Melting Ice
Valentine's Special Part III
 But Let's Face It, Life Can Be Kind…

Disclaimer: I just told you to "spare me from writing any disclaimers" right? SlamDunk has never (sadly) belonged to me… which ultimately means Rukawa isn't mine… *sniff* *sniff* WAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'M SO HAPPY! My friend lent me the Luna Sea album with the best selections…though I'll say that some of the tracks make my head throb. Haaa… TriggerHappy Maniac has promised to update her fic (for any of you who read Weiß Kreuz).

Hahaha…I think I won't be adding too many Sakuragi/Haruko parts in here. Mostly Ru-boy and Yuki-chan.

Cheers! "Always look on the bright side of life. Dodo, dodododododo~"

^________________________________________________^ (the flower thing was really getting to me. In case you don't see it, it's a really W   I   D   E grin. ^.^)

I can see what's happenin' (What?)
And they don't have a clue (Who?)
They'll fall in love and here's the bottom line…
Our trio's down to two (Oh…)
The sweet caress of twilight
There's magic everywhere
And with all this romantic atmosphere
DISASTER'S IN THE AIR!
- Lion King

101 Steps to Being the Perfect Gentleman (AKA: A Charmer With the Ladies):

¤ Always maintain a soft tone.

¤ Remember, ladies first. Not second or third. FIRST… except when trouble strikes, of course…

¤ Hold the door open for the lady.

¤ Assist the lady whenever she needs help.

¤ On public transport, let the lady have your seat instead.

¤ If you are to escort a lady, crook your arm for her to hold on to.

¤Oh, and don't forget. They like roses. @,'--,'---

¤ Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…

He wrung his nose at the printed words on the manual.

Was this what 'Jiisan had meant when he had said, "Take care of the ladies"?

He frowned.

This just seemed like a whole bunch of rubbish.

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

"So basically, all you two have to do right now is come up with a draft as to how the programme would run; where, when and what would be going on as well as who to look for. After that, you take a break until a week before the Valentine's Ball. Any questions?"

Mitsui stole a glance to his right.

Kimiko's arms were folded and her legs crossed. She leant back into the chair, but not far enough to make her look sloppy.

"Mitsui-san?"

He snapped his attention back to the old man. "Er… not at all, Sensei."

"Good.  Maehara-san?" Matsushita threw her a look that dared her to say something wrong.

"Just one," she said evenly, ignoring the sudden behaviour of their principal. "When is the draft due?"

Matsushita felt somewhat relieved. "Two weeks from today. Then we'll have the final draft and programme schedule another two weeks from that."

Inwardly, Kimiko scowled, but she did not let it show on her face lest the principal decided that she was nothing more than a childish student. Two weeks was too short for her alone to finish up the whole project. That meant that she had to work with Mitsui Hisashi – not the best idea as to how she would spend her freedom. And she had to work with him for one month, a week and an evening.

"No further questions, Sensei."

The principal nodded his balding head. "One more thing before you leave then: report to Ayako-san for your outfits. Emcees have the privilege of taking on a different look from the rest of the student body."

Both Kimiko and Mitsui stood and bowed, departing from the cool office shortly.

It was outside where things got slightly more complicated.

"So…" Mitsui's hands were stuck in his pocket. He could feel the thumping of his heart against his ribcage. Somehow, no matter how hard he tried, he still found it impossible to not like Kimiko. For that one long hour, he felt his crush coming back, slowly but surely. It made him uncertain and afraid at how she would take all this. Although, right now, distaste was clearly written on her face. "When do you want to start this whole draft thing?"

He tried to sound as normal as possible, but found it funny. It seemed unfathomable as to how Miyagi could be at such ease with Ayako or how Rukawa seemed to be quite at home with that girl. Perhaps he just had to get used to this thingy…

"Soon. So that it can end ASAP too." Ugh, as cold as ice.

Her steps came in strides as she made her way to Ayako's headquarters. Mitsui caught pace with her easily. His long legs giving him the boost he needed.

He should have guessed. Her first reaction was to go tell her best friend.

Mitsui fell silent, observing Kimiko on their short trip to the dressmaking studio.

Miyagi was right; there was more to Kimiko than what he knew.

And Mitsui wanted to find out what.

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

LadiesfirstLadiesfirstLadiesfirst… the words hummed in Rukawa's mind as he went about daily activities with Yukiko.

"Finds ways to improve yourself!" his father had declared. "Be a gentleman, and start with THIS!" Kyoshiro had promptly slammed a large book (101 Steps to Being the Perfect Gentleman) in front of a bored Rukawa. Although seemingly uninterested, Kaede flipped opened the book once his father was away in the kitchen.

It was a curious book which strange instructions that Rukawa could never figure. Nevertheless, as much as he hated to admit it, he was going to try some of the stunts. One, so that his father would stop badgering him about the ball, and two, so that maybe he could pop the question with more ease or perhaps put Yukiko in a spot where she couldn't refuse.

*What* was that…?

Rukawa pushed away all evil and unknown thoughts, keeping a step behind Yukiko, always.

After all, this was what 'Ladies First' meant, right?

They were headed towards the temporary Dressmaking Studio. It was actually just one of the equipment rooms, cleared out so that the Clothes Committee could have some working space.

Try as he might, Rukawa never really understood the purpose of all this… unnecessary social events.

HoldthedooropenHoldthedooropenHoldthedooropen a sudden change of commands overcame him as the sliding door of the studio made itself evident. Briskly, Rukawa took a stride and slid the door open even before Yukiko could lift her hands to do the job. Slightly disturbed by his change of behaviour, Yukiko narrowed her brows, yet bowed nonetheless and thanked him, stepping hurriedly lest he should see the expression on her face. Bewilderment – she wondered how Rukawa would respond to that.

Rukawa was just about to close the door when he caught that girl coming their way. Kimiko, he believed, was her name.

Caught between a moment of slamming the door shut and leaving it open for the coming lady, Rukawa's hand tightened on the sliding door. Wait, if Kimiko was a lady, that ultimately meant…

The redhead passed through the sliding door, saying a brief thank you to Rukawa as she did so. Without another thought, the super rookie slid the door close, ready to report to Ayako for the day.

Mitsui was just about to thank Rukawa as well when the door narrowly missed his nose.

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

"Hold still."

"I would if that pervert wouldn't look at me so. It's enough to make me want to dig his eyes out."

"I tell you, he's not that kind of person."

"Well then, I'm telling you, maybe you don't know him all that well after all. Men hide the darkest secrets from women, you know." The cynicism did not go unnoticed at all by Ayako. "I can't believe that I actually have to go through all this nonsense with him. Not to mention that it was your evil doing."

Ayako smiled lightly. "If you ask me, you don't seem to mind my evilness at all."

Kimiko huffed, causing the tape around her waist to lose its reading momentarily. "You are my friend, Aya-chan. You would never harm me. He, on the other hand, is an alien that should be sent right back to Martian world with all the other weirdos and sickos that contaminate the earth."

"Just stay still for a while longer and then you can go beat him up, okay?"

"Deal."

Kimiko remained still, but not before throwing one last nasty look in Mitsui's direction. The blue-hair senior blinked. Was this hate being radiated at him? He looked around to find another person that Kimiko could have been sending a death-glare at, but found none.

Ayako scribbled down the last of her friend's information and put aside the tools she had just used. She watched amusedly as Kimiko strode to where Mitsui was innocently seated and whacked him, giving him a fair warning to "keep his roaming eyes off the female population". Kimiko later reasoned that Ayako said she could do it.

Ayako chuckled, humoured by her best friend's actions. She never thought that Kimiko would behave this way at all. In fact, it seemed as though the girl really wanted to hit him or something. Exactly why was a riddle to Ayako. Kimiko usually remained quite 'noble' when it came to these whom she despised. She disliked mixing around with them.

But Ayako had speculated something like this happening much earlier.

Watching the two made life so funny. And watching how Kimiko insisted that she loathed Mitsui and went all out against him was even more interesting. Perhaps Kimiko was blind to such a thing. The girl was blissfully unaware of the feelings she had. Ayako had some inkling of it when Kimiko started this indignation. Yet, at that time, it seemed rather reasonable, considering that the girl had been attentive of the conduct Mitsui once held.

Ayako settled back into her chair, letting her eyes travel across the room to where Yukiko and Rukawa were doing their work. Rukawa fumbled with the needle, doing the basic work; Yukiko had a sewing machine in front of her, working away at the dresses. Ayako never really did get the relationship between the two. It was quite queer, if you asked her.

A giggle was held back as Rukawa decided that he had had enough of this sewing business. The super rookie headed for the door, about to buy some drinks from the dispenser, but not before helping his lookalike untangle the cloth that receded to the floor.

Rukawa was strange like that – his emotions hidden, thoughts unspoken. But somehow, people accepted him rather easily. He was quiet, did not speak back or give his own opinions – many would consider him a good listener. Ayako knew better; Rukawa would be sleeping by the time you are done with your storytelling.

The four seemed happy like that. Carefree in their own way.

She wondered… had she ever the chance…?

The basketball team manageress swung one leg over the other and started on her paperwork. These musings were not important. A bigger, more important occasion was coming up and the school was counting on her to make it work. Her hands flew briefly to her head in an attempt to adjust her cap, but landed on brown curls when she realised that she wasn't in basketball practice. She wasn't filling in the forms for the team.

She knew why she had done it unconsciously.

Lying on the table, in front of her, was the open file of the sophomores' records. And the page was open at the one which read: Miyagi Ryota.

Ryota. She called him that. Easily. Naturally. It popped out of her mouth whenever she found the need to call his name. It just reflected a sense of knowing between them. They were friends, Ayako would like to think, and nothing more than that.

Ryota. It was strange how he was more like "Miyagi" now. Distant and unknown. Quiet and detached. Almost as if she had known him for only a few days, or hours maybe.

He avoided her now. She wished he had done so earlier when she wanted him away. As much as she refused to admit, his withdrawal made her uneasy. It made her feel as though something was missing. Ayako grip her pen tightly and moved to flip the page, forcing a grim look on her face.

"Thinking about a certain Point Guard?"

Ayako did not bother to look up at who was speaking. The voice itself was all too familiar to her ears. She could never mistake it for someone else's.

"Finally done with Mitsui?" She exhaled, putting down her pen. Kimiko shadowed her with a cheeky gleam in her green eyes. Somehow, Ayako did not get a good feeling about her best friend doing that.

"Why so cold, Aya-chan? It was just an innocent question." Ayako moved to close the file, but her best friend's hand shut the covers of the file instead. "I have some interesting news for you," her tone was no long mischievous. "Let's call it the fruit of speaking to Mitsui Hisashi."

Ayako swung her chair to get a better look at Kimiko. Her friend wasn't looking at her, but instead letting her eyes sweep briefly over the room. "It wouldn't be too good to talk here," Kimiko muttered under her breath just loud enough for Ayako to hear. The usually smooth brow of Kimiko creased slightly. Ayako got her point.

Then she remembered something amusing. With a wry smile she gave a suggestion.

"The broom closet?"

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

He fingered the silken red petals, smelling the sweet scent as he did so.

He had just stopped by his locker before heading back. He had been keeping the rose in his locker since morning, slightly embarrassed that he should present it to her so soon. It would be awkward for him to do something like this out of the blue. He knew that girls liked surprises, and she was no different. But still… even holding the flower made him uncomfortable.

The last time he had presented flowers to her, it just seemed simply out of convenience because he had bought a little more than intended. She had not shown extreme signs of delight like squealing or anything. Just a smile of appreciation and a word of thanks.

"Roses are red" – whoever said that had certainly been misinformed. He had spent over an hour at the florist's, staring wide-eyed at all the assorted rose colours and trying to make a final decision. The cream-coloured one would have been nice. It was pure and sweet. The blue ones were like her eyes. Well, more like his eyes, actually. Orange looked somewhat tangy and out of place. Also, orange was not her colour. The pink roses would have made any other girl shriek in joy, but not her. She would think it distasteful. He had ruled it out; it did not suit her anyhow.

But yet… the red seemed overdone. It was too fiery, too passionate. Enticing, yes. Nevertheless, the thought of giving it to her did not feel right…

"Rukawa-kun~"

Rukawa was snapped out of his musings by a coy chortle. Blinking, he turned to see who had just called his name.

"Rukawa-kun…remember me? Mara?"

Oh, that girl. Rukawa had a vague memory of seeing her around somewhere…

"So, are you bringing anyone to the ball…?" she fluttered her eyelids coquettishly. "You know… the Valentines Ball."

Rukawa made no move to answer her question. He was, instead, trying to think of the best way out of this situation whilst keeping to the oath of being a gentleman.

Mara misinterpreted his stoniness for him being overwhelmed and dumb-struck by her beauty. This made her bold in her advance. "Well, Rukawa-kun, if you need a date for Valentine's, you could always ask me. Just to let you know though, I have other boys pining after me and… uh!" She faked a fall, thinking that Rukawa would catch her, of which he did not. Thus Mara clung onto him.

"Thank you," Mara breathed as flirtatiously as she could.

Rukawa said nothing, but released her claws on his school uniform.

"Oh, Rukawa-kun, you are so sweet~" daring, Mara lifted a hand to stroke the boy's face. Rukawa dodged the unfamiliar hands just in time, and caught it with two fingers.

"Mara-san," he tried to be as polite as possible, even if this Mara did not come under the category of 'Ladies', "I have someone waiting for me."

She shrieked. "What!?"

Rukawa maintained his calmness. "There are others waiting for you too," he said, other hand still fingering the rose. The red rose did not seem like a gift for her. No, red was too strong a colour. She was neither feisty nor classy. Red roses were not suited for her…

In a moment, Rukawa placed the single stalk of rose in Mara's hand. The girl took the rose, dumbfounded by his present. Rukawa on the other hand took the drinks he had obtained from the dispenser and shut his locker door. He had pretty much dealt with this girl and there was nothing more to do. It was a waste of the rose though, he had to admit.

"I…I…"the girl began. "Thank you."

His eyes widened with surprise. "You like it?"

"Why, yes. Of course…"

Rukawa blinked, then gave a small bow to say 'your welcome', and went ahead on his way.

He did not think that the girl would like it so much. After all, it was just a flower. But seeing the girl so pleased with the rose… he wondered if Yukiko would enjoy roses too.

He left Mara behind to boast over the rose that the super rookie had given her.

Yukiko was, after all, waiting for him to get the drinks.

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

Her steps were shaky as they made their way to the school's front porch.

Whether to be angry or upset, she had no idea. Her expression was unreadable, strange in its manner of trying to choose which feeling best suited the moment.

A seemingly strong pair of arms supported her, guiding her to the correct way. Ayako was thankful for that, that Kimiko was always there for her even at such a time. Even if she was not sure whether or not to blame her best friend for her current state.

Kimiko remained remotely silent, carefully leading Ayako about the school premises, making sure not to let her friend trip. Obviously the news had been a stunner to Ayako.

As soon as they reached the front porch, Ayako released Kimiko's hold on her and turned around. She took in a deep breath. "Do I look okay?" she asked, self-conscious that he would change his mind.

"Of course you do." Green eyes smiled back at her, tucking loose strands of brunette hair behind her ear.

"You sure everything you've told me is true?" Her tone held something that warned the redhead to be careful with words.

Kimiko shrugged casually. "It's all in Mitsui Hisashi's words."

Ayako managed a small smile. "You even know his full name," she teased. Kimiko folded her arms in mock indignation.

She peered over to the gate where a certain bread-head was. Ayako bit her lip as she scrutinized the other girl with him. Ayako knew that girl. That girl liked Miyagi, it had appeared. Whoever would ever be insane to fall for Miyagi Ryota?

She let the scene feed her eyes. Miyagi's near reluctance and the girl's obvious starry-eyes. Until Kimiko gave her a nudge and a harsh whisper: "What're you waiting for?"

"But…what if he'd rather go with her? I mean…what if he's changed his mind already?"

Kimiko conked her hard on the head. "Whaddya mean 'what if'! The baka's been pining over you since Year 1 for goodness sake. Don't be stupid, girl!"

And so, with a bump on her head and hurried footsteps, she dashed to the scene, fearing that Miyagi's lips would move too fast and the harsh sound of reality would make itself heard.

"I…I…"Miyagi started, stammering.

"What is it, Ryota-san?" He felt somewhat guilty whenever he heard her voice replying. He knew that this person standing in front of him expressed extreme fondness over weeks since the notice had gone up about the Valentine's Ball. Yet he felt guilty nonetheless.

He was not doing this girl a favour.

He knew. He knew that he would end up hurting both this innocent girl and himself. He knew that this act was stupid, plain stupid. He knew that the words that were going to escape his mouth sooner or later would not be sincere. He knew that this girl would believe him. And he knew he was lying.

He was lying to her.

He was lying to himself.

"Ermmm…" somehow, saying this was so much more uncomfortable than when he was after Ayako. He swallowed hard. "Would you…ermm… g, go with…me… to… the…the…the…"

"Yes." He nearly died when she said that.

Realisation dawned upon Miyagi. He wanted her to say 'no'. He had wanted her to refuse him so that he would not have to go, feeling awkward and dancing with an unknown girl in front of Ayako's eyes. He'd rather go with his Aya-chan.

"What?" The word escaped his lips before he could even stop them. Miyagi felt bad at having done that.

"I said yes, Ryota… sorry I'm late…"

Late? Late? In what way was she late?

Waitaminute.

What was that she called him? Ryota? With no suffixes whatsoever?

And…was the tone different? No. Not the tone. The voice, rather. The whole sound of it was different yet strangely familiar. It sounded so much like…

"…A…Aya…chan…?" the syllables popped out of his mouth, natural yet foreign. His eyes grew wide, the ends of his mouth drew a distance. "AYA-CHAN!!!"

A whack on his head by the ever so prominent paper fan prevent him from hugging her.

"I only said I was going to the dance with you."

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

The gentle pitter-patter of rain preceded her footsteps as Yukiko stepped out of the school gates.

She was glad to be released, finally, from that cage of society, of prejudice. It seemed that more had been added to her hate club. She tried remaining nonchalant when girls spoke of her in such a demoralizing way. Her indifferent front was beginning to wear out.

She wondered for a moment how Rukawa did it. It was challenging for her, not to mention tiring.

Something furry rubbed against her leg. Yukiko looked down on instinct to find a young black kitten crawling about; seeking shelter from the element it hated most. Smiling, she bent down to pick it up.

"Hey, what's your name?" She snuggled the kitten in the cup of her palm, scratching it behind the ears.

The kitten purred, sliding its face against her palm, looking somewhat serene. Yukiko ran a finger over the young cat's forehead, just in time to prevent a drop of rain from attacking the kitten.

"Oh dear," were the two syllables that escaped her lips as she hung her head further out and hunched over to protect the kitten from the onslaught of the drizzle. She brought the black bundle closer to her body to shelter it.

That was how Rukawa found her outside the school gate, huddled as though she were cold. It puzzled him why she would do that. A drop of rain touched his nose. Scratching his head in his ever-so-Rukawa manner, he racked his brains for anything that the book might have said to do in such a situation.

He found none.

As he approached Yukiko, he heard her voice in a strange mumble, as though she were talking to something, someone. Her abnormal behaviour made him blink. His concern was raised when he saw her huddled ever more so. Suddenly, the event of earlier times flew to his mind and he felt a distinct twinge of fear.

"You know," she began, stroking the silken back of the kitten, "you really remind me of…" Yukiko stopped short. There was an added weight of a black school-jacket on her shoulders. It was still warm from being worn. She turned her head slightly, and smiled at who it was. "Hey," she said, and then, "Arigato."

He grunted in return, laying a curious gaze on the black being with green eyes. Strangely, it reminded him of his father. Rukawa snorted.

The kitten stared at him, jade eyes affixed on his sapphire orbs. Threatened by his presence, the kitten began to claw at Yukiko, who was obliged to place it back on the pavement. The cat's eyes remained wary of Rukawa as it circled him, scrutinizing him. Rukawa kept his stance still.

With one last glare at this boy, the kitten returned to Yukiko, rubbed its head against her leg and went away.

Rukawa watched, clueless, as the kitten made its departure. His eyes flicked back to the laughing form of Yukiko. His jacket trembled with her shoulders, her ponytail swayed with glee. Her aquamarine eyes were closed by a fraction.

When she had finally sobered, Yukiko cocked her head to the side and commented lightly: "I think he doesn't like you."

"He?" His expression grew puzzled.

"Bio," she replied vaguely.

He nodded in mute response, careful not to place a queer expression on her face. He had certainly not expected her to observe the anatomy of the kitten.

Yukiko picked up her abandoned portfolio. Announcing, "I'm going home", she turned on a heel, waiting for Rukawa's answer.

He shoved his hands into his pocket and strode to where she stood, waiting.

It was queer like that. Each knew what the other meant. She did not need to ask if he would come, he was bound to. And Rukawa certainly needed no hint to know that something was on her mind. The way she began humming an unknown tune ad added forced bounce to her step was more than enough.

The drizzle had stopped.

"Something's on your mind…" his mouth spoke of its own accord, voicing what his heart could feel.

"Hai." Her forced cheerfulness stung him as he walked alongside her.

An awkward silence fell.

Yukiko completely ignorant of his comment; Rukawa finding that it was not his place to probe. He figured that she would tell him if she needed to.

She looked somewhat silly, wearing his jacket in that lopsided manner and taking uneven paces. He doubted that she was wary of where she was going. Yukiko had always had this tendency to forget her initial destination.

Rukawa's eyes jolted open when he noticed a sinister looking rock in her path. She was not watching where she was going, he knew. Before anything could be done to prevent a serious accident, the rock had done its deed.

An immediate step sent Rukawa her way.

Yukiko was startled by the rock in her path and moved her leg to regain balance. But something else snatched her attention.

A force on her abdomen pulled her back. She completely lost her centre of gravity, until she hit a sturdy form.

It felt… new like this. Never had he thought they would end up like that.

Perhaps he had used too much strength. For a moment there, Rukawa had to adjust his footing to prevent a tumble.

Yukiko was forgiving. She knew that he had probably yet to snap out of his basketball psychology. Humans did not exactly resemble basketballs.

Rukawa relaxed the open palm on her abdomen. He retracted it, jerking it away in a second. Her back was still against his front. Rukawa could not help but notice the strange yet comfortable warmth.

"Sumen," he apologized when she had finally found the strength to propel away from him.

"It's okay," she began, attempting to take a step back from the shock, away from him. She could feel a blush teasing her, climbing up her neck. The very same rock threatened a fall. But it sure did promise a relapse.

Once again, they found themselves in the same situation.

Rukawa got it right this time.

Yukiko found herself in an upright manner with a pair of arms encircling her form; one over the back of her shoulders, the other lower down at her waist. Tight, they allowed no movement yet were not enough to hurt her in their grip.

Yukiko could hear a faint beating of his heart, faced pressed up against his chest. His taut muscles seemed more evident than usual. She could feel his lungs expand and contract in his even breathing.

She breathed hard and bit on her lip.

Yukiko was quite aware of the hot sensation creeping up her face. She resolved to say nothing.

Rukawa held her absently.

He had never noticed how small her frame was before. He was quite sure that he could rest his chin on her head without discomfort. Her hair smelt like lemon-honey. The same warmth that had been apparent earlier returned to taunt him.

Rukawa released her when she started to fidget.

"Sumen," he said for the second time.

Yukiko's back was toward him. She was determined not to let him see how red her face had become.

Obviously unfazed, Rukawa removed his school-jacket from her shoulders. He supposed that might be the reason why emanated heat. "Daijoubu?" he asked, worried that he might have unknowingly caused some distress. For some reason or another she remained insistent on her stance, facing the other direction.

When she finally whipped around, Yukiko avoided all possible eye contact with Rukawa. "Aa, daijoubu."

Rukawa glanced curiously at her. Yukiko looked away. The heat was teasing her face once again.

"Doushta?" he queried, concerned. She was acting funny.

"Nothing," she replied, somewhat impatient this time. Why couldn't he just ignore her for one moment?

He shrugged, clueless. His bicycle was against a nearby tree. Rukawa strode over to get it.

Then he realised a problem.

How on earth was he going to let Yukiko have his seat instead?

He cursed the stupid manual for the crap it cooked up.

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

If anything, organising an event was such a bore.

"Maybe we could set the dance before the dinner, or perhaps after would make more sense…appetizers sound better than dinner, somehow…"

She yawned and threw back her arms, ignorance of the voice that buzzed at her ear. She hated all this fuss this fuss, this tediousness. Who came up with this silly idea anyway? And how did she dragged into the picture? Oh yes. How could she forget? It was her best friend's pleasure to lend her a hand in emotional issues.

Bleah. What reason did Ayako have to barge into her love life anyway?

"Kimiko?"

She snapped out of her musings and glanced at the boy who was her supposed love partner. Kimiko fought the urge to snort.

She sat there, saying nothing for a minute and rummaging her mind for whatever information he had just given her. "Appetisers," she finally said, and then "before, during and after," as an afterthought. She hoped it would make him shut up.

Mitsui smiled. "That's settled then."

"Are we done yet?" she asked through a yawn. She remained polite in her speech. After all, this boy had helped Ayako get on with Miyagi.

Mitsui ran through the stack of paper on the table. He swiped a hand through his blue hair once every few sheets, nervously. Never in his life had he shown such a responsible side. It was unnerving for him.

"Welcome address." It came out as a suppressed sigh.

Kimiko's shock of red hair jumped. "Yeowch," she said, "you do it."

Riiiiiiiight. He had been doing most of the work already.

"Perhaps you should give it a go," he reasoned, trying to persuade her in a sweet tone. "Besides, your speech is more fluent more than mine. And most of the students know you."

Kimiko rolled her eyes. As though the student body did not recognize him. He was probably more than her. "Uh uh. Don't like the nasty job."

"Maybe you don't….but my report's done," he emphasized with the straightening of papers a cocked an eyebrow. "How about you?"

Kimiko frowned at his audacity to challenge her in such a manner. She had thought he would give her some slack for the bit of answers she threw back at him. Stifling curse, she muttered a faint "yeah".

Mitsui threw her a boyish grin and then a paper and a pen.

Ooh…how she hated him…

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

The TV was loud in its racket – a mix of cheers and shouts and commentating and background music, courtesy of the radio.

Kaede gave his father one look, and then switched the television set off.

Kyoshiro shrugged in response. He had intended to get off the telly sooner or later. Kaede was just a catalyst. Somehow, Kaede had obtained the serious side of Seiichiro. It was just about enough to let the man have suspicions about Megumi. Hmmm…

Kaede frowned disapprovingly. Why, again, was the black-hair, green-eyed man living in his house?

As though reading his son's mind, Kyoshiro grinned and replied: "You were the one who told me not to "disturb Yuki-chan~" He dragged the nickname, purposefully flashing Kaede a Cheshire cat smile.

Kaede kept silent, ignoring the man whom he resembled so much.

He did not mind Kyoshiro that much, Kaede could be sure of that. His father not only bore semblance to his uncle in appearance, certain qualities that Kyoshiro had matched that of Seiichiro. And as much as Kaede hated to admit it, his father did hold a respectable front, save his blood-stained past.

But Kaded supposed that his father's goofiness and carefree spirit was a break from that of his strict uncle. Often, as a boy, Kaede felt intimidated by his uncle's stern sense of responsibility. As a playful child, Kaede was soon brought up to become a silent child, found in remorse over a tiny mistake. Found in punishment, actually. If his father had been around, Kaede was quite sure that the outcome would be much more different. Such a relaxed father would have made life easier. Such a worry-free father would…

Kaede stopped himself there.

What's past was past, he decided long ago. There was nothing he could do now anyways. He could not bring his mother and sister back to life. He could not prevent his uncle from being hunted down at well. And he could not erase the fact that his own biological father had made blood rain just for his cause.

The boy threw his keys onto the counter and sneaked a glance at his father. The television was on again, soccer match raving in the screen. He sighed, despaired at the grown man. Something else caught his attention.

An envelope peeked out from the stack of fresh mail. Kaede picked it up and fingered it gingerly.

Fast to catch a glimpse, Kyoshiro smiled knowingly at his son. Lowering the volume of the telly set, he phrased his question with utmost care. "You have yet to ask her out?" His smirk was teasing. Kyoshiro found the strange behaviour of his son entertaining.

Annoyed, Kaede shot back. "Why? Have you got someone to go out with?"

"Nope." Kyoshiro's confident grin was stubborn on his face, refusing to vanish. "There's only one woman for me, and that's you mother." He paused, then added a tentative "but I suppose Yukiko-san is worth some considering" as an afterthought.

Kaede's head jerked sharply in his direction, and Kyoshiro raised his arms in surrender. "Just kidding," he meeped. "But," he persisted on, "aren't you going to, well, ask her to the ball at all?"

His only response was Kaede tracing a finger along the smooth surface of the thin card. Kyoshiro frowned at this cowardly display by his son. This was important, for goodness sake. This ultimately determined important things for his bashful, shy, whatever-the-word son. Things like relationships and building bonds and getting to know others and learning how to trust. Yes, learning the true meaning of trust. And of course, the true meaning of companionship. Kyoshiro was quite sure his did not count as Kaede's companion. He could barely qualify.

He resorted to say what he had not wanted to say.

"Go ask her, son. Don't make the same mistake that your 'Jiisan made. Don't let her slip past you and then regret it later on."

You remember this, boy, when you meeta real lady, grab the chance. Dun lettit pass by like I did. Dun waste a crap of a second. Dun be chicken.

Kaede blinked and stared at him, brows knitted, perturbed.

Kyoshiro made a faint clucking sound against his palate before giving Kaede a thumbs up. "Go get hey, boy."

The boy nodded in mute response and grabbed his keys. Kaede was out of the house in no time, leaving the gate open in his hurry.

Kyoshiro smiled and yelled after his son to not to be back late. He cast his eyes upon the pictures that stood proudly on the mantelpiece. He stuck out his tongue at a certain older brother with the same slick, jet-black hair and cat-green eyes.

"Too bad, Seii-nii. My son's just like me."

Rukawa Seiichiro was grinning right back at him.

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

Yukiko stared at her mother, puzzled.

"Mom," she asked, cocking her head to the side, "what are you doing?"

Kikuno looked up at her. There was a thoughtful pause, before she finally decided on her reply. "Things…"

"Things…?" Yukiko repeated, not comprehending as she surveyed the area about here. There was a mass of cards and small gifts on the floor, each with a different return address, but one thing was common amongst the whole lot of them. They were all directed to the Watanabe household.

Kikuno smiled, shaking her head. "I never thought…they sure are persistent…" Her hand sifted through the postcards and the tiny trinkets that had come in the mail. Some parcels had been opened; she had taken a look. This was insane. "Yukiko," she called, finally making up her mind.

"Hmm?"

The older woman stood. "Help me burn them."

Wide aquamarine eyes widened. "Ara? Doushite?"

Not heeding her daughter's apparent surprise, she went on ahead to pick up the paper products that lay scattered on the floor, bringing them out to the back porch after which. Yukiko followed her mother, picking up the remaining items, yet her clueless expression never left her face.

Kikuno settled cards and envelopes onto a porcelain dish. It was not long before a set of matches made its appearance. And soon, fire.

The parcels lay forlornly in the corner.

"You know," she began wearily, adding a couple more cards to the burning stack, "these cards were sent to me for Valentine's Day."

"From 'tousan?" was the younger girls first thought. Her hopeful tone made Kikuno wince.

The mother shook her head. "I'm still quite eligible, Yuki-chan."

The flame burned bright, devouring the cards of unrequited affection. It dimmed from the choking of ashes. A familiar hand threw more paper in.

"I came here this month to avoid all this…all this hassle…" Kikuno watched the blaze in the dish, adding to the carbon pile once every few minutes. "Actually, I don't know why this was the first place that came to mind. I mean, I knew that Kenji would like to stay over for a bit and all, and Shiro won't really mind. But…it just popped into my head when I was seeking solace…" She closed her eyes. The faint charred smell tickled her nose.

Yukiko remained remotely silent. Her eyes were focused intently on the al-consuming flame.

Solace.

She wondered, what was it about all these gifts that made her mother want to seek 'solace'? Although she herself would have been embarrassed by this great amount of presents, Yukiko thought that it would be flattering for a middle-aged person.

Solace. What a strange word to use.

To run away. To seek peace, shelter from the world. www.dictionary.com defined it as "A source of comfort or consolation." [A/N: hahaha. hope you don't mind the spoof ^.^]

But what in this house was able to give her mother that sense of ease. That tranquillity that all Man sought after?

Kenji? No, her brother was with her mom half the time. And, dare she say it, but Yukiko was quite sure that Kenji was half of her mother's troubles; what with all his strange antics. He was easily anyone's nightmare.

Was it her – Yukiko? She doubted it. Yukiko knew that she fell under the same category as her brother: the tiny monsters that just annoy the hell out of you and bring more worries than necessary. Yukiko remembered the many a time when her mother shed tears for her, scolded her and got stressed up because of the growing girl.

So that left…

"Otousan."

The word was out of her mouth before Yukiko knew it.

Kikuno turned, questioningly.

Yukiko swallowed cautiously. "He's your solace…isn't he…?"

A brief silence fell.

"…Perhaps…" was all that Kikuno could reply at the moment; a voice in the night disturbed their conversation.

"Anou…" Yukiko recognised the voice instantly. She stood, prepared to go and meet the owner of that voice, then stopped in mid-step. She had almost forgotten.

Her mother had yet to meet him.

¤¤L¤O¤V¤E¤¤

Rukawa stuck his hands even further into his pockets.

This was stupid.

Here he was outside the Watanabe residence in the middle of the night doing nothing but moping around. He wouldn't be surprised if people mistook him for a stalker and the police came by to lock him up for a day or so.

For all he knew, Yukiko might have already fallen asleep.

For all he knew, Fujima Kenji was probably grinning up there in the window with his sickeningly annoying smile.

For all he knew, Rukawa was probably at the wrong residence.

What would he say if this seventy-year-old lonely granny came up to the doorstep and asked him to join her in conversation because she, well, was lonely? What would he do if this was the house of one of his ecstatic fangirls? What would he do if this house actually belonged to the Kanagawa mafia?

This was getting way too weird. All under the influence of his father, Rukawa believed.

He opted to walk back home when no one had answered after what seemed like five minutes.

What was he thinking anyhow – that Yukiko would magically go with him to this stupid Valentine's Ball after he presented the paper thin card to her and perhaps got down on one knee?

Honestly, this was stupid.

Fingering the cream-coloured invitation, he whipped a hand through his hand and headed off in the direction in which he had just come.

^_______________________________^

Bleurgh! This is sooo off time *GOMENNASAI!!!*

Got writer's block halfway through the thing and had absolutely no idea what to write. *cowers at rage of reviewers*

Okay, so this obviously isn't the last chapter. I figured that if I add in the rest of it, you guys will have to take a million days, okay, minutes, to read it…soooo….Yah.

Erm…tune in next time for more bits of Melting Ice…?

PS: In case you guys dunno, The Valentine's special is not separate from the story. In fact, you could label them as chapter 12 and 13 and blah, so on.

© Copyrighted by JadOo Enterprises 2003