Are you my ally or my enemy
Do you have self-loathing or empathy
Can you keep me in your prayers, sister
Can you keep me in there somewhere, and sister
If you ain't got nothin' good to say
Don't say nothin' at all

-Indigo Girls


Part 11: Recoil


Chikaru was on her feet and dashing forward even before Hazuki could complete her collapse to the padded gymnasium floor. Her dear one had not cried out upon being struck, at least verbally, but her Souma had positively screamed at the impact of Kaname's naginata. Chikaru had to force back the wave of chill that swept through her as even from this distance she felt Hazuki's energy rapidly leaving her body.

Kneeling quickly beside the fallen girl, Chikaru assessed the damage at a glance. It was all too obvious from this close that Hazuki's neck was broken, but it wasn't until Chikaru was able to unbuckle her chest protector and place her hand against the still warm skin of the other girl's shoulder that she felt just how bad things were. Shattered vertebrae, and massive damage to the spinal cord: not a complete severing, but enough to stop her heart and lungs cold. Worse yet, her Souma was hissing out of her, rising like steam from her fallen form, and Chikaru could feel its warmth against her face as it escaped.

Even though she knew that this was precisely the wrong thing to do, she realized that time was short, and that as with so many things, the normal rules did not apply to either of them, so she quickly stripped Hazuki of her helmet, straightening her shattered neck in the process.

"Minamoto-san, what are you doing?!" came a voice from close by, as Kojima-sensei knelt opposite her. "For God's sake, don't move her!"

"I know what I'm doing, sensei," she said with more confidence than she actually felt. "I just need space. Please try to keep the others from crowding us." She then placed her hand at the base of Hazuki's throat and concentrated.

Her love's energy was making a valiant attempt to help her body recover by rushing to the area of the trauma and accelerating her healing, just as it did for any lesser injury, but the damage was simply too great, and Hazuki's Souma was not geared toward healing to the extent that Chikaru knew her own was. This in mind, she let her essence flow through the connection between them, trying not only to repair the damage, but to prevent any more of Hazuki's Souma from escaping. The first was difficult enough, but the latter was proving to be all but impossible, and Hazuki's own source of Souma was sputtering weakly with the effort. Time was very short.

"Everybody stand back!" Kojima-sensei shouted then, as a few brave souls among the club started moving in to try to get a look at what was happening. "Give her room to breathe, dammit!"

On the periphery, Chikaru was suddenly aware that Kaname was kneeling beside her. She had removed her helmet as well, and her skin was deathly pale and her eyes wide and glazed. "You're... you're healing her?"

"Yes, and you're helping," Chikaru snapped, reaching out with her free hand. She snaked it around the back of Kaname's neck and pulled her in closer, making skin-to-skin contact in the process. There was no time to ask politely, so she reached into the other girl and started pulling Souma. She felt Kaname reflexively resist at first, but then, perhaps sensing what was going on, she let go and allowed Chikaru to take what she needed. Chikaru would have liked to merge their sources, multiplying their energy in the process, but given that this generally caused a wave of Souma to sweep the immediate area (possibly even visible to the untrained eye), she did not dare try this yet. If things got desperate, of course, all bets were off, but as it was there was still a good chance that they could save Hazuki without revealing their secrets to the entire club.

Hang in there, my love, she whispered along the waves of energy passing between them. There was no reply, at least not in words, but she all but felt Hazuki's soul feebly caressing her own: even as hurt as she was, she was trying to assure Chikaru that she was still there, and still fighting. With this touch, the older girl felt her resolve double yet again. There was no way in Earth or Heaven that she was going to let her dear one slip away.

"Minamoto-san, she's not breathing," Kojima-sensei said flatly.

"I know, sensei," she nodded, keeping her mind on task.

"Minamoto-san, either do something or move out of the way so I can!" the instructor barked.

"I've got this, sensei," she said through gritted teeth, struggling to keep her voice quiet enough to not be overheard by the crowd. "Just trust me for a few moments more. She's not as hurt as she looks." The last part was largely a lie, but she needed to buy time for the Souma to do its work. Three floods of energy - one of fire, one of water, and one of something warm and thick like blood - converged on the spot of the injury, fusing bone, healing tissue and, most painfully of all, stitching together the lacerated nerves. It was agony for both of them, but there was no turning back now.

Suddenly, Hazuki gave a violent twitch and took a huge, gasping breath. The unexpected motion nearly made Chikaru lose hold of her, but she kept her hand where it was and continued acting as the conduit between their three flows of energy. With a thrill of relief, she felt a pulse beneath her fingertips as Hazuki's body continued to fight. Just like that, the energy that had been leaking from her ceased its egress, and her source went from a flicker to a weak but steady outpour. Chikaru relaxed the pull on Kaname then, and let her hand slip from the other girl's neck.

"Looks like she just had the wind knocked out of her," Chikaru said in a louder voice, giving what she hoped was a convincing sigh of relief. "There may be some concussion, of course."

"We'll get her to the infirmary," Kojima-sensei nodded. She then turned a steely gaze on Kaname. "Well don't just sit there, dammit! Go get a stretcher!"

"Right," Kaname said in a broken whisper as she rose from her crouched position, still staring down at Hazuki. After a few moments, she tore her eyes away and took off running.

At that moment, it was as though the entire room let out the breath it had been holding, and the air became filled with soft, concerned voices as the gathered members of Kachou Kamen at turns wept, reassured and worried.

The rush of adrenaline was beginning to wear off, but Chikaru kept her hand at the base of Hazuki's throat, still sharing as much energy as she could. They were past the worst of it, but Chikaru could tell that Hazuki was still in excruciating pain. As best she could, she bade her friend to let herself rest and heal. There was no need for her to come back to consciousness yet: not until it became something closer to bearable.

Chikaru opened her eyes then to see that Kojima-sensei was still crouched opposite her, and was giving her a searching look. "Minamoto-san," she said, pitching her voice quietly enough that only Chikaru would hear, "you must realize that I won't be satisfied without a damned good explanation for whatever the hell just happened."

"Yes, sensei, I realize that," she nodded, meeting the instructor's steady gaze with one of her own.

In spite of Kojima-sensei's explicit instructions for the rest of the naginata team to get dressed and return to their dorms, most of them only complied with the first of these instructions before making their way variously toward the infirmary in a somber procession of twos and threes. One such trio came in the form of an unnaturally quiet Kizuna, Remon and Kagome.

At least, thought Remon, the Kizuna part of the silence was unnatural. She was used to Kagome being quiet, but Kizuna looked positively shell-shocked as they crossed the campus together. "Hey, Kizuna-chan," Remon said quietly, desperate to fill the space somehow.

Her roommate did not answer: she merely walked on, wringing her hands. Remon took a deep breath and sighed. "She'll be okay, Kizuna-chan," she tried to assure the other girl. "Hazuki-senpai's as tough as they come."

"What if it's my fault?" Kizuna asked suddenly.

Remon blinked twice, then shook her head quickly. "Wait, what? How could this be your fault?"

Kizuna turned wild eyes toward her. "Maybe it's because of the honk," she said in a low, tremulous voice. "It might have put her off her game. Maybe while they were fighting, she saw me, and remembered the honk, and it distracted her long enough to..."

"To what?" Remon frowned. "Kizuna-chan, unless you can think of a legitimate cause-effect relationship between a boob grab and a broken naginata, I call bullsh!t. Now stop it."

They walked on in continued silence, though Remon noticed that Kagome had taken Kizuna's hand.

"She took a pretty hard hit," Kizuna said at length. "I hope she doesn't lose her memory."

Remon rolled her eyes. "Now you're just being ridiculous."

The waiting area of the infirmary was generally not meant to hold more than half a dozen people, but somehow the members of Kachou Kamen managed it. Other than Chikaru and Kojima-sensei, no one else was allowed to join the nurse and patient in the medical suite, at least until a panicked-looking Tamao and Nagisa arrived, and Tamao was almost immediately brought inside. No one saw fit to question this.

Kaname remained in the waiting room, sitting with her head bowed, staring fixedly at the floor. Part of her wondered if she should have stayed with the others at Hazuki's side, but it just didn't feel like her place. Hadn't she done enough already? Chikaru obviously had things in hand, and with Tamao there now, they'd probably be using some of their coven magic to fix everything while the adults marveled at the speed of the recovery.

At least, Kaname hoped this was what was happening. She didn't want to consider the alternative: that she had maimed or crippled someone who had, in spite of everything, become perhaps the truest friend Kaname had ever known. She thought back to the previous semester, and the endless string of dark thoughts she'd directed at her perceived enemy. Was she belatedly getting her wish? Had part of her wanted this after all?

As though reading her mind, a voice cut through her reverie. "So! Now are you satisfied?"

Kaname looked up to see Yaya standing in front of her, arms crossed and feet planted in a defiant stance. She was accustomed to seeing hostility from the girl by this time, but the expression Yaya wore here was nothing short of murderous. Tsubomi stood beside and slightly behind her, with one hand on her senpai's sleeve. "Yeah, I'm talking to you," Yaya snarled. "Are you happy now?"

"Do I look happy?" Kaname heard herself say.

"Yaya-senpai, please," Tsubomi whispered, pulling on the older girl's arm. "Not here."

Yaya, however, either didn't hear her kohai, or simply didn't care. "Don't you dare give me that distressed act," she frowned, shaking her head. "You wanted this all along, and you know it. You may have everyone else fooled - hell, you may even have Hazuki-senpai fooled - but not me. I know what you are."

"Well, that's great, Nanto-san," Kaname sighed, returning her gaze to the floor. "Since you've got it all figured out, maybe you could clue me in sometime."

"Don't look away from me!" Yaya shrieked, and now both Tsubomi and Nagisa were restraining her. "You just won't quit until you ruin everything, will you?"

"Yaya-senpai, you should stop now," came a tiny voice, and a small hand appeared on Kaname's knee.

Just like that, everything did stop, as all eyes went to the diminutive form of Kagome, who was now sitting at Kaname's side. The Lulim second-year was staring unblinkingly at Yaya, whose face was now a mask of shock.

Her voice barely over a whisper, Kagome continued. "Can't you see that she's hurt, too?"

There was a long, thick silence, and then Yaya shrugged off Tsubomi and Nagisa and stalked away across the small waiting room. Kaname looked to the tiny girl sitting beside her, uncertain of which surprised her more: that someone had come to her defense at all, or that it was Byakudan Effing Kagome. For her part, Kagome patted Kaname's knee and stared at her expressionlessly.

The tense silence did not last for long, though, as the door leading to the patient rooms opened, and Chikaru, Tamao and Kojima-sensei stepped out into the waiting room. Chikaru looked around at the assembled group and smiled wearily. "She's going to be fine," the Lulim president said without preamble. After pausing to let the room sigh with relief, she went on. "The nurse wants her to stay here overnight, just to be safe, but she's all but recovered already. There doesn't appear to be any concussion or nerve damage." Here, her smile deepened. "And of course, being who she is, she wanted to make sure to turn this into a teachable moment, so she asked me to remind you all that this is why you need to always be aware of the condition of your equipment."

"Now do like I told you before and go to your dorms, damn it," Kojima-sensei growled. "Go on, shoo. Clear out."

Murmuring quietly to one another as they went, the team members did as their sensei asked and slowly filtered out of the room. Kagome gave Kaname's knee one last gentle pat before she joined Remon and Kizuna, and Kaname was vaguely aware of Nagisa and Tsubomi very deliberately placing themselves between her and Yaya as the three of them left together.

Kaname herself made no move to leave, though. All she could do was sit there, once more staring fixedly at the tiled floor.

Hazuki was going to be okay. Kaname knew that she should be relieved, but she was too numb for even that. Maybe she'd just stay here until they threw her out; at least then she wouldn't have to deal with any of the others. She didn't think she could face Chikaru or Tamao right now.

As was so often the case, though, Chikaru had other plans. She knelt before Kaname and took her hands, making a point to put herself into the older girl's field of vision. "She wants to see you," Chikaru said quietly, and a wave of Souma came through their joined hands. At this, Kaname looked up and met Chikaru's eyes. There was neither reproach nor accusation in her expression, and in some ways that was almost worse. Behind her, Tamao still looked rattled, but she seemed to be calming down.

When Kaname said nothing in reply, Chikaru squeezed her hands again, then stood up, put her arm around Tamao's waist, and ushered the younger girl toward the door.

"Minamoto-san," Kojima-sensei called after her, "I'm still going to need an explanation. You know that."

"I know, sensei," Chikaru replied. "And you'll have one, I promise."

Kaname watched them go, then once again hung her head. Hazuki wanted to see her? Somehow the idea of speaking to Hazuki was more terrifying than facing an army of dragons had been. What could she say?

After a long silence, Kaname realized that she was still not alone in the room. "So are you going to try to make me feel like crap too?" she asked.

"No," Kojima-sensei replied. "It looks like you've got that pretty well covered on your own. Azuma-kun doesn't blame you, for what it's worth, and neither do I."

"You don't?" Kaname asked, eyes going wide as she looked up at her former teacher.

The kendo sensei was staring at her, arms crossed. "No, Kenjō-kun, if there's anyone to blame for what happened today, it's me."

Kaname blinked at the woman in disbelief. "What?"

"Tell me something, Kenjō-kun. Do you know the real reason I dropped you from the kendo team?"

"For being a pain in the ass once too often?"

The sensei shook her head. "Because you were dangerous," she said in a hard voice. "Whenever you fought, it was something primal. You didn't just want to win: you wanted to destroy. You had zero discipline. As good as you were in competition, I knew I had to do something, because it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt, and hurt badly."

She stopped for a moment, as if waiting for Kaname to say something, but when no reply came, she went on. "At that time, I had a choice: I could do things the easy way or the hard way. I could kick you off the team, or I could do my goddamned job and make sure you learned something about how much is at stake every time you cross weapons with someone. I could try to teach that loose cannon a little bit about respect and discipline before she did something she'd have reason to regret."

Kaname stared at the woman, not certain she could believe what she was hearing.

"To my shame," Kojima-sensei continued, "I took the easy way, and decided that I just didn't want you to be my problem any longer. Today we saw what a good idea that was, didn't we?"

"I..." Kaname started, but she could not find any words.

"Fortunately, it looks like maybe you're starting to figure it out now," Kojima-sensei nodded, "and no one had to die for our mistakes. Yet. But something has to change, Kenjō-kun. Since this is going to go on record as an accident, I can't discipline you or force you into anything, but... I hope you'll think damned hard about what happened today, and I hope you'll give me a chance to make up for releasing you into the wild too soon. You know where my office is."

Kaname nodded slowly, still too numb to speak.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to give an official report to the administrators. No doubt this will be an exercise in creativity..."

Upon leaving the infirmary, Tamao found herself adrift: it was as though the combination of terror and relief had left her incapable of choosing her next action. She allowed herself to be steered back to the dormitory, and after a blurry sequence of images found herself in the safety of Chikaru's room. Here, she was gently guided to sit at her dear friend's desk while Chikaru herself crossed the small space to her wardrobe and began removing her fighting garb.

Tamao watched unblinkingly as the loose hakama pants slipped from Chikaru's legs and pooled at her feet, followed by the traditional long-sleeved jacket, leaving her dressed only in panties and a sarashi. Nagisa-chan had said something about a sarashi not long ago, hadn't she? It was difficult to remember for some reason.

Chikaru's deft fingers found where it was fastened, and the long strip of cloth binding her breasts quickly unraveled, falling in a spiral around her before joining the rest of the outfit on the floor. As Tamao went on staring, Chikaru stepped clear of the pile of cloth, then picked it up and tossed it into a hamper before opening her wardrobe and reaching for a clean uniform.

Somehow, Tamao found herself objecting to this course of action, though she could not articulate why, even to herself. "Chikaru," she called softly.

Fearless as ever, Chikaru turned to Tamao, making no effort to cover herself. "Yes, my darling?"

The tightness of the sarashi had left crisscrossing lines on her skin. For a moment Tamao could only continue to stare, while Chikaru waited patiently for a reply. "What are you doing?" Tamao asked at last.

"It's time for dinner, Tamao-chan," Chikaru reminded her. "I can't very well go to the dining hall in kendo attire."

Dinner. Tamao had completely forgotten about this. The standard Monday routine had become naginata practice, then a shower, then dinner. But that was only on normal days. "I'm not hungry," she said softly, though this was not entirely true.

Chikaru gave her a lopsided smile. "Neither am I, to be honest. Poor thing, you look exhausted. Shall we stay in, then?"

"Please," Tamao nodded. There was something else, though. Who had she just been thinking about? "Nagisa-chan," she said slowly. "I should tell Nagisa-chan where I am."

Chikaru hung up her uniform, took out a pullover shirt and flannel pajama pants instead, then handed a second set of bedclothes to Tamao. "She already knows, my sweet. Don't you remember? She told us she'd be spending the evening with Yaya-chan to try to calm her down, and then she asked me to take care of you."

Distantly, Tamao found herself proud of her Nagisa-chan: that was a surprising but welcome choice. Mature, even. It seemed a shame not to remember such a moment. Not that she could remember much of anything at this point: for some reason her mind was still awash with images of a glassy-eyed Hazuki pleading with her not to worry, and of an almost naked Chikaru who was now inexplicably covering up that lovely skin even as Tamao watched.

When Tamao made no move to get changed, Chikaru wordlessly pulled her to her feet, helped her out of her uniform and into pajamas, and then hung up the uniform on the door of her wardrobe. She then guided the both of them into her bed, where they settled beside one another, and for Tamao this was quite possibly the only thing all day that had made any sense at all.

For a long while, Kaname remained in the waiting room, not so much considering her next move as avoiding it. Eventually, though, she slowly rose to her feet, took a deep breath, and went through the door to the nurse's station. The woman in question was sitting at her desk, scribbling notes. She looked up to see Kaname, narrowed her eyes for a moment, then pointed to one of the doors to the patient rooms. Kaname nodded thanks, and then after taking yet another steadying breath, she went inside and closed the door behind her.

Hazuki had been allotted one of the more advanced rooms: rather than a simple cot, this one had an adjustable hospital-style bed, upon which the tall girl was lying in a semi-reclined position. Several wires snaked out from inside her gown, hooked up to machines which monitored her vital signs. Her eyes had been closed at first, but as Kaname stepped closer to the bed, they opened, and gradually focused on her.

For a long time they just looked at one another, but then Hazuki licked her lips and spoke in a rough voice. "Are you okay, Kaname?"

With those words, Kaname felt a familiar rush of annoyance, which at least gave her something to stand on. "Oh, for f*cksake, Hazuki, I just broke your goddamned neck, and you're asking if I'm okay? I think I liked it better when you hated my guts."

Hazuki frowned. "Would that help?"

"Maybe," Kaname snorted. "Could you at least have the decency to be mad at me?"

"Sure, one second," Hazuki nodded. She took a breath, then briefly bared her teeth. "Grr. Angry Hazuki is angry. Is that better? I'd give you more, but I'm afraid I'm on some pretty heavy-duty painkillers at the moment, and my Souma hasn't quite burned them off yet."

Kaname pulled up a chair by the bedside and sat down. "You're really not mad, are you?" she asked wonderingly.

"To be honest, I'm just glad you didn't hit me in the head. If they'd had to shave any of my hair off... well, that might have been unforgivable."

"Yeah, I don't think the butch look would suit you," Kaname smirked. She felt the expression fade, however. "Is there anything I can do?" she asked.

"Actually, there is," Hazuki replied. She then turned a dulled smile on her recent sparring partner. "Now will you tell me what's bothering you?"

Kaname looked down and saw that she was pulling nervously at her fingers, so she clasped her hands to stop herself. "That's... a long story."

"I'm not going anywhere," said Hazuki. "The nurse has my vitals on a monitor at her desk, and I'm not due for any more drugs, so until the shift change, we've got nothing but time here."

"Nothing but time," Kaname repeated softly. She wasn't sure how much she was willing to say to Hazuki, but she knew she needed to try. She owed the other girl that much, at least. "Tell me something."


"When did..." Kaname broke off, collected herself, then continued. "When did you figure out you were gay?"

Hazuki looked confused by the question, but answered all the same. "That... actually depends on which Hazuki you mean. The me from this world never really figured it out so much as lived in fear of the possibility. The me from elsewhere... well, I was fourteen, and Hatsumi and I were out watching the cherry blossoms fall. Kind of on an impulse, I hugged her, and... it was a thunderbolt moment. That was when I knew that I wanted more from her. I still didn't know what I wanted, exactly, but I knew it was more than sisters could have, adopted or not."

"Fell in love under the falling cherry blossoms, eh?" Kaname smirked again. "How very yuri of you."

"Well, I am a terrible lesbian, but I guess I had to make some concessions to the cliché. What in the world does this have to do with your so-called large amounts of suppressed rage, though?"

Kaname paused, again wondering how much she could allow herself to say. "Did you... ever have cause to... doubt being gay?"

"I... can't think of any sudden attraction to men, if that's what you mean."

"No, I mean... did you ever wonder if you were... I don't know, forced into being the way you are?" She immediately regretted the words, but there was no calling them back.

To her surprise, though, Hazuki pondered this for a moment, then nodded slowly. "The thought crossed my mind once in a while, sure. Kaname, the object of my affections was a self-described fertility goddess. After I found out what she was, there were plenty of times I found myself wondering if living with her had... made me equate that kind of love with femininity."

"Do you still wonder?" Kaname asked.

Hazuki shook her head a tiny amount, which appeared to be all she could manage at the moment. "Not since I came to this world. That may be one of the only good things about having two sets of memories: I don't just have my experiences with Hatsumi to fall back on. Based on what I went through in this world, it's pretty clear to me that I was never meant to be anything other than a lesbian."

Kaname nodded slowly, but then felt a chill as she remembered the description of Hazuki's self from this world, up to and including her suicide. Not for the first time, she wondered how anyone could live with those memories, and not for the first time, she remembered having taunted Hazuki with details of that past.

"Why are you asking these things, Kaname?" Hazuki said gently.

"Idle curiosity?" she replied, trying to sound flippant and failing.

"Look, even without the painkillers, I'm hardly in Chikaru's league here when it comes to coaxing things out. Just tell me what's going on."

Kaname looked up to meet Hazuki's eyes. "My father is trying to set me up in an arranged marriage with his boss's son."

"Oh," Hazuki said quietly. "Um... that's... interesting." A look of numbed shock then crossed her face. "Oh! Are you saying that... this is making you have doubts?"

Right conclusion, wrong reason. "Okay, before we go any further, let me just make something clear: I'm every bit of me a vagitarian. The only way you'll ever find a c*ck inside me is if I bite the f*cking thing off and swallow it whole."

Hazuki looked a bit taken aback, which actually made Kaname's smirk return. "Sorry, was that too much for your delicate ears?"

"Oh, no, I was just picturing what the x-ray would look like," Hazuki mused. "I liked the way you referred to it as 'the f*cking thing,' though. Very apropos."


"Not such a happy thought for your prospective husband, though, is it?"

"I'm not going to marry him," Kaname said forcefully. "That's not even a question, and I've already told my father so."

"Does he know that you're..?" Hazuki asked, making an idle gesture with one hand.

"He does now," Kaname snorted.

"Ah. I'm guessing he didn't take it well?"

"Not particularly. He blamed the school, and threatened to pull me out. I told him what he could do with his threats, and that was that."

Hazuki nodded along with the explanation, then narrowed her eyes slightly. "Except that wasn't that, was it?"

"No," Kaname sighed, looking down at her hands again. She then gave a rueful laugh. "You know, if anyone told me a couple months ago that I'd be talking to you about girlfriend troubles one day, I'd have told them to get themselves committed."

"What does Momomi have to do with it?" Hazuki asked, arching her eyebrows.

Kaname looked up at her and smiled mirthlessly. "She thinks I should do it."

"Do it? You mean, get married?"

"Yeah. She said that this is what we're destined for anyway, so if it's a chance to move up in the world, I should go for it, and let her be my mistress."

There was a long silence as Hazuki processed this. "I'm... not sure what to say."

"I guess it's what I deserve, really," Kaname said quietly. "It's not like I ever gave her any reason to think we were... meant to be permanent."

"It's not just going to be that, though," said Hazuki. "You know as well as I do what society expects of us. We're supposed to use one another for practice, and then grow up to turn our attention to men... just like God and nature intended." She gave a little smirk of her own as she said the last part, though the reference was lost on Kaname. "Maybe... Momomi just buys into that crap more than you and I do."

She left the rest unsaid, but Kaname could all but hear it anyway. Maybe Momomi's just using you for practice after all.

"I can see how it would hurt to hear that, though," Hazuki added after a pause.

"I'm not even mad at her, though," Kaname sighed. "If she knew what I know, she never would have said that."

"Then... what doesn't she know?" Hazuki asked delicately.

Kaname found that she was pulling at her fingers again. If she said this, there was no going back. Was she really willing to tell Hazuki something she hadn't told anyone else, particularly Momomi?

Before she could think about it any further, she spoke. "When I was nine years old, my father's boss raped me."

It was a long time before Hazuki said anything in reply. When she did, her voice was unnaturally calm. "Tell me, is this man still alive? Because that can be remedied."

It came as no surprise to Chikaru that sleep eluded her completely. As traumatic as the previous hours had been, and as much as her metaphysical efforts had been a strain, it was nonetheless early in the evening yet, and somehow the motion of that much Souma had charged her up more than it had drained her. Besides, it gave her the chance to focus on Tamao, and the slow, gentle exchange of energy between them: so different from the push and pull of the earlier healing.

Healing. No one was more shocked than Chikaru that those efforts had been as successful as they had. She had known (or at least guessed) for some time now that such applications of her energy were possible, at least in theory, but to have actually done it? And to have done it with so much at stake?

Truth be told, the implications were a little scary. Even if, as she suspected, she would only be able to affect those who already had Souma of their own, the sheer responsibility of it was... well, it was a lot different than being a wise counsel and a shoulder to cry on.

Rather than think about this, then, she returned her attention to Tamao. The younger girl was lying on her side, with her face nuzzled against Chikaru's shoulder and one hand draped across her middle, tucked just under the hem of her shirt: it was from this connection that their Souma flowed. Tamao had been a bit fidgety, as though having nightmares, and would periodically snuggle even closer, as much as that was even possible at this stage.

Then, accompanied by a murmur that sounded a lot like "Hazuki-chan," that hand began to move. As Chikaru watched (and felt) with what was almost a detached interest, Tamao's warm fingers glided along the lines of her lower ribs, then crept upward, until two fingertips brushed against the underside of her breast. Here, they stopped, and Chikaru wondered if they would be content with that.

Moments later, she got her answer. With fingers followed by palm, Tamao's hand gently closed over Chikaru's breast. Tamao herself smiled sleepily and made an "mmm" noise, and her face nuzzled even closer.

Well, then. It definitely wasn't the first time that someone had gone for the handful, but unless Chikaru was mistaken, this was the first time it had been skin to skin. She couldn't fault Tamao for seeking a bit of comfort after everything that had happened, certainly, though this was bold even for her. Nonetheless, she seemed content to simply rest her hand there and give the occasional gentle squeeze.

Nothing wrong with that.

After a few moments, though, those fingers began moving again, tracing first along the edges, and then making a slow spiral inward. She was barely grazing Chikaru's skin with her her fingertips now, and it was clear that she was no longer looking for comfort, but for a reaction.

As curious as she was to see what might come next, Chikaru decided it would be in both of their best interests to put a stop to this now. "Tamao-chan," she said gently, "I know you're not really asleep."

The hand immediately stopped.

In spite of herself, Kaname nearly laughed at Hazuki's implied threat. "Believe me, the thought of offing the old bastard has crossed my mind more than once."

"Does your father know that this happened?" Hazuki asked. "There's no way he would have proposed this if he knew, is there?"

Kaname looked up at Hazuki, finding herself darkly curious to see how she would react to the next part. "Oh, he knows about it. See, he set the whole thing up. He got a big fat promotion, and ol' Saiga got to fulfill his lolicon fantasies. It was a win-win situation. Saiga even made his son watch, so at least my future husband will know why I'm not a virgin."

For a moment, Hazuki went pale, and almost looked like she might throw up, but then her mouth set into a thin, hard line. "Right. Okay, patricide is a big deal, I get that. How about I just break his arms and legs?"

"You sure know how to cheer a girl up," Kaname deadpanned.

A look of concentration peeked through the stormcloud that was Hazuki's face. "Saiga... I feel like I should know that name..."

Kaname shook her head. "He's not your problem, and neither is my father. Look, I appreciate the support, but they're mine to deal with."

"I beg to differ," Hazuki scowled. "Fine, the suppressed rage makes a lot more sense now, but... if today was an example of how you intend to 'deal with' it?" She indicated the vital sign monitors, then tugged gently on one of the electrodes adhered to her chest. "You're going to have a hard time convincing me that it's not my problem, too."

"Look, I'm sorry for..." Kaname all but shouted, but she quickly deflated as she considered how ridiculously inadequate it sounded. Sorry for breaking your neck? Oops, my bad?

Hazuki seemed to deflate a little as well: she had been sitting up in the bed, but now she sank back into the pillows. Her face took on a curious, intent expression, and she raised her right hand and peered at it closely. She flexed her fingers very slightly, and looked at them like she'd never seen them before.

"What?" Kaname asked, simply.

"Not sure. Must be muscle memory of some kind."

"Wanting to grab your sword, eh?" Kaname chuckled.

"Didn't feel like a sword," Hazuki said, shaking her head slightly. She then lowered her hand back to the sheets and turned to Kaname, this time with a look of slowly dawning realization. "So... what you were saying earlier, about realizing when you were gay, and wondering if something made you that way? This was what you were talking about, wasn't it?"

Kaname let out another short, annoyed sigh. "Yeah. I mean, talk about your bad lesbian clichés, right? Raped and traumatized as a little girl, she grew up to be a man-hating lesbo. It almost sounds like a propaganda piece, doesn't it?"

"And you hate the idea that anyone could have made you gay, especially like that." Hazuki did not say it as a question, and for a moment Kaname found herself strangely impressed that the other girl had hit upon it so succinctly.

She considered nodding along and letting this be the end of the soul-baring, but somehow hearing the words spoken by someone else just made it clear how hollow they were. "That's the thing, though. I don't think anyone made me queer. I just... like women too much for it to have been that. I like everything about them. The look, the form, the feel... I mean... when you hugged Naoko-sama, and the light went on in your head... it was like it was meant to be that way, right? Like holding another girl was the most natural, perfect thing in the world, and you couldn't imagine ever wanting anything else. Right?" She looked up at Hazuki almost desperately, hoping the other girl would understand.

To her relief, Hazuki nodded. "That pretty much describes it, yeah."

"So... even if they did push me this way, somehow? Even if they somehow 'made' me want girls instead? Fine. In a totally f*cked-up way, they introduced me to something good, and I'll never look back. I am not going to grow out of this. So... the idea that anyone could turn me into a dyke... Hell, if that's true, they did me a favor. That's not the part that freaks me out. That's not what... scares me."

They were on the precipice now, and Kaname realized that if Hazuki asked the next question, she might not be able to answer it.

Unsurprisingly, Hazuki did so. "Then what scares you?"

That I let what they did turn me into the kind of person who could do those things to Hikari...

She couldn't do it. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

Instead, she told a different truth. "That they made me into someone who can't cope with her anger. Someone who got herself kicked off the kendo team for being out of control. Someone who tried to 'deal with' it with a weapon in her hands, and ended up breaking her friend's neck." Too late, she realized she'd used the f-word, but with everything else she was admitting to, that felt pretty minor.

Hazuki studied her carefully for a moment, then took the conversation in a direction Kaname could not have expected. "The Souma we have, you and I... it's different from the others'. You know about that, right?"

"The Guardian thing, yeah," Kaname nodded.

"Right. But... did you know that there's another name for what we are?"

"Um... no? What is it?"

Hazuki smiled, but there was no humor in it. "The Yami."

In spite of her customary bravado, Kaname could not suppress a shudder. "Darkness?"

"Exactly. Technically, the original Yami is long gone, and whichever Keeper wears his hat at any given time is the acting Yami, but... that's what you and I are, as well, along with everyone else who has our kind of Souma. And it's a damned fitting name, because every one of us has a dark side. We have to. We may be angels, in a sense, but... you said it yourself, once: someone has to do the dirty work."

"Oh, please. You? A dark side?"

"Do you think I was kidding when I talked about breaking your father's limbs earlier?" Hazuki asked, simply.

Kaname almost cracked wise, but then she saw the look on Hazuki's face. There was cold steel in those blue eyes, and Kaname was uncomfortably reminded of how many times she'd seen that look in the past. "Then you're a lot better at controlling it than I am," she said quietly, wondering how frequently she herself had given Hazuki cause to hold back.

"I have my moments," Hazuki said darkly, and this time she was the one who looked away. "Ask me about the Universal Garden sometime. Trust me; I've hit bottom more than once. I know all too well how dangerous it is to not take my Souma seriously."

At those words, Kaname found herself reminded of Kaori and Lilith, and she hoped that Hazuki was doing a good job teaching that lesson to Tamao.

"Anyway," Hazuki sighed, making a show of moving on with the conversation, "I'm not sure how much I can do, but if you need any advice, I hope you'll ask me."

"You know... Kojima-sensei talked to me before I came in, and... I can't be sure, but it sounded like she was offering to help."

"She probably was, then. She's been working with me, too. Maybe you should join us sometime?"

"You... you still want to spar with me?" Kaname asked, genuinely surprised by this.

"Well, sure, from a practicing-martial-arts point of view, or even a taking-out-aggressions thing to a degree. However..." She grimaced. "I'll sleep better tonight knowing that I'm not the one who made you angry enough to kill today, but... the sooner you learn to channel that, the better. It's one thing when we're fighting dragons, but..."

Kaname snorted, getting some of that bravado back. "You think we'll ever get to fight dragons again?" she asked.

"Well... I don't know about dragons, but... I've already volunteered to help with whatever it is that snuck into the Great Library while they were dealing with Kaori-san."

"Oh, really?"

"Mmm hmm. I guess you could say I'm on call."

"...And you'll come find me as soon as you hear that call, right?"

"I... didn't want to assume anything," Hazuki shrugged, but she gave Kaname a knowing smile as she did.

Kaname laughed at this. "You're a pain in the ass, you know that?"

"Better than a pain in the neck, I suppose."

There was a long pause.

"I'm sorry," said Hazuki. "Too soon?"

To her own surprise, Kaname stood up and leaned over the bed. It was an awkward position for a hug, made doubly so by the wires and Hazuki's restricted range of motion, but they managed it anyway. "Just say the word," she whispered roughly. "I've got your back."

"Likewise," Hazuki whispered in reply, holding the other girl as tightly as she could.

Kaname found that this, too, felt pretty damned close to perfect, even if the reasons were different.

Feeling very much caught in the act, Tamao slipped her hand out from under Chikaru's shirt. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"I'm not upset," Chikaru smiled warmly. "I'm just not sure what you were hoping to accomplish. Hazuki-chan will be out of the infirmary in the morning, my sweet, and I'm sure she'd be far more responsive to that sort of thing than I."

At the mention of Hazuki's name, though, Tamao felt her eyes fill with tears, as her earlier numbness cracked and shattered beneath the weight of her conflicting emotions. Chikaru was quick to wrap both arms around her and hold her as the first sobs came. "I should have been there," she wept.

"It's okay, Tamao-chan. You can't be there every moment: no one can."

"You don't understand," she choked out. "I should have been there, and any other week I would have been, but I wasn't! Because... because I was back in my room feeling sorry for myself about Hazuki-chan enjoying it when she got a hug from her first love!"

"Oh, Tamao-chan," Chikaru sighed, pulling her closer. "It didn't happen. She'll be fine."

"But what if it had happened? I'd never be able to see her again, or touch her again, and... and I'd have to carry this with me forever, knowing that I could have helped if I'd just... believed in her a little more."

"Tamao-chan, listen to me," Chikaru said in her most reassuring tone. "Yes, you're a functionally immortal vessel holding a piece of the power of creation itself. You're also a sixteen-year-old girl in your first major relationship. You're entitled to feel insecure now and again. The important thing is that you won't have to carry that with you forever, because Hazuki-chan is going to be okay."

Tamao nodded against her, but the self-recriminations were far from over. "And then I made it worse. I used you."

There was a pause, and then Chikaru actually started to giggle. "Oh, my sweet Tamao-chan, that's absurd. You've done nothing of the sort."

"But... but I touched you, when... I should have known better."

Chikaru gave a patient sigh, and pulled away slightly so that she could look Tamao in the eyes. "Honestly, do you think you're the only emotionally distraught young woman who's gone for the grope in this bed?"

"But... I should know better," Tamao repeated.

"Tamao-chan, let me say this plainly. I love you. And as someone who loves you, I'm more than aware of what a tactile person you are. In that, we're a lot alike: for me, touching is trust, and comfort. Now... there are certain things I can't do, Tamao-chan, and we've been over that before. But... all the same, if this body can give you comfort, then you're more than welcome to it." Her smile then twisted into its normal mischievous self. "Within reason, of course. The point is that I trust you."

"Even if I was trying to do something to break that trust?" Tamao asked, darkly.

"I'm still not upset with you," Chikaru said softly. "Though... I'm curious to know what you were up to?"

Tamao sighed and closed her eyes. "I'm not sure I know that myself. I think I was just... hoping you might... like it?"

"Well... I can't say it was unpleasant," Chikaru considered. "It was stimulating in its own way, but that's an area with a high concentration of nerve endings, so..."

"I'm sorry," Tamao repeated. "I should have known better. It's just that... when I'm with Hazuki-chan, when we're..."

"Making love," Chikaru supplied.

Tamao blushed at the fact that she hadn't even been able to use that phrase with Chikaru, of all people. "Yes, when we're together... I feel like I can fly. I'm not sure how much of it is physical, how much is emotional, and how much is Souma, but... I don't care. It's... glorious, and... I just wish I could show it to you."

"And with the fear of losing Hazuki-chan, the need to show me suddenly became that much more intense?" Chikaru asked delicately.

Once again, Chikaru had managed to get right to the heart of things, and dig out the truth that Tamao had not wanted to admit to herself. "I'm sorry," she said again.

Chikaru peered intently at her for a moment, then slowly sat up on the mattress. Then, to Tamao's profound shock, she grabbed the hem of her bedshirt and pulled it over her head and off. She settled once more at Tamao's side, reached out and gently took the younger girl's head in her hands, then pulled her close, resting the side of Tamao's face against her breasts.

"What... what are you doing?" Tamao asked in a tiny voice.

"Trusting you," Chikaru laughed, and with the ear that was pressed against her, Tamao could hear that laugh resonating inside her, along with the slow, steady beat of her heart. "Trusting that you know the difference between comfort and pleasure better than you think you do."

Tamao's throat had gone dry. She almost licked her lips out of reflex, but quickly realized that given her present position, she'd probably hit something else instead, and she didn't want to do anything to make this moment end. Slowly, gradually, she felt herself relaxing as she listened to the sound of the other woman's heart. The surprising intimacy of their position was turning out to be very comforting after all.

Nonetheless... "Um... Chikaru?"


"Is it okay if... I'm finding this just a teeny bit pleasurable?"

"I'd be disappointed if you weren't," Chikaru giggled, and the way she moved against Tamao was, for a moment, almost unbearably wonderful. "You know my boundaries, my sweet, but... it doesn't make me any less yours."

Smiling softly, and feeling herself almost encased in warmth, Tamao nodded against her and closed her eyes. "Thank you, Chikaru."

"You're more than welcome, my darling. Now rest."

It wasn't much longer before the nurse came in and made it clear that her patient needed to rest now. Kaname said her goodbyes, noting as she did that Hazuki suddenly looked very sleepy indeed. Maybe those painkillers were kicking in harder now that the conversation had come to an end.

To her surprise, Momomi was there in the waiting room, doing just that. Upon seeing Kaname, she stood up, took a couple of steps closer, then stopped. Kaname crossed the remaining distance, and for a long while they just looked at one another.

"Are you okay?" Momomi asked.

There was no annoyance in her voice, and no sarcasm: just genuine concern. Kaname took her lover in her arms, and they held one another tightly. "I don't want to marry him, Momomi," she whispered.

"Then don't," Momomi whispered in reply.

They broke, and Kaname again looked into her eyes, this time with no small amount of surprise in her own.

"Come on," Momomi said with a faded attempt at a smile. "Come back to our room and let me take you to bed. We can figure the rest out later."

Kaname closed her eyes. "I love you, Momomi."

Momomi once again stepped into her arms and held her, but said nothing more.

Only when she was certain that Tamao was asleep did Chikaru let out the metaphorical breath she had been holding. Things were getting to a dangerous place, and she was not certain how much longer she could walk this tightrope.

As good as it felt to cuddle Tamao against her bare skin like this, Chikaru knew that Tamao had wanted more, and she wondered now if this might backfire: if she might be giving the dear girl false hope that she was getting closer to being able to offer more. She had meant what she had said earlier, about trusting Tamao to know the difference between comfort and pleasure, but now that she and Hazuki were deeply involved in the latter, how much longer would they need the former?

She was running out of concessions to make, and the next one might hurt her loved ones deeply as she reached the limit of how much she could truly pleasure them. It was looking more and more like the desire she so desperately wanted to feel might never show up, and where would she be then? At what point would she be forced to admit that she was, for all her best intentions, stringing them along?

At the same time, though, if she closed her eyes, she could still vividly remember the feeling of Tamao's fingertips tracing slow circles over her breast, and she could not deny that it had been... stimulating, as she had said. Was it all just sensitive skin and nerve endings, though, or was there something else there, hanging tantalizingly out of reach like the grapes to the fox?

She did her best to push those thoughts from her mind, and concentrated instead on the warmth of Tamao's breath against her skin. She would enjoy these moments for as long as they were willing to share them, and hope for the best.

Next: Voices