"Kiryu-san, watch the monitor carefully. We wouldn't want to miss any signs of Native Alter activity."

"Kiryu-san, you were slow on those controls. Don't do it again."

"Kiryu-san, this math seems incorrect. Are you sure you did it properly?"

"Ryuhou-san, I received a college-level math degree at age twelve. I didn't get it by slacking off."

Scheris, Cougar, and the other occupants of the HOLY vehicle looked away as Ryuhou stared coldly down his nose at Mimori.


He walked away, ignoring her. She, surprisingly, did the same, not casting another glance in his direction, though the set of shoulders looked stiff.

"Talk about a cold shoulder," murmured Ichigo, a HOLD newcomer.

"Yeah, I've never seen Kiryu-san act like that," Scheris said by his side. He looked at her strangely.

"I was talking about Ryuhou-san."

"He's always like that."

"Maybe so… but he's been on her case all afternoon."

Scheris frowned and looked away. Really, Ryuhou was just misunderstood. He was trying to do his job, and every time he reprimanded someone, everybody thought he was being a jerk! If Kiryu-san was having trouble, he should call her out to avoid future problems instead of letting it fester.


Mimori bit her lip fiercely against the sigh that was desperate to escape. He wasn't going to let up, was he? Ryuhou really had given up on their friendship – no, their relationship.She had ceased being anything but an annoyance to him. She couldn't even be simply his colleague – he wanted her gone. Salt stung her eyes, but she kept typing dutifully. No one knew the emotions roiling under the surface, and that was good; she had been raised in a household that demanded the utmost composure. Her heiress's bearing would not allow her to cry in public.


How long is this going to last?

This… whatever it was. Charade was a good word. It was hurting him, but more importantly it was hurting Mimori. Ryuhou didn't want to be mean to her; all he wanted to do was let his guard down, let her know him again. But letting his guard down, letting her in, would be the death of Mimori. And Mimori was all he had left from a happy childhood. He was not about to risk her. Really, he was doing this for her own protection. When would she get the message and leave?


Cougar was silent.

Not only was he silent, he was contemplative. Yes, underneath all the bluster and impulsiveness was a genuine, cognitive being who thought about his actions, but when he shed that persona, it was a sight to see.

Speaking of a sight to see… Minori-san is quite upset.

Straight Cougar was also very perceptive. Though he feigned ignorance, he could see the hurtful interplay between the two. Ryuhou was purposefully being cold to her, for what reason he could not imagine.

What a fool. He had the greatest treasure under his nose, and yet he shunned it. If only Mimori would take a second to look around for another option, one that wasn't green-haired. Orange was a nice color…

I will make it my mission within this mission to make Minori-san fall in love with me!

Disregarding the fact that he had promised himself this every day since he had first seen her without success, Cougar's eyes took on a determined glint as he let his sunglasses slide down to his nose.

No day like today…


"I'm seeing a disturbance," Mimori announced to the silent convoy.

"There's some sort of an energy… it keeps fluctuating, flickering on and off the radar."

"Let me see."

Soundlessly, Mimori moved aside for Ryuhou to study the screen, unblinking.

"Get ready. We're moving out now."
It was only a house.

If it could be called that. Though it may at one time have been a sprawling, ornate mansion, now it was a decrepit ruin. The wood was rotting; the gaps in shingles on the roof revealed even older, more mottled tiles. Part of the house seemed to have collapsed in on itself, unable to support the weight on its moldy beams. A few shutters hung off their hinges precariously as the days fading light cast strange shadows on the house and surrounding overgrowth of bushes.

"Kiryu-san, are you sure this is it?"

"If it would settle you, Ryuhou-san, I'll check the data – again."

He raised an eyebrow in command and Mimori's lips thinned. "Alright then." The glow of the laptop screen illuminated the faces of Ryuhou, Mimori, Scheris and Cougar, casting them in a ghostly pale light. "If you take a look at the coordinates on this map, they match perfectly with the coordinates on the radar on which the disturbances were recorded."

Ryuhou's frown deepened. He took a look at the old house again, straightening up as he did so. Reaching out with an awareness that all Alter-Users had, he could feel nothing from the house, nothing but an empty husk of rotting wood.

A wind rustled their clothes and hair gently, causing goosebumps to raise on Scheris's arms. Something about this place was giving her the chills in the worst way possible.

Mimori was glaring between the computer screen and the house. Really, all she wanted to do was go home, take a long, hot bath and go to bed. Ryuhou was clearly not to be reasoned with at this point, and it was absolutely freezing out here.

"Perhaps there is something wrong with your software."

"Perhaps something is wrong with the updates Elian-san made on this laptop for me, though I doubt it."

Another tense silence.

"Perhaps we should stop wasting time just standing here! In fact, maybe we could do something productive with our time, like MOVING! For you see, movement is the greatest catalyst of –"

"Enough, Cougar."

"Um, Ryuhou? Maybe –"

"Kiryu-san, give me the computer."

"What? No!"

"Guys, I'm really –"

"Give me that computer or I will be forced –"

"RYUHOU! Surely you are not threatening the lovely and talented Minori-san!"


"Yah, that's what I said, Minori!"

"Whatever. Just give me that computer. I want to check –"

"This computer is my possession. HOLY has no claim over it, and –"

"This place is really creeping me–"

"Everybody,quiet.I said, give me the laptop. Kiryu, that is a direct order from your superior."

In the dead silence of the evening, Mimori surrendered her laptop, hiding the hurt and acidic anger in her eyes when she looked down. Very quietly, Ryuhou began to fiddle with the thin, high-tech computer, having a slow go at it. This was one area in which Mimori had him beat.

Mimori wrapped her arms around her chest firmly in order to stop her fingers from automatically reaching over to him and correcting his slow and somewhat clumsy movements. Though his fingers were slender and graceful, almost feminine if one ignored the hard, calloused palm, they were unsure, hovering slightly over the keyboard. Of course, to everyone else he looked more than competent, but to her eyes he was an amateur. Her annoyance quickly grew, unabated, until -

"Ryuhou, please, let me –"

With a low groan, all functions inside the convoy flickered off slowly. Their only light source, the bright fluorescent bulbs, had petered out; the long orange extension cord that had been feeding power to the laptop failed to do so, and that light faded as well. It was only in that moment that they realized how dark it was.

"Shit," Ichigo swore. He fumbled around in his pockets for a moment before pulling out a light and flicking it on. "Here."

The face of Akane, the one other HOLD operative, was the most prominent; she looked shaken. "What are we going to do?" Her voice was trembling.

"I'm going to find the backup power," said Mimori calmly. Without another word she turned and walked back into the vehicle.

"W-wait, Mimori-san!" Akane hurried after her, stumbling slightly unlike the heiress.

"Well?" asked Ichigo. "What are we going to do?"

"Hope to find the backup power," answered Ryuhou. "If that fails, we have all had required survival training… I can't see any difficulty in surviving one night out here."

"But what about the two in the van?" Scheris didn't mention her own unease. There was just something…off about this house. But Ryuhou didn't sense it, so it must not've been anything to worry about…

"As much as a sacrifice as it may for them, I am sure they can survive for one night," said Ryuhou, echoing his previous statement. Their conversation was cut off as a dim glow began to emit from the lights inside their vehicle. Mimori poked her head outside, frowning.


"We would have more power… but the backup battery wasn't recharged to its proper capacity. This light and some communication is all we're going to get before the battery dies. We're basically stuck where we are."

There was a muffled whimper from behind her.

"If we are stuck, then we might as well see if this house has anything interesting to it," said Ryuhou. "Cougar, Scheris, Ichigo, you're with me. Akane-san, Kiryu-san, you stay in the car and try radioing for a backup squad."

"No!" Akane yelled, appearing almost out of nowhere. "You can't leave us here! What if something happens? What if we're attacked by bears? What if some serial killer tries to get us? What if - what if a Native Alter decides to –"

"Enough! The probability of any of those things actually happening is slim to none," Mimori snapped at her. "Besides, defense training and weaponry training were required to get this job. Didn't you pass those tests?"

"Yes, of course I did, but I don't usually take field missions," said Akane snidely, clearly offended by the heiress's tone. "This was a favor for a friend, not because I enjoy doing them! And how can you expect me to stay calm with you as company?"

Mimori's usually doe-like brown eyes flashed dangerously as she rounded on the redhead, who suddenly quailed under Mimori's glare.

"I've got an idea!" interjected Ichigo cheerfully. "I'll stay here with Akane-san and Mimori-san can go with Ryuhou-san, Scheris-san and Cougar-san. Is that all right with you, Ryuhou-san?"

He snorted quietly before nodding. "Let's go."

They approached the warped porch of the house quietly and cautiously, not wishing to disturb any wildlife that may have been lurking. Ryuhou and Scheris took point, while Cougar and Mimori held back slightly.

"It looks so old…" breathed Scheris, feeling that same chill crawl up her spine again. She repressed a shiver. Mimori made a soft noise of agreement.

"Judging by the architecture, it was at least one hundred years old before the Great Uprising." The blue-haired teen barely heard these words, because the bad feeling within her had continued to grow. The closer she got to the house, the more she wanted to turn around and run back to the HOLY facilities, where she had warm bed and a warm meal awaiting her. This cold ache was so painfully familiar…

Ryuhou was the first to reach the threshold. With a tentative push, the door glided open…