Kanako's return caused a bit of a stir, as her little side job had been considered exactly that, and no one had been expecting half her team to come back dead. The condition of their armor and equipment clearly showed that even the survivors had taken a beating as well. Adding insult to injury, they had not been able to determine what the enemy's objectives had been.

Or rather, that was the official story when Kanako sent her report back to Gennai. Kanako had given explicit orders to her teammates that no mention was to be made of the fact that the vampires had been targeting humans. She hadn't told them who those humans were and why they had been marked for death, but Kanako knew that Rikyo would have been able to put two and two together without difficulty. The complications that could arise from Rikyo and Gennai finding out that Keitaro's human connections were still playing a part in this war were something that Kanako didn't want to deal with. On one hand, the fact that the enemy wanted them dead so badly seemed likely to at least prevent Rikyo from ordering their deaths himself, as that would only accomplish the foreign vampires' goal for them. But neither Rikyo nor Gennai were looking for wards that required valuable combat assets be diverted to protect them, to say nothing of the social taboo of being so closely involved with humans - Keitaro's situation was well known throughout the higher Lycan ranks, but the fact that Keitaro had always managed to keep his personal and professional lives neatly separate, as well as his excellent performance in his role, meant that a blind eye was turned and the situation was quietly accepted. In particular, the fact that Keitaro's human friends were fully knowledgeable about immortals would be a touchy subject should anyone care to take it up, and making them a focal point of the campaign would force the issue.

Kanako's surviving teammates were clearly uneasy about lying to their superiors, but were even more uneasy about the prospect of making an enemy out of Kanako, and did as they were told. "Besides," Kanako had reminded them, "if anything ever comes of this, it will come back on me, not you."

It was Kanako herself, however, who had the most difficult deception to contend with.

"Wow. Are you all right?" Keitaro asked just as soon as Kanako found him. He had met up with the rest of their group at a small hotel near the port that was their target. Morning was not long in coming, and so a number of rooms had been rented to sit out the day. Preparations had taken longer than anticipated, and it was clear now that there was not enough nighttime left for the attack they had in mind. Fortunately, the enemy reinforcements were late as well ... assuming that the intelligence reports were accurate and that they were coming at all, and to this port.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"What on earth happened out there?"

Kanako cringed inwardly. "Whatever the enemy was after, they wanted pretty badly. Perhaps our recent string of success made me a little overconfident." She gestured at her bloodstained clothing to emphasize the point.

"Were you able to find out what they were after?"

"I'm afraid not. Our initial approach was repulsed, and by the time we recovered, the foreign vampires must have gotten what they came for and were nowhere to be found."

Keitaro got a worried look on his face. "I sure hope Naru and the others are OK."

A jolt of adrenaline flashed through Kanako at his words, and an anxious knot in her stomach snapped to attention.

"I'm sure they're fine. We didn't find anything of concern afterwords, and we already know that ... well, if your friends were the target, they'd leave something behind to make sure you knew it."

That painful memory visibly stung Keitaro, but he closed his eyes and nodded with a deep breath. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

Kanako quickly changed the subject. "Anyway, no sign of the rumored enemy reinforcements I take it?"

Keitaro welcomed the new line of thought. "No, nothing so far. I'm wondering if they decided to make a daylight landfall instead, something that we wouldn't be expecting and would make an attack more difficult."

"I hope that's the case then. It's either that or our information is completely wrong and who knows what the enemy is up to."

"Hey Kanako?"

Kanako had turned around as she set her bag down and began to remove her bloodied and damaged armor. At his words, the looked back at him and was surprised to see that Keitaro's expression had softened and he was looking at her with a look of calm comfort that seemed out of place considering he had just brought up the subject of his imperiled friends.

"Yes?" Kanako replied, her voice carrying her surprise more than she had hoped it would.

"I want to thank you again for sticking with me through this. I know I haven't made it easy for you to be my advocate, my partner, or ... anything else. I really do appreciate it."

Kanako smiled lightly out of the corner of her mouth. "If you are referring to my leaving you here to command unsupervised for a while, then I'm glad you appreciate it. Even though nothing bad happened, I imagine Gennai and Rikyo would each have half my head on a separate platter if they find out about it."

"No doubt, but that's only a small part of what I'm talking about."

"Dammit Keitaro, talk about a lousy time to get all sappy on me," Kanako thought to herself. She was already uncomfortable lying to Keitaro about his friends, and his sudden praise wasn't helping at all.

"In all fairness then, I suppose I should also thank you for taking my advances in stride," Kanako replied. "I may not understand the bond you share with your human friends, but I can at least understand than you are bound to them. I know that finding your balance between human and immortal connections has not been easy for you."

Just as suddenly as he had acquired it, Keitaro then seemed to lose his aura of comfort, and he just nodded an acknowledgment to Kanako's words. Kanako was relieved to see that Keitaro intended to end this line of thought, and she encouraged the notion by herself changing the subject back to the battle plan.

"Anyway, back to business," she began. "I see no reason not to proceed with the attacks as previously planned. Are we ready?"

Keitaro nodded again. "Yes. Eizo's group signaled readiness about 70 minutes ago. I told him that the enemy had changed his patrol pattern and that we needed a little extra time to reposition ourselves before moving in."

"What did Eizo say to that?"

"I really don't think that Eizo has any interest in making trouble for anyone but the enemy. He didn't question me, nor did he ask why you didn't answer the call yourself. He simply said that we should take whatever time we need to maximize our chances for success, and to let him know when it's time to strike."

"In that case, let us take a final observation of the target and get this show on the road."

Dr. Hasagawa had done a triple take when the battered survivors arrived at his door. As the semi-conscious Naru was carted away, he and Kitsune followed a short distance behind as Kitsune was seemingly attempting to explain the situation. Neither Haruka nor Seta could hear exactly what Kitsune was saying, but they didn't really think about it. Whether she was telling Koan the truth or spinning a more plausible explanation would just have to be addressed later. They and Sara were led to another exam room, where the orderly told them that a nurse would see them shortly and then closed the door behind him as he left.

Haruka had sat down on the exam table as Seta seated Sara on one of the chairs in the room, then walked over to Haruka's side. He gently pinched the bottom of Haruka's shirt and began to lift it.

"Let me take a look at those ribs," he said softly.

Haruka put her hand on top of his to stop him. "It's OK, I'm fi ..."

Her words were interrupted when Seta's other hand grabbed hers and moved it away with surprising forcefulness.

"Don't even start with your 'I'm invincible' crap," he said almost angrily. "I saw that hit you took. I don't care if it offends your ego, I will not allow you to leave this hospital with an untreated injury!"

Haruka was startled by the sternness of Seta's words. Looking into his eyes, she saw that they were deadly serious but the concern they carried was also crystal clear. Her capacity to resist him faded.

"Alright," she said quietly, and relaxed her arms. Seta met her gaze for a short moment, then lifted her shirt just high enough to expose her rib cage. An ugly and swollen black and blue bruise extended about six inches across her right side. Seta's expression remained steely as he ran his fingers across it, carefully probing the ribs that the wound crossed. Haruka sat unflinching, still watching his face as he went over her again, then lowered her shirt back down.

"See? It's just a bruise, nothing to get so worried about," Haruka said to Seta, who returned a somewhat cross glance.

"Look, I'm sorry, OK? I promise you that I will ask for help if I need it. In return, can you promise to remember that I am not a delicate little flower?" Haruka nudged him with her elbow and cracked a slight grin from the corner of her mouth.

Seta regarded her for a moment, then his expression finally lightened a bit. "It's alright. I just ..."

As Seta's words trailed off, Haruka stood up and wrapped her arms around him in firm embrace.

"I know, Seta. I know. And I do appreciate it."

It had been Kitsune's first instinct to tell Koan the whole story, but she quickly decided that that could wait for a better time. Instead, she explained that Shinobu and Suu had gone bowling, and that an accident had taken place at their new home that had started a fire in their absence. Historically Kitsune did have the ability to be a convincing liar when she needed to be, but Koan knew her intimately enough to see through tall tales. Nevertheless, he at least respected the fact that something very serious had happened, that one of Kitsune's friends was possibly seriously injured, and that if Kitsune didn't want to tell him exactly what had taken place, he could accept that for the time being.

After Koan spoke briefly with some nurses in the hallway, he had taken Kitsune with him to Naru's room. By then Naru had been sedated and was unconscious, and her ailments had been identified.

"You said that your duplex burned down, right?" Koan asked Kitsune.

"That's right."

"And you guys were trapped inside for a short while before being able to get out?"


"Was there debris falling from the ceiling perhaps?"

Kitsune thought for a moment. "I honestly don't know," she replied. "Things were pretty chaotic and noisy, but it is definitely possible."

Still aware that he was not getting the whole story, but nevertheless convinced that what she was telling him was true, he continued.

"Well, my best guess is that Naru either hit something trying to escape, or something fell on her, but she wound up with a bruised kidney. You also said that it was not immediately obvious that she was hurt, which can be explained by the adrenaline and shock of the fire."

"How bad is she?" Kitsune asked.

"She'll be OK. It would have been very painful at the time of injury and she'll be very sore for a while, but I don't think she'll need treatment beyond some painkillers."

Kitsune was unpleasantly surprised to realize that catastrophes were becoming common enough in her life that she did not feel any sort of panic or indeed even that much distress. Perhaps her work with Koan at the hospital had desensitized her somewhat too. Thoughts of her missing and presumed dead friends forced into the back of her mind, Kitsune just nodded.

Koan stepped over to her and put his hands on her shoulders, turning her slightly to face him directly.

"I'm not going to press you for it now, but I hope you will talk to me later about what happened tonight," he said gently, as he looked her straight in the eyes.

"I will. And soon."

The pair held their eyelock for a brief moment, then gave each other a quick hug.

"I'm going to keep Naru here overnight just to make sure that no unforeseen complications arise. Any of you may come and go as you please, and I'll be sure to give you a call when she is free to leave if no one is here. She'll be out for another few hours, so I am going to resume my rounds. Let me know if you need anything."

With those words, Koan parted ways with Kitsune, who stayed with Naru for a little longer before rejoining Haruka and the others.

Finding everyone to be OK, the nurses had cleared everyone but Naru to leave. Where exactly they were to go, however, now became their primary problem. Seta and Haruka agreed that simply finding a new home in the conventional sense had been shown to be a bad idea. This time they had had no early warning of the vampire attack either, and as such had had no opportunity to take anything with them but what what on their persons. They had persevered with their precaution of leaving stashes of money, supplies, and all-important immortal-killing incendiary ammunition and weapons elsewhere, as they had predicted that if they were discovered by the foreign vampires again, they may be forced to leave in a hurry and abandon most of what they had set up in their new home. Nevertheless, their material losses were not inconsiderable, and with their dwindling resources, they were forced to start thinking in terms of long-term survival. Haruka's tea shop had been closed for some time now, and although her commercial dealings with other shops generated a liveable income in traditional terms, it would not keep up with repeated events like this, even assuming that there continued to be survivors at all. With two more of their friends seemingly lost to this war, there was no subconscious notion of pride in their thoughts.

Seta had made the suggestion early on in his discussion with Haruka that they leave the country. It would be a simple enough affair for him to find an archeological task overseas and take Sara, Haruka, Kitsune and Naru with him. Based on what Keitaro had told them, it seemed probable that the invading foreign vampires were of European origin. Thus, Europe was not a viable destination, but it also seemed unlikely that these vampires would commit the manpower and resources into tracking them across Africa, South America or Australia.

Even right after Mutsumi's death, Haruka and Seta alike would have been incensed at the suggestion of being driven our of their own country. Now, however, the more they discussed it, the more attractive an idea it sounded.