Thought FTA part 3 took a long time? Well, this one took even longer! I have reasons, though: last year of college, my dad dying (he was sick for a long time, but still...), graduating with my BA, work, Grandpa dying, more work...not exactly things conducive to a writing environment. But here it is, at last: part 4, the conclusion to the Farewell to Arms story! Written between January 2005 and December 2006 (mostly between October and December).

-----

It had been crossing my mind more and more lately, despite having been here in Sacramento for the past seven months, dancing in front of my eyes like the green spots that appear after a flashbulb goes off in your face. It was crossing my mind, despite me not believing in the thing called fate. The thought was there when I woke up, when I went to sleep, when I left school for the day, when I came down from my morphine high…

What was I doing here? Not in Sacramento, per se, but on Earth. What was my purpose? Had I been put on this earth just to suffer? Was I just going to be chased my whole damn life? The first sixteen years, me and Mom had been chased by paparazzi and rabid fans, some more so than others. Everything after that, it went from paparazzi to Boomers, Quincy, Madigan, Boh… It seemed like there was no use running from them. Even if they weren't here physically, they were still right there in my head, taunting me, laughing at me, daring me to even start to think I could live a normal life.

"You're Priss Asagiri's daughter," I could hear them saying. "What the hell makes you think that you can have a normal life with that blood coursing through your veins?"

What DID make me think that? Hell…if it hadn't been for some mystery guy raping my mom, I wouldn't have even been given a chance to live at all. I didn't feel indebted to him, though. I felt like wringing the guy's neck for putting her through that sort of thing, for giving her nightmares that I was sure she still had even eighteen and a half years after the fact. She could have aborted me, yes. But why did she keep me? Why keep me as a constant reminder of…?

She'd said something to the effect of wanting me to live because I didn't choose to be conceived in that manner; I didn't cause the rape itself. Maybe not, but it didn't stop me from feeling bad about it.

So…why WAS I here? To cause Mom more suffering and worrying because of me becoming a Knight Saber? Becoming a target of Genom? Being the daughter of a celebrity and starting to become a celebrity in her own right? WHY?

I don't get it, I thought. If this is what I was born for…then why be born at all?

I almost slapped myself at the thought, but stopped myself. Life…there must've been a reason for it existing! Irodia would probably say it's something that is beyond human comprehension. The meaning of life was something that people had been searching for since the beginning of time, and it was her theory that people only figure it out in their dying moments. So did that mean that Michiko had figured it out as she bled from her chest? Or was her death too sudden for that? Had the people at the Boomer summit figured it out? Had Mom's parents? Had Linna's?

"Moses and his people wandered the desert for forty years before finding their paradise," Irodia had reminded me. What kind of paradise? Being persecuted almost relentlessly for over two thousand years? Whose idea of paradise was that? Was she alluding that I would have to go to hell and back countless times before finally living a peaceful life? I hoped not; at the rate I was going, I'd probably die first…unless she'd been referring to heaven as paradise.

Like hell! I wanted a peaceful life in THIS life, not the afterlife!

I started thinking about all that I went through when I was in active duty as a Knight Saber…killing Boomers, saving people, almost getting killed myself…all the scars I got, physically and emotionally. And then, I started thinking about what I'd been pushing myself to do after I came to Sacramento, to train as hard as I could for the Olympics. Now THERE was something to look forward to. Maybe that was what I had been born to do, win medals! Exciting thought there! People cheering me on, seeing me as a national hero…

…And then I almost slapped myself again. BORN for this? How did I let myself start thinking like that? Ludicrous! There was no fate, no destiny! Whatever had happened so far in my lifetime was because of the actions I'd taken, the actions people around me had taken, the actions people in past decades and centuries had taken. None of this bullshit was planned out! Whatever happened COULD be controlled! We COULD control the outcome of situations, maybe not those of what happened before our lifetimes, but…but those of situations happening now as well as those yet to come!

Yet…at the same time, I felt my chest grow heavy at the thought of the situations whose outcome I could have changed in the past. The Boomer summit…was there something I could have done to better the outcome? What about with Michiko? What about with Mom and the other Sabers looking out for me? None of this had to happen…if any of us had acted differently…

I closed my eyes and sighed, laying my head back on the pillow. Fuck it all, I thought. I'll never know now. There's nothing I can do now, nothing but wonder…

-----

The beginning of April. Spring was in the air, literally; it was perfumed with the smell of budding flowers. Very nice, compared with the looks of the neighborhood in winter. During the winter, it had practically looked like a graveyard wherever I looked, what with all the bald trees and dead lawns and everything, but now that it was spring again, leaves were growing back, lawns were regaining their lushness…

…and all the kids at my school were back to life again as well. Not that they were ever dead, but now that it was warming up outside, they were almost rabid. I knew spring was something to be excited about, but it seemed like they were taking it a little far.

"No they're not," Xania laughed when I told her about my observations. "They're just excited about spring break comin' up."

"Spring break?"

She looked at me like I was insane. "W'll, YEAH! One whole week of freedom! Just lets us all know how close it is to the end of the school year!"

"When is it?"

"Have you been living under a rock all year? Once we get outta school on the 8th, we won't hafta come back till the 18th!"

"Just in time for your birthday," I pointed out, smiling.

"Yep. Couldn't be a better birthday present," she agreed, stretching her arms over her head, her tail curling. "I'll be nineteen on the 9th. Say, when's your birthday, Rosho? Don't think I ever asked."

"It's…June 8th. I'll be eighteen then."

"That's about when we're supposed to graduate, I think."

I snorted. "If I'd stayed in Tokyo, I would've already been done with school by now."

"How's that?"

"In Japan, school is a year-round thing. The school year begins in April and ends in March."

"That's sick!" she blurted, looking disgusted. "What about summer vacation, winter vacation, that kinda stuff?"

"Every ten weeks we get a two-week break. So it balances out."

She stuck her tongue out. "Yeah right. Without summer break I think I'd die!"

"Well, once we get out of school, there won't be any more summer breaks. We'll have to enter the real world and get jobs."

"Screw that. I'll travel the world, live by my wits. That's the life for me," she asserted, grinning to herself like a Cheshire cat.

"Live by your wits, huh?" I raised an eyebrow.

"Hey, I did it for a lot of my childhood before I got snatched up by Social Services. Nothin' new to me." She started to look nervous, then spun around and said, "Hey, I gotta go to my next class, but uh…couldja fill me in on the whole life-in-Japan thing after school? Really sounds cool. And think you could teach me some words?"

"Words? You mean Japanese words?"

"Yeah. Curse words, cool phrases, stuff like that."

"Always with the curse words," I groaned as Xania flashed me the peace sign and sped off down the hallway to her next class. I shook my head and smirked to myself as I dug through my locker to get some books. Didn't surprise me she asked about learning curse words; whenever I watched subtitled foreign films, the curse words had always been the first ones to stick in my mind, even as a kid.

I snickered and thought, I just hope she doesn't start yelling that stuff at other kids! They'll think she's flipped! Oh wait, she's always been on the eccentric side anyway. Wouldn't be that out-of-character for her at all, I guess.

-----

"Let's hold off on the curse words," I suggested at our first lesson. I couldn't believe I was trying to teach my friend Japanese; it had never been something I'd pictured myself doing. As long as she only wanted to know phrases and the like, I was sure I'd be ok, but if she wanted to start learning kana and kanji and stuff like that…well, I was just as sure I'd be screwed.

Xania looked disappointed. "Why? I wanna know how to tell people to fuck off in Japanese!"

"Babies' first words aren't curse words, that's why," I said dryly. "Do you know how to count in Japanese?"

"No."

"Ok, those'll be one of the first things I'll teach you to do. But first I need to teach you the alphabet."

"Alphabet? I know the freakin' alphabet!"

"Not the Japanese one," I reiterated. "There's forty-six letters: five vowels, one consonant that stands by itself, and then forty letters that I guess you could consider consonant-vowel pairs. The vowels, like in English, are a-e-i-o-u, but in Japanese the order is a-i-u-e-o. 'A' as in 'father,' 'i' as in 'eat,' 'u' as in 'food,' 'e' as in 'feather,' and 'o' as in, uh, 'oh.' Now repeat after me: a-i-u-e-o."

"A-i-u-e-o…"

"Ka ki ku ke ko..." That was followed by, "Sa shi su se so," after which she asked, "Why's it 'shi' and not 'si'?"

"'Cause there is no 'si' sound in Japanese. 'Shi' is the closest you can get. Now, say ta chi tsu te to."

"What, no 'ti' or 'tu' either?" she remarked. "How do I say that t-s letter?"

"Try saying Shih Tzu without the 'shi' part."

"Oh, ok. What then?"

"Na ni nu ne no. Then ha hi fu he ho, and no, there's no 'hu' sound. Actually, the 'fu' sound is kinda between the f-sound and the h-sound, come to think of it…" I blinked in surprise when I saw that Xania had whipped out a notebook and was writing everything down. "Wow, you ARE paying attention."

"Of course! Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well, most of the time you act like you have ADD."

"Exactly: MOST of the time, not ALL the time," she teased. "So what's after that?"

"Ma mi mu me mo. Then ya yu yo."

"No ye or yi?"

"Nope. Those sounds used to exist in classical Japanese, but they're obsolete now."

"Ah. Kinda like how the k in 'knight' used to be sounded out but it's not anymore?"

"Right. Ok, now for the hard part, the r-words. R's in Japanese aren't exactly like r's in English. I guess you could say that they fall between an r, an l, and a d. It's sort of…how do I put it…tapped, I guess. You gotta, um…" I had to think for a moment; since Japanese was my first language, I'd never really thought about the tongue movements necessary to make the sound, but since it wasn't a sound used in English, I found myself at a loss for words. "Uh…you gotta…" I made the sound, trying to pay attention to how I moved my tongue. "Ok. You gotta click the back of the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth."

Xania gave me a blank look. I'd lost her.

I sighed. "All right, um…pretend like you're speaking Spanish and you don't know how to roll your r's, like when you try to say 'perro' and it doesn't come out quite right."

"OH!" Her face lit up. "I get it now. Yeah, Sara always laughs about how some kids in her Spanish class mess up the rolled r's."

"Good. I got through! Ok, now repeat. Ra…ri…ru…re…ro."

Xania repeated them slowly, messing up at first, but after repeating them a few times she got the hang of it. "Ok…those are hard. I'll work on those."

"Good. Lastly there's wa and wo. When writing Japanese in Roman letters some people write it as 'wo,' and others as 'o'. It's different from the regular vowel 'o' in that it's only used as a particle, like the English 'at' or 'in', so it's also written in a different character. Oh yeah, and there's 'n' too. It just stands by itself."

"No wi, we, or wu? Those are extinct too?"

"Yup."

"This is a lot to remember," she grumbled, jotting more notes down.

"I bet your mom would wish you'd be this enthusiastic about your real homework," I pointed out, not bothering to conceal the smug smirk crossing my lips.

"Pfft, I bet." She finished writing. "Ok, now teach me some words, dammit!"

I chuckled. "You know, I don't think Irodia would be thrilled if she knew I was teaching you."

"Why not?"

"She doesn't know that you know the truth about me. Even Mikhaila and Tyler don't know. I think I've already said Irodia's the only one here besides you that's aware. So try to keep this to yourself, ok?"

"I can try."

"DON'T try. You need to promise me."

"Ok, ok. I promise."

"Good. Now, the one word that I'm sure will stick in your head…is baka. It's a word meaning 'jerk,' 'moron,' 'idiot,' all those things. Aho means the same thing, but it's a harsher word, at least in Tokyo. If you're in Osaka, baka is the harsher one."

She raised an eyebrow. "Why's that?"

"I don't know. I don't know anybody from Osaka, so I've never asked…"

I grimaced when I thought about the meaning of Osaka. It had never been a town of interest to me, not until I'd learned that it would be where the Olympic trials would be held. Those were in a month and a half. I'd heard nothing from Mom or Sylia or anybody regarding whether I'd be able to go home in time for them, or if I'd have to miss them, and thus the Olympics too, for the sake of my safety. Hell, they hadn't told me much of anything relating to the Knight Sabers or Genom. There had been one thing that stood out among the recent vidletters I'd gotten, though.

In the letter I had gotten from Mom several weeks ago, just after the anniversary of the Boomer summit attack, she pretended to act ok, but if I looked closer, I could see that she was fidgeting in her seat a lot, and occasionally wincing slightly. Maybe it didn't mean anything; maybe I was just being paranoid…but she'd been acting like she was hurt. That would be understandable; being injured in a Boomer battle wasn't unusual. But my senses were telling me that something just wasn't right.

"Rosho? Hello?"

"Huh?" I started, snapping back to reality. "Oh, sorry. I was just thinking…"

"About what?"

"Home…and the Olympics…" I sighed.

"Oh yeah, I forgot you've been wantin' to go. I WAS wonderin' if you'd be tryin' out for the U.S. team or the Japan team…"

"I wanna try out for the Japan team, naturally. But…I don't know if I'll be home in time."

"I'd say screw it. Go over there and try out anyway."

"Xania…don't you think I'd LOVE to?" I moaned, sprawling out on the floor. "I just…I don't know."

"What's holdin' ya back, girl? Your leg still buggin' you?"

"Not really, when I keep my sleeve on, anyway. I'm just…worried. If I DO say 'screw it' and try to go back…well…wouldn't it make sense to assume that Genom would be assuming I'd be there? They'd probably kill me on the spot."

"They're the biggest corporation on the planet, right?" she inquired. "They've got eyes and ears all over the damn place, right? Well, think about it! If they wanted to find you, I'm sure they woulda found you by now."

"The Sabers made sure to take all sorts of precautions to see that that wouldn't happen. That's not to say the plan's foolproof, but…"

"Exactly. If they haven't found ya by now, I'd say you're safe."

"Doesn't mean it's safe to go home though. I wonder if I'll ever get to go back… See, that's why I tried not to get attached to anybody here, 'cause I was so damn sure that I wouldn't be here very long! But now I've been here for over half a year, and…I'm starting to wonder now…"

"Well, stop wonderin'. Do something constructive instead."

I lifted my head up. "Like what?"

"Like teach me to count Japanese-style!"

I managed a laugh and sat up. "All right, all right. It's something to do, anyway…"

-----

Sylia had promised me I'd be able to exact revenge on Madigan. It didn't matter that I was still recovering from my seppuku attack; I'd managed to fight Largo with a gaping stab wound, after all, but I was younger then, and that wound wasn't as bad as the one I had now, not to mention the fact I'd been running on pure anger and adrenaline… Oh, what I would have given to be nineteen again, to have that ability to bounce back. That was the problem with getting older; you're going in the opposite direction you want to be going.

Again, Sylia had assured me that I would not be left out of our latest mission.

…So what the hell was I doing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?

"Miss Asagiri," a reporter said through an interpreter, "the world has been eagerly awaiting what you were going to do after the disaster last year in your hometown. So what brings you to Paris?"

"Good question," I mumbled, scratching my scalp, wincing from the blinding flashbulbs going off in my face every other second. "I'm…promoting a cover album that I've just started work on. It's gonna include songs by Joplin, Midler, Evanescence, and some others that I haven't thought about yet."

A dozen reporters started talking at once, and I raised my hand to try to shut them up. "NO, I do NOT know when the hell it's gonna be out! It'll be out when I say it's gonna be out. Right now I'm just goin' around and spreading the word. You could call it my way of making up for not going out on tour last year, but I think everyone understands why I couldn't."

"So what's stopping you from going on tour now?" another reporter asked.

I grunted. "You think I can just go on a tour at a whim? That takes a hell of a lot of planning, planning that I don't have time to do. And besides, my daughter is going to be going to Nairobi this summer," I swore. "I'm gonna be busy giving her all my support then. A tour is just not on my to-do list at the moment."

The yelling from the various paparazzi got so loud I could barely hear myself trying to yell over them. I cut the impromptu press conference short and retreated into the hotel I was staying in, my ears ringing as they encountered the sudden silence of the lobby. After massaging my temples briefly, I sighed and headed to the elevator, which took me to the floor my room was on.

Sylia! I snapped in my head. This was NOT my idea of taking part in this damn mission of yours!

We had all departed from Tokyo two weeks ago. Thing was, Sylia, Linna, and Nene were heading for one destination, and I was heading for another. Sylia's theory had been that because of my celebrity status, I'd attract attention wherever I went, and so would attract unwanted attention to the Knight Sabers as well from a certain conglomerate. She figured if I went somewhere else, the Sabers could concentrate on their work of tracking down summit survivors.

"And how are Boomers gonna be handled if we're not here to kill 'em?" I had inquired. "That'd be a dead giveaway to Genom that we're not around."

"Mackie and I have been working on fully automated hardsuit prototypes that are designed to look like our own hardsuits. Each one will have your skills programmed into it and will respond to the Boomer threat appropriately. The green one would have Linna's skills, the blue one, yours, and so forth."

It had sounded too much like she was going to send out Boomers to fight other Boomers. There was more reasoning behind that, though: she said that if there was clearly a blue Saber fighting at home while I was out of the country, Genom might start to question whether I was really a Knight Saber after all. I was skeptical; hadn't Madigan and I come face to face after my stabbing? Hadn't my exposed face been captured on tape during my battle with Largo? What the hell was going through Sylia's head? Unless I had a twin out there who also had a daughter aspiring to go to the Olympics, I just knew Genom would see right through this façade.

…Unless they were going to spend too much time investigating just that to be able to pay attention to other crap…

"Damn it," I cursed, punching the wall. Now I was making myself even more damn confused than I already was. And to make matters worse, Sylia had nixed any notion of sending me e-mails or trying to call me unless there was an emergency; she figured that even if Genom was investigating the matter of the fake blue Saber, they'd still be looking at me, and might be tracing my use of computers and phones and whatnot. But hadn't they been doing that when I was back home, anyway? Oh hell…

How long do you plan on having us travel around? I wanted to ask her. We don't have time to bullshit around…

-----

I dropped to my knees, sweating up a storm as I finished up my floor exercise routine for the fifth time in a row. After motioning for Xania to cut the music, I stood up and mopped off my face with a towel, my legs stiff and sore and wanting to give out from under me. It felt good, though; it meant that I was pushing myself. But somehow, it just didn't feel right. I looked down at my left leg, which had the familiar blue sleeve adorning it. I wondered what the Olympic officials would say about it. Would they say it was a distraction and tell me to wear a flesh-colored one instead? Would they let me wear it at all? Ah hell, they had to; I'd seen gymnasts be allowed to bandage their feet and ankles in athletic tape. How would my sleeve be any different? It wasn't as if my scars would be any less distracting.

"You were just a blur there, girl!" Xania cheered when I walked over to her and took the CD out of the stereo.

"Thanks," I said halfheartedly.

"What's wrong? You looked kick-ass to me!"

"I just have a lot on my mind."

"Yah, I hear you," she said as I put the CD in my duffel bag. "As your wanna-be coach, I'm here to make sure ya eat right and make sure you don't blow a fuse or nothin' like that! Can't afford that now!"

"Ok, Coach Peters," I joked. "What should I do now?"

"You did the floor, you did the beam, you did the parallel beams…uh…" She put a finger to her chin and thought for a moment. "Did you do the thing with the springboard and the pommel horse-thing and the jumping?"

"Yes."

"Hit the showers then. Maybe I'll join you," she teased with a goofy grin.

"You can, but I'm not sharing my stall," I said, sticking my tongue out at her.

"Aw damn. You're no fun."

"Maybe I'm not." I hoisted my duffel bag over my shoulder and headed for the locker room. "But you yourself said you weren't into girls."

"Hey, if there's communal bath spas and shit like that in Japan—"

"Yeah, they're communal baths, not communal showers."

"Same dif," she groaned.

Xania did end up taking a shower, although she was still lamenting the fact she couldn't share a stall with me, which amused me greatly. I even joked that maybe she could show me the tricks she could do with her tail when she was alone, and she joked right back that she just might. We both had a good laugh then.

After we got out of the shower, we both got dressed and dried our hair, with Xania putting a headband on, with her bangs and such pulled back under the headband but leaving the rest of her hair still sticking in every direction. I swore she could do anything to her hair and still make it look good.

"You should try growing it out past the nape of your neck," I suggested as I tied my shoes.

"No," she said quickly, leaning against the lockers as she popped a piece of gum into her mouth and made loud, annoying smacking noises with it. "I don't like havin' long hair. It gets in the way."

"That's what ponytails and buns are for."

"Why have long hair if you're just gonna put it up? I'd just rather keep it short than do that. I've had it this short since I was nine."

"Time for a change then."

"Nope! I like this style, I ain't changin' it," she retorted.

"Maybe you could grow it down to your shoulders like my hair." I tied it back into a ponytail as I said this. "At this length you can do anything to it that you want."

"Like pull on it?" she asked bitterly. "I do NOT like the feelin' of somebody tuggin' on my hair. My parents' friends used to do that…" Her eyes almost popped out of her head as she realized what she was on the verge of saying, and slapped a hand over her mouth.

It caught my attention too. I'd never heard her say a word about her parents other than her saying she didn't want to talk about them. "Xania?"

She sat down on the damp, sweaty, locker room floor and fidgeted. "What?" she asked, pretending to doodle on the floor with the tip of her finger.

"What'd they do?"

"They'd…be cookin' up stuff in the kitchen, or the bathroom, or wherever they could set up their little lab at, and when I'd go to check it out, to see what they were cookin', they'd tell me to stay back, that my hair would dangle in the beakers if I got too close. And sometimes when I did…they or their friends would yank me back by my hair. I was…" She swallowed hard. "I was a stupid kid. I never learned. They'd yank me back so many times whenever I got into ANYTHING that they'd practically rip my hair out by the roots. So one day I took a pair of my dad's scissors and I cut all my hair off. They were pretty pissed, but…at least they couldn't grab me by the hair anymore."

I just sat there and gaped. After her having been so silent about it for so long and so reluctant to bring it up, Xania had just gone on a torrent about a piece of her past. A small piece, but still a piece nonetheless.

"Wow…Xania…" I gasped. "That's why you keep your hair like that?"

"Sorta," she said nervously. "'Sides, I look cool with my hair like this. This is what it looks like when it starts to grow out longer than two inches. Just goes anywhere it wants to."

"So what…were your parents and their friends cooking?"

"What does it sound like?" she spat, shooting to her feet. "M…meth, and X, anything to make themselves higher than a fuckin' kite. And they'd make me stay home and watch the 'kitchen' while they went out to buy more ingredients, make sure nobody came to the door and saw what was goin' on, make sure nobody came in and stole the finished goods…"

"Did they…make you try any of it?" I asked, the words slow to come off my tongue. I didn't want to send her into a frenzy. But she stayed relatively calm.

"Sometimes," she admitted. "They used me as quality control, so to speak. They'd give me a tiny amount, since they knew kids can't handle as much as adults. But that didn't happen too often. I only recall three or four times they used me that way…" She shuddered and hugged herself, her tail poofing out to twice its normal size. "That taste…I'll never forget it…"

"You can stop if you want," I offered gently, putting a hand on her shoulder. She jumped at the touch.

"R-Rosho," she said in a small voice.

"Really. I'm not asking for your whole life story. I think you've said enough."

"They…they were my fuckin' parents," she whispered, hanging her head. "What kinda parents do that to their kids? They're supposed to have 'em try out some cookie dough or somethin', not meth."

"…I don't know." I was numb from what Xania had just told me. I'd had an inkling her parents had dabbled in drugs, but I had no clue that they made her try them out to see if they were any good, no idea that they practically ripped her hair out. And the sad part was, I knew she had only given me the bare bones of what her life was like before she was placed with her foster mom at the age of ten. But I already knew this much:

Inside, she was still even more of a child than I was. All she'd wanted was somebody to care for her, to treat her normally. Maybe that was why she'd been bed-hopping since age fourteen. I didn't bring it up, though. I knew she'd bring it up some other time, on her own terms. I wouldn't force it, knowing I wouldn't want somebody trying to do that to me should they want to know about MY past…

-----

After that day at the gym, Xania acted like she had never brought up the subject of her parents making drugs and pulling on her hair. She seemed to act totally normal, or at least what could be considered normal for her. She was still just as eager to continue the Japanese lessons as ever, even when I was increasingly making myself unavailable in the afternoons. I was now at the gym every day, even on the weekends, trying out new moves to keep my body guessing so it wouldn't fall into a rut. That didn't seem to put a damper on her though; she just pushed for me to give her quick lessons on the way to school instead. Still…I don't know how useful the lessons would be if I had to shout them out over the noise of the bike engine.

"Ok! How old are you?" I yelled over said engine several days later. "And I don't mean on your birthday! How old are you right now?"

"Uh…" A pause. "Juu…uh, juu…juu-nana-sai."

"That's MY age! You just said seventeen!"

"Oh! Um…eighteen, that's…juu-hachi-sai."

"With eighteen years of age you need to blend in the sai with the number," I reminded her. "So what would it be?"

"Juu…juu-hassai?"

"Right. The year?"

"Shit," she cursed. I laughed. "2056 in Japanese, crap. Uh…ni-sen…go…go-juu…roku…nen. Ni-sen-go-juu-roku-nen."

"That's right. You're getting a hang of the numbers pretty quick."

"I don't wanna count anymore," she whined. "It's baby stuff. Teach me some good stuff."

"Numbers are the most basic thing. Gotta do those first. But you've done pretty good; the Japanese number system is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Now let's practice colors. Red is akai. Blue is aoi. Green is midori. Black is kuroi and white is shiroi. Yellow is kiiroi."

"Wait! I gotta write this down!"

"I'll show you the kanji for them later. Anyway, pink is pinku, orange is orenji, purple is murasaki…"

"What's brown? You haven't said brown yet."

"Cha-iro. Literally 'the color of tea.' And grey is hai-iro, 'the color of ash.'"

We arrived in the student parking lot of the school, and as I took off my helmet and shook out my hair, Xania pointed to her shades. "What about these? How do you say glasses?"

"Glasses? You mean eyeglasses or sunglasses?"

"Either/or."

"Megane is eyeglasses. Sangurasu is sunglasses."

"So I'm wearing…uh…pinku sangurasu?"

"Pinku na sangurasu, yes. It's a na-adjective."

"Oh…right."

I smiled. "Like I said, I'm impressed how much you've retained. Japanese is a tough language, just like English is."

"So how'd you learn English? You said it was from goin' on tour with your mom when you were little?"

"Yup," I said. "When you're little, your brain absorbs languages easier. I just naturally picked it up. Mom's English is rough at best, but her friends helped me to retain it. I can speak it just as naturally as I speak Japanese, although Irodia says I have a little bit of an accent."

"Yeah, you do," she agreed, flipping her tail back and forth. "Can't really hear it unless you're listening for it though."

"I've tried to listen for it, but I don't hear it."

"It's just like people from the Midwest, y'know? They don't think they have an accent, and then they go to New York. They think everyone THERE speaks weird, but since THEY'RE the strangers, THEY'RE the ones who're speakin' weird 'cause they don't have a Brooklyn accent or whatever."

I told her we had to zip our lips now that we were in school; I was adamant about our lessons staying private lest I arouse anyone's suspicions. I don't know why I was being so secretive; I knew that California had a large Asian population, although that may not have been true for Sacramento, but since everyone believed I was Hispanic, they couldn't know that I knew Japanese. It would just be…too weird, I guess.

"Tail," she whispered when we got to class and sat down at our desks.

"What?"

"Tail. How d'ya say tail in Japanese?"

"Shippo."

"So I have a cha-iroi shippo?"

"Yeah. And an ookii kuchi," I quipped.

"A what?"

"Big mouth."

"Hey!" she laughed, punching me in the shoulder. "Do not!" She whipped something out of her backpack and slapped it down on my desk. "Take a look at that."

"What is it?" I asked, picking it up. It looked like a travel guide. Guide to the American Southwest, it was titled.

"Tomorrow's our last day of school before spring break. Gotta make plans now."

"For what?"

"For traveling, duh! I think we should go to Arizona! It ain't too hot yet 'cause it's still only
April, and plus I've never seen the Grand Canyon. I wanna see that."

"I shouldn't," I grudgingly said. "I need to train…"

"Screw trainin'! You need to have fun too, girl! This is our senior year! We're never gonna have another spring break ever! We gotta take advantage of this!"

I sighed and flipped through the Arizona section of the book. Yeah, a road trip did sound like fun, but if I took a whole week off to go do that, that would be a week of training I'd miss out on. And the trials were next month.

"You NEED this," she insisted, jabbing her finger into the pages that showed a blown-up map of the highways of Arizona. "It'll help you relax for those trials you keep talkin' about. And that's what you need to do, or you'll be burned out by the time the trials come 'round!"

"Xania, look, I appreciate the thought, but this is YOUR idea, and…"

"I am NOT goin' on a road trip by myself! That'd be no fun!" she protested. "This is a chance to say 'fuck you' to society and to expectations. It's a chance to let it all hang out like D-cup women at Mardi Gras! For a week, we can be vagabonds! We don't gotta pack nothin'; who'd give a shit if we stay in the same clothes for a whole week besides us, huh? Who's gonna care if we burn ourselves to a crisp in the sun besides us, huh? We can just chill out, sample the food and the lifestyle, and when we come back we're gonna be the happiest, most laid-back two bitches Sacramento will have ever seen. This city won't be ready to have us back once Arizona is done with us!"

"It's a nice lecture and all," the teacher suddenly said, interrupting her, "but class is about to start, and unfortunately we are not learning about Arizona and spring break today."

Xania groaned. "But it's so much funner than listenin' to you."

"I know, but just deal with it for the next hour."

"Fine." She turned to me and grinned. "You keep that guidebook, and take a look through it when ya can. I wanna know what you think by tomorrow, ok? It's gonna be a hell of a good time!"

"We'll see," I said, slipping it into my backpack as the teacher let out an ear-piercing whistle to get everyone's attention.

"Alright, kiddies, let's get our brains into gear! Remember, spring break isn't until after school tomorrow, so until then we're going to dissect and examine every single inch of the Middle Eastern Revolution. Now, to start off, the Revolution began around 2009 with the fall of…"

-----

Try as I might to pay attention in class for the rest of the day, that guidebook Xania lent me seemed to beckon to me, pleading with me to at least give it a chance and look through it. So during the other classes I had after history, I did. I read about all the landmarks in Arizona, the Indian reservations, what the temperature and weather were like at this time of year, everything. After staring at the pictures in the book all day, I felt like I could close my eyes and practically feel myself caught up in a sandstorm, rust-colored sand swirling all around me, making me choke on it and make my eyes water. It was starting to seem like fun, after all… I'd never gone traveling through a desert before, and maybe Xania was right about one thing: it WOULD be one last chance to really relax before I went out full-force with my training.

And yet, at the same time, the rational part of my brain screamed at me for even giving it a second thought; could I REALLY afford to skimp on a whole week?

Well…sure! I guess I could at least give it a shot, I thought as I put my books away in my locker at the end of the day. Slamming it shut, I reached into my backpack and flipped through the guide for about the fifteenth time as I walked out to the parking lot. Xania said she's never seen the Grand Canyon. Actually, neither have I. Might be kinda cool to see that oversized trench in person!

"Whaddaya think?" she squealed the moment she saw me approach her, tail wagging in every direction. "Doesn't it look awesome?"

"It does," I admitted, handing her the guide.

"So!" she urged, shoving her face in mine, her eyes wide with anticipation. "Are we gonna go or aren't we?"

"…Tomorrow's Friday. That still gives us some time to pack before we need to hit the road," I said with a grin. Xania let out a loud hoot and jumped up and down, pumping a fist in the air.

"WHOO! All right! We're goin' on a roooooad trip!" Other kids started to stare and whisper amongst themselves, so I had to get her to calm down and be a little more discreet. Once she was sufficiently calm, I added, "And you were right about earlier. If we're gonna be taking my bike, we can't pack a whole lot, so we should only pack the essentials. So…" I began counting off on my fingers. "Sunscreen, cash, debit cards, maybe some warmer clothes in case it gets cold at night…uh…"

"The guide!" she chirped.

"Yeah, the guide. And…deodorant," I laughed. "It may be spring break, but I still don't wanna stink!"

"Motels usually have little bottles of shampoo in their bathrooms, so no worries there," Xania offered.

"Oh, that reminds me, toothbrushes and toothpaste—"

"C'mon!" she protested. "We can survive a week without tendin' to our teeth!"

"Well, you don't have to bring yours, but I AM bringing mine. What else?"

"Condoms in case we meet some cute guys?" she suggested, an evil grin crossing her face. I felt the urge to slap myself on the forehead, but restrained myself.

"I should've expected that," I groaned.

"Oh right, you're Miss Chastity, I forgot," she teased, brushing me off. "In that case, I'll be more than happy to handle the seduction part."

"I thought you were on a hiatus."

"Yeah, but I never said how long that was gonna last. Anyhoo, if I don't meet a guy during this trip, then that's fine." She snorted and added jokingly, "I think your morals are startin' to rub off on me, girl. I'm actually not as attracted to certain types of guys now that I would've jumped into bed with in a heartbeat a year ago. Damn, I guess my standards are goin' up!"

"That's not a bad thing."

"…I guess not. Still, it does get a little lonely not havin' anyone to share a bed with."

"Well, that settles it."

"Huh?" She looked at me. "Settles what?"

"We're sleeping in separate beds. Don't want to chance you relieving your loneliness on me during this trip of ours!"

Xania looked dumbfounded for a moment, then burst out in a fit of laughter. "Hahahahaaaa! That's cute! Priceless! No no, you don't gotta worry about that. I like you, but not in THAT kind of way!"

"Good, 'cause I don't like you in that kind of way either!"

-----

Like what any half-decent mom would do, Irodia sort of went off on me when she found out about the road trip me and Xania were planning on taking. She was upset that I hadn't run it by her, but I was quick to point out that Xania had only sprung the idea on me earlier that day.

"That doesn't exactly give you a lot of time to plan, does it?" she asked, crossing her arms as I shoved a pair of jeans into my backpack.

"No," I agreed, "but I think that was the whole point. School's already all planned out for us; why have a vacation be that way too? It's a time to be spontaneous."

"Well, that doesn't mean you can't budget your time. How long is it going to take to get there, and how long to get back?" I shrugged.

"I don't know." I picked out several changes of underwear from my drawer and shoved them in next to the jeans. "Maybe a day each way, probably shorter if we go non-stop."

"I doubt it'll be non-stop. There's a lot of sights between here and the Grand Canyon." She sighed. "Yumeko, what if something happens and you'll need to get ahold of me?"

"I can use a payphone," I said, shrugging again. "And if anyone tries anything on me, I know how to defend myself."

Irodia reached into her pocket and pulled out several bills. "Here's twenty dollars," she said, holding them out to me. "I want you to buy yourself some pepper spray and an air horn."

I smirked, which didn't seem to amuse her. "I'll be fine." My gun'll scare any bastards off faster than a measly can of pepper spray will, I added mentally. Irodia didn't know that I owned a gun, and needless to say, I didn't think she would be too pleased if she found out, never mind that I had had to use one at least once before. She still saw me as a kid who needed to be looked over.

"I'm just worried, that's all. Two teens out on their own…you're very liable to be taken advantage of by some shaggy men who you think might mean well if you need to ask for help."

"What do you take me for?" I snapped. "This is me you're talking about! I'm not that naïve, and I seriously doubt Xania is, either. We'll be fine if we just stick together."

Irodia just shook her head, told me to be careful again, then left the room, leaving me to finish packing. I grumbled as I shoved the rest of whatever clothes I thought I'd need in my backpack, then zipped it shut and threw it next to the bedroom door. I sat down on my bed and rested my chin in my hands, going over what she had said. No…I'd be fine. WE'D be fine. She was just a worrywart. I almost laughed to myself when I remembered what Xania's theory on worrywarts was; it made me wonder when I might start seeing warts sprouting on Irodia's nose and chin. She's just being a mom, I thought. I guess I can't blame her. But still, it's ME she's talking to. She doesn't think I can take care of myself?

I grumbled to myself; I needed to get my mind off of things. I needed to get in the mindset for the trip tomorrow, and Irodia was getting in the way of that. I need a hit, I thought as I grabbed my bottle of hydromorphone out of the drawer in my nightstand and started to unscrew the top. That would help me relax.

I'd almost unscrewed the top when Mikhaila came bursting into my room. I jumped in surprise and shoved the bottle under my butt before she could see it. So much for relaxing.

"Rocío!" she exclaimed. "I wanna ask a favor."

"A…a favor?" I stammered, managing to sound suspicious. "What kind of favor? You don't usually ask for something unless—"

"Hey, no catch here," she replied firmly. "It's just a simple request. You're goin' to the Grand Canyon, right?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Couldja bring me back lots of pictures? I've wanted to go there for a long time, but I know Mom's not gonna let me go since it's just a trip of yours and Xania since I'd impede, probably, and it's not the kind of place she'd want to go to. Whenever we've gone on a vacation it's always to some Russian thing or Little Tokyo in San Fran or somethin'; she keeps saying I 'need to know about my heritage' or some crap like that. Do I really care?"

"So you just want pictures?" I summed up.

"Yeah. Lots of 'em."

"I think we can manage that. I'll ask Xania to bring her camera."

"Cool. Thanks."

After she left, I let out a huge sigh in relief. Mikhaila had definitely changed ever since the incident with her stealing my picture of Michiko; she wasn't the hard-on bitch that she was when I'd first arrived. I guess when we had called a truce, she wasn't just giving lip service. One less thing for me to worry about.

But now I had a new thing to worry over. Something underneath me felt funny…felt wet. I grimaced, then jumped off the bed when I realized what it was. My bottle of hydromorphone had been partially open when I hid it under me, and now it was leaking all over my bedspread.

"Damn it!" I swore aloud, patting the wet spot on my behind; I couldn't believe I'd been that careless! Now I'd have to make a trip downtown tomorrow to buy another bottle from Bert. The money Irodia had offered me was sitting at the end of the bed, and I snatched it up and shoved it in my pocket. I didn't need any pepper spray; this money would have to go towards replenishing my supply.

After I mopped off the mess from my bedspread, I tore it off the bed and shoved it in a corner, then put the now-empty bottle back in the drawer; I would have to dispose of it later so as not to arouse any suspicion. A minute later I ended up changing my jeans too, as I remembered the stain on the butt of them. I pulled out the money from the pocket and put it in the clean pair I was now wearing, still mentally slapping myself for making such a mistake. Should've closed the door or locked it or something before taking that out, I grumbled inside. That was too close.

-----

It was sort of funny what happened when I got up the next morning. It was one of those instances where you GET up before you actually WAKE up. One moment I was curled up in bed, waiting for the alarm clock to start buzzing, and the next, I had my empty bottle of morphine in my hand. Maybe I was in more need of it than I thought. But I didn't care; I unscrewed the cap and tried to suction out as much of what was left as possible, but I could only get a few drops out.

"Damn it," I moaned. "I still can't believe I was so careless."

I didn't think I'd be able to wait until after school to run by Bert's shooting gallery; I wanted some right this minute, but it would take at least half an hour to get downtown on my bike. Oh well…I was willing to make the trip. I got dressed, put the empty bottle in my jacket pocket, then picked up the phone and dialed Xania's number.

"Hello?" her foster mom answered.

"It's Rocío. Is Xania awake yet?" I asked.

"Actually, yes. She's been tearing her room apart since the crack of dawn trying to decide what to pack," she said wryly with a chuckle.

"I shouldn't say I'm surprised, but I am," I replied, sharing the chuckle. "Uh, could you tell her she's gonna have to find another way to get to school today? I need to run an errand."

"I can give her a ride. That's not a problem…although her getting overexcited about this trip might be. What time are you going to be over here to pick her up when you two leave on the trip?"

"Um…I dunno. I guess Xania would want to leave as soon as school's over. I'll pick her up at school, then I guess we'll be coming by to pick up her stuff."

"All right, I'll run it by her."

"Thanks."

With that out of the way, I grabbed a quick breakfast before I raced out the door and jumped on my bike, almost forgetting to put on my helmet before I peeled out of the driveway. It was an unusually drizzly April morning, and my fingerless gloves were the only thing to keep my hands warm, although I couldn't say the same about my fingers. At every traffic light, I rubbed my hands together for as long as I could before the light turned green. I wish I'd had time to do the same to my leg; it was stiffening up already, with the usual accompanying dull ache right behind it. I hope it warms up by afternoon, I thought. Xania would definitely not think of this as the perfect start to spring break!

When I got to the intersection where the Black Spider was at, I parked my bike, fed the parking meter – I HATED getting tickets, and I knew for a fact I wasn't the only one – then headed down the alley, where I found not only the familiar green dumpster pushed out of the way of the front door, but Juan and Bert just going inside.

"Yo!" I yelled, waving as I ran up to them.

"Hey! Rocío!" Bert said, his face quickly warming up when he saw me. "A little early for you to be here, ain't it? It's only 7:15."

"I know, I know, but this couldn't wait. I, uh…sorta spilled my morphine," I admitted shyly, taking out the empty bottle and showing him. "Mikhaila almost walked in on me when I was about to take it, so I shoved it under me so she wouldn't see, and I guess I forgot to close the cap."

"Damn, kid, that stuff's not water," he grumbled. "I s'pose you're here to get a refill, so to speak."

"Yeah. I was gonna wait till after school, but…"

"Needed a hit right away, huh?" I nodded. "Well, all right. C'mon in and get warm, it's too damn cold to be standin' 'round out here."

"No shit," Juan agreed, lighting a cigarette as we all headed inside and went down the stairs. The stench that was still stuck in the walls hit me like a truck again, and although one would think I'd have seen it coming, I still wasn't used to it. I had to hold my nose as we walked into the shooting gallery.

Not five minutes later, I already had a new bottle of morphine in my hands. I practically squealed in delight as Bert put it in my hands, after I'd given him the money for it. Unscrewing the cap, I quickly filled up the dropper and emptied it on my tongue, shuddering as the liquid coursed down my throat. Aah…that was more like it.

"Thanks," I breathed, putting the new bottle in my jacket pocket. "I think I can get through the day just fine now." Bert just shook his head and mumbled something to himself. "What?"

He looked up from the gun he was cleaning. "I already warned ya once. Ya gotta make sure not to overdo it on that crap. It's too easy to get in over your head."

"I know that," I said haughtily. "It's not like I've been taking it every day. Only once in a while."

He eyed me again. "Kid, the one you spilled was the third bottle you'd bought. This one makes four."

"So practically one a month. So? Wouldn't have had to buy this one if I hadn't spilled the last one. Oh well."

"Didntcha say you were plannin' on goin' to the 'Lympics?" Juan interjected, blowing rings of smoke from his mouth. "Don't they test ya for drugs?"

"Yeah they do." I sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. "I'll make sure to go on hiatus from it then, don't worry."

"Ain't your leg gonna really hurt then?"

"Maybe," I said, shrugging. "I don't imagine it's very wet in Nairobi, so I don't think I'll have to worry about it raining and making my leg ache like it is now. I've been wanting to go there my whole life…" I smiled. "Stress? Nah. It's my life dream! I'll relish the challenge! It'll be more exciting than anything I've done in my life!"

"That's a nice thing t' shoot for," Bert said, "but you're assumin' you're goin' when you still need to do the trials."

"The trials…yeah…but I'll blow 'em away," I said firmly. "I will. No one will ever know that I was even hurt." 'Cept the leg sleeve'll give THAT away, I added in my head.

"What about after all dat's done?" Juan asked.

"Yeah, what he said," Bert echoed. "Any plans for afterward?"

I had to think about it for a moment. "Well…haven't gotten that far yet. I'll figure that out when I get there." I laughed. "Yeah, live for the moment, that's what we gotta do! And hey, you're sounding like you actually care! You're not supposed to care! You're supposed to be a ruthless dealer in illegal firearms and narcotics! What's with the sudden caring streak?" I laughed again.

"Don't wanna see ya fuck up your life like so many of us, kid. Simple as that."

-----

Like before, Bert wouldn't let me leave until I had come down from my high, and by then it was almost ten o'clock, which meant I had already missed my first three classes. I just shrugged and pulled on my helmet; it was only one day of school I'd be missing, and besides, since it was the day before spring break, I was sure not many kids were at school anyway.

However, a certain blond-haired boy heading my way would not have been on my list of kids ditching today.

"Greg?" I said out loud. "What're you doing here?"

"I was about to head in and practice some of my shooting with Juan and Bert." He eyed me. "Shouldn't you be at school?"

"Shouldn't you?"

"Yeah," he admitted, "but I had stuff to do this morning."

"Like what?"

"An officer came to my house this morning, and I talked with him for a while."

"A police officer?"

He laughed. "Hell no. An Army officer, a recruiter. I went by the recruiting office last week and made an appointment with him to come by my place and tell me more about the Army life."

"I'm…surprised. I never pictured you as a military guy."

"Oh, I've been wanting to do it for years. When I turned eighteen at the beginning of the year I wanted to drop out and enroll right away, but my dad made me promise to at least finish school first before I head off."

"So you're joining after graduation? That's cool."

"And no wars going on right now either, even better," he joked. "Even if they do make Boomers do all the fighting nowadays."

I inwardly cringed at the mention of that word. "Well, I bet it's still dangerous…" I said slowly. "I wouldn't do it. I'd rather be a gymnast."

"You already are, Ro."

"…Ro?" I inquired.

Greg grinned again. "Yeah. Nickname. That ok?"

"I suppose so. Sounds weird though."

"What, no one's ever called you that before?"

"No."

"Huh," he said. "Well, anyway, I was just gonna head back to my place and start packing. I talked with the recruiter, and now I'm gonna be taking a trip to boot camp, y'know, get to know the place before I spend the summer getting basic training there."

"When do you leave?"

"Tonight." He walked to his truck and unlocked the driver's-side door. "You got any plans for break?"

"Yeah," I replied. "Me and Xania are going to Arizona."

"One word: sunscreen," he advised. "You can burn way easily down there. But besides that, it's an awesome place, especially the Canyon. Ever seen it?"

"No, but Xania really wants to. That's why we're going."

"She's an overgrown kid," he said, chuckling to himself. "But that's why she's so fun to be around. Life's too short not to have someone like her in it…"

"Why'd you two break up?" I asked. "Xania just keeps saying that she got bored with you, but it seems like there's more to it. From what I saw, you two were really having fun together."

"Xania…has a problem being attached to people," he said slowly, beckoning me to get into his truck with him, which I did after I took off my helmet. "She always has. I've known her ever since she started living with Meredith…her foster mom. She loves people, she loves hanging out with them, she loves the attention. But she's afraid of getting attached. And she was starting to fall in love with me. I told her I would always take care of her, that I wouldn't ever turn my back on her like so many other people have, but she wouldn't have any of it. The way she's been brought up, she HAS to look after herself first. I guess I didn't do a good job of earning her trust."

"So how is it that me and her have stayed friends?" I asked. "How'd I earn her trust?"

"I have no idea. Maybe she sees someone she can relate to. Someone she actually wants to protect, so they don't get hurt like she's been hurt." He took a breath. "I know today is her birthday, and that she's nineteen now. She's not even supposed to still be living with Meredith; she aged out of the system when she turned eighteen. But I guess Meredith knows she's not mature enough to handle herself, so she's let her stay in her house regardless."

"It sounds like you still care a lot about her."

"I do." I jumped when I felt his hand cover mine. "But I care about you too, Ro. I see a spunky, no-nonsense girl who's been hurt in the past just like Xania; maybe not in the same way, but still hurt nonetheless. And I see someone who needs help in healing."

I felt my voice catch in my throat. Was this a love confession? Sure, I'd had the feeling he had a crush on me, ever since he snuck that kiss on me after I'd visited Sara in the hospital several months earlier, but now my hunch was being confirmed. And I had no idea how to react. What was even stranger was that I knew he was being sincere, not like Masahiro or other creeps who'd tried to sweet-talk me before. It was very odd to see him act this way. I kept expecting my sarcasm radar to blare, but it never even made a peep.

"I…I'm flattered," I stammered, "but…you don't know me. You'll never even begin to know what I've gone through. And you don't know if I still need healing or no—"

My words were smothered in Greg's mouth as he closed his lips and mouth over mine. I gasped in surprise, then relaxed into it as he put his hands on my shoulders to steady both of us. By the time we parted, we were both gasping for air.

"I know that," he said quickly, stroking my cheek. "But I still want to help you."

I removed his hand gently from my cheek and said bluntly, "I'm sorry, but I don't want or need your help. I'm just fine on my own. That's not to say I don't appreciate the concern, though."

"I'll give you all the time you need," he said. "I'll be here when you do want help, though, if you do want it."

"…No you won't," I corrected. "You'll be off in boot camp, and I'll be off at the Olympics, if I decide I DO need or want your help by then."

"Then you can call me. Anytime."

"Please, Greg…don't try to get sweet on me. I'm not…used to this." I hugged myself and pulled away slightly. I had felt safe, but now I just felt weirded out and…violated somehow. I had to tell myself this was not a repeat of what had happened at that party. It wasn't, it wasn't…but this felt strangely similar.

"It's alright," he said softly. "I just want you to feel safe with me. I wouldn't make you do anything you don't want to do."

"I think your hormones are getting the best of you," I said bluntly. "It's obvious from the look on your face. You want to sleep with me."

"Well…" His cheeks turned red, a look I had never seen on a guy before. "You're a pretty girl, and I'm a typical guy, so…yes, I do. But not if you don't want to. I wouldn't want to rush anything, especially considering what you went through with Rob."

I threw open the truck door. "I don't want to hear that name anymore. And I don't want you bringing THAT up again! Just go practice your damn shooting with Bert. Isn't that what you came to do?" I got out of the truck and pulled on my helmet again, my hands shaking as I did so. What the hell was wrong with me? I knew he wasn't like Rob…he was the opposite of Rob. And yet…damn. Was I afraid of him? No…it couldn't be. He was cool to be around, but when he would make physical contact with me, I'd get…nervous. No, that wasn't the right word. Scared? …Was I scared? I wasn't scared of Greg, was I?

"Rocío!" he called after me, following behind me.

"Just stop it!" I yelled. "Go away! I'm not ready for this! This is all going way too fast! If I wanted to kiss you or screw your brains out, I'd let you know!" I heaved a sigh and cringed as I felt his hand clamp down on my shoulder.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't…mean to put you off."

I don't even know how to kiss, I thought, turning my head away. Every time I've been kissed by a guy, it's been forced on me. Hell, my first kiss was with Boh. What does that say about me?

"What's wrong?" Greg asked when I put a hand to my stomach, lifting up my visor and wiping something from my eye with my other hand. "Does your stomach hurt?"

"No."

"Are you crying?"

"No," I said again firmly, although my finger was lined with moisture. I took a breath and said slowly, "Greg, I'm not…the kind of girl you would want to be with. I'm too…messed up."

"Xania's messed up too, but…"

"So what? Birds of a feather? Is that your kind of girl, nice and vulnerable? Sorry, I'm not playing that game."

"That's not what I meant!"

I know, I thought guiltily as I started up my bike. "Let's just enjoy spring break," I said, trying to steady my voice. "You go do your thing, and I'll do mine, and when we return to school afterwards, we can talk about this some more. But right now I…I just can't handle it."

He nodded in understanding. "All right. That sounds fine."

"I'll see you later then."

"Okay."

He reached to lift up my visor, and I smirked and pushed his hand away. "No no no," I said. "Trying that again, are we?"

"Yeah," he admitted, returning the smirk.

"We'll talk about it later…"

I didn't even look in my rear view mirror as I pulled away and roared down the street, destination unknown at the moment. I could feel my stomach churning and my chest tightening with confusion. What was going on inside me? Part of me wanted him to ravish me, to help me forget about everything, but another part of me was…scared, not wanting to be touched, for fear it would just turn out badly again. He was a good guy…I KNEW that he wouldn't do anything to destroy what trust I had in him. I wasn't still traumatized from that party incident, was I? Maybe, I thought. Or maybe I'm being paranoid. Or overprotective of myself. Or frugal. Or overanalyzing this way too much.

And in the middle of all this, I had almost forgotten about Xania. Arizona. The Grand Canyon. It sounded nice. Maybe it would be the perfect escape from all this. Some time to think, time to enjoy life, time to wonder what was still ahead. No…that would've been naïve of me. I couldn't unwind completely, no matter how hard I tried. While looking forward every day to the trials, which were creeping closer, I was also living day by day, trying to just life as normal a life as I could.

But what was normal? I didn't even know anymore.

-----

I see London, I see France…or however that little kids' song went. In any case, I had seen both in the past couple weeks, in addition to Madrid, Stockholm, The Hague, and now New York City, all under the guise of promoting a cover album that I was supposedly recording. And so as to not draw any suspicion among the producers of the recording company or my band members, I was actually doing it. If not for the current situation of things, I might have actually been having a good time, but I wasn't.

What the hell was going on with Nene, Linna, and Sylia? I hadn't heard from them since they had left Tokyo in search of testimony from survivors of the summit. Maybe it was a good thing; Sylia had stressed that we needed to divert Genom's attention away from me and the Sabers, but at the same time, I myself wanted to go around and ask people about the summit too. But what would my excuse for asking them be? As someone who'd survived the explosion herself, I was sure that the other party might just think of it as two survivors relating their stories.

But damned if the other people around me didn't have other plans. As I had said, I wasn't just paying lip service to the public, I was actually following up on my word. So for two days straight, I sat there in a recording studio I had rented out for the time being, attempting to record a cover of My Immortal. One problem was, however, that my English had never been that great; I had to go over English words I wasn't familiar with and ask someone how to pronounce them. I knew what the song was about – I'd obtained a translation of the lyrics some time ago – but to stay true to the form of the song, and all the other songs I was recording, I had decided to sing them in English.

I read over the first line of the second half of the song out loud, trying to get a feel for it. "You used to capti…cap…shit. How do you say it?"

Hiroshi laughed out loud and looked at the word. "Forget again? Damn, why dontcha just write the kana for it over the word so ya remember? I think it'd be kyaputiveito or somethin'."

"All right, so how's this sound? You used to captivate me by your res…resonating light, but now I'm bound by the life you left behind. Your face, it haunts my once pre…ple…ples…plezzz…"

"Pleasant?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"But I think 'resonating' has a 'z' sound in there. Y'know, 'rez' instead of 'res.'"

"What, did you actually pay attention in English class in high school?" I joked. "'Cause I didn't. I was never even there."

"Actually, yeah," he laughed. "But ya know what the producer's gonna say."

"What?"

"To make it not sound like 'present.'"

"Should've seen that coming," I said, shaking my head in mock disbelief. "Ok, continuing…Your face, it haunts my once…pleasant…dreams. Your voice, it chases away all the sanity in me."

"Sounds good to me."

"I can pronounce the other words just fine. I just get stuck on those few." I stood up. "Alright. Let's get crackin'!"

Max chose that moment to run into the room, making me and Hiroshi both cringe; for once, he had a serious look on his face, which never meant anything good. "Yo, Priss, the IOC is returnin' that message you left 'em the other day. The guy on the line doesn't sound like he's got any good news though."

I raised an eyebrow and went into the next room to pick up the phone without a word. I'd called the International Olympic Committee several days earlier to inquire about whether or not Yume would have a shot to attend the trials in Osaka. I bit my lip and picked up the receiver. "This is Priss Asagiri."

"Hello, Miss Asagiri. I apologize for the delay in getting back to you on your inquiry," said the man on the line.

"I understand, you're probably busy getting everything ready," I said, hiding my annoyance. "So what's the word?"

There was a slight pause. "Well, to be frank, Yumeko has not competed in over a year."

"Yeah, I know that. She got hurt in the summit explosion."

"Yes, I understand there were extreme extenuating circumstances, but I'm afraid that because of her absence from competition, I see no way that she would be able to participate in the trials."

"What the hell do you mean?" I growled. "She poured her body and soul into recovering so that she could go to Osaka and try out. Just because she got a hole blown in her leg—"

"Miss Asagiri, please understand," he said firmly. "There are two million girls in Japan currently practicing gymnastics. All of them share the dream of getting onto the Olympic team, and fact is, there are only seven spots open. The fact that Yumeko was hurt does not bode well for her chances, no matter how much she may have thrown herself into recovery."

"You're talking about the girl who took gold at Nationals here!" I snapped. "How can you think of not giving her a chance to try out?"

"She took gold in '54…not '55," he pointed out gently.

"So what?"

"No one pays attention to who won the year before, only to those who won last year, and who will win this year."

"You have no idea what she's capable of! You could at least watch her and judge for yourself!"

He cleared his throat. "Let me have a word with the other people in the gymnastics committee. Can you hold for a few minutes?"

"Yeah, whatever," I grumbled as the hold music began to play in my ear.

"What's goin' on?" Max asked.

"Damn IOC doesn't think they can give Yume a shot at the trials 'cause she's been out of competition." It took all of my willpower to not bang the receiver against the wall in frustration. What difference did a year make? My daughter was one of the best in the world! To not have her at least be at the trials would be blasphemy, leg injury or not. I could partly see the guy's point though – she may have been one of the best two years ago, but what about now? I gritted my teeth and mumbled a few curse words to myself.

"She WAS hurt," Hiroshi pointed out.

"Yeah, but she's better now," I asserted.

"And MIA."

"Because her HEAD needs time to recover," I asserted again. "Losing her friend was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. A hell of a year. But she'll be back soon."

"I'm sorry for having you wait," the man suddenly said, coming back on the line. "I discussed it briefly with the committee, and they concur that there were extenuating circumstances in Yumeko's case."

"So what're you gonna do about it?" I inquired.

"The committee is willing to examine a recent video of your daughter doing her routine. All four, of course."

"Balance beam, floor…"

"…Uneven bars, and the vault," he finished; I could almost see him nodding. "If they like what they see, they may make an exception."

"Can't just accept her on her own recognizance, huh?"

"I'm afraid not. There will be dozens of girls trying out; we have to let everyone have their fair shot and not just accept someone because they happened to have an accident."

"That was no damn accident!" I yelled.

"I…I-I'm sorry," he stammered, sounding flustered. "I didn't mean for that to sound cold. But anyway, the judges need a recent video of her, preferably within the last week or two, and they will need it by the end of the month. If they don't have a video in hand by then, then there's nothing they can do."

"What about a video feed?" I suggested.

"That would work also, I suppose."

"Alright. I'll have her make a video and send it right over."

"All right, thank you for your time, Miss Asagiri."

"Same to you," I said dryly, hanging up. I'd been lying through my teeth when I suggested the video feed; I had no way of knowing that I could actually arrange such a thing, especially if I weren't reunited with Yume by the end of the month.

"Live video feed?" Max laughed. "But your kid ain't nowhere to be found."

"I'll send for her," I responded with a hiss in my voice.

"You're a good liar, Priss, but if and when they see through that, you've just fucked yourself over, AND your kid."

"Yes, I know, thank you for reminding me." I motioned for us all to head to the recording booth. "Now can we just get back to recording this thing?"

"Sure," both Max and Hiroshi said.

"Is there gonna be a tour this time?" Hiroshi quipped. "Hate for ya to get any more mysterious injuries and have to cancel again."

I gave him a smirk as I picked up my guitar. "We'll see about that, won't we?"