Author's Note: My apologies for the wait on this chapter. This arc of the fic wasn't planned out as much, so it's taking me a bit longer to figure out where I want to go with things.

Also, I've posted a new fic on my LJ now (see link in my profile), which I'd originally written for a friend's birthday. It's rather explicit, so I'll probably have to do some editing before I'll be able to post it here.

X-X-X

Title: The Crimson Maiden

Rating: M

Chapter 22: Land of the Crimson Sun

X-X-X

Akane had the strange feeling that she'd been up all night, which, she supposed, was true in a sense. She'd tried to nap on the flight to Zipang, but her body was convinced that it was the middle of the day, and so she hadn't had much luck. But now that she was in Zipang, and it was the middle of the day here, her body was convinced that it was the middle of the night, and was starting to feel fatigue setting in.

When Akane, Midori, and Lena got onto the train for the second phase of their trip, Akane soon found herself dozing off in her seat, and her mind began to wander. She was on another continent for the first time in her life, but she didn't have much of a chance to relish it. She'd probably be going to bed as soon as possible tonight, after meeting with Shiro, Youko, and Kazuya at Settsu University. And then they'd be off traveling again tomorrow, with little time in the morning to do anything before they got to Fuuka. From what Akane had heard, there weren't many accommodations anywhere near Fuuka Gakuen, so they'd have to commute for over hour each way. They'd have a bit of free time in evenings, but there wasn't much in the region that was all that interesting aside from Fuuka Gakuen itself.

It was a bit of a shame that Akane wouldn't get to see much of the real Zipang, but she was privileged to be able to be one of the first few people in centuries to see the inside of Fuuka Gakuen. That, and she'd finally get to meet Kazuya in person...

X-X-X

A loud clap woke Akane up with a start. Her mind raced to catch up with where she was and what she was doing, but Midori had already begun speaking. "Only five minutes to get there. I figured you'd need the time to fully wake up. Though I must say, your dreams certainly must have been quite nice. I didn't interrupt anything juicy, did I?"

"Huh? Ah, no!" Akane said, turning her head away from Midori. Her dreams were already starting to fade from her memory, but she could remember enough to know that they certainly weren't anything that Midori would consider "juicy." They were nice, though.

"Hmm," Midori said. It didn't sound like she fully believed Akane. "Well, I guess it doesn't matter. I still owe you one, so I'll make sure this visit is plenty juicy for you in its own right."

Akane's eyes widened, and she turned back to Midori in a panic. She'd already strained things between herself and Kazuya quite a bit when she'd agreed to participate in Midori's game. If Midori was that oblivious to what Kazuya was looking for, she couldn't possibly be any help. "No!" she said, then quickly lowered her voice so they didn't attract too much attention. "Um, I mean... you don't need to. Please."

Midori furrowed her brow at Akane. "Oh come on... I nearly got you in trouble with Professor Sayers. I owe you one. If you don't let me pay you back like this, then at least tell me what I can do for you."

"Just... don't embarrass me," Akane said. "If you must flirt with Youko, could you at least try to keep it a bittame while the rest of us are around?"

Midori looked up as she tought about this, then back at Akane. "How tame is 'a bit'?"

Akane glared at Midori, then let out a sigh. "Well, first of all, keep your clothes on."

Midori blinked, her face actually showing surprise at this. "Why would I...? Wait," she turned away from Akane and stared at the seat in front of her and shook her head. "Er... well, just in front of you and Kazuya is mostlyprivate..."

"No!" Akane said, managing to keep her voice down this time. "It's not. Anytime you and I are in the same room, it counts as public. Is that so hard for you to understand?"

"No..." Midori said. She kept her gaze glued to the seat in front of her, as if she was still trying to figure something else. "I think that's a given... Um," Midori turned back to Akane and gave her a small smile. "I'm sorry about dragging you into that thing between me and Youko. I can't explain why I did it, but I shouldn't have done so."

"Oh," Akane said. "Well, thanks, I gue-"

Akane was cut off as a series of tones came out from the speakers above her and Midori. Akane couldn't speak Zipango, but she was pretty sure that it was saying that they'd arrived at Settsu Station.

X-X-X

Getting to Settsu University was easy enough, but getting past security was another matter. Midori had memorized a number of Zipango phrases while she was on the train, and she insisted on using them to communicate with the guard. Lena had let out a sigh and allowed Midori to take point, and Akane had found herself searching through her Zipango phrasebook to try to figure out what the guard was saying to Midori. As far as Akane could tell, Midori's pronunciation must have been horrible, as everything the guard said seemed to be some variation on "Could you repeat that?"

Eventually, the guard himself let out a sigh. "Could we just do this in Lutetian? he said. He had a bit of an accent, but he seemed to have no trouble at all with the language. Midori stood stunned in front of him while Lena approached his desk.

"This is an international university, Midori," Lena said. "Lutetian is the working language here. Far more people speak it than... whatever you were speaking."

Midori furrowed her brow and grumbled at this while Lena explained to the guard who they were there to meet. It wasn't long before they'd signed in and been given their visitor's passes. Midori was cowed a bit after this, but she hadn't technically been reprimanded, and so she'd bounced back to herself by the time they'd reached the room Shiro had booked for them. Akane found herself wondering just how Midori managed to still be so lively and alert. As far as she knew, Midori hadn't slept a wink on the flight or train ride - though of course, she could have done so while Akane was asleep - and yet she seemed to be showing no signs of fatigue, while Akane was fighting to keep from letting out a conspicuous yawn.

The door to the conference room was open when they arrived, so Midori strolled right in, barely managing to avoid crashing into Shiro as he approached the door. Lena shot Midori a warning glance, but her attention quickly turned to her husband. She smiled at him, and without a word, the two of them shared a quick embrace. "Please excuse Midori," Lena said. After a glance into the room, she continued, "Are we early?" Akane shifted to the side so she could peek into the room as well. Drinks and snacks were set up for them, but neither Youko nor Kazuya was present yet.

"Oh no," Shiro said, shaking his head. "Kazuya just left to retrieve the pot of coffee he brewed for us, and I suspect Youko has simply lost track of time. You can have a seat, and I'll go and fetch her."

As Shiro left the room, Akane and Lena took a seat, while Midori positioned herself along the wall near the door. It wasn't hard to figure out what she was planning to do. Akane raised an eyebrow at Midori and said, "You'd better make sure you don't ambush Professor Shiro by mistake," she said, glancing briefly at Lena.

Midori snorted at this. "Do you really think I'd do something as cowardly as ambush Youko?" she said, crossing her arms and looking away from the door. "Surprising her without attacking, on the other hand, isn't dishonorable in the slightest."

Akane rolled her eyes at this. At the very least, Midori tended to be a fair bit more competent when she was in her "warrior mode," as Akane had taken to calling it. She wasn't any more attached to reality than normal, but at least she wasn't quite as embarrassing.

Akane nearly jumped out of her seat as she caught sight of a familiar boy through the doorway, but she managed to at least stand up without stumbling too much. "Kazuya!" she called out as she ran toward him, only holding herself back from immediately hugging him through fear that she might cause him to spill the pot of coffee he was carrying.

Out of the corner of her eye, Akane caught sight of Midori chuckling at her behavior, but Akane resolutely ignored this.

X-X-X

Midori smirked at Akane's behavior. Akane had spent the whole day acting like Midori was embarrassing her, but as soon as a boy she liked entered the room, she acted like an excited puppy. She might as well have had an actual tail wagging behind her, for how poor a job she was doing at hiding her exuberance.

Come to think of it... When Akane had worn her battle robe at her graduation battle the prior year, hadn't she worn a pair of dog ears as an accessory? Or perhaps they were supposed to be cat ears. Judging by her behavior now, the dog allusion seemed much more likely, but perhaps Akane didn't realize that about herself.

"Puppy love is quite adorable, isn't it?" came Youko's voice from behind Midori.

Midori was barely able to keep herself from jumping in place, but did she jerk quite visibly. She turned around and focused on Youko. "How- how did you- I was watching the door!" she said.

Youko raised an eyebrow at Midori. She turned to the side and pointed behind her. "There are two doors to this room, Midori," she said.

"Oh," Midori said, noticing the other door for the first time. "I... probably should have noticed that." She narrowed her eyes at Youko. "Fine. You win this round, but I will get my revenge."

Youko rolled her eyes, but she did smile at this. "We can deal with that later," she said. She took Midori's hand within her own and gave it a light squeeze. "It's good to see you in person after all this time, Midori."

"Oh really?" Midori said. "We wait all this time, and seeing me is all you care about. You hurt a girl's feelings..."

"I would have thought you'd learned your lesson," Youko said. "We are in public after all."

"Hrmph. Yeah... They are kind of nice people, aren't they?" Midori said. "And I did promise Akane to be on my best behavior today."

Youko nodded. "That sounds like a good plan. Use this opportunity to get to know Kazuya and Shiro a bit better, and then tonight, if you've been good, I may just treat you to dinner." Youko released Midori's hand. She smiled at Midori one more time as she headed off to greet Lena.

X-X-X

"You really don't need to worry, Takumi-sama," Akira said. "Sachiko-san is more than competent, and there hasn't been a threat against the royal family since you were born. I assure you, even in my absence, there is no possibility that harm might come to you. I will stake my life on Sachiko-san's skill." More than that, I would stake your life on it,Akira silently added. It didn't seem proper to say that aloud, though.

"Hmm?" Takumi said. He turned from his desk and looked up at Akira in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"You're worried," Akira said. The prince might have been good at keeping a stoic expression in public, but in private, it didn't even take the skills of a kunoichi to be able to read his expressions. "You don't need to be. I'm sure you'll be fine."

This didn't seem to reassure Takumi. His expression softened, and he said, "I'm not worried about myself, Akira-kun. You're the one heading into possible danger. I know Fuuka is supposed to be relatively safe now, but I just want to make sure you're prepared for anything that might happen there."

Akira raised her eyebrows, almost imperceptibly. "Your Highness need not be concerned for my safety. It is my job to face danger in your stead, Takumi-sama, and I have already faced risks much greater than this for your sake without regret. I can imagine no greater purpose for my life."

"No... I know," Takumi said. He smiled softly at Akira. "I should apologize. I'm allowing other factors to cloud my judgment." Takumi pushed his chair out and stood up. After straightening out his clothes, he turned to Akira. "Akira-kun," he said. "If I were to ask something of you which made you uncomfortable, would you tell me?"

Akira narrowed her eyes. "I could do so if you wish me to, Your Highness."

"Please," Takumi said. "Particularly for this next request. You do not need to answer if you do not wish to, but I feel I must ask. I recently became aware that Lord Morihiro Konoe had proposed that his son be wed to you, but you had declined - rather vehemently, if I am to believe Konoe-san." Takumi gave a soft smile and looked away from Akira. "I confess that I find this matter most baffling. I suppose it is a sign of the changing times that Konoe-san would be looking for a suitor on the basis of merit rather than blood, but I must ask you: What made you so opposed to this arrangement?"

Akira had been waiting for this question. The Konoe family was second only to the royal family itself in prestige. Traditionally, members of the imperial family could only marry those with noble blood, and so marrying into a family such as the Konoe was the highest a commoner such as Akira could ever climb up the social ladder. It granted her prestige, the ability to spend the rest of her life without working, and the remote possibility - which Konoe-sama had strongly hinted at nevertheless - that she might one day mother the wife of an emperor. Even a few decades ago, the Konoe family would never have considered a marriage to a commoner, but opening international relations had led to efforts within Zipang to appear a bit less rigid in their ways. Even so, the only reason Konoe-sama would consider a commoner such as Akira as a suitor was because she was the bodyguard to the future emperor, and thus would have a great amount of influence on him, should she choose to exercise it.

That was the catch. Akira would be granted de facto nobility, but only if she were to betray her friendship with Takumi to advance the goals of the Konoe family. She'd known that word of this refusal would soon get to Takumi, and so she'd readied an answer for when she was asked this question. She would explain that she did not wish to be manipulated, and that the proposal came with strings attached which she could not abide.

Akira opened her mouth to explain, but a lump caught in her throat. She swallowed it and tried to figure out why her body was disobeying her at this moment. It should have been simple. She'd prepared for this. But with Takumi standing in front of Akira, the speech she'd prepared seemed disingenuous. Every word she'd prepared was true, but it didn't touch upon the true reason she'd objected to the marriage.

"I..." Akira said, forcing the words out, "...could not bear to leave his Highness."

X-X-X

Midori ended up spending most of the meeting getting to know Kazuya and Akane. She and Youko were going to talk later, and Shiro... "It's kind of an Aswad thing," Midori explained to Akane and Kazuya, glancing briefly over at Shiro. "We both know that any news from home is going to be more bad than good. And if we got to talking, it would be hard to avoid talking about some of the people that we both know. For instance... Shiro's younger brother, and my friend, Reito. Hard to avoid him, and the fact that just a few months ago, the plague got to the point where he had to get a completely cybernetic body. And he's far from the only one..." Midori shook her head. "Anyway. It's a survival tactic. No point dwelling on things we can't change."

"But you can change it," Akane said. Midori looked over at her in confusion, and Akane continued. "Isn't that why you're in Garderobe in the first place?"

"Heh... In theory," Midori said. She leaned back in her seat and let out a sigh. "It's not like I'm the slightest bit good at mediation. And the Aswad haven't been able to find another girl with even a trace of magical power since I got into Garderobe. So that idea's a bust, and the faculty at Garderobe is only grudgingly researching the plague."

"They aren't the only ones working on it, though," Kazuya said. "Youko has her own theories on it. She just hasn't been able to get any funding for it to carry out tests. Well, unless you count this expedition, that is."

Midori blinked at Kazuya. "This expedition? What do you mean?"

"Ah, well, she was able to finally get some tools she needs," Kazuya said. "A lot of magic-detecting and analyzing equipment. It'll help her figure out what's going on with magic near Fuuka, and perhaps detect any dangerous areas before we get into trouble. But Youko thinks the plague is magical in nature, so she's planning to use them on Professor Shiro as well, to see if she can figure out something about it. And well... I'd assume you as well, if you agree to it."

"...Oh," Midori said. She glanced over at Youko, wondering if that might have something to do with the interest Youko had shown in her. As she was looking at Youko, Youko happened to glance over at Midori, and the smile she gave erased all doubts from Midori's mind and caused a brief flurry of excitement in her stomach. Midori coughed and looked away from Youko, trying to get back to the conversation at hand. "Well... I'm not really sure I'd be that helpful. As far as I know, I'm not infected with the plague for some reason."

"Really?" Kazuya said. "I thought all Aswad had it. Some are better than others, of course - Professor Shiro's gotten off pretty lucky so far, for instance - but I've never heard of someone immune to it. Were both of your parents Aswad?"

Midori nodded. "They are. It might just be slow to develop in me. I can't really say."

"Huh," Kazuya said. He was silent for a moment, his eyes looking over at Youko. "You might want to check with Youko anyway. It might just be some random mutation you have that makes you immune, but even if that is the case, it would at least be useful to know."

"Heh..." Midori. That was just what she needed. If the tribe found out that she was immune for some genetic reason, Midori was sure to be enveloped with men wanting to father her children, "for the good of the tribe's future." If they had their way, she'd be a professional mother for the rest of her life. Midori shook her head, and she stood up from the table. "I think you're right. Youko and I should definitely talk." Though genetic testing is going to be the furthest thing from my mind, if I have any say in the matter.