Disclaimer:
Mai HiME and all its characters belongs to Sunrise. No profit made, no copyright infringement intended.

Author's Notes:
My, I'm productive these days. Once this idea hit me, I got so lost in my own head working on it that my boss actually had to physically shake my shoulder to snap me out of it. That was half an hour after I'd first started sorting out the threads, and highly amusing. To her, at least.

I apologize if the action scenes seem a bit off. It's not what I usually write, so I'm feeling my proverbial way. Enjoy, nonetheless.

FORMAT C:
Part I


"Shizuru?"

She turned her head to see the apparition next to her, as usual almost transparent under the cell's bright, sterile lamps. "Yes?"

"How are you feeling?"

She touched her hands to one of the many small electrodes that covered her bare scalp. Touched it, but didn't remove it. It was there to make her strong, after all. And Natsuki had punished her the last time she'd tried to remove one. "About the same," she told the hovering ghost. "Forgive me, but why are these attached to me, again?"

"It's okay, Shizuru." Natsuki's pale, ghostly face smiled at her. "I won't be mad at you for being confused. You were hurt badly, so it's to be expected."

She nodded. That made her feel better. She didn't want Natsuki to be angry or disappointed in her. "That's right. There was a battle."

"Mm." The ghost pulled herself into a seated position a few feet above the tiled floor, right next to the slab she was laying on. "Do you remember what happened during that battle?"

She felt her throat work in a swallow as she absentmindedly fingered another attachment - the IV that was leaking painkillers into her system. "Natsuki died."

"Why?"

"I... failed you." Her voice was at once both hoarse and distant, and she felt the guilt ride her with a whip. "I failed to protect you."

"Thats right, you did," the ghost told her soothingly, running a clear hand over the air above Shizuru's arm. "But it's okay, Shizuru. I forgive you. I'll even help you take revenge on the ones who killed me." She smiled. "That's why you're here, remember?"

She gritted her teeth in anger and nodded. "I remember." Mai. Midori. Mikoto. Nao. Yukino... all of the other HiME had ganged up on Natsuki and killed her. And she'd been too late to save her. But she would make them pay, she decided as she stared down at her naked body and the array of wires that were attached all over it.

She wouldn't fail Natsuki this time. Not when Natsuki had come from beyond death to ask her to take revenge on her behalf.

"I know you won't fail me, Shizuru. Not this time." The apparition rested her hand above Shizuru's forehead, not even blinking at the flinch that move garnered. "I know you don't want to disappoint me again."

"I won't." She felt a shiver run down her spine as she locked her eyes on that hand. "I promise, Natsuki. I won't fail."

"Good."

She flicked her gaze to the cold smile on the ghosts face, and felt her body tense in fear. "Please, Natsuki... Don't--"

Again, that searing pain penetrated her skull with enough force to make it feel as if her brain was being cut in half. A blinding, white light erupted behind her eyelids as she screamed, and she only dimly registered the taut wires pulling relentlessly at her skin when her body went rigid in agony.

Then it stopped, and she curled up as best she could on the cold metal, panting and twitching as she fought to make her body calm down.

"I really don't like it when I have to do that to you," came the ghost's voice again. "But I have to make sure that you won't let me down. You understand that, right, Shizuru?"

Natsuki's voice wasn't warm like it had once been. But she couldn't blame her. Couldn't fault the cold undertone. She deserved it.

"Y-yes," she gasped.

"Good. Because I know you can do this." Now the apparition lowered her voice, and she felt a slight chill as the hand came to rest above her cheek instead. "I know you have the will, Shizuru. The lust for blood." The hand moved through the air just above her skin in an imitated caress. "It's one of the things I love the most about you."

And God, that hurt even more. To hear that Natsuki loved her when she knew that the girl was dead. Too late. She was always too late.

"You'll need that blood lust for this, Shizuru." The ghost continued to stroke her cheek. "Do you remember what I told you about who was behind all of this?"

She nodded shakily. "The... impostor."

"Good girl." The ghost smiled. "You're getting better at remembering things."

She basked in that approval... in that smile. Natsuki was pleased with her. "I'm trying."

"Shh..." One finger hovered above her lips. "I know. And you have to keep trying, Shizuru. You have to be strong enough to kill the one who stole my name."

Exhausted, she closed her eyes. "I will."

"Don't listen to her!" She turned her head in surprise and stared at the heavy, metal door, which was now vibrating as something repeatedly slammed into it. "Shizuru! She's lying!"

"Who--" She wanted to ask, but the ghost had disappeared. "Natsuki?" She felt her eyes widen as she craned her neck frantically in all directions, trying to spot the girl. "Natsuki!" Where was she? Where did she go? Oh, please, Gods, no... not again... I can't lose her again... "Natsuki!"

"GO!"

Then, chaos.

The door slammed inwards, bringing with it a thick steam of acrid smoke. Gunfire could be heard over the screams and sounds of struggling, the slap of fists against flesh and the occasional slither of steel slicing through skin.

"Hold them off!" A shout rang out from nearby, and she blinked her eyes to rid them of the stinging that blurred her vision, but to no avail.

Too much smoke. She couldn't see... couldn't breathe. So much noise, and no way of seeing what was causing it. It made panic rise in her chest, and she fought it... fought the instinctive desire to struggle free of the wires. Natsuki was still here somewhere, and she refused to let her down. It could just be another test. And this time, she would pass it.

"Natsuki!" A desperate plea. Why wasn't the ghost helping her? She couldn't breathe. Couldn't fill her lungs with anything but the foul-smelling smoke garnered by the explosion. Natsuki had promised to protect her, even if she had failed to do the same. Did she give up on her? Did she abandon her again? "NATSUKI!"

A gloved hand grasped her chin, and through the blur that was her vision, she could barely see the outline of another person above her.

"Oh, fuck..." The figure's soft, somewhat muffled voice barely carried over the ruckus at the end of the room. "What the hell did they do to you?"

The smooth material of the glove traced over a few exposed bits of skin on her scalp, and she watched and coughed as the figure shook its head.

"Hang on," it then told her. "This is gonna sting."

Confused, she listened to the light beeps coming from somewhere to her right as another coughing fit wracked her body and made the wires pull at her uncomfortably. Dimly, she recognized the sound of a man screaming in the background, almost drowning out the rapid clatter of keystrokes.

There was another, louder beep, and she didn't have enough strength to do more than whimper as every wire, electrode and IV disconnected from her body with a loud, hydraulic hiss.

"I'm sorry..." The figure was back at her side, gloved fingers trembling as they wiped at the tears she could feel on her face. "God, I'm sorry, Shizuru. But I need you to listen to me, okay?"

Why were the wires gone? That wasn't how the last test had progressed. Were they trying to take her away? Away from Natsuki?

"Shizuru?" Her chin was held again, and her head lifted up towards the figure's face. "I need to put this gas mask on you, alright?"

Gas mask? She held down the urge to struggle against the arm that was holding her up. A gas mask would let her see without her eyes blurring, and allow her to breathe. That would definitely be a good thing, she decided, and held still as the rubbery sides were fitted to her face and the straps tightened around the back of her head.

"Better?" A finger tilted her face back up, and she blinked a few times to clear her vision, now finally possible since the mask was protecting her. "Listen, I know this is creepy as hell, but we need to get out of here. Do you understand?"

The figure was a woman, she realized over the sound of the alarm that had started blaring. A pretty one, even with a hidden face. But not as pretty as her Natsuki. Even if they had the same long, midnight blue...

"Shizuru? Do you understand me?"

Oh, God... She flinched backwards in sheer reflex.

"Shizuru?"

So this was the impostor. The woman who had stolen both Natsuki's name and her life.

And she would pay. Oh yes. Shizuru felt a chill steal over her, and tasted blood where she'd bitten the inside of her cheek. She would pay.

"Shizuru, stop it!"

She struggled against the impostor as it fought her, anger and fear fueling her strength. "You killed her!" She clawed blindly at any part she could reach, and heard the yelp just as she felt flesh under her nails.

"Fuck! Miyu!"

"Understood."

And then, darkness.

-----

"Shit." Natsuki heard the tell-tale whistle just in time to build up the strength in her legs and jump for her life as the grenade exploded behind her. Rancid, heated air blew her forward and singed her hair as she tucked herself into a roll, acutely aware of the precious cargo she held in her arms.

"Assholes!" she yelled back, curling until she could take the impact of landing on her shoulders and not even stopping once she got her feet under her, but instead making a few quick leaps to the side and behind a wall.

Carefully, she set Shizuru's naked form down on the soil, then ripped the gas mask off of her own face with a grunt. A quick glance around the edge of the wall showed Miyu taking care of the soldiers with her usual lack of fanfare, her shadow outlined in the flames lashing against the buildings and lighting up the otherwise dark night. In spite of the carnage, she couldn't hold back a grim smile of satisfaction.

She should, she idly acknowledged, feel some sort of sympathy for them. Certainly, every single one of the men out there was someone's son, brother, lover or father.

Natsuki deftly unclipped the two Glocks strapped to her lower legs and reloaded them, then moved on to the Berettas that rested under her arms and spared a grimace for the bruises she was sure were in the process of forming on her back right now. The armor beneath her denim jacket had certainly absorbed enough bullets, and every one of them had almost brought her to her knees.

She gave the tears and rips in her jeans a glance as she felt a warm trickle along the side of her leg, then shook her head and resolutely pushed the thought of her injuries out of her mind. They weren't out of the woods yet.

Another glance towards the main building of the hidden compound to reassure herself that Miyu was holding her own, and she decided that she had a few more seconds. Exactly five of those seconds were spent hastily reloading the two Colts that rested on her hips. There. Now she could give the android a hand and get them all...

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Shizuru's slumped-over body, and the sound of war and death filtered out as she crouched down in front of the older woman and studied her. Looked at her. For the first time in four of the most excruciating months in her life.

God only knew what had happened to Shizuru in the time she'd spent in the hands of the rebuilding First District. But she was here now, Natsuki told herself as she pulled off one glove and ran a hand over the woman's bald scalp. Shizuru was alive. Everything else could be taken care of. She exhaled in shaky relief, and bent her neck to press a kiss to the top of the older woman's head.

There was a slight, abnormal shift in the air currents around her, and for the Nth time, she thanked the heavens for the increased reaction time, speed and strength that her past as a HiME had left her with.

The soldier didn't even have time to blink before his rifle was ripped from his grasp and slammed into his chest, the sheer power in the blow knocking him back several paces. He rallied quickly, though, and rushed at her with a yell, only to find it cut off... muted to a gargle as two sharp, lightly curved blades shot forth from a hidden holster attached to Natsuki's wrist and buried themselves in his jugular.

She watched him slide off the claws and slump to the ground – dead before the actual impact – with a dispassionate stare, and wiped a hand over her face to clear the fresh blood away.

"Sorry, buddy," she told him with a sigh as she retracted the claws and gently closed his eyes. "You just joined the wrong team."

She felt some sympathy for the soldiers, she supposed. But they had taken and kept Shizuru. And for that, all bets were off.

Another explosion rocked the ground underneath her, and she had to grab onto the wall for support. "Shit." She pulled the Berettas free and felt the cool handles warm to her skin, then jumped free of the wall's cover and fired off a series of shots in quick succession, felling six soldiers and effectively gaining the android's attention.

"Now!" she called to her, and saw a flash of recognition in the eerily calm, red eyes just before Miyu jumped back and let a small bomb fly free from her thigh compartment.

There was another deafening crack of thunder as the bomb went off, and then, at last, silence fell.

"You take her," she told the cyborg as Miyu stopped next to her. "Get her out of here. There's gotta be more on the way, and we need to get her to a doctor."

"Inefficient," Miyu responded calmly. "According to my data, you would die within 3.671 minutes. I am far more capable of holding off their numbers."

"You're also able to run five hundred miles straight with Mount Fuji strapped to your goddamn back," Natsuki snapped. "Miyu, please! Just take her and go! I know what I'm doing!"

"You are allowing your emotions to cloud your judgment," was the dispassionate reply. "I will carry you both."

"Wha-- hey!" Natsuki felt her world tilt as she was unceremoniously tossed over the robot's shoulder, but was glad that Shizuru, at least, was given a gentler treatment. "Damn crazy cyborg! Put me down!"

"Unlikely. Please hold on."

"Miyuuuuu!" Natsuki felt herself blanch as the ground started moving away from them at an alarmingly fast rate. "I'm gonna kill you!"

"Unlikely."

-----

"Didja find her?"

Natsuki had to take a second to regain her bearings after being dropped – literally – into the back seat of the open jeep. "No," she growled at the woman in the driver's seat while Miyu gently set the unconscious Shizuru down next to her, then moved to the passenger seat. "We picked up a mannequin for the hell of it. Would you just drive, please?"

"Jeez. Touchy, touchy," Midori muttered, but put the car in gear and pulled away from the side of the empty road.

"I'm sorry," Natsuki mumbled after a few minutes of silence. "I'm just worried."

"It's fine. I should know better, right?" Midori blindly groped around behind her seat, and finally held up a blanket. "Here. It's not the cleanest thing in the world, but it can cover her up and help keep her warm. We've got a bit of a drive yet."

"Thanks." She took the blanket and settled it around Shizuru, then positioned herself with her back against the door of the car and pulled the lightly shivering body into her arms and removed the gas mask.

"Miyu?" She caught the motion of the android turning in her seat out of the corner of her eye, but kept the better part of her attention focused on a face she hadn't seen in far too long. "How is she?"

There was a few seconds of silence as Miyu used whatever it was in her system that allowed her to perform medical scans that could rival the equipment of the best hospitals on the planet.

"There a signs of several drugs in her system," the android then spoke up. "I do not recognize them. Fujino-san's brain also shows several signs of attempts at reprogramming, particularly in the hippocampus and the temporal cortex."

"The what?"

"Hippocampus and temporal cortex."

Natsuki exhaled heavily and forced herself to count to ten. "Miyu, I'll owe you for the rest of my life for helping me tonight, but do me a favor and talk to me like I was three years old, would you?"

The android's eyebrows rose all of a fraction. "Very well. A is for Apple. B is for Bell. C is for Circus. D is for Do--"

"That's enough, thanks. Midori, stop laughing."

"Oh, come on, Natsuki-chan," the brunette chortled. "You gotta admit that was funny."

"Hrmph." Natsuki felt a reluctant smile pull at her lips and held Shizuru a little closer. "Yeah. And if I suspected that she had a sense of humor, I'd punch her for it."

"Inadvisable," the subject of the conversation interjected. "Given the weak resilience in human bones when compared to the materials that make up my internal structure, my calculations say that with your strength, you would break approximately seventy-two percent of the bones in your hand by doing so."

"Thanks, Miyu. I'll keep that in mind." Natsuki pointedly ignored her old teacher's renewed chuckling. "Could you explain to me, in layman's terms, what your scan of her brain showed?"

"Certainly." The android nodded her head once, and turned back around to regard the dark road before them. "The hippocampus is the area of the human brain primarily used to encode declarative memory, such as specific events in time. The temporal cortex is believed to be the location where that variety of memories are stored."

"Hm." Natsuki heard a weak whimper from the woman in her arms, and moved the flat of her palm over the blanket covering Shizuru's back in small, soothing circles. "So you think they tried to mess with her memory?"

"Yes."

A cold, clammy hand grabbed a hold of her insides and twisted, and she felt her jaw clench in reaction. "And what did you mean by the part about reprogramming?"

"I believe the most commonly used term among people matching your demographics is 'brainwashing'."

"I see," she responded softly, and remembered the painful, parallel lines across the side of her neck where Shizuru's nails had viciously raked away several layers of skin before the android had knocked her out. "Miyu... given the time they had her for and what you found in her system..." She swallowed. "What are the chances that they succeeded?"

There was a slight pause. "Approximately ninety-eight point seven percent." Even Miyu's voice had gone quiet. "I'm sorry, Kuga-san."

"I told you, Natsuki is fine," she murmured.

For several long moments, the only sound was that of the cool night air rushing past the car.

"Midori?" She looked up and met the uncharacteristically concerned eyes in the rearview mirror. "I don't care if you get a speeding ticket worth a million yen," she told the brunette softly. "I'll pay the whole damn thing."

"Gotcha."

The car lurched as it sped up, and she squeezed her arms tighter around the blanket-covered form that rested against her. If it hadn't been for the lack of soft, chestnut hair to rest her cheek against, she could almost... almost make herself believe that the past four months hadn't happened at all.

Almost.

The moonlight glittered in the two silver bands that rested on her finger, and she threaded that and its mates with those of the hand that gripped the front of her jacket. And just barely managed to look at the finger where one of those rings should be before she had to squeeze her eyes shut.