zakuro assumed her expressionless stance, and Ryou tensed in preparation for a rebuttal.
Lettuce did not know what he would have said, or how she would have responded. To be sure, she certainly did not know what she would have answered with, or how this argument would have rekindled.
All she knew what that she would have preferred it did.
Instead, the next voice she heard belonged to an incredulous, plainly distressed Minto. There was no question about who had just walked in through the door:
And there was no doubt as to who had just come in with her. Pudding's uncharacteristically somber voice (she had been oddly subdued after Ryou had started yelling at Lettuce; the scene, combined with the news, seemed to have driven her to a realm of deep thought that instilled an odd quiet over the monkey-girl) took care of that:
Before Lettuce even registered what was really happening, she noticed that Pudding's voice trailed off strangely, as if she had wanted to add something more, but hadn't been sure…
This train of thought lasted only a second, however, for in the next, Ryou was opening the door, face drawn in new anger. Keiichiro was trying to match his pace, mouth opening in a cry of the blonde's name, hand outstretched, just missing the back of the boy's shirt, in an attempt to halt him.
Zakuro only stood there, arms forever crossed, eyes forever blank.
Again, that look… Lettuce rapidly found herself following Keiichiro, overtaking him, opening her mouth and:
It wasn't that she didn't have the willpower to push forward, perhaps to even grab the boy's shoulder and try to calm him down.
It was just that Ryou's rage (and who could blame him, really? Lettuce visibly cringed as she reminded herself of how the boy's past was obviously affecting his actions) was that much stronger.
Lettuce's voice was cut off by an enraged cry of "You baka!"
She tried once again, received no answer, and didn't bother a third time. Ryou's attention belonged only to the alien and red-head standing before him.
Said alien and red-head looked…
Ichigo's expression mirrored what anyone could have predicted: frightened, anxious, yet marked by a willful spark that warned of a coming outburst if things continued in the same vein.
Kisshu… Lettuce could see only one thing in his golden eyes: the determination to protect, to guard. Of course, she had no doubt as to whom that determination was meant for. Other than that glint, he remained strangely expressionless, motionless, and the porpoise-girl realized that he meant to stay that way.
At least, until the cat-girl made the first move.
Yes, both boys were waiting for Ichigo to react, Ryou targeting her specifically, Kisshu warily watching and allowing it… all would depend on her.
And Ichigo looked as if she wanted to speak, to argue, to fight, even. That fire was there, smoldering away in pink-brown irises, but something was keeping her from it.
Worry for the alien boy standing just slightly behind her? Near-terror, because he had just come out of a bizarre battle against his own comrade, and she still didn't know what to make of it?
Concern for Lettuce, who knew her expression could not have been encouraging?
Anxiety over the reactions of the other Mews that, while silenced now, were inevitable?
A combination, probably, but nonetheless something that kept her rooted to the spot, fists clenched to near blood-drawing point, courage on the verge of being put to action, but trapped behind a growing, twisting tension until…
Ichigo did nothing to break it; rather, she only acted as a sort of victim for the trigger: namely, Ryou's hand, reaching out to hit or grab, no one knew, but resulting in a break in not Ichigo's paralysis, but Kisshu's.
The alien stepped forward, pale hand grabbing Ryou's wrist, lips pulling back in a sneer as that protective glint sparked into warning flame, and his voice cut through the tension, a deceptively calm tone in the face of the blonde's furious exclamation.
"Now, I'm pretty sure you don't want to do that, ne? I think you want to let my kone—"
The alien's hand had been steadily tightening over Ryou's wrist, slowly twisting, gradually moving towards a realm where his hold would be less defensive and more offensive, because everyone knew that no matter how set on peace Kisshu had been at his arrival, any sort of threat against Ichigo swiftly demoted him to violent, aggressive square one.
And any sort of threat to his own person inspired the same sort of reaction in Ryou. He gritted his teeth instantly, muscles tensing as he prepared to take a swing at the green-haired boy, who now looked just about ready for another battle.
The blonde's snarl resulted in a number of cries: one from Keiichiro, a plea to halt, a couple from Minto and Pudding, both strangled, shocked gasps, and finally, one from Lettuce:
The porpoise-girl was the only one who knew exactly what to say, whom to appeal to, in order to have any hope of remedying the situation. She was the only one who managed to capture the red-head's gaze and send that plea to her.
The next cry was one of "Stop, Kisshu!" and Ryou stopped in sheer amazement as Ichigo's arms closed around the alien's waist, pulled him back, ended the fight before it began. In turn, Kisshu left threatening for mildly confused, though he retained his ability to speak.
"Ichigo…" All he managed, however, was her name.
It didn't matter. That was all she needed to break the dam holding back the strength that had grown within her during the trials of the past few days.
She now did something that stunned Ryou into choked silence.
Right at the alien, who carefully, still warily, smiled back.
Well, Ryou was flabbergasted, needless to say. So were the Mews, of course, save for one.
"Kisshu-san, I think it would be best if you—"
Lettuce did not have to finish her sentence. Somewhere between Ichigo's pleading eyes and the porpoise-girl's soft voice, Kisshu quickly got the concept of "leave, so we can make sure our favorite blonde genius doesn't get the chance to behead you." Thus, he instantly teleported to stand beside Lettuce who, though momentarily surprised by the quick movement, swiftly continued through with her plan to allow Ichigo full reign over the situation by beginning to lead the alien into the back room.
"Are you insane? If you think I'm—! T-the computers are back th—!"
Ryou instantly woke from his shock and began to yell any fragment of furious thought at Lettuce, mind frantically running through warnings of enemy and monster and… and once, just once, to fire….
However, that fleeting visual of orange flame was all it took to have him spin around and try to pursue the porpoise-girl.
This time, Ichigo did not have the time to reach out and stop him.
The boy's path was blocked by Keiichiro, and he wilted almost immediately.
"Don't you think you should at least listen to her, Ryou?"
The blonde sputtered, will dampened by the strangely calm tone Keiichiro used.
"I think I've heard enou—"
"Ichigo-san is obviously not injured, and neither is Lettuce-san. Don't you think that that means that they—"
"A trick! It can't be any more than a trick, and just because this baka's stupid enough to fall for it, doesn't mean that I—!"
The older man was trying to appeal to the blonde's logic, but Ryou's anger was making it unbearably difficult.
That, and Keiichiro knew he could not have sounded all that persuasive. The truth was, he hardly believed what he was saying, barely fathomed it…
…but he knew it wasn't wrong. He had known from the moment Lettuce's eyes had locked Ryou's and begged him to listen to her, from the moment Ichigo arrived with a Kisshu that looked so utterly different, in human garb, no less, that something dramatic had occurred, and the blonde genius was undoubtedly wrong.
These thoughts, though effective in compelling Keiichiro, had little to no effect on Ryou. He just took another breath, ready to continue countering Keiichiro's suggestion with more anger.
He never even managed to exhale.
Ichigo, free from worrying over Kisshu and Ryou trying to immediately kill each other, had regained a good deal of her courage, and her sharp voice quickly came to support Keiichiro. The very recent battle against Pai gave her plenty of fuel, even though she did not mention it. Things were complicated enough already. That could wait until much later.
"It's not a trick. You don't even know what's happened, and you're al—"
She gritted her teeth when he snorted.
"Lettuce was kind enough to give me the details. And I can't help it if you're so mind-numbingly foolish, that you can't see when the enemy is using you." He ended in a tone so cold, so final, that Ichigo's eyes filled with tears.
She was shaking now, and she knew she would cry, and crying would make things so much worse.
Suddenly, the girl wished that Lettuce hadn't retreated. She even wished the other Mews hadn't disappeared up the stairs to listen unseen; even their nervous presence would have lessened the tension between her and Ryou somewhat.
Tears pooled in her eyes, blurring her vision as her mind raced to find a way to counter him, to regain her proverbial footing.
Images came to mind.
Flashes of feeling came to her.
Bits and pieces of her time with the alien, but one memory standing out against the blonde's accusation.
She could suddenly feel a phantom touch on her wrist, the memory, growing ever stronger, of the moment he had begged her for one last kiss before his death burning brilliantly in her chaotic thoughts.
He had thought he would die.
She had thought he would die.
The boy had almost…died for her.
Those days and nights he spent in agony… a trick?
Those kisses, lies?
Those words, mere fairytales?
"You're the foolish one."
Both Keiichiro and Ryou froze in shock.
Her voice had lost its shrillness, its frantic bite. A tone of the smoothest tranquility had taken its place.
For a moment, Keiichiro realized that there was a light in her eyes he had seen before, in Lettuce's.
It was that light of gentle wisdom.
And in that moment, Keiichiro knew who had won.
Ichigo smiled at Ryou, and the blonde found his voice gone.
"It's already changed, and there's nothing you can do." She looked up at him, watched his eyes widen ever so slightly.
"I've already promised him," she paused, then added in a bare whisper, laced with a soft smile, "and he promised me."
And now Ryou realized who had won. He didn't fight.
The boy blinked once, twice, before making a noise that was half-snort, half-sigh. Either way, it was a noise of weak acceptance, and in that second, Ichigo felt her heart go out to him. She knew what this defeat meant to him, what it called up within him.
It called up that image of devastating flames…
But she had no chance to voice this, because before she knew it he had turned and begun ascending the stairs, ignoring Keiichiro faintly calling his name, taking no notice of Minto and Pudding staring curiously after him, or Zakuro allowing her gaze to imperceptibly follow him before he disappeared into his room.
And that, Ichigo realized with a half-bemused, half-relieved blink, was that.
Well, perhaps not totally, but that was about as much as she was going to see of it. Later, Keiichiro would probably go upstairs and try to calm to boy down, reason with him, work everything out so that Ryou could feel some semblance of peace.
Now, however, it seemed the older brunette had eyes only for the situation at hand. Ichigo was startled by the abruptness with which he pressed forward, no matter how gentle and soothing his tone was.
"I suppose we have much to discuss, Ichigo-san."
It managed to catch her off guard, but she righted herself quickly. "H-hai."
"Come on, then."
He turned and began to approach the back room; the girl followed, slowly at first, then suddenly picking up speed as a sense of strange excitement seized her. It just occurred to her that she had faced Shirogane and survived. And now she would be able to tell Kisshu the good news, and maybe he would be so happy, he'd hug her—
At that moment, it became quite obvious, how far the two had come in their relationship, for that thought had come calmly, naturally, and had resulted in a fiery blush lighting her cheeks. She was grateful Keiichiro seemed more intent on forcing himself to walk forward and complete his new duty rather than on studying her.
Soon after this observation, the two entered the room, the sight of a fidgety Lettuce, along with an equally fidgety Kisshu trying to relieve his anxiety by toying with a cup of tea the porpoise-girl had likely given him, met their eyes. A moment later, Kisshu's golden eyes were captured by Ichigo's gaze, and the alien automatically smiled. The fact that that nauseating fear had gone from her eyes was enough to tell him who the victor was, and he rose from his seat with a grin slowly tugging on his lips, obviously ready to fulfill Ichigo's little fleeting fantasy then and there.
He froze again, however, at Lettuce's voice. She had risen as well and was giving Keiichiro her full, sympathetic attention.
"Akasaka-san… is Shirogane-san…?"
Ichigo visibly flinched at the name, and Kisshu strode forward to stand protectively by her, half-formed grin fading into a look of concern.
Keiichiro saw this. He saw it very quickly, and even though he knew that at that moment, he should have answered somberly, his companion's name a sure trigger for the melancholy, he could not help a spark of interest at the bond that seemed to have formed between the Mew leader and her (former, I guess…) enemy. So, instead of reacting in any way Lettuce was expecting, he gave her a relaxed, calming smile.
"He will be fine. I will speak to him later. Now," he turned to Ichigo and a curious-looking Kisshu, "I believe we have slightly more pressing things to discuss."
The next half hour seemed to fly by with ridiculous speed, and each moment yielded another little surprise for Ichigo, most of them involving how civil Kisshu was managing to act in front of one of the Mew Project leaders. He was listening, nodding, controlling himself magnificently, without the slightest smirk or hint of a snide remark. Soon, both Ichigo and Lettuce were so mesmerized by this, that they fell out of the conversation, watching instead as Keiichiro and Kisshu discussed various matters, first tackling a quick retelling of recent events (Keiichiro, ever polite, took a few minutes to offer the laboratory's medical facilities, which Kisshu answered with an equally polite shake of the head…and a quick, charmingly grateful glance at the cat-girl), then progressing to a rather tense, thankfully short mention of Pai (and Taruto, but Kisshu smoothed over that so quickly, that Keiichiro knew not to press; obviously, the alien was still mulling over the situation with the youngest of the trio), and finally landing on the touchy topic of what would happen next.
"It is my understanding that Ichigo-san's parents are returning tonight. Is that correct?"
Kisshu nodded; Ichigo did as well.
"Yeah," she finally spoke up, "they'll be back around eight."
"Then I suppose you will not be able to remain at her home, Kisshu-san."
The alien's calm demeanor finally dissolved into a touch of understandable disappointment, and a faint pout touched his face.
"Well, I wouldn't say—"
"If my dad saw you, he'd kill you, then have a heart attack… then probably kill you again…" Ichigo trailed off rather comically, though Kisshu immediately saw the sense in what she said. Still, he was determined.
"Aww… c'mon, koneko-chan. You don't think I could win 'im over?" He looked at her with a hopeful grin.
"…you've never met my dad, have you?"
"Then you have no—"
The two fell silent, slightly sheepish, at the sound of Keiichiro clearing his throat.
"The point of the matter is that I don't think you can stay here."
This set Ichigo off immediately.
"But Akasaka-san, if he can't stay here, then…"
She didn't really have to ask why he couldn't stay. The knowledge that the blonde was still upstairs was, of course, the explanation. The girl didn't argue; she only voiced her growing sense of desperation. Kisshu frowned, plainly uneasy at suddenly being a burden.
Lettuce, abruptly deciding to enter the conversation, offered a suggestion. "Maybe he… he could stay with one of us?"
Keiichiro shook his head. "I doubt the other girls are quite ready for something like that. Granted, Minto-san's mansion is big enough to hide him, and Pudding might be able to explain him to her siblings, but regardless, I don't think it right to ask just yet. And I do not believe you will be able to conceal him from your family, Lettuce-san."
The porpoise-girl hung her head. "I…" She fell silent. He was right, of course.
At this point, Kisshu was getting annoyed at being talked about, and did what he normally did in such a situation: forced an impish smile onto his face and offered his own "expert" advice.
"You know, koneko-chan, I don't have to stay in a house. I could just sleep in the tree outside your window. It's easy to hide in, and the view's great."
Ichigo whipped around to fix him with a steady glare. Now, at first he thought its purpose was the usual: a twinge of annoyance at his habitual suggestive comment. As soon as she opened her mouth, however, he realized otherwise.
"If you," she jabbed her finger at him here, making him blink in surprise, then begin to grin rather sheepishly, "think that you're going to sleep outside in the cold after all of that, you're more of a baka than I thought!"
Keiichiro found it bizarrely difficult to keep a smile from his lips.
"Then I take it you have a plan, Ichigo-san?"
Again, Keiichiro's voice caused her to pause. She absentmindedly scratched her chin with a delicate finger.
All three others were watching her expectantly. Lettuce's eyes were wide behind her thick glasses; Keiichiro seemed to have focused absolutely all of his attention on the girl; Kisshu… actually, had the others been more attentive to him rather than to Ichigo, they would have observed one of his charming little alien traits: his ears were twitching ever so slightly in his deep curiosity.
Now, Ichigo wasn't a particularly great thinker. This was a general given to anyone who had any familiarity with her ditziness-prone mind. However, her thoughts were progressing with impressive rapidity today, and she realized one point very, very quickly.
She actually didn't want Kisshu to leave. The girl wasn't quite sure if that should have been surprising or not, but the fact remained that she didn't want to boy living anywhere but at her own house, especially now. After all that had happened, she couldn't imagine being separated from him so drastically. There was still too much to do…
After this realization, her mind raced to find some way to accommodate these feelings.
Again, a very impressive thing happened:
She found one.
Actually, she had seen the trick done so many times in books and on random television shows, she was surprised the idea hadn't come to her sooner.
A wide smile lit her face as she assumed the classic "Eureka!" expression.
"I could tell my parents he's an exchange student!"
Lettuce and Keiichiro both face-faulted; Kisshu just looked confused.
"What's an exchange student?"
Keiichiro, recovering, sighed. "She means that you would pose as a student from another country staying at her house. But Ichigo-san, how would you explain that to your parents?"
"What do you mean, explain? I could just tell them I offered to be part of the program! It's not like they'd be able to turn him away." The triumph remained in her face.
"And what do you plan to do about…" Keiichiro's gaze plainly settled on Kisshu's long, extremely conspicuous ears…. which twitched again. Apparently, he was just as curious about the solution to that little issue.
Here, however, Ichigo lost her triumphant smile, faltering nervously. "Ah… well, we could…" She looked over at Kisshu helplessly, and he snorted at her.
"Don't look at me! It's not like I can shrink them or anything."
Ichigo pouted, a normal reaction to annoyances such as this.
Luckily, before an argument could break out, Lettuce cleared her throat.
"Perhaps you could tell your parents he was born that way."
"I was born this way."
"A-ano, I mean…"
"She means pass them off as a birth abnormality. Right, Lettuce-san?"
Keiichiro's voice brought her confidence back, and the porpoise-girl nodded. "I-it's not a very good idea, I'm afraid, but…"
"I think in this case, it'll do just fine." Keiichiro smiled encouragingly.
"Yeah! My parents'll believe anything. That'll work just fine," Ichigo added, smile taking its rightful place. She had a good point. If her parents believed that she randomly ran off to study at friends' houses at nine P.M. (of course, a regular excuse in the face of a sudden Chimera Anima attack), they'd probably fall for this sooner or later.
And she just knew it would work. It had to. The girl felt extremely adamant about not leaving Kisshu, and she was glad Lettuce had come up with a solution, even if it remained a somewhat uncertain one. The girl had been dreading having to plead (she had felt that it would have turned out that way, somehow), so one could imagine her relief.
"So that's it?"
Keiichiro nodded, about to give a soft "I suppose so," about to begin to go further into details about what would happen next, when:
"Yeah. Is it?"
The group, all but Kisshu, who had already started a moment before they did, as he was facing the door, turned to see a prim-looking Minto and an oddly quiet Pudding standing in the doorway. Zakuro was no where to be seen; perhaps she had stayed upstairs, guarding over the distressed Ryou.
"Minto-san…" Lettuce was the first to say her name, but Ichigo was the first to really answer. Unfortunately, she didn't do it very kindly. Seeing Minto looking none too relaxed, Ichigo immediately assumed the worst and replied in a tight, accusing voice. She did it so quickly, Keiichiro didn't even have the chance to step in. Kisshu remained silent.
"You have a problem with that, Minto?"
She was expecting the girl to snap back at her, or start to argue. Instead, Minto's eyes grew dull, sad, and she answered in a voice shaking with barely-controlled emotion.
"Of course I have a problem with it! You can't just come in here, with him (Kisshu flinched as those eyes feel accusingly on him, but he sensed that rising to his own defense wasn't the best idea), and expect us to accept it! I mean… Ichigo, have you forgotten what they've done?"
The cat-girl blinked, taken aback.
"I mean, have you forgotten what we're supposed to be doing? We have a world to protect! Why don't you go tell your friends and your parents that you've decided that… that he's worth more than they are!"
It was obvious, at this point, that Minto had lost her self-control. The girl was glaring at Ichigo and Kisshu in turn, eyes slowly filling with tears.
And what worried Ichigo most was that Pudding remained silent throughout all of it, still deep in whatever thoughts were troubling her.
She didn't dare look to Lettuce or Keiichiro for help, because she knew what this was. Over the past few days, she had come to recognize these moments for what they were: her own personal tests of conviction. She treated this one as such.
Calm, collected, and soothingly warm and caring, her voice fought against Minto's rising distress.
"I promised, Minto. And so did he." The last bit was a whisper. Then, her voice returned: "And… and we have to change this now. We'll find a way." As she spoke, she smiled, and as she smiled, she threw a side glance at Kisshu, who looked first at her, then at Minto, and stiffened. It occurred to him, very, very abruptly, that it was his turn to prove himself.
For the first time, Kisshu looked up and met Minto's eyes without any desire to harm, or to tease. His gaze held no malice. It was serious, thoughtful, even... apologetic. And then he turned that same gaze to Pudding, and to Lettuce, and finally, to Keiichiro.
The bird-girl took a moment to absorb that gaze, take in those clear golden eyes, before swallowing nervously and stiffening. At first, as she did that, Ichigo wilted in disappointment, believing the reaction undoubtedly negative.
However, after a few seconds, Minto let out a breath.
"I'm going for a walk."
No one questioned her as she turned and left the room.
Next, Ichigo realized it was time to work with Pudding.
"Pudding-chan," she began slowly, softly, still under the watchful gaze of the other three, "are you all right?"
Moments passed until suddenly, the little girl raised her head and looked not at Ichigo, but at Kisshu. To top that off, she addressed him, too, and not in what Ichigo had come to consider the conventional way.
Everyone was stunned, and it took Kisshu a while to recover from his bewilderment and answer her.
"Does this mean that Taru-Taru can sleep over Pudding's house?"
The group now decided that it was very apparent as to what Pudding thought of the whole matter.
The girls, and even Keiichiro, began to giggle and laugh, not only because Pudding's somber expression was gone, the girl now beaming at Kisshu, but also because the aforementioned alien looked torn between being utterly confused by her request and cooking up ways to tease Taruto about this little request in the future.
The mirth continued as the girl began to chatter to herself, already beginning to list activities she was just dying to try on the little alien.
"…and we can bake cookies, and play house, and watch scary movies, and—"
"Pudding-chan. Why don't you go ahead and write all of that down?" Keiichiro, ever calm, tried to restore some order so the discussions could continue.
"But Pudding has a great memory! See, I can list it all from the beginning: hide and seek, tag, jum—"
"Taruto has a horrible memory. You can write it down for him."
Pudding paused, blinked, and grinned again.
"Then Pudding shall go find paper, and a pencil, and…" The little girl trailed off as she whirled around and bounded out the door.
Needless to say, Keiichiro was not the only one staring at Kisshu in disbelief. The alien boy found three pairs of eyes on him and frowned at Ichigo's amazed stare.
"What? Like I wanted to listen to that… she's like Taruto after he's eaten a few hundred of those candy things…"
That rekindled the laughter.
The next half hour of planning and decisions passed much more easily than the last. By the time Kisshu and Ichigo were shrugging their coats back on and approaching the door, Pudding had regained her cheer, Lettuce was wearing that shy smile of approval, and Keiichiro…
There was a warmth shining in his brown eyes that made Ichigo grin even wider as she waved a quick good-bye and pulled a somewhat pensive Kisshu out the door.
But before she managed to drag him out entirely, the alien stole a last glance back at the café, and his eyes chanced to glimpse something that no one else saw: a brief flash of blonde at the top of the stairs.
Turning back to a suddenly-impatient Ichigo, he mirrored her smile, and they set off for home.
They had been walking for about ten minutes in a joyous, relieved sort of silence, when Ichigo decided that her moment of self-control was over.
With a scream of "Yatta!" and a shriek of pure girlish jubilation, Kisshu found himself laying flat in a snow drift, a giggling Ichigo pinning him to the ground and pressing her cheek against his in a true, giddy embrace.
Needless to say, the boy grinned back, returned the bone-crushing hug with one of his own, and happily decided that he didn't quite mind the melted snow slowly making its way down the back of his shirt.
Nor did he mind those moments of stomach-clenching anxiety in the café, the nausea brought by the stares of so many accusing eyes.
No, he decided.
Her sweet laugh tickling his ear in her utter relief, her heart pounding so close to his, her smile so genuine, so different from what it would have once been, totally made up for it.
They made up for it so well, that he kissed her neck in his own expression of elation, and that only tightened her hug.
They didn't get up for another five minutes. The bliss was just too great.
Gods, it was all so worth it.
"W-what did y-you…"
He grinned wider; a gleaming white fang sparkled back at her wide eyes.
Finally, Ichigo got out the only words that managed to truly embody the situation:
"That was amazing."
Now, normally, she wouldn't compliment Kisshu on his slyness and cunning; those were two characteristics that rather ruffled her metaphoric fur, particularly when used as methods to manipulate her.
However, what the boy had just done, what was making him grin so widely and smugly as he sat down on the guestroom bed, reaching up in perfect nonchalance to undo the bands in his hair in preparation for his upcoming shower, definitely merited praise.
The short of it went like this:
1. Ichigo's parents had come home.
2. Ichigo's father had immediately seen the undeniably cute, handsome alien boy sitting innocently on his living room couch.
3. Ichigo's father had acted in his usual manner. He had swelled in anger. He had gathered breath for a lovely verbal attack. He actually rather reminded everyone else, including his confused wife, of a puffer fish.
Now, let us all pay attention to the little twist that followed, as it was precisely what inspired such awe in the cat-girl a while afterwards:
He did more than live, in fact.
The girl had never heard such polite, sophisticated speech flow from the alien's clever lips.
Somehow, using this astonishing ability to sound miraculously intelligent in front of her stunned father, Kisshu had eloquently explained his status as an exchange student, praised Ichigo's generosity in allowing him to stay at her home (which, he added, quickly winning Sakura over, was spacious and tastefully decorated), somehow managed to convince Ichigo's parents that his ears were part of some exotic skin condition (the girl went numb during this part; she briefly wondered if she was dreaming), and ended so beautifully, with so many sincere-sounding compliments that Ichigo felt positively light-headed, that the patriarchal rage in Shintaro's face gradually dissolved into acceptance.
Ichigo had barely recovered in time to nod in agreement to Kisshu's words.
The next thing she knew, Kisshu had excused them both to go wash up for bed, and Ichigo found herself staring, open-mouthed, barely able to conjure a sentence, at an extremely smug alien.
Finally, Kisshu interrupted Ichigo's half-stupor.
"What, did you think that after all that's happened, I was going to be chased away by your father?"
Ichigo could only blink.
"And here I thought you already knew that I have the ultimate gift of charm."
Still, all Ichigo could do was stare as a rather interesting thought ran through her mind:
How in the world had Kisshu pulled that off when her father had threatened to kill Aoyama, who could only be described as the epitome of young male perfection?
Was someone trying to tell her…?
"Oi, Ichigo? Ichi—"
"If you don't mind… I think I'll shower first."
She said it in such a whispery, detached voice, that the boy was stunned silent even as he nodded slowly, bewildered, having fully expected some sort of sarcastic comment, some sort of engage in play that would have kept them amused for at least a few minutes. Instead, he didn't even try again as Ichigo, suddenly somber and quiet, left the room and made her way to the bathroom.
It occurred to him very abruptly as he toyed with on of his hair bands, a gentle frown settling into his features, that this little incident with her father, though it had ended markedly well, had just brought her train of thought full circle.
This was why, no matter how he longed to jump to his feet and go to the girl, to reassure her, to let his arms cradle her while she struggled with her inner battle, he stayed seated uneasily on his bed.
Ichigo had to do this alone.
Kisshu, fiddling more and more anxiously with his hair bands, face creasing into a frustrated half-snarl, Ichigo, locking herself in the bathroom and beginning to undress, lower lip caught between nearly-gritted teeth, both knew that this was Ichigo's trial alone, for the time had come.
It had been triggered by that stupid little thought regarding Shintaro, and it could not be pushed back any longer, not by either of them.
Kisshu, sighing shakily in an attempt to defeat his growing unease, lay down and decided to forgo his shower until morning.
Ichigo stepped into the shower's steady stream of water and let it blind and deafen her to the rest of the world.
Yet even as they tried to numb themselves to the realization, as Ichigo slipped into the calm pleasure of a hot shower, as Kisshu allowed slumber to overtake him, they both thought the same thought, and each knew, innately, that the other was feeling the exact same anxiety, for tomorrow…
Tomorrow, Ichigo would go see Aoyama.
She awoke early. Six A.M., to be precise.
She dressed silently, careful as never before to keep from even just brushing up against her desk or chair. Her steps were as silent as a feline's; the floorboards that usually creaked under her weight made no protest as she finished tying her hair back and crossed the room, opening her door with utmost stealth, and stepped out into the hallway.
A minute later, she was down the stairs and out the door, a hastily written note telling her parents that she had gone out for a brisk morning jog.
She didn't bother writing anything for Kisshu.
Most of her care, actually, was meant to guard against his waking up and meeting her before she left.
The girl wanted no distractions. She did not want any more difficulties.
The prospect of seeing his face again, those golden eyes so deep, so effortlessly pleading as they looked into hers, before leaving was too much, so she said a silent prayer of gratitude as she walked through her front gate, thankful that she had not had to face him.
Of course, what she failed to notice was that, just because she had not had to face him, it did not mean that he was not there.
As the girl made her way to the park where she knew Aoyama took his early-morning jogs, she did not notice the shadow, faint in the growing dawn's light, darting in and out from among the shadows of the trees bordering the street.
Kisshu made certain to remain as silent as Ichigo had as he trailed her into the park and down to the running field, and as soon as he saw the girl stiffen, as soon as he spotted that head of night-black hair bold against eh morning fog and snow, he settled into a nearby tree and let Ichigo move forward.
Now all he could do was watch.
Ichigo did not know quite how to go about this. Standing on the edge of the field, gaze helplessly caught by Aoyama's running form, she feebly wondered what to do? Should she just walk right up to him?
A hello? A wave? A stupid, fake smile?
Should she wait until he noticed her? Would that be too awkward?
Hell, no matter how she went about this, it would be awkward.
Awkward, and nauseating, and terrifying, and… and unpredictable. Unpredictable, because she was standing there with no clear idea of how this would end…
That didn't chase her away, though. She knew that it had to be settled now, that by the time she left this park, whether it was five minutes or an hour from now, she would know which one sh—
The girl bit her lip, cutting off that thought. It was still too much to consciously think about, even when it was staring her right in the face, waiting to be confronted, ready to lay waste to her fragile emotions.
But it had to be done, and the sheer proof in that was Aoyama turning towards her in mid jog, altering his path and swiftly approaching her.
As soon as she saw those chocolate brown eyes land on her, Ichigo felt her knees weaken, her stomach churn, her eyes water with crippling anxiety.
And there was no turning back. It was sealed when the boy finally reached her and wasted no time in breaking the silence:
Miraculous, how he could sound so calm, so natural and tranquil, while the very slightest inkling of what she was about to discuss made Ichigo feel dangerously lightheaded. It accomplished the opposite of its probable intent, making the girl even more nervous as she struggled to answer.
Safely hidden in his tree, Kisshu unconsciously gritted his teeth at the tremor in her voice.
How to do this? Should she just jump right in? Should she make small-talk, steer around the main point, try to make him comfortable?
Or, rather, try to make herself comfortable?
Why in Heaven's name was he looking at her without the slightest troubled glint in his eyes? Why could he stand there breathing normally, standing tall and firm and confident, when she was trying her hardest, and very near failing, to keep from choking on her own air, to keep from shivering uncontrollably under Aoyama's expectant gaze.
What to do… how to start… what to say… where to go…
"I've been waiting for you."
Only the apparent randomness of this statement managed to shock her out of her paralyzing unease, and she blinked up at him in unabashed curiosity.
"Since five A.M." The girl had to swallow back a gasp as he smiled at her, actually smiled with a breathtaking happiness…
"Mm." He began to walk now, slowly, waiting for her to follow him. She fell into step quickly, realizing that he was trying to free her fro paralysis, calm her down, to bring back some feeling to her legs. It actually began to work; Ichigo's breathing evened began to even out, until he asked a question she had never expected, one she could never have thought to prepare herself in the hours she spent uselessly training for this last night.
"Is he doing better?"
An audible gasp now, half-choke as she abruptly stopped walking, turning to blink at him, astonished.
Needless to say, perched in his tree, eyes never leaving the pair, Kisshu felt an identical shock.
Unable to tear her eyes away from Aoyama's, the girl nodded in a sort of dazed confusion, too bewildered to not answer.
"Hai… he's… he's much better." She swallowed back the tears that were threatening her.
What the hell was he doing….?
Why ask… what… how… why…
The dam broke.
Tears began their familiar descent down her rosy cheeks; she took her next breath in a noisy sob. The pain rose up within her, only growing worse when she felt the boy's arms encircle her, pulling her into his chest. A moment later, she gritted her teeth against the gentle pressure of his chin against the top of her head.
"Aoyama-kun," she sobbed into his chest, drawing her fists up to her own, clenched, nails drawing blood in her distress, "I-I… I…"
No matter how badly she broke down, his voice remained gentle and calm.
"I know why you're here, Ichigo." The use of her first name combined with the firm resolve in his voice silenced her. He smiled down at her as she looked up.
"I want you to know that I'll always love you. Ichigo," he gave her a slight squeeze, "I'll never forget the time we had together."
The girl only stared.
What… what had just happened?
How in the world had he gone from "is he doing better?" to this soft declaration, this loving statement that somehow sounded so final.
She desperately backpedaled away from the conclusion he was so obviously approaching.
"I still love you! Aoyama-kun, I still… please! I don't want you to—"
Amazing. He was still smiling at her.
"I couldn't believe it, when I saw you with him. I admit to that. I couldn't understand it at first, but—"
"No! I don't… I'm supposed to be with you! Forever. Aoyama-kun, it's us…"
He continued on as if she had never interrupted.
"Now I see…" Ichigo stiffened in his embrace, because there was no escaping his purpose, "…how much you love him."
The girl tried to shake her head, tried to deny his words, but couldn't. She could not deny what had been the truth for what seemed like such a long time…
"And he loves you."
"But… I-I still love you." Even as she said that, though, her breathing was relaxing. Somehow, something seemed to be getting easier as his words, his intent, settled into her mind. Still desperate for the past, she fought it. "I still—"
"He'll protect you, Ichigo. And he will love you just as much as I do. I know that."
Just as much… more…
But how could he be letting her go so easily? How could he have accepted this so readily, when it had taken her days of agony to see how much that alien loved her? Why was he so ready to leave her in the arms of another?
To her numb shock, the girl found herself nodding almost imperceptibly, realizing two things:
First, that Aoyama was wiser than she.
Second, that she had made her choice.
As soon as Aoyama finished his sentence, Ichigo found herself lost in memories of all that had happened, all of those tender kisses, those warm embraces, those sweet caresses, those moments that she had never thought possible, yet enjoyed every second of…
And that was that. It was done.
"I'm so sorry… Aoyama-kun…" Of course, the remainder still wasn't easy. At least, not for her.
The boy met this with that persistent smile.
"As long as your happiness is secure, Ichigo, you have nothing to apologize for." He was making this no easier, with his sweetness, and she felt her lip tremble. Still, the boy continued.
"And I know that he will ensure your happiness."
Now he did something else that utterly shocked her:
He looked up, past her, into the trees bordering the field, and called out.
"I can trust you, can't I?"
Ichigo did not need to turn around to know that Kisshu was standing only a few yards behind her, expression immeasurably serious, the look in his eyes more than enough of an answer to Aoyama's query.
Somehow, she also could not find herself questioning the fact that he was there, or the fact that Aoyama was watching him, speaking to him, with an unprecedented level of faith. It seemed so… so expected.
The boy looked back down at her, eyes soft, gentle, deer-like.
"Then this is good-bye, Momomiya-san."
The switch back to her surname, along with a tender kiss to the forehead, the last, finalized it.
Within moments, as she stood there, still captive to shock even as her mind unconsciously accepted the decision, he had removed his arms from around her, turned away, ever graceful, ever confident in these actions, and begun to walk away.
Ichigo did not call him back. She did not run after him.
She could not.
She did not belong to him anymore.
It was done, done forever and for always, and he was hers no longer.
The girl's mind processed this, tried to acclimate to it, tried to reassure itself, that it was all right, that things were fine, that this was the decision and the problems were over, but that was nothing short of impossible.
With a fresh sob, Ichigo fell to her knees…
…and immediately felt another pair of arms around her.
Suddenly, unbidden, the memory of the Blue Knight's words assaulted her: Take her. Protect her.
She turned around, fairly throwing herself into Kisshu's chest, arms wrapping around him with no remembrance of his still-healing wound, her grip as strong as her anguish.
The alien didn't seem to mind. He never even winced.
He allowed her to rest against him, slowly rocking her back and forth as she sobbed, gasped, wept into his jacket. A moment later, she felt him rest his cheek against the top of her head as his own grip tightened, becoming warmly snug in such a way that she stopped sobbing long enough to hear hauntingly familiar words:
"Nen nen kororiyo okororiyo, boyawa yoikoda nenneshina."
That first verse stopped her tears, and she lay still against his warm chest, silently mesmerized by the sound of his voice.
"Boyano komoriwa dokoe it ta, anoyama koete satoe it ta."
With her ear pressed against the jacket, she could hear the words vibrating in his chest, following the rhythm of his heartbeat, of her heartbeat, deep and lilting, tender and miraculously strong. She could feel the song in his throat, his chest, his arms, his graceful hands, in his entire being, slowly flowing into her, soothing her so completely.
It was so very beautiful, how they soothed her, magically dried her tears, stopped her trembling, comforted her…
Gods… just like they had comforted him all those days ago…
"Sato no miyage ni nani morata, denden taikoni sho no fue. Sho no fue."
By the time the last words reached the misty air, Ichigo was so deeply concentrated on the sweet tones of his voice, on the sensation of each of his fingers pressing against her with such intense comfort, on the pressure, reassuring and so utterly gentle, of his chin resting on her head, that she had calmed to absolute silence.
How long that silence lasted, neither could truly tell. Each was too absorbed in the feel of the other to count the seconds before Ichigo, still motionless, still intent on sensing his dear warmth, spoke.
"I love you."
Kisshu did not repeat the statement.
She heard nothing from him, no words, no repetition of this affirmation.
Instead, she felt his arms tighten around her, so fast, so intense, that she could not breathe, and she knew that in the coming days, she would see bruises on her arms.
She felt the pressure against the top of her head increase with startling force, and somehow she knew that he was embracing her, fierce and impassioned, true and sincere and so full of love that it hurt, a good, blessed sort of hurt, so that she found herself unable to start crying again.
The realization that he was so emotional, so very much in love that words failed him, that he could only express himself by holding her so tightly that it hurt, took the regret, the horrible sadness, away with impossible speed and finality.
Again, time disappeared.
And for now, it did not matter.
It did not matter that it was getting light, and they'd have to return home.
It did not matter that Ichigo would one day have to explain this to her parents.
Nor did it matter that they would soon have to face Ryou again, along with Minto and Zakuro.
It did not matter that somehow, they'd have to deal with Pai, and Taruto.
Gods, it did not even matter, not in the slightest now, that one day soon, they'd have to face Deep Blue himself.
Nothing mattered, as the last notes of the lullaby hung in the mist-laden air, as long as this embrace, these feelings, these memories, remained with them.
Both human girl and alien boy knew they would. They would.
And they would be joined by the prospect of this brilliant, unknown, wonderful future that lay before them.
A future that began as soon as Kisshu woke from their trance, woke and tenderly cupped Ichigo's delicate chin in his gentle hand, tilting her face up ever so slowly, unbearably gentle as he watched her eyes flutter closed, allowed his own to do the same, and carefully, lovingly pressed his warm lips against hers.
With that kiss, the future truly began.
And with that kiss, they knew that no matter what they faced, they would survive, live, thrive, because from this moment, from this end and beginning, this undying symbol of affection, each would have the other.
And that was all that mattered.
AN: IT IS DONE! Hehe. 2 AM here, and I feel like dancing. Wow. Okay, first fanfic, finished in a little under six months. 20 chapters. I am fairly amused with myself.
For those of you wondering, no, that is not the end. I'm planning a sequel some time in the future. When, I do not know. Could be months from now, what with exams and college and stuff coming. Don't worry, though. In that time, I plan to do one-shots (cuz I love 'em), both just general one-shots, and some that might actually be set in the Healing-verse, meaning that they may pertain to events in this fanfic and the timeline it has created. Needless to say, the idea of a Kisshu-related shopping trip amuses me :P.
So, thanks to you all for reading. I hope my writing wasn't too nasty, and I hope you all somehow managed to enjoy yourselves. It's been a pleasure, especially talking to all of you reviewers. With that, I bid you adieu until my next one-shot.
P.S.: I know I am totally disregarding Masha. I realize that I used him once or twice, and haven't mentioned him since. For all intents and purposes, let's say that Lettuce disabled him at some point so that he wouldn't tell Ryou that Kisshu was at Ichigo's house. That'll probably be mentioned at some point in the sequel, and I guess he may come back. Yea. I haven't forgotten. I just have no use for him :P.