Chapter 3

Probably because he'd slept so much the day before, Ritsuka didn't sleep much that night. He woke up around six the next morning, but he stayed in bed, his mind trying to catch up. Despite all that had happened, he still expected to be in his bed at home and to hear his mother making breakfast. Instead, all he heard was silence.

I'm living with Soubi now, he thought. I'm not going to go home until…I don't know. The police can't find Dad and Mom's in the hospital. He didn't know what living with Soubi would be like, but it would be better than living with his parents. At least Soubi didn't scream at him and throw things and…

He didn't realize he was crying until he started having trouble breathing. Then he was sniffling and then he had to bury his face in the pillow to keep Soubi from hearing. Why should the thought that his mother wouldn't scream and throw things at him anymore make him cry? He didn't feel relieved, all he felt was that he wanted to go home, to make the last few days disappear and live his life the way he always had. He'd hated the fact that his mother didn't believe that he was who he was, that she'd screamed at him and sometimes hurt him, but she was still his mother.

He rolled over in bed and put the pillow over his face, sighing. His mind was all mixed up. He'd hated that his mother had acted that way, but he couldn't feel relieved at all. Why was that? He could eat meals now without waiting to make a mistake by eating the "wrong" thing, he didn't have to pretend any time he was at home…Next thing he knew, he was sobbing.

He didn't know how long he'd been crying, but a knock on the door brought him out of his thoughts. "What?"

"Ritsuka, are you all right?"

Soubi. "Yes, I'm fine."

"You don't sound fine."

"I'm fine!"

Soubi didn't wait. He came in and sat on the bed. "Why are you crying? Are you hurting?"

"No, I'm not hurting," he said, wiping his eyes. "Could I be alone, please?"

"Why?"

"Because I want to be!" he shouted, more than fed up. Couldn't Soubi take a stupid hint?

Soubi put a hand on his shoulder. "But you don't have to be alone."

That only made him cry harder, and the next thing he knew Soubi had picked him up and was holding him on his lap, cuddling him.

"It will be all right," Soubi said, rocking him back and forth. "It's not all right now, I know, but in time it will be all right. I promise."

Ritsuka took a deep breath and fought to get control of himself, but he was crying too hard for that. If anything, he was crying harder and it was getting worse. He was giving big, heaving sobs and it was starting to get a little hard to breathe. He'd known kids who cried a lot; where on earth did they find the energy? He was exhausted already and he was pretty sure that he wasn't about to stop. How tired would he be when he finally managed to stop crying?

Even though he was bawling like a baby, Soubi kept holding him. At one point, a packet of tissues appeared and they were used up within ten minutes. Soubi was still there, holding him and whispering that it would be all right eventually.

He cried himself right back to sleep, and when he woke up his nose was less than an inch from Soubi's chest. The both of them were on his bed, cuddled together and under the blankets. The question he had to ask himself now was, did he want to know if something had happened? No, no, he really didn't want to know and anyway, he didn't think that Soubi would...do...anything. Soubi had never hurt him...creeped him out a few times, sure, but he'd never hurt him. He shifted and tried to pull away, but Soubi's arms tightened and he rolled to the side, taking Ritsuka with him. Now Ritsuka was lying on Soubi's stomach, staring down at his face. "Umm, Soubi?"

"Hmmm?"

"Could I get up?"

Soubi cuddled him and opened his eyes before glancing at the clock. "Yes. It's time to get up. After you get changed, would you like to help me with breakfast?"

One thing that he'd rarely done was help in the kitchen. Oh, he'd cooked occasionally in classes at school, but he hadn't done much more than that. "Sure." It might be fun to cook.

He joined Soubi in the kitchen ten minutes later, ready and raring to go. It wasn't long before he was helping to scramble eggs for an omelet while Soubi prepared vegetables.

"Okay," Soubi said a minute later, standing at the stove. "The pan's hot enough now. Bring those eggs over, okay?"

Ritsuka carried the bowl over to the stove and with Soubi's help, he poured the eggs into the pan, added the vegetables, and with Soubi standing beside him, he made his first vegetable omelets.

"Well done," Soubi said while he got bowls and plates out of the cupboard. "Ready to eat?"

Shortly after that they were sitting down to breakfast in the dining area. They chatted while they ate, mostly about things like the weather and how the food tasted. "This is good, Ritsuka," Soubi said, taking another bite of omelet.

Ritsuka felt himself flush. He wasn't used to hearing that he'd done something well. "Um...thanks."

"No, I mean it," Soubi continued. "I could teach you to cook and I think that some of the harder dishes wouldn't be beyond you."

"I have cooking lessons in school," Ritsuka reminded him.

"Yes, but don't you think it would be fun?"

Ritsuka had to agree with him there. "Yes, I think it would be fun."

"Great! I'll teach you, then."

As they were cleaning up Soubi asked him what he would like to do that day.

"Do?" Ritsuka echoed.

"Yes," Soubi said, handing Ritsuka a bowl to dry.

Ritsuka dried the bowl and thought about it. "I don't know, really. I hadn't planned anything."

Soubi smiled at him and finished rinsing off the last dish. "A new aquarium's opened up," he said. "Have you ever been to one?"

"Only with Seimei, and only when I was little," he admitted.

"Would you like to go?"

Ritsuka thought about it. "They just have fish at an aquarium, don't they?"

"And seahorses and penguins and otters," Soubi added. "And sting rays and sea dragons."

Ritsuka felt his ears perk up. "Sea dragons?"

"Mmm-hmmm."

"I don't believe you," Ritsuka said, having a strong feeling that Soubi was laughing at him.

"I've seen sea dragons," Soubi offered. "They're quite beautiful."

Was he teasing, or not? Ritsuka wasn't sure.

"We could go out to lunch after visiting the aquarium, if you like," Soubi coaxed. "You haven't done that much, have you?"

Ritsuka shook his head. The few times he'd eaten out he'd been with Seimei or his school friends. Lately, eating out consisted of convenience store food or Big Macs, except for the time his doctor had taken him out... "All right. I'd like that."


Soubi had not been lying about the sea dragons. He'd been staring at them for the last ten minutes, transfixed in front of their tank, and he still had trouble believing they were real. They really did look like dragons...small dragons that swam through the oceans and hid among seaweed when threatened...but re-emerged to swim around again, "flying" through the water like the dragons they were named after.

"Why didn't you tell me they were like seahorses?" Ritsuka wanted to know.

"I didn't want to spoil the surprise," Soubi said evenly with a smile. "What do you think?"

"They're beautiful," Ritsuka said. "It makes me wish we could take one home as a pet!"

Soubi looked thoughtful. "You'd like one as a pet?"

"Well, I know that can't happen since they're considered to be a near threatened species, but I think they're cool." Only then did he see the thoughtful look on Soubi's face and realized what it might mean. "Uh, Soubi?"

"Yes, Ritsuka?"

"You're not to take any of these, understand?"

Soubi smiled again, clearly amused. "Yes, Ristuka."

They spent hours in the aquarium, wandering around and looking at the exhibits. Ritsuka didn't want to admit it, but he was having a great time. Soubi seemed more than happy to let him stay there all day if he wanted, and he didn't try to rush him through anything. He watched the penguins having a good old penguin time for close to an hour and Soubi didn't say anything. He spent almost as long at the otter tank and spent so long petting sting rays that his fingers wrinkled from the water. Added to that were all the displays of tropical fish, the shark tunnel, the coral reef pool, and everything else. By lunchtime they'd seen everything and Soubi suggested getting lunch.

"If you wanted to come back after lunch, we could," he offered, seeing Ritsuka's reluctance to leave.

Ritsuka shook his head. "No, that's not it," he said. "I guess I've had fun and I really don't want it to end."

"There's lots of fun to have," Soubi told him. "I'll make sure you have some fun every day, so you'll never have to have it end."

Ritsuka fought down a smile. Soubi sounded so...so...well, what he was saying was nice, but it sounded like something out of a manga! "Okay, Soubi."

They went to a family-style restaurant a block from the aquarium and it wasn't long before they were settled in their seats and looking at menus. Ritsuka looked over all the choices and found he wanted to order one of everything, it all looked so good! There were all kinds of sandwiches, hot dishes, burgers, fries, curries...he didn't know what to pick! He turned the page in his menu and felt the indecision increase: desserts! Strawberry kasutera cake, chocolate cake, several types of ice cream...

"You can choose one thing for your lunch and only one dessert," Soubi said, suddenly breaking into Ritsuka's dreams of an all-dessert lunch.

"Soubi!"

"Trust me, you won't be able to eat anything more than that," Soubi told him. "You don't want to make yourself sick by eating too much, do you?"

Ritsuka thought about it. He usually got sick from being nervous while eating, not from eating too much. "What if I'm still hungry?"

"Then you can order something else, but only if you're still hungry," Soubi said. "I promise."

It didn't take Ritsuka long to order a cheeseburger and fries, a soda, and for dessert, some strawberry kasutera cake. In a short time he had a feast in front of him and happily began working his way through it. One thing that did amuse him was that his burger had a little flag stuck in the top bun. The last time he'd seen something like that, he'd been eating out with Seimei.

Soubi had been right about ordering too much. He'd eaten the burger, most of the fries, and half the cake, and he was so full that his stomach felt uncomfortable. It didn't hurt, it was just a little...well, over-full. He wasn't about to let Soubi know, though.

"Stick a fork in me, I'm done," Soubi said. "I haven't eaten like this in a while. It must be the good company."

Ritsuka sipped at his soda. What should he say to that?

"It looks like you're done, too."

"Hm? Oh, yeah."

"All right, then, let's go," Soubi said, standing and picking up their bill.

Ritsuka followed him, waited patiently while Soubi paid the bill, and then he followed him back out into the street. "Where are we going now? Home?"

"I think not yet," Soubi said. "Would you mind going to a bookstore with me? There are a few books I need to pick up."

Ritsuka felt his ears perk with interest. "A bookstore? Sure." He liked looking around in bookstores. There were times when he spent hours in bookstores, just looking around at books and occasionally reading whatever caught his eye.

Soubi led him down streets, around corners, and when they finally arrived, Ritsuka was paying so much attention to what Soubi had been saying that he didn't realize they'd arrived. They were standing in front of a small place that looked like a run-down house. The only sign that it was a bookstore was the sign above the door designating it "Sato's Old and Rare Books." Interesting.

A bell clanged as Soubi opened the door, and Ritsuka followed him into the entryway. The inside of the shop was dark and dusty and Ritsuka stopped for a moment to let his eyes adjust. There was a sharp, musty smell that always seemed to accompany old books and he fought not to sneeze. It was so quiet in this place! He was used to seeing a lot of people in bookstores, but here they were the only customers. He didn't even see a clerk behind the desk.

"Sato-san?" Soubi called.

"Just a moment!" Ritsuka heard somewhere near the back of the store. "I'll be right out!"

They waited. And waited. Occasionally they would hear a rustle or a thump, but there was no sign of a shopkeeper anywhere. What was taking this guy so long?

Shuffle shuffle shuffle shuffle shuffle

"AHH, SOUBI-KUN!"

Ritsuka nearly jumped out of his skin. A tiny little man had appeared out of nowhere and popped up in front of them, crowing Soubi's name so loudly that Ritsuka's heart was still pounding.

"Hello, Sato-san," Soubi said, smiling. "It's good to see you."

"It's good to see you, too," Sato-san said, giving them both a wrinkly smile. "What can I do for you today?"

"I've come to pick up those books you've been holding for me," Soubi answered. "Are they ready?"

"They just need wrapped," Sato-san said. He squinted at Ritsuka and smiled even more. "Who's this?"

"This is Aoyagi Ritsuka, Seimei's younger brother."

Ritsuka bowed. "Hello."

"Good to meet you, good to meet you, young man," Sato-san said. "Eh, you look like Seimei."

Ritsuka felt his ears go up. "You knew Seimei?"

"Of course I did. Now, would you like to look around a bit while I get Soubi-kun his books?"

"Ah, yes, that's fine."

"All right, then, Soubi-kun, follow me, please. Have fun, Ritsuka-kun."

Sato-san shuffled off and Soubi followed him, leaving Ritsuka alone in the front of the store. He waited a moment and then approached the nearest shelf to read the spines of the books there. All of the spines were blank, so he pulled out a book and opened it. He stared at the text. Interesting. It wasn't Japanese. In fact, he couldn't even take a guess at what it was. He turned pages, but none of the words made sense. When he came across an illustration he found himself staring again. What kind of creature was that?

"Not that shelf, youngster!" Sato-san shouted from the back. "Try one of the ones along the wall!"

Ritsuka did as he was told and actually felt relieved when he spotted Japanese on the book spines. He opened one titled simply "Tales" and began to read. They were all old Japanese stories about gods, demons and warriors. He read most of the stories in that book before setting it aside and looking for another. It wasn't long before he had five books of old legends gathered around him and he was flipping through them in turn, reading a passage here, a sentence there, and thoroughly enjoying himself. He was deep in a story about a snow demon when...

"Find something good?"

Ritsuka jumped and the book went flying. "Aah! Don't sneak up on me like that, Soubi!"

"Sorry," Soubi said, retrieving the book. He looked at the title. "I didn't know that you liked stories."

"We've read a few in school and I didn't care for them too much, but these are interesting," Ritsuka confessed.

"Would you like them?"

Ritsuka stared at the short pile of books. "Not all of them!" he protested. They looked expensive!

"Why? If you like something, I'll get it for you. Don't worry about the money."

"One of us should!" Ritsuka pointed out. "You've already bought a house, furnishings, things for me..."

"Ah, let him, youngster!" Sato-san said brightly, shuffling his way toward them between the shelves. "It'll make Soubi-kun happy!"

Ritsuka stared at the old man. Why did he feel that the man ran on batteries or something?

Soubi scooped up the books and took them to the counter. "We'll take these as well, Sato-san."

"Just TWO!" Ritsuka interjected. "JUST TWO!"

"Why not all of them?" Soubi wanted to know. "I can tell you like them, so why won't you let me get them all for you?"

"Because I don't want them all at once," Ritsuka explained quickly. "I want something to look forward to later."

Sato-san grinned. "Aaaahhh! I see! He is a true book-lover, Soubi-kun! All right, two it is!"

At last! He'd won an argument with Soubi! Sure, he'd had some outside help, but who cared? Victory!

"We'll get the other four later," Soubi said, unwilling to let the subject drop just yet.

"As long as it's later," Ritsuka insisted. He wasn't about to let this victory go without a fight.


On the way home they went to the supermarket to pick up some things for dinner. Ritsuka followed along behind Soubi, glancing at the shelves. Before, he didn't go into stores too often since his mother usually did the shopping during the day. Sometimes, though, she would send him to the store for something as a way of testing him, to see if he was the "real" Ritsuka. He'd hated running such errands since they were landmines from start to finish, but he noticed something as he shopped with Soubi. His stomach wasn't in knots and he didn't have a headache. Rather, he was pretty calm. Interesting.

Soubi seemed to have a grocery list in his head. They picked up several types of noodles, a brand of expensive rice, some dashi stock, fish, squid, seaweed, eggs, daikon, natto, several types of tofu, burdock, chicken, beef, pork, some bread, carrots, potatoes, several types of mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, pumpkin...

"What are you going to make with all of this?" The only thing he could think of that used all of these ingredients would be a stew of some kind...

"I'm shopping for the next few days as well as tonight," Soubi explained. "We'll both be busy and we won't have time to run to the grocery store."

"Oh."

"That's everything on my list," Soubi told him. "Now, is there anything you'd like? Sweets? Snacks?"

Ritsuka stared at him, rather surprised. "You'd let me have things like that?" He could still remember Soubi's lecture about eating well and training the senses and all of that.

"Once in a while, that kind of thing's all right," Soubi said. "Besides, I've been having a craving for chocolate lately. Let's see what they have, all right?"

The few times he'd been in a grocery store, he'd rarely allowed himself to walk down the candy aisle. The temptation would have been too great to resist, so he avoided it, but now...!

It was still a temptation, and it was still oh, so very hard to resist! It was very difficult not to throw everything that caught his fancy into the basket, but it was really fun to look! After twenty minutes in the candy aisle, they came out with a bag of green tea candy, a bag of mango candy, and for Soubi, some chocolate and a bag of milk candy. He knew he would have to be careful not to eat too much of it at one time so he could make it last...

He and Soubi got home just as the sun was setting. They went inside and Soubi put the groceries away while Ritsuka took his books upstairs. He went back downstairs to see just what Soubi was making for dinner and to see if Soubi would start his cooking lessons. He was still looking forward to them.

"I was about to call you," Soubi told him. "Would you like to learn how to make pork tonkatsu?"

Ritsuka felt his mouth water. He loved pork tonkatsu! "Yes!"

Soubi showed him how to trim the fat from the pork, how to score the cutlet, how to dredge and season it, and how to cover it in breadcrumbs before frying. They made rice and vegetables to go with the pork and before long they were sitting down and eating.

"Nice job," Soubi said after taking a bite of tonkatsu.

"Just because you were giving me the directions," Ritsuka told him.

"You were the one who did the cooking," Soubi pointed out. He stopped and looked rather thoughtful.

"What is it?" Ritsuka asked.

"I was wondering if you felt up to going back to school tomorrow. You can stay home as long as you like, of course, but I'm sure your teacher and classmates would like to know if you're all right..."

Ritsuka thought about it. Spending time with Soubi was fun...did he really want to go back to school? "As my guardian, shouldn't you be encouraging me to go back?"

"As your guardian, I have to do what's best for you," Soubi corrected. "If that means you stay home a little longer, then that's what we'll do. I only want you to go back if you feel ready to go back."

He thought some more. "Why wouldn't I be ready to go back?"

"You've been through a lot of changes," Soubi reminded him. "That can take a toll on you. I'm glad that you've handled things so well so far, but I want you to have enough time to process everything."

Ritsuka busied himself with eating. He liked Soubi's recipe for tonkatsu and the vegetables were pretty good... "I think I'm ready to go back to school," he said at last.

"Are you sure? You sound a bit hesitant."

"I don't think it'll get any easier for me if I wait," Ritsuka said at last. "I'll go and see how I do. If I get overwhelmed or something, then I'll just go to the nurse's office and take a break. I'll be fine."

Soubi nodded. "All right, Ritsuka. You'll go back to school tomorrow."