The Heroes of Sakakino

Chapter 12 Glow

Yuuki had not been keeping track of time since he started walking through the vacant halls of the school, but it had been long enough for him to know that Chie had sent him off on a wild goose chase.

After Eiichi started barking orders and then running off without so much as an explanation, Chie stuck around to continue consoling him in her own ridiculous way, which involved clinging on him in that manner that made him question if she remembered they were siblings. This was while making assumptive statements that only made him more uncomfortable.

'Look, my lil' brother gots himself a guurl-frieend~'

'Knock it off!'

Half an hour must have passed before they realized Kotonoha and Eiichi weren't coming. Chie sent them both text messages to no avail. After another half hour, it was beginning to get dark and the school would be closing campus in an hour, which was about Chie's cue to take charge of things.

They entered the main building and Chie ordered Yuuki to check the first floor while she checked the second and to message if either found one of their three missing friends. If one of them finished before the other, they needed to message and continue on to the third floor, and even the roof if necessary.

And thus, here he was, footsteps echoing eerily through shadowed, vacant halls, because the lights had been turned off long ago, like something out of a high school horror anime; the dimming orange shades of sunlight through the windows turning to pale purple.

What had Eiichi been thinking? First yelling at Roka over the phone, probably making her freak out more, and then shouting at them to stay put, disappearing without a word, and not returning, nor even notifying them why. He knew he'd given Eiichi a hard time, and he figured some of the crap Eiichi put him through for Kotonoha had been payback, but he really had some nerve. Yuuki did have questions, but he had been too worn out to ask them. Chie said they had to look for them, because Eiichi's outburst and all the dead air had been just too weird not to, and she seemed like she was getting worried. Another look down a dark hall made him think she was probably right.

He took his phone out and checked the time. Still about forty-five minutes to go.

He knew Eiichi had been talking to Roka. He didn't catch the whole conversation, Eiichi made sure of that, but as he had been coming to, he did hear her staticy voice over Eiichi's speaker, and she sounded very stressed.

The thought of her still had his mind spinning into a cyclone. All this time? If she had been denying it, then how long had she really…felt that way? He did hear Eiichi talking to him before, he wasn't completely gone, there was just so much he didn't understand. They had all known about this and kept it from him, but with the best intentions? How was he supposed to benefit from that?

He did have questions…if only he knew she was here.

Okay, no going into perplexed pondering now, he had to focus to get away from that.

Everybody had just disappeared. What could have happened to them? What if he messaged Chie and she never responded back?

A chill ran up his spine just as he was passing a window showing into the courtyard. He could see someone. They were sitting on a bench beneath a tree.

A closer look revealed a head of long black hair, and a girl's Sakakino uniform, women's blazer and all. Her back was too him, but he would recognize those ebony locks anywhere.

The door leading out was only a few steps from where he came. When he pushed it open, the first thing to greet his face was the cool spring air, much better than the stagnant space within the halls, but after that, he could hear crying.

He made his way down the short steps and moved further into the courtyard.

Upon closer observation, it was apparent she really was crying, hunched forward, hands over her face, a thin veil of black trying to shield her anguish. She must have been so distraught she didn't even hear him leave the building.

He took a few more steps and then a door from the other side clanked open. Through two trees, he could see a head of purple hair appear, tied back in two, long tails, a tote bag slung over one shoulder, and another uniform with a blazer. It was spring, but it still had been cold, and the night closing in only made it colder.

When she stepped out, she had been looking as well, but then she saw him and flinched.

They just stared at each other now, one right across from the other, wide eyes blinking against chilled breezes, only distant traffic and the sounds of sobbing to make the situation more awkward than necessary.

Yuuki opened his mouth to say something, but took consideration for the weeping soul between them, and instead motioned with his hand to her, to himself, and to a space in front of the weeping figure.

When he looked back, she had been gaping at the sight of him, but once she registered this gesture of action, her mouth closed and she returned with a definitive nod.

They each took their paces slowly, not wanting to sneak up on her, but not wanting to spook her either.

When he was close enough, he figured this the best time to make their presence known.

"Ko—"

Her shoulders lurched up and her worn face shuddered at him.

"Kotonoha-san…"

"Oh, Yuuki…" she breathed, wiping despaired eyes and sniffling.

He remembered she had insisted before that he refer to her this way, since they were friends now, but he still kept the 'san' respectfully, for his own comfort.

She stopped crying and continued to wipe her face while he and Roka stepped in front of her. Yuuki took a pocket square out of his coat and handed it to Kotonoha.

"Thank you…"

"Why are you crying, Koto-chan?" Roka asked.

Kotonoha lifted her head and stared at Roka a moment before looking around disjointedly and sniffling more, "It's nothing you two should be worried about…"

"That's nonsense," Yuuki spouted.

"Why?" Roka asked.

She didn't answer right off, and simply let her hands land in her lap and stared at them.

"Eiichi and I had…well, I guess you could call it a fight…"

"Why? What happened?" Roka asked.

Without needing any signals to do this, they each took a seat on either side of her.

"He…" she heaved another sigh, "He did something really stupid…and I did something almost as stupid…"

"What did he do?" Yuuki asked.

She took a while to speak again, "Like I said, this isn't something you should concern yourselves with. Eiichi's stupid, reckless ambition just got the best of him, that's all…Why are you two still here?"

"I came looking for you guys," Yuuki said, "Eiichi ran off, and Chie and I haven't heard from him since. Why didn't you contact us?"

"I don't know, a lot happened, but Eiichi had good reason to leave. There was an emergency…"

"Then why didn't you tell us?"

"Yuuki, it's hard to explain, but I can tell you everything is fine now…"

"You don't look like everything is fine," Roka said.

Kotonoha wiped her nose and took a long time to ponder what she would say.

"I think Eiichi and I just need some time apart…"

Yuuki didn't like the sound of this. There may have been a time when he would have considered this good news, but he suddenly found himself sharing empathy for both his former rival and former crush. This afternoon, they were sitting next to him looking as close as nature could ever bring two beings together, and now she was sitting here, talking about possibly leaving him. He would not let this happen.

He leaned back and looked at Roka from behind Kotonoha. She noticed him, and her concerned glance curved up to his.

He started, "Kotonoha-san…you and Eiichi have been apart for long enough."

"Was it really that serious?" Roka asked.

Kotonoha looked at Roka again for another prolonged pause, before turning her head down again.

"Roka…Eiichi told me you and he have been talking. He said that he was helping you. Did you two ever do anything besides talk?"

"Huh…like-like what?"

"Please, answer my question…" she didn't sound as weepy anymore.

Yuuki looked at Kotonoha's hands, they were shaking. He managed a look over at Roka, and she was just as confused as him.

"Kotonoha-san, why are you asking Kitsuregawa?"

"Because I need to know…"

"Kotonoha-chan," Roka leaned forward, "I don't know why you're asking, but Eiichi only ever spoke to me about…what he said we spoke about," she almost whispered it to Kotonoha.

Roka meant him, right? It might make sense that she would still want to keep it secret, but he couldn't figure out why Kotonoha was so interested in Roka and Eiichi. Eiichi told him he had been talking to Roka about him, so he thought Kotonoha knew as well, Chie apparently knew. There was something else going on here that he was not picking up on, but he had to mind Kotonoha for the time being.

Yuuki leaned in and tried to add some sense to all the ambiguity, "Kotonoha-san, I thought Eiichi told you everything. He—"

"He has! I mean…" Kotonoha had lifted her head to the sky, and then was weighted down again, speaking in somber notes, "I thought he had…I guess I'm just being too protective again…"

"I think you two need more time together," Roka said. "I don't really know what you and Ashikaga-san are talking about, but I can tell you, Eiichi's been working very hard. I feel bad now for needing to talk to him so much, and I'm sorry. I didn't think I was pulling him away from you, Koto-chan…"

"No, both of you, he did it because he wanted to," she sniffled and wiped. "He loves to help people. He use to say that he didn't like people, but deep down, he loves talking to them. Every time I see him look at someone a certain way, I can tell he just wants to say something that will make their day better. When he gets that way, I feel so much joy…but I think he knows that a lot of people don't want to be helped, and that's what frustrates him the most."

Yuuki did not feel very settled with defending the same person who had poked, prodded and shoved him in every direction he didn't want to go in, but his thoughts had returned to what the end results had been so far. In the past couple days, he had confessed to a girl, and had been kissed by one. It may have not been the way he imaged it, but it wouldn't have happened, had Eiichi not stepped in. He kept his secrets, he pushed him to do better, and everything he said was to prepare him for whatever might happen. He realized now, Eiichi had never been his rival, he had never wanted to be. He had a tough time admitting how right Chie was, but to Yuuki's surprise, Eiichi had become his senpai, and his closest friend.

"I think he's been working too hard," Yuuki said. "When he was helping me, it looked like he kept getting those headaches you mentioned."

Kotonoha looked like she tensed up again.

"Yeah, the last time we talked, he looked tired, kinda' like he was going to fall over," Roka said. "Has he had trouble sleeping?"

"Um…" Kotonoha remained tense, "Yeah…he complains about bouts of insomnia here and there…and there's always those finals, oh yeah…"

Who knew such a level headed guy could have so many problems.

"But I know this Koto-chan…" Roka took her by the hand, attracting her gaze, "When Eiichi was helping me, sometimes all he ever did was talk about you. He said he really wants to hear you play again."

"When he was trying to help me, he was very uneasy about not being with you," she turned her head when Yuuki chimed in. "He thought you were starting to worry about him. And he did his absolute best to make my…um…you know…be as honest as possible…I did some things that created problems for him, but after being with both of you, I realized how much of a pest I had become…I only got in the way…"

He wasn't sure if he should mention this, but he might as well.

"Yuuki…" Kotonoha muttered, "Eiichi told me about that. You were just standing up for what you believed in."

This made him uneasy, did he tell her everything?

"Eiichi may have been with us a lot of the time, but at the end of the day, he only wanted to be with you. Everything he ever did was while he was thinking of you," Roka added.

"Well, I wouldn't necessarily say that," she quirked, "But you're right. He has been working too hard, and it's allowed him to become overconfident and reckless…I suppose it's been the same way for me…"

"Don't leave Eiichi, Koto-chan."

"What?" Kotonoha's head whipped toward Roka.

"He loves you very much, and I don't know what would happen to him if you left."

"But…but that's not what I was—"

"Eiichi told me if you apologize first, then everything should be fine. If he can't practice what he preaches, then you have nothing to be sorry for," Roka was getting a little fired up.

"But…" her voice lowered, "He apologized first…"

"Then why are you mad at him!?"

"I…"

This took Yuuki back to something that happened a couple days ago. Despite Chie nagging him, Roka had been the first to apologize, likely because of Eiichi's encouragement, but he simply trampled over her advances, driving her to be more impatient. When he had apologized to her the second time, he had spent so much time explaining himself, he didn't look to see what her reaction had been, and before he realized it, she was all over him. Now that he found her, what would her reaction be now?

Kotonoha stood up suddenly, "You're right Roka…I have to forgive him." She turned around and bowed to both of them, "Thank you so much for your kindness. I'll tell him you each send your love and condolences. I'm going straight to him. The school will be closing soon, but…" she looked from one to the other, "I think you two should talk while you're still here."

Yuuki felt his face getting warm and almost stole a glance at Roka, but when he saw her eyes on him, he looked away reflexively. Her face had been kind of red, now that he thought about it. It must have been his imagination, it was getting pretty dark.

"Um…y-yeah…you go on ahead…w-we'll stay here…" she uttered.

When Yuuki looked up to say goodbye to Kotonoha, he could see the upturned line of her mouth in the evening glow, while she looked at each of them.

"I wish you two the best. Thank you again."

When she was gone, Yuuki smoothed the fabric of his slacks, his eyes wandering to the darkening trees, the grass and the orange clouds. They were here now, and despite Eiichi's efforts, in a strange way, Kotonoha had been the one to bring them together. Should he be the first one to speak?

"U-um, I didn't think you'd still be here…I thought you had gone home…" he stammered.

"Y-yeah…I thought you had left too…"

"Why are you still here?"

"Eiichi told me he'd come looking for me, but when he never showed up, it felt odd, so I went looking for him. And then Chie messaged me a little while ago that you guys were searching for us. I thought he forgot all about me. I guess this explains why."

"Yeah, I was there. We were waiting for him to come back with you and Koto, but he never showed, so Chie decided to look for you…" and then he just remembered, and took out his cell phone.

While tapping away, he noticed Roka was very quiet and looked up to see her half opened eyes side glancing at him with a perturbed expression.

"I'm sorry, I'm not doing that again, it's just Chie wanted me to notify her if I found either of you."

Roka gave a little smile and nodded, "Okay…"

After putting his phone away, he found himself again, tightly nestled in the uncomfortable arms of awkward silence. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her subtly rubbing her hands and knees together.

Maybe it was some kind of coping mechanism, or nervous habit, but the longer he watched, he could feel his face getting warm again.

"So…you were looking for Koto-chan…" she asked.

"U-uh…well I guess…"

She stopped.

"I was supposed to find any one of you…but actually…I was looking for you…"

He turned and could see her hands and knees still together, motionless, but her face looking right back at him.

"I have questions…" he uttered.

She looked back at her hands and he thought he saw her gulp.

"I-I'm sorry again, about earlier," she said.

"Huh!? W-Why?" he looked.

She glanced at him and then back to her hands, "You were in the middle of talking. Sorry, for grabbing you like that..."

It had certainly been the most intense experience he had ever had with a girl, even more than when he first saw her changing, though that had been a close second, especially with his slip up causing him to see another delicate part of her.

During his apology, he could only remember looking at his shoes while talking. It had happened so fast, he completely forgot what he had been saying. Suddenly a pair of surprisingly supple hands had grabbed him by the cheeks, wrenched his face up, and then a closeup of Roka's face had only magnified itself in his glasses. He could remember something small and soft against his lips, and after that, everything went blank.

"That…that's okay…"

"It's what?" her broad, perplexed eyes locked on his, her hands parted into petrified, nervous claws.

"It felt…good…"

"O-o-oh, it did?" the nervous rubbing started again and he thought he couldn't take it anymore.

He didn't even realize he was doing it until he felt the subtle motion of his hands slowly scooting himself closer to her. He hoped she could not hear him breathing as much as he could, his chest was pounding so hard, he thought he saw his shirt and coat moving in the dimness. He could feel the concussions from his shoulders, all the way down to the tips of his fingers and toes. He was short of breath and in pain, but he didn't want it to go away.

"I…want to try it again…"

"Oh-oh, y-you do?" Roka froze.

Keeping his hands on his knees, he turned to her, and when she noticed, she stopped and looked at him. Then she parted her hands and turned all the way, resting one leg on the bench, staring intensely back at him, shoulders hunched forward, eyes wide, her lips in a tiny, straight, nervous line.

He wondered if he looked as scared as she did, not wanting to look away, not wanting to blink.

"You go first…" she said.

"What do you mean!?"

"I went first last time, you go this time…"

"Ah—" he looked sideways and then stared back at her, taking a deep breath as his chest seized with a burning sensation, "Okay…"

He scooted closer, her knee touched his hip, and as he did, she closed her eyes, reminding him to do the same.

When they touched, she felt just like the last time, only it had been so quick. He couldn't make up his mind which way had felt more intense. To him, they were the same.

He couldn't figure out what he should do next, and then he felt her hand smooth the ridge of his jaw and lay itself on his neck. Sensitive convulsions shot through all of his nerves. He raised his hand rigidly and placed it on her side. He didn't know how far was not far enough or too far. She scooted closer, her leg resting down and her hip pressing up against his. Her other hand slipped into his, the fingers intertwining and squeezing tight. She pressed closer, deeper, and he could feel something smooth and wet. Was that her tongue!? Between their lips, she released a little sound, and he thought he might lose his mind.

One of his many fascinations had been that it was like he knew where every part of her was without opening his eyes. She could be very gentle, despite her forward nature. Every sensation he received felt sensitive, and she seemed to feel the same way.

And then he realized something else…he wasn't breathing!

Their lips sucked and parted, and he found himself wishing he could have held on longer.

"Sorry…" he panted, "I…"

"No, it's okay…"

He suddenly noticed that while looking down, his eyes had happily fixed themselves on her chest, but when he hastily looked up at her, he saw that it and the little smile on her face were both heaving lusty intakes of air. Did she forget too?

"That was…amazing," he breathed.

"Yeah…" she smiled.

Somehow, things had changed in their surroundings. Her face had been shadowed over and there was a white glow from behind them. Sometime after they started, the fluorescent lamps in the courtyard had been turned on.

She noticed them too, "I guess we should go now…" sounding a little sad.

He saw this as an opportunity, and squeezed her hand in his, conjuring another contented smile.

"So, we're…"

"Yes," she nodded.

Then the lights reminded him of something.

"I haven't heard back from Chie yet," he said to her, not really bothering to check his phone. "It's been…how long has it been?"

"I don't know, I wasn't keeping track," he couldn't tell if she intended this as a complement, but it certainly felt like one. "I don't know how much longer we have," she looked up at the sky as stars were just beginning to form, and then back to him, "but, do you want to try again, just a little…"

"Okay, but this time, let's try breathing through the nose."

She smiled, "Okay, but…" and reached out.

The white fluorescence nearly consumed his entire vision as his glasses were removed. Her face and hair became a dark blur against a celestial backdrop. Time drew itself out in long, passionate silence, and as he looked back at her silhouette, he could gradually feel her breathing get heavier.

"I-It's not that I don't like you with them…I just wanted to try it this way…"

"No, it's fine…" he blinked.

A motioning shadow, and he felt her cool hand touch his face, caressing it, "You can't see that well without them, can you…"

"No…I'm farsighted, so I can't see when you're this close, but at night I'm…I'm blind as a bat…"

She was so curious about him, only making his curiosities run wild.

Her fingers loosed themselves from his other hand and took it. She moved it all the way up to what he was pretty sure was her chest, because he could feel her heart pounding. And then he could feel it pushing gently forward, making his arm retract, as she closed in on him for more. He could feel her warm breath on his lips.

An erratic alarm from his chest burst through the closing space between them, likely not his own heartbeat, and breached their joyous tension. All recognition of worldly troubles dulcetly faded back into their thoughts.

"Uh…" Roka startled.

"Uh-um, I should probably get that."

"Y-yeah…" she withdrew.

Without thinking, Yuuki found the pocket that contained his cell phone and fished it out. Upon flipping it open, he realized a missing element that had been necessary for him to continue his goals, which seemed so insignificant at this specific point in time.

"Um—"

A giggle from Roka cut him off, "Here," and he could feel the frames of his glasses being gently placed into his hand.

"Thank you…" he smiled to his doting, blurry angel, and placed them on his face.

However, upon regaining his sight, the startling coincidence of the message that displayed on his screen was not at all wasted on him.

'I see yooooou ^_^'

"WAH!" Yuuki fumbled his phone and nearly dropped it.

"What!? What is it?"

"Um…nothing. Chie says she'll be here in a few…"


Kotonoha popped open the door to her limo and thanked her driver before closing it. Per her request, the limo drove off and down the neighborhood street.

Her family's driver was a kind man. Whenever she did not have company, they would talk. And at times, he gave very wealthy advice. It had been this way ever since she started middle school.

'Kuzoka-san isn't with you…' a questioning statement while he had been looking through his review at her. 'As late as it is, I assumed it might be the two of you.'

'No…we're having some trouble…'

'Ah, it happens, part of life. But…I'm sure I don't need to tell you, you picked a good one there. Kuzoka-san, he's got it together. It's not regular practice for a high school student to converse so lively with a limo driver.'

She allowed a little smirk to the face in the rear view mirror before blinking somberly out the window.

'You don't have to take my word for it Katsura-san, but you two having trouble only shows that you're growing. It will bring you closer, even if you fight. My wife and I, we argue about the pettiest things sometimes, but we're still here, seventeen years and counting. It doesn't have to be like that, but the arguing somehow brings us closer.'

After they pulled up in front of the Kuzoka residence, Kotonoha had opened the door when he spoke again.

'Good luck Katsura-san, I hope to be driving the two of you again soon.'

'Thank you Amaya-san.'

'I don't suppose you'll want me to come back.'

'No, I'm here to stay. I'll come up with something to tell mother. I don't want you risking your job because of me.'

'I'm sure she'll understand. You have your mother's kindness, and I've spoken with her plenty of times in here as well. She's taken a fond liking to Kuzoka-san. Have a good night Katsura-san.'

Pacing up to the front door, she had all kinds of things going through her head on what might transpire, but one thing was certain, before anything else was said, she would apologize.

She approached the front door, and knocked. The face that greeted her was not quite who she expected, but it did make her feel more welcome.

"Koto-chan, please come in…" Torio opened the door wider.

"Hey Torio…"

She kicked her shoes off and followed him into the living room. The lights were off, with only a fluorescent glow from the kitchen.

"I trust you're here to talk to him," sounding more somber, but it seemed nothing could stifle that inner humor and joy that was Torio.

"Where is he?"

"Take a wild guess," a light smile, with eyes moving toward the stairs. "When he got back, he didn't say anything, he just went straight up. He's probably hungry too."

She nodded and clasped her hands together, looking at the floor.

"Can you tell me what happened?" he asked.

How could she? She only knew so much, and what she had done to his brother left her feeling reluctant and remorseful to him as well, even if Torio was the type to forgive her on the spot.

"I can tell you later, but first I want to see if he will listen to me."

"Oh, I'm sure he will," Torio walked over to one of the kitchen overlook chairs and grabbed his coat off it, "I don't think it matters how mad he gets with you or himself, he'll listen if it's you talking."

"I only hope…"

"He may not look like he is, but he will be. When is he not, right?"

Little smiles peaked out between the two.

He continued, "It may get ugly, but you'll be fine."

"Where are you going?" she asked as he stepped past her, back into the hall.

"I'm going to see if a certain Ashikaga Chie will join me for a late evening stroll."

"But do you know where she lives? And isn't it a Monday? Would you like her number?"

"Got it covered," he patted the pocket containing his cell.

"How did…"

"We managed to sneak a conversation when you two weren't around."

A subtle intake of air and she could only manage a delighted smile under her present turmoil.

"And I'm not too worried about it being a Monday," he stepped to the door, "If she's too busy for me, she'll say so."

Kotonoha doubted this. Chie had some interesting things to say to her about Torio through text, that she didn't want Eiichi to hear.

"I wish you luck," she said.

"You two have the house, take as long as you need."

"Thank you Torio…"

With a nod to her, the door closed, and it was her time.

The dark, narrow stairway hollowly attempted to repel her and defend its lone isolate, in its silent dwelling. A different kind of despair and hate, not like what she had known within herself, lingered up there. When she could not control her own faults, she wondered if she would even be able to manage his.

She started on her way, her steps sounding much too loud to her.

As she got closer to the top, after the silence, the first thing she could hear was music. The low sound of one guitar and the delicate thumping of a muddled drum beat reverberated through the walls.

She made it to the top of the stairs, and started down the hall. The music became more vivid.

His door was shut of course, and she walked up to it. Curled fingers tapped twice against the gloss painted front.

There was nothing at first, and she wondered if he heard. Then his voice sounded from inside, "I don't really want to be bothered right now…"

Not heeding this, she turned the knob and pushed the door forward.

-Your words to me just a whisper, Your face is so unclear-

The only light visible was from the nightstand next to his bed, everything else shadowed over in a comforting warmth for insecurity. His bed sat in the far corner of the room. He was there now, his back propped in the corner.

The rough, somber voice continued to sing through the speakers on his dresser.

-I try to pay attention, Your words just disappear-

A half empty bottle of amber liquid sat on the nightstand. Eiichi's right knee had been propped up with one hand rested on it, a whiskey glass with more of the same dangling between hapless fingers above the sheets. And in his left hand, rested against his thigh, an unopened pack of cigarettes, the plastic wrapping reflected in the lamplight.

She had seen him collapse in the fits of a seizure, she had seen him half paralyzed on a couch, but for all the time that they had known each other, she knew now, that she was seeing him at his weakest.

-'Cause it's always raining in my head…Forget all the things I should have said-

When she entered, he must have known she was outside the door, because he didn't raise his head, which hung and maintained its hard stare on the pack. His answer had already been a clue to what she was walking in to, not telling her to leave, but withholding permission to see him. He may have known as soon as she set foot in the house.

She smoothed out her thoughts as best she could, but her fear had been replaced by sadness.

"So should I expect this from you every time we have an argument?" she asked, fighting to regain her sternness.

He tossed the pack onto the sheets, looking away from it.

She stood, waiting for her answer.

"You call that an argument?" he murmured.

"I call it a problem."

He took a long drink from his glass before setting it down on the nightstand. She reached over and didn't turn the music off, but down, then stepped closer to the bed.

"I came to say what I'm going to say, and I don't care if you know or not, I'm going to say it, and I want you to hear it."

Lazily, his head lifted up and those piercing eyes of his shadowed over in a bloodshot leer that could read every corner of her. They looked just as sunken and tired as Roka and Yuuki said they were. They may have only seen him suffering, not knowing he was under the weight of their troubles, but she could see now, it had been going on for too long. It was a wonder he had still been moving around. How could she have let it get this bad?

"I am sorry…you came to tell me the truth and I only acted rashly. I am sorry…you tried to apologize, and I threw it back in your face. You pushed yourself too far, and I didn't see that."

He cast his weary eyes at the sheets, his words were mere, slurred whispers, "I'm never helping another person again…"

"Okay."

"And that's your answer?" his head nodded, and she couldn't tell if it was from exhaustion or drunkenness.

"If you want to throw a tantrum because things didn't go your way, fine, I'll be with you for it. If you don't want to help people anymore, that is your choice, and this is mine."

He felt he deserved her scorn, and now he was going to fight her every step of the way. Like him, she only wanted the best for his sake.

She looked down at the glass and bottle on the nightstand. The label read Abhainn Dubh 12 year old single malt.

He didn't say anything when she picked up the glass.

Though it had just left his hand, it felt cool to the touch. There was just enough for two fingers worth. The alcohol swished around, creating transparent little trickles against the glass. She brought it to her nose and the burning fumes tickled her nostrils with a heavy scent of smoke.

She didn't know where he got the bottle. He must have had it hidden in anticipation for a happier time.

She looked at him, the glass still close to her face, "But I'll say this, you're better off helping people. You're good at it, and it makes me happy to see you do it, because it makes you happy."

She lowered it and tipped her head back, letting it all roll between her lips. It tickled her teeth and tongue, but she couldn't taste anything until she gulped it down. The smoke, with mild, sickly sweet undertones, filled her mouth and nostrils. It burned in her stomach and she was suddenly feeling a little warm in the face and throat, and had to force a cough.

She set the empty glass back down and looked into his gaping, wide eyed bewilderment.

"So how did it happen…" she asked.

He blinked and his head jutted away, "Don't, don't make me do that…"

"Tell me."

"No!"

"Listen," she leaned in, "you are going to tell me, because if you don't, I'm going to do my best to focus really hard on every fantasy involving me and another guy until you're just a nervous, jealous ball of contempt!"

He sat up, "So what!? You think I don't know what I put you through!? You want to hear every little detail now!? Cause you're not gonna' like it!"

"If that's what it takes…it's time for you to help yourself…"

"It…" he huffed and placed his mouth on his fist.

"Did you like it?"

"What do you think!?" he turned.

She crossed her arms. She didn't need to be an emotion reader to know how guilty he felt, the anguish, the anger of allowing himself to become so vulnerable.

"I…" he braced himself, "I found her outside. She was really broken up, and I just thought…I just thought she needed someone to show her they cared…I thought, who better than me? I had ignored her for so long, and I felt awful. I felt that I was the cause of her pain, which caused what happened to you, so I also felt responsible…and I wanted to do everything I could to make it right…all I did…" he shuddered then shook his head.

"Go on…"

He looked at her hard, "I gave her a hug, and let her cry it out, that's all…because that's what she needed. She was alone, and desperate, and I walked right into it."

"And so if you see someone in that state, you're never going to do it again?"

He looked away with vehemence.

"Then how will you help them, if they need that connection?"

He leaned back and flexed the hand on his knee, still keeping his eyes from her.

"Why won't you stand up for yourself? You could have been a little more specific with what happened."

He leaned forward again, "It still happened! I still screwed up!"

"You didn't do anything wrong! Otome forced herself on you!"

"And I gave her a big window to do it! Knowing what she was capable of!"

"She just wanted it more than you! Are you telling me you can see into the future now!?"

He stopped and stared at her, panting, "I could have let go…"

She stared right back, "The fact that it bothers you so much is proof enough that you still love me. You said that she was hurt and you were right. I should have believed you, because she was hurt enough to try a desperate move like that. If she won't bother us anymore, I believe that too. You didn't let go because you knew she needed it. You did what you knew was right. If we both could change what happened, we would, so why, why won't you forgive yourself?"

Still looking at her, she saw his hand move to an area on his abdomen and smooth over it, "Because I'm afraid I'm turning into someone I don't want to be…"

Another clue as to why he had been working himself into the ground. He had become very self-conscious of that part of him, she noticed it every time they made love.

She shuddered, "What Otome said about you…how often have you been hearing that?"

Not answering again, his eyes wandered away.

He could have been hearing it often enough in his own head. He acted like he didn't care about what others said, but he had let this get to him. How could she have let herself doubt him? She probably wound up feeding his own doubts. It was bullshit, she knew he had a good nature, she knew he wanted to do his best, he should never feel the need to force himself for others, just to prove to himself that this wasn't true.

"That's insanity, and you're a fool if you believe it," but he would always be her fool.

After simmering down, she grasped the pack off his bed. It was coated in earthy colors, a tan base with a deep brown border, a bird with brown-red and black feathers printed in flight, with the Sparrow Natural 100's label across the front, the only kind she ever saw him smoke.

She looked at him, "Do you want one?"

He glanced at the pack nervously and looked away.

"It won't change things. I know I made indications before that I didn't like that you were smoking, but I never told you to quit. You made that decision on your own. I thought you did it for yourself, but it turns out you only did it for me. It didn't change things then, and it won't change them now." She paused, "You know…even though it bothered me, there was something pleasant about it."

He looked about tiredly, "Why are you telling me this?"

"Stop asking questions you already know the answers to," she turned the pack over in her hand, "If you want one, I will open this for you."

He looked at the pack, and smoothed his fingers over his mouth, "I do…"

"But you won't take one…"

Desire grew within his gaze, "No…I don't want to make you do that…"

"Okay…" she set the pack down next to his glass.

"If you're going to stay, I'll take the couch…you can have the bed…" he started to get up.

She couldn't believe what she was hearing, "Where is your faith? Why are ignoring the answer when it's right in front of you? Do you think I came here just to be a thorn in your side? Do you feel that awful, that unworthy that you won't come near me anymore? You made a mistake. Guess what, you're going to make more of them, I am too, and we're going to get angry with each other, and we're going to fight! You want to know why!? Because that's what happens in a healthy relationship!"

She felt like she was talking down to him, she just wanted him to snap out of it, she just wanted him, but she had to remember his own words. All things worth waiting for take time.

She pointed to the night stand, "If drinking and smoking a little is how you cope, fine, but I don't want to see you sitting in the dark, feeling sorry for yourself anymore. It hurts too much, and that's not the Eiichi I know."

He had frozen in place, still bewildered.

She moved forward and placed one stockinged knee on the bed. Her hands pressed into the sheets and she crawled right up to him, her face close to his.

She touched the t-shirt under his button up and lifted it, revealing the whitish, mangled line underneath. His hands shook and moved away from her.

His eyes were frightened, but she stared into them anyways, "You didn't receive this because of your mistakes…You earned it protecting someone…You will never become that person you're so afraid of. It's impossible…"

Smoothing a benevolent hand over it, she leaned down, and placed a kiss. It was warm and she felt him shiver.

Looking back into his tired eyes, she smoothed one knee next to his hip and hooked her other over him so she sat on both, and gently placed her hips in his lap, her hands laid on his chest.

"What're you doing?"

He should really stop asking stupid questions.

"I'm forgiving you…" she leaned forward, one hand pawed while the other brushed his neck.

"Again…"

"Yes…"

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