Well, here it is: we've officially come to the end of DearScon!

This is the Epilogue, and we hope you've enjoyed following the story as much as we did in creating it. At the time this Epilogue was first posted, we weren't able to post the whole thing (see the News Blast for 26/7/10 in my profile if you haven't already), but as events progressed a-pace, we completed sizable chunks of the text and got them uploaded, and now, as of 04/10/10, the DearScon! Epilogue is officially complete. Here be the end of the road, folks; the story has come to an end... or has it?

Thanks to everyone who kept a Story Alert on this, and we hope that in the future, when we eventually write further pieces for our DearS Project, that you will all return to follow those as well.

Now, without further ado, the all-important Disclaimer, and the Epilogue!

DISCLAIMER:

The characters and all related material herein are the property of their creators and/or copyright holders, who may be too numerous to name here. Team Hydro and all affiliated parties do not claim ownership of said characters and/or material. Team Hydro does not seek to infringe upon any trademarks, copyright, or any other existing legal document that may be connected to any of the above.


DearScon! – Epilogue

A dreamcatcher swayed softly in the breeze above Natsuki's head as she leaned out of the apartment's living room window, a decoration she'd added from her room at home when she'd moved in. She could hear Khi behind her in the kitchen, clinking around a cupboard muttering something about the level of dust, and his intention of doing something about it. He'd already hauled the baggage up; his polite nagging had only relented when she'd let him carry her backpack, though she had made sure to tow her own, wheeled suitcase. There was an old saying, she was sure, about small victories counting occasionally, or something to that effect; gods knew Khi would have happily suffered a pulled muscle in his back if she'd let him carry everything. Sometimes her enthusiastic new 'slave' needed reminding, it seemed, that their binding had not rendered her incapable of doing things for herself.

The train ride back to Koharu had been somewhat quiet, mostly due to the fact that Oihiko had been silenced early during the trip home. She had made him promise not to tell anyone about the 'development' in her relationship with Khi, as he'd tenderly put it, before she could speak to people about it for herself; 'enslaving' a DearS wasn't entirely socially acceptable in Japan yet – most people still thought of it as slavery in the true sense of the word, though she preferred to think of their binding as a mutual confession - and the last thing she needed was Oihiko and his wild imagination giving the wrong people the wrong idea. But when he couldn't seem find something other than the two of them to stare at with that smug smirk on his face that said I knew this would happen, she'd promptly threatened him with great harm to his person if he didn't start showing some basic manners. The boy simply couldn't seem to not laugh at her for her refusal to let go of Khi's hand for the whole journey home.

She'd told him point-blank then that if she wanted to hold Khi's hand then she damn-well would; it was none of the snap-happy geek's damn business. Oihiko had only laughed harder. He should have known better though, having witnessed her short temper first-hand, than to laugh at her for anything. Alas, evidently he didn't know better, because he'd burst into a fit of hysterics when she'd fallen asleep on Khi's shoulder half-way to their destination. That was the second time he'd rudely-awoken her in as many days - damned if she wasn't going to make him pay for it. He'd laughed like a lunatic at her anger, a soon-regretted error in judgement on his part when she'd promptly cracked his nuts with a swiftly-placed Heel Drop in response to such nerve, at which Khi had winced noticeably, and a wide-eyed, sputtering Oihiko had wisely been quiet for the remainder of the ride. Personally, she suspected such prolonged silence had something to do with his frothing at the mouth. Never let it be said that Ikuhara Natsuki made empty threats.

After parting ways with the now not-so-chipper loser at Koharu station, she and Khi had made their way home to the apartment; since Takaya had left with Ren and the others, her brother's little love-nest had become her own home-from-home. She stayed there mainly to make the commute to school easier, now that she and Khi were attending Koharu High; living here meant she could sleep in longer in the mornings, something she was sure would be rectified now that Khi would live here with her too. But her continuing presence also stopped her father from foreclosing on Takaya's tenancy agreement with the landlord, Neneko's father.

Takezou had tried to renege on the agreement for the apartment's tenancy mere days after Takaya's departure with Io's community, to get rid of the place like his son was never coming home again. But his efforts were scuttled when Neneko had got in-touch from America, asking her father to hand the tenancy to Natsuki until Takaya returned; Harumi had agreed immediately when Neneko's family had put the idea to her, having been against her husband's plan to seemingly leave his son homeless, and the apartment had been passed to Natsuki to keep the place lived-in until Takaya got back from wherever Io had flown them all away to. Harumi seemed to think her husband intended his actions to teach Takaya something that would otherwise be harmless; Natsuki had merely chalked up another point to her father's useless parenting skills – for a man whose life apparently revolved around logic, he couldn't bequeath a life-lesson to his kids in a way that made sense and wasn't cruel if it killed him.

The tiny apartment could just about house two people, though, and when Takaya did return, he'd have Ren in-tow and would no doubt want his apartment back; Natsuki would have to find someplace else for herself and Khi when that inevitably happened, now that they were so inseparable as they were, and she meant to start planning for that just as soon as she could, because one day Takaya and Ren would come back, she was sure of that.

"Natsuki-sama," Khi's voice behind her startled her out of her thoughts suddenly, and as she turned to look at him, he reached down and pressed something cold into her hand. It was a glass of juice. "I thought you might like some refreshment," he smiled brightly, holding a glass of his own in his other hand, "It was a long trip, after all…"

She smiled up at him in thanks, and they turned away from the window into the living room. Together for barely forty-eight hours, and already his only concern was for her; her pleasure, her comfort, her happiness, because ultimately her happiness was his own. One day soon, very soon, she would have to come up with a way to return the favour, because she couldn't bear the thought of letting their relationship be so entirely one-sided.

True, it was in a DearS' nature to serve, and to desire to serve, but real, loving relationships were two-way streets, carefully balanced measures of giving and taking and giving back. She couldn't let Khi give her his every waking moment without at least trying to give him something back, because that would be selfish… and more importantly to her, it would mean that she'd allowed him, her best friend, to make himself her slave for real.

She eyed the suitcases as Khi moved back into the kitchen, and immediately set about unpacking while Khi concerned himself with other things, to take her mind off the minor dilemma she'd been wrestling with. She'd been storing her things in the bottom half of the closet, because Ren's 'room' in the top half had been left undisturbed. The DearS' futon and all the few possessions she had left behind were still there, and although it limited the amount of storage space in the apartment, Natsuki knew her brother and Ren would thank her for preserving Ren's things just the way she left them.

For half a second the thought crossed her mind that Khi had no-where to sleep, but she promptly dismissed it; Khi didn't need a bed of his own - he'd be sleeping in hers. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' was how the old saying went, and she sure-as-hell wasn't going to try; all they needed was a bigger futon – easily remedied, and they'd certainly make do until she could get one… Khi made for a rather comfortable mattress, as she recalled. On second thoughts, maybe we don't need a bigger futon after all… she mused with a dark smile.

The phone rang suddenly, surprising her; she rarely ever received phone calls direct to the apartment. Khi answered it, and after what seemed to be a very short conversation, he replaced the receiver with a look in his eye that struck her as distinctly business-like. She'd seen that look before, when he'd occasionally be called away from school to deal with some important situation regarding the DearS; he was the diplomatic representative for the Japanese DearS community, after all, and not to mention the main DearS liaison in Koharu itself – when that lunatic Rubi was busy doing whatever it was that she did, or when the situation required a softer approach, Fina called for Khi.

"Natsuki-sama, Fina-sama has requested our presence at Headquarters. She has arranged for a car to pick us up in an hour's time, but she asks that we inform Headquarters if you need more time to prepare. We can specify a time to be collected if that is the case."

Natsuki looked up at him seriously, mild apprehension apparent in her features. "… She knows, doesn't she?" she said, and it was really more a statement of fact than a question. "She knows about our binding already. How?"

"I would think it likely that Fina-sama does know, yes," Khi answered with a soft smile. "Her heart-sense is deeply interwoven with that of every DearS in her charge, even those in the other communities around the world. If something changes in one of us, she is aware of that change even if we ourselves are not. In that regard, it is very likely that she is aware of my having bound myself to you."

"What does she want us at Headquarters for?"

"Most likely, she wishes to extend her congratulations to you, and to give her acknowledgement to your status as my Master. In the past, before we DearS came to Earth, the Watcher would ask new Masters to come before her so that she could give her recognition of them as such… There may be some ceremony in that regard, but it would likely be rather short, really more of a formal discussion, so you might address any concerns you might have…I hope you find this acceptable, Natsuki-sama?" Natsuki nodded, and he seemed to relax; he knew full-well that she hated it when people made too much fuss.

After that, she made to get ready for this meeting, or whatever all the excitement would prove to be about. She hadn't seen Fina or her pet psychopath in-person since Io's departure, and that had been the better part of three years ago. But as much of a bother as all this was, to suddenly come at them from out of the blue, she realised as she headed for the bathroom that she did have things that she wanted to talk to the Watcher about.

Khi's 'training sessions' with Rubi, for one, were going to stop. She would make it crystal clear that if Khi came home with any more bruises courtesy of that sadomasochistic loon, she had every intention of raising hell. She also wanted to make sure that he was removed in every capacity from his original Homestay family; she wanted to make sure that that private-school jerk he'd stayed with would get the message, loud and clear: Khi belonged to her now, and if the pompous asshat ever came near them again she'd make him sorry he'd even so much as cracked his knuckles in Khi's direction.

Quietly she wondered if Fina knew about that, that the son of Khi's homestay host had been beating him until her brother had stepped in and 'ordered' Khi to start standing up for himself; it was a little-known fact that Fina had been unconscious for much of the DearS' first two years on Earth, and had only awoken from a self-imposed hibernation, designed to prolong her own life, a few weeks before Io had matured and transformed into the second DearS Watcher.

Natsuki wondered how much of what'd gone on during her time asleep that Fina had been aware of, or made aware of when she'd awoken; she pondered if the matter of Khi's abuse at the boy's hands was worth bringing up, whether or not it might cause some unnecessary hassle. After all, it had been a long time since Khi had been living there - he'd moved back into the main DearS community when his time in the Homestay Program had come to its official end after Io's departure - and given that the guy had gotten his act together after the thing with the photographer, she had a feeling that to Khi it was all water under the bridge.

That didn't mean that she was going to forgive the bastard, though, and she still didn't trust him as far as she could throw him when it came to Khi. She might be a little paranoid in that regard, but now that Khi was hers, there was no such thing as overkill, and perhaps there never had been; in retrospect Khi had meant more to her than just a best friend since before Takaya had left, he'd become her rock in her brother's absence, her confidante... and since Neneko had left for her apprenticeship in America, he'd become her everything – she'd just never plucked up the guts to admit to herself how much his friendship meant to her... and how much she'd needed him as more than that besides. But things would be different now that they were together, she knew, and once Fina had given them her blessing, things would be better than ever before.

And safe in that knowledge, she ran herself a bath, got in, and drifted off into a soft thoughtlessness for the entirety of twenty minutes, relaxing silently to the background sound of Khi puttering around the apartment as she cast aside her worries for as long as she could.

- X - o - XoXoX - o - X -

Forty minutes later, the two of them were stood outside the front door of a building so bland and unassuming that it stood out like a sore thumb; that it stood just on the corner of a shopping street whose stores and storefronts were known for being anything but bland and unassuming did not help its failed attempt to blend in. Gone was the strange signage often seen posted outside the spaceship while it resided out in the bay, but evidently the DearS still had a few things to learn about external decor. The building's only real distinguishing feature was a rather large, formal looking metal plaque – the same metal as a DearS collar - next to the door, baring bold engraved kanji and an English translation below it in slightly smaller characters, presumably for the tourists' benefit. It read:

鹿本部 - メインオフィス - 小春県

DEARS HEADQUARTERS – MAIN OFFICE – KOHARU PREFECTURE

公式ビジネスのみでお願いします

OFFICIAL BUSINESS ONLY PLEASE

Khi wore his DearS attire, and while Natsuki wasn't sure why it was so essential that he did, she knew that it was important all the same, much in the same way that it had been important for him to wear it when he'd bound them together. He'd assured her relentlessly on the journey to headquarters that Lady Fina would be 'most pleased' to see them, and while she didn't doubt his word, the fact didn't make her any less nervous of the idea of simply sauntering into a formal meeting with the DearS Watcher, and to discuss their Binding, no less… Yeah, you're freaked out, she said to herself beneath her breath, so deal with it already, 'Master'. This isn't gonna go away, it has to be done.

Khi took her hand in his and gave it a light squeeze; a gesture of reassurance, a silent insistence that there was nothing to worry about. "Let's get this over with," she grinned nervously, and swallowed the lump in her throat hard as she reached with one hand for the door of the building, and refused to let go of him with the other. The door swung inward before she could touch it, and beside her, Khi bowed slightly to the DearS who had come to see them in. "Greetings, Rubi-sama," The words rolled off his tongue with an overly-formal tone that instantly set Natsuki's nerves on edge; to be met at the door by Fina's not-so-little guard dog was something that would've set her on tenterhooks on a normal day… and today was decidedly not so normal.

Rubi was dressed normally, for once, in human clothing. Though truth-be-told, that the clothing was human was really all that made it 'normal' – the spindly but well-endowed woman wore a black, high-cut leather jacket complete with spiky metal studs, a crimson sports bra that exposed her midriff, a very small miniskirt, also black leather, and fishnet leggings; the ensemble conjured images of some of Mitsuka-sensei's more… creative wardrobe 'accidents', and Natsuki fought down the urge to shudder. In that getup the Barker would look right at home in the midst of a motorcycle gang, she noted to herself sourly; the steel chain, pocked with rust spots, that hung around her waist like some kind of belt only cemented the image. This was decidedly not the way Oni-chan had described the woman's dress style – her brother had described denim jeans and silk shirts, and sports cars; something had clearly changed for the Barker in the two years since Io's departure, and changed how.

On the woman's hip, she saw the Barker's trademark whip hanging on a little clasp, within easy reach at moment's notice. Altogether Rubi's entire appearance reminded Natsuki of exactly what the DearS Barker could be when she wanted to – a dangerous thug. But still… her eyes were so bright, a strange kind of laughter in them, soft and silent, and calm as the sky on a cloudless day. She looked almost… at peace, as she looked her student over, and smiled in return to his greeting. Former student, Natsuki reminded herself, He's not her little whipping boy anymore…

"Good day, Khi. It is good to see you. And this must be your new master…" Rubi ran her eyes over Natsuki, as though inspecting her as thoroughly and politely as she could, saw the way the girl gripped the Black Sheep's hand so tightly, the way her muscles were taut, as though she were ready to turn and bolt at the slightest sign that their Binding might be refused or frowned upon – he belonged to her now, and she would not give him up without a fight. Such a struggle would not be necessary. "It is a pleasure to meet you again, Ikuhara-san," the Barker smiled, something Natsuki assumed was a polite gesture, "I trust Khi has given you no trouble…?" Finally Rubi met Natsuki's gaze, and bowed deeply; Natsuki wasn't sure if the woman was being respectful or just snide… she was certainly capable of both. "Fina-sama asks that I personally escort you to the meeting room," the Barker said, "Right this way, if you please…"

And that, strangely, was that; Rubi turned curtly into the small reception room behind her, then into the hallways beyond. Natsuki looked to Khi, and he gestured into the building, holding the door for her with a reassuring smile.

The meeting room was a grand affair, Natsuki decided as she stepped inside, mainly because it was so huge, and utterly bizarre as only this place could be. If this was a meeting room, she'd never seen one quite like it, and she'd seen a few, being the troublemaker that she occasionally proved herself to be. The walls, armoured in polished stainless-steel plating, contrasted sharply with the black marble floor; lime green and jade-coloured veils hung from the ceiling, Fina's colours as it were, and heaps of soft-looking throw pillows were scattered in a rough crescent pattern around the room, facing toward a massive screen surrounded by complex, high-tech looking equipment. If the piles of comfortable-looking pillows were meant as seats for guests, then this place could host quite an audience…

The screen gave away the ensemble of alien technologies for what it was – a communications array. It had been stripped from one of the DearS ship's communications suites before Io's departure, Khi's memory informed her from across their link, and Fina had had it retrofitted here by some tech-minded DearS whose name Khi couldn't quite remember; it suddenly struck Natsuki that Fina could readily communicate with Io's ship and its occupants - and her brother. She'd have to ask about that, she decided… She made a mental note, added it to her list.

Behind the thin fabric drape-walls, a slim, beautiful figure could be made out reclining gracefully on a large, floating seat of plush cushions. Fina – Lady Fina, Natsuki corrected herself – was regal and resplendent as ever, and seemed to be… was she sleeping? Rubi silently gestured to them to wait at the final set of hanging drapes, and cautiously approached the slumbering Watcher; the Barker stepped close to the older DearS. How much older Fina was, Natsuki couldn't tell, and Khi either didn't know or was politely declining to tell her; she merely knew that Fina was the oldest DearS on the planet, despite the fact that she didn't look so much as a second over thirty. She watched as Rubi bent to whisper in the Watcher's ear, and Fina's eyes softly drifted open at the sound of her aide's voice; her gaze immediately fell upon them, and she smiled warmly at the sight of them. And when she saw their entwined hands, she positively beamed. There was love in those softened eyes, Natsuki saw, so much love, and all for her community, the flock that she had so diligently overseen for her entire adult life, now growing bigger and bigger by the day.

"Welcome, Ikuhara-san, and Khi, our dear Khi… it brings me great joy to see you together, that our precious Black Sheep has found a Master. If any of us deserves such a gift, it is you, Khi."

Under less formal circumstances, Natsuki might have gagged at the copious volume of mush that was suddenly directed at them… but in Fina's presence the link between herself and Khi had been thrown open so much wider than she could have imagined, and suddenly she was overwhelmed by an intense wave of pure, unadulterated pride. Khi's face was flushed with it as he bowed deeply to the Watcher, and she found herself smiling. Fina rose from her reclined position as Rubi seated herself on a single, large red cushion, which seemed out of place amid the torrents of green, on the floor next to Fina's floating seat and the Watcher beckoned them forward.

"I summoned you here today," Fina smiled, "that I might acknowledge you as Khi's master, Ikuhara-san. In that regard, I would like to observe a tradition we have, one of the few surviving from our previous hosts. If you would accompany me for a moment, there is something I would like to show you." Fina held out her hand in beckoning as she slipped off her floating perch, and began moving toward a doorway off to their left. Grudgingly, Natsuki began to follow, moving after the elder DearS a few steps, before turning back to Khi; "Stay here… I'll be back in a minute…" And then she stepped lively to follow the DearS Watcher as she disappeared into the adjoining room.

Khi looked to his former mentor with some apprehension; it felt… odd, to be apart from his Master now, but tradition demanded that Natsuki-sama do this by herself. "The Honour Wall?" he enquired, and Rubi nodded. "Yes. The reassembly was recently completed… and there have been new additions, as you can imagine... some of which were unexpected." The Barker was blushing suddenly, and Khi found himself failing to comprehend why, until he saw the glimmer of delighted tears in his former instructor's eyes; her greatest and most favourite student had exceeded her highest expectations – he had not only discovered the Gift, but had found a master of his own, and above all else, he had made her proud.

- X - o - XoXoX - o - X -

Natsuki looked up at the alien-metal surface before her in astonishment – she had only seen recognition on this scale at monuments, of the kind that acknowledged the fallen soldiers of wars long since past. But here, the DearS were taking such recognition to a whole other level, and they were not merely recognising their dead – they were honouring those who had found a Master of their own. And there were so many that it made her head spin. The strangely-shaped plaques on the wall seemed to encompass the entirety of the very large room.

"This is our Honour Wall, the place where we give tribute to the names of those DearS who have discovered the joy of the Gift, and the masters who have deigned to love them," Fina told her as she gazed at the epitaph. "Our ancestors and those Watchers who came before me began this tradition many generations ago; the many DearS whose names are inscribed on the braces here are no longer with us. Indeed, many of my generation perished in the war that consumed the world of our previous host – a war that almost rendered our species extinct, and from which the very last of us fled. Their names are inscribed here, on the braces their chosen masters so proudly wore, that we might remember them, and remember that our love is the greatest gift we could ever give, and receive in return."

Natsuki could only nod, scarcely-able to comprehend the sheer number of DearS who must have died for there to be only a handful of them left, let alone that so many of them had experienced the love that she and Khi were now just beginning to know; instead she kept gazing at the wall until a question occurred to her. "…Braces? They're not plaques?" Fina turned to the back of the room, and moved toward a panel set into the wall, beckoning Natsuki to follow her again as she explained. "It is a time-honoured custom, Ikuhara-san, that the Watcher calls a new master before her to acknowledge their ownership of a DearS slave. When there is an occurrence of a DearS binding themselves to a Master via the power of the Gift, the Watcher is then obliged to present the new Master with a unique device that not only enhances the Gift's connectivity, but gives a physical representation to the link between the Master and the binding DearS." Fina paused briefly, and continued when Natsuki made a noise of understanding. "We call this device a Master's Brace, and it is inscribed with the name of the slave who so wisely chose to serve the Master, that all who see it might know that their bond is one of choice, free will, and acceptance."

"Khi is not a slave," Natsuki hissed suddenly, and stopped in her tracks. "I accepted his Gift because I wanted to be with him… because I love him," she stated boldly, inclining her head slightly; it was a gesture that radiated her pride, and left no room for argument. "I never wanted Khi to be my slave."

"But he is a slave," Fina turned to her and smiled again, her voice conveying a soft but firm insistence. "Every DearS was born for but a single purpose, to find a master to serve and to love, who will love them in return. Even I have a master, for as Watcher I am duty-bound to serve the needs of my flock. And I am loved for my servitude… I will always be needed, by some more than others, and for the sense of usefulness that instils in me, I am ever-more grateful… just as Khi will always be grateful that you accepted him when he chose you," Fina turned slowly to the wall, and ran a hand over one of the Braces there with a care that gave the impression of a certain fondness; perhaps the DearS whose master had once owned this Brace had been the Watcher's friend…?

"For that acceptance he will serve you happily, just as all those DearS who found the Gift before us served their own masters…" The elder woman continued, "But you must accept him for what he is, or you cannot truly experience his happiness for yourself. This is the way of the DearS - we serve our master and love them with all our heart, in the hope that our master might love us in return. Our ancestors allowed our race to evolve into this state of symbiosis to ensure our prolonged survival, regardless of what odds we might face. It is a stratagem that has seen us thrive and prosper, and it will do so again, once the right emotional balance has been achieved between our two peoples."

Natsuki took all that in as the Watcher stepped toward her, and placed a hand delicately on her shoulder. "Khi enslaved himself to you, Natsuki-san, safe in the knowledge that you would love him for the rest of his life. Until you can accept that Khi is and always will be your slave, you can never know the true extent of the happiness your acceptance has given him. Can you do this, Natsuki-san? Can you accept him for what he is? Can you love him as a slave - your slave?"

Natsuki was silent for a moment, contemplative; she felt something of herself reach out to Khi, for reassurance, and it was only when she felt him reach back to her that she knew her answer. "…I can do better than that. I can love him first for who he is, and for what his companionship means to me…" She was careful to meet Fina's gaze as she spoke, and put an emphasis on her words that was as polite as it was heavy – she needed the Watcher to see that she understood, but also that her view was key to her understanding, and it would not be moved. "I understand that Khi is a slave, but I couldn't see him that way – I can't. I struggled with my feelings for him for so long because of it… I wanted so badly to be with him and yet I couldn't stand the thought of enslaving my best friend… and then I realised that I was looking at it from the wrong perspective. So I accepted Khi as my lover, because I love him for who he is, and not what, and he understood that when he bound us together… If my brother had accepted Ren as the object she saw herself as, rather than as the person he loved her for being, then none of us would be here right now… Io would have wiped us out, for our inability to see you as anything but objects, as aliens – that's the challenge, to look past the object and see the person, and love them for who they are. It took me a long time to understand that, but I did…and it gave me a way forward that I could never have found if I hadn't loved him from the start…"

With her tirade all out of steam, Natsuki could only hope that she had made herself clear to the elder DearS – she couldn't be moved, and she didn't know what she'd do if the Watcher found her wanting. But Fina seemed to glow with happiness, and strode toward the panel on the far wall with renewed purpose. "Humanity never fails to amaze me, Natsuki-san… The human race is the first of many hosts to accept us for who we are, rather than for what we can give… And like your brother before you, you are so insistent on loving the slave for the person they are… It is enough to bring tears of elation to my eyes. I could never have dared to hope that Ren and Khi would do so well, to choose masters who were so wise… but I am forever proud that they have, for your brother brought our races together, and now you continue in his stead. I am so pleased that you think so highly of Khi; you are a credit to your people, Natsuki-san, that you would fight so hard to see him as more than a mere slave, for the simple purpose of wanting to love him. For that alone, you have earned my acceptance, and a place on our Honour Wall. It is a privilege that few humans have yet earned…"

Fina approached the device set into the wall, and tapped seemingly at thin air, and a plethora of lights suddenly swarmed into life across the surface; it was a holographic display, Natsuki realised, or something akin to said technology of every sci-fi geek's fantasies. She watched as Fina's dainty hands danced across the massive display, and the interface began to swirl three-dimensionally around her; exactly what the Watcher was doing, she wasn't sure, other than the fact that the elder DearS was expertly-operating what seemed to be an insanely complex machine. She jumped back a step suddenly when the air in front of her shimmered, and a transparent screen formed before her. "Please do not be alarmed, Natsuki-san," Fina said to her softly, "This machine is our equivalent of your industrial forges. Its purpose is dedicated entirely to the process of creating a unique Master's Brace." The Watcher turned to see Natsuki approaching the blank, near-invisible square, and stifled a giggle when Natsuki reached out to touch it, only to jump back again as the panel moved to her hand seemingly of its own accord.

"The holomatter panel before you is a sensory device. It detects the link between a DearS and their Master," Fina explained, hoping to alleviate some if not all of Natsuki's apprehensiveness. "The data collected by the interface is used by the machine to identify the master, and to measure the strength of the bond between the master and their respective slaves. The data is used to determine the type of brace that the master requires, and to manufacture the brace itself. This is merely my prediction, but I believe the device will find that you and Khi require a brace that is quite complex, if appearing rather basic…"

Suddenly the panel in front of Natsuki elongated downwards, and replicated itself several times to surround her in a honeycomb-shaped cylinder that began to slowly spin in a clockwise motion.

"The interface is scanning you for the link you share with Khi," Fina said as she approached, "I assure you that the process is quite painless. After a few rotations, the interface will have completely mapped your link, gauged its strength, and will have gathered the necessary information to begin constructing your Brace. Perhaps we might address your concerns while we wait?"

The question in the Watcher's last sentence caught Natsuki off-guard, and suddenly she wasn't quite sure where, or indeed how, to begin; she had hoped Khi would be with her for this, if only that his presence might reassure her. He's with you, he's always with you, you only need to reach out… the quiet voice at the back of her mind comforted her in a whisper, and seemingly in response a particularly large light on Fina's machine began blinking a bright and cheerful green; this seemed to please the Watcher greatly as she noticed it, as she clasped her hands together tightly with a loving smile. "Your link is very strong indeed!" the elder woman beamed.

Natsuki considered for a moment, before deciding which of her concerns to tackle first. "Khi's homestay family…" she muttered; the Watcher's face suddenly became stern and business-like, and for a moment, just a moment, Natsuki got the impression she had maybe just poked a very sore point of inter-species politics – gods forbid she had struck a nerve. Perhaps she really should have left that well-enough alone…

- X - o - XoXoX - o - X -

"I had wondered when you would wish to discuss the matter of Khi's abuse at the hands of his homestay host, Natsuki-san…" Fina said carefully, hoping fervently that she would not upset the young master before her with the things she was about to speak. "It was a matter that most distressed me, I must admit. You will be pleased to know, I think, that I took this matter very seriously when I learned of what had happened. It so concerned me that I made sure to deal with it personally… You see, even while I slumber as I occasionally must, I will not stand to see one of my flock abused in such a dreadful manner, especially one so precious, so special as Khi." Natsuki nodded approvingly at the thought of Fina taking this so seriously, and the Watcher continued, a little relieved.

"I spoke at length with various liaisons of the Japanese government about this. Khi had suffered enough, I thought, and I did not wish for him to be dragged back into a matter that he had made peace with for himself. To that end, I saw to it that he was kept, as you might say, 'out of the loop'," the Watcher said as she monitored the machine's control panel, and made various, rapid-fire adjustments; "I insisted that your government enforce penalties upon the family who cared for Khi during his spell in the Homestay Program. They acted with great urgency when they learned that a DearS of such high standing as Khi had been abused by his Homestay family, and I ensured their investigation into the matter was as fair as it was intensive. They uncovered a good deal of evidence, despite the family's attempts to cover up incidents such as the one in which yourself and your brother, Takaya-san intervened, and as a result the family has been forced to forfeit many of their most lucrative business assets. I believe such action has led to their family's name being damaged, their social and political standing tarnished."

The fact that the DearS community had taken such a heavy-handed approach, and that the government had agreed with them surprised Natsuki, and it showed on her face. "This was sadly the most your government could do to penalise the family for its treatment of Khi, outside of outing them publically for their abuse of a DearS in their care," Fina went on, before turning back to look at her, and Natsuki saw that the Watcher's face was very stern. "If it were my choice, though," Fina said quietly, "I would entrust the boy responsible and the duty of his punishment to Rubi, or perhaps to Xaki, depending on the boy's willingness to atone for what he has done. In our former hosts' society, his punishment would have been entrusted to us, the Dogs who guard the flock and oversee its safety. By our former host's laws I would have been within my rights to hand him to Xaki and the Biter Corps, who would have seen the boy treated in the same manner as he had treated Khi."

"An eye for an eye…" Natsuki muttered, "Sounds fair to me." Fina nodded solemnly, and continued,

"As guardians of our Community, we Dogs find certain aspects of the structures of your world's legal systems to be difficult to reconcile with, after dealing with the much less-stringent system of our previous host for so long, but we must always remember that we are guests on your world, and we must respect its laws as its people do. As such, I think it best to let your legal system decide upon a fitting punishment for the boy…"

Natsuki nodded grimly, with the sinking feeling that the pompous little twerp would probably get off with a slap on the wrist at best – a punishment not nearly fitting enough. "Though, between us two," Fina whispered with a smile, "I hope for his sake that he does not cross paths with Rubi in the near future, lest he find himself in rather dire straits. Khi is… was one of Rubi's best students, and although she loved them all in her own way, I think that perhaps she coveted Khi above the others. He was by far the favourite of her three greatest students. I'm not sure Rubi would be able to control herself, should she encounter this boy who hurt Khi for his own enjoyment. She might well endanger him, so I have seen fit to take certain steps to… rein in her iron-fisted approach. I know all-too-well that Khi means too much to her, for her to simply let this go."

Natsuki began to see what Fina was alluding to, as she digested everything the Watcher told her, and slowly she was starting to see that perhaps she had misjudged the Barker somewhat. Maybe she wasn't the unyielding dominatrix that Natsuki had her pegged as, but rather a stern teacher who only wanted to impart the best of herself to her students… and perhaps the best way to do that was through a strict, occasionally harsh regimen of discipline. That the Barker might feel affection for her students, as a teacher might love those children in her care, was something Natsuki had never thought to consider.

"You might be interested to know, Natsuki-san," Fina whispered, "that Khi learned every skill he possesses from Rubi, and that she imparted to him every ounce of knowledge that a male Dears can learn from a female teacher. She taught him in the most effective way that she could, and only his fellow, female pupils could have possibly learned more from her. You have met them both in the past, I believe." Curiosity suddenly sparkled in Natsuki's eyes, and the Watcher noticed, and smiled. "Miu, Ayu and Khi are something of a triumvirate, in-terms of the skills they possess, and the level to which they have perfected those skill sets. They are by far the very best students Rubi has ever produced… each utterly unique in their own, special way."

"Miu, and Ayu…were Rubi's students too?" Natsuki's mind boggled at the prospect, but it made perfect sense to her that they had all had the same teacher, in a way. Looking back, there were so many similarities between the three of them… and she'd gotten along with them all so well… they'd each made her their friend so effortlessly that she hadn't thought to step back, where she might have noticed the glaring parallels the three of them shared.

"Indeed they were," Fina said with a giggle that gave away her own fondness for the three of them, "Although they were not aware that they were all her apprentices, because she instructed them separately, on an individual basis. This is the way she teaches all her students, and because of it, she was able to forge them into what she believes to be the three most perfect slaves of their generation. They each acquired a very different skill set from her teachings, making them equally unique individuals," the Watcher confided as the swirling panel scanning Natsuki finally completed its task and packed itself up, before hurtling back to its larger parent machine and seeming to integrate itself into the controls.

"Khi was Rubi's favourite student, and when I slumbered for the longest time and she began to loose hope that I would ever awaken, she turned to Khi in frustration and despair, and he became what you might call her rock. She leaned on him in her time of need, and he supported her while she cared for the community as best she could. That was what he was trained for, you see… While Miu became the model housewife and mother-figure, Khi was trained to be the perfect companion. These were skills that each of them naturally possessed, and Rubi's specialised training allowed these talents to emerge and nurture, until they were perfected. There is another talent they are all quite skilled at, of course…"

Fina's eyes twinkled at that remark, and she gave Natsuki a sidelong glance that was nothing less than conspiratorial, as though they were discussing some great secret… she quickly learned what Fina was referring to; "They are all extensively trained to be exceptional lovers… as I'm sure you can attest to Khi's proficiency," Natsuki blanched momentarily at the curtness of Fina's statement, and was beginning to wonder as to the depth of the elder DearS' knowledge of their relationship when the Watcher spoke again. "In that regard it is Ayu who is best of them, and her charisma makes this her greatest skill… But it is Khi who possesses a quality that puts him head and shoulders above his fellow students. He has an almost pathological need to help others, in any way he can, and this allows him to be a natural companion – his greatest skill is being his master's best friend."

Before Natsuki could comment on the statements Fina had just made, the machine on the wall began to hum deeply, so much so that she felt the vibration in the marrow of her bones. Then, as she looked on, a glowing orb appeared before Fina's outstretched hands, and an object seemed to materialise from within it. Slowly, the dim, pulsing light began to dissipate, leaving a thing in the Watcher's grasp that was made of the same familiar multipurpose metal that the DearS seemed to use for everything. It was smooth, Natsuki saw, it curved in just the right way, and looked suspiciously like it might fit her forearm from the elbow to the wrist perfectly; near the top of it, there rose out of the metal a single, familiar silver triangle, with a name inscribed into the pinkish alloy in bold, chromed kanji below a silver stud – 'KHI'.

Natsuki straightened herself up as Fina stepped toward her again, and the Watcher proffered to her the object in her slim, dainty hands. "This is your Master's Brace, Natsuki-san," Fina said softly, with a seriousness that was not lost on Natsuki, "I entrust this to you, as I entrust you with the member of my flock who is most beloved to all of us. I give you my most solemn promise, as the Watcher of my Community, that the slave who has chosen to serve you will do so to the best of his abilities. All I ask is that you take the best care of him that you can, and that in-turn you might allow him to care for you, for as long as he might live. Will you give me your promise, that you will do these things?"

"I give you my word," Natsuki answered with equal seriousness, and allowed Fina to place the brace on her left arm; it was warm as it touched her skin, and much lighter than she expected it to be; the bottom edges stretched themselves around her arm as it came to rest, until they met and melded together, enveloping her forearm in a snug and comfortable fit. She nodded as the Watcher stepped back and smiled warmly, as though welcoming her to the fold; as though to reassure her, Natsuki said, "I would love him anyway, because I always have, and regardless of what lies ahead of us, I can promise you that I always will."

"Thank you, Natsuki-san," Fina said to her, and grinned at the sight of the girl glancing back toward the meeting room; her heart leapt at the thought of being reunited with Khi again, and Fina smiled at the obvious elation in the girl's eyes. "I am confident that you will," the Watcher confided, "because your Gift would not be possible otherwise. It is my belief that Khi could not have chosen a more perfect master to serve."

Natsuki turned to the Watcher and bowed deeply, in thanks for the compliment. In the background the machine began humming again, which immediately grasped the Watcher's attention, if only for a second. "Unless you would like to discuss any other concerns," Fina said with a smile, "I believe Khi is waiting for you. You should return to him." It was not at all lost on Natsuki that Fina was suddenly distracted, but did not wish to be rude to her guest; "…I think my concerns have been laid to rest," she replied, deciding to make herself scarce, "If I have anything else I want to talk with you about, I'll get Khi to arrange something. Would that be okay?"

Fina simply smiled again. "Of course. Please do not feel yourself a stranger, Natsuki-san; you are a most welcome audience here. I can arrange for you to be present when next I speak with Lady Io, if that suits you? I'm sure you would like to speak with your brother, yes?"

Natsuki's brain suddenly stalled at that – it was almost as though Fina had read her mind again, and reminded her of the one thing she had forgotten. "Y-yes… I'd like that very much. When will you speak with the ship next?"

"Io and I communicate frequently, so I speak with the ship at least once every fourteen Earth days. The next communication is scheduled for a few days' time. I will be sure to have Khi inform you a day in-advance."

"Thank you, and thanks for your hospitality," Natsuki said earnestly, bowing again. "I promise I'll take good care of Khi." Fina nodded, and smiled again. The elder DearS' good-natured smile was infectious, and Natsuki felt her heart lift a little every time she saw it. No wonder Khi was always happy at the thought of seeing the Watcher. Softly she felt something tugging her in the direction of the Meeting Room, and turned that way almost unconsciously. "Khi's heart-sense is calling to you," Fina muttered as she returned her attention to the machine embedded in the wall, "He is concerned for his master. You should go to him."

She hadn't heard a better excuse to give the Watcher her space yet, so Natsuki chose to take her leave and see herself out. The two said their goodbyes, and as the girl concentrated on remembering her manners and resisted the urge to run back to Khi as fast as her legs could carry her, she didn't notice the new ball of light that appeared in the Watcher's hands.

- X - o - XoXoX - o - X -

Khi rose to greet his master as she returned to the Meeting Room, and immediately bowed from the waist at the sight of her new trinket; almost in response, she saw a chain of light flicker briefly between the link on her brace that bared his name, and the link that adorned his collar, before it disappeared again. Perhaps this was what Fina had meant when she'd said that the Brace gave a physical form to their link. She didn't quite know how best to respond to the sudden surge of formality, though, so she took up his hand again, and decided to go with the flow – final order of business being to address a certain Barker, to whom she was now fairly certain she owed an apology.

"I'd like to thank you, for the effort you must have gone through to have trained Khi so well," she said, turning to face the surprised DearS instructor, "I appreciate the pride you have in your students, and that you're still worried for Khi even though he's not your pupil anymore. That you accept me as a suitable master for your finest student is a great honour. I'd also like to apologise to you… I made assumptions about you and your methods of teaching because of what happened with Ren and my brother, and it was unfair of me to do that. I jumped to conclusions, and in retrospect, I believe I may have misjudged you. Please forgive me for this."

Rubi couldn't help but feel a little confused, and slightly awestruck as the young girl bowed respectfully to her – she had never heard of a master apologising for anything, especially to a Barker… perhaps the promising young girl before her was not the only one to have fallen pray to preconceived notions of prejudice. "Thank you, Ikuhara-san," Rubi answered, "It is most gracious and… humble of you to say so…" Still somewhat shocked by the sudden turn of events, Rubi couldn't think of anything else to say, and bid them farewell as the pair turned to leave, still hand-in-hand. As the outer doors closed, down the distant end of the hallway, the Barker heard merry laughter from the doorway behind her, and turned to see her Watcher standing there most serenely… and baring a new decoration of her own. This was most irregular…

"She is a startling child, isn't she? I do not believe I have seen you so surprised since I reawakened, when Ren realised her potential as the Gate," Fina said with some mirth as she returned to her seat, but did not sit; instead she held out a hand to her Head Barker, who took it with a look that was inexplicably happy, if slightly confused. "Fina-sama… I don't… understand. Is that—"

"It is, Rubi," the Watcher stated with a smile, and it most certainly was – it was easily as complex as the child's, likely moreso, to the Barker's eye; it was larger, far more like a piece of armour, encasing most of the Watcher's arm, and was fairly more impressive than those that adorned the Honour Wall. It was a Master's Brace fit for a Watcher, and Rubi knew instinctively whose name it bore; the Earth's population DearS had grown into a stable colony now, after all, and soon her position as Head Barker would demand she begin moulding a new group of Dog-types from a special few of Japan's first native generation of DearS, to bolster the thinning ranks that protected and enforced order in the community, just as her subordinates in Earth's other communities would do the same on a smaller scale.

But training so many new pupils at once would not be easy with her distinctive teaching method, for she was an instructor who specialised in training unique Sheep-type slaves of great personal skill and sexual prowess – she was not naturally a Barker who took apprentices and trained new Barkers. That change alone would place great stress on her; that she would have to train several groups of students at once meant she would have to alter her training technique, and her students would need to be protected from the anxiety it caused her, lest she unleash her frustrations on them. For that safe-guarding of her students, she would need someone to ensure her own sexually-aggressive nature would remain in-check, and focused away from her pupils.

Traditionally, such a role was filled by a power higher than the Head Barker, one who commanded her respect and to whom she ultimately answered – her own natural master-figure, her Watcher. But that did not mean it was any less of a surprise to her, that Fina had motioned to enslave her favourite subordinate to her will, to pre-emptively prepare for this change and ensure the safety of the flock. And it was nothing less than a welcome relief, that her Watcher had at last officialised the age-old arrangement that had existed between them for so very long.

"Come now, Rubi," Fina whispered with a gentle smile, "I grow weary… it would be best for us to retire, I think…"

"Yes, of course," the Barker replied softly, rising to her feet; she knew that her Watcher would only truly rest once certain… needs had been satisfied, and she would be only too happy to apply herself to the task, just as she had so many countless times before; in many ways she had always been her Watcher's slave, and as Fina began moving back toward her bedchamber, towing her along, Rubi felt herself tingle with a sense of completion, a shiver of fulfilment she had long-taught her students to seek, never having dreamt of knowing it for herself, and whispered, "As you wish, my Master..."

- X - o - XoXoX - o - X -

Khi stepped out of the backseat as their car arrived back at the apartment, and recognised their visitor instantly – he was their visitor, for it was only themselves that this man would have come to see. By the Watcher, he thought to himself, this will not end well… For a moment he ignored the man, and turned bodily to take his master's hand as she climbed from the vehicle.

Natsuki's face plummeted the moment she laid eyes on their 'guest', despite Khi's best and almost-subtle attempt to block him from her sight. She had made it very clear to her mother, on the day she'd moved into the apartment, that her father, Ikuhara Takezou, was not and would not ever be a welcome guest in what was now her home. To her credit Natsumi had silently agreed with her, and had resolved to do her best to stop her husband from finding an excuse – any excuse – to harass their daughter about her friendship with Fina's favourite mild-mannered mediator.

Gods-dammit, she'd kick Oihiko's ass into next month if he had even so much as thought about opening his mouth…

"Whadda you want?" She spat as she stalked past the man who occasionally deigned to remember he was her father, towing Khi behind her by the hand as they headed for the stairs that lead up to the apartment. Khi remained silent, and did his best not to let the man catch his eye – probably for the best, given the circumstances.

"Don't be rude to your elders, Natsuki," Takezou told his wayward child with a grin, "It's shameful of you to address your father that way."

"What do you want?" Natsuki suddenly whirled on the spot, and almost pulled Khi off his feet. Silently she handed him the apartment keys from her pocket, and he wisely left them to it; if she hadn't come inside in a few minutes, he resolved to call her mother. Otherwise they would stand there for hours and he would smile that sickening, mildly-amused smile while she stood there and verbally tore chunks out of him, and generally made a fool of herself for his amusement. Khi had realised some time ago that there were several very good reasons for Natsuki's hatred of her father, and the trouble with Takeya-sama and Ren-sama was only one of them. And after hearing first-hand the way the man had allowed his 'research team' to treat China and the other Zero Numbers – he could only describe some of their accounts as horror-stories – it had become increasingly clear to him that Ikuhara Takezou was not a good person in even the very vaguest of ways.

"The only reason you have ever come to this apartment is to cause trouble for its occupants!"

He heard his master scream at the man from the bottom of the stairway, and knew that if action was not taken swiftly, this would go on for quite some time. Luckily, he did not have to wait long for a solution to present itself, for at that moment, the telephone rang. He picked up the receiver, asked who was calling, and breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that certain, familiar voice on the other end of the line.

Takezou remained utterly nonchalant in the face of his daughter's rage. She really was blowing this completely out of proportion…

"Last time you were here you had Onii-chan arrested, for abusing a DearS of all things," Natsuki ranted at him, the fact that he seemed completely unconcerned only infuriating her further, "And all so you could get your hands on Ren and send her into space! Either you tell me what you're doing here, or I'll call Mom, and then I'll call the police. So talk – NOW!"

"I heard a rumour that my daughter was following in her big brother's footsteps," Takezou smiled, "So I decided to come see if it was true for myself. Can't blame your old man for being curious, can you?"

So that's what this is all about, she thought, Yet again, he's poking his damn nose where it doesn't belong!

Damned if she was having any of that.

"Yes, as it happens I can! The last time your infamous curiosity lead you here, you had my brother - your son - wrongfully-imprisoned, and then you convinced an innocent DearS that she was going to murder the human race! And then you tried to launch her into orbit on the front of a damn space shuttle! So you can take your damn curiosity and stick it where the sun doesn't shine!"

"Everything my research team did was for the greater good, Natsuki. I acted with the best intentions—"

"Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the 'best intentions', you moron! All you did was give Io another reason to wipe us out! You can't justify what you did! You're not welcome here, dammit!"

"You're being unreasonable, Natsuki. You're also being very rude… again. You really should show some respect for your father, young lady."

"Oh, sure I will – when you stop being such an arrogant asshole, and start showing some respect for other people! Get lost, dad! Don't make me say it again, and do not come back here before Onii-chan comes home!"

And with that, she turned and stomped up the stairway, and into the apartment. She slammed the door behind her, forcefully, and slumped against it. Khi appeared in the doorway of the living room after a moment, with the phone handset in his hand. "Natsuki-sama, Harumi-san is on the line for you. She wants to know if you'd like her to come and collect Ikuhara-san." Natsuki only nodded, and Khi disappeared back into the living room, before returning a moment later, without the handset – her mother was on the way. "Harumi-san says that she will be here in a few minutes," Khi told her, smiling cautiously, "She says that she is very sorry for your father's interference, and asked me to pass on her assurances that she will not let him bother you again…" Natsuki looked up at the sound of the hesitance in his voice; her gaze was enough that he knew better than to not continue with relaying the message her mother had asked him to pass on. "She… she also extends her congratulations to you on our Binding, and says that she will stop by once she has… dealt with your father."

In exactly three strides and one, single deft movement, Natsuki crossed the kitchen and embraced him, before burying her face in the side of his neck. Khi returned her hug, and did his best to support her; he wasn't entirely sure of how best to deal with her when she was like this, so upset and very obviously disturbed in herself. Arguments with her father, few-and-far-between as they occurred, always seemed to leave her drained… he hated to see one such as his master, a strong and confident individual, rendered so utterly vulnerable. It reminded him how delicate her emotional state was on the inside, behind her rough-and-ready exterior, and it scared him. But it also gave him hope, because it meant that as much as he needed her, she also needed him, and to know that filled him with the warmest kind of joy imaginable.

"Perhaps we should sit down, Natsuki-sama," he whispered to her, "Today has been long and tiring for you, and if I may say so, I think it would be good for you to rest…"

Slowly he led her into the living room, and toward a huge and comfortable beanbag, her favourite seat. He allowed himself to sink into it, and softly guided her down to rest in his lap where she promptly curled up, head still tucked against the crook of his neck; in seconds she had wrapped her arms around him, and fallen asleep in his embrace as he rested a hand gently on the top of her head. It really had been a long and stressful day … and perhaps a little sleep wasn't such a bad idea for either of them.

It was sometime later when Khi heard the front door open softly – he couldn't be sure exactly how long, he had dozed off himself – and he smiled, wiping his bleary eyes free of sleep, as Harumi stepped in.

"Thank you for coming, Harumi-san," he said softly, careful not to wake his slumbering master, "I do not think a further confrontation with Ikuhara-san would have ended well. Natsuki-sama can be violent when she becomes upset, as you well-know… and Ikuhara-san only ever seems to make her furious… If I may say so, it was not wise of him to come here like that."

"I know, Khi…" Harumi sighed, and smiled at the sigh of her daughter sleeping peacefully in her new companion's lap – it reminded her of when Natsuki was just a little girl, when she would throw the most horrendous tantrums, only to pass out from all the blood rushing to her head so suddenly. It was always terrible while it was happening, but she always looked so adorable afterward… "Thank you, for taking care of her. My husband won't be a bother to you any further. And if he does come wandering back–"

Harumi took a moment to fish around in her handbag, and crossed the room to hand the DearS a small business card,

"—You can call me anytime on this number, Khi. If for some reason I'm not able to deal with it, I'll contact DearS headquarters and ask Lady Fina to send Xaki to detain my husband until I'm able to collect him. She was happy enough to send him once before, and said she'd do it again if I asked her."

"…Xaki-sama?" Khi was shocked; the head of the Biter Corps seemed a heavy-handed choice to deal with a one-man annoyance. Xaki was known, notorious even, for his violent approach to his assignments – he remembered vividly how the Biter had once torn through this very apartment like a hurricane, destroying the front door quite effortlessly. Still… Khi could see Natsuki being satisfied with that approach in dealing with the hassle her father occasionally caused. "Thank you, Harumi-san. I'm sure Natsuki-sama will find that acceptable. I will tell her you were kind enough to call by when she wakes up."

Harumi nodded, and smiled again as her daughter shifted in Khi's arms, mumbled incoherently in her sleep, and tightened her embrace of him. "I knew the two of you would come together some day… woman's intuition, I suppose you could call it," Harumi told him, "The two of you were so close, it just seemed a natural progression of your friendship. You'll serve her well, I think, and she will take good care of you…" Natsuki's mother seemed to stare at her daughter with a loving smile. "I looked forward to hearing that you two were together, however it might happen, because it would make her happy… and she hasn't been right with herself since Takeya left with Ren and Io. Now I look forward to the day when my son comes home, perhaps with a child of his own, so I can see them both smiling again…"

Khi thought about this for a moment before he could answer; parenthood was a new concept to most DearS, because the ways of their former host were still fresh in many of their memories. In their former host's society, to raise a child was a duty normally performed by the community as a whole, or by the breeder to whom the parent slaves belonged… it was rarely done by the DearS who had brought that child into the world in the first place. Indeed, many DearS were just now beginning to discover that their master not only valued them as a companion and lover, but also believed they should be able to partake of the joys and challenges that came with helping to raise the offspring that came of their union.

Natsuki believed herself too young and too immature to be a responsible parent, he knew; she thought herself very much unready for such a duty. She had discussed with him once, the prospect of Ren baring her brother's children, how it would make her an aunt… she had been unsure if she might be ready for even that responsibility. In contrast, though, she was adamant that Takaya-sama would rise to the challenge without fail, and would make a fine parent with Ren at his side.

"I imagine that it would not too much for a parent to ask," he finally answered, "that their children might grow to find happiness, and be able to see them enjoy it… We DearS are only now beginning to understand what it means to help raise the children we bring into the world with our masters, so I would not pretend to know… but we have always lived as a species who strive to inspire happiness in others, so perhaps that is the goal of being a parent, to raise one's child that they might find a happiness of their own, and share it with the world."

Harumi smiled at his words, he had made a rather poetic analysis of it all, as only he could… it was only a shame that her husband couldn't see his own children in the same light sometimes. "I think I'll leave you to it now, Khi," she whispered, "She'll be asleep for a good while longer, I think…"

"Of course, Harumi-san. I'll tell her you dropped by. Would you like me to ask her to call you, when she wakes?"

Harumi nodded, and thanked him for his thoughtfulness before she took her leave of them. Khi wouldn't say he was happy to see her go, he had always felt welcome in her company. But Natsuki would feel awkward, to wake up and find they had a visitor, and he was sure she could do without the added stress. Quietly, he heard a car start up and pull away outside; Natsuki stirred against him again at the sound, but didn't wake, and he snuggled down to join in her contented slumber.

- X - o - XoXoX - o - X -

Hours later, after the sun had set on their first busy day home, Natsuki sat with her hands splayed out behind her, legs warming under the kotatsu as Khi, still in his 'normal' DearS attire from their earlier visit to Headquarters, finished washing up their dishes in the kitchen; she had wanted to help, but he had insisted that she need not exert herself, so instead she had finished unpacking their belongings from the trip, before settling down to watch the TV.

Before dinner, Khi had told her of the discussion he'd had with Rubi, in which he had informed the Barker of their desire to visit Ayu sometime in the coming weeks, before summer ended altogether, and had enquired on the possibility. Rubi hadn't seen a problem with endorsing the trip – even the Community's favourite diplomat needed a vacation from time to time – and had promised to see to the necessary arrangements. He had elected to inform Ayu of their visit to Bousou himself, but had been warned that Fina would likely insist on saving him the trouble. Khi knew the Watcher never failed to seize an opportunity to catch up with those few DearS who had been enthusiastic enough to win the hearts of their human hosts, and Ayu was one of those DearS with whom Fina was thrilled to spend hours in animated conversation.

Ayu was one of the trail-blazers who had paved the way for the success of the DearS Community's settlement on Earth, adapting fluidly to her homestay community's costal way of life, and was a well-known face in the wider world too, a DearS icon to the masses like none before her, beloved to humans and her fellow DearS alike; what Natsuki admired most about her though, was how Ayu was so humbled by it, rejecting the lures of vanity and self-importance. People loved the way her enthusiasm was so infectious, that she could light up a room with her energy and charismatic grin, and even the sun seemed to shine more brightly when her laughter rang out across the beach from the volleyball court. They loved the way she made them feel more positive about themselves with just her mere presence, the way she strived to help strangers with no thought of reward.

Natsuki had only spent time with the sun-bronzed DearS twice before, and had been left with a lasting impression of Ayu's kind and energetic nature. It had been a great joy to her, to learn that she and Khi would be hanging out with the Community's resident beach-bum again soon enough; it would be the first visit to Ayu's homestay town for both of them, and Natsuki's first beach vacation since she'd been a child – it would be a great understatement to say she couldn't wait.

"Natsuki-sama, is there anything I can bring you from the kitchen before I turn out the light?" Khi's voice interrupted her reverie, and she gave him a casual shake of her head; silently he drew the kitchen curtains and flicked the light switch, before coming to join her at the kotatsu. The weather report on TV announced an expected drop in temperature in the coming early hours, and the thought of being wrapped warmly in bed with Khi brought a smile to Natsuki's face; the clock on the wall read 10:35pm, and it seemed at good a time, and excuse, as any to turn in for the night. They had nothing of importance to do the following day, and she looked forward to being able to spend a blissful, uninterrupted morning lying there together with him, beneath the covers.

Quietly they put away the kotatsu and turned off the TV, and Khi laid out the futon as Natsuki went to the bathroom to put herself through the familiar night-time ritual; reluctant to take off her new trinket, she resolved to shower in the morning instead of before bed, and then decided that perhaps a morning bath might be a better choice – she silently schemed to let him run it for her, knowing how he would insist, before proceeding to get him wet, and then insist that he join her in the tub. Gleeful at the genius of her next master-plan, she quickly undressed and slipped into her usual bed wear, an oversized tee-shirt that fell as far as her mid-thigh and sat baggily on her shoulders, before returning to the living room to find Khi, bizarrely, making space on the bottom shelf of the closet.

"What, exactly, are you doing?" she asked, mildly amused by the scene in front of her.

"I believe this apartment has a tradition of sorts," Khi said, his voice muffled by the fact that much of his upper-half was inside the closet, "All the DearS who have stayed here before me, from Ren-sama to China and Io-sama, have slept in this closet. I thought it might be improper of me if I ignored this tradition that Ren-sama began, and since Ren-sama's room must not be disturbed—"

"Stop, Khi," Natsuki blurted, cutting him off; she was on her back on the futon, her legs beginning to kick a little as she teetered on the verge of a giggle fit, and had to calm down before she could properly articulate herself again. In the meantime, Khi withdrew himself from the depths of the closet's bottom shelf, and noticed with a bright scarlet blush what his master was wearing for bed – and the fact that she was not wearing very much else for bed, particularly in the way of undergarments. His embarrassed gaze did not go unnoticed by her, and she reached for the triangle on his collar and pulling him toward her, before addressing him again; "Khi,"

"Yes, Natsuki-sama?" he asked, now even more red-faced than previously,

"I can tell you with absolute certainty that Ren only slept in the closet because my brother ordered her to sleep there, because he freaked out every time he thought about what Neneko would do to him if she came in here to wake him for school in the morning and found him in bed with Ren. China and Io slept in the closet because there was nowhere else for them to sleep."

"…Oh. I wasn't aware of this."

"Yeah, I figured that," she muttered, before peeling back the futon and getting to her feet. Then she reached for his collar again, tweaking it this time, and rendering him as bare as she was beneath her overly-large and very loose tee-shirt. "But despite the many ways I try to be like my brother," she said as she stared directly into his eyes from her hunched-over position, "I am in just as many ways not like him as he isn't like me. So shut up and get in the damn futon."

"Yes, Natsuki-sama," he said with as much placidity as he could muster, though she couldn't help but notice the glimmer of humour in his eyes as he said it. "As you wish,"

And as a very red-faced Khi clambered and tucked himself into the futon, Natsuki traipsed purposely across the room to turn out the light. There was a muffled *fwump* as she dropped to her knees in the dark and climbed in with him, on top of him, and Khi noticed very quickly that at some point between the light switch and the futon, she had shed her only night-garment. And as Natsuki pulled the covers down over their heads - on their first day home together - the last thing that anyone listening that night would have heard was a single, sultry giggle that suggested the night was far from over, for even as the day came to an end, it was really more of a beginning.

FIN


Author's Notes

So that's a wrap, folks! DearScon is officially finished. Please, please, please let us know what you though of it all, and particularly your impressions of the Master's Brace concept we came up with, and of the concept of a Watcher being able to 'enslave' her community's head Barker – if we ever get around to further-developing the other plots we have in storage for our DearS Project, we are going to use these ideas again, and we'd like to know what you think of them, how you reacted to them.

Below are some extended Authors' Notes, where I've scribbled my thoughts on a few things. Feel free to take a look!

On writing DearScon!

- I opted to take a different approach to writing this than the way my team normally operates on; we wrote DearScon in a normal, linear, chapter-to-chapter fashion, whereas normally we would have written it in a pre-mapped, scene-by-scene approach similar to that of our Digimon Tamers series, seen here at FF in the form of our collection of preview pieces, The Rematch.

- Writing this story in a more normal fashion caused some strain to certain members of the team; we find that our usual, non-linear writing style allows for a more relaxed and spontaneous approach to the creative process, letting us create pieces of the story as-and-when they come to us, regardless of where they take place in the story's chronology, and weave those pieces of the overall story together later when we reach the end of our story map.

- We resolved to write DearScon in a normal, linear way simply because it was to be posted, first-and-foremost, here on FF; with an expectant audience ever-waiting for the next chapter, we decided it might be more productive for us to write the story in a normal start-to-finish way, so we'd be able to post them up in the correct order once they were finished and given the once-over.

- This chapter-to-chapter method didn't exactly work out the way we expected, as we're solidly used to writing stuff in a very different way – I might write parts of chapter 8 while working on the story map for chapters 3, 4 and 5, for example, all while preparing to begin writing chapters 1 and 2 … and put the finishing touches to chapter 10. And then, when each individual piece of the story is complete, we sew the lot together to create a finished product.

- Some people might think that approach is a little chaotic, but it works for us, and we think it leaves us with a finished piece that is more refined in terms of the ideas, detail and imagination that were put into it. We think, now that DearScon has been finished, we're likely to go back to our normal way of writing stuff. Less stress, more abstract productivity!

- The ending to this story was far trickier to get right than I thought it'd be, particularly the meeting with Fina and Rubi; I don't know exactly why that gave me so much grief to get right, but it did; it might have something to do with the fact that this part of the story wasn't as properly-fleshed out as the rest of it, and also the fact that I had several different ideas for how to end it, which kept overlapping and generally interfering with one-another. I was also becoming overly-concerned (and I still am) with my conspicuous lack of progress on one of my team's major original projects during the writing of this epilogue, and I fear that perhaps my sense of coherence for this piece might have taken a blow because of that… I suppose that's a consequence of having several (large) projects running parallel to one-another… ¬_¬;

On writing the Epilogue

- The first scene of this epilogue, where Natsuki is sitting at the window of the apartment, was originally very different and was completely re-written late into the process of creating the chapter, when we realised that our narrative description of Takaya's apartment and its layout was completely wrong. We originally had Natsuki sitting just inside the front door while Khi prepared her a drink in another room which was supposed to be the kitchen.

- The principle idea of the scene was 'Khi makes Natsuki a drink in the kitchen while she sits in the porch, doing some thinking as she takes off her shoes.' Basically, I had in my head that the kitchen was in another room of the apartment, when in fact it's the very first room in the apartment – one would walk in through the front door and step right into the kitchen; there is then a toilet and a bathroom in small rooms on opposite sides of the kitchen. This is the actual apartment layout.

- One of the guys felt something was off about the layout that I'd first described, so he poked me to double-check the layout map of Takaya's apartment (extras of DearS Vol.5, pg.174, for those of you who have the manga), just to be sure; when I did that, I realised that the apartment as-is in the manga was effectively a one-room structure with a small entry hall that also doubles as the kitchen, and that the entire layout I had in my mind as I was writing the scene was completely wrong, so the scene had to be entirely re-written, more-or-less from scratch. Yeah, we epic-fail like that sometimes; we'd be kicking each-other in the ass for this kind of screw-up quite frequently, I'm sure, if we weren't all living several thousand miles apart in different countries around the world. To say we're glad that the error was caught before we published the piece is something of an understatement. I guess it's a result of our chaotic creative process, but it's a consequence we're used to and it doesn't happen very often, so y'know… ¬_¬;

- Also, I like the idea of Natsuki having a dreamcatcher over her window. Don't know why, or what inspired me to put that in, but I immediately thought it was a nice touch. Yes, yes, I know – I'm weird that way. But it's a cool touch, dammit! ^_^;

- This whole epilogue took so damn long to finish! No, really. It's all well and good to have a story map to guide you along when you get a little stuck, but when you know what needs to happen and you just can't find the words… I'm sure you all know what that's like… I am not ashamed to say that I was tempted to curl up in a corner and cry with frustration at some points while writing this. Yes – It got that bad.

Well, uh… that's pretty much it for my notes, and for DearScon! Hope you all enjoyed it, and hope you'll keep reading our stuff!

Peace out, people, and until next time, we'll catch you on the flipside.

Regards,

Hydroknight & Team Hydro