A/N: Well, here it is, the last chapter of Eternal Snow. I'm very happy to have gotten here because I know some people thought I never would. I want to thank all you guys who kept reading even after my long absences, and I hope you've enjoyed the story and that it lived up to your expectations. Enjoy the last chapter!
*About A Month Later*
It was morning, and she was late.
Hinamori Amu sprang out of bed and rushed to get ready, ignoring the giggles of her charas she flew around her room and dressed quickly. It was summer vacation, so she didn't have to worry about being late to classes, but she did have a meeting with the guardians at the Royal Garden in about twenty minutes. It would take her that long just to get to the school, and that was provided she left without breakfast. Not likely. In the time since she'd come home, her parents made sure they all ate breakfast together every single morning, no matter how late one of them was running.
"Mama, I'm sorry, but I'm going to be really late. Do you mind if I just go?" she called out desperately, racing down the stairs and into the kitchen.
Midori turned from the kitchen counter and took in the appearance of her oldest daughter with a warm smile, drinking in the sight like she was dying of thirst. Even after a month, she couldn't get enough of being around Amu. She hated letting her precious daughter go out that door. If she could have, she would have locked it and refused to let any of their small family leave. But that was something Amu wouldn't have stood for.
It had been clear since the minute that Amu walked through the front door that her daughter had changed while she was gone. Although the whole family had apologized and been forgiven for what had occurred on that night, she sensed that so much had gone on since then that Amu barely recalled what had so tormented them – her – during those two weeks. What was once uncertainty and shyness in her little girl had now become true confidence and knowledge that she fit somewhere. A painful smile touched her lips. Amu had found her place in the world, and it didn't necessarily include her.
"Alright, Amu-chan, but just this once," she said obligingly, beginning to put the breakfast food away. "Papa had to leave early this morning, and Ami-chan and I have already eaten. I would have sat down at the table with you, but if you're going to be late, then you can go."
"I remember him coming in to say good-bye." Amu touched her cheek, recalling the kiss that her father had brushed over her cheek while she slept. "Thank you, Mama."
"Onee-chan!" Ami barrelled into the room, pigtails flying. She pounced on Amu, who yelped and nearly fell over at the unexpected weight. "Onee-chan! Ami-chan wants to go to the zoo. Will you and Neko-onii-san take me? Please?"
"Yes, of course we will, but not today," said Amu, gently but firmly prying Ami's fingers off of her skirt. "Let go, Ami. I have to go meet my friends."
Pouting a little, Ami released her. Her smile brightened when Amu bent and gave her a kiss on the forehead. Then she turned and hugged her mother, hard, before scooping up her backpack and hurrying out the door. Midori stood and watched her go. It was hard to put her finger on just what was most different when there were so many things about Amu that had changed. Perhaps it was something she didn't want to yet think about... she had yet to meet this "Neko-onii-san" that Ami spoke about so often, but it was impossible to miss the way Amu's eyes lit up whenever he was mentioned.
She closed the door and leaned against it for a moment. Midori had always known that she would have to let Amu go; would have to let both of her daughters go to live their own lives. But she had never expected that it would happen so soon. Amu was only twelve years old, and in some ways, still a child. Yet in many other ways, she'd already surpassed teenagers who were three or four years older. Her daughter had grown up.
There was no way of knowing what would happen next, but she strongly suspected that it wouldn't involve her or her husband to any great extent, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it, except be there for Amu when they were allowed to be. It was a fact that hurt, and would no doubt be just as hard for her husband to swallow, but that was just the way it was. To try and change Amu now would do nothing but drive another rift between them, and that was the last thing she wanted.
Sighing softly, she turned to Ami and smiled. "How about some ice cream, Ami-chan?" she suggested. Ami beamed and gave an excited cry, racing into the kitchen. Smiling, Midori followed.
"Why didn't you tell me that you were Nadeshiko when I met you?"
As Nagihiko fully processed Amu's innocent question and fought for answer that would not have the pink-haired girl holding this over his head for months to come, Yaya cupped a hand over her mouth in an effort to swallow her giggles. Rima was staring down at her cup of tea with a broad smirk on her face, making no effort to hide the amusement sparkling in her eyes. Kairi reached up often to adjust his glasses and refused to meet Yaya's eyes; he knew that if he did, they would both break out into laughter as Nagihiko stammered. Amu was all wide eyes and innocence, though the tiny smile tugging at her lips told everyone at the table that she knew exactly how hard Nagihiko was fumbling.
The only who didn't show any amusement at the situation was Tadase. He'd been unusually quiet for the past few weeks, and even though he was slowly returning to normal, he kept sending Amu these short, furtive looks that Yaya didn't think the Joker had even noticed. She held in a sigh and caught Nagihiko's eye. The boy frowned slightly in turn. He too, had noticed the way Tadase had been acting.
"I forgive you," Amu announced, once it was obvious that Nagihiko had exhausted his set of excuses. She leaned forward and propped her head on her hands, giving him a mock angry look. "Just – please – don't lie to me again."
Nagihiko flushed slowly and nodded. "I won't, Amu-chan. I'm sorry I didn't tell you then, but you caught me off guard. I wasn't expecting you to show up that day."
Rima scowled and elbowed him, hard.
Yaya couldn't help it anymore. She started laughing quietly, gasping for breath behind her hands. "A-Amu-chi," she finally managed to squeak. "D-do you want t-to go s-shopping l-later?"
"Sure," Amu said, taking the last sip of her mint-flavoured tea. "I don't think we're doing anything tonight... I have to go to Onee-chan's recording studio with her later this afternoon, but after supper we should be free. Onee-chan and Onii-chan are having another ramen contest."
She hadn't spoken of Ikuto, but then again, she didn't really need to. When Amu wasn't in school or at home (and sometimes, Yaya suspected, even then) she was always with Ikuto. If he wasn't visible, it was safe to assume that he was never far away. Amu didn't seem to mind. In fact, Yaya was pretty sure that the girl enjoyed always having her boyfriend within reach. They hadn't heard anything of Easter since that night, but it was safe to assume that they would never get near Amu without going through Ikuto first.
"Do you think Ikuto-san would mind going shopping?" she asked to be sure, stealing the last dumpling off of Kairi's plate. He mock-scowled at her and she flashed him a grin.
"I don't think so. Maybe we could even convince him to try something on other than black," Amu mused, a wicked smile lighting up her features. "He'd look really good in grey or silver, I think."
"Good luck with that," Yaya muttered, smiling in spite of herself. Now that she had her afternoon free, she leaned towards Kairi and Rima and Nagihiko. "There's a new movie out. Do you want to go?"
Kairi nodded. "Onee-san said she and Nikaidou-sensei have some things to work out and could I please stay away from the apartment today," he recited, smirking.
Yaya grinned again. "Hmm, maybe there will be a wedding in the future," she speculated, turning to look at Nagihiko and Rima.
Rima flipped open her phone. "I have nothing of more interest to do," she said in a high, clear voice. "I'll text my parents to let them know I don't need to be picked up." The urgency with which she began tapping the buttons belied her casual demeanour and Nagihiko shook his head lightly as his arm settled around her petite shoulders.
"I'll come, too," he said.
"Nagi, are you going back to America to dance?" Amu asked. She seemed to have adapted to the idea that Nagihiko and Nadeshiko were on in the same remarkably quickly, Yaya noticed.
Nagihiko sighed. He'd known it would be a question someone would ask, and he somehow was not surprised that it was coming from Amu. Rima had tensed under his arm and he slowly but gently ran his fingers up and down her shoulder, hoping to offer some comfort to her. Truth be told, it was a conversation that he had yet to have with his parents. His mother had forgiven him for leaving America without advance word of it, but he was pretty sure she expected him to return as soon as possible.
"No, I'm not."
Rima's fingers stopped moving across the buttons.
"I haven't talked to my parents about it yet, but that's the answer I'll give them," he told them. "It's not time for me to go back yet. It's more important for me to be here."
Tadase pushed back his chair and stood, leaving the table with quick steps. Yaya scooted her chair closer to Kairi and cuddled against him; Nagihiko wrapped an arm around Rima's waist and pulled her into his lap, and even though she pretended to ignore him, no one could miss the smile playing around her lips. Amu was aware of the actions of her friends and was happy for them, but she still watched Tadase go with a thoughtful expression, even though the other four pretended not to notice. This had gone on long enough. Now she stood, casting a glance at her friends that said she would meet up with them later that night. Then she turned to follow Tadase.
"Amu-chan will knock some sense into him," Nagihiko said, arms loose around Rima's slender waist.
"I hope so. He's starting to drive me crazy," Yaya muttered.
"I have seen a few students grow curious about the state of the King," Kairi added, "It doesn't look good for a Guardian to act like this. He should know this."
"He will," said Rima, leaning against Nagihiko just a little. Even she could tell that.
Amu followed him out of the Royal Gardens and halfway across the courtyard before he stopped, even though she hadn't spoken a word to him. He didn't turn to face her for a long time, and when he finally did, she could see that his face was pale, with dark circles lining the flesh under his eyes. His blonde hair hung over his face, unkempt and wilder than the usually impeccably groomed King would allow. Something that might have been pity rose in her chest.
"Tadase-kun... why are you doing this to yourself?"
"Hinamori-san..." Tadase glanced at her, then away. He bit his lip before he spoke hesitantly. "I just feel... there are many things you don't know about Ikuto-nii-san."
"That's true," Amu said after a long pause. She brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "But there's a lot that you don't know about me."
He flinched. "I... I'm sorry, Hinamori-san. I never meant to make you feel as though I liked Amulet Heart more than you. I realize now that she is only a part of you. That night... when we walked together in the snow..." His head rose, his eyes seeking hers. "I said that I was in love with Amulet Heart... and I know now that it was wrong of me."
"Tell me, Tadase-kun... when I left... who did you miss more? Me or Amulet Heart?"
Tadase's mouth dropped open and he looked stricken. His silence was answer enough.
"I will tell you this only once," she said quietly. "So listen to me carefully. I had a crush on you for a long time. A few weeks ago, it killed me inside that you didn't like me, but only one of my would-be selves." A pained smile touched her lips. "I couldn't even take heart from the fact that you might like me someday, because I will never just be Amulet Heart. And to ask that of that of me is more than I could ever give."
"I would never – "
"No, I know you wouldn't. But if I were with you, that is how I would feel."
"Then this is it," he said flatly. He'd known that this was coming ever since that night, when Amu had walked into the Royal Garden with Kukai at her side and tears on her face. For the past month, he had dreaded the inevitable conversation that would happen between the two of them, because in spite of how happy Amu had seemed to be with Ikuto, he'd still harboured some small hope that she might change her mind after all. Now, looking into her golden eyes, he had no choice but to face the truth, and that hurt.
Amu nodded slightly. "You were only ever in love with Amulet Heart, Tadase-kun," she said with a tiny smile. "I only ever loved the mask of the Prince that you displayed for everyone. Neither one of us could ever have what we wanted." Her gaze lowered, and she touched something on her hand that he couldn't see. "With Ikuto's help, I was able to move on. I can only hope that you'll be able to do the same. You are still my friend, after all, and I love you very much."
He couldn't bring himself to say it in turn, but she looked at him and smiled like she understood. Tadase took a deep breath as Amu turned around and started to walk away towards the gates of the school, where Kukai was waiting for her. Her older brother glanced up and met Tadase's eyes over her head, and he felt another pang. At one time, he and Kukai had been close, but now Kukai had ascended into a different kind of family at Amu's side. And within that group, much as Amu might care for him, there was no longer any room for him.
"Amu-chan!" he burst out.
She paused, turned. "Yes?"
"Would you..." he hesitated to say the words. "Would you... have really shot him?"
Golden eyes widened slightly at his question. "Tadase-kun..."
"I... I need to know," he told her honestly. It had been plaguing him for some time.
Amu didn't say anything for a minute, her eyes on the ground. Then she looked up at him. "I don't know," she said finally. "I can't tell you that, Tadase-kun. But I would do anything to protect Onee-chan and Ikuto, especially from that man. Take from that what you will."
Tadase nodded, because what else could he do? There was a familiar presence at his back as Amu continued on her way to Kukai, but he waited until he could no longer see his friends before he turned to face Tsukasa. "I lost her."
Tsukasa smiled and set a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I don't think she was ever yours to lose," he said, a twinkle in his eyes. "I told you long ago that the Cat Star and the Joker had moved onto the same path. Didn't you understand my warning?"
"I did. But... I guess some part of me had hoped..." Tadase looked down at his hands.
"Now you know otherwise," Tsukasa said gently. "Hear this, Nephew. You have to let go of Hinamori Amu and truly accept that she will never be yours. This spark that has possessed you for the past month could grow into a dangerous flame if you don't, and if that happens, you will forever be unable to see your own path when it appears to you. I told you once that it is never too late for a second chance, even if it's not exactly what you wanted. Don't make my words false."
Tadase looked up at his uncle for a long time before he turned around again to gaze in the direction that Amu had gone. A very small part of him wanted to run after her and beg her to change her mind... but he knew for completely certain now that that would be useless. Amu had made her choice, had made it long ago, and there was nothing he could do about it but try to accept his place in her life as a friend. And hope that maybe someday, he would find someone else to love, and that then it wouldn't hurt quite so much.
Amu had never considered herself to be a particularly lucky girl. But on that Saturday afternoon, as she entered the park at the side of the boy whom she considered to be her older brother, on her way to meet her older sister and her boyfriend, she realized that she was in all actuality, a very fortunate girl. Kukai's presence was warm and constant at her side as they crested the hill and heard the sweet sound of a violin accompanied by a soft, lilting voice. The two of them exchanged looks and without speaking a word, paused to listen to the haunting melodies.
"Onee-chan has the most beautiful voice that I've ever heard," Amu breathed finally. The song was sending chills down her spine.
Kukai nodded, a look of pride in his eyes. "I know." He fell silent for a moment. "Why didn't you tell Tadase the truth?"
"I didn't think that he needed to know," she answered quietly, her voice barely audible over the sound of the violin. "At least, not right now. When Tadase finds someone, he will understand that he never needed to ask to know the right answer." Her eyes met Kukai's and she gave him a tiny smile. "Besides, admitting that you were willing to commit murder at the age of twelve is probably not a good thing."
He scoffed. "As though you're an average twelve-year-old," he muttered.
She smirked. "What do you think will happen?" she asked curiously, her eyes on the golden-haired figure below. "When Onee-chan's a famous singer that travels around the world?"
Kukai shrugged. "I guess I'll have to follow," he said. "It's as much your question as it is mine."
Pensively, Amu nibbled at her thumbnail. She always wanted to be with the three of them – Utau, Kukai, and especially Ikuto. As hard as it was to believe, they had come to be her world in just a few short weeks. Being parted from any of them would be difficult. And yet she was the youngest, with a lot of education to go through before she was ever able to do anything. They would be moving on with their careers before she had even graduated.
A hand touched her shoulder and she glanced up at Kukai. "Don't think too hard on it, little sister," he told her. "That's a long way off. Utau is a wonderful singer, but now that she's decided to refuse any help from Easter, she's got a long way to go before she'll be touring the world. We have plenty of time to decide how to cross that bridge before it comes."
"How did you get to be so wise?" she asked, looping her arms around his.
"I've heard it comes from having equally un-wise younger siblings."
Amu sputtered and he laughed, drawing the attention of Utau and Ikuto. Utau stopped singing as Ikuto played the last few lingering notes and turned to look at them. At one time, she wouldn't have even considered being anywhere except the recording studio on a Saturday morning. Now, it was hard to imagine being anywhere else. How was it possible, she wondered, that a pink-haired girl and a green-eyed boy could have changed the lives of the Tsukiyomi family so drastically?
"Are you two coming down?" she called, cupping her hands around her mouth. "Or are you just going to stand there all day?"
Looking up, Amu waved, then tightened her grip on Kukai as the two of them began their descent down the hill. Kukai was surefooted and sturdy and didn't slip once, while she would have gone down multiple times were it not for her grasp on his arm. By the time they got to the bottom, he practically had to pry her fingers out of his skin.
"Athletic," he teased. "I guess we know where your future lays."
"So do I," Amu replied, completely serious in the face of his light-hearted remark as she looked at Ikuto.
The cat-boy smirked as he carefully set his violin down in its carrying case, added his bow, and zipped it close. He slung it over his back with ease and took two steps closer to Amu. Before any of them had the chance to blink, Yoru purred loudly and Ikuto's ears and tail appeared with a faint pop. Easily scooping Amu up, he leapt straight up into the leaves of the tree above them. Kukai watched this happen with a completely unfazed look. After all, it was pretty much becoming their daily weekend ritual. He turned to Utau, who looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and began their daily weekend ritual by sweeping her into his arms and giving her a kiss hello.
Up in the tree, Amu waited patiently while Ikuto found a branch that was sturdy enough to support their weight. She was never afraid when they were in a tree; although she still wasn't that big on heights, she knew that Ikuto would never drop her, and she was starting to get more used to not moving around much when she woke up. He finally settled back against the trunk with his legs crossed, and she in his lap with her legs swung over his thigh, her head tucked against his chest.
"How are your parents doing?" she asked, squirming to get comfortable.
"They're fine. The old man is due back soon," he answered. Not long after his return, Aruto had been forced to leave again, as there were things in Paris that he had to wrap up before he could come back to Japan for good. Souko, of course, had been only too happy to go with her husband. Amu suspected that the two of them would never again be apart. "For now, Utau is still living in her apartment. I'm not sure whether she's going to move back home or not."
"Hmm..." she hummed, cuddling up to him. She loved the way his chest rumbled when he spoke. That, combined with the steady force of his heartbeat, was very comforting. "Onee-chan is very independent."
His hand came up and began lightly stroking through her hair. She smiled and closed her eyes sleepily, gently fingering the very simple white-gold band that she wore on her right ring finger. Ikuto had given it to her two weeks ago, exactly one month after he had shown up at the hostel and she'd collapsed into his arms. One morning she'd woken up in her bed with him stretched out beside her, sound asleep, and the ring already on her finger. Since then, she hadn't taken off. He hadn't said anything... but she knew what it meant. It was a promise of the future they would someday share.
"Ne, Ikuto," she murmured.
"I love you."
Neither one of them had really discussed their feelings. Beyond a few shared kisses and the knowledge that she never wanted to be without him, Amu didn't actually know where she stood with him. At one time, she would have been mortified to say something like that to anyone, but right then it had been so simple, so easy, to say those three words. She felt Ikuto stiffen in surprise as her charas giggled and her smile only grew when his free hand left her waist and sought out her chin. She willingly allowed him to tip her head up, so that they were looking at each other. Amu met his deep blue eyes and let him search for whatever he was looking for. He must have found it, because suddenly his arms came up around her so tightly that she almost squeaked from the force it.
"Go to sleep," he said at last, pressing a kiss onto the top of her head.
"Okay." Yawning, she curled in even closer, burrowing her head into his shoulder, and waited.
"I love you, too."
A/N: And that's it. Surprisingly, this epilogue was really easy to write. It turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be, but I was trying to tie up all of the loose ends that had been left throughout the story. I'm actually pretty happy with how it turned out. There are some things I think I'd do differently, looking back, but I did get the chance to include a ton of the scenes that have been playing with my mind for the past year. Thanks everyone!