For disclaimers, please see part I.

Author's Notes:
Since I haven't had cause to go to the ER or the hospital since I was 12 or 13, I know diddly-squat about medical treatment other than 'sticky side of band-aid goes down'. So please don't expect any detailed explanations.

Also, Katakoi Enka has to be one of the creepiest songs I've ever listened to. Beautiful, yes, but creepy. That song, as well as Kirei Na Yume No Sono Hate Ni, has been my writing music for FORMAT thus far.

(In case some of you don't know, those two tunes are Mai HiME character songs for Shizuru and Natsuki respectively. Suitable for their purpose here, ne?)

Thank you for reading. Beware the ducks.

FORMAT C:
Part III


Summer. Warm sunlight. Gentle breezes. The scent of flowers in the air.

While Miyu wasn't equipped with the necessary installations to sweat or feel chilled, she was nevertheless glad that she had bowed out of the job as a nun and had returned to wearing items from her regular wardrobe. Casual clothes, since the summer holidays had just begun.

A few feet from where she sat beneath a shady tree, Kuga Natsuki was sitting cross-legged on the grass next to the edge of a large pond. Idly, she flicked her gaze over the girl's face, but dismissed her again as she noticed nothing but a gently indulgent expression there. Instead, she returned her attention to the two figures in front of Kuga-san.

Miss Alyssa and Fujino Shizuru were kneeling in front of each other, talking amongst themselves and occasionally trading speech for singing as the kimono-clad young woman patiently coached the girl through doing just that in Kyoto-ben.

Her charge had grown fond of the two - Fujino-san especially - since the end of the Carnival a few months prior. Miyu didn't share the sentiments, but had no desire to prevent Miss Alyssa from associating with people who made her happy.

As long as said people didn't attempt to harm her in any way, of course.

"Miyu."

Apparently done for the moment, Alyssa rose to her feet with a grace that was equal to the one displayed by Fujino-san and crossed over to her, and she easily unfolded her arms and instead rested them loosely around the girl as Alyssa seated herself in her lap.

"Such a cute look on your face," Fujino-san was saying as she settled onto her knees again, only this time next to Kuga-san. "What were you thinking of?"

"Er..." Kuga-san blinked, then crossed her arms and looked away. "...nothing."

"Natsuki doesn't wish to tell me?" Fujino-san sighed defeatedly and gave the younger girl a light poke in the side. "Ikezu."

Miyu felt one of her eyebrows arch just a fraction as Kuga-san yelped and recoiled from the poke.

"Ara?" Now there was a decidedly interested gleam in Fujino-san's eyes. "Don't tell me that Natsuki is ticklish? Honestly..." She tutted softly and shook her head. "So many secrets you're keeping from me, still." A chuckle. "But this is certainly a useful one."

"Eh?" Kuga-san's face had a clear hint of worry in its expression now. "Shi... oi! Stop that!"

"Hm..." Fujino-san paused in her renewed attempts at tickling the girl, and considered the idea for a while. "Nope."

"Shi-Shizuru!"

"Peep!"

She watched Kuga-san turn her head and glare at the intruder – a small duckling that had waddled up from the pond.

"You shut up," the girl told the animal firmly. "Nobody asked you."

"Peep!" The duckling flapped its tiny wings at her, and obviously wasn't impressed.

"Aw, hell..."

Fujino-san chuckled and laid a hand on the scowling girl's shoulder as the duckling nipped curiously at Kuga-san's jeans. "Ara, ara... it seems that Natsuki has gained a new admirer. I wonder if it is I or Takeda-han who should be more worried?"

"Wha... you..." Kuga-san's face was twitching in a most intriguing manner. "Shizuruuuu..."

"Quack!"

Miyu flicked her gaze slightly to the left, and watched as the remaining flock of ducks, both adults and young, made their way across the pond to the edge that the two of them were sitting by.

"Ah, more admirers for my Natsuki." Fujino-san smiled and gave one of Kuga-san's red cheeks a light kiss. "How nice to know that she is so loved."

"Quack!" one of the ducks commented and regarded them with a beady eye.

"Peep!"

Kuga-san sputtered unintelligibly for a few moments, then simply growled and flopped onto her back in the grass with one arm thrown over her eyes.

For some reason, the ducks took offense to the sudden motion and headed skyward in a flurry of angrily fluttering wings and startled honking. In the aftermath, several feathers floated down around their erstwhile entertainment.

"Oh, for..." Kuga-san batted a feather off of her forehead and proceeded to use an array of highly creative and very heartfelt curses that even Miyu hadn't heard before. Fujino-san, meanwhile, just laughed softly behind one hand.

In the circle of her arms, she felt the motions as Alyssa giggled.

"I'm glad to have more people to care about," the girl then told her softly. "Even if our past isn't one of the better ones."

"Yes, Miss."

"I think you could care for them too, if you tried. The way you care about me."

Somewhat startled, she turned her head to meet the warm blue eyes. "Miss?"

"You know how wonderful it feels to love someone. So do I. And I know now that the more people you have to love, the more wonderful it is." A gentle hand cupped her face. "I don't wish to keep you from feeling that kind of warmth."

Silently, she watched the way in which Fujino-san teasingly coaxed Kuga-san into leaning back against a nearby rock. The girl was bright red in the face when Fujino-san then settled between her legs and proceeded to utilize her as a backrest, but all she did was grumble softly and clasp her arms loosely around the former kaichou's waist.

"Is that an order, Miss?"

Alyssa smiled and shook her head. "Never an order, Miyu... just a request. Will you consider it, at least?"

She processed that.

"Very well."

-----

"Miyu-san?" Youko paused halfway through the door to the hospital room and blinked as she took in the scene in front of her. "What are you doing?"

For some reason, the android seemed to be in the process of pushing the two beds in the room together. She'd obviously already lowered the metal safeguards on the sides that would touch, and had somehow fashioned a double-sized curtain rod out of the two singles the room had previously held. Now, she was standing on a chair, working silently as she slipped the rings of the curtains... No. Youko tilted her head and peered a little closer – the rings of the curtain – onto the metal rod.

At the sound of her voice, Miyu flicked her dull, red eyes over her briefly, then returned to her task. "When Natsuki last fell ill," she spoke tonelessly. "She seemed to feel far better whenever Fujino-san was in some form of physical contact with her. It allowed her to recover faster than someone with even her physique should." There was a soft snap as she secured the curtain rod into place, followed by a gentle thump when she stepped down from the chair and dusted off her hands. "Logic dictates that such proximity should have the same effect now. Presumably on them both."

That, Youko privately considered as she watched the cyborg secure the two beds together, actually made a lot of sense. Certainly, she had witnessed what some called the 'healing power of love' many a time during her years in medicine. Science, of course, had no explanation for it, but then again, love wasn't a very scientific thing, either.

And it couldn't hurt. Neither one of her two patients had shown anything but the most marginal signs of recovery since their admittance three days back, and Miyu was, if nothing else, efficient in her suggestion. She'd even taken the time to switch the beds around, Youko noted, presumably to keep Natsuki from turning onto her injured arm if her idea worked. Exactly where in her body the cyborg kept the equipment that had allowed her to weld the two curtain rods together so seamlessly... well, she'd rather not know that much.

"I see," was all she said as she closed the door behind her and crossed over to the desk; setting down the files she had been carrying and taking a seat before giving the trackball a spin and bringing the screen back to life in a splash of color. "Good idea, Miyu-san."

There was a brief pause in the shuffling nosies behind her. "Thank you."

"Mm." She clicked through a few windows and scanned her eyes across the data streaming steadily in from the various pieces of equipment that kept a watchful eye on the state of her patients, and sighed softly. Both were in stable condition, but there were still clear signs of stress in both their heart rates, blood pressure and every other indicator she could think of. A small wonder, of course, given all they'd been through.

A soft groan caught her attention, and she spun the chair around and watched with no small amount of surprise as Natsuki's hand grabbed searchingly at the sheets. There was a slight frown visible on her face, which cleared as her hand met with skin, then immediately closed around her bedmate's arm. The fact that Shizuru shifted onto her side and reached out a hand of her own upon feeling the touch... well, that only served to baffle the young doctor further.

Because... well, goodness, both of them were heavily drugged with some of the strongest sedatives and painkillers that the hospital had access to. They shouldn't be able to tell who they themselves were, let alone who was next to them. And yet - Youko kept studying them, and glanced down at her watch every now and then – it took less than five minutes of slow but steady progress before the two of them were curled up in the center of the bed, bodies cuddling together in obvious familiarity.

"Unexpected," Miyu remarked from her place next to the bed, her head canting in the only outward indication of her own surprise.

"That's putting it mildly," Youko murmured as she shook her head, then turned back to her screen. But the physical contact certainly seemed to be doing an admirable job of lowering their stress indicators, if the most recent data was any indication.

Then again, she considered with a backwards glance, maybe it wasn't that surprising after all. The mind could be unaware – even forget – but the body had its own way of remembering. So the fact that Shizuru and Natsuki could recognize each other in this manner after more than two years of being – as Midori had once put it – 'the sappiest set of sapphics south of Siberia, 'cause ya just gotta love alliterations, right?'... well, perhaps that wasn't as unexpected as she'd like to make it.

Remarkable, yes. But not unexpected. No more so than how Natsuki had chased her old sensei around – and across - several types of furniture after overhearing that observation, anyway.

The sound of footsteps made her ears pick up, and she glanced over to see Miyu pull the covers up around the two unconscious women with a tenderness that still surprised her. Perhaps it shouldn't, given the android's near-silent, constant vigil by their bedsides for the past 80-odd hours, but it did.

Youko picked up a pen and made a couple of notes in one of the files, then twirled the plastic surface between her fingers for a few moments as she thought.

"Miyu-san?"

"Yes?"

She bit her lip pensively as she wondered how to phrase the question; then decided that simple bluntness would probably work best. "Why?"

More footsteps, then a scuff of metal against linoleum as Miyu tugged out the chair next to the desk and sat down in it. "Elaborate, please."

"Why her?" Youko gestured towards the bed. "Why them?" She paused, and when no reply was immediately forthcoming, shook her head and went on. "For so long, the only person you seemed to truly care about was Alyssa-chan, and now it seems as if you care just as much for Natsuki. For Fujino-san, too, if not at quite the same level. Why?"

The cyborg studied her intently for a few long moments, and Youko had to keep a reign on herself to keep from fidgeting under the cold gaze. Really... it felt as if she was being evaluated by the layer. Highly disconcerting.

"They both feel affection for Miss Alyssa," Miyu eventually replied. "Should something happen while I was incapable of assisting for whatever reason, that affection leads me to believe that they would do what they could in order to keep her safe. I feel that I can 'trust' them."

"Affection and trust aren't the same thing, though," Youko countered, a little hesitantly. "And judging by what I saw the night Fujino-san was brought in, you definitely feel affection for Natsuki."

The android remained silent. She stayed that way for so long that Youko started to wonder if she'd simply decided to not answer the question. Just when she was about to dismiss the entire conversation and go back to her work, however, Miyu spoke up again.

"While she is only capable of protecting Miss Alyssa in eighty two point four one percent of the more probable dangerous scenarios that someone matching her age, gender and demographics may face, that is an acceptable second place," Miyu told her. "Natsuki is capable. She is, for purely logical reasons, someone that I can rely on, although that is not why I choose to do so."

"Then I'll have to repeat myself, it seems," the young doctor replied softly. "Why?"

"Kinship," was the reply, at length. "Miss Alyssa suggested once that I should consider making an attempt at caring for others than her, and since her wishes are paramount, I decided to do so. Natsuki was the ideal choice, given our similarities."

"So you have grown fond of her?"

"Yes."

"I see." Youko fiddled with her pen for a few more seconds. "How fond?"

"I fail to see how that is any of your concern, Sagisawa-sensei."

As toneless a reply as ever, Youko mused, but this time with a faint undercurrent of warning to it. But Miyu did have a point, she supposed. Exactly how fond the android was of Natsuki didn't have anything to do with her. None of her business, really.

"Forgive me, then," she responded with a slow nod. "I was out of line."

The cyborg folded her arms and turned back to her watch over the two unconscious women, effectively ending the conversation.

-----

"How much longer?"

"Hard to say, but with this one, probably not that long."

"Right. She's too stubborn to stay under when she doesn't have to."

"Rrgh." Natsuki could only barely make out the words as she struggled her way out of the heavy fog that seemed to clog her head, but she had the distinct feeling that she was being talked about. "The hell're you callin' stubborn?"

"Speak of the devil. Have a good nap, Snorelina?"

The fog lifted enough that she could open her eyes, and she sent the grinning brunette at the foot of the bed a hazy glare. "I don't snore," she muttered in response. "'M perfectly awake."

"Really?" Midori grinned at her, and behind her, Youko seemed to smother a smile. "So why aren't you yelling your head off like you usually do when someone walks in on the two of you?"

"Huh?" She frowned as she tried to figure out what in the hell her old teacher was talking about. It was obvious that she was still in the hospital. It was equally obvious that she was still laying in the same bed that she'd conked out in. It was even more obvious that she was... wrapped around someone?

"I'm sorry, Natsuki." Youko didn't sound sorry at all. "We were planning on putting you and Shizuru-san back in separate beds before waking you up, but you started growling pretty fiercely whenever Miyu-san or I tried to move you, so..."

"Mm hmm!" Midori nodded in far too cheerful agreement. "They tried it like... ten minutes ago? You sounded like an angry puppy."

Oh... monkey nuts. Natsuki felt her face heat up, and decided that the best method of just shutting the way too amused women out would be to simply lay back down, turn her head and push her face into the thick chestnut hair that covered the top of her lover's head.

Wait... what?

Pause. Rewind. Play.

... push her face into the thick chestnut hair? She cracked one eye back open, and studied how the sunlight coming from the single window played in the long, tawny strands that met her gaze. Dazedly, she lifted herself up on one elbow, and watched as her own hand combed through the mid-back length hair that now covered Shizuru's scalp.

"How long was I out for, exactly?"

"Seventeen days, give or take a few hours," Youko replied from her half-seat on the edge of the desk. "Miyu-san was able to stimulate Shizuru-san's hair follicles into accelerated growth just shy of two weeks ago."

"I... I see." She blinked and rubbed a few strands of the soft hair between her fingers, then turned her head to where the android was standing in the corner of the room, and studied her. "Thanks, Miyu."

Miyu met her eyes for all of a half-second, then looked off to one side and nodded. "Not at all."

There was a knock at the door before it swung slowly inwards, and a familiar head of red hair poked inside.

"Is... oh, it is!" Mai grinned as she entered the room and crossed over to Midori, whapping the older woman lightly on the shoulder. "Easy to find, my butt. I swear, hospital corridors are endless!" she scolded her old teacher. "I probably would've ended up in Kazakhstan if I hadn't turned left at the last crossway."

"Now, now..." Midori playfully fended off any further physical remonstrance. "I offered to wait until you were done in the bathroom. Not my fault that you didn't take me up on it."

"Right, right." Mai waved her off. "Did..." She turned towards the bed, then rested her hands on her hips and grinned. "Aww, look at the two of you," she teased goodnaturedly. "Welcome back to the land of the living, sleepyhead."

Natsuki fought the urge to roll her eyes, but settled back down next to her unconscious lover all the same. She could get her friends back once her head stopped being so fuzzy. "Hey, Mai." She freed one hand and settled it on the minute swell in the redhead's abdomen. "How's everything?"

"Just fine." Mai smiled and patted her hand. "Everything's going exactly the way it's supposed to, according to the books and Yamuri-sensei." She paused, and seemed to make an effort not to grin too widely. "Although Yuuichi does seem to be a little tired of the morning wake-up calls."

Natsuki snorted. "Well, he should be happy with other things, at least," she muttered, and got a whap on the head for her troubles when her gaze flicked up a few inches and her friend realized what she was referring to. "Hey! Watch it, Tokiha! I was just brought out of a drug-induced coma, y'know."

"And yet you're already cruising for a head injury," Mai tsked, wagging a finger at her. "Hasn't anyone ever told you that it's a bad idea to tease a pregnant woman? Hormones are nasty things, after all."

"Hrm." Natsuki smirked and rolled onto her back, which prompted the woman in her arms to scoot a little closer. "Shit, by that explanation, you'd think you'd have been pregnant since I've known you."

For some reason, both Midori and Youko immediately crossed themselves.

"You owe me a hundred yen," Mai spoke up.

"Huh?" she grunted, her brow furrowing in confusion. "What the hell for?"

"Two hundred, now." The redhead smirked. "You see, the baby can hear everything that's being said around me at this point." She patted her belly lightly. "And there is no way that I'm having my son or daughter's first word be a swear word."

"Mai!" If it wasn't for the head resting on her shoulder, she'd have shot out of bed – fuzzy head be damned. "I am not paying for your kid's tuition!"

"And you won't," was the blithe reply. "Provided that you remember to curb your language around me."

"Crap."

"Three hundred."

Natsuki blinked. "For 'crap'?" she asked incredulously.

"Four," Mai responded, undaunted.

"Dammit."

"Five."

"Oh, for..." She clenched her teeth and growled, then glared when she heard chuckles coming from the foot of the bed. "Stop laughing, already!"

"Yeah, yeah." Midori grinned and winked at her. "Should I run you a tab, Natsuki-chan?"

"Shut up," Natsuki grumbled, then cut her gaze over to her smirking, redheaded friend again. "How's Yuu-kun taking that idea, by the way?"

"Oh, you know." Mai waved one hand idly in the air. "Lots of grumbling, lots of pouting, even a few glares." The violet eyes rolled. "Please; as if he could intimidate me at this point. He talks to my stomach on a daily basis, for crying out loud."

"Father-to-be-hood seems to agree with him," Natsuki noted with a small smile, then sobered somewhat and turned her head to study one of the other occupants in the room. "Youko." She forced her head to clear, if only by a little. "I take it that you're planning on waking her up soon?"

"Yes." The doctor inclined her head in agreement. "The drugs seem to have worn off, so we stopped feeding the sedatives into her system a few hours ago." She folded her arms and gave her patient a level stare. "We expect her to wake up early this evening, and no, you cannot be here for it."

"Why the hell not?!"

"Six hundred, Natsuki."

Green eyes glared into violet ones, and Mai gave her friend a sheepish grin. "Shutting up now."

"Thank you very much," Natsuki growled, then closed her eyes for a few seconds as she struggled to calm down. The room remained silent for a few moments longer, and she raised a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose.

"Why?" she finally spoke up again, and rubbed the skin between her eyebrows in agitation.

"Natsuki..." She heard Youko sigh over the sound of footsteps, and felt the warmth of a hand come to rest on her unoccupied shoulder. "Where did the scratches on the side of your neck come from?"

She cracked one eye open and glared at the doctor. "I'm pretty sure you already know, when you ask like that," she muttered. "Did Miyu...?"

"I didn't need to," the android quietly interjected. "She had your skin under her nails."

"Ah. I see."

"Well, I'm glad someone does," Midori grumbled, leaning forward enough that she could rest her lower arms on the bed's metal railing. "Anybody wanna fill in those of us who don't speak 'vague'?"

"Midori." Youko's voice was mildly scolding, and carried a slight note of warning.

"She attacked me." Natsuki sighed into the silence that followed her words, and watched as both Mai and Midori's jaws literally dropped at the news. "No, I don't know why, but she was probably pumped full of all kinds of stuff, they had over four months to mess with her head, and as you know, Miyu found signs of brainwashing."

Another touch – this one on her lower arm – and she met Mai's eyes as the redhead squeezed the skin under her hand lightly. "She seems pretty comfortable now, right?" She indicated their closely entwined bodies with her other hand.

Natsuki smiled, but there was very little humor in it. "Eye of the storm, Mai."

"Which is exactly why it would probably be better for you to go home and relax instead of being here when Fujino-san does wake up," Youko commented. "Until we know exactly why she attacked you, I think we need to be cautious."

"Did she say anything?"

"Huh?" Natsuki turned towards Midori and studied the older woman. "When?"

"When she attacked you," her former teacher clarified. "Did Shizuru-san say anything?"

'You killed her!'

"Yeah." She nodded her head once. "She said that I 'killed her'. Whoever that 'her' is."

"Shit." The word was muffled as Midori rubbed a hand over her face, then waved the same hand at Mai. "Right, right. Add it to my tab." She cleared her throat softly. "Natsuki-chan... I don't think Shizuru-san would react so strongly over just any 'her' being killed."

The hushed, almost apologetic words wormed their way into her ears, and Natsuki blinked as she understood their meaning. "She... she thinks that I'm dead?"

"She might." The brunette inclined her head in agreement. "And since she attacked you... she probably thought that you were the one responsible."

Natsuki frowned. "That doesn't make sense," she murmured, and tightened her hold on Shizuru, who burrowed closer in unconscious response. "Why would she think that I killed myself when I was standing right in front of her? Why would she think that I'd commit suicide in the first place?"

"I don't think that's what Midori-chan meant," Mai mused. "If she said that you killed 'her', then Shizuru-san probably didn't think that you were... well, you."

So she thinks that I'm dead... and that I killed me? But she doesn't think that I'm me, or at least not 'me' me, but the 'me' who killed me. Or... urgh. She rubbed absentmindedly at her temple. "I'm getting a headache," she muttered sourly.

"Hm." Mai gave her arm another squeeze, then wandered off a few steps and returned to the bed with an armful of clothes and a small bag. ""Best cure for that is to get up and move around," she announced briskly. "So up and on your feet, Natsuki." The redhead set the bag and the garments down in the reclining woman's lap. "We brought some toiletries for you, too. Wash up and get dressed, ne? Then Midori-chan and I will take you home."

"Who's driving?" Natsuki wondered aloud, preferring to focus on that subject rather than the one of a house that hadn't been 'home' since the previous autumn. "'Cause if it's you, I'd really rather walk."

"Hey!" The violet eyes gave her an indignant look. "I have gotten better since the last time you were in a car with me, you know!"

"And yet you're still my most reliable client," Natsuki mused, semi-philosophically as Youko lowered the railing on the bed. "Speaking of which..." She untangled herself from her sedated lover with a definite sense of regret, but pushed it down as she adjusted the hospital gown and got to her feet. "How's that holding up?"

"The business or Mai-chan's car?" Midori piped up with a grin.

Natsuki smirked. "The business."

"Your garage is doing fine," Mai huffed, folding her arms over her chest – then immediately unfolding them again with a wince and ignoring the chuckles that followed the motion. "Nao-chan's handling everything efficiently near as I can tell, though she does complain a lot about the extra workload."

"Feeling a little sore over there, Mai-mama?" Natsuki teased her friend, privately relieved to have some small sense of normalcy finally return to her life. "And what's that crazy spider complaining about, anyway? All she has to deal with is the paperwork. God knows it'd be a sign of the apocalypse if she ever decided to actually get oil on her hands."

Midori chuckled while Mai just shook her head bemusedly, and she caught Youko smothering a smile out of the corner of her eye as she rummaged through the bag and made sure that it contained all the necessities. A shower really did sound like a good idea, even if she felt surprisingly clean for someone who'd been out of commission for two weeks plus. Somewhere, she knew that both she and Shizuru had probably been bathed on several occasions during that time, but she preferred not to consider exactly how that had happened.

Normalcy... ne?

She rested her gaze on the still-somnolent figure that remained in the bed, and felt her hands still as she watched Shizuru sleep. There was no harm in indulging herself, was there? Just for a little while? No harm in forgetting for a moment or two... in pushing aside the uncertainty of what lay ahead and just pretending that nothing was wrong.

That was fine. Wasn't it?

Because in mere moments, she'd be back home at their house, and she'd have to pick up and put back together the pieces that her life had become in the instant that Shizuru had vanished. She probably had tons of housework waiting for her, since she certainly hadn't spent any time on that since then, and she really should go through the weekly overviews that she knew Nao would have put together, just so she had a clue of what was going on at the garage.

Did any of them quit? she wondered. If some had, she couldn't blame them. While Nao had turned out to be surprisingly capable once she'd hired her rival-turned-associate to take care of the company's growing amount of paperwork, well... Nao wasn't the boss. And even the finest of ships would eventually sink or run aground if it had no one at the helm.

Not that any of that had mattered to her last year. But Shizuru was back now, for better or worse, and so now it could matter again.

She hoped that things downtown were still as she remembered them. That group had, after all, become a second family to her. But if they weren't... well, she would just have to cross that bridge if and when she got to it.

There were no comments as she bent down and touched her lips to Shizuru's forehead, and she felt a distinct lack of gazes resting on her as she cupped a smooth cheek and whispered softly against the warm skin under her lips. One more moment.

Just one.

"Miyu?" She pushed down a sigh and straightened, turning away from the bed and instead facing the cyborg, who was leaning back against the wall and regarding her patiently. "Will you stay?"

Because if she does fight, was the unspoken part, I trust you to help keep her safe.

I trust you to defeat her without hurting her.

Calmly, Miyu nodded. "As you wish. I will watch over her."