A/N: Hey, thanks for all the reviews! They made me feel better. (Looks at the last update-date and cringes) 2006? Ouch . . . three/four years. . . Wow. I am so sorry! I had some horrible Writer's Block, and was introduced to a new series, Naruto, which kinda stole my creativity for a while. I'm currently suffering another bout of that damned Writer's Block, but hopefully finishing off this chapter (which has been 2/3s of the way done for about three years now) will help. Well, enjoy.

Disclaimer: Don't own, not making any money!

Ratings: PG-13

Genre: Angst/Tragedy

Warnings: Dark themes and depression

Main Characters: Aaya, Kazuma, Yuki, and Kana

Additional Notes: For all intents and purposes, Shigure's study is on the second floor. Also, sorry about the ridiculously long wait—just be happy you get another chapter. You might notice that my style has somewhat changed since chapter two, but don't worry. I personally like to think it's gotten better. Tell me what you think.

Sweet Release

Chapter 3: Only Ashes

The dead leaves crunched beneath his feet and snapped in the crisp air that seemed so dead and somehow held the smell of decay; he made his way back down the path toward the house would seem so different now, so unimaginably different. And yet the day was cool and chilly, the perfect autumn. The perfect day, with by far the most imperfect circumstances to its rise. He hardly spared the trees a glance as he passed beneath their outstretched arms. The leaves blazed red, silver crimson in the pale light and he ignored it all. Kyou felt completely numb, completely detached, although he was shaking. The woods seemed so inviting, but he had Tohru to care for, as it seemed that Yuki wouldn't even try. Some remnant of anger flickered at the edge of his mind, though it was weak and much outweighed—the rat had left her! But then, he could really expect no less of the damn selfish rat. He shook his head. What had happened, he wondered. Was it really true? Were they really… He stopped just short of the house and looked up, toward the window of the study. A howling wind was rushing in his ears now but above it all, he could still hear the leaves crack and hiss, almost as though they were being burned alive. He shuddered, tensing in cold, remembering Yuki's harsh, blunt, callous words.

"Shigure . . . and Hatori . . . are dead."

He swallowed, the muscles in his jaw tightening at the sickening, blunt quality of factuality that had been in those words. And the horrifying, acute finality that still echoed in him. He wanted to scream. He looked back at the door and then at the window. He hugged his middle, his thin yet strong arms tight around himself, as though he could squeeze all the pain, all the surrealism from himself, from the words. As though he could make them no more than fold-up paper-crane dreams that the wind could blow safely away, across some ocean or another. He bit his lip, hard, his orange hair falling into his eyes as he bent double—he couldn't do this again. It can't be real. Yuki had lied! The mad thought crossed his mind with the force of lightening and he jolted free of his entanglement. I have to see them! I have to! Then he was running blindly, sprinting—unable to stop himself—to the back of the house, easily jumping from the ground to a tree branch and swinging himself up to another, going higher until he was level with the old shingles that had served as his bed before. He alighted on them as quietly as one can alight on shingles, and crept toward the window. He had to know. He was nearly on it now, the window, but he hesitated. He faltered, on the fringe of the abyss, and felt the doubt grow. What if it was true? What if they were. . . What would he do?

He didn't know.

With a shudder, he sat down, hugging his knees to his chest. The trees swayed softly in a slight breeze and he watched the waves of flaming leaves. He couldn't, not yet. He could not face whatever truth lie in that cold room—and if it were the same as before, the same as his mother… He tensed, burying his head in his arms, his eyes shut to the thought, the bitterly painful memory he had tried so hard to forget. He struggled with a breath for a moment, trying to hold the wetness from it, until he finally released it and shuddered. No, he could not look yet—he wasn't sure he ever could. For now, he would sit and listen to the screams of the burning leaves.

/\\\

Kana didn't know how long she sat there cradling the thin girl after Kazuma disappeared to Shigure's room, but slowly the ticking seemed to magnify and wash over her, smother her, and she swallowed dryly. She pulled the girl closer, aching for comfort herself. The girl was so warm, so alive, and Kana relished the feel—she was starving for the touch, for the mere contact of the living. Tohru groaned softly, her mahogany eyes flickering open, though they remained dull and clouded. Kana smiled waveringly, pushing the unending ticking to the back of her mind as she attempted to piece her image together for Tohru.

"How are you feeling?" Her voice was trained, schooled into some synthetic comfort that had the most unsettling affect on those who were not yet desperate enough to ignore their unease and she prided herself that it had hardly wavered.

Tohru shuddered, unconsciously pressing closer to what she believed to be a sturdy pillar, twining her fingers in the fabric of Kana's shirt. "Better," she whispered, nearly drowned out by the clocks. She was shaking horribly, but Kana stubbornly attributed that to cold and shock, and not something deeper and more devastating.

"Can you get up?" Kana smiled best she could to help the girl. To help yourself, hissed a cruel voice in the back of her mind—she shook it away and continued to smile faux-reassuringly. "It's not good to sleep on wood floors in a chilly hallway and I don't want you to catch cold."

Shivering, Tohru seemed so disoriented, so lost and helpless, that Kana felt the blood in her veins burn to comfort; somehow she managed to restrain herself, faintly realizing that the poor girl was not some helpless baby chick she had found on the side of the road—her blood burned all the same. Tohru shook her head sharply, clearing it somewhat. "I . . . I think so." The girl took the hand the elder offered and slowly rose to her feet, although unsteady. "Thank you, Onee-san."

She shook her head with a sigh. "Onee-san?" she muttered, "I guess I never did introduce myself. My name is Sohma Kana."

Tohru froze, her eyes wide. "K-Kana-san?" she whispered. "Hatori-san's Kana-san?"

A flicker of surprise and something green and wretched flickered through those liquid brown eyes. "You know—knew—Hatori?" she asked, flinching at her necessary use of the past tense. Though, truly, she had been using past tense for neigh three years now, but that had only been in the somewhat safe confines of her own head.

The girl before her suddenly seemed so small and so big simultaneously as she nodded. "I knew him," she confirmed. "He was always to kind to me, and he always—he always . . . s-spoke so hi-highly of you . . . Kana-san. . ."

She broke off, something in her finally crumbling, collapsing under the pressure she had held for so long—long before this tragedy, Kana thought briefly before the flood. The tears did not start slow, but merely streamed quietly at first, before she began to cry in earnest. Kana pulled her close, feeling that small body shudder and shiver against hers; she closed her eyes, resting her head on Tohru's. "Hush, now," she whispered. "I'm here." Tohru whimpered, and Kana led her down the dim and desolate hallway to the guestroom, closing the door behind them. She sat on the downy bed, pulling the girl with her and holding her close.

Tohru cried, though she couldn't understand why. She knew that something had happened. She had understood Yuki's words perfectly when he had said Shigure and Hatori were dead, but that was as far as it went. She had still been asking herself what Shigure would want for supper that night—until this woman had forced her to use the past tense. Was. Reality had disintegrated at that single word, those three letters. Was. He wasn't an is anymore. They weren't there anymore. They weren't anywhere anymore. They had left her, they had abandoned her.

Like Mom. . .

"Oh God," she gasped, shuddering and clinging to Kana, her hands turning white as she gripped the fabric of the woman's shirt, "Oh God! They're dead!"

Gone! Gone like Mom, like Dad, like all those happy days in middle school—like my home. . . She choked on the tears in her throat and gagged on those that had managed to get in her mouth. Her face was wet and salty and stung but she did not stop. She simply couldn't. And some part of her mind wondered exactly why she was crying, why it even mattered. Yes, it said. They are gone, but does it matter? They could have moved away, and little would be different—merely less tears and more resentment. She forced the blaspheming voice to the farthest corner of her mind, horrified at its words and the small glimmer that could have been truth in them.

"Hush," murmured Kana, stroking Tohru's soft hair with skeletal fingers of sinew and bone and flesh. "It'll work out, somehow." She bit her lip, tasting the tang of her own metallic blood on her tongue. She had no idea what to say, what illusion to weave for this poor creature in her arms—or for herself. She held Tohru tighter as the clocks continued their merciless drumbeat.

/\\\

He was panting quietly now as he looked at his handiwork. The tree that he had fallen against earlier was now sporting a rather noteworthy dent in its side, flecks of dark crimson against its pale off-white wick. He studied it for a long moment, ignoring the terrible ache that was beginning to grow in his hand, emanating from the torn and bleeding knuckles. He couldn't feel them—not really. To be honest, he couldn't feel much, and what little he did feel was too muted to be discernable from his inner emotions. All he could really hear was his blood rushing and roaring in his ears, and all he felt was cold and ice. A dead numbness. He fancied it was how dying felt, only somewhat less painful he supposed. It was a novel idea to him and he smiled sadly at the realization. It was nearly ludicrous enough to make him laugh. He shook his head.

He didn't know how long he had been out, away from that house—he didn't care. He knew it had been a while; the sun had begun to set. Soon, he would have to return. He knew they would be worried if he didn't, and some part of him—though perhaps deeply buried at the moment—did not like the idea of his dear Tohru worrying. However . . . a little longer couldn't possibly hurt and he wanted to stay. He had never noticed the forest at eventide and now he had a chance to see it, if only for a bit. He found he liked the sight. The trees were all awash in dull dusty grey-blue, everything beginning to drip crimson and gold from the dying rays of the sun. It was a beautiful, morbid sight to him and he let it fill him as he simply stared. He wondered if he had ever noticed how dead the forest seemed in the evenings, but looking back he could never recall. This was a new thing.

He left then, when he heard the life returning from that moment of death. He didn't want to hear life. He passed his garden without a glance—he didn't want to see the petty plants he had held above nearly everything. They were no better than weeds, really. The dirt on the road almost looked like blood, the color. Drying blood on old wood. He shuddered and continued, keeping his eyes carefully level and avoiding the ground. It seemed a small eternity before he even so much as heard the fuurin's gentle, out-of-place song on the chilled wind. The house came into view soon after. Yuki paused, marveling that the building still looked the same, that there were no bloodstains visible. But they're there, in that room. . . He closed his eyes and took a breath before continuing.

The door creaked slightly; the air of emptiness and despair was thick in the little house now. It was a wonder there was any light at all, but the dusty shafts of now-grey-blue light filtered through the windows and lay on the floor like corpses, cold and dead. Like them. . . His footsteps fell hollow and echoing in the bare hallway that seemed to stretch beneath his feet. He moved like a ghost toward the stairs until a thin voice stopped him.

"Yuki-kun?" He turned his head slightly to the side; Tohru was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, her hands clenched at her chest, her eyes wide and red from crying and Kyou was nowhere in sight. It seemed the stupid cat hadn't done his job. Hypocrite. "Where. . ." Her eyes widened, fixed on his hands. "Yuki-kun! Your hands!"

He barely felt anything anymore as he looked down. His knuckles were still bleeding sluggishly, the blood dripping to the floorboards beneath him. He smiled inwardly. Now the house really would be covered in blood. As it should be. He nearly laughed at the thought but all that escaped his lips was a sigh. "I'm fine Tohru." It was hardly appeasing to the young girl, but he couldn't really bring himself to care.

"Yuki. . ."

He turned away. "I'm going to bed. Don't bother calling me for dinner; I'm not hungry." He knew she continued to watch him with wide eyes as he climbed the stairs without another word.

/\\\

He felt stiff, statue-like and petrified, so terrified. All around, he could still hear the screams. The sun had gone and all was dark, but he could still hear the leaves burning to death in the cold. Kyou could feel himself shivering, his skin crawling, as his stomach knotted itself over and over. It seemed to be crawling into his psyche underneath his skin, into the black edges of his mind. Cold blackness—he couldn't see anymore. He didn't wonder at it. He didn't dare to think on it. He felt as though his skin was filled with ice, every cell with spears and needles of frozen liquid crystal. The cold went deeper than his skin though, beyond all physical, past all he could name. It was like his mother's death again and yet different—infinitely different—and so painful, dismembering.

Gone. . . They're gone. He shuddered, pulling his limbs closer in mock comfort. The wind still managed to seep through to his bones. So cold here, alone. A voice in the back of his mind whispered of the warmth he'd find inside. The window was so close. It wouldn't be difficult to slip inside, to see what had happened, to see if it was true. The cold only seemed to make this all the more inviting, and the chill murmured into his ears that maybe, just maybe, this was all a joke—that Shigure and Hatori were simply waiting in the room, one of the dog's twisted and sick jokes. Kyou could catch him in the act, beat his ass for worrying Tohru (not him, of course not, why would he care about the stupid dog?). . .

His limbs moved almost without his permission, unfolding and stretching, hands grasping at the shingles, pushing up until he was standing slanted on the roof, and he was moving then. Closer and closer to the window and to the truth, whatever it may be. The movement was practiced, old. He could do it in his sleep, probably, if he cared to try; it was because of all the late nights he would spend on the roof, and when it would become far too cold to sleep with any comfort, he would sneak in through the window in the study so he wouldn't wake anyone. How many times had Shigure still been awake when he did so? How many times had he chided him, or made some jab or another? It was unfathomable that he would never do so again—too impossible

A rush of air in his ears, and the feeling of weightlessness just before his feet touched the tatami floor. The room was dark, quiet and there was a sense of something—something that was wrong. So horridly wrong. He could feel his airways constricting, tightening like a noose around his windpipe and he closed his eyes. Inhale, exhale, inhale, breathe. . . He opened them again, finding it still too dark to see anything much. He moved carefully, following the wall to the light (he didn't want to trip on whatever stacks of books Shigure had laying around, or so he told himself). It was smooth to the touch, cool, when he found it and he hesitated. Last chance.

A drawn-in breath—

—the switch made a quiet click as the lights turned on and Kyou felt, heard it as the cocking of a gun, loud to his ears. Still, white was the only color he could see, his eyes still to the wall, forehead nearly resting against it. If he turned. . .he didn't know what he would see, didn't know what would happen. Didn't know if the world really would shatter—like he'd seen a mirror break before, seen the pieces glitter as they hit the ground with razor sharp edges.

God, such a coward—just look!

Slow turn, extension of muscles, a moment of confusion before the realization sank through the fog, before air ceased to exist.

There were no bodies, but there was an answer all the same in the dark blood that stained the tatami—far too much to be a superficial wound. Kyou backed against the wall, half slumping against it as he dragged a breath in, shaking and rattling down his throat.

It was true. . .God, it was true. . . He couldn't move and neither, it felt, could the clocks.

"Kyou?"

He almost didn't feel the gentle hand on his shoulder, almost didn't hear his name called, until Kazuma attempted to guide him from the room. He jerked out of his stupor, pulling back, his spine against the wall again, and eyes wide and on his faux-father. "Sh-shishou. . ."

For his part, Kazuma's face remained impassive, nearly; he did not release Kyou. "Calm down," he murmured. "What are you doing up here?"

Kyou looked away, swallowing. His eyes were drawn inexorably to the stains on the floor, and the image they presented of what had happened. "I wanted—had to see if. . .if what the rat said was t-true." His voice was quiet, cowed and still colored with shock and strained as it was forced out past his stomach which felt as though it was lodged in his throat now.

"It's all right, Kyou, but you shouldn't be in here." He paused, following the boy's gaze. His arms were strong and firm as he pulled his son into them, and Kyou's face turned to hide from the scene in the familiar folds of Kazuma's yukata. For now, he needed the comfort—he could be strong later.

/Chapter end\

A/N: So. Yes, it has been forever. I dunno if I'll continue this, but who knows. As is, life is mildly hectic, and will probably be so for the next year or two. Maybe. Study abroad for a year and whatnot. But all that aside, I hope you at least enjoy the chapter!