Author's Notes:

Today is my birfday (August 29th – don't look at me in that tone. It's still yesterday out west, and home is where the heart is)! As such, in celebration of being one year older (yet no wiser, more's the pity) I share with you my greatest gift, in appreciation of your continued readership – an update to our long languished story.

Tis late (or early for I), and I've been in labor pains for some weeks now, ponderously waddling through the words, suffering light headed spells and anemia of the soul – please forgive me if my customary eloquence fails to convey how grateful I am to be one chapter closer to our closing curtain, and how delighted I am to offer it unto you, on this day, as a token of my affection.

Special thanks to everyone who reviewed If There Be Humor! I'm tickled folks liked it. Especially those it was written for. ::grins impishly:: And to those that offered me invaluable technical advice: ::offers a paper rose:: Arigatou.

To those that pondered overmuch upon my endless teasing of Kuga/Kruger-san, I offer this remuneration: Natsuki is well loved, and I dwell humorously upon her failings merely because we share many of the same defects, she and I.

As always, my greatest thanks and appreciation goes to Felisse (dubbed The Beta of Steel by someone I trust), for her hours of relentless encouragement, rearrangement, and generally putting up with my sorry self while I hewed and hawed, bucked, bristled and bemoaned my lacks. Without this, the words you read might very well have caused blindness, premature balding, or any number of unsavory side effects. ::bows:: I am, as always, forever in your debt.

Happy Birthday, everyone!

This chapter dwells on the ineffable, adds greater depth to our questions of fate, introduces a theory, a pact, a speculation, and moves the hands of the clock closer by one. Sit, dine with me for a spell, and should the meal be hearty, the story satisfying, offer grace (or simply prayer) that the next course may be served after a (much) shorter intermission.

Chapter 17

Haruka was having a terrible, horrible, very bad day. The mother of all Mondays. Except this wasn't a Monday, it was a Wednesday, and everything should be running smoothly; a well oiled, finely tuned machine, a machine Haruka took personal responsibility for, maintained with firmness and dedication. With as much effort as she put into these things her life, the day should be positively rolling over and doing tricks – fetch, chase, or, as she thought at the moment, playing dead, and yet, here she was, carrying a large stack of folders that one of the new interns one of the few who didn't yet know who I am had dumped on her as soon as she'd left the sanctuary of her office, obviously thinking she was another of the interns. Which was just… god damn annoying is what it was.

It was, in point of fact, the worst day she could recall having since she'd been in high school, laboring uselessly under that bubuzuke Fujino woman. Haruka shifted the weight in her hands, searching for another intern, and when she spotted one leaning against the water cooler, she stormed over and handed the pile to the startled looking gentleman, telling him, rather forcibly, where he should deliver them.

"Don't just stand there looking at me, like you have no idea what I'm saying. Get to work! Don't you have any plagiarism?"

The man blinked several times, glancing from the folders in his hands, to the brusque, annoyed woman standing in front of him with her hands on her hips, and back again. "Huh?" The harridan's foot tapped impatiently, her nostrils flaring, as one might expect from a bull before it charges, and the man laughed nervously as he edged backwards down the hall, beating a hasty, if not completely panic-stricken, retreat.

Haruka harrumphed, completely disappointed in the current batch of helpers they'd gotten. Well, she'd gotten, actually. I wonder why that went so badly? They all seemed fine on paper. Misrepresentation, that's what it was, an egregious case of false advertising. Sad really, but unworthy of stewing over; she washed her hands of the situation as the man scuttled around the corner. It was not part of her duties, but she'd been keenly interested in hiring procedures, and managed to bully her way into taking over incorporating the human resources department. A week later, her curiosity was sated, and she felt it was better to turn her attention to more pressing matters, but not before the campaign was inundated with Haruka's crop of employees.

Perhaps they did not enjoy the work; not everyone would, it was to be expected. Not that Haruka disliked her job; quite the contrary. After graduating from Fuuka, there had been an interminable period where she had absolutely no idea what she wanted to do. Not particularly interested in following that effing bubuzuke woman, with her perfect marks, and her 'I'm so surprised at this turn of events' hand-to-cheek commiserative expression, like three points gave her bragging rights, three goddamn points Fujino to university, Haruka toyed with the idea of seeking an education elsewhere, but in the end, it was all so tedious, and she was anxious to get started making a difference in the world. She'd declined her father's offer to join him at the Suzushiro's Offices with polite, sidesplitting laughter, and gone for a great many soul-searching constitutionals.

It was on one of these walks that she'd met the General. Having decided it was a little too cold to go for a walkabout with her hands exposed to the biting wind, she had been glancing down, searching for her jacket pockets to warm them in, when she bumped into him as he stood close to the lake, feeding the more foolhardy few remaining ducks. In truth, she hadn't been that impressed with him from appearances – his choice of winter apparel seemed somehow… frumpy to her, even through he was immaculately groomed, and had a rather rakish fringe of salt-and-pepper curls framing each ear.

The blond had courteously apologized for disturbing him, secretly thinking he should watch where she was going, and been just about to continue on her way when he pressed three somewhat musty slices of bread into her hands and demanded that her repayment take the form of company, at least until this loaf was gone.

"Why bother feeding them? They're just going to starve when winter sets in."

"Because I have nothing better to do with my time than encourage the beggars into staying, and making the world a more beautiful place."

So had begun their relationship, and somewhere in the course of that incredibly illogical conversation, he had related tales of his time in the military, how he'd seen the quiet yearning in the eyes of those he encountered to be more than what life gave them, but society was too entrenched in itself, in old, useless patterns of behavior and corruption, to notice. And that was why he was currently running for Cabinet Minister in the Ministry of Justice, because his people, the people he swore to protect, posed a greater threat to themselves than any foreign invader could possibly be.

Of course that was complete nonsense. Perhaps he doesn't know any better. How could people within a system pose a greater threat to one another than falling prey to system itself, if the system contradicted the very common sense upon which it was founded? It stood to reason, if the system was incorruptible, the populace would be spared the moral quandaries of debate, and could find contentment, pride, in being productive, upstanding citizens of this utopia. Her utopia. Something she sensed this man could accomplish. There was just something about this man, some core of moral righteousness, that beckoned to her – he could, with proper supervision, do great works. Great works she wanted to be a part of.

When the man had wished her luck in her endeavors, her mouth had opened to volunteer herself to his campaign. Haruka has no idea why, precisely; perhaps if she'd been prone to controlled introspection, she might have concluded it was a rather feeble bid to effect order in the current chaos of her life – that the current state of floundering had much less to do with honest desires to make the world a better place, and much more to do with beating her non-conformist lifestyle choice back into conforming with the world around her. But she was not, and Yukino wasn't there to pick up the slack, so when Haruka decided her assistance was required, and the General had accepted, it was because she was 'doing the right thing.'

"Because doing the right thing is the most impotent responsibility," she muttered to herself.

It wasn't so much the inconvenience of relying on mass transit, it was just time consuming – time better spent doing… well, something productive. Of course, she could have renewed her license, taken the initiative and spent boring hours waiting for a turn to give her side of the story – something the Driver's Licensing Center hadn't listened to four years ago, but Midori was no longer the wild and unrestrained youth she'd been in college. Before I was kicked out. I wonder how big a fine I'd get for joy-riding Gakutenou without a license? She laughed at this thought, scratching the back of her head, and the man sitting adjacent gave her an odd, subtly scornful glance as he shifted away from her in his seat.

Midori's half-conceived grin blossomed into a full bouquet, and her self amused laugh gained length and width, expanding to fill the stagnant silence surrounding the few midday passengers on the bus, turning heads and claiming stares, some curious, others concerned, most simply wondering why she couldn't hush, like a proper, well mannered lunatic. But that had never been her – not now in the prime of her 'seventeenth' twenty-seventh year, nor when the jovial response, "I'm seventeen!", had been true, and she flitted from one academic interest to another, diligently studying for tried to get out of college entrance exams stuffing the cram school brochures as far to the back in my closet as I could, so Papa wouldn't find them, nor even when she was much, much younger, living out her childhood across the ocean to the West, contentedly munching bowls of Lucky Charms as she memorized every moment of Super Sentai Saturday morning cartoons.

When the laughter died, she slipped beside the man who seemed so very intent on ignoring her, tapping her finger on the glass to direct everyone's attention towards the marketplace they were just now passing; her voice continued, beginning with: "Did you know, this area…", and didn't pause until she disembarked, smiling and waving to the small cluster of passengers who'd gathered round her to hear the amusing historical anecdotes as they wound their way through downtown Fuuka.

"I love history," she murmured to herself as she walked the remaining few blocks to Fuuka Academy. Midori made friends wherever she went.

Tate walked slowly over to his bunk, ignoring the slight untidiness of his room. He glanced at the digital alarm nested amidst a pile of loose papers, paused at his writing desk, curling his fingers around the back of the wooden chair shoved haphazardly underneath. This didn't feel like his room – had the air of disorder he associated with others less precise than he'd conditioned himself to be. More like how I was in high school, he supposed. As comforting as these thoughts were, even these observations weren't accurate; the clothes strewn across the floor may reminded him of who he'd been once upon a time, subtly softening the appearance of the cage he inhabited, existed in uneasy alliance with the sharp edges, the metallic tang of meticulously recycled air, the windowless landscape military accommodations provided.

Fingers tightened on the spine of the chair as he leaned over the desk, checking his phone. Two messages. I must be loved, he thought sourly, disgustedly burying his phone under a flurry of equally ignored papers. His knee throbbed, sent lancing spikes of discomfort through the left side of his leg. One of the papers fluttered to the floor, and he stooped to retrieve it, bracing his bad leg to save himself the agony of it bending, his eyes wandering to the corner where his shinai leaned, silently mocking him.

I should have thrown that damn thing away. Perhaps, but he hadn't been able to carry through with this act – it was the last scrap of his former life he'd allowed himself to cling to, a keepsake, a memento of simpler times, which were, though painful in their own right, at least… happy something he could claim as his own. Limping, his feet pulled him closer to this sanctuary, this symbol of sanity before the world turned into a place where it became necessary to blow my best friend's brains out, before Mai and Shiho descended into the madness leading to…

His palm caressed the leather wrapped handle almost lovingly, reaching to remove the bamboo sword from its canvas covering. He hefted the faux blade, imagining, as he had during the tournaments he'd attended, that this was an actual katana, that the sounds of wood meeting wood, distant and echoing down the corridors of memory, carried within them sharper clang of ringing steel. That sparring was an act of battle, his spirit carrying him forward as the body followed along its destined path.

He brought the shinai down in a sharp arc, took a step forward, balancing his weight between his feet, centered himself deep within his midsection, ignoring the warning pains shooting up his leg. If I'd stayed true, none of this would have happened. I would have returned to kendo, Mai would have won her Carnival, Shiho… Shiho what? Yuichi grimaced, bringing the weapon down twice more; quick, savagely controlled strokes. You think it was that simple? You still think there were easy decisions; that they would have made a difference?

"No such thing," he muttered, grunting as his left leg gave out underneath him, flaring in agony. No such thing as an easy out. Just lots of easy failures. Like the time he'd called out to Mai, when Kanzaki was about to kiss her. He hadn't even the courage, at that moment, to use her given name, rationalizing it to himself later that she hadn't offered him that familiarity – and yet, the look in her eyes, as she tried to explain herself, as if she were the guilty party, and there he'd been in all his male-wounded-pride glory, incapable of saying what he felt choose me, dammit.

Let's not even go into how much worse Shiho was hurt during that desperate, chest-beating spectacle. Tate snarled, straightening his leg as much as possible before propping himself upright with the bamboo in his hands. "I don't have time for this." And you never made the time, did you? Never made the time for me, the time I begged for; not even after you knew how I felt about you. Onii-chan is so selfish.

That wasn't true. He'd spent most of his time with Shiho after the Carnival was done with them, spent hours and days and months trying to mend her broken heart, much to Mai's dismay. She'd warned him, amaranthine censure, that giving in to Shiho's pleading wouldn't solve anything. He just… couldn't. He couldn't bear to see her suffering. It wasn't as though he didn't realize he was being unfair: badgering Mai into irrevocably casting Kanzaki aside, while he hid behind rationalized excuses, smoothing over his time with Shiho; tried to worm his way out of one girl's affections, while placating his way into the other's bed.

Was it any wonder Mai turned distant every time I tried to sleep with her? No, not really; there were only so many ways one can bend before something breaks. Did any of it matter? Not now. Tate grunted, looking down at the fake wooden sword in his hands, noted its frailty – he hadn't cared for it properly, and the bamboo had dried to the point of becoming brittle. He laughed, bringing the shinai down sharply across his knee, watched as it splintered and shredded, finally breaking in two, held together by a few stubborn fibers.

He tossed the useless reminder of his past into the corner, settling himself carefully on the edge of the bed. "It doesn't matter to me. I don't care." And, for once in his life, he didn't.

There was, in all things, a form of symmetry – a sense of completeness only experienced in pairs: hopeful despair, victorious defeat, absence denying what absolution bought – the past, the present, the future. Time had its own set of laws, a fluidity of movement unbound by the necessity of opposites, stretched its fingers outward to touch ubiquitous possibility, like water, and was just as impossible to grasp. But it could be calculated, to the tiniest, most insignificant tick.

Miyu closed her eyes, listening to the song as it wound around her, tingled auditory sensors. She lost herself in the weave of frequencies, air vibrating as it escaped between Alyssa's lips, hung in fragile, luminous streams between them as they sat, side by side. 'Who are those little girls in pain.' The words themselves held no meaning for her, though Miyu remembered the lyrics well enough. It had been she who taught them, "Sing for me", ruffling the hair of the blond angel as cerulean eyes quietly begged for distraction from pain.

"Yes, ojousama."

And so she'd opened her mouth, unsure even as the words emerged, what she should sing, yet this tune came to her easily, awed and amazed the then three year old girl, who trembled, bravely holding out her arm, whimpering in growing discomfort as the hormone treatments continued. 'Like flowers that blossom just once in years.'

"Ojousama is very brave."

Miyu could recall each of these moments in crystalline clarity, undiluted by the erosion of human memory, just as she could remember gathering Alyssa's hair behind the frail, bowed neck as the child vomited, supporting the shivering frame of her mistress, perched over the rim of the toilet, held the girl in a gentle, protective embrace as the night sweats and fevers swept through her tiny frame, treated the bruises and injected stolen narcotics into over-taxed musculature as Alyssa screamed, her body struggling to endure accelerated growth.

'They've never been allowed to love.' Stress patterns alerted her to a shift in mood, and Miyu's eyes opened, anxiously scanning the child beside her for injury, their surroundings for potential commination.

The golden angel's face was tilted down, hair screening her features from view, delicate fingers curled over the edge of the bench, trembling as Alyssa tightened her grip. Miyu had the urge to brush the obstruction behind Alyssa's ear, wanting to see the other's face clearly. Miyu's hand lifted, following thought with action, but paused midway, jerked to a stop, brandy eyes dulling as the image in her memory suppressed actuality, superimposed one visage atop the other.


A woman, perhaps the same age as Miyu's appearance – perhaps a bit older, with strawberry- platinum hair, and sad, sad eyes. Eyes the color of cloudless climes on a cold winter's day. Fingers reached to brush snarled bangs away from that flawless, wounded face, to comfort, to banish enduring woes, traced the scar bisecting young woman's upper lip. She knew these to be her own hands, even as her sensors tripped, overloading from the glut of incoming stimuli.

Accessing…download in progress.

She inhaled sharply, stiffening as the system crashed, her pupils narrowing, focusing on the appendage suspended between them, closed and opened her fist, listening to the faint electronic whirr of well-maintained machinery. Lingered recollection, sensory confusion – silken strands damp from weeping, the warmth against her palm as she stroked away the fears. Alyssa's face, shaped and reformed by the passage of years The hum grew to a whine as fingertips rubbed against one another in tactile fascination. Cooling tears.

Tracing source files.

'They're dancing in the shadows, like whispers of love.' One face. Many faces. The details were sketchy, obscure, flashed and faded within the span of compressor cycles. She couldn't seize them independently from the jumbled data overheating her processors. Breathing raggedly, Miyu unlocked her high-speed memory access struggling to control the flow of information. The whine deepened into a thrum, echoing through her circuits like a heartbeat. Each face bore slight differences, a shade there, a pigment here; only the eyes were consistent, and that scar, curving like a question mark under her mistress's nose. And Miyu knew, she knew for each instance how the injury had occurred.

Trace complete – source unknown.

When were those memories obtained? Every moment was strictly chronicled, timestamped to within a microsecond of their creation for efficient retrieval, unvarying and unchangeable – the basis upon which her learning algorithms evolved. These images, fading even as she desperately wrote them to storage, held no such proof, provided no means of verification that they were, in fact her own. Yet she understood, beyond the limitations of her programming, they belonged to her.

"Ojousama…" The child turned her head to glance up at her guardian through the fringe of hair between them. Alyssa's expression was pensive, insecure, and once again Miyu reached for the child, momentarily startled at the scar's absence. It hasn't happened. But it would. Soon. Of that Miyu had no doubt.

"Is it all right, what we're doing?"

A thousand voices speaking this phrase confirmed, Alyssa Searrs voice pattern, as it had been spoken a thousand times before. Miyu's arm wrapped around smaller shoulders as her golden angel crawled into her lap, allowing the android to fold Alyssa into the security of her embrace. The answer never varied; not once.

"I will protect Ojousama, and stay by her side, forever."

In some ways, in every conceivable way that mattered, the inexorable tumble of events leading to this moment seemed hideously preordained. As inescapable as death, as relentless as taxes, as comically meticulously conscripted as a Shakespearean play. If one were to assume there were forces at work beyond the mortal ken, opposing wills of ineffable intent, one might catch the pattern, feel one's foot depress the pressure plate of fate a fraction before crumbling reality gave way beneath, casting them into the darkness waiting below.

He leaned against the wall as he exited sub-Director's new office, trying to ignore the stiffness across his shoulders, the building indignity of being caught in the vortex of a storm he couldn't quite wrap his fingers around. Nothing was simple or straightforward, the comforting sameness of his life had turned backside round, leaving no constant he could seize to rectify the situation.

Smith's words rankled. He'd suggested, again, that they bring Natsuki in, remove her from harm's way before coincidence removed her from their tenuous protection. It hadn't mattered – he'd been shot down, reprimanded for his awkward affections. "If you have a grievance with our methods, you should take it up with the new Director."

"A grievance," he muttered – as if this were high school, and he could go rattling the administrator's cage, complain that he wasn't getting his tuitions worth. Yet another proof of his overwhelming youth destructive, glaring incompetence It was true he wasn't thrilled with Searrs Corp's actions, nor his compliance involvement, leading to the current stalemate they found themselves in, but brushing off his concerns… It wasn't fair. He'd already bled in the line of duty, given unswerving allegiance, and his reward, that thing person he'd been promised was no closer to being attained.

It hadn't always been this way. As a third year student in high school, he'd had a completely different plan for his life. Never exceptionally gifted in academics, he'd had other abilities to rely on – his martial prowess, for one. After winning the National Kendo Tournament for the third year in a row, he'd had prospects: a full ride through university, if he so chose, or an entry-level position in several companies participating in corporate sponsored athletic events. As daunting as the former had seemed, he'd quickly jumped at the latter, and the rest, as they say, was history.

The real surprise, as far as he was concerned, had come in the form of a hand written letter inviting him to an interview with Searrs Corporation. Vague and enticing, the wording had been obscure, but the offer itself was irresistible. So he'd borrowed one of his father's suits and stood fidgeting beneath the somewhat soothing, somewhat intimidating stare of the receptionist – a woman he shortly became convinced existed for the sole purpose of proving his grand dreams were meaningless, bound to be crushed under the wheels of progress.

He'd been so preoccupied with this unnerving certainty, he'd almost bolted from the room as the petite woman rose, betraying him to fortune with a demure smile and a bow, closing the door behind him.

"Mr. Smith."

His impression of the man who would groom into his current position hadn't changed once from the moment of their meeting this is a man who would stop at nothing to secure his place in history. He could surf the wake of the shark's progress, or be devoured by it. "The choice is yours, but Searrs would welcome your unique talents in our upcoming projects." The demon's mouth had widened, exposing impeccably white teeth as well manicured fingers briskly closed the folder he'd been holding. He'd swallowed, watching those hands as they paused their motions, tapping distractedly atop the neatly arranged papers. He'd discovered early in the interview he couldn't meet the other man's eyes for any length of time without a cold sheen of sweat pricking along the back of his neck.

His mind had, in actuality, completely wandered away, but was brought up short by the mention of a name, one he recognized, and he'd stiffened, fists clenching at his sides.

"Please forgive my rudeness, Director. What were you saying?"

"I was wondering how you were acquainted with the Kuga family. Kuga-san is a valuable business partner; it was on his recommendation that we researched your resume. Perhaps you knew his daughter? I believe she also attended Fuuka Gakuen."

"You manipulative bastard." It was becoming increasingly clear Smith had no intention of allowing him anywhere near his beloved princess Kuga. Restless, he ran fingers through his hair as he made his way back to the small corner cupboard they'd assigned him in lieu of an actual office. The catch clicked, and he was once again left to his own devices; his eyes closed as he sank into the chair, more than willing to set this conundrum behind him for a bit and take a short nap. The phone jarred him back to consciousness, and he jumped, wondering what the pale-eyed shark wanted to browbeat him with now. He debated not answering it at all, but duty won over cynical conjecture and he lifted the receiver.

"Yes sir?"

Unnervingly high-pitched laughter floated across the line and he stiffened, reaching over to flip the lock on his door. "I told you not to call me here! They keep recordings of incoming and outgoing calls."

"Masashi, that's no way to greet a friend! We are friends, aren't we?" The amusement hadn't faded, merely changed form – he could still hear in the boy's voice. "I'd hate to think what could happen if we decided to be enemies."

Get to the point, you little brat. "Of course we're friends."

"I'm so glad to hear that. You took care of that problem we discussed? We can't have that Searrs trash running loose."

Teeth ground as his fingers tightened on the phone. "Yes," he hissed. "I installed it personally during the last maintenance cycle."

"Good boy!" The laughter returned and he shuddered. "Natsuki would be so proud of you – you're turning into a worthy champion. Have to protect your dearest one."

"Homura." Don't bait me. The name slipped from his lips like a curse. He felt defiled even speaking it, but like most punishments, some things must be borne in pursuit of the greater good. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead; a dull ache was settling in just behind his right eye, causing the muscles underneath to involuntarily twitch.

"Oooo, so scary when you're angry, Takeda-kun." There was a pause before the voice continued, and he wondered if the creature on the other end were taunting him, or merely mocking. "You've spoken with Alyssa-chan?"

"Yes. I've told her the assignment is a lure to get her out into the open – that Smith probably wants to remove her to get his position back."

"Do you think she believed you?"

The ache turned into seething, stabbing agony, shooting down the right side of his neck. "Does it matter?"

"Hmmm… not really. Suggestion is a funny thing, isn't it?"

It was his turn to laugh; bitter and resentful, he recalled quite clearly the devil's bargain he'd struck with this monster. Anything for the chance. Just a chance. Natsuki, I don't want you to get any further into this mess than you already are.

"Make sure you follow them to their little family reunion. It's close now… when the time comes you'll cut her strings. I shouldn't have to remind you what will happen to our poor little plan if they find you." The voice had taken on a nasty undertone, and his lips thinned in distaste. "Then again, if Pinocchio gets her hands on you, you won't have much to worry about at all."

Lunch had been a disappointment – as it was almost every day. She'd sat alone, as was her custom, and been disturbed only twice to put out tiny fires that could have waited until after she'd eaten her tasteless meal in solitude, of which she'd reminded them ina mildly perturbed half-bellow, before chalking the meal up to a lost cause, and thankfully decided to return to her office. Which was how she came to be in the hallway, within sight of the uninformed gopher who tried to get her to do their job for them, but now she'd reversed the tables on the lazy, misbegotten lot of them, hadn't she? Damn skippy. Haruka smiled in private self-congratulation, nodding her head once, firmly.

"Suzushiro-san… Suzushiro-san." Haruka blinked at the man with wavy salt-and-pepper hair, realizing she hadn't returned to her office as she'd intended, but had been standing in the middle of the hallway for Kami knew how long, lost in some idiotic reverie. Why do these things always happen to me? Her lips drew themselves into a small pucker of displeasure as she panicked, wondering if this would be viewed as 'wasting company time'.

"Yes, General, I was just on my way to see you." There, that sounded efficient.

"Ah? Well, then, I'll just have to make some time, won't I?" She was still uneasy, finding his charismatic, affable mannerisms more off-putting than relaxing, but that was the way he was, and she could endure. He hesitated, perhaps expecting a different reaction. "Please." Politely directing hands held his office door open, and she accepted the invitation, preferring to stand than sit. Fingers smoothed her skirt as she collected her thoughts, taking a deep breath to prepare her report.


"Are you all right?"

"Ahh, huh?" Caught off guard, she blinked at her employer stupidly for the second time in five minutes, wondering if the flush of embarrassment were as obvious as it felt. She sniffed dismissively. "Of course I'm all right; perfectly capable of performing my duties to the latter of the law." Flicking her wrist briskly, she attempted to begin her recitation a second time, and was once again stymied.

"You seem preoccupied, Suzushiro-san, and that's not like you. I was beginning to worry." His hands spread in a placating gesture as he continued, and she watched those movements as if mesmerized. "It is not my place to give personal advice, of course, but you know, harmony begins in the home. Are you and Kikukawa-san having…"

The man watched his personal secretary's jaw clench so tightly he could swear he heard tendons snap. "Forgive me, that was rude. Your concerns are your own." He sighed, settling back into his chair, and resting his fingertips lightly on the edge of the desk. "I believe you could use some time off. Spend some time relaxing. Things have been so hectic around here lately – it's putting a great deal of stress on everyone."

The blond haired woman in front of him struggled to control her temper, and he was tempted to chuckle. He didn't, of course – Haruka would no doubt interpret any sign of amusement as ridicule; she'd become even more recalcitrant. "I'm fine. I've been a little tired recently, but I don't think that's any reason to send me home when there's work to be done."

"Haruka-san, you're taking this the wrong way. I'm not sending you home. I'm encouraging you to get the rest you need, now, while we're ahead. I need everyone to be here for the next few months. Do you understand?"


He lifted his hand, and she stomped her foot. It was a subtle thing, barely noticeable, but he'd built his career on just such observations. "If anything goes wrong, you're just a phone call away. Please accept this reward for all your hard work." She couldn't possibly refuse, and judging by the scowl on her face, she realized this. He'd always thought she had a beautiful face, one of the many reasons he'd accepted her into his fold, and she'd matured considerably, even in the six months he'd known her, but right now it was hard to tell.

"Yes, General." The tone was hiemal. She didn't like being told what to do.

"If there's anything I can do, any help or assistance I can provide, you'll let me know, won't you. Sometimes," his hand waved, as if to illustrate a vague point he couldn't quite define, "it's difficult to work through personal issues on one's own." His fingers tapped rhythmically on the edge of the desk. "I'm sure it's nothing serious, but if you want another point of view, it can't hurt to ask. Nothing changes in a vacuum."

Tate rolled over into a sitting position, cradling his head. He didn't remember falling asleep, but here it was, some unknown hours later than when he'd sat on the edge of his bed, head sagging between the tension in his shoulder blades as he tried, without success, to come up with some sort of conclusion regarding Akane. All he remembered was the crushing weight of his indecision, the futility of every action he'd taken or ignored, leading up to this unwieldy burden his CO had laid squarely at his feet. It wasn't a responsibility he wanted, and though part of his mind continued to rail against the unfairness of it all, how he'd earned better than this, it was still his and his alone.

Alone, that's what I am. The same as Mai, the same as Fujino Shizuru, with her sad, wounded eyes following the smallest movement of her unrequited love, desperately trying to bury the truth under a charade of laconic smiles, and soft, acquiescent sighs. He'd never challenged the kaichou with the frailty of her deception, taking cues from his sponsor. It was an unspoken law: Reito knew best, but he'd watched the pair of HiME, thinking them both fools. Was I any better? He grimaced, scraping his hand angrily across the thin stubble prickling his chin. No, I wasn't, but I wasn't any worse either. Small comfort, considering the way things had worked out. At least I didn't go on a homicidal killing spree.

That part of his mind that staunchly refused the burden of his own sins wondered sourly if that wouldn't have been a better solution – just throw it all away, chaff and wheat and stalk, having no need to listen to Higurashi's laughter melt into gut-wrenching howls as the jagged pulses of electricity dutifully ripped away her hold on sanity, one fingernail at a time. No need for cool, steady fingers to absorb the jerk of the gun as Kazuya's body bucked under the impact of the bullet. No need to suffer the panic afterwards, that moment of ohshitohshit floundering, his body making the decision of how best to silence the new fully awake HiME, by smothering her under the corpse of her dead lover, while his hands tremblingly shook out the hypodermic that would restore blessed silence.

Knuckles hit the wall as his fist pushed these thoughts back into the hungry darkness. Wallowing wasn't going to solve anything. What was done was done – it's not like lingering over the past the ease of the shorter girl's smile as she brushed her hair behind her ear, standing on her tip toes to give her boyfriend a quick kiss on the cheek would change anything his best friend's easy laughter as he clipped Tate on the shoulder, telling Yuuichi to be himself, and Tokiha would come around.

"Goddammit, what was I supposed to do? I didn't want her to wind up like…" He voice trailed off, digging the heel of his palm against his forehead for a moment. He was so tired of listening to the sound of his voice. No one offered him an answer, but that wasn't a great surprise; his only company was the ticking of the clock, and the subliminal whine of the cooling system, bringing him his daily allowance of processed air.

The vibration skittering across the floor halted further introspection, and he grabbed the cell phone wondering if he should be grateful for the distraction. He flipped the device open and pressed it close to his ear without bothering to check the identity of the caller. Of all the uncertainties complicating his life, he was sure of one thing. It couldn't possibly get any worse.

Getting into the Administration building was going to be slightly more complicated than she'd originally anticipated. For one thing, it was lunchtime for most of the student body forgot about that, and were she detected, someone was bound to recognize her. For another, her disguise – which she was very proud of, as it incorporated all the romanticized elements she'd read or seen on TV, including a wig – appeared to be more conspicuous than just skulking about in her usual double-agent archeologist ensemble.

Midori ducked behind the corner so quickly she almost tripped, panting in agitation as she pressed herself into the wall, closing her eyes in an effort to become invisible.

"Did you see where he went, that strange person?"

"I thought I saw something over by the equipment lockers…"

"How scary! I wonder if that lingerie burglar from a few years ago came back?"

She listened to the half elated, half frightened squeals melt into the endless hum of conversation, breathing a sigh of relief. Sneaking around is so much easier at night. Realizing she might, just maybe, have bitten off more than she could chew, she crept around the building, fumbled behind her back to lift the window, and dove head first through the opening, surfing over the top of Youko's desk on a wave of papers and landed, face first, at the startled nurse's feet.

"Ita ta ta ta tai…"

Youko blinked, sandwich suspended half way to her mouth, as Midori rubbed her head, muttering in discomfort. A pause suspended between them as their eyes met, vibrated between Midori's lips as an embarrassed smile melted across her face. The redhead laughed softly, fingers unconsciously lifting to scratch the side of her chin.


Caught me. "Yo. I found you." Gears ground as she struggled to come up with an excuse that wouldn't seem more ridiculous than she already felt. The nurse watched her impassively, and Midori felt a trickle of sweat tickle her ear as it dripped through her hair. "I was thinking maybe you wanted some company for lunch…"


Sighing softly, Midori retrieved herself from her position on the floor, glancing anxiously out the window, only relaxing once she was confident her escape hadn't been discovered. She settled comfortably on the edge of Youko's desk, folding her arms across her chest.

The dark haired woman's lips pressed together for a fraction of a moment before she bent to gather the papers her friend's entrance had scattered over the floor, watching her companion with peripheral vision honed by years of observing sneaky teenagers. "Do I want to know what you're doing here?"

Midori grinned, taking the papers from Youko's fingers and arranged them neatly on the desk. "Probably not."


The bland expression on Youko's face was making Midori anxious, and after a silent battle of wills, Midori folded one of her legs under her thigh, relenting. "I need to get into the records room."

"I see." The nurse closed her eyes for a moment, a small smile curling the corner of her lip before she realized her stony expression had crumbled. I never could stay angry with her.

Midori, sensing the shift in mood, nodded solemnly. "I need to do some research…"

"Midori…" The redhead winced, realizing she wasn't quite out of jeopardy from the sharpness of tone. "Did it ever occur to you that you could have just asked me to get whatever you're looking for?"

Another nervous laugh. "Yeah. But where's the fun in that?" Youko quietly counted to ten. "Besides, I have a plan." Youko counted to one hundred.

Boredom had taken up near permanent residence, was, in fact, in the process of building a summer home somewhere between I could care less, and I wonder if Sensei would notice if I committed seppuku with my pencil? She doodled, listening to the instructor's voice drone on about proper verb tense in English sentence structure, thinking how backward these Americans were. A face formed itself under her pencil, as it so often did, one with soft, warm eyes and a bashful grin. She could almost picture him in her mind, this image, as it created itself upon her sketchpad. Him leaning against the wall, laughing with casual ease. Something the real Takumi hadn't been able to do in forever a good long time.

Akira couldn't remember the last time his smiles hadn't held the aftertaste of melancholy, a flavor of apprehension she could almost taste in his quick, nervous movements, in the silence between his answers to her repeated questions to his mood. It made her heartsick. It made her furious. It made her lonely.

And this was all somehow his fault, the one who'd absented, forsaken them, without so much as a word of explanation, merely shaken the dust of the past from his heels and moved on to let the rest of them flounder in the sea of lies mystery he'd left behind. Too many unknowns. Baka… Tate.

Wheedling his number out of her clanmates had cost her a several favors, and she chafed under the burden of additional obligations. Glancing distractedly at the clock, she wished time would a) move faster, b) hold still long enough for her to escape the class or c) provide her with distraction interesting enough to compensate for not being able to perform a) or b).

"So as you can see, in this instance runs would be incorrect…"

The first drops of water that splattered over the back of her hand didn't even register, though her fingers had better sense than her brain – they hurriedly closed the binding, protecting her drawings even as her head tilted up to confirm that it was, in actuality, raining indoors. Girls screamed and covered their heads, while the boys cursed and shouted for permission to leave the room. The classroom was empty before Akira grumpily took in her surroundings.

Shoving the sketchpad securely into her backpack, she sighed and banged her forehead on the desk. Be careful what you wish for… I hate karma.

The man whom Haruka called General watched the stormy exit of his personal secretary without notable expression. He might have smiled, because there was appreciation of the spectacle dancing somewhere behind his eyes, or his lip might have twitched, the right corner lifting away from his teeth in aversion, as that, too, moved behind the blank screen of his expression. However, like most emotions, these never once surfaced to the skin, and it was probably for the best. After all, she might have turned to give him an appraising once over, re-evaluate her current state of employment, if her foundation was shoved with enough force. And that would never do – he'd spent too long cultivating Suzushiro as a contact.

A means to an end; an end to their means. The door closed with carefully modulated fury. He caught a flash of pale paler skin as Haruka's skirt swirled through the diminishing gap, her fingers locked on the handle in a white-knuckled death grip, shoulders set in a hunched line of defiance as the crack thinned, thinned, and was gone. He breathed a sigh of relief, collapsing back into his chair in a boneless heap. This skirmish was over, and he was the victor by inches, he reminded himself. She was getting harder and harder to direct – it was a good thing fate limited itself to working within a time frame, or something, probably many things, would go terribly, terribly wrong.

"Is that what you think?"

He didn't bother turning to acknowledge the silhouette standing primly by the window, half-turned as it presumably admired the architecture of the parking lot. It was impossible to say for sure what motivations went through those androgynous, sexless features, what thoughts boiled and boiled in toil through that troubled alien mind. Still, it wasn't wise to treat his 'visitor' as the intruder he it was – nuisances had a way of coming back to bite one where one least expected it.

The General walked to the cabinet on the wall, withdrew a bottle of amber fluid, poured a generous helping into a shot glass. He smiled, eyes closing as he sipped the anesthetic. Yes, that's exactly what I think.

The figure by the window laughed, perched hands on its hips like a girl as it leaned forward a few inches, studying him. "How wonderfully short sighted you are!" The voice was grating, poked under his skin with malicious bamboo barbs, and he braced his free hand on the counter to keep himself upright, clutching the tumbler as he lifted it to his lips. It was better if he didn't think about it. It was better if he didn't think at all.

"Ne ne… tell me, when this is over, what do you think you want? We'll all get what we want, in the end."

The General wondered if the boy-girl thing were smiling that odd, rapacious sneer, avidly studying him for some semblance of familiarity, some hint he was no longer himself. "I want to be left alone."

"As you wish." The thing was definitely grinning. It bowed in a courtly fashion and hopped up to the windowsill, taking a step, one step forward into oblivion, into death had it been human – this room was five stories above the hustle and bustle of the streets below. "For now." And then it was gone, a brief, horrific tangent into a fractured psyche, as if it had never been at all, and he'd imagined the encounter. Into the mouth of chaos.

What did he want? He wanted to save the world, one demon at a time. He might have laughed if it had been funny. He might have laughed until he cried.

Better not to get Youko involved, Midori thought to herself as she flipped through the files, studying the lines of script carefully. Let's see, Fujino… She grunted to herself in satisfaction. I was right. She's currently attending Fuuka University. And here was Natsuki, and Yukino; the Director was overseas, but would return in the next few days, and, as she lived on campus in the rebuilt mansion, she'd be easy enough to locate. Nao was going to be a problem, but she knew most of the delinquent's favorite haunts. That left Alyssa and Akane unaccounted for, since the rest were either dead, or presumed so.

Midori stuffed the addresses of the known HiME inside her shirt to protect them from getting wet, and exited the way she'd come in, knocking over the filing cabinet on her way out the window. With luck, the faculty would never notice the missing pages. She laughed to herself as she closed the window behind her, complimenting herself on a job well done. Such were her thoughts as the glass touched the sill, trapping three of her fingers in the jam.

"Ach!" She yanked her fingers free and stuck the stinging appendages in her mouth as she scampered across the campus, ignoring the calamity of her handiwork – drenched students making their way back to their dorms. I should be getting hazard pay for this. After all, she'd done them a favor, ending class early for the day.

"Shit!" Akira ground her teeth in fury, clenching the cell phone in a trembling fist. She stared at the apparatus as if it were a living thing; a particularly vile, ungrateful creature that had turned on her, savagely and without warning. She stabbed the redial button, listening to the pleasant recorded voice repeat that this number was currently out of service. Her fingers tightened convulsively. Plastic buckled and she snarled, tossed the now useless device towards the farthest wall; anger subsided with a final muttered curse, and she relaxed, letting her head sink to the table with a sigh.

The entire day had been off – the most vexing waste of hours since the arc of descent, when the Carnival whispered half-lies and almost-truths, eager to fill the destitution their lives had become. Even with all the oddities and unanswered questions surrounding the dormitory fire – the mad, scrambling rush it was too fast, way too fast afterwards: two days of confusion, of authorities and journalists hounding them, the ones that remained behind, the hurried finality of funeral arrangements that seemed to arrange themselves. No time to think, no time to grieve, no time for anything other than finding two black suits to wear, one for her, and one for Takumi, and listening to the skewed media reports on what may, or may not have happened. The 'senseless tragedy' that befell three families as their children roasted behind double-barred, heat fused doors.

It was infuriating, to wallow in the remains of the day. Yet she was powerless to break free, as ineffectual as she'd been when her Element staunchly refused her summons. Ignoring me, just like that bastard Tate. Getting nowhere with breakneck speed. First my speculations into 'The Great Fuuka Conspiracy', she mused sourly. Then return of the benevolent demon prince. Midori's breath stirring the sands, once more starting their inexorable tumble through the hourglass. And now this.

What's gotten into him? She had no idea; she'd given Yuuichi every opportunity to recant, offer proof he still had some hint of honor, care for his misplaced inamorata, her brother, and what had he done? Regurgitated empty protocol, rebuked her for her simple-minded naiveté. Warned her not to stray too far into his affairs. Hung up on her.


A hand settled lightly on her shoulder, and she stiffened, lifting her head just enough to stare at the offending appendage.


"Your hand."

The touch on her shoulder lightened, as if its owner felt guilty for intruding.

"Your hand is in my space."

"Oh." The hand was retracted, but the presence remained; she turned in the chair, watched Takumi draw the hand to his chest, wrap fingers around the wrist, as if she'd bitten him. "Akira-kun, you haven't changed. Can I get you a towel?"

The dark haired girl stood abruptly, offering her mate a negative grunt and the briefest of smiles, before stalking to the bathroom. She shed her sodden clothing, kicked them into a pile on the bathroom floor; studied her reflection in the mirror, her fingers moving with a mind of their own, meditatively searching for that spot, now bare, which had once borne the mark of destiny. She was sure it was still there, somewhere. She could feel it, tripping and tangling along nerve endings, just below the skin.

"Akira-kun…" She froze, panicked, really, some small sound of mortification escaping between her clenched teeth as she dove behind the door, heart hammering so rapidly she could see spots and swirls of color float across her vision.

"Takumi!" It was more of a hiss than a snarl, but it froze him in place, just the same. "How many times have I told you to knock before you come in?"

"Ahhhh, gomen, gomen… I didn't mean to frighten you…" He winced the minute the words left his mouth, taking a prudent step backwards. Of course, if she wanted to reprimand him for his choice of words, there was little he could do to prevent her, but it was never his intention to irritate his mate. He'd simply wanted to see if she was changed… and ask her if she wanted chicken or eel for dinner.

"Eee! Who was frightened?" Half growl, half whine. Takumi spread his hands in a placatory gesture, retreating the way he'd come without answering. Akira grimaced, turning to glare at her unclothed reflection in the glass. He knew her very well, much better than she'd ever give him credit for – mostly because letting him get that close is a liability; one I can't afford. She slowly closed the door, making sure it was secured before she uttered a heartfelt, but muffled apology.

"What did you want, Takumi?"

"Gomen, Akira-kun…"

"Shh… shh. It's fine. I overreacted."

The ninj-ette strained, listening to the hush before her roommate answered, and she imagined, based on tone, that he'd been taking a deep breath, gathering his courage before speaking again. So timid; so simply feminine. She shivered, crossing her arms over her chest, not particularly enjoying the way her body warmed to these thoughts, and she turned her emotions off with an ungentle shove. Work now, play later.

"I thought since we didn't get the chance to eat in the cafeteria, you'd be hungry, so I was making us dinner." There was a pause, uncomfortably lengthening, and Akira leaned a bit closer to the door, trying to catch the hesitant words as their owner grew fainter, disappearing as his feet carried him elsewhere. "I'll make eel."

Akira grunted in amused irritation as she reached for a towel, tossing it across the toilet. She wanted to put this strangeness behind them; she wanted to give Takumi the answers he so desperately sought. Most of all, she wanted to see his smile. For that, she would tumble the columns of heaven, one pillar at a time. She nodded forcefully, pushing her hair out of her face as she stepped under the scalding stream.

She'd been putting off the inevitable, hoping Kanzaki-sempai would return, banish the darkness obscuring the edges of the puzzle, that Midori-sensei would find something tangible in her research – but the clock wasn't going to wait. In the end, it was up to her, as it always had been. A humorless grin coiled the corner of her mouth as she wrapped the towel around her torso.

Wandering towards the kitchenette, she followed the enticing aroma to its source. Something wasn't right, though – something out of place, and she paused in the archway.

"Akira-kun! Gomen… we have…"

And over-riding Takumi's panic stricken voice: "Yu hyuu, yaru! Okuzaki-kun, you didn't tell me you were living in the same room as Takumi!"


Akira's scream, one of the few in her fifteen years of existence, actually managed to flake the plaster off the ceiling. Karma, it seemed, hated her back.