Note: If you haven't finished Winter, STOP RIGHT HERE. This piece is Hoshi's point of view from about chapter 23 through the end (minus the epilogue), so this is filled to the brim with spoilers. It's also very sappy and romantic, since this is Hoshi talking. Enjoy!

--

Promises

"I don't know… I hated that place," he murmured

There are always events in our lives that permanently shape the person we become; they alter how we view the world, change our priorities.

I have had many of these events, from the time I was a child to the time I was an adult. Allow me to share a tale of the one, single most important change in my life.

I discovered the true meaning of love.

"I don't know… I hated that place," he murmured. His hair glowed in the firelight, his silver eye shimmering in the half light. "I was always alone…"

"It's okay," I said, leaning toward him and giving him a small hug. I patted his arm. "You're not alone anymore. You have us!" I gestured to myself and Haru, who laughed. "…as cheesy as that sounds," I finished with a half grin. We laughed and changed the subject, but in my mind I whispered, I'll never make you be alone anymore, Lui… Ever.

When we reached Sherai, I remembered the promise I'd made in Kaido. I'd told Lui I'd buy him a new pair of earrings.

"Hey, Lui," I said.

"Yeah?" he asked, turning around.

I handed him a small pouch of money. "Will you go get us a room at the inn?"

"Sure," he said, tying it to his belt. "Where should I meet you?"

I hesitated. I couldn't buy him a present that quickly. I wanted it to be a surprise. "Umm… Could you just… wait there?" I asked nervously.

"Why?" he asked.

"Um… I just want to hang out with Haru a little bit!" I lied, putting an arm around her shoulders. "Right?"

Haru glanced from me to him and back. "Err… sure."

"See?" I insisted, nudging him toward the inn. "Please, Lui?"

He sighed. "Fine… See you soon?"

"Yeah," I said, smiling.

I pulled Haru down the street as he walked away. "What was that about?" she asked.

I explained about the present. She rolled her eyes. "You're way too serious about this stuff sometimes, Hoshi."

It was fun going around to the venders, picking up different pieces and holding them up to the light to see how they sparkled. I really had no idea what type he would like until I saw them. They were sitting in the corner of one of the booths, hidden in the shadows. I picked them up and admired the way the smooth silver crescent moons both contrasted with and blended with the black background. I remembered one night when we were getting ready to sleep. Lui had been sitting in the middle of the woods' clearing, his head tilted up toward the dark sky. It had been a crescent moon that night, but its light was just strong enough to make his eyes glitter.

I smiled, remembering that beautiful image. "I'll take these," I told the owner.

"25 gold," she said.

I frowned. I only had 10, and that would've been all the money we had. I touched the gold earrings I was wearing and took them off. "How much would you pay for these?" I asked.

She turned them over in her hands thoughtfully. "The design isn't particularly special, but the gold is good. I could melt them down into something… I'll give you 5 gold for them."

I sighed and untied the pouch at my waist.

"Hoshi," Haru said, taking my earrings back. "This hag is just a scam artist. Let's go somewhere else."

I shook my head. No, it had to be those earrings. I pulled the three rings out of the pouch and held out the one that was made of white gold with three emeralds embedded in the top. "How much for this?" I asked.

The jeweler's eyes lit up. "This ring…" she murmured. "It was made by my master so many years ago… I can tell! This is his mark! I'll trade you the earrings for this," she said earnestly.

"Deal," I said with a smile. "But can I have the money for these?" I gave her my earrings.

"Of course," she said, handing me the gold and the moon earrings. "Have a good day, sir."

I smiled as Haru and I walked down the street, but Haru was frowning. "Wasn't that ring from your sister? It was your grandmother's, right?"

"It was," I said, placing the earrings carefully into my pouch. "It had been her wedding ring, made especially for her by her husband."

"Why on earth did you sell it?!" Haru demanded.

I only smiled. "I'll never get married," I said serenely, "and Lui doesn't wear rings."

"You're hopeless…" Haru muttered. "Why'd you sell your earrings then?"

"Well, I have to have money to buy him a clip, don't I?"

"Clip?" she repeated, then paused. "Oh, you mean the one he wears on his upper right ear?"

"Yup," I answered, looking around.

"…I'll say one thing," Haru muttered. "You don't skimp on presents."

I only laughed.

When we finally got to the inn, Lui was asleep on top of the covers. I chuckled. "It looks like he fell asleep waiting for us," I said, picking him up and sliding him under the blanket. I tucked him in.

Haru was making kissy noises behind me. "You're so in love, Hoshi," she laughed.

I blushed, but smiled. I looked down at Lui, brushing some hair out of his face. Then, in the spur of the moment, I brushed my lips against his cheek.

He whispered something in a dream, scratching at the place I'd kissed him. I sighed.

"Let's go to sleep too, Haru."

I had planned to give him my gift in the morning, but when I woke up, there were tears on his face. I brushed them away, feeling guilty. What had I been thinking, just leaving him alone. "...shit, how stupid am I…?" I whispered. He'd just told Haru and me how he'd grown up by himself not two days ago! And what did we do? Just abandon him here, in a place he didn't know… "Lui… Are you okay?" I asked worriedly.

His eyes opened wide at first, but immediately narrowed with anger. He pushed my hands away. "Fine," he muttered, sitting up. "I must've had a bad dream or something."

"Oh… okay," I said, my fingers twitching, ready to reach for the pouch that held my gift. But I stopped. This wasn't the right time. I gave my head a shake. "Well, we're heading for the Shrine now, right?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. His fine hair was sticking up at odd angles, and had somehow wound itself crazily around his head.

I shoved the deeper thoughts to the back of my mind and laughed. "Alright then, get up. Tsk tsk, look at your hair." I snickered. "Looks like you just came out of a wind storm." Sighing, but smiling, I went over to my bag. "Where's my brush…?"

After a failed attempt at doing it himself, I sat down and helped him. I loved moments like these. The world just seemed… right. I got to be close to Lui in an intimate, but also unromantic way. I wouldn't have cared if this was how we stayed forever.

But… that girl got in the way.

After chasing Lui through the forest, I watched him grabbed up by her hands and kissed by her lips. It was like a slap to the face.

But the part that hurt the worst was the return kiss he placed on her cheek with a whispered, "Glad to see you too, Tsuka." My heart froze in my chest, my lungs shrinking so I couldn't draw breath.

Her green eyes were fixed on me as she held him. They were sharp, defensive. She seemed to see past my face and into my heart. She wrapped her arms protectively around him and helped him to his feet, saying something about getting him cleaned up. My feet followed mechanically, even as Tsukaëme left with Lui, and Haru and I were led down a separate hallway.

As the door closed behind us, my knees gave out beneath me and I fell to the floor. "Haru…" I whispered, laughing weakly. "Do you feel like this whenever we visit Shunsuke's team?"

She sighed, kneeling down beside me and wrapping her arms around my shoulders. "…yes," she said quietly.

"How do you do it…?" I asked weakly. "It hurts like… I don't even know."

She held me tighter. "I… don't even know. I've just learned to feel the pain, I guess. It would hurt more if Yuki was upset over it, y'know?"

I forced myself to take a deep breath, listening to it shudder out like I was freezing. "…I guess I'll go see him…"

"You sure?" she asked, looking worried.

"Yeah," I said, standing up. I grinned. "I gotta steal him back."

With some help from passing maids, I found Lui's room, but as I raised my hand to knock, I heard voices.

"Oh, I love you." It was that maid's voice.

I heard Lui laugh, a sweet sound. "I love you too, Tsuka."

My hand fell with a heavy thump onto the door, my knuckles scraping against the wood.

"Coming!" Lui called. I panicked, hurriedly rubbing my eyes and smacking myself a few times. "Hey, Hoshi!" he said happily.

My heart broke. He was grinning like an idiot, a healthy blush in his face and a sparkle in his eyes. I'd never seen him that happy. But I had to answer. "Oh… Hey." I tried to smile, but I failed, because his grin faded.

"What's the matter?"

I could feel the tears stinging the back of my eyes. "O-oh," I forced out, laughing. "It's nothing, really. Just… well, you told us how you hated this place and stuff, so I thought I'd come cheer you up." I was babbling, my throat aching. "…Guess I didn't need to, huh? See ya… " I walked away, letting the tears run silently down my face, wishing I was dead.

I walked blindly back to our room, slamming the door and letting myself whimper. "Haru…" I whispered.

She looked up from her journal and jumped to her feet. "Hoshi, what happened?!" She tried to stem the flow of tears with her sleeves, but they wouldn't stop.

"Haru…" I clutched her tightly, fighting back sobs.

She held me just as tight, rubbing my back. "Shh… What happened, Hoshi…?"

"I was right," I said miserably. "I heard them…"

"Right about what? Heard who? Come on. Sit down and tell me what happened." She led me to a chair and wiped my eyes again.

I told her what I'd overheard, my voice trembling as I tried to stop crying.

"Oh… Hoshi…" she whispered, putting her head on my shoulder. "I'm so sorry…"

I laughed weakly. "Guess we're in the same boat now, huh? Both in love with someone we can't have…"

"Mm… I guess we are," she agreed, tucking some of my hair behind my ear.

I hesitated. "Hey, Haru…"

"Yes?"

I leaned closer to her. "Have you ever… kissed someone before?"

She blushed. "Well… no. I haven't. Why?"

"Well… since we are in the same boat… Maybe we could… I mean, people always assume that we're…" I wasn't sure how to phrase what I was saying. I was barely even sure what I meant.

She was giving me a strange look, as if I'd suddenly gone mad. "What are you talking about?" she asked.

"Well…" I leaned forward more, both of us standing up. "You know…" I pressed my lips to hers, closing my eyes and pretending the person before me was Lui.

Suddenly, I found myself on the bed, Haru sitting on my stomach. She was smirking. "Well, if we're going to do this, I know two things. One, there is no way Lui would let you top him." She twirled a lock of hair around a finger. "And two, there's no way Yuki would top me, so…" She grabbed my mouth with hers. Her kiss was forceful and tasted somehow bitter. I was regretting this already. My body was rejecting her. I was afraid to swallow, drool trickling down my cheek. She always smelled too sweet and her body was strange.

The door swung open, and I turned my head to the sound, grateful for the distraction. But… may Fate be cursed… the person standing in the doorway was the last person I wanted this to be seen by.

I stared in horror, wishing this were some kind of ghastly nightmare. But it wasn't. "Lui…" I said weakly, unsure of what else to say.

He was shaking. "Sorry for interrupting," he said, slamming the door.

Haru jumped up, spat on the floor and yelled down the hallway. "Lui! Wait! That wasn't what it looked like! I promise!" I heard her curse and come back in. "And why are you just sitting there?! He looked hurt! What if his new girlfriend just dumped him?! Take the opportunity!"

I was still lying on the bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. "That wouldn't be fair to her, now would it?"

"Didn't you just say you were going to steal him away from her?!"

"I'm… not rebound material. I want him to be with me because he wants to be, not because he lost someone else." I didn't move.

"Argh! Get your ass out there and find him! He needs his friend, you asshole!" She pulled me off the bed by my collar.

I pushed her off. "Look, Haru," I said angrily. "I'm not you. If you can handle being the friend of someone you love, great for you. But, I… I'm only human. This whole thing… I'm sick of it. I just want it to go away. I hate this feeling of absolute helplessness. And I'm afraid… I'm afraid I'm going to do something irreversible that will ruin our relationship forever…"

"Hoshi…" Her face softened and she stroked my cheek. "You're such a good person. You'd never do anything to hurt him. Don't even think you would."

"You can say that, because you're not me," I muttered bitterly.

She stayed silent, continuing to stroke my cheek.

I got up and walked to the desk, tearing a small piece of paper off the pad there. I dipped the pen in the inkwell and wrote the words, "I always keep a promise." I folded the piece in half and set it back on the desk.

"Hoshi…? What are you doing?" Haru asked.

I ignored her, untying the pouch from my waist and pouring the contents onto the table. Ten gold coins, two rings, the pair of earrings and the ear clip. I put the rings on, admiring briefly the way they glittered in the gaslight. I put the earrings and clip back inside along with the scrap of paper, tucking the coins into an inner pocket of my jacket.

"Hoshi!"

I turned around this time, and wordlessly put the pouch into her hand. "Give this to Lui, will you?" I said.

"Give it to him yourself!" Haru snapped, pushing it back toward me.

I shook my head, walking to the door. "I can't take all this drama anymore," I murmured. "I'm going home…" I slipped out the door.

"Home?!" she repeated weakly, following me. "You're… just going to leave? Just like that…?"

I looked back at her, attempting a smile. "May you find what you seek and may the Gods protect you. …And, please, don't tell him why I'm leaving. I'm going to hurt him enough already…" I turned around and didn't look back.

Couldn't look back.

"I promise," I heard her whisper.

- -

Walking. I hate it. But, somehow, walking back home wasn't really a chore. Maybe it was because I couldn't feel the ground beneath my feet. Maybe it was because the need to eat or sleep seemed to fade away. My memory of the time is fuzzy. How long was I walking anyway? A week? Two weeks? Three days? I don't know. It was when I felt the cold, clear winds of the North that I knew I was home. I tightened my jacket, closing my eyes against the familiar caress. "Hello, old friend…" I said weakly, staring at the grey sky. "Did you miss me…?"

It was still a few hours before my feet reached the place I'd called home, Sochi.

I looked around at the familiar houses, the smell of fish and salt. "Home…" I whispered. My feet slipped out from under me as I walked through the village. I heard murmurs of, "Is he alright?" or, "Doesn't he look familiar to you…?" I tried to get up, but my body refused to listen. I heard a voice I knew yell my name, but I couldn't place who it was……

When I came to, I was in a house. A cool cloth was on my forehead and the smell of soup was in the air. I sat up with difficulty, trying to figure out where I was. The room was definitely somewhere I'd been before, but when…?

"Hoshi! You're awake!"

I turned to the voice, my head feeling heavy. "Mm…?" I blinked a few times, my vision blotchy.

"Here, open your mouth. You're starved half to death!"

Automatically, I did so, feeling the spoon entering my mouth and the warm broth being poured onto my tongue. I swallowed, blinking again as I tried to figure out who was taking care of me.

Mouse brown hair… square jaw… deep, melodic voice… ocean-colored eyes…

I jumped right as the spoon approached my mouth again. "H-H-H-Heise!" I stammered, scrambling back.

He sighed. "Hoshi, please… I know I hurt you and… I'm sorry. But we can talk about the whole thing after you've eaten, alright? …I don't hate you."

I looked at him, his face blurred in my hunger. "Alright… I said, opening my mouth and letting him give me another sip.

He smiled. "I missed you, Hoshi."

- -

After I'd finished the soup and slept a little, I felt much better. "So," I said to Heise, who was sitting in the chair beside the bed, "Why the change of heart?"

"Well… I fell in love," he said honestly.

"With who?"

He smiled. "A beautiful woman. …who's also already engaged." The smile turned sour. "It's an arranged marriage, of course."

"Arranged? Is she noble?"

He nodded sadly. "Very. I know I shouldn't touch her, since she's betrothed, but…"

"You just can't help it, right?" I asked quietly.

"Yes… Oh, Gods, yes…" He covered his face. "Everything you said that day suddenly made so much sense. …I felt absolutely horrified by myself. I went to your house to try to set things right, but your sister said you were gone."

"Yeah. I actually ran away that day. …went out and saw the world." I had no idea how he would react to my being a member of the Fallen, so I avoided that bit.

"That's what she said… So, I'm telling you now. Hoshi, I am as sorry and as humbled as any man can be. …if… you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I'll be your friend until the end of eternity."

I smiled. "You don't even have to ask for my forgiveness. You have it."

"Thank you…" He sat straighter in his chair, looking again like I'd known him three years before. "So! I've told you what I've been up to. How about you talk now?"

I sighed, a long hiss of air through my teeth. "There really… isn't much to say," I murmured.

"Doesn't sound that way," Heise said quietly. "Spill. What happened?"

I fell back onto the pillow. "…fell in love again," I whispered.

"…I take it didn't turn out well?"

I laughed wearily. "Never even had the guts to tell him. And it's better this way." My voice was getting weaker. I rolled onto my side, turning away from Heise. "He's in love with that… woman anyway."

I felt a warm hand on my shoulder, rubbing it comfortingly. "I'm sorry…"

I laughed again, feeling the acidic tears falling down my cheeks. "S'not your fault…" I laughed more, my voice rising in pitch. "I guess I just have awful taste in men, huh?!" I giggled. "It's always like this, isn't it?! Every… single… damn… time… I always run away…"

"If you always run away, you'll never get anywhere in life," Heise said sternly, forcing me to roll back onto my back. I sniffed, feeling absolutely miserable. "You never told him, right? Then, you don't know if you would be rejected, do you?"

"Yes, I do," I muttered, closing my eyes. "I don't want to hurt him… I'm his… 'best friend'…"

Heise sighed and ruffled my hair. "Damn, you grew up when I wasn't looking…" He smiled.

I had to smile back. "Yeah, I guess I did."

"Well, I don't know what to tell you, Hoshi. I guess I don't have an answer to everything anymore…"

"It's okay," I assured him, looking at the setting sun out the window. Was it always so pale? I felt like crying more, but my eyes remained dry.

"Do you need anything else?" Heise asked gently.

I shook my head. "I'm tired…" I murmured, closing my eyes and dropping off to sleep again. This time, I dreamed. It was person who was Lui and yet not Lui. He was beautiful, but his hair was short and black. But, somehow, I knew it was Lui. I felt different too. My head was heavier, as if my hair were longer and thicker. My balance was different and I noticed that I was a woman. But, somehow, in the dream it felt natural. The strange not-Lui then walked to me, gently caressing my face, kissing my eyes. I could only hold him tightly, realizing at one point that I was dreaming. That's when the man became the Lui I knew and I became my current self. But I was still in his arms. He wasn't pushing me away, wasn't even talking. The moment needed no words. But, of course, as soon as I wished the dream would never end, I woke up.

I heard the sound of horses' hooves, which was strange in a small village like Sochi. I got up, wandering sleepily to the window and looking out. A beautiful horse was being led down the main street by a girl with short blonde hair… I blinked and called, "Haru?!"

She turned around at once and ran over to the window, pulling the horse impatiently behind her. "Hoshi! Thank the Gods I found you so quickly!" she panted.

"What happened?" I asked. "Where's Lui?"

"He's still in the Holy City." She was catching her breath now and I could tell she hadn't slept much lately. "The horse can only carry one person."

"Haru, what happened?"

She looked up at me and sighed. "You should come down here. …I don't want you to fall." Her face was grave. It frightened me.

"C-coming," I told her and I ran out the bedroom door and down the stairs.

Heise was cooking something. "Hoshi?!"

"I'll be right back!" I ran out the door barefoot and jogged over to where Haru was waiting. "…Tell me what's happened."

She sighed again, rubbing her eyes. "Lui's… planning on doing something very, very, very stupid," she said.

I paused. "That doesn't explain much, Haru."

"…I guess it doesn't." She groaned. "Lui… well, we found out how to reverse the spell on the Gods," she murmured, afraid of someone overhearing.

"Well, that's a good thing," I whispered back. "So, what's the fuss?"

"So, reversing the spell could very easily cost that boy his life." Her face and tone, and the fist wrapped around the collar of my shirt told me she wasn't lying.

I swear, in that moment, my heart stopped. My face suddenly felt very cold, as if I'd fallen into the stream. "…his… life…?" I couldn't say anything else. My breath wouldn't come. "…he… wouldn't… be… anymore…?" My legs collapsed beneath me. "Is it… my fault?"

"No," Haru said quickly, kneeling beside me. "It's not your fault, Hoshi. But you're the only one who can talk some sense into this kid before he does something irreversible."

"…he hates me," I whispered.

"No, he doesn't, moron. You hate yourself. Now, go inside, get your shoes and jacket, then get your ass on the horse, get down there and talk to him." She grabbed my arms and hoisted me up back onto my feet.

I nodded. "Alright…" I dashed back into Heise's house.

"Now what are you doing?" he demanded, getting annoyed. "You should be resting!"

"Sorry, Heise!" I said hurriedly, pulling on my jacket and sliding into my shoes at the same time. "I need to go."

"What for?!"

But I was already out the door again. He stuck his head out, obviously confused and irritated by my behavior. "Sorry!" I said again, pulling myself up onto the mare's back. "I'll explain soon!" I kicked the horse into a gallop. "C'mon, girl! Hiya!"

The sound of hooves on cobblestone kept me from having to think about what would happen if I didn't arrive quickly. The icy air stung my nose and cheeks, but I couldn't slow down until the horse needed a rest. I had to get there before… before… I didn't even dare to think it.

- -

I led the mare up the main street of the Holy City, clutching her reins tightly as I tried to find the library. Hopefully, Lui would be there. If he wasn't… I had no idea where to look afterward.

Fate was with me that day, because as I drew closer to the large building, I recognized a mop of soft purple hair that could only belong to one person. I had to be sure, so I clamored back into the poor horse's saddle, trying to get a better look.

I had been blessed. There was Lui sitting on the library steps next to Kibi, alive and well. I tried to get the mare to move faster, but she was tired. Her hooves hit the ground hard, as if protesting. "Just a little more, girl," I told her, rubbing her neck. "I know you've had it hard." She shook her head, giving me a look. "I really am sorry!" I insisted.

I looked up again, searching for that dot of violet. He was gone. I just saw the end of his ponytail vanish behind the library door. I sighed. He didn't want to see me. I continued up to where Kibi still sat, asking her where the stable was. She took the mare's reins. "I'll return her. Lui told me where he got her from." Patting the horse's damp neck, she led her back down the street, vanishing into the crowd.

Faced with the steps, I stared up at the imposing building. I noticed Lui's face appear and then vanish behind the tall door. He was avoiding me, but he still cared enough to notice. It gave me the courage to mount those steps and climb up to Lui's hiding place.

My hands were shaking as I pulled the heavy door open, seeing Lui with his back to a support beam near the doorframe, looking at me with a mixture of apprehension, anger and… something I couldn't name. I wanted to think it was longing; any proof that he'd missed me when I'd been gone.

I awkwardly cleared my throat, all-too-aware of a few passerby staring at us. "Hey, Lui…" I mumbled, trying to smile a bit, but probably failing.

"H-hey," he answered, stumbling over his words even while trying to appear casual. It almost made me smile, except for the fact he refused to look at me.

"C-could we… talk?" I asked feebly, throwing a nervous glance around the room. There were quite a few more gawkers now. "Not here, but… y'know… walk and talk?" I held out my hand as a kind of peace gesture, but also because I missed the feel of his skin. He agreed to come with me, but walked past the offered hand. A few women tittered. I sighed again, trying not to choke. His indifference cut far worse than anything he could have said. It was like he didn't care at all.

We walked down the street in tense silence, Lui leading at a steady clip, refusing to look back at me as a slunk along in his shadow. I had to say something. "S-so," I tried to begin, noticing his head turn, his one piercing silver eye fixing on my own. I swallowed. "I… see you like the earrings." They glittered against his skin, bright in spite of the darkness in our hearts. His face softened slightly, a hand slowly reaching up to finger the one I could see.

"Yes," he answered, voice no longer biting. "They're very pretty."

I clasped my hands behind my back nervously, ducking my head down and shuffling my feet. "Um… Haru… Haru told me about what you guys found out," I whispered, the idea of Lui being dead even more poignant now that he was right in front of me.

He turned away from me. "Yeah."

"…you could die." My voice cracked on the last word.

"Yup." I opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off. "And if you're going do the whole 'don't throw your life away' speech, save your breath. If we don't do anything, we'll be dead within a month. Trust me."

I didn't ask him how he knew, but I heard the honesty in his voice. "…there's no other way, huh…?" He was slowing down, backing up to walk beside me. I had to keep him talking.

"None that I know of," he replied carelessly. "And we don't really have time to look." It was a good act of bravado, but I saw his hands shaking as he brushed hair off his face idly.

Damn, now what to say?? "…You're mad at me." …duh, Hoshi.

"You can tell?" The ice was back. It stabbed through the heart, whole body numbing. It was all I could do just to keep walking.

"You don't understand," I mumbled, squeezing my eyes shut.

"Oh, you weren't making out with Haru? Was I dreaming then?" Every word pierced my body like needles. He was so angry and hurt. I bit my lip.

"…I was," I said hesitantly. "But—"

"But what?!" It was a good thing this road was fairly untraveled, because his voice was rising in volume. "Who you make out with is your own business, but then don't act so—"

I cut him off, freezing in my tracks, my confession echoing far longer than it had any right to.

"I was pretending she was you!"

Lui stopped dead, looking back at me with wonder, shock and… I wanted to think it was hope.

I continued on, trying to get everything off my chest at once. "It seemed like we were in the same boat, right? So, we just did it cuz we were stupid and thought it'd make us feel better. But it didn't. Her smell was wrong, her warmth was wrong, her body was wrong." My voice felt raw, my hands were on my head, memories hurting worse than even Lui's coldness. "Everything was wrong!" The hurt on his face, the tears in his eyes. It hurt. Gods above, it hurt.

"Why were you in the same boat as her?" he asked gently, no longer cold, hands tender on mine as he pulled them from my face.

"Well… I overheard you and that maid…" The green-eyed vixen with the straight brown hair. "Exchanging words of love… and stuff… so…" I was having trouble with coherency, trying to swallow tears and embarrassment and deal with him suddenly being so close and kind and just…

He was laughing at me. Why was he laughing at me? My head hurt. "Hoshi… Hoshi, you really are stupid." He grinned .

"What?! Why?!" I was indignant. My heartfelt confession, my painful dilemma, and he was laughing at me?!

"Tsuka's my sister," he explained, playing with the bangs in my eyes. "Am I not allowed to love the family I always wanted?"

I stared, mind reeling backwards. Sister? …Sister? …It made so much sense, it wounded. "Your… sister…?"

"Yeah," he chuckled, smiling at me. "This is your punishment for jumping to conclusions."

I smiled, my head feeling kind of light and fuzzy. "Well, I guess I could say the same for you." I tentatively put a hand on his shoulder, but he didn't pull away.

"I guess." He was smiling so broadly and cheerfully, I felt almost giddy that the smile was for me. "Ah well… At least all the misunderstandings are cleared up… right?"

"Yeah…" I carefully wrapped a hand around the small of his back, leaning slowly closer. I grabbed his hand with mine, squeezing tightly, waiting for him to back away.

But he didn't. He stared at me until our faces were only inches apart, my eyes only half open. They closed as I was close enough to hear his fluttering breath on my face.

But instead of soft lips, my mouth found cold fingers and my ears heard a whispered, frightened, "No."

I immediately fell over myself scrambling backward, humiliation in every piece of my trembling body. I was still holding his hand, but I couldn't tell if he was shaking as much as I was. "Oh… I thought…" You fucking moron! "S-s-s-sorry!" I squeaked, afraid to see his face, my eyes squeezed so tightly that I thought they would vanish into my skull. "I-I just… assumed…" I dropped his hand, wrapping them around myself instead, waiting for him to yell at me for my stupidity, hit me for even thinking that way; waiting for him to march past me, never to look at me again.

But he did none of those things. I looked up slowly, seeing him looking just as confused as I did, and just as embarrassed. "It's not that," he mumbled. "It's just…" His eyes were so afraid, and his hair was shaking all the way to the ends. "If I let you kiss me… I'll never have the strength to do what I have to." His eyes begged for me to understand.

My head fell. What he had to do… Would I really have to lose this irreplaceable human being in front of me? Have to see him buried…? I wanted to cry and rail to the heavens at the utter injustice of it all.

I felt his hand slide into mine, causing me to start. He smiled. "I guess holding hands wouldn't hurt though."

I smiled back, squeezing his hand in return. "Alright."

We started walking again. "So, where's Haru?" he asked.

I explained about the horse. "She should be here tomorrow or the day after." I ran my thumb over his bony knuckles.

"Okay." The world was right. We were together in the quiet of the early evening, the moment untouched by idle chatter. I was the happiest person alive.

We circled the block, coming back to the library. I could feel his hand trembling in mine. He was so afraid… I wanted to take him into my arms, shield him from everything that frightened him, everything that wished him ill, everything that could hurt him. I wanted to kiss him with such passion that life would fly away to an unreachable island.

But he had asked me not to kiss him, and so I wouldn't. I refused to add to the burden he already carried.

He slid his hand out of mine as we climbed up the library steps again. He turned to look at me, his face pale in the dying light. "I'm going to do it tomorrow," he said softly, but firmly. He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to continue. "Tomorrow this twisted world will be put to rights."

My heart ached. I made sure I had his eyes before murmuring a reply, touching the back of his hand. "Just… don't die, Lui." I brought his hand to my lips. "…don't die…"

He sighed, walking back down to me and resting his head on my shoulder. "I don't want to die," he told me. "So, I'm certainly not going to try to."

I leaned my head against his, watching the sun vanish in a blaze of light. "…that's all I ask."

-

I spent the night in Lui's room, using the excuse the other rooms were full. Honestly, I just wanted to see him. As he tugged me into the gaslit room, I couldn't help but murmur feebly, "You aren't really going to…?"

"Yes," he snapped, whipping his head around to glare. "I am. And stop trying to talk me out of it."

"Sorry," I whispered, my shoulders falling. I shrugged out of my jacket, folding it up and hanging it on the back of one of the inn chairs. Pulling the leather strap out of my hair, I placed that on top of the light fabric. I looked up at Lui through my bangs playfully. "You should undo your hair too, Lui."

He rolled his eyes, snorting. "You like to take care of me, don't you?" But he smiled and slid the tie out of his hair, shaking it out like a dog before combing it out with his hands. I had to laugh, digging my brush out of my bag. "You're hopeless, Lui. Come here." I sat down on his bed, pulling my legs up so he could sit in front of me. He did, muttering good-naturedly about me liking to baby him. I poked his cheek.

"Of course I like to baby you. How could I not with that adorable little face of yours?"

He punched me, but he looked more flattered than annoyed. When I finished with his hair, he leaned back against my chest, closing his eyes. I stroked his hair, suddenly feeling like crying. This could be… the last time I ever would see Lui like this; warm, breathing, alive. I put my arm on his middle, burying my face in his hair, trying not to shudder. He rolled over, looking up at me. "What's wrong, Hoshi?"

Hearing him say my name only made it worse. The tears spilled over even as I tried to dam them up. Lui didn't speak; only sat up and wrapped his arms around my neck, pulling me to his shoulder. "Shh… Don't cry, love."

Love… I sobbed harder.

"Come on, Hoshi," he muttered. "There's nothing to cry about." He rubbed my back.

But I couldn't stop. All the stress of these last few days—even just these past few hours—had pushed me to my limit. I squeezed Lui tight, never wanting to let go; keep him from leaving me, prevent him from seeking a fate which could kill. He sighed, pushing me back by the shoulders. "Let me sleep, please," he whispered, wiping my face with his sleeve. "Tomorrow…" He paused, then murmured. "Let tomorrow come. I'm not afraid." And that said, he crawled over to the pillow and snuggled in under the comforter.

I sat there, looking at him.

He stared back. "…you coming to sleep or what?"

"In a little while," I said vaguely, rubbing his leg through the blanket. "Sleep well, Lui." I reached over to the wall and turned out the light.

Nodding, his eyes slid closed and his breath slowed to a gentle rhythm. In… Out… In… Out…

I watched him in the darkness, his eyelids fluttering in a dream. When I figured he was asleep, I crawled over next to him, studying the delicate curves of his face, the way his dark lashes stood out against his white skin, even in the muted colors of the night. I lightly traced every contour of his face; the arc of his eyebrows, the line of his nose, the curve of his chin. I memorized this face, knowing all-too-well this may be the last time. I wanted so badly to press my lips to his, steal his strength, make him mine.

I cried a little again, if only at the hopelessness of it all. Finally, I could no longer bear to look, climbing under the covers beside him and pulling his back to my chest; praying feebly that maybe my arms would prevent him from getting up in the morning.

When I awoke, I found my arms empty. Panic flooded my body. I leapt up, looking wildly around the room, murmuring Lui's name as if it were a spell; a spell that would bring him back. A spell that would save him.

After ascertaining that Lui was no longer in the room, I walked into my shoes and sprinted down the stairs and outside, where I saw him standing with Kibi in the cold light of dawn. "Lui… Lui…" I whispered, my lungs almost refusing to breathe. "Don't…"

With frenzied apologies, he ran from me. I looked at Kibi helplessly before taking off after him. If only I could catch him! If only I could stop him! That tiny spark of hope kept my feet running.

But he was faster than me; oh, so much faster. I reached the Tower of the Sky moments after him, my voice echoing against stone as I desperately screamed his name.

"Stop following me!" His voice echoed even louder than mine. I heard a loud screech, followed by the slam of a door.

I scrambled up the rest of the stairs on all fours, only to find a heavy door separating us. "LUI!!" I shouted, banging on the door as hard as I could, pulling frantically at the knob.

"LUI!!"

Moments later, with a shivering shriek, the door swung open on its own. I paid no mind to the cause, opening the other door and running out onto the open platform. The wind was wild, blinding me for a moment before I saw what made my heart stop.

Laying there on the wooden planking… was a small, violet-haired body. "No, no, no, no…" I cried, forcing my shaking legs to walk over there and kneel down by the body. I grabbed his shoulders, his limp head lolling back, his hair trailing along the floor. I fearfully pressed my fingers to his neck, searching, praying to feel the pulse.

It was dead.

He was dead.

I clutched him to my chest, whispering his name once more; trying to weave a spell that would bring him back. I pressed my lips to his again and again, desperately searching for a response. But his lips were pale and cold, his whole body turning a ghastly shade of gray. I couldn't accept it. I shook him, pulled his hair, called him a girl… anything to wake him.

But nothing worked.

He was really… dead…

Gone.

No longer of this world.

No longer existing.

Broken, I picked him up, cradling him against my chest. With slow, deliberate steps, I walked back down the long staircase. I found Kibi and Haru and everyone else outside the door. One look at my face and they knew what happened. Haru and Yuki began to cry. I even saw tears on Kibi and Shunsuke's faces. Aki looked very grave, holding his sister to his chest and Sei had a tick in his chin as he forced back tears.

"He died honorably," Aki murmured.

"His sacrifice was noble," Haru hiccupped.

"May he be reborn and not cast into the depths of Oblivion," Yuki and Sei said together.

"I give him my blessings," Kibi whispered hoarsely.

"As do I," we all mumbled.

"May you find peace… Holy Anlui." I could barely hear my own voice, but the others all repeated, "May you find peace."

I carried Lui's body on my back, despite both Sei and Kibi's offering to carry him. I only shook my head. He deserved every rite we had the power to perform… and his family had to be informed. Right after he'd found it, too… I sniffed.

Suddenly, Kibi's head jerked up. "Hoshi!" she said excitedly. "He moved!"

"What?!" I spun around, forgetting momentarily that it's quite impossible to look at one's own back.

He laughed, his voice like water drunken when one is dying of thirst. He squeezed my neck, nuzzling my ear. "Told you I wouldn't die."

A wild laugh escaped my mouth and I slid Lui off my back, only to grab him up a second later and hold him to my chest, my lips finding his. Yes, this was a kiss. His mouth was soft and warm, his tongue not limp and lifeless. I was lighter than air. It was like a dream, but I never wanted to wake up.

Never again.

Fin.

--

A/N: Gah, sap and angst. Ew, romance. ...haha, I kid. I love romance and so does Hoshi, so this was a fun little exercise. So much drama though... geh. ...I really like writing Hoshi's point of view. Lui gets on my nerves sometimes.