When the three found the hiking trail, none of them had said a word. When they saw all the broken trees and fallen trunks, they knew what their story would be. Tobi said that they would use the earthquake as their excuse, but Sadami had no clue what would explain the blood he could barely get off of his face and clothes; he'd only managed to get most of it off of his skin thanks to the nearby stream.

They both had one side of Chikako, who couldn't stand on her own. She was hurt and exhausted. Tobi kept anxiously glancing at Sadami, who had yet to respond to his idea. He just kept his attention ahead. He had put it together quickly; the creature suddenly breaking apart right before his doom, Tobi's indifference to the repulsive sight. It didn't take a genius to know that he had something to do with it, but Sadami knew it was impossible.

But creatures don't just fall apart! All of this was exhausting his already tired mind. He finally let it go for now.

"How's your shoulder?" Chikako asked weakly. Tobi had forgotten that he'd been raked and looked at his torn sweater to see the swollen flesh with dried blood flaking off.

"It's fine. I've had worse happen." Being stabbed in the abdomen was pain; this was nothing. He tried to maneuver his left sleeve so that she didn't have to see it.

"Do you think it'll get infected?" Her worry over his tiny scratch compared to her numerous cuts and Sadami's foggy mind was almost adorable. He felt it was safe to smile, but he couldn't give her one even if he willed himself to.

"It'll be fine. It's you who I'm concerned about."

Sheepishly, she looked ahead and limped onward, "It doesn't hurt anymore. I'm just tired."

"We all are." Sadami said, relieving Tobi. He peered over Chikako to look at him, "But Mom's back at home losing her shit. Let's just make sure we don't make a big deal out of what happened." He quietly said what he'd been thinking for the past while. He agreed they should blame their lateness on the earthquake despite it had only been minor, but he said they should admit that they were prowling around another cabin they found.

"Sadami, I don't think we should do that." Tobi replied.

"Are you gonna blame Chikako's injuries on another tree falling?" He raised a brow. Tobi shrunk back; he remembered that?

Sadami Akiyama's memory was to never be underestimated. He quietly kept tabs on everything that didn't add up so that they made sense later. Now he knew something had happened before that Tobi wasn't telling him. It was clear it explained his fascination with the creature and wanting to see the documents.

Tobi stopped.

"Sadami, listen to me."

"What's going on, Tobi? I want to know."

"There are things I don't tell you because you'll freak out."

Chikako was caught in the middle again, being forced to listen to the two burned out and aching young men argue.

"I only freak out when I realize you're not telling me the truth!"

"I never lied to you, I just didn't tell you!" A tree did fall that day… but leaving out undesirable details was still an act of deception.

"How am I supposed to trust you if you don't even trust me?" Here we fucking go again.

"I do trust you! Would you let it go? We're fine now, and we need to get back in case something else happens." Tobi wanted this nonsense to be over. His decidedly frightening glare was enough to shake Sadami into submission.

"I'm sorry." He grumbled cynically. Even when he was technically right, Sadami hated fighting. He just wanted to see his mom, have a hot shower, get some rest, and then hope he could suppress this memory forever.

"Can we please go home now?" Chikako mumbled in near tears. Her fatigued and traumatized state was enough to grab their sympathy, "Please?" She represented exactly what the both of them were thinking.

"We're getting there, Chikako." Sadami folded his arms and walked ahead of them. He still had a bitter taste in his mouth, but ignored it. Tobi sourly followed and helped Chikako up the steep hillside that was inches deep with snow.

And when they finally, finally made it back to the main village and found their cabin, the relief still couldn't settle in. For there were some houses that had cracked exteriors and people were outside complaining. The three were surprised they didn't notice the aftershock that followed the earthquake, but that insignificant shift in the earth was nothing compared to what they'd encountered. They were lucky it wasn't one of a higher magnitude.

Their cabin was fine despite some things had been knocked down. Howl had been shaken, but he and Asami were fine… well, she wasn't fine at all.

She saw them coming and hurried outside with a flashlight; the power had gone out which meant no heater in this frozen abode.

Perhaps the world was just teasing them while in their predicament to add insult to injury.

Howl hurried ahead of her, giddy and ready to jump on Chikako, but he stopped and cocked his head. He smelled all sorts of scents on them and saw how worn out and dreary they looked.

"What the hell happened to the three of you?" It was rare when they heard Asami curse — she had been frightened for over the past hour. She shined the light on Chikako and inadvertently blinded her, "Oh my god! Sweetheart, what happened?" She moved Chikako's hair around and saw the cuts on her face.

"We got caught in the earthquake." Tobi breathed, "The path got blocked so we had to find a way around."

"A way around? No! You stay put where you three are when you're in danger and wait for someone to come get you!" She shouted, "I've never been so scared in my life!" Tobi looked away shamefully, "I was about to call the police when I couldn't find any of you out there. You should've been back before the earthquake even happened!"

"How were we supposed to know it was going to happen, Mom?" Sadami defended Tobi, but it was mostly because he didn't want to hear her shrieking the rest of the night. "Besides, it was myidea that we find another way back." Tobi gave him a surprised glare, but it was too late to make any oppositions.

"Sadami," she pinched her forehead and squeezed her eyes to avoid any tears. She seemed to be taking a moment to pause and settle, "what would have happened if you never found your way back? You could have been killed, I would have lost my boys! These paths are steep, one wrong step and you could've—"

"Mom!" He hugged her; she squeezed his ribs into his lungs, "It's okay." How ironic that Sadami, who'd inherited a more severe case of his mother's anxiety disorder, was the one comforting her. They were just different people who emoted different ways. Besides, he'd been wanting to hug her for the longest time; to remind her that he'd never leave her.

Tobi looked at Chikako, who looked more sullen than ever. But it was probably her exhaustion. The lights went back on in the house and Howl started barking. Asami brought them into the light where she saw how mortifying they looked. She cleaned Chikako's cuts; they weren't wide or deep enough for any need of stitches, but they looked painful. They would heal into dark scars that would take years to fully fade. It at least took nothing away from her delicate features and noctilucous eyes, but that was not a concern in the slightest.

She hardly spoke a word after her shower, while the boys recuperated and changed their clothes and Tobi snuck the journal out of his jacket before throwing it into the wash. Sadami was just happy to get the flakes of dried blood off of him, to be dressed in clothes that didn't hug his skin and were wet from the melted snow.

Asami kept asking Chikako how she got all those cuts, but she wouldn't speak. She looked so sad, it was odd. Asami was brushing her long blonde hair to try and soothe her, but she wouldn't answer any of her questions. It was almost two in the morning; they just needed sleep.

When Asami was asking Chikako which side of the bed she wanted, she left the room and went into what was initially Sadami's. She curled up into the bed and didn't say another word. "Chikako, what is it?" She pulled the sheets tighter around her and kept silent. Was she angry at her? Asami bashfully stepped away from the door and stopped Sadami from entering. "I think she wants to sleep alone."

He didn't feel like arguing, although he was slightly befuddled at Chikako's want for isolation. "I'll sleep on the couch, then." Asami pulled on his arm.

"No, no. Just spend this one night with me then." She knew Tobi wouldn't want to share his bed, and there wasn't enough room on his anyway.

Sadami grinned, "Don't you think I'm a little too old for that?"

Asami returned one, "Never!" She slowly closed the door to Chikako's room, "Just for tonight… I'd probably feel better with you near me anyway." She admitted. He understood what she meant and he went to Tobi's door.

"Hey Tobi?" He knocked. Tobi was debating whether he wanted to read the notebook or not. His brain probably couldn't digest any words, nor did he feel like having to try and figure out someone's hand writing.

"Yeah?" He rubbed his eyes.

He opened, "I'm gonna be in my mom's room if you need anything."

Tobi was genuinely too tired to care, "Okay."

"Chikako's by herself in the other room…"

"So what?"

"I'm a little worried. What do you think she saw that's worse than what we saw?"

"She's just a little shook up. She'll be fine once she gets some sleep." That's what he hoped. It was what he wanted for the three of them.

Tobi had turned away, and so he didn't see Sadami's grimace, "I didn't mean what I said, by the way." But now he had his attention, "About how you were never honest with me…"

He really had no inclination to make Sadami beg for forgiveness. He never did. But in this case, Tobi really didn't deserve any sympathy from him, "No, don't worry about that. We were both wrong."

"We really did some good tonight; we kept each other alive." His voice exuded a slight warmth in the atmosphere and Tobi nodded.

"I had to. You've kept me alive all these years." That had hit too close to home for the both of them and Sadami tried not to shiver at the thought. Tobi really was tired; now he was saying stupid things.

"I'll see you in the morning." Sadami shut the door and Tobi turned the light off and then lied back down.

...

When the house was finally silent, where even Howl was fast asleep outside of Chikako's door, it became more eerie and desolate. Chikako felt more cut off from the world the more it snowed. She couldn't sleep. She kept looking at the window and turning away in fear that she would be taken again. Not only that, but that the others wouldn't notice. Asami had made it clear who her priorities were, and she didn't blame her, but Chikako truly realized that her life's importance didn't compare to theirs, not to her.

Even Sadami's life was more important to both Asami and Tobi… Chikako knew that. She'd known that from the beginning. None of this angered her at all, and yet it left her feeling empty and abandoned. No one would understand, and she never knew how to bring it up… but she was tired of being confused and sad. But the one person who could have helped her understand her emotions since he made her, was gone.

The pale-blonde girl hated this; she knew she was just selfish. She was missing Asa because he hadn't helped her fully understand herself, but Sadami lost a father and Asami lost a husband, and here she was ruining what was meant to be a holiday in memory of him. It would have been better if they'd just left her in that pit the creature dropped her into.

...

Sadami kept turning his head in his sleep. His eyeballs twitched behind closed lids. He stirred and gasped and moaned. It woke Asami and she turned over. His face contorted with pain. Her precious little baby. Asami rubbed his arm, trying to rouse him as gently as possible.

"Ssshhh. Shh. It's all right." She rubbed his arm and he woke. He blinked his eyes shamefully, strangely feeling them brim with tears. He tried to hide his expression, but mother always knew when their children needed them. "You all right?"

"Yeah." He hoarsely answered.

"Do you need to talk about it?" She asked him.

Sadami's eyes sparkled for a moment, going hot and opaque for a brief moment, but he pressed his lips together and said, "No. I'm fine."

Asami made it clear that she didn't believe him with a single facial gesture.

"Mom, there was an earthquake, I got lost in the forest, and I'm tired. But I'm fine now."

"That's not what I'm talking about, I know that's not what's bothering you."

"Mom — can we please just go back to sleep?" He asked, annoyed by her interrogating and irritable from the lack of sleep. Asami might let her nerves flare every once in a while, but she was also where Sadami learned tolerance and patience. He knew she'd wait it out until he told her... and it frustrated him beyond description. "You know I miss him, okay? But we're here now where he'd want us to be, so can you please drop it?" He begged.

"Listen to me," she said, "I know I wasn't as strong as I should've been these past few months."

"Mom—"

"Listen." She hushed him, and flicked her long, black bangs out of her face, "I know your dad raised you to be strong, to take care of other people, but that doesn't mean swallowing your own emotions."

"I hate it when you do this."

"Do what?"

"Think you know what's going on in my head! Don't you know me by now?" Sadami tried not to let himself raise his voice and wake the already on edge household, but he pressed on. "You think if I was angry or upset, I wouldn't tell anybody. Mom, when have I ever not told anybody when they've pissed me off?" Sadami pressed his lips shut. He'd never used this language in front of her — she wasn't strong enough yet.

But Asami knew that she had both her and his father's temper. Asa didn't like being probed either; he hated it when people tried to dig deeper into his emotions when he already assured them he knew how he felt. He was always the first to step to someone's aid, even a stranger's, but never let people come to his own. Sadami not only looked just like his father, but he was becoming him as well. It was inevitable since birth, thought Asami, that Sadami would have his father's best and worst traits... and his mother's. One thing she knew she and her son shared, was their soft heart. The one that always felt compassion and the need to make people smile no matter what it took.

That's what Sadami had been trying to do all this time; just keep his mother smiling. He didn't want to cry and be miserable, Sadami feared that once he started crying, he wouldn't be able to stop. Asami leaned forward and locked eyes with him. "I know you're angry."

Sadami's face throbbed with blood and he turned away. He didn't want to hear it. "Mom."

"I know it's been hard, but I'm here for you now." Sadami wasn't going to take this; he felt his emotions swelling up and he turned over. He was too exhausted to even slip out of bed. Asami relented. She scooted herself close and rubbed his arm. "I'm here for you." She said again.

Sadami bit his lips, angry and ashamed at not being better at hiding his feelings, but then breathed deeply and let it go. "I know." He took her hand without rolling over to see her. "I know."

...

It was four o'clock in the morning. Tobi was dreaming about rushing through the forest to light torches set along the borders. That was how he would keep the creatures from entering. He had to find ways to make fire each time and he could see them crawling from the distance trying to find a way in. Their limbs were disproportionate to their bodies and their heads could turn in any direction so they could keep an eye on him.

If the fires died out, then they would come.

"Tobi-kun,"

He jerked out of his sleep, more surprised from the touch than the content of his dream, but he immediately recognized those blue eyes in the darkness. Irate from being woken, he rolled back over and closed his eyes.

"Go back to sleep, brat." His voice rasped.

"I can't sleep."

No response…

"I've been… I've been needing to talk to you."

"Can't this wait?" He flipped over and rubbed his red-rimmed eyes, not helping their already scarlet color. He saw the dried cuts on her face and the desperate look in her eyes. They were watering as if it was going to prattle some response out of him. Not this early in the morning it wasn't. "Chikako, that thing is dead. It's fine now." He closed his eyes.

"That's the second one we've seen. And my room's the only one with a window."

"Then why'd you lie down in there?"

"I don't know!" Her throat swelled as she swallowed a sob. Tobi started to actually wake up a little and see her pained expression, "I'm scared, Tobi… I was so scared when that thing took me."

No, please don't fucking do this. Tobi blamed lack of sleep for how soft his heart was right now.

"I know." He sat up and let Chikako come close for an embrace; she hid her face in his hurt shoulder. "We were scared too, you know. As soon as that thing grabbed you, we came straight after you."

"I heard you both calling my name… but then when you found me down in that cave, I didn't think you'd both try so hard to find me."

Tobi wouldn't mention that it was an accident he landed down there, but she wasn't wrong. He looked into her eyes, "Of course we would… why would you think otherwise?"

Chikako paused for a moment and wiped her eyes. Her silence puzzled him, but he waited for her to reply. "I'm sorry about your jacket." She baffled him even more, "I got some of my throw up on it."

Tobi held a laugh in his throat and shook his head, "Chikako, it's a jacket! It's in the wash right now." Chikako wanted to smile too, but she couldn't.

"I'm sorry I kissed you." Then his mood sank. It was barely a touch of their lips that it didn't even count. He'd actually forgotten until just then with everything else that happened. "I just thought we weren't going to make it… I wanted to see what it felt like, to see if maybe you'd feel something… I love you, Tobi-kun." She started up again in tears. Tobi made a gesture pleading her not to start again. "You can't tell me I don't know what love is!" She suddenly said, "As soon as I saw Sadami, I loved him. He's family to me! And Asami… Howl… and you too!"

That's what she meant by love?

"You were family the moment I saw you. It wasn't until after you started liking me that I felt something more." She bitterly stated; Tobi was at a loss of words. All this time, she had better sense. "But I mean nothing to anyone."

Tobi went pale.

"Chikako, what are you talking about?"

"Asami said herself that she would've been devastated if she lost you and Sadami. It's not fair that I'm willing to give everything I can to make you all happy, and yet I'm not loved back!"

"Chikako!" He took her face and made her look him straight in the eyes, "Don't you ever think that you're not appreciated." She froze, "Sadami and I went into the depths of Hell to get you back. We did it because we wanted you back! Asami wanted you on this trip as much as she wanted the rest of us." He let her go — he had her attention, "I know what it's like to feel unloved…" he said in a grim tone, "Believe me, I do… Asami and Sadami are just going through something else right now; they just lost someone they loved."

He looked at her again. But this time, it was different. Blondie, brat, whatever, was no child. Someone who was made and only spent three years of their life in a scientist's lab, only knowing what Asa may have shown her, of course she was going to be enthusiastic and excited to see more!

This wasn't a three-year-old in a young woman's body; this was just someone finally seeing the world for the first time and being eager about it.

Tobi had been wrong; he'd been so wrong.

"I'm sorry."

"What?"

"I'm so sorry that I misjudged you…" Tobi had it in his head that he was always right; taking his first impressions of people to judge their full character. Although he had a knack for being right most of the time, there were some cases he'd been completely off.

Chikako put her arms around his neck and plastered her body against his in the tightest embrace she'd ever given him. One she'd been craving since she first looked at him. There was something almost aggressive about how she pressed herself against him, waist coming into his lap and hands digging into his skin.

At this point, Tobi didn't realize this. He was too wound up in how Chikako was so much more than he believed her to be… all this time, they were so similar. They both longed to see the world… but one was scared of love, the other of not being loved.

Tobi was practically cradling her; his arms folded around her torso and holding her close… something entirely different surged through him. Something warm, foreign, and almost sickening. It was in his stomach; he even felt the color in his cheeks rising slightly.

Almost like he was catching a cold again.

"So… these feelings are normal?" She asked.

"Of course." He pulled away, "Everyone feels angry or unwanted every now and again… what you're going through is absolutely human."

Tobi sincerely didn't know how magical that word had sounded to her, for he instead found himself fixating on her lips for a moment, ripe and pink. And then her eyes; the kind of blue only European women had. They were still holding hands after the hug, and when she slipped away, Tobi couldn't shake the feeling she'd bewitched him with.

...

Something even stranger happened the morning after; when Tobi woke up on Christmas Eve and heard something outside just before sunrise, he saw Chikako already playing with Howl. They tug-o-warred with a stick and Chikako was struggling to win.

For some reason, Tobi couldn't peel his eyes away from the sight even if he willed himself to. He felt himself smirking and watched through the window for a moment until the stick started to break and Howl jumped away with the other half. She really was resilient; even the cuts on her face were hard to notice from how she was smiling so.

It wasn't even bright out yet.

Tobi got himself ready and then watched from the patio, unknowing to the energetic young woman. She was startled to see him watching her, but Howl bounced as always and ran over to be pet. He jumped to put his paws on Tobi's chest.

"All right, all right." The six-one young man was nearly pulled down by the animal, "Down, big boy." He fluffed Howl's fur and Chikako giggled to herself. "What are you doing up?"

"Howl came into my room and looked like he had to go out. I figured we might as well play."

Tobi had no reason not to believe her, though he was sure that staying outside in this cold was her doing. He noticed the sky turning a slight yellow on the horizon. She was about to go back inside, but Tobi stopped her after he let howl in, "I actually want to show you something."

Her eyes widened for a split-second — it was so odd for him to ask for some alone time with her. Of course, she wasn't going to deny him; when would he ever ask for this again?

"What is it?"

Tobi gingerly took Chikako's hand and led her a little down the path; something he remembered seeing the few times he'd come here. Something he actually looked forward to when he started spending holidays with the Akiyamas… something he'd never shared with anyone before.

Just stopping at the look-out, Chikako saw an endless sky. They were above the clouds, it seemed, as they cleared the way for the upcoming day. The blonde was taken aback; she had no words to say and she gazed on. The sun was just peering from behind their island's most famed volcano — they were standing in the right spot — and Chikako took a breath and inhaled the sunlight and the cool air.

Tobi watched quietly as another day began, but more fondly, he watched Chikako enjoy what seemed to be her first real sunrise. The air remained a soothing hue, and he felt that now was a good time to head back.

"Blondie." He said, "We should go back to the house now." She looked disappointed, but there was one more thing he had to appease her. He took out a small, square box that was made of thin, white cardboard. It had a ribbon tied around it and it fit just well enough to hide in his coat pocket the entire morning. Chikako knew what it was and she went to jump for it, but he held it out of her reach, "I'm only giving this to you early so you won't bug me about it all day. Don't tell anyone, got it?"

"Mhm!" She eagerly reached again, but then Tobi's expression changed.

"…Listen, if you don't like it, just tell—" Chikako leapt and snatched it from his grasp.

"I'm going to love it!" Chikako wasn't even diligent with the unwrapping; she tore the ribbon right off and bent all the corners until the lid popped open. Tobi gazed back out at the view while she unfolded the card that was inside.

For: Brat From: Tobi

Merry Christmas.

Underneath was the real gift. Chikako gasped softly and Tobi sheepishly peered from the corner of his eye. She carefully retrieved the small, blue monarch butterfly necklace and pondered it. She immediately knew why he picked it out: it reminded him of her. And that fact alone made her entire year.

Tobi started to smile, but then she jumped to him for a hug. He didn't reciprocate. He grumbled, "Three… two…" Chikako squeezed even tighter, "one and a half…"

"You're not gonna do anything!" She smiled and pulled away. She then slid it around her neck, it dangled just between her collarbones. "Does it look good?"

"It looks fine."

"I love it, Tobi-kun! I love it so much!" She clasped it in one hand. "The fact that it comes from you makes it even better." Tobi didn't reply. Still, he enjoyed seeing her so happy, and he agreed that it suited her. He took her back to the cabin where they'd be spending the rest of their holiday.