A Change of Season
by Caetla Stormcatcher
Please read first, before proceeding with the story:
This story is mostly based on the animé version with a few ideas picked up from the manga version. It takes place months after the Dark Martial Arts Tournament, so most of the characters should have celebrated their birthdays by then.
And finally, all Flame of Recca characters belongs to Nobuyuki Anzai. I am not making any money from this. I'm only doing this for the enjoyment of fans and personal assurance for getting this job done (this is the first time I wrote a fanfic, ever).
Now, onto the story...
By Caetla Stormcatcher

"Here, Ganko," said Fuuko as she carefully eased down a carton box from the top shelf of the closet. "This contains some more of my clothes when I was you age. If you see anything you like, take it."

It was a beautiful Autumn Sunday, a day that should be enjoyed outdoors by friends and family as they admire Mother Nature's last colorful hurrah before covering herself with the rich white coat of Winter. It was in Fuuko Kirisawa's thoughts to do just that when she woke up that morning, but a little reminder from her mother to clean her room nixed all that.

Actually her room was rather tidy--neat, even. It was the drawers, shelves, and closet that needed clearing out; they were ready to burst with stuff she collected since gods-knows-when. Even with the help of Ganko and Kondo, it took them all morning and a good part of the afternoon sorting through the accumulated mess. Between 3 and 4 p.m. they were able to divide most of the items into seven different piles:

a) Basic necessities (things that she still needed);
b) Recca's stuff (things she borrowed from the flame-caster since they were kids);
c) Domon's stuff (things she borrowed from her no. 1 admirer since they met only a few years ago);
d) For charity (mostly a lot of old clothes and shoes that no longer fits her);
e) For Ganko (a lot of her old childhood clothes and toys, personally selected by the little puppet master);
f) For the attic (mementos Fuuko doesn't have the heart to throw away);
And g) Trash (a really big pile--includes broken toys, elementary and junior high test papers, empty soda cans, and a mutated creature that was once a cheese sandwich long forgotten in the deepest recesses of one of the drawers).

All that is left to finish the job is to sort out the last two boxes she took out of the closet.

Ganko rummaged through one of the boxes, carefully scrutinizing each article of clothing before tossing it to the charity pile or her pile. She has just tossed a pink sweater that would look kawaii on her on her pile of latest acquisitions when she noticed some brown paper peeking from beneath some socks inside the box.

Fuuko was dusting the top shelf, sneezing as she accidentally inhaled some of the dust. She felt a slight tug on her shorts, and she looked down to see Ganko holding a paper-wrapped package under one arm.

"Fuuko-neechan," said Ganko, holding out the package in front of her. It was rather lumpy in appearance and it was tied with a red string. "What's in here?"

"Hmmm..." The Fuujin master descended from the stepstool and sat on it, taking thepackage from Ganko. She began to untie the knot. "This looks familiar," she mused. "But I can't place where I've seen this before..." Her voice trailed off as the slightly brittle paper unfolded to reveal its treasure.

In Ganko's eyes, it looked like a folded piece of cloth of royal blue with a silver-gray stripein the middle. But upon closer inspection, she noticed the texture and weave of the cloth. It wasn't just an ordinary cloth; it was made of dyed wool and was obviously hand-knitted. It was a...

"Wow!" exclaimed Kondo, jumping off Ganko's head where he perched for a better view. Hegrabbed the garment before Fuuko could lay a finger on it and made a dash for it. "What a neat scarf--bet it would look good on me... Hey!"

"Come back here, you crazy fox!" Fuuko shouted, holding on to the other end of the now unfurled scarf. She reeled in the madougu-animated plush fox and bopped him on the head. "If you ever do that again, I will personally dump you in the washer along with every red sock in this house and we'll see--and laugh--at how good you look in PINK!" She tossed Kondo to his mistress.

"That's right!" agreed Ganko, putting the fox doll in a chokehold that would have made anyprofessional wrestler proud. "And I'll make sure you'll remain conscious during the whole process."

"Gak!" Kondo choked.

Fuuko held up the scarf. While most two-toned scarves had their colors placed vertically, this one had its lone silver-gray stripe running from one end to the other. It was also too wide and too long to be appropriately called a kid's scarf. A kid of Ganko's size would have suffocated from all that cloth if it were wrapped around them, though at least it will keep them warm and toasty during the winter. Fuuko brought one end of the scarf close to her
face and rubbed her cheek against, as if she was trying to remember a long forgotten scent.

Ganko looked at the older girl with concern. "Fuuko-neechan, is something wrong?"

"Huh?" Broken out of her reverie, Fuuko turned to regard the little girl. "No...nothing's wrong, sweetie," she told her. "I was just remembering something..."

"Does it have to do something with this?" Ganko took one end of the scarf.

"Yes." Fuuko sat down on the stepstool. She indicated for Ganko to sit down as well.

Recognizing the gesture that this was going to be one of the wind-wielder's life stories,Ganko settled herself comfortably on a bean bag chair--she loved listening to Fuuko-neechan's stories about her adventures when she was young. She placed Kondo on her lap, still holding on to him tightly but no longer strangling him.

"It all happened one winter's day," Fuuko began, laying the scarf on her lap, "when I was eight-years-old..."


The snow was falling gently over Tokyo, casting a placid spell over the normally busy capital of Japan. There is something about a winterscene that tends to bring out the harmonious feeling in people. However universal that feeling is, it is not the case for all people. In a playground located in one of the residential areas, things are about to come into a violent beginning.

"Not so tough now, are ya, Kirisawa?" A boy of 10 with messy brown hair and a nose too large for his pudgy face sneered at the figure huddling near the dome-shaped slide.

A young Fuuko Kirisawa looked defiantly at the speaker and his three cohorts. Damn that Kojiro--he always was a sore loser; but she'd never thought he would go this far as to gang up with the other neighborhood bullies just to get back at her. Usually the bully boys go their separate ways, each having their own pride to be the top neighborhood toughie. But when it came to the actual ranking of who is the toughest kid in the neighborhood, Recca Hanabishi _always_ comes out on top, with Fuuko _always_ coming in second best. To lose to Hanabishi, the boys could take it with a certain amount of grumbling; but to _constantly_ lose to a _girl_ is something their deflated, injured egos couldn't take.

*Kuso!* she cursed silently as a stab of pain, originating from her twisted right ankle, shotthrough her leg. She mentally berated herself for being so lax with her defenses. After twoweeks of no fighting (even Recca seemed so at eased lately), she thought that they had all taken a winter break of some sort.

Fuuko was on her way home from school, contemplating all the way on what to do on the mountains that her parents promised to take her and older brother Taka to for the upcoming three-day holiday vacation. She was daydreaming of sledding down a snowy slope when the first snowball hit her on the shoulder behind. The barrage of snowballs was so sudden and so heavy, she had no choice but to run--she would deal with her attackers when the opportunity presents itself. But it seemed no matter which street or corner she turned to the snowballs still came flying after, often beaning her behind the head or back, thoroughly soaking her brand new coat in the process as well.

Coming up with a hasty, but foolhardy, plan to confront the throwers somehow, she ran intothe empty playground to execute it. However, the hand of Fate didn't move things her way. After taking no more than a few steps inside the playground, her right foot hit the edge of the sandbox that was concealed under a blanket of snow. Crippled, she was able to crawl to the slide when Kojiro and the others showed themselves.

"No escape for you this time," said one of the other boys called Tenno. He was holding asnowball, which he casually tossed aside. He began cracking his knuckles.

"Yeah!" declared another one with greasy green hair. "It's payback time."

The four boys advanced on her.


"They didn't!" Ganko shouted in outrage, interrupting Fuuko's story.

"Letmegoletmegoletmego..." Kondo struggled to free himself when Ganko unconsciously squeezed his stuffed body in anger.

"They did..." There was anger, turmoil, and pain reflected in the wind-wielder's eyes. Her hands balled up into tight fists, fingernails threatening to cut the skin of her palms. For a moment, she felt her eyes water with tears but was able to hold it back. "It was the most lowest and most painful chapter of my childhood..."


It hurts.

The punches. The kicks. The taunting. The mocking laughter. The coldness of the snow.

Everything hurts.

She had tried to fight back. But the injury on her ankle caused her to fall face-first on the frozen ground, leaving her open for their attack.

Something warm trickled down her face. Was she...crying?

No! She can't cry... She must not cry! That would mean she was weak; and if she was weak, how could she ever beat Recca in the future? Yet here she was, being beaten badly.

The blows and kicks continued to rain down on her. But the physical pain doesn't compare to the emotional pain caused by the taunting and laughing. The wicked words rang on her ears, each syllable cutting her very sense of pride and self-confidence. Unable to contain it anymore, she burst into tears.

The laughing increased even more as the blows diminished.

"Oh look!" she heard one of the boys saying and laughing at the same time. "She's crying like a baby! What a..."

There was a soft sounding *thud*...like a body falling heavily on the snow.

The beatings stopped completely. The laughter changed into outright gasps of indignation.There were shouts that she wasn't able to immediately comprehend clearly through her sobs, but she was thankful that it wasn't directed at her.

"This is none of your business!" she was able to hear Kojiro direct at someone. "Were just getting even with the little witch!"

A voice, which she didn't recognize as belonging to any of the other boys, spoke up. "All I see are four large boys picking on one girl, who is smaller than any of them." The sound of the voice betrayed its speaker as another boy of their age. "It's very obvious as to who _are_ the bullies and who _is_ the victim in this unfair fight!"

Fuuko didn't listen anymore. She still remained lying on the snow, her face now buried in her arms in a pathetic attempt to warm it. Her coat sleeves was soaked with melted snow as was the rest of her coat. Her eyes stung with near frozen tears, making her sight bleary. Her voice was just about gone from screaming and prolonged exposure to the cold. Andevery move she made caused her to whimper as pain coursed through every nerve of her body.

She was also beginning to feel sleepy. She felt the pain fade as the coldness overtook it...And the sounds of renewed fighting and yelling also faded as she closed her eyes to sleep.

It seemed like she had just closed her eyes for a few seconds when she felt someone roll her body to her back and cradled her head in their arm.

"Hey! Wake up!" she heard someone above her. "Are you all right? Please, wake up!"

She tried to open her eyes, but to no avail. It seemed like they were fused shut.

"Wait!" said the same voice, which she now recognized as belonging to the newcomer. "You got frost all over your eyelashes."

She felt something warm place itself on her closed eyes, slowly melting the ice chips that were once her tears. His hand--he was using his hand to make her see again.

When he withdrew his hand, she slowly opened her eyes with little difficulty. But...Everything was a blurry white haze and few swatches of colors with no discernable shapes of any kind. Fearful that she might go blind, she began to cry again.

Sensing her distress, the boy pulled her into a comforting embrace. "It'll be okay," he reassured her, stroking her hair. He allowed her to cry herself out.

When she did stop crying, he carried her to the dome-shaped slide and put her in a reclining position with her back against the structure. She could only see the colors that was him shift as he removed her snow-soaked red coat. She heard a heavy pat as he threw the now useless garment nearby, followed by the shuffle of feet crunching the snow as it moved away from her and coming back to her.

"Here!" the boy said.

She felt something soft, dry, and warm being wrapped around her. She snuggled against the material as some warmth trickled back into her soul.

"I'll go get some help, okay," she heard him say. "Everything will be all right now..."

She heard him run, and she smiled as sleep took over her once again...


"...And the next time I woke up," Fuuko told Ganko, "I heard my mother and father saying my name over and over again. I still couldn't see much at the time, but I could tell I was somewhere warm, in a bed, and I was safe.

"Mother told me that a police officer found me in the playground, after he was told by a boy that something bad had happened there. The officer rushed me to the nearest clinic as fast as he can, before returning to the playground to detain my attackers, who were all unconscious and lying in a heap." Fuuko smiled at that. "As for the boy, who rescued me...When I asked Mother if he was around all she said was that she haven't seen him. And
then Father asked the nurse on the reception room if a young boy of my age came by to ask of my condition. The nurse said there was one earlier. And when she told him that I was all right, he said that he was glad but he had to leave without seeing me because he was late for home or something along that line...

Fuuko sighed, shaking her head. "All I have left to remember him by is this scarf." She held up the said garment. "I was still wearing this when the clinic received me. And in his haste,the boy forgot about it too.

"It took me two weeks to recover from my injuries. My sight normalized after the first week, but my twisted ankle took longer to heal because the injury got worst when those boys abused it.

"For several weeks after I healed, my parents insist that Taka-niisan must accompany me whenever I go to school and when I come home. I was able to convince Mother to allow me to look for the boy who rescued me, and she wrapped up the scarf in that package we just opened. My brother and I waited for him to show up on that very same playground I was attacked, because I thought he might pass there on his way home.

"He never did."
"We asked every kid who passed there for the next three weeks if they were the one. But not one of them owned up to it. And I grew discouraged as time passed by. And one day, I put this aside and I went on with my life.

"The incident faded with time, and before long Taka-niisan no longer accompanied me toschool and back. I was able to fight Recca again, though I still kept on losing to him." Fuuko smiled. "Some things never change, I guess. But he became more concerned for me after what happened, and we became better friends than before. With his help, I trained to become an even better fighter than I was before. At least this time I could take on a whole
gang of them instead of one-on-one." She winked at Ganko.

"Fuuko-neechan," began Ganko, "that was a wonderful story, but doesn't it sort of hurts you to bring back such bad memories?"

The older girl nodded. "Yes," she admitted. "I could still feel the pain of being so helpless at that time... Yet, there was something wonderful that happened during that time... I really don't know, Ganko. The part of me which houses my tomboyish pride is discouraged that it took another boy to get me out of my predicament. But the part of me that shelters the girl that I am is elated to have someone come to my rescue, like the proverbial knight in shining armor..."


Later that night, Fuuko remained awake on her bed, staring at the ceiling. She could hear Ganko's gentle snores on the other bed and the soft patter of her mother's feet on the hallway. Reaching out with one arm, she snatched the unfurled muffler from where it lay draped on the bean bag chair.

Talking with Ganko that afternoon helped her somewhat confront with the painful past, but it also opened new questions on her personal identity.

Who was she really? Is she the tomboy that everyone else has branded her to be? Or is she simply a girl left with too few choices but to defend herself in a world full of prejudices? She has wonderful parents and an admirable older brother, who were all open-minded to the ever-changing world. But most of the people outside of her home were some years behind in liberal progress for the sexes.

As a young child, Fuuko has always been a very active little girl. So active, she shunned playing dolls with the girls and joined the boys in their roughhousing games. The other kids viewed her as a rebel, an outsider, who doesn't conform to the _rules_ society has placed upon them. It wasn't fair! Just because she was born a girl that doesn't mean she has to sit back and watch while the boys have all the fun. No. She wanted a part of that action.

As a result she had suffered somewhat from the opinionated view of others. She complied with them and became stigmatized as a virago, a female browbeater, just so she could have the freedom to do what she wants without too much questions from others.

Where? She had often asked herself. Where is the girl that she used to be? The girl that used to dream of the dashing hero coming to her rescue and fulfilling her every single whim. And as much as she loved to fight, it just doesn't love her back in return. She wanted someone real to hold her when she is hurting, someone to comfort her with kind words when no one else would...

Troubled by her own thoughts, Fuuko drifted off to sleep, clutching the scarf against her like a security blanket.


"Oh Fuuko!" exclaimed Yanagi Sakoshita in sympathy. "That must've been a most horrible time for you."

It was Monday noon, and the gang was eating their lunch at the roof of the school when Fuuko decided to share what she told Ganko yesterday. Her friends' reactions were as she expected.

"Those bastards!" Domon Ishijima was more than angry...he was furious. He slammed his fist on the cement tile, causing a small crack to appear on its surface. "I don't care if it happened a long time ago! On my honor as a man, Fuuko-chan, I'll beat them to a bloody pulp and give you whatever's left of them in a silver platter."

Recca, who had remained grimly silent throughout the story Fuuko told them, shook his head. "Good luck if you could find them," he told Domon. "They and their families all moved away for different parts of the country when me and a few other guys went after them when we heard what happened to Fuuko."

"My poor Fuuko-chan!" Domon changed tact. Two huge tears hung from the side of his eyes. He opened his arms wide and prepared to sweep the wind girl in a bone-crushing hug. "Let me hold you in my arms, my darling, until the pain goes--"


"--awaaay..." Domon finished lamely after Fuuko extracted her fist from his face. The big student staggered back a few steps, before falling flat on his back.

Recca and Yanagi sweatdropped, while Fuuko rubbed her knuckles. "Baka!" she said. "I've long since gotten over it. Besides, I'm not through with my story yet."

Fuuko then recounted the part when the mysterious boy beat off her attackers, consoled her, and how she never heard from him again.

"Geez, Fuuko," Recca remarked, after she had finished. "How come you never told me about that part before. I could have helped you look for him, you know?"

"Well, Recca," said Fuuko. "If I told you that when we were of that age, you would have surely teased me to no end that I have a 'boyfriend'."

"I think it's rather romantic," expressed Yanagi, stars glittering in her eyes.

"Bah!" Domon groused. He had woken up in time to hear the more interesting part. He was rather irked that it wasn't him to come to Fuuko's aid back then. "If it were me I would've carried you myself all the way to the clinic instead of leaving you to freeze to..."

"He didn't exactly left me to freeze, you know!" Fuuko nearly shouted in defense to her rescuer's action. "He wrapped me up with his scarf while he looked for help."

"And you never exactly saw him?" asked Yanagi. "Or even knew what he looked like?"

Fuuko nodded. "Yes. My vision was faulty when he revived me. And the nurse who spoke tohim doesn't remember what he looked like when my father asked. In fact, my only clue to his existence--if he ever existed at all--is the scarf he used to protect me from the cold."

"Fuuko, could I please see the scarf?" the healer asked. "I'm just curious at what it looked like."

"Sure thing!" Fuuko gave a thumb up sign. "I'll bring it tomorrow!"

"Hey! Fuuko, have you..."

Whatever Recca was going to say was cut short when the door leading to the stairway opened and out stepped the Tokiya Mikagami.

"Hey Mi-chan!" Fuuko called the swordsman. "What brings you up here?"

Mikagami glanced at the group, and simply said, "The library is full."

"Oh," chorused the rest as if it was normal.

For the uninitiated, Mikagami has always used the school's library to study or do homework on his free time. But the truth is, he only went there just so he could seek refuge from the mob of female students that wants to flirt with him. Miss Asukawa, the librarian, is a well-known termagant when it comes to noisy students who do so much as to even speak normally within her silent territory. Mikagami had found his haven in the library, where no girl in her right mind would dare upset the librarian by starting a conversation with him. Or so he thought. Someone was smart enough to realize what he was doing and told his fans on how to keep on seeing him without being thrown out of the library. And all of a sudden, in an overnight, the library became a popular hangout for students (nearly all female), who developed a sudden desire to read and study. Study Mikagami that is. At first, the Ensui master ignored the girls who were all peeking above their randomly selected books every minute or two to admire his good looks and sigh softly among themselves, but none of them dared to speak with him lest they suffer the wrath of the librarian. And one day, after a few days of having to feel their stares burning right through him and listening to their annoying cutesy sighs, Mikagami headed to the end of the room as if to select a new book to read and promptly escaped through the back window.

Now, the water-wielder would often hideout in an empty classroom or the rooftop to study in peace. And it was just his luck that he chose to go to the roof on the day where the Hokage team is right now.

"What have you got there, Mikagami?" Recca asked, referring to the envelopes and letters slapped against the book the Ensui master was carrying. "Are those love letters from your admirers or something?"

"None of your business, Hanabishi," Mikagami growled defensively, shifting his hold on the book and letters. Unfortunately, a letter slipped out from the pile and fell to the ground. And before he could bend down to pick it up, Recca was there in a flash to grab it. "Give that back!" he demanded.

Recca glanced at the letter, looking for the name of the sender at the bottom, as he danced out of Mikagami's grasp. "Let's see..." he began. "Who wrote this, Mikagami? Your--"

*WHAM!* The flame-caster got smacked on the head by a flying book, courtesy of the Ensui Master.

The rest of the team took a mental note not to irk the swordsman on petty matters in the future, especially when he's carrying a hardbound book the size of an encyclopedia.

"Recca-kun!" Yanagi rushed to her fallen ninja.

"Uh..." Recca had a huge bump on the back of his head and swirls on his eyes. "Just...one...more...minute...tousan..."

Mikagami snatched the fluttering stationery in midair and tucked it in his pants pocket. "As I said," he reminded Recca coolly. "None of your business."

"It's your fault this time, Recca." Fuuko peered at her childhood friend's semi-conscious face. "Tampering with one's mail is a federal offense, don't you know?"

With their next classes about to start in a few minutes, the team put that little fiasco aside and headed for their classrooms, although Domon had to carry the still dazed Recca to his room.


Tuesday started off like any other weekday for our young heroine, albeit there are some exceptions. Other than her schoolbag, she brought along an old shopping bag where she stored the scarf she promised to show to Yanagi that afternoon.

After dropping off Ganko in grade school, she encountered Domon, Recca, and Kaoru Koganei on their way to the latter's school. The master of the Kougan Anki has been living with the Hanabishis since the end of the Tournament. And since the Sakoshita home was on the way, they dropped by to pick up the healer. However, Yanagi's mother informed them that her daughter woke up that morning with some symptoms of a nasty little flu that has been going around town lately. It was nothing that a good 24-hour bed-rest would cure, but Recca's reaction made it sound like his precious Hime was suffering from Scarlet Fever instead. Fuuko had to profusely apologize to the older woman for her friend's odd irrational behavior, while Domon and Kaoru dragged the Hokage leader out of earshot. Recca only stopped haranguing when Yanagi peeked out of her bedroom window to wave them a good morning.

Then they stopped by the Junior High Kaoru was attending. The diminutive warrior had barely taken a couple of steps pass the school gates when he was mobbed by a dozen or so 13- to 14-year-old girls. The three older teens could only watch dumbstruck as the horde of little girls carried the Fang Boy inside the school building.

In their school, classes went on as usual. The usual lectures, tests, pop quizzes, and hand-in-your-homework activities inside the building. Fuuko got a good mark in her Track and Field exams during PE, Recca got an 82% score in his Japanese history quiz, and Domon was caught snoring in his sleep during algebra class. All in all, not a bad morning session. Nevertheless, the afternoon session was another story...

*Those idiots!* Fuuko fumed as she stormed down the near-empty school halls.

It was way past dismissal time. Fuuko had a great day--so great, in fact, her class adviser personally congratulated her for pulling her grades up out of the red. She had waited by the front doors for her two best friends to show up as other students walked past her to leave school. After 45 minutes of waiting and no signs of the sea-monkey and the gorilla, she went off to look for them.

She found them all right. They were cleaning blackboards as punishment for fighting within school grounds. What the two fought about she did not ask nor did she want to know--it's bound to be stupid like it always is. She left them to their work for the punishment calls for them to clean every blackboard, in every classroom, in all the floors of the school. Currently, the boys were halfway in the first floor, but the school has _four_ floors. So they
have all afternoon _and_ evening to finish the entire job.

*And it was such a good day too...* She sighed in exasperation as she exited the building. She was only a few feet from exiting the gates when a wild gust of wind hit her. A flurry of autumn leaves slapped against her and the other people on the school lawn as the wind continued its howling frenzy. It was a sure sign that winter is fast approaching as the wind was ice-cold.

As sudden as the wind came, it also died just as quickly. Some of the students and teachers laughed at Mother Nature's joke on them as they brushed off the dead leaves and twigs from their uniforms. A few of the girls bitterly complained that their hair was all tangled-up and dirtied.

A second wind, not as strong as the first one but just as chilly, came blowing in.

Even with the jacket that is part of her school's girls' uniform covering her, Fuuko still shivered against the cold. For a minute, she debated if she should wear the scarf or leave it be, since it never really belonged to her in the first place. She could use the Fuujin, but that would raise a lot of questions and there were still too many people around.

The wind continued to raze on.

Finally, she reached inside the shopping bag and drew out the scarf. She dropped her schoolbag over the empty shopping bag to keep it from flying away, as she wrapped her neck and shoulders with the woolen blue and gray ascot. There was a certain rapture glowing in her cheeks as she was doing this, remembering the pleasant warmth that saved her life a long time ago...

Fuuko was unaware of a figure watching her from behind one of the nearly leafless sakura trees lining up against the concrete wall as she walked past the gate. The rustling of the leaves against the wind silenced the sound of schoolbag hitting the ground while its owner stared at her with renewed recognition and shock.


The days progressed slowly as the winds heralding the approach of Winter began to blow away the last remaining red and gold leaves from the trees. And one day, when the last brown leaf broke away from the branch it was born into last Spring, it was officially the start of the winter season.

"Do you think it will snow tonight, Recca-kun?" Yanagi asked, as she and her friends walked home from school.

"I certainly hope so, Hime," said the flame-caster, his hands tucked inside his coat side-pockets to keep them warm. "It's been so cold for the past few days--something's bound to give in, sooner or later."

"Hey! It could either be today or tomorrow or the day after," Fuuko assumed as one end of the scarf hung limply against her left side. The wind-wielder has taken to habit of donning the blue and gray scarf ever since the early Arctic winds wreaked havoc on the schoolyard. Recca had teased her about it, saying that she is now someone's girlfriend. A kunai thrown near the side of his head silenced him somewhat, but he still mutters about it more to
himself than out loud.

"Well, I hope it happens today," Kaoru remarked, giving them a fanged grin. "Recca-niisan said he knows of a hill in the park which is great for sledding. It's a weekend tomorrow and I want to go sledding."

"Sounds great!" declared Fuuko. "If it does snow tonight, I'll bring Ganko to the park with me to join you guys on the fun."

"Say, Recca!" Domon spoke up. There was a mischievous glint in the big man's eye. "Do you think you'll be able to do again what you did last year, and the year before that, on the very first snow day?"

"And that is..." Recca tried to recall the events of last year. His eyes widened in fear as he remembered. "No! Domon! Don't tell--"

Domon's smile turned malicious. "You know! Find the most risky downhill slide, hop aboard your sled, narrowly miss every tree on the way down, and come into a splashing stop as you hit the pond that was barely covered with thin ice!"

"WHAT?" chorused two teenage girls and a boy.

Recca was seething red with fury and embarrassment. "You...you..."

"How come I didn't know about any of this?" Fuuko demanded of Domon.

"He told me to never tell anyone else," said Domon, ignoring the red warning signs of 'Danger! Danger!' blinking behind him. "We always head for the park first thing in the morning before we decide to invite you to join us, Fuuko-chan."

"Um...Domon-niisan..." Kaoru pointed at something.

"Huh?" Domon followed the direction where the younger boy was indicating. "Uh...oh..."

The following fighting scene will not be seen nor heard due to the fact that the author (namely, I) isn't any good at writing action sequences and must keep the language down at a PG-13 rating. But let's just say there was this big dust cloud with Recca's and Domon's heads and limbs popping in and out every second, and words like "$#^+!" and "@$$#*(%!" reverberating from the chaos.

Kaoru and the girls quickly walked away from the rabid duo, thinking amongst themselves that they do not know those two, as a crowd gathered to watch and see who will win.

Yanagi has to work in the kindergarten today, so Kaoru escorted her in place of the absentRecca. The ninja will be heading for the kindergarten anyway, after he and Domon settle their differences.

So Fuuko found herself walking alone...in a _very_ familiar street. She glanced behind her. As if expecting a snowball to zero in on her when she least expect it.

*It's only your imagination, Kirisawa,* she chided herself, for being paranoid. *Besides, ithappened a long time ago. Those guys are long gone. And you're much stronger than you ever were before.* Chuckling to herself, Fuuko continued her journey home.

She hadn't gone that far when she came to the place where it all happened.

The old playground has changed quite a bit since she was a child. The wooden seesaws were replaced by new ones made of plastic and lightweight alloy. The spring-based horses were replaced with weird cartoonish creatures. And there was now an obstacle gym, which wasn't there before. The only thing that was gone, as she remembered from her childhood memories, was the jungle gym. The sandbox, the merry-go-round, the swings, the
dome-shaped slide (now repainted and fixed to look like the head of the cat), and the tree house (also fixed up to be sturdier) were still there.

It was also empty of its usual occupants.

*How convenient,* Fuuko thought. She looked at her surroundings to see if anyone else was passing by. Seeing that the coast was clear, she went inside for a little childish fun.

After placing her schoolbag at the base of the leafless tree, she headed for the swings.

She didn't know how long she has been swinging, but she doesn't care. The swings have always been her favorite when she was a young girl, always yelling at her mother or brother to push harder so she could go higher, and higher, and higher... She closed her eyes to feel the excitement as she remembered it. The wind sang into her ears as she accelerated upward forwards, feeling the velocity gain momentum then diminish as gravity pulled her
back for the backswing.

When Fuuko felt that she had had enough, she bought her weight down to decrease her descent and lessen the swinging motions. She could feel her shoes scrape the sand-strewn ground as she made an attempt to stop...

And that's when she felt someone's hands grab her shoulders from behind!

"What the...?" Her eyes popped open as she made a near flying leap off the swing. She turned to face her harasser. "Alright! You want to..." She trailed off when she saw who it was. "MIKAGAMI?"

The Ensui master, wearing a black hooded jacket, had a slightly startled look in his face that Fuuko had never seen before. Obviously, he wasn't expecting her reaction to be that startling.

"What are you doing here?" she began again, angry that someone had caught her in the act of playing like a child. She was more humiliated by the fact that it was the Ice Man who bore witness to the entire scene. He would never--_ever_--let her forget about this. "If you tell Recca and the others what you just saw here, I will kill you!" she threatened. "I'll rip your pretty little head off with the Claws of Wind and I know of a place where they'll
_never_ find your body! _Ever_!"

"Calm down, Kirisawa," Mikagami told her. "I didn't mean to scare you like that..."

"I, Fuuko Kirisawa, never gets scared!" she stated proudly. "Surprised, yes! Scared, no! Got that!"

"Very well then..." he amended matter-of-factly. "I didn't mean to surprise you like that...Are you fine with that?"

"Not so." Fuuko dropped her defensive stance, but crossed her arms in front of her to show him that she was still annoyed with him. "You must think that I'm an immature little girl who likes to hang around in the playground when she thoughts that no one is looking just so she can play?"

"No, Fuuko," said the water-wielder unflinchingly. "You have the right to play. That's what playgrounds are for anyway..."

Fuuko blinked. The Ensui master wasn't smirking sarcastically nor was he scowling in disapproval, instead he looked...tense? "Mi-chan," she said, "did you hit your head when you woke up this morning? This isn't like you..."

There was an uneasy pause as Mikagami shifted his gaze to the ground as if he was thinking of what to say to that question. His posture, usually upright and radiating with utmost conviction that he was above everyone else, was slightly slacking around the shoulders--a sign that he was extremely uncomfortable. "I wish...that was the case," he said hesitantly, meeting her eyes again. "But...to be honest..."

"Mikagami..." Fuuko interrupted him. She only calls him by his full family name whenever she was serious. "Let's sit down and talk, okay?"

He nodded, grateful for the interruption--he was starting to sound like a blithering fool.

Fuuko approached the large elm tree, indicating to Mikagami the tree house. "We'll have more privacy there," she explained. "You go up first."

He nodded, and began climbing up. Since there was no wooden planks nailed on the tree trunk and no knotted rope to act as a ladder, Mikagami used the tree's natural knobs as footholds and handholds. The little structure wasn't that high from the ground, so he made it there in less than half a minute. The hatchway was evidently made for young children, but he had no problem squeezing in his lean frame; Fuuko passed through it without any

"Wow! This place seemed smaller than the last time I was here," she commented as shesat down on the floor. The tree house had no standing space for the two teens, so both had to crouch low in order to move.

Mikagami took a deep breath and fidgeted uncomfortably in the cramped space. They were only within an arm's length of each other, and he wasn't that used at being so close with a girl before, even if it is Kirisawa.

Fuuko watched him from her side of the space with curious eyes. Something was obviously bothering the swordsman big time. His gaze kept on shifting to the window, to his near-shaking hands in front of him, and to her.

"So?" She started the conversation when he hasn't spoken for several moments when it looked like he was about to say something but clamed up immediately. "What were you about to say to me about being honest?"

Mikagami sighed in defeat. "As I said," he began, clearing his throat so his voice might come out more firm. "I wished that I did hit my head on something this morning. But the truth is...I have been experiencing some certain adjustments in my life for the past few weeks that has been giving me no peace..."

He looked at her. Fuuko was listening to his every word with an intent expression on her face. He continued on. "For nearly eight years, I was so consumed with a burning hatred to find my sister's killer that I had lost sight of what I was once was... I lost the child that Mifuyu loved so well..."

He paused for a deep breath. "My parents died in a car crash when I was just four-years-old and oneechan was 12, leaving us orphans. I really don't remember much of my parents, but I did have brief periods of reminiscence of a woman lulling me to sleep with a song and strong, firm hands tossing me into the air and catching me as if it was a game. The day that they died is still stuck on my mind. I remember Mifuyu crying and holding me tightly as our uncle and aunt broke the news to us... I do not recall crying--I was too young back then to realize how serious the situation is--but I did try to comfort my sister in her grief...and it is what sealed the bond of our relationship...

"Our uncle and aunt took us in to live with them." He said this as a shadow of an old smile lit his face. Fuuko silently summarized that it must have been a much more happier time for Mikagami. "It was a very rambunctious household when Mifuyu and I moved in. Having five children of their own is trouble enough for my aunt and uncle, and bringing the two of us into their lives as well only seemed to only add to that chaos. However, that chaotic
atmosphere was anything but burdensome for all of us. Mifuyu was drawn in by our two eldest cousins, who has known her and loved her longer for before I was born, and they made her smile again. They formed an alliance of many sorts with each other to keep their younger siblings--namely, me and my three other cousins--from driving everyone older up the wall. My younger cousins and I were quite the little terrors, nearly wrecking the house
with our antics." He chuckled as the flashes of childhood memories ran through his head.

Fuuko found herself smiling with him, hiding her surprised expression when Mikagami laughed. The Mikagami she knew never smiled nor laughed at anything the Hokage did to get a rise out of him other than scowl or roll his eyes back. She found herself thinking that he should smile more often, considering that it enhances his boyish good looks making him look more handsome... Quickly, she reprimanded herself for such a thought--she was here to be a friend and listen to what was bothering him, not one of his fans that would rather look at his handsome visage all day and daydream.

Mikagami began again. "Mifuyu and I were very happy with our uncle's family. Until, one day...our aunt died from a rare disease that she contracted from somewhere... Uncle was devastated, but no one more so than our cousins and us... Our aunt was a very kind woman, who more than reminded us of our late mother with her love but with her appearance as well--she and my mother were identical twins. A few weeks after her funeral, uncle came to a decision that he wanted to move the entire family to America to start all over. He extended the invitation to Mifuyu and I, but oneechan respectfully turned it down. Apparently, it was in our late father's wishes to see that we grow-up with a strong sense of values that seemed to be found only in Japan. I protested at first as I have a favorite cousin who was so like, and unlike, me in many ways. But my love for my sister far outweighed the camaraderie my cousin and I shared, so I stayed behind as well. All in all,we had spent four wonderful years with our relatives.

"Oneechan and I moved back into our old house, and soon a sense of normalcy returned to our lives. We lived off comfortably with our parents' inheritance and the trust fund our uncle set-up for us. And because I would come home from school first before oneechan could be dismissed from hers, she contacted our father's old kendo master to teach me the Art every afternoon after school..."

Fuuko inhaled sharply. Please, don't let it mean...?

"Yes, Fuuko," he answered to her unspoken question, gritting his teeth in silent rage. "It was Meguri Kyoza. At first, he struck me as a benevolent master, teaching me the proper discipline and the values that comes with the Art of Swordfighting. He told me that my father was one of the best students he ever had, but had to quit after injuring a leg muscle in a training session. He also said that I stand to become even better than my father. But
then I remembered telling him that I was only taking up kendo so I could please my oneechan. He just nodded at me and we continued on with our lessons.

"Two years later, Mifuyu was dead...

"All I remember during her wake were of people shuffling past her coffin and the sounds of crying, as I sat like a statue in the middle of the room. My uncle and cousins came back to Japan immediately after hearing the news. I do not recall if they hugged me or offered me words of comfort, because inside I was dead and unresponding to all acts of kindness cast upon me.

"After the funeral, my uncle offered me to return with him and my cousins to the States. But Meguri gave me the option of avenging Mifuyu's death. And you know which path I chose to follow, Fuuko."

"The path of revenge," Fuuko said softly. "The one that condemned you to a life of loneliness and mistrust..."

"That, and the death of the boy who was once known as a loving son, brother, nephew, and cousin." Without any warning, he heavily smashed his fist against the floor of the tree house, nearly causing the walls to rattle. "I callously threw away every good deed I was ever taught, locked away every memory I ever made, and cast aside all the people who ever loved me...AND FOR WHAT? JUST SO SOME MADMAN CAN TURN ME INTO A MONSTER FOR HIS OWN DIRTY AGENDA!"

Fuuko barely let out a yell, and had to squelch a sarcastic comment for Mikagami's sudden outburst when she saw him bent his head and press one of his hands to his eyes.

Tiny wet circles formed on the wooden floor as long-repressed tears dripped fromMikagami's concealed eyes through the fingers. "...And...the worst...thing was..." His voice trembled as grief threatened to overcome him. "I...didn't deserve..."

Mikagami didn't continue on any further as Fuuko leaned forward, wrapped her arms around his neck, and pulled him closer for an embrace. This was something he really needed."Tokiya..." she whispered into his ear, as her own tears threatened to spill down. "Let it all out... You've been holding your grief back for so long it's starting to eat up your soul..."

Mikagami buried his face on her shoulder, staining the scarf that she still wore with his tears. Eight years of sorrow, loneliness, regret, and anger came out in a torrent that lasted for several minutes. And in the respite that followed, he shifted his body somewhat that Fuuko ended up pillowing his head and shoulders on her lap.

Fuuko pushed away his bangs from his forehead as he rested and she couldn't help but feel pity for the water-wielder. Here was this young man, who when they first met seemed to be so perfect in every aspect, yet remained so alone...so out of reach... Here was someone's son and brother, who once had a bright future ahead of him in other fields of talent--if only he wasn't so good at the sword arts...

"And you know what the worst thing was?" Mikagami murmured, his eyes still closed. One of his hands moved to grasp Fuuko's hand that was stroking his hair, pressing her palm to his forehead. "I callously threw away everything that my family taught me... I forgot how to be considerate, how to be respectful, how to love, how to respect life, and..." He opened his eyes and looked up to her. "...To help other people when they're in need..."

There was a pause as he closed his eyes again. "Mifuyu-neechan must be so disappointed with me..."

"No, Tokiya..." Fuuko placed a finger on his lips to silence him. "Your sister loves you no matter what happens... She may be gone, but as long as you are still alive, she lives as a part of you because you are her legacy..." Those words struck him. But Fuuko wasn't done yet. "And if you ever lost sight of who you are, remember this: You are Tokiya Mikagami.You are the culmination of the love of your parents, your sister, your relatives, and your
friends. You will not let them down!"

"I will not let them down..." he repeated slowly, engraving the words in his mind and soul. He slowly got up to his knees and faced her. Fuuko noticed the change in his eyes; they were no longer sharp and cold chips of ice, but relaxed and vibrant pools.


"Thank you, Fuuko," he said, taking both of her hands with his. "I feel as if though something heavy has been lifted off my chest. Maybe now I can move on and recapture what was once lost to me."

Fuuko doesn't know what to say, she is so overwhelmed with so many emotions that she has no idea how to put them into words. "You're welcome, Mi-chan," she finally concluded.

He smiled at her, then looked out of the window.

She followed his line of vision, and gasped. "It's snowing!"

Quickly, the two teenagers alighted from the tree house. Fuuko got to the ground ahead of Mikagami.

The snowflakes, shimmering like diamonds, fell all around them. Fuuko laughed as she held up her hand to catch a few of the flakes. Mikagami just looked at her with a grin on his face; then he looked up on the sky and silently prayed to his sister that she be happy wherever she is right now.

She saw him looking at the sky, and something popped inside of her head. "Mi-chan..."

"Yes, Fuuko?" He looked at her.

"I recall something you said earlier," she began. "Something about having adjustments lately? Which is why you came to me, looking for someone to talk to, am I right?"

He nodded. "Do you remember those letters that I was carrying in school one day? The onethat Hanabishi tried to read?"

"How can I forget. You decked Recca squarely on the head with your biology textbook."

"He deserved it anyway..." He smirked as the memory struck him as humorous. "Those letters came from my cousins...they want to reconcile with me again."

"That's wonderful, Mi-chan! You must be elated..."

"That wasn't exactly the feeling I have when I first read those letters, Fuuko. I was very well aware that I was the one who turned my back on them eight years ago. But as I read those letters, I realized just how much I really missed them--and how much I missed my former self. However, I was afraid that they will not like what I have become under the tutelage of Meguri Kyoza. And yet, I could feel the old me trying to break free from the
cage I had created to protect it. I needed someone to talk to, so I came to you."

"But why me? Yanagi is a lot more better listener and she gives better advice than I, why not her?"

The Ensui master shook his head. "I can't exactly feel at ease with Yanagi-san, Fuuko. She looked too much like my oneechan and I'm afraid of what will happen to me, or her, if I broke down like what happened just then. At least with you, I could feel slightly relaxed.You realized that you're the first friend I have who is not intimidated by me."

"T-thank you," Fuuko said stuttering, feeling a blush creeping up her cheeks.

Mikagami was gazing contemplatively at the playground. "Does this place hold many memories for you?" he asked her.

"Huh?" What's he getting at this time? "I do have a lot good memories here when I was younger--there are also some bad ones, but they're not important now."

"I see..." Mikagami walked to the tree and picked up his schoolbag. Fuuko followed his example.

As the two passed the entranceway, Fuuko paused to look back. The snow was still coming down and by tomorrow the place will be partially concealed in white, and once again she will remember what had happened there nine years ago. Unconsciously, she secured the scarf snuggly on her shoulders.

"Don't let it bother you, Fuuko," she heard Mikagami speak from behind. "You're a lot stronger now than you were before... No one is going to hurt you like that again..."

"I know," she said. "But still...everything that happened here is permanently ingrained in..." She trailed off when she suddenly realized what Mikagami just implied. But the only people she ever told were Ganko, Recca, Yanagi, and Domon, and she knew that none of them would ever tell Mikagami, or any other person for that matter, even if it is to make small talk. Then that would mean... She turned to look at him, her eyes as wide as saucers and
her jaw nearly dropping.

"Yes, Fuuko," he admitted, answering her silent question. "It was me that saved you from those kids years ago." He paused momentarily. "It was one of the memories that I forgot about when oneechan died so I didn't recognized you immediately when we first met in the mirror house. Then again you seemed to have not much of a recollection of what really happened when you recovered..."

"No," Fuuko found herself saying. "I still remember everything clearly. I guess you didn't know that my eyesight was damaged during the attack, so I never really saw the face of the boy who saved me...until now, that is..."

"I see..." He looked at her thoughtfully. "It's good to know that you are all right and doing well, Fuuko." He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, suddenly unsure of what to say next.The look on her face had changed from shock to something akin to happiness, and there were tears in her eyes as well. He began to back away slowly.

But Fuuko lunged at him, capturing him in a near bone-crushing hug and nearly making the two of them topple on the pavement. Fortunately for them, Mikagami managed to recapture his sense of balance. Unfortunately for _him_, there was a young married couple was passing through the street at that moment; the husband gave him a thumbs up sign, while the wife was giggling insanely at the two of them. And for the first time, in a long time, the
water-wielder felt his face heat up in embarrassment.

The wind girl, however, saw none of this. She was so deliriously happy at finding her savior that she didn't realize _who_ she was hugging until reason tapped itself into her skull. *Oh, Kirisawa,* it said. *I know you're happy and all that...but _this_ is _still_ Mikagami.*

Her eyes snapped open. "Sorry, Mi-chan," she apologized after pulling away from him, quickly. She was blushing big time. "I guess I got so excited... I never thought that it would be you... I mean, you're so distant... Who would've expected that... Oh god! I sound like an idiot!" And with that slapped her hands to her mouth to stop herself from babbling.

Still blushing himself, Mikagami said, "You weren't that embarrassed yourself when you held me in your arms back at the tree house just an hour ago."

"That was different!" she defended her earlier action. "You were vulnerable... You needed a shoulder to cry on... This is another story!"

"It's alright, Fuuko," he said, sighing. "I have a funny feeling I need to get used again to such...um, _physical_ contact. If my cousins should suddenly show up, I would like to be prepared."

"Are they that bad?"

"I used to live with them. I used to play with them. I used to get into trouble with them. They're that bad," he said in a deadpan manner.

Fuuko chuckled. She must meet those cousins of his some time. One end of the scarf fell lazily on her right side, and she suddenly remembered something that she was supposed to do years ago. "Oh!" She unwound the scarf from her neck and shoulders, folding it into a neat bundle, and presented it with both hands outstretched to the swordsman. "I know it's the best I could do in such short notice, but better late than never. And...um, sorry if I wore it."

Wordlessly, he took the bundle from her with both hands. "Thank you." Unfurling it, he fingered the material as if inspecting the stitches. "Mifuyu made this for me, you know," he said matter-of-factly. "She got mad at me for losing this..."

"Um...Mi-chan..." Fuuko had a confused look on her face. "How did you come to this place? I just realized that this isn't exactly the route you take on your way home, right? And I'm wondering how did you come to pass by on the day I was in trouble?"

"By accident," he admitted honestly. "I was on my way home from a kendo lesson with Meguri Kyoza when I took a shortcut on an unfamiliar street and I ended up lost. I was walking on for what seemed like hours when I heard the fighting... You were crying and those boys were laughing... Mifuyu had taught me to respect girls... I was angry with those boys for beating you up, so I used what I learned from kendo practice that day on them."
He looked at the scarf in his hands. "I ditched this before I dove in to the fight, because I don't think I can fight that well if I'm all trussed up like a mummy..."

That got a giggle from his companion.

"Also," he continued, "Mifuyu would never forgive me if I ruined her masterpiece. She was very proud of herself when she finished knitting this, although I protested the fact that it was too big and too long for me to handle. I kept on tripping on one end of it when I wore it for the first few days... She still got mad at me though when I came home without it, but after I explained what happened she was proud of me..."

"You know..." Fuuko began again. "I waited for you for a long time to show up again in this place so I could return the scarf back to you. Why didn't you show up?"

"I tried. Believe me, I did. I tried to retrace my steps back where I last saw you, but I could not remember the place. A few weeks later, Meguri extended my training time, which left me tired and wanting to do nothing but go straight home and rest."

"Uh hum..."

"But...when I saw you don it on school that day, on the day those winds covered everyone up with leaves, I just knew that it was you..."

Fuuko blushed at his use of words, it sounded too much like a romantic line in a movie. She turned away from him to hide her face. "Look, Mi-chan," she said. "It's getting late and I have to go home. I promised mom that I'd help her prepare dinner." She glanced at him. "Why don't you join us tomorrow? You know, just us, the gang. We're going sledding in the park--that is if it continues to snow all night?"

"Uhm...I don't know if I can go tomorrow," he answered her. "I have some projects that needed to be finished. But thanks anyway for the invitation."

"Oh..." She sounded disappointed. But her face broke into a warm smile. "Well...this certainly has been an unexpected day. I feel as if I know you now more than ever, Mikagami." She paused, then added, "...And thank you for being there, when I was down on my luck..."

"Thank you also, Fuuko," he said simply. His face still remained solemn but there was now an aura of peace radiating from it, further enhancing the new shine in his eyes.

"I...uh...I..." Fuuko stuttered as she continued looking at those eyes. "I really have to go now! Bye!" Picking up her bag from where she dropped it, the Fuujin master walked away quickly. Inside her head, the Tomboy Psyche was smirking smugly while the Girl Psyche was banging her head continuously against a wall.

Taking a last glance behind her, she noticed that Mikagami was still staring at her. He gave her a faint smile--it was the kind of smile that made him more handsome and could cause a majority of women to faint in perpetual bliss if it had been meant for them--and she felt her steps falter a bit. Somewhere inside the depths of her mind, the Girl Psyche finished tying up the Tomboy Psyche and took full control.

Mikagami saw Fuuko trip slightly and come to a stop. "Aw! To Hell with it!" he heard her exclaim to the space in front of her.

Fuuko retraced the steps leading up to him. And when she was standing in front of the Ensui master, she grabbed his shoulders for support, stood up on her toes, and kissed him on the mouth.

She felt him stiffen up but he made no attempt to pull away from her. And when she was done, she didn't bother to meet him in the eyes, not wishing to see if he was pleased or offended by her daring. Let the repercussions come later. All she wanted to do right now is to savor the sweet moment of the intimate contact that she initiated while it was still there.

Watching her pick up the schoolbag from the pavement, Mikagami could only stand rooted on the spot as she walked away from him. A hand moved to touch his lips, remembering the warmth and softness of her lips pressing against it just recently.

A smile lit his face and a thought ran through his head as he turned to make his way home.


The park had never looked so good in the morning of winter. The lawns wherein lush, green grass used to grace the first three seasons were now covered in a thick, smooth blanket of pristine snow while frail crystalline icicles hung precariously from the branches of trees like sparkling chandeliers, greeting revelers with their wondrous beauty. The sun goddess, Amaterasu, cast her blessings over the diamondesque scene as she slowly rose from her resting place in the sea to hold her reign above the sky, while ordinary mortals cheered and worshiped her from below for allowing them to witness the splendor.

It was the first snow day of Winter. Let the festivities begin...

"Oh Kaoru..."

The Kougan Anki wielder glanced at the direction of the call and promptly got a snowball in the face for his trouble.

"Gotcha!" Ganko laughed as she ran up the path. Kondo hung for his life over her head,bouncing up and down with each step. "You've gotten slow, Kaoru-niichan!"

Wiping snow off his face, the young boy looked disapprovingly at the even younger girl. "Where did you learn to throw like that?" he asked, scowling as he shook some snow off his hair. "You couldn't hit the side of a barn before if your life depended on it... Why now?" His scowl turned even darker when he realized that Recca was also laughing at his predicament.

"She sure--*snigger!*--caught you there, Fang Boy!" Recca managed to say in between laughs. "You--*guffaw!*--should've seen the--*hahaha!*--look on your face when--*hehe!*--it hit you! It was priceless!"

Sitting beside the flame-caster in the bench, Yanagi smiled politely--or at least it looked something like that--for her shoulders were shaking slightly with repressed laughter.

"Fuuko-neechan has been teaching me how to aim and throw properly," said Ganko with complete childish innocence.

"Hahahaha...huh? Urk!" Recca stopped laughing cold turkey, paled, and slumped against the bench in shock as visions of a teenage Ganko with a cluster of kunai on her hands danced on his head.

Kaoru shivered inwardly too. Apparently he was getting the same idea all too well.

The cute puppet master just continued to smile sweetly, unaware of the nightmare she has just unleashed.

"Ganko-chan..." Yanagi called the little girl's attention. "Where's Fuuko? Isn't she supposed to be with you?"

"She was just right behind me..." Ganko turned to look back at the path she came from, as did the other three.

At a short distance, Fuuko could be seen ambling along the pathway with a mysterious little smile on her face as she admired the scenery.

"What's wrong with her?" Recca asked Ganko.

"I don't know," admitted the girl. "She's been like that since she came home."

Yanagi noticed something amiss of her friend's appearance. "Why isn't she wearing the scarf today?" she asked. "I thought she loved that scarf?"

Ganko shrugged. "She came home without it. I asked her what happened to it, and she just twirled me around her room and said that she returned it..."

"She returned it?!" Recca and Yanagi both said at the same time, startling Kaoru who hadn't heard the story yet. "Who?"

"She didn't say," said Ganko. "She just kept on smiling...and she was blushing most of the time too."

Unaware that she was the topic of a conversation going on, Fuuko reflected on the events yesterday and her feelings when she woke up that morning. She was surprised enough as it is when Mikagami came to her and spilled out a summarized version of his life story while she listened and later comforting him when his bottled up emotions came bursting out. She surprised herself when she actually gave him some excellent advice, now that she thought
of it. Then came the bombshell... After Mikagami recovered from his troubles, he told her that it was him who rescued her from Kojiro and the boys years ago. She was so shocked and so happy, she completely forgot that she was not supposed to act as some giddy, lovesick schoolgirl and she hugged him! For god's sakes! She even kissed him! On the lips even!

That little memory was enough to make her blush furiously again. Ooh... She has been feeling happily lightheaded when she got home, when she fell asleep last night, and when she woke up that morning, though there was a muffled little voice in the back of her head telling her that she acted too impulsively to consider the consequences. How was she ever gonna face him again, especially in front of their friends? Will he be angry at her for taking advantage of him? Or will her reputation as a fighter be ruined when word gets out that she's fallen for someone who will take her place in the fights when she couldn't fight back? And how will they see each other now? Still as comrades? As friends? Or as...

"Is that a blush I see on you, Fuuko?" Recca's head popped into her line of vision.

"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!" Fuuko shrieked in surprise and delivered a fierce backhand at the same time. She certainly wasn't expecting Recca to interrupt her musing. And she certainly didn't mean to hit him like that too.

The ninja flew into the air and landed in a snow-concealed bush. Unfortunately, it was a brier bush.

"I'm really, _really_ sorry, Recca," Fuuko apologized to her childhood friend for the umpteenth time.

The receiver of her apologies, currently keeled over on Yanagi's lap as the healer carefully pulled out thorns from his--(Ahem!)--posterior, glowered angrily at the wind girl. "Sorry ain't gonna get you anywhere, Kirisawa!" he shouted. "I've never been so humiliated in front of everyone in all of my life!"

From behind the bench, Kaoru, Ganko, and Kondo were lying on the snow nearly out ofbreath from laughing so hard. Recca would deal with them later. Great...all he need now was for...

"I'm here!" Domon ran up the path, dragging a sled with a piece of cord. "Sorry I was late but... Hanabishi! What _happened_ to you?"

Groaning silently, Recca wished that he never got up from bed that morning.

After Yanagi had pulled out the last thorn and healed his wounds, Recca jumped at the master of the Dosei no Wa, who was rolling on the ground laughing hysterically. Kaoru and Kondo, who both told Domon how Recca had startled Fuuko and ended up in bed of thorns, were pulled into the fray by the flame-caster who grabbed them with an outstretched arm as they watched from the sidelines.

As the fight lengthened, Fuuko used her Fuujin on a bank of snow, creating a veritable blizzard that engulfed the boys. When the storm cleared there were now four snowmen--ranging from sizes large, medium, small, and extra small--standing where the fight had been.

Ganko cried in glee, grabbed some pebbles, and started making faces at the Kaoru and Kondo sized snowmen. In an equally mischievous mood, Yanagi followed the little girl's example and did the same with the medium-sized snowman.

"Bakas!" Fuuko ranted. "I thought we were here to go sledding, not fighting?!"

"I must say, I liked the way you handled the situation, Kirisawa," said an admiring voice behind her. A _recognizable_ voice.

Fuuko felt the blood draining and rushing up to her face at the same time. A very mean feat by itself. Slowly, she turned around until she came face-to-face with a smirking Mikagami.

She heard Ganko and Yanagi gasp from behind her. And they have a very good reason to.The Ensui master was wearing a _familiar_ muffler--it was royal blue with a lone silver gray stripe running horizontally from one end to the other--and he was holding a bouquet of long-stemmed roses in one hand.

"These are for you," he said rather reticently, handing out the bouquet towards her. "As a Thank You for being there for me when I was...feeling troubled..." There was a faint hint of red on his normally pale cheeks.

Still speechless with shock, Fuuko took the flowers from him. It was a dozen white roses still in half-bloom. The roses weren't entirely snowy white. There was a distinctive subtle magenta at the outer tips of the petals, making it seem like the flowers were blushing as well.

Tears brimmed from Fuuko's eyes as she caught a whiff of the perfume. No one has ever given her flowers before! Not even Domon whose mother owns a flower shop--all the big lug ever did was make declarations of love and tried to grope her with no success ever coming his way. And here was Mikagami, the most distant boy in their entire school, giving her flowers as a way of appreciation...even though she did kiss him yesterday as a token of her gratitude...

She blushed and paled again as she remembered that little incident, her face nearly resembling one of the blushing roses. She sneaked a glance at Mikagami. There was no hint of malice on the sword master's face, however there was an unusual glint in his eyes...

There was an ominous growling sound coming from the direction of the snowmen, and both teenagers glanced at that area.

Domon was burning an angry red. He was _so_ furious, the snow was melting right off him. Right beside him, Recca's jaw had fallen off its hinges as he took in the scarf Mikagami was wearing, the flowers in Fuuko's arms and the flush on both of their cheeks. Kaoru just looked plain confused at the entire situation but he knew trouble when he sees it, so he slowly backs away from Domon... Yanagi has a benevolent look on her face, she could only
guess what really happened yesterday but she got the general idea. Ganko and Kondo were hugging each other, not as a gesture of having warm fuzzy feelings, but out of sheer terror as they watched the volcano that is Domon...

"MIKAGAMI!" the big man erupted, causing Recca to jump in his Hime's arms and shaking off several icicles within a ten-mile radius. "WHAT'S THE MEANING OF THIS--THIS _OUTRAGE_? ARE YOU TRYING TO STEAL MY BELOVED FUUKO-CHAN FROM THE MAN SHE TRULY LOVES? ARE YOU THAT TIRED OF LIVING?"

Fuuko fumed. How dare that gorilla assume that she was in love with him! She was aboutto retort with an _answer_ of her own, when she felt a strong slim hand grasped hers and pulled her back.

Mikagami took a step forward, still holding on to Fuuko's hand. "No..." he said tonelessly. His free hand slipped inside his coat pocket and pulled out the Ensui. He looked at the irate man straight in the eye, gave him a smug smirk, and added, "I'm here to save her from the delusional ogre who just doesn't know how to appreciate her."

"WHAAAAAAAAAAT!" Domon took the likeness of an oni. "THAT'S IT! YOU DIE! YOU B--"

"Tsurara Hebi!" Mikagami plunged the end of the Ensui on the snow-covered ground. The majestic ice serpent sprouted from the snow, rushing towards the advancing Earth master with its huge fangs exposed in anticipation of the oncoming battle.

"Come on!" The water-wielder pulled at her hand, urging Fuuko to run with him. "Let's get out of here while the icicle snake is still standing!"

Sure enough, the counterfeit serpent was in the process of being smashed in to ice cubes by the too furious Domon. It was time to make themselves scarce.

"Did you realized what you've just done, Mi-chan?" Fuuko asked the Water master in a reproving tone as they ran towards the park exit, hands still linked with one another as they did so. "That was so _childish_ of you, you know that?"

Mikagami looked at her with a complacent grin and laughter in his eyes, and for a brief moment she could only imagine what he looked like as a young child. "I know," he answered her. "I haven't had that much fun since I've lived with my cousins! And you know what?"

Fuuko didn't get a chance to ask what immediately, as Domon's wailing cry is broadcasted all over the park, frightening away most of the people within the vicinity. She tightened her hold on the bouquet Mikagami had given her as the two of them quickened their pace.

There was no need to ask now what he was going to say. If what he had told her was true, then the group is going to have many of an interesting time ahead of them.

She found herself laughing. And from the now _amused_ smile on his face, Mikagami was laughing also, albeit silently. Fuuko wasn't just laughing at the future jests the older boy was going to pull on the others; she was also laughing for herself... Never had she felt so good in her life! Here she was, a well-known tomboy, holding hands with the handsomest boy in town, leading her to a safer place, as she carried a dozen roses. It feels wonderful to
be a girl!

Forget Winter. It felt more like Spring has come.

Author's Note:
I'm done! I can't believe it!
I'm my own worst critic when it comes to my writing. I still could not believe that I actually wrote a fanfic when I'm perfectly satisfied with reading other people's work. Now, just by looking at the end product, I'm satisfied that I still haven't lost my creative writing touch. However, I was pretty high on chocolate when I wrote some of the more amusing parts and I'm just not the romantic type either but I think I did fairly well.
I don't know about you, but I'm gonna stop here and go back to reading fantasy novels or play RPGs in the ol' Playstation.
Until then...good-bye.