Of course, she was soaking wet, but that didn't really matter. She had an umbrella to prevent any further soakage and her heavy raincoat kept her warm against the chill of a midsummer shower. Her shoes splashed noisily through the puddles forming on the uneven paving as she ran along the street past storefront after storefront. Her hair bobbed about, limp and drenched from the rain already, splattering stray droplets of water against her face with each movement. She waved cheerfully to the one or two faces she recognised along her way, everything from an amiable chuckle to an agitated frown or two in reply to her irrational exuberance. When she reached the stairway up the outside of her apartment building, she dashed up the steps two at a time, swinging her bag out to her side and swishing her umbrella and generally acting like Maria Von Trapp in the Alps. She unlocked her apartment door, slipped inside, and then leaned on it from inside, panting softly.
Her apartment was something of a mess at first sight, but it was always that way on a Monday evening. There would be much work to do the next day to make her would-be home presentable. Not that she entertained quite as often as one might expect given her penchant for neatness.
Mai folded her umbrella up carefully and sat it handle-first into its holder on the floor beside the front door, neat and tidy. She removed the thick brown overcoat and hung it up on the back of the door, neat and tidy, if somewhat drenched. She shrugged off her bright orange jacket and then started fiddling with the buttons of her blouse.
"My legs are freezing!" she complained to no one in particular, stepping out of her shoes. One hand reached down to brush at the orange-and-white miniskirt that made up the bottom half of her waitress' uniform. "That manager! I swear, he only makes me wear this so he can stare at my legs, the pervert." She paused in front of the mirror and took a quick look at her rather bedraggled self. Her reflection stuck its tongue out at her impudently and then hopped off towards the kitchen.
Tokiha Mai was a fairly ordinary young lady, if a little conspicuous at times. She was not particularly tall and her face was plain, if a little rounded from all the grinning and frowning and that odd little expression she used an awful lot around certain people, that made her look like a mischievous schoolgirl. Her hair was a blazing orange mess, thick and bushy, all muddled spikes that folded down from the top of her head to either side and then ended in a jumbled mass around the back and sides. It swished about as she shook her head, hanging a little limply just now what with being soaked through and all. She dumped the towel over her head again and rubbed away furiously.
Her eyes were fiery orange like her hair, passionate and intense to say the very least, and they focused on things at times with almost burning concentration. They were expressive eyes, and they were offset neatly by her petite, pointed nose. Her lips were full but still rather narrow, especially for a young girl in her early twenties. They were rarely adorned with anything at all, though there was a special shade of hot-pink lipstick reserved for "special occasions." They pouted adorably at just the right times, and one might guess she had had plenty of practice using them.
Her body was certainly not stereotypically Japanese. Her hips were broad, her waist narrow and her chest, some might say, over-abundant. She had been well enough endowed as a young girl in her late school days, but once she hit nineteen her chest had finally crossed the border from 'tempting' to 'voluptuous', as had the rest of her figure. It might be a pain at times keeping it all perfectly in line, but the effects it had on men and women alike, from jealousy to desire to willing submission, were more than worth the effort. It had certainly made acquiring her current job that much easier.
Mai yawned as she stepped out of the tiny bathroom, her only towel draped over her head. Her whole body was smattered with moisture, smooth and clean, her pale skin gleaming slightly in the sharp fluorescent light of the apartment. Her bare feet slapped soundly against the bare laminate-wood flooring. She slung the towel across the back of the chair standing in front of her still-cluttered table and walked, completely naked, over to the window. Looking out, she could see only the same boring view of one tiny region of downtown Tokyo as she had every other day since she had moved in. The sushi bar down on the corner was still having a special offer, just this week. The bookstore was still closing down at any time now. The new hardware store was still not open yet, though it wouldn't be long, really! And of course, it was still raining. She snapped the blinds shut and turned with a heavy sigh to regard the formidable task ahead; that being of cleaning her apartment once again.
"Takumi, you're lucky you're still in college."
It was just after midnight when Mai woke. The bedroom was pitch dark and only the faint glow of green from the clock on her bedside table illuminated the room. If anything, the pitifully weak greenish light outlining the bed-covers and all the other things on the table only made things worse; the contrast made the rest of the room look all the more dark by comparison to the point that Mai couldn't see a damn thing past the foot of the bed.
"Stupid…" She flopped down onto her back again to go back to sleep.
Suddenly, there came a sharp rapping noise against the door of her apartment.
Mai bolted upright. She definitely had not imagined that, had she? No, it had been far too defined a sound to have been just a figment of her imagination or some subconscious dream leakage or anything like that. It had most definitely been real, a sound as of someone tapping very small knuckles against the wooden door of the apartment.
There it was again! Mai fought down the immediate urge to recoil and instead gathered her natural curiosity up in its place. She rose, throwing off the covers behind her, and strode resolutely across the bedroom floor to the door. Before opening it however, she took a brief moment to close her eyes, breathing deeply. When she opened them again the door handle in her hand was at least slightly better defined in the darkness, and her heart had calmed itself down nicely.
"Better," she breathed to herself and then calmly, slowly slid the bedroom door open wide.
The apartment was still empty, as it had been when she had gone to bed. It was also considerably cleaner than it had been, after her bout of Monday-evening cleaning. The table to her right by the window was polished and shining, slivers of moonlight glinting off its surface through the slits in the blinds. Both chairs were tucked neatly away, various articles of clothing removed and sent to their respective areas to be washed, stored or the like. The smooth wooden floorboards were gleaming brightly in much the same way. Across the room in front of her, the counter separating the kitchen from the rest of the apartment was clean of obstructions again and ready to be used, not that it served much purpose other than collecting dust and newspapers. The refrigerator was humming softly away to itself. To the left was the front door to the apartment, with a small area where the raised wooden floor was cut back to reveal the smooth grey concrete below. The umbrella sat in its cradle by the door and beside it was a large rectangular wooden box full of old newspapers, crumpled plastic bags and crushed cans all sorted into separate compartments.
There was that tapping noise again, followed by a faint sort of scratching sound. Mai snatched a robe from the hook hanging on the wall next to her bedroom door and slipped it on as she hurried across to the doorway. Her mind raced to find some reasonable explanation for the noises. "Must be a cat or something, yeah. Or something like that." She slid the bolt back and slowly opened the door, peering out through the gap as she did so.
There was no one there.
Puzzled, she pulled the door shut again…and almost jumped out of her skin when something down below her yelped in pain.
There was a person on the floor! Judging from the size of that dim, shadowy figure where it lay sprawled limply on the concrete floor in front of the apartment door, it was a fairly young person, not more than just a teenager perhaps. Mai reached to her side and flicked on the porch light.
A horrifyingly large puddle of blood was the first thing to catch her eye.
It was fast approaching one in the morning, and the hospital foyer had been practically empty for hours. Patients trickled in and out singularly, or in small groups of friends or family. Most of the usual day-shift staff had already left for the night. The foyer was as bright as always, despite the lack of occupants, and the glare from the fluorescent lights spilled forth onto the paving outside in a wide semi-circle. Cars passed by now and again but there had been no emergency calls for almost an hour. The last big action had been a wheelchair-bound old man in diabetic shock, thankfully not so far as unrecoverable.
Behind the wide sweeping curve of the reception desk to one side of the main entrance, there was quite the heated conversation going on. One of the older, more experienced nursing staff was relating some experience or other of hers to the receptionists, who appeared to be listening avidly while still typing away at their respective keyboards. A smart young doctor was hovering behind the nurse in a rather conspicuous fashion, glancing now and then at each of the three women and then averting his eyes to his clipboard as if there were something fascinating on it. The nurse did catch his eye on one occasion and gave him a playful scolding, smacking the pillow she carried (for whatever reason, that might have been part of the story) across the back of his blonde-haired head. A lone janitor was slowly and methodically mopping his way back and forth across the polished tile flooring in front of the main doors, humming some nameless tune to himself from under his blue uniform cap; he looked over at the small group by the desk, chuckled knowingly and simply went back to work.
On the other side of the entrance were several small rows of chairs of the clearly disposable variety, each one a drab steel-grey folding frame with bright blue plastic seat and back. On one of these chairs, head bowed to the large red book in her lap, was seated a rather important woman in a neat, light brown suit.
"Fujino-san," the young secretary repeated for the third time in a slightly exasperated voice.
The woman looked up, bewildered. She blinked several times, shook her head, and then smiled at the secretary. "Good evening, Moko-chan."
The secretary sighed as she approached, shaking her own head with a hopeless expression. "More like good morning, ma'am." She lifted one hand and tapped the back of her wrist. "It's about time you went home, Fujino-san. I've got all the paperwork for this week's stock requests sorted on my desk for tomorrow." She leaned back slightly as the suit-clad woman lifted herself to her feet, towering over her secretary by a good foot or two.
To say Fujino-san was tall was a misconception; she was just tall compared to her secretary, and broad, in the hip and the chest, and not a little overzealous with her makeup at times, but it always turned out just right. She was a respectable and quite beautiful woman in her late twenties who looked not so much older as simply far more mature than her age might tell. She always wore the same light brown short-skirt suit to work, or a similar one in black, or grey. Her hair was long and fine, some shade of brown somewhere between beige and chestnut, and it accented her deep reddish eyes perfectly, hanging midway down her backing a simple braid.
Motoko, on the other hand, was a very short girl at least five years younger than her superior from appearances alone. She kept her narrow, modestly endowed young body tucked neatly into a makeshift suit; the white button-up blouse, always pressed, the thin black jacket and matching knee-length skirt, and dainty black flat-sole shoes on her similarly small feet. A narrow pair of silver-framed glasses perched on the end of her delicate nose, always seeming barely seconds away from falling off her face at all times. Her unusually pale blue eyes were wide and round and expressive, but they mostly expressed the same contemptuous resignation with which she regarded practically everything. Her hair was pinned back on one side by a simple black clip so that it folded back behind her left ear, where on the other side it draped down the side of her face like a thick blonde curtain. Behind, it reached just down between her shoulders, and was almost always tied up in a neat bun instead of being left free-flowing.
The secretary sighed her practiced sigh of long-suffering and shook her head again. "Fujino-san, please, just go home already. I can take care of whatever's left here."
The older woman smiled broadly down at her assistant with what one might consider a slightly suggestive twinge. "You're right, Moko-chan. I must leave my work in your very capable hands." She gathered up the book she had been reading along with several sheaves of papers, tucked them into the bag that hung from her shoulder and then tucked the edge of her blouse down properly.
Motoko turned away to attend to more important matters as her superior finally left for the night, but not before a hand graced her rear end. It was rewarded with a familiar yelp.
"Don't stay up too long, Moko, dear," chuckled the taller of the two over her shoulder, waving her hand idly. Motoko fumed quietly at the brunette woman's back for a moment before disappearing into her office.
However, Director Fujino didn't get too far before trouble erupted in her face as it seemed to do so often. She was just stepping over the threshold and out into the freezing midnight air when something large and brightly-coloured collided with her head-on with some considerable momentum. Down she went, and the unknown assailant almost came crashing down atop her.
"Ow," she muttered sarcastically to herself as she dusted off her skirt. She stood slowly, looking up to see what had hit her. When it turned out to be a young girl, and a rather pretty one at that, she raised an eyebrow. Her horoscope had said today would be her lucky day, had it not? Suddenly, out of the blue, here was quite the ravishing young twenty-something orange-haired girl knocking her off her feet without warning.
Before she could say anything however, the mysterious girl with the orange hair rattled out a swift apology and swept straight past her into the hospital foyer. She appeared to be carrying something…
"Oh for…" She dashed in after the girl, waving her bag up in
the air towards the desk. "Hitomi, stop flirting and get this
young lady here to the nearest
ER!" She gave the orange-haired girl a rather zealous whacking on the shoulder with one finger. "What's your name, dear?"
"M…Mai!" replied the girl a little hesitantly. "To-ki-ha Mai." One of the receptionists produced a pen and a small book practically out of nowhere and started scribbling, as did the doctor. The nurse, Hitomi as her name, wrapped her arms firmly about the bundled heap of cloth and gently levered it from the young girl's grasp. With her front now more open to the eye, the huge wet bloodstain all over the front of Mai's clothing was blindingly obvious. Blood trickled down off the heap of wrapped fabric, which gave several weak grunts in response to the sudden flurry of motion around it. The scrawny, narrow, naked legs dangling down to the floor below began flailing about, and what might be an arm reached out of the huddled mass and tried to strike the nurse carrying it.
While Mai looked on in frustration, both relieved and confused at the same time, that older brown-haired woman she had bumped into took her gently by the hand and turned her around.
"Hello, miss? Are you alright?" Mai blinked.
"I…think so." She looked down at her feet for a moment with a distraught expression. "Just that nothing like this has ever…" Then she looked up at the taller woman with something of a scowl. "Wait, who are you anyway?"
"Fujino Shizuru," chuckled she, and shook Mai's hand with a formal bow of her head. "I'm in charge here. And trust me, your friend will be just fine."
"He's not…she…" Mai bit the tip of her tongue. "I don't know who that is. I don't even know if it's a man or a woman." She turned to watch the nurse, now accompanied by a second, shifting the ragged bundle up onto a trolley. The whole ensemble soon after disappeared through a set of swinging doors at considerable speed.
A hand on her shoulder almost startled her. "Don't worry, miss. Everything will be fine. I'll see to it myself."
A cough interrupted the conversation. When Shizuru turned, there was one of the reception staff standing and waiting dutifully to take Mai's details. "Ah, yes, of course!" Shizuru plucked the pen and clipboard from the receptionist's hands and gestured Mai over towards the chairs waiting along the foyer wall. "I'll take care of this, don't worry Molly. You just make sure your partner doesn't fall asleep at her desk again, okay?"
The receptionist shot her the kind of look one saved for the bizarrely eccentric, which Shizuru ignored completely, and returned to her post.
"So," Shizuru continued once she had made sure Mai was seated properly and at least calmed down a little. "To start off, just what happened?"
Mai bit her lip and stared at her hands where they sat in her lap. "Well…I'm not really sure," she replied after a while. "I was asleep, at home." Shizuru held up a hand.
"Home, you say?"
"Oh, that's the Jogousaki building East of here. I live in one of the apartments."
Shizuru smiled slightly as she scribbled. "Must be a little crowded for a young lady, living in such small accommodation. I've seen Jogousaki myself not too long ago."
"It's not really that bad," defended Mai, shaking her head. "It reminds me of Fuuka."
Shizuru cursed under her breath as the pencil snapped. Mai gave her a most peculiar look. "What is it? Did I say something offensive?"
"You went to Fuuka Gakuen?" asked Shizuru while she fished in her blouse pocket for a pen. "That big, expensive academy in the mountains? You went there?"
Mai nodded proudly. "I went and I graduated!"
"Funny…" The older woman shook her head briefly. Her fingers found something pen-shaped and she pulled it out with a triumphant huff. "But then, why would such a well-educated girl be living in a place like Jogousaki?" she pondered aloud, already back to scribbling down on the clipboard as she did so. "If you don't mind my asking, that is?"
"It's okay. It is pretty odd, I know." Mai leaned back into her chair a little more and looked up at the ceiling, oblivious to Shizuru's eyes darting up and down her body as she took down yet more notes.
A strange thing to be dressed in at such a time of night, indeed, the unbalanced combination of a short blue skirt and a bright, fluffy pink jumper. Her hair was decidedly untidy and there were dark patches below those pale violet eyes that showed she had had nowhere near enough sleep that night.
"Anyway," interjected Shizuru when it was obvious the younger girl had either zoned out on her or was uncomfortable with that train of conversation. "About what happened…"
"Ah!" Mai sat up straight and lifted her arms up above her head, lacing her fingers and stretching out with several disconcertingly loud cracks. "Yes, well, it was just about midnight you see. And I was asleep. There was this strange knocking noise at my door that must have woke me up." She looked over to the doors through which the nurse had disappeared along with that bundled human-shaped thing. "When I opened the door, there was this…person…on the floor outside my apartment. Scratching at the door. And there was all this blood all over…"
Shizuru coughed nice and loudly and sat up straighter as she continued writing. "Well, I think that's all the details we need." Mai seemed to relax slightly at that, so the brunette allowed herself another small victory in the name of mental stability. "You should probably get yourself back on home and let us take care of your…friend. Unless you'd like to stay here?"
Mai was already searching through the few pockets she had for something. She eventually dipped a hand into her cleavage, at which point Shizuru had to start biting her tongue, and out came a small piece of white card.
"Here," she said, offering the card to the older woman. "That's my mobile. I had these printed off by the dozen but I never seem to use them." She chuckled weakly.
"Mobile, hm?" Shizuru took a mental snapshot of that number before slipping the card under the clipboard clip along with the "Patient Details" sheet. "I suppose that might explain why you carried her…him…whatever…all the way from Jogousaki."
Mai blushed slightly and looked down at her feet. "Well y'see, I can't afford a phone in the apartment right now so I just use my mobile, and it wasn't charged at the time."
"The ridiculous coincidences that fate sometimes throws together, eh?" Shizuru chuckled a touch ruefully. "Go on then, get yourself back to your little phone-less apartment. I'll call you in the morning."
"You'll call…?" said Mai hesitantly.
"Oh now, don't misunderstand," Shizuru argued with a smirk. "I'm not so low as to abuse my working privileges for such an ends." Mai gave her the same confused, sceptical look as all the hospital staff and she couldn't help laughing out loud.
Later the following morning, or more precisely late the following morning, somewhere near eleven, Shizuru found herself back at work with no time to spare. The Director had an important meeting to attend to with one of her higher-ups and she would be loathe to miss out on such an opportunity to prove just what a good job she was doing of running her department. It wasn't as if the hospital didn't need a few more talented managerial staff to replace all the 'doddering old creeps' as Motoko had so delicately put it once or twice.
She was just saying something about the department budget and Motoko herself, in fact, when Shizuru felt the familiar sensation of movement inside her bag. It felt like a small, angry ferret struggling to escape. Well, at least she thought so.
"Er, excuse me, Sir," she interrupted, holding up one hand. With the other she reached into the bag and extracted a small, slender black cell-phone and held it up where she could see the small screen.
"Is there anything wrong, Fujino-san?"
Shizuru shook her head, a tad flustered all of a sudden but she kept her calm and cheerful composure as always. "No, of course not! Nothing wrong at all, but I'm afraid I absolutely must take this call." She rose from her seat before the balding middle-aged man sitting behind his desk could protest and swept out of the office, pausing only to wave back at him in passing.
The phone buzzed again in her hand and she glared down at it. "Have a little patience, already!" She pressed a button and held the thing up to her head.
"Yes, how can I help? Who is this anyway?"
"-Mai-san, yes, I remember now! I'm surprised I didn't recognise such a lovely voice as yours sooner."
"Heh… I'm told I sound different first thing on a morning."
"Well, what seems to be the problem, Mai?"
There was a momentary pause on the line, filled with only soft static. Shizuru tapped her foot impatiently and rolled her eyes as some idiot with a half-filled kitchen cart nearly tripped over a power cord that was draped across one of the corridors. "Motoko, would you-"
"-Yes ma'am, right away," replied her assistant, who seemed to have appeared out of thin air right behind her. Away went the young girl, berating the first worker for not watching where he was going and then following intently along the length of that cord to its source…
"It's about Mikoto."
"Mikoto?" came Shizuru's response, more than a little puzzled.
"She says her name is Mikoto. She's here with me right now."
"Wait…you mean the patient you brought in last night?" Shizuru made a sharp turn down another corridor. No doubt Motoko would find her again before long wherever she went, she always did.
"Hm! She…well…kinda dropped by my apartment this morning."
Shizuru almost dropped the phone. "She came to your house? How did she..." She spotted the desk she had been searching for, a crescent-shaped affair not too large covered with endless piles of papers, standing lost in the centre of a wide open room. At one end of the room, predictably, was a wide set of swinging doors that led straight to the foyer, and on all sides were corridors off to room after room full of patient beds.
"I don't know how she got here," Mai continued when the pause stretched on slightly too long. "When I woke up a while ago she was just sort of…lying on my breakfast table."
"Tell me all you can. How is she doing?" Shizuru held her hand over the mouthpiece and whistled at one of the desk staff. "Koji!" The young blonde-haired boy, barely into his teens yet by the look of him, swivelled in his chair to look back up at the older woman standing menacingly over his desk. Before he could speak, Shizuru snapped out at him, "Get me the details for that patient they brought in last night, the unidentified."
He nodded and started raking through one of the many books laid out on the desk-space. "It'll just take a moment, Fujino-san," he said in mildly accented Japanese. "But I think she's already gone."
Koji nodded, again. "It was a girl. Pretty young girl, too, not much older than me."
"Don't get any ideas now, Koji, dear," teased Shizuru with a grin.
"Har har. Wait!" He pulled a thick black book out of the chaos on his desk and flipped it open. "Here we go… "unnamed young female, short, dark hair, yellow eyes…""
Koji shrugged. ""..Yellow eyes, rather pale, looked underfed. Patient suffering from mild dehydration and severe blood loss, penetrating wound to the abdomen." Went in to surgery just as you were leaving, Fujino-san. "Patient transferred to recovery ward at eight hundred hours twenty-fifth…" That's this morning, isn't it?"
"It's the twenty-sixth," corrected Shizuru and immediately turned on her heel to leave.
"Bloody useless book-keepers, I swear, do nothing but…" and so on went Koji, muttering to himself thankfully in English so as to not bother anyone with all that cursing.
"…and she seems to like my cooking," Mai was saying. Shizuru tried to back-track. Something about yellow eyes; a green hospital robe; noodles; a fondness for pillows; broken window.
"Thank you, Tokiha-san, that will be more than enough. Yes, those are her real eyes, and no, it's not one of ours. She was wearing some big green thing when they took her through to theatre." She snapped her fingers. "Ah, and we apparently still have that towel that came with her, that's not yours is it?"
"Don't worry," Mai chuckled. "I can buy a new one anyway. I'm just glad Mikoto's okay, to be honest."
"Yes, well, having someone appear on your doorstep and then bleed to death on you would certainly be rather traumatising."
"She seems like a very nice girl, too. I'd hate to see her in trouble like that again any time soon."
"I've solved the problem, ma'am," came Motoko's voice somewhere behind her left elbow. Shizuru fought down the nervous jerk and, therefore, did not elbow Motoko in the face.
"Thank you, Moko-chan. Now get back to my office and find my-"
The younger woman held up a small, rectangular metallic object about the size of an average paperback novel, with a wide screen covering the front side. "Your PDA, ma'am?" she asked sarcastically.
"What would I do without you, Moko-chan?" Shizuru giggled girlishly and swiped the device from her assistant.
"Probably stop calling me 'Moko-chan' at least," muttered the girl bitterly. Shizuru heard, but failed to respond as always.
On the other end of the conversation, Mai was sitting at her afore-mentioned table, watching her new house guest stuffing her face with practically everything left in Mai's fridge. At first she had cooked up a simple bowl of ramen, which Mikoto had called delicious, and then she had supplied bacon sandwiches, since that was the only thing she could think of. Mikoto had eaten that too and called it 'incredible'. She had also demanded more. Mai had cooked and cooked the whole morning, unable to resist those adorably helpless yellow eyes peering up at her like a hungry, homeless puppy, and now Mikoto was seated in front of at least five separate dishes, eating by hand, stuffing more and more food into her mouth by the second. It was a slightly messy activity, but Mai felt somehow incapable of getting angry. Considering, perhaps, that this poor young girl may not have eaten for days now.
"They let her go?" she said suddenly, blinking in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"Well apparently," said the voice on her phone, "there's been an order from upstairs that Mikoto is free to leave the hospital as of this morning. In fact, they've officially deemed you as her guardian."
"But that's…" Mai flailed for words.
"Well it's not legally binding, for one, since we're not the police. I just don't get it…"
"Seems awfully suspicious."
Shizuru grinned, and Mai didn't have to see her face to know it. "You seem to think a lot like myself, Tokiha-san. I do certainly think this situation requires a little investigation."
"I can't ask you to do anything that might be unethical. And I certainly wouldn't ask you to disobey your superiors…"
"Nobody said that the decision was not open to inquiry. It's my right, and my duty, to know just why one of my patients was cleared the same morning she came in with a puncture wound to the stomach."
Mai frowned. "I'm sorry, I have to go now. Someone wants more breakfast."
Mikoto grinned up at her innocently and held out the empty bowl. Shizuru just laughed softly in her ear. "Good look, Tokiha-san. I hope she puts you off having children, because believe me, they're much, much worse."
"What a cheerful person you are."
Mai pressed a button and got a satisfying blip as the connection cut out.
"Mai!" chirped her house-guest. "Mai's food is the best!"
"If you want more, I have to go shopping." She gestured to the kitchen, which looked something of a mess now. "You ate pretty much everything I had left."
Mikoto rubbed the back of her head and grinned helplessly.
Not so far from Mai's apartment building, something else far more interesting was happening. In an even more over-crowded and miserable area of the city, dark and damp and cold, a rather disreputable bar was huddled away into a corner in a back alley, built into the back of a much larger building. It was inconspicuous at the least, and the whole place was underground, accessible only via a rusted metal staircase down from ground level. There was no real sign, just a neon light over an otherwise ordinary door; an emergency exit sign in Japanese with the running green figure repainted a dull red.
Inside was just as bad. The bar was a single, cramped room, with not much space for more than a few tables arranged on the outside wall and the bar itself along the opposite side. As was most common, the wall behind the bar was mostly mirror, obscured by rack after rack of bottles, most of them half-empty. There was little light, and what little there was was a fuzzy orange glow from a few worn-out light bulbs dangling overhead from random points on the ceiling. Even the ceiling itself was in bad shape, shattered, broken, chipped foam tiles peeling away from an ugly grey concrete backing.
The bartender was not a particularly tall man, or particularly handsome. He was also not particularly unsightly, or fat, or thin, or anything else that might make him easily distinguishable. He was plain and of average height, average dark hair and eyes and a normal, slightly rounded face, clean shaven. His eyes were rolling about from one side to the other, between the glass in his hands that he was at that moment rubbing dry, and the small booth on the opposite wall of the bar where something, no doubt rather exciting, was happening without him. He tried not to look upset, though he did keep reminding himself that if something bad happened then he would probably be to blame.
The rather exciting thing that was happening over in that booth was a conversation, a hushed conversation. Of, only one of the participants was readily visible at that moment, the other hanging back in the thick shadow beside the booth. They sat, or stood, respectively, back-to-back with one another as they spoke.
"So," said the girl, setting her glass down on the table again. "You know where she is right now, I presume?" She stirred her drink with the little yellow plastic cocktail stick, a bored expression on her youthful face.
"Not right now," replied a deep, gruff voice with a hint of an accent. "I know where she was though. And I can even tell you…for a fee."
"Well I wouldn't expect any less," said the girl with a smirk. "I knew I could find someone reliable in a place like this."
"In every society, there are countless eyes and ears. Some of them pay attention." The shadow shifted. "And those who do often profit from those who do not."
The girl set her face into a tight, hard expression again. "How profound. I'm sure I'll remember those words." She sighed and sipped at the remains of the clear liquid in her glass. "So how much?"
"Straight to the point, are we?" chuckled the shadow.
"I like to be efficient."
"There's an envelope on the table in front of you."
She looked down. Sure enough, there was indeed a small white envelope sitting on the table, almost hidden beneath two empty bottles. She pushed them aside and plucked it by a corner between her fingertips. "Yes?"
"Six," the girl replied sharply. "No more."
"Sixty-two hundred is the lowest I'll go."
She paused for a while, as if she were honestly pondering it over. She turned that envelope over and over in her hands. The shadow remained silent.
Eventually, she smirked again. "Fine. Sixty-five, because I like the way you deal."
"That makes two of us. There's an ATM outside, around the corner from here. Bring back the money and give it to the bartender. Then you'll get your information."
"Pretty big incentive, then. What if I don't come back?"
"I don't lose anything, and you don't get your information. It's a completely neutral situation."
She laughed out loud at that. "I do like the way you deal. I'll be right back, then. With your money." She slid the envelope into her jacket pocket and stood up slowly. Her entire body from the neck down shimmered darkly, as if she were coated in metal. Her thick grey boots thumped against the bare floor. Her hair flowed out behind her like a wave, a mass of black silk ribbons that trailed behind her all the way down to her rear. She shoved the door open with one grey, gloved hand and disappeared without so much as a backward glance.
After a few moments, the shadow behind the booth moved again. "You think she'll do it?"
"Course not," replied the bartender without looking up from his glass-drying. "If she was going to, she'd have done it last time. She's just not the type."
"I hope you're right, or we might have a lot of explaining to do."
In that same major vicinity not so many hours later, with the bright afternoon sun on her back, an energetic young girl was hopping along the street with a smile on her face and two bulging plastic bags hanging from each hand, her fiery orange hair shifting in the breeze.
Completely unaware of the general deviousness going on in some nearby bar, Mai was dashing home again, this time sans umbrella and coat with just a loose brown jacket to keep her clothes from harm and to ward off the slight chilling breeze. So it was that, without the rain urging her on, she felt herself dropping into a more relaxed step as she neared the apartment building. Her shoes tapped out noisily still on the paving beneath and her breath had not quite caught up, still half-panting from the short sprint down the street. She hopped up the steps one at a time for a change, trying her best not to notice how her chest jostled up and down wildly with her carryings-on.
"It really is such a nice day today, though," she thought to herself aloud as she stopped in front of her apartment door and fished through her pocket for the key. "I wonder…"
Mai blinked. She turned her head, very slowly.
Sitting on the floor by her foot, looking patiently up at her, was a small black cat. A fairly young cat, presumably, but still quite stocky despite its diminutive stature.
"Well…er…hello there," said Mai.
"Meow," said the cat, and head-butted her ankle. "Meow."
"But," argued Mai a little hopelessly as she unlocked the door, "I don't own a…cat?"
Inside the apartment was another cat. This one was quite large, and white, and lay in the middle of the floor half-asleep. A third cat sat beside it, a ginger cat, who seemed to be completely absorbed in the act of watching Mikoto balance a chopstick on the end of her nose.
"Mikoto," said Mai hesitantly. "Why are there cats in my apartment?"
Mikoto waved cheerfully. "Hi, Mai!"
Mai slipped her shoes off, in which time the black cat slid its way through her legs and into the apartment, and then closed the door behind her. "Mikoto," she repeated, a little more firmly. "Why…are there cats…in my apartment?"
Mikoto shrugged at her. "I think they like me." She stood up slowly and stretched out until her fingers almost touched the ceiling.
Goodness, but did the girl ever stretch. She might have been a small, wiry thing to look at but she certainly had the flexibility. Her body must have been made of elastic or something, Mai had found herself wondering on more than one occasion.
Mai paused by the door and took another long look over her impromptu roommate; she was indeed quite the skinny thing, even for a girl so young, and her tendency to wear things that were far too large for her made her look all the more diminutive. Her hair was raggedly cut about her head, short and thick, a messy assortment of black spikes. Down each side of her face was a thin twisted coil of hair, tied off neatly just below the edge of her jaw. The whole affair seemed to emphasise those glaringly bright yellow eyes even more so.
Mikoto pivoted on one foot, leaning over so far that she looked about to pitch right over onto her face at any second as she turned to face the older girl. "You brought food?" she asked innocently.
Mai chuckled. "Lots of food, Mikoto-chan. I hope you like it all."
"Mai's food is the best!" insisted Mikoto with a beaming grin. "I can eat anything you cook!"
Thick grey boots thumped against the smooth, polished laminate floor, leaving a trail of ugly, wet black footprints behind. Motoko frowned at one such footprint, not inches from her office door. Then she lifted her head and frowned mercilessly at the person who had caused them. "And you would be?" she asked in a very annoyed tone of voice.
"Kuga," said the girl, who was almost a full head taller than Motoko. Then again, so was just about everyone else. She turned to face the irate secretary and Motoko almost rolled her eyes.
She was not all that tall, just quite a bit taller than Motoko herself, as was often the case. She was lean and fit and very much well built, as was blatantly obvious underneath the skin-tight leather suit she wore, a gleaming, polished jet-black one-piece with coordinated patches of burgundy and a deep metallic grey. Thick, padded grey gloves encased her hands, matching grey boots enveloped her feet up past the ankles and a jacket that would have otherwise been indecently short hung from her shoulder, only barely reaching past the bottom of her chest, left open to show off a decent amount of bulge under the leather over her chest.
"You would be Kuga-san, apparently," Motoko said flatly, still considerably more annoyed than she had been. "Well then, I'll just go get the red carpet…"
"I'm here to see Shizuru."
Motoko paused. Few people she knew called the Director by her first name so casually. "Director Fujino isn't here at the moment. You'll have to-"
"-I'll wait in her office," said the dark-haired girl as she nonchalantly pushed past Motoko.
"…wait in her office. Bitch." Motoko sighed to herself as she watched the door to Shizuru's office swinging shut with a click. "I better be getting overtime for this."
Inside Shizuru's office, predictably, was a nice neat desk, a rather large desk, in fact, for a relatively rather small office. Tall and wide and deep, stained wood, a deep auburn tone that blended into darker reddish bands along the grain. Atop the desk sat a potted plant, some breed of lily by the look of it, though it had yet to flower. There were several stacks of papers, but standing out from it all, in the very centre of the desk right where it was most accessible, was that slender grey notebook. Natsuki almost smirked at it.
She winced when the leather chair squeaked loudly against her leather suit, but that frustrating secretary did not make an appearance. The notebook folded open with a soft click and started humming. "Left it on again," Natsuki chuckled to herself. "How careless of her." The same old password got her in, and the layout looked oh so familiar. It was all going atrociously smoothly.
When Shizuru finally returned some ten or fifteen minutes later, Motoko was typing furiously away, literally, at her own workstation on her desk. She did not bother getting up to greet her superior, or even look up from her work. "Welcome back, ma'am," she grunted. "There's something in your office."
Shizuru frowned at the slight stress on 'something'. She was about to check when her office door opened and…
…out walked Kuga Natsuki, as lovely as ever. Shizuru was grinning from ear to ear before she knew it, just seeing that familiar body in such tight, revealing clothing. "Nice to see you again, Natsuki. Especially after so long."
Natsuki walked past her without even looking at her. "I borrowed it again," she said simply. "I knew you wouldn't mind." With that, she was out the door and gone again.
Motoko grunted again. Shizuru turned to give her a playful look. "Oh, she's just in a huff because I dumped her years ago."
"I seem to remember it was the other-"
"-What was that about overtime, Moko-chan?"
The blonde woman cursed to herself and kept on typing.
Mikoto belched. Loudly.
Mai made a face at her but she seemed not to care. "I think that's enough." The scrawny young girl tried to shake her head, but unfortunately she was still half-passed out over the breakfast table, chin on the table-top, a dopy smile over her face. Her stomach ached, but it was the good kind for sure.
"You must not have eaten in weeks, all the food you got down today."
"Mai's cooking is just so good," giggled Mikoto. She plucked another octopus ball from the dish on the table between finger and thumb and stared at it for a while. Eventually, her mouth opened wide and the crispy treat disappeared like a rabbit down a hole.
Mai sighed, rubbing wearily at her forehead. "I think I've cooked enough today for a whole army! I'm getting ramen for breakfast tomorrow and I don't care how bad it tastes as long as I don't have to make it."
She stood up and brushed off the crumbs from her skirt with the back of one hand while gathering up the small stack of plates with the other. Then off she went back to the kitchen again to dump them all in a pile in the sink, to be forgotten until the next morning. Mikoto just lay half-on half-off the table making happy little gurgling noises and rolling her head side to side.
"I really should go easy on her though," Mai sighed to herself. "She's been injured pretty badly. She was so thin and weak when she got here, so I should just keep feeding her for now and make sure she gets better." She nodded. "Yeah, I can do it! It'll be just like…like…"
She looked down at the water running from the tap, almost mesmerised, with a distant look on her face. "Almost like…taking care of Takumi again…"
Before her self-doubt could go any further, there was a knock at the door. Mikoto being effectively incensed and all, Mai twisted the faucet off and dashed around the kitchen counter with an exasperated groan. "I'm coming, just a moment!"
There was not a second knock.
When Mai opened the door, there was no one there.
"Er…okay…" She looked to either side for a moment, then up, then down. She even stepped right outside and looked down over the edge of the concrete balcony, down to the bottom of the stairwell. Nobody there either. It was growing dark rather quickly and the light outside was therefore failing considerably, but Mai knew her eyes were good enough to catch a person out of the weak shadows outside her apartment.
"Hello?" she shouted out down the stairway. "Is anyone there?"
Mai froze. Something hard and cold was pressing against the back of her head just above the base of her skull. It felt unnervingly like a gun, but then that might have simply been Mai's brain overreacting.
"To-ki-ha-Mai," said a slightly dusky feminine voice.
"Who are you?" Mai growled, or at least tried.
"Tokiha Mai should be more cautious in future. People could take advantage of such a generous, trusting girl."
Mai snorted. "Whoever you are, you sound awfully arrogant."
The gun, or whatever it was, prodded roughly against her head. "Tokiha Mai should learn to keep her comments to herself," hissed the voice.
"Kuga Natsuki should watch her back!"
Mai blinked. "Miko-"
The rest was cut off. All at once, Natsuki swept herself down and back, rolling backwards across the concrete and through the doorway into Mai's apartment. At the very same time, Mikoto came hurtling through the doorway not inches above her, an enormous black sword raised over her head and a furious look on her face. Mai had only enough time to dive to one side as that colossal blade came scything down and cleaved the metal railing clean through, wedging itself deep into the concrete floor of the balcony.
Suddenly, Mikoto was leaning over the railing in Mai's place and her opponent was behind her, her own weapon levelled at the young girl's back.
"And you should try a more focused attack next time." Mai watched, somewhat stunned, as the raven-haired girl held out her free hand to one side. There was a sudden flash of light, and what looked like a handgun of some kind appeared millimetres from her palm with a strange sort of popping noise; short and fat and square-ish, in shimmering black metal. She grabbed it neatly in those long, slender fingers and aimed it down towards Mai. "And Tokiha Mai should stay put."
"Kuga Natsuki really should check out who she's dealing with before being so brash," Mai shot back with a smirk. Natsuki only had time to utter 'Na-' before a thin lance of flame snapped across the distance from Mai's fingertips to herself and knocked one gun sharply out of her hand. She recoiled at once, clutching that hand close against her chest with a wince.
Mikoto took that as a signal, apparently, and back-flipped up into the air towards her enemy, bringing her sword sweeping behind her in a wide vertical arc.
Unfortunately, or perhaps not, the end of the blade struck the concrete wall just above the apartment door and jammed in, pivoting Mikoto about that point so she struck head-first right into Natsuki's stomach. Down went both girls into a rather messy heap. Mikoto's sword soon after dropped out of its notch in the wall, bounced on its handle on the floor and toppled over, whacking Mikoto soundly across the forehead.
"Hey, get off me, damn it!"
Mai took a moment to look at the chaos and sighed. Then she snickered. Then she giggled…
…and then she burst right out laughing. Natsuki yelling at her angrily only made it worse.
Mikoto groaned pathetically and rubbed at her forehead again.
"So, Tokiha Mai is one of us," Natsuki reiterated. She sipped at the tea presented her and had to fight not to show her approval. It was damn good tea.
"One of you?" Mai looked at Mikoto, then at her new house-guest, with a bewildered expression. "You mean then, that the two of you are Himes too?"
Natsuki nodded sagely. "We both went to that stupid academy, and so did you, it would seem. Each one of us is a Hime."
"I didn't know she was…" Mai gave Mikoto a worried look. "If I had known… It certainly explains why she's back out of hospital so fast though." She growled at Natsuki. "But that doesn't explain why you were trying to kill her! Did you give her that wound?"
"I wasn't trying to kill her," barked Natsuki with a snarl. "I have to take her back to Fuuka Gakuen. She'll be safer there."
"I don't wanna be safe! I want Mai's cooking!"
Mai laughed out loud and Natsuki ground her teeth together. "I think Mikoto-chan would much rather stay here, wouldn't you?"
"I don't wanna go back to that place," said Mikoto impudently. "It's bad there. Feels all wrong."
"Define wrong," replied Natsuki with a growl.
"I dunno, just…something strange about it."
Natsuki remained quiet for a few moments, eyes closed in thought as she sipped her tea. Mikoto pouted childishly, which she seemed to be rather good at, and Mai just shook her head and sighed again.
"If you're a Hime like us," said Natsuki at last, "then she'd at least be better off in your company."
Mai grinned. "I've defeated all sorts of terrors in my days, anything that menaced the sacred academy grounds." She chuckled self-consciously at that. "Midori-chan did seem so enthusiastic about it."
"Midori-sensei was a Hime too?" Natsuki looked a little worried when Mai nodded in reply. "There were so many more than we knew about then, it seems. Maybe I should tell Shizuru…"
Mai blinked. "Wait… Fujino-san? Fujino Shizuru, the student council President?"
"What about her?"
"What about her?" yelled Mai excitedly. "She's the director at-"
"-Tokyo Twelfth District Public Hospital," Natsuki finished. "I know. She told me where you lived." Then she slammed her fist down on Mai's table. "That bitch! She knew you were one of us and she didn't tell me! Making me look like a fool again, how childish of her."
"You two…know each other, I presume?"
Natsuki blushed. "Er, well…we go back. A long way."
Mai gasped theatrically. "Shock! A female student has a tempestuous affair with the famous President Fujino!"
"Shut up, damn it!"
Mikoto watched on, completely baffled, while Mai laughed herself back into her seat and Natsuki berated her, loudly, for being so 'vulgar'. "What's "affair"?" she pondered out loud.
"Eh?" Mai grinned even wider. "Well, when a sexually confused schoolgirl falls in love with…"
"Now just a minute, damn you! Who're you calling sexually confused?"
"Well at least some of us know which way we swing."
Natsuki shot a sly look at Mikoto. "I see. That explains why you let her stay then, hm?"
Mai turned bright red and tried not to look like she was looking at that skin-tight leather suit...
Eventually, the situation calmed itself down. Or rather, Natsuki and Mai slagged each other off until they both ran out of insults and then came to a resigned sort of truce. Mikoto sat and watched, amused at times, completely confused at others, but mostly not really interested enough in the exchange to let it interrupt her eating to such a degree.
Finally, Natsuki swept out of the door like a gust of cold wind and vanished into the night, with only a brief look over her shoulder as she left. Mai ran out to the street-side after her.
"So does this mean you'll be keeping an eye on us, hm?"
Natsuki straddled the sleek, dark mass of her bike with a practiced ease and plucked the helmet from where it hung by the strap from the handlebar. "You might see me around, if something bad happens."
Mai grinned. "Oh if I'm lucky, I'll be seeing the back of you a lot from now on." She chuckled at the blush that brought up and leaned back on a wall to watch Natsuki peeling away into the street. Okay, perhaps she shouldn't be saying such things. People would get the wrong idea. 'People' being Mikoto, mainly.
"But," Mai whined, "She's just such fun to tease!"
"Mai!" yelled a voice from behind her. She turned to see Mikoto on the balcony, waving an empty bowl over her head. "Come back and cook more, Mai!"
"What am I getting myself into here?"