AN: You wonderful people you! I got such wonderful feedback that I am over the moon right now. You guys are the greatest! Even though I couldn't answer you all, here is another chapter for you to enjoy... I sincerely love you all for your big hearts and kindness. I wish all your best wishes for me back on to you. Have an early happy Halloween :)
Takuma was having a good day. There had been no meetings, no emergencies, and no sudden visits without prior appointment. He had been in his office, going over the recent paperwork, project proposals and the reports on the ongoing proceedings of the sectors that his grandfather let him manage. Thankfully, everything seemed normal enough for the end of the year. Within a few days, a directorial meeting was due about the end of the financial year and how well their companies and their partners did overall.
It was a lot of paperwork but Takuma always found the preparation for this meeting enjoyable. Seeing how much he fared in the duration of one year appeased his want of success and seeing his personnel's hard work bearing fruits caused an immense relaxation for him.
The fiasco about that side company which had nearly ceased trading was quickly becoming a thing of the past. Yet he wasn't so sure about how the other managers, and especially his grandfather, were going to take the news. It was inevitable to be brought up in the meeting but Takuma hoped that the end result would suffice for them to overlook the procedure that he had had to follow in order to save the company.
That thought was nagging him at the back of his mind, but he decided that he couldn't do anything about it. Raising the value of the company's shares had been a tedious job and he was not about to regret it now. Honestly, there was no way for his grandfather to not know about what he had done but surprisingly the old man hadn't said anything about it yet. Maybe Ichiou was willing to ignore the underhanded process that Takuma employed now that the company was doing a bit better. But Takuma highly suspected it and deep down inside, he dreaded the eventual face off.
Leaving that matter aside, the sector that he was responsible of had made quite the profit this year, even more than some of his Grandfather's. Of course he highly doubted that he was going to get any compliments on his sector's achievements. He grimaced with a thoughtful smile. His grandfather never praised him, unless they were before some important people that Ichiou felt the urge to flaunt, as if he needed any more of that. But it was better this way. Takuma knew by experience that any commendation coming from his grandfather meant that the older man was about to appoint him to another tedious task which would possibly turn out to be something Takuma would come to hate with his very being.
Trying to shake off the unwanted musings from his head, he glanced at his watch and deemed that it was time to call it a day. His shoulders slumped with fatigue yet he idly wondered if his friends were free to have a few drinks before he had to go back to the dreaded mansion.
A few quick calls proved that neither Kaname nor Kain was free. Takuma slumped back to his seat, watching his laptop shut off. They hadn't seen each other since Kaname's party and he bet that neither of them ventured to the Imperial recently. Takuma didn't have the time to pay a visit for a warm meal and the company for his favorite server, either. With a small smile, he realized that the disappointed feeling that brewed in his chest was swelling by the second as he thought about it. He missed Shiko. The girl's serene and elegant image popped in his mind and he promised himself that tomorrow he'd pay a visit to her, but not tonight. He was too tired and in need of much deserved sleep.
As his limbs started to feel laden, he got up and locked his office. Driving seemed like too much of a hassle, so he called a taxi before he exited the company's building. He hoped that he'd be alone in the mansion since it was merely around 9 pm and that was considered as an early hour for his grandfather. He planned to quickly retire to his rooms but his maid informed him that Ichiou was expecting him in his study. Takuma barely kept himself from grimacing in the presence of his maid.
The old man was perched behind his large table and pouring over a thick stack of paperwork, his glasses slid down from the bridge of his nose. Takuma steeled himself and greeted him and as he expected, Ichiou welcomed him with a serious indifference. He was offered a seat and another maid rushed in to serve them some tea. As usual, the elder waited for some privacy until the girl left them and closed the door securely.
"You wished to see me, grandfather?" Takuma began, nerved by the stretching silence even after the maid had left and Ichiou had the first sip from his milk tea.
The old man eyed his grandson over his peculiar, small reading glasses for a second and nodded. "I was going over the last reports before the directorial meeting." He explained, all business. Takuma hated him for this, not even at home they were able to breech the detached and chilly behaviors of two businessmen as if they were not related by blood.
"I see you did very well this year, Takuma. I am pleased." The elder went on, sipping his tea.
This was as close to a compliment as Takuma could get and he didn't even take it to the heart, because it was not meant as praise to a grandson but as an acknowledgment of a fellow businessman. He nodded and muttered a flat thanks.
"But I must also say that what you did with the Axis Electronics was a commendable feat, too."
His grandfather's tone was so icy that Takuma felt compelled to look at him in the eye to defend himself, yet he was stopped by Ichiou's hand that rose to indicate him to stay silent.
"Don't even start. I have been aware of the situation since you first offered the shares of the company to the market."
Takuma felt something drop heavily in his gut. This didn't seem to bode well.
"How many hands did the shares pass through? I am still in awe that you managed to collect the shares back after their value increased." Ichiou bit tersely as if he was scolding a small kid.
"The buyers were mostly the entrepreneurs that worked under Kaname or people that he had influence on." He explained tiredly, not expecting Ichiou to understand.
"While I am impressed by the level of trust and friendship that you share with Kaname-san, it is highly disappointing on your account to risk so much on mere words, Takuma." Ichiou refilled his cup, not even caring that Takuma didn't even take a sip from his own cooled down tea. Apparently, the older man didn't feel hospitable at the moment. When did he ever felt like? Takuma bitterly mused.
"As you see, he kept his word, Sir." He replied just as coldly.
"Oh, I wasn't suspecting Kaname-san of foul play, lad. Not even once did I." The elder reclined against his chair, taking off his glasses with a malicious half smile. "What I was merely pointing out that what you did was one of the most foolhardy things in a while is all."
"Then you'd expect me to simply fire half of its workers onto the streets, I surmise?" Takuma countered, exerting a tremendous effort to stay calm and civil. He was tired and this subject was wearing him out further.
"That could have been considered as a short term solution, yes." Ichiou affirmed. "But having the situation come to that point is the worst thing in my opinion."
"I have to remind you that the sub branch we are talking about was dumped on my shoulders by none other than your partner Hatori-san not more than ten months ago." He replied with ire.
Ichiou raised one of his eyebrows at his grandson's rebellious tone.
"The situation was already dire and I didn't even have the time to implement a project to salvage it other than using this method."
Ichiou smiled pleasantly in his well known cruel way, his pale eyes glinting dangerously. "Admitting one's shortcomings is also a commendable feat."
And Takuma understood that the argument was lost. His grandfather took the situation as his ineptitude and there was no way to make him think otherwise. "If the situation calls for that I'd do that again." He said truthfully.
"Then I am glad that I am currently healthy enough to take care of my own side of the business, lad."
Takuma internally cringed but showed nothing on his face. He already knew that the elder deemed him unworthy of giving up the reins for. "I am also glad, for I have much to learn from you, Sir." He smiled amicably but his own eyes were as icy and hard as his grandfather's.
Of course Ichiou wasn't dubbed as the old fox for nothing. He knew it when he saw insincerity and challenge, but he concluded that there was no point in pursuing the reason of Takuma's insolence. He already had a few guesses about it. "Speaking of Kaname-san, I see the buzz about his party still hasn't quietened down."
The younger blond wondered where his elder was trying to get to by mentioning that. "It was quite a successful affair." He rejoined the conversation, suspicious. "Pity you weren't there."
"Indeed." Ichiou studied his face solemnly as if waiting for him to say something. Then he continued, seeing that his grandson had no intention to do so. "And I heard some rumors."
Takuma's eyebrows drew together despite himself. "About what?"
"About your poor taste in women."
Takuma felt as if he was forced to swallow a large cube of ice with jagged edges. How, how the hell did his grandfather know? Panic bubbled up in his chest but he miraculously stayed put and calm. "I don't understand…" He ventured warily with as much innocence as he could muster.
"People saw you being overly friendly, dare I say, acting flirty with one of the server girls from Kaname-san's place. They say you have spent quite some time beside the girl during the night." Ichiou seemed furious but his fury was a controlled one. "What does this mean?"
Takuma swallowed his wildly thudding heart down with difficulty. "I have talked nearly all of the servers there, Sir. I don't see how that's something of a concern."
"If that's poor manners and an impending scandal reflecting on my name, then it is of a concern to me, Takuma." Ichiou harshly muttered. "What was her name again? Shiko… Shiko something…"
Takuma's eyes widened and his stomach churned. "Out of all the others she seems to have captured your attention for more than half an hour and I don't want to even talk about what kind of an impression you two gave to the others around."
"Grandfather, I was merely engaging in small talk. Chatting with people even when they are of lower station than me is a crime?" He tried to defend weakly, feeling suddenly guilty about down playing his attachment to Shiko like an ordinary thing. But he could only guess how his grandfather would react if he knew the truth.
"Then explain this to me, young man." Ichiou was becoming red in the face and that was a signal of the storm that was brewing on his way. "You frequent that restaurant; always ask for the place in which that girl works… What shall I make of this information? Is this a fling? Have you fallen this low? Surely someone of your looks and station can garner the attention of much better girls around us. Why are you going for that girl unless there is something you don't mention to me? Make me understand this."
No… Oh, no… Takuma visibly paled and shivered in cold sweat. He couldn't believe that his grandfather acted on a simple rumor and went to this length to ask around and discover his blossoming relationship with Shiko. This was a breach of that invisible line between what was acceptable and not about butting in people's personal lives. His grandfather thought that he owned him and this was a proof of it. He felt sickness and ire boil in his stomach and he seriously considered upturning the tea pot all over the table and the important documents that Ichiou had been working on. But even that wouldn't alleviate the emotional storm that he was in.
He had to decide. He didn't think that the time for this would come this quickly, but he had to make up his mind. Was he going to defend his relationship with the girl or was he going to give it up to appease his grandfather? What was the ideal answer?
"It is true that I'm seeing Shiko on a regular basis." He admitted.
Ichiou's eyes narrowed down dangerously. "For what reason, lad?"
"Isn't it obvious? I like that girl." He preferred to say the truth, because he believed that Shiko was worth it.
The sudden show of rage that invaded Ichiou's features was frightening. "Are you serious? Do you realize what you are saying, Takuma?" He slammed his hands on the table, eyes ablaze with fury.
Takuma gritted his teeth in apprehension, trying to ready himself for the backlash. "I am serious, Grandfather."
"What?!" Ichiou roared, standing up and looking down at his grandson. "Such insolence! Such a ridiculous thing to utter! Have you become a complete fool, Takuma?" The old man was speaking so fast that Takuma could hardly register each and every word of disbelief that Ichiou's mouth spat.
"This is a joke. Yes, yes, it has to be. I refuse to believe that this nonsense is coming from my own grandson! Nobody from my family would ever say such things, let alone consider it!" The man finally stopped as if to take a breath to continue to verbally beat up the young man before him but then he took a look at his grandson like someone would make a double take when they'd meet a person for the first time.
"Do you pay her?" Ichiou asked. Takuma's eyes widened upon the insinuation and he went an angry shade of pink from neck to ears.
"I… I, what?" He stammered, unable to rationalize why his grandfather would presume something like this. But Ichiou was already making much more astonishing assumptions by the second.
"It has to be it. Yes… I have already heard things along this line about the workers of that place. There are other girls like her there, as I've heard. It seems that Chairman Cross' leniency was in fact his own idiocy and incompetence…"
This time it was Takuma's turn to slam his hands on the table before him. He jumped to his feet, his face still red with anger. "Please stop that, grandfather! It is not like that! That girl is not like that!"
One of Ichou's eyebrows rose upon the clear rebellion and his face turned stony and distant. His eyes icily surveyed his sole blood relative and his mouth turned into a grim line.
Talking slowly, he corrected his attire, unbridled ire dripping from his voice. "Watch that mouth of yours, Takuma. You never said anything and I didn't hear anything. If you think otherwise, you'll be sorely reminded of what I am capable of. This is my final word on this."
Without letting Takuma to even think of something intelligible to say, Ichiou left the room, giving the door a harsh slam behind him. Takuma stood there gritting his teeth, heart pounding painfully in his chest. He bit on his lip, his eyes watering with the force of it. So his grandfather had just threatened him with preventing him from getting his inheritance, with disowning him… He simply couldn't wrap his mind around it, couldn't make his heart slow down enough for him to catch a breath.
He slumped back to his chair and exhaled in disbelief. What to do now? He thought. What can I do? What should I do? His grandfather didn't even know the extent of his feelings, yet he dared to prescribe a life for him to live. And upon the mere prospect of his grandson going astray of that prescription, he went this far to show what the stakes were.
Takuma felt sick in the core and looked about the room with unseeing eyes. He had always missed his parents, had always wished them to be alive and by his side. He bitterly smiled, realizing that he had never ever wished for it this strongly before.
Aido could swear that he had never felt this much embarrassment throughout his entire life considering that he had had a great morning today. But the Chairman had called and nobody but he had been the unlucky one to pick up the phone. Zero was out, Ichiru and Yuuki were sleeping and Shiki had gone shopping.
The Chairman sounded frantic from the other line, asking him if he could make it to the Restaurant within an hour because there was work to be done but the girl responsible of it had called in sick.
It had seemed like a nice offer then, earning a bit more for extra duty, until the time he had arrived, dressed up and got ready only to learn about where they were going at the last moment.
He would like to believe that he had a steely nerve, but nothing could have warned and prepared him enough to overcome the humiliation he was experiencing now. He was standing in the middle of the Headmaster's room, facing their Sensei Yagari whilst he wore a golden colored kimono, hair done with some make up coloring his features.
The said man was scrutinizing him from head to toe with such a displeased look in his eyes that Aido wanted to run away without ever turning back.
"So you say Zero works with you at that place, too…" The authoritative Headmaster of their orphanage muttered as if the words tasted rotten in his mouth. Aido could only nod.
"I thought he was the most sensible one of your lot but…" Their Sensei twirled the fountain pen in his hand in irritation and sighed. "Well, what is done is done." He closed his eyes, surrendering the matter.
"Are you guys doing alright out there?" Yagari asked, getting up from his leather chair and approached his once student.
"We manage…somehow." Aido felt like he had returned back to his days at here as the tall man stopped and imposingly loomed over him. He expected harsh criticism from the Headmaster but the older man cracked a lopsided smile after giving another once over to his student and snorted. "You should have been born a girl, Aido."
Aido fumed deep inside but didn't dare utter a word against his teacher's observation.
The older man kept himself from snickering at the sight and placed his hand on Aido's head for a brief moment and turned back to his serious self in an instant. "I'm glad to see you guys are doing fine."
Surprised to see the other man's rare show of concern, Aido managed a small smile, too. The Headmaster had always been strict and unforgiving, but Aido knew that he loved the children under his care as if they were his own. He was their father figure, who scolded them, who watched over their studies and well being, who rarely showed his love but he was the one who had always been there whenever they needed him. One just had to see past the cold and detached countenance of the man to realize all these. And Aido had always been grateful to be able to grow up under the disciplined man's care.
"Come, tell me all about what you guys have been doing since we parted our ways."
They exited the Headmaster's room and as they made their way back to the playroom where the Chairman and his staff were, Aido tried to summarize everything in the most inconspicuous way possible. He omitted a lot of things for the sake of his and his friends' own good, feeling guilty but also afraid. He tried to sugarcoat things a bit, as if he was actually happy about their life, a life which was falling into shambles day by day. He didn't want to disappoint Yagari Sensei when the man had placed so much trust into them finding their way through the life on the day that they had left the orphanage.
As he talked, the frown between Yagari's sharp eyebrows creased further but the older man didn't say a thing. He appeared to be in silent contemplation and Aido hoped that he wouldn't question him about what he was telling. He especially didn't want to delve much deeper into Zero's current problems both at work and about Ichiru's health. It was already as saddening as it could get.
They reached to the younger children's playroom and entered only to be greeted by an overzealous and happy Cross Kaien who was playing with the small kids as if he was also a kid himself.
Yagari watched Aido join the group, thinking that he should pay a visit to Zero and the others at the Imperial as soon as possible. Aido had never been a good liar.
Kaname parked his car next to Kain's and exited it in a flash into the midday sun that didn't offer any warmth. The air was chilly and the earth was covered with a thin layer of residual snow that refused to melt. His smart boots made crunchy sounds over the layer of ice as he walked towards his friend who was waiting for him, bright as the sun on a summer day.
He tsked with a small smile good-naturedly, noticing that Kain didn't even see the need to wear a long coat as he did, settling for a velvet blazer and a thin scarf. Kaname sometimes thought that Kain had a core made of fire, thus, from there came his personality and resistance to the biting cold.
"Took you long enough, Pres." Kain amused himself at his friend's expense, climbing the stairs to the gates of the main building. "I thought you were right behind me."
"Stuck in a red light…" Kaname explained, itching to enter the warmth the building promised. "You drive like a crazy person."
"You are the one who's slow."
They bantered on the way, their long strides taking them deeper into the large building where they knew the Chairman was waiting for them.
The building was vaster than it had seemed at first sight. The orphanage grounds consisted of several separate blocks and apparently this one was reserved to the children under the age of 10 and it was full of them. The kids were everywhere as they couldn't go outside because of the cold; they were roaming the building like bored lambs. And the two young men seemed to have piqued the interest of two small girls who began to follow them with their little scurrying feet.
The duo passed by a huge salon where children were watching TV on comfy looking couches, reading books or playing board games of different sorts lain out on the tables. Taking a turn to the left, they were arrested by the smell of fresh cooking and as expected they passed by the entrance of the kitchens.
"Do you really know where we are going, Kain?" Kaname asked, his stride slowing down.
Kain looked at his friend over his shoulder and gave him a quizzical look. "Cross-san said they waited for us in the administrative building, didn't he?"
"I don't remember seeing any sign plate at the entrance." Kaname answered, half amused half irritated.
Kain's face took on a comically apologetic expression. "Well… I didn't see one either."
Kaname huffed and turned back. "Let's ask someone." But he was stopped by the children who had been following them around. One of them was smiling up at them mischievously; the other had a much more serious look on her face.
"Are you lost?" The mischievous one asked in a merry tone. She had long brown hair with big brown eyes, holding hands with the slightly taller girl who was a blonde with hazel eyes.
Kaname marveled at their small stature and instinctively felt the need to crouch down to their height. "It seems so. We are looking for the administrative section."
"Ad… Admi… Misi... Ughh…" The smaller girl struggled with the word. "Admisparati?" And her face lit up as if she had pronounced it correctly. Kaname felt his lips twitch with an incoming bout of laughter but he desisted.
"Yes?" He offered, thinking that the small ones might have understood him even though she said the word wrong.
The brown haired girl suddenly turned serious. "Onii-chan," She berated, narrowing her saucer sized eyes down at Kaname. "That's not a real word."
Kain burst out in laughter upon the defeated look on his friend's face. "Now that was priceless." He snickered. "Say, little Miss. Where is your Headmaster? We need to see him." He crouched down, too.
The blonde one spoke this time. "You should have asked like that before. Eri is only five, you know. She doesn't know big words like that." The girl dubbed as Eri chuckled and hid behind her friend. "I can take you there if you want to."
Both males numbly nodded at the mature way the blonde girl spoke and acted. They stood up and started walking behind the girls, going back to the entrance of the building and taking the opposite direction, realizing they had taken the path to the wrong wing earlier.
"You are friends with the Headmaster?" The taller girl asked as she led them without turning back to look at them. She walked like she owned the place and the smaller girl, Eri, never let go her hand.
"No. But there is a friend of us with him right now." Kain spoke.
"Eh… You must be talking about that happy looking, overly enthusiastic old man that came this morning."
"Entizipastik… Ehehe…" Eri giggled and looked back at Kaname.
The dismissive tone and the way the blonde described the Chairman made Kain snicker and the other little girl's wrong pronunciation made Kaname smile.
"What is your name, little Miss?"
"Lin." The girl looked over her shoulder at Kain and led them to a staircase.
"Why did you follow us?" Kaname wondered.
Lin turned towards Kaname with a totally bored look, pointing at Eri. "Because she said she liked you."
Kaname's eyes widened and Eri squealed in embarrassment, her face turning red. Kain laughed yet again.
"Well, I feel honored…" Kaname murmured, chuckling silently to himself.
After climbing down the staircase, they passed a long corridor and stood before a large hall's entrance. Lin turned towards them. "This is the gathering hall. Yagari Sensei said he'll be here this afternoon."
"Thanks for bringing us here, Lin." Kain smiled down at the serious faced girl and opened the large doors. Instantly, the merry voice of the Chairman greeted them.
"Ohhh~ there you are! Kaname-kun, Kain-kun! Welcome, welcome!" The bespectacled man ushered them inside and in a blur of movement they were introduced to the Headmaster Yagari and the other teachers who were there to decorate the hall for the New Year's Eve celebrations.
Eri and Lin stood by the large doors, both girls peering inside with wonder. The hall already looked wonderful, full of bright lights, tables at the far end, a large space saved probably for the performances to be staged during the celebration.
Eri tugged at Lin's hand, clearly wanting to enter and observe more. Lin didn't deny her and they quickly made themselves mingle among the girls that came from the Imperial and the last year students that were working for the decoration with them.
Aido, panicked by hearing Kain and Kuran's names, left his work and saw the two small kids entering right after the two men, quickly recognizing the older child, Lin. Panic seized him like wild fire. What kind of rotten luck was this? Any other time, he wouldn't be concerned with the children's presence, but apparently the girls led the men here and Lin knew Aido all too well, because she liked the Kiryuu siblings and hung around them as often as possible. And here Kuran and Kain were present. He didn't even want to think what might happen if the girls would say anything before the other men.
He approached them and Lin quickly recognized him. He made a shushing motion and the clever girl understood. She whispered in disbelief.
"Yes, Lin. It is me." He answered in a bit of embarrassment.
"Why are you looking like this?"
"There is a reason behind this, Lin. But please don't ask anything okay? I had to wear this because of my job."
"Are you with that man?" Lin asked, pointing at Cross.
"Yes, I am working for him. But this is a secret. Okay, Lin, Eri?"
Both girls nodded in deadly seriousness.
"And call me Aoi here."
"Aoi nee-chan…" Eri giggled, delighted as if she was a part of a grand conspiracy.
Aido made a sour face at the name, but he couldn't do anything about it.
"How are Ichi-nii and Zero-nii?" Lin asked, hazel eyes hopeful.
"They are fine, Lin." Aido petted the girl's golden head. But not for long, I'm afraid. Aido thought, grimacing internally.
The normally serious girl smiled at Aido but Aido could only try to suppress the agitation that was brewing within him.
"Now, would you two like to help me with these?" He showed them the box of decorations that needed to be sorted. The girls nodded in delight and Aido led them to a more secluded area where he hoped that Kain wouldn't notice and bother him until he'd figure a way out of this situation.
He had cursed his luck when those doors had opened and the fiery blonde had entered. If the Chairman had told him that he had expected other guests, nothing could have made him stay here even after being roped into this charity organization without much of his consent, but it was too late to bail out now. At least, Kain and Kuran were busy talking with Yagari Sensei and the Chairman at the other end of the room, and Kain apparently wasn't aware of his presence yet. Aido was a bit taken aback, though. Why were these two here? Clearly Kuran would have known if Zero would be here or not by asking to the Chairman if his only motive of coming here had been seeing Zero. Then… These two were here simply because they wanted to participate to a charity organization? Aido huffed to himself, thinking how impossible the notion sounded considering their characters.
Then a thought struck him. How easy it was to pass judgment on one's character when they had started on the wrong foot. But he couldn't help it even though he knew that he might be acting on prejudice. Had he known Kain under different circumstances, would they be able to become more? Aido believed so. Because how he perceived Kain was vastly influenced by him being friends with Kuran and how Kuran had been treating Zero since they had met. But what could he do about it? Nothing, really… He had neither wanted to be involved in such an elaborate lie, nor had foreseen it going out of their control like this. It made his every waking moment turn into a nervous wreck. He dreaded what was to come. He feared for his two friends. Was it cowardly of him to want to get away from the Imperial and everything it entailed to, leaving his friends behind to sort this mess out?
It was cowardly of him, he knew it. But this lie was larger than any of them now and to expect the consequences to be mild was complete foolhardiness. Thinking of it caused nothing but grief to accumulate.
It was around two in the afternoon and only small touch ups were left to do in the gathering hall so Yagari offered everyone to have a break over coffee and tea. Aido chose that moment to get away from the main group long enough to make a phone call to Zero. His silver haired friend had to know what was going on here, because Aido was sure that the two men inside knew from where they had come and it was only a matter of time that one of them might ask something about people named Roze and Aoi who in fact did not exist.
Using the phone of the Information Desk, he called Zero's new cell phone, a present from Ichiru.
"Zero, I'm in such a trouble, you can't even guess!" He whispered to the receiver as soon as it was picked up.
"Aido? What?... What happened?" Zero's voice sounded truly surprised.
"I'm at our orphanage, together with that crazy Chairman who tricked me into coming without even explaining where we were going!"
There was a deafening silence on the other line. Aido felt dread accumulate in his stomach.
"Zero, you there? Zero listen, that's not the end of it! Kuran and Kain are here, too!"
"What the hell am I going to do, Zero? Tell me something!" He was speaking in hushed tones, checking around frequently for any eavesdroppers.
Zero's voice from the other end of the line sounded stricken upon the news. "That... Oh God, you must be really hating me! The hell would I know, Aido!"
Aido blanched visibly, feeling his mouth suddenly go dry. "What if they ask some stupid things about Roze and Aoi to our Sensei?"
"Have you told Yagari Sensei anything about it?"
"I didn't…" How could I? "We talked, yes, but the other two arrived after that. I made myself scarce as soon as I saw them coming." He managed to mutter.
"Then what to do? What to do?" Zero sounded so agitated that Aido wished he had the courage and the means to solve their problem without bothering Zero, but he was at a loss. "Then the cat is out of the bag... There is nothing we can do but talk to Sensei about it as discreetly as possible. I have spent enough time fearing of this, Aido. I told you that I've made up my mind about it. I'll wash my hands off of it as soon as possible. But I can't let Sensei be the one to blow up it all." Zero's voice had a grim decisiveness to it but Aido sincerely suspected that things would be as easy as Zero had put it. His stomach churned with bile.
"Alright. But how, Zero? Aren't you at the Majestic, now?"
"I am, yes. But I'll try to come as quickly as possible. If I am going to be disgraced in Sensei's eyes, I'll be the one who does myself in."
Aido bit down on his lip harshly. "The girls and I'll be in the kitchens of the Juniors' Section in half an hour. I don't know where the others and Kuran will be at. So be careful, okay?"
He hung up the phone with a ghastly face, thinking about finding the Chairman and warning him, too. But the worse part was Zero's. How was he going to talk to Yagari Sensei about it all? Aido couldn't even imagine how Zero was going to handle such a matter with subtly. Because he knew even he himself couldn't do such a thing. He resisted running a hand through his hair, totally frustrated for not having a clue about what to do.
At least for now, he deemed it was best to find the Chairman alone and ask him to become a diversion if one of the young men ever ask anything about Roze or Aoi. The older man had to take responsibility since this mess was partly his doing, too.
Zero was biting on his lower lip, walking brusquely up to the road where the main entrance of the orphanage was. He was lucky that Ichiru had bought him a cell phone and thankful that Aido had already memorized the number of it. But what kind of bad luck was this? He wasn't mad at the Chairman for calling Aido. How could the bespectacled man guess that there was something fishy going on between his servers and friends? This wasn't Aido's fault, either. He had sounded pretty wound up on the phone, totally swept away by panic. Zero knew he had to come. He was so sick of the troubles that this issue had been causing that he wished the earth would split and swallow him up whole to end his misery completely.
He steeled his nerves and tried to calm down to suppress the nausea in his stomach. He decided to do this, so he had to go through this like a man, ready for the consequences.
Entering the building, he knew where he should go first. Directly going for the kitchen area, he heard Aido's voice giving directions to the girls. That brought a faint smile on his face and helped him relax a bit. Pushing the double service doors open, he was greeted with the large interior of the kitchen area that he was all too familiar with. He had worked here before and thanks to that he had been inspired to become a cook.
"Aoi…" He mindfully uttered his friend's alias to draw his attention. For a second, Aido seemed scandalized hearing the name but the emotion was quickly erased when he saw who the newcomer was.
All the girls working in the kitchen stopped in their work, looking at him in surprised, unbelieving eyes. A myriad of whispers erupted, questions audible.
"Who's that man?"
"He looks just like our head waitress!"
"The carbon copy of her!"
Zero had the presence of mind to look not disturbed. He levelly held their gazes. "Because I am her twin." He uttered, amazed at himself how easily the lie was coming to him these days.
"Ladies, please turn back to your work." Aido reprimanded the astonished girls and instantly they were back to mind their own business. "You are lucky no one is here other than us." He spoke quietly.
"Do you think it matters anymore?" Zero answered, surveying the work done by the girls.
Aido shrugged. "You are fast."
"I lied." He bitterly sighed. "And took a taxi." He explained. "But never mind, how did you get away from Kain-san?"
"Believe it or not, he didn't even see me and I did everything to hide myself after I saw them coming."
"How did you handle Sensei?" Zero shrugged off his coat, the kitchen was already hot due to the working ovens.
Aido ruefully smiled. "I was the lucky one at that. He seemed offended at first, but understood our circumstances. Yet as I said I couldn't talk about the real problem. I was so panicked to see them there, I felt calling you to warn you was the most important thing to do."
Zero's face took on a more resigned look. "Such bad luck, such bad timing for them to be here! I don't think that Sensei will let us off the hook that easily, Aido. Expect a visit from him to the Imperial soon."
Aido cringed visibly. "That'll be troublesome."
"At least not more than what I'm going through now."
They fell silent for a moment and Zero looked about the large room with distant eyes. "It looks like this place hasn't changed at all." He observed with melancholy in his voice.
"Yeah." Aido muttered, equally lost in his own memories of the place. "But it is a good thing."
They had changed so much that it was reassuring to see some things were able to stay the same way, Zero thought. But the feeling of safety and being sheltered by these walls was no longer a luxury for them and that was the heartbreaking truth of it.
"But there is nothing as unchanging… Everything has to change." Zero talked to himself and Aido's lips thinned, silently completing his friend's sentence. For better or for worse.
"What will you do now? Want me to come with you?"
Zero shook his head. "I'll just see Yagari Sensei and talk to him. Then I'm out."
"Sensei is most probably with them, you know. I can call him here if you want."
Zero considered for a moment. "No need to. If he is not alone, I'll ask a kid to call him to somewhere seclude."
Aido's eyes shone with understanding, nodding.
"I'll see you tonight." Zero turned back and walked to the doors but they opened to reveal Kain and Yagari much to Zero's astonishment and Aido's displeasure.
"Zero!" The older man's eyebrows shot up. "You were here, too?"
"Sensei!" Zero forgot all the grim thoughts and the real reason that he was there and smiled genuinely at the man, holding out his hand to greet him.
Yagari, pleased to see his favorite student so unexpectedly, grabbed the offered hand and gave it a firm shake. "Welcome, kid. It is nice to see you again."
Accustomed to be called as kid by his Sensei, Zero returned the sentiment sincerely. He really looked up to his stern but merciful teacher because Yagari had been the only father figure he ever had. Even though the older man was notorious with his strictness and cold countenance, Zero knew that Yagari was maybe the only person who had ever truly cared for them in their childhood. Zero was forever grateful for that. Even though he had never been one to express his sentiments directly and openly, he was sure that Yagari understood it.
Kain was looking at the scene of reunion and at Aoi with open wonder in his eyes. He didn't know that she had been among the staff the Chairman had brought here and he certainly wasn't expecting to see Roze-san's brother here. Aoi looked a bit put off but didn't even spare him another glance and the two men beside him were so immersed in their catching-up that he had to stand there, waiting for someone to acknowledge him. He decided to help them by coughing discreetly and it drew Yagari's attention immediately.
"Ah, by the way Zero. This is Kain Akatsuki. He is a benefactor of the Charity Organization of tonight."
"Nice to meet you again, Kiryuu-san."
Zero nodded towards the fiery blonde. "Nice to see you, too."
"You two know each other?" Yagari's eyebrows rose.
"He works at an establishment of my father, the Majestic." Kain elaborated.
That caused the surprised look on Yagari's face deepen because before Aido had said that Zero was working for the Chairman as a server, too.
Catching on quickly, Aido intervened. "Zero works for the morning and afternoon shifts as a bartender there, Sensei."
Yagari looked comprehending, but the information and the haste with which it was uttered seemed fishy to Kain, yet he didn't pursue the thought.
"A-…Aoi," Yagari remembered Aido's alias at the last second. "Kain-san wants to participate in the preparations, too. And if you excuse us…"
Aido nodded, drenched in sweat caused by the dread he felt at Yagari's near slip.
Kain smiled. "You two must have much to talk about." He watched the two men leave and turned his attention back to the room. Aoi was obviously trying to ignore his presence and that made him all too conscious of how wound up the girl seemed at the moment.
Something about the earlier exchange was rather off, but Kain couldn't put his finger on it. Why did she come across so desperate to explain where Kiryuu Zero worked? Why did their Sensei sound so unsure?
To ease his suddenly troubled mind, he surveyed the ingredients spread over the counter at which Aoi was working. He took off his velvet jacket, leaving it over a clean surface and pulled up his dress shirt's sleeves. "So you are making lemon cake, huh?" He asked casually.
Aido discreetly glanced at the other under his fringe. It would be foolish to believe that the clever blonde hadn't felt the uneasy atmosphere a while ago. But apparently he chose to not comment on it for which Aido was grateful. He felt that he needed to go along with the whimsical nature of the other for him to divert his attention from the matter.
"I am surprised that you can tell." He provoked Kain.
The said man good-naturedly snorted, amused. "I said my sister is the one who is terrible at cooking, not me. Give me some credit, will you?"
Aido shrugged. "Most men can't even tell the difference between an egg and an apple. No offense."
"Now that's cruel," Kain chuckled. "Let me help you and prove you wrong."
Aido turned towards the other male and gave him a look over with suspicion in his eyes. "You know I don't raise to the baits easily, Sir." He declared. "But since you are the type who easily gets bored, I'll let you give it a try."
Kain nodded, crookedly smiling. "How did you know I got bored back in there?"
"It is in your nature." Aido answered honestly.
"That prejudice of yours really wounds me, you know?"
Aido remembered his earlier musing on the same subject. He felt a strange sense of remorse gripping his insides. Maybe he was going too far with his paranoia about the other blonde. Since he didn't make any promises, hadn't let Kain to think that he had a chance with Aoi, there wasn't a need to act this much guarded around the other. Talking with him and being a little bit nicer about it didn't entail to anything.
His own guarded way of handling Kain's constant want of creating a civilized conversation was tormenting him, too, he realized. Had the sole reason of his agitation been Kain's misplaced romantic intentions, he thought that his mistrust and terseness would be justified and rightful. But his ideas about the man was solely affected by the things happening around them, around the people he loved and cherished. They were not in Aido's control, neither were Kain's fault. So it was actually a bit unfair of him to always scowl, be terse and act bitterly around Kain.
He gave up.
It was tiring him and his mind was no longer up to the task of thinking up scathing remarks at each and every word Kain uttered without ill intend -most probably.
"Right..." He relented, pushing a large glass bowl toward the other man. "You can start with beating those eggs and I measure the sugar and oil."
Kain's eyebrows shot up involuntarily at the sudden change in her behavior. The nearly permanent angry-anxious crease between her eyebrows had disappeared and her face had taken a relaxed look in an instant as if a switch was turned off. What had changed he couldn't fathom, but he decided that it had to be a good opportunity to see her without her usual fed-up-with-you countenance that she wore whenever he happened to be near her.
He began cracking the eggs one after another swiftly and expertly, without letting even the tiniest bit of shell to fall into the bowl. Taking the mixer spoon, he started beating the eggs carefully to make them foam, realizing that some girls were giggling at the sight he presented. He looked up from his work, catching the way the other workers stealing glances at him.
"Do I really look that amusing?" He asked in a hushed tone.
Aido caught the amused glances, too, and couldn't resist taking a peek himself. To tell the truth, Kain looked pretty professional in what he did. But in that attire... No, he looked totally out of place.
"You look like a model on a TV advertisement." Aido told him, an eyebrow rising in something akin to mockery.
Kain ruefully smiled at the gesture faintly, wondering if what Aoi said was a compliment or derision. But it wasn't important. The only thing that mattered now was that he was able to hold a conversation with Aoi without angering or bothering her.
"The eggs turned foamy?" Aido asked, watching Kain nod dutifully at him from the corner of his eye. "Now set that aside and grate the skins of those lemons." Kain took the hand grater, not intimidated by the number of the bright yellow fruits. He did his job with the zeal of a true scullion.
"You'll use clotted cream?" He asked, watching Aoi pour the thick white liquid into another bowl over measured sugar.
"Yes, it'll make the cake spongier and smell nicer."
"How many portions are you making?"
Kain whistled. "That's a lot."
"Not a problem." Aido smiled, confident. "It is nothing compared to the amount we have to dish out at the restaurant sometimes." He started beating the cream and the sugar as Kain filled the room with the fresh and revitalizing scent of lemons being shaved.
Amidst the quiet chattering of the other girls, the two blondes continued talking, preparing the cake batter in harmony.
"This is tiring." Kain complained even as he continued with his tedious task. "Why don't you use fruit aroma instead of this sharply smelling thing?"
"Because it'll smell better this way. Really, you don't expect the Imperial staff to use inferior ingredients when the best things are available, do you?"
"Yeah, yeah..." Kain shrugged, smiling. "The Pres' eyes would have teared up if he had seen it."
Aido smiled, too. "And you yourself wanted to help." He reminded, adding a large amount of flour, the baking powder, a few drops of vanilla essence and a few bottles of lemon flavored mineral water to his mixture.
Kain looked scandalized for a second. "Mineral water in cake batter?"
Aido smirked, totally relaxed and already forgotten about his prejudices. "It'll be so fluffy that you'll want to eat the whole tray." He chuckled.
Kain carefully locked the image of the smiling Aoi in a corner of his memories, because the girl was really pretty when she smiled from the bottom of her heart. And he felt glad that she was relaxed enough to show it in his presence.
"Now I really want a bite of this." He wistfully sighed.
"Why not?" Aido nodded, now using the mixer, his voice barely audible over the whirring of the machine. "You'll have to attend to the communion tonight to get one though."
"I will." Kain replied. "I promised the children."
Aido's eyebrows rose upon the news. He must be popular with kids. He mused. To be able to win their hearts within a few hours…
"What do you think of this place?" He asked on an impulse, but without meeting him in the eye.
Kain looked up from his work, taken a bit aback by the randomness of the question. He waited for an elaboration but Aoi didn't say more and didn't look at him.
"It's a relatively better place than the other orphanages I've seen."
That perked up Aido's attention. "You've visited other ones?"
Kain nodded and returned to his task. Now Aoi was watching him and he was the one averting his eyes.
"Actually the first time was when I was a high school student. Kaname and Takuma had been orphans even long before then and they'd make visits to places like this whenever they were on the go for educational or business related occasions."
Aido was listening intently now, shutting down the mixer and waiting for Kain to finish shaving the lemon skins.
"One day Kaname suggested I should come, too, and I agreed. It had to be the summer of our second year at high school. It was a time of turmoil for Kaname because he was about to inherit all of his family business. He was about to come of age.
"Is he older than you?" Aido couldn't help but ask.
"He is our senior by a year. He was in primary school when his parents died and he lost a year at school because of it."
Aido could only guess what Kuran and Takuma might have gone through since then. He grew up in an orphanage, but the other two probably had relatively better childhoods, considering that they hadn't had to spend their youth among strangers where you were treated as a guest, not as an owner of that place with no home to call as yours.
"You must be thinking that Kaname and Takuma are lucky for not being raised in an institution like this one." Kain handed the heap of grated lemon skins to him, looking at him with a 'you're totally mistaken' look in his russet eyes. Aido raised an eyebrow at how easily the other man had read his thoughts.
"Especially Takuma had one hell of a childhood in the hands of his grandfather, Aoi. Well... Kaname's wasn't one to feel jealous of either, now that I think about it. He grew up all alone even though he had so many relatives popping up every now and then trying to take custody of him. Not out of the goodness of their heart, mind you. They all wanted to be his legal guardian to control the vast inheritance left by his parents." Kain sighed here like someone who was shouldering much more than someone of his age could handle.
"Both of them, especially Kaname became so introverted, so guarded that I feared his personality had changed devastatingly. It was a sad affair to witness but I can't blame the Pres for it. He became cruel, forgot to smile, and turned out to be so calculating, so distant. And Takuma turned out be a mellower version of it, bitter but full of fake smiles. I sometimes wonder if they had been brought up at somewhere like this, would things have been a bit different for them."
Aido thought that he could finally understand Kuran's character better, why he had been so demanding, so judgmental to the point of cruelty, so vicious when he had first met Zero and so full of suspicions. He felt compelled to tell all these to Zero, too, once he returned their home.
"But all these don't say anything about you." He added, to disperse the heavy atmosphere.
Kain smiled, watching Aoi mix everything together now. "Well, I am a relatively normal guy compared to them." He smirked lopsidedly. "I have a mother who loves gambling. She eats decks of cards and breathes casino chips to survive." He chuckled but there was such a stark bitterness to it that Aido cringed. "Several times she gambled away a fortune. But my father so happens to be very good at making a fortune, thus, he doesn't care about it at all." Kain shrugged.
Aido felt chilled to the bone at the detached, indifferent way how the fiery blonde was talking about this.
"My father had been the second son of his family and you know how it works here; the first son gets it all, the second and the rest had to make it by themselves. He must have felt scorned, my father that is... He studied law at the most prestigious university here and went abroad to get his master's degree, totally losing hope about getting a penny from the family inheritance. But..." Here he grimaced, leaning both hands to the marble counter as he continued. "But his older brother, the apple of his father's eye, died in a car accident at the mere age of twenty six, unmarried, leaving all the business in shambles at his wake. Cue for my father's time to shine." Kain added sourly.
"He was called back and he took everything in his hands in a rush. In his daze to please my grandfather, he got married to my mother who was the sole child of one of his business partners. And the result of this most unfortunate union is me and my older sister."
"You really hate your family." Aido only realized that he spoke aloud after he heard his own voice.
Kain had an almost frigid coldness about him now, looking so distant and impenetrable, as if he changed into another personality in the blink of an eye. "Yes, I do." He confirmed with finality, leaving no room for discussion. "And I hope you are able to understand why."
It was unthinkable for Aido to conjure up the said emotion towards any sort of parents, but he could see where the fiery blonde was coming from. "Your mother didn't care about you and your father thinks he cares while in fact he is abusing you with everything he couldn't become in his own father's eyes."
"Nice analysis." Kain smirked hollowly, his features sharp. It looked so wrong on that easy to the eye face of his.
"And you can still smile about it." Aido remarked, astounded by the hardheartedness he was seeing in the normally compassionate, cheerful, child-like man's expression.
"What is more there to do about it then, tell me?" Kain asked, self derision clear in his voice. "For someone like you, who has fond memories of her parents, I must seem like a one messed up son, misguided and egoistic."
Without thinking, Aido shook his head in negative. "I just feel sad about what you had to go through." He mumbled thoughtfully, his sadness reflected in his eyes. But Kain's expression didn't change and he didn't say anything, averting his eyes. Thinking that he was misunderstood, Aido flailed, suddenly self conscious. "Don't think it is pity!" He blurted, surprising Kain with the force of his declaration. He blushed despite himself when his eyes met with Kain's questioning ones. "It is so cruel for a child to feel like this about their parents, so unjust for them to go through this when all they need is a bit of love..." He trailed of, emptily gazing at the now finished cake batter waiting before him.
Kain smiled at the earnest way the girl was trying to express her feelings. "Don't worry, Aoi, I understand." He assured. "Let's just say that I wasn't so lucky."
Aido bit his lip, hesitantly nodding, unable to find any words of consolation to utter that could make a difference for the man before him. "I just hope that it gets better somehow."
"Yeah." Kain shrugged in total acceptance of his destiny. Thinking that this many touchy subjects were enough for one day, he gestured towards the large oiled pan. "Won't you put it into the oven?"
"Ah, yes..." Aido tried to shake the miserable feeling induced by their talk and poured the cake batter into the pan and put it into the oven, making the necessary adjustments. "Let's prepare another batch, shall we?" He asked, suddenly deeply wanting to erase the fiery blonde's discomfiture and well veiled sadness.
"But you are going to grate the lemons this time." Kain winked playfully and Aido relented just to make the man smile like he did before.
"Not everything is going as smoothly as Aido had told me about, is it?" Yagari asked, walking side by side with his student.
Zero cringed inwardly, but persistently kept his neutral composition. "Aido doesn't want you to worry about us, Sensei, that's all."
"Really?" The older man huffed, exasperated with how tight lipped his two students were. "It seemed to me like something is going on here but, Zero…" He stopped in his tracks, seriously wanting to berate Zero into the next century for hiding things from him. "Is there anything you need to tell me that I should know about that man and your work at there?"
Surprised by the sudden strict tone in the other man's voice, Zero stopped, too. He considered his options for a few seconds. Either way, sooner or later his Sensei was going to learn everything. And Kuran was here. He might ask about Roze to him and his Sensei might ruin everything without having a clue about what he was doing. It was best to let him in on some of the things than feel sorry later.
"About the Chairman and the Imperial?" He questioned. "No. Not really. The Chairman is aware of the situation." He explained. "The real problem is the other guests that are with him today, actually."
"What about them?" Yagari asked; then again, there was no chance that he could guess what kind of mess that they were in now.
How would one explain something like this to the person that they respected most in the whole world? Zero felt sick in the stomach at the thought, but he had to do it. Unable to look in the eyes of his teacher, Zero tried to explain.
"Sensei, I can't go into detail now so please don't ask anything but all I can say is that those men that came with Cross-san know us as women who work for the Chairman. They don't know about our real identities and if any of them mentions you the names Roze or Aoi, please act like they really were your students here and don't tell them anything more."
Roze? Yagari remembered the brunette young man asking of a girl named Roze to him. But the Chairman had diverted his attention to something else and he had totally forgotten about it until now. He scrutinized the guilt and anxiety that shone in Zero's eyes. The boy acted like it was something of tremendous significance to him and to Aido. Why would hiding their identities as males be of importance for the two? Unless… Unless they... His eyes widened, face going pale.
The abrupt realization made him furious and disgusted in a swift manner.
"Don't tell me that… Zero, is the reason what I am thinking? How could you two…"
Hellish shame burned up in Zero's chest and he could no longer face the other man, turning away completely from his teacher to hide his face.
"Sensei, please don't judge before I can tell you everything. But now, I neither have the time nor the courage to tell you all. Just… Don't look at me like that, please…" He could feel that his shoulders shook and his throat clenched, but all he could do was to wait for his Sensei's next words in the deadly silence that ensued after his plead.
Yagari was so shocked that for a few minutes he could only stare emptily at Zero's shaking shoulders, unable to fully comprehend what he had just surmised from the boy's words. His two male students with other males… How could that be? What kind of a ridiculous situation was this? He had been willing to understand the circumstances that led them to act like female servers when Aido had told him about the financial situation that they were in. But this… What the hell was this disgrace?
But another thought struck him even though his mind was quick in blaming it all on his foolish students. "Are you forced into something, Zero?" He asked, boiling inside with new found rage towards whoever might be responsible of his pupils' agitation. "Those men… Who are they to you guys? Did the Chairman force you into doing anything?" His voice was much more livid than before.
Zero visibly flinched this time. "No!" He immediately answered. "The Chairman has nothing to do with this!" He tried to explain in a hurry. "In fact, he looks out for us more than he has to."
"Then what is it? How can this be?" Yagari was this short of from actually shouting. "Look at me, Zero!"
The older man made Zero turn back towards him, but Zero couldn't raise his head to face the other for the life of him.
"It is completely one sided." He whispered in a tiny voice. You are a filthy liar, Kiryuu! "They are being a pest, but I need the money. I can't leave this job. I have to endure it."
Zero was trembling and trying to hide it, his voice was even but tiny, he couldn't face him. Yagari realized that the boy had never looked this much small and fragile before. He was deadly pale, dark rings under his eyes, shoulders sloping down tiredly and lifelessly, lips thinned into a grim pale line, his hands clenched into white bony fists at his sides. He was thinner, unhealthily so. The older man was struck with the saddening fact that he was really looking at the boy for the first time since their reunion.
What happened to his kids when they were away? Who did this to Zero?
"Why do you have to endure it, kid?" His voice was calmer now, patient like a parent's.
Zero struggled with himself, cursing his luck for Kuran to choose here for this year's event. If it had not for him, he wouldn't have to come here to cover for their lie, wouldn't lose the love and respect of the sole person he had admired for so long.
"For I-Ichiru…" He couldn't say more with the lump in his throat.
"Is the Chairman aware of this?"
"And which of them is the one pestering you?"
"Then I'll only accept the Chairman's donation."
Zero's head immediately shot up, eyes widened, livid with turmoil. "Sensei, it has nothing to do with the kids! You can't do that! Think about how many of the students' tuition fees can be paid by their donation!"
His student's lackluster eyes reflected so much desperation and frantic urgency that Yagari already hated the brunette man for putting them in those eyes. "After hearing all these, I am afraid I can't bring myself to accept any kinds of help from Kuran Kaname."
"Sensei, then I'll feel responsible forever. This matter and that are totally unrelated. Please don't add to the guilt that I am already drowning in."
Closing his eyes and rubbing his face, Yagari breathed tiredly, in suppressed anger. "Damn it, okay, as you wish." He swore uncharacteristically. "I won't ask more and you won't think stupid things like losing my respect and love for you, kid."
For a single second Zero looked like he was about to cry, his eyes were like that of a scorned child's. But Yagari put his hand on his head and ruffled his hair. "Just don't forget that I'm here for you whenever you need me, Zero."
If it not were for his Sensei being near him, Zero thought that he would have actually given in and cried in shame and relief.
"Come now. I'm sure there are a couple of kids who want to see you before you leave."
Yagari led Zero to the playrooms of the Junior's side to introduce a bit of normalcy to the highly disturbed looking young man beside him. His student seemed much more subdued and introverted than usual. Zero had never been one to talk much, always keeping things to himself. So the older man guessed that it had to have taken a lot out of the young man to talk about something as outrageous as this. He himself couldn't even believe it still. But leaving Zero alone now, shunning him away for this would be betraying the trust that the boy had placed in him for so long.
A terrible wave of headache was coming over him, yet Yagari refused to act in any way that Zero might think as judgmental. The boy looked and had to be feeling as awful as it got, so he didn't want to be the one to rub salt to the wound.
They stood before the doors of the playroom and Yagari put his hand on Zero's shoulder, rescuing him from his nightmarish thoughts. Zero looked up with bleary, dull eyes, apologetic unnecessarily. Yagari huffed inwardly and tried to speak as reassuringly as he could. "Zero, I don't think less of you, I'll never do that. I just feel frustrated with myself for being unable to protect you."
Zero could only nod, trying to swallow the lump in his throat unsuccessfully.
"If anything happens, if it becomes too much, I am here, kid. Never forget that." With a final pat on Zero's shoulder, he turned around and forced himself to leave him, unable to say anything more, clenching his hand by his side, frowning deeply.
That shoulder had never felt this frail before.
His lip was going to get swollen. Zero knew it but he couldn't stop himself from chewing on it in a complete show of remorse, anxiety and self deprecation all bundled together. Even after hearing those reassuring words from Yagari, Zero felt that he had punched a gaping hole into the way how he looked in his Sensei's eyes. A few mere words had been enough, Zero realized, to ruin it all.
Yagari had been completely honest when he reaffirmed his sentiments; but the disgrace was so deep that Zero felt like he was freefalling down into a chasm.
He wanted to throw up.
He was the worst kind of a liar. He couldn't even look at the retreating back of his Sensei, standing there numbly, rooted in front of the door like a statue, hollow and cold. He couldn't open the door and enter, either, because he didn't know how to face the innocence of the little kids.
Unseeingly gazing at the door, he heard the merry voices coming from the inside. His eyes involuntarily drawn to the small glass window of the door, he saw an adult playing with the kids inside. Momentarily forgetting about the turmoil that he was in, he stepped up to get a better viewing angle and there sitting on one of the cushions, he saw Kuran Kaname. His eyes went wide and he panicked, his heart starting to hammer against his rib cage, yet he couldn't tear his gaze away.
Kuran was sitting among a large group of children, colorful wrappings and opened boxes were everywhere; new toys, books and all the other things a kid might like were clutched against small chests. The kids were listening to Kuran with rapt attention, laughing and giggling at whatever the brunette was telling them. Kuran was smiling, too, petting the head of a small girl that was sitting near him in the most affectionate way Zero had ever seen. The brunette was sitting sideways and his attention was fully on the small ones, so absorbed by their starry eyed expressions and the jovial atmosphere around them. The afternoon sun was shining upon them and painting Kuran in a different color, one Zero had never witnessed before. It was almost as if this person was a stranger to him.
Zero swallowed thickly, feeling like an intruder. So, if Kuran was allowed to be himself, if he lowered his guards, if he were among the company of the children's innocence, honesty and freely given love, he would turn into this person… This person who smiled and played with the kids like he had no care in the world, who seemed like he could never tell a lie or hurt a fly intentionally. He appeared to be normal, vulnerable just like everyone else; a human being, not untouchable, nor unbreakable, not cold and calculating and merciless. At least not now, when he was being himself.
And Zero had lied to him.
His stomach slowly turning into a knot of pain and bile, Zero was reminded yet again of how horrible, how monstrous his lie had been. His conscience was eating at him like it had never before. He led this man's hopes astray, unable to conjure up the courage to stop it all before it was too late.
His eyes teared up and his fists were clenched by his sides. No one had the right to do this to another person, misunderstanding or not, dire circumstances or not. He was the worst kind of people alive and he had to face it, face the fact that he was a failure. He had failed everyone; his teacher, his friends, Ichiru and Kuran. He wished that he wasn't this deplorable, small man as ire churned inside him against his own fallacy, cowardliness and weakness.
His shoulders drawn inside, he unconsciously tried to make himself smaller, as small as he felt now. Turning away, he hastily walked the corridors on autopilot, practically slamming himself to the heavy exit doors, greeted by the welcome embrace of the harsh bite of the late afternoon chill. Two drops of hot liquid fell on his cheeks but he fiercely wiped them away with the coarse fabric of his coat. He made a dash for the garden gates and then to the bus stop.
Anymore than this and he knew that he was going to break; like a brittle twig, stuck in the mud against an arctic torrent.
Kaname had to leave the playroom to get a call which took longer than he expected. Now fiddling with his phone, he watched the kids play with their new toys from the glass parting on the door.
Roze was raised here, too, he mused. She had been one of these kids and he was sure that she loved this place as much as the children inside did. He wondered what she'd tell him if she knew where he was now.
Scrolling through his contacts list, he found the home number of her, a fond smile appearing on his face. That night when he let her use his phone, he'd never erased the number. It was not gentlemanly to have tricked her thus, but he really couldn't bring himself to do it then.
Now the urge to call her was immense. He wanted to share his happiness for being here and maybe make her envy him a bit. But more than that, he knew that he missed her and he was still feeling guilty of her ailment after the party.
Not truly considering if she'd get angry or upset at him for daring to call her from home, he punched the dial sign and waited for the phone to be picked up.
The phone shrilly rang in the empty house, rousing Ichiru from his sleep even though he had just closed his eyes. His groggy mind tried to convince him that it was not important and for a second there, he really wanted to ignore the unwelcome sound. But his reason won over and thinking that there might be some emergency with his brother and friends, he got up and dragged himself to the offending device.
"Hello?" His voice came out hoarse and dead beat.
Was it his imagination or the person on the other side did sound like taking a surprised breath?
"Yes?" He asked, still waiting, his mood turning sour rapidly.
"Sorry, but may l speak to Roze-san?" A male voice, sounding so unsure that it roused Ichiru up further.
Somebody was calling his brother but asking for him as Roze. Eyes narrowing down, he asked. "Who is speaking?" His voice belied his suspicion and foul mood.
"I am Kuran Kaname. We... We met before."
Kuran? We met before? Ichiru felt a pang of pain in his chest and he scrambled to sit down at the nearest flat surface available, anger and confusion paling his face.
"She is not at home." He tersely replied. "Why are you calling her, Sir?" There was silence again but Ichiru wanted to learn more. "I can take a message if you want." He baited.
"No, thank you." Came the clipped reply, devoid of any enthusiasm. "But if you might tell me where she is, it'll be helpful."
Ichiru considered his options. He honestly didn't know where Zero might be. And even if he knew he wouldn't tell. Zero had to be on his way to the Imperial –he checked the clock-. But if this guy was at the restaurant, he might encounter Zero without him wearing his kimono and Ichiru would hate it if he'd cause any problems because of that.
"She said she had some errands to run and went out early. I don't know where she is."
Another pause from the other side and then Kuran thanked him in a slightly disappointed tone. "Sorry to bother you, Zero-kun."
Without letting him ask more, Kuran ended the call and Ichiru's lips thinned with distaste.
Why the hell is Kuran calling Zero? He sat there looking absently at the silent room. That nagging uneasiness about Zero's boss trying to breech the line between professionalism and Zero's privacy returned to the forefront of his mind at full force. What was this man trying to do calling a mere employee of his this familiarly? Was he pestering Zero thinking that he was dealing with a woman when in fact Zero was apparently hiding the fact that he was a male.
And Kuran had addressed him as Zero-kun… It puzzled Ichiru further. So Zero had met Kuran as himself? If so when and for what purpose? What was his brother thinking complicating things to this extend? There had to be something going on without his knowledge, and Ichiru felt dizzy and lightheaded with the intensifying pain in his chest as questions bombarded his mind.
Zero had to be hiding something and sorrow washed over Ichiru for causing his elder to have no option other than restoring to this.
He tried to sit upright to alleviate his breathing, trying to fight the pain away. He wished that Yuuki and Shiki were still at home so he could ask a few things; see for himself if he was the only one left in the dark.
He slouched back on the couch involuntarily and his eyes became heavily lidded with an abnormal bout of lethargy. Alarmed by his body slowly shutting down, he tried to reach for the phone, but the feeling was like that of diving into an ocean, smooth, uncontrollable and strangely soothing.
It was odd, his mind was conscious enough to register that, but he felt no fear. He was just immensely anguished about what his brother might be burdened with for his sake.
He blacked out like that, sitting on the couch, all alone in the cold, empty room.
Kaname would have dropped the matter off, but something about the way Roze's brother spoke with him bothered him. He believed that he was speaking to the cold but fierce young man on the other line, realizing only now that he actually hadn't asked for confirmation. But the voice was just like he remembered it to be. Then again, wasn't it strange that Zero couldn't recognize his voice and had asked him who he was. Also, he thought that Kiryuu Zero would be a lot harsher with him after he introduced himself but it was as if the other young man was wary and suspicious rather than intolerant and harsh. It was surprising considering their first encounter in the Majestic's bar lounge. The silver haired man certainly sounded gruff, but nothing more. No persistent questions, no veiled warnings, no condescending remarks… He felt at a loss, not able to make anything out of their short exchange.
He would let this slide, but not before trying something else. He found the Chairman in the Teachers' Room and asked him to come outside.
"Does Roze have a cell number?" He tried to seem as inconspicuous as possible. The other man eyed him in uncertainty.
"Why do you need it, Kaname-kun?"
The older man's eyes sharply regarded him but Kaname didn't falter, nonchalant. "This is where she was raised in. I want her to hear what she missed today."
Cross looked thoughtful for a moment, apparently contemplating if it was a wise thing to give him the number. Kaname couldn't believe that the Chairman was suspecting him of having ulterior motives. Was he aware of what was going on between him and Roze? Why was he so protective of her?
"I was also thinking of apologizing for her illness again and ask if she got better." He added to ease the other's qualms.
Cross conceded, albeit reluctantly. And Kaname dialed the numbers, thanking the older man with a nod. Sensing that Cross was lingering on, he walked away for some privacy.
The phone was picked up after quite a few dial tones.
"Yes?" A male voice again, too much like that of one Kiryuu Zero's. It sounded hollow, sad and exasperated. And Kaname stalled for a moment.
"Zero-kun?" He asked, uncertain again. He was greeted with sudden silence. "I thought this number was Roze-san's." He tried to explain but the silence continued. Kaname thought that he finally breached a line and was about to taste the wrath of the young man for disturbing him for the second time because of his sister.
"It is indeed hers. What do you want, Kuran?" The question lacked the usual bite that Kaname expected, but he was still appalled.
"Then why is her phone with you? Is... Is she with you?" He asked.
"She's not here and she sometimes forgets it. Why are you calling her?" Zero sounded drained of life, upset even and a bit apprehensive.
Kaname listened in on intently. It seemed Zero was outside, somewhere like a bus maybe, the background noise was so distinct.
"Are you outside?" He checked his wristwatch. Not even ten minutes had passed since his first call. How could this be?
"Yeah, what of it? What do you want, Kuran?"
"Where is she?"
There was silence again and then an annoyed huff of breath.
"I don't know. Why are you calling her?"
Kaname just stood there, dumbstruck for a moment, not knowing what to tell. What the..? Didn't he say she was running some errands outside ten minutes ago?
"If you have nothing to say, I'm hanging up." Zero sounded indifferent rather than irritated.
A few seconds of more background noise and the line was disconnected.
Kaname looked at the screen of his phone, unmoving; his mind couldn't wrap itself around what just happened.
If he had talked to Zero just a moment ago –whom really sounded like the terse and down-to-the-earth brother that he knew- then who the hell was the other male that he had called earlier?