A/N: I wasn't originally going to continue this, but there were a few scenes I couldn't get out of my head, so here it is. I hope you're at least finding it interesting, because I'm having fun writing it! I'm trying to make this even better than "Sweet Release" and "Sakura Snows", so please, tell me how I'm doing.

Disclaimer: I don't own Fruits Basket, and I'm not making any money off this!

Ratings: PG-13

Genre: Angst

Warnings: Mentioned character death and slight OOCness on Aaya's part, but that's to be expected

Main Characters: Aaya

Additional Notes: "Albatross" has a double meaning. It may literally mean a giant seabird (I think their wingspan is somewhere around six feet) or it can mean a burden or guilt (this meaning comes from an old poem—the Rime of the Ancient Mariner).


Shadows

Chapter 1: Albatross

"Selfishness and unselfishness battle in man's heart. Almost always selfishness kills unselfishness; and on the few occasions the latter wins, it is still selfishness."—Xavier Fornenet

Days passed slowly now, every moment seeming to laugh hysterically at him, confined as he was. The sun rose, the sun set—nothing of much importance he'd learned; days and nights bled—were always bleeding—continuously into the mind. They were useless concepts. Time was hardly of value either: was there a difference in knowing one moment from another? Truly? Illusions, he found, cluttered everything. There were useless. But he kept them still, faithfully—or perhaps faithlessly—clinging to some memory of before the accident. He busied his mind with trivialities to avoid memory. Memory was painful, and pain was something he'd had his fill of already. He kept busy cataloging days, studying the illusions, and perfecting his mask.

It had only been another month since his promise to live for her, for Miine, and he was already finding the whole concept taxing. The art of deception was essential, indispensable, and already so black to him… He sighed and shifted on the pillows, wincing as his shoulder was disturbed. The stitches had been removed and he was grateful the sharp contrast of black on white was no longer present to show him how sickly he really looked. He closed his eyes, intending on sleep.

However, the world apparently felt that he didn't need sleep and sent him a message. The message came in the form of one Souma Hatori. He knocked softly on the lentil of the already open door. "Awake?"

Ayame sent his friend a pointed look. "Tori-san, why ask? You knew I was awake."

Hatori's lips curled in a small smile. "Have you seen Yuki yet?"

"No." The truth was that he didn't want to. He didn't want his younger brother to see him this way, but the rational part of him mused that if that was the case, he'd never see the boy again.

Emerald eyes narrowed as Hatori looked up from his clipboard. "Why not?"

Ayame shrugged, mindful of his bad shoulder. He wouldn't answer that question—he wouldn't admit anything. Not yet; it was too soon for all of that. "Where's Gure-san?" he asked instead, knowing Hatori wouldn't push—inwardly, he laughed a bitter laugh. No one ever pushed him anymore. Be careful! Don't push fragile Ayame, he might break.

As if he hadn't already.

"Shigure's at a parent-teacher conference," said Hatori, looking once more at his clipboard. Why was it, Ayame wondered, that his friend seemed to do that constantly, as if the words on the paper might change at any moment? It was beginning to irk him. "He couldn't get out of it but he told me to tell you he'll be by tomorrow for moral support."

Ayame frowned. Moral support? What for? Then it came back to him in a rush from the catalogue of minutes in his mind. Physical therapy. He hissed softly at the distasteful feel of the words. He didn't relish the idea of being taught to walk again as though he were some child. "Ah. That's good to know."

Hatori was still absorbed in the chart on the clipboard, seemingly giving it his full attention. God, it was beginning to annoy him. "How are you feeling about starting therapy Ayame? Are you excited?" Silence slowly filled the room; Ayame could only stare at his friend in open shock. Even with the long pause, Hatori didn't look up. A cold, sick anger began to trickle through Ayame's veins and his eyes—good and blind—narrowed. He would not be patronized. He was not some ignorant child. He wouldn't sit, oblivious, while Hatori treated him as though he were five instead of twenty-eight.

"Don't you dare," hissed Ayame lowly in warning, "I won't take that from you, or anyone else."

Hatori seemed unaware. "Won't take what, Ayame?" he asked, his eyes glued to the clipboard in his hands.

He snapped. With his right hand he yanked the clipboard out of his friend's grasp and threw it, without pretense, across the room where it skidded and hit the far wall with a clatter. "Look at me, damnit!"

Hatori's eyes snapped to his, his mouth open slightly in shock. Ayame stared, his eyes hard, as Hatori struggled to find words. "A-Ayame—what was that for? What were you thinking?"

Before the accident, he would have immediately apologized for his outburst, especially to Hatori, but not now. He was sick of it; the whole situation was making him ill. He hated this. Instead of an apology, it was a question that slipped off his tongue. "Why won't you look at me anymore?"

Ayame could see a thread of pain ripple across Hatori's thin face. "I do look at you Ayame—I'm not the one who's hiding—"

"Hiding?" Ayame couldn't believe it. "Hiding? That's what you think? Is that what you think this is?"

"Yes," roared Hatori, on his feet now, towering over his friend's weak frame lying limp in the bed. "You never take visitors—no one! Not even Shigure until last week." The elder of the men bent, grasping Ayame's shoulders, ignoring the sharp shout from his friend and patient; his face was only a foot away now. "Shigure, Ayame! Shigure! He's been your friend since we were only a few years old and you still refused to see him for months."

Ayame looked away sharply, still glaring. "I am not hiding." It seemed a flimsy defense, even to his own ears, but he wasn't ready for the truth—not that truth. Not yet. He'd find too much truth tomorrow—he didn't need any now. "I'm trying to rest—isn't that was you doctors are always saying to us injured patients? Rest? Isn't it?"

Hatori's mouth was set in a thin line, pursed and white, as his keen eyes fixed on Ayame; he straightened. "Rest is important," he agreed calmly. "But so are friends."

Footsteps in the suddenly cold room, then the sound of a closing door. Alone. He almost regretted his outburst now—he hated to be alone, but then, he hated to be patronized more. He closed his eyes and sank back on the downy pillows. The silence was already beginning to pound into his skull, sending his thoughts scattering every time he managed to gather them.

It had been hard… Everything since the accident had been hard… God, he was so tired…

He must have fallen asleep because when he next opened his eyes, bleary and fogged, there were two figures standing over his bed. It was a long moment before he recognized either of them, but he offered the barest smile when he did. One was Shigure and the other was Kai, his attending nurse. "Hey," he mumbled and Kai carefully helped him into a sitting position so he could see and talk easier.

Shigure smiled, though his boyish grin was more subdued. His chocolate eyes always seemed so sad when he visited now. "Hey," he greeted back. "Ready for therapy?"

"Why not?" sighed Ayame, his wisp of a smile faltering. "I might as well be."

Worry flickered sharply through those concerned eyes but disappeared soon after it emerged. "It might not be so bad—after all, I'll be with you—"

"I'm sorry Shigure-sama," murmured Kai in his soft voice as he bowed low. "But no family members are allowed in the therapy room—forgive me."

Shigure stared, glancing between Ayame and the nurse with a hurt look and a crestfallen face; surprise was there as well, hidden in among the sad eyes and half-lowered eyelids. Ayame kept his expression one of saddened surprise—he'd known about it beforehand, as he'd requested it—but he was certain that his oldest friend had seen through it; now he only hoped that Shigure understood that it wasn't because he no longer wanted Shigure by his side, but he felt that he needed to do this alone. Shigure turned back to Ayame, sorry now, as well as sad. "I guess I won't be with you with you, but I'll be rooting for you." Ayame's weak smile grew a fraction. "Don't forget that, all right?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I won't Gure-san." Silence crept in again, heavy with a quiet guilt. Like an ebbing tide, it always came back heavy and thick. Ayame suddenly felt so self-conscious, so hyperaware of his disfigurement, his scars. Reflexively he ducked his head down more and cocked it to the left, causing a curtain of dull silver hair to somewhat cover his lost eye and the scar.

It didn't work. Shigure frowned, noticing the action; he leaned over and brushed the strands behind Ayame's ear. Somehow, a lump lodged itself firmly in Ayame's throat, refusing to budge even after he swallowed. Shigure's face had a look of searching intensity as he studied his friend's distorted features. His fingers gently traced the scar line that marred that once flawless face. One good golden eye fixed on his friend and Ayame found he couldn't breath; he waited. After a moment, Shigure seemed satisfied and pulled back. Silence filled the void left by his hand.

It was quickly broken however by Kai's quiet cough for attention. "Shigure-sama—I'm sorry but Ayame-sama must get ready for his therapy session."

Shigure nodded once and got to his feet, smiling again. He looked at Ayame. "I'm with you Aaya—I believe in you."

Then he was gone and Ayame was alone with Kai hovering at the edge of the bed. Ayame glanced at the nurse: at twenty-six, Kai was lanky and thin in a different way than Hatori—somehow he seemed almost fragile but Ayame knew that was not the case, that there was some hidden strength rippling in those arms. His short tawny hair was in elflocks that fit his gentle features and personality—he was kind, but demanding, and the thing Ayame loved most about him was that with Kai he felt human again. Kai had the softest beryl eyes—soulful, with small flecks of hazel at times.

"Thank you Kai-kun," he whispered, sighing.

Kai bowed respectfully. "You're welcome, Ayame-sama," he said, his voice nearly hypnotic and smooth—comfort with wings.

Ayame frowned a little, his brow furrowing in slight annoyance. "You don't have to call me 'sama'—it's too formal. It makes me uncomfortable."

A quiet smiled flowed across the boy's features—he had such a wonderful smile—and soon Ayame found himself smiling. Kai always had a way of making Ayame smile, no matter what mood he was in. "Yes Ayame-san." He held out a hand, his eyes taking on a serious look and mysteriously acquiring more hazel. "It's time to go to therapy."

He sighed, his golden eyes spotting the wheelchair Kai had procured while he had talked to Shigure. "I know."

It was a slow process, getting into the wheelchair, and much harder than it should have been in Ayame's mind, at least. He'd only done it twice before and wasn't at all fond of it. Carefully he sat up, leaning forward so Kai could brace his back with one arm. Then Kai slipped his other arm beneath Ayame's thighs—painful because of the scars—and lifted him up and placed him in the rolling contraption. It was a testament to how thin Ayame was that Kai didn't strain or hardly tense when lifting him. He hated it.

His body was aching by the time he was settled in the soft, yet firm, leather seat and he let out a tight breath. Kai rested a hand on Ayame's shoulder and the older man nodded. He only wanted to get this over with. The wheelchair pushed through the door and out to the hall, quietly rattling down the way, the old wooden floorboards creaking beneath the wheels. The halls were mercifully empty but Ayame still felt uncomfortable, vulnerable in such an open space.

The building was property of the Souma, Ayame had learned when he'd asked where he was—it was called the Health and Recovery Center. God, he hated it, hated being stuck here. Hatori watched him like a hawk and he could barely stand to be around his old friend for long anymore. Even Shigure was too much. Only with Kai did he ever feel at ease.

Kai rolled him to a room on the second floor of the white-walled, four-story building. The room was nestled at the end of a corridor, six doors away from the nurses' station, next to the sunroom—it seemed somewhat secluded and Ayame smiled at the thought. The room itself was medium-sized—not too large, not too small—painted in a soft blue with violet trim. The curtains were a deep, rich maroon with four long windows five and a half feet above the floor filtering sunlight in. Ayame loved it immediately.

It was a moment before he noticed that he and Kai weren't alone. In the far corner, among the therapy and exercise equipment, was a lone table and sitting at it was a woman. Politely, Kai knocked on the already open door; the woman looked up, her fiery hair swaying as she moved. She had a pleasant face, Ayame noted, with bright eyes—electric blue, like a robin's egg—the kind that could see through your soul. She smiled when she spotted them.

"Ah! You must be here for your therapy." Her voice had a musical ring to it, a silver chime in its own right. She got to her feet to meet them in the center of the room. "Souma-san, right?"

Ayame nodded. "Yes, but please, call me Ayame." He forced a small smile. "There's so many Souma around—it'll get confusing if you call all of us 'Souma-san'."

The physical therapist chuckled, bowing slightly to dismiss Kai, who left as he did anything—quietly. "As you wish Ayame-kun." She wheeled him over to the table and took her seat again. "Well," she said, "My name is Toshima Yuriko—you can call me whatever you want, I'm not picky."

She was wearing street clothes—faded blue jeans, a decent green shirt, a brown newsboy cap, and a purple scarf—and Ayame had to admit that she looked nice. "Yuu-chan—it's pretty."

With a nod she sized him up and sat back in her chair, steepling her fingers as her electric—almost icy—blue eyes roved over his face and his dead eye and where the stitches used to be. He shuddered under the attention. She was serious when she finally spoke. "Hatori-sensei told me what happened," she said; Ayame looked away, unable to meet her gaze. "Vehicular accident—totaled the car, right?" He nodded mutely, praying that she didn't mention Miine. Yuriko whistled lowly. "Sorry to hear that." She paused, sighing. "Ayame-kun…have they told you the full extent of your injuries?"

He swallowed. "My hand was crushed, and glass cut a line from below my right eye to the back of my head. Something nearly went through my shoulder and something did go through my thigh. My right eye is useless now." The words were hollow to him, no more than parroted phrases.

With a quick flick of her tongue, Yuriko wetted her pert lips. She sat forward again. "Yes," she agreed, looking thoughtfully down at her hands. "But the 'thing' that that went through your thigh did a lot of damage, as I'm sure you've noticed."

Ayame shifted uncomfortably. Yes, he'd noticed. The first time he'd looked down and seen the ghastly, grotesque scars he'd come very near to screaming. "Yes."

"Well, they tried to remove the debris, but it damaged your muscles severely." He nodded—he knew this already. "There were complications and they were forced to remove a good portion of muscle cells—in other words, a good portion of your leg." Again, she sighed. "You've had pain in your leg since—this is because the damage can't be repaired—I'm afraid you may never have full use of your leg, Ayame-kun."

He closed his eyes, a pained look marring his already disfigured features for a moment; just as quickly, however, it was gone. "So be it."

Yuriko frowned. "That doesn't mean that you'll never walk again—in fact, it is almost a certainty that you'll walk." She shook her head, a light smile claiming her lips. "You'll just have to work at it."

Ayame opened his golden eyes again, giving the therapist a critical look. He'd learned early on that hospitals and recovery wards were places of lies. He no longer trusted a single member of the staff, save for Kai. "Sure."

For a moment, she was startled at the sarcastic reply but soon enough her expressive lips made a silent 'oh' and she chuckled quietly to herself, her eyes softening. "You think I'm lying."

It wasn't a question, but for some unidentifiable reason he felt he owed her an answer. "Yes. You medical people seem to think I can't handle the truth."

Somewhere in the hall a cart clattered on the way to its destination, and Ayame glanced at the door—closed, thanks to Kai's consideration—before looking again around the room. He just wanted to satisfy his curiosity—he wasn't trying to avoid Yuriko's now frigid stare. At least, that's what he told himself.

Yuriko watched him closely, noticing the way he unconsciously tried to hide the scars, the way he seemed to want to disappear and nothing more to do with her or anything else. "So sad," she whispered at last and Ayame had to fight the urge to look back at her oval face. "So sad that you refuse to trust. And so you know—I'm not lying. I never lie to my patients." Her lips were a thin slash set into her face, contrasting with her soft features. "I find it to be quite detestable. I won't lie to you, Ayame-kun."

Finally he looked back, his golden eyes wary and guarded. But still, he nodded. "Thank you."

She smiled. "Now," she chirped, clapping her hands together. "Let's start your therapy, shall we?"

Ayame blinked; it was as though nothing had happened and he almost couldn't stop the smile that wanted to curl his face. "All right."

Yuriko pulled her chair out from the table, turning it so was facing Ayame, before adjusting his wheelchair t o face her seat—she sat back down, a pleasant but serious look on her face. "There. Now—I said I don't lie, which is true—I'm going to be as honest as I can." Ayame nodded. "Some of the exercises will likely hurt like hell."

He couldn't help but let out a raspy chuckle. A faint smile tugged at his lips as she took his left hand in hers. "You weren't kidding about the whole honesty issue—were you?"

She only smiled. "Now, there was some damage to your left hand and shoulder—"

"They've healed," he said, interrupting. He wouldn't admit it for his life, but when he'd heard he'd be able to walk—forget the hand; forget the shoulder—he wanted to walk!

"But the muscles are weak from all the inactivity of recovery," countered Yuriko. "We're going to stretch them." Ayame frowned, grumbling under his breath; Yuriko's expression was utterly serious, almost to the point of being demanding and he sighed inwardly. "All right Ayame-kun," she said, "I want you to stretch your fingers out as wide as you can."

He tried—he really did—but to his horror, he found that his fingers would only move so much. Ayame swallowed. "I…I can't move them any further…"

His fingers were not quite an inch apart.

Carefully, Yuriko examined Ayame's attempt, her blue eyes mellowing a little. She smiled up at him. "That's all right. I didn't expect you to stretch them very far the first time—in fact, I would have been surprised. Very surprised." Her smile widened slightly. "Now, for your first exercise, I want you to spread your fingers everyday and flex them slowly. It will hurt a little, but it will also help in the long run."

Ayame nodded and flexed his hand slowly, wincing as the soreness in his muscles protested. "It doesn't hurt too much."

"True," agreed Yuriko. "But your shoulder is what I was talking about when I said 'hurt like hell'." She got to her feet, her scarf swaying, almost in time with her lithe frame and he couldn't help but notice the quick flash of a scar line across her back when the shirt she was wearing lifted a fraction.

"Oh," was all Ayame could say.

She was standing beside him now, on his left side—by his injured shoulder. She laid a gentle hand on his ad shoulder while her other hand slid down his arm to stop just above his wrist. "Now," she said, almost business-like, "I want you to raise your arm as high as you can over your head."

Ayame nodded, swallowing. He didn't know why, but he was suddenly nervous; he wetted his chapped lips and took a breath. Slowly, he raised his left arm and stopped just below should height—something inside told him that it would hurt to go any higher. But it seemed he didn't have a choice in the matter.

Yuriko was gently moving his arm higher and he began to breathe harder, sharper, as the pain began to beat lightly in warning where his shoulder and neck met. "Yuu-chan?" he asked, his voice laced with a note of panic.

"Ssh," she hushed, still moving his arm. "This will hurt, but I have to assess the damage. Just bear with me."

He swallowed, panting. Oh God, it hurt, now a thrum in his ears as he struggled to breathe. His arm was nearly level with his chin now; he whimpered quietly. Still, Yuriko continued. When his arm reached eyelevel, he couldn't hold it anymore: he screamed, his back curling.

Yuriko didn't release his arm, but did lower it. Just as slowly, she lowered it until it again rested on the wheelchair's armrest. Wet was beginning to leak from the corners of Ayame's eyes as he hugged his shoulder gingerly. The therapist gave him an apologetic smile as she sat back in her seat.

"Ayame-kun? I'm sorry if that hurt, but it had to be done."

He glanced up at her, his golden eyes almost angry but not quite achieving the effect as the understanding bled through. "I didn't like that," he muttered. "And yes, it did hurt like hell."

She couldn't help but giggle quietly, cocking her head a little to the right, causing her deep red hair to fall over her shoulder. "Wow," she said. "Most of my patients are cursing me at the top of their lungs by now—red in the face and everything."

The pain in his shoulder had turned to a dull throb at his temple now and Ayame sighed. "Now what?"

Yuriko smiled. "Kai-san will help you with that exercise every night. It should start to loosen up in a week or two." Ayame nodded; his breathing had returned to normal and he already felt better. "And I'll give you a squishy ball, too, to help with your hand."

"Squishy ball?"

She nodded. "Yes! It will give you more resistance when you do your flexes." She dug in her purse under the table and came away with a softball-sized red ball. "Besides, they're fun."

A ghost smile touched his lips as he took the foamy "squishy" ball. "Yeah…"

The sat in silence for a moment or two before a knock at the door shattered the quiet. "Ayame-san?" Kai looked in, almost sheepishly. "Is your therapy over?"

Ayame looked at Yuriko—she nodded. "It seems so, Kai-kun."

Kai glanced between the pair as he crossed the room, seeming to give Yuriko a critical hazel eye; again, she took it in stride. "I'll see you on Tuesday—in two days—Ayame-kun." Her eyes were so kind… He almost didn't want to leave their light.

He gave her a wispy smile. "I'll be looking forward to it."

Without further ado, Kai wheeled Ayame back to his room, making a quick stop at the candy and junk food vending machine. Kai did that every time they left the room. He pulled the contraband treat from the slot and grinned as he handed it to Ayame, who gratefully accepted. Hastily, he bit into it, ripping the wrapper nearly to shreds before taking a hardy bite out of the MilkyWay's milk chocolate-y goodness. He sighed in contentment as a river of caramel and nuggate flowed sluggishly down his throat.

He glanced up at Kai. "Thank you."

Kai's smile only widened. "Don't let Hatori-sensei catch you with that, Ayame-san, or he'll have both our heads." Ayame nodded gravely, but he couldn't keep the ridiculously boyish grin from his lips as he took another bite of his treat.

By the time hey reached the door of the room, Ayame was ready to drift off to dreamland—but, again, it wasn't to be. There was someone waiting in the room, standing statue-like in front of the window, their eyes trained on something outside. Kai stopped, frowning at the room's newest addition.

The figure turned, dark eyes narrowing as they rested on Ayame; a thin smile flowed across that pale face like molasses. Ayame swallowed, his golden eyes wide, his good hand gripping the armrest. "Akito-san…"

Indigo eyes flicked to Kai and Akito absently waved her hand. "Leave us, nurse," she said. "I will send for you when we are done." With a hesitant glance at his charge, Kai bowed himself from the room, leaving Ayame alone, facing the family head. Akito waited until the door was shut before turning her gaze back to her sixth member of the juunishi. "Well," she whispered, "You seem to be enjoying his company. That's good."

Nervously, Ayame swallowed, fingering the wheels of his wheelchair. God, if only he could roll out of this situation. Instead he asked, "Akito-san, why have you honored me with your presence?"

Her eyes narrowed; she brushed back a feral lock of her raven hair. "I came to ask you a question, Ayame-san," she murmured. Ayame could feel his spine stiffen in anxiety—he was on high alert. "My furisode…does it fit me well? Look good enough for a goddess?" He had blanched and Akito's smile became rancid. "You are the "fashion guru"—so tell me, is it good enough?"

Breathing had become difficult in the past few minutes—he could answer. Instead, he looked at Akito's kimono. It was a female kimono—a furisode—long sleeved and elegant with a long train and obi. It was blood-red, deep and velvet, with black silhouetted sakura trees—God, they seemed sparse and half-dead for the lack of leaves—while the obi was soot grey with black threads weaving through. Her yukata was green, light, airy, and friendly. It was so familiar… There was a pink and red butterfly on the hemi. God, it was so familiar…

Then it clicked into place in his memory and sound stopped. Suddenly it seemed s though air was gel that was slowly hardening around his throat. He did know that yukata. He'd seen it so many times, peeking above the owner's collar. It burned a hole in his heart now, seeing it here, seeing Akito wearing it.

It had been Miine's favorite yukata.

Akito was studying his face, gauging his reaction. She could see the recognition, the pain, in his eyes. Her sickening smile widened, her eyes narrowing. "Such a lovely kimono—don't you agree?" she said; she feigned a pout, looking down as she fingered the green yukata. "Except for this." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him flinch. "It's so plain, almost worthless. Perhaps I should just sell it?"

His golden eyes widened. "No!" he half-screamed before he could stop himself. He waited, nearly shaking, for Akito to react to his outburst.

Instead of angry, she looked thoughtful. She nodded once. "You're right, Ayame-san. I shouldn't sell it." Akito smiled at him again, coming towards him, that horrible smile on her chalk-white skin, the soft glow of the green silk yukata casting a sickly light on her pallid cheeks. "No," she continued, "I couldn't inflict such an atrocious garment such as this on anyone. You're absolutely right—I should burn it."

Ayame whimpered, closing his eyes. "Please, I'll take it—I'll keep it where no one else can see it. Just please…don't harm it…"

A look of facsimile surprise greeted him when he opened his eyes. Akito seemed shocked. "Why Ayame-san!" she muttered, shaking her head as she moved to the bathroom that connected to the main room. "Why ever would you want this drab piece of cloth?" Ayame swallowed, praying she wouldn't ask; Akito shrugged when he didn't immediately answer. "As you wish then, Ayame-san—besides, I can't stand to wear it any longer."

She disappeared into the bathroom closing the door behind her and he could hear the rustle of fabric against fabric. He didn't know how long he sat, trapped in limbo as he waited for Akito's inevitable return. When she did finally return, Miine's green yukata had been replaced by a goldenrod one; Miine's was carelessly folded across Akito's thin arm. The goddess threw the yukata in Ayame's lap and gave him a secret smile. He looked up at indigo, his eyes wet and grateful as he clutched the fabric. "Thank you…"

Akito snorted. "I didn't want it anyway—it's no better than its previous owner. They were both drab filth." Ayame felt as though he'd been struck; his eyes were wide. Akito didn't seem to have noticed as she continued. "Really. Thank you, Ayame-san, for ridding the world of her. She was quite an annoyance."

He was shaking as his golden eyes lowered to the green yukata in his hands. Akito came to him, leaning close to his ear—he could feel her hot breath on his cheek. "Oh yes, Ayame; you killed her. Have no doubt about that." Akito laughed softly. "She is dead…because of you."

Ayame didn't even notice when Akito left. He didn't notice when Kai returned. He only saw the green fabric in his hands. Why? Why had she died? Had it been his fault? Had it? He didn't know—he didn't want to. He tried not to think about it—to think about anything else. Anything. Anything but that last glimpse of her…

He gasped, pitching forward. His eyes were wide as he panted, shaking, his knuckles white as they gripped the yukata. He swallowed furiously, choking back tears. Kai was beside him, a hand on his good shoulder. "Ayame-san?" he asked worriedly. "Ayame-san, are you all right? Should I get Hatori-sensei?"

Ayame jerked his head—no! The last thing he wanted was Hatori or Shigure—or anyone—to see him. With no little effort, he slowed his erratic breathing, straightening as he did. "I…I'll be fine…"

Beryl eyes narrowed as Kai searched his charge's thin, pale face before sighing. His gaze flicked to the green yukata and he smiled a little. "Did Akito-sama give you that?" he asked. "It's beautiful."

Ayame shuddered, clutching the silk closer to his chest. "The bed, Kai-kun," he whispered after a moment. "I want to…to rest…"

Kai frowned, worried, but did as he was asked; Ayame sucked in a sharp breath as Kai's fingers pressed against the scars to lift him but he said nothing until the nurse moved to take the yukata. "No." A fierceness flickered in Ayame's golden eyes and, for a moment, even the dead one seemed to blaze. "I'll keep it. Just go."

Time seemed heavy as Kai studied the other man's face. Finally, he sighed again and bowed himself from the room. Once he was alone, Ayame swallowed, closing his eyes against the small amount of light that had invaded his room through the window in shafts. Seconds ticked by with his thoughts ebbing always back to Akito's poisonous words.

"Oh yes, Ayame; you killed her. Have no doubt about that."

He curled beneath the covers as much as his wasted leg would allow. He refused to open his eyes, even as he struggled to breathe—he would not open them to see that the world still survived. How dare it live while she perished. She had been so sweet and gentle, though wild at times—how could any sane world kill her before her time? How?

Long hours wore on to a fading twilight gloom that penetrated his psyche and wrestled his writhing mind into sleep. Even then, as he slept fitfully, his hold on the green yukata never once lessened.


A/N: Hmm…a fair-sized chapter, wouldn't you say? Truthfully, I'm rather proud of myself! I hope you enjoyed it, and will keep reading, although I'm not sure if I'll continue this. . . Please, review!