Author's Note: Not much to say, but I apologize again for the wonky update from last time. I hope you enjoy the new chapter, and thank you for all the warm reviews and all the patience you exercised waiting for this to update! ;A; To answer some of the people from last time:

Tsuru Maiden - Bless your heart, thank you for all the kind things you said. I'm glad you have enjoyed my stories. I am likely to do an Akashi one perhaps at the conclusion of the anime? My muse is a fickle thing so it's hard to say for certain. Also, you're never a bother! Thank you for inquiring - I will be trying to update Rabbit Heart again shortly.

Sanda Fairy - You don't sound the least bit creepy! Haha, I don't mind people feeding my ego. :DD Bless you for all of the nice comments about my other fics. Sugarcane was super experimental, and I remember when I was writing I was thinking to myself, 'No one is going to like this fic but that's okay because MURASAKIBARA.' LOL I was so obsessed that even though I lacked any confidence of people liking the fic, I kept writing. And also about Superior - thank you so much, I'm really glad it didn't read too cliche and that it had an emotional impact.

I also love your analysis about Winter Iris - including Midorima and Ayame. I think you're spot on about her as a character, and that makes me happy to think I've been able to convey that. Especially since the majority of this is my older writing, and sometimes when I read over it now I tend to cringe. I should apologize for the long response, but I love long reviews so thank you so much for giving me so much to read. w Also, as is probably evident above, my fave is Murasakibara. How about you?


Six

The wind whips through her hair—tangling the locks that had previously been meticulously curled into ringlets. She had taken such care using a curling iron to perfect her look for the performance. Despite Ayame's flippant attitude, a part of her had been excited to be able to perform for fun again. But now, looking out from the school rooftop, she feels empty.

Approaching the fence, she tangles her fingers in the chain links. In some ways, she feels like she's in a cage. No matter how much she runs, she can never escape entirely. Ultimately, she is trapped by her own frustration, her sense of inferiority, and her fear.

From behind her, she hears the sound of a door cracking open. She does not have to look to guess who it is. The only person who ever chases after her in these circumstances is—

"Suoh."

Although she is mildly surprised to hear Midorima's voice calling her name, she is even more surprised to see him out of breath. In all the time she has known him, she has never seen him flustered. But he actually has droplets of sweat along his forehead, and his glasses have slid down to the middle of his nose.

When finally he regains his composure, he adjusts his frames before approaching her. Clearing his throat, he finally says, "I heard you ran out on your performance."

That is an unwelcome reminder of the face that she got a glimpse of while she was in the auditorium. She averts her gaze to the ground for a moment. Then, forcing a smile, she lifts her gaze back to his face. "I'm surprised you found me here. You must have been looking really hard. Were you panicking?"

. "Idiot," he snaps back at her. "Who do you think had to play your part when you weren't there?"

She blinks in surprise. "How did you end up playing my part?"

Having realized that he has said something unnecessary, Midorima merely clears his throat, trying to distract her from that point. "Chiharu-san begged me to help search for you. It's your turn at your class's booth."

"Ah... but do you really have the free time to come looking for me?"

He crosses his arms over his chest. "You do not need to concern yourself with me."

As usual, he rebuffs her every attempt to even engage in small talk with him. Still, their banter is a distraction from the murky thoughts that threaten to overwhelm her. She turns her gaze back out toward the bustling people below, watching as the small, ant-like figures crowd around the students' stalls.

"I'm going to quit," she finds herself saying.

"Quit what?" he echoes back in confusion.

Her grip on the chain link tightens, knuckles turning white. "I don't want to play anymore." Having declared her intentions, Ayame spins around to face him, still wearing a blithe smile as though it doesn't affect her at all to give up the one thing that she has spent her entire life mastering.

Midorima studies her expression with a hard eye. "Why are you telling me this?"

"That's right, I wonder why..." she whispers thoughtfully, voice trailing off.

"What you do doesn't concern me."

Those words sting, but they are not entirely unexpected either. Ayame's face hardens as she tucks an ebony lock behind her ear. "That's right," she agrees. "You only think of me as a 'nuisance,' right?" Before he can respond, she dips her hand into her skirt pocket, producing the strap that he gave her earlier. With a few steps, she closes the distance between them. Reaching for his hand, she grasps his wrist gently and sets the strap into the palm of his hand. "Thank you for your help up until now. I'm sorry your effort was wasted."

"Suoh."

Ignoring his voice, she slowly lifts her gaze to stare up at him—her own icy blue eyes are reflected in those emerald irises. Her expression hardens, and her lips grow taut. "Don't worry, I won't bother you anymore. I'll have Chiharu return the teddy bear to your classroom. Goodbye, Midorima-san." Releasing her grip on his wrist, she bows her head before starting toward the door.

"Suoh—"

The door slams behind her, silencing his voice. A sharp pain nearly makes her stumble as she starts down the staircase, but she swallows back the bitter taste in her mouth. Tears start to sting at the edges of her eyes but she quickly blinks them away. This is not the first time she has had to give up on something—and she only approached Midorima because she knew he would always keep her at arms length. She, too, never intended to nurture any serious feelings for him.

It was already too late for that. Before she noticed, he was getting dangerously close. And now, even though she has severed all ties, the pain lingers. It's... scary. Really scary. Becoming attached to people—being abandoned by them—she never wants to experience that again.

While she's stiffly marching down the hall, her heels clacking noisily against the tiles on the floor, Ayame does not realize that she's about to run headlong into someone until she bumps against something particularly soft and fluffy. After a moment, she realizes it's Chiharu—who is still holding the teddy bear.

And to her surprise, Chiharu actually has tears in her eyes. "You moron! I was really worried about you. I was looking for you everywhere, you know!" she shouts, her voice hoarse.

"Sorry, Chi-chan. Is it my turn to help with one of the stalls?"

Choking back the tears, Chiharu only glares in return, shoving the teddy bear at her best friend. "Never mind that, we've got that covered. Take your stupid lucky charm and tell me what the heck that was back in the auditorium!"

"Ah, about that—"

"Ayame."

That voice makes her freeze up, dropping the teddy bear that she had been holding onto. Ayame's entire body feels rigid and stiff as she tries to peer over her shoulder. She blanches as she recognizes her mother's face—and that expectant smile.

"You ran off so suddenly. I was lucky to see the first half of your performance." She smiles pleasantly—but her eyes aren't smiling at all.

Surprised at this person's sudden entrance, Chiharu glances between Ayame and the older woman. "Is that... your mother?" It has been a long time since either of them have laid eyes upon her, after all.

"Indeed, I'm her mother. It's been a long time, Chiharu-san."

"You may have given birth to me, but you're not my mother," Ayame corrects hastily, turning her gaze from the older woman to glance back at her best friend. "And I have nothing to say to you, so you should excuse yourself. You weren't even invited here."

"I was surprised to hear you were playing again. You were such a disappointment when you were a child, being so resistant all the time and quitting suddenly. But what a relief that you have recognized where your worth lies."

That voice just makes her feel nauseous. Each of those words are like a nail being driven right through flesh and bone. Ayame can feel the world spin around her. The colors start to coalesce, blurring together until a very different and yet familiar image superimposes itself.

Everything is dark—except the piano in front of her. It feels like a spotlight is shining down on her. And her hands, much smaller, struggle to hit the right keys as her mother urges her to increase the tempo. Too slow, she complains. It doesn't flow properly, she chides. You're useless, she admonishes.

Then the crack of a belt comes, and pain zings through a narrow strip on her back. She cries out, but bites back the tears as her mother commands her—play more. More. More!

Her fingers are trembling—and she presses the wrong key once. Twice. Three times.

No more.

I don't want to play anymore.

I hate that woman.

I hate the piano.

I hate playing.

I hate... myself.

"Ayame-chan?!" The sound of someone calling her name urgently startles her out of the reverie, and her gaze swivels to face in front of her—contorted in concern. "Are you okay? You're sweating really bad and you look really pale?"

"I feel... dizzy."

"Is it your anemia?"

"Ah, so you're still sickly as ever. You always did have a weak constitution as a child," her mother says with a click of the tongue. "Well, I have important affairs to attend to. But I'll definitely be in touch with you and your father in the future. It was a pleasure to see your performance, Ayame."

Compliments. She had always yearned to hear her mother praise her when she was a child. Now it just sounds like poison, seeping its way through her flesh and into her very bones. She feels like she's suffocating.

"Here, lean on me. Let's take you to the nurse's office."

Her mind feels hazy—and it's all she can do to depend on Chiharu for support. She scarcely even recognizes that, sometime during all of that, she actually did manage to reach down and pick up the teddy bear that she had dropped earlier.

When they get to the nurse's office, the nurse immediately guides Ayame to one of the unoccupied beds. She buries herself beneath the blanket, closing her heavy eyelids. Her breathing is somewhat shallow—she feels winded, for some reason. Even though it wasn't a far walk to get here.

"Are you going to be okay by yourself? I should go check and see how our class is doing. Do you want me to stay with you?" Chiharu hovers over her best friend, worriedly fussing over her.

"I'll be fine," Ayame lies.

"I don't believe you for a second," Chiharu grumbles with a frown, putting her hands on her hips. But her gaze softens quickly, and she reaches out to take Ayame's hand, squeezing it in her own. "Please don't listen to that woman for a moment. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, Ayame-chan. I didn't know she was here."

Pulling her hand away, Ayame rolls over on her side, her back now facing Chiharu. "I want to be alone," she murmurs quietly.

"Oh... okay. I understand. You need some time to sort out your thoughts. But I'm here supporting you, you know? I'll go check on our class then come right back. I'll bring some food, okay? You must be hungry." Obviously feeling antsy and out of place, Chiharu lingers for a moment—hesitating. She is still not sure if she should leave Ayame already, but she quickly realizes there's little she can do for her best friend.

Ayame always closes up when it comes to her mother. This is how it has always been. In fact, when the two first met, Ayame never smiled. She was cold and aloof. Whenever anyone got close or asked her personal questions, she would clam up. Rather than approaching anyone, she always kept a distance. It gave the rest of her peers the impression that she was unsociable.

Since her mother disappeared from the picture around middle school, she had started to cheer up. Especially when her father remarried. And although she has never really repaired her relationship with him, she does have something of a bond with her step-mother. Yet even now she still continues to keep everyone, even Chiharu, at arms length.

"Midorima-san!" she gasps out, spotting him in the hallway, coming from the opposite way. Feeling a little relieved so see him, Chiharu hurries over toward him. "Thank you for looking for Ayame-chan, I found her earlier. She's in the infirmary right now."

"Infirmary?" his eyebrows arch slightly in surprise.

"Ah, she was just feeling a little faint. I think she'll be... fine." That's a lie, and she knows it.

"I see."

"You should go see her."

He averts his eyes. "That is unnecessary. I met with Suoh earlier, and she agreed that we have no further reason to associate. If that is all, I will return to my classroom." He bows his head slightly and walks past her.

Chiharu stares after him with half-hooded eyes, sighing to herself. Of course—she had hoped Midorima was different. An exception. He was the first person Ayame had taken the initiative to approach and engage with. But in the end, maybe their hearts just can't reach each other. Is this really the end?