The revived world was one that knew nothing.

- - - - - - - - - -

Eight

Takeshi Ohgami sighed heavily.

"I just don't know what to do about Marika," said the priest of the Ohgami Shrine.

"Marika?" His sister paused in the act of packing a sheaf of corrected exam books in her bag. "What's she done?"

He didn't reply at once, trying to articulate his concerns.

"It's not so much anything she's done, it's just...I get the impression, Minako, that she's not particularly serious about taking over as shrine priestess after I pass on. She says that she wants to, but..."

Minako chuckled.

"Takeshi, she's only nineteen. I don't think she intends to keep on with her flashy hair colors when she's your age. Though to be fair we'd probably attract more visitors that way."

"Minako..."

She looked at him carefully.

"You're really worried about this, aren't you?"

"I know that I shouldn't be, but--"

Professor Ohgami shook her head.

"No, you're her father. You have a right to be concerned about her future. Just because I think you're wrong doesn't mean that you necessarily are, and you certainly shouldn't ignore your feelings."

There was another long pause.

"Would you talk to her, Minako? I don't want her to think she has to follow in my footsteps just because she's my only child. There are other options."

"Well, since I've been there myself I can at least sound her out," she said. "Honestly, though, I don't think she's anything like me in that respect."

In her youth, Minako had gone through a real crisis of faith when she'd become aware of the evils carried out through history in the name of religion. She'd even flirted with out-and-out atheism in her college years. By the time she was midway through graduate school, her attitude had mellowed: it wasn't religion that was the negative force but rather fanaticism. Extremism in any form, religious, political, cultural, or over things far more trivial--riots breaking out at sporting events, for Heaven's sake!--was dangerous, a fanatical atheist as bad as a fanatic of any other belief system.

She was glad she'd had the chance to reconcile with her family before her parents' deaths. Though she'd passed on the opportunity to become the shrine priestess, it wasn't for philosophical reasons but because she loved the studies she'd turned to in the interim.

It was frightening to think how easily she might have ended up filled with bitterness and hate, isolated from her family over something that wasn't even their fault. She wasn't the only one; if Takeshi had been angrier or more entrenched in his own beliefs instead of being willing to respect hers, for example...

Then she had to smile. Was there anything sillier than worrying about things that could have gone wrong but hadn't? That was even dumber than worrying about future events she couldn't control.

"Thanks, Minako. I really do appreciate it."

She buckled the straps closed on her bag.

"It's no trouble. Besides, you're a priest and I'm a professor. We both spend our jobs providing guidance for others. The least we can do is extend that to our own family."

- - - - - - - - - -

Seven

"Major Ozawa?"

"Major Ozawa, this way!"

"Major Ozawa, a moment, please?"

Junichi Ozawa strode down the courthouse steps, looking neither left nor right at the mass of reporters and their desperate attempts to get his attention, to try and become part of his story. Reluctantly they parted before him as he advanced, until he reached the black sedan parked at the base of the steps. The driver opened the door for him and Ozawa got inside.

"Quite a show," the uniformed man who'd been waiting said once the door closed.

"Vultures scenting a fresh kill if you ask me, Colonel Matsuzaka."

The colonel nodded.

"It's only to be expected, in the event of a guilty verdict."

Ozawa nodded back.

"Intelligence agents attempting to manipulate JSDF policy make for lurid headlines," he agreed.

"And testimony from the 'Savior of Sendai' carries great weight."

Ozawa shook his head.

"I only did my duty, Colonel."

"A lesser man wouldn't have had the character, Major."

But the hostages! Control, we need more time to determine if the threat is real!

We do not have that luxury, Major Ozawa. Execute your orders or you will be relieved.

Those orders are contrary to standing unit policy. I will not initiate an attack in this situation without specific and direct instructions through the chain of command. Team Alpha out.

The extremists had proven to have no sarin gas or any other mass-destruction agents. A properly planned strike by Ozawa's team had retaken the school with three terrorists killed in action, four captured, and no injuries to any of the hostages. When one of the captured extremists had proven to be an informant who'd been let go in the past in exchange for information, corruption charges had come flying, with a major purge in various intelligence agencies. The JSDF top brass, including the colonel, were very happy with the outcome because the army was being boomed in the press as honest, incorruptible warriors, events sure to win them significant political coin. Business as usual in that respect, Ozawa thought.

Maybe the Colonel was right. Maybe someone else in Ozawa's position would have carried out the attack and thereby concealed the evidence of intelligence involvement. How many innocents would have died? Could he himself have made that choice? And if so, what would have been the outcome?

Pointless musings, he decided. A person had to live the life they had, not spend their time dreaming of how things might have been different. It was, after all, the future that mattered.

- - - - - - - - - -

Six

"We're going to get through this, Yuki; I know that it's hard, but you're a strong woman. You're not going to let that animal take control of your life."

"I...I just wish it had never happened!" the young woman sobbed. "That I could forget it all and just move on with my life!"

Akemi nodded.

"I know. It's really, really hard. And it would be so good if you could just walk away, but hiding won't do anything to help. That man tried to take away your power over your own life, and the best thing you can do is to show him--show yourself--that you aren't going to let that happen."

"Show...myself?"

"That's right," Akemi assured her. "You've already taken the first step by coming here, by admitting that this isn't something you can hide inside yourself, alone. If you're willing to talk to Assistant Inspector Nakajima, he can help."

"But what if they can't catch..." Yuki whimpered.

Akemi shook her head.

"It's not about catching the criminal. That would be a good thing for society, but right here, now, we're only worried about you. This is about you standing up and doing everything you can for yourself, to not let your life be controlled through pain and fear."

Her eyes flickered nervously towards the door.

"Will...will you come with me, Akemi?"

Smiling warmly at the girl, Akemi said, "Of course I will."

It was nearly two in the morning, more than four hours later, by the time Akemi and Nakajima paused for a cigarette together in the parking lot.

"You didn't have to wait for me, Inspector," Akemi motioned as she lit hers. She'd spent nearly an additional two hours with Yuki after the interview was done.

He shook his head slowly. All of Nakajima's movements and body language were slow and measured, Akemi had noticed--probably because of a conscious effort to avoid frightening the crime victims he dealt with, that had in turn become habit.

"Yeah, I did," he said. "You do good work here. We're three times as likely to get a conviction in cases involving the women who come here."

"That's not what it's about," Akemi said.

"I know. I want to protect people by putting the scumbags behind bars, but you want to help the people who have already been hurt."

The blue-haired woman exhaled, and the smoke mingled with the foggy air.

"Rape is the only crime where most of society immediately assumes that the victim is the one at fault. With a robbery, the criminal gets put in prison, but with rape, it's the victim who's punished afterwards, by guilt, by shame, and by fear."

"Probably because people think it has something to do with sex."

"When it's really about power and control," Akemi agreed. "That's why I work here." She gestured at the crisis center. "To help women learn that they're not at fault."

She wondered, as she so often did, what would have become of her own life had her mother and her aunt not been there for her with unconditional love, helping her to understand what had happened to her from the proper perspective. It was why she'd entered the field of counseling and social work, to try and pass that gift on to other women, help them to know that just because they'd been victimized didn't mean that they had to be victims.

That even the worst kind of bad event didn't have to destroy a person's hope for the future.

- - - - - - - - - -

Five

He wielded the brush deftly, in gentle strokes measured precisely, almost mathematically.

"Hirata."

Everything had to be done just so. It wasn't enough to capture the mood or the feeling, the attitude that had to be expressed by the piece. No, an absolute precision was required, demanded by the work.

"Hirata!"

That was the essence of it, just as in handwriting one followed a certain stroke order or a character looked wrong, so too in this did each sweep of the brush have to be done in an exact order, an exact fashion or there would be flaws.

Teeth nipped gently at his right earlobe and Hirata jerked convulsively; it was all that he could do to keep from smearing the brush across the canvas and ruining a month's work.

"Thought that would get your attention."

"Damn it, Tanaka!" Hirata rounded on the big man who'd been his best friend since kindergarten and a lot more than since their teenage years. "It's not like I can just pick up an eraser if things go wrong."

Tanaka grinned, unabashed.

"You want people to not sneak up on you, pay attention when they're talking, Keiichi." He held up a paper bag. "I got the stuff you wanted."

"Hey, great. If I can get this Starry Night cranked out by the end of the month, I can get back to work on that abstract." He reached for the bag but paused. Tanaka had a pensive expression on his face that didn't really go with his black leather jacket and spiked hair. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"Does...does it ever bother you, spending so much time grinding out these forgeries so my yakuza contacts have something to bribe those idiot politicians with? I mean, you're an artist, not a Xerox machine, right?"

Hirata broke into a broad smile and laughed.

"Is that what's been bugging you these past couple of days? You figure that I'm being stifled as an artist or something?"

"Well, yeah, I guess you can put it like that."

The artist's smile grew even wider.

"Babe, I don't make art for money. I do it because...well, it's just something inside of me that's got to come out. Sure, I'd love it if I was some big commercial success, but it would be a pain, too, and it wouldn't change what I'd do for art's sake. As it is, I'm just glad to have a job that uses the same skills instead of having to pack fish or work in an auto plant or something. I think of it as practice. Building up my technical skills so when I do my own stuff I can better express what I feel."

Tanaka let out a big sigh.

"Seriously? That's really how you feel about it?"

"I've told you before. It shouldn't be that big of a surprise."

His lover ran his hand through his spiky hair.

"I know. It's just, I see you painting away at those things when I know how much you love working on your own art, and, and...I worry, that's all. Especially since I'm the one who set the gig up."

"Well, now you know." He paused, then grinned evilly. "Still, you've interrupted me at my work and proved that you weren't listening the first few times I explained things. You're going to have to make it up to me, Tanaka."

And with that he reached out, grabbed the other man by his jacket collar, and hauled him in for a sizzling kiss.

- - - - - - - - - -

Four

"I scarcely know where to begin," Kenji Kojima said. "For so many years now, our relationship has been a fixture in my life." He reached into his pocket and took out a jewelry box, the name on the package one of Tokyo's most prestigious firms. The box was long and thin, appropriate for a necklace or bracelet.

"It causes me much regret, therefore, that this will be the last time I am able to see you, and I hope you will accept this token of my regard."

He extended the box to Saori Takamine; she took it, opened it, and noted that the gold-and-diamond bracelet was worth at least a million yen.

"It's beautiful, Kenji, but...this was the 'something special' you had to say to me tonight? That you're tossing me aside?"

"Saori, this is as hard for me as it is for you, but surely we can discuss this like mature adults," he mouthed platitudes at her. "You're certainly not a child any more."

"That's true," she admitted. She snapped the box shut and slipped it away in her purse, then took out her cell phone and called up a number from its memory. It rang twice before someone answered.

"Hello? Mr. Ogasawara? This is Saori--ah, you remember me! I just wanted to let you know that I've had a cancellation; I'll have Wednesdays free...yes...yes, next week at seven-thirty will be fine. Thank you."

Kenji was staring at her.

"What?" She looked at him curiously. "Surely you didn't think I'd fallen in love with you and needed to be let down easy? As you said, I'm not a child."

Still chuckling at his expression, she rose to her feet and strolled out of the hotel room.

- - - - - - - - - -

Three

The doctor had a smile on his face.

Everything else was irrelevant. Time, place, the impressions of the senses all vanished before that single, shining perception.

The doctor had a smile on his face.

"The operation was a success," he said. "Mrs. Abe is going to be fine."

Yuujirou Abe let out a titanic sigh, actually shuddering as hours of pent-up tension ebbed away. Next to him, his sister-in-law Amane let out a happy squeal. Legs shaking, Abe sagged into a chair, weak from sheer relief.

"Thank God," he whispered. "Thank God."

"Thank you is more like it," the white-coated surgeon said. "Mrs. Abe told me what you did, how you insisted on having her in for treatment despite her protests."

"Aoi was always stubborn about taking care of herself. When she was twelve she broke a bone in her foot in gym class and actually limped around on it for nearly two days before our parents forced her to get treated," Amane said.

"That last trait could have killed her," the doctor said. "An appendectomy is a relatively routine surgical procedure these days, but only if we act in time." He glanced at Abe, his meticulously observant eyes noting the dark suit and tie of a salaryman.

Abe knew what the man was likely thinking: What was he doing home at that hour? Most salarymen would still have been en route home from work or at some company function--possibly even still at their desk. They wouldn't have been at home to know if their wife was in trouble. When Abe had been younger, fresh out of college, that would have been the case for him as well. But then he'd gotten married, and that had changed.

Priorities.

It hadn't been easy--he was undercutting everything about the corporate culture he had studied for, then worked in--but he had quit his job with Niishida Advanced Design and hunted for a new position that would meet his needs with regard to work hours. Eventually he'd found one. The salary and benefits were reduced, of course, and the opportunities for promotion justly less compared to those men and women willing to devote more to the company, but they were more than adequate for his and Aoi's needs and comforts.

Ironically, part of what he'd been working on that week were the financial projections for his current employer, the Himemiya Group, to take over Niishida. It was only that, though--ironic. He felt no sense of victory in the outcome because there was no war. It was only a matter of taking responsibility for his own choices.

"Can we see her?" he asked. "I'd like to be with Aoi as soon as I can."

- - - - - - - - - -

Two

Kei Tsujimura was in his element. The hard, driving rock beat through the speakers, the flashing, twisting lights, the bodies in constant motion on and off the dance floor. He moved like a prowling cat through the press of bodies, his attention focused on a specific goal.

That goal was wearing a spandex top, a leather miniskirt that hugged her skin nearly as closely, fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels. Her name was Eriko, at least he thought it was. Something that began with E, certainly...or maybe I...Kei's memory was considerably clearer about how her body had felt beneath his, skin slicked with sweat while she moaned her pleasure in his ear.

She caught sight of him as he approached, and a sultry smile crept onto her face. Either her memory was as clear as Kei's or she just liked what she saw. She let him approach, and made no move to retreat or hold him at bay as he came within an inch of her.

"Hey; I haven't seen you around lately," she purred.

"Been busy working."

"I was starting to think you'd forgotten all about me."

"Not likely."

He reached for her, his hand closing over her hip. The leather was a little stiff--her skirt wasn't high-end fashion by any means--but he got more than a hint of the softness beneath. Kei felt the heat rising in him, the blood pumping in his veins. Her eyes met his; he saw a little glaze there, a light buzz on alcohol or something else, but an answering heat in them as well. Her wet, pink lips parted slightly, and he bent his head towards her, intending to capture them.

"Ow!"

The sharp pain in his ear jerked his brain hard out of lust mode.

"Kei Tsujimura! Just what do you think you're doing?"

The voice was shrill and female. It did not belong to another of the girls he'd been involved with. That would have been embarrassing but also a bit flattering, showing him off as a stud capable of attracting women. This was a woman of forty, her hair pulled up in a bun, not unattractive but clearly no part of the club scene.

His mother.

"You've got entrance exams coming up this year!" she snapped at him while pulling him away. "Do you think I want to see my only son miss his chance at a decent life because he's hanging around with gangsters and party girls and drug addicts? You've got a chance at a better future for yourself than this, and I'm not letting you repeat my mistakes!"

More than one person laughed at the sight of the teenager being dragged off by his mom, and Kei flushed dark red at the humiliation. Somewhere, though, at the back of his head he knew that in five years most of the laughers would still be here, while he might well have climbed high enough that their voices couldn't reach. It was all a matter of opportunity, after all, the chance to make something of himself.

- - - - - - - - - -

One

"Miya-sama! Miya-sama!"

Reiko Himemiya turned to see a pretty girl, tall and willowy, running up the path towards her.

"Miya-sama, wait!"

Reiko smiled as the other girl caught up to her, then reached up and brushed the beauty's cheek with her fingertips.

"Now, Nagisa, really, after last night I'd have thought we were close enough for you to use my name."

The tall girl brushed a bright crimson.

"R-Reiko," she managed to say.

"So what was it you wanted to tell me?"

Another blush stained the beauty's pale skin.

"I...I just wanted to...um..."

"To ask me out again tonight?"

Nagisa nodded, her head bobbing up and down. Reiko just chuckled.

"Really, you're so cute, Nagisa!" She took the other girl's hands between hers. "But don't be afraid to ask such things. I won't bite, you know..." She lifted one of Nagisa's hands and nibbled on a fingertip. "...unless you'd like me to. Now, I'm afraid that I have to study tonight, but if you're free on Thursday?"

"I am!"

"Then I'll pick you up at the dorm at seven? Will that be all right?"

"Yes, Mi--Reiko."

Reiko smiled again.

"In that case, I'll see you then, my beautiful lily." She extended herself and brushed her lips softly over the other girl's. "Now, you'd better get to class, or else you'll be late."

The girl nodded, turned, and darted off.

"That," Marika Ohgami declared, "was quite a performance."

"Oh?" Reiko said slyly.

"C'mon, the two of you just went through all that with me standing right here! You're such a playgirl, Reiko!"

Reiko chuckled, but didn't deny it. Not that she could; Marika had been her best friend since elementary school, after all. It was actually kind of funny, Marika thought, since Reiko wasn't--physically--the playgirl type. She was nearly as short as Marika, had the kind of build that immediately headed towards "plump" if she didn't rigorously watch what she ate, and wore thick-lensed glasses (albeit with elegant silver rims). But there was something about her, an energy, a confidence in herself that had made her the school star since junior high. And once she had discovered girls...

"Somehow, though, I'm guessing Nagisa is not going to be 'The One,'" Marika continued. "Not unless she manages to start talking to you in complete sentences."

"Probably not. But she's sweet, and maybe when she relaxes a bit she'll be able to keep up her end of a date that doesn't involve making out."

"Oh, you have those?"

"Imp!"

"Nah, just jealous," Marika admitted. "My own love life isn't so much bad as it doesn't exist. Too bad I can't request a trade over to your side of the game."

Reiko laughed.

"You're incorrigible, Marika! Besides, I kind of like things the way you are. I mean, having a best friend like you means I'm doing something right."

"Yeah, you too. Hey, what are you actually doing today?"

"Believe it or not, I'm having my hair done. I didn't tell Nagisa because it would sound like a silly excuse." She fluffed her hair around back. "I'm thinking of doing something different with it this month."

"I can get behind that," Marika said, grinning. Her own oft-changed hair was currently bright red with white twintails in honor of a research project on Canadian history. "Hey, maybe you could have it dyed? They always say that blondes have more fun."

"Blonde, huh? What made you think of that?"

"No real reason, I guess. It just seems like there's something...fitting...about the idea of my best friend being a blonde."

- - - - - - - - - -

All they had was a dusty old legend, and for some, a strange sense of loss.

- - - - - - - - - -

Slowly, Himeko ascended the towering staircase leading to the Shrine of the Moon, her spirit embodied within the enclosed holy ground of Ame no Murakumo. It was a journey she'd made many times over many lifetimes, she knew, though her memories of it were hazy at best.

Do you regret your sacrifice, Solar Priestess?

She paused and looked up at the towering figure of the god.

"No, of course not! I don't want the world to go away."

Then why do you weep?

Weep? But yes, tears were trickling down her cheeks.

"It's for Chikane! If only I'd been stronger or more skilled she wouldn't have had to do that! If only there had been more time for me to talk to her..."

If only...

It was the most miserable phrase in the language.

"There's really only one thing she needs from me. But I guess you know that, huh? I mean, I'm silly and clumsy and graceless. I'm not really heroic or anything, almost a burden in that way. And the other things--shared moments together, hours spent talking, the making of memories, and, um...other things..." For some reason, she didn't blush, maybe because Ame no Murakumo was hardly inclined to care about the details of human life. "Anyway, those things aren't needs, they're wants. They're because we're in love; we want them because of it, and they help us become closer, and they're as much about me as about her."

Then what is it that you believe she needs from you?

"Chikane's like...a crystal sculpture," Himeko said. "I didn't realize it for so long, because she's so beautiful and brilliant, and because I'm not really very good at realizing what other people are feeling," she admitted. "She's so fragile, so easily hurt, while I'm..." She stopped, sighed, and began again. "Compared to her I'm like a block of granite, dull and ordinary but strong. I know that I can bear things, endure pain and suffering that she can't. That's why..." She paused to sniffle. "That's why I don't have any regrets about being the sacrifice or being imprisoned within the shrine until the next cycle. I really don't!" Was she trying to reassure the god? "It's only that..."

Oh, Chikane, if only I could be with you. Please understand my feelings! "I wish that I'd just had more time, enough to make her understand that there's nothing she needs to feel guilty about." She looked up at the towering figure. "I mean, you don't do this to hurt us or anything. It's just what's necessary for the sake of everyone in the whole world!"

Himeko wondered if Ame no Murakumo cared in the least about her judgment of its actions. Maybe she was being presumptuous just to say such things! But it made her feel better anyway. If she were a god, she'd want to know that her servants didn't hate her for their roles.

If only I could have said it to Chikane.

The shrine door yawned open before her. Once she entered the darkness within, she would be sealed there, her soul trapped to wait--years? decades? centuries?--until the cycle turned and the darkness in human hearts once again called out for Yamata no Orochi to descend. Only then would she be released to be reborn. Unless, of course, Chikane had been unable to bear it any longer and chosen a world without Orochi or the gods, to end the cycles forever. In which case the door would never open again.

Without hesitating, she stepped across the threshold.

The door slid shut with a sharp click.

"Hime..ko?"

"Chikane!"

It wasn't so much a hug as a flying tackle as she threw her arms around Chikane, the sight of the other girl sealed in with her making her pounce at once. She squeezed her tight and buried her face against Chikane's chest.

"You're here! You're here! You're really here, Chikane!" she caroled joyously.

Chikane gave her that ironic, half-amused smile she so often did when Himeko's childlike enthusiasm got the better of her.

"Oh, Himeko." Chikane's arms closed gently around her, a hand stroking her hair.

"I was so afraid that you'd try to punish yourself for killing me again! You looked so sad and angry that I didn't know what to think. But you're here with me! You're really, really here!" Himeko was so happy she felt like she could burst.

"You said that you trusted me. So I decided to hope...to pray, really...that I'd be welcome here with you. But you honestly don't mind at all what I did, do you?"

"Of course I mind! You shouldn't have had to go through that again! If only I'd been able to stop her sword properly, I wouldn't have been wounded and you wouldn't have had to do something that hurts you so much!"

"I just killed you, and you're apologizing?"

"Yeah, but it's not like it's forever-and-ever-apart dead. I mean, you're here together with me right away. How could I mind?"

Chikane stared at her, wide-eyed.

How did I miss that? the Lunar Priestess thought. It's not the act that matters, but the consequences. In previous lives when she'd struck down Himeko it meant condemning them to separation until the next cycle, Himeko sealed alone in the shrine while Chikane had been returned to her earthly life in the new world. But since Himeko had shown that the slayer could refuse rebirth and be sealed away as well, it changed everything. Chikane had been expecting that the end of this cycle Himeko would kill her, and then they could spend the interval together. Minako Ohgami's usurpation of the role of Solar Priestess had changed that, and Chikane had let the bad memories from so many past lives confuse her.

She squeezed Himeko tightly, burying her face in her lover's golden hair.

"Oh, Himeko, I've been such a fool." She was starting to cry again; it felt like she'd shed more tears in the past week than in all her last two lives put together. Since when had she become such a watering pot? Since Himeko showed me that I don't have to keep it all inside. So many lifetimes of pain and suffering broke me apart, made me a monster, but she's putting me back together bit by bit.

"No, that's not true."

"Yes, it is. I was so caught up in my own feelings, my own pain, that I didn't stop to think about how you would see it. I was as blind as I was in our past lives when I thought you couldn't love me in the same was as I love you." She continued to hold Himeko tightly against her, but after a few moments Himeko's grasp loosened and she slipped her hands between them. "Himeko, what are you doing?"

Actually, it was fairly obvious what she was doing: she was unknotting Chikane's obi, the sash that held her kimono jacket closed. Himeko looked up, an impish smile on her face and a teasing glint in her bright violet eyes.

"You said that you hadn't been thinking about my actual feelings, so I thought I would show you instead of just telling."

Chikane laughed, love and relief cascading joyously through her, emotions that were joined by the sudden, hot slick of desire as Himeko's fingers pushed beneath her vestments to find her skin. How could I have ever believed that these feelings were ugly and wrong? she marveled. She slid her hand around to cup her lover's breast, then dipped her head so she could capture Himeko's mouth with her own. Chikane's tongue probed wetly, tasting the honeyed sweetness.

"Chi-Chikane?"

Chikane broke off the kiss long enough to smile back at her beloved.

"You said that you weren't sure if I'd be here or not, Himeko. It seems that I have some feelings that I need to show you as well."

It was long and gentle and sweet between them, joy and delight and relief all mingling as they kissed and touched and brought each other to the point of bliss again and again. Later, much later, they lay entwined, earthlight streaming through the windows staining their skin a pale blue, their discarded robes a makeshift mattress for the lovers. They lay spooned together, with Chikane's arms gently cradling Himeko. Softly, she kissed the back of the blonde's head, just above the half-undone bow of her red ribbon.

"I was right in what I told Professor Ohgami," she said softly, her lips brushing Himeko's hair.

"Which part?"

"To be torn apart, separated for so long, struggling to find one another at last, only to be torn apart again, that was like an ongoing hell. But it isn't hell any more. Now, it's paradise."

"Chikane..."

"No, let me say it. Yes, it's true that we'll never have a normal life, never raise a family, never have the chance to grow old together and live out our lives in the ordinary, day-to-day way. Yes, we'll be reborn as often as we're needed to fight against the darkness only to surrender ourselves in the end and give up those lives so that the world can keep on. But the two of us will be together through it, and when our fight is over we'll be here, just you and I sharing an idyll together in each other's arms. I can't think of anything that I could better call heaven than that."

Himeko turned her head so she could smile back at the dark-haired girl.

"Me too, Chikane," she said, radiantly happy.

"I know. After all, it was your idea: that our destiny as miko might be an inescapable fate, but that it can be a blessing for us instead of a burden. I guess...that it just took me a little bit longer to fully accept what that means."

"Silly Chikane."

Chikane nipped lightly at Himeko's ear.

"Well, I can't let you be the ditz all the time," she teased, making Himeko giggle.

"Hey, Chikane?"

"Yes?"

"What did you choose for the new world?"

"I didn't."

"Huh? But how would that work?"

"You said that you trusted me, so I decided to trust you too."

Tears trickled slowly down her face, hot against her skin. Despair and loss hammered at her.

No! she told herself sharply. I...I won't do this again. If I've hurt Himeko, then I'll let her be the one to judge that. And I'll...I'll put my hope in her.

"I've decided."

She took a deep breath.

"The world I choose...is the world that Himeko wants for us!"

- - - - - - - - - -

But, as long as there is darkness in the human heart, someone might look to the night sky and notice it.

- - - - - - - - - -

A/N: And it's done!

Any piece of fanfiction is by definition a labor of love, and moreso a project that ended up spanning nine months, so I have to say that I have mixed feelings about finally reaching the end of the road. Along the way I've come to the realization that--despite some truly epic flaws--the Kannazuki no Miko manga has become one of my favorites.

I first watched the KnM anime in 2006 as it was released in the U.S. by Geneon and while I enjoyed it, both as a romance generally and for its unabashedly yuri nature, I never expected that I'd be writing fanfiction for it. That impression was certainly driven home by the first volume of the manga, which I purchased because it's yuri and hey, I support the market with some of my disposable income. That first volume was utterly awful, and I didn't have much hope for the second.

I was wrong. ^_^

I will freely admit: I don't much like Kaishaku's art style. I think they're horrid at storytelling (sudden jump-cuts, confusing flashbacks, undeveloped ideas left to wither on the vine, too much dialogue without benefit of word balloons, and unexplained comments, usually rolled together into one giant ball of what-the-hell). I rarely find their ubiquitous fanservice and fetish-mongering to be of any service to me!

But man, the ending!

I'm not talking about the fetishy reborn-as-twins epilogue, here. I'm talking about the last three chapters. It's the most significant change of all between anime and manga. In the anime, Himeko fights Chikane and eventually kills her as Chikane planned, though her love seems to redeem them after the fact. In the manga, though, Himeko will not be drawn into that confrontation. Despite all the awful provocation, she remains firm, refusing again and again to bow to Chikane's scheme. And in the end, Himeko triumphs over everyone and everything: over Souma's shallow and facile belief in what is going on, over Ame no Murakumo's destiny, over Chikane's self-destructive impulses and despair, and perhaps more importantly over her own weakness, self-doubt, and lack of confidence. It's basically sixty pages of Himeko saying to the universe, "I love Chikane, I want Chikane, and I'm going to find our happiness together regardless of what tries to stop us!" And she does it without even breaking character!

So yeah--unlike the anime, where it's left open precisely what's happening in the end (do they meet again in this life? the next? do the cycles continue? or not? and why?), the conclusion of the manga is unabashedly, completely happy. People tend to miss that just because Kaishaku had to jam in just one more fetish in the reborn-as-twins epilogue. The point is this: they get to be together forever, never parted in life or in death, not losing their memories of one another, not even separated by the ritual of rebirth. I really hope that I managed to get this point across in the ending to this fanfic, because the manga truly does end with "and they lived (and died, and waited, and lived again) happily ever after."

And Himeko earned it, by facing up to her own weaknesses, finding her emotional strength, and overcoming her doubts. You may have noticed by now, but I've become a bit of a manga-Himeko fanboy.

In any case, after how the ending resonated with me for whatever reason, I reread the manga, and in doing so I kept noticing things. Interesting things. Stuff that never got explained fully, blast it, but which existed under the surface, adding depth to an otherwise shallow plot. Things like:

1. The existence of the Church of Orochi and how it affects the culture of Mahoroba.

2. The gathering of potential Orochi and priestesses by Chikane's grandfather.

3. Tsubasa's comment about how the Necks control the will of the Orochi gods instead of being controlled by them.

4. The moment of sympathy and understanding between Chikane and Tsubasa (before Tsubasa goes off for his final confrontation with Souma).

5. The entire subplot about how the blood of the priestesses is needed to awaken both Orochi and Ame no Murakumo.

6. Ame no Murakumo being nowhere near such a jerkass as he/she/it is in the anime, but genuinely commiserating with Chikane's pain.

7. The significant differences in Chikane's character. Anime-Chikane is a teenaged girl trying to carry an unspeakable burden while tormented by feelings she doesn't understand, memories she can scarcely remember, and dreams she daren't hope to have fulfilled. Manga-Chikane is sadistic (witness her treatment of both Souma and her own grandfather), manipulative (start counting how many different goals each of her various actions work towards), deceitful (consider how much she conceals from Himeko throughout Vol. 1), and despairing. She's basically a completely different person once you get underneath the "Miya-sama" veneer. And she loves Himeko just as sincerely. Maybe more so, since it's so against her character otherwise.

8. The exchange between Reiko and Corona before Chikane kills them (one which gives some genuine weight behind all the Reiko-Corona shippers out there!).

It's both neat and aggravating to find these things, because on the one hand they reveal a surprising depth beneath the surface of the story and yet on the other hand make me despair for what could have been. I admit, I'd love to see the KannaMiko manga rewritten by a much more skilled storyteller; I'm sure it could run 4-5 volumes if time was taken to fully develop all aspects of the characters and plot.

Which is why I just had to write a fanfic set in the manga continuity. There are plenty of fics already exploring the anime characters, and many of them are extremely good. I wanted to use the manga continuity, to explore some of the differences, and to further speculate about them. To show a Himeko who while still sweet and kind and uncertain has also found her own strength to believe in, and a Chikane who though still plagued by doubts and fears is also learning to hope and to trust.

Just in case you were wondering, the draft of what ended up being the last two chapters and the epilogue was the first part of the story that I wrote (although the final version more than doubled the length!). The second part was the outline. So yes, I knew exactly where it was going the entire time, though ideas for individual scenes did get changed along the way (Chikane's fight with Reiko in the hospital parking lot, for example, played out completely differently than I'd originally outlined it, as did the bath scene and the four-on-one battle at the Ohgami Shrine).

It's been a really fun ride, and while I'm happy to reach the conclusion, I'm also kind of sorry to see it go. To all of you who've read along, who have been kind enough to review and comment, who have suffered through my apparent obsession with cliffhangers or agonized over the identity of the Solar Priestess, thank you very, very much. Writing may come from the heart of the author, but there's no better feeling than seeing it touch someone else.

- - - - - - - - - -

On the moon there stands the ruin of an ancient shrine, which no one knows about...

No one except two young lovers, living an eternal dream!

~Fin~