† Chapter Thirty-Eight: Home †

HER HEART POUNDED so hard inside of her chest that she swore he could hear its rapid thumping, especially considering that they were only inches apart inside of his deluxe bed.

She was rolled over on her side, facing the opposite direction, staring at the door, unable to sleep.

Ryu was perfectly still, laying on his back, counting the stucco points in the ceiling.

They had been laying together in silence for ten seemingly endless minutes now, unable to find the right words to say to each other, especially in the intimate, yet awkward, situation they were in at the moment.

Sakura sighed, the only sound that had been made since they got inside the bed together. She felt comforted by his strong presence, but also disappointed. This wasn't as romantic as she thought it was going to be.

"Ryu?" She broke the silence, unable to bear it any longer.


She clutched the covers up to her neck. "What's it like . . . not knowing who you really are, not knowing about your family or even your life?"

He pondered the question. "Hmph." He hadn't ever been asked that before. "I don't have any choice but to deal with it. I live each day as it comes. That's all I can ever really do."

Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see her petite frame, laying on her side. She was a curvy shape on his bed.

"How do you live your life, Ryu? —Just by doing what Daichi wants you to do?"

"It would seem so, wouldn't it?" he threw the question back at her. "Daichi helped me in this new, unfamiliar world and in return, I owe him my services. It's as black-and-white as that."

Ryu's words were packed with more meaning than he was leading her to believe. She could tell that even though he stated his life in simple, monotone colors, there was more he couldn't tell her because he was unable to express it.

He made it sound as if Daichi was a necessary ally, but Daichi was the head of a monstrously powerful organization that "helped" people. Kazuki Enterprises was bad news, Sakura was certain of that now, but the fact that Ryu had somehow gotten involved in it blurred all the black and white hues into shades of indistinguishable gray.



Innocently and naively, she approached him with her offer. "How would you feel if I hugged you right now?" He sounded so lonely, it was breaking her heart. A hug was the best she could come up with. It always worked with her girlfriends.

"I . . . don't know," he replied. It was the truth. He couldn't remember the last time he had received a hug, if ever.

Gradually, in a bold move that tightened her dry throat, Sakura rolled over and swiftly threw her arms around him in a reassuring embrace, finally closing the distance between them.

It seemed as though Ryu wasn't even breathing. He showed no signs of life, except for the fact that he kept his eyes opened, even though that could be deceptive from time to time.

Sakura considered withdrawing her arms. The tension between them was already awkward enough; she was probably feeding more to the gauche beast. She couldn't turn away from him now, though; she had already gone too far to stop.

"How do you feel?" she asked, trying to sound certain of herself.

Ryu faltered for his words. "I don't know what to do."

Sakura almost smiled. That was the first time she had heard him say those words. She could tell that most of the time, he was uncertain of what to do, but he finally vocalized it.

"You can start by putting your arms around me," she suggested gently, finding the whole situation unexplainably amusing.

She didn't expect him to listen to what she said, so she was stunned when she heard the rustle of covers as he turned to his side to face her, gently placing his brawny arms around her warm, small body.

". . . Like this?" he asked quietly.

She could detect a hint of uncertainty in his husky tone and she was relieved to hear it. Amazingly enough, the instant that she felt the protecting warmth of his embrace, she was overcome with sleep. Imminent slumber ticked her eyelids, daring her to close them and fall asleep. Already, she was drifting off. Dreamily, she smiled, saying to him, "Yeah, just like that."

Fearlessly, she cuddled up against him, rubbing her head against his clothed chest and inhaled his scent. He smelled natural, and yet, there was a distinctive flare to the aura surrounding his manly body. The grin on her face spread to the corners of her lips. She would cherish this moment for a long time.

"Ryu?" she intoned softly, her mouth heavier to move because of how sleepy she had just gotten.

"What?" He sounded a tad bit annoyed this time.

Sakura yawned, relaxing into him. "Good night," she said to him, closing her eyes for certain this time.

Ryu hadn't blinked at all since she embraced him, but he was easing into her as well. A beat passed and then he responded. ". . . Good night." He closed his eyes as he finished the sentence and within moments of each other, they both fell asleep peacefully.

Taro had made up his mind and there was no stopping him. He had made more of the silver razor windmills last night before going to sleep, so now he had a bigger pouch full of them. He knew he was going to need him if he was going to successfully break into Kazuki Enterprise Headquarters and snatch Sakura out, especially if it was against her will.

He had sharpened his daggers to a fine point this morning when he woke up, but the most important weapon he was going to carry with him belonged to his father.

Taro opened his shoji screen and stalked over to his mother's room. He slid open the shoji and stepped inside, whereupon he turned to his left, where his mother housed her Gaia shrine.

The shrine was an ornate, golden table with a sanguine red cloth. On each of the four corners was a candle colored appropriately to the element it represented, with a flower set in front of it. Fresh rose petals were scattered throughout the table daily and they surrounded the one-foot tall statue of the all-bearing mother Gaia, the Earth Goddess.

In this sculpted depiction, the great Mother who bore and shaped the world stood proud and mighty. In one hand, she held a lucky rabbit and in the other, a cherry blossom.

Above the shrine, however, on the wall, that was where Taro had focused his attention.

Framed at the perfect angle was the steel blade of Noboru Masuyo's katana, which was said to be able to cut cleanly through human bones.

The gold of the hilt glimmered from the morning sunlight pouring through his mother's bedroom window.

Taro had only used his father's sword once before. His father had promised him it would be his when he turned sixteen, but he was only allowed to use it in the direst of situations.

Well, if this isn't considered "dire," I don't know what is

Taro stood on his tiptoes, lifting his arms up, reaching purposefully with his fingers for the katana. He held out his tongue, while he trained his muscles to obtain it.

His fingertips brushed the hilt and he sprung up, seizing it at once. He wavered as he landed, nearly knocking into his mother's shrine. He regained his composure, the sheathed katana still in his hands.

He pulled the blade out and admired the fineness of the steel. He gazed at his mirrored reflection. He was getting intoxicated with power just from holding the formidable sword. It belonged to him now and he couldn't wait to control it.

Taro returned the katana to the sheath and he held it to his side as he strode into the main room. His mother was inside the tokonoma, but knowing what he had just done, she sped out of there to blockade him from leaving through the door.

"Taro, what's gotten into you all of a sudden?" Hiroko interrogated, her concern for her son gnawing at her facial expression. "Last night, it seemed like you had given up."

Taro was speechless—almost. "Are you kidding me!? She's in love with her freak of a bodyguard. You think I'm just going to sit around and wait for her to get hurt not just by him, but by Kazuki Enterprises?"

"Taro, you can't destroy the Kazukis," Hiroko reminded him steadfastly. It was something she didn't like acknowledging because it was true.

"Who says I'm going to destroy them? I just want to get Sakura out of there." Taro moved to his left, hoping to maneuver around his mother's wheelchair, but she obstructed his path once more.

"And in order to do that, you'll have to destroy some of the employees. There's no way you can possibly do that single-handedly," Hiroko stated in her wise voice.

Taro tried to go the other way. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mom." He was thwarted once again.

"Taro Masuyo, listen to me," Hiroko demanded in her calm, yet authoritative tone. "If one Masuyo, if any one Gaia warrior, could have dismantled Kazuki Enterprises, trust me, it would have been done ages ago. But there's a reason why it hasn't happened, because going to face them alone is suicide."

Taro stopped and averted his eyes downward. He could no longer meet his mother's practical stare. She was right; of course, she was. She was his mother. It was her job to be right when it came to matters like these. But in his heart, he knew he could not allow Sakura to stay with the Kazukis another day longer.

Hiroko sighed, relenting. "Taro, if you're honestly this determined to get Sakura, at least let me call the Wazukas and get you some backup," she insisted. That was the only way she would allow her son to walk out the house, with guaranteed cavalry.

Taro shook his head, opposing the idea. "I'll deal with this alone. This is my problem, after all," he countered, grasping the katana for strength to execute his words. "If I had protected her the right way from the beginning, we wouldn't be in this mess." He glided past his mother this time and stomped towards the door. It might have been a suicide mission, but he was ready to die in a blaze of glory.

Hiroko could hear the anguish in his voice, the self-loathing and resentment.

"Taro!" his mother shouted.

He ignored her plea and slid open the door. He froze, but not before a stunned gasp escaped him and Hiroko simultaneously.

Sakura looked absolutely radiant underneath the sunlight. Her pink shirt was defined with a few wrinkles, but it didn't detract from her overall astonishing beauty.

She looked well-rested and confident. She had changed from when he saw her last night. She looked different, somehow, more weathered by the hours.

"Sakura?" He couldn't help but to say her name. He just couldn't believe she was right here, on his doorstep, like an angel fallen from the sky.

"Ohayoo!" she chirped brightly, the remnants of weary sleep underneath her eyes disappearing quickly. "I decided that I want to live with you, if the offer's still standing of course, but if it isn't, which I would completely understand, I do have somewhere I can stay for a little while. But if you would still have me, I would love to be . . . well, had I guess." She laughed briefly in nervous intervals. Oh god, I probably sound like such an idiot right now . . . Who'd want to have an idiot in their household?

For the longest while, no one spoke. Taro and Hiroko only gawked at her, astounded by her willing appearance. Sakura kept her eyes solely on Taro. She hadn't even noticed Hiroko in the main room.

Without warning, Taro threw up his arms and secured them around her waist, pulling her towards him, and squeezing her tight in a suddenly warm embrace.

Sakura gasped, not expecting the rapid movement, but she eased into his arms, where she was reminded of spending the night in Ryu's bed, holding each other. She closed her eyes, breathing out loudly.

Hiroko beamed. Her spirit was flourished by the affectionate display. "Welcome home, Sakura," she said very simply, though her words carried with them the weight of the whole world.

Sakura smiled brightly. I don't know them very well yet, but Hiroko reminds me a lot of my mom. When they died, I didn't think I'd ever be part of any family again. I remember what it felt like, coming back to my house after the accident, when I first met Taro. My house, it was so cold and empty that I felt like I didn't have a home anymore, no place to belong and nowhere to go. But right now, in this moment, I know that isn't true.